Joseph Breen

Joseph Ignatius Breen (October 14, 1888 – December 5, 1965) was an American film censor with the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America who applied the Hays Code to film production.[1]

Joseph Breen
Joseph Ignatius Breen

October 14, 1888
DiedDecember 5, 1965 (aged 77)
Resting placeHoly Cross Cemetery, Culver City
EducationGesu Parish School
Roman Catholic High School
Alma materSaint Joseph's College
OccupationFilm censor, journalist
Years active1934–1955
Mary Dervin (m. 1914–1965)
; his death

Early life and career

Breen was the youngest of three sons born to Mary and Hugh A. Breen in Philadelphia. His father had emigrated from Ireland and met his mother Mary in New Jersey. Breen was raised in a strict Roman Catholic home and attended Gesu Parish School until the eighth grade.[2] He then attended Boys Catholic High School.[3] He attended Saint Joseph's College but dropped out after two years, after which he worked as a newspaper reporter for fourteen years in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.[3] After working as a reporter, Breen worked for the United States Foreign Service for four years, serving in Kingston, Jamaica, and in Toronto, Canada.[1]

As film censor


Breen was a journalist and an "influential layperson" in the Catholic community.[4] Breen worked for Will H. Hays as a "troubleshooter" as early as 1931.[5]

In 1933, the Roman Catholic National Legion of Decency was founded, and began to rate films independently, putting pressure on the industry. In 1933 and 1934 the Legion along with a number of Protestant and women's groups launched plans to boycott films that they deemed immoral.[6] The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) had, up until then, enforced the motion picture industry's own self-censorship standards, albeit not very seriously.[7] Hays, who had been in charge of enforcing this voluntary code since 1927, worried that the NLD's efforts could weaken his own power and that of his office, and hurt industry profits.[7]

Hays appointed the "tough Irish Catholic" Breen to head the Production Code Administration (PCA), a newly created department of the MPPDA, created to administer the Motion Picture Production Code.[8] Unlike previous attempts at self-censorship, PCA decisions became binding — no film could be exhibited in an American theater without a stamp of approval from the PCA.[9] Any producer attempting to do so faced a fine of $25,000.[10]

After ten years of unsuccessful voluntary codes and expanding local censorship boards, the studio approved and agreed to enforce the codes, and the nationwide production code was enforced starting on July 1, 1934.[9] Liberty Magazine wrote in 1936 that Breen's appointment gave him "more influence in standardizing world thinking than Mussolini, Hitler, or Stalin."[11]

Breen has been accused of anti-Semitism[12] because of a few personal letters he wrote in the early 1930s. In these letters, he lamented the immorality of the filmmakers. According to author Thomas Doherty, this outburst was likely a reaction to Breen's sudden immersion in the alien Hollywood culture rather than an expression of deeply held beliefs, stating that "The antisemitic bile erupted during the pre-Code era, when Breen, newly arrived in Hollywood, was shocked by the folkways of the locals and anguished by his inability to purify the screen." After 1934, he was "publicly and forthrightly anti-antisemitic."[13]

William Dudley Pelley, founder of the anti-Semitic organization the Silver Legion of America, believed that Jews controlled the movie industry, which he thought to be the "most effective propaganda medium in America", during the 1930s. Hence he applauded the fact that Breen had assumed the power to censor Hollywood.[14] Breen, who also expressed anti-Semitic views[15], was deeply worried that Jewish filmmakers would try to use Nazi mistreatment of Jews during the 1930s as a vehicle for propaganda.[16] He was concerned that Germans would be offended by harsh depiction of Nazis. He specifically warned Hollywood producers to avoid the topic altogether, saying that "[t]here is a strong pro-German and anti-Semitic feeling in this country ... and while those who are likely to approve of an anti-Hitler picture may think well of such an enterprise, they should keep in mind that millions of Americans might think otherwise."[17] Breen claimed that plans to make such pictures were being coordinated through the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, which he claimed was "conducted and financed almost entirely by Jews". As a result of Breen's anticommunist views, the censorship board pressured Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to drop plans to film Sinclair Lewis's anti-fascist novel, It Can't Happen Here.[16]

In 1938, largely in response to Nazi activities in Germany, Pope Pius XI denounced anti-Semitism, stating that "it is not possible for Christians to take part in anti-Semitism". In response to this encouragement, American Roman Catholics formed the Committee of Catholics to Fight Anti-Semitism. The two authors of the Hays Code, Martin J. Quigley and the Rev. Daniel Lord, SJ, promoted the cause. Quigley asked Breen to help gather statements of support from Catholics in the Hollywood film industry. Breen did so, and issued a statement himself, which said, in part, "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."[18]


Breen retired from the PCA in April 1954, announcing that his departure was due to overwork and exhaustion.[19] Between 1941 and 1942 Breen was the general manager of RKO Pictures.[5] He returned to the PCA in 1942.[4]

By the mid-1950s, Breen's power over Hollywood was diminishing. For instance, Samuel Goldwyn publicly insisted that the production code be revised. Around the same time, Howard Hughes, owner of RKO, released The French Line, featuring revealing images of actress Jane Russell in a bathing suit, despite the fact that Breen had refused to approve the picture for release.[20]

In 1951, Breen's office refused to approve Otto Preminger's film The Moon Is Blue because of objections to the dialogue.[21] United Artists backed Preminger in his decision to release the movie without Breen's approval.[22]

