Joseph Breen

For other uses, see Joseph Breen (disambiguation).
Joseph Breen
Born Joseph Ignatius Breen
(1888-10-14)October 14, 1888
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Died December 5, 1965(1965-12-05) (aged 75)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Resting place Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City
Nationality American
Education Gesu Parish School
Roman Catholic High School
Alma mater Saint Joseph's College
Occupation Film censor, journalist
Years active 19341955
Spouse(s) Mary Dervin (m. 1914–65); his death
Children 6

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]

Early life and career

Breen was the youngest of three sons born to Hugh A. and Mary 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 the Boys Catholic High School.[3] He attended and graduated from Saint Joseph's College, 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.[1]


Breen married Mary Dervin in February 1914, with whom he had six children.[4]

As film censor


Breen was a journalist and an influential layperson in the Roman Catholic community.[5] Breen worked for Will H. Hays as a "troubleshooter" as early as 1931.[6] He became "chief" of the Production Code Administration (PCA) in 1934.[7] The 1933 foundation of the Catholic organization the National Legion of Decency (NLD), which rated films independently of the industry, put pressure on the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, which had theretofore enforced the motion picture industry's own self-censorship standards, albeit not very seriously.[8]

Will H. Hays, who had been in charge of enforcing the industry's voluntary code since 1927, worried that the NLD's efforts could weaken the power of his own office and hurt industry profits.[8] Thus he stepped up enforcement efforts and appointed the "tough Irish Catholic" Breen as his assistant to impose the more rigorous standards.[8] Liberty Magazine wrote in 1936 that Breen's appointment gave him "more influence in standardizing world thinking than Mussolini, Hitler, or Stalin."[9]

Breen was notoriously anti-Semitic.[10]

In a letter to the Jesuit priest and then-editor of America, Rev. Wilfrid Parsons, Breen wrote that Hollywood consisted of "a rotten bunch of vile people with no respect for anything beyond the making of money. Here we have Paganism rampant and in its most virulent form. Drunkenness and debauchery are commonplace. Sexual perversion is rampant...any number of our directors and stars are perverts. Ninety-five percent of these folks are Jews of an Eastern European lineage. They are, probably, the scum of the earth."[11] His anti-Semitism had major effects on the way he conducted his role as chief censor of the American film industry.[12]

According to Breen's biographer, 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."[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] The (largely) Jewish[11] film moguls of the time disliked Breen and his pressure for script changes that reinforced racial stereotypes.[10] For instance, when Will Hays instructed Breen to advise Universal Studios to rewrite the script of a forthcoming musical to "cut to a minimum any physical contact" between a black actor and a white actress cast as his black wife, Breen instead demanded that Universal remove all physical contact between the two actors.[6]

Breen was deeply worried that Jewish filmmakers would try to use Nazi mistreatment of Jews during the 1930s as a vehicle for propaganda.[15] 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."[12] 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 anti-Semitic and 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.[15]

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."[16]


Breen retired from the PCA in April 1941, announcing that his departure was due to overwork and exhaustion.[17] Between 1941 and 1942 Breen was the general manager of RKO Pictures[6] He returned to the PCA in 1942.[5]

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.[18]

In 1951, Breen's office refused to approve Otto Preminger's film The Moon Is Blue because of objections to the dialogue.[19] United Artists backed Preminger in his decision to release the movie without Breen's approval.[20] In 1954, 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."[18]

Breen retired from the PCA three years later, in 1954, and was replaced by Geoffrey Shurlock.[21] 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."[22]

Later years and death

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 on December 5, 1965 at the Brentwood Convalescent Home in Los Angeles at the age of 77, and buried at Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City.[23]


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."[5] The trade magazine went on to say that Breen enforced the PCA code "with a potent mix of missionary zeal and administrative tenacity."[5]

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


  1. 1 2 3 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 0-231-14359-1.
  3. 1 2 Robbin Coons (August 10, 1934). "Film Censor Finds Censorship Begins at Home — Breen Selects the Movies His Children See". Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
  4. Doherty 2009 p.15
  5. 1 2 3 4 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
  6. 1 2 3 Leff, Leonard J. (May 1991). "The Breening of America". PMLA. 106 (3): 432–445. doi:10.2307/462777. JSTOR 462777.(subscription required)
  7. 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
  8. 1 2 3 Bob Thomas (August 3, 1965). "Censors Bloomed With the Talkies". The Miami News. p. 2.
  9. Wu, Tim (2010). "The Future of Free Speech". The Chronicle of Higher Education. 57 (13).
  10. 1 2 Jill Watts (February 6, 2007). Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood. HarperCollins. p. 146. ISBN 978-0-06-051491-4. Retrieved May 26, 2013.
  11. 1 2 Scott Eyman (April 19, 2005). Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer. Simon & Schuster. p. 342. ISBN 978-1-4391-0791-1. Retrieved May 26, 2013.
  12. 1 2 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.
  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. 1 2 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.
  16. Doherty 2009, pp. 211–12
  17. "New Censor Sought by Movie Czar". The Telegraph-Herald. April 25, 1941.
  18. 1 2 Aline Mosby (March 17, 1954). "Hollywood Report". Oxnard Press-Courier.
  19. Bob Thomas (June 9, 1953). "Movie Censorship Faces Strongest Challenge Now". Times Daily.
  20. 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. 140-142
  21. Bob Thomas (June 1, 1955). "Censors try tempering growing movie violence". Spokane Daily Chronicle.
  22. Doherty 2009 p. 5
  23. Doherty 2009 pp. 346–48
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