Saturday, May 03, 2008

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

We've had several lively discussions of the Production Code Administration, so the Siren was eager to read Hollywood's Censor, Thomas Doherty's biography of PCA honcho Joseph I. Breen. Doherty's book is intelligent and occasionally amusing. He obviously developed a real affection for his subject, and if the Siren in no way came to share that affection it's no reflection on Doherty. This is, however, a frustrating book. Like a pre-Code film shredded for later release, it's the things left out that are the most tantalizing.

The author is probably the first to write of Hollywood's head censor without condescension or smirking, pointing out that Breen genuinely loved movies and saw his role as more of a script advisor than anything else. Contrary to the picture many people have of classic-era Hollywood censors, the PCA's chief role was to vet scripts, not scissor prints. Most of Breen's work consisted of horse-trading with the producers and screenwriters, haggling over word choice and suggesting ways to comply with the Code's various strictures. Those rules enforced a rigidly Catholic sensibility, one with strict views about sin, repentance and redemption. If other faiths countenanced such things as birth control and divorce, the Catholic Church did not, and so for the duration of Breen's tenure they were virtually unknown in Hollywood movies as well.

Doherty, while giving time to Breen as a particularly rigid example of what he calls "Victorian Irish," also wants to correct the image of the censor as a dimwitted bluenose. As a movie lover, Breen had taste; his letters to Charlie Chaplin when vetting The Great Dictator practically grovel, as Breen apologizes repeatedly for presuming to scissor genius. (But presume he did, as Breen reminded Chaplin that the word "lousy" was forbidden.) One of the few moments when the Siren felt real warmth toward Breen came when she read the glowing praise he sent to Orson Welles after viewing rushes for The Magnificent Ambersons. And while Breen left himself open to mockery, then and later, with his finger-wagging over things like Nick and Nora's king-sized bed, his chief desire was what a later generation would call "deniability." If Ernst Lubitsch's Angel presented a well-appointed "salon" where ladies offered "an amusing time," that was fine. The audience could see a brothel if they liked--Breen's chief concern was whether the up-front appearance was clean. The most talented filmmakers learned to smuggle the smut.

It's become so common over the last few decades to discover the clay feet of moral arbiters, from Jim Bakker to Eliot Spitzer, that it's pleasant to hear Breen had no such personal failings. He was a faithful husband, good father to six children and restrained in his personal habits, a man who neither overindulged in alcohol nor partied till the wee hours with his fellow Hollywood Irish. Those searching for censorable qualities in the censor will find only a dedicated smoking habit and salty language--that is, aside from the several historians who have alleged something darker.

"These Jews seem to think of nothing but money making and sexual indulgence," wrote Breen in 1932 to a Jesuit priest, continuing with phrases such as "the scum of the scum of the earth" and "dirty lice." Doherty says the priest refrained from responding in kind, as did another priest, Martin J. Quigley, when Breen wrote him that same year to say "these damn Jews are a dirty, filthy lot." Doherty doesn't try to pretty up the correspondence. He does point out, however, that at this time "blunt slurs were lingua franca at most levels of American society." Doherty also says that the really intemperate language disappears from Breen's correspondence after about 1934, about the time that the Hollywood studio heads consented to enforcement of the Code. (There is an excerpt from the book online that discusses this controversy.)

"Rabid antisemitism is a full-time job," Doherty asserts. "If Breen were a frothing bigot, if his hatred of Jews were passionate and pathological, the fever would infect his entire life and writings, not only a handful of letters written in the early 1930s."

Well, no. Bigotry is nothing like a full-time job. Perhaps the key there is the adjective "rabid," but the Siren doesn't think anyone was suggesting Breen's antisemitism was in line with Nazi eliminationism. Everyday prejudice can be quite passionate, and it is situational, something to be brought forward when you need it and denied when you don't. If--just as a hypothetical, of course--you are promoting a movie about the last hours of Christ's life and you want as many tickets sold as possible, why then you have nothing but respect for the Jewish people. Even in solitary moments away from the camera you may convince yourself of your own broadmindedness. When, on the other hand, you are knocking back a few at a bar, get pulled over on the highway and fumble through your alcohol-sodden brain for the reason you are not being treated with the deference you expect, time to trot out the Great Global Jewish Conspiracy.

The Siren has some other questions about whether Breen deserves the antisemite tag that has followed him for some time. Most of her queries come from re-reading another book in tandem with Doherty's. Hollywood Goes to War, by history professors Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black, was published in 1987, and because the Siren hasn't access to the original correspondence from Breen she doesn't know whether their scholarship has been superseded. But here is an interesting passage:

The conservative head of the Production Code Administration [Breen] was deeply suspicious that Jews in Hollywood, chiefly writers, were trying to use the Nazis' treatment of Jews to make propaganda pictures. He felt the center of this conspiracy was the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, which was, he said, 'conducted and financed almost entirely by Jews.' Their response to the Spanish Civil War was to vilify [sic] 'the communistic loyalists.' Indeed, Breen feared an attempt to 'capture the screen of the United States for Communistic propaganda purposes.' The censor said he had been able to eliminate all attempts at propaganda thus far, but it was increasing at an alarming rate.


