Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Mae West: Chase & the Chaste

As December 12th approaches — — the date of the old Chase and Sanborn Hour tempest — — what comes to mind is how much was political and how much MAE WEST was merely a pawn in a Catholic reformers game.
• • For a well-researched analysis of this,
Steve Craig's article — — "Out of Eden: The Legion of Decency, the FCC, and Mae West's 1937 Appearance on The Chase & Sanborn Hour" — — in The Journal of Radio Studies [November 2006] is most enlightening.
• • According to Steve Craig: During a 1937 appearance on NBC's top-rated Chase and Sanborn Hour, Hollywood icon Mae West starred in a comedy skit based on the Garden of Eden that drew complaints of indecency from offended listeners. Much of the reaction came from Catholic reformers seeking to expand the Legion of Decency's influence to radio. The sponsor and network apologized, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a letter of reprimand to NBC and its affiliates. This action spurred a backlash among critics, who charged the FCC with censorship. The incident was an important landmark in the prewar debate over government's role in regulating radio.
• • According to Steve Craig's excellent research here: During a 1937 appearance on NBC's top-rated Chase and Sanborn Hour, Hollywood icon Mae West starred in a comedy skit based on the Garden of Eden that drew complaints of indecency from offended listeners. Much of the reaction came from Catholic reformers seeking to expand the Legion of Decency's influence to radio. The sponsor and network apologized, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a letter of reprimand to NBC and its affiliates. This action spurred a backlash among critics, who charged the FCC with censorship. The incident was an important landmark in the prewar debate over government's role in regulating radio. On Sunday evening, December 12, 1937, fading [sic] Hollywood star Mae West, seeking to promote her latest movie, made a guest appearance on The Chase and Sanborn Hour, one of radio's most popular network programs. She was featured in two segments, first appearing in a 9-minute comedy skit about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and later in a 5 1/2-minute comedy dialogue with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy. What happened in the days and weeks that followed was summed up by a contemporary scholar as "a storm of protest, a public reprimand from the FCC, a broadcast apology from the sponsors, and the barring of Miss West from further network programs" (Summers, 1939, p. 27). Over the years, the "Mae West incident" has become an obligatory anecdote in histories of radio's Golden Age and is usually cited as one of the first cases of broadcast "indecency" to face the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Like many of the events surrounding the career of Mae West, retellings of the episode are often incomplete in vital details, based on faulty facts, and ultimately misleading in their representation both of the event itself and of its importance in radio history. For example, one common misconception is that the incident resulted in a spontaneous flood of mail from a public outraged by West's sexual innuendos. In fact, an authoritative contemporary account reports that out of an audience of some 23 million listeners, the FCC initially received only 400 letters of complaint. In addition, there is evidence that much of the negative response to the Mae West appearance was not spontaneous, but rather part of a preplanned protest campaign orchestrated by Catholic reformers whose Legion of Decency had been waging an ongoing battle in Hollywood over the content of Mae West's movies. The Catholics were aware of West's scheduled guest appearance and warned the show's sponsor beforehand that protests would be lodged ("Educator Calls," 1937). After West's appearance, letter writing campaigns were organized by Catholic groups, and the most vociferous public criticism of the performance came from the Catholic press (Sheehy, 1938). Whatever the source and basis of the complaints, there is little doubt that the Mae West incident shook the industry. Radio, which saw itself as a squeaky-clean family medium, had been previously untouched by the moral reformers who had earlier forced Hollywood studios to impose the strict Production Code on motion pictures. The adverse reaction to Mae West's guest appearance surprised network officials, and when FCC Chairman Frank McNinch announced that the incident would be considered as a factor in the license renewal of all 59 stations carrying the show, shock reverberated through the radio industry. Yet, not all the voices raised called for censorship. A backlash among some journalists criticized government regulatory action as a threat to freedom of speech. ... The Catholic campaign against Mae West's radio appearance was an extension of the church's ongoing efforts to "clean up" the motion picture industry. The Catholic Legion of Decency had targeted Mae West since the early 1930s and had been highly successful in getting the Hollywood studios to tone down her films. From Sheehy's perspective, it was simply time to extend the Legion's campaign to radio ("Educator Calls," 1937). ...
• • (c) 2006 Broadcast Education Association — — do not reprint Steve Craig's excerpt, please!!!
• • This in-depth article is worth your time if you are a Mae-maven or if you have an interest in censorship and the broadcast industry.
• • Steve Craig (Ph.D., Florida State University) is a Professor in the Department of Radio, Television, and Film at the University of North Texas. His research interests include radio and television history, broadcast law and regulation, and gender and the media.

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• • Come up and see Mae every day online: http://MaeWest.blogspot.com/
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