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Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration First Edition Edition

7 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0231143585
ISBN-10: 0231143583
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this comprehensive coverage of cinematic censorship, Doherty, a professor of American studies at Brandeis University, probes the power of Joseph I. Breen (1888–1965), head of Hollywood's puritanical Production Code Administration from 1934 to 1954, and along the way, he captures the clash of Catholic priests, Jewish moguls, visionary auteurs, studio hacks, hardnosed journalists and bluenosed agitators in pre-TV Tinseltown. Born in Philadelphia, the Irish-Catholic Breen was a journalist turned publicist. His successful marketing of a film documentary showing Catholic multitudes at the 1926 Eucharistic Congress catapulted his career. With powerful backers in his corner, the Catholics and the New Dealers, Breen tightened the screws: I am hopeful of doing something, to lessen, at least, the flow of filth, but I have no illusions about the problem. He ruled with an iron fist, altering scripts and deleting footage until Otto Preminger cracked the Code in 1953 with The Moon Is Blue. Amid an avalanche of anecdotes and fascinating movie lore are 60 illustrations (ads, posters, stills) and a copy of the 1956 Production Code. The 42 pages of bibliographic notes are evidence of the author's exhaustive research. Doherty writes with such wit and verve, bringing the past to life, that this scholarly study is also a very entertaining read. (Nov.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


Doherty writes with such wit and verve, bringing the past to life... a very entertaining read.

(Publishers Weekly)

Compelling, colorful, insightful, and nearly encyclopedic in detail, this book seems destined to become the definitive scholarly biography of Breen. Highly recommended.

(Library Journal)

[An] entertaining and rigorous biography of Breen.

(Ada Calhoun New York Times Book Review)

A fascinating read for anyone interested in American film history.

(Carol O'Sullivan Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

[An] authoritative, entertaining, unexpectedly unnerving biography.

(Kenneth Turan Los Angeles Times)

[A] brilliant and absorbing new book.

(Gerald Peary The Phoenix)

Hollywood's Censor is a stinging portrait of a cultural strongman who made it his business to baby his fellow citizens.

(Dennis Drabelle Washington Post)

Written with controlled exuberance, and much wit.

(Scott Eyman Palm Beach Post)

A pleasure to read.

(Rob Hardy Commercial Dispatch)

An exemplary biography... Highly recommended.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 440 pages
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press; First Edition edition (November 2, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0231143583
  • ISBN-13: 978-0231143585
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6.8 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #876,527 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

A professor of American studies at Brandeis University, Thomas Doherty is a cultural historian with a special interest in Hollywood cinema. His undergraduate degree is from Gonzaga University, a small liberal arts college in Spokane, Washington, similar to Brandeis but with different religious holidays. After a two-year stint in the Peace Corps in South Korea, he entered graduate school at the University of Iowa, where he earned a Ph.D. in American studies in 1984. He came to Brandeis in 1990, after teaching in the division of humanities at Boston University. His most recent book is Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 (2013), from Columbia University Press. He serves on the editorial board of Cineaste and edits the film review section for the Journal of American History. He and his wife, Sandra, a freelance editor and fierce Pittsburgh Steelers fan, live in Salem, Massachusetts.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on January 10, 2008
Format: Hardcover
According to _Liberty_ magazine in 1936, Joseph Ignatius Breen probably had "more influence in standardizing world thinking than Mussolini, Hitler or Stalin." Joseph who? Breen's name is lost to history. People who know something about Hollywood's history might know about the Hays Code, the now ridiculed moral standards Hollywood imposed on itself to keep the screen free of actors uttering words like "hell" or married couples using one bed. Will Hays had become president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, but Breen became his second-in-command, the one to tighten the code and make the studios do things according to his strictly upright, strongly Catholic, moral view. In the surprisingly lively and entertaining _Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen & the Production Code Administration_ (Columbia University Press), Thomas Doherty, a professor of American Studies who has written extensively on movies and television, presents not just a biography of Breen, but a history of American movie censorship. Anyone who loves old films will be amused and exasperated by how much Breen succeeded in imposing his personal version of morality on the movies.

