Reading Classic Hollywood: Demographic Angst (Alan Nadel)

As some of you who read this blog regularly know, I’m a passionate believer in the value of the public humanities. Now that I’ve finished the dissertation (yay!) and have a bit of time on my hands, and since I’ve been spending so much time reading books in film, I have decided to do my part in that project. I’m going to start posting reviews of books that I think would be of interest not only to those studying film from an academic perspective, but also to those who are fans of film and want to think more complexly and with more nuance about how cinema engages with the world that produces it.

To inaugurate this, I am writing about the new book Demographic Angst: Cultural Narratives and American Films of the 1950s, by Alan NadelI’ve been a fan of Nadel’s for some time now; in fact, his book Containment Culture (about the instability of atomic technology and the way in which this was reflected in the challenges of postmodernism) enormously influenced my own work on Cold War films. So, needless to say, I was very excited indeed to see that he had a new book coming out, which explores a new aspect of my favourite periods of Hollywood history.

Through a series of erudite readings of classic films of the 1950s–ranging from All About Eve to Singin’ in the Rain, from Niagara to West Side Story–Nadel demonstrates the ways in which the cultural texts of the postwar period reflected the ongoing debates and anxieties that characterized American culture in the aftermath of the Second World War. In particular, these films grappled with the tremendous changes in the American population that emerged after the victory. This was an era, after all, of unprecedented economic and population growth, a pinnacle of achievement that the United States had not yet achieved.

However, as Nadel ably demonstrates, the films of the era exposed the contradictions dwelling at the heart of the Cold War American unconscious. Though this is an era that has, in subsequent years, been understood as one of conformity, it was in fact deeply conflicted, for in its attempt to enforce a hegemonic understanding of normality, the dominant ideologies of the period inadvertently summoned up the anxieties they meant to quell. This endless conflict between opposites, Nadel contends, created the angst that was such a signature part of Cold War culture.

Nadel is a historicist in the finest tradition, and he shows how the angst emerging in the broader American culture found their reflection in the cinema of the era. These concerns include the issue of labour (reflected in the bodies and voices of the characters of Singin’ in the Rain and On the Waterfront), the plight of the organization man in the postwar business world (which can be seen in The Court Jester), the perils of female desire (exposed in films such as All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard), and the shifting understandings of the status of Puerto Rico in an era in which Communist Cuba was becoming an increasing presence on the global stage (explored through the narrative of West Side Story). Through these readings, the book shows how 1950s films were very much a part of their moment of production and, as such, co-creators of the ideologies upon which they drew.

Part of the book’s appeal lies in the way that it draws upon such a deep archive of primary materials from the period. As someone who recently did his own research into the discourses of the postwar world, it was exciting to see Nadel read them in ways that would not have occurred to me. Nadel’s ability to weave together the context and his readings of the films makes this an ideal book for those looking to gain a more nuanced understanding of the complexity of the 1950s, the many competing discourses that barraged those living in this profoundly uncertain time. In that sense, Demographic Angst is a particularly valuable book for those of us living in a similarly contentious period of demographic change.

Nadel, while very complex in his thinking and his interpretation of film, nevertheless manages to write in a style that is at once sophisticated and yet accessible to those outside the academy. If you want to learn more about the important cultural work that classic Hollywood films did in their time of production, there is much to gain from reading this book. Further, it’s clear that Nadel has a great deal of fondness for the films that he analyzes, and that he has a keen eye for the visual details that make the cinema of this period such a joy to watch.

If I have one slight complaint about the book as a whole, it’s that Nadel tends to be a little too literal in his associations between the context and the reflection in the film. Still, it is entirely possible that those watching these films would have understood them as participating and reflecting their own lived reality and the ideologies in which they were immersed. As Nadel ably puts it, however, these films also rendered visible–and thus forced an experience of–the contradictory impulses of postwar America.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book for the light that it sheds on the films of the 1950s. I’m one of those weird people who genuinely enjoys reading film criticism, particularly when it helps me to see my favourite films in new and exciting ways. I also like reading about films that I haven’t seen yet (as odd as that sounds). Indeed, sometimes it’s reading about them that makes me want to see them.

