Monday, June 21, 2010
This week we have a couple of movies that illustrate that cusp of the television era, just before the so-called Golden Age of TV, when the new medium was searching for fodder to fill up the airways. Old movies filled the gap and made life easier for the network programmers. They were cheap, plentiful, and most had not been seen for a generation.
That these two films came one after the other, and dealing with the same subject matter, is some indication of the enormous impact TV was beginning to have, and how dependent it still was upon old movies to fill up hours of programming. Movies and TV have always been co-dependent. Most of us who are classic film buffs were introduced to these films on television, long before DVDs and video. We would not be film buffs without television. Evidently in the early 1950s, though Hollywood might have panicked about being challenged by television, there was still some sense of humor about their relationship with the new gadget.
Clifton Webb is a college professor, intelligent, severe, whose extreme dignity makes him the butt of the campus jokesters. Mr. Webb’s dignity was a tool he used, or was made use of by others, in just about any film he was in. It made him alternately pathetic, heroic, sinister, or just plain foolish. It’s amazing how much mileage he got in his career with a withering glance and a sarcastic reply.
“Portrait of Jennie” (1948), is, in attitude, nearly a carbon copy of dad, except there is an added bit of shrewish impatience which threatens to stamp out any likeability in her. But this only helps to set up her eventual conversion.
Both father and daughter set out on a quest, for vindication, and though they don’t yet know it, for conversion to adapting to the big wide world they both disdain. That world, in part, is represented by television, which Miss Francis calls the “idiot’s delight.” She is reluctantly brought to a college party where the gang gathers to watch that program hosted by Ginger Rogers showing those old movies of hers with her former co-star, Clifton Webb. And push perfume during the commercials. One of the perfumes is called “My Five Sins.”
“Five?” Clifton Webb later asks, astonished.
Pop, who tried to hide his former career, is equally abashed, and decides to go to New York where the TV program is produced to demand they take it off the air. Not only his dignity, but his job is on the line. The board is uneasy with an English professor with this kind of unsavory background, which seems to make a mockery of their prestige. Only the college president, played by the wonderful Elsa Lanchester, is willing to give Clifton Webb a break. She is a fan, and makes several awkward and athletic attempts to seduce him.
Off father and daughter go to New York, where he meets up again with his old co-star, the now much older Ginger Rogers. Miss Rogers sinks her teeth into what must have been a fun role as an over-the-top, manipulative, self-involved, has-been, who clings ferociously to any thread of her former career as a matinee idol.
While Rogers and Webb tangle with network executives, lawyers, and their own uncomfortable partnership, which we are made to understand was never as romantic as it appeared on screen, Webb’s daughter is shown around town, and his apartment, by a network underling, a very handsome and affable Jeffrey Hunter. She begins to experience life outside of museums and lecture halls, and likes it. We know she has become a woman of the world when she takes off her glasses.
The dramatic climax takes place in court, with our old friend Ray Collins as the attorney defending the TV network in its right to show these old movies. Clifton Webb dismisses his own theatric attorney with my favorite line, “You overdid it. I’m not an unwed mother lost in a snowstorm.”
A TV set is put on the stand so that Mr. Webb may demonstrate to the court that TV is not, as Ray Collins would have us believe, an instrument of education, but rather a haven of idiocy. A couple of commercials are shown, typical of the day, that parody both the disingenuous message of commercials (something which has not changed through the decades), but also frank stupidity of the audience which the makers of these commercial must assume. The hair tonic with “Penetroleum” with ingredients like “cosmotron” may get us to laugh, but compare this with the more subtly sinister commercials in “A Face In the Crowd” (1957). That is a more cynical film, but this one, for all its silliness, is hardly naïve. We may get the feeling we are sliding inexorably toward “A Face in the Crowd”.
Left without a career, Webb is not too downhearted, for as he gloats to the now also out of work Ginger Rogers, that Hollywood has come calling back for him. We see him finally in a clip of a new movie, where his dignity is abused for laughs, and three small children throw food at him. It’s a living.
“Callaway Went Thataway,” with Dorothy McGuire, Fred MacMurray, and Howard Keel.