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Propaganda, Politics, and the Production Code Administration

pca political hollywood war

Interestingly enough, the anti-Communist political probes during the prewar era focused on the infiltration of leftist ideologues into Hollywood labor unions rather than on the infiltration of leftist ideology into movies themselves. Other groups were sounding this alarm, however, notably conservative political and religious organizations like the American Legion and the Catholic Knights of Columbus. At the same time, isolationist politicians and political groups were increasingly vocal in their criticism of the movies’ pro-war, pro-military, and pro-Allies themes and subjects. As with the labor discord, these conflicts indicated the heightened political stakes for Hollywood before the war, as well as the general inability of the industry’s internal mechanisms, especially the MPPDA and its subagency, the Production Code Administration (PCA), to manage these crises.

The PCA was scarcely designed or equipped to handle overtly political matters, of course. Its primary function was to uphold the Production Code, a doctrine of movie ethics written in 1930 at the request of the MPPDA president Will Hays and designed, in the words of its preamble, to uphold “the larger moral responsibility of the motion   pictures.” 125 This responsibility was defined almost entirely in terms of sexual and criminal deviance, which were very much at issue in the early 1930s. Since its creation in 1934 under the leadership of Joseph Breen, the PCA (also known as the Breen Office) had interacted with producers and studio executives to regulate movie content, while the MPPDA fended off outside efforts to censor or otherwise control movie content.

Code enforcement had become standard operating procedure in the industry by 1940, with the vast majority of pictures made in complete compliance with the Code. But there were a number of serious internal Code challenges, particularly from leading independent producers on high-stakes, first-run productions. Most of these involved familiar PCA territory—sex, violence, profanity, criminal behavior—as with the well-known 1939 controversy over Rhett Butlers parting epithet to Scarlett at the end of GONE WITH THE WIND. The latter was little more than a Selznick-inspired publicity stunt, however, and scarcely indicated what the PCA was up against at the time. A much better indication was another Selznick production, R EBECCA, based on Daphne du Maurier’s best-selling novel whose male hero gets away with murder. The PCA found that plot line unacceptable, leading to a bitter, yearlong struggle with Selznick over the adaptation. The PCA prevailed: in the film version the death is accidental. This change incensed Selznick, who appealed to his partners to mount a “fight against so insane and inane and outmoded a Code as that under which the industry is now struggling.”

That campaign was conducted behind the scenes, but other producers were willing to go public about the Code. The most notable of these was the independent producer Howard Hughes, who conducted a much-publicized battle over THE OUTLAW (1943), an “adult Western” featuring Hughes’s most recent female protégée, Jane Russell. The PCA approved the script, a bit of revisionist Western history featuring Russell as a libidinous dance-hall girl who comes between Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. But then in early 1941, the PCA rejected the finished film, which had been directed by Hughes himself after Howard Hawks left the project. PCA concerns about THE OUTLAW centered on several dozen “breast shots”—scenes in which camera position or costuming, in the PCA’s view, overemphasized Russell’s figure. Breen instructed Hughes to reshoot the scenes with Russell “recostumed,” or the PCA would not grant THE OUTLAW a Code seal. Without a Code seal, a film could not be released through any of the eight MPPDA distributors. 127 Hughes refused to comply and publicly chastised Breen, the Code, and the MPPDA’s “monopoly” not only over movie distribution but also over the nation’s social and sexual mores. While T HE O UTLAW was shelved for the time being, Hughes’s well-orchestrated anti-Code publicity campaign kept the picture (and Jane Russell’s image) very much in the public eye.

Breen’s battles with Selznick and Hughes indicated two important factors in prewar Hollywood: first, that there was growing resistance within Hollywood to the strictures of the Code; and second, that Code resistance was more likely to come from major independent producers and in pictures geared to more sophisticated urban audiences. These challenges involved areas that the PCA was designed to regulate, and the PCA generally did handle such challenges, although often with obvious difficulty. There were other challenges of a more topical and political nature, however, which the PCA—and the MPPDA as well—proved woefully ill equipped to handle. Most of these involved political and war-related issues, and here too the challenges tended to involve independent prestige-level pictures.

