For movie censors, crime is perhaps the most complex issue to make decisions about. They want the public to be alert to the possibility of crimes happening, and respectful of law enforcement institutions. But entertainers and audiences want dramatic, ambiguous villains and stories of institutional corruption and hubris. This week I examine this conflict in light of three institutions – the LAPD, the FBI and the Federal Bureau of Prisons – and their relationships with the entertainment industry.
We will start with the LAPD, because we’ve never looked at them before but in the post-war period they were quite active in Hollywood. Naturally, being the LAPD and having most of the country’s entertainment industry right on their doorstep meant that they were uniquely positioned to exploit the propaganda value of film and TV. On the other hand, LA was growing like crazy both economically, geographically and demographically, creating no end of policing problems. Dogged by a series of a scandals of police corruption, incompetence and brutality they turned to TV to repair their public image.
This is magnificently satirised in the book and film LA Confidential where Jack Vincennes, a detective at Hollywood station, is also the technical adviser on Badge of Honor, a popular TV series. Notice, Jack V, like Jack Valenti. I doubt that’s a coincidence, given the book came out in 1990, once Hollywood Jack’s reputation as a government liaison was well recognised among those who were paying attention.
Badge of Honor is quite obviously a pastiche of Dragnet, a radio, TV and motion picture franchise that began in 1949 and lasted through most of the 1950s. It was also rebooted and remade several times, though never as successfully as the original. There were other similar series around this time, including Adam-12 and The F.B.I and several featuring the US Navy. All of these were made under strict script review from the various agencies they were portraying, and all could not have been made without the production support from those agencies.
On Dragnet there are a number of great articles on how it was a piece of LAPD propaganda, almost from start to finish. One piece by JR Jones says:
Dragnet was already a radio hit when [William H.] Parker, head of the LAPD’s Internal Affairs division, was promoted to chief of police and took over the scandal-plagued department in August 1950. By this time Webb had taken to soliciting story ideas from rank-and-file officers and paying $100 for any case history that generated an episode; Parker, who had done public affairs work in the military, put a stop to this immediately and ordered the TV producer to clear every script through his Office of Public Information, whose staff would eventually grow to 20 people. When Dragnet moved to television, Webb was even more dependent on the LAPD—not only for case files but for badges, insignia, squad cars, and all the other accoutrements of visual authenticity. Parker made him jump through hoops for the department’s cooperation, and this arrangement, combined with the overwhelmingly positive feedback Webb received from police who tuned in, inevitably turned Dragnet into a love letter to the LAPD.
I haven’t seen any documents from the LAPD recording their input on and censorship of Dragnet, but to give you a flavour of what the show was like, here’s the start of an early episode:
The LAPD were portrayed as the utmost professionals, upholding the law and serving their community. Any notion of police corruption, incompetence, prejudice or brutality did not appear in the series, though the 1950s film of Dragnet is perhaps a little braver or at least more explicit in what it showed.
It is curious that, especially in the late 60s when the TV series was rebooted for the first time, it featured storylines devoted to portraying racial harmony and the new, improved, liberal-minded LAPD. This was obviously a response to the Watts riots, which in turn were a response to racist, reactionary policing. As one article on Dragnet’s propaganda value notes, ‘In the two years preceding the riot, Los Angeles patrolmen shot and killed 60 black men, 27 in the back.’
So, just as the CIA did via Luigi Luraschi, one of the aims was to portray a much more tolerant and harmonious situation in the US than really existed. Following the riots, Parker described the rioters as ‘monkeys in a zoo’ – a quote which was widely repeated and criticised. Indeed, it appears a lot of Angelenos were surprised by Watts, and the police response, having been fooled into an entirely false view of the department by Dragnet. Even the word ‘cop’ was eliminated from the show from 1953 onwards, because Parker (and J Edgar Hoover) didn’t like the term.
They used real uniforms, cars and badges on the show, and the writer/producer and star of Dragnet Jack Webb donated 6% of the profits to the LAPD. When Webb died he was buried with a genuine LAPD badge, in honour of his service to the department. Some police departments even used episodes of the show as training films. As another article by Jacqui Shine comments:
But accuracy is not truth. From the beginning, the contrast between the show’s depiction and the LAPD’s internal scandals was, to put it mildly, striking. On December 23, 1951, a mob of at least 50 officers, mostly drunk, severely beat seven young Latino men brought into the city jail for booking during an unauthorized Christmas party. The fallout from “Bloody Christmas” led to the first excessive force convictions in department history. The local press covered the scandal extensively. But it received scant attention in the national press, aside from a small handful of wire stories, which were no match for the enormous publicity about Dragnet. The show had made its television debut just nine days earlier. In the pilot, Joe Friday saves City Hall from a disgruntled would-be bomber.
