Screening Room

Screening Room

Hollywood and the Unwed Mother: Comedy is a Window on Our Social Mores

By Frank Pittman

May/June 2008

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…

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