Today is December 5. Many historians of the 1930s celebrate this day as the anniversary of the official repeal of Prohibition in 1933. I, however, acknowledge it as the end of something very good. While Prohibition died on December 5, 1933, the man who gave the Golden Age of Hollywood its luster died thirty-two years later. On December 5 of 1965, Joseph I. Breen, the head of the Production Code Administration, died at the age of seventy-seven. After he retired from being the head of the PCA in 1954, he and his wife, Mary, moved to Phoenix, Arizona. Although he suffered from failing health and endured many medical procedures, he enjoyed eleven years of rest, of which he had gotten little during his twenty years as America’s moral guardian. Before that, he had worked strenuously at one job after another as he strove to provide for his wife and six children, drifting from being a newspaperman to an American consul to a foreign correspondent and finally to a public relations man. Besides bad health, Mr. Breen’s peace during his eleven years of retirement was disturbed by the unavoidable notice of the horrible decay in Hollywood and the whole country. By the 1960s, all he could do was supervise his grandchildren’s entertainment and try to ignore the ruin of his twenty years’ work in Hollywood. In 1965, Mr. Breen returned to Hollywood to see his family again and, really, to die. His son and daughter-in-law, Joseph, Jr. and Patricia, took him to see one last movie, The Sound of Music. In honor of the 52nd anniversary of Joe Breen’s death, I am going to review this classic musical from 1965 to show why it was the last Breen film in so many ways.
The Sound of Music is set in the last golden days of the 1930s in Austria, before Hitler’s invasions of World War II shattered the glorious world which everyone knew. The movie opens with some indescribably beautiful shots of the Alps. The camera finally focuses on a tiny person on the hillside. A dramatic zoom in shows us that this is Julie Andrews dressed as a Catholic novice without her wimple. She breaks into the beautiful Rodgers and Hammerstein title song. As she sings, she wanders around the beautiful natural setting. Finally, the church bells remind Maria that she is late for mass. She begins to run down the hillside, remembers her wimple, and runs back to grab it before dashing away. The credits burst onto the screen. We see that this picture was directed by Robert Wise. That was a fitting name for a man who could direct a picture like this at this point in film history. Robert was indeed Wise to be able to self-regulate a picture so well in 1965.
Next, we see the nuns of Nonnberg Abbey during their morning mass. They are singing and praying in a beautiful old cathedral. We see young nuns and old nuns, plain ones and beautiful ones, each looking sweet and devout. Real nuns from this abbey were used, and this touch of authenticity created a beautiful realism. In an outdoor part of the abbey, the Reverend Mother and several other nuns are walking and discussing Maria’s unpredictable, unorthodox behavior. They consider the situation with a song, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” Before they finish singing, Maria runs in and, seeing them all standing there, walks defeatedly out of the courtyard. The nuns sing the final phrase, Maria having proved the point of the song. The Reverend Mother has an idea of how to solve this problem. She summons the well-meaning novitiate to her office and tells her that she is going to send her away for a while to be a governess to the seven children of a widowed naval captain. Maria is heartbroken, but the Reverend Mother says that she needs to be sure that it is really God’s purpose for her to be a nun. Maria accepts her decision and prepares to leave for the Von Trapp estate.
As Maria goes through the town of Salzburg on her way to her new home, she sings “I Have Confidence” to prove to herself that she does. She is just beginning to convince herself when she arrives at the huge gates of the palatial estate. She finishes the song as she runs up to the front door. The butler lets her into the magnificent mansion and leaves her in the grand main room to fetch the captain. While alone, the curious Maria sneaks into an abandoned ballroom and begins bowing to imaginary people. The sound of the door slamming against the wall snaps her out of her reverie. She turns and sees a stern Captain Georg Von Trapp, played by Christopher Plummer, standing in the doorway and glaring at her. He bids her come out and sternly warns her not to go into rooms in which she has no business. He quickly lets her know that he is in charge of the household. He demands punctuality, assigns a whistle signal to every member of the household, has his children take exercise by marching, forbids music in the household, and generally runs his family like he ran his ships. In addition, he tells Maria that he will order some material so she can make some new dresses for herself, since he immediately dislikes her dress, which she informs him that even the poor didn’t want. Maria also quickly shows that she will not easily comply with all his rules. She thinks that whistles are for animals, not her and the children, and she thinks that the children should be allowed to play. The seven children, who line up and state their names like soldiers at their father’s command, prove to be tricksters who go through governesses at an astonishingly fast rate, since they drive them away with pranks and bad advice. However, Maria is determined to make the motherless children like her.
