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Monday, October 03, 2022

Where Virtue Lost Is Not Got Back


More Than the Code Ruled Content

Lana Turner as “Lily James” in A Life of Her Own (1950) declares “men have been buzzing around me since I was fourteen,” which we can believe because it is as much Lana talking as the character she portrays. A Life of Her Own was, for whatever reason, a picture she disdained. It also took lumps from director George Cukor in hindsight, one he did “for the team.” Fact A Life of Her Own lost money seemed confirmation of what both felt. Easy to dismiss a thing when chances are you will not watch again after a poor first impression. There are pictures I saw fifty years ago that still rank “bad.” Nicety of television was it giving second, in fact many more, chance, to films written off by those who made them and folk who initially watched. I came upon A Life of Her Own some while back and took it for efficient melodrama, but again … by chance … it rose to surface a same recent week as The Rains Came (1939), another from inactive service, and ding went the bell, for two never went so felicitous together, nor made such salient point re morality and punishment for lack of it. Ever have that happen, a pair seemingly unrelated, yet somehow, they wed? What A Life of Her Own and The Rains Came speak is volumes about attitude and fencing around stories told when the Code was in force. Yes, they abided to rules, had to in order to get a release and play subscribing theatres, but philosophy they express was very much felt by all producing and, I suspect, most that were watching. These were attitudes less imposed upon filmmakers than embraced by them plus watchers in 1939/1950. Think the Code was heinous to all of these? I maintain a majority worked quite agreeably within its bounds. If writing is barometer, then cuffs were a comfort, an ongoing assurance that status quos would remain in force, each applying talent willingly toward necessary end.

Moral Vagabond Tom Ransome (George Brent) for Whom All Will Be Forgiven.
Image Courtesy Mark Vieira/Starlight Studios

The Rains Came
posits moral transgressors of both sexes. One will prevail and end happy, the other to die upon heels of rejection and disgrace. Source was a popular novel by Louis Bromfield, who knew from what translated best to movies and had wealth to show for it. The Rains Came is of Brit gentlefolk caught in maelstrom that is India during rainy season, an earthquake nature’s afterthought. Leads are essentially Myrna Loy and George Brent, in part because latter role was intended for Ronald Colman almost to eve of filming. Tyrone Power stands in for native exotica, costumed and passively bait for Loy lust to tip us early of her fallen woman state. If Sabu had a grown-up counterpart, it was Power here. Compare fate of Loy-Brent characters in The Rains Came and know code behind the Code, only events were not so much imposed upon writing as reflective of how personnel saw life and their notion of how uprightly it should be conducted. Clarence Brown, guest director loaned by MGM, was conservative by outlook, as we assume were Bromfield and screen translators Philip Dunne and Julien Josephson. Brent is presented as indolent, a drinker to excess, at work on a portrait he'll never finish, but withal the son of an Earl (“one of the best families in England”), so he will not want for welcome at social-climber receptions, or the palace at Ranchipur. Snobbery is rampant among Brit outliers who aspire to society placement, seeking company always of “proper people, the kind of people one knows.” They seek out “Tom Ransome” (Brent) despite his being a known “drunkard and a bounder and a remittance man.” Just to reacquaint, I looked up remittance man and got this: “an emigrant supported or assisted by payments or money from home.” 

Two Who Loved Illicitly, But Only One Will End Happy. Image Courtesy Mark Vieira/Starlight Studios

Myrna Loy as “Lady Edwina Esketh” is a woman of (too many) affairs, miserably married to lordly Nigel Bruce, who along with many of his class will perish in the quake, God-directed separation of wheat from chaff. Edwina once shared an illicit bed with Ransome, so they have no illusions regarding one another. She is a ruined woman as defined by The Rains Came, having had more men than to qualify for morality’s perceived majority. She is carnal and indiscreet, making herself available to Ransome within moments of their reunion. A first sight of Power as “Major Rama Safti” calls forth further indelicacy: “Who’s the pale copper Apollo?” to which answer she further observes, “Not bad … not bad at all.” The remark good as seals her fate. There will be pursuit on Edwina’s part, to which the Major/Doctor initially does not respond (busy treating plague victims), love awakened only when it is too late for Edwina, her having drunk diseased water after selflessly nursing for days w/o sleep, this a first worthwhile act of a misspent life, but not enough to forgive rampant promiscuity. Ransome on the other hand will marry a girl barely eighteen (Brenda Joyce) who has fairly begged him to seduce her from narrative start, loving him in part for entering their union with a reputation “already so tarnished.” So, the rake has inherited this blighted earth but will help to rebuild it, while Major Safti will recover from what amounts to boyish infatuation to assume the duties of Maharajah. Long live double standards. Hollywood believed in them whatever the dictates of a Production Code. I’m not sure they’ve given way even to now. Surely policy remained in force by 1950 and A Life of Her Own

The Model Once Hot Who Now Is Not (Ann Dvorak)

