Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sexism and the Retro Channel or, the Joys and Not so Joys of Retro TV...

One of the great joys of the digital age in television broadcasting, at least for me, has been the appearance of retro television stations on the digital TV dial here in Albany, New York, USA. Recently I have been watching two new retro channels on the Albany television airwaves (we already had one, Retro Television), Me TV and Antenna TV. Me TV runs shows like the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, the Bob Newhart Show, the Honeymooners, Streets of San Francisco, Gunsmoke, and I Love Lucy. It recently celebrated Lucy's one hundredth birthday with a three day Lucython. Antenna TV broadcasts shows like Married...With Children (one of my favourites and one of the most subversive TV shows ever on US television in my opinion), All in the Family, Good Times, the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, The Monkees, and Three's Company.

What I love perhaps most of all about Antenna TV is that between 5 am and 1 am (now 11 am) the network runs movies. I am an old movie watcher and cinephile. I have been watching films since before I was a teen. During my teen years my sister, Cindy, and I would plop ourselves down in front of the tube and spend most of our weekends watching movie after movie on Channel 4, Bloomington-Indianapolis.

So in some ways the rebirth of retro television and old movies on America's terrestrial airwaves is kind of like a trip down a wonderful memory lane for me. But it is also a trip down a not so memory lane. Another of the retro channels, Retro Television, has been showing shows I recall from my youth but never watched, shows like Naked City and Route 66. I didn't pay attention to these shows when I was young because I was young. They are adult shows with a darkness that you rarely see on American television today and really don't appeal to a youth audience. They are rather like sixty minute teleplays that hearken back to the teletheatre of the golden age of television. But they both are, in another way, very different from the teleplays of the past. Both are cinematic and both were filmed largely, and in the case of Route 66, entirely on location. For this reason Route 66 is like jumping into a time machine and traveling from the America of 2011 back to the America of the early 1960s because it shows an America, an America that stretches from Boston to Philadelphia to Pittsburgh to Chicago to New Orleans and to Malibu, that simply doesn't exist any more. Route 66 is, in part, a moving archival picture of the American and Canadian (two episodes were filmed in the Great White North) past.

What I don't recall from my youth are some of the films Antenna TV is running. Recently I saw Anthony Mann's noir meets the French Revolution Reign of Terror (aka, Black Book, 1949). I have long loved Mann's films including Winchester 73 (1950), Bend of the River (1953), Naked Spur (1953), and The Man from Laramie (1955) with their noir aesthetic, spectacular landscapes, and obsessed revenge driven anti-hero fallen male heroes. I loved Reign of Terror. It had Mann's trademark noir aesthetic and obsessed male anti-hero heroes along and some wonderfully claustrophobic sets. I am really glad I finally got to see most of this film.

Another film I was really glad I finally got to see, but for a different reason, was a film I had never heard of before, Columbia's Ann Carvers Profession (1933). Ann Carver's Profession stars Fay Wray as Ann and Gene Raymond as her husband Bill. It was directed by Edward Buzzell and written by noted writer Robert Riskin, who would collaborate on a number of films with film auteur Frank Capra including Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can't Take It with You (1938), and Meet John Doe (1941).

As Ann Carver's Profession begins we meet Bill, a man trying to live down the fact that he is a football star at Hampden University, he wants to be taken seriously, and Ann, a student of law at Hampden and a waitress with whom Bill is in love. Very quickly the film moves from the restaurant that Ann works in and Bill is eating at to a Bill and Ann who are married. Bill is now working in a seemingly dead end job at an architectural firm in a big city. Ann, despite having a law degree and having passed the bar, is a housefrau. When Bill and Ann go to a party Ann overhears two lawyers talking about one of their cases. She adds her two cents worth telling the august lawyer that his jury strategy is all wrong, a jury of women in the trial of a woman, she says, is never a good idea. Women, she says, are petty towards one another. The lawyer tells Bill that anytime Ann wants a job at her law firm she has one. Ann, of course, jumps at the chance and once she gets a chance to try a case on her own she becomes a star in the legal firmament of big city even making the front pages of newspapers again and again as she tries cases again and again. There is a remarkable scene in the film that shows us how Ann became a legal star. In a courtroom stunt Ann brings in a group of women in bathing suits to prove to her prosecutor adversary, and, by extension, the jury, that even he and they cannot tell a white woman from a black woman despite the prosecutors claim that he and every other lunkheaded person, including Ann's client who claims he didn't know that the woman he was dating was black, should and could tell the difference between black and white.