Among the chief critics of the Code’s political constraints was Walter Wanger, a leading independent producer whose battles with Breen over political content dated back to BLOCKADE, a 1938 picture set against the Spanish Civil War. In 1939, Wanger again was battling the PCA, this time while making FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940), an espionage thriller set in Europe with Nazi antagonists and based on a recent nonfiction best-seller, Personal History by Vincent Sheean. PCA restrictions infuriated Wanger, resulting in a very public debate with the MPPDA president Will Hays conducted in speeches, in the pages of trade journals, and in the New York Times and various national news magazines. In a February 1939 letter to the New York Times, Wanger argued that the PCA was wedded to a “formulated theory of pure entertainment,” which was “making impossible the honest handling of important truths and ideas.” 128 Days later, Will Hays issued his annual MPPDA report, which reasserted precisely that theory: “The screen has handled successfully themes of contemporary thought in dramatic and vivid form and presented the subject matter as splendid entertainment, rather than propaganda.” 129 A few weeks later, in response to the suggestion that there was a movie trend, as Variety put it, toward more “realistic and contemporary themes,” the PCA flatly denied that there would be “any tampering with the production code or lightening of PCA regulations.”

By 1940-1941, however, as the war in Europe intensified and as the likelihood of U.S. intervention increased, Hays and Breen could scarcely discourage filmmakers from taking on geopolitical and war-related subjects. Indeed, Roosevelt personally appealed to the movie industry in 1940 to support both the defense buildup at home and the Allied effort overseas. The industry complied, initially with documentary and newsreel coverage, and by 1941 with a steady increase of war-related features. The studios also began producing training and informational films for both the government and the military. Roosevelt responded to these efforts with a letter of appreciation to be read at the Academy Awards banquet in early 1941. Meanwhile, the nation?s isolationist contingent chastised Hollywood’s interventionist turn and frequently invoked the term "propaganda"—a loaded term at the time, of course, given the nationalization of the film industries in Germany and Italy and their conversion into state propaganda agencies.

In the midst of the growing turmoil, Hays and the PCA were hit with a severe shock in May 1941 when Joe Breen announced his resignation. After running the PCA with single-handed, single-minded authority since its creation in 1934, Breen unexpectedly decided to take a position at RKO as general manager of the studio. 132 Breen was replaced as PCA president by his former assistant, Geoffrey Shurlock, then the senior member of the nine-man Hollywood-based censorship board. The British-born Shurlock was a devout Anglican with cultivated tastes and considerable PCA experience, having been with the MPPDA since 1932, but it soon became evident that he was less adept than Breen at handling the problems that now faced the agency.

Perhaps the best indication of Shurlock’s deficiencies—in judgment as well as political savvy—occurred a few months later in a confrontation with the PCA’s familiar nemesis, the Catholic Legion of Decency. In October 1941, Shurlock awarded a Code seal of approval to MGM’s new Greta Garbo picture, TWO-FACED WOMAN. The picture was a follow-up to Metros 1939 comedy hit NINOTCHKA, again teaming Garbo and Melvyn Douglas in a screwball romance—this time in a tale of mistaken identity wherein Garbo masquerades as her own twin sister, seduces her wayward husband, and finally reveals her true identity in a climactic comic comeuppance. Variety’s review of the film termed it “a wild and occasionally risqué, slapstick farce” but questioned “just how some of the lines of dialogue escaped the [PCA] scissors.” The Legion of Decency wondered the same thing and gave TWO-FACED WOMAN a “C” (condemned) rating—which rendered the film off-limits to the millions of American Catholics.

