The Golden Age of Grapefruit

The Public Enemy (1931) | Warner Brothers

Hollywood has at least one Golden Age, but does it have a Grapefruit Age? Sure, a grapefruit has been part of a healthy breakfast, but there are other reasons it’s a film star. There are other fruits around — in Hollywood Hotel (1937), a publicity man points to his camera with faux-incredulity and asks, “Whaddaya think this is, rhubarb?” Perhaps this is a reference to the saving grace word of actor extras, who mumbled “rhubarb” to mimic generic speech patterns. In Design For Living, Fredric March demands that Miriam Hopkins provide orange juice every morning for breakfast, and a heavy cloud of boredom falls over her eyes.

Yet a grapefruit is never dull; on the contrary, it’s often the center of attention. Its most well known appearance on screen occurred in 1931 in The Public Enemy, when childish, mercurial, borderline-sociopathic James Cagney slams a half one in Mae Clarke’s face over breakfast (and Clarke didn’t even receive a screen credit). “This dame’s been gettin’ on my nerves, that’s all,” he says to a pal on the telephone in his New York twang, as Clarke sits patiently and suggests he take no booze before breakfast. That’s what sets him off. Wearing his rumpled striped pajamas and one of his most angry scowls, Cagney does the deed and their breakfast is ruined. (It’s almost wrong to joke, here. This scene depicts straight out abuse, and led to Clarke’s suffering repercussions and humiliation for just about the remainder of her career.)

Grapefruit on the Table

But James Cagney’s breakfast table at Warner Brothers wasn’t the first place the grapefruit made an appearance. In 1928, in King Vidor’s The Patsy over at MGM, family flop Pat (Marion Davies) is feeling chirpy one morning, determined that she is going to be teased no longer. She strides into the sitting room, spouting a few cryptic mottoes to her mother and sister, and her mother secretly suspects madness; “there was insanity in your father’s family.” Pat begins juggling apples, and then announces, “The apple is famous in history, but it takes a grapefruit to stay in the public eye.” Her family stands by, puzzled. Then she pretends to season an imaginary flower and eats it. The grapefruit will get you noticed.

Why is the grapefruit deemed so famous? Yoko Ono even wrote a book called Grapefruit in 1964, with a yellow one on the cover, but it wasn’t really about them. The result of an accidental hybridization produced in Barbados in the eighteenth century, it was once known as a “forbidden fruit”. The forbidden fruit originates in the biblical Garden of Eden, and was eaten by Adam and Eve even though they had been forbidden to do so, leading to their expulsion from paradise. The grapefruit may have been bunched into that group of possible fruits as a relation of the citron. (Originally the forbidden fruit was an apple, but myths tend to have multiple tellings.) Metaphorically, the forbidden fruit has developed alongside concepts of immorality and indulgence. The grapefruit’s identity was immediately striated, interlinked with notions of pleasure and temptation. Prime material to spice up a film scene.

André Bazin, in What Is Cinema?, noted, “In 1931, the stars were living on grapefruit and hiding their bosoms. At the same time, the tidal wave of the Hays office censorship was breaking over Hollywood.” I’m not sure he was right about the bosoms, but censorship and grapefruit, stuck around for decades. Marilyn Monroe, for one, swore by the grapefruit diet, which dictated that you could eat any you wanted as long as you took precaution by eating half a grapefruit for breakfast. This was officially dubbed the Hollywood Diet, an eighteen-day outline that was included in a Mrs C. F. Leyel’s book Diet and Commonsense, in 1936 (still in print). Dr Eustace Chesser also celebrated the grapefruit in his 1939 book Slimming for the Million, but he did allow that the grapefruit could be eaten with a side of bacon and eggs. Hattie McDaniel reportedly rejected the diet: “As for those grapefruit and buttermilk diets, I’ll take roast chicken and dumplings.” Chicken and dumplings sound great, but the grapefruit’s popularity didn’t desist. There was something else about it that meant Hollywood kept bringing it back. Did it provide a way, somehow, of getting certain other indelicacies around the censors?

A list of the grapefruit’s appearances

Called into the action when filmmakers needed to get around something, or needed to communicate saucy details without being overtly saucy, the grapefruit is always worth more than it appears. It makes another appearance in Ex-Lady (Robert Florey, 1933), during a breakfast scene integral to the mood and character of the film. The relationship at the center is the typical pre-Code dynamic: a man who wants to settle down, and a woman who wants to keep having fun and stay independent. The breakfast takes place on a morning after; the same morning that Helen (Bette Davis) has already resisted Don’s (Gene Raymond) marriage spiel (while in the bedroom). Helen’s father drops in unannounced, and basically calls Helen a waste of a woman, a whore. Helen doesn’t care and she just wants breakfast, but Don takes it seriously. “Let’s talk,” he says. “Let’s eat!” she replies. “No, let’s talk.” “Let’s talk and eat!” What follows is a breakfast in the kitchen where he implores her to marry him and she runs through a spate of reasons why she doesn’t think it a good idea. Helen eats half a grapefruit, digs the flesh out in spoonfuls, and some juice squirts up into her right eye. She slaps her hand to her face and cries in pain. The grapefruit here is a commentary on their relationship: both wholesome and unhealthy, bittersweet. Clearly, the hardboiled studio heads at Warner Brothers were feeling hard done by.

It also seems that, just as film fans would never stop playing with the memory of James Cagney and the indecent grapefruit incident, filmmakers kept up the game. In Hard to Handle(1933), Warner Brothers made the grapefruit into a plot device. Erratic entrepreneur Lefty Merrill (Cagney) is down on his luck after a few ideas have gone sour, and he cashes in on Grapefruit Acres, a company in Florida that sells plots and promises that they will “insure your old age.” A billboard pledges, “Dollars grow on trees in Grapefruit Acres” — this citrus seems to have magical qualities. Trying to win back the heart of Ruth (Mary Brian) — who caught him cheating, but that’s another argument — he promises her gold-digging mother that he’ll gift her plots in Grapefruit Acres if she turns her daughter back to him. Only thing is, he’s promptly detained by the FBI, who accuse him of fraud. Apparently (unbeknownst to Lefty), grapefruit are hardly worth a cent and isn’t even worth growing. The cops don’t believe his declarations of innocence and throw him in jail — “Lock him up and show him a grapefruit,” they say. So he ends up in a cell with an old partner Mack, who ran off with their money at the start of the film. (The pattern here is that, while Lefty is unpredictable, he’s honest and therefore a worthy love interest.) Mack has lost weight: “Grapefruit, you know, that diet stuff,” Mack beams, and Lefty’s eyes light up. He publicizes the grapefruit diet, the price of grapefruit skyrockets, and his venture makes a fortune. It has a narrative function here, and its presence actually changes the outcome of the characters’ lives, so it’s more than just a word or an object. Its role is more developed, and it seems that here, if anywhere, a grapefruit is just a grapefruit. But it still helps Lefty win back the woman he loves.

In The Girl From Tenth Avenue (1935), Warner Brothers (via their offshoot First National Pictures) still has something to say. Bette Davis’s Miriam, a shopgirl who drunkenly married a rich lawyer on the rebound, is breakfasting with a group of stuck-up society women when her Hell’s Kitchen manners come through. Miriam suspects the haughty Valentine (Katharine Alexander) of seeking an affair with her husband, and says as much. The women look up from the grapefruit at their table settings. Valentine stutters and gets up to leave, but Miriam stops her gently with her fingertips and says, almost joyfully: “If you do, my dear, I’ll put that grapefruit smack in your face.”

In Mitchell Leisen’s Easy Living (1937), one of the most charming screwball comedies of the 1930s at the most charming of studios, Paramount Pictures, Mary (Jean Arthur) and John (Ray Milland) have a perfect meet cute at a midtown New York automat. Millionaire John wants to get out from the barnacles of the family fortune so is slumming it behind the automat window chutes, and there he bumps into Mary, in for a meal after finding an empty fridge at her apartment. He recognises her from “somewhere,” although can’t figure out where — it’s one of those multiple-mistaken-identity premises that screenwriter Preston Sturges was so adept at staging—and follows her around while she looks at various foodstuffs. John reels off a recommendation: beef steak pie is good, and a grapefruit only three nickels more. Although, what the grapefruit comes with, we’ll never know, as Arthur cuts him off with an acerbic, “Oh, shut up.” She only has two nickels, and is so hungry she takes him up on his risky offer to give her food secretly, and free of charge. “I’ll meet you behind the grapefruit,” he tells her. They meet there, he serves her a plate of grapefruit, then a beef pie, and then their plan all goes awry. Of course, like any Sturges film, it’s a fairy tale (and a satirical one). They fall in love and Mary wins the role of wife—or as John puts it, taking pleasure in gendered expectations, she gets to cook him breakfast. Will she give him grapefruit?

