Last week and the week before I didn’t publish a Saturday of the Future article since I was busy working on the plans which I will detail in this one. For the third article in this series, I am going to describe PEPS’s biggest plan for promoting the cause, raising awareness, and spreading the word.
A few months ago, we Brannans discussed the idea of having a demonstration in Hollywood, and someone suggested that Joseph Breen’s star would be a good location. In case you do not know, Joseph I. Breen was the head of the Production Code Administration from 1934 to 1954; he is the inspiration for PEPS. When I did some research to find the location of Mr. Breen’s star, I realized that he does not have one. I was appalled by the injustice of the situation, since thousands of people who contributed to a relatively small amount of films have stars; it is absurd that the man who contributed to almost every film for twenty years during Hollywood’s Golden Era is unrecognized among the names of classic Hollywood. However, we quickly realized that this great injustice is a marvelous opportunity and potential means for promoting the cause. We decided to research the process of getting a star on the Walk of Fame.
When I realized that the process involved only filling out a simple form and sending it to the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, I determined to do it. I sent in the form last week. All the forms are reviewed by a board in June, and the selections are made. Every year, approximately twenty nominees are chosen for stars, but only one posthumous star is awarded each year. If Joseph Breen is chosen, PEPS will have to pay $40,000 for the star, but the publicity, notoriety, and honor which this event will garner will be worth twice that sum for the cause. After a nominee has been chosen, the sponsor has five years to select the time when the actual star will be awarded, so that would give us time to raise the necessary funds.
Now all we can do is wait, but I don’t think we will have to wait long, since today is the third day of June. If Mr. Breen is not selected, the form will still be valid for next year. If he is chosen, I will ask all my devoted followers and all readers of this to help us raise the funds to get this greatly deserved acknowledgement for the greatest contributor to Hollywood in history. If you would like to know more about this great man, please scroll down and read the information I sent to the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. If you believe in what he did, please follow us and sign our petition to bring back the Code. That is what he would have wanted.
BRIEF BIOGRAPHY OF JOSEPH I. BREEN
Joseph Ignatius Breen was the youngest son in a family of five children born to Catholic Irishman Hugh A. Breen and his wife, Mary Breen nee Cunningham. Joseph was successful in school, which included his grade school education at the Gesu Parish School and his high school education at the Roman Catholic High School for Boys. Although he was a basketball star, voted the most likely to succeed, and made class president in his senior year, no one suspected that the young Philadelphian
Irishman would someday have more influence over people’s minds than any president, politician, ruler, or religious leader.
After two years at St. Joseph’s all male college, Breen dropped out to become a beat reporter and feature writer on a series of Philadelphian newspapers, since he was ever an energetic fellow who was always looking for a new challenge and a better position. He married Mary Dervin, his childhood sweetheart, in 1914, and they quickly began a family which would eventually number six children. His growing family gave him further motivation to continue changing jobs in an effort to find a bigger, less stressfully-earned paycheck. The year of his marriage, Joe Breen joined the United States Consular Service, which posted him in Panama, Brest and Lehavre in France, and Queenstown in Ireland. In 1917 he became vice-president consular in Jamaica, then he was given a brief post in Toronto, Canada, before he retired from government service. He returned to feature writing, but now he worked on the big daily New York newspapers. At this time he also became the private secretary of the president of Fordham University, Father Edward Tivnan. In 1920 Breen joined the International News Service and went overseas to cover post-war Europe as a foreign correspondent. In 1921 he became the European Representative of the Bureau of Immigration for the National Catholic Welfare Council (NCWC) and went to Danzig. For a year, his job required him to travel to and from various European capitals to help potential Catholic immigrants to America. In 1922, Mr. Breen went to the Washington, D. C. office of the NCWC, where he directed the Publications Office and advocated the Church line in the official monthly magazine of the NCWC, The National Catholic Welfare Conference Bulletin (NCWCB). He edited the NCWCB from May of 1923 to March of 1924. In April of 1924, Joseph became the sales campaign manager for a five-volume compendium about the history of Catholics in America called Catholic Builders of a Nation: A Synopsium on the Catholic Contribution to the Civilization of the United States. During the 1920s, Mr. Breen wrote for the Jesuit weekly America and the Catholic monthly Extension Magazine under the pseudonym Eugene Weare.
