Movie of the Month: Peyton Place (1957)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before, and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Boomer, Brandon, and Alli watch Peyton Place (1957).

Britnee: I love drama. Soap operas like The Bold and the Beautiful and Days of Our Lives were the inspiration for “playing pretend” with my Barbie dolls when I was a wee one. Now, as a grown adult, I spend most of my time in the BravoSphere obsessing over everything Real Housewives (when I’m not watching movies, of course). Yes, I like my drama on the trashy side, so it’s no surprise that I fell in love with the classic melodrama Peyton Place

Peyton Place is adapted from Grace Metalious’s debut novel of the same name that shocked the world in 1956. It was regarded as smut by the public and banned in various cities and countries due to its racy subjects, including incest, rape, abortion, and adultery. Film producer Jerry Wald jumped on getting the rights to Peyton Place from Metalious less than a month after the novel was released. The result is definitely a sanitized version of the novel, but it’s still pretty scandalous considering that the film was released in 1957.

In the small New England town of Peyton Place, the gossip is hot and the secrets are plentiful. Michael Rossi (Lee Phillips) arrives for his new job as the high school principal along with his “liberal” education methods in tow. We soon find out that he is taking the position from Mrs. Thornton (Mildred Dunnock), who is a tenured English teacher more than fit for the job. There’s a plethora of sad moments throughout the film, but Mrs. Thornton’s heartbreak at that disappointment hits me so hard. We are then introduced to multiple families who have all sorts of juicy secrets, particularly the MacKenzies and the Crosses. Constance MacKenzie (Lana Turner) is a widow and shop owner, raising her only-child, Allison (Diane Varsi). Allison is best friends with Selena Cross (Hope Lange), who’s mother Nellie (Betty Fields), is Constance’s maid. Selena has an extremely rough life, especially compared to Allison’s. She lives in a shack with her mother, younger brother, and horrible alcoholic stepfather.

The judgmental and hypocritical society of Peyton Place causes irreparable damage to much of the community, particularly the youth. Allison is judged harshly by Constance for an innocent kiss, only to find out that she was the product of an affair. Selena is raped and impregnated by her stepfather, struggles to get an abortion, and miscarries due to an accident. Her mother, Nellie, then commits suicide at the MacKenzie residence. To make matters worse, she murders her stepfather in self-defense when he tries to attack her again and is put on trial. And that’s not even getting into Rodney & Betty’s struggles outside the main drama. There is never a dull moment in the film, since we are following so many different families and couples, which is one of the things I appreciate most about it. You can rewatch it multiple times and focus on a different character each time. It’s movie magic!

I’m dying to know what the rest of the crew thought of this movie. We’re there any characters y’all found more fascinating than others?

Brandon:  I loved this.  It’s the exact intersection of high and low art sensibilities where you’ll find most of cinema’s shiniest gems.  For whatever reputation Peyton Place might have as a trashy paperback, this adaptation treats it with the same wide Cinemascope vistas and sweeping orchestral overtures you’d expect in a David Lean adaptation of a literary classic.  A sprawling, gossipy epic of small-town scandal & melodrama, it’s essentially Douglas Sirk’s “Harper Valley PTA”, an exquisite rendering of sensationalist pulp.  The material at hand earns that treatment too.  No matter what prurient curiosity the novel may have held as the Fifty Shades of Grey of its time, it also functions as politically-minded sex education advocacy.  It argues that good, healthy sex habits should be openly discussed and even taught in schools, since the small-town sex shaming of all “dirty talk” is what causes heartbreak & tragedy in these doomed characters’ lives.  There’s something genuinely radical about its 50s-era sex positivity, especially when the proudly horny Allison explains to her male classmate “Girls want to do the same things as boys,” a truth that still hasn’t been fully absorbed in small-town American rhetoric.

Singling out individual characters is a smart way to discuss this film, since there are seemingly hundreds to choose from, each representing their own hot-button issue meant to inspire hushed watercooler & beauty salon chatter among anyone lucky enough to have visited Peyton Place.  I was also heartbroken by the professional disappointments Mrs. Thornton suffers in the first act; I found myself crying over her open-hearted kindness within seconds of meeting her, as her students pooled money together to buy a congratulatory gift for a promotion that never came.  She’s only a small part of the story, though, especially as her potentially pompous replacement proves himself to be just as noble & progressive in his approach to teen-years education.  What I was more hanging on the edge of my seat about was the character arc of Allison’s friend Norman Page (Russ Tamblyn). 

Throughout the film, Norman is portrayed as sexually timid & confused, to the point where he was an obvious representative of closeted (and maybe even oblivious) homosexuality.  What was unclear was how far the movie could possibly go in openly discussing his sexual orientation, beyond broad, Freudian characterizations of his overbearing mother and his self-hating nature as a “coward” and a “sissy.”  My fear was that Allison would be romantically paired with Norman as a narrative attempt to “cure” him, but thankfully they just remain good friends & co-conspirators.  Like many of the hot-button issues the movie collects like Pokémon, Norman’s status as a sexual outlier is never exactly challenged or resolved.  It’s more just plainly represented as a simple fact of life (as much as it could be in a time of intense sexual repression).  The difference with Norman’s sexual identity crisis, though, is that it’s never openly discussed like the affairs, suicides, rapes, and miscarriages playing out elsewhere in town.  Even for a movie that proudly tackles the most sensational topics of its day, Norman’s (ambiguous, unconfirmed) queerness is too controversial to be discussed in clear, honest terms, which is what makes him such a fascinating character to keep track of in the larger crowd.  There’s a tension to seeing just how far the movie is willing to go in his characterization in every scene he enters.

