“What’s wrong with Ellen?” her husband Dick, perhaps with a little buyer’s remorse, asks his mother-in-law.
“There’s nothing wrong with Ellen. It’s just that she loves too much.”
Too much indeed.
But I’m getting ahead of the story.
Let’s rewind an hour or so, to the start of Leave Her to Heaven, when the opening scene’s picturesque technicolor setting on a lake is juxtaposed with Alfred Newman’s ominous opening score.
Something very bad has happened to Dick Harland.
The film then takes us to the first meeting between Dick Harland and Ellen Berent. On a train to New Mexico, Dick finds himself staring at the beautiful woman sitting across from him and reading his new book.
When she notices, she stares right back. The intensity and length of the stare is uncomfortable to both Dick and the audience. Eventually, she breaks the stare and transforms into a charming and attractive woman, explaining that she was staring because Dick looks so much like her father.
It’s a perfectly reasonable explanation.
But it’s hard to shake the feeling that something is off with this woman.
By coincidence they are vacationing together in the same home, and he discovers that she is with her mother and adopted sister Ruth to spread her father’s ashes.
The warning signs continue flashing—it’s clear Ellen was unnaturally attached to her father. She alone spreads the ashes with a possessiveness that should make Dick’s blood run cold. Ruth mentions that her their mother adopted her because she was so lonely, despite having a husband and daugher. Ellen stays out all night in the desert after spreading her father’s ashes and her family is unconcerned. Her presence stifles the air in the room.
And she has her sights set on Dick.
If only he’d taken a second look at Ruth, who is not quite as pretty as Ellen but clearly the better choice.
But he doesn’t look, and he’s married to Ellen before he knows what hit him.
Though outwardly happy, Ellen has a sinister aura we can’t quite put our finger on. She comes on strong, then backs away. Though she grew up wealthy, she insists they hire no cook or maid because she wants to be the only one to take care of her new husband.
In another woman, it might be romantic. With Ellen, it feels like a gathering storm.
She’s not calculating in the traditional sense. Not at first, anyway. She hasn’t married him for his money (she clearly has more), doesn’t want him to commit a murder for her, or rob a bank, or any of the other dirty deeds that femme fatales of the 1940s lure their patsies into doing.
She isn’t a street-wise, cold-hearted dame.
She’s insane. Truly, madly, deeply insane.
Why did she marry Dick?
Because he looked like her father.
Why doesn’t she want anyone else around?
Because she wants Dick all to herself.
Whoever said jealousy was a green-eyed monster had obviously met Ellen Berent Harland.
She’s jealous of Dick’s friends, of his work, and most of all, of his sweet-natured, disabled younger brother Danny.
In the film’s signature scene, Ellen is out in a boat on a lake following Danny while he swims. He’s overtaken by a cramp and Ellen realizes this is her opportunity to eliminate her main rival for Dick’s affection. Donned in a fabulous white coat, dark sunglasses, and blood-red lipstick (the impact maximized by glorious technicolor), Ellen calmly watches Danny drown, not moving an inch when he cries out again and again for her help.
Eat your heart out, Phyllis Dietrichson.
Gene Tierney sinks her teeth into the role, infusing Ellen with a malevolence that grows ever more malignant. Murdering Danny unleashes a reign of terror that destroys her marriage, her sister Ruth, husband Dick, and ultimately, herself.
Her revenge against her husband for an imagined affair with her sister is pure madness.
Tierney was often underrated as an actress as critics focused on her beauty, but she gave a performance worthy of an Academy Award in Leave Her to Heaven, and indeed, she was nominated. But it was a year of stiff competition and she ultimately lost to Joan Crawford for Mildred Pierce, an Academy decision I endorse.
Leave Her to Heaven is not the best movie I’ve ever seen, nor is it one of my personal favorites. There is no doubt, however, that as Robert Osborne said while introducing it on Turner Classic Movies, it is, “One of those movies that, once seen, is almost impossible to forget.”
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.
Here’s something I don’t get: technology has surpassed nearly everyone’s greatest dreams.
We have paper. The steam engine. The telephone, the television, the internet.
The toaster, the microwave, the smartphone, one-click ordering.
We put a man on the moon.
I can do my taxes online.
I can have groceries delivered to my door two hours after I order them.
So why can’t I get a printer that works?
I know, I know, I know. Why am I printing? Don’t I know I can do everything on my phone?
But surely even the most paperless among us sometimes requires a hard copy.
I currently own two printers, in the hopes that at least one will work at any given moment.
While laptops and phones can take a beating—they’re dropped, scuffed, banged and swiped on all day long and for the most part work without a hitch, a printer must always be treated with kid gloves.
