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Three on a Bed - Click for larger image

To get into the spirit for tonight’s pre-code marathon on TCM, I thought I would discuss one of my favorite movie from that era, Ernst Lubitsch’s Design For Living (1933). I admit that I don’t know much about pre-code films or their history, but I do know a great film when I see one. And not only is Design For Living great, but it’s incredibly sexy and fun as well. It’s risque plot begs the question: is it possible for two men to share a woman and live happily ever after? While the idea of a menage a trois is common knowledge by today’s standards, it had to be a shocking topic for 1933!

Cooper, March, Hopkins - Click for larger imageThe plot centers around two friends, playwright Tom (Fredric March) and painter George (Gary Cooper) who meet a free-spirited commercial artist, Gilda (Miriam Hopkins) on a train. Naturally, both men fall in love with Gilda and unbeknownst to each other, are having a physical relationship with her. Instead of choosing one, Gilda decides that the best solution is to forget about sex. Yeah, like that’s going to happen. Instead, Gilda has separate dalliances with both George and Tom and when she sees that she’s tearing their friendship apart, she runs off and marries her humorless boss, Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton). Soon, Gilda finds herself in an unhappy situation, surrounded by Plunkett’s boring, snooty friends while forced to play silly dinner games and sing even siller songs. It’s then up to Tom and George to rescue her from the boredom of Plunkett’s home.

While the “Lubitsch Touch” may not be for everyone, it’s precisely what makes Design For Living so fantastic. It’s a light, sophisticated sex farce that never crosses the line into smut. And while there are serious turns in the plot, they mostly revolve around the emotions of Tom, George and Gilda–never are they made to feel guilty for enjoying sex. It’s who they’re enjoying it with that’s the problem. But what makes Design For Living truly beautiful is that the main characters are friends first, and romantically involved second (a very close second, I might add). It’s clear from their banter on the train that they enjoy each other’s company. And when Gilda tells the boys to forget about sex, she turns it into something positive by critiquing their work instead and turning them into successes. Of course, none of the parties involved can go without physical comforts for long, but isn’t that what makes the movie so much fun?

Gary Cooper and Fredric March - Click for larger image

Both Fredric March and Gary Cooper are perfect in their roles. Not only do they have amazing chemistry with Hopkins, but they play off each other beautifully as well. The comic banter between them is easy and light and Design For Living playbill - Click for larger imageyou understand why their friendship has endured for eleven years. It’s also interesting to note that in the original Noel Coward scripted play, it was hinted that Tom and George were bisexual. Even though the Hays Code was lax, the powers that be insisted that Design For Living be cleaned up for the screen version. Hollywood wasn’t that liberated. Enter screenwriter Ben Hecht, who wound up rewriting all the dialogue except for one line (“For the good of our immortal souls!”), while keeping the plot the same. All traces of bisexuality between Tom and George were written out–or was it? In the scene where George finds out that Tom and Gilda have spent the night together, he angrily tells them, “It’s hard to believe I loved you both!” While the line was meant to express a platonic love between Tom and George, I’m sure some people were thinking along the lines of the original Broadway version. I know I was (but that’s mostly because I have a filthy mind). After all, Tom and George lived together before Gilda came along and after Gilda leaves them, they go off to China together. March and Cooper are not affectionate towards each other, but it’s hard not to think that there was something more to their characters, especially in such a sexually charged movie. I’m sure if Design For Living was re-made today (Heaven forbid), the writers would throw in some sexual tension and jealousy between Tom and George based on their previous, pre-Gilda relationship.

Cooper, March, Horton - Click for larger imageThe character of Max Plunkett is Design For Living‘s authority figure and the exact kind of attitude that the saucier pre-code movies thumbed their nose at. He’s awfully fond of the phrase, “Immorality may be fun, but it isn’t fun enough to take the place of one hundred percent virtue and three square meals a day!” which describes the kind of guy he is. Yawn. Played by Edward Everett Horton (one of my favorite character actors from the 30’s), Plunkett is the kind of guy who thinks after dinner games of 20 Questions and “Animal, Vegetable or Mineral?” are a good time. He’s the symbol of stodgy monotony, while Tom, George and Gilda represent a more carefree attitude. Plunkett is obsessed with work and while the three want to be successful in life, it shouldn’t come at the loss of their happiness.

Married? Noooooo! - Click for larger imageI know it’s said that Horton was gay in real life, but I never got that kind of over-the-top flamboyancy from him, like I did with Franklin Pangborn. In so many movies, Horton was constantly married to women, who like him, had a sense of asexuality. You could never imagine them having sex–maybe the most you’d see is a chaste kiss, but that’s about it. Horton’s asexuality is what makes Plunkett so great–despite his love for Gilda, you could never, ever imagine him satisfying her like Tom or George could, nor could you imagine Gilda getting all worked up over him. Even his attempts at shopping for a bed are dull–Plunkett pulls out a tape measure to see the width of the bed, before measuring each of their shoulders! Horton puts in a fine dramatic performance here, especially in the post-marriage bedroom scene where he kicks the tulips after having a passionless wedding night.

But what really makes the movie is the character of Gilda (pronounced Jil-da). Miriam Hopkins shines in the role, bringing to life a complex woman who is not only comfortable with her sexuality, but places Tom and George’s friendship above her own happiness. The last thing she wants is for them to hate each other. Throughout the film, Gilda tries many different things in order to restore peace between Tom and George: she becomes “den mother” to their pursuits and then marries Plunkett so that neither man can have her. But in the end, Gilda cannot deny her true happiness anymore and neither can Tom or George. They need her as much as she needs them, jealousy be damned.