Koppes and Black are quoting a private letter from Breen to Jesuit priest Daniel Lord, who wrote the original Code with fellow priest Martin J. Quigley. This letter was written in 1937, five years after Breen's first burst of slurs and a year after Breen attended a banquet for the anti-Nazi exile and prominent Catholic Prince Hubertus zu Lowenstein. Doherty contends that Breen supported the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, which was left as left could be although Breen most assuredly was not. Doherty's evidence for this is that Breen attended the League's first-year anniversary celebration, as well as the Lowenstein banquet. Koppes and Black, on the other hand, depict Breen going to Rome, script for Idiot's Delight in hand, and having the Mussolini government vet it. This trip took place in 1938, after the invasion of Ethiopia and after Rome had passed antisemitic laws based on those of the Nazis.

Doherty tells of Breen writing thoughtful letters of support to Lord and another priest, Joseph N. Moody, after they wrote pamphlets urging Catholics to turn away from antisemitism. At the same time, Koppes and Black have Breen writing in 1938 to Walter Wanger about a screenplay then called "Personal History," later to become Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent. Breen told Wanger that "in the opinion of the PCA, the script contained 'pro-Loyalist propaganda...pro-Jewish propaganda, and anti-Nazi propaganda...[which] would inevitably cause enormous difficulty, when you come to release the picture.'"

Doherty doesn't recount the long journey of Foreign Correspondent to the screen, but he does quote a letter from Breen to Warner Brothers when that studio was about to greenlight Confessions of a Nazi Spy, one of Hollywood's first openly anti-Nazi films. Breen's note, which warns that the film will run into trouble in Germany, sounds "pro forma" to Doherty, telling the Warners things they already well knew.

So late in the 1930s, was Breen going through the motions as an adviser to the industry, as Doherty says, or actively striving to keep the politics off the screen, as Hollywood Goes to War sees it? It is quite true that the PCA, which saw its job as working in tandem with the studios and not against them, was merely pointing out some economic facts of life to Wanger. It's also true that Wanger needed no reminding, and that in 1938, well after the Nuremberg laws and mere months before Kristallnacht, it rings an odd note for a supposed Anti-Nazi League supporter to be writing to a producer about "pro-Jewish propaganda."

We seem to have a mess of contradictions here, but then again, maybe not. The Siren understands Doherty's desire to balance the picture of Breen--to our eyes, almost seven decades after Auschwitz, antisemitism is the purest kind of evil. As Doherty points out, it is difficult to see how common certain prejudices were and to recognize that not all antisemitism was the direct equivalent of Nazism. But, even if we accept Doherty's interpretation of Breen's late-1930s activities, the Siren still doesn't find Breen's alleged mellowing at all inconsistent with his earlier proclamations. His later dealings with the Hollywood moguls were more pleasant, so Breen was too. Doherty does acknowledge this: "A cynical reading would conclude that the Irish bigot was smart enough to keep his true feelings to himself and suck up to the men who were buttering his bread. Or one might conclude that, on balance, the venom was a transient spasm, the product of a hot temper and simmering frustration."

All righty then. Call the Siren a cynic.

Since Doherty's book is bringing forward an important piece of Hollywood history, the Siren wishes the book spent less time with tales we've all heard many times, such as the fusses over Ingrid Bergman's affair with Rossellini and Jane Russell's breasts in The Outlaw. Hughes' battle over the Billy the Kid movie had important implications, it is true, and there's no way to leave it out, but the movie itself is lousy. The Siren would have trimmed some of the ink devoted to those episodes in favor of discussing, for example, Breen's permanent scissoring of various pre-Code films and locking up others altogether.

The book also discusses Breen's role in how Gone with the Wind expunged Margaret Mitchell's frequent use of the "n" slur. Doherty contends that the depiction of African Americans actually improved with the institution of the Code. The Siren would love to see this explained at more length by Doherty, because it's news to her. Doherty grants that after the institution of the Code, mainstream Hollywood's roles for blacks narrowed almost completely to comic relief, until small improvements began in the early 1940s. But he argues that Breen's office enshrined one uniform stereotype of black Americans, thus ridding the screen of the "slack-jawed simians" that were common to silent film and pre-Code movies. The professor wrote a history of pre-Code Hollywood, next up on the Siren's nighttable, so he must feel that sympathetic pre-Code movies such as The Emperor Jones and Hallelujah! were vastly outweighed by the loathsome depictions in other films. Certainly Breen seems to have relished playing the broadminded good-cop to some of the South's more racist censors, including Memphis's Lloyd T. Binford, who banned the innocent Hal Roach comedy Curley because it showed a class with black and white students.

The notorious "miscegenation clause" was inserted in the third draft of the Code in 1930 by persons in the Hays office whom Doherty does not name. The two priests who wrote the code, Quigley and Lord, were infuriated by its inclusion and said so to Breen. Doherty doesn't record Breen's response, but notes that any picture with an interracial angle of any kind would never have played in segregated states. After the war, some loosening of racial attitudes began. Doherty says the federal Office of War Information's harping on the theme of a united America "opened the eyes of the Breen Office to its racial blind spots."

