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.
Producers looking to distribute a movie without the seal of approval faced several hurdles. To begin with, it couldn't be shown in any theater owned by one of the major studios; any such exhibition house that screened a nonseal film was subject to heavy fines. The film would almost certainly endure stricter scrutiny from censor boards across the nation, those run by Tarantino's "jerkwater counties." And even if it could find a screen to play on, and survived the censors intact, any film that reached the public without a Code seal faced boycotts from the Catholic Legion of Decency and other groups.
Before the rise of foreign films, independent ventures, and art house fare broke the Production Code's back, Breen's "regime facilitated the artistic creativity and industrial efficiency of the vaunted Golden Age of Hollywood," Doherty argues. It's hard to disagree: Thirteen of the top 30 films in the American Film Institute's most recent list of the 100 greatest American movies were released during Breen's tenure. As Doherty writes, the
Breen Office maintained the gold standard by helping the major studios refine the substance, polish the surface, and corner the market. . . . Unlike the state and municipal censorship boards, whose rulings were off-the-cuff and whose members rotated with election cycles, the Breen Office was an entrenched bureaucracy with transparent procedures, consistent regulations, stable personnel, and institutional memory.
Doherty's description here draws a contrast between the Breen Office and both the censor boards that littered the country in the first half of the 20th century and the current regime, the Motion Picture Association of America. The modern rating board--the body that hands out Gs to Disney cartoons and Rs to Judd Apatow's -raunchy comedies--has come under fire recently for being an opaque, subjective process. This Film Is Not Yet Rated, a documentary about the ratings process that focused on the MPAA's most restrictive designation, NC-17, wowed critics and drew plaudits from filmmakers hampered by financially damaging ratings.
Yet the film mostly misses the point--the MPAA is in place to protect children and provide parents with guidance, not protect box office hauls--and you have to wonder which system today's directors would prefer: A subjective process that sometimes leads to head scratching results (such as the NC-17 slapped on Team America for explicit puppet-sex) or a Breening process with explicit limits on the amount of blood, flesh, and profanity portrayed on screen guided by an iron hand.
Sonny Bunch, assistant editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD, reviews movies for the STANDARD's website.