Redemption and Remember the Night

remember-the-nightBarbara Stanwyck was always at her best when her character came from the wrong side of the tracks. She seemed to have a natural affinity for those whose lives have mostly been filled with hard times, scrapping by the best way they can. Maybe, it had to do with her sad Brooklyn upbringing, her mother dying when she was four, pushed from a streetcar by a drunk, and her father leaving only weeks later, never heard from again. That kind of pain has to leave an indelible mark on one for life. Yet, beneath the tough exterior would hide a gentle desirous heart longing for acceptance and love that would eventually reveal itself. This double side of Stanwyck’s persona is clearly on display in many of her films including this 1940 holiday comedy/drama.

Fred MacMurray is prosecuting Assistant District Attorney, John Sargent.  He arranges through a legal technicality, to have Lee Leander’s (Barbara Stanwyck) trial for shoplifting postponed until after the holidays. This gesture results in Lee, unable to post bail, having to spend the long holiday week in a jail cell. Sargent, in a twinge of guilt, or holiday spirit, arranges through a shady bondsman to have Lee’s five thousand dollars bail paid. When the bondsman delivers Lee to the ADA’s apartment, she is cynical enough, and has no doubt, her payback to him will be in sexual favors. To her surprise, Sargent expects nothing in return. He really just did not want her to spend Christmas in jail. The look of surprise in Lee’s eyes and face is priceless when this realization hits her. Continue reading

The Snake Pit (1948) Anatole Litvak

There were few films in 1948 that match up to the power of Anatole Litvak’s “The Snake Pit,” a film that was groundbreaking in its day.  Mental Illness was not dealt with on screen, at least not at the level and detail seen here.  The institutional living conditions these people were forced to live in was swept under the rug, as they say. Mary Jane Ward’s novel was based on her own experiences as a patient in a psychiatric hospital. After reading Ward’s first person novel, director Anatole Litvak wanted to bring the harrowing story to the screen. Naturally, the subject matter was considered too controversial and downbeat for most studios. 20th Century Fox finally agreed to make the film, which Litvak would not only direct but co-produced.

Olivia de Havilland was not the first choice for the role, that spot went to Gene Tierney who had to bow out due to a pregnancy. de Havilland threw herself into the role, spending time researching, personally watching shock therapy treatments and visiting institutions, talking with doctors, nurses and patients. She apparently also was able to spend time in doctor/patient therapy sessions.  Director Litvak wanted the actors and crew members to visit mental institutions in order to experience first hand what it was like.       

The film tells the story of Virginia Cunningham, a young married woman who has a nervous breakdown and is committed to a mental hospital. We follow her as she slowly finds her way back from depths of insanity. At her lowest point, Virginia is incapable of remembering who she is, where she is or why. She is subjected to electro-shock therapy and other treatments, forced to live in a dorm like environment with other patients. Eventually with the help of a caring doctor (Leo Glenn) Virginia begins to explore her subconscious delving back to her childhood, (through flashbacks), the strict upbringing by her mother and the loss of a considerate father. Here she discovers the roots of her illness, the pain and guilt she has been carrying inside, and ultimately she is cured.    

The conditions inside the institution are horrid. The nursing staff headed by Nurse Davis (Helen Craig) an obvious relative to Nurse Ratched who seems to derive pleasure, in one of the film’s most shocking scenes, when she turns on the juice over and over again during the administration of Virginia’s Electro-Shock sessions. 

While Virginia’s illness is portrayed realistically, her cure is a little too straightforward though one must remember the medical treatments are limited to knowledge and practices of more than 60 years ago. The film also gives us a strong flavor of other patients in the wards. There is Marty (Betsy Blair) who does not like to be touched and will strangle anyone who comes near her. Celeste Holms is Grace, seen early in the film who tries to comfort Virginia soon after her arrival and a host of others portrayed by some fine character actors among them Beulah Bondi, Ruth Donnelly, Minna Goombell and Katherine Locke.

There is one particularly visually stunning sequence when, after Virginia has a “relapse,” she is put into a pit like area with other patients. The theory as it is explained is that putting normal people into this pit like area would drive them insane, subsequently, putting insane people into the pit would cure them. As this sequence is filmed, Litvak’s camera is shooting down from extremely high above toward the pit, continuously pulling back revealing a long deep pit with the patients walking aimlessly around. 

Other films have dealt with mental disease over the years, (The Bell Jar, Frances) but this film still remains a harrowing experience. After its release, the film led to reforms in mental institutions in various states across the country. In England a disclaimer was added at the beginning of the film stating that everyone appearing in the film was an actor and that similar institutions in England were not like the one portrayed in the film.

