Author and film historian Anthony Slide has another book out, (politically) Incorrect Entertainment or Trash from the Past: A history of political incorrectness and bad taste in 20th century American popular culture (BearManor, 2007).
Lengthy title for a highly controversial subject matter. Chapters range from “This Race Business” and “Sex” to “Bodily Functions and Dysfunctions” and “Hollywood’s Fascist Follies.” There’s surely something in the book to offend every reader.
Mr. Slide, whose Now Playing was also q&a’ed in this blog, has cordially agreed to answer several questions about his latest tome. Considering his book and its subject matter, Slide’s responses are as controversial as to be expected.
Needless to say, he disagrees with me on a number of topics, from the Production Code’s coding to the social value of both pornography and Hedda Hopper – he even gets to compare yours truly to Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
And here it goes…
Incorrect Entertainment. How do you define entertainment that is incorrect?
I try to define entertainment that is incorrect or in bad taste in the opening chapter of the book, but I am the first to admit that it is all very subjective. Some might argue that it is politically incorrect to smoke in public, while others would argue that it is far worse to carry a gun in public. I am with the latter, but there are very obviously more people in the United States that find cigarette smoking more dangerous than toting a gun.
In Incorrect Entertainment you state that “there’s no virtue in the planned and the obvious,” citing the Sex Pistols, the National Lampoon movies, Beavis and Butt-head, among others. Those and others like them are “not worthy of critical consideration on any critical level.”
But could it be that “obvious” shock value has a function? Whether it’s the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ near-full nudity on the cover of one of their albums, Mae West flaunting her sensuality, Janet Leigh getting stabbed in the shower in Psycho, Lenny Bruce’s jokes, the slicing of an eyeball in Luis Buñuel’s Un chien andalou (above), pornographic/sexually explicit films, or Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ.”
In other words, can the obvious – because it is in your face – trigger debate, a questioning of the status quo, of cultural relativism, even of reality itself, something that more subtle works might not be able to accomplish?
I do not believe that manufactured bad taste or political incorrectness, as exemplified by Howard Stern or Beavis and Butt-head, is either. I hate to place Luis Buñuel and Andres Serrano in the same category as Howard Stern, but I suppose in a way that they also set out deliberately to offend. Yet, their “offense” was designed to make the audience take notice of what they had to say; they believed in what they were creating. I don’t think you can say that of Howard Stern and most of the others you mention. (And I’m sorry, but there is nothing sensual about Mae West [right].)
“Stuff happens,” as Donald Rumsfeld once told us, and just like “stuff happens” and just like Donald Rumsfeld “happens,” so is bad taste formed. It should happen by accident and not in any deliberately scripted format. Sometimes, as with Donald Rumsfeld and company, it can have tragic consequences.
For decades – from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s, the Production Code kept Hollywood films on the side of the morally upright – at least according to puritanical Christian values. There was no overt sex, no overt homosexuality, no mixing of ethnicities, little blood, no “bad” deed went unpunished, patriotism and militarism were celebrated, marriage and family were sacred, and so on. Would you say the Code was good or bad – or both – for American movies?
I don’t know that I agree absolutely with your abbreviated description of what the Production Code stood for. I am not of the opinion that it celebrated patriotism and militarism, and I see nothing wrong with the opposition of the Production Code Administration (PCA) to violence – “little blood” – on screen.
If there is militarism and patriotism to be found in American films of the period, it is not because the Production Code endorsed such subjects, but rather because the popular culture and society of the era embraced them. Certainly, the Production Code’s refusal to allow the demeaning of any culture made it hard for producers, say, to attack Nazi Germany on screen. At the same time, I would note it was not always the Production Code that kept anti-Nazi films off the country’s screens.
Let me cite one example. United Artists planned in 1940 to release the British film Pastor Hall, which is loosely based on the life of German Lutheran minister Pastor Niemoller, who stood up to the Nazi regime. The Production Code staff viewed the film and found a handful of Code violations none of which related to the basic subject matter of the production. It was producers Samuel Goldwyn and Walter Wanger who opposed its release, with the former writing that the release of Pastor Hall in the United States “would very likely give rise to an accusation of deliberate propaganda on the part of the American film industry.”
