Other Free Encyclopedias » Online Encyclopedia » Encyclopedia - Featured Articles » Contributed Topics from P-T » The Production Code and the Hays Office -  , Implementing the Code, 1930-1931

The Crusade: Staging the Crisis, 1934

breen legion production code

Catholics hoped to incorporate the Production Code into the industry’s NRA Code, so that the Production Code “will become part of the contract between the producers and the government and involve the usual penalties for violation.” In the final document, the industry pledged itself “to maintain right moral standards in the production of motion pictures” and “to adhere to the regulations made within the industry to attain this purpose,” but this “pledge” fell short of an unequivocal inclusion of the Production Code’s enforcement procedures within the jurisdiction of the NRA Code Authority. Breen, in an almost constant conspiratorial correspondence with Quigley, Parsons, Lord, and others pursued a separate strategy, aiming for a public demonstration of Catholic Action. Their first proposal was for a “national protest week” in which Catholics would lead a boycott of theaters. Hays, they agreed, “can do nothing if the producers will not cooperate. … What we need to have is … direct action that will reach the producers … such action must be mass action by a large number of people at once, so that it will be felt and understood for what it is.”

By late August, Breen had persuaded Bishop Cantwell of Los Angeles to propose “that the Bishops come out with a definite condemnation of bad pictures” at their annual meeting in November. Anticipating that meeting and to some extent forcing the bishops’ hands, Parsons arranged for the new apostolic delegate to the United States to call for “a united and vigorous campaign for the purification of the cinema, which has become a deadly menace to morals.” In November the bishops established the Episcopal Committee on Motion Pictures, chaired by Archbishop McNicholas of Cincinnati, advised by Parsons and, through him, Breen and Quigley. Plans were evolved through a series of meetings in March 1934, and on 11 April the committee announced the proposal to recruit the Legion of Decency. The Legion constituted an extension of the national protest week plan: initially, it lacked any permanent organizational structure and amounted essentially to a publicity campaign, in which Catholics signed a pledge condemning “those salacious motion pictures which, with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land,” and promising “to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality.”

The Legion was in no sense a spontaneous expression of public feeling: although its principal weapon appeared to be the economic one of a threatened boycott of films or theaters, its real power lay in its capacity to generate anti-industry publicity across a broad front. The Legion campaign was delicately orchestrated to achieve a precise objective: the effective enforcement of the Production Code by the existing machinery. It was designed to intimidate producers, not to inflict major economic damage. It had three stages. First, the bishops had to be persuaded to adopt a strategy that avoided linking Code enforcement to block booking, differentiated the Legion from the MPRC, and made it clear that it had “no purpose or desire to tell the picture people how to run their business.” Breen and Quigley were determined to get rid of the producers jury, but Hays rejected a proposal to replace it with a separate committee of Catholic laymen in Hollywood or New York. In March, Breen devised a plan by which the Episcopal Committee would threaten boycotts in Philadelphia, Chicago, and “half a dozen of the larger cities” where one of the major companies had large theater holdings. The fact that the only actual boycott of any size occurred in Philadelphia was not accidental: it was directed against the extensive theater holdings of Warner Bros., the last intransigent opponent of Breen’s full implementation of the Code in the spring of 1934.

The second stage, which started with the announcement of the Legion, involved convincing producers that they had to accede to the committee’s terms and agreeing precisely what those terms were. Throughout May, Breen bombarded the studio heads with bulletins describing the activities of the Legion and other reform groups on an almost daily basis in an attempt to persuade them of the seriousness of their situation. The Episcopal Committee met on 20 May, after which the bishops both proposed terms to Hays and took further action, including initiating the Philadelphia boycott. This was reported as causing a 40 percent drop in receipts. It significantly increased the press attention paid to the Legion campaign and provoked the companies to action. On 13 June, Breen was called to New York for an emergency meeting of the MPPDA Board that changed the Resolution for Uniform Interpretation. The SRC was renamed the Production Page 61  Code Administration (PCA), with Breen as its director and an augmented staff. The producers jury was eliminated, leaving appeal to the MPPDA Board as the only mechanism for questioning Breen’s judgment. Each film passed by the PCA would be given a certificate, displayed on every print. All member companies agreed not to distribute or release a film without a certificate. Breen and Quigley were authorized to present these proposals to the Episcopal Committee’s next meeting on 20 June, and negotiate any further conditions the committee required. The one condition it added was the addition of a penalty clause imposing a $25,000 fine for violation of the new Resolution for Uniform Interpretation. The board agreed to this on 3 July, but gave it no publicity; although it was later assumed to be the “sanction” that Lord had long demanded the Code have, it was in practice no more than window dressing. Any attempt to collect it would probably have constituted a breach of the antitrust laws. None was ever made.

