Tag Archives: classic hollywood

Screening Classic Hollywood: “A Face in the Crowd” (1957)

Everyone so often, you watch a film from classic Hollywood that is truly staggering in its ability to speak to the present. Such is the case with Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd.

The film focuses largely on two characters, Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) and Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith). When Marcia discovers Lonesome and his phenomenal music talent, she gets him a spot at the radio station, where he quickly becomes immensely popular and influential. She thus sets in motion a chain of events that sees Lonesome grow ever more powerful, until he stands at the pinnacle of political power. However, as it turns out, his fall ends up being as precipitous as his rise The film ends with him screaming for Marcia to return, as she drives away with the better man, Mel (Walter Matthau).

Thematically, of course, the film expresses a profound skepticism (I might even go so far as to say hostility) to the everyday Americans that Lonesome appeals to with such panache. These are, as the film takes pains to depict, housewives and workers of all sorts, and their essential gullibility–they become almost like the rats to Lonesome’s Pied Paper–is truly staggering. Of course, this animosity toward any sort of populism shouldn’t surprise us, given Kazan’s own avowed hostility toward communism, but it is still rather shocking how dismissive the film is of ordinary citizens.

Cinematographically, A Face in the Crowd is trademark Kazan, particularly in its gritty realism and sometimes disconcerting camera work. There are times when it is almost possible to forget that one is watching a drama film and not a documentary, and this gives the film a crackling energy and a visceral intensity that underscores the disturbing nature of its narrative (which is all the more disturbing given the world we now inhabit).

What really makes the film, however, is Andy Griffith’s demented turn as Lonesome Rhodes. Griffith takes no prisoners in his performance, dialing up the intensity to almost unbearable proportions. It is not, to put it mildly, a subtle performance, but it is decidedly effective. Sometimes, the camera manages to capture a particularly manic glint in his eyes and, whether it is a trick of the light, Griffith’s command of his own performance, or some combination of the two, it is truly frightening to behold. It’s especially disconcerting given that Griffith would use that folksy charm to very different ends with his persona of Andy Taylor in The Andy Griffith Show and as Matlock decades later. As Lonesome, however, he reveals not only his own incredible talents as an actor, but also exposes the uncomfortable truth that even the most seemingly authentic of people can hide a truly terrible darkness within.

Props also go to Patricia Neal, who somehow manages to grab at least a little of the spotlight for herself. I’ve always found Neal to be a very charming and underrated actress. In this film, she possesses the same sort of folksy charm as Lonesome, but in her it is genuine, and she ultimately comes to serve as the moral conscience of the film. Though she loves Lonesome, she ultimately comes to know him for what he is and it is she, more than anyone, who brings about his downfall when she manipulates the sound system so that Lonesome’s brutal dismissal of his followers is broadcast all over the country.

Much as I enjoyed the film, I do tend to agree with Bosley Crowther, who suggested that Griffith’s performance tended to overwhelm both the other characters and the story. The film doesn’t really give us enough evidence to explain why it is that Lonesome has such an irresistible influence on the people of the country. For that matter, his fall reads as just a little too easy, a little too abrupt to really land.

In an era in which populism and demagoguery have become ever more common–and ever more violent–A Face in the Crowd serves as a disturbing cautionary tale. After all, we live in a world where a man very much like Lonesome–right down to the lechery and the penchant for young women–now holds the highest office in the land. And he is just as Lonesome does, our very own egomaniacal huckster holds his own followers in contempt. The only difference is that we have yet to see him tumble from his perch into well-deserved political oblivion.

One can only hope that, in this case at least, life really will imitate art.

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Screening Classic Hollywood: Johnny Guitar (1954)

Warning: Spoilers for the film follow.

You ever have one of those films that you know you should have seen long before now, but for some reason it just kept getting pushed to the back burner? Nicholas Ray’s 1954 film Johnny Guitar has been one of those films for me, and I am so glad that I finally got around to seeing it.

The film centers on Vienna (Joan Crawford), whose saloon sits square in the path of the encroaching railroad. Staunchly opposed to everything Vienna stands for is Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), who resents the affection that the outlaw known “The Kid” (Scott Brady) bears for her. When Vienna hires her old flame Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), it sets in motion the chain of events that will change all of their lives.

