Today is August 10, ten days into #AMonthWithoutTheCode. In contrast to #CleanMovieMonth, this month is all about un-Code movies, films which were not made during the Breen era (1934-1954). I wrote an article every day in July for #CleanMovieMonth, but I have not been doing the same during #AMonthWithoutTheCode. However, I will be writing articles during this month to analyze and discuss various pre-Code and Shurlock era films. (I rarely venture into the rating system era (1968-present).
August 10 is Geoffrey Shurlock’s birthday. This being his birthday month is one of the reasons I chose it for #AMonthWithoutTheCode. After all, he was the head of the Production Code Administration during the fourteen years of decline which led to its replacement with the Classification and Rating Administration. I have mentioned Mr. Shurlock frequently and have discussed his self-regulation in my articles. However, I have never really said much about him personally. Today, in honor of his 124th birthday, I am going to do just that. This article is all about Geoffrey M. Shurlock, his life, and his influence on Hollywood.
Geoffrey Manwaring Shurlock was born on August 10, 1894, in Liverpool, England. His parents were Charles and Frances Shurlock. Mr. Shurlock was a master mariner in the
merchant navy who sailed cargo ships from Liverpool to South America and the United States. In 1890, he married Frances Hallawell, a prominent theosophist. Geoffrey had two siblings, Alan, who was one year younger than he, and Olive, who was four years younger. In 1902, when Geoffrey was seven, his family moved to Point Loma, which is a seaside community in San Diego, California. Their destination was Lomaland, the 350-acre location
Lomaland was an occult community with a population of 500.
This coastal utopia, which was created and run by Katherine Tingley, was the American headquarters of the strange religion, founded on a bizarre mixture of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Neo-Platonism. Money
was not used there. At only a few months old, children in Lomaland were removed from their parents’ care and placed in a common nursery, where they were only visited by their parents a couple hours on Sundays. Once older, they were placed in gender-segregated group homes, where they were attended by surrogate mothers. The children wore uniforms, marched to class, worked in the community fields, and never spoke during classes or meals unless absolutely necessary. Their classes were separated by gender once they became adolescents.
In addition, they rigorously rehearsed and prepared for the elaborate dramas which the community performed. The entire population of Lomaland would dedicate itself to the performance of ancient Greek and Shakespeare dramas, which were performed in Lomaland’s Greek amphitheater, the first open-air theater of its kind built in the United States. (Although Lomaland’s unique buildings with glowing, amethyst, onion-shaped domes are no longer in existence, the Greek amphitheater is still used for events by the Point Loma Nazarene University, which has taken over its location.)
“Any one who lives in a Raja Yoga school has plenty of chances to study character…This is the magic of Raja Yoga. The effect of Raja Yoga is not only seen in a child’s physical improvement, but also in his mantle and moral improvement, which is more important…We are all taught not to have mean or unclean thoughts…Every thought we think influences our body, so that bad thoughts produce diseases in our body…We believe that there are two ‘people’ inside of us, that one is a god and the other a demon, that each is trying to get ahead of the other, and it depends on us which is to gain mastery.” —Geoffrey Shurlock, The Effect of Raja Yoga on Character
At Lomaland, the Shurlocks had a very important standing. They were one of its most prominent families. Geoffrey was a prince in the utopia, and his sister, Olive, was an acclaimed musician there. Geoffrey graduated from its university, the Raja Yoga College, and attended the School of Antiquity, which was the society’s post-graduate school. In 1918, at the
age of twenty-four, he left the latter school to help his mother run their steam laundry business in San Diego. Three years later, the Shurlock family moved back to England. They stayed there for eighteen months. In 1922, Geoffrey and Olive accompanied Katherine Tingley, the leader of Lomaland, on a European lecture tour, going to Germany and Holland. This shows how friendly the Shurlocks were with the leadership of the Theosophical Society.