The third phase, public implementation, began after agreement was secured on 21 June and corresponded with the height of public attention being paid to the campaign. The Association declared that if these changes did not “prove to be a finally effective method of securing the uniformly high standard of pictures toward which the industry has been working by trial and error for some years … some other method will be found.” Its members would permit exhibitors the right to cancel any film released prior to 15 July, against which there was “a genuine protest on moral grounds.” This action, which was widely but incorrectly interpreted as a temporary suspension of block booking, received more press coverage and favorable comment than the creation of the PCA. Meanwhile, Quigley, Breen, Parsons, and other prominent Catholics were acting to limit the economic effects of Legion action. In the triumphalism of Catholic discussion after the July announcements, there was much talk of Quigley having Hays under his thumb, but that considerably exaggerated the influence that Hays had conceded. If Breen and Quigley’s role in orchestrating the Legion campaign had to be hidden from the producers, it was even more imperative that Hays’s compliance with their activities be concealed. Hays had used Breen, Quigley, and their perception of his powerlessness to engineer the result he desired, without risking his own position. 53 In the aftermath of the July “victory,” there was much internal dissension among the Catholics principally involved, particularly over the publication of “black lists,” which Quigley, in keeping with long-term Association policy, strongly opposed. Lord and, less publicly, Mundelein felt that Quigley and Breen had sold the Legion out to the producers.

As a meeting of heads of publicity and advertising pointed out, given the climax the crisis had reached by mid 1934, it was in the industry’s best interests to make a show of atonement. Industry publicity emphasized the scale of the 1934 crisis in order to create a dividing line between “before,” when the SRC had been unable to control production, and “now,” when PCA “self-regulation” had really become effective. The establishment of this policy was more important than the maintenance of existing release schedules, which should be altered so as only to release “the strongest available pictures.” As a result of this need for a public act of contrition, the history of the SRC’s gradual implementation of the Production Code was concealed behind a more apocalyptic account. The immediate purpose behind this exaggeration was less to flatter the Catholics than to outmaneuver the MPRC, independent exhibitors, and other groups still Page 62  demanding federal regulation. In that respect, it was highly successful, if only temporarily.

In fact, Breen had largely won the internal battle by March, when Fox, RKO, Universal, and Columbia were showing “a definite willingness to do the right thing,” and there was “some progress” at Paramount and Twentieth Century. In April, MGM’s TARZAN was rejected by a producers jury; approval of other films was withheld until a number of major changes were made. In late March the MPPDA Board agreed that Production Code correspondence should be copied and sent to company heads in New York; and in April, Hays required each studio to appoint an individual to act as liaison between the studio and the SRC. These decisions reduced the extent to which studio management could resist Breen’s demands, and although individual films continued to create difficulties, even Lord congratulated Breen on the overall standard of current releases in May. The major problems in the period around the Legion’s formation were created by two Warner films, DR . MONICA and MADAME DU BARRY, and Mae West’s IT AIN’T NO SIN, which Breen rejected on 2 June. Within four days Paramount had produced a substantially reedited version that Breen was prepared to pass. Quigley, however, was wary of the danger of releasing a West film with so provocative a title at precisely the moment that the new structure was being enacted. On 22 June, the day after the Cincinnati meeting, the New York censor board rejected IT AIN’T NO SIN. It went back to Hollywood for further reconstruction.

