4 March 2016

What's in a title?

Before any film could be submitted to the Production Code Administration (PCA) for approval, the title of that film first had to be approved and registered with the MPPDA's Title Registration Bureau. Titles that were considered to be in violation of the Production Code were rejected and had to be changed. But prior to 1934 --the year in which the PCA was established and the Code began to be enforced-- many Pre-Code films could still get away with titles which were forbidden under the Code. 

In 1938, Universal wanted to re-issue Laughter in Hella crime film which was originally released in 1933. Studios that wanted to re-issue films had to obtain approval from the PCA. But before Universal could get PCA approval, the film's title had to be dealt with first. On 6 June 1938, Francis Harmon (in charge of the Eastern Division of the PCA) wrote to Geoffrey Shurlock (assistant to PCA chief Joseph Breen) after attending a Board meeting: "[...] I doubt whether we should approve a reissue unless and until the title has been changed. [...] There seems to be unanimity that the word "hell" in a title should not be approved unless used in connection with a geographical location." Shurlock wrote back on 10 June: "Are you referring only to possible future re-issues in which the title contains the word "hell", or is it your thought that all titles of future re-issued pictures should be cleared before we issue the certificate?" [source]

The ruling was that indeed áll titles of re-issues should be cleared through the Title Registration Bureau before PCA approval could be given, much to the dismay of Joseph Breen. On 2 August 1938, Breen wrote the following letter to Francis Harmon, clearly annoyed with the new procedure. Seeing that these changes would only add to his already heavy workload and increase PCA's "tremendous amount of red tape", Breen announced to take up the matter with their boss Will Hays and see what could be done about it.

Incidentally, I could find no information whether Laughter in Hell had indeed been re-issued under a different title.

Source: MPPDA Digital Archive


August 2, 1938

Mr. Francis S. Harmon
28 West 44th Street,
New York City

Dear Francis:

I have your telegraphic reply to my wire of last night, in which you tell me we are authorized to approve only those pictures whose titles have been cleared through the Title Bureau and that this regulation applies to the titles of all re-issues.

Joseph I. Breen
We shall, of course, be guided by this regulation, but I must say we are beginning to feel that the extraneous matters, incident to our job of the P.C.A. are beginning to become exceedingly heavy and irksome. You understand, I am sure, that we shall have an immense amount of trouble with our companies over this ruling that titles on re-issues have to be approved in New York. This will mean that the companies will have to go all through the same formula, as they did in the initial effort, and I am sure that they will find it difficult to understand why it is that they will have to have titles approved, on which they already have approval, and, of course, a legal copyright.

However, we shall do as you have suggested until such time as it will be necessary for us to augment our staff here to take care of all these increasing incidentals, which, strictly speaking, have no part in our general responsibility.

Incidentally, I am making it a matter of discussion with Mr. Hays to see if some way can be found to minimize and lessen the tremendous amount of red tape, which seem to be creeping into the P.C.A. work. For my part, I am all against it.

However, once again thanks for all your kindness--

Cordially yours,
Joseph I. Breen 

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