Wednesday, August 3, 2011

“The Rose Tattoo,” The Legion of Decency, and Divine Retribution

This week, Denver is hosting The Supreme International Convention of the Knights of Columbus, and during my morning walk while waiting for the light to change at a downtown street corner, I found myself surrounded by a dozen or more “knights.” And in their conversation I heard three words which I hadn’t heard for 40 years, “Legion of Decency.” If you’re not Catholic, or if you are Catholic but are younger than 30, you might not know about the Legion of Decency. A quick search on Wikipedia can pretty much fill you in, so this blog isn’t so much a factual explanation of the Legion as it is a personal kind of diary entry about my own brush with the Legion of Decency.

It was 1955. I was 13 and I was living with my grandmother (a staunchly compliant old-time Catholic) who raised me during my teenage years. A new film opened at the movie theater, “The Rose Tattoo,” starring my favorite swashbuckler, Burt Lancaster. I figured, given the title and the lead actor, that it was just another adventuresome pirate movie about a buccaneer with a tattoo, so I made plans to go see the film. And I told my grandmother. Big mistake. She sat me down and began to explain that “The Rose Tattoo” had been condemned by the Legion of Decency (actually it wasn’t), and it was too “suggestive” for me to see it. In another minute or so, when I failed to understand all the implications of the word, “suggestive,” she had to break down and tell me it was a “dirty” movie. One thing led to another, and finally she had to tell me that it was “dirty” in a sexual way. She said that the Legion of Decency had determined that this movie would put filthy ideas in the head of anyone who watched it. So I asked the key question, “How did they know this?” She said they just knew it. Then I asked the key follow-up question, “Had they watched it?” She said that most likely they had. Then I asked the question that almost got me banished from her house. “If the guys in the Legion of Decency had watched it, how come it didn’t put filthy ideas in THEIR heads?”

In later years I came to know the answer to that question. The Legion of Decency was made up mostly of priests and bishops, so the only fictional character in literature or film who was likely to fill them with lustful sexual craving was Oliver Twist. In their own dysfunctional way, they were immune to the normal heterosexual allure of women, so they could view films like “The Rose Tattoo” with a certain amount of detachment.

That’s not quite the end of the story. The Knights of Columbus got me to thinking. I never got to see “The Rose Tattoo” when I was 13, and then I forgot about it until day before yesterday. So Monday night I downloaded it on Netflix and gave it a view. Good movie. I think it won three Oscars. I thought I had escaped the “filthy ideas” curse of the Legion of Decency, but then last night the sky over Denver lit up with a tremendous lightening storm. A strong bolt of electricity struck the earth about a block away, and I was sure that it was divine retribution for what I had done, especially since the thunderbolt missed me by a good 600 yards which looked to me like just another sign of incompetence from Jesus.

No comments: