An Ida Lupino Formula

I never really cared much for Ida Lupino, either as an actress or as a director.  As for most of the movies she starred in, I can’t say that it was her fault that I did not think much of them, for her acting was fine, and I doubt that any other actress in her place would have made much difference.  As for the movies she directed, for some of which she also was a writer, her responsibility for their lackluster nature cannot be denied.  Nevertheless, when Turner Classic Movies decided to show a bunch of the movies she directed early in her career in that capacity, I decided to watch them.

The first one I watched was Never Fear (1949), which was just fair.  The second one I watched was Outrage (1950), and it too was just fair.  Neither movie on its own inspired me to write a review.  However, halfway through the second movie, I began to notice a structural similarity between the movies, which fascinated me.  Whether there is an Ida Lupino formula that applies to any of her other movies and whether that formula is significant in any way, I cannot say.

In Never Fear, Guy and Carol are struggling dancing partners.  In order to give her flowers, he has to steal them.  But finally, after a performance that he choreographed, their agent gets them a two-week engagement at a major night club.  They now have enough money not only for him to pay for the flowers he brings her, but to buy her an engagement ring and ask her to marry him as well, which is something she has been hoping for.  In Outrage, Ann and Jim are also in love.  When Jim gets a raise, he tells Ann they now have enough money to get married, something she has been hoping for.

Then tragedy strikes, and the woman in each of these movies ends up regarding herself as damaged goods.  In Never Fear, Carol is stricken with polio.  Guy still wants to marry Carol, but she pushes him away, telling him she won’t marry him, because things would never be the same.  In part, she does not want Guy to marry her out of pity, but she also has lost her sex drive.  She does not say this explicitly (this was 1949, after all), but much later in the movie, she makes a remark about how she finally feels like a woman again.  (Note:  when the doctor offers Carol a cigarette as she lies in bed, she refuses the offer.  This is taken as a sign that she is depressed.  Later, when she starts smoking again, this indicates that she is getting better psychologically.)  In Outrage, Jim still wants to marry Ann, but she pushes him away.  In part, she tells him he would never be able to forget that she had been raped, but she also now regards sex as something repulsive.

In Never Fear, Carol goes to a hospital and then to an institution for therapy.  There she meets Len, played by Hugh O’Brian, who has an even more severe case of polio than Carol.  He is a kind of spiritual figure.  At one point, the doctor that heads the institution says that Len has a special “power.”  In Outrage, Ann runs away from home without telling Jim or her parents where she is going.  She collapses on the side of the road and is rescued by “Doc,” so called because he is a reverend.  He takes her to a house owned by a married couple he is friends with, and they take her in.

In Never Fear, Guy keeps coming around trying to get Carol to marry him.  He has been trying to make a go of it selling houses, but she tells him to forget about her, to find himself another dancing partner.  They have a bitter argument and do not see each other for a long time.  Eventually, Carol begins to feel better about herself, and she has reached the point where she is able to walk with crutches.  She writes him a letter, hoping to make amends.  He shows up at her birthday party with flowers.  At first, she thinks they will be able to get married after all, but then he tells her that he took her advice.  He has another dancing partner, and they will be performing in Las Vegas soon, which is why he cannot stay long.  After he leaves, she throws herself at Len on the rebound, telling him they are alike, and that they will be good for each other (it is here she makes the remark about feeling like a woman again).  But Len knows she still loves Guy.  He tells her that she is just looking for someone to be comfortable with, and that is not enough for marriage.  In Outrage, we never see Jim again, because he does not know where Ann is.  She hopes that Doc will marry her, but Doc knows that she still loves Jim, and that they must go their separate ways.

In Never Fear, when the day finally arrives for Carol to leave the institution, she has progressed to the point where she only needs a cane.  As she walks down the street, she is apprehensive about facing the world alone (except for her father, with whom she will be living for a while).  But then Guy shows up with flowers.  It is clear that they will get married and live happily ever after.  In Outrage, a man starts making advances to Ann at a picnic, and she goes all flashback, thinking he is the man who raped her.  She hits him with a wrench.  It puts him in the hospital and she goes to jail.  However, the man does not want to press charges, and the judge agrees to let Ann go provided she receives psychiatric care for a year.  In other words, Ann receives professional care same as Carol, only hers is delayed.  Doc puts Ann on a bus back to her home where Jim and her parents are waiting for her.  And in case you were wondering, the rapist was caught.

In one sense, the ending of Never Fear was not far-fetched.  People who don’t dance tend to assume that dancing partners are lovers, but dancers know that very often they are not.  So, Carol would not have had any reason to feel jealous about Guy and his new dancing partner.  However, I still did not like what comes across as an artificial, tacked-on happy ending.  I would have preferred that Carol leave the institution knowing that she will have to face the world alone, except for the support her father could give her, at least for a while.  It would have given the movie a tougher, harder edge.  In fact, I was a little bothered by the way the movie portrayed Carol’s attitude as wrong-headed.  If she wanted to make a clean break with her past, that was her business.  In Outrage, on the other hand, the happy ending seemed reasonable and natural.


Gone With the Wind (1939)

Most movies can be discussed without comparing them to reality, but not so Gone With the Wind, owing to its paternalistic depiction of slavery in the Old South as something benign, in which the slaves are so well-treated that you would almost think their Southern masters were doing them a favor. The closest thing to slave beating in this movie is when Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) slaps Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) in exasperation. And an unnamed Ku Klux Klan is subtly presented (without sheets) as a force for good. Indeed, this movie is to slavery what The Godfather (1972) is to organized crime: a glorification of something despicable, a beautification of something ugly.