Demographic Angst is published by Rutgers University Press. It’s actually priced quite reasonably at around $30, so if you can you should buy a copy for yourself. After all, buying a scholar’s book not only helps them (if they sell enough copies they’ll eventually get a royalty) but also helps to demonstrate to university presses that there is a market for scholarship that exists beyond the libraries that typically purchase them.

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Screening Classic Hollywood: “Anastasia” (1956)

I’ve always had a fascination with the legend of Anastasia Romanov, the youngest daughter of the doomed Nicholas and Alexandra who was rumoured, for much of the 20th Century, to have survived the massacre that struck her family. Before there was the exquisite Anastasia of animated fame, there was the 1956 film starring Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman.

The film is a briskly paced drama. While this was not quite what I was expecting–given the grandiosity of the subject matter–it works well for the film, rendering it more of a character study than the epic one might expect to tell the story of one of the most famous royals of the 20th Century. Though there are a few scenes that contain the extravagance one might expect from a period drama, for the most part the tension is between the three principal characters: General Bounine (Brynner), Anna Koref (Bergman), and the Dowager Empress Marie (Helen Hayes).

All three characters have an investment in maintaining the fiction that Anna really is the long-lost Anastasia. For Bounine, it’s the chance to make a great deal of money, while for Anna herself it is a means of recovering an identity that she may in fact have never had. And of course for the Dowager, it represents an opportunity to regain the loving family that was taken away from her in the fires of brutal revolution.

The film finds its most soaring effect is in its use of music. There is a remarkable sequence during a visit to Denmark to visit the Dowager Empress and the exuberant strains of Tchaikovsky greet her entrance (though her face isn’t revealed for a few more minutes). Though she is a supporting character, Helen Hayes manage to imbue this formidable historical figure with a grace that cannot be rivaled.

Bergman manages to imbue her own figure with a certain tragic elegance, as she is drawn in to the plot of Brynner’s rapacious general. As he draws her into his scheme, she begins to lose even the sense of who she is. Is she, in fact, the long-lost daughter of the tsar, or is she just another nameless orphan who has been brought into the scheme of an avaricious and embittered nobleman? The film leaves the answer unclear, and that is part of the pleasure.

She is matched by two other formidable characters, Brynner’s general and Helen Hayes’ iron-clad Dowager. Yul Brynner has always been one of my favourite actors from classic Hollywood, an object of simply exquisite and imposing male beauty. This film is no exception and, while he once again plays something of an asshole, he still maintains a measure of charisma. One always has to wonder what really lurks behind that austere and often callous exterior, what fiery, sensuous heart lurks in that brutal breast.

For her part, Hayes is truly magnificent of one of the 20th Century’s most tragic figures, a woman who lost her entire family and was frequently beset  She seems to bite off her words in a tense conversation with the general, and she is even more scathing to her attendant, remarking acerbically, “To a woman of your age, sex should be nothing but gender.” This is truly one of the most wonderful lines I have heard in a film.

More than that, though, Hayes is in many ways the emotional center of the film. When she finally comes to accept Anderson as her long-lost granddaughter, it is a truly heart-wrenching moment in the purest melodramatic form (ironically, she initially condemns Anna for indulging in precisely that kind of melodrama). If you don’t feel the familiar tug on your heartstrings that is the hallmark of a really good (which is to say, effective) Hollywood melodrama, then you may want to reconsider whether you are actually a fully-functioning human.

Given that we now know with a certainty that Anastasia was in fact murdered with the rest of her family, the film cannot but be fundamentally melancholy. We know all too well that the glamorous Russian princess perished at Yekaterinburg, the victim of the Bolshevik Revolution. Yet the film, as any good melodrama should, indulges our hope that maybe, just maybe, history has lied to us, that in the world of fantasy known as Hollywood film, the doomed Russian princess lives on. It might be a fantasy, but it’s a pleasant one.

All in all, Anastasia is a truly compelling product of its time, full of beautiful colours, exquisite performances, and a story that is as sad as it is beautiful. Truly an exquisite film.

Dissertation Days (17): Headaches

Much as it pains me to admit it, this has not been a very productive day on any front. I managed to eke out some progress on Chapter 3, though I did nothing at all on Chapter 4. I had a bit of a pet emergency (Beast, my kitty, had an asthma flare, so a large part of the day has been spent fretting over here; she’s doing much better, thankfully). I also developed a splitting headache, so that ruled out a lot of work progress this evening.

