Code Concepts #9. Horses, Humaniacs, and the (AS)PCA

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Today is the second Thursday in July. During this month, we are publishing Code Concepts articles every Thursday instead of Breening Thursdays because this is #CleanMovieMonth2020. During #CleanMovieMonth, we only watch and review American Breen Era (1934-1954) movies, so we always suspend our breening of un-Code films for this month. Instead, we analyze and explain principles, rules, and customs which were enforced during the Code years. We analyze the actual Motion Picture Production Code, discuss beliefs of the day, mention censors’ principles around the world, and quote the best source for what actually happened at the Production Code Administration (PCA), PCA member Jack Vizzard’s memoirs, See No Evil: Life Inside a Hollywood Censor. Through this series, we hope to separate fact from fiction to help our readers understand what really was law during the Breen Era.

The Story of Seabiscuit (1949)

Barry Fitzgerald, Shirley Temple, and Lon McCallister with the titular equine star in The Story of Seabiscuit (1949), a Code movie about a famous race horse.

One of the images on the Code Concepts poster I made is a silhouette of a horse. I included this picture because I intended to eventually discuss the Code’s standards about the depiction of cruelty to animals. I used a horse to represent this because horses were a very sensitive subject to one foreign censor board. There is a lot of information about this matter in See No Evil, so this should be an interesting topic. Let’s start by considering what the actual Code says about cruelty to animals in films.

XII. Repellent Subjects
The following subjects must be treated within the careful limits of good taste:

4. Branding of people or animals.
5. Apparent cruelty to children or animals.

Kiss Me Kate

Gangster Keenan Wynn looks on as his mob partner (James Whitmore) faints while from hearing Howard Keel’s description of cattle branding.

This brief listing of branding and apparent cruelty to animals under Section XII, Repellent Subjects, was the only mention of four-legged creatures in the original Production Code of 1930. This was enforced “within the careful limits of good taste” after the PCA’s formation in 1934. However, “good taste” is a tricky principle, since it can vary from person to person and place to place. That is why censors around the country and the world made deletions in PCA-approved films, tailoring them to their regions’ (or their personal) tastes.

The Charge Of The Light Brigade (1936) | Movies ala Mark

The wanton disregard of horses’ safety during filming of The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) prompted the first major step toward regulating cruelty to animals in Hollywood.

The most particular regional feeling regarding cruelty to animal was the British affinity to horses. Perhaps the English of that day considered the trusty riding companion to be man’s best friend instead of the dog. More likely they just sympathized with the beatings that these beasts took in Westerns, cavalry films, rodeos, and other pictures where mounted combat often proved injurious if not deadly to horses as well as the riders. According to Thomas Doherty’s biography of Joseph Breen, Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen & The Production Code Administration, the death of twenty-five horses during the filming of Warner Bros. The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) not only enraged actor Errol Flynn to attack director Michael Curtiz but incited the British to action. The same year, Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act 1937, an Act of Parliament forbidding the distribution of a film which used real cruelty to animals, was passed. Below is the text from the July 30 Act.

An Act to prohibit the exhibition or distribution of cinematograph films in connection with the production of which suffering may have been caused to animals; and for purposes connected therewith.

Prohibition of films involving cruelty to animals.

(1)No person shall exhibit to the public, or supply to any person for public exhibition (whether by him or by another person), any cinematograph film (whether produced in Great Britain or elsewhere) if in connection with the production of the film any scene represented in the film was organised or directed in such a way as to involve the cruel infliction of pain or terror on any animal or the cruel goading of any animal to fury.

(2)In any proceedings brought under this Act in respect of any film, the court may (without prejudice to any other mode of proof) infer from the film as exhibited to the public or supplied for public exhibition, as the case may be, that a scene represented in the film as so exhibited or supplied was organised or directed in such a way as to involve the cruel infliction of pain or terror on an animal or the cruel goading of an animal to fury, but (whether the court draws such an inference or not) it shall be a defence for the defendant to prove that he believed, and had reasonable cause to believe, that no scene so represented was so organised or directed.

(3)Any person contravening the provisions of this section shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale, or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months or to both such fine and such imprisonment.

