The First Amendment; Deke Rosselle
The eastern Public Radio Network in cooperation with the Institute for democratic communication at Boston University now presents the First Amendment and a free people a weekly examination of civil liberties in the media. In the 1970s the host of the program is the institute's director Dr. Bernard Reuben. A most interesting question for civil libertarians and for students of the media is one about the motion pictures. The question is do motion pictures influence specific ideas and social patterns in American society. What's the long and short of that. Well to help us toward a conclusion on that we have Dick Roselle as our guest the film coordinator of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He's a lecturer art historian at Tufts University. Film critic and and writer on motion picture subjects deek. Before you
say not really the answer to that question. What is your own view of the power of the motion pictures to create the views we have about life and politics. In the long run there is a certain power in the short run there's no power at all. Propaganda as a technique is always a long term technique the idea of an image. We talked once on this radio broadcast about some newspaper films that presented newspaper people working press journalists editors in a certain kind of way. And while we could pick a few key films as excellent films representing the image of a hard working hard drinking hard headed newspaper journalist that image all of the way in which a reporter gets a story and what a reporter does was essentially built up over a 30 year period and say
300 films or and other aspects of society that reinforce that image. And in the long term I think that movies can have some. Less substantial influence on the way we perceive things. Images of things I think not the reality of things. The position of women in American society as portrayed by Hollywood in most of its genres in the Western genre of the woman is a civilizing influence in the gangster film. She is a symbol of power and prestige in the melodrama she is a romantic interest and a love object on life. And I think that to some extent the way in which women perceive themselves or the way in which we as males perceive them in American society has been reinforced by this. But that's again over a 20 or 30 year period there are no films really that change the minds of man no matter how great they are how classic They are overnight. This is always amusing to me when you get into the
censorship battle of a film on morality or even the censorship battle say of a classic like Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin made in the 1920s which caused a great controversy all over the world it was a great piece of art and everyone thought that people seeing it would turn Bolshevik. It's not true. Even for those of us in motion pictures or any other entertainment medium who love that medium and work with it constantly. We spend so little of our working lives paying attention to it really looking at the work of licensure or anyone else. Well take the Battleship Potemkin. So much commentary now is not over its influence but over the movie as symbolic of so many new art forms or particular scenes that motion picture addicts dote on precisely. But that was not the argument when the film was first seen. There were riots in Berlin between right wing and left wing political groups over the film showing the film was never licensed for exhibition in Great Britain. It
was considered when Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks brought a print of that film back to the United States after visiting Russia in Moscow in one thousand twenty six. They declared in many. Trade paper is in the movie business declared that this would be the film that would never be seen in the United States and how terrible it was because it was a great film. Ultimately And I think to the surprise of Pickford and Farrah banks and to professionals in the motion picture industry the film actually was seen here within a year or so when there was no such a problem in this in this country. Let me ask you about two films not one in connection with the other but just two films. The first is the Grapes of Wrath the photoplay of the Steinbeck work and the other is Gone With The Wind. Now I have the impression that those are unusual films in that a generation of people remembered them and that there was something of a tendon punch here in both cases preceded by widely popular
novels. In both cases successful man of station manifestations in terms of the film genre would this be an exceptional kind of example these two films. No I think you've picked a very good example. But you've also picked two films one of which has certainly colored our impression of the Civil War. Although if you were sitting here with. MacKinlay Kantor or historian you would have got a very different view of that. I just saw really another one on ABC it seems to me that roots as a pick up from some of the images of Gone With The Wind. Very definitely and I think the good part of the example is that these two films for the civil war in the first case and Grapes of Wrath for the depression are very symbolic films and they do pull together in a visual way in a very potent way. A lot of the issues and idiology and structures that were ongoing in American society at that time remembering the Grapes of Wrath was made
in 1939 I believe at the end of the Depression era which it describes and not at the beginning of it another case where film is clearly following things that have been happening in American society and not leading them and changing things that have happened in American society. Film is much too great an economic risk takes much too much money. It takes much too much time to make a film from its initial conception to its exhibition in theatres to a wide public. There's a long lead time there in the shortest possible way perhaps six months which would be incredibly short and most exceptional. More likely a year or a year and a half. And Motion Picture producers and companies will not take the risk of trying something completely new that they don't believe there's a pre-determined audience for in the American public. Well let me test your thesis now in reverse. I agree with you that if we were to look at war films for example that because films have to represent propaganda over a long period usually they don't really influence the course