But while Ann's star is rising Bill's is stagnating. While Ann is bringing home the bacon, Bill can't even afford to pay the servants from his meager income. Eventually Bill jumps at a chance to make a hundred (or was it two hundred?) dollars a night crooning at a local nightclub. The nightclub, however, pulls Ann and Bill apart. Ann thinks that what Bill is doing is beneath him. It is at the nightclub that Bill meets another singer, the sexy girl from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks, Carole Rodgers (Claire Dodd). Carole has the hots for Bill. And when Ann, who convinces her crowd to come and see Bill croon, sees Carole kiss Bill, Ann, in a jealous rage walks out of the nightclub but not before throwing a handful of loose change at Bill.

In the next scene we see Bill and Carole in an apartment. Carole is drunk. Bill, separated from Ann, is awash in cynicism. When Bill leaves for the nightclub for work the drunk Carol hits her head on the sofa and kills herself by hanging thanks to a necklace around her neck that gets caught on the wooden end of the sofa. Bill is, of course, this is a Hollywood film after all, accused of murdering Carole and eventually its Ann to the rescue. In an impassioned closing Ann blames herself for what happened to Bill because she should have been at home taking care of hearth and home and not at work making more money than Bill sending him eventually into a downward spiral of self-pity, self-hate, and depression. The movie ends in almost fairy tale fashion (and this long before Pretty Woman), Bill has become a famous architect while Ann is at home enjoying the fruits of Bill's new found fame and wealth. All is now right with the world of Hollywood's cult of domesticity.

I am not sure I have ever seen a film as blatantly condemnatory of married women in the workplace and married women in the professions than Ann Carver's Profession. Ann Carver's Profession seems to be a moral tale about what happens when women take jobs in the male dominated world of the professions. They, the film seems to teach and tell us, end up emasculating their married men sending them into pits of depression and self-hatred. All those academics who seem to think that almost every film ever made, particularly in Hollywood, reflects and recapitulates the sexist cult of domesticity should see this film. I am, in a weird sort of way, glad I did for it was, once one got beyond the neanderthalic message of the film, a well made and well acted movie.

Postscript
I recently saw another film on Antenna TV produced at Columbia entitled They All Kissed the Bride (1942). This film, in combination with Ann Carver's Profession, has made me wonder whether we might be able to delineate a subgenre of Hollywood comedy that we might call the women should be women cycle.

They All Kissed the Bride, stars Joan Crawford as M.J. (Margaret) Drew, the masculine like and ruthless executive of a trucking company, and Melvin Douglas as Michael Holmes a proletariat friendly muckraking writer who is researching a sensational book on how ruthlessly M.J. runs her company. A chance encounter between the two leads to our heroine, who has never experienced the "joys" of romance, going weak in the knees, a sign, M.J's mother tells her, of love. As the film progresses the tough minded M.J. gradually gives into her apparently unconscious romantic feelings and longings, feelings and longings apparently every woman has, and the once masculine like M.J. is slowly but surely transformed from a businessman into a woman. The film ends with M.J. seemingly losing her obsessive interest in her business as she and Michael go off on their honeymoon for days, weeks, if not months.

The message of And They All Kissed the Bride seems, at least to me, to be that beneath every career minded masculinised woman lurks a real romantic female just waiting to get out if only the right man would come along. There is, however, a degree of ambiguity in the films ending: will M.J. return from her romantic interlude ready to run her company again but this time as a businesswoman, in, in other words, a more feminist and caring way, or will she settle into domestic bliss where she takes care of Michael and Michael's proletarian home while Michael resumes his crusade against ruthless capitalist bosses? Unfortunately, time will not tell.