Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Shrike (1955)

The Siren, after musing here several times that she would like to see The Shrike, was able to achieve that goal via the kind offices of a reader. She has no idea why this picture is so goshdarned hard to see. Given that it's based on a 1952 Pulitzer-winning play by Joseph Kramm, the Siren is inclined to finger our old friend the ULP, or underlying literary property, as Lee Tsiantis once explained here. The Siren usually feels bad about writing up movies that are more or less completely out of circulation, but she’s offering some thoughts on this one for several reasons.

One, some patient readers have also expressed interest. Two, it’s interesting in ways that don’t necessarily demand seeing it. Three, it stars Siren nemesis June Allyson.

And what you undoubtedly want to know is, “Is she any good?” Why yes, she is. If you’re a June Allyson fan who hasn’t quit reading this blog in disgust, you’ll admire her on the merits. If you dislike Allyson’s screen persona as the Siren does, then you will probably agree that here we have the definitive June Allyson performance. She’s perfect. That gurgling voice, like an anemic Jean Arthur; that pageboy bob, the demure gaze, the button-nosed girlishness — all of that creating a portrait of a woman who will TEAR YOUR SOUL APART.

Jose Ferrer, who directed and starred in the play on Broadway, knew what he was doing when he cast Allyson as Ann Downs. This gal is subtle. Joan Crawford’s Harriet Craig drifts around her house like an iceberg in search of a liner to sink, and everyone knows she’s a bitch, she’s practically got it embroidered on the sofa cushions. In the few analyses you can find out there of The Shrike, Ann Downs is usually described as a shrew, a different bird from the prey-impaling one of the title, but you get the idea. But played by Allyson, Ann isn’t very shrewish at all. As she torments poor husband Jim (Jose Ferrer, who also directed) right into an entrée of phenobarbitol and a subsequent holiday in the state mental ward, she rarely raises her voice. All her little undermining remarks, even her small displays of temper, are delivered with the same kittenish mannerisms that Allyson brought to everything from Good News to that ghastly remake of My Man Godfrey. It’s pretty seriously brilliant.

Misogyny is a word that the Siren deploys with caution, to avoid lessening its impact; usually a simple sentence such as “The heroine was a complete dingbat” will suffice. Discussing The Shrike without misogyny, though, would be the equivalent of discussing Gone With the Wind without bothering to mention the Civil War. It’s the essence of the movie, an unshakable male conviction that the little woman full of advice for your career is really trying to eat your entrails like an after-dinner mint.

Ann is onscreen plenty, as when she’s visiting Jim in the loony bin, making it clear he must stay there until he’s knuckled under to all her demands. Or, she’s in his flashbacks, bugging him to give her a part in his play (he’s a theater director), carefully clipping out his bad reviews or sweetly bringing up ways he can metaphorically shoot himself in the nuts. Her perspective is nowhere to be found, though. She’s a frustrated actress, but if she’s frustrated that’s her problem. At no point, not even after a miscarriage leaves her barren, does it occur to Jim to tell Ann to get a hobby or just get the hell out of the house. Yeah, yeah, it’s 1955 — she could at least go out to lunch or volunteer at the Junior League or something. Instead, the movie’s attitude toward Ann is summed up by a shrink who asks in a sort of Congressional-hearing tone, “Mrs. Downs, are you familiar with the term, castrating?”

No, no, it’s all about Jim’s suffering, which Ferrer underlines in black magic marker via extravagantly long takes of his own tortured and sometimes tear-stained face. As the director of this film, Ferrer cares about himself, at a suitable distance he cares about the other actors, and that’s pretty much it. The Shrike exhibits Joshua Logan levels of camera cluelessness. At one point Ferrer emerges from a hospital room and walks across a hall that stretches away into a geometric film-noir grid. And the Siren yelled from her cozy perch on the living-room sofa, “You idiot! That’s a great shot! Hold still a second!” But Ferrer the actor keeps moving. And that means the camera must, too.

He is, however, good in this, as is the entire cast, including Mary Hayley Bell, a.k.a. Juliet and Hayley Mills' mom, playing an ancestress of Nurse Ratched who’s possessed of a Karo-syrup Southern accent. The Shrike, then, is a well-acted sociological artifact and not really a neglected gem. But if you can track it down, it will give you plenty to think about, including whether Allyson was miscast in all those other movies, and not this one.


Thombeau said...

I am unfamiliar with this film and absolutely must see it!

ratskiwatski said...

Do I have this right - a June Allyson Problem Picture with the mise en scene of a 4th grade Passion Play? Because that's what I see when I think of Josh Logan. That and the word "lumbering." Does it lumber?

DavidEhrenstein said...

Siren have you every seen They Only Kill Their Masters in which Junie plays a butch lesbian murderess?

