Irresistible Ava (& The Barefoot Contessa)

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Ava Gardner is easy to like. She projects a natural warmth and earthy humility, making her equally appealing to both women and men. Further, she is one of the great beauties of the 20th century. While most movie stars are beautiful, Gardner’s onscreen visage generates a kind of shock and awe: How anyone’s face can be so sensual, so exquisite ?
(Witness this scene from Showboat). According to William J. Mann (How To Be A Movie Star), even Liz Taylor deferred, believing Ava was the more ravishing of the two. Further, her personal life is the stuff of legend, including a reportedly vigorous appetite for pleasure and vice, an explosively romantic marriage to Frank Sinatra, and tortured love affairs with famous bullfighters in Spain.

But she was never a great actress. The majority of her film performances lack appreciable dimension and nuance. Though clearly a character in her off-screen life, Gardner infrequently managed to project this onscreen. There are exceptions. Gardner brings real pathos and vigor to Showboat, Seven Days in May, Night of the Iguana. But there aren’t enough of these. Her performances are too often flat, diffident, and disappointingly tame.

With it’s European Setting and it’s lurid, romantic story, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa (1954) should be a perfect vehicle for Gardner. But her performance is just too distant and stiff for a character that’s supposed to be earthy and passionate. I don’t want to malign Ava too much. She’s a likeable presence with a mythic biography; her lackluster performance (and feeble Spanish accent) don’t ruin this strange and memorable film. Despite a less than forceful performance, Gardner’s presence makes a real impression: the resonances between the in-movie legend of “Maria Vargas” and the real-world legend of Ava Gardner enhance the movie’s glamour. And few actresses, even those with far more acting craft, are lovely enough to make you believe in this kind of hypnotic and aureate figure. But Ava’s face is the kind that launches fleets, pure mythic knock-out. So you believe.

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While Gardner’s detached performance gives the melodrama a dream-like quality, Bogart as Harry Dawes grounds the film. He is jaded, gentle, witty, worried. It’s surprising how perfectly fatherly Bogart can be. Like Fred Macmurray with a giant helping of Hollywood cool. This was the only film that paired Bogart and Gardner, but they’re a likable pair, their scenes together oddly touching and tinged with apparent mutual regard.

Like many mid-century Tinseltown movies about Tinseltown (The Bad and The Beautiful, Jeanne Eagels, Two Weeks in Another Town, Sunset Boulevard), The Barefoot Contessa is a grandiose mixture of the jaded and the romantic. Dark films all, but also mesmerizing celebrations of movie-makers and movie culture, gothic mash notes from the Cimmerian love affair Hollywood once had with itself.

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Mankiewicz’s film is full-bore Hollywood self-mythologizing. He opens with a lonely goddess’s mysterious funeral, followed immediately by a torrid introduction to the living woman. With enamored reaction shots of a flamenco bar’s patrons, Mankiewicz establishes Maria’s sexual dynamism long before the camera actually shows her. Instead of Maria dancing, the camera shows us bewitched and lusty men, jealous or admiring women. Mankiewicz takes his time with these reaction shots, wholly establishing that Maria is no ordinary performer, imbuing her with the power of the white-hot movie star before she’s even shown onscreen.

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On the hunt for a new face, a Hollywood scouting troup enters the bar too late to see Maria’s spellbinding dance. The show is over and Maria is backstage. Imperious boss-man Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens) demands that the bar owner send the dancer back to join their table. The bar owner says that Maria does not sit with the patrons. Undeterred, Edwards sends his sweaty publicist (Edmond O’Brien) to fetch the dancer from her dressing room. But to no avail. Increasingly despotic, Edwards orders writer-director Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart) to fetch her. Dawes resists being the errand boy, but he’s down on his luck and when Edwards threatens him with a career-ending blacklist, he goes. Upon finding out who Dawes is, the recalcitrant Maria becomes enthusiastic. She speaks reverentially of Dawes’ movies, then Lubitsch’s and Von Sternberg’s. Turns out, like the rest of the world, she’s a starstruck movie fan.

The rest of the movie unfurls as a glitterati fever dream. Maria makes a screen-test and the camera loves her. She becomes a world famous movie-star, a jet-setting playgirl, and, eventually, an Italian countess. She has sensational problems. Her father kills her mother and she’s embroiled in scandal, but because of her fearless authenticity, the world admires her even more than before. Maria is a mass of 1950’s contradictions: glamorous but earthy, honest but defiant, promiscuous but deeply romantic, universally beloved but deeply alone.

