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Regulating the Screen: The Office of War Information and the Production Code Administration - The PCA and the Prewar Movie Industry, Conclusion

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Regulating morality and politics on the screen was as critical from 1939 to 1945, during. a period of international crisis, as at any time in American film history. While the Production Code Administration (PCA) patrolled moral barricades, major issues arose about the movies’ content and their politics. After the PCA tried to eviscerate films against fascism from 1939 through 1941, the U.S. government decided wartime movies were too important to be left to the moviemakers. Through most of the war, the Office of War Information (OWI), the Roosevelt administration’s propaganda agency, engaged in the most systematic governmental effort to regulate content that has been seen in any American medium of popular culture.

Together the PCA, policing morality, and the OWI, guarding politics, regulated the American screen more tightly than at any time in its history. The process yielded improvements in film content in certain areas, evasions and outright falsifications in others, high profits, and few great pictures. The unprecedented collaboration between government and the motion picture oligopoly raised questions that go to the heart of issues about control of the media in a democratic society.

The PCA and the Prewar Movie Industry

In the late 1930s, Hollywood and the PCA were still primarily concerned with the sort of pictures that Will Hays liked to describe as “pure entertainment,” free of political or social controversy. The PCA under Joseph Breen devoted most of its attention to morality and vulgarity. His forceful administration of the Production Code provided what business prizes most: stability. Critics justifiably deplored the industry’s lack of innovation and aversion to serious subjects. Will Hays and the studio heads thought otherwise. They did not object to the movies’ conservative tone and aesthetics, and they were able to make memorable pictures within the Code’s strictures. In any case, the industry’s profitability since 1934 seemed justification enough. Hays and the Hollywood heads did not want to relive the intense criticism of the early 1930s, which had threatened to bring about tougher censorship (perhaps by the federal government) or antitrust action that would destroy the carefully crafted Hollywood oligopoly.

Although the PCA was a Hollywood fixture by the late 1930s, producers provoked controversies by pushing at the margins of the Code. One of the more recent and celebrated instances, as described in chapter 3, involved David O. Selznick’s showdown with Breen over Rhett Butler’s final line in GONE WITH THE WIND and Howard Hughes’s ongoing feud over the revealing shots of Jane Russell’s breasts in THE OUTLAW . Selznick prevailed, of course, and in fact the MPPDA board of directors not only allowed the line but amended the Code to allow damn and hell to be used in strictly limited cases. 2 Hughes, on the other hand, was ordered to cut some sixty seconds from THE OUTLAW —less than what was first demanded by Breen, who accurately anticipated the more drastic excisions demanded by local censor boards.

The confrontations over damn and décolletage afforded comic relief in what was to moral guardians a deadly serious struggle over the theme, tone, and subject matter of motion pictures. In fact, the Catholic Legion of Decency rarely found it necessary to disapprove of PCA-sanctioned pictures. Breen had stumbled, however, when he approved MGM’s STRANGE CARGO (1940). The Legion blasted it with a “C” (condemned) rating—the first such divergence between the Legion and the PCA since 1934—on the grounds that it promoted “naturalist religion.” The PCA was dumbfounded at this bit of theological arcana. The controversy was an aberration and faded quickly. 4 The Legion’s C rating for MGM’s TWO-FACED WOMAN in late 1941, shortly after Breen left the PCA for RKO, was an obvious attempt to reassert its authority and to bring Breen’s de facto successor, Geoffrey Shurlock, into line. 5 That incident amounted to little, finally, particularly in light of the U.S. entry into the war only a few weeks later.

While battles over marital infidelity, bared breasts, and profanity followed well-worn grooves by the late 1930s, the mounting international crisis that erupted into World War II posed new challenges to the PCA’s regulatory apparatus. Hitlers storm troopers, Mussolini’s Blackshirts, and the Spanish Civil War offered Hollywood intensely dramatic material. Though most Americans remained resolutely isolationist, many thoughtful observers grew increasingly alarmed about the implications of German, Italian, and Japanese aggression. Hollywood was an intensely political community. Its creative personnel were predominantly liberal to leftist; they were reinforced in the late 1930s by European émigrés who advocated stronger resistance to what they saw as international fascism. Yet little of Hollywood’s politics made the transition from the living room or the swimming pool to the screen.

Powerful structural barriers restricted politics on the screen. Hollywood usually eyes “message” pictures coldly, an attitude captured in the bromide attributed to Sam Goldwyn: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” Like most purveyors of popular culture, the studio moguls tended to view entertainment and social comment as incompatible. Louis B. Mayer’s philosophy, said the producer Pandro S. Berman, was that “we were selling beautiful women.…And he said if you’re selling beautiful women make them beautiful. Dress them beautifully. Make them up beautifully. And photograph them beautifully.” Many film industry heads were politically and socially conservative. Mayer was a Hoover Republican, and his favorite movies, the Andy Hardy series, betrayed his nostalgia for a waning Main Street domesticity. Cinema executives’ endorsement of the blacklisting of suspected Communists and mere liberals after World War II reflected not merely capitulation to pressure but recognition of their own views.

