18 Jan 2011, Comments (15)

A 1950s Alternative Universe

Author: Helen

I’m taking some weeks off work courtesy of the wonderful 48/52 , and having an at-home holiday with a rare respite from early mornings and reasonable bedtimes. So it was that on Saturday night I found myself watching a late-night 1950s black and white movie – something I haven’t done much of since the demise of Bill Collins and Ivan Hutchinson’s shows. Oh, how I used to love those old black and white movies (cue massive eyeroll from the kids). Some of the interest lies in a mixture of plot points which appear to have been written while dropping acid combined with gender and class expectations which are all too real.

This one was No Sad Songs For Me, starring Margaret Sullavan, who was quite a hoyden in her youth, with Natalie Wood as her abnormally well-adjusted daughter. According to Answers.com,

…Sentimental melodrama about a ridiculously self-sacrificing wife based on the book by Ruth Southard and starring a 12-year-old Natalie Wood. Mary Scott (Margaret Sullavan) is pregnant when she finds out that she has terminal cancer with only a few months left to live. She keeps this information a secret from her husband, Brad Scott (Wendell Corey), who is carrying on an affair with his assistant, Chris Radna (Viveca Lindfors). Mary encourages her husband to pursue Chris as a replacement wife and mother after she dies.

Heavy stuff, eh, especially as I was in Natalie Wood’s shoes in 1968, except that I was a year younger and not nearly as adorable, co-operative or conscientious with my piano practice. So the movie should have had me wallowing in memories and grief, except for that other marvellous feature of the 1950s B&W: the LOLWUT!? factor.

Consider the events which the writer of this weepie considered believable in 1950.

The movie opens with the happy family at breakfast discussing a new pregnancy. Mary says she’s off to the doctor that day to confirm. When she does, the doctor tells her sternly that she’s not pregnant and is never likely to be again. We’re given to understand that the doctor’s an old family friend, but this is all he tells her. Oh, and the hilarity – Doctor lights up a cig while giving her the bad news! In the surgery. Oh, the ’50s, those were the days.

Dr. Bedside Manner obviously has no intention of telling her anything at this point. He only tells her about her terminal cancer when she leaves the surgery, walks out to the car, is overcome by an unseemly attack of patient curiosity and walks back into his office to ask him for more details. We are asked to believe that the doctor has diagnosed the cancer some weeks ago yet hasn’t seen fit to tell the patient, who, remember, is also an old family friend. RIGHT.

Mary then says “I remember you’ve been taking dozens of X rays for the last few weeks!”

Wouldn’t you think a woman who thought she was pregnant, instead of harbouring a fatal illness, would question having “dozens of X rays” taken in the (presumed) early stages of the pregnancy? But these were the days of smoking in the doctor’s surgery. They didn’t have those namby-pamby, politically correct safety procedures.

In 1950, it appears, cancer was universally a death sentence. Mary asks Mr People Skills if operations or radiotherapy will do anything, and he replies that the treatment’s still in the experimental stage. Well, perhaps IF HE HAD TOLD HER EARLIER she might have had a chance to get a second opinion, or something.

Instead of going straight to a solicitor to file a medical malpractice suit – seeing as he’s a family friend, I guess – Mary swears the doctor to secrecy so that she can conceal her condition from her family. The doctor readily agrees with this, since obviously he’s given to withholding information anyway. Incredibly, although he can’t do anything at all about Mary’s cancer, he is able to give the most detailed prognosis: Nine months to live, six months of which will be “on her feet”. Modern oncologists would be amazed at the ability of cigarette-smokin’ 50s doctors to pinpoint the exact course of the illness.

The rest of the movie pretty much consists of Mary becoming more and more saintly. Her terminal cancer appears to involve no painkillers, curtailment of social activities or even symptoms, apart from the occasional frown and clutch of the hand to the abdomen, or a brief lie down on the couch. We are not told where this cancer is. One imagines that the ending will be Mary lying on lacy pillows becoming ever more beautiful and radiant as death approaches. However, it’s even more hokey than that.