(4)For the purposes of this Act—

(a)a cinematograph film shall be deemed to be exhibited to the public when, and only when, it is exhibited in a place to which for the time being members of the general public as such have access, whether on payment of money or otherwise, and the expression “public exhibition” shall be construed accordingly.

The Public Enemy - James Cagney Movie Photo Gallery

The cold-blooded execution of the horse which killed crime boss Nails Nathan (Leslie Fenton) by thugs Tom Powers (James Cagney) and Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) may have offended British sensibilities against cruelty to horses, although not shown onscreen.

After this, particular care was taken by American filmmakers, guided by the PCA, to avoid offending the equine sympathies of the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC).

Jesse James (1939)- Henry King – Lasso The Movies

Two years later, the incident of a horse’s death during the filming of Jesse James, the top earner of Hollywood’s Golden Year, led to similar actions in America. In 1940, a special addition was added to the Code about cruelty to animals. It began by briefly reaffirming the previous principles about not showing brutality and gruesomeness relating to cruelty to animals in films. After that, it went on to establish the Production Code enforcers’ resolution to hold filmmakers to standards of responsibility and decency in production as well as what appeared on the screen. Namely, they were to see that filmmakers did not permit or use cruelty to animals behind the scenes as well as on the screen. They were to cooperate with and report to the proper authorities for that kind of regulation if they suspected cruelty. That same year, the American Human Association (AHA) became the sole monitoring body for the humane treatment of animals on Hollywood sets.

Special Regulations on Cruelty to Animals

On December 27, 1940 the Board of Directors of the Motion Picture Association of America, Inc., approved a resolution adopted by the Association of Motion Picture Producers, Inc., reaffirming previous resolutions of the California Association concerning brutality and possible gruesomeness, branding of people and animals, and apparent cruelty to children and animals:


, by the Board of Directors of the Association of Motion Picture Producers, Inc., that

(1) Hereafter, In the production of motion pictures there shall be no use by the members of the Association of the contrivance or apparatus in connection with animals which is known as the “running W,” nor shall any picture submitted to the Production Code Administration be approved if reasonable grounds exist for believing that use of any similar device by the producer of such picture resulted in apparent cruelty to animals; and

(2) Hereafter, In the production of motion pictures by the members of the Association such member shall, as to any picture involving the use of animals, invite on the lot during the shooting and consult with the authorized representative of the American Humane Association; and

(3) Steps shall be taken immediately by the members of the Association and by the Production Code Administration to require compliance with these resolutions which shall bear the same relationship to the sections of the Production Code quoted herein as the Association’s special regulations re: Crime in Motion Pictures bear to the sections of the Production Code dealing therewith; and it is

Further resolved

, That the resolutions of February 19, 1925 and all other resolutions of this Board establishing its policy to prevent all cruelty to animals in the production of motion pictures and reflecting its determination to prevent any such cruelty be and the same hereby are in all respects reaffirmed.

Stop horse(ing) around | Monique Lombardo

An unfortunate horse doing the dangerous stunt in Jesse James (1939) which sparked demands to end animal cruelty in Hollywood.

This issue is a prominent example of the PCA helping Hollywood achieve a higher sense of responsibility than that which was directly demanded by the Code. By partnering with the AHA, the PCA acted as Hollywood’s conscience for what happened behind the scenes as well as what actually was shown on the screen. While the Code would permit a horse to be shown falling and perhaps dying during a chase scene, it is unnecessarily cruel to permit a stunt horse to die to capture this shot. Jack Vizzard provided more information about this issue and the infamous “running W” in See No Evil.

This had to do with the touchy subject of the treatment of animals in pictures.

The theory was that animals could not speak for themselves. They trusted man and could be taken advantage of. Therefore, it behooved man, acting as human, not to degrade himself by mistreating them. Thus, the society that took the responsibility for overseeing the treatment of animals in pictures wisely took the title of the “American Human Association.” It had to do with Man, as much as with animals.

It had been the habit, in the roughshod pioneering days of the movies, to maltreat animals in a callous manner. A device of wires, called the “running W,” was rigged around a horse’s legs, with the trigger in the hands of the wrangler. The horse would be set into a full gallop, his front legs would be yanked out from under him, and he would fall headlong, frequently with drastic consequences.

