Today is October 14. Here at PEPS, it is a special holiday for us. We have declared October 14 to be Joseph Breen Appreciation Day, a holiday for all those who appreciate Code films from the Breen Era (1934-1954). This is a very special birthday, since it is the 130th anniversary of Joe Breen’s birth. Happy Birthday, Mr. Breen! You can celebrate this holiday by watching a movie made between 1934-1954 or participating in the blogathon we are hosting in honor of Mr. Breen’s birthday, The Second Annual Great Breening Blogathon, which lasts until Wednesday, October 17, with the possibility of further extension!
I am working on two other tribute articles to Mr. Breen, which I will publish later during the blogathon. In the meantime, however, I want to write about something which was very important to Mr. Breen. Almost all people, including bloggers, historians, film reporters of his day, his co-workers, and his own descendants, call Mr. Breen a censor. He was very adamant upon the point that neither the Code, the Production Code Administration, nor the PCA’s work was censorship. It was self-regulation. Thus, he was not a censor; he was a self-regulator.
People insist on calling Mr. Breen and his colleagues censors despite the obvious proof that they were not censors. A censor is an official, usually hired by local or federal government, who watches finished films and judges their moral suitability. In the 1920s and 30s, politicians, policemen, and other government-hired people loved this sort of job because they could just watch movies for hours, receiving a considerable sum of money per film. In addition, studios had to pay editing fees to the censor boards, to say nothing of review fees! If a censor thinks that elements of a film are unacceptable, he orders film cuts and the deletion or overdubbing of lines. If he thinks that a film is entirely unacceptable, he can ban it, but he can’t suggest changes. A censor gets a lot of criticism, but he has a lot of power, and he makes a good salary without having to do too much.
On the other hand, a self-regulator is someone who works within the film industry instead of for the government. He does more than screen finished films. He works on films’ stories from the first scenario ideas through every draft of the synopses and scripts. He talks personally with moguls, producers, directors, and screenplay writers. He goes back and forth, arguing, reasoning, and compromising. He suggests ideas and formulates solutions to tricky problems to ensure that every picture is as good, artistically as well as morally, as it possibly can be. He screens finished films, orders cuts or re-filming of scenes if they don’t comply with previous agreements, and awards a Seal of Approval once the film is acceptable and agreeable to him and the filmmakers. His organization receives a fee for each seal, which is based on the cost of the production, but his personal salary is the same regardless of how many films he oversees each year. If a film he self-regulates is a success, the filmmakers get praise and profits, and the self-regulator is content if the work is deemed morally acceptable by all or most. However, if the film is censored, banned, or judged to be less than morally acceptable, the self-regulator is heavily blamed and criticized, regardless of how stubborn the filmmakers were. He may have to help the filmmakers make cuts to endure censorship and repair bad press. He does this without additional financial compensation. If he is successful, he is unlikely to receive thanks. He makes a good salary, but he more than earns it with the hard, thankless work he does.
Mr. Breen was the best self-regulator which the film industry has ever seen. He was great because he did more than just suggest the deletion of problematic elements or lines. As movie periodicals frequently mentioned in the early days of the PCA, every film which was made during the Breen years contained a line, a scenario, or an idea written by a member of the PCA, often Mr. Breen. The filmmakers greatly benefited from Mr. Breen’s vast writing experience. He didn’t just cut things out; he suggested good replacements for problems. To really show this, let us take an example.
Observe the above photograph and the picture in the Clean with Breen banner. These pictures are from approximately 1950. They could have been taken a little later than that, but they couldn’t have been taken earlier, since Mr. Breen is in the new offices to which the PCA moved in 1950. These two pictures look identical at first glance, but they are two separate photographs. In the banner picture, there is a swirl of smoke coming from Mr. Breen’s cigar, and his mouth is slightly open. In the second picture, there is no smoke, and his mouth is closed. These pictures must have been taken in rapid succession, since nothing else has moved between photographs.
Do you see what Mr. Breen is doing in these photographs? He has some sheet music in front of him on the table. He has a cigar in his left hand and his editing pencil in his right hand. Beneath the music, there is a piece of paper with words written on it. Mr. Breen must be reviewing a song from a film on which the PCA was currently working. Naturally, music itself was not under the jurisdiction of the Code. Lyrics, on the other hand, were. While music notes and melodies couldn’t be risqué or offensive, witty but tawdry lyrics had been raising eyebrows for years. They too had to be carefully studied by the self-regulators.
In this particular case, let us observe what Mr. Breen is really doing. Since lyrics are his only moral concern from a Code standpoint, you would think that he would just study the sheet of paper with the lyrics. However, he appears to be carefully studying sheet music, which is complete with music notes as well as lyrics. The reason for this is obvious. Lyrics are more sensitive than dialogue. If an unacceptable word is changed in a line, nothing except the individual line is effected. However, if an unacceptable word in a lyric is changed, the rhyme and meter of the song are often destroyed. As a writer himself, Mr. Breen was considerate of other people’s artistic works. He also had a sensitive, artistic nature which understood good taste. He didn’t want to butcher other people’s carefully-crafted lyrics. He always tried to be fair and gentle.
If Joe Breen encountered an unacceptable song line, he could have just underlined it and written, “Change this line.” However, he liked to offer a good replacement when he removed a line. Naturally, he couldn’t suggest a good replacement for a song lyric if he didn’t know the rhythm and timing of the song. Thus, he is carefully studying the sheet music in these photographs.
Mr. Breen wrote some poetry in his younger days. Because of this, he understood rhyming and meter. Then, he was a man with an appreciation for music, so he knew that lyrics and melody must blend! In the banner picture, his mouth is open. Since he is studying the music and the lyrics so intently, it is quite likely that he was singing to determine the cohesion of the breened lyrics with the tune. Is that the work of a censor? Would a censor know how to change lyrics without ruining their rhyme and rhythm? Would a censor care to ensure that the new lyrics fit the melody?
To find the answer, let’s look at a few notable examples of breened song lyrics. Here are links to some songs which were edited for Code films. Listen to the two options and decide if this is the work of a common censor and his board or the work of sensitive, artistic filmmakers who simply had an unusual job in Hollywood. Their job was to protect the industry and the country from the dangers of cheap dirt and help them rise to the highest level of art the film industry has ever attained.
“New York, New York” from On the Town by Leonard Bernstein 1. Original: Cris Alexander and Company, 1961 2. Breened: Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, and Jules Munshin, 1949
Happy Birthday, Joseph Breen!
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