Joseph Breen

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“In my judgement there is nothing more important for us Catholics to do at the present moment [July 1939] than to use our energies in stemming the tide of racial bigotry and hostility.” –Joseph Breen

While I typically tend to focus on actors and actresses throughout my articles, it is interesting to explore other individuals closely tied to Hollywood in ways other than acting ability. Joseph Breen is one such figure because of his impact on Hollywood as a film censor and the controversy associated with his career. He is known for his work as part of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) and his application of the Hays Code of moral guidelines for motion pictures to film production.

Breen was born on October 14th, 1888, to Mary and Hugh A. Breen. The Breen family lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Breen was the youngest of three boys, with his father coming from Ireland and his mother, a former New Jersey resident.

Raised a strict Roman Catholic, Breen attended Gesu Paris School for his elementary education, followed by Boys Catholic High School, and finished his education upon graduating from St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia. After graduating, Breen worked as a newspaper reporter for fourteen years in Philadelphia, and continued his reporting career in Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Following his reporting career, he worked for the United States Foreign service, which led him to travel internationally. 

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As a journalist, Breen was influential in the Catholic community and began working for Will H. Hays in 1931 as a troubleshooter. By 1934, he became chief of the Production Code Administration (PCA). The initial Hays Code stipulated the following “Don’ts” and “Be Carefuls”:

  1. Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words “God”, “Lord”, “Jesus”, “Christ” (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), “hell”, “damn”, “Gawd”, and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;
  2. Any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
  3. The illegal traffic in drugs;
  4. Any inference of sex perversion;
  5. White slavery;
  6. Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races);
  7. Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;
  8. Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette;
  9. Children’s sex organs;
  10. Ridicule of the clergy;
  11. Willful offense to any nation, race or creed;

The following items were also expected to be portrayed with caution:

  1. The use of the flag;
  2. International relations (avoiding picturizing in an unfavorable light another country’s religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry);
  3. Arson;
  4. The use of firearms;
  5. Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. (having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron);
  6. Brutality and possible gruesomeness;
  7. Technique of committing murder by whatever method;
  8. Methods of smuggling;
  9. Third-degree methods;
  10. Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime;
  11. Sympathy for criminals;
  12. Attitude toward public characters and institutions;
  13. Sedition;
  14. Apparent cruelty to children and animals;
  15. Branding of people or animals;
  16. The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue;
  17. Rape or attempted rape;
  18. First-night scenes;
  19. Man and woman in bed together;
  20. Deliberate seduction of girls;
  21. The institution of marriage;
  22. Surgical operations;
  23. The use of drugs;
  24. Titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or law-enforcing officers;
  25. Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a “heavy”.

With the formation of the Roman Catholic National Legion of Decency and its ability to put pressure on the MPPDA, Breen worried that he would lose power and profits. In response, he imposed far more rigorous standards and was a notorious censor until his retirement from the PCA in 1941.

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In 1941, Breen became the general manager for RKO until 1942. He returned to the PCA in 1942, but his power diminished significantly in the passing years. Studios called for revisions of the production code and “questionable” films were released even without Breen’s approval. By 1954, Breen had retired from the industry and received an honorary Academy Award for “conscientious, open-minded and dignified management of the Motion Picture Production Code.”

Breen’s marriage to Mary Dervin produced six children, one of whom became a writer and director (Joseph Breen, Jr.). Another son, Thomas, had to have his right leg amputated because of a combat injury while fighting in Guam during World War II. Thomas appears in a feature role in Jean Renoir’s The River (1950) as a wounded war veteran. Interestingly, Renoir was not aware that Thomas was Breen’s son.

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When Breen retired, he moved to Phoenix, Arizona, with his wife. He passed away in 1965 at the Brentwood Convalescent home in Los Angeles. Upon his death, Variety magazine wrote that Breen was “one of the most influential figures in American culture” and that “more than any single individual, he shaped the moral stature of the American motion picture […] with a potent mix of missionary zeal and administrative tenacity.”

Today, a few locations exist in Philadelphia that were of importance to Breen during his early years there. According to the 1900 census, Breen lived at 2701 Brown Street in Philadelphia. This is the property today:

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His 1917-1918 draft card lists 2129 Green Street as another residence. ere it Here is the Green Street home today:

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Additionally, the 1920 census offers yet another residence for Breen at 4914 Pulaski Avenue. This is what the property looks like today:

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The different schools that Breen attended are also in operation today. Gesu School, his elementary school, stands at 1700 W. Thompson Street in Philadelphia.

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Moreover, the High School for Boys or Roman Catholic High School of Philadelphia is located at 301 North Broad Street in Philadelphia.

Finally, St. Joseph’s College is now St. Joseph’s University, situated at 5600 City Ave in Philadelphia.

Despite the fact that film fans may have varying opinions on Breen and his impact upon the film industry, the topic of censorship is still a lively one that is fascinating to examine.


This post is part of Pure Entertainment Preservation Society’s Blogathon, entitled, “The Great Breening Blogathon.”

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About Annette Bochenek

Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is a Ph.D. student and scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for TCM Backlot, she also writes for Classic Movie Hub, Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine.
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8 Responses to Joseph Breen

  1. kelleepratt says:

    Great piece, Annette! There’s so much focus on William Hays that Breen is generally overlooked. And yet, he clearly was a tremendous influencer that shaped Hollywood during its heyday. Can you imagine someone trying to bring the Code back, a code that banned interracial relationships being portrayed and other extreme forms of outdated censorship? Oh wait…

    • Dear Kellee,

      Of course, I think you are partly joking in your comment. You did point out the interesting and unfair truth that Mr. Breen is overlooked when he was the one who really enforced the Code. Obviously you don’t support the Code, but just to set the record straight, the ban on miscegenation was not in the original Code. It was added by someone in the Hays, not the Breen, Office to avoid nationwide censorship. The South was particularly touchy about such topic and very quick to censor them. Neither the original authors nor Mr. Breen himself instigated that rule. He just enforced it.

      I hope you will read the other articles in the blogathon. Here is the link to today’s roster: https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2017/10/13/the-great-breening-blogathon-day-1/. Perhaps reading some of the articles about the Code, Mr. Breen, and their era would make you see a fellow Hibernian in a new light!

      Yours Hopefully,

      Tiffany Brannan

  2. Pingback: THE GREAT BREENING BLOGATHON: DAY 1! | pure entertainment preservation society

  3. Pingback: EXTRA: “The Great Breening Blogathon!” | pure entertainment preservation society

  4. Dear Annette,

    Here is the link to today’s roster: https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2017/10/13/the-great-breening-blogathon-day-1/. I hope you enjoy reading all the interesting articles.

    Yours Hopefully,

    Tiffany Brannan

  5. Kentheduffer says:

    Great read. Thank you for sharing. You enlighten me.

    Ken

  6. I nearly did a coffee spit-take at reading “upon the moron.” Just goes to show how the meaning of words and their usage is ever-evolving.

  7. Pingback: THE GREAT BREENING BLOGATHON: THE COMPLETE ROSTER! | pure entertainment preservation society

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