Three films, three protests

I’m currently working on synthesizing a number of existing accounts of minority protests against films of the silent and early sound eras, of the first social scientific accounts of the influence of film stereotypes on audiences, and of the creation of the Motion Picture Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency as the primary external constraints on film content.  The result will serve either as a first chapter or as part of a long introduction.

Conveniently, each of the three most important players throughout this story—African American, Jewish, and Irish-Catholic groups—campaigned prominently against a different film of this period, and did so in a way I can use to illustrate the nature of their broader role in the story.  So the fulcrum of the chapter will be African American protests against D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), Jewish protests against Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927), and Irish and Catholic protests against The Callahans and the Murphys, a 1927 MGM comedy.

The last of these three cases is the most obscure but, I think, the most fascinating.  First, because aside from its offensive stereotypes of brawling, drinking, ditch-digging Irish, the film’s story of two women, Mrs. Callahan and Mrs. Murphy, who are at once friends and bitter rivals, sounds potentially entertaining and intriguingly modern (Mmes. Bluth and Austero, anyone?).  Second, because protests by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Catholic Church, and the Irish American press worked—the film was withdrawn from circulation—and intimated the success that a core of Catholic clergy and laity would have in shaping the regulation of film content in the years that followed.  And finally, because the film is lost—a sobering reminder that, notwithstanding the website promising to let you “Watch The Callahans And The Murphys Movie Free,” even in the digital age not every source is at your fingertips, after all.

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