Kitty Foyle (1940) and Tom, Dick and Harry (1941)

Kitty Foyle begins as a comedy, and quite a funny one, I must say.  But once the title character falls in love, the movie becomes a melodrama.  Just like real life, I suppose.  Tom, Dick and Harry, on the other hand, is a comedy, pure and simple.  Ginger Rogers starred in both, the former being made a year before the latter, and in both movies, she must choose which man she will marry (or at least spend the rest of her life with).  In watching these two films, one gets the impression that RKO was so pleased with the success of Kitty Foyle that they wanted to do something like that again.  But in order to avoid simply following the same formula, someone added a joker to the deck.  And just for fun, a few elements of the first movie make their way into the second.

Kitty Foyle, which has the subtitle, The Natural History of a Woman, begins with a prologue, announcing that it is the story of a “white collar girl.”  It goes on to say that since she is a comparative newcomer to the American scene, it will consider her as she was in 1900.  Said 1900 old-fashioned girl has men scrambling to give up their seats on the trolley for her, with one lucky man having the privilege of doing so.  Subsequently, we see him sitting with her on her porch, wooing her with a ukulele.  He impulsively kisses her on the cheek.  She is shocked at the liberty he has taken.  Realizing he must do the honorable thing, he proposes marriage.  She is delighted, having used her womanly wiles to trap a man, while the man wonders how this could have happened to him.  We see them again after they have married.  He arrives home from work, turning over his entire paycheck to her, though she hands him back a coin for the trolley, presumably.  Then he discovers that she is going to have a baby, and he kneels beside her, worshipping her now more than ever.  In other words, this is an amusing depiction of the idea that women had it made in the old days, that it was when they had no rights that they had power, as expressed in the nineteenth century poem “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle Rules the World.”

This is followed by an intertitle that reads, “But this was not enough.”  We see scenes of the women’s suffrage movement, with that same woman now holding a sign that reads, “Let the hand that rocks the cradle guide the state.”  However, once she gets her equal rights, men not only ignore her on the trolley, but when one man gets up to leave, another pushes her aside so he can have the seat for himself.  Quite frankly, I could have stayed with this woman for the rest of the movie.

Anyway, another intertitle tells us that once women began working “shoulder to shoulder” with men, the men became indifferent to the presence of women, leading, at the end of the day, to that “five thirty feeling,” presumably a woman’s feeling of loneliness at the end of the day on account of not being married.  The point of all this is that a woman now has a harder time getting a man to marry her.  We see a bunch of women on an elevator discussing men, how much they want one, how much they wish they had one.  One woman, however, expresses an independent point of view, saying that a woman can be happy without a man.  “What’s the difference,” she asks, “between men bachelors and girl bachelors?”  Then we see Kitty Foyle exiting the elevator, making her entrance into this movie by answering, “Men bachelors are that way because they want to be.”

This is a critical premise of this movie and many others like it.  The idea is that women want to be married.  No such assumption is made regarding men.  A man may eventually want to marry some woman in particular, but a woman wants to get married as a matter of principle.  The corresponding premise for men in the movies is that they are perfectly happy being bachelors.  They typically do get married, of course, and for no better reason than they are in love.  But for women in these movies, things are not so simple.  Other considerations besides love often enter in.

One consideration in particular is the man’s socio-economic status.  From the time she was a young girl, Kitty has been fascinated with a social function in Philadelphia for the elite, known as the Assembly.  By chance, she meets Wyn Strafford, one of the elite, and she falls in love with him.  He falls in love with her too.  But their class differences keep them apart.  Even when they get married, she leaves him soon after meeting his family and gets a divorce.

On the rebound, she starts dating Mark Eisen, a doctor who is more concerned with helping the poor and needy than in making money.  Still, he wants to marry her, and she could be comfortable with him.  She accepts his proposal.  But as she is preparing to meet him later to get married, Wyn shows up, and it is clear they really love each other.  He says he has left his wife and is going to South America.  And he wants Kitty to come with him, even though he has no intention of getting a divorce.  She must choose:  have a respectable, comfortable life with Mark or be Wyn’s mistress.  Normally in such movies, the woman chooses the man she loves, but since life with Wyn would be morally disreputable, she chooses a respectable life with Mark.  Or rather, I should say, this allows the movie to have her choose to marry Mark.  If Wyn were divorced and wanted to remarry her, I think Mark would have been left standing at the altar.

This is another difference in the movies between men and women.  A man like Wyn might have to choose between marrying within his class and marrying down, but we seldom see a movie about a man having to choose between marrying within his class and marrying up.  When we do see such a movie, the man’s desire to marry up is felt to be wrong, as in A Place in the Sun (1951), where just such a man got the death penalty.  But when a woman has a desire to marry up, we are more understanding.  We have misgivings, wondering as we do in this movie whether she can find happiness in a family worried about her lack of polish and refinement, and we may be relieved, as we are here, when she settles for someone in her own class.  But we don’t really think the less of her for wanting to marry up as we do with a man.

In Tom, Dick and Harry there are three men that Janie (Ginger Rogers) must choose among.  Tom (George Murphy) is a car salesman, and he corresponds to Mark:  he and Janie are in the same class, and he can provide her with a comfortable life.  Dick is a millionaire playboy, and he corresponds to Wyn:  he is a member of the elite, and Janie wonders if she would fit in.  Finally, Harry (Burgess Meredith) is a trickster figure, who throws the usual formula out of whack.  He is an auto mechanic who cares nothing about getting ahead or making a lot of money.

In Kitty Foyle, the characters occasionally reflect on their situation.  In fact, Kitty literally does so when her image in the mirror tells her just how things will be in South America.  But Tom, Dick and Harry seem to take this to a whole new level, especially when she is with Harry.  But we meet him later.  When the movie begins, Tom and Janie are in a movie theater, which is a reflexive device right there.  We don’t see the screen.  We only hear the voices of the actors.  It doesn’t sound like any movie that ever actually existed, but rather a parody of a certain kind of romantic melodrama.  It is the final scene of the movie, and a man, who is rich and upper class, is telling a working-class woman that he wants her to come away with him, to someplace where they can get away from it all, to South America.  She is reluctant, thinking that he just wants her to be his mistress.  But no, he wants to marry her.  She is so happy, she cries.  They kiss.  The End.

