The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Quo Vadis (1951)

The Sign of the Cross, directed by Cecil B. DeMille and released in 1932, is based on a play of the same name, produced in 1895.  It is said to resemble the novel Quo Vadis? which was published around the same time, and which has been made into several movies, notably Quo Vadis in 1951. That movie is more spectacular, being filmed in technicolor, which allows us to see how beautiful Rome was.  But The Sign of the Cross is a pre-Code movie, and as such, it has a quality not captured by this later film.

And then there are the historical facts of the matter.  Liberties are taken in both movies, of course, but what is more important lies in the differences between these two movies and what they choose to emphasize, regardless of what may or may not be historically accurate.

The Sign of the Cross begins in Rome in 64 A.D., on the third night of a great fire, during which thousands of people have died.  The Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) is playing a lyre.  Suddenly, one of the strings of his lyre breaks, spoiling his whole evening.  He collapses in his throne, distraught.

As is often the case in such movies, Romans are played by British actors, such as Laughton, especially if they are degenerates, but good Romans tend to be played by American actors, in this case Fredric March, in the role of Marcus Superbus, Prefect of Rome.

In Quo Vadis, Nero is played by another British actor, Peter Ustinov, while Marcus Vinicius, a good Roman, is played by Robert Taylor, an American actor.

Ben-Hur (1959) has British actors Jack Hawkins and Hugh Griffith, along with Stephen Boyd of Northern Ireland.  Charlton Heston, an American actor, plays the title character, who is a Jew. Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov play Romans in Spartacus (1960), as does Laurence Olivier, another British actor. The good guy is played by Kirk Douglas, an American actor. In The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) we have Stephen Boyd, Alec Guinness, James Mason, Anthony Quayle, all from the United Kingdom, including more I haven’t bothered to list. In The Passover Plot (1976), Donald Pleasance plays Pontius Pilate, and of course he is a British actor, as is Malcolm McDowell, who played the title emperor in Caligula (1979).  The television miniseries I, Claudius (1976) used British actors Derek Jacobi and John Hurt for Claudius and Caligula respectively, much in the way the never-completed version of I, Claudius in 1937 used Charles Laughton and British actor Emlyn Williams for those roles.

We are so used to seeing these British actors playing evil or decadent Romans that we almost forget to ask ourselves why.  An American actor could play such a part just as well, as does Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus in Gladiator (2000), although this is more than made up for by the British actors Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, and Derek Jacobi, who are also Romans in this movie. If foreign actors were needed to play the roles of Romans given to sin and corruption, so that American actors would play the decent Romans for the most part, then I should have thought those foreign actors would have been Italian, Rome being in Italy, after all.

Failing to see any reason why British actors dominate the field when it comes to playing Romans, I was tempted to guess that it was just by chance that Charles Laughton was selected to play Nero in The Sign of the Cross, and he did such a good job that Hollywood has been picking British actors for such roles ever since.  The only other reason I could think of why British actors have been so regularly asked to play the parts of decadent, if not degenerate, Romans is that there is an American prejudice about the British people, suspecting them of being very much like those Romans.

One such suspicion may have something to do with homosexuality.  In his book Pre-Code Hollywood:  Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934, Thomas Doherty says that one way movies could indicate that a character was a homosexual was to have him be British:

Associated with the upper ranks of the British class system and the backstage worlds of theater and high fashion, the mincing gestures and perfumed wardrobe of the nance had been staples of vaudeville sketches, legitimate theater, and the silent screen in the 1920s….

Sound gave the nance a voice:  a high-pitched trill, often British in inflection or vaguely foreign in accent. [page 121]

Whether this association of the British with homosexuality was based on reality or merely an unwarranted American prejudice, I cannot say.  But lately, it seems that this association has found its way into heterosexual relationships as well, and this brought about by the British themselves.  It all started when I saw the movie Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014), which is set in England. It is directed by Matthew Vaughn, a British film producer, and stars Taron Egerton, a British actor, playing a superspy. Toward the end of the movie, a beautiful princess tells Egerton that after he saves the world, “We can do it in the asshole.”  Boy, does he ever hurry up and save the world, returning with champagne and two glasses, at which point the beautiful princess presents her butt for penetration.

Now, I can certainly understand anal sex for homosexuals.  And in times past, it may have been practiced by heterosexuals as a form of birth control.  But the idea of this movie seems to be that anal sex is a treat for male heterosexuals, the best form of sex with a woman any man could possibly want, but which the princess reserves only for someone who is special.

One movie like that, by itself, means nothing.  But several years later, a woman who is a friend of mine recommended the television show Fleabag (2016-2019). So, I decided to give it a try and rented the DVD. In the pilot, in the very first scene, the title character has met some man in a nightclub and they agreed to meet back at her place to have sex.  Much to her surprise, the man inserts his penis into her rectum. When she wakes up the next morning, she sees him looking at her with worship in his eyes. You see, no woman had ever let him do anal on the first date before.  She is the ideal woman. His character is the “Arsehole Guy,” played by a British actor.  And Fleabag is played by a British actress. And the story is set in London.

I pressed the eject button and sent the DVD back.  I wanted to ask my friend what she thought about that scene, but I never worked up the nerve.

Just recently, I watched the movie The Forgiven (2021).  At some point in the movie, a woman asks a man whether a prostitute he availed himself of did anal. “What’s the point of a hooker if she doesn’t do anal?” he replies.  The idea seems to be that the world is full of women from whom you can get vaginal sex, but if you want it really good, if you want the ultimate form of sex that most men only dream of, the ecstasy for which there is no equal, then you may have to pay a prostitute for that. But if she doesn’t do anal, she’s worthless.  You might just as well settle for ordinary sex with ordinary women and get if for free.  The woman he is talking to jokingly threatens to tell his mother he said that.  “My mother would be fascinated,” is his reply.  It sounds as though he thinks his mother might like to try a little anal sex herself.

“This must be another British production,” I said to myself, as I hit the eject button.  I was right.  The director is British, and there are several British actors in this movie as well.  With this third example, I’m starting to wonder if using British actors to play Romans has something to do with this British obsession with anal sex, something long suspected by Americans, but only recently made explicit in these movies.

But I digress.  Returning to The Sign of the Cross, the movie presents us with a choice. If you lived in the first century A.D., would you rather be a pagan or a Christian?  At first, I thought I might prefer to be a pagan, since they seem to be having a good time, what with all the feasting and drinking; although the one thing I wouldn’t want to drink would be a glass of milk, for I would wonder where it came from, having seen the Empress Poppaea (Claudette Colbert) bathing in a swimming pool full of asses’ milk.  That’s icky, but as film critic Joe Bob Briggs might have pointed out, you do get to see most of her breasts. And then there seems to be lots of fornicating going on, so that’s a big plus. Being a Christian, on the other hand, would seem to be a drag.  The Christians are plodding in their movements, heavy in their speech.  But according to the movie, the Roman soldiers are trying to find them and kill them, so I guess we can’t be surprised if they aren’t having much fun.

The Roman soldiers are trying to kill all the Christians because they believe in a “dangerous superstition,” refusing to recognize that Nero is a god.  But in addition to that, Tigillenus, head of the Praetorian Guard, warns Nero that the people might blame him for the fire, especially since Nero says he is glad Rome is burning.  Nero suggests that the blame be shifted to the Christians, making it easier to root them out and have them all killed.  This is what they do.

In the midst of all that, we have a love story between a pagan and a Christian, where Marcus Superbus falls in love with Mercia, a beautiful woman, whose parents were coated with pitch and burned as torches to light up one of Nero’s orgies. Unfortunately, a child that lives in the same house she does is captured and subjected to unspeakable tortures, forcing him to tell where all the Christians will be meeting that night.

Note 1:  The corresponding child in Quo Vadis is not tortured, nor is he later sent to his death in the arena as he is in The Sign of the Cross. Instead, he escapes from Rome unmolested with the help of Saint Peter.

At the meeting that the child told about, there is a Christian who had seen Jesus and heard him speak.  He tells of what he learned:

For me, for all men, he lifted the black mist from the face of God.  And there was no longer the God of wrath, but only a loving father.  All that we had been taught before about the great spirit became suddenly a new understanding, a compassionate God to whom we could turn.

Later on, when they are about to face death in the arena, several of the Christians begin wishing they still had that God of wrath, one who would make short work of the Romans, much in the way he helped the Hebrews slaughter whole nations in the Old Testament.  But given their present situation, the most they can realistically believe in is a God of compassion, one who won’t do anything to protect them, but will at least feel sorry for them.

Tigillenus shows up with his men, who start killing the Christians.  They would have killed them all, but Marcus and his men arrive and put a stop to it.  Those still alive are taken prisoner, including Mercia.  They will still be executed, but now it will happen in the arena.  Marcus manages to get Mercia out of the prison and bring her to his house. He offers her freedom, but she would have to forget about the other Christians as they go to their death, which she says she cannot do.  And she would have to have sex with him without the benefit of marriage.  She says she’d rather die with the rest of the Christians.  Friends of Marcus, who are in the next room enjoying the banquet he is having at his house, come in and interrupt their argument. Marcus gets a wicked woman named Ancaria to do the “Dance of the Naked Moon,” trying to seduce Mercia, but she is not amused, let alone seduced.  Maybe Marcus thought a little lesbian lust would put Mercia in the mood for love.  In any event, Ancaria’s dance is spoiled as they hear Christians singing on their way to the arena dungeon. Marcus tells everyone to leave, after which he and Mercia begin arguing again. Then Tigillenus shows up with orders to take Mercia to the arena dungeon too.

Still not giving up, Marcus tries to get Nero to make an exception to his decree that all Christians must be put to death, letting him have Mercia, but Poppaea disapproves and chastises the easily manipulated Nero. She is in love with Marcus and wants Mercia out of the way.  Nero says Mercia might be spared if she publicly renounces her faith. He then hastens away, saying he doesn’t want to be late for the games.

The games!  This is where you know you could never be a Roman, witnessing the gruesome cruelty presented in the arena.  But fortunately, you can be an American watching the depiction of said spectacles in a movie like this one, and not feel the least little bit of guilt.  But even more fortunately, the movie was not filmed in Smell-O-Vision.  A sign advertising the games promises that the arena will be perfumed between events, and we actually see such perfuming being done.  We hear a typical Roman married couple arguing about the seats they will have.  They have their son with them, about ten years old, I’d say, because it’s never too soon to introduce your children to the games.  The wife complains they will be sitting up so high that they won’t see much, but the husband points out that at least the smell of Christian blood won’t be so strong.

Of course, we know that it is more than blood they will smell.  When gladiators kill one another, or when slaves or Christians are killed by one means or another, their corpses will have their final bowel movement, as the feces are let loose into their pants or onto the floor of the arena. Somehow, I just don’t think perfume would be able to fully cope with the foul stench of death that those games produced.

But even without the smell, the games depicted in this movie are the worst I’ve ever seen.  We hear a Roman say that there are a thousand coffins ready for the dead.  In addition to gladiators killing one another, we also have barbarian women and pygmies engaged in mortal combat.  Then we see elephants crushing the skulls of bound slaves. A beautiful, scantily clad woman is tied up as crocodiles are released so they can devour her.  A naked woman is tied to a pole, and a gorilla is let into the arena.  As he looks at her, the camera shifts to the audience, and from the reaction shot, we know that the gorilla is ravishing her.

As a matter of fact, the worst part of these games is the audience reaction.  As a slave slowly dies from having been gored by a bull, his arms reaching out for mercy, the audience is hysterical with laughter. Lovers, on the other hand, are sexually aroused. The intense emotions they experience as they watch gladiators being disemboweled is channeled into the love they have for each other. They gaze longingly into each other’s eyes with sweet affection as they hear screams of death coming from the arena.

Note 2:  Writing for the New York Times in 1951, Bosley Crowther, in reviewing Quo Vadis, makes a comment that I can scarcely countenance:

“And for such awesome exhibitions as the historic burning of Rome or the slaughter of Christian martyrs, which was common in Nero’s time, there has never been a picture that offered the equal of this. Even the previous excursion of Cecil B. DeMille in this realm in his left-handed version of ‘Quo Vadis?’, the memorable ‘The Sign of the Cross,’ had nothing to match the horrendous and morbid spectacles of human brutality and destruction that Director Mervyn LeRoy has got in this.”

I’ll admit that the fire is spectacular.  But when it comes to the games, it is exactly the opposite of what Crowther says here. It is The Sign of the Cross that has the “horrendous and morbid spectacles,” while Quo Vadis is relatively tame in comparison.  I can only suppose that he saw a version of The Sign of the Cross that had been severely edited after the Production Code started being strictly enforced in 1934.

Furthermore, none of the events described above have any corresponding scenes in Quo Vadis: there are no gladiators killing one another, no mortal combat between barbarian women and pygmies, no elephants crushing skulls, no crocodiles eating a beautiful maiden, and absolutely no gorilla raping a naked woman.  We see only scenes of Christians being killed.

Finally, the sentiment of the audience in Quo Vadis begins to turn against Nero, disapproving of his slaughter of the Christians, unlike the audience in The Sign of the Cross, which is with him all the way, cheering, laughing, lusting.

It is also unnerving to listen to the Christians being held in the dungeon as they await their turn in the circus, the climax of events, where they are to be devoured by lions. Only Mercia seems to believe wholeheartedly, although even she starts to break at one point.  All the rest of the Christians are terrified, though they do manage to sing as they are being led to the lions.  To say they only half believe would be saying too much. Rather, their cries to God are pathetic, a desperate clinging to a hope that provides no comfort, like men who at the moment of death cry for their mothers.

Note 3:  In Quo Vadis, the Christians go to their death in peace, knowing that the kingdom of God awaits them.  After it is over, Nero walks through the arena to look at what remains of the bodies of the dead Christians.  He is appalled at the way their corpses all have smiles on their faces. Perhaps this was required by the Production Code, which frowned on showing Christians having doubts, questioning why God does not save them, and experiencing agony in their final moments.

Marcus tries to get Mercia to renounce her faith, saying that Nero will spare her for Marcus’s sake if she does, and then he promises he will marry her.  But she will not renounce her faith.  Poppaea has saved her for last, the other Christians having already met their end.  As Mercia prepares to enter the arena, Marcus chooses to go with her. He is an atheist, but if he cannot believe in any pagan god, he tries to believe in Christ, if only because he believes in her.  Together, they enter the arena, and as the doors close behind them, a light shining on those doors forms the sign of the cross, assuring us that they will go to Heaven.

Well, I don’t know about that, but those Romans definitely deserved to burn forever in the fires of Hell.

Note 4:  Marcus Vinicius and Lygia (Deborah Kerr) in Quo Vadis correspond to Marcus Superbus and Mercia in The Sign of the Cross. When Lygia’s giant slave kills a bull in the arena, where she was tied to a pole, the audience cheers for them and signals thumbs up, with only Nero signaling thumbs down.  But Nero is thwarted when soldiers loyal to Marcus win the day.  Marcus and Lydia, who were married by Saint Peter, are spared, and they live happily ever after.

The Sign of the Cross ends with Nero and Poppaea triumphant.  In Quo Vadis, however, Marcus declares that henceforth, General Galba will be emperor of Rome. Having been deserted by the Praetorian Guard and the people, Nero strangles Poppaea and then commits suicide.

So, it’s thumbs up for The Sign of the Cross, and thumbs down for Quo Vadis.

Road to Singapore (1940)

The theme of Road to Singapore is that men are better off without women.  The idea is that the bachelor leads a carefree life.  He need consider only his own whims and wants.  Unburdened as he is by any responsibility for others, even a modest-paying job will leave him flush with funds.  The only serious threat to his happy life is women.  The flesh being weak, he finds himself continually lured by the momentary rewards of carnal delight, which make him vulnerable to the trap being set for him. And that is because, according to this movie, while men are better off without women, women cannot do without men, but must ever pursue their one goal in life, which is to marry and have babies.

The ocean is symbolic of this freedom from women.  Back when this movie was made, only men were sailors.  While aboard ship and out to sea, men were perfectly safe from the enticements of the fair sex. And so, it is not surprising that the principal male characters in this movie, Josh Mallon (Bing Crosby) and Ace Lannigan (Bob Hope), both of whom are bachelors, are also sailors.

Of course, every ship must dock at some port from time to time, and that is when men are most in danger of losing their freedom, evident by the fact that some of the sailors Josh and Ace have sailed with are married, and when their ship arrives in San Francisco, those men are greeted by their wives. As Josh and Ace look on from above while still on deck, they see one wife smiling at her husband while she takes his entire pay and sticks it in her brassiere.

“There you are, Josh,” Ace says, “that’s married life for you.”

“Yeah,” Josh agrees, “isn’t that beautiful.  If the world was run right, only women would marry.”