On the whole, Barefoot Contessa is hard to process as a rational, human story. The situations are exotic and extreme; the script is grandiose and cryptic; the acting is a mix of the naturalistic, the overzealous, and the listless. The whole thing verges on the surreal. But it’s not a failure. Instead it resembles certain religious stories, irrational and florid, but absolutely appropriate to the nature of their subject.

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EVERYDAY NOIR

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In Anthony Mann’s Side Street (1949), Farley Granger plays a part-time letter-carrier in a tough spot. He is without a career or business– his attempt to run a gas station failed. Now his young wife (Cathy O’Donnell) is pregnant, and they’re forced to share a cramped bedroom in her parents’ apartment. Granger is having trouble fulfilling any of the roles society prescribes for men: have a career, own a home, be a breadwinner. But despite the way things are stacking up against him, he tries to appear outgoing and optimistic, cheerfully telling a neighborhood cop that someday he’ll take his wife to Paris and surprise her with a full length mink. But though this speech probably reflects long-standing hopes, it’s mainly shame-covering bluster. Shortly after the chat with the cop, the panicked Granger seizes an opportunity to lift two-hundred dollars cash from an office where he delivers mail.

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The theft is a terrible idea, but it’s a desperate act by a desperate guy. His wife is pregnant and he can’t even find a regular job. Of course, his bad decision is just the beginning; soon he discovers that the envelope he grabbed contains not two-hundred dollars, but thirty thousand. He might have gotten away with two-hundred, but surely someone fierce will come looking for thirty thousand. Worse, it’s eventually revealed that the money is tied up in a murder. So pretty quickly, Granger is trapped on the run in a world of seedy crooks and double-crossers, trying his desperate best to figure out who and where the real murderer is and doing the best he can to survive and evade getting pinned with murder.

What’s both refreshing and painful about this tale is that the hero is so absolutely average. Farley Granger, though handsome and likeable, is leagues away from a typical noir protagonist like Humphrey Bogart. Trapped in a dark, double-crossing world, Bogart is always two steps ahead, the guy whose hat and trench coat we’d want to borrow. Farley Granger is a different type altogether. He’s the guy we know: the friendly kid we went to school with or the shop clerk from around the corner. In over his head, he has none of the tools of the knowing gumshoe or savvy criminal. No slick patter or cute tricks. He doesn’t even smoke cigarettes. He’s just a decent guy whose desperate attempt to improve his lot has made things even worse.

Side Street is Farley Granger’s film. No matter how bleak things get, Granger’s face is gorgeous and full of humanity. It’s a continual pleasure to see the light and shadows of DP Joseph Ruttenberg play against Granger’s openhearted, sensual features. But like Montgomery Clift in a myriad of roles, Granger’s male beauty isn’t offering him any protection from a greasy, self-seeking world. In fact, his looks might be further evidence that he is too tender, too vulnerable. While female beauty typically enriches status, male prettiness can underscore weakness. And though there’s nothing pointedly effeminate about Granger, he’s clearly no uber-potent tough guy— instead he’s sensitive, anxious, frightened, trapped. He embodies a kind of emotionalism more frequently associated with the feminine, but that feels real and refreshing in a male performance. And Granger has the best smile in all of noir- heartbreaking because it’s so grateful, so anxious to please.

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Granger’s flailing mailman probably stands for any struggling, sensitive guy trapped in a macho post-war world of strict gender roles. We don’t know a lot about his background- he could be a troubled war vet or simply a gentle, vulnerable guy- but either way, he’s in trouble because his world lacks both opportunity and empathy.

Nearly everyone Granger meets is destructive and grasping: a friendly neighborhood barkeep turns out to be back-stabber, a young boy sells out his uncle’s life for the price of a lollipop, a chanteuse loves a ruthless thug so much she practically invites her own murder. Even the head nurse in his wife’s maternity ward adds to the alienation. She lets Granger know he’s useless and unwanted, brusquely sending him away from his wife and newborn saying, “men bring germs.”

