27 June 2015

Joseph Breen and The Production Code

When we talk about censorship during Hollywood's Golden Age, one name that will invariably pop up is Joseph Breen. As head of the PCA (Production Code Administration), Breen had to make sure that filmmakers and studios were not violating the Production Code, a set of moral rules adopted in 1930 but not seriously enforced until the establishment of the PCA in 1934. Until his retirement in 1954, Breen, a devout Catholic, controlled the content of thousands of films. He demanded changes in numerous scripts and scenes he deemed inappropriate, much to the chagrin of directors, screenwriters and studio executives. 

Some of Joseph Breen's correspondence from his early years at the PCA (regarding Code-related issues) can be found in the MPPDA (Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America) Digital Archive housed at Flinders University, Australia. There are three letters from that database I would like to share with you, written by Breen respectively in September 1934, February 1935 and October 1935

The first letter was written shortly after the PCA had been established. No film was to be released without the approval of the PCA, and films that had been approved were given a seal of approval along with a certificate number (the first film to receive a seal of approval was John Ford's The World Moves On, given certificate no.1 in July 1934)The PCA seal appeared on each release print as a sign that the film had been deemed 'morally unobjectionable'. No film could be exhibited in American theatres without the seal, and any studio that dared to do so ran the risk of being fined $25,000.

Written to Sidney Kent, President of Fox Film, the following letter shows Breen's concern over the fact that the PCA seal was often hissed at during previews. What worried him most was that the hissing came from studio employees or friends of the actors. Breen was concerned that his business associates might think that the Production Code was "unworthy of support and not to be taken seriously" so could Kent please bring up the subject with his fellow studio heads?


Sept. 5, 1934

Mr. Sydney R. Kent, President
Fox Studio
Hollywood, Calif.,

Dear Mr. Kent:

I am presuming to address you in confidence about a matter which has given us some little concern here in the office of the Production Code Administration.

Frequently, at previews here in Hollywood, when our Production Code Administration seal is thrown upon the screen, it is greeted with loud hissing and cat-calls. We have noticed this several times, especially with pictures made by Warner Brothers. It has been noted also that most of this hissing is done by those who occupied the roped-off seats at the preview. These people, as you know, are usually either studio employees or the friends of the artists who appear in the picture. Admission to these roped-off areas is always reserved to the studio sponsoring the preview.

I hate like blazes to presume upon your kindness this way, but I wonder if you could find time, over the telephone, to mention this situation to the responsible heads of Warner Brothers, Paramount, Metro, Columbia and Universal. The hissing has had the effect of attempting to create in the minds of the people with which we have to do business, the thought that the work of the Production Code is unworthy of support and not to be taken seriously. It adds much to our already over-weighted burden.

It seems to me that a word from you in this regard would be very helpful and make our task less uneasy.

With assurances of my esteem, I am,

Cordially yours,


Joseph I. Breen

The second letter is addressed to Vincent Hart of the Eastern Studio Relations Office of the MPPDA. Worried about "the increased number of stories dealing with crime and bloodshed", Breen provides Hart with a list of don'ts for crime movies.


February 21, 1935

Mr. Vincent G. Hart,
28 W. 44th St.,
New York, N.Y.

Dear Mr. Hart:

In recent weeks our records here indicate that there is every likelihood of our being confronted with a greatly increased number of stories dealing with crime and bloodshed. These, of course, are giving us much concern. With the view to lessening the definitely anti-social element in such pictures, we have sought to evolve a formula for our guidance in handling these potentially dangerous themes.

To the end that you may share with us our general policy in this matter, I ask you that you read and study very carefully the following outline for your general guidance.

(1) "Details of crime" must never be shown and care should be exercised at all times in discussing such details.

(2) Action suggestive of wholesale slaughter of human beings, either by criminals, in conflict with the police, or as between warring factions of criminals, or in public disorder of any kind, will not be allowed.

(3) There must be no suggestion, at any time, of excessive brutality.

(4) Because of the alarming increase in the number of films in which murder is frequently committed, action showing the taking of human life, even in the mystery stories, is to be cut to a minimum. These frequent presentations of murder tend to lessen regard for the sacredness of life.

(5) Suicide, as a solution of problems occurring in the development of screen drama, is to be discouraged as "morally questionable" and as "bad theatre" - unless absolutely necessary for the development of the plot.

