How to Breen!

The Great Breening Blogathon 5

If you have read anything about “The Great Breening Blogathon,” PEPS’s first blogathon, which I have been promoting aggressively in the past couple weeks, you have doubtless encountered the verb breen many times. Breen, as well as its synonym, joebreen, was a verb which was coined by Variety during the Golden Era to describe exactly what happened to a film which passed through the Production Code Administration. There are no official words in the English language which have just the right meaning, so Variety created a verb from Joseph Breen’s name. Many people think of his work as censoring, but that is inaccurate, since censorship is the official examination of finished works to ensure their acceptability. Mr. Breen and his comrades worked with filmmakers throughout the whole production of a film to ensure its acceptability; they called their work “self-regulation.” However, the filmmakers, who had a copy of the Code just as Mr. Breen did, were strangely incapable of self-regulating themselves. They needed someone in the business to interpret the Code for them, and Mr. Breen is the only person in film history who was capable of performing that job properly. Everyone in the movie industry knew that Mr. Breen was the driving force behind the Code, since none of his predecessors or his employees were capable of achieving the same results. Thus, breen became a frequently used verb in Hollywood talk. It was a handy coincidence that the chief self-regulator’s name rhymed with words such as clean, obscene, and screen.

For “The Great Breening Blogathon,” I have been inviting writers to join me in breening movies, which I do every other Thursday. This is easier said than done, however, so I decided that it was time that I explain exactly how to breen a film. This article is mandatory reading material for anyone who is going to breen a picture for the blogathon. Without further ado, here are the instructions on how to breen.

INSTRUCTIONS:

  1. Choose a classic film that was not made during the Code era. Technically, any film made outside of the Breen era could be breened, but this blogathon is limited to films made before 1969. Thus, any film made before 1969 but not between 1934 and 1954 is eligible to be breened in the blogathon. The only exception is Disney films, which we are allowing through the early 1970s.
  2. Read the Code. You should probably read The Code and Its Revisions once to absorb the general rules, since this copy includes more specifics than the other version. However, The Original Code is the one you should really study and print as a reference. As far as I know,  the articles about liquor and miscegenation are the only ones which were not included in the first draft written by Martin Quigley and Father Daniel Lord.
  3. Watch the film you have chosen very carefully. Your breening tools are a pen, a pad, and a copy of the Code. If you are going to do specific breening and mention every little problem which needs to be changed, make note of each unacceptable element. If you are going to do more general breening, make notes of scenarios, plot elements, and character problems which need to be changed.
  4. Consider the basic story and plot. Do they contain any Code-violating elements? If they do, how can these problems be fixed? I like to think of a movie as a building. The story and plot are the bare structure. The scenarios, dialogue, and costumes are the paint. Problems in the plot are beams. In many stories, the rotten beams of the plot are not weight-bearing ones, so they can easily be removed or replaced. In others, they bear some weight of the plot. This does not mean that the film is unbreenable, however. Many notoriously risque plays and books were made into Code-compliant films after being self-regulated by Mr. Breen. In theory, any film can be breened. Most films are improved by this. However, if a film is based too heavily on immoral subject matter, much of its original story will be lost in the purification. I will give examples below of how to handle different situations.
  5. Consider the “paint” of the film. This means changing or eliminating inconsequential and unnecessary problems like side characters, songs, dance numbers, costumes, individual scenes, scenarios, and even lines. This is what I call surface breening. You can definitely surface breen any film. It’s as simple as raising a neckline here, cutting out a swear word there, changing the location of a certain scene, and eliminating an implication in another scene. However, some films are simply not worth surface breening, since they have decrepit, rotting structures.
  6. Write your article. You might want to begin with a brief synopsis of the movie. After whatever preliminaries you choose to include, you should make a list of the changes which would need to be made to make the film Code-compliant. If any changes to the plot need to be made, I suggest that you discuss them first. If many changes need to be made, you could write a brief synopsis which includes the changes. Then, you may list the problems in the film’s “paint.” I usually make a chronological list of the surface problems, starting at the beginning of the film and working to the end. Of course, there is no right or wrong way to write a breening article. I am probably the only person who has ever breened a film on a blog, so I am the only template there is. As I have mentioned before, you can read Mr. Breen’s original PCA files here. I found this source invaluable, and I know you will, too. I have mentioned only the things which your article must contain. As always, you may decide what additional information you want to include.
  7. Submit your article as part of “The Great Breening Blogathon.” I will have watched and breened every film which is entered in the blogathon. When I publish the recap for each day, I will include some notes on each person’s breening. I will mention my thoughts on his article, my opinions of his breening, and any additional points which could be breened. For each successfully breened film, the author will receive a PEPS Seal of Approval.

