The Unsinkable Molly Brown

October 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

In the world of romance novels, readers have identified a certain brand of heroine as one who is Too Stupid to Live. A Too Stupid to Live heroine is one whose actions go beyond the realm of mere ditziness, past idiocy and into the domain of “so unbelievable it takes you out of the story.” Too Stupid to Live heroines are the products of lazy authors, ones who can’t be bothered to create characters that match their plot and instead try to mold and manipulate the plot to fit the characters. But Too Stupid to Live heroines don’t just appear in novels. They show up at alarming rates in movies, too, and the mid-century musical may contain more of them than any other genre. And while that may have passed by unnoticed in 1964 . . . it doesn’t get past your radar in 2010.

This is where I gave up on The Unsinkable Molly Brown: when Molly decides that the best possible hiding place for the hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash that her husband has just acquired is in the stove.

Even if that hadn’t turned me off, there’s the minor problem that most of the film’s plot elements seem to be lifted wholesale from Annie Get Your Gun. Count ’em up:

  • Little girl is raised in the wilderness, grows up to be not so much tomboyish as borderline feral.
  • Not only is she half-wild, she’s also illiterate, and must learn to read and write as an adult (largely to impress men, naturally).
  • Meets, and falls in love with, a cocky cowboy type.
  • A quick rise to the top is followed by a trip to Europe, where heads of state and minor nobility fawn over her.
  • But while European success leads to a more cultured facade for our heroine, it doesn’t lead to happiness.
  • Her growing success causes a split from her man, due to his inferiority complex.
  • She ultimately gives up on what’s important to her and returns home to her man. (To be fair to Molly Brown, that musical’s ending is more of a compromise between the partners than Annie’s flat-out anti-feminist bent.)

. . . which is unfortunate, because I really wanted to like this film. The songs were written by Meredith Willson, who wrote one of my top three favorite musicals of all time, The Music Man. I love the time period, love the social climbing theme, love the concept of a musical centered around Margaret Brown. The film is beautiful: it uses real shots from Gunnison National Park in Colorado for many of its opening outdoor scenes, and the indoor sets are pitch-perfect in their use of color and design to flesh out the characters. The picture has a great energy, especially once you get to the second half and have moved past the  desire to punch Molly in the face. But sadly, none of these things are enough to save it (and it doesn’t help that MGM cut the vast majority of Willson’s original score).

One of the things you have to get past when you first start watching classic film is your tendency to judge them by today’s standards. Films from the 1930s will sometimes contain blackface. Films probably won’t refer to homosexuality at all pre-1970, and if they do, it’ll likely be homophobic. Films from the 1960s will, by and large, have weak female leads–and you have to learn to go with it. But it’s sad, because Margaret Brown deserves a much better film than this. Her life story lends itself to a much better story. Somebody get started on the updated biopic, stat.

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