The Outlaw (1943) was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency because Jane Russell's blouse kept falling off her shoulders.
George Hurrell/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images
In 1933's Design for Living, two men (Gary Cooper, Fredric March) and a woman (Miriam Hopkins) live cozily together as roommates, no sex -- until that boundary starts to break down.
Ullstein Bild/Getty Images
Barbara Stanwyck stars in 1933's Baby Face, about a woman who uses sex to get ahead. (Also pictured: Theresa Harris)
John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images
Deborah Kerr stars in 1947's Black Narcissus, about a group of nuns who open a convent in the Himalayas. The film was condemned for showing nuns who question their faith.
Universal Pictures/Getty Images
M (1951) was condemned for depicting a child murderer (played by David Wayne, right) and vigilante mob. (Also pictured: Luther Adler)
The Moon Is Blue follows two playboys (William Holden, David Niven) as they chase after the same young virgin (Maggie McNamara). When the film made it into theaters in 1953, people stopped taking the legion's condemnations so seriously.
Michael Ochs Archives/ United Artists/Getty Images
1 of 6
In 1933, an effervescent comedy called Design for Living gave us two men and a woman living cozily together as roommates, no sex. But when that boundary starts to break down, the woman, played by Miriam Hopkins, points out an inequity:
"A man can meet two, three or even four women and fall in love with all of them; and then by a process of interesting elimination, he's able to decide which one he prefers. But a woman must decide purely on instinct — guess work – if she wants to be considered nice."
Sister Rose Pacatte, a nun and respected film critic, says that line would certainly have irritated the Catholic Legion of Decency, which influenced the American film industry for more than four decades. "It was all about temptation or attraction, and marriage, and maybe treating marriage in a frivolous way. ... The pervasiveness of the theme would have ... certainly called down the condemnation of the Legion of Decency."
That condemnation came in the form of a "C" rating, and on Thursday Turner Classic Movies begins a new series to honor those C-rated films. It's called Condemned, and in it Pacatte guides viewers through 47 years of salacious filmmaking.
Film blogger (and former Catholic school student) Will McKinley says the Legion of Decency held the most sway in the 1930s and '40s, a time when most of the country wasn't even Catholic, "but to a large degree their entertainment was being dictated by Catholic precepts." That meant premarital sex was out, as was homosexuality, abortion and divorce.
So when the buxom Jane Russell could barely keep her blouse on her shoulders in 1943's The Outlaw, moral panic ensued. "You just get a vision of sort of red-faced priests, you know, in 1943 taking their pulse to make sure they didn't have a heart attack," McKinley says.
Anything that cast the church in a negative light was also out, including 1947's Black Narcissus, which shows nuns questioning their faith. The 1951 film M was condemned for depicting a child murderer and vigilante mob (according to the legion, the film could incite criminal behavior); and 1933's Baby Face got a C rating for showing a woman who used sex to get ahead (always a no-no).
Things started to change in the 1950s with a movie called The Moon is Blue. That film featured provocative lines that used words like "seduce" and "professional virgin," and it bypassed both the Legion of Decency and the industry's own Hays Code to be released in theaters. That's when people began to see the legion's condemnation as something to be ignored and even mocked.