The Catholic woman who mastered the art of a brutal movie review
On June 14, 1947, a review of two movies appeared in America: “Possessed,” starring Joan Crawford and Van Heflin, and “The Web,” starring Vincent Price and Ella Raines. Readers expecting a polite take on either film (then and now) would be surprised from the very first line. “Joan Crawford, current odds-on favorite in the wacky-woman sweepstakes, has the course all to herself in this painstakingly detailed but baffling and essentially meaningless case history of a schizophrenic,” Moira Walsh wrote.
It was Moira Walsh’s first article for the magazine, and the beginning of a weekly column of movie reviews, all possessed from Day One of an invincible authorial voice and informed by an encyclopedic knowledge of film history. Her final article for America was a review of three films: “Murder on the Orient Express,” starring Albert Finney and directed by Sidney Lumet, “A Little Prince,” directed by Stanley Donen, and “Amarcord,” directed by Federico Fellini. It appeared on Dec. 21, 1974—27 years after her first byline.
Walsh was writing in an era without streaming video or online media; her literary output required her to go to the movie theater several times a week.
In between were 750 columns featuring reviews of more than 1,500 films. In the meantime, Moira Walsh also found time to review movies for the Legion of Decency, a Catholic group dedicated to identifying objectionable content in movies and ranking films for their suitability. Note that Walsh was writing in an era without streaming video or online media; further, there were no screeners or advance copies of films. Her literary output required her to go to the movie theater several times a week. One can only imagine the amount of sitzfleisch that requires—and the number of truly terrible films she sat through.
The sharp tone Walsh evinced in her first review continued throughout the years, with perhaps her finest shot being a devastating takedown of the 1956 movie “The Girl Can’t Help It,” starring Jayne Mansfield, whose buxom appearance had been a source of constant comment from other reviewers at the time. Walsh didn't hold back:
What the girl can’t help is, presumably, that she is shaped like a pouter pigeon or, more accurately, like a grotesque hybrid plant in which one particular feature has been encouraged at the expense of the whole. In any case, the truth of the title statement is open to serious question. Open to even more serious question is the propriety of the studio exploiting Miss Mansfield and similar blonde phenomena in a manner having nothing to do with any talent they may or may not possess.
Ouch! But note that along with Walsh’s acid take on Jayne Mansfield’s appeal is a remonstration of the studio that was exploiting her, a trope that would appear with some regularity in Walsh’s columns. She had no time for salacious films or ribald content, but at the same time she directed her ire at the forces behind the silver screen, not the actors trying to make a living in an industry determined to use sex to sell.
Walsh had a similar objection to “Bye Bye Birdie” in 1963, a film adaptation of a popular satirical play in which Jesse Pearson played teen idol Conrad Birdie and whose Elvis-like pelvic gyrations made for titillating cinema. The movie, she noted, belonged to a genre that was “skillfully tailored to appeal to teen-agers and giving tacit, uncritical approval to contemporary teen-age mores.” Walsh, however, recognized that neither the audience nor the actors were at fault; rather, the real villain was the director, George Sidney, who had chosen to film Pearson “in a deliberately suggestive fashion.” A “bad camera angle can belie a professed good intention,” she wrote, so that “the story tells us one thing while the camera says something entirely different.”
Walsh was never profiled nor given an author bio in America, and I could find precious little about her life otherwise. Walsh herself was also as reserved on personal detail in her writing as she was free on opinions regarding cinema, and seems to have enjoyed being somewhat of an enigma—a 1965 article in The Font, the student newspaper of Fontbonne College in St. Louis, Mo., reported that Walsh had visited the campus in early November of that year, titling the story “Moira Walsh Baffles Students.”
Walsh was not always a harsh critic; a survey of her reviews shows she appreciated movies on their own merits and as part of a distinct art form.
She is described in various other newspapers of the time as an esteemed critic, and occasionally her name appears without modifier, as if true cinéastes knew her by name alone. In a 2021 article in American Catholic Studies, the church historian Paul G. Monson called Walsh “one of the most respected Catholic film critics of the 1960s.”
Walsh was not always a harsh critic; a survey of her reviews shows she appreciated movies on their own merits and as part of a distinct art form—which might explain how she sat through so many of them. “Pillow Talk,” for example, an inch-deep 1959 movie starring Rock Hudson and Doris Day, earned Walsh’s praise as “a romantic farce that is a good deal funnier and more inventive than most comedies.” While she didn’t approve of the romantic weekend getaway featured in the movie, she did note that the movie “does try to maintain the proper balance between reality and unreality and to focus its jokes so that they are poking fun at human frailties, not approving of them.”
In her 1966 review of the film adaptation of “A Man for All Seasons,” she noted a tension that appeared time and again in her reviews over the years: Movies were supposed to entertain, but movies should also edify and educate the viewer. How to thread the needle between movies that work as entertainment and movies that instruct one in the moral life? “I agree that a film can accomplish nothing unless it first entertains,” she wrote. “I would further suggest that, in practice, few films that entertain do, in fact, elevate, though this is an area about which we know shockingly little and are further handicapped by thinking we know a lot of things that ‘aint so.’”
You might imagine, then, that Bernardo Bertolucci’s X-rated “Last Tango in Paris” would not strike Walsh’s fancy. But her 1973 review showed once again that Walsh wasn’t just the scowling censor from the Legion of Decency. Yes, the movie was sexually explicit in a way that would have been forbidden just a few years before—but maybe, Walsh suggested, it was better that way:
Though the millennium has not arrived, I also suspect that this is a comparatively healthy development. That judgment is based, not on approval of today’s excesses, but on the conviction that the massive covert traffic in pornography and prostitution of the Victorian era, and even the informal stag-movie rituals of more recent years, contributed to the continuing, unexamined degradation of, and acceptance of male myths about, women.
To be sure, Walsh didn’t like the film: “If this is a breakthrough,” she wrote, “I’ll eat my mid-Victorian bonnet.” Nevertheless, she found that “Bertolucci, like so many of the young breed of filmmakers, is so proficient with the tools of his trade that the virtuosity of his pacing and visual composition frequently obscures the immaturity and silliness of his vision.”
“If this is a breakthrough,” she wrote, “I’ll eat my mid-Victorian bonnet.”
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Other Catholic Book Club columns:
- Vatican II’s secret priest-journalist: The story of Xavier Rynne
- The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison
- The mystery of Thomas Merton’s death—and the witness of America magazine’s poetry editor
- Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)
- Theophilus Lewis brought the Harlem Renaissance to the pages of America
James T. Keane