but after the fact it seems to me that the the films about World War 1 after World War II created an image which persisted if you know that word order to after the war. That's very true. Because as you know in all of what we do really there's a certain glossing over of the harsh reality that happens through time. The figure of Napoleon has turned from being the idea of a man who destroyed one third of the males of France to the out of a rather prestigious person and through time a lot of the bad things that he DID have been forgotten. We're seeing I think to some extent we're seeing this happen now with Miscellany and Hitler and the rise of interest in these figures where in Germany some of the economic miracle the miracle of recovery the way in which he handled foreign trade and foreign monies is somewhat being said or thought of in a more positive way now and we're forgetting perhaps some of the other aspects of. Films do that as well
and so when you come to King vide or film The Big Parade of nine hundred twenty six which is eight years after the end of World War 2 which is in some ways a terribly realistic film in a very gripping aesthetic product that film very definitely has lived on in our memories in a more concrete way perhaps than the experience of the war itself for those people who went through it you know with films like watch on the Rhine. Lillian Hellman film which was set in Connecticut but raise the specters of what was going on in Europe. Paul Lucas was in it. I forgotten whether it was Bette Davis or Margaret Sullivan as the wife. But that's not important i love them both especially Margaret Sullivan with a deep throat a wonderful voice of hers. Did those films did that. Did that film watch on the Rhine about the menace through the experiences of a refugee a aristocratic type of person
who had to go back to to his death really. Did they change any group in society for example did they change the intellectual concept of what we were up against at a time when Roosevelt was having trouble getting ships armed getting neutrality zones and so on. They probably helped in a you know wide populous sense. But again it's a situation where if there hadn't been a pre-determined number of people I don't mean that's the distinctly predetermine if there hadn't been say a strong wave of feeling amongst the American public leaning in that direction the film just never would have been made to make doesn't make common sense business grounds along with washing the Rhine and you could talk about in the same way films like North Star the first time in which we saw. The Soviet Union as an ally and portrayed in a sympathetic way on a motion picture screen in America.
You could talk about Mrs min ever. The film which Roosevelt to himself advocated to be screened in as many theaters as possible because it was so sympathetic towards the agony our British compatriots are going to at that time is almost like a Christmas carol being such a fable wasn't it. It well it very definitely was but it it worked up an emotional sympathy amongst a wide populace for an intervention on behalf of the long suffering British. And Roosevelt knew I think he was certainly well-informed enough to know that at some point America was going to have to enter that war in the context of 1941 when there was still a great deal of isolationism in the country and a great deal. Practical political thinking it was necessary to put an emotional veneer make something acceptable for the American public way Imus weren't that well informed for either security reasons or just for reasons of inattentiveness about the needs and necessities of American foreign policy I want to
correct the use of the word fable I'm not saying that the British were in trouble but what I meant by the word fable was that the worry about who won the Rose prize and the the social implications of the railroad master winning it and Walter Pigeon going off with his with his nautical cap to bring back some of the people at Dunkirk and the heroism of grit Gus and his missus Mina was too saccharin to be considered sweet it was almost unbearable. No it doesn't the film doesn't stand up today at all very well but in the context of the time it was quite an emotional and powerful statement and that the kind of fable ism that you describe certainly makes good drama. And it also creates a kind of black and white situation as well as a human humanistic situation with which an audience can be in great sympathy. Again however I think that that it's important to suggest here. And war
films as a standing trial are because there were war films during World War 1 between the wars during World War 2 and subsequently established entertainment draw an established dramatic pattern is a good way to see and to approach the question of whether or not motion pictures influence specific ideas or whether they follow them. And I'm absolutely convinced that they follow them most of the argument on that question is argument from people over the so-called pornographic films the idea that American society is decaying is becoming more decadent the family is breaking up new kinds of sexual relationships and patterns and interpersonal relationships have come upon us throughout the 1980s and 1970s as films changed in that period to portray many of these new relationships. Such reports as the report of the president's commission on obscenity. Have suggested very strongly that film played a major part in
changing those ideas about interpersonal relationships and the kind of traditional American values. But you see the other way around I see it absolutely the other way around because I don't see anywhere where a company involved in the making of motion pictures or an artist involved in the making of Motion Pictures would risk two or three million dollars on the chance that somewhere out there enough people would agree with this new idea that they would actually go and see the picture and make it a profitable picture. At the bottom line that is the common sense common denominator of whether or not a film gets made. Taking the discussion away from pornographic films or so-called risque films and moving it to say an analysis of war films where you can ask the same question we see that during the entire course of the Vietnam War there were no films made on that subject. At the end the Green Berets filmed it was you know you want to prove your point it was toward the end and that's