 In the 1960’s there was a backlash against this film by feminist who claimed that Virginia only improved once she accepted that her role in life was subservient, first to the nurses and then as she prepares to accept a life of that of a  mother and a housewife.  A closer look at the film reveals that throughout the film, Virginia fights the authorities the best she could under the stringent circumstance and as a writer never reveals any sign that, she is giving up her career upon her release.

The film received multiple Academy Award nominations that year including Best Actress, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Music Score. The film won an Oscars for Best Sound Recording.

Street Scene (1931) King Vidor

    The film opens with the camera panning left to right across the skyline and rooftops of New York City settling down on a street in a lower class ethnic neighborhood of Manhattan, and one tenement building in particular. It is summer and it is excruciatingly hot, neighbors are sitting on the stoop of the building, kids are playing, cooling off with the help of a hose attached to an open fire hydrant. The adults all complaining about the unbearable heat, gossiping, arguing politics, tugging at the sweat soaked clothing clinging to their bodies.  The neighbors are a melting pot of accents, an American mosaic of Italians, Jews, Swedes and other nationalities all living in close quarters. They’re friendly, yet at times cautious toward each other forced by the circumstance, of looking for a better life in America, to live together.  

     Anna Maurrent (Estelle Taylor) is one of these people, a bored housewife married to Frank (David Landau) an alcoholic man, stern, seemingly beaten down by life. In a search for some excitement from her dreary existance, she is carrying on an affair with Steve (Russell Hopken), a bill collector and a married man. The neighbors all are aware of Anna’s indiscretion including noisy gossipy neighbor Emma Jones (Beulah Bondi).

    Anna and Frank have a grown daughter Rose, (Sylvia Sydney) who works at a Real Estate office. She is pursued by her boss who flatters her that she should pursue a stage career. He encourages her to move out of the neighborhood, telling her he is willing to set her up in a nice apartment. Of course, his motives are less than pure. He, like her mother’s lover, is also married. Rose resists his advances but does go out to dinner with him. Then there is Sam Kaplan, a young Jewish law student who lives in the building and has crush on the young Rose. Sam also happens to be a coward and is continually bullied by Vincent, Emma Jones son who spits out ethnic slurs and is always coming on to Rose. Sam, however is so in love with Rose that he is willing to give up his law studies and run away with Rose toward a better life.

    One afternoon Frank unexpectedly comes home early and notices the window shade is drawn in his apartment. Running upstairs, he finds Anna and her lover in the apartment and he shoots them dead.  The police soon capture Frank in a basement down the block. He apologizes to his daughter for the mess he has created as the police take him away. Tragedy has changed Rose’s life forever, for her, her young brother and everyone on the block.

    Director King Vidor has subtly opened up the stage bound play by using a variety of camera angles making you forget the entire story takes place outside the building. Vidor already known for such classics “The Crowd” and “The Big Parade” delivers a film that retains its social impact still after all these years. The only scene I found dated was Frank’s escape, right after the shooting. It is awkwardly structured and  poorly directed.    

    The characters are colorful and human. A wonderful scene involves an Italian man and a Swede, the janitor of the building, as they argue about who really discovered America, Columbus or Leif Erickson. The script is also filled with pre-code touches, illicit affairs, ethnic slurs, and sexual innuendo.

    New Yorkers will be nostalgically reminded of a life now long gone. One scene that rang a bell for me was when Rose’s kid brother yells up to his mother to throw a dime out the window for some ice cream. Anna who is two stories up wraps the dime in a napkin and tosses it out the window to the kid (many times my Mom and I enacted this scene in my own childhood). Tenants sitting outside on the stoop, on the hot summer days was also a common sight.

    Vidor ends the film with a reverse pan of his opening shot, the camera moving right to left from the streets of Manhattan up to the rooftops and across the New York skyline.  This opening and closing was a typical technique used by D.W. Griffith in some of his shorts (The Country Doctor). However, you can read more into this than Vidor emulating Griffith, I interpreted it to mean that the story is just one of  many in one neighborhood of many. It happened here but could happen anywhere.  

    The film is based on playwright Elmer Rice’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, which ran for more than 600 performances on Broadway. Beulah Bondi made her screen debut recreating her stage role in the film. Several other actors from the play also appear in the film. Rice was a prolific author, stage director and producer. Other works include “The Adding Machine” and “Counsellor-at-Law.”  Rice’s career extended close to 40 years as a playwright with more than 50 plays to his credit.