While Nicholas Ray’s direction is certainly evident at every moment of the film–from the sometimes painterly compositions to the emotional intensity of the drama–the reality is that it’s the clash between Joan’s Vienna and Mercedes’ Emma that lights up the screen with flames as bright as those that eventually consume Vienna’s saloon. Throughout the film, Emma serves as a sort of avenging fury, pursuing Vienna with a fiery passion that leads her to goad the men in town to do her bidding. McCambridge has a high-strung vocal power that remains me of Ethel Merman, which allows her to be a fitting foil for the more inward-facing intensity of Crawford. Their first confrontation, with Vienna positioned above Emma, while their conversation is conveyed in a series of closer shots, is one of the best in the entire film.

Indeed, the film’s narrative is structured around two interlocking love triangles. On the one hand are Vienna, Johnny, and the Kid; on the other are Emma, Vienna, and the Kid. Needless to say, given that it’s Mercedes and Joan we’re talking about, there’s a lot of ambiguity about who Emma really desires and why exactly it is that she hates Vienna with such a fiery passion. When Vienna ultimately shoots Emma, she also seems to be killing part of herself as well.

If I’ve largely ignored the male cast so far, there’s a reason for that. As solid as Sterling Hayden’s performance is, he’s always overshadowed by the two women. It’s worth pointing out, though, that the supporting male cast is a surprisingly talented bunch, and they help to elevate the film at some of its weaker moments.

Generically, the film sits at a somewhat awkward confluence of genres: part western, part melodrama, and perhaps some other bits thrown in there as well. In his commentary on the film, Martin Scorsese says that the film is operatic, and that strikes me as the most accurate way to describe the film’s affective register. Much as I love both Joan and Mercedes, they are definitely turning in performances dialed up to about an 11 on the melodrama scale, and while I personally love that type of performance, I can understand why it falls so easily into the category of camp (with all of the dismissiveness that all too frequently entails).

Critics frequently point out that the film can be read as an allegory about the paranoia of the McCarthy era, but to my mind an equally valid (and less reductive) reading would focus on the fact that Vienna is an emblem of modernity. Not only is she a woman who sets out to get what she wants, she is repeatedly associated with the railroad. Indeed, Emma goads the men on to ever greater violence by suggesting that because of Vienna they will find their customary freedoms curtailed by an influx of settlers from the east. The fact that Vienna emerges victorious and alive after all of Emma’s attempts suggests, I would argue, the ultimate triumph of modernity over the violence of the lawless, archaic west.

So, while it might be a flawed film (since we all have to make that caveat), I continue to find Johnny Guitar an extraordinary film full of richness and depth that a camp reading unfortunately effaces. The film is ultimately a testament to the ways in which one director can subvert the rules of genre and create a film that endlessly fascinates.

Screening Classic Hollywood: “I Want to Live!” (1958)

Warning: Full spoilers for the film follow.

I’ve been wanting to watch I Want to Live! for quite some time now, if for no other reason than that it’s referenced twice in The Golden Girls (always a solid reason to watch a film, IMO). Well, I did, and I have to say, I was enraptured from the first scene to the last.

The film centers on Barbara Graham, a woman accused of murdering an elderly widow. When she is convicted by the court, she must do all she can to try to save her own life, not just for her own sake, but also for her son’s.

From its first canted shots, I Want to Live! wears its noir-ness on its sleeve. It has an almost morbid fascination with the lurid and the macabre, whether that be the seediness of the underworld or the minutiae of the execution that occurs at the film’s conclusion. As with any noir, there is a palpable sense of unease that saturates the film, a sense that not all is as it should be, that we in the audience are looking in on a dark world, a sinister place of crime and death.

A significant source of this unease is the way in which the sound design and the camera work in sync to convey this sense of a topsy-turvy, uncertain world of criminality and vice. In one early scene, for example, the frantic editing combines with the ecstatic music to conjure up an almost ecstatic embrace of the sensational. This is a world where the excitement of the underworld is always tinged with menace, whether that be from the cops or from its own denizens.

At the same time as it is a noir, it is also very much a melodrama. Though Barbara tries to find happiness and fulfillment in the domestic bliss of marriage, it turns out to be something far more unsatisfying. Her husband is both physically abusive and a drug addict, and her dire financial straits lead Barbara right back into the world of crime and deceit that proves to be her undoing. Though she might be a murderer, the film invites us to feel for her by showing her as both a devoted mother and a woman wrongly accused by her criminal compatriots. And, in keeping with melodrama’s obsession with time (see the work of Linda Williams for more on this), it is always/already too late for Barbara to be saved, despite the ever-present hope of a reprieve from the governor. The last few moments of the film are an agony to watch, as time slowly ticks down until the fateful execution. By the end, the film has utterly convinced us that Barbara is the victim of her own story.

