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Friday, December 27, 2013

HISTORY LESSON: Man Enough? Part 2 - The Studio Era

Continued from Part 1 - Silents

William Powell represents the depression-era man in My Man Godfrey,
a film that showcased the struggle of masculinity through the dark age 

and, finally, his triumph: mind over matter, always with comedy.

... And then, the storm came. As the silent era dissipated like yesterday’s old dreams, the talkie revolution stepped in. Simultaneously, the Great Depression would hit. America would feel the full effects of both phenomena, but not immediately. Life continued on clumsily in the ignorance that tragedy could be averted while the movies tried to learn to speak. It would take man awhile to notice the desperation of the concurrent financial disaster, just as the cinematic medium used the period for experimentation, slowly trying to re-establish what exactly it was doing. As men, breadwinners, and former tough guys, started getting laid off, the male ego took a real blow. The movies valiantly saved the day, becoming one of the only successful businesses during this period. Why? They gave guys their guts back. The male archetype on film hollered, screamed, and took no prisoners. The early ‘30s were ruled by cavemen. With a finger on the slowing pulse of manhood, the leading men started to holler at the world and beat their chests, and the movies really started to scream...

The thirties introduced men with equal parts spit and polish, glamour and grit. They were dapper-- to counteract the cloud of poverty-- and dangerous-- to compensate for the national feeling of powerlessness. The Gangster took shape, introducing the era's only comprehensible form of the prosperous male: the criminal. If you couldn’t make an honest buck, you could make millions of them dishonestly. Crime was the only thing that paid. The world that slapped the populace in the face was, therefore, was about to get bitch-slapped right back. James Cagney (left in The Public Enemy) made his fierce entry into the medium alongside George Raft and Edward G. Robinson, birthing the contemporary embodiment of the American Dream turned Nightmare, while somehow inspiring hope. Mirroring the growing public desperation, these ultimate underdogs got scrappy. They would lie, cheat, or steal to get ahead, and somehow beat their own bad rap by getting “badder.” 

Iconic films like Angels with Dirty Faces and Little Caesar produced a new, unlikely hero. Suddenly, audiences were sympathizing with the bad guy, who indeed was (at least initially) morally irredeemable. These "gents" were not your token, attractive guys either. Robertson’s bull-dog face only made him fill the shoes more ably of his internally ugly characters. Paul Muni as the original Scarface used cosmetics and body padding to make himself look absolutely Cro-Magnon in the role (right). These were the internal beasts coming out to play who, in a time of deprivation, took any and everything they wanted on behalf of their viewers, who had little more than their theater tickets to give them solace. By screwing the system that screwed them and defying the law with every breath, these guys filled their pockets with cash, dressed to the nines, and bathed in champagne. 

George Brent manhandles Barbara Stanwyck's "tramp"
in The Purchase Price.
They also had any woman they wanted-- those who wouldn’t have given them the time of day under normal circumstances. Money bought happiness. These “dames,” who were only looking for the highest bidder, were purchased like posh gold watches and discarded instead of rewound when they became outdated. It was about building from the ground up, after all. You have to drop the dead weight on the way to better things. As each gangster ascended, he dropped the “sluts” he had picked up along the way as soon as a better one came along. Mobsters weren’t into emotional investment. They wanted the best-- now. They also made certain to show a woman who was boss. Who can forget Cagney pushing that grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face? The message was clear, “Keep your mouth shut and your legs spread.” This pumped up the ego while humiliated men fell in stature down the familial food chain, their wives taking on jobs to help out the family finances. It reestablished their position as the patriarch.

