Sunday, August 17, 2014

Obscuring the Obvious

Back in 1956, a woman named Grace Metalious wrote the novel of her lifetime, Peyton Place.  It had it all...rape, incest, promiscuity, money, poverty, New England (four towns thinly disguised) and murder.  Instantly, it became a bestseller, sitting on the NYT bestseller list for 59 weeks.  Just goes to show you what the reading public wanted back then.
Move ahead to 1957 when it was dramatized for television.  So many characters, so many threads, so many arcs to follow, but one sticks in my mind.

Recently widowed, Constance MacKenzie comes back to her hometown with a baby girl, Allison.  She is beautiful and tries to live the quiet life...for a reason.  Her widowhood does not bear close examination because Allison was born out of wedlock...way out of wedlock and back then, in 1957, by all accounts, that was enough to have a scarlet letter sewn on her dress.  She hides her daughter's illegitimacy by buying a framed photograph at Woolworth's of a soldier and standing it on the mantel of their fireplace.

Time passes.  Allison (Mia Farrow) grows up, goes to high school.  She is pursued by the son of the richest man in town, Rodney Harrington.  Now, in the book, old Rod is killed in a car crash.  He lives quite well in the TV show, played by the actor who now plays Bones's father (Ryan O'Neal) on the show of that name.  He has a younger brother, but the father, the richest guy in town, of course favors his older son, much to the regret of the younger.  That comes into play later.

Allison doesn't know she hides a Big Secret.  She would LOVE to marry Rodney, but somebody shows up who knows either 1. she's fatherless or 2. also bought the same picture frame at Woolworth's.  The jig, as they say, is up.

Allison is crushed to learn she was born on the other side of the blanket from her mother.  Her tiny New England town would be aghast and certainly, Rodney will shun her along with everyone else for this fact.
Little does she, and the other people in town know what the truth about marriage among the Puritans was really like.
You see, back in the old, old days, despite the bundling boards and that nonsense, something like 2/3 of all marriages took place because the woman had already conceived the intended's child.  It was proof that she could bear children and thus help out on the family farm or enterprise in the future. As long as the couple were married within a certain amount of time (when were shotguns invented?) the child would be deemed legitimate. This is historical fact, though well hidden by the Victorian/American morality that was to follow our puritanical forebears.  I'll try to find something to cite here, but I can't remember where I heard this or read it, so it might take awhile. (Blossoms in the Dust w/ Greer Garson as Edna Gladney)

Now, look at today.  The TV censors wouldn't blink at this situation.  It was hot stuff back when I had to ask what illegitimacy meant.  My mother produced my father's 1918 birth certificate that had in the corner, a check box for legitimate or illegitimate.  Hers, from 1920, did not have this.  Thanks to someone who cared about children, this was taken off all birth certificates in the US by 1926, so that these little babies would not suffer the sins of their parents.  There was a  movie based on the woman responsible for this, can't remember the name, though. 

Today, none of this would matter, not really.
Movie stars, rock stars, government officials...they are affianced to their baby mamas and baby daddies.  Nobody blinks.

Poor Allison.  She left town and Rodney in shame.  Here's where Rodney could have died in a car crash, though. If she could just have held out a little longer, or possibly killed the person who knew her deep, dark secret!  And then her mother, because she knew, too.  Now that would have been pretty dramatic, even in 1959.

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