Posted by gregferrara on September 25, 2013
Today, in one of the more creative thematic lineups this month, TCM celebrates (is that the right word?) divorce or, at least, shows a lot of movies that all have divorce as a common plot element. Starting with The Divorcee at 6:00 a.m. and running through One is a Lonely Number at 6:15 p.m., it’s one divorce movie after another (with a brief respite at 8:00 for The Big Parade only to return to the theme with Street Scene and Stella Dallas). And while some of the movies playing today (especially The Divorcee and Stella Dallas) are personal favorites, it got me thinking about other doomed relationships in the movies and how, many times, they can be downright fun.
To be clear, I’m decidedly not talking about tragic relationships, the kind where two people truly in love are kept apart (Romeo and Juliet) or let life and family get in the way (The Magnificent Ambersons) or they’re just too stupid to realize they need each other until it’s too late (Midnight Cowboy). I’m talking about characters who make a good fit even if they don’t really get along and, ultimately, just can’t stay together for reasons of sanity. I’m talking about relationships like Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) and Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh). Has there ever been a couple so completely right and wrong for each other at the same time?
<From the first moment these two meet up (“Has the war started?”), Rhett’s already making fun of her. He was on the couch while she and Ashley (Leslie Howard) had a tearful goodbye where he revealed that, essentially, she’s too much woman for him and he and Melanie probably make a lot more sense as a couple. This is true because Ashley sdflkjasdas;glk [attempts to describe Ashley but falls asleep and smashes head on keyboard]… huh… wha… Oh, sorry about that. So Ashley and Scarlett don’t mix well so why not hook up with Rhett? It certainly makes sense from an entertainment point of view and, frankly my dear, if the two of them did work out, it would’ve been disappointing.
Maybe that’s what I mean by a fun doomed relationship; if they actually stay together, it kind of ruins the mood.
And this doesn’t just apply to romantic relationships. It works just as well for platonic ones, too. One of my favorite is Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) and Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten) in Citizen Kane. One of them (Kane) is bigger than life, the other (Leland) is human scale and constantly whispering in Kane’s ear, “Remember, thou art mortal.” The two are first presented as the best of friends but the relationship quickly sours. In a scene where Kane writes down his declaration of principles, tellingly steeped in shadow, Leland won’t stop saying how much he wants a copy of that list when Kane’s done. It’s small but powerful: Leland’s saying, “I’m holding you to this, whether you like it or not.” Later, when Leland starts, but doesn’t finish, a scathing review of Susan’s (Kane’s wife) operatic debut, Kane finishes it for him and then gives Leland the ultimate kiss-off: Leland approaches him and asks if they’re still talking, Kane replies, “Of course we’re still talking, Jedediah. You’re fired.” (eight years later, Cotten got to give the kiss-off in The Third Man by killing Welles in the sewer).
Back to married relationships, it’s hard to beat Sam (Walter Huston) and Fran (Ruth Chatterton) in Dodsworth, the extraordinary William Wyler film of 1936. Sam is down to earth, hard working and no-nonsense. Fran is not. Sam accepts who she is and meets someone else who also accepts who she is and the two fall in love. In the meantime, he’s got Fran who lies about her age and pursues younger men to feel younger. Eventually, Sam’s had enough and, production code or not, tells her to shove off as he heads back to his true love (the one he’s not married to) and gives Ruth the shattering final line, “You’ll have to stop getting younger someday.”
Or how about another William Wyler movie, The Best Years of Our Lives? That’s got one of my favorite doomed couples ever, Fred and Marie Derry, played by Dana Andrews and Virginia Mayo. For all the qualities of the film and all the great aspects of the characterizations, the main reason I watch it when it’s on is for Virginia Mayo. She’s hilariously transparent in her non-love for Fred, putting the poor man through misery before he finally decides, “To hell with it, I’m going to kiss Al’s daughter, Peggy.” Favorite Mayo line: When she and Peggy are headed to the restroom and see the word “Ladies” on the door, she says, “I just ignore the sign and go right in.”
I’d be remiss if I left out The Bride of Frankenstein which has one of the shortest lived and yet most awesomely failed relationships in the history of cinema: That of the monster (Boris Karloff) and his “Bride” (Elsa Lanchester). This is a relationship measured in minutes and narrated by grunts and screams. It begins with the monster checking out his new bride, holding her hand, her screaming at him and him finally deciding, “Well, that’s it, I’m blowing up everything.” This decision leaves the Bride hissing at him but also, in a brief moment of enticing deviousness, kind of excited too. Yes, when the Bride gives that little smiling twitch at the end, as the monster’s about to destroy the castle, she seems to be saying, “Now that’s what I’m looking for, a bad boy.” Unfortunately, the oafish monster doesn’t pick up on this, stop, and take her out for a night of terrorizing but, rather, goes through with the whole, “let’s blow up the castle plan.” (for the curious, most old European castles had, as standard equipment, a lever in the basement that blew up the whole place)
There are quite a few more than that but that’s enough to get the idea across. Doomed relationships in the movies often take on a somber tone. True love is nipped in the bud and never given a chance to flower or tragic circumstances put a grim finality on the relationship. But sometimes, the relationship is doomed in such a way that the audience can’t help but be delighted. Heck, I wouldn’t have minded seeing a couple more movies where Virginia Mayo’s character blows through three or four more relationships or Ruth Chatterton trying to find some more younger men to string along. Which reminds me, Alfie has one of the very best, between Alfie (Michael Caine) and Ruby (Shelley Winters). When Alfie, who’s practically invites doomed relationships, finally starts to fall for Ruby, he shows up and she’s got another man in bed. When Alfie asks what the new lover’s got that he doesn’t, she replies, “He’s younger than you are.” Burn, baby, burn.
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