The Purchase Price (1932): The Time of the Season for Love?

poster“I’ve been up and down Broadway since I was fifteen years old. I’m fed up with hoofing in shows. I’m sick of nightclubs, hustlers, bootleggers, chiselers, and smart guys. I’ve heard all the questions and I know all the answers. And I’ve kept myself… fairly respectable through it all. The whole atmosphere of this street gives me a high-powered headache. I’ve got a chance to breathe something else, and boy, I’m grabbing it.”

—Joan Gordon, The Purchase Price 

For the quantity of one (1) soul mate, send $10.00 and a self-addressed envelope to… Yeah right. Ah, if only it were that easy. If only fate (or a non-creepy catalogue, perhaps?) brought a wonderful gal or worthy suitor right to your door. If only you could order your very own Barbara Stanwyck via mail, as William Wellman’s The Purchase Price suggests.

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In spite of its hilarious contrivance—the idea that an ill-advised mail-order marriage could melt into true love—I fell for this offbeat romance. You cannot resist its charms. You find yourself rooting for the wily city girl to end up with the aw-shucks boy-next-door. And I marvel at how much plot and character development these pre-Code yarns could cram into a runtime of barely over one hour.

vlcsnap-2013-07-06-17h59m05s160Trying to pry loose from a dead-end relationship with a gangster, Joan Gordon changes her name, goes to Canada, and switches places with a woman who had agreed to be a mail-order bride on a frontier farm. Although Joan initially rebuffs her yokel husband on their wedding night, she grows to admire and respect him. Transforming into a warm, caring wife, Joan battles financial pressures threatening the farm and tries to fend off shadows of her past.

vlcsnap-2013-07-06-17h42m01s160 Stanwyck shines (does she ever not shine?) in a role closely related to her breakout performance in Ladies of Leisure: a tough child of asphalt who pines for a more meaningful existence. When we first meet Joan, she’s crooning at a speakeasy. In fact, the trailer for The Purchase Price advertised Missy’s singing voice as a significant attraction—announcing “Listen! It’s the voice of Barbara Stanwyck!”— although she only sings in one scene.

Although Stanwyck’s smoky, homely contralto doesn’t exactly soar in a torch song melody, her soulful delivery tells us much more about the character than your usual pre-Code nightclub sequence does. In this opening scene, a surprising amount of drama creeps into the character introduction. For instance, I just love the ironic contrast between the pure yearning in Stanwyck’s voice and the ugly mugs we see from above, looking up at her with wistful lust. The peculiar combination of corny, but heartfelt sentiment and urban grime elegantly sums up Stanwyck’s early image.

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Like an angel in greasepaint, she leans over tables of drooling drunks and sings a sad ballad, “Take me away…” which becomes the movie’s musical and emotional theme.

As Joan hovers over a silken gangster type, his platinum blonde moll, a sort of bargain basement Jean Harlow, eyes her with envy and melancholy. We, the viewers, immediately recognize the difference between your run-of-the-mill working girl and Joan—a complex, earthy woman. Even faced with a gallery of grotesques, Joan Gordon sings like she means it. And, as we soon learn, she’s not just putting on an act: she really does long for an escape.

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The men in Joan’s life seem to specialize in letting her down. There’s Eddie, her slimy, yet affable racketeer boyfriend, who insists, “You daffy little tomato, I’m bugs about ya. I’d marry ya myself—if I wasn’t already married.” Now, there’s a winner! Unfortunately, he doesn’t excite her as much as she excites him, we notice, as she clinically changes behind a screen her dressing room, while he jumps up to get a look.

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Unfortunately, Joan’s “chance to breathe,” her rich milksop fiancé, breaks off their engagement because of Joan’s ties to the aforementioned slimy gangster. Prevailed upon by his wealthy father, this anemic fool dumps Stanwyck (“It’s STANWYCK, you goof!” I yelled at my screen) in a humorous hotel scene during which the maid stops scrubbing floors and the groom shuts off his vacuum cleaner to eavesdrop.

And, that night, Joan’s in her dressing room again, getting taken back by her low-life boyfriend—and hating every minute of it.

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I appreciate how William Wellman and canny screenwriter Robert Lord (of The Little Giant and Heroes for Sale) handle what could’ve been clichés with a light touch. Instead of the evil bootlegger, victimized torch singer, and spotless high-class fiancé love triangle, we get something a bit more interesting and true.

Joan comes across as neither victimized nor blameless, neither virtuous nor promiscuous.  I particularly love how she sits there after being dumped by her escape-plan-man, watching men in the street take the garbage out. You can sense every fiber of Staywyck vibrating with contrasting emotions: not only mentally cursing out her limp-wristed fiancé, but also feeling trashy, blaming herself, lamenting what could have been. There are no tears, no hysterics. Just a sigh and a shrug. It’s worse than tragic. It’s disappointing.

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Cheer up, Stany! It’s just the first act…

She’s made of better stuff than the men in her life, but they’re not good-versus-bad caricatures either. Eddie racketeer doesn’t menace her, like we expect him to. And Joan’s fiancé doesn’t defy his family to marry her, like we expect him to.

Having dispatched three stereotypes at once, Wellman returns to Joan and her dilemma. Sick and tired of her life, Joan changes her name and moves to Montréal. Eddie, the clingiest bootlegger of them all, is still trying to find Joan, so she trades places with her maid and goes to the middle of nowhere to marry a stranger.

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Luckily for her, the stranger looks like George Brent. Although Brent just doesn’t do it for me when he’s playing an alluring man of the world, he proves a total delight in the role of Jim Gilson, a loping country bumpkin who conceals surprising reserves of intelligence and dedication.

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Don’t judge a book by its cover. And don’t judge a man just ’cause he looks like he escaped from the cast of Hee-Haw.

Greeting Joan with an iron handshake and a summer cold sniffle, Jim Gilson trots her off to a ludicrous marriage ceremony where the village idiot and a batter-stirring housewife serve as witnesses. All this exaggerated “one-horse town” humor may seem mildly offensive these days, but at least it provides Stany with an abundance of priceless reaction shots.

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“Uh… really?”

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“Really?”

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“Come on—REALLY, now?”

As Jim takes Joan into town, as he haggles over the price of the ring, as he marries her, as he carts her back to his farm, droll suspense lingers in the air—will he attempt to, ahem, assert his marital rights? Um, got awkward? Finally, they get back to his farmhouse and he proceeds to set up a sleeping bag on the living room floor while Stany goes into the bedroom. Phew. No wedding night antics…

Oh, wait. Cut to Jim looking through the legs of the table. He sees shadows under the bedroom door. Cut to Joan getting changed. Cut to Jim, creeping up to the door. Cut to Joan in her nightie inspecting the room. BOOM! There he is, bursting through.

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And since pretty much every Stanwyck movie of the 1930s has to have at least one slap, we know this probably isn’t going to end well for lover boy… I have to take pause and applaud not only the mixture of repulsion and regret that Stanwyck projects, but also Brent’s desire and shame.

Rather than aiming at sheer titillation, this scene sets up the dramatic stakes of the rest of the film. She browbeats herself for hurting him, and he browbeats himself for coming on too strong. Their insecurities bubble up and it will take a lot of adversity—and a year of sexual tension—to bring them together again.

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Will Jim loose his farm? Will he reject Joan when Eddie shows up and reveals her past? What kind of bargain will Joan have to make to save her husband’s dream of happiness?

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Well, I won’t totally give away the ending, but let me say this. I cherish The Purchase Price for its ability to craft a mature fairy tale, a rare blend of pre-Code sex comedy and earnest domestic drama. Let’s face it, a lot of films of the early 1930s betray precious little emotional insight and give us couplings that we don’t exactly buy.

That era of cinematic sophistication often buckled under the pressure of censorship—and the perceived audience desire for an upbeat conclusion—and served up happy endings that the characters didn’t deserve. I mean, who really thinks that Baby Face, Midnight Mary, or Skyscraper Souls (to name only a few) would shake out the way they did in the real world?

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So, it’s a distinctly refreshing feeling to watch The Purchase Price and bask in the agrarian glow of two parallel harvests: a hard-earned crop of wheat and the fruits of an equally challenging courtship. The sensual, yet fully legitimate kiss between Brent and Stanwyck, husband and wife, imbues the film with a cozy, alluring idealism, tempered by the bumpy road it took to get there.

Love, marriage, sex, fertility—these aren’t things that we should snicker about when they occur naturally, as part of a cycle, a ripening. If the premise taxes our credulity a bit, we witness a believable relationship blossom through deliberate pacing and characterization.

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The modern world forces us into all sorts of awkward jumblings of this natural order. (Now, bear in mind, I’m a 22-year-old unattached working girl, so don’t think I’m endorsing the concept of settling down or the white picket fence lifestyle.) I don’t think the movie’s message is “get married randomly and everything will work out.” On the contrary, this movie hints that marrying a stranger is as unnatural as the sort of fast-and-not-so-easy hook-ups that we consider so very modern. The Purchase Price makes the case for courtship, for letting a bond form  patiently between two people.

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The rotation of the seasons as a motif—enhanced through cinematography by Sidney Hickox (of Female and The Big Sleep)—helps to drive this point home poetically.

An astonishing amount of time, effort, and resources went into the set designs that create this “circle of life” seasonal effect. For the bleak winter frontier scenes, masses of snow were made from fine gypsum and thirty-five tons of untoasted corn flakes! The “frozen river” was simulated by heating water then pouring paraffin over top of that which, apparently, reproduces the look of ice—even breaking and cracking like ice when stepped on.

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A behind-the-scenes shot for The Purchase Price, published in the August 1932 issue of Photoplay magazine. William Wellman is teaching Stanwyck to scream.

Winter advisory warning: I’d like to alert you to one seriously hot sequence that takes place in the snow. It’s the one being filmed in the picture above. Even wearing long underwear and a winter coat, Stanwyck manages to turn on the heat and sizzle. “Have you ever heard a woman scream? Well, you’re going to…” In other words, all that set design travail and toil was well worth it!

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I can’t think of many actresses who could sell The Purchase Price, but Missy was the Queen of Credibility. Her extraordinary gift as a screen actress resides in her ability to wed theatricality to realism. Whether with a roll of the eye, a tilt of the head, or a full-on lunge or sock to the jaw, and she is constantly communicating what she is feeling. She tethers her audience to the moment with the sheer present-ness of her performance. For 68 minutes of pure Stanwyck charm, don’t miss out on The Purchase Price. And, to think, I didn’t even mention all those pre-Code lingerie scenes…

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This post is part of the Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, hosted by The Girl with the White Parasol. Be sure to check out the other terrific entries!

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Whistling in the Dark: His Girl Friday (1940)

posterThe Mayor: Whistling in the dark. Well that isn’t going to help you this time. You’re through. 

Walter Burns: Listen, the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat.

Fresh. Exhilarating. Spontaneous. Timeless. These are often the words that come up when people talk about Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday, a movie closer to perfection than pretty much any other.

Well, today, I’m going to add a few more adjectives to the pot: morbid, noirish, and iconoclastic. And I mean that as the highest of compliments.

Upon a recent rewatching of this sublime screwball comedy, the inherent darkness of the film practically slapped me across the face. I mean, you try going into a producer’s office these days and pitching a comedy about capital punishment. The Angel of Death looms over this fast-paced comedy which teaches us that humor often works best when we’re all in the jittery throes of nervous laughter.