The article goes on to describe how Parker ‘freely used the show as a platform for his law and order doctrine’. In 1955 the California Supreme Court overturned a conviction which was based on an illegal wiretap – an illegal wiretap personally authorised by Parker. In his view civil rights were ‘making life easier for criminals’ and he argued in early 1956 before a State committee that the ruling had measurably increased felony crimes in Los Angeles.
A week later an episode of Dragnet echoed these ideas, portraying Friday and his partner busting a major drug gang who are selling heroin to children. They return to the station to find the DA, who explains that the evidence can’t be used because it was obtained through an illegal search. Friday is exasperated and asks in disbelief, ‘How much more stuff is this guy gonna peddle?’ before they can nail him using new evidence. The notion that civil liberties were there to be respected and upheld by the police because they were the laws the public had voted for did not appear in the script.
The FBI and The Untouchables
This problem still exists today – the conflict between how law enforcement are portrayed and how they really are. The FBI repeatedly removed any scene from the series The F.B.I. that showed them wiretapping. Even as recently as 2012 they rejected a request for production assistance because their agent was ‘not portrayed in best light (mostly through scare tactics of wiretapping and other surveillance)’. Even though we all know that the police do these things, let alone the intelligence agencies, we’re not allowed to see it authentically portrayed on TV with production support from one of these departments or agencies.
Another side of this is how the police and intelligence spy on productions even when they haven’t agreed to support them. As the Production Code was liberalised in the mid-late 1950s under the direction of Eric Johnston one of the things that was removed was the obligation to avoid making crimes look ‘heroic or justified’. This was ‘designed precisely to prevent the making of stories which might add to the heroic stature of criminals of notoriety’ because they were worried about the copycat effect, but in the late 50s the rules were relaxed. Film-makers had started to challenge the code so rather than a clampdown, Johnston took the opposite route, in the hope of keeping some semblance of the production code alive for a few more years.
As a result the late 50s saw a run of gangster movies that couldn’t have been made just a few years earlier (indeed, some had been rejected by the PCA, the Production Code Administration). These included Machine Gun Kelly (1958), The Bonnie Parker Story (1958), Al Capone (1959), and The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960). The television equivalent of this revived gangster-themed pop culture was The Untouchables, based on the book by Eliot Ness about being a Prohibition Agent in the 1930s. Unlike Dragnet it was not supported by law enforcement agencies, and was considerably more action-packed and violent than most comparable TV series. In some ways it reinvented the police procedural as an action series, designed for TV, whereas Dragnet and others started out as dialogue-driven radio shows.
There is a 170 page FBI file on The Untouchables which was recently sent to me by Roger Stahl, an academic who specialises in this field. This was obtained by governmentattic.org and consists almost entirely of press cuttings about the series, and the various controversies surrounding it. The two major issues that faced the show were (1) There was a Senate investigation looking into TV corrupting the youth and causing juvenile delinquency and (2) They got into trouble for stereotyping Italian-Americans as gangsters.
It is a challenge, making a series about gangsters without stereotyping them. A lot of crime gangs of various kinds are monocultural, their members are of a single ethnicity. Obviously, a gang is a kind of tribe and tribes with a single shared identity are more loyal, more strongly bound together. Also, the Sicilian mafia especially are pretty racist. They wouldn’t let an African-American or a Polish-American into their mob.
Nonetheless, given that the mafia was never actually that big in terms of numbers, a massively disproportionate amount of the media centring on Italian-Americans depicts them as thugs and gangsters. When you think of just how many pizza places are run by Italians, including the one I worked in when I was 16 or 17, it must massively outnumber the gangsters. Let alone all the other Italians doing other things. So it is unsurprising that a series based around figures like Al Capone would draw the ire of some Italian-American organisations.
This spilled over in 1961, when several of these organisations made a lot of noise, and arranged boycotts of companies that sponsored The Untouchables. There are clippings in the file recording how a tobacco company did not renew its contract following a boycott, though they said this was because the show had moved timeslots. A congressman even introduced a bill outlawing the consistent depiction of any group as criminals, while other commentators got all ‘political correctness gone mad’ about the situation and accused Italians of being overly sensitive.
