Saturdays of the Future: 1. The New Production Code Administration

Up to this point I have only made vague references to PEPS’s goal of bringing back the Code, but I have not written anything specific about our goals and plans. Today is the first Saturday of the Future. From now on, I will publish an article about the future of PEPS every Saturday. For my first article, I will explain our plans for the board which will function as the Production Code Administration did from 1934-1954, the New Production Code Administration.

After the Code has been adopted by the studios, an organization will again be needed to enforce it, since the pre-Code years show us that the Code is ineffective without a good process of enforcement. We will call this organization the New Production Code Administration, abbreviated to the NPCA. The NPCA will be modeled after the PCA during its glory years from 1934-1954 when Joseph I. Breen was the administrator. Since we have the unique opportunity of learning from the successes and mistakes of the past, a few alterations will be made to ensure that the board is as efficient as it possibly can be. To accurately outline the operation of the proposed New Production Code Administration, we will review the function of the Breen Office, the changes to be made, and the process of self-regulation for an average film.

Joseph Breen was the only man in the history of Hollywood who knew how to enforce the Code. Every morning he would preside over a meeting of the PCA staff, which included eight men beside himself. At these meeting he would discuss the films which needed to be reviewed, those which were in the process of review, and the ones which required negotiations with the filmmakers; nothing happened in the office without Mr. Breen’s knowledge and supervision. Before the production of a film began, the idea was submitted to the PCA, which would respond with a polite letter detailing which items, if any, needed to be changed or removed to make the “proposed” film acceptable; reading the papers from the PCA reveals that even the cleanest films with the most wholesome topics received at least a few alterations or warnings from Joe Breen. Although each film was assigned to a team of two men for review, Mr. Breen had the final word on everything when he was in the office. The PCA rarely issued a simple “no” in response to an original film idea or script; instead, it sent a letter saying that the film was unacceptable in its current form, along with a long, discouraging list of things to be changed or eliminated. A proposed film usually went through many forms, versions, and cycles of correspondence before it was worthy of the seal. For every step of the film-making process, including the original synopsis, the sections of the script’s rough draft, the revised portions of script, the final version of the script, the dailies of the film, the unedited negatives, and the completed footage of the film, the following steps were enacted: the Breen Office reviewed the content; it then dispatched a letter which discussed the mandatory changes, possible problems, and points of concern; the filmmaker responded with a letter explaining discrepancies, answering questions, agreeing to some changes, and asking for a change of decision on other points; the PCA then responded with another letter which discussed compromises, remaining points of unacceptability, and suggestions of alternatives to these unacceptable items; and eventually the Breen Office scheduled a meeting between the self-regulators and the regulated if the issues could not properly be discussed and solved through correspondence. This process was used to clean every draft of the script so that no cuts would be necessary after the filming; if the filmmakers heeded the Breen Office before the filming stage, little or no changes had to be made to the finished version of the film, saving time and money. When the final footage of the film was deemed acceptable, a numbered Code seal, which can be seen in the lower corner of a film’s credits, was issued, making the film ready for distribution and presentation to audiences throughout America.