Boomer: It’s funny that Brandon should mention “Harper Valley PTA,” since that’s the only real exposure that I had to Peyton Place (other than its use as exactly the same epithet that Jeannie C. Riley used) prior to this viewing: “You think that as the mother I’m not fit / Well, this is just a little Peyton Place / And you’re all Harper Valley hypocrites.” That is to say, a Peyton Place is somewhere that there’s an awful lot of funny business going on, if you know what I mean. I don’t know how much of that was born out of the film itself and how much was the result of the various sequel soaps and other adaptations that were released in its wake, because in practice, there’s actually very little sex in the film, with what little there is being unspoken or deep in the back story, while the forefront is composed of so much suspicion and gossip. There’s one really frisky classmate of Allison and Selena who flirts with the former before devoting himself to his one real childhood sweetheart (to whom he seems faithful despite his raging hormones, especially in combination with his disdain for his father’s own implied adulteries), and then in the backstory Connie had an affair with a married man, of which Allison is the product. It’s barely salacious, even for the time period, and only the first of these is common knowledge, though it enters the town’s thriving marketplace of gossip attached to the incorrect players. Peyton Place’s prosperity comes in the form of its textile mill, but it runs just as much on the rumor mill, as very little information that gets passed around is accurate, and real secrets get covered over in the rush. Connie’s affair could have remained hidden forever, just like Lucas Cross’s crimes and sins, because town gossip was mostly concerned with fiction. 

I, like Brandon, also thought of Douglas Sirk while watching this, but in my mind I titled it “Sirk’s Twin Peaks” because in both titular towns, the deepest and most harrowing crime is at the expense of a teenage girl and mostly concerns itself with her peers and the people of her parents’ generation who are supposed to be looking out for their children. (And they both have Russ Tamblyn!) It could just as easily have been Sirk’s Blue Velvet, however, given that it was the earlier of David Lynch’s works about an idyllic town with a monstrous underbelly of violent unchained id and a facade of perfect Americana with a maggoty core. (And they both have Hope Lange!) But the film is only Lynchian in its topic, not in its tone or its temperament, and in this mixture between the cheerful color of full-on Cinemascope melodrama and its seedy story of suspicion and vice that makes it feel at once both dated and timeless in the best possible way. 

Alli: I went into this movie, as I do with a lot of movies from this era, with my 1950s housewife lenses on. I like to imagine that I’m completely fresh and contemporary to an old movie. From that perspective, Peyton Place is positively lurid. Teenage sexuality? Class consciousness? Education reforms? Abortion? Absolutely shocking. Which is why I couldn’t stay in that frame of mind for long. It’s just too ahead of its time. I’m honestly astonished that it even got made. It’s not always an easy watch, but it is a worthwhile one, filled with drama, critiques of small town America, and necking. If this movie were made on this scale today, there are still people who would find it absolutely shocking and controversial. 

It starts off strong with Michael Rossi arriving in town observing the dilapidated shacks on the wrong side of the tracks, only to arrive on mainstreet in this idyllic New England hamlet, complete with beautiful green trees, gorgeous homes, and quaint local businesses. He has a conversation with a restaurant owner about the state of employment in Peyton Place where we find out that almost everyone works at a woolen mill and that business has a stranglehold over everything in town. Like any town where one industry dominates the entire economy, the business owners have a vested interest in making sure that education is undervalued and that the status quo is maintained. Rossi does manage to haggle for a better salary, even with the reluctance of the school board, probably because he is not the “older” woman Mrs. Thorton (“older” in scare quotes here because it’s later revealed that she’s in her mid to late 40s). This clash of capitalistic American values against an educator’s desire for fairness and equality for all students is riveting. When he’s demanding a salary and refusing to do the unpaid labor of coaching sports teams, I was elated. We need more movies where characters stick up for themselves in the faces of tycoons.

All these teens’ stories are so good. I love them sneaking around and indulging in horny teenage rebellion. I love Betty slutting it up. It’s extremely satisfying when Allison stands up for herself to her hypocrite mother. Norman suffering his Psycho-esque Norma Bates mother is just oedipal perfection. Selena’s story, however, is heartbreaking, and quite frankly, it was extremely difficult for me to watch. The abuse she suffers at the hands of her stepfather is presented so starkly and realistically. In a movie full of overblown drama, this plot line unfortunately feels the most realistic until the town rallies behind her (real life is rarely that hopeful). When she snaps and kills Lucas, it is weirdly satisfying, even with the thought that she may have just doomed herself by trying to save herself.

I’m so glad that I watched this soapy, melodramatic epic. It is going to stick in my mind for a long time.

Lagniappe

Alli: I was so focused on how great the narrative is, I forgot to mention it’s beautiful too! How about Mrs. Mackenzie in that red dress going to Rossis’ house for Christmas? The bright, saturated colors there are just wonderful.

Brandon: My only previous exposure to Peyton Place was the shot of Jayne Mansfield reading it during a self-indulgent bubble bath in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, a visual gag that’s much funnier now that I know of the novel’s sub-literary reputation.

Britnee: I find myself referencing Peyton Place more and more as I get older. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing, but it’s a reminder of how relevant the film still is. It should come as no surprise that a Peyton Place themed excursion to its Camden, Maine filming location is on my vacation wishlist. The Camden Public Library even put together a map of Peyton Place landmarks. The majority of the locations haven’t changed much since 1957. It’s the melodramatic time capsule of my dreams!

