Skip to main content

Aunt Julia’s Movie Code

July 2024
9min read

Back in the twenties, before, chances are, Jack Valenti and Linda Lovelace were even born, my Aunt Julia developed her own movie-rating system. This was based not on the movies themselves but on the stars who appeared in them. No G’S or R’S or X’S for Aunt Julia. A movie either had the right sort of star, in which case it was given a clean bill of health and we kids were sent off to see it with the dimes for our tickets clutched in our hands, or it didn’t, in which case it was put on Aunt Julia’s index and we kids were forbidden even to look at the theatre displays. Since we passed the Lyric, our local cinema, on our way to and from school, this restriction was difficult to enforce, especially as the Lyric’s management didn’t give a hoot how debauched our young minds became—an unconcern we shared with them.

Aunt Julia was actually Mother’s aunt, our grandaunt. She was a widow who had been modestly provided for in those pre-social security days by her late husband, and she lived with us in the spare room as a combination board-paying guest and censor in residence. The movies were her one extravagance (matinées were then fifteen cents for adults—later increased to twenty over Aunt Julia’s vehement protests) and her only dissipation. Having little to do but take care of her own room and her personal laundry and “put up” fruits and vegetables in season with Mother, she had plenty of time on her hands and could easily manage to see all of the films at the Lyric, whose programs were generally changed thrice a week except when some contemporary blockbuster was booked. Thus Aunt Julia could attend the first days’ showings of films and decide whether they were fit for our parents and us kids. Even Mother and Dad never, to my knowledge, risked the eternal damnation implicit in ignoring her fiats.

As a censor Aunt Julia was no better than any other censor I’ve ever run across, and I’m not going to let ties of blood persuade me she was. She had all the crotchets and prejudices, all the capriciousness and wrong-headedness of the breed, and it is pretty difficult, albeit fascinating, at this late date to try to follow her lines of reasoning.

Probably no actor of the day was held in higher esteem by Aunt Julia than Richard Dix, and although my memory of his films has been dimmed by time and their notable forgettableness, a recent check of some of their titles would seem to indicate her confidence in him may have been, to a degree, misplaced. (I don’t believe I ever saw The Sin Flood or Souls for Sale , but they sound more like Georgina Spelvin opera than the sort of film that would win Aunt Julia’s imprimatur, so perhaps they didn’t play the Lyric.)

Mr. Dix was a handsome, strongjawed actor who gave the impression, even when he laughed, of being utterly humorless, but one never doubted that his heart was in the right place. Many of his films were comedydramas, and what little I recall lingers on as rather funny and exciting, which is hard to explain, since I think of Dix as neither. Be that as it may, Aunt Julia invariably cleared his films for children’s consumption until he got mixed up in the first version of Cecil B. De Mule’s The Ten Commandments . Said she firmly, “Sunday school and not the Lyric is the place to find out what thou shall not do.” Dix was removed from her approved list until he appeared in The Shock Punch a year or two later.

I might point out here that Aunt Julia, long before the age of McCarthy, had developed guilt by association as one of her basic censorship tools. Thomas Meighan, another favorite of hers, made the mistake of appearing with Gloria Swanson in a film called Male and Female , which was based on Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton . In the play Crichton the butler, whose natural superiority, once he has broken out of the British class system, makes him the leader of a group of shipwrecked upper crusters, quotes Henley’s lines “I was a king in Babylon / And you were a Christian slave” to Lady Mary, the object of his affections and the daughter of his employer, Lord Loam. In the movie this became the excuse for a big previous-incarnation flashback in which Lady Mary (Swanson), now a Christian slave, cavorts in a fur chemise and tries to make points with Crichton (Meighan), now an imperial Babylonian. Aunt Julia, quite correctly, I imagine, put the whole business down as a barefaced attempt to stir up the troops and relegated Meighan to her doghouse for a couple of films for his part in the tawdry business.

But to return to The Ten Commandments for a moment: Aunt Julia’s objection to the film was probably due less to the danger of us kids getting some unauthorized or premature scoop on adultery or coveting our neighbor’s wife than it was to exposing us to the slinky likes of Nita Naldi, who was also in the film as a fugitive leper who seduces Rod La Rocque, Dix’s weak brother, and is later killed by Rod. Just as Dix usually won Aunt Julia’s seal of approval, so actresses like Nita Naldi—and I must say that, generally speaking, Aunt Julia came down more heavily on her own sex than she did on the men—received her thumbs-down medal with oak-leaf clusters. Nita, who was always up to no good cinematically, was one of Aunt Julia’s special bêtes noires. No weakkneed husband or impressionable youth should be allowed in a darkened theatre with Nita, Aunt Julia held.

