1950‘s television and morality clauses: What might they mean for today?
When we hear the phrase “morality clause,” we generally think of post-war Hollywood, blacklisting, and the Hollywood Ten. Movie studios put these clauses in contracts to have some financial control over the moral behavior of their creative personnel such as actors and directors. The purpose of the morality clause was to control off-screen behavior so that the studio did not incur financial losses in the event that an actor did something off-camera to cause fans to reject his or her films. Although the morality clause was quite active during what has been termed the McCarthy Era of the 1950s, it was not new.
The first morality clause was included in a contract in 1921 after Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle, popular silent-screen comedian, was wrongfully accused of the murder-rape of a starlet. Fans boycotted his film and Paramount lost a great deal of money. Universal Studios was the first to include such a clause in their talents’ contracts. It allowed them to fire anyone who was found to be engaged in “immoral” behavior.
With the McCarthy Era of the 1950s, morality clauses became even more prevalent. Their purpose was not only to control certain behaviors but also to control certain beliefs. At the time, the government and Hollywood were attempting to rid the country of Communists. Communism was associated with a great many ideas that could get you blacklisted such as civil rights and homosexuality. In the days of McCarthyism, if you were a homosexual, you were automatically considered to be of weak moral character.
Although television had been invented before the war, it wasn’t until after the war that it became an important part of American life. The post-war generation was tired. The men were home from the war, the women had given up their war work and were returning to the home. William Levitt and Sons began building family-sized homes for these veterans, creating the first suburban neighborhoods; other builders using Levitt’s mass production techniques followed. Thanks to the most generous GI Bill ever offered, this was the first time average middle-class people could afford their own home. It even came with a free television set. And after the life these veterans had already lived—remember these folks also had gone through the depression—they wanted the promised contentment that a home and a television offered.
For the television industry, the timing was perfect. All the sponsors and networks needed to do was please their audience by delivering programming that would not upset them. Entertainment had to be clean and uncontroversial. After all, TV was going right into the heart of these all-American homes; the kids and Grandma were watching in their living rooms. This was a pleasant relaxing, white world where no people of color or homosexuals existed.
Homosexuals were bad and certainly, anyone practicing that vice could not be clean. Homosexuals who acted in TV, and there were many, were not “out.” There was no concept of “out” or “in” at the time. That attractive, smiley man in the tuxedo who sang and played the piano on one of the first TV syndicated fifteen-minute shows could not be one of those bad people. After all, housewives adored Liberace.
Morality clauses were extremely vague. They would never come out and say bluntly, “You can’t engage in homosexual activity.” “Homosexual” was a dirty word in certain quarters. However, you could be fired for immoral behavior, and it had already been established that homosexual behavior was.
How many people were blacklisted for being a communist or for being a homosexual is extremely difficult to tease out. This is a whole area of research that still needs examining, but TV and their early morality clauses are worth looking into. They’re coming back.
This is how one author imagines how it might have gone.
(From Olympus Nights on the Square, Book 2 of the Juliana Series)
Oh jeepers! I was wearing a red dress. I’d forgotten that everything in Sardi’s is red or maroon—the walls, the banquettes, the seats, the menus, and the awning outside. As I worried about how to get out of my red dress without being noticed, Juliana came through the door, stepping feather-light on Sardi’s maroon carpet. My heart literally leapt up. She wore a mink jacket over a black linen afternoon dress and a matching wide-brimmed hat sloped over her forehead. The tuxedoed maitre’d met her at the door and led the way. She stepped toward me, her dark hair bouncing around her shoulders. “Well,” she said, standing behind the chair, smiling at me. “It’s been a while. Hasn’t it?
The maitre’d helped her to remove her coat and guided her into her chair. He bent close to her ear and whispered, “I enjoyed your last show so very much.”
“Thank you, Sidney.” He bowed and left us.
“You look very good, Al. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you in red before.”
“I clash with the room.”
She laughed. “I don’t think anyone else would ever think to say that. I’ve missed you.” She slid off her gloves, keeping my gaze the whole time. Could there be anything more joyful than to look into her eyes? But, of course, we couldn’t touch.
We began with a sparkling burgundy wine. Not having had breakfast it went straight to my head, and I had visions of her and me—well, you know—so it was hard to concentrate on her funny stories of Chicago and L.A. When she reached across the table for the salt—“Oh, let me,” I said. Our hands met for one lovely moment, both holding the shaker; we stayed that way, looking into each other’s eyes, forgetting the danger. Then remembering, we quickly let go, and the saltshaker fell spewing salt all over the table.
Sydney hurried over with a crumber. “Allow me,” he said. He’d been watching us. Eyes were always watching Juliana. Probably everyone in the place had seen us drop that saltshaker.
“Thank you, Sidney,” I said as he left. We couldn’t allow ourselves to forget to be on our guard at all times.
“Did you read this contract?” Juliana asked, taking us back into the real world. She slipped it from her purse and laid it on the table.
“I read all your contracts.”
“Then you read the morality clause.”
“They want me to be ‘clean’ in my personal life. I can’t do anything that would embarrass their audience.”
“Everyone signs that.”
“They can look into my personal life, Al.”
“It doesn’t mean they think you’re, you know… They don’t know about that. They’re looking for communists.”
“Only communists? I know you’re not that naïve. I’m not so used to boldly lying, signature and all.”
“You’re not lying. You’re not immoral—exactly.”
She smiled and took a pencil from her purse; she licked the end and scrawled her flowing signature at the bottom of the page. “This will get easier, won’t it?” She replaced the pencil in her bag. “Lying.”
A shadow of Red: Communism and the Blacklist in Radio and Television—David Everitt
The Fifties—David Halberstam
Putting It in Writing: The Return of the Morality Clause in the Age of #Me Too And Time’s Up (Part 1)—Kelley Drye & Warren LLP
About the Author:
Vanda is working on a series of novels about LGBT modern history beginning in 1941.
Juliana (Book 1) and Olympus Nights on the Square (Book 2) are available at www.amazon.com/dp/B01GBEZOUE
Paris, Adrift (Book 3) will be released on May 15, 2018.