Frankly, my dear . . .
In some ways, American life in 1939 was much simpler than it is today. Perhaps there was more homogeneity across our nation with respect to our national identity. One might argue that Americans knew what America stood for -- so to speak. As Archie and Edith Bunker used to opine at the opening of All in the Family, "Those were the days!"
However, history offers perspective. We know now that Adolf Hitler was marching across Europe. Emperor Hirohito was contemplating an attempt at world domination. Institutional racism was just a way of life. So, in some ways, life was simpler in 1939--but layers of complexity would soon be discovered that would emerge from the shadows and be revealed to the national consciousness soon enough.
But, when Gone With the Wind premiered in 1939 there was much buzz about Clark Gable's line at the end of the movie when he countered Vivian Leigh's portrayal of Scarlett O'hara's despair with, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a d___."
It is not as if movie goers at the time had never heard an actor swear on film. However, they had never heard one of Gable's stature do it. And, certainly not in a film of the caliber of this epic drama. Needless to say, it caused quite a controversy. Certainly America was not so prudish that grown men did not swear in public in those days. Well, actually, gentlemen tended to choose their language a bit more carefully. Americans were familiar with the habit of cursing, but it was not showcased on film until Gable's Rhett Butler dismissed Scarlett's dilemma with an expletive.
All of this to say--America historically has had an interesting relationship with its film-making industry. It would be hard to exaggerate the role of cinema in the development of and celebration of both pop culture and real life. On the one hand, Americans have tended to go to the movie theater to escape the challenges and demands of real life. "Just entertain me!" has been the sentiment of many Americans. On the other hand, Americans also go to the movies to seek a better understanding of their own lives. There has always been this tension.
As one might imagine, this opens the door for a good bit of controversy. For example, the very first full-length feature film, The Birth of A Nation was released in 1915. It was a cinematic triumph. It was the first film to be officially previewed in the White House by the President of the United States (Woodrow Wilson). It represented the best technology Hollywood had to offer. But, the film depicted the South during the era of Reconstruction and beyond through the lens of White Supremacy. Blacks were portrayed as sexually aggressive and dangerous. The Ku Klux Klan was celebrated in the film as a heroic response to the threat posed by black men. It is a move that would offend all sensibilities today!
Hollywood has been both comfortable and uncomfortable in its role in its contribution to the American psyche. On the one hand, many in the movie industry claim absolute innocence in response to any hint of an attempt to influence the culture. "We are entertainers and artists" -- is what many in the film industry maintain. "Our movies are merely artistic expressions with the desire to entertain" -- is the answer given often. (I'm paraphrasing, not quoting anyone in particular.)
But--we all know better. We all know that there are several motivating factors behind the making of films. Financial profit is certainly at the center of all motivation! However, there certainly has to be the desire to shape, cast light, shape opinions, etc. I think the latest controversy over the new film, American Sniper is a great case in point. Many on the left in the entertainment business (Bill Maher, Michael Moore, Seth Rogen to name a few) have been critical of the film. Some have labeled it "war propaganda" and condemned it as an attempt to support decisions made about Iraq.
I have not seen the film. But I have followed the controversy. Namely because I am keenly interested in the whole concept of influence. I am convinced the film industry (and entertainment in general) is incredibly influential. In 2015, we can't imagine a time when a curse word could have caused controversy in a motion picture. Our screens--large and small--are laced with profanity, immorality, violence, explicit sexuality and all manner of gruesomeness. It would be hard to shock us with anything we might see today. So--we have not just been entertained. We have been numbed.