The Trouble with Angels

April 19, 2012 § 2 Comments

It’s movies like this that make me regret the fact that I have no desire to have kids. My childhood was shaped by my dad’s taste in pop culture: The Princess Bride and the Indiana Jones series made frequent appearances; on the other hand, I didn’t see a Star Wars movie until I was 19–despite seeing Spaceballs at a fairly young and impressionable age, and no, I did not get the jokes. So naturally I have the same desire to torture my future, nonexistent children by ensuring that they’re the only ones in their kindergarten class raised on a steady diet of Esther Williams and Hayley Mills flicks in which they, too, fail to get the jokes.

What I love about this movie–which I will stop and watch any time I catch it on TCM–is that it has layers, alternating sweet and bitter. First you get the overarching plot: two girls get a Catholic boarding school education. Throw in the fact that it stars Hayley Mills, and immediately you think: God, it’s one of those movies. Cloyingly sweet and sentimental, a Catholic Pollyanna. But then you start watching, and you realize that Hayley Mills’ character is . . . well, kind of a bitch. Some of the things she does are mostly just naughty by 1950s standards–smoking cigarettes and mouthing off to an older woman in the opening scene, for example–but some of them are a little startling even by modern standards, like her response to the Mother Superior about the takeaway message from the heartbreaking Christmastime visit of a bunch of lonely grandmothers from a nearby nursing home: it’s that she hopes she dies “young . . . and very wealthy.” And then, just when you think that you’ve got the movie figured out, that it’s just about two girls rebelling and getting into and out of a bunch of wacky scrapes–then the movie’s ending gets all sentimental on you again. But the movie earns it, because slowly, over the course of all those wacky scrapes, you realize that the film has sneaked in little bits of background information that made you care about the characters on a deeper level, and that–although you didn’t realize it–you were witnessing Hayley Mills’ growth as a character the whole time. It’s really well done, but it’s one of those things that’s so well-done that it makes it look much easier than it is.

Bonus: it’s a coming-of-age story that has nothing to do with men. It takes place at an all-girls’ school, with an entirely female staff. Every relationship contained in it has to do with women: their friendships, their rivalries, their role models and teachers. Okay, there might be a hint at some latent daddy issues, but that’s it. Try finding that in a modern movie.

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The Opposite Sex

December 14, 2011 § 1 Comment

One of the 1950s’ cinematic quirks was taking straight movies from the 1930s and ’40s, and making mediocre musicals out of them. It’s how we got High Society (The Philadelphia Story), Silk Stockings (Ninotchka), and She’s Working Her Way Through College (The Male Animal), just to start. It’s also how we got The Opposite Sex, derived from the 1939 classic The Women, about a Susie Homemaker type whose husband leaves her for a showgirl, and the group of friends who surrounds her in his wake. The Opposite Sex takes about 70 percent of The Women’s wit and charm, and replaces them with a bizarre mish-mash of musical numbers. “Dere’s Yellow Gold on the Trees”? What is this? And why is it mixed in with a singing cowboy number and a couple of smoky ballads?

The movie might still have worked, though, with a more charismatic lead. This was the only real failing of The Women, too–it was hard to root for Norma Shearer, and grows harder by the year as the views espoused in the film grow more and more outdated–but The Women had a lot to fall back on. The Opposite Sex needed a heroine we could root for, and June Allyson was not it. Or maybe it’s just me–Allyson’s “perfect little wifey” persona has always bugged the hell out of me, and her whiskey-&-cigars voice just frustrates me, hinting at a darker, more interesting side that never comes. While watching The Opposite Sex, I found myself hoping that her showgirl rival, played by Joan Collins, would win out. Probably not what the filmmakers were going for . . .

The Man Who Came to Dinner

December 8, 2011 § 1 Comment

The Man Who Came to Dinner is, hands down, my favorite Christmas movie. In it, radio personality Sheridan Whiteside is invited to dine at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley of Mesalia, Ohio, just before Christmastime. On his way up their icy front steps, he slips and falls, breaking his hip. Confined to their house for the entire holiday season, he entertains himself by making himself at home: receiving dinner guests of his own, terrorizing his nurse and monopolizing the domestics, meddling in the family’s affairs . . . and don’t forget receiving elaborate Christmas presents, like the crate of penguins from Antarctic explorer Admiral Byrd, which he allows free reign of the Stanleys’ library.

Monty Woolley is hilarious as unwanted house guest Sheridan Whiteside, and Bette Davis is just Bette Davis enough to play off his barbs in her role as his assistant. With the two of them spending the entire movie sparring and scheming, the entire film has enough bite to cut through the usual holiday comedy treacle. I prefer my holiday films with a little bit of acid mixed in with the sugar–of which The Man Who Came to Dinner doesn’t neglect, with a love-at-first-sight affair between Bette Davis and the local newspaperman.

Not everybody prefers that acidity, though. Popular opinion on this film is highly divided between those who find Whiteside’s reign of terror hilarious and those who find it sadistic and uncomfortable to watch. And while I usually fall into the latter camp while watching movies and TV–I get mad at Leslie on Parks & Rec when she’s mean to Jerry!–Sheridan Whiteside is so over the top, so downright absurd, that I can’t help laughing. And it definitely helps if you’re able to get the jokes. The first time I saw this, my freshman year of college, I found it amusing, but there were so many then-current pop culture references that I didn’t understand, so a lot of the film flew over my head. Now, with three solid years of classic movie-watching (and a little history-reading) under my belt, I actually know who Deanna Durbin and ZaSu Pitts are, who the characters of Beverly Carlton and Banjo are supposed to reference. That makes the whole thing a hell of a lot funnier. While Bette Davis gets much more praise for her dramatic acting than for her skills in comedy, I genuinely do enjoy her funnier films. Her intelligence has a way of elevating any film she’s in, regardless of the script, and I always appreciate her comedic turns just as much as I do the dramatic ones. And when she’s blessed with a clever script like this one . . .

As a final bonus, there’s Monty Woolley’s amazing mustache. I mean . . . come on.

Mildred Pierce

December 2, 2011 § 1 Comment

Mildred Pierce is a women’s weepie baked in a film noir crust. Knowing that the source material was from crime writer James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity), I assumed that the noir aspect of this film was his, too. After watching, I was surprised to find out that Cain’s novel pretty closely follows the “weepie” portion of the film, with nary a bullet fired. The noir framing device was added by screenwriters due to pressure from the Breen Office, for reasons I shall not spoil. (The Kate Winslet Mildred Pierce miniseries follows the book much more closely, if that’s what you’re into.)

The movie opens with bullets fired in a beach house, taking down mustachioed Monty Beragon. We don’t see the killer, although we do hear Monty gasp, “Mildred!” before he dies. Shortly after, we see a fur-clad Mildred on a foggy pier, appearing to contemplate jumping off. A policeman persuades her not to, and in the extended intro that follows, she has a drink with old friend Wally Fay, who expresses surprise that she’s learned to drink good liquor, and invites him back to the beach house where Monty’s body still lies on the floor. They head downstairs without noticing him, though, and here Mildred slips out the back, leaving Wally to be apprehended by the police when he finally discovers the corpse in the living room. Soon afterward, the cops take Mildred down to the station to get her side of the story, where we get into the flashbacks that form the bulk of the film.

The film deliberately plays with us here, with the fur coat, taste for expensive booze, and the disappearing act all implying that Mildred will be the femme fatale in what is already a very shadowy noir . . . then immediately flashing back to a sunny California bungalow where the very same Mildred wears an apron and bakes pies. She’s the mother to two children, spoiled Veda and tomboyish Kay, and wife to Bert, although their marriage is on the rocks. As the flashback unfolds, Bert and Mildred divorce, and Mildred must learn to support herself and the girls–at first as a waitress, much to Veda’s dismay, and then as the owner of an ever-increasing chain of restaurants. Meanwhile, Mildred is falling for her business partner, the wealthy playboy Monty Beragon.

Still playing with us, the film’s actual femme fatale is the innocent-looking Veda. And Mildred’s fatal flaw is that she can’t see her daughter for what she really is, toiling at the restaurants so that V. can have the best of everything–dresses, singing lessons, new cars–while Veda schemes and social-climbs behind her mother’s back and humiliates her to her face. Equally spoiled is Mildred’s boyfriend Monty, who grew up rich but no longer has as much money as everyone thinks, and who’s taken to accepting handouts from Mildred as her business empire grows. Slightly better at recognizing his sins than Veda’s, Mildred breaks up with him, but their separation doesn’t last long . . . which leads us to the disastrous conclusion of our story: a retelling of the murder in the opening scene, this time with the blanks filled in. Throughout Mildred’s tale, evidence has mounted up as to exactly who committed the murder in the opening scene. The question that remains is why?

Mildred Pierce is a one-of-a-kind film. Most noirs are centered entirely around the worlds of men, detective offices and dark alleys–but this one takes place in sun-soaked kitchens. Women in traditional noir play victims or femmes fatales, but never does the story center around them. In Mildred Pierce, the entire film is about Mildred and Veda’s relationship with each other; the men in their world are merely satellites. (In fact, the gender flip is completed by Monty functioning as something of a femme fatale–homme fatale?–himself.) Despite this, one can also make an argument for the story’s inherent sexism. While Mildred is a business tycoon–far more successful in that realm than any of the film’s men–by the end of the story, she’s lost it all. As in all good Greek tragedies, Mildred’s inability to see Veda clearly causes her own downfall, the decimation of both her career and personal life. Are we supposed to see this as a punishment for her stepping beyond the traditional confines of the “woman’s sphere”? Or is it simply collateral damage, with Mildred casting off all her tethers into the proverbial fire, in order to start anew?

She’s Working Her Way Through College

April 12, 2011 § 2 Comments

Angela: “Ivy looked through my trunk and found out all about me–including the fact that I was featured in a burlesque show.”

Don: “I wouldn’t care if you pitched for a softball team.”

She’s Working Her Way Through College is–wait for it–my first Reagan! I know, I’m surprised it took me this long, too. It’s is one of those mid-century musicals that, while based on an earlier straight play or film, has excised all philosophy, symbolism, or anything else that might hint at–god forbid–depth . . . only to replace all that depth with mediocre musical numbers that are usually irrelevant to what little plot remains. In other words, it was a pretty awful film that I enjoyed an awful lot.

Here’s the plot in a nutshell: Angela is dancing at a burlesque club, and just happens to run into her old high school teacher, John Palmer. They have a quick chat and discover that he’s now Professor Palmer at Midwest State University, and she decides to attend college there. This is all played totally straight-up, by the way–there’s absolutely no discussion or even an oblique joke of how awkward it is for him to run into a former student while she’s shimmying around the stage in a sparkly bikini and he’s there to gawk at half-naked ladies. The movie initially hints that she’s attracted to him–enough to go to a hotel room that she believes is his– but after that, it’s never alluded to again . . . even though she follows him off to his college, takes his theater class, and lives in the upstairs bedroom that he and his wife rent out to students. I’m sorry, but that’s some bunny-boiling behavior going on right there. And nobody mentions it! Ah, the ’50s.

Angela takes to college life like an alcoholic takes to cheap booze. Professor Palmer decides to stage a musical that she’s written, and after having a veritable male harem following her around for the first half of the movie, she settles down with the football star. This, of course, upsets “Poison” Ivy Williams, who’s had her eye on him for years, and despite Angela’s best attempts to get chummy, Ivy manages to find out that she used to be a burlesque performer and blabs it to the entire school. This puts Angela at risk for expulsion, which in turn allows Professor Palmer to give us his best not-quite-Clarence Darrow-worthy speech on the importance of education for everyone, no matter their history.

The depiction of Angela is very much that of The Girl who Has It All, in that she has a pretty face, but she’s not just a pretty face. She gives up her looks-based career to educate herself, and is smart and ambitious enough to write a play. As a result, she’s popular, at least where it counts: with the men. (Ah, the 1950s.) But what I found interesting was her lack of female friendships. This isn’t true at the burlesque club, where on her last night, all the other girls chip in to shower her with presents and flowers, a bit of initial character development that we’re supposed to read as “Angela is well-liked.” But out in “the real world,” this doesn’t seem to be the case. The girls who wear sweaters and penny loafers don’t want to be her friends the way the girls in feather boas and cone bras did. The crowd that trails her around campus is, in almost every scene, exclusively male. (The only time this changes is when they need to switch it up for a musical number.) While Angela is kind to Ivy, Ivy is often openly hostile back–and this continues so far into the movie that it pushes the boundaries of ludicrousness. The audience is supposed to read that Angela’s continued overtures towards friendship are a sign that she’s magnanimous and forgiving, but it really just comes off like she’s too dumb to see Ivy’s ulterior motives. In short: while Angela is the Girl Who Has It All, having it all 1950s-style doesn’t require female friendships.

Her relationship with Professor Palmer’s wife, whom she lives with, is even odder: they have a rapport, but nothing resembling a friendship. (Maybe this isn’t so weird, given the fact that Professor Palmer is lying to his wife about the fact that he originally got reacquainted with Angela at a burlesque show!) The professor’s wife is an strange character to begin with, seemingly inserted into the script only to give the audience a reason why Angela and the professor don’t get together. Her sole purpose is to be pinballed back and forth between her husband and a former love interest–and the choice of who she ends up with isn’t even really hers in the end.

Ah, the 1950s.

It’s a middlebrow musical of its time; you can’t expect miracles. But the depiction of women’s relationships with each other seems lackluster when compared to other movies of the period. Just a year later, in 1953, we get the glorious female friendships of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire: a bevy of beautiful broads who support each other and help each other achieve their goals (even though their sole goal is to marry rich). In this case, it would have been easy enough to show Angela’s popularity with both men and women–and the fact that they didn’t makes it feel kind of like a conscious choice. Or, maybe more realistically, just a lazy one.

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