What if William Randolph Hearst Could Hack?

For a short time, it looked like hackers (initially reported to be from North Korea) might prevent Sony from releasing the movie The Interview in theaters. According to early reports, out of fear, Sony was going to pull the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy from distribution. Meanwhile, commentators debated the possibility of censoring the movie out of fear. But ultimately, freedom prevailed and Sony released the movie both in theaters and online.

The controversy surrounding The Interview reminds me of William Randolph Hearst’s attempts to prevent the release of Citizen Kane (1941). Hearst did not like the way Orson Welles re-imagined Hearst’s career and relationship with Marion Davies (who in real life was a talented actress), so he took a number of measures to try to prevent the release of the film. Fortunately for us, he was unsuccessful, and one of the greatest movies of all time sits in a DVD case on my shelf.

One good version of the story behind Citizen Kane is from The American Experience series on PBS. Below is part one of the episode The Battle Over Citizen Kane, and then the video can take you to other parts of the episode.

If you prefer something much shorter and funnier, below is a short excerpt from Drunk History‘s retelling of the Citizen Kane story featuring Jack Black as Welles. Check it out.

Unfortunately, technology has given censors a new avenue of attack, which is sad. But I suspect that humor and satire will find a way to survive.


What do you think of Sony’s decision? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    The Censored Pete Seeger Performance on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”

    The great folksinger Pete Seeger passed away in January 2014 at the age of 94. He was born on May 3, 1919 in Manhattan, and he went on to become an important activist on a number of issues throughout his life.  And he taught us how important folk music can be. It is impossible to sum up his impact on music and on the world, but one story about a TV show appearance tells us a lot.

    The Smothers Brothers

    The Smothers Brothers became famous for their battles with censors during the run of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS from 1967 to 1969. I have been reading the interesting book Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” by David Bianculli, which documents the career of the two brothers along with some of the ups and downs of their TV work. One of the instances of censorship recounted in the book is the way that Pete Seeger’s performance of “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” was cut from the show.

    In Dangerously Funny, Bianculli explains how the brothers worked to get Pete Seeger on their show.  Television networks had effectively blacklisted Seeger from most TV shows because of the singer’s political views.  The brothers convinced CBS to allow Seeger to appear on their show, and Seeger appeared on the premiere episode of the second season of the show on September 19, 1967.

    But CBS would cut out one of Seeger’s songs, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” CBS censors had asked Seeger to omit the last verse of the song, but after he refused to do so and sang the entire song, CBS edited out the song from the show.

    “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”

    “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” recounts a story about World War II captain (“back in 1942”) leading his men.  He takes his men deeper and deeper into the “big muddy” as the “big fool” tells them to push on until the captain gets sucked into the mud.

    CBS censors had asked Seeger to omit the last verse of the song, which connected the story to the Vietnam War. Seeger, noting that the last verse was the whole point of the song, refused to do so and sang the entire song during taping. So CBS cut the song from the broadcast.

    CBS had a reason for being cautious.  The network previously received complaints from President Lyndon Johnson about another episode of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.  So the network did not want Seeger to use the verse referring to Pres. Johnson as a “big fool.”

    Well, I’m not going to point any moral;
    I’ll leave that for yourself;
    Maybe you’re still walking, you’re still talking,
    You’d like to keep your health.
    But every time I read the papers,
    That old feeling comes on;
    We’re — waist deep in the Big Muddy,
    And the big fool says to push on.

    The September 19, 1967 Broadcast

    A video shows the Pete Seeger segment as it was broadcast, with “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” cut out. At 1:12, after the Seeger segment opened with Seeger already singing “Wimoweh” with the audience, Seeger has a banjo. Then a few seconds later after a cut, he is holding a guitar. After “Wimoweh,” he sang “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” during the taping. But since CBS cut out the song, we see Seeger next singing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” with a different instrument.

    [January 2016 Update: Unfortunately, the entire segment is no longer available on YouTube, but below you may watch Seeger perform the last song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” on the show.]

    Seeger’s Return to The Smothers Brothers

    The following post on YouTube claims that this clip below of Seeger singing “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” is the performance that was cut from the season 2 premiere. But, as you can see, Seeger is wearing different clothes than he had for the Season 2 premiere, so this video is from a later performance on the show that actually aired.

    After CBS cut out the song from the September broadcast, Tom Smothers made sure that the story of the censorship appeared in the media. Because of the bad press, and probably because the Vietnam War had become even more unpopular in recent months, the Smothers Brothers were allowed to invite Seeger back later in the season, when he again sang “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.”

    Seeger was a class act who agreed to return after being cut in the previous appearance. CBS this time aired the song.

    The Legacy of the Battle with Censors

    Only three days after CBS finally showed Pete Seeger singing “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite made his own controversial appearance.  He closed his February 27, 1968 broadcast with what would become his famous commentary about the Vietnam War. Cronkite, though, did not have to hide his sentiment in a tale about World War II.

    Maybe because Pete Seeger, Tom Smothers, Dick Smothers, and others had not been afraid to speak out against the war, Cronkite, who was then one of the most respected people in America, could make his famous editorial about his views on the Vietnam War. Check it out.

    On his website, Seeger recounted his experience with “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: “Of course, a song is not a speech, you know. It reflects new meanings as one’s life’s experiences shine new light upon it. . . . Often a song will reappear several different times in history or in one’s life as there seems to be an appropriate time for it. Who knows?”

    Who knows? Amen. Rest in peace.

    What is your favorite censored song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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