Edward G. Robinson as "Little Caesar."
Why did the public respond so heartily to these guys? Aside from the obvious cathartic release for men who could watch and live vicariously, the acting and writing of the time was so superb that the villains were given astounding humanity, however corrupted. These men were complicated. As lascivious as they may have been, audiences also saw the little boys within them-- their "holy" spirits may have been broken after living in the gutter, but the stars were still in their eyes. They also lived in constant fear, however well hidden behind their tough guy facades. Constantly hunted by the feds or competing thugs, there was a big, red target on each of their backs. An enemy could take them out at any minute, even when they were simply doing all they could to survive. Nothing in life is free, and while they may have left a trail of blood behind them, they bore their own scars and took their own hits. It’s a dog eat dog life... The interesting and scandalous layers of their personas, peppered in the subtext of the writing, also enriched their stories. Robinson’s homoerotic friendship with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in Little Caesar or Paul Muni’s uncomfortable and possessive relationship with his sister (Ann Dvorak ) in Scarface illuminated the multiple cracks in the impenetrable male facade. They were fascinating, dark, disturbed, and disturbingly real.

Clark Gable's "Babe Stewart" checks
something out at the library- Carole
Lombard- representing a healthy,
male, sexual appetite and the
norm of objectification.
Clark Gable was also a hoodlum and racketeer, strong arming Norma Shearer in A Free Soul and scheming his way to the top in San Francisco or China Seas. He too was portrayed as a rough and tumble guy whose good fortune was his good looks. His cocky manner generally presented itself with more suavity than his super-mafia brothers. He was a disrespectful, respectable self-made man. He played a little dirty, but he often found absolution in the end, generally in the arms of a woman, whom he had cleaned himself up to properly protect. His masculinity was therefore defined both by his abilities to be a provider but also to "fly right." He acted a bit as the bridge between the depression’s beginning and its end, his characters always being a bit edgy and unattainable but still able to outgrow their selfishness to settle down in a modern way with an equally broken but secretly angelic woman. By the end of the roaring gangster era, he maintained his macho yet became more innately decent. Even "Rhett Butler" became a family man. Still, whether playing house with Myrna Loy in Wife vs. Secretary or bad guy made good in Hold Your Man opposite Jean Harlow or No Man of Her Own opposite Carole Lombard, he showcased a man whose hands were dirty but at heart was a well-hidden, good guy. His great victory was triumphing over his circumstances and shedding his bad boy skin to become a real man. His “manliness” and his eventual passion and responsibility for his chosen woman made him catnip to the ladies as well.

Man's man Bogie roughs up the effeminate Peter Lorre,
and puts the "bitch" in his place in The Maltese
Of course, there were different varieties of men in this period. Muni and Spencer Tracy were the symbolic martyrs of fallen men, churning out socially conscious pictures like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang or Fury. Tracy's dominance in this particular field would continue throughout his career, portraying compelling figures battling changing sociopolitical tides. He remains a master in the craft, and his version of the American male would transcend and mature with the ever-changing world. Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power were the caution-be-damned, overgrown boy heroes (in tights) who maintained our optimism in the face of danger. Their spirits sharpened our belief systems and our personal quest for poetic justice, "with a little sex thrown in." Bogie led the noir revolution, establishing a man with his own definitions of morality and right and wrong. He was a bad guy who was a good guy, solving crimes with unnecessary roughness and street smarts. He also maintained his manhood by defeating the femme fatale, drawing a hard line between the sexual and the romantic. He saw to it that the man wore the pants and equally took it upon himself to take down the villain. His "Gal Friday," in contrast to the sexy succubus trying to drain him of his power, was protected purely because of her submission, even as she also took on harder edges like Lauren Bacall. The harsh world that had changed him had to accept him, warts and all, and this was exemplified by this attentive and never deterred Gal Friday. His damaged goods but wizened hero helped pave the way to fiscal and social “normalcy” as the depression eased up. However, the noir shadows he brought along with him would always indicate the ghosts of our past. He was the face of an aged America.

