Joseph I. Breen: America’s Moral Guardian

The Great Breening Blogathon 5

Today is Joseph Breen’s birthday, so I have made it the highlight of the blogathon celebrating his life, “The Great Breening Blogathon!” Many articles in this blogathon are dedicated to breening un-Sealed films, others are dedicated to exploring the Code itself, and some are dedicated to describing Code films which could have been made. Since Joe Breen is my favorite person in Old Hollywood, I could not let his birthday pass without publishing an article which is specifically about him. I hope that, through PEPS’s efforts, his memory will be revived and cherished for many years to come. Some day, I hope that October 14 will be Joseph Breen Day, when everyone will join us in celebrating his marvelous life.

Breen Star Photo 2I have written a lot about Joseph I. Breen on this website, but I have always tried to maintain a scholarly, unemotional tone. I have described his life, discussed his work, and praised his dedication, but I have never really said what he means to me, Tiffany Brannan, the primary founder, authoress, and public relations manager of the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society.

I was led to my discovery of the Code by my fondness for certain films and actors. I encountered the Code first because of You Can’t Run Away From It, since it was the remake of one of the last pre-Code films. I was fascinated by it, but I didn’t give it much thought at the time. It was not until I developed a deep interest in and fondness for the 1930s several months later that I gave it serious consideration. I will write more about my journey to discovering the Code in my article about Holiday, which I will be publishing on the 17th as part of the Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn Blogathon. A year ago today, I had recently become a member of WordPress. I would not publish my first article for another three days. I knew about the Code, I had written the research paper about it with Rebekah, and I knew about Joseph Breen. I just knew a little about him, though. A year ago today, I did not know that it was Mr. Breen’s birthday, and I didn’t care. At that time, he was just a name to me. He was just a vague figure in the past. He was not a real person to me; he was only a misty shadow. I knew about him as I knew about Benjamin Franklin. Nay, not even as much as that, for I had read some works by Mr. Franklin. I had read some articles which mentioned Joseph Breen, and I knew about him, but I did not know him as I know him now.

In my year writing the articles for PEPS, I have come to know more and more about the Code and Joseph Breen; in a way, they are one and the same. The Code was almost nothing before Mr. Breen became its enforcer. No one before or after him could interpret, uphold, and understand it the way he did. In a way, Mr. Breen needed the Code even as it needed him. He jumped from job to job for over twenty years before he found his real life’s calling, that of Code-enforcer. From the first discussion of the Code in 1929, Joe Breen knew that he and the job were meant for each other. He had to wait five years before his dream came true, but he was one of the men who worked hard to make an enforced Code a reality.

Obviously, I admire Joseph Breen because he believed in the Code and enforced it during the time in Hollywood history that I love best, the Golden Era. In the beginning, that was the only reason why. As I have learned more about him, however, I have come to admire him as a person. I admire, respect, and emulate his strong ideals, his tireless work ethic, his selfless dedication, and his refusal to quit. I have realized that it is in my nature to become attached to historical figures who are misrepresented and unappreciated. For my senior project in high school, I defended King George III and attempted to prove that he was not the terrible tyrant which American history has depicted him to be. After writing the paper, though, the goal ended, since there was no reason or purpose to continue the struggle aside from the empty goal of clearing the deceased British king’s name. With Joseph Breen, the struggle is part of a real goal, which is not only to bring the Code back to America but to restore some morality to our civilization. In addition, I want people to realize that Joseph Breen was not the stubborn, foolish bigot that he has been accused of being.

I am not sure whether I prefer people to know about Mr. Breen before they read my articles or not. While it is unfortunate and pathetic that there is such a small group of people who really know about him, I think I almost prefer that. So many people who have a limited knowledge of his life and work have only heard the multitude of lies and slanders which float around the sphere of Old Hollywood knowledge. Although this article is dedicated to discussing my personal thoughts and feelings about Joseph Breen, I must dedicate a few words to dispelling the most common falsehoods about him.