The whole question came to a crisis in 1939, when Darryl Zanuck made Jesse James for Fox. According to eyewitness reports, a blindfolded horse was placed in a greased rocker-roller chute constructed on the edge of a cliff. It was prodded forward by the rider and members of the cast. As the animal got past the fulcrum point, the chute tilted, and the horse catapulted into space, hindmost first, with its front feet in the air. It fell some sixty or seventy feet into a stream, came to the surface twice, and drowned. In spite of this fact, a second horse was then put into the chute and sent over the cliff. This animal was not drowned. Those who saw the film will remember the scene as one of the breathtaking highlights.

The uproar that followed was backed by the powerful Hearst organization, and evoked 50,000 signatures of protest, according to the A.H.A. representative in Hollywood. In vain did Zanuck protest that the killing was “accidental,” arguing that he himself was a polo player and loved horses. The operation of the A.H.A. was incorporated into the Code, and made one of its subsidiary functions.

Henceforth, horses were taught to fall on command; but since they were prepared for the moment of impact, they were able to protect themselves. Great trouble was taken to prepare the ground at the spot of the tumble. A shallow pit was dug, and the floor was lined with empty cardboard ice-cream cartons. These were then covered over with loose dirt. When the horse hit the area, the cartons caved in but acted as a cushion. The criterion of whether a horse might have been injured had a lot to do with whether he was able to hold his head up at the moment of thudding into the ground. If he was made to tumble so that his neck curled under him, the weight of his body would break it and kill him. As might be expected, horses who were bright enough to learn these tricks became very valuable and represented a big investment. Therefore, the owners were glad to cooperate with the harsh regulations.

In the above copy of this film from YouTube, you can see the described scene from Jesse James at 1:27:27-38. The horse is shown going over the cliff, his rider flailing behind him, not once but twice. This is because both Jesse (Tyrone Power) and Frank James (Henry Fonda) are supposed to escape over the cliff on horseback. However, if you look closely, you can tell that the second shot is just a repeat of the first horse going over the cliff at a closer angle.

Taking care of animals is important, yet, as with most things, people are bound to take such things beyond the limits of reason. Jack Vizzard recounts one incident which shows how the humane folks, once given some power, went beyond reason, becoming “humaniacs.”

Success gave false encouragement to the extremists, and they began making demands that earned them to label of “humaniacs.” An example from a film by the famous archer Howard Hill will illustrate the point. This entrepreneur was attempting to popularize the sport of hunting with a box and arrow. Toward this end, he made a documentary of his exploits in Africa….

Although Hill fought vigorously for all of this footage, the Production Code office made him trim the frame of the arrow striking the lion’s nose. In the film that was released, only one arrow was seen. However, that did not satisfy the humaniacs. They also wanted the deletion of all the gore in connection with the death of the elephant, and the killing of the boa constrictor. They claimed that no animal should be sacrificed in the making of a picture for the mere entertainment of an audience. This applied to bullfights as well as to safari pictures, and for years they resisted scenes of the pic-ing of bulls, the setting of the banderillas, and the actual “moment of truth” on the sands of the arena. Since popular sentiment was pretty much on the side of the animal lovers, the Code backed their objections, and enforced them.

Tembo (RKO, 1952). Insert (14" X 36"). Documentary.. ... Movie ...

Howard Hill was a famous archer. The film which Mr. Vizzard is discussing, as far as I can tell, is from Tembo, a 1952 document/travelogue about a safari he took. I think that Mr. Vizzard found the demands for further deletions ridiculous because the animals were not actually killed for the film. Rather, the film was just a documentary which captured Mr. Hill’s safari hunting. I’m sure that, like me, Mr. Vizzard did not approve of the killing of animals solely for motion pictures. However, in this case, they would have been killed anyway.

Fiesta (June 12, 1947) | OCD Viewer

Esther Williams as a female matador in Fiesta (1947), which features Code-compliant bullfights.

