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The "Crusader": Containing the Crisis, 1932-1933

code production “the breen

In January 1932, Joseph Breen arrived in Hollywood to oversee publicity for the MPPDA. On an earlier visit he had decided that the job needed “a genuine Crusader with the vision before him of saving a great industry”; he had determined that if he was to achieve anything with the producers, it was more necessary to be feared than liked. His style constituted a significant shift away from Joy’s attempts at consensus. During the next two years, Breen made himself increasingly indispensable to the Association’s operations in Hollywood, at the same time that he contributed energetically to the Catholic movie campaign. Like Quigley, Breen held “the present bunch” who “hold sway in production” in contempt: they were, he thought, “simply a rotten bunch of vile people with no respect for anything beyond the making of money.” Breen’s attitude to Thalberg, in particular, was markedly different from Joy’s. Even Joy, however, found Thalberg’s proposed script for RED-HEADED WOMAN “the worst ever.” Written by Anita Loos, the film depicted Jean Harlow’s progression up the social ladder by a series of affairs, but it made comedy out of what had previously been the material for melodrama and left Harlow living in unpunished luxury at its end. Joy feared that hostile public reaction would not prevent other studios accusing the SRC of giving MGM favorable treatment and “trying to figure out ways of topping this particular picture” in competition for the sensational element of the urban trade. The most drastic change of studio policy came when Emanuel Cohen replaced B. P. Schulberg as Paramount’s head of production. Cohen’s decision “to put aside the conservative policy which has characterized the studio for years, and to be as daring as possible” resulted in the studio producing A FAREWELL TO ARMS, purchasing William Faulkner’s novel Sanctuary, and signing a contract with Mae West.

In June, Joy accepted an executive position in production at Fox. Quigley, disillusioned with the existing production system, felt that “the whole Code scheme has become practically a wash-out during the past few months” and had no confidence in Joy’s replacement, the former New York censor James Wingate. When, in August, Hays deplored “the reported distribution department pressure” for the production of “sex pictures,” Joe Schenck bluntly told him that the public who did attend were “not interested in namby-pamby subjects.” If the Association attempted to “make the producers live up to the spirit and the letter” of the Code, they would abandon it, “even at the expense of having censorship in every State in the Union.” In his valedictory statement on the operations of the Code in September, Joy warned Hays that of 111 pictures in current production, 24 of the most prominent dealt with illicit sex relations. Quantity was only one problem. Plots adhered to the letter of the Code, while violating its spirit. In BLONDE VENUS, among others, “prostitution is depicted as a ‘sacrifice’ on a woman’s part in behalf of her child or her husband.” Did such pictures, which seemed to suggest that “while adultery is wrong, under these given circumstances it is right,” violate the Code, Joy wondered. He argued that together with the elimination of “sex situations which are not essential to the story,” the screen had to withdraw from any suggestion that it was advocating a change in social or sexual mores. There was danger in creating such sympathy for the fallen woman “that the double standard shall be seriously affected.” Whatever he and Hays, “as enlightened beings,” might think of it, “we are not engaged, as an industry, in crusades, nor are we yet ready to be the spearheads in any assault on society’s strongest fortifications.”

Breen was far more critical. Nobody in Hollywood, he claimed to Wilfrid Parsons, editor of the Jesuit weekly America, “cares a dam [sic] for the Code or any of its provisions…. I’ve heard it sneered at and laughed at; I’ve heard important people talk about its being a first-rate gag to fool the bluenoses and the ‘church people’ but I have yet to hear it discussed seriously.” He presented Hays as well-meaning but “above all, the politician—the compromiser,” who had “sold us all a first-class bill of goods when he put over the Code on us.” Breen’s virulently anti-Semitic correspondence with Parsons and other prominent Catholics was a tactical instrument in the campaign he and Quigley had nurtured since 1929: in suggesting that America’s enfeebled Protestant Main Street was being debauched by Jews and pagans, he was proposing that the Catholic church take up the sword.

In some respects, the church was ideally situated to mediate this site of cultural conflict. Opposed to legislative regulation that would foster “the growing notion of the State’s right to supremacy in the realm of moral teaching,” it was also empowered by a sense of moral certainty that, alone among the religious groupings of the interwar period, it appeared to possess. The involvement of the Catholic clergy with the movies was part of a general project of confident Catholic cultural assertiveness, expressed in the Catholic Action movement. A group of conservative Jesuit intellectuals, including Parsons and Lord, developed a specifically Catholic response to what they denounced as neo-humanism in a number of cultural fields between 1928 and 1935. This group saw the motion-picture industry as an ideal instance of their argument for the primacy of moral rather than economic reform.

