“Culture is a little like dropping an Alka-Seltzer into a glass. You don’t see it, but somehow it does something.” — Hans Magnus Enzensberger
- Not Dead and Still Buried
Taphephobia. Greek for “fear of the grave.” With science and medicine such as it was for hundreds of years, it was not uncommon for men and women — rich and poor, educated or not, famous (http://mentalfloss NULL.com/article/64180/10-famous-people-who-were-afraid-theyd-be-buried-alive), infamous, or otherwise —to be afraid of being entombed alive. On his deathbed, George Washington apparently told his secretary that “”I am just going. Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead.” Spoiler: he did die, and was buried at Mount Vernon in 1799. He was not later found to have bloodied his fingers by scratching at his coffin or chewing the tips for basic sustenance. He did not become one of the undead (though undoubtedly, someone is right now working on a novel to that effect). But he did have a very real fear that many shared in the 18th and 19th centuries: being buried alive.
The earliest known written reference of a premature burial comes from Pliny the Elder in his Natural History of 77 AD. In a chapter entitled “Persons Who Have Come to Live Again After Being Laid Out for Burial,” Pliny recounts tales of people waking up after being declared dead. Fast forward to the 14th century, and there’s the story of philosopher John Duns Scotus, reportedly found outside his coffin with bloodied hands. Three hundred years later, and European rationalists would be stymied by a vampire craze — fueled by bloody bodies of exhumed corpses that were said to run amok at night and plague their families. But one need only Google for a few minutes to find modern cases of premature burial. As recently as just a few short months ago, a Brazilian woman claims to have been buried alive (https://www NULL.independent NULL.co NULL.uk/news/world/americas/woman-buried-alive-coffin-brazil-11-days-rosangela-almeida-dos-santos-a8213646 NULL.html), spending 11 days trying to get out of her coffin.
Curiously, though, the most widespread cultural obsession with being buried alive is found in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most famously captured in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Premature Burial (https://www NULL.gutenberg NULL.org/files/2148/2148-h/2148-h NULL.htm#link2H_4_0015) (1844) — where (spoiler) the real fear comes from an overactive imagination or fevered dream — the panic and paranoia felt by the 18th and 19th century taphephobe can, in many ways, be blamed on a distrust of one’s doctor(s) to properly certify death, and an all-too-ready cadre of family, friends, and neighbors who were quick to get the body into the grave — mostly, for fear of spreading disease.
It is the latter that may explain some of the vampire hysteria that began in eastern Europe and spread west as far as Austria and Germany in the 1700s. As early as the 1670s, doctors wrote treatises about ‘grave eating’ where bodies were exhumed and found to have eaten their own shrouds or feasted on their own fingers. Bubonic plague lasted until as late as 1750, and it is understandable that villages throughout Europe feared that dead bodies could spread disease. Folklore of the vampire from Eastern Europe coupled with writers spreading the tale of Arnold Paole (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Arnold_Paole) in Germany in 1732 added fuel to the fire that undead bodies, rising from their graves, could spread a disease, too.
Symptoms of tuberculosis, for example — light-sensitive eyes, pale skin, low body heat, coughing up blood — could easily be misconstrued as victimization by vampires. Many of those who passed from such a disease would have been buried in haste. As others fell victim, and a vampire suspected, exhumation seemed logical. Kill the vampire and prevent the spread of the disease. When the body — due to the natural bloating, bubbling of bodily fluids, and shrinkage of the skin we now know are associated with decomposition — was exhumed, it must have been a shock. To the superstitious, the undead were blamed. To the rational, there was suspicion of accidental premature burial. To some, both were a possibility. Physicians studying this so-called vampire epidemic of the eighteenth century wrote over a dozen articles in professional journals about the subject, along with numerous treatises. In some parts of Europe, there was widespread panic that vampirism would spread much like the plague.
It was modern-day folklorist Paul Barber — in his seminal Vampires, Burial, and Death (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Vampires-Burial-Death-Folklore-Reality/dp/0300048599) — who most effectively argued that the incidence of presumed vampirism or being burial alive has been overestimated, and that the normal effects of decomposition are mistaken for signs of life. And as the Enlightenment gave way to more scientific explanations of all things related to death, it was serious medical doctors, not priests or doctors of philosophy, who were looked to as authorities on death and disease.
But did medical doctors sometimes get it wrong? Were certified deaths sometimes the result of a doctor not noticing a faint heartbeat or weakened breath? Unlikely. But as the superstitions of the eighteenth century gave way to the more scientific approaches to death of the nineteenth, it’s not without reason that people began to — and rightfully so — fear doctors. After all, it was quacks like Moore Russell Fletcher, M.D. who published as late as 1884 his “One Thousand Persons Buried Alive by Their Best Friends”, a pamphlet placed inside the back of a textbook on common ailments and diagnoses: Our Home Doctor. Books like these contributed to the paranoia that being buried alive was a real possibility (really, “one thousand persons”!).
Outbreaks of Cholera in the mid to late nineteenth century — such as that in and around 1854 when Antoine Wiertz painted his ‘L’Inhumation Precipitee’ (the work that appears in the feature section of this post) — did much to fuel the fire of ignorance and fear.
Such fear led to the formation of some curious clubs — among them, The London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial, founded by Dr. William Tebb of Manchester (who also wrote a book on the subject, available in its entirety, here (http://www NULL.gutenberg NULL.org/ebooks/50460?msg=welcome_stranger)). His 1896 treatise is definitely a far more credible examination of the possible causes of, and ways to avoid premature burial than Fletcher’s (again, one thousand persons???); at nearly 400 pages, Tebb’s book is quite comprehensive, leading one to believe that the phenomenon was quite prevalent and quite real as the nineteenth century came to a close. Of course, modern-day scholars say it wasn’t, but that doesn’t make the beliefs any less potent.
Ardent beliefs certainly explain the prevalence of devices invented by enterprising men to combat premature burial at its source — from within the grave itself.
The first recorded of these, a safety coffin, was ordered by Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick in 1792. It was equipped with keys to open the coffin and, should there be one, the mausoleum door. There was even a window for light, and an air tube.
In 1829, Johann Taberger created a bell system that had ropes attached to the body so any slight movement would alert night watchman in the cemetery. In 1868, Franz Vester revealed his “Burial Case” — a coffin which included a tube for a curious passerby to see the face of the corpse. A nobleman, Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki, patented a coffin in 1897. His coffin also detected movement, and would open a tube to supply air along with not only ringing bells but also raising a flag. Yet, despite the effort put in to making these devices, there’s no evidence that they ever actually saved anyone’s life.
This is not to say that people were no prematurely buried. Many an article online (http://www NULL.dailymail NULL.co NULL.uk/news/article-2289355/Let-coffin-Im-alive-New-book-reveals-spine-chilling-true-stories-premature-burial NULL.html) documents case after case in the nineteenth AND twentieth centuries. Authors and filmmakers a century after Poe wrote his seminal tale continue to fan the flames of this fear of being placed alive in one’s grave. There was even a most effective (and well reviewed) modern thriller, 2010’s Buried (https://www NULL.rottentomatoes NULL.com/m/buried/), that made the fear of live burial very much a possibility in this, the twenty-first century.
But is it all fiction? Actual or embellished, stories like the aforementioned Brazilian (https://www NULL.independent NULL.co NULL.uk/news/world/americas/woman-buried-alive-coffin-brazil-11-days-rosangela-almeida-dos-santos-a8213646 NULL.html) keep alive (pun intended) the notion that premature burial, even in the age of modern medicine, is still a possibility.Continue reading →
- Murder, Prostitution & What It’s Like to be God: Five Films from Pre-Code Hollywood
The early years of talking motion pictures were not the glory days of wholesome family values. To the contrary, films of the “Golden Age” of Hollywood showed as much skin, violence, and all-around debauchery as your average gangsta rap video. Oh, and there were plenty of gangsters, too. And prostitutes. And murderers. Even a doctor who thought he was God.