Hopkins runs a gamut of emotions throughout the film: she’s flirty and coy, but serious and passionate when she needs to be. It would be hard to like Gilda if Hopkins played her as a stupid, shallow and coarse girl, but she doesn’t. If anything, Gilda is a revelation–she’s a sexually liberated woman in the 1930’s, an idea that wouldn’t be popular until almost 40 years later. Gilda only wants to bring out the best in both of her men. She’s not desperately seeking approval from Tom or George and isn’t afraid tear down their egos and criticize their work (“Rotten!”). But she’s willing to succumb to passion when the time is right. Gilda wears her emotions on her sleeve. In one scene, she tells Tom that he haunted her “like a nasty ghost” and that “on rainy nights, I could hear you moanin’ down the chimney.” She’s open and honest. There’s no false pretenses with her and not only is it refreshing to see, but it’s fun to watch. It makes you root for Gilda and hope that she gets both her men at the end of the story. These characters are too nice and too much fun to be left broken hearted at the end.

A Gentleman’s Agreement - Click for larger imageGary Cooper and Miriam Hopkins - Click for larger imageI’m no Gentleman - Click for larger image
The end of the “Gentleman’s Agreement”

Design For Living also has it’s share of extremely sensual moments, which are sprinkled through the film. The innuendo is hard to miss. For example, take the scene where George and Gilda are alone together in their apartment. After pacing back and forth a few times, George grabs Gilda, proclaims his love and kisses her. In return, Gilda walks over to the dusty couch, lazily stretches the length of her body across it and purrs, “It’s true we had a gentleman’s agreement–but unfortunately, I am no gentleman.” The scene fades to black. It leaves the power of one’s imagination to figure out what happened next, which is so much sexier than showing the physical act of lovemaking itself.

It still rings! - Click for larger imageIn another scene, Tom visits the apartment of George and Gilda, only to find that Gilda still has his old typewriter. Despite promising to take good care of itwhen he left for London, Tom finds that’s it’s now rusted out. When Gilda enters the room, the sexual tension between them becomes unbearable. They can’t take their eyes off each other and the typewriter becomes a metaphor for their relationship. As Gilda starts fiddling with the machine, she and Tom have the following conversation:

Tom (accusingly): You didn’t keep it oiled.
GIlda: I did for awhile.
Tom: The keys are rusty. The shift is broken
Gilda seductively slides the carriage back and forth, causing the typewriter to ‘ding’. Tom and Gilda look at each other wide-eyed with excitement.
Gilda (excitedly): But it still rings!
March walks over to Gilda, where they meet face-to-face.
Gilda (softly): “It still rings.”
Tom: “Does it?”
Fade to black.

It’s one of the best moments in the entire film and that’s saying a lot, because there are so many high points to begin with. And speaking of which, the closing scene is also fantastic. After Tom, Gilda and George escape Plunkett’s mansion in a taxi, Gilda then declares that she wants to go back to Paris and have some fun–but not before giving each guy a big kiss on the lips. And we know exactly what kind of fun she wants. After all, she’s nestled in between Fredric March and Gary Cooper–who could blame her for wanting to have “fun”?

When I first got into classics, I could never understand what the fuss about pre-codes was all about, but after seeing a few, I do understand. Not only are they fun, but it’s nice to see endings where the main character isn’t severely punished for their actions. You know, if Design For Living had somehow been made after 1934, not only would a good chunk of the snappy dialogue have been eradicated, but one of the main characters would have had to die in order for moral sanity to rule the day. I’m guessing that Gilda would have received the brunt of the Code’s moral abuse. After all, she enjoyed sex and everyone knows that in post-1934 films, any woman who enjoys sex is a harlot. And don’t even get me started on separate beds!

I’ve always wondered what the movies would have been like if the Hays Code hadn’t been enforced in 1934. Would movies have gotten sexier and more violent? Hollywood is not a place where they know how to draw the line. For every good movie that’s released today, there’s another film that’s filled with tons and tons of gore and sex. I know I sound like a prude saying this, but my idea of a good time isn’t watching someone slice off their own arm or kill their beloved puppy for the sake of shock value. You don’t need shock value to enjoy a movie. I like sensical plots and good character development and that’s why classics, pre or post code, had those qualities in spades. Once the hammer of the Hays code came down, Hollywood had to clean up their act. But it’s not as though the quality of the movies went down–if anything, they went up.

Still, I’m thankful that so many pre-code movies still exist and I’m happy whenever I find a really good one, such as Design For Living (which is available in the 5-disc Gary Cooper Collection). I’m looking forward to the pre-codes and new documentary that TCM is offering up tonight because with every new film I watch, I gain new insights into the past and become more appreciative of the present. And in my opinion, that’s what loving Classic Hollywood is all about.

Links:

• A review and more background info on Design For Living via the Lubitsch site.

• The outlines of the Hays Code from Wikipedia

• A very good pre-code article at GreenCine

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I’ve been on a big Gregory Peck kick as of late, which after four years or so, I’d say I’ve waited long enough. I’ve always read a lot of reviews where people complain that he’s somewhat of a “wooden” actor. I’ve never thought that about him, but I can understand where people are coming from. He has that stoic, clipped manner of speaking and what other people take as wooden, I take as calm and collected. To each his own though.

Gregory Peck shirtless
Gratuitous shirtless shot of Gregory Peck–because I can.

