Thursday, May 10, 2018

Autocrat of Time

     Few notions regarding history are more mistaken than the idea that we are on a descending spiral of laxity, where more and more is permitted, and standard after standard of taste and decency are abandoned. 
      I think this is because we assume that certain trends in some areas apply to all manifestations of expression. Yes, obscenity spreads and becomes more common. Moviemakers fretted over Rhett Butler saying "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn," at the end of "Gone With the Wind," in 1939, while now all TV channels except the big three broadcast networks relish whatever dirty words they see fit. 
   But there are sub-currents. For instance, nudity was more acceptable in general media in eras gone by than it is now. I remember seeing microfilm of the Sun-Times original coverage of the 1955 Schuessler-Peterson killings, where the paper published photos of the naked bodies of the boys in a ditch, lightly airbrushed. Something we would never do today, out of consideration for the families of the victims and the knowledge that the paper would be torn down brick by brick by outraged readers if we did. 
    On the other hand, clothed corpses are another matter. I noticed that the CBS Evening News, once the platinum bar of excellence, didn't hesitate last month to flash a photograph of Prince's body, sprawled in his Paisley Park mansion, to illustrate a minor story about how no one was being charged for providing the drugs that lead to his death. I don't believe that would have happened a decade ago. I'm not pleased it happened now, but I am of an earlier age.
    Turn your attention to this watch advertisement, which I glimpsed on the back cover of the July, 1927 issue of American Magazine, a popular, mainstream general interest publication at the time similar to The Saturday Evening Post. Notice anything unusual? Try to imagine Timex or Hamilton running it now, and the outcry it would evoke, as much for the sexism as the nudity.
     Although I should point out a detail about this ad, if you can tear your eyes away from the windblown flapper: the watches are for both sexes, men and women. The ad is designed to appeal to both and, indeed, advertising studies show that women look longer on a photo of a naked woman than men do. Gloria Steinem said it's because the women are automatically comparing themselves to the picture.
     So are we better now, having shelved this kind of thing? I tend to disapprove of anything that reins in creativity. Rules are generally made to be broken. And standards change quickly. When this blog started, almost five years ago, I would encounter people who were troubled by its slightly risque title. Now I never do. Which means either tastes are changing; or my circle is narrowing. Or both. 



  1. I've got a far weirder bit of censorship for you.
    Channel 50.2, which is called "Movies", constantly runs a 1949 mystery "The Dark Corner". Near the end, a couple of typical nitwit movie cops are in a art gallery in NYC & there's a full length statue of a female nude. The "Movies" channel has blurred the breasts on the statue.
    Remember, this is a movie that managed to get passed by the Hays Code, which at that time was run by Hays's successor, Joseph Breen, which was Hollywood's censorship operation to keep the federal government from doing it, although several cities had their own censorship offices. Chicago & Baltimore were the last two to have those!

    Now to make this even stranger, the same channel was running ads from the Cosmopolitan Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. That particular ad had a scene were the camera passes by a three sided statue of three female topless nudes from the waist up & the breasts on those topless statues weren't blurred.

    1. Consistency is never a strong suit among the censorious.

  2. The righteous howl at the unexpected until they get used to it.

  3. Anyone remember the Avalon Theater and its nude statues?


  4. Oh, yeah, 1955...the Schuessler-Peterson killings, where the paper published photos of the naked bodies of the boys in a ditch. I grew up not too far from that forest preserve. That crime scared the living hell out of suburban parents, which was naturally passed down to their kids. Oh, the dire warnings we got! Some of them were quite blunt. Try to imagine being just eight years old, as I was, and hearing that stuff...from your own mother...when you didn't even know what was what yet.

    Still, I was already reading the Daily News every evening, and sometimes I stared in horror at images of disasters that I could neither bear to look at, nor manage not to. Those olden days of yore were still the Golden Days of Gore for print journalism. The detailed and graphic descriptions of the dead. The shots of mangled teen-agers thrown into trees or cut in half in the front seats of crushed jalopies. The unlucky commuters with bloodied faces hanging out of telescoped train coaches. The Our Lady of Angels victims, my own age, who died in their classroom seats. And probably the worst one of all, after a Green Hornet streetcar hit a loaded gasoline tanker at 62nd and State.

    A teen-aged freelancer was at the scene when firefighters pried open the jammed rear doors, behind which dozens of charred corpses were stacked up on the rear platform. He got a hundred bucks for that unforgettable and chilling image. All four Chicago papers ran it, and then it went out over the wires. The whole country soon saw it. A week later, Life Magazine enlarged it and it filled half a page. Gave me nightmares for years about dying by fire, which has to be one of the worst ways to go. My kid sister has never forgiven me for showing that picture to her when she was six.

    Nope, they don't print stuff like that anymore. But some of what today's kids can see is much worse. It's just a click away.


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