My parents raised my sisters and me rather strictly. We had to go to Mass each weekend (despite having already gone at school during the week: lame). We had to do chores and be in bed on time. We couldn’t do anything fun until homework was finished. And we were not allowed to watch TV during the week. On weekends, we were allowed television on Friday nights and on Saturdays and Sundays after noon.(If I ever have kids they'll be allowed to watch TV all the time. Otherwise I'll probably have to entertain them myself.)
But my parents were decidedly nervous about the things on television, so they took additional precautions. Anything on prime time was probably rife with sexual content and curse words (things like “blast it!” and “gosh darn it!” and “tarnation!”), so they pushed us to watch the things on Nick at Nite and American Movie Classics. It is probably telling that the first song I learned in childhood was the theme song from Cheers, but that I never got to see an episode of Cheers after the age of three. (Mom also let me watch Moonlighting until I had some sort of grasp of the English language.)
As a result, Ouisie and I (and eventually Penelope, when she came along) wound up loving shows like Get Smart, Gilligan’s Island, Bewitched and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. We didn’t realize these shows were thirty years old; we just knew they were cutting-edge and hip.
|Don Adams and Barbara Feldon as 86 and 99 in Get Smart.|
What is even stranger is that my parents would rent Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies for Ouisie and me when we were barely out of diapers, and we LOVED them. We’d practice for hours trying to get the dance moves down, and it never seemed to matter that the films were entirely in black-and-white and featured hit tunes from the 1930’s.
Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about those squeaky-clean films of the ‘30’s, ‘40’s and ‘50’s. I’ve been thinking about how, for instance, in Easter Parade, when Fred Astaire says to Judy Garland, “Why didn’t you tell me I was in love with you?” she hugs him really hard instead of kissing him. Or how at the end of the same movie, when he puts an engagement ring on her finger, she just smiles at him.**
|Fred and Judy get engaged in Easter Parade (Charles Walters, 1949).|
I used to think that romance could be (and most likely was) utterly bereft of sex, and that people in “olden times” didn’t ever do it until they were married. They didn’t and couldn’t! Some examples:
1. In High Society (the 1956 remake of The Philadelphia Story), Mike (Frank Sinatra) sings a song to Tracy (Grace Kelly) while they’re both intoxicated. The song is called, “Mind If I Make Love to You?” If “make love” meant “have sex” in 1956, then how could they write a song about it in a major motion picture? Imagine a song that went, “Mind If I Have Sex With You?” I don’t think the studios would’ve gone for it, especially with all the censorship at the time. By the way, “Mind if I have sex with you?” is not a romantic thing to say to someone. It kind of sounds like the second party isn’t really going to be involved.
|Frank Sinatra asks Grace Kelly is she minds if he makes love to her (High Society, Charles Walters--again!--1956).|
2. Let’s fast-forward to 1959, when Cary Grant says to Eva Marie Saint in North-by-Northwest, “The moment I meet an attractive woman I have to start pretending I have no desire to make love to her.” Now the idea of sex is sort of out there, but is it really? Because what follows is one of movie history’s longest make-out sessions (beaten in length only by that between Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot) but no one actually goes to bed with anyone. Or do they?
|Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint do everything but in North-by-Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959).|
My parents were quite clever: they showed us movies where people talked a lot, kissed occasionally and NEVER HAD SEX. At our sleepovers at the Meisingers’ house, we were only allowed to watch the final dance number from Dirty Dancing, and not the movie itself (a quite innocent movie, if you ask me, because I’ve seen the whole thing now). But having re-watched these films as an adult, I’m realizing that people did, in fact, fornicate prior to marriage prior to 1967.
Do you remember Scarlett and Rhett doing “it” in Gone With the Wind? Of course not. But do you remember him carrying her up the stairs, kicking and screaming? Yes. Yes, you do. And you knew what was going to happen. You never saw a thing, but you were a little turned on, weren’t you?
Same goes for The Quiet Man. Once Sean (John Wayne) throws his wife Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara) in the bedroom (after valiantly proving to her entire village that he doesn’t want her for her money), you know things are going to get sexual. But you don’t see a goddamn thing. And my parents were in love with that film and we watched it countless times (you know how the Irish feel about Ireland).
So see, sex had to be implied once upon a time. And for some reason, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that implied sex is much more enjoyable to watch than the blatantly “realistic” sex that’s becoming increasingly available on HBO and Showtime. Sometimes I think the actors aren’t even “simulating” sex but actually having it. I’m sorry, is that acting? I think that’s just pornography. (Which is funny, because I used to stay up past my bedtime in junior high to watch "USA Up All Night" because I was convinced something dirty was going to be shown at some point.)
And if the numerous golden age movie star biographies I’ve read have proven anything, it’s that people did, indeed, have a lot of sex outside of marriage in “olden times.” But the movies had to have a code, and so they tried to give you just enough to be exciting without ruining your day with close-ups of actors’ genitalia. Let's face it: genitalia ain't so attractive.
I’m truly grateful for my love of classic films. Because I don’t want to look at movie stars’ naughty bits any more.
*The Quiet Man (John Ford, 1952). Probably one of the sexiest movies of all time. No sex shown.
**I've read in numerous "classic" era movie stars' biographies that Fred Astaire preferred not to kiss his costars out of respect for his wife. That's sweet, but kind of silly at the same time.