Bright Lights Film Journal

STRICTLY U.S.A.


Recent news items about drunken astronauts, medical marijuana busts and the irrepressible Lindsay Lohan have made it apparent that the USA is once again brandishing its drug hysteria torch and prohibition pitchfork. Me, I’ve been sick with a summer cold all week; spinning around in a feverish haze and revisiting the 1949 Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra vehicle, TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALLGAME, directed by that beloved alcoholic ex-military man, Busby Berkeley.

The story has Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly playing Irish troublemaker/professional baseball player/vaudevillians who get mixed up with girls and gangsters in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn. A stand-out is the “Strictly U.S.A.” number, which goes down at a dockside clambake. At this hoe-down there’s clams, big steins of beer, suspiciously clean 3-piece technicolor suits and more blarney than’s to be found in all of Ireland. Hoofing it merrily around Gene and Frank are a huge chorus of bravely fed ladies and gents singing the praises of hot dogs and mustard and all the other patriotic fourth of july-ish things that are “Strictly U.S.A.” So far so good. But what I want to know is, how come they don’t sing about the drugs? Weren’t they all on speed back then? Maybe I’m half crazed from fever but I’m of a mind that “Strictly USA” is really all about: Amphetamines.

According to Wikipedia, dexedrine wasn’t “controlled” until the 1970s and was used regularly by the military among other outfits. Nowadays it’s ritalin or adderall, but aint it ultimately the same: DRUGS! Ladies and gentlemen, I submit that it is amphetamines who are the real unsung heroes of world war two. Long since blacklisted for its abuse potential, the innocent “red” was once a yank’s best friend. Weren’t reds strewn liberally around the big studios as well? Where would Berkeley’s famously tight musical numbers be without them?

Lett us also rememeber that if any Coca-Cola was served to the revellers at the clambake prior to their rousing performance of “Strictly U.S.A.” then that coca-cola would have been oozing with sweet, delicious, pure cocaine. A near epidemic of addiction and toothlessness saw that “the real thing” was removed from coke’s list of ingredients in 1903. But there it was, as essential an ingredient in the original USA recipe as baseball, apple pie, batons or sparklers.

Mrs. and Mr. Armchair Executioner, I beseech you to consider that no matter what our papers tell us is real or wrong, people will continue to use stimulants to get the job done right and true. Clearly, Miss Lohan is an addict struggling with–to paraphrase AA lingo– “a disease that tells her she doesn’t have a disease.” Instead of firing up the witch-burner and getting all sanctimonius, we should learn to forgive, help, and above all, understand the true and insidious nature of addiction.

Not all the people who worked at MGM and were prescribed dexedrine ended up hooked like Judy Garland. In fact most didn’t; like alcoholism, it’s a one in ten sort of thing. And like most alcoholics do, Lindsay is currently going through a process called “hitting bottom.” It’s humbling and hard for a human being to admit total powerlessness over a powder, pill or beverage; it can take years and double digit trips to rehab. We keep trying again and again to master ourselves, to overcome our weaknesses through force and common sense instead of total and complete surrender. This is especially true in America, where addiction is so intrinsic to our culture that it’s nearly impossible to see; the culture itself tries to hide it. It’s not until it happens to you, or someone close to you, that the paradoxical horror becomes too painful to ignore.

So is the answer to this national problem lurking at the stockade, where a nice bonfire is no doubt already begun to torch our sweet Miss Lohan, or is the answer lurking in the hypocrisy-riddled loom on which our very stars and stripes is woven? Ladies and gentlemen, I put it to a vote. We need to admit that democracy doesn’t work when the majority are uneducated. America needs to learn that sometimes admitting defeat can be the greatest of victories. It’s strictly U.S.A.!