It is a cloying variation on Wyn’s offer to Kitty, but it is just the kind of ending that Janie likes, for she too dreams of marrying someone rich and upper class.  After the movie, she and Tom discuss whether the movie was true to life, whether a rich, upper-class man would marry a poor, working-class girl.  Janie says it is, because he loved her.  Tom doesn’t think so, but that is because he doesn’t want it to be true to life.  He plans on proposing to Janie, and he doesn’t want her head full of foolish notions about marrying up.

The next day after work, Janie is standing on the sidewalk, waiting for the bus, when Harry pulls up in front of her driving an expensive car.  Not realizing that Harry is just a mechanic, and that he is delivering the car to a rich customer, who turns out to be Dick, Janie flirts with him and eventually becomes so brazen as to get in the car with him.  After taking her home, Harry makes a date with her for later that evening.  He shows up with what looks like two small bunches of violets, which is, perhaps, just a minor quotation of Kitty Foyle, where Wyn takes Kitty to New York, and just before entering an exclusive speakeasy, he buys her two bunches of violets.  More importantly, when they are seated at a table, she asks Wyn why he brought her to New York.  She explains:  “When I was going to high school in Manito, Illinois, it’s quite a small town and everybody knew everybody else’s business.  So, when a man wanted to take somebody out, he didn’t care particularly about being seen with her, he’d always take her up to Chicago.”  He says it’s nothing like that, although we suspect it is just like that when we see how cowed Wyn is by his family and their expectations.  In Tom, Dick and Harry, when Janie finally manages to meet Dick, he asks her to go on a date with him to Chicago, which Janie gleefully accepts, unencumbered as she is by Kitty’s worldliness.

All three men want to marry Janie, and she dreams of marrying each of them and then all of them.  On their wedding night, we see the bedroom, and it is of the Production Code sort, with its respectable twin beds.  But then, with Janie sitting in one bed, all three men get in the other.  She wakes up an realizes she must choose.  The next morning, she chooses Dick because he is the man she has dreamed of marrying all her life.  She kisses Tom goodbye.  And then she kisses Harry.  Earlier in the movie, every time she kissed Harry, they would hear bells chiming, something that never happens when she kisses Tom or Dick.  And now, in kissing Harry goodbye, she hears them again.

In Kitty Foyle, we knew that Kitty liked Mark, but it was Wyn whom she truly loved.  In Tom, Dick and Harry, it is not so much love, but passion that clinches the deal.  Janie tells Dick goodbye, hops on the back of Harry’s three-wheel motorcycle, and off they go.

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The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)

In many ways, The Devil and Daniel Webster is different from all the other Faustian tales we have encountered over the years.  Not better, just different.

First of all, in most such stories, the Faustian character is a bachelor, one notable exception being Damn Yankees (1958), in which Joe Boyd is a married man.  But in any event, they all live comfortable lives.  They sell their souls because they are discontented.  As a result, we never understand why they would be so stupid as to agree to spend an eternity burning in the fires of Hell for a few decades of whatever it is they want:  wealth, power, fame, sex, or a baseball team that can beat the Yankees.

In The Devil and Daniel Webster, on the other hand, Jabez Stone (James Craig) is a poor farmer for whom everything seems to be going wrong.  In particular, the note on his farm is due the next day and he doesn’t have any money, meaning he will lose the farm.  He supports his mother, Ma Stone (Jane Darwell), and his wife, Mary (Anne Shirley), who falls off the wagon and is unconscious.  In his utter exasperation, he says that it’s enough to make a man sell his soul to the Devil.  Needless to say, the Devil, who goes by the name of Mr. Scratch (Walter Huston), shows up ready to make the deal.  At least this makes some sense.  Every man has his breaking point, and Jabez has reached his.  We might actually believe that a man might make a Faustian bargain under such desperate circumstances.

Second, in all other Faustian tales, the two principal characters are the man who sells his soul to the Devil and the Devil himself.  But in The Devil and Daniel Webster, the Faustian character is not in the title.  Rather, it includes some third character.  In fact, so prominent is the role of Daniel Webster in this movie that I’m almost surprised they found room in the title for the Devil.  Now, we all know who Daniel Webster is, a politician of note in the years leading up to the Civil War.  But the excessive adoration of Webster that this movie evinces is beyond anything most of us would ever have imagined.

Third, in most Faustian stories, the Devil lives up to the letter of the contract, but not the spirit.  He grants the Faustian character his wishes, only to undermine them in some way.  As Roger Ebert once argued, the Devil should do everything he can to satisfy the Faustian character so that he will tell all his friends about the good deal he made.  A little word-of-mouth advertising might net the Devil a few more souls.  In this movie, however, Mr. Scratch doesn’t pull any sneaky tricks.  He allows Jabez access to a big supply of gold coins, which solves most of his problems right there.  Mr. Scratch even goes beyond what was required in the agreement, beyond just the money.  He protects Jabez’s wheat against a hailstorm that destroys the wheat of all the other farmers.  And he sees to it that the Jabez family gets Belle (Simone Simon) for a maid so that Jabez can have an affair with her.  As a result, for seven years, the agreed upon length of time Jabez has before he must die and go to Hell, Jabez is on top of the world.

When Jabez first comes running into the house to tell his mother and Mary about the Hessian gold that he found underneath the barn, Ma Stone is suspicious.  “Most outlandish thing I ever heard tell,” she says.  “Doesn’t seem right somehow.”  Now, we all know that Jane Darwell has played in a lot of movies in which she has down-to-earth common sense and gritty wisdom, but this is a little too much.  On that very morning, the sheriff has stopped by to tell them that they will be thrown off the farm the next day.  They can’t sell the pig because he just broke his leg.  Mary’s tells Jabez the butter money is gone because she needed it to pay the vet to treat the horse.  He decides to sell the bag of seed he was going to use for the spring plowing, but it rips open and spills out onto the mud.  And then, ten minutes after Mary has fallen on her head and was knocked unconscious, Jabez comes running into the house to tell about the Hessian gold he just found.  And yet, Ma Stone suspects something.  Like what?  Does she think Jabez just committed highway robbery?  It’s almost as if she suspects Jabez must have sold his soul to the Devil.  Why accept a natural explanation like buried Hessian gold when there is a perfectly good supernatural explanation ready at hand?