Then they see another sailor being met by his wife.  She has their four children with her, and she immediately starts nagging and browbeating her husband.  She’ll probably have a fifth child on the way by the time he sets sail again.

As Josh and Ace watch this sorry spectacle, Josh says, “Let that be a lesson to you.”  Ace sneers at the idea that he needs a lesson about women, whom, he says, he can just brush aside.

But as they return to their quarters, they are greeted by three rough-looking men, the older of the three wanting to know which one of them is Ace Lannigan.  After finding out, he asks Ace if he knows a gal named Cherry.  It does not escape our notice that her name is also the word that is sometimes used to characterize a luscious maiden, whose virginity is ripe for the taking.

Ace acts as if he is not sure he knows a girl named Cherry, but Josh helpfully reminds him that she was that little blonde.  By this time, we have gathered that the three men are Cherry’s father and two brothers. The father tells Ace that Cherry is getting married, and she wants Ace to come to the wedding.  “Who’s the lucky guy,” Ace asks. “You are,” Cherry’s father replies.

Josh and Ace start doing a pat-a-cake routine, with Cherry’s father and brothers gathering around to see what they are doing.  Suddenly, Josh and Ace each sock someone.  They end up being arrested for being part of a waterfront brawl, but at least Ace escapes from the fate worse than death.

Cherry’s father never says that she is pregnant, only that Ace kept her out half the night, implying that they had sex.  Back in those days, that alone could be enough for a shotgun wedding.  As a result, this movie has it both ways.  If Cherry’s father had explicitly stated that she was pregnant, the situation would not be funny, for Ace never marries her.  But as long as they just had sex, without any reproductive consequences, then we are allowed to be amused by Ace’s scapegrace behavior, especially since we never see actually see Cherry, and thus cannot fully relate to her as a person.  On the other hand, by allowing us to wonder if Cherry is pregnant, the movie reminds us of just what it is that makes women dangerous. They have babies!

The police bring Josh to the office of his father (Charles Coburn), Joshua Mallon IV, a shipping magnate. It appears that the ship Ace and Josh were on is one of a fleet of eighty ships owned by the Mallon family. Mr. Mallon wants Josh to settle down, marry his girlfriend Gloria, and start working regular hours behind a desk.  Josh wants to remain a bachelor and have fun instead.  Mr. Mallon says that when he was Josh’s age, he was already married and his wife had given birth to Josh. “Suppose I had gone vagabonding around the world?  Where would you be now?”

“You got me there, Skipper,” Josh admits.

I have heard an argument like that against abortion from people who are pro-life, saying, “Where would you be if your mother had had an abortion?”  But, aside from this movie, I have never heard the argument, “Where would you be if your father had remained a bachelor?”  The one makes about as much sense as the other, I suppose.

Just then Gloria shows up.  She is certain she and Josh will be married, and she starts showing him her sketches for the apartment she has picked out for them and how it will be furnished.  It is stuff that only she cares about.  When Josh looks at a sketch of some shelves, he says he could put his ship models on them, his one small effort to see something positive in Gloria’s plans.  But Gloria gently reprimands him, saying, “Oh, honey, no.  They’re not smart anymore.”  Just as we begin to wonder why Josh would go along with all this, Gloria becomes seductive, talking about romance, reeling him in for a kiss.  Between his father’s demand that he carry on the tradition of taking over the family business, and Gloria’s charms, Josh appears to be doomed.

In the next scene, Ace is back out on the ocean in a small boat, doing some fishing, while hiding out from Cherry’s family.  Josh catches up with him in another boat and climbs aboard.  Having said to Ace earlier, “Let that be a lesson to you,” regarding the woes of married life, he now has to admit that his engagement to Gloria will be announced that night.

Had the engagement been announced at a party somewhere in the city, Josh’s marriage to Gloria would have been sealed.  But the engagement is to be announced on Mr. Mallon’s yacht, which means at sea. As noted above, the ocean is bachelor territory, giving Josh the home advantage.  As a result, Ace and Josh scandalize Gloria’s family with their carrying on at the party, eventually resulting in a pat-a-cake routine for Gloria’s obnoxious brother and friends, causing a society-page scandal.

The next Mr. Mallon hears from Josh, he and Ace are in Honolulu, and on their way to Singapore. They must get there by means of a ship sailing across the ocean, which makes sense, because the next best thing to being on the ocean as a way to avoid women is to put an ocean between you and the women you wish to escape from.   The word “road” in the title is therefore figurative, for had they remained on land, which is what a road would imply, their liberty would be in peril.

They don’t actually get to Singapore, but end up on the fictional island of Kaigoon instead, somewhere in the vicinity of that country.  They manage to rent a small shack, and having settled in, they swear off women completely.  That means they are free to be lazy slobs, flicking ashes on the floor with impunity. They decide to splurge and go out for a couple of beers at a local joint.  Once there, they watch a performance by Caesar (Anthony Quinn) and Mima (Dorothy Lamour).  It is partly a dance they do, and partly a routine where Caesar dominates the submissive Mima with a whip.

Josh and Ace begin losing their resolve regarding women, especially when Mima seems to be attracted to them.  Caesar doesn’t like that, so a fight breaks out, and the next thing you know, Josh and Ace abscond with Mima and bring her to their little shack. Mima tells of how her mother worked with Caesar as a performer after her father died. When her mother died, she kept on with Caesar in performances too. This was not a problem when she was a child, but now, as a woman, she worries that Caesar has designs on her, so she is glad to be away from him.  If Josh and Ace are supposed to be better off without Gloria and Cherry, Mima is their complement, for we know she is better off without Caesar.

The next morning, she begins keeping house, ordering Josh and Ace about, domesticating them.  But as both men are falling in love with her, their hopes of holding on to their freedom seem to be slipping away. Things seem especially grim when Mima starts talking about Josh and Ace getting jobs. But Ace figures out a scam involving soap suds presented as a miracle spot remover, called Spotto. It begins with a song and dance routine by the three of them to bring the suckers in first.  Of course, it turns out to be a disaster. During a demonstration, Ace ruins a man’s suit by putting Spotto on it. The three of them have to flee the marketplace.

Both men start romancing Mima, but, after all, Josh is played by Bing Crosby, who is a crooner, and when he and Mima begin singing a duet, “Too Romantic,” they make us believe in love again.  And if they can make us believe in love again, we know they believe in it too.

Meanwhile, back in the states, Mr. Mallon has been informed of Josh’s whereabouts, and he and Gloria catch a plane out to Kaigoon, where Gloria plans on using her womanly wiles to bring Josh back home so they can be married.  But it doesn’t work. Josh refuses to go back, intending to stay in Kaigoon and marry Mima.  But Ace wants to marry her too.

For Ace, Cherry was just for one night.  As for Josh, he was being pressured into getting married, and since Gloria was available, pretty, and his social equal, she was the logical choice for him.  But he didn’t love her. With Mima, however, it’s different.  Both men are truly in love with her.

When Mima saw Gloria and found out about Josh’s position back in America, she decided that he belonged with Gloria.  And so, though she loves Josh, yet she pretends to love Ace instead.  As a result, Josh decides to go back with his father and with Gloria.

Under threat of deportation, instigated by Caesar, Ace has to leave Kaigoon, and Mima goes with him. Ace soon realizes that Mima really loves Josh, that she “went noble” in giving him up.  But he goes noble too, deciding to stick by her as a friend.

The ship Josh is on that is sailing back to America stops at a tropical port, where a man comes aboard complaining about his suit being ruined by someone selling Spotto. Josh realizes that Ace and Mima must be nearby.  Although Josh thinks Ace and Mima are in love and are now married, he decides he still wants to be with his friends and hops on a boat that is heading for land.  As Gloria watches him leave, she says, “That little scene is called ‘Spurned at the Altar,’ or ‘The Sailor’s Farewell.’”

When Josh catches up with Ace and Mima running the Spotto scam, he finds out that they aren’t married, that he was the one Mima was really in love with.  Josh and Mima hug each other.  But another man with a ruined suit brings the police with him to arrest Ace.  Ace and Josh do their pat-a-cake routine, and the movie ends with a fadeout as they punch the two unsuspecting policemen, after which we imagine Ace, Josh, and Mima escaping.

The movie ends in a way that allows us to give no thought as to what comes next, or perhaps to imagine that things will go back to the way they were, the three of them living together, enjoying their friendship with one another.  But we know that cannot be.  Because it is true love, Josh and Mima will marry.  Being faced with the responsibilities that come with being a married man, especially once he finds out that Mima is going to have a baby, Josh will return to San Francisco with her, where he will take that job working behind a desk, just as his father wanted him to.  Ace, on the other hand, will return to the sea, probably aboard one of the ships owned by the Mallon family.  In the years to come, as he stands on deck and gazes out at some distant shore, he will sigh with fond regret as he recalls the unrequited love he found on the island of Kaigoon.

Let that be a lesson to you.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

As a bachelor, I have never had any personal experience with divorce, although it does seem like the next best thing to never having married at all.  My best friend, however, was not as lucky in love as I, so he ended up marrying his sweetheart in the year of our Lord 1967, with me as his best man.

“I don’t know how this is going to turn out,” he said to me three years later, “but it can’t go on.”  He probably would never have left her, but one weekend she decided to spend a few days with her sister and brother-in-law, and it turned out to be a permanent separation.  A few years after that, he decided to move away, and he suggested to her that she file for divorce before he left, in case she wanted to marry again. She cried, realized it was a good idea, got herself a lawyer, and filed for divorce.

After it was done, she told my friend that the judge wanted to know why she was seeking a divorce. So, she said, “I told the judge, ‘I came home from shopping one Saturday afternoon, and my husband and two of his friends [that’s me and another fellow] had made a mess of the apartment. They were sitting around, smoking cigarettes, drinking cokes, and watching a monster movie on television.’”

And that was all there was to it.  The point of all this is that I did not appreciate at the time that in years past, getting a divorce was not that easy.  Before no-fault divorce became widely accepted, a spouse would have to allege adultery, abandonment, cruelty, or some other reason sufficiently grave.  In Frenzy (1972), a man is suspected of murdering his ex-wife because the divorce petition alleged “extreme mental and physical cruelty” and “depravity” as well.  The ex-husband tries to explain:

It had to read that way, but there wasn’t a word of truth in it!  The lawyers made it all up. We didn’t want to wait three years for a divorce based on desertion, so I allowed her to divorce me on the grounds of cruelty.

As a result of my naivete, when I saw those ads in the yellow pages for private detectives, and they used the phrase “peace of mind,” I took that as a way of saying, “Don’t think of hiring us as betraying a lack of faith in your spouse.  You just need a little reassurance that he or she truly loves you.”

Perhaps I should have been suspicious.  When I used to watch old movies featuring private detectives, such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Murder, My Sweet (1944), they mostly did missing-person cases. These private detectives in the movies never seemed to help anyone get that peace of mind.

Out of the Past (1947) starts out as a missing-person case, but when private detective Robert Mitchum finds himself having to hide out from gangster Kirk Douglas, he has to keep a low profile:

I opened an office in San Francisco.  A cheap little rat hole that suited the work I did. Shabby jobs for whoever hired me.  It was the bottom of the barrel, and I scraped it.

Looking back, I can see now that he was talking about divorce cases.

Had I seen Private Detective 62 (1933), that would have cleared things up for me.  In that movie, a private detective agency frames innocent wives for adultery so that their husbands can divorce them and not have to pay any alimony.  In a typical frame, a woman is given a knock-out drug, and then wakes up to find herself in a hotel room, in bed with some strange man, with photographs having been taken to document the deed.  But I would not see that movie until years later.

And so it was that Kiss Me Deadly (1955) was the first movie I had ever seen where the private detective did divorce cases.  And when I saw it, I was a little perplexed.  But let me start at the beginning.

When the movie opens, we see Cloris Leachman running down the highway at night, wearing nothing but a trench coat.  Desperate to have someone give her a ride, she stands in front of an oncoming Jaguar convertible that has to swerve off the road to avoid hitting her.  The driver is Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker). Disgusted, as he tries to get his car started again, he says, “Get in.”  Her name is Christina, and Mike figures she was out on a date with a guy who thought “No” was a three-letter word.  But when they come to a police blockade, he finds out she has escaped from an insane asylum.  Mike has such disregard for the law that he pretends Christina is his wife. “So, you’re a fugitive from the laughing house,” he says as they drive away.

Apparently, Christina has gotten herself involved in something illegal and dangerous. She becomes mysterious, saying “they” took her clothes away to make her stay.  Mike is curious as to who “they” are, but she doesn’t want to get him involved.  When he stops at a filling station, Christina goes into the ladies’ room.  When she comes out, she hands the attendant a letter and asks him to mail it for her.

As they drive down the road again, Christina begins psychoanalyzing Mike.  Only Mike has been through this sort of thing before with women who presume to tell him all about himself, and he responds with sarcasm:

Christina:  I was just thinking how much you can tell about a person from such simple things.  Your car for instance.

Mike:  What kind of message does it send you?

Christina:  You have only one real, lasting love.

Mike:  Now, who could that be?

Christina:  You’re one of those self-indulgent males, who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, himself.

What we are learning from all this is that, unlike the private detectives of previous movies, who always seem to be just scraping by, Mike Hammer lives well and can easily afford to drive an expensive car and wear tailored suits.

Then she asks him if reads poetry.  Mike just gives her a look that says, “Are you kidding?”  She tells him about Christina Rossetti, whom she was named after, and who wrote love sonnets.  And then she says that if they don’t make it to the bus stop, where he is to let her off, she asks him to “Remember me.”

Suddenly, a car pulls in front of them.  Next, we see Mike, only partially conscious, lying on bedsprings, while three men are torturing Christina.  We see them only from the waist down, one of whom is holding a pair of Channellock pliers, used to try to extract information from Christina before she died from the ordeal.  The men put Christina’s corpse and Mike in his sportscar and push it off a cliff.  Mike survives, but spends several weeks in a hospital.  When he gets out, he is greeted by some kind of federal agent and is brought in for questioning.  In a room with several agents, Mike tells them what he knows.  The agent in charge decides to get down to some basic questions, only before Mike can answer them, a couple of other agents snidely answer the questions for him:

Agent in charge:  Just what do you do for a living?

Second agent:  According to our information, he calls himself a private investigator. His specialty is divorce cases.

Third agent:  He’s a bedroom dick.  He gets dirt on the wife, then does a deal with the wife to get dirt on the husband.  Plays both ends against the middle.

Agent in charge:  How do you achieve all this?  You crawl under beds?

Second agent:  Nothing so primitive.

Third agent:  He has a secretary.  At least, that’s what he calls her.

Agent in charge:  What’s her name, Mr. Hammer?

Second agent:  Velda Wickman.  She’s a very attractive young woman.

Third agent:  Real woo-bait.  Lives like a princess.  He sics her onto the husbands, and in no time he’s ready for the big squeeze.

Agent in charge:  Who do you sic onto the wives, Mr. Hammer?

Second agent:  That’s his department.

Well, it doesn’t look as though Mike’s clients find much peace of mind.  Not only does he do divorce cases, but he often makes things worse than they already are, being the cause of the very infidelity he was hired to investigate.

Just as we earlier learned that Mike lives well, we find out that his “secretary” Velda is well paid herself.  But it was that last part of the “interrogation” that really made me wonder.  We can imagine Mike showing a wife pictures of her husband and Velda kissing in a parking lot or entering a hotel room. And later on in the movie, he tells Velda that the bedroom tape she made with lover-boy got lost, and that she will have to call him up, make a date, and try to get some more of that “honey talk” again.  He smirks as he says all this, saying, “That tape sure was nice.”

But when the husband is the client, and the wife is Mike’s “department,” we have to imagine the following conversation:

Mike:  I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Mr. Jackson, but your wife is having an affair.

Mr. Jackson:  Oh, my God!

Mike:  We have some photographs, if you would like to see them.

Mr. Jackson:  All right.  [He looks at the pictures.]  Wait a minute!  That’s you!

But this is confusing only if you are still laboring under the peace-of-mind motive for hiring a private detective to check on your wife, unless it is the peace of mind that comes from getting a divorce and being single once again.  Once you realize that when this movie was made, a man needed a serious reason to divorce his wife, it becomes clear that it wouldn’t have mattered to him if the private detective he hired was the one having an affair with his wife, just as long as it finally gets him out of the marriage that is making him miserable.

Anyway, after the federal agents finish interrogating Mike, he goes to his apartment. Now we really see how lucrative divorce cases must be.  His apartment is big and swanky, unlike the cramped quarters of the typical movie private eye, or that of his spare office with a secretary he can just barely afford, if he has one at all.  When I saw the answering machine he had, I had no idea such things existed.  They would not become a common item in the average person’s home for at least two decades.  At the time, I thought how wonderful it would be to find out who’s calling you before answering.  In 1955, of all the stuff in Mike’s apartment, that was not only the greatest indication of how well off he was financially, but also that he had the latest technology in the private-detective business.

