Choosing the Toilet View: Censorship and Collaboration within Hollywood’s Prison Industrial Complex

A videographic inquiry by Eli Boonin-Vail into the relationship between the Production Code Administration and Hollywood films made in prisons.

Curator's Note

This video essay narrates industrial film history to help viewers see how the PCA operated as more than simply a moralistic agency of oversight. While omitting toilets from films might strike us today as the definition of puritanical excess, this video essay reveals the strategies, negotiations, collaborations, and tensions that embed themselves in just a handful of frames in the final cut.

This videographic exercise represents an effort to render in visual form a method of historiographic research that has long guided research into film censorship. This is a method by which, as Lea Jacobs describes it, “censors’ letters and memos serve as a justification for privileging certain passages within the text.”[1] The video essay proves a singularly useful avenue for pursuing this, allowing me to layer letters and memos while pausing, slowing, and reversing the text to visualize moments of rupture and dissent. I chose to refuse voiceover in favor of superimposing material documents wherever possible, hoping to replicate the experience of watching films and reading memos for traces of industrial decision-making.

The history of the Production Code Administration’s omission of Toilets from Hollywood films is difficult to trace, given the policy’s status as an unwritten rule.[2] In my accompanying article for The Quarterly Review of Film and Video, I am able to more fully interrogate the drafts, memos, and communications between the prison and film industries in the production of Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954).[3] Moving beyond biographer Matthew Bernstein’s account of producer Walter Wanger’s conflict with Joseph Breen over the issue of including toilets in the film, I build on David Eldridge’s recent findings on the collaboration between the PCA and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.[4]

This leads me to argue that Wanger mobilized interinstitutional connections between prison and film industries to avoid censorship and keep toilets in his film. In so doing, I show how he evaded the authority of his own industry while appealing to the authority of a powerful state industry.


[1] Lea Jacobs, “The Censorship of ‘Blonde Venus’: Textual Analysis and Historical Method,” Cinema Journal 27, no. 3 (1988): 23,

[2] Thomas Doherty, Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 94; Leonard J. Leff and Jerold L. Simmons, The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code, Second Edition (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001), 5.

[3] Eli Boonin-Vail, “The Battle of the Big House Bowls: Prisons, Toilets, and the Production Code Administration’s Carceral Coprophobia,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Forthcoming.

[4] Matthew Bernstein, Walter Wanger, Hollywood Independent (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 296; David Eldridge, “Bennett, Breen, and the Birdman of Alcatraz: A Case Study of Collaborative Censorship between the Production Code Administration and the Federal Bureau of Prisons,” Film History 28, no. 2 (April 2016): 1–31.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.