On the surface of things, Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious seems about as retrograde as it gets. Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) is the titular “notorious” one — notorious, that is, for her history of sexual looseness. Never mind that she and secret agent Devlin (Cary Grant) fall in love. In fact, the film’s central problem is her sexual past — will it keep them apart?

A hoary tale? Yes. So how does this film manage to be so perfect?

Dev has pursued Alicia for professional reasons: because her father was a prominent Nazi, tried and imprisoned for his crimes. Knowing that she rejects her father’s beliefs, Dev sees her — at first, anyway — as a perfect potential agent to rout out other Nazis.

But when they head down to Rio to wait for their assignment, the intervening weeks allow them to spend a lot of time together. Sure as the sun will rise, they fall for one another. In the sun-baked Brazilian landscape, they enjoy a blissful honeymoon-like affair. Alicia is uninhibited with her expressions of love.

No one who has ever watched their kissing scene at the telephone will forget it — a scene for which Hitchcock had to walk a fine line. Hollywood’s Hays Code censors stipulated that no onscreen kiss be longer than 3 seconds, so the director had them break their kisses into brief bursts but ultimately choreographed a 3+ minute long take of these two perfectly beautiful human beings embracing, kissing sporadically, nuzzling one another’s necks, murmuring about the evening they’ll spend together. It’s spectacularly sexy, showing yet again the futility of rules seeking to delimit sex onscreen. Just look at how she touches his earlobe, and try to deny this truth.

This scene also introduces a maddening conundrum: Alicia’s open-hearted professions of love vs. Devlin’s restraint. He won’t tell her he loves her. It doesn’t stop her from going all in — but her love and his closed mouth on the subject becomes a barrier in their affair. She’s also open about her prior personal misery, which often led her to drink to excess. But she feels different now, capable of change. Dev listens to her optimism and looks into her glowing face, but remains devastatingly silent.

He gets worse when they finally learn of Alicia’s first assignment as an agent: to flirt with and gain access to the inner circle of a local Nazi transplant, Alex (Claude Rains). Realizing that the CIA wants her because of her loose sexual past makes both of them stop short. Alicia believes she has changed; should she refuse? Does Dev’s refusal to admit he loves her indicate that their relationship is going nowhere? Why won’t he beg her not to participate? Given her disappointments in him, she reluctantly agrees to go undercover, and their relationship comes to a painful halt. Get it? Because he won’t allow that she might have been changed by her love for him, she returns to her old ways of sleeping around and drinking. It’s a classic vicious circle.

So why do I find this film so fresh?

Because I find it impossible to believe Hitchcock’s real goal was to make a problem out of Bergman’s sexuality. Far from it. No one can watch her onscreen — that absolutely guileless woman, so open about her feelings for Dev — and find her problematic. Instead, it’s the shadowy, conflicted Devlin who appears as the real problem. When he meets with his CIA superiors, he makes it clear how troubled he is by their use of her, their assessment of her character. We know early on that he loves her; why can’t he tell her?

Dev’s inability to express his true feelings to her ultimately constitutes a betrayal of their love, especially when the Nazi, smitten as expected with the beautiful and vivacious Alicia, asks her to marry him. Watching Ingrid Bergman’s face register that betrayal is akin to watching her two years earlier in Gaslight (1944) as the young wife driven mad as a result of her husband’s machinations. Her face conveys hurt, lust, and love equally with such transparency that it breaks your heart.

Still, Devlin’s crippled emotions forward the plot usefully into a terrific tale. Equal parts domestic drama (how can she live with Alex and his sinister mother?), thwarted love story (will Dev allow himself to love Alicia again?), and political thriller (just what are Alex and his Nazi cronies up to, anyway?), Notorious never limits itself to any single genre boundary. Watching Alicia and Devlin finagle to get him into Alex’s mysteriously locked wine cellar is riveting on all three levels.

Even more thrilling is what happens when Alex discovers his wife’s perfidy — and what he does about it. The Hitchcock-y second half of the film is so compelling not just because we’re so worried about Alicia, and not just because it’s filmed with such precision and drama, but because Dev must finally make a choice.

That’s why this film still feels so fresh, why it never feels like an outdated, retrograde tale about the importance of female chastity: the real story isn’t about her notoriety, but about Devlin’s inability to be honest with her and with himself. Read this way, the film looks far more subversive of gender and sexual norms of the time.

