- Historic Sites
Hollywood Cleans Up Its Act
The curious career of the Hays Office
February/March 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 2
Problems of philosophy notwithstanding, the code worked like a charm. Not only was the Legion of Decency campaign dropped (although the Legion did continue to rate films), but Pope Pius XI, in his 1936 encyclical letter on movies, wrote that the U.S. motion-picture industry “has recognized and accepts its responsibility before society. ” What was more surprising, the studios seemed happy to comply—within a year, some of them had even set up their own censorship operations. Under the leadership of second-generation moguls like Irving Thalberg, David O. Selznick, and Darryl F. Zanuck, Hollywood in the thirties seemed determined to prove it could be “literary”; it concentrated on lofty films, generally drawn from the classics, or from respectable best sellers, such as David Copperfield, The Good Earth, The Barretts of Wimpale Street , and Gone With the Wind . By 1938 Fortune could report that while six states carried “ancient censorship legislation on their books and maintain boards of motion-picture review, these laws and groups have lost much of their raison d’être and they rarely cause the industry any trouble.”
Under the leadership of Joseph Ignatius Breen, a strong-willed Irish-Catholic ex-newspaperman, the Production Code Administration acquired a startling amount of clout. Even the czar was eclipsed—the PCA began to be known as the Breen Office, and until he stepped down in 1954, Hays spent most of his time spewing forth public relations. All scripts, prints, and works to be adapted had to be submitted, and Breen and his assistants were not at all hesitant in telling producers what would and wouldn’t wash. Among their tens of thousands of decisions and recommendations were: cautioning a producer of one projected film that “we presume there will be no suggestive reactions to the playing of ‘Let’s Put Out the Lights and Go to Bed’ ”; changing the title of a Joan Crawford picture from Infidelity to Fidelity , without touching the contents; banning—in 1941, at the peak of Lana Turner’s glory—“Sweater Art” from the screen; and forbidding Walt Disney to show a cow’s udder in one of his cartoons.
The classics got the same treatment. When MGM wanted to adapt Anna Karenina , problems were immediate; after all, the code said the subject of adultery should be avoided. After extensive consultations with the PCA, the studio agreed that the illegitimate child who appears in the novel should be eliminated; that the “matrimonial bond” would be “positively defended” by prominently featuring two happily married couples; that Vronsky would be portrayed unfavorably and would be miserable; and that no scenes could be played in Anna’s bedroom.
Not surprisingly, Breen eventually got too strong a sense of his own power. A former staff member, Jack Vizzard, writes in his memoirs that his boss “nurtured not the slightest seed of selfdoubt regarding his mission or his rectitude. He was right, the moviemakers were wrong, and that was that.” Breen once told a subordinate who was perusing the code, “Don’t pay any attention to that thing. Just you listen to me . I am the code. ”
It was inevitable that such personal and institutional hubris should crumble, and in the fifties the code began its decline. As television sets began illuminating living room after living room, film producers found they had to win audiences away from the tube, where family entertainment was the order of the day; they increasingly did so, as in the twenties and early thirties, with a program of sex and violence. At the same time, Supreme Court decisions began to chip away at the code’s power and rationale. In 1948 the Court ruled that studios could no longer hold giant theater chains, and, in 1952, that contrary to the 1915 Mutual decision, movies were in fact protected by freedom of speech and of the press. As a result, independently produced films without the PCA seal could be distributed relatively easily, and censorship—which self-regulation originally was designed to forestall—was no longer a threat. When Otto Preminger’s The Moon Is Blue was refused a seal in 1953, its distributor, United Artists, resigned from the MPPDA and released the film anyway.
Finally, the man who said he was the code stepped aside. In October, 1954, Breen was replaced by Geoffrey Shurlock, a transplanted Englishman who proved to be a far more liberal interpreter. His attitude brought him into conflict with the Legion of Decency, whose ties with the PCA had always been close, and which was still very much around. The break came in 1956, over Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll : for the first time, a film rated “Condemned” by the Legion was granted a seal by the PCA. (And condemned it was: Catholics in Albany were forbidden for six months to attend any theater that had shown it.) But things had changed in twenty years: by then, a Catholic boycott was likely to enhance a film’s appeal.