In any event, for seven years Jabez is a happy man.  It is only when his time is up that he starts bellyaching, claiming that he has been cheated, which he has not.  He says, “You promised me prosperity, happiness, love, money, friendship.”  Mr. Scratch replies that all he promised him was money and all that it could buy.  More to the point, Jabez had the love of his wife, but he not only cheated on her, but also mistreated her.  He had friends, but once he got his hands on the money, he started taking advantage of them, until no one liked him anymore.  In short, he becomes such a jerk that we really don’t care if he does go to Hell.

That is what makes the intercession by Daniel Webster seem so unwarranted.  But intercede he does.  After admitting that the document in which Jabez signed over his soul is properly drawn, Webster says, “But you shall not have this man! A man isn’t property!”

This just a touch ironic in light of Webster’s speech promoting the Compromise of 1850 and his support for fugitive slave laws on the grounds that slave owners were entitled to the protection of their property.  However, the year in which this scene takes place is 1847, back when his opposition to slavery in principle was perhaps a bit more credible.  But then, this movie was made in 1941, long after we knew better.  In fact, one might say that Webster had made something of a Faustian bargain himself.  So, maybe he does belong in this movie.

All that may be beside the point, however, because when Webster says that Jabez is a “man,” he probably means a white man.  And not just any white man, but an American citizen.  Since slaves were neither white nor American citizens, their status as property undoubtedly seemed acceptable to him:  “Mr. Stone is an American citizen,” he continues, “and no American citizen may be forced into the service of a foreign prince.”

Mr. Scratch takes exception to the notion that he is a foreigner.  When asked if he is claiming to be an American citizen, he replies:

And who with better right? When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there. When the first slaver put out for the Congo, I stood on the deck. Am I not spoken of, still, in every church in New England? ’Tis true, the North claims me for a Southerner, and the South for a Northerner, but I am neither. To tell the truth, Mr. Webster, though I don’t like to boast of it, my name is older in the country than yours.

That much having been established, Webster demands a trial by jury, saying that if he cannot persuade the jury to let Jabez go, then Mr. Scratch gets Webster’s soul too.  The jury consists of wicked Americans who now reside in Hell as the result of once having made the same deal that Jabez has, men such as Captain Kidd and Benedict Arnold.  In addressing the jury, Webster goes on at great length about how wonderful it is to be an American, which is just one long non sequitur.  But then he appeals to the fact that they all wish they had a second chance, so why don’t they give Jabez a second chance?  By doing so, he argues, they will be standing up for freedom, for America.

And so, Jabez is acquitted.  I guess the point of this story is that if you are an American citizen, you can sell your soul to the Devil and get away with it.  Perhaps this is what they mean by American exceptionalism.

Adam’s Rib (1949)

Does Adam’s Rib give us a glimpse into what life was like in America in the late 1940s, or does it just tell us about what movie audiences expected to see on the big screen in the late 1940s?  Looking back that far, it is hard to tell.

The theme of the movie is the double standard regarding the sexes, which in those days meant that when a man had sex outside of marriage, either before marriage or with another woman after he was married, it was no big deal; but if a woman had sex outside of marriage, either before marriage or with another man after she was married, her behavior was shameful and scandalous.  Arising out of this general attitude was the “unwritten law,” which held that a man should not be punished for killing his wife’s lover, especially if he caught them in flagrante delicto.  But the same latitude was not extended to the wife, should she kill her husband’s lover.  It is the assertion of this movie that the double standard is wrong, that men and women should be treated equally.

On the one hand, this movie would seem to be premised on idea that this double standard was widely accepted by society at that time, not only as the way things were, but as the way they ought to be as well.  On the other hand, if the double standard were as firmly accepted by society as this movie would have us believe, then a movie like this that challenged that double standard would have been regarded as scandalous and unfit for viewing.  In other words, the audience had to be receptive to the idea that the double standard was unfair in order for this film to be successful.

When the movie begins, we see dizzy Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday) following her philandering husband Warren (Tom Ewell) on his way to an assignation with Beryl Caighn (Jean Hagen).  The movie is unrelenting it its determination to show us that Doris is klutzy and simpleminded.  For example, we see her looking at the instruction booklet just before firing the revolver she has in her hand, as if pulling the trigger was something complicated.  The purpose of depicting her in this way, one must suppose, is so that we won’t hold her morally responsible for shooting her husband, which she manages to do after firing wildly around the room.  Later, she testifies that she was not trying to shoot anyone, but only trying to scare Beryl into leaving her husband alone.

The scene shifts to the Bonner household, where Adam (Spencer Tracy) and Amanda (Katherine Hepburn) are being served breakfast in bed by their maid.  This is not a special occasion, like an anniversary.  It is just another workday for this married couple.  Whom do you know today that gets served breakfast in bed by a maid just before going to work?  I refer back to my question in the first paragraph:  Was this normal in 1949, or was this something people expected to see when they went to the movies?

Anyway, Amanda says that Adam was making strange sounds in his sleep, which she mimics.  Because the idea of infidelity is already in our heads, we suspect he was dreaming about having sex with another woman.  Whatever the case, she spots the article in the newspaper about Doris shooting Warren, smiles broadly, and says, “Hot dog!”  Is this really an occasion for glee?  When she says the husband survived, Adam says, “Shame,” a sarcastic response to Amanda’s genuine delight.  She says it serves him right.  Later, after they leave the bedroom, the maid sees the story and says, “Attagirl.”

It turns out that Adam is an assistant district attorney, and he is assigned to prosecute Doris, while Amanda is also an attorney, who decides to defend Doris.  We know this is unrealistic, just a plot device, something that would never be allowed to happen in real life.  During the trial, Amanda keeps trying to make the case that there is a double standard for men and women, especially when it comes to the “unwritten law.”  However, Amanda does not explicitly say that she believes it should be all right for a woman to kill her husband’s lover.  As a further complication, that argument would not apply in any event because Doris did not shoot Beryl, but Warren.  Perhaps Amanda meant the unwritten law to say that it is also all right for the husband to kill his unfaithful wife, and so that should apply to the woman as well, allowing her to kill her husband.  We don’t know, because Amanda does not say that either.  This unwritten law seems to be an unspoken law in this movie as well.  In the end, we get a watered-down version, in which Amanda argues that Doris was just trying to protect her home by scaring Beryl, and shooting Warren was just an accident.