In 1954, the same year he retired, in responding to these events in an interview with Aline Mosby, Breen claimed that "[A]fter the events of the past 10 months — The French Line, The Moon is Blue and Goldwyn — the code is more entrenched than ever before. Those events brought tremendous support from groups all over the country."[20] Breen retired from the PCA and was replaced by Geoffrey Shurlock.[23] On his retirement he was presented with an honorary Academy Award[1] for "his conscientious, open-minded and dignified management of the Motion Picture Production Code".[24]

Personal life

Breen married Mary Dervin in February 1914, with whom he had six children, three boys and three girls.[25] Their son Joseph Breen, Jr. was a writer and director.[26] One of their other children, Thomas, whose right leg was amputated due to a combat injury on Guam during World War II, was cast in a feature role in Jean Renoir's 1950 film The River, playing a wounded war veteran. Renoir was not aware at the time that Thomas was Joseph Breen's son.[27]

After his retirement, Breen moved to Phoenix, Arizona, with his wife Mary. He suffered from poor health in his later years and eventually lost the use of his legs. He died at the age of 77 on December 5, 1965, at the Brentwood Convalescent Home in Los Angeles and was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City.[28]


After Breen's 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."[4] The trade magazine went on to say that Breen enforced the PCA code "with a potent mix of missionary zeal and administrative tenacity."[4]

In the 2004 film The Aviator, Breen was portrayed by Edward Herrmann.


  1. ^ a b c Staff report (December 8, 1965). Joseph I. Breen, Film Code Chief; Watchdog of Movie Morals For Years Is Dead at 75. New York Times
  2. ^ Doherty, Thomas (2009). Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration. Columbia University Press. pp. 11–12, 14. ISBN 978-0-231-14359-2.
  3. ^ a b Robbin Coons (August 10, 1934). "Film Censor Finds Censorship Begins at Home — Breen Selects the Movies His Children See". Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
  4. ^ a b c d Doherty, Thomas Patrick. Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934. New York: Columbia University Press 1999. ISBN 0-231-11094-4, pg. 9
  5. ^ a b Leff, Leonard J. (May 1991). "The Breening of America". PMLA. 106 (3): 432–445. doi:10.2307/462777. JSTOR 462777.(subscription required)
  6. ^ Matthew Bernstein (2000). Controlling Hollywood: Censorship and Regulation in the Studio Era. Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0813527079. Retrieved 15 February 2013.
  7. ^ a b Bob Thomas (August 3, 1965). "Censors Bloomed With the Talkies". The Miami News. p. 2.
  8. ^ Pryors, Thomas S. (October 15, 1954). "Breen is Retired as Movie Censor; At Own Request, Director of Code Leaves Office -- Chief Aide Successor", New York Times; accessed May 4, 2017.
  9. ^ a b Gregory D. Black (1996). Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521565929. Retrieved 15 February 2013.
  10. ^ Leff, Leonard J.; Simmons, Jerold L. (2001). The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 978-0813190112.
  11. ^ Wu, Tim (2010). "The Future of Free Speech". The Chronicle of Higher Education. 57 (13).
  12. ^ Jill Watts (February 6, 2007). Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood. HarperCollins. p. 146. ISBN 978-0-06-051491-4. Retrieved May 26, 2013.
  13. ^ Thomas Doherty (December 11, 2007). "Was Hollywood's Famed Censor an Antisemite?". The Jewish Daily Forward. Retrieved May 26, 2013.
  14. ^ Michael E. Birdwell (February 1, 2001). Celluloid Soldiers: Warner Bros.'s Campaign Against Nazism. NYU Press. p. 42. ISBN 978-0-8147-9871-3. Retrieved May 26, 2013.
  15. ^ "Was Hollywood's Famed Censor an Antisemite?". The Forward. Retrieved 2018-08-16.
  16. ^ a b Clayton R.. Koppes; Gregory D. Black (2000). Hollywood Goes to the War: Patriotism, Movies and the Second World War from Ninotchka to Mrs Miniver. Tauris Parke Paperbacks. p. 22. ISBN 978-1-86064-605-8. Retrieved May 27, 2013.
  17. ^ Bruce Kirle (2005). Unfinished Show Business: Broadway Musicals As Works-in-Process. SIU Press. p. 132. ISBN 978-0-8093-8857-8. Retrieved May 27, 2013.
  18. ^ Doherty 2009, pp. 211–12
  19. ^ "New Censor Sought by Movie Czar". The Telegraph-Herald. April 25, 1941.
  20. ^ a b Aline Mosby (March 17, 1954). "Hollywood Report". Oxnard Press-Courier.
  21. ^ Bob Thomas (June 9, 1953). "Movie Censorship Faces Strongest Challenge Now". Times Daily.
  22. ^ Fujiwara, Chris, The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger. New York: Macmillan Publishers 2009; ISBN 0-86547-995-X, pp. 140-42
  23. ^ Bob Thomas (June 1, 1955). "Censors try tempering growing movie violence". Spokane Daily Chronicle.
  24. ^ Doherty 2009 p. 5
  25. ^ Doherty 2009 p. 15
  26. ^ "Joseph Breen".
  27. ^ Doherty 2009 pp. 70, 282
  28. ^ Doherty 2009 pp. 346–48

External links

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