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 the I Ching. They are 'screwball comedies' with the screwball being no longer a baseball pitching term but a literal orgiastic ballroom term implying Crowley-esque sex magick abandon amongst a superior intellectual class, a ball we're never invited to, except via the movies. 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 all three of them is the way multiple viewings bring out a kind of subtextual unspoken paranoia that even the director or writer might not have known about, wherein 'accidental' meet ups and 'cute' romantic sabotage takes on a whole new conspiratorial light only after several years of viewings and musings. Maybe these aspects were in the original Colliers stories or off-Broadway plays or whatever, but-- in turnaround with censors or producers or stars or during shooting or editing--were shadowed out in favor of other emphases. These magical subtexts are still there, though---underneath--like incantations we only realize were insidious later, much later, after the ceremonial repetition of multiple viewings opens up vistas, the way yogic asanas or chants widen the consciousness.
What's revealed in all three, after many viewings, is that the insidious plotting of the romantic heroines is so total that even the writers may not have grasped each under-nuance. All three ladies--witch Novak, card sharp Stanwyck, and animist Hepburn--are very very slick, to the point we never catch on as to the real motivations below their seemingly random spur-of-the-moment surface actions until maybe decades later, if ever. Certainly their conscious machinations are never revealed in full to the audience (or hapless romantic hero) at all during the course of the film, maybe not even to filmmakers themselves. The romantic opposites to these women--dopey rich kid Fonda, near-sighted paleontologist Grant, and square older publisher Stewart--are oblivious to how deep down the rabbit hole these ladies go. Even the filmmaker, writer, censor, or actress herself might not notice their character's deeper agenda.
And so it finally dawned on me that, in BRINGING UP BABY, Kate Hepburn's Susan Vance is sabotaging David's (Cary Grant) meeting with Mr. Peabody at the golf course deliberately so Aunt Elizabeth will give her the million instead awarding it to David's museum. Susan never admits it to him, or maybe even to herself; she lets it slip a few times that she will get the million of David doesn't, it doesn't seem to mean too much to her. David doesn't glean the connection either, he is just not equipped for such advanced intrigue; he doesn't recognize her as his museum's rival for the million, or that he even has one. Instead he lets himself be distracted from the game, following her like the first butterfly that flutters past his net.
The surprise is in the end is that she gets the million but promises to fork it over for the museum at the end anyway, though not before one last act of sabotage--the one that's finally not deliberate--which at last destroys the old shell and breathes life into the new. From dinosaur skeleton to tame leopard to yapping schnauzer to wild leopard and then down into a skinny New England bachelorette, Susan is the last piece in the puzzle of the past that morphs all the incarnations and stages into a Venus de Brontosaurus, with leopard and terrier heads in addition to her snaky dinosaur mouth (above).
In BELL, BOOK... the suspicious coincidence is that Stewart just happens to have moved in above voodoo art store owned by witch Kim Novak, who just happens to have been the college rival of his hot, snotty fiancee (Janice Rule). Any astute scholar of feminine machination would already be smelling the incense from the spell that made him notice the 'apt. available' sign as he passed on the street, perhaps deciding to move in even though his own previous living space was rent stabilized and bigger. If that is what happened, the film never illuminates it, or picks up on it; here's no indication it's anything but total chance in that lazy writing sort of way. Maybe it's just her cat Piewacket's own little fate machination greater working. But like with Susan Vance in BABY, if you see it enough times you realize the truth (it probably just got edited out somewhere before the final draft): Stewart was surely lured to the apartment upstairs deliberately before the movie started, just so Gil (Novak) could steal him from his fiancee Janice Rule, who wrote poison pen letters in school, stole boyfriends and eventually got Gil kicked out for going to class barefoot!
Consider for comparison, the witchy situation in ROSEMARY'S BABY, wherein--at the very end-- we find out that Rosemary and her lout husband were lured to the Dakota by a magical draw, that she was "chosen" by a spell, a spell that led to their noticing the availability of the apartment, its affordability, etc. Witches are like film producers, planning everything down to the smallest detail and then sitting back and watching fate click it all into place. For Gil, by the same token, everything just seems to come into place by "chance." She seems faintly surprised at the coincidence, but is she really surprised, or just such a slick operator that the film itself never catches on to her machinations? Similarly, in BABY, Susan just happens to be at the golf course when David is playing with Mr. Peabody ("Boopie") the lawyer for her aunt;. and then just happens to steal David's ball.... and then car.
