It seems we are living through a phase of so-called “cancel culture” these days. Just this week, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced it will no longer publish six lesser-known books by the famed children’s author due to offensive and racist depictions. Mr. Potato Head is now non-gender. Some episodes of The Muppet Show has special warning labels on Disney+. Aunt Jemima is KO’d on the syrup shelves. In a sweeping wave of reassessing cultural images we have grown up with in our American life, a new and more sensitive spotlight is being presented on the way we view the past through the prism of a more politically correct 2021.
In that regard, Turner Classic Movies (TCM), the WarnerMedia-owned cable channel dedicated to the loving presentation of Hollywood’s cinematic heritage right from the beginning of the medium to now, has also jumped into the fray, announcing it will be dedicating primetime programming every Thursday for the month of March beginning tonight with a new series called “Reframed: Classic Films In The Rearview Mirror.” The network puts it this way: “All of the films in this series are legendary classics, but when we watch them today, we’re seeing them in a different cultural context. We often see problems now that we might not have seen when they were made, whether it’s about race, gender or LGBT issues. TCM’s five hosts will take turns doing roundtable introductions of each of the films where they will discuss these 20th century films with a 21st century perspective. The goal is never to censor, but simply provide rich historical context to each classic.”
The series start kicks off tonight focusing on Gone With the Wind, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Hitchcock’s Rope and 1939’s The Four Feathers. The opening film, the Oscar-winning 1939 MGM David O. Selznick classic starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, has already been the subject of some critical rethinking by TCM’s new sibling HBO Max, which removed it from its nascent streaming service during last summer’s racial unrest and following a Los Angeles Times opinion piece from screenwriter John Ridley that criticized the film for glorifying slavery and perpetuating racist stereotypes about African Americans. At the time the streamer said it would eventually be reinstated with “a discussion of its historical context and a denouncement of those very depictions…If we are to create a more just, equitable and inclusive future, we must first acknowledge and understand our history.” It eventually did return a couple of weeks later accompanied by a 4 1/2-minute video intro from TCM host Jacqueline Stewart putting it into context for audiences now, as well as an hourlong panel discussion taped at the 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival that examined the beloved epic’s complicated history.
Teeing off from that, TCM is doing its own programming targeting a selection of films that were made in one era that in some ways may play very differently in this era, at least without context. “I think over the last couple of years, just as the world has changed and the culture has changed, we at TCM have really tried to lean into that, as well, and be more than just a place for pure nostalgia, but also to be a place that can really be a vital part of today’s cultural conversation, even though we are showing movies from the past,” said TCM co-host Dave Karger in explaining why the network decided to expand on what HBO Max started. “The idea was suggested to us that all five of us co-host this monthlong series where we take a look at a dozen or so true classic films, but look at them from a more contemporary viewpoint. And the idea is not to shame these movies or scold these movies, but just to explain some of the context for some of the content that might feel jarring, out of place, or even offensive in some extreme examples today.”
Karger says there is no suggestion of censorship in any way. These films are not being cut, and in fact TCM prides itself for presenting movies as they were made without commercial interruption. But he says the world has changed in a big way since many of their stable of films started running on the channel, which founder and original owner Ted Turner created to show off his purchase of the famed MGM library including the crown jewel and his favorite of all time, Gone With the Wind. “I think it’s important to look at, you know, in certain cases, United States was just out of World War II, and you know, male and female gender roles were very different back then than they are today, of course. The way people looked at LGBT issues was very different,” he said in noting homosexuality was often looking at as just a psychiatric disorder in many of the films from the past eras that are TCM’s bread and butter for programming.
The hosts also had some input into choosing some of the films in the series. For instance, co-host Alicia Malone suggested including something about the way trans people and gender identity have been treated. That led to the inclusion of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which I had to confess I never thought of in that way. “I think the trans community is often left out of conversations like this, and it’s just looking at it through, again, a different modern lens of what does it mean to have a villain who dresses up like his mother (as Anthony Perkins did in Psycho), and if they mention the word transsexual in the film, which is, of course, a very outdated term now, they talk about it being a mental illness. And so, all of these can be problematic when we look at maybe some of the real-life repercussions of having a trans character or a crossdressing character be either something very comedic to laugh at or something quite horrific to think of as monstrous, particularly when you see the studies that most American people encounter an image of a trans person through film and television rather than in real life,” Malone said.
