Tuesday, January 11, 2011

SHOCK! and the Communist Menace

On February 3, 1958, King Features syndicated editorial page columnist George Dixon identified SHOCK! as a threat to US homeland security. He went on to propose that SHOCK! programming be used as a psychological weapon against Russian kids in the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

I don't know a lot about Dixon; my casual snooping around turned up a little bit about his work in newspapers during the post-war years. He seems to have worked for a few different Hearst publications before getting his nationally-syndicated column, "Washington Scene"; he was associated for a time with the right-wing Washington Times-Herald of the late 1940s and ended up at the Post before his death in the early 1970s.

It looks like he was courted by politicians as a well-connected and very gossipy Beltway insider; for instance, I read in Donald A. Ritchie's Reporting From Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps that Joseph McCarthy appealed to Dixon for help in choosing a DC press agent for his first senatorial re-election campaign prior to kicking off his 1950 anti-communist witch-hunt. (I find it hard to read Dixon's columns and not picture J.J. Hunsecker from THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS [1957]). In general, the Dixon columns that I read reflect the dominant political mentality of the day, sprinkled with a bit of Red-baiting and some nasty, stupid comments about women and Blacks, all delivered with a lot of innuendo and between-the-lines suggestion and larded with lots of good-natured "aw, I was just joking" smarm that gave him room to backpedal if anyone called him out on what he said.

His writings on pop culture were infrequent, but the few that I read struck me as being especially clueless: in one column in late December 1955 about the CBS radio show "The FBI in Peace and War" (1944-58), he expressed outrage that the theme music for such an upstanding and (in his words) "heroic" radio program had been composed by a Russian: "'The FBI in Peace and War' chases Communists and other misguided creatures each week to the tune of 'The Love for Three Oranges' by the late Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev!"

Laika the space dog, 1957

Dixon's denunciation of SHOCK! in early February 1958 reflects an intersection of two concerns: the Sputnik Crisis and the striking success of the Screen Gems package. Sputnik 1 was a basketball-sized Soviet orbital satellite launched October 4, 1957; Sputnik 2 was about the size of a washing machine and was launched a month later with a canine passenger named Laika. The sputnik launches freaked-out folks in the US-- in addition to escalating fears of Red nuclear weapons raining down on Americans (the first Soviet H-Bomb test was in 1953), the success of the Soviet sputnik program provided hard evidence that the Russians had a considerable educational, scientific, and technological edge on Americans. The effort to catch-up to the Russians (and the Russians' efforts to stay ahead) started the intense scientific and political competition called the Space Race that lasted well into the 1970s. (TCM frequently airs a short 1957 film from RKO called DECADE FOR DECISION that captures this moment really well; there's also a 2007 PBS documentary called SPUTNIK DECLASSIFIED that you can watch on-line. I haven't see the History Channel's SPUTNIK MANIA [2007], but I see that it is available in chunks on YouTube.)

Boy Scouts train to spot Red satellites, Summer 1958

Dixon's second concern, as I said, was the enthusiastic response by TV viewers to the SHOCK! movies. Based in DC, I'm going to guess that Dixon at least knew about SHOCK!'s rating numbers on local markets (WTOP-Channel 9 on Sunday nights and maybe WBAL-Channel 11 [Baltimore] on Saturday nights), as well as the broader national trends in other cities-- as I have mentioned before, it was clear by January 1958 that SHOCK! had struck a nerve with sizable ratings advances made in the largest US television markets (NYC and LA) and elsewhere, such as KRON-San Francisco's notorious 807% jump in the numbers. Anecdotally, it seems like those most attracted to these programs were young people who had never seen the movies in the theaters.

Dr. Lucifer, Mrs. Lucifer, and Lucretia, horror hosts of "Shock!," WBAL-Baltimore, 1957-59.
For more on the Lucifers, see E-gor's Chamber of TV Horror Hosts

In a few weeks, I'll be putting up a blog post on SHOCK! and moral panic: outrage by concerned politicians, teachers, clergy, and parents about what monstrous effects late-night monster movies had on kids. But you get a whiff of some of that in Dixon's remarks here; this column is not just an attack on the Soviets but also a warning that SHOCK! was endangering a young generation of Americans by making them "logy" and unwilling "to be torn from their television sets." How can we possibly overcome the Russians' scientific advancements if our kids are more interested in monster movies than in hitting the books?

