Monday, September 28, 2009

Trivia Emergency

We interrupt this blog for a trivia emergency. I recently had an email from a reader named Pam who asks for the name of the movie which has this scene:

“I was wondering if you know of a movie, probably from the 40's or 50's where a man and a woman swim across a body of water and there are gold or silver amulets below them (like faces, maybe on necklaces) at the bottom of the shallow water. I think there may be drum beats in the background. I think it's a jungle like setting. They enter the water, swim towards the camera and get out. Thank you so much if you DO know.”

I admit, I do not know, though I wondered if it might be “Pagan Love Song” (1950) with Esther Williams. If you know the answer to this one, please let us know. Thanks.

ADDENDUM: Okay, so this really isn't an emergency. But we need to practice these drills so that we'll be ready if we ever have a real trivia emergency.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Point of No Return - Zero Hour! - 1957

“Zero Hour!” (1957) has a legacy that ironically may represent a great change in our culture with respect to humor. The movie is a drama, but its famous parody, “Airplane!” (1980) is an off-the-wall comedy that points to how ridicule has overtaken silliness and slapstick as comedic expression. To be sure, “Airplane!” is very silly, too, but the joke is on the writer and the actors of “Zero Hour!”

The writer was Arthur Hailey, who gave us the iconic “Airport” (1970), which was followed by several sequels. Movies about airplane disasters obviously tend to be formulaic, and this is the chief source of humor for “Airplane!” In almost any plane disaster movie we have the passenger who shrieks with panic and must be subdued, the ill passenger needing emergency medical treatment, the thwarted romance of some member of the flight crew, and maybe throw in a nun if you’ve got one. “Airplane!” most pointedly uses the same name for its main character (though changes the spelling), and blatantly throws in (as gently as a javelin) the astoundingly stupid line from “Zero Hour!” about finding someone who can fly the plane and who did not have fish for dinner.

Peel back the years to the 1950s and you have plane disaster movies that focused on another aspect, one that the 1970s movies did not have to worry about: the point of no return.

This aspect, and used as a line in “Zero Hour!”, “The High and the Mighty” (1954), and “No Highway in the Sky” (1951) - see previous post, was a factor in aviation at the time when propeller planes like DC4s and DC6s had a limited flying range, and once past the reckoned “point of no return” a plane in trouble could not turn around and return to its original taking off point without running out of fuel. It had to keep going no matter what the problem. This was most seriously creepy in “The High and the Mighty” in which the plane crossed the Pacific Ocean, and also happened in “No Highway in the Sky” in which the plane crossed the Atlantic.

There is another meaning to “the point of no return” of course that is allegorical, in that the characters must face not only the challenge of survival before them, but must face their own fears, shortcomings, sins, or a combination of all three, to earn new lives for themselves.

The notion of a “point of no return” seems archaic as flights serving full meals with china and cutlery, pilots that cheerfully greet visitors to the cockpit, and the tracking of air traffic not with computers, but by pinning little toy airplanes to a paper wall map.

“Zero Hour!” begins with a flashback, where Ted Stryker, played by Dana Andrews, a fighter pilot with the Canadian forces during World War II, leads his squadron into a disastrous raid in which some of them are killed. Long after the war Dana Andrews still carries the guilt on his shoulders, and with his wife, Linda Darnell, and son, moves from job to job and town to town, unable to settle down to anything. He shirks any responsibility like the plague.

Linda Darnell has had enough, takes their boy, and boards a plane to leave her husband. Andrews follows, gets a seat on the same plane. When it takes off, we see the sickening fear in his face as he relives another war flashback, and he takes himself to the restroom. He could still be his character Fred Derry from “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946) whose famous post-traumatic stress incident was something he had to face before he could move on. There is a genuine quality of misery about Dana Andrews in this role, and certainly some other roles he played, that conveys some vague but deep, private hell.

The plane is full, but beyond brief cameo types of appearances, we don’t really get a back story on most of the other passengers. The only standout among them is Jerry Paris, who later became known as the neighbor on “The Dick Van Dyke Show”. He has the floundering relationship with the stewardess, and once they have faced danger together, they will patch things up. He proves himself adept at entertaining children with a glove puppet like Señor Wences.

The matronly woman scornful of the whiskey-drinking Scotsman you might recognize as Hope Summers, who played Millie the store owner on the TV western “The Rifleman”.

More famous than any of these at the time was probably the pilot, played by Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch, who had just finished his last season with the Los Angeles Rams, and who some years later would be inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Crazylegs, with his blond wavy hair and cleft in his rugged chin, has that hero quality about him that reminds one of Dudley Do-right.

Mr. Andrews pleads with his wife to come back to him, but Miss Darnell lets him have it between the eyes with the weary request that he stop running and “make a stand somewhere.” She gently but firmly tells him, “I can’t live with a man I don’t respect.”

This is only one in a string of hard knocks Dana gets this awful day. The only good thing about this rotten day is he didn’t have fish for dinner.

The uniformed perky stewardess gives everyone a choice of halibut or lamb for their meal. Everybody who eats the fish, including the whiskey-drinking Scotsman, Dana Andrews’ little son, and both the pilot and co-pilot, are going to be violently ill. Infected with a deadly bacteria, the halibut is causing everybody severe bellyaches, and eventual unconsciousness. But Dana Andrews, who had the lamb, is left with a huge headache. He’s only one with flying experience. He has to fly the plane.

Sterling Hayden is brought in to give Dana Andrews instructions over the radio on how to fly this big plane and most importantly, how to land it. With his constant barking of orders, and his chain-smoking (he has the funniest line of the movie when he remarks, “Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop smoking,”) Hayden has kind of a maniacal quality to him that is just ripe for parody.

This trans-Canada flight has passed the point of no return. They must push on to Vancouver, but the airport is fogged in and they must wait until the weather clears. There are a lot of realistic shots of the plane in flight, close-ups on the control panel, and outdoor shots of the airport and tower where the plane will eventually come down.

The doctor, one of those professorial, noble types who speaks very proper stage English, is the one with the awful line, “The life of everybody on board depends on just one thing: finding somebody who can not only fly this plane but who didn’t have fish for dinner!”

He passes pills to the sick passengers and plugs Crazylegs with morphine. Though the morphine is intended to relieve his stomach pain, a guy loaded with narcotics probably shouldn’t be flying a plane, so one wonders about this doctor. But regardless, Crazylegs is down for the count, and neither he, nor his co-pilot who was such a pig he asked for two helpings of the halibut, are able to fly the plane.

Dana Andrews (Thank heavens for a meat eater!) is brought to the cockpit most unwillingly. This is not a case of a man deciding to save the day and prove to his wife he’s a hero. Dana would rather be having a root canal than fly this plane. What’s interesting is that he needs another pair of hands to work the radio, and his wife is drafted for the job. It’s a refreshing change not to have the woman sitting in terror and anticipation, twisting a hanky in her hands, but rather flying the plane with him. However Miss Darnell is unaccountably calm through the entire adventure. She shows very little of Mr. Andrews’ acute (and entirely appropriate) anxiety.

Pretty soon Dana and everybody in the tower control room are sweating buckets. Sterling Hayden has no confidence in Andrews, believing he will “fold up” under the pressure. Dana comes close to folding, but he slowly manages to get a grip on himself and the plane. There is a really scary sequence when they nearly crash into mountain peaks and they lose radio contact, and another very exciting sequence when he brings the plane in for a landing. Sterling Hayden wants him to keep the plane up in the air another couple of hours until the weather clears, but Dana makes a command decision to bring the plane down because the bellyachers are dying.

Some newspaper editor shows us two possible headlines, one announcing all dead, the other announcing all safe. It is succinctly gruesome.

The landing is horrific, but when the dust clears, we see Dana Andrews has regained his wife’s respect, and his own courage.

Another aspect to these airplane movies that eventually became so formulaic a couple of decades later is the illustration of our sense of interdependence on each other in times of crisis. How do come out of yourself and your own problems to help people who need your help? How do you help yourself if you’re the only one who can?

Dilemmas not necessarily worth laughing at. I make no complaints against “Airplane!”, but it belongs to another era. Parts of it are very funny, but its parody is based on sarcasm, a kind of self-superior mockery. Such “humor” is rampant these days. Check out the dismally arrogant tone of stand-up comedy, the 101 put-downs that comprise the average TV sitcom script. When did humor rely almost solely on sarcasm and ridicule rather than the original and creative, open-hearted silly playing out of human foibles? When did we cross that point of no return?

But this may be a very old debate. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the defensive Mr. Darcy observes, “The wisest and the best of men, nay, the wisest and best of their actions, may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke.”

“Certainly,'' Elizabeth Bennett retorts, “there are such people, but I hope I am not one of them. I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.”

I can laugh at Sterling Hayden, but never Dana Andrews.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Off Blog, But Not Off Topic

Today we go off blog, but not off topic, to visit a blog called “The File on Esther Zidel.” This blog is comprised of scrapbook photos taken by a young woman named Esther Zidel in the late 1930s and 1940s. The photos are of actors and actresses (stage and screen) she seems to have accosted outside the stage doors of Boston, Massachusetts area theaters. Some dressed to the nines; some, like one of Bette Davis, devil-may-care casual. The more famous actors are easily recognizable, but many others are not. See if you can help identify some of these actors, and fill in the blanks.

Ready to go? I’ve got my keys. Last one out, lock the door.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Freshman - 1925

“The Freshman” (1925) sends an eager Harold Lloyd to college. Harold’s main goal is to fit in and be popular. His biggest handicap is himself and his sweet, heartbreaking desire to be liked.

We meet Harold first in his room at home, practicing college cheerleading yells and preening in his freshman beanie and sweater before a mirror. There is a movie poster for a film called “The College Hero”, the actor of which Harold idolizes. Apparently there is no freshman orientation at his school, because most of Harold’s knowledge about being a college student comes from his favorite movie and a boy’s book, “Jack Merivale at College.” The college annual has a photo of the football captain, who is the Most Popular Man on campus, and Harold wants to emulate his new hero so that he can be a hero himself.