Breen, born in Philadelphia in 1888 and raised in parochial schools by the Jesuits, had been a journalist and diplomat. He gave the Hays Code teeth, and his Production Code was in force from 1930 to 1968, and at least in its early decades it was in force with few violations. It is fun to read how directors got around the Code, both by bargaining and by winking at the censorship in a way audiences could enjoy.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By A. M. Schmidt on June 26, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This book clearly explains the intricacies of movie censorship. Even without knowing too much, any reader may jump in and discover why Hollywood movies were as dull as ditch water from 1934-1968. The whole book centers around Joseph Breen, his censorship office and his furious efforts to thwart movies. It would be fascinating just to focus on him, but the book deftly links him to the rest of efforts by politicians and a stodgy Catholic clergy to impose morality on the nation. Throughout the text readers are treated to a man who wanted any taint of subversion or sensuality bleached out. Yet the efforts failed.
We see that the writers trumped censorship by doubling the dialog and oblique innuendos. Hence in "The Maltese Falcon", Spade faces off against a homosexual gang of thieves (Peter Lorre & Sydney Greenstreet), and Mary Astor reveals that she was the murdered Thursby's lover--through obscure observations. For example Ninotchka is an oblique commentary on Communism disguised as a love story. It didn't matter what the movie or cartoon, writers had either to go over their audiences' head or dumb down a storyline to get any profound or salacious detail in.
All this continued throughout Breen's woozy tenure as censor. But in the post WWII environment, the censorship of movies combined with the popularity of television, worked against it. Directors rebelled, starting with Otto Preminger's "The Moon is Blue" and ending with Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho". Those films included more and more blatantly offensive materials to try the waters. Ultimately, the Censorship Board became a ratings board in 1968, conceding the battle to Hollywood.
The author reaches an unexpected conclusion. The 1930's to the 1950's aren't really Hollywood's Golden Age.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Martin Turnbull on January 3, 2012
Format: Paperback
Any student of Hollywood and 20th century history will come across the name of Joseph Breen and the Breen Office regularly enough to know, in very general terms, who he was and what his office did (he was the head of the Production Code Admin office whose job it was to vet and censor all Hollywood product during its golden era-1930s to 1960s). But rarely do we get much more than a paragraph or two about the guy and the office which completely controlled the most powerful form of media in the most powerful country during its most powerful time. This book, long overdue in my opinion, takes you through what happened and when and why. I found that in reading this book, my understanding of developed in Hollywood over those years made much more sense.
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Format: Hardcover
Brandeis Professor Doherty has really found his groove in attacking the power of the Catholic Church in bringing moral reforms to the raunchy Hollywood film industry. Joseph Breen was a strong family man with six children and former journalist selected to enforce the Hayes Code of 1934.

Hollywood producers and directors voluntarily submitted to this control because the power of the press had already brought the ultimate sword to their necks: film boycotting due to the increasingly lewd films of the 1920's. Rather than wait for further public outrage to stir up the federal hornets nest of regulations, they created their own code and body of enforcement. That main body was our Mr. Joseph Breen.

Since subscribing to Turner Classic Netwoork on cable, the solid storytelling and intelligence of old Hollywood films is evident to me. I and many others love them. It shows almost another planet of stronger social mores and shame and embarrassment over scandals and crime and such things as divorce. It is the world I remember from my own childhood. Were people unaware that dreadful and painful and violent things were happening all around them? Of course they knew and spoke I hushed to us over victims and perpetrators. The Irish still do! People didn't speak about cancer and other still dreaded diseases. My own cousin in Ireland was expecting. Before marriage. That was bad and she became my cousin in the doghouse whom I was not allowed to meet. That was in County Mayo in 1980. She ultimately married that farmerboy and they are still together.

So. Was it worse to live under such strictures? For the individual especially the women: yes. For the greater society? Now we can debate it. Whether public morality and mores matter is the real hard nut of Dr.
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