My curiosity, such as it is, was piqued the other day as I stood in line to buy movie tickets for a revival of "The Portrait of Dorian Gray," and noticed a billboard advertising a revival of "The Devil in Miss Jones." "The Devil in Miss Jones" was a notorious X-rated movie in the days before Woodward and Bernstein gave "Deep Throat" a good name. But I had thought the day of "The Devil" had long passed, and so I asked the ticket seller how the movie came to be shown again. "It's a classic," he explained. "You really ought to see it."
Well, in fact, I have already seen "The Devil in Miss Jones," and was, also in fact, one of the first ever to see it -- at least in the city of Boston. What's more, I now realize I may have had some small part in making the movie a classic, by the following circuitous route:
One sultry Friday afternoon in the spring of 1973, when the rest of the world was kissing and playing tennis, and I, then a doddering young professor, was stuck in an office, grading exams, in came a phone call from a Boston lawyer who said American liberty needed my help. He represented the distributors of "The Devil in Miss Jones." (Had I heard of it? No.) It's a very important film, he said. One day it will be a classic.
But, he continued ominously, there is considerable risk that "The Devil in Miss Jones" will not be allowed to open in Boston, because, in spite of the fact that it is a very important film, and a future classic, it is, of course, explicity sexual, and you know how Massachusetts judges are. They did it to the witches, and they did it to Sacco and Vanzetti, and they'll do it to "The Devil in Miss Jones" -- unless I and a few other decent-minded liberals would testify in court that the movie had "redeeming social value."
So he asked would I view the movie privately in a downtown theater that afternoon, and I told him no, my exams lying before me. But had I no desire to see justice done? No. But what about "Ulysses" and Henry Miller? No. But we can pay you $500.
I then phoned my wife, and asked: "How'd you like to go see a dirty movie this afternoon?" Without asking who was calling, she accepted. Within an hour the two of us were seated alone in a Boston movie theater, in the company of an unseen projectionist, who may have been blindfolded, and "The Devil in Miss Jones," which ought to have been. My wife, gaping at the screen as if she had just met the mother in "Psycho." I, taking notes in the dark.
I will not here or anywhere describe what I remember of "The Devil in Miss Jones," which is almost everything. Enough to say that having not seen an X-rated movie before, indeed having up to that time regarded "The Portrait of Dorian Gray" as about as wild as a movie can get, I was surprised. Nor have I comfortably touched a piece of fruit since. When we returned home from the theater the lawyer called to ask how we'd enjoyed it. Enjoyment was not how I'd put it. At the moment I was more concerned about my wife, who had not uttered a word since we had left the theater, and who, I feared, was either about to drastically change careers, or to spend the rest of her life, like the woman in James Thurber's cartoon, perched on the bookshelf.
Nevertheless, the challenge was to discover some redeeming social value in "The Devil in Miss Jones," and so, like any well-trained academic, I set about to determine the overall design of the movie, not to mention the underlying philosophy. To be sure, the movie was filthy, outrageous, disgraceful and vile. Yet was there not a hint of Dante's "Inferno" in the scene where she did this to him, and the two men did that to her? And was it all not essentially classical?
Whipped into an intellectual frenzy, I had almost succeeded in driving the actual movie from my mind. And on the following day, I was fully prepared to share my findings with the world and the Massachusetts judiciary, when again the lawyer phoned, this time in sadness. Thanks anyway, he said, but we had lost the case. It seemed that the judge, having heard that a bunch of professors were going to screen "The Devil in Miss Jones," went off to see the movie for himself, at which he was disgusted to the point of vomiting, and after which, as he put it, no pudding-brained liberal was going to tell him a skin flick was a classic.
"What about my $500?" Sorry.
Of course, as we all now know, "The Devil in Miss Jones" has become a classic in spite of the judge's ruling, proving, once again, how wrong a Massachusetts judge can be. All of which, in turn, has led me to conclude that a classic is anything that: a) lasts; b) is banned in Boston; c) costs $500, and d) shows you up for the greedy hypocritical rat you really are.