One wrong look and it jams. And jams again.
And jams again until you’re ready to throw the thing out the window. (But first checking to make sure your backup printer works, of course).
My printers are always complaining. They’re out of ink, they’re out of paper, the paper is too thick and jams, the paper is too thin and the rollers won’t pick it up. I can’t do anything right. My printer may be as close as I ever get to having a mother-in-law.
And my latest printer (bought because my oldest one nearly drove me to distraction) has the added degree of difficulty of being wireless.
Which seems great, except it never seems to recognize my laptop. It’s got an ominous blue light of death that won’t turn off no matter how long I hold down the power button. I usually have to unplug it, and even then, the light turns off so slowly that I fear it’s about to turn into a flesh-eating monster à la a Stephen King novel and devour me.
The root cause seems to be how long I leave it on without using it. Under thirty minutes and it’s fine. Over that, and the trouble starts.
In the Remake Rumble, I’ll throw one (or more) versions of the same film into the ring and let them fight it out. I’ll discuss the good and the bad, and end with the ultimate judgement of the best version. Judgements can be appealed through well-reasoned arguments in the comments section.
In this inaugural edition of the Remake Rumble, Mae Clark and Vivian Leigh spar for the best portrayal of the doomed dancer-turned-prostitute Myra in their respective adaptations of Robert Sherwood’s World War I play Waterloo Bridge.
I first watched the original 1931 version nearly a year ago when I was writing about the pre-code films. At the time, the story interested me, but I had my hands full writing about the deliciously remorseless up-to-no-good dames in Baby Face (1933) and Red-Headed Woman (1932).
But over the past eleven months, Waterloo Bridge stayed with me. It’s the kind of movie Universal (and Warner Brothers) liked to make in the dawning days of sound—cheaply made films about the dregs of society who view the world with a jaundiced eye but somehow manage to hang onto their dignity in an indifferent world.
Such a person is Myra, the American chorus dancer in London who falls on hard times and resorts to prostitution to keep a little food on the table and a little gas in the lamps of her dirty flat. Her quick fall from grace is symbolized when an admirer who sees her dancing in the chorus sends her a fresh, white mink that is the envy of the other dancers. Only moments later, we flash forward to her fall from grace—the mink, now tattered and seedy, is her uniform when she walks the streets.
During an air raid on Waterloo Bridge (where Myra is trolling for a client), she meets Roy Cronin, an American soldier on leave. In her flat after the raid, she and Roy share a loaf of bread. Roy takes in the squalor of her flat and offers to help her by paying her rent. He does not realize Myra’s profession despite all the obvious signs. He’s earnest and naive, and his charity insults Myra.
She throws him out, then invites him back. Like many soldiers of the time, Roy fears his life may be short and wants to live while he can. For a man like Roy, that doesn’t mean a romp with a cheap London whore. He wants to save Myra from her bad luck.
He wants to marry her the next day, before his leave is over and he has to head back to the front.
Much of the rest of the film is Roy’s almost pathetic insistence that Myra marry him.
Roy comes from a wealthy family. He can take care of her financially, she can live with his family while he is at war. Myra’s friend Kitty gleefully points out that if he dies in the war, she will receive his pension.
And she genuinely cares for Roy.
It’s her way out.
And yet Myra refuses.
Again and again she refuses, quite violently.
I will admit, I didn’t quite understand why the first time I watched the film. It struck me that she hated him, that she wanted him to leave her alone. But this time, it sunk in.
It’s not pride: Myra despises herself.
If a good man like Roy married a soiled woman, it would humiliate him and his family. Even if he can’t see it, Myra can.
I also think—though it’s not directly spelled out in the film—that Myra can see that in the long run, they would never work. He would grow to hate her.
She’s a fallen woman, lower than dirt. But to trap Roy into a marriage?
That’s a line of self-respect she cannot cross. And she cannot bear to tell him the truth about her, to lose the love she sees in his eyes.
If he was a mark, she would take him for all she could.
She can’t marry him because she loves him.
And turning down her own happiness, her own salvation, is a kind of torture.
Marrying Roy is the ultimate poisoned apple, and Myra, already fallen, refuses to take the bite.
The last twenty minutes of the film is brisk and searing.
Roy has taken Myra to visit his family, and to press his marriage suit. Roy’s mother is kind to Myra, but makes it clear that she does not approve of the marriage. In the middle of the night, Myra goes to see his mother and admits to her what she cannot admit to Roy: she is a prostitute.
The mother is kind but in full agreement that Myra must leave immediately.
Before she goes, she tells his mother, not in defiance, but as a way of making his mother bear witness to her sacrifice, “I could marry him, if I wanted to.”
