Cimarron (1930/1931)

 

Image result for cimarron movie

There is no scene in this movie with a ripped shirt.

What is it that makes a Western a Western?  Is it purely matter of a location – that is, a movie that takes place somewhere in the Western United States?  Or in a particular era, in that nebulous time of the “wild west,” when Europeans spread westward over indigenous lands, claiming the “unspoiled territory” as their own?  The time of pre-state lawlessness and exciting gunfights, which are the sorts of things that make good stories on film.

Surprisingly, in the decade or two that I most associate with the Western film genre (1950s-60s, let’s say), there were no Oscar winners for Best Western.  Wait, that’s a hotel chain.  Granted, most of the Westerns I’ve seen fall into the realm of today’s superhero flicks – maybe an entertaining way to spend an evening, but probably not something that’s going to stick with you.  This week, I’m going to look at the films that bookend the Western movie era.

Cimarron starts at a moment of literal Manifest Destiny, in the first great land grab of Oklahoma in 1890.  The U.S. has apparently decided that the various Indian tribes they shunted off to a barren land aren’t making good enough use of the territory, and there’s all these white people who’ve worn out their welcome back east.  So we join Yancy and his new wife, Sabra, as they start out on a new life in the boom town of Osage.  Eventually, the film takes us through decades of their life (together, and not) amid the changing times of Oklahoma, from territory to statehood.  It’s like Gone with the Wind, except that nobody remembers this movie.

If you’re interested in playing a fun/cringey game when watching old movies, you might try “Count the Stereotypes.”  We have a loyal black servant boy (and a watermelon joke, in case that wasn’t enough for you) who I desperately hoped would strike out on his own once they reached the wilderness, but instead met a bleaker fate.  And you’d be lucky to find a Native American with a voice, despite the film’s (and Yancy’s) supposed “Indian-lover” sympathies.  Trump would probably appreciate the short-lived Mexican character’s representation.  It’s possible the minority that comes out the best is the Jewish guy – and I was totally shipping him with Sabra later in the film, after Yancy flakes off somewhere for an unexplained five or twenty years.

I wish the movie had put a bit more effort into exploring Sabra.  As wife to the adventurous Yancy, she initially likes the idea of setting off for new territory, but gets quickly overwhelmed.  Finally, though, she takes over Yancy’s abandoned business in his absence, and ends up a member of Congress by the film’s end, in the late 1920s.  You might wonder how all that happened, but you would again be disappointed, because the director found it more imperative to show us where Yancy ended up after twenty years (but didn’t deign to explain why the hell he was such a flake).  Women are great and all, but really, wouldn’t you rather watch a dude die horribly?  Well, come to think of it…

What does Cimarron refer to, you might ask?  You’ll be disappointed to know that Yancy’s son, a minor character at best, is named Cimarron, perhaps in honor of his father who may or may not have used the name at some point.  But otherwise, it’s a complete mystery!  Maybe read the book if you want some kind of answers.  I certainly don’t care enough to find out, though, so let me know what you discover!

 

Theme:  Western

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Smiling as a basket of chips

The Apartment (1960)

As I alluded to in a previous post, I’d intended to pair this up with It Happened One Night because I assumed this was a romantic comedy.  I mean, it essentially is, but there’s also this little side plot that makes up half the movie that revolves around something a little darker.

If this movie came out today, it would be the sort of thing that Judd Apatow would make, and somehow I think it would contain far more semen jokes and far less subtlety.  (Not saying there’s anything wrong with him, just that modern comedies are of a completely different ilk.)

As it is, though, I’m a little surprised at the plot of this movie.  It’s like Mad Men on steroids.  A lower-level office worker who happens to have a really desirable apartment a couple blocks from Central Park (somehow I don’t think any of my friends in New York live in a similar setup) and rents it out by the hour to his superiors as a way to move up in the company.  That’s right – he makes his apartment available for his bosses’ sexual dalliances in exchange for a promotion.  If you’re thinking gross then you have the right idea.

