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Thomas Doherty to Discuss 'Hollywood's Censor'

Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face

Hollywood's Censor by Thomas DohertyAcademy Film Scholar Thomas Doherty will discuss his newly released book Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen & The Production Code Administration (mentioned on this blog in the post “Joseph I. Breen: Anti-Semite?”) on Monday, March 17, at 7:30 p.m. at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood. Admission is free. (More details below.)

As per the Academy's press release, “Hollywood's Censor tells the little-known story of Joseph I. Breen, one of the most powerful men in motion picture industry history. Breen reigned over the Production Code Administration, the Hollywood office tasked with censoring the American screen, from 1934 to 1954. He dictated 'final cut' over thousands of movies – more than any other individual in American cinema, before or since. His editorial decisions had a profound effect on the images and values projected by Hollywood during the Great Depression [sic], World War II and the Cold War.”

(Actually, American movies made during the height of the Great Depression were somewhat free of Breen's mercilessly puritanical scissors. Check out Paramount Before the Code, Fox Before the Code, and Forbidden Hollywood.)

“Striving to protect 'innocent souls' from the temptations of the motion picture screen, there were few elements of cinematic production beyond Breen's reach. Breen vetted story lines, blue-penciled dialogue and excised footage (a process that came to be known as 'Breening') to fit within his strict moral framework. He oversaw the editing of A-list feature films, low-budget B-movies, short subjects, previews of coming attractions, and even cartoons.”

If this sounds frightening, it's because it is. Especially if you consider that there are many – and I'm not talking about sex-crazed religious freaks – who find that the work of Joseph Breen and like-minded censors is good for art. Their absurd rationale is that censorship makes artists more creative. In other words, the more ruthless the censor, the greater the artist. Ah…Genius!

Baby Face (top photo), recently restored to its original, glorious amorality, stars Barbara Stanwyck as a working-class gal who knows both what she wants and how to get it. This delightfully raunchy 1933 comedy would never have been made – or would have been bowdlerized beyond recognition – had it been in the works a mere year after its original release. In fact, even in 1933 it caused such a furor among state censors that the film, once finished, had to be recut and redubbed.

Maggie McNamara, David Niven in The Moon Is Blue(Otto Preminger's highly successful comedy The Moon Is Blue, which opened the year before Breen's retirement, was the first major Hollywood production to be released without the Production Code's seal of approval – due to family-zapping words such as “virgin” and “seduce.”)

The Academy's Institutional Grants Committee selected Doherty as an Academy Film Scholar in 2003. He has previously authored Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture; Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934; Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II; and Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Movies in the 1950s. He is a professor of American studies at Brandeis University, and serves on the editorial boards of Cinema Journal and Cineaste.

Established in 1999, the Academy Film Scholars program “is designed to stimulate and support the creation of new and significant works of film scholarship about aesthetic, cultural, educational, historical, theoretical or scientific aspects of theatrical motion pictures. Film scholars receive $25,000 to research and produce such works, which can take the form of books, multimedia presentations, curatorial projects, DVDs or Internet sites.”

For grant guidelines and information about the Academy Film Scholars program, visit www.oscars.org/grants/filmscholars.

Admission to the Academy Film Scholars presentation is free, but tickets are required. Tickets are available by mail, at the Academy box office, or online at www.oscars.org. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. All seating is unreserved. The Linwood Dunn Theater is located at 1313 Vine Street in Hollywood. Free parking is available through the entrance on Homewood Avenue. For more information, call (310) 247-3600.

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