As seen in previous chapters, foreign trade reinforced Hollywood’s caution, since it often meant the difference between break-even and profit. The studio-distributors thus were wary of doing anything that might offend any sizable foreign market. They even went so far as to fire their Jewish employees in Germany when Hitler demanded it. It was no coincidence that studios felt bolder about making antifascist pictures after their films were barred from Germany and Italy in 1940 and the British market thereby assumed greater importance.

The movies’ position in American society was paradoxical. Their very popularity gave them power but also encouraged people to attribute great (probably excessive) influence to them. Ongoing anti-Semitic attacks on the Jewish-dominated industry encouraged the moguls, perennially uneasy about their status in their adopted country, to minimize the Jewish presence in the industry and avoid political positions that looked like special pleading for Jewish causes. Will Hays, the master Republican politico and Presbyterian elder, counseled industry self-regulation and avoidance of political controversy on the screen. Politics was not prohibited in the Code, but Hays often invoked the elastic rubric of “industry policy” to pressure studios not to make controversial pictures.

The mounting international crisis in 1937-1938 induced some producers to challenge the institutional barriers to political films. In late 1937, Hitler and Mussolini entered an alliance, which was soon followed by the Fuehrer’s Anschluss with Austria. The Spanish Republic fell to Franco’s Nationalist forces in March 1938, and in September the Munich sellout allowed Hitler to have his way with Czechoslovakia. Some of Hays’s lieutenants argued that the screen should be open to more political material, which would be helpful in countering the Justice Department’s antitrust suit against the industry in 1938. Filmmakers who attempted projects on the international crisis found, however, that the PCA still threw up roadblocks.

The PCA’s institutional bias against political films was reinforced by Breen’s anti-Semitism and anticommunism. Although he hid his anti-Semitism in Hollywood, his dislike of Jews poured out in confidential letters to fellow Catholics. “These Jews seem to think of nothing but money making and sexual indulgence,” said Breen. “They are, probably, the scum of the scum of the earth.” Seemingly unperturbed by the Axis powers’ anti-Jewish laws, he dismissed the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League as special pleading. It was “conducted and financed almost entirely by Jews,” he said, and used anti-Jewish measures to stir up hostility to Hitler. Breen was sympathetic enough to Mussolini and Hitler in the late 1930s to try to have criticism of their regimes balanced by recognition of their achievements. Like many Catholics, he endorsed Franco and despised the Soviet-aided Spanish Republic. Support for Franco and at least toleration of Hitler and Mussolini was of a piece with the Catholic Church’s anticommunism, as was fighting the anti-rightist organizations in Hollywood. Breen believed he was on the front line against red propaganda. In December 1937, he confided to Daniel J. Lord, the Jesuit who had been the Code’s chief author, that he was fighting nothing less than a movement to “capture the screen of the United States for Communistic propaganda purposes.” This hyperbolic statement strained credulity, but it indicated Breen’s determination to block or at least dilute criticism of the right."

In 1938, the independent producer Walter Wanger began work on BLOCKADE (1938), which he intended to be sympathetic to the Spanish Republic. Since the screenplay contained no Code violations of any consequence, Breen reluctantly approved it. He insisted, however, that the film avoid identifying either side, a condition that sharply reduced its meaning for the uninitiated. He let stand Henry Fonda’s impassioned appeal to the “conscience of the world,” since it was cast in vague, general terms. Detached from historical context, the film seems to be a generic war movie. Wanger himself described BLOCKADE as nothing more than a “melodramatic spy story and romance in a modem setting—colorful Spain.” The Catholic right nonetheless attacked the film as propaganda, the Legion of Decency warned against it, and Martin Quigley editorialized against it in his Motion Picture Herald . Some liberals, on the other hand, charged that Hays worked behind the scenes to sabotage exhibitions. The film had a marginally successful run. Under the PCA, the screen could not speak the name of the conflict that was on everyone’s lips.

The persistent, politically minded Wanger tried again with a more daring subject, a film based on the journalist Vincent Sheean’s best-selling Personal History . The reporter-hero discovers Franco’s brutality and Hitler’s anti-Semitism and rescues several Jews. Breen was unmoved by this factually based material, dismissing it as “pro-Loyalist propaganda…pro-Jewish propaganda, and anti-Nazi propaganda.” He warned Wanger that the film would cause him “enormous difficulty” and harm the industry. Wanger shelved the project until 1940, when he retitled it FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT , hired Alfred Hitchcock for his second Hollywood film, and reduced it to an espionage story with most of the politics left out.

