Child-Molester Movies (Pre-1968)

Of all the things prohibited by the Motion Picture Production Code, child molestation was probably the most taboo subject of all, so taboo that no mention is even made of it in the written guidelines and rules issued by the Hays Office, possibly because neither Will Hays nor Joseph Breen ever imagined it as something that had to be explicitly proscribed.  I suppose it would fall under the rubric of impure love, but that was mostly intended to cover such things as adultery, homosexuality, and miscegenation.  And besides, I’m not sure they would have wanted to use the word “love” in forbidding it, even in the impure sense.

Frankenstein (1931)

As a result, not even in the Pre-Code period, ending in 1934, were there any American movies that explicitly touched on this subject, at least not intentionally.  In Frankenstein (1931), there is a scene where the monster (Boris Karloff) comes across Maria, a little girl playing with flowers by a lake.  She invites him to play with her, and they both start throwing flowers in the lake, watching them float. When the monster has no more flowers, he picks Maria up and throws her in the lake.  But instead of floating, she drowns.

Even today, there are not many movies in which a prepubescent child is murdered. Fewer still actually show the murder taking place.  Usually, it is just implied or described.  So, it is understandable that allowing the audience to see Maria being killed was regarded as unacceptable by the censors in the 1930s, the result being that it was edited out shortly after the initial release of this movie, cutting the scene at the point where the monster is seen reaching for Maria.  In this edited version, we don’t realize that she drowned.  The next time we see her, she is dead, being carried by her father, who says she was murdered.

As a result, people watching this version of the movie believed Maria had been sexually molested. After all, they were used to scenes cutting away whenever sexual activity of some sort was about to take place. Ironically, censorship had allowed the audience to imagine something much worse than what had originally been filmed.  It hardly needs mentioning that while actually showing a prepubescent child being murdered is rare, showing a child of such a young age being sexually molested would be unthinkable. Because the audience would never expect to see something like that, they would have thought it perfectly reasonable to cut the scene at the moment the monster reaches for Maria, if her sexual molestation was supposed to have taken place right after that. Once the edited footage had been restored, people realized that the monster meant Maria no harm, but simply thought she would float on the water like the flowers.

M (1931)

The first movie that was actually about a child molester, M (1931), was not produced in the United States, but in Germany.  Peter Lorre plays Hans Beckert, a man that molests children and then murders them.  His victims are prepubescent, which makes the crime against them especially egregious.

When the movie begins, a bunch of children are singing a counting-out rhyme like “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,” only this one is about a man in black that will use a meat cleaver to make mincemeat out of his next child victim.  We find out later that he has already killed eight children, mostly girls. There is reference to a boy, but the boy was with his sister, and so it may be only the sister that Beckert wanted, the boy being killed to get him out of the way.  The mother of one of the children tells them to quit singing that horrible song.  Another woman says not to worry.  As long as they can hear the children singing, she says, they know they are all right.  A dismissive attitude like that is bound to be punished, and it is.  Her daughter is approached by Beckert while she is bouncing a ball. He buys her a balloon from a blindman, so we figure there is no chance of his being identified by him later.  As time passes, the woman, now becoming concerned, calls for her daughter, but she can’t find her.  We see the ball rolling away in a grassy area away from the city streets of Berlin, and we see the balloon caught in the wires of a telephone pole.

There is no question about the sexual nature of the crimes.  When Beckert sees a girl’s reflection in a store window, a frisson of sexual desire ripples through him.  Later, a man refers elliptically to the state of the children when they are found.  After Beckert sends an anonymous letter to a newspaper, threatening more such crimes in the future, a handwriting expert discerns “the strongly pathological sexuality of this sex offender.”

Ordinary life in Berlin is disrupted.  Mobs accuse and attack innocent men, and the police become brutal and relentless in their investigation.  The police want to see everyone’s “papers,” by which they mean an identification booklet.  They do this because, as we all know, child killers don’t have papers. One man’s papers are in order, but the inspector notices that in the pocket of the man’s fur coat is a newspaper featuring a story about a furrier who was robbed.  In a manner that would astound even Sherlock Holmes, the inspector deduces that this man must be the one who committed the robbery, and so he has him arrested.  It’s just lucky for that man that the newspaper didn’t feature a story about the child murderer.