Lee Levels with Lily to Fact She Will Ultimately Belong to Him

Barry Sullivan as “Lee Gorrance” spells out for Lana Turner’s Lily James the proper place of ruined women. Lee knows the sort; he’s trafficked in them and now finds Lily among their sorry ranks. A Life of Her Own tells of a small-town girl arrived in Gotham to be a fashion model, the slope slippery as most knew mannequins barely from showgirls or streetwalkers. Lily is wise to extent of afore-spoke buzzing men, though she has never truly loved before (Turner approaching thirty at time Life was made), and now comes married Ray Milland to start her “down the chute,” as Gorrance later puts it. There are warnings along the way, Lily befriended by wash-out colleague Ann Dvorak who drank and whored her modeling career away, “You can’t help people like Mary” a cold summing-up by Gorrance, who much as one might disapprove of his outlook, can’t call him outright wrong, at least so far as writers present him. Tragic Mary wants “a new man” as there’s “nothing to show” for ones she has had, but now it is too late, and her sixteenth-floor window beckons. Milland shows up post-the-jump and Lily lies down for him despite a wife he has back in Oregon, an invalid and in all ways sympathetic. “Steve Harleigh” is in Gotham to sell copper, has his way w/ Lily, flies out leaving pal and business associate Louis Calhern to sweep up by way of a gift the latter will pick for her, a “pay-off’ she wants no part of. Here is where morality’s engine starts, for Calhern knows Steve and his wife well enough to protect both from interloping Lana, his voice loudest to denounce, a switch for Calhern after the faithless husband he played opposite another invalid wife in The Asphalt Jungle of a same year.

Outlaw Lover Meets Martyred Mate --- Which Will Prevail?

This all would convolute badly but for writer Isobel Lennart and director George Cukor pacing it to plentiful sense and being admirably true to nature of compromised people. Again, we have Hollywood living up to standards they’d never observe themselves, offscreen Lana Turner a best show of real-life conduct under moral fire. Still, we want (or did want) admirable examples, so Dutch uncle Calhern gets in his licks and all including Lana listen, a speech almost biblical: “You have to think morally about what’s right and what’s wrong. Do you think you could ever be happy again if you did this thing? You know you wouldn’t … nobody could. If you did this, you could never believe yourself decent again.” Now I ask the panel, was this generally held belief re infidelity and swapping one spouse for another? I say yes, Code or no Code, at least so far as the town’s aspiration to be good and righteous. If they violated such precepts, there was reassurance of feeling properly guilty for it. Money and position greased many a conscience, but writers-producers knew guidelines the rest of us should follow. To trespass was to ultimately suffer, as Lily will in the debased company of Lee Gorrance, who knew all along where she would end up. Will Lily meet a fine, upstanding young man, fall in love, and live happily ever after? “Nah, that’s all over for you … you haven’t got anything left.” Sobering is fact Lee gets no argument from Lana/Lily, her rueful half-smile acknowledging he’s right and that they’ll wallow in degradation together. “I’ll call you,” Lee says. “I know you will,” Lily replies. Maybe these two will be better off with each other, shared finish for a “small time chiseler” (as she called him earlier when there was some “decency” left), and a melodrama-defined ruined woman.


Blogger Dave K said...

By coincidence, bumped into both of these films about the same time a few years ago. Double standard commonality very interesting, but it's funny how old films will spark modern attention for reasons the makers couldn't foresee. In the case of RAINS, it's certainly Power's brown face act; totally non-P.C. by today's standards, but relatively non-stereotyped and generally restrained. Interesting that it was Lana Turner taking Loy's part in the remake, with Richard Burton less convincing than TP under heavy make-up. As to LIFE, I imagine now most old movie buffs zero in on fan favorite Ann Dvorak, once again getting the wrong end of the stick and once again acting everyone else off the soundstage.

10:14 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Movie rule: If the hero is torn between two women, both of them sympathetic, it almost always falls out one of two ways:

-- The woman with a prior claim (usually a fiancee) will conveniently dump the hero for somebody else at the last minute. This is a favorite in romcoms and musicals. There's usually a laugh in the hero trying not to look TOO happy for losing out. A variant is the clearly wrong woman to whom the hero is bound by honor. She either violates honor/propriety herself, or jumps to a better deal. Either way, the hero doesn't risk losing audience goodwill by hurting her feelings since it's all her fault.

-- The woman who is less virginal, or even simply older, is out of luck. She may take a bullet or arrow for the hero, or simply concede she's inferior goods and bow out. She may be allowed a poignant exit, making a sacrifice for love (for true good sportsmanship, see Claudette Colbert in "The Smiling Lieutenant"). Or she'll turn awful out of nowhere, guaranteeing the designated couple gets all our sympathy, and perhaps providing a third act complication.

When it's a woman torn between two men, both of them sympathetic, the rules are similar but different in key ways. The man who's older or less virginal is not out of the running; in fact the lovable rogue may win out over the wholesome boy next door. Also, it's a bit more acceptable for a woman to reject or break up with a man, provided she feels at least a little bad about it. The loser, if truly a nice guy, will take it manfully and perhaps rejoin his regiment. There might be a girl waiting for the rebound, but she's not essential. He can also do the awful-from-nowhere thing.

2:52 PM  
Blogger Ken said...

Amen to Dave K's comments about Ann Dvorak. In 1950 she gave the Oscar committee a choice of two superb supporting performances to nominate. Both in pictures that were, outside of her sterling contributions, just lame soap operas. Acting with measured skill and terrific presence, Dvorak brings deeply troubled women to life in both MGM's "A Life of Her Own" and Goldwyn/RKO's Our Very Own". Making audiences pay attention - and care - every moment she's onscreen.
As it happened, the Academy ignored both performances. Admittedly the supporting actress competition was incredibly stiff that year. The supporting ladies of "Caged" and "All About Eve" would have been enough to more than fill the category all by themselves. Still, it's too bad, Dvorak's marvelous late-career work wasn't more widely acknowledged and honored.

3:45 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I love that picture of Jackie Coogan. It is as politically incorrect as it gets. You used it a while back. I tracked down copies.

9:02 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Reg: "Shut up and drink your gin!"

10:15 AM  

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