- Leonard J. Leff. "The Breening of America." PMLA, Vol. 106, No. 3 (May, 1991), pp. 432-445 Published by: Modern Language Association
Leonard J. Leff’s article “The Breening of America” works to point out the fact that as head of the PCA Joseph Breen worked not only out of concern for upholding decency and morality, but at the same time he attempted to promote a political, profit-seeking agenda. The article indicates that many famed Hollywood directors including Charlie Chaplin shared the same contempt for certain aspects of American culture written about by famous authors such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck, but they did not have the same freedom in expressing it.
The article characterizes Joseph Breen, who had fully realized power in July 1934 when The MPPDA created the PCA and named him director. Breen is noted to be morally conservative, and at the same time to have tyrannical tendencies. Nevertheless, Breen is described most aptly in this article as a facilitator between social forces, and American filmmakers. He is attributed with both providing a staunch conservative influence on the social environment, and with maximizing the profitability of Hollywood by way of giving the American public precisely what they wanted to see.
This is a particularly interesting portrayal of an organization that was for all intents and purposes designed to provide censorship. A censor of the film industry cannot be arbitrarily lawless and continually maximize profitability. Joseph Breen realized this and therefore took on his aforementioned facilitator role. This applies directly to The Grapes of Wrath because it begs the question; would the film have been as profitable if it it’s thematic focus was more closely aligned with Steinbeck’s? Leff would contend that it probably would not have been as profitable. Needless to say however, the thematic focus of the film was tailored toward providing entertainment that was uplifting at least to some extent.
Call#: Van Pelt Library PN1995.5 .B49 1994
Hollywood Censored by Gregory D. Black details how the American film industry was very much impacted by the censorship of the PCA starting in the mid 1930s and moving onward into 1940. The main function of the self-censoring PCA was to ensure that racy political or sexual material was kept off the silver-screen. The primary reason that people should see movies in the eyes of the PCA was not to be enlightened, challenged, or changed but for the sole purpose of being passively entertained.
The PCA became increasingly effective at dealing with movies that had a deeper social or political subtext. Joseph Breen was the head of the PCA which began effectively enforcing its restrictions in 1934. There were a number of restrictions placed on the films. These included restrictions in the depiction of immoral behavior, nakedness, and of course attitudes toward religion and country.
It is seemingly no surprise then, that after five years of Breen leading the PCA, production companies were quite adept at submitting scripts that could get approval and begin making money at the box-office. In the case of The Grapes of Wrath, the harsh critique of the American political and economic system that was so much a part of Steinbeck’s original work had been written out of the script before even reaching Breen for approval. The story “was reduced to one family’s struggle in the face of exception events” (Black, 287).
It is important to realize that as a director, John Ford’s ability to be creative was very much curtailed by the social constraints of the time. Depicting overly simplified themes in accordance with traditional American moral values was a necessity for Ford. This is something that Dempsey fails to fully make note of in his criticism of Ford’s work.
- Chambers, Whittaker "The New Pictures." TIME Magazine. Monday Feb. 12, 1940.
In a famous review of The Grapes of Wrath, then editor of TIME Magazine Whittaker Chambers defiantly raves about the film. A former Communist party member and Soviet spy, Whitaker ended up defecting from the party and becoming one of communism’s most notorious and outspoken opponents. After breaking ties with the Communist party in 1938, Whittaker went on to become an editor of TIME.
It is interesting to note that Whittaker mentions a brief, albeit scathing criticism of Steinbeck’s original book version of The Grapes of Wrath. Whittaker refers to the Pulitzer Prize winning novel as “propaganda” and containing “phony pathos.” Whittaker goes on to qualify that the type of person who is to gain the most enjoyment from observing The Grapes of Wrath is the one who enjoys “seeing a picture for picture’s sake.” Whittaker claims that The Grapes of Wrath could quite possibly be “the best picture ever made from a so-so book.”
Whittaker mentions that the book translates so effectively to film for a couple of reasons: “credit belongs accidentally to censorship and the camera.” The self-censorship of the Production Code Administration is namely what Whitaker is alluding to here. The editorial criticisms of the American economic system made by Steinbeck are also eliminated from the picture. What remains is an authentic tale of a U.S. farming family. “They wander, they suffer, but they endure.”
This article is highly significant because it not only points out the thematic difference that exists between Steinbeck’s book and Ford’s film, but it also provides a historical context. The P.C.A. at least to some extent allowed The Grapes of Wrath to become a film so long as the theme shifted toward a positivist one. There could not simply be a thrashing of the economic conditions in Great Depression America. Instead, it was necessary to instill some sort of hope in the storyline which culminates in the form of an enduring family struggle.
Lewis, John. Hollywood V. Hardcore: How the Struggle Over Censorship Saved the Modern Film Industry. New York and London: New York UP, 2000. 135-191.Chapter 4, titled Hollywood v. Soft Core, examines arguably the most influential year of film censorship to date. In this year, MPAA president Jack Valenti issued a press release to stating that a new production code/ move rating system would be put into place. The same system is still used today to rate films. The chapter does a good job of outlining the events of how this code came into place. The author explains how the "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" was denied by the PCA but began production anyway, anticipating that change was to come. It talks about the controversy over the language such as "screw" and "hump the hostess" were debated and the issues Valenti faced with content regulation. In the end of the meeting, Warner Brothers appealed the PCA's preliminary ruling to deny Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and the film was released. Because of the films amazing success, it marked a point in history where the industry was beginning to understand that the Production Code was a dated system. The film was released with a warning stating "for adults only" and ranked third in the box office list in 1966 behind two other mature-themed pictures. This chapter is very useful and entertaining in its explanation of the pressures and challenges that Valenti faced when negotiating the new rating system. It offers a very in depth perspective and takes the reader on a film by film journey of the controversy.
The Dark Side of the Genius lends insight into Hitchcock during the early days of production of Lifeboat. David O. Selznick had worked out a two-picture deal with 20th Century-Fox for Hitchcock to direct Lifeboat and The Keys of the Kingdom. The second film was never made, as Hitchcock delayed starting the productions in a hope to receive more money. In the wake of the political fallout of Lifeboat, it’s unlikely that Fox would have wanted to shell out extra money for such an initially poorly received film.
While Fox pushed screenwriters to script Lifeboat, Hitchcock sought after novelists. Before Steinbeck, Hitchcock tried to convince Ernest Hemingway to take the project. Hemingway declined. Lifeboat is known as a picture Hitchcock saw as one of his cinematic challenges, putting him under the constraints of a single set and compositions of mainly close-up and medium shots. However, it seems as if he was also enamored with the idea of working with the additional constraint of creative input from an artist as well-respected and a name as well known as his.
With two deaths in Hitchcock’s family around the time of the production of Lifeboat, the theme of sudden loss and tragedy seems like a likely inspiration for the film to focus on the aftermath of a steady ship being thrown into turmoil. The impact of the deaths in Hitchcock’s own new concern towards mortality can be seen in the rapid weight loss regiment he undertook before Lifeboat’s production. The aftermath of this can be seen in the Reduco newspaper add in which he appears in the before and after picture, slimming down one-hundred pounds.
The book features an anecdote about lead Tallulah Bankhead’s exhibitionist behavior on the set of Lifeboat. As magazines sought to do features on the film, reporters and the studio higher-ups were not nearly as pleased as the male crew members about Bankhead’s behavior, with one reporter commenting about the rumors of indecent behavior in Hollywood being true. This taken in the context of the era of the PCA shows the careful attention the public paid to not only film content but their production environment and stars’ off-screen “performances.”