Boomer: I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see which actor I knew from their appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents or The Alfred Hitchcock Hour would appear next. I immediately recognized Mildred Dunnock (Mrs. Thornton) from her three appearances in the former program and her singular appearance in the latter, in the episodes “None Are So Blind,” “The West Warlock Time Capsule,” “Heart of Gold,” and “Beyond the Sea of Death.” Arthur Kennedy (Lucas Cross) appeared in the Hour episode “Change of Address,” Betty Field (Nellie Cross) was in the Presents episode “A Very Moral Theft” and “The Star Juror” episode of Hour, and Staats Cotsworth (Charles Partridge) had a role in Hour‘s “The Thirty-First of February.” Even Lorne Green, who will forever be the original Battlestar Galactica‘s Commander Adama to me, appeared in the Presents episode “Help Wanted.” Surprisingly, the big one was Robert H. Harris, who played Peyton Times editor Seth Bushwell: the was in no fewer than eight episodes of Presents (“Shopping for Death,” “The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby,” “The Hidden Thing,” “Toby,” “The Dangerous People,” “The Safe Place,” :Graduating Class,” and “The Greatest Monster of them All”) and an episode of Hour entitled “Consider Her Ways.”

Next month: Brandon presents Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957)

-The Swampflix Crew

Podcast #175: A Summer Place (1959) & Holiday Melodrama

Welcome to Episode #175 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Britnee, and Hanna discuss a grab bag of movies that stir up memorable moments of holiday melodrama.

00:00 Welcome

08:34 The Illusionist (2010)
12:30 And God Created Woman (1988)
18:24 Blow-Up (1966)
21:23 EO (2022)

24:15 A Summer Place (1959)
50:05 Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
1:03:50 Autumn in New York (2000)
1:20:33 Pieces of April (2003)

You can stay up to date with our podcast by subscribing on SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

– The Podcast Crew

Lagniappe Podcast: Summertime (1955)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss David Lean’s 1955 Venetian melodrama Summertime, starring a lovelorn Katharine Hepburn.

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

00:00 Welcome

03:17 First Blood (1982)
07:04 Dirty Dancing (1987)
08:56 Speed (1994)
10:00 Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
12:05 Angus T. Ambrose, Jr.
17:35 The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
19:40 Bad Ronald (1974)
26:00 The Sandlot (1993)
30:22 Downton Abbey: A New Era (2022)
32:40 Mothering Sunday (2022)
35:55 Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)
37:45 A Room with a View (1985)

42:51 Summertime (1955)

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Ema (2021)

I’m currently catching up with this year’s Oscar nominees in my down time, a shameful ritual that I mostly use as a motivational deadline for movies I planned to seek out anyway.  The Oscars can’t bully me into watching keeping-up-with-the-discourse titles like Belfast or Don’t Look Up!, since I have no personal interest in their existence beyond how they might play into this year’s ceremony.  The nominations are useful for pressuring me to seek out prestige flicks leftover from the Best of 2021 listmaking season, though, and I’ve recently enjoyed catching up with titles like Parallel Mothers, Nightmare Alley, Summer of Soul, and The Worst Person in the World since they were announced.  So far, there has only been one major disappointment in this year’s catch-up ritual: the Princess Diana biopic Spencer.  I hate to say it, because I’m generally a fan, but Kristen Stewart’s performance as Diana Spencer is the only reason it did not work for me, and it happens to be the only category the film was nominated for (Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role).  Spencer‘s retro couture, ghostly imagery, and suffocating tension are all consistently effective, but Stewart’s the anchor of every dramatic beat and it all just rings as embarrassingly phony.  It feels like a Kate McKinnon parody instead of the genuine thing.  That didn’t bother me so much when Natalie Portman channeled Jinkx Monsoon in its spiritual predecessor Jackie, but Spencer feels like it’s running away from the laidback cool of Stewart at her best, and the gamble just didn’t pay off.

What’s most frustrating about Spencer‘s dramatic disappointments is that director Pablo Larraín did deliver a stellar, accolades-worthy picture in 2021 that’s mostly going unnoticed while the inferior one’s out there chasing awards statues.  Ema would not have qualified for this year’s Academy Awards even if it were the kind of picture that institution tends to recognize (it’s far from it), since COVID derailed its distribution in a messy, years-long path from its festival run in 2019 to widely accessible screens.  I would at least have liked to see it celebrated on more critics’ Best of the Year lists, though, which tend to have a less pedantic approach to citing a film’s official release (i.e., accounting for wide distribution rather than limited screenings in elitist hubs like Cannes, Venice, New York, and LA).  Even I failed to highlight Ema as Best of 2021 material on my own modest platform, waiting to access a DVD copy as a library loan instead of spending $5 to see it VOD before weighing in on Swampflix’s Top 10 list for the year.  That DVD was eventually put on hold for me this February, and if I were re-drafting my personal Best of 2021 list again today Ema would have ranked among my top three favorites of the year (along with Titane & I Blame Society, all great films about violently transgressive women).  I can at least take solace in knowing that it ranked on Hanna’s personal Best of 2021 list for this site and, more importantly, that none of this listmaking or awards-season bullshit ultimately matters anyway.  It’s all an overly complicated movie promotion machine, a process I can sidestep at any time simply by saying this: Ema is a great movie, and I highly recommend you seek it out.