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For much of the film, Granger is a welcome contrast to the other characters. Though desperate, he isn’t phony or self-seeking. We want him to succeed and survive because he seems basically good, basically honest. But trapped in a world of crooks and liars, he gradually begins to learn the game. And though he never becomes a deft operator, he does learn to prey on others. Towards the end of the film, the marvelous Jean Hagen shows up as a clip-joint nightclub singer. Hagen is memorable and moving as a prematurely washed-up young woman, clinging to false hopes and cocktails. Without hesitation, Granger plies her with booze and lies, hoping to gain useful information. At the beginning of the film, he wouldn’t have had the heart for such conniving and it’s painful to see the change in him. We easily forgive his stealing some cash, but playing with this woman’s hopes and needs seems a darker sin. We begin to think that he’ll survive his underworld odyssey, but we aren’t sure who he’ll be when he does. Granger’s moral about-face reveals the question at the heart of the movie– how does a regular guy retain his humanity when legitimate society has no use for him ?

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Technicolor Zen: The Gang’s All Here

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Set during World War II, Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here (1943) has a plot so flimsy you barely notice it. There’s a love triangle between Alice Faye and two much less charismatic actors (Sheila Ryan and James Ellison). Then, for no real reason, there’s a big, big show to perform on the lawn of a ritzy estate. There are even-flimsier sub-plots: an all-work-and-no-play businessman (Edward Everett Horton) discovers his inner party-animal, while his upper-crust wife (Charlotte Greenwood) relives her secret show-biz past. Oh, and there’s a lovable Latin bombshell (Carmen Miranda) with a taste for older men. That’s the “plot.” But surprisingly, it’s pretty wonderful movie.

There are films like this that take themselves seriously and those are hard to watch, but this is all gorgeously cartoonish. The Gang’s All Here doesn’t have much story because it doesn’t want or need it; it’s about color, energy and imagery. Like the flip side of a Marx Brothers movie, Gang replaces wild vaudeville comedy with equally wild song and dance. Busby Berkeley choreography is always phantasmagoric, but here, in Technicolor, it’s even more mind-blowing: Carmen Miranda shimmies in a boa of bulbous red strawberries; chorus girls caper with colossal yellow bananas; Alice Faye sings an ode to dots in ballroom of waltzing, polka-dotted children; dancers’ bodies morph into Technicolor kaleidoscopes; and actors’ disembodied heads float through saturated dream-scapes. It’s friendly, suggestive and weirdly abstract. The dull little love story that punctuates all this weirdness just gives you a little time to catch your breath between audaciously crazy production numbers.

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Though some top-shelf character actors (Eugene Palette, Edward Everett Horton, Charlotte Greenwood) add great flair to the proceedings, the movie has two genuine stars, Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda. And as movie star types, they are diametrically opposed. Miranda is all sparkle and movement and cheerful sexuality. She flirts with delirious enthusiasm and so joyfully delivers her malapropisms that they become contagious. In one of many baroquely-costumed musical numbers, she wears a purple turban decorated with multicolored butterflies. Bright butterflies are the perfect emblem for the tiny, but indomitable actress. Outside of the aforementioned Marx Brothers, I’ve never seen a performer with so much energy. And if Carmen Miranda is a red-hot upper, Alice Faye is the reverse – cool, blond and melancholy. Faye isn’t an exciting performer, but she has a placid charisma. Singing romantic songs in a dreamy contralto, her time onscreen time has a poignant lullaby quality. The two actresses don’t share much screen time, but the difference between the sleepy Faye and the raucous Miranda is pronounced and delightful as we alternate between them throughout the film. It’s like the delicious contrast between two complementary colors.

Despite all the feverish gaiety, The Gang’s All Here does have a few intriguingly grounded moments. Most noticeably, Faye sings a beautiful song “No Love, No Nothing” about the loneliness of a woman waiting for her soldier to return. Simply and elegantly, the song charts the physical and mental isolation of the girl left behind. Later, when Faye discovers the soldier she loves is engaged to another, she passionately berates him for merely toying with her while she’s put her life on hold for him. Everything is happily sorted out in the end, but these affecting moments suggest an unexpected regard for female loneliness during wartime.

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However, it’s the film’s astonishing ending that suggests its most heartfelt philosophy. Here the movie’s cavalier approach to plot is made definite; any concern with genuine storytelling is gleefully tossed aside –a few problems that are solved, such as that of the love triangle, are dispensed with so easily and quickly, that their status as genuine problems is totally undermined. Other loose ends, such as that of a married businessman smitten with Carmen Miranda, aren’t addressed at all. Instead, we get a vast, multilayered production number beginning with Faye’s musical ode to the polka-dot and ending with the disembodied faces of the cast floating through wide expanses of bright color. Not only are the plot’s loose ends left flapping, but the cast’s faces have become untethered from their bodies. At this point, the film seems to embrace a crazy kind of Hollywood Zen, exhorting us to enjoy the bold, sensual display without clinging to any particular meaning or outcome.

