In the Thirties and Forties Hollywood movies were never allowed to show a man and a woman in bed together—not even if they were married in the picture—not even if they were married in real life. If a scene had to be played in a bedroom, the couple appeared in that blight upon marital bliss: twin beds. In the same period, if a woman were to have an illicit affair in a film (which meant any relationship not blessed by matrimony), the audience could be certain that before the final scene she would suffer the severest possible consequences. That some romances outside holy wedlock end happily or do not end at all would appear to be facts of life the movies of 20 and 30 years ago preferred to ignore. And the worst profanity heard in a film during more than a decade of picture making was Clark Gable's parting shot, "Personally, my dear, I don't give a damn!" to Scarlett O'Hara at the end of Gone With the Wind. GWTW was the only motion picture of the time that was allowed a single hell or damn (the line never failed to produce a titter from surprised audiences), and we tend to forget for how short a while such common expletives have been permitted in dramatic shows on television.
In 1938 an issue of Life magazine was banned in a number of communities in the United States, because it included a picture story depicting the birth of a baby. That was just 25 years ago. And it has been less than 10 since New York City censored the birth of a baby buffalo from one of Walt Disney's award-winning wildlife features. Today Ben Casey delivers a baby on home TV and nobody even blinks.
A few short years ago the number of specific subjects that could not even be mentioned in movies included drug addiction, homosexuality, incest, nymphomania, necrophilia, abortion, masturbation and hand holding (we just slipped that last one in to see if you were paying attention). More recently, a number of these subjects (not including hand holding) have been the central themes of motion pictures and most all of them appear in interrelated combinations in films by Tennessee Williams.
If movies are badder than ever, books are even badder than that. Well, bolder, at any rate. The public has displayed a new willingness to accept the previously taboo in colloquial dialog (thus permitting James Jones' soldiers in his best-selling, prize-winning Army novel, From Here to Eternity, to use the same locutions real soldiers employ, even though this remarkable innovation prompted Life to waggle a warning finger in an editorial titled, "From Here to Obscenity"), in subject matter (Vladimir Nabokov's best-selling, prize-winning tale of the 12-year-old nymphet, Lolita) and in the first U.S. printing of long-banned books (James Joyce's Ulysses, D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover and Henry Miller's two Tropics—all outlawed for more than a generation and by now all very nearly modern classics).
One of the first books after the war to become a best seller because of sex was a statistical survey by Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey and his associates of Indiana University. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, followed by Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, proved that the public earnestly wanted to know more about sex, and the sham and secrecy that had for so long surrounded the subject finally began falling away. "The Kinsey Report" was the first extensive scientific study of sex practices in the U.S., and it unquestionably affected behavior even as it reported it. America's sexual hypocrisy was out in the open—we had been preaching one thing and practicing another. The country's purityrranical zealots, who had successfully sustained the image of sex as sin by keeping it in the shadows, suddenly found that someone had let the sunshine in. And in the bright light of day, sex didn't seem so terrible to most of us.
In the mood of conformity that was still with us in the late Forties and early Fifties, various self-appointed civic and religious groups were extremely active in censorship. The very notion that one adult has the right to tell another what book he may or may not read and what movie he may or may not see is repugnant to most Americans, but we had been turned into a nation of sheep and there were few voices raised in protest. With the coming of the new generation, however, individuals began speaking out against such conformity and control over the minds of men.
The NODL (National Office of Decent Literature) prepares a monthly list of "disapproved" paperback books and magazines that is supposed to be a guide for Catholic youth, but the list was often used as a weapon of censorship instead, until various magazines and newspapers began to cry out against the practice.
In an editorial titled "The Harm Good People Do," in its October 1956 issue, Harper's Magazine stated: "A little band of Catholics is now conducting a shocking attack on the rights of their fellow citizens. They are engaged in an un-American activity which is as flagrant as anything the Communist party ever attempted—and which is, in fact, very similar to Communist tactics. They are harming their country, their Church, and the cause of freedom.... This group calls itself the National Office of Decent Literature.... Its main purpose is to make it impossible for anybody to buy books and other publications which it does not like. Among them are the works of some of the most distinguished authors now alive—for example, winners of the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award."
Without intending to, a Post of the Catholic War Veterans in Hartford, Connecticut underlined the similarity between their tactics and those of the Communists in a letter to book dealers in their community aiming to suppress, through the threat of boycott, certain publications they considered undesirable. The letter was accompanied by the NODL list of "disapproved" publications and it quoted the Chinese Communists who had been conducting a campaign of their own against "disapproved" literature: "'These books and pictures seriously harm those workers who by constantly looking at them can easily become degenerate in their thinking,' cautions the Peking Worker's Daily as quoted by Newsweek magazine, January 23, 1956. We have to hand it to the Communists...who have launched a nationwide campaign against pornographic trash.... Should not this example provoke a similar literary cleanup in our land where the morality of our actions is gauged by service to God and not to an atheistic state?"
The NODL black list, which has included books by Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Dos Passos, George Orwell, John O'Hara, Emile Zola, Arthur Koestler and Joyce Cary, does not represent the attitude of all Catholics, of course, and the list has been used by a number of non-Catholic censorship groups as well.
Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., professor of moral theology at Woodstock College, Maryland, warned against such practices, and in an address on "Literature and Censorship" said, in part: "No minority group has the right to impose its own religious or moral views on other groups, through the use of methods of force, coercion or violence."
Dean Joseph O'Meara of the Notre Dame Law School expressed it like this: "Unfortunately many sincere people do not comprehend the genius of our democracy...such people would deny free speech to those with whom they are in fundamental disagreement.... They would establish a party line in America—their party line, of course. This is an alien concept, a totalitarian concept; it is not consonant with the American tradition; it is antidemocratic; it is, in short, subversive and it should be recognized for what it is."