Part erotic thriller, part domestic melodrama, and part interpretive dance, Ema feels like Almodóvar doing Climax, which I mean as the highest of compliments to Larraín.  A young couple become pariahs in their Chilean town by returning their son to his adoption agency after ten months of parenting, as if they were returning a faulty home appliance.  The son’s absence haunts their household like the ghostly presences of Jackie & Diana in Larraín’s political psych-thrillers.  Only, Polo is alive & retrievable in a nearby home – adopted out to a new, more affectionate family.  Gastón (Gael García Bernal) is content to deal with the fallout of Polo’s exit by endlessly debating who was the worse parent with his wife/employee, Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo).  Ema takes a more pro-active approach to restoring order to the family, scamming her way into Polo’s new household Parasite-style and—no exaggeration—burning down half of their town with a flamethrower until she gets what she wants.  She leaves her subservient life as an anonymous member of her choreographer-husband’s avant-garde dance troupe to form a vicious girl gang who are willing to fuck, scratch, dance, and burn the world to the ground in Ema’s name.  Meanwhile, she only grows more powerful the further she drifts away from her husband’s petty criticisms of her moral character (ranging from her ineptitude as a mother to her ill-reputable taste in reggaeton dance music).  The film can only end with every character in Ema’s orbit observing her infamy in stunned silence, impressed but horrified by how much chaos she’s willing to unleash in order to get her kid back – a kid she once casually tossed away.

As the title and synopsis suggest, the film is in awe of Ema as a character more so than it is interested in the logistics of its drama.  She recalls the subversive anti-heroines of erotic thrillers past – like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, with a severe bisexual haircut to match.  It’s like being intensely horny is her superpower, a force so overwhelming it bends everyone to her fucked-up will.  Wielding a napalm-dripping flamethrower is only her second most dangerous weapon, considering how much more societal terrorism she achieves through sex (along with her harem of fellow dancers).  Ema the character is alone a spectacle to behold, and it feels like every other aspect of the film exists only in service of admiring her from different angles.  The domestic melodrama she shares with Gastón only exists to highlight her viciousness, as the doomed couple use memories of their collective failure as parents to inflict maximum pain on each other in constant emotional cheap shots.  The reggaeton & interpretive dance sequences add a lyrical exuberance to her city-wide mayhem, making it clear that she’s having fun ruining the lives of everyone around her in the relentless pursuit of her selfish goals.  Even poor Polo is only a mirror reflection of Ema’s fantastic wickedness, as his maternally inherited hedonism & pyromania are exactly what drove him back to the adoption agency in the first place.  And the flame thrower?  That just makes Ema look like a badass, like Rambo wielding a rocket launcher.

All the things I admired about Jackie & Spencer are readily present in Ema: the unbearable tension, the over-the-top costuming & theatrics, the fascination with the inner lives of Complicated Women, all of it.  The difference is that the historical drama is an inherently more restrained genre than the erotic thriller, no matter how much Larraín tries to mussy up his performance-piece biopics with arthouse mystique.  Ema is totally free to be its fabulous, fucked-up self with no respect owed to historical figures or the conventions of good taste.  It’s a shame that its distribution was so muddled by the chaos of COVID, since it at least could have earned as big of a cult following as Titane in the right circumstances (which landed on Hulu within months of winning the Palme d’Or).  I can only hope that Ema gradually cultivates that kind of following over time, and I encourage anyone who enjoyed Titane to give this sinister spectacle a shot as well; it’s the closest any film has come to besting it for my favorite release of 2021. 

-Brandon Ledet

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

In recent months I’ve been enjoying floating round in the grey area between classic noir & melodrama with a few Joan Crawford classics like Mildred Pierce and The Damned Don’t Cry.  While I still have a few more titles to visit before I abandon that track (I particularly look forward to traveling down Flamingo Road), the Gene Tierney psych-thriller Leave Her to Heaven was an excellent detour on the journey.  I don’t want to suggest that anyone but Tierney should’ve been cast in the film’s central, villainous role, but Leave Her To Heaven is the exact kind of sinister romantic obsession story that Crawford excelled at in the best of her melodramatic noirs.  The difference is that Joan would’ve gobbled up the scenery with a fiery passion, hurling cocktail glasses at the wall and clawing at her victims like a wild animal.  By contrast, Tierney is ice cold in her own femme fatale villainy – passionate in her romantic obsession, yet inhumanly ruthless in eliminating that romance’s minor obstacles.  Her red Technicolor lipstick is louder than she ever raises her voice, yet she leaves behind a shocking trail of dead as she inevitably gets her way.  It’s an entirely different mode of femme villainy than I’m used to from the genre’s more animated, expressive titans like Crawford & Stanwyck, but it’s just as stunning to watch.

A large part of Leave Her to Heaven‘s novelty within its genre is in seeing the femme fatale archetype interpreted as a Too-Dutiful Housewife, as opposed to a Sultry Seductress.  Tierney’s major crime is that she wants to spend too much time with her husband.  Well, that and the murders.  Her main crime is probably the murders.  The first act of the film is a slow-moving courtship ritual in which a bestselling author (Cornel Wilde) is allured by the charms of a fiercely independent socialite (Tierney) whose family is quietly terrified of her.  The doomed author feels compelled to position himself as her macho protector, but it’s clear from her family’s unease with the courtship that he should be protecting himself.  It isn’t until their inevitable marriage that the exact nature of that threat becomes clear.  Ferociously possessive of her husband’s time and attention, Tierney takes her newfound role as a housewife far too seriously.  She announces early on, “I have no intention of hiring a cook, or a housekeeper, or any other servants, ever.  I don’t know want anyone else but me to do anything for you.”  The husband finds this proclamation sweet, but she really means it.  Any possible distraction to their alone time—whether family, visitors, his writing, or their baby—is in danger of being obliterated by her possessive jealousy.  In becoming The Dream Wife, she’s a total fucking nightmare.

