Throughout the history of cinema, there have been a lot of movies that might have been, but ended up being something else.
For example, even though made in the pre-Code era, Baby Face (1933) had to be edited to make it look as though the title character, played by Barbara Stanwyck, misunderstood Nietzsche’s philosophy, which inspired her ruthless rise to the top, and she is punished by having to return to the industrial town where she began. Fortunately, the movie has been restored, and we see that she understood Nietzsche perfectly, and her punishment is much milder. This is the rare case in which we have both the movie that was and the movie that might have been.
In The Blue Dahlia (1946), Raymond Chandler originally wanted Buzz (William Bendix), a navy veteran with a plate in his skull, to be the killer of Johnny’s (Alan Ladd) wife, but when the Navy found out about it, they objected to the movie portraying a veteran in a bad light, and so the house detective turns out to be the killer instead. Usually, censorship results in an inferior movie, but in this case, I believe that the movie that was is better than the one that might have been.
What these two examples have in common is that had I not seen the restored version of the first, or read about the changes imposed by the Navy in the second, I would have had no inkling of the movies that might have been. But sometimes there is an incongruity that would make us suspicious even without any actual evidence. In Blonde Venus (1932), a woman (Marlene Dietrich) prostitutes herself to save the life of her ungrateful husband, who takes her son away from her. When she becomes famous, she is through with marriage and family life, and even rejects the love of a millionaire (Cary Grant). That is where Josef von Sternberg, the director, wanted the movie to end. But the studio wasn’t having it, and so an ending was imposed where she gives up fame and fortune to return submissively to her forgiving husband and her son. Even without knowing that this ending was imposed, the narrative rupture is so stark that one might have suspected it anyway.
Sometimes you can practically see the movie that might have been right through the movie that actually exists while you are watching it, almost as if the movie were a palimpsest. In the movie Crossfire (1947), a soldier (Robert Ryan) meets a man in a bar, goes with him to his apartment, and then murders him because the man is a Jew. But while I was watching it, I could not help but think that the real motive was homophobia, that Robert Ryan’s character had sex with the man who picked him up, and then, disgusted with himself for what he had done, he beat him to death. As I later found out, my suspicions were correct, that the original story had been about homophobia, but in the aftermath of World War II, people were ready to condemn anti-Semitism, but they were not ready to deal with homophobia, and so the story was changed.
Another movie that I felt as though I was seeing right through it to another movie that might have been is American History X (1998). The movie that might have been consists of the scenes filmed in black and white with all the color scenes left out. That movie is a brutal story about a neo-Nazi skinhead. But apparently, even though neo-Nazis are portrayed negatively, just showing the black-and-white part by itself would have been too much movie. And so, scenes in color are interspersed throughout, which come across as a bunch of Sunday-school sermons for children. I have no independent evidence that the director really wanted to make just the black-and-white version and was compelled to add the color portion, but that remains my suspicion.
Recently, I saw the movie Red State (2011). On one level, this movie is an attack on fundamentalist, homophobic groups that are obsessed with the evils of homosexuality, and an attack on our fascist police state, in which government agents are willing to kill innocent people who might be witnesses to government mistakes and to deprive people of their constitutional rights on the grounds that they are terrorists.
However, there are bits and pieces throughout this movie that hint at a less than favorable attitude toward homosexuality. When three teenagers are planning a ménage à quatre with a prostitute, in which they plan to all have sex with her at the same time, one of them says he wants the ass. Now, anal sex with a woman is not homosexuality, but it is sodomy, a form of sex associated with homosexuality and emphasized as evil by Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), the pastor of Five Points Trinity Church. Of the three teenagers, this guy is the one portrayed in a negative light. He cries for his mother when he is tied up, and then he abandons his friend when he gets free.
The sheriff is also gay, and he is seen having seedy, adulterous sex on the job. He is about to allow himself to be blackmailed by Pastor Cooper, who has incriminating pictures of him, into doing nothing about his murdered deputy. But then the sheriff has a Machiavellian idea: he will sic the ATF on the religious group, hoping a Waco-style massacre will eliminate all evidence of his indiscretions, which is exactly what happens.
Then, at the end of the movie, one of the superiors in the ATF, Agent Hammond (Patrick Fischler), says that the preacher will be raped by other prisoners as condign punishment for his loathing of sodomy, which also puts homosexuality in an unflattering light. It also puts the government in an unflattering light for gloating about it. It saddens me the way so many people delight in the thought that some convicted criminals will be ass-raped in prison, as if prison itself were not punishment enough. I sometimes wonder if future generations will look back at the way we allow such things to go on in prison today, and even revel in it, just as we today look back in horror at the way we used to treat the mentally ill.
In any event, I wondered if I was imagining things, and so I did a little research on the director, Kevin Smith, and found that he has indeed been accused of homophobia in the past. Now, it might be that Smith is not a homophobe, but merely someone who likes politically-incorrect humor, just as some people are grateful for religion, because it allows them the pleasure of blasphemy. Along these lines, I began to wonder if there is a movie that might have been hidden within the movie that we actually see.
In the actual movie, a bunch of college students, who live in a house close to the church, fool the religious group into thinking Judgment Day has arrived by blasting sounds of trumpets through loudspeakers. But we never see these college students, not even in a flashback while Hammond is telling Agent Keenan (John Goodman) about it. Furthermore, Hammond says that the college students had no idea that the ATF agents were at the compound, which means that they never heard the twenty minutes of machine-gun fire that was taking place prior to their playing the trumpet sounds. Because Kevin Smith does not give us visual confirmation of this unlikely story, we have to wonder if he really cared about it, or whether it was just an artificial, tacked-on ending.
I think Smith really wanted to film the movie so that the rapture actually did take place, with Pastor Cooper and his homophobic flock being taken into Heaven, leaving behind their shoes and a bunch of stunned ATF agents. In this version, God really is the homophobic deity of The Old Testament, who commands that homosexuals be put to death. Had Smith made that movie instead, it would have been the most outrageously politically-incorrect movie ever made. If his earlier movie, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001), was a matter of concern for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, then this might-have-been version of Red State would really have roused their ire. But even more would it have been an offense against Christianity, for in many ways, the Bible is embarrassing to people of that faith, which is why they take care to read only certain portions of it, and they consider it rude to make reference to the parts they would like to forget about.
And so, Smith got right out on the edge in making this movie, allowing us to think that Judgment Day was at hand, and that the members of Five Points Trinity Church were about to be raptured. But then he wisely pulled back, knowing that such a movie would have finished his career as a director, and undid the ending, saying, “Just kidding!”