And yet the movie is tame compared to the book, written by Margaret Mitchell, which required a great deal of sanitizing to make it suitable for a Hollywood production. As an example of the sort of thing that had to be excised in the process of turning this book into a movie, there is the passage where Rhett Butler (Clark Gable in the movie) admits to Scarlett that he shot a black man for insulting a white woman: “He was uppity to a lady, and what else could a Southern gentleman do?”

In comparing the movie first to reality and then to the book, we get something of a paradox. By avoiding much of the really offensive material in the book, the movie becomes less realistic than its source, because the racist sentiments expressed in the book accurately reflect the racist sentiments of the white South at the time. However much we might deplore Rhett’s murder of an African American, such things undoubtedly happened in those days.

What is less clear is whether Gone With the Wind is feminist or traditionalist in its attitude toward women. On the one hand, Scarlett is portrayed as strong, resourceful, and shrewd, a woman who chafes at the ridiculous restraints placed on women during those times, and who breaks those restraints one by one as the story progresses. On the other hand, she is portrayed as a wrong-headed woman.  The essence of this idea is that a woman may not know her own mind, and when that happens, a man is justified in using coercive means to bring her around, thereby making her happy in spite of her objections.

Toward that end, Margaret Mitchell sets up a simple opposition in terms of which there is a right and wrong choice in whom one marries, resulting in two possibilities:  the man and woman are alike, which is conducive to happiness; and the man and woman are different, which guarantees misery. Early on in the novel, we find that Scarlett is in love with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard in the movie), and she is devastated to learn that he is going to marry Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland in the movie).  Her father (Thomas Mitchell in the movie) tries to console her, telling her that she could never be happy with Ashley, because they are so different from each other.  “Only when like marries like,” he says, “can there be any happiness.” As a way of underscoring just how much Ashley and Melanie are alike, it turns out that they are cousins. Apparently, the idea is that people you are related to will tend to be like you, and so marrying a cousin is conducive to happiness, even if just a tad incestuous.  In fact, we are told that the Wilkes always marry their cousins, the Hamiltons, which is why Ashley’s sister is going to marry Melanie’s brother. Scarlett starts to say, “But you’ve been happy, and you and Mother aren’t alike,” but she thinks better of it.  Her mother, you see, had been in love with her cousin (Oh my!), but her family objected, not because they were cousins, of course, but because he was a little too wild.  Unable to have the man she really wanted, she resigned herself to marrying a man she did not love.

Regarding the ways in which Ashley is different from Scarlett, his love of reading poetry and listening to music, for example, she asserts that she would change all that after they were married, but her father chides her for such foolishness, saying no woman ever changed any man.  And as far as he is concerned, the fact that Scarlett thinks she loves Ashley is no argument.  “All this American business of running around marrying for love, like servants, like Yankees!  The best marriages are when the parents choose for the girl.” Besides, he assures her, for a woman, love comes after marriage.  Scarlett’s father is the first man in her life who knows better than she does what will make her happy.

The next day, at the barbecue, Scarlett confesses her love to Ashley, and he admits that he cares for her too, but that he cannot marry her.  “Love isn’t enough to make a successful marriage when two people are as different as we are,” he tells her.  When she asks him if he loves Melanie, he dodges the question and starts talking about how alike they are:  “She is like me, part of my blood, and we understand each other.  Scarlett!  Scarlett!  Can’t I make you see that a marriage can’t go on in any sort of peace unless the two people are alike?”  And thus Ashley is the second man in Scarlett’s life who knows better than she does what will make her happy.

Right after that scene, she meets Rhett Butler, the third man in her life who knows what is best for her.  He falls in love with her at first sight, and somewhat later in the book he explains the reason he loves her:  “I love you, Scarlett, because we are so much alike, renegades, both of us, dear, and selfish rascals.”  However, it is still Ashley that Scarlett loves, and her persistence in this regard is not presented as merely being an unfortunate circumstance, but is treated as morally unacceptable.  There is the sense that Scarlett is wrong not to accept Rhett’s love, that she is willfully refusing to give up her infatuation for Ashley when she could have Rhett, the idea being that when a man truly loves a woman, she is wrong to refuse him.  And it is this moral dimension that justifies the use of force.  Of course, it is part of this whole notion of the wrong-headed woman that when such force is employed, it turns out to be what she really wants.  The first couple of times Rhett uses force, it only involves aggressive kissing, and in each case, she forgets about Ashley and swoons with passion, leading her to accept Rhett’s proposal of marriage.

After they get married, she still loves Ashley, of course, on account of her being so obstinate. The tension builds, with Rhett becoming increasingly physical and threatening, until one night he carries her up the stairs and rapes her.  And of course it is just what she needs:  “Suddenly she had a wild thrill such as she had never known; joy, fear, madness, excitement, surrender to arms that were too strong, lips too bruising, fate that moved too fast.”  But the effect proves to be temporary, and their marriage returns to its previous state of low-grade misery.

What is ironic is that this book was written by a woman. In The Forsyte Saga, on the other hand, another man rapes his wife for similar reasons, being frustrated by his wife’s love for another man. But in that case, the rape is so traumatic that it not only ruins their marriage, but also ruins things for the next generation. And this novel was written by a man, John Galsworthy, also in the early part of the twentieth century. In short, the novel written by a man was more feminist than the one written by a woman.

Back before the movie version had been made, when people read the novel without knowing how it would end, they probably thought Scarlett would eventually realize how much she really loved Rhett, and they would live happily ever after; or, failing that, she would be punished for her stubbornness. And indeed she is. She realizes just how much she loves Rhett only at the point where it is too late. To this extent, the movie is faithful to the book. But what those who read the novel did not expect was the destruction of Rhett. And this difference in what was expected and the actual outcome is the biggest difference between the movie and the book.

At the end of the movie, when Rhett leaves Scarlett, we feel relieved. He is through with her, and it is as if he has finally been cured of a sickness. There is the hint of a sneer when he tells her that he does not give a damn what happens to her, and there is a spring in his step as he heads out the door. But the depiction of Rhett in the novel is very different: “He looked at her steadily with dark eyes that were heavy with fatigue and there was no leaping light in them…. He was sunken in his chair, his suit wrinkling untidily against his thickening waist, every line of him proclaiming the ruin of a fine body and the coarsening of a strong face. Drink and dissipation had done their work….”

Although Rhett is only forty-five by that time, he seems much older, drained and exhausted, almost as if he is dying.  And much in the way people often express a desire to go back home as they near the end of life, Rhett talks about going back to Charleston, where his family is, in hopes of finding peace and reconciliation.

When Scarlett finally accepts that Rhett is leaving her, she says, “Oh, my darling, if you go, what shall I do?” Unlike the movie, where the tone of Rhett’s voice and the look on his face as he makes his parting remark is almost triumphant, making us want to say, “Good for him,” in the book, he is defeated, and his words are full of resignation and regret: “For a moment he hesitated as if debating whether a kind lie were kinder in the long run than the truth. Then he shrugged. ‘… I wish I could care what you do or where you go, but I can’t.’ He drew a short breath and said lightly but softly: ‘My dear, I don’t give a damn.’”

Whereas the movie stays with the notion that Scarlett is wrong-headed and gets what she deserves, the ending of the novel makes us realize that it was actually Rhett who was wrong-headed, and that he is the one who really pays the price for it. If Scarlett was foolish in thinking she could change Ashley regarding his tendency to spend a lot of time reading books and listening to music, how much more foolish was it for Rhett to think he could marry a woman who loved another man and somehow change that?

Breezy (1973)

There has always been a clash between generations: the older person telling the younger one that his world view is naïve, and that one day reality will crush all his foolish notions; and the younger person telling the older one that he has wasted his whole life laboring under outdated notions. And there have always been May-December romances, in which sex gets mixed in with this generational clash. Though in one sense the story is ageless, yet the one depicted in Breezy seems very dated now. Between the sexual revolution of the sixties and the hubris of the Baby Boomers, the generation gap as it was then called had a unique tone to it that sounds flat today.

The title character (Kay Lenz) is a hippie chick of about twenty years, who sees so much good in people that even though she is almost sexually assaulted by a man who picked her up hitchhiking, her Pollyanna attitude is unaffected. In fact, she is such an exceedingly good-natured free spirit that she begins to get on our nerves. And, of course, when it comes to sex she naturally believes in free love.

And then there is Frank (William Holden). He is just as promiscuous as Breezy is, but since he is in his mid-fifties, we cannot call it free love, which seems to connote youth and innocence of a sort. Furthermore, he is grumpy about it. When we first meet Frank, he can barely force himself to be polite as he runs off the woman he just had a one night stand with. Eventually Frank and Breezy meet and eventually they start having sex. Society’s idea of an acceptable couple is one in which the man is of the same class as the woman is or slightly better. Check. He should be bigger and taller than she is. Check. They should be of the same race. Check. He should be about the same age as she is. Oops.

As often happens when a couple deviates from the societal norm, while the man and woman are alone with each other, everything seems fine. They fool themselves into thinking they don’t care what others think. But when they are around those others, what those others think starts becoming a lot more important than they thought it would be. At first, it is little remarks made by strangers. A saleslady refers to Breezy as Frank’s daughter. A waiter asks to see some ID before serving her a drink. Then they run into some of Frank’s friends. They are too polite to say anything about how young Breezy is, but they don’t have to, because they are obviously embarrassed by the awkwardness of the situation.

Breezy, of course, is oblivious, but Frank feels the heavy weight of society’s disapproval. To make matters worse, the next day one of his friends, Bob (Roger Carmel), compliments Frank on his nerve, his ability to have a fling without caring what others think. He says he would like to do the same himself, but he knows he could only be a meal ticket for a girl that young. Besides, Bob goes on to say, he would start thinking of himself a child molester. He says all this believing that Frank is free of such concerns, but it is obvious that he is actually giving voice to all the misgivings that Frank has been managing to repress.

At this point, the movie could have had a realistic ending, which would have been more satisfying. For example, Frank could have gone home and had a heart-to-heart talk with Breezy that their relationship was untenable on account of their age difference, that society’s disapproval was just making him too uncomfortable to continue on with it, and they could have parted as friends. Instead, the movie descends into melodrama and sentiment. First, Frank decides to end it by being mean and treating her with contempt, causing her to leave in tears. Then, Betty (Marj Dusay), the woman he was going with before he met Breezy, who loved Frank but gave up on him and decided to marry someone else, is in an accident in which her new husband has been killed. Frank goes to see her at the hospital, and she starts gushing about how she and her husband only had one week of marriage, but it was a beautiful week, and that is what really matters, and so on in this sentimental vein, which naturally functions as the lesson about life that Frank needed to learn. Frank then goes looking for Breezy and finds her. Of course she forgives him. He says, “Maybe we’ll have a year,” and they walk off happily together.

Not every movie needs to be realistic, of course, and sometimes a tacked-on happy ending is just what we want. But here it really doesn’t work.

Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919)

In 1915, D.W. Griffith made Birth of a Nation, which was an entertaining movie, but had the slight drawback of being the most racist movie ever made.  To atone for this great sin, he had to do penance, and that’s why he made Intolerance:  Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages the very next year, whose message was that we should all be tolerant of one another, something the glorious Ku Klux Klan of the previous movie definitely was not. Intolerance was a boring movie, but it had to be done.  Unfortunately, it was also done to us, punishing us for enjoying Birth of a Nation, I suppose.

Griffith must have still been feeling guilty by 1919, because in that year he also made Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl, in which he tried to atone for his racist classic one more time.  The very title may sound a little racist to our twenty-first century ears, but he probably thought it was an improvement over the source material, a short story by Thomas Burke entitled “The Chink and the Child.”

The Asian in both titles is Cheng Huan, played by Richard Barthelmess in yellowface.  He is a Chinese Buddhist who decides to move to London to bring enlightenment to the white race.  He is unable to bring said enlightenment to the British, however, no doubt because the people in England were not sure what to make of a man who was apparently incapable of using the muscles in his face to form an expression.  I guess that was Griffith’s idea of the inscrutable Oriental.  However, Huan is able to achieve nirvana on a regular basis at the local opium den.

Whereas Barthelmess played Huan without an expression, Donald Crisp played Battling Burrows with enough expressions on his face for the two of them. Burrows is a boxer who enjoys being cruel to his young daughter Lucy. In fact, the only time Burrows is not bullying or beating Lucy is when he is at the saloon or in the boxing ring.  But he insists that she put a smile on her face, and so Lucy uses her two fingers to force her lips into a smile, which is ludicrous.  Supposedly, Lillian Gish, who played Lucy, came up with that idea, and apparently Griffith liked it, because she does it over and over again. The reason for this, presumably, is that if she had simply forced a smile on her face the way a normal person might do, we in the audience might be so dull-witted as to think she was actually happy.

After a particularly severe beating, Lucy accidentally stumbles into Huan’s shop.  When the effect of his opium pipe wears off, Huan notices her on the floor and takes her upstairs to his bedroom.  His love for her is pure and noble, but expressed in such a way as to seem downright creepy.  But when her father finds out she has been in Huan’s bedroom, he beats her with a whip until she dies.  Huan goes over to where Burrows lives, and, discovering that Lucy is dead, pulls out a revolver and shoots Burrows several times, killing him on the spot.  Huan goes home and commits suicide by disemboweling himself with a knife.  I thought that was something a Japanese Samurai might do as a matter of honor, not something a Buddhist is likely to do, but then I wasn’t aware that Buddhists went around packing heat, so what do I know?

This movie is simplistically didactic, instructing us that an Asian might actually be a better person than a Causian.  And to benefit from that lesson, we have to sit through what may be the most miserable ninety minutes in cinematic history.

The Crowd (1928) and Our Daily Bread (1934)

In 1928, King Vidor made The Crowd, a movie about John and Mary Sims, and then made Our Daily Bread in 1934, which is a movie about the same married couple.  Different actors play the roles in the two movies, but even if they had been played by the same actors, the second movie really does not seem to be a sequel to the first, especially since the son they had in the first movie is inexplicably missing in the second.

The Crowd is basically about a man, John Sims, who thinks he will make it big in the big city.  In fact, his father expresses those big dreams for him when he is born on July 4, 1900, as propitious a birth date as one could want.  As a child, his life is compared, somewhat superficially, with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  At the age of twelve, he expresses his dream of being big himself.  That is the day his father dies, suggesting that our dreams have a way of being interrupted by the harsh realities of life.

An intertitle sarcastically announces that John has become an adult, and that he is one of the seven million people in New York who believe the city depends on them.  That is a stretch, because a lot of people have no such illusions, but John certainly does.  He ends up with a job in which he is just one of a thousand people.  All in all, it is not a bad job:  he works indoors, sitting down, no heavy lifting.  He even has the opportunity to steal a little time from his boss trying to win a contest coming up with a good advertising slogan.  And there is no overtime apparently, because at the moment the minute hand indicates it is 5 o’clock, everyone leaves his desk and heads for the exit.

Bert works in the same office with John, and he lines him up with a blind double date, where John meets Mary.  Though Bert is a fun-loving guy, yet he is a better worker than John and eventually gets promoted.  Furthermore, Bert is not contemptuous of other people the way John is, sneering at the crowd and remarking to Mary that most people are a pain in the neck.  John sees a man juggling balls with an advertisement on the clown suit he is wearing.  He points out that the poor sap’s father probably thought he would grow up to be president.  Much in the way that Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power) is destined to become the geek in a sideshow in Nightmare Alley (1947), so too is John destined to become the juggler in the clown suit as punishment for his derisive remark.

After kissing Mary a couple of times and seeing an advertisement (“You furnish the girl, and we’ll furnish the home”), John asks Mary to marry him.  They get married, but there is no home to furnish, only a small apartment with a Murphy bed, where John dreams about the big house he thinks they will eventually own.  After a while, it all starts to get on their nerves, and they start quarreling, although John is the one who does most of the complaining and sniping.  They almost split up, but then Mary tells John she is pregnant, and so they make up.  They have a son and soon after that a daughter.  And soon after that, they start quarreling again, with Mary growing weary of John’s dreams about making it big while Bert actually got a promotion.

While at the beach, John starts juggling balls to amuse his children, recalling the geek motif of the juggler in the clown suit.  Nevertheless, John comes up with an advertising slogan based on juggling balls, and it wins him five hundred dollars (about seven thousand dollars, adjusted for inflation).  After John buys some presents, they call their children through the window to come and get the toys he bought them.  Heedlessly, the children run across the street, and their daughter is run over by a truck and killed.

After a few months, John is still so upset that he cannot do his job.  Even though Bert is now his supervisor and would probably be understanding, John quits before Bert can say anything, throwing a tantrum, flinging his ledger on the floor, and saying, “To hell with this job.”  Oddly enough, when he gets home, Mary is in a great mood as she prepares food for the company picnic.  We have to wonder, if Mary has recovered well enough to think about having fun, why can’t John at least go to work and do his job?  In any event, John tries to get work elsewhere, but fails at one job after another, once again putting stress on the marriage.  In some ways, this reminds us of Penny Serenade (1941) and The Marrying Kind (1952), two movies in which a marriage ends up on the rocks on account of the death of a child.  Like those two movies, the idea is that a good marriage can ultimately survive such a tragedy.

Mary tries to make ends meet by sewing dresses while John hangs around the house depressed.  Her brothers come by and offer John a job, but he turns it down because it is a “charity job.”  John leaves and almost commits suicide by leaping in front of a train, but ends up finding work juggling balls in a clown suit.  He goes home to find that Mary is leaving him to go live with her brothers.  He talks her into going to a show with him, having purchased the tickets with the money he made, and at the theater having a good time, they see his advertisement of the clown juggling balls in the program, suggesting that he might succeed again in the future.

Apparently John fails to make a go of it coming up with advertising slogans, however, because in Our Daily Bread, we find that he no longer even has the job juggling balls while wearing that clown suit. An uncle gives them an opportunity to work an abandoned farm, and they decide to take it. I guess John is no longer too proud to take charity from one of Mary’s relatives.  Unfortunately, they know nothing about farming. A genuine farmer, who lost his own place, breaks down on the road, and John invites him and his family to join them. John then gets the idea of inviting other people to join the farm, using their diversity of skills to turn it into a cooperative commune.

Naturally enough, there are scenes showing how well this works out, but there are also scenes of trouble. There is a discussion of the kind of government they will have for themselves, and we get just a taste of political discord. There is a scene involving a troublemaker, who is quickly forced to behave himself. John tells Mary about one of the members of the commune trying to steal some stuff and sell it for his own personal gain. We want to see more of this, because there are not many movies premised on the idea of desperate families forming such a commune, and we are curious as to whether these elements of discord could be overcome. Unfortunately, the movie diverges from these issues.

First, it slides into a man-against-nature situation, in which drought threatens to ruin their crops. There are lots of movies about farmers struggling against the elements, and it seems a shame to waste time on that theme here. The only good thing that can be said in its favor is that they all pull together and build a path from the river to the crops for the purpose of irrigation, solving the problem through their own effort and ability. Another movie might have had someone pray for rain, followed by a downpour, so at least we were spared that deus ex machina.

Second, there is a diversion with no redeeming features at all. It concerns the arrival of a blonde femme fatale, who almost succeeds in getting John to desert his wife and the farm by running off to the city with her. Movies about a wicked woman making a good man go wrong can be lots of fun, but that plot element does not belong here. Besides, it is a little irritating the way Mary blithely takes John back after abandoning her, even if only temporarily.

The movie should have spent less time on the drought and none at all on the femme fatale, thereby leaving more time to dramatize all the difficulties in getting people to cooperate in such an enterprise, especially since many of us have doubts as to how well something like that would work out anyway.

Rain Man (1988)

Rain Man is based on a premise so absurd that it undermines all the sentimental good feeling we are supposed to experience while watching it.  Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise), who is on the verge of bankruptcy, finds out that his father, from whom he has been estranged for many years, has died.  He goes back home in the expectation of inheriting his father’s estate, inasmuch as he is the only living relative, at least so he thinks.  But he finds out that aside from an old car and some roses, the entire estate, worth $3,000,000, has been put in trust for someone else.  That someone else turns out to be an autistic older brother he never knew he had (he never finds out why no one told him about this older brother, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), and neither do we).

Charlie decides he is entitled to half the estate.  So far, so good.  Up to this point, the movie is more or less within the realm of what might actually happen in the real world.  In said real world, Charlie would have hired a lawyer to contest the will, and then he could have gone about his business while waiting for results.  I once had a cousin who left all her money to her lover.  I figured that was the end of it, cut and dried.  But a lawyer thought otherwise.  I signed an agreement with him, and two years later he sent me a check for $22,000.  Now, if a mere cousin can break a will, I figure one of the sons of the deceased has a really good chance of doing so.

Instead of just hiring a lawyer, however, Charlie kidnaps Raymond from the institution where he has spent most of his life.  Then, he calls the head of the institution and demands $1,500,000 in ransom to get Raymond back.  That would be all right if we were supposed to think Charlie is a criminal, but we are not.  We are supposed to ignore the fact that in the real world, Charlie would end up in prison.  Instead, we are supposed to believe that he is going to show up in court with Raymond by his side, saying, “I have him now, so give me the money!” as if that is going to strengthen his case.

In true Hollywood fashion, we get the best of both possible worlds.  Charlie comes to care for Raymond, forgoes his claim on the estate, sends Raymond back to the institution where he belongs, and promises to visit him regularly.  But, thanks to some card counting on the part of Raymond earlier in the movie, he and Charlie won $85,000 playing blackjack, just enough money to keep Charlie from being forced into bankruptcy.  But it is a little hard to enjoy this happy ending after spending half the movie suffering through that ridiculous kidnapping plot.

The Naked Jungle (1954) and Three Violent People (1956)

One day my coworkers and I were sitting around bored, and we got to discussing movies. At one point I asked if any of them had seen The Naked Jungle.

“What’s it about?” David asked.

“It’s based on a short story,” I said, “Leiningen versus the Ants, about a man in South America who finds out that army ants are on the march and headed toward his plantation. Everyone else in the area is fleeing, but he is determined to stand his ground and fight them.”

David said that he had never heard of it, and the two other coworkers, Judy and Kevin, did not recall having seen it either.

“Well,” I continued, “this guy, Leiningen, tries all sorts of ways to block the path of the ants, but the ants figure out ways around those obstacles, until it looks as though he will be overwhelmed by them and eaten alive.”

“Were they giant ants?” Judy asked.

“No,” I said, “just ordinary-sized ants, but billions of them.”

They all were shaking their heads, indicating that none of them had ever heard of the movie. Suddenly Kevin spoke up. “Wait a minute,” he said. “Is this the movie about a guy who has a mail-order bride, but then he finds out she has been married before, so then he doesn’t want her because she’s been used?”

“Uh, yeah,” I said, “that’s the movie.”

“Oh!” Judy said, “That’s the one with Charlton Heston and William Conrad.”

“I’ve seen that movie,” David said.

I was bewildered. “I didn’t mention that part of the movie,” I said, “because I didn’t think it was important.”

David laughed. “Yeah, John, you thought this was a movie about ants, and it was really about damaged goods in the mail.”

Well, the short story had nothing about a mail-order bride in it, so I guess that was the reason I had dismissed that part of the movie as just melodramatic filler.  But I saw the movie again recently, and now I realize that it is not until the movie is half over that the Commissioner (William Conrad) utters the ominous word marabunta.  The first part is devoted to the conflict between Christopher Leiningen (Charlton Heston) and his wife Joanna (Eleanor Parker) over the fact that he is getting another man’s leftovers.

Charlton Heston had the right screen persona for this role, fearless of physical danger, his only weakness being his pride, especially when it comes to women.  This is summed up nicely in another movie he was in, Three Violent People (1956).   There he stars as Captain Colt Saunders, a Confederate Civil War veteran, who falls in love with Lorna (Anne Baxter), not realizing she is a prostitute.  Another woman, one Ruby LaSalle, who owns the saloon and hotel where Lorna is staying, and who knows her from back when, warns her of the danger of marrying Colt while pretending to be a lady, saying of him, “Because men who aren’t afraid of guns, Indians, or rattlesnakes are afraid of a little laughter behind their back.  And there’ll always be some man with a weak mind and a long memory who’ll remember a girl who worked at Selma’s in Baton Rouge or Tess’ in Frisco.”

Meanwhile, back in the jungle.  When the Commissioner warns Leiningen of the ants, Leiningen says the reason he does not want to temporarily leave his plantation until the ants are gone is that he is afraid his workers will return to the jungle and never come back.  But that seems to be a stretch.  If the workers preferred the jungle, they would have left a long time ago; if they prefer working on the farm, they will return.  We suspect that Leiningen is just stubborn

He is also stubborn in the short story, but for a different reason than the one given in the movie.  When the District Commissioner is unable to convince Leiningen that nothing can stand in the path of the ants, he tells Leiningen his obstinacy endangers himself and his four hundred workers.  And this obstinacy arises out of Leiningen’s “lifelong motto: The human brain needs only to become fully aware of its powers to conquer even the elements.”  Of course, it was primarily his brain that he had in mind, for he was contemptuous of much of his fellow man, whom he refers to as “dullards,” “cranks,” and “sluggards,” who invariably folded when confronted with any kind of danger.  “But such disasters, Leiningen contended, merely strengthened his argument that intelligence, directed aright, invariably makes man the master of his fate.”

The Leiningen of the short story had prepared in advance for all sorts of problems that might threaten his plantation, and eventually did, including flood, drought, and plague, and he had defeated them all, while his fellow settlers merely caved.  And he had prepared for the ants.  A moat surrounded three sides of the plantation, while the river protected it on the fourth side.  The Indian workers had such confidence in Leiningen that they received his calm announcement of the coming struggle with complete confidence:  “The ants were indeed mighty, but not so mighty as the boss. Let them come!”

And just to show how easy it would have been for everyone to step aside until the ants passed, this Leiningen of the short story moves the women and children, as well as the livestock, to the other side of the river where they will be perfectly safe.  Not that they were in any danger, as far as he was concerned, but they might be a nuisance:  “‘Critical situations first become crises,’ he explained to his men, ‘when oxen or women get excited.’”

For whatever reason, then, both in the original story and in the movie, Leiningen is stubborn.  And this too fits with that same persona Heston had in Three Violent People, as Ruby makes clear to Lorna:  “He once chased a rustler all the way into Mexico for 20 scrawny cows, when he owned thousands.”  Speaking of the whole Saunders clan in general, she continues, saying, “They’re always willing to get killed or kill, if they think they’re right.  And they always think they’re right.”

In the beginning of this movie, we see a brawl taking place in the street between a bunch of carpetbaggers and veteran Confederate soldiers, still in their uniforms, on crutches, missing an arm here or a leg there.  It is noted that these fights break out several times a day, with the crippled Confederates being the ones that get arrested and put in jail.  Clearly, we are supposed to sympathize with the Confederate veterans and regard the carpetbaggers as a scourge.  And just as it’s the ants that are coming for Leiningen’s plantation in The Naked Jungle, so too are the carpetbaggers, under the authority of the provisional government, coming for Colt’s ranch in Three Violent People.

Colt’s brother Cinch (Tom Tryon) wants to cut and run.  He says they still have horses in the hills that have been hidden from the provisional government, which already seized the Saunders’ cattle.  He argues that they could sell the horses elsewhere for a fortune, and then move on and buy a new ranch somewhere else.  But just as Leiningen refuses, against all reason, to run from the ants, so too does Colt refuse to run from the carpetbaggers.

When Leiningen finds out that Joanna has been married before, he arranges for her to return to the United States.  As for Lorna, that man with a weak mind and a long memory does indeed show up.  He tells Colt about Lorna’s past.  Colt tells Lorna he will arrange for her to go back to the town where he met her.  As he explains his reason for doing so to his gran vaquero (Gilbert Roland), he says, “A man must do what he must do.”  That’s right.  He really said that.

At this point, the plot of Three Violent People becomes more involved than that in The Naked Jungle, the details of which need not detain us.

In the end, Leiningen’s plantation is more destroyed by his fighting the ants than would have been the case had he simply left until it was all over with and then returned:  all his furniture is burned to create a fire barrier, and the dam is destroyed to create a flood.  So too in the short story is it a pyrrhic victory, where lives are lost by fighting the ants, while nothing is gained by defeating them.  But at least Leiningen can say he stood his ground.  Colt manages to defeat the carpetbaggers and keep the ranch he would have otherwise lost, so in his case, his refusal to retreat seems to have been worth it.

Finally, regarding what I have been informed is the most important part of The Naked Jungle, Leiningen manages to get past his disgust at having married a widow, and he and Joanna live happily ever after.  And in Three Violent People, Colt manages to get past his disgust at having married a whore, and they live happily ever after too.  But let’s be clear about the significance of these situations and their implications regarding the manliness of these two Charlton Heston protagonists.  A wimp could have remained married to either of these women without the slightest misgivings about her past, allowing himself to be cuckolded ex post facto.  But a real man is justifiably proud and cannot so easily set aside his dignity and self-respect.  Only after he has been victorious in battle, demonstrating his manhood before all the world, can he then find it within himself to be magnanimous and forgive a woman for being less than sexually pristine.

Sunrise (1927)

Sunrise is a silent film made in 1927.  Its longer title is Sunrise:  A Song of Two Humans.  The “song” in question is alluded to in the prologue:  “This song of the Man and his Wife is of no place and of every place; you might hear it anywhere at any time.”  The prologue goes on to say that life is pretty much the same everywhere, “sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet.”  And since the characters in this movie do not have names, but rather are referred to as the Man, the Wife, and the Woman from the City, we are supposed to understand that what we are about to see expresses a universal truth about mankind.  So what exactly are the lyrics of this song we might hear anywhere at any time?  Basically, they tell the following story.

A farmer (George O’Brien) falls in love with a woman (Margaret Livingston) from the big city. She encourages him to murder his wife (Janet Gaynor), after which he can sell the farm and live in the city with her. She figures out how he can do it, by faking a boating accident in which the wife drowns. He takes his wife out into the middle of the lake, starts to kill her, but finds he cannot do it. However, his wife saw the murderous intent in his eyes and his threatening gestures.  She flees from him as soon as they reach the other side of the lake. He keeps catching up with her, and she keeps trying to get away. Little by little, they reconcile, and she forgives him.

Now, we all know that in a lot of old movies, a woman is expected to forgive her husband’s indiscretions, and if she does not, she is regarded as foolish and wrongheaded, as in The Women (1939) or The Philadelphia Story (1940). But it is one thing for a wife to forgive adultery, and it is quite another thing for her to forgive her husband for almost carrying out a plan to murder her. That is probably something that a woman should not forgive.  And yet this movie not only has the wife forgive her husband, but it also praises her for doing so, depicting such forgiveness as an expression of the purity of her heart.

The man and his wife essentially renew their vows by watching another couple’s wedding, and then carry on like a couple of newlyweds on their honeymoon.  We see them having a lot of fun in a variety of ways, and his manner toward her is loving and caring.  As if that proved anything!  Wouldn’t it be nice if the men that abused their wives were consistently rude and brutal?  In that case, women would not even marry such men in the first place, let alone keep forgiving them and taking them back.  But such men are not so conveniently consistent.  One minute they are beating their wives, and the next minute they are bringing them flowers and begging for forgiveness.  And as often as not, it works.

Finally, it is time for them to go home, and they get back on their little boat and head across the lake. A storm suddenly appears, capsizes the boat, and he believes that she has drowned. So, in a manner reminiscent of An American Tragedy, which was made into a couple of movies, including A Place in the Sun (1951), the accident that he was planning to fake actually happens.

When the woman from the city comes looking for him, thinking that he pulled it off, he becomes furious.  She sees the same murderous look in his eyes and the same threatening gestures that his wife did earlier.  She runs away, but he chases after her.  When he catches up with her, he begins strangling her maniacally. The idea is that she is the villain of the piece. In other words, it was really her fault that he almost murdered his wife. So while his wife forgave him, he does not forgive this woman. And just as the movie would have us approve of the way the wife forgives her husband, it would also have us approve of the way the husband does not forgive the woman he was having an affair with, so that her being strangled was simply giving her what she deserved.

At the last minute, it turns out his wife has been rescued. He stops strangling the woman and returns home to be with his wife and child. The sun rises, presumably symbolic of the couple’s fresh start in having a happy marriage.  Of course, we are talking about a man who made plans to kill his wife, who pulled a knife on a man for bothering her in the barber shop, and who then almost choked his lover to death in a rage.  And yet, this movie would have us believe that the Man and his Wife will live happily ever after.

It is not surprising that the message of this movie is that a woman should forgive her husband for his sins, because it is some other woman who is really to blame.  After all, it was written and produced mostly by men.  It essentially painted a rosy picture of domestic abuse, and encouraged battered women to stay with their violent husbands.  “Even if your husband almost killed you,” the movie seems to say, “you should stay with him, because deep down he really loves you.”  It is therefore understandable that such a movie would appeal to men.

But it may be that this movie was supposed to appeal to women as well.  Women were much more dependent on men back then.  There was a great deal of economic and cultural pressure on women to get married and stay married, especially once they had a baby.  And so, stuck in a bad marriage as so many women were, they needed to believe that staying with their husbands and forgiving them for all their misdeeds was the right thing to do.  If this movie had ended with the wife leaving her husband, it would have implicitly criticized all the women in the audience who chose to stay in their unhappy marriages, making them feel weak and foolish.  But by having the wife stay with her husband, the movie applauded her forgiving nature, making a virtue out of what for many women was a necessity.

However, this movie did not do well at the box office, so maybe the women weren’t buying it.

The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932)

In the opening scene of The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, the title character (Ann Dvorak) is crying because she is pregnant. Her rich boyfriend promises to marry her, but he quickly deserts her by leaving town.  There is, however, a nice guy who would be happy to marry her.  This is Jimmy (Richard Cromwell), a clean-cut medical student who is working his way through school as a bellhop. Jimmy loves Molly, but she rejects him. She is attracted to a gangster, Nicky (Leslie Fenton) and runs off with him instead, getting involved in a few of his crimes, and handing her daughter over to an orphanage. When she runs into Jimmy a few years later, he still loves her and wants to marry her and be a father to her daughter. At first she agrees to marry him, but she actually desires Scotty (Lee Tracy), a hardboiled reporter who promises only that he will show her a good time for a while and then dump her. She likes the idea. In fact, this makes her realize why her own mother abandoned her when she was a child, because when a woman really wants a man, nothing else matters, not even her own child. Jimmy walks in while they are kissing, and she tells him she has decided to run off with Scotty instead.

In the last reel, Scotty has a change of heart, promises to help her fight the charges against her for her involvement with Nicky, and then marry her. That a movie should feature a fallen woman who would reject the love of a good man like Jimmy (twice) and knowingly choose men who are scoundrels instead is amazing enough. That she should end up living happily ever after by doing so is a story that could exist only in the pre-Code universe. Or in real life.

Penny Serenade (1941) and The Marrying Kind (1952)

At the beginning of Penny Serenade, Julie (Irene Dunne) and Roger (Cary Grant) are separating because their marriage is on the rocks.  Roger leaves to do something, and while Julie is by herself, she plays a succession of records associated with different stages of her relationship with Roger. With the playing of each record, the tune becomes the background music of a flashback at important stages in their lives, beginning with when they first met. But the flashbacks show us what a great marriage they have, so we figure something really bad must have happened to cause these two to separate. After an accident, Julie is no longer able to have children, so they adopt a girl. At first I thought that somehow Roger was going to be responsible for her death, perhaps by accidentally running over her when she runs out into the street. She does die, but it is clearly not anyone’s fault, not even accidentally so. Furthermore, her death is not even seen, but only mentioned in a letter, followed by scenes of Roger and Julie being silent and sad. We never really believe that they are going to get divorced, and they don’t.

The plot of this movie is similar to The Marrying Kind, where another couple, Florie (Judy Holliday) and Chet (Aldo Ray) are about to get a divorce. Instead of records playing tunes from the past, the divorce judge, who can see that they have a good marriage, questions them, and their story is told in flashbacks, revealing what a good marriage they have, making us wonder when we are going to get to the part that made them so miserable. Once again, we find that a child died, this time by drowning; once again it is an accident for which neither of them can be thought to be responsible; and once again we can see that this is something that they will eventually get over.  Sure enough, in the end they do not get the divorce.

The moral of these stories is that people who are in an unhappy marriage should stay together and work things out. There is something irritating about the way both movies are dismissive of just how miserable a marriage can be, as if married couples who want a divorce simply don’t realize how much they really love each other.