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Screening Classic Hollywood: “Executive Suite” (1954)

As I’ve been writing and researching my dissertation, I have increasingly come to appreciate just how complicated and contradictory a decade the 1950s really were.  Shrouded as we are in the noxious cloud of nostalgia (courtesy, in large part, of the current iteration of the Republican Party), it’s quite easy to forget this was a decade that was riven by deep and often irresolvable tensions that many films, no matter how hard they tried, could never entirely resolve into coherent ideological visions.  Such is the case with the 1954 Executive Suite.

The film’s plot might seem a bit convoluted at first glance, but it is actually quite simple.  After furniture magnate Avery Bullard drops dead in the street, the other members of the Treadyway corporation begin vying with one another for executive control.  Among them are Don Walling (William Holden), Loren Shaw (Frederic March), and Frederick Y. Alderson (Walter Pidgeon).  While Walling and Alderson, unsurprisingly, represent a purer, more authentic vision for the company, Alderson is primarily interested in maintaining a faster pace of production and impressing the company’s stockholders.  After a great deal of manipulation and uncertainty, the board ultimately elects Walling to serve as the new head of the company, his vision certain to take the company into a new and brighter future.

Like so many films of the 1950s, Executive Suite expresses a profound cynicism and downright hostility to the postwar world of prefabricated homes and mass produced furniture.  The film seems to yearn for an earlier period, when furniture was made by hand and the workers could take pride in their craftsmanship.  Although it would be going too far to suggest that the film is socialist or Marxist in its orientation, it does seem to possess a peculiarly sharp sense of the alienation the worker experiences in the period of mass production.  While it stops short of advocating a truly Marxist or socialist solution to the problem of alienation, it does suggest that the post-war world should take a long, hard look at itself if it hopes to rediscover the sole of its creativity and restore a measure of its previous vitality.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Holden emerges from this film as the voice of reason and justice, and it is also not surprising that the film attempts to resolve the problems it has posed by  ensuring that he takes over the company in the end.  As always, Holden is likable enough in this role, although there is also a bit of edge to him that keeps me from being totally invested in him as the hero.  For some reason, that subtle hint of self-righteous arrogance–which I am sure was a large part of his appeal during the height of his stardom–keeps him from being completely and unambiguously heroic.  (I would also say the same of his other two iconic roles, Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard and Hal Carter of Picnic).  While he may have this edge, however, the film clearly wants us to see this is a necessary corrective to the bland, cutthroat masculinity that March’s Shaw so obviously represents in the film’s representational system.

Though his star shone quite brightly during his time at MGM, Walter Pidgeon seems to be one of those stars of classical Hollywood who never really made an impression that lasted beyond the height of his career.  Unlike other MGM stars (such as, say, Clark Gable), he just seemed to lack that certain something that would render him into a true icon.  However, here in Executive Suite he lends the affair a significant measure of gravitas, with his deep voice and commanding (if seemingly unassuming) stage presence.  Even more than Holden, he really serves as the story’s moral center, and that is the type of role in which Pidgeon really did excel.

If there’s on complaint I have about this film, it’s that it makes far too little of Stanwyck.  Of course, her most notable and enduring performances emerged during the 1930s and 1940s, but still, one would think that MGM could have done a little better in utilizing this formidable female talent.  She does have a few noteworthy scenes–as when she receives the news that Bullard is dead, which features her throaty voice and obvious grief–but for the most part the film seems unsure what exactly to do with her.

Overall, however, Executive Suite stands as a fascinating example of a period struggling to make sense of itself.