Now, it is not just the men in this movie that believe in the double standard.  Amanda’s secretary approves of the double standard just as much as the men.  At the same time, just like Amanda’s maid, her secretary seems to resent the very double standard she embraces, because upon hearing that a woman shot her husband, she says it served him right, even before knowing any of the details of the case, including the infidelity.

We have already noted that Doris is portrayed as being a dimwit, so as to make her less culpable.  Her husband Warren, on the other hand, is depicted as being a real jerk, who says on the witness stand that he does not love his wife and does not know why he married her.  Furthermore, he admits that he beats her regularly, often knocking her to the ground.  Earlier in the movie, Doris tells Amanda that the first time he hit her, he broke her tooth, the upper-left molar, no less.  And the point of this depiction is to make him seem to deserve being shot.  These characterizations are so heavy-handed as to make the story completely uninteresting.  After all, a man does not have to be a wife-beater to be unfaithful, and his wife does not have to be addlebrained to shoot him in a jealous rage.

The movie tries to have it both ways.  During the trial, Amanda calls to the stand three women who are seen to be equal, if not superior, to men, both mentally and physically, the point being that women should be treated the same as men.  So, why not have a movie in which, say, the chemist, with several advanced degrees and responsible positions in both the public and private sector, be the one who shot her husband?  Flipping back and forth like a Necker cube, the movie wants us to acknowledge that women are equal to men, while at the same time it tries to elicit our compassion for a helpless, weak woman who would be the last person you would offer up as an argument for gender equality.

At this point, I must comment on another double standard, one not made explicit in the movie, but which is definitely present nevertheless:  that between blondes and brunettes, or more generally, between blondes and all other women.  Aside from an occasional woman seen briefly with no speaking part, Doris is the only blonde in the movie.  All the rest are either brunettes, red heads, or elderly women with gray hair.  As if the movie had not already made it painfully obvious that Doris is not very bright, the producer must have decided that this had to be reinforced by the dumb-blonde stereotype.  But that is not all.  During the trial, when Amanda is summing up and wants to drive home her point about the double standard, she implores the jury to imagine Doris as a man.  We see Doris transform into a man with dark hair.  And then she points to Warren, asking them to imagine him as a woman, at which point he changes into a woman with blond hair.

Anyway, the conflict between Adam and Amanda spills over into their marriage, causing them to break up, leading to apparent infidelity, threats with a fake gun, making up, but with fake tears, and hints of further conflict to come.  But at least their reconciliation seems to make sense, sort of.  What does not make sense is the reconciliation of Doris and Warren.  After she is found not guilty by the jury, Doris and Warren become a loving couple, embracing each other and their three children, ready to go back home and live happily ever after.  I’ll bet he beats as soon as he gets her alone, and I’ll give him a week before he starts cheating on her again.  Oh wait, I forgot, this is a movie, not real life.  Never mind.

Of course, the reason for their reunion is that a more realistic ending for them would have been unthinkable.  In other words, suppose Doris had turned to Amanda after her acquittal and said, “Will you help me get a divorce from that louse?”  And while I’m on the subject, suppose Amanda had decided she was fed up with Adam’s insufferable attitude toward her on account of the way she defended her client in court, and she decided she would get a divorce as well.  That would have offended the audience of 1949 far more than the movie’s challenge to the double standard ever could.

Scream (1996)

People in movies often refer to movies.  And why, not?  They are a big part of our world.  However, when it comes to remakes, it is necessary that the characters in that movie be unaware of the original.  For example, in the remakes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the characters exist in a world much like our own with one notable exception:  it is a world in which no one has seen the original movie.

Remakes aside, sometimes the ignorance of the characters in a horror movie about movies is laughable. The very title of the movie I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) tells us that this is a late entry into the genre.  And yet, when the law enforcement officers are perplexed about the nature of a recent murder, Pepe the janitor (Vladimir Sokoloff), having looked at a photograph of the murder victim, tells Officer Stanley (Guy Williams) that the boy was killed by a werewolf.  Stanley acts as though he has never heard of such a thing, and Pepe has to explain to him what a werewolf is.  In real life, Stanley would have said, “Oh yeah, there was a wolfman in the Abbott and Costello movie I saw last week at the Bijou.”

I can’t say that An American Werewolf in London (1981) is the first movie in which people have an awareness of werewolf movies, but it is the first one to do so in a big way.  Two American college students, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are hiking through England.  They stop at an inn called the Slaughtered Lamb, and one of them comments on the pentangle on the wall, saying, “Lon Chaney Jr. at Universal Studios said that’s the mark of the wolfman.”  After they leave, they are attacked by a werewolf.  Jack is killed, but David is only wounded.  Jack comes back from the dead to tell David that all that stuff about werewolves is true, and that David has become one himself.  It is interesting that though these two characters are Americans, yet the setting is in England.  In other words, in the Old World, there really are werewolves; in the New World, there are only werewolf movies.

The next stage in the evolution of movie awareness in horror films came with There’s Nothing Out There (1991).  Several teens decide to spend spring break in a house in the woods.  One of them, Mike (Craig Peck) has seen every horror film that has ever been made, and he begins to notice all the warning signs typical of such movies.  He enunciates some rules needed to stay alive, such as not wandering off by yourself in the woods and not going skinny dipping.

It eventually becomes clear that there is an alien creature intent on mating with one of the girls.  After all, it is a given in such movies that human females are the most sexually desirable creatures in the universe.  At first, Mike begins using his horror movie knowledge to thwart the alien, but he eventually comes to suspect that he and his friends are actually in a movie.

The ideas in this film reached their apotheosis in Scream (1996).  The movie begins with a scene in which a Casey (Drew Barrymore) is home alone at night in a fully-lit house that almost seems to have more windows than walls.  She receives an ominous phone call, and instead of hanging up immediately, she keeps talking to the caller.  This is typical of women in such movies who receive such phone calls, where they say things like, “Why do you keep calling me while I’m naked?”

But instead of the creep on the phone asking her what color her panties are or whatever, this guy asks her trivia questions about horror movies.  And this is just the beginning of such allusions.  As audiences of Psycho (1960) were said to be shocked by the fact that a major star like Janet Leigh was killed off early in the movie, so too is Drew Barrymore’s character Casey likewise killed off earlier than one might expect for a star of her standing.

Casey and her boyfriend are killed by a character that eventually came to be referred to as Ghostface, who is both scary and funny.  When thwarted in his attempt to stab someone, he takes what might be called variations on pratfalls.  And yet we are brought back from these scenes of mirth to horror when he succeeds in plunging his knife into one of his victims.

Though seemingly a minor character, the most essential person in this film is Randy (Jamie Kennedy), a teenager that works in a video store and is an expert on horror films.  He is like Mike in There’s Nothing Out There, except more so.  His expertise in this area allows him to correctly identify one of the two killers early in the movie, and he further acts as a guide through the movie by drawing inferences from horror films to the situations the teenagers find themselves in.  In the sequel to this movie, he draws inferences from sequels, and in the third film he draws inferences from trilogies.  But Randy is not the only one doing this.  The two killers, who take turns dressing up as Ghostface, are also guided by their study of horror films.  One of them says that they even took notes while watching them.  And just as Mike in There’s Nothing Out There wonders if he and his friends are actually in a horror movie, one of this killers in Scream tells his girlfriend Sidney (Neve Campbell), protagonist and ultimate target of Ghostface, that life is a movie, “Only you can’t pick your genre.”

It is possible to go further with this principle of people in horror movies referring to horror movies, shaping their behavior according to what they have seen in horror movies, and even believing they are in a horror movie.  The Cabin in the Woods (2012) is a good example of that.  But the question is whether it is possible to do better than Scream with this idea.  I don’t think so.

Dark Victory (1939) and The Hasty Heart (1949)

Understood as a medical movie, Dark Victory might have been believable in 1939, but it is certainly farfetched today.  Bette Davis play Judith Traherne, a young, rich woman with all the character flaws that might come from being rich:  arrogant, spoiled, frivolous.  Transcending all Judith’s character flaws, however, is her intensity.  Actually, this intensity makes even her ordinary actions seem like vices.  Just watching her walk across a room will wear you out.  Having a conversation with her would be exhausting, even if you just let her do all the talking.  By way of contrast, her boyfriend, Alec, played by Ronald Reagan, is cool and relaxed.

Judith suffers from headaches and double vision.  Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald), her secretary and friend, finally gets her to go to the doctor, and, not surprisingly, she is a bad patient.  Despite her resistance, she is diagnosed as having a glioma, a growth in the brain.  She consents to having surgery, but upon its completion, the prognosis is negative.

Negative, but preposterously precise:  she will live less than a year, but she will have absolutely no symptoms until just a few hours before she dies, at which point her vision will begin to fail and things will become dark.  The doctor says this is a rare case, which is an understatement, since it is so rare as to be nonexistent.

Well, they went to a lot of trouble to create this disease for this movie, so we know that something is up.  Presumably, the point is to pose the question, what effect would the certainty of death have on someone once all the symptoms and suffering leading up to death had been eliminated?  Judith will still be young, pretty, rich, and otherwise healthy.  She has no accompanying complications, like still needing to work in order to pay the bills or worrying about who will care for her children, of which she has none.  It is only death in all its purity that she must deal with.

Dr. Steele (George Brent), who performed the brain surgery, and Dr. Parsons (Henry Travers), Judith’s family practitioner, agree not to tell Judith that she is going to die.  We’ll skip over the ethical questions concerning their decision, made all the more suspect when Steele confides in Ann about Judith’s condition.  Instead, we’ll consider only its dramatic function.  After Steele and Judith fall in love and decide to get marry, she accidentally finds out about her negative prognosis.  She becomes angry, accusing Ann of getting Steele to marry her out of pity.

As a result, the marriage between Steele and Judith is off, and she apparently descends into drunkenness and promiscuity, including affairs with married men.  At least, that’s what the movie let’s us think for a while.  She almost has an affair with Michael (Humphrey Bogart), her horse trainer, but then realizes that this is not how she wants to spend what is left of her life.  That is not surprising.  As much as we might enjoy such things, most people want more out of life than that.  Similarly, at different points in the movie, the subjects of euthanasia and suicide are broached, but quickly dismissed.  That too is not surprising, for most people regard deliberately ending a life of suffering, one’s own or that of another, as not being the answer either.  Living just for the sake of pleasure seems as wrong to a lot of people as deliberately dying to end suffering.  They are just the two sides of the pleasure principle, neither of which is enough for what we want out of life.  At least, this is the attitude of the movie.

So, what is the answer?  At first it would seem that the movie says we should live a life of deception and delusion.  To begin with, the doctors and Ann lie to Judith about her condition, the idea being that she will be better off not knowing.  Then, after Steele and Judith get married, they become deliberately oblivious to her illness, acting as though there is nothing wrong with her.  Finally, just as Steele gets word of an invitation to attend an important meeting in New York regarding his work, Judith experiences a dimming of her vision and realizes she will soon die.  But she deceives her husband, encouraging him to go on without her, which he does.

But this cannot be the answer.  It is one thing to go on with your life without dwelling on the finality of death, but it is quite another thing live in perpetual denial.  There is something almost desperate about their forced happiness.  And it is untenable.  When Michael casually refers to the prayers he has been saying for Judith, she flinches.

But before Steele leaves, she becomes realistic, speaks frankly about her fate, and says that she is prepared for the end.  Still unaware that she can no longer see very well, Steele reluctantly leaves on his trip.  Judith then tells Ann she wants to die alone, so that her husband will know that in the end she was not afraid.  This is what we have been waiting for, courage and honesty in the face of death, and the peace that comes with resignation.

This movie is similar to The Hasty Heart (1949), set in a makeshift hospital in a jungle in Burma just after the end of World War II.  Colonel Dunn, who appears to by the chief surgeon, tells the men that are still recovering from wounds or malaria that a new patient, a corporal that goes by the name “Lachie” (Richard Todd), will be arriving soon.  On the last day of the war, a piece of shrapnel damaged one of his kidneys, which had to be removed.  He has just about recovered from the surgery and appears to be well.  Normally, he could get along with just one kidney for the rest of his life, but the doctors have discovered that the other one is defective.  For the next few weeks, the kidney will do the work of two and then collapse.  At that point uremic poisoning will set in and he will die.

