Rumor, Spin, and Ignorance – How We Lost History and Common Sense

Rumor, Spin, and Ignorance:

How We Lost History and Common Sense

By Dr. Ted Baehr

Not too long ago, a major international encyclopedic publisher asked me for an article on fantasy and film. When I wrote about the early days of Georges Melies and his fantasy films, including A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902), in the early 1900s, the point person, an esteemed Ivy League professor, insisted there was no fantasy in movies before A WIZARD OF OZ (1939). This academic myopia was refuted soon thereafter when Martin Scorsese came out with his great movie HUGO (2011), which featured the story of Melies.

No one wants to blame any particular academic institution for such revisionist history, mainly because we love education, which comes from the Latin word to lead people out of ignorance and into the Truth. However, when the circle of referential academic backslapping becomes so small that even the common moviegoer can see the lack of historical reality, then we’re in deep trouble.

Wouldn’t you think people would actually get to know their topic and do significant research?

Of course, this problem doesn’t just arrive in the academic world. It also arises in the press and other spheres of cultural influence.

Now, an award-winning commentator on the intersection of religion and popular culture, William Romanowski, makes the same mistakes. He writes a book called REFORMING HOLLYWOOD that fails to research the topic. That is not to say it’s a bad book, but certainly those who read it are going to come away with some very confused ideas about the history of the church in Hollywood.

At one point, Mr. Romanowski miscategorizes the Motion Picture Code, perhaps because he didn’t understand the purpose of the code. Edward Jay Epstein, however, one of Hollywood’s leading economist and business writers, points out in his great book THE BIG PICTURE:  MONEY AND POWER IN HOLLYWOOD (2000) that the Code was the tool by which the major studios prevented competition (p. 91):

“The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, or Hays Office. . . served as a highly effective tool of collaboration for the studios. This in-house censorship tool allowed the major studios to act in concert to standardize the controversial content of movies – including depictions of drug addiction, divorcee, family planning, and interracial marriage. It went so far as to require that even married couples sleep in twin beds onscreen. By promulgating a set of rules, the Motion Picture Production Code (‘the Code’) that applied to all films played in theaters, the studios not only prevented competition among themselves on salacious or controversial subjects – a ‘race to the bottom,’ in the words of one Paramount executive – but they also headed off the possibility of foreign or independent competitors distributing such fare to American theaters, since the release of such movies likewise would be precluded by this censorship instrument.

The moguls also used their trade organization to lobby the government to sanction the contrivances they employed to maintain their control over the entire industry. To this end, for example, the MPAA drew up the Code of Fair Competition for the Motion Picture Industry – a set of regulations permitted under the Depression-era National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933. The practices it legitimized under the rubric of ‘fair competition’ in fact eliminated any possibility of competition.”

Then, Mr. Romanowski miscategorizes Will Hays as a Protestant leader by failing to mention that Hays was a corrupt politician who was involved in the Teapot Dome Scandal and kicked out of government. Below is a more accurate history from the files of the Protestant Film Office.

Interestingly, Mr. Romanowski knows very little first-hand knowledge about filmmaking. Of course, he’s an academic and nobody expects academics to understand the workings of Hollywood or understand what actually goes behind the screen. He does feature some nice people who were friends of yours truly years ago, such as Bill Fore, and others like Jack Valenti. But even so, many of these people were consciously involved in an effort to dilute the Gospel, although they called themselves Protestant and Catholic. So, below is a more accurate, readable, and shorter history of the Protestant church in Hollywood. It is actually supported by first-hand experience and real records instead of self-serving conversations with those who undermined the Cause of Christ.

Students for years will read Romanowski’s book, few will know the truth. Be that as it may, eventually it will become all too clear that they followed the wrong into the clique that was best described by C.S. Lewis’s novel THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH.



Part I

In the Beginning

By George Heimrich

Editor’s Note:  George Heimrich was the director of the Hollywood office of the Protestant Film Commission from 1953 to 1966. Here are some of his reflections on the church and the movie industry.

