Friday, February 12, 2010
The late Robin Wood’s Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan (Columbia UP, 1986) contains what I believe to be an extremely valuable discussion of the “ideological shift” that characterizes the American cinema of the 1960s. In Chapter Two, “The Chase: Flashback, 1965,” Wood argues for the significance of Arthur Penn’s The Chase (filmed 1965, released 17 February 1966) as “one of the most complete, all-encompassing statements of the breakdown of ideological confidence that characterizes American culture through the Vietnam period and becomes a defining factor of Hollywood cinema in the 60s and 70s” (23). The Chase was one of those big, epic-length Sam Spiegel productions featuring a “major Hollywood cast”: Marlon Brando, Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, Angie Dickinson, E. G. Marshall, James Fox, Robert Duvall, Miriam Hopkins, and other well-known figures. Wood admits The Chase is rather “crude and obvious” in its socio-political commentary (its critique of racism, bourgeois hypocrisy, conflicted attitudes toward the law, etc.), but nonetheless finds its special strength in being “the first film in which the disintegration of American society and the ideology that supports it (represented in microcosm by the town) is presented as total and final, beyond hope of reconstruction” (23). While I agree with him in his view of the film’s historic importance, and think the film extremely worthy of critical scrutiny, I think his claim that The Chase is “the first film” to represent the American ideological disintegration characteristic of the Sixties is debatable. I’d make a case for George Axelrod’s Lord Love a Duck as the first such film, but since it and The Chase were released virtually on the same day in February 1966, I’m unable to do so. The two films share few features in terms of story elements or characters, but like The Chase, Lord Love a Duck is also a representation of American ideological disintegration, and equally as compelling as The Chase, but is more contemporary in style. (Penn didn’t adopt a contemporary style until 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde). Interestingly, both Penn and Axelrod were born the same year, 1922, and were virtually the same age, Axelrod being the older by slightly over three months.
Axelrod, who died in 2003 (biographical details here), came to prominence as a consequence of writing two Broadway hits of the mid-50s, The Seven Year Itch and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?; both were later made into successful Hollywood films. He wrote the screenplays for, among other films, Bus Stop (1956), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and, perhaps most famously, The Manchurian Candidate (1962). He was therefore not primarily known as a director, directing only two films during his career, both in the late Sixties: Lord Love a Duck (1966) and The Secret Life of an American Wife (1968), the latter sharing a family resemblance to Luis Buñuel’s Belle de jour (1967), in which a housewife (Anne Jackson, who played the child psychiatrist in Kubrick’s The Shining), in order to prove to her husband that she’s still sexually desirable to other men, begins an affair with a famous movie star. Neither one was critically nor commercially successful, and sadly, their failure brought an end to Axelrod’s motion picture directorial career. Too bad, because I think Lord Love a Duck to be one of the very best films of the 1960s; in fact, I would place it near the very top of my “best of” list of the decade.
According to the IMDB, The Chase was released theatrically on 17 February 1966, although it also indicates a different date for its New York premier, which occurred on 19 February. Serendipitously, Lord Love a Duck was released, this again according to the IMDB, on 21 February 1966—four days after The Chase, and while this may lend credence to Wood’s claim that The Chase has pride of place as the “first film” to represent a disturbance in American ideological confidence, the matter of a mere four days is irrelevant. While I haven’t done an extensive analysis, I suspect both films were being shot simultaneously, during the summer of 1965. I do know that The Chase wrapped by mid-August 1965, because I recall reading, in one of the many biographies written about the Fondas, that soon after the film's official wrap, Jane Fonda married Roger Vadim, the wedding occurring on 14 August 1965. I have no definitive filming dates for Lord Love a Duck, but it had to have been filming roughly at the same time as The Chase. The crucial point is, however, that there doesn’t seem to be any possible influence, of the artistic sort, of one film on the other; it’s therefore a matter of thematic convergence rather than direct influence, and that is what is important. I must also mention that both films were based on previously written material, The Chase on an unsuccessful 1952 Broadway play by Horton Foote, while Lord Love a Duck was based on a novel by Al Hine published in 1961.
In order to demonstrate how The Chase enacts, in dramatic fashion, the collapse of essential American ideological values, Wood, ingeniously, compares features of Penn’s film with those of John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), a film made roughly 25 years earlier during the pre-World War II days of Hollywood’s so-called “Classical” era. Following E. H. Gombrich, Wood calls these features “schemata,” and they serve to reveal the changed cultural and historical conditions in which each film was made. I make no claim to have invented these schemata—I take them from Robin Wood’s enlightening discussion of The Chase, borrowing them from him in order to reveal the ideological collapse Lord Love a Duck dramatically enacts in a similar fashion. Relevant pages in Wood’s book are pp. 20-23. Note that these pages refer to the 1986 edition of Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan. The book was later revised, updated, and reissued, but I have not had the opportunity to read the revised edition.
