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Hollywood's Censor

Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration

Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 440
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    Hollywood's Censor
    Book Description:

    From 1934 to 1954 Joseph I. Breen, a media-savvy Victorian Irishman, reigned over the Production Code Administration, the Hollywood office tasked with censoring the American screen. Though little known outside the ranks of the studio system, this former journalist and public relations agent was one of the most powerful men in the motion picture industry. As enforcer of the puritanical Production Code, Breen dictated "final cut" over more movies than anyone in the history of American cinema. His editorial decisions profoundly influenced the images and values projected by Hollywood during the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War.

    Cultural historian Thomas Doherty tells the absorbing story of Breen's ascent to power and the widespread effects of his reign. Breen vetted story lines, blue-penciled dialogue, and excised footage (a process that came to be known as "Breening") to fit the demands of his strict moral framework. Empowered by industry insiders and millions of like-minded Catholics who supported his missionary zeal, Breen strove to protect innocent souls from the temptations beckoning from the motion picture screen.

    There were few elements of cinematic production beyond Breen's reach-he oversaw the editing of A-list feature films, low-budget B movies, short subjects, previews of coming attractions, and even cartoons. Populated by a colorful cast of characters, including Catholic priests, Jewish moguls, visionary auteurs, hardnosed journalists, and bluenose agitators, Doherty's insightful, behind-the-scenes portrait brings a tumultuous era-and an individual both feared and admired-to vivid life.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51284-8
    Subjects: Film Studies, Sociology, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. PROLOGUE: Hollywood, 1954
    (pp. 1-6)

    On March 25, 1954, from the stages of the RKO Pantages Theater in Hollywood and the Center Theater in New York, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented its annual award ceremonies—the Oscars, live, on television. For only the second time in the Academy’s twenty-six-year history, video was crashing the party, and NBC had sent out open invitations courtesy of another dream factory (“Oldsmobile brings you the famous Academy Awards Presentation!”). The come-on blurb in a new weekly publication called TV Guide had already realigned its screen priorities: “Jack Webb of Dragnet will be among those presenting...

    (pp. 7-30)

    The signature at the bottom of the stationery read Joseph I. Breen, the firm hand a fair index to the man holding the pen. Face to face, however, the name was always Joe Breen, the consummate insider, backstage operator, and go-to guy. For twenty years, from 1934 until 1954, he reigned over the Production Code Administration, the agency charged with censoring the Hollywood screen, an in-house surgical procedure officially deemed “self-regulation.” Though little known outside the ranks of studio system players, this bureaucratic functionary was one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. His job—really, his vocation—was to...

    (pp. 31-48)

    Though now an endangered species, virtually extinct, a creature known as the bluenose once roamed in vast herds through the landscape of American culture. “A prude; prig, self-appointed moral arbiter,” explains the Dictionary of American Slang, tagging the type as a busybody sniffing out indecency in ordinary enjoyments, decadence in harmless diversions. Hollywood stuffed and mounted the bluenose in the fussbudget fluttering of the character actress Margaret DuMont, dowager foil to a leering, slouching Groucho Marx, a battle-ax matron always shocked, ever harrumphing, succumbing to the vapors at the slightest scent of impropriety.

    A code word for lewdness since the...

    (pp. 49-76)

    In the summer of 1931, Hollywood was, for once, in perfect synch with the rest of the nation: the city shivered in the grip of a cold gnawing fear. The Great Depression that had extinguished industrial fires and eroded farm prices, broken banks and killed stockbrokers, consigned workers to breadlines and tossed families onto the streets, had also crushed the spirit of a business built on ballyhoo. Hale and hearty from birth, peddling a commodity of addictive potency, the motion picture industry had always prospered, swatting aside economic downturns while other enterprises faltered or went bust. Now, for the first...

    (pp. 77-96)

    After July 15, 1934, what was quickly dubbed “the Breen Office” became a transit point for Hollywood cinema as essential as the laboratories processing the 35mm film stock. Far from being an impediment, the in-house censorship regime facilitated the artistic creativity and industrial efficiency of the vaunted Golden Age of Hollywood. The Breen Office maintained the gold standard by helping the major studios refine the substance, polish the surface, and corner the market.

    What fueled the studio system machine—and what validated the work of the Breen Office—was a sudden infusion of cash into corporate coffers. By the close...

    (pp. 97-120)

    As the Breen Office enforced the Code with iron fist and velvet glove, the landscape of Hollywood cinema underwent a seismic upheaval that soon settled into a placid equilibrium. At some mysterious point around the middle of the 1930s, filmmakers and audiences alike had mastered the grammar of a unique filmic language, a sophisticated dialect built on gentle implication, unspoken meanings, elaborate conceits, and winked signals. Always an act of imagination and interpretation, going to the movies became an exercise in deciphering and decoding allusions, nuances, and ellipses. Directors (the good ones) abided by the letter of the law while...

    (pp. 121-131)

    As rendered in the purple prose of Hollywood memoirs and magazine profiles, the official portrait of Joseph I. Breen sketches a stereotype sent over from Central Casting: the bluff stage Irishman and the hard-nosed Mick, blarney and bluster, mixing the hearty congeniality of Pat O’Brien with the hair-trigger temper of James Cagney. “A man who could be as genial as a May breeze one minute and eruptive as a volcano the next,” “gruff , hearty, and jovial,” “a bull neck, a square jaw, and Irish blood,” “one hard-boiled, two-fisted Irishman,” and so on, as if taking dictation from the same...