Still, I did manage to do some copy and paste from earlier drafts of the chapter, so the section on queerness, Nero, and Quo Vadis is starting to slowly take shape in a coherent form. I’m still struggling to bring together the strands of queerness, colour, and the terrifying nature of history, but I think I have the avenue I need.

I’m trying to avoid a huge theory info-dump right in the middle of the discussion. I think I’m going to have to just winnow out any theoretical references that aren’t directly relevant to what I’m doing, and relegate the others to a footnote. I also have to find a way to bring together my discussions of queer theory in general and the queer film theorists that I’m also working with.

I think that I need to focus on just the queer theorist Kathryn Bond Stockton and her notion of the queer child and Lee Edelman’s notion of jouissance and the death drive. Now, if I can only make sure that they mesh with both my arguments about chromatic history, I think I’ll have something significant to say about how this film imagines history (I also have to make sure that it fits in with the preceding discussion of S&D and D&B). Lots of balls in the air. I do like a challenge.

Sigh.

Unfortunately, more work is probably not in the offing tomorrow, as I have more family obligations. Sometime, probably early next week, I should be able to get back into something of my normal groove.

Until then, I fear that the installments of Dissertation Days will be as sporadic as the actual progress I’ll be making on my chapters. Still, I’m going to carve out each piece as I can, and that will have to be good enough for now.

In my book, any progress is good progress.

Dissertation Days (15): Three Outta Five Ain’t Bad!

I know it’s been a while since I posted a dissertation update. My Parents and I lost a furry member of our family, so we’ve been grieving. Today, though, I knew I had to get back in the swing of things. And here we are.

So, this chapter of my dissertation has basically five complete sections: context (historical); context (theoretical); close reading of Samson and Delilah; close reading of David and Bathsheba; and close reading of Quo Vadis. There is also, of course, a very brief conclusion.

So far, I’ve managed to finish three out of those five, especially since I managed to finish up my close reading of David and Bathsheba. It’s a little briefer than the one about Samson and Delilah, but that’s okay. It’s basically meant to be a complement to that earlier reading, an elaboration of the many ways in which the historico-biblical epic engages with the question of desire and history.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with the way that this section turned out, and I think I’ve added some nuance to the ways in which scholars have already talked about the film. I really think that thinking about colour adds a new layer of understanding to the way in which the film engages with the question of history and desire. David and Bathsheba may not have attained quite the canonical status of some other epics of the midcentury period, it does, I think, deserve more critical consideration than it typically receives.

Tomorrow, I’ve got to get deep into the weeds on the section of Quo Vadis. I’ve thought about excising it from the chapter, but have opted not to. I do think there is a strong case to be made for the way in which queer desire in the film operates at the level of form, and it makes a compelling counterpoint to the question of female desire raised by the other films discussed. So, it stays in for right now.

I was planning on submitting this chapter later this month, but since I’ll be traveling for quite a while, I’m going to submit it around the middle of June. However,  I going to continue working on Chapter 4 (which I fully intend to do tomorrow, in addition to my other work).

There is still a lot of work, but I think most of it will be done this week.

It can be done.

Dissertation Days (14): Sometimes I Love What I Do

Today was one of those glorious day when the pieces at last started to fit together. It was a truly productive day, and I managed to finish the section of the chapter devoted to Samson and Delilah. 

finally found a coherent way of talking about the ways in which the terror and chaos of history is expressed through Samson and Delilah‘s emphasis on costume, fabric, and tactility. If you’ve ever seen the film, you can see the ways in which it expresses a very disruptive and chaotic form of desire, one that cannot be entirely contained by the conventions of narrative.

I really do think that I’m making a contribution with this line of argument, for I’m trying to work against a dominant strand of criticism that tends to see Delilah as little more than an object of the gaze, a femme fatale who is the screen onto which men project their fantasies and fears about women. To me, the period of the late 1940s and early 1950s is far too fractious and unsettled for that to be the whole story, and when you think about both the terrors of modern history and the essentially unruly nature of color as a formal element of cinema, you get a very different picture of the epic films of the period.

I didn’t get to finish my section on David and Bathsheba, alas, though I did hash out the thesis of that section so that it’s a little more clarity, so at least I accomplished that. There isn’t quite as much to do with that section as S&D, since it was always a bit clearer.

That just leaves the last section on Nero and Quo Vadis, and that is definitely going to take a couple of days to both write and make sure that it fits with the rest of what I’ve already been doing. Still, with grit and determination I know this can be done. I know it.

At the rate I’m going, I should be ready to submit this revision before the end of the month. That basically means I’ll have taken about a month and a half to make some pretty significant revisions, so I’m okay with that. Even if it needs another round, I think that the next bit won’t take as long.

Once it’s done, I’m on to Chapter 4. Onward and upward, friends.

Onward and upward.

 

Dissertation Days (13): Breakthroughs

Somehow, it seems that revision and incremental writing seems to take so much more energy and time than producing new material. It’s one of the bitter ironies of writing a new chapter draft. As a result, it took me several hours to work my way through a mere few pages, but luckily I had some substantial breakthroughs.

This came about as I was finishing the section on queerness and communist subversiveness. It actually provided me with the final piece of the puzzle that I needed, so that I can finally make a compelling and (I hope) original point about the way in which Nero’s queerness in Quo Vadis works as an expression of the pleasure of terrifying history. There’s nothing like a bit of collective queer fantasy to encounter the ineffable nature of history, am I right?

Still, despite the fact that today was a bit of a slog, I made good progress today. The queer section is pretty much done in its broad contours, and the same is also true of the section on colour. A little more fine-tuning might be needed to make sure that that section is ready for submission, but overall I think it does the work that it needs to do.

Since this is a pretty large and complex chapter, I’ve found that I’ve had to use a bit more signposting than I usually do, just to make sure that the reader is able to follow my logic and understand why I’m including the evidence that I do. It does pad out the chapter, but I personally think it’s helpful to have those rhetorical bits when you’re dealing with a 40-50 page piece of academic writing.

I’m quite happy with the way that this day turned out, really. The queer section was a hot mess this morning, and now it feels like it actually works in the chapter as a whole. Not too bad, if I do say so myself. Now I don’t actually feel bad about not doing any work tomorrow.

Yes, you read that right. I am indeed taking off tomorrow. Then it’s back to work on Monday to finish up the close reading sections of both Samson and Delilah and David and Bathsheba. Once those two sections are done, the home stretch will finally be in sight. What a glorious feeling.

It’s going to be a great day. I can feel it.

Dissertation Days (9): Rough Days…

Sometimes, you have a day of writing where nothing goes quite as you want, and you spend hours just sort of agonizing over a few pages, or even a few paragraphs. Hell, even a single paragraph. You flick between different tabs and screens, hoping that the caffeine will kick in and you’ll buzz right through your revisions, carving out something intelligible and witty and dazzling and incisive.

Well, that didn’t happen today.

But then again, perhaps I’m not giving myself enough credit. I did make it through almost 8 pages of the draft I have right now, and I chipped out some bits of fluff, tightened up the language in the intro paragraphs. I also came up with a one-sentence distillation of what this whole damn chapter is about: “History thus becomes [in these films] a pleasurable experience of the destructive power of female and queer male desire, an escape from the tyranny of time and hetero-reproductive historical responsibility.”

It’s still rather buried in a paragraph of other context and theorizing, but that’s the basic message. And it really does convey what I’m hoping to do with this chapter, i.e. make us take seriously the question of sexual desire as a problem for the experience and representation of history, rather than just a sneaky means by which canny directors circumvented the Production Code (though it is that too, of course).

I also managed to eke out 500 words of the fourth chapter, which I think is slowly cohering into something vaguely resembling an argument. I’m going to have to do a little more reading to make sure that all of my ideas fit together, and that I somehow manage to make a convincing argument about the nature of imperialism in the epic that isn’t just warmed-over from what someone else has already written (you’d be surprised how easy that is to do, or to at least perceive that you’re doing it).

I’m honestly not sure how much I’m going to be able to get done tomorrow. Hopefully, I can at least make sure that 5 more pages are in shape that’s ready to go, and that might be about it. Still, at this stage that’s pretty good. I have already made plans to get some good work done on both Thursday and Friday, so there is hope that I can get this done by the end of the month (if not sooner).

Onward!

Dissertation Days (6): The Lies We Tell Ourselves

So, I have to fess up to something. I didn’t, in fact, end up writing anything at all of Chapter 4 last night, and I don’t think I will today either. I was being a little overly optimistic in my estimation of how much I would end up getting done.

