#16 Golden Age of Hollywood Series
The Catholics had been raging about the immorality of Hollywood since 1930. By 1934, the inevitable collision occurred once the Catholics began speaking a language Hollywood understood.
In 1933, the National Legion of Decency was formed, a Catholic organization that advised which films were suitable for audiences.
Priests encouraged parishioners to join the Legion, which entailed signing a pledge card conveniently located in the Sunday pews. The pledge begins:
I wish to join the Legion of Decency, which condemns vile and unwholesome moving pictures. I unite with all who protest against them as a grave menace to youth, to home life, to country and to religion. I condemn absolutely those salacious motion pictures which, with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land. … Considering these evils, I hereby promise to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality.
Catholics feared the movies would interfere with their eternal salvation, and Hollywood’s box office began to suffer.
Finally the critics had Hollywood’s attention.
In 1934, Philadelphia’s Cardinal Dougherty pressed his advantage and preached from the pulpit that Catholics in his diocese were to boycott all movies, and made clear that to disobey was to sin.
The boycotts raged, and other Christian groups joined, spreading the movement beyond the Catholic Church. Christian groups wrote letters in protest of the films, and stayed home.
Within weeks, Hollywood had lost several million dollars.
Cardinal Dougherty, our old friend Martin Quigley, and all those in favor of good, clean, pictures had their boot on Hollywood’s neck.
The studios didn’t so much surrender as decline to commit box office suicide.
The studios dragged out the old production code out of a closet, dusted it off, made a few changes, and probably figured they’d be back to their old tricks after the dust settled.
But Joseph Breen had other ideas. He was the head of the newly formed Production Code Administration, and had an independence from the studios that Will Hays and his censorship board had lacked. Now, movies could not be shown unless they earned the PCA’s official seal of approval.
Breen had true power, and he wielded it for two decades.
One of the first films to test the limits of Breen’s new power was Tarzan and His Mate, the first of many sequels to Tarzan the Ape Man.
As it’s been remade many times over, most people know the basic plot. Tarzan is a mythic white man who is king of a piece of African jungle so remote no other white man has ever seen it. How Tarzan came to live in the jungle (with a huge knife) is never explained. In the first film, British socialite Jane Parker accompanies her father on safari and meets and falls in love with Tarzan. She stays with him in the jungle, and in subsequent films they have all sorts of adventures. Olympic swimming gold medalist Johnny Weissmuller plays Tarzan in a total of twelve Tarzan movies, the first six with Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane. (When the films moved from MGM to RKO in the 1940s, Brenda Joyce was recast as Jane.)
Tarzan and His Mate is the second film in the series, and inarguably the sexiest. The film shows Jane and Tarzan—an unmarried couple—in bed together. Even without the bed scene, it is obvious by their constant touching and tender looks that Jane and Tarzan have a robust sex life.
Jane also wears a surprisingly skimpy loincloth that had angry prudes sending Maureen O’Sullivan thousands of letters objecting to the costume. No objections to Johnny Weissmuller’s equally revealing loincloth are recorded.
Jane’s silhouette is also shown as she undresses inside a tent.
But most damning, there was an underwater scene where Jane and Tarzan go for an extended swim.
And Jane is stark naked for nearly three minutes.
I don’t have to tell you that Joseph Breen blew a gasket, do I?
It didn’t matter that the scene was tasteful and not tawdry. It didn’t matter that it was a expression of love not raw sex. It didn’t matter that it was a brilliant underwater ballet so intricate that O’Sullivan needed a swimming stunt double for part of it.
Don’t take my word for it. See for yourself:
None of it mattered. Breen rejected the film outright. Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer at MGM appealed the ruling, but to no avail.
Unless the swimming scene was removed (along with some others), the film would never see the light of day.
Thalberg removed the scene, and I imagine he gritted his teeth the whole time.
After the code enforcement, the Tarzan movies changed. They became less sexy, more silly. The films focused less on the chemistry and love story between Jane and Tarzan and more on Tarzan’s adventures. Jane is increasingly sidelined, and ultimately becomes a passive spectator to Tarzan’s heroism, and a doting mother to their son.
In future films, they are not shown in bed together, and Jane’s skimpy loincloth becomes a full dress. Tarzan’s loincloth shows no discernible increase in length.
They find an abandoned baby in a plane crash and raise him as their own, because the code prohibits them having a biological baby when they are not married. (No allowances are made for the fact that there is no one around to marry them.)
Even so, let me be clear—these are wonderful films. Popcorn movies of the highest order.
Although I hadn’t intended to watch them all, I tore through all the Weissmuller-O’Sullivan films. They fell into a predictable groove—opening with a scene of domestic tranquility before some outside force threatened their Garden of Eden. Over the course of the film, Jane and Tarzan would go for an extended swim, Tarzan would kill a lion, crocodile, hippo or all three with his bare hands, and their monkey Cheetah would get into mischief and laugh his crazy head off. Tarzan would eliminate the threat, and their idyllic life would be restored.
It should’ve worn thin, but I loved it every time. I watched these films in the early days of the coronavirus, when professional sports and borders were closing and offices took the unprecedented step of sending workers home indefinitely. Everything was new and terrifying, and I would turn off CNN nearly trembling and enter the magical world of Tarzan.
But it highlights a recurring theme in my mind—wondering about all the films that were never made because of the strict enforcement of the production code that began in 1934.
With the enforcement of the production code, all movies had to be suitable for all ages.
As The Nation asked, “How can a movie which satisfies a child of twelve be made morally safe for a man of 35? Thus far the censors have spent all their time protecting children against adult movies; they might better protect adults against childlike movies.”
As we’ll see, the great creative minds of Hollywood were more than up to the task.