"The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of" ... Bogart, Shakespeare, The Maltese Falcon, Those Great Movies

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Censorship Has Come To Classic Films

I usually do a lot of research and re-writing for my posts here on my blog.  This is not one of those posts.  It is off the cuff, about an issue I just ran into on American Movie Classics channel.  AMC started out as a purely classic film channel, with no editing or commercials, much like Turner Classic Movies still is.  After a few years, AMC turned into a commercial channel, no longer showed just classic films, and generally started a downward spiral in terms of its programming.  Frankly, I don't often watch AMC unless there is something special I want to see.

AMC showed Holiday Inn with Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby just the other day.  It has become a Christmas classic, and I set it to save on the DVR.  I figured that way I could zip through the commercials and see the film without much distraction.  I sat down to watch it tonight.  Most classic film buffs know that the story is of a country inn, which the owner (Crosby) decides to open only on holidays.  Each holiday would be celebrated with dinner, dancing and special musical numbers in honor of the particular day (Astaire is featured in many of those).  As the movie went on, Lincoln's birthday was celebrated.  The actors were preparing for the big number, and then suddenly the movie jumped to after the number, completely deleting the number itself. 

Yes, the number was "Abraham" and it was done in blackface, like a minstrel show.  Many of the old musicals included minstrel numbers.  It was a different time with different perspectives.  Fortunately, we have evolved as a culture and have a better understanding of how these musical number affected black Americans.  No one would dream of resurrecting this type of musical racism, and, to paraphrase another movie that brings up similar arguments, blackface has "gone with the wind."    And rightly so.

However, it is a part of history, and a lot of history is unpleasant.  The struggle of a culture to rise above bigotry and stupidity is a long and painful process, and we have come a long way from our beginnings.  In our day now, political correctness is used to justify many revisions of history, and our classic films are just beginning to come under fire.  We have seen great books like Huckleberry Finn banned from schools because of language, with no understanding of the book as a piece of literature that was anti-racism.  Other books have met the same fate.  Now it is beginning to show up in film.  I remember not too long ago seeing Mel Brooks' Robin Hood, Men in Tights on a cable station.  Certainly not a great movie classic, but it was cut to pieces.  Someone with a gay agenda decided to remove all semblance of gay jokes in editing it.  If you have seen the movie, you know that resulted in the movie being shredded to pieces since so much of it was a spoof on that particular issue. 

Holiday Inn is the first well-loved classic film of which I am aware that has been censored so blatantly, this time by AMC.  This is a disturbing and dangerous precedent.  There are so many agendas from so many groups, where will it end up?  Can classic films weather this upcoming storm?  There is already a movement beginning to remove all smoking from all films.  How on earth could you ever have a Bette Davis or Humphrey Bogart movie with such restrictions?  A few years ago, the post office designed a stamp to honor the great blues guitarist Robert Johnson.  They used his most famous picture, holding his guitar with a cigarette.  They erased all traces of the cigarette.  Now it is their idea of what Robert Johnson should be, not what he was.  It is no longer Robert Johnson -- it is what a censor allowed.

Who is the censor?  It could be anybody, somebody's friend, an elected official, an appointed bureaucrat -- what does it matter?  And you can bet that the people looking for the politically incorrect will not be the least bit interested in the fact that they are altering another person's work, taking over a writer's brain or a director's vision -- none of that will matter.  Classic film could end up being either butchered or not allowed to be shown at all.  Don't laugh -- it could very well happen.  It has already begun.  If you have not read George Orwell's 1984, do it now.  It is a brilliant portrayal of the ease with which history can be revised and eventually erased at the whim of a government.

The real message of censorship is that we, the people, are too stupid to experience history, that we cannot determine right from wrong, that we cannot learn from what was, and wost of all, that there was nothing to love that does not conform to current culture.  Even with the blackface numbers, the musicals were still good movies and a true picture of an era.  Are we to pretend it never happened?  Are we to lose all beauty and goodness from that era just because there are some things that were bad?
If Turner Classic Movies ever gives in to this, I give up.  In the meantime, I am squirreling away all of the favorites I can get my hands on in case this awful trend continues to its natural conclusion.  I am very fearful of what I see as a movement of censorship that rivals any in history.  It must be fought down -- there is so much to lose. 


  1. Becky, like you I no longer watch AMC. It looks like we are moving towards a global world where there will be censorship. In this process I hope we do not lose our(good or bad)history or our culture.

