“Movie Gatekeeper Of My Youth”

William H. Hays

I had been about to write about the movie rating system that began when I was a young adult and continues to give letters(G,PG,etc.) to films when I began to wonder why the movies of my growing up years were so free of anything troubling. Why, for instance, did the married couples have twin beds?(All the adults I knew shared beds.)

In the same way that I was mostly unaware that the books in my school library, classroom and public library were being selected by others, I was unaware of the “Hays Code,” officially the Motion Picture Production Code which affected all United States movies from the early 1930’s to the late 1960’s. Named after the above pictured William Hays, this code laid out specific restrictions on everything from depiction of sex to scenes of violence. Below I have pasted a copy of part of the 1934 rules.

So it turns out that my experience in the movies was being as carefully curated as my experience with books. Although I had no idea, it is clear why movies began to jar me with scenes of violence and sex. I had been kept from both for many years. Now it would be up to me to choose what I saw. Now it would be helpful to have a rating system.

Tomorrow I expand on the successor to the “Hays Code.”

“A Day Set Aside”

Today is Ash Wednesday in Christian churches around the world. The officiant, using ashes, marks the sign of the Cross on each parishioner’s forehead. Then one hears either(in my church) “Repent and believe in the Gospel” or the more familiar “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The ashes themselves are made from burning the fronds from last year’s Palm Sunday service. Ours are mixed with blessed oil, leaving them somewhat tenacious to anyone wishing to quickly remove them. And it does seem to take a degree of bravery these days in the United States to go through the day with a black cross on the forehead.

Being told to repent and turn to the Gospels for how to live and love certainly challenges the bumper sticker “he who dies with the most toys wins.” It similarly refutes the current blame and shame rampant in our culture. And what young “influencer” wants to hear that she is dust?

But I am grateful for both reminders. I am far from perfect and, like the electric train of my childhood, I sometimes need to be put back on the track to run smoothly. In a congregate setting it is immensely reassuring to realize everyone around me is acknowledging the same truth. As for dust? We may be more comfortable with the promises of plastic surgery and joint replacements but deep down we know the statement is true. So, knowing that, how should I conduct myself?

I return tomorrow with my series on access to information and the current political debates about it here. Today is one set aside for contemplation.

“Screens Beckon and Change”

Throughout my childhood and on I went to the movies. In the 1950’s the movies I watched were often dramatic and upsetting. From the death in Bambi to the shooting of the rabid dog in 1957’s Old Yeller, no one seemed intent on keeping me from some of the hard truths of life. Even fantasy could be quite scary. I remember being haunted by the endless reproduction of brooms in Walt Disney’s Fantasia. My little brother went screaming out of the theater when the flying monkeys appeared in The Wizard of Oz. My father, brother and I went to see The Guns of Navarone in 1961, so I know I had seen some war scenes.

Still nothing could have prepared me for the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde. For the first time violence was graphically and chillingly portrayed. At that moment I realized how much I had been protected from such scenes in movies until then. It sickened me in a way that movie goers since, hardened by endless scenes of graphic violence, probably never are.

At the same time television began to broadcast chilling scenes of racial violence. The evening news showed body bags returning from Viet Nam. Seemingly at once I was jolted, in the middle 60’s, out of the cocoon my culture had provided until then. It was a rough awakening to be sure.

“The World Widens”

In 1956 a new way to access information came into our home in the form of a television set. At the time there was only one station and programming was very limited. As a result I never really formed the television watching habits of my younger siblings. Still it did deliver new images that intrigued me.

But the world presented to me during those first years was carefully curated. For instance, married couples slept in twin beds. No one kissed. No one swore. Violence was limited to the wars between “cowboys and Indians.” And the world still looked terribly white. The Lone Ranger had a sidekick named Tonto. Jack Benny had a butler named Rochester. That about summed up the diversity presented to me. Commercials featured white actors only.

I think that many adults who grew up after the 50’s tend to confuse the television portrayal of life with actual life during that time. As my daughter once asked when she was very young “back when you were a kid when everything was in black and white before there was color” what was it like? No one lived like Donna Reed or the Beav in “Leave it to Beaver.” But we were content to enjoy these families, regardless of how unfamiliar they seemed.

Television was calming, never needing any censors or trigger warnings. As children of war veterans we were going to be lovingly protected from much of real life. At least in books and television.

“Gaining Access”

I have spent some time lately thinking about the various ways politicians have been attacking access to books, information, and school curriculum. In the next few posts I will write about them beginning with the access I had to information, books and curriculum growing up.

I was born in 1947, began public school in 1953 and continued to be taught in public schools through my high school graduation in 1965. My experiences during that time were probably typical for a middle class American kid in a medium sized, fairly racially homogeneous(white) city. I welcome comments from any readers whose experiences either echoed mine or were very different.

My access to books came from my school library, the public library and my parents’ collection. The school library had carefully screened books. Even though we had the World Book encyclopedia, when I asked a teacher what its statistics on “venereal disease” meant, she told me it was a disease people gave to each other.

The public library segregated children’s’ books to a special room. To go into the adult section I needed a note from my mother, and even then I had to be twelve. The children’s librarians were fierce defenders of what they considered “literature.” No Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys or Oz books graced their shelves. Those books were definitely not “real” books.

Unbeknownst to me, even on a national level there were books my parents couldn’t add to their collections. Although they were to free to buy Nancy Drew and Oz books for us, they were unable to buy Henry Miller and others for themselves. The sexuality was considered “too extreme.”