As one point a lawsuit was filed, though it appears this was withdrawn when ABC came to an agreement regarding future episodes. The company agreed not to consistently portray Italians as criminals and to increase the presence and role of an Italian detective character named Rossi. The situation calmed down and the bill never made it through congress. Exactly why the FBI were keeping a close eye on all this is not known but earlier files from the FBI’s Hollywood office do show both their moral conservatism and their concern for how crime and criminals were portrayed.
Which brings us to the other controversy to face The Untouchables. In the 1950s the ‘teenager’ started to become a thing, and as with all words for young people, older people started to blame them for societal problems. Back then they called them juvenile delinquents, now they call them millenials.
In 1961 the Senate formed a subcommittee to look at the problem of juvenile delinquency, who spent a lot of their time blaming films and TV. News media accused Rebel Without a Cause (1955) of inspiring copycat crimes, while an earlier committee had criticized Blackboard Jungle (also 1955) for its depiction of violent, alienated youth, and the film was withdrawn from the Venice Film Festival under pressure from the State Department.
The Untouchables was perhaps the most consistently violent show on TV at the time, so unsurprisingly the subcommittee zeroed in on it, and consequently so did the FBI. As with the earlier investigations into Communists in Hollywood, I am fairly sure that J Edgar Hoover was quietly providing information to this subcommittee to help them in their mission.
In any case, Carl Perian—chief counsel to Thomas J. Dodd, chair of the 1961 subcommittee, told an interesting story. He said, ‘We made films for each hearing. ABC complained that we took them out of context, so I said… ‘If they don’t want us showing excerpts, let’s show their own trailers.’ The next week, I ran 30 minutes of trailers for The Untouchables, and I swear to God, when it was over the room was shell-shocked. It was nothing but machine guns, bombings, and stabbings. We said, ‘All right, now what’s your complaint about showing excerpts?’’
The Untouchables received criticism from other quarters too, including the British Conservative MP Charles Fletcher-Cooke. He criticised how the show often finished with ‘jolly talk’ between the criminal and the detectives, where the police explained the one mistake he had made that led to his capture. According to Cooke, this encouraged people to think they could get away with similar crimes if they just avoided making that one mistake.
Other clippings argued against this idea that such shows encouraged potential copycats. One discussed a book published by Stanford that said the opposite was true – that the advent of TV helped children learn language and vocabulary quicker and wasn’t at all responsible for the upswing in juvenile delinquency. Another quoted a doctor who suggested that children could ‘work out’ their emotional troubles through TV, and hence not have to resort to other means.
Indeed, ABC’s acting general counsel Geraldine Zorbaugh testified before the subcommittee, using charts produced via FBI crime statistics both from towns with TV and without. She concluded that television caused no increase in crime, in direct contradiction to what others has said in their testimony. An executive at the Dumont television network said that regulations on TV programming, ‘serve to destroy the creative ability of the industry and would stereotype programming, and, in turn, stagnate programs in advancement.’
This is broadly the same opinion Eric Johnston offered – that over-regulating creative entertainment would make it bland, dull and predictable. At this time, across both the film and TV industries there was a concern about the copycat effect of increasingly violent entertainment. Of course, we can look back now and see that there were spikes in violent crime in the years following WW2 and the Vietnam war, and that the juvenile delinquency that so concerned conservatives in the 1950s was nothing compared to what came next. And that, of course, poverty remains a huge factor in how much crime takes place, certainly a bigger factor than crime-based TV shows.
Despite this, the industry responded, reducing the number of crime-themed programmes, often replacing them with spy shows which suddenly became very popular in the 1960s, and Westerns which also saw something of a resurgence in that decade.
I will also point you to the one instance the FBI found of petty criminals being inspired by what they saw on The Untouchables. This is the only such memo in the 170-page file and it describes how an elderly man working as a barber was held up by two masked thugs. They robbed $20 from him and escaped, but were caught not long afterwards. They admitted under questioning that they’d got the idea for their crime from watching The Untouchables.
The Bureau of Prisons and the Censorship of Alcatraz
Another man who objected to The Untouchables was James V Bennett, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (the BOP). One episode featured Al Capone bribing a prison guard as part of an attempt to escape from a prison train. Bennett was so incensed that he tried to get ABC not to broadcast the second episode of this two-part story, and fired off letters to 10 ABC affiliates warning them not to re-broadcast the episode under threat of having their licences revoked. One of these wasn’t even a TV station, and the story got out, much to Bennett’s embarrassment.