But for those people who do find him “wooden”, I’d highly recommend William A. Wellman’s 1948 western, Yellow Sky, where he’s anything but. He’s dangerous and sexy, while Anne Baxter matches him moment for moment. Its plot revolves around a gang of bank robbers that make their way through the desert, only to wind up in a deserted town called Yellow Sky. Soon after, they meet its only inhabitants, a woman nicknamed Mike and her Grandpa. However, when the gang realizes the two are hiding gold, they decide to make quick fortune by robbing them.

For all the William A. Wellman movies I’ve seen, this quickly became one of my favorites. Not only is it a solid western, but the relationship between “Mike” (Anne Baxter) and “Stretch” (Gregory Peck) is fascinating. Yellow Sky isn’t just a western–it’s a psychological one. Hands down Anne Baxter’s characterization of Mike steals the show here. Yes, she’s mainly known as the backstabbing bitch in All About Eve, but in Yellow Sky, she shows a great range of emotion. It’s sounds a bit trite, but Mike wants to prove that she’s just as tough as one of the guys, even favoring a men’s nickname instead of using her real name, Constance Mae. She lives by her own strict moral code. And while Mike is a tomboy, she’s a Hollywood tomboy. Petite in size, her hair is neatly coiffed and even though she spends the entire film in a non-nonsense blouse and black jeans, they show off her best assets. It’s no wonder that she elicits lust in most of the gang.

Since they’re the focus of the story, the main relationship is between Mike and Stretch. While Mike hates all the men, it’s Stretch that she seems to hate the most. Gregory Peck is fantastic in this role (but then I love when he plays bad boys). He constantly pursues Mike despite warning all the other men in his gang to stay away from her and Grandpa (John Russell). It’s almost as though he feels he has first dibs on her because he’s their leader. In their first meeting, Stretch asks her what she’s so afraid of, to which Mike defiantly answers, “Nothing.” It’s a lie of course, but there’s no way Mike can show any other emotion besides “tough.” She feels that even the slightest hint of femininity would be a sign of weakness and with the six men who just intruded their lives, Mike intends to be just as tough as them.

baxter_rifle.jpgIn addition to giving Stretch a mean right hook when he attempts to steal her rifle, she’s ready to shoot anyone at a moment’s notice. But what’s nice about the character of Mike is that she’s not a caricature of a tomboy. For example, she isn’t anything like Doris Day in Calamity Jane. Wellman was smarter than that. In less assured hands, the character of Mike could have easily been one to laugh at. You take Mike seriously because she is serious and Anne Baxter manages to bring her to life in a wonderful way. There’s nothing humorous about her. You don’t doubt for a second that Mike’s first instinct would be to shoot a man right below the belt. The only person she cares about is her Grandpa and she’d fight to the death to keep him safe. Her loyalty towards him isn’t just because he’s her Grandpa, but because he treats her with respect. In a conversation, he proudly tells Stretch that not only is Mike as “tough as a nut”, but that she was raised by Apaches. In so many westerns, anyone who is raised by Indians is immediately treated as though they have the plague. Not only do Grandpa and Mike have a good relationship with the Apaches, but Mike has turned out to be a real fighter. Her Apache upbringing is a source of pride, not shame, for him.

There are plenty of interesting scenes and one of them occurs at the watering hole, which is to be a source of trouble for Mike. After being accosted by the men, Stretch steps in and tells them to stay away from her and Grandpa. Immediately, Mike rewards him with a look of tenderness. It’s the first real emotion (besides anger) that we see from her. Is it because she sees Stretch respects not only her, but her Grandpa as well?

However, Stretch refuses to take his own advice and treks over to the house to see Mike. After tackling her to the ground and kissing her, Mike repeatedly headbutts(!) him and tells him “You stink!”, but not before wiping her mouth as though his kisses were poison. It’s interesting to see that Mike’s first reaction after physical violence is to verbally assault him. It’s a one-two punch of hitting him below the belt. She then ends their “rendezvous” by shooting at his head–although she aims to miss. Later, when she and Grandpa are Illustration of a Womanwalking back to the house, Mike tells him, “He made me feel..I don’t know.” But she does know. Mike has made her feel like a woman for the first time in her life. Wellman then cuts to Mike’s room, in which a picture of an elegantly dressed lady is pinned onto her wall. Seeing it fills her with disgust and causes Mike to angrily tear it into pieces. It’s a great moment of self-loathing–she hates herself for feeling something that she’s been trying so hard to suppress. Although having such a picture on her wall in the first place clues us into the fact that Mike longs to be as pretty as any other woman out there. In that one short scene, we sense Mike’s vulnerability for the first time. It’s easily one of my favorite scenes in the entire movie.

A famous Wellman shadow shot
Wellman was known for odd angles and shots. Here, Grandpa and Mike stand in near darkness.

What makes Yellow Sky so interesting is how the relationship between Mike and Stretch progresses. It’s not a full blown love affair–there are things that Stretch does and says that are questionable–yet it’s enough to gain Mike’s trust. Stretch is the first man besides her Grandpa to treat her with a respect. He doesn’t look down at her. It’s clear that even after their first kiss (albeit a forced one), Stretch is bothered enough by Mike’s disgust, that he appears the next day wearing a fresh shirt while his face is clean shaven. Upon seeing his efforts to impress her, Mike’s facade begins to crumble.