Later, the housekeeper, Frau Schmidt, tells Maria that the captain wasn’t always so stern and heartless. The house used to be filled with music, love, and laughter, but now all those things remind him of his deceased wife, so he doesn’t want them anymore. She also learns that Captain Von Trapp is leaving the next day to visit a friend of his, the wealthy widow Baroness Schraeder, whom he might marry. Maria is very pleased by this news, thinking that it is her job to prepare the children for having a new mother, but Frau Schmidt knows the the baroness is not the most maternal woman. After Frau Schmidt leaves, Maria says her prayers, mentioning every child by name except the youngest boy, whose name she has forgotten; she has to just say “God bless what’s his name” for the time being. When she is still praying, Liesl climbs up her trellis and in through her window. It is a stormy night with rain, thunder, and lightning, so Liesl is dripping wet. She explains that she has been outside with her telegram-delivering sweetheart, Rolfe. Maria is very understanding, and she gives Liesl some dry clothes to wear. While she is putting on her dry things in the bathroom, the other children come into the room, since they are afraid of the thunder. Maria welcomes them, since she is thrilled that the children have come to her. She tells them that they should think of things that make them happy when they are scared by the thunder; she sings “My Favorite Things” with them to cheer them up. At the end of the song, the captain bursts in and tells the children to go to bed. When Maria offers an explanation, he says that bedtime must be strictly observed. She then asks if she could have some material out of which to make some play clothes for the children, but he tells her that they have uniforms. However, she is not easily discouraged.
Captain Von Trapp decided to have the curtains in Maria’s room changed before he left for Vienna. Since nothing was planned to be done with the old drapes, Maria used the white and green material to make play clothes for her seven charges. In these perfectly respectable clothes, the eight of them play from one end of Salzburg to the other. She teaches them how to have fun, and, as a special surprise for their father, she teaches them how to sing. Eventually, their father returns to the villa unexpectedly, bringing with him the baroness and their greedy promoter friend, Max Detweiler. As the threesome are sitting on the terrace which forms the border of a beautiful lake, Maria and the children come rowing along in a boat. They get so excited to see him that they stand up and tip the boat over. Then, dripping wet, they wade to shore. The captain is furious, but he briefly scolds the children before sending them upstairs. He is mainly angry with Maria. He questions and lectures her on her management of the children, but she defends her actions and says that he needs to be a father to them, not a taskmaster. He fires her, but not until she has had her say. Just as she is about to go upstairs to pack her bags, Georg hears something. She tells him that it is the children singing. He goes into the parlor and sees the children, who are still soaking wet, singing a tender rendition of “The Sound of Music” for the baroness. The captain’s sad heart is softened by the music, and he embraces his children tenderly. Remembering Maria, he asks her not to leave them, saying that she brought music back into the house. She agrees, and there is a moment of tenderness between them. However, the baroness is lurking jealously in the background. She is determined to marry Georg, and Max wants to help “keep all that lovely money in the family.” However, the baroness has no plans of being a mother to all those children. She has decided to send them to boarding school so that she can have Georg all to herself. Meanwhile, Maria is torn between her love for the children and a growing fondness for the captain and her desire to serve God as a nun. Besides that, there is the looming threat of Hitler and the Third Reich, which wants Captain Von Trapp to join its Navy. The captain is a loyal Austrian who will never join the Germans; what will the Nazis do to a man who resists their orders? These are all problems which have to be solved in this epic musical drama.
I am not going to tell the whole story of The Sound of Music in this article. It is too long, and I couldn’t do it justice. You need to see it yourself to appreciate it. It is unnecessary for me to recount such a widely known and loved story, since almost everyone, including those who are not classic film lovers, has seen this picture. This movie was released on March 2, and it proved to be the highest earning picture of the year. Earning $163,214,286, it was the first film to top Gone with the Wind‘s record for the highest earning film in history. However, when adjusted for inflation, Gone with the Wind is still the highest earning, while The Sound of Music is number 5 on the list. The Sound of Music won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Music, Best Sound Recording, and Best Film Editing at the Academy Awards, and it was nominated for five other Oscars. Although New York critics complained that it was too sentimental and lacked substance, local newspapers and audiences praised it. BAFTA Awards, Directors Guild of America, Golden Globe Awards, Laurel Awards, National Board of Review, New York Film Critics Circle, and Writers Guild of America gave it nominations and awards in many categories. It quickly became a classic which all ages enjoyed and loved. It remains one of the most popular and beloved movies in history.
