primrose path

Close Up #4

Close Up #4: Venus on a Clam Shell in Primrose Path (’40)

In Gregory La Cava’s sensitive coming of age picture, Ginger Rogers watches Joel McCrea demonstrate how to find clams as a grand romantic gesture, one more arresting than a moonlit walk in a rose garden. Among familiar opportunities for seduction, woman’s pictures found new ways to reinvent girl-meets-boy. Their beach encounter occasions Ginger’s sexual awakening. Delivered by way of clam shell, like a modern-day Venus, she decides to abandon a childish disguise and embrace womanhood. La Cava selects a bit of shoreline adjacent to a dusty California road for the scene and anchors his picture in a grubby realism that resists flashy aesthetics to stylise character growth. Instead, he pares down costume and scenery to underscore a dazzlement of human response. La Cava may overemphasise his version of working class virtue in shabby backgrounds punctuated by scripted double negatives and inelegant syntax in a story that presents sexy poses (for women) and university education (for men) as routes down a less than ideal path, but those objections seem begrudging in an otherwise heartfelt film.

primrose path

McCrea’s Ed Wallace coaxes Ginger Rogers’ Ellie May Adams through the basics of clam digging. McCrea doesn’t know that she’s scrounging a hangover cure for her resigned alcoholic father, but he admires her pluck and verve. He schools her in foraging arts as a compliment to her wit, which always signals a man above the crowd. They meet for the second time on the beach. The first time they met, in the previous scene, she was a hitchhiker eating a free meal at his lunch counter.

Unlike the ‘Porta-gee’ girls (the script’s colloquialism for Portuguese girls working in the local sardine cannery) who giggle at his behind the counter repertoire (McCrea pronounces it rep-ar-tee), Ellie criticises his banter with customers. In a startling rejection of age-old courtship advice that compels women to laugh at any man’s jokes, Ellie refuses to feign passive delight with Ed’s humour and blisters his cornpone lines. She challenges his cock ‘o the café status and in doing so, she highlights their dynamic with word play and alternate punchlines from the first moment. He may have repertoire, but Ellie turns his solo act into an improvisational duo. As she steals the spotlight with wisecracks, she positions herself as equal partner before they have traded names. While Ellie waits for Gramp (Henry Travers) to make her a sandwich, she critiques his stale routine. No wonder McCrea’s head snaps around in a reaction shot. Barely a minute at the counter and this so-called kid he had joked about playing truant bests him at his own game. Gramp pushes a plate in front of Ellie, suggesting she ignore Ed’s jokes:

Gramp: Don’t pay attention to him. His mind wanders

Ellie Mae: Maybe it never came back

Viewers watch McCrea’s character sizing her up: young, tiny, hungry, poor, dressed to hide from men—what could she do with a little encouragement? Ed pays attention to Ellie’s sharp retorts. He marvels ‘she ain’t so bad on the comeback’. Compared to the Portuguese girls, Ellie lacks any display of femininity that’s supposed to compel his notice. Bare faced, flat cap, childish braids, shapeless jumper, zip-front jacket, A-lined skirt, and flat lace ups do not produce a ‘come-hither’ countenance. Yet he’s intrigued by the sass mouth dame tucking into a ham sandwich, which explains why he follows her to the beach after she announces her plan to go look for clams.

He parks his motorbike and approaches her slowly on the sand.

Ed: Getting any clams?

          Ellie: There ain’t any. I told ‘em some of your jokes and they ran away

McCrea embodies an ideal man in woman’s pictures because he’s attracted to her brain rather than appearance. Instead of sulking or scowling in a typical automatic masculine reaction against a woman with the audacity to be funnier, he’s captivated by her sharp tongue. He’s drawn to her wit, so he attempts to prove himself worthy and show Ellie something useful. McCrea’s Ed wants to earn her regard. First, he watches her poking around rocks in the sand, and says she ought to have a clam rake. He may as well observe that someone fishing with a stick and piece of string needs a proper rod. Whenever a man remarks over the futility of a woman’s endeavour, devotees of woman’s pictures know she’ll dig her heels in for the duration. Next, Ed tells Ellie that she won’t find them under a rock, that she needs to search within the high-water mark. Clams don’t run off, as she had joked earlier, after all—they can only go as far as the tide (although McCrea refrains from making the point directly). Ellie begins to listen. Maybe he’s knows what he’s talking about.

Ellie flinches when Ed picks up a chunk of rock during his lesson, suspecting a caveman overture to knock her out and have his way. He doesn’t recognise his behaviour as threatening, as men rarely do, but continues without interruption toward the tideline before he drops the rock with a thud on the beach. The result, for anyone unfamiliar with the peculiarities of shellfish, produces thin jets of spray from the sand that he calls ‘clam spit’. A loud noise prompts them to give themselves away, he explains.

You don’t have to be a Freudian to acknowledge clam digging as a metaphor for her latent sexuality. Although Ginger’s hoyden costume looks adorable, it’s also a clear sign that her character refuses to grow up. She’s hiding out in schoolyard disguise mainly as a form of self-protection from a shrieking harpy grandmother (Queenie Vassar) who hectors Ellie to hurry up and join the family tradition of women in the world’s oldest profession. Ellie’s pre-pubescent sister Honeybell (Joan Carroll) already responds to the family matriarch’s grooming for the sex trade, toward the far from titular primrose path all women in the family tread. Down that route, Ellie quickly susses no reward in dating men to pay bills. Except on the beach, for the first time, she discovers desire that has nothing to do with marketplace transaction. Tall drink of man-water Joel McCrea beckons Ellie to realise what pleasure she might have for her own.

primrose path

When a man’s agenda involves sex, conversation usually takes a back seat, or reduces to a minimum. On the beach, though, Ed tries to draw Ellie out, to prolong talk because he’s interested in what she says. He tells her that she’s harder to open than a clam, and that she’s as closed as one of the clams they dug up. He sneaks a kiss while taking her home in his motorbike sidecar. One kiss and she’s gobsmacked. What began on the beach syncs when their lips touch. He’s ruined everything. She ditches the tomboy costume and next emerges from the ramshackle house in full womanly array, following him to the Blue Bell nightspot to compete with the cannery gals for his attention.

Along with his appreciation of Ginger’s comic lines, McCrea proves swoon-worthy because he’s unimpressed by Ellie’s attempt at seductive turnout. Instead of the customary makeover reveal in film, where a man appears overcome with desire at the sight of newly polished style, Ed wipes her lipstick off and asks her if she wants to be a freak. He objects to the lipstick, rakish hat and tatty fur stole as affectations that fail to suit Ellie. She’s putting on a playact of what she thinks men find desirable, based on the commodified version taught at home. Once she pares back the embellishments, including a hideous automobile purse, borrowed along with the other accessories, and she’s just in a buttoned blouse and pleated skirt, she’s feminine but herself, no longer hiding behind the tomboy duds she wore on the beach or the seductive gear.

Ginger’s Ellie throws caution under a bus. While telling a massive whopper about being kicked out of the house for declaring her love for him, she asks for kisses and then lets him think she’ll jump from the pier if he rejects her. Ellie finds him so desirable that she claims homelessness and pretends to consider death her only option—that’s how much she liked Ed’s kisses. Without finesse or experience, she hurtles full speed into his arms. Viewers know she’ll have hell to pay for insisting they marry. In the meantime, Ginger looks adorable in a polka dot uniform installed behind the lunch counter. She commands centre stage with ‘repartee’ about their bad food, weak coffee but free bicarb for customers. Even better, viewers witness Joel McCrea admire her rapid-fire retorts and cutting remarks. He’s content to be an audience for his hilarious wife. Business is hopping, thanks to the sass mouth dame in charge.

primrose path

I almost hesitate to mention what happens once reality confronts the honeymooners. As Gramp points out, Ed didn’t marry Ellie’s family and if you look far enough into anyone’s family tree you’re sure to find a horse thief. But when Ed meets the family for dinner, with a menu that includes a soggy carton of takeaway chow mein and a store-bought cake, the table’s set for a feast of family dysfunction. Ellie’s mother Mamie Adams (Marjorie Rambeau) makes the best of life with a feckless, drunken husband through sex work to pay rent. Gin-soaked patriarch Homer (Miles Mander), busts in the house bladdered, looking suitable for an autopsy table, and assumes that McCrea has money burning a hole in his pocket. Granny rates as a sour hellcat. Sexually precocious Honeybell raises further alarm. It’s all a bit much for Ed to digest, along with proof that Ellie wasn’t put on the street by a family who would be there after one week of bad luck.

Ed’s predictable response to hideout in the Blue Bell isn’t the worst of it. Ellie arrives to bring him home but sits anyway when he magnanimously invites her to the table, seated with a friend and the Portuguese ladies. He wears an affable demeanour while he demeans his wife. First, he encourages the group to mock Ellie for ordering milk and then he kisses Carmelita (Carmen Morales) and scores her raspberry-flavoured lipstick as less pleasant than her usual vanilla. At the table, Ginger-as-Ellie falls in stature to just another hanger-on rather than his wife. Ed’s scorn and derisive comments about the Adams family land blood curdling blows. Outside the Blue Bell, as she’s trying to escape, he even ridicules Ellie’s previous suicide gambit by telling her she’s heading in the wrong direction, that she should walk off the pier. Ellie had scaled the heights of desire with McCrea’s rangy physique and then was cast out against the rocks and driftwood, humiliated and alone, in what seems like pure agony. A scene like this in woman’s pictures leads us to the brink of what she or we can endure and then carries us over the abyss. Ginger Rogers was always a survivor; women in the audience know she’ll show us the way to recover from love’s rebuke.

primrose path

Academy voters must have blanched at the idea of handing Ginger Rogers a gold statue for playing a character in a family line of sex workers. I’ll take hardscrabble Ginger in La Cava’s pictures Stage Door (1937) Fifth Avenue Girl (1939) and Primrose Path over sanitised films like her Oscar win for Kitty Foyle, the same year as the infinitely superior Primrose Path. The Academy’s pick was a safe one, but not the best performance from Ginger in Kitty Foyle, a film so mild, it might be symbolised by the prim Quaker ensemble she dons to meet Main Line Philadelphians. Ginger’s Kitty, a working-class girl from Havelock Street, uses a typewriter to springboard from poverty. Kitty conceives a faint outline for modern womanhood: work in an office before marriage to an upwardly mobile professional, such as a doctor, not a blueblood. None of the plot developments seem risky or ground-breaking, it’s as hushed as a Quaker meeting. Kitty has dignity in capitals and zero chemistry with Dennis Morgan and James Craig, in a love triangle that has less spark than a campground during a spring downpour. Nice and affable as they may be, no one ever went weak at the knees for Morgan or Craig. And Craig’s character rates as an awful cheapskate who won’t even treat a hungry lady to dinner. Miserly never makes for swoon-worthy. The film’s most important contribution was the Kitty Foyle fashion trend, of starched white collars and cuffs popular in work wardrobes of the era. Although I rarely engage in the quibbling about Oscar wins, in this case, Ginger won for the wrong film. Primrose Path is your gateway intoxicant to the heady elixir contained in the best woman’s pictures from the 1940s.


NEXT >> CLOSE UP #5 – Susan Hayward’s frock in My Foolish Heart (1949)
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the female animal

Close Up #3

Close Up #3: Midlife Sexuality in The Female Animal (1958)

During the ongoing publicity campaign for Feud, Ryan Murphy highlights his inclusion of sex scenes for Joan (Jessica Lange) and Bette (Susan Sarandon) to restore each woman’s core sexuality. Murphy attempts to brand his show as singular for depicting middle aged women with active libidos, by noting that once women in Hollywood reach a certain age they disappear from bedroom scenarios. Sounds like good copy, which would lead one to expect that his scenes for Joan and Bette would promise something edgy and maybe even feminist. Unfortunately, what transpires in episode two adheres to mouldy stereotypes about women’s sexuality. Feud argues that women who make the first move, as Joan does with director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina), appear controlling, desperate, or clingy. Aldrich pushes Joan away, repulsed by her attempt to initiate sex. Bette, on the other hand, rings him in the middle of the night but assures him she only wants a friend. She assumes a submissive pose on the floor and gushes about his talent as a director, a man who has a brief lacklustre list of credits. She waits for him to make the first move and he does. Each woman’s scene sends a clear message: men take charge and women should know their place. Most likely Murphy took a page from Vincent Sherman’s memoir Studio Affairs which includes unflattering accounts of his real-life relationships with Davis and Crawford. Sherman estimates Bette as appropriately feminine because she waited for him to decide when their professional alliance became personal. He describes Joan as aggressive and unhinged for initiating sex after screening one of her own pictures. Sherman believes women should conceal desire and ego under a passive demeanour. Ungallant as the tawdry details remain, Murphy should know better than borrow them for Feud.