However, I did make some solid progress on Chapter 3. Met the word count for today, and I’m pretty happy with the way that the writing turned out. I made some important points about understanding Delilah as an inheritor of the tradition of the vamp, thus working around the critical impasse that sees her as little more than a femme fatale, a projection of male desires and fantasies. I tend to see as more of a vamp, a potential site of resistance to heteronormative closure, the color schemes associated with her registering an embrace of the emotions, the self, and desire rather than the burdens of history. If you’ve seen the almost lurid Technicolor design of the film, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

I have noticed a pesky habit, though. Since I’m so scattered in my composition process, often bouncing from one paragraph to another without finishing a full thought sometimes, I end up repeating something that I forgot that I already wrote. This can be quite the pain in the ass, particularly since it’s very wrenching to delete words of any sort.

Still,, sometimes you just have to accept your writing process, even if it isn’t always the most productive way of getting things done.

Well, tomorrow I’m going to aim for another 1,000. I think I can do this, and I also want to begin sculpting the raw material that I have into what will be the final form. Some of the paragraphs are mostly done, but there are also several that need some finessing in order to reach their final form. Getting those tidied up will definitely be the major writing agenda item from here on in. Going to scale back on new material and focus on strong and focused revision.

I really want to get this submitted by the middle of May (end of May at the latest). I just…need to get this version approved as soon as possible so I can resume my intensive work on Chapter 4.

Speaking of. I am definitely going to work on Chapter 4. Need to keep actual forward momentum going.

Let’s go!

Screening History: “Ben-Hur”(1959)

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Some time ago, I wrote a 3-part series of blog posts about the rise and fall of the biblical epic (you can see them here, here, and here). At the time, I was just beginning to explore my dissertation. Since then, however, I’ve managed to write two chapters and have submitted the first draft of a third, and it actually looks like I’ll finish next year. Just as importantly, I’ve gained a more nuanced appreciation for the complexities of my favourite film genre, the historico-biblical epic.

Thus, when it came time to for the annual Oscar Blogathon, I thought, here’s a great opportunity to talk about one of my favourite Oscar-winning epic films, and give a little bit of an indication of how this film fits into my dissertation’s overall argument about the kind of experience of history that the historico-biblical epic provided for its postmodern spectators. So, here we go.

Historically, it’s important to remember that the film was produced in the context of the Cold War, in particular the growing threat that a nuclear holocaust might actually wipe out the entirety of human civilization. There was profound uncertainty throughout the immediate postwar decades about whether the atomic bomb was the weapon by which mankind would finally bring about the fiery oblivion that had been promised by prophets throughout the millennia. Further, many wondered whether it was possible (or even desirable) to attempt to stop this from happening, or whether the power of the bomb and the end of human history it promised should simply be accepted. The individual in the postwar world was not only vulnerable; s/he might in fact be thought of as irrelevant.

Industrially, this was also the period of Hollywood cinema when widescreen technology–which promised the spectator the ability to transcend spatio-temporal boundaries and to encounter a sense of presence with the ancient world–became increasingly widespread. While it had been inaugurated with another historico-biblical epic, The Robe, in 1953, several studios soon rolled out their own processes, for they understood that audiences needed something truly overwhelming and spectacular to draw them away from their living rooms. Indeed, MGM would make a great deal of the fact that their epic was produced in MGM Camera 65, and a production booklet for the film promised that the process promised even greater levels of participation and presence. One was invited to both participate in the action and to be overwhelmed by the majesty of the spectacle.

The aesthetics of the film make full use of this tension between agency and submission, and one can only imagine what it must have been like to be surrounded by the truly overwhelming spectacularity of it all. Imagine, for example, seeing the scene in which Judah must hide, unable to reveal himself to his mother, who has been stricken with leprosy. Imagine feeling as if you, the spectator, were there with Judah, yet also immobilized like him, unable to reach out and touch her, no matter how much your body aches to do so. While this can still be felt to an extent by viewing it on a large-screen HDTV, I daresay it doesn’t come close to measuring up to what the experience must have felt like when seeing it on the true widescreen. Small wonder that the film won the Oscar for Best Cinematography-Color.

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The chariot race, one of the most visceral and exciting sequences in the history of cinema (made all the more so by the widescreen technology used to bring it to life).

