Posts Tagged ‘women’

Last week I revisited an old classic, The Letter (William Wyler, 1940) starring Bette Davis, and out of curiosity followed it up the next day with a screening of the lesser-known 1929 version of the same story, directed by Jean de Limur and starring the embattled Jeanne Eagels. While the earlier film is clearly the inferior work, contrasting it with the more-famous version exposes peculiarities of the time in which it was made, and is instructive about both the transition to talking-pictures as well as the production code that was written 1930 and not enforced until 1934.

Jeanne Eagels in “The Letter” (1929)

Based on a stage play by M. Somerset Maugham, both versions of The Letter were released in years following landmark dates in film history. 1928 saw the transition from silent film to talking picture production in all of the major Hollywood studios (The Jazz Singer had been released in October, 1927), and 1939 has been lauded as the height of the Hollywood studio system and the apogee of its artistry. Stylistically and structurally, each film is representative of the production methods of its era.

The dramatic structure of the 1929 version of The Letter is linear, and, to be honest, not very interesting. The film begins with Leslie (Eagels) being left alone for the evening by her husband, and sending a letter summoning her lover, Geoffrey (Herbert Marshall). By the time she murders Geoffrey we know the nature of her relationships with both her husband and her lover, and fully understand her motives. As she tries to wiggle her way through her legal proceedings her deceptions are easily identified by the audience, and there is a sense of neither suspense nor of surprise as her lies are gradually uncovered by her lawyer and her husband.

In this way, the 1929 film is structured much like a silent film, which, in telling its story in a visual manner, would usually follow a linear progression so that the audience would clearly understand the situations and motivations of the characters. Silent films did not have the luxury of explaining plot development to the audience with a few lines of spoken dialogue. This is not to say that silent films were incapable of developing psychologically complex narratives, because they certainly were, but it remains a fact that silent films were much better at melodrama than mystery. This film is played as pure melodrama.

While the dramatic structure betrays the fact that the screenplay was crafted by writers, principally Monta Bell and Garrett Fort, who had learned their craft in the silent era, stylistically the film bears no resemblance to silent film production. Like many early talkies the drama unfolds in long static shots of dialogue. There is very little cutting within scenes, and the lighting remains rather flat throughout the film. The acting, too, is highly histrionic, and reflective of early 20th century stage technique (dare I say 19th century melodrama?). There is very little subtlety to the performances, and the production is, overall, not cinematic.

A fine example is the scene early in the film in which Leslie confronts Geoffrey about their relationship. The majority of the scene is a single shot, with Leslie facing the camera, and Geoffrey in profile. They play the entire scene without moving about the room, with Eagels emoting and overacting as if she were on stage in a large theater and afraid those seated in the second balcony might miss something (certainly, the stilted dialogue doesn’t help). The scene ends with her shooting Geoffrey, and her actions are so exaggerated as to be comical. It is as though she needs to be sure that the audience sees her firing the gun several times, not trusting that they would hear the reports of the pistol. Very theatrical, but not very cinematic or convincing.

The 1929 version of The Letter exposes all that was lost when Hollywood ceased silent film production in favor of talking pictures. The 1940 version, made at a time of streamlined commercially-viable yet artistically-valid studio filmmaking, reclaims the silent film technique that had been lost (or abandoned) in 1929, while using dialogue to create a more riveting and engrossing drama. To be sure, this film is also played to melodramatic effect, but uses dialogue to create a more complex drama, and is structured more like a mystery.

Bette Davis in “The Letter” (1940)

The opening sequence of the 1940 film rivals anything produced by Hollywood in the late silent era. A series of tracking shots establishes a humid and sleepy night on a rubber plantation. The uneasy quiet is disturbed by the sound of gunshots, and the camera cuts to Leslie (Bette Davis), shooting Geoffrey, and following him down the front steps of her bungalow firing shot after shot. While the use of sound, without dialogue, is very important to this scene, it is a visually-intense and purely cinematic experience. In the manner of late-silent-era Hollywood studio production, it economically establishes the setting and launches us into the drama without the ponderous exposition of the first film version. Although the remainder of the narrative, up to but not including the final scene, is driven largely by dialogue, the 1940 film remains true to its roots in silent-era production through its use of dramatic lighting and visual motifs.

The 1940 film is also structurally different from the 1929 version. The film begins with the murder of Geoffrey, and through dialogue we learn Leslie’s version of events. Like the other characters in the film the audience does not know the depth of her deceit, and learns it only gradually. Unlike the 1929 version, in which we see Leslie writing the letter that summons her lover, it is fully one-third of the way through the 1940 film that we learn of the letter’s existence, and that Leslie’s relationship with Geoffrey was not as she had admitted. In addition to its structure as a mystery, the narrative uses dialogue to further explore Leslie’s deceptive nature by developing her relationship not only with her husband (Herbert Marshall, who had played Geoffrey in the 1929 version) but with her defense attorney and friend Howard Joyce (James Stephenson). Bette Davis’s Leslie engages Joyce in behavior that would lead to his disbarment should it be discovered. In short, while the 1940 version of The Letter was able to use dialogue to develop story and character in a way silent films could not, and in a way that early talkies had not figured out, it also used cinematic techniques developed during the silent era to develop atmosphere and enhance the drama.

Another notable difference between the 1929 and 1940 versions of The Letter is the ending. Made a year before the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (or the Hays code) was written, the earlier version of the film did not have to pass moral judgement on Leslie. Screenwriters and directors were comparatively free to tell their stories without worrying about the values they were promoting. As such, the 1929 version ends with Leslie’s stinging admission that “with all my heart, and all my soul, I still love the man I killed.”

In 1940, however, Hollywood was adhering to an established code of morality, and would not permit the narrative to end with Leslie’s acquittal and later admission to her husband that she still loved the man she killed. Having committed adultery, murder, and perjury, and engaged in other morally abhorrent behavior, she had to pay for her sins. And so the 1940 version of The Letter ends as it begins, with a visually-striking final sequence which borrows its technique from the silent era. Bette Davis, willfully walks out into a moonlit night where she is murdered by her lover’s wife.

Both films are available on DVD.

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Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert made several films together in the 1930′s and 40′s that remain popular today. Many of their films are shown with regularity on TCM, and several have been released on DVD. Yet one of their most inventive comedies, Practically Yours, remains one of their least known. Directed by Mitchell Leisen in 1944, the film has yet to appear on DVD and is rarely screened. The story of a WWII hero, his dog, and the girl he used to work with is noteworthy not only for its original plot, witty dialog and unusual situations, but also for its depiction of women in the 1940′s, and how their expectations for their own lives were shaped and changed by WWII.

Released less than a year before the end of the war, the story concerns Daniel Bellamy (MacMurray), a soldier who survives a suicide mission, returns home, and discovers that he is expected to marry Peggy Martin (Colbert), a girl he barely knows. Although they don’t have much in common and don’t seem to like each other much, Daniel and Peggy play along with the publicity machine in an attempt to “aid the war effort” and, naturally, fall in love. The path to the Hollywood ending, however, is not a linear one, and Norman Krasna’s screenplay contains many unexpected elements that underscore how difficult WWII was for women on the home front. Krasna plays to his audience’s concerns (1944 film audiences were largely composed of women whose boyfriends and husbands were off fighting the war), and expects that they will likely recognize something of themselves in Peggy.

A subplot which may seem to have been included simply to develop Daniel’s character (he’s not as cynical as he lets on) involves Ellen Macy (Rosemary DeCamp) anxiously awaits news of her husband, a navy pilot in the Pacific. Ellen, who married as the war was beginning, had traditional expectations about what her (married) life would be like. Ellen provides a useful contrast to Peggy, who is not married, and finds herself caught between those same traditional expectations and the options she will have following, the war.

Peggy’s dilemma is developed through Albert W. Beagell (Gil Lamb), who works with Peggy, wants to marry her, and serves as a dramatic foil for Daniel. While Peggy is clearly attracted to Daniel and the romance of his heroism, Albert represents the guarantee of a comfortable domestic life, though it comes with the demands of rigidly-defined gender roles (he stops just short of the proverbial “barefoot, pregnant and chained to the stove”). In choosing Daniel, Peggy rejects both the security that Albert offers her and the values of her mother’s generation, and avoids the stagnation that Betty Friedan will write about in The Feminine Mystique nearly twenty years later. Her future with Daniel is in no way guaranteed, but Peggy has learned how to provide for herself, and is confident that she will be able to do so in the future should Daniel not return from the war. In other words, she, like many other women of her generation, learned that she need not settle for the traditional expectations of domestic life that Albert represents.

Released in December, 1944 for a largely-female audience, Practically Yours seems on the surface to be an amusing and inventive romantic comedy. However, the film subtly explores the changing expectations that women had for their own lives as World War II was drawing to a close.

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I had the opportunity to see Shoes (1916) at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival last July. Written and directed by Lois Weber from a novel by Jane Addams, the story concerns Eva Meyer, a young woman who resorts to prostitution because she desperately needs money for a new pair of shoes.

Mary MacLaren in Shoes (1916)

While Lois Weber is best remembered as a pioneering woman filmmaker, the popularity and cultural significance of her films must be linked to the era in which she made them. Born in 1881, Weber left her home in Pennsylvania to pursue a singing career in New York City. Before finding work in the film industry, she lived in poverty amongst masses of impoverished immigrants. She was intimately acquainted with the living conditions of the working classes, and the blights of underemployment, alcoholism, prostitution, among other social ills. It is not surprising that her best films revolve around these issues, and while they were popular because of their controversial and timely subject matter, they stand as documents (or even propaganda) of the Progressive Era.

Weber was a contemporary of the women activists who led many progressive-era reforms, and was an acquaintance of Jane Addams (whose novel provided the source material for Shoes). 1916 was the height of the Progressive Era (which was soon to be quelled by the fervor over World War I). Reformers had achieved passage of legislation regarding child labor laws, workplace safety, election reform, food and drug safety, and were working towards a constitutional amendment that would mark the beginning of Prohibition.

With this backdrop, some of Weber’s choices might seem a little odd, but only serve to help her achieve her goals. The story revolves around Eva (Mary MacLaren), a young woman who works a five-dollars-a-week job to provide for her parents (her father is unemployed) and siblings who live in a typical Lower East Side tenement. Both Eva’s ability to do her job and her health are adversely affected by her desperate need for a new pair of shoes. Hers are old and worn out, and even though she repairs the soles with cardboard each night they can neither stand up to nor protect her from inclement weather. Her vanity is also hurt, as she is unable to fit in or compete with other stylish young women of her own age. Desperate for the money to buy a new pair of shoes she resorts to prostitution.

There are many progressive-era concerns at play here: wages and workers rights, living conditions of the working classes, consumerism and its effects on the working classes (especially young women), and, most obviously, prostitution. The film is careful to keep the focus on these issues as they relate to young working-class women, however, by omitting the main concern of progressive reformers: alcoholism.

Eva’s plight is accentuated by her father’s unemployment, which is portrayed as being caused not by alcoholism, as one would expect, but by simple laziness. Progressives saw a father’s alcoholism as a central cause of poverty: it made him unfit for work and he spent too much of the family’s meager savings on drink. However, Eva’s father simply does not want to work. He spends his days at home or in the park, and spends the little bit of extra money that the family has (money that could have gone to purchasing a new pair of shoes for Eva) on books.

It might seem odd that Weber chose not to include alcoholism in the narrative, but omitting it serves two dramatic purposes. First of all, it keeps the focus on Eva and the elements of her life that she can control. A discourse on the evils of drink would have been a distraction. Secondly, the father’s success in finding a job on his first attempt, the same day as his daughter’s descent into prostitution, further underscores the tragedy of the situation and puts the blame on the entire family for depending solely upon her meager wages for their subsistence.

Released at the height of the Progressive Era, Shoes is a noteworthy dramatic film that is as interesting for the issues it tackles, and owes its effectiveness to the issues it chooses to omit.

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