'The first bottle is for health, the second for love, and the third for sleep.' Eubulus, circa 350 BC
Published: Dec 12, 2013
Weekend Classic: Cold where you are? Don’t even start. As you read this, I’m off to Duluth for the weekend — and it’s minus 9 degrees there. Very much looking forward to a possible high of plus 15. So my thought for this Weekend Classic: heat.
Violence? In American movies, it’s appropriate for viewers of almost all ages.
Sex? If she’s not married and she fools around, she’ll be punished.
The reality of film ratings is more complicated than this, but for all purposes, Hollywood loves a man who brandishes a gun and loathes a woman who bares a nipple. And it’s been that way from the start of the film business. Cadres of righteousness leaned on Hollywood, and Hollywood, anxious not to have the government step in, obligingly censored itself.
The Production Code of 1930 drew clear lines for feature films: Good wins, evil dies, marriage is sacred. But the economic hardship of the Depression was more urgent than making theaters safe for the god-fearing; the Code was ignored until 1934, when bluestockings threatened to boycott all Hollywood films. At that point, Hollywood began to enforce the Code. And it continued to do so — ready for this? — until the ratings system was adopted in 1968.
But forget about the prudes. A few filmmakers did, and in the first four years of the Depression, they turned out some movies about sexual relationships that didn’t involve holding hands, proposing on bended knee and then having a heart-to-heart with her dad.
Turner Classic Movies has collected some of the most important of these films, slapped on a “lurid” cover photo and given its collections an irresistible title. Don’t be fooled — the closest thing to hard-core in these three films is a brief shot of Jean Harlow’s breast. Just as well. These movies are subversive, titillating — and unusually interesting — without acres of naked flesh. [To buy “Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Vol. 1” from Amazon.com, click here.]
Start with “Waterloo Bridge,” released in 1931. It was directed by James Whale, who had such a hit with it he was asked to direct “Frankenstein.” His star was Vivienne Leigh — not shabby casting.
“Waterloo Bridge” is a straightforward World War I melodrama. During a London air raid, Clark meets a young soldier. They’re crazy about one another, but he’s rich and well-bred and she’s a chorus girl. Or was. Now she’s a whore. That’s the big news she has to deliver to her besotted beau, and it takes her the entire movie to do it. He doesn’t care; he’ll marry her anyway.
As every woman living in England knew, the life expectancy of soldiers at the front was measured in minutes — World War I wiped out an entire generation of young men. So marrying a soldier was a shrewd idea; the widow was at least assured of his death benefits. But Clark’s too moral. Or maybe just conflicted, for throughout the movie, she acts against her own interests. You’ll want to scream at her to stop talking and jump the lug. But this film’s not that forbidden.
“Red-Headed Woman” was released in 1932, and you can’t accuse Jean Harlow — her trademark blonde hair nowhere in evidence — of looking out for anyone but #1. Written by Anita Loos and F. Scott Fitzgerald, this rags-to-riches story starts with a snappy dismissal of the idea behind the Loos bestseller, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” and proceeds to show how any guy would tumble for this redhead.
All the men here are saps. But if they were stronger, they’d be no match for Harlow — she’s a stalker, a worthy model for Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction.” What she wants, she gets. And if he’s married…well, too bad for the wife. There’s a shooting. Inappropriate sex (with her chauffeur). The dialogue is racy — when a lover slaps her out of frustration, Harlow says, "Hit me again! I like it!” And there is, for the deeply immature, that notorious flash of flesh. “Red-Headed Woman” was a big hit.
“Baby Face,” released in 1933, was so hot that Turner offers two versions — even before it was released, the studio censored it. You can see why. Barbara Stanwyck plays a young woman who works at her father’s speakeasy in a grimy factory town. That job also includes sex with important politicians — her dad’s her pimp.
But Stanwyck has a friend, an older man who preaches the gospel of Nietzsche. The philosophy of self makes chilly sense, and when escape is possible, she jumps a train bound for the big city. A railroad inspector spots her — and, without flinching, she pays her fare the way she’s learned how.
Does she like sex? She’s indifferent. She understands its power, and she exploits it, first with an office boy, then with the young John Wayne, then with his boss (in the ladies room of their office), and, sleeping her way still higher, with his boss. Marriage leads to money, but not happiness — she’s looking for the exit when her husband begs her for financial help. I won’t spoil the ending(s).
What’s fun about these films is their cultural transparency. Watching them, you can see just what behavior was allowed for media role models in their media roles. Off-camera, of course, those people did what those people do.
That’s hypocrisy? You bet. But that’s a plus — these films make you nostalgic for a time when a few frames of female nudity and a couple of raunchy lines of dialogue were all the thrills you needed. On a Saturday night, with some friends and a bowl of popcorn, I’ll bet they’re still entertaining.
I interviewed Maria Bello a few years ago. My male friends drooled — she’s even more beautiful than most Hollywood actresses. I found her smart and quick. Now I find her wise. Here’s how her piece in the Times starts:
When my 12-year-old son, Jackson, asked me if there was something I wasn’t telling him, I replied, “There are a lot of things I don’t tell you.”
He persisted: “What kind of adult stuff?”
This was the moment I had been anticipating and dreading for months. “Like romantic stuff,” I said, fumbling for words.
“What kind of romantic stuff?”
“Well,” I said. “Like how sometimes you can be friends with someone, and then it turns romantic, and then you’re friends again. Like with Dad and me. Or romantic like Bryn and me were, and then he and I became friends.”
“So are you romantic with anyone right now?” he asked.
No way would a reasonable person stop here. Click for the rest.
“None of us wanted to give our babies up, none of us. But what else could we do? They just said, ‘You have to sign these papers.’”
“Philomena” is tied with “Dallas Buyers Club” as the best movie I’ve seen this year. Another beyond amazing performance from Judi Dench. What’s it about? The less you know the better (whatever you do, do not read the Times review, which is an encyclopedia of spoilers.) Okay, this: In the 1950s, when she was 16 and unmarried and an Irish Catholic living in Ireland, Philomena had a baby. The nuns took him away from her. Half a century later, she meets a journalist who helps her search for her son. Many laughs await you, and many tears (seriously: I was a wreck for much of the movie), and just possibly a renewed sense of the magnificence of people. Well, some people.
Hunger Update: ‘There is virtually no more immediate way to affect the lives of the poor than to give to the agencies that help feed them, especially now when need has so greatly escalated.’
from The New York Times:
As a result of cuts to SNAP, the federal food stamp program, which went into effect on Nov. 1 (and precede further potential reductions of $4 billion to $40 billion), food pantries are already experiencing mounting burdens. One of the city’s largest, the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger in Brooklyn, has seen more than a one-third increase this month in the number of people coming in, compared with November of last year. Another, the New York Common Pantry in East Harlem, was seeing a 25 percent rise during the five months before the cuts.
Even before the cuts went into effect, matching supply with demand presented wounding challenges. According to a study of emergency food program participation released by the Food Bank last month, there are 100,000 more New Yorkers relying on these services today than six years ago, while there are fewer pantries to serve them. In another sign of distress, the term “emergency” now seems misapplied.
Madonna Badger: ‘I go to wherever the light is, because anything else is darkness, and it can be a deeply black darkness.’
You may not remember her name, but you know her story: On Christmas Eve, her house burned, and her three daughters and her parents died in the fire. Now Madonna Badger has written a piece for Vogue. It’s a tough read; prepare to weep. Prepare also to be surprised by what she has learned — and by what you can learn from her. Like this, about her trip to an orphanage in Thailand:
The garage behind the house in Stamford hadn’t caught fire, and I had stored old boxes of toys there that my girls had outgrown and a bunch of things I had saved for them for when they grew up. I took a bag of it all to Thailand, and on Christmas morning I gave the girls presents, and they were so excited. Thirty or so of them came and stood in front of me and prayed for me in Thai. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them we were all crying. When I looked into the girls’ faces, I saw my children. It broke me open in a way I still can’t fully explain. But if these little girls were living their lives with joy and happiness, I realized — and if they could give their love to me after all they had been through — how could I possibly feel sorry for myself? What they showed me was that what had happened to them had just happened. It wasn’t “done” to them, just as none of this had been “done” to me. I wasn’t being punished; I had not been singled out.
Obligatory Blog Roll
- Andrew Tobias
- Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Charles Pierce
- Letters of Note
- James Fallows
- Dominique Browning
- Andrew Romano
- Lux Lotus
- The New Yorker