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Bob Hope, North Korea, and film censorship

Seth Rogen isn’t the only actor to have a film about North Korea nixed: A script helmed by Bob Hope met a similar fate in 1954.

If US government sources are correct, North Korea cowed Sony Pictures into withholding a bawdy comedy about assassinating supreme leader Kim Jong-Un. Sony’s corporate computers were hacked and many bytes of tawdry Hollywood secrets were disgorged. The technical achievement lent credibility to the hackers’ threats of mass murder in theaters if Rogen’s The Interview was released. (Editors’ note: The Interview is currently in limited release and no attacks have been reported.) Governments can be expected to decry movies about murdering sitting presidents, but the bombast of Pyongyang’s apparent reaction lacks proportionality and appreciation of blowback from global audiences, which are sure to make Kim Jong-un a universal punch line. This cluelessness no doubt derives from the cultish isolation of Pyongyang, but it is not the first comedy set in North Korea to discomfit officials.

In 1954, the military-friendly jokester Bob Hope dropped plans for a screwball comedy on the Korean peninsula after the US Army refused to support it. The similarities and differences from the current episode tell us something about government influence over cinema, a vital conduit to the mass mind.

Only months after the end of the Korean War (1950-1953), Hope pitched a film to the Army’s Motion Picture office for approval. The military routinely lent expensive war equipment and technical advice to movie studios in return for a veto over scripts. Hope’s timing was awful. The “sour little war” was so unpopular it ended the political career of President Harry Truman and prompted years of soul searching into the American character and its failure to vanquish the enemy. The Army was touchy about cinematic portrayals of anything Korea, so much so that it reversed itself on a Ronald Reagan movie it had previously supported.

The Interview movie poster. Sony Pictures via WNPR.

In March 1954, the same month Hope’s proposal was under consideration, the Army yanked approval of MGM’s P.O.W. Military bands had to cancel plans to play at premiers and all Army commands were ordered to cease publicizing the film. This was curious since the Army Motion Picture office had assisted P.O.W. throughout production, providing a former prisoner as consultant and requesting and receiving four pages of script revisions. The problem? Image management. The hastily-made movie was coming out at the same time the Army was beginning prosecutions of former prisoners accused of collaborating with their captors. The Chinese ran the prison camps in North Korea and persuaded some inmates to assist them on shortwave radio and other propaganda tasks. Collaboration became a big stir in the United States, especially after 21 American POWs defected to China after the war. Court martials of repatriated prisoners were part of a Cold War panic that the nation’s youth had gone soft, unable to resist Chinese indoctrination.

The difficulty with the Reagan film P.O.W. was that it was relentlessly brutal, even by today’s standards. Prisoners were subjected to awful tortures that were sure to arouse audience sympathy just when court martials were underway. Movies too heavy on torture or brainwashing would seem to excuse the behavior of soldiers who were now facing years at hard labor. Hence the Army bands repacking their instruments.

The delicacy of national morale helps explain the Army’s discomfort with the Bob Hope proposal. Donald E. Baruch, head of the Motion Pictures office, wrote Hope’s agent that the Army valued its previous work with the comedian:

However, in this instance, we believe no military purpose would be served in the production of this story. When Mr. Hope called while recently here, I did not react negatively because all he mentioned was that the story was about a U.S.O. tour to Korea and the repatriation of a prisoner. The subject is considered of too great importance and seriousness especially at this time to be treated in the farcical manner indicated by the outline. Other basic story objections are ‘stealing’ of the helicopter, Jane, Jimmy and Bob in North Korea, and the rescuing of Lloyd.

A serious prisoner of war movie that did get Army approval was MGM’s The Rack (1956) with Paul Newman. This courtroom-bound film was a psychological exploration of an officer’s conscience and why he failed to resist collaboration. However, The Rack was broody and talky and made no impression on the box office. The same occurred with Time Limit (United Artists, 1957), another courtroom film approved by the Army that failed to move audiences. To get a Pentagon subsidy and imprimatur, POW films set in Korea could not follow the tried and true formula of action and escape; collaboration was too imposing an issue. The small sub-genre of Korea POW films was steered into amnesia.

US Army influence on Korea POW films was gentle. Studios wanted subsidies and association with the military brand, so they were usually cooperative. In itself, Rogan’s The Interview has little in common with the patriotic cinema of the 1950s, but the apparent reaction of North Korea provides an interesting contrast. Some pundits have been quick to accuse Sony of letting Pyongyang become a censor by holding the film industry hostage. With this one film, they might have a point. But Pyongyang’s method of influencing movie content is really one of weakness. The Pentagon, neither today nor in the 1950s, has to threaten Hollywood, it simply waits for producers to come to it for set pieces and shrouds of official martial aura. In contrast, Kim Jong-Un’s royal court is so isolated and unable to shape the narrative that it resorted to the threats of a desperate loner. If North Korea’s apparent intervention in Hollywood still has an effect two years from now, it will only serve to focus more attention on the regime worldwide. Look for more hidden camera documentaries. Any other lasting influence is unlikely, since Kim Jong-Un can’t open a Hollywood office or even do lunch.

Featured image: Bob Hope (center) and other guests salute while “The Star Spangled Banner” is played during a ceremony to award Hope the Distinguished Public Service Award. Jan. 31, 1971. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Orphants to foster kids: a century of Annie

One of the best-known musicals of the 20th century is Annie, which tells the story of a plucky orphan girl who warms the hearts of all around her, and eventually finds a loving family of her own. The tale will be carried into the 21st century when the newest film adaptation (produced by Jay-Z and Will Smith; perhaps you’ve heard of them) is released on 19 December of this year. In honor of the long legacy of this famous story, here we take a look at the changing language of Annie.

Little orphant Allie

Speaking of long legacies, the 1977 musical Annie was not the first time the world had been introduced to the inspirational young character. The musical was based on an American comic strip entitled “Little Orphan Annie”. Well-known in its own time and called the most famous comic of 1937 by Fortune magazine, “Little Orphan Annie” ran for a whopping 86 years and even led to an equally famous radio show (religiously followed by Ralph in the 1983 film A Christmas Story). However, the story of Annie can be traced further back to a girl named Mary Alice Smith (nicknamed “Allie”), who inspired Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley to pen the poem “The Elf Child” in 1885. He would eventually rename it “Little Orphant Allie”.

“Orphant”? Not a typo—just a US regional variant spelling that has since fallen largely out of use, as have other variants orphaunt, orfant, and even orphing (among many others). However, a literal typo or typographical error did come into play with Riley’s poem when the name “Annie” was accidentally typeset instead of “Allie”. When the poem gained popularity, Riley decided to stick with the new name.

The original hard knocks

People looking for the familiar plot or song lyrics in the original poem will be disappointed: there is almost no resemblance between the Annie of the poem and Annie as she is popularly known today. The poem, like several of Riley’s others, is written in Hoosier dialect—the midland dialect of American English, or more specifically that from Indiana. In the poem, “little orphant Annie” tells stories to other orphaned children in which “gobble-uns” (goblins) steal poorly behaved children away (hence the original title “The Elf Child”). At the end of the didactic poem, Annie says

You better mind yer parunts, an’ yer teachurs fond an’ dear,
An’ churish them ‘at loves you, an’ dry the orphant’s tear,
An’ he’p the pore an’ needy ones ‘at clusters all about,
Er the Gobble-uns ‘ll git you
Ef you

However, like the Annie of the later comic strip, musical, and film adaptations, “little orphant Annie” is happy to take the “pore an’ needy” under her wing and to teach them what she knows.

Hoovervilles and Prohibition

Though the musical Annie opened on Broadway in 1977 and its film adaptation was released in 1982, the plot takes place in the 1930s. Apart from the clothing styles and the Hoovervilles, the song lyrics themselves—with many words unfamiliar to the modern English-speaker— are intended to transport audiences to the early 20th century.

Yank the whiskers from her chin!
Jab her with a safety-pin!
Make her drink a Mickey Finn!

Purportedly taking its name from the proprietor of a Chicago saloon who, in the early 20th century, was accused of poisoning customers with “knock-out drops”, a Mickey Finn is a surreptitiously drugged or doctored drink.

Every plot’s a dilly,
This we guarantee!

Dilly, an alteration of the first syllable of delightful or delicious, is a North American word for an excellent example of something.

You spend your evenings in the shanties,
Imbibing quarts of bathtub gin.
And here you’re dancing in your scanties.

To a modern-day reader, it may not be clear how much Daddy Warbucks is insulting Miss Hannigan in the song “Sign” from the 1982 film. When he accuses her of spending time in the shanties, he is probably referring to shantytowns: run-down areas consisting of large numbers of shanties, or small, crudely built shacks. These shantytowns (or Hoovervilles, as they were sometimes called, after the US President Herbert Hoover) were an all-too-familiar sight during the Great Depression, when as much as 25% of Americans were unemployed.

As for bathtub gin, readers familiar with the Prohibition era in the United States may know what it is—a concoction of spirits intended to simulate the taste of gin, representative of a time in which alcoholic drinks (rendered illegal by the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1920) were often surreptitiously made in homes (and sometimes, presumably, in bathtubs). It goes without saying that, generally, the quality of “bathtub gin” was probably not very high.

Daddy Warbucks gets in one final jab by accusing Miss Hannigan of dancing around in her scanties, or brief underwear. (The word comes from scant + -y; scant is from the Old Norse word for “short”.) Interestingly, a modern word for a similar type of women’s underwear—panties—could be substituted here without sacrificing rhyme.

On the topic of modernizing lyrics, the upcoming movie Annie will debut such changes of its own; in the song “Hard-Knock Life”, what originally was

No one cares for you a smidge
When you’re in an orphanage

Comparison of 'foster child' to 'orphan' from 1800-2008
Comparison of ‘foster child’ to ‘orphan’ from 1800-2008

has been updated to

No one cares for you a bit
When you’re a foster kid

Here, bit may have replaced smidge as a better near rhyme, or it may been considered a safer bet in terms of plausible vocabulary for a 10-year-old in 2014 (it doesn’t seem a stretch to say that smidge is probably not in the parlance of today’s youth). As for the replacement of orphanage with “foster kid”, given that the new movie doesn’t involve an orphanage—instead, Annie is in a foster home—this change is practical.

However, it can also be noted that fostering has gradually taken the place of institutional care and sociocultural developments have shaped the concept of child welfare as we understand it today. For these reasons in part, it may not be surprising that the use of the word “foster child” has been increasing somewhat steadily over the last two centuries, while use of the word orphan (though still more common overall) has dwindled over the same period of time.


Though Annie has been around long enough for “orphant” to eventually turn into “foster kid”, the fact remains that American audiences are perennial lovers of the rags-to-riches theme. For this reason, it should come as no surprise that the story of Annie is just as well-known today as when Ralph was racing to the radio—or that virtually everyone you know can sing at least a few bars of “Tomorrow”. It probably goes without saying that we’ll see many more iterations of Annie in the century to come.

A version of this article originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

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The Lerner Letters: Part 3 – the unknown collaborators

This is the final of a three-part series from Dominic McHugh on the correspondence of Alan Jay Lerner. Read the previous letters to Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews; to Frederick Loewe.

This final post on my collection of the lyricist Alan Jay Lerner focuses on another exciting series of letters: correspondence with famous composers with whom Lerner hoped to work, but never completed a musical. Some of these letters reveal how certain figures – such as Hoagy Carmichael – wrote to Lerner, but were politely declined. With others, he produced some work but then ended the project. Huckleberry Finn, for example, was a movie musical that Lerner started to write with Burton Lane for MGM in the 1950s, but didn’t see to completion (though the screenplay and most of the songs were drafted). He also worked for quite a long time with Arthur Schwartz, writing nine songs for an unmade early movie adaptation of Paint Your Wagon in 1953 and contemplating an adaptation of Li’l Abner (the project later moved on to other writers).

But the two most intriguing aborted collaborations were with two of the most famous composers who dominated twentieth-century Broadway: Richard Rodgers and Andrew Lloyd Webber. After the retirement of Frederick Loewe in 1960, Lerner started to look for a new composer to work with. Rodgers seemed a natural choice, since he too needed a new collaborator, following the death of Oscar Hammerstein II. They set to work on a musical called I Picked a Daisy, which dealt with reincarnation and extra-sensory perception. Though only a few notes between them appear in the book, it is striking how intimate the correspondence is, for instance:

Dear, dear Dick:

I hope what will come between these covers will make this one of the happiest of your many happy years.



*   *   *   *   *

Dear Dick:

Here are the first two scenes. The rest needs cutting. I’ll mail them on to you in a day or two.



Sadly, the partnership didn’t work out, though the pair managed to draft nine songs together. Rodgers withdrew, and Lerner replaced him with Burton Lane. the show was retitled On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, and it became a modest success.

At the end of his life, Lerner was invited to write the lyrics for one of the most successful musicals of the past century: The Phantom of the Opera. Yet, as the following letter reveals, Lerner’s participation was cut short for reasons beyond anybody’s control:

Who would have thought it? Instead of writing The Phantom of the Opera, I end up looking like him.

