Monday, July 12, 2010

She Who Must Be Obeyed!

Have you ever seen SHE (1935)? The brief title is appropriate even though the film is ostensibly a voyage film about a youngish man Leo Vincey (Randolph Scott) who sets out to find the Fountain of Youth. That fabled myth switches elements here to become the Flame of Life. Stepping into it will grant you immortality, see. But what SHE is really about is what men want and fear in women.

The film is available on Instant Watch at Netflix and today being its 75th anniversary, why not give it a look? It's an interesting snapshot of both cinema's male gaze (more on that later) and the 1930s. Genre films, even ones that take place in realms of the fantastical are often great snapshots of the time they sprang from. Luke Skywalker screams 1970s does he not? They only made faces and hair like that in the 1970s. And I think they only made square jawed men like Randolph Scott and his "roommate" Cary Grant back in the 1930s.

Mmmm. Randoph & Cary...

Scott Grant at their '30s beach home. (They lived together for 12 years.)
Every photo they took together -- and there are quite a few --amazes.

Sorry to distract!

Try not to think about Randolph & Cary while watching SHE. The film isn't about whether or not Randolph loved Cary but what kind of woman his character Vincey will choose to love. But we're jumping too far ahead.

First comes exposition.

And quite a lot of it at that. I'm working on a theory that older films feel slow to modern viewers because they put all their exposition and backstory in at the very beginning instead of bogging the narrative down with it intermittently as modern movies do. It takes SHE forever to get going.

The unfortunate side effect of too much exposition and that still regularly employed device of the protagonist as audience proxy, the character that needs everything explained to them, is that the protagonist often comes across as quite dimwitted. In the first thirteen minute scene (all exposition) we hear the story of Vincey's great great great great grandfather or some such -- they look exactly alike --and the legend of the Flame of Life. Vincey is shown an artifact with the inscription "Here burns the flame of life". He actually thinks they mean that that object is the immortality device. "But this is gold, a known element!" Dumb-dee-dumb-dumb... DUMB.

Apparently Vincey is unfamiliar with the concept of symbols.

The Flame of Life | Tanya the Young & Beautiful
Scientist: Don't you understand?
Vincey: I'm afraid I don't.
Once Vincey is on his journey, he travels in the blink of a title card to the utmost part of the world where he meets Tanya (Helen Mack), the young beautiful daughter of his guide through the treacherous arctic. Somehow the arctic guide is the only character who doesn't understand the basic principles of snow and avalanches but let's not nitpick. (It's not real snow anyway. The tracks suggest they poured sand on the studio floor.) Tanya tells him Vincey more about this legend. It involves a woman.

"What kind of woman?" he asks. It's the smartest question he'll ask in the entire movie, since the movie is about just that. Which kind of woman will a good man choose?

The adventurers discover a secret tropical world inside the snowy mountains they've been climbing. Beset upon by savages, Vincey is injured whilst performing heroics. Just when things look incredibly dire, they're suddenly rescued by the command of SHE (Helen Galaghan in her only film appearance) who rules this hidden world inside the mountains.

Her kingdom is a Lost Horizon/Brigadoon/Shangri-La sort of deal. Her interior decorator has a fondness for mixing up German expressionism, Roman and Greek influences and then tossing it all in an Art Deco blender. In other words, it's very 1930s... on steroids to make it seem otherworldly. The queen's full name is actually "She Who Must Be Obeyed" and/or "She Who Must Immediately Serve As Character Design For Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves".

SHE seems quite benevolent but for the troubling dictatorial implications of her full name. Soon it becomes apparent that Vincey's dead relative was her lover 500 years ago. She'd like to repeat that carnal experience with Randolph Scott if she can pry him away from Tanya and Cary Grant.

Who can blame her?

Her plan to do so is mucho theatrical and involves a huge human sacrifice ceremony, expensive costume parade and elaborate modern dance that won the movie its sole Oscar nomination for Best Dance Direction (in the first of only three years that AMPAS had such a category). Benjamin Zemach is the choreographer but I hope he dedicated the honor to Martha Graham because that legendary dance icon's influence is ALL over the number. It's rather as bald a steal as Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" was with Bob Fosse's work.

