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)

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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.

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

Screening Classic Hollywood: “Kiss Me Kate” (1953)

As a queer, I’ve always had a great appreciation for the musical (I know, I know, what a stereotype, blah blah blah).  There’s just something glorious about the midcentury musical, in particular those produced by MGM, the grand dame of the studio system, the one studio that one could count on (in its heyday, anyway), to produce a glossy, shiny, fabulous film.   Thus, when I was cruising about on TCM and saw that Kiss Me Kate was showing, I knew I had to watch it.

Despite being divorced, Fred and Lilli (Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson), find themselves starring in an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew).  The bulk of the film follows the performance of the play, with several Cole Porter songs thrown into the mix (this probably helps to explain the film’s undeniable queer appeal).  Just as the mains of the play find themselves irresistibly drawn to each other, so do Lilli and Fred also become increasingly convinced that they should get back together which, in true Hollywood musical fashion, they ultimately do.

In terms of cinematography, the color serves as important a function as anything that happens in the narrative.  Not surprisingly, the Technicolor is almost lurid in its intensity, speaks in a language in excess of what is happening between the characters.  Thus, while the two leads are constantly squabbling with one another and trying to avoid speaking the words that they know would allow them to say how they really feel for each other, the colors of their outfits grow increasingly saturated, until the redness of their respective costumes is so glaring that you can’t possibly ignore it.  It speaks in a language that exceeds that of the narrative, the tempestuous and unruly law of desire that always threatens to overcome even the most resistant of people.

Howard Keel has always done something for me.  While I often find the patriarchal characters he plays utterly repugnant at an ideological level, I often find that it is precisely because he is so transparently misogynist that he is so attractive (and I strong suspect this might be why so many people found him attractive in the times in which he appeared).  Whether starring as the hirsute eldest brother in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or the bellicose Hannibal in the divinely awful Jupiter’s Darling, or even as Wild Bill in Calamity Jane (costarring Doris Day), there is always something tremendously sexy (yes, I said it), about this paragon of masculinity.  And there is no one in classic Hollywood, and very few since then, who have managed to inflect their voices with such booming power (I’m a sucker for a great male voice).

Of course, I am also not blind to the almost toxic amount of patriarchy permeating this film.  I mean, it is based on one of Shakespeare’s most notoriously misogynistic plays, starring a man who almost inevitably performed in roles that required the subjugating (sometimes quite brutally and cruelly) of a woman who dared to resist his charms.  And, as in those other films, Keel’s hero remains largely unchanged by the end of the film and, I suspect, we are happy to see him so, for to tame him would be to remove those very aspects of his personality that make him so erotically appealing.  (As you can see, I like to think that my own queer readings of the film help to offset at least some of the more problematic and vexing aspects of its ideology).

All in all, Kiss Me Kate manages to combine the best of Shakespeare with the best of the midcentury MGM musical formula.  The Technicolor (not surprisingly) is as lurid as it is appealing, and the musical numbers are as spirited as one would expect from an MGM musical from the period of its greatest flowering.  As long as you’re able to bracket the gender problematics–and anyone who has learned to love classic Hollywood has probably developed that skill in ample measure), this is truly one musical you can sing along to.

If you want to read more about the MGM musical and the ways in which queer men in particular responded to them, I highly recommend the following books:

Cohan, Steven.  Incongruous Entertainment:  Camp, Cultural Value, and the MGM Musical.  Durham:  Duke University Press, 2005.

Farmer, Brett.  Spectacular Passions:  Cinema, Fantasy, Gay Male Spectatorships.  Durham:  Duke University Press, 2000.

Screening Classic Hollywood: “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946)

Perhaps no genre is as synonymous with the 1940s as the film noir, that dark and seedy body of films that peeled away the veneer of respectability that other genres such as the musical presented to reveal the rottenness beneath American culture.  This is certainly the case with the 1946 film The Postman Always Rings Twice, one of the most iconic and justly famous noirs.

The film follows Frank Chambers (John Garfield) as a drifter who ends up working at a diner for its chubby but likable owner Nick (Cecil Kellaway) and his beautiful (and much younger) wife Cora (Lana Turner).  Cora and Frank immediately become attracted to one another, and they soon hatch a plan to murder Nick and run away together.  While they succeed and manage to elude the law, they soon begin quarreling with one another, and after an unfortunate accident claims Cora’s life, Frank becomes ensnared in the legal system once again, though this time death is his sure reward.

As always, the femme fatale emerges as the film’s most compelling and most contradictory figure. As always, one cannot entirely blame her for her decision to run away with another man.  Her husband is hardly am interesting man, and while the film never says so explicitly, one can guess that an even younger Cora probably married Nick in order to gain a small measure of financial and domestic security.  Frank, on the other hand, represents all that is dangerous and exciting in the world (and thus everything her husband is not), even if he is also substantially less respectable.

While there are some who deride Lana Turner as one of the Hollywood stars who had more looks than talent (and there’s no denying that the camera does love her), she does bring a peculiar sort of dynamism and emotional volatility to Cora.  This is a woman who is clearly a great deal brighter and ambitious than her husband, and who has grown frustrated with the domestic life that has entrapped her.  All of this is ample material for Turner to utilize, and she does so to full effect.  Just as importantly, Lana is also infinitely more interesting than her co-star John Garfield, who is a serviceable but also rather bland hero.

