On-screen affairs and abortions in the 1930s?

From my boomer perspective, I always envisioned that, aside from the out of control wild times of the flapper days, life in the first half of the 20th century was ruled by more prudes than even encountered in the late 1950s.

However, while working out today, I watched part of a Turner classic film from 1933 that altered my opinion of life in that decade. Ann Vickers, starring Irene Dunne and Walter Huston, was based on a novel by Sinclair Lewis released only a few months earlier than the film itself. Reviewing the book for Scribner’s Magazine, critic Eli Siegel harshly concluded:

I suppose, therefore, that all laudatory adjectives could be used about Mr. Lewis’s last novel except those meaning that it was great.

Warning: Plot-spoiling ahead.

Not having read the novel, what amazes me is the topics dealt with quite openly in the screen version of Ann Vickers. This movie would not have passed the test of whatever Catholic rating system my mother would quote in order to forbid my viewing almost anything other than a Disney cartoon. The main character in the plot:

  • Rejects suitors to choose a career over marriage
  • Is close friends with an independent female physician
  • Has an affair with a cad off to World War I
  • Gets pregnant
  • Has an abortion
  • Takes a job in a woman’s prison
  • Is unwittingly framed in a compromising photo and blackmailed by those running the prison
  • Exposes the poor treatment of inmates in prison
  • Falls in love with a judge whose wife is running around with a paramour in Europe yet refuses to divorce him
  • Falls in love with said judge just as he is set to be charged for insider trading
  • Has an illegitimate son with the judge
  • And, when the now-divorced judge is paroled after three years, seems poised to live happily ever after…..

1933? Surely this movie must have been banned or have ended the career of Irene Dunne? But Dunne’s career was hot; she was gaining a reputation as the “First Lady of Hollywood.” And the contemporary review of Ann Vickers written by Mordaunt Hall for The New York Times barely raises an eyebrow about the subject matter and does not warn viewers of its mature content:

Although it cannot be said that the shadows passing on the screen are definite replicas of the characters drawn by the author, the incidents are invariably interesting although never suspenseful. More often than not the natures of the persons involved are hinted at rather than adroitly delineated, and the narrative, which touches on many phases of Ann’s eventful career, is somewhat too episodical. Owing to the fact that the producers have captured more than a mere suggestion of the spirit of the author, the picture holds one’s attention.

Under the “Trivia” section of The Internet Movie Database, I learned the plot did arouse some pushback from the Hays Office of censorship in 1933 and later, in 1935, a denial of an “approved” rating that probably destined the film for obscurity:

Some objections were made by the Hays Office concerning the plot of the first draft of the screenplay, where Ann marries Captain Resnick and then has an affair with Barney. The plot was changed to Ann being seduced by the Captain with the offense somehow deemed less if only one of the parties in the adulterous affair is married. No reference is made about any abortion in the trip to Havana, and in the released print the cause of death of Ann’s baby girl is never mentioned. RKO applied for an “Approved” certificate in 1935, when the production code was more rigorously enforced, but they were informed that no certificate would be given because of the film’s attitude towards adultery.

In the midst of all of the scandalous behavior in the film that  reviewer Hall seemingly ignored:
Miss Dunne, as has been mentioned, acquits herself favorably.

While Ann Vickers is far from an outstanding film, it is worth watching for its alternative view of life in the 1930s. And, for the same reason, I was hoping to download the book to my Kindle. Alas, it is not available. Nor is it a title in the catalog of the San Antonio Public Library, so I have resorted to ordering a used copy via snail mail.

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