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
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
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
MORE - Block Booking information
Hollywood and the NIRA: Balio, United Artists: The Company
Built by the Stars, pp. 96-104; Schatz, Genius of the System, pp.
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.