First published in 2019, I’ve been reading the 2021 paperback edition of Hitchcock and the Censors by John Billheimer. And what an interesting read it is. How Alfred Hitchcock dealt with the Production Code , circumventing yet placating the censors to whom all screenplays had to be submitted before filming could begin.
The Motion Picture Production Code was an industry set of guidelines for self censorship of content. It lasted from 1934 through to 1968. It was partly begun to avoid government imposed censorship and was preferred by the studios in preference to individual states censoring movies.
Prior to 1934, Will Hays ,president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America , had formed a committee of studio heads to collaborate on a list of ‘Dont’s’ and ‘Be Carefuls’ reflecting items typically challenged by local censorship boards.
Among the ‘dont’s’ were white slavery, childbirth, nudity,profanity, ridicule of the clergy, make gambling and drunkenness attractive, ridicule of public officials.
The Production Code administration ( led by Joseph Breen from 1934 ) kept meticulous records which are now held at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Motion Picture Association of America.
The author has been able to access these files and presents a detailed picture of how a Hollywood director like Hitchcock managed to deal with these people who determined what the public would be allowed to see on screen.
From a modern perspective, it is fascinating to see how film censorship worked in the classic era, and the time and effort required to maintain what a writer or director wished to show on the screen and yet comply with the Code.
The banks who lent money to the studios required a letter from the Code administration saying scripts were acceptable before filming could be financed.
The British Board of Film Censors pre-dated the Hollywood code by ten years, so Hitchcock had experience of British censorship before he moved to Hollywood.
In the 1930s, the British censors had political considerations as well as social, so The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes had villains of unspecified (rather than Third Reich) nationalities.
( In 1933, the BBFC refuses to pass any films that might upset the Nazi regime in Berlin.)
Under the Code, Hitchcock made 27 films, from REBECCA in 1940 to TORN CURTAIN in 1966.
It usually took nearly two months to resolve issues and get final script approval. The Code letter of approval would end with : “You understand of course that our final judgement will be based on the finished picture.”
Thanks to the Code office’s record keeping, we can see the demands imposed on each of Hitchcock’s films and his responses.
Here are some examples of the censorship Hitchcock had to contend with:
We know that working with David O. Selznick was not easy for Hitchcock. Selznick was vocal in his dislike for the Code – “this insane, inane and outmoded code.”
Quoting the author, “Hitchcock was more circumspect, avoiding direct confrontation,proceeding by misdirection, and in the end, manipulating the censors as slyly as he manipulated moviegoers.”
With Rebecca, Joe Breen (head of the Production Code office), even before Selznick purchased the right to “Rebecca “, said, “This man murders his wife, covers up the evidence, identifies another body as his wife’s, remarries, and finally gets off Scot-free. It is a story of high lighted, unpunished murder…..and cannot be approved.”
So Hitchcock and the writers were forced to change the story – ‘Rebecca’ now dies as a result of an accident .
Suspicion was another example of a novel (“Before The Fact”) having to be changed to suit the Code. In the book, the Cary Grant character is a philanderer and embezzler as well as a murderer.
Successful murderers were a Production Code no-no, and RKO were also reluctant to portray Cary Grant as a killer.
The shot of the illuminated fatal glass of milk which Cary takes upstairs to Joan remained in the film but it no longer contained poison .
Hitchcock had hoped to get round the censors by having ‘Lina’ ( Joan Fontaine) drink the poison after giving ‘Johnny’ (Cary Grant) a letter to post to her mother explaining he is a killer.
But the objection to having Cary as a murderer won the day , and Hitchcock’s highly dramatic ending to the film was taken away.
Mr. And Mrs. Smith was a surprising change for Hitchcock, a romantic comedy, but still the censors found objections:
“The gag with the plumbing must NOT suggest the flushing of the toilet.”
Other objections included the words stinks, old bat, bedroom slippers and a derogatory reference to the Girl Scouts!
The Production Code office asked that the word cyanide be replaced by the generic word poison – ”to avoid giving specific aid to any would-be poisoners in the audience.”
