The World According to Hollywood, 1918-1939. – Review

The World According to Hollywood, 1918-1939. – Review – book reviews

Matthew Bernstein

By Ruth Vasey. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997. $54.00 cloth; $17.95 paper.

Will we ever get over our fascination with the workings of Hollywood’s self-regulation? Not if we can continue to read books like The World According to Hollywood. Informative, drawing on otherwise untapped archival sources, and bristling with analytical intelligence, Ruth Vasey’s new study takes what some might consider the abstract aspects of industry self-regulation–its firm roots in business concerns and Hollywood’s distribution realities–and makes it compelling. There are few discussions of the Hollywood canon in this book–Morocco (1930), Duck Soup (1932), The Merry Widow (1934), and Only Angels Have Wings (1938) are the most prominent films cited. This is no drawback, however, for one gains a fine understanding of the logic by which Will Hays, Joseph Breen, and their associates negotiated with producers over movie content within and beyond the strictures of the notorious Code.

Vasey wastes no time in revising the received wisdom about the 1922 formation of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors’ Association (MPPDA), where the Breen Office resided. We’re accustomed to tracing Hays’ hiring by a panicked industry to the Fatty Arbuckle scandals, but Vasey shows how threats of anti-trust action against the vertically integrating companies, along with rapid expansion in Hollywood’s international distribution, made it necessary to better coordinate trade matters. In particular, the industry confronted, in early 1922, Mexico’s ban on American films in response to the omnipresence of the greaser stereotype (this challenge, and not Fatty Arbuckle, was on the MPPDA’s first meeting agenda). At the most fundamental level, then, the home of the future Production Code Administration (PCA) developed out of distribution realities.

Of course, cleaning up Hollywood’s image was important in the early 1920s, and here Vasey stresses the roots of the PCA in Hays’ brainchild, the Committee on Public Relations, formed just months after the MPPDA’s first meeting. The scheme was to give civic leaders and the educated middle class a stake in Hollywood filmmaking, or at least the illusion that that the studios were both responsible and responsive to their complaints. Revamped in 1925 to be more systematic as the Department of Public Relations and led by former Red Cross executive Jason Joy, this division instructed its voluntary associates across the country to praise the worthwhile films and remain mute about the morally disappointing ones. With this plan, Hays and Joy hoped (in vain as it turned out) to encourage studios to produce more wholesome, harmless entertainment. Simultaneously, Hays convinced the Department of Commerce to create a Motion Picture Section that kept the film industry informed of foreign market conditions, and to intercede on the industry’s behalf abroad–an accomplishment equal to fighting off federal censorship bills or many of Hays’ other, more visible achievements, since the foreign market roughly accounted for 35 percent of the studios’ gross income.

Having delineated the industry pressures that gave rise to self-regulation in the studio era, Vasey turns to content regulation itself, emphasizing several novel points. One is the importance of the bottom line. Exhibitor associations continually protested to the Federal Trade Commission during the 1920s that block-booking (forcing exhibitors to book all of a studio’s films sight unseen) forced theater managers to traffic in substandard, star-less bombs which could also be morally reprehensible. Vasey describes the majors’ reply to such charges in 1927: “Rather than discuss the legal implications of their monopolistic business practices, of which block booking was a symptom, the producers and distributors assured the commission that their products were–or would be henceforth–entirely clean and wholesome” (48). The producers and Joy came up with the 1927 “Dont’s and Be Carefuls” as an earnest of their good faith. Content regulation was a sideshow, a smokescreen put up to distract critics from Hollywood’s fundamentally monopolistic lock on the business.

The industry followed the same logic when confronted with European complaints of American market dominance, and this is Vasey’s second new perspective: the way foreign pressures affected production. The studios promised their international critics that they would script and photograph more responsible ethnic/national types. Here again, distribution affected the dynamics of Hollywood’s portrayal of foreignness, and the more important the market, the more positive the portrayal. Most notably, a villain who was written as German became Russian in the finished film of The Woman Disputed (UA, 1928).

With 35 percent of the gross at stake, Will Hays called the foreign market the sword of Damocles hanging over the industry. Considering the case of Bachelor Father (M-G-M, 1931), one can see why. In the American version, the title character has many children by a series of legally married and legally divorced wives. The French, an SRC member warned the producers, might find this offensive; they would prefer that the father not marry and divorce so often, but remain married and philander. Though Vasey’s dual focus on domestic and foreign pressures bifurcates each chapter, she takes pains to persuade us that often foreign market concerns were consonant with those of the special interest groups in the States.

