(Picture from here.)
First a little background.
I was born and raised in Southern California until I was eleven, after which we moved to Alabama—but that’s not relevant here.
At the time the television shows didn’t have as much filler as they do now. So they played old movies when they needed to fill air time. I watched a lot of old movies. (Okay. I watched a lot of television when I was a kid.)
Anyway, I always linked together three films: It Happened One Night (1934)
Fast forward to this year and Wendy and I watch The Thin Man. It’s terrific and I realized why I had liked it so much years ago. At the very heart of the film is the relationship between Nick and Nora Charles. There is enormous affection and love there. There were a couple of queasy bits where one woman or another says something difficult and Nick raises a hand as if to slap her. He doesn’t but I noticed it.
Being the person I am I had to attribute it to something—it was a character behavior at odds with my impression of the character. I reasoned the Nick Charles had lived a violent life—evidenced by his companions—and still had some residual traits that he worked to eradicate.
It’s also the single greatest hymn of praise to alcoholism I’ve ever seen. But what of that.
That was fun so Wendy and I watched His Girl Friday. This is an absolutely stellar film. Again, at the core of it is the relationship between Walter Burns (Cary Grant) and Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russel). This was not a romantic relationship—though the two characters had been married at one point in their back story—but clearly one of equals. Both were intelligent, verbal, articulate and erudite and neither gave the other any quarter. There was absolutely no hint of violence between them.
So, I said, let’s try It Happened One Night.
What a disappointment.
It wasn’t just the ham fisted acting of Clark Gable or the false drama of Claudette Colbert, it was, again, the relationship at the core. Ellen Andrews (Colbert) is a spoiled rich daughter of Alexander Andrews. She runs away to elope with the Unsuitable Man—a pilot and supposed gold digger King Westley. Daddy doesn’t approve. Peter Warne (Gable) ends up on the same bus and recognizes her. He makes a deal with her that he will make sure she gets to New York—and Westley—if she’ll give him the exclusive story. If not, he’ll turn her in to her father. So right off the bat, Peter is forcing her to comply.
Then, they have several comparatively uninteresting adventures where Peter shows himself to be a boor and Ellen’s disdain turns to love. (One could consider the film a comedic treatment of Stockholm Syndrome. That is, if it were funny.) A couple of turns later they’re together with the approval of the father, they are married and live happy ever after. (Westley gets bought off.)
We found it an altogether unpleasant film. The relationship between Peter and Ellen vacillates between difficult and abusive. It’s fairly clear she’s substituting one domineering man (her father) for another. The only character worth a damn in the film is Westley and that’s only because he never actually shows himself to be mean. Peter has one basic emotion: anger. The moments where he shows affection, he masks it. Ellen goes from shrill brat to compliant and submissive. It’s essentially a bad retelling of The Taming of the Shrew.
There was nothing bratty, compliant or submissive about Nora Charles or Hildy Johnson.
It made me wonder. What did I ever like about this film? Did I just not notice the nastiness? Have I changed in the fifty-mumble years since I saw it?
It’s true that the world is different from 1934. It’s also true that the “Hays Code” was not rigorously enforced on either The Thin Man or It Happened One Night. His Girl Friday operated under the Hays Code. Possibly, the code forced certain limitations on the film causing the writers to raise their game. It Happened One Night was directed by Frank Capra who also did Mister Smith Goes to Washington in 1939 and Arsenic and Old Lace in 1944. His Girl Friday was directed by Howard Hawks who also directed To Have and Have Not and Monkey Business. Capra had chops as good as Hawks.
I went through a similar thing with re-reading Heinlein. After a while I couldn’t do it without carefully editing myself as I read, skipping whole sections where his women suddenly dropped thirty points of IQ. It must be
me—the works haven’t changed.
Now I’m nervous. I want to re-watch The Philadelphia Story but I’m scared.