Skip to main content
×
×
Home

Regulating cinematic stories about reproduction: pregnancy, childbirth, abortion and movie censorship in the US, 1930–1958

  • DAVID A. KIRBY (a1)
Abstract

In the mid-twentieth century film studios sent their screenplays to Hollywood's official censorship body, the Production Code Administration (PCA), and to the Catholic Church's Legion of Decency for approval and recommendations for revision. This article examines the negotiations between filmmakers and censorship groups in order to show the stories that censors did, and did not, want told about pregnancy, childbirth and abortion, as well as how studios fought to tell their own stories about human reproduction. I find that censors considered pregnancy to be a state of grace and a holy obligation that was restricted to married women. For censors, human reproduction was not only a private matter, it was also an unpleasant biological process whose entertainment value was questionable. They worried that realistic portrayals of pregnancy and childbirth would scare young women away from pursuing motherhood. In addition, I demonstrate how filmmakers overcame censors’ strict prohibitions against abortion by utilizing ambiguity in their storytelling. Ultimately, I argue that censors believed that pregnancy and childbirth should be celebrated but not seen. But if pregnancy and childbirth were required then censors preferred mythic versions of motherhood instead of what they believed to be the sacred but horrific biological reality of human reproduction.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure no-reply@cambridge.org is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the @free.kindle.com or @kindle.com variations. ‘@free.kindle.com’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘@kindle.com’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      Regulating cinematic stories about reproduction: pregnancy, childbirth, abortion and movie censorship in the US, 1930–1958
      Available formats
      ×
      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      Regulating cinematic stories about reproduction: pregnancy, childbirth, abortion and movie censorship in the US, 1930–1958
      Available formats
      ×
      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      Regulating cinematic stories about reproduction: pregnancy, childbirth, abortion and movie censorship in the US, 1930–1958
      Available formats
      ×
Copyright
This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
References
Hide All

1 Goldbeck, script, 23 May 1944, Production Code Administration archive, Los Angeles (subsequently PCA archive), Between Two Women file, emphasis in original. For the use of frogs in pregnancy testing: Olszynko-Gryn, Jesse, ‘Frog pregnancy test’, in Hopwood, Nick, Flemming, Rebecca and Kassell, Lauren (eds.), Reproduction: From Antiquity to the Present Day, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming in 2018 . Bernhardi-Spinoza is a made-up name, but beginning with the famous Aschheim–Zondek test, pregnancy tests were typically named after their inventors. See Olszynko-Gryn, , ‘The demand for pregnancy testing: the Aschheim–Zondek reaction, diagnostic versatility, and laboratory services in 1930s Britain’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (2014) 47, pp. 233247 .

2 Goldbeck, op. cit. (1).

3 Goldbeck, op. cit. (1).

4 Letter from Breen to Mayer, 13 July 1944, PCA archive, Between Two Women file.

5 The potential economic impact of not having a seal of approval from the Hays Office is discussed in Black, Gregory D., Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994 ; and Leff, Leonard J. and Simmons, Jerold L., The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood Censorship and the Production Code, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013 .

6 For a discussion of the religious underpinnings of movie censorship in the US see Walsh, Frank, Sin and Censorship: The Catholic Church and the Motion Picture Industry, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996 ; and Grieveson, Lee, Policing Cinema: Movies and Censorship in Early Twentieth-Century America, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004 .

7 There are a number of excellent histories that discuss the formation of the Hays Office in 1922; see Black, op. cit. (5); Walsh, op. cit. (6); Leff and Simmons, op. cit. (5); and Vasey, Ruth, The World According to Hollywood, 1918–1939, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997 .

8 Martin Quigley was editor of the trade paper Motion Picture Herald. Father Daniel A. Lord was a Jesuit priest. I will use the term ‘Production Code’ to refer to the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930. For a history of the Production Code see Leff and Simmons, op. cit. (5). A copy of the Production Code can be found in Miller, Wilbur R. (ed.), The Social History of Crime and Punishment in America, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2012, pp. 22252227 .

9 The topic is far too large to be adequately covered in a single essay. This article will focus exclusively on censors’ and studios’ negotiations about depictions of reproduction after conception, which includes pregnancy, childbirth and abortion. Censorship discussions related to conception (birth control, in vitro fertilization, etc.) will be dealt with in a separate essay.

10 The organization changed its name to the National Legion of Decency in 1935 but I will refer to as Legion of Decency. For a complete history of the Legion of Decency see Black, op. cit. (5); and Walsh, op. cit. (6).

11 Jacobs, Lea, ‘Industry self-regulation and the problem of textual determination’, Velvet Light Trap (1989) 23, pp. 415 .