Why was this movie so popular and successful? Robert Wise said, “The Sound of Music just happened to come out when the world was hungry for this kind of warm, emotional family entertainment.” I agree that the world was hungry, but I don’t think that this movie would have been less successful in different years. I think that Americans were hungry for wholesome, nourishing entertainment that could be enjoyed by the whole family. They missed the films that had been given to them under the Code, which inspired and uplifted them morally, emotionally, and spiritually. They missed films which were carefully supervised so that they would not give offense to anybody. They missed films which strove to be “reasonably acceptable to reasonable people.” They missed the Code as it had been enforced by Joseph Breen.
Of course, the average audience member neither realized nor acknowledged this. Many people longed for “the good old days” in films, but they thought that movies, like society, were just experiencing natural decay. They didn’t realize that Hollywood was decaying because Mr. Breen was gone. They didn’t realize that the filmmakers didn’t know how to enforce the Code, and the new Code administrator, Geoffrey Shurlock, neither understood nor cared about the Code as Mr. Breen had. That is why films began to decay in 1955. As I illustrated in my article about Mister Roberts, the decline was immediate. That is why The Sound of Music, made ten years after Mr. Breen left Hollywood, stands as a lighthouse in the fog of immorality. It is a mountain rising above the swamps of the Shurlock era, particularly the 1960s. While some late 50s films continued to be made with some regard to the Code, the PCA was a mere formality and a joke by the mid-60s. Few filmmakers even bothered to send scripts to be reviewed by Mr. Shurlock by that point. They just sent the final print to him, knowing that he would give a seal to almost anything with little or no requests for changes to be made. Thus, the moral quality of films had sunk to a horribly low level by 1965. Many artistically good films which could have been brilliant were marred by dirtiness because of the PCA’s inability to do its job. By 1965, the film industry had easily reached its lowest point up to that time.
When The Sound of Music was released, some might have thought that it was the beginning of a trend towards a return in film morality. That dream was completely unfounded, however. Mr. Shurlock wasn’t planning on retiring, and he certainly wasn’t going to improve his policies. One lone Code-compliant film such as The Sound of Music wasn’t going to inspire other filmmakers to dust off their copies of the Code and make their films according to its guidelines. Filmmakers cannot be expected to enforce the Code themselves. The instances in which they don’t even need guidance are so rare that they are almost unbelievable. The Sound of Music must have been one of those remarkable instances. Unfortunately, the digital collection of the PCA files does not include the file on this picture, so I can only hypothesize. Apparently, the producer, directors, and writers really wanted to make a clean, family picture. While many films are begun with such grand intentions, few truly achieve them. This film is not only clean and acceptable; it is perfect. Even during Mr. Breen’s tenure, every film could not be perfect. Perfection means that a film contains no violation, even a very small one, unless it was pointedly and intentionally included to create contrast to something else. Also, there has to be a strong triumph of good over the forces of evil. Aside from some Disney films, this is the only live action picture of which I know in the 1960s that qualifies as a perfect Code film. I don’t know exactly how this film managed to be so exceptional, but I imagine that Jack Vizzard may have been the PCA consultant on this picture, since he had more insight that Shurlock. The real answer, however, must be that Robert Wise really wanted to make a Code-compliant film. This film is undoubtedly the only one released in 1965 on which Mr. Breen couldn’t have done better himself.
Unfortunately, this one perfect film did not spark a trend toward good films. It was not the beginning of something new; it was the end of the golden era. The Code’s reappearance in this film did not mean that the PCA was regaining strength any more than Mr. Breen’s return to Hollywood meant that he was returning to the PCA. The Code’s life was ending just as Mr. Breen’s life was. The Sound of Music was the Code’s swan song. It was the last, beautiful hurrah before it was crippled in 1966 when Jack Valenti became the new head of the Motion Picture Association of America. The timing of his appointment was most appropriate. Eric Johnston, who replaced Mr. Hays in 1945, had died in 1963. However, his post remained unfilled for three years. It’s as though the film industry was waiting for Joe Breen to die before really attacking the Code by appointing a new regime. As long as Mr. Breen was alive, some feeling of the Code remained, even if only from time to time, despite the fact that he had nothing to do with the film industry. In their minds, they had forgotten him, but they hadn’t forgotten him in their hearts and consciences. After he died at the end of 1965, the film industry was ready to officially cast off all pretenses of the old way. Jack Valenti immediately said that he wouldn’t defend a dying Code, and he reduced it to a weak list of eleven points. In 1968, the Code was officially replaced with the rating system. It hadn’t really been alive for the three years that Mr. Breen had been dead, though. It was just a ghost of its former self. I am glad that Joseph Breen died in 1965, so that he didn’t have to see what was done to his Code after that.