Bull Run saves the dayWhile the relationship between Mike and Stretch grows, the one between her and the rest of the gang is precarious. When she goes down to the watering hole a second time, she’s physically attacked by Lengthy (John Russell) while Half Pint (Henry Morgan) and Walrus (Charles Kemper) cheer him on, with the latter yelling, “Ride her cowboy, ride her!” It’s a particularly disturbing scene, especially for 1948. Since the code was in effect, the most you see is Lengthy pushing Mike against a tree while she tries to beat him away. But it’s clearly a prelude to rape. It’s even more disturbing when Walrus tells Stretch afterwards that she was asking for it. This scene also lets you know that Lengthy sees right through Mike’s tough act. He doesn’t see her as an equal. For Lengthy, she’s just another woman to take advantage of.

However, it has to be noted that the youngest member of the gang, Bull Run, (Robert Arthur) does respect Mike. When he sees Lengthy attacking her, he’s the only one to step in and pull him off, only to need saving by Stretch in the end. In some respects, both Bull Run and Stretch are somewhat alike. While they try to keep up their tough facades, their basic sense of decency hasn’t been corrupted yet and after such a particularly brutal scene, it’s refreshing to see. The only difference is that Bull Run is naive to the ways of the world, while Stretch has seen it all and is wise to the ulterior motives of his gang. This certainly affects the fates of their characters at the end of the movie.

Widmark, always the villianThe relationship between Stretch and Dude (Richard Widmark) is probably second to that of Mike and Stretch. When Dude sees that Stretch is falling for Mike, he knows that he’s of no use to the gang anymore. Women mean absolutely nothing to Dude. He was burned by an old girlfriend in the past and he’s nothing but bitter towards them now. Not only does he make numerous attempts to overthrow Stretch as their leader, but he’s also a silent witness to many moments where both Mike and Stretch let their guards down. He revels in their downfalls, knowing that the more Stretch becomes emotionally attached to Mike, the sooner he can make off with the gold. Greed is Dude’s only motivation in life. He and Lengthy are both soulless in their pursuit for the gold and when Stretch finally backs out of a deal that would wipe out Mike and Grandpa for good, the gang finally turns on him. It’s interesting to see that Mike is the only one who immediately tries to protect him. As the gang attempts to shoot him down, Mike covers him, therefore risking her own life so they can make their way back to the house together. It’s a nice twist, especially seeing the malevolence she had towards him when they first met.

Peck and Baxter

It’s another facet that makes Yellow Sky so interesting to watch–the gender lines become blurred when it comes to Mike and Stretch. In two separate, but pivotal scenes (the rape scene and the aforementioned shootout), they both save each other from possible death. Unlike most westerns, Mike’s character doesn’t suddenly turn into that of “damsel in distress.” If anything, it’s Stretch who becomes the damsel! Once he falls in love with Mike, therefore respecting her, his gang loses respect for him. Without Mike’s protection, he would be a dead man since it’s hard to fight when there are five against one. The roles have reversed and it’s an interesting path for Wellman to go down, but it’s certainly one that he treaded down before. Although the genres and situations are different, his 1937 film, A Star is Born is another movie that has similar gender relations. The up-and-coming actress (Janet Gaynor) becomes a star, while the once-famous husband (Fredric March) is reduced to the role of Mr. Vicki Lester. In order to save him, she must give up her own career and she doesn’t do it because she has to–she does it because she loves him. Yet, the literal death of her career becomes a figurative one for him. It’s heartbreaking to watch and for a director that was nicknamed, “Wild Bill”, he certainly had a sensitivity for relationships and how they work.

While Yellow Sky is a rough western with a love story thrown in, it’s not too sappy. In fact, it’s presented in such a way that you think Stretch is saving Mike from herself. Audiences back then may have thought that all Mike needed was the love of a good man to change her mind, but there’s so much more to it than that. It’s the proof in the final scene (which I hate to spoil, since it’s so good) that Mike saved Stretch from himself as well. The building of their whole relationship was based on seeing each other as equals and in the end, that’s exactly what they are. Love saves the day and all that sappy stuff notwithstanding. They saved each other from themselves by letting their facades down and admitting that they needed love. What’s that old saying–No man is an island? I think it applies here perfectly.

It’s a shame to see that despite a dvd release, Yellow Sky isn’t that well-known today. Especially when you compare it to Gregory Peck’s other bad boy western, 1946’s campy Duel in the Sun. While the basis of that was a soap opera-type love story, Yellow Sky is so much more than just a love story between Mike and Stretch. It’s about the survival and relationships between people, no matter what the odds are against them. And that’s always a timeless topic.

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Last night (this morning?), I wound up falling asleep in front of the tv while Equus was showing on TCM–not because I was bored, but because I was just flat out tired. I woke up in time to record Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams and since Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) immediately followed it, I figured I’d watch it.

Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a DoubtShadow of a Doubt is my favorite Hitchcock movie, mainly because of the strong performances by Joseph Cotten (who was my first, big classic movie star obsession) and Teresa Wright*. If you’re a movie fan, classic or modern, you probably know the story: Uncle Charlie (Cotten) comes back to his old hometown of Santa Rosa to visit his sister and her family. There’s also “Little” Charlie (Wright), who loves and adores her Uncle. As the movie progresses, Charlie discovers that her beloved Uncle might not be what he seems to be–is he the notorious Merry Widow strangler that preys on old, rich women? Or is he an innocent man, wronged by the law?

I’ve seen this movie countless times and one scene in particular always catches my eye: it occurs in the garage, when Charlie is alone with Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey), a detective who was sent to Santa Rosa in search of Uncle Charlie.