Would I go so far as to say it’s radically dismissive of those retrograde views about female sexuality? Well, no. It still propels Alicia toward rehabilitation from her old life into a happy monogamous relationship. It’s still titled Notorious, for heaven’s sake. But let’s not be small. This film imagines a happy future for a woman with a rich and varied sexual history, and criticizes a man for refusing to believe in such a thing.

And oh, this film couldn’t be any tighter, or feature three more compelling leads in Bergman, Grant, and Rains. Maybe I need to watch it again right now.


I went to see this film because it was described as classic pre-Code — i.e., made before the censors in Hollywood took all the sex and nudity and corrupt cops out of film — and also because it stars the elegant Warren William, so skilled at playing the slithering, soulless society cad (you’d never guess he’d been raised in a tiny burg in Minnesota by looking at his Roman nose and high-society accent). But within a few minutes I realized that Skyscraper Souls is one of those rare films that has so many current-day tie-ins to financial irregularities and real-estate fraud that one can only marvel at its rediscovery. On the surface it looks like an old-movie melodrama that warns us about the multiple dangers of the city; but ultimately it seems to be one of those rare documents that shows us how relevant the 1930s Depression is to our own.

Almost all the drama takes place within a single skyscraper — the fictional Dwight building, which towers over even the Empire State Building. Warren is David Dwight himself, the man with the vision and political ties to get the building built, overcome skepticism, and stand as the figurehead for capitalistic greed and risk. From the beginning, we know he’s at risk for defaulting on his massive loan and that his investors want to pull out. He calls the building “a model of engineering, this spirit of an age crystallized in steel and stone.” “It goes halfway to hell and right up to heaven and it’s beautiful,” he rhapsodizes.

But Dwight isn’t the central character: that belongs to the young Lynn Harding (Maureen O’Sullivan, Mia Farrow’s mother and Jane to Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan). Just look at that dark hair and pixie smile — the Irish immigrant O’Sullivan was a delight. As Lynn, she’s new to the city where she works as a secretary for her mother’s oldest friend, Sarah, a sophisticated 30-something businesswoman in a secret and doomed extramarital affair with Dwight. Sarah has promised to protect the youthful, innocent Lynn against the dangers of city life. She’ll need protection, because the Dwight Building is full of wolves eager to get a bite of her — one of whom will be the ur-wolf, Dwight.

The usual misogyny infests this world of skyscrapers and high modernism. As Lynn makes her way to work every day, men in the building swarm around her like flies, asking her out for dinner and a little pawing. One of these is Tom (Norman Foster), a young office worker trying to make it in the big city. Tom begs, cajoles, harasses Lynn until she agrees to go out with him — and then tries so desperately to work his way around her bases that she comes to work the next day in tears, furious and humiliated. No wonder when the dashing, womanizing Dwight pays attention, she’s flattered. We’re supposed to prefer Tom and view his stalker/date-rapist inclinations as boyish ignorance, but one can’t help but think that all of her options are bad.

Meanwhile, Dwight struggles to regain control of his building. He’s seriously over-mortgaged and deep in dept to the point of being close to losing the building to the bank altogether. Threatened by his investors, he decides to take the risky move of artificially inflating bank stock during one crazy day of Wall Street trading. Since he lacks money for this, he enlists a partner — a dumb millionaire sucker, easily entranced by the women Dwight sends his way — and the trading begins. Lynn’s sort-of boyfriend Tom throws in his life savings and invests, as does all of Dwight’s business investors. Then, at the appointed time, Dwight sends the stock crashing to the ground — now possessed of the funds to buy himself out of his debts. In short, he sacrifices everyone around him, and the public good overall, to pursue his capitalist vision.

Hell ensues and the body count piles up. The film offers up some stunningly dark visions of the financial desperation wrought by such greed — darker, really, than almost any other early 20th-c. film I’ve ever seen except Erich von Stroheim’s silent masterpiece Greed (1924). When his former partners confront Dwight about his perfidy — which has led to at least two suicides — Dwight is unmoved: 

Listen, if I double-crossed somebody else for you I wouldn’t be a double-crosser. I’d be a financial genius. You’d profit by it. You’d love it. You’d love me. I’d be your pal, your leader. But I put one over on you, so I’m a double-crosser. It’s all in the point of view, gentlemen. But don’t despair. There’s lot of small fry that you can double-cross. Just like the good old days … before you got out of your class.

It’s kind of amazing to see inklings of what film could do before the moralists got their hands on script approval and storylines by 1934 or so, thereby changing the possibilities for film. Films became relentlessly clean for decades — until the slow demise of the Code by the 1970s. It’s not just that pre-Code movies offered so many scenes of female undress; they also had the chance to portray the ugliest side of the Depression in a way that seems stunningly modern now. Just think about the rosy, pull-yourself-up message of this summer’s Larry Crowne: and then think how different the summer movie season would be if our films portrayed the true devastation of our own financial crisis. Not uplifting, to be sure — but true.

