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Monday, December 28, 2020

Why Must Any Movie Appeal To But One Gender?


Critic, Choose Your Weapon

It is given that men must not admire women’s pictures, a truism then, and as much so now. The term since what, the 80’s?, is “chick flick,” as damning as “weeper,” “soaper,” name the poison. To like a woman’s picture was equivalent to embrace of romance novels or “True Love” mags off a newsstand rack. Worse was forfeit of maleness itself should a man endorse films best attended by a fairer sex. Who among them would catch a latest Bette Davis by himself? Ones who saw these at all were presumed to have been dragged there by women. What with men in uniform, 40's femme-centered features took high placement they’d not enjoy again. Soon as the war was over, rules changed for women’s pictures appealing not just to women, this by way of playing rougher and let wronged wives or sweethearts square account with erring mates by whatever violent means was handy. Plus tamp up the sex so that men could enjoy better the suffering of an Ann Sheridan, Gene Tierney, or Lana Turner. What we call “film noir” was to large extent women’s pictures refitted for men back from combat, or boys hardened by account of fighting from father/brothers. Women’s pictures in extremis these were, so much as to seem not like women’s pictures at all, Mildred Pierce a butch heroine pursuing many of things men wanted, money, status, partners useful on practical terms. Leave Her To Heaven and The Postman Always Rings Twice featured women aggressive to a killing point, and what men late of life-death struggle wouldn’t find that engaging?

To Each His Own
, beside these, was lavender and old lace, WWI- set in a small town where a worse thing that can happen to a single girl happens to Olivia De Havilland. Latter being David who publicly slew an industry Goliath (WB) made unwed motherhood pale by comparison, so setting strife a generation back lent conviction where the theme done modern may have seemed smaller matter a resourceful woman might overcome. It was six years after all, plus eternity of wartime, since Kitty Foyle. Dealing with a past was dealing with morality way more rigid, to which some became impatient, even hostile. Critic Herb Sterne: “In theme, To Each His Own is the type of sob saga that today still seeks to rape the lachrymal ducts between the hand-lotion advertisements and the cake recipes of the women’s magazines.” Now there’s a review fairly dripping of condescension, typical of darts thrown at distaff drama. Sterne lauds “atmosphere … carefully sustained,” finding De Havilland “wonderfully effective,” soothing words like candy given a child that’s been punished too severely. If a man reviewed a picture like To Each His Own, he just about had to pull back on praise, or make it faint enough that dogs wouldn’t hear. The gentle-or-not-pan, mildest approval weighted by sarcasm, was all most males had to give where it came to a genre easier to scorn, or at the least, ridicule.

James Agee’s was a moderate voice, but not on behalf of, or even in disapproval, of To Each His Own, him souring the more as 1946 wore on and reference to the film continued to surface in columns the critic wrote. Excerpts from these reveal how drama directed toward women could get under the skin of a man. An initial TIME review (6/17/46), credited to Agee and Hillis Mills, stuck a knife at least part-way in, To Each His Own “a double helping of expertly stewed, exquisitely served corn … in the hallowed, melodramatic tradition of Way Down East.” Had Agee forgot that to scotch melodrama was to do away with the essence of movies? His stab went deeper: “Besides the millions of women it is aimed at, the film may interest students of the fantasy-life of US womanhood in its less attractive aspects.” Fighting words, assuming Agee or any critic was taken seriously for social comment, as opposed to just steering us to, or away from, current films. Something was broiling however, for Agee wasn’t done --- he’d be back to attack To Each His Own on 7/6/46, this time writing for The Nation, “I cannot recommend To Each His Own highly enough to those who can still bear to be interested in what goes on in the cerebral powder-rooms of middle-class American women; or who still care to measure the depths to which some professionals will dive, self-deluded or otherwise, in the effort to profit by the pathological aspects of such women.” Whatever skill To Each His Own displayed, said Agee, was “irresponsibly employed.” Did his wives or girlfriends read this stuff? If so, I bet he spent nights on the couch, or arrived home to find clothes strewn on the lawn.

Again came the critic (8/31/46), his principal focus The Big Sleep, “a violent, smoky cocktail” that offered “nonsensical solace of hard rain on a tin roof.” Apt phrasing, we could all wish to be as fluent, but what made Agee turn a laser on To Each His Own in the midst of this, his defense of The Big Sleep based in part on comparison with “the really bottomless vileness of films like, for instance, To Each His Own, which walk the streets unchallenged and never even pass a serious medical inspection, it seems to me about as toxic as a package of Tums.” Now this is hating a movie bad, but Agee had venom in him yet. Last mention made of To Each His Own was 10/26/46, this time in a review of import The Well-Digger’s Daughter, which also dealt with “the consequences of having an illegitimate child.” Agee admired the French film, thought it forthright and honest, To Each His Own all the more a canker beside it, “so little worth talking about that I will make few more comparisons: let it suffice that from the moment the girl knows she is pregnant she acts like the moral coward nearly everyone in Hollywood and in the audience requires her to be, and that every plot complication and tearjerk from there on proceeds from, and exploits, premises of cowardice, cynicism, and the rottenest kinds of sentimentality.”

Where critic attack is so vicious as this, you begin to wonder if somehow it might be personal. Did To Each His Own strike a nerve in Agee’s own life, a family problem intersecting with the narrative? I’ve known people to turn on a film where it reminds them of a person or event they’d as soon forget. There seems nothing in To Each His Own to merit such outbursts, much less coming back to the topic over a period of months to renew the grudge. To Each His Own is about a nice girl in a small town who meets a WWI flyer, spends a night with him, finds herself in a family way just as word comes that he won’t be back to speak wedding vows. TCM ran To Each His Own in HD some time back and I watched. As melodrama, “woman’s” or not, it is splendidly done, acted finely down the line, scrupulous to the period depicted. Olivia De Havilland transitions from dew of youth to harsh middle age. The actress would refer to hers as a “Madame X” part, fitting because like that one and Stella Dallas, mother love is what makes Each go round. To call De Havilland's "Jody" a “moral coward,” the film vile without bottom, suggests To Each His Own went ferociously afield of occasions where the theme was done before, not the case, however, from where I sat. To Each His Own was well-received for giving its audience a set of conflicts, then a resolution, that would satisfy and send all home assured that no status quo had been challenged. This may be what got Agee's goat. Did he feel it was time we upturned spent standards, in fact all of ones To Each His Own upheld?

I wanted the average 1946 viewer’s response, and again got it from Conrad Lane, though I use “average” advisedly for suspecting few moviegoers of the time were so perceptive as Conrad. He remembers To Each His Own vividly, went with his lately back-from-service brother and latter’s wife to see it. Conrad at sixteen thought To Each His Own was terrific, but how willing was he to share that approval with other boys at school? Mostly it was girls he engaged on the subject, and they were eager to talk about To Each His Own, pleased no doubt to know a boy who would admit liking the movie. It surely took a mighty secure guy to carry banners for To Each His Own. And think of how doing so put him in good with any number of fair classmates he might want to know better. I certainly used Gone With The Wind to that effect at college age, on one occasion running my 16mm print at an all-girl prep school, hundreds of them in attendance, me the only boy. It was like that time Bob Hope bragged of being a night watchman at Vassar. Of course, by the time I came up, they weren’t making movies like To Each His Own anymore. My fixes all came from television --- Intermezzo, Mr. Skeffington, The Heiress. Let the record show I adored them all, still do.

To Each His Own
is much about “judging.” Publicity acknowledged it, plus suffocating morality observed twenty-five years before, distance which made situations palatable. Old times were not better times in this context. Out-of-wedlock childbirth was messy still … consider Ingrid Bergman’s upcoming scandal … and To Each His Own being Code-blessed meant De Havilland suffered plenty for transgressing. Was/is there such a thing as “Love Too Exquisite To Last,” as if a really good tumble must always be punished somehow? It amuses me to think of how stars and studios put across stuff like this while pursuing libertine lives offscreen, depending, of course, on how powerful or insulated from consequence they were. Syrup poured over sin was often a theme song purred by whatever crooner “understood,” in this case Tony Martin, whose To Each His Own platter was lobby-given to “The First 200 Ladies” in attendance (so what if a guy wanted one, would he be marched out of doors as a disgrace to his gender?). Offscreen familial spat between Olivia De Havilland and sister Joan Fontaine lent To Each His Own further frisson. A still taken at the Academy Awards banquet (Olivia won) suggests she snubbed Joan when the latter came forward to congratulate. Both acknowledged later that this was indeed the case, a feud to flash on/off forever. Lots of lore is out there on To Each His Own, producer Charles Brackett’s diary as edited by Anthony Slide and published in 2014 (It's The Pictures That Got Small: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood's Golden Age), plus the classic survey of director Mitchell Leisen’s career by David Chierichetti. To read these is to feel you were on board for whole of production and release of To Each His Own, film history beautifully told.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

