Liberal Unpolitics on Stage and Screen
Gesture Without Content
We live now in an era which is characterized by the absence of great divisive political issues at home. On the one big issue of the moment—desegregation—the liberals have been joined by the right wing, or what used to be the right wing: of the four candidates for national office in 1956, only one—Vice President Nixon, the man reputedly most conservative—was able to claim membership in the NAACP. With support like that, it is hard to make of desegregation an occasion for embattled liberal passion. Indeed, it has become impossible for a liberal to feel himself isolated in a virtuous minority of right-thinking people, for who is not a liberal now? President Eisenhower is a liberal (as well as a moderate conservative), the late Senator Taft was a liberal, the liberalism of President McKinley has recently been uncovered, and Alexander Hamilton is now becoming Jefferson’s chief rival as co-founder of American liberalism.
But there still lingers among us a residue of sentiment that one ought to be breaking a lance for something, a feeling that causes and quests are necessary to a well-ordered life. The liberal gesture—I mean the gesture alone, drained of all content—has retained its charm, and the need to assert attitudes of liberal right-mindedness continues to arise in our fiction, our drama, and especially our popular arts. Deprived of politics as an arena, the popular arts have set forth on a search for newer and narrower areas where it will be possible to go through the necessary liberal motions without venturing into really controversial territory, and without getting involved in the hard complexities that only serve to make the gestures seem irrelevant to real problems in the real world. The favorite strategy of the popular arts is to sound a little liberal and then quickly to drop the subject. Some equally vague liberals in the audience are stirred without becoming sweaty and excited, and, just as important, no one is offended.
Right now, the great virgin territory being opened up for settlement by the new liberalism is the subject of marriage and adultery. Irwin Shaw, who seems to be a typical liberal without a cause, is one of the pioneers in this field. Leslie Fiedler recently observed (COMMENTARY, July 1956) that Shaw, having run through a variety of liberal political attitudes, has arrived at “the last politics,” an emancipated view of adultery. Fiedler has isolated the peculiar virtues of this position: “In no other area, can we indulge so convincedly in the sense of our own understanding and tolerance. In no other area, can we feel so emancipated at so little cost.”
Shaw has been joined by many others. Even Al Capp, the creator of Li’l Abner, has discovered that marriage could stand in the place of politics. In 1952 he announced that Senator McCarthy was making it impossible for Li’l Abner to continue its freewheeling satirization of the current scene; consequently, Abner married Daisy Mae and demonstrated that marriage was still a fitting subject for satire. Capp presumably became free-wheeling once more after McCarthy was censured by the Senate; I wonder how many of his readers noticed the difference. (Capp’s exaggerated notion of what he does in his comic strip makes his statement all the more telling.)
Hollywood in particular is very busy being liberal where adultery is concerned. Fallen women are now raised up and restored to the human family. This trend is much indebted to a recent change in movie censorship. Formerly, the films were required to punish adultery with death; in Hollywood, the Dream Factory, Hortense Powdermaker reports that back in the Dark Ages, when illegitimacy had to be mentioned in a certain film, it was necessary to establish that the mother had died in childbirth. When Hollywood filmed such plays as The Voice of the Turtle, love was purified by the elimination of carnality. Only hard fighting on the part of some moviemakers has established this new beachhead of liberalism on the screen. The result is that sexual dereliction may now be expiated by the punishment and remorse of the sinner. This new dispensation has had an effect much like that of a wonder drug. Lives that in less enlightened times would have been lost are now saved by a simple curative process, a mere matter of prescribing the right amount of suffering. Cheerful, tearful happy endings have become the rule—but not quite always and everywhere. Only a short time ago Variety was recording the censorship problems encountered by a French film which was being cut for American audiences. In the original, the libertine hero survives without any permanent harm. The first American version left him crippled for life; the second killed him outright. But such disasters are becoming less frequent.
Nevrtheless, some remnant of the double standard still prevails, even in this liberal universe. The woman who has sinned is still a special object of interest. She is required to follow the sentimental pattern of the Magdalenes of the stage—Camille, Sadie Thompson, and Anna Christie; she must fall in love and suffer before being forgiven by the generous, patronizing, liberal-minded onlookers. The best current example is not fiction but the real-life soap opera of Ingrid Bergman. After a steady diet of out-of-the-way, low-budget films, Miss Bergman has returned to the majors by making Anastasia. Public forgiveness was at one time to be conferred in the form of the greatest accolade ever to befall a converted Magdalene—a gala coast-to-coast television debut on Ed Sullivan’s program. Sullivan’s audience was invited to write in and say whether Miss Bergman had been punished sufficiently for bearing a child out of wedlock. Early results showed forgiveness trailing, but rejection was, I think, out of the question. If public opinion were really against Miss Bergman, no one would have been so foolish as to cast her in Anastasia. The final allot was never reported, since she finally could not manage to get over here for the program anyway.1
Several films of the last few years have given the carnal sinner a fair chance to pull through—From Here to Eternity, Demetrius and the Gladiators, The Proud and Profane, D-Day—The Sixth of June. The movie version of Tea and Sympathy informs us that its heroine pays for her carnal sin with a lifetime of remorse, but her suffering is a rather perfunctory adjunct to a generally faithful adaptation of the play. Mixed feelings are present also in Helen of Troy, which made Helen’s deserted husband a revolting weakling and scoundrel; nevertheless, the Greeks win the Trojan War, and a sort of rough justice is observed. Mogambo takes full advantage of the new mood of charity; Ava Gardner spends a night with Clark Gable, confesses to a priest, and thereafter seems little the worse for wear. All three of these films are extremely “liberal” and forgiving in spirit, while managing to conform to the letter of the Production Code’s current laws.
Some movies utilize a special sort of trickiness that allows them to be even more “liberal.” They avoid the question of repentance by creating some doubt as to whether there is anything to repent. Everyone knows that the worst has happened, but the movie is coy and admits nothing. In the movie version of Picnic, we are permitted our choice in deciding what occurs when the hero and heroine spend the night together; the play was more explicit. In Trapeze, we are not directly told what has been going on between Burt Lancaster and Gina Lollobrigida, and so we may have cause to wonder why the third member of the triangle blows his top. When Born Yesterday was filmed, the ruthless businessman’s mistress became his fiancée. If any were prone to regard “fiancée” as a euphemism—well, evil to him who evil thinks.
The latest tendency, however, is to an even greater freedom, without benefit of euphemisms, and the best example is the recent television performance of Born Yesterday. For the screen, the sex was bowdlerized but the politics was retained; for television, a few years later, the politics was bowdlerized, but the sex was retained. For one thing, the relationship between Harry Brock and Billie was treated frankly; no such idiot euphemism as “fiancée” was employed. Billie was once more permitted to explain why she quit show business, as she did in the play: “Harry didn’t want me being in the show. Harry likes to get to bed early.” This line was absent from the film, present on television. Another instance: Harry Brock, chatting with the Senator he has bought, is very self-consciously on his best behavior; he dismisses a grateful reference to their arrangement for mutual aid by saying: “Just tit for tat. [He stops, confused, then turns to Mrs. Hedges.] Excuse me!” That is what he says in the play and in the television version, not in the film. But television has to draw the line somewhere. In the play, Billie denounces Harry by exclaiming: “Big Fascist!” Puzzled, Harry points out the incongruity of the charge to his lawyer: “It don’t make sense. I was born in Plainfield, New Jersey. She knows that.” The movies let this slip past, but television won’t stand for a dirty word like “Fascist.” So Billie calls Harry “Napoleon!” Harry is puzzled, because he is six feet tall. Obviously, only politics is obscene. Freedom in the other area—sex—continues to develop evenly in television and films. Just as television attains a sort of landmark in its version of Maugham’s The Letter (using the word “rape” instead of “attack”), Hollywood prepares the first movie in which abortion will be suggested—“handled delicately and in good taste.”
The stage, unhampered by the Production Code, needs stronger medicine for its symbolic liberalism, and what adultery is to Hollywood, homosexuality has become to Broadway. Some leading thesis plays of the last few years, including Tea and Sympathy, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and The Immoralist, illustrate this trend. Almost a decade ago, Blanche DuBois of Streetcar Named Desire was suffering remorse for her cruelty to her homosexual husband; last season, Arthur Miller joined the parade with a play in which one man kisses another.
Liberalism has held out in a few more J pockets of last-ditch resistance, but in its unpolitical form. Of course, serious politics has always been taboo in the popular arts. National politics can usually inspire only wild, frivolous burlesques like Of Thee I Sing and I’d Rather Be Right; neither of these musical comedies, innocent as they are, was ever filmed. The favorite political attitude of the films, and of mass entertainment in general, has traditionally operated on a municipal level; it is unrelenting hostility to graft, a position which can be maintained without giving offense to anyone. In the past, Hollywood glanced at municipal corruption in The Great McGinty and at corruption on a larger scale in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; while the latter film was much admired as a defense of democratic government, its broad, sweeping, inspirational rhetoric almost obscured the fact that the issue at bottom was the misappropriation of public lands. The new film The Boss has enough allusions to the Pendergast machine of Kansas City to cause concern to the Democrats, but I am inclined to believe the producer, who has declared that the film will do them no harm. Indeed, the broadmindedness of the popular arts is so great today that political bosses are now coming in for their share of “liberal” toleration; corruption is being represented as a venial political sin. I am sure that Tammany Hall has never looked so good as it will in the forthcoming movie in which Bob Hope will play Mayor Jimmie Walker.