In l876, Thomas Alva Edison invented the phonograph, followed by the motion picture camera and projector. With these inventions, Edison opened Pandora’s Box, and the Church was entangled in show biz.

In l884, Penny peep shows appeared in penny arcades on Broadway in New York City and spread into large cities across America. Film producers were quick to find the formula:  “excessive sex, crime and violence equal box office;” and, there was a fortune there for those who wished to exploit it. Christians, mostly from the Bible Belt, proclaimed that these films were out-and-out pornography.

In the same year, a group of wealthy men, including Edison, who held all the patents on cameras, projectors and other equipment, formed a trust to control the motion picture business. Their opposition was poor independents, with few exceptions a motley mixture of former sweat-shop operators, jewelry peddlers, dishwashers, glove salesmen, cloth spongers, pants pressers, penny peep-show operators, veterans of vaudeville, writers and producers of stage plays and musicals – refuse to be intimidated and clubbed into submission by the dictates and policies of a well financed trust. There was open warfare.      

From l894 to l9l4, the motion picture business was in constant conflict between the Trust and independent producers. European movies, superior to U.S. pictures, flooded the American market.

In 1905, penny arcades were replaced by kinetoscope arcades, and the name was changed to nickelodeons. Some 5,000 of them rapidly spread across America.

In 1907, the City of Chicago formed the first censorship board. In 1908, the Mayor of New York City closed all movie houses.

At the same time, the film producers formed the National Board of Censorship to fend off government censorship. Self-regulation was a smoke screen to make the public think something was being done when in fact it wasn’t.

In 1913, Cecil B. DeMille, carrying a gun and film equipment, and his small production crew, boarded a train and fled to Flagstaff, Arizona, and then to Hollywood in an effort to get away from strong-arm squads of the Trust. The Trust police followed him, harassed him, destroyed his film, and tried to shoot him. He survived and the power of the Trust was broken.

Hollywood was little more than a spot in the desert outside a town called Los Angeles, which in turn was in the state of California, and the star system was just a twinkle in the eyes of those who could not yet see the horizon of a vast industry where not even the sky was the limit.

From l9l3 to l92l, the growth of the motion picture industry was spectacular. Financial institutions poured millions into the industry.

In l9l4, World War I erupted and the European film market collapsed. Furthermore, Supreme Court rulings killed the Trust. The Supreme Court ruled that the producing of motion pictures was a BUSINESS, not to be regarded as part of the PRESS, or as an organ of PUBLIC OPINION. Six states set up censorship boards.

A prominent Baptist Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia was the first person to co-author and introduce a censorship bill in Congress. Two other Congressmen introduced a bill to control the portrayal of sex and violence in films. Bills to censor motion pictures were discussed in 36 states during the winter of l92l. The National Board of Censorship was shaken.

To be continued. . .



Part II

Where There’s a Will There’s a Hays

By George Heimrich

Editor’s Note:  George Heimrich was the director of the Hollywood office of the Protestant Film Commission from 1953 to 1966. Here are some of his reflections on the church and the movie industry.

In 1921 Hollywood was Movie Capital of the World. Many of the motley crew of independents were now in charge of motion picture studios in Hollywood producing the vast majority of movies. Nickelodeons were replaced by theaters seating three thousand people or more. The star system was beginning to take over. Executives from Hollywood studios even sat on the board of Eastern financial institutions.

The censorship of movies stressing excessive sex, crime and violence increased, spurred by the low morals of the Hollywood stars. There was a possibility of bankers refusing to back Hollywood-produced movies. The motion picture industry was in UTTER CHAOS.

On December 8, 1921, three prominent men met in a plush and fashionable Wardman Park Hotel, Washington, D.C. Two of them were highly placed motion picture executives. The other was William Harrison Hays. William Harrison Hays was a prominent Protestant churchman, National Chairman of the Republican Party responsible for the landslide election of William G. Harding as the 29th President of the United States in 1921, a politician’s politician with superb connections with both houses of Congress, a great believer in the Constitution and freedom of speech, a lawyer, a strong handshaker, and a member of President Harding’s Cabinet. With the blessings of the majority of the industry leaders, they presented a proposal to President William G. Harding designed to fend off the censors.