EXAMPLES:

  1. Footlight Parade (1933) requires both structural and surface breening. The only main problem in the plot is the fact that Chester Kent is divorced. His first wife could be changed to a former fiancee without harm to the plot. Other problems include Mrs. Gould’s young male proteges and her sissy bluenose brother. All romance could be removed from the first situation, and she could simply be an untalented singing teacher who thinks she is a great talent discoverer. Her brother, Charlie, is obviously meant as a goofy spoof on the Studio Relations Committee, which, like Charlie, advised the studios on how to avoid nationwide censorship. He could remain if he was changed to a silly but not effeminate character who is always pestering Chester with bad ideas. Also, care must be taken with the relationship between Chester and Vivian to ensure its propriety. In terms of paint, several costumes, dancing or otherwise, need to be changed, many improper lines need to be revised or removed, and suggestive dance numbers need to be re-choreographed or replaced. These are many of but not all the problems in this film, which I have breened on paper but not in my column. This would be an excellent choice for the blogathon.
  2. Forty Pounds of Trouble (1962) has few problems structurally or on the surface. The main structural problem is the fact that Steve is divorced. His ex-wife is not as easily eliminated as Chester’s, since a huge premise of the plot is the fact that he has to avoid the law in California because he owes her alimony. In a situation like this, one must ask himself what part of the problem supports the structure. The answer is the fact that he is running from the law. This shows us the answer to the problem. The plot does not rely on the fact that he is divorced but on the fact that he is evading the law. Thus, his crime should be changed to something else. Also, Steve should not think that the beautiful singer, Chris, is the employer’s young lady friend instead of his niece. Other than that, the only real problems are a few of Chris’s necklines, some suggestive dialogue about Steve’s relationships with women, and a few overly flirtatious women who work in the casino. This is another good option for the Breenathon.
  3. The Impatient Maiden (1932) is a little-known pre-Code film with Lew Ayres and Mae Clarke. It is a good example of a film which needs very little structural change. The only real problems are a subtle mocking attitude of marriage and a few implications of loose amorous moral attitudes, shall we say, since nothing really happens. On the surface, the only problems are a couple of risque lines and two exclamations of the forbidden expression “Nuts!” Also, there is a totally unnecessary dressing scene in which the two girls are in their undergarments. The strong compensating moral values in this film definitely redeem the few problems and make it a good Breenathon topic.
  4. Pal Joey (1957) is an example of what Mr. Breen called a tough nut to crack. It is a relatively early Shurlock era film, but it shows how quickly the PCA had deteriorated under Geoffrey Shurlock’s guidance. The Rodgers and Hart musical on which this is based was far dirtier. The famous movie with Rita Hayworth, Frank Sinatra, and Kim Novak was definitely self-regulated before hitting the screen. However, it did not fully meet Code standards, since it was not breened; it was shurlocked. The changes which need to be made are basically structural. I don’t mean that there aren’t plenty of problems with the paint, but the structure is so dilapidated that a lot of the paint will be tossed out with the bad timber, so it would be silly to change word and line. The main problem is Joey’s numerous immoral relationships with women. With Vera, it should be clear that she intends to marry him from the very beginning. He wants a nightclub, and he is willing to earn it in kisses and obedience, but nothing more. Vera should obviously relish the control she has over him and maliciously plan to trap and marry him. As for the other girls in the night club and the numerous girls he discusses, it must be clear that he simply enjoys infatuating the girls. The fun is in the conquest, so he likes to kiss and run. Also, as one can see from the girls in the night club, he likes women who will do things for him, since one girl does his laundry, another cooks for him, and a third has a great sound system. On more of the surface, no musical numbers should be suggestive, and care must be taken with costumes. This is an example of a film that really needs breening, not just any kind of self-regulation. Mr. Shurlock could do pretty well on milder films, but tough nuts like this one really required Mr. Breen’s touch. I commend you for tackling a more difficult film like this one for the Great Breening Blogathon.

