Shouldn’t overdubbed, edited versions of all but the most egregiously violent and transgressive movies be something of a cultural anachronism by now?
I remember one of the fun little parlor games we used to play when I was a kid was trying to imagine just how butchered some of our favorite films that opened in the ‘70s would be when they ended up on network TV three or four years down the line. (Yes, Children of Instant Gratification, it sometimes took that long, in the pre-VCR days, for a major motion picture to premiere on network TV, which was one of the only, if not the only secondary market for a movie after its theatrical run was over.) I remember seeing Carrie for the first time and during the opening credits thinking, “How are they going to show this on TV? There’s full frontal nudity underneath the credits!” It was on the set of National Lampoon’s Animal House that I was introduced to the shooting of alternate-take versions of scenes in which potentially objectionable material would be toned down or rewritten completely with the network censors in mind. So then it wasn’t a total surprise when I eventually saw Carrie years later and noticed that on CBS all the girls in that locker room during the opening credits had bras on at best, blouses at worst.
Back then language used to be either erased aurally or simply cut out altogether, along with most of a movie’s violence or sexual material. The trend still exists today, even in a world where cable networks like Comedy Central and FX, and even the Big Three broadcast networks, routinely deal in levels of swearing, violence, nudity and sexual material that would never have passed muster back in the days when I was TV-watching kid. I guess there must still be some moral fiber at stake worth preserving in that special way which apparently only censoring Hollywood movies can preserve. So you will still see even today the occasional wild instance of language overdubbed and replaced with ineffectual or blatantly nonsensical phrases, and always ineptly looped, when watching raucous comedies or tough action pictures on TNT or the like.
There are three classic examples that I can think of. The first one is literally the very first instance of such nonsensical replacement swearing I can ever remember hearing, or at least it is the one that was most obviously absurd enough that I couldn’t possibly forget it. of. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot there is a scene in which Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern, playing a phony psychic and her taxi driving boyfriend, are having an argument near the beginning of the film. At one point Dern, exasperated at something Harris says, responds with, “For Christ’s sake, Blanche!” Or at least that’s how it was in theaters. When I saw the film aired on NBC, Dern’s response was the certainly less blasphemous but otherwise incoherent “For rice cakes, Blanche!” Dern's character was certainly not the brightest bulb in the package, but neither was he obsessed with the bland little disc-shaped snacks, so his comment, looped in at a volume approximately twice that of the rest of the dialogue track for maximum distraction, seems even screwier.
Then there is the beloved moment from the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski in which Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and the Dude (Jeff Bridges) confront little Larry, disaffected and slovenly son of Walter’s hero, iron lung-bound TV writer Arthur Digby Sellers. Our heroes believe Larry stole the Dude’s car and with it a suitcase full of ransom cash. When Larry refuses to confess—Larry almost refuses to breathe, blink or provide any reaction whatsoever to Walter’s increasingly threatening tone—the big man finally cracks. “Do you know what happens, Larry, when you fuck a stranger in the ass?” he asks, not expecting a response. He asks the rhetorical question several times, in fact, on his way out to beat the shit out of a beautiful sports car which he believes Larry bought with the stolen ransom money. With each blow of a tire iron on the sexy metal surface of the car Walter continues, “THIS is what happens, Larry, when you fuck a stranger in the ass!” But on some cable screenings Walter’s hilariously obscene mantra has had many different incarnations, my favorite being the one documented in the Lebowski fan tome I’m A Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski: “So you see what happens, Larry, when you find a stranger in the Alps?!” Wh-Wh-Whaaaaaaat?!
And finally, a little channel surfing the other night brought me across a broadcast of the insufferably bad Robin Williams vehicle Patch Adams. I was not able, as I usually am when confronted with this cinematic steamer, to switch the channel with my typical speed, and as a result I inadvertently caught what is sure to become yet another classic of overdubbed sanitizing of ostensibly offensive language. Near the beginning of the movie Patch, who has been voluntarily committed to a mental institution after a suicide attempt, tells the doctor in charge that he is going to check himself out. The doctor, believing Patch still has issues, does not approve of the action and informs Patch that his report will read “A.M.A.—that you were signed out of this hospital against medical advice.” This brilliantly sets Patch up for the first of many rim-shot-worthy rejoinders with which he will devastate the authoritarian bastards who will try to thwart his glowing spirit at every turn. With that patented Robin Williams smugness at full tilt Patch lobs this one back at the doctor: “And my report will read I.D.G.A.R.A.—I don’t give a rat’s ass!” Cheers and laughter as Patch turns his back on mental illness and toward a career as a doctor who gets laughs from cancer patients by sticking an enema blub on his nose. But on the cable broadcast I stumbled upon Patch’s response had been altered slightly: “And my report will read I.D.G.A.R.A.—I don’t give a rat’s anus.” The subtle message in this bit of ill-advised clean-up is clearly, best not to focus on the furry posterior, or buns, of the rat; much better to conjure up images of the beast’s actual asshole, for that is surely the more clinical, less offensive image. Thanks, Mr. Censor. In your rush to protect the oversensitive Patch Adams viewer, you’ve succeeded in grossing me out.
These are just a few examples that I came across in the past couple of days that I could recall easily. What instances of this kind of inane nonsense have you encountered? Have you heard some particularly funny substitutions? Or better yet, can you come up with some ridiculous takes on classic movie lines that might be more satisfactory to the clenched-cheek aesthetic of the typical Standards and Practices nudnik? For rice cakes, let’s hear ‘em!