If you watch a lot of films from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, you might notice a strong Irish presence. There certainly was no shortage of Irish characters, actors, surnames, and influence in the Golden Era of Hollywood. Like everything else in classic Hollywood, this Irish presence had a definite cause. As part of The Second Annual Great Breening Blogathon, I am going to look at the root of this Hibernianism in Hollywood. Like most stories told at PEPS, it started in 1934.
On July 15, 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 officially went into effect. From then until November 1, 1968, every movie that was released in America had to be granted a seal of approval from the Production Code Administration (PCA). This was more than the beginning of an era of film decency. It was also the beginning of a time when Irish-Americans had more power and clout than they had ever had before.
In many ways, Joseph I. Breen, the head of the PCA, was the most influential person in Hollywood, since every film had to have his approval to be released. He was a pure-bred Irishman. His father, Hugh A. Breen, was an Irish immigrant, and his mother, Mary Breen nee Cunnigham, was the daughter of Irish immigrants. Joe Breen was a strong-minded Irish Catholic born in Philadelphia in 1888. During his diverse career, he fought for respect and fairness for his fellow churchman and countryman. As the head of the PCA, he had his opportunity to ensure that they got them.
Will Hays had been the head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) since 1922. However, he was a politician who made speeches about film industry policies from the East Coast. He was part Irish and part Scottish. However, as a Midwestern Presbyterian elder from the Republican Party, he had little in common with the average Irishman in America. Since Mr. Hays wasn’t able to formulate a good plan for enforcement, the grand MPPDA statements and the inefficient work of the Studio Relations Committee during the pre-Code years couldn’t make the Code more than a useless formality.
The Code was a homespun American document of a distinctly Irish nature. The idea came from Martin J. Quigley, an Irish-American motion picture newspaper publisher who strongly opposed government censorship but encouraged film industry self-regulation. He first proposed the idea at a meeting of Catholic men in Chicago which gathered at Loyola University in July of 1929. The gentlemen included several businessmen and clergymen, most of whom were Irish. Mr. Breen worked for three members of this group, Martin Quigley as a newspaper writer, Cardinal George Mundelein as his personal secretary, and Stuyvesant Peabody, the head of the Peabody Coal Company, as his public relations man.
Stuyvesant “Jack” Peabody
On that particular day in July, Mr. Peabody was not present at the meeting, so Mr. Breen was representing him. His other two employers were representing themselves. After the meeting had begun, Father FitzGeorge Dineen, a priest born in the old country, came in, apologizing for being late and quite obviously upset. He was furious because of the scandalous early talkie, The Trial of Mary Dugan, which starred Norma Shearer as a woman who was tried for murdering her lover. Mr. Breen later described him as being “all het up about it and looking for blood.”
The priest was appalled that the ban on the blatantly immoral talking picture had just been lifted by the Chicago Censor Board; thus, it was playing to full houses all over Chicago. What made it especially bad was that they gave the wanton woman an Irish name, as if to imply that Irishwomen are immoral! Father Dineen was not content to just complain. He was determined to boycott and ban the movie. Finally, Mr. Quigley stood up and said that that wasn’t quite the right approach. He, a member of the movie industry himself, knew that boycotts just created more publicity for such undesirable films. He said that the only real solution was to make movies correctly in the first place, so that there would be no need for censorship and boycotting. What the industry really needed was a Code to govern the making of motion pictures. Thus, the idea of the Code was born.
Martin Quigley wrote the Code with a priest from St. Louis, Missouri, Daniel A. Lord. Together, they formed the masterful document which would guide motion pictures during their most glorious era. In early 1930, Will Hays presented “his Code” to the MPPDA, and it was adopted. Needless to say, it was not enforced by the incompetent Studio Relations Committee. During its entire time of enforcement, the Code was called the Hays Code, an inaccurate phrase which persists to this day. Although Mr. Quigley and Father Lord had the satisfaction of knowing that they wrote the Code, only those of the most inner Catholic circles knew that these two Irishman wrote the Code. It makes more sense anyway. Mr. Quigley was a writer for many papers, and Father Lord was a published author who wrote not only religious works but also fiction works such as plays. The Code has too much imagination to have been written by Postmaster General Hays.
From the beginning, Mr. Breen saw himself as the man to enforce the Code. He believed in the idea body and soul, and he had the right combination of perseverance and charm to be very successful and extremely likable. In 1931, he subtly recommended his appointment as chief Code enforcer, saying that the SRC was just a board. Boards, he wrote, “are known to be long, narrow, and wooden.” To avoid retelling a story that I have told many times, I will just say that Mr. Breen was eventually appointed as the head of the PCA.
Immediately after Mr. Breen’s appointment, there was a sharp increase in Irish characters, Catholics, and priests, which were often a good combination of being Irish and Catholic. In August of 1934, one month after Mr. Breen’s appointment, John C. Moffitt wrote, “Nearly everyone in Hollywood is perfecting an Irish brogue at the moment in the hope that it will touch the heart of Mr. Breen.” Although he was partly joking, there was some truth to his statement. Irish actors such as James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Pat O’Brien, George Brent, Robert Emmett O’Connor, and Alan Hale began playing characters who proudly displayed, if not an Irish accent, Irish surnames and blood. Of course, I don’t mean to say that James Cagney and George Brent weren’t Irish in their notorious pre-Code Warner Brothers films. They simply didn’t play characters who were as proudly and openly Irish. The Code ushered in the era of common, admirable Irish characters. In Code movies, nearly every cop on the beat has a brogue. More characters have Irish surnames, and Irish actors play Irish characters more frequently. In addition, some actors who weren’t Irish at all made their living by playing Irish character parts. There were a few Scottish roles in movies, but they are remarkably less common than the Irish ones.