Thus, for the sophisticated and resistant viewer, the fiction that Frank spins around his motivations reads as just a little too pat, a little too assured to be entirely true.  The film never wants us to see this, of course, content to grant him the status of a morally dubious male antihero.  Yet Garfield does not have the same sort of authorial and narrational assurance of a Humphrey Bogart, for example, with the effect that we (or at least I), don’t find him to be all that convincing when he consistently takes such pains to paint himself as the victim of someone else’s manipulation.  Like so many other noirs, the entire film is told from his point of view, but that doesn’t mean that we, as the audience, necessarily have to believe everything that he says.

And then, of course, there is the disconcerting fact that Nick is one of film noir’s most boring and plodding husbands, even worse than Phyllis’s husband in Double Indemnity (who was more angry and seething).  Like those other husbands, however, he does not seem to know, or care, that Cora may have desires of her own that exist beyond the confines of the domestic world in which she is currently entrapped.  He is amiable enough, but we’re not invited to feel particularly sorry for him when he is struck down.  In the film’s representational scheme, he is the outward sign of the internal emptiness that always seems to afflict the post-war world’s sense of itself.

Like the best noirs, The Postman Always Rings Twice allows us to indulge our own worst natures, the things about ourselves, both individually and collectively, that we would like the world to believe either don’t exist or remain in control.  While the film ultimately punishes its evil doers–the law being, ultimately, the postman of the title–the inexorability of the law remains cold comfort.  But then again, what did you expect from a film noir?

Score:  9/10

Screening Classic Hollywood: “Home from the Hill” (1960)

Though it was not a phenomenal success when it was released in 1960, Home from the Hill is nevertheless a very compelling film, a fitting entry in Vincente Minnelli’s existing body of work and a film that indicates his ongoing concerns with the American family and the terrible price exacted by the expectations American culture puts on its men to behave in certain ways.

The film follows a fairly typical melodramatic plotline.  Captain Wade Hunnicutt (Robert Mitchum) is a philandering millionaire who lives with his embittered wife Hannah (Eleanor Parker) and his weakling son Theron (George Hamilton).  Meanwhile, his bastard (though largely unacknowledged) son Rafe (George Peppard) behaves as a true Hunnicutt son should, though his illegitimacy keeps him from ever becoming an heir.  Though his son impregnates local girl Libby (Luana Patten), he does not marry her, prompting his surrogate father/brother Rafe to do so in his place.  He then proceeds to raise the child as his own, a marked contrast to his own father, who steadfastly refuses to recognize him, even as he is dying of a gunshot wound (delivered by Libby’s father, who believes that Wade, not Theron, got his daughter pregnant).  In the end, Wade’s wife Hannah, who could never bring herself to forgive his transgressions, finally finds solace with Rafe and Libby.

Through the combination of Wade’s own toxic version of masculinity and Theron’s inability to live up to his father’s gendered expectations, Home from the Hill paints a picture of the tortures inflicted by the impossible ideals of American masculinity and as such is a compelling glimpse into not only the Hollywood of the 1960s, but also into the cultural and social tensions that were finally beginning to break out onto the surface of American society as a whole.  With the keen eye of someone who existed himself on the fringes of traditional American sexual mores (regardless of whether or not he had sexual encounters with men, none can deny that Minnelli had a distinctly queer sensibility), the director manages to shine a piercing light into the swirling and seething darkness at the heart of the midcentury American family.

Perhaps no actor could portray hysterically psychotic masculinity like Robert Mitchum.  From his sinister roles in many films noir (in which even his “heroic” characters contain a hint of menace) to his tour de force performance as the crazed, murderous preacher in The Night of the Hunter,  Everything about Wade screams masculinity, from his avaricious need to sleep with every woman in town to his den, which is adorned not only with his hounds, but also with the trophies of the many animals he has killed and the guns he has used to kill them.  What makes Wade such a terrifying figure is the fact that he is utterly sure of his own righteousness; his masculinity, his essential maleness, seems to be above reproach.  Part of this has to do with Mitchum’s performance and star persona, of course, and it is precisely Mitchum’s particular brand of poisonous charisma that makes Wade such a pleasure to encounter, even as we marvel at his un-self-reflexive cruelty.

Wade's den is a projection of his own toxic, hysterical masculinity.

Wade’s den is a projection of his own toxic, hysterical masculinity.

The film does make some gestures toward rehabilitating Wade and his family, mostly by holding out the promise that he can make peace with Hannah, and perhaps despite ourselves we do want to see these two broken, bitter people find a measure of peace with one another.  Ultimately, however, the reunion and resuscitation of the original nuclear family is a longing the film cannot fulfill.  In the end, there can be no salvation for the dark male figure that has caused so much misery and suffering, both among his immediate family and among the other people of the town, and it is precisely because he has sown his oats a bit too freely that Libby’s disgruntled father strikes him down.

In many ways, Home from the Hill can be viewed as a fascinating companion piece to one of Minnelli’s most famous and well-regarded works, Meet Me in St. Louis.  However, while that earlier film expressed a largely benevolent view of the post-war world by refracting it through the prism of nostalgia, this later film is much less sanguine in its opinion about whether the world is a fundamentally bright or bleak world.  The fact that Theron flees town rather than live in this broken world is the ultimate sign of the irresolvable tensions the film has evoked.

Home from the Hill is a brilliant illustration of the ways in which the melodrama–the genre most associated with the female spectator and with “women’s issues”–can also express the profound ambivalences that lie at the heart of the construction of the American male.  And as with the best melodramas (particularly those directed by the great Douglas Sirk), the ending has more than a little menace to it, as the camera lingers on the red tombstone as Hannah and Rafe walk off into what we can only hope is a more balanced and loving family than the one that preceded it.

Score:  9/10

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