The Magazine

The Enforcer

The standards and practices of long lost Hollywood.

May 5, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 32 • By SONNY BUNCH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Hollywood's Censor

Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration

by Thomas Doherty

Columbia, 440 pp., $29.50

Faced with the prospect of a financially crippling NC-17 rating for his latest film, Grindhouse, Quentin Tarantino took a stoic view of the revisions he would have to make. "The [Motion Picture Association of America] has a very hard job and does it as well as they possibly can," he told USA Today. "The alternative would be every jerkwater county in America having their own obscenity laws." As a student of the motion picture industry (if not constitutional law), Tarantino knows that he and his peers have it pretty easy compared with their predecessors.

As legend has it, the Hays Office ruled Hollywood's Golden Age with an iron fist, shielding a pliable public from lewd and lascivious imagery that might "lower the moral standards of those who see it." Less well known is that onetime postmaster general Will Hays was not actually in charge of enforcing the Hays Code. Rather, Joseph Breen controlled the red pen, wielding it to transform the Production Code Administration into a feared and effective tool of studio self-censorship; as Thomas Doherty's new book shows, Breen was so well known around town that Variety "coined endless variations on verbs such as 'Breens,' 'Breening,' and 'joebreening' .  .  . around Hollywood his surname was lingo and his word was law."

Intertwining Breen's life and the establishment of the PCA into a cohesive narrative, Doherty seems most interested in rehabilitating the censor's image. Breen, if he is remembered at all, is dismissed as Victorian-minded, a busybody committed to limiting artistic achievement and freedom of speech on the big screen, and a racist. Doherty provides some context to the charges of anti-Semitism that have dogged Breen's reputation in recent years, combining archival materials and new interviews with Breen's compatriots to paint a fuller picture of the man, his office, and his times.

Before the formation of the PCA in 1934, Joseph Breen worked as a journalist and government functionary, parlaying his Roman Catholic ties into prominent positions and currying favor with the Church intelligentsia. His most notable role, and the one that probably secured his rise to -Hollywood's in-house censor, came when he directed the publicity for a silent film commemorating the 1926 International Eucharistic Congress in Chicago. His connections within the Catholic community, and familiarity with the film industry, made him the obvious choice to handle "enforcement" of the Production Code, a document written by a Jesuit priest and the Catholic publisher of Motion Picture Herald and suffused with the moral teachings of the Church.

Empowered by the threat of 20 million Catholics boycotting unapproved films, Breen soon turned the Hays Office into a true regulatory agency. "Breen [sat] at the table with the moguls as an equal partner," writes Doherty. "Actually, more than equal. Without Breen, Hollywood could not do business."

What, exactly, was Breen there to excise? Nudity, of course, as well as unnecessarily skimpy clothing. Profanity was out, as was excessive violence. But that wasn't all: Crime couldn't pay--miscreants had to face punishment for what they had done--and there could be no denigration of religion. Dealing drugs in any way, even as a cautionary tale in which the pusher is punished, was forbidden. Desecrating the flag and interracial romance were banned. A film's themes were watched as closely as the hemlines of its dancers and the tommy guns of its gangsters.

Breen's role wasn't exclusively negative. He didn't see himself as a censor; in addition to trimming scenes, he made suggestions to improve the substance of films. Arthur Hornblow Jr., producer of the Oscar-winning Gaslight (1944), said that Breen "has given me plenty of trouble, on occasion, in the way of making me change scripts to make them conform, but I find there is a great satisfaction in sweating through and getting the points made in the right way, instead of the easy way that is so often the wrong way." Not every producer was so understanding: Howard Hughes and Breen went at it hammer and tongs over several films, most notably The Outlaw (1943). Their battle over Jane Russell's décolletage was recreated in Martin Scorsese's recent Hughes biopic, The Aviator.