The Production Code and the Hays Office

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The Production Code and the Hays Office

The Origins of the Code
Implementing the Code, 1930-1931
The "Crusader": Containing the Crisis, 1932-1933
The Crusade: Staging the Crisis, 1934
The Code as Convention: 1935-1939

Richard Maltby

On 24 August 1939, Joseph Breen, the director of the Production Code Administration (PCA), wrote to Harry Cohn about the draft script for a remake of The Front Page, then called The Bigger They Are. With a few exceptions, he noted, the script "appears to be acceptable under the provisions of the Production Code and reasonably free from the suggestion of difficulty at the hands of political censor boards." The exceptions included a warning that the British Board of Film Censors "will not approve any motion picture, in which any of the characters are, even suggestively, insane," and advice that the studio should shoot a "protection shot" of a gallows scene, since American states and foreign countries that did not have capital punishment "almost invariably deleted" such scenes. "Political" censor boards (as municipal, state, and foreign censorship authorities were always described) were also likely to delete "the talk about 'production for use only,' and 'doing away with the profit system.' " On his own behalf, Breen merely wanted the word "lousy" eliminated, together with any suggestion that the character of Mollie Malloy was a prostitute. In a separate letter, Breen also noted that the script "suggests to our minds the possibility that your story may carry an objectionable reflection on newspapers … and as such, give serious offense to persons engaged in that profession."

Five days later, Breen met with producer Sam Briskin and director Howard Hawks, and amiably resolved the difficulties Breen had raised: the character of Earl Williams "will not be played as an insane man, but rather as a confused soul"; the "drunken newspapermen will be cut out of the story entirely." The smooth passage of His Girl Friday through the machinery of the Production Code was unremarkable; Breen and his officials were simply checking that the rough edges had been polished off the movie so that it would not snag on the sensibilities of anyone, particularly anyone of influence, who might see it. The studio knew the rules: leaving a word like "lousy" (the British always deleted it) or a phrase like "a common streetwalker" in the script was little more than carelessness on the writer's part. All the celebrated improvisation that went on around Hawks's set was similarly circumscribed by a set of conventions that were by 1939 completely assimilated within Hollywood's system of production. The one issue about which His Girl Friday did cause concern was not to do with the Code as such but with a question of "industry policy." Earlier in the decade, the American Newspaper Publishers Association and the American Society of Newspaper Editors had been much exercised by the movies' representation of their profession. The industry's own trade association, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA, commonly called the Hays Office), was as concerned not to antagonize pressure groups and opinion makers as it was to anticipate, through "self-regulation," the likely actions of political censors.

His Girl Friday ran the risk of antagonizing newspapermen for two reasons. Its source, The Front Page, had been one of the principal causes of upset when Howard Hughes had first filmed it in 1931, and Columbia had thoroughly antagonized the Washington press corps, as well as the Senate, by portraying them as "cynical but lovable drunkards" who "winked their eyes at political corruption" in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, released in October 1939. The MPPDA's president, Will Hays, had warned Breen of "the trouble that would flow" Columbia's way, were they to repeat the offense so soon. In the event, the newspapermen took the joke, but if MPPDA officials now seem to have been humorless, they were merely doing what they were there for—safeguarding the industry against organized criticism, wherever it might come from.1

The Code is best known for the trivia of its requirements that, for instance, married couples sleep in single beds. It has also been held responsible for the trivialization of American movies and blamed for Hollywood's timidity and lack of realism. These charges both overestimate and underestimate its influence. The Code contributed significantly to Hollywood's avoidance of contentious subject matter, but it did so as the instrument of an agreed industry-wide policy, not as the originating source of that policy. On the other hand, within its sphere of influence, it was a determining force on the construction of narrative and the delineation of character in every studio-produced film after 1931. Public arguments about the Code's application—over Clark Gable's last line in Gone with the Wind, for example—have themselves tended to be over trivia and have therefore supported claims that the Code was a trivializing document. The agreements that underlay the Code, amounting to a consensus over what constituted appropriate entertainment for an undifferentiated mass audience in America and, by default, the rest of the world, have received less attention. That consensus embraced the major companies and civic and governmental organizations that either took responsibility or expressed concern for the moral well-being of cinema audiences in the United States and elsewhere. Hollywood's married movie stars slept in single beds to meet a requirement of the British Board of Film Censors.

As clearly as a comparison of Little Caesar and Angels with Dirty Faces or of Blonde Venus and Stella Dallas, a comparison of The Front Page and His Girl Friday charts the distance between films of the early and late 1930s: a political satire set in the "mythical kingdom" of Chicago, in which an audience who read the tabloids would have no difficulty recognizing the burlesque of Mayor "Big Bill" Thompson, was transformed into a romantic comedy of remarriage that could take place nowhere else except in the mythical kingdom of Hollywood—a comedy that was, by common critical consent, an improvement on the original. The history of Hollywood in the 1930s has often been characterized as having two distinct phases: Robert Sklar's terminology of "the Golden Age of Turbulence" and "the Golden Age of Order" remains the most elegant and concise expression of this account.

Until recently, histories of the Production Code have largely relied on the "official" descriptions of its development provided by Will Hays in his Memoirs and Raymond Moley in his laudatory account The Hays Office. Maintaining that despite the best intentions of the MPPDA and the producers, the Code was not effectively enforced in the early 1930s, Moley asserted that "the years 1930–1933 passed without a notable improvement in the quality of pictures and without the elimination of those objectionable themes and treatments which had brought about the creation and adoption of the Code." Although Hays suggested that "it would be oversimplification to say that the industry adopted a moral code and then promptly forgot it until a rearoused public threatened a boycott," he conceded that "as the steady pull-down of external forces went on" in 1932–1933, movie content "gradually took a turn for the worse." Their version of events adheres to the requirements of a familiar early Depression Hollywood story, in which the industry appears as a fallen woman, led by economic hardship into immoral behavior and a fall from grace. Being a Hollywood story, there is a happy ending when Hollywood, the fallen woman, is rescued from sin and federal censorship by virtuous hero Joe Breen riding at the head of the Catholic Legion of Decency. The culmination of the Legion's campaign against immoral movies, the July 1934 agreement between the MPPDA and the Roman Catholic hierarchy to fully implement the Production Code, is regarded in these "official" accounts as a watershed separating the two halves of the decade.2

Most subsequent histories of the period have reiterated the "official" account without fully recognizing the extent to which Hays and Moley chose to emphasize the success of the industry's 1934 "reformation" by accepting the most conservative criticisms of earlier films. Historians have, for instance, noted the existence of a vocal campaign against the purported moral viciousness of Hollywood movies, and tended to assume that Hollywood movies of the early 1930s must have been morally vicious, or at least socially and culturally disruptive. Edward Buscombe wrote,

Los Angeles: American Film Institute, 1984], p. 8">

Suppose for the sake of argument that scarcely any Hollywood films of the 1930s were actively hostile to capitalism in a direct political sense. One could nevertheless make a case for saying that Hollywood was in certain ways strongly subversive of the dominant sexual ideology. How else can one explain the outrage of groups such as the League [sic] of Decency and Hollywood's attempts to censor itself through the adoption of the Motion Picture Production Code? ("Bread and Circuses: Economics and the Cinema," in Patricia Mellencamp and Philip Rosen, eds., Cinema Histories, Cinema Practices [Los Angeles: American Film Institute, 1984], p. 8)