There’s a pervasive, harmful myth in modern Western culture that your romantic partner must be your Everything, that no other relationship matters once you make that all-encompassing monogamous commitment.  Leave Her To Heaven turns that expectation into something incredibly sinister, thanks largely to Tierney’s ice-queen ruthlessness.  Even when she suffers her unavoidable punishment for her transgressions under the dictums of The Hays Code, she still finds a way to weaponize that punishment and continue her campaign of preemptive revenge upon her marriage’s potential distractions.  Between its Academy Ratio framing and lush Technicolor sheen (something that was especially eye-searing on my shiny new Criterion Blu-ray), Leave Her to Heaven is dressed up in some remarkably classy Old Hollywood packaging.  Meanwhile, Tierney’s femme fatale housewife feels like she stepped out of a trashy novel from Ira Levin or Gillian Flynn.  She’s one of cinema’s greatest, most delectable monsters, and she achieves that all-timer status by dutifully following the basic tenets of modern monogamy.  As much of a sucker I am for Joan Crawford’s explosive fury in her own melodrama-noirs, I was totally won over by Tierney’s more reserved, slow-simmering resentment here.  I need to make a point to watch more of her own 1940s crime melodramas once I’m done chasing down all of Joan’s.

-Brandon Ledet

Humoresque (1946)

All year, I’ve been working my way through my 4-disc DVD set of Joan Crawford classics, packaged for department store sale by TCM about a decade ago . . . It’s generally been a personal goal to clear my pile of unwatched physical media from my shelf during the pandemic, and with the more daunting sets like this (as opposed to standalone horror schlock with no air of sophistication or prestige) I genuinely have no idea how long I’ve allowed it to collect dust on its still in-tact shrink wrap.  Three movies into the Joan Crawford set, I thought I had a grasp on the types of movies TCM was attempting to highlight with the collection: stylish noirs with a touch of romantic melodrama.  Then, I got to the final film of the set, a full-on melodrama with no interest in crime genre tropes and barely any interest in Joan herself.  I think I have a much better understanding of the inanely titled TCM Greatest Classic Legends Film Collection DVD set now; it’s just four movies Warner Bros would license to TCM for cheap that happened to share one of the studio’s biggest stars.  Basically, it’s the Old Hollywood equivalent of those Drive-In Classic 50 Movie Pack DVDs you’ll find haunting the bottom of every Wal-Mart bargain bin in the country.  The fact that all four of the Joan Crawford discs were stacked on top of each other in a single slot in the case should have tipped me off that this wasn’t a lovingly curated set with a clear, explicit theme.

Maybe going into Humoresque with expectations of seeing another stellar Joan Crawford Noir killed any chance I had of enjoying it for what it is.  Humoresque is a sweeping melodrama about a virtuoso violinist whose promising career is derailed by his obsession with a wealthy drunk socialite played by Crawford (and by his own runaway hubris).  While all the other films included in the TCM set have been stylish noirs with Crawford at the center, the much less charismatic John Garfield is the star of this picture as the troubled, romantically obsessed violinist.  Crawford still plays a kind of sultry femme fatale, but she’s more of a supporting character than the center of attention.  It’s at least a half-hour before she even appears onscreen.  There are also no crime thriller tropes to speak of despite Crawford’s framing as the femme fatale.  The movie is intensely fixated on the world of chamber music both as an industry and as an artistry.  We follow the violinist through a prolonged rags-to-riches uphill battle where he defiantly proves himself as the greatest living artist in his field, locking the rest of the world away as he hones his craft to an unmatched extreme . . . until Crawford derails his attentions.  As a result, the musical performances often overpower the film’s function as an actors’ showcase, with great attention paid to making it look as if Garfield were actually playing the violin (with a technique similar to how Sesame Street makes it look as if Weimaraners were actually eating spaghetti off a twirled fork).  And because of the context I encountered the film within, I couldn’t help but spend those scenes asking “Where’s Joan?” instead of simply enjoying the show.

Of course, Crawford does make great use of the diminished screen time she’s allowed here.  Her role as an adulterous socialite who wears old-lady glasses and downs way too much top-shelf liquor is a fun turn for the powerhouse actress, even if it’s one she could play in her sleep.  Her alcoholism affords her some moments of violent, wildly passionate outbursts and her exorbitant wealth affords her opportunities to model gowns by Adrian – which look gorgeous on her, as always.  She gets to be the life of the party, holding court over her socialite minions who bray at ever tossed-off quip she amuses herself with, like when she calls the violinist “a rare animal, a New Yorker from New York.”  She’s also painfully aware of the fact that this is not her story, that she’s only lurking at the periphery.  In the emotional climax of the film, she shouts in her young lover’s face that she’s “tired of playing second fiddle” to his art, and I totally got it.  I was tired of watching it too.  It’s in those drunken outbursts where the movie finally comes alive for me, especially once she punctuates her wildly jealous complaints by smashing her cocktail glasses in a fit.  No one can hurl a drink at the wall in anger like our gal Joan, and here she earns bonus points by throwing a second one through a closed window.  None of the film’s orchestral spectacle could match the pure ferocity of that drunken anger, and the movie could’ve used a lot more of it, centering her as the protagonist.

