Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Knocked Up at the Movies

Did the Siren happen to mention she's knocked up? No? Oops. Well, she is, 29 weeks. It's a boy, due late October, nameless as of now. Film-oriented suggestions welcome. If your suggested name is chosen, we owe you a goat, or a sheep, your choice. (Lebanese tradition.)

So the Siren has been mulling this post for a while, but the pickings are mighty slim for the eras she usually covers. Thanks to the censors, pregnancy and childbirth were treated with a spectacular lack of realism during the Golden Age. The baby belly was either nonexistent or suggested by the heroine's adjusting her belt buckle a few notches. The Hays Code didn't specifically require this (so far as the Siren's research shows), so perhaps the tradition of padding the woman with a lace hanky and calling it a day was just the studios' reluctance to show a glamor gal waddling. The code did forbid childbirth scenes, however, so usually what you would get would be the pitter-patter of little feet talk between the (always married) couple, then a swift cut to a waiting room, or a cradle, or some such. On the rare occasions when pregnant women did appear on screen, they were from some other planet where seven months looks like two, a planet the Siren fervently wishes she were on right now.

In the 1939 Stagecoach, for example, Louise Platt plays a genteel wife going to join her Army husband. The dialogue only lightly alludes to her pregnancy. She clutches a paisley shawl over a figure that looks quite slim, and she retains the gait of a Virginia belle. Try dismounting from a stagecoach late in your third trimester, and see if you are up to gracefully placing your hand in the hand of a John Carradine substitute. The more likely scenario is that you grab his forearm for dear life and lumber down those teetering little steps like a Saint Bernard with advanced arthritis. Even as a teen with no experience of pregnancy, either hers or anyone else's, the Siren saw Stagecoach and figured Platt's character was four months, tops. So it was a bit of a shock when Platt went into apparently full-term labor midway through the movie.

Gone with the Wind, made the same year, is comparatively realistic, with Melanie giving birth during the siege of Atlanta. Only vague silhouettes show, and there's no screaming, though Scarlett tells her to yell her head off if she wants. Afterward Melanie is extremely sick and weak--hemorrhage, maybe? You aren't told, nor do you have any idea why she's told not to have more babies and eventually dies in childbirth after ignoring the advice. When she tells Clark Gable she is expecting another child, her shawl is draped just like Platt's.

Puerperal fever? obstructed labor? Whatever the unidentified cause, plenty of women die in childbirth at the movies, often off-camera, as in the saddest scene in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). If they do it on camera, they do it beatifically, like Melanie. In 3 Godfathers (1948), a John Ford that the Siren loves, Mildred Natwick (43 years old, and looking every day of it) is found in a wagon about to give birth, the fact that things are going badly conveyed by her gasping a lot and struggling to sit up. The men try to help the delivery, but she is a goner. Braids neat, face matte, clad in a miraculously clean white nightgown, she hands the baby over to John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz and Harry Carey Jr., and dies.

But the Siren is looking for pregnancy at the movies, and this is largely childbirth, and damned unlucky childbirth, at that. Well, there is Leave Her to Heaven, if you want an example of a woman who doesn't exactly sing the Magnificat upon hearing the happy news. As Gene Tierney's monstrous Ellen is put on a late-1940s version of bedrest, she becomes arguably even more insane than she was previously. Convinced that husband Cornel Wilde is developing too tight a bond with her sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain), Ellen decides to get rid of what is confining her to bed.

The big, indelible scene from John Stahl's movie has Tierney in a rowboat in the middle of the lake, calmly watching as her polio-crippled brother-in-law gets a cramp and drowns. But the Siren was also marked at an early age by the moment when Tierney gets herself un-pregnant. Wearing a beautiful negligee, with a belly the Siren would measure at about five days post-conception, Ellen walks to the top of the staircase. You see her, like a psychopathic Cinderella, carefully remove a slipper to be left as evidence at the top landing. Then, camera still focused on her feet, Ellen throws herself down the stairs and lands in an artful heap, nightgown still so clean Mildred Natwick would be proud. Do you suppose any women saw this and thought it would be a foolproof way to end an unwanted pregnancy? In reality, of course, it isn't nearly that easy to induce a miscarriage, although Ellen is having a touch-and-go pregnancy already.

Speaking of dangerous pregnancies--even the daring Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944) didn't show the slightest bulge in pregnant Betty Hutton, despite the fact that she must be about three months before we cut to a later stage of her pregnancy. At that point they film her from behind, which is probably just as well. The miracle is (skip the rest of this paragraph if you don't want to know) that Hutton is pregnant with sextuplets.

Ha, ha, ha. The Siren has had twins. At three months she looked about five months. At five months people asked when she was due. At seven months she got into a cab and said, "68th and York," only to have the cabbie whip his head around and practically yodel, "New York Hospital????" The Siren reassured him that it was just a checkup. With six babies, Hutton's figure should have been bordering on the Wagnerian early on, but the movie is so funny you overlook Hutton's having the easiest pregnancy and delivery of higher-order multiples in recorded history.

By the late 1950s movie pregnancy was getting a touch more realistic. A Farewell to Arms, David O. Selznick's doomed swan song as a producer, has Jennifer Jones asking Rock Hudson to feel the baby kick. Jones looks more pregnant than Louise Platt, which is something, but she's still not a patch on the Siren's belly. Reportedly Jones' childbirth scene late in the movie is part of why Farewell tanked, as it is quite long and drawn out and there are a lot of close-ups of her face contorting. Even a few modern viewers squirm. But the decade had its big breakthrough in pregnancy depiction on television, where Lucille Ball dared to waddle. The scene where Ball gets stuck in an armchair still cracks up the Siren.

By 1962 you get The L-Shaped Room, where Leslie Caron's neighbor deduces she is pregnant because he can hear her throwing up through the walls of their cheesy rooming house. That movie holds up well in showing an unwed pregnancy, even going so far as to have Caron waffle about whether or not to have an abortion.

In 1995 the Siren saw a Hugh Grant vehicle called Nine Months, allegedly a comedy about pregnancy but in reality a platform for the most retro sex-role ideas imaginable. Despite being able to show a great deal more than you could prior to 1960, most movies showing pregnancy hew closely to the cliches, both cutesy, as in Look Who's Talking, or horrifying, as in the original Alien, in some ways an extended meditation on fear of childbirth.

But during her last pregnancy, the Siren did finally see a movie with the nerve to depict pregnancy in all its inconvenience, mess and bizarreness--Rosemary's Baby. OK, that isn't as bad as it sounds. Bear with the Siren. Yes, birth is a beautiful thing, and the Siren knows how lucky she is. But the process of getting there can be difficult, psychologically as well as physically, and the Roman Polanski film is, oddly, more truthful in this regard that many "realistic" dramas.

Rosemary gets so much right about pregnancy. It shows the way people infantilize a pregnant woman--everyone from husband to doctor pats you on the head and tells you everything is normal, no matter how freaking weird you feel or what your body happens to be doing. The movie also shows how the advice comes at you from all directions, and how you feel obligated to at least try it all, even if the suggestion is coming from some gnomelike woman you've just met. And it also shows the crushing fear that something might go wrong, or worse, that something IS going wrong, and no one will listen to you. The movie even taps into the worst part, the irrational thought that jolts you awake at 2 a.m. as you try to find a comfortable position so you can fall back asleep--"What if I give birth to a monster?"

The cleverness is that for once, the fears are true. The revelation of Rosemary's baby was anticlimactic to the Siren. Now that's partly due to her recognizing all these cute elderly character actors from the past, like Aunt Bea's best friend chirping "Hail Satan!" But it was also because the really scary stuff had come before.

Something else you don't much see in movies is how pregnancy lowers your powers of recollection. Anyone else have a memorable image of pregnancy from movies past?

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Mr. Campaspe Posts and Hosts


From an email invitation Mr. Campaspe has sent to the Siren family's nearest and dearest in the NYC area:

Next Thursday, Aug. 17, BAM is showing the movie Les Tontons Flingueurs. Little known in the U.S., Les Tontons is a masterpiece of such magnitude that it is any cinephile's duty to disseminate it to the world. In the Michelin rating system--based on how far one should travel to experience an event--the movie deserves the maximum 3 stars. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, at last, a movie that is worth a trip to Brooklyn.

To convey how good the movie is, suffice it to say it is the best one by Georges Lautner, surpassing even his series with Belmondo, or his Barbouzes. Les Tontons' dialogue was written by Michel Audiard, who spoke only street French. ("French people drive me crazy," he once said, "but since I don't speak any other language, I have no choice but to converse with them.") So he put all his genius into becoming the poet of spoken French, creating many immortal quotations for the second half of the 20th century. He it is who gave the conclusive definition of a gentleman (someone who can describe Sophia Loren without using his hands.)

The cast reads like a proposal to create a pantheon of movie comics: Bernard Blier, Lino Ventura, Claude Rich, Jean Lefebvre, and Francis Blanche.

Hilarious, witty, ruthless in its social description but genial in its handling of political situations, this movie goes so deep into Frenchness that it reaches the core of the human spirit. In these sorry times, it will restore your faith in the ability of humanity to overcome our idiots, while making clear the amount of work required.

And it is unavailable in the U.S.!

* * * * *

The Siren had never heard of this movie before her husband began evangelizing about it, but it is worth apparently not only the journey, but the cost of hiring a babysitter for the evening. If any of her patient readers are around next week, by all means, check it out.


Above, left to right, Francis Blanche, Lino Ventura and Bernard Blier in Les Tontons Flingueurs. Middle, Michel Audiard.