The dominant critical paradigm has accepted and inverted the perspective of contemporary moral reformers, valorizing as subversive, for instance, what reviewers at that time denounced as "the fashion for romanticizing gangsters." In many accounts, such assumptions are confirmed by a critical interpretation of around twenty-five movies—roughly one percent of Hollywood's total output of feature films during the period 1930–1934—taken to be representative of Hollywood's output during the early 1930s. With little justification offered for the particular selection beyond its familiarity, "pre-Code" Hollywood is represented by "Some Anarcho-Nihilist Laff Riots" featuring the Marx Brothers, the subversion of dominant sexual ideology by Mae West and Marlene Dietrich, Warners' social-conscience films, and a trio of gangster movies. The classical Hollywood narrative of The Hays Office is read against the grain, so that the happy ending of July 1934 is understood ironically as an instance of repressive closure.3

The account offered here revises this history in a number of respects. In suggesting that the issues and motivations behind "self-regulation" were more complex and were determined more by economic considerations than by matters of film content, it also argues that the events of July 1934 are best seen not as the industry's reaction to a more or less spontaneous outburst of moral protest backed by economic sanction, but as the culmination of a lengthy process of negotiation within the industry and between its representatives and those speaking with the voices of cultural authority. The differences between movies made in the early 1930s and those made later in the decade are undeniable, but the change was gradual rather than cataclysmic, the negotiation, by experiment and expedient, of a system of conventional representation that was constructed in the first half of the decade and maintained in the second. Only one of that system's two governing principles was stated in the Production Code itself: "No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it." This was the law by which a strict moral accountancy was imposed on Hollywood's plots. Its antithesis, which Ruth Vasey has aptly called "the principle of deniability," was a particular kind of ambiguity, a textual indeterminacy that shifted the responsibility for determining what the movie's content was away from the producer to the individual spectator.4

As Lea Jacobs has argued, under the Code "offensive ideas could survive at the price of an instability of meaning … there was constant negotiation about how explicit films could be and by what means (through the image, sound, language) offensive ideas could find representation." His Girl Friday has a typical instance when Earl Williams is reported as having shot his psychiatrist "right in the classified ads"—an undistinguished example of the way in which the Code "forced writers not only to be cleaner but also to be cleverer." The rationale for this practice, inscribed in MPPDA policy as early as 1927, was articulated by Colonel Jason S. Joy, the director of the Studio Relations Committee (SRC, precursor to the PCA). Joy recognized that if the Code was to remain effective, it had to allow the studios to develop a system of representational conventions "from which conclusions might be drawn by the sophisticated mind, but which would mean nothing to the unsophisticated and inexperienced."5

Like other Hollywood conventions, the Production Code was one of several substitutes for detailed audience research. Having chosen not to differentiate its product through a ratings system, the industry had to construct movies for an undifferentiated audience. While the Code was written under the assumption that spectators were only passive receivers of texts, the texts themselves were, out of the straightforward economic logic of what Umberto Eco has called "the heavy industry of dreams in a capitalistic society," constructed to accommodate, rather than predetermine, their audiences' reactions. In its practical application, the Code was the mechanism by which this multiplicity of viewing positions was achieved. Once the limits of explicit "sophistication" had been established, the production industry had to find ways of appealing to both "innocent" and "sophisticated" sensibilities in the same object without transgressing the ***bound-aries of public acceptability. This involved devising systems and codes of representation in which "innocence" was inscribed into the text while "sophisticated" viewers were able to "read into" movies whatever meanings they were pleased to find, so long as producers could use the Production Code to deny that they had put them there. Much of the work of self-regulation lay in the maintenance of this system of conventions, and as such, it operated, however perversely, as an enabling mechanism at the same time that it was a repressive one.6

Producers, however, saw the Code predominantly as an instrument of restraint. Passing on "another one of those silly letters from the Breen office" to producer Robert Lord in 1937, Warner Bros. head of production Hal Wallis observed, "they seem to be getting worse and worse and the only thing you can do is to have them come over for a meeting and unsell them on a lot of these ridiculous demands." But though the Code existed to control the content of movies, the cultural anxieties that had brought it into being were about more fundamental social issues than a few bawdy Mae West jokes, the length of a hemline, or the condoning of sin in an "unmoral" ending. What the Code was, what it did, and why it came into existence can only be partially understood by thinking of it in terms of its effects on production or, indeed, by assuming that the social crisis over cinematic representation in the early 1930s was caused by the content of motion pictures. The institution of censorship in Hollywood was not primarily about controlling the content of movies at the level of forbidden words or actions or inhibiting the freedom of expression of individual producers. Rather, it was about the cultural function of entertainment and the possession of cultural power.7

The Origins of the Code

Debates about the censorship of popular culture have always been debates about the social control of its audiences. Although these debates have focused on the content or structure of the entertainment form, their real concern has been with its effects on consumers and with underlying issues of class and cultural power. From amusement parks to rock 'n' roll, different sites and forms of popular cultural expression in the twentieth century have derived their innovative energies from culturally and socially disreputable sources, but they have also operated under systems of convention and regulation that keep contained the subversive potential of their origins and that ensure they endorse, rather than challenge, the existing distribution of social, political, and economic power. The issue has seldom been expressed in such overt terms: more commonly, it has been articulated as an anxiety about the effects of entertainment on children, and specifically on the criminal behavior of adolescent males and the sexual behavior of adolescent females. Partially concealed by the concern for youth has been a deeper, class-based anxiety about the extent to which the sites of entertainment provide opportunities for the heterogeneous mixing of classes.

Since the first motion-picture censorship ordinance was introduced in Chicago in 1907, public debate has revolved around the question of whether the motion-picture industry was morally fit to control the manufacture of its own products. The terms of this debate were established by Progressive reformers who regarded "commercialized amusements" as an ameliorated form of "commercialized vice" rather than an acceptable mode of "recreation." After 1921, state censorship, declared constitutional by the Supreme Court in 1915, operated in seven of the forty-eight states. In addition, from Vermont villages to Chicago, municipal authorities operated local censor boards, usually administered by the police with varying degrees of rigor, predictability, and frequency. More than 60 percent of domestic sales, together with virtually the entire foreign market, were made in territories under "political censorship." State censorship boards exerted an essentially negative power to cut or ban films; as both the industry and its critics acknowledged, they could not positively influence the quality of Holly-wood production. By its nature, political censorship was concerned with what happened at the site of exhibition, not the site of production. Exhibitors often readily acquiesced in the practice of censorship as a means of ensuring that movies offended as few of their community's cultural and legislative leadership as possible and that their commercial operations might thereby continue unhindered. Exhibitor organizations had on a number of occasions supported the establishment of censorship boards as the best means of protecting their commercial interests.8

Attitudes toward censorship constituted only one among several issues that separated the interests of exhibitors and those of producer-distributor combines. Like most industries, the American film business was structured by a basic antagonism between manufacturers and retailers, exacerbated since the late 1910s by the emergence of a production-distribution oligopoly that dictated business terms to independent theater owners. The MPPDA was established in 1922 to safeguard the political interests of the emerging oligopoly, and while censorship and the regulation of content was an important aspect of its work, the Association's central concern was with the threat of legislation or court action to impose a strict application of the antitrust laws to the industry. The Association pursued policies of industrial self-regulation not only in regard to film content but also in matters of arbitration, intra-industry relations, and negotiations with the government, attaching the movies to the "associative state" fostered by Herbert Hoover's Department of Commerce.

