Understanding the PCA and its Effect on Bullets or Ballots

Bullets or Ballots (1936)[1] by William Keighley, starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell, Barton Maclane, and Humphrey Bogart was a film that essentially was not completely about entertainment. First and foremost, upon watching the film it is about detective Johnny Blake who goes undercover to uncover a racketeering crime ring. According to the treatment sent to Joseph Breen on November 25, 1935, the film was created in an effort to inform the public of the dangers of racketeering and racketeers.[2] This is significant because racketeering was an issue in the 1930s, as a result of the elimination of prohibition mobsters turned to racketeering among other things since they could no longer make money trafficking alcohol. As well as gangster films like this were on the rise during the 30s due to the overwhelming popularity of films like Little Caesar[3] and Scarface.[4]  Gangster films are characterized as a subgenre of crime films that typically deal with gangs, criminals, and organized crime. Bullets or Ballots was created in hopes to arouse public indignation and to stop the support of racketeering. Despite the film’s moral compass, the Production Code Administration (PCA) still worried about the film being too much like a gangster film. Which was strictly forbidden under the Production Code also known as the Hays Code. However, in spite of its controversiality among the PCA, the film was given a chance to prove itself. In order for the film to be fully accepted, Joseph Breen stated that it needed to not fit into the category of a “gangster picture,”.[5] Furthermore, the studio was encouraged to focus more on racketeering and less on general stereotypical violent gangster activity. Ultimately, under the Production Code, violence was heavily censored in this film.

To fully understand the effect the Production Code had we must first understand what the Production Code is and its origin. The Production Code was a document written by Martin J. Quigley in 1929 as a way to settle the public uproar about violent and suggestive movies.[6] This document was adopted by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) also known as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) circa 1945. Soon after this, Will H. Hays was appointed as the president of this association. It is worthy to note that previous to Quigley’s version of the Production Code, Hays created the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) with Jason Joy. The committee studied all kinds of deletions made by regional censors in order to compile a list of the most common.[7] However, despite their efforts, it wasn’t secure enough to constrain censor action and it soon failed not long after it was created. A few years later the guidelines written by Quigley were put into action as they were put into an efficient system of industrial censorship enforced by the Production Code Administration.[8] Furthermore, as discussed by Jerold Simmons, “Because the studio corporations that composed the MPPDA owned the nation’s most lucrative theaters, the financial success of a film depended on it receiving the coveted PCA seal.”[9] Ultimately, the MPPDA controlled the American film market and the PCA became the censor that everyone in Hollywood would use.

Moreover, the Production Code was a moral document utilized as a way to create sensible content that people of all ages could watch. Geoffrey Shurlock further discusses this in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. In his section entitled “The Motion Picture Production Code,’’ he states that the Production Code, “Enumerates certain rules which must be followed to ensure that moral values shall not become confused where antisocial or criminal conduct is essential to the telling of a story.’’[10] Overall, the core of the Production Code was meant to secure values. And this was done by making specific rules based on three general principles. These general principles being: No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Meaning the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime. Next, the correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented. Lastly, law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.[11] These general principles created censors that shaped an entire period of films.

Bullets or Ballots is quite calm given the nature of the storyline of the film as are many films that were made under the influence of the Production Code. In light of the many restrictions presented under the Production Code, films often hinted at things instead of addressing anything directly. This was so filmmakers could explore taboo subjects while having a certain level of credible deniability when they were being heavily restricted by censors. And because of this, stories like Bullets or Ballots were affected in, arguably, a negative way. The PCA, in many ways, hindered Bullets or Ballots from portraying an authentic idea of violence during that time, which worked against the film’s moral agenda.

In the Production Code specifically for Bullets or Ballots it focuses heavily on the idea that this film seems too much like a “gangster picture.’’ Thus, many censors were put in place to avoid this. The first censor dealt with criminals in the film looking too much like gangsters and that the criminals should look more suave, well-educated, and well-dressed. Essentially, they wanted them to look more business-like rather than gangster-like. Especially, if said criminals were engaged in the hugely profitable “rackets.’’[12] Despite the PCA’s positive intentions, this could be viewed as the first hindrance displayed in the Production Code review file. This is because if the film was intended to inform the public about racketeers and racketeering, how are the public supposed to know what potential racketeers could look like in real life if they are all dressed up in the film to look like professional business people? In this way, the PCA worked against Bullets or Ballots.

Another example of these censors is in the scene when Humphrey Bogart’s character kills the publisher. In this scene, the publisher, Ward Bryant, is walking into a building where Fenner, Humphrey Bogart, is waiting for him so that he can shoot him. When the publisher gets shot it is, arguably, very unrealistic. As the publisher is shot, we see no gunfire, no blood, or bullet wound. Additionally, the publisher falls to the floor, but he doesn’t necessarily look like he’s in pain or sounds in pain after just getting shot. As he falls to the floor, he stays silent the entire time.[13] This is due to the censor in the Production Code that opposed the idea of showing guns and anything too graphic or gruesome.[14] The intentions of the film and the PCA were to be moral and to stop the audience from viewing this crime in a positive light. However, the rules of the PCA prevented the film from showing how horrific and violent racketeering can be. Which may have not worked in their favor because the audience might have gotten the idea that racketeering wasn’t as violent as they thought it was.

