Censoring Hollywood: How Joe Breen and the Production Code Administration Changed Hollywood Forever
While today motion pictures are generally considered an art form, it did not start out this way. The Supreme Court ruled in 1915 that free speech protection did not extend to motion pictures and was not overturned for almost 50 years (Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio). The silent era of Hollywood was considered by many to be immoral and perpetrating smut to the masses and the advent of sound only made people more worried. No system was in place to monitor what ended up on screen and the federal government was threatening to start censoring films themselves. These factors lead to the creation of The Motion Picture Production Code in 1930, Hollywood’s first attempt at self-regulating. It wasn’t until 1934 however when a man named Joe Breen was put in control of the new and extremely powerful Production Code Administration (PCA) which gave him the power to change and alter nearly every part of a film however he pleased. The Motion Picture Production Code, Joe Breen, and PCA had a large negative impact on how films portrayed a variety of subjects and American culture.
The Production Code covered a variety of topics such as sex, violence, language, and even how villains and heroes acted. William Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) and creator of the Production Code, outlined the primary purpose of the code in the first general principle listed in the Motion Picture Production Code which reads --
“No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those
who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown
to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin” (Hays). Thomas Doherty, Professor of American studies at Brandeis University, describes the code in an article written for the Washington Post as “… no mere list of Thou-Shalt-Nots but a homily that sought to yoke Catholic doctrine to Hollywood formula” (The Code Before ‘Da Vinci’). Because the main forces behind the code were very religious, the code is heavily rooted in the Judeo-Christian viewpoint in what is moral. This narrow viewpoint of what is right and wrong that was conveyed exclusively in films during the time the Production Code was in effect limited what people were exposed to and also the stories that were allowed to be told in Hollywood. This not only limited Americans exposure to alternative points of view, but also stifled artistic expression in the film making community. The code would have never had the impact on cinema that it did had it not been for a Catholic publicity director from Chicago named Joseph I. Breen who ended up becoming one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. Joseph Breen (who generally went by Joe) served as the Head of the PCA from 1934 to 1954 and was the ultimate decider on what was acceptable and unacceptable to have in a film. Thomas Doherty describes Joe Breen’s unlikely rise to power in his book Hollywood’s Censor. Breen first got his start working as a journalist in Chicago under the name Eugene Weare. Breen was an extremely devout Catholic and his writing quickly gained popularity among his fellow Catholics. This allowed him to build up many connections that eventually landed him a job as Publicity Director for the 28th International Eucharistic Congress (a worldwide gathering of the Roman Catholic faithful in Chicago). The Congress was hugely successful and allowed Breen to get a job doing publicity for a 96-minute newsreel about the Eucharistic Congress. This experience gave Breen is first taste of the movie business and movie audiences allowing him to interact with some of the higher-ups of Hollywood. Breen eventually got the attention of William Hays, who needed a well-connected and media-savvy Roman-Catholic to help him set up a way to clean all the sin out of Hollywood. In early 1934, Breen got control of the...
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