Baby Doll (1956): Elia Kazan Does Southern Comedy

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Elia Kazan had a fairly lucrative partnership with Tennessee Williams and the same could be said of his ongoing working relationship with Karl Malden. It’s fitting that all three are back for Baby Doll and yet it still manages to feel like a bit of an outlier in Kazan’s oeuvre thus far.

As per usual, Kazan invests great commitment in his actors and the emotional richness of their performances, which enter near hyper-realized heights. Because there would be no Baby Doll without Malden, Eli Wallach and of course, Carroll Baker. They must carry its weight and for what it’s worth, they manage the task quite well.

Malden is the bug-eyed hick, Archie Lee, who made a pact with the dying pappy of his virginal bride that he would take care of her. Whether he’s held sway on his side of the bargain is up for debate, as Baby Doll and he live in a home literally crumbling around them by the hour

He’s a narrow-minded cotton gin operator who has recently been hitting the skids due to competition. If you are looking for the bare minimums of the story, there you have them. The situations themselves venture on the absurd in this hardly fully-realized plot.

With their house a decrepit eyesore, the furniture soon gets taken away. Archie Lee’s just about at the end of his tether and so he sneaks out one night and commits an act of arson on a whole silo full of cotton. It’s a desperate attempt to give himself an advantage and direct some business his way.

It’s true many might be unaccustomed to comedy in a Kazan film because though it’s masked by typical antics, melodrama, and the risque veneer that precedes it, the humor is unquestionable. If it sounds like melodrama you only have to look at the performances to crack a grin because they do feel like over-the-top exaggerations.

The galvanizing moment, of course, is our first view of Baby Doll lounging in a crib-like bed, sucking on her thumb. Her husband peeps on her through a hole in the plaster giggling like a lecherous schoolboy when she wakes up. We have a Lolita archetype and no doubt the source of its censorship woes, which elicited a “Condemned” rating from the Catholic League of Decency.

What always stings more is hearing the N-word bandied around so inconsequentially as the African-American characters play an unheralded supporting role in the far-off periphery. There you see the hypocrisy. No one in the Catholic or Southern Christian communities probably saw it fit to condemn this element, no doubt considering it acceptable, even commonplace. It’s at least something worth acknowledging soberly.

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If Archie Lee is our entry point into this asinine world, then Baby Doll and Vacarro (Wallach) have the presence to keep us watching. In a momentary lapse in judgment watching Long Hot Summer, I mistook Lee Remick for Carrol Baker because they look vaguely similar at first glance. However, Baker does more than a southern belle here full of sing-song dialogue. There’s a tremor, an impediment to her speech which, comes off as strangely childlike. She boasts a cutesy name and enticing sensuality akin to Darling Jill from God’s Little Acre and really there’s the film we can draw the most parallels between.

Because Eli Wallach plays the other man who pays Archie Lee a visit the following day after the conflagration at his place. He’s derisively referred to as a “Whop” and so it’s easy for him to become the outsider with a chip on his shoulder. He’s willing to do what he needs to do in order to get back on top of the heap. Ironically, he lets Archie Lee in on his philosophy.  He’s a proponent of “biblical justice,” an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, though he obviously didn’t read the scriptures too closely.

Instead, he implements their “Good Neighbor Policy” and while the other man is out fixing his machines to take on a new cotton crop, Silva starts playing with his wife even sneaking into the house to toy with Baby Doll. But remember this is not A Streetcar Named Desire. Wallach has his own inner demons but he’s no Stanley Kowalski and Baby Doll’s no Blanche.

Their trajectories take them into different places as a drunken Archie Lee gets jealous of his wife’s suitor, going after his adversary with his shotgun. However, in the end, the stakes are slighter than its predecessors and yet there’s something novel and slightly refreshing in this. While Baby Doll is nowhere near the best of Kazan’s work its “otherness” makes it a risible endeavor out of left field.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Giant (1956)

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People might come to Giant for James Dean. They might come seeking out the final film in George Stevens unofficial American Trilogy (including A Place in the Sun and Shane).  Maybe it’s even the promise of a sprawling epic of monumental length and scope that turns out to be both a blessing and a curse by most accounts.

