When Grace was a Staple of Popular Entertainment

Whats_My_Line_original_television_panel_1952

I haven’t watched more than two episodes of any contemporary television series in twenty years, but I do watch baseball and football and so I get a fair barrage of commercials advertising what is supposed to be funny or “edgy” or seriously dramatic and so forth. My wife likes to watch home decorating shows and cooking shows, so that I overhear some of the stuff that comes on after the show she’s wanted to watch has concluded.

It strikes me—and she confirms my impression by her observations—that there’s a real meanness in much of what comes on the air even in shows that should be only about which finials to choose under the eaves, and what spice goes on the roast pork. By meanness I intend what someone before our generation would understand by it: pettiness, shallowness of thought, smallness of spirit, avarice, being unwilling to praise others, a thoughtless slovenliness; all things snide, selfish, crude, currish, and coarse.

Canadian television, for example, features a cooking show called He Said, She Said. He is a pudgy diminutive gay man, and she is a tall foul-mouthed woman, and all through the show she snipes at him and belittles him, and that’s supposed to be entertaining. There’s a home decorating show that pits one couple against another for a prize, in a way that encourages badmouthing and jealousy: the couples are asked to evaluate what the other couple has done and to talk it down. Casual profanity—“oh my God!”—is heard everywhere on the real estate shows; casual vulgarity also, easily “heard” under the bleeps. One of the cookery shows visited a high-end restaurant in Newport and had to censor every other sentence the cook and proprietor uttered.

One of the healthier of the sick shows up in Canuckistan is Till Debt Do Us Part, in which a smart money manager enters the homes of people who have spent themselves into staggering debt, apart from their mortgages, on makeup, eating out, clothes, boy toys, banking fees, girl toys, and closets and garages full of what is tasteless, thriftless, or useless. Sometimes the couple are married, sometimes not. Often there are children whose futures the parents seem blithely to ignore. In general the attitudes of the incontinent spenders range from sullenness to repressed rage against the fellow offender to embarrassment, but never repentance and shame. Usually they’ll get the wife in one shot complaining about the husband, or the husband about the wife, or one of them sulking about having to give up some important focus of devotion, like a motorcycle or a monthly makeover at the beauty shop.

Sometimes I’m at the dentist’s and have to overhear something like The View, which, as far as I can tell, is a show in which four or five shrieking spluttering hags escaped from Macbeth kick and scratch and pull one another’s hair while engaging in “debate” that has no more content to it than “I wanna!” and “So’s your mother!” Or I’ll see an advertisement for a crime show, featuring some craggy middle-aged man with a permanent glower, who looks for all the world as if he chews vipers in his office and spits the venom on his Turkish carpet. Or an advertisement for a medical show, featuring an anorexic female doctor with scowl-wrinkles, or a semi-shaved male doctor whose masculinity consists in never smiling or saying a single friendly word to anyone alive. Serious stuff, you know. If That’s Entertainment, give me silence. I’d much rather listen to the robins chirping in the maple trees when the sun sets. Did you know, reader, that robins are thrushes and are excellent singers?

The opposite of meanness is, I’d say, grace, with its natural and not yet theological meaning. It’s more than etiquette. It’s a free and cheerful willingness to put other people at their ease, by giving them genuine praise, by dressing well but not to show off, by knowing how to accept a gift and how to give one in return. It is gentleness in manner and speech. Such grace is not yet charity, just as a well-set table is not a meal. But a well-set table itself is a good and generous thing.

The gracious person shies away from dirt and double-dealing. He would be ashamed to utter foul words in front of a camera. She could no more accept a quarter of a million dollars for a speech—even if she were the daughter of Demosthenes or Cicero—than she could rifle the pockets of children. He doesn’t decide not to swagger; it would not occur to him to swagger. She doesn’t hold her tongue from accusing her enemies of hatred; it would not occur to her to make such an accusation.

Where then is the grace?

My family and I do sometimes relax in front of the television. Lately we have been watching sixty-year-old episodes of the game show, What’s My Line? For those of you who have never heard of it, the trick of the show was to bring in people with odd occupations, and to have four well-known and humorous panelists ask yes-or-no questions of the challenger, until they either guess the occupation or receive ten no’s, at which point the challenger is declared the winner. The audience would be in on the secret.

The fun was in the misunderstandings and the questions that might apply but in an odd way. So Steve Allen asked of one fellow, “Could I get into this product that you make?” “Yes,” said the contestant, and he and the moderator John Daly and the audience started to laugh. “Well,” said Allen, looking to the lovely actress to his left, “could more than one person get into this thing—could Arlene and I both get into it?” The audience began to roar. “Yes,” said the contestant. He was a designer of manholes for sewers.