Later that year, the Shurlocks moved back to San Diego. Geoffrey worked briefly as a
journalist. In 1923, his father died. Thus, at age twenty-eight, Geoff became the man of the family. Then, he became the research secretary for Rupert Hughes, a novelist and screenplay writer who needed a fluent French-speaker to help him with his novel The Golden Ladder. In case his surname is making you curious, he was the uncle of the infamous Howard Hughes, who would later give the PCA so much trouble. Geoffrey worked with Mr. Hughes for four years. However, he quit when he learned that Mr. Hughes’s chauffeur earned a bigger salary than he did.
In 1926, having left the employment of Rupert Hughes, Geoffrey Shurlock and Joseph Jackson co-wrote an unproduced play called The Painted Man. Joseph Jackson helped Geoffrey get a job at Paramount as a script editor, which was his first real involvement in the film industry. He later became a producer at Paramount. In 1929, he produced Paramount’s last silent film, Stairs of Sand, a Western with Wallace Beery. Then, he oversaw the production of ten talkies for the foreign market. However, he was fired from Paramount later that year. In 1930, he became a naturalized U. S. citizen.
In 1932, he was hired by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). He worked on the Studio Relations Committee, the ineffectual organization which was founded in 1930 to enforce the Motion Picture Production Code. In 1934, when the Production Code Administration was formed, he was chosen to be one of the original eight members. He was made second-in-command after Joseph I. Breen. Why he was chosen as Mr. Breen’s right-hand man is something I don’t know. I doubt that Mr. Breen made the decision.
In 1935, Geoffrey Shurlock married Ella Florence Houghton. Born in 1889 in Portland, Oregon, she was five years older than her husband. However, she later gave her birth year as 1899 to hide her age, and this date is on her tombstone. She died of lung disease at age sixty-three on July 20, 1953. She and her husband had no children, so she was succeeded by only Geoffrey at the time of her death. Little other information is available about her.
“The code is a set of self-regulations based on sound morals common to all peoples and all religions.” -Geoffrey Shurlock
During the twenty years of the Breen era, Geoff Shurlock was officially second-in-command. As such, he was always the substitute for Mr. Breen when the latter went on vacation. Usually, these vacations were no longer than a couple of months. However, in 1941 and 1942, Geoffrey Shurlock was in charge for a whole year. Joe Breen resigned from the PCA to go to RKO on May 15, 1941, and he didn’t return until May 16, 1942. During this time, Geoff was the unofficial leader of the Code Administration. I say unofficial because he was never actually appointed as the leader of the PCA. The MPPDA was seeking an official leader from outside the organization, since Geoff was never considered an ideal permanent replacement for Mr. Breen. He liked being the first mate rather than the captain. During this time, the PCA’s letters were signed by the whole group instead of just the leader. Everyone was relieved when Mr. Breen came back and relieved Geoffrey of the difficult assignment.
(Response to being asked if he wanted to be the official head of the PCA in 1941) “Not for all the tea in China. Life’s too short and I’m too weak. The sooner they get someone else to take over the berth, the better I’ll sleep at night. Yes, the money’s good, but not that job for all the gold in Kentucky.” –Geoffrey Shurlock
When Joe Breen began to talk of retiring in the later 1940s, a replacement was again sought. However, no one could be found. Thus, when Joseph Breen officially retired on October 14, 1954, Geoffrey Shurlock became the official head of the Production Code Administration. Although he had frequently filled that position during the Greater Breen Era, that was the first time that he officially took it. Thus, the Shurlock era began.
The Shurlock era lasted from 1954 to November 1, 1968, when the Production Code Administration was replaced by the modern rating system. On January 1, 1969, Geoffrey Shurlock retired from being the head of this organization, being succeeded by one of the younger PCA members, Eugene “Doc” Dougherty. He was given the honorary position of special advisor to the Motion Picture Association of America, a job which he held until 1974, when he moved to a nursing home in Woodland Hills. He died on April 26, 1976, at the age of eighty-one.