Norma Shearer’s nose

19 February 2011

Norma Shearer is a hard actor to like. She always seemed a bit smug, like that popular girl who never knew what it felt like to be on the outside. Together with her pale, hooded eyes, she combined a sense of superiority, confidence, maybe at times maternal condescension. Even when she played a scene with other women, she had a knack for positioning herself as their queen. It’s a quality that makes her role in The Women (1939) all the more touching, as she discovers early in the film that her husband is having an affair with Joan Crawford; suddenly she must come to grips with being spurned.

But oh, that nose. It was long and aquiline and highlighted her deep-set, pale blue eyes. Combined with a sleek 1930s ‘do, pushed back from her face and permed within an inch of its life to float up from the back of her neck, Shearer’s nose help lift her into the stratosphere of famous actors of her day.

I just watched The Divorcee (1930), a pre-Code film about the sexual double standard that took her from girl-next-door parts to a new level of sex appeal. She plays Jerry, a woman who is at first crushed by her husband’s infidelity. They’d gotten married with a promise to keep everything equal between them — this film’s earliest scenes offer great mini-feminist moments for the 1930s — so she responds to her husband’s affair by having one herself. “I’ve balanced our accounts,” she tells him frankly, seriously. He then behaves like a cad, insisting that her infidelity is different than his, and presses for a divorce. This fight is so bitter that she finally explodes at him: “From now on, you’re the only man in the world my door is closed to!”

No wonder those pre-Code movies were so scandalous: the elegant, girl-next-door Shearer sleeping around? Damn. The Divorcee may not have been a great film — and its ultimate message about the sexual double standard is, in the end, completely ambiguous — yet somehow with that lilt of her chin and that long, elegant nose, Norma Shearer makes lack of chastity look downright appealing.

I complained a couple of months ago about the un-Lubitsch-like “Heaven Can Wait” (1943), and fretted secretly that I might have already seen all the magical light comedies of the 30s and 40s. But I’ve rediscovered my old-movie faith after watching “The Good Fairy,” written by the pitch-perfect Preston Sturges (adapted from a Hungarian play by Ferenc Molnár) and starring the effervescent Margaret Sullavan — she of “The Shop Around the Corner” fame.  Whereas in “Shop” she could be ever-so-slightly grating, an actorly move that made the conclusion even more satisfying, in this earlier film Sullavan is nothing but lovely.  She plays a quintessential naïf:  Luisa Ginglebusher, a girl who leaves the orphanage where she’s spent her whole life to work as an usherette in a grand Budapest movie theater.  As she leaves, the orphanage’s matron reminds her to continue to do a good deed every single day, an imperative that combines inextricably in Luisa’s mind with the tales she’s been telling the orphanage’s younger girls about the good fairy who does good deeds and helps the weak.  Luisa wants to be the good fairy.  Despite all that innocence, Sullavan manages to exude a kind of gravitas that makes this film very Lubitsch-like (it was actually directed by William Wyler) — that is, it always manifests a sweet melancholy just a little bit below the surface of the movie’s antics.

Sullavan has a great face, but not one you immediately categorize as beautiful.  As David Thomson puts it, nailing it as usual, “One realized that she was beautiful when her face lit up in response to the events of the film.  Above all, she seemed vulnerable, haboring her strength and the chance of happiness.”  That’s certainly the case here, made even more clear by the director’s use of glowing closeups to accentuate her face — we watch her weep a little as she watches a sad scene in a movie, or as she beams in response to good news.  Luisa is so innocent that every single emotion washes over her face for us to comprehend.  We may not exactly understand one so naïve, but we love her.

apologies for the watermark; it was the best copy I could find.

“The Good Fairy” is a post-Hays Code kind of sex comedy — that is, it pivots on the question of sex and female chastity without ever seeming risqué.  The plot really starts to cook in the theater, where her innocence proves to be catnip for men.  Approached by a dark-looking Cesar Romero who offers her beer and sandwiches, clearly as a first gambit to get into her knickers, she flails desperately to get away from him and succeeds only by announcing that she’s married — then races into the arms of a grouchy theater patron named Detlaff (Reginald Owen, with the bowler above).  Detlaff takes a paternal liking to Luisa and invites her out for a fancy evening at the elegant hotel where he works as a waiter; little does he realize that her catnip qualities will only attract more dangerous attention there.  The most persistent is the simultaneously dapper and bumbling Konrad (Frank Morgan, who later did the same routine as the Wizard of Oz), the millionaire president of a South American meat-packing concern, who sweeps her into a private dining room and promises her furs, baubles, and lovely dresses.  The vigilant Detlaff recognizes the risk of such a sugar daddy, and warns her to put Konrad off; yet again, she gets out of a jam by pronouncing that she’s married.  Unperturbed, Konrad declares that he’ll win her heart by making her husband rich enough to buy her lovely things — that way, when she wears them she’ll know they’re really from him.  Luisa decides that this is her opportunity to do someone a good deed, so she opens the phone book, randomly chooses a name, and tells Konrad that this is her husband.

She chose well:  Max Sporum (Herbert Marshall) is indeed poor and deserving, a lawyer who adheres strictly to a code of ethics and assists the poor, though he’s perhaps a little too serious.  Konrad bestows him with a crazily lucrative contract, a wad of spending money, and instructions to replace all his shabby office furniture.  In fact, he’s in the middle of admiring his new purchases — most of all the mechanical pencil sharpener, in a mini-moment custom-made for movie-watching delight — when the curious Luisa walks in to meet the object of her good-fairy magic.  Sure, Max is a bit forbidding with his sanctimony and a beard that ages him badly, but she decides he could use more of her help — to start with, in finding a new suit and a shave.  So in good 1930s movie fashion, they go shopping together with his newly fat wallet, during which she convinces him to take off his dreary beard (“Never let it be said that a Sporum ever refused the request of a Ginglebusher,” he says as he complies), transforming him into a much more dashing young man.  To thank her, he buys her a “genuine foxine” wrap, an item she loves better than any sable coat from Konrad — and she poses with her new “fur” in front of one of those infinite mirrors, secretly doing a little dance.  But because Konrad is bound to believe the foxine is far too cheap for the lovely Luisa, her budding romance with Max is heading quickly for the rapids — and for a happy conclusion.

Considering how quickly these studios were pushing out the films during the 30s, we should feel especially blessed when we find one that doesn’t feel utterly dated.  But “The Good Fairy” is so much better than that.  Between Sturges’ crisp dialogue, Sullavan’s utter watchability, and director Wyler’s choice of great shots (Wyler later married Sullavan, making me wonder whether he was just a little bit in love already with her glowing, unusual face), the film sparkles.  Isn’t it the season to rediscover our faith in sparkling old movies?

There’s something in Ernst Lubitsch’s “Design for Living” (1933) that I haven’t seen in other films of the same era:  female sexual desire.  Mix that into a ménage à trois between Miriam Hopkins and two men — Frederic March and Gary Cooper — and you have a whole lot of things I hadn’t seen on screen until now.

Very loosely based on a Noël Coward play (which was itself very loosely based on the personal lives of stage actors Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt, who were two of Coward’s best friends), and completely rewritten by Ben Hecht and reimagined by Lubitsch, the film centers on Tommy, a playwright, and George, a painter, who both fall for sparky young advertising artist Gilda.  Within days she finds she’s fallen, too; except she’s fallen in love with both of them.  “A thing happened to me that usually happens to men,” she explains:

You see, a man can meet two, three, or even four women and fall in love with all of them, and then by a process of interesting elimination he’s able to decide which one he prefers.  But a woman must decide purely on instinct, guesswork, if she wants to be considered nice.  Oh, it’s quite all right for her to try on a hundred hats before she picks one out.”

For about five minutes this poses a serious problem for the men, who seem to face a crisis in their friendship.  But they’ve missed the solution Gilda is proposing:  That the three of them experiment with a purely platonic arrangement of living together in the same, shabby Montmartre apartment, with Gilda serving as their “mother of the arts” to spark and hone their creative genius.  To make this threesome work, they make what they call a “gentleman’s agreement”:  “No sex.”  And indeed, she’s responsible for their subsequent success.  First, she barnstorms a producer’s apartment to drop a copy of Tommy’s new play on his desk.  “It’s a woman’s play!” she pronounces triumphantly, and everyone in the room sits up and pays attention.  (I was initially going to dedicate this post to that line alone.)  Soon Tommy is whisked off to London to see it through rehearsals and opening night.

With him away, Gilda and George can no longer repress their passion for one another.  She’s always had a tendency to be slightly louche, and to throw herself onto beds in a serio-comic pose of female disconcertion.  Realizing that sex with Tommy is now an inevitability, Gilda throws herself onto the bed and pronounces, “It’s true we have a gentleman’s agreement — but unfortunately, I am no gentleman!”  (Fade.)

Tommy is crushed when he hears of this development, when he comes back to Paris and finds George temporarily out of town, he sadly reminds her of their previously happy life by pointing to his old typewriter they’ve kept, even though it’s in sorry shape:

Tommy, accusing:  “You didn’t keep it oiled.”
Gilda:  “I did for a while.”
Tommy:  “The keys are rusty.  The shift is broken.”  Gilda slides the carriage, causing the typewriter to “ding.”  They look at each other with surprise.
Gilda:  “But it still rings!”  He walks over to be close to her.
Gilda, repeating:  “It still rings.”
Tommy, meaningfully:  “Does it?”

So he and Gilda take a turn indulging in a night of passion — which they regret as soon as George returns.  Horrified by the prospect of losing them and destroying the men’s friendship, she runs off and marries Edward Everett Horton, a tedious advertising suit.  But Tommy and George reconcile and determine to find her again.

In other pre-Code films, women either deploy sex as a means of gaining power (Barbara Stanwyck in “Baby Face,” for example, which I described briefly earlier this month) or to signal their looseness (Jean Harlow in virtually anything before 1933).  Seeing Hopkins genuinely drawn to both men — and unable to control her sexual desire for them — makes one realize what movies might have been able to say about female sexuality if it hadn’t been for the Code.  This film genuinely wants its audiences to imagine a situation in which one woman might have two live-in lovers — a situation that doesn’t end in tears and melodrama.  Lubitsch always keeps the tone light, but the subject matter is fairly radical.

Even more radical were the queer overtones in Tommy and George’s relationship, which Coward’s play explored in detail.  But just because they’re subtle in the film doesn’t mean they’ve been erased.  From the outset, we know that this is a genuine triangle; these men love each other just as much as they’re attracted to Gilda, and to ruin their love would be just as tragic as one man losing the woman.  It wouldn’t be long before the Code would truly stub out such images.

“Design for Living” is ultimately one of those near-miss kinds of films — its dialogue doesn’t quite sparkle, and its actors never quite stop being talky and self-conscious.  Gary Cooper was 31 and at the height of his beauty, but not yet at the height of the comic skills that would appear so gracefully in “Mr. Deeds Comes to Town” (at 31, Cooper had already appeared — incredibly — in 61 films).  Compared with her male co-stars, the relative newcomer Hopkins appears the most suited for the film’s scope, and she looks increasingly terrific in every glamorous outfit.  The “Lubitsch touch” that made other films radiant — “The Shop Around the Corner,” “Ninotchka,” “Trouble in Paradise” — doesn’t quite jell here.

But to see a comedy from 1933 that takes for granted that a woman has independent sexual desire, and that this will not lead her to abjection, regret, or early death:  how rare it is.  As Gilda herself puts it to her husband on their wedding night, as he pronounces that he has “forgiven” her for her earlier sexual peccadillos, “Forgiven me?!  Forgiven me for what?”  Thank you.

Oooh! check out this nice tumblr with images/ scenes from Design for Living.

“I feel sorry for you,” Van Heflin tells Barbara Stanwyck near the end of “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.”  It’s not exactly true; Heflin simply intends to hurt her with those words.  Nor does it really capture our feelings about Stanwyck more generally.  Looking through piles of essays about her, I’m surprised by the number of times writers characterize her by class (references to her Brooklyn accent, and so on) — which are, I think, misguided.  I think that what makes her so unsettling onscreen is that she played strivers.  No matter their class, she played an array of women marked by their careers, personal sacrifices, neediness, and deceptions — such that she encapsulated moviegoers’ ambivalence toward striving women.

“She retained a core of authenticity as unshakable and unmistakable as the Brooklyn vowels that colored her speech,” wrote the New York Times recently on release of a new DVD of six of her films.  Maybe I don’t have the ear for it, but she doesn’t sound anything like my working-class, Brooklyn-raised grandmother who was almost exactly Stanwyck’s generation; and it seems to me she took on the roles of spoiled heiresses just as often as she played women on the make.  Perhaps Stanwyck put a layer of refinement on top of something more recognizably lowbrow (like “Barbara Stanwyck” on top of her real name, Ruby Stevens).  But rather than play would-be Henry Higginses, I think we should focus on two other qualities of her voice:  its tendency to sneer (is that really how it sounded, or merely how it looked when her upper lip lifted to emit those insults she hurled at other characters?) and her relatively low register, one that could sharpen into a growl when necessary, but marked a worldliness that other ingénues didn’t have.  It only moved up the scale when she played especially despicable roles, such as the hysterically paralyzed Leona Stevenson in “Sorry, Wrong Number”; in such parts she used it to screech or cajole.  But it could be used to slippery, buttery effect as well, such as in her brilliant comic turn as a female con artist in “The Lady Eve” in which she plays Henry Fonda for a sap — and falls in love along the way.