 

 

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Good Girls and Ghosts

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As a pre-Halloween treat, I watched the The Ghost and Mrs. Muir last night. And it’s haunting me a little. This film is subtle, elegant and thrilling. And the cast is just perfect. Rex Harrison is irascible and warm-hearted, an irresistible fantasy sea-captain. Gene Tierney is both sensitive and sensual, a genuinely complex and poignant heroine. And as with all the most memorable ghost stories, the ghost encountered by Mrs. Muir is quite real. Her ghost, the dashing Captain Daniel Gregg, is a romantic manifestation of repressed drives, unresolved longing, and unexpressed talent, some of the very real, but often painfully intangible stuff of human experience.

In the beginning of the film, Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) is a beautiful young widow living with unpleasant in-laws—her late husband’s sneering, busybody sister and his helpless, smothering mother. Lucy announces that she and her young daughter will be moving out of the Muir household and finding a home of their own. Despite hysterical and manipulative protests by her female in-laws, Lucy holds firm. She wants her own home outside of London. Tierney is immediately intriguing and likeable here. Her Lucy is demure, but resolute and independent– someone to be reckoned with.

Lucy determines to live far away from London. She wants a life by the sea. With one exception, the homes suggested by her agent are too expensive. Strangely, the domineering house agent insists that the only affordable cottage simply “won’t suit her” and refuses to show it. Lucy won’t accept this. She wants to see this forbidden home. This is likely the first time in the young widow’s life that she has been able to make her own decisions and politely, but staunchly, she won’t be pushed around. Mrs. Muir is shown the house.

She adores beautiful, romantic “Gull Cottage”, a striking, expansive home snug against the sea. It has high ceilings, spacious rooms, and thrilling ocean views. But most importantly, it’s haunted. Gull Cottage last belonged to a deceased Sea Captain thought to have killed himself. While touring the home, Lucy and the Agent hear raucous, disembodied laughter. They exit the house in a hurried fright. But Lucy doesn’t stay frightened. There’s a beautiful scene right after their departure where you can see in Tierney’s delicate, sensual face that her imagination, her curiosity, perhaps even her ardor, are fired up by this house and its legacy. Now that she knows it’s haunted, she wants Gull Cottage doubly.

By the sea is precisely the right place for Lucy to live. It’s both isolating and passion-inducing. She is safe(r) from suffocating social strictures and inspired to plunge deeply into her own psyche. The most energizing section of the film follows Lucy’s move to Gull Cottage. Her growing relationship to her house, and her ghost, are funny, sensual and enchanting. Rex Harrison’s ghost is stubborn, generous and absolutely charming. Tierney’s Lucy is ladylike, enchanted, and deeply curious. They spar and they flirt and they reach companionable compromises. It’s so cozy and sensual that you can smell the Captain’s pipe, the sea air, the gas lamps and the small long-haired dog always napping on the divan.

Lucy is a powerfully interesting character. A Victorian woman whose behavior is rigidly circumscribed by the rules and expectations of her society, she achieves two impressive victories against her own oppression. First, her robust willpower (and a fortuitous inheritance) allow her to find privacy and sanctuary; She rejects family and society to create a place of her own. Second, she uses her first-class imagination to enlarge her experience and her identity. There are multiple ways to read the film, but for this viewer it’s evident that the ghost of a bold, charming, obstreperous sea captain (Rex Harrison) is the invention of Lucy’s agile, hungering mind. Through the Captain, Lucy can experience everything forbidden her late-Victorian feminine identity. The Captain argues, swears, frightens aggressors, behaves lasciviously (within respectful limits), and, through her, writes a pungent book about his adventures at sea.

(Some spoilers follow)

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Lucy’s relationship with the ghost enriches her private life, but just as importantly, she uses the boldness and appetite engendered by her ghostly encounters to embark on public adventures. When her inheritance runs dry, she bravely writes a salty sailor’s book and locates a publisher, allowing her to purchase the home she loves and derive a meaningful sense of accomplishment. Further, she risks a passionate love affair with a man of flesh and blood: a writer like herself. Miles Fairley (George Sanders) is a man not unlike her sea captain, forward and lusty, creative and intense. But sadly, he is also a liar and a schemer. And unable to provide Lucy with a stable or lasting partnership. So Lucy discovers that boldness can have devastating risks. And her heart breaks, irreparably.

