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 all the way through.  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 those in charge of production at RKO were 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, with a few elements from the first movie making 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.  This is an amusing depiction of the idea that women had it made in the old days, that it was when they had few rights that they had real 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 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 talking about how much they like having a man or 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 Ginger Rogers, as the title character, exiting the elevator while making her entrance into this movie by answering, “Men bachelors are that way because they want to be.”

This is a familiar premise in the movies, 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.  Women want to get married even before they have some particular man in mind, and when there is some man in particular for them to think about marrying, considerations other than love enter in.

One consideration is the man’s socio-economic status.  From the time she was a young girl, Kitty has been fascinated with a Main Line social function in Philadelphia known as the Assembly.  By chance, she meets Wyn Strafford, and as soon as she finds out that he is one of the elite, she falls in love with him.  He falls in love with her too, but their class difference makes for difficulties, especially after they get married. When she meets his family, she finds out about their expectations for her, which apparently include sending her to finishing school so that she can comport herself properly at social functions.  And she learns of the hold they have on Wyn.  Kitty wants her and Wyn to move to New York, where they won’t have to bother about all this Main Line stuff, but the Strafford money is in a trust that would require them to live in Philadelphia at Darby Mill house, otherwise Wyn will lose his inheritance.  Kitty is offended, saying she will not go to school to get her rough edges polished off.  She announces disdainfully that she didn’t marry Wyn for his money, that she married a man, not a trust fund.

That’s a fine speech coming from her.  After seeing the way she was awed by those attending the Philadelphia Assembly, and after seeing her become enamored with Wyn the minute she found out he was a Main Liner, we are now supposed to believe that she cares nothing about class and money.  All she cares about is true love, and she is indignant that Wyn’s family is not egalitarian enough to accept her just the way she is.  Well, we all act from mixed motives, and when we do, they don’t stand out as discreet items for our inspection, but blend together into single result, making it easy for us to imagine we have acted from the best of intentions while suppressing those we would rather forget.

When she realizes that Wyn would never be happy if he had to forgo his inheritance, the two of them trying to make a go of it as a working-class couple in New York, she leaves him and gets a divorce.

Kitty has a baby and it dies.  So, what’s the point?  Her pregnancy was not inevitable, especially since she and Wyn were only together as a married couple for less than a week.  Well, in one sense, it was inevitable.  When a woman in a movie has sex with a man just one time, she gets pregnant. Presumably, Kitty and Wyn had sex more than once in the few days they were together, but that’s close enough to practically guarantee pregnancy in a movie.  (This rule does not apply to prostitutes or women that regularly have one-night stands, of course.) In any event, given the pregnancy, the death of the baby was not inevitable, since healthy babies are born every day.  But in another sense, the baby’s death was inevitable, because the plot required it, as we shall see.

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 truly 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.

I’m not sure what the significance of South America is in these movies about the upper class.  In Stella Dallas (1937), the title character tells her daughter she is going to get married and move to South America to get away from it all.  Isn’t that a little extreme?  I understand wanting to get away from one’s family, because they can be a nuisance, but is it necessary to run that far?  Can’t they just move to Kansas or something, some place where everyone speaks English?

And I don’t mean to overthink this thing, but what will they live on?  Wyn will be disinherited, just as he would have had they moved to New York.  So, instead of his getting a job in New York, and, as Kitty put it at the time, living in a small apartment with a pull-down bed, eating meals in drugstores, going to a movie once a week, and trying to save a dollar or two against the day he may lose his job, now they can do all that in South America.

In any event, Kitty must choose:  have a respectable, comfortable life with Mark or be Wyn’s mistress.  And herein lies the answer to the twofold question, why did Kitty have a baby, and why did it die?  It is easy to understand why the baby had to die.  Kitty would not have been able even to consider living illicitly with a man if she had a child to raise.  It is one thing for her to live in sin with only herself to consider, but to make her child have to bear the disgrace as well would have been unthinkable in this movie.  But that only answers half the question.  Why was it necessary for her to be pregnant in the first place, aside from the reason given above?

When Kitty reflects on Wyn’s proposition, she thinks about how she will be regarded in society, and she wonders how their arrangement will fare as she gets older.  But one thing she never wonders about is what will happen if she gets pregnant.  In fact, we don’t wonder about that either as we watch this movie.  Why not?  Because once a woman in a movie has a baby that dies, she never has another.  Sometimes, after breaking the news to the mother that the baby was stillborn, the doctor then goes on to tell her that she cannot have another.  But that scene is not necessary.  Movie logic precludes another baby regardless.  So the death of Kitty’s baby allows her to consider living with Wyn without worrying about the possibility of getting pregnant again.  Kitty doesn’t know she is in a movie, of course, but we do.  And if we are not worried about her getting pregnant again, why should she?

Still, her life with Wyn would not be easy.  Normally in the movies, the woman chooses the man she loves, but since life with Wyn would be disreputable, she chooses a respectable life with Mark.  Or rather, I should say, by having Wyn’s proposition be an immoral one (by 1940 standards), the movie allows her to choose Mark, the man she does not love.  We are glad that Kitty makes the morally acceptable choice, but we are also glad the she is marrying within her class.  We don’t hold it against women in the movies for wanting to marry into the upper class, but it makes us uncomfortable nevertheless.

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.  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 into the upper class as we do with a man.

We now turn to Tom, Dick and Harry.  Instead of just two, there are three men in this movie 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 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 seems to take this to a whole new level, especially when Janie is with Harry, who waxes philosophical on her unrealistic dream of marrying into the upper class.  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 one we have already seen.  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 at once.  As for that last dream, 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 and 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, whenever she kissed Harry, they heard 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 she loved.  In Tom, Dick and Harry, it is neither like nor love, but sexual arousal that clinches the deal.  Janie tells Dick goodbye, hops on the back of Harry’s three-wheel motorcycle, and off they go.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)

There are not many movies about Heaven, thank God, but of those that exist, one often senses a feeling of diffidence on the part of those who produced them.  The reason for this, I suspect, is twofold.  First, it is difficult to present Heaven in a way that makes it as appealing as the Eternal Abode is supposed to be.  Second, religion is a sensitive subject, and they don’t want to offend anyone.  To this end, those that produce such movies may attempt to disarm their audiences in a variety of ways.

One such way is to present the story as a dream or hallucination.  For example, in The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), Heaven is merely dreamt by someone, and in Stairway to Heaven (1946), there is the suggestion that the story we see is the hallucination of a British pilot.  A second way of disarming the audience is through an exculpatory prologue, a disclaimer to the effect that the movie is not being presented as something factual, as if that were not obvious, but as merely a figment.  This device was also used in Stairway to Heaven.  Finally, the movies tend to be frivolous comedies, so silly that no one is likely to take them seriously.  Here Comes Mr. Jordan utilizes the last two of these techniques.  It is indeed a frivolous comedy, and it starts with a prologue, beginning with “We heard a story…,” where the “we” has no antecedent, but presumably refers to those who made this movie, asserting that the story is just a yarn that someone told them, and they thought it was so interesting that they just had to turn it into a movie.

The main character is Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery), a heavyweight prize fighter who plays the saxophone as a hobby.  I have never played a wind instrument, but somehow I just don’t think being smashed in the mouth on a regular basis would be good for one’s embouchure.    Anyway, his manager is Max Corkle (James Gleason), the one who the prologue says told this story.  Max tells Joe not to fly his plane to New York, because it is too dangerous, but Joe pooh-poohs his concerns and decides to fly his plane anyway.  I don’t suppose I have to tell you that the plane crashes.

Joe finds himself in Heaven, where the souls of the departed, who are walking on clouds, are boarding a plane that will take them to their final destination.  One would think that no technology at all would be necessary in Heaven, but somehow the technology so envisioned in Heaven is often that presently available on Earth.  We are not too surprised when we find in Revelations that Jesus is going to use a sword with which to smite whole nations, but it is downright ludicrous when Satan uses cannons to fight the good angels in Paradise Lost.  Anyway, the airplane was still a pretty impressive piece of technology in 1941, when this movie was made, so naturally there are airplanes in this movie’s Heaven.

But only a handful of people seem to be boarding that plane.  Now, based on the population of the Earth in 1941, I estimate that about fifty thousand people died every day at that time, so one would have expected teeming masses instead.  Of course, there are those who believe that only a handful will make it into Heaven, the rest being condemned to the fires of Hell, so perhaps that would explain why there are so few people boarding the plane.  On the other hand, Joe is just an average Joe, so to speak, no better or worse than most people, so why he would qualify for Heaven in that case would not make sense.

About this time you are probably thinking that I am taking this movie way too seriously.  But I did this to illustrate my earlier point, that these movies are given a frivolous tone so that either people like me will not bother to analyze them, or that others will dismiss us as being pedantic if we do.  However, I will try not to nitpick.  I will not, for example, ask why people in Heaven wear clothes, and not just any clothes, but those that were in fashion in America circa 1941.  Nor will I question why the soul in charge of things in Heaven is called “Mr. Jordan” (Claude Rains).  Presumably he has been admitting souls into Heaven for centuries, long before the title “Mister” was used.  So, let us leave these questions aside and move along to some of the more serious absurdities.

Perhaps the most absurd aspect of this movie is Joe’s mentality.  That Joe is incredulous when he is told by Messenger 7013 (Edward Everett Horton) that he has died and is in Heaven is understandable.  But when he is finally convinced that he has gone to Heaven, his reaction is incredible.  I mean, I don’t know about you, but I would be awed by my encounter with Eternity.  “So this stuff about God and Heaven is true after all,” I would be saying to myself in amazement.  As an atheist, I suppose it is only to be expected that I would be stunned, but I dare say that even the most devout would be almost in disbelief to find out that their hopes for an afterlife had actually been realized.

Joe does not care about any of this, however.  His only concern is that he was supposed to fight for the title of Heavyweight Champion of the World.  And now that he is dead, his chance at the title bout is over.  Or is it?  No, it seems that Messenger 7013 messed up and removed Joe’s soul from his body before he crashed, thereby not allowing Joe to pull the plan out of its dive.  In fact, Mr. Jordan discovers that Joe was not supposed to die for another fifty years.  Joe is delighted to find that he will be returned to Earth.  Does this attitude not slight Heaven?  It is as if Joe said, “Thank God I won’t have to go to Heaven for another fifty years!”  But that is a common attitude in movies about Heaven, to wit, that notwithstanding the fact that being in Heaven is supposed to be the most perfect form of existence a soul can aspire to, life on Earth is always thought to be preferable, much more preferable.

Because Joe’s body was cremated, a substitute will have to be found.  Joe wants a body that will allow him to become Heavyweight Champion of the World, but they need one that is fresh.  And of those that have recently died or are about to, a Mr. Farnsworth seems to be a good choice.  Mr. Farnsworth is a wealthy man who is in the process of being held under the water in his bathtub by his wife Julia and his secretary, Tony Abbot.  Joe doesn’t much care for the Farnsworth body, however, until he gets an eyeful of Bette Logan (Evelyn Keyes), the daughter of a man who unfairly ended up going to prison on account of Farnsworth’s illegal financial activity.

Joe is torn.  What is more important to him, getting to be Heavyweight Champion of the World, or marrying this woman he has just fallen in love with?  Having just discovered the secret of Eternity, all Joe cares about is love and fame.  Now, you might say that Heaven can wait.  After all, Joe will get there eventually, so he might as well have some fun first.  Or will he?  If I had just found out that there really is a God and a Heaven, I would, as I have already said, be stunned.  But once I recovered from the shock and found out that I was going to have to go back to Earth, my question to Mr. Jordan, asked with much fear and trembling, would be whether there was a Hell, and if so, what I would need to do to stay out of it.  Nothing could be more important than that, certainly not boxing fame or the love of a woman.  In fact, even Heaven would not be all that important, for being the risk-averse guy that I am, I would gladly forgo all chance of Heaven if I could be assured that I would be spared of the fires of Hell.  In any event, I would certainly want to know what the rules are for staying out of Hell.  Do I need to turn the other cheek?  That might be something of a disadvantage in the boxing ring.  Am I already in trouble for looking at Bette with lust in my heart?

But as I said, Joe’s simplistic mentality does not think about such things.  Instead, he decides he can have both love and fame by being Farnsworth, saving Bette’s father from prison, courting her, and at the same time, building up his body to get in shape to enter the ring.  To this end, he gets in touch with Max.  At first, Max does not believe him, but the saxophone convinces him.  In other words, the real function of the saxophone in this movie is to act as an attribute, which is a feature used in art to identify someone.  For example, no one knows what Hercules looked like, even assuming there was such a person, so when we see a painting of a muscular man, how do we know it is Hercules?  We know by his attributes, which in his case are a lion skin and a gnarled club.  Since Joe keeps changing bodies, the only way Max can identify him is through Joe’s attribute, his saxophone.

Unfortunately for Joe, there is another thing he can’t seem to get through his thick head, which is that there is no such thing as free will, for all has been ordained by God in advance.  Actually, that is not quite right.  One of the interesting things about a lot of Heaven movies is the way they never talk about God.  Mr. Jordan and the Messenger keep using the passive voice, saying that this or that was “meant to be” rather than saying, “God meant things to be that way.”  This is another dodge used by those who produce movies about Heaven.  It is so God cannot be blamed.  Or rather, it is so that the producers of this movie cannot be blamed for making God responsible for evil.

The particular evil in question is the murder of Farnsworth.  The first attempt at murder by his wife and secretary failed, but on the second attempt, they succeed.  It is not clear whether Mr. Jordan deliberately misled Joe into thinking he could be Farnsworth for fifty years, or whether Mr. Jordan subsequently found out that Farnsworth would soon be murdered.  Mr. Jordan is always going around with a superior, smug look on his face, as if he knows everything, so one suspects he was being cute about letting Joe think he could be Farnsworth long enough to win the title and marry the girl.

Just before Joe as Farnsworth is to be murdered, Joe is told that remaining in Farnsworth’s body was not meant to be, as if there were some impersonal destiny that ruled the world.  But suppose instead that Mr. Jordan told Joe that he would not be able to continue using Farnsworth’s body because God wants Farnsworth to be murdered. The audience would be appalled.  And yet, that is the implication.  However, what is implied by a movie and what is explicitly stated are two different things.  Therefore, the issue is completely skirted by not referring to God at all.

Fortunately for Joe, a prize fighter named Murdock, whom Joe was supposed to fight, gets shot dead by gangsters right there in the ring during a title bout because he refused to throw that fight.  That way the other guy will win the fight, and the gangsters will get to collect on their bets.  Those gangsters!  They are so clever.  But it’s a break for Joe.  He gets to enter Murdock’s body, come alive at the count of nine, get up and win the fight.  But Joe figures there’s no glory in occupying Murdock’s body for a few seconds, just long enough to win a fight, so he wants another body that he can really call his own.

Mr. Jordan, however, washes away all memory of his being Joe or Farnsworth.  He now occupies Murdock’s body as if he really were Murdock.  He runs into Bette and they recognize each other, not physically, but spiritually as it were.  The only one left with any memory of all this is Max, who tells the police where the murdered body of Farnsworth can be found, and who is the one who was referred to in the prologue as the source for this story.

And so it is that Joe and Bette can live happily ever after, or at least until they die, when they have to go to that boring old Heaven.

The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945)

The Horn Blows at Midnight has four things working against it.  First, it is an explicit dream movie.  By “explicit,” I mean we know from the onset that it is a dream.  Athanael (Jack Benny) plays third trumpet in a band.  Just before the beginning of a live broadcast, he falls asleep and starts dreaming, and he does not wake up until the last few minutes of the movie.  In general, audiences do not like dream movies, presumably because it means that what they are watching is not really happening.  This is something of a paradox, because that is true of most movies, even those without dreams in them.  After all, Hollywood has sometimes been referred to as the “dream factory.”  Nevertheless, the audience can get into a movie they know to be fiction and experience it as something real, but when they know the movie is about someone’s dream, their ability to suspend disbelief is greatly strained.

Brief dreams are not a problem, of course, and they may even enhance our enjoyment of the movie, as in The Manchurian Candidate (1962).  It is the longer dreams that test the audience’s patience.  That is why most dream movies do not let the audience know until the end that what they are watching is a dream, as in The Woman in the Window (1944).  Even so, we feel somewhat cheated at the end.  Laura (1944) was originally intended to be a dream movie, and director Otto Preminger even filmed an ending making the dream explicit, but he wisely left it out of the movie.  In The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), we are never really certain whether the ghost is real or dreamt, and this allows us to tentatively accept what we are watching.

When a dream movie is explicit, the characters in real life usually show up in the dream, as in The Wizard of Oz (1939), where it is fun to see the parallels between the real characters and the ones in the dream.  And this leads us to the second thing that The Horn Blows at Midnight has going against it.  While a lot of characters that Athanael knows do show up in his dream, they do not do so in any interesting way.  The first and second trumpeter, who made sarcastic remarks about Athanael’s trumpet playing, are made to be bad guys in the dream, but that is about the extent of it.  Everyone else is just playing two parts.

A link between reality and the dream comes in some remarks Athanael makes in the beginning.  He tells the other two trumpet players that they will be punished someday for snitching on him.  When Elizabeth (Alexis Smith) tries to console him for having to be just the third trumpeter, saying that at least he is making money and eating, he replies, “I wish I’d never heard of food or money.”  He continues:  “It’s an ungrateful world, Elizabeth.  If I had my way, things would be different.  There’d be a lot of changes made.”

And that leads to the third weakness of this film:  it is a Heaven movie.  Apart from the movies, Heaven is a problem all in itself.  No conception of Heaven ever really sounds all that appealing.  Because it is hard to take Heaven seriously, movies about Heaven tend to be comedies, such as Stairway to Heaven (1947), though I have yet to find any of them very funny.  Even when they are dramas, they have a light touch, as in The Green Pastures (1936).  In Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and its remake, Heaven Can Wait (1978), as little time as possible is spent in Heaven, because Heaven is boring.  In fact, in the movie Heaven Can Wait (1943), not to be confused with the previously mentioned movie by that name, we never even get to Heaven.  The protagonist spends most of his time in Hell recounting his sins.  Because this is a comedy, we are not supposed to take Hell any more seriously than Heaven, and thus the man who runs the place is not referred to as Satan, but only as “His Excellency.”  In general, Heaven movies suffer the same problem as dream movies, which is that audiences know that what they are watching isn’t real.  So, when the movie is a dream about Heaven, our credulity is really strained.

Anyway, Athanael dreams that he is an angel who plays the trumpet in the heavenly orchestra.  The dream is a wish-fulfilling fantasy, in which the “ungrateful world” he referred to earlier is selected for destruction, owing to its unworthy inhabitants, and he is to destroy it by blowing his horn exactly at midnight.  So, he is sent to Earth, in accordance with the general principle that it is better to move the story out of Heaven as quickly as possible.  As an angel, he knows nothing about food or money, as per his wish while he was still awake.  Actually, he knows nothing about sex either, which does provide for a few of the handful of laughs that this movie has to offer.

The bulk of the movie consists of the two trumpet players, now fallen angels, trying to keep Athanael from blowing his horn.  I suppose it is the height of absurdity to take this dream-Heaven movie seriously in any aspect, but this leads to the fourth thing working against this movie.  We are expected to pull for Athanael, even though he wants to destroy the world, while pulling against the two fallen angels, who are trying to save it, though for selfish reasons, of course.  If a man commits a murder, he is evil.  If he goes on a rampage and kills a dozen or so, he is a horrible mass-murderer.  And if he is like Hitler or Stalin, who were responsible for the killing of millions, he is a monster.  Athanael is trying to kill every last person on this planet, but since his orders come from Heaven, that is supposed to make it all right.  (It is to be noted, however, that the orders do not come from God, as if to hold him innocent, notwithstanding the fact that the Bible tells us that this is precisely the sort of thing God did in the past with the Flood and will do again on Judgment Day.)

I suppose Athanael is redeemed by the fact that in his wish-fulfilling dream, he falls to his death before he can blow his trumpet and end the world, after which he wakes up and starts playing his trumpet in real life.  But for the reasons given above, this movie cannot be redeemed by the few laughs that it affords us.

Defending Your Life (1991)

Defending Your Life is a new-age reincarnation movie, which means it has a sappy premise that only someone that has led a pampered existence could possibly relate to.  Daniel Miller (Albert Brooks) is an advertising executive who buys himself a BMW as a birthday present to himself.  Then, when trying to pick up a bunch of CDs that have fallen on the floor while driving, he runs head on into a bus, dying instantly.  When he wakes up, he finds himself in Judgment City, where a tribunal will decide whether he will be able to “move forward” (presumably to some higher plane of existence), go back to Earth to be reincarnated so he can try to do better next time, or be discarded as so utterly worthless that he is not worth saving.

Now, you may think this tribunal would be concerned with Miller’s self-centered attitude or his thoughtlessness.  Or possibly it would be concerned with some darker sins, like being mean and selfish.  No, the only thing the tribunal cares about is fear.  According to prosecuting attorney Lena Foster (Lee Grant), Miller cannot be allowed to move forward, because he never overcame his fears.

Let’s stop right there.  Fear is a normal, healthy reaction to danger.  It is the emotion that makes you take precautions to avoid dangerous situations, and when that is not possible, to hide or run away.  The absurd premise of this movie, that fear is something that must always be overcome, makes sense only in a world where one is sheltered from danger.  This is a movie for people who live in the nice part of town, not in the bad part where gangs terrorize the neighborhoods.  It is a movie for people who have never been to war, who never had to fear having their legs blown off by an IED.  It is basically for people who have lived relatively healthy lives in middle-class America.

During the trial, we see scenes from Miller’s life of which every second has been recorded.  We see, for example, a scene in which he is being harassed by a bully when he is in grade school.  This is presented by prosecuting attorney Foster as evidence that Miller has not overcome his fears.  The idea, presumably, is that he should have fought that bully instead of backing down and being humiliated.  Fine.  But what I want to know is, When the bully died, did he get to move forward?  One would think so, because the bully sure wasn’t afraid.  And as I noted above, the tribunal in Judgment City seems to care nothing about moral worth, only whether one has overcome fear.

This is not addressed in the movie, no doubt because of the self-satisfying myth that so many people cling to, which is that bullies are cowards.  But this is just an imaginary revenge against bullies.  I knew a few bullies when I was young, and none of them were cowards.  Sure, they often picked on kids who were smaller and weaker, but they were just as likely to take on someone twice their size and even beat the crap out of him.  So, from what I could tell, these bullies would definitely have been allowed to “move forward,” because they had undeniably overcome their fears.

In contrast to Miller, there is Julia (Meryl Streep), who breezes through her trial, during which we see her getting her children safely out of a burning house and then rushing back in to save the cat.  Needless to say, she gets to move forward.

Meanwhile, back in the jungle.  That is, Miller and Julia go to a place where they can see what they were in their past lives.  Miller sees himself as a black African primitive who is running through the jungle from a lion.  I guess that is why Miller had to be reincarnated instead of being allowed to move forward, because when he was that primitive man in Africa, he was unable to overcome his fear of lions.  He should have stood his ground and kicked its ass.

Foster presents more evidence against Miller.  A friend of his once gave him some inside information about a new watch company, telling him to invest $10,000 in the company, which is all the money Miller had at that time.  We won’t quibble about the fact that it is illegal to profit from inside information, because most people don’t really regard that as a crime, especially when they stand a chance to take advantage of such information.  More to the point, when someone gives you some “inside information” about a company and tells you to invest all you have in it, that is a damn good time to be afraid.  Sure, the company turned out to be Casio, so with hindsight we can see he would have made 37 million dollars on the deal, but most of the time such information turns out to be worthless.  Nevertheless, Miller is accused of letting his fear keep him from making a killing in the stock market.

It gets worse.  It is pointed out that Miller subsequently invested the $10,000 in cattle and lost it all.  But does he get credit for having the courage to invest the money in cattle?  No.  Apparently, you only get credit for having the courage to make good investments, not for having the courage to make bad investments.  Well, I’m glad they cleared that up.  Now we all know how we should invest our money.

As the pièce de résistance, Foster presents a scene from what Miller did while in Judgment City.  In particular, on the previous evening, Julia and Miller confessed their love for each other.  She invited him to spend the night with her.  But he didn’t want to, because he believed their relationship was just perfect the way it was, and he was afraid that sex would spoil it.  Once again, Foster points out, Miller has failed to overcome his fears and he does not deserve to move forward.  Well, all I can say is that I have known several women who did not want to have sex with me because they said it would spoil our friendship, so I guess they will not be moving forward either.  I, on the other, was fearless in the matter, more than willing to risk the friendship to satisfy my lust, so I guess I will be moving forward.

Invasion of the Star Creatures (1962)

Invasion of the Star Creatures is a low-budget spoof of equally low-budget science fiction films.  Just to make sure everyone is in on the joke, the credits open with, “R.I. Diculous Presents An Impossible Picture.”  It is filled with silly situations and corny jokes, but it is rather amusing, if you are in the mood for this sort of thing.

On an army missile base, Private Philbrick and Private Penn are normally in charge of such things as washing the garbage cans, but are assigned by Colonel Awol to be part of a team investigating a cave that opened up as the result of a nuclear test explosion.  The team discovers seven-foot-tall plant-like extraterrestrials, sort of like the alien in The Thing from Another World (1951).  However, these plant creatures are just slaves, their masters being two tall, beautiful women, reminiscent of movies like Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) and Queen of Outer Space (1958).

The two privates are captured by the vegetable monsters and brought before the two women, Professor Tanga and Dr. Puna.  Philbrick wonders aloud what Space Commander Connors would do, an allusion to such radio and television characters as Captain Video and Captain Midnight, or the television show Space Patrol (1950-55).  The women tell Penn and Philbrick they plan to return to their planet, after which Earth will be invaded and conquered.  Then they show the privates the room where they grow the plant men.  We see flower pots, most of which have a hand sticking up out of them.  When they prepare to leave the room, Philbrick says goodbye to the plant hands, one of which waves bye-bye.

Although there are warrior men back on their planet, the women don’t seem to know anything about love, so Philbrick teaches Dr. Puna what “kiss” means. She swoons, allowing Penn and Philbrick to escape.  They return to base and tell Colonel Awol that he must stop the spaceship from blasting off.  Awol does not believe them and orders them to be thrown into the guardhouse, assuming them to be drunk.  But when Philbrick swears on his Space Commander Connors’ secret ring, Awol asks to see the ring.  When Philbrick shows it to him, Awol shows Philbrick his.  They utter the secret code words and do the hand signal.  Then they discover they both belong to the same stellar squadron, and it turns out that whereas that Awol is only a junior flight leader, Philbrick is a senior flight leader, which means Philbrick is now in command.

The three of them head back to the cave.  Penn says the three of them will not be enough to stop the space broads from taking off.  Just then, a bunch of Indians come along, whereupon it turns out that they also are members of Space Commander Connors’ flight squadron, only one of the Indians is General flight leader, and proves it with a badge pinned to his bare chest.  So now, the Indian is in command.

But they all have a pow wow, during which the Indians and the colonel get drunk.  Penn and Philbrick go back to the cave and manage to blast the rocket ship off into space, marooning the two women.  But Dr. Puna gets Penn to teach Professor Tanga what “kiss” means.  They all get married and live happily ever after.

I saw this movie a couple of times in the 1960s on the late show, and I liked it so much that I bought my own copy on DVD recently.  I was looking forward to one of my favorite jokes in the movie, when Penn and Philbrick try to get telepathic control of one of the plant men.  The way I remember it, Penn says, “Focus on his eye.”

But as the eyes of the plant men are spaced really far apart, Philbrick asks, “Which one?”

“The one next to the carrot,” Penn replies.

Imagine my disappointment when I found it was not on the DVD.  Then I noticed that IMDb says that the television version is ten minutes longer than the theatrical version.

I guess I’ll have to wait for the director’s cut.

Made for Each Other (1939)

Movies that were popular when they were made tell us something about the culture that produced them, but sometimes it is hard know whether the movies depict things as they really were or only as the way the audience wanted them to be.  This is especially so for the movie Made for Each Other, in which one cannot help but wonder what the attitude of the audience was toward love, God, and housewives in 1939.

The movie starts off as a comedy, drifts into drama, plunges into melodrama, and then closes as a comedy, the overall result being uneven and unsatisfying, especially since the parts of the movie that count as comedy are not all that funny.  It begins by announcing in a prologue that of all the people in New York, John Mason (James Stewart) is one of the least important.  We see a hand flipping through a telephone book until it finds the name John Mason, followed by the abbreviation “atty,” indicating that he is an attorney.  Given this, it is hard to avoid the implication that the measure of a person’s importance is his occupation.  Now, this movie was made during the Great Depression when a lot of people didn’t even have a job.  And of those who did have employment, most would not have had a college education, let alone have had the luxury of obtaining an advanced degree, such as by going to law school.  In other words, most of those in the audience would have been “less important” in this sense than John Mason, and yet the people that made this movie must have assumed, perhaps rightly, that the audience would accept this evaluation of John as one of the least important people in New York are perfectly reasonable.

Anyway, he works for a law firm, and while on a brief trip to Boston to get a deposition for an upcoming case, Higgins versus Higgins, he met a woman named Jane (Carol Lombard) and married her.  It really is amazing, looking back now from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, how unthinkable that would be today.  Of course, even in 1939, when this movie was made, marrying a woman after having known her for only a few days would have been exceptional.  But people did fall in love and get married in those days far more quickly than now.  That is not surprising, considering that before the sexual revolution, a lot of people never had sex until they got married, and so couples were often in a hurry to tie the knot.

But it is not simply that people could not wait to have sex with each other.  Rather, there was a widespread belief at that time that marriages were made in Heaven.  This belief is expressed in the title of the movie.  So, once you met the person you were made for, there was no reason to hesitate.  Today, few people still believe this sort of thing.  We fall in love and have sex, not necessarily in that order, and then we fall out of love and break up.  We do this a few times with a few different people, and maybe when we find someone we really seem to get along with, we finally decide to get married, usually after living together for a while.  And then, as often as not, we end up getting divorced anyway.  And thus it is that today we look upon the notion that people are “made for each other” with a jaundiced eye.

Be that as it may, when John returns to the office, Carter, his chief rival for being made the next junior partner of the firm, suggests that senior partner Judge Doolittle (Charles Coburn) might be displeased with the news, owing to the expectation that John would marry Doolittle’s daughter Eunice.  John dismisses that as just a rumor.  But he is embarrassed and hesitant about telling Doolittle, so we have to wonder.  It is never clear what John’s relationship with Eunice really amounted to, whether they even ever went out on a date.

John and Jane prepare to go on their honeymoon by taking a ship to Europe.  In their cabin, there is a small bed, which is just barely big enough for the two of them.  They get on the bed and try it out.  A lot of people believe that in old movies, if a man and woman got on the same bed, at least one of them had to have one foot on the floor.  There is nothing about that in the Production Code, and this is one of several movies that prove that the rule never existed, such as Fallen Angel (1945) and The 39 Steps (1935), in the latter of which the couple are not even married.  The honeymoon, however, is called off when John has to go back to the office, because the continuance he thought he had for Higgins v. Higgins has been rescinded, with the trial scheduled for the next Monday.  He gets no sympathy from Doolittle, who is contemptuous of honeymoons.

Somewhat later, with John’s mother Harriet living with him and Jane, they have Doolittle, Carter, and Eunice over for dinner.  John thought he was being groomed for being made a partner, but Doolittle announces that the new partner will be Carter, owing to the recommendation made by Eunice, presumably because she is a woman scorned.  Having your boss over for dinner, who then picks that time to let you know, in front of your wife and other guests, that you have been passed over for the promotion you were hoping for would certainly make you feel as though you were one of the least important people in New York.

Jane has a baby, after which there follows a lot of helpless-husband and interfering mother-in-law routines that are supposed to be funny.  Maybe they were funny in 1939.  As I noted above, things were very different back then from the way they are now.  And one way in which they are different apparently is in the status of a housewife.  For some time now, it has been deemed inappropriate to ask a married woman if she works.  The implication of such a question is that housewives do not work, when in fact they do a lot of work, raising children, cleaning house, cooking, and so forth.  Well, that may be the way things are today, but judging by this movie, one has to wonder how things were back then.

From the beginning of their marriage, John and Jane have had a cook.  That is breathtaking all by itself.  How many people do you know have a full-time cook?  Anyway, the cook tells Jane that her job is to prepare meals, and that Jane can wash the diapers herself.  Jane is devastated.  She tells the cook she is fired.  Of course, she immediately hires another one, presumably someone who will wash the diapers as well as cook the meals (Ew!), and from what we can glean later in the movie, someone who will clean house as well.  In other words, this apartment has two women in it, John’s wife and mother, neither of whom has a job, and between the two of them, they cannot cook their own meals, wash the baby’s diapers, or keep house in general.  Well, maybe housewives today “work,” but I am not so sure about the ones in the 1930s, if this movie is any indication.  However, this may be a piece with the notion that a lawyer could be one of the least important people in New York.  That is, if the audience could believe this about John, perhaps the audience could accept the idea that it was perfectly appropriate for Jane to have a cook, even if those in the audience were doing good just to put food on the table.

John despairs about the fact that he was not promoted and given a raise, making it a bit of a struggle to pay the bills.  Jane tells John he should just barge into Doolittle’s office and demand a raise, saying Doolittle cannot do without him.  That makes me cringe.  One should never ask for a raise with that attitude.  One should always assume that the boss will say no, and be prepared for that.  Anyway, Jane pumps John up enough to do it, but before John can demand his raise, Doolittle tells him that business is off and everyone will have to take a twenty-five percent cut in pay, and that he himself will be making a substantial reduction in his drawing account.  As John leaves the office, we hear Doolittle talking to a commissioner on the phone, saying that he wants to buy that house on Park Avenue.

John goes out and gets drunk, coming home at two in the morning.  He drops a bottle of milk, waking up the new cook Lily (Louise Beavers).  All right, just a darn minute.  Now they have a live-in cook?  Well, maybe cooks have to live in the house for which they prepare the meals.  How would I know?  In any event, as we see in the next scene, she is also a nanny, because she is taking care of the baby in the park.  This is the fifteenth woman that Jane has hired, although it is the first one we have seen that is African American.  Perhaps it is on account of Lily’s black wisdom that Jane values her so much, as when Lily says, “Never let the seeds stop you from enjoying the watermelon.”

Because of the cut in pay, the Mason family starts going into debt, even to the point of having collection agencies being sicced on them.  Jane looks for a job, but cannot find one.  Finally, she is so desperate, she has to let go of Lily.  Now she will have to work in the home, just like a modern housewife.  In fact, John gets so depressed that he has turned his wife into a “household drudge” that he decides that they should get a divorce so that she won’t be married to a failure.  In other words, whereas today, a housewife may take umbrage at the suggestion that she does not work, back when this movie was made, if a housewife actually had to do housework, that was something to be ashamed of.

In the course of lamenting their marriage, John even says that maybe they should not have had the baby.  Uh-oh!  You know what that means.  It’s punishment time.  While they are at a night club being miserable with each other on New Year’s Eve, Jane calls home and finds out that the baby is sick.  He is rushed to the hospital, where he is diagnosed with an infection so severe that unless they can obtain some of the new, experimental serum, the baby will die.  John goes to Doolittle’s house, wakes him up in the middle of the night, and makes him put on his hearing aid.  Presumably, this hearing aid represents the fact that Doolittle often does not listen, figuratively speaking, to the needs of others.  John tells him that on account of the cut in pay, his baby has had to sleep in the dining room, causing him to get pneumonia.  Doolittle agrees to pay for the cost to get the serum.  Unfortunately, it will have to be flown in from another state during a blizzard.  Chances are, the pilot will not make it.  Communication with the pilot is lost, and it is beginning to look hopeless.

While watching over the baby, Jane bemoans the fact that there is nothing she can do.  The nurse, who is also a nun, is standing behind her with a knowing, almost smug look on her face.  She tells Jane there is one more thing she can do.  She leads her to the chapel, where Jane prays to a statue of Jesus.  I would have given anything for that scene to be followed by one in which we see the plane crash into the side of a mountain.  Well, that didn’t happen, of course.  The pilot bails out of the plane and crawls to a farmhouse, and the farmer calls the hospital.  The serum gets there on time, and the baby is saved.

It is interesting to note that we no longer see scenes like this in mainstream movies.  They still make religious movies, of course, in which people pray and God answers those prayers.  But if no mention is made of religion for most of a movie, a scene right at the end where somebody prays, bringing about a miracle, never happens any more.  It is a scene like that which spoils Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956), at least for those of us watching it today.  But people must have been more open to the idea of divine intervention back in those days, accepting it casually as something that happens all the time.

After the baby is saved, we see the pilot and Doolittle having drinks in the bar.  Four rounds were bought, none paid for by Doolittle.  When the pilot comments on this, Doolittle indicates that he can’t hear him on account of his hearing aid.  This scene is followed by one in which John has been made a junior partner, with no reason given whatsoever.  From the juxtaposition of these scenes, we can only conclude that the one is the cause of the other, that John was made a partner because Doolittle has suddenly become all sentimental about the baby.  Either that, or because he was impressed by John’s nerve when John barged into his house the night the baby got sick.  Right after getting his promotion, John gives an angry lecture to all the other partners, from Carter on up to Doolittle, loudly asserting that there will have to be changes made at the law firm, and demanding that these changes be implemented immediately.  All the partners listen submissively.  Apparently John is now one of the most important people in New York.

What does it all mean?  A fair amount of emphasis was given to the scene where Jane prays to God to save the baby, so perhaps the idea is this.  John tells Jane they should get divorced, and he wishes that they had not had the baby.  God punishes John by making the baby sick.  Jane prays to God, who then relents and allows the baby to be saved.  Through this miracle, John and Jane are reconciled, and Doolittle’s heart is melted, leading him to give John a promotion.  And this is all in accordance with God’s plan.

Or maybe not.  Even in the old days, movies did not require divine intervention for there to be a narrative rupture arising out of an unbelievable change in character in the final reel.  How much the audience of 1939 would have seen the hand of God in all this is hard to say from our present, less credulous perspective.

In any event, given this promotion, there can be little doubt that Jane has hired Lily back to be a live-in cook, maid, and nanny again.  Now she doesn’t have to work in any sense of the word.

Swept Away (1974)

In Swept Away, Raffaella (Mariangelo Melato), who is a rich woman, her husband, and their rich friends rent a yacht and go sailing in the Mediterranean. She and her husband carry on screaming arguments about political ideology, with Raffaella expressing her fascist views with much vehemence. We all expect Italians in movies to be passionate, but we have never seen anything like this. Gennarino (Giancarlo Giannini) is a deckhand and a communist, whom she treats like dirt.

When Raffaella and Gennarino get stranded on a deserted island, he decides to reverse roles with a vengeance. He beats her into submission, forcing her to call him Signor Carunchio, while calling her Raffaella (when not calling her a bitch or an industrial whore), instead of Signora Lanzetti, as he did on board the yacht. Then, when all this verbal and physical abuse has finally made her want him to ravish her brutally, he says that is not enough. She must tell him she loves him, kiss his feet, and worship him like a god. She actually does kiss his feet and submit to him totally, falling madly in love with him. But he still beats her whenever she misbehaves, as when she presumes to think instead of doing what she is told.

This may be a minor point, but it is odd that Gennarino, the communist, believes that women should be totally subservient to men, which we would be more likely to associate with fascism.

Anyway, the day finally arrives when a boat comes within sight of the island. Raffaella does not want to signal them because she fears being rescued might spoil their happiness. But Gennarino believes that only if they are rescued can he be sure that she truly loves him. Once rescued, Raffaella might have been able to thwart public opinion and marry Gennarino, but when she sees him being greeted by his wife, who talks about their children, she has misgivings. But given Gennarino’s attitude toward women, why should he care about what happens to his wife? He wants Raffaella to go back and live on the island with him, but she decides against it. He reverts to calling her a bitch and an industrial whore.

Because this is supposed to be a comedy, we hesitate to take all this Mediterranean misogyny too seriously, but there simply is not enough humor in this movie to overcome the revulsion we feel at the way he treats her, especially since the movie seems to prove he is right in believing that a man can make a woman love him by degrading her and beating her.