In October 1932, inspired by Breen’s correspondence with Parsons, America published “An Open Letter to Dr. Wingate,” in which Gerard Donnelly advised him that Catholics chiefly resented “the type of film which teaches false principles of morality,” particularly “of sex conduct.” Acknowledging that POSSESSED and BACK STREET “did not contain one objectionable line nor a single suggestive scene,” he nevertheless denounced them as “among the most vicious of the past season”: “It is not the material that we condemn in these films, but the treatment; not the theme, but the thesis, the unsound philosophy which the pictures illustrated and dramatized.” They persuaded an audience to approve immoral conduct, he claimed, since the heroines’ rebellions were “against only the current standards of society; nowhere in the action or dialogue was there the slightest reference to God or conscience or supernatural responsibility.”

While the reform lobby’s demands increased, the studios continued to show little willingness to acknowledge them. In October, Paramount announced that they planned an adaptation of Mae West’s play Diamond Lil, despite the Association’s prohibition on it under the Formula. At Hays’s orders, Wingate refused to give an opinion on the script, because Paramount was threatening “the whole inter-company relationship” on which the Association was built. A board of directors’ decision, however, acquiesced in the project, with the spurious proviso that the film be “made in strict conformity to the Code” and avoid any reference to its source in its publicity or advertising. Wingate urged the studio to   “develop the comedy elements, so that the treatment will invest the picture with such exaggerated qualities as automatically to take care of possible offensiveness.” Self-regulation played an important part in the creation of Mae West as a cinematic caricature of female sexual aggression, using comedy as an instrument of containment, abroad-beamed alternative to the “lightness” of “the Lubitsch touch.”

However, the success of SHE DONE HIM WRONG with all audiences only increased alarm among reform elements that West, notorious after her arrests for indecency in New York in 1927 and 1928, was now considered fit material for the screen. Other producers, with Quigley, saw the film as evidence of the failure of the Code machinery, but though Wingate was prepared to admit to occasional miscalculations when the SRC had been “too liberal,” he denied that the current standard of production was worse “then the average of pictures heretofore produced.” Rather, “the public and organized minorities have become more keenly critical and more expressive…. this is a moment of hysterical criticism.”   State censor boards, riding the tide of public opinion, signaled that the range of permissible subject matter was being further restricted. As had happened before, however, the film that provoked the greatest volume of complaint was unexpected: Will Rogers’s comedy STATE FAIR, in which one bedroom scene, suggesting a sexual encounter between the farmer’s son and a city girl, in a film otherwise providing “unobjectionable humor for the entire family,” provoked more protests than anything since the 1930 release of a synchronized version of THE BIRTH OF A NATION. With West, at least audiences knew what they were getting. Mistakes like STATE FAIR did more damage by provoking “righteous resentment from the father who has taken his wife and children to the movies.”

Joy’s resignation coincided with the publication in McCall’s magazine of the first extracts from Henry James Forman’s Our Movie-Made Children, a sensation-alized digest of the Payne Fund Studies. The studies, collectively titled Motion Pictures and Youth, were the result of a five-year program by the Motion Picture Research Council (MPRC), which had in the late 1920s become the focal point of Protestant and educational concerns about the cultural effects of the movies. The MPRC was an organization of some social and scientific prestige: its director, Congregationalist minister William H. Short, recruited prominent members of the WASP elite to its National Council and some of the nation’s leading psychologists and sociologists to conduct its research. Twelve studies were undertaken, investigating children’s attendance and emotional responses to the motion-picture situation, as well as several examinations of motion-picture content to establish its relationship to current “standards of morality.” While the studies demonstrated that movies could provoke emotional arousal and influence their audiences’ attitudes, they also revealed the extent to which their effects were tempered by the age and social situation of the audience; the movies’ principal effect was to reinforce familiar values and ideas.

These results did not meet the requirements of the studies’ sponsor, and MPRC publicity emphasized findings that came closer to endorsing its expectations. In Our Movie-Made Children, Forman, a former news editor of the Literary Digest, made exploitative use of “movie autobiographies” collected by Chicago sociologist Herbert Blumer, reproducing the most sensational confessions of criminal behavior and “sex delinquency” inspired by adolescent attendance. The Association had confidently dismissed comparable charges in the 1920s: its own weakened position and the scientific credibility of the “Payneful” Studies made the MPRC’s demands for federal regulation a profound threat to the industry. As early as August 1931, Hays knew that their impact on public opinion would hold “infinitely more danger than any report the Federal Council might have issued” and that “some of the attacks cannot be defended.” However much the Association might deride Short, the personnel of the National Council were too prominent, socially and politically, to be dismissed, and their lobbying power was considerable. By the end of 1932, nearly forty religious and educational organizations had passed resolutions calling for federal regulation of the industry.