But this adaptation of Edna Ferber’s novel, despite all of this, is really a film about marriage and family in a world that’s constantly changing. Rock Hudson is a towering giant in his own right turning in a performance that works as quintessential Texan Jordan “Bic” Benedict. Elizabeth Taylor proves that far from a one-dimensional classical beauty, she has acting prowess as well delivering a spirited showing that gels with Hudson for the very fact that it often chafes against his characterization. Meaning they’re believable as husband and wife.

James Dean plays their marginalized ranch hand Jett Rink who is nevertheless treated well by Bic’s  hardy sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) as well as Leslie while harboring a life long feud with Bic over the ensuing years.

Time turns this story into a battleground of two dueling giants. One a life long rancher of great stature. The other a modern figure blessed with a meteoric rise as an oil magnate. Their resentment carries through the generations as much as their differing fields reflect the sign of the times. The tectonics shift as the old guard of the Texas plains is replaced with a new breed of powerful men.

Of course, Dean’s performance is the stuff of legend and there’s an idiosyncratic, grumbling magnetism about it as only he could do. This isn’t Brando and it’s not even Monty Clift who previously played opposite Elizabeth Taylor in Stevens’ earlier picture. It’s James Dean showcasing his personal flare.

The final moments of his “Last Supper,” after his subsequent rise to glory, are devastatingly pathetic. The mighty oil tycoon of Jetexas falls into utter disgrace crashing to the floor of the empty banquet hall with a clatter. Rolling around in a drunken stupor, making a shambles of his grand exhibition of wealth, and simultaneously concluding Dean’s last scene in front of an audience.

His life would be taken even before Giant finished filming, some of his last scenes of dialogue being reread by close friend Nick Adams, his temperamental nature and habit of mumbling lines impacting the production even after his passing. Still, George Stevens himself, despite the insurmountable hell he was put through, and the hits his shooting schedule took, even admitted that Dean was something special.

You might not like him but all of us seem to gravitate to him for some inexplicable reason. He carries our gaze with his ticks and his delivery. It’s as if he forces us to take heed even out of a necessity to understand him, his head downcast, his hands fidgeting and such, all a ploy to carry our attention. It generally works.

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Yes, we lost him so young but the beauty of Giant’s epic stature is that in cinematic terms Dean was blessed with a full life. We saw him as a fiery youth in East of Eden (1954) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and in Giant he evolved into an equally tortured man who grew old before our eyes. That’s the magic of the movies. But sometimes it’s so easy to have his legend overshadow all others.

The latter half of the film is really about the Benedict family evolving with the maturation of their children. Dean is worth a closer look certainly, but I’m inclined to enjoy the performances of Carroll Baker and Dennis Hopper nearly as much if only for the simple fact that they’re less heralded.

Baker is the daughter caught in the throes of romance and decadence who finds Jett Rink more fun partly for the very fact that her stuffy parents abhor what he has become. Meanwhile, Hopper brings a surprisingly earnest candor as the Benedict’s eldest son with aspirations to be a doctor instead of a rancher, pushing against family tradition, subsequently marrying a Mexican-American bride, and facing the unfortunate ostracization that comes with such a life.

Some of the most evocative scenes are actually held between Hudson and Taylor. To most, their careers were known for personal lives exploited by tabloids. They don’t get the same adulation as Dean as actors. Still, in this film, they do something quite spectacular in a more unassuming way. They quite authentically reflect the life of a married couple as their romance and life together waxes and wanes over the years. That includes Jett Rink’s onslaught and the trials with kids but, at the core it’s just the two of them, grappling with it together.

Because this is a film that unfolds over decades we come to appreciate the changes that come over the characters and not so much the makeup or touches of gray. More important are the strides they make in their lives or even how they remain the same.