I think that The Sound of Music was the most perfect choice imaginable for Mr. Breen’s last film. When I think of the other films that were made during that year and that decade, I realize just how Providential the timing of that film was. The average 1960s film would have appalled poor Mr. Breen. He was sickly and bound to a wheelchair by that point, but his mind was still sharp and keen. Of course, it wasn’t a total coincidence. His son and daughter-in-law knew that this picture would please him. However, it obviously was a Higher Being that determined the timing of the film. Aside from being completely free from objection, it was the sort of picture which was personally pleasing to Mr. Breen. Such a film was rarer than one might think, since he didn’t really like movies. As ironic as that seems, he thought of them as a job during the Code era and as a source of frequent trouble other times. However, he really liked pictures that had a strong Christian, specifically Catholic, message. The Sound of Music has just such a message. Real nuns are shown in an entirely respectful, religious atmosphere. The movie depicts the struggles of a young woman who is trying to find God’s will and discover how she can serve Him best. Mr. Breen spent the first forty years of his life trying to find God’s ultimate purpose for him. While he was a good Catholic husband and father during this time, his career decisions were clearly all steps toward his ultimate purpose of being America’s moral guardian. He found a calling which, although not officially religious, was what he considered to be a “priestly calling.” Also, the movie depicted a big family of seven children. He had come from a big family and had had six children of his own. In addition, the setting of Austria in the pre-war 1930s was ideal. The 1930s were golden days for Mr. Breen. He had visited the beautiful European country in those golden pre-war years, and he loved it. This movie’s location shots were a wonderful reminder of those glorious days. Finally, the triumph of the free over the oppressive was something central to Code films, since the American way of life was always upheld and revered. Although this picture doesn’t deal with America, it depicts a struggle against oppression in which the Americans were very involved. On the other hand, it depicts the Germans fairly and accurately. Mr. Breen didn’t want films to dwell on the evilness of Germans in general, since that could be offensive to German-Americans. Thus, although films could never support Nazism, he didn’t want extreme anti-Nazi propaganda. He wanted everyone to be fairly and accurately depicted. The Sound of Music doesn’t dwell on the evils of Germans in general. Only one German, Herr Zeller, really seems evil. The others just seem dedicated to a purpose which they don’t fully understand. As I said before, Mr. Breen couldn’t have handled the situation better himself. Without reservation, I can say that I can’t think of a picture made during the entire Shurlock era which would have pleased Mr. Breen more. I think there are a few which would have pleased him as much, but a very few. With this in mind, it is not surprising that Pat Breen said that he was thrilled with it.
This is the last Breen film in many ways. Not only was it the last film he saw, I believe that it is one of if not the last film he would have wanted to see. I can only think of a handful of Disney films after this which were even close to meeting the Breen Standard. This was a soaring, supreme example in brilliant color of what the Code era was. It was a musical, a drama, a comedy, a romance, a war film, and a religious piece all rolled into one. It was a family film and a love story. It was a man’s picture, a woman’s picture, and a child’s picture. It was appropriate for everyone. It was unlikely to give offense to anyone. It was a Code film. How could any other system improve on that?!
People say that times had changed by the 1950s and 60s. They say and said that the Code was out of date and that audiences wanted something different. If they wanted something different, why was a picture which was made in the style of the 1940s the biggest box office hit of 1965? Why was it the fifth-highest earning picture of all time? Why was it so popular with audiences everywhere? Because people were wrong. The Code wasn’t out of date, and audiences didn’t want something different. Yes, television was giving movies competition, and so were foreign films, but it wasn’t time to quit. It was time for new energy to be used in enforcing the Code. It was time for an energetic young man to take the place which goodness knows Joseph Breen had occupied for long enough. Mr. Breen was hoping that Jack Vizzard, third in command at the PCA, a Catholic drop-out of the priesthood, would take his place and continue to guide the PCA on the course he had set. However, Mr. Vizzard lacked the conviction and courage. He failed Mr. Breen, Hollywood, and America. The filmmakers also failed, because they took advantage of Geoffrey Shurlock’s weakness, as they always did when they had an opportunity to. They didn’t even try to continue making Code films. They did everything Mr. Shurlock would let them. They rushed lower and lower and deeper and deeper into prurience in the struggle to win the race to the bottom. Where did that race end? It ended in 1968 with the rating system, when they could do anything they wanted to do. Geoffrey Shurlock, in his slightly insane way, ironically declared that they had achieved the ultimate, since they could finally say a word which was so foul it wasn’t even listed in the Code. Yes, that was the ultimate goal which many directors, writers, and producers didn’t even realize they were trying to achieve. They were trying to make a few miserable dollars from shock value, but they were destroying their own industry in the process. In the midst of this horrible race, which was nearing its awful conclusion in 1965, The Sound of Music rises up like a pillar of virtue and goodness. It is shining and bright. It is the way films should always be.