I think your take on Agee is correct. Anybody who hates a movie but keeps returning to it must have some deep emotional connection to it - unless they're really hating themselves for secretly enjoying it. I tend to forget movies I dislike pretty quickly ("Hillbilly Elegy" for example, which I only now just remembered after about a month).

And that photo of De Havilland and Fontaine is classic. There's no hatred that can compare to that between siblings.

9:50 AM  
Blogger James Abbott said...

First off -- I sure LOVE Bela Lugosi's Christmas card! I certainly wish I was on his Christmas list!

There are several (several? Hundreds!) of movies I hate; every now and then I will return to one or two of them to see if I have misjudged them. Usually, I haven't and just walk away from them again.

Watching and re-watching a movie you despise does seem to point to some kind of pathology.....

11:20 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

James Abott: Your first reaction tends to be correct. Occasionally I'll revisit a movie that I had mixed feelings about -- or at least was unsure one way or the other. Often I like it more the second time (for example, Woody Allen's "Stardust Memories"). But if it's a true dislike, it stays that way.

3:53 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Professional film-makers - and other artists - almost always have an audience in mind when they create their art; it's very rare (but it does happen) that film (and other) professional artists create work purely for art's (or their own) sake.
That their films can appeal to such narrow segments of the population is a testament to their creative skills, particularly to the accuracy of their creative instincts in deploying those skills to affect the particular audience they are seeking to impress.
In this light, it comes as no surprise to me that some films - some of them great and successful films, which have had profound effects upon others - have had little appeal for me: such films were simply not made for my type, and their makers knew well what they were doing and how to go about it. Those films appeal to those they were designed to appeal to; and that is almost the very definition of artistic success for a film-maker. To succeed beyond that is usually an unexpected bonus.

8:40 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

E-mail from Griff (Part One)

Dear John:

The book edited by Anthony Slide, "It's the Pictures That Got Small: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood's Golden Age," received a certain amount of press when it was published in late '14, but I wonder whether enough people understand this is kind of an essential read for those interested in Brackett, Wilder, Paramount during the '40s and Hollywood in general. Columbia University Press published it. This is absolutely worth checking out.

Come to think of it, Brackett, whose writing and careful production supervision was certainly integral to the success of the project, is barely named or cited anywhere else in your fine post (the ad featuring the long line at Radio City does mention and credit Brackett). This was, after all, billed as "a Mitchell Leisen production," though it was produced and mostly written by Brackett.

Though they were a celebrated writer-producer-director team at Paramount, Brackett and Wilder did not necessarily exclusively work together.

I think I have this timeline right... after some preliminary work, Brackett decided that DOUBLE INDEMNITY was not his glass of tea, and Wilder went on to write it with Chandler with Joe Sistrom producing. That year, Brackett supervised and was the de-facto producer (he's billed as "associate producer") of THE UNINVITED. The team reconvened afterwards to adapt and make THE LOST WEEKEND.

At some point after finishing WEEKEND (which wrapped in late '44 and was mostly completed early in '45; Paramount did not release this until November of '45), Wilder became attached to the allies' Psychological Warfare Division and was stationed in Germany for a time. Back at Paramount, Brackett wrote the original story for OWN, scripting the film with Jacques Thery. He set Mitchell Leisen to direct, and produced the movie.

I can't let this go -- in interviews to the end of his life, Billy Wilder vilified Leisen as a mostly untalented former art director/costume designer (Wilder actually described Leisen's background in design in considerably harsher, politically incorrect terms) who had ruined (definitely not the term Wilder used) the Brackett & Wilder scripts for MIDNIGHT, ARISE, MY LOVE and HOLD BACK THE DAWN. Wilder hinted strongly that Leisen's incompetence had fueled his determination to direct his own material. For decades, I thought, well, Wilder -- certifiably a great film artist -- must know what he's talking about, right?

Nope. Wilder remained cranky about the whole thing; back in the day disagreements with Leisen still lingered in his craw, and God knows, he certainly believed that he could do a better job directing his material than this guy. Okay, perhaps he was right about that. But Mitchell Leisen didn't mess up (still not the term that Wilder used, but closer) the Brackett & Wilder scripts (or Preston Sturges' EASY LIVING or REMEMBER THE NIGHT, for that matter).

He made swell movies out of them. And HOLD BACK THE DAWN (though Wilder never forgave either Leisen and DAWN star Charles Boyer for their roles in compromising portions of the Brackett & Wilder script) is really a superior melodrama (particularly for Paramount), with a brilliant de Havilland performance.

11:15 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Griff:

I would suppose that Charles Brackett didn't altogether agree with Wilder's dismissal of Leisen's talent. At any rate, he respected him enough to want him to direct OWN*... and even more importantly, remembered De Havilland's terrific work in DAWN and had the studio hire the recently-freed-from-Warners-indentured-servitude actress to play the lead. The result was one of Paramount's best movies of the 1940s.

TO EACH HIS OWN had its world premiere at Radio City Music Hall on May 23, 1946. Was it Paramount's top-grossing movie of the year? I recall someone asserting that at some point. Well, it might have been the studio's top-grossing drama of the year, anyway; after all, didn't ROAD TO UTOPIA and BLUE SKIES come out in '46?

Anyway, big hit, great movie. "Woman's picture?" Well, yes. But like the other fine pictures you cite -- SKEFFINGTON, INTERMEZZO, THE HEIRESS -- it is so well crafted and created, it has something to offer almost anyone. Except, apparently, James Agee. Your post fascinatingly reflects upon the celebrated critic's distaste for this; it's difficult to draw direct conclusions here, but your comments are most thoughtful.

I watched this again on Peacock in October. Someone needs to take a look at this and fix it up it a bit for Blu-ray, but even streaming, OWN remains powerful and rewarding. The emotional tension mounts throughout, and the picture runs just over two hours. The unhappiness of the de Havilland character is almost palpable; she tries to live with it, forget her personal tragedy, but she can't fool herself to that extent.

She can't fool Roland Culver, either, the movie's spiky-but-caring, terribly British deus-ex-machina character. Culver has a simple line late in the picture to the John Lund character, who is puzzled as to why and how all these sudden kindnesses and considerations are occurring for him and his fiance. Referring to de Havilland's character, he gently says, "A gift from Miss Norris."

Boy, the sniffling must have started en masse at the Music Hall at that point. It certainly did for my wife and I in our living room. No ridicule here -- from either gender.

She loved the movie, although for a while she wondered when we were going to get to hear the Livingston & Evans title song. I explained that it was written to promote the movie, and it didn't make it into the film. If only we'd been in line at the State-Lake on opening day!

Regards -- and the happiest of New Year's greeting to you and yours --

-- Griff
* Toward the end of his tenure at Paramount, after he and Wilder had creatively parted, Brackett hired Leisen to direct his production of THE MATING SEASON (1951), from a script by Brackett, Walter Reisch and Richard L. Breen.

11:16 AM  
Blogger EricSwede said...

Thanks for featuring this fine movie. Leisen was a very talented director. I went through something very similar to Mr. McElwee regarding Wilder and his disparaging comments on Leisen. I came to the same conclusion after watching all the movies in question.
Thanks also for mentioning the David Chierichetti book "Hollywood Director." A great book, fascinating. I haven't come across many oral histories by Paramount people (other than about Wilder or DeMille) and the book includes interviews with Fred MacMurray (Dorothy Lamour made him do it), Ray Milland (not afraid to make a salty comment) and others behind the scenes. The book recounts Olivia de Havilland visiting a dying Leisen at the Motion Picture home and it's very touching. She was a very classy lady.
You can get the book at Amazon.

3:34 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Griff: Billy referred to his b-movie director brother W. Lee Wilder as "a dull son of a bitch", which makes me think he didn't like anybody other than himself.

3:44 PM  

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