Golden-age Hollywood censor was an anti-Semite, says critic

Hollywood "studio codes" of the 1930s, '40s and '50s tore sexuality and controversy from the silver screen, often transforming films into formulaic morality plays.

Those facts are certainly well-known. More obscure, however, is that the driving force behind enforcement of the code for several decades, Joseph Breen, was a frothy-mounted anti-Semite, who repeatedly referred to Jews as "lice" and "the scum of the Earth."

Several of Breen's disturbing and vitriolic private correspondences are quoted in longtime San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle's recent book, "Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood."

While Will Hays is the name most associated in the public mind with the motion picture codes that bowdlerized Hollywood films for the better part of three decades, LaSalle contends that Breen was the "one indispensable man" behind the code's adoption and application.

"He was motivated by a conviction that the Jewish moguls were a moral menace," said LaSalle, who will be speaking on several occasions at the Sonoma Valley Film Festival between Thursday and Sunday, April 1. "And it's pretty clear from his correspondences that he didn't think this was a coincidence. He thought their moral turpitude was directly related to their being Jewish."

In various letters and memos, Hollywood's most influential censor referred to Jews as "a dirty, filthy lot," "a foul bunch, crazed with sex…and ignorant in all matters having to do with sound morals," and "simply a vile bunch of people with no respect for anything but the making of money."

Says LaSalle, a Chronicle film critic since 1985: "Now, one thing Breen was right about was he thought the studios would cave in if they were worried their profits were being affected, and, unfortunately, that turned out to be true. Well, they did cave and they caved big. This guy ran movies for 20 years."

Though technically on the studio payroll as Hays' right-hand man on the studio relations committee, Breen actually bit the hands that fed him, LaSalle points out. A well-connected Catholic, Breen heavily lobbied American Catholic leaders to pressure Hays into stricter enforcement of the code. As a result, Breen grew far more powerful than his boss and had free reign to impose his "pathetically narrow vision of life, art and morals" on American cinema, LaSalle writes.

And while Hollywood has been free of Breen and his oppressive code for decades, LaSalle contends Breen's influence is still palpable.

Current American films still feature "a divorce between sex and romance," he says. "For two generations of American films, romance was completely sexless. As a result, when sex returned to the movies, we had all sex and no romance.

"Nothing is less sexy than a sex scene in an American movie. People are shot through an orange filter while horrible music is playing. They divide sex and romance. Now, what sex is paired with when you say 'sex and…' is not 'love' or 'romance' but 'violence.'"

Despite his well-documented anti-Semitism and an almost fanatical commitment to a moral code that future generations ridiculed as prudish and destructive, history has been kind to Breen.

"He's gotten a real free ride from most film historians," LaSalle says. "Everyone talks about how he was a feisty, Irish guy, a two-fisted fighter. Hollywood is such a miserable place and people respected him because he's a fighter; they had a grudging respect for the guy."

LaSalle, however, does not.

"He had bad taste, he was anti-Semitic, vulgar and his influence on movies was horrendous," he says. "He is a blight on the face of film history."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.