Regarding bullfights, which Mr. Vizzard mentioned, the Code would have reason to monitor these even without the AHA’s concerns. The Code forbids the showing of excessive violence and gruesomeness. The showing of a bull being killed is one which would doubtless offend the sensibilities of many audience members. Thus, many issues of violence were not problems during the Breen Era because the Code would not permit showing such things anyway.

Donald Duck Gif Daisy Duck Gif Dancing Gif Disney Gif Cartoons ...

Some AHA representatives thought that Donald Duck and Daffy Duck dancing together in Disney short Mr. Duck Steps Out (1940) was the only kind of humane duck dancing.

One of the humaniacs’ concerns, while considerate, was rather humorous. Geoffrey Shurlock’s solution shows the future PCA boss’s ability to come up with an answer to anything. I tried in vain to find the film which contains a dancing duck. Since Mr. Shurlock provided the answer, rather than Mr. Breen, it may have been a Shurlock Era film from the late 1950s or early 1960s. Chances are it was before 1963, since the next story he recounts is from “as late as 1963,” which he calls “the future.” If anyone knows what film this might be, please let me know in the comments!

A fairly ludicrous situation arose when, years later, a representative of the A.H.A made a formal objection to a scene in a picture of a dancing duck. When asked what the trouble was, since the duck was more than likely trained, he replied that he suspected that the duck had been stood on a hotplate, and that this was the reason it was shifting from foot to foot. Geoffrey Shurlock wanted to know how he came to the conclusion that the plate was hot. “Did it ever occur to you it might have been cold?” he asked. “Is that inhuman too? The duck might have liked it. He may’ve been dancing for joy.” The scene remained intact.

Hud 1963 Editorial Stock Photo - Stock Image | Shutterstock

A scene feared to cause humaniac controversy in Hud (1963).

Even when one has the best intentions, things can go astray. This was especially true during the Shurlock Era, when the weakening Code permitted increasing gruesomeness in films. An example of a film which, despite efforts to be humane, ran in to trouble with British censors, is Hud from 1963.

The classical revelation of the mentality of the humaniacs occurred, however, as late as 1963 (if one be permitted to borrow from the future, for the moment). The picture was the very popular Hud, starring Paul Newman.

The high point of the film had to do with the slaughter of a herd of cattle that were infected with the hoof-and-mouth disease….

In preparation for the movie scenes, some 400 cattle were used. A large pit was dug by tractors. The beasts were sprayed with a mixture of water, sodium silicate, and mineral oil to simulate the effects of hoof-and-mouth disease. While they were milling around in the pit, a fleet of automobiles carrying men with rifles drive up to the edge of the pit. They aimed their guns at the animals. At this point, the cameras were stopped, and the animals were removed from the pit. Then the action was resumed, with the guns discharging into the now empty pit. Dummy cattle were then strewn about, simulating dead animals. The bodies were drenched in lime, and the trench filled. As a further nicety, a trough was installed in the bottom of the pit, and filled with water every thirty minutes because of the temperature in the hole. Finally, three separate pastures were secured for the cattle.

These painstaking details will give some idea of the power exerted by public opinion on the picture makers. Everybody connected with Hud, however, had reason to feel virtuous, and was in an excellent position to defend practically any point that might come up.

The payoff came when the film arrived in England. The Secretary of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals wrote to his American counterpart in Denver, Colorado, complaining as follows:

Once again I must write to you concerning a film that has reached London and that has caused a certain amount of criticism over the treatment of animals. I refer to the film “Hud.”

In this film there is a sequence showing a competition in which some half dozen men have to catch greased pigs. Amongst the scene shewn [sic] were men leading in the pigs by their hind legs and pushing them forward in the manner of a wheelbarrow. There was also one scene where one pig was pulled into position by its hind legs. Finally, there was a scene where “Hud” drags a pig over the ground to the winning square. These shots, together with a number of others shewing pigs running in all directors with men driving after then, have been the cause of adverse comment.

And so it goes.

Paul Newman holds pig Hud VINTAGE Photo | eBay

Paul Newman’s rough handling of a pig in Hud (1963) troubled British censors.

This situation exemplifies the ridiculous lengths to which people will go when given

Tony Curtis wheelbarrowing a pig Operation Petticoat 11x14" still ...

