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Thursday, February 18, 2021

They Cried ... But They Loved It!


1948 Did Not Deserve Letter From An Unknown Woman

Still on the topic of women’s pictures, and how that term became a kind of prison from which few escaped to a wider audience. To designate a WP was to warn men off, children as averse to perceived bowls of mush. Why disdain emotional content of films? For many it represents an invasion of privacy. To make us cry in a theatre is to expose weakness, a recipe for public embarrassment. There are defenses to counter manipulation films will try. Audiences learned them all and became cynical. They’d laugh or resort to ridicule so as not to be thought soft. Men might permit themselves a tear when Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig gives his farewell speech, but to weep was otherwise verboten, a province for women predisposed to cry at the drop of hats. Universal-International noted audience rules and abided by them, as evidenced by a double-truck trade ad for Letter From An Unknown Woman announcing “They Cried … But They Loved It!” Yes, women were in closer touch with their emotions, did not shrink from displaying them, and long may they prosper for it. Universal, an entire industry, understood decision of what adults bought tickets for rested with wives, sweethearts, mothers. When did that policy evaporate, or did it? Never were critics so oblivious as when they addressed women’s pictures, applying broad brush dipped in lazy phraseology (and not just male critics ... I've seen woman-wrote reviews from the Classic Era that employ same damning tropes).

How many reviews used “soapy” or “sudsy” to describe a latest romance or melodrama, as if the writer feared expulsion from the bowling team should he like a latest Lana Turner (her post-Stompanatos especially). And spare me please, “tear-jerker.” Soapy/sudsy referred to soap operas, a fixture on radio, then television, sponsors for which were invariably bath and cleansing products. Someone should have given critics a good scrub to make their putdowns at least more creative. Come a day when I use soapy/sudsy will be time to set aside the quill and start weaving baskets at adult day care. Letter From An Unknown Woman was a delicate instrument trying to be heard over din of harsh, violent melodrama the choice of postwar audiences. Romance, let alone fragile, ill-fated romance, had become stuff of derision, a hark back, not steps forward. Fortnight’s critic spoke for most: “Letter From An Unknown Woman is one of those old-fashioned, sentimental, lavender cased pieces which have no particular resemblance to life, but which once had a great vogue in the theatre. It belongs to the East Lynne era, when women were gentle creatures, ruled by sentiment, easily seduced and betrayed, but, through it all, bravely loyal.” How better to tar an offering than to call it hopelessly old-fashioned, evoking East Lynne the ultimate razz, but what a hackneyed comparison this had become. Seems every time I pick up a 30-40’s critic compilation, some four or five of them resort to it.

There was a scripter named Nunnally Johnson, a fixture at Fox, willing supplicant to Zanuck (not a bad thing, actually). Johnson wrote letters as smarty-pant as films bearing his signature. I should think effort at being clever all the time would have exhausted him. A volume of Johnson's correspondence was published in 1981(The Letters of Nunnally Johnson), and if you want to see erudition do a smack-down of Letter From An Unknown Woman, there it is on pages 34-35. Got to admit Johnson’s take is funny, him calling out Letter for base absurdity, but how would his Algonquin-infected pals react if Nunnally said instead how much Letter From An Unknown Woman moved him, in fact left him dabbing a tear? (I'm supposing wise-acre screenwriters had bowling teams too) Such was contagion, fed I suspect by peer pressure, to deep-six drama viewers should instead meet halfway. Easier to brand them “art” or worse, a show world’s kiss of death. For attitudes so changed since 1948, one could say we progressed beyond trogs in charge at the time, but how was such a lovely Letter composed if trogs really were in charge? Many argue critics of the day were no barometer of quality, let alone permanence, but they did have the advantage of immediacy, an on-the-spot sense of how movies were received by their public. More attentive were those charged with putting Letter From An Unknown Woman over to whatever public might accept it, trying this, then that, whatever might soften resistance to product they knew would need special handling. Front line salesmen were hawkers, barkers … sure … but ablest where handed challenging merchandise, abetted by trade shows to help form strategy. Others might fly blind, book titles they knew little or nothing of, understandable if four or five features came through your doors each week, permitting no time to properly exploit them. Problem the industry had in those days was too much to handle, too little time to finesse it, let alone one that needed graceful promoting like Letter From An Unknown Woman.

Trade reviews had to focus on a film’s prospect for selling. They could, and did, recognize quality, but theirs was not a mission to reward aesthetics (a most perceptive Letter notice? I nominate Variety's). Those who kept up with trades were charged with getting maximum return from what would occupy their venues for a day, a week, possibly several weeks if things broke well. Trade reviews, then, were a voice for those who wanted Letter From An Unknown Woman, others like and unlike it, to succeed. Trades wished all and sundry well, even where pointing out weakness that may hobble a new release, like friends who observe you on a wrong path and try to put you right, trade scribes a salvage crew to repair wrecks, or potential ones, tenderest toward runts in a litter. What they did not recognize, could not be expected to recognize, were those films to be ennobled by the passage of time. Letter From An Unknown Woman was among ones we would ennoble, assuming “we” goes beyond latter-day critic consensus. I’d like to hear a 2021 audience respond to Letter From An Unknown Woman, good or ill, but will Fathom Events handle it? Not as this Earth turns.

Letter From An Unknown Woman
was made for everybody, pleased almost nobody, so reviewers insisted. Were they polling at exit doors? Too many critics considered ticket-buyers a lot of rabble. Bosley Crowther again exerted baleful influence over readers of The New York Times: “Wistful and “schmaltzy” … It will choke you with rhetoric and tommy-rot,” this a background to Broadway’s Rivoli (above) trying to sell two thousand tickets per showing of Letter From An Unknown Woman. Could a Crowther derail an otherwise promising show? Yes, and often, said insiders (had I been Rivoli management, seen Crowther out eating, I might have dumped spaghetti in his lap). A first week of Letter From An Unknown Woman did “moderately well” with $31K, dipped to $20K for a second stanza, was over and out with $12K in the third. What made such numbers grind was known necessity that Letter From An Unknown Woman recover a major portion of its cost from Gotham engagements, being an urban sort of attraction, if it was an attraction at all. Should receipts freeze here, then everywhere would be a white wilderness.

Interesting Publicity Still of Louis Jourdan in Modern Dress Reading His Letter From the Unknown Woman

First rule of exhibition was to work with what you had and make the best of it. Being pro enough at selling meant you could take a thing no one else had made work and … make it work. Such showmen were realists, knowing well what they were up against. To make money off Red River or The Paleface in 1948 was a pipe, putting Letter From An Unknown Woman across made you a hero to the home office and a next gathering of region staff. Remember this about exhibitors: They were a positive force on behalf of films, didn’t knock them down as critics were wont to do. Columns beat drums that year for The Red Shoes, arty in a way to make anyone who praised it look arty too, but The Red Shoes had boxoffice, albeit for “sure-seaters” and special engagements, while off in a corner stood Letter From An Unknown Woman, a picture that needed support, but never really got it, at least from reviewing precincts.

Among those who tried to turn a tide was Dick Feldman of Syracuse’s Paramount Theatre. He made a project of Letter From An Unknown Woman, ran it with Universal’s Casbah, Syracuse a fairground to spread the good word. One Feldman gag was solid enough to earn trade reportage and a spot in Unknown Woman’s pressbook (above). Dick’s postcard (or letter) stunt had been used before, would be again by Selznick operative Paul Macnamara for Portrait of Jennie a same year. Mail that looked real was sent to random addresses, handwritten entreaty from possibly a friend, to go and see Letter From An Unknown Woman. Syracuse mail carriers and wives were invited gratis to the show, Feldman hammering a “Letter” theme so far as nails could penetrate public awareness.

I now inquire of all --- When was Letter From An Unknown Woman canonized? Olive has released it twice on Blu-Ray, the second time with abundant extras. Well-deserved, and about time, but at what point did this one join immortals of the screen? I venture a guess, a theory maybe cock-eyed, but here it is: Letter From An Unknown Woman was among a group of 30 features that lost money and were seized in the early 50's by loaning entity the Bank of America. BOA had no interest in exhibition, and so sold the lot to General Teleradio, after which latter made the 30 available to syndication. First off the mark was WOR in Gotham, the package ratings gold throughout 1954. Movies this good, all major and star-laden, had not been available to TV before. They were run over week-long periods, repeated each night. Millions saw them, then saw them again. Letter From An Unknown Woman was among the crop. Here is where it would finally find an audience. From such exposure are major rediscoveries made. I say WOR, then nationwide spread of the BOA-30, is what gave birth to Letter From An Unknown Woman as a classic. Film journals and revival showings would do the rest, plus Max Opuls installation as auteur for the ages. Early as 1973 came my own awareness of Letter From An Unknown Woman as something special, at which time I grabbed a packet of stills Moon Mullins had no further use of (they accompany this post). Waited another ten or so years to finally see the movie. What a boon is digital, for 16mm prints were come by but rarely. Of course, they didn't look nearly so good as 
Letter From An Unknown Woman on Blu-Ray. 


Blogger Kevin K. said...

Yesterday I saw "Humoresque" for the first time since circa 1970. I think it's a good example of a movie that could have sold either as a woman's picture or a straight ahead Garfield vehicle. Of course, it helps that Oscar Levant (and his self-written dialogue) are present throughout.

I admire the studios for unashamedly making movies "for women". If there are any movies today in that genre, they're more "empowering" than tear-jerking. For the record, the last movie that made me cry was "Babe" -- yes, the one about the pig.

1:37 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Terry Ramsaye, in his 1925 A MILLION AND ONE NIGHTS AT THE MOVIES, wrote that the audience for motion pictures is between 11 and 30, primarily 14 to 24, and primarily female. That was until the mid 1970s when the decision was made to go after 13 year old boys.

Going after boys meant the loss of women and men. Smart move.

Good follow up post.

4:08 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

A question you might hazard a guess on, John: when did the "ladies' matinée" die out? Pioneer exhibitors wanted to goose up their otherwise slack afternoon attendance by imitating the matinée policy of legitimate theaters. These showmen catered especially to women, who could enjoy a romantic story while their husbands/boyfriends were busy during the day. That was a dependable market, and it wouldn't surprise me if women who enjoyed a matinée movie persuaded their male escorts to accompany them to a performance the next night.

I realize that studios couldn't recoup their production costs solely from the matinées, but I wonder if the matinées were still a viable consideration by 1948. Would daytime television have put an end to them?

The specialty audience strategy also applied to westerns, which started out as standard weeknight programming but soon became the backbone of Saturday matinées for kids. Exhibitors were going after a "market share," to use a more recent expression.

7:55 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Superb post, John, but just that one color shot of the fully decorated Rivoli was worth the price of admission alone!

9:24 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

NC had Ladies Matinees right along through the 60's. One that came up at Greenbriar previous (2018) was for A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG:

9:39 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Another angle on Ladies' Matinees: I suspect they were first conceived as a way for Respectable But Unescorted Women to see a movie without enduring Unwanted Overtures, or Social Censure for going out unescorted in the first place. You've spoken of getting looks for attending an MGM Children's Matinee as an adult. Would you have gotten fisheyes at a Ladies' Matinee? Would they have even let you in?

I turned senior in 2020, so I've yet to enjoy the senior discounts most cinemas offer. At least around here I don't see them based on showtimes. Instead, everybody gets in a bit cheaper at those off-peak screenings. Are there significantly different demographics for various showtimes any more?

6:39 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

I ran what we called "Ladies Shopper Shows" until 1974.

7:52 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff considers LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, and the time he encountered the film's producer, John Houseman:

Dear John:

Quite an interesting post about a genuine "delicate instrument" of a movie. For the most part, this is the most fully realized and certainly the most emotionally haunting of Max Ophuls' American films, and it often feels more like a European picture in tone than a product of Hollywood.

I first saw this at a screening in 1974 and was profoundly moved by it. I felt -- and still feel, for that matter -- that neither Fontaine nor Jourdan, while good actors, were well suited for their roles. But the director so wistfully and sadly put across Zweig's unique story of time, devotion, loss and heartbreak, it was difficult not be deeply drawn into the story. I've never forgotten this one.

Dave K is right -- that color photo of the Rivoli marquee is wonderful.

As a clerk in a New York City bookstore in the mid-1980s, I once waited on an elderly and perhaps slightly distracted John Houseman; as I rang up his purchase, I couldn't resist the impulse to congratulate him on LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, which he had produced. The moment I mentioned the film, I had his full attention. He replied (in that famously resonant voice), "LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN? That's a good movie!" He smiled. So did I. He was right.

-- Griff

5:04 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer remembers LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN (Part One):

I was sitting in the small screening room, the one with the glass screen, watching the final moments of a movie. The composer looked up from a letter, his face streaked with tears. He asked his servant whether he knew the name of the woman who had written it. The servant nodded and wrote a name on a piece of paper. The composer realized that the love he had sought had been his all along, if only he had known it. He also realized that he would not be taking the train away from the city that morning. He dressed and walked out of the apartment building. It seemed for a moment that the she was standing behind the outer door, just as she had all those many years ago, terribly shy but already very much in love with him. The image faded and he went on his way. He had an appointment to keep with a man who was a very good shot.

During your collecting days, you would share with me special films you had discovered, such as “Hot Saturday,” “I Know Where I’m Going,” and “A Cottage on Dartmoor.” Always they were revelations, broadening my understanding of the human heart and how a film might reach it. This one was “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” directed by Max Ophuls and based on a novella by Stefan Sweig. I seemed unfamiliar with Ophuls then, though later I remembered a showing of “La Ronde” at the Temple University Cinematheque years before, a film I thought remarkable for its insight into love and how it is expressed, even if the name of its director was not impressed upon my memory. As it was, the sweeping camera movements or the way sound was used — the swish of the fabric of a dress or the sound of steps leaving a carpeted area for the bare wood of a staircase — were enthralling.

The period in which the story takes place, Vienna at the turn of the century, was lovingly recreated, with concert halls, restaurants, and cafes in baroque buildings filigreed with rich ornamentation, or amusement parks with cunning illusions of worlds found only by rich travelers or in dreams. It is only a setting, however, for a film concerned essentially with the interior life. I have read that this film is the “perfect melodrama,” but while that was considered to be high praise, it suggests that “Letter from an Unknown Woman” was exaggerated and sensationalistic. For myself, it was the very stuff of truth, the tragedy that may ensue when one loves and one is loved.

An unrequited love may blossom into what is almost an obsession, as though its very intensity must find a response. A young girl hears the most profound music, her heart opens, and afterwards, there will be nothing for her other than its realization. Such a love can easily absorb a person’s lifetime and seemingly rob her of any happiness that she might find with anyone else. The tragedy, however, is that she could never be satisfied with another life or another person. When the heart has left its mooring place, it can go back no more.

Such is the girl’s love and her tragedy. The composers is of a different sort, so focused on his own ideal of love that he cannot appreciate the love offered him by someone else. At best, that person will be a fleeting expression of what he endlessly seeks within, in a search that must remain fruitless, when love is not one but two. Even when he reaches out, the distance that lies between his heart and another’s is only extended by that much.

9:15 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Dan Mercer:

The performances by Louis Jourdan and Joan Fontaine are perfect, each one seemingly enthralled by an ideal so very close to realization that it must be pursued, even to the very end of one’s life, if that life itself is to be realized. It is really Joan Fontaine’s movie, though, for all of it is told from the perspective of her character. The teenager, drawn between the clumsiness of her becoming and the sublimity of the love she has discovered, the young woman with a life of promise opening before her, but who cannot bear to turn away from her vision, the one whose embrace for a moment melded his own ideal with reality, if he could have known it, or the woman who had borne a child of that love and found a life that would have restored her to what was considered respectability, if that was what she wanted: all these phases of a woman’s life are superbly expressed in a performance that is very like a pool of clear water, catching the sun. He remembers now, because, in seeing their lives through her eyes, his heart has at last been opened to love.

Years before, I had attended a showing by Wake Forest’s wonderful repertory theater of Hitchcock’s “Rebecca.” It was the first time I had seen it. Afterwards, I was walking back to the dormitories with a group of young men and women I recognized as being fellow law students. I never had much to do with them, the cliques and groups of the class being what they were, yet on this evening, there was a freshness to our conversation, as though we were still enraptured by the film we had just seen and did not want that mood to dissipate just yet. For that little while, we were much closer than we were before or would be again. For myself, I realized that much of that had to do with Joan Fontaine’s performance, which so captured the innocence and sensitivity of the unnamed second Mrs. De Winter that I should have wanted to have interposed myself between her and the challenges she was faced with. But I realized that if she were to become an authentic woman, as she did, then this would be interference. If I loved her, I could only join her in this, but not hold her back. Such, then, was a performance, that she should become for me someone more real than others I knew in this life.

I understand that Joan Fontaine in person was perhaps closer to Rebecca than the character she played in that movie, or in “Letter from an Unknown Woman” or “The Constant Nymph,” for that matter. If so, it merely demonstrates that an artistic sensibility can transcend the limitations of character or circumstances to give expression to an ideal, and thus provide a further revelation of the human heart, with its volumes and variations.


9:17 PM  

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