Civil Liberties

A Code Is Born

How Catholic crusaders and New Deal regulators created the most intrusive censorship regime in Hollywood history


Pre-Code Hollywood is the marquee name for a brief period in motion picture history, a privileged zone of relative screen freedom, dating from (roughly) 1930 to (precisely) July 15, 1934. The phrase evokes a time when trigger-happy gangsters, wisecracking dames, and subversive rebels, male and female, ran wild through the lawless territory of American cinema. To survey the titles is to register the temperature of the times: Red Headed Woman (1932) and Baby Face (1933), where predatory trollops went horizontal for upward mobility; Little Caesar (1931) and Scarface (1932), where charismatic killers murdered with seditious relish; I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) and Heroes for Sale (1933), where legal authority warrants only contempt; Skyscraper Souls (1932) and Employees Entrance (1933), where ruthless capitalists violated business ethics and female chastity at will.

To a grand alliance of moral guardians, the trademark transgressions of pre-Code Hollywood—the coarse wisecracks, the mercenary trollops, the chronic cynicism and snide contempt for stuffed shirts and lawful authority, all ballyhooed by lurid posters and drooling tag lines—were no mere Hollywood high jinks but a grave threat to the moral fiber of the nation. More than in 1922, when the moguls formed the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) to put their best face forward, and more than in 1930, when the MPPDA adopted a Production Code but left it toothless, Hollywood in 1934 incited a withering barrage of righteous anger and moral opprobrium. The product line was damned from the pulpit, condemned by editorialists, and denounced by politicians.

After more than three years of unholy and unwholesome screen fare, Catholics formed an organization to beat back the plague. Its official name was the National Legion of Decency—morally upright Protestants and Jews might enlist as well—but the group was known as the Legion of Decency or, more ominously, simply "the Legion."

A notion that had percolated in Catholic circles for years, the Legion took formal shape in October to November 1933, after Archbishop Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, speaking at the National Conference of Catholic Charities in New York on the authority of Pope Pius XI, denounced "the incalculable influence for evil" exerted by the motion picture screen. "Catholics are called by God, the Pope, the bishops, and the priests to a united front and vigorous campaign for the purification of the cinema, which has become a deadly menace to morals," said the bishop. Within a matter of weeks, the Legion of Decency congealed into the most feared of all the private protest groups bedeviling Hollywood.

Backed by a coordinated network of Catholic weeklies whose front-page headlines, editorial broadsides, and scare-mongering cartoons fueled parishioner outrage, the Legion lanced Hollywood's hide with pitiless zeal. It had numbers, focus, energy—and a blunt instrument. "Worn out by promises, tricked by pledges, deceived by codes, and dismayed by filth, the Church has finally decided to take action in the one way left for it—boycott," warned Chicago's Catholic weekly, the New World.

The Legion was as good as its word, and it put its word into writing with a brilliant tactical device, the Legion pledge. A prayer-like pact, the Legion pledge was a contractual avowal signed by parishioners and recited in unison at Sunday masses, Knights of Columbus meetings, Ladies Sodalities gatherings, and parochial school assemblies. "I condemn absolutely those debauching motion pictures which, with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land," affirmed the pledger. "Considering these evils, I hereby promise to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality."

Copies of the Legion pledge were distributed wherever Catholics congregated: Sunday masses, parochial schools, and, to the horror of exhibitors, in front of motion picture theaters to patrons queuing in line. One copy of the signed pledge went to the parish priest; the other was kept by the pledger. The exact number of pledgers was hard to calculate, and the percentage of signers who kept faith with the contract impossible to monitor, but as the campaign gained momentum Variety warned that "fully half of the U.S. Catholic population of 20,000,000 can be counted upon as enlisted crusaders." In the choice between faith and film, enough Catholic moviegoers refused to gamble their salvation to deplete box office revenues from Boston to Los Angeles.

While the Legion of Decency marshaled the religious opposition, two like-minded forces attacked Hollywood along different fronts: the federal government and the learned professions. The more serious threat came from a re-energized federal government poised to enact legislation to tether Hollywood to Washington, D.C.

In March 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt hit the ground running with a New Deal to combat the Great Depression, initiating a massive migration of power toward Washington. Among the dozens of agencies and initiatives FDR promulgated in his dizzying First Hundred Days was a new shooting script for Hollywood. Like industry and agriculture, the amusement trades were to be regulated under the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). Besides fear itself, Hollywood feared that government control would lead to the creation of a federal censorship bureau dictating motion picture content. Heeding the hue and cry from constituents, a broad bipartisan coalition in Congress was considering legislation to do just that. Under FDR's activist New Deal and a Supreme Court that still considered the motion picture medium "a business pure and simple," federal censorship was a distinct and looming possibility.

