Screening Classic Hollywood: “The Damned Don’t Cry” (1950)

I’ve been on a bit of a grand dames of Classic Hollywood lately (inspired in part by the book Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud) and so, when I saw that this film starred Joan Crawford, I knew I had to check it out.

Personally, I’ve always been more of a Bette Davis acolyte, but like any self-respecting homosexual, I’ve also had a longstanding respect for Joan Crawford. All of her considerable talents–as both an actress and a star–are on dazzling display in The Damned Don’t Cry.

Crawford stars as Ethel, a woman unhappily married to a brutish laborer (Richard Egan). After the unfortunate death of their son, she finds that she yearns for something more than the life of a housewife, and so she sets out to achieve that. Beginning as a model, she gradually gets sucked into the sinister world of organized crime, falling in love with an abandoning milquetoast accountant Marty ( ) in favour of crime boss George Castleman (David Brian). When he sets her on one of his underlings who is planning to overthrow him, the stage is set for a final, heart-rending catastrophe.

The Damned Don’t Cry sits at the confluence of two important postwar phenomena: the growth of film noir as a body of films and the height of Crawford’s talent in Hollywood. One sees the influence of the former in the film’s interest in Ethel’s plunge into the world of crime, wealth, and sin, and the latter in the shadows of Mildred Pierce that hover in the background of the film. Like Mildred, Ethel cares deeply about her son (for the brief time that he’s in the film), but also like Mildred she yearns to better herself. We cheer for her, even as we know that she’s heading for a fall.

In no small part our affinity for Ethel stems from Crawford’s performance and her presence as a star. There’s just…something…about Joan’s eyes that seem to capture the camera. They just seem to dominate her face, conveying the anguish and conflict that Joan’s heroines seem to so insistently suffer. The Damned Don’t Cry is no exception, as Ethel attempts to carve out a destiny for herself, even in the face of the many men who attempt to put her in the box they think she belongs in.

If Davis managed to own the latter half of the 1930s and early 1940s and all the female empowerment that came with that era, Joan could be said to embody the contradictions of postwar femininity. On the one hand, she is a woman of extraordinary strength, able to manipulate and command the men around her. On the other, she is extraordinarily vulnerable, yearning to do almost anything to out of the prison of domesticity. As a result, she stands as the exemplar of what happens to a woman who dares to desire a life outside the home, even as she also represents and makes visible the very allure of that escape.

Of course, Crawford’s star shines all the brighter because she’s surrounded by men who are either cold and unfeeling (her husband and her father) or rather hapless and ineffectual (Marty, the CPA who falls under the sway of her feminine charms). She’s the type of woman who can convincingly stare down and emasculate even the most sinister of crime bosses, holding them in that stony gaze while she rains down insults and cuts through the bullshit with which they surround themselves. As a result, she becomes something of a composite of both the femme fatale (that reliable staple of the noir world) and also the hard-boiled noir hero, full of steel and smart remarks but with a good heart that allows her to be led, almost despite her will, into the darkness.

The Damned Don’t Cry is a very strong noir. It manages to do some new-ish things with the noir formula, while also making the most out of its star. True, the male members of the cast are mostly window-dressing, but that’s not always a bad thing, especially when you have someone like Crawford. The dialogue is also quite snappy, though it lacks the electric charge of other noir films.

So check out The Damned Don’t Cry. You’ll be glad you did.

Advertisements

Screening Classic Hollywood: “The Star” (1952)

This film follows in the tradition of such films as Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve, movies that expose the terrible toll that Hollywood stardom takes on those enmeshed within the system, particularly female stars. This film sits at the confluence of several important influences: Davis’s star text, competing and sometimes overlapping genres (the “star” film, the maternal melodrama), and the impending decline of the old studio system.

The film follows Margaret Elliot (Davis), as she struggles with the reality that her once-bright star has quite thoroughly faded. After a drunken night on the town, she is saved from her downward spiral by an old co-star, Jim (Sterling Hayden), and she sets out to reclaim her stardom. Upon realizing that Hollywood has no place for her other than as an object of pity and scorn, she ultimately goes back to Jim and the happy domestic partnership he represents.

