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!)