The Mary Astor Blogathon: The Palm Beach Story and Act Of Violence
This post is part of the Mary Astor Blogathon, running from May 3-10, co-hosted by Ruth Kerr (Silver Screenings) and my friend Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci (Tales of the Easily Distracted). I’d like to thank them for giving me the opportunity to participate, even though I don’t blog as much as I should.
In his qualified rave of Preston Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek for Time, James Agee said the film, and Sturges, deserved credit for giving “the slick, growing genteelism of U.S. cinema the roughest and healthiest shaking up it has had since the disease became serious” (his initial review for The Nation, while likewise filled with reservations, also praises the film for this, and deplores “that terrible softening, solemnity, and idealization which, increasing over several years, has all but put and end to the output and intake of good moving pictures in this country”). In my post on Four Daughters, I mentioned how James Harvey, in his book Movie Love in the ’50’s, deplored this trend as well (I didn’t mention it, but he also discussed this in his previous book, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood; From Lubitsch to Sturges). It’s not that there weren’t movies, and actors, of this nature in the 30’s – like the Andy Hardy films or the follow-ups to Four Daughters – but they were balanced by the more anarchic, and fun, tendencies of the screwball comedy, the comedies of people like the Marx Brothers (until they came to MGM) and W.C. Fields, and the best gangster and horror films (westerns didn’t start coming into their own until Destry Rides Again and Stagecoach at the end of the decade). Agee was certainly protesting too much when he deplored the state of Hollywood in the early-to-mid 40’s – after all, that decade brought us such classics as The Shop Around the Corner, Casablanca, and Now Voyager, directors such as John Huston, Elia Kazan, Sturges, Orson Welles and Billy Wilder made their start (while old pros such as Ford, Hawks and Wyler were still going pretty strong), and film noir and documentary-like crime dramas came into their own. But Agee was certainly on the mark when he deplored the genteelism of the decade. Part of this, of course, was due to the war that broke out, and what may have seemed funny or at least harmless in the previous decade might have been considered dangerous in the 40’s (in that light, it’s still amazing, years later, both The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Sturges’ later satire Hail the Conquering Hero were even made, much less released). And part of it, as always, was the enforcement of the Production Code in regards to content (not that there weren’t films in the 40’s that tried to sidestep it; anyone who’s seen The Big Sleep, for example, can attest to that). But it also seemed as if the studios, or production heads, or theater owners, simply didn’t trust movies that had been making fun of American society anymore, and wanted everything to be more “nice”.
What’s more, as Harvey points out in his books, actresses who had come out of screwball comedies or tough-talking dramas seemed to suffer most from this genteelism. After all, actresses such as Jean Arthur, Myrna Loy and Ginger Rogers had been playing characters in the 30’s whose intelligence, sophistication and wit were allowed to flourish, and were even a given, both in of themselves and also in regards to their leading men. What’s more, the characters these actresses played, whether rich or poor, were allowed to be both romantic and tough-minded, and those attributes were seen as complementing each other, rather than competing with each other. Yet in the 40’s, it seemed as if these actresses were no longer allowed to have these attributes (except for people like Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck, who weren’t so easily contained), and were often asked to play either “nicer” roles, or were playing an idealized version of traditional roles that didn’t allow much room for intelligence or personality.
Which leads me to Mary Astor. Astor, who made her film debut in 1921 at the age of 14, wasn’t as big a star in the 30’s as others were, but she had an interesting and varied career, playing everything from the niece of a murdered man in The Kennel Murder Case, to the unworldly but refined woman Clark Gable becomes attracted to in Red Dust, to the ultimately shallow other sister in the original sound version of Holiday, to the sympathetic “other” woman in Dodsworth, and the jealous wife of a playboy in Midnight, among other roles. 1941 was arguably her greatest success professionally; not only did she appear in the seminal detective film/film noir The Maltese Falcon, but she also won her only Oscar (for Best Supporting Actress) as a concert pianist competing with Bette Davis for George Brent in The Great Lie (ironically, Astor and Davis were very good friends in real life). However, her career declined in the 40’s. To be fair, Astor’s offscreen troubles may not have helped; she was an alcoholic until finally kicking the habit in 1949, both of her parents died in the 40’s, and like many other actors in Hollywood then (and now), she had a somewhat turbulent personal life (though her main “scandal” – an affair with playwright George S. Kaufman while she was still married – happened in the 30’s). Also, according to her book A Life in Film, she never chased stardom the way other actors of her time did (and sardonically noted an actor’s life in Hollywood with what she called the five stages of their career: “Who’s Mary Astor, get me Mary Astor, get me a Mary Astor type, get me a young Mary Astor, and who’s Mary Astor?”). Still, when she signed a seven-year contract with MGM in 1942 (not long after reuniting with her Maltese Falcon director – John Huston – and co-stars Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet for the WWII thriller Across the Pacific), she was mostly cast as MGM’s idea of mothers, roles which were usually written as one-dimensional (with the exception of Meet Me in St. Louis, where her character is as interesting and distinctive as everyone else), which caused her to leave the studio after her contract ran out in 1949. Still, Astor managed to find some interesting roles in that time, and the two that were most memorable for me (along with The Maltese Falcon and Meet Me in St. Louis) were her supporting roles in Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story (1942) and Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence (1948).
If the term “meta” had been around in the 1940’s, The Palm Beach Story would have been considered a meta screwball comedy. Sturges doesn’t spoof the genre’s conventions (as, say, Hope/Crosby films spoofed adventure films), but rather, stretches them out and turns them on their head. This is the type of film where Gerry (Claudette Colbert), the heroine, asks a cab driver (Frank Faylen) to take her to Penn Station even though she doesn’t have any money for the fare, and he says, “Sure, hop in”. Gerry is married to Tom (Joel McCrea), an inventor who’s having a tough time getting funding for his latest idea (an airport that stretches over the city). Gerry loves Tom (and is also turned on by him), but she doesn’t feel she’s good for him. She can’t do anything a “traditional” wife can do (sew, clean, cook), and any time she tries to charm a man into helping Jerry (as she tells Jerry, “You have no idea what a long-legged woman can do without doing anything”), he gets jealous and wants to punch the guy in the nose. So, the morning the Wienie King (Robert Dudley) gives her enough money to pay the bills – he came by to rent the apartment, but ended up wanting to help Gerry instead – Gerry flees, and decides to go down to Palm Beach to get a divorce. She gets on a train thanks to the Ale and Quail Club (featuring several of Sturges’ favorite character actors, including Jimmy Conlin, William Demarest and Robert Greig), which graciously pays her way, but when their idea of fun proves to be shooting up the train, she runs away to the next car, and encounters John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), a millionaire tycoon who accompanies her to Florida (he lives there). Tom, of course, isn’t willing to give up that easily, and flies down to meet her.
That’s where Astor comes in. She plays Maude, aka Princess Centamillia, Hackensacker’s sister. Maude is man-crazy (she’s been married and divorced several times – “I’ll marry anybody!”), and is currently being followed by a man of unknown origin named Toto (Sig Arno), a foreign refugee (“from his creditors, I think,” Maude guesses) who is somewhat reminiscent of the Mischa Auer character in My Man Godfrey, though in this case, Maude is completely indifferent to him (the only English words he seems to know are “Greetings”, “Yitz” and “Nitz”). When Gerry sees Tom and tries to pass him off as her brother (with the unfortunate name of “Captain McGloo”), Maude immediately sets her sights, and charms, on him. She’s puzzled he doesn’t respond at first (naturally, since he still wants Gerry back), but undaunted (she tells Tom, “I grow on people. Like moss”). Even when she finds out Tom is really married to Gerry, she takes it in stride (“I thought I was losing my grip!”), especially when she hears about the alternative (which I won’t spoil).
Sturges had a knack, and fondness, for combining high and low comedy, and along with Vallee, Astor’s character represents the high part of the equation. She almost sounds like someone out of an Oscar Wilde play (when Hackensacker says she shouldn’t marry someone she just met, she replies, “But that’s the only way, dear. If you get to know too much about them you’d never marry them”), and that does nothing to distract from her sexiness. In fact, for her, like Gerry, sexiness – or rather, sex – is entirely the point; when Tom asks her at one point, “Don’t you ever talk about anything but Topic A?”, she replies, “Is there anything else?” At the same time, she’s teasing and affectionate to her brother (and vice versa), and genuinely happy for him when he becomes smitten with Gerry (and she’s welcoming of Gerry as well). You could argue, of course, Maude is nothing more than a one-joke character, but what a funny (and sexy) joke she turns out to be. Besides, just as Sturges’ film in general is, as I said earlier, a twisting around of the romantic screwball comedy, Maude is a neat twist on the heiress characters that populate those type of films; she may have gone through a lot of men in her life, but she doesn’t worry about it at all. And while Astor doesn’t get a chance to show much variety in the performance, she shows crack comic timing, and is also able to keep up with the breathlessness of Sturges’ dialogue. Astor, of course, is far from the only reason The Palm Beach Story works so well (Sturges’ writing, some spectacular set pieces – including the Ale and Quail Club shooting up the train – and the performances of Colbert, McCrea and Vallee), and she doesn’t even enter the film until about 2/3 of the way in, but she makes all of her time count.
Within a certain segment of critics, both at the time and today, Fred Zinnemann is considered little more than a director of what Manny Farber once derisively called “elephant art”, or what today would be called “Oscar bait”. And given the fact he’s not only directed two Best Picture winners (From Here to Eternity in 1953 and A Man for All Seasons in 1966), but won Best Director for both of them (and also won for directing Benjy, a documentary short, in 1950), and has directed other Best Picture nominees (High Noon, The Nun’s Story, The Sundowners, and Julia), the “Oscar bait” part would especially seem to be true today. Also, along with “elephant art”, anyone who is known for directing “humanist” pictures also comes under suspicion in certain critical quarters, then and now. It’s true Zinnemann hasn’t always escaped being heavy-handed (I’m not the biggest fan of A Man for All Seasons or Julia), but I do think part of the knock against him, aside from the “humanist” label, is the fact he tries to serve the script first, which again is a no-no in certain critical quarters. Certainly, Zinnemann has a strong visual sense, as such movies as High Noon, From Here to Eternity, Oklahoma! and The Day of the Jackal demonstrate. And one of his earliest features, Act of Violence, also shows off this visual sense, while being consistent with his concerns with the human condition.
At heart, Act of Violence is a revenge story, but as Zinnemann explained in an interview he did with the American Film Institute in 1984:
“I feel that the fact that somebody shoots a gun is of no interest. What I want to know is why he shoots it and what the consequences are – which means that external action is less important than the inner motive through which you get to know what the person’s about.”
In this case, the man holding the gun is Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan). Parkson is a WWII vet who’s traveled from New York to Los Angeles for one reason and one reason only; to kill Frank Enley (Van Heflin). Enley was Parkson’s commanding officer in the army, and they flew on several missions together until they and several others were shot down, and they ended up in a Nazi prison camp. What happened in that camp so enraged Parkson that he’s become bitter and single-minded; not even his girlfriend Ann (Phyllis Thaxter) following him to Los Angeles can talk him out of going after Enley. Meanwhile, Enley has been living out the postwar dream; he’s in business for himself as a land developer (business was good after the war), he’s happily married to Edith (Janet Leigh), they have a two year old son, and as the film opens, he’s going on a fishing trip he’s been looking forward to. But at the lake, when Enley first hears about Parkson coming after him, he cuts the fishing trip short, runs back home, and hides. Later, when the police chase Parkson away, Enley finally confesses to his wife the truth – when Parkson and several of his fellow POWs decided to escape, not only did Enley refuse to join them (the last men who tried to do so were shot and killed by the Nazis), he also told the Nazis about the escape plan in a misguided attempt to save them, and while the others, naturally, were all killed, Parkson survived (though he walks with a limp). Enley then goes to a trader’s convention, but Parkson follows him there; Enley manages to punch Parkson out and flees, wandering the lonely city streets at night.
