It’s hard, if not impossible, to find a subject that’s taboo in today’s film production, but in Hollywood’s classic heyday there were several topics which the movie moguls of the time found it difficult — if not impossible — to address.
Racism, Homosexuality, and Euthanasia for starters.
In post World War II era Hollywood studios started to look at topics once thought too sensitive for American audiences. The first films to deal with anti semitism, Gentlemen’s Agreement and Crossfire were released in the late 1940s.
At Universal Studios, they tackled two subjects, not quite as explosive as racism, but nonetheless, heretofore untouched — gambling addiction and mercy killing.
Long before anyone had ever heard of Dr. Kevorkian, mercy killing or euthanasia was a topic, like cancer, which when discussed, if at all, was done so in whispered voices.
But in 1949 Universal released An Act of Murder (also released as Live Today for Tomorrow). It was a serious look at what confronts a man when his wife is suffering excruciating pain. Make the man a Judge, who believes in the letter of the Law, and the story has even more weight.
Frederic March played the Judge. Florence Eldridge his wife. (The two, pictured above, were married in real life as well.) Geraldine Brooks as their daughter and Edmond O’Brien as an attorney also give great performances. It’s not a classic but it’s worth a look.
The Lady Gambles starred Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Preston as her husband and Stephen McNally as the evil casino owner in what had to be the first film ever to explore the addiction of gambling. Of course in 1949 only Nevada had legalized gambling, and most people, especially women, weren’t exposed to the vice.
But when exposed the Stanwyck character falls fast, and although there’s a somewhat happy ending we learn a bit about why a person might be susceptible to the problem.(Hint: something to do with self esteem).
See the film for Barbara’s (usual) stellar performance.