To which the Siren responded, "You don't say." The "national feelings" clause of the Code said "The history, institutions, prominent people and citizenry of other nations shall be represented fairly." This worked fine if you were German; the files are full of Breen and OWI admonishing producers not to depict all Germans as Nazis. It worked even better if you were from what Doherty calls "the most-favored nations of Ireland and Italy." Even the Chinese did all right, if they could tolerate being played by Katharine Hepburn and Walter Huston.

If, however, you were Japanese, you were out of luck, whether or not you were a fascist. And that's something Doherty discusses not at all.

This isn't merely the Siren applying latter-day liberalism to another era. As Hollywood Goes to War points out, there were movie fans at the time who found Breen's standards puzzling, like the woman who wrote him after hearing that the censor planned to delete "hell" from the lines permitted General "Vinegar Joe" Stillwell in Objective Burma. Why, she asked reasonably, was the general's language being scrubbed when "she heard the Japanese referred to again and again as 'dirty yellow rats,' 'blasted monkeys,' and the like"? Breen eventually passed on "hell" as an exact quote from Stillwell but drew the line at "by God."

Another speech, however, passed without a murmur. After Errol Flynn's character discovers the bodies of his friends, mutilated after hideous tortures by the Japanese, a newspaper correspondent spits out, "They're degenerate, immoral idiots. Stinking little savages. Wipe them out, I say. Wipe them off the face of the earth." Flynn says nothing in response.*

This was passed by the Breen Office, without any cavils at needing "good Japanese" or any other balance. All you have to do is spend an afternoon with a few WW II movies set in the Pacific theater to realize that under Breen, the PCA strictures to respect other nations simply did not apply to Japan. It was the studios who churned out the racist films. But Breen, who objected when the first draft for Fritz Lang's Man Hunt showed all Nazis as "brutal and inhuman people," self-evidently enforced no such even-handedness for the eastern half of the Axis. If Doherty is going to say, as he does, that Breen "silenced the sounds of racial invective," then the sounds of scripts calling the Japanese "monkeys who live in trees" (in Guadalcanal Diary) need to be talked about, too.

Overall, the Siren strongly disagrees with the general premise, summed up in the last chapter, "Final Cut: Joseph I. Breen and the Auteur Theory." Films of the classic age are cherished, Doherty says, because of a "longing for the certainty of standards and the security of tradition, and an affinity for a mannered time where curse words, nudity and bloodshed are banished, where bedrooms are for sleeping and bathrooms are unmentioned."

This sounds suspiciously like Dume3's acid comment on a prior Siren post about the Code, that some people like old movies "because they're clean." The Siren likes them because they're good--because the studios, aided by a magic combination of lack of competition, vertical integration and an ability to throw money at some of the world's most talented people, produced literate, interesting, visually beautiful movies. The Siren is no more going to thank Breen for the vision behind those movies than she's going to write to the printers at Penguin Classics to thank them for the layout of Great Expectations. He was a technical obstacle, not a creative talent. The moral vision that Breen worked into classic-era movies often feels tacked on, as in John Garfield's ludicrous explanation of why it's all right to execute him for the wrong murder in The Postman Always Rings Twice. And the Siren really doesn't think Lubitsch--or, for that matter, Ben Hecht, Billy Wilder or the Epstein brothers--needed Breen to make them more subtle or delicious.

There's a cute picture of Breen on the cover of this book, showing Hollywood's censor yukking it up with some starlets on the set of a Baghdad-and-boobs epic. It's meant to show that he was no bluenose. In another pronouncement, however, the Siren hears a far more convincing dose of the man's real personality: "If at any time you are a bit foggy as to what constitutes honor, purity and goodness or where sophistication stops and sin starts, I'll tell you."



*Screenwriter Alvah Bessie, of later Hollywood Ten fame, had written a reply for Flynn's character that said the violence was fascist, not inherently Japanese. But producer Jerry Wald cut it.

(From top: Joseph I. Breen; The Great Dictator; Foreign Correspondent; Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind; Objective, Burma!)

30 comments:

Belvoir said...

Another thoughtful (and thought-provoking) meditation, Siren- thank you.

Striking to me in a re-examination of Breen is how it reminds me of another controversial figure in 20th century censorship. Peter Hajdu's recent book, "The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare" takes a fresh and nuanced look at Dr. Frederic Wertham, whose "Seduction of The Innocent" led to Senate hearings and the voluntary Comics Code.

Wertham has long been ridiculed as a conservative killjoy, but Hajdu paints a different POV: he was a passionate social reformer who cared deeply about
the mental well-being of minority/ethnic/communities in NYC, and whose outreach and clinics were indeed progressive and positive. And those EC comics like "Tales from the Crypt" really WERE inappropriate reading material for young kids. We can laugh and enjoy their lurid campiness now, but the books were full of lurid violence, mutilation, racist stereotypes, tawdry sexual subtexts. He only objected to their influence on children, not adults. Sure, he speculated that Batman and Robin's living arrangements were "a homosexual fantasy", but c'mon, he had a point, lol.

Sorry to go on; I do think it's interesting that there's a closer examination of figures like Breen and Wertham. How fascinating that Breen could write such vicious anti-Semitic letters yet also object to especially degrading caricatures of black people. Interesting complexity of motivation and attitudes there. (This was a time when the notorious Father Coughlin was a national figure with anti-Jewish screeds on the radio as well.)

