Monday, February 11, 2013

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Donald and Maggie were a little upset by the increased price of the tram fare.

 Sixpence to get to Queen Street on a Saturday night!

But it was the one night of the week the two of them could get out, and they weren’t going to miss their weekly film.

The rest of the week was anticipation of this outing.

There was quite a crowd – there always was on a Saturday – but they managed to get good seats up the back of the downstairs section. That was where they liked to sit.

They noticed there were no children at this screening. The film had a restricted certificate. Donald had read a review in an American magazine, which said that the film really was strong stuff. But Maggie had said she was willing to give it a try because she liked Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sidney and she’d even heard of the director. A German called Fritz Lang. When she was a kid, before the talkies came in, she’d even seen at the local suburban fleahouse that weird film he made about an underground city in the future. It was rather horrifying and the audience had booed it – but she did remember it, and she was as interested as Donald was in what the man would do now that he was in America.

The rowdies quietened when everybody stood up for the national anthem – they always did – but they started up again during the cartoon and the travelogue. Some of them even mimicked the man who narrated the travelogue when he came to “and so we reluctantly say farewell…” at the end. There were jeers and laughter and a voice said “I bet he’s really glad to get out of some of those places.”

They didn’t have an ice-cream in the interval. The tram fare had cost too much. They stayed in their seats till the big picture began.

It was nice and gentle at the beginning. Donald and Maggie relaxed and held hands in the dark and, as usual, got used to those funny American accents.

Sylvia Sidney and Spencer Tracy were standing outside a shop window looking at bridal gowns and beds. They really wanted to get married, but they didn’t have the money. She had to catch a train to take up a teaching job far away from him.

You could see she really loved him. When he accidentally tore his coat, she took out thread and sewed up the tear. And before she got on the train she gave him the wedding ring that had belonged to her mother, with his name now engraved on the inside.

You could see he was a really good man. He took a nice little stray dog home with him, and when he got home he tried to set his little brother straight by telling him not to do odd jobs for a local gangster. Then he set himself and his brothers up in a good respectable job, running a petrol station. The months went by as quickly as they do in a film until the time came for him to travel off to meet Sylvia Sidney again and get married.

Donald and Maggie were really enjoying it up to this point. It was a real love story and it reminded them of all the people they knew who couldn’t afford to get married because it was still hard to find jobs even under the new Labour government.

But then, quite suddenly, it became as shocking as that American magazine had warned it would be.

Spencer Tracy and his little dog were driving harmlessly through the country, when they were stopped by this man with a shot-gun. He said Spencer Tracy had to come to the police station. In no time, the man they called a “sheriff” in America was accusing him of being a kidnapper and he thought he had proof of this because Spencer Tracy liked eating “peanuts” and the person who did the kidnapping seemed to have been someone who liked “peanuts”. So they put Spencer Tracy in jail to wait for his trial.

But this was where the really horrible part began. Because the “sheriff’s” deputy  - the man with the shot-gun - started going around the small town boasting that he had caught the kidnapper. And you could see rumour and gossip spreading with the women just as bad as the men. And soon a great crowd gathered outside the jail, making jokes and saying they weren’t going to wait for any trial. They were going to punish the kidnapper straight away. And again, the women were just as angry and jeering as the men.

So many things were shocking here. You thought the “sheriff” was being tough on Spencer Tracy, but he turned out to be the only one prepared to defend the jail from the crowd. And you could see Spencer Tracy looking out through the bars of his cell on the gathering mob outside, with only the little dog to comfort him. And you thought armed policemen – they apparently call them “state troopers” in America – were going to come to the rescue. But then there was the most horrible moment in the film when an official of the governor, who commanded the “state troopers”, called them back because he said he wanted to win the next election and so he didn’t want to interfere with whatever the townspeople chose to do.

Were politicians really as bad as that in America? It was horrible. Donald and Maggie slumped in their seats with the shock of it. The audience has gone really quiet except for somebody who muttered “Bloody hell!” under his breath.

And it got worse. There was the violence of the mob breaking into the jail screaming for blood. Tear-gas being thrown.  And a heart-stopping moment where Sylvia Sidney got to the jail just in time to see it being burnt down. She had only found out what was happening to her fiancé after the mob was already running riot. She could see Spencer Tracy still behind the bars of his cell as the flames licked up. The whole huge screen filled with her horrified face. Later in the film she fainted when something reminded her of those flames.

Maggie almost did the same.