  2. Except for "Mad Men" I never, and I mean never, watch AMC and haven't for years. I assume that when it went commercial many years ago other sources of revenue had dried up or weren't sufficient to keep it going as it was (plus, perhaps, an ownership/management change), so I understand - though I don't like it. But TCM is a premium channel and AMC never was...as long as there is an audience of sufficient size - AND ownership/management of TCM is committed to the classics format, I wouldn't expect it to change in major ways.
    I'm not a fan of censorship either and completely agree with you, Becky, about the "Abraham" number and other such scenes/performances that reflect the cultural norms of earlier times. I imagine AMC was just trying to avoid any potential viewer complaints to the FCC. Complaints to the FCC, of course, can threaten a station's broadcast license and activist groups are generally aware of this.

  3. As a gay man, I don't ever recall being offended by the gay spoofs made in Robin Hood: Men in Tights. I don't see how someone could justify censoring the humor in that film. It's classic Mel Brooks humor.

    The Birdgage, which is full of gay cliches, has not been censored when I've seen it played on tv. I do think that certain movies will be singled out for whatever reason while others will escape censorship.

    Censorship was a hypocritical and flawed practice when it was done under the Hayes Code from the far right and remains so today coming from the agenda driven far left.

  4. great post, Becky..I am with you 100%..the HAYES CODE was pathetic, but the PC THUGGERY of today is stupid and disgusting,,they are trying to sweep history under the carpet..I have a copy of recently banned books in AMERIKA and the reasoning is ludicrous..and AMC has been a joke for years now!!

  5. Becky, I have also just about given up on AMC. The only thing I would even consider watching is an older film that would not be "edited for content" and where the lack of letterboxing wouldn't matter. Now it seems even that is no guarantee that the movie won't be tampered with.

    When AMC finally started letterboxing awhile back, I recorded a Western to watch, and when it started the credits plainly stated it was filmed in CinemaScope (aspect ratio 2.35 : 1), and the credits were in CinemaScope, yet when the film started it was letterboxed in an aspect ratio of about 1.66 : 1! When you know this, you can tell the framing is off and start to wonder every time the camera appears to pan.

    I have Dish TV, which comes with an electronic program guide that assigns star ratings to movies. Generally these duplicate Leonard Maltin's ratings, but I've noticed that any film with a blackface or minstrel number or anything that might not be considered PC gets downgraded. For example, "Footlight Parade" gets a two-star rating, and I'm sure it's because of the "Shanghai Lil" number. There may be something to object too there, but I prefer to make up my own mind.

    I absolutely agree with you about the egregiousness of censorship, which has always been justified as a means to "protect" us from something harmful. It's really an insult to the intelligence of the viewer. I can only say that I'm appalled by AMC's censorship and thank you for noticing this and bringing it to your readers' attention.

  6. hey Rebecca its me annmarie s. i saw docs post in tumblr about ur blog i had to check it out!! excellent post! i dont watch amc either unless its a movie a really wanna see, and thats rarely! i think the most i watch amc is during october when they put on classic horror stuff. but that channel has really become meaningless. once before we got tcm yrs ago, my sister said to me if u like classics you'll love amc. i said...no cause they dont play classics! i like watching silents to 50s mostly and they dont do that. its rare. and that was back then i told her. i must of been a kid or a teen when amc was commercial free and played classics. its ashame whats become of that channel!im so glad we got tcm!!! i also hope they never change like amc cause that would be it!
    i also agree what u said about the censorship! there are ppl that are so afraid of offending anyone they'll censor just to keep ppl quiet. but its really nonsense! if u dont like something to watch it! cause cutting film is changing the movie to something that was not meant to be. times change, ur looking at a different era. so just watch it accordingly.
    i hate censorship cause its like we cant make up our own minds! cause ur right, without the bad in out history how can we learn from it! and it happened so why suppress it!

  7. Everybody has made such good points about the censorship issue. Pat, you are so right about Hayes coming from the right and modern censors coming from the left. Eve, it is scary that channels will do their own amateur cutting for fear of revenue problems. Money just can't be the bottom line on something as serious as this. Doc, Annmarie, R.D. and Dawn, I'm so glad you are on the side of truth and historical accuracy! If there are enough of us, perhaps it won't take over.

  8. Becky, I agree that networks editing films for television broadcast is an annoyance and actually quite disrespectful. But the majority of times, they truly are editing for time constraints, to fit the movie into a two-hour (or so) spot with commercials. What they cut is up to them, so they would cut an entire musical number, which is easier than cutting throughout the film since they would require much more time and money. It sucks, and that's why I loathe watching films on TV.