Murphy’s claim for breaking new ground or doing women any favours rings hollow. Even by standards of 1962, the year of Baby Jane’s production, it rates as an old fashioned and lazy reduction of women’s sexual agency. In the 1950s, often regarded as a hyper-conservative era, filmmakers still rendered more interesting portrayals of women’s sexuality than what Ryan Murphy has created. For example, Hedy Lamarr and Jan Sterling in The Female Animal (1958) offer compelling representations of carnal pleasure for women over 40. Strangely, three women seem miscast for the ages they play. At 29, Jane Powell looks far too old to play Hedy Lamarr’s daughter. Jan Sterling was only 37 and doesn’t seem old enough to settle for a cut-rate gigolo. And Hedy Lamarr, at 44, could easily pass for 35, with a waistline trimmer than most starlets half her age. Perhaps casting underscores a difficulty for accurate guesses about a woman’s true age.

The Female Animal, directed by Harry Keller, establishes more empathy for aging women than Murphy extends to Joan and Bette. In Keller’s picture, Hedy Lamarr plays Vanessa Windsor, Hollywood royalty. One day at the studio, an extra saves her from a falling spotlight. Viewers can read the scene as emblematic for her career in the picture. In a town that trades upon youth and beauty, we’re led to understand Windsor’s prospects dim as calendar pages turn. George Nader plays the brawny extra, a man who in real life had his film career abruptly destroyed when he was outed by Confidential magazine, a scandal he endured to protect his more famous friend, Rock Hudson. Nader’s Chris Farley puts himself in harm’s way for the star and receives a gashed arm for his trouble. As the doctor checks the damage, Vanessa Windsor observes his rock hewn musculature. The foot-long cut only accentuates his ideal physique. Charles Atlas would seem a tad flabby next to Nader’s sculpted physique. Reclined in her studio dressing room, Vanessa’s eyes linger over the tall drink of man water without drooling. She keeps a lid on her desire for the moment but viewers know she’s already busy planning an opportunity to meet him again.

the female animal

While a masseuse pounds her legs and buttocks, she rings Farley and invites him to escort her to a premiere. In his tiny bungalow, a mere cubby hole for a he-man, he objects that he lacks appropriate formal attire. A seasoned pro, Vanessa responds that it’s all publicity and to report to wardrobe for a dinner jacket in the morning. After the studio obligations, she takes her time on their first date seducing Chris.

At her private beach house, she seems amused by how impressed Chris appears to be with the house and obvious wealth. Vanessa suggests a swim. Chris admits that he had trouble with the fancy shirt pins earlier. At this point, Lamarr leans forward and draws out a reply ‘Studs?’ Her delivery aims for lusty rather than campy and she nails it. She’s awake with desire for the hulk, so much that she can’t help rubbing his chest just a little as she unclasps the fancy buttons. She bumps against him and apologises. Desire has made her a bit unsteady; she’s inebriated with the pleasures his body promises. Hedy Lamarr’s performance identifies how women surprise themselves with sexual longing. She’s off balance and delighted. When they leave the surf, she’s in a white bikini that boasts a dancer’s lithe shape. She tosses him a towel but holds on to one end and then uses it to tug him down beside her on a blanket. Hedy as Vanessa uses a seductive move that looks smooth, confident and in charge. One tug on the towel and she brings the muscle man to his knees in a moment of wild abandon. A ringing phone interrupts their hot beach sex and despite pleasures thwarted, Vanessa responds to the request to return to tend a sick daughter without looking angry or frustrated. She’s happy to savour the evening. Hedy Lamarr’s lust for Nader’s Chris offers more of a revelation than the onscreen orgasm she simulated in Ecstasy (1933). Ground breaking though it may have been, Ecstasy seems like climax after climax where The Female Animal lingers on the drama of foreplay. She appears happy in taking the lead in sexual play.