On January 14, 1922, William Harrison Hays resigned his job as Postmaster General of the United States, giving up a salary of $12,000 per year to become the motion picture industry’s first movie czar.

On March 10, 1922, Will Hays and 17 leaders of the movie industry incorporated the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America, Inc. (hereafter referred to as the MPPDA). To preempt the censorship movement, Article I, Section 3 of the Association read, “The object for which the Association is created is to foster the common interests of those engaged in the motion picture industry in the United States by establishing and maintaining the highest possible moral and artistic standards in motion picture production. . . .”

On March 16, 1922, at a banquet in the Hotel Astor in New York City, with some 1500 people in attendance, Will Hays gave his first speech as movie czar:

“I know nothing about the technical end of pictures, either manufacturing, exhibiting, or distributing. I hope to learn, however, and right now I am going to school like a child to master this great industry of arts, science and commerce. I accepted my position for three reasons:  (l) First because it offered a chance to engage in a public service; (2) Because it afforded a chance to retire from politics; and, (3) Because I needed the money.”

The tuition for $12,000 per year Postmaster General to go to school like a child to learn a new business was stipulated in a three-year non-cancelable contract as $100,000 per year plus $15,000 per year for expenses. In addition, Hays retained his membership as a partner in the law firm of Hays & Hays. Rumors ran rampant that Will Hays was a bag man in an effort to peddle some $200,000 worth of Sinclair Consolidated Oil Liberty Bonds to pay off the debts left over from Warren Harding’s successful 1920 campaign for the presidency. As the new movie czar, he was quoted as saying, “Right is right and wrong is wrong.” Under his administration, motion pictures “would maintain the highest moral and artistic standards that the industry must have toward that sacred thing, the mind of a child, toward that clean virgin, the unmarked slate – the same responsibility, the same care about the impressions made upon it that the best clergymen or the most inspired teacher of youth would have; that films would go forth from this country abroad, and present to the world the proper manner, the purposes, the ideals, and the life of America.”

Approximately one month after Hays became movie czar, Variety, the bible of the entertainment world, reported, “Film loans are at a zero.” Hays met with the Governor of the all-powerful New York Federal Reserve Bank. Shortly thereafter, the motion picture companies’ credit was re-established with the banks, and a near-bankrupt industry was back producing, distributing and exhibiting movies.

The primary purpose of the MPPDA was to prevent Congressional censorship. The Executive Committee of Hay’s public relations effort previewed motion pictures and recommended what pictures the public was to patronize. They could make specific objections to certain scenes from specific pictures and bad-mouth in monthly bulletins motion pictures the preview committee considered morally corrupt.

However, Hollywood movie stars were on a binge of booze, narcotics and murder. In 1921, the Massachusetts State Legislature passed a Motion Picture Censorship Law, only to have it vetoed by their Governor. Voters elected that they and not their Governor would call the shots as to who would free them from a steady stream of indecent movies polluting the minds of the populace. Hays spent about $300,000 to buy votes, and censorship of motion pictures in Massachusetts was defeated.

The Democratic Congressman from the State of Virginia, William David Upshaw, a well-known Baptist layman, introduced a bill in Congress that would create a Federal Motion Picture Commission in the Department of the Interior to be composed of the Commissioner of Education and six commissioners elected for life. The bill described standards of morality to govern the production of films entering interstate or foreign commerce. The penalty for violation was to be the confiscation of all offending films.

Resurrecting his campaign slogan, “give the motion picture producers a chance to regulate themselves,” Hays flooded Congress with a host of volunteers from his Committee on Public Relations. Congress buried Congressman Upshaw’s bill.

