Films out of step with the times

Washington Post

While watching Roger De Bris sashay with queenly elegance across the forefront of Susan Stroman's version of Mel Brooks' "The Producers," I had a double laugh. The first laugh arrived because Roger is very funny, as men in high heels routinely are. The secondary laugh came when I realized that somehow Mel didn't get the memo. The memo read, "To all American Entertainment Executives: It is no longer considered appropriate to make fun of the way certain highly feminized gay men walk or talk. Yours, the Committee." I would say the memo came out about '96 or so, roughly the time of the glorious "Seinfeld" episode when Jerry and George were mistakenly outed as a couple.

And that in turn got me thinking about other movies made by folks who missed the memo. Not that memo but, you know, a memo. Maybe they missed it by a couple of weeks, or a couple of years. In any event, I'm thinking of movies that got something so comically wrong they almost ruined the careers of all involved and they became legends of folly -- or, they simply went so far away that no one remembers they even exist.

The most obscure would be "Thunder Bay," an Anthony Mann-Jimmy Stewart collaboration from 1953. It was one of the very last films from a narrative tradition that might be called Heroic Industry, in which stalwart engineers found new and creative ways to seize from Mother Earth the bounty upon which Western civilization so depended. Oops, you can't say that anymore. Well, in this one -- the memory is 52 years old, folks, so it may be a little rusty -- heroic Jimmy shows up in what must be Louisiana with the brilliant idea of drilling for oil offshore! Of course them Cajuns git all excited because they worry that a huge oil well in the middle of the water might kill a fish or two!

The gist of the movie, if I remember correctly, is how Jimmy convinces them -- and fights saboteurs, as well -- that oil isn't harmful to marine life! I seem to recall some scene in which he pulls a shrimp out of glisteny scum of petro-death on the surface and it squiggles with life, proving his point! OK, so the memo wouldn't arrive for three more decades or so, but still ... does anybody wonder why this one doesn't make it to TCM much anymore?

Then there's "The Ghost and the Darkness" from 1996. The memo read, "To all Entertainment Executives: Animals are our friends. They are really just human beings in funny costumes, like Munchkins. They may not be shot, especially when they are beautiful, and when they are shot, it's a tragedy, not a triumph. Yours, the Committee." That was the era, after all, of "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective." But did poor William Goldman, the legendary screenwriter of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," ever miss it. Before the memo came along, Goldman had been trying to make a movie of the British mining engineer in Africa who killed two mangy old man-eaters in 1898 that had killed more than 130 natives working on a railroad project. I guess he was so obsessed with bringing it off, he failed to note the change in climate, by which nature and its phenomena were now all benign. "To all Americans, Regarding Your Friend, Ms. Nature: She sends you balmy breezes and blue skies. Pay no attention to the occasional tsunami, and you Africans who don't like it when the lions eat your kids, please get with the program. Who do you think you are? Yours, the Committee."

Anyhow, the Goldman script was "Jaws"-ified, which is to say its characters, played by Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas, were modeled on Chief Brody and Quint from the Spielberg classic (see Memo Addendum 4B: "It is all right to kill animals that can't be petted.") The key visual motif was a sense of disturbance as the killer cats lurked below the surface of the grass, very much like a great white just under the surface of Long Island Sound. But nobody in the public wanted to see a noodge like Kilmer kill lions. They had already gotten the memo.

There are a few cases of memos being changed that might be worth mentioning. One was in the case of "The North Star" in 1943, for which the memo read, "To all Entertainment Executives: We like communists. Communists are our allies in the war against the Nazis. Let us now praise the communists and forget all that prewar hysteria." So Warner Bros. ponied up the agitprop groaner with lines like "Oh, Clavdia!" as spoken to Jane Withers! Some poor actor had to actually say, "Oh, Clavdia!" Good Lord. But then in the later '40s, another memo came out from the Committee: "To all Entertainment Executives: Communists are our enemies! Why did you make a movie called 'The North Star'? Are you commie lovers? Just to punish you, you will never work in this town again. Best, the Committee."

Dear readers: You can never outfox the Committee.

Yours, the Committee.

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