In 1925, Joseph Breen became the publicity director for the 28th International Eucharist Congress, an international gathering of Catholics in Chicago, Illinois, which was scheduled for June 20-24, 1926. At this point he was also working as the public relations manager for Cardinal Mundelein, the archbishop of Chicago; he frequently acted as the Cardinal’s ghostwriter. The Cardinal had promised the Pope that he would have one million Catholics kneeling at an outdoor mass during the Congress, and it was Breen’s job to be sure that he kept the promise. He advertised in Catholic and secular newspapers and magazines nationwide, certified souvenirs, arranged accommodations for Catholics who traveled to the Congress, and kept foreign clergyman out of domestic politics when they were accosted by American reporters. The Eucharist Congress was a huge step in Mr. Breen’s career. When Martin J. Quigley, one of the future authors of the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, arranged the deal between Fox Film and the Catholic Church, the footage of the entire Congress was made into an eighty-six minute documentary, and the exclusive copyright was given to the Church. Breen became the publicity man for this film. He and Quigley worked tirelessly on the film until it opened at Al Jolson’s Theater in New York City on November 8, 1926, to an audience of 1770 people. Mr. Breen proceeded to book and advertise the film as it toured the country. This was his first experience with filmmaking, but it certainly would not be his last.
In April of 1928, Joseph Breen was hired as the pre-publicity man for the Chicago World’s Fair which was scheduled for 1933. In June of 1929, he became the assistant to Stuyvesant Peabody, the president of the Peabody Coal Company in Chicago. He worked in public relations, but his job was really to solve any problems which arose for his employer. That same year he was hired by Mr. Quigley as an editor and writer for the Chicagoan, a newspaper for which he wrote profiles and articles under various pen names. He did this while continuing to work for Mr. Peabody and Cardinal Mundelein. Both these men served on a special Administrative Board at Loyola University, so Mr. Breen often attended these Catholic meetings. At one of these meetings in July of that year, Martin Quigley presented his idea of a Code to govern Hollywood in response to the Catholic priest Father Dinneen’s reaction to a scandalous new talkie, The Trial of Mary Dugan. Father Daniel A. Lord, a priest from St. Louis, Missouri, who had been interested in Hollywood since he was used as a Catholic adviser in Cecil B. Demille’s The King of Kings in 1926, was chosen to be the priestly co-author of the Code. By 1930, Quigley had an opportunity to present the case of the Code to the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) and the Association of Motion Picture Producers (AMPP). On March 31, the Code was formally ratified. The Code was not effective, however, because the Studio Relations Committee (SRC), the board which enforced the Code, did not have the authority or power to really enforce it. Thus, the Code was actually in place during one of the most scandalous times in Hollywood history up to that time, the pre-Code era.
It was not long before Joseph Breen, a prominent member of the Catholic community as well as a fine publicity man, attracted the attention of Will Hays, a Presbyterian politician who was the president of the AMPP and the moral goodwill ambassador for Hollywood. He hired him as the goodwill ambassador for Hollywood in Chicago. It was his job to explain Hollywood’s good intentions, avoid bad publicity, and calm irate moralists. He did this job for the MPPDA while remaining a publicity man for hire, freelance writer, and employee of the Peabody Coal Company. On July 14, 1931, Mr. Breen got the position he had wanted ever since he was hired by the MPPDA; he was hired to be the assistant of Mr. Hays and to come out to Hollywood. While doing this, he served as a representative of Hollywood to the Catholic Church as well as a means of information for the influential Catholics back east with whom he was closely affiliated. As soon as he arrived in Hollywood, his goal was to reform the motion picture business.