The good news is that there is a movie in this same TCM set where Joan Crawford is unhealthily obsessed with an (amateur) musician, and the story centers her story instead of the over-confident beau’s: 1947’s Possessed.  At this point, it’s near impossible for me to watch any of these films without comparing it to the other inclusions in the DVD set.  That’s especially true of Humoresque because it is such an outlier, both for falling entirely outside the confines of noir and for not featuring Crawford as its lead.  In that spirit, here’s a picture of what the TCM Greatest Classic Legends Film Collection looks like and a best-to-worst ranking of how much I enjoyed each title.

1. Mildred Pierce (1945)
2. The Damned Don’t Cry (1950)
3. Possessed (1947)
4. Humoresque (1946)

Watch this one last, if you bother to watch it at all.

-Brandon Ledet

The Damned Don’t Cry (1950)

There are many shades to The Joan Crawford Noir. Mildred Pierce is, of course, the crown jewel of the genre – a transcendent work that’s equal parts moody crime picture & proto-Sirkian melodrama. For its part, Possessed splits the difference between the typical Crawford noir and her future subgenre of psychobiddy thrillers, leaning into the powerhouse actor’s unmatched skills in portraying woman-on-the-verge mental unraveling. By contrast, The Damned Don’t Cry doesn’t offer much in the way of variety, novelty, or excellence in its own version of The Joan Crawford Noir. It’s a great crime thriller on its own terms, but as an entry in the genre it’s the one that relies on the Joaniest Joan, noiriest noir payoffs & tropes.

In the Damned Don’t Cry, Crawford plays a ruthless social climber whose ambition gets the best of her when she finds herself caught between two rival mobster boyfriends. It’s basically the noir version of Baby Face, except she’s sleeping her way up a nation-wide mafia network instead of a single office building (and without the pre-Code vulgarity, of course). Like all of the Crawford noirs, these events are recounted in lengthy flashbacks, with our distressed femme fatale at her lowest point looking back on the road that got her there. She’s worked her way up from abject poverty to low-level grifts & sex work to an all-powerful mafiosa – only for it all to come crumbling down with a single gunshot. Refreshingly, the movie doesn’t go as far as to condemn her for her violent, sexually charged ambition either. When looking back to her poverty-stricken beginnings after following her tawdry ascent to wealth & power, the movie basically shrugs and asks “Who could blame her? Wouldn’t you do the same if you could?”

While this does share some delicious melodrama with the much more refined, accomplished Mildred Pierce, it can only best that film in terms of its adherence to noir payoffs & tropes. The Damned Don’t Cry is soaked in the window-blinds lighting, amoral criminals, and sultry sexuality typical to noir. Most importantly, it affords Crawford plenty opportunities to indulge in the over-stylized, rapidfire dialogue of the genre, delivering one-liners like “I was about to say it was a pleasure meeting with a gentlemen, but I was wrong on both counts” and “Self-respect is something you tell yourself you’ve got when you’ve got nothing else.” Mildred Pierce is undeniably the best Crawford noir, but The Damned Don’t Cry is the noiriest Crawford noir, which is a fabulous distinction in itself.

-Brandon Ledet

Possessed (1947)

As far as Joan Crawford noirs go, it’s unlikely there are any hidden gems left to discover that are going to top the glorious heights of Mildred Pierce. Likewise, Crawford’s turn as an axe-wielding maniac in William Castle’s Strait-Jacket is untoppable as her genre-defining work in the psychobiddy canon, Baby Jane included. What the 1947 mental breakdown melodrama Possessed offers, however, is the unique experience of enjoying both of those distinctly delicious Joan Crawford flavors at once. Possessed is pretty much a trial run for Crawford’s over-the-top psychobiddy era, except that it’s dressed up in handsome, finely crafted noir clothing. By which I mean it’s great (even if it’s not the best example of either genre).

In Possessed, Crawford is a live-in nurse whose obsession with a nearby, unexceptional fuckboy drives her to a frayed, near-catatonic state. She starts the movie wandering the streets of Los Angeles in a daze, mumbling the fuckboy’s name over & over to herself, unsure of how she got there and what crimes of passion she may have committed along the way (a stuporous intro later echoed in Ida Lupino’s teen pregnancy melodrama Not Wanted). While undergoing several layers of Freudian analysis that diagnoses her as A Frustrated Woman, she tells her story of unrequited love & violent revenge to men in lab coats who nod in feigned concern. While caring for a wealthy but suicidally depressed patient as a live-in caretaker, Crawford had fallen hopelessly, obsessively in love with her patient’s womanizing neighbor, who rejects her after an intense but brief sexual fling. Her schemes to hold onto his time & affection after their abrupt break-up escalate in increasingly mad, unhinged stabs of jealousy, ultimately resulting in her hospitalization and possible arrest for violent criminal acts.

