Thursday, November 27, 2008

Plymouth Adventure (1952)

“Plymouth Adventure” (1952) presents the Pilgrims in an unexpected kind of soap opera about the captain of the Mayflower lusting after the wife of future Governor of the Plymouth Colony, William Bradford.

Any film about any point in history is bound to be lacking the complete story, possibly because there never is a complete story. History is a lot more chaotic than a movie script; things don’t tie up quite as neatly as we might wish. Sometimes the attempt to bridge the gaps often leads to complete fabrication, producing a movie that may not have very much value at all historically, perhaps not even as entertainment.

“Plymouth Adventure” invents some things, like the romantic triangle between the captain, and William and Dorothy Bradford. It disregards others, like the relationship the settlers had with the Indians. The Wampanoag are given short shrift, and their importance in helping the settlers to survive the first few winters is not even mentioned. The film ends even before what we call the first Thanksgiving. Despite this, it is an earnest attempt at dramatizing what was surely one of the most remarkable voyages in history.

Spencer Tracy plays the captain, a cynical, crude man of the sea who is contemptuous not only of his Pilgrim passengers but of people in general. Gene Tierney is Dorothy Bradford, the object of Mr. Tracy’s sarcasm, lust, and eventually, love. Van Johnson plays John Alden in a rather small role, and a young Lloyd Bridges is the ratfink first mate.

We might forgive the fact that the costumes are a bit too Disney-like and clean, and that there are no authentic accents employed. The dialogue is strong and sharp, with some great lines especially by Spencer Tracy, it is really his movie, but the dialogue is not at all the correct speech of Englishmen of that era. What the film does well is special effects, with a terrific replica of the Mayflower used, and a storm at sea that is truly scary. It is the first chink in the armor of seeing the Pilgrims as all pious and brave. This film is probably the first attempt to show them as businessmen, as opportunists, as jealous and fearful, as zealots, as human beings. It is remarkable that a setting with such inherent drama and turmoil should be so little visited by Hollywood.

Directed by Clarence Brown (whose transition from the automotive industry to motion pictures is mentioned in this 2007 blog post), the film attempts to shrug off the fairy tale aspect of the Pilgrims and gives us corrupt company sponsors of the trip, and a lot of bare-chested, barefooted sailors climbing the rigging to unfurl the enormous sails. There is excellent camera work, with some terrific deck-to-topsail shots. We are given a fascinating and somewhat funny demonstration by Miles Standish on the cumbersome and dangerous operation of the 17th century percussion musket.

We are also treated to a brief sampling of songs authentic to the era, including a scene when land is spotted as the Pilgrims burst into the song whose words come from the Henry Ainsworth Psalter, Psalm 100:

Shout to Jehovah, all the earth,
Serve ye Jehovah with gladness;
before him come with singing mirth
Know that Jehovah he God is.

It's he that made us, and not we;
his folk, and sheep of his feeding.
O with confession enter ye
his gates, his courtyards with praising.

Confess to him, bless ye his name.
Because Jehovah he good is:
his mercy ever is the same
and his faith, unto all ages.

You can listen to another version of the tune here.

But as the journey concludes, the story begins to focus on the captain and Mrs. Bradford, and their hunger for each other. It makes John Alden’s flirtation with Priscilla Mullins look like puppy love, despite that he is a lonely bachelor and she is the only adult unmarried female on the trip.

An especially dark ending involves the actual historic event of the death of Dorothy Bradford and the actual dispute as to how she died. Before the English settlers (to avoid confusion, not all the passengers on the Mayflower were Pilgrims), established their settlement, while the Mayflower was still safely moored in the harbor at Provincetown, Dorothy Bradford drowned.

Her drowning was noted in history as far back as Cotton Mather’s “Magnalia”, but in 1869, a story in Harper’s New England Monthly suggested she had commited suicide. Though much of this story has been discounted, there are continuing discussions as to whether she could have committed suicide.

What is interesting is that the film even hints at this controversy. It could have ignored it altogether for a more prim and pious, and uplifting ending. Bradford, played by Leo Glenn replies that she would not have done such an ungodly thing and is immediately comforted, though with never a strong effort to convince, that she must have fallen overboard accidentally.

To help us accept the Pilgrims as human beings, more authentic representation from that era could be employed, rather than viewing their story through a 20th century prism. Another song of the period, a sweet and almost mournful tune by Thomas Ravenscroft, not used in this film, takes us to emotions even Pilgrims felt, and without the use of 20th century screenwriter’s dialogue:

Canst thou love and lie alone?
Love is so disgraced!
Pleasure is best wherein is rest
In a heart embraced.

That they loved and lost, and lusted, and felt deeply about it should not come as a shock. At least Hollywood acknowledges that.

Perhaps it is unavoidable that the film may have the look of one of the Hudson River School of romantic impressionist paintings. Maybe that’s what we’re looking for. Part of telling a story is re-affirming what we already know, as much as it is an effort at imparting to us something we do not.

Aside from this film’s slight attempt to crawl out from the iconic image we have of the Pilgrims, I wonder if the reaction of Americans in general to this portrayal of the Pilgrims is anything as strong as the reaction of someone from Massachusetts.

Massachusetts possesses the Pilgrims and to some extent is possessed by them. These names of the characters in this film: Winthrop, Bradford, John Alden, Priscilla Mullins, Miles Standish, this is a roll call of the pantheon of icons of early Massachusetts history and are also the names which live among us today. Their descendents live here still, their names are on towns, schools, and it is possible to drive through Plymouth past the Miles Standish State Forest and stop in at the John Alden Gift Shop for a box of salt water taffy, and then head back to your room a block up at the Governor Bradford Inn. The pensive Pilgrim standing on the deck of the Mayflower II replica in Plymouth Harbor at the beginning of this post is not a Thanksgiving prop. These reinactors are with us the year round at Plimoth Plantation. (For more on Plimoth Plantation, see my post here from 2007 at my New England Travels blog.)

To watch this film and see John Alden portrayed by Van Johnson is more than a little startling and amusing to someone from Massachusetts. I imagine it could be likened to what a scholar of Greek mythology might react to him playing Zeus.

Something as basic as that can keep even a very good film from being taken too seriously. But then, no film should probably be taken too seriously anyway. For how many of us across this country is seeing our historical figures-cum-folk heroes brought to life in Technicolor by Hollywood’s latest hearthrobs an obstacle to making us believe?

The other thing missing in this film is turkey. Which reminds me…I’m about due to take the bird out of the oven. Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Guy, A Girl, and a Typewriter

The romantic triangle of a guy, a girl, and a typewriter is perhaps a little less discussed than the erotic symbolism of smoking in old movies, but should not be avoided due to prudery. We’re all adults here. Unless you’re a kid. Then, young sir or young lady, you are to leave the room immediately.

The typewriter and shapely hands above belong to Barbara Stanwyck, one of film’s most prolific typists. We see her here in “Christmas in Connecticut” (1945) as she bangs out her magazine column.

Here Reginald Gardiner is just about to swoop down and give her a kiss, because he’s nuts about her and because her typing is driving him wild. Understandable, for there are few things more sensual than typing, few physical attributes more desirable than the strong yet supple fingers of the typist.

In the Sherlock Holmes story “The Solitary Cyclist”, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has Holmes appraise a woman’s hands, noting that she is either a typist or a pianist, "I nearly fell into the error of supposing that you were typewriting. Of course, it is obvious that it is music. You observe the spatulate finger-ends, Watson, which is common to both professions? There is a spirituality about the face, however" -- she gently turned it towards the light -- "which the typewriter does not generate. This lady is a musician."

How wrong he is, that typing on the QWERTY keyboard does not convey a certain spirituality, even passion. If he could see this close-up of Stanwyck’s eyes from “Meet John Doe” (1941), Sherlock would know just how wrong he was.

But passion through typing is not solely the province of ladies in film. Here Gregory Peck in “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947) shows us what virility looks like: a handsome man brooding in front of a typewriter. Below we have the picture of motherly pride as Anne Revere fondly thinks to herself, “That’s my boy who can type.” Medical school? Bah! She sacrificed everything to put him through two semesters of Typing 101.

Here we have Rhonda Fleming in “The Spiral Staircase” (1945) showing that Edwardian ladies were every bit as sexy as the modern girls at a typewriter.

Here Gordon Oliver can’t resist planting a kiss on her. One of the first things he tells her when he enters the scene is to plead, “Don’t stop typing.”

Here the ménage à trois is complete as Rhonda attempts to dance with her typewriter and Gordon Oliver cuts in.

Typewriter passion is easily transferable to musicals, seen here in “Silk Stockings” (1957) where Fred Astaire’s immediate attraction to Cyd Charisse is due to her ability to type.

And even less glamorous couples find romance if left to themselves in a small secluded corner with a typewriter, as is the case here in “The Band Wagon” (1953) with Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant. There is nothing like a typewriter to bring new life to a marriage in a rut.

Amid all the froth of “Three Coins in a Fountain” (1957), the only genuine passion comes from the unlikely duo of Dorothy McGuire and Clifton Webb, again because of the typewriter. He is a writer who dictates, and she is a typist who receives his words and produces the pages. Their relationship is interdependent. How many such lovers have thrilled to the ping that warns of the approaching right margin, and the grinding crank of the carriage return? Their need for each other is occasionally accompanied by a need for carbon paper and Wite-Out.

Film noir also explored the relationship between typing and sex, in “A Lonely Place” (1950) when Humphrey Bogart, a screenwriter, begins a relationship with Gloria Grahame that becomes more steamy when she starts to do his typing for him. I’d put up a screen capture for that, but I hear those kids coming back into the room. Everybody shut up.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Now Playing - 1944

Here is an ad for “None But the Lonely Heart” (1944), published this day in 1944, about a month after the film’s release. Unlike a lot of film ads from that era, there are no raging superlatives to entice the viewer, or even much description of the story. Just a grave portrait of Cary Grant in a role unlike any other he had played up to that time.

It’s interesting that few photographic images were used of stars in ads at this time, considering how many miles of print film were used up on them in the publicity departments. Almost always an artist’s rendering was used to create the posters and print ads.

This drama of London’s East End was a turning point in Cary Grant’s development as an actor, but unfortunately not a big box office draw. As has happened to many actors in their careers, the public had gotten used to seeing him one way, and didn’t want him to change.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Alphabet Meme

Having been tagged for the Alphabet Meme by our friend the Siren (see the gory details here), we interrupt our regularly scheduled broadcast for a list of films representing each letter of the alphabet. Most of these films have already been discussed on this blog, and the rest I hope to tackle at some point. Except for “X” which I just swiped because it begins with “X”.

A - All About Eve
B - Best Years of Our Lives, The
C - Casablanca
D - Double Indemnity
E - Enchanted Cottage, The
F - Funny Face
G - Gaslight
H - Holiday Inn
I - I Want You
J - Judgment at Nuremburg
K - King Kong
L - Lost Weekend, The
M - Miracle Worker, The
N - Night Nurse
O - Old Yeller
P - Portrait of Jennie
Q - Quiet Man, The
R - Random Harvest
S - Sunset Blvd.
T - Till the End of Time
U - Unholy Three, The
V - Vertigo
X - X Marks the Spot (okay, so this is really a short subject, not a feature film)
Y - Yankee Doodle Dandy
Z - Zero Hour

According to the rules of this dodge ball game, I’m supposed to tag five others. I could only come up with three whom I thought might participate; I hope they will forgive me. They are (drumroll):

Thom at Film of the Year
Raquelle at Out of the Past
Jonas at All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!

Please visit their websites for their always interesting contributions on classic films.

This Alphabet Meme originated at Blog Cabins (see here).

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ten Things I Like About Old Movies

Ten things I rather like about old movies (without taking into consideration anything as superfluous as good acting, writing or cinematography):

1. Screaming newspapers headlines and screaming newsboys screaming the newspaper headlines.
2. Calendar pages that drop off like autumn leaves to show the passage of time. I watch my calendar on the wall, but this never happens. Except one time, when the thumbtack was loose and the entire year crashed to the floor at once. It was quite unnerving.
3. A song or music theme running all through the movie until you are sick of it.
4. Bell boys. I think it’s the uniform.
5. “Buy War Bonds At This Theater” at the end of a film. One wonders had we been relentlessly pestered to buy U.S. Savings bonds these last several years if our government deficit would have decreased a bit and our personal savings increased a bit.
6. Crashing waves, fireworks, or a quick fade to black to suggest sexual desire or consummation. During the years of the Production Code we needed some kind of subversive clue. To this day, I cannot watch fireworks without chuckling.
7. Candlestick telephones on the office desk.
8. Character actors, most of whom had a lot more experience than the biggest stars.
9. No matter how many times the private detective gets beat up, he always goes back for more. I would have chucked it in for a nice cozy job at the McDonald’s drive-through window the first time somebody beat me senseless and stepped all over my Fedora.
10. “Swell.”

Monday, November 10, 2008

For Me and My Gal - 1942

For the monumental occurrence that happened 90 years ago in 1918 on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, we have an unlikely but not I hope inappropriate tribute in “For Me and My Gal” (1942). Like “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, made in the same year, (see blog post here) the movie combines the world of vaudeville with a world at war. The loss of innocence comes wrapped in spats over high button shoes, song and dance, and the sudden interruption of violent reality.

Judy Garland stars, with Gene Kelly in his first film, and George Murphy. Directed by Busby Berkeley, this film, also like “Yankee Doodle Dandy” presents its musical numbers as performances on stage, and not the unreal bursting into song in everyday settings as is common in most musicals. It helps that there appears to be a piano in just about every room.