It’s following Lucy’s heartbreak that the movie’s refreshing, pelagic energy dissipates and its tone turns toward the tragic. Lucy had courageously relinquished her ghost in order to try out a fleshly romance. But when her living beau betrays her, she gives up all her spirited passions—her ghost, her writing, her quest for a sexual/romantic partner. She chooses a small, private life instead, remaining in her beloved house with just her daughter and housemaid. It’s not a bad life, but it’s clearly smaller, lonelier, and less creative than her earlier vigor and imagination predicted. Tierney’s delicacy as an actress is particularly affecting here, she plays the aging, subdued Lucy with the resigned loneliness of a sensitive individual.

The Ghost And Mrs. Muir is an exhilarating and poignant film. It’s genuinely inspiring, charting the creative triumphs of a fragile, passionate woman in a confining world. But in the end, rather than enlivening ghost stories with her lively imagination, Lucy fades out of the world and becomes a kind of ghost herself, living quietly among her memories. Her fate, or perhaps her choice, poses a question relevant to many people of sensitive temperament. How much can one risk before seeking shelter and lying low becomes imperative? At what point must one relinquish passion in exchange for safety ?

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Transcending the Virgin-Whore Complex in Borzage’s “Street Angel”

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Many thanks to Girls Do Film for a recent and inspiring post on Street Angel.

Full of tragic coincidences and lavish miracles, Street Angel, is a gorgeous melodrama of the late silent era. It stars Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor as star-crossed lovers. This is my first Janet Gaynor film and clearly I’ve waited too long. She is a revelation here. In still photographs, her image seemed merely sentimental and cute, but, here, in motion, she is luminous and vital. Just watching her face in small moments is riveting. Charles Farrell, gangly and boyishly handsome, is splendid too. His unexpected transformation from sweet-natured lover to devastated brute is affecting and eerie.

The film begins in a synthetic and expressionistic Naples. It’s a visually oppressive city — narrow streets, twisting stairways, high walls. There is no sense of space or sky. And human behavior is no less bleak– people on the street are disaffected: we see stealing, petty revenge, dour-faced cops. Indoors, life is even worse. Pretty young Angela and her mother live tenement-style. The mother lies ill and suffering on a cot in a barren room. A stern-faced doctor prescribes a medicine they cannot afford. Angela, an affectionate and devoted daughter, is devastated. She would do anything to save her mother’s life, but there is no money. She looks out the window and witnesses a familiar sight: a prostitute is soliciting on the street below. In her desperation, Angela derives an idea.

An amusing and moving sequence follows. Leaving her apartment, Angela walks down to the street and tries to learn solicitation on the fly. She observes the posture and garb of other streetwalkers and does her best to imitate them, pushing her shawl down, tipping her hat low and jauntily placing hand on hip with elbow out. Gaynor is wonderful to watch here. Like Chaplin, she brings empathy and elegance to the urchin. Borzage uses Gaynor’s fragility and sweetness to direct our sympathy away from institutionalized morality. He wants us to feel for the lawbreakers, the tramps and urchins trapped between unyielding law and unrelenting need, to understand that Angela tries whoring precisely because her heart is gold.

But Angela’s crash course in solicitation is unsuccessful. Her shy but brave attempts to gain a client fail and , impetuously, she tries stealing some cash from a tavern customer. But she is caught. And sentenced to a year in the workhouse for thievery and solicitation. Frantic and resourceful, she manages an escape on the way to the prison and is rescued from pursuing policemen by a traveling circus crew. They hide the petite fugitive in a broken base drum. So she joins up with the wild circus folk, leaving the insensible city for more hopeful environs.

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Circus life is a welcome respite. There is room to breathe. The troupe travels through sunlit pastoral villages. No police or prostitution here. Instead we see artists and performers living by their own rules, entertaining curious crowds under wide open skies. Angela has found a home and family outside the city. She is safe, but she doesn’t flourish. Not yet. Not until love arrives in the form of a handsome young painter, Gino. Angela, jaded and untrusting, resists him at first. But eventually Gino’s art jolts her into love. He reveals the portrait he’s been working on, and Angela is shocked and moved to discover he has painted her as a classic lady; a lovely, glowing woman for the ages. She’d seen herself only from the cramped, rigid perspective of the city and its laws: as a derelict, an outcast, a tramp. But the painting ! It captures her tenderness, her elegance, her great loveliness: things she’s never seen in herself. It’s a gorgeous moment, rich with the poignant, transformative power of both love and art.

