Tag Archives: classic hollywood film

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.

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Screening Classic Hollywood: “My Darling Clementine” (1946)

Today in classic Hollywood, I’m writing about My Darling Clementine, one of John Ford’s finest westerns and a stellar example of the postwar iteration of America’s favourite genre.

Directed by John Ford (the western director par excellence), the film details the events leading up to the famous showdown at the OK Corral. It stars Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp, Victor Mature as Doc Holliday, Linda Darnell as the singer Chihuahua, Cathy Downs as the titular Clementine, and Walter Brennan as the cruel Newman Clanton.

If anyone was suited to play a stalwart, noble, yet reluctant lawman, it would be Henry Fonda. There is something at once both soft and hard about Fonda, his voice conveying both a certain softness and a harsh grittiness in equal measure. His face also bears this out, with its oscillation between somber gravitas and almost-waifish innocence. It’s not just that Fonda plays the role of Earp; he really does seem to embody it (and, if I’m being honest, he also seems to embody a bit of the American spirit).

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Fonda manages to embody the best of the American spirit in the person of Wyatt Earp.

If you want my personal opinion, however, it’s not really Fonda who owns the screen, but his co-stars Victor Mature and Walter Brennan. Though Brennan excelled at playing either solemn and pious men (as in Sergeant York) or slightly batty old man (as in Rio Bravo), he plays a brutal villain in this film with equal ease. Clanton is the self-serving, tribalist whose ethos is emblematic of the rot that has settled into Tombstone. Though loyal to his sons, he has no sense of civic duty, which makes him a perfect foil for Fonda’s Earp, who is loyal to both family and the state.

Doc Holliday is something else altogether. There is something deliciously dissolute about Mature’s Doc Holliday. Part of that stems from Mature’s physical persona, which always have something voluptuous about it. His face has a certain softness to it, a propensity to what Bruce Babington and Peter William Evans refer to as voluptuous enslavement. It’s fitting, then that he would play a consumptive who seems to have a weakness for women and an unwillingness to commit to the one woman who seems to truly love him in a selfless way. It is also fitting that the body politic that the film attempts to construct has no room for this sort of dissolute masculinity, so that his death at the shootout (which is unhistorical by the way), redeems him from his own dissolution.

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My Darling Clementine creates a western world that is brutal and unforgiving, seemingly yearning for the domesticating hand that can only rest in the moral rectitude of a man like Fonda’s Earp. Of course, the reality is also that he cannot stay, and so he resigns from his position as the marshal. The restoration of the social order has no place for the type of violence that Earp represents (which is a common trope in the western genre as a whole).

The ending is fittingly bittersweet. Though one would certainly hope that the Earp and Clementine would find romantic fulfillment, the world that the film has created has no space for that sort of fulfillment. One senses in this inability to bring this romance to a satisfactory conclusion a residue from the recently-ended War, which had left so many men and women scarred both physically and psychologically. Many films of the postwar period struggled with the question of how to reintegrate men back into the fabric of society, and Clementine shows what happens when those attempts fail.

In my estimation, My Darling Clementine well deserves the reputation it has accrued as one of the most significant western films to come out of Hollywood’s golden age. It reflects an American culture attempting to restore the order that had been disrupted by both the Depression and World War II and never quite succeeding. Like all great films, it ultimately raises as many questions as it answers.