A similar pig scene in Operation Petticoat (1959) with Tony Curtis and Gavin MacLeod.

power. The PCA was constantly frustrated by censors’ complaints about and deletions in films they had carefully self-regulated. The British were particularly sensitive about certain issues, such as animal endangerment and cruelty, as we have already seen with horses. The scenes in Hud with the pigs don’t sound particularly cruel. They simply sound like the normal way farmers would handle their livestock. That is the point at which censors and activists like humaniacs became far less reasonable than self-regulators.


Flipper (1963)

Not all 1960s movies were as animal-friendly as Flipper (1963), starring child actor Luke Halpin.

Ironically, as animal activism increased in the 1960s and 70s along with movements to save the earth and whatnot, carefulness about animal cruelty decreased. That is because of the PCA’s loosening all restrictions during the Shurlock Era (1955-1968). Although the AHA continued to work with the PCA during its declining years in the 1960s, it lost this ability after the PCA was replaced with the Rating System. In reference to animal cruelty, this date is cited as 1966, which was when Jack Valenti became the new president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the PCA’s parent body. However, the Classification and Rating Administration did not replace the PCA until 1968. Since the Rating System just reviewed films after completion, the AHA no longer had an inroad for supervising animal cruelty on sets during production. This resulted in more animal cruelty after the formation of the Rating System.



To conclude this article, I would like to quote from Gerald Gardiner’s The Censorship Papers, a 1987 book of excerpts from letters in the PCA files. One of the films mentioned is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 horror film, The Birds. By 1963, after eight years of Geoffrey Shurlock’s leadership, the PCA was greatly weakened. I consider 1963 to be a landmark year for Hollywood reaching new lows in terms of moral content. Mr. Shurlock’s remarks in a letter regarding this film show one reason for this, his focus on the wrong things during self-regulation.

In today’s climate, prevention of cruelty to animals has risen to such levels that many circuses, zoos, and amusement parks which utilize animals for entertainment purposes have closed or removed “inhumane” animal usage. The concern has gone far beyond anything the “humaniacs” of the PCA Era demanded. However, I find it strange that, in this era of extreme concern for real animal’s safety, people don’t mind the violence, gruesomeness, and brutality of things which happen to animals in horrific modern films. Although special effects and CGI are used to create these effects, the fact that people don’t mind seeing horrific violence toward and the torture of animals when it is “make believe” in films shows that modern America is not as “humane” as we would pretend to be. Anyway, even if people are bothered by seeing fictional harming of animals, it is no good if they don’t feel a similar disgust and dismay when people are injured, tortured, and killed in films.

The Birds (1963) dir. Alfred Hitchcock | BOSTON HASSLE

To conclude this article, I would like to quote from Gerald Gardiner’s The Censorship Papers, a 1987 book of excerpts from letters in the PCA files. One of the films mentioned is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 horror film, The Birds. By 1963, after eight years of Geoffrey Shurlock’s leadership, the PCA was greatly weakened. I consider 1963 to be a landmark year for Hollywood reaching new lows in terms of moral content. Mr. Shurlock’s remarks in a letter regarding this film show one reason for this, his focus on the wrong things during self-regulation.

In January 1962 a shooting script reached the Hays Office and Geoffrey Shurlock responded with this letter to Hitchcock:

We have received the final script dated January 26, 1962, for your proposed production The Birds…. In accordance with code requirements, please consult with Mr. James Jack of the American Humane Association as to all scenes in which animals are used.

The Birds | film by Hitchcock [1963] | Britannica

While audiences, like the terrified Tippi Hedren and children in this picture, were traumatized by The Birds, Geoffrey Shurlock was more concerned about avoiding cruelty to birds used in production.

Unfortunately, Mr. Shurlock forgot that he was working for the PCA, not the ASPCA, since he was more concerned about possible harm to birds during filming than the inevitable harm which the horrifically gruesome film would have on audiences, especially children. I would call that misplaced humanity and compassion, making Geoffrey Shurlock the worst kind of humaniac.

From double beds to sleeping pills, every Code rule had a reason.

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