Hollywood Renegades Archive

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Block Booking

Public Outcry During the Great Depression

Excerpt from Hollywood Renegades by J. A. Aberdeen


In the early 1930s during a period of growing public concern over on-screen morality, the exhibitors had blamed block booking for the increase in so-called objectionable movies, and brought their grievances to the attention of civic organizations like the influential Catholic Legion of Decency which was formed in 1933 and comprised of numerous non-Catholic religious and public-interest groups.

Many of the independent theater owners and managers had an ulterior motive besides public concern; that is, they hoped the outrage of civic leaders would help pressure the distributors into better concessions for the theaters. The theaters asked the distributors to allow a "cancellation privilege" that enabled the exhibitor to reject a certain number of films in each block. This, the theaters told the public-advocacy groups, would allow the exhibitors to ferret out Hollywood's inappropriate material before it reached the public. The theaters petitioned the distributors for a cancellation privilege as high as 40 percent, but only a few distributors granted a cancellation privilege at all, which fluctuated between 5 and 15 percent, and was closely monitored under very limited circumstances in various parts of the country. The distributors even commissioned a nationwide study which tracked the films canceled by theaters to show that the exhibitor choices did not demonstrate a consistently high standard of morality, but, rather, the theaters invoked the privilege solely for commercial purposes.

Nevertheless, the National Legion of Decency (as it was known after April 1934) concluded that block booking could not coexist with the Hays Office's lax enforcement of the production code. In one of the most successful public crusades in film history, the Legion of Decency threatened a national boycott and private censorship in 1934 until the MPPDA improved the situation. In response, the Hays Office revitalized its production code under Irish-Catholic Joseph I. Breen, with strictly enforced standards and stiff penalties for producer-distributors. Mary Pickford told the press that the pressure from the Legion of Decency rescued the industry from outside censorship—but unfortunately it also saved the practice of block booking. In exchange for the MPPDA's commitment to keep objectionable material in check, the National Legion of Decency agreed not push for government antitrust intervention.

Nevertheless other public-advocacy groups continued to protest block booking. In October 1934, a coalition of 35 national organizations, including the Motion Picture Research Council, the American Legion, B'nai B'rith, Parents and Teachers associations, Lions Clubs, Boy Scouts of America, and the YMCA, urged Congress to submit legislation at the next session to abolish block booking and blind selling. They also formed a lobbying committee to keep the pressure on as the controversy swelled.

See National Civic Groups Protest Block Booking - Complete List, 1934

 

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SOURCES:

Hollywood and the NIRA: Balio, United Artists: The Company Built by the Stars, pp. 96-104; Schatz, Genius of the System, pp. 159-161.
Cancellation privilege discussed in Benjamin Werne, "The Neely Anti-Block Booking and Blind Selling Bill—An Analysis," pp. 10-12.
Legion of Decency and civic opposition to block booking: Balio, Grand Design, pp. 59-69; also mentioned in French, The Movie Moguls, p. 79. Pickford's comments: Mary Pickford, "The Big Bad Wolf Has Been Muzzled," from HR, circa 1934, reprinted in Wilkerson and Borie, The Hollywood Reporter, the Golden Years, pp. 234-236.
Coalition of 35 groups at a conference called by former First Lady Grace Goodhue Coolidge—"35 Groups To Fight Blind Film Booking," NYT, October 5, 1934, p. 29.

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