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Miracles and Sacrilege

Miracles and Sacrilege: Robert Rossellini, the Church, and Film Censorship in Hollywood

Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 448
  • Book Info
    Miracles and Sacrilege
    Book Description:

    Miracles and Sacrilegeis the story of the epochal conflict between censorship and freedom in film, recounted through an in-depth analysis of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision striking down a government ban on Roberto Rossellini's film The Miracle (1950). In this extraordinary case, the Court ultimately chose to abandon its own longstanding determination that film comprised a mere 'business' unworthy of free-speech rights, declaring for the first time that the First Amendment barred government from banning any film as 'sacreligious.'

    Using legal briefs, affidavits, and other court records, as well as letters, memoranda, and other archival materials to elucidate what was at issue in the case, William Bruce Johnson also analyzes the social, cultural, and religious elements that form the background of this complex and hard-fought controversy, focusing particularly on the fundamental role played by the Catholic Church in the history of film censorship. Tracing the development of the Church in the United States, Johnson discusses the reasons it foundThe Miraclesacrilegious and how it attained the power to persuade civil authorities to ban it. The Court's decision was not only a milestone in the law of church-state relations, but it paved the way for a succession of later decisions which gradually established a firm legal basis for freedom of expression in the arts.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8863-6
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-2)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 3-8)

    InThe Miracle of the Bells(1948), Fred MacMurray plays Bill Dunnigan, a hardbitten Hollywood press agent who accompanies the body of actress Olga Treskovna back to her childhood home in Coaltown, Pennsylvania. Flashbacks recount how he had fallen in love with Olga, how he had convinced tough-as-nails producer Marcus Harris (Lee J. Cobb) to let her play the lead inJoan of Arc, how she handled the film’s immolation scene so brilliantly that the cast applauded, but how a few days later she died of complications from the Pennsylvania coal dust she had inhaled as a child.

    Harris refuses...

  4. 1 ‘A Business Pure and Simple’
    (pp. 9-19)

    In 1903 Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes warned that it would be ‘dangerous’ for persons trained only in law to declare themselves ‘final judges’ of the educational and aesthetic value of a work of pictorial art, since ‘it may be more than doubted’ whether the works of Goya or Manet ‘would have been sure of protection when seen for the first time.’¹ That year a new visual medium, the motion picture, was evolving from the ‘peepshow’ Kinetoscopes and Mutoscopes of the amusement arcades to the projected format shown in converted storefronts, then in purpose-built ‘nickelodeons.’ While a few cities and states...

  5. 2 The Church, ‘Modernism,’ and ‘Americanism’
    (pp. 20-36)

    The Holy See was a monarchy, ruling via an assertion of divine right substantially more ancient and compelling than any other European throne could claim. In the decades following the founding of the American Republic, Lyman Beecher, Samuel F.B. Morse, and numerous other Protestants argued that Catholics could never be fully American because they continued to bow to a foreign prince.¹ Conspiracies were periodically alleged between Rome and its ‘docile’ immigrants to take over America, culminating in a popular movement in the 1870s to reinforce the First Amendment’s ban on an established religion by adding another constitutional amendment authorizing Congress...

  6. 3 A Church of Immigrants
    (pp. 37-54)

    In 1790, the United States was home to a small number of Catholics, pending the influx of a few more fleeing the French Revolution, then substantial additions following the acquisitions of French Louisiana in 1803 and Spanish Florida in 1821. In the following decades, French and Spanish Catholics, then Germans, would exert substantial influence in regions where their numbers were concentrated. But substantially stronger ties–national in dimension and reciprocal in effect–would bond the Republic with the Irish.

    Beginning in the 1690s, the English had imposed on Ireland the infamous Penal Laws (e.g., a ban on Catholic education, either...

  7. 4 A New Catholic-American Culture
    (pp. 55-71)

    Given England’s many attempts to stamp out Catholic education in Ireland, no one could be surprised to find Cardinal Cullen agreeing with Pius IX that any educational system either dominated by Protestants, or stripped of religious content to avoid sectarian animosities, should be avoided by Catholics. In the mid-nineteenth century United States, public schools commonly required readings from the King James Bible. Its preface, written just six years after the Guy Fawkes conspiracy, referred to the pope as ‘that Man of Sin,’ hardly an invitation for Catholics to join in reciting this text in schools. A Boston boy’s hands were...

  8. 5 Protestantism Balkanized
    (pp. 72-86)

    Any institution said to beƘαθολιƘóςhas the attributes of universality, tradition, and cohesiveness, while Protestantism has been marked by variegation, schism, change. Under the ‘covenant theology’ of the seventeenth-century Cambridge Platform, adopted from theWestminster Confession of Faith, the individual may maintain a private, unmediated covenant of grace with God, an idea fundamentally contrary to Catholic doctrine. Although the Massachusetts Bay Colony started as a strict theocracy, it soon decentralized, the synod of the Massachusetts General Court in 1648 securing to each congregation’s elders the right to hire and fire their minister, leaving to senior leaders such tasks as...

