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Joseph I. Breen: Anti-Semite?

Jane Russell in The OutlawThomas Doherty in The Forward:

“'These Jews seem to think of nothing but money making and sexual indulgence,' fumed Joseph I. Breen in a letter to the Rev. Wilfrid Parsons, S.J., editor of the Jesuit weekly America. The year was 1932, and the hot-tempered Irish Catholic, lately summoned to Hollywood, Calif., by motion picture czar Will H. Hays to convert a reprobate medium, was raging at the moguls who blocked his missionary work. 'People whose daily morals would not be tolerated in the toilet of a pest house hold the good jobs out here and wax fat on it,' he marveled. 'Ninety-five percent of these folks are Jews of an Eastern European lineage. They are, probably, the scum of the scum of the earth.'

“Soon after decrying the tribal degeneracy of Hollywood Jewry, Breen was working shoulder to shoulder with the men he had slurred. On July 15, 1934, he assumed command of the Production Code Administration, the studio system agency tasked with censoring Hollywood cinema. Though popularly known as the Hays Office, the PCA was Breen's domain. It was Breen who vetted storylines, blue-penciled dialogue and exercised the moral equivalent of final cut over hundreds of motion pictures per year – expensive 'A' caliber feature films, low-budget B-unit ephemera, short subjects, previews of coming attractions, even cartoons. From 1934 to 1954, except for a brief eight-month stint as head of RKO Pictures in 1941, Breen demanded that American cinema obey a strict catechism of thou-shalt-nots. 'More than any single individual, he shaped the moral stature of the American motion picture,' Variety reflected upon his death in 1965.


By “moral stature,” I'm assuming Variety meant that Breen helped to shape the warping of reality in Hollywood films, which was reflected in the way American moviegoers saw the world around them from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s. At that point, the fast-decaying Production Code was replaced by the ratings system that remains in use (with some alterations) today.

Of course, it's not that Hollywood productions were much more realistic before Breen came along – or after his departure in 1954, for that matter. Yet, a look at a number of American silent films and early talkies shows that in pre-Breen Hollywood, movies, when crafted by the right people, could be considerably more forthright – especially regarding sexuality – than the vast majority of the studio fare cranked out during Breen's heyday from the mid-'30s to the mid-'40s.

But wait! That's Hollywood's Golden Age, or is it not? Well, certainly, many excellent American movies were made during that period. (In addition to many, many more rotten ones.) But the great ones exist in spite of Breen, not because of him. After all, clever writers will come up with clever lines and situations whether or not their work needs to be approved by a censorship board. Stupid ones won't come up with anything worthwhile whether or not they have a censor breathing down their necks. Additionally, countless movies were bowdlerized or downright ruined by Breen's meddling. Many other projects were simply banned outright. (The Outlaw, starring Jane Russell's cleavage [above right], actually got made – and gave Breen seizures. After a 1943 tryout, the picture was shelved for three years.)

Now, according to Doherty's article, Breen's anti-Semitism all but disappeared after he became the head of the PCA. “A cynical reading would conclude that the Irish bigot was smart enough to keep his true feelings to himself and suck up to the men who were buttering his bread,” Doherty writes. “Or one might conclude that, on balance, the venom was a transient spasm, the product of a hot temper and simmering frustration.”

“Hot temper and simmering frustration” would make understandable rants such as Breen's accusation that Eastern European Jews were “the scum of the scum of the earth”? Hmmm. No.

Breen was clearly a very smart man who knew what needed to be done for him to seize power, e.g., threats of Catholic boycotts at a time when Hollywood studios were hurting because of the Depression, and to maintain it – for two decades – over a highly influential business. Privates letters could end up in the wrong hands. Private conversations could be repeated at inappropriate places. And Breen surely could recite by heart the Production Code passage that said, “No film or episode may throw ridicule on any religious faith.” No more “scum of the scum” explosions then.

Now, although I didn't find Doherty's piece persuasive in that regard, I'd still say it's worth a look. And I'm now curious to check out his book, Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration.


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2 Comments to Joseph I. Breen: Anti-Semite?

  1. Margie Van Vliet

    Nice treatment. Those who try to portray Joe Breen as an “anti-Semite” are really pushing on a string. If he really did use that “scum of the earth” remark (in a personal letter, let it be marked), it could not have been an imprecation against Jewishness per se, but rather an echo of what a lot of old-stock American Jews often said about the Eastern European Jews who had recently arrived in America and Hollywood. Walter Lippmann and Bernard Berenson made that sort of offhand criticism all the time. Why beat up on Breen?

  2. Terry

    Jane Russell looked good!