Aunt Julia’s Movie Code

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Back in the twenties, before, chances are, Jack Valenti and Linda Lovelace were even born, my Aunt Julia developed her own movie-rating system. This was based not on the movies themselves but on the stars who appeared in them. No G’S or R’S or X’S for Aunt Julia. A movie either had the right sort of star, in which case it was given a clean bill of health and we kids were sent off to see it with the dimes for our tickets clutched in our hands, or it didn’t, in which case it was put on Aunt Julia’s index and we kids were forbidden even to look at the theatre displays. Since we passed the Lyric, our local cinema, on our way to and from school, this restriction was difficult to enforce, especially as the Lyric’s management didn’t give a hoot how debauched our young minds became—an unconcern we shared with them.

Aunt Julia was actually Mother’s aunt, our grandaunt. She was a widow who had been modestly provided for in those pre-social security days by her late husband, and she lived with us in the spare room as a combination board-paying guest and censor in residence. The movies were her one extravagance (matinées were then fifteen cents for adults—later increased to twenty over Aunt Julia’s vehement protests) and her only dissipation. Having little to do but take care of her own room and her personal laundry and “put up” fruits and vegetables in season with Mother, she had plenty of time on her hands and could easily manage to see all of the films at the Lyric, whose programs were generally changed thrice a week except when some contemporary blockbuster was booked. Thus Aunt Julia could attend the first days’ showings of films and decide whether they were fit for our parents and us kids. Even Mother and Dad never, to my knowledge, risked the eternal damnation implicit in ignoring her fiats.

As a censor Aunt Julia was no better than any other censor I’ve ever run across, and I’m not going to let ties of blood persuade me she was. She had all the crotchets and prejudices, all the capriciousness and wrong-headedness of the breed, and it is pretty difficult, albeit fascinating, at this late date to try to follow her lines of reasoning.

Probably no actor of the day was held in higher esteem by Aunt Julia than Richard Dix, and although my memory of his films has been dimmed by time and their notable forgettableness, a recent check of some of their titles would seem to indicate her confidence in him may have been, to a degree, misplaced. (I don’t believe I ever saw The Sin Flood or Souls for Sale , but they sound more like Georgina Spelvin opera than the sort of film that would win Aunt Julia’s imprimatur, so perhaps they didn’t play the Lyric.)

Mr. Dix was a handsome, strongjawed actor who gave the impression, even when he laughed, of being utterly humorless, but one never doubted that his heart was in the right place. Many of his films were comedydramas, and what little I recall lingers on as rather funny and exciting, which is hard to explain, since I think of Dix as neither. Be that as it may, Aunt Julia invariably cleared his films for children’s consumption until he got mixed up in the first version of Cecil B. De Mule’s The Ten Commandments . Said she firmly, “Sunday school and not the Lyric is the place to find out what thou shall not do.” Dix was removed from her approved list until he appeared in The Shock Punch a year or two later.

I might point out here that Aunt Julia, long before the age of McCarthy, had developed guilt by association as one of her basic censorship tools. Thomas Meighan, another favorite of hers, made the mistake of appearing with Gloria Swanson in a film called Male and Female , which was based on Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton . In the play Crichton the butler, whose natural superiority, once he has broken out of the British class system, makes him the leader of a group of shipwrecked upper crusters, quotes Henley’s lines “I was a king in Babylon / And you were a Christian slave” to Lady Mary, the object of his affections and the daughter of his employer, Lord Loam. In the movie this became the excuse for a big previous-incarnation flashback in which Lady Mary (Swanson), now a Christian slave, cavorts in a fur chemise and tries to make points with Crichton (Meighan), now an imperial Babylonian. Aunt Julia, quite correctly, I imagine, put the whole business down as a barefaced attempt to stir up the troops and relegated Meighan to her doghouse for a couple of films for his part in the tawdry business.

But to return to The Ten Commandments for a moment: Aunt Julia’s objection to the film was probably due less to the danger of us kids getting some unauthorized or premature scoop on adultery or coveting our neighbor’s wife than it was to exposing us to the slinky likes of Nita Naldi, who was also in the film as a fugitive leper who seduces Rod La Rocque, Dix’s weak brother, and is later killed by Rod. Just as Dix usually won Aunt Julia’s seal of approval, so actresses like Nita Naldi—and I must say that, generally speaking, Aunt Julia came down more heavily on her own sex than she did on the men—received her thumbs-down medal with oak-leaf clusters. Nita, who was always up to no good cinematically, was one of Aunt Julia’s special bêtes noires. No weakkneed husband or impressionable youth should be allowed in a darkened theatre with Nita, Aunt Julia held.