The man who cleaned up Hollywood

 

It's traditional. After the monstrous bird, the incendiary pudding, the popped corks and lethal cake, you waddled to the television, craving the season's most reliable digestive aid: a classic Hollywood film. Weepy or tough, noir or sunny, these 1930s and 1940s favourites provide a transfusion of innocence and nostalgia that dispels millennial hangovers, revives jaded palates and - briefly - unites families.

The wholesome effect is undeniable. It is also intentional. When you watch Bergman's heart breaking again on that Casablanca airfield or Cagney's wise-guy antics, you are in fact viewing the drama through an Irish Catholic filter. That filter is called Joseph I. Breen. Head of the Production Code Administration during Hollywood's golden age, from 1934 to 1954, Breen never regarded himself as a censor. As he saw it, his job was not to restrict but to enrich Hollywood's creations. And many cultural historians now agree with him.

According to Thomas Doherty, author of Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930 - 1934, Breen, the "supreme pontiff of picture morals" for two decades, remains "one of the most influential figures in American culture" because of his collaboration with the industry's greatest directors in shaping films that revived an ailing Hollywood. "Any moron can cut," Doherty observes, "but Breen was more of a shadow director, inserting his own Roman Catholic values."

Pre-Code Hollywood examines films from the pre-classic era that flagrantly violated the 1930 Hays Production Code - films like Scarface (1932), Bad Girl (1931) and Back Street (1932). Doherty's book also tells the fascinating story of an Irish Catholic crusade gaining control over a vast industry dominated by Jewish businessmen. First launched as a bishop-led Catholic boycott of "degrading" films, that crusade triumphed in 1934 as rigorously enforced censorship. Rigorously enforced but, Doherty argues, relatively enlightened, thanks to Joseph Breen.

"The relationship between great art and free expression is not a simple one," Doherty, chair of the Film Studies Programme at Brandeis University in Boston, observes. "Breen gave directors boundaries to work within and the result was some of the finest movies ever made." He also notes that the Code Code forced film-makers to be more subtle and imaginative in circumventing its constraints. "Remember," Doherty cautions, "the choice in 1934 was not between Breen and free expression. It was between Breen - who understood movies - and state censorship boards who banned on a whim."

The name that became a verb in 1934 ("to breen", meaning to purify) is less well known today than that of Will Hays, who appointed the Irish-American. But when the Jesuit-educated, film-literate enforcer declared "I am the Code", he was hardly exaggerating. The British trade paper, Film Weekly, even christened him "The Hitler of Hollywood". Thomas Doherty reviles that characterisation but readily admits that "During Breen's tenure, to go to the movies meant to see the world through Breen's eyes".

Characters walk into heaven as the closing music swells; women are venerated; sex is suspect; marriage is sacred; self-sacrifice applauded. "In 1942, at the end of Casablanca, the audience knew that there was no way a lawful wife would leave her husband for a bar-keeper," Doherty explains. "The idea that Michael Curtiz chose that ending at the last minute is baloney. Everything was `breened'."

The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, known as the Hays Code, always had a distinctly Irish accent. Written by Father Daniel Lord, a Jesuit, and Martin Quigley, a prominent Catholic editor, it became known as the Breen Code when the former newspaperman demanded strict compliance in 1934. "No picture should lower the moral standards of those who see it," the Code advised, specifying language, costumes, plot and actions ("In any kissing scene, the pose must be standing or sitting."). A film could not be produced without Breen's script approval or released without his seal. Even if it was, no cinema could play it.

By 1934, Breen's own life was movie material. A foreign correspondent in Europe immediately after the First World War, he was arrested by the Communist insurrectionists in Budapest, sentenced to death, and later released. Visiting Ireland in 1916, Breen's enthusiastic coverage of the Rebellion earned him arrest and expulsion to France. Tough but jovial, he quickly became a sophisticated interpreter of the Hays regulations. Particularly concerned with the effect on young audiences of sex and violence, Breen appreciated the power of the relatively new medium that Doherty describes as "accessible to all, resisted by few". Even as the Great Depression halved movie attendance, 60 million Americans a week continued to splurge on cinema tickets.

In those volatile circumstances, the censoring impulse was not as crude as it now appears to our jaded eyes. Doherty convincingly presents the Code not as a loony fundamentalist edict but as the response of a traumatised nation to the Depression's despair and chaos.

Desperate to fill seats, Hollywood increased the shock quotient of its sex romps, gangster films, adventures, horror films and even its comedies. In Call Her Savage (1932), for example, thrills include interracial marital infidelity, sado-masochistic whipping, erotic frolicking with a Great Dane, prostitution, rape and homosexuality. In She Done Him Wrong (1933), Mae West proclaims herself ". . . one of the finest women that ever walked the streets," and in Duck Soup (1933), Groucho Marx sneers, "Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honour - which is probably more than she ever did."

Objections from Catholic, Protestant and Jewish religious leaders gained political weight with President Roosevelt's 1933 inauguration and the vigorous optimism of the New Deal. Morale needed boosting and, according to Doherty, "The motion picture industry colluded in the return to restraint and decorum, tradition and control". As the embodiment of that movement, Breen was accused of anti-Semitism - on strong evidence. "These Jews seem to think of nothing but money-making and sexual indulgence," he wrote in a letter to a Jesuit friend in the early 1930s, ". . . they are, probably, the scum of the earth." He also referred to Emile Zola as a "filthy Frenchman who grew rich writing pornographic literature".

Perhaps Breen matured in the job. Arguing that case, Doherty cites him putting his Malibu house up as bond to help Sam Spiegel and the fact that five of the six pallbearers at Breen's funeral in 1965 were Jewish. As part of Hollywood's "Irish Mafia," however, (along with Cagney, Huston, Ford and others) Breen undeniably granted Irish characters special wisecracking licence.

Mae West was not the Code's only casualty. Realism also suffered. "Many pre-Code movies powerfully reflect the hopelessness and upheaval of the Depression's early years, the loss of faith in the American system," Doherty concludes, "It's not all escapist musicals. But after the Code, that honesty about American life is gone."

With Shirley Temple as its mascot, the new morality endured until 1960 when Janet Leigh took that fatal shower. In Psycho, Doherty observes, ". . . Joseph Breen's moral universe went swirling down the drain. It's not just the mixture of sex and violence, it's the moral disorder. At the end of the movie, the shrink tries to put things back together. But it doesn't work. It's not meant to.' Once comfortable, even flattering, the strait-jacket fashioned by Breen to protect audiences and to save Hollywood from itself had suddenly begun to chafe.

Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930 - 1934 is published by Columbia University Press