Will the Churches Defeat Censorship? By Frances Rule (Picture Play Magazine 1926)

Picture Play Magazine (August 1926)

Will the Churches Defeat Censorship?

Formerly hostile to the movies, many of them are changing their attitude, and the Federal Council of Churches is now actively cooperating with the producers, advising them how to handle certain difficult themes in a way that will meet with the approval of the churches.

By Frances Rule

The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer officials were in a quandary. In quest of a suitable starring- vehicle for Lillian Gish, they had been considering- “The Scarlet Letter.” As film material for Miss Gish, it seemed ideal—there was no question about that. Hawthorne’s poignant tale of the tragedy of Hester Prynne was peculiarly well suited to the “Bernhardt of the screen.” It had the added advantage of being a well-known and revered classic of American literature.

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Last, and by no means least, it was a tale that Miss Gish had long wished to do on the screen. ” Yet the Metro-Goldwyn officials hesitated. For the story deals with adultery—and not in a way that might be glossed over. The breaking of the seventh commandment, and the terrible consequences thereof in a Puritanical community is the sole theme of the book. Hester, a young married woman, bears a child, which—as her husband has long been absent —is obviously illegitimate. She is punished by the Puritan authorities by being forced to wear a red letter “A” on the bosom of her gown for the remainder of of her life, and is scorned and shunned by her fellow townsfolk. She refuses to reveal the identity of the father of her child, and so the young clergyman who was her guilty lover is enabled to continue as the idol of his flock, suffering with her through the years, yet concealing his guilt because of his desire to continue hi- work in the parish. His identity as the father of the child is revealed only at his death, when there is found branded on his breast a letter A, similar to the one which Hester has been obliged to wear openly.

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Had there not been so many excellent reasons for using this story, its subject matter might have prevented it from being considered. For producers appreciate the feelings and wishes of the conservative forces throughout the country. Not only was there the stumbling block of adultery in the story, but the ignoble part played by the minister was yet another deterring consideration, similar to the one which has prevented “Rain” from being filmed.

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During one of the conferences when the story was being discussed by the men who wanted to produce it, it was suggested that the best possible way out of the difficulty would be to put the question directly before the Federal Council of Churches, and to abide by their decision. That’s just what was done, and with a most gratifying outcome. The Council and the producers were finally able to agree on a method of presentation satisfactory to both parties, and the result is that you will see the picture next season. Yet the agreement was not arrived at without disagreements and difficulties along the way. Doctor George Reid Andrews, head of the Council’s Committee on Drama, and his associates at first disapproved of the manner in which the film company wished to present the story. In fact, a deadlock was reached, and the conference was for the time being adjourned. At their next meeting, Doctor Andrews had gathered together not only the Council’s regular Committee on Drama, but also a group of the broadest-minded clergymen within the vicinity of New York, where the conferences were being held. The discussion was renewed. The producers again presented their ideas of how the story should be filmed. The church contingent again made criticisms. “But why shouldn’t it be treated as a sex story?” the film people insisted. “For that’s what it is.”

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“Ah, but no,” said Doctor Andrews. “It is not a sex story—not as Hawthorne has written it. Bear in mind that when the tale opens, the child is already three months old, and only the barest hint is given of what has gone before. Hawthorne was interested, not so much in the motive of the act, nor in the act itself, but in the consequences of the act.”

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“But when you tell a story in pictures,” said a Metro-Goldwyn official, “you have to use different methods from those used in writing a book or a play. You can’t, for instance, explain everything that has gone before just in subtitles—that would be flat—you must insert some scenes that present very graphically to your audiences just what has happened, so that they can appreciate the full meaning of the rest of the story. That’s why we think it’s necessary to open ‘The Scarlet Letter’ earlier than Hawthorne did, and to show the gradual development and final culmination of the love affair between Hester Prynne and the Reverend Dimmesdale.”

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The churchmen considered this and agreed that it was true that the movies were different from other mediums of expression, and were more dependent on graphic explanations of situations or conditions. “But,” they said, “there is no need to be lurid about it, nor to emphasize the sex element too strongly. Show a few explanatory love scenes, if you will, between Hester and the young minister, but do it gently and delicately, or you will mar the spirit and the dignity of the original story.”

