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Hollywood and the Unwed Mother

Comedy is a window on our social mores

By Frank Pittman

Back in the '40s, Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland taught me everything I thought I needed to know about sex. Perched in a convertible driven by a charming visiting soldier boy, these black-and-white, monophonic beauties would ride off into the fade-out, and show up a little bit pregnant the next morning. We innocent children in the audience would learn that, while the joys of sex are overpowering enough to risk everything for, unwelcome babies are the inevitable consequence. At the same time these films got us all excited about sex, they threw icy water on us to cool us down. In the Hollywood of that era, no unwed young woman ever had sex without having a baby follow close behind, and once the men who'd donated the sperm had gotten their pants back on, they always seemed to disappear into the smoke and fire of war, or down into the uncharted Amazon, never to be seen again.

In those days, Hollywood decreed that illicit sex had to be punished one way or another. Pregnant single women in films invariably faced poverty and social disgrace. Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas in 1937 or Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce in 1945 had rough times raising their babies, and got damned little appreciation from their spoiled daughters afterward. Single women who gave up their babies to friends or relatives and tried to keep it secret fared no better, facing lives of eternal self-reproach, self-flagellation, and regret. Bette Davis as The Old Maid in 1939 gave up her baby to her cousin Miriam Hopkins, and they hated each other ever after. In To Each His Own in 1946, Olivia de Havilland left her baby on a neighbor's doorstep and spent the rest of her life trying to get him back without letting him know who she was or what she was up to.

Occasionally women who were unmarried and pregnant, like Shirley Booth in Come Back, Little Sheba in 1952, shamed a man into "doing the right thing." But while Burt Lancaster dutifully crawled to the altar, he lived resentfully ever after, and Booth never felt quite "chosen" for marriage. Still, having a child "illegitimately" was considered more shameful than marrying someone you ­didn't know and didn't like.

Then in the 1960s, Hollywood began to envision a new romantic possibility that offered a graceful way out of both the disgrace of illegitimate pregnancy and the bitterness of a mismatched marriage. The accidental couple could get to know each other and magically "fall in love," so they could get together without just caving in to societal pressures. In Love with the Proper Stranger in 1963, Natalie Wood gets drunk and "knocked up" by Steve McQueen, meets him again sober, and then spends the next two hours falling in love with him.

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Last modified on Monday, 30 July 2012 13:19
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