Salvation through the Vales

JMJ

WHO GETS SAVED HERE? Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) and then Tina Durrance How is this salvation accomplished? Charlotte falls in love and directs that love to something good, sacrificing herself to save Tina as well.

There’s a lot here that can be worked with. Charlotte’s relationship with her mother (Gladys Cooper) seems to be beyond rescuing, although it comes close as she works through her own issues at the Cascade Sanitarium. What happens there is she comes into her own: she manages to be someone other than her Mother’s daughter/servant.

I found the plot line disturbing in a number of ways. The only way out for Davis is through. Mom has to die here for the thing to work. There is even the one spooky voice over “remember ‘honor thy parents’ is still a good idea.” but even that bow to tradition is unworkable here when the only way for Davis to honor her mother is to kill her. That’s a symbol of course. Good Freudian psychology talks of the domineering mother and the absent father. That’s what’s going on here. Of course, Freud usually talks about men in this role, but here it’s a woman. Davis is destroyed, nearly, by her mother’s controlling nature. No man is good enough. No clothing is mean enough. No shoes are sensible enough. Any attempt at looking pretty is frowned upon. Any attempt to “have fun” is decried as “common”.

All of these should, from an “ultra-traditional” Orthodox view, be perfectly fine. From an “Orthodox Taliban” mode, these should all be required. (I’ve seen the “Ortho-burkha” on women who veil their head by wrapping up most of their body.) The only thing missing is fasting and Mrs. Vale frowns on dieting so I doubt that would happen.

So, the plot carries an odd double message to me, one side is good, the other bad. How do you live within a tradition that destroys you? So much of this movie made me stumble… the question must be why do I love it so much?

Then there is the relationship with Charlotte and Jerry (Paul Henreid): it is, from the get-go, right on the dividing line between moral and immoral. It is nearly – but not quite – adultery. They love each other, this is evident even from the meeting on the boat going ashore. They take only a few days to realize it and then, suddenly, just when in a modern movie they would have been “doing it” they are parted. They only see each other three more times in the rest of the movie. But it must be said that Jerry is staying married because he must and that neither he nor Charlotte will cross that line – as much as they desperately want – because of their honor for Jerry’s honoring of that vow.

Is there such a thing as “unfaithful in heart”? Jerry is that… he sends flowers daily to Charlotte. But his love and honor for the vow he made his wife means that he will stay with her, care for her until death do they part.

Every time Jerry and Charlotte see each other, there is torture. There is temptation. There is heartbreak. Until finally, there is no more. And there is, here as well, healing.

And last, there is Charlotte’s relationship with Jerry’s daughter, Tina Durrance (Janis Wilson). Seeing in Tina no small part of herself, she takes it upon herself to care and protect Tina. She shows Tina the love she never had shown to her. In that love the very things that her own mother did to her are healed: yes, she tells Tina how to dress and even how to walk. But she does it in love and in care and with an eye towards Tina’s growth – rather than stunting the same. Charlotte becomes what she had never known by virtue of her willingness to sacrifice herself. She becomes what she is-not by giving up what she has become…

And there the whole thing either falls apart or else transforms into something else.

As mentioned, I was disturbed when I first saw this movie because it seemed to say “deny your family, have illicit affairs and everything will come out right.”

But last night (writing this in 2004) an offhanded line that I had always taken to be sort of Freudian blasphemy suddenly struck me as the key to another level of this movie: a level whereby it all weaves together to tell a very different story, a very Christian one.

Charlotte has a private meeting with Dr Jaquith. She asks to help – or more directly to take over – Tina’s care. After that scene, as Charlotte is running off, this little coda takes place:

Jaquith: But you’re only on probation. Remember what it says in the Bible, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.
Charlotte: How does it feel to be the Lord?
Jaquith: Not so very wonderful since the free will bill got passed: too little power!

And therein I hit on a sort of skeleton key that unlocks a whole new corridor of meanings for this movie.

Forget Freud. Jaquith is God. (Jaquith is the family name version of the French Jaques – Jacob. Meaning “God has protected”.) Forget mother: Mrs Vale is the evil one, the destroyer of souls. The only time her name is used, she is introduced as “Mrs Henry Windle Vale”. Henry means “home ruler” or “home power”. Windle means a “winch”. Vale… well it’s not the kind you wear on your face, yes. But it is, at least phonetically, the same. And the tie-in is made once in the movie too when Tina says it quite clearly. Mother’s name could mean “The Home Power which ropes you in, covering your eyes to the world”. Or even it could mean, “The one who rules the home covers you up and ties you down.”

Jerry comes from “Jeremiah” and it means “God has uplifted”

Tina, of course, comes from the name Christina and it has the obvious meaning: Christian, little Christ.

Durrance – to endure.

Finally, the telling name is Charlotte: it comes from the Germanic Karl (via the French) and it means, simply, man. Charlotte is Everyman.

Her story is played out quite clearly thus:

In this world, in the hands of destroyer of souls, we lose, gradually, ourselves. We loose, gradually, our own sanity as we pattern ourself after the Ruler of the Home (the evil one) who has usurped the place of a loving Father. So much of our life is spent fighting him (or her) off on our own. We never notice that even in the fighting we only play into his strength. We never note that, without help, we must surely fall.

Help comes from repentance, from metanoia – herein symbolized by confession and admitting the fall.

Confession: the disturbing scene between Charlotte and the Doctor in her bedroom returns one to paradise that is Cascade: a name meaning “fall”. One has confession and moves up to the Cascade – paradise.

God protects one if one is willing to go through rather than around or away.

God sends one on a journey. The ship is baptism – and the Church. Charlotte is booked on the ship as “Renee” a name which means “born again”. Jerry gives Charlotte, the Born again Everyman, a new name: Camille – which name is the French version (both feminine and masculine) of Camillus, a Latin name meaning “attendant at a religious service”. It don’t get much easier to read than this Folks, sorry. I had no idea it would ride this far.

On the ship they sail into Rio de Janeiro – the River of Janus, the god who looks both ways and watches over new birth. They ascend to the Christus Statue (eventually).

And then she returns home… where, like John in Pilgrims Regress she must slay the dragon and eventually she does.

Thus, in slaying the dragon (her Mom dies) she finally claims what is hers by right: she must return to paradise, although now it is really the Church. We don’t see so much of Dr Jaquith save to confirm her in her new work: that of raising up a Christian.

In this new work, she must build a community – a family of sorts – one that is crafted not on “home rule” but rather on love. She does this in her own home, supporting the Christian that is growing there. She must fend off temptation as she finally does in the last scene. She must learn to love chastely and to use that love to, if I may be forgiven the obvious pun on Jerry’s last name, endure to the end so that she may be saved.

Salvation & John Wayne

This essay was part of a project in 2004 called “Salvation and the Silver Screen“. It was intended to be a bunch of Orthodox bloggers watching old movies and then commenting on the theological content.

JMJ

I WATCHED THE BEST MOVIE last night (that is, in 2004), The Angel and the Badman (Republic, 1947). It is a John Wayne movie, and it is produced by John Wayne, thus I’m tempted to imagine we might learn a good bit more about Mr Wayne here than otherwise.

Synopsis

Wayne plays Quirt Evans, not the Badman of the title I think, but certainly, there are two badmen here – Quirt and his competition, Laredo Stevens (Bruce Cabot). The movie opens with a shootout between Stevens’ gang and Quirt Evans. The chase scene plays behind the opening credits and, just as the credits end, Evans’ horse collapses a few yards in front of a horse and buggy being ridden by Thomas Worth and his daughter, Penelope. They are Quakers and, seeing a sick man, they nurse him back to health. During his several days of near-coma, Evans mutters in his sleep. The Quaker family hear all of it – the shootouts, the bawdy times, the drinking.

Though it all the family doctor (Tom Powers) tells them this is a bad man they must toss out in the street as soon as they are able. The family refuses to, saying they would no more hurt a man just because he was bad than they would hurt the Doctor because he is of a different faith. “Build your house by the side of the road and be a friend to man” quips the doctor.

But of course if you’re determined to watch over him, Penny, you’d better take a pencil and paper with you. His first conscious words should be recorded. They may be of great interest to history…or more possibly the United States Marshal! Who knows what violence is involved with his battered frame and his bullet holes.

When Quirt comes to, the first thing he sees is Penelope weaving a garment on a loom. In short order, for a movie, she falls in love. But this feeling never seems to happen to Quirt. He is mystified by these people, he is awestruck by the beauty of the young woman who has fallen for him, but he can’t bring himself to stay.

The Quakers, of course, will not let Quirt bring his gun into the house. The chase finally catches up and armed men stand on the Worth farm. Quirt sits with an unloaded gun and negotiates with his rival. It is a tense moment, but it is Quirt’s first clue that something – other than the gun – might be stronger. The family never ceases to make light of his gun.

Penelope Worth: Surely you can walk to the barn without that!
Quirt Evans: What?
Penelope Worth: The gun!
Quirt Evans: Oh, well, it balances me. One leg is longer than the other. You know, the weight.