Hays presented the MPPDA as an innovative trade association at the forefront of corporate organizational development, largely responsible for the industry's maturation into respectability, standardizing trade practices and stabilizing the relationship between distributors and small exhibitors through film boards of trade, arbitration, and the standard exhibition contract. The establishment of "the highest possible moral and artistic standards of motion picture production" was in one sense simply an extension of this practice, but it also implicitly accepted that "pure" entertainment—amusement that was not harmful to its consumer—was a commodity comparable to the pure meat guaranteed by the Food and Drug Administration. For all industry parties, issues of oligopoly control and trade practice were much more important than censorship. But questions of censorship were of greater public interest, and could also be resolved at less economic risk to the majors. These factors encouraged the MPPDA to displace disputes over the industry's distribution of profits onto another arena—quite literally, from the economic base to the ideological superstructure of movie content.9

As Lary May has suggested, Hays's strategy was to transfer "the old moral guardianship of the small city and town to the movie corporations." In constructing affiliations with nationally federated civic, religious, and educational organizations, Hays had aimed to make "this important portion of public opinion a friendly rather than a hostile critic of pictures" and to contain the threat posed by their lobbying power. There was, however, no dispute over the need to regulate entertainment and relatively little dispute during the 1920s over the standards by which it should be regulated. The question was rather who possessed the appropriate authority to police the ideological apparatus of representation. Although the MPPDA succeeded in preventing the spread of state censorship after 1922, its attempts to abolish existing boards failed, so that its mechanisms for self-regulation became an additional, rather than a replacement, structure.10

In 1924, Hays established a mechanism for vetting source material—called "the Formula"—in order "to exercise every possible care that only books or plays which are of the right type are used for screen presentation." In 1927 the Association published a code to govern production, administered by its Studio Relations Committee (SRC) in Hollywood. The "Don'ts and Be Carefuls," as this code was familiarly known, was compiled by a committee chaired by Irving Thalberg and synthesized the restrictions and eliminations applied by state and foreign censors. Although the Association was always careful to differentiate the "self-regulation" of its advisory activities from "political censorship," Hays recognized that the industry could gain autonomy over production only by voluntarily accepting the standards that external agencies would in any event impose on them.11

The extent to which any of these procedures were effective in regulating production is a matter of debate, but it is an oversimplification to suggest, as many accounts do, that so long as the MPPDA had no punitive sanctions, producers blithely ignored their suggestions. Films were modified after production but before release in order to assuage the concerns of civic, religious, or manufacturing interests. Until the publication of the Production Code in 1930, however, Jason Joy had only an advisory function, and the principal weapon in his persuasive armory was an economic one: the savings that would accrue to production companies if they avoided filming material they would be unable to use. Although producers had to gauge the costs and disruptiveness of censorship against the possibility of additional profit coming from the use of censorable material, they were less concerned about the principle of censorship than they were about the limitation of their legal liability for shaping public sentiment. "We do not create the types of entertainment," argued Thalberg, their most articulate spokesperson, "we merely present them." Thalberg viewed entertainment as a form of cultural barometer, in which "people see … a reflection of their own average thoughts and attitudes. If the reflection is much lower or much higher than their own plane they reject it." People, he insisted, "influence pictures far more than pictures influence people." However, in denying their responsibility for creating public taste, producers surrendered much of the ground over which the cultural function of movies was debated by the press, religious and civic groups, and legislators.12

Producers saw the need for a new code in the complexities of sound production. Silent film had been easily altered by local censors, regional distributors, or even individual exhibitors. Early sound technology drastically restricted this malleability, since any subsequent editing of a print would destroy synchronization. Accepting the imperatives of Joy's economic arguments, producers began to demand something firmer than advice from the SRC, but at the same time, they wanted to establish a more permissive code for sound, since, as Thalberg argued, with dialogue characters could "delicately" discuss subjects "the silent picture was forced to shun."13 Such desires to accommodate the movies to the Broadway of Elmer Rice and Eugene O'Neill ran counter to the increasing hostility among vocal sections of the middle class toward the Broadway of Earl Carroll's Vanities and Mae West. An increasingly insecure Protestant provincial middle class sought to defend its cultural hegemony from the incursions of a modernist, metropolitan culture that the provincials regarded as alien—a word that was often, but not always, a synonym for Jewish. With the roadhouse and the dance hall, the movie theater was one site at which they felt their values and their children endangered by a newer, urban, immigrant, largely Jewish and Catholic culture. The movies were particularly threatening both because they were apparently owned by aliens and because their advertising (which was all many of their critics saw of them) suggested that their permissive representations of sex and violence were designed to cater to the baser instincts of "morons," a term widely used to refer indirectly to the immigrant working class. Combining hostility to monopoly with a barely concealed anti-Semitism, provincial Protestantism saw movies threaten the ability of small communities to exercise control over the cultural influences they tolerated.14

It was in 1929 that Hollywood brought Broadway to Main Street: seventy-five hundred theaters (more than 50 percent of the total) were wired for sound during the year. Throughout the 1920s, Broadway had been castigated for its "realism," particularly in its representation of sexual mores. Now its dubious dialogue and "sophisticated" plot material was playing on Main Street for the children to see. In April 1929 the Washington Star told producers titles such as Underworld, Synthetic Sin, and Our Dancing Daughters provoked censorship. If the problem were "killed at the source, in the studios," calls for censorship would vanish. In October, reviewing Paramount's backstage melodrama Applause, MPPDA Secretary Carl Milliken suggested that "the folks who represent the intelligentsia in the country towns and small cities are not yet prepared to view with approval a long series of scenes including close-ups which show the heroine clad only in breechclout and brassiere."15

In the fall of 1929 the MPPDA was the subject of heavy criticism for reasons only tangentially related to movie content. Its relationship with the federal government had been strained by the mergers and theater buying among the major companies and by their "steady policy of aggrandizement, discrimination and exclusion" in dealing with independent exhibitors. At the same time, the stability of the public relations edifice Hays had constructed during the preceding seven years was threatened by the Association's failure to construct a cooperative relationship with the Protestant churches comparable to the one they enjoyed with the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae (IFCA). In June 1929 the liberal Episcopalian journal The Churchman accused Hays of being selected by "shrewd Hebrews … as a smoke screen to mask their meretricious methods," and asserted that "the motion picture industry is concerned not at all about standards either of taste or morals…. The only thing that the industry is interested in cleaning up is box-office revenue by playing to the tabloid mind."16

The Churchman alleged that the Association had "retained" prominent figures in civic, educational, and religious organizations to use their influence "to see to it that nothing [was] done to interfere with the freedom of the motion picture producers." The campaign was adopted by much of the Protestant religious press, including the widely circulated liberal Christian Century. It provided an opportunity for independent exhibitors to combine their attack on the majors' trade practices with a morals charge. Confronted with local criticism about the moral standards of the movies they showed, small exhibitors often defended themselves by arguing that the majors' insistence on block booking obliged the well-intentioned but powerless independent exhibitor in upstate New York or the small-town Midwest to show "sex-smut," regardless of his own or his community's preferences. Their trade association, Allied States, insisted that the only way to secure decency on Main Street was through federal regulation of the industry, and the Protestant press joined them in what Hays regarded as an unholy alliance.17

