Monday, April 18, 2011

Why Bette Davis and Alice Faye Are No Scarlett O'Hara

The inamorato and I have been indulging in an orgy of movie watching of late. He's working on a play based on a 19th century stage sensation (I'm not sure if I'm supposed to spill or not), so his Netflix queue has been full of period films about women performers of one sort or another, and over all they've been mostly disappointing.

There were two, In Old Chicago and Lillian Russell, starring the ludicrous Alice Faye (left). Pudding faced, dull and completely lacking in any sort of discernable charisma, the best thing I can say about her qualities as a movie star is that she was probably a very nice lady. The real life Lillian Russell must have been something else. She is one of the prime inventors of the modern idea of celebrity, and ran her own career (i.e. there was no husband/manager lurking in the background) becoming a huge, huge star at the end of the 19th century. Watching Alice Faye in the bizarrely over-written Fox musical that tried to tell her story, you would never know it. Her character was strangely inert, her successes springing from a series of coincidences and accidents over which Russell had no control. I truly don't understand why the story of Tony Pastor accidentally overhearing her singing in her backyard is more compelling than the real life Russell angling and scheming and working her way to success and fame. Were people so uncomfortable with women of purpose and ambition that this was the only way they saw to tell this far more interesting story?

In In Old Chicago she is miscast as a music hall performer (in a role that before her untimely death, was meant for Jean Harlow) who winds up married to one of the O'Leary boys (they, of the pyromaniacal cow). The movie is lethargic and preposterous, most of it centering on the O'Leary family, with the requisite good brother (Don Ameche) and wicked brother (Tyrone Power) vying for political power. At one point Faye sings a song called "In Old Chicago" - I mean, at the time, wouldn't it seem like up to the minute, modern Chicago? The fire, however, was beautifully and excitingly shot, so much so that it seemed like an entirely different film. But the Faye character was mostly an empty plot point who sang songs.

It turns out that In Old Chicago was a rip off of a similar, but tonier MGM offering, San Francisco which starred Clark Gable, Jeannette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy. This film also adhered to the model later adapted by Titanic in which a fictional love triangle is grafted on to an exquisitely filmed real life tragedy. Clark Gable plays a disreputable nightclub owner who is bowled over by the light operatic skills of good girl, Jeanette MacDonald, while his Catholic priest best friend (and boxer) Spencer Tracy tries to save his soul. The actors are all strong and this was obviously a big budget, class picture. MacDonald, though far out of fashion, is a dynamic performer. But her character! She continually vacillates between sexy Gable and his Music Hall and a life as a respectable opera singer. The vacillations feel whimsical and unmotivated, which is a shame, because there was no reason why they couldn't have written her character as being torn between the pleasures of pop and sex, and her higher artistic ideals (and a far richer husband). As it plays out in the film, as she teases (virginally) both Gable and her respectable opera house swain, she just becomes unlikable and one wonder why either of them bother with her.

By this point I was thoroughly frustrated with 1930s Hollywood and couldn't wait for that damn earthquake. Which, incidentally, blew me away. In the middle of this rather ordinary studio film sits about five minutes of a Russian masterpiece. The quake looks as if it was filmed by Eisenstein, with gloriously expressionistic camera angles and a Potemkin-like montage. Really thrilling stuff. MacDonald survives to sing a Christian hymn among the wreckage and renew Gable's faith, which was less thrilling.

Then, one night, in the midst of all this movie watching Gone With the Wind came on TCM, and one felt as if one had been blasted into another world. Now, GWTW is an incredibly complicated film to talk about. Its depiction of slavery and race and the Reconstruction is greatly abhorrent. But, it also gave the first African American an Oscar. It's complicated. But that is a discussion for another day. I want to write about Scarlett. I know, I know. Everything that could possibly be written about this greatest and most problematic of American films already has been said, but I don't care. Scarlett O'Hara is the ur-American screen heroine. One of the other movies we watched was Jezebel. Bette Davis won the Oscar for the film, but I thought it was awful. The main character was a narcissistic pain in the ass, and in some ways it pointed to how Davis (who greatly coveted the part) would have played Scarlett had she been cast. And judging by this portayal of another strong willed Southern belle, it would have been disastrous.

Vivien Leigh was a miracle of casting perfection. Scarlett is a narcissistic pain in the ass too, but just the fact of that isn't supposed to make her interesting or attractive as it is with Davis's Jezebel character. Scarlett is a monster who interestingly lacks all the characteristics that are supposed to be attractive in a female. She's smart about business, but has zero self-knowledge or empathy and is shatteringly stupid about people. She wants to be a good person, in theory, but makes no effort to do the things that make one actually good. She's self-defeating and smart and a mess.

Compared to her, most of the women previously portrayed on screen look like stick figures. One of the reason for this is screenwriting 101: the choices Scarlett makes constantly set the story in motion and keeps it moving. The war happens to Scarlett, but how she behaves within this monumental circumstance is up to her. The other films we watched in the past couple of weeks or so, did not allow their female protagonists this privilege. Even in something so driven by a woman lead as Lillian Russell, was neutered. Lillian was not permitted to act on her own behalf, becoming a sort of boring object of either desire or career advencement for the swirl of men who surround her. Gone With the Wind is told, pretty much entirely, from Scarlett's point of view. She is no way objectified, she is agency incarnate.

The question is, why are there still, in goddamn 2011, still so few female characters this interesting to watch? Obviously, one can pretty easily say that there are few characters of either gender in American films that are this dynamic. In the first decades of the 21st century, I think it has become clear that most of the films being made in this country are for the most part, dirty minded amusements for children. Complex characters are for television. Or one can once again quote Joss Whedon:
So, why do you write these strong female characters
Because you're still asking me that question.

Note: Today is the anniversary of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. For a fascinating look at that day from a show biz angle, see what Mr. S.D. has to say here.

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