He learns a snappy little jig from the movie he has seen, which the hero does just before he extends his hand to shake upon meeting new people. It’s hysterical, and Harold’s poor father bemoans to his mother, “They’ll either break his heart or his neck.” There is thinly veiled poignancy in this sarcasm, because both turn out to be true.

Harold is off to Tate University (not the same name used for the college in “Good News” -1947, discussed here, which was Tait.)

Harold’s utterly without guile enthusiasm for all things collegiate lead him into mishaps with the dean, making a fool of himself when he finds himself accidentally on stage for a student assembly, and nearly getting killed being the tackle dummy for football practice. Harold starts off on the wrong foot and stays there, but in his idealism for being a college man, he has no idea that everything has gone wrong. The in-crowd hazes him mercilessly without his knowing it, and makes him jump through hoops just to see if he will. Harold mistakenly believes he is the most popular man on campus.

The only genuine element of Harold’s college success lies in Peggy, played by Jobyna Ralston, a co-ed he met on the train. She is, as the title card tells us, “the kind of girl your mother must have been,” in short, true blue and sweet. Peggy is a poor but honest lass who will work her way through school at the Hotel Tate as a check room girl and maid. The scene on the train is cute, when he helps her do a crossword puzzle, the clue for one word which requires them to think of suitable endearments that will fit the number of blocks, like “sweetheart” and “darling”, and the elderly couple behind them suspect they are lovers.

Harold repeats his how-do-you-do jig every time he meets someone new, and for a repetitious gag, it really gets funnier each time we see it. At a school dance, where Harold thinks he is the admiration of all, Harold defends Peggy’s honor when a masher tries to take liberties. When Harold slugs the brute, the resentful fellow lets the cat out of the bag that nobody really likes Harold, that he has been made a fool, and everyone is laughing at him. Harold discovers this is true, and the agonized facial expression depicting his realization is moving. Lloyd was not just a fantastic physical clown and athlete, he could really act.

His pain and embarrassment are acute, and we see Peggy’s heart breaking to see it. Wordlessly (yeah, I know it’s a silent movie anyway), she holds her arms out to him, and he cries in her lap. So sweet and sad, you want to shove your arms through the TV and hold him yourself. Well, all right. Maybe it’s just me.

She encourages Harold to just be himself, not to try to be kind of the campus hero for friends who are false. How much he takes in we don’t know because he still wants to be football hero.

The climax of the film takes place at the Big Game. There is footage here used from an actual stadium packed to the gills. According to the IMDb site, the football scenes were shot at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, California between the first and second quarters of the East-West game of 1924-25. Members of the University of Southern California football team played both teams. The entire film, incidentally, was shot in sequence, which of course was unusual.

The football game of course goes wrong for dear old Tate, and when Harold the water boy at last gets to play in the final moments, he messes up in some very funny faux pas, but his pluck and his refusal to quit actually puts him in a spot where he can save the day. He does.

Now everyone on campus, all the in-crowd, all the bullies, even the crusty old football coach are imitating Harold’s how-do-you-do jig. But all Harold can think of as they ride him out of the stadium on their shoulders is his best girl.

There’s not a lot of studying or class time at dear old Tate or Tait, however you spell it. Maybe that’s why everyone from June Allyson, Peter Lawford, and Harold Lloyd went there.

Here is an interesting clip from YouTube analyzing how the famous jig was shot by means of undercranking to make it look a little faster and a lot sillier:

Monday, September 14, 2009

Bored of Education - 1936

We’re going back to school over the next two posts. First, the Little Rascals and their elementary school woes, and on Thursday, Harold Lloyd’s college hijinks.

“Bored of Education” (1936), pits the Little Rascals, known before TV serialization as Our Gang, against the First Day of School. Darla brings a shiny apple for the teacher, Porky eats it, Buckwheat is just plain funny sitting there, but the plot focuses on our heroes Alfalfa and Spanky, who are loathe to suffer The New Teacher.

They decide to get out of class by Alfalfa faking a toothache, and Spanky charged with the mercy mission bringing him home. There are suitable histrionics, slow burns, double takes, a rather nauseating sequence of misadventures with a balloon shoved into Alfalfa’s mouth to make his cheek appear swollen, and an enormous kerchief wrapped under his chin and tied over to his head to indicate he is suffering. We had this discussion once before the comments section of the “Shadow on the Wall” (1950) post about the old movie use of kerchiefs to indicate toothache.

However, The New Teacher turns out to be very pretty and buys the kids off with ice cream, so Alfalfa and Spanky worm their way back into class. Alfalfa, told he must sing before he gets his ice cream, manfully girds his loins and screeches out a tortuous rendition of “Believe Me if All Those Endearing Young Charms.”

