What is the most epic Hollywood saga of all time? I think many will agree that the “Star Wars” saga, which celebrates its forty-fifth anniversary on May 25, is one of the most dramatic stories ever put to the screen.
However, I know a saga which, although less fanciful, is just as dramatic a tale, and it really happened. I refer to an untold chapter of Hollywood history: the fall of the Production Code Administration (PCA) in the 1960s, leading to the implementation of the current film rating system. If you think a story about movie guidelines, censorship, and rating systems could never compare to George Lucas’s space opera franchise, think again.
As told in Jack Vizzard’s memoirs, “See No Evil: Life Inside a Hollywood Censor” (1970), the story of the PCA’s glory days and decline is more dramatic than many fictional film plots. However, the complicated history of the Motion Picture Production Code, its enforcement, and its decay can be hard for those unfamiliar with these concepts to understand.
To bring this behind-the-scenes drama to life, especially for younger people, we can compare the story of “See No Evil” to the Prequel Trilogy of “Star Wars”, Episodes I-III, which tells the story of young Darth Vader. Although not every “Star Wars” fan loves “The Phantom Menace” (1999), “Attack of the Clones” (2002), and “Revenge of the Sith” (2005), I think everyone can agree that a more dramatic fall from grace than Anakin Skywalker’s turn to the Dark Side is hard to find. Could Jack Vizzard’s true story be one to match it?
The Chosen One
In “The Phantom Menace”, Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) began his life as a slave boy on the planet of Tatooine. Jack Vizzard began his life in San Francisco in a sturdy Catholic family.
While Anakin is the fatherless son of single mother Shmi (Pernilla August), Jack had two parents and four siblings. The similarity in their stories begins when each starts his training. Anakin was discovered to be the Chosen One by two Jedi knights who visited Tatooine, Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). They eventually took the nine-year-old with them to start his training as a Jedi. Although sad to leave his mother, Anakin was eager to become a Jedi, telling Shmi, “I want to do it.”
Similarly, Jack Vizzard declared at age thirteen that he wanted to train for Catholic priesthood. In the first chapter of his book, he wrote, “I recall murmuring, in a voice not too loud, in the hope that I might not be heard, ‘I think I want to be a priest.’ I was thirteen years old. My mother … halted as though she had heard the golden notes of Gabriel’s trumpet. … ‘What did you say?’ she wanted to know. … I was obliged to echo my statement once again. … That was enough. The next thing I knew … we were on our way over to see the Pastor. … He patted me on the head, excused me from the last half of the eighth grade, we fade out, we fade in, and I am in the seminary.” However, while Anakin began training under his mentor, Qui-Gon Jinn, right away, it would be many years before Jack met his mentor.
Both lads began training for a sort of priesthood when still young boys, influencing their development. Instead of growing up like other lads, they spent their formative years preparing for a celibate lifestyle. Nevertheless, both were attracted to young ladies. Anakin fell in love with Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), and Jack wrote about his seminary daydreams of girls in bathing suits: “The strange silence that fell on the novices was a sign of their thoughts, secretly yearning for the freedom to move at will, to have a home to return to, and to spend a day at the beach surreptitiously measuring the lithe figures of girls moving like gazelles over the sand.”
Despite their romantic desires, both men proved to be exceptional in their respective orders. By “Attack of the Clones,” nineteen-year-old Anakin (Hayden Christensen) was a very powerful Jedi who was aware of his strengths.
Similarly, Jack continued his religious studies for thirteen years, eventually becoming a Jesuit. “Within four years I had transferred my allegiance into an even more profound commitment. … I was wearing the flowing black cassock without buttons down the front … which is the well-known uniform of the Jesuit Order. Everybody was double-proud of me that I had had the capacity to go the whole way, and I was double-proud of myself.”
However, the intelligence and strength of will which made them exceptional also made them question the rules and their mentors.
Vizzard’s Ultimate Destiny
Just short of taking his final priestly vows, Jack Vizzard decided against a religious vocation. When he heard about the PCA, he thought he had discovered a way to leave priesthood without deserting his fight against immorality. “This was it. The thing I had been vaguely waiting for. This was my chance to have my cake and eat it too. I could stay on the side of ‘decency’ and yet get out into the world and wallow around it. … I could meet Satan face to face, stare at him with a cold, flinty eye, and flick a length of cigarette ash into his face.”
