“I condemn all indecent and immoral motion pictures and those which glorify crime or criminals. I promise to do all that I can to strengthen public opinion against the production of indecent and immoral films, and to unite with all who protest against them. I acknowledge my obligation to form a right conscience about pictures that are dangerous to my moral life. I pledge myself to remain away from them. I promise, further, to stay away altogether from places of amusement which show them as a matter of policy.” Pledge of the Legion of Decency, taken at Mass by the faithful on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8.
A few weeks ago, at the Asolo Repertory Theater in Sarasota, we saw a fantastic production of West Side Story. The choreography, the dancing, acting and singing — enthralling! The classic American musical, a 1960’s version of Romeo and Juliet, still has plenty to say about tolerance, violence, and peace, and the music is as beautiful as ever.
As I tapped my toes to the lively “America” and sang along – silently, in my head, of course!—to “I Feel Pretty”, I thought back to when the movie first appeared on screen, debuting in December 1961. I’d like to say that I remember the thrill of seeing the movie back then. But, oh no, not me. I was forbidden to go. Why?
The Legion of Decency and my mother’s strict adherence to its strictures kept me out of the theater. There was no swooning over the sexy George Chakiris for me. When my friends were covering their bedroom walls with pictures of the dewy-eyed Maria (Natalie Wood) and her star-crossed lover Tony (Richard Beymer), I had to pretend I knew what they were talking about. My wails of, “Everybody else gets to see it!” held no sway in our house. Each week, our family received the Chicago Catholic newspaper, The New World, which included a weekly list that organized current movies into categories. A-I was suitable for all. Dumbo, for example, was okay. A-II was suitable for adults and adolescents. A-III was suitable for adults only; B was morally objectionable in part, and C – well, C (Condemned) meant that you were putting your immortal soul in danger if you attended. If a movie was A-I or, on occasion, A-II, I was allowed to see it. A-III – absolutely not. West Side Story, an A–III or maybe even a B, was off-limits. I begged; I pleaded. My mother stood her ground. Her reasons ranged from “If everyone else were jumping off a cliff, would you want to jump off too?” to “The Catholic Church says no.” Before long, the movie was no longer featured in the theaters, and I was crushed by my missed opportunity.
I finally did get to see the movie when it was re-released a couple of years later and my mother finally relented. And, I’ve seen it on TV over the years. Just what was so terrible that an eighth grader couldn’t see? It’s hard to imagine, but it is the love story between Tony and Maria that doomed this movie. Watch closely, and you will see that Tony and Maria fall in love. Then, they make a vow (“One Hand, One Heart”) to one another, almost like a marriage vow. Marriage is a Sacrament, not to be taken lightly, and it must be sanctified by the Church. Even worse, the movie hints at the idea that these young lovers consummated their “marriage” in a fade-to-black scene in Maria’s room. Well, there you have it. Surely if I had seen such a thing at the tender age of twelve, I would have put my own morality on a treacherous path.
The Legion of Decency no longer exists, but it was the precursor to the Hollywood movie ratings of today. Some of the movies that the LOD condemned are surprising. Some Like it Hot—lots of sexual innuendo; The Odd Couple – light treatment of divorce and suicide; The Outlaw starring Jane Russell – prominent and salacious display of her breasts; Kiss Me, Stupid – an irreverent sex rom-com starring Dean Martin and Kim Novak.
Another one on the list is Rosemary’s Baby. Funny thing about that one. I remember exactly when I first saw it – November 1, 1968. It was the night of my first date with my husband. Like all good Catholics, we began our evening by attending Mass on this Holy Day of Obligation, All Saints Day. After evening Mass we headed to a movie. Yep, Rosemary’s Baby. I guess I’ve been on a path of moral destruction ever since.