Protestants in Hollywood

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).


Protestants in Hollywood
By Angela Thompson

The rise of mass consumerism in the early 20th century helped fuel the success of the film industry and its influence on culture. This rise of consumerism directly challenged the ever-decreasing Protestant influence that had been around since the birth of the United States. Along with the decrease in Protestant unity, Catholics and Jewish people flooded into cities creating a more pluralistic society. Immigrants also highly enjoyed films, especially silent ones because they transcended the language barrier. At this time, Protestants still believed that the church should be the moral authority for Americans.

Film reflected this ever-changing culture. People saw it as a means of escaping from traditional Victorian high-culture. Also, films were a form of escapism that took people away from the dreariness of everyday life. During this time people started spending more money on entertainment and less on church. [6]

Since the beginning of film, Protestants have been present either in the protest, reform, or acceptance of different movies.

1920s

The rise in film history parallels with the fall of Protestant influence on American culture. Until the 1930s most film censorship was done locally. Hollywood during that time was allowed to explore whatever it wanted to in film, and it did. [6]

Protestants during this time became concerned about the content popular movies showed. By 1920, many Protestant agencies had formed protests against certain movies and favored state control of censorship. On the other side, some feared that a united Protestant Hollywood would result in a massive censorship than any before. Protestants felt misrepresented in Hollywood and felt that Jewish and Catholic people had those inside the industry to take care of them. [6]

In the early 1920s, various Protestant groups started creating legislature to censor films. Only four states had legislated censorship- Pennsylvania, Kansas, Maryland, and Ohio. In 1921, the Federal Council of Churches (an association of Protestant denominations) asked Dutch Reform Church member Lee F. Hanmer to research whether government action or voluntary public education was the best route to take in promoting films. He concluded that audience demand was the cause for immoral movies. [6]

In May 1921, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church issued a statement that some in Hollywood were not intending on making clean movies and called for a nationwide campaign for local censorship. Films for Sunday school began being produced. Churches tried to arrange deals with film distributors in the New York area to show films. Clergy had hoped for sold out sanctuaries but found that church-oriented films weren’t very popular. [6]

1930s

William Hays

William Hays

In 1919, Williams Hays was brought on as head of the film industry’s public relations. He had been formal Postmaster General in the Harding administration and was a Presbyterian elder. During this time Presbyterians were claiming that Hollywood was anti-prohibition, made fun of marriage, made light a woman’s virtue and didn’t respect the Sabbath. Protestants had hoped that they would be able to use Hays to get power in Hollywood. After he became president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), Hay’s first order of business was setting up a public relations committee. The Committee on Public Relations became a means of discussion between producers and religious organizations.

With Hays in office, he first tried pressuring filmmakers to obey a production code that, at the time, was used more as a guideline. This voluntary code, Hollywood thought, would be the answer in preventing government censorship. Though there is a common misconception that all old films are clean cut and moral, many films before the enactment of the Hollywood Production Code addressed issues such as sexuality, drugs, adultery, child abuse, etc. [3]In 1934, after a release of what many considered morally questionable films, the code was put into effect and for the next thirty years, films had to be approved with the code in order to be distributed. [5]

1940s & 1950s

In 1945 many of the largest denominations and interdenominational agencies came together to form the Protestant Film Commission to be the “voice of Protestantism in Motion Pictures.” The commission’s first executive was Paul Heard. He had previously overseen the production of U.S. Navy films in Hollywood. They decided that they wanted to eventually produce films. However, the plan ended up being only moderately successful.

Protestants wanted as strong of an influence on Hollywood as Catholics did at that time. The PFC did not want to be a “protesting agency,” instead they wanted to be used for consulting and offering reviews. In 1947 it was announced that the PFC would open a West Coast Office (WCO) in order to represent Protestants in Hollywood. The PFC stated that it was against censorship, but instead wanted to work with the producers. The Hollywood Reporter claimed that this was the Protestant version of the Legion of Decency (a Catholic organization fighting against objectionable content in Hollywood). It was quickly realized that the WCO had little ability to thoroughly review scripts and that producers by no means had to follow their recommendations. As the number of scripts the WCO received declined, their subject matter became more and more controversial.