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Even beyond the grim crime and punishment of Earl Williams, His Girl Friday is structured by a more metaphorical contrast between freedom and imprisonment. Or, more precisely, the uneasy balance and tension between those two states at any given time in a person’s life. In the end, Hildy escapes the prison of a stuffy marriage, but she doesn’t get Freedom-with-a-capital-F. Rather, she exchanges the confines of normalcy for a more wonderful kind of captivity, an enslavement to her passions and to her talent.

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Earl Williams escapes death and Hildy escapes from dull matrimony. The parallel can’t be avoided. In fact, the movie serves that similarity up—Hildy literally wears it on her sleeve. Hildy’s wardrobe is characterized by an assortment of lines and stripes, which suggest the blend of playful and professional in her demeanor.

However, when she visits the prison, those stripes on the trim suit she wears to get her interview don’t resemble anything so much as prison bars. In fact, the straight lines (unlike the zig-zags she wears in the earlier scenes) are almost exactly parallel to the iron bars and their the low-key lit shadows.

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Throughout His Girl Friday, Hawks scatters a few shots that let us, the viewers, bask in the kind of importance that Hildy feels in her natural habitat, the newspaper world. As she breezes through the newsroom, a point-of-view tracking shot scans the smiling faces of her impressed colleagues, looking up at her.

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Later, when she visits the pressroom, her voice announces her presence from off-screen and all those sacrilegious monkeys of the press, suddenly turn her way, their face filled with admiration and a plausible substitute for respect. In other words, His Girl Friday sneaks in the occasional subjective shot, designed to make us understand what Hildy feels as the sob sister in the band of brothers.

But in the jail, we get a very different shift to Hildy’s perspective, a more metaphorical one. She’s sitting outside William’s little pen and asking him questions. We’re on her side of the grate, looking in at Williams. And then this exchange happens:

Earl Williams: I’m not guilty. It’s just… the world.

Hildy Johnson: I see what you mean.

In between those two lines of dialogue, as Hildy passes Williams her cigarette, there’s a cut that puts the camera on the inside of the cage. Suddenly, as Hildy agrees with Williams, it visually seems as though she’s the one behind bars.

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Now, it’s not a point-of-view shot. However, I felt a major change in the stakes of the scene at that point. This isn’t just another story for Hildy: it’s her last. This isn’t just another day for Williams: it’s his last. We sense a true bond between the pair of them as Hildy slips him her cigarette: at that moment, they are both the condemned, in a way.

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As much as Hildy only needs to wring a story out of the prisoner, I can’t help but perceive that the stylish lady journalist really does identify with his confusion. I mean, we get the feeling that her engagement to Bruce sort of happened to her. Does she want a man who will really take care of her? Well, yes, but I’d also assume that Hildy’s sudden bolt to the altar reflects the influence of society, the pressure to live a normal woman’s life. Staring into the skull-eyes of another man’s fate, Hildy actually catches a glimpse of her own.

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His Girl Friday presents us with three different couples: Hildy and Bruce, Hildy and Walter, and Molly Malloy and Earl Williams. We first see the first pair exchanging syrupy love dialogue: they demonstrate the somnambulism of domesticated love. Molly and Earl Williams obsess over each other with doomed passion—it’s like we’re watching a mini film noir embedded in a screwball comedy. Both extremes strike us as imprisoning relationships that incapacitate the characters. Only Walter and Hildy seem able to skip around each other and have fun in a dance of freedom and constraint.

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Quick quiz: which of these relationships do you want?

I love His Girl Friday for many reasons—the Syd-Field-defying length of many of its scenes and the overlapping dialogue, for instance—but mostly because I want to be Hildy Johnson. Because her love-on-the-go for Walter (and vice-versa) is one of the most unconventional romantic relationships portrayed on the classic Hollywood screen.

Even in the wackiest screwball comedies (as in Shakespeare plays), the story usually ends with the hint that the adventure is over. You can go home now, folks!  Harlequin and Columbine have overcome their obstacles and they’re going to settle down and have babies now.

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“I don’t care about your biological clock! This is a HOWARD HAWKS movie!”

His Girl Friday skirts this frozen conclusion. It overturns the belief that love brings about an end to adventure. A topsy-turvy attitude towards marriage crackles in the humorous inversions of its dialogue, as in Walter’s mock-lamentation about how divorce has lost its meaning:

“You’ve got an old fashioned idea divorce is something that lasts forever, ’til death do us part. Why divorce doesn’t mean anything nowadays, Hildy, just a few words mumbled over you by a judge.”

It laughs at all the parlor-piano-with-a-doily-on-top values that most movies were selling hard in 1940s. Thank God.

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Okay, so now that I’ve worked all that analytical rubbish out of my system, let’s get right to the Cary Grant appreciation. That man made acting look so easy that it hardly surprises me that he never won an Academy Award.

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If you watch The Front Page (His Girl Friday is a remake), you’ll notice that it’s actually a much more visually flamboyant film. There are mirrored-corridors, flashy crane shots, and more conspicuous arrangements of light and shadow to hold your attention.

But His Girl Friday more than made up for all of that lost razzle-dazzle with Cary Grant’s roguish pyrotechnics. Whether he’s imitating Hildy’s pre-marital flirting (“Oh, Walter,” he coos, with a fey flutter of eyelashes), grabbing his ex-wife’s match bearing hand to light his own cigarette, or leading Bruce in a guided visualization of Hildy’s old age, Grant’s energy floweth over.

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He’s a marvel to watch, like a supernova in a double-breasted suit. And his dimple deserved supporting player billing. It even gets mentioned in the dialogue.

Hildy: A big fat lummox like you hiring an airplane to write: “Hildy, don’t be hasty. Remember my dimple. Walter.” Delayed our divorce 20 minutes while the judge went out and watched it.

Walter: Well, I don’t mean to brag, but I’ve still got the dimple, and in the same place.

