Thursday, May 11, 2006

Estrogenerational - 20s years of Women's films

In preparation for a project I have recently began work on, I rented 6 1950's Women's' films and though I realize that they may be the tawdriest or at very least cheap films of their times, there is really something very special going on here. Let's take a trek through Womanland USA!

The first stop was, fittingly, the Sirkian melodrama Magnificent Obsession. Sirk has always been considered one of the greats of the Women's' film. Magnificent Obsession is a tremendous case in point. The ludicrous plotline follows Jane Wyman whose life is accidentally ruined, little by little, by a hedonistic playboy, Rock Hudson. Left widowed and blind, Wyman inspires in Rock a determination to cure her of all of the ills that he had caused (this side of reanimation, of course). The soaring orchestral score and the wonderful technicolor shots of foliage and wildlife provide the emotionally decadent backdrop for this plunge into the feminine sea. Wish fulfillment at his finest, this is truly up there with his Criterion celebrated All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind.

In Midnight Lace, Doris Day strives to prove to the world that the threats being made on her life in anonymous telephone calls are not, as everyone suspects, hysteric outbursts, but actual occurrences. It is a tad more run-of-the-mill Housewife Hysteria and less deserving of applause than Magnificent Obsession, though it does have its moments. As it is Doris Day, the set design and costuming are decidedly lavish. Shot in color, this is the type of film where the hues leap from the screen in their intoxicating reds and meridian blues.

To be perfectly honest, I didn't watch Strangers When We Meet all the way through. It was too much Kirk Douglas, too little Kim Novak. A good forty-five minutes in and the drama had escalated to little more than some light weight infidelity.

As an alternate to the obedient housewife, Hollywood started putting out housewife turned bad movies. Crime of Passion starring Barbara Stanwyck and Sterling Hayden is one such movie. Possessing a wonderful dramatic build, the film is a good example of where Melodrama and Noir intersect. The ever-fascinating Stanwyck does a great turn at a frustrated thinking woman, though, given to the times, once she's wed, her thinking goes out the window in favor of ambition.

And the winner of the wicked award was Leave Her To Heaven. Jane Tierney portrays an obsessive housewife who cuts down anything that stands betwixt her and her love - including his brother and unborn son! This is really more Noir than anything else, all the more interesting as it is in lurid technicolor.

It's always interesting what one picks up on watching such similar films in one small period. The metaphoric relationship between domesticity and prison is remarkably prevalent. In every film, our heroines stand behind a curtained window, peering through the wooden "bars" of the window's frame. The home thus becomes a psychological prison for each of these women, though this idea is something that manifests itself in different plot creations. For Wyman, her blindness signals a loss of the home. With her newlywed husband dead, she is incapable of becoming trapped. She instead falls into a lustful psychological trap of her own invention as she is blinded by Rock's advances.

Women are also never to be trusted. Though our protagonists, they suffer from the worst of dramatic ironies. Everyone in the audience knows the plotpoints better than these poor women. And we watch as they fumble to gain a grasp on the respectable world which crumbles around them. Though these films are certainly the great-grandparents of today's Women's films - from Flightplan to Lifetime Original Television Movies - there was a certain popular psychology to them. Current pop cinema can't be bothered with psychology. We don't watch Jodie Foster fall into her neurotic coma, she starts out that way. There's no emotive cause and effect, and that, above all else, is what allows these earliest works to truly shine.


Blogger J said...

How about Polyester?

2:27 AM  

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