Taking advantage of what is left of my rights, I hereby serve notice of intention to join in the public discussions stirred up by President Truman's decision to send a United States ambassador to the Vatican. And if you expect me to be calm and politely restrained in my utterances, you're in for a disappointment. I was burned up about the encroachments of authoritarian clericalism long before the President's decision was announced. His latest stroke of statesmanship just added a little fuel to the flames which have been scaring my tender flesh.
This is not a debate, properly speaking. From the looks of things, it is turning into a free for-all fight. I am glad to see that, and I want a hand in it. My intellectual convictions on this issue, which are quite firm and definite, are reinforced by personal grievances which cry for redress. Grover Cleveland once remarked: "It is a condition which confronts us — not a theory." In this case there is a theory too, and a very simple one. But the thing that hurts right now is a condition which is already infringing on my right to live as a free man in a free society.
Clerical Thought Control
The Roman Catholic hierarchy in this country is getting pretty bold and taking in a lot of territory. They not only want to regulate the morals of their communicants; they also want to regulate mine and yours according to their own perverted conceptions of morality. That's where perverted conceptions of morality. That's where my grievance begins. It may seem like a long way from a couple of movies to the highest affairs of state. But there is a direct connection as I see it; and they merge together, along with a lot of other related questions, into a menacing shadow of clerical thought-control over America.
Experience has made me leery of Hollywood and taught me to be choosey about what movies I see. This caution and discrimination pays off. When something good comes along on the screen, some artistic creation which holds the mirror up to human nature, I appreciate it all the more. And I treasure my right to see and admire and pay for the privilege, like any other free-born citizen. I saw "Open City" and "The Bicycle Thieves," and bowed in reverence before the uncontam,inated art of the Italians. When I read the reviews and heard the comments of friends about Rossellini's picture called, "The Miracle," I decided to see that, too, at the first opportunity.
But before I got around to it, the right to see this picture was brutally taken away from me and others who wanted to see it. Cardinal Spellman, the ecclesiastical hoodlum who broke the strike of the cemetery workers and splattered Mrs. Roosevelt with mud in a gutter brawl, denounced "The Miracle" as immoral. And forthwith the subservient public officials in New York banned the picture and took it off the screen.
The Question of Rights
I won't stop here to argue the worth or worthlessness of Spellman's moral standards. I am concerned with more important questions. What about the right of Rossellini and his company to produce their work of art according to their own lights and insights? And what about my right and the right of other citizens to see the production and judge it for ourselves?
When I read the announcement that the movie version of "A Streetcar Named Desire" would be shown in New York, I said right away, without waiting for reviews or recommendations from anybody: This is a picture I must see. The reason for my recklessness in this case was that I had seen the original play on the stage, as played by a good company of actors on the summer theater circuit. I don't care much for decay and degeneration as themes of art. But that, it seems, is all you can get in a serious novel or play about people in the land lost in darkness south of the Mason-Dixon line. The artists paint what they see, and will not lie. It's terrible, but it's true and therefore beautiful.
That is the profound impression I took away from the theater when the final curtain fell on Tennessee Williams' powerful, mercilessly realistic, and yet compassionate play. I wondered what Hollywood would do with it, and made arrangements of my time in advance to go and see for myself.
I am happy to report that Hollywood didn't foul up this job. The picture faithfully follows the stage play and brings all its characters to life as the author conceived them. For this we owe our thanks to Elia Kazan, who produced the original play on Broadway, and then went along to Hollywood to direct the picture. Warner Brothers had sense enough to provide him with the best possible cast, headed by the incomparable Vivien Leigh, and let him alone.
Good Picture Mutilated
But then, after the picture was finished to the satisfaction of all concerned, some mutilating cuts were made without the director's knowledge or consent. Elia Kazan told about it with cold fury in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago. Between the time the picture was finished and its release in New York, the Legion of Decency went to work. This is a special organization set up by the Catholic hierarchy to police and censor works of art, and to decide what can't be shown under threat of boycott. They preach Christian charity, but they rely on brute force. They let Warners know that they were going to give the picture a "C" or "Condemned" rating:. "This," says the angry director, "would mean that people of the Roman Catholic faith would be instructed not to see it."
You might think that this doesn't concern you, since you pay no attention to such "instructions." But you are mistaken. Warner Brothers didn't doubt for a minute that it concerned them in the center of their most vital and sensitive interest — the box office.
Says Elia Kazan: "The studio's reaction was one of panic. They had a sizable investment in the picture, and they at once assumed that no Catholic would buy a ticket. They feared further that theatres showing the picture would be picketed, might be threatened with boycotts of as long as a year's duration if they dared to show it, that priests would be stationed in the lobbies to talce down the names of parishioners who attended. I was told that all these things had happened in Philadelphia when a picture with a "C" rating was shown there, and, further, that the rating was an invitation for every local censor board in the country to snipe at a picture, to require cuts or to ban it altogether."
So, without consulting or even informing the distinguished director of the picture, they made twelve cuts in the finished film to satisfy the demand of the clerical censors, and delayed the planned showing of the picture until the mutilated version finally secured their "B" rating.
Threat to Freedom
It is just the good luck of the moviegoing public that the cuts were minor and do not seriously affect the flow and tremendous drive of the picture. That may be because Tennessee Williams' play, directed by Elia Kazan, is too powerful and subtle a thing for the ignorant Legion of Decency really to understand. We can't hope for such good luck every time. If this gang gets a little more power in this country, it will tell the people what they can see, and hear, and read, and what their children shall be taught in schools, and back up their regulations with force, as they do everywhere they can get away with it.
I, for my part, can get along without the movies, if necessary, but I can't get along with out freedom! One of the greatest threats to ourn freedom in America comes precisely from the totalitarian enemy of enlightenment and freedom known as the Roman Catholic hierarchy, which President Truman has greatly strengthened and encouraged by his monstrous decision to send an official ambassador to the Vatican.
I am looking for allies in this fight, and it begins to look now as though we're going to have plenty of them. Some of them are good allies, and fighting mad, which is just exactly the mood this great discussion needs.
NOVEMBER, 12, 1951