Others sharing top billing with Naldi in Aunt Julia’s disfavor were PoIa Negri, Jetta Goudal, Betty Compson, Betty Blythe, Aileen Pringle, Mae Busch—for all her sinister roles—and Gloria Swanson, as already cited, to name a few. Although Miss Swanson was one of the biggest stars of the day, she didn’t cut any ice with Aunt Julia. A good many of the glamorous star’s films had racy titles— Don’t Change Your Husband, Why Change Your Wife?, Don’t Tell Everything, Manhandled , etc.—which may have turned Aunt Julia off instead of on, as intended. Catchy and suggestive titles that promised much but had a relatively low erotic yield were big in those days. Then there were some famous stills of Miss Swanson in bathtubs, which probably didn’t do her any good either. With Aunt Julia a bath was something between you and your Maker.

Another actress Aunt Julia couldn’t abide was a star none of my surviving friends seems even to recall these days, Priscilla Dean. One certainly wouldn’t expect any hanky-panky from anyone with a staid American name like that, yet a search of the records indicates Miss Dean appeared in such items as Two-Soul Woman, The Virgin of Stamboul (titles with “virgin” in them raised all sorts of sticky questions), Siren of Seville , and Outside the Law , in addition to playing the heroine in Ouida’s exciting tear-jerker Under Two Flags . It stood to reason that anyone who played a character named Cigarette was no one to crunch Necco wafers with for five reels, big climactic deathscene redemption or no big climactic death-scene redemption.

Certain actors and actresses, however, never evoked a raised eyebrow from Aunt Julia, and their films went sailing past her scrutiny unchallenged, like those of Richard Dix. Such stars included Harold Lloyd, Jackie Coogan, Baby Peggy, Mary Pickford, Mabel Normand, Dorothy Gish, Wesley Barry, Ben Alexander, Charles Ray, Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Harry Carey, and the whole Farnum clan—William, Dustin, and Franklyn. She was not unaware, of course, of the scandals in some of the stars’ private lives, but since her feelings about them were conditioned by a kind of chemical reaction brought on by their celluloid images, it didn’t matter too much what they did offscreen—short of going to jail or being unfrocked by Will Hays- although she was sometimes pained by their aberrant behavior. For example, she could never understand why Mary Pickford divorced “that nice Owen Moore.” She was very fond of the Moore brothers, who, besides the jettisoned Owen, were Tom and Matt.

You may have noted in the preceding paragraph, where I listed some of Aunt Julia’s anointed, that I mentioned Dorothy Gish but not her more ethereal and famous sister, Lillian. This was not an oversight. Aunt Julia just didn’t cotton to the elder Gish. “I’m sure Lillian’s a nice girl,” she explained, “but she seems to bring out the worst in a man”—a view I’m sure she felt was vindicated by Lillian’s subsequent involvement, as Hester Prynne, with the Reverend Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter . Aunt Julia couldn’t conceal her smugness as she observed, “I knew it was bound to happen to that girl one of these days!”

It might also be mentioned in this connection that Aunt Julia frequently condoned the lecherous lurchings of villains like Walter Long, the Beery brothers—Wallace and Noah—Matthew Betz, et al. , on the grounds that the frail blonde creatures they chased all over the screen had probably not discouraged the gentlemen’s base desires vigorously enough. “I’m sure Wallace Beery wouldn’t hurt a fly if he didn’t have his hopes raised by certain people,” she said tartly. She was greatly pleased by Mr. Beery’s subsequent transformation from frustrated rapist to lovable bum and became one of his most devoted fans in her declining years.

There were male stars whom Aunt Julia held in as little esteem as she did the Naldis and the Goudals. As I recall, these included Lew Cody, Norman Kerry, John Gilbert, Rod La Rocque, Adolphe Menjou, John Barrymore, and Lowell Sherman. The only thing these actors had in common was a mustache, and even these were not in evidence at all seasons, as some of the stars were deciduous; but I think that was the basis of Aunt Julia’s disapprobation, as she could not abide a hairy lip. I remember the time when her only son, Albert, who had settled in Kansas City, Missouri, returned home on a visit and was almost turned away because he was wearing a mustache. Albert shaved his off the next morning before breakfast, but none of Aunt Julia’s blacklisted stars ever went that far to curry favor with her.

