“The vulgar, the cheap, and the tawdry is OUT!” —Joseph Breen in a 1934 newsreel
If you’ve ever watched a classic movie, the chances are good that you’ve noticed one of these, unobtrusively tucked at the beginning of the first reel, a flash of just a second or so.
It’s funny to think that this numbered certificate, a few feet of film, represents the culmination of hours of arguments, revisions, and hard-won concessions in the battle of art versus censorship. Or sin versus morality. It all depends on your point of view, doesn’t it?
This stamp of approval first flashed before moviegoers’ eyes in July 1934, affixed to The World Moves On, a lesser John Ford work. The title might seem fitting, because, indeed, the film industry was apparently moving on, abandoning an era of freedom, innovation, and blistering social commentary. All film scripts now sought the strict approval of the Production Code Administration before moving into shooting. Afterwards, a preview of the film itself would decide the PCA whether to sanction its release or send it back to production purgatory. Should a finished movie attempt to skirt censorship and obviously violate the rules of the Code, there would be no court of appeals, no jury of industry peers to rationalize it. A $25,000 fine faced any studio brash enough to defy the PCA’s ruling. No Motion Picture Association theater would release a film without that seal.
The Best of Times, the Worst of Times
However, before the curtain fell on the heady days of forbidden Hollywood, the first half of 1934 had blossomed with the rich final flush of the pre-Code era. As studios sensed the coming tempest of public protest, producers crammed as much illicit content as they dared into their product. The lenient “movie czar” Will Hays, brought in during the 1920s to monitor the industry’s morals, was still in charge—or as in charge as he had ever been. With little real power to stop a scandalous film, Hays gave his impotent blessing to movies that his ambitious underling Joseph Breen condemned in no uncertain terms.
After all, 1934 was the year that witnessed four bare male bottoms crammed into one frame in The Search for Beauty. It was the year when Kay Francis, sold into prostitution by her lover, poisoned him and escaped scot-free in Mandalay. It was the year when Tarzan and his Mate swam naked, the exquisite curves of their bodies enhanced by light-dappled underwater photography.
It was the year that saw Bette Davis ignite the screen as a foul-mouthed, sluttish cockney in RKO’s Of Human Bondage, sexually manipulating a passive Leslie Howard and screaming her castrating insults right into the camera. To cite just one characteristic Joseph Breen rebuttal, the budding censor had protested the adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s masterpiece as “the wrong kind of film—the kind of film which constantly gets us into hot water.”
But his objections fell on deaf ears. Filthy mammon was king in Hollywood and the demand for “women’s pictures,” in particular—read: sex melodramas—remained high. The Production Code didn’t get its bite until mid-year.
Hollywood executives nevertheless had plenty to ulcerate over. With Roosevelt elected and the New Deal swinging into effect, the possibility of federal censorship—bruised, but not killed back in the 1920s—returned to prominence. Hundreds of state bills advocated hard protection against any kind of moral turpitude in movies. Meanwhile, the pop sociology of the Payne Studies, a bunch of pseudo-scientific research that “proved” the malign influence of movies on young people, intensified the likelihood of government interference.
Joseph Breen saw an opportunity and seized it, supporting the Catholic establishment in a long-fermented charge against immoral movies. Its Legion of Decency officially formed in 1934 with the goal of stamping out “vile and unwholesome moving pictures.” At each Sunday mass, many were handed a checklist of condemned films in theaters and ordered to mark the ones they had attended; for each box ticked, they had to contend with a new mortal sin on their souls.
Priests would loom outside local theaters to shepherd their flock away from sinful celluloid. Christian groups of various denominations took up the rallying cry and authorities in the Jewish community denounced Hollywood for giving their people a bad name. All these leaders urged their faithful to stay away from the box offices. During the Depression, such a boycott would hit Hollywood where it hurt—in their bottom lines.
No scholar can hold Joseph Breen solely responsible for the movement. Still, he effectively stage-managed a drama in which only he, with ties to both the Catholic establishment and the film industry, could play the appropriate hero. But for now, he let the Storm of ’34 rage until it got the studio’s attention.
The role of director during this peril-fraught transition into classical Hollywood became that of a smuggler (to borrow a phrase from Martin Scorsese), secreting thematic and visual contraband to the public under the watchful eye of America’s self-appointed watchdogs and equally wary studio heads.
Letting the Cat out of the Bag
The troubled production Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat at Universal, shot in just 19 days, typifies the sort of unspoken depravity that quick-thinking artists could sneak into their films in the twilight of the pre-Code era. Reviewing this bizarre blend of occult horror and revenge melodrama, even the adventurous Universal front office quailed in the face of rising censorship forces. Director and set designer Ulmer was ordered to cut lengthy passages, convert one of the story’s two main antiheroes into a slightly more heroic lead (he couldn’t assault the leading lady, for example), and balance out some of the more grisly stuff with less graphic scenes. And he did. Sort of.