In September 1929 the MPPDA held a conference with its "public relations family" on "The Community and the Motion Picture" in New York. This marked the end of its attempt to form alliances with opinion-forming groups, in the face of a barrage of hostile press comment, again directed at Hays and the Association's activities rather than at film content. The regulation of content, however, represented the one area of industry activity where the Association, under attack from all sides, might be able to demonstrate its usefulness to both the public and its members. During the conference Hays began discussing modifying the 1927 Code with Colonel Joy, who prepared several drafts in the remainder of 1929. A committee of producers chaired by Thalberg also worked on a draft. A quite separate document emanated from Chicago, where the Association's general counsel, Charles C. Pettijohn, was working to repeal the city's censorship ordinance by gaining the support of the city's Catholic archbishop, Cardinal George Mundelein. His campaign led to the involvement of Martin Quigley, a prominent Chicago Catholic and publisher of the Exhibitor's Herald World (later Motion Picture Herald), in the Code's rewriting. As an alternative to Pettijohn's plan, Quigley proposed a much more elaborate Code enunciating the moral principles underlying screen entertainment. He recruited the leading figure in the revival of the Catholic Sodality youth movement, Father Daniel A. Lord, S.J., to draft it.18

As a document, the Production Code can be distinguished from the processes by which it was implemented. The Code was a corporate statement of policy about the appropriate content of entertainment cinema and acknowledged the possible influence of movies on the morals and conduct of those who saw them. It represented the industry's acceptance of its difference from the book, magazine, or theater business. As Lord argued, it was difficult to confine films to "only certain classes of people. The exhibitor's theaters are built for the masses, for the cultivated and the rude, the mature and the immature, the self-respecting and the criminal." Small communities, "remote from sophistication and from the hardening process which often takes place in the ethical and moral standards of groups in larger cities," were particularly vulnerable, but Lord was concerned that cinema's "mobility, popularity, accessibility, emotional appeal, vividness, [and] straightforward presentation of fact" affected audiences more intimately and more powerfully than other forms of expression.

Lord's instrumentalist view of culture emphasized the industry's responsibility for the manufacture of "correct" entertainment, "which tends to improve the race, or at least to re-create and rebuild human beings exhausted with the realities of life." But Lord's voice was only one of several raised in the writing of the Code, and its history as a document is the history of the attempted and failed compromise of those competing voices. The most important figure overtly contending Lord's position was Irving Thalberg, and his and Lord's drafts could hardly have been further apart. Thalberg began by asserting that "there is a very general tendency to over-emphasize the moral and educational influence of the motion pictures" and that "the sole purpose of the commercial motion picture is to entertain. It cannot be considered as education or as a sermon or even indirectly as an essentially moral or immoral force."19

Thalberg and Lord were addressing different issues because they were concerned with different audiences. Thalberg's document spoke to the overwhelmingly adult audiences of the majors' first-run theaters, where 70 percent of revenues were generated. Lord and other reformers saw "the vital problem" as "the selection of entertainment for children," a small part of the first-run audience, but frequent attenders at neighborhood and small-town theaters. Their strategies were also at odds. Thalberg intended to do no more than make "a special effort … to include compensating moral values" in borderline cases while reiterating the "Don'ts." Lord required a more positive commitment to "the magnificent possibilities of the screen" for "the building of right ideals" and "the inculcation in story form of right principles." If movies "consistently held up high types of characters," he argued, "they could become the greatest natural force for the improvement of mankind."20

Joy spent January 1930 attempting to shape a compromise between the two drafts, with their differing ambitions. More closely than either of them or than the published document, Joy's draft encapsulated the pragmatic attitude that he brought to his dealings with the studios and that set the tone for the SRC's activities until 1932. With Lord, Joy felt that films should "build up … our national ideals of government, of family and social relations and religious reverence…. The trend of every picture should uphold the good and condemn evil." But he qualified this by adding that "more weight should attach to the tone and effect of the picture as a whole" than individual incidents. In arguing that the industry should produce at least some pictures targeted at specific audiences—some for children, others "that will appeal to a relatively smaller audience, which might be considered a vanguard leading the general public to more discriminating standards"—he was closer to Thalberg, whom he greatly respected. His understanding of "compensating moral values" also concurred with Thalberg's. In "debatable" cases, scenes upholding "accepted moral and spiritual standards" should be included, and "a sincere effort" made to "clean up" characters and situations "in every instance when the theme of the picture may present them in a temporarily dubious light." "Good taste" should be "the ruling factor." His main concerns—to eliminate profanity, the gratuitous use of liquor, and "the treatment of sex in such a way that it violates the standards of family relations"—came from his experience of external censorship.21

Joy's formulations represented the practical policy he would adopt in applying the Code, but his document proved too much of a compromise to be acceptable to Martin Quigley, who called Lord to Los Angeles to present his Code to the producers on 10 February. When he left Hollywood a week later, Lord was confident that his Code had been accepted by the producers. A committee had produced a "condensed" version, and he and Hays had rewritten his draft as the "Reasons Underlying the Code." With the consent of both parties, Catholic involvement in the Code was to remain secret, together with its implementation procedure, the Resolution for Uniform Interpretation. Hays understood self-regulation to mean that responsibility for Code implementation should be placed firmly on the companies themselves. It was for this reason that the Resolution for Uniform Interpretation did not make submission of scripts to the SRC compulsory, and placed responsibility for making changes in finished films with the companies concerned. It also appointed a "jury" composed of the heads of production of each of the member companies as final arbiters of whether a film conformed "to the spirit and the letter of the Code." As Quigley noted with distrust, since the Association position lacked what he regarded as adequate enforcement procedures, it carefully avoided any commitment to which producers could subsequently be held and permitted them to agree to a document they could then evade.22

The "Reasons" were not included in the Code published by the MPPDA on 31 March; the text provided a list of prohibitions rather than the moral arguments of Lord's original draft. The "Particular Applications" of the published Code elaborated the "Don'ts and Be Carefuls" and added only clauses addressing Joy's concerns with "the use of liquor in American life," "adultery and illicit sex," vulgarity, and obscenity. Its preamble also provided a rationale that compromised Thalberg's and Lord's positions: it saw motion pictures "primarily as entertainment without any explicit purpose of teaching or propaganda," but acknowledged that "within its own field of entertainment," a film could be "directly responsible for spiritual or moral progress, for higher types of social life, and for much correct thinking." Lord's contribution was most visible in the three "General Principles" that preceded the "Particular Applications":

  1. No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin.
  2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
  3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation. ("A Code to Govern the Making of Talking, Synchronized and Silent Motion Pictures," MPPDA, 1930, repr. in Moley, p. 241)

The Code did not explain how these principles (specifically Catholic only in their reference to "natural law") related to the "Particular Applications." It was over the interpretation of this relationship between the "spirit" and the "letter" of the Code that the SRC negotiated with the studios for the next three years.23

Implementing the Code, 1930-1931

However compromised it may have been, the Production Code was a statement of principle, reluctantly accepting the industry's responsibility for the moral well-being of its audiences. The practical implementation of that principle was, however, a complex matter, involving extensive negotiation over procedure, enforcement, and interpretation at the level of textual detail. Hays's caution in publicly committing the Association to the Code's enforcement had as much to do with his recognition of the practical problems to be solved in the Code's application as it did with a skepticism about producers' intentions. Although a growing chorus of voices denounced the moral evils of the movies, it would be wrong to conclude that movies became more salacious or vicious between 1930 and 1934. With occasional exceptions, the reverse is the case, as both Joy and state censors applied increasingly strict standards. But the early 1930s was a period of increasing moral conservatism in American culture, in which the film industry, along with other institutions of representation, failed to keep pace with "the growing demand for a return to decency in all of our leisure pursuits." The industry was pedaling backward as fast as it could, but not fast enough for its opponents, who in 1933 found themselves, for the first time, in the ascendant.24

