From 1934 to 1954, Joseph Ignatius Breen was one of the most powerful people in Hollywood. As director of the motion picture industry’s Production Code Administration (PCA), which censored “indecent” and “vulgar” material from films, he developed the moral guidelines that shaped the content and language of the films shown in America for twenty years.
Breen was appointed to help the film industry censor itself
Will Hays, the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), appointed Breen to help the film industry censor itself so it could avoid government censorship and improve Hollywood’s image to avoid costly boycotts by moral guardian groups, such as the Catholic Legion of Decency. An Irish Catholic with a background in journalism and public relations, Breen was accused by some of being an anti-Semite because, for example, he blamed the Jews who controlled Hollywood studios for the sex, violence, and perceived decadence in films.
Morality groups and film financiers welcomed the PCA as an idea “with teeth,” since now no movie script could go into production without Breen’s consent and finished films had to receive the PCA’s seal of approval. Among Breen’s innovations were portraying married couples as sleeping in separate, single beds and bathrooms without toilets.
Breen permitted the production of dangerous political dramas
Although Variety frequently referred to Breen as the “Production Code Czar,” film historian Leonard J. Leff (1991) argues that Breen’s “censorship” was an essential part of Hollywood’s Golden Age. According to Leff, Breen was the one who permitted production of “dangerous political dramas” like The Grapes of Wrath, Dead End and Black Fury. Leffwrites, “Breen was not the voice of Hays, Wall Street, the Legion of Decency, or the state censor; rather, he was the agent of ambivalence: he helped producers translate the ‘dangerous’ into the ambiguous and, on occasion, even into the subversive” (p. 443).
Breen retired from the PCA in February 1954; he died ten years later. In 1968 the Production Code Seal of Approval was replaced by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) film ratings.
This article was originally published in 2009. Bob Pondillo is a filmmaker and retired Professor Emeritus in Mass Communication and Culture at Middle Tennessee State University