Further, one can sense throughout the film–at both the formal and narrative levels–an oscillation between agency and impotence. No matter how hard Judah tries to do the right thing, he finds his agency circumscribed by forces he cannot name nor control. He can do nothing to save his family from their imprisonment, he cannot save himself from his enslavement in the galleys (it is through the capricious whim of the Roman Arrius that he is freed from his chains and thus allowed to escape the sinking ship), he can do nothing to save his mother and sister (they are purged of leprosy by the Crucifixion), and he cannot even really win the chariot race (he both places his eventual fate in God’s hands and his nemesis Messala is ultimately brought down by his own vindictiveness). There’s no denying, though, that Judah is a spectacular sufferer.

There is, then, something exquisite and beautiful about this suffering, in no small part because of the star text of Heston (who won the Oscar for Best Actor). While I am not Heston’s biggest fan, he makes a fantastic epic hero precisely because everything that is thrown at him makes him stronger. Much has been written about the way in which his chiseled facial features and imposing physicality ensured that he always appeared tightly wound, ready to erupt into violence at any moment. That is certainly true in this film; even when he is chained in the galleys, Heston’s Judah is a slab of muscled flesh, an object of erotic fascination and muscular identification. We know that the years of servitude have only hardened his body until it becomes the perfect weapon, the perfect means of effecting his vengeance against the man who wronged him and his family.

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The exquisitely erotic suffering of Heston’s Judah Ben-Hur.

Yet for all if its beauty, the world that this film depicts is a place of dark and terrifying brutality. The chariot race is, of course, one of the most memorable events in the history of cinema, but it is also an indication the rather Hobbesian mentality that governs this world. Life for many is, indeed, nasty, brutish, and short, as indicated by the many charioteers who perish during the course of the race. Messala, struggling to stay alive long enough to taunt his old enemy, suggests as much when he defiantly informs Judah that the race goes on. All the blood that now stains the sands of the Circus are but the precursor, he suggests, to an ongoing set of conflicts and strife that will continue to rock the Roman world as it is gradually replaced by Christianity.

In the end, of course, the film has to pay at least some attention to the fact that it is “a tale of the Christ,” and so it ensures that his own journey to the Cross intersects with Judah’s attempt to rescue his family. Indeed, it is the Crucifixion itself that washes them clean of their affliction, thus rendering possible the reconstitution of the family and Judah’s spiritual peace. What strikes me as particularly compelling about this fact is that it renders the rescue of the afflicted family a matter undertaken by the suffering Christ rather than anything done by Judah. In an age in which individual human agency seemed to have become impossible, it makes sense that the film would displace Judah’s historic ability to effect change in his world onto the film’s (largely  unseen) Christ.

Ben-Hur was in many ways the apex of the cycle of historico-biblical epics that had begun with Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah in 1949. While the cycle would produce several other high-profile and profitable hits, it would never attain quite the level that this film did, and none would manage to grab as many Oscars. Indeed, Ben-Hur’s Oscar haul would be unmatched until Titanic 40 years later. This film showed what was possible when a supremely talented director (William Wyler) was paired with a great cast, fine writing, and the seemingly unlimited financial capacity of the most glamourous and resplendent film studios (MGM, in the person of producer Sam Zimbalist, who sadly died before the film was completed). While other epics might be more glamourous or more historically sophisticated (Cleopatra in 1963 or The Fall of the Roman Empire in 1964), they just couldn’t quite measure up to the splendid achievements of Ben-Hur. 

In terms of scholarship, there have been a number of recent essays and books published about this film. Of particular interest is Jon Solomon’s monograph Ben-Hur: The Original Blockbuster. This book provides an extensive overview of this story, beginning with Lew Wallace’s original novel. You should also check out Bigger than Ben-Hur, which is a collection of essays published by Syracuse University Press. Don’t let the university press designation scare you off; the essays are quite accessible and shed a great deal of light on how a 19th Century novel continues to exert a powerful hold on the contemporary imagination. Film scholar Ina Rae Hark has a compelling essay on the nature of erotic suffering in the 1959 film.

