Too hot for Hollywood

September 13, 2008

Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen & The Production Code Administration

By Thomas Doherty

Columbia University Press, 2007

427 pages, $49.95 (hb)

"All this dialogue with regard to milking is highly dangerous", wrote Hollywood's chief censor to the RKO movie studio about a 1940 film starring Elsie the dairy cow.

There must be "no shots of actual milking", added the censor, a Catholic activist ever-alert for moral corruption by the female breast — whether human or bovine.

This piece of supreme ridiculousness is one of many enumerated by Thomas Doherty's Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen and The Production Code Administration, a history of Hollywood's censorship agency, the Production Code Administration (PCA), and the conservative Catholic, Joseph Breen, its head from 1934 to 1954.

Sex was always on Breen's mind, its mere suggestion in even a movie title like Mae West's It Ain't No Sin enough to excite his blue pencil.

Language was indeed the Devil's own playground — such sulphurous words as "hell" and "damn" were zealously hunted, with the result that combat-hardened soldiers "groused like choirboys" in war films and Rhett Butler's immortal line to Scarlet O'Hara ("Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn") in the 1939 classic, Gone With The Wind, only survived after torturous appeal.

Other censorship idiocies included not allowing Humphrey Bogart's Rick in Casablanca (1942) to shoot the Nazi, Major Strasser, without being first provoked (it was apparently un-Christian to shoot first, despite the killing of Nazis being war-time policy). Outlawed was any depiction of "miscegenation" (inter-racial romance, sex or its offspring) along with the depiction of any bodily functions such as urination (Vittorio De Sica's 1948 Italian neo-realist classic, The Bicycle Thief, fell foul of this "obscenity") or anything to do with toilets.

Breen sanitised the screen from any contamination due to suicide, voluntary euthanasia or abortion (all equivalent to murder in reactionary Catholic theology). Sexual intercourse was restricted to monogamous, heterosexual marriage (and only ever obliquely hinted at, with any suggestion of post-coital rapture severely frowned upon).

Breen helpfully explained that "illicit" sex (pre-marital, adulterous or same-sex) should never be presented as "attractive and beautiful" or made to appear as "right and permissible". Nudity was a no go, as was its partner in eroticism — diaphanous or body-hugging clothing.

Respect for authority (religious, civil and law enforcement) was rigorously enforced on-screen. Meanwhile, movie-makers found it judicious to court the favour of the Catholic censor with a proliferation of cinematic Catholic priests and nuns whose depiction was never less than worshipful.

It is no surprise that Breen, a bare-knuckled strike-breaker and declared foe of the "menace of Bolshevism", should have been the choice of William Hays, the Republican head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA — the studio bosses' organisation) to clean up Hollywood in 1931. Breen tried to enforce the industry's "production code" (known as the "Hays Code") but he initially lacked the sanction to stop the sexual degeneracies and other moral violations that affronted right-wing priest, editor and politician.

The Great Depression, however, made movie studios more vulnerable to economic pressure and gave the Pope's man in Hollywood the big stick he was after. Armed with papal authority to command US Catholics to picket and boycott motion picture theatres that did not comply with their narrow-minded prejudices, the religious vigilantes of the Catholic National Legion of Decency made a swift and dramatic impact.

Alarmed by this threat to bums on seats, Hollywood gave Breen's PCA powerful financial sanctions from 1934. Theatres that showed films that had not received a PCA Seal of Approval incurred a $25,000 fine and movie studios that bucked the PCA forfeited financing and bookings.

The power to deny access to the theatre chains was Breen's trump card against films that snubbed a Code Seal. The PCA was proving to be good for business, a cosy protection racket serving to tighten Hollywood's grip on the film market against independent opposition and keep movie exhibitors in bondage to the major studios.

The code began to crack, however, from the post-war growth of independent art house theatres, which were willing to forgo the Code Seal, and from television whose own code was less obsessive. With its in-house censorship increasingly seen as repressive and out-of-touch, Hollywood had to move with its audience or lose it and the PCA slowly faded away.

Breen stepped down (with an Oscar) in 1954, the archaic provisions of the code were liberalised, and censorship was swapped for a ratings classification system in 1978.

It was a solution borne of necessity to stabilise profit margins and, just as a "code seal" was an entry visa into studio-affiliated theatres in the classical Hollywood era, only an acceptable rating would see a film booked into the multiplex malls that house most of the 38,000 movie screens in the US.

For two decades, Hollywood's production code "self-regulation" was a censorship regime of the religious right. It didn't restrict itself to just the traditional "moral" sphere — Doherty notes that "the Breen Office files are full of plots rejected as too politically controversial". So movie themes critical of lynching, union-busting or domestic fascism (rare enough but not entirely unknown) joined the universe of never-made Hollywood films.

Doherty at times shows a grudging respect for Breen and argues that the production code meant that Hollywood avoided a worse censorship from state censor boards and "morals" activists.

The material in his book, however, clearly shows that Hollywood's religious censorship regime in its "Golden Age" shackled creativity, stifled artistic freedom, insulted and patronised the audience, and restricted the moral and political imagination to the repressive bigotry of its self-appointed, right-wing guardians.

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