Any organization  whose success rests entirely on the efforts of a single leader is doomed to eventual failure, since no leader can maintain his post forever. The Breen Office’s main problem was that it was understaffed and that it relied 100% on Breen himself, who worked fourteen hours a day, sometimes seven days a week to keep it running. The New Production Code Administration will have a normal schedule of eight hour days and five day weeks. It will accomplish its job by having a staff of at least twenty men besides the administrator, who will be James R. Brannan, the president of PEPS, and his assistant. These men will not merely rely on their backgrounds and discretion, as the old PCA staff did, but will be carefully trained through rigorous analysis and dissection of the Code years, pre-Code films, Shurlock era films, and some post-Code films. The administrator will be like the president of the United States, who is assisted by a vice president and helped by his Cabinet and Congress. The second important point is that no exceptions will be made, such as sometimes occurred in the Breen office. Although I rarely have any criticism of Mr. Breen’s decisions, sometimes he was influenced by the filmmakers or simply moved to make an exception because of mitigating circumstances, which happened in the case of Rhett Butler’s famous line in Gone with the Wind, which was finally allowed because of its fame in the novel but is a clear violation of the Code. The NPCA will not allow any part of the Code to be broken, regardless of the filmmaker, film, situation, origin, or participants. The final change to be made is the board of appeals. If Mr. Breen decided that a film was unworthy of a seal without certain cuts and amendments, the filmmaker could appeal to a higher authority in New York; thus, many of Mr. Breen’s wise decisions were overturned, so he had to grudgingly grant seals to some undeserving films. There will be no higher authority than the NPCA; the administrator will be the highest authority in the system. If an element is in clear violation of a stated part of the Code, the filmmaker must remove it or be denied a seal. However, some situations are not so clear, since they largely rely on interpretation and presentation, and the administrator’s judgement is not infallible. In these vague cases, the filmmaker has the right to appeal for a change in decision if he feels that the NPCA is being unreasonable. He can ask for a hearing before the NPCA, at which he may produce evidence and support his case by making references to the papers of the PCA under Mr. Breen. Finally, the public will be aware of the Code and the NPCA, where it was not aware of the PCA. There will be an annual meeting which any audience member can attend or influence by sending in a letter. These meetings will allow audience members to express their concerns, desires, and feelings about the movies, since the goal of the Code and the NPCA are to make all films proper for everyone or, as Joe Breen often said, “reasonably acceptable to reasonable people.”