a very interesting project because at the time that film was being made it was personally financed on a personal project project of Mr. John Wayne and the film community throughout the time of the announcement of this film and the making of it considered an absolute scandal they thought this guy was completely off his rocker to do this couldn't see any way that this film was going to be. Successful or scene or anything it was a big joke. And of course the film came out and turned out to be one of the top grossing top box office films of the year and surprised all the professionals in the movie industry. Now it's also important to say about the Green Berets that that is a film cast very much in World War 2 patterns. I was not involved in Vietnam personally but my understanding is that it was a different kind of war than what we had seen in World War Two and in Korea but in the Green Berets the fellows from the U.S. side and the Viet Cong side are fighting from trenches and redoubts and holding positions and overcoming
pillboxes of machine guns and whatever and I feel that's a very much a World War Two pattern translated into a new uniform and a new vocabulary in a certain Captain Cook and Sergeant Flegg. Imagery that persists. We can see again aside from the Green Berets. Other projects that Hollywood film companies would not touch at all there's a very interesting film proposed by Sterling silicon script called groundswell proposed and being passed around the studios at exactly the same moment that the Green Berets was in production with the John Waynes production company. And at this moment in history Sterling so often it was about the hottest script script writer in Hollywood. He had just won an Oscar for in the heat of the night. He'd come out of television where his 600 or 700 scripts for Route 66 and Naked City television shows had revolutionized that medium and turned it into a whole new direction.
He had also had a number of other successful films to his credit and he proposed a film very close about Vietnam very close to a film called The Russians are Coming The Russians are coming which he also wrote was a big box office film in the late 1960s and groundswell postulates the idea of a bunch of Vietcong masquerading as Japanese who infiltrate the Pentagon and they start wandering around to get lost in the corridors and. They're all going in the wrong directions until some helpful major points them toward the war room and it's a comedy very much along the tenor and tone I would think of the Russians are Coming The Russians are coming for you know appearance of a grounded crew of the Russian submarine off a small Cape Cod town. Dick rose I want to ask you about a film that I found very curious follows your idea that films follow social trends and that's Patton. I remember watching that film for the first time in a theater full of people who were Vietnam protesters hated every bit of it.
And yet there was enough in passion and so it became a widely popular film which showed that something was going on it just caught on it reveals something about the American character what was it in your opinion. Well that was a great a great biography of a fascinating character. And there's always room in drama and film for a fascinating biography of a great character. I saw that film much less well after it had first come out when everyone was talking about its connections to Vietnam. It also was a straight war Shara. Lot and I can't really say that because when it opens with that huge flag and along he had me yelling out and George C. Scott being Patton it was it was it was something else if you want to use that expression. I thought I really well if it was it was something else the way all the great works are pictures of event the big parade is not what I thought it was an anti-war film which of well I think that's the debatable point.
And one of the reasons why there was so much discussion about it at the time as I said I saw that film well after it came out and I was quite shocked to find that all of what had been written and talked about its connection to Vietnam where I thought didn't apply at all. I really saw no reading between the lines there to the contemporary situation of one thousand sixty nine thousand nine hundred seventy when the film first appeared. I've got a really loaded question for you know it's really a toughie. What's the what are the films revealing. If they are behind the scene you know there is after the fact what are they telling us about what social trends have been in this country what's what's a a major thrust of contemporary films contemporaneous with us. Well I think that that all I don't know where ideas start I don't know where trends start in American society you know if I knew that. We got
beef far ahead of the game. You know what I feel like I'm really new life is that I still run really new yes. I feel sometimes like an economist you know all the debate about the national economic policies Mr. Burns and the Fed and whatever and I'm not sure that anyone knows quite where any longer economic policy starts or ends and there's a there's a great debate there. But I don't think one can pin it down to a measurable quantity what films if films don't start ideas I don't know where they started or why sometimes they pick them up a little earlier than Time magazine and sometimes why they pick them up a little bit later than Time magazine certainly if one looks at an analysis of contemporary films in the feminist movement that started somewhere else it's a new idea about women a new way of a new role for women both and in family life in professional life in the life of American society that didn't start with films started somewhere else and whether that was through a left over radicalism at the end of the Vietnam war or whether it was just the idea of the
