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

Not Wanted (1949)

For the first production under the company she formed with then-husband Collier Strong—The Filmmakers—Ida Lupino hired dependable B-movie workman Elmer Clifton to direct. A few days into shooting, Clifton suffered a heart attack, and Lupino stepped in to direct the film herself, uncredited for decades. Not Wanted is not the strongest film under Lupino’s guiding hand. Judging by the four titles in Kino Lorber’s recent Ida Lupino boxset (alongside The Hitch-Hiker, The Bigamist, and Never Fear), it may in fact be the weakest. Lupino felt much more personally engaged with the themes of her first credited directorial work to follow, Never Fear, than she does in Not Wanted, and her skills as a visual stylist & commander of tension only grew from there. Still, Not Wanted is a solidly staged, thoughtfully empathetic melodrama that proves Lupino had immense talent as a director from the very beginning, suggesting that hiring company men to handle direction duties for The Filmmakers pictures was mostly a formality. She was always going to be the one in control.

In Not Wanted, an unwed teenage mother fails at making her own way in the big city after running away from home. We meet her in her darkest hour. In the opening scene, she’s arrested for snatching a stranger’s baby from its pram while aimlessly wandering city streets. Once imprisoned, she practically turns to the audience from her jail cell to announce “You’re probably wondering how I got here . . .” The rest of the film plays out in flashback, detailing the young woman’s confused romantic life caught between a tragically hip jazz pianist who doesn’t care about her as much as he pretends to and a dorky miniature trains enthusiast who’s willing to devote his entire life to her – even accepting that she’s pregnant with another man’s child. As her inevitable imprisonment suggests, this scenario does not end well. An opening title card explains that this is “a story told 100,000 times each year,” a kind of cautionary tale about how cruel life can be for young, unwed mothers. The resulting story follows a moralistic road-to-ruin template, except it sympathizes with the main character instead of trying to shame her, wagging its finger more in the direction of the social failings (mostly exploitative men & morally righteous parents) that leave her vulnerably alone in a cold, uncaring world.

Lupino sometimes reaches for surprisingly surreal moments here – particularly in the sequence where the young mother gives birth, represented in a woozy first-person POV. For the most part, though, the film builds a lot of its payoffs around the tensions & emotions of its central melodrama, allowing breathing room for Sally Forrest to make an actor’s showcase out of the lead role. That’s not especially shocking considering that Lupino started her career as an actor herself, and only formed The Filmmakers because she felt bored & underutilized while on-set watching directors run the show. Lupino eventually made a dozen feature films under the Filmmakers brand, with a major hand in writing, producing, or directing in any capacity she could get away with. Of the few I’ve seen, Not Wanted was the least exceptional in its visual artistry or its boundary-pushing moral stances (at least by today’s standards; the sympathetic portrayal of an “unwed mother” did spark minor controversy in its time). It was still wonderful to feel Lupino get excited about the craft of filmmaking from behind the camera, though, especially for a production that had to change course so soon into its shoot. It feels like she was not just willing to spring into action to save the picture, but rather that it was the only thing she wanted in life.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #115 of The Swampflix Podcast: Olivia (1951) & Lesbian Boarding School Melodramas

Welcome to Episode #115 of The Swampflix Podcast!  For this episode, Britnee & Brandon discuss three classic lesbian melodramas set at boarding schools: Olivia (1951), Mädchen in Uniform (1931), and The Children’s Hour (1961).   Enjoy!

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

– Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet

Never Fear (1949)

You might be tempted to ask for a better directorial debut from actor-turned-auteur Ida Lupino than the 1949 sudden-illness weepie Never Fear, but it would be tough to ask for a more personal one. Lupino’s first credit as a director is a well-behaved but harrowing melodrama about polio, a disease that Lupino herself had suffered early in her career as a young actor. In fact, it was being bedridden with polio (and eventually losing some mobility in her leg and hand) that inspired Lupino to develop skills as a writer & a filmmaker in the first place, as it was a harsh realization that her career as an onscreen beauty was limited & impermanent. She explained in an interview, “I realized that my life and my courage and my hopes did not lie in my body. If that body was paralyzed, my brain could still work industriously . . . If I weren’t able to act, I would be able to write. Even if I weren’t able to use a pencil or typewriter, I could dictate.” Polio was maybe too sensitive of a subject at the time of Never Fear‘s release and, thus, failed to make a splash at the box office, but Lupino fearlessly tackled it head on from a place of personal frustration & anguish that affords it cultural significance anyway.