But the inspector is not limited to looking for men who don’t have their papers, or who carry incriminating newspapers around in their coat pockets.  He can tell that the child killer wrote his letter to the newspaper with a red pencil on an old wooden table.  How exactly this last part was determined escapes me.  Was there some wood residue on the back of the letter?  Furthermore, the inspector concludes that the old wooden table would have indentations left on it corresponding to the inscriptions on the letter, so if they examine the table of a suspect, they can look for those indentations.

Now, I know we’ve all seen movies where someone writes something on a notepad, and traces of that note are left behind on the page below, but I have never heard of anyone doing this with a wooden table.  Not only would the wood have to be soft enough to be indented, but the person writing the letter would have had to press down hard enough on the paper to leave behind indentations, and do so without tearing the paper or breaking the lead of the pencil.  Furthermore, since this is an old table, given all the times someone would have written something on a piece of paper while sitting at that table, by this time the table must look like some kind of indecipherable palimpsest.

Always endeavoring to keep an open mind, I tried writing something with a pencil on a thin piece of paper on anything I could find made of soft wood.  There was no wood residue on the back of the paper when I was finished, and no trace of what was written on the wood.  Then I tried writing on sheetrock, figuring that would be softer.  Same result.  Finally, I tried writing on that piece of paper on a cardboard box, pressing down with the pencil as hard as I could without breaking the lead. There was no residue on the back of the paper, and no indentations in the cardboard.  Is there something about old wooden tables made in Germany that I just don’t understand?

Anyway, the inspector has his detectives go around searching the homes of men who have some kind of police record to see if any of them have an old wooden table with traces of the inscriptions of the letter left behind on the table itself, as well as any indication that there has been a red pencil in that room.

While the police are searching for wooden tables and red pencils in people’s homes, the leaders of organized crime in Berlin, seeing that the police crackdown is bad for business, decide to take matters into their own hands and capture the child killer themselves.  Their plan is to have beggars follow children around to see if they get molested.  No one will think this is suspicious because they are just beggars.

When Beckert buys a balloon for another little girl, the blindman hears Beckert whistling the same tune he heard just before the other girl was killed.  He passes the information on to a beggar, who then follows Beckert and the girl.  After writing a big “M” on the palm of his hand in chalk, he hits Beckert on the back of his coat so he can be identified later.

Meanwhile, the police eventually get around to checking out Beckert’s room, where they find evidence that he wrote his letter to the newspaper, not on an old wooden table, but on the wooden windowsill, where some of the inscriptions in the letter match the indentations left behind on that windowsill.  And yes, I tried that on my windowsill, but with no results.  In any event, there are even pieces of the red pencil Beckert used to write that letter left behind as well, probably because he was pressing down on the paper so hard that he broke the lead.

But the criminals capture Beckert first and have a trial of sorts, during which he tells everyone that he is compulsively driven to do what he does.  The prosecutor argues according to utilitarian justice, saying that anyone who kills under a compulsion should be executed to make sure he never does it again.  Beckert’s defense counsel, on the other hand, argues according to retributive justice, saying that since Beckert acts under a compulsion, he is not morally responsible for his crimes and does not deserve death, but should simply be imprisoned or institutionalized.  The prosecutor replies that if they consent to that, Beckert is likely to be pardoned by a politician or “cured” by a doctor, releasing him upon the public, allowing him to kill children once again.  The jury of criminals agrees with the prosecutor, but before they can do anything to Beckert, the police show up and take him away.

M (1951)

In the American remake of M in 1951, the movie goes out of its way to make it clear that the children are not sexually molested, only murdered.  While a crowd watches the chief of police on television warning parents about the child killer, someone in the crowd asks, “What’s he mean the children were neither violated nor outraged?”  Someone else in the crowd responds, “What’s the difference? He killed them, didn’t he?”

Well, it may not make any difference to the people in the crowd, but if the child is molested before being murdered, that makes the crime even more horrible.  More importantly, however, it must have made a difference to the Production Code Administration.  It was not sufficient merely to omit all reference to sexual molestation. It had to be denied.  At the same time, all of the killer’s victims are little girls, which would seem to indicate a sexual preference, although that is explained away later.  Martin Harrow (David Wayne) is the killer in this remake.  He keeps the shoes of his victims, which suggests a fetish.

In one scene, a man and wife are informed that their child has been a victim.  As they start to leave, the woman turns around in desperation and says that maybe it is a mistake, that the child is someone else’s. We can only conclude from this that there was no body in the morgue for them to identify, that the police were only going by the doll and the girl’s dress, which are on the desk of the chief of police.  He holds up the dress for her to look at, which she recognizes as belonging to her daughter.  This can mean only one thing:  Harrow took off the girl’s clothes, and her naked body has yet to be found.  Still, we are supposed to believe that sex is not the motive for these murders. Censorship can be confusing.

