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Posts Tagged ‘Eleanor Boardman’

After John and Mary’s refreshing (but thoroughly culturally prescribed and signposted) “escape” into sexuality and the Sublime at Niagara Falls, the film quickly undercuts that intangible bliss by cutting back to the couple’s cramped apartment in New York City. At first, Vidor lets us believe that the honeymoon’s prophylactic effect has survived anomiespheric reentry, showing a very contented-looking John strumming away on his ukulele:

However, John’s ditty’s lyrics parse out the doomed inside/out pattern of a Victorian “separate spheres” worldview that The Crowd consigns quite unceremoniously to the dustbin of history. Popular jingles might still be peddling the illusion of a “private” realm unaffected by “publicness”; but, by the 1920s, the pedlars and publicists themselves had already done a pretty thorough job of laying down the infrastructural tracks for the rapidly dawning age of mass culture.

Indeed, El is The Crowd. It roars and rolls through all things, including the gates of John and Mary’s domestic bliss bunker, where it soon deposits the singularly superegorific Trinity of Mary’s inaccessibly hard-of-hearing mum and her two white collar stormtrooper sons:

It’s Christmas! And this evil-eyed trio comes bearing gifts of Guilt, Incensed “Frankness” and Murmur, cathechizing John re: his puling “prospects” for economic ascension. He stands trial for as long as he is able to, but the thing is, he shares their homiletic understanding of the world as a place where the good and dutiful are predestined to rise, and he’s already beginning to see himself as one of the “fallen” who isn’t likely to get up. No wonder he takes such violent exception to Mary’s repeated injunctions not to “slip”, as he slips away from the inquisitorial in-laws.

He spends the night drinking with his old office bud Bert (played by old pro Bert Roach), and stumbles home into the arms of a very understanding Mary (the title cards actually tell us that she “understands” him). Things seem destined to remain “swell”, until John spoils it by scolding Mary for “always doing something wrong” when she opens his Christmas present (an umbrella) in the house. Again and again, Vidor works against the stereotype of the “nagging” wife to show us a rapidly maturing Eleanor Boardman weighed down by her husband’s increasingly nagging self-doubt. The upshot is a radically bifurcated (and far from “swell”) flat, shot through with stark vertical lines between our protagonists:

The battle line is drawn, or: taking umbrella-age

Things get so bad that the pair reaches the threshold of divorce, before news of a more welcome intrusion from the Karmic crowd pool pulls them back from the precipice. Mary is pregnant, and for Vidor, unlike, say, for Borzage (whose works express pretty much the point of view contained in John’s doggerel tune – albeit in a far more powerfully poeticized form), there’s no tragedy in tampering with the dynamic duoism of romantic love. As the film’s rapid lesson in domestic cell division has made clear, the world inside was always already “El”. It just took John and Mary a minute or two to trip over the rails. So, yes, “three”, as they say, “is a crowd”; but then again, so was two (or one, for that matter). This film isn’t some chronicle of sovereign subjectivity (or Emersonian “individuality”) under siege. From the moment we meet him (as he emerges from the womb), John Sims IS a member of the crowd. That is to say, he’s a participant in the society that he’s born into (on the 4th of July, no less!) It’s in thinking that he is above the crowd (as when he jeers at the clown or imagines himself to be in an adversarial position vis-a-vis the rest of New York City) that John manifests the most pathological personality traits of the particular mass-mind that Vidor takes for his subject. That’s how “late capitalism” works. It blithely grants the franchise to all of its subjects, knowing (as Marx never dreamed) that a majority of them will always use it to feather the economic nest of the “winner’s circle” they see themselves sailing into, on that much-anticipated day when their ships finally come in.

And really, who can blame them, when the results of even a $500-dollar dinghy docking are so deliriously joyful?

There is no way to put into words just how wonderful this sequence is, or how much it has to tell us about the continuing (and so terribly puzzling, from a critical theorist’s point of view) appeal of the “American Dream”. When the arrival of one not-even-especially-huge check can swell four connected hearts to such epic dimensions, the socialist’s task becomes daunting indeed (and please don’t misunderstand me here — I am as thoroughgoing a socialist as you are ever likely to meet). Vidor, of course, was a socialist (or something very close to one) during this stage of his career, and he quickly steers the narrative away from nuclear bliss toward nuclear calamity, as the youngest of our family’s celebrants is cut down in the street by melodramatic vicissitude before she even gets a chance to partake of the Capitalistic Eucharist furnished by the good folks at “Sleight O’ Hand: The Magic Cleaner”.

The aftermath of this tragedy is heartbreaking to behold, as John realizes, perhaps for the first time in his life, just how implacably clamorous the group organism he belongs to (whether he acknowledges it or not) can be. The men and women on the street are certainly affected by the terrible tableau of an aggrieved father cradling his broken daughter, but (as a policeman later tells John) “the world can’t stop because your baby is sick”, and the crowd’s nocturnal avatar has moved on with its bustling life long before the little girl draws her last ragged breath within the crushed and imperfectly hushed confines of the victorious sloganeer’s flat.

John’s gradual descent into ineffectual self-pity is beautifully handled, as Vidor dramatizes his protagonist’s ironic awakening to his true position as a member of the Crowd just as he finds himself most “out of step” with its irrepressible “can do” optimism. What, John (and his director) asks, does all of this dutiful striving amount to, if scenes like this can’t be prevented?

Those numbers make me think of the bizarrely detached idealist banquet Vidor serves up in Truth and Illusion — although here, of course, they don’t add up to anything very (self-)satisfying. John quits his job, diving into a rabbit hole of despair that soon makes him a rather unfit companion for the robustly healthy Mary (Vidor the proto-feminist takes pains to show us – as in the wonderful beach scene that I could easily have rhapsodized about as well, if I hadn’t already ranted about so many other aspects of this endlessly thought-provoking film – that Mary has blossomed into a far stronger person than John will ever be). Things move quickly toward a Capraesque sequence of contemplated self-destruction, but here, as in everything else, Vidor differs quite dramatically from Capra. In the latter’s oeuvre, the hero would pull back from the tantalizing brink of self-destruction because he is needed (by his family, by his fellow citizens, by the overarching imperatives of some noble cause). Vidor’s John Sims isn’t needed. The director pulls no punches in that regard. The only thing this guy can do is juggle. Mary can easily raise Junior without any help from her erratic husband. However, he is wanted. First by his son, who joins John in the highest-stakes game of “fetch” ever committed to celluloid

… and whose radiant proclamation (“I like you”) is one of the most justly famous title cards in the history of silent film:

Mary likes him too – against her own better judgment, but perhaps all the more wholeheartedly because of that fact.

And when John accepts his long-predestined fate and becomes a self-conscious “man of the crowd” – a mass-culture clown clothed in the advertizing copy that holds consumer capitalist society together – he earns the family three tickets to the post-modern equivalent of the Victorian private sphere’s refuge from all worry and care – the audience! And here, as so often with Vidor, a sequence of shots (taking the Sims family from their pop tune jingling flat to the raucous halls of Vaudeville) can tell you so much more about the astonishingly complex nature of mass-subjecthood than any 20,000 words I might come up with. Do the benefits of spectatorial crowd-membership outweigh the costs bewailed by romantics and Frankfurt School theorists? Does the Sims family’s joyous (and comradely) acceptance of their place alongside their fellow spectators open up greater possibilities for political cooperation and group agency, or kill them forever? Is John’s concern for his neighbor an emblem of his widening empathy, or merely a shrewd prelude to a sales pitch? This is the director’s final “Sleight O’ Hand”, and no matter what answers you come up with to the questions I’ve posed, the images are indisputably magical.

Thanks for reading — and looking!

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In my series thus far, I’ve described King Vidor as the cinema’s preeminent mediator between ideality and the quotidian – a Plotinus/Montaigne (to borrow, once again, James Russell Lowell’s description of Emerson) who, through some miracle of epistemological deep focus, always manages to keep the subjective and the sociological in the shot (and without forcing a Capraesque showdown between these two seemingly incompatible perceptual modes). Nowhere is this more true than in The Crowd, a film which many consider to be his supreme achievement. Set and shot (wherever possible) within the mechanistic whirl of late-1920s New York City, The Crowd shows Vidor the 20th Century Transcendentalist truly engaging, for the first time in his career, with the realities (and the undergirding fantasies) of life in a consumer capitalist society.

Where most of Vidor’s earlier films gave us open air auteurs working within and against the constraints of their social and physical environments to shape their autobiopics on the fly, The Crowd explores the ideological foundations of “idealism”; and without, I would argue, in any way cheapening the experiences of the visionary in question (James Murray’s “John Sims”). That’s John in the film still above, poised on the first step of a double-decker streetcar, quietly contemplating the mysteries of wife-to-be Mary (Eleanor Boardman)’s ass and existence as she makes the climb in front of him.