age which had finally come to realize that this was a whole group and class of people who had. Not had an equal say an equal share in the operations of the society as a whole or in certain parts of it. I can't determine. I think films pick up on ideas and pick up on trends but sometimes as a reminder sometimes well after the fact as a symbol and as a bringing together of an era at an age it's one of the things that film can do best film like Patton For example I think couldn't have been made during World War 2. Maybe could have been made right after World War 2 by the late 1960s. That film brings together a lot of issues and ideas and visions all of that war and all of the kind of heroic figure who participated in such a controversial way in that war. That one can look back now and have a different kind of emotional
relationship to it. Patton's an epic film the Vietnam War will be coming up in some films next year that are coming out the most major of which is by the fellow who wrote Patton Francis Ford Coppola wrote the script for Patton and he's been spending a lot of time in the Philippines making a film called Apocalypse Now so into big budget big Vietnam film. Maybe now is the time we can start sorting it through and trying to put it all back together film is an epic medium. It's very good at doing that it's not an intimate and easy going to crisscross with our escapist mood now. The stuff was the I doubt it because I don't think he's ever done that in his work I really lot of secrecy about this film which you know what I'm saying is there is a libel to to being on the wrong trend. Oh certainly there are all kinds of films that have been on the wrong trend if they're considered financially unsuccessful nobody goes to see them they disappear and about 15 years later that get discovered by people like you and me who see the essential quality of the product when
outside of its immediate trend trendiness There's a marvelous film on the youth revolution in the 60s called a river run by John Corti a San Francisco filmmaker Columbia Pictures disappeared died I showed it for a class here in Boston two weeks ago. Loved every minute of it but it was the wrong trend at that time because it's a gentle film and it wasn't the big strawberry statement. Going straight Elliott Gould what did you film that was the youth movement of the 60s to the American film business. I wonder whether Lillian Hellman Pinta Minto with Isaac Dennison's stories of her life as a colonial wife wife a colonial worker in Africa. Whether these new fill these new books coming out about the the wife of the the vice regal the governor of India in the in the 20s and so on and so forth whether films follow closely
behind what is imbedded in in literature whether MacKinlay Kantor is Andersonville really gave rise to a thought that led to Soldier Blue perhaps 20 years later. Yes. That's a really quite quite close to the case there's a marvelous book by a fellow named Jeffrey Richards called Visions of yesterday. And he analyzes the generation of an idea through three different chapters of film and political history and the first chapter is on. What he calls films of empire he traces the idea of empire as a spouse by the politicians as it later appeared in the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Richard Kipling and then in the third generation turned up in the films of course long after the Empire was nothing but a memory to the active politicians and to the policy makers of the day. But that was when all the rest of us found out how glorious it was to have an empire. By the way I'm going to leave the subject for a moment you like you just couldn't watch your face speak
again because you when I mention Margaret Sullivan you know you had a peculiar look on your face. What did that mean because I am absolutely devoted to her memory and thought she was absolutely wonderful. My only come my only thought to myself there was that of the programs that we've done together you've managed to bring Margaret Sullivan into each one of them. And here she was again here she was again. OK I'm reading haywire by the way. About the Heywood family and so on so it seemed to me that I mentioned her twice because she was in a great many political BS. She was in a great many movies that were the forerunners of the new womans film and she was one of the heroines who didn't get debased. Margaret Sullivan Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn were essentially the three actresses who in their careers themselves had a little bit more range in the kind of roles they could play in the kinds of duties they could perform in the kind of activities they could
undertake in films. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were more of a Bette Davis and Joan Crawford drama those kinds of films although Bette Davis did work in real life. She's the one who broke the standard studio contract and went off to England and went through that famous story of which which liberated really all of the actresses and actors in Hollywood. But she didn't make those kinds of films. There was something some special quality because we all get typecast all actors and actors get to some extent typecast in that and with some special quality about Sullivan and Hepburn and Rosalind Russell who played every kind of career woman. You know she used to say that she had a tan suit a beige suit. A dark blue suit and a negligee for the seventh reel when she finally told her girlfriend over the telephone that what she really wanted to do was to become a good housewife. Last question a person like my who was a fine actress and then became a producer director of films about women's situations was she ahead of her time will behind her time
if she lost you know she's lost somewhere a little bit now but she wasn't certainly wasn't ahead of her time the first important woman director was active between 1914 Alice guy Blash And of course Dorothy Arsenal in the 30s and for whatever she might settle things hope was that she worked in the system. The Swedish system which has always had a better idea of the equality of men and women in professions than we've had in this country and in some other societies. Film co-ordinator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston I want to thank you very much for elucidating upon the effects that films have one social life and what not for this day this is Brenda driven. The eastern Public Radio Network and cooperation with the Institute for democratic communication at Boston University. As president of the First Amendment and the Free People Weekly examination of civil liberties in the media in the 1970s the program is
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