Cole Porter had written ‘The Laziest Gal in Town’ in 1927. Hitchcock suggested it be used as a showcase for Marlene Dietrich in STAGE FRIGHT.
This song became the primary concern of the censors . “The Breen office, finding both the song and the performance offensive, had the chutzpah to edit the lyrics of one of the most accomplished songwriters of the day.”
The words ‘Let’s Misbehave’ would have to be re-written ,and the word ‘Lord’ ,which occurs twice in the refrain, also needed changing. Cole Porter banished the word ‘Lord’ , so Marlene, instead of singing, ‘And Lord knows, it’s not ‘cause I couldn’t’ , sang ‘And You know, it’s not ‘cause I couldn’t.’
Another example of a script change from the original novel source. In the Patricia Highsmith book, the Granger character does commit the second murder. Hitchcock anticipated production Code objections and made the change.
Following the Code review of the first draft of the script, Joe Breen logged several objections:
Excessive bottom pinching…….The casino scene in which Robie drops a chip down the cleavage of a woman gambler……bikini beachwear and ‘undue breast exposure’….just about everything connected with the fireworks scene including all suggestions of an illicit sex relationship.
The tacked- on ending to VERTIGO can be seen as a bonus feature on the remastered dvd. Fortunately it was scrubbed from the domestic release – but it was the ending seen on foreign screens.
(Hitchcock and writer Samuel Taylor had added a scene to the end of the film to satisfy the censors and show that ‘Gavin Elster’ didn’t get away with his wife’s murder.)
Of course, that ending desecrates the perfect downbeat ending of ‘Scottie’ staring down helplessly from the bell tower.
Incidentally, I have to agree with the following comments of the author about the plot of VERTIGO:
“The idea that a rich man would hire a friend with a fear of heights to follow a double of the man’s wealthy wife so that the double can drop hints of suicidal tendencies and ultimately lead the friend to a location where his fear of heights will cause him to misread the wife’s murder as suicide, is difficult to comprehend, tricky to recount, and painfully high in the implausibility scale…..”
The production Code office had concerns ( of course ):
1. The possible homosexuality of Leonard played by Martin Landau.
2. Roger Thornhill’s status as a twice divorced man. We urge that the dialogue about previous marriages and divorces be eliminated.
3. Any hint that Eve Kendall might be a woman of loose morals…..the girl’s line, “I never Make love on an empty stomach” should be omitted . ( Hitchcock overdubbed the line to , “I never Discuss love on an empty stomach.”
Surprisingly, or maybe because the power of the Production Code was waning, the gruesome murder of ‘Gromek’ in TORN CURTAIN remained intact – he is stabbed, hit with a shovel and asphyxiated – very slowly.
The Production Code was replaced in 1968 with a rating system that classified films as G ( for general audiences), M ( for mature audiences) and R ( restricted) and X ( no one under 16 admitted).
These are just some of the examples in the book of what may appear ludicrous to us today.
As the author says, “the harm done by the Production Code was incalculable. Although the censors’ prodding stimulated the director’s creativity in a few instances, on balance his movies were damaged by their interference.”
Mr. Billheimer also makes a important point about what might have been:
”We know what the censors kept out of Hitchcock’s films, but we’ll never know what an unfettered Hitchcock might have accomplished, or what the missing pieces cost the moviegoing public.”
Some of the Code censorious words and ideas seem crazy to us today. The very idea that a group of people should decide what the public should see or not see – the one that stands out for me is from SHADOW OF A DOUBT – the word ‘ cyanide’ couldn’t be used because “it might give specific aid to would-be poisoners in the audience.”!
If you are a Hitchcock fan, or just interested in Hollywood history, this book is a must-read, with a chapter on each film.
John Billheimer can be seen discussing his book in March, 2020 at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore on You Tube.
But I hope any re-issues of the book will find a better cover illustration. (Psycho shower scene I suppose).
Can I also recommend, for all things Hitchcock, the website The Hitchcock Zone .