Though she’s not everyone’s cup of tea, Susan Hayward owns the screen, portraying a woman who’s tough as nails and yet has an inner softness. Hayward manages to capture Barbara’s swings between fierce independence and vulnerability, between strength and despair. The brilliance of Hayward’s performance in this film comes from her ability to embody the two poles of femininity that are such a key part of postwar film noir, the femme fatale and the good girl, sometimes in the same scene. She has some of the sharpest lines of the film–her waspish tongue gets her in trouble more than once–yet she can also deliver lines filled with tearful pathos, the anguish of a mother parted from her child, the terror of a victim going to her own death.

Fictional it may be, but I Want to Live! makes an eloquent case for the abolition of the death penalty. Just as importantly, it also exposes the ways in which both men, and the institutions that they dominate, care more for headlines and public affirmation than they do about the actual pursuit of justice. By the end, we come to see Barbara as a woman ensnared by these systems–particularly the press–and her ultimate defeat at their hands gives the film’s message just that extra bit of bite that makes it truly effective.

All in all, I very much loved I Want to Live!, and it definitely deserved its Oscar nominations.

Film Review: “Stan and Ollie”

Fair warning: Spoilers for the film follow.

These days, it’s sometimes hard to remember that it used to be possible–preferable even–to have a film with a running time of an hour and a half, one that still manages to hit all the right narrative notes to make a satisfying cinematic experience.

Cue Stan and Ollie, a pleasant little biopic about the later years of one of Hollywood’s most iconic comedy duos.

Though a few scenes take place during the duo’s heyday in 1930s Hollywood, the majority of the film revolves around their attempts to rejuvenate their film career via a tour of the UK and Ireland in the 1950s. Though it’s slow going at first, they gradually attain success, until they are playing to packed crowds in London. However, the ostensible goal of this tour–to procure a movie contract–ultimately falls through, and the two must decide whether they will continue their partnership.

Full confession time: I’ve always much preferred Laurel and Hardy to Abbot and Costello. I can’t say why, other than that I think that Stan and Ollie just seemed more organically funny to me than their (arguably) more successful counterparts. So, I was already prepared to enjoy the film, and I was not disappointed.

The film does play a bit fast and loose with historical details, compressing some things and excluding others, but that’s rather what you expect from a biopic. Indeed, rather than trying to provide a panoramic view of the comedy duo’s career, it shows us this one particular incident that is reflective of their dynamic and their struggles both within and against Hollywood. As a result, we do get a fairly rich sense of their relationship.

While the film’s plot follows a fairly traditional biopic pattern, the performances from both Coogan and Reilly really allow the film to stand out (it’s rather a crime, I think, that neither was in contention for an Oscar). They both seem to truly inhabit their characters. This is not mere mimicry, but instead something richer, deeper, and more meaningful. Just as importantly, there is also an undeniable chemistry between the two leads that lends their performance a level of credibility it might otherwise lack. There are times when one could be forgiven for believing that the two men on screen are really the two old Hollywood stars.

Thus, the film is essentially about the relationship between the two men. From its perspective, the two of them only really succeeded when they worked together. Their other partnerships, Though their wives are certainly prominent parts of their lives–and Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda deserve enormous credit for imbuing each of them with spit-fire personality–it’s clear from the beginning that the bond between the two men is of a different kind.

The film is also a reflection on the brutal, unforgiving nature of Hollywood. No matter how successful Stan and Ollie become through their tapping into nostalgia, there will be no movie deal for them. The Hollywood of their heyday has moved on, and while they may not be as pathetic as, say, Norma Desmond of Sunset Boulevard, there is still a sense of pathos about the whole drama. We in the audience know that there can be no resuscitation fo their film career even before they do; there is no place for 1930s comedians of their type in 1950s Hollywood. We are thus invited to both cheer for them and pity them at the same time.

The film is intertwines various types of nostalgia: there is the yearning of the two actors for their earlier success; there’s the nostalgia of the fans who fill the auditoria; and then there is the film’s own nostalgia for both the 1930s and, arguably, the 1950s. As with so many Hollywood films about Hollywood, the dream factory is a vexed signifier. While it promises them both a renewed career, it is also the great beast that has already chewed them up and left them behind.

In that sense, Stan and Ollie is a rather melancholic film, for as the blurb of text at the end explains, the tour did in fact take a heavy toll on Ollie’s health, and he died shortly afterward. For his part, Stan never again performed with another partner. In the end, we’re left with a sense of sadness for what might have been, a bittersweet longing for two careers cut short by the vicissitudes of Hollywood.