The Siren said...

*scratches head* Lumber. That's a good question. I am not sure I would say it lumbers. For one thing, it isn't in Cinemascope. For another, the supporting cast, especially the guys in the asylum, are quite good. And Ferrer, while unimaginative, also doesn't subject us to anything like the color washes in South Pacific which inspired in me some of the most personally hostile feelings I have ever had toward a director. The Shrike is really involving and despite the fact that you're on to Ann very early on, it's fascinating to watch her machinations.

Thombeau, from your own varied blogging history I think this would delight you.

Also, an aside: I should have mentioned that this is must viewing for any vintage-clothing lover who needs reminding that not all 1950s clothing was lovely. Man, the stuff they put Allyson in was a horrorshow.

The Siren said...

David, yes, ages ago, and unfortunately I don't remember either hating Allyson or thinking she was born to play a butch lesbian murderess, although the movie was very entertaining.

Frank Butterfield said...

In spite of your loathing of La Allyson, I'm in awe of your ability to find these hidden films, watch them, and report back on them to the rest of us.

The subtle (and not-so-subtle) misogyny of movies of this period always gives me the creeps. I don't know a better way to describe it.

At first, as I was reading, I started wondering why La Allyson would play such a character. Then I remembered she probably didn't have much of a choice. But, still... Blech!

As a small child I was scarred by a Doris Day movie I saw on TV. To this day, I don't which one it is because I have no desire to find out. All I remember is that she is in a kitchen which is automated in some way and it's attacking her. I feel the same way about that scene as I do about the scene in The Black Hole when the floating robot attacks and kills one of the characters.

Kitchens kill! And, in particular, they kill Doris Day because she is so batty. It almost happened to Lucy in the Long, Long Trailer. And it could happen to any of us!

I realize the utter illogic of my fear of seeing La Day. Every time I see her in anything (including the clips of her TV show on YouTube), I'm always a little frightened that she'll be run over by a car careening down California Street because its wheels were not properly curbed, which should be a lesson to us all for parking on steep hills in a city overrun by hippies who are all high and that's probably why the wheels weren't curbed.

Yes, it's a difficult condition. So, I do have much sympathy for your issue with La Allyson.

P.S. Thanks again for more deliciousness!

The Siren said...

Oh gosh Frank, I would be NOWHERE without my tipsters and USPS Santa Clauses. I'd mention the benefactor who sent this one along, but I am not sure this person wishes to be named. (Out yourself if you do.) Later this week will come more discussion of the all-important issue of access (she added, mysteriously).

I wonder if James Wolcott, a Doris Day from way back, remembers the scene When Kitchens Attack. That sounds like a hoot. One of the many things I adore about Sirk is that he could take a property that could be played with a sour attitude toward women, like Written on the Wind, and give the bitchiest character in the cast real pathos and real motivations. There's an attempt at the end of The Shrike to give Ann some humanity but it's like putting lipstick on a voodoo doll at that point. You flat don't buy it; it makes the windup of The Woman in the Window look perfectly reasonable by comparison.

john_burke100 said...

Just a wonderful post--thanks, Siren. I need to see this if only for Ferrer displaying self-pity--perhaps his feelings were hurt by old friends who despised him for naming names?

Psychiatry was all over movies in those postwar, Cold War years, and its practitioners were often Up To No Good: The Snake Pit, Shock Corridor, Whirlpool, and a curiosity called Shadow of a Woman whose chief distinction is a nightclub orchestra playing "How Little We Know," the Hoagy Carmichael number that Lauren Bacall sings in To Have and Have Not.

Vanwall said...

You've made me dredge up the heavy metals lyin' around at the bottom of the bay. I had vague memories of this film from my B&W TV viewing days, I remember it being on twice in two weeks, and was miffed they'd shown it twice, as I didn't like it. I really disliked Allyson, and this was early enough to make me think it had set my intake of her style at it's maximum already. The other part I remembered was how much of a wienie I thought Ferrer's character was, having seen "Cyrano de Bergerac" earlier that year, and I liked him much better as a hard-ass. Needless to say, I wasn't at the age to appreciate psychological problems, but I was at the age to see the Allyson character was crazy in some way, and somehow, I realized her performance was in tune with that, which is scary - she's really no different in almost all of her films, so she was as set in her ways as I was, I guess. I'm not sure I want to see it again, I think I got the point of Allyson's performance already.

X. Trapnel said...

Vanwall, I don't know what part of the country you're from but around NYC we had something called Schaefer Award Theater which always seemed to be showing either The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell or The Shrike. I had no idea what a shrike was but gathered that it must be something scary, that and Ms. Allyson's aggressive rodent face, bright-eyed with intent.

Yojimboen said...

FWIW, Doris Day’s kitchen nightmare happens in The Glass-Bottomed Boat (1966) - the labour-saving devices which attack her were – no surprise – the brain-children of Frank Tashlin.

I hadn’t thought of the reverse-casting thesis, you may well be right that The Shrike was the only time J Allyson was correctly cast.

Nah, I’m kidding. I love June Allyson, Good News and all. It ran in my family, my favourite aunt fell in love with the Allyson page-boy coiffure and wore it her entire adult life.

grandoldmovies said...

I seem to recall reading that Ferrer chose Allyson for the role as a case of casting 'against type' - a method usually done 1) as a way of attracting critical notice (as in "how brilliantly she plays against type!") or 2) to revive a fading career by doing the unexpected (assuming Allyson's career was fading at this time and needed a jolt) - though, as you point out, her cast-iron domestic perfection made her perversely suited for the part. Perhaps Ferrer was being more subtle than we give him credit for.

The Siren said...

Grandoldmovies--I don't know what Allyson's career was like at this point, but I'd bet that for sure that's why Ferrer cast her and why she took the part. A perjorative term would also be "stunt casting," although I'm sure we'd all agree that sometimes stunt casting works out quite well. I don't like the movie, but Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West is one of the most effective stunt castings of all time. If it weren't so early on Monday morning I could undoubtedly think of others. And while I am dissing his mise-en-scene I think Ferrer had an excellent sense of acting capabilities and wouldn't have gone with Allyson if he didn't realize her peculiar screen qualities were going to mesh wonderfully with Ann Downs.

Also, I want to make it clear that I really haven't heard or read anything negative about Allyson off-screen, so when I say maybe she was miscast in her good-girl roles, I don't mean that as a comment on her real-life personality. I just mean that giving her more two-faced parts could have given her a more interesting career. In a sense I'm unjustly blaming her for being an MGM star at a time when they kept doing movies where they really wanted someone cap-W wholesome. It's no coincidence that this one was made for Universal.

pigoletto said...

Well, I'll have to see if I can find it and give it a go - this sounds like much more interesting of a character for her. God knows I still can't get through Executive Suite (I keep calling it 'Conference Room' in my head for some reason) - gave it another two tries after your review, but still no dice. I keep stalling/falling asleep at the scene where she's picked up Holden from the office.

Untouched Takeaway said...

Yet another on my list of "Please, Someone, For The Love Of God - Upload This To YouTube Because I'm Desperate Enough To Watch It in 10 Minute Segments" films.

I've never cared for Allyson, either. I seem to recall some rather unflattering (personal) descriptions of her and her behavior in Nick Tosches' book on Dean Martin and I think that has contributed to my dislike of her spun-sugar roles.

Onward the quest.

DeboT said...

It fascinates me now to see how psychology was portrayed in the 40ies through the 60ies. A lot of people thought it was The Cure. I've been watching a lot of old TV shows from the late 50ies and early 60ies and it's amazing the number of times it's stated that a shrink could cure some ills, or if only they'd gotten help earlier psychosis could have been avoided. Maybe that was the heyday of the "innocent by the reason of insanity" defense. And this is before there was Prozac or other mind bending drugs. I think shock therapy and partial lobotomies were still favored. Well, I'll bet some talk therapy could have helped Allyson's character -- if only they'd gotten to her in time. Of course, from what you've said, it didn't seem to help her husband much.

rcocean said...

This one sounds like fun. Great write up. Jose Ferrer is always interesting to watch even when he's terrible - which is most of the time.

He was one of limited talents, who didn't know it & was always acting roles he shouldn't have.

As for Misogyny, I don't know, I'll have to see the movie. I assume castrating bitches existed, even in the 1950s.

camorrista said...

"Joan Crawford’s Harriet Craig drifts around her house like an iceberg in search of a liner to sink..."


Casey said...

Speaking of Hollywood misogyny, the talk about June Allyson and Doris Day started me thinking about both of them. I don't like June Allyson. I used to hate Doris Day, until I started seeing some of her early films. She could actually be pretty good, but it seems that Hollywood, and Marty Melcher, thought she needed to play vacuous idiots. A star's image was (and still is) generally constructed by the money men. It's sad when you think of how often that image ended up being a strait jacket.

rcocean said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rcocean said...

Well Casey, I don't think Doris Day played "vacuous idiots".

Day has stated she really didn't want to play drama. - she liked doing comedy and musicals. She never took Hollywood or Show biz that seriously, & in the 70s she walked away and never looked back.

Yojimboen said...

@Camorrista, also " unshakable male conviction that the little woman full of advice for your career is really trying to eat your entrails like an after-dinner mint."

Stuff like that is why we come here.

Am I the first to observe that Alexander Woollcott adored Mrs. Parker as James Wolcott adores the Siren. Coincidence?
I don't think so!

Yojimboen said...

P.S. Snap! Snap!

Casey said...


I don't mean to say she always played idiots, and I think she could be really good in musical comedy. I'm talking more about films like That Touch of Mink, produced by Melcher, where she spends the whole movie making a fool of herself. I just think she was wasted a lot of the time. I wish she'd put more faith in herself and less in Marty Melcher.

rcocean said...


I agree completely about Melcher, he seems to taken the easy way, casting in her in endless variations on "Pillow Talk" instead of getting her some better musical/comedy roles.

She and Rock were great team, but I think "Send me no flowers" wasn't worthy of their talents.

X. Trapnel said...

"As for Misogyny, I don't know"

Quite so. This was the great decade of the male weepie, Method martyrdom, and Ingered men in which women ar always cold, nonunderstanding, frigid, whiney, or cumbersome with their frumpy biology. I'd even include High Noon here. Sometimes the Little Woman is allowed to be a passive tower of strength through the goodness of her being/wisdom (Exec Suite) but not an equal. Two very different films that break the pattern are There's Always Tomorrow and Try and Get Me through a more sophisticated social and psychological view. All of this will have its last gaudy effloresence in the sexcapades to come and various Jack Lemmon self-pity epics.

DavidEhrenstein said...

The faith she put in Marty Melcher resulted in him taking her to the cleaners. it took her years to celar up all of his debts postmortem.

Doris is quite content these days. She has a loyal group of friends and tons of animals that she cares for.

She's also just released an album: "My Heart"

The Siren said...

There are a number of stories like Day and Marty Melcher, but he really stands out in terms of making you want to go back in time and lock him in a cupboard.

I haven't heard the new album!

Untouched Takeaway said...

The "Svengali" that utterly eludes me is shoe magnate Harry Karl.

To say he's no oil paintin' is to laugh.

Yet, in addition to his first, non-celeb wife, he managed to marry Marie "The Body" McDonald, Joan Cohn (for 1 whole month! She was the widow of Harry Cohn of Columbia) *and* Debbie Reynolds.

As a goil, I understand the attraction of money & power, but this guy makes Henry Kissinger look like George Clooney.

I guess when you've lived your life being told what to do by a studio, it's easy to seek that in a marriage as well.

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

A brilliant piece, dear Siren, and I do thank you for it.

I think I may have seen 20 minutes, more or less, of this film on television *il etait une fois* ... and one part, which you don't mention, stuck with me. The Saul Bass credits, where all the names appear on tickertape and then a big hand with scissors snips 'em off. Did someone use the word "castrate"?

As for the notorious color filters in the Logan-directed SOUTH PACIFIC ... I like the joke about them in FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD, where odd colored lights turn off and on, while someone sings the song "Bali Hai" to the tune "Blurry Hues."

I remember enjoying the Ferrer-directed THE GREAT MAN, which didn't really work and yet had its moments. And you have to admire any director who, like Ferrer in RETURN TO PEYTON PLACE, fills his cast with Eleanor Parker, Mary Astor, *and* Tuesday Weld.

Yojimboen said...

The odious Harry Karl’s bio seems tame next to that of his twice wife Marie “The Body” McDonald (she was married seven times – her last husband likely murdered her).

With some irony of this glamour still of Marie is labeled ‘This Time for Keeps’.

There are some lovely “artistic” shots of the young Marie McDonald by the ubiquitous A.C. Johnston, but perhaps a thread focusing on misogyny isn’t the proper forum.

The Siren said...

Not to mention that ogling the poor woman would feel like necrophilia after following that link. My god, I had barely heard of her and had no idea what an awful time of it she had--and her children even worse, one born with drugs in her system and Harry Karl refusing to let them move in until Debbie Reynolds made him. God bless Miss Reynolds for that, but I wonder what happened to those kids? Any leads, Y.?

Yojimboen said...

Other than the death of Karl's oldest daughter Judie in 2010 there doesn't seem to be much information out there. I suspect David E has the best connections to find out.

pvitari said...

Jose Ferrer is getting a stamp this year...

DavidEhrenstein said...

Sorry to disappoint, Yojim, but I don't know about the Karl kids.

Like Melcher wit Doris, Karl took Debbie to the cleaners. But she's more than OK now.

Untouched Takeaway said...

I watched "Woman's World" this weekend. Heflin/Dahl, MacMurray/Bacall, Wilde/Allyson & Clifton Webb.

Allyson played the most criminally stupid female character in the history of cinema. She made Rayette Dipesto look like Madame Curie (only with none of the pathos or charm). I wanted to reach through the laptop screen, somehow drag her back to the land of the living, and just slap the ever-lovin' snot out of her.

Watching that did nothing to improve my opinion of her onscreen, but I still have "The Shrike" on my "list".