Monday, July 30, 2012

William Romanowski's "Reforming Hollywood"

William D. Romanowski is Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Calvin College. His books include Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture (a 2002 ECPA Gold Medallion Award Winner) and Pop Culture Wars: Religion and the Role of Entertainment in America Life.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Reforming Hollywood: How American Protestants Fought for Freedom at the Movies, and reported the following:
Although Protestants, representing the reigning religious and cultural establishment, were at the forefront of movie reform in the early twentieth century, they receive not a single mention on page 99 [below left, click to enlarge], which considers a pivotal moment in movie regulation in the 1930s. In a remarkable turn of events, Jewish studio owners and the Presbyterian head of their trade organization involved Roman Catholics in a process to ensure the suitability of movies for the American public—largely Protestant. It is precisely the absence of Protestants on this page that ironically signifies this dramatic shift in cultural power directly related to their main strategy for movie reform.

Although Protestants are typically dismissed as moralistic crusaders, Protestant movie reform was based on beliefs derived from a religious heritage that sought both individual freedom and community welfare. At the crux of their struggle over the movies was the tension between the film industry’s concern with profit margins and the church’s concern to protect civil liberties and the public welfare.

The studio owners had forged an oligopoly with a small number of companies dominating the entire movie business. Averse to legalized censorship, Protestant leaders became convinced that eliminating the studios’ unfair trade practices (compulsory block booking) would make them responsive to real market demands for better movies—without resorting to prior censorship. It is significant that although usually situated within the discourse of censorship, Protestant reform was more centrally about industry regulation. By the early 1930s, they sought a national policy, not to curb artistic expression, but to keep the market for movies fair and balanced by preventing these huge film corporations from gaming the system. This attempt to restructure the film industry however, struck at the cornerstone of the studios’ profitable monopoly; Protestant initiatives were conceivably a greater threat to the film studios than a nationwide Catholic boycott.

The Production Code Administration’s prior censorship of movies in cooperation with the Catholic Legion of Decency amounted to a church-directed control that was beyond the pale of Protestant tolerability. Even so, Hollywood’s alliance with Catholics was a visible sign of the erosion of Protestant power that coincided with the crushing failure of Prohibition.

These events also mark the end of the Protestant thread in film histories. Hollywood’s empowerment of Catholics in effect rendered Protestant initiatives moot, while also obscuring their contributions for future historians.
Visit the Reforming Hollywood Facebook page and William Romanowski's webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue