Thursday, October 30, 2014

Messages from Cat People

Cat People (1942) was an unexpected success. Despite its limited budget and initially being panned by some illustrious critics (The New York Times' Bosley Crowther for instance), the film was a huge hit with audiences. This fluke had critics rubbing their heads, so they went back and watched the movie again. The film proved itself and--to use a term from the genre--it rose from the dead in the eyes of the critics, prompting their praise.

What had the audience caught that the critics had missed? 

Many point to Jacques Tourneur's direction and how he is able to instill fear in the viewer sans blood and gore. Indeed the film is rather silent, forcing its audience to strain their ears to hear the dialogue. This makes the clicking of heels or low growl of a panther all the more adrenaline inducing. In America's Film Legacy, Daniel Eagan also credits editor Mark Robson for some of the suspense: "By altering the tempo of cuts, by juxtaposing wide shots and close-ups, Mark Robson builds tension out of thin air. A sudden noise becomes the equivalent of a shriek" (359). The audience keeps waiting for something to pop out of the shadows, but nothing ever does (that would have cost money). The fear is psychological.

Resisting her sexual urges...
This may be why Cat People is considered a landmark film today, but there is so much more to the movie than new scare tactics. At its center is Irena (Simone Simon), who fears passion will turn her into a deadly panther. Through the course of the movie, we are taught that female sexuality is dangerous and should be repressed. As long as she resists her urges, her husband Oliver (Kent Smith) is safe. Passion can rear its ugly head in more ways than consummation of marriage, though. Jealousy of her husband's properly repressed co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph) causes her transformation--always implied, never seen to maximize suspense. The message is twofold: female sexual repression is good while female jealousy is bad. 

The other Cat Woman (Elizabeth Russell) - Source
Messages about assimilation into American culture also emerge in Cat People. Made during the beginning stages World War II, Irena represents those whom Americans feared. As much as she tries to belong, Irena is marked with the scarlet "O," that of otherness. She is from Serbia, from a little village with customs her husband and his co-workers cannot understand. She speaks with a distinct accent and is acknowledged as "sister" by a fellow foreigner (Elizabeth Russell). When her husband's friends laugh at this strange woman, it is Irena at whom they are laughing, although they may not realize it at the time. Irena is an outsider. She does not and cannot belong. She dies, leaving behind the foreign form Oliver and Alice cannot understand.

Statue of King John slaying a cat - Source
Cat People also covers psychiatry in its messages. Dr. Judd (Tom Conway), the psychoanalyst, becomes the King John figure, purging the city of sin by curing sick minds. He also carries a sword of sorts: a blade within his cane (much like the one Ballin Mundson uses in Gilda). Dr. Judd eventually uses the blade to slay the cat-version of Irena, but he is unable to save his life. Had he truly listened to Irena during their psychoanalytic sessions instead of focusing on his own righteousness, he may have still been alive. His death represents the American public's lack of faith in psychiatry.

The success of Cat People was a pleasant surprise for RKO. Its use of sound, camera angles, and film cuts gives the movie a haunted feel and makes it a fun pick for Halloween. However, it is the messages that gave the movie double appeal to audiences who questioned female sexuality, foreign residents, and psychiatry. 

[Side note: You can catch Cat People on TCM Friday, October 31st at 8 am PST.]

Works Cited

Eagan, Daniel. America's Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark 
     Movies in the National Film Registry. New York: Continuum International
      Publishing Group, 2010. Print.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Image of Rita Hayworth

It's mid-October, Hispanic Heritage Month, and the perfect time to take a quick break from my Career Girls and Marriage series to celebrate Rita Hayworth. She is the birthday girl of the month, born October 17, 1918 (see the getTV Rita Hayworth Blogathon hosted by Classic Movie Hub for a list of wonderful reviews devoted to Hayworth). She is also one of the first Hispanic actresses to make it big in Hollywood although her widespread popularity did not come until after her Hispanic heritage was washed away.

If you are interested in a detailed account of Rita's transformation, you should stop by Backlots and read Lara Gabrielle Fowler's Rita Hayworth and the Loss of Hispanic Identity. (It is a fabulous read!)  

I am fascinated by how Rita Hayworth's all-American, sexy image is engrained into our public consciousness. Maybe my experience is unique, but for a long time my understanding of Hayworth was limited to her on-screen image and commentaries about her sex appeal to American G.I.'s. In fact, the first time I heard someone (probably TCM's Robert Osborne) talk about Rita's Hispanic heritage, I did a double-take, thinking they were discussing Rita Moreno. I have a feeling I'm not alone. In Being Rita Hayworth, Adrienne McLean observes that while the Hollywood publicity machine promoted Rita's "Latin heritage" and "ability as a dancer," they also glorified "her good looks [...] the result of much manipulation" (39). A quick internet search will demonstrate the number of images the powers-to-be presented to reinforce Rita's new American-ness.  

In the minds of her adoring public, Rita Hayworth was the all-American pin-up girl whose pose in a sexy black-laced negligee motivated the boys overseas. 

   "the" pic from Life magazine, 1941

Strangely, the image did not alienate her female fans. Was it because anyone who kept the boys inspired was a-okay? Or was it because her musical comedies brought her down to earth? She evoked memories of a simpler time--albeit whitewashed--as she charmed James Cagney in the musical Strawberry Blonde (1941). She hoofed with Fred Astaire in You'll Never Get Rich (1941) and You Were Never Lovelier (1942) and with Gene Kelly in Cover Girl (1944). When the boys returned, they fell in love with her all over again as she played the title character in Gilda (1946).  

Can't wait to do a write up on this noir someday!

How does the saying go? Women wanted to be her and men wanted to be with her.   

So entrenched was her image, the public was aghast when she dyed her trademark fiery red hair to blonde for Orson Welles' Lady from Shanghai (1947). The film's box office failure was partially attributed to her physical transformation.  

Over a half-century later, Rita's sexy Americanized image remains in our memories, but thanks to a growing body of educated classic movie fans, her Hispanic heritage will never be lost. 

Works Cited

McLean, Adrienne. Being Rita Hayworth: Labor, Identity, and Hollywood
Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004. Print.

This post is part of the “getTV Rita Hayworth Blogathon” hosted by Classic Movie Hub and running during the entire month of October. Please visit getTVschedule to see a full list of Rita Hayworth films airing on the channel this month, and please be sure to visit Classic Movie Hub for a full list of other Blogathon entries.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Paradox of Career, Marriage, & 1950s Movies

After my last post, I came across some interesting tidbits about working women in the 1950s. The info was too good to let pass, especially since we just explored career women in 1950s movies. According to two books I have been jumping between, married working women were more prevalent in the 1950s than in prior decades. Adrienne McLean in Being Rita Hayworth explains that "between 1950 and 1960 more than four million married women took jobs, accounting for 60 percent of all new workers" (17). In "Old Soldiers Never Die: Father's Little Dividend and the Fading Patriarch," Kristen Hatch provides a more specific detail: "In 1951 a third of American women of working age were in the labor force, and the majority of them were married" (46).

What?! I thought. The evidence I found in the movies said otherwise. The message seemed to say that a woman can find true happiness only in marriage, family, and a home.

So I checked the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Sure enough, Hatch's statement regarding the number of working woman was accurate. Per "Labor Force Change, 1950-2050," an article in a BLS journal, "In 1950, the overall participation rate of women was 34 percent" (Toossi 18). This does not, however, indicate how many of the women were married. I continued digging. Another BLS article, "Family Labor Force Statistics" points out that "In 1950, participation rates of wives were much the same as they had been in 1944" (Waldman 17). Contrary to common belief, women did not leave their wartime jobs and crawl back into domesticity.

So why the paradox between movies and reality?

Some might say 34-percent is not a particularly large number, so there is not really a discrepancy. While this may seem like a small amount by today's numbers, I'm sure this seemed like a large percentage at the time. Another thought is that our current understanding of the 1950s woman is derived from Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique which is "flawed by its reliance on a handful of conservative writings" (McLean 16). Since I am not familiar with the "conservative writings" in question, I am not comfortable drawing a conclusion based on this theory.

Another possibility for the paradox lies in the very nature of movies. They are fantasies, often the ideal version of ourselves. Hatch hits upon this in her essay: "Our misconception that this was a time of stability with regard to gender and family life is largely due to the popular domestic comedies of the period, which created a fantasy of the typical American family" (Hatch 46).
Elizabeth Taylor and Spencer Tracy
She further suggests films such as Father's Little Dividend (1951) attempted to preserve an old way of life that was slipping away as women became more financially independent. Whether or not the fantasy was created "to preserve the notion that the typical family is headed by a [male] breadwinner" (49) or the idea that a woman's place is in the home, what remains is a past painted a shade lighter than reality. I am reminded that history is written by the victors and the past is what we create it to be, not necessarily what it actually was. Or in this case, what the filmmakers of the 1950s created it to be. 

Works Cited

Hatch, Kristen. "Old Soldiers Never Die: Father's Little Dividend and the Fading 
      Patriarch." American Cinema of the 1950s: Themes and Variations. Ed. 
      Murray Pomerance. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005. 46-49. 

McLean, Adrienne. Being Rita Hayworth: Labor, Identity, and Hollywood 
     Stardom. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004. Print.

Toossi, Mitra. "A century of change: the U.S. labor force, 1950-2050."  
      Monthly Labor Review May 2002: 15-28. Web. 13 Oct. 2014. 

Waldman, Elizabeth. "Labor force statistics from a family perspective."  
      Monthly Labor Review Dec. 1983: 16-20. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

Monday, October 6, 2014

'50s Career Girls and Marriage

Not so easy to find is the 1950s career girl. But with a little research, I not only came across a great new book series that I can't wait to sink my teeth into, but also found an awesome example of a '50s career gal. It's an old favorite with a message I missed until I read Sumiko Higashi's essay in American Cinema of the 1950s: Themes and Variations
Froman's career & marriage don't mix.
  • With a Song in My Heart (1952) - This musical biopic chronicles singer Jane Froman's (Susan Hayward) rise to stardom, troubled marriage, and debilitating injury. Author Sumiko Higashi points out that the movie is careful to portray her success as being spurred forward by her husband as opposed to her own ambitions as a career woman. She laments that "she wants 'a real home'" and pities her husband because "'it isn't easy for any man being married to a woman in the spotlight'" (78). She further declares, "If [her career is] going to spoil our marriage, it just isn't worth it'" (78). After she is injured, it is the medical bills--again not her ambition--that prompt her to go back to her singing career. The message is clear: married career women work as a result of external circumstances not internal desire.
Memory triggered, I was able to come up with another 1950s movie with a career gal:
Poor Fred is taken for granted...
  • There's Always Tomorrow (1956) - Norma Miller Vale (Barbara Stanwyck) is a successful fashion designer. She meets up with a former co-worker, Cliff Groves (Fred MacMurray), who is married and has three teenage children. His marriage is in a bit of a rut, making the single and fancy free Norma very attractive. Cliff's wife Marion (Joan Bennett) is not concerned. Marion feels secure in her position, suspecting that Norma most likely envies her domestic life. Sure enough, nothing much comes from Cliff and Norma's brief dalliance, other than Norma's realization that her life is empty without a home, marriage, and children--just as Marion and we could have predicted. 

Join me next week as I complete the Career Girls and Marriage series with an analysis of '60s career girls in films.

Works Cited

Higashi, Sumiko. "With a Song in My Heart: Can This Star's Marriage Be Saved?"
         American Cinema of the 1950s: Themes and Variations. Ed. Murray 
        Pomerance. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005. 77-81. Print.