When Mike begins to figure that whatever Christina was involved in might be something big, he decides to pursue it himself, to see if he can get a cut of whatever it is.  He tells Velda not to bother about trying to make another tape with lover-boy, saying he wants to forget about these “penny-ante divorce cases” for a while.

Velda is skeptical.  She refers to whatever Mike is looking for as the “Great Whatsit.”  As is well known, Alfred Hitchcock defined a MacGuffin as the thing the spies in a movie are after, but the audience doesn’t care.  However, no one in a Hitchcock movie ever used the word “MacGuffin,” as in, “I sure hope we find the MacGuffin before the bad guys do,” or thought of what they were after in that dismissive way.  In Kiss Me Deadly, however, not only is there a MacGuffin, but it is cynically regarded as such by Velda. She just has her own name for it.  “Does it exist?” she asks.  “Who cares? Everyone everywhere is so involved in a fruitless search—for what?”  We never do find out what part all the people involved played in inventing this Great Whatsit, stealing it, and hiding it, but I guess that doesn’t really matter either.

In particular, the thing the police, the federal agents, the gangsters, and Mike are all after is a small box with some kind of nuclear device in it that makes no sense technologically.  It is nice and quiet as long as the lid is closed, but when it is opened, it begins glowing and hissing.

Lieutenant Pat Murphy, a detective with the police department, revokes Mike’s detective license and gun permit to keep him off the case.  But Mike has no problem dealing out pain and death without either one, as when Mike punches some guy that was following him, bashes his head against the wall several times, and then throws him down two flights of concrete stairs.

But not all the pain he inflicts is physical.  Mike gets a lead on some unemployed opera singer that might know something.  He goes over to the man’s apartment, just as that man happens to be singing along with a recording of Martha.  When Mike starts to question him, the man says he knows nothing. There is a vast collection of records in the room that the man treasures.  Mike pulls a record out of an album, looks at it, and says, “Hey!  Caruso’s Pagliacci.  That’s a collector’s item.”  The man agrees, smiling enthusiastically. Mike snaps the record in two.

It turns out that Christina, having seen the registration certificate in Mike’s car, which had his address on it, sent the letter she gave the filling-station attendant to Mike.  In it, it has just two words enclosed in quotation marks:  “Remember Me.”  It turns out Mike is pretty good at interpreting poetry.  He found a book of sonnets by Christina Rossetti in Christina’s apartment and took it with him.  He figures out from reading the poem “Remember Me,” which speaks of “darkness and corruption,” that Christina must have swallowed something before she was killed.  Accompanied by Gabrielle, a woman Mike believes to be Lily Carver, who was Christina’s roommate, he goes to see the coroner (Percy Helton), and gives him some money as a bribe.  The coroner admits he found a key in Christina’s stomach when he performed an autopsy, but he tries to play cute by putting the key back in the drawer, indicating he wants more money. Mike rams the drawer on the coroner’s hand again and again, making him squeal with pain as Mike grins. Then he pushes him aside and takes the key.

The key is to a locker in an athletic club.  Mike gets into the locker and finds the box. When he opens it just slightly, he gets a radiation burn on his wrist.  He closes it back up.  But when he gets back to his car, Gabrielle is gone.

Meanwhile, an art dealer tricks Velda into thinking he can give her information, but is actually part of a plot to kidnap her.  He lives upstairs above his modern art gallery. When he hears Mike breaking in, he swallows a bunch of sleeping pills, trying to kill himself first, as Mike makes his way up the stairs past a bunch of ugly paintings.

Why a modern art dealer, you may be wondering.  Mike has a cavalier attitude toward the fine arts throughout this movie.  Christina loved poetry, which Mike sneered at.  When Mike was in her apartment, he turned on the radio and found that it was tuned to a classical-music station.  We see Velda doing ballet exercises, stretching one of her legs resting on her desk.  Mike rotates her leg to the back of a chair so he can get by.  After Mike snapped the Caruso record and got the information he wanted from the opera singer, he put the needle back on Martha and left, saying, “A lovely record.”  And now we have a modern-art dealer mixed up in this story.  Mike is indifferent to all this cultural refinement, except when he can use it to get what he is after.

Anyway, Mike tries to beat some information out of the art dealer, but the man passes out from the sleeping pills.  Mike turns on the man’s radio.  More classical music.  He looks around the room.  He sees the name of Dr. Soberin on the bottle of sleeping pills. Velda had mentioned that name.  He calls Soberin’s answering service and finds out that he has a beach cottage.  Mike realizes it’s probably the same place where Christina was tortured, and subsequently the place where the gangsters forcibly brought him later in order to find out what he knows, only Mike killed two of them and got away.  Mike doesn’t bother to call an ambulance for the art dealer.  He just leaves for the beach house, letting the man die of an overdose.

Dr. Soberin (Albert Dekker) is, in fact, the chief villain, and Gabrielle is actually his lover. She told Soberin where the box was, and he now has it at his beach house, with Velda locked in one of the rooms.  Gabrielle wants to know what is in the box.  In the space of two minutes, Soberin alludes to Pandora’s box, Lot’s wife, and the head of Medusa.

Gabriele says she wants half of what is in the box, but Soberin says it can’t be shared. So, in that case, she says she wants it all, pulls out a revolver, and shoots him.  He still has time for one last allusion, referring to Cerberus barking with all his heads at the gates of Hell, as he warns her not to open the box.  Gabrielle doesn’t care about all those references to mythology or stories in the bible. She wants to know what’s in the box.

In any event, just after Gabrielle kills Soberin, Mike comes in through the door.  She tells Mike to kiss her, saying it would be a “liar’s kiss,” referring to the way Mike treats women as sex objects, but only when he’s in the mood to bother with them at all. Perhaps he got a little off Gabrielle when she stayed at his apartment, and she felt used.  Before he has a chance to do anything, however, she shoots him.  Then she opens the box.  It hisses and glows.  She can’t help herself.  She must keep opening the box, screaming as she becomes engulfed in flames.  Don’t ask how anyone ever got that thing in the box to begin with.

There are two endings for this movie, in both of which the final scene is that of the beach house exploding in a fireball.  In what is now called the “original ending,” the wounded Mike manages to get himself and Velda out of the house and into the surf, where they watch the house explode.  Big deal. All this for a bomb that can blow up a house?  That makes no sense.  At the very least, we have to suppose this is an atomic bomb of sorts, one that will destroy Los Angeles.  But in that case, seeing Mike and Velda escape from the house is pointless, for they will soon be incinerated.

What is sometimes called the “shortened ending” makes more sense.  Mike finds the room where Velda has been locked up, but then we see the entire house exploding, presumably killing them both.  So, now we can assume it is an atomic bomb, inasmuch as Mike and Velda will be dead anyway.

Or can we?  By 1955, nuclear weapons were a commonplace.  One more bomb would have been just one more bomb.  And it would not have even been a danger to the United States, because Soberin told Gabrielle that he was leaving, and that it was not possible for him to take her with him. Presumably, he was leaving the country.  For this reason, and perhaps because that glowing, hissing thing almost seems to be alive, some critics argue that this device is setting off a chain reaction that will continue to grow until it consumes the entire world.  Not just Mike and Velda, not just the citizens of Los Angeles, but everyone on this planet will be killed.

Mike should have stuck to divorce cases.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

At the beginning of the movie Leave Her to Heaven, Richard “Dick” Harland (Cornel Wilde) has just been released from prison after serving a two-year sentence, and is returning home to his lodge in Maine, a place called Back of the Moon.  He arrives at a dock by motorboat, where he is greeted by his lawyer Glen Robie (Ray Collins), who also happens to be an old friend of his.  Glen says everything has been arranged. Richard gets in a canoe by himself and proceeds to his lodge across the lake, where Glen says “she” is waiting for him.

We learn the story behind Richard’s trial and conviction in a flashback, as Glen tells it to a man he happens to be with as they have coffee.  It seems that Richard had just finished writing his latest novel, Time without End, and needed a rest, so Glen invited him to come to his ranch in Jacinto, New Mexico for a vacation.  Richard takes a train to get to Glen’s ranch, and on the way finds himself sitting across from a woman, Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney), who is reading the very novel he just finished writing. She is also traveling to Jacinto along with her mother, Mrs. Berent, and adoptive sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain), who are in another part of the train at that moment.  As it turns out, Glen and his wife are also friends of the Berent family, who live in Beacon Hill, Boston, and who are also on their way to Glen’s ranch.

Apparently, Richard’s novel is not that interesting because Ellen puts it in her lap and falls asleep. When the book falls to the floor, Richard picks it up and hands it to her. She thanks him and then begins staring at him intently, almost as if she were in a trance.

The Father

At first, we think she recognizes Richard from his picture on the back of the book jacket.  But soon we find out that he has a remarkable resemblance to her late father, to whom she was very much attached.

Just how attached, we wonder?  Later in the movie, Ruth comments that Mrs. Berent adopted her. Richard asks her why she said only Mrs. Berent adopted her and not Mr. Berent as well.  At first Ruth says she doesn’t know why she said that, but then says perhaps it was because Mrs. Berent suggested it, because she was alone so much.  Ruth seems a little uncomfortable and changes the subject.  By that time, we have pieced together that Mrs. Berent was alone much of the time because her husband spent so much time with their daughter Ellen.  Ellen and her father used to come to the ranch every spring, but her mother never came along.  Ellen says it is because her mother doesn’t like New Mexico, but her mother denies that, so we have to suspect another reason, which is that she felt excluded, believing that her husband and daughter wanted to be alone with each other, and that she was not wanted.

Mrs. Berent is played by Mary Philips, who was forty-four years old when this movie was made, and thus Mrs. Berent may be assumed to be in her forties as well.  If we assume that Mr. Berent was about the same age, then he must have died in his forties.  It might have been of natural causes, but toward the end of the movie, Ruth says to Ellen, “With your love, you wrecked Mother’s life and pressed Father to death.” Because she speaks with an authoritative voice, we know that must be true.  But delving more deeply, what does she mean by “pressed Father to death”?  There are three possibilities.

One is that Ellen demanded that her father spend so much time with her that she wore him out.  But that just doesn’t seem to be sufficient to bring about an early death:  first, because he could easily have put limits on her demands; second, because her demands would not have been a problem if he had enjoyed his time with her.

A second possibility is that she was sexually aggressive, always tempting her father, cuddling with him, kissing him.  He resisted the temptation, but he wanted her, and it stressed him out so much that it killed him.

The third possibility is that he gave in to temptation and had a sexual relationship with her, causing him so much guilt that he died from that.

Given the powers of censorship on the part of the Production Code, the second and third possibilities could not have been made explicit in 1945.  However, the novel on which this movie is based is just as indefinite as to their relationship.

The purpose of the visit to the ranch has to do with the father’s death.  It seems he died back East some time ago, in Beacon Hill, and was cremated.  The reason for the visit is so that Ellen can scatter the ashes of her father in the mountains where she used to spend a lot of her time with him.  She and her father had made a pact:  when they died, their ashes would be brought out there and mixed together, and that whoever died first would see to it.

Because Richard reminds her so much of her father, Ellen falls in love with him and breaks off her engagement with her fiancé Russell Quinton (Vincent Price).  When Russell gets her telegram, he is so angry that he flies up to Jacinto, saying he wanted to congratulate her on her forthcoming marriage; but this is bitter sarcasm, since he refuses to shake hands with Richard, who is only then learning about Ellen’s plans to marry him, but is too polite to say anything. Russell is perplexed, saying, “I always knew you’d never marry me while your father was alive.  But after he died, I thought….  Well, I thought there might be a chance.”

Just as a side observation:  Russell is a politician running for district attorney.  He is afraid that having Ellen break off their engagement will hurt his chances in the upcoming election, and so he asks her if she would postpone the wedding until after the election is over in the fall.  I guess it didn’t take much to make for a political sex scandal when this movie was made in 1945.

Anyway, she refuses to postpone the wedding, saying she and Richard will get married immediately. Before he leaves, Russell tells Ellen that he loves her and always will.  “Remember that,” he says with seething anger in his voice.  “Russ,” Ellen replies calmly, “is that a threat?”  Ominous words, as it turns out.

When Richard tries to confront her after Russell leaves, she subdues him, asking, “Darling, will you marry me?”  Unable to resist, he kisses her.  She says, “And I’ll never let you go.  Never. Never. Never.”  And these too are ominous words.

The Brother-in-Law

As noted above, even though Ellen is only in her twenties, her father is already dead. Ruth is also in her twenties, and both her parents died when she was a child, which is why she was adopted.  And even though Richard is only thirty years old, both of his parents have been dead for some time.  I guess people didn’t live long back then.

Anyway, Richard takes care of a younger brother Danny, played by Darryl Hickman, who is about fourteen years old.  When we see him at the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, an institution that provides rehabilitation therapy for people with polio, he is in a wheel chair.

Ellen knew about Danny before she married Richard, but she didn’t think he would be living with them. She believed that he would continue staying at the Foundation, and when he got better, he would go back to boarding school, which means living away from home.  She even spends a lot of time with Danny, helping him learn to walk with crutches toward that end.

She tells Richard, in a house they have rented near the Foundation, that she doesn’t want them to have a maid or a cook, that she will do everything for them, because she doesn’t want anyone else living with them.  Richard brings up the possibility of their having a child, and she says, “That’s different.”  When he asks about Danny, she says, “That’s different too.”  As it turns out, however, they are not different at all.

Let’s step back just a minute, forget about the details of this movie, and think about the situation with marriage in general.  I knew a guy once who said that when he got married, he thought he and his wife would live together in their own little love nest, just the two of them.  Six months later, he said, she started talking about having her mother move in with them:  not out of any economic necessity, but for emotional reasons only, because she just liked the idea of having her mother around.

In To Catch a Thief (1955), Cary Grant has a beautiful house on the French Riviera.  At the end of the movie, Grace Kelly follows him to his house.  They start kissing, and it is clear they are going to get married, at which point she says, “Mother will love it up here.”  Cary Grant gets a look of horror on his face.

As for children, another guy I knew said that when he and his wife got married, they had an understanding that they would not have any children.  When she got pregnant, he thought that, per their agreement, she would have an abortion, but she decided she wanted the baby.  “That’s when I found out I couldn’t trust my wife,” he told me.  Nine months later, she had the baby, and he had a vasectomy.

In other words, there are two kinds of people:  there are the love-nest types, whose idea of marriage is a man and a woman living together, just the two of them; and then there are the inclusive-family types, who want others, be they children, relatives, or friends, to be a part of the household too.  It’s not that these two types are completely unaware of each other’s preferences when they marry each other, as so often they do.  It’s that they fail to comprehend just how strong those preferences are, never imagining how much stress this will put on their marriage.

Ellen is definitely the love-nest type.  She is the last person in the world who should marry into a package deal.  As noted above, she figured she could navigate the situation, but things don’t work out the way Ellen planned.  When Richard first sees Danny walking on crutches, he is thrilled.  Then Danny says, “Now we can, all three of us, go to Back of the Moon.  Can’t we, Dick?  Can’t we?”  Richard says, “You bet we can.” Ellen, who had been smiling, pleased with Danny’s progress, narrows her eyebrows and frowns, and then sadness covers her face as she looks down.

In the next scene, Ellen tries to get Dr. Mason (Reed Hadley) to advise Richard that it would be better for Danny to stay at the Foundation for more therapy, or to go to a boarding school, but Mason thwarts her every argument.  She says there is no telephone out in Richard’s lodge in case of a medical emergency; Dr. Mason is sure there won’t be a such an emergency.  She says there won’t be a school for Danny to go to; Dr. Mason says school can wait.  Finally, she even admits that it is partly for selfish reasons that she doesn’t want Danny to live with them.  She says she gave up her honeymoon so that Richard could be with his brother, but Richard has been working, and the burden has fallen completely on her, to the point that she is worn out taking care of Danny.  She insists she loves Danny just as much as Richard does, “But after all,” she says, “he’s a cripple.”

Ellen realizes her mistake and apologizes, saying, “I’m afraid I haven’t been too well myself lately.”  And yet, most people would know not to say something like that, even if they were thinking it, and even if they weren’t feeling well.  That she said that anyway is an indication of just how intense is her desire to be alone with Richard, making her oblivious to all other considerations.  Having recovered herself, she continues to plead with Dr. Mason to help her make her case to Richard, with Dr. Mason refusing to do so.  When Richard shows up, Ellen says, “Oh, Richard, I’ve got such wonderful news.  Dr. Mason just consented to let Danny come with us to Back of the Moon.”