Anyway a fascinating account to read. Thanks again.

Peter Nellhaus said...

I recently read Simon Callow's "Hello Americans", on Orson Welles. Callow also shows Breen in a better light during his tenure at RKO.

operator_99 said...

Another great post, now I don't have to read the book :-). Re the racism at the time, I think America as a melting pot was always a wrongheaded view-as immigrants came to this country they all gathered in their own insular ghettos and never really felt they were "melting" together with anyone. So of course the bigoted language, stereotyping, etc. was a given on one level, but didn't automatically boil over into action. Breen was a man of an age that is ever so slowly changing, and he was probably no better or worse than our parents or grandparents, no matter their ethnic or religious heritage.

I would imagine the Japanese got no pass because of their preemptive strike on our "homeland". However, as a child growing up in the 50's, I can tell you the when we played war (a common childhood pastime), the enemy were equally "Japs and Nazis" because that was still common parlance. When you are 10 you are not thinking to much about being PC.

Thanks again for adding to our knowledge of Breen and the code.

Ben said...

In the course of doing research on three Frank Borzage movies from the 1930s and early 1940s set in Germany -- LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW?; THREE COMRADES; and THE MORTAL STORM--I had occasion to read the relevant PCA files.

During the negotiations over THREE COMRADES, Breen was very solicitous of the opinions of the German consul in L.A. This was certainly part of Breen's job description, however upsetting it is to see Hollywood clearing its German-themed films with the Nazis. But Breen even went out of his way to ask a PCA representative in Paris whether rumors that the author of the original material, Eric Maria Remarque (of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT fame), was himself a Jew.

I believe that there's no getting around Breen's antisemitism. Nor can one deny that it had an impact on the movies of the time.

It is entirely possible that Breen's antisemitism was of a perfectly (if unfortunately) typical sort...not "rabid" by the standards of the day. But given his power over film content, it would be extraordinary if such an attitude didn't have an impact.

Campaspe said...

Belvoir, thanks very much. Funny you should mention -- in his last chapter Doherty does bring up the Comics Code and how it was based on the Production Code. Not to mention the TV code we all lived with for so long (and to an extent still do on network TV).

Peter, did you like the Callow? Lance Mannion did, but Alex of Motion Picture, It's Called did not, as I recall.

Operator_99, I think it's fair to say that Pearl Harbor had an impact, but the different treatment of the Japanese in films of the era is so marked, and so striking, that I don't think it can be chalked up to anything but racism.

Your playtime story reminds me that my father had a childhood friend nicknamed "Atch", because this boy always wanted to play the Nazi and that's how he pronounced the word that the Germans always said in the comic books ("Ach!"). This name trailed the kid into adulthood and old age.

Campaspe said...

Ben, thanks so much for confirming my suspicions, as well as Koppes and Black. One thing Doherty touches on a bit, but not enough in my view, is how much Breen's antisemitism was tied up with his fervent anti-Communism, as it was for many people in those days.

Doherty says, as you do, that if Breen were a bit-time antisemite it would have shown in the movies of the day. But Breen's hostility to anti-Nazi themes, even after Warner Bros. and people like Wanger began to try for stories about what was going in Europe, to me needs to be part of the discussion as well.

Filmbrain said...

Great review, Siren. Though I haven't read the book, I share in your cynicism.

Breen's comments about the Jews seem a tad more vitriolic than a mere "blunt slur." Seems like Doherty is a bit of an apologist.

I've read his pre-code book, and it was a chore to get through. Painfully dry, uninspired, and missing certain key films from the era one would expect to find.

As for old movies, it's the writing for me over anything else. What passes for screenwriting these days is far more obscene than anything Breen objected to.

Campaspe said...

A., always happy to see you here. What I really want to know is why none of the book's mainstream reviewers picked up on this stuff. As far as I can tell, I am the only one who pointed out the glaring discrepancy about the Japanese. And anyone who's read about the late 1930s in Hollywood should be able to ask the same questions Ben and I are asking here, so what gives?

You're not exactly making me look forward to the Pre-Code book, LOL.

The Derelict said...

Siren, once again, you've written a piece that makes me see classic films in a new and interesting light. I've often wondered why I think Hollywood movies from the 30s, 40s, and 50s are so much superior to films made in my own lifetime (Reagan baby here), and since the Production Code was one of the big differences between then and now, I've always concluded that the Code had something to do with it (though only a small part, of course). The whole idea that constraint makes the artist more creative, etc. etc.

But this: "And the Siren really doesn't think Lubitsch--or, for that matter, Ben Hecht, Billy Wilder or the Epstein brothers--needed Breen to make them more subtle or delicious."
(emphasis mine)

Of course! This is so true, it's like basic classic movie common sense. But I'm ashamed to admit that I've been appreciating classic films for a decade now and I never really, truly hit on this simple, beautiful observation. As if without the production code Billy Wilder would turn into Joe Eszterhas!

I've been watching more pre-Codes lately, too, and they've really helped me see that the real difference between then and now movie-wise is that artists back in the day still understood subtlety and wit. A pre-Code movie might show more "racy" stuff than a Code movie, but the good ones from both eras will share a respect for the audience's intelligence and achieve a level of sophistication (without being pretentious) that many newer movies of today often lack. I love movies in general: old, new, whatever. But there's a harshness, a kind of pushiness in so many movies today that I really do think culture as a whole has gotten duller and more simplistic. I continue to wonder, for instance, why and how we've traveled the long road from an action director like Raoul Walsh to someone like Michael Bay. In Best Week Ever terms: Downgrade.