Davis is the sort of star who evince hardbitten strength and heart-wrenching sadness in quick succession, and for that reason, I think, dwell deserves her reputation as one of the finest actresses to have ever graced the silver screen. Margaret Elliot seems a bit of Margot from All Above Eve (the names are eerily similar), Charlotte from Now, Voyager, and even a bit of Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard. Like Norma, she loses sight of what is by focusing on what was (as Jim bluntly tells her). Beset with her failures as a star, she lashes out at everyone around her, her view of the world coloured not just by her previous persona, but also by the films in which she starred.

Margaret’s fundamental crisis is, of course, that Hollywood has no place for her, now that her youthful innocence has been worn away by the years and a film industry that is always in search of the next new thing, the next youthful visage to display on the big screen. The only parts available to a woman of her age are either spinsters or harridans, both of which will subject her to the scorn and pity that she loathes (rightfully) with a vengeance.

There’s a certain sparseness to the film’s design that renders Davis’s performance so heightened as to verge on the histrionic. She knows the part she is to play, and she does it TO THE HILT. This isn’t a bad thing, actually, since this film lacks the baroque opulence of a Sunset Boulevard or the corrupt decadence of All About Eve. Instead, we are treated to the cold, rather sterile and stifling spaces of the prison and the department store, spaces in which Margaret is well and truly lost. Ultimately, she finds that she cannot endure the sort of abuse and folly that she encounters from two surly customers at the department store. Confronted with this brutal world, it’s small wonder that Margaret periodically bursts out in fits of rage and frustration.

The Star reveals the extent to which Hollywood as an industry remains dominated by the men–studio heads, agents, directors–even as it is the female stars who continue to draw in the audiences but have no real power or longevity. Like so many films of this type, The Star ultimately comes across as a conservative text, one which reminds women of the domestic imperative, of the inevitable price that women must pay as they age if they choose the world of a professional rather than as a domestic goddess.

At the same time, however, it also threatens its own ideological coherence. It is Bette Davis, after all, who dominates the screen, pushing her co-stars (especially Sterling Hayden and Natalie Davis, who plays her daughter) into near-irrelevance. This might not be the best movie Davis ever starred in, but she plays the part so fully and completely that she more than deserved her Oscar nomination. Unlike her character, she wasn’t afraid to play an aging woman who was the victim of scorn and pity, but her genius is that she imbues that role with pathos and a human dignity that a lesser actress would never have been able to attain. In doing so, she helps to lay bare the hypocrisy and fickleness of Hollywood and proves, once again, that she was a star indeed.

Screening Classic Hollywood: “The Seven Year Itch” (1955) and the Puncturing of Hegemonic Masculinity

Billy Wilder is one of my favourite classic Hollywood directors. All of his movies–from Double Indemnity to Sunset Boulevard–crackle and snap with an energy all their own. Wilder had a keen eye for searing away the patina of conformity and niceness of American culture to lay bare the hypocrisy and rot beneath. While at first glance a comedy like The Seven Year Itch may not seem to have the same bleak outlook on the American psyche as some of his earlier films, lurking beneath the surface of this film, however, is an awareness of the fundamental shortcomings of postwar American society.

The film’s ostensible protagonist, Richard Sherman is a middle-aged man in a thoroughly middle-class life: he has a wife, a son, and a gray-flannel suit type job at a publishing house. Unfortunately, he’s miserable, his house is a prison, and all romance is gone from his marriage. After his wife and young son go to Maine to escape the New York summer heat, a bubbly, vivacious, and very blonde young woman (Marilyn Monroe) moves in upstairs, and he immediately sets out to seduce her and inject some new vivacity into his humdrum existence.

This being a Billy Wilder film, it’s almost too clever for its own good. It moves with an almost frantic pace, thanks in part to the twitchy, spastic energy that Tom Ewell brings to the role of Sherman. In fact, his performance verges on neurotic, in that he constantly twitches, grimaces, and indulges in fantasies that have no bearing in actual lived reality. Indeed, the juxtaposition of his fantasy self–as a sex-god who is irresistible to women–with his very plain real self highlights just how delusional he really is.

The Seven Year Itch also turns its razor-sharp wit on the fictions and myths that structured postwar American life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sherman has, on the surface, embraced everything that hegemonic American culture had dictated was “normal,” from the 9-5 job, a wife and son, etc. However, 1950s middle-class domesticity and the bread-winner role have left Sherman thoroughly alienated and disenchanted. He is surrounded by the trappings of midcentury consumer culture, but rather than providing him fulfillment, they become a prison and often cause him physical harm, as when he twice trips on his son’s roller-skate. His apartment is also full of the clutter of a consumerist culture, each piece of clutter highlighted by the film’s vibrant color palette.

What’s more, the older model represented by his boss Mr. Brady is no more satisfying. He is a gruff, rather blustering older man who feels even more entrapped by his years-long marriage to his wife. While Sherman wants to return to his wife and possibly find respite from the corrupting influence of the city (and nubile femininity), Mr. Brady embraces the freedom and even intimates that he might pursue an adulterous encounter while his wife is up north. Though the scene is obviously played for laughs, it’s an uncomfortable sort of laughter.

Thus, I would argue that The Seven Year Itch punctures the myth of midcentury hegemonic masculinity. It ultimately becomes not just a prison for the male subject, but a dysfunctional ideal that he cannot fulfill and which encourages him to destroy the things in his life that should matter: relationships with his wife, his child, and even what could be a great friendship “The Girl.” Men in this world are chronically unable to articulate their feelings in any meaningful or sophisticated way, and even the last shot of the film shows Sherman still fumbling about, a complete mess right up until the end.

Understandably, many modern viewers of the film find its gender politics disgustingly regressive, I think this is a rather reductive reading. Don’t get me wrong. I do think that a surface reading does support the idea that this is a deeply misogynist text that treats its female star as largely an object for the male gaze, something to be fetishized and largely ignored as an agent. However, there is also something disruptive about Monroe’s character, and the fact that she seems so blissfully unaware of the effect she has on men suggests that there is far more to her than meets the eye, a force that resists attempts to control her.

The Seven Year Itch ultimately reveals that beneath even the most seemingly misogynistic comedy lies a kernel of subversion.

Screening Classic Hollywood: “How to Marry a Millionaire” (1953)

Recently, I decided to give the film How to Marry a Millionaire another watch. It’s an important film in Hollywood history and, as a scholar of classic Hollywood, I’m always looking for new ways of thinking about this particularly important period of film history. I’m sure glad I did, because I LOVED this film.

It’s all too easy these days to adopt a camp perspective on classic Hollywood films, to laugh at rather than with them. However, in my view How to Marry is one of those gems that really does age fairly well, and it’s quite easy to find yourself laughing with the jokes. If you don’t find yourself laughing out loud, then I think you might have something wrong with your sense of humour.

Part of what helps the film to age so well, I suspect, is the extent to which it is the women who motivate the action, drive the narrative, and dominate the screen. Oh sure, William Powell puts in a nice turn, but he doesn’t hold a candle to Bacall, Grable, and Monroe. In one particularly revealing sequence, each of the women dreams about their futures with their respective suitors, showing the extent to which each of them is determined to carve out a future on their own terms. You want each of them to find the wealth and emotional happiness that they desire.

Speaking of William Powell…there’s something almost tragic about the fact that Schatze chooses the young, foppish, and not very charismatic Brookman rather than Hadley as the man with whom she wants to build a life. I mean, come on, it’s William Powell, the man who played the Thin Man! How could one not fall in love with his urbane charm, his dazzling wit, and that old-fashioned handsome (if slightly weathered) face? Of course, though, I get it. This is postwar America, and Powell, and his character, are relics from an earlier era that have to be shunted aside to make room for the new crop of young men.

Of course, each of the female stars manage to overwhelm any scene in which they appear. Though Grable is fine as far as she goes, for my money the real entertainers are Bacall and Monroe, the former because she brings her signature bite and sass to this gold-digger role and the latter because, beneath the fluffy, buxom exterior one can still sense a fierce form of intelligence. As I watched this film, it occurred to me (not for the first time) what a tragedy it was that Monroe didn’t often get to play parts that really challenged her and, more superficially, that she didn’t get to wear glasses more often. For my money though, Bacall will always be the best thing about any movie in which she appears. That voice…it does it for me.