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.

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: “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.

Reading Classic Hollywood: Demographic Angst (Alan Nadel)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screening Classic Hollywood: “Auntie Mame” (1958)

I miss many things about classic Hollywood, but one of the greatest casualties was the opening credit sequence. In fine classic Hollywood style, the opening to Auntie Mame is a riot of colors, designs, and patterns, a harbinger of the flamboyant personality embodied by Mame herself.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.

When his father unexpectedly dies, Patrick is sent to live with his father’s eccentric, larger-than-life sister Mame (Rosalind Russell). Mame is full of wit, vivacity, and joy, swanning about New York with a social group as eclectic and flamboyant as she is. When the Great Depression hits, she manages to snare a Southern gentleman as a husband (Forrest Tucker), go on a world-wide tour, and even begin penning her autobiography. Unfortunately, her exuberant lifestyle clashes with Patrick’s upper-class aspirations. However, through it all she remains true to herself and in so doing forces Patrick to be true to himself as well.

From her very first appearance, Russell is nothing less than divine as Mame. With her glaring orange outfit, her rat-a-tat-tat, rapid-fire delivery, and distinctively husky voice, she is the embodiment of flamboyant femininity. She owns who she is, and she feels no shame about it. Her honesty is bracing but refreshing, especially compared to the stuffy, hypocritical, and disgustingly fake affect of Patrick’s soon-to-be-laws, who are the most loathsome type of New England WASP.

Beneath all of her exuberance, Mame has the proverbial heart of gold. Unlike his father, who treated Patrick with what amounts to contempt, Mame clearly has a profound fondness for her nephew. What’s more, she treats him as an adult rather than a child, and she bears him an affection deeper, richer, and more genuine than she has had for any of her other “hobbies.” This obviously extends into her fervent, and accurate dislike, of Patrick’s first love interest, and she accurately sees that this woman will lead Patrick into unhappiness.

Mame is fiercely protective of Patrick, and she gives him the chance to be loved for who he is rather than what his father (and his father’s patriarchal surrogate, Mr. Babcock) want him to be. Whereas they want to forge him into the same sort of frigid, buttoned-up man that they are (and they threaten to succeed), she wants nothing more than his happiness, even if that means telling him unpleasant truth that he doesn’t want to hear. With her profound ability to cut through the bullshit that bourgeois culture uses to obfuscate its own inner rottenness, Mame also exposes the hypocrisy of postwar American culture as a whole.

I’ve always thought that there was something deliciously queer about the Mame story and its various iterations. In this film, that queerness stems in part from Russell herself, who commands the screen with every biting remark and scathing witticism. She resists the dominant ideology that says that she should behave as an appropriate woman, and this liberates both herself and Patrick from the stuffy, irritatingly hetero pretensions of everyone else (including and especially his potential in-laws).

Mame’s queerness is particularly evident during the dinner party that she throws for the Upsons, in which her unruly energies–the flaming (literally) drinks, the pickled rattlesnake, the presence of her unmarried-and-pregnant secretary–are on full display. Unlike Patrick, who has internalized the shame of America’s upper classes, Mame has embraced her chosen family, and she reminds him of what he risks giving up if he joins with the Upsons, with their annoying accents, their restricted homes, and their too-sweet cocktails (nauseatingly sweetened with honey). The film makes it quite clear who has the right of it in this situation. Mame promises Patrick a life lived on his own terms, with a merry band of misfits, all of whom are united in their love of life.

Just as importantly, the queerness emerges in the film’s aesthetic, in the brash Technicolor that seems to exist for no other reason than existence. Blue is a particularly prominent shade, one that appears in both the décor of Mame’s magnificent home and in those moments when the screen fades, leaving Mame’s face saturated with blue. To my eyes, the blue conveys a sweet sort of melancholy so sharply at odds with the exuberant joy on evidence throughout the rest of the film. The film is sweet, but also a little sad, and it’s in the blending of those two sentiments that it really excels.

Auntie Mame is the very best sort of film that classic Hollywood can produce. Hilarious, touching, and gorgeously shot, it’s films like this that make me glad I watch these old movies. They help us to see that, even in a seemingly repressive and conformist culture like the 1950s, there was always the possibility of resistance, no matter how subtle it might seem. Life, as Mame says, is a banquet.

To put it bluntly, it’s a damn fine film.

Dissertation Days (9): Rough Days…

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

Well, that didn’t happen today.

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

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

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

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

Onward!