The stark shadows, howling winds & rain, and overwritten dialogue like “I seldom hit a woman, but if you don’t leave me alone I’ll wind up kicking babies” all firmly land Possessed within the realm of noir. Even Crawford’s maddening obsession with her playboy neighbor is like a gender-flipped variation on the femme fatale trope, where attraction to an aloof, mysterious figure leads our anti-hero to great personal peril. It’s a perverse pleasure, then, to see Crawford act out a prototype of her late-career psychobiddy roles here as a woman on the verge. She’s an unreliable narrator to her own story, one whose hallucinations combine with the noir lighting to create a kind of J-horror ghost story effect, wherein she’s haunted by her own paranoid delusions & urges to kill as relief for her pent-up sexual frustrations. Possessed can’t offer the pitch-perfect melodrama of Mildred Pierce nor the deliciously over-the-top axe murders of Strait-Jacket, but Crawford’s crazed performance bridges the gap between those disparate ends of her career, and it’s a convergence well worth seeking out.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #116 of The Swampflix Podcast: All About Almodóvar

Welcome to Episode #116 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon and Hanna continue their Movie of the Month conversation about Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) by discussing the career highs of provocateur director Pedro Almodóvar. They particularly focus on his award-winning hot streak between All About My Mother (1999) and Volver (2006).

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-Hanna Räsänen and Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Hanna made Boomer,  Britnee, and Brandon watch Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988).

Hanna: Sometimes the universe has to shove you into art before you’ll pay any attention to it; this was the case with me and Pedro Almodóvar. I vaguely remember my mother talking about Broken Embraces and admiring Penélope Cruz on the poppy-covered poster for Volver when I was a teenager, and The Skin I Live In floated across my radar when I was in the habit of seeking out macabre media as a protest against the Midwestern values of Minnesota, but for some reason I wasn’t compelled to watch any of those movies. I didn’t see an Almodóvar film until my first year of college, by force, in my Spanish Media class; that film was Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), and it shoved me (very happily) into the Almodóvar canon.

The primary Woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown is Pepa Marcos (Carmen Maura), a TV actress and film dubber. Her ex-lover and co-dubber, Ivan—an older, spineless lech with a mahogany voice—left her a week ago; he is going on a trip (with another woman), and is asking her to pack him a suitcase. Pepa is inconsolable. She wolfs down sleeping pills, spiking her gazpacho with barbiturates. She sleeps through the alarms of the 30-odd clocks littered around her apartment. She accidentally lights her bed on fire. She leaves Ivan desperate voicemails, insisting that she has something important that they need to discuss and becoming increasingly irate. No matter what Pepa does, she is always just catching up to Ivan’s ghost: finding that he left the studio a minute before she arrives, or that he called her apartment just before she walked in the door. When the phone does ring for Pepa, Ivan is never on the other line. Eventually, through a series of fraught coincidences, chaos seeps into Pepa’s apartment through her friend Candela, Ivan’s ex-wife Lucía, Ivan’s son Carlos, and Carlos’s fiancée Marisa, shattering the spell of her obsessive despair over Ivan.

Of the Almodóvar films I’ve seen, Women on the Verge is probably the lightest fare – the least political, the least subversive, and the least confessional. It never seems to bubble over in the way that madcap comedies usually do, even in its final stretch (which is still, in my opinion, a jaunty little thrill ride). Regardless, there is something about this film that totally entrances me. First of all, for being a breezy, highly stylized black-comedy melodrama, Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was confoundingly successful; it was the highest-grossing Spanish film of all time when it was released and is still Almodóvar’s 4th highest grossing film (not adjusting for inflation, which would boost it up even higher). The cinematography is characteristically gorgeous, tactile and vibrant, and some of the images are still splintered into my brain from the first watch (specifically, the scenes of Pepa and Ivan dubbing Johnny Guitar and Pepa looking out of her apartment through that huge slatted peephole). I’m consistently delighted by the film’s comic serendipity: the near-misses, close calls, and coincidental injuries (shoes and records are the universe’s guided missiles, launched unintentionally by people in fits of rage or despair). If nothing else, this movie has given me the Mambo Taxi driver, one of the purest and most absurd characters in cinema; his attention to the provisions of amenities in his taxi was genuinely touching.

One of my favorite things about Almodóvar is his embrace of multiple genres; he has touched comedy, drama, autobiography, and horror, and his films are usually a chaotic blend of two or three. In the case of Women on the Verge, I do think the comic elements could have been pushed even further. Britnee, what did you think about the balance of comedy and drama in Women on the Verge? Did the tone work for you, or do you wish the film had pushed more in one direction or the other?

Britnee: Right now, we are all living in a pretty dark world, and my primary escape from all the insanity has been reality TV and, of course, movies. For some reason, I’ve been finding myself binging old made-for-TV Lifetime films with pretty intense plots. While I thought these films were helping me unwind and relax, I was actually subconsciously adding to my already high stress levels. Women on the Verge basically got me out of this horrible funk because of it’s wonderful blend of the drama that I crave while giving me the light comedy that I so desperately needed. From the Mambo Taxi driver (“Thank You For Smoking”) to Candela’s moka pot earrings, there are many eccentricities sprinkled throughout the film that brought me so much joy and laughter. And don’t even get my started on how much I loved that kitschy apartment setup! I definitely think Women on the Verge leans more towards being a comedy than a drama, but I actually admire how it holds back from going too far in a comic direction. It somehow makes all the funny moments more special and memorable.

Pepa is constantly surrounded by the mysterious Ivan, be it through the many characters who pop up in her life who have various connections to him or through her own obsession with finding him to tell him “something.” The drama that Ivan brings into her life without him actually physically being a part of her life is the kind of drama that I find fascinating. Boomer, do you think the film would have benefited from having Ivan physically appear in more scenes? Like, if there were even more scenes that focused on what Ivan was up to while Pepa was going through all of her apartment-contained insanity?