However, this was far from Bennett’s first foray into entertainment censorship – a 2016 article by David Eldridge in the journal Film History details how this was a regular practice for Bennett. It’s called Bennett, Breen, and the Birdman of Alcatraz : A Case Study of Collaborative Censorship between the Production Code Administration and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
In essence, for over 20 years Bennett tried to censor any mention or portrait of Alcatraz in Hollywood movies, and enlisted the help of the Production Code Administration (PCA) to do it. In the 1930s the PCA were an office within the MPPDA, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, who enforced the production code. Our story begins in 1937, when the Department of Justice and Bennett at the BOP heard that Warner Bros had developed a script called Alcatraz Island. The Attorney General, Homer S Cummings, wrote to the president of the MPPDA asking for help in ensuring the movie would not get made. They passed the request onto the PCA, at that time headed by Joseph Breen, but it was too late – the movie had already been filmed so there was nothing the PCA could do about it.
Not long after this, Bennett and Breen struck a gentleman’s agreement whereby any scripts mentioning or featuring Alcatraz would be forwarded to the BOP for review before being approved by the PCA. As a result, the PCA took the initiative and later in 1937 they didn’t even wait for the DOJ or BOP to object, they just removed all references to Alcatraz from The Last Gangster. In early 1938 a column reported that Warner Bros were making another film about Alcatraz, and Breen warned them off the project before they explained that the report was wrong and they had no such film in the works.
In 1939 the film Escape from Alcatraz was problematic because it involved government agents posing as prison inmates in order to get a convicted gang member to tell them where they had hidden the loot. This was an old practice that Bennett had stopped, and even though producer Irving Briskin assured the PCA that he would portray Alcatraz as a respectable institution and offered to have a government official work alongside the film-makers, Bennett wasn’t happy. Briskin got around the problem by rewriting the film to take place in a state prison, outside of the Federal BOP’s remit, and renaming it Behind Prison Gates.
Why was Bennett so sensitive about Alcatraz? According to Eldridge, who examined PCA files and correspondence between Breen and Bennett, it was because Alcatraz was so notorious that they felt it misled the public’s impressions of the penal system as a whole. He also felt it perpetuated the idea of a Gangster Hall of Fame – the one prison where all the most glamorous criminals were housed.
A few years earlier, in 1934 (the same year that Alcatraz opened), the film industry was embroiled in a scandal when word got out that there was a film in development about John Dillinger. The Production Code was amended to outlaw films that ‘glorified gangsters’ and while this rule was relaxed after WW2, the 1945 biopic Dillinger saw it quickly reinstated. As I mentioned, this was relaxed in the late 50s, leading to a revival in gangster films.
Bennett also believed he was helping the prisoners, believing that furthering the myth of Alcatraz meant that anyone who was sent there would be tarred with the same brush, and find it impossible to find a ‘useful position within the community’ after they were released. So, in 1948 the film Brain of Alcatraz was never made as a consequence of BOP objections, but there was a bigger problem brewing.
As recounted by Eldridge, Robert Stroud was a convicted murderer and sociopath who rose to notoriety as the ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’. During his time in Leavenworth, Stroud became a renowned ornithologist, rearing birds in the prison that his mother would then sell. He also wrote a respected book on canaries, which was smuggled out of the prison and published. Stroud was moved to Alcatraz after prison wardens found that he’d been illegally brewing alcohol, and for most of his sentence he was then in solitary confinement.
Stroud took his revenge by engaging in a battle of wills with the penal system, and Bennett in particular, who he accused of having a personal vendetta against him. In 1948 the Hollywood agent Richard Polimer reached out to Stroud’s brother, Marcus, to discuss a film deal. When a contract was signed in 1950, Bennett reached out to Polimer and invited him to Washington to see the files on Stroud for himself. Bennett convinced Polimer that Marcus had given him a false impression and that making a film about a psychotic murderer wasn’t a good idea. Before there was even a script on the table, Bennett had successfully prevented another film from being made.
In 1956 Fox acquired the rights to adapt Thomas Gaddis’ book on Stroud, which had been published the previous year, with the intention of making it into a film. Bennett heard about this and immediately reached out to the PCA to warn Fox off the project. Even though Bennett admitted that he hadn’t seen the script and had no idea how it would portray Stroud or the penal system, he objected strenuously, calling the story in Gaddis’ book a ‘fiction’.