“There was two day’s extra shooting that was put in,” Arianne Ulmer, the director’s daughter, recalls, “and my father was always very proud of the fact that he pulled a fast one.” Instead of sterilizing his edgy classic with filler scenes, Ulmer staged the famous pickled brides sequence, in which Karloff strides introspectively through his corridor of preserved, dead beauties as he tenderly strokes a black cat. The disturbingly poetic necrophiliac implications went right over the producer’s heads. “They never understood how wicked and marvelous that scene was.”
Black Cat was a huge hit and moneymaker for Universal. Clearly mid-1930s audiences had a stomach for this kind of perversion. But the public would soon be put on a sweeter, more limited diet.
The Belle’s Toll
In one scene of Mae West’s 1934 vehicle Belle of the Nineties, curtains rise on the hourglass-figured star in several symbolic costumes: a butterfly, a vampy bat, a rose, a spider. Last of all, Miss West stands, wielding a flickering torch, as a voluptuous improvement on Lady Liberty. It was an image that doubtlessly provoked chuckles from many Americans and shudders from a few, since the clergy had singled out West as their Enemy Number One. A Mae West-made America was exactly what the reformers were afraid of. Her Belle of the Nineties would fall the first high-profile victim of censorship in 1934.
Watching Mae West’s movies today—especially Belle—one might emerge puzzled by the vehemently outraged responses of America’s moral authorities. West dishes out a lot of sassy one-liners and doesn’t disappoint with her signature amorous growl, but her burlesque antics pale in comparison to the deadly serious predations of her contemporary leading ladies—on the sex scale, that is. The heroine of any run-of-the-mill women’s picture of the early 1930s is likely to engage in more objectionable behavior than West’s indolent idols. She might invite some lucky fellow to come up and see her, but we seldom actually see her locked in the grip of any truly improper behavior. For instance, in Belle of the Nineties, she pulls herself out of one admirers arms after he lists her many attractions, baulking, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. Is this a proposal or are ya takin’ inventory?”
I can only infer that censors objected less to West’s suggestiveness than to the real-life image that backed it up. Her star text as a proto-feminist writer-actress-auteur in control of her personal relationships added persuasive power to her subversive arguments about the generous wages of sin. West’s characters languorously sized up and chose their playmates with the same kind of desire usually reserved for male characters, even in the pre-Code world. She taught female audiences that women who lost their reputations might never miss them.
Perhaps most offensive to the Catholic brass, she thumbed her nose at the domestic virtues that religion most valued in women. In the contended Belle of the Nineties her backstage dresser wonders, “You certainly know the way to a man’s heart!” West wryly replies, “Funny too, because I don’t know how to cook.”
Like her shrewd onscreen characters, West knew how to handle men, including the blue-pencil boys. As she explained, “ When I knew that the censors were after my films and they had to come and okay everything, I wrote scenes for them to cut! These scenes were so rough that I’d never have used them. But they worked as a decoy.”
Unfortunately, Mae’s strategy had met its match in Joseph Breen. Reading the still-shady edited script, with a fragrant ambiance of prostitution and crime, he demanded cuts and rejected the release of the film until those cuts be made. Breen was smart enough to avoid demanding too many cuts; Paramount could’ve leveraged support from a jury of peers and gotten away with sending the picture out as it was. But even Breen couldn’t believe his luck when the slightly sanitized Belle was taken out of circulation by the New York censors. Paramount slashed the film further and tacked on an ending that ran counter to everything West stood for: a wedding. Belle of the Nineties can still enchant audiences with its breezy humor and the joy of West’s performance, but it’s weak tea compared to her earlier vehicles. The Belle had taken its toll on Mae. Her career would never be the same.
Breen had made his point, even if it wasn’t totally his doing. And, as of June, Hays made him the Production Code administrator, head of the newly-christened Production Code Administration. Backed by the authority of the Motion Picture Association of America, the studio bosses’ bosses, what Breen said was essentially law in Hollywood. He promised to vindicate moral reforms of the boycotters and the Legion of Decency. The crisis was over.
The Hitler of Hollywood
Despite my personal distaste for the man Variety proclaimed “the Hitler of Hollywood,” I’ll admit that Joseph Breen was a canny choice to survey movieland as its self-appointed watchdog. A natural storyteller, the stout, fierce-eyed Irish-American could dance back and forth between his many roles, somehow placating a frighteningly different multitude of interests.
He understood studio production and the dynamics of a good screenplay; if he was going to ruin a movie’s message, he would try do so as unobtrusively as possible. As he admitted to a young Val Lewton, Breen liked to go to brothels, he just didn’t find it acceptable to depict them.
Having partially engineered the Catholic revolt against celluloid Babylon, he also cooled it down, making him a savior for both sides. His staunch leadership meant that Hollywood had escaped the interference of government-appointed censors. Like all purgatives, he wasn’t pleasant, but there were worse treatments out there. Still, his ascendancy largely closed the industry to the subversive content that had made the pre-Code era so thrilling.