The Boss is quite a curiosity. I suspect that it was originally planned as a straightforward anti-boss picture, but it fell prey to the spirit of the times. In its prologue, bosses are spoken of in the past tense; we are told that an aroused public rose up and smote them. The boss is played by a conventional leading man, John Payne, who tries hard to look like a desperate character. The film explains—if it does not quite explain away—his becoming a cynical political entrepreneur; he is striving to outdo his sibling rival, and he is bitter at the loss of his girl. His political machine makes a vague alliance with gangsters, but when the Union Station massacre takes place, the boss personally hunts down the chief gangster and shoots it out with him. Corrupt as the machine is, it sends a perfect monster of integrity to serve in the United States Senate—a pleasant little fellow with glasses whose hardware store has failed. When the boss faces a Federal investigation, the Senator he has created still feels a personal loyalty, but he will do nothing to stop the investigators. The boss is regretful but not resentful; he is proud that he has sent so honest a man to Washington. When an effective investigation is finally under way, it is headed by a man whose brother is involved in one of the boss’s dubious business operations. The investigator, a seedy type who does not inspire confidence, sets the price at which the boss may buy his brother out.
Still nothing is more surprising than the ending. Although the boss has broken the law many times and consequently expects to be convicted on a legitimate charge, he is instead convicted on the basis of the perjured testimony of his best friend. We last see the boss in an unusual and sympathetic role—as the victim of injustice.
Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah sets the style in fiction, with its portrait of a lovable rogue who resembles ex-Mayor James M. Curley of Boston. Television drama has also taken some notable steps in this direction. Two recently televised plays showed Ed Begley, who impersonates William Jennings Bryan on Broadway, playing lovable but crooked politicians. Stout, squat, and balding, this actor fits the popular conception of a political boss; curiously, the resemblance is shared in The Boss, not by the politician, but by the prosecutor. In one play, Begley is vanquished in an election by a young reformer, who at once takes over the machine and welcomes the support of the former boss. In the other play, an ambitious reformer exposes his dishonesty but is embarrassed by the disclosure that the boss’s peccadilloes were inspired by the purest motives; that, Mr. Curley would say, was the story of his life.
The new liberalism is still political in one respect: it takes its stand for persecuted minorities. True to the new spirit of caution, however, they are usually distant, abstract minorities. The movie cycles about Negroes and Jews subsided long ago, and the Mexican cycle (represented by Viva Zapata and Trial) seems to have run its course. What remains, here as elsewhere, is the spirit of abstract tolerance, the taste without the substance. The generalized reference carries the advantage of at the same time saying everything and nothing, about every minority and about none in particular. It fights sin so vigorously and so abstractly that no one—least of all the sinner—can take offense. Here is a case in point: a recent television play exposed the persecution of a man who chose to wear a beard. We are assured that this story is based on an actual incident.
This anonymous vindication of nameless minorities was inaugurated by a movie of a few years ago—The Boy with Green Hair. In this well-meant parable, a character asks the question: “How would you like to have your sister marry a boy with green hair?” The persecuted child of the title stands for all the minorities that have been mistreated, but he escapes the danger of strict identification. A similar shiftiness, together with a similar unreality, is sometimes in evidence when the films try to show a real minority. Two well-known instances come to mind. The Brick Foxhole, a novel about the murder of a homosexual, became Crossfire, a movie about the murder of a Jew. Home of the Brave, a play about a Jew at war, became a movie about a Negro at war. The main reason for the changes was, I suspect, that the originals fitted the minorities too well. Once the changes were made, the stories became a bit lopsided; in each case, one felt that the problems shown were not fully relevant to the kind of people who faced them. This inexactness achieved exactly the desired effect. It made the films parables about anybody—that is, nobody.
The new, unpolitical politics of the movies is also concerned for the martyrs of civil liberties, but even in this area the last liberalism is empty of all content. It is constantly declaring itself opposed to slavery—when slavery is far enough removed from our shores. Consider The Robe, in which Victor Mature plays a Greek slave of the first century. He is liberated, but in the sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators, he is enslaved once more and again liberated. An infinite number of sequels may follow the original down the path of alternating enslavement and liberation, but the main idea is clear: we take a dim view of the institution of slavery. New Testament slavery is equally unattractive in The Prodigal; here, the prodigal son, enslaved in Damascus, leads a revolt and wins freedom. But Hollywood’s uncompromising opposition to certain kinds of slavery can come even closer to home. In Santiago, Alan Ladd helps the Cubans win independence from Spain; the Cuban heroine describes the cruel effects of slavery, which is identified with Spanish tyranny, and was not abolished in Cuba till 1886. Slavery, then, would seem to be an evil institution, even in the Western Hemisphere—but not in the United States! Liberalism is all well and good, but hurting the box office in the South is something else again. Accordingly, Negro slavery in the American South has been, in the movies, always idyllic. Birth of a Nation, So Red the Rose, Gone with the Wind, and many other films portray a world in which the only Negroes who object to slavery are self-seeking ruffians. Nowadays, the ruffians are gone, but one is still likely to find here and there a contented slave.
