In Film Censorship, It’s a Matter of Relativity

Times Arts Editor

The archives of what was once called the Code and Rating Administration, popularly known as the Hays Office and the Breen Office, were last year turned over to the library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and made available to scholars.

From 1934 to 1968 the CRA wrapped a kind of moral comforter around Hollywood’s movies, enforcing what has gone into history as the Hays Code, a set of guidelines (composed by a Catholic priest and a trade journal publisher), for scripts.

Hays was Will Hays, a prominent Republican politician and postmaster-general in the Harding Administration who had been hired by the industry in the early ‘20s to tone up its tarnished image. Joseph Breen was the young Catholic layman who became the most conspicuous boss of the enforcing office.

The archives consist of some 5,000 files, one for each of the movies submitted to the office. The first popular mining of this trove is Gerald Gardner’s “The Censorship Papers” (Dodd, Mead: $18.95). The handling is brisk and journalistic rather than profoundly analytical, but the excerpts from the censors’ imperious letters to the film makers are fascinating and rather grimly funny in the office’s humorless attempts to assure a sanitized view of life.


In a long letter to Joseph L. Mankiewicz about the abundant dangers of impiety in “Guys and Dolls,” Breen warned that “it would be well to bear in mind that the expression ‘Hallelujah’ has a rather serious import for a great many people.” Breen also cautioned against using “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the Cuban national anthem to stop a fight. “The use of these anthems may cause a great deal of protest, and we suggest replacing them with some other tunes.” (What tunes might have the same effect Breen did not say.)

The script of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (then called “The Gentleman From Montana”) worried the office a lot. In a letter to Harry Cohn of Columbia, Breen said, “We also suggest that you give further consideration to the advisability of the line '. . . and can buy the men to come here and get dams legislated.’ ” The film, Breen wrote, should emphasize that most “senators and congressmen are sturdy men of integrity and are motivated by the highest possible ideals and that it is only these few . . . who are guilty of any unethical and dishonest practices.”

There were troubles with Ronald Reagan’s greatest hit, “King’s Row.” Breen read the original script and said it was “quite definitely unacceptable.” It was likely even if toned down to provoke “the condemnation of decent people everywhere.”

Later there was a long and acrimonious battle between the office and the distributors of Vittorio de Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief,” specifically for its opening shot of the thief’s small son relieving himself and then for a chase through a brothel (“such locales inescapably suggest commercialized vice and human depravity,” Breen wrote).

Robert E. Sherwood’s script for “The Best Years of Our Lives” drew eight single-spaced pages of correction from Breen, including a warning that “there should be no open-mouthed kissing. " Of Page 77 in the script: “In passing we would like to suggest that there be twin beds.”

The office’s powers of suggestion were very great. You don’t wonder that Sam Goldwyn, who was about to produce “Best Years,” was already on record as wanting to remove “this awful millstone around the neck of the motion picture industry.”

The system represented pre-censorship with a vengeance. The major studios had put teeth into the system by agreeing not to play in the prime cinemas they then owned any film that did not carry the CRA’s seal. There was post-censorship as well, and if the finished film was still smudged with innuendo or a prolonged kiss, tight-lipped or not, it was denied the seal until fixed.

But in postwar America the times were changing, faster than the rigid code and its enforcers could make adjustments. From 1950 on, the studios had bowed to antitrust actions and sold off their cinemas, thus pulling the teeth from the code, since the new owners were free to play films whether they carried a seal of approval or not. Otto Preminger released “The Moon Is Blue” and “The Man With the Golden Arm” without seals and they did nicely.

Film makers and filmgoers were increasingly impatient about the widening gulf between life as it was lived and life as it could be represented in American films. Television was in all events eroding the film audience drastically. In the end it was the economic pressure for more candor on the screen rather than the philosophical objections to the Hays Code that led to its demise. But die it did, not much lamented, in 1968.

What is remarkable is that so many fine films survived the strictures of the code and the Breen office. What is undeniable is that virtues of restraint and implication were abandoned or temporarily mislaid when the old system died. But on balance the gains far outweigh the costs.

Whether the new five-tier ratings (G, PG et al.) themselves constitute a form of censorship is an arguable question. Film makers have virtually complete freedom to film what they choose, at the cost of accepting a specific rating, or of being released without a rating (which is no longer fatal), or (at the extremes) of facing police action in certain conservative cities.

The film maker forced to trim his film to get from an X to an R or from an R to a PG-13 to honor his contract with the distributor has no doubt he is being censored. Yet a skimming of Gardner’s book is a reminder that all things are relative and that the present freedom of expression, as against the enforced sanctimonies of 1934-68, is noon versus midnight. “My Life as a Dog” would not have passed the Hays test.

Whether the voluntary self-policing system the new ratings represent is still necessary to forestall the incursions of state censorship is another arguable question. Even Gardner, no friend of censorship in any form, says, “Yet to those who defend the system as a prudent way to protect the sensibilities of the young--which is its chief reason for being--it is not easy to dismiss their concern. . . . The power of the screen is such, and the impressionability of adolescents is such, that to strip away even the modest signposts of the rating system might have its dangers.”