Wednesday, September 22, 2010
MENTAL MONTAGE: Sneaky, Saucy Lines
Remember when cinema used to be shocking...? No? Neither do I. The days of pushing the envelope seem to be long gone in the modern times of TMI. (The fact that I am using abbreviations is proof that I am a product of my generation: I am totes on the rizzle). One of the things you are taught as an actor, writer, or any other artist, first and foremost, is "Don't show your hand too much." Our insecurity causes us to over-explain, beat on the head, and inevitably run into the ground the different ideas we are trying to get across. Life would be much simpler if we were to just take a leap of faith that our audience is intelligent enough to "get it." If you're holding aces, you keep them close to your chest and play them only when the time is right: when you know their revelation will evoke a round of astounded Oohs and Aahs.These days it seems like people have forgotten this golden rule. Instead, we get lambasted by noise and overloaded with visuals. It feels as though directors are basically standing over our heads with megaphones screaming: "SEX! VIOLENCE! DRUGS! ROARRRR!" While these themes, of course, quickly get our blood boiling and awaken our more mammalian selves, the back-lash is a feeling of insult. At the movies, we react, but we don't think. Oftentimes, when being bedazzled by lots of colors, explosions, and gratuitous nudity, I find myself suddenly shaking back to life and asking, "Hey... Where'd the story go?"
In the days when the production code was still in full effect (1930s-1960s), writers and filmmakers had to be cunning and stealthy to slip their little innuendos into films. With the censorship board breathing down their necks, getting the word "Damn" into Gone with the Wind was a bigger battle than Waterloo. So, they had to insinuate, not shout. Nothing was literal, everything was suggested. If it ain't said, you can't hear it, but you can wonder... Hence those suspicious needles in the Sherlock Holmes movies. An educated audience would guess that they had a little sum-sum to do with heroin, but this fact was merely implied and thus "safe" for audiences. Basically, the writing in films was better and more clever when the censors ruled with an iron fist and harbored under the misapprehension that all of America was dumb. We weren't; we aren't. Yet, we so rarely get to exercise our hungry brain cells. There are few little naughty jokes, clever puns, or shocking one liners anymore, which is sad, because I'm sure we haven't heard them all. Now that anything goes, everything goes, and no one tries anymore.
Thus, here is a tribute to a few of the great one-liners in cinematic history that upon their present day viewing still made me go, "How the Hell did they get that past the censors?!?!" Oh cleverness, how I miss thee...
One of the most obvious awards goes to Grace Kelly, this month's muse, and it comes as no surprise I'm sure that it took place in her Hitchcock collaboration, To Catch a Thief. When it came to double entendre, Hitch was King, and for a man who was almost painfully preoccupied with sex, it is no wonder that his films were heavily laced with erotic dialogue. However, Hitch and his writers were so darn good that he could get away with throwing in a line or two-- or a dozen-- which on the surface seemed so innocent, but at their core were "Tsk-tsk-tsk". These zingers were so subtly planted that they would come and go before the audience even realized anything naughty had happened. When the censors reviewed Hitch's scripts, they could find nothing off-putting, because on paper everything looked squeaky clean. It was only in the delivery and the execution that the simplest lines became delightfully sinful. Hence, the scene where Grace and Cary Grant sit on the lounge amidst the explosion of fireworks. As fierce light crescendos and pounds in the background, it heightens the heat and desire between the two actors, so when Grace (above) says to Cary, "Look! Hold them," you don't know whether she is talking about her diamonds or... um... other gems.
Grace and Cary in TCAT: Choices, choices...
The most memorable line of course comes when Grace and Cary/Frances and John stop for a little picnic in her car, and she innocently asks, "You want a leg or a breast?" Cary makes the gentlemanly answer, "You make the choice," seeing either option as a positive. Today, that scene would play like, "Screw the chicken. Let's f*ck!" But with the subtle and humorous delivery of Grace and Cary and the smart and playful direction of Hitchcock, the scene plays like a gamy dream.