Santiago embodies Hollywood’s characteristic self-contradictions to an unusual degree. Allied with the Cubans in their fight for independence are a Confederate ship captain and his Negro first mate. The captain sees no incongruity in his position. He ardently praises the Cuban efforts to win freedom and continually asserts that, this time, he feels he is on the winning side. He praises also his Negro mate, who fought beside him in the Confederate navy. The captain tells us the Negro is as good a man as the villain who picks a fight with him—although it is Alan Ladd who wins the privilege of pitching the villain into the Caribbean. The Negro mate is usually rather docile, and—I think we might say, in consequence—he gets the very best treatment: Alan Ladd has coffee with him, and he and the Confederate captain democratically blow themselves up together, following a last revelation that the Negro had been the captain’s slave.
That gives us a Negro slave who fought to maintain slavery in the United States but now fights to liberate Cuba from Spain, evidently because he feels more personally involved in the enslavement of Cuba. We are compelled to regret that the Spanish were not as lovable as the Southern slave-holders. But this is a “liberal” movie, since it presents a Negro in a fairly prominent role and also flatly endorses Cuban independence. Liberalism has its penalties, however. Santiago probably won’t make a peseta in Spain; that’s the risk you have to take.
Another peak of liberal “unpolitics” was reached in 1952, when The Male Animal was re-made. The main crisis of the 1940 Thurber-Nugent play was over a college professor’s public reading of a letter by Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Ignoring pressures of all sorts, the professor of the play asserts himself and wins a victory for free speech. The first film version was faithful to the original; in the second, She’s Working Her Way Through College, made when Mc-Carthyism was a major issue in a national election, the Vanzetti letter had vanished from sight. Instead, the film posed the burning question—could a former burlesque dancer be permitted to attend the college and take part in a campus musical? The professor rises to the occasion and puts intolerance to flight. The year 1956 almost gave us another censored version of The Male Animal. One television program showed interest in the play, but dropped it because of the Vanzetti letter. The play was considered for another program, and it was going to be cleansed by the elimination of its main issue. However, Henry Fonda, who was asked to act the lead (as he did in the first film version), is said to have objected to the change; that put an end to all plans to televise The Male Animal.
The mass media have broken lances in behalf of men with beards, boys with green hair, and ex-stripteasers. Broadway has made similar contributions to the cause of unpolitical politics in a series of successively less political plays with nominally liberal themes. When Allan Scott’s Joy to the World was produced in 1948, the cast included three performers who were subsequently listed in Red Channels. Naturally, the play dramatizes a red-hot issue: it is about some film producers who want to make a movie on a “dangerous” subject—the life of Samuel Gompers. Their laudable intentions prevail over efforts to eliminate the “dangerous” subject. The fact that Gompers was a conservative never disturbed the author of the play; any reference to a labor union is enough to set up “liberal” reflexes.
A popular play of a few years later, Ronald Alexander’s Time Out for Ginger, shows us an even safer crusade. Even apart from the script, the liberal intentions of this play were suggested by the presence in the cast of Melvyn Douglas, well-known as a liberal and married to a former Democratic Congresswoman, and the late Philip Loeb, who was then a widely publicized victim of television blacklisting. Time Out for Ginger submits the case of a high-school girl who wants to play football with the boys. This matter divides the town and moves the girl’s father to quote Jefferson, invoke the Bill of Rights, and urge the importance of “individual fulfillment.” In a way, this was the perfect thesis play. No offense was offered to anyone’s political beliefs—only to the taste and common sense of the audience.
The popular arts will continue their strategic withdrawal. They will find safer and narrower ground, well behind the line of fire, in which there will still be room for the postures and gestures of liberalism. Naturally, there will be no room for more than empty postures and gestures. This curious pattern is traceable to a number of causes—the caution of show-business commercialism, the authority of liberal symbolism, and the present peculiar American political atmosphere, compact of harmony, timidity, and neutralism. But what ceaselessly fascinates me is the incongruity itself. I am reminded of the madwoman of Chaillot, whose favorite newspaper was the Gaulois of March 22, 1903. My favorite newspaper will, for a long time at least, be Variety of November 21, 1956. This headline appears in the second column of its first page: “Sacco-Vanzetti Too Hot for TV.” The fifth column has this headline: “Code Would Sanction ‘Abortion’ for Screens ‘If Delicately Handled.’” Who could invent an incongruity more ingenious than this one?
1 In the end Miss Bergman did get over here to accept a critics’ award for her acting in Anastasia; she appeared on television, and received a generally warm welcome, in the newspapers and elsewhere.