The canny Catholics abetted Hollywood's fears. In September 1933, while accompanying MPPDA chief Will H. Hays on business in New York, Joseph I. Breen caught the scent of New Deal intervention and spread the news. Breen was a Catholic journalist and publicist who had worked with the MPPDA since the original Code was adopted in 1930; he had also helped write Archbishop Cicognani's speech unleashing the Legion of Decency. "An extraordinary situation has developed here in connection with attempt to formulate NIRA Industrial Code for our industry," Breen excitedly wired Bishop John J. Cantwell of Los Angeles. "There is more than a fighting chance to have Roosevelt assert himself and his power under NIRA along lines certain to win your approval."

At the same time, at this worst possible moment, another of Hollywood's vulnerable flanks was attacked by a group of social scientists working under the banner of the Motion Picture Research Council. With financial support from a philanthropic outfit called the Payne Fund, the council conducted an extensive investigation into the impact of motion pictures on children. Between 1929 and 1932, educators and social scientists quizzed, measured, and probed young moviegoers to gauge how celluloid imagery warped malleable minds. The Payne Fund Studies resulted in a 12-volume chronicle, buttressed with graphs, figures, and jargon.

In 1933 an accessible synopsis of the Payne Fund Studies by journalist Henry James Forman was published under the bracing title Our Movie Made Children. The project marshaled the full weight of lab-coated social science to confirm the gut-level suspicion that the movies burrowed like termites into impressionable juvenile minds: girls took to rouge and tobacco, boys to back talk and violence, and all to disrespect and deviance. Likening the flood of images to a poisonous reservoir, Foreman told readers to think of Hollywood as a toxic water source that, if unregulated and unfiltered, "is extremely likely to create a haphazard, promiscuous, and undesirable national consciousness." The title of Our Movie Made Children summed up the threat: Movies were making and thus remaking young Americans, supplanting the traditional character builders of church, home, and school.

Reading the danger signs from three directions, Variety sent up a front-page flare. "Producers have reduced the Hays Production Code to sieve-like proportions and are deliberately outsmarting their own document," it warned. "No longer is the industry up against bluenose factions. Responsible people, lawyers, doctors, and other professionals are resenting the screen and lettering by the bushel about it."

Of all the forces bearing down on Hollywood, the Catholic Church alone was rallying millions of potential moviegoers to forswear cinema or else risk their immortal souls. If the churchmen could be placated, the other threats might recede, maybe disappear.

Enter Joseph I. Breen, not so much waiting in the wings as orchestrating the action from off stage. On one side, the moguls of the Hollywood studios; on the other, the prelates of the Roman Catholic Church; and poised between the two—himself.

On December 8, 1933, the MPPDA's Will Hays, MGM's J. Robert Rubin, and Paramount's George Schaefer met in the White House with FDR and Gen. Hugh Johnson, head of the National Recovery Administration (NRA), the authority created by the NIRA to administer virtually all aspects of the U.S. economy. By then Hollywood had another Motion Picture Code to worry about—the one enacted under the provisions of the NIRA. No official record exists of the conversation between FDR, Johnson, and the emissaries from Hollywood, but trade press reports noticed that the motion picture executives "emerged [from the meeting] very glum" and that FDR, film fan though he was, felt that Hollywood fully warranted the "eagle eye" of federal oversight. In particular, "the subject of off-color films" was reported to have "caused some disturbance at the White House."

The NRA divisional administrator appointed to regulate the motion picture industry was a loyal New Dealer named Sol A. Rosenblatt, a man whose mogul-like name belied any sympathy with the studios. Focused on economic recovery, not moral reformation, Rosenblatt was initially happy to keep Hollywood's Code separate from Washington's, but as the months passed and the former remained flaccid, the trade press detected a baleful change of heart. The "continual talk about making
the Hays Code of Ethics part of the NRA Code" was growing louder and more insistent, declared Harrison's Reports.

In January 1934, Rosenblatt traveled to Hollywood to explain the New Deal in person and to deliver an uncoded message. He reminded studio executives that the NRA's Code, unlike the MPPDA's Code, held the force of law. Rosenblatt claimed not to be interested in "regulation, interference, or censorship," but the whole purpose of the New Deal economic codes was to regulate and interfere with normal capitalist practice.

On January 30, Rosenblatt met Breen. Again, no transcript exists of this second pivotal face-off between the NRA and the MPPDA, but Breen certainly argued that the work of censorship should be a private affair, a matter of Hollywood self-regulation rather than Washington edict, and Rosenblatt certainly concluded that Breen was the man for the job.

