Censorship and "The Devil Doll"

There were recently a couple of articles in this newsgroup that made their way in from rec.arts.books. Among other things, they concerned the amount of harm done by the Breen Code (in the 1930's to 1960's) to American films. Mr. Clayton Cramer claimed that the Code led to lots of good movies, and that, in principle, if not in details, the idea of a production code adhered to by all major American studios was a good one. I differed. (If I am mistating Mr. Cramer's position, I apologize and urge him to correct me.)

As it happens, the most recent issue of Film Comment (Nov/Dec, with Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe on the cover) has a detailed description of an actual case in which the production code of the 1930's gutted a promising film, leaving it as a rather mediocre effort more interesting for who was involved than for what was on the screen.

The film in question is The Devil Doll, one of Tod Browning's last American films. In brief, the film concerns a man who makes use of shrunken people to get revenge on his enemies. The article makes the original script sound extremely interesting. For those who know Browning's best work, this looked like it could be as good as Freaks or Dracula. Then Breen and co. pulled out their red pens and hatchets and chopped the life (and death) out of it. They were abetted by the studio system, which assigned new writers to handle the changes, instead of using Browning and Guy Endore, the authors of the original script. (Bizarrely, one of those new authors was Eric von Stroheim, fairly fresh from his own studio mangling.)

What's especially interesting, for the purpose of this discussion, is the picayune way the censors chipped away not just at the most obviously offensive elements, but at quite trivial items, too. In so doing, they essentially succeeded in removing all points of interest from the script, and, naturally, from the film.

It's my belief that this problem occurred not because of details of how this particular censorship code was set up, but by the nature of censorship bureaus. (The fact that it was, in theory, voluntary makes no difference, especially since it wasn't the writers and directors who did the volunteering.) It is in the very nature of censorship boards to expand their scope and work to the very letter of their law, regardless of what is squashed in doing so. This article makes it very clear exactly what would happen if we had such a censorship code today. None of us could possibly predict all of the things the censors would choose to cut, except to say that they would certainly prohibit things none of us would have expected.

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Last modified: Fri Sep 16 1994