I was ignorant about a great deal of life. Tomorrow I discuss how television continued to keep me that way.

“Practical Education 3”

After a few days to deal with car problems, I return with the third skill we learned in the seventh grade from Mrs. McElveny. We were entrusted to run the school store. Situated between the classroom and the audio visual room, the store consisted of a large counter, a place to stand behind it, a change box and assorted classroom supplies in compartments on the counter. We sold pencils, paper, erasers, rubber cement, glue and paper clips.

My favorite offerings were boxes of Ace Reinforcements. We all bought them though none of us ever used them. They were meant to fit over a ripped hole in a sheet of loose-leaf paper thus “reinforcing” it for its return to the binder. As far as I can recall we simply stuck them wherever we felt like, though never on ripped paper holes. I can still recall the exact taste of the glue on these little circles, so I must have bought them too.

We learned to make change, though always for coins. I don’t think anything cost more than 5 cents and I doubt we ever received more than a quarter. Mrs. McElveny kept us supplied in the nickels and dimes we needed to do business transactions with the younger students. Everyone looked forward to being old enough to work in the store, and I had the chance to “wait on” my admiring younger siblings.

I only spent one dreadful year in retail sales, but it was long before cash registers did the work for the clerk. As I made change I remembered how I once thought it would be exciting to work in a “real” store. Sadly the most fun I ever had in sales was many years behind me.

In case you wondered

“Deep Freeze”

Yesterday the temperature plummeted to -6F(-21C) as an unwelcome guest from the Arctic rolled in. The Connecticut River suddenly froze in large chunks. The day before it had been flowing freely. I enjoyed seeing the ice against the walkway as we took this afternoon’s stroll.

Kids were happily skating on the little frozen pond, but spots were already beginning to thaw. I am sure that by tomorrow it will be posted “No Skating.”

“Practical Education 2”

By the time we reached seventh grade in our kindergarten through eighth grade elementary school we were seen as pretty mature by our teachers. We were entrusted with a couple of new responsibilities, including using the audio-visual equipment.

In those days the equipment consisted of an overhead projector, a filmstrip machine, and a movie projector. Using the overhead projector didn’t require much instruction, though we frequently put images up in the wrong direction. The teacher usually ran the filmstrip machine since we were inclined to rush through the strip to get it over with. None of us liked filmstrips.

The biggest privilege was being allowed to go next door into the “movie room” and show films to younger classes. We learned to load the reel, run the movie and then rewind the reel to return it to its container. Left alone with the younger kids, we ran the show. Fortunately their teacher stayed too, so there were no added disciplinary requirements.

My one horrifying mishap occurred early on in my training. Failing to firmly secure the upper reel, I watched in horror as it rolled across the floor, the film unspooling as it went. Fortunately the “movie room” was next door to our seventh grade classroom. Hearing the racket, Mrs. McElveny entered and calmly showed me how to restore everything in time for the younger kids to enter the room.

During my own teaching career I frequently showed movies to my classes. I always remembered to carefully attach the reels and to painstakingly thread the film through the machine. Mrs. McElveny would have been proud knowing her practical education had paid off.

“Practical Education 1”

In seventh grade we had a wonderful, strict, knowledgeable teacher who thought that at twelve we were able to learn some practical skills. The first course she taught us was Junior First Aid, using a teachers’ manual similar to the one pictured above.

Among things we learned that I have never had occasion to use was how to fold a large square of muslin into a sling for an arm. Pinning it together with a safety pin(I don’t think she trusted our knot skills) we could all treat our peers as though they had just broken their arms. While the boys eagerly volunteered to put slings on the girls, Mrs. McElveny restricted us to same sex applications!

We learned to clean wounds, stop bleeding, remove slivers, and know when to exclaim “that is going to need stitches!” I did have occasion to use that phrase several times in my adult life.

The most important lesson I learned was how to treat choking. Since the Heimlich manuever had not been developed, we were to use a sharp slap on the back of a bent over person. She did not have us practice this since she knew the mayhem that would result. Instead she used a doll as a prop. But some months later I went into the kitchen and saw my four year old sister sitting on the counter, box of dried prunes in her hand, looking stricken. Realizing she was choking, I hauled her down, put her over my arm and hit her hard on the back. The prune came flying out and she was able to breathe.

My sister went screaming to my mother that I had hit her! But I had a good story to tell my first aid teacher who was appropriately impressed.

“Expecting Addition”

Some of you may remember that last summer we lost our beloved dog in a tragic accident. While we have never been without a dog, that trauma took a toll and we weren’t sure we wanted another one. However, after much discussion we decided to look for a new puppy. While there is much to be said for rescuing a dog, I prefer puppies. I guess I don’t have the energy to deal with the issues a rescue sometimes brings along.

I went through pictures and descriptions of many breeds hoping that one would appeal to us. While we have always had Australian Shepherds, we were ready for a smaller dog less in need of vigorous daily exercise. One day walking in the park we talked with a woman whose dog attracted us. He was a cocker spaniel/poodle mix and just the right size and temperment.

Needing to avoid pet stores and puppy mills, I finally found a woman in nearby(2 hours)Rhode Island whose female cocker and male poodle had puppies in early January. We drove over yesterday, met the lovely caring woman, the cocker(at a distance since she was protecting her pups)and the spunky male poodle. Above is the female we picked out and will be able to take home March 3.

Be assured. More pictures and a chosen name will appear in future posts.