Hard to believe that just fifteen years later I’d be running my own movie theater, a 2,672-seat palace in an outer borough of New York City, the St. George, showing all manner of movies, even soft X (by then the Hays Code had faded to black, and there were ratings).
A friend I just had coffee with, born in 1963, recalls, “Well I was a good girl, so I never saw anything with an R on it until I was actually 17, but a day after my birthday, I snuck out to see an R movie with my girlfriend. It was Bloodline, and all I remember is somebody got his knees broken by the mob.”
The movie has a fantastic cast — Audrey Hepburn, Ben Gazzara, Irene Papas, James Mason — but it sounds like a doggie, so no wonder broken kneecaps are all she remembers. What’s more important is what happened before and after the movie.
She continues, “On the way to the theater, in my parents‘ ’76 Buick LeSabre, we hit a kid (maybe thirteen?) on a bike...clipped him with the side vision mirror. I was horrified, his bike was smushed a little, and in retrospect I fear we might have broken his arm. We wanted to help, but he couldn’t wait to part company with us because he had a secret too, he was smoking.”
Notice how every kid in this story has something to hide?
“After the movie we headed back to my house. I was uncertain whether I ought to tell my mother what we’d seen...the Cinema had always shown adult movies, but by 1980 it was featuring a little of each, R and PG and G too. The road home had a steep hill in it just outside of town, and if you hit that hill going a little too fast, you can bottom out. Well we hit it at a pretty good clip, and...”
She continues, “...we cracked the LeSabre’s suspension.”
A mother twice-over by now, my friend blushes, averting her eyes, at this almost-forty-year-old tale.
“Am I the only one you’ve ever confessed this to?” I ask her.
“I must have told my mother we were going to a movie,” she continues, “...Where the car was parked was part of the story. At home I made up something about somebody clipping the side-vision mirror in the parking lot. Mother never asked which movie we saw, and I never told anybody about the boy on the bike.”
Guilt about seeing an R picture without confessing this liberty to her parents is guilt with a small g, but what happened to the family car, and the fate of the boy is pure R-rated Remorse.
Between my story and her story lies a gulf of twenty-plus years, from 1958 to 1980, a period in the movie exhibition business defined by the emergence of the ratings systems that separated adult movies from kid or family fare. But wind back to the 1930‘s and my sisters’ childhoods, and, although the Hays Code — which, among other things, forced the cartoon character, Betty Boop, to dress more modestly — was firmly in force, it was, paradoxically easier to sneak into “sophisticated” movies on your own.
My oldest sister (who remembers the Wizard of Oz first run) also remembers sneaking off to see Leave Her to Heaven, starring Cornell Wilde, when she was ten years old, in 1945. She couldn’t drive, so she had to be clever.
“My best friend and I were desperately in love with Cornell Wilde,” she muses, “...and we longed to see the movie, but Mother said it was too grown up for us. We figured that must be code for sex and were even more determined to go....
It was showing downtown... but we weren’t allowed to go there by ourselves. so we noticed it was also at the Mariemont, a suburban theatre a bus ride away. My friend knew the bus route, from trips she’d taken to the dentist.... We told our mothers we were going to the movies, which wasn’t a lie...they assumed we were planning to walk to the 20th Century in Oakley. The bus ride was easy, and no one stopped us from going into the theater....”
Leave Her to Heaven is film noir (interestingly in technicolor) — apparently one of Martin Scorcese’s favorite movies of all time. Gene Tierney was nominated for Best Actress for her role as Ellen Berent, an unstable socialite, and, according to some, she should have walked away with the gold as “the fatalest of femmes.” (New York Post). Sex was not the big deal here: there are a lot more shocking things than sex, and anyhow Mother was right about suitability. Berent watches a disabled man drown without lifting a finger, throws herself downstairs to abort her unborn child, which she refers to as “the little beast,” and I could go on.
“Stunned,” Judy continues, “...we left the theater and walked right into Aunt Eva, one of Mother’s oldest friends. ‘Why Judy’ Aunt Eva exclaimed, ’I’m surprised your mother let you see this.’”
As might be expected, Aunt Eva wasted no time finding a phone. The bus ride home must have seemed endless.
What exactly do these fugitive adventures demonstrate? My friend was really old enough to see an R-rated movie, but she chose not to tell her Mother she was going to one. And my sister and her friend were willing to evade, just not out and out lie. They wouldn’t go for the big cheat and take a bus all the way downtown. Ironically, if they had, they wouldn’t have run into Aunt Eva.
I‘ve been saving my husband’s story for last. When he was a lad of eleven in 1957, all the guys wanted to see Wild is the Wind, Starring Anthony Quinn and the amazingly sexy Anna Magnani. Needless to say, they didn’t even think of asking their parents. It was showing downtown, and boys being boys in those days, they weren’t afraid to hop a bus to the seamier part of Cincinnati, but they had to do a little subterfuge. Coincidentally, Pursuit of the Graf Spee, a WWII flick of historic interest, was also showing downtown, so they told the dads, all of whom had fought in WWII, they were going to that movie. Good midwestern dudes of the fifties, they went to the library and read up on the ship Graf Spee, assuming that after the movie, they’d be expected to talk with some authority on the subject. It all went off without a hitch, they saw Magnani flash her dark eyes and hurl epithets at Quinn, got a burger and went home. That night Dean’s dad, a high school teacher, quizzed his son on the Battle of the River Plate and various aspects of the Graf Spee’s story. Dean was eager to show off his hard-won knowledge, pointing out the Graf Spee sought shelter in Montevideo Harbor. As you probably know, that harbor, in Uruguay, where the stricken ship was dry-docked for a while, is not pronounced, in its latter syllables, the way the word for television is. Dean had read the word not heard it ("monty video"), gave himself entirely away. Dad had been a boy once, so he didn’t ask.
How much forbidden cinematic fruit is left for the plucking these days, and do kids bother to lie anymore? Apparently, as this link will tell you in depth how to get into a movie rated R if you’re under age. But notice that the guilt people felt in days gone by wasn’t about the movies anyhow, but about going somewhere on a bus, or knocking down a kid on a bike, or bottoming out the LeSabre. Lying’s important. You’re almost grown up when you first do it, and for your whole adult life, you carry the delicious guilt around with you. ‘nuff said.
For a taste of what the ratings did to our neighborhood juvenile watchers back in 1976, catch the previous blogpost...
Afterthought: For a novel approach to taking kids to classic grown-up movies, check this out…