The calls for censorship were, as Martin Quigley argued, "an awkward expression of demand," a complaint that too much "sophisticated" product was being made, and not enough that was suitable for children or small-town audiences. But the issue of audience demand was most often couched in moralistic terms and under the anti-Semitic expectation that a Jewish-dominated industry had to be intimidated into decency. Joy told Darryl Zanuck in August 1930, "We are on trial as far as a large part of the vocal public is concerned and a decision as to whether or not they will allow us to run our own business … depends largely upon how they believe we live up to our own promises."25

On its publication the Production Code was received with much skepticism. The Protestant religious press, who were credited with forcing reform on Hays, remained unremittingly hostile. Quigley, too, provided only cautious support, in a distinctly double-edged Catholic publicity campaign approving the Code's purposes organized by Joseph Breen. Like Quigley, Breen was an active lay Catholic, well connected with the church hierarchy; he had managed the press relations of the 1926 Eucharistic Congress in Chicago. His campaign, which secured him a post as one of Hays's executive assistants, sought to bind the industry to a definite commitment to the Code, while avoiding committing any Catholic party to endorsing its effectiveness.26

Initially, the studios cooperated "pretty much as a matter of routine" in voluntarily submitting scripts to the Studio Relations Committee. Within a few months, however, cooperation had become intermittent and patchy, determined in large part by the attitude of the studio's head of production and the particular market at which the company aimed its product. In general, the more important subsequent-run theaters were to the company's distribution system, the more they cooperated. Under B. P. Schulberg, Paramount remained thoroughly cooperative; so did Universal, despite Joy's worries about "Junior" Laemmle's lapses in taste. Thalberg used Joy's respect for him to choose how much he would cooperate on any given project. But in October 1930, Joy complained that Fox was ignoring his suggestions on Oh for a Man, while Warner Bros. and First National were submitting neither scripts nor prints. Until 1934, Warners remained the most recalcitrant of the major companies in its attitude to the Code and the MPPDA in general. But at the end of the Code's first year of operation, the Association claimed that only a dozen films had been subject to "more than a scattering of criticism" and cited the reduction in the number of censor board cuts as evidence of its efficacy.27

Others disagreed. The industry's most vociferous critics judged the movies on their advertising far more frequently than on their content, and a small number of visible infringements were sufficient to fuel the flames of their righteousness. The Association's Advertising Code, passed in June 1930, relied entirely on the voluntary cooperation of publicity departments and was much less effectively applied than the Production Code.28 Joy's approach to the improvement of content was gradualist. Like Thalberg, he saw the "small, narrow, picayunish fault-finding" censorship of censor boards over "little details" as inhibiting his attempts to negotiate strategies of representation that permitted producers "to paint the unconventional, the unlawful, the immoral side of life in order to bring out in immediate contrast the happiness and benefits derived from the wholesome, clean and law-abiding conduct."29

Censors, on the other hand, identified some disturbing developments in movie content. Faced with a cycle of "kept woman" films, including Illicit, The Easiest Way, and Stolen Heaven, James Wingate, the director of the New York board, demanded to know if the SRC had changed its standards. Lord shared Wingate's concern: "single scenes, words or actions" that were the principal source of anxiety in 1930 had been dealt with, but current films

are now concerned with problems. They discuss morals, divorce, free love, unborn children, … single and double standards, the relationship of sex to religion, marriage and its effects upon the freedom of women…. [N]o matter how delicate or clean the treatment, these subjects are fundamentally dangerous. ("The Code—One Year Later," Report by Lord, 23 April 1931, Hays Papers)

Inside the SRC, there were prolonged discussions of nuances of plot or characterization, as to whether the basic situation of Back Street made it a kept-woman story or only presented "the triangle." Outside, they feared, "our constituents won't differentiate."30

In early 1931 the SRC completely misjudged reactions to Universal's Dracula, which was condemned by the women's and educational organizations that previewed films under the Association's auspices. Its commercial success exemplified the Association's and the industry's dilemma as the effects of the Depression began to be felt at the box office. Some of the material most likely to produce immediate high returns in first-run theaters, and thus maintain company liquidity, also provoked reform groups to claim the Code was being ignored. Beginning in late 1930, the brief cycle of gangster films inspired by press coverage of Al Capone proved a public relations calamity for the Association. For some time, the MPPDA had successfully countered arguments that a link existed between moviegoing and juvenile crime, but the popularity of Doorway to Hell, Little Caesar, and several sequels in the spring of 1931 revived charges that the movies were encouraging young audiences to view the gangster protagonist as a "hero-villain," clear evidence of Lord's argument that some material was too dangerous, no matter how it was treated. Although the Association defended them as "deterrents, not incentives, to criminal behavior," their popularity provoked a "prairie-fire of protest." A plethora of municipalities established local censor boards, and there were calls for a congressional investigation of the industry.31

During 1931 it became clear that Joy's attempt to conciliate the divided voices behind the Production Code was failing, and content could not be made proof against reformers' criticism. Movie content and the concern with content were symptoms of a moral panic about social behavior, induced by the economic collapse. The Code had been adopted in a strategy of retreat from the previous scale of engagement with public relations, but it had exposed the industry to more criticism and put it constantly on the defensive in its public utterances. Within the association, it was argued that the increasingly unpredictable behavior of the censors resulted not from a breakdown in the SRC, since "the same pictures now held up would have passed, flying, two years ago," but the "agitation against gang pictures" led censors to believe "that they can go to almost any length and that on a showdown the public will accord us scant support."32

In September 1931 Code procedures were considerably tightened. The submission of scripts, as well as the approval of release prints, was made compulsory, to ensure that every film had "a moral argument" by which Joy could defend it to censor boards. The SRC was granted a right of appeal from a producers jury to the MPPDA Board. At the same time, in its first intervention in a general trend in production, the Association of Motion Picture Producers (AMPP) also passed a resolution prohibiting the further production of gangster films. The film most immediately affected was Howard Hughes's Scarface, which was reconstructed on four occasions before it passed both the MPPDA and New York's censorship board in May 1932.33

The prohibition of gangster films raised a problem elsewhere. In December, Joy worried that

with crime practically denied them, with box office figures down, with high-pressure methods being employed back home to spur the studios on to get a little more cash, it was almost inevitable that sex, as the nearest thing at hand and pretty generally sure-fire, should be seized upon. It was. (Joy to Breen, 15 December 1931, PCA Possessed file)

