Thursday, July 31, 2014

Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door

ISBN 978-0-7535-1809-0
In 2008, Virgin Books released David Kaufman's biography of the quintessential girl next door, Doris Day. The book is over 500 pages long (tiny print), but given the length of Doris Day's successful career--ranging from singing to acting to advocating and spanning over five decades--any book worth its salt would have to be biblical in proportion to other stars' biographies. Day not only recorded hundreds of hit songs and starred in dozens of films (appearing in 39 total), she was also a cultural icon, representative of the ideal American woman in the '40s, '50s, and early '60s. She retains the distinction of being the number one female box-office star of all time, faltering only when America's social mores evolved and her image did not.  

Kaufman's book delivers; it is a comprehensive account of Doris Day's life, which was much more complex than the sunny image she projected on screen. Although the world associated her with the virginal all-American good girl, she had already survived an abusive marriage, given birth, and divorced twice before she ever arrived in Hollywood.
Day singing for Les Brown's band
 She was also an established singer, who had found
 great success performing with Les Brown's band with such hits as "My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time" (1944), "You Won't Be Satisfied" (1945), and most notably "Sentimental Journey" (1945). She was popular among soldiers--including a then unknown Rock Hudson--"join[ing] the ranks of Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, and Dorothy Lamour as one of their favorite pin-ups" (39). Here was not the pristine Day that America would come to know. As Oscar Levant once remarked, "I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin" (399).

Publicity photo from
Romance on High Seas
 Once in Hollywood, she was a natural in front of the camera. Her first film performance in Romance on the High Seas (1948) scored predominately positive reviews. Marty Melcher, who worked with her agent at Century Artists, took note and soon after became both her manager and third husband. The result was more of a business partnership than marriage.  Kaufman quotes many people who observed that Melcher treated Day like a commodity, and several speculated that he wanted to hitch himself to her rising star. To be fair, Kaufman balances this information with Day's own comments which are confirmed with others' accounts that the relationship was mutually beneficial: "'Marty had no desire to be a celebrity, and Doris had no desire to sign the checks'" (283). Out of Melcher's managership emerged Day's carefully coiffed image of the wholesome all-American girl:
Day circa 1955 - Source
Kaufman provides brief descriptions of movie plots; i.e. doesn't go overboard as some biographers do, which allows him to focus on how Melcher created the Doris Day persona and how she, in turn, became a cultural icon. Melcher insisted on final approval of media (no approval = no interview with his famous wife), strategically selected Day's film roles, and arranged promotional activities to keep Day in front of the public. For an example of how specific Kaufman gets, consider this promotional detail: a $3.98 album featuring two songs from Lover Come Back "could be 'yours for only $1 and 2 larger crowns from the fronts of 2 Imperial [butter] packages'" (299).
Doris Day paper dolls - perfect
promotion of her films and fashion
He also includes information on movie budgets (Day's numerous costumes notwithstanding--after all, her beautiful clothes were a big part of her image), behind the scene decisions, and public opinion. By including such information, Kaufman transports the reader to another time when Day reigned. 

Day, a workaholic, became all product. She was the sunshine girl at all times. If she didn't like a hairdresser or camera man, Melcher would take care of it and she would smile on. If she didn't like a question or comment, she ignored it as though the words had never been spoken.
Top: Day as Ruth Etting
Bottom: Day as a terrified
wife in Midnight Lace
On occasion, glimpses of the real turmoil beneath the image-- the tip of a large iceberg hidden in the water--came through in the form of a film role.  Such was the case in the role Day herself believed to be her greatest performance: Ruth Etting in Love Me or Leave Me (1955).  There were several similarities between the real life Etting and Day: both were singers, both had husbands who beat them (Day's first husband), both had husbands who were managers and tirelessly "promoting and exploiting [their wive's] natural talents" (184). If Day was incredible as the made up girl next door, she was ten times as great playing a character who resembled herself. In Midnight Lace (1960), a film that Melcher insisted his wife undertake despite her apprehension, Day again tapped into fears she would have preferred to have kept bottled up. When Day becomes hysterical in the movie, "'[...] that isn't acting. She really means it'" the director, David Miller, observed (273). 

But for the most part the real Day remained submerged beneath the publicity, film roles, fancy outfits, and confident smile. She was plagued with insecurities,  unable to watch the film rushes or to perform in front of a live audience or orchestra after her initial band days. Everyone wanted something from her, and she had a history of misplacing trust: Day's first husband abused her; her third husband exploited her; her lawyer attempted to abscond with her fortune; and her fourth husband involved her in a pyramid pet food franchise scheme. While Day befriended and maintained  superficial relationships with many of her fans and the people with whom she worked, she found it difficult to truly get close to anyone. Her relationship with her son Terry--the one person with whom she should have been close--was in her words, more akin to a "brother and sister" (42). While she played the perfectly devoted and loving mother on her television show, her grown son wept backstage for "the love and attention she never gave him" (411). Day, who brought so much joy to the rest of the world, could not find happiness for herself--at least not by way of people. Instead, she preferred her pets: 
"I love people and animals--though not necessarily in that order," Day also told Stu Schreiberg for the article. "I've never met an animal I didn't like and I can't say the same thing about people." (514)  
Courtesy of DDAF
After divorcing her fourth husband, she moved to Carmel where, to this day, she happily houses dozens of dogs and cats. She returned to TV in the '80s only to promote pet health and care on Doris Day's Best Friends. She continues to be an advocate for animals through the Doris Day Animal Foundation 

Kaufman is thorough in his research for this biography. He gathers information from a variety of sources, including interviews from a multitude of people who worked with Day over the years. He diligently presents both positive and negative perspectives of Day, her work, her husbands, and her relationships with colleagues and employees. He also includes Day's opinion, pulling from the biography on which she worked with A.R. Hotchner (Doris Day: Her Own Story - 1975) and her interviews with the media through the years. He is meticulous in giving the context of her statements, so one might consider the motivations behind them, and making corrections when her timeline is mistaken. 

There is so much more to the book than I can possibly include here. Kaufman sprinkles interesting tidbits throughout, bringing the reader into a bygone era. He includes quotes from fan magazines, gives the reader a glance at early product placements in That Touch of Mink (1962), and chronicles how the Manson murders where connected to Doris Day via her son (her son being a target, not a murderer). Because Day was such a significant figure in American culture, Kaufman's book essentially becomes a time capsule of Hollywood history.

Doris Day in the 1960s - Source
One final thought. Day came to regret and wanted to distance herself from her virginal image. It is humorous that this definitive biography of her life is published by a company with 'virgin' in the title: Virgin Books. She just can't escape the association. But you know what? I kind of enjoy that image--even if it is make believe.

This review has been part of the: 

Hosted by Raquel Stecher at
Out of the Past

Friday, July 25, 2014

If you could be a TCM Guest Programmer...

Yesterday's TCM Facebook feed asked what movies we would choose given the opportunity to be a Guest Programmer. I thought, Oh yeah, I've got this. That is until it dawned on me that Guest Programmers only choose four movies. Four movies? How could any lover of classic movies choose only four movies???

A self-proclaimed organizational nerd (and proud of it), I opened up a Word doc and began to list personal favorites as well as those that anyone new to old movies should see (the educator coming out in me). My thoughts raced. Every golden decade ('30s-'60s) should be represented. A screwball comedy should be there. And everyone should see the fabulous pairing of Fred and Ginger. 

Oh and a musical. A bonafide, all out, glorious Technicolor, dance routines and catchy songs musical. And what about Hitchcock? 

Hitchcock definitely deserves a place. And the list needs to be rounded out by a '60s sex comedy. Not to mention some of the movies I love just because. The narrowing down of the list, movie versus movie, began to look like my hubby's Super Bowl bracket and still I was not satisfied. It was a case of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie
if you give a gal a choice of four movies, she's going to want to add another musical. If she adds another musical, she's going to want to add a film noir. Add if she's adds a film noir, she will be taking over TCM's programming for a day (or two).

Fortunately in this little corner of the internet, my list can encompass more than four films. For readers who are new to classic films, here is a list to get you started. And for those of you who have mileage under your belt, I'm interested in hearing your input. So without much further ado, here are a dozen recommendations:

Pre-code - Made prior to the Hays Code, which strictly censored movies from mid '30s to early '60s. For the new viewer these movies will appear shockingly modern in their content. (Confession: I'm relatively new to these, so the pool of movies I'm pulling from is rather small.)
1. Consolation Marriage (1931) - Story focuses on a marriage not for love, but for convenience with the mindset that divorce is an option at any time (yet the wife gets pregnant, which means this non-loving couple must have...gasp!). Features: Irene Dunne's first starring role and blonde pre-Thin Man Myrna Loy,  unfortunately not available on DVD 
2. Finishing School (1934) - Story was written prior to but released after strict enforcement of Hays Code, so some of the 'naughtiness' is implied rather than straight out told. Drinking ladies, pre-marital sex, and abortion are some of the taboo subjects hinted upon in this film. Features: Ginger Rogers in an early non-dancing role

Screwball Comedy - Known for its crazy antics, it will require you to suspend belief, but if you play along, oh the fun you will have! 
3. Bringing Up Baby (1938) - This is the quintessential screwball comedy with non-stop sticky situations and laughter waiting around every corner. Features: the great Kate Hepburn and debonaire Cary Grant (two very important Golden Age stars)
And this is only part of the fun...

Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers - The greatest dance team ever to grace the celluloid deserves their own category. (For the greatest single dance routine, see Astaire and Eleanor Powell tapping to "Begin the Beguine" in Broadway Melody of 1940.
4. Follow the Fleet (1936) - When it comes to this team, you can't go wrong with any of their pairings, so I went with my favorite. Why am I partial to this one? Nautical theme (I may have a few rooms decorated in said motif *wink *wink), message of the songs "Let Yourself Go" (yes, everyone should dance!) and "Let's Face the Music and Dance" (again dancing is the answer--can you tell I like to dance?? sure it's metaphorical, but it doesn't have to be--just look at Fred and Ginger), and fabulous '30s fashion. I could go on, but this is getting a little long.  Features: Betty Grable and Lucille Ball before they were famous, Harriet before she was Harriet Nelson, and pre-cowboy Randolph Scott

World War II Films - Okay, so I created this category just so I can include two of my all-time favorites. From film to fashion, I am a little obsessed with this time period.  

5. Casablanca (1942) - I hate to be cliche, but this is simply the greatest movie ever made. I'm a dialogue person and this movie doesn't waste one word. Every line adds to the characters' relationships and pushes the plot forward. The film leaves the audience with a great message that stretches beyond war propaganda and into any era: do the right thing no matter what the personal costs. And then there's that lovely last line, which if you think about it, is really redefining 'family' and in so doing offers hope despite the tears. 
6. More the Merrier (1943) - From drama to comedy... I saw this movie for the first time several years ago and laughed the whole way through. Watch for the hilarious doorstep scene when Joel McCrea's and Jean Arthur's characters are necking; it's like he has eight arms and she's battling to keep them off her. (I'm sure many a girl can relate.) Of course, she's only resisting because she has a fiancé. In the end...well, you can imagine what happens. [Side note - Turns out McCrea was a total hunk when he was younger. Who knew?] Features: suggestive split screen over fifteen years prior to Pillow Talk's famous scene
From More the Merrier

Hitchcock - Must see because everyone should know why Hitchcock is known as the Master of Suspense.
7. Lifeboat (1944) - This is another category where you really can't go wrong with the Hitch movie you choose. This lesser known film is one of my favorites. Why? For one thing, I've always identified with Tallulah Bankhead's character: a tough writer who arms herself with a typewriter and lipstick. She even finds a little romance before the closing credits (or rather, romance finds now you may sense that I'm a sucker for romance). The whole movie takes place in a boat with an array of characters who normally would not associate with each other. Awesome set up and the first of its kind. The viewer wonders, How is Hitch going to pull off a story with such a limited setting? And more importantly, how is he going to make his legendary cameo? Well, it works and he does, but you're going to have to watch the film to find out how. 

Film Noir - Crime drama known for detectives, femme fatales, and stylized black and white cinematography. I might have some backlash from movie buffs on my choices here. These are just my personal favorites. Other films I considered: The Big Sleep (1946)The Blue Dahlia (1946) and The Third Man (1949).

8. Double Indemnity (1944) - Barbara Stanwyck not only pulls Fred MacMurray into her web, but also the viewer. This was the first movie I saw where I realized I was rooting for the bad guy. Reality check. But I bet you will too. [Side note - Growing up watching Fred MacMurray in reruns of "My Three Sons" and Disney movies such as The Shaggy Dog, I was surprised to find out he was kind of sexy - see Millionaire for Christy (1951) for further example of said sexiness.] 
9. Gilda (1946) - It's worth the view if only to understand what Rita Hayworth meant when she famously said, "Men fell in love with Gilda, but they wake up with me." The role haunted her for the rest of her life, becoming a factor in her downward spiral as she tried to cope with the image it helped create. There is a love triangle in the movie, killer lines, and of course, Rita at her sexiest. The fiery relationship between Glenn Ford's and Rita's characters as well as the one between Ford's and George Macready's lends itself to some interesting discussions for those of us who love to analyze films. Watch for Rita's rendition of "Put the Blame on Mame" sung only to the washroom attendant. She acts it (I say "acts" because her singing voice was actually dubbed) with such sadness, you can't help but feel that her character personally knows what it is like to have blame misplaced on her. There is a lot more going on than meets the eye.

Musical Comedy - Show tunes generally with a light, fluffy plot. Sunshine in a film canister. The stuff happiness is made of.
Cyd and Kelly--what a dance routine!
Look at those lines!
10. Singin' in the Rain (1952) - This has it all: vibrant Technicolor; brilliant dance routines featuring Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor, and Cyd Charisse;  fabulous songs; plenty of comedy and a strong plot that recounts early Hollywood's transition to talkies. Jean Hagen is not too shabby either (you'll know what I mean when you see it).  
11. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) - I love this musical for sentimental reasons--it's a old favorite that my mom and I watch every time she's in town (or I'm over there). Listen to the lyrics; they  are incredibly funny and there is a lot of truth to them. While my mom was chuckling when Marilyn Monroe pointed to her derriere and sang, "Men grow cold/As girls grow old/And we all lose our charm in the end" (and after a few kids, I can appreciate the humor), we both understood the meaning behind, "Then someone broke my heart in Little Rock/So I up and left the pieces there [...] I came New York/And I found out/That men are the same way everywhere."  This spot on the movie list is all about passing on the fun from my mom and me to you.

Sixties Sex Comedy - Everybody is talking about sex in these movies, but nobody is having it.
12. Lover Come Back (1961) - This follow up to the successful Pillow Talk (1959), has Doris Day once again being duped by Rock Hudson's character. Fun because we know what Hudson really means when he tells Day's character, "I'm taking you in" complete with a big fish eating a little fish in the background--if you've missed this, look for it the next time you watch this film. Features: fab fashion like its predecessor, beautifully designed apartment (take note: yellows and whites with red and blue accents--even Day's outfits in the apartment match), Ann B. Davis (better known as Alice in "The Brady Bunch"), and Tony Randall  

This list is by no means complete. I know a western should be there somewhere and probably a campy sci-fi as well. I could have  included several holiday movies, but that is easily a list of its own (on which would be three notable names missing from this one--Jimmy Stewart, Judy Garland, and Bing Crosby), so I've saved that for another day.

Oh and those four choices? It wasn't easy, but I finally made up my mind and posted them--for better or worse--to TCM. What would your four be?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Paging Dr. Gillespie - Disability in the Movies

When it comes to dissecting messages in movies, I must say that the disability experience holds a special place in my heart because my masters thesis focused on this lens of literary analysis. The disability experience has been neglected over the years. Much has been written regarding how women have been portrayed, how people of different races have been portrayed, how people who are homosexual are portrayed, and so forth. On the other hand, the disability studies field is relatively new and lacking in number of scholarly articles with this critical lens (at the time of this entry, the only scholarly journal devoted to such analysis is the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, which debuted in 2007). Nonetheless, it is important to consider the disability experience just as one might consider any other human experience. By analyzing the portrayal of disability in literature and films, we can begin to understand how societal attitudes and beliefs about disability have been informed and developed. 

What better place to start than by looking at classic movies?

The other night I tuned in to Dark Delusion (1947) because it starred Lucille Bremer, whose work I have been wanting to see more of. Imagine my surprise when in rolls Dr. Gillespie (Lionel Barrymore), a wheelchair-bound character featured in over a dozen films during the '30s and '40s. Unbeknownst to me, Dark Delusion was the last of the Dr. Gillespie (originally Dr. Kildare) series. 
Dr. Gillespie (Lionel Barrymore) advising
protege Dr. Kildare (Lew Ayres). 

- from an earlier movie in the series  Source
Dr. Gillespie is part cantankerous old man, part clown, and part caring mentor. He is the ideal boss or father, a lovable character portrayed by one hell of an actor. In the lighter moments of this installment of the series, he plays poker with the guys and intercepts a "top secret" telegram, a joke that he and his staff pull on one of the doctors. In the more serious moments, he mentors Dr. Coalt (James Craig), guiding him to the solution without the young doctor realizing it at the time. In other films of the series, Dr. Gillespie oversees and sometimes even lends a helping hand during  difficult operations.   

Traditionally, characters with disability inspire fear (Mr. Potter - also portrayed by Lionel Barrymore - in It's a Wonderful Life) or evoke pity (Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Sometimes they are considered weak (Tiny Tim in The Christmas Carol) or in need of being fixed (Charly in Charly). But not Dr. Gillespie; he is a positive image of disability. The only time Dr. Gillespie's wheelchair; i.e., limitation, becomes noticeable is when he asks someone to open the door or to bring a patient downstairs (if not in the hospital where there is an elevator). 

It is interesting to note that Dr. Gillespie was not originally written as a wheelchair-bound character. Lionel Barrymore broke his hip, prompting the need for the chair. (His arthritis kept him in the chair during the later films.) As a result, the Dr. Gillespie character was written first as a man; the wheelchair was secondary. This is how characters with disabilities should be written--as whole people with personalities that do not revolve around their disability. 

As refreshing as it is to see the positive portrayal of disability, the fact that this occurred somewhat as a fluke may help explain why the screen does not reflect the societal attitude toward disability during the time it was made. Special care was taken to ensure that the public did not see President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his wheelchair, which represented weakness in the eyes of the American public and the rest of the world.

Keye Luke - Source
In addition to the positive portrayal of disability, I feel I have to note that Dark Delusion (and I'm assuming the rest of the Gillespie movies, but I haven't seen all of them) also portrays race in a positive light as well. Dr. Lee (Keye Luke) is a Chinese American doctor in Gillespie's hospital. Unlike so many Asian characters during this time period, he speaks without a pronounced foreign accent and heals based on medical facts rather than ancient "Oriental" wisdom. I will point out, however, that there is an African American staff member who speaks with an exaggerated "slave" sound (I'm not sure how else to describe it), so the movie is not completely without flaws.

If you would be interested in catching Dr. Gillespie in action, tune in to TCM Saturday afternoons at 1:30 pm PST during September and October.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations

Nobody knows what is true and what is false about me anymore. I'm not sure that I know myself anymore. (105-106)
I admit that when I asked for Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations last Christmas I was enticed by the advertising lure that these were secret conversations, so secret that they couldn't be printed until after Ava's death. After finally getting around to reading the book, I'm not so sure this marketing maneuver is all that accurate. Ava was not exactly tight lipped when she had a few drinks in her, and the stories she told had the aura of being her standard party modus operandi, a hint of crude humor with the intent of shocking her listener. (Peter Evans, the co-author, notes when she repeats a line he has heard before that  "[s]he even made it sound like the first time she had said it" (85). In other words, the material she shares is not exclusively for him; rather it is a well-seasoned act.) I have a feeling that most of the info revealed could have been discovered through third party interviews. However, there is no substitute for witnessing firsthand Ava being Ava. 

"I drink to remember, honey" (111). - Source

The book captures the essence of Ava, a mixture of toughness and insecurity. She mixes expletives with "honey" and "baby." She is an old Hollywood dame with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, telling you like it is--the hell with it. But then again, not really how it was, how she wants to remember it to be:

I'd just rather not have to remember all the shitty things people have said and done to me. I'm happier not remembering, baby. Little of it seems pertinent now, anyway. Why can't we settle for what I pretend to remember? You can make it up, can't you? (59)
Throughout the "conversations" (so called because she did not like the idea of interviews), Evans and the reader must keep this quote in mind. Ava can be very convincing, but being a studio system actress at heart, she always has her image in mind. She doesn't want to appear to be a "nympho" when she and Mickey Rooney were still "doing it" while in the middle of their divorce (73). She is afraid that she will be seen "in a bad light" when the public learns that she was sleeping with both Rooney and Howard Hughes during the same period of time (259). She is also concerned about including too many expletives: "It makes me sound like a fucking fishwife" (88) and "Why does she have to swear all the goddamn time? It makes her sound like a goddamn tramp" (255 - Ava referring to herself in the third person). I find myself chuckling out loud at the irony of the two statements.

While Ava worries about disclosing information that will make herself and others look bad, what is really divulged is her struggle with inner demons, a kind of insecurity a la Sunset Boulevard (which Evans himself observed - 102). She desperately wants to be blissfully ignorant, to remember events in a way that is flattering to her, unwilling to give up the images that were created long ago. Yet she is conflicted because unlike Gloria Swanson's character, she knows that she is intentionally trying to deceive herself. She wants to be told she is beautiful while at the same time acknowledging it is no longer true; she describes her beauty in past tense (83-85). Evans describes it best when he tells of what he has learned about old movie actresses: 
Their vanities, and insecurities. The self-protective fibs they all tell. The delusions they have about themselves. (174)
The book is by no means a thorough biography. Ava stopped the project just as they were approaching the Frank Sinatra years. There are juicy tidbits about the seedier side of Hollywood: young actresses dating gangsters (Hollywood was full of them in those days per Ava), starlets who had to "put out" at the end of the month when the rent was due, publicists who could make dirt look clean, and a studio that "never missed a trick" (110, 152). 

The book also gives insight into the writing process and the lengths authors go to in order to get their readers that coveted story. Evans was essentially on-call 24/7 and had many late night/early morning phone calls with Ava, who did not sleep very well. He lived in the constant fear that all the work would be for not as she continually threatened to not go through with the book. Additionally, Ava preferred to talk about memories as they came to her, which meant quite a bit of piecing together on Evans' part. As a result, the book tries to, but is not always successful in maintaining continuity. Evans was also up against Ava's memory, which--as aforementioned--was not always accurate. For example, she claims to have never cheated on any of her husbands, but later reveals that she slept with a bullfighter while married to Sinatra (237).

In the end, the book is not so much a biography of Ava Gardner's life as it is a documentary on how an aging Hollywood goddess comes to terms with her past and present. It's the perfect reality companion to the fictional Sunset Boulevard.  

This review has been part of:

Hosted by Out of the Past.

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.]

Friday, July 4, 2014

World War II Films: Yankee Doodle Dandy

James Cagney & Joan Leslie
If To Be or Not To Be was an example of tragic timing (see previous post), Yankee Doodle Dandy illustrated what can happen when all the pieces fit together perfectly. Yankee Doodle Dandy was to be yet another musical biopic (biography picture), a type of movie that was popular at the time. The picture chronicled the life of George M. Cohan, a song and dance man who wrote, starred, directed, and produced his own plays during the early twentieth century. Here's where a bit of luck--albeit morbid luck, comes into play. Cohan was synonymous with the American musical, known for his patriotic productions, and even honored by FDR in 1936 for his contribution to World War I with such songs as "Over There" and "You're a Grand Old Flag." Within the first few days of production on Yankee Doodle Dandy, Pearl Harbor was bombed and America was suddenly at war again. The ground was ripe for a patriotic production, one that Cohan's life easily provided. Add to this, the dynamic acting of James Cagney. 

When Cagney was suggested for the film, Cohan scoffed at the idea--how could this gangster character portray a song and dance man? Cagney may have developed into a roughian type in his films at Warner's, but he was a dancer at heart.
Dancing Cagney

Prior to Hollywood, he had been a hoofer in vaudeville. In fact, his dancing style was inspired by Cohan's energetic, stiff-legged dance movements. (Can you imagine Cohan's first pick, Fred Astaire, dancing in such a manner?? I love Astaire, but his graceful steps would have been completely out of place!) Fortunately, Cohan was convinced and the rest was cinematic magic. Cagney loved the role; it gave him the chance to break out of the mobster mold and get back to his roots. He threw himself into the film and earned an Oscar for his performance. 

In addition to Cagney's win, Yankee Doodle Dandy won Oscars for Best Score and Best Sound. It was nominated for Best Director (Michael Curtiz), Best Supporting Actor (Walter Huston) Best Picture, Best Writing, and Best Editing, but did not win. Nonetheless, the film was a huge commercial success and raised five million dollars in War Bonds (Let Freedom Sing!: The Story of Yankee Doodle Dandy). 

At a time when America's future looked uncertain, Yankee Doodle Dandy delivered an uplifting, triumphant display of patriotic spirit.  It was the perfect rallying cry for World War II. 

Happy 4th of July!