Mr. Breen began substituting for the head of the SRC, Dr. James Wingate, on December 1, 1933. On January 30 of 1934, Sol A. Rosenblatt, a New-Dealer from Washington, D. C., was sent to Hollywood at President Roosevelt’s request. Since the Code had been ineffectively in place for four years, the government was threatening a more effective federal censorship program. Mr. Rosenblatt met with Colonel Jason Joy, Dr. Wingate, and Mr. Breen; he was very impressed with the last of these men, who convinced him that Hollywood could and should self-regulate its films with proper leadership. Because of Rosenblatt’s high recommendation, Mr. Breen was made the official head of the SRC on February 5, 1934. Joseph Breen very energetically attacked his job of over-seeing film content, but it was almost impossible with the current form of regulation. On June 13, 1934, feeling great pressure from the Catholic Legion of Decency, threats of government censorship, and scientific studies discovering the evil influence of dirty films on children, the MPPDA agreed to a new amendment to the Code. This formed the Production Code Administration (PCA), which had to review every script before the film was made; under the new agreement, no film could be released without the seal of approval from the PCA. It was taken for granted by all that Joseph I. Breen would head the new organization. He was the only man for the job, since he satisfied everyone. The Catholics were pleased by his long history in the Church, the filmmakers were relieved by his great understanding of filmmaking technique, and he himself was thrilled and honored by his unique yet monumentally serious opportunity to protect the morals of the nation.
Between July 15 of 1934 and October 14 of 1954, Joseph Breen was the only official head of the Production Code Administration. Whenever he went on vacation or visited the hospital, his assistant, Geoffrey Shurlock, was the unofficial leader. In 1941, Joseph Breen retired from the PCA to be the vice-president of RKO Pictures, but during the eight months of his absence, no official replacement was found or chosen. As usual, Mr. Shurlock unofficially and ineffectively ran things from the position of second-in-command. Every time Shurlock substituted for Mr. Breen, the films which the PCA reviewed displayed slight breaches in Codishness which can still be seen today. They were always small and seemingly insignificant changes or oversights which disappeared when Joseph Breen returned, but they show his huge importance in the PCA’s function. He returned to the PCA in 1942 after eight months of absence, since he had lost his job at RKO when a new president took over. The MPPDA did not beg him to come back, but the directors happily accepted him when he asked to return. Everyone realized that he was necessary for the business’s smooth operation.
In the early 1950s, Joseph Breen was feeling his age and the strain of years of strenuous work. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer, and he was over sixty. He began to retire by coming to the office only a few days a week and thus gradually removing his influence. Geoffrey Shurlock prepared himself for the official role of Code Administrator. Other replacements had been tested, but none were effective. Mr. Breen himself feared that the work of over twenty years would be lost if he retired, but he knew that he could no longer maintain the strenuous position the way he wanted to. On October 14, 1954, he officially retired from the Production Code Administration and was given the position of an emeritus adviser to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which was the new name for the MPPDA. However, this position was nothing more than a pension plan for him, since he did nothing in that job. He left for Arizona soon after his retirement, but he held the MPAA position until 1961. By 1965, he had lost the use of his legs. Later that year, he came back to Hollywood to visit his son but really to die.
On December 5 of 1965, Joseph Ignatius Breen died, and the Golden Era of Hollywood was not far behind him. It too had been dying since he had retired. The same week Mr. Breen died, the Catholic Legion of Decency was officially ended. In 1968 the Code joined Mr. Breen, Mr. Hays, Mr. Quigley, Father Lord, and the Catholic Legion of Decency in death. At the end of November, it was officially replaced with the rating system, and Geoffrey Shurlock retired. Hollywood’s Golden Era of self-regulation was dead because the only man who knew how to protect its morals had left in 1954.
For twenty years, Joseph I. Breen reviewed almost every film which was released in America; he also reviewed nearly all foreign films which were shown in the major American theaters. He worked sixteen hours a day, seven days a week to ensure that all films met the PCA’s standards of every film being “reasonably acceptable to reasonable people.” He sacrificed his own leisure and comfort so Americans could attend films without concerns about immoral and offensive content and filmmakers
could release films without concerns about censorship nationwide. He reviewed every phase of each film without receiving screen credit, acknowledgment, thanks, or even a very large salary. Everyone criticized his work, even though no one else could do it. Even in his own day, few people outside the Hollywood film industry knew who Joseph Breen was, yet he contributed to more films than any other
filmmaker in history. Liberty magazine wrote in 1936 that Joe Breen “probably has more influence in standardizing world thinking than Mussolini, Hitler, or Stalin. And, if we should accept the valuation of this man’s own business, possibly more than the Pope.” In 1954, after his retirement, Mr. Breen was given an honorary Academy Award in recognition of his service to the motion picture industry; this was the only official recognition he ever received from the film industry. After Breen’s death, Variety wrote that he was “one of the most influential figures in American culture” and that “more than any single individual, he shaped the moral stature of the American motion picture.”
Between 1934 and 1954, no one in Hollywood had more authority than Joseph I. Breen. No studio boss, producer, director, writer, or financial supporter had final cut above Mr. Breen. Even his so-called superior, Will Hays, had less actual control over film content. Hays only controlled politics and publicity; he never reviewed scripts or self-regulated films. Filmmakers were always upset when a replacement for Joe Breen was suggested. They didn’t want an ignorant censor or an unbending judge. They liked Mr. Breen because he was knowledgeable, experienced, worldly, cultured, intelligent, reasonable, open-minded, considerate, and understanding of the difficulties of filmmaking. He had a unique background and sensitivity which enabled him to do the amazingly difficult job which no man performed successfully before or since his administration of the PCA.
Whether or not he agrees with the PCA’s self-regulation, for it was this and not censorship, everyone who appreciates the classic Hollywood era should honor Joseph Breen as the main contributor. The uncontrolled films of the last half-century have been honored and praised. Many of the most famous and iconic attractions in Hollywood, however, are those dedicated to and celebrating old Hollywood. The Hollywood Walk of Fame has acknowledged nearly every notable artist during this time, which is often called the high point of Hollywood history. It is time for Hollywood to acknowledge the man who shaped it during the twenty years called its Golden Era. There is a growing interest in and appreciation for Joseph I. Breen among classic movie lovers. Please help us honor his selfless devotion to the motion picture business. It is time that American audiences learn about and celebrate the man who made Hollywood’s Golden Era as great as it was.
LIST OF CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE COMMUNITY AND CIVIC-ORIENTED PARTICIPATION:
In 1921, during his year working as the Nation Catholic Welfare Committee’s European representative, he helped provide aid, sustenance, and immigration assistance for Catholic victims of World War I.
From 1936 throughout the war years, he participated in the Anti-Nazi League by attending benefits, circulating Catholic pamphlets against antisemitism, and offering in print his services to help remove antisemitism from American views.
In 1939, he lent his support and influence to the Committee of Catholics to Fight Antisemitism by collecting statements and signatures from Hollywood Catholics against racism and bigotry; he also issued a public statement that the most important job for Catholics right then was to stem the hostility.
In 1939, he attended a charity concert by Mischa Elman that benefited Jewish victims of Nazism; this is just one example of the numerous charitable events in which he participated during the years of Nazi activity and cruelty.
In 1943, he served as a special consultant on motion pictures to the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs in Washington, D. C.
In 1943, he became the president of the Motion Picture Society for the Americas, an organization which was started by Nelson Rockefeller in 1941 to improve relations between the United States and the other countries in the Americas; his job was to help co-productions, welcome South American visitors to Hollywood, and keep American films from insulting South Americans.
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