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Quigley, Martin S. Martin J. Quigley and the Glory Days of American Film 1915-1965.

Quigley, Martin S. Martin J. Quigley and the Glory Days of American Film 1915-1965. Groton, MA: Quigley Publishing Company, Inc. 2006. Pp. i, 344. ISBN 0-900610-79-4 (hbk.) $29.95.

That the Chicago Board of Censors banned a Mary Pickford movie in 1917 as too "anti-Prussian" is one of the more intriguing morsels contained in this filial memoir about the pioneering movie moralist and trade publisher Martin J. Quigley. The Supreme Court had opened the door to such censorship in 1915 by ruling that films, as mere commerce, were not entitled to free speech protections. Making censor cuts to appease local prejudices would require untold numbers of profit-draining individual prints for each new release. Quigley stepped into the fray by forming a "public rights" league that gave the burgeoning movie industry's interests the veneer of a spontaneous grass-roots uprising.

Martin J. Quigley shows how hard-nosed business practices were wedded to early public decency campaigns. Hollywood was quick to realize that self-censorship was preferable to the whims of municipal and state censors, adopting the (Hays) Code in 1930 (which gestated into the current MPAA system in 1967). Quigley, a devout Catholic, was instrumental in working behind the scenes to formulate the Code, basing its contents on the Ten Commandments. When the Code soon proved toothless--an internal appeal process permitted the studios to evade compliance--a disappointed Quigley sought to reinvigorate the crusade through the Catholic Legion of Decency, which he helped steer and shape in consultation with prominent Jesuits.

While Martin J. Quigley remarks such moments of cultural history, readers seeking more than a passing glance will need to look elsewhere. Quigley's son--who took over his father's movie trade publishing empire in 1964--hasn't written a passable biography or history as much as collated a spiffy family scrapbook of correspondence, official documents, interviews, capsule movie-year histories, and Quigley editorials and testimonials. Such as it is, the narrative flow of Martin J. Quigley's loose chronological assemblage suffers from too many telegraphic bursts of diary-like non sequiturs, relevant to no one outside the Quigley family. For example, in 1928 the Coast Guard confiscated bootleg liquor on Quigley's chartered yacht; subsequently, "The Quigley children found the dinner table conversation stimulating" (p. 38). Immediately preceding this nondescript banality is the fact that Quigley and other Illinois Athletic Club regulars created a dental fund for Johnny Weissmuller, whose bad teeth "interfered slightly with his breathing" (p. 37).

The book's chronic lack of detail or factual context is vexing. Take the inclusion of a thank-you letter Howard Hughes wrote to Quigley in 1948:
 It has not been very often in my life that someone has gone out of
 his way to do a substantial favor for me when he was not indebted
 or obligated to me. Yet, in this case, you scarcely knew me at all
 (and what impression you may have had was, I am afraid, not a
 favorable one). Nevertheless, you not only went out of your way but
 gave of your time and effort to an extent which leaves me unable to
 begin to thank you. (p. 86)

Well what exactly did Quigley do for Hughes? Was it a small kindness, involving a social affair; or, perhaps, a business matter of greater import? A more practiced biographer would have ascertained and explained the document's significance or omitted it as irrelevant.

Leaving aside the book's desultoriness and empty name-dropping, Martin J. Quigley is profitable as a gauge of cultural depravity. The past it evokes offers a stark picture of how far mass culture has plunged into its current abyss. In 1937 Quigley published a manifesto entitled Decency in Motion Pictures that warned misuse of the medium would destroy the "principles upon which home and civilization are based" and render "the motion picture the curse of the modern world" (p. 43). Quigley stated, "The function of art is to ennoble" (p. 44). Good and evil should never be confused, and the presentation of "sin, crime, evil, and sordidness" for dramatic purposes must never tip the moral scale of right values (p. 45). Furthermore, Quigley urged that special care be exercised in the treatment of certain subjects, such as, "Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. (having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron)" (p. 52). Today, of course, the reversal of Quigley's idealism is total: Hollywood profits by mocking virtue and extolling vice.

Amateurish though Martin J. Quigley may be, there is an endearing and engaging quality about a son's encomium to his father--something that touches the universal sense of familial devotion and loyalty. Here is the author's account of how his father started his first trade publication in 1915, the year the "Germans were inching towards Paris" (p. 73).
 It appeared to this vigorous, lithe young reporter with the
 penetrating blue eyes that a touch of good newspapering, sound
 journalism dealing with facts, presenting opinions honestly
 labeled, and all done with respect to the canons of the art of
 printing, might well find its reward in service to the motion
 picture industry, which needed so much. So it came that
 publication, Exhibitors Herald, was born in Chicago. That slim
 leaflet, as tentative as the first spear of tender green pushed up
 from the acorn, held important destiny.... Uniquely and strangely,
 there was no other person in quite the position and attitude of
 this young man. He alone was concerned with the success of the
 whole motion picture industry and its continuing growing success as
 an art. (p. 73)

The book has both an index of persons and topics and an index of films.

Tony Osborne

Gonzaga University
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Author:Osborne, Tony
Publication:Communication Research Trends
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2007
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