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12 Rock ‘n’ Roll Facts About Josie and the Pussycats

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The spring of 2001 was a strange time: It was pre-9/11, and boy bands and pop singers dominated the Billboard charts. Then, on April 11, came the live-action Josie and the Pussycats movie, based on the Archie Comics graphic novel series and 16 episodes of a short-lived Hanna-Barbera animated TV show from the early 1970s (plus an additional 16 episodes of the spin-off, Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space). The comic book, cartoon, and movie followed an all-female rock band, led by Josie McCoy (Rachael Leigh Cook in the film) and the Pussycats: Tara Reid as Melody Valentine, and Rosario Dawson as Valerie Brown.

Instead of doing a straightforward adaptation, writer-directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont (both of Can’t Hardly Wait fame) used the film as a means to comment on the corporatization of America by featuring nonstop logos, and a subversive—and satirical—plot. (Zoolander, which had a similar premise, was released five months after Josie and the Pussycats.) Moviegoers didn’t quite comprehend the film, and the movie grossed just shy of $15 million worldwide—less than half of its $39 million budget.

The soundtrack—featuring songs written by Fountains of Wayne, Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, Matthew Sweet, and The Go-Go’s Jane Wiedlin—sold an impressive 500,000 copies. But 15 years later, the film has become a cult classic, with a now-older audience understanding what the film was trying to communicate. Here are 12 purrfect facts about Josie and the Pussycats.

1. HARRY ELFONT AND DEBORAH KAPLAN WANTED TO MAKE A “GUILTY PLEASURE” PICTURE.

Deborah Kaplan told the Los Angeles Times that she and Harry Elfont set out to make Josie a “guilty pleasure,” and wanted to include the often ignored demographic of teenage girls. With the inclusion of satirical elements, they hoped the movie would be perceived as smart, not dumb. “We want to make sure people know it’s a smarter movie than you think it is,” Elfont said. “That’s been the challenge throughout, trying to make a movie that could satisfy both audiences, without disappointing everyone. You can be making fun of it, but at the same time, if it’s fun, what’s the difference?"

2. ROSARIO DAWSON GOT A BAD PERM FOR HER ROLE.

“I got my hair permed, which was a horrible idea, especially when it grew back with straight roots,” Dawson said during a Reddit AMA. “I remember feeling like Macy Gray compared to these other girls. Because of my big curly hair, I was so much taller and bigger than these other girls, who were so tiny they were like the size of my thigh, and just laughing hysterically with them because my character was always the odd one out.”

Hair issues notwithstanding, Dawson enjoyed making the movie because of its powerful messages. “I’d have mothers come up to me and be like, ‘This is the first brown doll I can give my daughter, so thank you,’” she told Indiewire. “That film has a ton of messages. I think that movie was ahead of its time. When I get the opportunity to do something like that, I love it. I love also doing movies strictly for the entertainment value. I love storytelling. But when something like this comes up, it’s a perfect storm.”

3. THE DIRECTORS FELT THEY WERE MAYBE TOO SUBTLE WITH THE PRODUCT PLACEMENTS.

More than 70 logos appear throughout the film, including ones from Starbucks and McDonald’s; Puma donated thousands of T-shirts but Gap and Nike declined to participate. Despite the rampant use of the branding, the corporations weren’t paid for the advertising. Elfont and Kaplan used the product placements as satirical tools, but only half of the audience seemed to understand it. “The fact that there’s people who don’t really recognize it’s a joke, that’s how bad everything else is,” Elfont told the Los Angeles Times. He said teenagers related to it on a “wish-fulfillment” level; grown-ups got the satire, but the rest took the movie “a little too much at face value.”

“And they wrote on their test cards, ‘I’m so offended, that you would try to sell stuff through this movie and who do you think we are!’ And, that’s what we’re making fun of,” Kaplan said. “Why would we have an Evian sign inside the whale tank? Maybe we were too subtle with it?”

Elfont explained he didn’t think they were being cynical but were trying to convey malfeasance with the branding. “I think all we’re saying is be aware that this stuff is happening and make a choice.”

“The message of the movie is, be an individual,” Kaplan said. “If some little girl is wearing a T-shirt that says Josie and the Pussycats, I’d rather that they got the message of the movie, which is, ‘I’m going to do whatever I want to do.’ Not, ‘Oh, I want McDonald’s now because I saw it in a movie.’”

4. ALEXANDER CABOT III KNEW THE MOVIE WOULD BE “A HUMONGOUS FLOP.”

Actor Paulo Costanzo played Alexander Cabot, the manager of the Pussycats. In a 2009 interview with Movieline, he talked about being aware of the film’s cult following, and what he thinks about it now. “I think it’s a cool movie,” he said. “I was kind of aware while shooting it that it wasn’t going to be a big commercial success, and I felt bad. Like, ‘Guys, do you realize this movie’s gonna be a humongous flop?’ But there’s this faux-nerdy intelligentsia crowd that seems to really, really love it because of its references to how ridiculous pop marketing is.”

5. THE REAL JOSIE DIED A FEW YEARS AGO.

Archie Comics artist Dan DeCarlo created Josie and the Pussycats (and the comic Sabrina the Teenage Witch) in the 1950s, basing Josie McCoy on his wife, Josie Dumont. The couple met in Belgium, and Josie didn’t speak English. “We communicated with drawing,” the real Josie told The New York Times. “He would draw things for me to make me understand what he had in mind. He was really so amusing. Instead of just using words he would use cartoons to express himself. Right away we knew that we were meant for each other.”

Once, when the couple went on a Caribbean cruise, her husband felt she shouldn’t wear a rabbit outfit. “She wanted to go as a bunny and I said, ‘Everyone’s going as a rabbit.’ So I designed the [cat] costume,” he told Entertainment Weekly. Soon after, the famous hairstyle arrived. “One day I came in with a new hairdo with a little bow in my hair, and [Dan] said, ‘That's it!’” Josie recalled. In December 2001, just months after the movie’s release, Dan died; Josie passed away in 2012.

6. KIM GORDON WAS CONSIDERED FOR THE FIONA ROLE.

The filmmakers wanted the film to be as “cutting-edge” as possible, so they contacted a woman named DeeDee Gordon, who analyzed teen culture with her website Look-Look.com. DeeDee suggested they hire Kim Gordon (no relation), co-lead singer of cool band Sonic Youth, to play Fiona, the nefarious CEO of MegaRecords. The directors jettisoned the idea, thinking Kim would be too cool to play Fiona, considering the film mainly parodied bubblegum pop mainstreamers Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys. Instead, Parker Posey did a great job hamming it up as Fiona.

7. THE DIRECTORS INTENTIONALLY HAD MELODY’S CLOTHES BE LOOSE-FITTING.

What many people remember about the comics and cartoons are the custom-fitting catsuits the girls wear, but Kaplan and Elfont eschewed that look—though, the girls still slip on cat ears and tails—and opted for something different for Melody. “We actually told our costume designer we wanted all her clothes to look like you could just pull one string and they’d fall off,” Elfont said.

“Tara’s just so sexy,” Kaplan said of Reid. “Tara has her own way of looking at things, and it’s really unique and it’s special and it’s just very Melody. Not to say that Tara is not intelligent, because she’s very smart. She just has her own way of seeing things.”

8. THE SEQUEL WOULD’VE TAKEN PLACE IN OUTER SPACE.

After the initial 1971 run of the original 16 episodes, the TV series was resurrected as Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space, which ran between 1972 and 1973, but only lasted an additional 16 episodes. If the movie had led to a sequel, the directors said the Pussycats would’ve been orbited into space. “I think there’s no way you can’t do a sequel in outer space,” Elfont said. “Although we do reference it in their music video within the movie: It takes place on a star field, so it’s kind of the Pussycats in outer space.”

9. KAY HANLEY WASN’T THE FIRST CHOICE TO SING AS JOSIE.

Before the soundtrack’s producer Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds hired the Letters to Cleo frontwoman to write a couple of the movie’s songs and to sing Cook’s vocals, another woman had been brought on. “He’s only worked with, and I mean almost exclusively, black artists,” Hanley told Stumped Magazine. “This being a rock record, he remembered he’d worked with this singer years back who he thought sounded like a white rock singer. She had the most phenomenal voice, but once the songs started to get down on tape, everybody was like this voice would not be coming out of Josie … you know, Rachael Leigh Cook’s mouth. She didn’t lose the job because she wasn’t good, I think she lost the job because she was too good. But she wasn’t anybody famous.”

Once the producers let the original Josie go, Hanley snagged the job. “Not without a fight though,” Hanley told Popdose. “There was a lot of kicking and scratching and screaming and fighting,” and the producers “kept me hanging around for a while … I eventually heard they were flying in Tracy Bonham to sing Josie’s part. So I quit! But Kenny brought me back, and it wound up being a very good thing that he did.”

Despite all of her hard work on the film, Hanley felt the movie could’ve turned out better than it did. “I thought it was going to be a great film, but it ended up not being executed as well as anybody had hoped.”

10. THE PUSSYCATS LEARNED TO PLAY THEIR INSTRUMENTS FOR THE MOVIE.

Before starring in the movie, none of the actresses played instruments, so the filmmakers sent them to band camp to learn. “I don’t have any particular musical influences, but we watched The Go-Go’s, The Bangles, and stuff like that, because there aren’t too many girl groups who play their own instruments, except those from the ’80s,” Tara Reid told the BBC. “I became pretty good. Even a professional drummer couldn’t have played those three songs better than I could. There’s no way. The same with the other girls.” In the movie, the girls are actually playing the instruments, though they lip-synch the songs.

11. ALAN CUMMING THINKS HE IS “SHAMELESS” IN THE MOVIE.

Alan Cumming plays Du Jour’s villainous band manager, Wyatt Frame, who tries to murder the band. On his website he wrote that he and co-villain Parker Posey were “shameless” in the film. “It’s some of the most shameless acting I’ve ever done, and that is saying something ‘cause I’ve done some shameless acting in my time. I also have this big hunk of plastic roast beef from the set in my house.”

Roast beef aside, the actor told Indiewire he felt the movie wasn’t marketed well. “It’s a parody of itself, d’you know what I mean? The studio didn’t get that. They marketed it the wrong way. It should have been people like us. It should have been an older audience. We would have got the wit of it, what it was trying to do. And it was marketed for girls like the ones in the story and they were like [makes confused face] ‘Whaaaaa?’”

12. BROADWAY PERFORMED THE MOVIE’S SOUNDTRACK.

Last December, several prominent members of Broadway shows gathered to perform the film’s soundtrack live. Krystina Alabado (American Idiot), Lauren Chapman (Kinky Boots), and several performers from Spring Awakening participated in the show. “The concert will feature all the music from the soundtrack, including the hit songs ‘3 Small Words,’ ‘Spin Around,’ and ‘Pretend to Be Nice,’” read the press release. “And of course no Josie and the Pussycats concert would be complete without a couple of songs by our favorite boy band, Du Jour.”

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Warner Bros.
19 Shadowy Facts About Tim Burton's Batman
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Superhero movies are bigger than they’ve ever been before, but we arguably wouldn’t be here at all without 1989’s Batman. Produced at a time before comic book movies were considered big business, Tim Burton’s dark look at a superhero then best known for a goofy TV show is a pop culture landmark, and the story of how it was made is almost as interesting as the film itself. So, to celebrate Batman—which was released on this day in 1989—here are 19 facts about how it came to the screen.

1. AN EARLY MOVIE IDEA RELIED ON THE CAMPINESS OF THE CHARACTER.

As development of a Batman movie began, studio executives were still very tied to the campiness embodied by the Batman television series of the 1960s. According to executive producer Michael Uslan, when he first began attempting to get the rights to make a film, he was told that the only studio who’d expressed interest was CBS, and only if they could do a Batman In Outer Space film.

2. IT TOOK 10 YEARS TO MAKE.

Uslan lobbied hard for the rights to Batman, and finally landed them in 1979. At that point, the fight to convince a studio to make the film ensued, and everyone from Columbia Pictures to Universal Pictures turned it down. When Warner Bros. finally agreed to back the film, the issue of developing the right script had to be settled, and that took even more time. In 1989, after years of battling, Batman was finally released, and Uslan has been involved in some form in every Batman film since.

3. AN EARLY SCRIPT FEATURED BOTH THE PENGUIN AND ROBIN.

When Uslan finally got the chance to develop the film, he drafted legendary screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, who had been a consultant on Superman, to write the script. The Mankiewicz script included The Joker, corrupt politician Rupert Thorne, a much greater focus on Bruce Wayne’s origin story, The Penguin, and the arrival of Robin late in the film. The script was ultimately scrapped, but you can see certain elements of it in Batman Returns.

4. TIM BURTON WASN’T THE FIRST POTENTIAL DIRECTOR.

Though Warner Bros. ultimately chose Tim Burton to helm Batman, over the course of the film’s development a number of other choices emerged. At various points on the road to Batman, everyone from Gremlins director Joe Dante to Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman was in line for the gig.

5. MANY STARS OF THE TIME WERE CONSIDERED FOR BATMAN.

The casting process for Batman was a long one, and involved a number of major stars of the day. Among the contenders for the title role were Mel Gibson, Bill Murray (yes, really), Kevin Costner, Willem Dafoe, Tom Selleck, Harrison Ford, Charlie Sheen, Ray Liotta, and Pierce Brosnan, who later regretted turning down the role.

6. TIM BURTON HAD TO FIGHT TO CAST MICHAEL KEATON.

At the time, Michael Keaton was best known for his comedic roles in films like Mr. Mom and Night Shift, so the thought of casting him as a vigilante of the night seemed odd to many. Michael Uslan remembers thinking a prank was being played on him when he heard Keaton’s name pop up. Burton, who’d already worked with Keaton on Beetlejuice, was convinced that Keaton was right for the role, not just because he could portray the obsessive nature of the character, but because he also felt that Keaton was the kind of actor who would need to dress up as a bat in order to scare criminals, while a typical action star would just garner “unintentional laughs” in the suit. Burton ultimately won the argument, and Keaton got an iconic role for two films.

7. JACK NICHOLSON WAS THE FIRST CHOICE FOR THE JOKER, BUT HE WASN’T THE ONLY CHOICE.

From the beginning, Uslan concluded that Jack Nicholson was the perfect choice to play The Joker, and was “walking on air” when the production finally cast him. He certainly wasn’t the only actor considered, though. Among Burton’s considerations were Willem Dafoe, James Woods, Brad Dourif, David Bowie, and Robin Williams (who really wanted the part).

8. TIM BURTON WON JACK NICHOLSON OVER WITH HORSEBACK RIDING.

When Nicholson was asked to discuss playing The Joker, he invited Burton and producer Peter Guber to visit him in Aspen for some horseback riding. When Burton learned that was what they’d be doing, he told Guber “I don’t ride,” to which Guber replied “You do today!” So, a “terrified” Burton got on a horse and rode alongside Nicholson, and the star ultimately agreed to play the Clown Prince of Crime.

9. EDDIE MURPHY WAS ONCE CONSIDERED TO PLAY ROBIN.

Though the character of Robin was ultimately scrapped because it simply didn’t feel like there was room for him in the film, he did appear in early drafts of the script, and at one point producers considered casting Eddie Murphy—who, you must remember, was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1980s—for the role. 

10. SEAN YOUNG WAS THE ORIGINAL VICKI VALE.

Burton initially cast Blade Runner star Sean Young as acclaimed photographer Vicki Vale, who would become Bruce Wayne’s love interest. Young was part of the pre-production process on Batman for several weeks until, while practicing horseback riding for a scene that was ultimately cut, she fell from her horse and was seriously injured. With just a week to go until shooting, producers had to act fast to find a replacement, and decided on Kim Basinger, who essentially joined the production overnight.

11. TIM BURTON WASN’T OFFICIALLY HIRED UNTIL BEETLEJUICE BECAME A HIT.

Though he was basically already a part of the production, Burton wasn’t officially the director of Batman right away. Warner Bros. showed interest in him working on the film after the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but according to Burton they only officially hired him after the first weekend grosses for Beetlejuice came in.

“They were just waiting to see how Beetlejuice did,” Burton said. “They didn’t want to give me that movie unless Beetlejuice was going to be okay. They wouldn’t say that, but that was really the way it was.”

12. DANNY ELFMAN THOUGHT HE WAS GOING TO BE FIRED UNTIL HE PLAYED THE MAIN THEME.

Danny Elfman is now considered one of our great movie composers, but at the time Batman was released he didn’t have any blockbuster credits to his name. He recalls meeting with Burton (with whom he had worked on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure) and producer Jon Peters to go over some of the music he’d already written for the film, and feeling “a lot of skepticism” over whether he should be the composer for Batman. It wasn’t until Burton said “Play the march,” and Elfman went into what would become the opening credits theme for the film, that he won Peters over.

“Jon jumped out of his chair, really just almost started dancing around the room,” Elfman said.

13. THE JOKER WASN’T ALWAYS GOING TO KILL BATMAN’S PARENTS.

In the final film, The Joker (then named Jack Napier) is revealed to be the gangster who guns down Bruce Wayne’s parents in the streets of Gotham City. It’s a twist that some comic book fans still dislike, and according to screenwriter Sam Hamm, it definitely wasn’t his fault.

“That was something that Tim had wanted from early on, and I had a bunch of arguments with him and wound up talking him out of it for as long as I was on the script. But, once the script went into production, there was a writer’s strike underway, and so I wasn’t able to be with the production as it was shooting over in London, and they brought in other people.”

Hamm also emphasizes that it was also not his idea to show Alfred letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave.

14. THE CLIMACTIC SCENE WAS WRITTEN MIDWAY THROUGH SHOOTING.

Though much of the film is still derived from Hamm’s script, rewrites continued to happen during shooting, and one of them involved the final confrontation between Batman and The Joker in a Gotham City clock tower. According to co-star Robert Wuhl, the climax was inspired by Jack Nicholson and Jon Peters, who went to see a production of The Phantom of the Opera midway through filming and watched as the Phantom made his final stand in a tower. Together, they somehow determined that a final fight in the tower was what Batman needed.

“The next day, they started writing that scene … the whole ending in the tower,” Wuhl said.

15. MICHAEL KEATON’S BATMAN MOVEMENTS WERE INSPIRED BY THE RESTRICTIONS OF THE COSTUME.

Batman fans still love to make jokes about the original costume, and Michael Keaton’s inability to turn his head (there’s even a dig at that in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight), but the restrictions of the costume actually inspired how Keaton performed as the Dark Knight. In 2014, Keaton revealed that his performance as Batman was heavily influenced by a moment when, while trying to actually turn his head in the suit, he ended up ripping it.

“It really came out of the first time I had to react to something, and this thing was stuck to my face and somebody says something to Batman and I go like this [turning his head] and the whole thing goes, [rriipp]! There was a big f***ing hole over here,” he said. “So I go, well, I've got to get around that, because we've got to shoot this son of a bitch, so I go, 'You know what, Tim [Burton]? He moves like this [like a statue]!’”

“I'm feeling really scared, and then it hit me—I thought, 'Oh, this is perfect! This is perfect.' I mean, this is, like, designed for this kind of really unusual dude, the Bruce Wayne guy, the guy who has this other personality that's really dark and really alone, and really kind of depressed. This is it.”

16. GOTHAM CITY WAS REAL, AND IT WAS EXPENSIVE.

Production designer Anton Furst put a lot of work into the incredibly influential designs for the film’s version of Gotham City, and the production was committed to making them pay off. The production ultimately spent more than $5 million to transform the backlot of London’s Pinewood Studios into Gotham City, and you can see the dedication to practical effects work in the final film.

17. PRINCE WAS PART OF THE PRODUCTION EVEN BEFORE HE JOINED IT.

Batman famously features original songs by Prince, who wrote so much new material for the production that he basically produced a full album. Even before the Purple One was drafted to write for the film, though, he was influencing it. Burton played Prince songs on set during the parade sequence and the Joker’s rampage through the museum.

18. THE FILM’S MARKETING WAS SO EFFECTIVE THAT IT INSPIRED CRIMES.

By the time Batman was actually on its way to release, it was becoming a phenomenon, and the marketing for the film was inspiring a frenzy among fans. People were buying tickets to other films just to see the first trailer, and selling bootleg copies of the early footage. The poster, featuring the iconic logo, was so popular that, according to Uslan, people were breaking into bus stations just to steal it.

19. IT WAS A BOX OFFICE LANDMARK.

Though studio executives resisted the idea of a “dark” Batman movie for years, the film ultimately set a new standard for box office success. It was the first film to ever hit $100 million in 10 days, the biggest film in Warner Bros.’ history at the time, and the box office’s biggest earner of 1989—and that’s not even counting the massive toy and merchandising sales it generated.

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Comic: Hake's. Background: iStock.
When Superman Fought Xenophobia in a 1949 Comic
Comic: Hake's. Background: iStock.
Comic: Hake's. Background: iStock.

A vintage comic book-style illustration that shows Superman lecturing a group of students on the values of tolerance has circulated widely on social media. “And remember, boys and girls, your school—like our country—is made up of Americans of many different races, religions and national origins,” Superman says with a wag of his finger, “So… If YOU hear anybody talk against a schoolmate or anyone else because of his religion, race or national origin—don’t wait: tell him THAT KIND OF TALK IS UN-AMERICAN. Help keep your school All American!”

The illustration is authentic. It was drawn by Superman comic book artist Wayne Boring around 1949, and it was stamped on a protective schoolbook cover (one of which recently sold at auction for $805) and a poster. But the comic is more than a quaint piece of Americana; it’s a relic from a largely forgotten nationwide tolerance movement that swept the country for more than a decade. Powerful people in government also suspected Superman’s brand of patriotism was ... anti-American propaganda.

THE TOLERANCE MOVEMENT

During the 1940s, America basically underwent a nationwide sensitivity training program. Zoe Burkholder, a historian of education, writes in the Harvard Educational Review that a “forced tolerance” movement had begun frothing a decade earlier as educators feared that scientific racism—the pseudoscientific “Master Race” theories brewing in Germany—could waft overseas.

Educators deliberated how, and if, they should teach students to accept racial, cultural, and religious differences. After all, the ethnic makeup of America was quickly changing. The first wave of the Great Migration saw nearly 2 million African Americans move north and west to cities. While most classrooms remained segregated, even the whitest schools were increasingly mixed with the children of different immigrant groups.

In 1938, the New York City Board of Education began requiring students to learn about how multiple groups contributed to American history. When World War II erupted one year later, the demand for tolerance education spiked. The New York Times reported in 1939 that "Instances were cited of teachers in New York City and elsewhere being 'ridiculed, harassed and otherwise impeded' by pupils under the influence of, and stimulated by, Nazi doctrine." To nip foreign propaganda in the bud, schools across the country joined the tolerance movement. Military leaders encouraged it, too. They knew that American troops, many of them fresh out of school, would fight their best if they learned to set aside their differences.

Countless non-profit groups, many of them interreligious, led the charge. Burkholder writes that “Religious leaders, educators, and politicians stressed tolerance as a central tenet of democracy." They provided prejudice-fighting materials to schools, from teachers’ manuals to comic books to textbooks.

Outside of school, short pro-tolerance films played at the beginning of movies. People held tolerance rallies. The National Conference of Christians and Jews distributed 10 million “Badge of Tolerance” buttons. Groups such as the Council Against Intolerance in America distributed maps showing the breadth of diversity in America’s cultural landscape. Even Superboy stepped in, telling a bunch of his schoolmates that “No single land, race or nationality can claim this country as its own.” At the end, Superboy and his pals celebrate by eating Swedish meatballs.

The Superman comic that went viral was the handiwork of one tolerance organization: the Institute for American Democracy. Led by an Episcopalian priest, the Institute’s lineup of leaders resembled a walk-into-the-bar joke: Among its officers were a Catholic bishop, a rabbi presiding over the Synagogue Council of America, and labor movement honchos. The Institute’s goal was to “blanket the nation with poster, billboard, cartoon, and blotter advertising—expertly planned to ‘sell’ the American public a greater appreciation of the American Creed.”

And it did. Al Segal, a columnist for the Indiana-based Jewish Post, wrote in 1947 that the Institute was “hitting anti-Semitism and allied hates between the eyes in street cars, buses and newspapers all around the country.” In 1953, The New York Times called the Institute’s work “Do-Good advertising” that proved “mass media advertising can sell an idea, just as it can sell soap or chewing gum.”

ADL/Institute for American Democracy

ADL/Institute for American Democracy

ADL/Institute for American Democracy

Messages we can all agree on, right? Nope. This was the McCarthy era. Even the most pro-American advertisements couldn’t help being called un-American.

AN INTOLERABLE CONSPIRACY?

In 1948, California's Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities—a group of lawmakers charged with investigating disloyal and subversive citizens and groups—listed the Institute for American Democracy as a potential communist front. It claimed that the Institute had “numerous known Communists” on its governing body.

The committee complained that a truly American organization would speak explicitly against communism. Since the Institute didn’t scold communists, it was complicit with them. The committee further argued that the Institute, and other pro-tolerance organizations like it, had exaggerated America’s discrimination problems: “There is an attempt to spread the idea that forces of fascism are everywhere entrenched,” it stated.

A bigger problem was that the Institute was mostly subsidized by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, or ADL. The House Un-American Activities Committee was not a fan of the ADL.

The Anti-Defamation League formed in 1913 to combat prejudice against Jewish people. Between 1880 and World War I, approximately 2 million Jews had emigrated to America. By the early 20th century, restaurants, hotels, and clubs regularly barred Jews from entering their premises. Medical schools at Cornell and Yale placed limits on the number of Jewish students they would accept. (Yale’s medical school dean, Milton Winternitz—who was Jewish—reportedly told the school’s admissions officers, “Never admit more than five Jews, take only two Italian Catholics, and take no blacks at all.”) Even the U.S. military's medical advisory board casually stated that “the foreign born, especially the Jews, are more apt to malinger than the native born.”

By World War II, the ADL had joined the tolerance movement. It helped found and fund [PDF] organizations like the Institute for Democratic Education and the Institute for American Democracy, soaking citizens in calls for brotherhood. The groups aired radio shows telling the stories of famous Americans, such as George Washington Carver, and played them on more than 700 radio stations. It even lobbied the producers of the Superman radio show to insert democratic themes into its broadcasts. The group reached 63,000 schools, veterans groups, and private businesses.

Some legislators, especially State Senator Jack B. Tenney, chairman of California’s Un-American Activities Committee, believed this was a nefarious facade. Tenney, who was once nominated as a candidate for Vice President of the Christian Nationalist Party (which advocated racial segregation) and who equated [PDF] McCarthyism with “Americanism,” had once visited an ADL office and returned convinced their anti-prejudice campaigns were a Trojan Horse designed to brainwash Americans with Zionist propaganda. He believed the ADL was a gestapo-like cabal with communist sympathies.

LIFE magazine minced no words when it called Tenney a “notorious anti-Semite.” But his paranoia didn’t stop there. He didn’t trust Shintoism and used similar “Trojan Horse” arguments to justify the internment of Japanese-Americans. He wasn’t keen on Italians either. During World War II, the Tenney committee’s misgivings would help force 10,000 Italian immigrants in California to relocate.

As for the Institute for American Democracy, their ties to the ADL convinced Tenney that their loyalties existed outside of the United States. For that reason alone, an organization with the sole mission of touting American values was suspected of ... lacking American values. 

Thankfully, that attitude didn’t last for long. In 1949, Tenney was on his way out of the fact-finding committee, which soon gave the Institute for American Democracy a clean bill of health, offering this mea culpa:

The committee’s 1948 report, under its general designation of Communist-front organizations, listed the Institute for American Democracy and the Institute for Democratic Education. The continuing investigation of these organizations reveals that both are sponsored by responsible individuals and groups of unquestioned loyalty. The programs … are in full keeping with the best American traditions and ideals and it is the design of the sponsoring individuals and groups to inculcate and preserve in the hearts and consciences of the American people love and loyalty for and to our country and the great principles of American liberty and democracy.

When you consider this historical context, the Superman comic becomes far more badass. The illustration appeared in 1949, one year after the Tenney Committee suggested the Institute for American Democracy was a communist front. Superman’s response? He steals the committee’s favorite accusation and slings it back in their direction: “That kind of talk is Un-American.”

As for Tenney, he’d later run for Senate in Los Angeles under the slogan “The Jews won’t take Jack Tenney,” a prediction that applied to Jewish people and, apparently, everybody else. Despite a plot to confuse voters by putting a mental patient who shared the same last name as his opponent on the ballot, Tenney still lost the Republican primary to 33-year-old Mildred Younger, a political activist who had never before held government office.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

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