Sunday, April 25, 2010

Class Consciousness arrives by train

There's an extraordinary moment in Possessed (1931) when Joan Crawford has just dumped her ambitious but dull suitor, informing him that she's not about to become the distaff side of him in their small town featuring careers at the Acme Paper Box factory.

Crawford is walking away from him when a large dark train pulls in, slowly moving across her path.

Every train window unveils a scene. We are voyeurs over her shoulder as she steals a look at labor and its fruits: Black bartenders in one:

 a black maid ironing in another:

a waiter:

A woman in lingerie:

A couple in evening clothes dancing.

At the caboose is Skeets Gallagher, a St. John-like spirit of the train in a tux, drinking champagne. He pours her a glass and tells her, "Only two kinds of people: the ones in and the ones out."

He expresses no interest in her -- he's a boozy, gay or asexual device for getting Crawford from Paperboxville to New York, where she meets Clark Gable and undergoes a metropolitan paideia of the 20th Century USian female. In a wonderful cut, she goes from puzzlement at the menu in a French restaurant to ordering wines in French for a dinner party she and Gable are throwing. Four years have passed: 1928-31.

The marked irreality of the train is very fine. It's all media in one: film, radio, newspapers, television, web, twitter. It is the unveiling of class, romance, and access to power. It's also the locomotive means of moving to the city. Might as well have eyes on its wheels.

I don't know whose idea the train was --  the screenplay was by Lenore J. Coffee and Edgar Selwyn; the film was directed by Clarence Brown, produced by Harry Rapf, Brown and Thalberg.  if anyone knows, I'd be curious, tho' it's not hugely important -- no IP rights on allegorical images.

Skeets tells her the only way for a woman to make it in the big city is to "find a rich man to help her, keep a cool head, peek at his pocketbook, and never tell him anything." "Men like to think they're Christopher Columbus discovering America."

True to the traditional bumpkin peasant type, Crawford is disarmingly blunt, telling Gable that it's important that he's rich, because she wouldn't waste her time with him if he weren't.

For a splendid contrast to this MGM heroine, see Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face, Warner Bros.' 1933 study in female ascendance. There Stanwyck is living in a nightmare; when it goes up in flames thanks to her drunken father, she hops a train to New York with a black girlfriend, sleeping with a railroad worker to avoid getting thrown off.

Her education had begun at her father's bar, where one of the customers introduced her to the works of Nietzsche, featuring a large screen shot of the cover of The Will to Power. Neither the seduction of the worker nor Nietzsche made it past the censors even in that pre-code era.

In Possessed, Crawford ultimately saves Gable's political viability (he's a Union League man) by being silent, then by speaking out. In Baby Face, Stanwyck has no mercy on the series of males whom she rides to the top. They pine, lose all compass, and a few of them kill themselves. George Brent's failed suicide brings her around in the end. Darryl F. Zanuck was a writer and producer.

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Blogger Juke said...

Good posting this.

5/11/2010 3:05 PM  

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