In Hollywood Canteen (1944), a cheesy but sweet piece of propaganda for both the American war effort and the film industry, returned G. I. ‘Slim’ (Robert Hutton) finds out that the newspapers are spreading gossip about him. The town broadsheets have announced his marriage to Hollywood starlet Joan Leslie, an exaggeration as they are only courting. The morning after their date he sees the papers, and he upends his hotel room in a rage — including the breakfast trays. His friend Sergeant Nolan (Dane Clark) is knocked to the floor, and as he gets up he pulls something squidgy out from under himself. “Grapefruit,” he says, disgustedly, grimacing. The couple might be innocent, but the stories aren’t; the grapefruit enjoys the drama.

The grapefruit had a few more appearances that year. In Double Indemnity (1944) over at Paramount Pictures, Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler’s script is a collection of fast-paced, innuendo-laced dialogue. Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) flirts with a new-on-the-scene insurance salesman, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray): she asks him who takes care of his apartment, and then, “Cook your own breakfast?” Phyllis’s smooth, peppery voice gets her message across; Walter responds, smugly, “Squeeze a grapefruit once in a while.” Walter is unmarried, and his time is more or less his own, so it’s possible that he might, simply, squeeze a grapefruit. But with Chandler, it is safe to assume he will always think about dialogue in terms of its underhanded implications. So Walter could have been angling for something more than grapefruit—for a chance romance with Phyllis, for instance. Chandler was smarter than the censorship board, and it’s safe to say this is a ribald remark.

Mr. Skeffington (1944), directed by the almost unremarkable Vincent Sherman for Warner Brothers, allows Bette Davis to eat a grapefruit again. Recovering from diptheria, the invalid Fanny Skeffington (Davis) is served breakfast in bed, consisting of undercooked eggs, toast, and half a grapefruit — the typical Hollywood Diet. Fanny sugars the grapefruit and scoops portions out, sipping her cup of tea, and she hallucinates the vision of her estranged husband sitting by her bed. The flickering image of Claude Rains haunts Fanny as she vexedly eats her wholesome grapefruit breakfast. Here, the grapefruit’s appearance mocks Fanny’s vanity, as her husband reminds her of a love long past. It isn’t there to censor, but as a droll companion to Fanny’s unfulfilling narcissism. The film, and Fanny, need it.

The Big Sleep (1946), a Raymond Chandler novel with an adapted screenplay by William Faulkner, Jules Furthman, and Leigh Brackett, has another go. Assuming a disguise as a bookish historian, wearing glasses and a low-tipped hat, Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe interrogates the proprietor of a bookstore that he thinks may be a front for the gambler Arthur Geiger and his habit for blackmail. After the proprietor, who is tied up in Geiger’s illegal operation, stares blankly at his literary questions, he probes, “You do sell books, hmmm?” She snaps back at him: “What do those look like, grapefruit?” She gestures at her surrounds with no interest whatsoever, as bitter as the fruit itself. Not simply a Warner Brothers grapefruit, this exchange is taken almost directly from Chandler’s book. Chandler is using the forbidden fruit as a decoy, something to flirt around when he really wanted them to talk about sex.

In 1949, the Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin scripted Adam’s Rib, directed by George Cukor for MGM, has a grapefruit in a relatively calm environment — to begin with. Amanda (Katharine Hepburn) and her husband Adam (Spencer Tracy) are preparing dinner together in the kitchen, and while it’s cooking, they share a grapefruit. Their neighbor pops over to perform a new song he has composed, which turns out to be a paean to his own feelings for her. The couple listen to his lyrics while eating their grapefruit. Adam is clearly resentful, but Amanda doesn’t take the neighbor seriously. She just stays in the kitchen, dedicated to her romance with Adam — and her grapefruit.

In a Lonely Place (1951), the Nicholas Ray film adapted by Columbia from Dorothy B. Hughes’ novel, has Bogart square up against a real grapefruit. Hollywood screenwriter Dix Steele (Bogart) wants to prepare breakfast for his lover, Laurel (Gloria Grahame), so he suggests he’ll start it while she dresses. It’s as much a kind gesture as an aggressive one; he’s angry that she takes sleeping pills. He goes to the kitchen, cuts a grapefruit in half, and takes another knife from the drawer. It’s bent; he straightens it, and proceeds to slice the grapefruit with difficulty. Laurel enters and he replies, “It was crooked, and I straightened it.” The following scene, as Dix ruminates, is one of the most romantic tableaux in all screen history. “A good love scene should be about something else besides love. For instance, this one. Me fixing grapefruit, you sitting over there dopey, half asleep. Anybody looking at us could tell we were in love.” They take breakfast trays into the sitting room with empty coffee cups, and things explode in front of the unassuming grapefruit; he’s pushy for marriage, she’s afraid he might be a murderous psychopath, and the coffee in the kitchen boils over. Here, the disastrous breakfast captures the agony of a dwindling relationship.