The most fascinating thing about SHE is how baldly it reveals all the screwy dichotomies of both cinema's male gaze and Hollywood's youth worship. Movies always want to eroticize women and then punish them for being erotic. And the movies are also always reinforcing America's youth worship while simultaneously reinforcing heteronormative ideals "Let's grow old together!"

In two consecutive scenes Tanya works both sides of this schizo view. She offers up her love to Vincey and talks about what she has to offer. Her words are flowery but they amount to 'Let's grow old together.' He rejects her. "You're not tempted as I am." In the next scene (catfight!) Tanya, having been rejected, storms into SHE's royal suite and wields "old" like an insult.

Tanya believes that this evil queen's magical age is a weakness.

Tanya: Why are you afraid of me?
SHE: (Incredulous) Afraid?
Tanya: You are afraid of me and now I see why. Because I'm young and you know love belongs to the young. Your magic makes you seem young but in your heart you're old, OLD. You were young once like me but now you're old and it's too late for love ever.
Oh, Tanya. If being old means you can't love then you'll lose Vincey anyway. You can't grow old together and stay young. Duh!

<-- evil spooky unnatural youth ritual

Aren't both women making the same argument?

SHE: 'I'm better because I'm young... forever.'
TANYA: 'I'm better because I'm younger... at the moment.'
BOTH LADIES: 'Being old is gross!'

It's no spoiler to tell you that Vincey is going to choose Tanya's helplessness and her home cooking. Literally. He's continually rescuing her and she cooks for him throughout the movie! The hero is never going to choose the alpha female because that's how movies do. But the Quest for Youth story blankets this traditional fear of powerful women with a hypocritical ageism. Randolph Scott was 37 and Helen Galaghan 35 when the film was released but Helen Mack, playing Tanya, was 21. In the scene where Vincey and Tanya first meet, the romantic kindling for her fire is when this older man tells her how he'd treat her if she were his... daughter. Ewww.

Vincey will reject that Flame of Life but isn't he still chasing that fountain of youth by choosing a young bride?

Note the positioning: Scott, submissive, in the traditional "slave girl"
pose. Can't have that! Later, the reverse corrective: Scott throned in
his own home. The woman dethroned and in submissive position.

Maybe not that much has changed at the movies in the past 75 years. We've still got big special effects extravaganzas (which this is... and fairly impressive for its time, too) praised for their sheer spectacle and imagination, their other flaws (stilted acting, massive plotholes) ignored. And we've still got plentiful storylines wherein powerful women are vilified and damsels in distress are placed on pedestals. Now, today's damsels do have a little more fire in them than quivery crying Tanya... but if they get too fiery, watch out! They'll end up as terrifying as emasculating as dangerous as SHE!
*

17 comments:

No Bad Movies said...

I have alwasy wanted to take the lid off the Grant/Scott friendship thing. Many co-stars, mainly women have said they were lovers.
Don't you think that would make for an interesting premise for a movie. You could obviously cast Clooney as Grant. But who would be Scott ? Daniel Day-Lewis with blond hair ?
It is an interesting " what if ".

NATHANIEL R said...

a great premise for a movie that could never happen.

James T said...

I am ashamed for looking at that pic and thinking that the lady was Maleficent (I mean, come on!!).

Was this movie supposed to be called Sexy Hot Erotic but didn't because of the Code and ended up just SHE? ;)

NATHANIEL R said...

well, they're both from that same line of lithe angular sexyhateful imposing Disney villainesses. rather than the other line which is the slatternly slobby rounder villainesses

Y Kant Goran Rite said...

I swear you went and tracked down the one 1935 movie that has eluded me over the years.

I kid I kid - but somehow I've managed to miss this one despite being drawn from an early age to its crazy camp appeal (and some of those still looks gorgeous).

Speaking of things I've been drawn to from an early age - I'm sure that some of those candid stills from the Grant-Scott household were instrumental to my sexual awakening. But this is the first time I'm seeing that one with the silhouettes. That is... I have no words... That is just hardcore. They're not even half-hiding anything there.

