Is Happiness Photogenic?


WHEN Boy and Girl (that is to say, the male star and female star in a moving picture) are on the outs, or when obstacles (known to the trade as “gimmicks”) keep them apart or in disharmony, the dramatist’s task is a comparatively easy one. There is plenty of opportunity for violence, suspense, contrast, variety, and conflict. The audience is pulling together, in behalf of the baffled or mistaken lovers.

There is no doubt that, in the end, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn (or Don Ameche and Betty Grable; or Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman; or Jean Arthur and Joel MeCrea) will hit it off with a kiss and a wisecrack and a quick fadeout. That is as it should be. When working people have paid a quarter to see a pair of their favorite screen lovers get set for imaginary action after the fadeout, they (the working people) should be given their money’s worth.

Let us grant, then, that moving-picture technique, now with a background of trial, error, and development of nearly two decades, has proved itself adequate for contriving that a given Boy and Girl should meet, encounter difficulties and misunderstandings (oh, those misunderstandings), and finally clinch. That takes care of more than 80 per cent of all the film plots.

It is in the remaining small percentage of films that one searches for the stimulating, interesting, and promising ones. The neglected Long Voyage Home was one of those. But it did not deal with happiness. It was a story of tragedy and frustration, lusty comradeship, of improvised life. Citizen Kane was a story, not of happiness, but of bloated soulsand flotsam on a torrent of egomania. Doctor Caligari’s Cabinet, a very early film, but one which has not yet been surpassed for impact and integrity, was a tale told by one madman to another, a projection into the visual of disturbed states of mind.

The point I am making is that happiness, tranquillity, contentment, and associated conditions of comfort and states of soul can only be implied by the dramatist and burlesqued by the camera. That is, the portrayal of happiness, and especially the kind known as “domestic,” had been passed up by screen writers as a bad and thankless job, impossible of achievement, until Nunnally Johnson tackled il and mastered it in Holy Matrimony, his film version of a good, solid story by Arnold Bennett.

Newspaperman, globe-trotter, novelist, musician, ELLIOT PAUL is writing screen plays in Hollywood, with occasional reports to this department.

Before I go into details about Holy Matrimony, let me illustrate from other familiar moving pictures what croppers result when attempts are made to show a “happy couple" or “happy home” on the screen. One of the most ludicrous, I think, marred that otherwise excellent picture of Goldwyn’s called Pride of the Yankees. After fourteen years of married bliss, in the screen epic just referred to, Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright rolled on the floor of their living room and scattered rose petals over each other. I only need to ask any twelve-year-old child in the immense movie audience of the United States (estimated as being from 40 million to 110 million) what he or she would conclude if he came home unexpectedly and found his parents indulging in such capers. The child would conclude, quite correctly, that his ma and pa had gone nuts and that any advice they might give in future should be weighed in that knowledge.

In The Inraders the late Leslie Howard tried his best to show how a solitary man acts when he is all right with the world. The props were the inevitable pipe, the fireplace, woods, a rowboat or canoe, and fishing tackle. Now there are plenty of American males who like to let their wives believe that the call of the forests and the desire for communion with nature is so strong that husbands can tear themselves away from home for weeks at a time. Actually, these modern woodsmen go in pairs or larger groups and take along prodigious quantities of booze. They never bring any of the liquor back. But on the screen, drinking is the conventional nay of expressing disillusionment: so Leslie Howard could not, in the tranquil scene outlined above, take a drag at the pint that must have been behind those volumes of verse and cans of worms.

In short, as I have suggested, happiness, prior to Nunnally Johnson’s remarkable achievement, has had practically no history on the screen. In making it enjoyable, amusing, stimulating, surprising, and memorable, this writer (and producer) has set a cinematographic milestone which, I hope, the more discriminating motion-picture addicts will not allow to be overgrown with the moss of routine claptrap and popular disdain.

The Boy and Girl (don’t smile) are Monty Woolley and Gracie Fields, and Gracie does not sing. She acts, and with such grace and sincerity and tenderness as makes mature woman truly beautiful and alluring, and, by contrast, baby-faced ingenues (billed as stars) look like nothing at all. Monty Woolley, the dominant figure of the play, is not only a sympathetic, intelligent man but a believable artist, a painter who has claim to artistic distinction and who does not belie the claim with every word he utters and every pass he makes at a canvas or sketch pad.

Here, then, we have the film we all have been looking for. There is no trite calf-love affair (which is especially annoying when one of the calf-love partners is fifty years old or more and tries to act twenty-five). The casting is superb. With Monty and Gracie are Eric Blore, Franklin Pangborn, and Laird Cregar, and these fine actors are permitted not to mug and exaggerate and clown, and, in Cregar’s case, not to play the visual equivalent of a radio heavy. On the contrary, they are given superb linos and believable dramatic situations which are entertaining and poignant.

