I've recently been reading a book that sheds a great deal of light on the Catholic Church's influence on the U.S. motion picture industry since the days of silent cinema. It's called "Sin And Censorship," written by Frank Walsh, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
The church's power over motion pictures has waxed and waned over the years, and it seemingly achieved a major victory in 1930 when the industry decided to formalize an unwritten code that had been in effect for several years, as film companies regularly fought state censor boards over movie footage, particularly topics of a sexual or religious nature. When sound pictures took over for good in 1929, the battle had intensified.
But much to the chagrin of many conservatives, both Catholics and otherwise, the Code had no real teeth, and it was enforced to about the same degree as spitting on the sidewalk. Films of the early thirties continued to be a bit racy, violent or amoral.
Carole Lombard, still a second-tier star during the early thirties, was nowhere as prominent in the debate as Paramount stablemates Claudette Colbert ("The Sign Of The Cross") or Mae West ("She Done Him Wrong"). But one of her films did catch the ire of at least one prominent Catholic clergyman.
Father Daniel Lord, a drama teacher at Saint Louis University, was hired by Cecil B. DeMille in 1927 to serve as an advisor to his film "King Of Kings." Lord, who liked movies, continued to exert influence over the industry after the film, and eventually helped to draw up the 1930 Code.
But by 1933, he and many other Catholics had become disillusioned with the punchless Code. That February, Lord went to a neighborhood house to see a film someone had recommended...but he arrived in the middle of the second feature, Lombard's "No Man Of Her Own," which by now had finished its engagements at the big downtown theaters.
To say Lord was not pleased with what he saw was an understatement -- and he made his feelings clear in a letter to industry czar Will Hays. In Walsh's words, Lord "identified five distinct Code violations in the picture. One involved Lombard's character removing her dress in front of her husband (Clark Gable), prompting Lord to ask if the movie producers had stock in lingerie companies. How William Powell, Lombard's husband at the time, could allow her to appear in such 'filthy movies' was beyond him." (Of course, by that summer, Lombard and Powell would be divorced...and if Lord thought Powell was symbolic of screen propriety, he evidently hadn't seen "Lawyer Man," released that January, where Powell uses a cigar in his mouth in a semi-phallic manner.)
Oh, and Gable doesn't get off scot-free in Lord's eyes, either; Walsh said that in the letter to Hays, "Lord declared that he was glad that he was not 'responsible for turning loose upon the public a menace to morals like Clark Gable'," and added that films "were now worse than before the enactment of the Code."
But the Catholics ultimately won the battle. With officials in heavily Catholic cities such as Philadelphia and Chicago threatening boycotts of films, the industry caved in, creating a tighter, more enforced Code effective July 1, 1934. Films immediately changed, losing some of their frankness and more adult qualities. They'd largely stay that way for close to two decades, before resistance to the Code grew. By the late sixties, Catholic watchdog groups such as the Legion of Decency had lost virtually all of their power.