9/10/08 - bonnie and clyde

In today's excerpt - the 1967 box-office smash Bonnie and Clyde, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, turned the mores of mainstream Hollywood upside down, with a result that proved every bit as unsatisfactory as that which it replaced:

"The old Hollywood moguls were conservative men, kowtowing to the country's loud and well-organized moralists via a strict 'production code.' 'One basic plot had appeared daily in their fifteen thousand theaters,' the greatest screenwriter of old Hollywood, Ben Hecht, wrote in his 1953 memoir -- 'the triumph of virtue and the overthrow of wickedness.' Hecht wrote of the frustrating constraints under which he was forced to work:

" 'Two generations of Americans have been informed nightly that a woman who betrayed her husband (or husband a wife) could never find happiness; ... that women who fornicated just for pleasure ended up as harlots or washerwomen; that any man who was sexually active in his youth later lost the one girl he truly loved; that a man who indulged in sharp practices to get ahead in the world ended in poverty and with even his own children turning on him; that any man who broke the laws, man or God's, must always die, or go to jail, or become a monk; ... that an honest heart must always recover from a train wreck or a score of bullets and win the girl it loved; that the most potent and brilliant of villains are powerless before little children; ... that injustice could cause a heap of trouble but it must always slink out of town by the Reel Nine; that there are no problems of labor, politics, domestic life or sexual abnormality but can be solved happily by a simple Christian phrase or a fine American motto'. 

"Bonnie and Clyde sounded the death knell for all that.

"The Barrow Gang ... weren't bad folks, went the movie's moral logic, until an evil system forced them to extremity: robbing banks that repossessed farms, killing only when the System began closing in all around them ('You oughtta be protectin' the rights of poor folks instead of chasin' after the likes of us,' Clyde tells a Texas Ranger, that embodiment heretofore of everything upright and true.) Bonnie and Clyde made those around them feel alive -- all except the squares who were chasing them, who were already more or less dead anyway, with their sucker obsession with honest toil.

" 'Not in a generation has a single Hollywood movie had such a decisive and worldwide impact,' the Hollywood Reporter concluded of the furor that ensued. ... They advertised it with the slogan 'They're young ... they're in love ... and they kill people.' ...

"Director Arthur Penn also broke the old production code's most ironclad rule: show all the shooting you like, but never show what happens on the receiving end. In Bonnie and Clyde, the bullets were shown from first to last -- not least in the final shot, Bonnie and Clyde riddled from law enforcement tommy guns in a low-down and dirty ambush. ... Newsweek called it 'reprehensible.' "


Rick Perlstein


Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America


Scribner a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


Copyright 2008 by Rick Perlstein


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