Then there are films we see often and sometimes love and are sometimes nonplussed by. We may screen one of these for friends and they get a headache and sigh in exasperation, and we too sigh, and turn it off, wondering what we ever saw in it, only to watch the rest of it by ourselves a few days later and fall back in mad love. Such a film for me is BRINGING UP BABY (1938).
Then there are films we don't even have on DVD, but for some reason we keep seeing them, usually on TCM. Eventually we seem them so damned often they too bend reality and meld into our lives. We usually love many things about them, but a few jarring elements keep us from really swooning, such a film for me is BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE (1958).
I've introduced all three this way because all three are mythic 'comedies of remarriage' (ala the book by Stanley Cavell), and that means they're confirmed reality warpers in that they are truly 'modern mythic,' reflecting our lives and relationships in and of the moment we're watching them like a funhouse mirror, like Tarot cards, like I Ching. They are 'screwball comedies' with the screwball being no longer a baseball pitching term, but an orgiastic ballroom term implying Crowley-esque sex magick abandon --all three film involve magic of one sort or another, be it conjuring (BOOK), sleight of hand card tricks (EVE), or animistic shape-shifting (BABY).
But what's truly diabolical about them is the way multiple viewings bring out a kind of subtextual unspoken paranoia wherein 'accidental' meet ups and romantic sabotage take on a whole new conspiratorial light. Maybe these aspects were in the original story, but in turnaround became a comedy and the darkness--the 'point'--weeded out. Years later, we watch them again and again, like incantations seen and heard instead of spoken and the deeper meanings are at last discerned, the insidious plotting of girls way more sophisticated than we doltish dupes can ever be is recognized too late to change it! Even the filmmaker has forgotten her original intention thanks to her quicksilver cleverness!
And so it dawned on me lately that in BRINGING UP BABY, Kate Hepburn is sabotaging Cary Grant's life deliberately so Aunt Elizabeth will give her the million dollars instead of Grant's stuffy museum; she does get it, but in the end falls for him and promises to fork it over, not before wrecking his life's work up to that point (trashing his brontosaurus), of course. It's as if her final act of sabotage--the one that's finally not deliberate-- both destroys the old shell and breathes life into the new, miraculously shrinking the huge dinosaur skeleton down into a skinny New England bachelorette... like the last piece in the puzzle of the past morphs the final completed image, the Venus de Brontosaurus, with leopard and terrier heads in addition to her snaky brontosaurus mouth.
In BELL, BOOK the suspicious coincidence is that Stewart just happens to live above the voodoo art store owned by an old enemy of his fiancee (Janice Rule). Any smart witch expert would already be smelling a trap--a spell that made him notice the apt. available sign as he passed perhaps-- but it's never mentioned in the film. Think it over and of course she's lured him to live there deliberately in order to wreak further revenge. Consider the witchy situation in ROSEMARY'S BABY, we sure found out that Mia Farrow and her lout husband were lured to the Dakota by a magical draw, didn't we? Nothing is left to chance! Witches are like film producers, planning everything down to the smallest detail.
In the LADY EVE the paranoia is more overt since we know from the beginning Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) is a sharpie out to fleece Henry Fonda's rich snake handler. Kim Novak in BELL is only out to use Jimmy Stewart as a tool for revenge; Katherine Hepburn just wants her aunt to give her a million dollars, they have a set goal, but Jean does this stuff all the time. Cards and gambling are her and her father's form of elemental magic. And as with the witches in BELL, the truth of their superiority must be kept secret. She and her father can only show off their skill only when alone together. When Fonda tries to impress her father with a clumsy card trick the old man feigns amazement, only to momentarily forget himself later and exhibit a piece of card shuffle virtuosity worthy of W.C. Fields, remembering where he is only in mid shuffle and quickly concealing it, lest he be burnt at the stake for a sharpie warlock.
The relative ethereal 'magical' nature of Eve/Jean (short for Eugenia) and Charles Coburn/Col. Harrington in EVE is established early on by their Olympian view down upon clumsy Adam/Hopsy/Henry Fonda as he climbs Jacob's ladder up onto the ship. Their relative celestial height is ascertained in a slow pan up from steerage, with its packed Preston Sturges grotesques, accentuating Jean and her father's relative rarefied air of awesomeness. "I hope he's a wizard at cards!" Jean says, before dropping her apple on his head with flawless aim. As with Cary Grant in BABY and Stewart in BELL, Fonda never has a chance. He's outwitted from the start, a mortal mouse in betwixt the sphynx paws of immortal Woman.
The thing about true love in all these films is that when it comes it's not fun. It's a drag, snuffing out magic's elemental flame like a sharp draft; put there by the producers to appease censors; a de facto obligation to the production code and the human reproductive system. We'd like to see Gil keep doing her sexy witch routine and to see Jean/Eve become a veritable Maya of illusion. Instead she refuses a huge alimony settlement, tries to reform her father, even yelling at him for winning a mere $30,000 from her new 'love' - and we're not happy about it. Jean becomes a sap. She plummets from her Olympian height. And let's not even mention the drecky way Kim Novak rains on the other witches' parade and eventually starts wearing...gasp... virginal white in BELL.
The dreaded moment when the lovers fall in love in all three of these examples happens off camera, like sex, and the happily ever after. Naturally we're resentful, for we hate to see our goddesses fall for the oldest con in the book, the genetic sinker of marriage and probably children to some lummox in a bow tie. In BABY we find out the the next day that Grant finally is ready to confess his love ("I've never had a better time!") though we're never sure when exactly he decided he loved her; for Stanwyck in EVE it's during an unseen stretch of time on the boat while Gerald and Harry suit up for action ("and I don't mean old maid!"); in BELL BOOK AND CANDLE the falling in love bathed in magical Off-camera poetic dialogue set to Central Park b-roll on Xmas morning and frankly it never quite gels because Jimmy Stewart is just too old and too naive and contemptuous of anything remotely out of the ordinary to resonate as a hip Greenwich village denizen, or even a true New Yorker.
Sometimes as a critic you can write your way into new appreciation for something, literally fall for your own story. Is Eve doing that, because Adam is the best rib she ever ate? Perhaps it's because he's so pure. The "you know me, Mack, nothing but reptiles!" Fonda can leave me kind of ambivalent, but he's so perfect in EVE because he plays it so straight. He's the perfect patsy; she falls in love with the idea of being married to someone rich and easy to fluster.
That's why in the end artifice and illusion are cinema's--as well as woman's--stock and trade. Without all the smoke and mirrors no one would ever hook up of their own free will. The man wants to fuck and run and it's the woman's task to devour him like Venus flytrap luring the unvary fly. She mustn't betray her true feelings at first, mustn't tremble the leaves and tip off the prey; she must stay aloof in the same way the image mustn't include a boom mike shadow.
In each of these three films the woman's grand illusion is continually threatened by a draggy patriarchal element that threatens from without - in EVE, it's the bulldog guardian William Demarest, who 'knows a cold deck when he sees one' and that 'that's the same dame'. We want him to suffer for breaking these kids up just because he's suspicious; he's right. But why should he care? He's like the poor people who vote republican. But here's a secret: the real rich despise such bulldog loyalty in their mug underlings, and it's for that same reason we despise Demarest's cockblocking. Even though we know just how evil her plans are, we want them to come true, and when love conquers all, we applaud by rote, as we must, our own social castration.
In BRINGING UP BABY the draggy patriachal elements are more than useless, except that Grant places so much import in them -- Mr. Peabody (aka Boopy), Aunt Elizabeth, and of course the sheriff, but all are just blurs along the roadside --it's Grant's own nervousness that attaches meaning to them, to the point Grant even has to remind the sheriff to lock the door to his own cell. He clings to the familiarity of his routine like a life vest even though he's nowhere near water. So Hepburn floods him.
In BELL BOOK AND CANDLE it's Gil herself who is the draggy patriarchal element. Her own fear of 'repercussions' to her past magic cause her to bully her aunt into swearing off spells, even as, ever the sexist, she allows cousin Nicky to continue; though she tortured Jimmy Stewart's fiancee, Miss Kittridge, all through college she doesn't openly admit it, so projects her guilt. It begins to dawn after many years of repeat viewings that Ms. Kittridge is actually a sane, rational adult, a professional working artist and if openly contemptuous of the Zodiac club, so what? She wasn't heckling the band or anything overtly common. To use the vernacular of THE CRAFT, Gil isn't really Rachel True.. she's Faruza Balk! Which is better, so why put her in the True position?
Hopsy at least learns his lesson: that "the good aren't nearly as good as people think and the bad aren't nearly as bad." And the lucky among us have felt that feeling he describes, of knowing one's future mate long before this: "we seem to go way back" is the echo through all three films. Eve has been everyone from his first schoolgirl crush to the island he found Emma on. As Stewart finally admits at the end of BELL, who's to say what's real?
For example, sometimes I hear a person whispering 'hey Erich' under the desk, like a beckoning ghost, inside the creaking of my chair (like just now). To an artist or a writer there's no such thing as just auditory hallucinosis; it means something, if you let it. Sometimes at night I feel a presence over me and I wake like I just leaped out of hell. I shrug it off and go back to sleep...if I let it mean something I could wind up in the looney bin.
But love is an even worse hallucination to take seriously. If you let it mean something it destroys you utterly, leaving only a tuxedo or white dressing gown-wearing stranger in your wake... even him now fading in a hazy blur of handshakes and corsages, like a dinosaur into the crusted foam of time's salty limousine. As long as we ignore these strange magicks -- just the creaking of a chair to some tired ears, or a little flash of sleep apnea, not a demon or a ghostly amour--we're immortal, and the foam recedes dinosaurlessly back along it's sullen shoreline, counting the minutes printed on the Netflix label, like a patient fisherman.