Filmmakers mistakenly believe and have always believed that immorality and lewdness make money, despite the obvious fact that it excludes a large percentage of the audience, including moralists, religious people, and the youth. They refuse to acknowledge this fact. 20th Century Fox’s financial situation in the 1960s, however, gives a very enlightening illustration of what really makes money. In 1963, Cleopatra was released by this studio. At the time, it was the most expensive film ever made. It experienced a great deal of troubles during production, and it was a source of great concern at the PCA. Geoffrey Shurlock, Jack Vizzard, and Martin Quigley, one of the original authors of the Code who ran the Motion Picture Herald, were all concerned by it. In the end, it went through the office without difficulty. It made $57.7 million dollars at the American box office, making it the highest earning film of the year. However, because of the massive production costs, it became the only top-earning film in history to run at a loss. In the wake of this financial failure, 20th Century Fox was on the verge of bankruptcy. Because of this, the moguls were concerned about buying expensive property and making costly films. However, they took a chance on The Sound of Music, and it saved the studio. Isn’t it strange that a risque film almost ruined the company but a clean one saved it? What did that tell the filmmakers? Naturally it told them to make the dirtiest pictures they possibly could, since that’s the only way to make money!
Thus, Joseph I. Breen, born on October 14, 1888, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, died in a Los Angeles nursing home on December 5, 1965. He was seventy-seven years old. That was fifty-two years ago. It seems like such a long time ago in some ways, and in others it seems like it just happened. He was given a fine Catholic funeral, which his friends and family attended, and was laid to rest in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City. Only a few filmmakers came to honor him. Many had died, many had retired, and many had forgotten. Joe Pasternak was there, as were several members of the PCA and the MPAA. He was given a headstone after his wife, Mary, died in 1979. It simply says “Our beloved father and mother.” There is no mention of his work as Hollywood’s moral guardian. I don’t think he would have minded or really cared one way or another. Personal glory wasn’t important to him. It didn’t matter if Will Hays or anyone else got the credit for what he did. He only cared that the job was done. In a way, this is symbolic of the legacy he left. His presence in Hollywood was like a shadow. It was noticed while he was there but forgotten immediately after. All that remains is the seal number in the bottom corner of every Code film and the work which it represents. Only his family remembered him, and they didn’t try to keep the memory of his work alive. He was gone and forgotten. Now, as old films are becoming more and more popular, his memory is beginning to revive. Unfortunately, he is often criticized and ridiculed for his work. This is even worse than being forgotten. I consider it my personal duty to spread the word about the wonderful job Joseph Breen did in Hollywood. He is what made the Golden Era golden. He was the most influential filmmaker in movie history.
I am not sad because Joseph Breen is no longer living. I am glad that he went to his rest. Any man who almost single-handedly created twenty years of Silver Screen morality more than deserves to end his toil on this earth. I wouldn’t want the poor man to be alive now at 129! Also, I wouldn’t want him to have to see what is happening now in Hollywood and America if he didn’t have the strength to fight it. The sad part of his death is that there was no one to continue his work and cherish his ideals. When he retired and eventually died, he took the Code with him. He was the only man who could enforce it. I am sad because his dream and his life’s work died. Of course, it wasn’t in vain. Every single Code film was and continues to be a huge success. More than ever before, those successes are alive today because of modern technology. We can see those wonderful successes with great accessibility. I know that that would have pleased Mr. Breen.
If you love the Code era, say a little something in your column, on social media, or even just to a friend about Joseph Breen. Let’s not just praise the people on the screen; let’s give a moment’s thought to the man behind the screen. Today, on the 52nd anniversary of his death, watch the last Breen film, The Sound of Music, and give a moment’s thought to the Code era and what it really means. Today and every day, look for the seal number in the bottom left or right corner of the credits. Don’t mistake it for the copyright symbol or the recording company. Look for the MPPDA or MPAA symbol and the words Certificate No. Read the seal number aloud if you can make out the numbers. That’s a small way of saying thank you to Joseph Breen, all the members of the PCA, the authors of the Code, and the filmmakers who willingly made decent entertainment for our ancestors, for us, and for our children. Rest in peace, Mr. Breen. May we never forget what you did for the entertainment industry and our whole country, and may we some day achieve your standard of greatness once more.
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