Teresa Wright and Macdonald Carey in Shadow of a Doubt

In the scene, Graham asks Charlie if she’d be interested in pursing a relationship after the whole Merry Widow mess has passed over. Charlie doesn’t jump at the chance. If anything, she rejects him–she tells him she’d like to be friends though (a modern response in 1943!). While it’s not a flat out rejection, there’s certainly a sense of hesitation and even trepidation at the idea. Every time I talk about this scene, I like to imagine that Charlie is thinking, “Are you nuts? You’re thinking about romance at a time like THIS? My psychopathic uncle is on the loose and you’re thinking about ways of getting into my dress!” And how in the world would Charlie tell her kids about how they met? “I met your father when he was trying to arrest Uncle Charlie for strangling widows.” Yeah, that will go over really well.

What I always find odd about this scene is that, yes, Charlie does reject him. In most classic movies, the heroine immediately falls in love with the man who becomes her savior and right before “The End” pops up on the screen, you’re usually treated to a scene where the new couple get married or passionately embrace. Shadow of a Doubt is one movie that goes against the standard idea of Hollywood romance.

I’ve always felt that Teresa Wright was an odd leading lady for a Hitchcock film. She’s not sexy or dangerous like Ingrid Bergman in Notorious or a cool, detached blonde in the Grace Kelly vein. But that’s what makes Wright essential to the plot. She’s cute and all-American–the kind of girl you could bring home to meet your parents. Santa Rosa is the kind of town where you can imagine a girl like Charlie and her family living. Innocent, sweet suburbia where the biggest scandal might be a controversy at a pie-eating contest. By all means, Charlie is the type who should immediately fall in love at the drop of a hat. After all, that’s what happens to those girl-next-door types. They fall in love, get married and pop out some kids.

Teresa Wright in Shadow of a DoubtBut unlike other hometown girls, Charlie is now suddenly faced with the idea that her favorite Uncle (and one that she’s named after!) may be a murderous psychopath. She’s agitated–she asks her mother not to hum the “Merry Widow Waltz” because it bothers her so much. How can Charlie fall in love when a family member thinks that strangling rich, fat women is a good idea? Love pales in comparison to murder. Her whole world is shaken and nothing will ever be the same, even if Uncle Charlie is innocent. As he tells her, “I brought you nightmares…How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie. Use your wits. Learn something.”

Thanks to Uncle Charlie, her brush with the darker side of life will always lurk in the back of her mind. Every time she thinks about her Uncle, Graham, the Merry Widow Waltz or even some of the various situations that are sprinkled throughout the film, Charlie will always be reminded of how much pain this whole situation brought into her life. In the garage scene, Graham is fully aware of this scenario but he can’t help himself: he tells Charlie that he loves her. And yet, she can’t reciprocate. She knows she likes him as a friend, but it’s just too soon to move forward romantically. There’s just too much going on in her mind.

Or is Charlie beginning to distrust the men in her life? Her father and next door neighbor, Herbie (played by Hume Cronyn) constantly play games of imaginary murder with one another. While this was humorous in the past, her sudden discovery of Uncle Charlie’s secret life now brings those innocent games into a sinister light. Who wants to joke about murderers and their evil ways when you have the real thing sitting right there in your living room?

And how does she know that Detective Graham can be trusted? After all, she trusted her Uncle and now her world is upside down. By posing as someone he’s not, Uncle Charlie has betrayed her and the family. He’s an impostor. How does she know that Graham isn’t an impostor as well? She’s only known him for a few days and his business revolves around murderers and criminals. He’s associated with the seedier side of life and while he doesn’t seem to be affected by it, can Charlie be assured of a good future with him? Thanks to her Uncle, she’s learned that you can know someone your entire life and not really know them at all.

the staircase scene

It’s ironic that it’s emerald ring that Uncle Charlie presents to Charlie at the beginning of the film, is what severs the final ties between them. As she comes down that staircase, ring on her finger and defiantly staring Uncle Charlie in the eye, he knows that his niece has had it with him (what else do you want after two murder attempts?). Charlie doesn’t want his help or his friendship–she just wants him out of her life forever. He has brought her nightmares, terrible ones at that, as well a permanent scarring for life. His secret will never be safe as long as Charlie is alive. She’s taken his advice, used her wits and learned something: that her once beloved Uncle is nothing to her anymore. The only reason Charlie is keeping quiet is because she doesn’t want to break her mother’s heart. Why should her life be ruined as well?

What I love about Shadow of a Doubt is the atmosphere of the entire film. The shattering of innocent suburbia as well as Charlie’s womanly awakening. She knows that everything is in life isn’t going to be wonderful and perfect like your parents or the movies want you to believe. Life is hell. There will be rough patches and everyone goes through tragedy at some point in their lives. But you have to adapt and find ways to survive because if you don’t, you’ll wind up at the lesser end of it all.

For most filmgoers, movies are a sense of escapism from real life. You want to see that happy ending, the girl getting her man or the innocent criminal being saved from the electric chair at the last second. Hitchcock brought the idea of small town tragedy and scandal to the screen in a beautifully sophisticated way. It’s a movie that delivers time after time not only in part to the writing and direction, but because of the characterizations brought forth by Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright.

Speaking of which, I like to think that Teresa Wright’s portrayal of Charlie is one of the first modern feminist heroines to ever grace celluloid. She didn’t need Graham or anyone else to save her. No, thanks to Uncle Charlie and his dark view on life, all she needed was herself.

