King Vidor’s first film for the newly created Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Wine of Youth lulls the viewer into a comfortable rhythm with its Jazz Age jocularity–and then rips the skin off its “comedy of manners” facade to expose the capillaries of a culture in (perennial) crisis. Perry Miller famously described Transcendentalism as “the first of a succession of revolts by the youth of America against American Philistinism.” Wine of Youth tracks yet another of those tidal movements within the sea of sea-changes that is the American social scene.
The “Wine of Youth” in question is pressed from the soul of our protagonist by the impossibly conflicting demands of “authenticity” and “self-authorization” (call it “will”, if you will). It’s an intoxicating (that means “poisonous”, y’know!) paradox–we equate “freedom” with “choice”, when, in fact, every choice is the abrogation of freedom. Vidor’s film follows one “flaming youth’s” flickering awareness of this phenomenological fact. The person in question–the amazing Eleanor Boardman (in the first of a string of King films–culminating with The Crowd):
The film introduces us to a series of three Marys (each of whom, we are asked to believe, represents the “typical” young woman of her generation). Mary I (destined to become “Granny” in the present-day portion of the film) is shown careening toward marriage to the tune of a polka, sometime during the 1870s. Twenty years later, Mary II (aka “Mom”) waltzes to a similar fate–although not before she voices a few concerns about the ersatz quality of love that is “merely declared.” These quibbles come to naught when Mary II’s beau puts his lips to more convincing use, causing her to exclaim “ours is the greatest love the world has ever known!” These events lead directly to the creation of Mary III–who enters the story with some very definite ideas about indefiniteness:
Will our protagonist emerge from the film with her protean agon intact? Well, as you might expect, no. However, her journey toward the terminus is handled in such a way that we cannot but assume that the terminal case made by “THE END” will inevitably be reopened at some future date–and that Mary IV, whomever she proves to be, can expect a subpoena circa 1945.
Mary III (we’ll just call her “Mary” from now on, since she’s the one in the spotlight) has 2 suitors (“and she ain’t ashamed”)–Ben Lyon (Mr. Serious) and William Haines (Mr. Callow). Boardman’s knowing performance communicates the fact Mary is aware that this specious “choice” is no choice at all. What she really wants is the freedom to throw herself into the social whirl without being courted all of the time. Unfortunately (for her!), her sultry skepticism pokes an eye in even the most powerful storm, creating a pocket of pure pensiveness in the midst of these Fitzgeraldian frolics:
Mary knows that “flapping” isn’t freedom–but she longs to take flight. After a lot of tame bourgeois shenanigans, she hits upon a plan–she and her 2 guys will take a “trial honeymoon” (free of societal pressure and matrimonial maneuvering), in order to forge a more “authentic” understanding of each other. Natually, this shocks Mary I
Once Mary III (I guess we need the numbers back after all) leaves the stage, her two elders have it out in an exchange which culminates (after Granny claims that Boardman is “in danger”) in these very Thoreauvian echoes of Walden‘s “lives of quiet desperation”:
Certainly NOT by making a chastely illicit run up to the country, no matter what illusions those gusts of open road might conjure up:
The film quickly disabuses its heroine and its viewers of the notion that freedom is so easily won. Soon after the group hits the beach, Lyon gets sulky and Haines gets pervy, leaving Mary in a state of, uh, consternation?
She quickly realizes that the dread “society” cannot be escaped–it can only be confronted… and not head-on either, but rather “aversively” (as Emerson and Stanley Cavell would say). Turn your back on “society” and it’ll assault you in your tent (as Haines attempts to do!) Try to “face” it and all you’ll get is Harpo Marx playing “mirror”. The best we can do is fight our way unclear to a vantage upon the world informed by equal parts Rapid Eye Movement and sidelong glance.
So Mary fakes an attack of appendicitis and goes home–and this is where Wine of Youth gets really interesting. Discovering that everyone is out looking for her, Mary is amused until she hears the angry rumble of the family’s return. She hides in a closet and grabs a ringside seat (alongside the viewer) at one of the most upsetting conjugal disputes this side of Alice Adams, It’s a Wonderful Life or Woman Under the Influence. Mary’s delinquency provides the spark which ignites a very desiccated marriage. During the next few minutes, this goofy lark of a film turns deadly serious, with Mom (played by the intense Eulalie Jensen) unleashing every poisonous postscript she’d been withholding since the day she made her own “choice”. Near the end of the battle, which simply must be seen to be understood, Mom tells Dad that she’d like to kill him with her bare hands. The pantomime might look a tad silly in a still–however, in motion, it scorches “abject despair” into the sign lexicon.
When Mary emerges from her cache to fling the enormity of her parents’ lifelong deception into their faces, they make a valiant effort to rewrite the story by contorting themselves into a warped imposture of “family feeling”:
Of course, in Mary II’s own long-ago words–“love” cannot be called into being by fiat. This declaration of dependence upon one another–an act of willful reinvention that makes a mockery of any and all notions of “authenticity”–fails to convince Mary III
But the crazy thing is that–after a melodramatic McGuffin involving a bottle of poison that never quite gets swallowed–Mary II and Dad actually discover that they HAVE talked themselves into something like a state of passion for one another. Their tale concludes in a manner that, in many ways, anticipates Stanley Cavell’s “comedy of remarriage” genre! Meanwhile, a strangely dutiful Mary III (inspired by a willful urge to rewrite her parents’ story by claiming it as her own–and attempting to call the placid relationship she had dreamed of rebelling against into “genuine” being? With no coherent “American Dream” to dream against–the revolt against philistinism collapses?) trudges back to the suitor who didn’t try to attack her on the honeymoon and, pretty much by default, throws herself “completely” into the throes of a purely rhetorical “grand passion” that builds the bourgeois sepulcher she grew up wanting to tear down (if she could only fix its position). Her (and the film’s) final words?
next time–The Big Parade!
good night friends!