“It’s incorrect to assert that traditional Hollywood films always have happy endings,” film historian Thomas Doherty once noted on a panel I attended, puncturing an oft-repeated truism about American cinema. Added Doherty, a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University: “They don’t always end happily, they always end morally.” The more I considered it, the more I realized that Doherty was dead right — if he meant “morally” in the most conservative Christian sense. There are countless movies from Hollywood’s Golden Age, 1930–1955, that conclude unhappily, even fatally, for the protagonists. But what’s operative is a hard-love Hollywood justice: those burdened by misery are shown to have earned such punishment for their crimes, their sins, their transgressions. In traditional studio films, bad things happen to bad-acting people: murderers, adulterers, and lascivious women (including those who dare have children out of wedlock).
Smacks of Catholic doctrine? Even though secular Jews ran almost all the studios? Whatever the Jewish moguls themselves believed, it was Catholic ethics that shaped and informed Hollywood cinema in the 1930s and 1940s. At least, that’s the contention of Doherty’s brilliant and absorbing new book, Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen & the Production Code Administration. It’s a tale of strange bedfellows: in 1934, bowing to combined pressure from the rightist Catholic Legion of Decency and the left-leaning FDR government, Hollywood agreed to clean up its act. The Production Code adopted in 1930 would finally have teeth. All scripts would be perused and all movies checked out to see that they complied with the Code.
As Doherty shows, the Code was written in 1929 by a cabal of Jesuits led by the Reverend Daniel A. Lord. What did it demand? No swear words. No toilet humor — no shots of toilets even. Married couples had to sleep in separate beds. No crime could go unpunished, and so on. When the Production Code became official Hollywood doctrine, the administrator, from 1934–1954, was Joseph Breen, a zealous, militant, church-going Catholic. Never heard of him? Doherty persuaded me, through his assiduous research, that Breen was the most important voice in the studios for two decades. For 12 hours a day, his office would sniff out movies to see whether they adhered to the prudish Code. Breen was the auteur of Hollywood-style morality, lording it over thousands of films.
In the first scene of the turgid Irish melodrama Strength and Honor, which opens this Friday at the Harvard Square, boxer Sean Kelleher (Michael Madsen) accidentally kills his brother-in-law in the ring. In the second scene, his wife is dying in a hospital. The third scene, it’s her funeral. Soon after, Sean’s son contracts a terrible disease, and his operation costs $250,000. And so forth! What a downer of a movie! The Rocky second half of this silly, predictable film, which was written and directed by Mark Mahon, goes hooray-for-Hollywood, as overaged Sean takes up bare-knuckle boxing to pay for the operation. If only he can win the title, beating the swaggering, unbeatable Smasher O’Driscoll (British former football hard guy Vinnie Jones)! Go, Sean! The eye of a tiger!