You thought that the worst of it was over when the jail burnt down, but it wasn’t. After the real kidnappers were caught and convicted, members of the mob were prosecuted for what was called a “lynching” and for the murder of Spencer Tracy, who was now known to be innocent. They hadn’t found his body in the burnt-down jail, but they had found the wedding ring he’d been given and they thought he was dead. It turns out there have been thousands of “lynchings” in America up to the time the film was made. That is what one of the lawyers said in the film. And he also said that witnesses never came forward to help prosecute those who “lynched” people, because the witnesses always came from the same small towns as the people being prosecuted. You saw that in the film. Even the “sheriff” who had defended the jail refused to identify any of the men and women who had burnt it down.

But then the prosecuting lawyer brought a newsreel cameraman into the courtroom. He had a projector and showed the film he had taken during the riot. And they stopped the newsreel every so often so that you could see individual people – the same people who were now being prosecuted. And there was this man who was cutting a fireman’s hose so that he couldn’t put out the blaze at the jail. And there was this woman throwing a petrol bomb. And there was this fine citizen directing a battering ram to smash the door on the jail building. And you could see the people being prosecuted suddenly going pale as they faced this clear evidence of what they had done, and suddenly losing their cockiness and gasping and sobbing and one woman praying and shrieking for forgiveness.

Later on, Donald told Maggie it reminded him of the riots they’d had in Auckland in 1932. There were all those nice people and hungry men going mad for a while and then afterwards wondering why they’d done it and slinking away. But at least nobody had been killed in Auckland.

The film had a happy ending of sorts. Spencer Tracy came into the courtroom and was reunited with Sylvia Sidney and the people who wanted to kill him were taught a lesson. But it was still a shocking experience.

Donald and Maggie didn’t worry about the tram-fare going home. They were very quiet. Donald asked Maggie if she’d minded going to such a tough film, and she said no, she hadn’t, but it was all very shocking. There was so much to think about. The way that nice man Spencer Tracy became bitter and wanting revenge in the second half of the film. You didn’t expect that. The way the “sheriff” tried to uphold the law sometimes and sometimes gave in to the mob. He wasn’t exactly the man they thought he was when he first arrested Spencer Tracy. And all those people who believed rumours and did terrible things. And those facts about “lynching”. And the cynicism of so many people. It was nice to live in a country where the police didn’t carry firearms and where people weren’t “lynched”, but it was still worrying to think that ordinary people could do those things.

The following week Donald and Maggie saw a silly musical with Jessie Matthews and the week after that it was a swashbuckler of some sort. They enjoyed both, but it was the “lynching” film they talked about for the next couple of months whenever the topic of films came up.

Donald didn’t admit it, but he had the occasional dream about it. Especially that big close-up of Sylvia Sidney, filling the whole huge cinema screen, looking horrified. And that still shot of the woman throwing the petrol bomb. Sometimes he found it hard to remind himself that it was, after all, only a film, and to go back to sleep.

It was one of those Friday evenings when the teenage kids had taken over the downstairs television to watch a high-class soap-opera on DVD. So Evan and Linda were forced upstairs into Evan’s study. They used to watch movies on Friday nights with the kids – a great bonding family-togetherness exercise – but now the kids’ tastes had outgrown their’s and the custom had largely ceased.

Still Evan and Linda wanted to watch something, so they had hit on watching movies either on DVD or on Youtube via Evan’s computer.

They enjoyed watching old movies made long before either of them was born.

This week, Evan had discovered that Fritz Lang’s first American film, the 1936 production Fury, was available on Youtube, but cut up into six “parts” so that you had to “change reels” every 14 minutes or so.

He’d seen famous stills from the film reproduced in the older movie books he had on his shelves – a high-angle shot of the mob seen through prison bars; the mob, with an angry woman at their head; Spencer Tracy cuddling his little dog; and a couple of others. He knew the film was once highly regarded, but he had never seen it. He also knew that it had been made in the days of Hollywood’s old Production Code, when censorship insisted on happy endings and villains always got their come-uppance and crime was always punished.

He knew a few other bits of movie lore about Fury.

There was the widespread belief that Fritz Lang’s study of mob violence was partly influenced by riots he had seen in Germany in the years before Hitler came to power. Lang had wanted the Spencer Tracy character to really be guilty of the crime of which he was accused, so that the film could make the more challenging argument that lynching was still wrong, even if the lynch-victim really was guilty of something. MGM’s executives wouldn’t allow this, so the more familiar “innocent victim” scenario was substituted. On a sillier note, there was the fact that three years after Fury was made, the same little dog that Spencer Tracy cuddled was cast as Toto in The Wizard of Oz and went with Judy Garland to the land of the Munchkins.

