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.


  1. Excellent blog about a man whose name I've often heard but whom I knew little about. Marx Bros. fans are still hankering to know what was edited out of "Animal Crackers." Great work!

  2. The old party pooper! Tanks for a very interesting and informative post.