It goes without saying that the original was much better, and one way in which it was better is that Beckert, the child killer, simply had an evil impulse that he could not resist and did not understand. In the remake, owing to the popularity of psychoanalysis at the time, we are given an explanation for the killer’s behavior as resulting from something that happened when he was a child.  As a harbinger of that explanation, we see Harrow strangling a clay model of a child, with a picture of his elderly mother sitting right beside him, almost as if she were watching him do it and giving her approval.  At the end, when Harrow is surrounded by the underworld figures that captured him, he gives a garbled explanation about how his father mistreated his mother, and how she raised him to believe that all men are evil.  As a result, he reasons that since he is a man, then he is evil and deserves punishment.  So, he has to kill little girls, partly to keep them from growing up and being mistreated by evil men, and partly so he will get caught and get the punishment he deserves.  In the original version, the motive for the murders of the children was sex, a simple, straightforward explanation.  But in order for sex not to be the motive in this remake, we are given this ridiculous psychobabble instead.

Harrow offers no explanation as to why he took the shoes of his victims.  And that is because the real explanation does not lie within the story itself, but is external to it. The producers of this version didn’t believe that business about indentations from a letter being left on a windowsill any more than I did, so they had the police find the shoes of Harrow’s victims in his apartment instead.

Child Bride (1938)

When a movie explicitly about child molestation was finally made in America, it kept the subject within three boundaries:  first, the girl has gone through puberty; second, the man and the girl are married; and third, the molestation is prevented when the man is killed before he has sex with her. That movie is Child Bride (1938), and the thrust of this movie is that the acceptance of child marriages in some backwoods communities in the United States is deplorable.  Nevertheless, in a rather perverse sort of way, having the girl be married to the man who wants to have sex with her made it more acceptable than if they were not married.  In addition to these three boundaries, the movie was able to go further on this subject than was usual at the time because it was an exploitation film, independently produced outside the studio system.

The girl is Jennie, played by Shirley Mills, who was twelve years old.  As she starts taking off her clothes near a lake, she tells her boyfriend Freddie that the teacher says they can’t go swimming naked with each other anymore, on account of their age, an indication that the two of them have gone through puberty.  As she says all this, she gets completely naked and then runs toward the lake, diving in, leaving Freddie bewildered.  Looking down from the vantage point of a cliff, a man named Jake leers at the naked girl swimming below.  Jake kills Jennie’s father and then makes her mother think she did it, blackmailing her into letting him marry Jennie.  Jennie goes along with it to keep her mother from being convicted of murder.

Jake starts courting Jennie, bringing her a box with a present in it.  I thought it would be flowers, but it was a doll.  But then, I guess that that is the way you would court a child. The marriage takes place, but Jake is killed by one of his enemies before the marriage is consummated.  Freddie and Jennie agree to get married when they grow up.

As with most exploitation films, this one tries to justify its existence by claiming to serve an educational purpose.  But mixing up the institution of child marriage with murder and blackmail, and then giving us a happy ending, was for our entertainment. A realistic depiction of this practice would be depressing.  A lot of people have children, not because they want them, but simply because they have sex.  Marrying a girl off at a young age is a way get rid of her, in some cases for a price, turning her over to some man who wants to have sex with her, resulting in children they don’t want either.

None Shall Escape (1944)

Shirley Mills went on to play a schoolgirl named Anna in None Shall Escape (1944). Anna’s age is never specified.  Mills was seventeen at the time, but given her looks, she could easily play a character of younger age.  Anna commits suicide after some kind of sexual incident with her school teacher.  The only word in the movie used to characterize the incident is “molested,” although she may have been forcibly raped as well.

Lolita (1962)

In the novel Lolita, the title character is a girl only twelve years old when Humbert Humbert falls in love with her.  He becomes her stepfather as a means to having sex with her.  When it was made into a movie in 1962, with Humbert being played by James Mason, Lolita’s age was said to be fourteen, and she was played by Sue Lyon, who was fifteen at the time.  Adding a few years to the character and the actress portraying her was obviously intended to make her seem less of a child and more of a woman.