So, it’s off they go to Back of the Moon.  The walls are paper thin in that lodge, so there isn’t much privacy, certainly not enough for Ellen, especially since there is also Richard’s friend, Leick Thorne (Chill Wills), a handyman who lives in the house too.  In other words, Richard is an inclusive-family type.  And just when Ellen thinks it cannot get any more crowded than it already is, it turns out that Richard has invited Mrs. Berent and Ruth up there under the misguided notion that Ellen would be pleased.  She is not pleased.  His excuse for not discussing it with her first is that “We wanted to surprise you, honey.”

You see, Richard lacks empathy.  It sounds strange to say that of someone who otherwise seems to be a nice guy.  We tend to associate a lack of empathy with people that are selfish and mean.  But that is not always the case in real life, and it is not true in Richard’s case either.  Richard is so convinced he knows what will make Ellen happy that, notwithstanding what she earlier said about wanting to live alone with him, he never considers that he might be wrong in this matter.  Being the inclusive-family type, Richard likes having lots of people living with him, and lacking empathy, he projects that same attitude onto to others, Ellen in particular.

Mrs. Berent and Ruth invite Danny to stay with them at their summer home in Bar Harbor, Maine, mentioning that there is a school he could attend there.  When Ellen suggests it to Danny, however, he says he is not interested in going there unless all three of them can go together.  In other words, Danny is as attached to Richard as Ellen is, and she realizes there is no way to get rid of him.

Well, there is one way.  Ellen mentioned to Leick that she had a strange dream in which Richard was drowning and she was unable to save him, saying she had no voice to call for help, that her arms were paralyzed, and she couldn’t row to him because the lake was like glue.  Freud was a dominant intellectual force in those days, and with that in mind, we can see that this dream is the fulfillment of a wish, the wish that Danny would drown.  But her conscience would not let her dream that about Danny, so she substituted Richard. Since there was no way she wanted Richard to drown, the dream caused no feelings of guilt.

But there may be more to this dream than that.  As noted above, when Ellen first saw Richard, she went into a dream-like trance staring at him.  There are times in Ellen’s life when, though awake, it is as if she is in a dream, under a compulsion, and unable to do anything about it.

In any event, the dream turns out to be prophetic.  She encourages Danny to try swimming across the lake, as therapy, while following him in a rowboat.  As he eases into the water, she puts on a pair of sunglasses.  Ostensibly, this is to protect her eyes from the glare of the sun.  But when someone conceals his eyes, it makes it difficult for others to engage him emotionally.  Sunglasses confer on the wearer a degree of moral detachment.  That the sunglasses are heart-shaped, suggesting a warmth that isn’t there, is all the more disturbing.  When Danny starts cramping and going under, she seems to be in that dream she had, paralyzed, even though we know she is an excellent swimmer and could easily have saved him.  It is only when she hears Richard whistling as he walks along the lake that she is roused from her dream, screaming, “Danny!” and then jumping in the water, as if she is trying to save him.

Another side observation:  During her stay at the lodge, Ruth is suddenly frightened by the sound of a loon across the lake, and it is shortly afterwards that Ellen lets Danny drown.  In A Place in the Sun (1951), a man plans to drown his pregnant girlfriend in Loon Lake, and after she does drown, he is bothered when he hears a loon, reminding him of what he did.  I guess this association between loons and someone drowning in a lake is just a coincidence, but I can’t help thinking it has a significance that escapes me.  Otherwise, why have a scene where Ruth is bothered by the sound of a loon?

The Baby

After Danny’s death, Richard can’t stand living at Back of the Moon, so he and Ellen go to Bar Harbor to stay with Mrs. Berent and Ruth.  Ellen is getting nowhere in her hopes of living alone with Richard. Now she has to live with her mother and sister as well. This would be bad enough if things were pleasant, but Mrs. Berent shuns her, leaving the room when walks in.  Presumably, she suspects something.

Ruth suggests that Richard might better be able to deal with his loss if he had a child of his own. Normally, Ellen would be averse to the idea, as any love-nest person would be.  But she is desperate and appears to be considering it.  She does get pregnant, and as she get further along in her pregnancy, the doctor tells her not to walk up the stairs.  One day she does just that, only to discover that Richard is changing her father’s laboratory into a playroom.  For Ellen, the room was a shrine, and she did not want it changed.  She asks Richard why he didn’t consult her first.  Once again, given his lack of empathy, he was so convinced that he knew exactly what would make her happy, which just happened to be what would make him happy, that he saw no need to talk to her about it first.  And when Ellen appears to be upset, he once again falls back on the old excuse:  “We wanted to surprise you,” which is supposed to make everything all right.  He even admits he knows she doesn’t like being surprised, but he won’t be denied, saying, “but we were trying to please you.”  And that is supposed to put her in the wrong, making her appear ungrateful.  Of course, Mrs. Berent and Ruth are not much better, for they knew more than anyone how Ellen felt about her father, and yet they said nothing to Richard, but merely helped him with his plan.

As time goes by, Ellen finds herself even more limited in what she can do, the doctor telling her she needs lots of rest.  Meanwhile, Richard has been spending time with Ruth, of whom Ellen has long been suspiciously jealous, especially now that she does not like the way she looks in the late stages of her pregnancy.

Her pregnancy is obvious only to her and the people in the movie, however, not to us in the audience.  We are supposed to imagine that the robe she is wearing signifies a distended belly. Apparently, Joseph Breen, head of the Hays Office, was afraid that if a woman in a movie looked pregnant, that might cause us to think about the sex that was involved in getting her pregnant, thereby precipitating the collapse of Western civilization.

Anyway, thinking she is losing out to Ruth, with her nice trim figure, and realizing that having a baby would just be like having Danny around again, she says to Ruth, “I hate the little beast.  I wish it would die.”  After Ruth leaves, Ellen decides to induce an abortion by flinging herself down the stairs, making it look as though she tripped.  I’d be afraid that if I tried that, I would break my back and be paralyzed for the rest of my life.  But I guess she figured that the doctor would be able to tell if she used a coat hanger.  In any event, she loses (kills) the baby.  The suspicious Mrs. Berent says, referring to Richard, “First his brother, and now his son.”

The doctor says of Ellen, “When she came to, she remembered nothing about leaving her room.  She thought she must have been walking in her sleep.”  Ruth says she couldn’t have been asleep, since she was with her just twenty minutes before it happened.  But that is because Ruth is thinking of sleeping and dreaming in the ordinary sense, and not in the sense that is sometimes true of Ellen.

The Sister

Free of that baby, Ellen is happy again.  But that is short lived.  Mrs. Berent warned Richard that he should dedicate all his future books to his wife, but like an idiot, he dedicates his next book to Ruth, using his nickname for her, “To the Gal with the Hoe,” because she likes planting things.  Being the inclusive-family type, Richard thinks members of a family are all full of love for one another.  He has a blind spot when it comes to understanding just how jealous a love-nest person can be.

The dedication precipitates an argument between Ellen and Ruth, in which Ruth tells Ellen how much she despises her, a lot of which Richard overhears.  Then Ellen and Richard start arguing, and he finally coerces a confession out of her that she let Danny drown.  In one sense, this is a movie confession, one that meets the needs of melodrama; for we might legitimately imagine that a real-life Ellen would continue to deny all, saying she loved Danny, and that it broke her heart when he drowned.  But in another sense, this recalls her attempt to elicit sympathy from Dr. Mason by saying that Danny was a cripple.  She becomes so single-minded in her desire to be alone with Richard that she finds it difficult to lie, which does take more effort and deliberation than simply blurting out the truth.

Richard tells her he is going to leave her.  Figuring he is going to run off with Ruth, Ellen decides to fake evidence, making it look as though Ruth poisoned her.  On her death bed, she tells Richard she wants to be cremated, with her ashes scattered where her father’s ashes were.  He does as she asks, little knowing that she changed her will to say she wanted to be buried in a cemetery, making it look as though an attempt was made to prevent an autopsy.  And then we learn the significance of Russell’s vehement assertion that he will always love Ellen, which she referred to as a threat.  She writes Russell a letter, telling him that Richard and Ruth are in love, and that Richard wants a divorce.  She says she tried to get Ruth to give him up, but Ruth threatened to kill her.  Ellen undoubtedly realized that with Russell as the district attorney, he will be relentless in trying to convict Ruth of murder.

It almost works, but Richard finally tells all on the witness stand about what a monster Ellen was, killing his brother and then their baby, making it plausible that she wanted to make her suicide appear to be murder. Ruth is acquitted, but since Richard withheld evidence of Ellen’s crimes, he is charged as an accomplice, convicted, and sentenced to two years in prison.

And so, it is Ruth who is waiting for Richard at Back of the Moon.  Jeanne Crain is pretty in much the same way that Gene Tierney is, but with less character in her face.  We can easily believe that she will make for an innocent version of Ellen.  The irony is that Ruth will have Richard all to herself.

The Title

I suppose a word must be said about the title.  It comes from Hamlet, where the ghost of Hamlet’s father tells of how he was murdered by his brother, demanding that he be avenged.  But then he says, “Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven / And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge / To prick and sting her.”  This is quoted just below the title of the book.  But to whom is that admonition addressed, and does it make any sense?

It sounds as though the ghost is saying that Hamlet’s mother will suffer enough just knowing what she has done.  Well, I don’t see how that applies to Ellen.  First of all, Hamlet’s mother is not guilty of murder, only incest, if you can call it that, by marrying her brother-in-law, whereas Ellen is guilty of murder and other wickedness.  Second, whereas Hamlet’s mother is still alive when the ghost tells Hamlet not seek vengeance against her, it’s too late for anyone to get revenge against Ellen, because she’s dead.  We can’t say she has already suffered from remorse, because when she told Richard that she did let Danny drown, she said she had no regrets and would do it all over again.  Finally, Ellen’s death is not punishment.  It’s a weapon.  Her final act on this Earth was to use her own death to destroy Ruth.  That hardly sounds like someone who had been bothered by thorns in her bosom.

Perhaps the author of the novel figured people might not like the fact that Ellen goes unpunished, and he is trying to justify his letting her get away with it, as if an allusion is a substitute for logic.

Panic in the Year Zero (1962)

Before considering the movie Panic in the Year Zero, some general remarks about nuclear-war movies are in order.

Nuclear-War Movies

Nuclear war, should it ever occur, would be a dreadful thing.  But from that it does not follow that a movie about nuclear war will induce a feeling of dread in its audience. And so it is with a lot of subjects that, in themselves, are dreadful, but the presentation of which in a movie can be quite enjoyable. Murder is something dreadful, but murder mysteries are fun.

Perhaps that is because few of us are in fear of being murdered.  We take precautions, of course, but the prospect of being murdered does not weigh heavily on our minds. Cancer, on the other hand, is something that threatens us all.  And certainly, a movie about someone dying of cancer might be expected to induce a feeling of dread, such as Cries & Whispers (1972).  But other movies in which cancer plays a role can be quite enjoyable, such as Rebecca (1940).  Of course, it might be argued that the woman who has cancer in that movie, though she is the title character, is never seen, but only referred to.  However, in Dark Victory (1939), the protagonist, played by Bette Davis, has terminal cancer and dies in the end.  And while this movie is a tearjerker, it is not dreadful, but actually uplifting.

Whether a movie about nuclear was will be experienced as dreadful or not depends in part on the way the story is presented, and in part on the attitudes of those who watch the movie.  In the 1950s, the threat of a nuclear attack was thought to be a real possibility.  There were a lot of civil defense and military films produced by the government to prepare its citizens for nuclear attack, the most well-known being Duck and Cover (1952).  In this partially animated short, featuring Bert the turtle, who has the advantage of being able to duck into the shell he carries around with him, children are advised to seek shelter in case there is a warning that an attack is imminent.  We hear air-raid sirens, at which point children go into buildings, preferably into those with a bomb shelter.  In some cases, adults wearing civil defense helmets advise them where to go.  Since bombers were the principal means by which atomic bombs would be dropped in those days, it was expected that there would be such warnings.  If there was no warning, the first indication of such an attack would be a flash of bright light, at which point the children were advised to avail themselves of whatever cover was at hand, protecting their head and neck primarily.  Being a child myself back then, having been born in 1946, I remember that we would regularly have nuclear-attack drills.

I also remember the films.  In the 1980s, I began hearing about all the trauma children like me experienced in those days.  That’s not the way I remember it.  I used to like it when we were able to get out of class to see one of these films.  I especially liked watching the way buildings were flattened by the atomic bomb. Other students my age seemed to have similar attitudes.  When I was in junior high, some smart aleck posted a sign on the wall that read as follows:

In case of nuclear attack:

1. Bend over.

2. Put your head between your legs.

3. And kiss your ass goodbye.

As noted above, during the 1950s, the principal means of delivering nuclear bombs was by airplanes. Every day, twenty-four hours a day, planes loaded with nuclear bombs would head toward Russia, prepared to proceed to their targets should they receive an order to do so.  In Strategic Air Command (1955), James Stewart plays Dutch Holland, a professional baseball player.  He was a pilot during World War II, and now, being in the reserves, he is called back to active duty to fly the long-range bombers that carry a nuclear payload in case World War III should break out.  His wife Sally (June Allyson) really shouldn’t worry her pretty little head about the important work men have to do, but being a woman, she is all sentiment and feeling, and she just doesn’t understand her husband, who has to make all the big decisions in their marriage without consulting her, because a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

Halfway through the movie you’ll be wishing that war would break out, and that Dutch will get the order to proceed to a target inside Russia.  Instead, in an effort to keep us from being bored, the movie manufactures moments of dramatic tension:  a seemingly hostile situation just turns out to be a drill; an engine catches on fire, causing a crash; a bomber almost runs out of fuel, and Dutch has to land in the fog. It makes you sympathetic to the device in Top Gun (1986), in which a dogfight occurs between American fighter planes and those of an unnamed enemy, even though the country is not at war.  Let’s face it. Military movies set during peacetime can be pretty dull.  In fact, life during peacetime can also be pretty dull.  I sometimes wonder how many wars are started because someone got bored.

During the crash that occurred because the engine caught on fire, Dutch injured his shoulder.  This eventually leads to his being discharged, giving us the typical Hollywood ending:  Dutch got the satisfaction of doing the right thing by deciding to make a career out of being in the Air Force in spite of Sally’s objections, and Sally gets her way when he is forced to return to civilian life.  Of course, with an injured shoulder, it is unlikely that he will ever play third base again, which is in keeping with the sense of sacrifice that the men of SAC must make to keep this nation safe.

In 1964, two movies were made based on these long-range nuclear bombers:  Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove or:  How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.  The former was played straight, intended to fill us with dread; the latter was a satire, meant to be enjoyed.  Both movies, however, have an interesting twist.  The threat is not an attack by the Soviet Union, but rather a failure in the American defense system, one that allows the crews of American bombers to believe they have a legitimate order to attack Russia, even though the Russians have done nothing to warrant it.  In Fail Safe, it is an accident that some bombers receive an order to attack Russia; in Dr. Strangelove, a mentally unbalanced American Air Force general deliberately orders a nuclear strike. In both movies, a bomber manages to drop a nuclear bomb on Russia.

In Fail Safe, Henry Fonda, as president of the United States, has a nuclear bomb dropped on New York City as payback for the unintended strike on Moscow.  The fact that the president’s wife happens to be in New York at the time really makes this dreadful.  Dr. Strangelove, which is too well known to warrant even a minimal synopsis, is great fun.

Subsequent movies have played on this theme, in which America might inadvertently start a nuclear war rather than having it begin with an attack by the Russians, as was the principal fear in the 1950s. However, unlike the two movies above, an attack on Russia is averted in Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977), The Dead Zone (1983), War Games (1983), and Crimson Tide (1995).  That fact that nuclear war is completely avoided makes it easy to treat such movies as entertainment.

Movies in which nuclear war does break out are usually intended to fill us with dread, and they tend to be ambiguous as to who started it. In the early 1980s, there was some concern that President Ronald Reagan would get us into a nuclear war.  In response to this, there were protests and calls for disarmament. Perhaps as a result of this movement, The Day After was produced in 1983, in which escalating tensions build up between the United States and the Soviet Union until full-scale nuclear war breaks out. There is no sneak attack, and both sides seem to be partially to blame for what happens. This movie falls into the dreadful category, although it sometimes seems as though the point of the movie is that nuclear war will ruin everyone’s sex life.  An even more dreadful nuclear war movie is Testament (1983), where we never find out how the war started.  Another nuclear-war movie made during this period is Threads (1984), a television movie produced by the United Kingdom.  It too is supposed to be in the dreadful category, but we are reassured by the fact that Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” has survived.

Finally, there are the movies in which we learn about a nuclear war that has already taken place.  On the Beach is intended to give us that feeling of dread, no doubt owing to the fact that it was made in 1959. Since then, however, the nuclear war that took place at some time in the past merely allows us to enjoy stories of adventure in the post-apocalyptic world, notably the Mad Max movies.

The 1980s seem to be the last time the threat of nuclear attack was high on the list of things to worry about.  I live in Houston, and at the start of that decade, an air-raid siren could still be heard every Friday at noon as a test to make sure it was still working.  A few years later, this practice was discontinued. Nuclear-attack drills in school have been replaced by active-shooter drills.  Fallout shelters have been replaced by safe rooms.

Panic in the Year Zero

Panic in the Year Zero was made in 1962, when a sneak attack by the Soviet Union was still regarded as a genuine threat.  Early in the movie, nuclear war begins when just such a sneak attack is initiated, though by an unnamed enemy.  This movie is unusual in that it is intended to be enjoyed, despite such a scenario and the year in which it was produced.  Imagine an episode of Father Knows Best, a television show that ran from 1954 to 1960, in which the Anderson family finds itself having to deal with such an attack.  Except for the absence of someone corresponding to Kathy, the daughter still in grade school, there are corresponding characters in the Baldwin family in Panic in the Year Zero:  Harry Baldwin (Ray Milland); Ann (Jean Hagen), Harry’s wife; Rick (Frankie Avalon), their son; and Karen (Mary Mitchel), their daughter.

Frankie Avalon was twenty-one when this movie was made in 1962, but was still playing teenage roles, as in this movie.  Mary Mitchel was only one day younger than Avalon, but plays a teenager as well. One wonders, would it be considered politically incorrect to let adults like Avalon and Mitchel play teenagers in a movie made today, as a form of ageism, much in the way it is frowned upon to let actors play ethnicities and gender identities that are not really theirs?

In any event, when the movie begins, we hear a jazz score, which tends to suggest a loosening of the restraints of civilization.  At the same time, the camera focuses on a car radio.  In addition to the numbers and a vertical bar indicating the approximate locations of the AM stations, we see two marks that are immediately recognizable to those who were around when this movie was made:  the CONELRAD stations located at 640 and 1240 kHz.  In case of atomic attack, American citizens could tune in to those two stations and find out from the government what they should do or where they should go.

We see Harry with his fishing rod, standing in front of his car with a trailer attached. He and his family are about to embark on a trip to the country where they can do some fishing.  In other words, the Baldwin family will be away from Los Angeles when nuclear war breaks out, and they will be in good shape for surviving in the aftermath. However, it is important that it is a fishing trip and not a hunting trip they are going on.  Civilians who own guns when a movie begins usually end up being killed, as a kind of cinematic punishment.  But civilians that do not own guns when the movie begins, but acquire them later, after they find themselves in danger, are likely to survive and defeat the bad guys.

As the Baldwin family drives down the road, a couple of hours after having left town, they become aware of flashes of light behind them.  Harry says he is going to stop and check the rear window on the trailer, but that is not the real reason.  He suspects the flash may indicate something ominous, and he does not want to alarm his wife Ann. This is the first indication that Harry, being a man, is able to handle the truth, while Ann, being a woman, must be protected from the harsh realities of life.

Eventually, they see a mushroom cloud rising from the west.  They decide to call Ann’s mother to see if she knows anything.  And there, in the middle of nowhere, is a phonebooth on the side of the road, all by itself. Boy, was that a long time ago!

However, the telephone lines to Los Angeles are dead.  Up till now, Harry has been just like Robert Young in Father Knows Best, easy going and relaxed, but now he acquires an edge.  He is still the one in the family who knows best, but as the patriarch, he must now set aside his genial attitude and become firm and resolute in what must be done. But while Harry gets to be the one who can see the big picture, using reason and a realistic understanding of the Hobbesian world they are about to enter, Ann is consigned to the role of silly, emotional female.  When Harry says they cannot go back to Los Angeles, Ann cannot believe he is just going to forget about her mother.  Karen is not much better, being the other female in the family, who can’t believe her father doesn’t care about “grandma.”  Of course, Harry knows that Ann’s mother is dead by now, a fact the women in his family just cannot face.  Over and over, during this movie, Harry has to reprimand Ann for whining and being irrational, and he does so in a loud voice.  I felt sorry for her.  Then, I began to feel sorry for Jean Hagen, who had to play this part, similar to that of June Allyson’s character in Strategic Air Command.  But finally, I began to feel sorry for the women of those days who suffered from such stereotypes.

As noted above, the Baldwin family didn’t start out with guns.  But Harry decides they now need them, as well as a lot of other supplies.  Not having the cash to pay for it all, he robs a hardware store, using the very pistol he just purchased.  That is a bit of a cliché in the movies.  In real life, customers are not typically allowed to load up the gun they are about to purchase.

Rick helps his father pull off the robbery.  Being the other male in the family, he is rational and competent too.  However, being young, he is a little too eager to violently engage in this world of every man for himself.  In fact, he seems to be having a good time.  When Harry punches out the owner of a filing station in order to steal his gasoline, Ann is shocked, but Rick just grins.

The Baldwin family has two problems.  First, there is the general panic on the part of people like themselves.  Second, there are three jive-talking hoodlums they have to confront.  When these punks start roughing up Harry, Rick shoots one of them with a shotgun from inside the trailer.  The hoodlums take off. Harry asks Rick why he almost missed the guy, just barely wounding him in the shoulder. Ann admits that she pushed Rick’s arm to keep him from killing the guy.  Harry admonishes Ann, telling her they would have killed him and Rick, and then, in so many words, would have raped her and Karen.  Rape is a major theme in this movie, although the word “rape” is never used. One almost gets the feeling that the purpose of the women in this movie is either to be raped or be in danger of such.  After Ann gets back in the trailer, Rick gets a dreamy look in his eyes, saying, “I could have blown that guy’s head off.”  Harry gives Rick a stern lecture, telling him he mustn’t like doing this sort of thing.

Harry figures they would be sitting ducks living in the trailer, so they ditch it, cover the car with foliage, and take up residence in a cave.  When listening to a radio, they hear that looting has been taking place and that all those responsible are guilty of treason and will face the death penalty. Looks like Harry just might be in some trouble.

By coincidence, Ed Johnson, the owner of the hardware store Harry robbed, and his wife have made their way to the same area and have taken up residence in the trailer. It turns out that Harry was right to abandon it, for he and Rick later discover the couple have been murdered, and the wife raped.  But every cloud has a silver lining. That’s one less witness to the looting Harry’s been doing.

It turns out that the three hoodlums they encountered earlier have taken up residence in a nearby farmhouse.  And while Harry and Rick are burying the Johnsons, two of the hoodlums come across Karen and rape her, a really wild jazz score playing in the background.  Ann hears Karen screaming. She redeems herself somewhat by taking a couple of shots at the two men, but she doesn’t hit either of them because such competence would have been in conflict with the stereotype to which she must conform.

When Harry and Rick find out, they go to the farmhouse, and Harry kills the two hoodlums that raped Karen, the third one being out at the time.  They find Marilyn, who lived there with her parents before the hoodlums killed them.  She has been repeatedly gangraped by the three hoodlums and others as well.  Rick talks his father into bringing her with them.  The next day, Rick makes a move on Marilyn, but she recoils.  I guess he figured the rape had worn off on her by that time.

When the third hoodlum shows up, he shoots Rick in the leg, but Marilyn shoots and kills him.  She is allowed to be a competent female because she was raised on a farm, as opposed to urban females like Ann and Karen, who just get emotional.  Since Rick is losing a lot of blood, they are forced to leave camp and go back to civilization in search of a doctor.  While in the car, the radio says that the “enemy” has asked for a cessation of hostilities.  This enemy could not possibly be any other than the Russians, but they are not mentioned specifically.

After being stopped by some soldiers, who are restoring order in this post-apocalyptic world, they are directed to a hospital where Rick will be able to get blood.  It might be thought that the rape of the two teenage girls in this movie would preclude the possibility of regarding this movie as having a happy ending, but that is not the case. Although rape is, in itself, something dreadful, it, like murder, cancer, and nuclear war, can be featured in a movie meant to be enjoyed.  This is especially so if the movie is one in which women are depicted as being of little value, expect in their role as something for men protect or avenge.

The Caine Mutiny (1954)

When I was five years old, my parents had to work.  So, during the day, they put me in what then was called a nursery, but which today would be called a daycare center. One day, all the children were gathered together into a room where a young woman told us a story.  It was about a little girl who wouldn’t eat her dinner.  As a result, something bad happened to this little girl, though I forget exactly what.  I was as gullible as a five-year-old child could be, and so I took this story to heart.

Then it was time for lunch.  On the plate that was set before me was a lump of something called fishcake. If its appearance was unappetizing, its taste was even more so.  The scales fell from my eyes.  The young woman had told us that story so that we would not be like that little girl, but would eat this lunch as we were supposed to.  We were being manipulated by that story, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t eat the fishcake either. Nothing bad happened to me.

I had a similar feeling the first time I saw The Caine Mutiny as a child.  There was something about it I didn’t like, as if the story was an attempt to manipulate me.  I saw it again just recently, and I had the same feeling.

But first we need to put our minds back into the past.  The story is set during World War II; the novel which was the basis for this movie was written in 1950; and the movie itself was produced in 1954. As a result, in both the novel and the movie, the word “war” had positive connotations.  Most people would rate World War II as one of the best wars America ever fought.  The stirring, patriotic music that plays during the credits of this movie was undoubtedly heard by the audience back then without the slightest sense of irony.  Since then, wars have lost much of their glory.

When this movie begins, a ceremony is taking place in which men “from all walks of life” have been made ensigns in the United States Navy after three months of training. One of these ensigns is Willie Keith, played by Robert Francis, an actor you have probably never heard of, in part because he died young, but mostly because he is nondescript.  When the story is over, he will be in the final scene as well. He functions as someone the audience is invited to identify with, someone who is almost as much a spectator to the events in this movie as the audience is.

He has a romantic relationship with May Wynn, played by an actress of such little distinction that she changed her name to that of the character she played in this movie, as if that would help her with her career.  In other words, she is a minor actress, a suitable movie mate for Robert Francis.  In this way, there is no danger that they will distract from the main part of the movie, where major actors play a role.  Many critics have dismissed Willie’s relationship with May as just the obligatory love interest. However, it is more than that, because it forms the basis for a domestic mutiny. Willie is under the thumb of his domineering mother, whom he dare not disobey any more than he would disobey a commanding officer. The maternal jealousy on the part of his mother is something with which May must contend, which will not be easy, since she is a singer in a nightclub.

Once again, we must put our minds back into the past.  Back then, women that sang in nightclubs in the movies were morally suspect.  They were not above having sex before marriage.  And even if they didn’t, they seemed too worldly wise to be respectable, much more so than their more innocent counterparts, who still lived at home with their parents, or at least had a nice job like that of a school teacher.  That is why, in Imitation ofLife (1959), Annie (Juanita Moore) is devastated when she finds out that her daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) is singing in a nightclub, or why Mildred (Joan Crawford) is heartbroken in Mildred Pierce (1945) when she finds out that her daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) is singing in the nightclub owned by Wally (Jack Carson). In other words, May is someone that Willie’s mother would not approve of.

In any event, although May is at the ceremony where Willie becomes an ensign, he does not introduce her to his mother, telling May later that the time was not right.  He ends up breaking his date with May because his mother had other plans for him, but finally shows up at her nightclub while she is in the middle of a number.  After she finishes, Willie gets her to sit down with him, and they quarrel about his mother and her hold on him.  Finally, he tells her he has only forty-eight hours before he ships out, and he suggests that instead of going to some club for entertainment, they could just….  At this point, she puts her fingers against his lips to keep him from saying it, that he wants to spend the next two days having sex with her.  Having thus been propositioned, she responds, “Will you marry me?”  He tries to make excuses, protesting that he loves her, saying if only there were more time.  She replies, “I forgot who I was. Just another nightclub singer for a big weekend.”  She gets up and leaves in a huff.  We are inclined to regard him as a cad, but it’s not that. He just can’t break away from his mother.  Two days later, his mother sees him off at the dock.  He tells her not to cry.  Being a widow, she says, “I can’t help it.  You’re all I have left.” A mother’s hold on her son always becomes stronger when his father dies.  He kisses her on the cheek and says, “Goodbye, sweetheart.”

When he has his first look at the USS Caine, a minesweeper, it is the worst looking excuse for a ship ever seen, full of scroungy-looking sailors, all sloppily dressed.  Willie is then introduced to Lieutenant Tom Keefer (Fred MacMurray).  He takes Willie’s orders, remarking with sarcasm, “They transform ex-civilians into men without minds.”  This is a harbinger of what is to come, when the question will arise as to whether a bad order should be followed mindlessly.

He continues to make such derogatory remarks about the Caine in particular, and the Navy in general. At this point, we might wonder what a man with that attitude is doing in the Navy as an officer.  Not that I take exception to his attitude.  It’s just that we wonder, what is he doing here?  But again, we must place ourselves in the past.  Had he not taken that same three months of training Keith did to become an ensign when the war started, he would have been drafted and had to serve in the army.  Rather than suffer that fate, he probably figured that he would do better in the Navy. And he does do better, for on the Caine he has time to work on his novel.

This is the guy I immediately identified with.  But before the movie is out, Tom will be the villain of the piece.  Not the kind of villain that you have to admire for being shrewd and brave, like Sergeant Markoff in Beau Geste (1939), for example, but one who turns out to be a trouble-maker and a coward.  All this comes later, of course, but this is where it ties in with my fishcake story.  This movie is trying to manipulate me into not being like Tom.  It’s not going to work.

Tom introduces Willie to Executive Officer Steve Maryk (Van Johnson), who in turn takes him to meet the captain, Commander DeVriess.  If the seamen were sloppily dressed, at least they were dressed. DeVriess is sitting there naked except for a towel. He is rude to Keith, making snide remarks about his Princeton education.  This reminds me of Crimson Tide (1995), another mutiny movie, where Gene Hackman makes snide remarks about Denzel Washington’s Harvard education.  Does the Navy have something against an Ivy League education?  In any event, I guess one of the fringe benefits of being a commanding officer is that you get to belittle your subordinates, and they have to just stand there and take it.  It must be a bully’s paradise.

Owing to connections through his Uncle Lloyd, Willie has a chance to transfer to a better assignment as part of the admiral’s staff.  But Devriess intimidates him, making him feel as though he would be worthy of contempt if he accepted it.  So, Willie says he’ll stay on the Caine, something Tom says he’ll come to regret. But Devriess himself has been wanting off the Caine for two years, and when he finally gets the chance to transfer to another ship, his ass is gone.

He is replaced by Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg (Humphrey Bogart). Queeg is a by-the-book officer, and he sets about making the Caine shipshape, requiring the crew to dress appropriately. However, he is so much of a martinet that when he issues a bad order, the men are afraid to question it or take initiative themselves to prevent a bad result.  Then he insists that the bad result was not his fault, but just an accident.  In particular, Queeg becomes so upset that a sailor does not have his shirttail tucked in that he neglects the fact that the ship is sailing in a circle as a result of his last order.  When a man at the helm tries to warn him, Queeg yells at him for interrupting him, and then goes back to reprimanding Willie for allowing the sailor to leave his shirttail out.  As a result, the ship cuts the tow line, and the target is set adrift.  To retrieve it would result in the Caine getting back to port last, and that would look bad.  So, Queeg begins insisting that the tow line broke on account of a bad cable.  Then he starts being nice to everyone, hoping they will be sympathetic and overlook what happened.  But that lasts only a few minutes.  He soon starts being unlikable again.

The ship is ordered to return to San Francisco.  This time Willie introduces May to his mother, both of whom are at the dock.  Then he and May go to Yosemite.  If I have correctly decoded the signifiers that were needed when movies were made under the guidance of the Production Code, then they had sex. The next morning, he asks her to marry him.  But she suspects he is proposing only because it’s the “decent thing to do.” Fearing his mother’s disapproval, which she says will result in an unhappy marriage, she says “No.”

When Willie returns to the ship, Queeg calls the officers together, saying that “certain misleading reports were sent to the Force Commander.”  As he says this, the camera focuses on Tom, who has an insolent look on his face.  He presumably sent in a report about the tow-line incident, telling what really happened.

Queeg announces they have been ordered to take part in an invasion, escorting marines until they are close to shore.  But during the invasion, Queeg gets scared, ordering the ship to turn around sooner than it should, abandoning those marines.  He orders a yellow dye marker thrown overboard as they retreat as a way of telling the marines they can follow it as a safe path to shore, even though that path has not been cleared of mines.

As a result, someone later comes up with a song, “Yellowstain Blues,” referring to the color of the dye and the fact that Queeg figuratively wet his pants.  While they are singing the song, Willie worries that Queeg might hear them.  Tom dismisses his concerns, saying, “It’s about time you got over being impressed by people in authority like parents and ship’s captains.”  In so doing, he makes the link between the two mutinies to come, the one against Queeg, and the other on Willie’s part against his mother.  Willie says, sarcastically, “Thanks Dad.”  And this recalls the fact that if Willie’s father were still alive, his mother would not be so possessive, and his father would put a check on her maternal jealousy in any event.  It’s sort of the flipside of the Oedipus complex.  Freud said that a man has an unconscious desire to kill his father and marry his mother.  But if this is true, it also holds that as long as the father is alive, he retains possession of the mother, leaving the son free to find his own woman.

In any event, Queeg calls the officers together.  As happened with the incident involving the tow line, Queeg starts appealing to their sympathy and understanding regarding his recent act of cowardice, saying they all need to work together, for the sake of the “family.”  After he leaves, Steve says he liked the speech, but Tom is unimpressed.  He argues that Queeg is mentally unbalanced and paranoid, mentioning, among other things, the two steel balls Queeg rolls around in his hand whenever he becomes agitated.  Steve orders Tom never to speak of this again.

But in the very next scene, we see Steve reading a book entitled Mental Disorders.  The seed has been planted.  He then begins to keep a medical log, recording events that are indicative of mental illness. These events culminate in the Case of the Missing Strawberries.  Queeg becomes obsessed with finding out who ate some strawberries without authorization.  He becomes convinced that someone made a copy of the key that would have allowed for such pilferage.  He turns the ship upside down trying to find the key, which will tell him who the culprit is.  Of course, there is no such key.

Steve is finally convinced.  He and Tom and Willie sail over to the admiral’s ship to report the situation. However, Tom begins to realize that it would be a mistake to say anything.  They will only be causing trouble for themselves.  He says they need to forget the whole thing.  Willie asks him if he’s scared.  Tom admits it, saying, “I’m too smart to be brave.”  Steve gives up as a result.  They return to the Caine just as a storm is coming up.

It turns out to be a typhoon.  The safe thing to do is head into the wind, but the last orders they had from the fleet before they lost communication were to head away from the wind.  Steve says they don’t know what the fleet’s orders are now.  Queeg insists that they continue to follow the last orders and head away from the wind.  This too is like the situation in Crimson Tide, where a break in communications sets up the question, should we follow the last order received, or should we use our best judgment under the circumstances? And, of course, both situations are like that in the poem “Casabianca,” in which a boy on a ship is given orders by his father to stay at his post. Unbeknownst to him, his father is subsequently killed.  As the ship goes up in flames, while the rest of the crew abandons it, the boy remains at his post in the face of certain death, calling to his father to tell him what to do.  The ship is completely destroyed in a huge explosion when the fire reaches the magazine.  The last two lines of the poem are the following:  “But the noblest thing which perished there / Was that young, faithful heart!” The moral is that it is better to die obeying an order than to survive by disobeying it, even if that order was no longer appropriate, given the change in circumstances.  Interestingly, the boy’s father is also the commanding officer of the ship, making the connection between parental and military authority that is also being suggested by this movie.

In the end, Steve relieves Queeg of his command, thereby committing mutiny.  He turns the ship into the wind, and the ship survives the storm.

When they get back to San Francisco, Willie gets a call from May.  Although they have broken up, she is worried because Ensign Harding called her and said Willie was in trouble.  Ensign Harding was able to leave the Caine before the typhoon hit because his wife had become seriously ill.  May asks Willie if his mother is there with him.  He tells her she isn’t.  She had to go to New York to be with Uncle Lloyd, who is sick.  He tells May he loves her and wants to marry her, but she still refuses.

Now we must ask the question, why was this business about a sick Uncle Lloyd written into the script? Apparently, it serves the function of separating Willie from his mother without his having to openly break with her of his own free will.  It would be like Queeg having to leave the Caine before the typhoon hit because Mrs. Queeg had become seriously ill, just like what happened to Ensign Harding.  Then there would have been no mutiny.  But in this case, the domestic mutiny is avoided in a way that the mutiny on the Caine was not.  We know that this is the first step toward getting Willie and May married, but it won’t be because Willie finally had the moral courage to choose May over his mother, but because fortuitous circumstances did the work for him.

Anyway, a Lieutenant Barney Greenwald (José Ferrer), a lawyer, talks to Steve, Willie, and Tom to see whether he will defend them in a court-martial.  He tells them he thinks what they did stinks, and that they might all be hanged.  Tom suggests they get another lawyer, but Greenwald says that eight other lawyers have already turned the job down, so there’s no one else.  That’s weird.  Even Charles Manson could get a lawyer.  Well, I wouldn’t know personally, but I guess that’s just one more difference between being a civilian and being in the military.

Tom backs Steve’s position that Queeg was paranoid and went to pieces at a critical moment. Greenwald brings his attention to the fact that even though Tom did not take part in the mutiny, he counseled Steve that Queeg was mentally unfit, and so he can be found as guilty as Steve and Willie. Tom becomes uncomfortable and leaves the room. Later, on the witness stand, he gives weaselly answers, denying that he ever suggested that Queeg was mentally unfit.

It is unlikely, however, that it would have helped Steve had Tom told the truth.  All he would have done was incriminate himself along with Steve.  The only thing that saves Steve is Queeg’s testimony. Little by little, Queeg becomes rattled under cross-examination.  Finally, when he starts talking about the missing strawberries and the imaginary key, while rolling those two steel balls in his hands, it becomes clear to the court-martial that he is indeed delusional and paranoid.  As a result, Steve is acquitted, which means Willie is in the clear as well.

The officers throw a party to celebrate.  Tom walks into the room.  When Steve says he’s surprised he had the courage to show up, Tom says he didn’t have the courage not to.  Then Greenwald arrives, drunk.  He says he feels guilty for what he did, since Queeg was defending this country while Greenwald was studying law, Tom was a writing a novel, and Willie was “tearing up the playing fields of Princeton.”  Boy, these guys in the Navy really seem to resent an Ivy League education.

At least, they seem to in this movie.  For all I know, the United States Navy might be perfectly happy to have officers that have graduated from an Ivy League University.  But in the movie, this resentment is an expression of anti-intellectualism, which despises men like Willie, on account of his education, and Tom, on account of his ability to write a novel.  They are regarded as elitists who think they are smarter than their superior officers, giving them the right to disobey bad orders.

In the novel, while Greenwald says he is a Jew, and that it was men like Queeg that kept his mother from being melted down into a bar of soap.  This is ironic, since a lot of German soldiers were tried as war criminals precisely because they did obey orders.  Anyway, this is a non sequitur.  Queeg’s service prior to the Caine has nothing to do with whether he had become mentally unbalanced.

But Greenwald continues.  It turns out that everything would have been all right if everyone had been nice to Queeg.  But they didn’t all rally round when Queeg gave that speech about the need for understanding and family feeling after he ordered the ship to abandon the marines during the invasion.  That’s what drove him over the edge.  They were mean to him.  Then Greenwald throws some champagne, which is yellow, in Tom’s face, saying he is the bad guy, because he was the trouble-maker who instigated the whole thing.

Because Greenwald speaks with an authoritative voice, and because he gets the last word on this matter, then according to movie logic, that means he is right.  But there’s just one problem with that. We saw what happened on the Caine, and Queeg was nutty as a fruitcake.  But a fruitcake is one thing, and a fishcake is something else.  I’m not swallowing what this movie has served up.

The movie ends with a copout regarding Willie and May too.  After the trial, he calls her, and for some reason not given, she now agrees to marry him.  He says they will get married first, and tell his mother afterwards.  Why wait until afterwards?  Is he still afraid of his mother?  In any event, we never get to hear the conversation in which Willie tells his mother he has married a nightclub singer. And so, for all that talk about how the marriage will not work because his mother will never approve, we are supposed to forget about that.  I guess the idea is that if a man has the courage to participate in a mutiny, he should have the courage to stand up to his mother, even if the movie did not have the courage to show him doing so.

The Head and the Heart

If a man is a genius, a certain amount of unlikable personality traits will be tolerated. Sherlock Holmes, for instance, is often portrayed as austere and aloof.  While he is not rude to others, he can be insensitive. In The Sign of the Four, Dr. John Watson, fed up with Holmes’ superior manner, decides to put him to the test, handing him his watch, sure that Holmes will not be able to glean anything from it.  After Holmes deduces that Watson inherited the watch from his elder brother, who had inherited it from their father, he shrugs off the fact that there is not much to work with, concluding:

“He was a man of untidy habits,—very untidy and careless. He was left with good prospects, but he threw away his chances, lived for some time in poverty with occasional short intervals of prosperity, and finally, taking to drink, he died. That is all I can gather.”

Watson is taken aback by this unfeeling description of his brother.  Holmes apologizes:

“My dear doctor,” said he, kindly, “pray accept my apologies. Viewing the matter as an abstract problem, I had forgotten how personal and painful a thing it might be to you….”

The apology Holmes offers shows that he is not completely without feeling.  It’s just that when engaged in a problem requiring the concentration of his intellect, he can sometimes be oblivious to the feelings of others.  In fairness, however, Holmes never gets his feelings hurt by the remarks of others, so the possibility of hurting others sometimes has to be brought to his attention.  This is one of the shortcomings of the Golden Rule.  Doing unto others as you would have others do unto you can lead to just such a situation, where you hurt someone’s feelings because your own feelings would not have been hurt had you been in his place.

It makes sense, furthermore, that Holmes is celibate.  In real life, geniuses fall in love, just like everyone else.  But in creating this character, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle knew that Holmes’ intellect, in order to be regarded as preternatural, must be such as to exclude all tender feeling.  The only woman that ever really impressed Holmes was Irene Adler in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and that was only because she proved to be his equal in one of his cases.  At the end of The Sign of the Four, Watson tells Holmes he is going to marry Miss Morstan.  Holmes explains why he has a dim view the matter:

But love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things. I should never marry myself, lest I bias my judgment.”

The eponymous character in the television show House (2004-2012) is essentially a Sherlock Holmes character in the medical field.  He cares nothing about the patients he treats as human beings, but only as the embodiment of medical problems that may challenge his intellect.

Cultural changes, however, required a couple of modifications.  Holmes used cocaine to relieve his boredom, which was fine for when The Sign of the Four was written, inasmuch as this drug was more acceptable in the late nineteenth century than it is now.  Today, we typically dislike characters in a movie that snort cocaine, although Scarface (1983) is an exception.  But even the title character of that movie had to die in the end.  The use of opioids, on the other hand, is more likely to elicit our sympathy than our disgust.  Therefore, House is addicted to Vicodin.

A second change concerns sex.  We could readily believe that Holmes was celibate in the nineteenth century, but such abstinence is not acceptable today, where the audience will insist on a character’s sexuality whether it is depicted or not.  Therefore, the next best thing to celibacy for House is his employment of prostitutes, with whom he wants no conversation, just physical sex.  But it has the same effect as celibacy for Holmes, where having a superior intellect seems to come at the cost of being unable, or unwilling, to love someone.

One reason we like stories with such characters is that we vicariously enjoy their arrogance, since we ourselves often chafe at having to be so darn humble and polite. In The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Krüger) is a genius who does not suffer fools gladly, but we suffer him gladly because he is so brilliant.  His foil is Captain Frank Towns (Jimmy Stewart).  Stewart’s screen persona is that of a man with common sense.  As a rule, when Stewart gives a speech in a movie, he’s right.  So, it comes as something of a shock in this movie when, following one of those common-sense pronouncements for which Stewart is famous, Dorfmann, just barely able to keep his exasperation in check, has to explain to Towns that he is wrong.  This happens again and again.  At the end of the movie, Towns is finally allowed to redeem himself, where his experience as a pilot completes Dorfmann’s expertise in the principles of flight. As for Dorfmann, as he attempts to build a smaller airplane out in the desert out of the parts of the original plane that crashed, he regards people as merely objects that may be of practical value in his project or a hindrance to it.  At one point, he shows some kindness to one of the passengers who has become weak, so he is redeemed in that regard, at least to that small extent.

The theme common to these stories would seem to be that having a superior intellect precludes the possibility of also being kind, compassionate, and lovable.  From a strictly logical point of view, there would seem to be no reason for intelligence and a pleasant disposition to be mutually exclusive, that if you have the one, you cannot have the other. Surely there are geniuses that are kind and loving, just as there are simpletons that are mean and cruel. But as a practical matter, the one does often seem to come at the expense of the other.  It may be that a superior intellect has a natural tendency to make someone arrogant, impatient with the dimwitted fools with whom he must deal.

In any event, there are novels and movies that complement the ones above, in which someone with a mental defect of some sort is more compassionate and lovable than ordinary people, as if an impairment of the intellect is conducive to a pleasant disposition.  In Regarding Henry (1991), the title character (Harrison Ford) is a partner in a law firm. When the movie opens, we see snow falling hard in front of a courthouse in New York City, and it looks really cold, cold as the heart of this protagonist.  He is in a courtroom defending a hospital that is being sued for malpractice.  In summing up for the jury, he talks about feelings, about sympathy and understanding, about human nature.  But, he concludes, almost reluctantly, that the plaintiff is the one that is really at fault, not the hospital.  Back at the office, after having won the case, he mocks the defendant, belying all those fine phrases he uttered in the courtroom. (We later find out the hospital was at fault.)  In general, Henry is arrogant, ruthless, and demanding, as unpleasant at home as he is at work. Then he gets shot in the head during a holdup, and after a little therapy, becomes a really sweet, loving family man who realizes that when he was a lawyer, he did things that were immoral.

This is not realistic. My guess is that if brain damage caused a personality change, it would more likely be for the worse.  The story of Phineas P. Gage leaps to the mind.  In the nineteenth century, Gage was a railroad construction foreman.  An accidental explosion drove a tamping rod through his head, taking out a fair amount of brain matter in doing so.  Somehow, he survived.  But whereas he was likable before the accident, he became irritable and difficult to get along with afterwards. Therefore, a more likely outcome would be that a man like Henry would still be the same obnoxious person he was before, only worse, for now he would be even less inhibited in his ill treatment of others.  He would never again be able to fake sincerity when summing up before a jury.  But stranger things have happened, so I suppose the combination of a bullet in the head and lack of oxygen could destroy the part of the brain that makes a man a jerk.

Our ability to suspend disbelief is not helped by the fact that the matter of their finances is never really addressed. Henry’s daughter Rachel asks her mother Sarah (Annette Bening) if they are going to be poor, for which Sarah has no good answer. The advice she gets from a friend is not to tell anyone about the dire nature of their finances, but to go out with some friends and spend lots of money, as if keeping up appearances is the solution to Sarah’s problems. That strikes me as a formula for disaster.  Sarah does have a job, they do find a less expensive place to live, and they eventually pull Rachel out of a private school, although the movie would have us believe that it is for emotional reasons rather than financial ones. In short, we do not have enough specifics to draw any definite conclusions about their finances, but I would have expected more drastic cutbacks in expenditures than that. And it would seem that Sarah will need new friends, a little lower down in the socio-economic scale. So, when Henry resigns from his law firm, the sense of financial doom is still hanging over them, even if the movie appears to be in denial about that.  The point is that our credulity is already strained by the premise that an obnoxious man would be transformed by brain damage into a wonderful person. But a functioning brain is necessary for paying the bills, and the additional unreality of their financial situation pushes our ability to suspend disbelief just a bit too far.  The story is unworthy of its moral, which is that the heart is more important than the head.

Another movie in which brain damage of a sort paves the way for a pleasant personality is A Chump at Oxford (1939).  Through plot complications that need not be detailed here, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy end up enrolled at Oxford, where they are harassed by other students that are hazing them. Stanley is recognized by their valet as Lord Paddington, the greatest scholar and athlete the university ever had. However, the valet goes on to say, one day a window fell on Paddington’s head, causing him to lose his memory and wander away.  Stanley and Ollie dismiss the story as impossible.

While trying to cope with the other students, Stanley sticks his head out the window, the same one as before.  It falls and hits him in the head, returning his memory, intellect, and athletic ability.  He makes short work of the bothersome students.

Eventually, Stanley, now Lord Paddington, condescends to let Ollie be his valet, though he verbally abuses him, and so much so that Ollie is ready to quit.  But as fate would have it, Paddington looks out the window again.  It falls on him, thereby returning him to the lovable Stanley.  Ollie is delighted to have him back, even though it would likely not be long before there will be another fine mess that Stanley gets Ollie into.