I always enjoy your blog because it actually helps me reconsider my own opinions and makes me question my own lazy assumptions. Thanks!

Campaspe said...

Derelict, what a nice compliment. I think you and Filmbrain are expressing two sides of the same coin--screenplay writing used to reflect a more literate sensibility. Mainstream Hollywood movies are now more likely to reference video games, not novelists. When you look at the things Breen was negotiating you realize that he wasn't protecting us from the kind of all-out violence and sex that have been commonplace for a while now, because no filmmakers or writers were trying for that. The allure of a different world is definitely a huge part of the appeal of old movies, but the movies could have (and would have) showed us more of that world without descending into vulgarity.

Karen said...

Well, this is even meatier than your standard meatiness, Siren, and I almost don’t know how to begin tackling it.

Breen as anti-Semite: you are absolutely and undeniably correct that bigotry is more often situational, and that there is quite a spectrum from “these damn Jews” to the Final Solution. That situational element is, I think, even more common when the bigotry is instilled culturally, rather than a response to extreme circumstances. Breen might well have told you that some of his best friends were Jewish; it’s just the uppity, pushy ones he doesn’t like—and he wouldn’t have recognized that that was bigotry too.

What’s so interesting to me, in reading these quotes, is how they sound n relation to Neal Gabler’s description of the Hollywood Jews in An Empire of Their Own. The studio heads were assimilated and aggressively secular. They went out of their way to be so. They made movies that poked fun at their own kind—in Employees Entrance when an obviously Jewish customer jerks his hand back off a football after being told it’s made of pigskin, or in Three on a Match, when little Willie Goldberg cannily assesses the sartorial virtues of his classmates’ graduation suits. What’s more, a Christian—often, explicitly a Catholic—sensibility infused the films these Jews produced and directed; not just obvious ones like The Bishop’s Wife or Boystown but in any film in which a character faced a moral turning-point, often with the help of something that cast a shadow in the shape of a cross.

So, I can believe that there was something specific, possibly still unidentified as such, that prompted Breen’s unpleasant outbursts to his Jesuit pal. But I will also say that while, yes, blunt slurs were part of the lingua franca, “the scum of the scum of the earth” is far from the standard blunt slur, and whatever the incident was that stirred up this muck from the bottom of Breen’s consciousness, it certainly wasn’t putting words in his mouth that weren’t living in the neighborhood already.

What else? About Breen’s scissors—well, it’s nice that he respected Chaplin and Welles, and I’m sure he was trying to vet and not edit, but the result was often simply incomprehensible, and narrative coherence tended to pay the price. I was watching a little film this weekend—not a great film, by any measure, but with its moments: Chance at Heaven, from 1933, with Joel McCrea, Ginger Rogers, and Marion Nixon. McCrea and Rogers are small-town sweethearts, until heiress Nixon comes along and steals Joel away for herself. She’s not mean, though, and she’s clearly absolutely loopy about McCrea and about decorating their little house and learning to cook, to the dismay of her battle-axe of a mother. Then Nixon gets pregnant, and she’s a little scared, and her mother spirits her off to New York for a month, which turns into two, then three. Finally, McCrea goes in search of her, to learn she’s planning a divorce and leaving for California. McCrea asks, “But what about the baby?” and the mother spits out, “Your Dr Jameson was mistaken.” Nixon can’t meet his eyes. And so he drifts for a while, and then goes back home, where faithful Rogers is waiting.

I looked the film up in the AFI catalog. In their synopsis, they write “No longer pregnant, a coldly matured [Nixon] informs [McCrea] that she wants out of the marriage.” That’s not how it plays at all, though. She can’t even look at him. In the AFI notes, they write: “The ending of the film is ambiguous concerning the result of Glory's pregnancy. Although her mother states that the doctor was wrong in his diagnosis, the script strongly suggests in other places that she was pregnant and therefore had an abortion.” Well DUH. There’s really no other explanation for Nixon’s behavior. And maybe the 1933 audience was savvy enough to read between the lines and get what happened, but it makes no damn sense in the narrative flow. And that’s just a shame.

I’m happy to read, by the way, that Alvah Bessie did not write s script that was quite as virulent as what was filmed in Objective, Burma!. While I like a good WW2 film as much as the next fellow, it tends to be a pleasure I don’t indulge in the presence of my Asian friends. Air Force is a moving film about the bonds that form during wartime, and the terror of aerial battle, but hearing George Tobias’ crew chief gleefully cry, “Fried Jap at 2 o’clock!” is not the way one really wants to remember the Greatest Generation...

David C said...

Gteat post!
I remember reading in the big Capra bio (by Joseph MacBride?) that there was a specific reason for Hollywood's wartime portrayal of the Japanese, and that it was laid down by Washington. The plan was always to remove Hitler and Mussolini after the war, so it was thought smart not to demonise the German and Italian people, but to portray them as misled by wicked leaders. But Washington knew that the Emperor could not be removed altogether after the war: the Japanese would fight to the last man to defend him. So they couldn't blame Japanese misconduct on the emperor, and the solution chosen (and here race surely plays a part) was to blame the whole people.

wwolfe said...