Dixon begins his column by mentioning a new Eisenhower-initiated USA-USSR agreement to exchange culture and entertainment as a means for lessening Cold War tensions. "If only we could send them some of our television programs, we could clutter up their minds so they couldn't concentrate on weapons of destruction," he writes. "Unlimited possibilities lie in our weekend horror shows alone" which could be used to "stultify that country's future generations," since "instead of cramming themselves with dangerous science, all they would want to do is get back to the gory romance of Frankenstein's unblushing little Bride."

"Every weekend in this more advanced land [the USA], we have late and late, late horror shows that keep the kiddies up later than the bars keep open for adults in the nation's capital," he continues. "We have 'Shock,' 'Horror,' 'The Creeper,' 'The Invisible Man,' and vintage movies that are horrible without even trying. The Russian youngsters would probably be so entranced they wouldn't even stick their heads out of a window to look at a third sputnik." Dixon adds that "these grisly programs, of course, would only be for Russians of a tender age" because "the older Bolsheviks wouldn't see the characters as anything out of the ordinary."

Dixon's column goes on to poke gentle fun at the National Symphony Orchestra and to suggest swapping the Philadelphia Symphony for the Bolshoi Ballet. He concludes by calling for nuclear war: "If we really want to impress our new trade partners, we should launch a deal direct from the rocket pad and send them our only remaining member of the peerage-- Count Down."

excerpt from Dixon's "Washington Scene" column as it appeared on the editorial page of The Dominion-Times, Morgantown, WV, February 4, 1958

Dixon is joking, of course, about exporting Screen Gems' horror movie selections to the USSR as part of a cultural exchange. But I think that he is seriously concerned about how SHOCK! programming is going to retard the development of young minds at a time when they needed to be ideologically yoked to the educational rigors of the Space Race.


prof. grewbeard said...

scapegoating always comes mostly from the Right and is always absurd, nothing has changed...

The Creeping Bride said...

I would go even further, prof, and say that political scapegoating of pop culture from any point on the spectrum tends to be kinda silly, whether it's about communists in Hollywood or back-masking Satanic messages on rock albums or violent video games or rap videos or whatever.

I really wish that some hot-shot indie documentarian would put together a film about the PMRC panic of the mid-'80s-- now there's a brouhaha that crisscrossed the Washington DC political establishment from Tipper Gore to Strom Thurman. Remember Zappa's Senate testimony? Damn, that was good!

Politicians just can't seem to get a grip on pop culture, and their efforts to politicize it always seems to come across as ill-informed, incorrect, and square, even those who come from the heart of it, like Reagan and Schwarzenegger-- the latter's endless TERMINATOR references in his speeches while running for governor were painfully cringeworthy.

Mirek said...

Fascinating! Interestingly enough, totalitarian regimes did not and do not favor horror films for their populace, so the Soviet Union would not have accepted such an imagined trade.

The Creeping Bride said...

...which is at least one view that Dixon perhaps tacitly shared with the Stalinists, if this editorial is any indication.

michael said...

In researching local newspapers from the late 50s, it was fascinating to see the same sort of unhinged panic about Sputnik and the A-Bomb applied in equal measure to juvenile delinquents and youth crime. These stories often appeared side-by-side in the front sections of the daily papers, and pitched as if orbiting Soviet atomic space platforms and purse snatchers in Pittsburgh were somehow connected in a bond of society-destroying fear. The San Francisco paper literally ran a story and photo of a purse-snatching punk in Pittsburgh who was caught hiding under a car - like that was supposed to mean something to people in the Bay Area.

Then as now, the pitch has always been that society is being attacked from without and collapsing from within. It's all about the terror of things we can't control.

The Creeping Bride said...

michael, your point about the easy slide from Red a-bombs to JDs is right on. It has been a tough knot for me to untangle as I'm working on that "Moral Panic and SHOCK!" piece for this blog. There is a lot of scholarship written on the historical construction of "teenagers" and especially "juvenile delinquency"-- I've been in over my head as I try to figure out what the arguments were for "protecting" kids from monster movies. The stuff about the crackdown on horror comic books in the 1950s has been very helpful, but it's not always the same thing as late-night SHOCK! movies.

It's strange, isn't it, how fears of attack from within and without can be so easily linked in the popular mind? It's like the crazy-talk we hear every once in a while these days about how al-Qaeda is involved in flooding the southern US border with immigrants from Central and South America.