12 Jacobs, op. cit. (11), p. 8.

13 Jacobs, op. cit. (11), p. 4.

14 There are a number of recent books covering the history of depictions of reproduction in cinema and on television; see MacGibbon, Heather, Screening Choice: The Abortion Issue in American Film from 1900–2000, Saarbrücken: VDM Verlag, 2009 ; Oliver, Kelly, Knock Me Up, Knock Me Down: Images of Pregnancy in Hollywood Films, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012 ; Parry, Manon, Broadcasting Birth Control: Mass Media and Family Planning, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013 ; and Boswell, Parley Ann, Pregnancy in Literature and Film, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014 .

15 There are a few scholarly works that pay significant attention to the impact of censorship on depictions of reproduction. See Schaefer, Eric, Bold! Daring! Shocking! True! A History of Exploitation Films, 1919–1959, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999 ; Strassfeld, Benjamin, ‘A difficult delivery: debating the function of the screen and educational cinema through The Birth of a Baby (1938)’, Velvet Light Trap (2013) 72, pp. 4457 ; and Megan Lynn Minarich, ‘Hollywood's reproduction code: regulating contraception and abortion in American cinema, 1915–1952’, PhD thesis, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, 2014.

16 This article is part of a larger book project exploring film censorship of science and medicine titled Indecent Science: Religion, Science and Movie Censorship.

17 The SRC's ineffectiveness is discussed in Olasky, Marvin N., ‘The failure of movie industry public relations, 1921–1934’, Journal of Popular Film and Television (1985) 12, pp. 163170 .

18 For a history of the PCA see Black, op. cit. (5). Both the SRC and the PCA were referred to as the Hays Office. However, I will use SRC and PCA to differentiate between the pre-Code Hays Office and the Hays Office after the creation of the PCA in 1934.

19 The Legion of Decency's primary means of censorship was through their film classification system. The Legion's classification system was a guide for Catholic viewers as to what were morally suitable and what were morally questionable films for consumption. They had three levels of classification: A – morally acceptable (with subcategories from I to IV), B – morally objectionable in part and C – condemned. Studios strove for an A classification as they believed that a B or C classification could seriously impact a film's box office if it drove significant numbers of Catholics away from the theatre. Therefore studios often negotiated with this censorship group to avoid a B or C classification. This included sending their scripts or their final films to the Legion for approval or recommendations for cuts. Movie studios took the threat of a Catholic boycott seriously. In the 1930s one in five Americans was Catholic. Catholics were concentrated in the eastern urban areas like Boston and New York that were essential for a successful box office. See Walsh, op. cit. (6), p. 135.

20 See Walsh, op. cit. (6).

21 Breen's Catholic influences are discussed in Walsh, op. cit. (6).

22 Leff and Simmons, op. cit. (5). It should be noted that films approved by the PCA could still face significant censorship trouble from the various regional censor boards including city, state and international censors.

23 Christians in general heeded God's command in Genesis (1:28) to ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it’. The Papal Encyclical Rerum Novaru in 1895 clearly stated that in the eyes of the Church a woman's primary role was that of wife and mother. The Fourth Catechism of the Catholic Church also asserts that it is a woman's duty to strengthen the family through the production of children.

24 Full details and plot descriptions for the films discussed in this article can be found on the AFI catalogue, at www.afi.com/members/catalog/Search.aspx.

25 Telegram from Joy to Hays, 18 March 1932, PCA archive, Life Begins file.

26 Trotti, review of the play Life Begins, 18 March 1932, PCA archive, Life Begins file.

27 Letter from Joy to Hays, 25 March 1932, PCA archive, Life Begins file.

28 See the Censor Report files, PCA archive, Life Begins file. The BBFC's ban found in Censor Report, England, 17 December 1935, PCA archive, Life Begins file. The BBFC ultimately lifted their ban after the removal of scenes related to childbirth. See Robertson, James C., The Hidden Cinema: British Film Censorship in Action, 1913–1975, London: Routledge, 1993, pp. 5760 .

29 Breen made the PCA's position on pregnancy clear in a 1937 letter: ‘we have made it a practice, where such an indication was absolutely necessary for the plot, to allow the point to be made, and then to ignore it thereafter’. Letter from Breen to Harmon, 31 December 1937, PCA archive, Birth of a Baby file.