Story wise, there’s nothing especially daring about Never Fear that you won’t find in the decades of romantic melodramas about ill, bedridden women that followed: Love Story, The Big Sick, A Walk To Remember, The Fault in Our Stars, Ice Castles, etc. In this iteration, a young dancer (Sally Forrest, who also starred in Lupino’s uncredited debut as a director Not Wanted that same year) has her career cut short by a rapidly onset case of polio that leaves her paralyzed. She gradually earns her mobility back through painful months of physical & emotional therapy, but in the meantime struggles to hold onto her hopes to maintain the love, art, and independence she knew before the disease left her unable to dance. There are about twenty minutes of puppy-love bliss shared between the dancer and her partner/choreographer before polio cuts their ambitions short. The remaining hour is a pitch-black tearjerker that threatens to break that blissful romance apart, both through the introduction of potential love interests inside & outside the hospital and through the protagonist’s self-pity that makes her believe she’s no longer worthy of her former beau’s love & devotion now that she’s not a soon-to-be-famous dancer.

This movie would be a totally standard sudden-illness “Woman’s Picture” if weren’t for the way Ida Lupino pulls from her personal experience with polio to illustrate just how isolating & embittering the disease could be. It’s impossible to not draw this extratextual comparison as we watch a young artist who’s limited by the failings of her body just as her career is taking off. While the narrative beats are uniformly familiar to its genre, the details of the dancer’s time alone in her hospital bed can be impressively, uniquely horrific in flashes. In feverish internal monologues, the dancer curses her own body for failing her and endlessly frets about how much of a burden she is on her able-bodied fiancée despite his protests to the contrary. Everyone’s optimism that she will find a way to live a fulfilling life only makes her more bitter and she shrinks within herself, frustrated and increasingly alone. At the same time, this isolation is the first opportunity she’s had in her entire life to be alone with her thoughts (with the audience as spectator), which opens her up to a newfound sense of autonomy. At the beginning of the film, she’s somewhat resentful of her dance partner/choreographer/future-husband’s control over every aspect of her life (even though she loves him dearly), and in a fucked up, roundabout way the disease gives her the first chance to make decisions for herself by herself. The film illustrates a complex, nuanced psychological portrait of someone bedridden with polio, one that arrived in theaters while the country was still suffering the darkest days of the epidemic.

Presented as a true story “photographed in the places where it happened,” Never Fear was largely filmed on-location at the Kabat-Kaiser institute in Santa Monica, CA, employing many of the facility’s live-in patients as background characters. I almost wish Lupino had pushed this proto-cinema verité approach even further and played the lead role herself, amplifying the film’s personal resonance within her own biography. If nothing else, it could have used the extra oomph her screen presence brought to The Bigamist. Forrest does a decent enough job as Lupino’s avatar to make to sell the heartbreak of her frustrated internal monologues, though, and the sudden-illness weepie genre structure is emotionally effective even if it is overly familiar. Never Fear isn’t Lupino’s best work in the director’s chair, but it is one with surprising emotional depth in her expressions of personal, professional anguish, which makes it a worthy watch for anyone interested in her one-of-a-kind career as one of the most substantial female directors in the Old Hollywood system.

-Brandon Ledet

The Bigamist (1953)

One of the ways Ida Lupino was able to make the leap from actress to director in the Old Hollywood system was by framing her work as morality tales. That way, she could get away with making the first woman-directed noir The Hitch-Hiker—a throat-hold thriller from start to end—by passing it off as a lesson on the dangers of adultery with just a few throwaway lines of dialogue. Her directorial follow-up to that chilling cult classic is much more enthusiastically committed to exploring adultery as a moralistic theme, as you can tell by its attention-grabbing title: The Bigamist. Oddly, though, The Bigamist takes a much more wishy-washy stance on the dangers of adultery than The Hitch-Hiker, even though it dwells on the act for the entirety of its runtime instead of merely evoking it in a mood-setting prologue. The Bigamist is a morality tale about adultery (through its furthest extreme in polygamy) without ever outright condemning the act as a sin. It’s an engagingly ambiguous film in terms of reading its moral compass even now—more than a half-century after its initial release—but especially so for its time.

