Hollywood

BLAST FROM THE PAST – PAUSE FOR ARGENTINA

ELVIS AND MARILYN MONROE

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Marilyn always attracted intellectuals.  Elvis had his working class fans, the people he called ‘my crowd’.   Both were instinctive performers whose popular appeal depended on glamour rather than cerebral analysis.   Predictably, their lives ended prematurely.   Marilyn has been exalted by Gloria Steinem and others.  Lisa Appignanesi is extremely clever and level headed but the tone of her marvellous book on psychiatry and women, ‘Mad, Bad and Sad’, changes when she writes about Monroe.  We all know that Elvis and Monroe were flawed, vulnerable at best.  But the fans find sympathy for them irresistible.   The difference with Monroe is that intellectuals have been willing to share these emotions about her celebrity.     True, they often pretend that they are being analytical but not always.  They will talk about a special quality that simply touches them.

I have mixed feelings about ‘Some Like It Hot’.  It is a great movie with sharp lines and inspired performances.   Sometimes the film appears to be perfect.  Others, I think the humour against Monroe is offensive.   It can depend on mood.  ’Bus Stop’ is underrated but it works for me because it is the appropriate fantasy for a vulnerable voluptuous waif that I have always wanted to protect.   The man who takes her away from the real world is strong but stupid.  Only the idiot cowboy, Don Murray, will be able to provide a life of respect without molesting her unique female innocence.   ‘The Misfits’ is different.  It is overrated and plodding but it nags.   Even its opening scenes, where a stunning Monroe heads for the divorce court, convince us that she is simply too beautiful for any kind of life that makes sense.  Howard Hawks had his own view of the world and, although cynical, he could be described as an optimist.  His adaptation of ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ is very different from the book by Anita Loos and nowhere near as witty but he accepts that the dumb blonde can triumph just like the male heroes of his action films.   All it requires is a world of stupid rich boys.  Hawkes makes sure that there are plenty in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.   Maybe the film should be dedicated to George Osborne and David Cameron.  Now there is a thought.

 

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The rise of feminism in the late 60s is a handy explanation for the appeal of Monroe to intellectuals but inadequate.  Norman Mailer was the first to insist Monroe had significance for human understanding.   Mailer has had his moments and even when being absurd he is readable.  Norman Mailer, though, is no feminist although he was desperate to deify Monroe as a remote existential goddess.  Mailer was obsessed with the unique meaning of America, his troubled homeland, and he sought clues in the lives and appeal of Monroe and Mohammed Ali.   Considering the extent of his epic curiosity it is significant and sad that this literary giant never wrote a word about Elvis.

Monroe married an intellectual and she read James Joyce which must have helped.  She was always curious about intellectuals.  Not that Arthur Miller was any better than the rest.  Supposedly her relationship with the playwright began to perish after she discovered that Miller had written that he would only ever love his daughter.   By the time he was into his next relationship the words were in the public domain.  That relationship prevailed until his death and long after Monroe had self-destructed.  Men like her acting coach, Lee Strasburg, and her psychiatrist, Ralph Greenson, rearranged their professional lives so that they could devote themselves to the icon.  Elvis had similar relationships with hairdressers, jewellers and, most famously, his doctor.  Hollywood money played a part but so did the presence of fame and the promise of consequence.   But, unlike Monroe, the intellectuals have mainly scorned Elvis.

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Both Presley and Monroe had to make difficult choices that invariably sacrificed integrity and growth for success and money.   Monroe complained more than Presley.   She described the Western ‘River Of No Return’, which is actually not that bad, as unworthy of her.  She called it a ‘Z grade movie’.   Elvis said nothing about his troubles.  Monroe became difficult on the set and Elvis mumbled and froze.  In Hollywood, the two vomited frequently.   The pills contributed.  But despite the similarities, one still has a sense of woman being comprehensively used by men.  It is possible that Monroe had men on an assembly line ready to exploit sexually but nobody really believes that.  We imagine her being lied to and we sympathise with her misplaced dependency on her lovers who, as Miller later admitted, were simply overcome by lust.    The more powerful the men, the less they worried about their lust and her dependency.   Her treatment by the Kennedys is not important because it is exceptional.   It is more of the same deceit, just more extreme.   And Mailer is right.   There is something America defining about Monroe singing ‘Happy Birthday, Mr President’ at the birthday gala of JFK.   This is the evening when the arrogant and the powerful willingly shared the stage with a vulgarly dressed, drugged, overweight woman whose sacrifice would concern none of them providing that their secrets and impulses were kept hidden.   And, no, that sentence does not imply that her death was the consequence of conspiracy and murderous intent.   Neither was it accidental.  Marilyn committed suicide.  The sheer scale of the overdose is the ultimate evidence of her angry insistence on oblivion.  The coroner recorded that her dead body had forty to fifty capsules of the barbiturate Nembutal.  A murderer would have been more subtle.

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The death of Elvis was like his career.  Without adequate support from others he failed to nurture himself and his talent.  He lost his grip on his life.   Perhaps there was no final self-destructive act but like Marilyn he was impatient for resolution.   The drugs escalated out of control, and the result was waste, as it was with Marilyn.  Both could be stupid and brilliant.  Nobody who takes movies or music seriously would argue that either of them can be ignored.   Monroe is memorable in a film which is so brilliant that she could be excused for being anonymous.  As the girlfriend of Louis Calhern in’The Asphalt Jungle’ she steals scenes but more than that she defines perfectly not only the weakness at the heart of her sugar daddy but also what makes him sympathetic.   This was a difficult task but Monroe coped so well the world became instantly excited.  In the Henry Hathaway movie ‘Niagara’ her sexiness is overplayed and absurd, and she weakens the film.  There is one scene where the camera follows her walking away into the distance.  The actress, Constance Bennett, said, ‘There is a girl with her whole future behind her.’   Elvis provided the same uncomfortable mix.  Only a bigot, though, would ignore the classic records because of the existence of the dross.

But somehow the sympathy that is automatic for Monroe is withheld for Elvis.  Gender is important.   Most of the women Elvis slept with would have understood his intentions but he would not have had to taste condescension from his lovers.  That only came from the people who owned him.   He may have thought he was making music for his fans but really he was like Marilyn, singing for his supper at the dinner tables of the powerful.    The contempt Monroe experienced riddled her whole identity.  Elvis had more freedom but he still experienced the same contempt.  These two victims had to feed on it throughout their terrible lives.

As Howard Jackson is touring Argentina at the moment, a few blogs from the past will be remembered.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

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THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

BONUS FEATURE – JOHN GARFIELD

1913-1952

 

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John Garfield was a tough guy with a weak heart. Both qualities were a consequence of his childhood. A heavy dose of scarlet fever left Garfield with the damaged heart. His impoverished childhood meant he ran wild on the streets of New York. He even sampled the life of a hobo. The opening sentence of the novella The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain is one of the best ever; ‘They threw me off the hay truck about noon.’ After that the beginning of the movie was destined to be an anti-climax, and it would have been except that it was authentic tough guy John Garfield falling off the back of the truck.   The novella by Cain was sexy and a little twisted. The movie was censored by the Motion Picture Production Code but the bureaucrats could do nothing about the lusty expectation in the eyes of Garfield and the open mouth simper of Lana Turner. The movie was a big hit. Audiences liked Turner and Garfield.   If Turner was sexy and beautiful, the appeal of Garfield was more complicated.

 

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John Garfield was an actor rated by both the critics and his peers. He had a naturalistic style that anticipated Brando and an intensity that could be compared to Cagney. Garfield can be described as the link between the two actors and the different acting traditions. Garfield, like Cagney, was a physical actor.  In his performances he holds a cigarette and a telephone as if they are weapons. When he turns the pages of a newspaper, he concentrates in a way that insists we think about the information he is absorbing. There are many fabulous moments in his career and more than a few in his greatest movie, the best ever film noir Force Of Evil. At one point in Force Of Evil, Garfield walks through a corridor. He is a lawyer, and running is not permissible. To let us know that he is determined, Garfield tilts his shoulder so that it is at an angle to the floor and he walks in a line that is not quite straight.   The gesture is an exaggerated way of communicating determination but it is also audacious and it succeeds.

Actors who shared a similar background to Garfield could provide physical authenticity but struggled with subtle dialogue.   John Garfield also had a good ear. Nothing in his career was as challenging as the dialogue in Force Of Evil.  In subsequent interviews the director Abraham Polonsky claimed that the dialogue in the film was not the blank verse the critics assumed.  According to Polonsky, he did nothing more than sprinkle some repetition and add poetical rhythm.   Whatever we are listening to, Garfield is adept.  He provides a lyrical lilt and adds tension to the pauses.

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His heart, and perhaps his background, caused the death of the actor in 1952.  John Garfield was 39 years old.  In the previous year he made his last film He Ran All The Way.  Weariness, which may have had something to do with what was happening in his life, informed a convincing performance. Garfield played Nick Robey an amoral criminal who is without pity for his victims. But, because of the acting by Garfield, we understand that the criminal is a wounded animal. Nick Robey, like many others, never had a chance.   Critics and fellow actors understood the skill of Garfield. The rest of us approved of him because he appeared to be like the people we knew, an ordinary man, cocky but shy, arrogant but insecure, loud but wary, innocent but tricky and cunning. In the 40s there was no one like Garfield and that still applied when his movies appeared on British TV many years later.

Not all the movies that John Garfield made were great but that has something to do with him having to do what he was told by Hollywood.   Before the end of his career he co-founded the independent production company The Enterprise Studio. The nine films made by the studio are a mixed bunch.   They include Westerns, comedies and romantic dramas.  None are awful but three are important.  Caught is a fine film noir from the great director Max Ophuls, and Body And Soul and Force Of Evil are the two classics.  These two were made because of the independence and single-mindedness of The Enterprise Studio. The later blacklisted Abraham Polonsky wrote the scripts for both films and he directed Force Of Evil.

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For all of his life Polonsky believed that capitalism was a flawed economic and social system. The movies, though, are not tainted by pedestrian dialectic. Polonsky liked to suggest rather than preach.   Right wing cynics assumed that he nailed the flaws in human nature. Left wing rebels secretly waved the flag under their cinema seat.  In both of the Polonsky films Garfield plays a man who has ambition, someone who wants money and what and whom it buys. He is always, though, more than mere gluttony and appetites. Fear feeds his ambition.  The moments of conscience are sparse but believable.

In a better world it would have been different. Garfield would have lived until he was old, Polonsky would not have been blacklisted, and more great films from the two men would have followed. Instead of being restricted to being a movie icon of the 40s, Garfield would have accepted the offer of the part of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Because of his involvement with The Enterprise Studio, Garfield said no, and Brando took the role.  Marlon was so good people looked to the future rather than remember the past. The memory and contribution of John Garfield was obscured by the hard-hitting realism of Brando and the daring of Tennessee Williams.  It could have been different. Brando would have arrived whatever Garfield had done. If Garfield had claimed the part of Kowalski, the two men might have shaped and shared the decade and what followed.

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It did not happen. Garfield stayed in Hollywood and made two classic movies but was persecuted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. His wife had been a member of the Communist Party.   The accepted opinion is that Garfield was a left leaning liberal.  In his testimony to the House Committee he condemned Communism.  He proclaimed himself to be a patriot and a Democrat.  During the Second World War he made a few patriotic flag wavers, again they included a couple of classics, Air Force and Destination Tokyo.  In Hollywood there were creative talents who were committed to Marxist ideology.  The House Committee wanted names of what they regarded as fellow conspirators. There was no conspiracy just a few people exchanging ideas and theory but the lack of a sinister plot was no deterrent to the members of the Committee.   Left wing writers and directors were put under pressure to reveal names, and the majority buckled. John Garfield had less reason than others to resist. He was asked to identify people who had political opinions with which he disagreed. Resist, though, he did. John Garfield had his tough guy ethics, the code of the street and his social class. He refused to give names. When he had to do something other than pretend to be a hero, John Garfield delivered.   His two children both became actors.  His inspiration reached beyond the movie screen and into an admiring family.

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The authenticity of John Garfield was a key factor in his success as a movie actor yet the truth is he had more than that.   He was handsome from certain angles but ordinary in others. He convinced both as a lover and warrior. His politics were inspired by decency rather than theory. The performances of Garfield remind an audience that he has not forgotten what it is like to suffer and be powerless. He is always a dominant personality but in many of his films he qualifies as the victim. If his characters become rich, they have to battle and take knocks. He was persuasive as a boxer but also as a gangster with an aching heart. And he also held his own against magnetic female stars such as Lana Turner, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

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Apart from the Polonsky duo there are two other films where Garfield and his sense of what capricious life means for ordinary people puts him in a special class. These are The Sea Wolf and They Made Me A Criminal. The latter is a piece of tosh.  The happy ending is unbelievable yet a relief because that is what anyone watching wants for Garfield.  The Sea Wolf is based on the fine novel by Jack London. The adaptation shelves the second half of the book, which is okay because people had to get home after watching the film. A sequel would have been welcome because we could have watched Garfield and Ida Lupino battle the privations of life on a remote island.  But maybe the solitary hero was not in the nature of John Garfield.  He may have been a lonely man when he appeared in front of the House Committee on Un-American activities but his heroism was always defined by his sympathy for the victims of the powerful.  In The Sea Wolf he is the rebellious George Leach who struggles against the cruel captain Wolf Larsen.  Garfield does what he does best.  He resists and protests. It is how he will be remembered.

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 Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, a travel book and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.