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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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