His life story would have made the kind of uplifting movie he'd most certainly have stamped with his own seal of approval.
As enforcer of Hollywood's Production Code Administration, Joseph Ignatius Breen was once the most powerful man in the film industry, dishing out those coveted seals for 20 years. While most movie buffs know about "the Code" -- a strict set of moral guidelines Hollywood followed from roughly 1934 to 1954 -- not many know about Breen's role.
Columbia University Press ($29.50)
Thomas Doherty's new book is not so much a biography of the man as an examination of Breen's work, what influenced him and how he shaped the period of American cinema we lovingly call "The Golden Age."
Even before the sound era, movies drew fire from the moral guardians of the day. In an attempt to make them go away, studio heads hired Will Hays, a former U.S. postmaster general as their publicity flack.
He was charged with convincing the public Hollywood could behave. Plus, the studios promised to censor themselves.
In 1931, when Hays, by then president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, needed someone to crack down on "offensive" films, he hired the strapping Breen, a former journalist, diplomat and publicity director for Chicago's 1926 International Eucharistic Congress -- a kind of World's Fair for Catholics.
"Shaped by parochial schools, and guided to maturity by the Jesuits, (Breen, born in Philadelphia in 1888) embodied the restraint, repression and rigidity of a personality type known as Victorian Irish," Doherty tells us.
This is characterized "neither by leprechaun charm nor whisky-soaked gloom, but by a sober vigilance over the self and a brisk readiness to perform the same service for others, solicited or not."
Breen commanded the Production Code Administration like a mission. And as Doherty says, Hays was chief executive, handling bankers and moguls, but it was Breen who called the shots on moral content.
Hollywood's compliance in 1934 came not under threat of government intervention (always held over the heads of studio bosses) but from well-organized boycotts, led primarily by the Catholic Church's Legion of Decency. A pledge-signing campaign, Doherty explains, keeping patrons from movies which "offend decency and Christian morality," dramatically affected the box-office take.
When Protestants and Jews signed it too, Hollywood knew it was time to toe the line -- that, and a hefty $25,000 fine for showing films without PCA's seal.
The code itself, Doherty says, was meant to be almost Biblical, "metaphors of print-based religiosity would waft around it like incense: the commandments, the tablets, the gospel."
Its pages clearly outlined what was not "decent" -- everything from depictions of crime, passion, brutality, childbirth, adultery, drug use, cruelty to animals, revealing costumes, to lists of objectionable words, not just profanity, but "vulgar" words like, cripes, guts and nuts.
Although it must have felt like working in a straitjacket to those in the industry, Doherty explains that Breen had great respect for filmmakers and loved movies.
His style was not that of a petty bureaucrat but more an editor who, while always getting final cut, was willing to negotiate.
His artistic legacy is "the moral universe of classical Hollywood cinema -- the world of reticence, constraint, discretion ... packed tight with coded repression."
While it might have been fun to learn of some unsavory details from this straight-laced man's life -- perhaps a juicy secret that contradicted his day job -- by this account there were none. Breen married his high school sweetheart, had six children and never went to parties.
He dedicated his life, often working 16-hour days, to a job he regarded as a calling from God.
"Hollywood's Censor" is a fascinating read for anyone interested in American film history, or with "an affinity for a mannered time where curse words, nudity and bloodshed are banished, where bedrooms are for sleeping and bathrooms are unmentioned."
One minor quibble: Doherty, a film professor at Brandeis, chooses an overlapping chronology of events. While this narrative device works beautifully in the movies, it proves frustrating in a dense historical text.
Carol O'Sullivan teaches film history at Pittsburgh Filmmakers and La Roche College.