Labor Daze

Big-screen scenes of childbirth go well beyond giving you cramps. They're enough to make you want to get your tubes tied.

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As a kid, I often had to reassure my friend Paula Zaretsky in the middle of one of our regular Saturday matinee excursions. When-ever a pregnant woman came on-screen, she would gasp and say. "Uh-oh, uh-oh." Paula would later grow up to know more about sex than either Masters or Johnson, but she was still naive at this point and those waddling women made her jumpy. I would tell her that everything was going to be just fine. Because, really, what could go wrong?

Remember how childbirth used to be in the movies? The menfolk would gather outside the bedroom, smoking pipes, looking distressed, patting each other on the shoulder with resignation. The doctor would come rushing in looking a bit puzzled, as if he hadn't done this kind of thing too many times (this worried me, too). Women would be recruited to bring boiling water and clean towels. "They're making soup,'' I told Paula with some authority.

Brief screams of agony would be heard coming from the bedroom. Then there would be an infant's cry, a quick cut to the relieved papa, and the smiling, sweating doctor would come out of the inner sanctum to confirm the good news: "It's a boy." (It's just about always a boy. A girl, presumably, wouldn't be worth all this brouhaha.) Then there'd be the scene of the parents staring with wonderment at their beautiful newborn (ever see a newborn?). Finally, the soup was carried down-stairs--to be eaten for dinner, I figured.

These halcyon days ended when Paula and I sneaked into Otto Premingers extravaganza The Cardinal in 1963, an event that traumatized us for life. For those of you who have forgotten this classic, let me recap. Tom Tryon, the oldest son of an Irish Catholic clan that wants nothing more than to have their boy become a priest--no, not just a priest, a Bishop--comes home from his studies in Rome to find his adored sister Carol Lynley in love with a Jew. Needless to say, he interferes, and as a direct result Lynley (1) runs away with a Flamenco dancer, (2) gets knocked up and (3) winds up in a whorehouse. When Tom comes to her rescue, she is. despite having what seems to be a perfectly flat stomach, in labor. At the hospital the doctor comes out with the bad news: "Her pelvic structure's abnormally small. The child's head is unusually large. Normal delivery is impossible. I'll need your permission to do a fetal craniotomy. We have to crush the child's head."

Go ahead, read that again. Her pelvic structure is too small? The child's head is too large? These are possibilities? Paula ran to the bathroom to puke. I stayed for the even worse news to come: Either the mom or the baby has to go, and Tom is the one who is supposed to decide for his sister who it will be. You've already guessed the outcome, right? To kill the baby would be a sin, so the sister has to die in agony. This is a possibility?

For years, Paula and I would look at little babies, trying to decipher whether their heads were the right size. We'd give their mothers knowing and solicitous looks. Mean-while, birth control pills came on the market, and Paula and I started taking them before we ever even had sex. To this day I am certain that all those people who attribute the declining birth rate among educated women of my generation to modern birth control are missing the point. It was movies like The Cardinal that stunted the growth of our maternal instincts.

Why am I even thinking about these things at the moment? I'll tell you why: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. While I was to see many hair-raising birth scenes in the movies over the years--more on this later--it was last November's trip to see Kenneth Branagh's opus that truly unleashed my repressed memories and prompted me to put all this into perspective.

Very early in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the teenage Victor's mother gives birth (it's a boy) in a scene that looks like an outtake from Freddy Krueger in the Age of Enlightenment. Seated upright in what seems to be a precursor to the electric chair, Mrs. Frankenstein dies splattered in blood after being, apparently, drawn and quartered in an attempt to bring another badly needed boy into the world. Oddly enough, Branagh, playing the horrified teenage Victor, looks about the same age as his mother. Leaving that aside, consider that Victor's father, the poor wretch's husband, just happens to be the attending obste-trician and proceeds to "deliver" the baby with his shirt off, as if fully expecting the bloodbath he ends up drenched in. Just one more thing about the 1800s to make you glad you live in the age of potential nuclear holocaust.

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