Monday, June 30, 2014

World War II Films: Hitler Satires

Decades before "Springtime for Hitler" (Mel Brooks' The Producers), there were Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator and Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not To Be, two classic comedies, which respectively hold places 37 and 49 on AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs list. Both films poke fun of Hitler and his regime. They were released within a year of each other, but interestingly, America's reception of each satire differed. 

Chaplin dancing with the globe
When Charlie Chaplin began work on The Great Dictator, the outlook appeared grim. He was warned against making the film as it might aggravate the situation at hand; i.e., anger a country with which Britain was technically at peace. Chaplin pushed through and by the time it premiered in October 1940, Britain was at war with Germany and no longer worried about maintaining neutrality with the country. The picture was well received and audiences flocked to see Chaplin's Little Tramp masquerade as a Hitler-like figure dancing with a bouncing globe and shouting German-isque gibberish. The film earned numerous Academy Award nominations including: Best Actor, Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Score. In 1941, it was the second most popular movie in the U.S.

By 1942, however, America was no longer interested in making light of the situation overseas. As a result, To Be or Not To Be, which depicted a group of Polish actors outwitting Hitler and the Third Reich, was not well received. The general consensus from critics was that "this treats humorously of the Nazis at a time when the war news is not funny" (Motion Picture Herald). Germany had marched on Poland in September 1939, which prompted the war in Europe, well over two years prior to the release of To Be or Not To Be

Why the change in American attitude? 

America entered World War II in December 1941 following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Perhaps the movie hit a little closer to home now that America's own men were fighting across the Atlantic.
Carole Lombard

The death of one of the movie's stars, Carole Lombard, would have been in the American conscious as well. Her image was a glaring reminder of the very real sacrifice Americans were facing due to World War II. She died in a plane crash on her way home from selling war bonds in January 1942 and is considered by many to be the first casualty of the war. (The film was released in March 1942 after her line, "What can happen in a plane?" was deleted.)  In his autobiography, Chaplin admitted that he "could not have made fun of their [the Nazis'] homicidal insanity" had he known the extent of the horrors occurring in the concentration camps. Maybe America's own firsthand knowledge of death made it a little more difficult to poke fun at a wound still fresh.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Message in the Movies: Jealousy and Forgiveness

One thing I love to do while watching movies is to catch messages, especially those I do not agree with or ones that society no longer finds acceptable (or thinks they no longer do). To the trained eye, a singular scene or line of dialogue reveals the social mores of the film's time period. Tucked neatly into the plot, the viewpoints are simply matter of fact, i.e. "this is the way it is," and it's a problem if the character does not conform. Since the viewer identifies with the character, the scene or dialogue sends the message that there is also something wrong with the viewer if he or she does not behave in the expected, "appropriate" way. 

Jealousy is generally accepted and in men often encouraged.
Take Send Me No Flowers (1964). Doris Day's character can't understand and is even suspicious when her husband is not jealous of her college sweetheart. This plot point is resolved when she assumes he is having an affair. You can almost see the thought form across Doris Day's face, No wonder he isn't jealous, he doesn't love me! In The Feminine Touch (1941)Rosalind Russell's character goes to great lengths to induce her husband's jealousy, which she equates with love, and is exasperated when he does not behave as expected. By the end of movie, the lesson is learned as he fights off two potential suitors and she beams triumphantly.  

While men are encouraged to be jealous and women are allowed to be--especially when it results in a comedic escapade (such as The Awful Truth)--several movies incite women to forgive their men's "indiscretions."
Tracy and her father discuss his affair.
In Philadelphia Story (1940), the father explains to his daughter (Katharine Hepburn), "What most wives fail to realize is that their husband's philandering has nothing whatever to do with them." He then blames his philandering on a reluctance to grow old as well as his daughter's lack of idolization of him. Love the movie (put it on to verify the quote and watched the whole thing), but the line kills me every time.
Mary gets some motherly advice
on philandering husbands.

In The Women (1939), the mother of the main character (Norma Shearer) advises her daughter to ignore her husband's affair. She further rationalizes her son-in-law's actions by explaining that she has also experienced a philandering husband. In other words, a cheating husband is a natural part of marriage. When Norma Shearer's character goes through with a divorce, she regrets not heeding her mother's advice, stating that all she has now is pride. In both this film and its 1956 musical version, The Opposite Sex, the woman eventually forgives her husband--pride be damned--and gets him back. The message sent is that it is more important for a woman to look the other way and forgive her cheating spouse than to divorce him and face the world alone. 
Mary  has forgiven her husband
and is going to get him back.

Despite the messages, I still enjoy all of the above mentioned movies. There is much to be praised in plot, witty dialogue, and other thematic messages, not to mention fun, goofiness, and gorgeous costumes. At the same time, it's important to be aware of the subtext in anything one views.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Nod to Adoptive Fathers

Nowadays it seems one can’t go far without hearing about a celebrity adoption. However, adopting children is nothing new. While most will think of famous actresses who were adoptive parents (think Joan Crawford a.k.a. Mommy Dearest), there are many celebrity fathers who have adopted children throughout the years. Since it is Father's Day, I thought it would be a good time to honor a few of these famous adoptive fathers. 

1. Jimmy Stewart 

Stewart and family - courtesy of
Jimmy Stewart: A Biography by Marc Eliot

A search for "Jimmy Stewart with family" results in images and references of Stewart in a number of fatherly roles: It's a Wonderful Life, The Glenn Miller Story, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation...the list goes on. He seemed to slip easily into these roles, but what many may not know is that Jimmy Stewart first became a father at 41 when he adopted his wife Elaine's children, Ronald and Michael. He and Elaine eventually had their own children, twins Judy and Kelly. All reports point to him as being a wonderful father regardless of whether his children were biological or adopted. 

2. George Burns

George and Gracie Burns with their
adopted children in 1938.
This famous comedian and his equally famous wife and comedic partner, Gracie Allen, adopted a daughter, Sandra, in 1934 and a son, Ronnie, in 1935 when they could not have children due to Gracie's congenital heart defect. According to George, Gracie chose Ronnie because he appeared sickly and needed their help the most. George supported his wife, whom he loved very much, and the result was a beautiful, loving family both on and off paper. When the children were in their teens, they joined the cast of their parents' television program, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1950-1958), and Ronnie went on to act in a few more programs in the early '60s.   

3. Walt Disney

Disney reading to his daughters.
Ironically, the man renown for entertaining millions of children with his cartoons, films, and theme park did not enter into fatherhood easily. This was not because he did not want children; rather his wife Lillian experienced miscarriages and later birth complications that interfered with her ability to conceive. They had one daughter, Diane, naturally and then adopted a second daughter, Sharon. In a 1956 Saturday Evening Post article, Diane describes how her father would complain about being the only man in the house; however he was merely clowning around. He loved his little girls.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Giant Step Forward

What a great movie! Made in 1956, the film was ahead of its time. In an era of subservient stay-at-home wives and racial segregation, audiences are introduced to Leslie, a strong-minded woman who defies her husband in a number of arenas for the common good. When her husband attempts to exclude her from political talk, she puts up a fight, explaining women are just as capable as men to discuss politics. When she sees the poor living conditions of the Mexican Americans who live near their ranch, she ignores social taboos—and her husband’s wishes—and helps them, walking through their dilapidated neighborhoods, even going so far as to call in a doctor who treats only rich white patients—gasp! 

Leslie also does not believe in forcing her son to follow in his father’s rancher role if the child doesn’t want to. At one point, she decides it is time to take the children and go live with her mother—Hollywood code for ‘time for a divorce’—because she and her husband cannot see eye to eye. Leslie and Bick end up staying together, but when they do, it is a result of Bick going to Leslie, not her going back to him. With all this breaking of social norms, one might expect her character to be punished as was the Hollywood rule with disobedient characters. However, quite the opposite occurs. Instead, it is her husband who changes. This sends a new message to audiences: women should be allowed to converse with men about politics, racial inequality is a crime, and children should have a say in their future. This movie foretells of issues that would be making headlines within the decade. Powerful.

As a bonus, the star line up includes Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, a young Dennis Hopper (not pictured), and—in his final of three film roles—James Dean.

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Star by Any Other Hair Color...

The other day I caught Janie Gets Married, a cute post-war film starring one of my favorites, the lovely Joan Leslie. The plot wasn't anything special, and I probably won't go out of my way to watch it again, but it did get me thinking. The supporting cast included Dorothy Malone; however she was barely recognizable (to me, at least) due to her brunette 'do. One may remember she made a big impression in a bit part as the brunette bookstore clerk who flirts with Bogart's character in The Big Sleep. I certainly remember--love that movie--nevertheless I was expecting a blond Malone to show up in the Leslie movie, the same Dorothy Malone most of us envision when hearing her name. Don't get me wrong, she was a beautiful brunette. So when did she transform into a blonde? What was the motivation behind changing her hair color?

One reason might be that she spent years as a brunette and did not find much success until portraying the obsessed, self-destructive blonde in Written on the Wind. Her performance resulted an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. No wonder she kept her new platinum tresses! The case seems pretty cut and dry, but I can't help but wonder if there is something more at play here.

Dorothy Malone is not the only actress of note who began their career with a hair color other than the one by which they are now defined. Remember that definitive red head, Lucille Ball?

How about Paulette Goddard?

Eleanor Parker anyone?

These women had star quality without the dye, so why change the color? As I contemplate the question, I find myself drawn to Kitty Foyle, the movie in which Ginger Rogers famously traded in her blond locks in favor of a darker shade.

Kitty Foyle is the story of a working-class girl who falls in love with an upper-class boy. They marry, but due to their different stations in life, the union is ultimately doomed and the marriage is annulled. In her autobiography, Ginger: My Story, Ginger Rogers writes, "After I had digested the script, I concluded that Kitty couldn't possibly be a blonde. She was the daughter of a proud Irishman, and had to look and act like one. Dark hair, blue eyes, a quick wit, and a stinging tongue" (269). 

Hmmm....could Ginger be alluding to a hair color stereotype that was present in Hollywood? Just as the white horse indicated the hero while the black signaled the villain, could hair color tell the movie goer what kind of woman was beneath the tresses?

Maybe actresses who wanted to change the type of roles they were being offered--or big studio bosses who wanted to fulfill a type that was lacking on the payroll--resorted to dye. Working woman? Brunette. Dizzy dame? Blonde. Good girl? Brunette. Obsessed, self-destructive floozy? Blonde. The implication of such typing is alarming when societal attitudes are at stake. (Could this be where blonde jokes originated? Think Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield.) 

It's a theory worth exploring.

Rogers, Ginger. Ginger: My Story. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Making of a Classic Reel Girl

I was raised on great classics such as Casablanca and Gone with the Wind, as well as a healthy diet of musicals (Oklahoma!, White Christmas, and The Music Man to name a few). When I was twelve, I discovered a cable channel devoted to the classics, and I was determined to watch as many as I could, even if they were considered B-films. As that channel morphed, I frequented the library in search of classic movies on VHS and on Friday nights, I stayed up late for the PBS feature film as opposed to visiting Coffee Plantation with my peers. I felt odd and out-of-touch, but that could not stifle my love for classic films. 

In high school and college I was often asked why I loved old Hollywood movies so much, but I could never adequately explain my passion. Since then, I have found a large community of classic movie lovers (via a certain other cable channel), so I know I am not alone in my love of old films. However, this does not answer why I love classic movies. I've contemplated the question many times over the years, but have come up blank. Why do any of us love old films? We just do. Nevertheless, I hope this blog will help me finally articulate the answer while giving classic movie lovers a place to analyze films in new ways.