Aunt Julia’s Movie Code

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Others sharing top billing with Naldi in Aunt Julia’s disfavor were PoIa Negri, Jetta Goudal, Betty Compson, Betty Blythe, Aileen Pringle, Mae Busch—for all her sinister roles—and Gloria Swanson, as already cited, to name a few. Although Miss Swanson was one of the biggest stars of the day, she didn’t cut any ice with Aunt Julia. A good many of the glamorous star’s films had racy titles— Don’t Change Your Husband, Why Change Your Wife?, Don’t Tell Everything, Manhandled , etc.—which may have turned Aunt Julia off instead of on, as intended. Catchy and suggestive titles that promised much but had a relatively low erotic yield were big in those days. Then there were some famous stills of Miss Swanson in bathtubs, which probably didn’t do her any good either. With Aunt Julia a bath was something between you and your Maker.

Another actress Aunt Julia couldn’t abide was a star none of my surviving friends seems even to recall these days, Priscilla Dean. One certainly wouldn’t expect any hanky-panky from anyone with a staid American name like that, yet a search of the records indicates Miss Dean appeared in such items as Two-Soul Woman, The Virgin of Stamboul (titles with “virgin” in them raised all sorts of sticky questions), Siren of Seville , and Outside the Law , in addition to playing the heroine in Ouida’s exciting tear-jerker Under Two Flags . It stood to reason that anyone who played a character named Cigarette was no one to crunch Necco wafers with for five reels, big climactic deathscene redemption or no big climactic death-scene redemption.

Certain actors and actresses, however, never evoked a raised eyebrow from Aunt Julia, and their films went sailing past her scrutiny unchallenged, like those of Richard Dix. Such stars included Harold Lloyd, Jackie Coogan, Baby Peggy, Mary Pickford, Mabel Normand, Dorothy Gish, Wesley Barry, Ben Alexander, Charles Ray, Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Harry Carey, and the whole Farnum clan—William, Dustin, and Franklyn. She was not unaware, of course, of the scandals in some of the stars’ private lives, but since her feelings about them were conditioned by a kind of chemical reaction brought on by their celluloid images, it didn’t matter too much what they did offscreen—short of going to jail or being unfrocked by Will Hays- although she was sometimes pained by their aberrant behavior. For example, she could never understand why Mary Pickford divorced “that nice Owen Moore.” She was very fond of the Moore brothers, who, besides the jettisoned Owen, were Tom and Matt.

You may have noted in the preceding paragraph, where I listed some of Aunt Julia’s anointed, that I mentioned Dorothy Gish but not her more ethereal and famous sister, Lillian. This was not an oversight. Aunt Julia just didn’t cotton to the elder Gish. “I’m sure Lillian’s a nice girl,” she explained, “but she seems to bring out the worst in a man”—a view I’m sure she felt was vindicated by Lillian’s subsequent involvement, as Hester Prynne, with the Reverend Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter . Aunt Julia couldn’t conceal her smugness as she observed, “I knew it was bound to happen to that girl one of these days!”

It might also be mentioned in this connection that Aunt Julia frequently condoned the lecherous lurchings of villains like Walter Long, the Beery brothers—Wallace and Noah—Matthew Betz, et al. , on the grounds that the frail blonde creatures they chased all over the screen had probably not discouraged the gentlemen’s base desires vigorously enough. “I’m sure Wallace Beery wouldn’t hurt a fly if he didn’t have his hopes raised by certain people,” she said tartly. She was greatly pleased by Mr. Beery’s subsequent transformation from frustrated rapist to lovable bum and became one of his most devoted fans in her declining years.

There were male stars whom Aunt Julia held in as little esteem as she did the Naldis and the Goudals. As I recall, these included Lew Cody, Norman Kerry, John Gilbert, Rod La Rocque, Adolphe Menjou, John Barrymore, and Lowell Sherman. The only thing these actors had in common was a mustache, and even these were not in evidence at all seasons, as some of the stars were deciduous; but I think that was the basis of Aunt Julia’s disapprobation, as she could not abide a hairy lip. I remember the time when her only son, Albert, who had settled in Kansas City, Missouri, returned home on a visit and was almost turned away because he was wearing a mustache. Albert shaved his off the next morning before breakfast, but none of Aunt Julia’s blacklisted stars ever went that far to curry favor with her.

It should be pointed out here, in all fairness, that Ronald Colman’s mustache achieved a kind of invisibility for Aunt Julia. “You just don’t seem to notice it on him ” was her explanation for not holding Colman’s lip décor against him. Similarly, she tolerated without condoning the mustache that Douglas Fairbanks wore in some of his films, but only because he was Mary Pickford’s husband.