The Shurlock era is a very controversial time. It is widely acknowledged as a time of great social and moral upheaval. Everyone agrees that the morality and decency in films greatly declined during this period. However, people do not agree about the cause of this. Some feel that the anti-trust laws which broke up the studios’ monopolies on distribution in the early 1950s destroyed the effectiveness of the Code, since the screens could no longer be tightly controlled. This theory basically holds that the success of the Code was totally due to the tightness of the studio system. Others feel that society was decidedly looser after World War II and that this looseness ultimately caused moral changes which effected Hollywood. A third theory involves the 1952 Supreme Court case which overturned the 1915 ruling which decided that the First Amendment did not protect motion pictures; this ruling prompted the formation of censor boards throughout the nation. Thus, many feel that the overturning of this ruling in 1952 led to the weakening of the Code and its eventual destruction.
Let’s address the flaws of each of these theories. The first theory involves the studio system, deciding that the increase in independent films caused the weakening of the PCA. There are some problems with this idea, however. For one thing, there had always been independent films which evaded the PCA. In the 1930s, such films included raunchy references to Section II of the Code, titles with forbidden expressions, and sensationalist anti-marijuana propaganda. These were cheap pictures which were often poorly made and relegated to art houses. In the later 1940s, many foreign films were denied seals for distribution in America, so they played in art houses. What was so different about the films in the 1950s? There were a few more independent films made in and out of America. However, that was no reason why the main studios, the signatory members of the MPAA, should have changed their policies. If the problem was just independent film companies, why did MGM, Warner Bros, Columbia, and the other studios cease to make entirely Code-compliant films in the later 50s when they still had to work with the Production Code Administration?
The second theory involves the idea that society decayed in the years after World War II. I am not denying the fact that the post-war world was different than the pre-war one. Wars change society. However, I think that World War II sparked less of an earth-shaking change in American society than World War I did. The change after the Great War could be seen almost immediately, with a strong push for Prohibition and Women’s Rights. The supposed upheaval was somewhat delayed after the second World War, at least as far as Hollywood was concerned. Most of the films from 1946-1954 were wholesome, decent, and Code-compliant. As always, there were some sneaky non-Code films, but those can be found throughout Mr. Breen’s twenty-year tenure. The war seems to have had a delayed reaction, since no huge change occurred until the mid-50s. From that, I infer that something else sparked the upheaval.
The third theory involves the Supreme Court’s rulings about film censorship. However, this is one of the most flawed of the three theories. This theory only makes sense if you believe that the Production Code Administration’s work was censorship. I, like the PCA members and the Code’s authors, believe that the Code and its enforcement was self-regulation, not censorship. Censorship is the post-production editing of films by official boards. Self-regulation was a unique process of film review which happened within the industry before and during the filmmaking process. The Code was originally written to combat censorship. Martin Quigley, the man who thought of the initial idea of the Code, was vehemently against censorship. He believed that films needed to be made properly in the first place, since they couldn’t be fixed after production. The moguls adopted the Code in the 1930s to avoid the dangerous censorship their films were receiving throughout the country. The PCA had used censors as a cudgel to keep the filmmakers in line, since they warned about the potential for censorship. However, censors were also a thorn in the PCA’s side, since they would frequently edit films which the PCA had deemed acceptable for all audiences! This was a frequent source of annoyance. Thus, there was no reason for the end of film censorship to negatively impact the PCA. In fact, I’m sure they were gladly rid of censor boards as they began to decline in the 50s and 60s. They hadn’t really been needed since the Code was installed in 1934.
Having dismissed these three theories, what did cause the obvious upheaval and decline in the film industry in the 1950s? I have a theory, and it brings us back to the topic of this article, Geoffrey Shurlock. The three rejected theories made Mr. Shurlock something of a victim, since he was placed in the pitiable situation of being the enforcer of an outmoded system in a time of increasing freedom. However, I place more responsibility on him than that. In fact, I feel that he himself was very central to the decline.