They model what it is to be young and in love, to quarrel and bicker and to make up and to be diplomatic and to have dreams and aspirations and to want the best for your children and at the same time hold grudges and feel like the ones you love are purposely trying to undermine you.

To begin with, this is a fairy tale romance of opposites. Hudson is the formidable Texan bred as a rancher and he comes to the upper echelons of eastern society looking for a stallion and he comes back with a bride instead.

She comes to his country initially welcomed and then feeling like an outsider in a land that is so set in its ways. Men and woman are expected to exist in certain spheres. White folks don’t fraternize with Mexicans. And cattle barons tame their land and breed their stock like their fathers before them. It’s tradition and they stick to it. Bic Benedict is raised in that Texas tradition dating all the way back to the Alamo, his stock proud, fiery, and tough.

Still, his wife Leslie is just as audacious but in different ways, testing his sensibilities and testing the matrimonial bonds of their marriage. She rather comically proposes her own marriage, looks to break up the boy’s club mentality that dictates the culture, and tramples over the de facto laws of the land in favor of goodwill to all. That means if a baby is sick, she fetches a doctor. The color of its skin makes no difference. In that atmosphere, it’s radical that she extends kindness to everyone, not simply her own “kind” as it were, whether divided by class or racial barriers. Ultimately, it’s a testament to the sorry state of affairs but also of her personal convictions and they bleed into the rest of her family.

The final showcase comes not in his front and center bout with Jett Rink because although we’ve been expecting it for decades, as such it never comes. Jett’s not worth it anymore. Instead, Bic’s shining moment comes in, of all places, a roadside diner. He’s not as strapping as he used to be and he gets wailed on something awful. But in this moment as he’s duking it out with a local bigot, the platform that he stands on is not simply about his family name or his own personal honor as a Benedict but along the planes of what is morally right and wrong.

Rejecting service to people based on the color of their skin is inherently wrong. Disrespecting people of other races can and never should be accepted. Years before he would have never taken a stand on such touchy issues but he’s matured in that regard and his wife falls in love with him all over again. She sees first hand why she grew to love this man.

He lies there on the floor heaving and bloodied with food flung all around him the oddly upbeat throngs of “Yellow Rose of Texas” still whirring on the jukebox but ironically Leslie has never been more proud of her man. It’s that paradoxical maxim written about many times. Blessed are those who are persecuted for doing good.

Most modern viewers will honestly thank their lucky stars that they don’t make epics like this. But there’s something fleetingly enchanting about these old-time vehicles that managed to encompass so much space with grandiose ambitions and awesome imagery full of million dollar skies and fluffy clouds as far as the eye can see.

The West is dead as is the American genre. The stars as we knew them are no more. We are still a nation struggling with issues of race and class. Love and marriage. That mixture of nostalgia and timelessness still makes Giant a draw.  George Stevens is one of The Great American Directors and though Shane (1953) will remain his unassuming masterpiece, Giant deserves at the very least a modicum amount of respect as a dying breed of American epic.

4.5/5 Stars

Note: Entry in The Elizabeth Taylor Blogathon!

Bridge to the Sun: An Analysis of a Cross-Cultural Romance (2015)

bridgetothe7Bridge to the Sun is one of those films that was ahead of its time. Its main actors are hardly remembered by modern audiences. The top-billed leading lady, Carroll Baker, was probably more notorious for her controversial persona in films like Tennessee’s Williams’ Baby Doll than she was famous. James Shigeta was a pioneering Japanese-American actor, who was once told, “If you were white, you’d be a hell of a big star” (The Slanted Screen). He aged gracefully but was slowly relegated from leading roles to bit parts. Belgium director Etienne Perier was only a slight blip on the Hollywood radar. When it came out in 1961, its narrative based on the memoir of Gwen Terasaki ended up being an abysmal flop. Honestly, it’s not all that surprising, because the public was not ready for such a film, and its candid depiction of interracial marriage. Now, with a fresh pair of eyes in the 21st century, Bridge to the Sun looks quite extraordinary. Certainly, this is a love story, but under very different circumstances, in a very different world. Although it was made in the classical Hollywood mode, it still manages to groundbreaking, not necessarily due to its form, but thanks to its content. Because Bridge to the Sun places an Asian man and a Caucasian woman together, as they navigate two starkly different cultures both tottering on the brink of war.

