I saw a bizarre example over the weekend of 1950s Hollywood self-censorship.
Some movie channel was showing a 1956 film of the old Cole Porter musical, Anything Goes, which starred Bing Crosby and Donald O’Connor. I hadn’t heard of the movie version, but the stage musical has one of the great scores, with the title song, "I Get a Kick Out of You," "You're the Top," "Blow, Gabriel Blow," and "All Through the Night," so I thought I’d watch a bit.
I was a bit put off even during the opening credits, when the "overture" left out almost all those songs, and only played "All Through the Night" (the least-interesting of them, for my taste) and just a few bars of the great title song." Already that gave me the sense that they'd be mucking around a bit with the show. And for what little I watched, it was clear that they hugely changed the story (there was a credit for screen story, in fact, and it and the screenplay were by…Sidney Sheldon, who of course later became a hugely successful author of splashy novels). Actually, it was clear that they changed the story significantly before the movie even started. As I said, it starred Bing Crosby and Donald O'Connor -- while the original stage musical starred Ethel Merman. And the 1987 stage revival starred Patti LuPone. And the 2011 stage revival starred Sutton Foster. So, I'm guessing you're catching the pattern about how things got changed.
Still, I dove in. But after about about 15 minutes it wasn’t entertaining enough to watch much. And one thing in that brief opening stood out -- the title song. Now, mind you, the title song is wonderful, and one of my favorites, so I was looking forward to it. By way of a bit of background, there’s a line in it --
Good authors, too, who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
Writing prose, Anything Goes.
Well, apparently, even just referring to the mere concept of an author daring to write “four-letter words” was too much for someone’s delicate 1956 sensibility, and they actually changed it to “three-letter words”! Absolutely too ridiculous. Especially for a show called, "Anything Goes." Mind you, it was fine for the stage in 1934.
Actually, the changes were far more extensive than just that. The whole point of the tongue-in-cheek is how racy the modern day (1934) had become. And in the very next passage are the lines --
If Mae West you like
Or me undressed you like
And as you might imagine -- yep, Heaven's to Betsy, that apparently libertine line is gone from the puritanical movie, too. (And yes, Mae West was still quite alive at the time of the film.) And pretty much all of the other clever lyrics from the classic song were changed -- and now include, among other things, a benign, sexless verse about "when wrestlers go to acting classes/ to learn how to please the masses on TV shows. Anything Goes" No, Cole Porter didn't write that. Nor was TV invented in 1934.
I'm going to make a guess that the changed lyrics were written by the great songwriter Sammy Cahn. That's because the opening credits listed new, additional songs by Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen, so it would follow that Cahn did the other changes. This is not to cast aspersions on Sammy Cahn -- he was only doing what he was hired to do, tone down such "explicit" language like "four-letter words" and "undressed."
Ultimately, the lyric changes annoyed me enough that I figured if that’s how they’re going to muck things up, along with the bland overture and changes to the story, the movie just weren't for me…
Here's the original song from 1934, followed by the movie version
And this is unfortunately what demure and protected moviegoers were stuck with having to watch instead, in 1956, two decades later. Times have changed, indeed --
And just for the heck of it, here's a bonus --
This is Sutton Foster doing the title song with the company of Anything Goes for the 2011 Tony Awards And it's pretty easy to see, from this one number along and how effortless she makes it all look, why she won the Tony Awards as Best Leading Actress in a Musical. Singing the original "racy" words about "four-letter words," being "undressed" and more. I hope you don't get the vapors...
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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