Could Hollywood be groping for goodness after several decades of decadence? There have been some noticeable changes lately. Script- writers are creating heroes that hew to traditional values. Over the last several years, families have become desirable themes – and recently even babies have made a splash at the box office (“Three Men and a Baby” has been a success story for one studio).
Strangely enough, there is a genuine heritage of Christian values in the legacy of Sunset Boulevard. As early as 1932, Christians worked closely with producers, directors, scriptwriters, and even the stars to keep motion pictures and radio and television programs relatively free of immoral and anti-Christian themes.
Christian television producer Theodore Baehr said this “period of grace” existed from 1932 until 1966, when a Motion Picture Code that applied the Ten Commandments to motion pictures was followed and even enforced. The code also became a standard for the radio and television industry. For Hollywood filmmakers, the code was enforced by representatives of the Catholic Church as well as many Protestant denominations. These church leaders read every movie script and approved them under the terms of the code.
Those terms stated that there would be no sex, violence, profanity, obscenity, or nudity in movies that were produced by the major studios. Under Section 8 of the code, it was declared that no religion could be mocked, and that ministers could not be portrayed as comic characters or villains.
There was, in fact, a fear of God in our nation during that time – and moviemakers were obliged to be respectful. Most were, and many created motion pictures that reflected the place of esteem that Christianity held in America. Today, however, the Motion Picture Code is just a token standard to appease conscientious viewers.
As a boy, I remember Saturday afternoon movies where cowboys and Indians fought and died; but never in these films did the perishing writhe in slow motion, with blood gushing from wounds and curses coming from their mouths, as they often do in today’s cinema. There was death and tragedy in those old movies, but even in the worst of them parents had little fear that sexually explicit, four-letter words would be carried home by 8-year old Johnny.
In one vintage film, hard-drinking Gary Cooper actually comes forward in an oldtime revival meeting to give his heart to Jesus Christ. “Sergeant York” follows his life of Christian virtue as he becomes a hero in World War I and ultimately receives the Medal of Honor.
Another great film is “It’s a Wonderful Life” starring Jimmy Stewart. Directed by Frank Capra, a Hollywood legend who contributed much to producing films of high moral quality, this classic has become so celebrated that practically every network airs the film every year during the Christmas holiday season. A recently made film, “Jesus of Nazareth” is aired every Easter by NBC. This classic has been acclaimed as one of the best films on the life of Christ.
Frank Capra apparently worked with ease under Hollywood’s moral code. During these halycon years of the 1930s and 40s, the entertainment industry thrived. A slogan of the period was “Movies are Better Than Ever.” Suddenly, however, in the mid-1960’s, Christians began to pull out of their commitment to Hollywood. Denominational groups withdrew their representatives, “for different reasons with the same consequences,” says Baehr. “One denomination decided things would continue to go well even if it did not bother to read the scripts, failing to keep in mind the sinfulness of man.”
Baehr continued by saying, “Another denomination decided that all television, movies, and entertainment programs were bad and left the industry wide open for anti-Christian influences. Several other denominations decided that the Motion Picture Code was too restrictive. This group, represented by the National Council of Churches, felt that movies should be more realistic … so they worked for the abolition of the code. The offices in Hollywood that read scripts for the denominations were closed, and the people who read the scripts were put out to pasture after some bitter battles.”
According to Baehr, many people in the motion industry were “deeply hurt” when the churches pulled out. A former president of Paramount Pictures, a Baptist, said he felt abandoned when they left. Some believe the exodus brought a curse on Hollywood because the industry began a decline that it is just now beginning to shake off.
Television became formidable competition for movie houses, and thousands closed around the U.S. The star system was broken and producers began to find other cities – and nations – in which to make their movies. Huge studio lots were sold off and even the most glittering names – MGM, Warner Brothers and Paramount – were stung by the downturn.
Amazingly, the few virtuous films that were made began to gain attention. “Chariots of Fire”(1983) is seen by many as a the turning point. Since the appearance of this Academy Award winner, profit-conscious producers have become less fearful of making a motion picture that has a Christian message. “Tender Mercies,” “The Mission,” and “Places in the Heart” are a few of the most recent films that have won public acclaim from Christians and secular audiences.
But there is still much work to do in Hollywood and in the film community. A small enclave of Christian artists, actors, writers, and producers is busy “salting” the industry as much as possible; but there is a need for young people to invade the field in much greater numbers. Despite the perverted language and violence on the screen today, there are some good signs. Warner Brothers Pictures President Barry Reardon affirmed his desire to produce moral, wholesome films at the National Religious Broadcasters conference in Washington D.C. last month. Past-president of Columbia Pictures, David Pittman, producer of “Chariots of Fire” and “The Mission,” agreed with Reardon at the NRB conference. These men are working to turn back the tide of evil in Hollywood but they need other professionals to join them on the battle lines.
One of the giants of the cartoon industry, Hanna-Barbera, is now producing video cassettes for children on the lives of great biblical heroes such as David, Joshua, etc. There are Bible studies at NBC and other studios, and a group of Christian scriptwriters who are churning out movies and television series. In 1985, Franky Schaeffer and another Christian put together a production company to make films with a moral as well as a Christian message.
Tony Salerno, formerly of Agape Force, is heading up one of the most ambitious projects to train young people to reach the masses with the gospel through all types of media. A former CBN producer has started a film summer camp guided by professional Hollywood directors and technicians to train young Christians as actors who can appear in full-length motion pictures. The three-month summer program is held near Hollywood and draws on some of the biggest names in the industry. Part of involvement in the movie camp demands a radical commitment to the Lord Jesus. The camp includes Christian speakers, devotions, and evangelism to insure that the natural high-ego temptation of the entertainment world does not ensnare the young participants.
With all that is going on in the film and television industry, it is obvious that God has not given up on Hollywood – even though some Christians may have. It’s not time to write off the industry. Instead, it is time to penetrate and reform this significant part of our culture.