The Most Powerful Man in Hollywood

YOU think movies today are bad? Take our reliably outraged friend Bill Donahue of the Catholic League for Civil Rights. His latest target is the movie The Golden Compass.

The fantasy movie, featuring Nicole Kidman, is based on a popular Phillip Pullman book which is, indeed, very critical of organized religion.

The problem is, as has been widely reported, the film version of Pullman's book really does not make religious forces seem like the enemy.

Nevertheless, Dona-hue unleashed a barrage of critical words aimed at The Golden Compass. And this past weekend, when the film did not make as much money as some people thought it would, Donahue actually took credit for the shortfall.

"Our goal was to stop The Golden Compass from meeting box office expectations, and we succeeded," Donahue said. "The disappointing numbers make it far less likely that New Line Cinema will want to produce the film version of The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, the second and third volumes of Philip Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials.

"That's good news for Christians in general, and for Catholics in particular."

Maybe Donahue's outrage had some effect on the box office numbers. But a provocative new book reminds us that when it comes to Irish Catholic outrage at the movies, these days have nothing on the old days.

Thomas Doherty (whose father was born in Ireland) has just published Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration (Colum-bia University Press).

As Doherty makes clear, the 1930s was a decade when the debate over Hollywood reached a fever pitch. Two Irishman were at the center of this debate. The first was Jimmy Cagney, whose 1931 gangster film The Public Enemy remains influential.

Many were angry at films such as The Public Enemy. They feared Cagney (as well as Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar, and Paul Muni in the original Scarface) made criminal life so attractive he might corrupt American values.

Meanwhile, films such Red Headed Woman and Baby Face were wildly provocative when it came to sexual themes.

That's where the second Irishman, Joseph Breen, comes in.

As Doherty writes in his new book, "More than any actor, director or producer (Breen) stamped his vision on Hollywood cinema" from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Breen only rose to power as "Hollywood's censor" when both Hollywood and Washington faced organized boycotts from U.S. Catholics who believed the movies were corrupting the nation's values. The boycott began to cut into Hollywood's bottom line.

So in July 1934, the Production Code Administration, led by Breen, began to regulate the content of Hollywood movies. This regulation stayed in effect up until the 1960s.

This is the kind of influence today's Irish Catholic activists such as Bill Donahue could never dream of. As Doherty writes, Breen "embodied the restraint, repression and rigidity of a personality type known as the Victorian Irish."

But Breen did not argue for mere censorship. He himself was a filmmaker. So he understood that doing things subtly could make for better movies.

Even those who dislike film censorship have been forced to wonder, if Breen and the code were mere censors, why were Hollywood films better before the code broke down in the early 1960s?

The code today is often seen as synonymous with the Legion of Decency, which was an entirely separate body. It was a pressure group whose members sometimes advocated boycotting all films.

Some Hollywood executives (many of whom were Jewish, which did raise tensions between Jews and Irish Catholics) looked at Breen as the person who would bring Catholics back into movie houses.

It's also important to remember the code was a response to anti-Irish films. The code explicitly states, in fact, that no ethnic group or religion could be mocked in motions pictures.

So, maybe you agree with Bill Donahue, maybe you don't. But if you want to learn more about the days when Irish Catholics really influenced Hollywood, pick up Thomas Doherty's new book.

(Contact Tom at tomdeignan@verizon.net)

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