Then Billy Wilder gets a few more grapefruit in his films, with at least three references to that early scene in The Public Enemy. There’s a brief gag during a banquet scene in Some Like It Hot (1959), where mobster Spats (George Raft) threatens to shove half of a grapefruit into a minion’s face. (A grapefruit served on ice, with a cherry on top!) In One, Two, Three (1961), a comedy set in West Berlin, MacNamara (James Cagney) tries to coach a passionate young bolshevik, married to his boss’s daughter, to behave like a respectable, rich American. Otto (Horst Buchholz) isn’t cooperating. Looking at the array of dinner cutlery, he shouts derisively, “Which knife to stab the proletariat in the back with!” MacNamara picks up half a grapefruit, braces his arm, and threatens, “How would you like a little fruit for dessert?” He manages to restrain himself, and places the grapefruit gently back onto the table. It’s one of Wilder’s absurd comedic ploys, and also a commentary on the characters. Upper-class MacNamara comes close to being just as common as Otto, using the salacious grapefruit as a weapon.

In Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), Orville Spooner (Ray Walston) spots half a grapefruit in the refrigerator and gets wide-eyed. He seems angry with the grapefruit, aware of its connotations, and suspects his wife Zelda (Felicia Fay) of having an affair. He grabs the grapefruit and spends the scene hiding it from his wife, quizzing her about their wedding and honeymoon as though ready to slam it into her face at the slightest hint of infidelity. The town reverend arrives unexpectedly at the door with a petition to close down the local niterie, The Belly Button, based on “the distinct impression that there’s love for sale on the premises.” “Love for sale, Cole Porter,” Orville responds almost absent-mindedly. Zelda offers the reverend some of their wedding anniversary cake, but he declines — too many calories. Instead, he requests some of the grapefruit behind Orville’s back. Orville looks uncomfortable, sprung: “I was saving it for my wife,” he says, helplessly. The scene cuts to an exterior shot of a Nevadan highway with a sign pointing off-road to The Belly Button. Saving the grapefruit, as a temptation to the good times.

Grapefruit: citrus or sex metaphor?

Although this is a piece about Hollywood’s Golden Age, a few other instances need be mentioned. In The Boom (1963), Giovanni’s (Alberto Sordi) wife Silvia (Gianna Maria Canale) is complaining about her husband, and quips that he has only ever spoken to her of exchange rates and grapefruit. She’s despondent! Oh, the banalities of marriage! Vittorio de Sica had a wonderful eye for the everyday, and for ordinary living; stripped of all they symbolise, grapefruit were a mundanity. And while it is sometimes around during relationship troubles, it seems to mostly symbolise ripe — and perhaps forbidden — sexuality. So maybe de Sica had something else in mind.

The grapefruit is not as popular in films, now; it isn’t as much a breakfast staple as it once was — although it appeared in Black Swan (2010) as part of a ballet dancer’s diet. A new report has announced its unfortunate demise, declaring it an “increasingly underappreciated fruit”. But a recent short filmPink Grapefruit (2015), uses the fruit as a backdrop to two relationships, one burgeoning and one old and bitter. A grapefruit tree provides a silent commentary on romance, helping an awkward couple seduce one another, and adding to the spite within another. Society is generally more open to sexual themes on screen than it once was, so here, director Michael Mohan appreciates the eponymous fruit with tongue in cheek. It’s no longer necessary, but it’s still a lot of fun.

With a long history in cinema that can be tracked alongside a growth in popularity, in America in particular, the grapefruit is something special. It’s never just a piece of fruit. With its forbidden associations, it can be a tempter or temptress, a seductive force, leading people down the path to love. It’s at the core of a once-popular diet. Ultimately, the grapefruit is good for your health, and on screen, it has proven itself as good for the action. It’s a romantic moderator: love beginning to blossom, love falling apart. It’s a weapon of wits, a stand-in for sexuality. Filmmakers have treated it as an unlikely enabler, but it can also be a knowing one (just like the humble ice tea). It’s a performer. It’s a tease. A euphemism, a weapon. It’s at the center of conflict. It’s on the sidelines when conflict is brewing. It observes the contretemps of unfulfilled lovers; it helps lovers become fulfilled. It is, in the end, a pretty saucy fruit.