“Legion of Decency” may conjure an image of a small band of pickle-faced people fussily objecting to the modern world, but that would be a mistake. As a subset of the Holy Name Society, the Legion was an army of Catholic men from parishes across the country, working earnestly to “promote, by word and deed, what is morally and artistically good in entertainment,” while protecting their families from harmful examples.
Concern about negative influence was justified, when the organization was founded in 1933. Government Prohibition of alcohol had paradoxically promoted and glamourized crime. With poverty in the Great Depression, came suspicion and persecution of immigrants, nonwhites, and non-protestants, particularly Catholics (who were largely immigrants). At the same time, the growing entertainment industry realized that “sex sells” and sold a lot of it. Issues of sex, violence, and intolerance in films became serious enough that Cardinal Dougherty forbade Philadelphia Catholics from attending any movies for several years starting in 1934 — a successful protest which drew attention to the surprising size of the Catholic population. Magazines and books had similar issues.
The Legion of Decency developed age-appropriateness ratings for movies, condemned movies that refused to meet standards, and pressured producers to clean up plot points in films that are now considered classics (Marilyn Monroe’s famous fly-up skirt was accepted in The Seven-Year Itch, which “deals humorously with a man’s temptations,” but an adulterous affair was removed)
Locally, the Legion picketed condemned movies and discouraged obscene literature. A 1942 SFDS Parish Monthly Bulletin reported that “…an intensive campaign has been carried on in this parish to remove from stores and newsstands, all magazines that are offensive to the Code of the National Organization for Decent Literature. Our Committee, composed of men from various sections of the Parish, have done splendid work and their efforts have met with great success…”
Why was this a men’s project? Part of the pledge, published in the 1942 parish bulletin, was: “I promise to guide those under my care and influence them in their choice of pictures that are morally and culturally inspiring.” Consider that in those early days, men generally chose the movies for dates and family viewing. At the same time, objectionable magazines and books were largely targeted for a male audience – which often controlled the family finances.
The Legion of Decency merged into the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures in 1965, but may have paved the way for today’s many consumer-organized boycotts of goods and services based on political or philosophical ideas.