It’s in a dead end bar (that’s about to close) on one of those lonely streets that Enley meets Pat (Mary Astor), a “prostitute” (naturally, under the Production Code, they weren’t allowed to call her that) who sees he’s in distress and offers to buy him a drink (the bartender says no, as he’s about to close, but she’s a good enough customer she prevails upon him). Enley turns down the drink and ends up fleeing the bar, but Pat catches up to him and takes him back to her place. When Enley unburdens himself and tells Pat his story, she takes him to an even shadier, all-night bar, to meet Gavery (Taylor Holmes), a fixer she knows. Gavery is perfectly willing to help – especially when he learns from Pat that Enley has a business worth $20,000 – and calls on Johnny (Berry Kroeger), a hired thug, to “talk” to Parkson. However, even though Enley is drunk and feeling overwhelmed, he’s not sure he wants to go that far.
When Pat tries to get Enley to talk, she assumes his troubles have to do with either love or money, troubles that would feel right at home in a film noir; indeed Zinnemann and cinematographer Robert Surtees (who went on to shoot Oklahoma! for Zinnemann, as well as such films as Ben-Hur, The Graduate and The Last Picture Show) use several of the visual hallmarks of a noir, including low-key lighting and location shooting (though not too many low or wide-angle shots, if memory serves). However, instead of what became known as the classic noir story, Zinnemann and writer Robert L. Richards (adapting a story by Collier Young) inject a tale of a man trying to escape his guilty past (as well as dealing with the effects of WWII, a theme Zinnemann had dealt with before – The Search – and would again – The Men) into what, again, seems like a simple revenge tale. There’s no women leading the men astray here – of the three women characters, Ann and Edith are complete innocents, and while Pat isn’t, she tries to talk Enley out of going along with Johnny’s plan. And even the ending (which I won’t reveal) goes counter to what you’d expect in a noir type of film.
As with The Palm Beach Story, Astor doesn’t show up until about 2/3 of the way through the film (other than that, the only other thing both films have in common is neither of them run more than 90 minutes), but she makes the most of her time. Unlike Maude (and unlike most of Astor’s roles, from what I’ve seen), her hair is kept down and long, but while Maud’s life is an open book, Pat’s is pretty closed. We know she’s not a person of means, but she’s also wise to the world (even beyond the fact she knows people like Gavery and Johnny). And while she ultimately wants nothing to do with anything Johnny is planning, she’s far from being the typical “hooker with the heart of gold” stereotype; she expects Enley to leave her apartment after he’s been there only a day, and she also wants him to pay for his stay. Also, unlike Maude’s witticisms, Pat speaks clearly and plainly. Without ever condescending to her, Astor manages to play Pat just as clearly and plainly as her character talks, and she lends both authenticity to the film and a counterpoint to the innocence of Ann and Edith (Thaxter and Leigh, admittedly, don’t have as much to work with). Zinnemann and Richards make the mistake of being too on-the-nose at times, but otherwise, this is a terrific drama.
After two more films for MGM, Any Number Can Play and the 1949 version of Little Women (which reunited her with Leigh; also, for Astor, playing Marmee, yet another one-dimensional caricature of a mother, was the last straw), Astor left MGM. Like many actors of her time, she worked in television (as well as theater), with an occasional film job (A Kiss Before Dying), until her last role in Robert Aldrich’s 1964 horror film Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, co-starring her friend Davis), and then retirement. In the meantime, Astor had also finally stopped drinking, and also turned to writing, penning two memoirs (one about her life in general, one about her film career) and several novels. In the meantime, the “creeping genteelism” Agee and other critics had derided continued (as well as the genres that sprung up in reaction to it, including film noir), and as Harvey and other writers have pointed out, Hollywood studios seemed to embrace more and more actresses who were more girlish and less womanly. Granted, this is a practice that had been around even during the 30’s, and has continued since. And it’s also important to remember how good some of these actresses Harvey dismisses as “starlets” – Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Leigh, Shirley MacLaine, Marilyn Monroe – were when they got their chance to show their talents. Still, it’s a shame that Hollywood, then and now, has continued, since the 30’s, with some exceptions, to find actresses like Astor less interesting, especially as they got older. At least Astor was able to make her mark late in her career with her performances in these two films.