Or the journalist Dorothy Kilgallen, asking a very pretty woman from upstate New York, “This product that you deal with—could I find it in the home?” The contestant, laughing, eyes wide, looks to Daly for help, and he throws his arm around her shoulder and says, “We’d better have a conference here!” He whispers into her ear, blocking his lips with his hand so the panelists won’t get any clues; she whispers back, they laugh, and he says, “Miss Kilgallen, it is within the realm of possibility that this object might be found in the home, yes.” The audience enjoys the confusion. They know that the lady raises worms for fishermen.

It really was a good show, with a lot of innocent fun—at least in the early years; I don’t know what became of it later. I suppose because, once in a while, there might be just the shade of something merry in the Shakespearean sense, What’s My Line? was aired late on Sunday nights. But shows that children now watch are a hundred times viler and nastier than What’s My Line? ever was suggestive. If the show were aired now, we’d be treated to male strippers, condom manufacturers, toilet seat testers, and cultural detritus.

What you see, though, is something that’s immediately striking but hard to describe. First, as the show opens, the announcer introduces, with praise, the first panelist, Miss Kilgallen. She then smiles and introduces the panelist to her left, Steve Allen or the humorist Bennett Cerf, with similar friendly words of praise or genial banter, and so it goes from panelist to panelist to the moderator Mr. Daly, all smiles, all geniality. When the challenger enters, Daly calls out, “Will you sign in please, sir!” or “madam,” as the case may be. The challenger writes his or her name on the chalkboard, and Daly pronounces it—“Melanie—Melanie Journet.” He rises and greets the contestant with a handshake, and always asks of the ladies, “Is it Miss or Mrs.?” From that point on he addresses or refers to the contestant by the honorific. “And as always, to get you started,” he says, “we will let you know that Miss Journet is salaried. We will begin the questioning with Miss Dorothy Kilgallen.”

When the contestant is good-looking, there will inevitably be comments about it, friendly, jocular, innocent praise. Before the questions begin, the panelists are allowed one random guess, often resulting in jests. “Mr. Dalton is so handsome,” says Arlene Francis, “I think he must be the prince of a small European country.” Or, “I don’t know what Miss Brown does,” says Hal “Dimples” Block, with a goofy boyish grin, “but she sure better not do it in traffic!”

After each “game,” Daly thanks the contestant and hopes, no matter what the winnings are, that he or she has had fun, and says that they certainly have enjoyed their time together. The ladies wear dresses, the men wear coats and ties. There’s no sniggering, no double-entendre—even when one Mary Falik was the contestant, and either nobody noticed what her name sounded like, or nobody much cared. But there’s something about the faces, too; a certain tilt of the head and freedom of happy expression, that says, “I don’t take myself too seriously, and what fun it is to be around pleasant people!”

We are not talking about great virtue. But there are preambles to great virtue, the natural habits that sweep the floor, brighten the room, and prepare the way for a cleaner and brighter gift. I’m not the best dressed man in any room, I don’t like standing on ceremony, and formality can be a painful thing for me. Still—do we really expect greatness of heart from someone whose deportment is mean, or whose speech is vicious? Do we expect backbone from a slouch?

Can such grace help conceal a moral wreck? Yes, possibly. Honey can mask a poisoned drink, too. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t sweet. One more good thing to recover.

Anthony Esolen

By

Professor Esolen teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College. He is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • renner411

    Have you seen the one with Bishop Sheen? That was great!

    • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6MRKqYhEUI8
      Dorothy Kilgallen was Catholic and as Bishop Sheen exits, she kisses his ring.

      • DE-173

        That was great. Thanks for posting.

        • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

          Note that when he signs in he write JMJ first. Anything at all he wrote, even a to-do list, he would automatically write JMJ (Jesus-Mary-Joseph) first as a reminder.

          • Fred

            Indeed I thoroughly enjoyed. He always lifts me up.

            • Matt

              And everybody is so sincere and kind!

              • John Albertson

                Sheen sold out to the media and became “politically correct.” An updated version of “kitsch.” Which explains why that whole romantic veneer shattered so fast.

                • ?????????? I’d ‘settle’ for the bishops correctness in the world today.

  • Lol

    So’s your Mom! Mister! (Just kidding)

  • grzybowskib

    I know what you mean. This past summer I watched the movies Casablanca and the African Queen for the first time ever. I was surprised there was a time when Hollywood produced movies like that for adults! To contrast, my dad insisted upon seeing 22 Jump Street for Father’s Day this year. It’s rated R, for “mature” audiences, and it’s filled with foul language and sex jokes and all sorts of crudities. Ironic that you can label something as only being suitable for mature audiences when there’s so much juvenile material and crudity in it.

    • DE-173

      Try Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.

      • Matt

        The wife and I watched “Gaslight” the other night. Highly recommended.

      • Objectivetruth

        Rear Window……Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly.

    • Tony

      There’s something else, too. I can’t watch most contemporary movies, because the juvenile garbage (and I’m doing an injustice to juveniles) crowds out any really mature subtlety. People were expected to understand the feelings and thoughts of men and women, without having to be told everything; just from a glance or a movement of the hand. See Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in It Happened One Night. See Colbert and Henry Fonda in Drums Along the Mohawk. See Colbert and Sessue Hayakawa in Three Came Back. See Robert Donat and Greer Garson in Goodbye, Mr. Chips. See Donat and Ingrid Bergman in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. See John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in Rio Grande. See O’Hara and Tyrone Power in The Long Gray Line. Some of these are “romantic” movies; most aren’t. ALL of them give powerful scenes in which a man and a woman are reacting to one another as a man and a woman. ALL of them make our sex-sloppy movies look like the bad caricatures dreamed up by a creepy eleven year old boy.

  • Giovanni Cattaneo

    Gee, I wonder what event could have happened that could of changed all that… right in between 1962 and 1965,,, yeah I am drawing a blank… [sarcasm off]

    • Tiffany

      could *have*. (wait, speaking of meanness …)

      • Giovanni Cattaneo

        As it was plain obvious I had the sarcasm button on through the comment.

    • Tony

      A strange comment. Within the space of 36 years, THREE American presidents were assassinated (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley). What does that have to do with graciousness in the popular culture, and the cultivation of what is mean and snide?

      But you can perceive a change in movies around 1960 — you start to see movies that romanticize adultery, like Indiscreet and Love Is a Many Splendored Thing (the worst movie I have ever seen with Ingrid Bergman, and the worst I’ve ever seen with William Holden). The assassination of a president who was beloved (and who was in fact, as we know now, a moral monster) had nothing to do with the collapse, which was well underway, and which was given additional force by all of the “leaders” in education and entertainment.

      • grzybowskib

        I think he may be talking about the beginning of the Sexual Revolution….. 🙂

      • ForChristAlone

        I remember my mother taking me to see the movie Fanny with Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier back in ’61 or ’62. I sensed that the implied fornication and resulting pregnancy in the film was morally problematic and I recall feeling vaguely uncomfortable as a 10 year old but couldn’t say exactly why. My guess is that the film was preparing everyone for what would later develop in the 60’s when all sorts of morally decency went out the window by the time Woodstock came along.

      • KarlKeating

        I can understand why you say that “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing” is the “worst movie I have ever seen with Ingrid Bergman.” I agree. She was so bad in it that she didn’t even appear on camera.

        The female lead was played by Jennifer Jones.

        • Tony

          Hi Karl — I meant that Indiscreet was the worst movie I’ve ever seen with Ingrid Bergman — I hope I have the title right …

        • TERRY

          Nicely done, emphasis on nicely.

    • fredx2

      Yeah, Vatican II also causes tooth decay, I hear.

      • Giovanni Cattaneo

        By all means you are right everything is just peachy.

        What was I thinking? Please carry on nothing to see here enjoy the new Springtime.

  • AcceptingReality

    “Do we expect backbone from a slouch?” Great line Anthony. Says it all.

  • I wonder what the point of finding any little thing that is not perfect in accordance with some aspect, perspective or point of view. The ability to find something to improve your mind has never been easier on this planet, ever.

    • Jim D.

      It is not the mind under discussion, but the lack of character, taste, anappreciation of what elevates and is beautiful, as opposed to the base, crude, vulgar, demeaning and vacuous which has infected the culture at large & is like polluted air and acid rain that strips the thin veneer of civility & refinement from the social fabric and reveals advanced cultural rot underneath.

  • John O’Neill

    Actually reflecting Professor Esolen’s reaction to the modern neo American world I concur that most of what passes for entertainment is worthless trash. The Neo Americans have been so dumbed down that they have no idea how ugly and vacuous their culture is. In truth I now find myself enjoying the old shows too; I am even enjoying and laughing more at “Mr.Ed”, the talking horse which has more humor and wholesomeness in one episode than the modern shows have in a year’s worth of trivia.