Visually, the film is stunning, putting both the widescreen and the Technicolor to full effect. The New York portrayed in How to Marry is a utopian world of sumptuous fabrics, snappy dialogue, witty banter, and simple, sheer beauty. Given that the film was shot in CinemaScope, it’s easy to see how it wishes to immerse the postwar spectator in a glorious, glittering world of affluence and romance. The opening and closing of the film heightens this sense of presence, including both an orchestra and curtains, both of which suggest that one is sitting watching a play rather than merely observing what is going on in another room.

At a deeper social level, How to Marry a Millionaire testifies to a culture still unsure what to make of the status of women. While the hegemonic gender norms that dominated the 1950s were already settling into place, American society still struggled to accommodate female desire. It’s worth noting that two of the three marry men who are incapacitated in some way, either because of financial misfortune or physical incapacitation. The final scene of the film has Brookman revealing his vast wealth to the gathered cast, the sight of which causes the women to faint (disappearing from the frame), thus allowing them men to literally have the last word. While the film attempts to recuperate the endangered masculinity that it has put on such conspicuous display in this final scene, these unruly women are not so easily tamed.

In the end, it truly is the women who own this picture and who show us, in 2018, that the 1950s were far less stable than we remember.

Dissertation Days (27): Progress?

Today was a very successful day when it comes to Chapter 4. I met the goal of writing 1,000 words again! I am really excited about the historical context section. There’s something really compelling about the late 1950s and early 1960s, given that they marked the ultimate nadir of colonial and imperial ambitions, and I really think that there is a profound imperial anxiety in the films produced in this period.

I do want to avoid doing an allegorical reading of these films. While I think that’s one useful way of thinking about them, ultimately I’m more interested in how these films engage with the question of imperial history and the telescoping of temporality. It’s a rather complex and slippery set of concepts, and all the reading I’ve been doing has really helped to clarify what I’m aiming for in this chapter. There’s a long way to go, but I know I can do it.

Still, there’s no question that this is the most difficult chapter that I’ve written so far. I’ve known from the beginning that it’s the most challenging one. In larger part it’s because it’s actually a vestigial reminder of an earlier arrangement of the dissertation, one that I’ve still managed to incorporate into the revamped version. However, it’s precisely the fact that this chapter is such a strange beast that it’s taking so long to carve into some measure of intelligibility.

Despite all of that, I’m pretty proud of the progress that I’ve made over this last year. This time last year I had just submitted Chapter 2, and now I have at least some version of Chapters 3 and 4 done. It’s not as far along as I might like, but it’s still good progress.

I fear that I didn’t get as much done on Chapter 3, and I only made it through it through a few pages of actual revision. Nevertheless, as I make my way through it, I have to say that I’m pretty happy with how it ended up conceptually. It’s probably still a little rough around the edges, and I’m sure that it will need a bit more revision before it’s truly ready.

The next couple of days will probably be a little less productive. I’m headed back to Syracuse on Sunday, so I’m spending tomorrow with the BF before headed northward. Once I get back, though, I’ll be submitting Chapter 3!

I can do this.

Onward!

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

sis-tryityoulllikeit-blogathon-2.jpg

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.

Screening Classic Hollywood: “Sudden Fear” (1952)

Say what you will, but no one could play a victimized, melodramatic heroine like Joan Crawford.  Her talents in this area are certainly on conspicuous display in the 1952 film Sudden Fear, in which she plays a popular and successful playwright Myra, who falls for a moderately talented actor Lester (Jack Palance), only to discover that he, along with his former lover Irene (Gloria Grahame) have hatched a plot to kill her.  Fortunately, she’s quite a bit brighter than they are, and so she manages to escape from them.  In the end, Lester runs over Irene in the mistaken belief that she is Myra (they are wearing a similar scarf), killing both himself and her.

One of the most compelling things about this film is the way in which it plays with voice.  It is due to the inadvertent recording of his plot by a dictaphone that Lester and Irene utilize to hatch their scheme.  The disembodied voice continues haunts Myra, an ethereal reminder of the fact that the man she has (admittedly foolishly) fallen in love with has decided that she is to be dispensed with in favor of his own desire for wealth.