  9. 6 Reining In Hollywood
    (pp. 87-102)

    In 1919 the National Association of the Motion-Picture Industry (NAMPI) proposed a constitutional amendment to overrideMutual Film(a silly fantasy, doomed at its inception) and developed a regime of self-censorship in which producers would withhold films from exhibitors who screened material of which NAMPI disapproved. In March 1921, NAMPI adopted ‘Thirteen Points,’ purporting to disapprove films which ‘emphasize and exaggerate sex appeal,’ or deal in ‘an illicit love affair which tends to make virtue odious and vice attractive,’ or ‘unnecessarily prolong ... demonstrations of passionate love,’ or ‘instruct the morally feeble in methods of committing crimes,’ or ‘deprecate public...

  10. 7 The Production Code
    (pp. 103-117)

    In 1915 George William Mundelein was transferred from Brooklyn to be installed in Chicago, at age forty-three, as the youngest archbishop in the United States. There he flourished, enhancing the power and influence of Catholics far beyond their 30 per cent share of the city’s population, while fostering both assimilation and Catholic pride among the City’s huge Polish, Italian, and German populations. That he had political clout was evidenced by the licence plate on his limousine, ‘ILLINOIS 1,’ an honour more typically reserved for governors. He would time his arrival at public gatherings – heralded by the blare of his motorcade’s...

  11. 8 The Legion of Decency
    (pp. 118-127)

    In January 1934, Breen told Lord that Bishop Cantwell was ‘setting up a working committee to “do something” about the bad pictures.’ Several prelates conferred but could not agree on a collective national strategy. On 11 March, following a speech by Father Lord to three thousand young members of the Catholic Action Convention in Buffalo, they passed a resolution to boycott objectionable films. On 10 April the bishops announced a ‘Legion of Decency,’ in which priests would invite Catholics ‘to pledge themselves to refrain from patronizing motion pictures which offend decency and Christian morality,’ so that eventually ‘millions of Americans’...

  12. 9 The Breen Office
    (pp. 128-136)

    The AP wire of 6 July carried a demand by Bishop James E. Cassidy of Fall River, Massachusetts, that any deal with the ‘producers of past and present salaciousness’ must include the firing of Hays. The bishops’ committee, however, had no such vindictive goal, having afforded Hays a chance to save himself by investing Breen with the censorial power the public had always ascribed to Hays. If Hays was the ‘czar of all the rushes’ – some observer now joked – Breen was the ‘czarewitch.’ Hays had been hired at a kingly salary of $200,000; so that Breen might understand where his...

  13. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  14. 10 The Paramount Case
    (pp. 137-154)

    In 1908 and 1909 ten major film producers formed the Motion Picture Patents Company, thus achieving three goals: the termination of lawsuits among themselves over their respective patents for various components of motion-picture cameras and projectors; the rationalization of methods to meet exhibitors’ bottomless hunger for films; and, most important, the formation of a huge cartel to hobble outside competitors.

    Over the next five years, this so-called ‘Edison Combine’ would file over forty patent lawsuits against outsiders, also employing strong-arm men to grab or destroy the independents’ equipment. They contracted to purchaseallof George Eastman’s perforated movie film stock,...

  15. 11 Cocktails and Communism
    (pp. 155-183)

    A successful film typically combined several elements that had already worked, varied sufficiently that the audience would somehow be satisfactorily diverted yet again. Warner Brothers was so habituated to imitating its own prior successes that its script department was dubbed ‘the Echo Chamber.’ While attractive people could be hired to recite the dialogue and others could show them where to stand and when to light a cigarette, the industry’s real ‘stars’ were the senior executives. Monroe Stahr, the fictionalized Thalberg in Scott Fitzgerald’sThe Last Tycoon(1940/41), understood that screen credit was something one doled out to others; if one...

  16. 12 New Realities
    (pp. 184-202)

    In December 1947, as the Hollywood Ten prepared the appeals of their convictions for contempt, journalist Dorothy Thompson derided HUAC’s whole premise, finding Hollywood’s problem to be ‘not that it is revolutionary, but that it is asinine.’ On 6 December,The New Yorkerproclaimed: ‘If it is American to aim high and to respect one’s own intelligence, then ninety per cent of Hollywood films are un-American.’ Communist writer Isidor Schneider had said as much, asserting that Hollywood’s ‘reactionaries ... defend the world of “escapism” as a world of beauty and virtue opposed to evil and ugly reality,’ thereby diverting attention...