Tying into the black humor of His Girl Friday, Cary Grant gave us one of cinema’s most celebrated in-jokes by turning his own identity into a gag. I wonder, did Archie Leach have to “cut his throat” for Cary Grant to be born?

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And Rosalind Russell, who famously got the role only after Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard, Ginger Rogers, Claudette Colbert, and Irene Dunne weren’t available, shows them all up with her brilliant performance. I have a hard time picturing Claudette Colbert (or any of the other fabulous Hildy candidates) camped out in a coal mine or stealing a stomach preserved in formaldehyde from a city morgue. At least, she’d still be perfectly gorgeous and innately graceful while doing so.

As a recovering comedienne, I admire how Russell embraces Hildy’s anything-for-the-story mentality. Her clumsy rush to cross a street as a police motorcade whooshes past her, hollering at the top of her lungs, stands out as one of my favorite moments in the film.

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Russell, however, dives into the character of Hildy like Hildy would into a dumpster. Chucking her purse at her ex-hubby and answering several phones at once, she displays a valiant klutziness that every woman can recognize in herself. We can believe this woman as the kind of tough but goofy broad that can and does win the grudging respect of a pack of self-absorbed dudes.

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The shyster and the sob sister belong together—whether they’re physically handcuffed together or just bound to each other by sarcasm and desire and the great puffs of smoke that they exhale at the same time. The glee of their rivalry teaches us that while love doesn’t necessarily give you a get-out-of-jail-free card, it should never make you feel like you’re behind bars.

Marriage is growing old together. Love never grows old. Like this movie. Now, that’s as corny as Iowa, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

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I’d like to smooch the idiot who let this movie slip into the Public Domain. Watch it on YouTube or download it for free at the Internet Archive. So, my Free Film Friday is His Girl Friday. How appropriate is that?

Oh, and you didn’t think I’d end this post without a gratuitous screenshot of the scene where we gratuitously see Cary Grant buttoning his shirt during a medical exam, now did you?

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Stop the Clocks: The Stranger (1946)

It really ticks me off when people (including Orson Welles himself) dismiss his thriller The Stranger as, to use one of the dirtiest slurs in film criticism, his “most conventional film,” as a stylish but formulaic product of a genius on a short studio leash.

That’s a bit like saying, “Well, it’s one of Shakespeare’s less good plays.” Because, in both cases, we’re talking about something that’s a hell of a lot more insightful, complex, and entertaining than most of what else is out there.

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Welles takes a taut noir-suspense plotline and packs it with a larger sense of significance and trauma, as though time itself had blistered and burst under the withering, unfathomable atrocities of World War II.

Seriously—how many thrillers can you think of from the 1940s (and beyond!) that had the guts to use genuine newsreel footage of the horrors of the Holocaust as the crux of their moral and ethical stakes? That’s exactly what Welles did. Explain to me how that’s conventional.

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In case you haven’t seen this deceptively ingenious gem, the story concerns a Nazi war criminal, Franz Kindler (a high level architect of the Holocaust and dead-ringer for Friedrich Nietzsche). This evil mastermind carefully preserved his anonymity—down to burning every known photograph of himself—and fled to America after World War II.

Under the name of Rankin, Kindler has blended into life in the idyllic town of Harper, Connecticut and even married Mary (a luminous Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court judge.

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Yes, in the days before Google, who knows what kind of guy you might’ve married?

However, there’s no rest for the wicked, and Rankin’s being relentlessly pursued by an agent of the Allied War Crimes Bureau, Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson). The determined Nazi-hunter tracks Rankin/Kindler down by letting another war criminal out of prison in the hopes that the freed man will lead him to the big fish.

Kindler kills this hapless ex-comrade, the “little man,” so that he can’t betray Kindler’s identity. The problem is, Mary knows that the “little man” was looking for him. So Kindler has to try to kill her too.

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I admit: it does sound pretty conventional on the surface. But a plot synopsis fails to translate the excellence of this film.

First off, The Stranger looks great and is crammed full of stunning shots. We get a tense long, long take during which Rankin slowly turns back into Kindler as he kills his former friend—and while praying no less!

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Typical Wellesian angles crop up and enliven even the most rudimentary of scenes with a cockeyed creepiness. Through shadows so looming and poetic that they sometimes distract you from the plot, Welles paints a world subtly tattered and worn-down. Not even Harper, the hallowed bastion of New England purity, escapes the impact of a global trauma.

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After the war, we understand, things are different. And they won’t ever be the way they were. A piece of the world’s innocence has died. It’s broken. Gone forever. The Capra-esque, quaint little town of Harper has changed irreversibly.

I even wonder to what extent Mary’s discovery of her husband’s awful true self is actually a reflection of American veterans coming home from World War II as strangers to their wives. Perhaps the evil Nazi is just a stand-in for damaged American manhood, for the prison of post-war domestic life. Even commercial ads from the 1940s betrayed a noirish quality, like this one for Listerine!

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Look familiar? The following shot is from The Stranger, as Rankin looms over Mary in bed.

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In the wake of a global conflict, Welles depicts a troubling, warped pretense of normalcy. A creeping penumbra and crazy angles turn ordinary places like high school gymnasiums and events like faculty tea parties into cauldrons of fear and roiling secrets.

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I particularly appreciate how Welles uses clocks and mechanical devices, usually so reliable and quotidien, to create disorientation and explore the breakdown of perception.

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You see, the evil Franz Kindler, when not planning mass murder, has a passion for clocks and watches, which seems very apt indeed, considering the ruthless “clockwork” execution of the Final Solution. There are lots of allusions to clocks and clockworks.

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Mr. Wilson first gets his wind up that Harper is the place to find Kindler when he sees the hands to the clock on the Harper church tower spin around wildly while being fixed. After the “little man” manages to whack Mr. Wilson over the head with a piece of swinging gymnastic equipment in the Harper Academy gym, the rope swings back and forth in front of him, like a pendulum.

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When Kindler sets out to kill his wife, he writes up a little itinerary with specific time coordinates.

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Throughout the film, Kindler, a control freak if ever there was one, keeps returning to an old grandfather clock and winding it up, trying to make the old thing keep time.

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At the risk of getting too analytical, time is really one of the two media that make up the essence of cinema—the other is space, of course. So, how can we read or interpret Kindler’s repeated gesture, portrayed with some of the film’s most ominous and beautiful chiaroscuro lighting?

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We can perceive a slight metafilmic joke in Orson Welles as Kindler winding up the clock. (Incidentally, when Hitchcock made his cameo in Rear Window, he too is winding up a clock in the composer’s apartment.) Are we seeing the director as the artistic tyrant, the keeper of time dissolve into the sociopolitical tyrant, trying to make the world keep time with his unthinkable schemes?

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I might be overstating my case, but I think that we can infer a connection between the two most powerful mechanical devices in The Stranger: the clock and the film projector that reveals to Mary the extremes of what her husband (and mankind in general) is capable of.

At almost the center point of the film, Kindler/Rankin has confessed to Mary that he killed the man who came looking for him, but he claims that the “little man” was a blackmailer who would have threatened their happiness. Willing to conceal this justified murder and lie to protect her husband, Mary is called to visit her father and talk to Mr. Wilson.

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When she gets there and opens the door, the room is dark and flickering with projected footage. The lights come on and Mr. Wilson softens Mary up with a few questions—a body was uncovered in town, did you know him, ect.—before asking her to watch a film. The lights go out again and before we even see what Wilson’s projecting, the look of appalled stupefaction on Mary’s face makes us wonder what she’s seeing. Then we see. It’s a screen full of dead bodies.

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A moment ago, Mary thought she was involved in a murder mystery. That’s still true, but now the mystery isn’t whodunit—it’s howcouldsomeonepossiblyhavedunit? In place of one dead body, we get too many to count, too many to mentally process, strewn across the ground without emotion or order as the camera impassively pans across them.

Clearly shocked, Mary protests that she’s “never ever seen a Nazi.” But, and this is key, Wilson explains that they can look like normal people and act like normal people if it benefits them. I find it hard to believe that this statement is only supposed to apply to Franz Kindler in this context. After WWII, a lot of people nursed the belief that the people who committed atrocities were somehow different from the rest of us. It turns out, as Milgram’s obedience studies from 1960s have shown, a disquietingly large percentage of the population will kill if told that an authority figure takes full responsibility.

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But back to the scene, which suddenly turns documentary, as Wilson explains some of the more awful points of the concentration camps, like the gas chambers and the lime pits—and you see them. As does Mary.

Of course, using newsreel footage in fictional movies wasn’t so unusual—Casablanca, for example, is punctuated and grounded in reality by choice morsels of grainy footage: advancing Nazis, downtrodden refugees, mortars discharging their fire over Paris. Nevertheless, war on an open field had been filmed in WWI and audiences were used to seeing it. Even today, if you want to watch those Holocaust newsreels on websites, you get a warning that it’s disturbing, mature content.

And it’s one thing to see it in context as a newsreel, which occupies a fixed place in one’s schema of documentary media. You expect to see awful, real things in the news. You’re at least braced for it. In a movie? Not so much.

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A Nazi gas chamber projected in a Judge’s house in Connecticut.

To show footage from the concentration camps in a general admission fictional film is pretty damn radical, not to mention risky from a moral standpoint. (One thinks of the actual shots of Bruce Lee’s funeral used to mercenary and meretricious effect in Game of Death.) However, there’s nothing cheap and exploitative about how Welles inserts Holocaust images into The Stranger.

Including those indelible images in a made-up story, Welles blurs the line between the dream world of the movies and the real world, and, by mixing these up, he gives us a reality check that documentary footage alone cannot provide. Just as Mary wakes up to the evil that Rankin/Kindler harbors within him, we the viewers are jolted out of the diegesis of a pleasant little thriller to understand that this happened and will forever mark our memories.

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Woman in the dark: Mary watches the horrors of the Nazi death camps.

Reflecting on the Hiroshima tragedy, Marguerite Duras pointed out that we can’t even talk about it—we can only talk about the impossibility of truly talking about it. Welles finds a way around this dilemma of portraying the Holocaust by just borrowing newsreel footage. But he doesn’t do so in a “BAM! Truth at 24 frames per second!” manner. He takes care to suggest that this is not the whole picture. He carefully makes us see that we’re not seeing the atrocities—we’re seeing a film of the atrocities projected onto a screen… and filmed by another camera.

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We’re looking at a film of a film of the Holocaust.

The degree of separation, however, rather than hinting that we just can’t comprehend what happened, brings up the idea of individual cultural trauma. I can remember exactly where I was when I first saw that footage on YouTube (I had to lie and say I was over 18 and willing to watch disturbing footage in the name of historical interest).

That footage of the camps and the wide-eyed Allied liberators has become more than a document or an artifact. It represents a rite of passage, a kind of frozen moment in time that we all have to encounter at some point, a point that will then crystallize in our lives and haunt us. Can we wrap our minds around the sheer mechanical abomination of that footage? No. But it stays with us. The experience of watching that grainy phantasmagoria of suffering becomes an enclosed moment, a rupture in time.

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To get back to the scene, I find it significant that the images are not just projected onto a screen, but, at times, onto Mr. Wilson’s face. He is part of the screen, and he casts his shadow onto the image. Now, I don’t want to tread on what Welles himself called “the jagged edge of symbolism,” because the materiality of the characters, the room, and the image itself save the scene from trite symbolism. And yet, watching Edward G. Robinson interact with those images that seem to fuse with him conveys so much about the strange way in which cultural traumas both escape us and live in us.

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Here’s where the strength of the movies comes in: I can’t express this in words half as well as Welles can with images. I don’t want to explain all that. I want you to watch the movie and tell me if you see it—or more importantly, if you feel it.

And then there’s the motion of the film reels, turning at a regular pace and rhythm, ’round and ’round like the gears of a clock. Even once the film strip has run out, the reel continues to spin, the tail end of the celluloid slapping against the table and giving us another little wake-up call. The shots of the gears of the projector foreshadow images of the gears of Harper’s clock spinning out of control at the grand finale of the film.

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The out-of-control film projector…

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…and the out-of-control clock tower gears.

In a way, the clock is inextricably linked with the movie projector as both introduce a looming sense of dread that intensifies in the final third of the film.

Immediately after this scene, Franz Kindler/Rankin fixes the Harper clock and it chimes out—waking up the entire town as Kindler looks down at them from the top of the tower, godlike.

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The villagers come running to investigate the newly working clock.

Having disturbed the peace of the town, the clock continues to strike at important moments for the rest of the film. For example, as Kindler saws away at the ladder to the top of the church tower, planning Mary’s “accidental” death, the clock strikes—meanwhile, Wilson looks at the tower from his hotel room and, at the Rankin house, the sound keeps Mary from sleeping.  We see her tossing and turning as it tolls in the night. In a series of three shots, the sound connects the central characters.

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The devil rising: a mechanical demon moves in front of the face of the clock as Kindler engineers his wife’s death and the chimes sound out.

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The sound of the chiming links together all of these shots and stresses the relationship between the incarnations of good and evil, Kindler and Wilson—both could actually be “the stranger” referred to by film’s the title—and the ordinary woman trying to negotiate the right path between them after making a very big mistake.

The clock’s tolling also coincides with and sort of exteriorizes the knowledge of those horrors that Mary witnessed. The sound design of the clock’s booming chimes makes the “home stretch” of the film more taut, implacable, and tense.

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But it’s really at the end of the movie where the clock-cinema connection clicks, as Kindler holes up in the clock tower, where Mary comes to kill him with Mr. Wilson in pursuit.

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Mary takes a wild shot at Kindler and misses, but hits the clock mechanisms and sends them spinning out of control.

Her shot prompts a gorgeous set piece of accelerated montage as the wounded Kindler tries to escape—whirring gears, shots, jerky movements, a fall onto the face of the clock. Just as the gears of the clock have accelerated beyond reason, so the well-paced, patient suspense of the film gives way to a frenzy of quick cuts. The clock and the cinema freak out in tandem.

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Is the scene a little allegorical? With Mary as an avenging angel… and the actual angel statue on the clock stabbing the demonic Kindler and sending him to his death? Probably, but there’s something even more cathartic going on.

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32The scene ends with a shot of the face of the clock, the hands revolving madly, mimicking the fruitless spinning of the film projector when it ran out of newsreel footage. Some trauma lies beyond time, beyond what can be shown, but that incessant, unreasoning, out-of-control cycling hits a very emotional chord.

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Some collective memories or experiences are so vast and awful that they make our heads spin. We can’t ever understand those pivotal moments in history, just like we can’t ever take the derivative of a single point in mathematics. The weight of these remembrances make our usual linear conceptions of time and memory judder, overheat, and careen off of any framework of calculation. They mark the asymptotes of our cultural perception and recollection. And The Stranger helps us to understand this. Time itself seems to go haywire at the end of the film, as if the magnitude of the horrors of WWII had created a cultural momentum that derails all sense of narrative or fiction.

The Stranger manages to stare down the barrel of some of the most hideous things that humans have ever perpetrated against each other and pack that kind of ugliness into a genre picture! In my mind, it’s the direct ancestor of a film like Hiroshima, Mon Amour that manages to be both a love story in a silent era way and an avant-garde Mobius ring of loss and desire on macro and micro scales. The only difference is, The Stranger works on your mind subtly, without you totally realizing it. I’ve always really liked, respected, and enjoyed this film—even before I knew a jump cut from a jump rope. There’s something healing about it in the end, even if you’re not watching it for a dose of Wellesian genius.

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If you want a suspenseful, entertaining B movie, you’ll get it. But if you want an exorcism of a collective trauma and a darkly beautiful tale of deception, undeserved love, and a thinking conflict between good versus evil, you’ll find that too—even in as, ahem, conventional a film as this one.

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The Stranger is in the Public Domain, which means you can watch it for free right now! Download it at the Internet Archive.

Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot? The Divorcée (1930)

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The Divorcée is an odd film.

To the eyes of a modern viewer (at least the cinema-seasoned eyes of this modern viewer), the 1930 M-G-M Norma Shearer vehicle, directed by Robert Z. Leonard, comes across as both shockingly bold and, on first viewing, annoyingly stilted and stagey. I’ll fess up: I did squirm at the oh-so-sophisticated depiction of divorce among the upper classes—where there’s no financial consequences, children, or overwhelming familial disapproval to make the rupture messy. This a fantasy divorce, make no mistake, in which virtually nothing peels away at the veneer of glamour, lacquered thick over the whole affair.

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On the other hand, I cannot quite choke back the glee when Norma Shearer informs her dismissive, one-time-philanderer hubby, “I’ve balanced our accounts.” Is there a wittier way of informing one’s, ahem, better half that you’ve attained sweet, sweet revenge?

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Norma gave us her matter-of-fact opinion on sex in motion pictures in this interview from the 30s.

I swoon at the glamour of Norma’s outfits by Adrian. Whether she’s a good girl or a girl behaving badly, career woman Norma parades around in some of the most to-die-for suits and evening gowns I’ve ever drooled over.

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Best of all, she barely dips her toe into vamp territory. We understand that she’s neither a home-wrecker nor a Gothic man-eater, a variation on the succubus. On the contrary, she’s just a sharp lady who wants to have a little fun. And look damn good while doing it.

Shearer won an Oscar for her performance—but she had to fight to get the role. Her husband, Irving Thalberg, head of production at M-G-M, didn’t think she could handle the role. He worried it would eat away at her star image and her popularity. It took a photo shoot that Norma arranged of herself in steamy pre-Code lingerie to prove otherwise. Irving caved to her demands.

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And I must acknowledge that The Divorcée throws quite a few hard punches. Ones that send me reeling, that’s for sure. (Oh, and there are spoilers in this post. If you want to bail out now, I’ll let you.)

So, how are we to evaluate a film like this? One that feels tiresomely backwards—yet looks strikingly forwards? It’s New Years, so I think I have some time to contemplate this Janus-faced creation. In particular, I want to ask the question that the movie seems to cling to: should old acquaintance be forgot? Only, instead of talking about ex-husbands, I want to ask that question about this movie and give a few reasons why, despite a few mawkish angles, The Divorcée deserves to be remembered.

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First off, the title intrigues me. No surprises there. Somebody’s getting divorced! The title already announces a separation, so we, the viewers, know that the wooing, cooing couple we see in the opening scenes, Norma and Chester Morris, is going to end up splitting. But how? That’s suspense, right there. And some rather refined irony!

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Don’t get too attached to this couple!

With jazzy credits music and a bunch of people giggling in a country house, the film’s opening lures you in with the promise of a witty marital sex comedy (of the Private Lives ilk) then steers you right into ugly drama. The movie begins with a blithe little party among friends in the countryside. We get a rather ordinary love quadrangle: Jerry loves Ted, but so does Paul—even though Dorothy loves Paul. So, when Paul hears that Jerry is going to marry Ted. He doesn’t take it so well.

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He gets drunk, drives off the road, and the accident smashes up Dorothy’s face.

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Talk about going from zero to sixty! The scene made my jaw drop. The expressionistic angles of the crash, the sense of loss and irrevocable damage, the shrill shrieks of Dorothy’s sister as she cries for revenge over her sister’s disfigured body.

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In a split second, The Divorcée plunges us into darkness and we’re still gasping for breath when the light comes.

The Divorcée

Right from that nasty car-crash scene, we go to a chapel where Jerry and Ted are going to be joined in matrimony. Movie weddings often bubble over with joy—or at the very least hijinks—but at The Divorcée’s doomed wedding, the sheer inauspiciousness of it all virtually whacks you over the head.

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Sure, the bride blushes and the groom smiles, but something’s not right. We’re all too shaken—and full of presentiments—to bask in the joy.

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There’s a very significant dissolve from the priest reciting the service to this shot of the bride and groom taking their vows. Notice how abstracted it is—no heads, no personality. It’s a picture of Marriage, not of our marriage, not a union between two living, breathing people. It reminds me of a glib Victorian illustration.

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And as if that uncomfortably headless shot wasn’t irony enough, another dissolve transports us to another marriage—the atonement marriage of Paul and Dorothy, who wears bandages in place of orange blossoms and a veil, as she reclines, mutilated for life, in a hospital bed. The Divorcée equates these two weddings and prods us to think hard about the apparent chasm between the dream wedding and the nightmarish one—because, in point of fact, they’re not so different.

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Hands actually play a very important part in this film. Once Jerry separates from her husband and embarks on a series of affairs, we see them transpire in rapid succession through a bunch of shots of hands meeting over tables.

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I love this clever montage for its acidly funny encapsulation of relationships. I’d also point out that the lack of faces allows the viewer to put herself in Jerry’s place and experience the vicarious rush of her lusty divorced life. But, most important, the sequence reminds me of Jerry’s and Paul’s weddings—and not just in a simple “that was right, this is wrong” kind of way.

On the contrary, I think all this hand-play encourages us to see both extreme forms of relationship—lifelong commitment and casual sex—as equally dangerous if undertaken without thought…when you leave your head out of the picture.

Living in the moment is dangerous, The Divorcée tells us, because every moment you’re bargaining with the rest of your life, even when you’re not vowing “ ’til death do us part.”

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The pleasure-haze of an addled brain—a kaleidoscope of good times.

We see this truth alluded to by the motif of drunken mistakes in this film: Paul’s accident, Ted’s infidelity, and, the most carefully portrayed, Jerry’s drunken affair with Don, who was the best man at her wedding. She learned a few hours ago that her husband cheated on her with a woman who “didn’t mean a thing” to him. But, unsurprisingly, that doesn’t make her feel better.

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So she goes out drinking, and we savor a cloudy, loud nightclub as a tracking shot jerks dizzily over to her table where we see written across Norma Shearer’s face a look of blank, despairing stupefaction. All the festivities are lost on her.

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Then Don leans towards her and in that close framing, we can practically feel their breath and smell the alcohol on it. She smiles—it feels nice to be appreciated.

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Without a line of dialogue, this scene nails the dim, sleepy, assault-on-the-senses ambiance of the situation, which could’ve felt contrived. It’s almost as though we’re watching someone’s fuzzy memory replay of what happened the night before.

So they go back to his place.

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As Don suggestively strokes Jerry’s fur coat, the soon-to-be-adulteress looks almost right at us, as if defying us to judge her, to think that we’d do any different in her place.

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Curtains close. Lights go out. Sex makes for the best ellipses, doesn’t it?

Even nowadays, I can’t think of too many movie women who get their bedroom revenge so quickly. I can’t think of any who make the walk of shame look as good as Norma does. But again, it’s hard to congratulate this movie. What’s the take-away message? That women should do as they like? Or that women are just as bad as men?

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Perhaps Norma’s Jerry says it best when she dismisses this kind of broadly gendered talk:

Oh, Ted, don’t let’s talk about men and women. They do all sorts of things. We’ve got to live our own life, dear. There’s so much of it ahead.

The Divorcée serves up a story about individual consequences that aims to look at mature situations. It’s not the clarion call of a sexual revolution. It doesn’t need to be, though. And I refuse to fault the movie for not being one. Even if I do get a little miffed at its contrivances, I can see the ways in which this 1930 sensation still echoes through to today.

As Don, Robert Montgomery dances his way through a performance so likable, yet loose of morals that you feel like he was born to provide consoling vengeance. He’s nice, handsome, rich, smooth, witty—and totally no-strings-attached. They could package him up in cellophane and sell him at Rebounds-Are-Us.

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I adore how fun and non-evil he is as the cheerful “other man.” Especially when, years later, he runs into Jerry’s husband (who has no idea Don slept with Jerry) and talks about Jerry’s mysterious rebound guy. “What would you do if you ever found him,” asks Don. “I’d kill him,” Ted replies. The look on Montgomery’s face is priceless.

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He’s so sweetly caddish that you can also easily trace his descendants in the sitcom, rom-com lineage, including Patrick from Stephen Moffat’s top-notch Coupling and Barney from How I Met Your Mother. (Yes, yes, I watch that stuff too!) Don is still with us, my friend!

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The New Year’s reunion at the end of this movie also, I daresay, inspired the conclusion to When Harry Met Sally. But, it’s a lot more problematic since, in the end, Jerry finds her ex and vows to rebuilt their life together. Lots of people would argue that this ending is lame and conservative—making an otherwise scandalous Pre-Code film palatable to a crowd of morality thumpers ready to knock down the studio doors. However, I would argue something different.

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As Jerry kisses her ex-hubby and “Auld Lang Syne” swells on the soundtrack, we get a vaguely happy feeling, but what’s done cannot be undone. These two adults recognize this—which is why their marriage stands a chance now. They’re people who’ve seen more of the world, enough to know that actions have repercussions. Even Jerry’s insistence that “all the world gets a fresh start,” sounds plaintive and a trifle reserved.  And that’s why, with broken illusions, they can embrace as the lights go black.

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Genuine bitterness: Ted knocks over a wedding cake when he discovers that Jerry’s paid him in kind.

It’s no accident that, at the very beginning of the movie Jerry and Ted were acting out a parody of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s most clueless and immature lovers.

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When I was in seventh grade and first read Romeo and Juliet, I didn’t like it one bit. I thought it was mushy and dumb. It’s taken me many, many years to come ’round and see it as a delicate exposé of teenage romanticism—the kind of steam-heated, fast-expiring passion that is so very tragic, not just because it makes people do tragic things, but because if those same people had waited one more week they probably wouldn’t have even remembered the caprice.

Not looking forward is pretty stupid. That’s what the characters in the movie do at the beginning. They marry without knowing much about life. They can’t see past some nebulous notion of “forever.”

But not looking back is even worse. The past returns in a tangible and frightening form in The Divorcée when Jerry gets involved again with Paul who proposes to divorce his disfigured wife (there’s a keeper!) to marry her. Jerry is waiting for Paul in her apartment one day when a knock comes at the door. A woman wearing a thick black veil stands there—and the camera even pivots almost imperceptibly to heighten the unease of this apparition.

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Whatever you want to say about this movie, the raw, surreal jolt that you get out of seeing the deathly figure appear out of nowhere, in such an ordinary, posh setting, cannot and will not be denied. Like I said, in its own way, this movie packs a punch. The Divorcée tugs at the complex tangle of time, past hopes and overshadowed futures. Poor faceless, blameless Dorothy, encased in layers of black tulle, totters into the film like a specter and, to me, remains the most memorable part of the movie.

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In a film that puts drama and comedy into a cocktail mixer and shakes ’em hard, Dorothy seems to come from a horror film—she’s like a ghost. She brings back the past, she’s almost one of the living dead. Even her sister says that it would be better if she died. Nobody seems to want Dorothy alive, yet she lives. And needs to be listened to.

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But—and this is why I chose The Divorcée for my last post of 2012—we can all learn not to turn our backs on the past.

And, when we do look back, we shouldn’t look back with smugness and condescension, like I wanted to when I put this movie on. This year, I’ve met a lot of lovely people who cherish old movies like I do. However, I’ve noticed a lot of old movie bashing and bristled at different enunciations of the idea that we know better now than they did then.

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Messy streamers in the first of The Divorcée’s two New Year’s scenes suggest that the connections between people never get fully severed. Just tangled up.

As Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” The past always comes back. It wears a veil, no doubt, but only idiots choose not to look at it. The past comes to us and tells us things that we don’t want to hear, things that we often chose to denigrate rather than decipher.

Well, guess what? Someday we’ll all be past—and a new crop of urbane scoffers will assess us.

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Paul catches a glimpse into Jerry’s train compartment. Fate intervenes to bring the past back to him and to Jerry.

We shouldn’t always look back in fondness. Sometimes we need to look back in anger. But, always, always, we need to look back with receptiveness and a little holy dread.

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So watch this movie. For the wisecracks, the shocks, the clothes, the feminist overtones. Whatever. But watch it.

Watch an old movie you want to discredit. Watch it and it might astonish you. I hope it does. It may not. But don’t sneer at it before you’ve given it a chance.

That’s why I watch old movies. Because I enjoy looking back. Because I like learning from and laughing with the past. Because I like remembering, even when it’s painful to remember.

Because someone damn well needs to.

Take this curtain, for instance, which shows up in the first of The Divorcée’s New Year’s scenes. You only see it for a few seconds:

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But I recognized that curtain! I’d seen it in the 1927 M-G-M silent, Mr. Wu. I wrote my thesis on it!

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There’s nothing new under the sun. But that’s no excuse not to look at what gets recycled, at what we keep, at what we remember.

Should old acquaintance be forgot? Not on my watch.

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