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. 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 to sucker sapiens must be kept secret. She and her father Harry (Charles Coburn) can only show off the full extent of their skill when alone together in the cabin, or in the presence of other con artists. When Hopsy tries to impress Harry with a clumsy card trick, for example, Harry 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, and who he is playing, only in mid shuffle, quickly concealing it, just as the witches in BELL conceal their existence from the populace, for similar reasons (being burned, hung, or run out of town, i.e. exposed through incriminating photographs). Their power requires secrecy to be effective.
The relative ethereal 'magical' nature of Eve/Jean/Eugenia and Charles Coburn/Col. Harrington/God/Handsome Harry in LADY 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, up to their clean white cloudy first class vantage. "I hope he's a wizard at cards!" Jean says, before dropping her apple on his head, from what seems like 100 feet, with flawless aim. As with Cary Grant in BABY and Stewart in BELL, Fonda is outwitted from the start, an exposed garden snake gazing nearsightedly up at a circling hawk. His only protection is through Mugsy's earthen suspicion and, eventually, Stanwyck's own susceptibility to infatuation occasionally turning her honest and even un-capitalist.
The thing about true love in all three of these films is that, when it comes to these three sharpie sirens, it's not fun anymore. It's a drag. The film takes a downturn once it sneaks in. It snuffs out magic's elemental flame like a sharp draft. It's almost as if love is a curse inflicted by the censors, a de facto obligation to the production code and the human reproductive system. Abashed and ashamed, Jean even refuses a huge alimony settlement, and earlier tries to reform her father ("you'll go straight too, won't you, Harry?"), even berating him for winning a mere $30,000 from her new 'love.' In short, Jean becomes a sap. She plummets from her Olympian height.
And let's not even mention the drecky way Kim Novak's Gil rains on the other witches' parade when they want to put out a book, or how she eventually starts wearing ugly, unflattering virginal white, becoming the bland hausfrau the censors presume America needs to see, forcing her to lose her magical gifts in the process of entering, chained, into the patriarchal gulag.
The dreaded moment when the lovers fall in love, in all three of these examples, happens off camera, tangled up with sex to the point only a slow dissolve can untangle them. Naturally we're resentful when the magical beatnik girl Gil falls in love with old codger Stewart, for we hate to see our trickster goddesses fall for the oldest con in the book, the genetic bait and switch of love, marriage and probably children with a square ("he's got integrity," as Sydney Falco would say, "acute.") In BABY we find out the the next day that Grant finally is suddenly ready to confess his love ("I've never had a better time!") though we're never sure when exactly he decided he loved her - unless it was in that very moment when, for the first time, she seems legitimately contrite and grown-up (offering him the million dollars for the museum - to which he seems barely thrilled). 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!") and she's walking around with Hopsy on deck. In BELL BOOK AND CANDLE, the falling in love is bathed in magical poetic dialogue, spoken off camera over wintry Central Park B-roll, much of it from atop a high-up building overlooking the park, the kind of dreamy poetic shorthand new wave directors use to hide their post-sync sound. 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. We Manhattanites have usually seen everything; Stewart's publisher has, in a very tangible sense, seen nothing.
I know from my own experience that sometimes while writing as a film and music critic you can write your way into new appreciation for something, literally fall for your own story. Are these three women doing that? Perhaps it's because the men are so pure. The "you know me, Mack, nothing but reptiles!" focus outside of girls girls girls that turns so many man into boring animals. These three sucker sapiens embody what's lacking in these girls --the ingredient that they need in their lives to keep them from becoming permanently jaded or perennially infantile (providing the "marriage" portion to go with their "re-") but what's lacking is not cinematic. Fonda can sometimes leave me kind of irritated by his moral haughtiness, but he's so perfect in EVE because he plays it so straight. He shows he's savvy to the ridiculousness of his own sincerity. It takes a great level of humility to play such a perfect patsy - to seem not even in on your own joke. But does Eve fall in love with the idea of being married to someone rich and easy to fluster, having a permanent straight man in the house? What else is there about him?
|Fonda gets harassed by the third wheel horse - LADY EVE|
In each of these three films the woman's grand illusion-making is continually threatened by a draggy patriarchal element that threatens from without: in EVE, it's the bulldog guardian William Demarest, (below) who 'knows a cold deck when he get his mitts on one.' We want him to suffer for cockblocking -- even if he's right. Even though we know just how manipulative Eve's plans are, we want to watch as she makes them come true, and when love conquers all and she's suddenly not very proud of herself, refusing even a cent of alimony, we applaud only in case a Demarest censor is taking down the names of those who don't. We understand he's right, blah blah, and that there wouldn't be a movie without the sharpie growing sentimental as much as the cluck gets wise. But if they get back together in their right ways - he as the sap and she as Jean the sharp, her recaptured innocence is no longer as offensive and 'other people's parade rainy' as it was and his 'clued-in' attitude less judgmental ("we should play cards! Lots of cards!")
II. POSITIVELY THE SAME DAME
In BRINGING UP BABY the draggy patriarchal elements are barely present (Hawks was clearly so anti-sucker sapiens he seldom included them even as foils beyond a single scene or two [Grant's fiancee isn't seen again after the first scene until the jail climax]). Mr. Peabody, Aunt Elizabeth, the shrink, and of course the sheriff, all are just eccentric New Englanders--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 pours water down his pants, making him a veritable one-man band of cause-and-effect.
In BELL BOOK AND CANDLE it's Gil herself who is the draggy patriarchal element. Her own fear of 'repercussions' to her magic cause her to bully her aunt into swearing off spells, even as, ever the sexist, she allows cousin Nicky to continue, although then seeing his book go unpublished (only after letting him waste time writing it). Though she tortured Jimmy Stewart's fiancee all through college she doesn't openly admit it to him, so projects her guilt.
It's recently begun to dawn on me after many years of repeat viewings that Janice Rule's 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. To use the vernacular of THE CRAFT, Gil isn't really Robin Tunney - she's Faruza Balk! So why put her in the Tunny position? Why give her Tunny delusions? Why make her such a hypocrite she's blind to her own motivations?
In all three cases, 'love' descends like a magic spell -- 'happily ever' for everyone but us, for it means the sameness of a return-to-DVD menu. Thus by 'falling in love' the woman in each earns a bit of contempt from us - we're excluded from further involvement (as one might be when one stays unmarried and childless while their now-married, reproducing friends disappear into playdates and PTA). Has anyone ever sighed in relief when Gil gives up her primitive masks for sea shell flowers and starts dressing like a virgin? Of course not. She looks dumpy and disheveled in that awful white dress. Is it all just to appease an old fuddy duddy like Stewart, a 'decent American' square, who seems to draw the hottest most beguiling young ladies in Hollywood (Kelly in REAR WINDOW as well as Novak in VERTIGO) only to want to drain them of their mystery, their class and allure, and dress them in Stepford aprons (or khakis)?
Love is death to a witch, so why suck the magic from the world ("who's to say what magic is?" he says at the end - but WE say, Jimmy - magic was what existed until you pointed out it's not real). One can only imagine what a four-star rapture BELL would have been with Cary Grant instead. Note that in BABY Grant never tries to reign in Susan, he just holds on to the door handle and shuts his eyes.
Hopsy (Fonda) 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 though he says "we seem to go way back" to both Jean and Eve, he means it; indeed, the seeming to go way back through time, and repeat the same scenes with different lovers, is the echo through all three films. It's that glimmer of reincarnation, or recognizing a past soulmate in someone new, that we're all (hopefully) familiar with. The trickster female is able to embody more than one of these at once, to keep her persona liquid in the flames. So to keep Hopsy ever bewildered, Eve has been everyone from his first schoolgirl crush to the island he found Emma on. For Grant, Susan is a crazy fire burning his whole life up around him. She's the brontosaurus come to life, with familiars that include a dog, a leopard, another leopard... and more,
Everyone is everything else eventually: sometimes I hear a person whispering my name under the desk as I write, like a beckoning ghost, or inside the creaking of my chair. To an artist or a writer there's no such thing as just an hallucination; it all 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. Once I stop shaking I shrug it off and go back to sleep...if I let it mean something I could wind up in the looney bin. I could start screaming and never stop. As I remember from my bad trip days, you can't escape your own skin. Best just distract yourself and roll over and go back to bed. Don't take a single thing seriously, unless it doesn't seem serious to do so.
But love is an even worse thing 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... then that stranger fades too... in a hazy spray of handshakes and corsages rising in rainbows from the soggy gutter, but soon enough descending along the crusted barnacle hull of biology's yar craft, the True Love III.
But as long as we ignore these strange churning magicks --dismiss them as just the creaking of a chair or a little flash of sleep apnea--we're immortal, lost in the dream, then the grim black sea recedes, dinosaurlessly back, along its sullen shoreline, counting the minutes on your life's Netflix label like a patient fisherman.
You still have some time.