    • Tony

      We’ve discovered the same thing, watching the first three or four seasons of The Beverly Hillbillies and The Andy Griffith Show. You can tell something about people by what they find amusing — and what they find attractive and interesting. Imagine that for several years Fulton Sheen vied with Milton Berle (whom I don’t like) as the most-watched person on television.

      • Olivia

        2questions.
        Have you read about the film called
        ” sex Ed” recently filmed at a recently closed Catholic school in Tampa Florida?

        Second and a bit off topic but if you notice young teachers dress the same as students or worse in K-12, an indicator that the TV and movies that we try to keep our kids away from influences teachers and their inability it seems in epidemic proportion to keep boundaries with children, students, ie sex offenses, etc, emails, testing, flirting etc?…

  • This is the reason I, as a 20-something, mostly stick to DVDs from the Ozzie and Harriet Show, or Father Knows Best — the operative word is grace. People treat one another as though they have dignity, even saying ‘good morning’ to each other every time they enter a room. Perhaps it was idealized, but this is an ideal worth pursuing.

    • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

      Don’t get too sloppy over Ozzie and Harriet and ‘sit com nice’. I once read Rickie Nelson’s biography. As a teen idol his ‘managers’ were afraid of the very real threat of a paternity suit (they didn’t have DNA testing in those days). So they got Rickie beautiful and discreet prostitutes, when he was on the road, to keep him from getting ‘entangled’. Rickie fell in love with a young prostitute struggling with a heroin addiction and wanted to marry her. He wanted to marry her and proposed. SHE said no, she loved him desperately but knew it would ruin him. She and Rickie had more class and ‘grace’ than the lot of them.

      • ForChristAlone

        huh?

        • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

          I SAID, SHE AND RICKY HAD MORE CLASS AND ‘GRACE’ THAN THE LOT OF THEM!

  • Elwin Ryan Ransom

    Grace! How can we have grace when a basic lack of civility has become the norm, when I am walking down the street on the right-hand side and the teen walking towards me walks straight AT me making no effort to shift to her path to the right as civil people do. I have actually been bumped in the shoulder as they walk past. People block the street with their cars when there are plenty of empty parking spaces with no concern about the cars behind them. Students believe that adults need to earn their respect before they choose to behave in a classroom. Let us start with basic civility before we even consider grace.

    • Guest

      We are selfish generation consumed with tattoos and piercings.

  • McG

    Are this show and others like it on Netflix? Where would I find them? I might actually consider a netflix account if this kind of stuff is hidden in their archives.

    • Tony

      They are available through Roku, on the free You Tube channel. We have been watching several of the first seasons. It seems like a show from a different world. I don’t know if I’d get the same impression if I watched the episodes ten years later.

  • Mary Smithson

    I clicked on a link to this article after reading an excerpt of it on LAF/Beautiful Womanhood. I like what I had read in that excerpt and wanted to ‘read more’….until I read the first few lines of your third paragraph here. Not only are you doing the very sniping and belittling that you are complaining about by calling someone pudgy and diminutive but you have your facts wrong. The title of the show is wrong. And most importantly, Mary Jo Eustace is not a lesbian.

    You have viciously maligned her character.

    I, too, bemoan the loss of grace, honor and virtue in our society and in contemporaty entertainment. But the one thing that bugs me more is hypocrisy.

    • Tim

      I have to agree. The article is bitchy and mean-spirited while castigating the larger culture for being … bitchy and mean-spirited. A little self awareness wouldn’t hurt.

    • Tony

      My wife says that I have the name of the show wrong: it is He Said, She Said. She’s the one who tells me that the woman is horrible. If I have made a mistake as to fact, that is something we are all prone to.

      • Tony

        The man, too, is in fact pudgy and diminutive. Since when it is an insult to say that somebody is kind of short and kind of chubby? The point is that it makes HER behavior towards him seem all the nastier. The “humor” of the show is all summed up in her belittling him. That’s what people want to see. I am glad she is not a lesbian. But what kind of people are we, that we want to watch this stuff?

        • m

          “But what kind of people are we, that we want to watch this stuff?”
          I don’t know why your wife watched it, but I watched it because I’m a foodie and these two are good cooks. Ken Kostick gave just as good as he got from Mary Jo Eustace, and it was clear the two were very fond of one another. I didn’t think their good-natured banter was particularly witty, but it was all fairly harmless, often affectionate, and it was definitely not one-sided. I didn’t ever hear anything as nasty from either one as the (sometimes untrue) things you’ve written about them and others here.