It’s all part of an extended courtship sequence that helps to place/ensnare these people just as fully within the context/web of their society as Vidor’s more famously virtuoso camera stalk of “#137: John Sims” through the skyscraperscapes and white-collar alleys of densest, brightest America (I’ll just inundate your mind with those images right now, since I know they’re in there anyway, before getting back to John and Mary’s long date).

Vidor’s greatest feat in this film is to create a believable protagonist who is at once absolutely typical (of white middle-class masculinity, at any rate: it should never be forgotten that John belongs to a group that occupied a privileged place within his society – and continues to do so) and utterly convinced of his own atypicality (which, according to the prescient logic of the piece, is what makes him absolutely typical). John Sims is both victim and beneficiary of the American Dream (plenty of his fellow citizens weren’t deriving any benefits at all).

To borrow from the script of Frank Capra’s thematically-related (but tonally very different) 1941 masterpiece Meet John Doe, he’s “the man that all of the ads are written for”

(Later on, of course, they will be written by him — at least once

and on him — possibly for the rest of his life)

(Returning to Capra and Robert Riskin’s script) “He keeps the books” (other John Simses are flying the planes and driving the buses…)

“And when a cop yells: ‘Stand back there you!’ He means [John Sims]”

Yes, John is that elusively ubiquitous quarry of politicians, pollsters, preachers, pundits and publicists everywhere (in our “mass culture” society), the “Average Man.” The sort of guy who, in his classified personal ad (or OK Cupid profile) would undoubtedly describe himself as having “his own of way seeing things” and an “offbeat sense of humour”.

And, as the film begins, he’s about to fall in love with Ms. Average Flapper, 1928.

Their courtship is pointedly banal. He puts her in stitches with some of the least inspired comedy routines ever committed to celluloid (the ol’ smile/frown magic face eraser game), and then dazzles her with some condescending snark directed at a hapless sandwich board clown:

that’s a terrible French translation, by the way… “malin” means “scheming” or, at the very least, “crafty”

To this point in the film, Mary hasn’t done anything except laugh a bit goofily and look like Eleanor Boardman (which, admittedly, is no small thing), but somehow John finds it in his thoroughly mediated heart to utter this declaration as they glide through the balmy city air, looking down upon the masses, from the rather crowded roof of their streetcar:

Yes, this is Vidorian sociology in action. But it’s so much more than that. Unlike John, the director is not condescending to his subject. And, as cliched as their sparse dialogue is, there is no denying the reality of the bond that is growing between these characters. Time and again, during the course of this film, Vidor will surprise us by purposefully melting the icy edge of his proto-Adornian cultural critique by capturing the inarticulate warmth generated by the physical and emotional propinquity of these living, relating bodies whose title cards have been hijacked by the sloganeering cant of commercial copy. John and Mary’s montage/date plays out with the ruthless efficiency and foreordained cultural logic of something that’s been itinerized by some combination wedding planner/urban travel agent. And yet, there’s no denying that it looks like fun!

The whole sequence is a proto-Busby Berkeleyan delight – equal parts inspiration, mechanization and sniggering patriarchal glee.

It’s fantastically telling that, once the couple reaches the end of their culturally signposted journey to the honeymoon sleeping car, their romance hits a bit of snag. The pop taglines and jingles that have scored their lives to this point simply don’t describe what happens after you “neck” and “pop the question”. Simultaneously prurient and prudish, the advertizing culture of the 1920s crept as close to the sexual realm as was politically feasible, and then left the rest up to their increasingly dependent audience’s imagination.

Ah sweet liberty!

These Waldorf and Statler types know where it’s at, but when it comes to sex, John and Mary are left high and unlubricated by their mass cultural education.

Fortunately, they get their respective mojos back by tapping into the ferociously sublime “natural” energy of their era’s most ardently cherished (and prescribed) sexual metaphor: Niagara Falls. Here again, Vidor identifies a multi-layered cultural logic at work, and involves our critical faculties and emotions in the process as it unfolds. We shake our heads as they seem bent on seeing the falls merely as a chastely beautiful backdrop and then cheer as they begin to take on some of its more electrifying properties, turning the postcard “photo op” into something more akin to a “French postcard” tableau. “Naturally”, this is exactly what is supposed to happen – the brochures just can’t mention said fucking by name.

I’ll be back later in the week with Part II of my look at The Crowd. I hope you’ll join me! (And please, feel free to comment, quibble and flat out disagree with me! I’m here to converse with people!)

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Bardelys the Magnificent was King Vidor’s third John Gilbert film in a row, following on the heels of The Big Parade (1925) and La Boheme (1926), but this is the first of the three that deserves the dubious label of “star vehicle”. Based on a novel by historical romance author Rafael Sabatini (author of books that would someday be adapted into deathless classics like Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk), it’s a swashbuckling adventure in the Douglas Fairbanks tradition. Long considered a “lost film” (MGM was forced, by the terms of their agreement with Sabatini, to destroy all of their copies of the movie when their distribution rights lapsed in 1936), the piece was rediscovered (minus one reel) in a French vault a few years ago. But for my money, it’s still a lost film – or, at any rate, largely a lost opportunity for its director.

That’s not to say that it’s a bad film — far from it, in fact — but there’s not a whole lot  in Bardelys the Magnificent to suggest the guiding hand of the  cinematic Transcendentalist/feminist whose career I’ve been examining. You can’t get your way all of the time, not in Studio Age Hollywood anyway, and watching John Gilbert smile and frown and careen his way through these lush MGM sets and crowds, you can almost picture King Vidor closing his mind’s eye and thinking of The Crowd. Still, there are “Vidorian elements” to be found, if you exert yourself! I’ve argued that all of Vidor’s protagonists are “artists” of one sort or another – and usually not the sort that paints, sings, writes or dances. Call them willful visionaries if you like. Better still, call them open air directors. That description fits our Bardelys (John Gilbert), who delights in staging reality dramas for his own private amusement (with a dash of noblesse oblige in the bargain).

Case in point, the seemingly sordid little affair that takes up much of the first reel. Gilbert is introduced as a Don Juan type, a silver tongued seducer who deflects his ladies’ legitimate concerns with the formula phrase: “Dark/Fair/Red-Headed(?) Enchantress, can you doubt me?” Apparently they can’t, despite the photographic proof (see above) that, as a counterfeit lover, he isn’t exactly a method actor. He always has one eye trained on the world beyond the stage – a wise move, it would seem, in a land of irate sword-wielding husbands.

Vidor and Gilbert never ask us to take this fight seriously (look at that smile), but for two of the three people involved in the melee, it is indeed a life and death matter. The wife (our erstwhile “dark enchantress”) has (in the parlance of the times) thrown away her “honor” and the husband has had his own dignity snatched from him by a man who doesn’t even seem to have had the decency to have been genuinely present at the scene of the crime. Nor is he really inhabiting this fight scene; he’s hovering above it, making sure the actors hit their marks, trying to come up with a good dramatic twist that will save him from the boring task of executing another cuckold.

He finds it by ribaldly reinterpretating the husband’s awkward lunges as the valiant strokes of virile and worthy lover:

The husband takes this as a compliment (although he doesn’t stop lunging), and the wife jumps back on the marriage bandwagon. Soon, everyone is in on the joke, and Gilbert blesses their reunion by giving them the good-natured bum’s rush:

This is Bardelys’ solipsistic habitus at the beginning of the film. Like the Jack-Knife Man puttering away with the clocks on his barge, our privileged protagonist busies himself by toying with the delicate mechanism of 17th century French society – and he even fixes a few things, occasionally. Of course, it’s the plot’s job to force him out of this comfort zone and into a more challenging directorial assignment – and it achieves that end beautifully, due in large part to the (mostly unwitting) efforts of Roxalanne de Lavedan, whom we first meet in an appealing conference with her cat.

Played by the lustrous Eleanor Boardman (previously seen in Wine of Youth), the director clearly wants to make something interesting of this character. In a truly Vidorian piece, she would have vaulted onto center stage and stayed there. Unfortunately, that enterprise is almost completely steamrolled by the inane workings of Sabatini’s mechanistic plot (not to mention the callow logic of the Fairbanks formula itself), which thoroughly violates the integrity of Boardman’s character, reducing her to a carrot/stick to be tossed back and forth between Bardelys and his “rival in fashion and love” Chatellerault (played by the menacingly mugging Roy D’Arcy):

However, Boardman does impress in her initial scene, rebuffing the evil man’s offer of marriage with beguiling disdain:

“Will I MARRY you?”

When he threatens her family with violent reprisals (it seems they belong to the aristocratic faction that strove to oppose the consolidation of French state power under Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu during the first half of the 17th century – we’re in Three Musketeers territory here), she flashes even more of that proto-Ruby Gentry steel, replying “I had only disliked you before, now I must despise you.” Her radiant self-possession is so palpable that it sends Chatellerault reeling – quite literally, as he backs into a snarling pratfall that soon becomes the talk of a very small-minded kingdom.