    (pp. 132-151)

    On April 25, 1941, a banner headline in the Hollywood Reporter broke startling news: “Breen Quits Hays Office Post.” “Taking the industry entirely by surprise, Joe Breen resigned his post at the Hays office yesterday, offering no explanation except that he is ‘tired,’” revealed the motion picture daily. Will H. Hays was to have made a formal announcement, but the news leaked out in New York and streaked west across the wire. “The story of Mr. Breen’s resignation is correct,” snapped Breen, bushwhacked by a trade reporter. “There is no comment!” Later, in a better mood, he pledged to soldier...

    (pp. 152-171)

    On December 7, 1941, at 7:50 a.m ., the bulletin that would live in infamy rippled out from the Pacific. Radio, not cinema, transmitted the news, barked in tense, panicky tones broken up by the crackle of shortwave static. Later, memory, myth, and Hollywood remembered the thunderclap moment as the disruption of a pastoral idyll—returning from Sunday mass to huddle anxiously around a wood-paneled Philco, as in The Sullivans (1944), the heartbreaking tale of the five brothers from a single Iowa family killed by Japanese torpedoes in the waters off Guadalcanal, or having a warm celebration cut short by...

    (pp. 172-198)

    “You know, I don’t want to discourage you, but in a way you should be a Catholic to be a member of the Code staff,” the veteran Breen officer Eugene “Doc” Dougherty told Albert Van Schmus. Out of work and on the market in 1949, Van Schmus, a former production clerk at RKO, was angling for a staff position at the Production Code Administration. When Van Schmus landed the job, Dougherty took the avowed Congregationalist under his wing. “He kept telling me I could do it,” Van Schmus laughingly recalled. “He was very encouraging, but he said, ’I have to...

    (pp. 199-224)

    “These Jews seem to think of nothing but money making and sexuals indulgence,” Breen fumed in a letter to the Rev. Wilfrid Parsons, S.J. “People whose daily morals would not be tolerated in the toilet of a pest house hold the good jobs out here and wax fat on it. The vilest kind of sin is a common indulgence hereabouts and the men and women who engage in this sort of business are the men and women who decide what the film fare of the nation is to be. You can’t escape it. They, and they alone, make the decision....

    (pp. 225-263)

    Two soldiers walk furtively up the steps of a darkened balcony. Sliding into a back row, they begin a hushed conversation about the night before, half-remembered through an alcoholic fog, a woozy flashback that starts with drinks in a bar and ends in a hot-blooded killing. From behind the men, a projection booth beams shards of light onto a motion picture screen, illuminating their faces in an eerie, flickering glow. The hour is late, well past midnight, but the neon sign above the ticket booth said “Open All Nite,” a scheduling holdover from wartime, when round-the-clock factory shifts led to...

    (pp. 264-291)

    In 1946, on the resonant date of July 15, Joseph I. Breen met the reliably irritable British press corps. He had traveled to London at the invitation of the British producer and corporate brand name J. Arthur Rank to expound upon the Production Code for the British Film Producers’ Association. “I do hope it will be possible for you to spare him for this trip as our members would be glad to meet him and hear at first hand the principles and details of your Code,” Rank cabled Eric Johnston, the recently installed president of the Motion Picture Association of...

    (pp. 292-312)

    In 1950 the Motion Picture Association of America minted a new slogan to herald the new decade and buck up the faint of heart. “Movies Are Better Than Ever!” crowed the taglines, all flop sweat and no stage strut. Alas, however good or bad the movies, business was worse than ever, confidence lower than ever.

    The tally at the ticket window tracked the vertiginous slide into redder and redder ink: from a high of 90,000,000 theatergoers per week in 1946, Hollywood’s last gilded year, to a tarnished average of 60,000,000 in 1950, to a leaden 45,000,0000 in 1954, the moviegoing...

    (pp. 313-336)

    It should have been an easy sale. In 1950 the irrepressible Martin J. Quigley approached the Motion Picture Association of America about sponsoring a short film to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of his most treasured byline, the Production Code. He had written a rough screen treatment extolling the virtues of custodial self-regulation. In his mind’s eye, Quigley pictured a closing vignette almost poignant in its fidelity to the waning habits of a vanishing demographic. The last shot, he directed, would show “a group of eager, bright-faced men, women, and children entering a theater lobby, with sound track carrying a final...

  19. 15 FINAL CUT: Joseph I. Breen and the Auteur Theory
    (pp. 337-350)

    The word auteur did not enter the American vernacular until the 1960s, a term of endearment imported from the French. In postwar Paris, clustered around the Cinémathèque Française, a generation of French cinephiles saw what Americans had been blind to. Starved for Hollywood fare after five years of embargo under the Nazi Occupation and besotted by the kinetic energy of studio system craftsmanship, foreign eyes spied priceless masterpieces where the host country nationals had seen only disposable schlock.

    In the early 1950s, in the pages of the highbrow fanzine Cahiers du Cinéma, a cohort of French film critics and future...

    (pp. 351-364)
  21. NOTES
    (pp. 365-408)
    (pp. 409-414)
  23. INDEX
    (pp. 415-428)