James Cagney and Pat O’Brien in Angels with Dirty Faces in 1938.
There is another characteristic of Irish characters from the Breen era that is more important than their frequency, and that is their depiction. Mr. Breen didn’t demand that movies contain a lot of Irish or Catholic characters. The filmmakers simply thought that these familiar elements would please him. Although he did enjoy a good Irish or Catholic element, it wasn’t mandatory for a seal of approval. What was mandatory, however, was fair and respectful representation of Irishmen and Catholics. One thing which he hated was the stereotype which a lot of non-Hibernian Americans believed about his race. They thought that all Irish Catholics were drunken, brawling fools who lived in a one-room flat in the slums with a wife and ten children. Hollywood is always eager to capitalize on a stereotype, but it wouldn’t make jokes at the expense of Irish-Americans’ feelings while Mr. Breen was watching. They knew that that would be asking for trouble. Of course, Mr. Breen worked hard to ensure that all nationalities were depicted fairly.
Surprisingly, not all Irishmen were as touchy about stereotypes as Mr. Breen was. One of the most famous Irish-themed movies of all time, The Quiet Man from 1952, is a striking example of this fact. It was directed by the Irish John Ford, and it starred many Irish actors. However, I consider it to be a very un-Codish film. I watched it for the first time last year, and I immediately knew that it was not a Breen film. It contained all the Irish stereotypes that Mr. Breen had fought for years, both in and before his job at the PCA. Barry Fitzgerald’s character is always at the local tavern, so he is a characteristic Irish drunk. John Wayne’s character is a rough brute who drags his wife for miles to their house. The worst part of that scene is that all the townspeople are following and encouraging him. One old woman even gives him a stick with which to beat his wife. There is far too much emphasis put on the bed in their house; it’s a combination of the old “Honeymoon Hotel” routine and the idea that the Irish are excessively amorous because they have large families. Finally, the movie culminates in a brawl between John Wayne’s character and Victor McLaglen, who plays his brother-in-law. The whole town watches and places bets, making them seem like a society of barbarians. I think the worst part, however, is the characterization of the two priests. They seem more interested in fishing than in their religious duties. During the fight, the younger priest asks the elder if they should stop it. The latter replies that they should but continues to watch the brawl with intense fascination. It is later revealed that they both had bets placed on the fight. Portraying clergymen as comical characters is in direct violation of the Production Code.
I have definite proof that this movie was not self-regulated by Mr. Breen. I saw the PCA file for it. None of the letters had Mr. Breen’s signature on them; his name was just typed. In addition, on one memo, I saw the initials EAD. That stands for Eugene A. Dougherty, whom they called “Doc.” Doc Dougherty was one of the younger PCA members; he was hired in the early 1940s, around the same time as Jack Vizzard. The surname Dougherty is definitely of Irish heritage. Evidently, Doc was not as sensitive about the depiction of his people as Mr. Breen was. Of course, he came from a different generation. His generation of Irishmen had not experienced nearly as many prejudices and biases as Mr. Breen’s had. One would think that Mr. Ford would have wanted to depict his race with more dignity, but apparently he didn’t. I understand that he himself was quite prone to drinking and, as a result, fighting. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t mind depicting others the same way.
One of the finest examples of Irish-Americanism during the Code years is Yankee Doodle Dandy from 1942, Warner Bros’ patriotic musical based on the life of George M. Cohan. It was the story of an Irish song and dance man played by another Irish song and dance man, James Cagney. It depicts the proud, harmonious blending of shamrocks with the stars and stripes which was characterized by Mr. Breen’s own life. Just like Mr. Cagney’s Georgie Cohan, Mr. Breen was a native-born American who loved his Irish heritage as much as he loved the land of freedom. America is a wonderful country of immigrants because its inhabitants don’t have to forget their history. They can still love their native land while being proud of the United States.
Joe Breen was a true Irishman. He was proud of his race, and he characterized the Victorian Irishman as well as any character from Central Casting. When he was a young man, he worked to prove to Protestant and English Americans that Irish and Catholic Americans are as devoted citizens of the United States as anyone else. When he worked at the PCA, he was able to spread his influence through the correct depiction of his fellow countrymen in films. His nature, which was unique but distinctly Irish, helped him with his job. He knew how to speak his mind, and he wasn’t afraid to fight for his beliefs. He had personal charm and a genial nature. He could speak very persuasively, using blarney when necessary. He knew when to work, but he liked to have fun, too. He was devoted to his family, his church, and his country. He spoke the truth with humility but a dash of pride and great self-assurance. He stood true to his beliefs even if the whole world was against him. Above all, he could not abide being called dishonest. However, like all polite Irishman, he would give you a chance to withdraw a comment before punching you in the nose for it. He was loyal and devoted. He never worked for accolades. He worked so that the job would be done well.
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Click the above images to see collections of great Code films with Irish actors James Cagney and Pat O’Brien.
Click on the above image to purchase Thomas Doherty’s biography of Joseph I. Breen, Hollywood’s Censor.
Follow us to bring back the Code and save the arts in America!