bridgetothe6In truth, this film does not shy away from showing their affection, even though it undoubtedly made some viewers squeamish at the time. More than once Gwen and Terry embrace in intimate moments that signify the deep-rooted love that holds them together. Sometimes it’s far from easy. For instance, when they first travel to Japan, Gwen finds it difficult living in a culture where women are meant to be wholly subservient to their husbands. She’s fine with the bowing and the taking off of shoes even, but not being allowed to speak her mind is about the limit.

This sentiment is reflected perfectly in a sequence right after some guests solemnly file out of Terry and Gwen’s home after a dinner party. Gwen is dressed in traditional garb with an annoyed look plastered on her face, and her husband silently glowers behind her. Their home is quiet and still, the light all but gone from the dark interiors. Finally, she turns around and breaks the silence by voicing her annoyance.

What follows is a single medium shot that frames both our protagonists and then a classic shot-reverse shot paradigm perfectly captures the ensuing quarrel between the married couple. It’s seamless, hardly extravagant, and it allows all the focus to fall on the verbal blows being dealt during their marital tiff. There is also great irony in how Gwen is dressed in a kimono and wig, while at the same time pushing back against the cultural expectations.  The intonations of her voice are high-pitched and enraged while Terry’s retorts are low and authoritative in juxtaposition.

One of the most telling lines comes when Gwen positively erupts after Terry chides her to keep her mouth shut, “according to custom.” The major distinction is that this is his custom and not her own. A cultural gap has developed. One set of customs feels antiquated, the other modern. One set seems honorable, the other blunt. There is this obvious dissonance between them, and in many ways, these two individuals are a perfect embodiment of the chafing that is going on globally. Except the important difference is that Terasakis manage to compromise, while the world around them plunges ever deeper into conflict.

bridgetothe3Gwen and Terry cannot stay mad forever, especially with the birth of their little girl Mako. In fact, it is actually in a moment when their family is in danger of being pulled apart that Gwen shows her true resilience and loyalty as a wife. Pearl Harbor has just blown up and that means there is a freeze on all Japanese aliens. Terry is stuck at the embassy about to be deported, and an FBI agent advises Gwen that she would be much better off staying in the states. But as she converses with him you can see the determination in her eyes. She knows what it means to go to Japan. Her daughter as a child of mix race will be scorned, and Gwen herself will be looked down upon if not endangered by her status as an American citizen.

Her blubbering aunt implores her not to go, but in one of the film’s most impactful close-ups, Gwen tells Aunt Peggy off. She is not about to be split up from her husband – not after all they have gone through. It is in this other high intensity moment that we see her for who she truly is. She’s not about to be constrained by the cultural expectations placed upon her, and it goes both ways whether they are Japanese or American.

Mrs. Terasaki traverses the gauntlet of jeering crowds with all the other Japanese wives. She’s an easy target in the sea of Japanese, and the racist slurs are aimed just as scurrilously at her as anyone else, perhaps even more so. A noose hangs around the neck of a grotesque caricature of Tojo outside the fence, and still Gwen goes bravely on, covering her daughter’s ears, and comforting Mako the best she can in the hateful tumult. In this moment, we have yet another fascinating intersection of cultures. Gwen, a Caucasian woman from Tennessee is being transported along with alien immigrants back across the ocean like one of “the enemy.” She willingly gives up her status, her comfort, and even her very safety to hold her family together.

Of course, the situation in Japan is not ideal either, and the Terasaki’s have it rough. When they arrive abroad there is the same discrimination and the myriad of strange looks. Terry’s loyalty is questioned as he tries to mediate between the two warring nations. The ethnicity of his wife doesn’t help, and the fire bombs raining down from up above don’t exactly calm their nerves. But again and again, Terry and Gwen prove to be a resilient couple.