When he finds out that a neighbor, Frederick Carson (Paul Hurst) has damned up all the water, rather than use his gun against the enemy, Quirt uses his reputation – a bad man – to frighten the man into releasing the water. In return, the Worth farm helps Carson – a bachelor – with baked products, canned vegetables, and some home medicine. Quirt is struck by this act of charity – and by the healing it causes to pass in the neighbor rancher.

All through the movie the local marshal, Wistful McClintock (Harry Carey), wanders through the scenes, wondering if Quirt has broken any laws and why it is that he has not yet gotten into a gunfight with his rival, Stevens. McClintock is certain that one day Stevens and Evans will shoot it out and he (the Sheriff) will get to hang the survivor.

Territorial Marshal Wistful McClintock: When are you and Laredo Stevens going to get around to killing each other?
Quirt Evans: Laredo? Well, we water our horses at the same trough.
Territorial Marshal Wistful McClintock: Well, I’m sure looking forward to hanging the survivor.

The family invites Quirt along for a Sunday ride and, surprise, it turns out they are going off to a Meeting. The Quaker Community presents Quirt with a Bible in thanks for his actions that freed up the local water supply. As Quirt looks around he sees the walls closing in: the community standing around him, the young Penelope playing with a baby… He sees the trap about to be sprung and he runs away. Penelope is crestfallen, the family confused, and Evans is stranded.

Out in the world, he returns to bar fights and bawdy women – but he is haunted and distant. His partner in crime, Randy McCall (Lee Dixon), takes up reading the Bible and asking Quirt questions. They plan and procure a cattle heist – stealing a herd from his rival, Stevens, as they, themselves, had already stolen it. There is no gunfight, really, and no one is dead afterward. But Stevens is angry and he, again, sets out on a chase for Evans.

After a celebratory night in a hotel barroom fight, Evans and McCall end up in their room, women sitting on their laps and whiskey on their breath. McCall asks a Bible question and one of the women laughs, saying she never imagined that Quirt Evans would be carrying around a Bible. He picks her up off his lap and throws her on the bed and storms out – back to the Worth farm.

It’s only a day or so of reconciliations before the Stevens gang shows up – they catch Quirt and Penelope picking blackberries. There is a shootout and a chase. Quirt and Penelope fly over a cliff into a river where they hide in the cold water until the gang leaves. Pulling her from the water, Quirt finds that it has all been too much for Penelope who has swooned. Bringing her home, the family sends for the Doctor who announces that she’ll be gone soon.

At that Quirt grabs his gun to storm into town. The doctor advises him that this would not be a good idea – Penelope may be in a coma, but she’ll know. He’ll never be able to think about her again without knowing how she would feel about these actions. Off rides the angry Quirt. At that, Penelope wakes up. The doctor finds her dressed and healthy and pronounces it all to be a miracle. But the doctor and the family are sure that Quirt has ridden off to perdition.

Dr. Mangrum: If I felt cynical, this would be a good opportunity to observe that we’re about to see a perfect example of an eye for an eye. Unfortunately, I can’t quote chapter and verse.

As Quirt calls out into the street the Stevens gang, there is a long few moments in the bar when the gang prepares itself with extra whiskey. Then the entire town clears out of the streets for fear of the shootout that is about to happen. As he leaves his corner and walks through the dusty street to the saloon door, Quirt is called from behind: the Worth family, with Penelope laying in a pile of blankets in the back of the buggy. Quirt walks over to see the miracle and stands there in awe. Suddenly Stevens comes out of the bar and, finding Quirt with his back to them, they move to shoot.

Two shots ring out.

And the Stevens gang drops. Quirt and the Worths spin every which way finding, at last, the Sheriff standing there saying, “I always thought I’d get to kill the one leftover…”

Quirt rides off with the Worth family in the back of the buggy, holding Penelope. Before he can get in, she takes his gun from him. As they drive away, she drops the gun into the dust.

Commentary

Ok, I’m sorry if this seems too obvious but it’s all there. All of it – salvation and the Holy Mysteries. There is confession – in the long scenes of comatose babbles when his past comes out and in several scenes when QUirt recounts his past to Penelope. There is the teaching of the faith to the Catechumen – from the very moment he wakes up:

Quirt Evans: Is that Quaker stuff?
Penelope Worth: Uh huh.
Quirt Evans: You mean that nobody can hurt you but yourself?
Penelope Worth: That’s a Friend’s belief.
Quirt Evans: Well, suppose someone whacks you over the head with a branding iron? Won’t that hurt?
Penelope Worth: Physically, of course. But in reality it would injure only the person doing the act or force of violence. Only the doer can be hurt by a mean or evil act.
Quirt Evans: Are there very many of you Quakers?
Penelope Worth: Very few.
Quirt Evans: I sort of figured that.