There is something intensely, almost viscerally satisfying, about the fact that Lester, in his desire to kill his well-meaning and benevolent wife, ends up killing both himself and his conspirator.  Myra may be somewhat of a foolish and impulsive heroine, falling in love with a man that she barely knows and rendering herself vulnerable by attempting to leave her money and wealth to him.  However, it is precisely her generousness of spirit that makes Lester’s betrayal of her all the more despicable.  What’s more, he is absolutely ruthless in his attempts to kill her, chasing her relentlessly through the streets of San Francisco, his face and eyes becoming increasingly crazed as she continues to elude him.  Not surprisingly, we in the audience continue to cheer her on, and we feel vindicated at the poetic justice of his own destruction.

Crawford and Palance make for a compelling and somewhat unusual screen couple.  Palance was not the most handsome of movie stars, and his near-skeletal features always rendered him more appropriate for villainous roles.  He manages here to tap into a powerful male rage, one engendered in both the film’s diegesis and the broader culture by the ever-present male fear of not being able to provide or earn a living on his own.  You can practically see it seething beneath the surface, those deep-set eyes betraying the fury ever-ready to burst into the world.  Crawford offers a nice balance to him, a woman who has built her own successful career as a writer and who possesses a fundamental strength of character that allows her to survive the attempts to kill her.  However, she also exudes a certain measure of vulnerability, a willingness to believe, however foolishly, that she can also have love and completion with the man (seemingly) of her dreams.

In many ways, this film feels a bit out of its time, combining as it does the heightened emotions and victimized womanhood of the women’s films of the 1930s and the darkness of the film noirs of the 1940s.  Somehow, though, it manages to bring all of these elements together into a compelling film, and that final image of Myra/Crawford striding into the camera, head flung back in triumph, really brings it all together.  It is a stunning and uplifting reminder of the power of the Crawford star persona.  Even decades after her death, this persona manages to combine female strength and vulnerability in one indelible image that retains its power.

Score:  9/10

Screening History: “Broken Arrow” (1950)

Released in 1950, Broken Arrow follows Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) desperately wants to forge a measure of peace between his own people and the Apache and is faced with opposition from both.  While he is able to forge a measure of peace between the Apache chief Cochise (Jeff Chandler), he is steadfastly opposed by the more bellicose Geronimo (Jay Silverheelds).  At the same time, Chandler weds the young maiden Sonseeahray (Debra Paget).  Unfortunately, there are those among the whites who are also unwilling to accept peace, and in the ensuing confrontation the young Native American woman is slain.  Yet Cochise does not let this stifle his attempts at peace, and the film does ultimately end with a measure of rapprochement between the two groups, while Tom Jeffords (in true western fashion) rides off into the distance, content that even though she is gone physically, his wife will always be with him in spirit.

Stewart brings a measure of his sympathetic star persona to this role (his antiheroic persona had not yet taken full shape as it would with other films of the 1950s).  He reads as a man genuinely invested in attempting to forge a measure of peace between two groups seemingly irreconcilably opposed to one another.  What’s more, he seeks to actually get to know what it is like to think like an Apache, not to take advantage of them, but to attempt to make a more peaceful world for both people.  In this film, Stewart also still retains some of the youthful appearance and charm that served him in such good stead in both the 1930s and 1940s, and he has not yet taken on the darker, more cynical edge that will become so central to his 1950s roles (especially those directed by Alfred Hitchcock).  Furthermore, it is his voiceover that bookends the film, leading us to accept (or not, depending on how resistant we are as viewers) the perspective on events that the film presents.

Chandler’s obvious redface aside (see below), he does bring a measure of gravitas and compassion to his role as the afflicted yet courageous chief.  This is a man who, at some level, realizes that his people are fighting a battle they cannot hope to win, and that continuing to resist as they have will ultimately result in their utter destruction at the hands of the white man.

The film is unstinting in its depiction of the brutality of the times.  Both the white men and the Native Americans commit atrocious acts against one another (one of the earliest  scenes in the film is particularly graphic, showing the Apache torturing a group of white men who encroach on their territory).  Furthermore, the film does not pull any punches in showing that the whites are just as willing to engage in sabotage and acts of violence as their Native American counterparts.  It is precisely the actions of a group of disgruntled white settlers that brings about the death of Sonseeahray and nearly derails the peace process completely.  Fortunately, Cochise insists upon the necessity of peace, showing that he, perhaps more than any other of the film’s characters, knows what is right and necessary.

