Hollywood Censors and Johnny Weissmuller's Films

When the new Production Code was written and adopted in 1930, the Depression was in full swing. The right wing groups, which included such agencies as the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America and Womens Organizations, were waiting to see how Will Hays and his sidekick Colonel Jason Joy would handle the West Coast producers.

Unfortunately, the kind of product that the Production Code wanted was box office poison, and when the state censors went after films like All Quiet on the Western Front , Little Caesar and Public Enemy , the Hollywood watchdogs found themselves defending the films, rather than siding with the state censors. These were the films that were bringing in the money. And, after all was said and done, that's all the East Coast film bosses cared about.

So it seemed that the Code's initial impact was negligible.

Thus when Tarzan, the Ape Man appeared on the scene, although state censors toned down some of the gruesomeness, much of the violence and other patent Code violations went unchallenged. Enter Joseph Breen, the fighting Irishman. While it was true that neither Will Hays nor Colonel Joy had the stomach for confrontation with the film moguls, the same was not true of Breen. He had been hired by Hays to work out of Chicago, but when the situation became critical, Hays transferred Breen to Hollywood and hoped that he could accomplish what he had been unable to.

At about the same time, Paramount, on the brink of bankruptcy, hoped that Mae West, newly arrived from Broadway, would bring in much needed profits. For a time, Breen and Company battled without too much success against the sex comedies that Mae West was famous for. And three of her films made it past his scissors virtually intact before the Catholic Church and its ties to Eastern banking institutions gave Breen the backing he needed to empower the Code.

This change occurred in June 1934 when the Production Code Administration took effect with Breen its Chief Administrator, and in terms of MGM's Tarzan films, Tarzan and His Mate would be the first to feel its full weight.

The principal objection to the film was the nude swimming sequences with a double for Maureen O'Sullivan. When Breen saw the film at MGM on April 5, 1934, he rejected it. Mayer applied for a jury trial, but the verdict by Breen was upheld. To placate the censors, MGM put some clothes on Jane, certain shots were cut or darkened to obscure the view. Three versions of the film were sent out to various states. This too was a violation of the code, and MGM eventually eliminated the offending scenes and had them edited out of the negative, although the scenes were restored in the 1980s.

This marked a turning point in attitude towards what was deemed blatant exhibitionism, and Jane's costume became G-rated by the next film.

One of the censor states, Maryland, allowed views of the skimpy costume Jane wore, but snipped the scene showing Jane swimming as well as the remark: “Can't you see I have nothing on?”

Three considerations were routine when Breen and Company were dealing with jungle films: the appearance and costuming of the women, the handling of animals, and the degree of violence or gruesomeness in the depiction of jungle life. In fact, whether it was Tarzan, Jungle Jim or Bomba the Jungle Boy, the following were typical of the letters sent to the respective studios upon receiving their scripts.

“We direct your particular attention to the need for the greatest possible care in the selection and photographing of the dresses and costumes of your women. The Production Code makes it mandatory that the intimate parts of the body — specifically, the breasts of women — be fully covered at all times. Any compromise with this regulation will compel us to withhold approval of your picture.”

“In accordance with Code requirements, it will be essential that you work very carefully with Mr. Mel Morse of the American Humance Asociaton, as to all scenes in which animals are used.” [Over the years, others who held Morse's position include Dr. Wesley Young and Richard C. Craven.]

“Kindly avoid scenes of excessive violence and brutality, as well as of kneeing, kicking and gouging in all fights throughout.”

“It is presumed that the natives, wherever registered, will be properly costumed, and the intimate parts of their bodies covered at all times.”

But if the Breen Office put restraint on the studios, other countries, especially England, used their editors' shears like Jack the Ripper. Still others like South Africa, India and Indonesia had special problems - race problems, and often their decisions were dictated by these concerns.

During World War II, Germany and countries under its thumb, or in sympathy with it, rejected films like Tarzan Triumphs (43). Sweden and Eire (Ireland) banned it outright because of its anti-Nazi theme.

The MGM Tarzan Films

Following Tarzan Escapes, the Production Code Association's recommendations were largely perfunctory. The only interesting item was its concern over the scene in Tarzan Finds a Son! in which a family of spiders is closing in on Boy.

The RKO Tarzan Films

The greater part of the Production Code Association's concerns focussed on the women in the films, wanting to be certain that there was no undue exhibitionism. Other countries, notably England, wanted shots involving animal cruelty removed. In Tarzan's Desert Mystery, for instance, the scenes involving the giant spider were to be removed in their entirety.

The Columbia Films

One of Sam Katzman's ploys to get adolescent and adult males into the movie houses was to use second-string actresses, clad in as little as he could get away with, and this brought swift denunciations from the Hollywood censors. In the first film, Jungle Jim, Lita Baron's costume and dance drew criticism from Breen and company. And a scene in the original script called for the dog to howl like a wolf when Baron walked by. This absurd scene was never shot, although I doubt that the censors' remarks had much to do with it.

In The Lost Tribe, Zoron is supposed to be knocked down and trampled by the invaders. This was intolerable to Joe Breen, and it never materialized. And the suggestive dialogue concerning Norina had to be toned down. For example, when her uncle asks her if she thinks she can handle Jungle Jim, the original line read: "He's a man, ain't he?" This was converted into "What do you think?"

And as part of the battle between the sailors and the gorillas, one scene had a gorilla dragging a screaming Calhoun by the hair. In the filmed version, he is simply killed by the beast. Actually, Joseph Vitale would have had little to scream about in his character as Calhoun since he was almost bald.

Mark of the Gorilla had planned a number of violent scenes that had to be rethought. Fights between a tiger and a python, a python and an alligator, the appearance of a cobra were all disallowed. Kramer is supposed to fling Jungle Jim's dog against a rock, and animals were to maul the corpses of the slain treasure hunters. Brandt was supposed to meet his demise on a bed of rocks, but ended up in the lake.

In Captive Girl, which was supposedly banned in Australia, (but there is an Australian daybill advertising the film, so the ban must have been lifted), Charles Schneer of Katzman Productions had an on-going argument with Jack Vizzard of the Motion Picture Association of America over alleged improprieties concerning the photographing of Anita Lhoest's undeniable charms. While there may have been some justification for the Association's position in this matter, there were other concerns which bordered on the ridiculous, such as their reservations over the chimp's putting its arm around the dog's neck, asserting that this was not “natural” behaviour.

Another sequence in Captive Girl was to be a fight between a panther and a python (undoubtedly taken from Frank Buck's Bring 'Em Back Alive), but it was not used.

Heller was supposed to kick Tamba, the Chimp in Jungle Manhunt. This, of course, was not filmed.

In Jungle Jim in the Forbidden Land, the censors objected to the use of the verb “drug,” so Katzman obligingly replaced it with “inoculate.”

As for the remainder of the series, censors both in the U.S. and especially abroad regularly complained about the undue attention cameramen paid to actresses Karin Booth and Judy Walsh. Certainly in the latter's case, there was some justification, especially if the principal target audience was children.

As a final note, it was suggested that Mae West deliberately put unacceptable scenes into her scripts, knowing that the censors would expunge them before the cameras started rolling, and that their attention would be drawn away from other potential victims of the censors' scissors, scenes that she really wanted left in the film. It seems clear that she was not the only one who made use of that ploy.