Within a year, he had a job as one of the Code enforcers. The year when he began his ultimate destiny was 1944, ten years after the PCA’s formation. Much like Anakin rushing against Count Dooku (Sir Christopher Lee) unprepared in the climactic final battle of “Episode II,” Jack saw this as his chance to destroy evil filmmakers, rather than to simply ensure decent film content. “I folded my hands in the midst of the engulfing silence and made my soul resolute. At any moment now the phone would ring, and I’d have a dirty producer on my hands, and my role in life would begin. Figuratively, I would leap across the intervening distance, grab his throat with both of my hands, and begin squeezing indecency out of him like juice out of an orange.”
What does this part of Vizzard’s story have to do with Darth Vader’s backstory? Well, if Anakin had not become a Jedi, he wouldn’t have become the fallen Lord Vader of the Empire whom we know as the original trilogy’s villain. Similarly, if Jack Vizzard hadn’t become a self-regulator, he wouldn’t have been part of Hollywood’s melodramatic decline. However, neither could escape his “destiny,” to use galactic terminology.
Jack Vizzard soon met Joseph I. Breen, the PCA’s tough but genial leader from its creation in 1934 to 1954. Vizzard was not a child, but he was immature in some areas because he spent his formative years in the confined, protective environment of a monastery. Thus, his approach to dealing with filmmakers when he first arrived in Hollywood in 1944 was similar to little Anakin’s fanciful views of the Jedi when he first met Qui-Gon. Both had much to learn.
Joe Breen is the Qui-Gon Jinn of this story, because he was a wise, sensitive leader who relied more on his intuition than written rules. His renegade attitude often irked his by-the-book colleagues, just as Qui-Gon’s kept him off the Jedi Council.
As Qui-Gon believed Anakin to be the Chosen One foretold in ancient legends, Breen put his hopes for the future of the PCA in the eager priesthood dropout. “He was concerned that the producers were stirring and beginning to show streaks of boldness. He knew how to cope with this, but he no longer had quite the fiery energy to launch the remedy. Therefore, he buttonholed me in private and detailed a plan he had been nurturing in secret for many years. … ‘Why wouldn’t that be a good undertaking for a young man like you?’”
Like Anakin, Jack was derailed by emotional reactions, which kept him from following Breen’s plans for him. “I was giddy with visions of power. This was the type of thing I was programmed to do, and to do well. But there had been, perhaps, a Freudian slip in the use of one certain word. This was the term ‘undertaking.’ I somehow vaguely felt that this was more a description of what would happen to me.”
In fact, fear of losing his job motivated Jack’s reluctance to fight for the Code in later years, just as Anakin’s fear for the safety of his wife drove him to pursue Dark Side powers.
Anakin is a gifted Jedi, but he is hindered by his questioning, rebellious nature. Instead of accepting Master Obi-Wan’s guidance and judgement, the willful apprentice questions and argues every point. Similarly, Jack Vizzard had a thorough education, a deep theological background, and an intelligent mind, yet he admittedly questioned the need for basic principles in the Code, much to the bewilderment of his master, Joseph Breen. “One Code clause was incomprehensible to me even at my first encounter with it. It was the prohibition against showing ‘scenes of actual childbirth, in fact or in silhouette….’ The enigma to me was the fact that they would even bring the subject up. Surely nobody would be tempted to put a camera on this privacy. I asked Joe Breen. He turned around and peered at me as though I’d been in a long sleep.”
A Dark Influence
One of the PCA saga’s key players is Geoffrey M. Shurlock, second-in-command at the PCA from its inception who eventually replaced Joseph Breen in 1954. He was Breen’s right-hand man, as Obi-Wan was Qui-Gon’s, but Shurlock could never share such a comradery with Joseph Breen due to their contrary personal values. While Breen was a devout Catholic, Vizzard wrote that Shurlock “passed for an Episcopalian, even though he was an eclectic, and, in the deepest currents of his soul, a theosophist.” This observation was not a guess, since Noir City published a detailed article about Shurlock’s upbringing in the Theosophical Society’s West Coast cult, Lomaland.
If the Jedi are the galactic equivalent of Catholics (pardon the sacrilege), the anti-Christian teachings of Theosophy make its adherents the equivalent of the Dark Side users of the Force: the Sith. Thus, the other, hidden side of Geoffrey Shurlock’s identity makes him Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), a politician but secret Sith lord who became Darth Vader’s master, the Galactic Emperor, in “Return of the Jedi” (1983). Viewed from the right angle, Shurlock’s role in Jack’s life is very similar to Emperor Palpatine’s in Anakin’s.