One thing about Breen has always puzzled me. In 1928, Al Smith was defeated in his bid for the Presidency, with most people agreeing that his Catholicism a big reason, if not the biggest reason, for his defeat. I cite that fact as an example of the significant amount of anti-Catholic feeling present in the same period that saw Breen's rise to power. So how did Joseph Breen not only get a position with so much power and prominence, but proceed to use it to promote an explicitly Catholic agenda?

I also wonder whether Breen's concern for not hurting the tender sensibilities of Nazi Germany was tied in some way to Ireland's neutral status in World War II. To quote one brief passage from the Wikipedia entry on "Irish Neutrality in World War II,":

"...a minority of Irish Republicans sided with Germany, believing that a German victory might bring about a United Ireland. Moreover, in a war in which the United Kingdom was involved, neutrality was perceived as the clearest expression of Irish sovereignty..."

I have no idea whether Breen shared this point of view at all, but if so, it might have meshed nicely with whatever anti-Semitic feelings he had as a reason for discouraging strongly stated criticisms of the Third Reich.

Campaspe said...

Karen, I was looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this. I read An Empire of Their Own as well, and went back to see if Gabler discussed Breen, but he didn't. The particularly bad letters came to light in 1994, after Gabler's book. I would love to see an updated version that went deeper into their relationship with the PCA, since it was dominated by Catholics to an incredible extent. Chance at Heaven sounds great and I worship Ginger Rogers, especially early Ginger, as we all know. But if it was released in 1933, Breen probably didn't influence it much as it's part of the so-called Pre-Code rush-- or do your AFI notes indicate that Breen did have input on that one? I do agree with your larger point; a lot of times the morality is just grafted on, not something organic to the plot.

Campaspe said...

David, I would be interested in seeing that part of the Capra bio. It doesn't really dovetail with the OWI stuff in Hollywood Goes to War. K&B say the Office of War Information tried to get the studios to tone down some of the worst stuff, as it didn't gel with war aims of unconditional surrender and getting the other peoples of Asia and the Pacific on board (hard to do if America is portraying an Asian enemy in viciously racial terms). As liberals they were anti-racist in general anyway. But the book does say that by 1944 OWI had given up and just tried to make sure the most scathing movies stayed out of foreign markets.

WWolfe, one thing Doherty is very good on is the subject of the Catholic influence on the PCA. Essentially, it was the Legion of Decency that was spearheading a boycott in 1934 and so it was a natural move to have a Catholic enforce a document that had been drafted by Catholics anyway. Doherty also has a lot to say on how moviegoers and the Protestant press reacted to the Most Favored Religion status that Catholicism enjoyed on screen.

As for the Irish neutrality thing, that thought occurred to me as well but there's not the slightest reference to it in the book, and indeed there might be zero evidence for it. Breen said after we entered the war that his job was not to be patriotic but to enforce morality. Breen still sacrificed for the war like everyone else, though. He had three sons in the military and they were all wounded; one of them, Tom, lost a leg. Tom wound up starring in Jean Renoir's The River. That beautiful movie sailed through the Breen office without a hitch. :D

The Derelict said...

That line from the mother in Chance at Heaven about the pregnancy strikes me as actually being a pretty smart little character moment. Not having seen the picture yet (it's on the tivo, 'natch), I might amend my opinion, but the line makes sense for an evil, snooty mother. She wouldn't want to admit the social shame of an abortion, and by saying "your doctor" she's getting a little dig in at McCrea's character as well. I guess it would've been less ambiguous if she had just said they "got rid of it" but I kinda like the ambiguity. This exchange seems like an example of the subtlety I mentioned in my earlier comment. I'll be watching the movie, though, to see if my hunch is right.

I'm much more annoyed by the Code's interference in a movie like Suspicion, where it just doesn't make any sense to have a happy ending. Or even in the Waterloo Bridge remake -- which I absolutely adore -- but would it have killed them to just come right out and say that Vivien Leigh's character had become a prostitute?! I like the tortured romanticism of the film, but it gets a little ridiculous afterwhile when nobody can bear to mention the "P" word.

And I can't get too annoyed with the over-the-top pro-Catholic bent of Hollywood in the Code period. I mean, it's for purely selfish reasons, of course, since the Catholics are my team, and it's always nice when the moguls are catering to your team, but we get bashed around pretty good these days with stuff like the Da Vinci Code that I think that evens things out. ;)

Campaspe said...

Breen actually had a point when he said (I'm paraphrasing) that Catholicism was a natural for movies because it's picturesque. That rosary scene in Gone with the Wind, for example. And when you had a death-house padre giving succor right before the Last Walk it's always a priest, or does it just seem that way? And what could be more moving than the Last Rites? It sets you up for the final revelation of a tortured soul, whether confessing a love he had kept to himself, or murder.

Just last night I saw Strangers on a Train again--Hitchcock's Catholicism is all over that movie. Bruno's last scene, with Guy trying to get him to confess, has such strong and completely deliberate overtones of a final confession, with the shattered carnival for a church and this sinner not the slightest bit penitent. Oh yes, the old movies make the allure of the Church quite clear, even when someone like Hitchcock is slyly subverting.

