Saturday, November 06, 2010
Advice from the Siren
A gentleman has emailed the Siren:
I think you should start an advice column. Here's my first question:
I don't understand why Charles Boyer would prefer Olivia de Havilland over Paulette Goddard in "Hold Back The Dawn."
Signed, Cinematically Conflicted
The Siren is always happy to oblige her patient readers, although she warns some questions are beyond even her mythological powers. Happily, this one she can illuminate, if not solve.
In the studio era, it was occasionally assumed that what a man wants in a life's companion is wholesome sweetness and naïveté, not red-hot rafter-rattling sex. That hasn't been the Siren's personal experience, but then again, she never tried to conduct a love affair under the watchful eye of the Hays Office.
De Havilland was gorgeous, but given her prim character in the movie, Olivia over the much livelier Paulette joins some other puzzling choices. These include Dick Powell even realizing Ruby Keeler is alive when he is right there in the same movie with Ginger Rogers or Joan Blondell; Judy Garland over sultry Angela Lansbury in The Harvey Girls; Janet Leigh over Eleanor Parker in Scaramouche (and in case you're wondering, no, the Siren is never going to get over that one); Donna Reed over Lana Turner in Green Dolphin Street; the Catholic Church over Ingrid Bergman in Bells of St. Mary's; the Welsh church over Maureen O'Hara in How Green Was My Valley; and Margaret Lindsay over Bette Davis in Jezebel.
You may notice a number of these are literary or theatrical adaptations; indeed, this quandary has classic antecedents, e.g. Ivanhoe. Given free rein many, if not most, scriptwriters got it right. Clark Gable, for example, almost always managed to pick Jean Harlow by the last reel.
In an unusual example of Hollywood reverse sexism, this problem is rarely encountered when women are doing the choosing. Rosalind Russell prefers Cary Grant to Ralph Bellamy, Irene Dunne prefers Cary Grant to Ralph Bellamy, and in one that must have really stung, Carole Lombard preferred Fred MacMurray to Ralph Bellamy in Hands Across the Table. The Siren can think of two examples where she questions a heroine's taste, although in both cases there are extenuating circumstances. Joan Crawford goes for Henry Fonda over the decidedly more sensual Dana Andrews in Daisy Kenyon, but as Andrews' character is something of a heel, and it was Fonda's job up to 1968 to be a mensch, you see it coming. And in How to Marry a Millionaire, the large age difference between William Powell and Lauren Bacall can be taken as explanation of why Bacall picks Cameron Mitchell, although the Siren always mutters, "I don't care how old he is--woman, are you nuts?"
There's one that will stump the Siren to her dying day, however. In Walk Don't Run, the remake of The More the Merrier, Samantha Eggar picks Jim Hutton over a never-in-the-running Cary Grant. That flaming chunk of crazy was part of what made Grant decide being a cosmetics executive was a much better deal.
In real life it is a toss-up as to who would have won a Goddard/de Havilland Hold Back Your Man smackdown. They both had It. And How.