Boomer: I prefer Ivan as—as Hanna puts it—a ghost in the film. There’s something so smarmy and gross about him, from the way he distances himself emotionally from his son and his lover by giving them autographed photos as if they were fans, to his callous movement from one lover to the next with careless disregard for the damage he leaves in his wake, to his uneven application of secrecy (Pepa clearly never knew about Lucía or Carlos, indicating that Ivan intentionally hid the fact that he was a divorced father, while Paulina Morales clearly knows who Pepa is from the moment the latter walks into the former’s office, treating her with open hostility). He’s such a cad that he has no shame about asking his former lover to pack a suitcase for him but can’t face her in order to collect it. The fact that, as you mentioned, he brings so much drama into the piece without being present for much of it is part of the fun for me. He’s mysterious: a clear heel in every way, and yet able to be such a focal point of the attention of women are all too good for him, but who find themselves caught in his wake against their better judgment. If there was one thing that I wanted more of, however, it was Pepa’s role as the mother of the Crossroads Killer in her TV show. What is that program even about?

Brandon, you and I have spoken in the past about the relationship between comedy and mystery and how they both occupy the same kind of space in the mind: the set-up of joke and punchline is not entirely dissimilar from mystery and revelation, and there’s actually a fair amount of that at play here. Although this is first and foremost a comedy, the mystery element (who is Ivan going away with?) is still omnipresent. The relationship between planting and payoff may have its most triumphant example on film here, as we first see Ivan dubbing over Sterling Hayden’s voice in Johnny Guitar while we can’t hear Joan Crawford’s dialogue at all, only to later see Pepa in the studio performing her half of the scene, not against silence as Ivan had, but against his voice. Even in this, he is a ghost. What were your two favorite planting-and-payoff revelations here, comedic and mysterious?

Brandon: I love the idea of breaking this film down into individual moments & punchlines, because it’s practically a feature-length pilot for a sitcom.  I could happily watch these characters burst into & out of Pepa’s candy-coated apartment forever, even if they were dealing with more mundane day-to-day conflicts than the high-stakes farce staged here.  It’s comforting to know that Almodóvar heavily reuses the same actors & crew for most of his pictures, because it was heartbreaking to leave these outrageous women behind just because the credits rolled.  Ivan, I could live without.  If he were made to be even more of a ghost and was only talked about but never shown, the movie would have worked just was well.

My favorite payoffs—both comedic and mysterious—resulted from the Hitchcockian tension of the poisoned gazpacho.  When Pepa first loads Chekhov’s Blender with gazpacho & sleeping pills, her intentions are opaque.  She’s distraught enough over Ivan’s infidelity that it appears she’s planning to kill herself in a deliciously complex manner, but it’s later revealed to be a long-game murder attempt (Ivan loves gazpacho).  Instead of either tragedy unfolding as planned, the gazpacho litters Pepa’s apartment with the unconscious bodies of an exponential number of hungry fools who sneak a taste: first Carlos’s bratty girlfriend (the fascinating-looking Rossy de Palma), then the meathead cops who seek to bust Pepa’s naïve bestie, then practically every other character on the cast list in a giant impromptu slumber party.  It’s a hilariously wholesome escalation of a plot point that first promised to be nastily lethal (although delicious).

My other favorite payoff is more aesthetic & superficial: the matter-of-fact presentation of this world’s surreal artificiality.  The exterior shots of Pepa’s apartment building are represented in fake, plastic miniatures, and the skyline outside her apartment is an old-school painted backdrop.  Given her work at a movie studio, you’d expect those images to be a winking joke that the movie pulls away from to reveal the “real” world behind that artifice.  Instead, they’re just allowed to exist on screen as-is, entirely matter-of-fact.  I found that choice just as rewardingly delightful as any of the madcap complexities of the plot.  There are many comedies that are just as funny as Women on the Verge, but there are very few, if any, that look this fabulous.

Lagniappe

Britnee: I had no idea who Rossy de Palma was until I watched this movie, and I am totally obsessed with her now. She is mesmerizing!  I am especially loving the photos from her modeling career. The looks she served when wearing Thierry Mugler are absolutely stunning. Also, she apparently makes an appearance in Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter, which I’m pretty excited to watch now.

Boomer: My absolute favorite bit was Pepa’s laundry commercial. It’s just so perfect: the self-identification as the Crossroads Killer’s mother, her presentation of the detergent, the reaction of the cops to the lack of viscera on her son’s freshly washed clothing. Just ::chef’s kiss::.

Brandon: This might be my favorite Almodóvar movie I’ve seen to date, mostly because it’s fully immersed in the things he excels at best (Gorgeous Artifice & Complex Women) while also sidestepping a lot of the darker, more violent tones of his work (which is an odd thing to say about a movie that occasionally dabbles in murder & suicide).  It’s a perfectly constructed little screwball comedy throwback populated by wonderfully over-the-top women and set in a world so beautifully artificial it’s practically Pee-wee’s Playhouse. It’s perfect.

Hanna: Almodóvar has said that women make the best characters, and he absolutely delivers that here. We have deranged women, compassionate women, cruel women, calculating women, funny women, tired women, angry women, all revolving around one barely-present man who doesn’t deserve their attention. If this movie were made in the US, I think Pepa would have ended up with some doting hunk in the end; instead she burns her bed, reclaims her beautiful loft apartment, and moves on with her life. Glorious.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
October: Brandon presents Monster Brawl (2011)
November: Boomer presents Passion Fish (1992)
December: Britnee presents Salome’s Last Dance (1988)

-The Swampflix Crew