Thus, the film was not initially released over here – not because of the Production Code but because of the opposition of a Jewish film mogul. If you want to know more about what happened, you have to read my book Banned in the USA: British Films in the United States and Their Censorship, 1933-1960.
The Production Code may not have been totally good for American movies, but neither was it totally bad. It made filmmakers more subtle in terms of how they handled sex or nudity – and even violence. I recently provided a DVD commentary for the Humphrey Bogart film Black Legion , and it contained a scene in which a man is tied to a tree and flogged. Today, the audience would have seen the whip biting into the flesh, but thanks to the Production Code, all audiences back then saw was a brilliant use of lighting and shadow to suggest the pain and suffering on screen.
As to the Code’s preventing homosexuality being depicted on screen (which it did not totally do), I would respond that it also prevented gay pejoratives being used on screen, along with derogatory names for ethnic groups and sexist slang terms for women.
Some years back, in the course of my research for Banned in the USA, I actually read more than 1,000 Production Code Administration files. The more I read, I must confess that the more I was impressed by the work of the PCA staff, particularly Joseph Breen. The staff went to quite extraordinary lengths to help filmmakers get their ideas across in the scripts and on screen, working within the limitations of a Code that had been created not by the PCA staff but at the instigation of film industry executives who approved and adopted the Code.
Yes, there is no question that Joseph Breen was anti-Semitic. But, curiously, despite being an Irish-American Catholic, he was extraordinarily friendly to British filmmakers.
In the chapter “Religious Ecstasy” you talk about the portrayal of religion on film. How has that been in bad taste/politically incorrect?
In all good families, it was always considered bad taste to discuss religion or politics at the dinner table – and the same attitude should apply to popular culture.
Religion can often appear silly on screen, no matter how devout or sincere the filmmaker – and, quite frankly, very few filmmakers are devout or sincere. Of course, at first it was unthinkable to portray Jesus Christ on screen, and this made a lot of sense because we don’t know what Jesus Christ looked like. He certainly bore no resemblance to the Christ on the Cross in Catholic churches.
I vaguely recall a Vitagraph film from around 1912 titled The Illumination, which showed Christ as nothing more than a light passing across the faces of those with whom he came into contact – and I think this worked remarkably well. It was really [Sidney Olcott’s] From the Manger to the Cross  and [D.W. Griffith’s] Intolerance  which first proved it was possible to get away with showing Christ on screen.
In both films, he is played by an Englishman – respectively, R. Henderson Bland and Howard Gaye – which proves the point that any true Englishman would make: If Christ was and is an Englishman, then so is his father. And you don’t have to search high and low to find God. You always know that on Sundays, he will be exclusively at any of the many Church of England establishments.
Followers of the Church of England have always found it best to check on him twice a year – at Christmas and Easter – just to make sure he is still around, and then leave him alone for the rest of the time. Calling on God too often can have devastating results, as Americans have surely discovered by now.
Fascist Hollywood? Sonja Henie a Nazi-sympathizer? Theda Bara calling Mussolini “marvelous”? Gary Cooper and Victor McLaglen spearheading Fascist or quasi-Fascist organizations? Were Cooper’s and McLaglen’s groups truly Fascist or just nativist? And was that a Hollywood “thing,” or was there a large segment of the American population that sympathized with the far-right governments of Europe?
I cannot help but wonder if the opening comments of your question suggest that you believe my claims are perhaps spurious? [They weren’t.]
For the record, I want to make it clear that everything I wrote in the chapter “Hollywood’s Fascist Follies” is based on contemporary reports in U.S. trade publications. I do believe that Gary Cooper was perhaps naive. He visited Nazi Germany long after it was politically correct to do so, and I am told (although I have no proof of this) that he was a frequent dinner guest at the home of the German consul in Los Angeles well into the late 1930s.
And no, it was not just a Hollywood “thing.” As of 1938, there were a reported 800 pro-Fascist and pro-Nazi organizations in the United States, with names such as the Association of American Gentiles, the Christian American Patriots, and, of course, the German-American Bund. It is claimed that an estimated ten million Americans read, listened on the radio to, or were in some way reached by pro-Fascist propaganda.
You don’t mention any rabid left-wing ideologues in the film industry. Were there any who were eager to overthrow the U.S. government?