It should be pointed out here, in all fairness, that Ronald Colman’s mustache achieved a kind of invisibility for Aunt Julia. “You just don’t seem to notice it on him ” was her explanation for not holding Colman’s lip décor against him. Similarly, she tolerated without condoning the mustache that Douglas Fairbanks wore in some of his films, but only because he was Mary Pickford’s husband.

One star who always maintained a high position in Aunt Julia’s low regard and whose pictures remained forever beyond the pale was Erich von Stroheim, who was billed as “the man you love to hate,” something Aunt Julia accepted as a categorical imperative. This was partly due to the anti-German passions that had been aroused by World War I and were slow to cool where anyone like Stroheim, who seemed the very personification of hated Hunnishness, was concerned—what with his shaved head, his wrinkled bullneck, his monocle, his swagger stick, and his arrogant ways. His Blind Husbands and Foolish Wives were further affronts to Aunt Julia, who contended he had the disabilities transposed. She acted as if the very air were polluted whenever the Lyric was showing his films, all of which, incidentally, she saw, though generally none of the rest of us did. Aunt Julia was not one to shrink from the responsibilities of her calling.

But lower even than Stroheim on Aunt Julia’s totem pole was the idol of millions of women in that day, the sheik himself, Rudolph Valentino. It is difficult to explain her feelings about the Great Lover except to say they were probably ambivalent, a word not too extensively bandied at our house in the twenties. On the one hand, although she was sixty if she was a day at the time, she may have felt he posed some obscure threat to her womanhood, while on the other hand she may have felt no threat whatsoever, which was just as bad. Although something of a Wasp, Aunt Julia did not let this inflame her passions too violently, except where Al Smith and the pope were concerned, and she actually looked with favor on other Latin types such as Antonio Moreno—when he wasn’t sporting a mustache—Ramon Novarro, and the Viennese Ricardo Cortez, né Jack Kranz.

I am not sure at this late date whether her Valentino phobia began with The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse or with The Sheik , when the burnoosed Rudy, showing the whites of his eyes and his teeth and baring his chest, carted Agnes Ayres off to his tent for purposes best only privately conjectured or left to the gamy parodists of the contemporary song hit “The Sheik of Araby.” But whenever it may have begun, it was both violent and virulent, and it kept us kids from seeing any of the Valentino oeuvre; if our parents saw any of them, they did so by sneaking off to the nine o’clock show and were careful to keep the fact quiet along with the rest of their guilty adult secrets.

Aunt Julia never did find a word opprobrious enough, yet suitable for mixed company and tender ears, to describe Valentino properly. He was “That…that… that …,” a creature who could only be left to bob around in unresolved splutter. Since Stroheim, well within the limits of coherence, could at least be categorized as a Hun, it was clear Aunt Julia felt Valentino was worse than the man who sank defenseless ships and had his swinish way with Belgian virgins.

In view of this we were hardly prepared for her reaction on that day in August, 1926, when Mrs. Meade, our next-door neighbor, rushed over to tell us her husband had just phoned from the hardware store he operated to say Valentino had died, maybe had even been poisoned. Aunt Julia at first said it was all a publicity stunt, and the next thing we could expect to hear was that he had been revived and was going to marry PoIa Negri. However, as subsequent reports and the arrival of the New York papers, especially the News , the Mirror , and the Graphic , flamboyantly confirmed and embellished Mrs. Meade’s simple bulletin, Aunt Julia’s attitude toward the departed idol underwent a startling change. He was, she asserted, not a bad man at heart, and she was sure he meant no harm with his sleek-haired foreign ways; in fact, it wouldn’t surprise her a bit if underneath it all he was no worse than some of your cleancut 100 per cent American stars who suddenly turned out to be dope fiends. By the time the Lyric had shown the newsreels of the Campbell Funeral Home spectacular, with the thousands of “mourners” fighting themselves and the police for a view of the body of the ill-fated Valentino, Aunt Julia had absolved him of all his sins, real or fancied.

Later when the Lyric, cashing in on the publicity following the death of the star, revived The Sheik , Aunt Julia attended the show as if it were some kind of memorial service. She eventually gave it her equivalent of a G rating, but by then it was too late for us kids to see it and find out how it compared with the raunchier parodies of “The Sheik of Araby.”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.