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Thursday, March 19, 2009
Ladies of the Noir - Pt 1 - The Blue Gardenia (1953)
Today we begin a three-part series on film noir females, particularly examining three films where the females represented are unique. Not the usual dames, nor even “the usual suspects”, and not the usual supportive girlfriends. They are protagonists, caught in the grimy, shadowy world of film noir, usually a man’s world. But being women, they are not subjected to the same kinds of justice, or fate, or simply recrimination suffered by their male counterparts.
The films we’ll discuss are “The Blue Gardenia” (1953), “The Shadow on the Wall” (1950), and “Make Haste to Live” (1954).
To illustrate what I mean about a woman protagonist’s fate in film noir, we can look at a kind of template noir film. Here is a link to “Detour” (1945) a classic film noir example now in public domain and available for viewing at this website. Tom Neal drives across country to be with his girlfriend, and through bad luck, and a few errors in judgment, finds himself a wanted man once he gets to California, with a shrewish babe blackmailing him into deeper trouble with the law. When the film ends, we see him wandering down a lonely road at night, in an attempt to escape, when the police catch up with him and he placidly succumbs to a seat in their squad car, and we imagine, an eventual appointment in the electric chair. The poor guy’s tale is like a Kafka nightmare.
Most women in film noir flicks are like the two important women in his life, his girlfriend of whom we see very little, and the vicious dame who brings him down. Lots of the best film noir movies have great roles for women, but usually either as vixen or victim, or lesser roles as long-suffering girlfriend, not as the hero protagonist. The three movies on our list for this series feature women who are, however, just like the Tom Neal character. They are the protagonists, the ones who find themselves locked in the grasp of fate and suffering the consequences of their own bad decisions.
None of them, however, ends up sharing Tom Neal’s end, because to be a female protagonist in this era is to be likeable, and likeable girls did not go the electric chair. Bad girls, yes. But according to the standards of the day, good girls had to be saved at the 11th hour.
The first of these films, “The Blue Gardenia” follows this trend, but the other two films deviate in interesting ways. In “Make Haste to Live”, the female protagonist must solve her own problem without help, playing cat and mouse with her persecutor, and in “The Shadow on the Wall”, we have a very unusual scenario where the victim, the villain, and the hero are all played by women.
“The Blue Gardenia” starts out, and ends, with shots of the Los Angles freeway. I don’t know why. There’s nothing about the freeway in the plot, but I suppose it establishes that we’re in Los Angeles.
Anne Baxter, a nice girl, shares an apartment with two nice girlfriends. Ann Sothern plays her typical sassy wisecracking role, and Miss Jeff Donnell plays the sweet naïve baby of the trio who, demonstrating the screenwriter’s sense of humor, reads trashy pulp detective novels.
Miss Baxter’s fiancé is serving in Korea, one of many topical references in this movie, like the freeways. On her birthday, she prepares a candlelight dinner for herself and her beau’s photograph, and opens his latest letter, only to discover he is jilting her for an Army nurse.
Devastated, she takes her pain out to a nightclub called “The Blue Gardenia” where cad Raymond Burr, gets her drunk and takes her to his bachelor pad. We are treated to the Nat King Cole hit “Blue Gardenia” with Mr. Cole himself at the piano. As discussed on this previous blog post from August 2008, the 1950s gave us a lot of movie themes that could turn even a film noir into a musical.
When Raymond Burr gets too physical, the very drunk but still feisty Anne Baxter clunks him on the head. The next morning, very hung over in her own apartment and remembering very little about the night before, she slowly comes to realize through a series of clues and newspaper headlines that Burr has been murdered and that she probably did it. This is her nightmare, and it trails her until the very end of the movie.
It’s too bad we lose Mr. Burr so early on, because his suave, self-absorbed predatory charm is quite good. He has a very compelling screen presence, something the hero of the piece, a newspaper columnist played by Richard Conte, unfortunately does not seem to have. Mr. Conte’s eventual romantic overtures to Miss Baxter even seem to clutter an already flawed ending to the film.
Sometimes a romance in a crime story works to develop the characters more fully, and does not detract from the plot, but it seldom helps the plot. In a movie like “The Big Sleep” (1946), which is notorious for having a quite confusing plot, Humphrey Bogart’s and Lauren Bacall’s romance is so absorbing to the audience that nobody cares about the plot. This isn’t the case with “The Blue Gardenia”. Richard Conte and Anne Baxter, neither separately nor together, are strong enough to make us forget the story is spinning its wheels at the end.
Ann Sothern provides the down to earth advice, with each line coyly delivered as if it should be followed by a snare drum rim shot. She is divorced, but continues to date her ex-husband because though he had a “husband’s faults,” he now has “a boyfriend’s virtues.” She returns from a date with him with a comic indictment of the 1950s LA car culture: “Drive-in diner, drive-in movie, then afterwards you go for a drive.”
Richard Conte’s sharp and sarcastic newspaperman is also a ladies man, like the cad Raymond Burr. We know because he thumbs through his little black book. In Conte’s case, he is reformed from his womanizing ways by his sympathy for one helpless female. We don’t know exactly why he falls in love with Anne Baxter, he just does. Nor does he completely solve the case himself, but has the help of Superman George Reeves in a good role as a police inspector. The ending is slapped together, and sun shines on the innocent, and on the maze of California freeways. Life goes on, at 50mph.
Baxter’s daffy roommate, Miss Donnell, pours over her lurid drugstore novel and exclaims over the tribulations of the book’s femme fatale, “lucky girl, living a life of passion and violence.” Miss Baxter, who starts the film as a wholesome and somewhat dull girl assiduously avoiding any type of excitement, learns firsthand that living a life of passion and violence is not all it’s cracked up to be. She has an interesting position of being a sort of victim, but possibly also a murderer escaping justice as she destroys evidence (the dress she was wearing when she clunked Raymond Burr).
Her guilt and her paranoia are intriguing and carry the story a long way, but Miss Baxter is caught in more than the web of fate; she’s trapped in the 1950s web of being a good girl in a film noir movie, and she’s stuck there.
One of the fascinating aspects of film noir is that it changed 1940s sassy ingénues into world-weary dames and babes, but that, in turn, created a problem. In the moral ambiguity of the film noir world, there is no complete evil in the characters, just as there is no complete virtue. But the shift was not so easily made for women. The sensibilities of the era seemed to indicate that in this film noir world a woman could be more comfortably a victim, or a villain, or a girlfriend little seen. Make her the protagonist and she must follow the film noir precept of being neither completely bad nor completely virtuous. A fine line to walk for an actress, but an even more difficult line to walk for the film producers, apparently.
In a film like “The Blue Gardenia”, the choice is made that this female protagonist ends up with a crusading boyfriend who will look after her. Unlike poor Tom Neal in “Detour”, who is a nice guy in the wrong place and made bad mistakes, she would not be allowed to go down the road to perdition unless she is truly a bad girl. Good girls get rewarded with good men. This is the lesson of 1950s film, even film noir. It’s not so much the Code, as it is a deft interpretation by the studio executives of what the general audience feeling was in those days, and what it would stomach.
Though Anne Baxter’s acting style is a bit melodramatic, just being the lead in the male-dominated film noir genre is unusual enough to make this film worth a look.
“The Blue Gardenia” is being shown on TCM this coming Tuesday, the 24th, if you’d like to have a look yourself. Let us know what you think.