I suppose anything with beautiful, ancient rituals is bound to mesmerize. There's a mischievous part of me that wishes she could see an alternate-reality classic Hollywood where the PCA was run by the Eastern Orthodox church. You want ritual? You got it, and how.

The Derelict said...

Have you seen Mr. Lucky with Cary Grant? There's an Eastern Orthodox priest in that one for a brief, beautiful scene, but if I remember correctly, the only way you know he's Orthodox is because he's got a Greek accent. Otherwise, typical priest. Even the Orthodox are Roman Catholic in Breen's Hollywood!

Dume3 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Belvoir said...

WWolfe brought up an interesting point about Irish neutrality in the War- "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" idea. Ireland had suffered bitterly from the British version of jackboot fascism, the Black & Tans were murderous thugs set loose in Ireland , vicious retribution for 1916's rebellion. Hitler himself went out of his way to use Gaelic words, and exploit the enmity there.

But Wiki is correct in that it was a minority of Republicans who would've supported Germany- Ireland's quarrel was with Britain, and neutrality was just one tactic of a relatively powerless country. Many, many Irish men of fighting age in fact joined regiments of other countries to go and fight in WW2, primarily Canada and the US- including my grandfather, which is why i am an American now.
:)

Campapse is very astute in commenting that Catholicism seems to have a unique relation to cinema: a highly visual culture, (sumptuous even), and portrayals of morality (and choices thereof) are the stuff of drama. Just a thought too: at least in the US, upper-class WASP society considered cinema disreputable well into the 20th century- vulgar entertainments for illiterate immigrants, many of them Catholic. Classical Protestantism believes in The Word, and at heart mistrusts the visual.

(Umberto Eco wrote a fascinating essay in the 90's, about how "DOS is Protestant, Macintosh is Catholic"- fascinating reading! It's on the Web, highly recommended: it really does present an idea of the visual versus the literary that informs my thoughts to this day. Google it, it's easy to find!)

camorrista said...

Campaspe, I guess that Doherty's take on Breen is refreshing after the way he's been caricatured for all these years, but what Doherty minimized to invisibility was Breen's unashamed enjoyment of his power. He loved his work.

Despite his ostentatious displays of courtliness to moviemakers, he was never reluctant to push them around, and, the longer he stayed on the job, the more (and more petty) ways he found to do that.

You've read the bios, so I don't need to bore you with examples from them, but anybody who wants to see just how far Breen was willing to stretch to needle a moviemaker, should take a look at Hugh Fordin's invaluable study of the Arthur Freed unit at Metro.

Barely a classic musical musical escaped Breen's vigilance--he, of course, warned Freed there could be no sex between the races in "Showboat;" and that New York could not be "a heluva town" in "On the Town;" and that Gene Kelly's question "What are you doing later?" to Debbie Reynolds made that moment in "Singing in the Rain" approach "sexual perversion."

Interviews long after the fact imply that a lot of Breen's meddling was merely tactical, and that moviemakers took it all with grace and good humor, and found a way to do what they wanted anyway. But the correspondence belies that. Freed was the most important producer at the biggest studio, and he made musicals--he wasn't in the boundary-stretching business. And he still had to wrestle with Breen almost every time out.

Sure, Breen loved movies, but not as much he loved censoring them.

Campaspe said...

Belvoir, the Eco essay sounds fascinating, I will try to check it out. (My Irish ancestors are considerably more remote than yours, back to the Potato Famine, so we wound up Protestant somewhere down the line as people often did down South.)

"Breen loved movies, but not as much he loved censoring them." - HA. And I love it when a commenter can boil my entire post down to one pithy statement. Absolutely perfect summary. And yeah, when I read latter-day interviews with the filmmakers they are all very gracious about the process but if you read the actual contemporary accounts they are quite testy.

(and now I need to read the Fordin book, esp. since I just got reacquainted with It's Always Fair Weather which just gets better to me on each viewing.)

Karen said...

Camorrista intrigued me, so I went to the AFI Catalog database and did a search on every Freed-produced film where "Breen" or "PCA" appears in the notes.

WOW. There are a lot. All that Camorrista mentions, and so much more. In fact, for Gigi, the Breen edicts begin in 1950 (with "The problem [with the story] is so basic to the picture that we cannot suggest any eliminations which might bring it into conformity with the Code.") and keep going clear through to 1955.

One of the things I guess I find most unpleasant about Breen is his defense of the worst of the status quo. It's great to see that he wanted to make sure Annie Get Your Gun didn't offend the Indians, or others didn't offend our friends south of the border, but when that same assiduous care not to offend is extended to bigoted Southern whites, I have a lot less sympathy. He fought any story line that would cause Southerners not to want to show the film. Not much of a Christian, there.

camorrista said...

Campaspe, the Fordin book (which can be unearthed via BookFinders, and is available at the NYPL) is, as I mentioned, invaluable, simply because he had access to so many documents. Unfortunately--though Fordin is thorough burrower--he's not much of an organizer and not much of a writer. (He began his professional career as David Merrick's casting director, and though he's also done bios of Kern and Hammerstein, he's mostly a producer.)