With the war in high gear, the Terasaki’s eke out an existence, while Terry does his best to avoid imprisonment from his own government. Meanwhile, the bullets and bombs continue to rain down, even in the countryside where the family now resides. On one such occasion, Mako is scampering through town with a friend and “the enemy” strikes. To his credit, Perier convincingly pieces together aerial footage with what is occurring down below. Airplane motors whirr menacingly. The Terasakis race towards town frantic to find their daughter. The planes begin their descent followed by waves of bullets as Japanese soldiers get in position to fight back. It’s utter chaos with smoke, fires, overturned vehicles, fleeing people, and finally dead bodies. The death toll includes soldiers and a little child. Mako lives, but her best friend perishes trying to salvage a doll. It’s in this climatic moment that all the Terasakis are huddled together after both parents rush to protect their girl and give aid to the dying friend. The fighting persists and both look up. First, Terry yells out something almost completely stifled by the noise, and then with Mako cradled in her arms, Gwen screams, “No More!” at the top of her lungs in exasperation.

Miracubridgetothe4lously these individuals salvaged their marriage and preserved their family. Meanwhile, the world around them would not make the necessary concessions. It allowed cultural differences to define relationships, and ultimately increase the void between nations. The rubble of WWII was eventually cleared and new hope was built upon that foundation. In reality, the chronicles of the Terasakis was an emblem of that hope. Inherent in their story is the possibility that two people and two nations really, can be reconciled and even thrive together. Perhaps the United States was not ready for such a message to come out of Hollywood, even as late as the 1960s, but nevertheless, it seems like a message we can certainly take to heart today.

Bridge to the Sun (1961)

bridgetothe1Bridge to the Sun is one of those films that was ahead of its time. Its main players are hardly remembered by modern audiences. Belgium director Etienne Perier was only a little blip on the Hollywood radar. The leading lady Carroll Baker was probably more notorious for her controversial role in Tennessee’s William’s Baby Doll than she was famous. James Shigeta was a pioneering actor, who was famously told, “If you were white, you’d be a hell of a big star.” He aged gracefully, but was slowly relegated from leading roles to bit parts in Hawaii Five-O and Die Hard. In truth, the film, based on the memoirs of one Gwen Terasaki, does suffer from a clunky script at times, and the box office returns were not too favorable. In fact, it was an outrageous flop back in 1961.

But now, with a fresh pair of eyes from the 21st century, Bridge to the Sun looks different and dare I say, groundbreaking for its candid depiction of interracial romance. Certainly, this is the story of two people falling in love, but under very different circumstances, in a very different world circa 1935. Gwen is a talkative young woman from Johnson City, Tennessee, who is more than thrilled to venture to the Japanese embassy with her aunt. Like any ignorant American she wants to meet a real-life Japanese, altogether bewitched by their manners and culture. Chopsticks are not exactly her forte, nor sushi. And yet the moment she meets the handsome young Japanese Ambassador Hidenari “Terry” Terasaki, there is an immediate connection. Yes, their cultures are so different which they will be reminded of again and again, but most importantly they love each other passionately. So much so that they disregard relatives and even superiors when it comes to whom they will spend the rest of their lives with. Theirs’ is a true romance.

bridgetothe2In fact, this film does not shy away from showing that affection, even though it undoubtedly made some viewers squeamish at the time. More than once Gwen and Terry embrace in intimate moments that signify the deep-seated love that holds them together. Because it’s far from easy. Gwen finds it difficult living in a Japanese culture where the woman is meant to be wholly subservient to her husband. She’s fine with the bowing and the taking off of shoes even, but not being allowed to talk is about the limit. With his family, her strong, lovable husband now seems cold and distant. However, they cannot stay mad forever and soon enough their little girl Mako is born, making them a happy little family. But of course, imperial Japan and isolationist America are on the brink of conflict and Terry and his family are tottering on the brink of calamity. He’s seemingly one man trying to hold together the relations of two nations that he has such close ties to. One because of his wife, the other due to his birth. Then, on a fateful day in December 1941 Japan struck the first blow and life would never be the same. Terry is now being detained and Gwen is fearful she might be forever separated from her husband. Disregarding what everyone else says, she takes her young daughter and follows her husband once again to his homeland – knowing full well what might be in store for her and her daughter.