The PCA was as solicitous of Mussolini as it was of Franco. When MGM bought the rights to Idiot’s Delight, Robert E. Sherwood’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of 1936, the Hays Office expressed opposition to the project. The play offended Mussolini’s government because it involved a surprise Italian air attack on Paris and condemned fascism. Trying to meet the objections of the Italian consul in Los Angeles, Breen demanded many changes in the screenplay (which Sherwood himself was bowdlerizing for a fee of $135,000). Metro agreed to most of them. Breen even carried the script to Rome on his vacation in 1938 and returned with the regime’s blessing. The studio finally drew the line when the consul wanted the title changed to further blur any identification with the play. IDIOT’S DELIGHT emerged in early 1939 as a showpiece for Clark Gable and Norma Shearer. Its antifascism was tamed, its location moved to “an Alpine never-never land,” and its language “denatured into esperanto.”


Eager to close down war agencies, President Harry Truman abolished the OWI effective 31 August 1945. For three years the propagandists policed film politics while the PCA maintained its accustomed watch over morality and propriety. Hollywood, initially fearful of government demands, learned that propaganda and popular culture were remarkably compatible—and even highly profitable. The studios proved to be surprisingly compliant, once they were reassured that the OWI would not impair their control of production and learned that cooperation paid big dividends with foreign distribution. The OWI’s Bureau of Motion Pictures noted happily that from September 1943 to August 1944 the studios changed screenplays in 71 percent of the cases where the agency made suggestions or registered objections. 55

The OWI added a degree of seriousness and political sophistication to wartime filmmaking. The agency labored within the constraints that the historian Robert A. Rosenstone has noted of feature films: “Dramatic features put individuals in the fore-front of the historical process, which means that the solution of their personal problems or their individual redemption substitutes itself for the solution of historical problems.” 56 SINCE YOU WENT AWAY, TENDER COMRADE, and PRIDE OF THE MARINES were cases in point. In some instances, the OWI’s intervention improved wartime representations: labor unions received better treatment than they otherwise might have, important distinctions were made between the German people and their Nazi overlords, and the ideals for which the Allies fought received more recognition than filmmaking conventions ordinarily allowed. In many cases, however, the OWI supplanted old Hollywood myths with new ones cut to fit wartime fashion. Too often they entailed evasion, distortion, and outright falsification.

The OWI avoided the excesses of the World War I Creel Committee, and the agency was different in kind from the Nazi and Soviet propaganda agencies. The OWI’s regulation of Hollywood was not so bad as state control of the cinema in Germany and the Page 281  Soviet Union (where, ironically, the studios ground out chiefly nonpolitical escape pictures during the war). 57 And yet in its short life, the American propaganda agency raised in a milder form the danger that government regulation may reinforce the narrow range of opinions expressed by a popular culture oligopoly as it follows a corporate strategy of limiting the scope of permissible content.

Breen’s Production Code Administration held to its rigid interpretation of the Code in the face of wartime social upheaval. Moral standards were in flux as a restless nation—and particularly young adults—experienced unprecedented challenges to social conventions. Marriage, birth, and divorce rates soared. Cut loose from their home communities, millions of Americans experienced new sexual freedom. They now enjoyed the experiences the Production Code forbade the movies to display openly or without condemnation. Breen detected “a distinct tendency toward moral laxity” in the material which the studios submitted. But he saw the Code as an expression of unchanging moral precepts. He assured Will Hays that the PCA “uniformly and impartially rejected all such unacceptable material.” Lapses from Breen’s earlier watchfulness could be cited: the chorus line in the Carmen Miranda spectacle THE GANG’S ALL HERE (1943) that swings giant papier-mâché bananas in and out between their legs; the light treatment of marriage in Preston Sturges’s madcap THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S C REEK; the adultery and murder that gave DOUBLE INDEMNITY a “sordid flavor.” Yet the quiescence of watchdog groups, notably the Legion of Decency, testified to Breen’s ability to steer films clear of dangerous territory.

Breen needed all his resolve as the PCA faced new regulatory challenges after the war. With the Legion dug in behind the PCA, every inch of liberated footage in Hollywood would be hard fought. Postwar films like DUEL IN THE SUN prefigured growing opposition to the PCA. From 1939 through 1945, the PCA and the OWI had steered Hollywood through upheavals in morality and politics. Most of the challenges since mid-1934 had focused on particular points of interpretation. By the late 1940s, however, the very notion of the Code came under attack. The Code—and indeed the very structure of the industry—was living on borrowed time. The stability—and the concomitant limitations—that such regulation of content had brought to the industry would face an unprecedented threat in the changing economic, cultural, and moral climate of postwar America.

Reichs, Kathleen J. - Author and forensic anthropologist, Career, Sidelights, Selected writings, Nonfiction, Novels [next] [back] Regnault, Henri Victor

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