Vidor’s disgust with class-ridden Europe comes across in every tittering tableau:

Only in this vapid social environment could anything as foolish as the film’s most artificial plot device have come into being. Bardelys and his pals are having a good laugh at Chatellerault’s expense, until the latter turns their jeers against them, demanding, in effect, that our protagonist put his manhood where his mouth is. Chatellerault is no great shakes with the ladies, but he knows his way around this fleur-de-lys-scented locker room, cunningly manipulating confirmed bachelor Gilbert into wagering his entire fortune that he can sweep la belle Boardman off her feet and marry her within three months. I have no idea how this scene plays out in the novel, but I suspect that Sabatini’s Bardelys is more a victim of own hubris than of peer pressure. Vidor’s film communicates a very different (and very characteristic) horror of inauthenticity, as the net of social expectation slowly ensnares Gilbert’s will. Ordered to remain at court by King Louis XIII (played by future talking equine impresario Arthur Lubin!), Gilbert exclaims: “my life is yours, Sire, but Bardelys’ honor is his own”, but the truth is something closer to the reverse. For Vidor, “honor” is a monstrous joint stock company with too many interfering ninnies on its board of directors. The rest of the movie will largely concern itself with examining the dire consequences of signing away one’s right to (as Emerson would say) “write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim”.

For me, it’s the strongest sequence in the film.

Many finely crafted scenes, detailing the misadventures of our hero as he goes undercover (as a dead anti-Bourbon leader named Lesperon) to defy the King’s orders and insinuate himself into the good graces of the rebellious De Lavedan family, follow upon its heels, but, for Vidor’s purposes, Bardelys is in prison from the moment he signs Chatellerault’s document – it just takes the plot about an hour to catch up:

During this span, Boardman doesn’t get a chance to do much more than contort her mood and her mug to suit the haphazard dictates of Sabatini’s snakes-and-ladders plot, but she and Gilbert do perform well together in a lavishly shot love scene on the river:

Those obscurantist leaves make nice stand-ins for the problematic elements of this harebrained tale, which effectively prevent Boardman from ever truly making common cause with Gilbert in his quest for subjectivity. She does launch one spirited counterstrike against the moronic exigencies of the plot, when she ambushes the still-incognito Bardelys (and the entire genre) with some impromptu sacralizing before a self-serve altar in the wilderness:

But this is a swashbuckler, not a love story, and we’d never have gotten our swordfights and derring-do if Gilbert had simply come clean with Boardman in this scene. Instead, he pulls away from her, setting into motion a chain of events that will eventually call for her to petulantly denounce Bardelys as a traitor in the presence of the King’s soldiers. This leads to an amusing courtroom scene in which Gilbert is tried for the crimes of the man he replaced en route to his rendezvous with inauthentic romance. Bardelys, it seems, isn’t magnificent enough for anyone in the court to recognize him – except, of course, for head magistrate Chatellerault, who fairly basks in his rival’s plight when the latter begs him to set this question of mistaken identity straight.

“Moi?”

 This is amusing stuff, and the saturnine D’Arcy gets a lot of mileage out of his Mephistophelean position as the contractual owner of Bardelys’ soul. Not to worry though, after a brief brush with imprisonment and an abortive ride to the gallows, our man Faust breaks loose through a series of brilliantly filmed stunts that stand in for his vertiginous escape from the hell of other peoples’ expectations.

Back in charge of his identity and his destiny, Bardelys gives the devil his due, ceding his property to Chatellerault, since it is the latter who has managed to marry Roxalanne (she accepts his second proposal in exchange for his false promise to pardon her true love). Then Bardelys gets back everything he lost (including Eleanor Boardman, whom he can now woo as a purified version of his former self) by shaming his antagonist into falling on his sword (by defeating him in single combat and by making sure his pal the King knows the full extent of Chatellerault’s villainy).

It’s a thoroughly magnificent win-win-win scenario, and, thankfully, there won’t be much of that nonsense in the truly Vidorian films on our horizon.

Our next entry is The Crowd. I hope you’ll join me!

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Wine of Youth (1924)

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

and amuses Mary II (who understands her daughter’s urge without condoning it–or believing that the gambit has any chance of clarifying matters):

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”:

“Danger” is the Vidorian (not to mention Emersonian, Melvillian, Hawthornian, Fullerian, etc) status quo–the inevitability that must be avoided at all costs.

But how?

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 AdamsIt’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?

Even better than the real thing?

next time–The Big Parade!

good night friends!

Dave

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