Unfortunately for Bennett, his friend Breen had retired in 1954 and his replacement, Geoffrey Shurlock, wasn’t anywhere near as confrontational or strict about enforcing the code. Bennett tried every trick in the book – implying Fox could face legal troubles if they produced the story, pointing out that a prison guard murdered by Stroud had a wife and children who were still alive, even throwing in lines about how violent films had a derogatory effect on the ‘well being of young people’. He essentially threatened that if the PCA allowed Fox to make the film that the Bureau would add their names to the list of people accusing Hollywood of ‘fomenting juvenile delinquency’.
In the face of such pressures, director Joshua Logan passed on the project, but the rights remained with 20th Century Fox. Two years later another director, Jack Cummings, moved from MGM to Fox and revived the Birdman project. He was warned by Fox’s head of PR and liaison to the PCA Frank McCarthy that the project was considered controversial and that it could not serve as an indictment of the penal system. Even though Cummings had no such intention, he and McCarthy were summoned to a meeting with Bennett’s boss, the Attorney General William P Rogers.
Rogers assured them that Stroud was an insane killer, and not the reformed character he liked people to think he was. Earlier that year Bennett had visited Stroud with an eminent psychiatrist in tow, with the apparent intention of fuelling speculation about Stroud’s mental state and possibly discrediting Gaddis’ book in the process. Rogers emphasised this, saying that Stroud could not even be considered for parole, such was his mental state. Even though the director Cummings wanted to talk to the psychiatrist himself, McCarthy told him to drop the project and then wrote to the PCA confirming that Fox would not be making the film.
In 1959 Fox’s right to adapt the story expired and another studio – Norma Productions – took up the option, with Burt Lancaster signed on to play Stroud. In 1960 they submitted their script to the PCA, and naturally Bennett objected. But film-makers were increasingly challenging the PCA, and the amendments to the code removing the clause preventing the glamourising of criminals meant that the only remaining objection was whether they portrayed the institutions of the penal system fairly.
Shurlock was less willing to run interference for Bennett, indeed he basically passed the whole matter over to the board of directors of the MPAA, saying that in his view the script was within the limits imposed by the code. When they started production on the film Lancaster and the others went on the attack, revealing how Bennett had repeatedly suppressed the Stroud story in an article in Life magazine. In press conferences to promote the film director John Frankenheimer claimed that the bureau had blocked him when he tried to tell the Stroud story in a live TV drama for CBS.
Alongside the revelation of Bennett’s attempts to suppress The Untouchables, which happened at the exact same time, the BOP were in a much weaker position than only a couple of years earlier. Unable to halt production, the film – titled Birdman of Alcatraz – came out in 1962 and led to many people calling for Stroud to be pardoned and released. As one former Alcatraz officer put it, the thousands who wrote letters asking for his release ‘didn’t want Robert Stroud pardoned. They wanted Burt Lancaster pardoned.’
It hardly mattered – Stroud died the following year on November 21st, the day before JFK was shot. The erosion of the power of the PCA, the weakening of the code and the exposure of Bennett’s censorial overreach meant that he had lost his ability to suppress and censor Hollywood, after over two decades. Alcatraz was closed in 1963, in part due to lobbying by Bennett, and it was replaced with a new maximum-security prison.
Before we wrap up for this episode I do want to briefly mention the current TV series Bosch, based on the Michael Connelly novels about the homicide detective in LA. I’m a big fan of the books and I quite enjoy the TV version, though it does seem to have been sponsored by the LAPD, just like Dragnet. They use quite a lot of footage of the LAPD headquarters, among other signs of official production support. It appears that in exchange the series avoids most of the politics – referred to as ‘high jingo’ – in the books. While the stories do include corrupt, even deeply criminal cops, the notion that the LAPD is in league with City Hall and so on does not appear in the TV adaptation, whereas it’s front and centre in the books.
What all this establishes is that law enforcement – both local and federal – have had a profound influence on Hollywood. Perhaps not as long lasting or as important as the DOD and CIA, but they’ve managed to prevent films being made, to co-opt popular series as propaganda vehicles, and to censor material that they didn’t agree with, even if it was accurate and realistic. So the main take-away is to be just as wary of cop shows as you are of spy shows, or these increasingly common special forces programmes. As per usual I’m not saying don’t enjoy them, just be aware that all aspects of the security state employ entertainment as a kind of covert PR, from local police departments all the way up to the Pentagon.