That evening, speaking before the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers, Rosenblatt waved a New Deal carrot and stick. "I am opposed to government regulation of this phase of the industry [that is, the moral content of motion pictures] and I am opposed to the snooping activities of certain reforming organizations," he began encouragingly, before lowering the boom: "Yet unless the facts are faced and present indications are taken into account, the industry is set for plenty of trouble."

On February 5, 1934, less than a week after Rosenblatt's visit, Breen was formally appointed to head the Studio Relations Committee (SRC), the office charged with approving or rejecting movies before they were released. Variety directly linked Breen's promotion to Rosenblatt's pressure: "Breen's position [as head of the SRC] provides for his approving all scripts and films made by majors and indie producers. This is at the suggestion of Rosenblatt, who will insist that code enforcement be done [according to] the machinery set up by Breen. The administrator deems this the best method for carrying out the purpose of the code than if a commission be set up for the handling of the independent end of this matter." Breen now had two powerful backers in his corner: the Catholics and the New Dealers.

After only two months on the job, Breen had rejected six pictures—as many as had been rejected during the previous three years. Producers bowed to Breen's objections in four of the instances and appealed his decisions twice. In both cases, Breen was overruled by the Producers Appeal Board.

The first incident involved a Fox musical with the risible title Bottoms Up. After Breen rejected the film, producer B.G. "Buddy" DeSylva appealed the decision to the three-man producers board, which obligingly overruled the SRC. After winning the appeal, DeSylva, sensing the future downside to crossing Breen, decided voluntarily to eliminate the objectionable scene.

The other, more consequential dispute involved Queen Christina, a star vehicle for Greta Garbo directed by the Russian-born master Rouben Mamoulian and produced by Walter Wanger. The film featured the regal Swedish goddess playing a tomboy Swedish monarch who falls hard for a dashing Spanish envoy (John Gilbert), a star-crossed affair blocked by her malevolent ministers and xenophobic peasantry.

Plenty about the courtly intrigues warranted disapproval from the new management at the Studio Relations Committee. A male valet attends the queen at bed; the queen bestows a wet kiss on her lady-in-waiting; a buxom serving wench is groped by drunken soldiers; and an innkeeper moonlights as a pimp. Carefully drawing his line in the sand, Breen focused his objections on a sexy tryst between the queen and the envoy.

The coupling revolves around a bit of unlikely gender confusion when the chilly Swede, incognito both in status and sex, encounters the hot-blooded Spaniard in a snowbound inn. Clothed in mannish attire, she is mistaken for a young lad, so why shouldn't the youth and the envoy spend the night together in the only available bed in the inn? "Aren't you going to undress?" inquires the Spaniard when the two are behind closed doors. "Yes," whispers his demure companion, who unbuttons her jacket to reveal her feminine contours. The Spaniard is momentarily startled—and then delighted.

The next morning, the couple snuggles in bed, concealed from view by bed curtains, but the elated voice of the Spaniard from behind the drapery makes clear he is not alone. In fact, the inn being snowbound, the couple is together for three days of very unwedded bliss. After the 72-hour sleepover, still ecstatic, Garbo slinks around the bedroom, glowing with postcoital rapture, caressing the furniture, to imprint every detail of the magic idyll in her memory. The extended foreplay and languid aftertaste—the couple entering the bedroom, the tango before disrobing for bed, the unveiling of the queen's true identity, the lovers hidden from sight but snuggling in bed the next morning, and Garbo's radiance while gliding around the love nest—pulsate with erotic heat.

Breen wanted the entire sequence left on the cutting-room floor. In italics, he told MGM to delete "all the intervening scenes, action, and dialogue which are played in the bedroom" and to make sure Garbo was "kept away entirely from the bed." To studio chief Louis B. Mayer, Breen explained that the Gilbert-Garbo tryst was too guilt-free to stand: "Sexual immorality is here presented as 'attractive and beautiful' and is made to appear 'right and permissible,' and thus comes the definite Code violation."

Besides raising Breen's hackles, the case of Queen Christina highlighted the design flaws in the Code's mechanism. Though Wanger had dutifully sent a script to the SRC for review and politely listened to suggestions for revision, he had simply ignored the advice. "It is quite apparent from the examination of the files that Mr. Wanger paid very little attention to our several letters on this [bedroom sequence], or what was said at the conference between himself, Colonel Joy, or Dr. Wingate," Breen complained, after viewing the completed film with the bedroom pas de deux intact.

With Wanger and Breen irreconcilable, the kabuki show commenced: Breen held Queen Christina in violation of the Code, Wanger appealed the decision, and a jury of producers overruled Breen.

Actually, the end run around the Code was less kabuki show than bedroom farce: Even before Wanger's appeal was decided by the producers jury, indeed even as Breen pleaded with Mayer to cut the picture, Queen Christina was playing a road show engagement at the Astor Theater in New York.