Among the movies coming up over the next month are Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Jazz Singer, The Searchers, Swing Time with Astaire and Rogers, Stagecoach, Tarzan the Ape Man, My Fair Lady, The Children’s Hour, Gunga Din and more.
One of the films in the series is 1961’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s with its unforgettable Audrey Hepburn performance as Holly Golightly. She wasn’t the problem there, though. Recently there was a report Paramount was angling to get the rights to remake the film; I suggested to an executive friend of mine at the studio that a better idea would be to just rerelease the original and cut Mickey Rooney out of it. Problem solved, right? Rooney played a garish Asian stereotype, put in the film by director Blake Edwards for some cheap laughs. It would be better off without that character in retrospect, but censorship is just as bad.
“We were talking about that film and how much, you know, that whole storyline where Mickey Rooney’s character feels out of place, intolerant and everything, to the rest of the movie, and so, you could see an argument for cutting things out,” Malone said. “But of course, at TCM, I know we all feel very strongly about keeping films intact and also continuing to play films, even if they’re problematic, because it allows us to have these discussions rather than just ignoring it and pretending it never existed.”
Karger added, “I’ve really grown tired of seeing the phrase cancel culture thrown around, you know, on all sides, and I like to look at what we’re doing as instead of canceling, it’s contextualizing, it’s conversation, to use some other ‘c’ words. And I think that’s a much more productive way to go about things. And like Alicia said, we’re not going to pretend this didn’t exist, but we’re also not just going to put it all on a pedestal and say it was all great. You can’t show Breakfast at Tiffany’s without discussing the offensive portrayal by Mickey Rooney and trying to understand, which Ben Mankiewicz really helped me understand when we were talking about it for this series, why it happened at that point in time.”
Another of tonight’s films is the frothy classic musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, a 1954 Best Picture Oscar nominee. What is possibly wrong with that? “It’s such a wonderful musical. It’s a delight to watch. The choreography is athletic and impressive, and then you have, you know, the whole issue of the brothers kidnapping the wives, and so, it does kind of speak to this idea of male dominance as being a romantic idea and consent and all of those issues,” explained Malone. “But again, it’s not necessarily a film that you might think that would be involved in this series, but when you watch it with a modern eye, you can see certain things and certain reasons why it is problematic and why some people don’t enjoy watching it because of that. But I think that a great deal of the pleasure in doing the series was to have all these discussions and try to just figure out different ideas and just grapple with the gray area, I think, is really, really important.”
The “gray area” is what this series is all about: a way to watch classic films and still love them, but possibly in new ways as well.
“I think there’s a whole great mixture here that touches on a wide range of issues, and what I really love, and I know Dave and the other hosts feel the same, is that we’re able to have these wide-ranging conversations that sometimes we don’t normally talk about when it comes to film,” Malone said. “But because each of these movies are a time capsule of when they were made, we can really delve into what society was like back then, what it’s like now, and how far we still have to go.”
Here is the complete schedule:
Thursday, March 4
8 p.m.: Gone With the Wind (1939) (Ben, Jacqueline, Eddie)
Midnight: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) (Alicia, Dave, Eddie)
2 a.m.: Rope (1948) (not hosted)
3:30 a.m.: The Four Feathers (1939) (not hosted)
Thursday, March 11
8 p.m.: Woman of the Year (1942) (Eddie, Alicia, Ben)
10:15 p.m.: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) (Jacqueline, Alicia, Eddie)
12:15 a.m.: Gunga Din (1939) (Ben, Jacqueline, Dave)
2:30 a.m.: Sinbad, the Sailor (1947) (not hosted)
4:30 a.m.: The Jazz Singer (1927) (not hosted)
Thursday, March 18
8 p.m.: The Searchers (1956) (Ben, Alicia, Eddie)
10:15 p.m.: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) (Dave, Alicia, Ben)
12:30 a.m.: Swing Time (1936) (Jacqueline, Dave, Eddie)
2:15 a.m.: Stagecoach (1939) (not hosted)
4 a.m.: Tarzan, the Ape Man (1959) (not hosted)
Thursday, March 25
8 p.m.: My Fair Lady (1964) (Dave, Jacqueline, Alicia)
11 p.m.: The Children’s Hour (1961) (Alicia, Dave, Eddie)
1 a.m.: Psycho (1960) (Ben, Alicia, Jacqueline)
3 a.m.: Dragon Seed (1944) (not hosted)