Studios, forced by their financial position to seek immediate returns on their investment in production by concentrating on appealing to the first-run market, were using material as provocative as the SRC would allow. By devising plots like that of the "sordid" Safe in Hell, in which Dorothy Mackaill eventually sacrificed "her life rather than her virtue," they remained just within the letter of the Code. Joy hoped that a "new drive on sex films would partially, if not entirely, eliminate" kept-woman stories and discourage the further production of chain-gang and horror films. But the problem was more elusive, since it seemed that every time the Association responded to one kind of complaint, it was replaced by another. As soon as Joy was provided with the means to ensure the overall morality of a movie's narrative, reformers argued that the stories Hollywood told were not the primary source of its influence. The cinema's power to corrupt was now assumed to lie in the seductive pleasure of its spectacle: as one disturbed reviewer of Possessed reported, she overheard a "young girl" sitting next to her say of Clark Gable, "I would live with him too, under any conditions." Although the Code had reduced the number of censorship eliminations by 30-50 percent, Hays warned his members of the "folly" of ignoring "the classes that write, talk, and legislate, on the basis that the mass public, as reflected by the box-office, is with us in any event. Reform elements outside, not inside, the saloon, enforced prohibition upon the country." In its well-informed 1931 report The Public Relations of the Motion Picture Industry, the Federal Council of Churches suggested that if the Association tried less hard "to conceal their household problems and to put up a bold front to the public," it "might have gained greater public support and might also have been an effectual disciplinary measure within the organization." Their analysis, however, assumed that the problem was one of discipline rather than of dissonance in definitions of acceptable standards.34

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

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.35

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."36

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.37

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.38

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."39

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."40

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."41

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.42

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."43

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.44

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."45

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.46

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.47 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.48

The Crusade: Staging the Crisis, 1934

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."49

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."50

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 1934.51

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 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.52

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.54

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 demanding federal regulation. In that respect, it was highly successful, if only temporarily.55

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.56

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."57

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."58

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)

The Code as Convention: 1935-1939

By late 1934, peace was breaking out almost all over: even The Churchman praised Breen and Quigley and accepted that, since 15 July, Hays had been given the authority that the MPPDA had previously claimed for him. More important was the evidence of a box-office recovery led by the neighborhood theaters and apparently responsive to the new production trends that elevated Shirley Temple to the box-office pinnacle from 1934 to 1938. The complex ideological phenomenon that Temple represented indicated a change in public sensibility as well as industry strategy, but the films in which she appeared were, as Graham Greene pointed out in 1937, hardly devoid of sexual sophistication, any more than were Astaire-Rogers musicals or screwball comedies. Rather, these genres contained the culmination of Joy's policy of encoding the representation of sexuality in such a way that a preexistent knowledge was required to gain access to it.

The career of Ginger Rogers follows this development more closely than most: from Anytime Annie in 42nd Street ("She only said 'no' once—and then she couldn't hear the question"), she progressed, via RKO's musicals, to Bachelor Mother (1939), where the comedy is constructed around the resolute failure of the central characters to recognize the sexual suggestiveness of the situations they are placed in. The New York Times reviewer attributed "the spectacle of Miss Rogers and David Niven struggling forlornly to prove their innocence of parenthood, and winning no credence at all," to the director Garson Kanin. But "the sobriety of their performance," which ensured that "the audience enjoys the joke alone," was in fact the work of the PCA and represented one instance of the fulfillment of Joy's strategy of "sophisticated" representational conventions that allowed for multiple audience response and interpretation.

The events of 1934 had produced a recognition in Hollywood, to match the belief established much earlier in New York, that the Production Code must be accepted as a convention of representation. Having conceded the limitations of its boundaries, in the second half of the decade producers and audiences alike could explore the possibilities as well as the constraints of the convention, much as they had done before, but with much less public hindrance. The Code's "General Principles" were the equivalent of a formal statement of generic convention, describing the "intended" effect of plot on audiences. The art in their application lay in the detailed negotiation, an often colorful process. Jack Vizzard reports an exchange between Breen and Josef von Sternberg, who, in expounding the plot of a film he was planning, observed, "At this point, the two principals have a brief romantic interlude." In blunt terms, Breen asked for clarification, and when Sternberg prevaricated, Breen told him to "stop the horseshit and face the issue. We can help you make a story about adultery, if you want, but not if you keep calling a good screwing match a 'romantic interlude.' "59

Breen argued that his style of giving back "as good as I got" demonstrated his earnestness of purpose; the speed at which the PCA was required to comment on scripts (within seventy-two hours) also encouraged a stentorian tone of certainty that disguised the fact that the PCA was not empowered to disapprove scripts as such. The only point at which the PCA had the authority to reject any element of a film was in refusing to issue a seal of approval on a release print. Despite the tone with which Breen did business, everything prior to that was advisory. But under these circumstances it is not surprising that Breen often chose to express himself as forcefully as possible in the first instance when he thought that proceeding with a script would be inadvisable. Writers and producers commonly left in material that they knew would be cut in hopes of negotiating something else through, and frequently shots or sequences that the PCA initially objected to survived into the final film. By the same token, when Breen informed Jack Warner that the story of Each Dawn I Die "in its present form, is thoroughly and completely unacceptable from the standpoint of the Production Code, and … enormously dangerous from the standpoint of political censorship, both in this country and abroad," he was merely opening negotiations over modifications.60 On the relatively rare occasions when the PCA did reject a script, Breen's tone was clear:

We have read with utter amazement the script … of your proposed production, Killers on Parole. This story is so completely in conflict with so many provisions of our Production Code that we are compelled to reject the story in toto. Any … story remotely resembling the story set forth in this script, is certain to result in a picture which we will have to reject entirely. … it hardly seems credible that you have seriously had in mind production of such a picture. (Breen to Harry Zehner, 8 August 1935, Censorship file, Universal Studios Collection, USC)

The dialogues over the Code were themselves conducted in a highly conventionalized language of absolutes, under which adjustments of nuance were engineered. Though they often took place at a high decibel level and in retrospect often seem bizarre (in order to dilute the "flavor suggestive of propaganda for radicalism" in Winterset, Breen suggested that RKO "substitute the word 'lunatic,' or some other word, for the word, 'capitalist'"), what took place between the PCA and the studios were genuine negotiations in which concessions were made by both parties in pursuit of a common objective. Breen's insistence that the PCA was "regarded by producers, directors, and their staffs, as participants in the processes of production" was perfectly accurate: in a typical minor instance, Wallis's assistant, Walter MacEwen, recognized that Breen's main aim in having Warners alter one word in Joan Blondell's final song in Gold Diggers of 1937 was to prevent the routine being "mutilated" by censor boards.61

Beyond the shared assumption that the PCA functioned as an aid, not a hindrance, to production, there were two underlying considerations that governed its working operation. "Compensating moral values," as understood by Breen, ensured not only that "no picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it" but also that a calculus of retribution or coincidence would invariably be deployed to punish the guilty or declare sympathetic characters innocent. But if plots had to be morally unambiguous in their development, dialogue, and conclusion, the site of textual ambiguity shifted from narrative to the representation of incident, in a manner that required the audience to construct an event that may or may not have taken place. In matters of sex in particular, a policy of ambiguity came to preside over Hollywood's representation. Lea Jacobs notes the case of Garbo's Camille in 1936, in whiche "it is difficult for the spectator to pinpoint with certainty when or how the heroine's sexual transgressions occur." In Dead End, Francie's past, fragments of dialogue, and a knowledge of Sidney Howard's play suggest she has venereal disease; her cough, however, offers the alternative of tuberculosis. Textual indeterminacy became a feature of Hollywood's representation of sexuality, emerging in complex and oblique codes that resembled neurotic symptoms or fetishes. Even under Breen, the censorship of sexuality remained an imperfect procedure of repression, with the repressed always returning, as Freud had promised, in distorted form, given a sufficiently imaginative audience. In 1935 the PCA insisted on the removal of one shot, of rain falling on a door, from The Devil Is a Woman, because it signified prostitution. This mode of representation developed a life of its own in front of an audience willing to play a game of double entendre. The public, argued Harold J. Salemson, "has learned to supply from its own imagination the specific acts of so-called misconduct which the Production Code has made unmentionable." Elliot Paul pithily observed, "A scene should give full play to the vices of the audience, and still have a technical out."62