1. “The male authority figure, the symbolic Father, repository and dispenser of the Law, combines myths of individualism and male supremacy that are central to capitalist democracy, enacting the functions of control and containment.” In Young Mr. Lincoln, it is, of course, the figure of Lincoln that embodies these values. In Lord Love a Duck, there are no commanding male authority figures. The authority figures are inept, ineffectual, and seemingly perverse. Barbara Ann Greene’s (Tuesday Weld’s) father, Howard, (Max Showalter), in one of the film’s most perverse moments, is revealed to have incestuous desires for his daughter, shown moaning, growling, and snarling as his buxom daughter models for him various cashmere sweaters. The high school principal, Weldon Emmett (Harvey Korman), is a masochist who can scarcely conceal his sexual interest in Barbara Ann, fetishizing her by means of her cashmere sweater, the color of which she tells him, provocatively, is “Peach Put-Down,” suggesting the masochistic nature of his desire. In Bob Barnard’s (Martin West’s) case, the Father is dead. And Alan “Mollymauk” Musgrave (Roddy McDowall), the film’s anti-hero, has no family, living here and there—“around,“ he says—in various places. “I stay with people.“
2. “In Young Mr. Lincoln Ann Rutledge dies but lives on as the protagonist’s spiritual support (it is “her“ decision—the stick falling toward the grave—that sends him to study law. The myth of woman as man’s supporter/inspiration/redeemer is of course long-standing.” In Lord Love a Duck, Barbara Ann’s parents are divorced. Her mother, Marie (Lola Albright), is vain, alcoholic, and promiscuous, indiscriminately picking up men at her place of work, a bar, where she works as a waitress dressed rather like a “Playboy Bunny.” In the scene in which she’s first introduced in the film, she drunkenly arrives home with a man whose name she can’t remember; the man also evinces an interest in Barbara Ann, hinting at a ménage involving himself, the mother, and the daughter. Barbara Ann later, tearfully, admits the truth to herself that her mother is a “prostitute.” Marie provides Barbara Ann no emotional support of any kind because she is completely absorbed in the drama of her own life. Her narcissism is represented visually through the device of having her constantly studying her own mirror image. Similarly, Bob (“Bobby Bear”) Bernard’s (Martin West’s) mother, Stella (Ruth Gordon), is portrayed as highly critical (“My son is . . . a total idiot. He takes after his late father”) and domineering. The Mother figure does not offer support, inspiration, or redemption, and therefore I suspect it is no coincidence that the hostile psychiatrist administering the Rorschach (“ink blot”) test to Alan, early in the film, is a woman. I should add that the film is pathologically harsh on women, more so, I think, than the male symbols of authority.
3. “In Young Mr. Lincoln the innocence of the young accused is unambiguous: the brothers, representing simple “manly” virtues, are central to Ford’s idealization of the family, the celebration of family life being central to the film.” As I indicated above, in Lord Love a Duck, Barbara Ann’s parents are acrimoniously divorced (he’s behind on his payments, too), and Stella Bernard’s (Ruth Gordon’s) husband is dead (“We . . . don’t divorce our men, we bury ‘em”). Later, in order for Barbara Ann to achieve her secondary goal (the first being a Hollywood actress) of marrying Bob “Bobby Bear” Barnard, the film’s demiurge figure, Alan Musgrave (McDowall), arranges for Barbara Ann’s mother, Marie, to have an “accident,” overdosing on sleeping pills. Alan’s arranging Marie’s death is never overtly stated, but we are strongly encouraged to make the connection, as he himself says to Barbara Ann that her death must seem an “accident” (rather than to be seen as a cleverly orchestrated murder, committed by him). We are therefore led to believe that Barbara Ann will be complicitous in murder if it is a necessary step for her to achieve her primary and secondary goals. Hence the nurturing role and function of the American family, so idealized in films of Ford, is entirely absent.
4. “Ford presents the lynch mob as essentially good citizens whose energies . . . get temporarily out of control. They need to be reminded of what is “right”—of a fixed and absolute set of values ratified by biblical text—whereupon their basic soundness is reaffirmed.” Although it is not made entirely clear whether the “student body” of Alan’s new high school—“Consolidated”—is composed of children of the dominant classes, it is strongly implied that they are. They are all white, affluent, cliquish, and have clearly internalized the values of extravagant financial expenditure, as indicated by the girls’ awareness of the invidious distinction bestowed by wearing cashmere sweaters, as opposed to the sweater made of inexpensive “synthetic” fabric that Barbara Ann wears early on. After Alan disrupts the graduation ceremony by destroying the staging platform with the tractor—presumably killing “Bobby Bear” (Barbara Ann's first picture is titled Bikini Widow) as well as the members of the school administration—the students and faculty are transformed into a lynch mob that chases him into the school building. He manages to escape their wrath by locking them out (his many keys again suggesting his status as demiurge), and the police gain admittance only by smashing the glass door, thereby allowing them to unlock it. (The police, as authority figures, are also depicted as inept.) The eruption of mob violence would seem to be a “natural” consequence of Alan’s violent actions—the link between violence and male sexuality is implicitly confirmed—but unlike what is often the case in Ford’s work, which as Wood observes is often preoccupied “with the ways in which ‘excess’ energies can be safely contained,” the energies, some destructive, some sexual, shown unleashed in Lord Love a Duck can only be contained, precariously, by a deep act of sublimation, as when Alan, cornered on the roof of the high school building, surrenders to the police. He first orders the police to “stop,” then adopts a sort of Zen-like pose, extending arms to them in an act of submission. Although time and space do not allow me to fully explore the subject, the necessity to sublimate destructive energies seems to me to be one of the film’s preoccupations. As an example, Stella Barnard’s (Ruth Gordon’s) sudden keen taste for alcohol seems to blunt her highly negative and destructive energies. The female psychiatrist’s aggressive attitude toward Alan is blunted, temporarily at least, when she is smoking; principal Emmett’s energies (sexual and otherwise) are blunted by the pencil he’s always putting in his mouth and holding like a dog holds a bone, and so on.
