Here is the narrative we all think we know: Protestants, those dour entertainment-haters, have been the scourge of Hollywood throughout the history of film—boycotting and condemning whatever they deem inappropriate on the silver screen, and praising the occasional (and often poorly-made) film with positive religious themes that happens somehow to slip past the gatekeepers.
Of late, the narrative continues, some Protestants have moved toward "cultural engagement" and begun to recognize the validity of film as an art form. It will take much time to undo a century's worth of damage.
But in his new and highly readable book Reforming Hollywood: How American Protestants Fought for Freedom at the Movies (Oxford University Press), William Romanowski (a professor at Calvin College and noted commenter on religion and pop culture) challenges this narrative, demonstrating that it is not simply reductionist—it's almost entirely wrong (and frequently wrongheaded). Film history has dealt Protestants a bad hand, and Romanowski's meticulously researched book is a valuable contribution to a richer narrative, one that recognizes the profound contribution that Protestants have made to the shape of the American film industry. And, furthermore, the book traces how Protestants have coped with a rapidly pluralizing society. As Romanowski points out, "the film industry is an important catalyst for examining how this socio-religious group coped with a dramatic loss of power."
'An ally of home, school, and church'
Film was growing out of its infancy at the turn of the twentieth century, just as the United States was embarking on its slow migration from Protestant cultural hegemony to pluralism, away from an emphasis on a "shared ethos of self-restraint and public responsibility" and toward a higher regard for individualism. Protestant church leaders (among others) instantly recognized the new form's potential to powerfully influence public conversations. As with other still-new forms of mass media (such as radio), at the movies, people all over the country could experience the same stories and encounter the same ideas—it was a new sort of "highly commercialized urban folk art." But film's immersive power renders it especially potent for influencing public opinion and dialogue.
With an eye toward the common good, and operating on the (correct, at that time) presumption that they were the primary gatekeepers and caretakers of American culture, church leaders began discussing how film might bring about the most good. Reformers concerned with the middle class saw film as a way to "satisfy working-class leisure needs, foster community and public discourse, and advance a reform agenda"; it was their aim to "counteract any negative influence and turn this mechanical marvel into an ally of home, school, and church."
From here, Romanowski carefully traces the often surprising paths and recurring assumptions of reformers, church leaders, and others who concerned themselves with how best to corral and guide the movies toward having the greatest influence for good. The story moves through halting and sometimes successful efforts at establishing review boards, toying with the difficult ethical issues around censorship, changing understandings of the purpose of film (as simple, cheap entertainment versus a legitimate art form), discussions of free speech and obscenity, fear and then embrace of classifications systems (which led to our present-day MPAA ratings system), and the eventual decline of Protestant mainline influence as evangelicalism's star rose. Throughout, Romanowski is careful to deal an even hand to everyone, pointing out the good along with the bad and linking statements and movements that seem shocking to us today with prevailing cultural attitudes at the time.
For evangelical and mainline Protestant non-scholars, perhaps the most compelling and valuable reason to read Reforming Hollywood is this: It challenges our perception of our own religious history and reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun. Over and over again, the historical narrative eerily echoes our own recent history.
For instance, by the 1920s, Protestant church leaders, pointing to films such as Cecil B. DeMille's bedroom dramas, were saying that Hollywood was "antagonistic to the faith" and "spreading a moral blight across America." Churches began to install projection equipment and show wholesome films to parishioners at church, hoping that "sold-out sanctuaries would persuade Hollywood that churchgoers were a ready market for inspirational and biblical movies." Romanowski explains that "church-oriented films . . . had an unimpressive track record," but the effort resurfaced over and over.
Another example that sounds familiar: Protestants in the late 1920s and early 1930s began to argue that Christians ought to care about artistic integrity rather than simply counting instances of potentially objectionable content in films. Better films, they reasoned, would come if an audience with sophisticated taste demanded them. A text called How to Appreciate Motion Pictures was published in 1933 toward that end, and critics wrote with an eye toward artistry.
As with so many things, however, a desire to advance the common good is not the entire story here.. Bound up with many good intentions was racism and anti-Semitism, elitism, prejudice toward Catholics and Jews (which often stemmed from anti-immigrant sentiments), and a triumphalist grasping for the power that Protestant leaders knew was slipping away. Furthermore, a faulty view of human nature surfaces in the repeated and familiar assertion (which flew in the face of box office returns) that the "everyday American" favored wholesome fare at the cinema, and that it was only a tiny subset of Hollywood producers—generally Jewish and viewed with skepticism—who were capitalizing on the "crude, unsophisticated, and depraved tastes of a minority of moviegoers" and must therefore be curtailed.
To attempt to summarize all of the questions and issues that Romanowski's book raises would do disservice to his text. Reforming Hollywood is an important resource for scholars of American cultural, religious, and intellectual history, as well as media theory, but it also is an important read for Protestants—especially evangelicals—who tend to assume that our recent attempts at a more sophisticated, fully-rounded view of filmmaking and analysis are a new development.
To avoid the mistakes of our collective past, and to continue to develop a Christ-honoring perspective on film, we must read and understand our history. In Reforming Hollywood, Romanowski has given us an important tool for just that work.
Alissa Wilkinson teaches in the Media, Culture, and the Arts program at The King's College in New York City and is co-editor of the public theology journal Comment.