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C Is For 'Condemned': A Nun Looks Back On 47 Years Of Unholy Filmmaking

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.

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.

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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Beth Accomando