Monday, December 19, 2011
This week we have A Barbara Stanwyck Christmas with “My Reputation” (1946) and “Remember the Night” (1940). When you count in “Christmas in Connecticut” (1945), which we previously covered here, it seems Miss Stanwyck became one of the leaders in the Christmas movie genre.
A young relative of mine, 10 years old to be exact, in between mouthfuls of chocolate cake, informed me quite solemnly that new Christmas movies were not as good as “classic movies”. She was so firm in her opinion I could not help but agree (she doesn’t know anything about this blog), pleased with the flourish in her use of the word “classic.” She is as familiar with “It’s a Wonderful Life” as any old movie buff.
She could not, however, precisely tell me why old Christmas movies are better, though in time she will likely come up with several reasons. She’s a rather analytical type of person. Don’t know where she gets it.
For my part, I think one of the chief reasons “classic” Christmas movies are so powerful is that, ironically, they are not all about Christmas. Christmas is only the backdrop to a collage of story lines, subplots, and images, sometimes only a scene or two in a movie that otherwise deals with non-holiday drama.
To be sure, Christmas comes with its own drama, which is why many people are stressed out this time of year. It is a checklist of tasks we must accomplish. It is a recurring nightmare of family feuds. Annually, we seem to fail to measure up to a goal of spiritual, and temporal completeness.
I think modern Christmas movies, TV-movies, etc. are less powerful and satisfying than classic films because they tend to put this holiday frenzy as the crux of the story, instead of allowing it to be the backdrop. As every classic film fan can tell you, we notice the backdrops. We study them. They are important just where they are. Bedford Falls is the backdrop; James Stewart and his stupendous meltdown and the reasons for it are the story. But through the telling, we know all about Bedford Falls, and it becomes a character in the movie. The Christmas climax is fitting because Christmas is not the nightmare; it’s just the time the nightmare occurs.
Another way to look at it: let’s say Christmas is the painted backdrop of a stage set. The actors perform in front of it. However, if you make Christmas the focus of the story, i.e., it’s like moving the backdrop downstage closer to the audience. The actors are now performing behind it and we never see them.
By keeping Christmas in the background, the classic Christmas movie becomes so much more meaningful than the trite “finding the true meaning of Christmas” or having “the best Christmas ever” stories we have today. The classic Christmas film is about life and death, prison and sickness, lies and deceit, and never getting what you really want. Then the Christmas scene -- like the thunderous ringing of church bells or the clash of symbols that accompany it, makes us feel triumphant in a colossal way, because we have discovered again we are human and survived being human, and have forgiven others for being human.
Christmas movies made during the early 1940s have a special tension to them. World War II was, shall we say, a rather bigger impediment to holiday serenity than standing in a long checkout line. We know, just as the characters know, this may be their last Christmas together. Ever. Or, maybe not. Depending on the role of the dice. There is no way for us to replicate that dramatic tension today.
I guess it’s about time I got to the movie.
“My Reputation” deals with a woman’s adjustment to widowhood and then opening herself up to a new romantic relationship. Christmas slides in at the end of the movie like a runner rounding third base and stealing home.
Miss Watson gets a wry, comic scene where she describes a friend’s fight with the local ration board about getting a larger gasoline allotment because her luxury car only gets 9 miles to the gallon. Her indignant friend, another woman from “good society” complains, “They’re just doing everything they can to break our spirits. It’s pure class prejudice.”
Ah, the rich resenting calls for equity put on them by a democratic society in wartime, calling it class prejudice. Sound familiar?
“Stick to your rights,” Lucille Watson tells her, “This is still America.” Yes, but whose?
“Love Letters” (1945), we noted that not a lot of wartime movies showed the omnipresent ration books, but here we get to see Stanwyck flipping through hers. $1.38 for a pound of bologna, plus 24 points. You could have all the money in the world, but if you didn’t have 24 points, either in the form of stamps or little round fiber-celluloid tokens (like game pieces, red for meat and fats, blue for processed foods), you went home empty. (Note, this movie was made during the war, but not released until 1946.)
Stanwyck shrinks from the horror of her bossy mother’s code of behavior. With her sons about to leave for boarding school, she suffers from the anxiety of being nobody’s wife, nobody’s mother, with her only role left of being her mother’s dutiful, and dutifully spiritless, daughter.
Barbara Stanwyck plays, or rather underplays, this woman with impressive sensitivity. Her long career showcased the enormous range of her talent, but strong women became her forte. When she had to, she could chew scenery with the best of them. This role required a different tone, and she demonstrates her intelligent reading of a character, her tasteful delineation of what is appropriate.
She gently plays a gentle woman, and hits all the right notes. A scene early in the film where she reads a letter written to her by her deceased husband is particularly moving. She exhibits a lot of control in her shaky voice, as well as through the movie when she has moments of nearly breaking down. It is never forced, it is always genuine.
“Beloved Enemy” here, leaps off the screen in a small role as the husband of a friend who makes passes at Stanwyck. He’s the smarmy fellow who can’t keep his hands off her when his wife isn’t looking, and when he offers to drive her home, we can foresee better than Stanwyck does that he means her no good. A brief tussle in the front seat, she gets away from him, but there’s no comeuppance for this creep. Cowan plays him with the right sort of grinning lust and self confidence.
Thoroughly shaken, Miss Stanwyck is more upset by the prospect of being alone than being assaulted by a friend because she is now “a woman on the loose.” Soon, she will have a new worry: how to be open to a new love when he shows up.
Contrast it with the famous and astounding erotic scene between Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur in “The More the Merrier”, discussed here. He has his hands all over her, but she is not unwilling as Stanwyck is in this scene; rather she is only awkward. She is a reserved and prudish woman awakening to the wonderful world of sexual arousal, and McCrea’s perseverance is softened by the comedy accompanying the wooing. In the scene between Brent and Stanwyck, we have none of that, and it’s a shame, because Stanwyck had a similar quality to Miss Arthur’s ability to play both drama and comedy at the very same time.
The climax of the movie comes at Christmastime, when our everyday lives become suddenly more intense due to the enormity of tradition, and the ties that bind.
Stanwyck gets serious that whirlwind week between Christmas and New Year’s, but when the boys, home from school, hear gossip about their mother at a party, we see that Lucille Watson’s warnings about her reputation have come back to haunt her. She has a nice scene where she confronts her so-called friends.
“Roughly Speaking” here. The inevitable Bess Flowers also plays one of the society friends at the party, but then she always shows up everywhere. I think we’ve mentioned before she has the biggest “walk-on” career of just about anybody.
I think I ran into her at the grocery store the other day.
Have a look here at Laura’s recent take on this movie at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings. Come back Thursday for Barbara Stanwyck’s turn as a crook about to be reformed by Fred MacMurray one Christmas week in “Remember the Night.”