LAUREL & HARDY VS. THE CENSORS

by David Hayes

The Motion Picture Production Code Administration — aren’t they the organization that prevented Mae West from telling double-entendres in most of her movies?  Aren’t they the guys that said that James Cagney movies shouldn’t glorify crime?, and didn’t they fine David O. Selznick $5,000 for using the word “damn” at the end of Gone With the Wind?  The answer to all of these questions is “yes.”  But some of the MPCCA’s impositions are known mainly to those film fans who have graduated past general film history.  Jeanette MacDonald and Norma Shearer had played virtuous women before The Code came into effect just as they did after, yet both actresses seem less sensuous and unsexy afterward, never again being provocative.  From the time the Production Code began being rigidly enforced in mid-1934, Hollywood’s self-censorship administration affected not just cleavage and innuendo, but the plot content of many films, which until then included contract killing, child abuse, sexual relationships devoid of love, women parting with their virtue easily, successful thefts, and more.

 "Finger (the)" was on the Production Code list of content not to appear in movies, so this 1928 still for Hats Off would not have been approved had a studio proposed to put it before the public while the Code was enforced, which it would be starting 1934.
But what has this to do with Laurel and Hardy?  Weren’t they always so innocent and wholesome that the censorship committee might just as well approve their films for distribution without even seeing them?

The Motion Picture Productions Code Administration (known then as the Studio Relations Committee, and also known as the Hays Office and the Breen Office and later as the Johnson Office) did review scripts of Laurel and Hardy films before they were shot, and they did examine the films for possible violations of the Code prior to certifying the films for release.  Surprisingly, they did have objections.  These reactions were made in writing, and the correspondence in some cases exists to this day.

For Beau Hunks (made in 1931, when the censorship board had a Hollywood presence, but not the dictatorial power it later had), surviving correspondence reveals that not only did the Production Code Administration review the film prior to original release, but so did an official of the French Government, the latter invited by the former to assure the American censors that French people would not be offended by any possible subtle derogatory comedy.

On August 28, 1931, Jason J. Joy of the Production Code Administration wrote to the Roach Studio about Beau Hunks: “We… believe it complies with the tenets of the Code, and contains nothing reasonably censorable. [huh?]

“As you know, Mr. Mandelstamm who represents the French government has asked to see this picture because of its theme…”

In a memo dated September 10, 1931, Jason J. Joy brought those concerned up to date: “With Mr. Mandelstamm and Mr. Macinnon, we saw the Laurel and Hardy French Foreign Legion comedy, ‘BEAU HUNKS,’ at the Hal Roach Studios.  Mr. Mandelstamm objected to one scene, but agreed that the removal of two lines would be satisfactory under the circumstances.  Subsequently, we talked with Mr. Doane [of HRS] who agreed to eliminate these lines from the Movietone prints and to re-record the record of this reel for the Vitaphone. (Wilson)”

What two lines did Valentin Mandelstamm object to?  It’s hard to say, because only one line is asked to be removed in his letter to all concerned of September 10, 1931.  His letter also reveals that he fancied himself a comedy critic:

The only remarks which I feel I have to make are:

The line in which the French Commander says: “The Legion is hell on earth and in heaven,” should be cut out.

In the same scene, the gag of showing Laurel and Hardy leaving the Commander’s desk, then coming back and leaving again, and so forth, forgetting either their hat, or taking away papers by mistake, etc. is really too exaggerated, and besides too long — and not even so funny!

It would be rather a good thing if this could be cut.

Fortunately, he did not have the authority to declare what was and was not funny.  However, the Production Code Administration (known as the Studio Relations Committee at this time) in their written Code had warned moviemakers not to insult “the customs, peoples or historical figures of foreign nations.”

A similar warning within the Code (specifically, in Article XII, subtitled “Repellent Subjects,” items 3 and 5) put moviemakers on alert to exclude “Brutality and possible gruesomeness,” and “Apparent cruelty to children and animals.” On Pack Up Your Troubles (for which the Production Code correspondence has not survived, to my knowledge), such edicts explain why the original 1932 release contained a scene of Richard Cramer beating his wife (followed by an implication that he has belted the child they tend), which was deleted from the reissues.  In “Special Regulations” of the Code adopted December 20, 1938, one newly-added rule (item 3) stated, “There must be no suggestion, at any time, of excessive brutality.”

Reissues of films made prior to enforcement of the Code were often shorn of scenes that did not comply with the Code.  At some studios, personnel realized that their older titles would be subject to cutting and made the deletions on their own prior to submitting the films for PCA review.

Elmer R. Raguse, writing on Hal Roach Studios stationery January 13, 1937, sent a letter to Mr. Breen of the Association of Motion Picture Producers, Inc., stating:

We are planning the re-issue of the following Laurel-Hardy short subjects:
“BEAU HUNKS” (orig.release 1931)
“BLOTTO” (orig.release 1930)
“PERFECT DAY” (orig.release 1929)

In the preparation of these re-issues listed above there will be no changes whatever in the picture.  “Beau Hunks” is now being prepared for re-dubbing and will be ready for early shipment and printing.

Will you kindly check from your files the status of the above pictures, insofar as censorship is concerned…

Although Raguse claimed that “there would be no changes whatever in the picture,” we know that there were.  (Richard Finegan detailed the cuts in the reissues of Beau Hunks and Blotto in an article, Intra-Tent Journal Spring 1993.  A summary of that article appears in the revised edition of Randy Skretvedt’s book Laurel & Hardy: the Magic Behind the Movies, pgs. 474-475.)  Raguse seems to acknowledge this by the contradiction in his next sentence: “…now being prepared for re-dubbing.”  Since there wasn’t a new musical score added to Beau Hunks as there were to the other two titles, he leaves us to wonder what just did happen to the soundtrack of Beau Hunks.  Perhaps the sound was subject only to re-mixing to eliminate surface noise.  (But then again, mightn’t the actors have been brought in to match their 1937 voices to their 1931 lips?)

When Blotto was rereleased in 1937, it was missing a scene in which the boys are their most inebriated.  Stan’s slurring his words and Ollie hiccuping loudly, might have been considered too favorable a depiction of drunkenness, in violation of the Code, which states: “The use of liquor should never be excessively presented.  In scenes from American life, the necessities of plot and proper characterization alone justify its use.  And in this case, it should be shown with moderation.” Stan putting an ice tray on his head may have been left in the film in that he was demure while doing it, thus not beyond “moderation.”

The reissue of Blotto also omitted a seltzer bottle spraying into Ollie’s lap, which may have been regarded as too “phallic” or too close to “bathroom humor” by 1937 standards.  Article V of the Code, titled “Profanity,” lists “toilet gags” among items that “no approval by the Production Code Administration shall be given to the use of.” This is so exact a prohibition that it suggests why even the 1930 English-language version lacked a scene which appeared in the Spanish version.  In it, Symona Bonaface sits down in a puddle and then gets up with a wet dress, as observed by her companion.  The reaction of someone who believes the dress stained by excrement, would surely be regarded as a toilet gag; a seltzer bottle might be looked upon as nothing more than a seltzer bottle.

(Although the Production Code would not become an enforced “lawbook” until mid-1934, there was prior to that a censor on the payroll of the Producers and Distributors Association.  Installed into that position in 1922, he was making it a point thereafter to argue for removal of scenes that would surely have been removed by local and state censors.  This can explain why the Roach studio excluded the scene with Symona Bonaface even in 1930.  The most extensive print version of the censorship code was written in 1930 (though not much enforced at that time), and it is from this that I will now quote.)

