Catholics of my generation probably remember only dimly the furor provoked among Catholics by films in the 1950s directed by Luis Bunuel, Los Olivados (1950); Roberto Rossellini, The Miracle (1951); Otto Preminger, The Moon is Blue (1953); Elia Kazan, Baby Doll (1956); Roger Vadim, And God Created Woman (1956); and Billy Wilder, Some Like It Hot (1959).

Most people tend to think of the “culture wars” as beginning in the 80s, with the Reagan era, but obviously the roots of that struggle can be traced back to the postwar period when filmmakers shook themselves free of the Catholic-inspired Production Code that had ruled Hollywood since 1934.

As I discussed in a previous column, it was fear of government censorship that had led to the creation of the Code in the first place. But it wasn’t until its strictures were enforced with boycotts by the Legion of Decency that Hollywood started paying attention, a period that would last through the end of WWII. As the “Mad Men” decade began, filmmakers began to challenge the Legion’s cultural power, and won, first in the Supreme Court and eventually among the vast movie audiences in the culture itself.

It was the 1950 New York City showing at the Paris Theatre of an Italian film, The Miracle (Il Miracolo), directed by Roberto Rossellini, that made its way to the Supreme Court. Shown under the title Ways of Love, the Rossellini film, starring Anna Magnani, won the best foreign language film award the same year from the New York Film Critics Circle. (The scandal caused by Rossellini’s relationship with Ingrid Bergman would come several years later.)

The actress Anna Magnani from Roberto Rossellini's "The Miracle."

The actress Anna Magnani from Roberto Rossellini’s “The Miracle.”

The National Legion of Decency denounced the film as “anti-Catholic” and a “blasphemous mockery of Christian-religious truth,” giving it the C rating — for condemned — so previously feared by Hollywood studios. The Legion’s rating led the New York State Board of Regents, in charge of film censorship, to revoke its license to be shown in movie theaters. The movie’s distributor, Joseph Burstyn, initiated a lawsuit that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court which found in Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson that the film’s artistic expression was guaranteed by the First Amendment — freedom of speech.

When the same film was released in Italy two years earlier, the Vatican’s newspaper Osservatore Romano wrote, “objections from a religious viewpoint are very grave,” but there are “scenes of undoubted screen value,” concluding that, “we still believe in Rossellini’s art.”

Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York never saw the film but issued a statement to be read at every Mass in every parish of the New York Archdiocese. He condemned it as “a despicable affront to every Christian” and “a vicious insult to Italian womanhood,” eliciting demonstrations in front of the Paris Theater. Cardinal Spellman’s public condemnation of Greta Garbo’s 1941 Two-Faced Woman had caused MGM to withdraw and rerelease an edited version. Ten years later Catholic power in Hollywood was on the wane.

The Supreme Court decision marked not only an end to the power of the Code but was also a sign that the cultural clout of Catholics was coming to an end. However, to put it this way is misleading. Less than a decade later the United States would elect its first Catholic president, and during the same period a number of Catholic writers would become celebrated among the elites of the literati, including Flannery O’Connor, J. F. Powers, Graham Green, Muriel Spark, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Paul Horgan.

Merely contrasting the work of these celebrated Catholic writers and the Catholic mentality behind the condemnation of films by Bunuel, Rossellini, Preminger, Vadim, Kazan, and Wilder tells most of the story. The sophistication seen in the original Code written by a Chicago Jesuit, Rev. Daniel Lord, SJ, had been turned into a fear-driven attempt of the Legion to act as parents looking out for a nation of impressionable children. In doing so, the Legion’s condemnations showed no appreciation of, or respect for, film as an art form, in the manner contained in Rev. Lord’s original Code.

Yet, after viewing the film itself, The Miracle is precisely what one Catholic critic called it at the time, a story of “unregenerating suffering.” And the unforgettable performance by Anna Magnani, as a “holy fool,” demonstrates how far a verbal description of a character and plot and their cinematic incarnation can deviate.

It should be added that the same year, 1950, Rossellini made what is arguably the best film ever made about the life of St. Francis, The Flowers of St. Francis (Francesco, giullare di Dio). Also co-written with Fellini, the film about St. Francis was called, in l995 by the Vatican, one of the 45 greatest films ever made.

The moral of the story? Catholics lose cultural influence when they act like parental arbiters of public taste, especially when they refuse to acknowledge excellence in works of art they find somehow objectionable or dangerous.