(6) There must be no display, at any time, of machine gunssub-machine guns  or other weapons generally classified as "illegal" weapons in the hands of gangsters, or other criminals, and there are to be no off-stage sounds of the repercussion of these guns. This means that even where the machine guns, or other prohibited weapons, are not shown, the effect of shots coming from these guns must be cut to a minimum

(7) There must be no new, unique or "trick" methods for concealing of guns shown at any time.

(8) The flaunting of weapons by gangsters, or other criminals, will not be allowed.

(9) All discussions and dialogue on the part of gangsters regarding guns must be cut to the minimum.

(10) There must be no scenes, at any time, showing law-enforcing officers dying at the hands of criminals. This includes private detectives and guards for banks, motor trucks, etc.  

With special reference to the crime of kidnaping-- or illegal abduction- it has been our policy to mark such stories acceptable under the Code only when the kidnaping or abduction is: 

(a) Not the main theme of the story
(b) The person kidnaped is not a child
(c) There are no "details of the crime" of kidnaping
(d) No profit accrues to the abductors or kidnapers
(e) Where the kidnapers are punished

With regard to the use of the word "nuts" in pictures, please note:

(1) The word "nuts" when used to characterize a person as crazy is acceptable. In other words, the expressions, "You're nuts"; "He's nuts"; or "He's a nut" may be used.
(2) The use of the word "nuts" as an exclamation should not be used, as in the case of "Aw, nuts", or "Nuts to you", etc.  

With kindest personal regards, I am,

Cordially yours, 
Joseph I. Breen

The final letter was written to Will Hays, head of the MPPDA and Joseph Breen's boss. The letter concerns the re-release of two Pre-Code pictures starring Mae WestShe Done Him Wrong (1933) and I'm No Angel (1933). Studios that wanted to re-release films from the 1920s and early 1930s also had to obtain approval from the PCA. Re-releases of these Pre-Code films were generally rejected unless major cuts were made (films such as Animal Crackers (1930) and A Farewell to Arms (1932) were extensively cut and only their censored versions survived). Luckily, many Pre-Code films were too controversial to be re-released and thus remained intact.

When Paramount wanted to re-release She Done Him Wrong and I'm No Angel, the films were rejected by the PCA. Whenever a film was rejected, studios could still appeal the decision to the Board of Directors of the MPPDA. To make sure that Will Hays would turn down both pictures if Paramount decided to appeal, Joseph Breen wrote Hays the following letter, saying the pictures were "definitely wrong". Whether or not Paramount appealed, I don't know.



October 7, 1935

Mr. Will H. Hays
28 W. 44th St.,
New York, N.Y.

Dear Mr. Hays:

I acknowledge with thanks the receipt of your letter, bearing date of October 3, with reference to the Paramount pictures SHE DONE HIM WRONG, and I'M NO ANGEL, both of which have been the subject of discussion in connection with the application for a PCA seal of approval.

I have read your letter with care, as well as the documents attached thereto. I am not certain that an appeal will be taken from our decision, but there is a likelihood that such an appeal may be made. In any event, I wanted you to be "au courant" with our problem here.

I saw both pictures myself, and they are definitely wrong. It would be a tragedy if these pictures were permitted to be exhibited at the present time. I am certain that such exhibitions would seriously throw into question much of the good work which has been done and stir up enormous protest.

If an appeal is made, I hope the Board of Directors will turn down both of these pictures. 

With kindest personal regards, I am, 

Cordially yours, 
Joseph I. Breen

All letters taken from the MPPDA Digital Archive

This post is my contribution to the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, co-hosted by Movies SilentlyOnce Upon A Screen and Silver Screenings and sponsored by Flicker Alley. Check out all the other entries here.

22 June 2015

The best that came out of it was getting to know you

The Spirit of St. Louis (1957) is one of Billy Wilder's lesser known films. Based on the 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir by Charles Lindbergh --the famous aviator who flew non-stop from New York to Paris in 1927-- the film is often seen as atypical Wilder, lacking what is present in most of Wilder's films: his characteristic humour, cynicism, exploration of the darker side of human nature (mind you, I haven't seen The Spirit of St. Louis so this is based on what I've read). The film was a box-office failure, mainly due to its $6 million budget, and it was also one of the biggest financial failures in the history of Warner Brothers.

Still, it was a film Billy Wilder had wanted to make. As a freelance reporter in Berlin in 1927, Wilder had covered Lindbergh's flight, and he had never forgotten the thrill of this exciting event. Besides, feeling that in Hollywood he was still thought of as a European, Wilder wanted to make a film about a truly American subject.

