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According to letters in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the screenplay for Cock of the Air was submitted to the AMPP in Los Angeles in July 1931. Although he was not credited on the screen, Lewis Milestone is credited as a writer in an early Motion Picture Herald production chart. In addition, in a July 1931 MPAA memorandum, Colonel Jason Joy of the AMPP notes that he met with Milestone, producer Howard Hughes and Caddo Co. representative Charles Sullivan, all of whom were affiliated with the production, regarding the script. Joy found the script mostly satisfactory, but had some suggestions to keep it from going "beyond the limits of good taste." Joy recommended that several suggestive lines be deleted. (Chester Morris' character "Roger Craig" was referred to as "Hope" in early correspondence.)" Commenting on "Terry's" habit of keeping "books" on "Hope's" conquests with women, for example, Joy recommended that they modify his entries of "He does" or "He doesn't" to "He wins" or "She wins." Of particular distaste to the AMPP was a scene in which "Lilli," intending to taunt "Hope," lies naked within a suit of armor on a bed, and "Hope" comes after her with a can opener. Joy noted that it "ought to be omitted because it so flavors the balance of the sequence, first, by making the audience feel that Lilli is going to yield and is preparing herself, and second, by placing in the mind of the audience the constant thought that she is naked inside the armor." Joy continued: "The business with the can opener will be entirely too suggestive unless the thought of the audience can be focused on the helmet. This could be done by showing Hope, trying to open the visor of the helmet."
Joy viewed the film in November 1931 and, in a letter to Hughes, wrote: "[H]ave come away greatly disappointed that all of the suggestions made by us at the time we read the script have been ignored. Our first and most serious objection is to the fact that, beginning with the conversation between the two officers at the banquet in Italy...until the scene in the dressing room where Roger asks Lilli to marry him, the principal theme is of maneuvering of a lecherous young man in his attempt to carry out one more seduction." In addition, Joy took exception to Lilli's breasts, which are "overexposed in almost all of her costumes." Joy added that he was also concerned over "the great possibility of objection from foreign countries over the treatment of the first sequence and from Italy over the showing of nothing but carnival scenes in that country during time of war," and also suggested that "the incident of the Roumanian representative should be eliminated." The AMPP refused to approve the film unless changes were effected, and arranged for Baron Valentin Mandelstamm and Vice Consul of Italy R. Dalla Rosa to view the film in Los Angeles and make suggestions if the film offended the French and Italian senses in any way. Dalla Rosa promptly responded that he found nothing objectionable in the film from the Italian point of view, and although Mandelstamm found certain things mildly objectionable, he was reluctant to provide detailed information without monetary compensation.
Telegrams dated December 22, 1931 to and from the MPPDA and AMPP offices indicate that they discovered the film was sent to the state censor boards without their final approval. In wires to Will H. Hays, president of the MPPDA, Joy notes that he received no response from Hughes, although he wrote to him several times in December about bringing the film "into conformity with the code." In a telegram Joy further states: "...if Caddo shipped [the film] without first showing us revised version they have violated their agreement under the machinery of the code unless picture has been changed to conform to our rulings the letter and the spirit of the code have been violated stop no one at Caddo except Hughes' secretary who claims to know nothing about the picture." Joy urged Hays to "have the picture seen immediately to determine whether it violates the code and what of the changes indicated in our letter of 16 November have been complied with...while desiring to help [Hughes] am certain steps should be taken to keep him from breaking down the machinery." The Production Code was often referred to as the "machinery," and here Joy May also have been referring to Hughes's 1932 film Scarface (see below), which also faced serious censorship problems. Letters and telegrams were also sent to Joseph Schenck, president of United Artists, and to Al Lichtman, their vice president and sales manager informing them of the situation and noting that the AMPP deemed the film "obscene and immoral in title, theme and protrayal."