Another great example comes in Flying Down to Rio, which is today most memorable as the first collaboration of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (right), who as supporting characters still managed to steal the film. In addition to their mesmerizing dance routines and the witty repartee and chemistry that would make them one of the most legendary screen couples of all time, there was a quick one-liner that I found equally entertaining. The film, as you can already guess, takes place in Rio de Janeiro where Astaire's "Yankee Clippers" band is making a go of it. At one point early in the film, a group of North American tourists sit watching the ensuing music and the bevy of Brazilian beauties decorating the stage and the dance floor. Taking stock of the salivating men, one of the young girls says with a pinch of jealousy, "'What have these South American girls got below the Equator that we haven't?" For a split second, I sat going, "What? Did she just... Was that... Bahahahaha!" How they got away with it, I don't know, but thank God they did! Hilarious. The film is probably the silliest of all the Astaire/Rogers productions, with people dancing on airplanes and whatnot, but the absurdity makes it all the more endearing. When you find yourself watching a movie and smiling from ear to ear, you can write it off as a good film.
Literally, Flying Down to Rio.
This next moment actually produced a good, ol' fashioned Meredith spit-take, which is something that I am known for among friends. (During humorous occasions, I should not be allowed around liquids). Morocco remains one of Marlene Dietrich's best films. The image of her walking away from a life of grandeur with Adolphe Menjou and into the desolate, forbidding desert with Gary Cooper is one that evokes all of the romance and melodrama of the bygone studio era. This film remains provocative for many reasons, the most obvious of which is Marlene's cross-dressing (left) and overt bisexuality. During her first song in the film, she wanders into the audience and plants a wet one on a female spectator. She also tosses Gary a flower, which he proceeds to tuck behind his ear. The gender roles are all mixed up, and the disregard for good Christian morals is blatantly enjoyed in the seductive terrain of a foreign land.
Gary and Marlene in ecstasy in Morocco.
However, before Gary's Legionnaire even meets Marlene's Amy Jolly, he is scouting the local women for a one-night-stand. He finds a plump and inviting native who holds up a few fingers to indicate her room number. Gary throws his own fingers back at her to double check the rendezvous, and his superior officer sees him, asking angrily, "What are you doing with your fingers?" Gary's response: "Nothing. Yet." Pause. Meredith: spit.
Snug as Bugs: Doris and Rock in Pillow Talk
And finally, a personal favorite. Despite the fact that Doris Day was an innocent Little Miss Sunshine and Rock Hudson was a closeted homosexual, this onscreen duo created some of the most popular and sexually suggestive films of their time, (though perhaps it is because of the aforementioned reasons that the formula worked). In Pillow Talk, they are at the top of their game, with Rock portraying the philandering God of Sex and Doris playing the yearning and innocent pawn in his latest game. The two share a party telephone line, because of which Doris is forced to witness more than one piquant conversation. She continues to rebuke Rock for his explicit and indecent behavior, and so when he discovers her identity he decides to get his revenge on the uptight, ice queen.
Rock waits to see the rest of the equipment.
However, the first time Rock lays eyes on her, he is pleasantly surprised to find that she is much more attractive than he imagined, which will make his latest mission more of a pleasure than a burden. As he eyes her caboose, we hear his internal monologue: "So that's the other end of your party line..." Upon hearing this, I burst out laughing.
The duo created in this film one of the most beautiful performances of give and take and She vs. He in all cinema. They get away with their sexual shenanigans, not only because the production codes were easing up by now, but because Rock as the Lothario scorned is the perfect match for Doris as the good girl tempted. Viewers clearly see that she too is a sexual creature, and we are guaranteed that Brad and Jan will have a hefty, healthy sex-life, but only after he "put's a ring on it." Apparently, you can color with any hue in the spectrum as long as you stay inside the lines.
These little quips and moments are absolutely delicious, and they run rampant in the films of the past. This is one reason to be thankful for the "evil" production code, which at the time was such a pain in the neck to American filmmakers. The end product(s) was worth the headache, for in having to use their heads and find other avenues and side-streets to get down to brass tacks, these filmmakers took us down more visually and mentally stimulating (and gratifying) pathways. The true testament of the intelligence of these films is that even for modern spectators-- who probably forgot how to blush long ago-- these jewels can still make your face flush and your eyes widen as you say, "Oh my..."