This week’s post has us traveling all the way back to a cosmopolitan city in exotic 1940s North Africa, thanks to a lovely invitation from the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. This weekend, October 13th – 15th marks the date of the Great Breening Blogathon featuring Joseph Breen, an influential, but seldom remembered figure in filmmaking during the glamorous days of old Hollywood.
Joseph was the enforcer behind the Production Code Administration, set up during the 1930s, which acted as a morality censor for all film scripts, scenes, and storylines in the motion picture industry. Bolstered by his own Catholic beliefs and the bishops who originally wrote the code, Joseph was not interested in seeing sexy, sensual imagery on the big screen and the PCA wasn’t interested in exposing such immorality to the American movie-going public. The thought of being subjected to plotlines involving extra-marital affairs, obscene language, excessive violence, or varying degrees of nudity was offensive. Family-friendly American-made films were not the place for such suggestive behavior according to Joseph and the PCA.
With line-by-line lists of can’t-do’s and won’t-permits attached to each script that the PCA reviewed, screenwriters and directors were challenged with creative ways to express characters’ motives and actions while also keeping their plots plausible and compelling. How do you portray magnetic chemistry without showing a steamy, passionate kiss? How do you elude to compromising situations without showing corrupt scandals? How do you make your central location not look or sound like the most unethical, debaucherous place in the world yet still convey to watchers that shady dealings are happening right and left? And ultimately, how do you tell one of the most romantic and dramatic love stories of all time without showing anyone caught up in the physical throes of passion?
The answer is Casablanca.
Many noteworthy movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood were questioned by Joseph and the PCA. The Outlaw (Howard Hughes’ 1943 western) showed too much of Jane Russell’s cleavage; the “damn” in Rhett Butler’s famous “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” line in Gone With the Wind was flagged for unnecessary profanity; and the fact that Casablanca’s Ilsa was married at the time she first met Rick was altogether too salacious for the PCA to greenlight. All three movies managed to overcome these sticky spots eventually, but not without some major behind-the-scenes defense tactics for creative license.
The PCA and Joseph’s staunch deployment of it was frustrating but important to movie studios because it balanced political correctness with the expectations of what movie audiences wanted to see. What was considered entertaining and appropriate to movie-goers in mainstream America in the 1930s and 1940s was laughter, light-hearted romance, and noble sentiment. So if movie studios wanted to sell tickets, they had to comply with what watchers wanted to see. And the PCA was there to make sure that decorum and good manners reigned supreme as far as what was being showcased on the big screen.
On the morality level, Casablanca in particular, seemed like it was doomed from the beginning. It was set primarily in a bar, Rick’s Cafe Americain, where alcohol continuously flowed. It was fueled by desperation with characters willing to do anything and everything to garner exit visas to leave the country. It contained a smoldering, forbidden romance, murder, and contempt for government officials. All major issues when it came to the Production Code Administration.
By the time the script came back from the PCA review office, it contained several red flags and numerous notations from Joseph Breen. No bed was ever to be shown in Rick’s apartment, (such an object would have signaled an intimate encounter with Ilsa). The dubious character of Captain Renault (who was in charge of granting exit visas from Casablanca) was not allowed to verbally suggest or show that he was granting visas to women only in exchange for sex. And Rick and Ilsa’s fated love affair? Joseph found it highly immoral that Ilsa met and fell in love with Rick years before in Paris while she was married to her husband Victor Lazlo. This long-simmering love business between Ilsa and Rick had to be cleaned up in order for the movie to go on. Even though sex does sell, in conservative 1940’s America these scandelous situations were considered way too over-the-top for the eyes and minds of mainstream movie-going audiences.
So how did Casablanca’s production team manage to get around such roadblocks and ultimately propel the film towards three Academy Award wins and iconic movie status? Through good writing and good direction and good acting. So much of the storyline that seemed PCA in-appropriate – the excessive drinking, seduction, womanizing and volatile emotions were so expertly staged and nuanced that the script eventually passed approval with Joseph Breen. Once Humphrey Bogart (Rick), Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa), and Claude Rains (Captain Renault) delivered their performances there was no mistaking the precarious situations that the scriptwriters originally intended. Movie audiences still got the idea loud and clear even if wasn’t visually or audibly spelled out.
In today’s depict-anything-you-want movie plot experience, it seems so foreign to have such a morality cloud like Joseph Breen hovering over a film production. But I wonder if the beauty and ultimate success of Casablanca came in the act of being challenged to subtly hint at each impropriety. Perhaps that is what makes it timeless and still translatable in today’s cinematic scope. It leaves room for our own imaginations to sort out and further dissect the specifics of the relationships between characters.
I’m not a big fan of censoring art in any way. I think you lose the point of it then. I once lived in a town where plays were censored for language or risque content and it felt very limiting. Art is intended to provoke reaction and expand horizons so I’m not sure if Joseph Breen and I would have been on the same page in the philosophy department, but his impact on Casablanca was influential, so maybe his enforcement of the Production Code Administration ultimately helped the movie in the long-run.
For all the spicy current passing between Ilsa and Rick throughout the movie, there is not a lot of spicy food being passed around Rick’s cafe. Originally I thought it would be fun to write a dinner and a movie post and feature some aromatic Moroccan food of the likes that would have been served at Rick’s. But apparently, the main thing on the menu at Cafe Americain, the bestseller of all bestsellers, was a cocktail or two or three or half a bottle. Champagne, bourbon, scotch, gin, whiskey are present in almost every scene. Alcohol swishes and swirls and sits in glasses while Rick broods, Captain Renault schemes, and Ilsa builds courage. So in lieu of a traditional North African dinner, here in the Vintage Kitchen, we are staying true to the spirit of Casablanca by serving up a food accompaniment with this post that pairs best with your favorite cocktail…Sweet Spiced Nuts circa 1967.
This recipe comes from the vintage cookbook, A World of Nut Recipes by Morton Gil Clark and features three ingredients essential to Moroccan cooking: cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. This is a super easy recipe to make for cocktail hour, parties, or late-night snacking. The flavors are subtle, accommodating, and interesting and with nut season now in full swing, you have a variety of options to choose from. For this recipe, I used a variety of mixed nuts which included peanuts, walnuts, almonds, cashews, and Brazil nuts but pecans, pistachios, macademias, etc all would make delicious alternatives as well.
Sweet Spiced Nuts
Makes 1 Cup
1 cup nuts
1/4 cup fine granulated sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8th teaspoon ground allspice
1/8th teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 egg (egg white part only)
Place the nuts in a small bowl and pour over them the slightly beaten whites of 1 egg. Mix so that all the nuts are evenly coated. In a separate bowl combine the sugar and spices and then toss with the nuts, mixing well again so that all the nuts are evenly coated. Spread seasoned nuts out into a single layer on a baking sheet and bake at 300 degrees for 25 minutes. If you prefer ultra-crunchy nuts bake them about 10-15 minutes longer, but keep your eye on them so they don’t burn. Once done, let them cool on the baking sheet until ready to serve. Pair with your favorite cocktail and some lively conversation.
Pair with your favorite cocktail and some lively conversation. And while you’re at it, raise a toast to Joseph Breen, who made his mark, for better or worse, on one of the world’s most beloved movies of all times. Here’s look’n at you, Joe!
To learn more about Joe Breen and his influence on old Hollywood, catch up with other blogathon related posts here.
For more dinner and movie posts from the Vintage Kitchen, pull up a chair here.
And last but not least, find 200 more pages of interesting nut-related recipes in the World of Nut Recipes cookbook available in the shop here.