When “The Phantom Menace” begins, Palpatine is an urbane senator, who, like Shurlock during Breen’s tenure at the PCA, only pretends to be interested in doing the right thing. Palpatine is secretly the Sith lord who is orchestrating the unrest in the Force and the political climate. Things were fine while Breen was at the PCA and Qui-Gon was mentoring Anakin. However, after Breen retired and Qui-Gon died, their respective apprentices, Jack Vizzard and Anakin Skywalker, fell under influences which led to their downfalls. Palpatine seduced Anakin to the Dark Side by subtly flattering his pride and fears, and Shurlock influenced Vizzard to doubt the basic values behind the Code.
The Path to the Dark Side
The true reason for Jack Vizzard’s fall to the Dark Side, which meant no longer fighting for the Code and abandoning his Christian faith, is somewhat vague in his book. I discovered the missing piece of the puzzle when I interviewed Gabriel Vizzard, Jack’s nephew. He recounted that his uncle was extremely upset when Geoffrey Shurlock was appointed Joseph Breen’s successor as PCA director, a position he thought he himself deserved.
Just as Anakin grows hostile toward his Jedi superiors when they deny him the rank of Master, Jack’s resentment motivated his actions following Shurlock’s appointment.
Once in charge of the PCA, Shurlock didn’t enforce the Code properly. The first person to point this out was Martin J. Quigley, one of the Code’s original authors. As an influential film magazine publisher, he was a powerful but unofficial force behind the Catholic Legion of Decency. He expected fellow Catholic Jack Vizzard to uphold the Code’s standards, despite Shurlock’s liberal attitude. As a result, Vizzard grew to resent Quigley, just as Anakin resents suspicious Jedi Master Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson).
Describing a meeting in Quigley’s office, Vizzard wrote: “He was seated behind an impressive desk in his executive office, drawing thoughtfully on a cigarette and scanning me with slow, penetrating eyes. … ‘Jack,’ he finally said, probing with each sentence like steps on a snow bridge, ‘I had expected that you would bring your influence to bear on Geoffrey. … I am disappointed.’ … I rankled over the fact that a definition of myself was inextricably tangled up with what Geoff did, without my having any control over the factors that affected my fate.”
Vizzard resented Quigley’s conspiratorial attitude about controlling the PCA. Above all, he feared that Quigley could, as he hinted, make him lose his job if the PCA strayed from the Legion of Decency’s conservative values. This fear was the beginning of his path to the Dark Side. Although Quigley meant well, like Mace Windu, his tactics undermined his cause. Vizzard was appalled when Quigley suggested he make a memo to the files every time he disagreed with a Shurlock decision. The result was the same as when the Jedi Council instructs Anakin to spy on his good friend, Palpatine: It solidified his allegiance to the enemy.
Vizzard concluded his description of his meeting with Quigley by saying, “Martin had me nicely cornered, and he knew it. There was a quick instant in which eyes clashed, to measure the depth of resolution in the other. … Martin nodded sagely, as though he understood that I would make conspiracy with him. But in my heart I maintained a dumb insolence. This man would, in some manner, have to be destroyed.”
By Episode III, Palpatine has manipulated Anakin into trusting him as a father figure. Thus, when his superior Jedi instruct him to report on Palpatine’s suspicious activities, the future Vader grows even more hostile toward the Jedi Order. Anakin soon reveals his secret assignment to Palpatine, just as Vizzard promptly told Shurlock about Quigley’s scheme.
Shurlock fully won Vizzard to his side by encouraging his younger colleague to protect himself, even if it meant following Quigley’s advice. According to Vizzard, Shurlock said, “Maybe Quigley’s right. Maybe you should keep notes. Then when I get thrown out … you can show them to him. It might work in your favor, after all. … I certainly wouldn’t object if you wanted to put things into the [PCA] files.” This charming yet manipulative reverse psychology eerily echoes Palpatine’s controlling speeches to Anakin.
Instead of heeding his advice, Vizzard secured his job at the PCA by sabotaging Quigley. By referring to him as “the tail that wags the dog,” Vizzard planted mistrust of Quigley in the minds of several prominent Catholic clergymen. Before long, Martin had been “disenfranchised” from the Legion: “At first, it was a simple matter of his vanishing as a palpable presence from Legion corridors. He became … a veritable persona non grata in the great soot-stained old mansion… where the Legion was quartered. To ask, ‘Where’s Martin these days?’ was to be greeted by blank stares.”
With the troublesome Martin Quigley figuratively thrown out the window, the Legion lost its power, allowing Darth Shurlock to destroy all decency standards in Hollywood film content. As the 1960s wore on, the PCA became a shadow of its former self as Jack appears to have completed his personal journey to the Dark Side.
Jack Vizzard’s downfall can be defined by Obi-Wan’s words to the newly christened Darth Vader: “You’ve become the very thing you swore to destroy!”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.