There is a believer’s baptism, in the river. There is communion in its most basic form: the Worths constantly feed Quirt and give away their food to their neighbors. There is even ordination in that marriage makes man the priest of his household and the Community has recognized (in the Bible scene) that Quirt and Penelope are a couple, and there is, really, marriage at the end.

I noted that I didn’t think Quirt was the “Badman” of the title. I think the “Badman” is Stevens. Quirt is torn between the path of Life represented by Penelope and the deadly path of Stevens. Whistful McClintock is, really, the serpent in the garden here. The sheriff walks around tempting both men to acts of evil so that, in the final scene, the sheriff may get both of their souls. Quirt’s final choice for Life rather than Death results in the end of temptation – not a very Orthodox teaching, but certainly a valued point in that it ends the movie.

I was several times struck with the odd parallels between Orthodoxy and Quakerism (at least as this later tradition is presented in the movie). The lack of judgment, the insistence on the good of people, the forgiveness, the humility, the service – the parallels were numerous. Parallels ran hand in hand with the perpendiculars though:

Quirt Evans: I thought you weren’t allowed to work on Sunday.
Penelope Worth: Oh, Quirt, there’s nothing we’re not allowed to do. It’s just that we don’t believe in doing what we know is wrong.
Quirt Evans: Well, that makes it pretty much each fella’s own guess.
Penelope Worth: But each fella knows inside.
Quirt Evans: Well, there’s a lot of gents I wouldn’t want to give that much leeway to.

What starts out as a good solid Orthodox idea (“nothing we’re not allowed to do” – which I’m hearing in the same way that I know that breaking the fast is not a breaking of the Law from which we are freed) quickly turns into individualistic western silliness – everyone can do it. John Wayne sees the fault right up front, though.

But it is Quirt’s choices, despite his temptations, despite his giving in to them, that bring about his salvation. He is saved finally because he works it out in fear and trembling: he knows what’s right, he’s even tasted of the heavenly banquet, but in the end, he almost caves in. It is the voice of his love that calls him back though, and in the final shot, it is the bullets of the evil one that bring the curtain down on evil as Love rides off into the sunset.

Salvation in All About Eve

This essay was part of a project in 2004 called “Salvation and the Silver Screen“. It was intended to be a bunch of Orthodox bloggers watching old movies and then commenting on the theological content. Best laid plans… I don’t remember why the other folks didn’t make posts. “I have taken a wife, I have five yoke of oxen…” Anyway, I found the posts buried in my LiveJournal and so now they’er here. This one is All About Eve. There are spoilers so you may want to watch the movie first.

JMJ

ONE THING POPULAR CULTURE DOES does really well is clone things. There was a whole culture called “clones” in the 70s: slender, trimmed mustaches, hair feathered just so, in the “wet look” or the “dry look” as was needed that week. Now there are just different “subclones”. There are clones called bears and clones called twinks, etc. They’re just all clones of each other, roughly interchangeable in a social sense. But outside of the culturally inbred bayous of San Francisco and Manhattan, there are many such cones. In the normal world of there are clones of housewives and clones of jocks, there are clones of movie stars and politicians. They are cloned for a reason: to make plentiful certain traits or genes or memes. What is the difference between a person and a clone? It’ll be hard to tell until judgment day.

Eve Harrington is a clone, a sort of proto-Fembot. We hear several versions of her story through the movie: it changes several times. We have no idea if the last one we heard is right. Eve is a self-made clone. Like all clones today she did it to herself. But there is a way out.

Evidently, the plot of All About Eve (20th Century Fox, 1950) is based on a true story that was fictionalized in Cosmopolitan, sometime in the mid40s. The Director and writer, Joseph L. Mankiewicz rather liked the Cosmo article and developed the story. When the screenplay was done, everyone who touched it liked it: even Bette Davis, notorious for rewriting scripts, had no complaints. Of all the scripts she saved, only AAE hasn’t any markings at all. According to the documentary on the disk, it seems one of the reasons everyone liked it is because everyone realized it was true and not a few people realized that it was true for the stars as well. Was Bette Davis playing Margo Channing or was she playing herself?

