“Problematic” films to be reframed by Turner Classic Movies

March 7, 2021 • 10:00 am

The good news is that although the Pecksniffs at Turner Classic Movies (TCM) have found 18 “problematic”—run when you see that word—movies made between 1920 and 1960, they’re not going to pull them. Rather, as the article from the LA Times below notes, they are going to “reframe them”. That means that they will tell you what parts of the movies are bad in advance. The bad news is that although some of these movies probably should come with a disclaimer, I think they’re overdoing it.

Click on the screenshot to read the article. If it’s paywalled, you can find the same information at other sites by Googling “TCM films”:

The contents:

Turner Classic Movies has decided not to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to timeless but troublesome movies. The result is “Reframed: Classic Films in the Rearview Mirror,” a new series that kicks off Thursday and runs throughout the month.

Along with screening 18 classics, TCM hosts will discuss what the network calls the “troubling and problematic” aspects of the much-loved flicks, which were released in the 1920s through the 1960s. “The goal is never to censor, but simply provide rich historical context to each classic,” the network said in a statement.

Among the problems: racism, sexism, portrayals of LGBTQ issues and more.

“We’re not saying this is how you should feel about ‘Psycho’ or this is how you should feel about ‘Gone With the Wind.’ We’re just trying to model ways of having longer and deeper conversations and not just cutting it off to ‘I love this movie. I hate this movie.’ There’s so much space in between,” TCM host Jacqueline Stewart recently told the Associated Press.

Stewart and fellow hosts Ben Mankiewicz, Dave Karger, Alicia Malone and Eddie Muller will take turns participating in roundtable introductions that touch on the history and cultural context of the films. They will also prep new viewers about moments they might find upsetting.

“Our job is not to get up and say, ‘Here’s a movie that you should feel guilty about for liking,’” Mankiewicz told the Hollywood Reporter. “But to pretend that the racism in it is not painful and acute? No. I do not want to shy away from that. This was inevitable. And welcomed. And overdue.”

Below are all the movies that will be “Reframed” once a week through the end of this month, beginning each Thursday at 5 p.m. Pacific. This is one situation where it’s good to be a night owl or own a DVR, because the films run one after the other — and even overnight. [see below]

Here’s the video discussing the “problematic” content of the TCM films. Again, the video is quite good at defending the need to show these movies, and why (and it’s not just because we need to come to terms with the moral degradation of the past). I’ll put the list of the movies below, but you can get an idea of many of them from this 6-minute video: “Gone with the Wind,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”, “The Jazz Singer”, “Stagecoach”, and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. Curiously, three of the movies I recognize, “Rebel Without a Cause”, “No Way Out”, and “Lolita”, aren’t being shown by TCM, or at least aren’t on the list, but do appear in the video, implying that they need to be “reframed”. Perhaps that’s coming when they’re shown in the future.

Well, you know, I don’t have huge objections to this “framing”, but it still irks me a bit, and I’m not sure why. I recognize that there should be guidelines or content warnings, like “Note: racism, blackface, men hitting women, Native American being aggressive,” and so on. But beyond that, do we really need someone to tell us, and in detail, exactly why the movies are problematic? Why not put the discussions online so people can read them if they want to? Will there be any dissent among the discussants? I doubt it: they must convey a unified moral message.

I guess it seems a bit patronizing to me to have other people tell me why the movies are considered offensive.  The racism in the Sidney Poitier movie shown in the video above (“No Way Out,” curiously absent from the list given) is clearly meant to be an offensive display of bigotry, and do we really need to say, “When that guy spits in Poitier’s face, it’s racist”? The movie was intended to show racism in a negative light. That’s different from the “acceptable” racism in movies like “The Jazz Singer”.

Here’s the list of problematic movies; groups of them will be shown on a given night.  If you’ve seen some of these movies, you might want to guess what is “problematic” about them. I’ve put asterisks next to the ones I’ve guessed, and question marks next to ones that I’ve seen but can’t guess what’s problematic about them (granted, I haven’t seen some of these in years, and, given what I know about the Zeitgeist, I’m sure I could spot the bad bits upon rewatching).

March 4

  • “Gone With the Wind” *
  • “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” ?
  • “Rope”
  • “The Four Feathers”

March 11

  • “Woman of the Year” ?
  • “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” *
  • “Gunga Din” *
  • “Sinbad, the Sailor”
  • “The Jazz Singer” *

March 18

  • “The Searchers”
  • “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” [I read what is problematic; otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to guess]
  • “Swing Time”
  • “Stagecoach” [Ditto for Breakfast at Tiffay’s]
  • “Tarzan, the Ape Man” ?

March 25

  • “My Fair Lady” ?
  • “The Children’s Hour”
  • “Psycho” ?
  • “Dragon Seed”

And a note about other problematic films and television shows Entertainment:

Other networks and streamers are also finding ways to address these issues within their respective libraries. In June, HBO Max pulled Gone with the Wind in response to criticism from 12 Years a Slave director John Ridley who said the multiple Academy Award-winning film “glorifies the antebellum south.” It was re-released that same month with a new introduction.

The recent debut of The Muppet Show on Disney+ also arrived with warnings on nearly two dozen episodes due to “negative depictions.”

TV shows are receiving the same treatment, multiple episodes of popular shows like The Golden GirlsThe Office, and30 Rockwere either edited or pulled completely.

Does anyone have any objections to what Turner is doing? Do you think the films need “framing” via a seemingly extensive discussion? If not, is there a better way to single out what’s “problematic”?

65 thoughts on ““Problematic” films to be reframed by Turner Classic Movies

  1. If a Roy Rogers cowboy movie gets reframed, would it get a Trigger warning? If Blazing Saddles get a description of “problematic” scenes, would that description be longer than the movie?

    1. The Jewish Mel Brooks playing the Indian and exclaiming about the Schwartzes (the Black sheriff)…

    2. The most recent airing of A Christmas Carol allowed the spirit of Christmas Present to reveal mankind’s children beneath his robes, saying “The boy is called Ignorance and the girl Want,” but then cut the line: “Beware them both, but most of all beware this boy.”

      If adding the disclaimer takes up valuable air time, will the studios (or whoever actually does the “editing”) then cut more of the movie to make it fit the space? Maybe cut the kids entirely, and Christmas Present can be just a really tall dude.

  2. Irksome indeed.

    I think these pre-date standard G, PG, PG-13, R, etc. Those ratings are plenty sufficient for grown ups. Nowadays, anyone can look at anything because of the internet. The standard ratings assumed the only source was a grand outing to the CINEMA.

    Movies are fantasies – it is blinking colors and sounds. It isn’t real life. It isn’t propaganda telling us how to live – we do that. Ugh – too much to write, too little time.

    1. Those ratings are plenty sufficient for grown ups.

      Therein lies the problem. We are not being treated as grown ups, but as children. Wokeism is infantilising the World.

  3. Ben Mankiewicz’s capitulatory endorsement of disclaimers last week and today’s Ask Marilyn (Parade Magazine) suggesting we retire male and female ‘sexist’ plug terminology has put me in a foul and despondent mood. So much comedic fodder if only comedy was…allowed.

    1. Still gettin’ the Sunday home delivery, huh? 🙂

      Been a while since I laid eyes on a Parade Sunday supplement or Ms. vos Savant’s column.

  4. “Seven Brides” because the women are taken against their will.

    I think TCM does a good job of putting films in context; they do a piece on blackface that runs periodically.

    Since the Dr. Seuss debacle I’ve been thinking of self-censorship during my lifetime, of pop-culture I enjoyed, including
    – Seuss removing his adult book, “The Seven Lady Godivas” from reprint status
    – the replacement of the ‘Mammy Two-Shoes’ character in the Tom and Jerry cartoons (originally replaced by an Irish-accented voice!)
    – the removal of several Looney Tunes cartoons, including “Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips” and “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs” (there are at least a dozen LT’s no longer aired)
    – Disney’s refusal to re-release “Song of the South”

    [yes; I watched a lot of cartoons]

    – and even the airbrushing of the cigarette from Paul’s fingers when “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was re-released in the “original” picture sleeve during the 1980s.

    For the last few days I’ve been playfully irritated my wife with “oh, I got another one!”

    1. PS–I don’t think TCM intends to do this every time they screen, say, “Gone With the Wind;” I believe it’s just one of March’s themes

      1. Or ALL the lads smoking promiscuously, openly and nefariously in the “Let it Be” movie.
        Enough to make ME reach for my Marlboros. Oh. HERE they are. 🙂
        D.A.
        NYC

      1. FWIW, my nieces are biracial [White father, Black mother]. They saw “Song of the South” when they were kids and loved it. They also loved the book “Little Black Sambo.” (“Hey! A book about a Black kid!”).

        What is the average age of a TCM viewer? I think anyone old enough to watch TCM is old enough to watch an 80-year-old movie without a trigger warning.

  5. This article

    https://apnews.com/article/tcm-reframed-classics-ccac676ad469ca3932a0890b0dd4e67a

    helps answer some of your queries. To quote:

    “For “Psycho,” which will be airing on March 25, the hosts talk about transgender identity in the film and the implications of equating gender fluidity and dressing in women’s clothes with mental illness and violence. It also sparks a bigger conversation about sexuality in Alfred Hitchcock films.

    During the “My Fair Lady” conversation on March 25, they talk about why the film adaptation has a less feminist ending than the stage play, and Henry Higgins’ physical and psychological abuse of Eliza Dolittle. Not feeding her and stuffing marbles in her mouth are played for cute laughs in the film. Is it a commentary on misogyny or just plain misogyny?”

    1. On Hulu & other outlets, they have a trigger warning on Mad Men for the Kentucky Derby episode … when Sterling sings “My Old Kentucky Home” in blackface. Which if you’re paying attention, everyone watching him do this is cringing & obviously not cool with it. But there’s a TRIGGER WARNING now & a blurb about how “hurtful” it may be to some people.

      But the episode when Joan gets raped by her fiance, with him holding her head to the floor of Don Draper’s office? Gee, no trigger warning there. Funny how some things are “hurtful” to some people but other people don’t matter.

      The whole thing is ridiculous. You can’t decide beforehand who’s feelings are going to be “hurt”. Or whose feelings matter. Because all of our feelings matter. & if we keep down this road, nothing will be real, it’ll all be happy flowers & sparkles.

  6. Let me suggest that readers check out a film made for CBS-TV and broadcast by them entitled _Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed_. It documents the racism that dominated history books and Hollywood films. It is narrated by Bill Cosby and is an excellent teaching device for Social Studies teachers. The fact that Cosby is in jail right now for assaulting women should not detract from the quality of the film. It is available in dvd format – http://www.PhoenixLearningGroup.com. Available from Amazon. The television show was first broadcast in 1968.

    Hope this is helpful.

    John J. Fitzgerald

    1. There’s an interesting and pertinent irony to your aside about Cosby. You write “The fact that Cosby is in jail right now for assaulting women should not detract from the quality of the film.” In reconsidering Cosby in the light of am examination of his despicable serial rapes, So, if I change a parameter of your comment I can create this: “The fact that many films from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s entertain the assaulting of women as acceptable. . . should not detract from the quality of the film.” I’m not criticizing your commentary. I’m wondering about the way we contemplate art and culture in context.

        1. Yes, true. The Cosby material has no faux violence, while the films are replete with faux violence. So the bad material is fictional. But true violence outside the object shouldn’t impact our apprehension of material.

          1. Right. Separate the art from the artist. Bad people can come up with good things and vice versa. As Mark Twain said, the music of Wagner is better than it sounds.

  7. I have recorded GWTW from the other night, though I’ve seen it many times. The intro didn’t warn us of the coming disturbing scenes, but rather told us that after the movie they would discuss what was problematic. They mentioned that some people are passionately in love with this film and so emotions are high when discussing. So if you had watched the movie live you could conceivably have turned it off before that discussion and same if you recorded it. I have yet to see the entire film to know what they say in the discussion. On a side note, my mother was one of those people who thought the movie a masterpiece; she was also thrilled when Obama won the presidency.

