The Man Who Cleaned Up the Silver Screen

By Dennis Drabelle,
who is a contributing editor to Book World
Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Joseph I. Breen & the Production Code Administration

By Thomas Doherty

Columbia Univ. 427 pp. $29.50

"JR in 3D," the ad read in its entirety. This was in 1954, when I was starting to venture beyond the comics section of my hometown paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. That minimalist text made no sense at first, but finally I caught on: "JR" stood for the voluptuous Jane Russell, and "3D" was three-dimensional moviemaking. Hollywood had released 3-D flicks in which tomahawks flew at us and jungle cats leapt at us. Now, it seemed, Jane Russell's bust would be coming our way. Sure enough, her new movie, "The French Line," had its world premiere in St. Louis the following week. The producer, Howard Hughes, had defied orders from Hollywood's Production Code office to tone down Russell's lascivious dancing and cover up her provocative flesh. Opening the film in out-of-the-way St. Louis rather than Los Angeles or New York was Hughes's way of thumbing his nose at the establishment.

The Code flouted by Hughes dated from the Prohibition era, and the two movements shared a basic premise: A high-toned protectorate must enforce moral standards by dictating what the rest of us get to consume. But while the impetus for Prohibition had come from fundamentalist Protestants, for the Code we have Catholics to thank. True, Will Hays, who headed the Production Code Administration, was a Presbyterian. But the Code's co-authors were a Catholic layman and a Jesuit priest, and its chief enforcer was Joseph I. Breen -- not just a Catholic but, as Thomas Doherty puts it, one who "embodied the restraint, repression, and rigidity of a personality type known as the Victorian Irish." The never-in-doubt Breen stands at the center of Doherty's knowledgeable, entertaining history of the Code during its heyday from 1934 to the mid-1950s.

The Code actually dates from 1930, but the first four years of its existence were a washout -- so much so that today film buffs treasure movies from that interregnum for their grit and candor. The studios had agreed to abide by the Code so as to defang state and city censorship boards, which applied harsh and inconsistent standards. But the procedure for ensuring Code compliance was squishy -- studios could appeal adverse decisions to a board composed of movie producers, who naturally were loath to order costly re-shoots of offending scenes. Bawdy vehicles for Mae West, sexually frank films such as "Baby Face," and crime-celebrating films such as "Scarface" were slipping past the naysayers. Scandalized Catholics fought back by founding the Legion of Decency, which asked the faithful to pledge not to attend objectionable films, and Hollywood moguls took hits at the box office. The Code, they agreed, must grow stronger teeth. From now on, appeals boards would consist of hard-nosed New York studio execs, not compliant Hollywood types. Unapproved films wouldn't get a seal of approval and thus would have limited, if any, distribution. And perhaps most important, Breen and his staff would vet scripts and head off problems before they developed.

The revamped Code worked all too well: A climate of timidity descended upon Hollywood and stayed for two decades. At a time when moviegoing was a family affair, films were designed so as not to ruffle the sensibilities of young 'uns. Even so, some of the rules seem moronic. In deference to British taste, married couples had to sleep in twin beds -- even though millions of kids could see double beds anytime they peered into their own parents' bedrooms. And if, for instance, you wanted to glimpse a human navel on-screen during the Code period, good luck. Belly dancers had to work with half their space, and Tarzan hitched up his loincloth because -- well, I really don't know. The Code doesn't mention bellybuttons per se, but somehow they fell under the category of "indecent or undue exposure." The guiding principle for storytelling was that "wrong must always be characterized as wrong, and not something else." Who decided what was wrong? Breen et al., of course. Divorce, for example, might be legal and acceptable to some faiths, but it almost never happened in the movies because it wasn't kosher for Catholics.

Hughes and Russell had run afoul of the Code before, with "The Outlaw" (1943), for which Hughes had designed a special bra to accentuate what one wag called his star's "twin peaks." But it was director Otto Preminger in the 1950s, with "The Moon Is Blue," "The Man With the Golden Arm" and "Anatomy of a Murder," who fully exposed the Code's ability to sanitize and trivialize. Breen, who retired in 1954, was on the sidelines as the holy writ gave ground steadily, until in the 1960s it was replaced by the age-conscious rating system that survives to this day.

Doherty, who teaches American studies at Brandeis University, makes too little of the ingenuity with which writers and directors got around the Code (see, for example, the exquisitely timed "Aunt Fanny" sequence in Howard Hawks's "His Girl Friday"), but until reading this book I'd never realized how many controversial movies the Code smothered in the crib, among them a version of Sinclair Lewis's novel "It Can't Happen Here." "Hollywood's Censor " is a stinging portrait of a cultural strongman who made it his business to baby his fellow citizens.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company