Alphabetical Index of Column Topics

Click here for index.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Bad and the Bankable (originally published 6/93)

Between "Basic Instinct," "Body of Evidence," and "Indecent Proposal," you have to wonder what in the name of Caligula the folks in Hollywood can be thinking of. Do they think of the ticket buying public as nothing more than walking glands?

Well, maybe. But more likely they are simply following a principle that has held true from the silent cinema right down to today: shocking people's sensibilities is good for the box office. Back in the silent days, 1915 audiences were invited to cluck their tongues disapprovingly at a picture called "A Fool There Was," starring an actress named Theda Bara as the fallen woman who leads men astray. Theda Bara was carefully publicized as a mystery woman, possibly the love child of a French artist and his Egyptian mistress. Studio PR people pointed out knowingly that her name was an anagram of "Arab death." In point of fact, she was a Cincinnati tailor's daughter named Theodosia Goodman. The air of mystery and intrigue about her was just that -- air. Sort of like Madonna. But, like Madonna, she sold tickets.

Prints of "A Fool There Was" still exist, but as far as I know it isn't available on video. [2009 NOTE: This is no longer true. You can get it on DVD from Kino Video.] Not to worry, though. If you don't yet feel sufficiently debauched by the recent spate of racy movies, here are a few of the scandalous films of yesteryear that are available on home video.

"The Outlaw" (1943). Howard Hughes's notorious sexy Western is pretty tame stuff by today's standards, but in its day it caused quite a stir. It doesn't take long to realize that the camera is paying more attention to Jane Russell's anatomy than to the story line. It's just as well, really; it isn't much of a story. The film remains worthwhile mostly because its remarkably strong supporting cast included Walter Huston and Thomas Mitchell, two of the best in the business, as Doc Holliday and Pat Garrett, respectively.

"Baby Doll" (1956). Elia Kazan's adaptation of a Tennessee Williams script was guaranteed to offend almost everyone. No major studio release had ever portrayed the seduction of virginal youth with such frankness. Carroll Baker plays the child bride of a Mississippi cotton gin operator (Karl Malden). His dirty business practices catch up with him when a competitor (Eli Wallach) uses his wife to get the goods on him. "Baby Doll" was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency and denounced from virtually every pulpit in the country. Reviewers jumped on the bandwagon as well. Time magazine, for example, offered this encomium: "Just possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited." Money in the bank. You can't buy that kind of promotion for a million dollars. Reproduced below is the film's original promotional trailer, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"Last Tango in Paris" (1973). Bernardo Bertolucci, whose more recent films include "The Last Emperor" and "The Sheltering Sky," shook some people up with this occasionally brutal mixture of physical love and emotional aridity. Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider play a pair of lovers who regularly meet in an empty apartment to carry on the ultimate casual affair, not even bothering to tell each other their names.

"Carnal Knowledge" (1971). Playwright and cartoonist Jules Feiffer wrote this story of two sex-obsessed college roommates (Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel) who never seem to outgrow their adolescent sexual hang-ups. Although we follow them well into middle age, their attitudes about sex remain those of a couple of teenagers with raging hormones. Although the film contains very little nudity or (to borrow a euphemism from cable TV) strong sexual content, the guardians of public morality went ballistic. There were even some attempts at outright censorship, including a few obscenity arrests, none of which could ultimately stand up in court.

But the people who raised the public outcry against "Carnal Knowledge," and all the others, for that matter, were misguided. No, I don't mean that they were necessarily wrong about the objectionable nature of the films. That's obviously open to debate in each individual case. I'm saying that they were misguided in thinking that they were doing any damage to the films and their producers by protesting.

You may remember a film a few years back called "Monty Python's Life of Brian," which was perceived by some as blasphemous. When asked how he felt about those who were denouncing the film, Python member John Cleese replied that he'd like to be able to send them all a thank you note. They had, after all, made him wealthy.

No comments: