The history of taboos sure is a shocking one. I mean, it is shocking to realize what once was banned from our discourse. Interracial marriages. Gay unions. Gender reassignments. While denial can be as harmful as our tendency to designate, you would have to have been living under that proverbial stone formation or been petrified by the religious fundamentalism that passes for faith these days to regard such realities as unmentionable. They may not be widely understood or tolerated, let alone embraced, but as the facts of life in its complexities they are too much in the public eye to be ignored.
While often argued to be responsible for foisting a liberal education on the masses, Hollywood has played an important role in keeping quiet about many aspects of what is now the gender debate. In the mid-1930s, and for several decades thereafter, the Production Code curtailed what could be shown or talked about in motion pictures. It was on this day, 6 December, in 1933, that James Joyce’s Ulysses was ruled to be “not obscene,” lifting the ban on its sale in the US; but that, aside from its narrative structure, hardly made Ulysses a hot property in Tinseltown. Writers who wanted a share of the profits to be made by selling stories or streamlining them for the silver screen had to deal with the strictures of the code and learn to rework their material accordingly. One who accepted this challenge was playwright Lillian Hellman, whose 1934 stage success The Children’s Hour was brought to the ears of American radio listeners on this day in 1937.
The Children’s Hour tells the story of two women whose teaching careers are wrecked when one of their students accuses them of having an intimate relationship. Like Hellman’s 1936 screen version of The Children’s Hour, titled These Three, George Wells’s radio adaptation tones down the accusation by throwing a man into the mix. Wedged between Stanwyck and Mary Astor that night was the presumably irresistible Errol Flynn.
Hollywood had long specialized in triangular romances, although they were rarely as ambiguous as in the above painting by the aforementioned Simeon Solomon. Indeed, the three-cornered plot constitutes the first new genre of production-coded cinema—the screwball comedy, which often confront lovers of the same sex in the conquest of an opposite-sexed other. Considering that These Three concentrates on libel rather than love, on words rather than actions, the instalment of a male love interest becomes all the more astonishing in its faint-heartedness.
As if determined to remove any doubts as to the straightness of “These Three” and all those associated with the production, Lux host Cecil B. DeMille opens the program by letting listeners in on a secret, a story that had “completely escaped the headlines.” It amounted to little more than the announcement of a recent marriage. According to DeMille’s anecdote, the unconventional Ms. Stanwyck had just attended the wedding of her stableboy, danced with the hired hands, and “made them all forget” that she was the “groom’s boss.” The Lux theater presented itself as clean, not stuffy.
What is more irritating to me than Hollywood’s silent treatments is the subsequent silencing of the history of such taboos. A description of the Lux broadcast in a 1995 reference text, for instance, keeps mum about the past of “These Three” by alluding to “[c]ertain aspects of the stage production’s plot” that “made a straight film version out of the question.” Rather than the readily furnished “straight” version, it is the straightforward answer that has often been “out of the question” in Hollywood and the culture it shaped.