The film’s most obvious narrative shortcoming, the shoe-horning in of a rather lackluster love plot between Paget and Stewart, can actually (in a more generous light) be seen as central to the film’s historical project.  The film, like so many westerns, attempts to work through the troubles posed by the Native American presence in broader American history.  Sonseeahray’s death, I would suggest, indicates the film’s awareness that the wholesale melding of Native American and white into a cohesive national identity is a project that will never be complete, will be infinitely deferred.

For all of its attempts to engender cultural understanding, the film still fails in one notable respect:  its use of white actors to portray Native Americans.  There is still something incredibly uncomfortable for me about watching films in which this takes place, and it serves as a potent and troubling reminder not only of the ways in which Native Americans have been oppressed throughout American history, but also how the representation of them has also served to further and exacerbate their alienation.

Score:  8/10

Screening Classic Hollywood: “Knights of the Round Table” (1953)

Since I’ve been in a medieval frame of mind recently, I’ve found myself watching and reading lots of things set in that period, including the focus of today’s post Knights of the Round Table, an MGM film released in 1953.  While it is not my favourite Arthurian adaptation (that particular genre is one of the easiest to do horridly), it is a serviceable interpretation of one of England’s most enduring myths.

Part of this may have to do with the casting.  Robert Taylor, steadfast as always, plays Lancelot to Ava Gardner’s Guinevere, while a number of other rather forgettable persons play the other key players (though Felix Aylmer does a nice turn as Merlin).  The other players, including the film’s main villains Morgan and Mordred (as well as sundry others), do not leave much of an impression.  Even King Arthur, ably portrayed by Mel Ferrer, does not really seem like the kind of king that would cast a spell over generations of Englishfolk to follow.

The core drama of the film is, of course, the tragic love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, a drama egged on and manipulated by the covetous Morgan and her paramour/co-conspirator Mordred.  Neither of these characters really emerges as a person in their own right, though as a viewer I felt a little bit of sympathy for Morgan, a woman clearly desirous of more political power than she has been accorded in this world in which men possess rights of inheritance (she briefly notes that she should be the one to inherit the kingdom, not Arthur).

Unfortunately, however, the love plot never completely gels, mostly, I suspect because I just don’t quite buy Robert Taylor as Lancelot.  In my view, he would been a much better fit for the character of Arthur than Lancelot (but maybe that’s just my own personal bias against Tayl0r).  Further, there just doesn’t seem to be a lot of chemistry between Taylor and Gardner; they seem like two people simply reading their lines to one another rather than the most famous of doomed couples to appear in English literature.

I am and have always been one of Ava Gardner’s biggest fans.  There was always that something about her that exuded not just sexuality, but also a richness and depth of personality that was truly the definition of female stardom.  While we are accustomed to seeing Guinevere as blond haired and blue-eyed, Gardner brings to the role something of the sensual and the sumptuous.  While this might be read as a bit of miscasting (she would have made a wonderful Morgan if they had gone the route of the incest angle present in Mallory’s original books), it does add a bit of depth and nuance to the character of Guinevere.  Again, however, the script doesn’t really give her a lot to do, so that it really seems as if Gardner is being wasted on a role that is not nearly as juicy as she deserved.

As with Ivanhoe, it goes without saying that the production design in this film is flawless, and we can but imagine the intense feeling of immersion the viewer must have experienced seeing it in its original CinemaScope presentation.  As always, the Technicolor seems to speak in its own language, the vibrant reds forging connections among Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere that speak to the triumph of desire and its dark twin of violence and death (for when are sex and death not intimately intertwined in the cinematic and cultural imagination?)  And of course the score by Miklos Rozsa is tremendous and moving, but that’s a given when talking about his work.

So, what’s my verdict?  As I said at the outset, this isn’t the finest Arthurian adaptation (though it is not as bad as, say, First Knight, about which the less said the better).  However, it lacks the certain something that made Camelot such a compelling and ultimately heartbreaking film.  Perhaps it’s because it was made in the 1950s, when this particular genre was not in its highest form (see, for example, King Richard and the Crusaders), and while there were a few nice touches (such as the troubling and sad murder of Merlin by Morgan), or perhaps it’s the limited time.  Whatever the case, this is not the finest articulation of the King Arthur myth, and would have benefited, I think, from hewing more closely to Malory’s tale (upon which it is, ostensibly at least) based.