The establishment of the PCA did not abate the process of negotiation over what constituted satisfactory material for films. The first serious anxiety occurred in October 1934, with MGM's The Merry Widow. In 1935, disputes over the representation of crime resurfaced with the attempt by several studios to circumvent the prohibition on gangster films in the "G-Men" cycle, until British censors objected to the trend. The Code's provisions on crime were modified on a number of occasions during the later 1930s to eliminate themes of kidnapping or suicide and to prohibit scenes showing law-enforcing officers dying at the hands of criminals or the display of machine guns. In 1938-1939, too, there was a revival of concern about the volume of crime films, triggered by the "boys gang" cycle following from Dead End and Angels with Dirty Faces by gangster retrospectives such as The Roaring Twenties. Breen suggested in September 1939 that crime stories accounted for 53 percent of all films in production. On the whole, however, these questions of code enforcement were relatively minor: the studios had acquiesced in the PCA machinery and, with occasional displays of resistance, acquiesced in its decisions over details of representation, Breen's refusal to certify some pre-1934 films for reissue, and the PCA's advice not to undertake a project. More important, public opinion had, with few and inconsequential exceptions, recovered from its moral panic and accepted the Association's or the Legion's account of the industry's rescue from the abyss in 1934.63

However, disputes with independent exhibitors were intensified by the independents' failure to gain significant concessions from the distributors during the controversy. Allied States persisted in their efforts to gain redress over block booking and cancellation privileges. After the abandonment of the NRA Code machinery in 1935, their campaign switched its focus to an attack on chain and circuit theaters, echoing the charges made by independent retailers against chain stores such as A&P and Woolworth's. This line of attack proved more promising than their attachment to moral reform, and put anti-block-booking legislation on the congressional calendar and before most state legislatures after 1936. The Neely bill to prohibit block booking was passed by the Senate in 1938 and 1940, but held up in the House of Representatives. Although none of the federal legislation was passed, the independents' persistent agitation against the industry's unfair trade practices and their increasing use of private antitrust suits against distributors played a significant part in provoking the Department of Justice investigation into the industry that resulted in the Paramount suit of 1938.

The difficulties the Association faced over film content in the late 1930s were largely the results of its successes in imposing a definition of entertainment as recreation. Protestant criticism about Catholic domination of Code machinery was concerned less with theology than with the Code's preoccupation with sex at the expense of less individualistic concerns:

The right of the cinema to portray vested evils and entrenched privilege in their true light, and to embody the struggle for social security and economic plenty, as in Our Daily Bread, is a kind of morality concerning which the Code gives insufficient attention. (Worth M. Tippy to Quigley, 14 March 1935, MPA 1935 Production Code file)

MGM's decision in 1936 to not to produce a film version of Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here after spending $200,000 on the screen rights led to accusations that the Hays Office was engaging in political censorship. But against Lewis's assertion that "this decision raises an extremely important and critical question concerning free speech and free opinion in the United States," Terry Ramsaye, the editor of Motion Picture Herald, suggested that it "has all of the vast significance that would attach to a decision by … Armour and Company to discontinue a brand of ham." Free speech was not a consideration: MGM's decision, like that to drop the "G-Men" cycle, was made on business grounds, because the industry depended "for its prosperity on being international merchandise" and was "vulnerable to, and on occasion menaced by, all the governments there are, abroad and at home."64

The industry's studied neutrality in party politics was itself a calculation of political interest on the part of an industry heavily embroiled in the practical politics of its self-interest. Part of the political protection of those interests involved the definition of its product—entertainment—as being outside the sphere of the political. In his annual report for 1938, Hays argued that the industry could afford "the soft impeachment" that it provided nothing more than "escapist" entertainment:

Entertainment is the commodity for which the public pays at the box-office. Propaganda disguised as entertainment would be neither honest salesmanship nor honest showmanship.…The industry has resisted and must continue to resist the lure of propaganda in that sinister sense persistently urged upon it by extremist groups. (Quoted in Thorp, America at the Movies [London: Faber, 1946], p. 161)

The Association's definition of extremism was, however, very narrow. Hays averred that "propaganda" could be recognized "only through the process of common sense," embodied, in effect, in the PCA. As his dealings with the studios became more assertive after 1934, Breen's correspondence made fewer distinctions between a decision under the Code, advice regarding the likely actions of state or foreign censors, and the implementation of "industry policy" in response to pressure groups, foreign governments, and corporate interests. Industry policy was, like self-regulation, designed to prevent the movies from becoming a subject of controversy or giving offense to powerful interests. Breen defended his practice of linking this strategy with Code enforcement by arguing that the studio executives supported his "vigorous" tone in urging eliminations of any kind on producers. PCA activities were centered around protecting the industry from criticism, whether that came from censor boards, foreign governments, or pressure groups whose displeasure might lead them to call for government interference in the industry. Since he saw the PCA as representing a national consensus on political issues as well as moral ones, he denied that there was anything "sinister" in his rejecting material that characterized "a member of the United States Senate as a 'heavy'; or…in which police officials are shown to be dishonest; or…in which lawyers, or doctors, or bankers, are indicated as a class. "65

In 1936, as part of the MPPDA's lobbying campaign to defeat federal block-booking proposals and by way of demonstrating the effectiveness of its self-regulation, the PCA prepared bound volumes of some of its decisions and circulated them among legislators.66 Against their celebratory intent, these volumes substantiated the accusations of political liberals that "self-regulation … has degenerated into political censorship." It Can't Happen Here was cited as an example, as were PCA decisions over They Won't Forget and two films dealing with the Spanish Civil War, The Last Train from Madrid and Blockade. It was the overt anti-Communism of official Catholicism, and its attitude toward Spain in particular, that led to the strongest accusations of an excessive Catholic influence in the PCA. Blockade, approved while Breen was on vacation in Europe, was attacked by the Knights of Columbus as Communist propaganda in 1938. Although Breen defended the film, he did so with little genuine conviction. In December 1937 he had proposed to contacts in the Vatican a plan to prohibit films involving "divorce and the re-marriage of divorced persons" and films in which "Communist propaganda" had been "injected." Breen proposed using the power of the foreign market, via Catholic pressure on government censorship, to prohibit such films in enough countries as to render them unprofitable to the producers.67 Breen was not alone in seeing that the suppression of Communist propaganda was a moral, not a political, issue. In the middle of the Blockade controversy, Martin Quigley proposed an amendment to the Production Code:

No motion picture shall be produced which shall advocate or create sympathy for political theories alien to, and subversive of, American institutions, nor any picture which perverts or tends to pervert the theatre screen from its avowed purpose of entertainment to the function of political controversy. (Quigley to Hays, 11 July 1938, MPA 1939 Production Code file)

