“Cinema Snacks” is an unwholesome nibble through the minor classics.
Warning: As snacks ruin your dinner, so too may spoilers ruin your watching experience. Graze with caution.
Today’s snack: cotton candy on a stick.
A few weeks ago I was at the grocery store, waiting in line and minding my own business, when suddenly a TCM four-disc Cary Grant film collection butted in front of me.
“Hey!” I said, “I was here first!”
“Take me home,” he replied in an un-placeable cockney-American accent. His sardonic tone was alluring.
What was I to do? I took the poor fella home, and in no time at all I was surprised to find myself unwrapping him in my living room. Fortunately my husband wasn’t at home. If he had been, I would have heard a long-suffering “not again” from the other room.
Rarely do I come across one of TCM’s collections from which I don’t already own one or two of the films, but in this case, I was surprised to find I had none. For a measly $10 I was able to get my hands on My Favorite Wife (1940), Night and Day (1946), The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer (1947), and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948). Of the four, only Night and Day had somehow escaped my viewing over the years, so it was an obvious first choice to watch after unwrapping. I did know already that the film’s reputation as a loose-as-loose-can-be portrait of composer Cole Porter had somewhat tainted its image, but what I wasn’t expecting was…well, I’ll get to that in a bit. First, let me take you through my thought process as I pressed play and started happily munching away at my popcorn.
Thing start off innocuously enough. It takes me a second to figure out that Monty Woolley is playing himself (well, undoubtedly some tangential version of himself), but at least right off the bat I’ve learned something – I had no idea that Porter and Woolley’s lives intertwined in any way. A quick Wikipedia browse (accuracy not guaranteed) tells me that Woolley, like Porter, was gay. At this point I wonder what tricks this movie has up its sleeve, since it’s clearly going to be an accurate biopic in about the same way a child’s finger painting might kind of look like a Monet, if you squint really hard. Are we going to dance around this, or shall we say “anything goes” and have our nitrate film burned by the censors?, I can hear them asking. Let’s find out!
First of all, we’ve got ourselves a 42-year-old Cary Grant playing the college-age Cole Porter. Now, I don’t want any readers out there thinking that I can’t completely suspend my disbelief when I start watching a movie. I don’t even believe in demons and I made my husband follow me to the bathroom so I could safely brush my teeth after watching The Exorcist. Pazuzu was real, and he was going to get me. Suspension of disbelief is not my problem.
What is a problem is when you have an actor of a certain finely-aged vintage heading up a biopic and, although you watch him journey from troubled young man to successful Broadway bigshot, you feel like the entire process has taken place over a whirlwind week of hard work. Ok, so that’s a minor problem. Fortunately Cary Grant is well-equipped to handle the shaky premises his films throw at him. So what other angle are they going to take with this, since it’s clearly not going to be a homoerotic orgy of song?
Wait, or is it going to be a homoerotic orgy of song? One of the earliest scenes has Porter saying farewell at the train station to his friend Gracie Harris (Jane Wyman, whom I didn’t even recognize the first time around because I can only picture her as she looked in Johnny Belinda), and she is jonesing for Mr. Porter hard. As a parting blow to her fantasies, Porter kisses her on the nose. You almost have to see it in action to get a sense of how non-sexual this pairing is. Now, Cary Grant had mixed results in his onscreen chemistry with various leading ladies, but if you’ve ever seen the brilliant Notorious (also released in 1946), you know that Grant was cinematically virile as well as charming.
The nose-kiss scene could be passed off as a blip in a dull subplot – Gracie likes Cole, Cole doesn’t like Gracie, Cole goes on to meet love of life and all is well. But I’m going to give Curtiz and Grant some more credit here and say that maybe, just maybe, they were playing Porter as gay all along.
Alexis Smith is playing Linda Lee Porter, Cole’s future wife. She’s given almost nothing to do in this film except sit around and wait for Porter to smarten the hell up, and it’s a thankless task. I can’t image that the real Linda Lee would have found even the faintest hint of herself in this portrayal. If you know even the teeniest bit about Porter’s life, or even if you just know your movie conventions, you’re aware that Linda and Cole are going to get together. It’s just a matter of when and how. In a good film, knowing what’s going to happen isn’t even a slight hazard to enjoying the process. In a film like Night and Day, where the spark is missing, it’s easy to get bored. And distracted. Which is how I came to discover what I wasn’t expecting from a mid-forties Technicolor film:
And that is: this movie has some of the most bizarre and aggressively ugly costuming I’ve ever seen this side of a kindergarten Christmas pageant. Now, I’m not talking bizarre costuming in the Tina-Turner-in-Mad-Max-Beyond-Thunderdome sense. I’m talking about costuming that has no sense of time, place, or even awareness of what colour it’s surrounded by. The tonal scheme tends to trend toward the pastel, but about ever few scenes or so, someone will show up wearing the most chartreusey chartreuse that ever chartreused. Like so:
Now, you don’t have to take my word for it. Watch the movie yourself and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about. In fact, I think they could run Night and Day on a loop at the ophthalmologists office and the doctor can just test you for colour-blindness while you wait.
Costuming and colour palettes have a particularly large role to play in movie musicals. Who can forget the colour of the pattern on the von Trapp childrens’ curtain-derived clothes, or the red velvet gown Judy Garland wears at the Christmas ball in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)? Night and Day was released the same year the Freed unit over at MGM released The Harvey Girls, a film which is nothing if not an explosion of colour. And yet, somehow, that film succeeds where Night and Day fails. The costumers of Night and Day, Milo Anderson and William Travilla, have other brilliant moments on their CVs (for Anderson, the iconic waitresses uniform Joan Crawford wears in Mildred Pierce, and for Travilla, a whole swath of gowns for Marilyn Monroe, including THE gown). I can’t tell you where WB went wrong and MGM went right, but I can tell you that while Night and Day put one of its feature dancers in this easter basket-looking concoction:
MGM was putting Ann Miller, starring in a film with the actual word “Easter” in its title, in this:
By the time this movie reached the halfway point, all I cared about was two things. First, will we ever see an attractive costume in this film? And secondly, am I reading too much into the potential for subtly coded homosexuality in this movie? Well, my first question was answered when Alexis Smith showed up wearing this:
And my second question? All I can tell you is, Cole spends almost the entire running length of this movie either a) avoiding marriage, or, b) avoiding his wife. And then, in what was the clincher for me, the movie leaves the audience with a question rather than a pat answer. Stop reading now if you don’t want to see the deep confusion this film is going to force you to confront:
This is not the face of a man at the conclusion of a happy love story. In fact, I think that’s about as dead-inside as Cary Grant ever appeared onscreen. Cole Porter must have watched this film with either his head in his hands or his eyebrows raised to the ceiling, which is a real shame because nothing of the genius of Porter is captured by this film. Even his beautiful, timeless songs trot by meaninglessly, over-encumbered by orchestra and devoid of wit. Eve Arden, my radio goddess, appears in a thankless role as Gabrielle, a French nightclub star who, unfortunately, ends up sounding like an impersonation of Marlene Dietriech. And Mary Martin, my all-time-favourite Peter Pan, reprises a real-life Broadway role to sing “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” surrounded by a bunch of dancers dressed in cringe-worthy Inuit/caveman costumes. As a Canadian citizen, I’m fairly certain I could get arrested for posting a picture of this scene.
Since poor Cole Porter was done so wrong by his own onscreen life story, I’ll let him have the final word today. Take it as some quality advice for your life:
They say that bears have love affairs
And even camels
We’re merely mammals