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And so, they finally came to an agreement as to just what the early scenes of the film should consist of, and just how Hester’s disgrace was to be explained. Then there arose other points to be discussed and decided upon. The producers wished, for instance, to change Hester’s character somewhat. As depicted by Hawthorne, she is a very emotional but very dignified and reserved woman. Metro-Goldwyn, in order to bring out a strong contrast between the stern Puritans and herself, and to make it seem that she really was out of place in such a strict community, wanted to make her, at the outset of the story, a very lively, jolly sort of girl, quite different, really, from Hawthorne’s idea of her.

Gish, Hanson and Joyce Coad as Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale and Pearl in the 1926 motion picture The Scarlet Letter. In this scene Dimmesdale reveals himself to be Prynne's partner in adultery
Gish, Hanson and Joyce Coad as Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale and Pearl in the 1926 motion picture The Scarlet Letter. In this scene Dimmesdale reveals himself to be Prynne’s partner in adultery in front of a crowd of vengeful puritans. (Photo by John Springer CollectionCORBIS)

And Doctor Andrews and his colleagues acquiesced to this. There was no harm that they could see in doing it, and if the change would make the movie more effective, let it be made. The outline for the complete scenario, as finally agreed upon by this joint conference of clergymen and movie producers, departs very little from Hawthorne’s story. There is the earlier opening, of course, and a few other changes were made, but most of them were minor. “But,” said Doctor Andrews, in reviewing the proceedings not long ago, “a few insignificant alterations here and there don’t make any difference. The main point is to preserve the spirit, the great spirit, of the story as a whole, and that, I believe, has been done—or at least, a sincere attempt has been made to do so. As I said before, it is not primarily a sex story—it is a beautiful love tale, a tale of two human beings struggling with a problem that has remained unsolved down through the ages.

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And I believe that Lillian Gish is the very person to give to the role of Hester Prynne the spiritual treatment that it should be given.” After the scenario had been written, it was again submitted to the Council of Churches for approval. Then, and not till then, was the actual production of the film finally begun. And when it was completed, these representatives of the church were once more called upon to pass judgment, this time on the film itself. Now it is ready for release, in a form entirely sanctioned by a group of prominent churchmen of all denominations. It still has to face the censors—they have the power, if they want, to ban it, but are they likely to, under the circumstances ?

THE SCARLET LETTER, Lars Hanson, Lillian Gish, 1926 HC5Y8H
THE SCARLET LETTER, Lars Hanson, Lillian Gish, 1926

Thus have the movies and the churches been getting together, and this is not the only case in which they have done it. Doctor Andrews and his Committee on Drama had a hand in the making of “The Vanishing American,” and of “Thank You,” and of numerous other prominent films. In -fact, they have been consulted on one production or another by every one of the big movie companies. And this unusual cooperation, which has been going on for well over a year, is as much to the advantage of the church as to the film producers. Take the case of “The Vanishing American,” for instance. As it was originally written by Zane Grey, a missionary among the Indians was the villain of the story—and a very wicked villain, at that. “But,” said Doctor Andrews, when Famous Players came to consult him as to how the story should be filmed, “missionaries as a whole are not of that type. There are, of course, rare cases of villains among them, but they are exceptional. So that if you filmed ‘The Vanishing American’ as it stands, you would be creating a false impression.” And so, at his instigation, the plot of “The Vanishing American” was so completely changed that the man who was a wicked missionary became a girl school-teacher who was the heroine of the film—-played, by the way, by Lois Wilson. Similarly, changes were made in “Thank You” and “What Happened to Jones” so as to give a more accurate picture of conditions in the church and among the ministry. The cooperation between the movies and the churches was carried on very quietly at first, while it was still uncertain just how it was going to work out, but the results thus far have been so highly satisfactory, and so beneficial to both sides, that there is now an informal agreement between the Will Hays organization and the Council of Churches that whenever a film is to be produced that involves a religious question, or affects the churches in the slightest way, the dramatic committee of the Council will be consulted by the producing company before ever the script is written—and afterward, too. With such harmonious relations established between the church and the movies, and growing ever more strongly cemented, what will become of censorship? That remains to be seen. Meanwhile, when you go to the movies, it may be interesting to bear in mind that, just as likely as not, ministers have helped to give you the film that you are enjoying.

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