In the period often referred to as “pre-code” Hollywood, a good motto for filmmakers would have been “Anything Goes (https://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=Wd1w5tn040g)” — a Cole Porter song of the period. Indeed, for an actress like Ginger Rogers, “a glimpse of stocking” was really, nothing shocking in the 1930s, and — as early the 1920s, when “damn” was common in the intertitles of silent movies — writers did “use four-letter words.” Released in 1934, “Anything Goes” was an extremely successful musical, and the song, popular at parties. But the party for Hollywood would soon be over, as 1934 was also the year that enforcement of the restrictive Hays Code (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Motion_Picture_Production_Code) began.
Former Postmaster General Will Hays — for whom the code is named — started his crusade in 1922, during the age of silent films. Themes were quite adult in the age of the silent film. A world war and criminal element that came with Prohibition had hardened hearts to scenes of violence; and the roaring twenties brought with them a sexual promiscuity that had never before been seen in American society. But scandals like the arrest and trial of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle on manslaughter charges enraged moralists; Arbuckle was aquited, but not before the newspapers of the day sullied his reputation and put all of Hollywood on trial. Social reformers, the clergy, and much of middle America began to blame Hollywood for societal ills. Bolstered by religious and civic leaders aghast at the content of (now) talkies, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) began to take notice. And Hays became its president.
In agreement that some restrictions be put in place, the film industry met with Hays’s office; the result was the introduction of his “Formula” in 1924. It asked that filmmakers to provide plots of films be provided to his office before production began. His efforts were somewhat futile at the beginning, but public sentiment forced the hands of studio heads just a few years later.
In 1927, the studios came together again to establish a list of thirty-six self-imposed “Don’ts” and “Be Carefuls.” These included everything from “licentious or suggestive nudity” to “ridicule of the clergy.” But there were no penalties or enforcement. Other crusaders like Martin Quigley (editor of the Motion Picture Herald) and a Catholic priest named Daniel Lord tried to impose their own codes in 1929. Of course, the Great Depression was more of a concern for most folks, and Hollywood saw itself as producing needed escape from the drudgery of daily life. For a few short months, no code would be enforced. But that all changed in 1930. In February of that year, several studio heads — including Irving Thalberg of MGM — met with Lord and Quigley. After some revisions, they agreed to the stipulations of a revised code. One of the main motivating factors in adopting this code was to avoid direct government intervention. So on March 31, 1930, the MPPDA agreed it would abide by the revisions.
Still, Hays had no real power.
In 1931, The Hollywood Reporter mocked the code, quoting an anonymous screenwriter who said “the Hays moral code is not even a joke… it’s just a memory.” For at least a few years, then, Hollywood’s little secret was that, pretty much, anything goes.
But by June 13, 1934, an amendment to the code established the Production Code Administration (PCA) which required all films released on or after July 1 of that year to obtain a certificate of approval before being shown.
Among the more infamous films made before June, 1934, the following five stand out as perhaps the most controversial.
SAFE IN HELL (1931)
Billed as a comedy, SAFE IN HELL tells the story of a New Orleans prostitute named Gilda (Dorothy Mackail, whose photo is seen in the marquee area of this post). Early on, she accused of murdering Val, the man who led her into prostitution. To help her evade the authorities, old boyfriend, Carl, helps smuggle her to safety on a Caribbean island. They are to marry, but he must leave on business, promising to return. Meanwhile, a Mr. Bruno — the island’s self-described jailer and executioner — makes advances on Gilda, as do many of the criminals on the island; Bruno even intercepts money and letters from the boyfriend in an effort to crush her spirits.
Soon, the audience learns that Val is not dead. Gilda is terrified, and given a gun by Bruno to protect herself. It comes in handy when Val tries to rape her. She kills him and then is put on trial for murder. A sympathetic jury is about to acquit her when Bruno threatens, regardless of verdict, to arrest her for possessing the murder weapon (it makes little sense, I know, but remember, Bruno pretty much controls the island). The sentence would have Gilda at his mercy, with the implication that she would have to perform sexual favors. Defying Bruno, Gilda returns to the judge and gives a false confession of killing Val. Presumably, she is so embarassed and humiliated byt the situation (and the movie itself), that she prefers execution. The film ends with Gilda being taken to the gallows.