    Another practice that is equally appalling is editing scenes back INTO the film. Sequences cut from the original theatrical release are sometimes thrown back in, but most of them were initially cut for good reason. Sometimes it's interesting (the extended airplane sequence in PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES, or ARMY OF DARKNESS, with extras in the windmill scene), other times it's not so interesting (the superfluous "interview" scene with Mia and Vincent in PULP FICTION).

    HOLIDAY INN may have been censored, but I think the missing bits from MEN IN TIGHTS was solely for time. As Patrick said, there's nothing offensive about it. If anything, it's making fun of men in general, and all men deserve to be mocked because we're all scum.

    So here's my point to the cutting of HOLIDAY INN: when you advertise via TV commercials, and you have to cut a movie to fit within your broadcast time, why not cut a scene that may be potentially offensive so that advertisers won't avoid it? It's a stupid practice, but that's the price you pay for TV sponsored by people wanting to sell you something.

    TCM prides itself on showing films uncut. I sincerely doubt that they will cut a single second, let alone an entire number.

    Thanks, Becky, for a intriguing and thought provoking write-up!

  9. Becky, this was indeed a thought-provoking post. As I was pondering my comments, I read what others wrote and have little to add. I pretty much agree with Sark that many edits on commercial TV are simply due to time constraints--and if there's a scene that could be considered offensive in any way, the easy solution is just to snip it out. Most of the movies I've seen in my life were on commercial TV...so there's no telling how many edited films I've seen! One horrid practice that you don't see anymore is local stations dividing movies into two parts. When I was growing up, a local station had a "dialing for dollars" movie that ran from 4-6 PM weekdays. Well, calling folks on the phone took a lot of time as well as the commercials. So, when the station showed THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and THE LOST WORLD, it cut the movies into two parts and ran them over two days!

  10. Rick and Sark, I'm so glad you came over to comment. I have gotten so I almost can't stand to watch commercial stations myself, at least not for movies. And I'm with you, Sark, about the adding back in! It usually adds nothing, and really is about a director's desire to keep everything he filmed, kind of an ego thing. There is a good reason why a good film editor is normally not the director!

    I saw the Robin Hood movie with my sister, and she noticed before I did that all the edits were as I mentioned. I know Mel Brooks movies practically by heart, and I do think it was an agenda thing, not random cutting. You guys read Eve's comment about revenue concerns, and I'm sure that's probably a big part of it. It scares me that such reasoning might be a driving force. Well, as long as TCM keeps its mission going, we can have heart. But I think we must keep an eye on things. Thanks so much for your insight!

  11. I am glad so many agree that this practice of censorship is ridiculous! If we cannot count on people to make their own choices about something like what to watch on television, how can we count on people to make really difficult life-altering decisions. If you don't like the scene in Holiday Inn, don't watch it. When I come across a show that I don't like I change the channel, I don't call for a ban on it. It is called FREEDOM, and from the most trivial things to most important I should have the right to decide my own fate. This is America!

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  13. Hi Becky, I wanted to respond to your excellent post on censorship, specifically in classic films and censorship in general. I, like many of your other readers, gave up on AMC when the channel first began airing commercials, and with the exception of MAD MEN, I don’t consider it an option. I can understand your concern as it relates to the revision of history, even when it is exemplified in the somewhat sentimental art form of classic films (Does it stop here and what art will be next?).

    It is interesting that generations of artists, philosophers and writers “rejected” the works of the previous generation as no longer viable, but this rejection did not lead to destruction. Instead of destroying what was created before them, they acknowledged their debt to these individuals and built on the existing foundation, with a “standing on the shoulders of giants” attitude.

    Our present day mentality dismisses the concept that we might have something to learn from the past, and instead advocates destruction out of arrogance, an arrogance that presumes that we are, at last, THE ENLIGHTENED GENERATION that knows everything and can do no wrong.

    Those portions of films and literature that are rightly offensive today should not be eliminated to allow us to feel justified in our arrogance, but should remain as a reminder of the high cost of our freedom . . . a cost that was too high for some and allows others to feel comfortably superior (look how much better we are than those evil people who lived when this film was made).

    The dark nature of the political correctness mindset is the twin of what we witnessed with our recent debates on treason: if you don’t agree with me, you are a traitor. If you don’t agree with me regarding the destruction of the past, you are a…? Best wishes for a lovely Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year.

  14. Gypsy, you have stated just how I feel even more eloquently than I did! I was mad when I wrote this post, and just wrote what I was thinking. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  15. AMC sucks. It is the equivalent of FM radio. Tons of commercials, a repetitive playlist of limited movies and edited and censored. You pay a lot of money for cable, and for what? More and more commercials and edited movies? I will never watch AMC! Maybe AMC stands for Ads, Money, Crap.