*Sadly, Wright never appeared in another Hitchcock production, but Cotten** appeared in one more–the 1949 period drama, Under Capricorn. According to his biography, Vanity Will Get You Somewhere, Cotten mentioned that he accidently called this film “Under Cornycrap” right to Hitchcock’s face and therefore, never worked in another of his films again. Oops.

**Also, it’s CottEn. Cotten. Not Cotton, like the fabric. There’s an E in his last name. It drives me nuts whenever I see it misspelled.

Note: Over on archive.org there are numerous pages for the old time radio show, Lux Radio Theater. Here is the page for the 1944 episode of Shadow of a Doubt, which features William Powell (who was rumored to be the original choice for Uncle Charlie!) and Teresa Wright.

Also, I should be getting my links sidebar up this weekend, but I wanted to post a link to this “Blog Carnival” that I’m participating in. It gathers up a bunch of different blog posts and lists them in one place. This week, I chose my “Dirty Dozen” post to be featured and the host of the blog also chose a great You Tube clip from the movie to go with it. Thanks!

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woman of the year

Without Love (1945) was the first Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn movie I saw when I began my classic film phase and I loved it upon first viewing. Unlike a lot of the romantic comedies made today, I thought it was sophisticated and funny, with just enough drama to keep me wondering how it was going to all turn out. Of course the great supporting performances by Lucille Ball and Keenan Wynn helped, but after Without Love, I was hooked on the Tracy/Hepburn pairing. Who wouldn’t be? They had incredible chemistry together. Even when their characters weren’t in love, they looked at each other with such love and adoration in their eyes. It’s hard to resist a pairing like that.

Like a lot of classic movie fans, I favor Tracy and Hepburn’s romantic comedies. Adam’s Rib, Pat and Mike and Desk Set are my favorites, while the aforementioned Without Love and the rarely seen State of the Union follow closely behind. I’m not too big on their dramas, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is just okay. It’s depressing to see Tracy in his final film, and I’m not too big on social message pictures either.

One of the last Tracy/Hepburn movies I saw was oddly enough, their first pairing: Woman of the Year (1942). I was ecstatic to see it scheduled on TCM because I figured I would love it.

I was wrong.

Maybe I should correct myself: I loved it until that final scene where Tess Harding (Hepburn) makes a total and complete fool of herself in that kitchen. It’s absurd and infuriating that such a smart, brilliant woman would be a total disaster. I can understand Tess’s inability to cook, because I’ve encountered some people like that in my life. But when they close up on the scene of an overflowing waffle maker? Forget it. They lost me. Anyone would be smart enough to know that the batter was overflowing. But not Tess Harding! She’s absolutely incompetent! And boy, does George Stevens want you to know it.

The original ending was to be Tess and Sam Craig (Tracy) at a baseball game, where her enthusiasm for the game overpowers his. She begins yelling and screaming at the players on the field, overshouting Craig. Test audiences hated it. As the producer, Joseph L. Mankiewicz put it: “The average housewife was going to look up at this beautiful, brilliant accomplished goddess up there on the screen and well, hate her guts.” I’m not sure why they would, although perhaps housewives would feel threatened at seeing someone ‘have it all’. Thus, the new ending was written and filmed, causing test audiences to go nuts for the picture. Hepburn hated it. She hated seeing how the strong woman finally “got hers” and I have to agree. As someone who broke the mold and –gasp!– wore pants, Hepburn had to be dying inside at seeing her character made such a fool of. And it bothers me to see such a strong, confident woman being reduced to something that should be laughed at. How dare Tess become an enthusiastic baseball fan! Who does she think she is?

The whole ending shows you how different society was in those days. Nowadays, most guys I know love it if their girlfriends/wives are interested in sports. It’s sexy, not threatening. But in the 40’s, the woman’s place was in the home and kitchen and to have Tess become a sports fan whose love for the game overshadows her husbands? Well, that certainly wasn’t ladylike!

How times have changed.

So you don’t get me wrong (and I have to phrase this carefully, so it doesn’t come out sounding wrong), I have no problems in making a man happy. In my past relationships, I’ve always gotten a kick out of doing something good for a boyfriend. That’s part of the give and take in relationships. So maybe that’s why my perfect Tracy and Hepburn relationship is summed up in Pat and Mike (1952). Ten years later and now she’s the star athlete. The tide was already turning.

What I love about this movie is that Tracy doesn’t look down at Pat because she’s into sports. If anything, that’s what interests him–granted, it’s because he can make money off of her, but without the sports, Pat would just be another woman. It’s her domineering fiance, Collier, that makes her uncomfortable. Just one glance at him and Pat is suddenly losing at every single game, whether it be golf or tennis. I also find it interesting that while being an athlete, Hepburn’s Pat is much more feminine than many of her other characters–love is a big deal for her. She doesn’t give Collier any sort of big, feminist speeches–even when she jumps off the train, it’s more free-spirited than an act of major defiance.

The gender balance shifts when Pat beats up the thugs that are harassing Mike– while an entire audience watches, of course. It’s one thing to be a great female athlete, it’s another to turn the tables and have a woman defend the man. How humiliating!

Even in the jail scene (featuring a hilarious Charles “Buchinski” Bronson as one of the thugs), Pat’s vocal manner is soft and delicate, almost as though she’s describing a play she had just watched. Since Mike’s ego has been bruised, Pat now knows it’s up to her to make things right. And this is why I love the ending: Mike has to be her savior, her knight in shining armor, her man, just to make him feel better. It lets him know that she really does love and respect him and it’s really sweet. Hepburn’s Pat just wants to make him happy, just like Tess in Woman of the Year. Only this time she gets to keep her dignity intact.