30 Letter from Breen to Quigley, 21 August 1945, PCA archive, Black Market Babies file.

31 Letter from Breen to Wallis, 6 October 1948, PCA archive, Paid in Full file.

32 Letter from Breen to Harmon, 31 December 1937, PCA archive, Birth of a Baby file.

33 This and subsequent quote from letter from Breen to Warner, 21 April 1934, PCA archive, Dr. Monica file.

34 Letter from Breen to Cohen, 2 November 1936, PCA archive, Outcast file.

35 Given the reception of Life Begins it is surprising that the PCA allowed a remake eight years later.

36 All quotes in this paragraph come from letter from Breen to Warner, 9 March 1939, PCA archive, A Child Is Born file.

37 Censor Report, British Columbia, 7 February 1940, PCA archive, A Child Is Born file.

38 Letter from Breen to Bischoff, 2 January 1940, PCA archive, A Child Is Born file.

39 Similarly, the BBFC had previously assigned an A rating to The Mystery of Life (1930) because of its focus on pregnancy and childbirth, which restricted the film to those over sixteen. They had also severely edited the final film to remove any scenes related to childbirth. See Robertson, op. cit. (28), pp. 36–38.

40 On the history of maternal mortality during childbirth see Chamberlain, Geoffrey, ‘British maternal mortality in the 19th and early 20th centuries’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (2006) 99, pp. 559563 ; and Salim Al-Gailani, ‘Hospital birth’, in Nick Hopwood, Rebecca Flemming and Lauren Kassell (eds.), Reproduction: From Antiquity to the Present Day, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming.

41 Letter from Breen to Mayer, 21 August 1939, PCA archive, Secret of Dr. Kildare file.

42 Woods, Robert, Death before Birth: Fetal Health and Mortality in Historical Perspective, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009 .

43 Letter from Breen to Harmon, 31 December 1937, PCA archive, Birth of a Baby file; emphasis in original.

44 See Al-Gailani, op. cit. (40); and Leavitt, Judith Waltzer, Brought to Bed: Childbearing in America, 1750 to 1950, Oxford: Oxford University ress, 1986 .

45 Miller, op. cit. (8).

46 Parker, Alison M., ‘Mothering the movies: women reformers and popular culture’, in Couvares, Francis G. (ed.), Movie Censorship and American Culture, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006, p. 77 .

47 The material in this and the subsequent paragraph concerning The Birth of a Baby comes from Strassfeld, op. cit. (15).

48 Wittern-Keller, Laura, Freedom of the Screen: Legal Challenges to State Film Censorship, 1915–1981, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008, p. 181 .

49 The PCA's distinction between entertainment and education is also discussed in Pernick, Martin S., The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of ‘Defective’ Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures since 1915, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996 ; and Ostherr, Kirsten, Medical Visions: Producing the Patient through Film, Television, and Imaging Technologies, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013 .

50 Strassfeld, op. cit. (15).

51 Letter from Breen to Wobber, 21 March 1941, PCA archive, Forgotten Village file.

52 This and all subsequent quotes in this paragraph from Bosley Crowther, ‘“The Forgotten Village,” a well-photographed film depicting Mexican life, at the Belmont Theatre after censor trouble’, New York Times, 19 November 1941, p. A27.

53 Letter from Breen to Hallis, 14 December 1948, PCA archive, Paid in Full file.

54 All quotes in this paragraph come from letter from Breen to Johnston, 10 December 1948, PCA archive, Paid in Full file.

55 Letter from Kline to Breen, undated, PCA archive, Forgotten Village files.

56 See Salim Al-Gailani, this issue.

57 Letter from Shurlock to Ginsberg, 19 June 1958, PCA archive, The Case of Dr. Laurent file.

58 Letter from Shurlock to Clark, 20 June 1958, PCA archive, The Case of Dr. Laurent file.

59 Letter from Little to Cowles, 24 July 1958, Legion of Decency archive, Washington, DC, The Case of Dr. Laurent file.

60 In 1956 Pope Pius XII gave a speech to gynaecologists in Rome praising natural childbirth. Pope Pius XII, ‘Painless childbirth’, 8 January 1956, Legion of Decency archive, Washington, DC, The Case of Dr. Laurent file.

61 ‘Birth without tears’, Commonweal, 4 July 1958, p. 376.

62 Shurlock had replaced Breen as head of the PCA in 1954. Quote found in letter from Shurlock to Clark, 3 July 1958, PCA archive, The Case of Dr. Laurent file.

63 Letter from Shurlock to Clark, 20 June 1958, PCA archive, The Case of Dr. Laurent file.

64 Letter from Shurlock to Clark, 1 July 1958, PCA archive, The Case of Dr. Laurent file.

65 Letter from Shurlock to Brandt, 9 July 1958, PCA archive, The Case of Dr. Laurent file.

66 Modifications to the Production Code can be found at productioncode.dhwritings.com/multipleframes_productioncode.php.

67 Leff and Simmons, op. cit. (5), p. 173.

68 Letter from Breen to Johnston, 15 April 1949, PCA archive, The Doctor and the Girl file.

69 Vasey, op. cit. (7), p. 107.

70 Maltby, Richard, ‘More sinned against than sinning: the fabrications of “pre-code cinema”’, Senses of Cinema (2003) 29 , at sensesofcinema.com/2003/feature-articles/pre_code_cinema.

