Saturdays of the Future: 4. Joseph I. Breen, National Hero or Public Enemy?

Joseph Breen 2

The name Joseph I. Breen doesn’t mean much to many people these days, yet it is the name of one of America’s greatest influencers. If you read my last article in the Saturdays of the Future series, you already know about Mr. Breen. If you haven’t read this article, I encourage you to do so now: https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2017/06/03/saturdays-of-the-future-3-star-on-the-hollywood-walk-of-fame/. Last week’s article discussed PEPS’s nomination of Joseph Breen for a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. While I discussed Joseph Breen’s life, I did not discuss his reputation and legacy, which are very important to PEPS’s plans and goals. I will explain them in this article and also detail our plans for honoring him.

When Joseph Breen became the head of the Production Code Administration on July 15 of 1934, he was an unknown figure to most of America. He had been Will Hays’s assistant for a few years, and for the last six months he had been the head of the Studio Relations Committee, but Mr. Hays had always been the public image of Hollywood public relations. By 1934, however, his name and reputation were not entirely respected and beloved. In 1930, when the Code was originally adopted, he had promised America that films were going to change. Four years later, they had not improved but worsened, so Americans were disgusted with his unfulfilled promises. Thus, when real change was happening in 1934 with the Production Code Administration, he did not want his name to discredit it for the public. Instead, Joe Breen was the spokesman for the PCA, as he should have been, since he was the man who would run it. He appeared on newsreels, radio programs, headlines, and numerous interviews during the summer, explaining the principles, goals, and credibility of the PCA in an honest, clear manner. I have only been able to find the latter of the two newsreels he filmed. If you know where I might find the other newsreel and his radio interviews, please tell me so in the comment section. In this newsreel, Joe Breen speaks in a clear, concise Philadelphia accent, never wavering, faltering, or hesitating; he is so different from people you see in modern interviews, who fumble, fidget, and stammer. They may be natural, but they seem very unprofessional. This minute and forty-five second newsreel is long enough to impart Mr. Breen’s entire character and motives. He can explain the ideal of the PCA and the Code better in this time than I could in many paragraphs, so I invite you to watch this newsreel now: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FI9nr5qKE6w. If you agree with his sentiment, please like the video and write a comment saying so. So many people write unkind things about Mr. Breen, but few people take the trouble to compliment him.

After the initial publicity about the PCA, Joseph Breen retired from the public eye. For the rest of his career, he was virtually unknown to the American public. Aside from a few mentions in Variety, nobody outside the film industry discussed Joe Breen. In the filmmaking city, however, Breen’s name was not only a by-word but a verb. Variety coined the terms breening and joebreening as verbs to describe the PCA’s method of self-regulation, and they became two frequently used words in Hollywood. While J. I. Breen remained a heavy influence in the entire process of making each film, the only physical proof of this you can see in films is the MPPDA symbol with the seal number which is in the corner of the credits of every Code film. (For the first year or so, a separate page was given to the seal before the credits began, but this was soon abandoned for the subtler approach which can be seen for most of the Code era.) The PCA was only mentioned in the news if it was involved in a struggle with an obstinate filmmaker, and even then Mr. Breen’s name went unmentioned. Mr. Hays and the MPPDA were more frequently discussed. Because a few disagreements, infringements, and battles between the PCA and certain moguls gained a lot of notoriety and fame, I’m sure many people imagine that all filmmakers hated the Code, the PCA, and especially Mr. Breen. This is not true, however. Most filmmakers considered him to simply be another businessman who was trying to do his job and accomplish his goals just as they were. In fact, many moguls referred to him as their friend, since he was protecting them from a hated enemy, censorship. Even as they called the Code outdated in the early 1950s, they did not personally attack Mr. Breen. On the contrary, they often complimented his fine enforcement of the Code. They simply wanted to loosen the Code which he so effectively and fairly enforced. Mr. Breen was stricter than his predecessors at the SRC, Colonel Jason Joy and Dr. James Wingate, and his successor at the PCA, Geoffrey Shurlock, but the filmmakers were always upset when he discussed retiring or leaving. They liked him because they knew how to work with him. Filmmakers often pleaded with him by saying, “Joe, be reasonable!” The reason they liked him, though, was because he was reasonable. He was not an unbending judge or a stubborn bluenose. He was as much a filmmaker as they were. The only difference was that the filmmakers wanted to make money, while Joseph Breen wanted to make clean entertainment.

So much for Mr. Breen’s day. Let us now discuss his legacy in the present world. The Production Code Administration could be called an unwritten chapter of history. Despite the fact that classic films are more popular now than ever before, relatively few people seem to know about the Code. The few people who do mention the Code are entirely confused about the functions and leaders of it. Not only does everyone still refer to the Code, which was written by Martin Quigley and Father Daniel Lord, as the Hays Code, he says that Will Hays was in charge of reviewing films. Many people think that he self-regulated films through the MPPDA, while others think that he headed the PCA. I even read one article which said that he controlled films through the Hays Commission. The Censorship Papers by Gerald Gardener contains some of the most vicious publicized insults about the Code and the PCA I have ever read, yet they are directed at the wrong person. Mr. Gardner wrote that Will Hays was the head of the PCA and Joseph Breen was his assistant. As a matter of fact, in most writings I have read about Hollywood’s self-regulation, whether the work of the PCA is complimented or condemned, the name of Joseph Breen is not mentioned.

On the internet, in places such as social media, YouTube, book reviews, and other random places, one can find the most writings by people who know that Joseph Breen was the man behind the Production Code Administration. Unfortunately, most of these people seem to derive great pleasure from insulting and slandering him. Many of them seem to have huge grievances against him, as though he personally injured them by self-regulating films from 1934 through 1954. Even the International Movie Database referred to him as the “notorious Joseph Breen.” Others have called him names and accused him of being racist, bigoted, sniveling, and conceited. He is considered to be the reason for every problem with Old Hollywood. Many people hypothesize that films, which were excellent during the Golden Era, could have been so much greater if they had not been “hindered” by the Code and Mr. Breen. Outlaws who sprang up in the early 30s such as John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde are remembered as more heroic, brave, and beloved figures. Many people think that Dillinger was a modern Robinhood, a hero of the people who was martyred by the unjust police force. Similarly, gangsters in real life and on the silver screen were and continue to be famous and exciting icons of glamour and glory who defy the law and live by and for their own pleasure. These criminals are remembered for their dastardly deeds, yet their infamy has become fame. People understand that these people were evil, yet they write and talk about them with affection and admiration. However, people write about Mr. Breen as though he were a public enemy. Of what crime was he guilty? He tried to impart morals and wholesomeness to American entertainment. That’s worse than murder!

The Pure Entertainment Preservation Society celebrates the Breen era, since we think that the best films in history were made during Joseph Breen’s supervision of the Production Code Administration. To bring back the Code, we must inform people about the reason Hollywood was so good during the Golden Era. One of the ways we want to do this is by honoring Joseph Breen any way we can. We must dispel the vicious lies about him and spread the truth about his wonderful contributions to the nation and the world. The star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is only the beginning of our attempts to honor him. I have contacted the American Film Institute with the suggestion that they should honor Mr. Breen in some way. I have also contacted the children book series Who Was? with the idea that children should know who Mr. Breen was. In addition, I intend to research a national day of recognition for him on his birthday, October 14. I am going to contact Christian media organizations such as Mastermedia, Faithwire, and Movieguide and tell them about PEPS’s goals for bringing moral entertainment to Hollywood; I will also ask them to honor Mr. Breen as the man who helped Hollywood attain Christian morality in films. Finally, I want to contact the Catholic Church, since I feel that it should honor one of its devoted members who contributed so greatly to spreading the faith through his work in media. For this task, I am looking for a Catholic to help me, since I, as a Protestant, feel uncertain as to where and how to start. If you have any suggestions as to whom I should contact, I would greatly appreciate it. I also would gratefully welcome your help and suggestions in regards to any other organizations to contact to honor Joseph Breen.

If you share my feelings that Joseph Breen’s memory needs to be celebrated and perpetuated, please help me spread the word about him. For the new Code and the New Production Code Administration to ever be achieved, we need to expose the truth about the original Code and Production Code Administration. I am looking for people who knew Joseph Breen, his family, or members of the PCA; if not the actual people who knew them, I am looking for their descendants. I am also looking for living relatives of Joseph Breen, but I have not been able to trace any of them since Mary Pat Dorr, his granddaughter, died. If you know someone who might hold this information or any other pertinent information, please comment on this page or email me at cottage.caretakers@yahoo.com. You can help this search by posting it on social media. Please also use social media to spread good publicity about the Code and its misunderstood administrator. With your help, we can show the world that Joseph I. Breen was not a public enemy; he was a national hero!

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