3 September 2014

The book cannot be picturised!

In early 1934, before James M. Cain's crime novel "The Postman Always Rings Twice" was even published, RKO submitted a synopsis of Cain's story to the censors to see if it could be made into a film. Columbia and Warner Bros. were also interested in adapting the story, but Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code Administration, considered the material (containing adultery, illicit sex and murder) unsuitable for a motion picture. All three studios decided not to pursue the idea. MGM, however, was set on filming the story and purchased the film rights for $25,000 without consulting the PCA. The PCA then made several pleas to MGM not to proceed with the film. In April 1934, MGM gave in and decided to abandon the project.

Ten years later, when Billy Wilder got permission from the PCA to film Cain's novella "Double Indemnity" (which had the same moral taboos and was previously deemed unfilmable too), MGM resumed its plans to film "The Postman Always Rings Twice". The PCA finally gave its approval in May 1945 after certain elements had been removed from the story. The film, starring Lana Turner and John Garfield, was released in 1946 and is still considered to be the best adaptation of Cain's novel.

John Garfield and Lana Turner in a publicity still for Tay Garnett's 1946 "The postman always rings twice".
On 28 March 1934, after Joseph Breen had already urged MGM to drop the film, Will Hays himself (Breen's boss) wrote a letter to MGM's president Nicholas Schenck. Hays strongly advised to abandon the project and reminded Schenck that the film would be rejected, if and when submitted to the PCA for approval. Hays also gave a detailed synopsis of the story (spoilers!) to make his case. As stated above, MGM would follow the advice of the censors and drop the picture (for the moment).

Will Hays (left) and Nicholas Schenck

Source: mppda digital archive


March 28, 1934

Mr. Nicholas M. Schenck,
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Dist. Corp.,
1540 Broadway
New York, N.Y.

Dear Mr. Schenck:

Following the discussion at the meeting of the Board of Directors relative to certain books and plays, the filming of which will either have to be abandoned entirely or the very greatest care used:

You will remember the discussions of the necessities in this regard and the particular books and plays which were discussed and as to which it was agreed that the greatest care should be exercised and the concluded film made entirely in compliance with the Code or rejected in toto when concluded.

Pursuant to the suggestion of the Board that the discussion be followed by letters concerning each picture to the producing company, I am sending you this additional word supplemental to my letter to you of March 15 relative to


On March 9, while Mr. Breen was discussing another story with Mr. Mannix at Metro, he (added in pen: Mr. Mannix) casually mentioned the fact that he had just concluded the purchase, for $ 25,000, of the novel "The Postman Always Rings Twice". This information came to Mr. Breen as something of a shock because not two hours previously they had succeeded in persuading Columbia not to purchase the story; a fortnight previously they had done the same thing with RKO; and it had recently come to their attention that Warner Bros. had declined to purchase the novel, without consultation with our office, because they feared that it would be impossible to make a proper picture of the subject matter.

It seems to be a realistic story of a down-and-out hitchhiker who finds himself thrown off a hay truck near a roadside sandwich shop in California. He strikes up an alliance with the wife of the owner of the shop, and after a series of sex affairs with her they attempt the murder of her husband. This fails, the illicit sex affair is continued, and a second attempt to murder the woman's husband is made which succeeds. The man evades his complicity in the murder by signing an affidavit placing the blame on the woman but despite this she is acquitted. The illicit sex relationship is again resumed until the woman leaves the man to attend her mother during her mother's illness. While she is away, he meets another woman and has an illicit sex affair with her. The first woman, on returning, learns of the affair of the other woman and toys with the idea of killing the man who at the same time entertains a similar idea with respect to her. At this juncture the woman becomes pregnant and the man marries her. She suffers a miscarriage while swimming and the man hurries her to a hospital. In his anxiety the car is wrecked and his wife is killed. He is suspected of a deliberate attempt to murder her and, with his unsavoury reputation by reason of his previous connection with murder, is convicted. The story closes as he is about to walk to the gallows.

On March 19 Mr. Breen wrote Mr. Mayer that the novel which had been sent to him, had been read and that a number of the details "point definitely to several violations of our Production Code which are likely to compel us, in the dispensation of our responsibility under the machinery of the Code, definitely to reject the picture, if and when it is submitted to this office for approval."

Several in this office have also read the book and the opinion is unanimous that it can not be picturized. It is my reasoned judgment that the company should now, before further sums are expended in preparation of a script, announce that it will not attempt to develop a treatment of this story.

This opinion is based on the apparent difficulty in making a proper picture; upon the criticism that obtains; and the points made by the other studios, already coming to Mr. Breen, that "nothing you are asking us to take out of our script is as bad as THE POSTMAN story that Metro has bought"; the action of the other studios in connection with the book after consultation with Mr. Breen; the fact that this case is different from others, such as SAILOR, BEWARE (which is also causing worry as you know), because in that case the play was bid for by two other companies while in this case the book was rejected by three companies, two of them after consultation at length with our office. In support of the suggestion that it would be well to abandon the production now, I am submitting a memorandum herewith, marked Exhibit "A", which I will appreciate if you will read and which you may find useful if the company proceeds to endeavor to make a treatment. 

I am very mindful, indeed, of your suggestion to the Board that you thought it best to endeavor to make a treatment, that if a treatment could not be found entirely satisfactory under the Code that the whole matter would then be abandoned.

I know your personal interest in the matter and the company's purpose to protect itself and the industry against the difficulties, and I am confident of your cooperation.

I have heretofore forwarded you copies of several of Mr. Breen's letters.

With kindest personal regards, I am,

Sincerely yours,

Will H. Hays (sgd)

cc Mr. Joseph I. Breen

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