Too much cannot be said about the lines, or dialogue. Nunnally Johnson hits exactly the right balance between dangerous trickery held over from the “silent” days, which reduces dialogue to audible subtitles, and the tedious garrulity of Broadway playwrights who transfer from stage to screen a lot of talk and no illusion. Johnson’s characters (created by Arnold Bennett) are articulate without being verbose, clever without resorting to gag lines from card indices of standard jokes, individualistic and knowable. One is interested in what each says and does and how each reacts to vicissitudes or triumphs.

The following passage, between Farll (Monty) and Alice (Gracie), is disarming in its simplicity. It occurs in a touching scene where the artist, for the first time, is showing his work, done in secret,, to his devoted wife, who has believed he was a valet.

ALICE: Did you do that?

FARLL: I did. How does it strike you?

ALICE: It’s beautiful. What is it ?

FARLL: Study it.

ALICE: Why. that’s Putney

Bridge, isn’t it?

FARLL: It is.

ALICE: On a rather peculiar day,

I imagine.

This is comedy, in its true sense. The remarks are natural and spontaneous, reflecting the characters’ true feelings. On the surface they seem trivial, and on analysis to be throbbing with an artist’s eagerness for appreciation, a loving wife’s earnest wish to please and not disappoint her husband, the husband’s wistful hope that she will not fail to be discerning, the wife’s candor and honesty, which prevent her from bluffing even in a holy cause. The dramatist, in the instance quoted above, which purposely I have taken at random to show the firm quality of the piece, seems to understand everything: how men and women feel and act, and even how great is the gulf between the perception of a trained artist’s eye and that of an untrained one.

When the wife discovers that the man she has loved and married is really famous and has genius she cannot fathom, ” her eyes are filled with grave reflections.”

FAKLL: Alice—there’s no reason for this to make any difference, of course. ALICE: NO? FAKLL: Why should it? ALICE: I don’t know. I’m not sure. I wish I could be. FAKLL: What do you mean? ALICE: It’s something to wonder about, you know. As Mrs. Henry Leek . . . it’s been very cozy. The way I am, the way we’ve lived, in Putney, we’ve been quite happy, I believe. I can’t think of any other woman who might have suited you better. FAKLL: There’ll be no change, dear. ALICE: There’s bound to be. As the wife of a great gentleman ... so great that he could be buried in Westminster Abbey . . . I don’t know. I don’t know howI’d be. But not much, I expect. ... I might be uncomfortable, or too ignorant, and I couldn’t stand that.

A shy and talented man who has to run away from “civilization” in order to escape the inconveniences of his fame is happy with a simple, kindhearted, loyal woman who is bourgeoisie personified. They are happy because they furnish each other companionship with a minimum of getting on each other’s nerves.

By what scenes does Mr. Johnson make this dramatic and charming, witbout an instant of boredom or a single conventional device or false injection of glamour? We see the pair in a hat shop, a restaurant, at tea in Alice’s home which they are to share, at the gate with the morning paper. Wherever he is. she acts as a buffer and protects him. In big moments he is the stronger, because mentally he is the better equipped, but ordinarily she takes the rap.

Probably the reason this love which envelops a great artist is wholesome and good for him is that there is no worship, or even appreciation, of the things for which the world esteems him. Of all the numerous and divers kinds of wives an artist may fall heir to, the worst, in my opinion, is one who dotes on his work and acts as self-appointed press agent in the presence of all and sundry. To the very end, Alice Challice (lovely name) hasn’t the foggiest notion what it is in Priam Farll’s painting that brings high prices or high praise.

There is even a scene in their common bedroom, with a double bed and old-fashioned nightclothes, and it is not ludicrous, glamorous, slyly suggestive, blatantly vulgar, or menacing.

And speaking of menace, Laird Cregar, who in so many films is required to be a Hart, Schaffner & Marx brand of Frankenstein, has a chance to be a real villain, and ho does it well. He is an unscrupulous art dealer, who rooks both painters and purchasers. and grabs the major part of the profits and spoils for himself.

What is the moral of a picture like Holy Matrimony?

That intelligence and directness and plain humanity (not the selfconscious Saroyan kind that is suspect because of its flamboyance and corn) outweigh vanilla-coaled sex and expensive production scenes; and that, if Nunnally Johnson and other sincere screen writers with no nonsense about them are given their heads once in a while, adults will begin to enjoy moving pictures without crossing their mental fingers.