The Code’s list as “profanity”: “Bronx cheer (the sound)” (which might have affected the possibility of re-releasing Pardon Us while the Code was in full force), “finger (the)” (which was depicted in an L&H still taken at the time of Hats Off) and “traveling salesman and farmer’s daughter jokes” (which discreetly figures into Come Clean).  Of course, “S.O.B.” was not permitted, but given that filmmakers would imply its use without actually using it (as in 1931’s The Front Page, where we hear “son of a” and then noise from a prop that obliterates the next word), the Code specifically prohibits “son-of-a,” so Mae Busch’s pause between “son of the” and “desert” in the boys’ second 1933 feature would not have been permitted after the Code.  (Sons of the Desert just squeezed by before the deadline.  Variety, in reviewing Sons of the Desert, shot in 1933 and first shown on December 29 of that year, noted the “pre-Code Hawaiian dance in a cafe set led by a highly personable young woman who knows it pays to advertise.”)  Not all of the things on the list had to worry the creators of Laurel & Hardy pictures; probably they would not have intended to use these no-no’s: “slut (applied to a woman),” “Madam (relating to prostitution).”

A cameraman at Roach during the thirties, Glenn Robert Kershner, writing in Pratfall vol. 2, no. 1, recalled that there was “the unwritten law then in the motion picture [of] ‘Never show a toilet.’” However, he writes, one day Charley Chase told a sound man to make several recordings of a toilet flushing.  Kershner had wondered “where in hell he would use that” in a releasable movie.  It turned out that in the movie, Charley has “a bad taste in his mouth from a hangover,” and when he opens his mouth a takes medicine, his swallowing is accompanied by the sound from the toilet.  This probably pushed the limit of depicting bodily elimination before the Code went into effect; after the Code, this scene would not have been permitted.  By some accounts, a toilet would not be shown, mentioned or implied from the beginning of the enforcement of the Production Code until Psycho in 1960.

From mid-1930 to mid-1934, studios played a cat-and-mouse game with the Studio Relations Committee.  Producers who found their films unapproved by this committee would release the films anyway, sometimes to public acclaim.  The threat of a boycott of all films by a powerful religious organization, the Legion of Decency, compelled the studios to agree that all of their films thereafter would comply with the Production Code.  Laurel & Hardy films were thereafter subject to the dictates of the Code, as evidenced by surviving correspondence.  Correspondence from the office of Joseph Breen to the Hal Roach Studio during the studio’s efforts to get a Production Code seal of approval for Bonnie Scotland (1935) indicates that Breen called for the elimination of Laurel “goosing” Hardy as well as Hardy’s retort, “Is nothing sacred?” These gestures don’t appear in the completed film.  Also there was to be someone sitting in a pool of ink and another character’s reacting as to how the pants were soiled.  (Incidentally, Bonnie Scotland is referred to by the title “F-7” on the paperwork, apparently because the final title had not yet been chosen.  “Laurel & Hardy in India” and “McLaurel and McHardy” were other titles chosen but discarded, according to the Richard W. Bann filmographies.)

The Breen Office papers also record that Bohemia and Moravia (formerly Czechoslavakia, the notes say) “rejected w/o assigning reason” all of Bonnie Scotland.  Lithuania cut the following: “‘Leatherpuss’, L&H kicking each other, door hitting sergeant, Laurel on Hardy’s lap.”

Hollywood had by them become well-versed at recognizing what was not permitted by the Production Code.  Sons of the Desert, shot in 1933 and first shown on December 29 of that year, was shown to the press a half-year prior to strict enforcement of the Code, yet the Variety review noted the “pre-Code Hawaiian dance in a cafe set led by a highly personable young woman who knows it pays to advertise.”

The Production Code explains some by not changes to the films for the post-1934 reissues.  Richard W. Bann, answering a question in a forum at the 1980 Sons of the Desert convention, said that the musical soundtrack of Brats was changed to bring this 1930 film up to 1937 expectations of sound quality.  There remained cackle in the audio whenever anyone speaks, because we hear a mixture of 1930 and 1937 recordings.  When there is only music, the soundtrack excludes all earlier recordings.

Let’s hope that we can learn more about what Laurel & Hardy’s films contained originally, and that this information will come to us in the pages of this journal — and in the comedies.


David Hayes, a member of the Unaccustomed as We Are tent since 1976, is not a known relation to Will H. Hays, the Production Code’s “Czar of All the Rushes.”

This page © 1998-2007 David P. Hayes

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