Quigley's proposal contributed to the innuendo spread by opponents of Holly-wood unionization about a left-wing conspiracy against the industry, but failed to address the exigencies of a moment when the PCA was becoming controversial precisely because of its success in keeping controversy from the screen. Earlier in 1938, Hays had initiated an internal investigation into the extent of the jurisdiction of the PCA conducted by his executive assistant Francis Harmon. To some extent, the investigation itself represented a reining-in of Breen's expansionist tendencies and an assertion by the Association's WASP leadership that Catholic influence should not overstep its boundaries. But it also dealt with what became known within the MPPDA as the "twilight zone" at the borders of the Code's jurisdiction. By 1937, there was a growing concern over the increasing presence of advertising in films, in the form of advertising shorts, tie-ins, and product placements. Another issue of Code jurisdiction had been raised by the exhibition in affiliated theaters of two documentaries that had not been certificated by the PCA. Birth of a Baby was in clear breach of the Code, and The River worried both producers and distributors that the government was entering into competition with the commercial industry.68

The predominant concern, however, was with the PCA's jurisdiction over matters of "industry policy" outside the Code and drew its impetus from the antitrust suit filed by the Department of Justice in July 1938. Implicating the PCA in the majors' restrictive practices, it alleged that through the Code the majors exercised a practical censorship over the entire industry, restricting the production of pictures treating controversial subjects and hindering the development of innovative approaches to drama or narrative by companies that might use innovation as a way of challenging the majors' monopoly power. Coinciding with the Blockade incident, Harmon's investigation suggested that

very great care is needed on the part of the PCA to distinguish between its administrative functions under the Code (with its penalty provisions) on the one hand, and its advisory functions (without penalties) on the other.…A reasonably clear and predictable definition of the extent of the jurisdiction of the Production Code Administration, is urgently needed. Legal problems must be met and a course charted through the maze of confusing terminology now in current use. (Harmon memo, 5 July 1938, MPA 1938 Production Code file)

He classified groups of films, including newsreels, advertising, and sponsored and government films, as properly falling outside the authority of the PCA, as did questions other than a film's conformity "to standards of decency, morality and fairness embodied in the Production Code":

If the film deals with a controversial subject, but is free from that which offends decency or is listed in the Code as morally objectionable, then the sole remaining question to be decided by the PCA should not be whether the film is "desirable" but whether the presentation deals fairly and honestly, and without deliberate deception, with the subject matter. ("Jurisdiction of Production Code Administration," MPA 1938 Production Code file)

Quigley was horrified. The changes proposed, he suggested, were "an invitation to disaster." But the federal government's redefinition of what constituted unreasonable restraint of trade in the Paramount suit required the restriction of the PCA's jurisdiction, in order not to embroil the Association in a violation of the antitrust laws.69 The effect was to encourage, or at least acquiesce in, the use of politically more controversial content as a way of demonstrating that the "freedom of the screen" was not hampered by the operations of the PCA. Although PCA officials continued to voice concern over whether such subjects as Confessions of a Nazi Spy constituted appropriate screen entertainment, they were much more circumspect in expressing their opinions. This was only indirectly in response to a change in public sentiment, if indeed such a change had taken place. It was, rather more directly, in response to immediate political pressures.70

In 1930-1934 the dominant voices to which the association was attempting to adjust film content were moral conservatives, most clearly orchestrated by the Catholic church, but by 1938-1939 they had become much more marginal because more extreme. In January 1939, Quigley warned Breen that the war against "Red propaganda" on-screen would make the battle for decency seem a skirmish: "In many places in the industry, especially amongst our Semitic brethren, there seems to be growing an acceptance of the idea of radical propaganda on the screen.…[Hays] has been side-stepping and pussyfooting." Against this kind of rhetoric and Breen's grandiose ambitions to include all production under the Code, MPPDA Washington bureau chief Ray Norr insisted that in the face of the antitrust suit, the object now was "to limit the jurisdiction of the Motion Picture Production Code in various respects." Quigley's notion of an entertainment kept pure from all political utterance was becoming increasingly difficult to sustain—less in practice than as a principle for the MPPDA to adhere to in public.71

The change can be measured in Hays's rhetorical support for "pictures which dramatized present-day social conditions" in his annual report in March 1939. Margaret Thorp identified Hays's changed tone as marking "the day the motion picture industry extended an official welcome to ideas." However, Hays was also addressing the Association's immediate political and legal situation. The Neely bill never came to a vote in the House, while the Paramount suit was engineered into a consent decree in November 1940. For the third time in a decade the Association's efficient political lobbying power had headed off a major crisis faced by the industry's oligopoly structure. On the two previous occasions, in 1929-1930 and 1933-1934, that crisis had been successfully diverted away from issues of trade practice into concerns about film content. The affairs of the late 1930s suggested that mechanisms for the control of content had become too extensive, so that it could not so effectively fulfill its function as the currency of negotiation among parties who felt that the movie business was their business. Rather, the censorship of the movies—as opposed to movie content—was in danger of becoming the issue. Hays's rhetoric in 1939 echoed that of Sinclair Lewis in 1936, but did so according to the changed agenda of the intervening three years and was part of an Association campaign to persuade the federal government to "recognize the 'special significance and peculiarly difficult problems of the film industry as an international leader in providing 'good and necessary recreation at a moderate cost.' " This line of argument would allow the MPPDA to gain government acceptance as an "essential industry" during World War II.72

As an influence on production, the regulation of movie content through the Production Code might best be understood as a generic pressure, comparable to the pressure of convention in a romantic comedy or a Western. Relocating the Code and its administrators as integrated participants in Hollywood's processes of production, rather than its philistine and picayunish villains, is in itself a contribution to a deeper understanding of how the motion-picture industry operated in practice. In viewing the Production Code as part of the much larger overall activity of the MPPDA, this account also integrates issues around the control of content within the broader concerns of the period about the movies as a cultural institution. Using this broader perspective, we can offer some revisions to the accepted history of Hollywood in the 1930s that, in particular, allow us to recontextualize questions of whether films produced in the early 1930s were "subversive" either in their intent or effect. Rather than identifying a clear-cut distinction between films produced before 1934 and those produced after, a recognition that the Code as a system of conventions was gradually developed during the early 1930s suggests that it is more appropriate to see "the Golden Age of Turbulence" as a period in which a system of representation acceptable both to the industry and to the cultural authorities to whom it deferred was negotiated. Those negotiations were clearly not concluded with the agreements of July 1934; questions of detail remained subject to constant discussion, and issues of broad principle, including the implementation of the Code itself, were as open to revision in the late 1930s as they had been earlier in the decade.

Industry trade practices, which were to a large extent the hidden agenda behind much of the activity around censorship in the decade, were frequently alleged to have an inhibiting effect on the industry's preparedness to experiment "with less popular themes aimed at smaller, more specific audiences." Undoubtedly, the industry's oligopoly structure inhibited experimentation, and the Production Code contributed to that effect. But if the "insane and inane and outmoded" Code made Hollywood's product less able "to deal more frankly with controversial themes," the extent to which it also represented a kind of transparent conspiracy between movie and audience remains largely unexplored. The industry had a more sophisticated understanding of the preferences of its several audiences than it was given credit for. It did not produce experimental films of the kind critics like Creighton Peet or Elmer Rice demanded, not because it refused to differentiate among its audiences, but because there was an insufficiently large audience for such productions.73

The Production Code did not cause the lack of experimentation in Hollywood product. Rather, it was itself a symptom of the underlying cause. The Code was a consequence of commercialism and of the particular understanding of the audience and its desires that the industry's commercialism promoted. But to produce films that were radically different from those actually produced in Hollywood would have needed changes far more substantial than the alteration or even abolition of the Code; it would have needed a redefinition of the cultural function of entertainment, and that was a task beyond the limits of responsibility the industry set itself.

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The Production Code and the Hays Office

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