the female animal

Jan Sterling’s character, by contrast, emphasises the tedium women may experience in sexual relationships after the shine wears off. At a seaside bar, her character Lily Frayne complains of boredom in having ‘nothing to do night or day but go to bed’. Once the plum roles dried up, she has little business other than sex and it’s not a suitable replacement to fulfil an ambitious studio queen. Sterling’s brassy platinum locks lend a hardboiled quality to age a woman who mourns the glory days. In the old days, which her ungallant paramour refers to as the ‘stone age’, they were giants. Now she laments that only a few picture titans remain, enough to fit under a card table without messing up a hair, she says.

the female animal

Lily Frayne doesn’t bother to soldier on with a film career as Lamarr’s Windsor does.  Her entertainment limits itself to slapping bracelets on men with an accent. In this scene at the bar, we see full circle into the career for female stars in Hollywood. As Lily Frayne, which approximates ‘frayed’ as an apt allegorical, she gives her Lubitsch pedigree, one that holds more weight and worth than the diamond earrings she wears. She’s rueful because her rise through the ranks began at 11 and progressed with the distinction of being the ‘first child star ever to be chased around a desk’. Lily avoids grist for the sexual mill by surviving. At the same time, her character recognises the limited pleasure of sitting next to arm candy with no dimension. He may be pretty, but he’s also blank. Rather than depict Lily as angry or frustrated, she seems disappointed, as though the whole business of sex promises a banal resolution. Lily’s the antidote to Vanessa’s swooning over Chris.

Viewers portend the love triangle. Vanessa installs Chris in the beach house as caretaker when really he’s a live-in lover. One night he intercedes on behalf of a woman thrown in the mud by a handsy date. Chris takes Jane Powell’s Penny Windsor back to the beach house to clean up and sober up before returning home. Penny doesn’t know about the beach house, a point that illustrates the frosty relationship between mother and daughter. If that seems hard to swallow, remember that Joan Crawford refused to share the address of her beach house with husband Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Sometimes a movie queen needs a secret beach house. When the news of the triangle surfaces, there’s no competition for Chris or catfight when he falls for Penny and cools toward the movie star. Vanessa bows out without question or objection. She’s no kid. Vanessa knows what Lily has demonstrated—he’s but one guy in a long line. Vanessa doesn’t lose the run of herself over muscle man. She can find another one in the studio just as easily as she found him.

the female animal

Some viewers might object that she looks resigned or that the ending casts too bleak a shadow over prospects for middle age women. We do get an upbeat closure, it’s just not a romantic one. Instead of walking off to the beach house with Chris, Vanessa receives validation from another woman. The film closes on a moment with a nurse that sets a proper woman’s picture tone: that she was appreciated in spite of the men in the studio system. The nurse confides: ‘I’ve always felt that you were a much better actress than the roles they gave you’ […] ‘because the one great thing you have on the screen is believability.’ At the end, the nurse leads viewers to regard a sincere woman overlooked and underestimated. Recognition of Vanessa’s talent, presence, and connection with women in the audience feels in some way more satisfying than had she simply walked off with muscle man. Vindication rates as a greater pleasure in the fade out. What a fitting send-off for Hedy Lamarr’s last picture. Without question, she was better than the roles studio executives assigned.


NEXT >> CLOSE UP #4 – venus on a clam shell in Primrose Path (’40)
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barbara stanwyck

Barbara Stanwyck: Ball of Fire – Episode 15

Bright, hard boiled yet deeply human, earthy, independent, consummate professional, passionate, conservative, world weary, astute, confident, funny, strong, loyal…you really can’t pin Barbara Stanwyck down to any one thing. In episode 15 we discuss (in our humble opinion) three films that showcase her best work – Ladies of Leisure (1930), Stella Dallas (1937), and Clash by Night (1952).

Stay tuned for episode 16 in which we discuss the wonderful Joan Bennett followed in episode 17 with the queen of slapstick herself, Carole Lombard!

Sources:
Ankerich, M.G. (2015) Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels: The Lives, Careers, and Misfortunes of 14 Hard-Luck Girls of the Silent Screen. Albany: BearManor Media.

Bogdanovich, P. (1997) Who The Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors. New York: Ballantine Books.

Callahan, D. (2011) Barbara Stanwyck The Miracle Woman. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Capra, F. (1997) The Name above the Title: An Autobiography. Boston: DaCapo Press.

Clash by Night (1952). Dir. Fritz Lang [DVD] RKO Pictures.

Ladies of Leisure (1930) Dir. Frank Capra [DVD} Columbia Pictures.

Stella Dallas (1937) Dir. King Vidor [DVD} United Artists.

Wilson, V. (2013) A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True 1907-1940. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Carman, Emily (2016) Independent Stardom: Freelance Women in the Hollywood Studio System. University of Texas Press

Scandals of Classic Hollywood: The Many Faces of Barbara Stanwyck –thehairpin.com/scandals-of-class…8648a2#.w82nq07ge

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bette davis

Sisters under the Skin – All About Bette – Episode 14

Part 2 of our ‘Sisters under the Skin’ series, of which Joan Crawford was featured in part 1, this episode is all about Bette. We celebrate a queen of Woman’s Pictures through three of her finest films: Of Human Bondage (1934), Marked Woman (1937) and Now, Voyager (1942).

This is also our last episode of the year but we will return in January fresh smelling with the fabulous Barbara Stanwyck.

Sisters under the Skin – All About Bette – Episode 14 by Any Ladle’s Sweet

Part 2 of our ‘Sisters under the Skin’ series, of which Joan Crawford was featured in part 1, this episode is all about Bette. We celebrate a queen of Woman’s Pictures through three of her finest films: Of Human Bondage (1934), Marked Woman (1937) and Now, Voyager (1942).

Sources:
Considine, S. (1989) Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud. New York: Dutton.

Davis, B. (1962) The Lonely Life. (with Sanford Dody). New York: Lancer Books.

— (1987) This ‘N That (with Michael Herskowitz). New York: Putnam.

Dody, S. (1980) Giving Up the Ghost: A Writer’s Life Among the Stars. Lanham: M Evans and Co.

Eckert, C. (1973) ‘The Anatomy of a Proletarian Film: Warner’s Marked Woman’ Film Quarterly Vol. 27 No. 2 (Winter 1973-1974) pp. 10-24.

Fuller, E. (1992) Me and Jezebel New York: Berkley.

Marked Woman (1937) Dir. Lloyd Bacon [DVD] Warner Brothers.

Now Voyager (1942) Dir. Irving Rapper [DVD] Warner Brothers.

Of Human Bondage (1934) Dir. James Cromwell [YouTube] RKO Pictures.

Sherman, V. (1996) Studio Affairs: My Life as a Film Director. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Stine, W. (1974) Mother Goddamn: Bette Davis Hawthorn Books.

sensesofcinema.com/2001/feature-articles/spinster/

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carole lombard

Close Up #2

Close Up #2: Carole Lombard’s fabulist in True Confession (1937)

Screwball comedy, like film noir, usually hinges upon the male point of view. For a dozen slinky-gown inscrutables, an intermittent standout such as Barbara Stanwyck, as the downright unglamorous Mae Doyle in Clash by Night (’52), anchors a picture away from the hardboiled gumshoe, angry man or fella in a frame up. In screwball, the runaway heiress, soon-to- be-ex- wife, aspiring entertainer, cardsharp or scam artist routinely plays second fiddle to the one sporting brilliantined hair. Not so for True Confession (’37), a definite woman’s picture with a point of view firmly centred on the leading lady, directed by Wesley Ruggles, and starring Carole Lombard as Helen Bartlett.

A couple of subversive points make this film a gold standard woman’s picture. Next to Lombard, men appear dull, unimaginative and obtuse. They have no ability to dream up or interpret a scenario. Men exist as uninspired literalists who take everything at face value. When the repo man McDougall (played by Tom Dugan) shows up to remove the typewriter due to missed payment, she halts the man in his tracks with an outrageous tale about her mentally unstable husband who considers the machine as replacement for their dead baby. Lombard’s fiction convinces the man that MacMurray will snap and commit murder if he attempts to walk off with the ‘baby’. The typewriter stays when Fred MacMurray’s broad shoulders and 6ft 3in frame appear.

carole lombard

Women are natural storytellers the film argues, since those narrative gifts develop through everyday hassles from a lack of authority and complications that arise from living in a man’s world. When Lombard’s rich boss (a man who offered to pay her $50 a week for three hours a day of ‘secretarial’ duty) meets a grisly end, cops arrive and immediately peg Lombard and Merkel as the guilty party, just for being at the crime scene. Edgar Kennedy (as police officer Darsey) treats the women as though they were naughty children from the start. During the interrogation scene, he tries to force a confession from Lombard, and in the process, sweat pours down his face as if he were the guilty party. Each time he offers a motive for why she might have decided to kill her boss, Lombard revises the story so that it reads better, so that it contains a better dramatic arc, internal continuity and characterisation. As a dim-witted man with a badge, he doesn’t recognise imagination at work. She rattles off alternative plots before he discovers she’s spinning one yarn after another.

Men in True Confession struggle not only with how to put together a story, but also with simple words. The ballistic expert (Byron Foulger) desperately grabs for the right idiom like it’s a noose around his neck. He chokes between colloquial and professional diction:

‘I got the call about 10 o’clock Wednesday morning from the homicide bureau. I found the defendant, I mean, er, the deceased, laying, er, lying face down on the floor, I mean the rug. So I examined the uh, rug, or, er, uh, the body, and found that death was caused by two bullets, fired into his range, I mean, two bullets fired at close range into his lead, er, head’.

Viewers take delight in so-called expert testimony from a man who stumbles over every other word in a sentence. If a man frets over basic nouns, he earns little credibility among a jury. When a man who has a way with words does turn up, such as the loquacious tippler John Barrymore plays, he interprets the plot all wrong by predicting an electric-chair climax. Barrymore’s eloquence fails to even grant an ability to cadge drinks from a bartender.

carole lombard

As the straight man spouse, MacMurray appears pathologically gullible. He knows that his wife tends to fabricate stories until any thread of truth has been lost, yet he remains unable to detect tell-tale signs of falsehood. How could he miss the tongue-in- cheek ‘tell’ Lombard deploys when she’s about to unleash a whopper? Lombard’s tongue-in- cheek business might have proven an utter debacle of vaudevillian mugging had many other actresses tried it, but Lombard’s masterclass screwball delivery mutes it to a blinking moment. Once we observe the poke of her tongue, we know Lombard’s busy concocting an outlandish chestnut.

The friendship between Carole Lombard and Una Merkel (as Daisy McClure) rates as one of the best onscreen. Una knows and understands her friend in a way that her husband doesn’t. She’s the only one in the picture who recognises Lombard’s big fat lies and behaves appropriately. Merkel’s golden reaction shots offer a proxy for Lombard’s real audience. Perhaps it’s because they are sisters of the sass mouth: it takes one to know one.

carole lombard

In the end, True Confession presents Lombard’s exoneration and success as an author as true justice. Catapulted to fame and fortune, Lombard’s character harmonises the business of being a woman with profitable enterprise. Marriage to a man with an impoverished fantasy life, one who claims to only defend the innocent in court, requires brazen moxie on a wife’s part. Lombard’s narrative facility keeps her several steps ahead of tedious rules and the narrow scope of patriarchy. She’s rewarded for her creativity and cheekiness in a proper woman’s picture dénouement.

carole lombard

A final note: Fred MacMurray’s moustache deserves a moment of appreciation. He must have grown it especially for True Confession, because the only photographs featuring his comely mouth brow appear as stills or promotional shots for his fourth and final production with Lombard. MacMurray sports a hybrid variation of the holy trinity of 1930s moustaches: thicker than William Powell’s and Clark Gable’s, but thinner than Robert Donat’s. MacMurray wears it to great advantage as a swoon-worthy character, which punctuates the adoring looks he beams towards Lombard, even when he wants to wring her neck for being a fib-prone scamp.


NEXT >> CLOSE UP #3 – Midlife Sexuality in The Female Animal (1958)
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