First, the Production Code Administration was not censorship, and Joseph Breen was not a censor. The Code was a unique process of self-regulation, and its enforcers were self-regulators. A censor is an official who reviews works after they are made and cuts things out. A self-regulator is someone who works with filmmakers throughout the entire filmmaking process to ensure that every part of the film complies with the guidelines to which the entire industry agrees. Mr. Breen was not an odious outsider who forced his own beliefs and guidelines on the unfortunate, mistreated artists. He was an important member of the film industry who helped filmmakers from every studio make entertainment of the highest quality possible. Furthermore, despite the fact that he would have frequent artistic disagreements with many filmmakers, most people in Hollywood liked Joe Breen as a person. Even if they didn’t agree with the Code, they rarely attacked him. When Sam Goldwyn declared that the Code was outdated and needed to be revised in 1950, he introduced his complaint by complimenting Mr. Breen’s enforcement of it and calling him his friend. That is a sentiment which most moguls shared. After all, he was the man who saved them from bankruptcy, helped them avoid severe censorship, aided them in making huge profits, and guided them through making the best films ever created in Hollywood history.

Second, Joseph Breen was not anti-Semitic. In the 1930s, he wrote a few personal letters to very close friends in which he angrily denounced the greedy, immoral techniques the Hollywood moguls used to make profits. In these letters, he referred to filmmakers as “these Jews.” However, this was standard practice for the day. I don’t deny the fact that he was very angry when he wrote these few letters. He did not intend to insult the entire Jewish race, however. He only was angry with the filmmakers, who happened to be Jews. I admit that he was unwisely harsh in his wording toward the moguls. That was not his usual manner. He was not a hateful man. He was usually patient, compassionate, and diplomatic. These letters were written in 1932. I implore you to consider his situation at the time. He had been hired to work as Will Hays’s assistant in Hollywood in 1931. He had moved out to California with his wife and six children, hoping to make great change and help enforce the Code, which had been ineffectually in place for a year. After a year in Hollywood, films were worse than ever, and victory seemed impossible. He became discouraged, frustrated, and angry with the filmmakers who had promised to enforce the Code but didn’t even try to do so. I think his feelings were normal and understandable. In contrast, in the 1920s, he wrote some pieces for a Catholic paper in which he praised the Jews for their care for their own and for the education which they enabled their children to have. He spoke of them in a complimentary way. In the late 1930s, he lent his support and financial assistant to leagues which were against antisemitism and Nazism. He was not usually involved in politics, but he made some public statements against antisemitism. Although he was aware of public relations, he would never have supported something with which he didn’t agree. I know that he never hated the Jewish race. After the Code began to be enforced in 1934, Mr. Breen became friendly toward the moguls. One thing you can say for Mr. Breen is that, no matter what a filmmaker did, he never held a grudge. He quickly forgave him and forgot about his transgression when he reviewed his next picture.

Third, the Code was not a bigoted organization which strictly forbade interracial romance. The clause about miscegenation was not in that original draft of the Code which was written in 1930 by Martin Quigley and Father Daniel Lord. However, it was then given to the Hays Office, which presented it to the Hollywood moguls. Someone in the MPPDA, the Hays office, inserted the clause about miscegenation. It was neither Mr. Hays, Mr. Breen, nor one of the two authors. In fact, when the two authors heard about this addition, they were furious. They wanted the Code to be strictly a moral guide. However, the MPPDA wanted to be sure that the Code would help films avoid censorship throughout the country. In the 1930s, miscegenation was a hot topic, especially in the South. From a public relations standpoint, it was best to avoid the whole thing and not offend any one. Joseph Breen dutifully enforced every article of the Code, since that was his job. However, I feel that he probably personally disagreed with any addition to the Code, since he felt that it was a nearly perfect document without any additions. This is also indicated by his treatment of the miscegenation in the two film versions of Show Boat which he reviewed. He allowed the topic of miscegenation because he knew that the popular story was a well-known one and would not be censored. This clearly indicates that his removal of miscegenation in other stories was nothing more than good public relations. When we say that we want the Code to be brought back, we mean the original Code. This does not include the article about miscegenation. This is no longer a necessary inclusion because of public relations, and we want the Code to be as close to its original form as possible.