Judy Garland, despite the turmoil of her private life, presents here her unique and irresistible confidence as a person with more talent than she can possibly contain. Mr. Murphy is her stage partner, a nice fellow who gives her up to the rakish Gene Kelly so that she gets to be a vaudeville star. Mr. Kelly is fresh as paint and full of applesauce. An arrogant opportunist, he sucks up to an operatic headliner with her own railroad car. No private Lear jets these days, just private railroad cars. Conveniently, there is a piano here, too. Judy knows Kelly is no good, but falls in love with the cad anyway.

We have the traditional vaudevillian mélange of acts, the whistle stops in small towns across the country, uncomfortable train upper berths, and the ever-constant desire to headline at New York City’s Palace Theater. It’s a rough and ready world, the chosen way of life of special people.

We see World War I has broken out from the angry headlines on the newspapers the uninterested Gene Kelly tosses aside. When Miss Garland’s kid brother is killed in battle, she leaves Kelly and the act, and their troubled romance, to go to France and perform for the troops. Kelly, who has kept himself out of the Army with a rather rash “accident”, sinks as low as he finally can in her eyes. To redeem himself, he hops over to France as well to perform, and ends up being a hero, which is fortunate for Mr. Kelly’s future acting career.

World War I is significant for the backdrop of a movie about vaudeville, as it was probably the first war that professional entertainers joined together in a voluntary troupe, sort of quasi-official units, to visit the troops. They also sold Liberty Bonds and raised money for Red Cross and other various charity drives. This would all be repeated, of course, on a grander scale for World War II.

At first, Gene Kelly balks at joining them, “You don’t think I’m going over there and sing a bunch of silly songs while all those guys are getting their heads shot off?” But he changes his mind, becomes a hero and finds redemption. Even if he had not become a hero, he still would have been doing his part. The silly songs somehow helped. And somehow got to define a war that has, perhaps more than any other, come to represent lost innocence.

World War I carried something that World War II did not in terms of a kind of folklore of lost innocence. Though the seeds of that war had been present for more than a generation in the form of social unrest, nationalism among disparate European ethnic groups and class turmoil, the war really erupted in an accidental and unintended snowball effect after the tragic 1914 assassination which set everything in motion. It was not many months into the war before generals and politicians alike realized with horror that what they had created to be a limited war was utterly beyond their control to stop. The best hope was that it would somehow burn itself out.

It did, but not before millions of deaths due to battle, disease, and famine.

Ernest Hemingway wrote in “A Farewell to Arms” that “Perhaps wars weren’t won anymore. Maybe they went on forever. Maybe it was another Hundred Years War.”

The other tragedy of World War I was, obviously, its legacy of an imperfect peace that led to World War II.

But another curious aspect to that war so tragic, was the ironic ebullience with which a generation approached it. Even these recruiting posters pictured here do not have that grim, us or them, kill or be killed message. One shows a man quietly examining his conscience as an army of his brothers marches outside the window, and the other shows a group of soldiers on a train gesturing towards the viewer to join them, as if they are happily taking a chartered excursion to a football game.

This ebullience is so marked that when one thinks of that war, one of the first things that comes to mind are the popular songs of the day. So much a part of that war, that the landmark CBS documentary series “World War I” (1964) set aside an entire episode called “Tipperary and All the Jazz” just for the songs the soldiers sang. There was no narration, just song after song played over poignant newsreel footage.

Some of these same songs are performed in “For Me and My Gal” by Judy Garland, et. al., and we are lucky enough to have a front row seat. Because of these funny, raucous, keep-your-chin-up songs, one might think the American Army marched late to the war like party crashers. That is only partly Hollywood; part of it is true. There was an especially hopeful, and for today, an almost unbelievably joyous element in going to war for that generation. “Let’s put on a show” became “Lafayette, we are here!”

It was noted by our allies. British nurse Vera Brittain’s memoir of World War I, “A Testament of Youth” (rpt. Virago Ltd., 1978) notes after three weary years of a war that would not end, “They looked larger than ordinary men; their tall, straight figures were in vivid contrast to the under-sized armies of pale recruits to which we had grown accustomed…I wondered, watching them move with such rhythm, such dignity, such serene consciousness of self-respect…Then I heard an excited exclamation from a group of Sisters behind me.
‘Look! Look! Here are the Americans!’
I pressed forward with the others to watch the United States physically entering the War, so god-like, so magnificent, so splendidly unimpaired in comparison with the tired, nerve-racked men of the British Army…The coming of relief made me realise all at once how long and how intolerable had been the tension, and with the knowledge that we were not, after all, defeated, I found myself beginning to cry.”

One moment in the movie is particularly sober, and its sentiment particularly true, despite the theatrical setting. Judy’s brother, in uniform, finds her at a party with only enough time to say goodbye. His unit is going overseas. The song “Till We Meet Again” is struck up and everybody sings. It is a sad, sweet waltz,

“Smile a while, and kiss me sad adieu.”

We may think of songs like “George M. Cohan’s “Over There” when we think of World War I, but “Till We Meet Again” was the big song of that era. It is not very vaudevillian, at least not as much as the song one of their vaudeville troopers sings with lyrics like, “We’ll crack the Kaiser with a bottle of Budweiser!” It’s more of a front parlor song, the kind of song people sang together when they didn’t feel so brave.

Just that song was the beginning perhaps, of the loss of innocence. After all the song and dance, though the war was won, the generation that won it, particularly its chroniclers in prose and poetry, art and music, would forever be known as The Lost Generation.

The movie gives us some newsreel footage of General Pershing and the victory parades. Judy and Gene are reunited at the end, at the Palace Theater at a servicemen’s show, both of them in uniform. “For Me and My Gal” just ends with boy getting girl, and an audience made entirely of soldiers cheering them on, like those fellows in the poster marching past the window to some unforeseeable future.

Just like “Yankee Doodle Dandy” there are subtle reminders that there is another war going on outside the movie theater in real time, and some not so subtle ones. After “the end” we have “America Needs Your Money. Buy War Bonds and Stamps at this Theatre.”

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Then and Now: Gentleman's Agreement - Part 2

“It’s hard to talk about abstract issues.” Commentator Mr. Schickel remarks about the prejudice issue in Gentleman’s Agreement.

“See? That’s how it was then.” I still hear my father’s voice.

This is part two of our two-part series on this movie. Part one is here.

Intolerance is not abstract when it happens to you, as Gregory Peck finds out when he is on the receiving end of prejudice. I learned this myself on a handful of occasions in my life when certain people I met over the years told jokes and made derogatory remarks about “those people” of that country from where my mother’s parents had emigrated. I had the anonymity of my father’s surname, so they did not know they were insulting my mother and myself. When I informed them that I was one of “those people” they did a little verbal tap dancing. I was less apt to live and let live with these people, admittedly because it was me they were insulting. Abstract issues? Not when it’s you, and my experiences have been nothing compared to what others have faced.

Expressions of prejudice may change, but one thing remains constant in the human experience. There are always going to be some people for whom being just as good as anybody else is never going to be enough. They must be superior. Since actually being superior is out of their reach, they go the easier method by insisting that others are inferior.

How interesting that today much of the former open vehemence of prejudice has shifted from the now socially unacceptable derision against race or religion to the more socially acceptable ridicule of political affiliation.  (See update note below.  Can it have been only 11 years since I wrote this post?)

“Conservative” and “liberal” are used today like dirty words, accusing labels, where the opposing political party, or politician, or even individual voter, is vilified with a degree of condescension, arrogance, and meanness that would appall most of us were it applied against a person’s race or religion. It is no longer enough to simply disagree. We must condemn. Those people.

I don’t know when it started, but our need to compromise as laid out by the founding fathers morphed into a need to bash each other mercilessly. The first time I can personally remember seeing this evolve was in college when a schoolmate and I discovered we were members of opposite political parties. Though I was unconcerned for my part, her surprise was overwhelming, and she blurted out, “You can’t be! Really? But you seem so intelligent!”

In today’s political climate I might be defensive, but at the time it cracked me up and I laughed.

Just before the scene where Gregory Peck goes to the restricted hotel for the showdown, he retorts to Dorothy McGuire that he must stand up to the bigots because they insult “everything this country stands for.”

The phrase seems to make Mr. Schickel squirm. “I don’t know. ‘Everything this country stands for.’ See, you know, maybe there’s a way to just slightly avoid that line. I think we’ve got it.”

Avoid that line? That line is the whole point of the movie. That’s the point of this nation. That seems to be what George Washington thought when he visited the synagogue at Truro, Rhode Island, and declared to the Jewish community, “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Idealism has the air of naiveté or even falseness to us these days where cynicism equates sophistication. Fear mongering has replaced it as a hip and edgy alternative.

Now we have a new President. Those who did not vote for Barack Obama will be disappointed, as it is only human to be disappointed when the candidate you did not want for office wins. We are on the brink of a hopeful time with a new President who embodies the diversity of our society, but we are also at a perilous time, and not strictly because of outside threats or economic collapse. There is another insidious problem, deep at our core. We get lazy. Some decent people who did not want Senator Obama to win might say nothing to the bigoted, the resentful, the fear mongers, preferring smug silence, satisfied that the one they did not want to win will not have an easy time of it. A good chunk of Gentleman’s Agreement is about guarding ourselves from our worst impulses, from taking the easy out.

After 9-11 there was a great call out to moderate Muslims to distance themselves from the radical Muslims and condemn their terrorist actions. Why were they not more vocal, protest their indignation, many wanted to know.

That’s what the movie’s about, too. As the Dorothy McGuire character had to learn, it’s not enough to be a nice person who would never act like a rude nutcase. She learns that in silence lies not only cowardice; there lies complicity.

On this point, I observed the influence of four people in my younger years. These were my father, who bristled at people who thought they were so great; and my mother, who disdained nonsense.

The other two people were John Garfield, who played a quiet but intense scene with Dorothy McGuire where he showed that a person could talk frankly about prejudice, but still maintain gentlemanly kindness; and Dorothy McGuire, who went through a scene-after-scene crisis of conscience, and got the message at the 11th hour with shamed self-revelation. My mother would have admired her epiphany of self knowledge. My father would have admired her humility.

I liked that it showed the possibility of redemption exists for us and our society. Such redemption takes courage, and it also takes practice.

There is of course, that final ironic aspect to Gentleman’s Agreement, the aftermath. Several people connected with the film had their careers and their lives damaged by the Committee for House Un-American Activities, abetted by the bigoted Congressman John E. Rankin (D-Mississippi). This man who spat racial slurs on the floor of the House of Representatives took particular interest in Jews on whom he could pin Communist affiliations, which made Garfield, a Jewish man in a watershed movie about anti-Semitism that some people in some parts of this country were trying to ban from being shown, a prime target. A film so controversial that a handful of Jewish studio heads wouldn’t touch it.

But June Havoc (real name Hovick), and producer Daryl Zanuck could not escape just because they were not actually Jewish: their names sounded Jewish to somebody. Guilt by surname consonants is an unusual reason to call someone to defend their patriotism. But these days we can still see how it could happen. President-elect Obama’s middle name of Hussein caused more than one ignorant person to assume he was Muslim, which to them must mean he was a terrorist, or at least anti-American. My mother’s first name was changed to sound less foreign and more American. She would have identified with President-elect Obama in that on his father’s side at least, he is first generation American as she was.

Anne Revere, who played Gregory Peck’s mother in the film, a descendent of Revolutionary era figure Paul Revere, obviously had a very American name and very American family heritage, but that did her no good. She was not Jewish, either, but she was married to a Jew, so evidently that was enough to not escape the Committee. That and the fact she refused to cooperate with the Committee (unlike the film’s director, Mr. Kazan who famously did, as well as Mr. Zanuck). As Miss Revere is quoted, "I'm a free-thinking Yankee rebel and nobody's going to tell me what to do!"

They nailed her good. That’s one Academy Award winning actress we won’t be bothered with again. Well, that Paul Revere relative of hers was a radical himself. They’re all alike. Those people.

To persecution, no assistance, George Washington said, rather naively.

We also have calls these days, not unlike the days of the Communist witch hunts, for an investigation into who is anti-American among our elected officials, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) most recently vocal among them. Hard to tell who is anti-American with everybody rather self consciously wearing the same flag pins on their lapels. To some people, anyone who does not agree with them is anti-American, which makes accusing people very easy and convenient.

“See? That’s how it was then,” my father shook his head at the TV where Gentleman’s Agreement showed us a world of decades ago where nice people allowed prejudice to flourish right under their noses, when people with “foreign sounding” names were suspect, when politics got so nasty that people were forced to prove their patriotism in public forums.

“You know,” Mr. Schickel allows, “antique as this movie sometimes seems in some of its aspects, the truth is that at that time it was an important statement to make.”

Antique movie? Dated and preachy, the labels from which this film has yet to escape. Casablanca is also dated and preachy, but its bad guys were the Nazis, so we don’t mind speeches against them. In Gentleman’s Agreement, we are the bad guys, or we could be if we’re not careful. That’s the difference.

“It was a good movie for the moment,” Mr. Schickel comments.

I agree, but I will add that maybe the moment is now.

Incidents, these days, of cowardly thugs leaving nooses displayed on college campuses, a factory, even a United States Coast Guard training ship. Here’s a link to a story about an incident of refusing to hire Jews or African Americans, these days. We’ve just been subjected to one of the most hostile campaign seasons in years, with much of the hostility flourishing on the blogs of anybody with an ax to grind. In such a climate, we have little right to be so blasé about this old, dated, preachy movie.

“It is a little weird why she’s taken so long to learn such a simple lesson,” Mr. Schickel complains about the film. This nation has so far taken well over 200 years, since George Washington’s day, in its continuing struggle to sort out prejudice. It takes Dorothy McGuire just under two hours.

I do not believe Gentleman’s Agreement has lost any of its edginess, its eloquence, or its relevance. The trouble is, grass grew over the ground it broke.

See? That’s how it is these days, Father.

(Update: This two-part series was originally published in 2008, the week of the election to the presidency of the first term of President Barack H. Obama.  How much more malevolent bigotry has become now in 2019 would have horrified my parents beyond belief.  I think of them often these dangerous days.)

Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Then and Now: Gentleman's Agreement - Part 1

Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) is often labeled today as dated or preachy. This is what I’d like to address in this post. Observations could be offered on director Elia Kazan’s work on this film and on the performances, but that could be for another time.

Because of this essay’s length, this will be divided into two posts, beginning today and concluding Thursday.

The 2003 DVD release of Gentleman’s Agreement features a commentary by two actresses in the film, Celeste Holm and June Havoc, and by film historian and critic Richard Schickel. I think the comparison of their comments on this film best illustrates the road this movie has taken from being seen as edgy and eloquent at its release, and seen today as being quite dated or preachy. Though Mr. Schickel acknowledges at the outset that the film was a “pioneering study of anti-Semitism in America” he quickly demonstrates what I think has become common among critics today, both those experienced and knowledgeable and those not: a certain condescension over this movie. There is perhaps a wish to like it better, a grudging sense of obligation to note its place in film history, but a nagging discomfort about how it holds up today.

(Being aware of Mr. Schickel’s opinions on the validity of critic bloggers, I write this post, which challenges some of his remarks, with some amusement, but with sincerity. Despite my challenges to his commentary, he provides insightful remarks, including on the career of director Elia Kazan, the subject of one of Mr. Schickel’s books.)

Mr. Schickel’s remarks contrast sharply with the comments by Miss Havoc and Miss Holm, who both speak unapologetically of the idealism of the film. Miss Holm seems to almost respond directly to Mr. Schickel’s more cynical, rather “yeah, whatever” attitude with, “The writers had a real sense of responsibility to the audience. They had a point. They were written for a reason. That seems to have gone out of style.”

At times Mr. Schickel seems to vacillate in his opinions, wavering. While he notes the “great American silence” on prejudice which prompted the book by Laura Z. Hobson and the film, he complains that the characters’ passion as expressed by Moss Hart’s script “kind of over-explains what’s really sort of not that difficult a moral issue.”

Not that difficult a moral issue? It was then. I think it still is now, for many people.

His opinion may reflect his own experiences, which in his case is the longtime analysis of film, which may make him more sophisticated. We mostly speak from our experiences, just as June Havoc and Celeste Holm speak from theirs. However, Miss Havoc’s and Miss Holm’s voices come over as authentic, as people whose experiences give them a certain cache on this issue and this movie, because of having lost none of their idealism of the era and a film which was so dangerous for them to make. Mr. Schickel’s comments are truly from another era, in contrast emotionally remote, and occasionally irritatingly irrelevant, as when he remarks, “Notice how guys always wore hats in the movies in those days? It’s funny, we don’t do that anymore, wear hats,” followed by chuckles at his own remarks.

My first experience seeing this film was many years ago, watching it on television with my parents. I don’t normally like to interject personal stories in this blog, because then it becomes a blog about me and not about old movies. But I hope you’ll indulge me.

My mother grew up in a poor urban neighborhood of many ethic groups, religions, and races. She referred to it as a League of Nations. Because she pre-dated the United Nations, to her, it was always the League of Nations. Most were from Eastern Europe, but there was a fair representation of immigrants from the Balkan countries, the countries around the Mediterranean and the Middle East, some from Asia, Quebec, but the majority at this time were from Eastern Europe. To these immigrants, the most “American” people in the neighborhood were the people whom they called Negroes or colored people, because they had been in the U.S. for several generations and could speak English well. Next in being more “American” came the Irish family that lived around the corner; they had been here probably two or three generations. But everyone else were newcomers, most of them escaping something unpleasant in the old country.

Though this polyglot neighborhood could be said to represent the whole world, to my mother the real world was outside of it. The world was what she thought she saw in the movies. Hollywood’s view of the U.S. and the world was pretty narrow in those days, but not to a young girl who was enchanted by what she saw on the silver screen.

When she was a teenager, she got a job in a big downtown department store. It had marble, and elevators, and well-mannered, well-speaking sales clerks. It was just like in the movies. She worked in some sort of seasonal part-time stock or inventory capacity. She did not wait on customers. She and a handful of other teenaged girls hung clothing or unpacked merchandise, and when nobody was looking, playfully slipped the expensive fur coats over their shoulders and pretended what it was like to be those people that shopped here, those people that had lives that were just like in the movies.

At some point, I don’t know if it was while she was still employed there or sometime afterwards, but she found out that the store was “restricted” in its hiring policy. They did not hire Jews.

This brought her up short, because she was an analytical person. This restriction on Jews did not add up.

Her closest neighbors were Jews in the tenement where she lived. She identified with the people who were restricted from working in that store more than she identified with the people who owned the store or shopped in the store. She had long admired the store and the movie upper crust it represented. She accepted that they were her social superiors. She could see that they were: they had education, better clothes (them fur coats), and a lot of money. But the idea that they assumed she was good enough to hire and the Jewish families in the building and the neighborhood who probably went through Ellis Island the same time as her parents were not, made her question how logical these social superiors really were.

She did not speak English at home. Her first name had been changed by a self-conscious older sister at the time she enrolled my mother in kindergarten to sound less foreign and more “American,” just as she had change her own name. What would the store think of her if they knew this?

My mother watched Gentleman’s Agreement with me and thought of this when Gregory Peck, posing as a Jew, tries to register in a hotel that is, like the store she worked at, restricted. The years melted away, and it all came back.

It was a scene my father liked. He was less analytical about prejudice than my mother. With something of a chip on his shoulder, he bristled under the arrogance of bigotry. Though he had seen Gentleman’s Agreement before, I think when the hotel scene came up, he was hoping that this time Gregory Peck would sock somebody. He liked movies where somebody got socked.

He shared an experience he had as a recruit in World War II, traveling on a troop train, heading for basic training in the South. An African-American recruit among them was told when they crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, to move to the back. My father and a few others questioned this and complained. They were told, “Boys, you don’t know where you are.”

The remark grew less cryptic the more they saw as they traveled further south.

My father remarked that the first time he saw “colored only” signs, it made him sick. Once on a pass from camp, he and another buddy or two tried to make use of a “colored only” restroom to show what they thought of this segregation business, and were informed, I think by an MP, that they were not to try this again. I’m paraphrasing. This is a family blog.

These two incidents of prejudice witnessed by my parents were not the stuff of mob violence. They knew nothing of lynchings or pogroms. These incidents were mild in comparison to the experiences of others, but though there was no mob violence, there was mob rule. There was an insidious consensus that this is the way it should be. It was, if you will, a “gentleman’s agreement.”

Raised again, the specter of their memories, by an old movie considered by some critics today to be no longer relevant. To be a quaint museum piece of its day.

In a way, my parents felt so, too. I recall my father gesturing to the film on TV excitedly, “See? That’s how it was in those days.” They marveled that the world had changed so much in their lifetime.

A few months ago, someone was telling me the story of how someone they knew, a friend of a friend, got a great bargain shopping somewhere because they “jewed down” the seller.

I was as astonished by the use of the archaic phrase as much as by its malicious inference. I can’t remember what my comment was, but evidently my remarks and my expression were enough to make the speaker quickly respond, “I know. I shouldn’t say that, huh?” With a slight embarrassed chuckle, the person changed the subject.

Within the past couple of decades, a handful of incidents like this stand out when I watch Gentleman’s Agreement today, just as when my parents were reminded of incidents from their past. I recall the time a non-Jewish friend telling me of a new boyfriend and right after telling me his German-sounding surname saying, as if to assure me, “But he’s not Jewish.” Again, her instant embarrassment at what she said when I pointed out this was not a matter of great importance to me. The time another acquaintance, upset at being laid off from her job, ranted that her employer’s being Jewish was the cause of his unfairness to her, because those people were all alike and didn’t I think so?

I disagreed, politely but firmly refusing to placate her. Another time someone else complained of being the victim of backstabbing by a co-worker, who in this case was African American. She pulled the “N-word” out of her holster and fired it off. I told her I did not like that word and the conversation was over if she used it again. This time an apology.

In each case I do not believe I changed the attitudes of any of these people; I only showed them they would not change mine. Less enamored of confrontation than my father, I prefer mannerly stubbornness. To my knowledge, my relationships did not suffer with these people for challenging their remarks. They backed off, and I for my part was willing to live and let live. None of us have halos; we all mess up sometimes. My parents, I’m sure, experienced occasions where prejudice rose up and they said nothing. For each of us, life is a learning process that never ends.

Despite my parents’ view that times had changed, all of these people to whom I had to say “please stop” were born in that supposedly enlighten era after 1947. They grew up in the great modern society my parents thought had eradicated restricted hotels and society’s acceptance of prejudice, all the “gentleman’s agreements”. These acquaintances were not dangerous nutcases, but basically decent people with bad habits.

Albert Dekker, who plays the editor, Mr. Minify, in the film remarks, “There just isn’t anything bigger than beating down the complacence of essentially decent people about prejudice.” Preachy and dated?

I’ll see you for part 2.

Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.

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