Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Sun Tanning: The Awful Truth

The Movie
   If adults acting a bit like children is something you like in movies, then The Awful Truth (1937, directed by Leo McCarey) is a great movie for you.  It's definitely something I'm fond of in my movies, so I'm happy to be reviewing this - another all-time favorite.  In the midst of witty one-liners, Cary Grant (Jerry) and Irene Dunne (Lucy) struggle to get a divorce without falling back in love with each other, even with the distracting enticement of Okie tycoons, bubble dancers and socialites.  Ralph Bellamy plays the Ralph Bellamy type of dim second-tier suitor, Cecil Cunningham plays Aunt Betsy as the aunt everyone would love to have, and Asta of The Thin Man fame plays Mr. Smith as the dog worth a custody battle.

Tan for Deception
   The catalyst for divorce in The Awful Truth is Jerry's trip to Florida -- that he actually doesn't take, preferring to have a good time around the town instead while his wife thinks he's down south.  The day he's due home, he heads over to his club to get a quick Florida tan.  He does become (amazingly) tan, but unfortunately for him, the basket of fruit he has supposedly brought his wife from Florida has oranges marked 'California'.  Jerry gets his tan with a sun lamp that resembles a giant hairdryer.  I remember being surprised on first seeing this movie that such a thing was available -- surely people weren't so frivolous in the good-old-days!

Tan for Health
    Maybe they were, and maybe they weren't.  Sun lamps advertised in Life magazine at around the time this movie came out (below right) were advertised as a way to get a tan; other advertisements emphasized the healthful aspects of light exposure.  Use of light as a health treatment began in the late 1800s and 1903 a Nobel Prize was given to Niels Ryberg Finsen in recognition of his work using light therapy to cure lupus vulgaris.  The first sun bed was invented by J.H. Kellogg of cereal fame as a health device and used by Edward VII of England and others who could afford to have access.  In modern times, light therapy is used as a treatment for many skin disorders, as well as for pain management and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

 The Fad for Tan
    Nearly everyone wants to be rich, or at least look rich, so the lower classes ape the upper crust, even when it comes to skin tone. Back in the days when most of the populace worked in agriculture, lighter skin meant that the person had the means to stay indoors away from the fields, and fair skin was in vogue.  Nowadays when tanning is synonymous with skin cancer, it's hard to believe that staying pale could be deadly, but the lead-based white powder once in vogue in ancient Greece and Rome could eventually cause death by lead poisoning.  Later, arsenic-based face powder was considered an improvement.
   Once industry became a major part of the economy and many lower class workers toiled in mills, offices and factories, a tan meant the person had the means to be unchained enough from their job to enjoy the great outdoors.  Coco Chanel is widely credited with jump-starting the trend of tan as a fashionable look when she returned to Paris after a long yachting vacation.  The popularity of Josephine Baker, the famous black entertainer, is also cited as a reason for the rise in popularity of the tan in the 1920s.  Sun-tanning remained popular until the later 1980s, when the information about the link between sun exposure and skin cancer began to be widely distributed to the public.  The rise in availability of self-tanning agents has meant that sunless tanning has become a popular alternative (although the resulting color may not be a pleasant tan, but instead something more...).

Links and Sources
A History of Tanning, Times Online
The Look: A History of Tanning
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
Sun Tanning, Livestrong
Lupus vulgaris, Wikipedia
Light therapy, Wikipedia
Sun Tanning, Wikipedia

1 comment:

  1. The Coco Chanel story is thoroughly debunked by Kerry Segrave in Suntanning in 20th Century America. It seems to have originated with a 1971 Mademoiselle article. Anyone who peruses articles from the 1920s on the subject will see absolutely no mention of Chanel.