Monday, April 07, 2008

PRINT THE LEGENDS

by Nick Zegarac

It seems an ironic contradiction that the words “Hollywood” and “history” should appear together in the same sentence. Their domains are irreconcilable. The first is dedicated to art; the second, to fact. Yet the influence of the former on the latter cannot be underestimated. As example, there are whole generations who ostensibly would know little to nothing about many ancient civilizations were it not for the epics of Cecil B. De Mille and William Wyler.

Right or wrong (and most of the time Hollywood’s artistic license has horribly muddled historical fact) the movies galvanic impact over our perceptions on even the most basic fundamentals of society and culture has effectively managed to mask or even eclipse reality with its reasonable facsimiles. In retrospect, a line of dialogue from 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, seems to suffice as a summation of Hollywood’s provisions for truth in light of a good artistic yarn: “When the legend becomes fact – print the legend!”

HOLLYWOOD GOES TO WAR

One does not have to reach too far back into human existence to analyze just how wildly off base Hollywood’s depiction of history has been; World War II being an ideal example of artistry run amuck. Today, when considering the conflict in Europe, one is apt to conjure to mind the fleeting image of Greer Garson valiantly capturing a downed German pilot in her azaleas from William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver (1942) or the astutely cynical – if slightly comedic - Richard Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), keeping the Nazi’s at bay with barbed tongue-in-cheek quips against a picturesque and often exuberantly playful backdrop of Casablanca (dir.Michael Curtiz, 1942). Perhaps the most glaring example of Hollywood’s lack of ‘fact’ in bringing history to light is Raoul Walsh’s Objective Burma (1945) that transforms the essentially British invasion into an American triumph almost single-handedly achieved by Warner Bros. he-man, Errol Flynn.

Even when Hollywood attempted to take the European conflict more seriously, as in Herman Shumlin’s Watch on the Rhine (1943) or Mervyn LeRoy’s Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), the results were spun on life-affirming platitudes and doe-eyed optimism that flew in the face of a more stark cold and unvarnished documents. In Watch on the Rhine, based on Lillian Hellman’s anti-fascist stage play, freedom fighter Kurt Muller (Paul Lukas) delivers one apoplectic didacticism ladled upon the next; his impassioned – if wordy - social conscience substituting for the more immediate diplomacies of that hemisphere in flames. The speeches are meant to inspire, and, quite often do. But they are empty in their reflections, somehow missing the point of actual horror facing millions fleeing Nazi persecution; mere eloquence without a complete understanding of the brevity of the situation being discussed.

In Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, pin-up boy Van Johnson is the very embodiment of American sanguinity in the face of imminent danger. As Lt. Lawson, Johnson makes harrowing bombing raids over major Japanese cities before being downed on enemy soil. He escapes – barely - and loses a leg in the process. Yet, the circumstances surrounding his amputation are dealt with almost painlessly in an effort to quickly realign the Hollywood myth about glamorous warfare rather than examining that very genuine list of glaring casualties and fallout.

A soldier’s life – and more directly – his death are topical matter rarely discussed in these movies, or, if so, are represented with a reverence befitting the great warriors immortalized in tableaus from an ancient society – with pomp and circumstance and a lengthy affirmation that the sudden loss of life, though regrettable, is necessary in the fight for democracy overseas.

With increasing regularity Hollywood films between 1940 and 1946 chose to completely ignore the war in favor of a focus on life at home and perhaps occasionally how ‘home’ itself had changed – an exemplar more tellingly revealed in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) at wars’ end rather than in John Cromwell’s Since You Went Away (1944) made during the height of conflict.

To be certain, Cromwell’s gargantuan ode to war ‘widows’ is more an exercise in screen elephantitis than a factual examination of the realities facing women on the home front – a premise made even more expansive and absurd with David O. Selznick as the film’s producer. Immediately following the critical and financial success of his Gone With The Wind (1939), Selznick embarked on an ambitious campaign to surpass its’ popularity; producing a series of expensive follow-ups; Since You Went Away being among them.

Not merely content to recreate a poignant reflection of society at large or provide a documented snapshot of the home front, Selznick’s war weepy dwarfs the human condition with towering achievements in set design. Hence, the romance between Jane Hilton (Jennifer Jones) and doomed infantry soldier, Corporal William Smollett (Robert Walker) is supplanted by Selznick’s need to place the characters against breathtaking backdrops that rival the epic splendor of an ancient Rome or old South.

The Hilton family dwelling is not just another cozy hamlet in middle class America but a sprawling family complex large enough to entertain a curmudgeonly boarder (Monty Wooley) and provide lodgings for feisty housekeeper, Fidelia (Hattie McDaniel) – the latter working simply because she wants to. Despite the fact that the Hilton’s matriarch, Anne (Claudette Colbert) cannot afford to pay Fidelia, she readily maintains glamorous dinner engagements at roomy bistros with old flame, Tony Willet (Joseph Cotten) and luncheons with fair-weather friend and vapid gossip, Mrs. Hawkins (Agnes Moorehead) inside lavishly appointed art deco inspired nightclubs. Since You Went Away is therefore not life as it was for the American housewife circa 1944 but rather an idealization of what life ought to have been.

The screenplay by Selznick, based on Margaret Buell Wilder’s novel, is not honest about a single aspect of this life; choosing a faux front of beautiful people in beautiful costumes and places - seemingly resplendent, if tolerating, the perceived woes inherited by a sudden absence of their husbands and sweethearts. Clearly, the focus of Selznick’s masterwork is not to hammer home the obviousness of the American condition to the soldiers seeing the movie overseas – then contemporary in the minds of everyone – but instead to provide an escapist platform for sublime wish fulfillment. Herein, Since You Went Away is undoubtedly more successful – its characters morally superior beings of impeccable pedigree who are a template for propriety and decorum; intangible platitudes once more that the film suggests the average soldier in the trenches is fighting for.

That same year, Selznick released another, less ambitious war-themed production, I’ll Be Seeing You (1944) with Ginger Rogers playing Mary Marshall, a prison parolee released on a weekend pass and who falls in love with shell-shocked war veteran, Zachary Morgan (Joseph Cotten). Once again, the focus of the film is firmly on the burgeoning maudlin romance between two damaged individuals - not on the emotional psyche of the young man scarred in battle. Such a stark critique would wait until wars end and Harold Russell’s magnificent and heartfelt performance as double amputee Homer Parrish in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).

In I’ll Be Seeing You, the oft’ overused suggestion in the movies, that love alone can unravel even the greatest mysteries of the human mind, is given a patina of grand superficiality with Mary’s understanding heart restoring Morgan’s courage – at least enough that he is determined at the story’s end to continue the good fight.

It is perhaps important herein to pause briefly to acknowledge that Hollywood’s sentimentality with the war as a backdrop, rather than focal point, is most directly the result of filmdom’s creative brain trust working behind the cameras – many of them European exiles, immigrants and refugees fleeing Nazi occupation. Thus, these craftsmen infuse the Hollywood product and style of their dream factories with their own overly-sentimentalized view of Europe – a sort of tear-stained recollection in absence of any immediate first hand knowledge from the currency of their homelands, seen primarily through very thickly crafted rose-colored glasses.


SINGING A SONG OF FREEDOM…

As the demographic in movie patrons shifted with the advent of war, to a more prominent female base, Hollywood weaned their status quo on a steady diet of melodramas, musicals and screwball comedies. Musicals in particular were an increasingly popular form of diverting entertainment. Whereas the most celebrated offerings in the genre during the 1930s had been a strange amalgam of light-hearted operettas – mainly taking place in a fanciful recreation of bygone Europe (Naughty Marietta 1935, Rose Marie 1936, The Desert Song, Maytime 1937) - or completely escapist flights into absurdly lavish art deco fancy (Swing Time 1936, The Great Ziegfeld 1936, Rosalie 1937), the musicals of the 1940s increasingly sought refuge in some glorified past of an America that probably never was (Meet Me In St. Louis 1944, The Dolly Sisters 1945) and a Latin America that most certainly did not exist (Down Argentine Way 1940, That Night In Rio, 1941).

Even such patriotic flag wavers as Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and This Is The Army (1943) – both memorably directed by Michael Curtiz - with their obvious war-themed plots, chose instead to ground their narratives in a loving retrospective of that blind optimism immediately preceding WWI, but stopped just shy of a resurgence for another celebrated charge into conflict in WWII.
Yankee Doodle Dandy is the loosely interpreted biography of songwriter/performer George M. Cohan; so lax in its facts that upon seeing the finished film Cohan reportedly asked Jack Warner who the movie was about. The story is thus a relic of pure fiction, exploiting Cohan’s inimitable style in composition as a backdrop to hang its ‘we shall overcome’ philosophy – quaint and glossy and mirroring a faithful call to arms that would help break America’s isolationism. The same is true of This Is The ArmyIrving Berlin’s galvanic salute and tribute to the American Armed Forces; its show-stopping finale ‘This Time Is The Last Time’ suggesting that America’s involvement in the war is not only desirable but essential in bringing about a lasting world peace for all time.

Perhaps the most subliminally interesting blend of these two polar opposites in the musical genre was Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn (1942); a plot-silly little nothing extolling the celebrated national holidays of Berlin’s adopted country, but also interjecting the very pro-war propaganda ‘Song of Freedom’ during the film’s Fourth of July sequence. Ironically, it was another Berlin song, ‘White Christmas’ that unintentionally strove toward a more poignant evocation of wartime conflict by resurrecting the specter of familial absence and separation.

The lyrics to White Christmas are a painful reminder of this separation (I’m dreaming of a white Christmas. Just like the ones I used to know…where the treetops glisten and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow) – sentiments mirrored with even greater longing and immediacy in the lyrics to Hugh Martin and Arthur Blaine’s Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas from Meet Me In St. Louis (1944).

To be certain, Meet Me In St. Louis is a classic example of how pervasive, if subliminal, the message of wartime familial displacement was to echo throughout nearly all of Hollywood’s wartime product – even when taken out of context from both time and space. Meet Me In St. Louis’ story concerns the Smith family who are about to lose their livelihood in the only home they have ever known, thanks to the suggested move by their father’s (Leon Ames) law firm from St. Louis to New York.

Though the story is set in an idyllic America at the time of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, its timely logic is more reticent of the contemporary strain affecting the American family unit across the country. Martin and Blaine’s lyrics to their poignant holiday tearjerker, ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ bears this out. (“Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Make the yuletide gay. Next year on we may all be living miles away…” then later, “…someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow…”)

In essence, Meet Me In St. Louis is a time capsule for the renewable faith in America’s involvement in the war. With few exceptions, the Hollywood musical would rarely delve quite so deeply into this particular brand of wartime sentiment – though it would frequently produce ‘feel good’ musical prologues, as in Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here (1943) or George Sidney’s Thousands Cheer (1943) – effortless, lighthearted fluff movies that set the war to swing time and bolstered its bond rally efforts by millions.


CRIME MUST PAY…OR BE FEMINIZED
Of all the movie genres to suffer during WWII, the crime story proved the most susceptible to absolute annihilation. Occasionally, detective stories continued to surface on the big screen – but these were not cut from the same gritty ilk that had strengthened the genre prior to the war, and that a studio like Warner Brothers had excelled at during the 1930s with actors James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and George Raft at the helm.

Only part of this tempering of the crime genre derived from the influence of Hollywood’s Censorship and Production Code. Indeed, studios like Warner Brothers proved that when it came to satisfying either the Code or their box office, the latter ruled. They were quite willing to pay modest fines to distribute a movie that would reap millions in return – Code or no Code!

Moreover, with President Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ policies slowly but steadily resurrecting America from its Great Depression and, with WWII providing new reasons to be ‘depressed,’ theater goers were simply no longer entertained by stories that depicted violent conflicts in their own backyard – particularly since the rest of the world seemed to have ample violence to go around.
By the mid-forties, the aesthetics of film noir had already slightly intruded into this crime absentee paradise; reflecting a cynical morality shift from lightness to darkness, though with a continuous patina of surface gloss and romantic idealism attached – at least enough to entice the female theater patron into her seat for a few hours.
Thus detective stories and thrillers like Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), Michael Curtiz’ Mildred Pierce (1945) and Charles Vidor’s Gilda (1946) took crime out of the speakeasy and/or bar room, but they also attached a woman-identifying face on the nature of a beast that, prior to the war, had almost entirely been ascribed to male counterparts.
In Preminger’s Laura, a fashion artist played by Gene Tierney is the presumed victim of a brutal homicide that compels police detective, Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) to obsess over her portrait. In Curtiz’ Mildred Pierce, a headstrong restaurateur (Joan Crawford) lavishes her evil offspring, Veda (Ann Blyth) with every conceivable luxury, only to have her steal her husband. In Gilda, a corrupted beauty (Rita Hayworth) marries the boss (George Macready) of her former lover, Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) out of spite – only to discover that she still loves Johnny. In most cases, the woman’s role in these crimes remain secondary to the crime itself; the character of Veda being a rare exception. She actually kills her mother’s husband.
However, by mid-decade, the tone of these crime thrillers had turned uglier with women frequently becoming antagonists and purveyors of criminal activity, not merely its accidental participants; as in Barbara Stanwyck’s scheming Phyllis Dietrichson – out to make her husband’s murder look like an accident in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), or Lana Turner’s Cora – the vindictive viper luring an unsuspecting grifter to his doom in Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) or even better still, Rita Hayworth’s malicious Elsa Bannister – a rich wife determined to be rid of her crippled husband while framing an unsuspecting lover in Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1947) – all femme fatales with a deliberate taste and relish for death.

Initially, this shift from desirable movie goddess to contemptuous screen vixen had almost been subliminal, brokered by the sudden appearance of Lauren Bacall’s Slim Browning in Howard Hawks’ To Have And Have Not (1944). Slim is a harmless pickpocket whose penchant for browbeating Bogart’s Harry Morgan with a bit of his own sass and wit makes her both sweetness and poison at the same time. Though Slim never actually contributes to anyone’s demise, she certainly gives a fairly accurate impression that she might, particularly if the circumstances are right. As for Bacall, she would continue to develop her sharp tongue as Vivien Rutledge opposite Bogart’s confirmed worldly cynic Philip Marlowe in Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946) before essaying into the role of relative good girl, Irene Jansen in Delmer Daves’ Dark Passage on year later.

Of the three aforementioned incarnations, perhaps Bacall’s Irene is the most deceptively dangerous. She’s an artist with a penchant for helping convicted felons escape from prison after her own father has been wrongfully accused of a crime, was sentenced to life in prison and died behind bars. However, Irene is selective in whom she abates.

Like the character of brittle prostitute, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) – a woman who begrudgingly invests in the FBI’s sting of her one time lover turned husband, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), Irene is out for quiet vengeance – perhaps on the side of the law, perhaps not. Unlike Alicia – who knows the target of her aggressions – her FBI contact, Devlin (Cary Grant) – Irene is out to exonerate Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) a man she’s never met, though Irene’s association with backstabber, Madge Rapf (Agnes Moorehead) – a woman who desperately desired Parry’s affections before the murder of his wife – is enough to convince Irene of Parry’s frame up for that crime.

In any case, the Production Code and Catholic League of Decency ensured that all of the aforementioned women were – at their core – either motivated by dark shades of selfishness or more virtuous selflessness; with a distinction made to their own survival in each film before the final reel.

Sin could be in so long as a woman paid for it with her life. Indeed, the arch for female criminals on the screen was meteoric and brief. By 1949, the femme fatale had run her course. A character like Annie Laurie Starr in Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1950) had to be more clearly depicted as pure evil with a psychotic streak.

As Hollywood left the war behind it also readily abandoned its focus on female patrons for its box office. With soldiers returning home bearing the physical and emotional scars of conflict, and America’s prosperity set for its greatest boom since the early 1900s, the need for melodrama gave way to more desirable celebrations of the ‘bigger is better’ mentality that Hollywood would eventually exploit with Cinemascope and Biblical epics – morality tales spread across its larger than life canvas with even more spurious reflections.

With WWII’s end, women on film would no longer dominate the box office. Some of the biggest female stars from the ‘40s, like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford ended their studio tenures, only to discover no place for their renewable talents - suddenly replaced with the less threatening flash of a Marilyn Monroe or Jane Mansfield. In the final analysis, the war abroad had been a bastion of peace time for its screen goddesses. Though bombshells and pin-ups would continue to be desirable commodities on the big screen, the glory days of real actresses were sadly at an end.

With an assembly line release date of roughly 55 movies per annum, each of Hollywood’s studios yielded some of their most diverse and engrossing entertainment between 1940 and 1949. However, with the advent of television quickly developing as the movie’s next big threat for the new decade – Hollywood would have to prepare for yet another seismic shift – this time away from its audience. Briefly however, everyone simply breathed a genuine sigh of relief. It was good to be home, and as Dorothy (Judy Garland) the astute Kansas waif had so indelibly expressed herself at the end of The Wizard of Oz (1939) a decade earlier, there was ‘no place’ quite like it.
@Nick Zegarac 2008 (all rights reserved).

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