But, alas, the inescapable fact is I have lung cancer. After fiddling around with pneumonia they finally reached the conclusion that it was the big stuff.

I am deeply disconsolate about The Phantom and the wonderful opportunity it would have been to write with you. But I will be back! Perhaps not on time to write The Phantom, but as far as I am concerned this is a temporary hiccup. I have a 50/50 chance medically and a 50/50 chance spiritually. I shall make it. I have no intention of leaving my beautiful wife, this beautiful life and all of the things I still have to write. As far as I am concerned it is a challenge, and I fear nothing.

Lerner’s final decade or so was filled with artistic disappointments, including the flops 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Carmelina, and Dance a Little Closer. But who knows? Perhaps this project, cut brutally short by Lerner’s fatal cancer, would have brought the writer the late-career success that he deeply longed for. Either way, with this new collection of letters, we can enjoy a legacy of beautiful prose, full of new insights into the extraordinary career of this award-winning writer.

Headline Image: Old Letters. CC0 via Pixabay

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An enigma: the codes, the machine, the man

Prometheus, a Titan god, was exiled from Mount Olympus by Zeus because he stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind. He was condemned, punished, and chained to a rock while eagles ate at his liver. His name, in ancient Greek, means “forethinker “and literary history lauds him as a prophetic hero who rebels against his society to help man progress. The stolen fire is symbolic of creative powers and scientific knowledge. His theft encompasses risk, unintended consequences, and tragedy. Centuries later, modern times has another Promethean hero, Alan Turing. Like the Greek Titan before him, Turing suffers for his foresight and audacity to rebel.

The riveting film, The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum and staring Benedict Cumberbatch, offers us a portrait of Alan Turing that few of us knew before. After this peak into his extraordinary life, we wonder, how is it possible that within our lifetime, society could condemn to eternal punishment such a special person? Turing accepts his tragic fate and blames himself.

“I am not normal,” he confesses to his ex-fiancée, Joan Clarke.

“Normal?” she responds, angrily. “Could a normal man have shortened World War ll by two years and have saved 16 million people?”

The Turing machine, the precursor to the computer, is the result of his “not normal” mind. His obsession was to solve the greatest enigma of his time – to decode Nazi war messages.

In the film, as the leader of a team of cryptologists at Bletchley Park in 1940, Turing’s Bombe deciphered coded messages where German U-boats would decimate British ships. In 1943, the Colossus machine, built by engineer Tommy Flowers of the group, was able to decode messages directly from Hitler.

The movie, The Imitation Game, while depicting the life of an extraordinary person, also raises philosophical questions, not only about artificial intelligence, but what it is to be human. Cumberbatch’s Turing recognizes the danger of his invention. He feared what would happen if a thinking machine is programmed to replace a man; if a robot is processed by artificial intelligence and not by a human being who has a conscience, a soul, a heart.

Einstein experienced a similar dilemma. His theory of relativity created great advances in physics and scientific achievement, but also had tragic consequences – the development of the atomic bomb.

The Imitation Game will open Pandora’s box. Viewers will ponder on what the film passed over quickly. Who was a Russian spy? Why did Churchill not trust Stalin? What was the role of the Americans during this period of decrypting military codes? How did Israel get involved?

And viewers will want to know more about Alan Turing. Did Turing really commit suicide by biting into an apple laced with cyanide? Or does statistical probability tell us that Turing knew too much about too many things and perhaps too many people wanted him silent? This will be an enigma to decode.

The greatest crime from a sociological perspective, is the one committed by humanity against a unique individual because he is different. The Imitation Game will make us all ashamed of society’s crime of being prejudiced. Alan Turing stole fire from the gods to give to man power and knowledge. While doing so, he showed he was very human. And society condemned him for being so.

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Annie and girl culture

The musical version of little orphan Annie – as distinct from her original, cartoon incarnation – was born a fully formed ten-year-old in 1977, and she quickly became an icon of girlhood. Since then, thousands of girls have performed songs like “Maybe” and “Tomorrow,” sometimes in service to a production of the musical, but more often in talent shows, music festivals, or pedagogical settings. The plucky orphan girl seems to combine just the right amount of softness and sass, and her musical language is beautifully suited to the female prepubescent voice. So what can Annie teach us about what girls are?