It’s hard to make a character like this sympathetic, and that’s definitely a big concern I had throughout.  Whichever way you look at it, it’s a bit skeevy, this guy who seems to have no problem with middle-aged men “entertaining” (read: boning) women in his bed.  On top of that, he’s doing it solely to get ahead in his dead-end job (and I’ve already managed to forget what industry he’s in, because he seems so bored by it).  The only leeway I can give him is that, however this questionable arrangement started, he seems to have been pressured into maintaining it by the thirsty executives he hosts.

The real story here, of course, is the budding romance between the office guy and the elevator guy.  Just as a side note:  how many jobs have we lost because people no longer need an elevator operator to get them to the 25th floor?  Spoiler alert:  the elevator girl is actually one of the flings that has been entertained at the Apartment by one of the executives, and believes that her man will abandon his wife for her.  It reminds me of a Lorrie Moore story, “How to Be an Other Woman.”  It usually doesn’t end well.

But here is C.C. the office guy, waiting to rescue her from her complicated and distressing life.  Why, he’ll even save her when she downs a bottle of his sleeping pills and tries to kill herself in his bed.  Okay, that’s nice.  Then again, the fact that he also keeps her there for a couple of days to conceal the fact that she’s just attempted suicide without getting her any other kind of help is a little strange.  Maybe not the best foundation for a solid relationship.

I think one of the things that plagued mental health care of this era was the stigma.  Perhaps someone like the elevator girl – not rich – would be seen as defective and get shunted away in a scary state institution.  So what I see as somewhat uncaring from a modern perspective might actually have been an act of great caring and consideration.  Suicidal thoughts are often fleeting, once appropriately addressed, so maybe there’s a chance these two crazy kids can make it.

 

Theme:  Mental Health

Diagnosis:  Suicidal ideation

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Like a broken mirror

The Lost Weekend (1945)

Here’s where it gets real:  this is the first Best Picture that makes a genuine attempt to address the issue of alcoholism.  Even today, addiction is a tricky subject.  Despite growing evidence of the biological underpinnings of substance use disorder (the term that’s more in favor in the literature), the longstanding stigma of the disease remains.  You wouldn’t think I’d pause the film to grab a beer halfway through, but guess what?  I did.

Don Birnam (not Draper) is a writer who has a great novel somewhere inside him – autobiographical, of course, because there’s really no other kind of great novel.  Unfortunately, he spends most of his time tracking down where his next drink will come from.  There are a few scenes where Don frantically searches in his hiding spots for a concealed bottle that remind me of similar scenes on House – the clever addict secreting away a supply so he can get his fix later.  Of course, there are also a few parts that remind me of the afore-alluded-to Donald Draper, particularly in that season when he spent half of each episode on a bender.

Of course, our main man is both a writer and an alcoholic, two things that seem to go together often.  I don’t think writers are more likely to have problems with addiction than those in any other profession, but I’ve certainly noticed a kind of cultural atmosphere of drinking that surrounds writers in a way that seems more consuming than it might be for, say, an accountant.  Writers spend so much time alone that when they get together, they’re either socially anxious and need something to lubricate their interactions or something.  Or there’s the myth that booze or drugs fuel creativity.  I don’t know.

Although it’s clear that this film portrays a character that’s a little too histrionic for today’s acting tastes, I think its depiction of addiction and how it’s viewed by society is worth observing.  Don is usually helpless in the face of his alcoholism, but he certainly doesn’t lack self-awareness about how it’s affected his life.  We get a brief interlude in the middle where Don relates to his cautiously friendly bartender the plot of his as-yet-unwritten novel, about an alcoholic writer who falls in love with a girl.  Along the way, he spends an evening in the drunk ward at Bellevue, and we catch a glimpse of what kind of recovery treatment someone could expect in this era (not much).  Don’s full enough of self-loathing to push away his girlfriend and brother, the support network who relentlessly stand by him, waiting for him to reach a point where he’s willing to accept help.  The only sour note is the ending – his moment of epiphany comes all too easily, and I have trouble believing that he’s suddenly going to get better.

As a side note, I kind of loved the music because it reminded me of an episode of Star Trek.  I discovered that the reason why is because the soundtrack used theremins, those electronic wooowooooo instruments that feature so prominently in science fiction.  And in other random comments, I loved that somebody described a place as chichi, using a slang word that I thought was coined much more recently than 1945.   And final observation:  best moment of the picture might have been the lounge lizard breaking into song, “Somebody stole a purse!”

 

Theme:  Mental Health

Diagnosis:  Addiction

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Delirium is a disease of the night.

You Can’t Take It with You (1938)

It’s August, which means it’s time for another theme month.  This time, I’m going to look at mental health through the decades.  I work in the mental health field – tangentially, at least – so I feel like I know just enough to make random declarations about the subject, though not necessarily enough to discuss real issues.

I’ll also mention here that I actually watched this movie months ago, and wrote this post back then with the intention of pairing it with something else that never panned out.  I do, however, think it’s worthwhile including it here because most people would consider that a group of people who are not all related living together in a house, not making any money, doing whatever random creative thing comes to mind to be crazy.  There.  I said it.

Ah, the screwball comedy.  They don’t make ‘em like they used to.  Actually, I’m not sure they make movies like this at all anymore.  Comedies?  Sure.  Romantic comedies?  Obvs.  Eccentric characters?  Well, yes.  Zany, seemingly unrelated plot points that somehow all fit together at the end?  All right, all right.  Even still, today’s comedies don’t seem remotely similar to the screwball comedies of the past (based on my limited experience).

Maybe it’s just a generational thing.  I can’t help but note that this movie came out in the midst of the Great Depression.  The plot is simple yet complicated – two people fall in love and try to reconcile their wildly different families, one made of wealthy business owners always after a deal, and the other a group of eccentrics who’ve decided to focus on their own artistic passions.  The winning message is to follow your heart instead of a dollar sign.  Easy for you to say, Grandpa.  I got rent to pay.  And student loans.

I’ve come to realize that I resist stories like this, that seem realistic on the surface but also feature characters like Mr. Poppins (which, first of all, nobody’s actually named Mr. Poppins), who abandons his job on a whim to carry out his lifelong dream of making stuffed rabbits.  Or the stately Russian ballet instructor who hangs out with all the other weird people who in turn are hanging out doing random things and somehow also make enough money to live off of.  I prefer my realism to be genuinely realistic and fully separated from my fantasy stories about time travel and magic and mutated amphibians trained in martial arts.  What good is entertainment, after all, if it can’t be neatly categorized and either exactly like life or nothing like it?

I wish YCTIWY offered more of a middle ground – their solution seems to be that you can only be happy if you reject the trappings of finance and indulge in a life of whimsical pursuits.  Art is a great, important thing, but we also need some structure.  Grandpa wonders what paying income tax does for him (not as footloose and ignorant of money as he thinks, then, eh?) while promoting the neighborhood community spirit.  And somehow, he owns a house in an extremely popular location without much explanation as to how it fell into his unemployed hands.

I remember reading the play on which this film is based back in high school, maybe 9th or 10th grade English.  I don’t recall the specifics of it – though the most important bit is pretty much in the title.  But it does bring back my sense of frustration at our exposure to theater in school.  This was one of the most modern plays we read, except perhaps The Glass Menagerie.  Most of my memories of those plays were sheer confusion.  There were references to contemporary things that I didn’t understand (who the hell were Porgy and Bess, and how is it pronounced? one might wonder when asked to read such a thing aloud).  Somehow, I got it into my head that drama ceased to exist after 1950.  Theater felt like some relic from the past that nobody did anymore.

I hope that’s not the case for kids learning about drama today.  If the only choices are Shakespeare or Kaufman and Hart, no wonder young people find it hard to relate to theater.  Which is not to say that there’s anything wrong with them, but it’d be nice to see something a little more approachable.  The kids these days should be watching HamiltonI should be watching Hamilton.

 

Theme:  Mental Health

Diagnosis:  Zaniness?

First Time Watching?  Maybe, but not first time reading the play.

Final Verdict:  Life is running around inside of me like a squirrel.

It Happened One Night (1934)

 

Without knowing anything about the film except its title, I probably would have placed this in the genre of those 50’s science fiction-y flicks with the Claymation monsters.  You know, the sort that would be parodied on Mystery Science Theater 3000 or something.  It Came From Outer SpaceIt’s AliveIt Happened One Night.

I mean, what is “It,” anyway?  (It’s it.)  How do I interpret this vaguest of pronouns in any way other than a hook-handed man scratching at the side of the bus that Ellie and Peter are riding… TO THEIR DEATH!  The only other alternative is that “It” refers to sexytimes, although nighttime is the traditional time for It to happen.  They’d probably be happier in the long term if It Happened more than One Night.  In fairness, though, they seem to have found a way to keep things kinky in the bedroom with their use of ropes and trumpets.

To briefly summarize, this film is not about an unearthly creature who creeps into a placid seaside town and eats everybody.  It’s actually about a couple that fall in love.  Ellie is the daughter of a ridiculously rich guy (who at one point offers someone $100,000 as a throwaway reward, and this is in the middle of the Depression).  She’s married some guy she just met and jumps off a yacht to run away and join him forever.  Meanwhile, another guy, Peter, is a journalist who’s looking for a big scoop, and apparently journalism was slightly classier back then than it is today, because he thinks it’s a good idea to write about how he fell in love with this missing society girl.

I don’t know if this is the first film that falls into the genre of romantic comedy, but even if not the very first, it’s interesting to see the origins of what’s become pretty much cliché these days.  The man and woman who have a mostly antagonistic relationship and suddenly realize that the chafing feeling is actually love.  There’s usually another man (not often another woman, oddly) who initially seems a good fit but eventually turns out to have some fatal flaw.  And of course, there are the moments where the lady and man-friend are forced into some uncomfortable intimacy before they’re ready for it.  Pick any romantic comedy you’ve seen, and I’m sure you’d find one of these tropes.

I’ve never seen a romance set on a Greyhound bus, though.  I’ve ridden a fair number of buses in my day, and I don’t recall ever meeting anyone remotely sexy.  Also, I spent the first half of the film really stressing out about the bus.  What was it like riding a bus in the 30s?  Did they even have a highway system back then?  I thought the interstate highways were set up in the 1950s.  How long of a trip was that from Miami to New York?  Were there even any bathrooms on the bus, and how the hell did that work?  If that part in the back where Ellie and Peter sat was right next to the bathroom, wouldn’t it have smelled so disgustingly that neither of them could have even fallen asleep, let alone in love?

Finally, I’ve heard that song “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” all my life, and never knew where it came from.  It doesn’t seem to have originated in this movie, but I’m sure that’s what has kept it popular enough in the modern age for me to have heard it, even without ever having seen the movie before.  Strange the way certain things manage to last.

 

Theme:  Classic Romantic Comedy

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  And the walls came tumbling down

Schindler’s List (1993)

I feel like I’ve learned a lot about the Holocaust in all my years of school, and afterward.  I recall listening to speakers talk about their experiences in concentration camps, old men and women with tiny rows of numbers tattooed into their forearms.  We read Anne Frank.  Years later, I read Maus.  And yet, there’s still so much that I don’t understand, both in how this terrible event came about and why there are still people who subscribe to the Nazi philosophy running around out there today.

In a narrative sense, stories about the Holocaust are difficult to make dramatically interesting.  It’s pretty clear (to most of us, anyway) who the bad guys are, and overall it’s hard to create a complex character out of an SS officer.  On the side of the Jewish victims, there are two real stories – the tale of survival and the tale of not making it through.  Notwithstanding the very significant difference of actual people living or dying, in terms of story, there’s a pretty clear path forward.  Basically, it’s difficult to think critically about how a tragic story like this is told without appearing to criticize the end result.

All that is to say though, that Schindler’s List both falls into the “obvious story” trap and manages to transcend it.  We have our clear villain in Ralph Fiennes character, the gleeful Nazi who has no qualms about shooting Jewish prisoners in the concentration camp.  And of course, our hero Schindler, who privately rescues a group of his factory workers.  Yet, each is complicated by a mitigating factor.  Fiennes’ Amon is in love with a Jewish girl (though not so deeply that he bends over backward to save her from certain death).  Schindler comes off as a little self-serving, though I suppose it’s his maneuvering to employ Jews in his manufacturing plant at a discount rate that affords him the opportunity and money to protect them later.  It’s a complicated problem, doing something so subversive under watchful eyes.

Here we are, in America and Europe today, witnessing evidence of prejudice and discrimination against Jews, and Muslims, and so many other minority groups around the world.  You’d think we’d have learned our lesson by now.  Maybe that’s why stories about World War II still fascinate us, because we see it as a big victory – the ultimate victory – for freedom and democracy everywhere.  The Holocaust gets that capital letter not just because it’s the worst thing we’ve ever seen in history, but because we like to think that it’s the last time such a thing will ever happen.  Genocide:  that key vocabulary word in World War II units in school.  The only problem is, it’s not the first or last time a large population has been wiped out by a stronger power.  We haven’t figured anything out yet.

I visited Lithuania a few years ago, a place where Jews once thrived.  Now there are few left, though many Americans I’ve met can trace family roots back to Lithuania before the war, before they escaped.  There was a recent article describing the archaeological studies of burial pits outside Vilnius.  I’ve seen that pit, stood along its rim.  It’s covered in grass now, these seventy-plus years later, a quiet place in the woods.  You’d almost never know something so terrible happened there.

 

Theme:  Anti-Semitism

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  The list is life

Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

Just the other day, I was cleaning out some drawers at work, and I stumbled upon a reproduction of an old letter dated 1925.  The letter writer considered the “disagreeable subject” of what to do about the increasing numbers of Jews admitted into the medical school.  It was apparently difficult to decide whether to split into separate schools or just stop allowing so many Jews because, though they were apparently talented and of sound character, there were just too damned many of them.

I thought about this letter while watching Gentleman’s Agreement, along with a lot of other things that have been going on in the world today.  I don’t know why this letter has been saved in the assorted documents of my office – except that it may hold historical relevance for my Jewish boss, who is a leader in an institution that once would have shunned him.  He once told me that he was one of two Jewish boys permitted at his school, not long after this movie was released.  We’ve come some distance since then – but it’s not hard to see how tenuous the hold is in the era of Trump.

Gregory Peck stars as an immersion journalist (before we even had such a thing) whose latest article is a piece about anti-Semitism.  Just, y’know, the whole general topic, distilled to a bit in a magazine.  He decides that the best way to approach it is by presenting himself as Jewish and seeing what happens throughout his daily life.  Eventually, he sees how it affects his supposedly liberal friends, and even his son (played by the adorable Dean Stockwell as a child).

Though this film can come off as a bit preachy at times – it’s clearly a Movie with a Message – it’s also a surprisingly modern-feeling look at white privilege.  Peck’s fiancée in the film, a fairly sheltered upper-middle class New Yorker with a home up in Connecticut, portrays the kind of liberalism that’s criticized today:  she believes in the cause of Jewish equality in theory, but only when it doesn’t inconvenience her.

I honestly didn’t expect to like this movie much, based only on what little I knew of it.  I figured, okay, it’ll be one of those old-timey moralistic stories – something like the Twilight Zone.  Where, even if you agree with the philosophy behind it, the cheesiness of the message just doesn’t ring true.  But this felt more like a journey in recognizing privilege.  It’d be interesting to see something like this story played out today, in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement or the experiences of Muslims in America.  I don’t know if it would be any good, but it might offer another lens for us whites to look at ourselves and think about what we see.

 

Theme:  Anti-Semitism

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Do you get your ideas and then write, or do you write first and then get your ideas?

All About Eve (1950)

 

When I first thought about doing a month of woman-centered movies, this is actually the film that inspired me.  I hadn’t heard much about the plot of it, except that it featured several women, which was a pretty big deal simply because of its rarity.  Even though I’d seen good things about it, I was still concerned (as I am with all the older movies I watch) that I might find it dated or dull.  I can honestly say that this is one of my favorite Oscar winners that I never would have watched if not for this project.

The story itself is maybe not the most original:  an aging actress fears her position being usurped by a younger, fresher ingénue.  In a way, though, it’s the familiarity of this story that makes the way it plays out so engaging.  It’s like watching someone hit a piñata – you know what’s going to happen, but you still want to see which way the candy flies.  So much of the plot is driven by various characters being bitchy to each other and either plotting against or suspecting each other of plotting against each other.  Ultimately, though, it is all about Eve and the destruction she brings.

This movie touches on a question about a woman’s career and ambition that’s basically still unresolved today.  At one point, Bette Davis’ character wonders how to balance her acting with “the career of being a woman” – she concludes that you can’t have it both ways.  It’s moments like this, where she’s sitting in a car with a woman she thinks is her closest friend, confiding her deepest fears, that really show what’s possible when women are given strong roles.

Boring side note:  whenever I watch one of these movies for the blog, I always jot a few notes into a notebook to help me remember characters or details, or simply to record my initial impressions.  Usually, I’ll end up with one page of thoughts, maybe a quote or two.  I’m pretty sure that my notes for this movie are longer than anything I’ve seen thus far.  To be fair, the movie begins with a virtual dramatis personae, rattled off amid an awards ceremony, and I figured I’d need to keep track of who’s who.  (I also observed, “Room full of dudes: great start” in reference to my Bechdel Test.)

But I also found myself copying down quote after quote.  There are so many clever lines and witticisms, that even if the plot – hurtling toward some sort of inevitability – didn’t keep your interest, you could just listen for the funny stuff.  I hope someday to have the right context and solemnity to intone, as Bette Davis, “Remind me to tell you of the time I looked into the heart of an artichoke.”

In the context of the Test, perhaps it’s Marilyn Monroe, in one of her early roles, who gets the best and most lasting line.  When someone suggests Eve talk to the pretentious theater critic, who’s brought Marilyn as his date to a party, she demurs, saying she doesn’t have anything interesting to say.  “You won’t bore him, honey,” Miss Monroe reassures her.  “You won’t even get a chance to talk.”

I’ll conclude with one last note I made, which I actually have thought about with respect to all of the films I’ve watched this month so far.  “Wouldn’t it be great,” I wrote to myself, “if the women just fell in love with each other instead?”

 

Theme:  Ladies on film

Bechdel Test:  I’ll say it passes.

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Real diamonds in a wig

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

 

Based solely on the title and the fact that this movie is set during World War II (set and released), I decided that it must be about a Rosie-the-Riveter type of woman who worked in a factory in support of the war.  I thought, Oh, cool, my grandma did a Rosie-the-Riveter job during the war.  Which then prompted an evening-long venture through Google genealogy to research my family history, and which I’ll be happy to delineate in careful detail now.

Oh, wait.  Movie.  That’s right.  Well, anyway, though Mrs. Miniver is a war movie, it is unfortunately not about Rosie the Riveter.  It’s not even set in the United States.  The film was actually created to encourage Americans to support the Allied effort (even the end credits implore you to buy bonds!).

The title Miniver is your typical upper middle class lady who likes shopping and buys overly expensive hats (women, amiright?), which turns out to be okay because her Don Draper-esque husband just blew some cash on a new car.  Somehow, Mrs. Miniver ends up admitting she’s wrong about something while her husband calls her fat, and then they go to bed in neighboring twin beds.  Then the war starts.

You might wonder why a war movie is named after a woman.  Here’s the twist:  by the middle of the picture, there are actually two Mrs. Minivers.  The elder Mrs. M’s son, Vin, meets the daughter of the local baroness, and despite the fact that Vin introduces himself by man-splaining something about social consciousness, they fall in love.  In a weird side plot, the baroness hosts a flower competition in the village, except that nobody has ever attempted to compete against her… until now!

How might the Bechdel test have fared in a movie from 1942, even one that apparently focuses on the life of a woman?  Not well, as a matter of fact.  I’ve interpreted the Test to mean that two women characters must be in a scene alone to qualify, and it’s a good hour into the film before we even see the two women alone together.  Instead of dialogue, they sit gaping in shock at something war-ish.  I don’t think that counts.  Later on, after Vin enlists in the air force, the ladies Miniver end up discussing at length how much it will suck if Vin dies in combat, but that, at the end of the day, they’ll figure out how to move past it.  I won’t ruin the ending.

The moral of this movie, if you could say such a thing, is that war – and particularly this war – affects the lives of everyone, including the women who wait at home for their loved ones to return safely.  It’s not an especially novel message, but an affecting one nonetheless.  While watching, I found myself marveling at the very idea of making a movie about the war while it was going on, without knowing what its result might be.  Especially in 1942, when the U.S. had just barely got into the game, and everything seemed to be running in Germany’s favor.  For some reason, World War II remains in many ways the favorite war to depict on film.  I wonder whether and how the war will carry on in our memories long after our grandparents and their own memories have faded into history.

 

Theme:  Ladies in Film

Bechdel Test:  Total failure

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Gentlemen don’t propose when they’re eating.

 

The Broadway Melody (1928/1929)

If your movie doesn’t include talking, singing, and dancing, you’ve done something wrong.

 

It’s June, which means it’s time for a new theme month.  April’s focus on war movies made for an interesting longitudinal study, so I thought it might be fun to try it again (especially since it’s likely the final month I’ll have enough films to choose from to make up a full month of related pictures).  This time, we’ll be looking at women.

I’ve selected eight movies, one from each decade (allowing for a bit of leeway on the first one), in which a woman, or women, hold a prominent role.  In some cases, the woman is named in the title, and in a couple cases, I’ve had to stretch it a little.  Just for kicks, I’ll also apply the Bechdel Test to each film – because I’m honestly curious to see how the ones I’ve picked will go.  If you’re not familiar, the rules of the Bechdel Test are, simply put:  there must be two women characters who talk to each other about something other than a man.

The Broadway Melody is, surprisingly enough, about a pair of actress sisters who move to New York in order to make it big on Broadway.  The older sister’s beau, Eddie, has already moved to New York and seen success writing songs for a revue, and he’s their connection.  The only snag is that once Eddie sees the younger sister all grown up (beautiful but dumb, because a woman certainly can’t be both), he falls in love.  Awkward triangle alert!

This is a plot line that doesn’t bode well for the Test, and for the most part, Eddie (or his rival, who has perhaps the douchiest name of the era, Jock) dominates the ladies’ conversation.  However, I’m going to let it squeak by because one of the first scenes features the girls checking into a hotel room and discussing the anxieties of breaking into the New York entertainment industry.  I can’t quite remember whether one of the men who is supposed to help them comes up in conversation during that actual scene, so I’ll let it slide.  As a side note, I noticed, in the hubbub of the stage preparations, a costume designer who is clearly a stereotypical gay man – but I’m going to give the film some credit for depicting him as a fully integrated member of the stage crew.

In this early Hollywood era, there seems to be a fascination with depicting the popular entertainment of New York theater on the big screen.  Looking back, I find it strange – the thing that’s most impressive about a big musical number on stage is that it’s performed live before your eyes, with all the bombast and energy surrounding you, something that’s lost when portrayed on static film.  To be fair, watching a movie like this alone on your couch is pretty different from seeing it in a movie theater with crowds and maybe even a live orchestra.  They couldn’t really have anticipated DVDs back then.  Did they even have couches?

I guess there’s also a bit of “reality TV”-style drama here, too, because you’re not just seeing the big song-and-dance numbers, but the behind-the-scenes personal stories of the people, off-stage.  That’s a lot of hyphens.  This film reminds me a lot of another movie of the same era, The Great Ziegfeld, because of its similar structure and concern with backstage shenanigans (here, the producer is a thinly-veiled Ziegfeld).

So, with The Broadway Melody, I have now officially watched all (three) Oscar winners from the 1920s.  Historically, it’s a fascinating time of transition for film, moving from silents to talkies, in that brief window of pre-Code pictures.  Granted, three is not much of a representative sample.  When I think of old movies, I think of the censorship of later years – longing looks or chaste kisses instead of bedroom sex scenes.  Here, you can see ladies in their underwear, still rather concealed by today’s standards, but probably pretty sexy for the era.  How will this one compare to future films on the scale of lady-friendliness?  We’ll soon find out.

 

Theme:  Ladies on Film

Bechdel Test:  I’ll give it a pass

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  It’s cream in the can.