In the end, Wilder wasn't too happy with The Spirit of St. Louis he would later say that it was the least favourite of his films. It was Charles Lindbergh who had kept him from making the film he wanted to make. In Conversations with Wilder (1999), a book by Cameron Crowe, Wilder talked about this and how he had envisioned his film:

"could not get in a little deeper, into Lindbergh’s character. There was a wall there. We were friends, but there were many things I could not talk to him about. It was understood — the picture had to follow the book. The book was immaculate. It had to be about the flight only. Not about his family, about the daughter, the Hauptmann thing, what happened after the flight … just the flight itself.

I heard a story from newspapermen who were there in Long Island waiting for him to take off. And the newspapermen told me a little episode that happened there, and that would have been enough to make this a real picture. 

The episode was that Lindbergh was waiting for the clouds to disappear — the rain and the weather had to be perfect before he took off. There was a waitress in a little restaurant there. She was young, and she was very pretty. And they came to her and said, “Look, this young guy there, Lindbergh, sweet, you know, handsome. He is going to–” “Yes, I know, he is going to fly over the water.” And they said, “It’s going to be a flying coffin, full of gas, and he’s not going to make it. But we come to you for the following reason. The guy has never been laid. Would you do us a favor, please. Just knock on the door, because the guy cannot sleep…” 

So she does it. And then, at the very end of the picture, when there’s the parade down Fifth Avenue, millions of people, and there is that girl standing there in the crowd. She’s waving at him. And he doesn’t see her. She waves her hand at him, during the ticker-tape parade, the confetti raining down. He never sees her. He’s God now. 

This would be, this alone would be, enough to make the picture. Would have been a good scene. That’s right — would have been a good scene. But I could not even suggest it to him.
 " [via]

Perhaps not surprisingly, Charles Lindbergh himself was pleased with the final result. On 9 April 1957, he wrote a letter to Billy Wilder thanking and praising him for his picture. Wilder responded two weeks later, stating: "As far as I'm concerned, the best that came out of it was getting to know you".


Scotts Cove
Darien, Conn.
April 9, 1957

Dear Billy:

I have just received an invitation from Jack Warner to attend the Premiere of "The Spirit of St. Louis" at Hollywood, Thursday. I have had to wire back that I could not be on the West Coast at that time, and my greatest regret lies in losing the opportunity to see you and other friends who worked on the film so long, hard, and ably.

When I returned from my trip abroad (Central America, Asia, and Europe-- over the three Pan American divisions), I took my family to the Radio City Music Hall to see the picture.  It was the first time I had seen it myself, after the final cutting and dubbing. We all think you have done a grand job. There has been a big improvement since I saw the film, in early February. Audience reaction was excellent as far as I could judge, and the theater was pretty well filled when we were there. I now know what you mean by being able to cut a film by audience reaction. I had never paid much attention to this before.

Even though this was more or less the second time I had seen "The Spirit of St. Louis", I was still unable to look at it objectively. I find myself too close to the events, to the people, the plane, and the cockpit. At one moment I would be carried along by the story as though I were on the flight itself, thirty years ago; and at another, I would be jerked back into my theater seat saying, almost out loud, "my God that isn't Harold Bixby", or "It wasn't a Harley Davidson motorcycle, it was an Excelsior".

Of course I fully agree that to put a story on the stage actors can only approximate original characters, and that major changes must and should be made. All this is right and proper, and I feel you have handled the directing with great ability and skill-- a very difficult task extremely well done. But let me tell you it is quite a sensation to see one's life portraid [sic] on the screen-- enjoying, startling, humorous, serious, fascinating, stirring mind and emotion in quite an extraordinary way.

I was extremely interested to watch the interplay of fact and fiction-- detailed accuracy juxtaposed with fictional abandon-- and how accurate impression was obtained by the use of inaccurate events (the suspender salesman, the fly, the frying fish in San Diego). And I noted with admiration how the fictional events you brought into the story invariably obtained the audience reaction you were striving for. 

And the reviews-- the enthusiasm of the mass publications; the tongue clucking of the intellectuals-- on the whole, I thought they were excellent. Almost all of our friends were enthusiastic about the film. Judged from the reaction I have seen, it should meet with great success.

My thanks and best wishes accompany this letter. I wish I could accompany to the coast, and be with you to express them.

Sincerely, Charles (signed)

April 23, 1957

Dear Charles,

Thank you for your very generous letter. I am fully aware of the shortcomings of my effort. In all honesty, I don't think that any picture-maker, no matter how rich or talented, could have done justice to your superb account. 