Both MGM and the PCA initially tried to weather the storm, and Variety noted in early December that the outcry actually may have boosted the picture’s box office. 134 But the opposition steadily grew. TWO-FACED WOMAN was banned by censor boards in Providence, Boston, and elsewhere, while scenes were ordered cut by boards in Omaha, Chicago, Milwaukee, and other cities. 135 The Catholic Church continued to pressure MGM, with Archbishop Francis Spellman of New York reiterating the Legion’s condemnation. In December, MGM finally relented and, in an unprecedented and costly move, withdrew the movie from release. Garbo and Douglas were called back to Metro to film a new scene in which the husband learns of his wife’s masquerade early in the story and thus simply pretends to be yielding to his sister-in-law’s charms. 136 The picture was then re-released, but the damage apparently was done: TWO-FACED WOMAN died at the box office.

The TWO-FACED WOMAN flap coincided with another regulatory crisis in late 1941, and one which underscored the increasingly complex political stakes for Hollywood, as well as the industry’s vulnerability to outside attack. This crisis involved the so-called propaganda hearings convened in Washington, D.C., in September 1941 by a cadre of isolationist senators who decided to take on the movie industry in a grandiose (if somewhat desperate) stand against the tide of interventionism. Gauging Hollywood as an ideal target due to the antitrust and anti-Communist assaults it had sustained, Senators Burton K. Wheeler of Montana and Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota demanded that the Interstate Commerce Committee investigate what Nye termed the Hollywood “propaganda machine,” which was run by the studios “almost as if they were being operated by a central agency.” The committee hearings focused on seventeen “war-mongering” feature films, a dozen of which were produced in Hollywood—including Wanger’s FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT and Charlie Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940)—along with four British imports and one other studio-released foreign picture.

The Senate hearings convened on 9 September 1941, with the former Republican presidential nominee and renowned jurist Wendell Willkie serving as Hollywood’s counsel (for a fee of $100,000). Will Hays was called to testify along with several top studio executives, but the MPPDA and its president were scarcely a factor in the hearings. Indeed, it was Willkie who mounted Hollywood’s defense and quite literally stole the show. Senator Nye set the tone of the investigation by describing the movies in question as “the most vicious propaganda ever unloosed on a civilized people” and suggesting they were the result of a veritable conspiracy by a cabal of foreign-born Jews. Willkie deftly reframed the terms of the isolationists’ argument, putting the senators on the defensive from the outset. Nye repeatedly played into Willkie’s hands—denying, for instance, that prejudice or xenophobia motivated his allegations, then adding: “If anti-Semitism exists in America, the Jews have themselves to blame.” 138 Willkie mounted a spirited, high-minded defense, charging that Nye and Wheeler hoped “to foster and Page 40  create public prejudice against the industry,” to discourage “accurate and factual pictures on Nazism,” to influence industry portrayal of “the national defense program,” and “to divide the American people in discordant racial and religious groups in order to disunite them over foreign policy.”

Public and press support immediately swung to Willkie and the movie industry. Soon there was open support from Washington as well, with FDR praising Hollywood’s war effort and Senator Ernest McFarland of Arizona threatening to ask the Dies Committee to investigate the isolationists. 140 By October, Nye and Wheeler had completely lost the initiative, and the hearings lapsed into a series of adjournments and postponements. In mid-November, the proceedings were suspended for Thanks giving; on 26 November, they were postponed indefinitely with no plans for resumption.

The Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor and U.S. entry into World War II only a few weeks later not only rendered the charges of propaganda moot but resulted in the government effectively ordering Hollywood to become precisely the kind of national propaganda agency the isolationists feared. There were no further outside attacks once Hollywood assumed that role, of course. After Pearl Harbor, the movie industry’s rapport with the government changed completely, as did its role in setting the nation’s social and political agenda. In fact, U.S. entry into the war stemmed the tide of industry criticism and interference from virtually all outside forces—Congress, the Justice Department, the Legion of Decency, anti-Communist crusaders, national labor organizations, and so on. The drive against Hollywood was, in the parlance of the day, suspended “for the duration.”

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