If she was just as beautiful as most of her peers, Stanwyck made herself unlovely in her willingness to show audiences that she was working just a little bit too hard.  As the 1991 TCM documentary about her put it, “According to the conventions of the time, there was only one way out for a good working girl.  That was to stop being ‘good’.”  Maybe it came from her hardscrabble real life:  when she was four, her mother died after being pushed from a trolley by a drunkard, and only two weeks after the funeral her father disappeared from his five children to dig the canal at Panama, never to be heard from again.  She bounced between foster homes for years but really wanted to follow her sister Mildred to the stage.  Perhaps due to a lucky marriage to the comedian Frank Fay, by the late 1920s she was already receiving top billing in films such as “Mexicali Rose” (1929), “Ten Cents a Dance” (1931), and “Shopworn” (1932).  She cemented her on-screen persona with parts in scandalous pre-Code films, most memorably in “Baby Face” (1933) in which she quite literally sleeps her way to the top, as this trailer shows:

I believe it wasn’t the so-called “Brooklyn vowels” that made Stanwyck appear authentic; it was the hardness of her characters, their willingness to use gumption, fast talk, or sex — or all three at once — anything to get ahead.  If a Ginger Rogers or Katharine Hepburn could make such striving women sympathetic and even fragile, Stanwyck made them scary.  Her characters always wanted something crass — money, power — and they usually sought it from men.  She played these women with a slightly transparent desperation and capacity for betrayal such that she was the woman men learned to avoid, whom women learned to think of as bitchy.  Even as a young teenage viewer of old movies, I found the Stanwyck of “The Big Valley” from the 60s, striding around in jodhpurs and telling everyone what to do, just as unnerving as her improbably blonde Phyllis Dietrichson in “Double Indemnity.”

Take “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946).  Van Heflin plays a man who ran away from Iverstown when he was a kid, the night of the big electrical storm.  Little does he know that he just missed witnessing his childhood sweetheart murder her domineering, wealthy aunt in the heat of passion — so when he accidentally shows up in town again, the grown-up Barbara Stanwyck thinks he wants to blackmail her and her weak-willed husband, Kirk Douglas, who helped cover up the crime way back when (in his screen debut, Douglas shows that you could have parked a Buick on his magnificent chin, but he cowers before Stanwyck).  By this time she’s the town’s petty royalty:  not only has she inherited every penny of her aunt’s estate, she’s increased the family factory to ten times its original size and ensured that Douglas will never face an opponent when he runs for re-election as D.A.  When she sits at her desk in the factory, proudly showing Heflin the extent of her business savvy and success, we find ourselves cringing at her almost manly grit and determination, and we worry that he’s going to fall for her again.  Is it really Heflin’s silence she wants?  Or is he The Man Who Got Away?  Yet again, is she primarily interested in pushing the slightly dim-witted Toni (Lizabeth Scott, with the legs above) out of the picture?

Her titular “strange love” is, I think, all three of those things — Stanwyck’s Martha Ivers is yet another example for viewers of what women aren’t supposed to be.  Yet look at what a bundle of contradictions her steeliness represented:  on the one hand Stanwyck was the highest-paid woman in America after 1944, nominated four times for Best Actress, consistently earning top billing throughout her career in the 30s and 40s, and married to one of the screen’s most dreamily beautiful men, Robert Taylor; yet on the other, she played hard women who lose in the end, undone by their grasping attempts to be something more than they are.

She succeeded, while her characters offered a cautionary tale about women, careerism, and worldly desires.  She played the heavy in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” only to be murdered in the end, while Lizabeth Scott ran off with Van Heflin (I maintain this was no great achievement, as Heflin seemed more a pervert than anything else, while Scott played jailbait).  Meanwhile, Stanwyck was resuscitated two years later to engage in this brilliant exchange from “Double Indemnity” with, of all people, Fred MacMurray:

Phyllis: (Standing up.)  “Mr. Neff, why don’t you drop by tomorrow evening around 8:30?  He’ll be in then.”
Neff:  “Who?”
Phyllis:  “My husband. You were anxious to talk to him, weren’t you?”
Neff:  “Yeah, I was. But I’m sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.”
Phyllis:  “There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff, forty-five miles an hour.”
Neff:  “How fast was I going, Officer?”
Phyllis:  “I’d say around ninety.”
Neff:  “Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.”
Phyllis:  “Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.”
Neff:  “Suppose it doesn’t take.”
Phyllis:  “Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.”
Neff:  “Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.”
Phyllis:  “Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder.”
Neff:  “That tears it… (He takes his hat and briefcase after his advances are coldly rebuffed.) 8:30 tomorrow evening, then.”
Phyllis:  “That’s what I suggested.”
Neff:  “You’ll be here too?”
Phyllis:  “I guess so. I usually am.”
Neff:  “Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?”
Phyllis:  “I wonder if I know what you mean.”
Neff: (Opening the entrance door.)  “I wonder if you wonder.”

Who could have held her own in that dialogue with such inscrutable distance other than Stanwyck?  I wonder if we’re still dealing with the fallout of a Hollywood deeply ambivalent about women with careers, self-made women, women who want something more than they have — and if this is the reason we still recoil at Stanwyck’s brassy snarl rather than embrace it.  I recommend we embrace careerism and reject the narrative that such women lose in the end.  Stanwyck did.

 I never know where I’m going with silent films.  Their unpredictability transforms me into an open-mouthed viewer, wondrous in a way I rarely experience with films made later.  Was it the Code that made things more predictable, dictating moralistic and uplifting tales?  After seeing “Sunrise,” I think it was the reliance on dialogue at the expense of pure visual experimentation.

There’s nothing more indulgent than going out for the evening to see “Sunrise” in the theater with a live band at a point in the semester when I really should be grading papers and preparing a lecture.  Directed by F. W. Murnau, who’d filmed the Expressionist classics “Nosferatu” (1922) and “Faust” (1926) in Germany before coming to Hollywood, “Sunrise” is pure fable.  The story seems slight, even dull in synopsis form:  The Man (George O’Brien) is having an affair with a glamorous Woman From The City, who urges him to murder his Wife (Janet Gaynor) by taking her out on his boat and drowning her.  After he finds he can’t do it, O’Brien and Gaynor run off to The City where they find themselves falling back in love while partaking of urban wonders — having their photo taken, visiting an amusement park, dancing the “Peasant Dance” to the delight of the spectators.  They become like newlyweds again — childlike, happy like they used to be.

But if it sounds predictable, there’s nothing easy about it:  it’s Freudian, archetypal, essential, surprisingly raw.  Janet Gaynor has the tiniest little face with a helmet of blonde hair pulled back into a bun, like a doll; hulking George O’Brien’s head and hands appear at least three times as big as hers.  Shots of him protecting her or tossing her as if she’s weightless show us his potential brute power over her; yet her purity and her enormous black eyes seem to hold true power over him.  In the end, “Sunrise” is a fable about love and reconciliation the way that Charles Laughton’s “Night of the Hunter” (1955) is fable about childhood terrors and motherly protection.  The film could melt even a cynic’s heart, but it also leaves you feeling as if you’ve had an unexpected and somewhat painful breakthrough in therapy. 

With a couple like this showing up in The City, you anticipate some kind of city mouse/country mouse narrative — decrying the dangers and corruptions of the city and celebrating the country’s simple virtues.  But that’s some other movie.  In fact, they rediscover their love and childlike innocence in the city.  (And who wouldn’t, with that awesome amusement park — let me just say that I want to play a game in which you throw a ball through a hoop and a real little pig comes rolling down a slide.)  As a viewer you find yourself bewildered by all of this — pleasure in Gaynor and O’Brien’s newfound love, confusion about where the story is going, wonder at urban delights — such that you start to feel like a child again yourself, and you find buried in you a deep, dark fear that somehow their happiness might have to be ruined. 

Murnau made great use of camera trickery — from composite shots to double-exposure.  When The Woman From The City seduces O’Brien with tales of the city, the sky above their reclining bodies transforms into shadowy scenes of decadent pleasure.  When he thinks of her later and thinks about murdering his wife, he is grasped by a ghostly version of her, surrounded by images of her face. 

But, then, “trickery” is the wrong word.  This isn’t a film that delights in the camera for the camera’s sake, or that privileges style over substance.  Rather, Murnau’s eery understanding of what made for a good, memorable shot — and his ability to mix action scenes and moving cameras with quiet, magical closeups of Gaynor and O’Brien — demonstrate an unbreakable focus on conveying meanings through images that transcend words.