Despite his five-for-six average, Breen steamed over the film that had gotten away. "The task is really an impossible one, as we are now constituted," he realized. "I can scold and argue and coax and threaten but I have no real authority to stop the dirty pictures." However vigilant the SRC, the tight-knit producers closed ranks to block enforcement. "As matters now stand," he concluded, "the appeal to a jury of producers simply [doesn't] work out. The producers are [not] willing to condemn a picture made by a fellow producer—and the dirty pictures continue to be made."

As Breen struggled behind enemy lines, his allies on the field launched an attack that, if not exactly instigated by Breen, went forward with his encouragement and worked to his advantage. Suddenly, Catholics seemed to be everywhere—except at the movies. In Chicago, George Cardinal Mundelein warned Catholics that patronizing "debasing pictures" constituted "a grave offense against the moral law." In St. Louis, Bishop John J. Glennon urged membership in the Legion and called films "an education only in immorality, crime, and lawlessness." In Breen's hometown of Philadelphia, Denis Cardinal Dougherty ordered the faithful to boycott Hollywood films—not just the immoral films but all films—as "perhaps the greatest menace to faith and morals in America today." In every parochial school, every parish, and every diocese, Catholics read the pastoral letters and recited the Legion pledge. Enough of the chorus stood by the words to further drain an already parched box office.

On June 21, 1934, a special conference of the Catholic Bishops Committee on Motion Pictures was scheduled to meet in Cincinnati to plan the next move in the hardball campaign. With box offices hemorrhaging in the Catholic strongholds in the big cities and with the New Dealers contemplating an alphabet agency especially for Hollywood, Hays and Breen tossed a lifeline to the moguls.

Prior to the bishops' conference, on June 13, 1934, the MPPDA's Board of Directors had met in New York and unanimously passed a resolution creating a new enforcement regime, the Production Code Administration (PCA), "to strengthen in every reasonable way the effectiveness" of the Code. Any member company of the MPPDA (which included all the major studios) and any producer using the distribution facilities of the majors (thus, any respectable independent) would be bound to process its product through the new system and acquire a stamped "Certificate of Approval." A violation of the rules would incur a fine of $25,000 for "disrupt[ing] the stability of the industry and caus[ing] serious damage to all members of the Association." The leaders of the boycott approved the change, establishing a censorship regime that ceded dominion of Hollywood cinema to Irish-Catholic theology for the next 20 years.

A decision by the Production Code Administration could be appealed only to the MPPDA Board of Directors back in New York—away from the domain of the Hollywood moguls and into the sphere of the Wall Street moneymen. Not only were defiant producers and member theaters to be held in a kind of corporate contempt and fined $25,000, but the loans, investments, and promissory notes from the East that funded motion picture production out West would be tied to compliance with the self-regulatory system. Without approval from the PCA, the Hollywood studios forfeited financing and bookings.

Breen's regulatory authority would flow from New York, not Hollywood. No longer a factotum, he would sit at the table with the moguls as an equal partner—actually, more than equal. Without Breen, Hollywood could not do business.

The second key modification established a rigorous review process for film projects prior to production. "Certainly, if there is a censorship, it should be done at that time," figured Billy Wilkerson, the influential editor and publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, speaking for the consensus. "Once time and money have been expended in production, it is fatal to have that production sliced to ribbons by censors' shears, causing a destruction of thousands of dollars, money that could and would have been saved if the slicing had been done from the script." Before the cameras ever rolled, the fix would be in.

Taken together, the two design renovations—the transfer of power from producers to regulators and the application of the Code during the script phase of production—created a smooth, conveyer-belt system for the censorship of studio films.

Scared straight by Legion boycotts and New Deal threats, the members of the MPPDA board sent instructions back to the moguls to do absolutely nothing to queer the deal. "If Joe Breen tells you to change a picture, you do what he tells you," Harry Warner wired the studio he co-founded. "If any one fails to do this—and this goes for my brother—he's fired."

Breen now stood as supreme sentinel and inspector general of American cinema. Henceforth no Hollywood film received a visa for exhibition without meeting Code specifications as interpreted by Joseph I. Breen. It was he who vetted story lines, blue-penciled dialogue, and exercised the moral equivalent of final cut over hundreds of motion pictures per year—expensive "A" caliber feature films, low-budget B-unit ephemera, short subjects, previews of coming attractions, even cartoons. From 1934 to 1954, except for a brief eight-month stint as head of RKO studios in 1941, the Victorian Irishman held Hollywood to a strict catechism of thou-shalt-nots. When Breen died in 1965, Variety aptly summed up his legacy: "More than any single individual, he shaped the moral stature of the American motion picture."

Thomas Doherty is a professor of American studies at Brandeis University. Adapted from Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration, by Thomas Doherty. Copyright © 2007 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.