Wicked Woman Warning

Old vices come back to haunt us.


This is an old Life magazine photo, snapped in 1946 by photographer A.L. Schafer (and copyrighted by him). There's a dead cop in the picture, and standing over his body, a gun in her right hand, is a dissipated blond in a black lace nightgown that's slipping off her shoulder and revealing her cleavage.

The blond's got a reefer in her mouth, and an empty glass in her left hand. The glass may well have had liquor in it; at least one can make out a liquor bottle on the table in the shadowy background. The woman's even got her foot propped on the cop's back, as if she was a hunter and he the downed game; you can see the inner length of her leg.

What happened here? Some person must have fled the scene before the photo was taken, because on the table with the liquor bottle is a scattered deck of cards. Maybe the cop came into this room alone and unaware of what he would find. Maybe what he encountered was this woman and another person who was even more heavily armed than she is. One can see that a tommy gun has been left behind, and has ended up leaning against the now-dead policeman.

How did photographer Schafer manage to get such a dramatic picture? Easy: He set it up. It's a fake. But Schafer never intended to deceive anyone with his image; the point was to instruct. What was the lesson? Forbidden imagery. Schafer's picture illustrates ten movie images that, according to the period's Hollywood Production Code, you just couldn't show unless the Code's enforcers cut you a break.

Life's editors have added a helpful inset enumerating these forbidden images, topped by the injunction "Thou Shalt Not." You couldn't show the Law Defeated. The inside of a woman's thigh was prohibited, as was her Exposed Bosom. Lace Lingerie was out. So were corpses. Narcotics use was not allowed, nor was guzzling booze, nor gambling. Tommy guns were on the list, as was the act of pointing a gun. (Of course, some of these images do crop up in postwar movies, but only because the era's moral enforcers chose to pass them.)

For years, this was a handy picture of "official" moral turpitude, as defined by the Code. By the time the Code was abandoned in the 1960s, the picture had changed, and had come to illustrate moral idiocy instead. What sort of cretins would impose such a stupid standard of forbidden imagery, the picture invited its viewers to ask. And what kind of moral cowardice would acquiesce in such preposterous prohibitions?

But even as it was an object of derision, this picture has changed yet again. It no longer illustrates a laughable and morally obtuse past; it now illustrates the morally obtuse present. Certain images are once again regarded as dangerous—not merely offensive, but morally harmful if represented as normative. There are again images that are unacceptable to the moral enforcers among us, and if such images already exist they must be changed. In brief, the old Code's list is being updated and reconstituted; Schafer's tableau of immorality is coming back to life one moral crime at a time. It is an age of galloping therapeutic censorship.

Obviously, the two major objects of modern therapeutic censorship involve guns and tobacco. On Tuesday, for example, the BBC reported that "United States poster companies have airbrushed the classic Beatles Abbey Road album cover to remove a cigarette from Paul McCartney's hand." These poster companies didn't ask permission to change the image, they simple went ahead and altered it, apparently conforming to the zero-tolerance-for-smoking standard set by the United States Postal Service. There's actually a movement to halt all smoking in Hollywood films, and one director (Rob Reiner) has taken the no-smoking pledge.

The issue of media violence remains an ongoing refrain, and Steven Spielberg has gone so far as to remove firearms digitally from scenes of ET. But there's plenty more dangerous imagery available for a modern version of the Life picture.

If Schafer were going to take his photo today, what would he put in it? He'd keep the gun, turn the reefer into a Marlboro, and put the dame into an SUV. She'd drink and drive, and let her kid ride without seatbelts while playing a violent video game. The dead cop would be the one who pulled her over, though if she claimed ethnic profiling, she'd have a chance in court, especially if she wore that degrading black lace nightgown on the stand.