Magic.  Seeing “Sunrise” took me out of myself, away from the papers and email and PowerPoint slides.  Oh, that we had more chances to see silent films on the big screen, with live accompaniment, with rapt audiences that whoop at the end.  It’s not just that their narratives are unpredictable (though that would be enjoyable enough).  Silent filmmakers created visual images that tapped into one’s psyche, doing far more than the thin storyline purported to accomplish.

It’s simply wrong to remember the screwball and romantic comedies of the 1930s and 1940s as wholly innocent or de-sexed.  Sure, the Hollywood Production Code eliminated a lot of the open sexuality of the earlier era, forbidding all on-screen representations of sexual contact.  Yet those rules led screenwriters to create a host of scenarios that nominally adhered to the rules yet found ways to make them erotically charged and even risky.

I can’t think of a better example than Jean Arthur in my favorite film of hers, “The More the Merrier” (1943).  To use an apt phrase of David Thomson’s, Arthur had a “rare querulous quality” onscreen that, he suggests, resulted from her ambivalence about acting and Hollywood more generally.  After serving as a forgettable ingénue in several dozen silents and early talkies, she remade herself in the mid-30s by bleaching her brunette hair and utilizing that distinctively froggy voice to great effect in films such as “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “You Can’t Take It With You,” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”  By that time, her unique combination of innocent idealism and worldly wisecracking seemed perfectly pitched for the era’s films.

“The More the Merrier” has a slow start, but viewers shouldn’t give up: the film really starts to jell after a somewhat belabored first twenty minutes of antics.  Premised on the wartime housing shortage in Washington, D.C., young working girl Arthur rents her spare room to the elderly Charles Coburn, who presumptuously determines to improve her love life by finding her a “high-type, clean-cut, nice young fella.”  Coburn promptly rents half of his room to the wry, laconic, tall and handsome GI Joel McCrea, who beautifully underplays his part.  The film starts to cook as soon as McCrea appears onscreen, and is propelled by the tensions over sexual propriety between the two roommates—highlighting Arthur’s delicate querulousness.  It consistently returns us to its favorite image: a scene shot through the windows of the apartment’s two adjoining bedrooms, with each room’s bed sharing the same wall, showing us how close Arthur is to McCrea as they lie in bed—even as the wall assures us they’ll behave themselves.

The best scene comes when Arthur and McCrea are wandering slowly back to the apartment one night after a night of cocktails and dancing, passing through what appears to be a sea of couples necking on stoops and sidled up against trees.  Nervous, she natters on with questions about his previous girlfriends and transparently false assertions of confidence in her engagement to the awful Mr. Pendergast.  McCrea responds only in the most cursory way, fixing his attention on getting some small touch of her skin—what amounts to small physical battle between them.  It’s a scene equivalent to those choreographed Fred and Ginger dances enacting the pleasurable friction of resistance.  McCrea doggedly tries to put his arm around her, touch her arms, run his hand along her neck; Arthur dodges.  His arm snakes underneath her cloak; Arthur evades, yet positions herself for more.  When they finally clunk down on the steps to her apartment building, McCrea’s offensive begins in earnest.  Now offering mere grunts for responses, he insistently caresses her arms, her shoulders, her back.

In a perfect movie moment, Arthur succumbs.  Her chatter is interrupted by the pleasure she takes in his increasingly successful kisses—and when he hits the sweetest spot on her neck, she simply has to pause mid-sentence:  her eyes close, her neck extends, and her chin lifts as she concentrates fully on the kiss’s delight.  At the end of the kiss, her eyes widen, her absurdly long false eyelashes bat a few times with brilliant comic disconcertion, and she stutters as she completes her meaningless sentence.  The die is cast: she reaches for his face and indulges in a long, passionate kiss on the lips.  Arthur’s great knack here is to remind us that we’re watching a comedy, yet still leave no question about the passion between them.  As they slowly walk upstairs to the apartment—that dangerously private, intimate space, where only a wall separates their beds—the tension continues to rise, and the film must create a crisis to relieve it.


Post-Code films attain their delicious tension all the more because they could show such delimited physical contact.  Considered in that context, the motif of the wall between the two beds becomes all the more sexy, enhancing desire while demanding physical separation.  McCrea and Arthur whisper pillow talk to one another through the wall and display to us in highly intimate closeups that all the boundaries between them have crumbled; only the wall sustains their chastity.  Even at the height of the Code’s influence, writers and actors undermined it with images of erotic intimacies all the more effective for the walls that fell, Jericho-style, only after these movies ended and the theater lights came back on.