This is a simple story about the head and the heart, in which the latter is more important.  Better to have Stanley, who is dull-witted but good natured, than to have Lord Paddington, who is superior in intellect, but is rude and arrogant, even if damage to the brain is necessary to bring it about.

Another movie that champions the heart over the head is Harvey (1950).  James Stewart plays Elwood P. Dowd, who claims to have an invisible giant rabbit named Harvey as a companion, for which reason his sister tries to have him committed to an insane asylum.  In addition to appearing to be crazy, Elwood comes across as simpleminded.  However, he is always nice to people.  Once again, we have the connection between a mental defect of some sort as a condition for a pleasant disposition.  We get the sense that Elwood has not always been like this.  At one point, while talking to the head of the insane asylum, he says:

Years ago, my mother used to say to me…, “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh, so smart or oh, so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.

There is a drug that can be administered to people with Elwood’s problem, Formula 977.  However, according to the cab driver, while it will cure Elwood of his madness, making him a normal human being again, he will no longer be the nice, polite person he is now, but will become irritable and rude, just like everyone else.

Once again, the idea seems to be that intelligence precludes a pleasant disposition, that the more you have of the one, the less you have of the other.  The title character of Forest Gump (1994) also exemplifies this principle, for he is a really nice guy, but slow-witted.

One of my favorite words on this question of the head and the heart comes at the end of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.  Unlike the movie versions of this novel, which end optimistically, holding out the hope that the Time Traveller, upon returning to the future, will be able to rebuild civilization with the aid of three books he takes back with him; the novel itself is pessimistic, holding a low regard for the accomplishments of human intelligence.  After the Time Traveller has left once again, never to return, the author reflects on the story he has just been told, dispelling the folly of optimism, of the belief in progress:

He, I know—for the question had been discussed among us long before the Time Machine was made—thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind, and saw in the growing pile of civilisation only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end. If that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so. But to me the future is still black and blank—is a vast ignorance, lit at a few casual places by the memory of his story. And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers—shrivelled now, and brown and flat and brittle—to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.

These stories where a loss of intelligence results in kindness and compassion should not be construed as saying that the former must be destroyed in order that the latter may flourish.  That simply would not be true.  Rather, the loss of intellect is a dramatic device by which we can see which of the two is more important.  Perhaps it was Arthur Schopenhauer who said it best in The World as Will and Representation (translated by E.F.J. Payne):

Brilliant qualities of the mind earn admiration, not affection; that is reserved for moral qualities, qualities of character. Everyone will much rather choose as his friend the honest, the kind-hearted, and even the complaisant, easy-going person who readily concurs, than one who is merely witty or clever….  The known goodness of a character makes us patient and accommodating to weaknesses of understanding as well as to the obtuseness and childishness of old age….  For just as torches and fireworks become pale and insignificant in the presence of the sun, so intellect, even genius, and beauty likewise, are outshone and eclipsed by goodness of heart. Where such goodness appears in a high degree, it can compensate for the lack of those qualities to such an extent that we are ashamed of having regretted their absence. Even the most limited understanding and grotesque ugliness, whenever extraordinary goodness of heart has proclaimed itself as their accompaniment, become transfigured, as it were, enwrapped in rays of a beauty of a more exalted kind, since now a wisdom speaks out of them in whose presence all other wisdom must be reduced to silence.

The Wrong Man (1956)

The Wrong Man begins with a prologue, not a written one, but a scene with Alfred Hitchcock at a distance, barely visible in the light on a dark street, saying that the movie we are about to see is “a true story, every word of it.”  Then come the credits, followed by a disclaimer where this is directly contradicted:

The story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this production are fictitious. No identification with actual persons, living or dead, is intended or should be inferred.

So, there!

The story is about a man named Christopher Emanuel “Manny” Balestrero (Henry Fonda), who works at the Stork Club in New York as the bass player in the orchestra. When he gets off work, while riding the subway, he looks at an advertisement for an automobile promising family fun.  For some reason, there is no advertisement suggesting that a bachelor might have fun with an automobile. But then, I guess a bachelor doesn’t need an automobile to have fun.

Then he looks at an advertisement for a bank, claiming to be a family bank. There is no advertisement claiming to be a bank for bachelors, so I don’t know where they would go to borrow money.  But then, I guess bachelors don’t need to borrow money from a bank.

The movie continues to drive home the point that Manny is a family man.  When he stops to get something to eat, the man behind the counter asks him, “How’s the family?”  When he gets home, he brings in the milk left by the milkman, which is a nice family touch, but either Manny works really late, or the milkman makes his deliveries extra early.  As he passes the bedroom where his two sons are sleeping, he looks in on them. Then he checks in on his wife Rose (Vera Miles).  The next day, his mother calls, asking him to stop by.  We later find out he has a sister and brother-in-law.  I suppose the idea is that what will soon happen to him will disrupt everyone in his extended family, making it much worse than if it happened to a bachelor who grew up as an only child and whose parents are no longer living.

In looking at the ads mentioned above, it is clear that Manny would love to take out a loan from the family bank to buy the car and have some family fun.  But that is just an idle dream for him.  He pretends to play the horses, marking pretend bets, and then checking later to see how much he would have won.  But his reality is dreary.  He may have to take out a loan, not for a car, but rather so that Rose can have her wisdom teeth removed.  And the reason his mother wants him to stop by is that “Pop” is not doing well.

Manny takes Rose’s life insurance policy to the company to get that loan.  While there, he is mistaken for a man that held up the company on two previous occasions.  They call the police after he leaves, and Manny is arrested and taken to the police station.  A police detective assures him that an innocent man has nothing to worry about, that only the guilty have anything to fear.  And yet, he is repeatedly identified as the man that held up one business or another, including the insurance company.

This is as unsurprising as it is unnerving.  If a Mr. Jones is already known to the witness of a crime beforehand, and he then testifies that Jones committed that crime, we have good reason to trust his testimony.  But if the witness had never seen Jones before the day of the crime, then his testimony to that effect should be treated with a fair amount of skepticism.  I have read of studies in which psychologists staged crimes before a room full of students.  In one, only 14% of the witnesses were able to correctly identify the “culprit.”  In another staged crime, 60% of the witnesses in the classroom, including the professor, identified the wrong man as the one supposedly guilty of the faked assault.  And yet, many an innocent man has been sent to prison on the basis of just such evidence alone.

There have been over a dozen times in my life where someone has mistaken me for someone else, saying he saw me at a store I never go to, or asked me how I enjoyed the concert, which I did not attend.  I usually joke that I hope these doppelgängers behave themselves so that I don’t get blamed for something they did. But when watching this movie, recalling those times where I have been mistaken for someone else makes me squirm.

In a lot of movies, Manny would be arrested, locked up, arraigned, and bailed out in five minutes of screen time.  But Hitchcock takes us through the whole process slowly, so that we experience the dread of handcuffs, bars, hard beds, and angular accommodations.  On the day of his arraignment, he has to show up in court unshaven, which only adds to his humiliation.

After he is bailed out, thanks to money raised by his sister and brother-in-law, Rose begins having a nervous breakdown.  She blames herself for what happened to Manny, but then she blames him, accusing him of borrowing money on a previous occasion so they could go on a vacation they couldn’t afford, something he had already admitted at the police station.  So, it appears that some of Manny’s money problems were self-inflicted, contrary to what we thought at first.

Then, at his trial, the prosecuting attorney, in his opening statement, says he will show that Manny needed to borrow money to pay off the bookies, based on statements he made to the detectives. Manny looks at his lawyer, Frank O’Connor (Anthony Quayle), negatively shaking his head to indicate that it isn’t true.  We heard Manny admit that he went to the race track a few times, but that is all. Did the detectives misunderstand him?  Did they purposely make this up?  Or were those supposedly pretend bets in fact real bets, and he was in trouble with the bookies? We never find out, since it ends in a mistrial.

The reason for the mistrial is that a juror expresses his impatience when O’Connor is cross-examining the eyewitnesses.  There are two witnesses, a Mrs. James and a Miss Willis, who both work at the insurance company, and who had picked Manny out of a lineup.  First, Mrs. James identifies Manny as the one that held up the insurance company where she worked.  Then Miss Willis takes the stand.  Manny’s lawyer asks her about the “alleged lineup,” to which there is an objection.  At first, I thought it strange that he would make a disparaging remark like that about the lineup.  We were able to see the men that were grouped together with Manny, and I saw nothing problematic about them.  Perhaps the subsequent dialogue reveals his misgivings:

O’Connor:  Were there any men in that alleged lineup you knew before that night?

[After an objection to his use of the word “alleged,” he continues.]

O’Connor:  How many of the men did you know?

Miss Willis:  One.

O’Connor:  And who was that?

Miss Willis:  Mrs. James’ husband.

Mrs. James’ husband!  What kind of lineup is that?  We saw the scene where the women picked Manny out of the lineup.  So, why didn’t we hear Mrs. James say, “George!  What are you doing here?”

Anyway, O’Connor then begins a tedious process of asking Miss Willis about the men in the lineup, including Mr. James.  He asks what the various men were wearing, how tall they were, and how much they weighed.  Who could be expected to remember such details?  It is at this point that a juror asks, “Your Honor, do we have to sit here and listen to this?”

He took the words right out of my mouth!  If this is the best O’Connor can do, I thought to myself, Manny is in trouble.  Anyway, justified or not, the remark occasions the request for a mistrial, which is granted.

After the mistrial, Rose has a complete mental collapse, staring vacantly off into space. She talks about how “they” will find Manny guilty no matter what he does.  Manny has to put her in an “institution.” However, he voiced similar sentiments himself when two of the men that might have provided him with an alibi turned up dead.  He tells O’Connor, “You know, like someone was stacking the cards against us.”  We don’t take his remark seriously, but it is intended to prepare us for what is to come; for it clearly suggests that there is a baleful, supernatural influence working against him, which can only be thwarted by a countervailing supernatural force for good.

And so it is that in what thus far has been an engrossing movie, there is a complete narrative rupture. Manny’s mother tells him he should pray.  He says he already has prayed.  And we know he has.  When first arrested, he has to remove all the items from his pocket.  One such item is a Rosary. Any man that would carry a Rosary around in his coat pocket is definitely religious.  During the trial, we see him holding the Rosary in his hands, under the table, presumably saying the prayers.  And so far, those prayers have come to naught.  Nevertheless, his mother says, “My son, I beg you to pray.”

Manny goes into the next room where he looks at a picture of Jesus on the wall.  We see him gazing at it as his lips move.  His image is superimposed over that of a man walking down the street.  He comes closer and closer until Manny’s face coincides with the face of the man in the street.  They have roughly similar features.

Well, the man tries to rob a store, and the owners subdue him and have him arrested. At the police station, one of the detectives working Manny’s case notices the similar appearance of that man to that of Manny. The end result is that Manny is freed.

This miracle ruins the movie.  And it is especially presumptuous, given Hitchcock’s claim that the story is true.  Yes, it was probably true that Manny’s mother told him to pray, and right after that the holdup man was arrested.  But given the way it is filmed, there can be no doubt that there has been divine intervention, something Hitchcock could hardly guarantee.  Maybe that’s why there was a disclaimer.

We never minded when we saw Manny praying with the Rosary.  Religious people pray in times of stress. And if he had subsequently been freed when the man was arrested later on in the film, we would not have felt obliged to see that as resulting from a supernatural cause.  But the scene involving Manny’s face superimposed over the holdup man as Manny prayed to the picture of Jesus makes it impossible to interpret that as anything other than a genuine miracle.

In Chapter XV of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the author reflects upon the fact that the degree of credence we accord to miracles depends largely on when they are supposed to have occurred.  He admits that in the early days of Christianity, the intervention of God was more necessary than it is today:

If the truth of any of those miracles is appreciated by their apparent use and propriety, every age had unbelievers to convince, heretics to confute, and idolatrous na­tions to convert; and sufficient motives might always be produced to justify the interposition of Heaven. And yet, since every friend to revelation is persuaded of the reality, and every reasonable man is convinced of the cessation, of miraculous powers, it is evident that there must have been some period in which they were either suddenly or gradually withdrawn from the Christian church.

And so it is, Gibbon goes on to say, that it is only with reluctance that even the most devout will admit to miracles in present circumstances:

In modern times, a latent and even involuntary scepticism adheres to the most pious dispositions. Their admission of supernatural truths is much less an active con­sent than a cold and passive acquiescence. Accustomed long since to observe and to respect the variable order of Nature, our reason, or at least our imagination, is not sufficiently prepared to sustain the visible action of the Deity.

And if Gibbon was right when saying this in the eighteenth century, then all the more so is this true in the twentieth and now the twenty-first centuries.  People might still accept miracles that occurred in subsequent centuries, but Gibbon’s expression “visible action of the Deity” is significant.  What counts as a miracle no longer is something utterly contrary to what can occur in nature, such as when Joshua made the sun stand still.  Rather, it is something compatible with natural causes, but ascribed to the hand of God nevertheless.  We might say of such miracles that they involve the invisible action of the Deity.  When an airplane crashes, and all are killed except a baby, some may say that it was a miracle the infant survived, but we know that the skeptical will have no trouble attributing the event to mere chance.

What Gibbon said of real life also applies to the movies.  We not only accept, but also look forward to, the depiction of miracles in film as they occurred in biblical times, whether it be that of Moses parting the Red Sea, or that of Jesus walking on water.  But when a miracle supposedly takes place in a movie that is set in contemporaneous times, we do not see a marvelous violation of the laws of nature, but rather an outcome that could have happened naturally, but which the movie encourages us to regard as a miracle, usually because someone prays just before the event takes place, a conclusion we would never have come to otherwise.

For example, in Made for Each Other (1939), a nun encourages Carol Lombard to pray to a statue of Jesus that the serum for her baby will arrive in time to save its life, even though there is a blizzard raging so severe that pilot who is going to bring the serum will be risking his life to make that flight.  She does pray to that statue of Jesus, after which the pilot, who has had to bail out of his plane, manages to get to a farmhouse, where the farmer calls the hospital to tell them the serum has arrived.  Absent the prayer to an image of Jesus just prior to these events, we would never have concluded that God intervened to save her baby.  We’d have simply said to ourselves, “Well, that was a close call!”

After he has been exonerated, Manny goes to the insane asylum to tell Rose the good news, but she continues to stare off into space, saying it doesn’t matter.  He says to the nurse, “I guess I was hoping for a miracle.”  She replies, “They happen, but it takes time.”  The epilogue tells us that Rose was released from the hospital after two years.

Just as we were not bothered by the Rosary and Manny’s prayers during the trial, so too do we think nothing of this conversation about a miracle regarding Rose’s recovery. People speak of miracles figuratively all the time, meaning nothing more than a positive outcome that is unlikely.  So, it is only the literal miracle involving the picture of Jesus that ruins the movie.

There are movies, even those set in the twenty-first century, where miracles are perhaps more acceptable. If the movie lets us know from the outset that it is religious in nature, such as God’s Not Dead (2014), where God, we are invited to believe, keeps a reverend from being able to leave town so that he can get the dying atheist professor to ask for God’s forgiveness and be saved (i.e., so we can see the atheist crawl in the end), the miracle is at least in keeping with what has come before.  It doesn’t matter whether you regard this as a good movie or not.  The point is that the miracle is not unexpected, since we have been prepared for something like that from the beginning.

In the case of The Wrong Man, however, we have not been so prepared.  Up to the point of the miracle, this is the most realistic movie Hitchcock ever directed, and thus the fantastic miracle really seems out of place. When out of the blue, a miracle occurs as a means to resolving a dramatic difficulty, it comes across as a deus ex machina, a contrived and artificial solution to a problem that seems unsolvable.  In the case of The Wrong Man, however, the miracle could have been left out, and we would have accepted the arrest of the man who actually held up the insurance company as something that could easily have happened. So, we get the disadvantage of a deus ex machina, as something contrived, without any benefit, since there was no need for such a drastic solution to Manny’s problem in the first place.

In addition to movies that announce their religious themes up front, I suppose it is worth mentioning that we never object to miracles in a comedy, as in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941).  And whatever misgivings we have about miracles ordinarily understood, in which God intervenes for someone’s benefit, we usually are much more receptive to evil miracles, as it were, as when Satan intervenes for his own wicked reasons, as in The Exorcist (1973).

The problem with depicting a miracle in modern times is not only, as Gibbon says, that we are reticent to accept the occurrence of genuine miracles in the modern age.  It is also the fact that the supposed occurrence of such encourages reflection on the problem of evil, to wit, if there really is an all-powerful, loving God, then why is there so much sin and suffering in the world?  For a lot of religious people, this is not a problem. They have their pat answers, involving such things as free will, God’s divine plan, and the sin of questioning the ways of God in the first place.

But for others, even those that are otherwise religious, such thoughts are disturbing, precipitating a whole raft of questions they would rather not think about:  Why did God let all these bad things happen to Manny and Rose in the first place, when he could have made sure the bad guy was caught right away?  Why was a prayer necessary to bring about the miracle, and if it was, why did Manny’s previous prayers not suffice? What was God waiting for?  And given the success he had the first time, why didn’t Manny just go back to the picture of Jesus and work up another miracle to get Rose out of the mental institution right away?  (The movie says Rose was all right after a couple of years, but I have read that she never really did completely recover.)

All these questions interfere with our enjoyment of the movie.  And this is regrettable, since the movie would have been just fine with no miracle at all.

The Last of Sheila (1973)

This review has no spoilers.  I wouldn’t dare.

The Last of Sheila is a closed-universe mystery, one in which all the suspects can be gathered together in one room, which they typically are at one point in the movie.  It is one of the best such movies ever made. I put it right up there with Mystery on the Orient Express (the 1974 version, of course) and Ten Little Indians (1965).  Of this latter movie, there have been several versions, but I think this one is the best, slightly better even than the first version, And Then There Were None (1945).

As for The Last of Sheila, this one is limited to seven people on a yacht, plus the crew. Now, I confess that with such movies, I really don’t try to solve the mystery as I watch it. Not that I would likely be successful if I did.  In the television series Ellery Queen (1975-1976), the title detective, played by Jim Hutton, would suddenly realize the solution to the mystery he was trying to solve just before the end of the show.  He would then break the fourth wall, bring our attention to several clues, after which there would be a commercial break, giving us a chance to answer the question, “Who done it?”  Even with all that, I never solved a single mystery.  But I did appreciate the fact that the show played fair, that the clues should have pointed me in the right direction.

As with most movies of this sort, we become fully aware of all the clues that have been presented to us at the dénouement.  In the case of The Last of Sheila, however, while some of the clues are indeed made explicit by the end of the movie, there are others that are not, some of which I did not notice until a second or third viewing.  And this movie is worth a second or third viewing.

My favorite clue is one that I thought was a goof.  I said to myself, “Oh no, they forgot that ….”  But they didn’t forget.  And there is another in-your-face clue that I just missed.  And, of course, there are a few red herrings.

At the beginning of the movie, Clinton (James Coburn) and his wife Sheila, who is a gossip columnist, are having a bitter argument at a party.  She becomes so angry that she leaves, deciding she will walk home. Then we see a car speeding down the road, weaving around and striking some garbage cans.  Then it hits Sheila, killing her.  The driver of the car stops, backs up, looks at the body, and then drives off.

A year passes, and we see Clinton on his yacht, which he has named “SHEILA.”  Being a game enthusiast, he has decided to host a game aboard his yacht in honor of Sheila. He invites the following people:  Tom (Richard Benjamin) and his wife Lee (Joan Hackett); Christine (Dyan Cannon); Philip (James Mason); and Alice (Raquel Welch) and her husband Anthony (Ian McShane).

Clinton is a movie producer, and everyone he has invited is connected to the movie business in some way. Tom is a screenwriter, who keeps hoping Clinton will produce a movie based on his favorite script; Lee has grown up in the film industry since she was a child; Christine is an agent; Philip is a director, presently reduced to making commercials; Alice is an actress; and Anthony is her manager. Christine refers to them all as the “B-Team,” probably including herself.  As part of the lure to get them aboard his yacht, Clinton says he intends to make a movie based on Sheila’s life, and they will all have a part in its production.  And because they are desperate to be part of a major project, they suffer his abuse, as when he refers to all of them as has-beens to their face.  As a result, a lot of them harbor ill feelings toward Clinton.

Each person is given a card with a pretend secret on it.  Each night, at a different port in the Mediterranean, they will be given a clue allowing them to find the evidence that establishes the identity of the person with that night’s secret.  Everyone who solves the mystery by finding the evidence gets a point. If the person who has the secret solves it, the game ends for the night, and those that have not yet solved it don’t score.  The better the score by the end of the week, the better billing he or she will get in the credits of the movie.  And so, on the first night, they go ashore and try to establish who is the shoplifter, which is Philip’s pretend secret.  Tom solves it, and so does Lee. When Philip solves it, that ends the game for the night.

A game like this, or perhaps one a little less elaborate, may have begun life as a party game conceived by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins.  However, in trying to devise such a game, it likely occurred to them that it could be the basis for a movie, for which they then wrote a script.

As far as the game in this movie is concerned, it sounds like a lot of fun at first.  But Alice becomes suspicious.  She had once been arrested for shoplifting, and she begins to wonder if each pretend secret is the real secret of someone else on the yacht, just as Philip’s pretend secret was Alice’s real secret.  Clinton would know about these real secrets because Sheila, being a gossip columnist, would have told him about them. Furthermore, Alice holds the homosexual card, and she knows that one of the guests on the cruise is a homosexual.  And yes, there are both clues and red herrings as to who the homosexual is.

And then something unexpected happens, bringing us to a second mystery, a real one this time, where Alice’s suspicions are confirmed and made explicit by Tom, who has had similar suspicions as to what the game was really all about.  This one involves the death of Sheila.  After much analysis, with contributions from everyone, they solve this real mystery.

Or do they?  I knew a guy once who said he got up and left the theater at this point, figuring the movie had to be over.  I had to tell him that there was a third mystery, which he might take the trouble to watch some time when he is not in so much of a hurry.

And at this point, I cannot help but express my astonishment at the not insignificant portion of the human race that will go out for what should be an enjoyable night at the movies, and then feel compelled to leave before it is over, in order to have the satisfaction of being able to drive out of the parking lot before anyone else does.  I estimate that by doing so, they manage to get home about five minutes earlier than they would have had they stayed until the movie was completely over.

I remember one night in particular.  I was watching There Was a Crooked Man (1970) at a movie theater. The movie has a twist ending:  you think it’s going to end one way, and then something completely unexpected happens, leading to a totally different ending, in which we find out that the title refers to someone other than the one we thought it did.

It was Saturday night, and the movie, which had started at 7:00, was completely over a few minutes past 9:00.  In other words, it was not likely to be way past anyone’s bedtime.  And yet, just before the movie got to that twist ending, about a third of the audience had already gotten up out of their seats and were heading for the exit.  A few went through the door, and they were undoubtedly pleased that they beat everyone else in the race to get home before 9:20 that evening.  The rest of them began to realize that the movie was really not over.  They milled around up front, shuffling slowly toward that all-important exit, heads turned to the left so they could see what was happening, but without giving up their place in line to get out the door.  One man was halfway through that exit, holding the door open with his left hand, craning his head back in to see what was going on, neither moving forward nor moving out of the way.

Anyway, for those that have the patience to wait until a movie is completely over, The Last of Sheila is a three-part mystery, the last of which is actually worth the extra time it takes to see how it unfolds.

Inasmuch as this movie is almost fifty years old, and it does not show up on your typical list of must-see movies, I figured it was worth bringing to the attention of those that might be completely unaware of its existence.

The Prince and the Pauper (1937)

The Prince and the Pauper is a novel by Mark Twain.  It is about two little boys that look very much alike, even born on the same day:  one is Tom Canty, a beggar; the other is Edward Tudor, Prince of Wales.  Just for fun, they exchange clothes, but before they can make the switch back, Edward, thought to be a beggar, is expelled from the castle, while Tom is forced to take his place and possibly become the king.  Eventually, Edward, with the aid of Miles Hendon, is restored to his position just in time to be crowned king of England.

In real life, Edward, as the son of Henry VIII, would eventually become Edward VI when he was just nine years old.  When he was fifteen years old, he became ill and died.  I found this to be a little depressing. How much fun are we supposed to have watching a movie about a child that dies?  Sure, we don’t see the death in the movie, but we know it’s coming.

One of his playmates is Lady Jane Grey.  Yikes!  After Edward died, she got to be queen for nine days while still just a teenager, was deposed, and had her head chopped off by Queen Mary.  Boy, what fun imagining those two children playing together!

In the preface, Mark Twain says that this story, which has been passed down by word of mouth through the generations, may actually be true.  If so, then as the story unfolds, we wonder if the person that was eventually crowned Edward VI was actually Tom Canty, and that Edward was condemned to spending his life as a beggar in the slums of London.  Not knowing how the story will end as we read it, we are supposed to care whether Edward will eventually be crowned king, or whether the person history refers to as Edward VI was just an imposter.  But if one will be king while the other will be a beggar, what difference does it make which is which?

When a child becomes king, there will typically be a Lord Protector that gets to make all the decisions and rule for him until he reaches his majority, which the person that history refers to as Edward VI never did. Therefore, that Lord Protector will make the same decisions and rulings regardless of whichever little boy sits on the throne.  In the novel, a great deal is made of how Edward, who has literally placed himself in someone else’s shoes, is so outraged by the suffering and injustice that he witnesses, of the way people are flogged, pilloried, and mutilated, that he resolves to abolish the unjust laws and rule with mercy.  But if the Lord Protector will be making all the decisions for the boy king, such empathy will seem to be of small consequence.

In any event, can we really believe that Edward will suddenly have empathy for the poor and downtrodden?  If you or I saw people having such punishments inflicted upon them, we would be deeply moved.  But I have doubts about the effect this would have had upon someone like Edward, given what we learn about Humphrey Marlow, the whipping-boy.  Tom learns from Humphrey that whenever the prince fails at his lessons, Humphrey is whipped in his place, since it would be improper for the master to whip the prince himself.  And by “whip,” I do not mean a spanking, but rather the use of a scourge.  When Tom is alarmed to hear of this, Humphrey is perplexed, for he is regularly whipped several times a week, so often did Edward make mistakes.  And we further gather that Edward never had any sympathy for Humphrey, for the latter is surprised when Tom shows concern for him in this regard.  In other words, by this time in his life, Edward would doubtless have become inured to the suffering of Humphrey on his account.  As a result, Edward would more likely have come to be insulated against against any inclinations for empathy, and thus no more moved by the suffering of the great unwashed than he was by the regular beatings inflicted on his whipping-boy.

Mark Twain notes that the punishment of boiling prisoners in oil was repealed during the reign of Edward VI, but whether that was supposedly the result of Edward’s experience as a beggar, the influence of the Earl of Hertford, Lord Protector, or merely a decision made by Parliament is not clear.  Other than that, the empathy that we are expected to believe was acquired by Edward pretty much comes to naught, since he died before many of those fine sentiments were able to yield a practical result.

The people that produced the 1937 movie based on this novel probably had the same misgivings that I did, for they changed the story in several ways.  First of all, they eliminated the whipping-boy, thereby making it more believable that Edward would by moved by the suffering of others.  Second, they changed the story so that it would seem to matter who sat on the throne. In the movie, if Tom Canty is crowned king, the Earl of Hertford (Claude Rains), who is evil and has figured out that Tom is an imposter, will be the Lord High Protector; whereas if Edward is crowned king, the Duke of Norfolk (Henry Stephenson), who is good, will be the Lord High Protector. So, what we really care about is which Lord High Protector will rule England while Tom or Edward is still just a child.  Or to put it differently, if Tom is crowned king, then that would explain all the evil things that happened in England until he died at fifteen; and if Edward is crowned king, then that would explain all the good things that happened in England until he died at fifteen.  But, of course, it’s the same English history either way.  In any event, in real life, Norfolk remained imprisoned in the Tower of London during the entire time that Edward was king, while the Earl of Hertford became the Lord Protector, so it appears that the screenwriters of this film got things backwards.

But wouldn’t it be an injustice for Tom to sit on the throne while Edward is forced to be a beggar? Not really.  Edward has no more right to be a king than Tom does, for the simple reason that no one has a right to be a king.  So, while it would be sad to think that Edward would be forced to live in poverty and be beaten by Tom’s father, John Canty (Barton MacLane), it would be just as sad to think of Tom having to return to that fate.

This brings us to a third major change in the story.  The movie further ups the ante by having Hertford send the Captain of the Guard (Alan Hale) out to find Edward and kill him, so that no one will ever know.  So, it is more than just a question as to who must live his life in poverty, for Edward’s life is at stake.  In this way, the movie does a better job of making us care whether Edward will succeed in proving who he is than the novel does.  In the end, Miles Hendon (Errol Flynn) kills the Captain of the Guard, Edward becomes king, and Tom is made a ward of the crown.

This movie would be easier to watch if you didn’t know anything about British history. But as it is, I kept being jerked back and forth between what really happened regarding Edward and what happens to him in this story.  How happy can we be that Tom Canty escapes poverty by becoming a ward of the crown when we know that there was no such person, while countless British subjects did continue to live in abject poverty and suffer from brutal laws and punishments, something that no facile happy ending in the movie can make us forget.

Now, I realize that it is at this point that many people will take exception, maintaining that it would be a wrong for a commoner to be crowned king while the true heir to the throne is denied his seat upon it. Although we fought a revolution to get out from under the rule of George III, establishing a democracy for ourselves, I often get the sense that a lot of Americans still hanker after monarchy.  They are mesmerized by stories about the British royal family, wishing they could bow and scrape before a majesty or a highness right here at home.

Back when people were making a big deal about Princess Diana, I remember Cokie Roberts saying that it is every little girl’s dream to be a princess.  Is that really true?  If so, I had no idea.  But then, as Thackery noted in Vanity Fair, “if Harry the Eighth or Bluebeard were alive now, and wanted a tenth wife, do you suppose he could not get the prettiest girl that shall be presented this season?”  As for me, I certainly never had a dream about being a prince, so I thought this might be a girl thing.  But in the novel, Tom Canty dreams of such.

By and by, Tom’s reading and dreaming about princely life wrought such a strong effect upon him that he began to act the prince, unconsciously.  His speech and manners became curiously ceremonious and courtly, to the vast admiration and amusement of his intimates.  But Tom’s influence among these young people began to grow now, day by day; and in time he came to be looked up to by them with a sort of wondering awe, as a superior being.  He seemed to know so much! and he could do and say such marvellous things! and withal, he was so deep and wise!  Tom’s remarks, and Tom’s performances, were reported by the boys to their elders; and these, also, presently began to discuss Tom Canty, and to regard him as a most gifted and extraordinary creature.  Full-grown people brought their perplexities to Tom for solution, and were often astonished at the wit and wisdom of his decisions. In fact he was become a hero to all who knew him except his own family—these, only, saw nothing in him.

Privately, after a while, Tom organised a royal court!  He was the prince; his special comrades were guards, chamberlains, equerries, lords and ladies in waiting, and the royal family.  Daily the mock prince was received with elaborate ceremonials borrowed by Tom from his romantic readings; daily the great affairs of the mimic kingdom were discussed in the royal council, and daily his mimic highness issued decrees to his imaginary armies, navies, and viceroyalties.

So, I guess there are both boys and girls that fantasize about being princes and princesses, and when they grow up, they follow the doings of British royalty with some of that longing still in their hearts.  In their minds, whatever miseries were suffered by the common folk in the sixteenth century, the privilege of living in a kingdom and being ruled over by a monarch must have made it all worthwhile.  For such people, this story in The Prince and the Pauper would likely be engaging, for they would think it a great injustice should the wrong person become king.

But even so, what is that injustice compared to that inflicted on the subjects of whoever it is that wears the crown?  That Edward’s father, Henry VIII, was a cruel and murderous tyrant makes it clear just how terrible it can be to live in a country ruled by a king.  And just as Henry VIII chopped off the heads of tens of thousands of people, including a couple of wives that were inconvenient to him; so too did Queen Mary chop off the head of Lady Jane Grey because she was inconvenient, in addition to burning lots of people at the stake; and so too did Queen Elizabeth chop off quite a few heads, as well as having many of her subjects drawn and quartered.  I could go on, but you get the idea: these people were a bunch of psychopaths.  Are we supposed to imagine that Edward VI, had he lived to be an adult, would not have chopped off quite a few heads himself?  In the novel and the movie, Edward’s experience as a beggar supposedly made him wise and merciful, but we can believe that only because he never got to be old enough to be vain and tyrannical like the rest of his family.

Earlier I questioned why Mark Twain would have chosen to tell this story about a child that died when he was fifteen, thinking that to be a little depressing.  But had he picked some other monarch to have these adventures, one who grew to be an adult and ruled for many years, this story would have lost its charm.  It is only because Edward never lived past his childhood that this story has appeal, for it allows us imagine that the Edward, as an adult, would somehow have retained the innocence and goodness he had when he was a child, just as many imagine that the world in general would be a better place if adults could somehow be like children.  Jesus was given to this notion himself when he said, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).  But as St. Augustine pointed out in his Confessions, if we say that children are innocent, it is only because they are weak, for if babies had the size and strength of adults, they would be monsters.