The plot is simple: Ms Channing, now 40, feels insecure about her age and her ability to play the young and beautiful Broadway starlet. Her friends – the writer Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), his wife Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), and the director, Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill) – are all at great pains to reassure her. Eve Harrington (Ann Baxter) arrives, pretending to be a devoted fan, who strives in every way to be like Margo Channing. Finally, conning Margo and her friends, and playing them off each other. she succeeds in her real goal: replacing Margo in her own play and then in a new play written for Margo by Lloyd. She makes a play for Bill – and fails. She makes a play for Lloyd – and fails. She ends up with Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), a bitter critic whose own purposes are not clear, but who values the power politics of the Theatre World and moves well among the temperamental, artsy folks who inhabit it. Addison’s hold on Eve turns out to be blackmail: where Eve had been playing people off of each other, Addison has tracked Eve. Addison plays Eve’s lies off of each other and Eve is thus trapped in the net of lies she created to entrap others.

Along the way, everyone has fights, there are a few choice zingers, at least one oft-quoted line (“Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night”), and some very memorable dialogue. But who gets saved?

The answer is not only on-screen but off. Everyone who played in this movie and everyone who comments on it, noted the near painful parallels with off-stage life. Bette Davis was, in fact, very much like Margo. Nearly everyone knew of her temper, her rewriting of scripts, her own fear of turning 40. Nearly everyone knew of her developing love for co-star Gary Merrill – Margo Channing not only had the same life as Davis, but she also had the same taste in men. So much is this true that as soon as all the correct papers were filed and all the divorces finalized Merrill and Davis were married.

The hitch comes in the middle of a drive through the winter countryside. The car is stopped. Action is, by virtue of having run out of gas, stopped. But more, the winter snows add another level of meaning to “frozen”. Everything is locked. Margo confesses her sadness, her weakness to Karen:

Funny business, a woman’s career, the things you drop on the way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you’ll need them again when you get back to being a woman. It’s one career all females have in common – being a woman. Sooner or later we’ve got to work at it no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted. And in the last analysis nothing is any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed and there he is. Without that you’re not a woman. You’re something with a French provincial office or a book full of clippings but you’re not a woman. Slow, curtain, the end.

Without that, you’re not a woman. Indeed, you’re only a simulacrum. The Movie takes great pains to draw a line between real people and simulacra. Hollywood – the world – produces a host of simulacra. We follow along, becoming each, in our own way, Rock Hudson or Larry the Cable Guy, Roseanne or Doris Day. But we do it alone – copying only what we see to “be ourselves” rather than to be in communion with others. And without that – without being in communion – you’re not a person. At all.

There lies the key. When Margo concedes her inability to go it alone, her need for a man in her life to be complete, her need for that man to be Bill Sampson, everything is set aright. It is not good for woman to be alone either.

Coming as it does at the end of the “Rosie the Riveter” era, this portion of the movie may be seen as a call to women to come back to the home. Baxter’s role of a displaced war-widow might be seen as highlighting this. And this is echoed at the end of the movie, where triumphant Eve is lured to Hollywood, instead of her own marriage to Addison, and so is trapped by her own doppelganger in the person of a young High School Girl, Phoebe, liberated on her own by schooling and Urban Culture. She is a simulacrum of a simulacrum – she is only a copy of Eve who is only a copy of Margo. But we go on making copies: because real people, persons in communion, are downright scary.

The rise in divorce and sexual immorality – both hinging on Women’s Lib and “Working Women” – may be seen as a failure to hear the call of this movie. Liberated Women – without the community of (eg) the Home Church are, at best, only females. But there is something more here than just that.

The movie notes not only Margo’s salvation, but also Bill’s. We are not saved alone. Margo’s salvation saves those around her, most especially her husband. They are saved together. Modern Men – without the community of the Home Church are, at best, only males. They are not men.

We are all pained by this loss. Mankiewicz focused on women because that’s what he liked to write about, but this could just as easily be told about men. Yes, some of the cattiness would be missing, some of the issues about clothing, unless we made the movie about the emasculated MetroSexuals, or a group of gay “Bears”, then the cattiness would stay. But masculine men would have a different dialogue and still convey the same truths about communion and personhood – or lack of communion and thus a real lack of real personhood, a relegation to simulacrum status.

There is a final painful parallel: Davis and Merrill divorced after ten years. Davis said, “A strange thing happened. Gary wanted to marry Margo Channing, instead he got me. I wanted Bill Sampson, and instead I married Gary.” This happens in nearly every situation in the world today – we do business with, we interact with, we fall in love with, we lust after simulacra. When reality pops up we run away.

Communion only happens with persons: simulacra can not commune.