The Code remained very strong until 1954, the year when Joseph Breen retired. Some have noted a weakening in the early 1950s, but I think its cause is obvious. Mr. Breen was very sick in the 1950s, since he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1951. His increasing illness made him work less and less. Thus, Mr. Shurlock took more authority and responsibility in preparation for Mr. Breen’s retirement. In 1954, Mr. Shurlock was given the position of leader of the Production Code Administration. He finally had full, official authority. What happened under his leadership could have been easily predicted. It is a syndrome which has occurred innumerable times throughout history. A good leader runs something brilliantly for years. When he retires, his assistant takes over and, being vastly inferior, allows the organization to fall to ruin. It has happened in families, kingdoms, businesses, governments, companies, and schools. I think that that is undoubtedly what happened at the PCA in the 1950s.
People often focus on the dramatic examples of controversy in 1950s Hollywood, such as Baby Doll from 1956, The Man with the Golden Arm from 1959, and Some Like It Hot from 1959. However, these are the exceptions rather than the rule. Yes, they were precedent-setting films which often involved huge debacles between filmmakers and the PCA. However, the PCA often turned down the original story ideas, fought throughout the script process, and denied the finished films seals in cases such as these. Although often appalling failures, the early letters about these films usually show that the PCA put up a fight, even if it was a losing battle. It is the commonplace bulk of films which show the tone of the Shurlock era. You can find controversial films even in the Breen era, although they were forced to toe the line more often than not. However, the majority of films were clean and decent. With Mr. Shurlock in charge, the majority of films had irritating, unacceptable, and totally unnecessary problems such as risqué costumes, forbidden expressions, and suggestive lines. Films got worse each year, and soon the Code had decayed to almost nothing.
Geoff was inclined to look on self-immolation cynically, the final question being, “Yes, but where did it get him?” However, when confronted with the charge that his permissiveness was contrary to the masculine impulse, he had an answer. He would start by taking off and putting on his glasses, while admitting that you were probably right – a disarming opening gambit in itself. “However,” he would continue, “would you consider the Chines – how would you put it? – effeminate?” “No. Certainly not.” “Well, if you would take the trouble to study their history, you’d find that they always won by passivity. They simply endured. They welcomed their conquerors into their embrace, and absorbed them. The invaders ended up being Chinese. Who was the smartest?” -Jack Vizzard, See No Evil: Life Inside a Hollywood Censor
Why did Geoffrey Shurlock allow this to happen? He was a weak person who had naturally differed to Mr. Breen’s strength for twenty years. However, he buckled when he himself was in charge. He was sixty when he took over. Many people lose their strength and cease to care as they age. However, it is pretty obvious that no such change occurred in Mr. Shurlock. He was always weak, apathetic, and very ineffectual as a self-regulator. From the earliest days of the PCA, you can find letters which reveal that he self-regulated most of the poor Code films. He would either miss, ignore, or misinterpret questionable elements. Sometimes he would point them out but fail to follow through or allow filmmakers to sway him. In addition, he would take a much more liberal point of view on controversial material.
Nothing defeats the three theories about changes in the 1950s and supports the blame of Geoff Shurlock as much as the non-Code era. In 1941 and 1942, without official authority, Mr. Shurlock had a whole year to prove his abilities or lack thereof. This was before the anti-trust activity, before the war, and before the repeal of the 1915 Supreme Court case. However, there is no denying the fact that there was a marked tendency toward risqueity in films. In fact, many movies from this time are a haunting precursor to the movies of the later 1950s. They have the same risqueity and carefree abandon of decency. Why were these films like those in the Shurlock era if those films were only bad because of societal change? This time makes it very clear that the change in the 1950s was due to Shurlock’s leadership. If Mr. Breen had not returned from RKO in 1942 and no suitable replacement for him had been found, the decay which took place in the Shurlock era surely would have taken place in the mid-40s. People would have probably blamed World War II, but the reason would have been the noxious influence of evil content from Hollywood.