As far as I'm concerned, the best that came out of it was getting to know you. I shall treasure this for the rest of my life.

Most sincerely,

Billy Wilder

General Charles A. Lindbergh

23 Tokeneke Trail
Darien, Connecticut

P.S. - Please note my new home address and phone number: 

10372 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles 24, Calif.

BRadshaw 2-1317

Images of the letters courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Billy Wilder and James Stewart on the set of "The Spirit of St. Louis" (above). A Lindbergh fan and pilot himself, Stewart lobbied hard to get the Lindbergh role. As Stewart was 47 years old and had to play 25-year-old Lindbergh, he underwent a strict diet and had his hair dyed blond. Below: Stewart and Lindbergh posing in front of their planes.

This is my contribution to the Billy Wilder Blogathon hosted by Once upon a Screen and Outspoken & FreckledCheck out the other entries here.

15 June 2015

I'm praying that you'll buy On the road

When Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road was published in 1957, it was an immediate success. Presumably that same year, Kerouac --wanting to see his novel made into a film-- wrote the following letter to Marlon Brando (at the time one of Hollywood's biggest stars) suggesting that Brando buy the film rights and that he himself and Brando play the lead roles. Kerouac never got an answer from Brando. It wasn't until after Kerouac's death that the film rights were bought by director/producer Francis Ford Coppola (in 1980 for $95,000); Coppola's production of On the Road was eventually released in 2012, directed by Walter Salles with Garrett Hedlund and Sam Riley in the leads. 


Jack Kerouac 
1418½ Clouser St 
Orlando, Fla 

Dear Marlon

I'm praying that you'll buy ON THE ROAD and make a movie of it. Don't worry about the structure, I know how to compress and re-arrange the plot a bit to give perfectly acceptable movie-type structure: making it into one all-inclusive trip instead of the several voyages coast-to-coast in the book, one vast round trip from New York to Denver to Frisco to Mexico to New Orleans to New York again. I visualize the beautiful shots could be made with the camera on the front seat of the car showing the road (day and night) unwinding into the windshield, as Sal and Dean yak. I wanted you to play the part because Dean (as you know) is no dopey hotrodder but a real intelligent (in fact Jesuit) Irishman. You play Dean and I'll play Sal (Warner Bros. mentioned I play Sal) and I'll show you how Dean acts in real life, you couldn't possibly imagine it without seeing a good imitation. Fact, we can go visit him in Frisco, or have him come down to L.A. still a real frantic cat but nowadays settled down with his final wife saying the Lord's Prayer with his kiddies at night...as you'll seen when you read the play BEAT GENERATION. All I want out of this is to be able to establish myself and my mother a trust fund for life, so I can really go roaming around the world writing about Japan, India, France etc. ...I want to be free to write what comes out of my head & free to feed my buddies when they're hungry & not worry about my mother. 

Incidentally, my next novel is THE SUBTERRANEANS coming out in N.Y. next March and is about a love affair between a white guy and a colored girl and very hep story. Some of the characters in it you know in the village (Stanley Gould etc.) It easily could be turned into a play, easier than ON THE ROAD. 

What I wanta do is re-do the theater and the cinema in America, give it a spontaneous dash, remove pre-conceptions of "situation" and let people rave on as they do in real life. That's what the play is: no plot in particular, no "meaning" in particular, just the way people are. Everything I write I do in the spirit where I imagine myself an Angel returned to the earth seeing it with sad eyes as it is. I know you approve of these ideas, & incidentally the new Frank Sinatra show is based on "spontaneous" too, which is the only way to come on anyway, whether in show business or life. The French movies of the 30's are still far superior to ours because the French really let their actors come on and the writers didn't quibble with some preconceived notion of how intelligent the movie audience is, the talked soul from soul and everybody understood at once. I want to make great French Movies in America, finally, when I'm rich...American Theater & Cinema at present is an outmoded Dinosaur that ain't mutated along with the best in American Literature.

If you really want to go ahead, make arrangements to see me in New York when you next come, or if you're going to Florida here I am, but what we should do is talk about this because I prophesy that it's going to be the beginning of something real great. I'm bored nowadays and I'm looking around for something to do in the void, anyway—writing novels is getting too easy, same with plays, I wrote the play in 24 hours. 

Come on now, Marlon, put up your dukes and write! 

Sincerely, later, Jack Kerouac (signed) 

8 June 2015

Dear L.B.