All this Evan knew, but he also knew that movies which once had a very high reputation, and were once regarded as genuinely shocking and moving, could seem antiquated, naïve and even primitive in technique years later. It would probably be true of a 77-year-old film.

He duly warned Linda of all this as they sat down to watch the computer screen and shared a bottle of wine.

The early romantic stuff between Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sidney was quite charming in its old-fashioned way, with the camera favouring Sidney’s big brimming eyes that always looked as if she were going to cry even when she was smiling. You had to admire the sheer film-craft of that old black-and-white cinematography, and the subtle-for-their-day ironies built into the screenplay. Sidney says she likes peanuts because Tracy likes peanuts. But later in the film you can see she has grown beyond this dependent idea of what love is, when she disagrees with his concept of revenge.

Linda laughed at the sick jokes placed in the script, quite daring for their day. There’s an early scene in a barbershop where a barber, with a cut-throat razor, says he just manages to control the impulse he sometimes has to slit a throat – and he is then surprised when the customer he was shaving bolts through the door. There’s also the scene where the sheriff tells one of the most obnoxious instigators of the lynch mob “Behave yourself, or I’ll make the county take you and all your relatives off the dole”. It had a hearty cynicism to it, and was quite surprising from the Hollywood of 1936.

Evan was interested to note that the blabber-mouth deputy was played by Walter Brennan, who later made a career playing ornery old coots.

When the violence got going, it was relatively tame by later standards. You could see much worse on the early-evening news every night, when the kids were watching, with riots and shootings in Syria and Egypt and so forth. No explicit gore. No visible blood. All within the Production Code. Yet the sense of hysteria was still palpable; and even if some of the images were over-familiar from film-books, Lang’s placings of the camera and the editing were persuasive. People degenerated into a mob and then came back from the experience pretending it had never happened. That was still real enough. Another director might have inserted a sequence of a parson telling the mob that violence was evil. Not Lang. In the aftermath of the riot, one woman reports that the local minister has told his congregation that it’s simply best not to talk about the riot. The representative of religion effectively acquiesces in what has happened.

Where have the old lynch mobs gone nowadays?” Linda wondered out loud. Perhaps they have become the type of people who write angry and ignorant comments after Youtube postings, ring up talk-back radio and try to close down complex arguments with glib one-liners and slogans on Facebook.

So organized ignorance was still a problem and Fury had to be respected for addressing it. And yet, there were big problems with this film, they both agreed.

Wasn’t it highly evasive to make a film about lynching in the USA with an all-white cast and without any mention of the fact that for years, and mainly in the South, most lynching victims had been black? Evan remembered with amusement seeing another oldie on Youtube – the early 1950s shocker Storm Warning, which was supposedly an expose of the Ku Klux Klan, but which also managed to have no black characters in it and which ignored altogether what the main purpose of the KKK was. He had heard about the way Old Hollywood had always been afraid of alienating its white Southern audience. Maybe this was what operated in Fury too.

In the Old Hollywood manner, much of the dialogue was rhetorical and spelled things out in case the audience didn’t get them. There were lectures about lynching from the prosecuting council. It was often simplistic. It was fun to see Spencer Tracy becoming an unforgiving nasty bastard, against audience expectations, for most of the second half of the film. But his final speech to the court was artificial rhetoric about the sanctity of the law. The final clinch with Sylvia Sidney was sheer impertinence.

There was one thing of historical interest, though. The way the defendants were shocked to see their crimes documented in a newsreel, which must have been a very high-tech idea 77 years ago. Maybe this was the very distant ancestor of current debates about the ubiquity of CCTV and the “watched society”.

And yet, Evan and Linda agreed, there was still much food for thought in the film. It didn’t cheat its 1936 audience, even if it had to work within the conventions of its day. It gave them plenty to think about. And those riot scenes – and especially that freeze-frame of a woman throwing a petrol bomb – were still at least a little shocking. To see something like that in a film so old was like catching grandpa out doing something really wicked.

But Evan and Linda knew they were cheating watching it on a small screen, even if it was a comparatively large computer. All those big screen-filling close-ups were robbed of their force on the small screen. They did not dominate a crowd in a darkened theatre. They were just more data in a lighted room.

How different it would have been to see it in a movie house when it was new.

Linda and Evan agreed - you could talk about it intellectually. You could deconstruct it, historicise it and point out its conventions.

But you could never reconstruct exactly how people reacted to these old movies when they first came out.

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