More importantly (for your readers, at any rate) he's a terrible analyst of films; for him, they are hits or flops, critical successes or critical failures. (For example, he accepts the conventional wisdom--promoted by Kelly & Donen, who had grown to detest each other--that IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER is mediocre.) He seems unable to describe what makes a movie distinctive--THE CLOCK is great, and so LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, and so is THE BANDWAGON, but he can't (nor does he try to) say why.

What he does convey, though, is the mechanics of making movies under the Metro system. Metro was known as the producer's studio, and Freed was the first among equals--and yet his directors included Minelli, Brooks, Kelly, Donen, Mamoulian, Walters, Green, Berkeley to direct, and his writers, Comden & Green and Alan Lerner.

If anybody ever wants an argument for the collaborative nature of movie-making, he can't do better than citing Arthur Freed.

Tonio Kruger said...

Interesting post.

I must confess I used to think like the Derelict. But the more pre-Code movies I saw, the more foolish it seemed to express any fondness for the Hays Code.

And as one of the few Catholics who regularly visit your site, I'm kinda embarrassed to admit this but I don't remember a rosary scene from "Gone with the Wind." I guess I'll have to see it again.

But then I'm still confused by a recent book I've read that argued that Rock Hudson's character won the big restaurant fight toward the end of "Giant." I could swear that I remembered that part a little differently too.

Campaspe said...

I'm not hallucinating, I promise! The scene is at the very beginning; the family is praying together in the evening, with Ellen leading. And Scarlett instead of concentrating on her prayers starts thinking, "Ashley doesn't know I love him! I'll tell him tomorrow at the barbecue!" or some such.

Now I'm looking at the one still I have (in a book) and while I remember that Scarlett's mother and baby sister both have rosaries I can't tell from the picture. Anyway, as a Protestant girl I thought it was all very lovely, esp. compared to the dry-as-dust Methodist or Baptist churches I had attended occasionally to that point.

The Derelict said...

I think the family is saying a litany of saints type prayer in that scene, though Helen's rosaries are mentioned later in the movie when Mammie is telling Scarlett what the yankees took. It's been more than a year since I've seen the film, though (which is an incredibly long time for obsessed little ol' me), so I could be wrong.

I loved that scene for two reasons. The first is that back when I was a young tween and watched the movie for the first time, I was under the ignorant impression that there were absolutely no Catholics in the south, especially not during the Civil War era. I'm a damn fool yankee, what do you expect? So I kinda loved the O'Hara family from that moment on, just knowing that they were Catholics (!) living in the old south.

The second reason I loved that scene is because I've been in the same boat as Scarlett. I can't tell you how many times our family would be saying a rosary and my teenage mind would be wandering all over the place thinking about school or boys or weekend plans.

goatdog said...

Frank Walsh's Sin and Censorship: The Catholic Church and the Motion Picture Industry is a good book on the the Catholic influence. They were so powerful because if the Legion of Decency branded a movie with a "C" for condemned, it was a mortal sin for Catholics to go see it. They weren't a majority in the US, but they were still a significant minority. Studios knew that a large portion of their audience would stay home if they didn't bow to their pressure group.

I liked, or at least found useful, Doherty's pre-Code book, but I was reading it for research for a paper, not for pleasure, so maybe it was dry and I just didn't notice.

Gloria said...

Richard Schickel, in "Matinée Idylls", considered that Breen was the "author" of many a films of the Code-enforcement era, and dubbed him "auteur of our misery".

As for the views on WW2 and Nazis(pre-Pearl Harbour: from reading "When Hollywood loved Britain (by Mark Glancy) I gather that siding with the allies was considered uncommercial for international release of films: even films with a slight pro-British byas, as London was being bombed, were considered not correct by isolationist politics.

I read a biography on Thalberg, and was surprised to find that he was sort of indifferent to the rise of Nazism, considering that it was a foreign affair that would not last. Hollywood (with exceptions) did not dare to criticise Hitler until the USA were at war with him: many pre-war films, like James Whale's "The Road back", were censored/mutilated to prevent distribution trouble in Germany.

Rick said...

Breen's anti-Semitism was real and it as vicious and it was a significant factor in his pro-Nazi behavior. Prior to WW II, Breen fell into the camp of virulent anti-Semites and Nazi supporters. So much of American was also anti-Jewish and pro-Nazi that there was no need to hide his feelings. They were shared by Charles Lindberg!

The only historical excuse may make for Breen was that in the 1930's, they had not seen where anti-Semitism and Pro-Nazism would lead. After 100 Million were slaughtered in WW II and millions of Jews, Catholic priests, Gays, and Unionists were gassed, Breen's bigotry was not so fashionable.

Let's be realistic. Breen's pro-Nazi behavior was far more harmful to the USA than even his anti-Semtism. He worked closely with the Nazi Counsel in L.A., Greorg Gyssling, to shut down any movie that even inferred that everything was not great in Naziland. Gyssling provided the objections while Breen supplied the power to stop any movie that offended Nazi German's, representative, Georg Gyssling.

Is there any documentation that Breen ever rejected one of Gyssling's censorship request?

Actions speak louder than words. Breen rooted out anything negative about Nazis by labeling it Jewish propaganda.