“I know, my dear.”
“I just wanted you to know that.”
“Yes, I know , Myra. You see I happen to know you’re rather a fine girl.”
“Fine? I’m not.”
Roy tracks her down one last time, and having promised both herself and his mother to push him away, she tells him she hates him, that she is laughing at him. At this, she throws her head back, anchors her joined hands on her forehead, and lets out a maniacal laugh.
The first time I watched, I thought it was a bit ridiculous, overacting on Clark’s part. But I see it differently now—as a primal scream of agony, a plea to god to quit tempting her.
She ultimately agrees to marry Roy before she sends him back to war—a promise I don’t believe she ever intended to keep.
But we will never know, as Myra is killed in an air raid on Waterloo Bridge, a crowd surrounding her unseen body and the mink sprawled across the ground.
A scant nine years later, MGM remade the film with Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor, perhaps the hottest stars in Hollywood in 1940.
Though key aspects of the story remain the same, MGM and the strictly enforced production code wash away much of the grime of Myra’s tale.
Universal and Warner Brothers were the studios that made cheap films showcasing society’s underbelly, but MGM was filled with big budgets, glamour, and fairy tales.
Waterloo Bridge (1940) spends nearly three-quarters of the film laying the groundwork to make sure Myra doesn’t lose our sympathy when she descends into prostitution.
Vivien Leigh’s Myra is a ballerina, not a chorus girl. She meets and falls in love with Robert Taylor’s significantly more dashing and charismatic Roy Cronin.
Taylor’s Cronin takes her out to a romantic dinner, where the orchestra plays with candles burning. They dance to Auld Lang Syne, and as each section of the orchestra drops out, they extinguish their candles until Taylor and Leigh are waltzing in the dark.
It’s an enchanting scene, establishing the love between them in a way the original film never does. The two have a chemistry that Clark and Douglass simply lack.
Taylor’s Cronin comes across as romantic and in charge. His marriage proposal is one from a man who knows what he wants and is confident he will get it, where the original Cronin often comes across as desperate.
Because the MGM version insists that Taylor and Leigh fell in love before her fall into prostitution, the plot then has several contrivances as to why they cannot marry before he must go back to the front—first, the reverend tells him there can be no marriages after 3 pm, and then the next day Taylor is called unexpectedly—and immediately—back to the front before the wedding.
Thus, when Taylor’s Cronin is killed in the war, there’s no pension for poor Myra, who was fired from her job as a ballerina for missing a performance to be with Cronin.
The film documents Myra’s descent—she and roommate Kitty grow hungry, then Myra grows sick when she learns of Cronin’s death. Unbeknownst to Myra, Kitty begins hitting the streets.
When she learns the truth, Myra is aghast:
Myra: “You did it for me.”
Kitty: “No, I didn’t. I’d have done it anyhow. No jobs. No boys who want to marry you. Only men who want to kill a few hours because they know it may be their last.”
Myra: “Kitty, you did it for me to buy me food and medicine. I’d sooner have died.”
Kitty: “No, no you wouldn’t. You think you would, but you wouldn’t. I thought of that…but I wasn’t brave enough. I wanted to go on living. Heaven knows why, but I did, and so would you. We’re young and it’s good to live. Even the life I’m leading, though, God knows it–I’ve heard them call it the easiest way. I wonder who ever thought up that little phrase. I know one thing–it couldn’t have been a woman. I suppose you think…I’m dirt.”
And Kitty is right, at first. Myra does turn to prostitution.
Until Cronin shows up alive, after a year in a German prison camp.
And thus Leigh’s Myra is finally at the predicament that Clark’s Myra faced almost immediately—should she marry a man knowing what she is?
Like Clark, Leigh tells Roy’s mother the truth. This mother is more shocked than the original mother and wants to take the night to think things over.
Leigh cuts right to the heart of things when she says, “I could make you understand. But it wouldn’t help me.”
And in the end, she too dies onWaterloo Bridge, but this time she isn’t a casualty of fate. She could pursue a life of prostitution when she thought Roy was dead, but now that he’s alive she can’t live with or without him.
She steps deliberately in front of a convoy of Red Cross trucks and lets them run her down. Instead of the mink, we see her good luck charm on the street beyond the crowd surrounding her unseen body.
The 1940 version seems like it should be the better film. It has bigger stars with better chemistry. Leigh’s greatest accomplishment is that while this film was made only a year after Gone With the Wind, she doesn’t once make you think of Scarlett O’Hara in her portrayal of Myra, a feat I would’ve believed impossible.
There’s no doubt it’s the better romance.
Waterloo Bridge is a gritty story, and the 1931 version allows more of the grime to show. You can practically feel how dirty Myra’s flat is, how desperate and low class she is as she strikes matches across the wall to light her cigarette and pinches money from Roy to run the gas lamps for a few more minutes.
She’s a desperate, cynical girl. She’s a prostitute through and through, and her selfless moment with Roy is her salvation.
In the 1940 version, Vivien Leigh’s Myra is never allowed to become a prostitute, not in her bones. She’s a woman who works as a prostitute, but the script keeps reminding us that she’s “not really” this woman. They’re so worried about keeping the censors off the case and the audience’s sympathy with Myra that the plot is filled with contrivances. Her suicide at the end is as much about herself as it is her love for Roy.
Through no fault of Leigh, her Myra is just not allowed to be as interesting as Mae Clark’s version.
In the 1940 version, we never see Leigh engaging in acts of prostitution. In her first time, we see only the back of her head, and hear the man’s voice without seeing him at all.
In the freewheeling 1931 version, when a john asks Clark’s Myra what she’s doing, she gets right to business and says, “Oh, just looking for a good time and wondering where the rent’s coming from.”
You could never get away with a line like that in 1940.
The 1931 story is briskly paced, jaded, and rough around the edges.
Just like the heroine of its story.
And so to my surprise, and perhaps yours, I am awarding the 1931 Waterloo Bridge the victor over its better remembered (and more beloved) 1940 remake.
This week my friend Ginger had a birthday. Four down, four to go.
The Posse is turning the big 4-0.
What is the Posse?
I’m glad you asked.
Like everyone, I had a group of friends in high school.
Unlike everyone, we gave ourselves a name: The Posse.
I don’t remember how or why we came up with this name, but it stuck. There were eight of us and we were a clique, though without the exclusivity and mean girl undertones. There was no Regina George among us.
At the end of the film Stand By Me, in which a writer mourns the loss of a friend he hasn’t seen in a decade, he ends his story by typing, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”
We were older than twelve but the sentiment rings true.
I’ve made some great friends since, many of whom I see more often and are more a part of my day-to-day life than some of the Posse. I relate to them adult-to-adult, fully cooked. They see me as I am in the corporate office, or rowing on the river. They see me as I am now.
But with the Posse, well, we have x-ray vision with one another. We see each other as we are now, but more importantly, we see each other as we were then.
The Posse knew me when I was still baking. They were one of the raw ingredients in the cake I would become.
If they were different then, I’d be different now.
They’re not fooled when I use my “professional” voice, or order a fancy drink in a restaurant, or the million other ways we try to impress one another with our adultness. These are the kids that saw me roll up my pants and walk through the slimy moat in a miniature golf course to retrieve my wayward ball.
They are not impressed when I put on airs, as we all do from time to time.
They know that I once used rubber bands to wrap peanut butter and jelly sandwiches around my waist to smuggle them into a concert.
And I know them the same way.
During our senior year of high school, I wrote a 30,000 word memoir of our adventures and called it “Tales of the Posse.” Yesterday I dug it out of the trunk in my basement.
In the epilogue, I wrote:
“I would like to say that we lived happily ever after together and always remained as close as we were the night the preceding stories were told. I would like, more than anything, that our kids played together and started a Posse II generation. However, I can’t see into the future and I haven’t even lived very much of it to get a good idea of how it turned out.”
Are we as close as we were at seventeen?
Of course not. That would be a case of arrested development. We have our own lives—careers, a few husbands, and the Posse II generation currently stands at 8 members.
And now, we’re turning forty. Since September, half of us have had the big birthday. The rest are coming, mine in June. Thus far, we haven’t been able to celebrate together because of covid, but when it’s safe we’ll celebrate the beginning of this next decade together.
Getting eight women with busy lives together is nearly impossible, especially when we don’t all live in the same town anymore.
But we manage it about once a year around Christmas, and if we get six of eight, we call it a win.
We’ve had our scuffles over the years, but I’m in touch and on good terms with all of them.
My seventeen-year-old self would be appalled at this level of contact.
My thirty-nine-about-to-be-forty-year-old self recognizes it for the rare gift that it is.
Despite delighting audiences with her work in such classics as Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1941), Casablaca (1942), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), Gaslight (1944), and Notorious (1946), Ingrid Bergman was banished from Hollywood when her extramarital affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini became public.
Because of the pure and innocent characters she played onscreen, the public felt betrayed. Becoming pregnant with Rossellini’s child added fuel to the fire. In a fit of manufactured hysteria that would be right at home in today’s political climate, democratic Senator Edwin C. Johnson denounced her on the senate floor as “a powerful influence for evil”, and that she had “perpetrated an assault upon the institution of marriage.”
“People saw me in Joan of Arc and declared me a saint,” Bergman said later. “I’m not. I’m just a woman, another human being.”*
She ran off to Italy and spent the next seven years making Italian films in between marrying and divorcing Rossellini. (And having three children with him, including actress Isabella Rossellini.)
In 1956, she filmed Anastasia in Europefor Twentieth Century Fox to test the waters. Her Academy Award win for the film paved the way for her return to Hollywood.
Though Anastaisa revived her career, it was her next film, Indiscreet, that endeared her once again to American audiences.
She paired up for the second and final time with her Notorious co-star and good friend, Cary Grant.
Notorious is the better film, of course, but it has more tools in its arsenal—an inherently tense premise, life and death stakes, and the master of suspense in Alfred Hitchock behind the camera.
Indiscreet, by contrast, lives or dies solely on the chemistry of Bergman and Grant. Not their individual talents, which are unquestioned, but how much the audience believes they are besotted with one another.
The film more than lives. It thrives.
The premise of this romantic comedy is simple—Bergman plays Anna Kalman, an actress in her early forties (as Bergman herself was) who has given up on love meets Cary Grant’s diplomat Philip Adams and finds the man she has been missing.
Philip is handsome, considerate, and fun. The rub?
He’s married, of course, and he can’t divorce his wife.
He tells Anna this right off the top, and so she goes into their relationship with her eyes wide open.
When a romantic comedy falls flat, it’s nearly always because the filmmaker is in such a hurry to get to the relationship’s roadblock that he neglects to show us what the two leads see in one another and why their relationship is worth saving in the face of that inevitable roadblock.
Indiscreet doesn’t make that mistake. It strolls along at a pleasant pace, letting us see how and why Anna and Philip fall in love. There is a cozy conversation at a restaurant table that goes on so long they miss the ballet. There are late night conversations, and a great split screen showing them saying goodnight over the telephone in their respective beds. Eventually, we see her cooking breakfast for him, the first nod that their relationship has reached sleepover status.
We know why Anna loves Philip—he’s charming, discrete, considerate, and so obviously her perfect match. We know why Philip loves Anna—she’s beautiful, beloved by her fans, confident but not clingy, and has a great sense of humor. She takes what Philip can offer but doesn’t ask for more.
When Philip is ordered to New York for five months for his work with the United Nations but Anna must stay in London to star in a play, she shows the first signs of strain. In a heartbreaking scene, Anna beseeches Philip to leave his wife and marry her. She apologizes, but it’s too late—she’s shown Philip that no matter how perfect their relationship seems, it is humiliating to be a mistress and not a wife.
And now, finally, when we’re fully invested and having a ball watching Cary and Ingrid flirt and play, the bomb is dropped.
Philip isn’t—and never has been—married. It’s a lie he tells his prospective lovers because he believes he’s not the marrying kind and doesn’t want to give them false hope.
The reveal of this fact to Anna—by her sister, and not Philip himself—has her shouting, “How dare he make love to me and not be married!”
The film’s comedy comes in the second half, when Anna pretends not to know of Philip’s deception and plans his comeuppance. Watching Anna secretly seethe behind Philip’s back at a party while he dances and drinks and generally has a grand old time is the highlight of the film.
Her plan goes badly, of course—she convinces him she’s been seeing another man just as he decides he’s the marrying kind after all—but it all turns out right in the end.
It’s the type of romantic comedy that Hollywood has given up on—it doesn’t have two leads who are constantly bickering until the final reel, doesn’t substitute sex for romance, and doesn’t have to cut down a strong woman by making her a klutz.
It’s a love story of two mature adults—Ingrid with the first hint of lines on her face, Cary with silver in his hair—but youth doesn’t hold a candle to the charm these legends exude with every breath.
And even at forty-three and fifty-seven, Ingrid and Cary look damn good in technicolor.
*Quote from Notorious: The Life of Ingrid Bergman, by Donald Spoto
As they say on podcasts, this isn’t a paid advertisement.
The first product featured on Shark Tank that I bought while watching the show was called Knife Aid. This was back in February, when I was watching reruns to get me through the worst of the pandemic winter.
Knife Aid is brilliant in its simplicity. The owners pitched to the sharks a service in which customers send their own knives in through the mail (via a provided shipping box) and Knife Aid sharpens and returns them within a week.
This idea was such a moneymaker that the sharks got into a huge fight vying for the deal, even to the point of following the entrepreneurs out into the hallway when they stepped out to make their decision.
I love a shark frenzy and had a drawer full of dull knives. I had to try it out.
It worked exactly as advertised—simple, fast, and effective. I was slicing through fruit and vegetables the next week like I was working at a Japanese steak house.
But reader, I made the cardinal mistake of beginners: overconfidence.
Watching an old rerun of Shark Tank is like playing minor league baseball.
With Pan’s Mushroom Jerky, I made the big leagues and came up against a major curve ball.
I wrote about the jerky before, how it seemed odd but the sharks loved it so I wanted to give it a try. A few days later, I went on Amazon to buy some and it was sold out.
This was in November. As of this morning, it’s still sold out.
That’s when I learned that a Shark Tank episode drives a spike in demand that normally drains the fledgling company’s inventory.
So when the Souper Cubes came around, I was ready. Souper Cubes are basically giant silicone ice trays that you use to freeze leftovers in single portion sizes. The ones I had my eye on were trays with four two-cup portions.
I cook huge vats of food and eat it for days, freezing the rest. This was right up my alley.
I didn’t just want them. I practically lusted for them.
Shark Lori Greiner liked it so much that she awarded it the Golden Ticket, her prize for the best product of the season.
That meant I had very little time, perhaps minutes only.
I didn’t even wait for a commercial break. I jumped up from my chair and ran to my computer, knocking over anything that got in my way.
I was getting those Souper Cubes.
I fired up Amazon and clicked away, quickly finding what I was looking for. Not even stopping to wipe the sweat off my brow, I ordered two trays.
Success! I made it in under the wire and ran back in to watch the rest of the show.
I didn’t know how much I paid, or when they were coming. But I didn’t care.
I had won the Shark Tank lottery!
Because sure enough, the size I wanted was sold out by the end of the show, and most of the other sizes were sold out by the morning.
Fool me once….
This, my friends, is how it’s done.
Victory goes to the swift.
And I have really, really got to get out of the house.
You should watch Laura. It’s only the seventeenth (out of sixty-eight) films I’ve given the designation of Timeless.
If you think you might ever watch it, don’t read this review. It’s impossible to write about Laura without spoiling it, and it’s got a killer twist. Go watch it, and come back when you’re finished. I’ll wait.
If you’ve already seen it or you know you’ll never watch it, proceed.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
I don’t consider myself a film critic. To be a good film critic, you need a dispassionate air. You examine a film objectively, and situate it in its time and place in the history of film.
I do some of this, of course. But I don’t write objectively. I let my personal opinion color everything. I play favorites and gloss over the faults of my idols.
The films I truly despise? The ones that bore me to tears? I don’t write about them at all.
I’m a fan, first, last, and always, and not much different from the kid I was at ten years old watching these black and white films with my mom on Turner Classic Movies.
Three films in particular hooked me and launched a lifelong love affair with classic cinema. Watching them as an adult, I wonder exactly what fascinated me, why I wanted to watch Bette Davis in black and white more than Saturday morning cartoons. Three quarters of the story went over my head, I’d never heard of a director, and I didn’t know anything about the lives of the stars.
The first film was What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? I danced around the house singing the Baby Jane Hudson song while my mom and dad roared with laughter. Second was To Have and Have Not, with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. I saw what Bacall saw in Bogie’s craggy lived-in face.
The film is a textbook example of classic film noir. There are a lot of different definitions of noir, but as we’re fans and not critics here, suffice it to say that film noir refers to both a cinematic style influenced by the Germans and a cynical tone influenced by an American audience disillusioned by World War II. There’s often a hardboiled detective ripped straight from the pages of a 1940s mystery novel and a femme fatale—a woman who slinks across the screen like a black widow spider, using her sexuality to lure in and destroy the men she sees only as marks.
Laura has both. Or does it?
The film opens as a standard whodunnit—Detective Mark McPherson, played by Dana Andrews, investigating the murder of Gene Tierney’s Laura Hunt. Someone blew the beautiful young woman’s head off with a shotgun.
McPherson has a collection of suspects—fiancé Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), who needs her money and may have learned she was considering calling off the wedding; Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), the older woman who loves Shelby but cannot compete with Laura for his affection; and Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), the powerful older man who took Laura under his wing and scares away any man who desires her.
All speak of Laura in glowing terms, but we get the most from Lydecker. By his accounting, he took an interest in the young aspiring career woman and opened doors for her. He taught her how to dress, introduced her to the right people, and cultivated a beautiful swan from—if not an ugly duckling, at least an inexperienced one.
As is typical of many film noirs, the plot is so bonkers that it should ruin the film but doesn’t. McPherson allows Lydecker and Shelby to tag along as he searches Laura’s apartment and questions witnesses.
McPherson also spends an inordinate amount of time in Laura’s apartment, seemingly without any reason but a desire to paw through her things and stare at the large painting of her hanging over her fireplace.
It’s clear poor McPherson has fallen under the spell of a dead woman, and about halfway through the film he gets drunk and falls asleep beneath Laura’s portrait.
[…dangerous spoilers ahead…this is your final warning…turn back now…]
He awakens to find the dead woman standing in the doorway, obviously mistaking him for an intruder and threatening to call the police.
Laura’s got an unconvincing story about staying in a remote cabin with a broken radio and having no idea that she’d been presumed murdered. The body wearing her dressing gown with her face blown off is identified as Diane Redfern, a woman having an affair with Laura’s fiancé.
Suddenly, she goes from victim to prime suspect, but that doesn’t stop the sparks flying between Laura and Detective McPherson.
At one point McPherson makes a show of arresting her in front of a roomful of people. He takes her to the station and interrogates her under bright lights. Angry, humiliated, and confused by her feelings for him, Laura lashes out. But it’s an elaborate ruse by McPherson to smoke out the real killer. Laura convinces him of her innocence, and McPherson rightly begins to worry for her safety.
In the end, there is only one person who could’ve tried to kill Laura. Shelby doesn’t have the stomach for it, and Ann Treadwell wouldn’t go to the trouble. It’s Lydecker, the older man who has everything but the thing he wants most. Realizing Laura would never desire him sexually, he decides that if he can’t have her, no one will.
McPherson saves her before Lydecker can finish the job he started, and detective and mistaken murder victim presumably ride off into the sunset together.
It really shouldn’t work.
But it really, really does.
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As I outlined in the post, that strategy was…ill-advised.
Though I do now mow my lawn properly, I’ve mostly stayed out of the war raging between the weeds and the grass.
The weeds are winning and it isn’t even close.
But a few weeks ago Lowe’s had the entire Scott’s Four Step Lawn Care program on sale. For those who aren’t familiar, the Scott’s program essentially consists of four bags of specially formulated weed and feed that you spread onto your lawn at eight-week intervals starting in early spring.
Right then and there, I decided to enter the war on weeds.
I went a step further and drew up a complicated battle plan; the front yard is filled with bare patches, while the back yard is overrun with weeds. I decided to first plant some additional grass seed in the front.
If you plant new grass seed, you aren’t supposed to use Step One of the program, as the powerful weed killer will also kill your new seedlings. So in addition to Step One (which I would use on the back yard only), I bought a small bag of booster fertilizer for the front yard.
I planted the seeds, drew up a calendar for application, stacked the bags in the garage and went about my life for the next few weeks.
This past weekend, I implemented Step One.
How did it go?
Nearly five years after my weed whacking episode, my do-it-yourself lawn care skills have barely improved.
First off, I completely forgot about not putting Step One on the front yard. I spread it everywhere, killing off the seedlings that were just beginning to sprout.
The special bag of booster fertilizer remains forgotten on the bottom of the stack of the four step program.
Next, my distribution of the granules was uneven at best. Despite the package directions insisting that one not use a hand spreader, well, I used a hand spreader.
(By hand spreader I mean a small spreader that you carry and crank to spit out the granules, rather than the kind with wheels that you push.)
Some of the granules clumped together and jammed the tiny hole of the hand spreader. Nothing would come out, and I would shake and bang the spreader until the clump broke free, suddenly releasing a wild stream of the granules onto the lawn. As I made my way down the lawn, there were patches with no weed killer and then big orange piles of the stuff.
This seemed…not good.
I adjusted the setting to the widest opening, so the granules poured out even faster, but the thing continued to jam.
I put on gloves and broke up all the clumps, but then when refilling the spreader, a huge pile of weed killer spilled out all over the grass.
I used a rake and a broom to smooth out these piles as best I could.
Once I’d applied the whole bag, I put everything away and glanced again at the directions.
According to the directions, one bag could cover a yard the size of two tennis courts.
My lawn is roughly the size of one quarter of one tennis court. And I used the whole bag.
I’m no expert (obviously), but this seems like it will not turn out well for my lawn.
I swept and raked off as much as I could, and warned all the neighbors to keep their dogs off my lawn for…well, the decade or so.
In the end, this seems like your classic good news, bad news situation.
Good news: Pretty sure all my weeds will be gone in a few weeks.
Bad news: All the grass might be too.
Good news: Probably won’t need to apply steps two through four this year.
Bad news: Already paid for them.
As I said in last week’s blog on clichés, you win some, you lose some.
Years before Bette Davis scored a Best Actress Oscar nomination playing Judith Traherne, Barbara Stanwyck knew the leading role in Dark Victory was a winner. Despite starring in the Lux Radio Theatre version of the play, she couldn’t convince David O. Selznick or Jack Warner that she could play a woman in the prime of her life cut down by disease.
Eight years later, she finally got the chance in The Other Love. Stanwyck plays Karen Duncan, a world famous concert pianist who is sent to a Swiss sanatorium to treat a serious lung illness.
InDark Victory, Judith discovers her fate when she accidentally discovers her case file stamped with “prognosis negative” on her doctor’s desk. It is a brutal moment of reckoning.
For Karen Duncan, the truth comes slowly. It is in these moments when the film—and Stanwyck—shine brightest.
On her first night in the sanatorium, a white orchid is delivered to her room. Thinking her handsome doctor sent the flower, she is pleased and elated. She then discovers that the flowers were sent by “a man who died months ago to a woman who died yesterday.” That is, the front desk forgot to cancel the standing order for the daily flowers that were sent to the previous occupant of her room.
Dr. Tony Stanton takes her cigarette lighter away and forbids smoking. While searching around in his office, she discovers a drawer overflowing with the confiscated lighters of the dead.
She hears a patient coughing and a look of pure horror crosses her face. Lost in an employee-only area she sees nurses wheel away a body.
Despite Dr. Stanton’s constant assurances, death surrounds her.
Because it is the 1940’s, Dr. Stanton does not tell her the full extent of her illness, and that it is possibly terminal. Instead, he gives her rules she is not to question. She can’t smoke, she can’t drink, and worst of all—she can’t play the piano.
She can never have too much exertion.
Though she follows them, she chafes against the restrictions.
After an ordered month in bed, Karen is set loose from the sanatorium for a day’s shopping in the village. By chance she meets Paul Clermont, an attractive race car driver who flirts with her and invites her to dinner. Though she refuses, when she returns to the sanatorium, she is overjoyed at the normality and believes she is on the road to recovery.
Dr. Stanton—who unbeknownst to Karen has just met with a specialist who pronounced her case all but hopeless—forbids future visits to the village, chides her for getting too much excitement, and pours her a tonic to calm her.
Mistaking his concern for jealousy, Karen throws the glass into the floor so that it shatters. (Editor’s note: There is no move I love more in the 1940’s than female stars smashing glassware in fits of temper. Stanwyck gives a fine example here, but Joan Crawford in Humoresque sets the standard.)
The doctor’s restrictions have become chains.
His concern is understandable—her life is in the balance, and his job is to keep her alive.
But her job is to live.
Karen puts one of her own records on the turntable. For a moment, she just stands there, listening to the music she once made that she can no longer play. As if to prove to herself that she is well, she goes to the piano and begins to play.
Her inability to keep up with her own recording shatters her.
She sneaks away from the sanatorium and finds Paul Clermont, the impulsive, attractive man she met in the village. Knowing nothing of her illness, he sweeps her away into a whirlwind romance of drinking, smoking, and gambling.
We are supposed to see Karen’s action as reckless, that she is putting her small chance of recovery at risk. But when she sits at a piano playing and smoking, it is clear she is a woman who understands she only has so much time left.
Death stalks her. Paul gives her a white orchid, bringing up the ghost of the first night at the sanatorium. And after Paul kisses her passionately, she loses her breath and rushes from the room.
For the first time, she begins coughing, huge wracking coughs she cannot control. Coughs like the ones she heard from the dying in the sanatorium.
She lays her head on a table.
“Oh, please, God, no,” she says. “No, not now.”
Dr. Stanton, who cares for her as more than just a patient, eventually tracks her down and shows up on the scene by lighting her cigarette with the lighter he took from her.
In the end she returns to him and the sanatorium, chastened and significantly weakened by her escapades. The doctor brings her back from the brink of death, and they marry.
At the film’s end, she is wrapped up in blankets in their cozy little cottage while the doctor plays the piano badly and she speaks of a future that will never come. She has gotten past her petulant tantrums, and waits patiently for death.
Reader, I hated this ending.
In Dark Victory, Judith gave up a shallow life for a deeper one when she accepted the terms of her brain tumor. Though she could not defeat the tumor, she lived her life and died on her own terms, with a dignity that gave her a victory even over death.
Karen Duncan’s death did not feel like acceptance. It felt like surrender.
I once read that when the great cook Julia Child lost her sense of taste, she lost her will to live. I do not believe that the great pianist Karen Duncan would live in a world where she could not play piano.
Exist, yes. But not live.
Better to die after a final concert, pouring her heart out into the piano one last time.
I didn’t want her wrapped in blankets while her doctor-husband played mediocre piano.
She would die, there was no outrunning her fate, but I did not want her lighter to end up in that doctor’s box.
Rather she fling it over a cliff, and herself after it.
“Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
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