          • Tony

            Yes, but think — remember Julia Child on a cooking show together with Jacques Pepin. Those two people admired and loved one another, and it was fun to see them working together and sometimes learning from one another. If you now tell me that he insulted her as much as she insulted him, I don’t see how that improves things. Remember Graham Kerr, the Galloping Gourmet. His whole shtick was self-effacing fun, and he involved the whole audience in it.

            Do you mean to say that I haven’t been fair to, let’s say, The View? That the women on the show do not spend most of their time yelling at one another? It sure seems that way to me. Do you actually believe that if I watched the show more frequently I might come to a better opinion of it? Better, and not even worse? I haven’t said that the women on the show have potty mouths, because I don’t know that that’s true. Is it? I haven’t said that they spout inanities. Do they?

            Is it not true that Till Debt Do Us Part features staggeringly irresponsible (and often deeply selfish) people? That they have put their marriages in jeopardy because they value “stuff” too much? That they are often surly and recalcitrant? That they never say, “I have done something that was terribly wrong”? I’ve watched that show often enough, and I’ve never heard anything close to an admission of guilt, and a request for forgiveness.

  • TERRY

    One show I never miss is ‘Blue Bloods’. It centers around a 4 generation Irish Catholic family of New York cops. In every episode there is a scene at Sunday dinner where all 4 generations gather, and more than once someone actually says Grace before the meal. .

    A fine show.

    • FrankW

      I agree. Blue Bloods is the first network television series I have watched regularly since the early 1990s. While it is not a perfect show, and each character has his/her flaws, a positive moral code with Catholic influence is present, and the family bonds are proud and strong.

  • m

    “Canadian television, for example, features a cooking show called He and She. He is a pudgy diminutive gay man, and she is a tall foul-mouthed lesbian, and all through the show she snipes at him and belittles him, and that’s supposed to be entertaining. ”
    I think you mean “He said, She said”? Ken Kostick was the gay man. He died from complications of pancreatitis a few years ago. The corticosteroids prescribed for pancreatitis can make one a bit “pudgy” unfortunately. And, yes, he is short. Mary Jo Eustace is not a lesbian. Her husband left her for a Hollywood actress, and she was very sad for a while. However she has been extremely gracious and supportive about her ex-husband’s recent problems, and she seems like a nice person who does a lot of charity work. But I agree. I don’t like mean, snide, bitchy commentary either.

    • Tony

      My wife says that she is the most horrible woman she’s ever seen on television. She continually makes fun of her partner, and not in a friendly jocular way. I mentioned his pudginess because it makes her behavior towards him all the more obnoxious. She does have a foul mouth. She makes nasty comments about his virility or lack thereof. The whole “fun” of the show is to listen to her be vicious. I have no idea what she is like when she’s not on camera — and that is not the point of the article.

      • TERRY

        Whatever floats your boat, trips your trigger, etc.

        • Tony

          Michael Vick floated his boat by setting dogs to fight one another and betting on the result. The ancient Romans floated their boats by going to the gladiatorial games. You can tell a lot about a person by what he finds amusing. You can tell a lot about a whole nation by what they find amusing.

  • John Grondelski

    If mainstream adult television is a problem, take a look at the vulgarity pandered to children. “Cartoon Network” is apparently all written by lobotomized deviants.

    • Micha Elyi

      Why do you believe that just because it’s a cartoon, it’s for children?

      Many parents share your misunderstanding of cartoons. Hint: The Simpsons is not for children.

  • Charlie500

    Professor, with all due respect, because I do understand and agree with what you are saying,calling women “shrieking, spluttering hags” or other choice descriptives is not so grace-filled either.

    • Tony

      Agreed. But that is how they appear, and that is how they and the show’s directors want them to appear. That’s the thing that startles me. What they are when they’re not in front of the camera is, I hope, something very different.

  • Tony

    I should have mentioned, but didn’t want to, that the very name of The View is intended as a vulgar and obscene double-entendre, as is stressed by its logo. The name of the Canadian show, He Said, She Said, suggests that the “fun” of it is supposed to consist in their sniping at one another. What the people are like when they are not on television is not the issue. They may be very nice when they are not on television. I hope they are, but that’s not to the point. Their television personas are obnoxious and graceless, and that says a good deal about the audience, because that’s what people apparently want to see and hear.

    It is odd that nobody is saying that if I REALLY watched the typical TV fare — Glee, Lost, etc. — I would find it full of kindness, modesty, and courtesy.

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