NATHANIEL R said...

y kant -- agreed on the hardcore. that silhouette shot is the sexiest thing ever.

I almost posted the one of them running on the beach because it's SO weird (cary grant wearing socks... while jogging on the beach?) but found it too distracting for this post.

Stench Kow said...

Speaking about classic era film on the theme of female sexuality, Grant, and Scott... HAve any of you seen a little forgotten flick called "Hot Saturday" from 1932?

One of Grant's first movies, it's a decidedly mediocre studio mass product, tho refreshing in all it's pre-codiness. The ending is what sets it apart from other "evil small town gossiping destroys lives" movies:

The good girl (who was also the hottest thing in the small town and had all the guys including Grant going wild) has been abandoned by her childhood sweetheart (Scott), who has believed all the nasty but fradulent gossiping about her having had sex with Grant's playboy character all night some time previous to him returning to the scene. Next morning, she comes home (having been away all night again), Scott is there waiting for her, apologetic. You all guess how 30's Hollywood ends the flick, right? Tears and reconciliation?

Nope, the good girl (who did like the not-so-bad-after all Grant previously, tho not in "that" way... yet) says the things people said about her weren't true yesterday, but are true now (ie. she's just had sex with Grant all through the night). She then leaves her dumbstruck family and former beau behind, to join Grant in his sportscar, as they leave the small town to dust and proceed to live as they please in New York.

Like I said, the movie wasn't too good, but damn if that ending wasn't catharctic after seeing too many cool female characters brought down in the last five minutes of classic films

Paul Outlaw said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul Outlaw said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul Outlaw said...

Nathaniel, the cake, the CAKE! Lots of Randy-Cary stuff here btw.

Love She. I quoted the full character name in something I wrote (not here) a few weeks ago, strange that you mention it now...

Jeff D. said...

Did you catch the flub during the Modern Dance Number?

Mirko S. said...

Thanks Paul, for your link! it's always nice to read something about Grant-Scott's love affair. anyway the writer is not so correct when he states that Mervyn LeRoy was GONE WITH THE WIND and THE WIZARD OF OZ director...he was the producer of the latter and directed (uncredited) some parts of the films, along with King Vidor, Richard Thorpe and (famously) George Cukor (who directed the scene in which Garland sings Over The Rainbow)...

anyway nice reading ;-)

Anonymous said...

Paul

What does the cake say. On the path to ??? Ultra ??? fame?

adri said...

I've actually read the books the movie was based on. (Yes, there were books). They're from the Victorian era (late 1880s) by H. Rider Haggard.

Haggard also wrote "King Solomon's Mines" and the Alan Quatermain books (Sharon Stone was in an Alan Quatermain remake with Richard Chamberlain, 1986). Alan Quatermain was supposed to be the original for Indiana Jones.

So for cultural studies there's quite an accretion from different eras. Africa, colonialism, Lost World templates, boys-own adventure, the "innate nature" of the male and female, pre-psychology visions of the anima, etc.

Volvagia said...

I think the whole "fountain of youth" thing is, mostly, tied into two things: 1. The desire to be forever potent (see also: Viagra and Cialis) and 2. Massive vanity tied into the subconscious belief that to look good is to be good and vice versa (See also: The Picture of Dorian Gray and the initial poor box office of Once Upon a Time in The West.)

NATHANIEL R said...

THE CAKE says 'on the path to film fame' awwwww

adri -- i actually wanted to read the book after watching this. just to see how dated it is (or not as the case may be)

javi75 said...

I love the 1930's and I watched this movie some years ago. I think your comments are spot on.

Paul Outlaw, thanks for the links. When I saw the photo I thought "I didnt' know Grant and Scott shared birthday.", then I read the article and I was "Oh my God, they decided to celebrate together". Although frankly, it also looks a lot like a publicity stunt from the studio to promote the movie they were shooting. Notice putting the woman in the middle to avoid any akwardness.

Mirko, the author probably meant to name Victor Fleming instead of LeRoy. Fleming got credited as director for both movies. LeRoy on the other hand, had nothing to do with GWTW. And I believe it was King Vidor who directed all the B&W scenes from TWOZ, including Over the rainbow.