Political Correctness in American Pop Culture (Part 2)

A continuation of my rant Political Correctness in American Pop Culture.

So last night, I finally got around to seeing the absolutely terrific Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) based on the recommendation of a friend. So the entire time I was watching the movie, I was well aware that it was made in the 1940s. Thus, “acceptable” American values were different then. Basically, while I didn’t have a problem with anything in the movie, I feel like now with extreme political correctness being the norm, there is pretty much something that will offend just about any modern American.

At the beginning of the film, we see Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) and Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane) trying to get a marriage license while keeping out of the eye of the press. After having shaken off two photographers, Mortimer and Elaine line back up to get their license. Almost immediately in front of them, an Asian (I’m guessing Filipino) woman turns around and smiles at them, and while that happens you hear the traditional wedding theme played in stereotypical “Asian” instrumentation. Then (shock and horror) you see that she is getting married to a white man.

More importantly, a central plot point of the movie is how Mortimer’s aunts Abby and Martha (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) think they are doing the right thing by administering euthanasia on lonely drifters by giving them wine laced with poison. Throughout the movie, Abby and Martha make references to what religion their victims are (all sects of Christianity) so that they would be able to give “proper Christian” burials in their cellar. Later on, Jonathan (Raymond Massey) arrives with his plastic surgeon Dr. Herman Einstein (Peter Lorre) and (unseen) murder victim Mr. Spenalzo in tow.

Spenalzo had a pretty obviously Italian surname. Jonathan wanted to dump Spenalzo’s body with the others that were poisoned by Abby and Martha. However, Abby and Martha object because Spenalzo was a foreigner and thus doesn’t belong in the same grave site as their victims, all of whom had pretty conveniently Anglo surnames like Hoskins.

The play was originally written in 1939, and the movie was actually filmed in 1941 but then shelved until 1944. At the time, while America was not officially involved in World War II. However, I’m sure by then a pretty clear, anti-German sentiment had begun to form in most people, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise that a character with a clearly (Jewish) German name in the case of Dr. Einstein was constructed using many common stereotypes people had of Germans, such as his inability to function under stress without taking a shot of schnapps.

Ultimately, I think the issue was that when this movie was made, American GIs (in a segregated military) had yet to uncover the Nazi death camps. As a result, it was probably easier for many Americans to accept any sort of intolerance and even use it to comedic effect.

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