After participating in a batty, and saintly, ruse to make sure her husband’s affair partner/girlfriend, Chris, is around to replace her(!) (LOLWUT!), Mary spills the beans. Husband, suitably devastated, breaks his philandering and working routine to take her on a second honeymoon to Mexico, where they dance together to a mariarchi band, after which Mary obligingly drops dead, thus eliminating the need for the sad bedridden final phase, and making the handover to Chris more seamless.

Although Chris is an exasperating entitled little shit, one can have some sympathy for her as she enters the movie in the guise of a professional draughtsperson working on a dam project with the husband, Brad / Wendell Cory. Thus we have the classic 1950s/1960s scene where the new worker turns out to be a WOMAN! Oh the HILARITY! The world turned upside down! The exchange between Brad, the hirer, and Chris, the prospective employee, illustrates perfectly the complete disdain for female employees and her need to plead and supplicate to convince him to give her the job despite her manifest inferiority. He demurs because the job’ll require her to go outside and it might rain! A woman might… melt, or something.

The plot then requires them to fall in lurve, but this is just predictable, because she’s a member of the sex class. That’s why we can’t have them on the job! They’ll distract the men!

In the final scene, the LOLWUT!? factor goes off the charts. Chris, the replacement mother, and the child Polly are sitting together at the piano playing a tragic musical piece. At this point, as far as Polly knows, Chris is the family friend/babysitter and Mum and Dad are just away on a nice holiday. The phone rings and Chris answers. It is terrible news from Mexico! Well, terrible for Mary, anyway. Chris makes some cryptic remark and they keep playing. Are they ever going to tell this kid anything? She never knew her mum was even sick. When are they going to actually let her know she’s DIED? The Wikipedia article on Margaret Sullavan says that her family life was fairly tortured and marked by suicide and institutionalisation. If this was the way 1950s families were supposed to handle family crises, I’m really not surprised. “Here’s your school lunch, dear. By the way, your mum’s not coming back from Mexico. She’s dead. I’m your new mum now. I’m sure Dad will explain everything when he gets back, but he’ll be a while because of organising the cold storage for the coffin ‘n all…”

Ah, those old black and white movies. If you’re ever tempted to join the conservatives in yearning for the Good old Days before the counterculture and modern medicine changed the world, when a man could still light up a satisfying fag in his doctor’s surgery and women knew their place, watch one of these and marvel. On the other hand, there’s no room for complacency yet; Judd Apatow and Charlie Sheen still churn out stuff which future generations will watch and…LOLWUT?!
Crossposted at Hoyden About Town

Comments (15) »

  • boynton says:

    Fabulous review, Helen!
    Very sad to have missed this one myself.
    I do genuinely love these old b&w bill and ivans, although this one seems so thick with sentimentality it was built for deconstruction.

  • Fine says:

    I love Margaret Sullivan. I learnt about her from my Mum, whilst watching on black and white films. She just has this wonderful mixture of comedy and pathos that she does so well. Her best film is ‘The Shop Around the Corner’, directed by Ernst Lubitsch. This still gets regular runs at the the Astor in St. Kilda and is as sweet as. It was disastrously remade as ‘You’ve Got Mail’ with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

    I also recommend ‘Little Man, What Now?’ which is a Depression melodrama and ‘The Mortal Storm’, which is set in Germany at the beginning of World War II. These last two were directed by Frank Borzage, who’s a little forgotten now, but directed works of black and white luminosity and romanticism.

    Rudolph Mate who directed ‘No Sad Songs for Me’ was a very important cameraperson in Europe, in the 1920s and was one of the many filmworkers who escaped to Hollywood in the 30s. But, he wasn’t much a director. But, one thing which is important to notice, is that even though this film is naff, women were at the centre of cinema in a way they simply aren’t now.

    Sullavan’s daughter, Brooke Hayward, wrote a really interesting autobiography about growing up in Hollywood called ‘Haywire’. I remember she wrote her Mum was brilliant at shielding her from the effects of stardom, but that she had long term problems with depression, which ended in her suicide. Hayward ended up married to Dennis Hopper and had similar problems. Talk about a walking disaster.