In 1924, eleven motion picture production companies, all but one of them members of Hays’ MPPDA, incorporated the Association of Motion Picture Producers, Inc. in the State of California. Many of the 62 National Organizations that constituted Hays’ Committee on Public Relations left Hays, as they did not want to be involved in what they called “inconsequential work,” referring to Hays’ work as a “smoke screen, a camouflage, an approval stamp for salacious film and for questionable, if not criminal, conduct of the industry and its employees.”

Chicago, New York and other censorship boards cut thousands of scenes from Hollywood produced films. Hays hired a prominent Baptist layman, lawyer, former member of both houses of Congress, and a former state governor, to con fellow Protestants into believing the Hollywood producers would regulate their own films. The President of the United States defended Hays and his work in a lengthy published article.

In 1930, after six months of painstaking research, a respected Protestant publication accused Hays of lulling the church to sleep with his soft speeches and of hiding behind a Presbyterian front while the movie producers merrily made money out of muck. After eight years of the Hays Administration, Protestant reformers, who had previously hailed Hays as a conscientious churchman, now held him in contempt, not only for being suspected of peddling Harry Sinclair’s continental liberty bonds in the $100 million Tea Pot Dome Oil Swindle; but also, as a blind for the movie industry’s rotten pictures.

To be continued. . .


Part III

Roman Catholic Church Clobbers Hays and

Protestants Form Fort Hollywood

By George Heimrich

Editor’s Note:  George Heimrich was the director of the Hollywood office of the Protestant Film Commission from 1953 to 1966. Here are some of his reflections on the church and the movie industry.

In 1930, The Roman Catholic Church took a stand against the movie industry, and the movie moguls almost went bankrupt. The multi-million-dollar Wall Street movie stock and bond brokers met with the Roman Catholic Cardinals to beg for mercy. A Roman Catholic priest wrote the Motion Picture Code based on The Ten Commandments. The Roman Catholics and Hays agreed never to let Protestants know a Roman Catholic wrote the Motion Picture Code. The MPPDA and member Hollywood producers agreed to follow the Code.

At first, Hollywood producers ignored the Code. Therefore, the Roman Catholic hierarchy formed the Roman Catholic Legion of Decency. Millions of Roman Catholics joined and signed a pledge to boycott movie theaters, thereby severing the most sensitive nerve in the Movie Industry Body – their pocketbook.

On July l, 1934, Hays and MPPDA set up the Motion Picture Code office in Hollywood and gave Joseph Breen, a rough Roman Catholic Irish layman, the power to enforce the Code. Hollywood studios set up censorship departments to deal with Breen.

Hollywood got the message. The film producers made the supreme sacrifice. They would rather cast out their casting couch than cast aspersions on the Roman Catholic Church, its beliefs, priests and nuns, not to mention the Pope. For the next 15 years or so, Hollywood movies, with the exception of the bitter fight over the word “damn” in GONE WITH THE WIND, were good, clean entertainment, giving wholesome pleasure to the whole family.

The Protestants suddenly discovered that protests in the form of more warnings, meaningless pronouncements, and supporting Federal and State censorship of motion pictures was a poor substitute for a favorable portrayal of their religion and its ministers. To protect themselves, Protestants formed Fort Hollywood.


In 1945, in New York, the Protestants organized the Protestant Film Commission for the purpose of: 

1. Producing pictures for Protestant churches.

2. Acting as a liaison between MPPDA and Hollywood producers.

Will Hays resigned and was replaced by Eric Allen Johnston, a protestant, Republican, president of United States Chamber of Commerce, champion of free enterprise, and public relations expert with excellent connections in both houses of Congress and the White House. The MPPDA became the MPPA.

In accepting the position, Johnston said, “There is only one satisfactory way, in my judgment, to meet the issue of political censorship in our country. That is to go to the highest court in the land for a head-on test of the constitutionality of motion picture censorship. . . .”

