Saturday Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 2/27/2021: Confusion And Irony

Doomscrolling” is a relatively new term to describe the habit of constantly checking one’s smartphone for bad news. Jeffrey Hall, professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, has spent over 10 years studying technology use in conjunction with relationships. He says that the mass media is intentionally triggering the habit:

“People tend to have what’s called negativity bias when it comes to information. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s related to the idea that we needed to be more alert to threats. If things are not particularly surprising, we can reside in a very low energy state, but as soon as we see something that’s potentially threatening or worrisome, it piques our attention. The algorithms are picking up on what we engage in, and our attentive processes tend to focus on the more negative information….”

The professor recommends filtering social media as a remedy:

“You can also take active steps to recognize if there are people who are a part of your social network that seem to be fueling your sense of doom and gloom. You may want to consider unsubscribing or muting them. People are very loath to actually unfriend or stop following a person altogether. However, there are ways to not get that content. Oftentimes we’re very upset about content we see, but we don’t do anything to change what we see.”

I dunno, professor! The people on Facebook seem to revel in shared, if imaginary, gloom and doom. Most of them “muted” me when I pointed out that the false narratives about the President being some kind of a traitorous Nazi racist monster trying to end American democracy were media-driven, partisan scams. That should have been good news, and it happened to be true. Instead, my Facebook friends crawled back into their comforting imaginary crisis bubble and, from what I can see, virtually no one there reads any EA posts that I put up. Trump Derangement was (in fact, is) a fad, a pastime, and sort of a club that eventually metastasized into a mindless mob.

1. On the question of canceling artists of bad character…A note that on this date in 1936 Shirley Temple, who was all of seven years old, signed a deal paying her almost a million dollars per picture in today’s currency reminded me of this horrible story: when Shirley was an attractive teen seeking to transition away from child roles, she met with MGM’s legendary movie musical chief, Arthur Freed. He exposed himself at the interview, and Shirley’s mother decreed that she would have no further dealings with MGM.

First, how sick to you have to be to expose yourself to Shirley Temple (the term “scumbag” comes to mind)? Second, would that justify refusing to watch and enjoy all of the classic musicals he was responsible for at the studio, like “Singing in the Rain,” “The Bandwagon,” “Wizard of Oz,” “Gigi,” the Mickey and Judy films, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” and many more? How about all of the songs he wrote, including the ones used in “Singing’ in the Rain”? I love that movie, but it is presented as a celebration of Arthur Freed, as is another favorite, “That’s Entertainment!” And the guy exposed himself to Shirley Temple!!!

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“Singin’ In The Rain” Ethics: The Strange Saga of “Make Em’ Laugh”

Last month Turner Movie Classics arranged for MGM’s classic musical “Singin’ in the Rain” to be shown on big screens in selected theaters around the country.  At the theater where I saw the film again with my wife and some friends, the place was packed with a multi-generational crowd including many children seeing Gene Kelly-Donald O’Connor-Debbie Reynolds (and Jean Hagan…mustn’t leave out “Lina Lamont”!) romp for the first time. Of course, they loved it; I’m worried about anyone who can see the film and not love it.

The timing of TCM’s limited revival was felicitous in two ways. One was that  it occurred just after the death of Debbie Reynolds, and provided a lovely way to salute her memory. Another was that “La La Land” was surging in buzz and box office around the country, culminating in last week’s 14 Oscar nominations. There are several visual references to “Singin’ in the Rain” in the film; ironically, enjoying “LaLa Land” may rely on unfamiliarity with its 65-year-old predecessor, because calling what the stars in “La La Land” do “dancing” seems unduly generous compared to the performances of Gene, Donald and Debbie.

Seeing the film reminded me, however, of the strange ethics breach behind one of the movie’s most famous numbers. Donald O’Connor’s solo “Make ‘Em Laugh” is the high point of the movie for me, and I am not alone. It finished at #49 in AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs survey of top tunes in American cinema, but that doesn’t do it justice: this is not just a great musical number, it is one of the greatest four minutes of physical comedy ever put on screen, featuring dozens of jumps, pratfalls, and as its grand finale, O’Connor running up two walls and flipping backwards to the ground. (He checked into a hospital for several days as soon as filming  the routine was over). The problem is that “Make ‘Em Laugh” was plagiarized, and everyone knew it. Continue reading

Ethics Hero Emeritus: Lena Horne, 1917-2010

When actress Hattie McDaniel, the imposing African-American actress who played “Mammy” in the film “Gone With the Wind,” was criticized for her willingness to accept stereotypical and often degrading roles, she countered, “I’d rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be one for $7.”  Not Lena Horne.  Breaking into the movie business as a dynamic and glamorous singer-actress in 1942, she insisted on a long-term contract with MGM that specified that she would never have to play a maid. Continue reading