This changing script material came from a massive change that was happening in all Hollywood during that time, which was the end of the studio system. This change led to many more independent and foreign films being easily available to the public. At the end of the 1950s around sixty-five percent of movies distributed by the studios were independently produced. The rise in TV also helped fuel this change in that families were content to stay at home and watch shows instead. [6]

1960s & 1970s

In 1960 a report came out from the National Council claiming that the media’s assumption of the purpose of life was to attain “material advantage, power and pleasure” through rivalry and the manipulation of others. They felt that the Protestant church had a role in fighting these assumptions. First, was to build a relationship with like-minded people in Hollywood to help address the issues. Second, to pursue a program in media education for churchgoers to become more knowledgeable about how to encourage the making of better movies.

In 1962, The Catholic bishops’ Episcopal Committee for Motion Pictures, Radio, and Television released a statement saying their desire for a voluntary age-classification within the movie industry. To many in the industry this was considered shocking. Protestants were very reluctant about this idea and saw it as further Catholic influence on Hollywood. The president of the WCO at that time, George Heimrich, answered the question of “who’s going to do the classifications,” but do it on behalf of Protestants. This was due to many fears that by only having Catholics in charge of age-classifications, they could avoid discriminating film reviews.

Jack Valenti

Jack Valenti

In 1966, Jack Valenti, former assistant to President Lyndon Johnson became the third president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA, formally known as the MPPDA). At that time, many felt that certain production code associations were becoming too strict and ridiculous about which movies they had been banning. Valenti felt that a major policy change needed to occur within the MPAA. In 1966 he got rid of, as he put it, “the foolish constructions of the Hays Code.” He felt that the code was simply a form of censorship and wanted no part of it. Valenti, still warned the film industry to still make an effort of self restraint, similar to the feelings of his predecessor, William Hays, had stated many years before. [1]

Another major issue during this time that came back into view was the prospects of having a film classification system. In 1968, film industry leaders held a private meeting for final approval of a new rating system. The MPAA brought about four ratings and copyrighted three less restraining ones: General, Mature, and Restricted. The film rating ‘X’ was not trademarked and could be used by those not in the MPAA as a way to designate films not suitable for those less than sixteen years old.

Soon, other organizations stated their support for these new ratings and recognized, though artists still have freedom of expression in film making, parents and society could protect the growth of their children into responsible adults. Though the initial ratings system had its flaws and concerns from others, Valenti encouraged Catholics, Protestants, and Jews to attend appeals boards, but wouldn’t allow them to vote on major issues. [1]

1980s-Present Day

In 1981, Warner Bros. used an evangelical marketing firm to help promote the studio’s new movie Chariots of Fire. Many saw, that though it was a non-Christian film, it still had a powerful Christian message and ended up winning the Oscar for Best Picture.

Universal announced a new film by Martin Scorsese (a Catholic), called Last Temptation. Many Protestants were disturbed by the film’s message and story. In 1988, right before the movie’s release evangelicals across the country organized a protest at Universal Studios that had upwards of 25,000 people. They felt that anti-Christian stereotypes needed to come to an end. Jerry Falwell, a popular televangelist at the time felt the film would cause “a wave of anti- Semitism.” [6] Many felt that the movie portrayed Jesus as “just another Jewish troublemaker.” [1]

Today, there are many Christian ministries that work in Hollywood. Larry Poland, an evangelist, is the leader of Mastermedia, an organization that builds relationships with those in Hollywood and teaches them the Gospel. Poland claims that he has even led the vice-president of a major network to Christ. [2]

Though they realize that Christian films are still not in the majority, these companies and individuals encourage Christians to pray and use wisdom in the case of any protests that come up. One Christian interdenominational blog, Institute for Christian Renewal, states that many Christian-produced movies are amateur and a turn-off for young viewers and claim that only watching those won’t work in changing the culture.

The recognition of violence, sex, and immortality within pop culture has “pushed” many Protestants into the corner of that culture and many feel they are finally stepping out as an active voice against secularism. For many Protestants, radical changes in the past inspire hope that soon a new revival will occur within the film industry and that family friendly, Christian based films will one become the norm.[4]

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