  • boynton says:

    Yes – I’m a Margaret Sullavan fan too, probably from watching The Mortal Storm with my mother and Ivan/Bill at midday years ago. It’s regrettable that these movies moved mainly to Pay – if only because of that loss of inter-generational dialogue.

  • Meredith says:

    What a great post, thank you. Tragic and funny.

  • Kath Lockett says:

    Look, I have to ask – what does LOLWUT stand for? (blush blush)

  • Helen says:

    It’s a bit of the US slang which is insidiously creeping into my brain.
    (Laugh out loud), WHAT!?!!

  • genevieve says:

    thanks for asking, as I needed a translation too – I know LOL and WTF and ROFL and my son’s specialty, ROYDL (roll on your driveway laughing), which I reckon will take off one of these days…
    and thanks also Helen for the great review – we started watching and got as far as the interview for the new draughtsperson. Unintentionally hilarious – however I did find Sullavan kept me watching even though I much prefer Sarah Polley’s more contemporaneous take on a similar situation.

  • Helen says:

    Sarah Polley = Away from Her? I see what you mean there. I haven’t seen that one. I googled Sarah Polley and noticed she was in The Sweet Hereafter. Talk about a gutwrenching treatment of death. I’ve seen that once and can never watch it again, which is a shame as I’m sure there would be a lot to get out of a second watching.

  • genevieve says:

    Yes, TSH would indeed be good to see again – I think I saw it at the movies, would like to get hold of it though. She is a remarkable actress. Away From Her was the first thing I could think of when the premise of Sing No Sad Songs came up on the teev guide. But I would imagine the story’s been done elsewhere too. I was surprised to see it in 1950 myself.

  • Ann O'Dyne says:

    This theme of ‘dying-mom engineers replacement’ has been done quite a bit. StepMom http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120686/
    Susan Sarandon is one) but jeepers Helen – you lived it?.
    Your brilliant deconstruct has more worth than the film, which I abandoned as Natalie skipped off alone to her music lesson because “you have to start being alone sometime dear”.
    Margaret Sullavan was the child-queen of weepies though, and they are only on payTV because Ted Turner bought them all.
    When Australian TV began in 1956, we babyboom-ers were lucky to be fed many many B-movies dumped on our new market by Hollywood housecleaning. Noir films, Marx Bros, everything Ann Sheridan ever did and all the great costumes she did it in. It was all wonderful and formed my entire cultural frame of reference.

  • Helen says:

    Oh, no, I didn’t live the “mom-replacement” drama. I kind of identified with Polly as I was 11 when my mum died, but it didn’t get THAT weird.

  • Fine says:

    I think the Sarah Polley film you may mean is ‘My Life Without Me’, in which she plays a woman dying from cancer, who hides it from her family.


  • Helen says:

    Oh, I haven’t seen that one, Fine. I’m due for a DVD shop run soon, so I’ll have a look for it.

    I used to be a sucker for sad movies, but now I find them harder. I think it’s an age thing.

  • The Blytonly Obvious says:

    The gulf between the Fifties and today is quite staggering sometimes. I recently had to explain to a younger cousin why the girls weren’t allowed to go exploring in the dark with the boys in Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven books.

  • “If you’re ever tempted to join the conservatives in yearning for the Good old Days…” I’m a 3-pillar conservative (i.e a born again Christian, voting for small government and a strong national defense) and I wholly reject that comment. Ecclesiastes 7:10 clearly states that our hearts should look forward to the day when the ungodly will be finally separated from those of us who have repented of our sins (Matthew 25:41,46) and trusted in Jesus who bore the full wrath of God for all sin so that any and all who choose may receive eternal life. The unsaved shall be cast into the lake of fire, where your thoughts are humbled, your conscience will shame you, unquenchable flames will torment, and you’ll be consciously broken for all eternity. Jesus warns in Luke 13:3,5: Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. You’ve been served a gospel message, so now you have less excuse and more shame to receive at judgment unless you ask Jesus to save you.

    I consider myself served, Silver-pictures! Thanks, but I’m pretty much doomed to the hellfire already. Toodles!

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