Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Siren Watches Betty Hutton, Lives

We all have at least one: a performer who, no matter how skilled, famous or beautiful, gives you a royal pain in the neck. Sometimes you know why, as with my anti-Julia Roberts fervor, which dates to her catastrophic turn in Michael Collins. And sometimes you don't. I had a roommate who refused to watch Jack Lemmon in anything, and could offer no real reason for this piece of insanity other than "He irritates me." Girish and I bonded over, among other things, our mutual inability to sit through a Jeannette MacDonald film (unless they kept a tight lid on her, as in San Francisco).

I love Preston Sturges, but previously never got around to watching The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, and I will admit why: Betty Hutton. That foghorn voice. That cloying desire to be the cutest thing in the room. Watching The Greatest Show on Earth and being asked to believe that not one, but two men would reject Gloria Grahame--GLORIA GRAHAME, for heaven's sake--in favor of this galumphing loudmouth. I hated her in the The Perils of Pauline, too. So tomboyish, so hearty, so damn wholesome. The Siren doesn't like wholesome. She likes sirens, as a general rule. (Come to think of it, Julia Roberts is wholesome, too. Blech.)

But in Morgan's Creek, genius Preston Sturges somehow took Hutton and made her enjoyable. All that manic energy gets reined in, and frequently Hutton's character is calm and collected while the rest of the farce gyrates around her.

The movie comes with its own parlor game, called "How did he get away with that?" As in, how did Sturges get any of this stuff past the censors? One critic in the Guardian calls it a "mystery on the scale of what happened to the dinosaurs." Past a certain point you just wonder if Sturges got the whole Breen office drunk or something.

Hutton's character, for starters, is named Gertrude Kockenlocker--a last name that sounds like the schoolyard punchline to an off-color knock-knock joke. Trudy is the daughter of the Morgan's Creek constable (William Demarest, doing pratfalls that could cripple many a younger man). She is loved by 4-F Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken, in the full flower of his nebbishness), but feels a star-spangled obligation to entertain the soldiers from the local base before they shove off to foreign fields. One night Trudy goes to a wild round of farewell dances, drinks a little too much and get coshed on the head while executing an ill-advised dance move with her partner. She turns up the next morning, dazed and alone, but with a wedding ring mysteriously on her finger and a vague memory of having wedded a soldier the night before after someone said, "Let's all get married!" She thinks his name was Ratziwatzki. She also thinks she didn't give her right name for the marriage license. Things get even worse for poor Trudy when she turns out to be pregnant. Her younger sister (a superbly funny Diana Lynn) and, eventually, the lovestruck Norval try to help Trudy, but it takes the miracle of the title for things to work out.

The list of forbidden subjects in this film goes well beyond that summary. There's bigamy, in that Trudy at point tries to lure Norval into marrying her. There are thoughts of suicide, revealed in a wonderful, exceptionally long tracking shot, as Trudy unburdens herself: "Oh, Norval, it would be my dying wish that when they fish me out of the water, I would want you to know that my last thought would be of you." The befuddled Norval eventually responds, "Well, there's not much water in the creek this time of year, Trudy."

Other sanctities of American life get the uniquely tart Sturges treatment, too. The denizens of tiny Morgan's Creek are a bunch of sourpusses, not likely to turn up in the last reel for a round of "Auld Lang Syne." And the Siren loved this tender summary of the father-daughter relationship, from Demarest: "Either they leave their husbands and come back with four children and move into your guest room, or their husband loses his job and the whole kaboodle comes back. Or else they're so homely you can't get rid of them at all and they hang around the house like Spanish moss and shame you into an early grave." Diana Lynn gets her digs in, too, as in the famous line, "If you don't mind my saying so, Father, I think you have a mind like a swamp." This a year after Since You Went Away opened with its epigraph: "The Story of the Unconquerable Fortress, the American Home, 1943."

The Siren doesn't believe in using "modern" as an accolade for an old movie--as in, "Why, it's so modern! it could have been made last month!" No, it could not, and when you find another Preston Sturges you may cable the Siren and reverse the charges.

That said, it is true some films date badly and others do not. One reason this movie still seems so fresh is the way it skewers pieties still with us. Sturges said his moral was aimed at "young girls...who confuse patriotism with promiscuity." That particular problem has lost its urgency, but anyone who has ever felt a twinge of seething rebellion over the endless admonishments to "support the troops!" will find a lot to appreciate here.

It's a fantastic movie, and Hutton is great in it.

Does this mean the Siren has to rent The Merry Widow?

31 comments:

Berlinbound said...

Well said ...

Peter Nellhaus said...

The Stork Club is a cute and funny film if you want more Betty. I saw her interview on TCM in which she told about her shabby treatment subbing for Judy Garland on Annie get your Gun, being a Paramount actor in an MGM movie. I still find it astounding that The Greatest Show on Earth won for Best Picture when you consider the competition. How can anyone not know that it's James Stewart hiding under the clown make-up?

Campaspe said...

B.B. - thanks. :)

Peter - I saw that interview too, and Betty seems like a nice woman. And she's been living in dignified retirement for a while. It really is that wholesome thing. I can't watch June Allyson either.

Reportedly it was the strength of the MGM voting bloc that put GSOE over the top. I confess, I enjoy the flick, but in a cheesy so-bad-it's-good way, not in a Best Picture way.

Flickhead said...

I used to be put off by "wholesome" as well...but in time things changed for me. (My hollow cynicism wasn't panning out.)

Betty Hutton is surely an acquired taste, as is Doris Day. But once I saw Doris in "Pajama Game," my opinion altered significantly.

Same thing happened with Julie Andrews via "SOB" (a gulity pleasure of mine -- along with a great deal of Blake Edwards's fractured oeuvre).

June Allyson is hardcore -- all the tougher to take after one makes it through "The Shrike".

Today I generally find myself revolted by the tacky grunge of Quentin Tarantino (the ugliest and most irritating man on film) and Kevin Smith. I once considered Michael Madsen to be quite possibly the worst actor I'd ever seen, and can't bear the site of his heavily-lined forehead and scrunched, faux Mel Ferrer eyebrows.

And after thirty-seven minutes of Audrey Tautou's idiotic grinning in the useless "Amélie", I ripped the DVD out of the machine and frisbee'd it across the room.

Meanwhile, didn't Preston Sturges once publish a book of erotic photographs?

Flickhead said...

Oops: it wasn't Preston Sturges who did the book of erotic photography. It was Harold Lloyd.

Campaspe said...

Flickhead, I like Doris Day, too. She played nicely against type in "Love Me or Leave Me" and I really enjoyed "That Touch of Mink" and her Rock Hudson films. She also wore fantastic suits.

Perhaps instead of "wholesome" I should say "saccharine." I dislike most Tarantino and the influence he's had on film has been dreadful, for the most part. What I really yearn for is some sophistication. We're up to our armpits in Scorsese imitators, John Woo imitators, Peckinpah imitators. Where are the Lubitsch imitators? the Sturges imitators? (I guess the Coen brothers have tried with Sturges, but so far they haven't really got the requisite polish.)

Exiled in NJ said...

Perhaps you should start a thread of actors/actresses we cannot stand to watch.

You have that knack of making me want to go back and see a film again. I rented Miracle years ago and neither wife nor I could see the magic one reviewer told us was there. I watched it again alone two days later. Both times I felt I was watching a dirty joke, or better one of those things that amused my crowd in grades 8-12, reason being we were so sure we were the only ones who understood the racy, gamy situations. I recall cheering on our, or the opponents, basketball team as the score neared that number between 68 and 70, and we would chant "two more points" when the score hit 67.

The storyline of the pregnant woman probably reflected many true situations during World War II, whether the father was known or not. Cornell Woolrich used a pregnant single woman as the protagonist in one of his 'black' series~~the one where she switches identities with the woman killed in a train crash.

Oops, went off-tangent. I do remember that I thought the characters of Miracle's town too pat almost. There was no quirky Herb to come over and plot murder like in Hitchcock's Santa Rosa of that same period.

You give me a reason to see it again.

girish said...

[shiver] Jeannette Macdonald, Julia Roberts, QT, Kevin Smith, etc [/shiver].

And though I've always loved Irving Berlin's songwriting, Betty in Annie Get Your Gun was, for me, pretty unwatchable.

Campaspe said...

Exiled - one of my private parlor games, which maybe I should bring to the blog, is Bizarre Double Feature programming. I think "Shadow of a Doubt" on a bill with "Morgan's Creek" is pretty darned inspired. Love Cornell Woolrich, what was the name of the one with the pregnant single mom? still in print?

Girish - have you seen "The Merry Widow"? Thanks for the "Annie Get YOur Gun" warning. I am as bad as Hutton's MGM costars in that I can't get over Judy getting fired. She would have been so great. Such a great score, though.

surlyh said...

I love Sturges and I love and Morgan's Creek. Don't forget the "miracle" of SEXtuplets on Christmas!

Billy Wilder was the last Ernst Lubitsch wannabe. Bogdanovich might have gotten around to Lubitsch had he remained successful. Those days seem irretrievable, gone with the niceties of convention and the censors that they had to cleverly subvert and evade.

Exiled in NJ: That Woolrich novel is I Married A Dead Man, and is quite good. It was made into the film No Man Of Her Own starring Barbara Stanwyck. That was later remade as a French film, I Married A Shadow, with Nathalie Baye.

girish said...

Yes, The Merry Widow is a joy, a yummy little bon-bon of a movie.
All thanks to Lubitsch, and a hilarious Chevalier.

Exiled in NJ said...

Thank you Surlyh; you head the nail on its head. It's funny but I can remember an illustration from it of the woman, in a hat of that period, leaving her house in the east. But maybe I saw the film; there was a period 6-8 years ago when I rented anything with Stanwyck.

I also went through a Woolrich period. He had no shame; seems to me one story of a man running from an appointment with death at a certain time, loses when his ship crosses the International Date Line.

Double Feature: how about a two-night injection of sugar with four variations of Love Affair?

Tuwa said...

Awesome post for an awesome film.

I'll admit to a tolerance for QT, though I think he has more smugness than talent (if I quit watching films by all the directors I wouldn't want to have tea with ... I wouldn't watch many films at all).

There is no other Sturges. One is sorely needed, though. Such a deft touch.

Campaspe said...

Surly: thanks for the name solution!

Exiled: I see you the "Love Affair" Quadruple feature, and raise you a "Back Street" triple-feature. After which we will all need therapy. Or a stiff Scotch.

Tuwa: thanks very much! I don't hate all of QT, I just wish he'd find some real substance to go with all that style. He absorbed so much of the technique, but so little of what his favorite filmmakers were saying, IMO.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Does Hudsucker Proxy count as a channelling the spirit of Preston Sturges?
I also cast my vote for Singles being Cameron Crowe's best attempt at Billy Wilder.
I'll watch QT's films. But he champions some very dubious films and directors. Otherwise, I can't think of anyone I absolutely won't see.

Brian said...

Wait, girish was just telling me how he adored Love Me Tonight! I guess it must be in spite of Jeannette

It's funny about Ms. MacDonald. Last night I was watching her in One Hour With You for the first time and realized how much she was reminding me of Melanie Griffith, who I find pretty much impossible to watch. But perhaps if she'd acted in Lubitsch films I'd feel differently.

As for Hutton, she seems so perfect for Miracle of Morgan's Creek that I can't help but wish Sturges had been able to use her again.

Exiled in NJ said...

Jeanette MacDonald/Melanie Griffith! Good lord, that helium voice grates my nerves unless she is playing a gum chewer or forgive me for this word, a bimbo. She was perfectly cast in Nobody's Fool.

In watching The Birds on Halloween, every so often Tippi's mouth would open and her daughter's voice would come out.

Brian said...

It's not the voice, it's the facial structure and some mannerisms that I can't put my finger on. I haven't seen Nobody's Fool.

girish said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
girish said...

For someone who can't stand Jeannette M., I've seen her in an awful lot of movies.
Blame Lubitsch. Love Me Tonight by Mamoulian and One Hour With You by Cukor (both with Jeannette and Maurice) are so thoroughly Lubitschian that I would never have guessed he didn't direct them. (To that list, also add Borzage's Desire).
And she's in Lubitsch's Monte Carlo, which is also a fun film, a proto sound-era-musical, and inventively made.
But I don't believe I've ever seen a non-Lubitsch-associated Jeannette film. Thank God.

Campaspe said...

Peter, I thought "Hudsucker" was more a marriage of screwball & Capra. But "O Brother" was definitely taking more than just the title from "Sullivan's Travels", and "Intolerable Cruelty" seemed like a take on "The Lady Eve" at times. I enjoyed all of these, but the Coens themselves probably accept no Sturges substitutes. BTW, I was thinking of you the other night when I found myself unable to turn away from "Strangers When We Meet." That movie definitely has something, even with commercials and pan-and-scan.

Brian & Girish: My attempts to watch Jeannette were largely confined to her movies with Nelson Eddy, which really no one should be forced to watch unless you're interrogating them or something. "Rose Marie" darn near killed me. I started to watch "Love Me Tonight" once but I am afraid I flipped the dial when Jeannette popped up. I'll try again.

Exiled: I had the SAME experience with the Birds the last time I watched it, and it adds absolutely nothing to that movie, let me tell you.

Exiled in NJ said...

"But "O Brother" was definitely taking more than just the title from "Sullivan's Travels","

What a nice way to say as one artist did about another, 'he paints with hands in my pocket.' And with "The Ladykillers" only the location has changed. Never mind talking about the result.

"Intolerable Cruelty" is one of those films that should begin "Once upon a time there was a big, bad divorce lawyer." I must look again to see 'Eve.' I thought Clooney was channeling Cary Grant at his most antic, Arsenic and Lace, style, but someone substituted Davis, Crawford or Stanwyck for Irene Dunne. Strange borrowing in the film came in the scene with the asthma inhaler. There is a god-awful scene in a god-awful cops-action movie with Nicolas Cage and an inhaler.

I think the directors who consciously attempt to bring back certain styles end up losing any voice they once had: Bogdanovich and the screwball comedy among other styles, dePalma/Hitchcock with a detour to early Hawks and at times the Coens. The jury is out on the brothers, but I can admire them for their take on The Glass Key, Miller's Crossing.

surlyh said...

Billy Wilder worked in a tradition, whearas it feels that the Coen brothers work often feels like a weird pastiche of favorite film clips. I thought that The Hudsucker Proxy was godawful. Their worst.

Tuwa said...

Exiled in NJ, that's also the 2nd Clooney movie where an antagonist accidentally shot himself in the head. It's a gag that works best once, I think.

surlyh, you thought Hudsucker was worse than Ladykillers?

Dan Jardine said...

To champion a new Lubitsch or Sturges you'd first need to spearhead a revival of dialogue in film. Good luck there. I think most screen writers today are weened off of the spoken word very early on in their careers. Words are bad for foreign markets, and I hear teenagers find 'em boring. Exceptions screenwriter-wise include the aforementioned Coen brothers, and Richard Linklater in Waking Life, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, though the latter's films are hardly full of the sorta witty and sexually charged banter you'd find in Sturges or Lubitsch, but lean more to rambling meditative conversations.

surlyh said...

tuwa: I should have said the worst of the Coen films that I've seen. I haven't subjected myself Ladykillers.

Campaspe said...

Dan, I agree. I mourn the death of snappy dialogue. When I wrote about The Court Jester, one of the things I mentioned was that the dialogue was lightning-fast. In comedies now, you often get a cinematic equivalent of the theatre's "holding for laughs." No such thing for the Kaye movie or someone like Howard Hawks.

Flickhead said...

Watch out, Siren: Quentin is about to put the whammy…on you!

Campaspe said...

Flickhead, the link doesn't work! do try again, nothing like QT coming after a person to liven up a dull night in Toronto ...

Flickhead said...

Cut and paste, but BEVARE! BEVARE!:

http://hollywood.weblog.com.pt/arquivo/mtv7.jpg

Campaspe said...

Oh noooooo! I am feeling an overwhelming urge to rent "From Dusk to Dawn" and I blame you, Flickhead ...