After working for Columbia Pictures for twelve years, director Frank Capra's contract with the studio ended in 1939 following the release of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Out of a job, Capra decided to start his own production company, Frank Capra Productions, with screenwriter Robert Riskin, with whom he had worked on a number of films including the multiple Oscar-winner It Happened One Night (1934). The first film Capra and Riskin produced was Meet John Doe (1941), starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. It would also be their last film together, as Frank Capra Productions was dissolved in December 1941 due to tax problems. 

For Meet John Doe Frank Capra and Robert Riskin were in need of a studio willing to release their picture. In early 1940, they approached MGM and met with Louis B. Mayer, MGM's big boss, to discuss the matter. Below you'll find a letter from Capra to Mayer, shortly written after their meeting. Capra couldn't make a deal with MGM, and Meet John Doe was eventually released through Warner Brothers. The only time Capra did work with MGM was in 1948. MGM released State of the Union, a production of Capra's second production company Liberty Films, which produced only two films (It's a Wonderful Life (1946) being the other one).


January 24, 1940

Mr. L.B. Mayer
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios
Culver City, California

Dear L.B.:

As you have advised, we have signed a one-picture deal with Warner Brothers, under extremely favorable terms.

I understand the situation at MGM quite well, and I know why you couldn't push our deal through without causing some concern for the welfare of your company. As a going organization, with one picture under our belt, we will be definitely a producing unit, and perhaps in a better position to talk to you later on. I sincerely hope you will feel the same way about it.

Meantime, I want to thank you for the time and effort you gave to us, and I want you to know that both Bob and I appreciate it deeply. We came away from your conference with a very friendly feeling for you and for MGM, and we know that we are going to stay that way.

I also want to thank you for your advice and help, which has been invaluable to us because, although we have certain ability, we are still neophytes in producing and organization matters, and we are deeply grateful to you for your kindness.


(signed Frank Capra) 

Louis B. Mayer and Frank Capra with Luise Rainer and Spencer Tracy's wife Louise at the Academy Awards of 1937 (above), and Frank Capra and Robert Riskin (below). 

3 June 2015

I think we can make a profit on her

Seeing great potential in Hattie McDaniel after her performance as Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939), producer David O. Selznick signed her to an exclusive contract in December of 1939. In the following memo to Jock Whitney (his business partner) and Lowell Calvert (representative of Selznick International Pictures), Selznick informs them of the just closed contract and discusses how to make a profit on McDaniel. He also mentions McDaniel's singing qualities --she had been working as a singer prior to Gone with the Wind-- and thinks she could be "an enormous favorite" on the radio with an Aunt Jemima type of program. McDaniel would indeed become a hit on the radio: from 1947 to 1952 she had her own show "Beulah", making her the first African-American to star in her own radio program. McDaniel was also the first African-American to receive an Academy Award, winning for her supporting role of Mammy in Gone with the Wind.

Image courtesy of heritage auctions


TO: Mr. John Hay Whitney, Mr. L.V. Calvert


DATE: 12/12/39

We have closed a term contract with Hattie McDaniel covering pictures, radio, personal appearances, commercial tie-up rights, etc.

We did this for several reasons:

1. I thinks she is going to score a great sensation in "Gone With the Wind" and that we can use her to advantage on trades for other featured players.

2. I think we can make a profit on her.

3. I wanted to be sure she wasn't thrown into any cheap quickies that would commercialize on "Gone With the Wind".

4. I think we can make a further profit on her, and probably our most substantial profit, out of personal appearances, as well as protecting the picture. She has been showered with offers already for personal appearances, including one from a theatre in San Francisco to play opposite "Gone With the Wind" when it opens there. I believe we could sell her ourselves to great advantage. Among other things, she is reputed to be quite a singer, and could probably dish out a couple of Southern songs and what not in her personal appearances. She is quite a good show woman, works to improve herself constantly, and even went to the extent of having duplicates made of her "Gone With the Wind" dresses for her personal appearances. I think that Mr. Calvert should give the Loew theatres the first crack at her. We will be paying her $500 weekly, and I think we ought to get $1000, to protect us against any idle time.

5. I think we can make money out of her on the air. I think she could be an enormous favorite on the air and that in particular she would be a wonderful spot for something such as an Aunt Jemima program, and that we might get a great deal of money for such a program. We will handle this out here so you needn't do anything back East about her radio program. 

6. I think we can make further money out of her in commercial tie-ups and I suggest that this will be turned over to Carrier in connection with products especially designed for negroes, as well as products which use the Mammy type of figure such as Aunt Jemima.