With the implementation of the agreement in mid July, conditions tightened further. As in March 1933, a number of films were withheld from release, and drastic reconstruction undertaken: the conversion of Jean Harlow’s 100% PURE into THE GIRL FROM MISSOURI and of IT AIN’T NO SIN into BELLE OF THE NINETIES were the most prominent instances. The modifications to IT AIN’T NO SIN made between its rejection by New York in June and its granting of a PCA Seal in mid August were much less drastic than the changes Paramount had agreed to in early June. The delay in the film’s release had, however, achieved Quigley’s goal of not immediately confronting the Catholic compromise with what other reformers might call a blatant transgression. A number of films then in circulation were withdrawn before the end of their release cycle: many more were refused certification over the next few years when companies attempted to re-release them. Other films in production, including THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET , BORDERTOWN, and IMITATION OF LIFE underwent substantial modifications; proposed projects, including MGM’s plan to adapt James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, were rejected. The immediate impact was apparent, principally in that companies avoided submitting problem scripts. Breen told Hays in August that “never during the two and a half years that we have been writing these reports has the preponderance of scripts of the right kind over questionable ones been so noticeable.”

In another important respect, production policy had changed dramatically in early 1934. Hays had consistently tried to persuade producers to undertake large-scale productions designed to appeal to the public relations groups and to create “a new movie-going public recruited from the higher income earning classes … which better pictures would transform from casual to regular patrons.” Most of these films, from OLD IRONSIDES to WITH COMMANDER BYRD AT THE POLE, were box-office failures. The policy’s first substantial commercial success was RKO’s LITTLE WOMEN: despite the film’s not being released until 24 November 1933, Motion Picture Herald reported it as the fourth box-office champion of the year. Hays told RKO studio head B. B. Kahane that LITTLE WOMEN “may open a new type of source material.” Less predictably, Ned Depinet, the president of RKO Distribution, declared that its success meant that “the public is hungry for something clean and wholesome—particularly fathers and mothers who have been worried about the movie entertainment that their children have been seeing.” The film’s success was in part brought about by a marketing strategy aiming it at school audiences via large-scale direct-mail advertising to teachers. This strategy became a crucial implement in the sales campaigns used on the “better pictures” produced after 1934. The wave of Hollywood adaptations of literary classics and historical biographies designed to appeal to the middle-class readers of Parents’ Magazine and Ladies’ Home Journal resulted directly from the requirements of the industry’s public relations, but it relied on the discovery of a successful method of selling the films. The MPPDA’s long-term policy of cooperation with teachers’ organizations as a way to “improve the quality of demand” came to fruition in the 1934-35 production season, with the regular use of study guides sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of English. The guides became a regular attachment to the prestige productions of 1934-35 and subsequent seasons; they were widely circulated, with print runs of several hundred thousand. The educational tie-ins were also crucial to the economics of such productions, since they could be used by distributors to justify the film’s exhibition in neighborhood and rural areas where such films were frequently canceled. In November 1934, Milliken announced that “the list of authors whose works will appear on the screen during the 1934-35 season is headed by Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens, Poe, Tolstoy and Dumas,” and insisted, correctly, that these productions had been planned well before “the healthy, nation-wide discussion of clean pictures this summer.”

The cycle of these comparatively high-budget historical pieces continued through the middle years of the decade. Max Reinhardt’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, Thalberg’s ROMEO AND JULIET, and such movies as CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE and THE BUCCANEER were also aimed at convincing middle-class America of the bourgeois respectability of the cinema. In January 1935, Variety correctly surmised that “the files of history” were less likely to offend “the Church and other busybody factions.” For a while, at least, this partial retirement from the present pleased a much wider constituency than just the better-films councils. At the end of 1934, New York Times critic André Sennwald wrote,

The Legion of Decency … has performed a service to filmgoers everywhere by crippling the manufacture of such feeble-minded delicatessen as All of Me, Born to Be Bad … and a number of others which will hurt nobody by their presence on the Legion’s blacklist. … There has been an obvious improvement in themes and a noticeable diminution in the kind of appalling cheapness and unintelligence which filmgoers deplore without regard to private allegiance of faith or creed. (Quoted in Murray Schumach, The Face on the Cutting Room Floor: The Story of Movie and Television Censorship [New York: Morrow, 1964], p. 88)

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or