  8. The apparent problem seems to be how these movies can be classics, with such awkward material.

    The answer is audiences from so many decades ago made these movies successful because of societal norms that have been changed since then.

  9. There’s a meme going around to the effect that Cardi B won a Grammy for her song “Wet Ass Pussy”, but The Muppet Show needs warning labels. In other news, Pepe Le Pew is once again being criticized for promoting rape. I can’t get to the story for some reason, even though I turned off my ad blocker. Yes, Gunga Din‘s depiction of Indians is cringy now. What on earth is wrong with Rope? As for The Searchers, it is so obviously a story about prejudice (as is Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) that it should be celebrated rather than criticized, but I have no idea what’s the issue with Stagecoach unless it’s Indians being bad guys (or if it’s the ’66 version, that it sucks). I knew right away what the issue was with Breakfast at Tiffany’s; even the makers should have known it was too late for Mr. Moto. As for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers I am guessing it’s the number “Sobbin’ Women” based on the the Rape of the Sabines. I don’t know which version of The Four Feathers is “problematic” (I think I’ve seen three), but I am guessing it’s either the depiction of Muslims as bad guys or colonialism in general. Yes, I object to the idea that my thoughts about movies politically, as opposed to artistically, need to be framed by the cardboard cut-outs that introduce movies on TCM these days. If we really need to be told that films reflect their times, maybe we ought to pay more attention to literature in schools. I guess I need to buy some more DVDs before they get Pecksniffian introductions by some like Leonard Maltin.

    1. “As for The Searchers, it is so obviously a story about prejudice (as is Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) that it should be celebrated rather than criticized…”

      Would really need to know their reasoning for adding those…

  10. Sure, I enjoy being treated like a child or even an idiot. I don’t even see the need for the old ratings on movies today. They see all of this on everyday television. Mostly today they are looking at computer generated crap with very little dialogue so as long as they blow up lots of people and buildings it’s a hit. Do the people that watch this stuff really care about social issues? Are they offending by anything? Certainly not bad movies. We can watch on live television while the president creates a coup, an insurrection and get away with it. Concerned about social issues?

  11. As long as TCM is showing the movies without editing out any of the “problematic” scenes, I’ve got no problem with this. Maybe the contextual discussion is edifying, maybe it ain’t. But no one is required to watch it. Use your damn channel changer if you don’t want to see it.

    1. Yeah, me neither. If they want to air a special TV show geared towards younger watchers that addresses (what they think are) questions and concerns about the movie, explains the context, etc., that might even be helpful. That’s not censorship, that’s analysis.

      Can’t believe The Thin Man movies didn’t make it. They are so remarkably sexist. Of course, they were comedies with the sexism being the joke (sort of like Remington Steel, only even older and sexist-er).

      I still remember watching them in an open-air showing probably 10 years ago. The entire lawn would erupt with laughter every time something obviously dated/sexist was said. The comments about women not being able to do this or that fairly simple thing (and the lead female character playing that up) had passed from offensive into ridiculous. I’m too young to know, but I’d like to think that even at the time, this was more ‘over the top funny’ for most of the audience rather than ‘serious opinion on women.’

    2. I agree that there is no problem with discussing a movie, before or after. What troubles me is that (1) these discussions seem like they will always be from only one ideological point of view, and (2) this just feels like a step toward further and further censorship. As already noted in the post, episodes of shows as recent and progressive as 30 Rockare being literally memory-holed. I’ve actually been buying up DVDs and BluRays of my favorite shows because, if things continue the way they have been for the past couple of years, many of them will have episodes completely deleted from existence. I bought the 30 Rock set as soon as I saw that they were removing six (!!) episodes from all streaming services, for subscription viewing or purchase. The only way you can see those episodes now is on the DVDs released before the censorship or through illegal means.

  12. I see no problem with exposing viewers to how some old movie scenes are now objectionable. Perhaps it will help people understand the advances we’ve made since then and, at the same time, make them think about what’s left to do. On the other hand, they’ll probably destroy some fond memories of favorites. It all depends on how they handle it. If they start getting into cultural appropriation, for example, I’m out.

