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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A Strange Smell

A while ago a friend asked me "What's the weirdest thing you've seen in fandom?"

I had a hard time answering because the things humans do don't usually strike me as weird. Disturbing, yes--like cruelty; stupid and self-defeating--all the time; kinda kooky, sure. 
But weird means something more powerful than merely "kooky" or "strange"... 

Let's see... what's weird?
Hm... Well, Jonathan Winters is weird. He thins the line between humor and horror almost to nothing.

1:55 "Mr. Bushmat's Trip to Yellowstone"



(Dean Martin is a rotten straight man here.)

Last night I watched a movie that seemed weird to me: 
Sweet Smell of Success. It was made in 1957. 

Come to think of it, lots of other 1950s movies strike me as weird.
Like All That Heaven Allows (dir. Douglas Sirk, 1955), when the "older" woman's children get her a TV set to distract her from her "younger" gardener. (Jane Wyman & Rock Hudson). 
Nice sapling there, Rock.

Look, little china coffee cups in both movies! Maybe that's what's weird? Even Sweet Smell's Mr. Destroyer-of-Lives J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) drinks out of these dinky cups.

But, no. It's the sexual repression of this era that feels so weird--there was something especially tense about the fifties: the movies are full of overwrought drives pressing against glass windows. It's like if they act on their desires, the Communists will come busting through.
 All That Heaven Allows ^

Splendor in the Grass (dir. Elia Kazan, 1961, still with that fifties feel) is another weird one: 
Natalie Wood goes mad because she can't have sex (with Warren Beatty).

And James Dean literally squirming with desire in the Ferris wheel in East of Eden (also Elia Kazan, 1955) [supposedly Dean decided not to pee beforehand, to convey that distracted discomfort]:

The sexual element in Sweet Smell, however, would still be weird today:
Middle-aged powermonger Hunsecker is obsessed with his fragile nineteen-year-old sister, Susan (Susan Harrison), and the whole plot revolves around him trying to break up her engagement to Steve Dallas (Martin Milner).
He's always stroking her fur coat...
So, that's uncomfortable, but it's more than the sexuality that's weird about the movie...
What was?  Well, when I got to the end, I was baffled: What is this? Why did they make this movie? I felt I was missing something. 
And I was. 
When I read about it, I see I was missing the context:  the movie was specific to a political situation: it was like a documentary about Walter Winchell and other columnists, who operated like political bosses.

Oh, OK. It's not as weird if I know it's about specific political figures.
In fact, that opens it up: 
Hunsecker is like Trump--he's all about twisting the truth to gain power and to humiliate people.
Also Trump has a sexual thing about a young female relative of his.

People like that attract creepy people who suck up to them like eyeless worms. Tony Curtis is great as the parasite.

These guys really had something--they were great together in Trapeze (dir. Carol Reed, 1955) too. That was more of a romantic relationship---a different kind of tension. Works either way.

1 comment:

bink said...

I disliked Jonathan Winters as a child, because of the cruel streak that ran through his comedy, not the weirdness. Watching this clip today, I am struck by how ordinary he would seem today if he were standing on a improv stage. I think if I'd realized as a kid he was doing improv, I would have cut him more slack.