To properly illustrate the workings of the NPCA, we will outline the process of review for an imagined film, which we will call The Proposed Code Film. A well-known director, Just A. Filmmaker from Some Hollywood Studio, has an idea for a movie which is taken from a recent novel, Any Old Book by Anonymous A. Author. The book was not very popular or successful, but it has attracted Mr. Filmmaker’s attention, and he has found out that A. A. Author is willing to sell the rights to the book for a reasonable price. Before he buys the rights, however, Filmmaker wants to be sure that the NPCA will approve it for a seal, so he sends the synopsis of Any Old Book to the NPCA. James Brannan receives the synopsis and reads it himself, since it is only a few pages long. He is a little concerned about the portrayal of a certain male character in the book, Spineless Husband, and the scenario which occurs in Chapter 14-15 can have no place in a Code film, but he finds the rest of the book to be reasonably acceptable. He writes back to Just Filmmaker and tells him to proceed with the script for Any Old Book, making note of the two questionable elements. Mr. Filmmaker happily proceeds, and soon he sends the first draft of the script to the NPCA for approval. Mr. Brannan assigns the script to two of his competent staff members, Some S. Regulator and Any Other Self-Regulator. They carefully read and evaluate the script together, but they find that, although Mr. Brannan’s two original concerns have been removed, other problems have arisen. They make a list of the following concerns: Jane Strong’s brother, Joe Wimpy, is characterized as the typical sissy; Mrs. Happy Spouse, Joe Spouse’s dream bride, is a divorcee; a forbidden expression is used; Mrs. Sick Mother is diagnosed with an intimate female cancer, which is openly named and discussed; and risque dialogue, including double-intendres, unwholesome implications, and hidden meanings, are used in every conversation between Mr. Amorous Youth and Miss Flirtatious Maiden. They send this list to Just A. Filmmaker, telling him that these items must be changed or deleted and explaining how some can be amended. Mr. Filmmaker agrees and soon sends a revised version of the script. In this version, Mrs. Spouse is a widow, the forbidden expression has been replaced with an acceptable one, and some of the risque dialogue has been removed or changed. Mr. Regulator and Mr. Self-Regulator write Mr. Filmmaker a letter asking that Joe Wimpy, Mrs. Sick Mother, and the dialogue between Mr. Youth and Miss Maiden be changed as they previously specified. Mr. Filmmaker responds with revised versions of the three scenes between the young sweethearts and asks for a meeting with the NPCA to discuss the other two items of difficulty. His request is granted, and two weeks later he meets with Mr. Brannan, Mr. Regulator, and Mr. Self-Regulator at the NPCA headquarters. He expresses his feeling that Joe Wimpy and Mrs. Mother do not violate the Code, since Joe is not a “pansy,” and Mrs. Mother has a real condition which is a problem for thousands of American women. In response, Mr. Brannan explains that, firstly, there is a bit of what Mr. Breen called “a pansy flavor” about Joe Wimpy; besides, effeminate men have been a disgustingly large element in entertainment these days. While bookish or studious men may be pictured, foolish and effeminate men should not be stereo-typed as they are in The Proposed Code Film. Mr. Filmmaker agrees to this change but stubbornly asks what stereotype is being used with Mrs. Sick Mother. Mr. Self-Regulator explains that there is nothing wrong with depicting or discussing cancer in general, but certain types of cancer are found in intimate parts of the body which are improper and embarrassing to mention in mixed company. Mrs. Sick Mother’s cancer is in an intimate part of the female anatomy, and it must not be openly bandied about, since that is embarrassing and disrespectful to women. Mrs. Sick Mother’s cancer must be moved to a less intimate part of her person or, better still, remain anonymous in its location. Mr. Brannan warns Mr. Filmmaker that any film which openly states or refers to this type of cancer will not receive the seal. He may ask for a hearing to appeal the decision, but this will only delay his filming and cost him money. Mr. Filmmaker says that won’t be necessary, since he wants to begin filming next week. Mrs. Sick Mother’s cancer will remain unnamed, he assures the NPCA. Mr. Brannan thanks him for his cooperation. Two day later, the NPCA receives the costume footage. Every costume design must be submitted to the NPCA before it is made. This was done with the second draft of the script, and no problems were found. However, costumes can look very different on human beings, so every costume must be filmed for ten seconds and shown from every angle as it will be in the film and on the actor who will wear it. Three unacceptable costumes are noted by the two reviewers: Miss Flirtatious Maiden wears indecently short shorts in a scene on the beach; Joe Wimpy wears a pair of excessively tight black pants at a dinner party; and Mrs. Happy Spouse, before she marries Joe, wears a yellow dress at a dinner party which exposes some of her chest. The two men write Mr. Filmmaker and tell him that Miss Maiden’s shorts must be replaced by pants or a skirt which fall no higher than an inch above her knees, Joe Wimpy’s pants must not cling to his legs, and the future Mrs. Spouse’s dress must have its neckline raised or be given a contrasting insert which covers her, but not a tan one which implies bare flesh. It is only a few days before film of the updated costumes is sent and approved. Thus, Mr. Filmmaker begins to film The Proposed Code Film. He completes it within three months. The next month, he submits the film for review. Since he kept his word and maintained all the changes suggested by the NPCA, there are no problems with his film. Mr. Just A. Filmmaker is congratulated as his film is given the NPCA seal No. 1. He looks forward to huge profits, since his film will be viewed by all ages of audience members throughout the country and world.

Having reviewed the workings of the Breen Office, the alterations to be made to its operation, and the hypothesized process of self-regulation for a typical film, I hope to have effectively described and explained our proposed method of operation after the reinstatement of the Code. The Breen Office operated in a marvelously effective way, but it relied entirely upon the presence and strength of Joseph Breen. The NPCA will be even more successful by having a larger staff which is carefully trained, lessening the reliance on the administrator, forbidding the possibility of exceptions, and removing the New York board of appeals. The NPCA’s process of self-regulation will ensure that the Code is properly enforced so that every film given the seal can be presented to all Americans without any need for costly classification. The Code, like the Constitution of the United States, can have no effect if it is not effectively enforced by an efficient process which is directed by a fair, strong, and concerned leader.

Follow us to bring back the Code and save the arts in America!

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