Score:  6/10

Screening Classic Hollywood: “Ivanhoe” (1952)

Based on the famous novel by Sir Walter Scott, MGM’s film Ivanhoe is something of a generic hybrid, combining the boom and bluster of the traditional epic (the same studio had produced the Roman epic Quo Vadis the year before) and the swashbucklers that were such a notable part of studio production during the 1930s (such as The Adventures of Robin Hood and Captain Blood, both starring Errol Flynn).  However, the film is worth watching, as much for the beautiful production values (what film produced by MGM wasn’t exquisite?) as for the plot.

Set during the reign of King Richard, the film depicts the struggles within his kingdom between the native Saxons such as Cedric (Finlay Currie) and his disinherited son Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) and the Normans, especially the knight De Blois-Guilbert (George Sanders).  Caught up in the conflict are the Jews of England, notably Isaac of York (Felix Aylmer) and his beautiful daughter Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor),  the latter of whom finds herself pursued by De Blois-Guilbert, who falls desperately and somewhat hopelessly in love with her.  The cunning Prince John, however, attempts to thwart their union and puts Rebecca on trial for witchcraft.  The brave Ivanhoe enters a joust to save her, defeats and kills De Bois-Guilbert, and the film ends with the triumphant return of King Richard and the deposing of Prince John.

While the film follows the plot of the novel in its broader contours, there are some notable excisions, most of which make the film stronger and more economical in its storytelling.  However, some of the novel’s original historical purposes have also been effaced, for while the novel remains steadfastly interested in the ways in which England became England as a result of the gradual melding of Anglo-Saxon and Norman identities, the film seems more interested in the various love triangles that exist at the dramatic heart of the film.  Furthermore, Scott’s original work places a great deal more attention on the plight of the Jews of medieval England, while the film seems to see their ethnic identity as incidental to the main aspects of the plot.

Furthermore, Ivanhoe in the film becomes a much more powerful and active figure than he is in the original novel (in which he is largely laid low for the course of the novel, often a man to whom things happen rather than one who effects change on his own account).  In the hands of the always-stalwart Robert Taylor, he becomes a more traditional swashbuckling/chivalric hero, a true knight determined to protect those weaker than he is and to see the return of true honor and chivalry in the person of the imprisoned King Richard.  While I am not Taylor’s biggest fan (he is serviceable but lacks, in my opinion, a certain charisma that I usually respond to), he does bring a certain measure of honorable gravitas to his interpretation of Ivanhoe.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film is not terribly interested in the roles of trials of women (this is in marked contrast to the novel, which consistently points out the ways in which women occupy a marginal and often exploited status within medieval culture).  However, Joan Fontaine delivers a creditable performance as the Saxon princess Rowena, bringing her usual grace to the role.  And while I often like Elizabeth Taylor, she doesn’t quite bring out the tragic pathos that is such a crucial part of Rebecca’s character in the novel (which may be due to the fact that she gets so much less narrative attention than her literary counterpart), and the script doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with her talents.  Quite a shame, really, as she could have really shined as Rowena.

One last note on casting.  I always love seeing Sanders in a film, largely because no other actor besides, perhaps Basil Rathbone and Vincent Price could so compellingly play a villain.  Somehow, though, Sanders manages to inflect De Bois-Guilbert with a greater complexity as a character than emerges in Scott’s novel, to such an extent that we almost feel sorry for him when he is eventually struck down.  It’s rare to see Sanders playing someone who actually has a sympathetic side, and so this film was refreshing in offering him a little more flexibility.

All in all, Ivanhoe is a fine film, with some compelling visuals and a strong score provided by the immensely talented Miklos Rozsa.  However, it doesn’t really ask the same sorts of historical questions as either the book upon which it is based, the other epics of the period, nor even other films set in a similar period.  This is not necessarily a bad thing all told, but as someone who really loves the novel, Scott’s original work casts a long shadow that the film does not (and possibly cannot) live up to.

Score:  7.5/10