    1. “… exposing viewers to how some old movie scenes are now objectionable. “

      I don’t think that is the issue. The issue is identifying, with 20/20 hindsight, material that occupies how many seconds out of how much total screentime, that… what?

      Blackface – blackface what?

      Spousal abuse – how exactly? Was it programming people to go find a woman and hit her, even now?

      Or do these things depend on how the story goes, what the director is overtly expressing? If so, isn’t that for audiences to discuss and decide?

      … and yet, silence as to what “normal” things produced in the entertainment industry now that will not meet norms of audiences in 50, 100 years.

      I think the word “pretentious” applies here. The TCM brand is working to save itself. I think it can see the end coming – if all this stuff is available from other big streaming services, or even YouTube.

    2. The thing is, though, that it makes the whole movie a bit of a downer. So a young person is about to watch Casablanca for the first time, and they should be attentive and a bit excited knowing that they are about to see what many consider to be one of the greatest of all movies. This should be a special moment, long remembered.
      But think about how it will be they are warned, ahead of time, that there is racist material in the movie that “may be upsetting to some viewers”. Now have them watch the movie. It’s a different experience.

      1. Sure but I also understand parents not wanting their kids exposed to some of the negative stereotypes and racism in these movies without an explanation. Casablanca may be considered a lesser movie after such a treatment but that’s life. Many accomplishments of the past go downhill in society’s esteem over time. This is nothing new. That people are helping that process along is also nothing new.

  13. Anyone with a brain knows why these movies are “problematic” & we’ve known this FOREVER. These movies are great IN SPITE of these problems. I mean … I personally can’t stand GWTW (it’s a book review, not a movie & not even a particularly good book review) but yet, the cinematography is fabulous & there’s no arguing with that.

    I get tired of all these stupid “trigger warnings”. Ya know, I know how to turn off the TV.

  14. When you first mentioned No Way Out, I wasn’t thinking the 1950 film with Sidney Poitier (and directed by Ben Mankiewicz’s great-uncle Joe), but the 1987 flick with Kevin Costner and Sean Young and thought, damn, don’t tell me getting it on in the back of a limo is considered “problematic” now. That’d be a cryin’ shame.

  15. Do you think the films need “framing” via a seemingly extensive discussion?

    No, not at all, audiences are quite capable of judging for themselves.

    If not, is there a better way to single out what’s “problematic”?

    There’s no need to, at all. These things are merely a mixture of virtue signalling and arse covering. They’re not actually needed.

    1. “…virtue signalling and arse covering” Yes, indeed! As a long time TCM viewer, I am not enjoying the preachiness of these analyses. Oh, slaves didn’t enjoy slavery? Black people weren’t the nitwits that Butterfly McQueen’s character represents? Thanks, TCM, I never would have known that without you explicitly and condescendingly pointing that out! These wokesters are irritating. Ben Mankiewicz doesn’t surprise me so much, given his work on TYT, but I expected better of Eddie Muller. It makes me miss Robert Osborne all the more. If these movies become available elsewhere, I will go there.

  16. It’s been a running joke among my siblings that while our media was severely restricted, (pretty much all musicals (okay, except Hair, RHPC, JCSS and other more modern ones) were okay, as well as many ‘classic’ films) we were still exposed to a ton of ‘problematic’ content. Same with music, oldies were A-okay, secular music a no – but some of those songs are downright filthy. SBfSB was a favorite in my house growing up, but we all knew it was clearly ‘problematic’, despite the fancy table dancing scenes. MFL was another, Higgins is a beast, but it’s still a lovely film with a bad ending.

  17. Granting that I haven’t yet seen “what Turner is doing”, I have no problem with it – EXCEPT for their calling these (or any) films “problematic”. Each of TCM’s showings are preceded with a host’s commentary, so they don’t actually need a group discussion to tell me how to feel about what I may be about to see for the first time. (I remember a PBS program on how David Lean filmed Dr. Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia and other lesser known works which gave a richness to my re-watches of those films – just don’t show it before the first watch). The assigned host need only say “some scenes (of racism, bigotry, slavery, prostitution, violence against men/women/children or profanity) may be disturbing to some viewers” along with the standard history of the film. (I’m old enough that I don’t need even that much.) Follow-up comments can be added after the film with suggestions for further study, if desired. TCM could hold off-camera discussions with community leaders to inform their on-camera hosts’ comments. In fact, separate programs of the groups discussing how classic films as a whole are viewed under changing social values, with clips of scenes now viewed as “problematic” would be interesting and educational. Just don’t label the whole film “problematic”, thereby slanting the viewers’ own reactions beforehand.