Other letters from the Hays Office note: "The picture in its present form is low tone and offends our statute in title, theme and portrayal. The title, in connection with the picture in its present form, conveys an immoral suggestion. In the portrayal, Craig attains no supremacy in the air. He is at once established and portrayed throughout the picture as a philanderer and a seducer of women, giving the title an immoral significance." Hays recounts the events leading up to the situation in his letters; "The print was forwarded to New York by Mr. Hughes before all changes suggested by Colonel Joy were made, and without advising Colonel Joy of such action, and without an appeal as provided by the agreement. That this action was taken by Mr. Hughes because of his accepting literally the suggestion of Mr. Joseph M. Schenck to him over the telephone that he 'argue it out' with Colonel Joy; that what Mr. Schenck meant was that Mr. Hughes should discuss the changes further with Colonel Joy and endeavor to arrive at an agreement before shipping the print, but that Mr. Hughes understood Mr. Schenck to mean that he should ship the print after making such changes as he might easily do." The Hays Office determined that there were about fifty positive prints of the film already distributed to state censors without final approval by their administration. United Artists editor Douglass Biggs affirmed this fact, and Joy indicated in a telegram that "only two changes had been made in the picture [since viewed by the MPPDA on 16 November 1931]." One of the changes involved making a Roumanian character come from a mythical country and the other change had to do with the line about the can opener. The MPPDA did believe that the film could be made acceptable with substantial alteration, and provided specific recommendations for the deletions of lines with sexual connotations.
On December 30, 1931, United Artists acknowledged the letters from the MPPDA and requested that the film be resubmitted to a jury for approval. After viewing the film, Hughes was notified that the film was definitely in violation of the Production Code. The reasons for rejection were outlined in a letter: "The jurors felt that whatever changes in lines and situations might be made the fact would remain that the principal character was a seducer and that his efforts throughout were directed towards a single objective, namely, the seduction of the principal woman character; and the belief that the picture would seriously offend the peoples of the countries represented. It was also felt by the jury that the title of the picture might be given a lewd interpretation in light of the story which is developed. In reaching this decision the Jury, of course, was keenly aware of the large investment which you have at stake, but it felt that your own interest and the interest of the industry were best served by this action." United Artists responded with an appeal to the Board of Directors, requesting that the decision be made immediately as the release of the film was imminent. According to a January 1932 news item in Variety, Mr. Schenck insisted that the filmmakers make the alterations.
News items and letters in the MPAA files indicate that Lewis Milestone was brought in to edit the film. By January 6, 1932, the film had been significantly altered in accordance with the suggestions made by the Hays Office and was reviewed by a small committee. According to a letter forwarded to all members of the board, Milestone cut over 1,800 feet from the film, and a news item in Variety notes that the editing cost approximately $100,000. In an January 8, 1932 MPPDA inter-office memo, it was determined that "the changes required in Cock of the Air...have been faithfully carried out." The memo continued: "The entire prolonged episode showing the girl in the suit of armor and the boy with the can opener, et cetera, has been eliminated, as have also been eliminated the various lines of dialogue specifically objected to, including the objectionable lines in the song sung by Billie Dove. The only change suggested which have not been fully made are in connection with the betting book, there still being three or four shots in which Terry bets with himself, 'He does' or 'He doesn't.' However, in view of the changes made and the new significance given the picture by virtue of its changes, it seems to me that the betting has lost most, if not all, of its objectionableness. In the picture as it is now being shown at the United Artists theater in Los Angeles, the changes have so altered the basic concept of the picture that the man is not just a seducer but is depicted as interested in the particular girl, leading up to the proposal of marriage at the end." The revised version was approved, although the MPPDA recommended a few further changes, and advised the local censors on how to cut the film accordingly. A letter in the Lincoln Quarberg files at the AMPAS Library notes that Lewis Milestone did not wish to be "connected with the exploitation of the picture." According to a modern source, this film includes footage from the 1930 Hughes production Hell's Angels (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30; F2.2411).