You sound a little here like Joseph McCarthy questioning the Hollywood Ten and other left-leaners in the Hollywood film industry. I should refuse to answer your question, but I will respond that any “rabid left-wing ideologues” in the film industry sought to change the political system and the American government by working within the political system.
At the same time, some screenwriters were able to inject into their scripts dialogue if not blatantly pro-Communist at least sympathetic to a Communist cause. And actually, screenwriters didn’t always have to come up with new dialogue. Communist John Bright takes dialogue written by Arthur Conan Doyle and uses it to end the 1942 film, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror. What Conan Doyle wrote about “a wind of change from the east” comes across here as a very subtle, and quite clever, suggestion that at the end of World War Two, it is Soviet Communism that will sweep the world – and, in fact, it did sweep across much of Eastern Europe.
You have a chapter devoted to Hedda Hopper’s right-wing paranoia, seeing Commies in every studio, under every bed, inside every bra. Any idea of why Hopper was so Red-Crazy? Or was she just being opportunistic? Also, why was Hopper “politically incorrect” when she was dancing to the same tune as both the industry and the country at large during the post-war era?
Okay, you have caught me out. I included the chapter on Hedda Hopper [right, seeing a Communist] because I wanted to rewrite an article from some years ago that I had published in the LA Reader, and which I wanted to reach a wider audience.
At the same time, you must agree that Hedda Hopper used her column for political purposes unlike her chief rival, Louella Parsons. Louella was strictly concerned with gossip within the entertainment industry. Hedda had far loftier, political views.
Now here, I must confess that I kinda like Hedda. Whatever her political thoughts, she was a nice, old broad (how’s that for a politically incorrect phrase) who was always loyal to those who had been helpful and kind to her through the years when she was a struggling actress. And, despite being homophobic in print, she was always sympathetic to gays and lesbians in her private life.
Your book is filled with jokes, lyrics, and comments that would be considered in bad taste or politically incorrect. Were there any other instances or examples of “bad taste” and political incorrectness in American culture that you felt were too much in bad taste or way too politically incorrect to include in your book?
I have to confess that I enjoyed being outrageous, and there are few jokes or lyrics that I would have considered too outrageous for inclusion. Having said that, I was careful to avoid some jokes employing the “n” word, and I did not feel it appropriate under any circumstances to include jokes about the Holocaust.
By the way, jokes about the latter are not new. Novelist Patricia Highsmith was notoriously anti-Semitic (and would not permit her books to be published in Israel out of sympathy to the Palestinian cause). She would deeply offend her friends from the 1950s onwards with her Holocaust jokes.
One could argue that political correctness and the demands of “good taste” can be culturally and intellectually stifling – in addition to being a danger to freedom of speech. What do you think of that argument?
I agree absolutely. I think it is very scary today that governments in Europe, including the United Kingdom, have passed or are considering laws limiting what subjects may be dealt with by a comedian in his routine. It is a difficult issue, of course, in that most civilized human beings would endorse laws against hate crimes. But does a hate crime begin with a joke, a sentence in a book, the lyrics in a song, or does it begin with physical violence inflicted on a victim? Can a victim claim to have been injured by listening to a comedian’s monologue?
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Is that still true today?
And finally, do you believe that political correctness and/or conformity to mainstream values can be in bad taste?
I am absolutely opposed to those who would legislate political correctness. Liberals must rethink their attitudes and endorse both political incorrectness and bad taste. It has always been part of life, part of popular culture, and it should remain so.
That the US Congress today should waste its time condemning an advertisement [the MoveOn.org ad referring to Gen. David Petraeus as “General Betray Us”] in The New York Times because it is nothing more than politically incorrect (and probably not even that to most subscribers to The New York Times) is outrageous.
Politically incorrect jokes, music, books, and motion pictures are as nothing compared to what Congress and the current U.S. president are responsible for. Nobody dies because I or anyone else tells an offensive joke. Don’t ever forget that.
More Anthony Slide Q&As:
- D.W. Griffith Interviews.
- The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville.
- Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine.
- I Thank You: The Arthur Askey Story.
- Frank Lloyd: Master of Screen Melodrama.
- The Truth at Twenty-Four Frames per Second: An Anthology of Writings on Film History.