A document that further discusses the rules within the Production Code is Richard Maltby’s Documents on the Genesis of the Production Code. Maltby goes into detail about the general principles of the Production Code and he discusses the “dos’’ and “don’ts” of the Code. Such as, “Evil is not presented alluringly,”[15] This idea is present in the PCA file for Bullets or Ballots as changes were made to cancel the idea of gruesome violence. Possibly in fear that violence would be made to seem “attractive.” With this, it could be inferred that this is why they wanted the original ending to be changed because, if the criminals were seen successfully killing Johnny, then it would seem like they were glorifying evil by having criminals succeed.[16] In contrast to that, it could also be inferred that if they did change the ending it wouldn’t show the true extent to what could happen if someone were to get involved with a crime ring.

Furthermore, to surpass these “don’ts”, directors could have been using symbolism to convey a deeper meaning that maybe they couldn’t get across because of the censors. For example, the film noticeably has various characters smoking tobacco in practically every scene of the film. Which possibly could have symbolized something more “gangster” or perhaps it could be a nod to the fact that, during that time, racketeering could’ve been happening anywhere at any time. An additional example of this is the cops in Bullets or Ballots, the cops in this film are utilized as a way to depict “gangster-like’’ activity since the PCA was heavily against producing gangster films. This example is shown through the character, Johnny because he displayed gangster-like activity in order to keep his identity a secret when he was undercover. This served as a loophole because using cops to depict criminal-like activity was an efficient way for the filmmakers to incorporate aspects of crime into their films. Which helped to somewhat keep the integrity of their films and it made it easier to convey a message that the PCA tended to interfere with.

Although the production code was meant to create family-friendly unimpressionable content, it tended to work against itself when a film was working to send a message or to inform the public. Withholding showing violence does not help to fully inform anyone because they aren’t getting all of the information. This is why many challenged the Production Code and its extensive number of taboos that caused many to want the production code to be liberated or at the very least modernized. In today’s films, you can visibly see the liberation of the production code through the amount of authenticity it provides, especially when a moral agenda is at play.



[1] Bullets or Ballots (A First National picture, 1936).

[2] Maoewen, Walter. Letter to Joseph A. Breen. Nov. 25, 1935. Bullets or Ballots file. MPAA Production Code Administration Files. Reel 11, Microfilm Collection, History of Cinema, Series 1: Hollywood and the Production

Code, Oakland University, Michigan.

[3] Little Caesar, Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. 1931.

[4] Scarface, Directed by Howard Hawks. 1932.

[5] Breen, Joseph. Letter to Mr. Warner. Nov. 30, 1935. Bullets or Ballots file. MPAA Production Code Administration Files. Reel 11, Microfilm Collection, History of Cinema, Series 1: Hollywood and the Production Code, Oakland University, Michigan.

[6] Jerold Simmons, “A Damned Nuisance: The Production Code and the Profanity Amendment of 1954,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 25, no. 2 (1997): pp. 76-82, https://doi.org/10.1080/01956059709602753.

[7] Stephen Prince, Classical Film Violence: Designing and Regulating Brutality in Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1968 (New Brunswick (N.J.), New York: Rutgers University Press, 2003).

[8] Simmons, Jerold. “A Damned Nuisance: The Production Code and the Profanity Amendment of 1954.’’ 1997.

[9] Simmons, Jerold. “A Damned Nuisance: The Production Code and the Profanity Amendment of 1954.’’ 1997

[10] Geoffrey Shurlock, “The Motion Picture Production Code – Geoffrey Shurlock, 1947,” SAGE Journals, November 1, 1947, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/000271624725400122.

[11] Michael Brooke, “The Hays Code,” BFI Screenonline: The Hays Code, accessed December 13, 2020, http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/592022/.

[12] Breen, Joseph. Letter to Mr. Warner. Bullets or Ballots file. Dec. 20, 1935.

[13]Bullets or Ballots (A First National picture, 1936).

[14] Breen, Joseph. Letter to Mr. Warner. Bullets or Ballots file. Dec. 20, 1935.

[15] Richard Maltby (1995) The genesis of the production code, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 15:4, 5-32, DOI: 10.1080/10509209509361445

[16] Breen, Joseph. Memorandum. Jan. 8, 1936. Bullets or Ballots file. MPAA Production Code Administration Files. Reel 11, Microfilm Collection, History of Cinema, Series 1: Hollywood and the Production Code, Oakland University, Michigan.