Most people who read or write about Joe Breen never really get to know his character and his personality. They think of him as a thing rather than a person. This is intensified by the fact that they refer to him as just Breen rather than Mr. Breen, Joseph, or Joe. To people who love the absence of restraint and rules, Mr. Breen seems like an unbending, unsmiling policeman. This is far from his true personality, though. He was frequently called “the genial Irishman.” He was a complex man with a quick wit, a strong sense of morality, a great respect for women, a deep devotion to his religion, an undying love of country, and a fierce independence. One minute he would be extremely serious, and the next he would be surprisingly jovial. He was a dedicated husband and a loving father. He was willing to make great personal sacrifices to achieve his goals.

I think that everyone should admire Joseph Breen for his tireless dedication to a cause which brought him nothing besides a comfortable income and the satisfaction of protecting America’s morals. As the head of the Production Code Administration, Mr. Breen made a larger salary than he ever had before. However, he made much less money than Will Hays, who was good at politics but did very little to protect public morals. That was Mr. Breen’s department.

Joseph I. Breen was America’s Moral Guardian. He acted as the concerned father to all the children in America. He was a wise uncle, an advisor, a protector, and a shield. He helped raise a generation of America to the highest level of civilization which our country has ever achieved. I consider the moral standards of a nation to be the indication of its degree of civilization. By that standard, modern America is barbaric. A nation which will not tolerate lewdness and impropriety in its entertainment is a nation which has risen to an extreme degree of intelligence and maturity. Mr. Breen helped America achieve and maintain that position.

A good Code film is like a bar of soap for your mind, your conscience, and your soul. It washes you out on the inside and leaves you feeling clean and refreshed. It uplifts you as no other form of entertainment can. It inspires you to be a better person and a better American citizen. How sorely our civilization needs this sort of cleansing and uplifting today! I think that William Wordsworth’s poem “London, 1802” is very pertinent to this topic. I have listed it below, changing Milton to Breen, England to America, and English to American.

BREEN! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
America hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient American dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
O raise us up, return to us again,
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power!
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart;
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life’s common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

It’s so easy for me to wish that Joe Breen was still alive so that his wonderful talents could help in this struggle as they did in the first. He had such remarkable talent. He was a writer who could call people to action with a few words. He was a public relations man who could promote an event better than a Hollywood ballyhooer. Especially, he was a man who knew how to purify a film without destroying it. He could change almost any scenario from an unacceptable premise to a Code-compliant film. He brilliantly removed objectionable and offensive elements, but his greatest genius was his use of compensating moral values. Whereas other regulators were unable to see past sinful elements, Mr. Breen often let them remain but made them acceptable by including compensating moral values which redeemed the whole film. The brilliance of this process is what let films which Mr. Breen called “tough nuts to crack” be made under the Code. He really had a unique talent. I consider him to be “Hollywood’s Alchemist.” His special touch turned baser films to pure gold. The alchemist’s dream of turning baser metals into gold was realized for filmmakers when the Golden Era of Hollywood was led in by Joe Breen. He turned morality into gold for them; this time I mean financial gold. Modern audiences really need the content gold, and filmmakers could certainly use the box office gold. Movies need Mr. Breen today!

No, dear Mr. Breen’s time of toil on this earth is ended, and I am really glad that it is. He should not have to struggle any more. It is now a new generation’s turn. As we celebrate his 129th birthday this weekend, I hope that we will be inspired to imitate his great example of a life dedicated to purifying the motion picture industry and spreading purity through the country and the world. If you want to help, follow PEPS, share this information with your friends, contact Hollywood with your complaints, and sign our petition. We need your help to bring back the Code and save the arts in America! Happy Birthday, Joseph Breen!Related image

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2 thoughts on “Joseph I. Breen: America’s Moral Guardian

  1. Pingback: “The Hucksters” from 1947: The Journey Behind Every Seal | pure entertainment preservation society

  2. Pingback: THE GREAT BREENING BLOGATHON: DAY 2; HAPPY BIRTHDAY, JOSEPH BREEN! | pure entertainment preservation society

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