Gino and Angela’s shared happiness and affection is irresistible and transmuting. We see the change visually manifested in Angela’s costume. Up to now, her circus garb has been a plain black ballerina dress and black stockings, but soon we see her sparkling in white tulle and spangles. Angela has become ebullient, angelic. And then, for the first time, we see her circus act: She climbs high above the audience on daring stilts. Gazing passionately at her beloved in the audience below, she is a woman in flight, a woman experiencing the miracle of love. But her flight is swiftly interrupted. Two policemen have wandered into the audience. They are standing near her lover. Fear creeps in. Will they know her? Will they tear her from her lover? Will they tell Gino she is a “fallen woman” ? It turns out they don’t know her, but the fear is enough. She crashes back to earth. And breaks bones. Gino and Angela must return to Naples, to the city, where she can procure medical care.

The urban zone hasn’t changed. It remains cramped and impassive. And the couple is poor and hungry, but their togetherness is a a comfort and a boon. And eventually, Gino finds a lucrative position painting theatrical murals. So it seems fortune is smiling on them, even in this callous, authoritarian city. In a buoyant, poignant scene, he returns home as lord bountiful: along with his wonderful news, he brings baskets of wine, wheels of cheese, strings of salami. Personifying nourishment, he’s an emblem of the sustenance young lovers provide one another. They share rapturous moments celebrating the food, his new suit, their love. Then he lifts the diminutive Angela so that she stands on a chair, looking down on her tall lover. He proposes and she accepts, of course. But as charming as this moment is, it is also darkly foreshadowing. The last time she stood above Gino, she toppled. Being high above, being worshipped, isn’t a sustainable position for anyone who isn’t actually an angel or a goddess. But Gino hasn’t learned how to love her on any other terms. He’s been schooled in the classic narratives of good and bad, pure and sullied, virgin and whore.

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Soon she is recognized and caught by a local policeman. Saying nothing to Gino, knowing he’d be devastated by the charges against her, she disappears in the night . She serves hard time. But buoyed by her love, she is strong and hopeful. Meanwhile, Gino is lost. Abjectly depressed at her mysterious disappearance, he is lonely, abandoned. He’s gives up painting and wanders the dark city, friendless, hopeless. Things go from terrible to abysmal when Gino learns about Angela’s “crimes” from a bitter fellow streetwalker. Gino is absolutely destroyed by the revelation that his girl had been a whore. The news transforms him. He goes from lost and depressed to monstrous. He lives in shadows, wears dark clothes and a large ominous hat. Even his posture changes: he is bent, distorted, grotesque. It’s clear he wants something ugly. Stalking the docks, he seeks Angela the whore, wanting to punish, wanting revenge. When he finally uncovers her, huddling and alone, her face lights with pleasure, until she perceives the darkness in his face.

The virgin-whore dichotomy, so central to western culture, here proves as destructive to the male as to the female. It makes him a blind monster. In one prescient shot, the dark shadows of night on the docks actually blot out his eyes. A man with no eyes, no vision. It’s a marvelously spooky and symbolic image. He grabs her, threatening violence. She attempts escape, running into a nearby church. He chases her, captures her, tries to strangle her. Their story is about to end in utter, useless tragedy. But the transformative power of art intervenes. Murder is interrupted by the shock of vision. A bible falls, startling him, and his gaze is drawn upward, where he sees something wholly unexpected. The painting he made of her– the one he courted her with, the one that helped her see herself with eyes of love– is here in this church. Another painter has altered it. Added white robes and a halo. In the painting, Angela appears as The Virgin.(The film contains a brief side plot explaining how this occurred, but the details don’t matter. It functions as a miracle). Gino is paralyzed, confused, undone. How can this worthless whore appear before him as the great virgin? He says, “To think that I painted you…like that!” Coming to him on her knees she replies “But I am like that still. You must believe me, Gino. Look in my eyes”

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It takes him some moments, but eventually he accepts what she says. And embraces her. And falls to his knees and begs her forgiveness (their positions reversing yet again). His vision was blighted by that pernicious ideology, that deeply false notion that whores and virgins, sexuality and innocence must exist separately. The painting, appearing with precise and perfect timing, undermines that false dichotomy. If a whore can appear sanctified in church as the great virgin, perhaps the two types of woman can exist as one. It was a painting that allowed Angela to see herself anew, to become transformed, to participate in the world of love. It is the same painting that restores and reintegrates Gino’s damaged vision.