From 1935 to 1947, Hollywood produced nine feature films with a Roman Catholic theme. One received an Oscar as “Best Picture of the Year.” The Protestants were in an uproar over the Roman Catholic takeover of Hollywood movies. Therefore, on Feb. 3, 1948, a small group of prominent ministers and laymen from New York and Los Angeles, including three motion picture executives, held a three-day, secret conference in Hollywood, California, and then announced to the press that they were opening a “Hollywood office to represent Protestant denominations of 200,000 churches, able to speak for 54,000,000 Protestants, and encourage production of films of high moral and artistic standards. Furthermore, the office would work with the Breen office and producers by reading scripts and making corrections when the Protestant religion and its ministers are portrayed.”

“I have been waiting for 35 years for this day,” Cecile B. De Mille announced, “for somebody to be formed to favorably oversee that the dignity of the church is upheld on the screen. Very often, Protestant ministers are presented as ludicrous figures. This organization will remedy this and see that they, as well as the Protestant church itself, will be clothed in dignity.”

In 1950, the National Council of Churches was formed, and Fort Hollywood became the Department of Broadcasting and Film Commission, the communications arm of the National Council of Churches.

In 1952, a Supreme Court decision stopped state censorship of motion pictures.

To be continued. . .


Part IV

Holding the Fort

By George Heimrich

EDITOR’S NOTE:  George Heimrich was the director of the Hollywood office of the Protestant Film Commission from 1953 to 1966. Here are some of his reflections on the church and the movie industry.

On August l, 1953, I, George Heimrich, took over as the Director of Fort Hollywood. With eight prominent Los Angeles clergymen, we reviewed screen plays, story treatments and books submitted to us by major studios, independent producers and the Breen office having to do with the portrayal of the Protestant religion and its ministers under Section 8 of the Motion Picture Code:

“l. No film or episode may throw ridicule on any religious faith.

“2. Ministers of religion in their character as ministers of religion should not be used as comic characters or villains.

“3. Ceremonies of any definite religion should be carefully handled.”

The reason why ministers of religion may not be comic characters or villains is simply because the attitude taken toward them may easily become the attitude taken toward religion in general. Religion is lowered in the minds of the audience because of the lowering of the audience’s respect for the minister. Particularly disturbing screen plays submitted for our evaluation were THE SOUL MERCHANT, THE REVIVAL, THE MONEY CHANGER, and ELMER GANTRY, which all damned and made fun of evangelism and evangelists. Many of those in the film and TV industry were nonreligious, agnostic and even atheists. A number of producers and writers had great dislike and even fear of the Bible Belt and hated the Roman Catholic Legion of Decency.

Negotiations with producers and writers of screenplays often took months. For example, in THE MONEY CHANGER, a well-known actor becomes a famous evangelist. In the last scene, his worshipers find out he is a phony and beat him to death with their Bibles. After weeks of negotiation, the producer abandoned the project with the parting shot, “Heimrich, You son of a b–ch, either you, or Billy Graham, or both of you, cost me $65,000 dollars.” Evangelists like Billy Graham were so popular that producers saw ridiculing them as a way to make a fortune.

In 1953-54, Breen retired, and Geoffrey Shurlock, a Protestant, replaced him. In his talk at the annual meeting of Broadcasting and Film Commission, Shurlock said, “In our files we have this description of the book ELMER GANTRY:  he is a ‘degenerate preacher, who uses the pulpit in the same way he would use a procurer – to get a woman.’” He told the audience to back my fight against ELMER GANTRY.

In 1959, Burt Lancaster formed his own company and produced ELMER GANTRY. It was a direct slap at evangelists and Billy Graham. Burt Lancaster baited Fort Hollywood in Variety, “I don’t see what the Protestants are worried about, Elmer Gantry is just an all American guy interested in money, sex and fun. Just because he is a minister doesn’t make him un-American.” We didn’t go for the bait.

In 1959, Frank Freeman, Vice President in charge of production at Paramount Studios and a Baptist, noted:  “I agree with you, Mr. Heimrich. There is a complete breakdown of the Motion Picture Code and as you say, particularly Section 8,” and asked, “When are the Protestants going to stand up and be counted?”

