Anatomy of a Murder, the Otto Preminger movie I mentioned the other day, was, you may know, quite the cause celebre in its time, which was the summer of 1959. According to James Stewart, who starred as the film's small-town defense attorney, his own father warned his friends not to go see Anatomy because it was too smutty.
The story concerned a young Army lieutenant who killed a man after his wife claimed the man raped her. Since there is some controversy as to whether the rape actually happened, the courtroom scenes include quite a bit of clinical discussion of what technically constitutes rape and whether those technical machinations occurred here. If you ever wanted to hear Jimmy Stewart use the phrase "sexual climax," this is the film for you. Howard McNear - Floyd the Barber himself - shows up to discourse lengthily on sperm. The panties of the young woman in question are much discussed, and the use of the word panties itself was apparently much tut-tutted over in that clarion summer of 1959.
What was more alarming to me is that the young wife, played by Lee Remick, admits at one point on the stand that she sometimes went out without wearing panties at all. I didn't know women did that back in 1959. But the most alarming part for me, someone who has always been finely attuned to the use of the language, was when one roughneck testifies that the defendant had confided his plans to "kick the bitch from here to kingdom come." I was not surprised that the abstract medical discussion passed the censorship board, but before I'd seen this film, I would have thought the word "bitch" hadn't been uttered onscreen until the MPAA's ratings came along in 1968 (on my birthday, as it happens).
Naturally, all of this reminded me of my pal Rob Sheffield's overview of the career of Hall and Oates in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide, from 2004. Rob writes: "Hall & Oates became stars in 1977 with the excellent 'Rich Girl,' which set a new standard for AM radio profanity by (1) hitting #1 and (2) repeating the word bitch three times." Rob takes a backseat to no one as an interpreter of the cultural moment, but I belive he has overlooked here the fact that pop music in the early 1970s was a veritable bitchfest.
Miles Davis released Bitches Brew in 1969, and the Rolling Stones just went ahead and called a song "Bitch" in 1971, beating Meredith Brooks to the punch by 26 years. Those didn't dent the pop charts, though; it was up to Elton John to do the real damage. His "The Bitch Is Back" (with Dusty Springfield on backing vocals) went to Number Four in 1974, then he teamed up with his idol Neil Sedaka for "Bad Blood," which matched "Rich Girl" by going to Number One for three weeks in October 1975 (where it was followed by another Elton fave, "Island Girl," which ascended to the top spot, again, on my birthday).
The chorus of "Bad Blood," you'll remember, goes "Bad [Elton: ba-a-ad] blood [Elton: blo-o-od]/The bitch is in her smile/The lie is on her lips/Such an evil child." I can remember being home sick from school and hearing that song on my transistor radio; I thought they were saying "the bitch is in the sky."