71 See MacGibbon, op. cit. (14).

72 Letter from Joy to Zanuck, 23 November 1931, PCA archive, Alias the Doctor file.

73 This and subsequent quote from letter from Zanuck to Joy, 24 November 1931, PCA archive, Alias the Doctor file.

74 Letter from Joy to Zanuck, 25 November 1931, PCA archive, Alias the Doctor file.

75 Letter from Zanuck to Joy, 25 November 1931, PCA archive, Alias the Doctor file.

76 Letter from Joy to Hays, 20 January 1932, PCA archive, Alias the Doctor file.

77 Ireland's film censors removed this scene because they insisted that the operation was an abortion. See Rockett, Kevin, ‘Protecting the family and the nation: the official censorship of American cinema in Ireland, 1923–1954’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television (2000) 20, pp. 283300 , 289.

78 For discussion of the play see Raben, Estelle Manette, ‘ Men in White and Yellow Jack as mirrors of the medical profession’, Literature and Medicine (1993) 12, pp. 1941 . See also Lederer, Susan E., ‘Repellent subjects: Hollywood censorship and surgical images in the 1930s’, Literature and Medicine (1998) 17, pp. 91113 ; and Minarich, op. cit. (15).

79 Letter from Breen to Mannix, 23 December 1933, PCA archive, Men in White file.

80 Letter from Breen to Mannix, 8 January 1934, PCA archive, Men in White file.

81 Memo from Kelly to Film Department, 2 April 1934, PCA archive, Men in White file.

82 Memo from Hays to Mackenzie, 4 April 1934, PCA archive, Men in White file.

83 Letter from Hays to Rubin, 4 January 1934, PCA archive, Men in White file.

84 Letter from Breen to Harmon, 31 December 1937, PCA archive, Birth of a Baby file.

85 MacGibbon, op. cit. (14), pp. 179–180.

86 The PCA made it clear that ‘the Policy of the PCA has been at all times not to allow any suggestion of abortion or even any discussion, with regard to it’. Letter from Breen to Harmon, 31 December 1937, PCA archive, Birth of a Baby file.

87 On mothers’ concerns about giving birth to ‘defective’ babies see, for example, Pernick, op. cit. (49); Reagan, Leslie J., Dangerous Pregnancies: Mothers, Disability, and Abortion in Modern America, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010 ; Patrick Ellis, this issue.

88 Letter from Breen to Joy, 12 December 1944, PCA archive, Leave Her to Heaven file.

89 Letter from Breen to Joy, 2 March 1945, PCA archive, Leave Her to Heaven file.

90 Letter from Breen to Joy, 12 December 1944, PCA archive, Leave Her to Heaven file.

91 The Legion of Decency also did not consider her actions to be an abortion. They classified the film A-II.

92 See Reagan, Leslie J., When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867–1973, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997 .

93 Leff and Simmons, op. cit. (5), p. 173.

94 This and subsequent quote from Breen, memo for the files, 16 June 1950, PCA archive, Unborn file, original underlining.

95 This and subsequent two quotes from letter from Breen to Johnston, 15 April 1949, PCA archive, The Doctor and the Girl file.

96 Johnston had replaced Will Hays as president of the MPDA in 1945. One of his first acts was to change the name from the MPDA to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

97 Leff and Simmons, op. cit. (5), pp. 173–174.

98 Seal of approval, 23 August 1949, PCA archive, Beyond the Forest file.

99 Walsh, op. cit. (6), pp. 242–244.

100 Leff and Simmons, op. cit. (5), pp. 175–177.

101 Thomas F. Brady, ‘Old order changes’, New York Times, 23 July 1950, p. X5.

102 See Leff and Simmons, op. cit. (5), p. 173.

103 See Quicke, Andrew, ‘The era of censorship (1930–1967)’, in Lyden, John (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Religion and Film, New York: Routledge, 2009, pp. 3251 .

104 See Black, Gregory D., The Catholic Crusade against the Movies, 1940–1975, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 175181 .

I want to thank organizers Jesse Olszynko-Gryn, Patrick Ellis and Caitjan Gainty; commentator Jessica Borge; and the audience at the 2015 Reproduction on Film conference for helpful comments. Two anonymous reviewers provided invaluable suggestions which have improved the work substantially. A debt of gratitude is particularly owed to Laura Gaither, who read and commented on many versions of this manuscript. This work was supported by the Wellcome Trust (100618) through an Investigator Award entitled Playing God: Exploring the Intersections between Science, Religion and Entertainment Media.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The British Journal for the History of Science
  • ISSN: 0007-0874
  • EISSN: 1474-001X
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-for-the-history-of-science
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
×

Metrics

Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed