Sunday, 28 June 2015

Quote of the Week

When two people love each other, they don't look at each other, they look in the same direction.

(Ginger Rogers)


Saturday, 27 June 2015

The Classic Movie History Project Blogathon: Juvenile Delinquency in Mid-1950s Cinema

Under the eight-year presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the United States was the most influential economic power in the world. Despite constant threats of Communism and nuclear annihilation, it looked as though the "American Dream" was finally a reality. People across the country were comfortably complacent, indulging in new cars, suburban houses, television sets and all sorts of new consumer goods. For the nation's adults, who still remembered the hardships of the Great Depression, life had never been better. For their teenage children, however, who had grew up during World War II, shielded from the most worrying of its effects, life was flawed by powerful feelings of alienation and anger. As the number of teens doubled in the wake of the post-war baby boom, young people began turning their backs on the conformist ideals promoted by adult society. Parents could no longer impress their value system on their children, who longed for greater excitement and freedom and felt the need to establish their own culture separate from adults. Economically independent due to the prosperity of the era, teenagers indulged in sleek and sporty cars, cruised the highways and frequented fast-food restaurants and drive-in movies, embracing the reckless, thrilling beat of rock 'n' roll music as the soundtrack of their generation.

Teenagers dancing in Palm Beach, Florida
There have always been inner-family conflicts between parents and their adolescent children, but they took on unprecedented proportions in the 1950s. Parents of the era were appalled by the lifestyle of their kids, who preferred to "shake, rattle and roll" to the sounds of Little Richard and Fats Domino instead of spending a quiet evening with their familes. Determined to contain what they considered to be reckless behavior, parents imposed a new set of rules and restrictions upon their teenage children, which only caused further strain between the generations and led kids to rebel against their elders. At the time, all rebellious teen behavior was seen as evidence of a mushrooming problem with juvenile deliquency. It did not really matter whether teens were breaking laws or simply bending household rules; every aspect of the emerging youth culture was seen as both threatening and incomprehensible.

During the 1950s, the problem of juvenile delinquency became a near obsession not only with parents, but also with teachers, psychologists and law enforcement officials. In 1953, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover reported that in the United States young people under the age of 18 were responsible for 54% of all car thefts, 49% of all burglaries, 18% of all robberies and 16% of all rapes. A series of explanations were quickly offered to justify the phenomenon of juvenile crime, including rock 'n' roll music, television, divorce, the rise of a consumer culture and even Communism. But perharps the most (in)famous explanation was the one given by psychologist Fredric Wertham in his book Seduction of the Innocent (1954), in which he judged comic books, especially horror and crime comics, to be the root of all delinquent behavior in adolescents.

Wertham reading EC Comics' Shock Illustrated
In the course of his work with teen offenders, Wertham noted how avidly they read comic books and how excitedly they described the sometimes gruesome and morbid content of these publications. Because the young criminals studied by Wertham had all read comic books, he concluded that comics exerted unhealthy influence, ultimately cultivating juvenile delinquency. Although Wertham's study was highly flawed, particularly because he did not measure the delinquents against a control group of non-delinquents, Seduction of the Innocent was taken seriously at the time and created great alarm in parents, who immediately started campaigning for censorship. During hearings before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1954, led by anti-crime crusader Estes Kevaufer, Wertham testified, "I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry."

Meanwhile, the American film industry was facing a crisis of its own. In 1946, 100 million people went to the cinema each week, but by 1950 weekly attendance at movie houses had dropped to 40 millions. Mass movements to the suburbs, marriages, babies and the advent of television had distracted many people from cinema-going and the exotic lures of Technicolor, CinemaScope and 3D did not seem to be enough to drive audiences to the movies. Teenagers in particular were tired of the conventional cinematic portrayals of men and women and the nostalgic films preferred by the older generation. They did not want the Clark Gables and the Cary Grants; they wanted new and exciting symbols of rebellion. Three films in particular were about to provide them with just that.

Poster for The Wild One
In the mid-1950s, the gradual relaxation of the Hays Production Code and the growth of independent cinema allowed American filmmakers to openly explore taboo-breaking subjects around sexuality, crime, the use of drugs and the theme of the day, juvenile delinquency. In early 1953, producer Stanley Kramer approached Marlon Brando with an idea for a film based on Frank Rooney's short story The Cyclist's Raid, which in turn was inspired by real-life events that happened on July 4, 1947, when a gang of rough motorcyclists terrorized the citizens of a small town in Northern California. Its focus would be on "youthful rebels in search of excitement, anything to contain their huge unchanneled energy." Its name, The Wild One (1953).

Although Brando was intrigued by the concept of alienated youth, he was not impressed by the film's final script, after it had been severely altered by the Breen Office, Hollywood's self-imposed censorship board. He only accepted the lead role out of respect for Kramer, who had produced his critically-acclaimed film debut, The Men (1950). He tried his hand at rewrites, but it did no good, so he ended up simply ad-libbing and improvising entire scenes, which resulted in the inarticulate eloquence he would become known for. Directed by László Benedek, The Wild One starred Brando as Johnny Strabler, the charismatic leather-clad leader of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club. After being thrown out of a racing event for causing trouble, the Black Rebels ride into Wrightsville, where they continue their general disturbance tactics before things escalate when a rival gang arrives in town. Along the way, Johnny falls for the sheriff's daughter, gets savagely beaten up after being mistaken for a rapist and is arrested for a crime he did not committ.

Marlon Brando in The Wild One
While The Wild One is highly regarded today, it was a failure upon its initial release, with critics finding it exploitative and overly violent. The film particularly horrified parents, who feared that it might set a bad example for their teenage children and lead to an imitiation of crime. Kids, on the other hand, were fascinated by it and soon began emulating Brando's distinctive style. White T-shirts, leather jacktets and blue jeans a wardrobe personally selected by Brando, which he wore to and from the Columbia studio lot every day during the making of The Wild One became symbols of youth rebellion and turned the 29-year-old actor into an icon for the age. The famous exchange between Johnny and a waitress (played by Peggy Maley) was the perfect expression of youthful alienation from core American values of the time and became another 1950s emblem. When the girl asks him, "What are you rebelling against, Johnny?" he responds, "Whaddya got?"

Brando's character is riven with ambiguity and potential violence a prominent characteristic of later juvenile delinquency heroes. One the other hand, he is clearly not an adolescent, but not yet and adult either, belonging to a suspended age that seems alienated from any recognizable stage of development. [...] In the end he rides off alone [...] he cannot find whatever it is he is compelled to seek.
(James Gilbert)

Poster for Blackboard Jungle
Following the success of The Wild One among teenage moviegoers, Hollywood realized the potential of the affluent adolescent population and began meeting their demands for products that reflected their sensibilities. In 1954, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer entrusted writer and director Richard Brooks, known for his affinity for sensationalistic material, with the task of adapting Evan Hunter's best-selling novel The Blackboard Jungle (1954) into a film. Since the book dealt with unruly students in an urban high school, the studio reasoned that a film version would not only attract a big youth market, but also tap into adults' anxiety about juvenile delinquency.

Brooks' Blackboard Jungle (1955) featured Glenn Ford as Richard Dadier, a recently certified English teacher and veteran of World War II assigned to an all-male inner-city school in New York, where the students make the rules and the staff meekly follows along out of fear and apathy. The working class and racially diverse pupils, led by the bright but alienated African-American student Gregory Miller (Sidney Poitier), constantly defy their idealistic teacher, who makes various unsuccessful attempts to engage their interest in education. As Dadier tries to cope with class rowdiness and the tensions that arise between school and home life, he is subjected to violence as well as duplicitious schemes, most of which are perpetrated by the anti-Establishment youth Artie West (Vic Morrow) and his gang of hoodlums. But Dadier forges on; "I've been beaten up, but I'm not beaten," he says at one point. He eventually manages to gain the respect of some his students, particularly Miller, who ends up protecting Dadier against a knife-wielding West in the film's climatic scene.

Advertised as "the most startling picture in years," Blackboard Jungle targeted parents and educators, but the film's natural audience was teenagers, who flocked to the theaters to see it, drawn to the hip styles, slang and music. Blackboard Jungle was the first film to contain a rock 'n' roll soundtrack, with the song "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley & His Comets accompanying the opening and closing sequences. Chosen by Richard Brooks from the record collection of Glenn Ford's nine-year-old son, Peter, the song became an instant hit, with teens enthusiastically dancing to it in the aisles in theaters where the film played.

Ford and Poitier in Blackboard Jungle
Besides being terrified by the film's use of rock 'n' roll music, which they considered bad influence, parents also strongly disapproved of its multi-racial cast of lead actors. Teenagers, however, much to the horror of their anxious parents, had found another icon of rebellion. Like Brando, Sidney Poitier was past his teens, but with a cigarette dangling from his mouth and a white T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up, he embodied "a generation of Americans less bound by behavioral, sexual, or racial convention" and resembled "the emergent hero of 1950s American youth culture: silky, sullen, sexually charged." Gregory Miller's race and cool style might have exemplified the threat of juvenile delinquency, but his actions defused that same threat. The film's closing scene shows Miller and Dadier shaking hands in mutual respect, with the former choosing education over crime, presumably embarking down a respectable path toward middle-class stability. Even with this cinematic attempt to suggest that reconciliation between parents and adolescent children was still a possibility, Blackboard Jungle exposed a nation's anxiety over youth culture, convincing many Americans that teenagers were "smouldering with rebellion."

As the paranoia over wayward teenagers intensified, Senator Estes Kefauver continued his crusade against juvenile crime, denouncing it as "a symptom of the weakness in our whole moral and social fabric." In July 1955, four months after the release of Blackboard Jungle, the Kefauver Committee arrived in Hollywood to further investigate the impact of the mass media on juvenile delinquency, with Brooks' film assuming a central role in the proceedings. In the end, the senators never established a direct link between popular culture and youth violence and the controversy around the hearings only increased the film's success among teenage audiences.

Poster for Rebel Without a Cause
While Brooks' was working on Blackboard Jungle, director Nicholas Ray was busy developing his own juvenile delinquency picture. When Ray approached Warner Bros. in September 1954 and proposed a film about "kids, young people growing up, their problems," the studio suggested he adapt Robert Lindner's 1944 best-selling book Rebel Without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psycopath, which they had owned the film rights to since 1946. The book was a case study of a disturbed youth from a poor background whom Lindner, a psychologist who specialized in the study and treatment of juvenile delinquency, had counseled at a federal prison. Ray, however, had no interest in the Lindner story; the main character, he deemed, was too "abnormal" and he wanted to make a film about "normal" delinquents, "the kind who lived next door."

Ray had already made two films about young people from poor backgrounds, the noirs They Live By Night (1948) and Knock on Any Door (1949), and he had no desire to make another one. Unlike perhaps everyone else in America, he understood that there was a sense of restlessness and alienation among the nation's teens that had nothing to do with poverty or the criminal underclass. Therefore, he wanted to avoid what he called "slum area rationalizations" and make a film that focused on middle-class teenagers, going beyond the notions of juvenile delinquency of the time and giving them a greater emotional depth. And so, in a matter of days, Ray himself wrote a 17-page treatment that would soon become the quintessential teen picture of the 1950s.

James Dean and Sal Mineo
Written by Stewart Stern based on Ray's storyline synopsis, Rebel Without a Cause (1955) told the story of Jim Stark (James Dean), a troubled teenager struggling to make sense of his middle-class upbringing and the gnawing restlessness within himself, made worse by his parents' indifference towards his problems and concerns. Jim feels betrayed and anguished by his constantly bickering parents (Jim Backus and Ann Doran), but even more so by his father's submissive attitude and failure to stand up to his wife and mother-in-law, who lives with them. 

On the first day at his new school, fellow students treat Jim as a complete outsider, particularly the gang of delinquents led by Buzz Gunderson (Corey Allen), who soon challenges him for an ill-fated "chickie run." Luckily, Jim eventually finds kindred spirits in Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo), two other middle-class teenagers struggling with their own family problems and frustrations. The three soon form an unconventional and understanding "family" of their own, which brings them love, acceptance and security, before it all comes crashing down in a climatic scene that almost resembles the last act of a Greek tragedy. 

While all earlier juvenile delinquency pictures were set amid urban decay, Rebel Without a Cause took place in an affluent suburb, therefore destroying the nation's "common knowledge" that juvenile delinquents came from homes characterized by poverty and deprivation. Moreover, the film made it clear that it was actually the failure of middle-class families, the so-called "good families," that was to blame for the main characters' troubles and frustrations. With Rebel, juvenile crime was no longer a problem of the lower classes; it was lurking in the supposedly perfect suburbs and the delinquent was "the well-dressed boy or girl next door who was about to explode."

James Dean as Jim Stark
Released a month after James Dean's tragic and widely publicized death, Rebel Without a Cause outraged concerned parents, but it soon grew into one of the most successful and influential pictures of the 1950s. Dressed in his blue jeans, white T-shirt and red leather jacket, Dean provided young people with a new icon of teenage anomie and alienation, becoming the ultimate alter-ego for their own growing restlessness with the conformity of the Eisenhower era. Although Blackboard Jungle started a wave of youth-oriented pictures, it still viewed teenagers through the eyes of an adult authority figure and the motivation behind the students' actions was left unexplored. It was only until Rebel Without a Cause that films finally allowed the post-war American teenager their own voice and their own perspective about their life and their feelings of alienation. When in the film Jim cries, "You're tearing me apart!" he is speaking for an entire generation of youngsters alienated from the restrictions and contradictions of the adult world around them.

In James Dean, today's youth discovers itself. Less for the reasons usually advanced: violence, sadism, hysteria, pessimism, cruelty and filth, than for others infinitely more simple and commonplace: modesty of feeling, continual fantasy life, moral purity without relation to everyday morality but all the more rigorous, eternal adolescent love of tests and trials, intoxication, pride, and regret at feeling oneself "outside" society, refusal and desire to become integrated and, finally, acceptance or refusal of the world as it is.
(François Truffaut)

Between 1954 and 1956, juvenile delinquency was the hot topic of the day everywhere across America. Radio and television specials, books, newsreels, magazine articles, newspaper editorials and civic and church groups lamented the anti-social tendencies of the nation's teenagers. Many blamed the mass media and the alienated young heroes that populated teen-oriented television programs, comic books and films, in particular The Wild One, Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause, for initiating this "temporary American social disease." This fear, however, did not represent actual increases in juvenile crime so much as the transformations of the post-war era. What perhaps the adult society of the time failed to realize was that times were changing and kids were changing right along with them. Within a few years, those same troubled and alienated teenagers that were once called delinquents had grown up to become the most idealistic generation in American history, a group committed to civil rights and peace.

This post is part of The Classic Movie History Project Blogathon co-hosted by Movies Silently, Once Upon a Screen and Silver Screenings, and sponsored by Flicker Alley. To view all entries, click the links below.

DAY 1 | DAY 2 | DAY 3

A Cycle of Outrage: America's Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s by James Gilbert (1986) | American Culture in 1950s by Martin Halliwell (2007) | American Education in Popular Media: From the Blackboard to the Silver Screen edited by Sevan G. Terzian and Patrick A. Ryan (2015) | Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight by Travis Langley (2012) | Historical Dictionary of the 1950s by James Stuart Olson (2000) | James Dean: The Mutant King: A Biography by David Dalton (2001) | Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause by Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel (2005) | Marlon Brando: A Biography by Patricia Bosworth (2000) | Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon by Aram Goudsouzian (2004) | The Making of Rebel Without a Cause by Douglas L. Rathgeb (2004) | Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks by Douglass K. Daniel (2011) | Youth Culture in Global Cinema edited by Thomas Shary and Alexandra Seibel (2007)

Friday, 26 June 2015

Film Friday: "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" (1947)

Although Valentine's Day was months ago, this week on "Film Friday" I am bringing you one of the most romantic films of all time according to the American Film Institute. The reason for this is that this particular film had its original premiere exactly 68 years ago.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) opens in the early 1900s when the young widow Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) moves to the seaside English village of Whitecliff, where she takes up residence at Gull Cottage with her daughter Anna (Natalie Wood as a child, Vanessa Brown as an adult) and her housekeeper Martha (Edna Best). On her first night in the house, Lucy meets the ghost of its former owner, a roguish sea captain named Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison), who is impressed by her love for the cottage and agrees to let her stay, promising to make himself known only to her.

One day, Angelica (Isobel Elsom) and Eva Muir (Victoria Horne), Lucy's mother-in-law and sister-in-law, pay an unexpected visit to report that her investment income had dried up and insist that she return to London with them, but Lucy kindly tells them to "shove off." Daniel then proposes that they repair her finances by collaborating on a book about his life on the sea and in the course of the following weeks, they find themselves falling in love, but both realize that it's a hopeless situation. When Lucy becomes involved with the debonair author Miles Fairley (George Sanders), whom she meets in her publisher's office, Daniel takes leave of her while she sleeps, admonishing her that she simply dreamed of him and wrote the book by herself. For a time, Lucy appears happily convinced that the captain was just a dream, but after her discovery of Miles's wife and children, she retreats to Gull Cottage, where she lives the rest of life as a single woman. One foggy night many years later, Daniel reappears before her at the moment of her death and lifts her young spirit free from her aged body. Arm in arm, they leave the cottage and disappear into the mist.

Daniel Gregg: You must make your own life amongst the living and, whether you meet fair winds or foul, find your own way to harbor in the end.

During the 1930s and 1940s, when women dominated the American moviegoing audience, many of Hollywood's most popular films dealt with key issues in women's personal lives. Known as the "woman's film" and featuring such stars as Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck, these pictures were centered around a female protagonist and looked at love triangles, unwed motherhood, illicit affairs and the tangled relations between mothers and daughters, all while empowering "a sex that society had relegated to secondary status." The years following World War II witnessed the emergence of a small sub-category of woman's films, which were formulated as romantic ghost stories and recounted tales of desire, longing and loss. Among such films as Portrait of Jennie (1948) and Letters From an Unknown Woman (1948), we find Joseph L. Mankiewicz's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

A Columbia University graduate, Mankiewicz worked for seventeen years as a screenwriter for Paramount and as a producer for MGM, before getting a chance to direct at 20th Century Fox, beginning with the gothic romance Dragonwyck (1946). With a screenplay penned by Philip Dunne based on the 1945 novel by Josephine Leslie, writing under the ambiguous pseudonym R. A. Dick, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was Mankewicz's fifth film at Fox and expressed his ongoing interest in exploring the nature of strong women. He would later return to this theme in A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950), both of which earned him consecutive Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Gene Tierney as Lucy Muir
In a memo to Dunne and producer Fred Kohlmar, Fox's production chief Darryl F. Zanuck expressed his wish to cast Norma Shearer in the role of the self-determined and principled Lucy Muir, hoping that she would make the same kind of comeback Joan Crawford had made in Mildred Pierce (1945). Mankiewicz, however, decided to give the part to 26-year-old Gene Tierney, who had starred in Dragonwyck. Tierney was at the height of her career, having just received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for John M. Stahl's Technicolor noir Leave Her to Heaven (1945). 

When production on The Ghost and Mrs. Muir began in November 1946, Mankiewicz's initial directorial tactic was to overplay the comic element of Dunne's script and have Mrs. Muir be a playful and almost screwball character. However, after two days of filming Tierney "tiptoeing around the house, reacting to Rex's ghostly pranks with exaggerated comedy takes," Zanuck ordered Mankiewicz to reshoot the scenes so that she could give the character more emotional depth. A few weeks later, production was delayed again when Tierney broke her foot in an accident and had to stay off her feet for several days. She had to wear a plaster cast for the remainder of production, which accounts for the large number of shots in which she is seen sitting down, though the long dresses designed by her estranged husband Oleg Cassini, with whom she eloped in 1941, helped disguise the problem.

Harrison and Tierney in a publicity still
Rex Harrison, who made his American film debut opposite Irene Dunne in John Cromwell's Anna and the King of Siam (1946), was chosen to play the cynically charming ghost of the deceased Daniel Gregg. Being a perfectionist, Harrison felt that he needed a beard in order to make his role as a 19th century sea captain more believable, but Zanuck highly objected to this. Neverthless, with the help of make-up director Ben Nye and artist John George Vogel, he had his portrait painted wearing a beard (the eerie portrait we see in the beginning of the film). When Zanuck saw the painting, he was immediately sold on Harrison's beard and revoked his orders that the actor's face remain clean-shaven.

Jeanine Basinger and Cheryl Bray Lower argue that Captain Gregg functions as Lucy Muir's alter-ego and as the film progresses, her relationship with him "becomes less of a romance with a ghost-man than a love affair with her own excitement at growing into independent womanhood." By imagining herself in his place while writing their book, Blood and Swash, Lucy learns from Daniel what is like to be a man in a man's world and eventually finds her way into the public sphere, "a man's world into which she has no other entrée." In this type of reading, we can describe Mrs. Muir's conflict as being a prototype of what writer and feminist Betty Friedan would later call in her book The Feminine Mystique (1963) "the problem with no name," the widespread of happiness of women in the 1950s and 1960s, who realized they needed more than motherhood to be fulfilled.

Gene Tierney and George Sanders
[Gregg] is the symbol of many possibilities. He might be her need for a man [...] for a true, deep love, or even for just hearty sex. He can be her need for reassurance as she faces life as a woman on her own, or he could be a covert representative of her desire for a career [...] He is more or less her "male" side, or that part of her that is brave and independent, fierce and creative.
(Jeanine Basinger)

Richard Ney, who had appeared in Mankiewicz's The Late George Apley (1947), was originally cast as the second male lead, but was forced to withdraw from the project due to a schedule conflict with Sam Wood's Ivy (1947). The studio then hired George Sanders to play Miles Fairley, whose dialogue was substancially rewritten by Mankiewicz to underline his sophisticated, if indecent, personality. In The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Sanders's character appears in sharp contrast to the one played by Rex Harrison. While Daniel is able to provide comfort, support and, through Blood and Swash, the money to sustain Lucy as an independent woman, Miles provides the problem by putting Lucy in the role of a potential home-breaker. By shattering her dreams of finding real companionship and "all the things a woman needs," Miles is the ultimate cause of her decision to live the rest of her life as a recluse. 

Natalie Wood on location in California
For the role of Mrs. Muir's young daughter, Mankiewicz chose an eight-year-old Natalie Wood, right before she was cast in one of the key roles of her screen childhood, that of the skeptical Susan Walker in The Miracle on 34th Street (1947). When Famous Artists sent a pig-tailed Wood on an interview for what would be her third film role, Mankiewicz was immediately charmed and impressed by her reaction when he asked her if she had read "the whole script or just your part." Looking very surprised, she told the director: "The whole script." 

Allison L. McKee argues that what marks The Ghost and Mrs. Muir as a woman's film is not so much the way it emphasizes love, romance and the family, but rather Bernard Herrmann's "haunting and melancholic" score, which "communicates the elements of pathos and desire that are so integral to the woman's film generally and to this film specifically." Herrmann, who wrote his first film score for Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941), considered The Ghost and Mrs. Muir "his finest film score: poetic, unique, highly personal," and half-jokingly called it his "Max Steiner score," alluding to some of its more melodramatic qualities. The Austrian-born Steiner was responsible for scoring such iconic and emotionally-driven pictures as Gone with the Wind (1939), Sergeant York (1941), Casablanca (1942) and Now, Voyager (1942), receiving great acclaim for the way he was able to create a theme for each character in a film.

[Herrmann's score] contains the essence of his Romantic ideology — his fascination with death, romantic ecstasy, and the beautiful loneliness of solitude. Superficially it recalls past works — the impressionistic seascapes of Debussy's La Mer, Britten's Peter Grimes; but beneath an allusive veneer Herrmann paints his most eloquent work, filled with the pain of frustated desire and the Romantic promise of spiritual transcendence through death.
(Steven C. Smith) 

Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison
Critics were generally disappointed by The Ghost and Mrs. Muir when it premiered at the Radio City Music Hall in New York on June 26, 1947. The New York Times, for instance, commented that "this romantic fantasy [...] is gently humorous and often sparking good entertainment, but only to a point [...] Rex Harrison plays Captain Gregg mostly with a booming, querulous voice, but the actor has such an ingratiating personality that this compensates in large measure for the lack of characterization in his role. Gene Tierney plays Mrs. Muir in what by now may be called her customary inexpressive style. She is a pretty girl, but has no depth of feeling as an actress." Still, the Times agreed that "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir remains a pleasurable film, despite its failings, and it has some saucy dialogue to its credit, spoken mostly by Captain Gregg." In contrast, Variety wrote: "This is the story of a girl who falls in love with a ghost but not an ordinary spook. As that girl, Gene Tierney gives, what undoubtedly is her best performance to date. It’s warmly human and the out-of-this-world romance pulls audience sympathy with an infectious tug that never slackens. In his role as the lusty, seafaring shade, Rex Harrison commands the strongest attention."

In recent years, however, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir has garnered great acclaim and was one of the 360 films chosen for preservation by the National Film and Television Archive of the British Film Institute as "key films in the history of cinema." The book and the film also inspired a short-lived television series, The Ghost & Mrs. Muir (1968-1970), starring Edward Mulhare and Hope Lange in the title roles. Though the series had the same premise and characters as the original story, it was reshaped into a sitcom, with the time and setting being updated to modern-day New England.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is such a magical film. Even though it was entirely filmed in California, Joe Mankiewicz's beautiful shots of the beach, along with Charles Lang's stunning cinematography and Hermmann's sweeping score, were able to create a perfect illusion of turn-of-century seaside England. Gene Tierney is simply ethereal and Rex Harrison is quite dashing too. You will most definitely dislike him at first, but as the film progresses, you will find youself falling in love with him and wishing Daniel and Lucy to stay together forever. And then of course there is that stunning ending, which I think is one of the most perfect and beautiful film endings of all time. If you are looking for a film that will sweep you off your feet, then The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is just exactly what you are looking for.

A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960 by Jeanine Basinger (1993) | Bernard Herrmann's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir: A Film Score Guide by David Cooper (2005) | Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann by Steven C. Smith (2002) | Joseph L. Mankiewicz: Critical Essays with an Annotated Bibliography and a Filmography by Cheryl Bray Lower and R. Barton Palmer (2001) | Natalie Wood: A Life by Gavin Lambert (2004) | The Woman's Films of the 1940s: Gender, Narrative and History by Allison L. McKee (2014) |  | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review | Variety review

Thursday, 25 June 2015

The "...And Scene!" Blogathon: The Gin Rummy Scene from "Born Yesterday" (1950)

George Cukor's Born Yesterday (1950) follows a newspaper reporter as he takes on the task of educating a crooked bussinessman's brassy girlfriend. The crooked businessman, Harry Brock, is played by Broderick Crawford, who received the Oscar for Best Actor for All the King's Men (1949) just before he started working on Born Yesterday. He is a crude, menacing, nefarious self-made man who goes to Washington D.C. looking to "influence" a politician or two. The brassy girlfriend, Billie Dawn, is played by Judy Holliday, reprising the role she originated on Broadway in the play written by Garson Kanin. After Billie's ignorance and lack of manners embarrass Harry during a meeting with a congressman, he hires Paul Verrall (William Holden) to be her tutor. She eventually learns not just about U.S. History and Literature, but also about self-respect and love. In the end, Billie turns out to be much smarter than anybody knew.

Billie prepares the drinks
Exactly 32 minutes into Born Yesterday, Harry and Billie start to get ready for a game of gin rummy. He deals the cards, while she walks over to the mini-bar to prepare drinks for the both of them. She returns to the table, puts out her cigarette, fixes up her hair, then her bracelets, tears a page from her little notebook, scrunches it into a ball, throws it into the ashtray, fixes her hair again, and then shuffles and reshuffles her cards before she is finally ready to play. Harry is obviously annoyed by all of this, but she pays absolutely no attention to him. They remain silent during this first game, with Billie rearranging her hand after each play. "Gin!" she calls after three plays. Harry counts his points. "41," he says. "41?" Billie asks. "41!" he exasperately confirms. Billie writes the points down in her little notebook, takes a sip of her drink and deals the cards for the next game, while Harry lights a cigarette, only to extinguish it a few seconds later. 

"You gotta learn to fit in."
The second game begins. "If you pay attention, that Verrall guy can do you some good," Harry advises. "All right," Billie says, concentrated on the game. "You're in the big league now, and I want you should watch your step," he goes on. "All right," she says, still focusing on the game. "You gotta learn to fit in. Can't have you around if you don't, and that's no bull. Have to be careful of what you do and what you say," Harry continues. "Three!" Billie suddenly calls. Harry, amazed that she won again, counts his points. "28," he says. "28?" she asks. "28!" he angrily confirms. Billie writes the number down in her book and adds the points, using her fingers to help her count. "You could use a little education yourself, if you ask me," she remarks, before taking another sip of her drink. "Who asked ya?" Harry questions. "Nobody," she says. "So shut up!" he harshly responds. Billie hisses at him and she is so exasperated that she has some difficulty dealing the cards for the next game.

"Gee, I like to see you lookin' swell, ba-a-by..."
"Can't I talk?" she whines, after dealing the cards. "Go on. Play your cards," he says. Billie looks hurt, but she quickly recovers. "It's a free country," she points out. "That's what you think," Harry says. As the game begins, Billie enthusiastically starts humming the song "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby," which makes Harry extremely annoyed. "DO YOU MIND?" he shouts. "Gin," she immediately calls, unaffected by his explosive behavior. Harry counts his points. "34," he says. "34?" she asks. "34!" he furiously confirms. "Schneider!" Billie happily says after adding up all the points. "Where do you get that Schneid?" Harry asks in disbelief, looking at her notebook. "Fifty-five dollars and sixty cents," she says with a big smile. "All right, that's enough," he says, getting up from the table. 

"Sore loser!"
"Pay me now!" she demands. "What's the matter, don't you trust me?" Harry says, while walking over the mini-bar to fix himself another drink. "Sore loser!" she teases. "Shut up!" he shouts. "Fifty-five dollars and sixty cents," Billie repeats, as she starts dealing a hand of solitaire. Harry walks towards her and slams the money on the table. "Thanks," she says, looking up at him, before turning back to her game. "You gonna play like that all night?" Harry asks. "What?" she inattentively responds, concentrated on her cards. Harry turns around to leave the room. "Hurt your eyes," he says, but she is so engrossed in the game that she pays no attention to him. He then walks up the stairs, leaving Billie alone in room playing solitaire and humming "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby."

...And scene!

I absolutely love this scene. No matter how many times I watch it and I must have watched hundreds of times by now it never ceases to amaze me. It is seven minutes and fifty seconds of pure cinematic gold. The greatest thing about it is that, even though Harry and Billie barely speak a word, the scene is the perfect way not only to describe their relationship, but also to show that she is not the ignorant showgirl everyone thinks she is. Columbia initally hired Rita Hayworth to play Billie Dawn, but I am so glad they ultimately chose Judy Holliday for the part. I don't think this scene (or the film) would have been half as good with Hayworth as Billie.

A fun bit of trivia: Judy Holliday and Broderick Crawford extended their gin rummy scene in Born Yesterday to their off-screen relationship. Afraid of flying, Holliday insisted on taking the train to Washington D.C. for location shooting, while the rest of the cast went by plane. Columbia chief Harry Cohn did not want his leading lady to travel alone, so he ordered Broderick Crawford to join her. The last thing he wanted was to spend four days in a cramped train, but after a long discussion with Cohn, he finally agreed to do it. During the trip, Holliday and Crawford spend their time by talking and playing gin rummy for money. When they arrived in Washington, she had won $600 from him, along with his lifelong friendship.

This post is my contribution to The "...And Scene!" Blogathon hosted by Sister Celluloid. To view all entries, click HERE.

Judy Holliday by Will Holtzman (1982) | TCMDb (Articles)