Even now, after almost 60 years after its initial release, Ben-Hur does indeed remain “The Entertainment Experience of a Lifetime,” a testament to the might, the power, and the majesty of Old Hollywood and, just as importantly, to the enduring fascination of the world of ancient Rome.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my entry in this year’s Oscar Blogathon. If you’d like to leave your own reflections or appreciations on the film, I’d greatly appreciate it!

Screening Classic Hollywood: “All About Eve” (1950)

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This post is part of the “Try It, You’ll Like It!” Blogathon, hosted by Sister Celluloid and Movies Silently, where we write about “gateway films” that might bring non-classic-film lovers into the fold! For all the entries, click here!

All About Eve has long been one of my favourite films.  With its sharply written and snappy dialogue, its flawless casting, and its compelling and somewhat disturbing reflections on the nature of stardom and fandom in the Hollywood system, the film serves as a great entry point for those interested in classic Hollywood cinema (hence my focus on it for this blogathon).  If you are looking for a film that gives you insight into the workings of Hollywood in its golden age, look no further than All About Eve.

The film follows the fraught relationship between Margo Channing (Bette Davis), a strong-willed and successful Broadway actress and her protege and later replacement Eve (Anne Baxter).  While Eve begins the film as the starstruck fan of Margo, it becomes increasingly clear that she has designs on both the career of her idol and her husband.  While she ultimately succeeds in supplanting Margo in the eyes of the consuming public, she also becomes increasingly jaded and cynical, the victim of her own ambitions.  The film ends with Eve herself obtaining a young protege, one who might perpetuate the cycle.

The film, like others of the period (including Sunset Boulevard), remains interested in the contours and nature of female stardom.  Of course, given that this is 1950s Hollywood, it should come as no surprise that the thoroughly empowered and career-minded Margo eventually decides to largely withdraw from that aspect of her life in order to focus on her frayed marriage.  She realizes, as any “good” 1950s woman would, that she will gain much more satisfaction out of her domestic life than she will as an actress.   However, given that this is Bette Davis we’re talking about here, there is no small amount of ambiguity about how seriously we as viewers are supposed to take her supposed domestication (in my opinion, not very.  How can you domesticate Bette Davis, after all?)

In marked contrast, Eve is as rapacious as she is talented, striving to take everything that she wants, regardless of who she has to step on or who she has to hurt on her way to both career and sexual happiness.  What makes her sinister, of course, is that she appears to be so genuine.  Indeed, we are led to believe that, like so many fans in classical Hollywood films, she has allowed the boundary to dangerously blur between her own identity and that which she wants to become.

More insidiously, the film also seems to suggest that female friendship is either inherently toxic and catty or, alternatively, a slipper slope into the danger zone of desire.  It always remains slightly unclear whether Eve desires to be Margo, desires her (and thus attempts to to satisfy that desire by trying to seduce her husband), or some combination of the two.  And it is precisely this ambiguity that gives the film its bite.

Thus, the queer overtones in this film are hard to miss (see below for a couple of great books that discuss the film in some detail), and both Baxter and Sanders seem to relish their roles as the two devilishly queer characters.  Addison, not surprisingly, considers himself a Svengali and tries to mold Eve into the kind of woman that he wants to her to be and she, likewise, wants to do what she wants to do.  The ongoing tension between the two of them makes for one of the more compelling and deliciously corrupt parts of the entire story.

What really stands out, however, is the ending, in which a star-struck young fan manages to sneak into Eve’s room.  The last shot of the film is of this young woman, holding Eve’s trophy in front of a set of mirrors, her reflection stretching off infinitely into the future.  We are left in no doubt that the cycle of which Eve herself was a part will continue, that she will one day be replaced by a younger, more vivacious version of herself.  And unlike Margo, she probably will not have domestic bliss as a solace.

All About Eve is one of those splendid films that uses the conventions of classic Hollywood to cast a light on the ways in which the film industry is a cyclical monster, pulling in and spitting out its stars, particularly women.  However, it is also a relentlessly and bitingly enjoyable film, one of the great gems of old Hollywood.  Just as importantly, it highlights that one thing that makes the old films so much fun:  the dominance of women.  For all of its latent (and sometimes overt) misogyny, classical Hollywood was an industry and a system that relied on the glamour of its female stars.  And All About Eve shows why such a system worked so well for so long.

If you’d like to read more about queer readings of All About Eve, I recommend Robert Corber’s book Cold War Femme and Patricia White’s Uninvited as excellent starting points.