Thursday, July 10, 2014

Escapism, Movies, and Lydia

It's summer, which means I finally have the opportunity to delve into books related to classic films; i.e., read for fun. Currently I am in the midst of Devin McKinney's The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda. Although I am far from finished, I was particularly struck by the following reflection: 
It is a prevailing American wish in late 1934, as at nearly every other time: Give us the simple of it. Stage our national past in a diorama of period costume and antique activity; show us a day when there were still dreams undiscovered, vistas unseen. Take us back; take us away. (61)
The author was referring to the tendency to paint history in a shade we prefer versus the actual hue. McKinney speaks of Fonda's historical dramas, such as The Farmer Takes a Wife and Young Mr. Lincoln. However, I think this can also apply to the version of romance that has long been painted in the movies. The romance that our culture loves to love. The idea that if you love someone hard enough, they will change; the idea that unyielding devotion will result in love returned; the idea that life should be a continual stream of surprises, candy, and flowers (both in the literal and metaphorical sense - substitute as you wish); the idea that romantic hiccups can be neatly solved in ninety minutes; the idea of happily ever after. 

Movies that portray these messages are the ones to which society escapes after a relationship has failed or its thrill has subsided. These are the movies by which society judges itself, inevitably coming up short, with the oft result of destructive discontent. There are exceptions to the rule, more so in recent decades than in the glorious days of the silver screen. This is why silver screen exceptions are so, well, exceptional. Enter Lydia (1941).

Merle Oberon as Lydia - Source

Lydia is one of those exceptions. The film deals with illusions created by memory and fueled by poetry (the setting is pre-film, hence poetry). On the most basic level, the screenwriters want the audience to appreciate how memory is biased and flawed. Early in the movie, Lydia’s (Merle Oberon) recollection of a dance is juxtaposed with that of another character’s. The viewer realizes neither individual’s memory is entirely accurate—Lydia, wrapped up in the poetry and romance of the moment, believes the ball to be elaborate and beautiful while the other character, Michael (Joseph Cotten), who is smitten with Lydia and therefore jealous of her beau, remembers the ball as plain.

On a deeper level, though, the film is about how we delude ourselves by believing too strongly, too completely in the fantasy, and the effects of believing in that illusion. By the end of the film, an older Lydia recognizes her misplaced devotion to the memory of Richard (Alan Marshal), with whom she fell in love forty years prior. They are reunited, but it is not the grand reunion of two lovers secretly pining for each other as she may have fantasized. While he has been burned deep in her memory, preventing her from loving any other, she has hardly been a blip on his radar. He does not remember her despite their young idyllic winter weeks together [which begs the question - was it really idyllic, or was it only her memory that has washed it into something grand like the ballroom at the beginning of the movie?].

It would be very easy at this point for the movie to end happily with Michael professing once more his undying devotion to Lydia to which she would realize he is the one she has truly loved all these years and then they would kiss. The End. But that does not happen. There is no happily ever after for our characters. Lydia points out none of the men—this includes Michael—have truly known her. Just as Lydia has been in love with the illusion of Richard, Michael has been in love with the illusion of Lydia. There is no profession of love. The movie ends with the understanding that loving someone with all your might does not mean they will change or return your love; that not all romantic woes can be solved; that happily ever after does not always exist.

I suspect that the Breen Office, which was in charge of movie censorship, may have been behind the loveless ending. (During their weeks together, Lydia and Richard were living together unmarried and virtually unchaperoned. This would have been considered a sin, punishable by an unhappy ending.) Whatever the reason for the final cut, the film as it stands reminds the audience of the dangerous line between reality and illusion. In other words, enjoy being taken away, but don't mistake the image for truth. Or you might end up like Lydia.

[Side note - Lydia is not available on DVD, but you can catch it (or DVR it) on TCM on Friday, August 29th at 6 am EST.]

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