To be continued. . .


Part V

The Old Double Cross

By George Heimrich

Editor’s Note:  George Heimrich was the director of the Hollywood office of the Protestant Film Commission from 1953 to 1966. Here are some of his reflections on the church and the movie industry.

October 2l, 1959 I was interviewed by Variety and the October 24, 1959 headline read, “FILM MORALS WORRY PROTESTANTS – L.A. Clergy protests Hollywood’s alleged over-emphasis on sex and violence.” For over two years, the same perspective appeared in at least 1000 magazine articles, radio programs and television programs. Eric Johnston, the President of Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America, Inc. (MPPDA), wrote a letter to the Director of Social Action of National Council of Churches to complain. The NCC replied, “There is no need for Mr. Heimrich’s horror over the possible filming of ELMER GANTRY. There is no need for Protestants to be defensive about ELMER GANTRY. It might be good for us in a time that over sentimentalizes the minister to have such a caricature shown.”

There was wide coverage in the press of the exchange of letters. The NCC liberals had spoken, and Burt Lancaster yelled, “Amen.” Afterwards, the NCC tried three times to close Fort Hollywood.

The NCC killed the Motion Picture Code in 1961. One of the most respected directors, producers and writers in the history of Hollywood started to develop a feature film on the life of Christ. Fort Hollywood worked very closely with him for over four years. In 1966, NCC’s Film Awards Committee, after three days’ bitter confrontation, turned down the film on the life of Christ for an award and recommended awards for two independent feature films, one brazenly depicting nudity and the other blasphemy, in direct violation of the Motion Picture Code. 

Executives of motion picture studios were shocked, as was Geoffrey Shurlock, Administrator of Motion Picture Code Administration. One of the most knowledgeable and respected Hollywood executives exclaimed, “I am flabbergasted and astounded that the Board of Managers of the Broadcast Film Commission (BFC) of the NCC would give awards to motion pictures which so blatantly display nudity and to a picture which used ‘J— C—‘ and ‘For C—‘s sake.’ Now that the NCC has approved pictures with nudity and blasphemy, I have no leg to stand on when producers submit screenplays for approval, as a precedent for acceptance has been sent by the NCC, which represents the majority of Protestant denominations in America. This also places Geoffrey Shurlock, head of the Motion Picture Code Administration, in the same position.”

Following the presentation of the awards, an executive of the BFC NCC said that the “mainstream attitude among Protestants no longer is principally concerned with condemning sex and violence or immorality and futility, but are interested in films which are honest in their portrayal of the human and HUMANIST situation.”

In 1966, Eric Johnson resigned as head of the MPPDA (which was soon renamed the Motion Picture Association of America), replaced by Jack J. Valenti.

In 1967, a Major Hollywood studio, member of MPPDA, finished production on a feature film. When screened by executives of the studio, many thought, “My G-d, we have a $7.5 million dirty film on our hands.” Shurlock, as head of Code Administration, said the film was in violation of Motion Picture Code and refused to approve it. Besides several highly questionable sex scenes, the dialogue in the movie had eleven “G– d—s,” seven “ba—-ds,” five “sons o’ b–ches,” and such graphic phrases as “s—w you,” “up yours,” and “hump the hostess.” The movie was one of the pictures that received the NCC’s coveted awards in 1967.

After 33 years, the back of the Code was broken; “Thanks in great part to the NCC,” one Hollywood executive noted.

The liberals had won. Fort Hollywood was closed. It was the end of an era.

In 1968, the NCC and the Roman Catholic Legion of Decency endorsed the Motion Picture Association of America’s new voluntary rating system, and there followed an all-out blitz of motion pictures portraying sex and violence for the sake of same, the result being that too much of their product makes the Biblical days of Sodom and Gomorrah stand out like a beacon light of purity as the motion picture and television producers pursue their never-ending all-consuming itch for the fast buck.


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