The early months of 1933 marked the low point of the industry’s fortunes. In the atmosphere of uncertainty that preceded Roosevelt’s inauguration, there was widespread fear that the entire industry was virtually bankrupt, and the immediate crisis deepened with the declaration of a bank holiday on 5 March. The exact nature of Roosevelt’s proposals for governmental control of industry were not yet clear, and legislation hostile to the majors seemed a strong possibility. Hays held an emergency meeting of the MPPDA Board of Directors on the evening of 5 March and made it clear that more than economic action was required to deal with the crisis. The industry’s most compelling argument against an increased tax burden was that going to the movies was a necessary recreation, not a luxury. If legislators or the public accepted the reformers’ opinion that movies were positively harmful, the industry’s position became indefensible. Only a more rigid enforcement of the Production Code, Hays argued, could maintain public sympathy and defeat the pressure for federal intervention over its content policies and its financial operations. He persuaded the board to sign a “Reaffirmation of Objectives” acknowledging that “disintegrating influences” threatened “standards of production, standards of quality, standards of business practice,” and pledged them to the maintenance of “the higher business standards developed through years of cooperative effort.”

The Reaffirmation became the implement with which Hays began to reorganize the Code administration, instructing Wingate to tighten up its application. Significantly, Breen’s involvement in SRC operations was increased. Company heads wrote to producers that there was a “new deal in the matter of objectionable pictures from now on.” In April the entire MPPDA Board entrained for California to enforce stringent economies. Hays threatened producers that if they continued to evade the Code, he would take the issue first to the company heads in New York, then to the bankers and stockholders, and finally to the public. His rhetoric was embellished with apocalyptic threats of the consequences of another aberrant production bringing down legislative chaos and the “straight jacket” of federal censorship. Although little of this action was made public, the firmness of Hays’s stance was communicated to congressmen, producing the desired effect. Thalberg’s interpretation of the Code was one victim of the assertion of East Coast management control that signaled the end of Hollywood’s central producer system. His own illness and his absence from Hollywood from January to July made this change easier to accomplish.

A number of productions then nearing completion, among them Paramount’s adaptation of Sanctuary, THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE, and Warners’ BABY FACE , were held up for extensive revisions, in addition to those agreed on prior to the Reaffirmation. Other films, in earlier stages of production, were subject to equally drastic but less expensive insertions of “compensating moral values.” The tone of SRC correspondence changed: as one studio official explained to his producers, “prior to this time, we were told ‘it is recommended, etc.,’ but recently letters definitely state, ‘it is inadmissible, etc.’ or something equally definite.” In April, Wingate wrote to Merian C. Cooper, the head of production at RKO, about the new Constance Bennett picture BED OF ROSES , articulating the SRC’s effective policy change in his insistence that they “show some positive qualities of retribution and regeneration that will counter-balance this apparent glorifying of an unscrupulous adventuress … if the picture is to meet the general, as well as the specific provisions of the Code.”

The imposition of a “new deal” in regulation, with its emphasis on the reestablishment of an explicitly patriarchal moral order, coincided with the start of Roosevelt’s presidency. The new policy was evident in negotiations during the summer over RKO’s adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s best-selling novel Ann Vickers.Breen’s opinion that the script was “vulgarly offensive” was in line with the Catholic press’s condemnation of the book’s apparent endorsement of a female character who flouted moral convention. A defense arguing that the quality of the source material justified its technical infringement of the Code had been accepted by the producers jury over A FAREWELL TO ARMS in December 1932; the jury’s willingness to accept such sophistry persuaded Breen and Quigley that it must be eliminated. ANN VICKERS was shown no such mercy: Breen’s insistence that it have “a clear distinction between right and wrong” forced RKO to concede drastic plot changes and downgrade the production; its narrative coherence was damaged and its theme muddied to a point of internal contradiction.

The industry’s internal reformers, however, were far from satisfied. Although Breen had succeeded in asserting his interpretation of the Code in the first half of 1933, he recognized that it exerted an essentially negative authority. It had not yet instilled a “will to righteousness” among the studios, who still regarded it as “something to be ‘got around’ rather than an expression of fundamental purposes.” Wingate’s appointment had not been a success. He failed to establish a rapport with any of the studio heads and paid too much attention to details of elimination rather than the wider thematic concerns at the heart of Catholic objection. Breen had established his usefulness to the companies by doing what Wingate apparently could not: providing practical solutions to a studio’s problem in applying the Code, and thus protecting its investment. In a further reorganization of the SRC in August, Joy was recalled from Fox to deal with “the general flavor of the pictures,” while Wingate attended to “the narrower considerations of the censor point of view.” Breen relinquished his other work to concentrate full-time on self-regulation, and although Wingate continued in the position of director, Breen was in effect “responsible for the entire work” of the SRC from then on. Although he was now in a position to harass undesirable studio projects and eliminate the most objectionable material from Mae West’s I’ M NO ANGEL, Breen wanted to prevent such productions altogether. To achieve that would require external pressure.

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