The Naked Kiss (1964)

So far, of the movies made in America featuring the possible or actual molestation of a young girl, that girl has already gone through puberty.  The first movie made in America in which a prepubescent girl is molested is The Naked Kiss (1964).  Constance Towers plays Kelly, a prostitute. Shortly after she moves to Grantville, she decides to give up that way of life.  She learns from her landlady that J.L. Grant, society’s most eligible bachelor, rich and good-looking, is the great-great-grandson of the man that founded the town.  He is cosmopolitan and sophisticated, but no playboy, Kelly is told:

His very name is a synonym for charity.  He’s got the biggest heart in the world. Why, he built our hospital.  He built the orthopedic medical center and sponsors it all by himself. And it’s open to all handicapped children with no racial or religious barriers.

Kelly loves children, so she decides to go to work at that hospital, and we see that, indeed, there are children of different ethnicities, remarkable since this takes place at a time when racial and religious barriers still existed in many places.  Except for the babies, the children are wearing leg braces, supporting themselves with crutches. Children in general are vulnerable, but these children are especially so.

Eventually, Grant and Kelly meet and fall in love.  The first time he kisses her, she pushes him away, giving him a strange, hard look.  But then she pulls him back to her. She tells him of her past, and he immediately asks her to marry him.  She is overwhelmed by his willingness to overlook what she used to be.  “Why should Grant want to marry a woman like me?” she asks herself.  After some hesitation, she decides to accept his offer.

Shortly after that, in preparation for the Annual Picnic in Grantville, Kelly has the children rehearse singing “Little Child,” a sweet duet between parent and child.  In this case, the children sing the child’s part, with Kelly singing the part of the mother, who says she found happiness when “Heaven blessed me with you.” During the rehearsal, Grant looks on while making a tape recording of their singing, pleased with the affection that Kelly shows these children.

The next day, Kelly and her landlady finish putting her wedding dress together.  She decides to show it to Grant.  Her landlady says that would be bad luck.  And that is bad news, because such superstitions always portend disaster in a movie.  But Kelly says she wants to surprise Grant, something that is equally ominous in a movie.  She has the key to Grant’s house, and as she opens the front door, she can hear the recording of “Little Child” playing.  When she walks into the living room, she sees Grant fondling a seven-year-old girl, who gets up and skips out of the house.

Now Kelly finds out why Grant wanted to marry her.  He says they are both abnormal, and she has been conditioned to people like him and the sickness he has.  As he tells her how their marriage will be a paradise, she picks up the handset of the telephone and hits him on the head, killing him.  Then she sits in the darkness as the song finishes playing on the tape recorder. Later, we find out why she was repulsed by Grant the first time he kissed her.  She says it was a naked kiss, the kiss of a pervert.

She is accused of murder, and not many believe her story.  But finally, she sees the girl that was being molested, who verifies her story, presumably making what Kelly did justifiable homicide.  She leaves town, and we gather she will go back to work as a prostitute.

Repulsion (1965)

In 1965, Roman Polanski directed and helped write the screenplay for Repulsion.  In that movie, Carol (Catherine Deneuve) is a woman with some kind of psychological problem concerning sex. She lives with her sister, whose sexual relations with her lover disturb Carol. Carol is very much upset that her sister is going away on a two-week vacation. During that vacation, Carol descends into madness.

A man who has been harassing her and stalking her breaks into her apartment because he just had to see her, not understanding why she is being so stubborn. After all, he is in love with her, so what else is there to think about?  She bludgeons him.

Then the landlord stops by to get the rent and decides to rape her as long as he is there. She slices him up with a straight razor. Then her sister returns to find the corpses and a catatonic Carol.

In the very last scene, we see a photograph, previously alluded to from a distance, of her family taken years ago. In it, we see everyone smiling and looking at the camera, except for a preadolescent Carol, who is looking with dread at a man to her left, presumably her father. In real life, such a picture would mean nothing, but its emphasis in the movie after what we have seen tells us that she was molested as a child, which further explains why she was so upset that her sister was going away. As a child, she was safe from her father as long as her sister was around.

The fact that Roman Polanski, having made a movie illustrating the terrible consequences of child molestation, would then go on to molest a child himself is repulsive indeed.


After the abandonment of the Production Code in 1968, things loosened up considerably.  In The Last of Sheila (1973), for example, James Mason, again playing the role of a child molester, is a likeable character who becomes the hero when he solves a murder.

And then there is the television movie, Something About Amelia, which aired in 1984, and which is in a class by itself.  But a review of that movie is for another day.

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