Street Angel is a dynamic and glorious story of love, art and transcendence. And I’m taken with it’s powerful central symbol, an ever-evolving painting, urging us to embrace expansive perception and imagination, if we’d transcend whatever small, bleak vision society provides us.

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Now This is Feminism!

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 Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised by I Was a Male War Bride‘s uniquely matter-of-fact feminism. Howard Hawks’ movies have some of the toughest, smartest, sexiest female characters in all of 20th century cinema. But even given Hawks’ frequent highlighting of bright, competent women, I Was a Male War Bride feels radical. If this film were made today, rather than in 1949, some would call it feminist propaganda. The opposite of reactionary, the film embraces social change, seeming to say, “Sure change is uncomfortable, but it’s not the end of the world. Get flexible boys, and remember what matters.”

 

Set in Europe at the end of World War II, War Bride is a romantic comedy detailing the travails of a dueling french captain (male) and an American lieutenant (female) forced to work together. The story is that of two journeys: a professional mission from army headquarters to Bad Nauheim (impeded by personal conflict, weather and technological challenges) and a personal mission from love towards marriage and togetherness, (impeded by army regulation and societal expectation). The title suggests a broad, slapstick farce, perhaps even a conservative one. But while the film has slapstick elements, it’s actually a lighthearted romantic comedy that wrestles thoughtfully with changing gender roles during the World War II era .

 

While many of Hawks’ films are crisp ensemble pieces, “War Bride” has just two real characters : Henry Rochard and Catherine Gates (Cary Grant and Ann Sheridan). It’s a film about a man and a woman navigating a romantic partnership in a changing world. Nothing else. It isn’t worried about the concerns of a whole community (not yet). Instead, it pares its focus down to the smallest possible social unit: the romantic partnership.

 

Sheridan is an absolutely modern woman here, even by today’s standards. An army lieutenant working in translation, she’s direct, capable, good-natured and inventive. She pilots a motorcycle and speaks multiple languages. She wears both skirts and pants with equal aplomb (though never an evening gown). Her army co-workers, male and female, treat her with evident respect (gender doesn’t seem to be an issue in this version of the army). And the best part is that she falls into none of the current tropes of the professional woman– she isn’t lonely, uptight, workaholic, or controlling. Instead she is warm, funny Ann Sheridan, whose big, sensual laugh punctuates the film. That laugh could serve as a Howard Hawks emblem- a sexy open-hearted guffaw in the face of each frustration and trial, reminding us of Hawks ethos: Do your duty but never take anything too seriously— not work, not romance, not regulations.

 

Cary Grant is equally likable and compelling. And he is the hinge of the piece, the character who must face the most discomfort and do the most changing. It’s difficult to imagine any other actor making this part so believable and so sympathetic. Cary Grant’s filmic masculinity is varied and fluid. He is libidinous, virile, blundering and boorish. He is also elegant, sly, sensitive and sheepish. He is, perhaps, a masculine version of the fluid eternal feminine, perfectly suited to a film that eventually suggests male identity need not be absolute. Grant’s masculinity can tolerate being humbled and changed without being denatured.

 

In the beginning of the film, Henry and Catherine aren’t a happy team. On past missions, Henry has behaved as an arrogant lothario, treating Catherine with old -world disdain, dismissing her ideas and mocking her competence, all while openly angling for a quick roll in the hay. In their final mission together, his arrogant position finally becomes untenable. Circumstances repeatedly force him into an inferior role, while establishing Catherine’s remarkable competence: The motor pool is out of jeeps and she is the one with a motorcycle permit; Henry’s stuck in the side car. They meet a road blockade, so she comes up with the plan to take a boat . The boat reaches a disastrous waterfall and she saves their lives. And so on.

 

But despite Catherine’s evidenced prowess, Henry dismisses her offers to help with his official task. In fact, he orders her to stay away. This being a movie, Henry hereupon happens into unexpected trouble and ends up in the local jail. Frustrated with his condescending behavior, Sheridan lets him stew in stir while completing his mission herself. But, importantly, she isn’t a jerk about it. When she realizes she’s usurped his last mission (he is about to complete his army service), she apologizes with real depth of feeling. And just as Catherine isn’t a jerk, it turns out Henry isn’t either. His humiliations in the face of her competence have taught him something. He slowly comes to see her as a whole person, not just sexy, but bright, useful and sensitive. His willingly releases his old world attitude and embraces the new world woman he’s come to admire. And because this is Cary Grant– lusty, playful, self-deprecating– we believe in his change of heart.

