Wednesday, 8 July 2009

HOLLYWOOD'S CENSOR: Joseph Breen and the Production Code

Thomas Doherty's study of Hollywood's production code, originally published in 2007, is an important book about movie history, not just the history of censorship, because it does such a good job of setting its story into context. It is so good on the background in which the censors worked that we come to understand not only the way Hollywood functioned in its golden age, but the way America saw itself and its morals reflected in the pictures it produced. Using the story of Joseph Breen, who headed the Production Code Administration, or 'Hays Office' for twenty years, from 1934 to 1954, as its 'spine', as Thomas Doherty calls it, Hollywood Censor provides a revealing look at what the movies meant to America and how 'the system' worked in Hollywood, through the era when the talking picture was the nation's, and the world's, entertainment king.

Doherty begins with Breen receiving an honorary Oscar in 1954, presented by Joe E Brown, to the ironic strains of 'Don't Fence Me In'. Tellingly, Breen had nothing to say to the Hollywood crowd gathered that night, nor to the audience watching for the first time on TV. The book describes Breen, and the pictures bear him out, as a ward-heeler, the kind of guy standing behind the shadows in The Last Hurrah perhaps, and he makes much, fittingly of Breen's Irish Catholic upbringing and Jesuitical education. After all, the irony of the Hollywood system was that an industry run largely by Jews was making movies for a nation still overwhelmingly Protestant, and the boundaries of taste were being defined largely by Catholics.

That was how Breen, a journalist and PR man by trade, got the job; he had done the PR for the 1926 Chicago 'Eucharistic Congress', a sort of Catholic World's Fair that combined the pomp of Rome with the American religious selling power of Aimee Semple McPherson. It's the Jesuitical (you might have called it rabbinical had the studio chiefs themselves been doing it) parsing of morality that stands above everything else. The code itself was written by, literally, Catholic priests, but it's not just the specifics of sin, and the way those were shaped to reflect Catholic doctrine on any number of points; but the literal way in which those rules were interpreted. Contrary to the way people think of censors working, and indeed how the British Board of Film Censors (now called, for appearance sake, Film Classification) appears to work still,Breen's people were concerned mostly with checking the scripts before films went into production. This meant they were often applying a strictly literary sensibility to the films they were censoring, it also meant that once the script had been approved, it fell to the film-makers to find ways of saying things, on screen, between the lines. In that sense, it was actually an encouragement to finding a language of film, though I'm not suggesting this was a positive way of working toward that end.

Breen worked like that because he was inside the system, and perhaps the most interesting thing about Doherty's portrayal is the way he shows Breen's own belief that he was part of the film-making process. He makes suggestions which have no more or less validity than any modern producer might, he often feels like he is taking the film-makers side against the studio, trying to find a way to get what they want said into the finished film. Because, in the end, he also realised that his ultimate responsibility was to the studios' profitability; they had set up the Hays Office to try to ameliorate the effects of local censorship of what was called in Boston the 'ten-cent plague', by police departments, city morality boards, and the like, and especially by the Catholic Legion of Decency, whose bans on films carried the authority of moral sin behind them.
When the book came out, much was made of Breen's alleged anti-semitism and, to a lesser degree, racism, and Doherty was accused to giving Breen a skate on those issues. Again, you have to put things into context; at the time, Catholic doctrine still insisted Jews were 'Christ-killers', that would not be overturned until Pope John XXIII came along.

Ethnic stereotypes were also still acceptable for use in public discourse; the Jews who made Hollywood run were just as likely to crack wise about their 'nature' as anyone else—what we now call slurs could still be used as terms of affection (does anything date the Clint Eastwood of Gran Torino more—but his point was a valid one; while we've taken the PC cleaner to public discourse, we've done far less with the real effects of society's racial inequalities). Breen would have used the 'some of my best employers, if not friends, are Jewish' line and he would have meant it. The racism charge is a bit more nuanced, and a lot of it, like not producing pictures that would offend Hitler's Germany or which, by featuring miscegenation for example (and interestingly, the priests who wrote the original Code had not included anything about miscegenation, that was an addition made by the studios themselves), wouldn't play in the American South, had economic as well as cultural roots. Yes, we portrayed the Japs as less human than the Nazis, and that was racist, but this was a country that put its citizens of Japanese descent into concentration camps (taking the word back to its origins, with the British in the Boer War). The point being that rather than give Breen a pass on personal morality, Doherty simply refuses to take him out of the context of the prevailing ethos in America of the time. In fact, you might argue that my looking at Breen as a typical Irish ward-heeler is exactly the same sort of thing, but I'd be unlikely to be excoriated as a racist for that.

Oddly enough, censorship, a keystone of war time, began to fall apart with the war. During the war, the idea that you couldn't show a soldier battling for his life saying 'hell' or 'damn' or 'bastard' was preposterous. Even more, when soldiers came back from the war, they wanted more realistic entertainment; the same impulse that made Mickey Spillane a best-seller would eventually drive a stake through the heart of the film censors. Censorship became as tired as Breen himself; sadly, although he will be remembered in a negative fashion, he saw himself as having given his life to the movies, Doherty's recognition of this, and his sympathetic, yet realistic telling of Breen's own story, makes this book work, and remembers Breen in the most appropriate way.

Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I Breen & The Production Code Administration by Thomas Doherty
Columbia University Press, £13.00, ISBN978-0231143592

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