Posted by gregferrara on September 4, 2013
Message movies, sometimes referred to as “social dramas,” are one of the few types of movies (couldn’t really call them a genre as they work within each separate genre to spread their joy of smug wisdom) that can make even the battle-tested cinephile cringe. Movie lovers don’t want messages, they want movies. They want art and art doesn’t use a message as its starting point. The message might come into it at some point but that’s not the central building block. There may well be a hundred messages in Citizen Kane, starting with something about losing one’s soul and never being able to replace it with material goods, but Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles (and John Houseman and Joseph Cotten, et al) didn’t sit down thinking, “We have a message we want to convey. Now let’s build a story around it.”. It’s when a movie is made with a specific message in mind that it can run afoul of its art (and I use art, as I always do, to mean high, low, good, bad and everything in between). Other times, the art wins out but just barely.
What got me thinking about all this is Storm Center, a 1956 message movie starring Bette Davis and directed by writer Daniel Taradash. It plays on TCM today and while I’d like to say it’s a good time to be had for all, it’s not. It’s a message movie and a pretty heavy-handed one at that. But it does have Bette Davis and she’s excellent as always so it’s a good watch for that reason alone and, frankly, a good way to see how a message can tear a movie down. The particular message here is one of tolerating different political philosophies and the freedom of expression. Bette Davis plays a librarian who, in exchange for expanding the library, is asked to remove a book from the shelves, something called The Communist Dream. She refuses, the town turns against her and witch hunting season ramps up early with everyone applying for a hunting license. The message really is the whole movie so it’s recommended more for the little things, not the least of which is the opening credit sequence by Saul Bass.
But what about when the message works? I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is most definitely a message movie, exactly the type of social drama that Joel McCrea’s John L. Sullivan might want to make if the studio would only let him (as long as he adds a little sex). But the thing is, it works without the message, too. I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is just a damn good movie, period. It’s got robberies, chain gangs, escapes, blackmail, and, on top of all that, a heartbreaking ending. It works in conveying its message only because it works so well as art in and of itself first. Paul Muni and director Mervyn LeRoy seem intent on entertaining us first, educating us second (or third or fourth or just completely by accident). The escape in the swamp or the one in the truck with dynamite isn’t about a smug instruction on the sad state of the chain gang system of justice but a rousing, tense and riveting way to hurl the story along its dramatic route.
Sometimes a message movie works despite itself. Stanley Kramer became the king of message movies and it was the messages that made him a success. He even later admitted of his own production company, “Instead of relying on star names, we pinned our faith in stories that had something to say.” With Kramer, it really was all about the message. Did it work? Depends on how you look at it.
For me, most of Kramer’s movie work as vehicles for actors. The Defiant Ones provide good counterpoints for Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis to play. Inherit the Wind gives Spencer Tracy great speeches and Fredric March lots of scenery to chew. Judgement at Nuremberg gives a spotlight to almost everyone in it because, as a trial film, it gives everyone a chance at a monologue, usually on the stand. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner gives Spencer Tracy that final speech to deliver. And so on. That’s how it works with most Kramer movies; the actors are given great lines to read and speeches to deliver. But as movies overall, they don’t do nearly as well.
In every one of the above mentioned titles, it’s the speeches that I remember and not much else. The movie’s are there to prop up the idea at their center, rather than the idea flowing naturally from the movie. In other words, On the Beach, all about nuclear war and its aftermath (and unfortunately lacking in great speeches), presents a rather dull movie based on the idea of a better world without nuclear weapons. Later, The Day After would make the same mistake, fitting a movie around that basic idea, and having the movie suffer as a result. The embarrassing fact is, The Planet of the Apes makes the same basic point in a much more entertaining and fascinating way because the movie isn’t built around the point at all. It’s an afterthought, thrown in at the end to upend the viewer’s assumptions. And yet that iconic final shot, with Charlton Heston raging impotently into the wind, works better than anything in On the Beach and The Day After.
And isn’t it better that way? I’ve never felt One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was an expose of the treatment of the mentally disabled, it was a character study that happened to take place in a mental ward. I have no idea if that was author Ken Kesey’s original intent but since the book is an even more intense study of Chief Bromden (who narrates the book), I’d say he chose to tell a story first and have the “message” come later, if there was one at all.
Message movies work better in small doses which is why I think television series like The Twilight Zone did them a lot better. Not only did Rod Serling (who adapted the screenplay for the aforementioned Planet of the Apes) use science fiction and fantasy to tell the story (always better for messages because it places them in the middle of a very entertaining and fantastical construct that doesn’t immediately reveal the message) but he and Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont usually waited until the last scene to even let you know there had been a message in the first place.
Message movies are a hard sell but an even harder creation. Making a movie around a message can work but more often than not, the message trumps the movie. And when it comes to movies, it should be story first, message second. Or third. Or nowhere. Just tell me a good story and I’ll get whatever message I can from it. Or not. And the movie will be better for it.
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