The funniest thing about this short is that it won an Oscar. Beating out “Moscow Moods” and “Wanted-A Master” (which had to do with a dog needing to find an owner before 3 o’clock when he is scheduled to be exterminated), we can see the competition was probably not too steep. Sounds like a cakewalk, actually.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Civilian Conservation Corps Movie Fan

Above we have a photo of Priscilla Lane pasted on the inside cover of a young man’s footlocker. The footlocker was part of his equipment as a member of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. This particular footlocker is on exhibit at the Civilian Conservation Corps Museum in Stafford Springs, Connecticut. See my post on New England Travels for more on this museum.

It brings to mind something we discussed a month ago in this post about there being few old movies that dealt with the subject of polio. Not addressing the treatment of polio and the frantic search for a vaccine in the years in which it was so rampant and so frightening, to me is like cranking out a slew of movies during the early 1940s and hardly mentioning World War II.

Seeing the pretty young face of movie ingénue Priscilla Lane on the inside of this CCC boy’s footlocker brings another realization. I don’t believe I have seen the Civilian Conservation Corps even mentioned in a movie from the 1930s.

The film industry covered a lot that was topical back in the day, as we know, even if sometimes to gloss over issues. But to never bring up the CCC is amazing. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated many programs during the Great Depression, and most were fairly controversial among Republicans in Congress, but we’ve all seen many films with the “blue eagle” logo of the NRA (National Recovery Act) plastered like an imprimatur on the end of the film. That the very controversial NRA was afterward nullified does not erase it from the history of American film of this period. Young people can still notice it, and ask what that meant.

Conversely, the CCC, though not supported by Republicans as much as by Democrats, nevertheless achieved a slight majority in favor even among Republicans. It was easily FDR’s most highly regarded program. If representing the CCC might seem too political for some studios, one would think that Warner Bros. at least would have a take on it, being more apt to present more gritty films during the Depression and stances supportive of the then current administration. They gave us “Wild Boys of the Road” (1933). There would have been a lot more wild boys of the road if not for the CCC.

The Civilian Conservation Corps put thousands of young men into thousands of outdoor camps to work in forestry, the establishing of state and national parks, conservation, public works projects, and even helped out communities during floods and fires. The money they earned that was sent home supported thousands of families during the bleakest years of the Depression and kept them from starving.

The boy who pasted Priscilla Lane’s picture in his footlocker is unknown to us. The only thing we know about him is he loved Priscilla Lane. He probably went to the movies on his pass to go to town. Maybe he went to see “Four Daughters” with Priscilla Lane, discussed here in this post.

If you know of any old movies where the CCC was depicted or even mentioned, please let us know. I’d love to know if there were any.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Picnic - 1955

“Picnic” (1955) takes place on Labor Day, in a Midwest small town. In the middle of the country, in the middle of the 1950s, we arrive at a point in the lives of the characters in this film when they are both looking back and looking forward. For most, it seems their prospects are as flat as the horizon.

William Holden plays Hal, an unrealistic dreamer and likable screw-up who arrives in town riding a boxcar, with little more than his father’s boots to his name. Holden is often judged by many as being too old to play this boyish character, and perhaps that is true. Already having successfully played more mature men of the world, one can sense in some scenes what might have been Mr. Holden’s discomfort at playing a man in his 20s with the emotional maturity of a teenager. But with a little makeup around the eyes, a little combing of his hair in bangs over a slightly receding hairline, Holden does fine showing us Hal’s loveable foolishness, his pathetic braggadocio, and brings a certain wistful pang of remorse to the inevitable harsh self-knowledge of his own failure. Perhaps a younger, less experienced actor would not have brought the enormous expression of regret we see in Hal’s face, a self knowledge that only time brings.

Besides, William Holden can heave the entire body of young Susan Strasberg over his head and carry her with one hand in a picnic race, and this is pretty impressive for a man in his late 30s.

Susan Strasberg shines as the brainiac teenager Millie, rebellious and restlessness, and deeply jealous of her pretty older sister, Madge, played by Kim Novak. “Madge is the pretty one!” Miss Strasberg wails, her teenage pain acute, with no one and nothing to comfort her.

I believe it was in this movie that director Joshua Logan said of Kim Novak that she “wears her beauty like a crown of thorns.” A pretty well-repeated comment of Kim Novak by now, and in this role, remarkably true. Miss Novak is the anxious beauty queen Madge, who is as equally jealous of her younger sister because of the younger girl’s roundly acknowledged intellect. Her geeky little sister is more confident, dares to be more brash, and is headed off to college. Madge is going nowhere. Her only hope for a happy future, at least according to her worried mother, played by Betty Field, is for her to marry the rich boy in town.

The rich boy, son of the town’s grain elevator company owner, is played by Cliff Robertson. No struggle for Madge to snag him, because he’s already after her. The problem is Madge. She’s deeply insecure about her much-proclaimed beauty, wanting instead to be appreciated for more than that. Her fear is that there isn’t much more to her. She’s not really in love with Robertson, and she, a girl who has grown up fatherless by the railroad tracks, feels out of place among his wealthy set. And then William Holden arrives in town.

There are a lot of interesting comparisons to make to “Peyton Place”, which we covered last time. Both reflect the turmoil of the individual’s fitting into a tight-knit, and often judgmental community. Both, though launching the plot off the sexual desires of the youth, also reflect the emotional crises of the older generations with poignancy.

Rosalind Russell plays the spinster schoolteacher who boards with Betty Field’s family, and plays her like a force of nature, occasionally chewing the scenery. Footloose and fancy free, she boasts of relationships she has broken off to keep her independence, but we soon learn the only man willing to keep company with her these days is the befuddled Arthur O’Connell, one of the terrific character actors of this era. He is a confirmed old bachelor who brings liquor to liven up the party, and contentedly comforts himself in his bachelor apartment with his 21-inch TV. I love how his tie is too short.

Their relationship is old, stale, but livens up after a climatic scene when Miss Russell paws Holden in a desperate cry for attention, and afterward she realizes tearfully, with repentance and in some panic that Mr. O’Connell is the only man left to her who will keep her from being alone. She begs him to save her from a life of spinsterhood.

One of the interesting differences in “Picnic” to “Peyton Place” is the role of the mother of the lead characters. Lana Turner is the mother who bore her child out of wedlock and afterward spends considerable energy keeping her teenaged daughter from any kind of intimate contact with any boy, who warns her of sex and accuses her of sex, but will not otherwise talk about it.

Betty Field in “Picnic”, however (in contrast to her own role in “Peyton Place” as the tragic figure so beaten by the circumstances of her life that she cannot comfort a brutalized daughter, only obsess over what the neighbors will think) practically throws Kim Novak at the rich boy. Field questions her daughter on how far she lets Cliff Robertson go on dates, not to warn her off intimacy before marriage, but to encourage it so that there will be a marriage. We can see Novak’s embarrassment with this discussion, and Betty Field’s determined desperation.

In both films we have the camera shots from high above, a point at which the characters can look down on the town and consider it. In “Peyton Place” it is Russ Tamblyn and Diane Varsi on the top of the mountain looking down upon the town. In “Picnic” it is William Holden and Cliff Robertson on the top of the grain elevator, a symbol of his family’s wealth and power, overlooking this Kansas town. Still, it is difficult to see the town even from this vantage, just as we might have to stand far back from a painting in a museum to really appreciate it. Some of these characters in both these movies will need to actually get out of town to see it for what it is.

The climatic scene in both films takes place at the Labor Day picnic, which is as fun to watch as it is useful for helping the plot to unfold. All the lead characters in “Picnic” participate in various games and races. In one race the ladies are told they need a male partner to compete in a rather servile-looking ring-toss game, and Rosalind Russell crows, “I’ve got a man!” to the defeated looks of the ladies who don’t.

The evening brings the final event of the day, the choosing of the festival queen, in this case “Neewollah”, which is Halloween spelled backwards. Kim Novak is floated down the river on a swan boat wearing a crown and cape while the townspeople pay homage in what might look silly to an outsider, but we are no longer outsiders here. We can smile at the foolish pageantry, and understand the need for it at the same time.

Mr. Holden is captivated at the sight of her, but mostly at what she represents, a grandeur he seeks for himself. We see Cliff Robertson now has a rival. In the next scenes over the course of the evening, a lot flip-flops and lives are changed forever. Relationships break off, new ones start, and Kim Novak, who has been eyeing Holden with fascination since she met him, now finds the guts to make the biggest decision of her life.

Probably the most interesting aspect in this film of what today might be considered rampant sexism, where the women are regarded, and regard themselves, as essentially worthless if they do not attract and keep a man, is the blatant exploitation of William Holden’s masculinity. He is ogled and pawed, his clothes are ripped from him by a desperate older woman. He is shirtless and leered at by the ladies and by the camera. He is Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe in his vulnerability as a sex object.

And he is miserable. Like Kim Novak. It’s a sweet idea that the comfort they seem to bring each, their mutual woes of not being appreciated for their inner worth, will make a bridge on which they can build a lasting romance. But the film carries with it an irresistible reality that maybe happily-ever-after is a matter of degree. When Mr. Holden all but demands Novak follow him when he must hurriedly leave town ahead of the police, we may wonder if he is ever going to grow up and stop thinking only about himself. We may suspect that Miss Novak is walking into as hopeless and unsatisfying a relationship as her parents’. But we don’t really know.

We don’t really know if Roz Russell and Arthur O’Connell are really going to make a life together in his bachelor apartment with his 21-inch television. She will quit teaching, which she wants very much to do, and will likely have to anyway as many teachers in many areas of the country were still required to be single at this time. They leave for they honeymoon, she ecstatic, he dazed.

We are left with Betty Field, the well-meaning and ambitious mother of two daughters as different as night and day, with different needs and different personalities. A woman who takes in borders to make ends meet, because her own marriage failed many years ago. We are left with the gentle older neighbor Miss Potts, played by Verna Felton, who cares for the demanding and unseen mother that requires all her energy, all her time. Just as in “Peyton Place”, the older generations are seen as having paid a price, and one of the most touching moments in the film is when Verna Felton and Betty Field sit pensively on a swing at the town picnic, the evening shadows lowering, and Felton confesses that just being able to watch Field’s daughters grow up from her vantage point of her own backyard made her lonely life easier.

This is a woman denied her own family possibly by the very responsibility of caring for her invalid mother. How poignant it is to show an elderly woman calling to an even older woman, “Yes, Mama, I’m coming,” with no resentment, only concern. Miss Felton has made peace with her life, even as she lives vicariously through everyone else’s. It is she who first welcomes Holden into their lives, fusses over him and makes him comfortable. He playfully calls her his girl. It is she who first notices the attraction between Holden and Novak, and she wistfully, with wonder and captivation, but without an ounce of Miss Russell’s jealousy, comments, “Aren’t they graceful?”

Though Kim Novak is warned by Betty Field that time is flying, and she is at the peak of her bloom and needs to pursue marriage with the rich boy while she is still desirable, we are reminded that in Field herself, and in young Susan Strasberg, and in Verna Felton, time is flying for every generation. It brings to mind the old poem about gathering rosebuds while ye may, and it applies to everyone: “To the Virgins, to make much of Time,” by Robert Herrick.

GATHER ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he 's a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he 's to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
You may for ever tarry.

Verna Felton would identify more with this than either of Betty Field’s girls. But they’ll understand in time, in their own ways, with their own regrets. This is what makes the film interesting, is that it doesn’t really end. The audience decides what the ending will be. Because it is Labor Day, the summer, at least, is ending, the movie showing us a race against time that is an allegory for the broader issues.

Below, have a look at the famous dance sequence with William Holden and Kim Novak at the picnic. Enjoy your Labor Day, and may the eventual evening shadows fall gently on you and yours.


Thursday, September 3, 2009

In Search of Peyton Place

(Above have a look at the trailer, and also a newsreel of the Hollywood premiere.)

The movie “Peyton Place” (1957) opens with the joyous sound of church carillon chimes and stunning shots of New England pastoral scenes. The opening shots and score exude a sense of triumph and soulful beauty. A remarkable, clever, and somewhat astounding introduction to a story that had been up to that time one of the most controversial novels ever written, banned in most states and some countries for obscenity. Even today, the phrase “Peyton Place” carries the meaning of a morally corrupt community, a den of secrets, a bastion of promiscuity. You’d never know it by the inspiring travelogue over the opening credits.

The first few minutes of the film are really quite magnificent for establishing the setting, and the premise of the story. An outsider to this New England small town, who will be its new high school principal, drives through the countryside on his way to Peyton Place. Passing farms and fields, he arrives at a train crossing and must wait for the train to pass. He glances over to the dilapidated shacks by the tracks, and sees the downtrodden Cross family, whose story is to figure prominently in the film. He drives on, and we are left for the moment with Betty Field, the careworn mother trying to persuade her grown son not to run away from his violent, drunken stepfather, played by the wonderful Arthur Kennedy. We meet her lovely teenaged daughter Selena, played by Hope Lange, and when the slobbering Arthur Kennedy places a heavy hand on Miss Lange’s shoulder for a moment and she shudders, we have a premonition as to how things are going to play out for this wretched family.

We rejoin the new high school principal Mr. Rossi, played by Lee Philips, in his car again as he drives the rain-washed streets of the proper little town, passing the house of Lloyd Nolan, who plays the town doctor, as he comes out in his bathrobe to pick up his morning newspaper. The Doc shows us the headline about US neutrality threatened by Hitler, and we know we are in the early 1940s, just before America’s entry into World War II.

It is as perfect an opening five minutes a movie can get for immersing the audience in the place, the time, and the mood, setting us up for what’s going to happen as the film unfolds.

I would imagine, though, that most people going to see this movie when it was released in 1957 actually did know what was going to happen in the story; or at least thought they did. So many read the book.

There probably had never been up until that time a novel more vigorously criticized and yet more familiar to the public which avowed disgust for it, and claimed disinterest in it on moral grounds. Many called it a “dirty” book, but others evidently found it irresistible. The build-up for the book and the movie were tremendous.

Grace Metalious, the young author of “Peyton Place” was called the Pandora in Blue Jeans in the flood of publicity surrounding the publication of her novel because of her habit of dressing in jeans and flannel shirts, her hair tied back in a ponytail. It added to her intrigue, because she did not look like a glamorous all-knowing town gossip, yet gossip, some of it actually true, was what she peddled in her novel of seamy goings on in a New England mill town.

Her first published novel, the book came out when she was 33 years old. It stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for several months. It made her famous. It made her wealthy, for a time. In the wake of her success, however, there came a degree of pressure that she was perhaps unable to bear. Always a mercurial personality, somewhat self-pitying, obsessive and undisciplined, she died of alcoholism before she was 40. Part of the strain of her success was the ostracism by her community of Gilmanton, New Hampshire for their representation in “Peyton Place,” as much as for the lurid content of her book.

She didn’t help matters when publicizing her novel. In an interview with syndicated columnist Hal Boyle, she noted of Gilmanton, “To a tourist these towns look as peaceful as a postcard picture…but if you go beneath that picture, it’s like turning over a rock with your foot -- all kinds of strange things crawl out.”

This is an intriguing statement to make in view of the film’s beautiful postcard shots of an idyllic New England. We have the voiceover narration by the character of Allison MacKenzie, played very well with a great deal of natural talent by newcomer Diane Varsi, “Time was told not by the clock or the calendar, but by the seasons.” Anyone who has ever lived in New England knows how true this is. Varsi continues to speak in poetic terms of the seasons, and then adds, “There was a fifth season of love, and only the wise or the lucky ones knew where to find it.”

Compare this with how the book actually begins, “Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle…”

The lyrical narration of the film stands apart from the earthy language of the book, and there are so many other differences that illustrate a lot about what film was willing to accept at that time. The anxious, shy boy Norman Page, played by Russ Tamblyn in the film, is made miserable by his possessive mother. His mother’s relationship with Norman in the book is much more twisted and more explicitly so. In the novel, sexual assignations are obviously more frank. It has been suggested by present-day writers, including biographer Emily Toth in her “Inside Peyton Place” (Doubleday & Co., NY 1981) that Grace Metalious represents a beginning to the feminist movement, in part because of her willingness to address mature themes in a frank manner.

There may certainly be some element of that in the legacy of her novel, but I’m not sure I would go so far as to call Metalious a feminist herself. She boastfully admitted a dependence on husbands and lovers, and even bitterly referred to herself as having lost her womanhood when she underwent an hysterectomy. I think in Grace Metalious we have a writer who was not particularly crusading in terms of feminism, or class tension, or gutsy in depicting sex, but simply a woman who unselfconsciously wrote about what interested her, in the everyday speech she used herself. One of the strengths of her novel is its unselfconsciousness.

The film is the opposite in this respect, it is quite obviously self conscious and needs to toe the mark to acceptable social standards in the way the book does not. (Though even Metalious was reined in by her publishers and agent when they changed a key element in the first draft of her novel. She had originally written Selena Cross as getting raped by her biological father, Lucas Cross. To Ms. Metalious’ dismay, though the rape was allowed to be left in, they insisted that Lucas Cross be changed to her stepfather, rather than her father. Rape of a teenaged girl by a male guardian may be ugly, but by a father was evidently unacceptable. It did not seem to matter that this was one of a few episodes in the book that Metalious based on an actual event and real people.)

Other elements in the story, pregnancy by rape, abortion, suicide, murder were either diminished or attempted to be treated tastefully in the film. The shock of Allison MacKenzie on the discovery that her deceased father and her mother were never married remains, but the film’s manner of revealing this scandal later on in the story I think is more effective than it coming out early in the novel.

One thing the novel loses in the translation to film is the undercurrent of ethnic and class tension. The town’s largest employer, the textile mill owned by Leon Ames, whose spoiled son cavorts with the high school trollop, is represented as a backdrop to the story, showing us this is a mill town, but we get very little of the labor versus management, rich people versus poor people in the film than we do in the novel.

Grace Metalious said of the film that she was “pleasantly surprised, but I thought it was too sugar coated.” Well, yeah. It seems with a beguiling innocence Ms. Metalious thought her novel, which echoed and taught an entire generation of teenagers about sexual awakening, would be transferred to the screen literally.

Instead, producer Jerry Wald and director Mark Robson created something that was a hybrid of the novel, but that stood apart on its own, was its own creation.

When selecting a filming location, the town of Gilmanton, New Hampshire adamantly refused to have anything to do with the movie, because it felt that the book had already given the town a bad name. However, though some characters and some incidents told in the novel came from local town stories that Metalious had heard, Metalious admitted that probably 75% of the book was written before she’d ever moved to Gilmanton. Originally she came from the much larger industrial city of Manchester, New Hampshire, and the book depicts a composite of a New England mill town. She actually set the fictional Peyton Place along the Connecticut River, nowhere near Gilmanton.

Where then, is Peyton Place? It’s not Woodstock, Vermont either, a town farther up the Connecticut River that resembled what Metalious described, but refused to let Hollywood film, and brand, their town. Finally, Camden, Maine, a seaside village with no resemblance to Peyton Place in the novel, was chosen not only for its quintessential New England beauty, but its willingness (along with Rockland, and Belfast) to be portrayed as the sinful town.

Over 1,700 locals signed up to be extras in the film. So much for scandal.

The famous Whitehall Inn is depicted in the film. Here’s my photo compared to the movie scene. Here’s a link to my post on Edna St. Vincent Millay at the Whitehall on my New England Travels blog.

One opening overhead shot here looks a lot to me like Boothbay Harbor, Maine, but I can’t find any mention that any shots of Boothbay Harbor were used in the film. Maybe some of our readers can clarify that.

Here is the famous scene of Norman and Allison on the hill overlooking Peyton Place. It is actually Mount Battie in Camden. Here is my photo as it looks today, and from the film. It is truly one of the most lovely sights, and if you ever find yourself in Down East Maine, take a side trip up the auto road and treat yourself to a picnic in paradise.

Speaking of picnics, the film’s Labor Day picnic gives us a cheerful glimpse of small-town togetherness, (barbershop quartets and gluttonous little boys eating more than they should) glossing over the undercurrent of tension, underscoring the importance of the town’s apparently only mill to the local economy, and sets us up for more crisis and conflict.

The film deftly covers, if less frank and in less detail than the novel, a stream of subtle realities about conformity and the consequences of stepping outside what is acceptable. Though the younger actors, particularly Hope Lange, who is touching as the vulnerable Selena, have the weight of society on them, the older generations have an equal part in suffering the consequences of scandal. The small, but moving side story of spinster teacher Mildred Dunnock (last seen here in “I Want You” - 1951) getting cheated on her promotion to principal is one of the film’s many important subplots that are handled well and tell us much about the community with a light touch.

Interestingly, this movie made in 1957 about the early 1940s carries the veneer of nostalgia to it. A cozy, but not condescending, nostalgia. Mostly accurate, there are only a few costume choices which look more like 1957 than 1940. When we see the high school senior dance at the gym, with a banner lauding the class of 1941, we may well cringe with foreboding (as we did not in “Life Begins for Andy Hardy” in this post), that in six months the U.S. will be at war and some of these characters may be war casualties.

A lot happens in the film, but it flows so well, and so remarkably gently, that it remains entertaining throughout and one may actually forget the novel’s lurid reputation because the film is a thing apart. It’s fun to recognize individuals in the large cast, like Lorne Greene as the snide prosecuting attorney, and teen heartthrob David Nelson fresh from TV’s “Ozzie and Harriet” to play Hope Lange’s boyfriend.

Is the film the real Peyton Place? It was very well received, and made the novel perhaps more respectable, therefore making it more popular. Grace Metalious, though she wanted to move on to other projects, went back to the well and wrote a sequel, which was made into another movie (other TV incarnations followed), but this project she frankly admitted was only for the money. She could never really get away from her creation.

But perhaps her creation stopped being hers once it got into the hands of those teenagers and housewives, and all the readers who made it second to “Gone With the Wind” in books sold. Today, few have read the novel and many, thanks to TV, have seen the movie.

Gilmanton, New Hampshire probably need not have worried about “Peyton Place” ruining their town’s reputation, since Peyton Place quickly morphed into Everytown, USA. The film often diligently reminds us it is set in New England with the actors using a light New England-sounding long “ah” sound to vowels that is, if not totally accurate, is certainly enough. Norman is called Naahman by everybody.

It’s probably best when films suggest an accent rather than to try to completely replicate it, because our regional accents are so diverse, that audiences in another part of the country might not catch what is said. In the opening moments of the film when the new principal drives through the countryside and asks a farmer driving a horse-drawn plow for directions, listen to the farmer’s response in his authentic Yankee accent. Could you listen to that for two and a half hours? Particularly if you were from St. Louis, Tallahassee, or Cheyenne? I think not.

The only locals who seem not to use a New England accent are factory owner Leon Ames, who sounds southern, and Lana Turner as Allison MacKenzie’s mother Constance, who makes no attempt and also seems rather more glamorous than the average citizen of Peyton Place. Another actress might have added more depth to the role, though Miss Turner was big name whose stardom, and tragically coincidental real-life scandal, likely added welcome publicity for the film. Lana Turner, unlike many of the principle actors, never traveled to Camden, Maine to film her scenes. We see her strolling a lot past rear-screen projection.

The film ends with its own courtroom drama, with Selena on trial for the murder of her stepfather. Lloyd Nolan defends Selena by accusing the town of neglect, “She couldn’t trust us with the truth.”

“We’re all prisoners of each other’s gossip.”

“Our best young people leave as soon as they’re old enough to pay for the price of a bus ticket.”

“We’re a small town but a prosperous one, and yet we allow tar paper shacks to stand.”

He laments the community’s failure to look after its own. The film ends with another idyllic shot of a tree-covered street lined by houses and white picket fences, two kids lazily bicycling by, with another voiceover by Allison MacKenzie “We finally discovered that season of love. It is only found in someone else’s heart. Right now someone you know is looking everywhere for it, and it’s in you.”

A sweet and gentle way to end a movie based on a novel banned as obscene in several states and some countries. Where is Peyton Place, really? Somewhere back in the 1950s, when things were changing, and we knew even then nothing would be the same?

You might look for it in the “Peyton Place Archives” of the Camden Public Library.

Grace Metalious is buried in a far corner of a Gilmanton, New Hampshire cemetery. For all her resentment of small town oppression, she said in a 1961 interview, “I live there because I couldn’t stand to live anywhere else…in Gilmanton I don’t have to be part of the town.”

Incongruous? There’s a lot of that going around. Come back next Monday when the town picnic moves to the Midwest. Until then, below we have the idyllic ending to “Peyton Place”.

Here’s an interesting article by Sarah Schweitzer from the Boston Globe on the 50th anniversary of the publication of “Peyton Place.”

Grace Metalious is quoted in this post from the above-mentioned “Inside Peyton Place”.

For more on Camden, Maine filming locations, have a look at this website and also here.

For more on Grace Metalious, have a look at this article in Vanity Fair.


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