I write this because Woman of the Year was playing on TCM this weekend and I tried to give it another chance, only to get all riled up at the ending. The best I can say about the infamous kitchen scene is that without it, the public probably wouldn’t have wanted to see anymore Tracy and Hepburn films. And that? Would have been a tragedy. Hepburn’s dignity was traded in for better stories, such as Adam’s Rib and Desk Set, which allowed her to be smart and succumb to Tracy’s masculine charms. Sure, the public loved to see Tracy stick out his big bear paw and smack Hepburn down. I like to see it too. That’s what made their films so charming. I just don’t like to see it at the expense of someone’s dignity, no matter how funny it may seem, that’s all.

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It’s of my opinion that The Apartment is one of the greatest love stories ever made. I know that’s a pretty broad statement to make, especially when there are so many great classic love stories, but I think many people would agree with me on this one. It’s romantic and tragic, filled with great dialogue and direction by Billy Wilder. A friend once asked me, “If you could go back and rewatch a movie again for the first time?”, my immediate answer was “The Apartment“. It’s magical.

The Special Edition dvd was released just in time for Valentine’s Day and it’s certainly a movie that warrants this treatment. So when I was checking out Amazon to see what the special features were, I absolutely recoiled in horror at the cover art.

The Apartment - new cover
The Special Edition Cover Art

And you’re probably asking yourself: what’s wrong with it? It’s certainly pleasing to the eye and the pictures of the three principal cast members are lovely.

But if I were checking out this dvd for the first time, I would think that The Apartment was one of those silly, fluffy 60’s screwball comedies. And come to think of it, Shirley MacLaine could be the one of the poster girls for that genre (for the ultimate in wacky 60’s fluff, see her and her many husbands in 1964’s What a Way to Go!). All the cast members look happy–you would never think that Fred MacMurray is the ultimate slimeball just by looking at the cover, would you?–and Shirley is holding her arms out in a sort of “Oh my, which one do I choose?” pose.

But The Apartment is not a fluffy comedy. Sure, there are comedic elements–the opening where C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) describes his workday and even the misadventures of his bosses using his apartment elicit a chuckle. But as the movie moves forward, the plot turns into something more serious and heartbreaking. One of the saddest scenes occur in Baxter’s apartment on Christmas Eve, where Sheldrake (MacMurray) tells Fran (MacLaine) to buy herself something nice for Christmas and then gives her a hundred dollar bill. It’s not only depressing, but infuriating that he could trample over Fran’s heart in such a crass manner, treating her like a tramp. It would be easy to play this character as a dim witted elevator girl, but I’ve always felt that Shirley is a better dramatic actress than a comedic one. When she opens up her broken mirror at the Christmas party, you just want to reach through the screen and give her a hug. She has this ability to make you care about her characters, no matter how dense they may be (See also her portrayal as Ginny Moorehead in 1958’s Some Came Running). It’s a shame she didn’t win the Oscar for this role, but was sidelined for Elizabeth Taylor’s “Pity Oscar” for Butterfield 8.

Old Cover Art for The Apartment
The Old Cover Art for the Regular Edition

At it’s heart, The Apartment could be classified under comedy-drama, but light on the comedy and heavy on the drama. All which brings me back to that pesky dvd cover art: maybe I feel so protective over this movie because it was one of the first movies that I fell in love with. To be honest, I thought the old cover art for the regular edition was quite lovely. I would be sad if someone bought this and was slightly disappointed because it wasn’t what they expected (a great film is a great film, but when you’re in the mood for a comedy, a drama doesn’t quite do it). But to go by the old saying, you should never judge a book (or in this case) a dvd by it’s cover, especially when it comes to The Apartment.

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Joan in “Today We Live”
A gorgeous, young Joan in Today We Live (1933)

Like most people in my age bracket, if you mention the name “Joan Crawford” two words will come to mind: “Mommie Dearest”. And then five more: “No More Wire Hangers EVER!”

When I was a child, Mommie Dearest was my favorite movie. It came out in 1981, two years after I was born. By the time it made it’s appearance on HBO, I was probably four years old and it quickly became my favorite film. The glamorous opening shots of Joan (Faye Dunaway) getting dressed and ready for the day was how I wanted to live my adult life. A huge shower. Gigantic closets filled with beautiful clothes. Ice water facials. To my four-year old mind, this was the ideal life of a grown woman. I don’t think I really got the main plot of the story though: Joan’s drunken rampages, various affairs and child abuse, although I fondly remember myself grabbing a wire hanger and repeatedly smacking the rear end of my favorite Care Bear with it. Children are highly impressionable creatures.

It would be years later when I would see my first Joan Crawford film, Mildred Pierce (mainly because of the Sonic Youth song of the same name). I remember it being a good film, but I was a teenager and I was more concerned with collecting 7 inch singles by my favorite indie bands and the guy I worked with, than with classic movies and dead actresses. One day in my high school library, I found a dusty copy of Mommie Dearest tucked away in the back shelves. I tried to read it, but apparently I needed the visual aide of a crazed Faye Dunaway choking her daughter–it an was unbelievably boring book. I put it back and went back to listening to my discman through my messenger bag.

Fast forward to my early 20’s and my newfound obsession with classic movies. My love for music had inexplainably dried up and I found myself obsessively watching TCM, taping movies and researching them on the internet. I’m not sure what my first Joan Crawford movie was, but I remember thinking: “She’s really not as good as Bette Davis.” I had become a film snob after one month of viewing movies!

