December 14, 2007


The Man Who Cleaned Up the Silver Screen: HOLLYWOOD'S CENSOR : Joseph I. Breen & the Production Code Administration By Thomas Doherty (Dennis Drabelle, December 12, 2007, Washington Post)

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."

Not only did the Code create Hollywood's Golden Age but one of the true American art forms, the uber-Puritanical film noir.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 14, 2007 5:25 PM
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