The advent of the 1930 Production Code enabled Jason Joy to resort frequently to textual ambiguity in mediating between sensation-seeking filmmakers and the industry’s critics. To avoid giving all kinds of offense, seductions occured between fades out and in, definite locales gave way to mythical kingdoms, and villains were frequently American (Dracula was an ideal villain, being inhuman and hence lacking in nationality). Jason Joy allowed producers to tackle any subject, short of abortion, no matter how controversial, as long as the treatment was delicate. While most public censorship controversies pitted opposing interpretations of particular films against each other, Vasey’s research shows that Joy and his cohorts were well aware of the potential for different audiences to interpret films differently. Because it left so much discretion to the mind of the viewer, however, this system was pronounced ineffective by industry critics and the Payne Fund Studies authors. Since Joy also relied on studio participation, it was a faulty system. We learn, for example, that from 1930 to 1931, Warner Bros. was the least cooperative major studio; M-G-M cooperated, while insisting that Irving Thalberg could give any controversial subject delicate and acceptable treatment.

Like Lea Jacobs, Vasey sees Breen’s reign not as a decisive break with his predecessors but as a continual effort to strengthen industry self-regulation. Breen forced audiences to work harder to see sophisticated interpretations of story events, and insisted that scenes of passion could only be shown if they were justified for the story; crimes committed had to be punished. Breen also strengthened Hollywood’s sensitivity to foreign markets, whereby studios–mindful that Great Britain made up 30 percent of the foreign market–would omit shooting certain church rituals, details of violent scenes, depictions of unjust rule (which might rile up inhabitants of the colonies), and always show twin beds for married couples. In one chapter, Vasey presents several case studies to show how a film’s budget, its range of distribution, its source material, and its thematics all affected the extent to which foreign pressures could influence filmmaking. For instance, RKO carefully altered the big-budget Last Days of Pompeii (1935) to satisfy Great Britain, avoiding excessive gruesomeness and not depicting Christ on screen.

Vasey’s final chapter surveys Hollywood’s handling of “industry policy,” the way the Breen Office addressed topics and situations–foreigners, foreign nations, politicians, professionals, locations, ethnic types, businessmen–that were not explicitly addressed in the Production Code but which could cause as much trouble as the irresponsible depiction of sex and violence. Filmmakers had to be careful not to offend doctors, lawyers, social workers, and especially newspaper publishers and media figures who might create a backlash against the movies. The treatment of eroticism created a situation where the more suggestive the scene or fade-out, the more powerful the sensuality in the viewer’s mind. Here Vasey makes some interesting observations about the associations between sexuality and naivete formulated in Bringing Up Baby (1938) and culminating in Marilyn Monroe. She shows how Breen wrote the stage directions ensuring straight line readings in particularly suggestive situations in Bachelor Mother (1939), involving an unmarried teenager’s apparent motherhood. Sexual naivete enabled films to avoid openly acknowledging their sexual implications and offending Hollywood’s diverse audiences. Exoticism similarly followed a logic all its own–foreign characters and settings were said by Will Hays to be deployed for purposes of contrast and interest, not authenticity. The assumed norm for characters was white, middle class, and consumerist rather than specifically ethnic.

One concludes The World According to Hollywood with a deeper appreciation for how, why, and what the MPPDA and PCA accomplished. Film scholars often remark that distribution is the the key component of industry practice; Vasey is the first in a long time to explicitly and insistently show us why this was the case: all the qualities we love about classical Hollywood cinema rested upon the industry’s extensive distribution networks. (Vasey also demonstrates along the way the enormous value of consulting Federal Motion Picture Commission Hearings and the Trade Information Bulletins on foreign and domestic film business published by the Commerce Department.)

Vasey asserts that one can better understand the better-known history of domestic self-regulation when one considers foreign pressures on the studios, and vice-versa (9). The World According to Hollywood backs up this claim decisively. As she shows, the resulting “world” in Hollywood films was “a realm apart, a self-contained universe, melodramatic but fundamentally benign, with little direct relevance to the experience of its audience outside the cinema” (226). This is institutional Hollywood history of the highest order–and a pleasure to read.

Matthew Bernstein is editor of Controlling Hollywood, a new anthology on movie censorship for Rutgers University Press.

COPYRIGHT 1999 University of California Press

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