And now I come to the present. Four years later and suddenly, I’ve become highly interested in the films and life of Joan Crawford–the real Joan Crawford. Not the monster that Christina Crawford wrote about, but the woman who made movie after movie and proved herself as a damned good actress. It was A Woman’s Face that made me realize this. I watched it for Melvyn Douglas and wound up going, “Wow! Joan was great in this!” I’ve been recording her movies ever since then and in each one, I marvel at her beauty (okay, she went way, way overboard with the eyebrows in the 50’s and 60’s) and her talent. I bought a copy of Mildred Pierce just for the documentary, Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star and was struck by how bitchy the grown Christina was. If I could have reached through the screen and slapped her, I would have. For someone who despises her mother so much, she was sure eager enough to latch herself onto the gravy train.

A few days ago, I bought a copy of Not the Girl Next Door, Charlotte Chandler’s biography on Joan and walked away with an entirely different impression of her. It would be nice if this book was packaged with dvd copies of Mommie Dearest, just to let you know that there are two sides to every story. The Joan in Chandler’s book is kind and giving. There are anecdotes from another one of Joan’s children, Cathy. If you only watch Mommie Dearest, you get the impression that Joan only had two children, but she had four: twins named Cathy and Cindy and they were both humiliated after the publication of Mommie Dearest. According to Cathy, there were no wire hangers and no beatings. And yes, she was sent to bed without dinner as well, but that was her punishment for refusing to eat it. Joan taught them to work hard for the things they wanted in life, just as she had and in the end, they were left in her will while Christina and Christopher were left out.

In Chandler’s book, Christopher is described as a problem child, constantly running away from home and Christina was a spoiled brat. I’m sure Joan didn’t help matters by asking them to call her “Mommie, Dearest”, which she soon learned they used as a way of mocking her to her face. Myrna Loy was a good friend of Joan’s and comments that seeing the way Christina and Christopher acted made her glad she didn’t have children(!), adding that Christina was “vicious, ungrateful and jealous”. Ouch.

On the flip side of this are people who also believe that Joan abused the children. In Oscar Levant’s biography, A Talent for Genius, his wife June discusses the time she and Oscar were invited to a party at Joan’s house during the filming of Humoresque. That night, Joan invited the guests upstairs, ushered Christopher out of bed, announced that he was a problematic thumbsucker and forced him to show the big, rubber cap that covered his thumb–humiliation at it’s finest. If my mother had ever done something like that to me, I’m sure I’d come away hating her as well.

One of my favorite stories in Chandler’s book is how Joan always answered her fan mail. She was devoted to her fans. She felt that if they had taken the time out to write her, she surely had enough time to write them back. It was the least she could do. Any movie fan, classic or modern, has to appreciate that. Joan felt that without her fans she would be nowhere. Their letters were like applause and as a movie actress, she never heard the applause that a stage performer did. There’s also another story in the book centering around David Niven and the death of his first wife, Primula, who fell down a flight of stairs during a game of hide-and-go seek at Tyrone Power’s house. Even though she wasn’t at the party, the first thing Joan did was call up and offer to watch their newborn child.

There are so many conflicting stories out there and the problem is that most of the people involved in them are dead. There is no way of finding out the truth, unless you lived in Joan Crawford’s house during the years that Mommie Dearest took place. If one it to believe the movie, you’ll get the impression that Joan Crawford was a crazy, child abusing lush. But honestly, if I chose the right words and built up the right tone, I could make up a fantastic, exaggerated horror story about my parents. I could tell you about the time I got spanked with a spoon, but conveniently leave out the fact that I had just made a huge mess in the family room after my mother slaved for hours by cleaning it. Years later in college, I would be talking with my friends and it somehow came out that we had all gotten spanked with a spoon at some point in our lives. And I’m not even going into the “Joan Crawford is an alcoholic” thing that was played up so succulently in the movie–if you read up on classic Hollywood, a great deal of actors and actresses liked to hit the sauce. It’s not like Joan should have been the only one attending AA meetings, so shut it Christina. I’m not saying that some of the events didn’t happen, because they might have–but it all depends on how one presents the facts and how much they’re willing to fabricate. Money helps.

But what is most important is that Joan Crawford was a great actress, something that is shamefully ignored today. A good part of the problem is that for every movie like The Women or Grand Hotel, there’s a clunker like Above Suspicion or the absolutely dreadful, not even campy-in-a-good-way, Trog. She didn’t make that many great movies like Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn did. MGM gave her the scripts and she did them as she was told. She didn’t have the moxie to fight the studio like her rival, Bette Davis. For the most part, Joan was just happy to work.

mommie dearest
Crazy Like a Fox: Faye Dunaway as Joan in the climatic “Wire Hanger Scene”

I still like to watch Mommie Dearest, because let’s face it, who can resist a scenery-chewing Faye Dunaway, crossed eyed and slathered in cold cream while banging around a can of bathroom cleaner? Or swinging an axe while dressed to the nines? But it’s not fact. It’s a great fictional biographical film like They Died With Their Boots On or Night and Day. A one sided look at a great actress written by her money hungry, vindictive daughter. I still long for a huge closet full of designer clothes and a gigantic shower, but I’ve learned that if you want to know the real Joan Crawford, you need sit down and watch her films. If every classic actor or actress were given their own biographical movie, I doubt we’d like them by the end. In fact, Joan Crawford may come out as the tamest of them all.

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