By Mikita Brottman (Maryland Institute College of Art)
Made shortly after the end of World War 2, this curious little nightmare movie addresses black soldiers. It depicts them as overgrown, impulsive, hypersexualized children who are not able to contain their primordial desires. The film’s title refers to venereal disease but could equally refer to women, who in this bleak tale of misogyny are invariably represented as sexually promiscuous and solely to blame for passing along the pox. The title is perhaps also self-referential—its message is “easy to get.” It was produced as part of a larger wartime “Easy to Get” multimedia anti-VD campaign (aimed at all male soldiers, not just black men). There were “Easy to Get” comic books, animated cartoons, posters, pamphlets, radio skits, even matchbooks—which tried to recruit the attention of their target audience by showing views of provocatively sexy women alongside queasy glimpses of festering genitals, oozing sores, and congenital deformities. An unbeatable combination.
The film’s daytime segments—its ego, if you will—take place in the office of a white doctor, played with dripping condescension by Hollywood stalwart Wendell Corey. The first of two representative black GIs, Corporal Baker, normally “one happy mister,” visits the doc to find the source of a baffling infection. Believe it or not, says the doc, the shy, “clean-looking” gal Baker met in the drugstore at home—the girl with the soft voice, the one whose parents are “good people”—turns out, like every other woman in the film, to be “filthy and diseased.” Why, implies the doc, would anybody ever take such a foolish risk?
We soon see why. A series of evocative, artful noirish sequences form the film’s id, from which the daytime scenes seem impossibly distant. At night the film’s second representative black GI, Private Anderson, “something of a playboy,” picks up a smoldering bad girl in a wild jitterbug joint. “Sure, he knew she was a whore, so what?” Even worse, instead of jumping up afterward to chummily soap down his cock with other soldiers in the “pro [prophylactic] station,” Anderson languidly lights a cigarette, lays back, and figures he can afford a second helping.
The horror show that follows—the film’s superego—displays the consequences of such undisciplined behavior. One soldier, a former athlete, now has knees like basketballs; another collapses and dies suddenly at a luncheonette counter; a third can’t remember three words in a row because “the syphilis germs got into his brain.” In close-up we see the swollen, oozing genitals of a guy who “rubbed whiskey on his rod after a pickup.” Nastiest of all, one man passes the disease to his wife, who gives birth to a monster spawned from undisciplined desire—a cretinous gargoyle with a misshapen skull, half a nose, and eyes rolling back in its head.
This ghastly sight is juxtaposed with images of black heroes, men who have sublimated their lusts so as to better serve their race and their nation: heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis and Olympic track stars Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe. As a grand finale, speaking magisterially from behind an imposing desk, Paul Robeson bellows a final exhortation. Grow up, boys, and leave women alone!
|Mikita Brottman is a writer, chiefly of non-fiction. Her work blends memoir, history, psychoanalysis, and creative speculation. Currently, she is especially interested in reconsidering and interrogating the true crime genre. This interest is at the heart of her most recent book, An Unexplained Death (Henry Holt, 2018). Brottman has been a lecturer at the University of East London, a visiting professor in the department of comparative literature at Indiana University, and director of the humanities program at the Pacifica Graduate Institute, in California. She is currently a Professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art in downtown Baltimore.|
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Robert Eberwein, Sex Ed: Film, Video and the Framework of Desire (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1999).
Marilyn Hegarty, Victory Girls, Khaki-Wackies and Patriotutes: The Regulation of Female Sexuality in World War II (New York: New York University Press, 2008).
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John Parascandola, Sex Sin and Science: A History of Syphilis in America (New York: Praeger, 2008)
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