Friday, December 5, 2008

A December 5 death

As I mentioned earlier today, I sometimes look at the list of people born on a given day for inspiration for a post. IMDb also lists people who died on the day, but I don't normally look at that list so often. However, there was one name in today's list that stuck out at me: Joseph Breen, who died on this day in 1965.

Breen wasn't an actor; he wasn't a director; he wasn't even a producer. In fact, IMDb's listing for him only lists eight titles, all of them containing archive footage of him. But he probably had more influence than anybody else in the history of Hollywood. That's because he spent twenty years as the head of the Production Code Administration, from 1934 to 1954.

It is from Breen's tenure that we get the term "pre-code" movie, although it's technically a misnomer. The Production Code had been promulgated several years earlier, and the group that was supposed to enforce it was headed by Will Hays, who had been the Postmaster General in the Warren Harding administration. However, enforcement was lax, and in what are now called the pre-code movies, quite a bit of racy (at least for the early 1930s, although by today's standards most of it is very mild) stuff made it onto the screen. This infuriated a lot of people, especially Catholic groups, who had the power as a more centralized church to organize boycotts of movies they thought weren't decent enough. This, combined with the threat of government control, led to Breen's appointment, and a very strict enforcement of the Code.

The ironic thing, of course, is that some of the effects this had on the movies were arguably quite good. Although writers couldn't discuss certain topics, the restrictions imposed by the Code also forced moviemakers to come up with intelligent stories. Love, for example, actually had to be romantic, and not smutty, which makes the romantic comedies of the 1930s and 40s sparkle in a way that today's movies just don't. Bad language was strictly off limits (remember, there was a huge uproar when David O. Selznick wanted to be faithful to the book Gone With the Wind and have Rhett Butler say, "My dear, I don't give a damn"), but at the same time, the filmmakers couldn't use it as a crutch the way it seems language is used today. Of course, as I've mentioned early, the Code certainly had a deleterious effect on a movie like The Great Lie.

No comments: