Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Keeping us up

I am just old enough to remember Loretta Young as a nice TV lady who whirled around her TV living room and introduced some boring stories that didn't have any space aliens or spies.

Later, I learned that my wife was very fond of a Christmas movie she starred in, The Bishop's Wife. This sounded sort of spicy until you found out that Episcopalian and Methodist bishops are allowed to marry. Despite the temptations of Cary Grant, Loretta remained a good church wife.

Now as film scholars and buffs are exhuming that interesting period from the dawn of talkies until July 1, 1934, when the Production Code began to be enforced by the MPAA, we can recognize that Loretta Young was definitely one hot cookie. In Midnight Mary (1933) she is abetted by a story by the racy Anita Loos and high-energy direction by William Wellman, who had already torn off Night Nurse and The Public Enemy among the more than 20 films he made between 1931 and 1933.

We think of Wellman in terms of friendships among men and amid their physical adventures. But the evidence indicates that Wellman liked women just as well, provided they were just as adventurous. Maybe it was not as firmly canonized as the "Hawks woman," but any man who makes seven pictures with Barbara Stanwyck and showcases the saucer-eyed Loretta Young as the hardbitten broad that she is in Midnight Mary is definitely not afraid of women.

I would love to see David Bordwell or someone like him analyze why nearly all early sound films feel so breezy. Late-period silent films had plenty of slow fade-outs and languidly paced movies, but early talkies all seem to be bitten off at the end of each scene, in a hurry to get to the next. Midnight Mary uses swift horizontal wipes to introduce each new segment of the film, as if a crossfade would just be wasting time.

Wellman and Young made this at MGM, on loan from Warner, where Darryl Zanuck had set the rapid editing tempo. Who set this tempo, and did production chief Thalberg consent? The long shadow of L.B. Mayer, who took over operations over Thalberg's death seems to have colored the record, but clearly Thalberg was open to representing a wider range of human behavior than the bourgeois Mayer (purveyor of the Andy Hardy series and other Wholesome Entertainments). Most of the theaters MGM owned were in major downtown venues (which made it very profitable through World War II, but left it vulnerable after the war, when the audience left for the suburbs) -- surely they were more receptive to a fun gangsters-and-murder trials romp than they would be to Mickey and Judy in a barn?

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