    1. Don’t give them any ideas!…. well, might be a great idea for a dystopian story, films edited to tell the audience what they have to think .. Burma Shave….

  18. Every business in ownership of historical material that will be seen by others as problematic must be considering their options in pre-emptive damage control. Rather than let the blind rage of aTwitter mob do great damage their reputation and bottom line, such companies I am sure are “heading them off at the pass”, as it were. So the people who own the Dr. Seuss books did what needed to be done, and the rest of their brand can rest safely. And now TCM has also made their move.

    1. Well put. I thought Dr. Seuss Enterprises overreacted, since three of the books could be easily edited and the other three were harmless, but as you said, we’re witnessing corporate damage control, which isn’t notable for bravery or under-reaction.

      TCM at least isn’t editing or burying the films. It’s using the opportunity to call attention and praise to itself by dissecting “problematic favorites.” If that’s what it takes to keep airing the films, so be it. But I wonder how many viewers will switch channels once the lectures begin…

  19. The problem with the mostly delightful “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is obvious: Mickey Rooney’s performance as the irate Chinese neighbor.

    Tarzan is likewise obvious: There is a line of dialogue in which Jane’s father doubts if Tarzan is good saying he is a brutal beast like all the other savages in this jungle, and Jane replies “But father, he’s white!”
    My response to the March 25th selections is: You gotta be kidding me (except I haven’t seen “Dragon Seed”)

    “Rope” is about homicidal homosexuals, but is based on real people, Leopold and Loeb, who were just that..

    “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is a very simplistic un-nuanced treatment of racism, but very earnest. They gave it the college try.

    “Gone With the Wind” is slightly redeemed (IMO) by doing quite well on the Bechdel test. Particularly interesting is the friendship between the prim and proper Melanie and the local town Madam. Melanie discovers she can confide in this brothel keeper more genuinely than anyone else. It’s a fascinating bit of drama in a story marred by misplaced nostalgia. It actually gives a lot of screen time to African-American characters.

    “The Jazz Singer” is about a member of one minority (Judaism) trying to explore the music of a different minority (African Americans) through performance of their music. Definitely more complex and layered than most movies with blackface.

  20. But all the murder in The Godfather
    Texas Chainsaw Massacre
    Deliverance
    Pinocchio

    Those are different.

  21. Is this not just a form of certification? I used to have friends who worked at the British Board of Film Certification, as administrators, & they were usually pretty strict about things like violence against women in films. It got much more relaxed in the period since 1990 or so.

    Rooney is supposedly Japanese rather than Chinese. It does ruin the film…

  22. Why not simply use a letter-system, much like the ratings for sexual content? Or would that be too confusing? Could viewers mistake “R” for “Racism” with “R” for “Restricted”? In any case, the “warning section” included in a movie should be as short as possible so that the viewers can get on with watching the movie.

    1. Movies that pre-advertised mass destruction and death, also warn against smoking and bad language, so they could easily add lots more letters, until it becomes unreadable stuff that you skip.

  23. I think it’s odd that nobody was worried about this until Twitter came along. Did people not know right from wrong in movies before it had to be specifically pointed out to them? Racism and bigotry is never ok, but I’m sure we are in a much better place relatively and are way more progressive than when these “problematic” movies came out. Do they think someone growing up today will watch the movies and not figure out the context of what they’re watching?

    1. “Did people not know right from wrong in movies before it had to be specifically pointed out to them?”

      Only everyone who ever lived, and ever will – when they were somewhere in the vicinity between zero years old and… hmmm… what age, precisely, does everyone “know right from wrong”?

Leave a Reply