Geoffrey Shurlock was a very unusual fellow in the 1930s. He had a much more casual, laid-back approach to life than the average man of those days. When all the other PCA members were wearing double-breasted suits or suits with vests, he was wearing an unbuttoned single-breasted suit coat with no vest! He had the look of the 1950s in the 30s. In addition, due to his Lomaland roots, he possessed some strange ideologies. One might say that he was ahead of his time. However, was there more to his modernity than that?
The hippie movement really began in 1955, the year that Geoffrey Shurlock became the head of the PCA. It flourished throughout the Shurlock era, reaching its climax in 1969 with the Summer of Love, the first summer of the rating era. This movement was heavily influenced by Eastern religion, with roots in Buddhism and Hinduism; Mr. Shurlock was raised in a cult which was based on Hinduism and Buddhism, heavily relying on meditation, reincarnation, and the good “inner” man decades before these beliefs entered mainstream American society. Hippies promoted peace instead of war; Shurlock had always been noted around Hollywood for his pacifism. In the 1960s, there was a definite resurgence in feminism with the women’s lib movement; theosophism, whose primary leaders were three women, was a rather feminist religion. In addition, his nonchalant, careless attitude toward life became a common mentality in America. Modern society’s attitude is reflected by his favorite expression, “What’s there to prevent it?” A lot of people will probably think that I’m going a little too far in my connections between Geoffrey Shurlock’s personal beliefs and the societal changes in the post-Breen era. However, I can’t help looking at history that way.
For the most part, those who research the Code give Mr. Breen a lot of credit for influencing Hollywood. He has received praise from those who respect the Code and violent criticism from those who disagree with it. On the other hand, Geoffrey Shurlock has remained in indifferent territory. He is not remembered nearly as much as Mr. Breen is. Although he is not as detested, he is also not as well-known. Those who do know about him remain apathetic toward him. He too worked at the PCA, but he can’t be criticized as much, since he was so ineffectual. Few people feel strongly enough about the Code to dislike him for his negligence. Many people think that he just was left with an unfortunate situation after Joe Breen’s retirement. However, I feel that that opinion gives him neither the credit nor the responsibility which he deserves. Just as Mr. Breen was responsible for the moral revival in the mid-30s and the era of decency, Geoffrey Shurlock was responsible for the decay of it.
Geoff Shurlock, who finally retired, summed it up very nicely one day for a stunned producer. “Hooray!” he said. “We’ve achieved the ultimate. At last we can say – !” -Jack Vizzard, See No Evil: Life Inside a Hollywood Censor
I don’t like to criticize people just for the sake of being mean-spirited. I merely present the facts as I see them. Interpret them as you see fit. In honor of Geoffrey Shurlock’s birthday, I wanted to summarize his life and provide detailed information about him. Information about him is not widely available. Since this is #AMonthWithoutTheCode, it is an appropriate time to think about why Hollywood changed after the Breen era. I say that it changed because of Geoff Shurlock’s Code-enforcement. If you agree with the Code, as I do, Geoffrey Shurlock is a public enemy in the story of Hollywood history. If you think that the world is better off without the Code, Mr. Shurlock is a hero because of his probably willful destruction of the Code. Either way, take this opportunity to watch some Shurlock era films and ponder his influence on Hollywood. For better or for worse, on August 10, 1894, a child entered the world who would one day become one of the most influential men in Hollywood.
“I passed this picture with my eyes wide open. I did it to precipitate a crisis. Now maybe we’ve got it. Somebody had to rupture the Code in so conspicuous a manner that they’d have to do something about it. Because if this’s the kind of movies they want to make, if the companies’re going to put up the money for this kind of stuff, and then expect me to try to stop them, they’re crazy.” -Geoffrey Shurlock, as quoted in See No Evil: Life Inside a Hollywood Censor
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