Captain America, Gary Cooper, in The Pride
of the Yankees
, the morale boosting war-
time film that promoted wholesome
values through the great national
pastime of baseball.
There too were more romantic moral compasses, like James Stewart, Henry Fonda, or Gary Cooper, whose messages of righteousness started to increasingly transcend the domestic sphere and get political, particularly as the thirties became the forties. Their all-American heroes, by promoting “all-American ideals,” portrayed the prototypical male as one bound by duty, country, and integrity. Films like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Ox-Bow Incident, etc, presented fighters for truth, justice, and the American way, even when the hero was a humble guy who bore less muscle than the formerly prosperous, gun-toting gangster. The interesting William Powell provided the ideal modern husband, as the often half-drunk but always charming "Nick Charles" of The Thin Man series. He solved crime and made love to his wife, triumphing over the horror of life by accepting it as the greatest gag ever played-- not to be taken seriously. In essence, he laughed in the face of danger. As WWII gained steam and our country’s participation in it became inevitable (after the Pearl Harbor horror), redefining America as something worth saving became the dominant concern. We needed unsung heroes to finally be heard. Their message-- that we were all going to be all right-- was vital to morale as our villains switched masks from the government, the Man, or the tax-man to the foreigner.

War heroes fighting for freedom, women, and country, filled theaters as men (including some of our stars) took to the skies and propaganda took wing. Mr. America himself led the way. John Wayne (right) had long been wearing the badge and toting the pistol of the unofficial Sheriff of the United States. His characters became increasingly rugged and uncompromising in their unbreakable defense of liberty. His cowboys and soldiers, whether at their most pure-hearted in his early career (Stagecoach, Flying Tigers) or bitter toward his later career (The Searchers, The Green Berets) were symptomatic of man’s need to hold onto his own patch of earth, fighting for it to the teeth. As the cowboy, he was more of a drifter, and a somewhat Godless one at that. His religion, always, was freedom. As the soldier, this religion became wider in scope-- from the open plain to the entirety of the country-- as he guided men abroad, defending his personal definition of human rights and taking down whatever foreigner was threatening his sense of safety. Increasingly politically incorrect and thick-skinned as the years progressed, he was the Uncle Sam holding onto ideals that remain cemented in our culture. He made the United States feel safe to contemporary audiences. His unmannerly, unforgiving and, by modern standards, skewed perception of reality, was consistently saved by the palpable sadness he carried within him, again creating for men a man with a hidden depth. Buried emotions-- the refusal to be interpreted as a “sissy”-- were the glue that held America together. This submergence may harden the man, but it saved his brothers. So, the gangster became the soldier, still pointing a gun, the ultimate symbol of masculine power, to create and maintain the intimidating fortress of the United States. 

Jimmy Stewart made a career representing and fighting for the little guy. An
average looking and awkward sounding fellow, he was an underdog who
somehow made a home for himself as a bona fide leading man. The
messages in his films-- fighting passionately for truth and mankind
in general-- left people with the pleasing sensation that integrity
would win out in the end, no matter the circumstances.

Thanks in part to these films, America would entertain this necessarily self-centered focus for some time. Men were never as large as they were in the Studio Era. While the United States quaked under the pressures of the economy and then the second World War, we created larger than life heroes to bear the brunt of our desperation and rescue us from Hell on earth. Our men got dirtier, a little nastier, but they too became a little more authentic. There was truth-telling going on beneath the studio finessed perfection. While Hollywood was already veering toward its reliance on handsome faces, the cracks and flaws of man were becoming more visible, all of their howling, shooting, and manhandling covering up the paranoia they experienced at the loss of their livelihood and therefore their manhood. The variations of these different male prototypes has solidified them in history as the ultimate personality stars. None will ever be as famous as these guys, nor so important to upholding the mirage of Americana. However, as times changed, and as new threats appeared in the apple blossom gardens of American Eden-- the brief quiet following the war-- new movies with new heroes would lead us into another chapter. The biggest threat to man's sacrosanct structuring and exhibiting of the domestic bliss of the nuclear family would be one Hell of an atomic bomb: the "method" actor.

To Be Continued in the Final Chapter-- Method to the Modern

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