Edmond O’Brien stars as a traveling salesman who is racked with guilt because he’s hopelessly in love with both of his wives, who live in two distant cities. Joan Fontaine co-stars as his wife of 8 years, who has settled into a business partner role as the initial romantic spark of their marriage has dulled. Ida Lupino rounds out the cast as the salesman’s wife of 8 months, a fiercely independent West Coast waitress who reignites the salesman’s lust for life. The movie is set up like a murder-mystery noir where the salesman’s discomfort around anyone digging into his personal life is meant to spark the imagination of the audience. What nefarious acts could he possibly be up to on these business trips? The answer, of course, is right there on the poster and in the title: “Edmond O’Brien is The Bigamist.” Once the full details of his double-marriage lifestyle are divulged, the movie mostly dwells on the melodrama of his predicament, focusing especially on the unbearable stress of balancing a double life. The women both get their own moments of spotlight to convey their internal anguish, but this is largely the bigamist’s story, and it’s in daring to sympathize with the lout where the movie finds its moral ambiguity.

In a lot of ways, The Bigamist feels like an inverse of (and a precursor to) Agnes Varda’s Le Bonheur, in that it takes the husband’s love for both women seriously without poking too harshly at how the women might be working overtime domestically to make his traveling Lothario lifestyle possible. If anything, the film comes across as surprisingly pro-polyamory, since it entirely builds its melodrama on the guilt & harm of the salesman’s dishonesty rather than the usual fallacy that he can’t love both women equally at once. He initially cheats out of loneliness and confesses the transgression to his first wife in plain terms, who takes the admission as a playfully sarcastic joke since he’s just not the type to do such a thing. While most of his colleagues would just hire a sex worker to satisfy that urge, this lout can’t help but fall in love with his mistress, who initially asks that he reveal nothing about his personal life outside their relationship so as not to spoilt the mood. Both of his marriages are relatively functional in their own insular realms; what eats the bigamist up on the inside are the lies necessary to maintain his cross-country rouse. That’s a bold moralistic stance to take in a Hays Code era film where the leads have to sleep in separate beds for the sake of onscreen propriety.

Of the three leads, Ida Lupino is the most electric in her role as the salesman’s second wife. According to Wikipedia, this film has been cited as the first time the female star of a Hollywood film directed her own performance, which is pretty neat but also difficult to verify without several qualifiers. What’s much easier to verify is the strange real-life melodrama that played out behind the scenes between the director and her collaborators. Lupino had recently split with her ex-husband and creative partner Collier Young, who wrote & produced The Bigamist while at the start of a new marriage with Lupino’s co-star, Joan Fontaine. In that way, the film works just as well as a relic of Hollywood gossip as it does as a morally ambiguous noir. It even accentuates that Hollywood rumor mill DNA by setting the first scene of emotional infidelity on a bus tour of famous Los Angeles movie stars’ homes – including the homes of women like Barbara Stanwyck & Jane Wyman, who could have been cast in this just as easily as Fontaine (as well as the home of Miracle on 42nd Street‘s Edmund Gwenn, who does feature heavily in the movie as the nosy adoption agency bureaucrat who initially exposes the salesman’s bigamy). It’s a nice little meta touch for a movie so unavoidably steeped in Studio Era scandal.

Even speaking in general, Ida Lupino’s life & career are inextricably tied to Old Hollywood mystique. It’s incredible that she was able to manage as interesting & high-profile of a directorial career as she did in a system designed to lock women out of that creative process entirely. The Bigamist is not quite as immediately thrilling of example of her getting away with something within that misogynist paradigm as The Hitch-Hiker, but the longer you dwell in its moral ambiguity the more it feels like a one-of-a-kind anomaly. Like all of Lupino’s films (and even the filmmaker herself), it’s a wonder that The Bigamist was allowed to exist in its time at all.

-Brandon Ledet