Score:  8.5/10

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Cortana: Gender Devolved (25 Sept. 2015)

Metathesis

For many, the summer’s release of Windows 10 marked a return to form for the venerable series of PC operating systems. It minimized the presence of the much reviled “Metro” styling, restored the Start menu to its former prominence, and made the OS free to anyone who already had either Windows 7 or 8 installed. One software feature, however, cited a return of another kind – Cortana, previously the sarcastic AI companion to the Master Chief in the Halo series of video games, arrived to Windows 10 as its “virtual assistant.” Cortana, like its voice-activated counterpart over at Apple, Siri, is essentially a glorified search engine crossed with a task manager that was then given a computerized (and feminized) voice. In Windows 10 you can just as easily use your search bar to find a file as to find out what kind of music Cortana likes. Which, if you’re wondering…

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Sex on the (Game) Table (18 Sept. 2015)

Metathesis

I’m going to pivot here from the past two weeks, away from 2000 word theoretical arguments and critical close readings to something a little bit looser. In the process, I also hope to turn away from the world of video games for a little while and towards the cardboard world of the table top. If you’ve been into your local Barnes & Noble on any given day in the past few years, you may have noticed the sudden appearance of board games where before there were only college application guides and Moleskine notebooks. This, I promise, is not just indicative of B&N’s own post-codex marketing strategies. They say we are in the middle of a board game renaissance, a golden age of plastic figures, complicated rulebooks, and wooden cubes, and that makes me one happy little nerd.

Incidentally, it also makes me one happy little student of sex and gender…

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Why I Tweet About Classic Films

A few weeks ago, someone asked me why I tweet about classic movies (particularly at the #TCMParty).  Luckily for me, I had given the matter a lot of thought already, so I had a ready answer.  I wanted to share a few of those thoughts here.

For those who don’t know, the TCMParty hashtag has become a popular means by which TCM (Turner Classic Movies) junkies can get together and gab about the films that happen to be showing on a given evening (or in the afternoon, or pretty much any time of the day or night).  There are some regulars–some of whom have even built that TCMParty identity in their profiles–and others who only chime in on occasion.  Regardless of how long one has been partaking of the hashtag, however, you can be guaranteed that there will be a mix of irreverent jokes (all told, of course, with a great measure of affection for the films under discussion), as well as fun bits of trivia, and other sorts of discussion about the film.  Though we might not always agree with one another, and though many of us are quite different in our outlooks on film and on life in general, the TCMparty is always a congenial and supportive space for a wide variety of viewpoints.

At first, it might seem somewhat counter-intuitive to think about TCM and Twitter in the same sentence.  There is a popular–and not entirely unfounded–perception that the channel appeals to a particular demographic.  This, most people would assume, would be middle-aged and older folks, many of whom may remember when many of the films that TCM shows (many of which come from the 1930s-1950s).  However, a cursory perusal of Twitter reveals a number of Twitter users who are in their 20s-30s, people who have a genuine fondness for classical Hollywood (there are even millennials, believe it or not!)

There is, I think, something quite exciting about this melange of people live-tweeting about these films, bringing their exciting and sometimes contentious opinions and views on these films.  While certainly we don’t always agree on how we look at films (I was more than a little dismayed to find that one of my fellow TCMParty folks did not like the biblical epic David and Bathsheba, one of my favorites of the midcentury cycle), we all share our opinions and thoughts about them.  That atmosphere is usually convivial and light-hearted, though there are often rich, textured, and nuanced conversations that spring out of the Twitter feed.

Further, conversing via Twitter has become an essential part of TCM’s brand identity, especially with their recent introduction of the hashtag #LetsMovie.  While there was, understandably, a great deal of ambivalence on the part of classic movie fans–and a concomitant fear that TCM would begin introducing newer films into its lineup–I prefer to see it as a golden opportunity to introduce an entire new generation of filmgoers to the joys and wonders of classic Hollywood.  As we get further and further from that period, and as new digital technologies displace celluloid, we should embrace every opportunity we have to keep the conversation going.

So, why do I tweet about classic movies?  Because I like sharing my love of this particular body of art with others who share that love.  As a film scholar, there is something rejuvenating and exciting about engaging with people outside of the academy, who bring to the discussion of film a variety of perspectives that are equally important.  It’s very easy as an academic to cocoon myself away from the world, and Twitter provides me an opportunity to connect with other cinephiles, folks who may not have a degree but who nevertheless possess much more film knowledge than I do (and often have their own voluminous archives to draw upon).

If you’re a fan of classic films (and who isn’t, at some level or other?) then you should definitely sign up for a Twitter account and see what all of the fuss is about.  Whether you are young or old, an experienced cinema-goer or someone who has newly discovered the joys of film, be sure to join in with the crazy, zany, but loveable gang tweeting at #TCMParty.

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Reading History: “When Christ and His Saints Slept” (by Sharon Kay Penman)

I’m a sucker for a good historical novel, and Sharon Kay Penman’s When Christ and His Saints Slept is one of those gems, a novel that manages to combine the vast epic sweep of a Walter Scott with the more intricate and personal details that allow us an intimate glimpse into the medieval world which it chronicles.  Set during the period known as the Anarchy, the novel follows two rival claimants to the English throne:  Stephen (nephew of the previous king Henry I) and Henry’s fiery, independent-spirited daughter Maude (widow of the Holy Roman Emperor).  As everyone in their orbit is drawn into the conflict, loyalties are tested and everyone must decide which side they will take and who they would like to see on England’s throne.  Told from a multitude of viewpoints, it offers a fascinating glimpse into one of England’s most turbulent periods.

Given the extraordinary nature of the women who occupied this world, it should come as no surprise that they emerge as the stars of Penman’s novel.  Maude chafes at the fact that her society cannot comprehend that a woman night not only be able to rule, but might be able to do so even better than her male counterparts.  This is not to say that the novel is unambiguously in Maude’s favour; she is not the perfect ruler, and she is stubborn to the point of folly.  Indeed, it is only after she ultimately loses her chance at the throne that she recognizes that sometimes, just sometimes, it is necessary for a ruler to follow the advice of her counselors.

Though she is not the primary focus of the novel, Eleanor of Aquitaine also emerges as a woman who knows precisely what she wants and does what it takes to achieve that goal.  Like Maude’s son Henry (who eventually succeeds Stephen as Henry II), hers is a personality that burns bright and powerful, so much so that she cannot be so easily contained by a society and a culture that systematically denies women the ability (and often the opportunity) to engage meaningfully in their political world.  Indeed, Eleanor even challenges the might of the French king Louis by marrying Henry a mere couple of months after her divorce to him becomes finalized.

Yet Stephen also emerges as a surprisingly compelling and even sympathetic character.  The novel takes great pains to show him as a genuinely good and chivalrous man, though one always able to be led by the most powerful person in his vicinity.  He also emerges as a man plagued by tragedy, as he struggles to retain the crown that he believes is his by right and ultimately loses both his wife Matilda and his unruly and dangerously unbalanced son Eustace.  Stephen is, in the end, a man far too kind, gentle, and chivalrous for the medieval world in which he lives, and far too lenient to ever be the effective king that England needs in order to survive. and thrive as a stable kingdom.  Though this makes him much more understandable to us as modern subjects, it eventually leads to his tragic downfall.

While it is all too common for novels of this type to focus strictly on the doings of the powerful and the royal, large sequences of the novel also relate the experiences of those who occupied the subaltern position within the medieval world:  the whores, the soldiers, the servants.  Although their perspectives do not typically occupy large parts of the narrative, they are nevertheless crucial for showing us the ways in which the civil war (which lasted almost two decades) took a terrible toll on the common people of the kingdom.

Most notable, perhaps, are two sets of individuals whose fates intersect with Ranulf (Maude’s fictional half-brother):  a pair of Jewish brothers who tend to him after a nearly-fatal bandit attack, and a pair of Saxon youths he rescues from certain rape and death.  Both groups represent the subaltern stratum of medieval English society, and it is actually rather shocking to realize the ways in which their plights were customarily ignored (or worse, justified) by the dominant mores of the time.  The fact that Ranulf finds himself feeling so intensely for their plight makes him one of the novel’s most sympathetic characters.

I’ve always thought that a good historical novel should give us moderns a taste–however diluted–of the strangeness of the past.  While many aspects of When Christ and His Saints Slept do give us a window into the workings of the mind of its characters that renders them at least somewhat modern in outlook, the world that Penman brings to life is one quite alien to our own.  As the above examples demonstrate, the novel never lets us forget that medieval England was a hard world, full of numerous social divisions that were seen as not only normal, but expected and immutable.  It’s a humbling reminder of how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go.

Score:  10/10