All this is more believable than the disease in Dark Victory, but just barely.  It seems a bit of a stretch that doctors in an army hospital in the jungle in Burma would be able to diagnose a kidney that is still functioning as being defective, and then give the prognosis that he will be free of symptoms for a few weeks and then die.  However realistic all that may or may not be, it is clearly designed to serve the same function as in Dark Victory, to allow someone to face imminent death free of all symptoms or suffering.

Colonel Dunn has not told him, however, much in the way that the doctors in Dark Victory decide not tell Judith.  And just as the doctors in Dark Victory told Ann about Judith’s prognosis, Dunn tells the men in the ward about Lachie, and he asks the men to keep the secret as well and to be extra nice to him.  Once again, we have to wonder about the questionable ethics of not telling the patient that he is going to die, and then telling others who are not even related to him about his terminal disease.  And just as Judith has no family when she is diagnosed with her disease, so too does Lachie have no family, “no ties.”  Because of this, Dunn has decided not to let Lachie go back home to Scotland as he so dearly wants.  Instead, Dunn has taken it upon himself to decide that Lachie will be better off if he is kept in this hospital, surrounded by men who have been ordered to be friends with him.

Lachie’s personality is every bit as intense as that of Judith.  By way of contrast, Ronald Reagan, playing the role of “Yank,” is also in this movie, and here too he is cool and relaxed.  Lachie hates the world and everyone that is in it.  The explanation given for his misanthropy is the fact that he was born illegitimate.  However, we have a hard time believing that this alone could make anyone as surly and hostile as he is.  Had Yank been born illegitimate, we have the feeling he would have shrugged it off and made the best of it.  In other words, Lachie’s personality is just one more contrivance, something made up for dramatic purposes only.

Patricia Neal plays a nurse, Sister Parker.  She comes up with the idea of having a birthday party for Lachie, in which she and the men in the ward buy him a complete outfit consisting of a kilt and other stuff, all of which is rather expensive.  Lachie is finally touched by their gesture of friendship.  He begins to think he has been wrong about people.  Soon after, he falls in love with Sister Parker, asking her to marry him.  She says, “If it makes you happy to think of us being married, then that’s what I want too.”  Now, you or I would have wondered why a nurse and other men in a ward, whom we had only know for a couple of weeks, would have spent so much money buying us gifts.  And we would surely have balked at Parker’s answer to a proposal of marriage.  But Lachie’s social skills are such that he suspects nothing.

Having gone this far with this deception, the only proper thing would be to see it through to the end.  That is, when Lachie’s kidney begins to fail him, everyone should act surprised and sad.  But no, just as Lachie has come to believe in friendship and love, Colonel Dunn tells him that he can go home after all.  Moreover, because his is a special case, he gets priority and can even go home by plane.  Why is he a special case, Lachie wants to know.  Dunn says he has been ordered to give him the facts of the case, which is that he is going to die soon.

We may have had misgivings about the way the doctors handled Judith’s case, but at least Ann really was her friend, having been so before Judith was diagnosed, and Dr. Steele really did love her and want to marry her.  But this handling of Lachie’s case is cruel.  He sees immediately that the men were just pretending to be his friend and that Parker only pretended to want to marry him.

To make matters worse, after Dunn tells Lachie he is going to die, he doesn’t bother to tell the men whom he ordered to befriend Lachie that Lachie knows everything.  He just walks past them, letting them make fools out of themselves by continuing to carry on the charade.  Of course, when Parker finally tells them the cat’s out of the bag, they all protest that they only pretended at first, but now they really are his friends, and so forth and so on.  When Lachie accuses Parker of accepting his proposal out of pity, she replies, “Surely there’s pity in every woman’s love.”  Now, there’s a piece of sophistry for you.

Needless to say, through one more contrivance that we need not bother with here, Lachie is finally convinced that Parker and the men really are his friends, and he decides to stay.  In the end, we are glad that he finally opens his heart, choosing to die among the only friends he has, just as we were glad in Dark Victory, when for the sake of those she loves, Judith chooses to die alone.

 

The Music Man (1962) and The Rainmaker (1956)

The Music Man is a musical about a traveling salesman, “Professor” Harold Hill (Robert Preston), who is also a con artist.  According to his nemesis, Charlie Cowell, an anvil salesman, Hill’s latest swindle is to sell small towns on the idea of a boys’ band.  After collecting money for the musical instruments and for the uniforms, he leaves without fulfilling his promise to teach the boys how to play because he doesn’t know one note from another.  In so doing, he ruins things for legitimate salesmen like Cowell, who get chased out of town by citizens ready to literally tar and feather them and run them out on a rail.

But, Cowell goes on to say, just as the train that he and other salesmen are on crosses the state line, Hill wouldn’t have the nerve to try to pull that stuff in Iowa on account of the surly, no-nonsense people that Hawkeyes are known be.  Unbeknownst to him, Hill is also on the train, and he cannot resist the challenge, so he disembarks before Cowell and the other salesmen can put their hands on him.

Hill’s first encounters with the citizens of River City make it clear to him that this will be a tough sell, so he needs to create a problem that he can then promise to alleviate by means of a boys’ band.  When he hears that a pool table is being added to the billiard parlor, he creates a distinction between billiards, which improves the mind and builds character, and pool, which encourages sloth and introduces young men to the ways of sin.  A boys’ band, he promises the townsfolk, will keep their sons away from the pool table.

Hill learns that a big obstacle to his plan will be the town librarian, a maiden who gives piano lessons, wears glasses, and will see right through him.  Hill realizes he will have to make love to her to keep her from spoiling his plans, which he will be more than happy to do when he finds out how beautiful she is.  Said librarian is Marian (Shirley Jones), the only person in town of any appreciable intellect. She has somewhat scandalized the town because it is falsely rumored she had an affair with “Old Miser Madison,” an unappreciated philanthropist, who gave the town their library, but who left the books to Marian for their safekeeping.  Many of these books are regarded as being of a salacious nature, though we recognize them as classics.

Marian lives with her mother and her brother, Winthrop (Ron Howard), who is unhappy and withdrawn because he has a lisp.  Her mother is exasperated with Marian’s high standards regarding men, which may result in Marian’s becoming an old maid.  Marian, on the other hand, simply wants a man who will love her and not merely be interested in possessing her sexually.

Marian finds proof in a reference book that Hill is a fraud just as the musical instruments arrive in town.  She is about to expose him, but then she sees how happy Winthrop is, and how he is no longer afraid to express himself on account of his lisp.  She tears the incriminating page out of the book and keeps it to herself.  Moreover, she realizes that everyone in town has become happier on account of Hill’s presence, leading her to start falling in love with him.

Hill and Marian make up a sexually dangerous couple, dangerous in the sense that we fear that he will take advantage of her.  As Cowell says to Marian later in the movie, “That guy’s got a different girl in every county in Illinois, and he’s taken it away from every one of them.”  The pronoun “it” in that sentence has no antecedent, but we may assume it to be their virginity.  Hill and Marian stand in contrast to a sexually safe couple, Tommy and Zaneeta.  Zaneeta is the daughter of Mayor Shinn (Paul Ford), who doesn’t want his daughter having anything to do with the likes of Tommy.  But we know that there is no danger that Tommy would seduce Zaneeta and then abandon her.  Instead, we figure they will end up happily married.

Hill’s only instruction to the boys with their new instruments is what he calls the “think system.”  He tells them to think Beethoven’s Minuet in G.  Eventually, the uniforms arrive, money is collected, and it is time for him to abscond, but not before collecting what he calls his “commission,” which involves some dalliance with Marian.  He gets her to meet him at the footbridge, a rendezvous for young lovers, a bridge where young girls cross over to the other side, as it were.  They start kissing.  But then he finds out that she knows he is a fraud, yet she doesn’t care, owing to the happiness he has brought her and others.  She pulls the incriminating page out of her bosom and hands it to him, saying, “I give it to you with all my heart.”  Soon after, they learn that Cowell has informed the townsfolk that they have been bamboozled.  As a result, they are now looking for Hill to tar and feather him.  Marian tries to get him to run, assuring him that she understands and that it is all right.

I believe we are supposed to use our imagination here.  It would be no big deal for a traveling salesman to kiss a woman a couple of times and then leave town.  In other words, it was not merely the page kept in her bosom that Marian gave to Hill, but herself as well.  Only when understood in that way is her telling Hill it is all right for him to leave her of any significance.  Furthermore, the way the scene is filmed is also suggestive of this interpretation.  As Hill and Marian kiss while standing on the middle of the footbridge, and it is a kiss of sensual longing, we see their reflection in the stream below.  Something drops onto the stream, distorting the image to the point that it is just a blur.  This is reminiscent of the fireplace trope, in which the camera pans away from the kissing couple and focuses on the fire, allowing us to imagine that they are having sex.  When the image becomes clear again, their expressions have changed, and they seem to be in the afterglow of sex, as reality slowly begins to set in once more.  Now aware of the cool night air, she asks Hill to walk her home so she can put something on to keep her warm.

The fact that Marian let Hill “kiss” her while knowing he is a fraud causes him to fall in love with her, which in turn keeps him from leaving town before the mob can get to him.  The townsfolk are about to tar and feather him, but they think better of it when they slowly realize, as Marian has, that Hill has brought them a lot of happiness.  Still, he did cheat them out of the money paid for musical instruments and uniforms.

But then the boys’ band appears in their cheap uniforms.  They manage to play a rather sad version of the Minuet in G.  One by one, however, the parents of the boys get excited by the fact that their sons are actually playing in a band.  In their imagination, the boys become accomplished musicians outfitted in brilliantly colored uniforms, led in a parade by Hill, arm in arm with Marian.

At this point we might note that it is not only the dreams of the people of River City that come true regarding the boys’ band, but the dream that Hill has had as well, for earlier in the movie we see him fantasizing about actually being a band leader, and then feeling disappointed that he is not.

What exactly is this movie telling us?  That by being the victim of a fraud we can find happiness?  There is no question but that people sometimes think they have found happiness while they are being swindled, only to be brought to grief when later they discover they have been lied to.  The misery they experience then makes a mockery of their false happiness, which they would have been far better off without.  Winthrop’s tears when he finds out the truth are a gesture in that direction, but Marian is able to persuade him and everyone else that they are better off for what Hill has done.

Or is this movie telling us that as long as we realize we are being victimized, that makes it all right?  Finally, if both the con artist and his mark have the same wish, which is that the promises of the con man actually be fulfilled, will that make those promises come true?  Is that the key to happiness?

Perhaps my saying that the movie is “telling us” something is inapt.  Rather, we might better ask ourselves why this story appeals to us.  Why do we enjoy the fantasy that by succumbing to a fraud we can find love and happiness?  The movie could not successfully tell us this or anything else were we not already receptive to it.

While I was mulling this over, I kept getting the feeling that the movie reminded me of something.  Finally, The Rainmaker (1956) popped into my head.  It has the same formula, so let’s review it first, before trying to understand the message that these two movies have in common.  The con artist in this movie is Bill Starbuck (Burt Lancaster).  His thing is to get farmers to give him money to make it rain.  But just as Harold Hill could not read a note of music, Starbuck has never been able to make it rain.  Hill had to manufacture a problem to be solved, the morally corrupting influence of pool, whereas the problem in The Rainmaker is real, a drought.

Corresponding to Marian is Lizzie (Katherine Hepburn), a woman who is in danger of becoming a spinster.  According to her father and two brothers, she is too intelligent for her own good, which was pretty much the same attitude Marian’s mother had toward Marian.  The idea is that a man doesn’t like it when he meets a woman that is smarter than he is.  That’s probably true.  I don’t know what I’d do if it ever happened to me.  In any event, in addition to being a major reason for still being unmarried, the intelligence of these two women is essential for our believing that they knowingly allow themselves to be taken in by the con.

Lizzie’s older brother Noah (Lloyd Bridges) corresponds to Charlie Cowell.  He is the one who knows Starbuck is a swindler and is the one most against him.  Her younger brother Jim (Earl Holliman) believes Starbuck can make it rain, and he even helps out by beating a drum.  He and his sweetheart, Snookie Maguire, constitute the sexually safe couple corresponding to Tommy and Zaneeta in The Music Man, as opposed to the sexually dangerous couple, Lizzie and Starbuck.

Starbuck gets Lizzie’s father to pay him to make it rain, while allowing him to sleep in the barn for the time being.  While Starbuck works his gizmos, Lizzie’s father and brothers try to get Deputy File (Wendell Corey) to come to dinner, but he cynically says he does not want to get married.  Lizzie is humiliated when she finds out, and in her frustration turns to Starbuck.  Like Marian, she knows Starbuck is a fraud, but he makes her happy by seducing her.

In the end, Lizzie’s father and Jim realize that Noah was right, that Starbuck is a fraud, but because of the happiness he brought Lizzie, they do not want to press charges, and even Noah goes along with that in the end.  Starbuck gives them their money back and leaves.  But no sooner does he get about a mile out of town than it starts to rain.  Just as the boys’ band is actually able to put on a great performance at the end of The Music Man after the townsfolk are willing to let Hill go, so too does it start to rain in this movie after Lizzie’s family is willing to let Starbuck go.  Just as Hill wished he actually were a band leader, so too has Starbuck wished all along that he could actually make it rain.  Filled with jubilation, he returns, collects the money, and asks Lizzie to come with him.  At the same time, Deputy File realizes he loves Lizzie and asks her to stay.  She accepts, realizing that Starbuck was just for a night, not for a lifetime.  This is, perhaps, the main difference between the two movies:  Hill and Marian are together at the end of The Music Man; Starbuck and Lizzie are not together at the end of The Rainmaker.

Now let us try to answer the question raised previously:  What are these two movies trying to tell us?  That we should allow ourselves to be victims of a fraud because it will make us happy?  That when we know the swindler for what he is, and when he knows that we know, his flim-flam will be transformed into reality, and his dishonorable intentions will turn into true love?  This cannot be the message of these two movies because it is all too obvious that it just isn’t so.

Furthermore, if that were the message, the sexually safe couples in these two movies would serve no function.  Both movies were made before the sexual revolution, a time in which couples were supposed to wait until they got married before having sex.  Furthermore, both movies were set at an earlier period than when they were made, 1912 for The Music Man and in the 1930s for The Rainmaker, in which we may imagine that the prohibition against fornication, especially for women, was even stronger.  In The Music Man, the safe couple in question are so innocent that it would never occur to us that they would actually have sex, but in The Rainmaker, the required sexual restraint is made explicit when Jim tells how he almost had sex with Snookie, but then stopped because he realized that would be wrong.  Therefore, we are supposed to regard what happens with the dangerous couples as being exceptional and not behavior that should be emulated.  And Lizzie’s subsequent rejection of Starbuck’s offer for her to come with him in favor of staying put and marrying Deputy File underscores that point.

Though we pay scant attention to the subplot of the sexually safe couples in these two movies, yet they allow us to indulge the fantasy of giving in to a seduction, first in the form of the sexually dangerous couple, and then in the form of the promises of a swindler in general, by reassuring us that prudence and the moral order still prevail.  Unleavened by the sexually safe couples, these stories might have been taken to suggest that we abandon all reason and live in fool’s paradise.  This we would be unable to go along with, and the fantasy would be spoiled.

Crimson Tide (1995)

In the movie Crimson Tide, Russian rebels take control of missiles, which they threaten to launch, starting nuclear war with the United States, if their demands are not met.  Commander Hunter (Denzel Washington) is assigned to be Executive Officer aboard the Alabama, a nuclear submarine, whose mission it is to destroy those missiles at the first indication that they are about to be launched.  The commanding officer of that submarine is Captain Ramsey (Gene Hackman), who is a little contemptuous of Hunter because he is an “egghead” who spent a year at Harvard, and because he has never seen combat.

Everything is going along just fine until fire breaks out in the kitchen, or whatever they call that in the navy.  Then they are almost torpedoed by a Russian submarine, which also causes some damage.  The end result is that they lose communication with Washington, D.C. just as a final message was coming through.  Ramsey is determined to proceed according to the last order received, which was to launch nuclear missiles at the Russian missile sites.  Hunter argues that they should not proceed, because the message fragment might have been an order to cancel the launch.  Let other submarines, which are not damaged and out of communication, do what needs to be done, he argues.  The result is a mutiny and then a counter mutiny.  In the end, Hunter prevails, and it turns out he was right.

All in all, this is not a bad movie, but much of the suspense is undermined by the fact that the ending is completely predictable.  First of all, in any movie you have ever seen in which someone wants to launch nuclear weapons, that person is either crazy, as in Dr. Strangelove or:  How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964); evil, as in The Dead Zone (1983); or just wrongheaded, as in Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977).  So, we know there is no way that it is going to turn out that Ramsey is right and Hunter is wrong.

We can try to imagine two possible endings going against this formula.  Ending One:  Ramsey succeeds in launching the missiles. And it is good he did too, because all the other American submarines in the area had been taken out by Russian submarines.  As a result, the missiles controlled by the rebels are destroyed, and even the Russians are grateful for Ramsey’s bold and decisive action.  Hunter is court martialed and sentenced to twenty years in military prison.

Ending Two:  Hunter succeeds in preventing Ramsey from destroying the rebel missile sites.  As a result, the rebels are able to launch their missiles, full scale thermonuclear war breaks out, hundreds of millions of people die, and the Earth is poisoned with radioactivity.  Hunter realizes he was wrong, as he and the other members of the crew slowly begin dying of radiation sickness.

As if that were not enough, the race of the two respective officers also makes the outcome predictable.  We cannot simply switch the roles of these two actors, because Gene Hackman is about twenty-five years older than Denzel Washington.  But let’s use our imagination.  Let Morgan Freeman play Captain Ramsey and let Brad Pitt play Commander Hunter.  Everything that happens is otherwise the same.  For example, Morgan Freeman punches Brad Pitt twice in the face for refusing to go along with the missile launch.

Of course, we could have Morgan Freeman’s Ramsey turn out to be right, launching the missiles and saving the day, while Brad Pitt’s Hunter is court martialed.  That would preserve our race expectations, but at the expense of violating our expectations regarding the rightness of using nuclear weapons.

Suffice it to say that the ending of this movie is doubly predictable.