Annie (c) Sony Pictures 2014
Annie (c) Sony Pictures 2014

As with any role, the parts available to child performers are shaped by clichés and stereotypes, and these govern our thinking about what real children are like. For girls, the two most prominent archetypes have been the angelic, delicate, and wan girl who arouses our impulse to console and protect, and the feisty, spunky girl of the street who teaches us to know ourselves. These archetypes are often assigned to singing girls as “the little girl with the voice of an angel” and “the little girl with the great big voice.” A crucial aspect of Annie’s appeal is her blurring of this distinction through combining vulnerability with toughness.

These complementary characterizations of girls are invariably shaped by hegemonic understandings of race and class; and here, the figures of Topsy and Eva, from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, serve as paradigms. In the novel, Eva St. Clare is presented as an ethereal golden child, deeply religious and kind, and her angelic virtue is contrasted with the wilful slave girl Topsy, whose wicked ways and rough language are eventually tamed at the deathbed of her young mistress Eva. In her life beyond the book, however, Topsy reverts to her impish and disruptive nature.

The character of Annie seems to combine the sweetness of Eva and the sass of Topsy in ways that evidently continue to appeal in 2014, and the new film version opening this weekend contributes a new aspirational model of girlhood to young fans.

It is thus of enormous significance that the film, produced by Jay Z and Will Smith, casts an African American girl in what is, arguably, the single most-coveted musical theatre role for girls. A 2008 study concludes that girls of colour are the children least likely to see themselves reflected in children’s media because 85.5% of characters in children’s films are white, and three out of four characters are male. The symbolic impact of Quvenzhané Wallis’s visibility and audibility in this role is potentially tremendous.

Unlike most of the young actresses who have played Annie, Wallis had no prior training as a singer. The film’s producers specifically said they did not want “Broadway kids” in the cast, preferring instead untutored singing that would give Annie greater sincerity and naturalness. This ideal of naturalness attaches itself to almost all child performers; we prefer to think of children’s performance as artless and uncalculated. As Carolyn Steedman observes in her book Strange Dislocations: Childhood and the Idea of Human Interiority, “the child’s apparent spontaneity is part of what is purchased with the ticket.”

So it’s no coincidence that many child stars find it difficult to outgrow their most famous roles. Co-star Jamie Foxx gushes that Quvenzhané Wallis was “made to play the role,” an odd form of praise when we reflect that she is playing the part of a neglected, unloved child abandoned to a wretched foster home. In his book Inventing the Child: Culture, Ideology, and the Story of Childhood, Joseph Zornado has observed that

“Annie’s story is a particularly pronounced version of how contemporary culture tells itself a story about the child in order to defend its treatment of the child. Annie’s emotional state — her unflagging high spirits, angelic voice, and distinctly American optimism — grows out of the adult-inspired ideology of the child’s ‘resiliency.’”

Of course, Annie is not Wallis’s first role, and much of our sense of her has already been shaped by her extraordinary, Oscar-nominated performance in 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. If child stars are often believed to be just like the characters they play by fans who resist the idea that children can be artful performers, this seems particularly true in the case of African American girls, because they are so seldom depicted in media that they are invariably reduced to clichés. Wallis’s role in Beasts was a semi-feral child of nature, an old soul raising herself in a dystopic world; yet she is repeatedly asked in interviews if she is like Hushpuppy. How, then, will the iconic role of Annie change our understanding of Quvenzhané Wallis as an actor? Perhaps more importantly, how will her performance shape future possibilities for black girls on the stage and screen?

I suspect that the crucial song in this new film production of Annie is not one of Strouse’s original pieces, but rather “Opportunity,” in which Annie reflects on her luck in being temporarily rescued from neglect. Within the context of the film’s story, she makes up the song on the spot, pulling pitches out of the air in a rhythmically-fluid phrase with an improvisatory style. Musicians on the stage join in, but her melody eludes a clear sense of key almost until the start of the chorus:

And now look at me, and this opportunity
It’s standing right in front of me
But one thing I know
It’s only part luck and so
I’m putting on my best show
Under the spotlight
I’m starting my life
Big dreams becoming real tonight
So look at me and this opportunity
You’re witnessing my moment, you see?

This gorgeous song has also been recorded by its composer Sia, who imbues it with a more adult, contemplative character, in keeping with her singer/songwriter aesthetic. Even in this recording, though, the final verse is given over to Wallis and her closely-mic’ed, child-like (albeit auto-tuned) voice. The song is Wallis’s as much as it is Annie’s. It remains to be seen just how her opportunity will be extended to other girls.

Headline image credit: 8 mm Kodak film reel. Photo by Coyau. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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