According to Liberty magazine in 1936, Joseph Ignatius Breen probably had “more influence in standardizing world thinking than Mussolini, Hitler or Stalin.” Joseph who? Breen’s name is lost to history. People who know something about Hollywood’s history might know about the Hays Code, the now ridiculed moral standards Hollywood imposed on itself to keep the screen free of actors uttering words like “hell” or married couples using one bed. Will Hays had become president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, but Breen became his second-in-command, the one to tighten the code and make the studios do things according to his strictly upright, strongly Catholic, moral view. In the surprisingly lively and entertaining Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen & the Production Code Administration(Columbia University Press), Thomas Doherty, a professor of American Studies who has written extensively on movies and television, presents not just a biography of Breen, but a history of American movie censorship. Anyone who loves old films will be amused and exasperated by how much Breen succeeded in imposing his personal version of morality on the movies.
Breen, born in Philadelphia in 1888 and raised in parochial schools by the Jesuits, had been a journalist and diplomat. His big break came when he was publicity director for the 1926 International Eucharistic Congress in Chicago, a moment when Catholics confirmed they were in the mainstream of American religious thought (rather than the cult some Protestants took them to be). By 1931, Hays had guidelines in place, but they were toothless; “Pre-Code” films like Baby Face of 1933 seem mild now, but they were violent, risqué, and often hugely entertaining. Hays hired Breen for a crackdown, and it worked brilliantly. Breen moved to Hollywood, and he must have agreed with middle America that the affairs, divorces, drug use, and other immoralities were inherent in the town. (Ignored was the actual explanation, that when famous people got caught in the act, the violations were well publicized compared with such violations by unknowns.) Breen took the ambiguous recommendations of the Hays Code and codified them into enforceable guidelines. The Production Code was in force from 1930 to 1968, and at least in its early decades it was in force with few violations.
Breen made much of the Code being a voluntary program, and the studios did sign on for it rather than risking that the government would be the censor. In the silent era, the Supreme Court had declared movies a business rather than a medium of communication that had free speech rights; movies would, by another Supreme Court decision, come under the First Amendment only in 1952. If studios cooperated, their films would get literally a seal of approval, which in the beginning was prominently showcased at the start of the picture. This proved to be a mistake; audiences greeted the emblem with boos and jeers, and the seal was thereupon shrunk to a little logo shown during the technical credits. Doherty writes, “Any grumbling from the groundlings was drowned out by cheering from the box seats,” and women’s groups, political leaders, and, of course, Catholic authorities were unanimous in their approval. The audiences, however, were onto something; it is not just in retrospect that the Code’s requirements seem stupid or silly. Breen said that his editorial office would ensure “quite definitely that the vulgar, the cheap, and the tawdry is out!” and he wanted to ensure that movies enshrined respect for marriage and the law while refraining from any titillation. The campaign to clean up the screens, however, produced some real peculiarities. In the pre-Code The Thin Man (1934), the happily wedded Nick and Nora Charles had one nice king-sized bed; in the Code-approved After the Thin Man (1936), they have sadly taken to their own beds with a sturdy night table between them. Sometimes Breen’s rulings show an unhealthy expansion of morals into the bizarre; in his advice on Little Men(1940), the possible appearance of the mammaries of Elsie the Borden milk cow seemed as shocking as would be the human versions. “All dialogue with regard to milking is highly dangerous,” Breen wrote. “… there cannot be any showing of the udders of the cow.”
It is fun to read how directors got around the Code, both by bargaining and by winking at the censorship in a way audiences could enjoy. The films of Ernst Lubitsch were good examples, like Angel (1937), a comedy set in Paris which squeaked by since the women in it offered “an amusing time” in a “delightful salon” rather than sex for hire in a brothel. It did follow the letter of the Code, but viewers with any intelligence could catch a plot that Variety called “tartly flavored with the risqué”. Those intelligent viewers were the ones that eventually spelt an end to the Code, and Doherty’s description of its long decline and fall is fascinating. There was Rhett Butler’s “I don’t give a damn” speech that the studio managed to get approved with much publicity, but the millions who had already read Gone with the Wind snickered about all the movie fuss. People also giggled about the Breen office’s fixation about sweaters, garments which the Code insisted must not outline an actress’s breasts. There was Howard Hughes’s famous campaign to get uncensored shots of the zaftig Jane Russell in The Outlaw (1941). It caused a battle with Breen that lasted for years, and resulted in the movie being shown to appreciative audiences without a Code seal but in independent movie houses. Protestants grumbled about the Catholic power over movies: “The minority control of the most vital amusement source of the nation is one of the most astounding things in the history of the United States,” stormed the Protestant Digest. Film noir helped do in the code, as did World War II, as Breen fought to keep battle realism from the screen. Foreign films were a real menace to Hollywood’s business-as-usual in many ways, but since Breen had no control in other countries, they kept sending films their own citizens found laudable and Breen thought execrable. The attempted censoring of the classic Italian film The Bicycle Thief(1948) was because in one scene the kid in it stood at a wall and urinated, although no genitalia or urine was seen. People resented Breen’s effort to keep this and other serious films from American eyes.
Breen does not come off as a prig, but simply as a pugnacious fighter for his own brand of morality and a conscientious Catholic with what he saw as a God-given duty, a duty he took so seriously that overwork probably shortened his life. There was never a hint of scandal in his public or private life, and he loved movies and was able to get along with most studios via amicable discussions rather than any strong-arm tactics. He was unable to tolerate any change in the Code, attempting to hold to it up to his retirement in 1954. He did have astonishing power; while it is possible to appreciate the way films subtly and cleverly got around his restrictions, they could have blossomed in other ways if there were no restrictions to begin with. Also, he had the power to snuff ideas; the film version of Sinclair Lewis’s dystopian novel It Can’t Happen Here was never made because Breen thought the script submitted for his approval was “filled with dangerous material.” There are many serious pages here to make a reader worry about how power got wielded in such a way, but there is also a good deal of fun because censorship, while inherently a nasty concept, seems extremely silly when viewed in retrospect. Doherty’s witty prose is up to it; this is an academic work that shows resourceful digging through many archives, but it is a pleasure to read his humorous descriptions of serious censorial changes. For instance, he writes about an imported British film: “Fanny by Gaslight (1944), a costume drama featuring a scene in a brothel and whose title was changed to Man of Evil to preclude dorsal connotation stateside.”
© 2008 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.