What changed in 1934 wasn’t merely what could or couldn’t assault the general public’s impressionable eyes and ears. Indeed, the year afterward, the PCA-approved China Seas treated the observant viewer to a brief exposure of Jean Harlow’s breast in an uncut wardrobe malfunction. Innuendo—perhaps a little less bawdy than most West-isms, but still steamy—remained par for the course throughout the classical Hollywood era. And the not-so-subtle sex ellipsis would reach its apotheosis in 1939 as Rhett carried a wriggling Scarlett up that red-carpeted staircase. Obvious prostitutes and whore houses would be restricted to the outskirts of post-Code Hollywood more stridently than they had been, but they didn’t disappear, by any means.
The stakes of 1934 ran much deeper than risqué bon mots and cleavage. It wasn’t about “the vulgar, the cheap, and the tawdry,” in Breen’s words, but about social power. The Production Code Administration broadcast a vision of firm gender roles, family values, and severe punishments for individualistic transgressions. Innuendo became a ritual of clear courtship not pleasure-seeking. Salient sex ellipses—once provoked by the seductive moves of cunning women as often as by the maneuvers of charming men—now tended to affirm the dominance of men over comparatively submissive women.
Decoding the Code
Studios worked overtime to recast their stars in a more Code-friendly light. A prime example, Jean Harlow morphed from a lippy bad girl who flaunted her ill-gotten gains to a basically decent chorine (or similar) who longed for a better life. In her first post-Code vehicle, The Girl from Missouri (originally titled Born to Be Kissed), she spends most of the movie fighting for her virtue. She remained a fortune-hunter, yes, but one fervently and improbably insistent on marriage first.
A few films in 1934, however, plotted out a prime blueprint for circumventing the Production Code in style. Both The Thin Man and It Happened One Night were released before July 1934, but they already showed signs of retooling the wit of the pre-Code era into the topsy-turvy screwball world. The sexual tension between Nick and Nora Charles was sanctioned by marriage just as the sparks between Pete Warne and Ellie Andrews were protected by the characters’ chastity. (The Walls of Jericho anyone? What better way to concede to moralists than with a biblical allusion.)
More important, the screwball comedy’s battle of the sexes conventions—as aptly modeled by another 1930s release, Twentieth Century—provided a brilliant format for portraying relationships of uneasy equality between men and women. Teasing one-upmanship provided an apt metaphor for mutual desire and respect, as long as the script kept the lovers vertical.
Exceptional actors and directors could also skirt the censorship. The Barretts of Wimpole Street, the third top grossing film of 1934, was released with PCA approval only after significant cuts eliminated more explicit references of Edward Moulton-Barrett’s incestuous desire for his daughter, Elizabeth. Nevertheless, Charles Laughton’s subtly wicked performance as the lustful father stands as a savage indictment of backwards, hypocritical patriarchs. As he quipped, “They can’t censor the gleam in my eye.”
Temple of Virtue?
It’s no coincidence that 1934 also welcomed Hollywood’s new superstar to the epicenter of its media constellation. Stand Up and Cheer gave curly-headed ragamuffin Shirley Temple her first important role and catapulted her to prominence. Four starring vehicles followed in the same year. As the cliché goes, she immediately endeared herself as a symbol of hope to Depression. But like all clichés it only tells half the story.
Amusingly enough, Temple—lauded by many as Hollywood’s clean slate, an innocent star to usher in a new era of pure entertainment—had to clean up her image in 1934 almost as much as Jean Harlow had. In previous years, she’d won over audiences in a borderline-indecent series of shorts, “Baby Burlesks,” in which she frequently aped Mae West and other erotically-charged stars of the day. So much for that clean slate.
A number of film historians treat the pre-Code era as Hollywood’s adolescence, a rebellious phase of rage and despair destined to exhaust itself and boil over. By contrast, the enshrined post-1934 Hollywood, tempered by a superego of censorship, had attained maturity. Although I respect the validity of that argument—and have encountered some pre-Code films that probably could’ve benefitted from censorship—I generally disagree. On the contrary, it was in 1934 when the movies regressed, governed by censors who selected a child as their unofficial mascot and promulgated fantasies of a world that always sorted itself out.
Fortunately, not everyone bought it. And, more fortunately, not everyone sold it. The clever smugglers of the film industry found ways to curtail the curtailment of their artistic liberties. But you’d have a hard time convincing me that movies were ever quite as fun again after 1934.
I drew on a number of sources in writing this post which I will not cite formally here, but which I gratefully acknowledge. I primarily relied upon The Dame in the Kimono by Leonard Leff and Jerold Simmons. I also consulted, among others, Pre-Code Hollywood by Thomas Doherty and Universal Horror (Kevin Brownlow’s documentary film). Full bibliography available upon request.