  17. 13 Visions of Mary
    (pp. 203-215)

    For some, it is Mary’s Davidic lineage that makes Jesus the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament, since for them, Joseph’s own ancestry in the House of David is genetically irrelevant. While the question of Mary’s biological heritage will never be resolved, it is clear that she had neither wealth nor social station. As Mary Hines has written: ‘God chose a marginalized person, someone whom society would have regarded as unworthy, for a central role in human salvation.’¹ Paul (Rom.1: 3–4) calls Jesus the ‘foreordained Son of God,’ ‘born of him according to the flesh of the offspring of...

  18. 14 Mary or Communism
    (pp. 216-228)

    InDevotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary in North America(1866), the Reverend Xavier Donald Macleod observed that from the moment Columbus’s ships weighed anchor in Andalusia, ‘the love and protection of our dear Lady and Mother floated over the Atlantic.’ When the largest of Columbus’s ships, theSanta María, ran aground on Hispañola on Christmas Eve 1492, the sailors fabricated from its timbers a fortified settlement on the island which they named Navidad. Columbus called one of the other islands Santa María de la Concepcion, although later visitors substituted the less euphonious Rum Cay. Jesuit missionary Jacques Marquette called...

  19. 15 The Priest as Public Figure
    (pp. 229-241)

    Come to the Stable(1949) begins in the snow-covered fields of New England, through which two French nuns, Sister Margaret (Loretta Young) and Sister Scholastica (Celeste Holm), are trudging on foot in a starlit night, eventually reaching a stable in Bethlehem, Connecticut. Sister Margaret explains that when the Nazis occupied her pediatric hospital in France, she asked the advancing American Army not to bomb it, then promised God that if the building was spared, she would come to America and build a children’s hospital. She had seen a postcard of a painting entitled ‘Come to the Stable,’ by the artist...

  20. 16 ‘Woman Further Defamed’
    (pp. 242-282)

    At forty-one minutes,Il miracolowas too short to be released as a feature. In Italy it was paired with Rossellini’sUna voce umana(A Human Voice), based on a Jean Cocteau play, a Magnani tour-de-force in which her character agonizes over the telephone with a lover who is about to marry someone else. The two films, coupled under the titleL’Amore: Due storie d’amore, were said to portray in different contexts the suffering intrinsic in the way women love. In 1949 a print ofL’Amorepassed through U.S. Customs without incident. Although Joe Breen’s Code enforcement had rendered state...

  21. 17 ‘A Sense of Decency and Good Morals’
    (pp. 283-306)

    The New York Film Critics Circle announced that it would give Joseph Burstyn its award forThe Miracleand the other two films constitutingWays of Loveat a dinner to be held at Radio City Music Hall on 28 January 1951. Martin Quigley told Radio City’s manager that if he chose to honour the Film Critics’ reservation, he would incur Cardinal Spellman’s wrath and could expect pickets. When the archdiocese confirmed its displeasure, the Film Critics switched their dinner to the picket-proof heights of Rockefeller Center’s Rainbow Room.

    Joe Burstyn’s background was one with which the old-time Hollywood moguls...

  22. 18 ‘The Law Knows No Heresy’
    (pp. 307-321)

    Joe Burstyn, having suffered an unbroken string of five defeats in New York – the Regents’ subcommittee, the entire Board of Regents, an individual judge, a panel of the Appellate Division, and then the Court of Appeals – remained undaunted. Not that any bookmaker would have laid odds in his favour. If the Court could allow New York to outlaw a major work of fiction by Edmund Wilson without so much as a brief articulation of why, what interest would it take in a film judicially determined to mock the Virgin Birth, by an Italian director most people knew of only because...

  23. 19 In the Supreme Court
    (pp. 322-333)

    On 4 February 1952, the Supreme Court announced that it would review Joseph Burstyn’s case.¹ Several weeks later, the Regents and the New York State Catholic Welfare Committee filed briefs urging that since the ongoing viability ofMutual Filmwas the only Constitutional issue, it was all the Court needed to consider, so that a simple reaffirmation ofMutual Filmwould leave in place all that had been decided in New York. Burstyn’s lawyer, free-speech specialist Ephraim London, argued that in the years since 1915, so many films had dealt with so many serious social issues thatMutual Filmshould...

  24. 20 Candour and Shame
    (pp. 334-360)

    Movie critic Ezra Goodman commented that Joe Burstyn ‘knew more about the movies – both as art and commerce – and he had more guts than all the Hollywood nabobs combined.’ Although Goodman saw Burstyn’s victory as meaning ‘more for Hollywood than for Burstyn himself,’ whenTimemagazine told its Beverly Hills bureau to collect industry reactions to this extraordinary victory for freedom of the screen, studio executives ‘were either so afraid that they refused to give out a statement, or they made meaningless, innocuous remarks ... still fearful of speaking up against censorship.’ Martin Quigley commented that ‘in face of the...

  25. Notes
    (pp. 361-444)
  26. Bibliography
    (pp. 445-478)
  27. Index
    (pp. 479-516)