5. “Ford’s idealization of motherhood is central to Young Mr. Lincoln and to the ideology it embodies. The mother is reverenced as the rock on which the family, hence civilization, is built . . . .” In Lord Love a Duck, as in The Chase, the “collapse of confidence in the figure of the Mother . . . points directly to a collapse of confidence in the family structure and, beyond that, in traditional sexual relationships generally.” This latter insight is true of much of Axelrod’s work in general.
6. “It follows from Ford’s veneration of the mother than nothing in Young Mr. Lincoln questions the rightness and sanctity of marriage.” In contrast, nothing in Lord Love a Duck validates the rightness and sanctity of marriage. It is not clear, moreover, that Barbara Ann’s marriage to “Bobby Bear” is ever consummated, and his behavior is often portrayed as Oedipal toward his mother.
7. “In Young Mr. Lincoln the bible . . . is the ultimate sanction, and Lincoln’s authority is seen as God-given.” As Wood points out, in The Chase religion “is reduced to the helpless, absurd and annoying mumblings of Miss Henderson, who is represented as mad.” In Lord Love a Duck, religious services are held at the “First Drive-In Church of Southern California,” where one can “Worship in the Privacy of Your Own Automobile.” We happen to overhear the sermon on the Book of Leviticus, which the minister tells his parish (all in automobiles, parked as if at a drive-in move theater) is “long, confusing, and even boring.” Conventional religion is so marginalized it has ceased to be culturally relevant.
8. “The link between violence and male sexuality, which is implicit and probably unconscious in Young Mr. Lincoln, is fully explicit in The Chase.” Likewise, too, in Lord Love a Duck, as I pointed out above.
9. “Lincoln’s progress in Ford’s film is stimulated by his learning from the books passed on to him by the Clay family: he is guided toward his destiny as President by Ann Rutledge and Blackstone’s Commentaries, by women and nature, law and learning.” In Lord Love a Duck, the concept of progress through learning is debased by technology and economic necessity, as revealed by the brand new “Consolidated” high school being chic, having the latest technology, such as a PA system throughout the school, and elevators. The new technology is also mocked during a scene in which Barbara Ann provocatively raises the principal’s, Mr. Emmett’s, phallic PA microphone to her mouth and blows (into) it, causing Mr. Emmett’s to giggle and wiggle in his chair like an adolescent school boy. Moreover, the school’s very name, “Consolidated,” suggests that the new school was built out of a need for economic “efficiency” by the fictional school system of the film. The aphorism excerpted from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism and quoted (incorrectly) in the opening title sequence (as “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” rather than “A little learning…”) also foregrounds the role of education, but Pope’s famous aphorism is reinterpreted as, “Go To School/Get A Little Knowledge/Live Dangerously.” The meaning of the reinterpretation suggests that true knowledge comes only from experience, as opposed to what is sometimes pejoratively referred to as “book learning.”
10. “Hollywood’s emblems for a lost innocence/happiness suggest a steady descent into disillusionment.” In Young Mr. Lincoln, Wood sees Ann Rutledge, although she is dead, as the “spiritual support” for Lincoln’s career. He also mentions emblems such as Kane’s “Rosebud” and “the river” of Written on the Wind, both emblems representing a lost innocence. There is no comparable image in Lord Love a Duck representing lost innocence, no nostalgic emblem. The only moment remotely suggestive of a kind of childhood innocence is when Alan and Barbara Ann inscribe their names in the wet concrete on the roof of the new “Consolidated” high school. Actually, Alan doesn’t sign his name at all, but rather the name “Mollymauk,” accompanied by the outline of the bird “thought to be extinct, but isn’t.” Indeed, rather than lost innocence, we get the name “Mollymauk,” which uncomfortably rhymes with “muck,” as in the lyrics in Neal Hefti’s title song to the film, with the lines “down on my luck-o/stuck in the muck-o,” referring to “muck and mire,” that is, filth.