Along with the Introduction of Talkies came Bad Language
We listened for a year to the bad language of "What Price Glory?" and ever since then plays have taken on the fullest liberty of speech until profanity seems considered a necessary concomitant of realistic representation.
What the authors of that play set down in bitter revolt against war, seems now to be accepted as the necessary vehicle of any and every phase of dramatic composition.
The British censor ruled out the play for London; but the screen version of this drama, it appears, says quite as much in the way of rough talk, and every theater in London, we are told, is clamoring to secure it.
How to get around the problem of saving "What Price Glory? " from being a mere repetition of any war screen was solved by one of the leading American film producers who has laid upon the audience the necessity of acquiring facility in lip reading. "Profanity, blasphemy or obscenity would not be permitted in subtitling," writes Mr. G. A. Atkinson in the Daily Express (London), "but there is nothing to prevent the actor from saying what he is obviously thinking, and experienced lip-readers are frequently aware of strange screen confidences." The writer furnishes a little passage in our own journalistic style; and this is what The Daily Express provides for prospective patrons of the much discust film-play in London:
"In 'What Price Glory?' McLaglen and the others have been made carefully to articulate and emphasize the full vocabulary of the profession of arms, especially that of the American soldier, which is rather richer and rounder than the rest, and this aspect of the film is affording censors much anxious thought.
"'They who see this picture,' says Variety, 'are going to start tipping off on the cuss words used, words that can only be gotten by lip-reading, but the bunch that goes to see the picture will watch for that rough stuff.'
"'Victor McLaglen takes the honors in acting and unbridled profanity,' says the San Francisco Herald, 'and the film leaves no doubt as to what words are being used.'
"'Wherein does it profit us,' asks the Hollywood Spectator, 'to photograph a man's lips so that the audience knows that he is uttering profanity not uttered in the presence of women?'
"'It deals with the should-be-forgotten side of the struggle in France,' says a Los Angeles critic, who compares it with the 'cleanliness and wholesome fun' of 'The Big Parade.'
"Stallings thinks that the war consisted of other things than wholesome fun.
"McLaglen is the son of a South African bishop. He weighs fourteen stone, takes size thirteen in boots, and stands six feet three inches, but he is the shortest of eight brothers.
"He has lived in twenty-six countries, from the Arctic Circle to Australia, from Mexico to Mesopotamia, and has been, in turn, soldier, stock-rider, silver prospector, land speculator, physical culturist, pugilist, and cinema actor.
"He was an American boxing champion in 1909, when he fought Jack Johnson in a six-round 'no decision' contest, and he has been the boxing champion of the British Army.
"He was a trooper in the First Life Guards, and, during the war, he became A. P. M. in Bagdad.
"He was actually in the ring at the National Sporting Club when he was invited to play in his first British film, 'The Call of the Road.' He now earns £30,000 a year in Hollywood. "The great scene in the film occurs when a scared young officer, after a terrific bombardment, looks at the melee of shattered corpses, and says, 'What price glory now?'"
Laurence Stallings, who is quoted as thinking that "war consisted of other things than wholesome fun," is presented to English readers as one who knows from plentiful personal experience:
"Stallings is the author of the story, 'The Return of the Soldier,' on which 'The Big Parade' was based. He wrote 'What Price Glory?' before he became connected with 'The Big Parade.'
"The new film is concerned with the adventures of a couple of American marines, professional soldiers, in China, the Philippines, and France.
"Stallings knows all about marines, because he served with them in France, where they arrived about twelve months in advance of the Pershing drafts.
"He put into his play all that could conceivably be said and shown of the ugliness of war.
"William Fox, who has forgotten more about 'box-office values' than most other film impresarios ever knew, paid him £20,000 for the screen rights.
"Stallings is bitter about war. He fell with many wounds during an attack on Belleau Wood. For eighteen months he endured all the agonies of post-war surgery, and returned to the world an apparent physical wreck.
"Some of his wounds, despite all the wonders of plastic surgery, refused to be cured, so he returned to the hospital and had a leg amputated.
"During this prolonged physical and mental distress he wrote 'What Price Glory?' and 'The Return of the Soldier.'
"He also wrote a novel, 'Plumes,' which capitalizes his sentiments more directly.
"In this he says: 'War is a brutal and vicious dance, directed by ghastly men. It was the tragedy of our lives that we had to be mutilated at the pleasure of dolts and fools. I was seduced into it by men like Taft, who went about speaking for Wilson's participation in the war. Until I went to France a long succession of Baptist preachers had threatened me with the horror of death. I've lost that interest, and I'm not afraid to die. I can walk into a church and laugh in the preacher's face. What does he know about death?
'"Richard Plume had life stolen from him. Stolen by all those scoundrels who were not there on the ground with him. The scoundrelly orators were not there.' "So 'What Price Glory?' the stage play, was a carefully calculated mixture of blasphemy, obscenity, vulgarity, and violence—everything, in fact, that could shock the feelings of a nation which knew war as an excuse for triumphal parades and arches.
"There are no thrilling departures under the eyes of anguished sweethearts, and no emotional returns to the arms of white-haired mothers.
"McLaglen, like Stallings, knows all about war and all about bad language.
"When Raoul Walsh, director of the film, asked him what he knew about bad language for military purposes, McLaglen sat on Walsh's desk, threw his leg over it, pushed his grim face forward, and let forth such a stream of blistering profanity that Walsh interrupted him.
" 'You'll do,' he said in reverent tone."
Source: The Literary Digest for March 5, 1927