bridgetothe5And when they arrive abroad there is the discrimination and the myriad of strange looks. Even as she makes the long journey across the sea all the white folk scoff at her, but Gwen takes it calmly and fearlessly. Once overseas the climate has changed greatly and now Terry is being questioned for his loyalty. The ethnicity of his wife doesn’t help and the firebombs raining down from above don’t exactly calm their nerves. But again and again, Terry and Gwen prove to be a resilient couple. The anomaly that should never have happened—seemingly could never have happened, and yet they did and they remained unequivocally together.

The days drag on and the plight of the people is worse and worse as Gwen waits anxiously for Terry to return. Finally, he does, badly battered, but soon enough the war ends and a happier ending seems in store. Well, perhaps it’s not quite as cheerful as we should want, but the one true fact is that Bridge to the Sun remains a love story to the end and that’s something you cannot snatch away from it.

As a Japanese-American myself, this film really hits home in many ways. There’s this strange dichotomy developed between Japan and the U.S. Both had their share of prejudice, but it was not so much modern systematic racism, but ignorant bigotry. They got so caught up in their own culture and ways of doing things they were not ready to open up to others. Thus, whites were meant for whites and “Orientals” with “Orientals.” Certainly, this is a narrow-minded presupposition and this story speaks to that longstanding injustice.

Mind you, there is no maliciousness in this statement because it goes both ways. The Japanese at times undoubtedly treated Gwen perhaps far worse than the Americans treated Terry. But the point is that these two represented something special. Maybe they did not think so in the moment because they were in love. But their story is gripping simply due to the fact that it feels like the exception, just like Carroll Baker and James Shigeta playing opposite each other was the exception. That is why I’m drawn to stories like this, and not just in film, but life and history. I don’t want to know just about the status quo, I want to know about those who were willing to step out and be different. I want to know who was brave enough to step out and be a bridge to the sun, whether that may be Japan or somewhere else altogether.

3.5/5 Stars

The Big Country (1958)

230bc-big_country833Directed by William Wyler and starring Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, and Carroll Baker, this pacifist western revolves around a feud between two ranching families. A gentleman sea captain comes out west to be with his fiancée on her father’s ranch. After his arrival, he encounters a jealous farmhand (Heston), the beautiful schoolteacher friend of his fiancée, and of course the Hannasseys, who are sworn enemies of the Terills. In a sense he is a fish out of water because he never feels a need to try and prove his bravery to others. The schoolmarm is caught between the two families since she owns the vital watering hole “Big Muddy.” Mckay buys the land as a wedding present but when the wedding ties are cut now he is the one in the middle of it all. In order to stop the imminent bloodshed, he bravely rides into the Hannassey’s territory in order to get both sides to reason. Whether it be the score, the cinematography, or the dialogue, you will certainly come to realize that this is a Big Country.
 
4/5 Stars

Giant (1956)

This is an epic film that stars Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean, with direction by George Stevens. It shows the ongoing conflict between a rancher (Hudson) and his former hired hand who becomes rich off oil (Dean). As Jett Rink (Dean) exclaims, he becomes even richer than the rancher Bic Benedict (Hudson) ever dreamed. The relationship escalates when Rink makes a rude remark to Leslie Benedict (Taylor), and some punches are traded. From this point on the three main characters slowly grow older and the Benedicts have children. In his final screen appearance, Dean’s character is suppose to give a speech at a large banquet. However he is so drunk he falls flat on his face a complete wreck. Giant was ahead of his time by giving commentary about the race relations with Mexicans. It also took young actors and progressively made them look older, something that was quite unusual. Although this was Dean’s final movie I think it can be said he came full circle. He began as a youth in East of Eden and by the end of Giant he was a old man.

4.5/5 Stars