NOTES OF CAUTION:

  1. In pre-Code films, watch for forbidden expressions like “Nuts” and “Nuts to you.” The only proper use of the word nuts is meaning crazy or actually discussing nuts. Also, watch for two popular hat expressions, “In your hat” and “Hold on to your hats!” Any variations of these two are forbidden. In early films, you will find a lot of nose-thumbing; this is always forbidden.
  2. In Shurlock era films, watch for “lousy” and “broad;” these are both forbidden. Also, look out for “In a pig’s eye.”
  3. In any time, it is improper to describe a man or woman as hot when meaning attractive. Also, under the Code, as in proper society, the only meaning of the word sex is gender. Any other use is vulgar and forbidden. (This is not listed in the actual Code, but you certainly won’t find it used to mean anything besides gender in a Breen film.)
  4. There must be no comedie de toilette or comedie de digestion. These both come under the heading of what is usually called bathroom humor. There must be no jokes about the functions or malfunctions of the digestive system. The toilet must never be shown or heard, but all other bathroom fixtures are acceptable. Burping is improper, but hiccuping is allowed. (This is implied under Section III of the Code, “Vulgarity.” It was Mr. Breen’s pet peeve.)
  5. A man and woman must never be shown in bed together. A double bed may be shown, but only one person may be shown in it, even if the couple is married. One person may sit on a bed in which his spouse is lying, but he must keep one foot on the floor at all times. The intimate part of marriage is too sacred to be splattered all over the movie screen.
  6. In dressing and undressing scenes, a woman may never be shown in less than a full slip. Stockings, slips, petticoats, and camisoles are the only articles of a woman’s underpinning which may be shown or discussed. Stockings may be taken off onscreen, but garters and garter tabs should not be shown. Men may be shown in nothing but their undershorts if it is necessary for the plot, but they must be loose enough and long enough. A man’s hips should always be covered, even if he is wearing a bathing suit. A man’s navel may be shown, but a woman’s may not. Also, care should be taken that a woman’s chest is never improperly revealed.
  7. Immoral situations may be delicately portrayed, but there must always be compensating moral values. No matter how much crime, sin, and evil is depicted in a film, the audience must leave the theatre knowing that “evil is wrong and good is right,” as it says in the Code. Clergymen were often used as voices of morality, but any character could be the lone voice of righteousness which redeems an otherwise questionable film.

As I said before, there is not a right or wrong way to breen a film. The general purpose of breening is to show how films which were not self-regulated by Mr. Breen would have been different if he had reviewed them. It shows us what filmmakers experienced, and it shows us what Mr. Breen and the other men who worked at the PCA did on a daily basis. As you breen, I hope you will see, as I do, that the purpose is not to negate the brilliance of the original work. It is to take the goodness of the story and leave the badness behind. It is to skim the cream off the top of the milk. It is to tell a story in a pure, wholesome way so that everyone can watch and enjoy even the most mature subjects. Hundreds of films which, if made now, would be classified as “adult films” were seen by children in the Golden Era, since Mr. Breen removed the grime from them and left the moral behind the story. Joseph Breen had the Midas touch. He had the remarkable talent of touching baser stories and turning them to pure gold!

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One thought on “How to Breen!

  1. Pingback: EXTRA: “The Great Breening Blogathon!” | pure entertainment preservation society

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