 

Most movies would end here, but Hawks isn’t done with poor Henry yet. Grant must face a whole new legion of frustrations and humiliations before he reaches his reward. The American army isn’t used to having foreign ex-military (male) and domestic current military (female) marry, and they don’t make it easy. Before even once spending the night in his new wife’s arms, Henry has Sisyphean tasks before him. He must fill out reams of paperwork, visit countless officials, endure three marriage ceremonies (church, civilian and an army ceremony), spend the night in a bathtub, spend another sleepless evening being rejected from every army hostel or public hotel in town because he doesn’t fit any recognized category ( neither civilian, nor armed forces, he’s a male “war bride”), argue with various army/navy personnel and, finally, impersonate a woman, all in order to be allowed to board a ship bound for home with his wife. And to be allowed a good night’s sleep, in a bed, with his wife.

 

In the first act, Henry has to let go of old pride and old rules in order to be with the woman he most desires. But even though he changes, there’s still the rest of civilization, the second act, to wrestle with. Cultures get rigid in the face of change, as we see personified in every grouchy soldier and unaccommodating hotel clerk that bar him from a good night’s sleep. But Henry soldiers on. He’s committed to his new partnership. And he’ll pay just about any price to see it through. It’s telling that his last humiliation involves dressing as a WAC to get on board ship. Henry makes a peculiar looking female, but the ruse gets him ship-board. And indicates how fluid his identity has become. A man who’ll dress as a woman to be with the woman he loves is a man prioritizing togetherness over social norms. And his sacrifice pays off.

 

He’s been stripped of sleep, uniform, rank, and some dignity, but not what’s essential. In the last scene, he’s caught impersonating a female soldier and is thrown in the brig. But when Sheridan shows up to get him released, he determines to stay put, in the brig, where he can be alone with his wife. Throwing the brig’s key through the port hole, he gives his wife a very hearty embrace. She responds with her lusty laugh. It’s clear what they’ll be doing for the duration of the journey. Changing gender roles haven’t upended his natural, primal instincts. The essence of his masculine identity is perfectly intact. And it’s Henry’s flexibility, his willingness to be humbled, that has delivered him.

 

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Mechanical Glamour

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The V.I.P.s feels a bit like the photographs of Cindy Sherman. Every frame is utterly staged, every background synthetic, every dramatic moment artificial. In planes, and airport lounges and hotel rooms, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton pose becomingly at canted angles. He wears a hunter red tie and scarf with his dark suit. She wears beige, then pink, then crisp black and white. There are very few windows. The camera lovingly, unhurriedly observes them. The VIPS knows it is a film, a product, a Hollywood thing. It doesn’t pretend to be more.

Liz Taylor is the beautiful but neglected trophy wife with wonderful head adornments: velvet hats, fur hoods and sculpted hairdos. Richard Burton is the commanding business tycoon who learns to love his wife only when it may be too late. Louis Jourdan is the charming international gambler angling for Liz’s alienated affection. Another triangle includes Rod Taylor as a small-time Australian tractor magnate with business problems and Maggie Smith as the staid, British secretary who loves him. These are the kind of characters who’ll later show up in the television glamour-comedies of the 1970s (Love Boat, Fantasy Island), shows where the contrived problems of the uber-elite are exposed, wrestled with and neatly solved within the course of 50 minutes. The difference here is that The V.I.P.s doesn’t play anything for guffaws or vaudeville. With its refined tone, sedate camera, uncluttered sets, and tranquil performances, this is a sleepy, elegant melodrama. Even the comic relief characters , Margaret Rutherford as the absent-minded, down-on-her-luck aristocrat, and Orson Welles as the self-indulgent, tax-evading film director, evoke a Hollywood-royalty dignity.

Almost everyone gets what they want at the end. And we are reassured that those who don’t will triumph later. Absolutely nothing is at stake. Watching The V.I.P.s is akin to riding in a Rolls Royce Phantom, washing down Valium with 30 year-old scotch – totally relaxing, totally removed.

Yet there are a few intriguing cracks in the soothing facade. Burton gives his trophy wife a diamond bracelet for her coddled wrist; He later wounds that same wrist in an act he claims proves his passion. Orson Welles marries a vapid, gorgeous Italian actress, but repeatedly kisses his petite, male accountant on the lips. Not much is made of these moments. But they are subtly suggestive, as though the perplexing, inexorable nature of messy reality is stealing in.

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