Criticized in the press for being implausible, sordid — even depressing — the film did not receive many good reviews. Tonally, it is quite dark. Rape of the main character is a repeated threat throughout, and the ending is quite a downer. How anyone could have ever promoted it as a comedy is beyond me.
The plot of Universal’s FRANKENSTEIN is (or at least should be) well known. Sure, there’s the monster (innocently?) drowning a little girl (a scene cut from the original release in many states, including NY, MA, and PA) and the unease of costumed Karloff in a young woman’s boudoir, but it is when Colin Clive’s monster comes alive that the public was shocked — and not just by Jack Pierce’s brilliant makeup. Instead, it is Clive’s cry of “now I know what it’s like to be God,” that was scandalous.
The aforementioned states of New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania removed the line altogether from the film. The state of Kansas removed even more. FRANKENSTEIN was banned outright in several foreign countries — all of which makes one wonder which was worse to the audiences of the 1930s: a little girl’s murder, or a man who got a little too excited when he resurrected the dead.
RED-HEADED WOMAN (1932)
Seduction. Blackmail. Attempted murder. RED-HEADED WOMAN finds Jean Harlow (known, actually, for being blonde) as Lilian “Lil” Andrews, a woman from Ohio with little prospects who is determined to improve her station in life — even if it means destroying relationships along the way.
First, she breaks up her wealthy boss Bill’s marriage. The affair leads to her marriage to Bill. which Lil then uses as a stepping stone to be accepted in high society. But when the scandal doesn’t fit well with the high society types, Lil moves on and bedding Charles, a coal tycoon. When said tycoon throws a lavish party for her, Lil is humiliated by still not being accepted by the high society crowd (they apparently have really high standards). She then moves to New York, where she has yet another affair — this time with a French chauffeur named Albert. Bill has followed her, and after hiring a private detective, now has proof of his wife’s affairs. He confronts Charles with the evidence.
When Lil learns that Charles has become aware of her latest affair, she returns to Bill — only he has reconciled with his ex-wife. Filled with rage, Lil shoots him. Bill survives, but out of feelings for her, refuses to press charges. He does, however, divorce her.
Years pass, and Bill eventually sees Lil again, this time at a racetrack in Paris. in the company of an old Frenchman (the implication being that, yes, she has moved on to her next affair). The movie ends with Lil and her elderly companion getting into a limousine driven by Albert, who apparently is either not bothered by the new arrangement, or is maybe part of a threesome (ok, maybe I was the only one thinking that).
In its review, The Motion Picture Herald wrote: “Sexy, racy, bristling with snappy dialogue, funny, Red-Headed Woman is loaded with dynamite that can be dynamic entertainment, or an explosion of objections unless you handle it properly…” The film was a success, and oddly enough created a popular anti-hero out of Lil as an independent woman and female libertine. So confident in her skin, she spends much of the film in various states of undress. But it was the suggestion that a loose woman could succeed by acting so badly (pun intended) that rubbed some audience members the wrong way.
THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE (1933)
A film that created a commotion before filming even began, THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE was based on a highly controversial novel (Sanctuary) by William Faulkner.
In the film adaptation, the titular character, a young woman from a prominent Mississippi family, is raped and forced into prostitution by a bootlegger named Trigger. Trigger, a sort of backwoods gangster, is such a bad guy that he not only rapes Temple, but murders a young boy who tries to protect her. When another man is charged with the murder, Temple tries to leave Trigger, but he threatens her with bodily harm. She grabs his gun, and shoots Trigger dead.
After returning to her family, Temple is persuaded by a kindly lawyer to tell the truth about the first murder in front of a jury in order to save the defendant’s life. But Temple is ashamed of the rape and her time as a prostitute. She perjures herself in court, resulting in the execution of an innocent man.
Modern film critics and theorists have spent some time over the years debating if Temple’s actions are to be seen as the tragic result of being victimized, or the evolution in sin for a woman who enjoyed being a gangster’s moll but was ashamed of her own decisions. Certainly, the promotional materials of the time did not know how to “sell” the film. She is referred to as “the dramatic victim of her own desire” in an ad from the Beatrice Daily Sun in August 1933. Made to be the archetypal bad girl, she is given little sympathy and made to appear as if she brought the tragic events of her life on herself. The novel on which the film is based blurs such lines even further. But with rape and murder essential to their respective plots, it is easy to see how filmgoers and fans of the Hays Code would question if there were any clearly defined lines of morality at all?
GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (1933)
Busby Berkeley’s lavish production numbers in GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 left little of the female form to the imagination. Costumes were deemed too skimpy, and dance routines, lewd. Ginger Rogers, dressed in little more than glittering coins shows off her, um, assets during her (quite literal) solo: “We’re in the Money.”
Based on a play that ran between 1919 and 1920, as well as a silent film in 1923 then a successful talkie in 1929, GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 was one of the highest grossing pictures in the year of its release. A fun-filled spectacle, it was light entertainment for an audience dealing with the Great Depression. In fact, many references to the Great Depression are made in the film, raising the ritz and glitz of the picture above the stark, depressing realities of everyday living. So how could this kind of entertainment raised the ire of those who wanted to institute a code of conduct for filmmakers?
Easy. The suggestion of easy women, to be precise.
The plot is pretty simple. Trying to find work in an industry out of step with everyday societal woes, four showgirls compete for roles in a new Broadway revue. When the show becomes a success, the girls find themselves accused of being gold diggers by the high society crowd. One girl, Carol (played by former vaudeville actress Joan Blondell), is outright labeled “cheap and vulgar.”
It all ends happily with three of the four girls married. But not before four major lavish musical numbers involving women in various stages of undress.
Some states heavily censored the racy “Pettin’ in the Park” routine where girls get soaked in the rain and have to change clothes behind sheer screens. Later, dozens of women lay about in the grass, getting groped by their suitors. A 9-year-old Billy Barty — who would later go on to television fame as the dwarf in Spike Jones’ ensemble — almost loses his ball up a woman’s skirt. It’s a little bizarre. And while it may seem innocent by today’s standards, the voyeurism and sexual innuendo were in definite violation of the code.
A year after the film’s release, the Code went into effect. More innocent musicals and light-hearted comedies would become popular. Much of sexuality and violence was implied, and truly adult themes were kept to the shadows.
Thus, the age of Pre-Code Hollywood came to a close. Films of the late thirties and nineteen forties were relatively tame. Moralists were happy that few couples shared beds, bad guys always got what was coming to them (often, off-screen), and bad girls? They were few and far between.
But, as it always does, culture shifts. A second world war would shake things up. Film noir, with its femme fatales, reintroduced the truly bad guy, and the sultry bad girl — like Ava Gardner in The Killers (1946). Post-war cinema laid the groundwork for the more mature offerings of the 1950s and 60s. A new wave of European cinema along with competition from a medium built for more wholesome entertainment — television — meant the Hollywood would once again openly challenge social mores. In all practicality, the return of sex, violence, and other adult themes to movies may have been motivated by the need to simply compete with TV and get butts back in the seats.
Otto Preminger alone would push boundaries with three of his films in the nineteen fifties: The Moon is Blue (1953) — with its adult themes of sexuality; The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) — openly about drug abuse; and Anatomy of a Murder (1959) — which dealt with rape and, as the title makes clear, murder. But it is with The Moon is Blue that Preminger came up against the Hays Code. From 1934 to 1954, Joseph Breen was the administrator appointed by Hays to enforce the code. The Breen office told Preminger that his screenplay violated the code for its open “treatment of illicit sex and seduction.” Preminger made changes. Breen’s office still objected, and Preminger went ahead and made the movie anyway.
Come the 1960s, more films challenged the code: Psycho (1960) — with its violence; The Pawnbroker (1964) — with nudity in, of all places, a concentration camp; and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) — full of what was deemed at the time to be foul language. Woolf? had the distinction of being the first to bear the “Suggested for Mature Audiences” label. The fact that it also won several Academy Awards (http://www NULL.tcm NULL.com/tcmdb/title/95743/Who-s-Afraid-of-Virginia-Woolf-/awards NULL.html) meant that, by 1966, filmmakers were becoming aware that audiences were ready for a change.
The Hays office would none too coincidentally close the year that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was released, and the MPAA film rating system we know today went into effect soon thereafter,Continue reading →