In 1941, you couldn’t make a movie without running it by the Hays Office (aka The Motion Picture Production Code). They were the moral police of the era, cutting out dialogue and imagery that was risque, violent or that glorified immoral behavior.
In this letter, Paramount producer B.G. DeSylva shares a warning from the top censor of the day with his colleagues – beware the female form!
Imagine what would have happened if these same gatekeepers had been handed an episode of Game of Thrones.
The letter was written by Joseph I. Breen, who was the chief censor at the time. What’s funny is, shortly after this letter was written he resigned stating that he was “overworked” and needed a rest. Not surprising given the uphill battle he was fighting. Breen sent the letter to Paramount Executive Y. Frank Freeman who passed it on to production chief Buddy DeSylva. It’s a little confusing at first but it appears that DeSylva copied Breen’s letter then added his own thoughts in the last paragraph before sending it around to “All Producers and Directors” at Paramount. This copy came from the desk of Victor Schertzinger.
Dear Mr. Freeman:
In recent months we have noted a marked tendency to inject into motion pictures shots of low-cut dresses and costumes, which expose women’s breasts, as well as “sweater shots” — shots in which the breasts of women are clearly outlined and emphasized.
All such shots are in direct violation of the provision of the Production Code, which states clearly that “the more intimate women” …must be fully covered at all times; that these should not be covered with transparent or translucence material, and they should not be clearly and unmistakably outlined by the garment.
Your specific attention is directed to this provision of the Code, with a view to advising you that, in the future, any shots in which women’s breasts are partially or wholly exposed, or any “sweater shots” , in which breasts are clearly outlined, will be rejected.
This is important and we respectfully recommend that you advise your producers, as well as the designers in your Costume Department, of this specific regulation.
As you can see, Mr. Breen gives us no definite rules to go by. It is entirely a matter of personal taste. I am sure Mr. Breen has no intention of excluding from pictures the use of bathing suits or any other legitimate apparel designed along the lines of present day fashion. You will please, therefore, merely “exercise care” as before.
We’ve come such a long, long way.