Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Wanting More: The Open Ending of THE DAMNED DON'T CRY (1950)

WARNING! This post contains major spoilers for THE DAMNED DON'T CRY and other classic noir films. Proceed at your own risk.

When I showed The Damned Don't Cry (1950) to my lifetime learners as the final film of our Joan Crawford series, they were especially struck by the open ending of the story, which leaves us wondering about the ultimate fate of protagonist Ethel Whitehead, aka Mrs. Lorna Hansen Forbes. Director Vincent Sherman and leading lady Crawford carry us through a dark journey over the course of the picture, which is equal parts melodrama and film noir as it shows us Ethel's seduction by avarice and ambition. My lifetime learners fully expected Ethel to die or at least go to prison in the movie's final scenes, but neither happens. Why doesn't Ethel pay a heavier price for her actions, and why are we surprised that she doesn't? Those questions deserve some consideration, especially since both melodrama and noir are known for killing off their most deeply flawed protagonists. Ethel Whitehead is, indeed, deeply flawed, but the film consistently displays a degree of sympathy for her that resists reading her as a villain or reaching a harsher conclusion as poetic justice for her crimes.

The picture opens with murder and scandal as the wealthy Mrs. Lorna Hansen Forbes is revealed as a fraud, but we are soon provided with her backstory. Ethel Whitehead is a poor woman from a working class family, scraping to get by and unable to afford any of the things her beloved young son desires. When the son tragically dies, Ethel feels that she has nothing to lose by leaving her old life behind. She heads to New York City and gets a job as a dress model, which she uses as a springboard to better - but increasingly criminal - prospects. Along the way she entangles Martin Blackford (Kent Smith), an accountant who accepts lucrative jobs with mobsters to win her love, but she abandons Martin in favor of the boss himself, the ruthless but refined George Castleman (David Brian). George remakes Ethel into socialite oil heiress Lorna, but his favors come at a price, and Ethel eventually finds herself dispatched to California on a dangerous mission to uncover the treachery of mob underling Nick Prenta (Steve Cochran).

Given that Ethel abandons her husband and parents, ruins Martin's life, misrepresents her identity and social standing, and knowingly gets involved with gangsters, we might imagine death or prison to be more than justified, and perhaps even obligatory given the Hays Code demand that crime always be punished. She also demonstrates dissatisfaction with married poverty and a desire to have money and nice possessions, and that kind of rebellion against conservative, patriarchal values usually doesn't end well for female characters, especially after the enforcement of Hays in 1934, which brought an end to heroines who cheerfully hustle their way to the top. Ethel wants more, and wanting more is very dangerous to a woman's life expectancy in Hays era films. Crawford's heroine in Humoresque (1946) drowns herself as penance for her sins, while her rival Bette Davis pays the ultimate price in pictures like Of Human Bondage (1934), Jezebel (1938), The Letter (1940), and Another Man's Poison (1951). Although melodramas sometimes kill their heroines, noir's femme fatale types are especially likely to meet violent ends. Mary Astor's slippery Brigid faces hanging or hard time at the end of The Maltese Falcon (1941), while Barbara Stanwyck eats lead in both Double Indemnity (1944) and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). If we hold Ethel fully responsible for Martin's corruption and Nick's murder, then we might conclude that she deserves the same fate as her "sisters under the mink," as Gloria Grahame says in The Big Heat (1953) (her character doesn't make it out alive, either).

Ethel, however, is never presented as a true femme fatale, and the film repeatedly balances her materialism with scenes that humanize her. We sympathize with her desire to get out of her miserable life in the oil fields and away from her brutish father and domineering husband. Her child's death breaks her resolve to endure that life any longer, and we can't blame her for running away from a hollow existence without the sole joy she found there. As a dress model, Ethel at first balks at the shady aspects of the job, but she grows accustomed to trading moral qualms for money by degrees. The rewards are concrete - a nicer place, better food, prettier clothes - while the costs are less tangible. Ethel doesn't intentionally corrupt Martin or plan to jilt him from the beginning; she really cares about him but can't stop herself from taking the opportunity that George represents. She holds no animosity toward George's pitiful wife and is, in fact, gentle with her in their one scene together. When George orders her to California, Ethel obeys because she thinks she loves him, but her sympathy for Nick and revulsion at the idea of murder prove stronger than her loyalty to George. Martin, who has clearly resented Ethel for his fall from grace, similarly reveals that his love for her trumps other concerns, and his forgiveness encourages our own.

By the end of the film, Nick and George are both dead, Martin has turned police informant, and Ethel has been shot by George after returning to her parents' spartan hovel. Her ruse as Lorna Hansen Forbes is definitely over, especially with the source of her illicit wealth now gone. The final scenes focus again on Ethel's humanity and the better aspects of her nature. We see her reunited with her parents and with Martin, whom she bravely tries to protect by going alone to face the vengeful George. After George shoots Ethel, the movie could easily have ended with her death, but instead we see that she survives to be comforted by her parents and questioned by both reporters and the police. Martin is notably absent at the conclusion, possibly in police custody and possibly on the lam; we get no hint about a reunion with Ethel. The clusters of policemen all around the house suggest that Ethel might also be looking at jail, but instead of speculating about her trial the departing reporters wonder if she'll make another attempt to escape the stark poverty of her home. "Wouldn't you?" asks one of the reporters, and the other nods his answer with certainty. We leave the story not knowing the fates of either Ethel or Martin, but we're encouraged by the last bit of dialogue to wonder what happens next.

While this open ending might well surprise viewers expecting a definite conclusion, it lets The Damned Don't Cry obey the letter of the Hays Code while still offering us hope for a flawed heroine whom the narrative encourages us to care about in spite of her flaws. Ethel has already suffered a great deal, although of course a narrow-minded moralist like Joseph Breen would be happy to see her die in the dirt or the execution chamber. Instead, we get an ending that lets the viewer imagine what happens next according to his or her own preferences. Personally, I like to imagine that Ethel and Martin get back together and disappear into new identities far away from the shadow of their shared past, maybe somewhere in Mexico. I don't blame Ethel for wanting out of her miserable, downtrodden life, but I hope that she can find a via media to real happiness somewhere between poverty and ruthless materialism. A less sympathetic viewer might assume that jail time, if nothing worse, awaits Ethel as punishment for her crimes, and the hovering police officers certainly make that option plausible. If we want more from the ending of The Damned Don't Cry, that in itself makes us more like Ethel than some viewers who judge her harshly might care to admit. How much is someone allowed to want? How much wanting is too much, and what should happen to someone who wants it? Like Ethel, we're left wanting more, but we'll have to make it up ourselves to get it.

If you're interested in reading more of my posts about Joan Crawford, check out the following:





Monday, May 15, 2023

Big Stars on the Small Screen: THE MUPPET SHOW

This post is part of the CMBA Spring Blogathon - Big Stars on the Small Screen: In Support of National Classic Movie Day. Check out all of the participating blogs and posts by visiting the Classic Movie Blog Association's post about the blogathon!

Big Stars on the Small Screen: Classic Movie Guest Stars on The Muppet Show

Guest stars on the original Muppet Show television series spanned the full range of celebrity types in the public eye during the late 1970s, from singers and actors to puppeteers, dancers, and musicians. For many children watching the episodes, The Muppet Show provided a kid-friendly introduction to entertainers they had never encountered before, including many classic movie stars entering the later decades of their careers. If you were four years old in 1976, as I was that year when the first season of The Muppet Show aired, you might not know who most of the Season 1 guest stars were, but a Muppet curated introduction to Vincent Price might prove a watershed moment in your young life. For five seasons, The Muppet Show entertained adults and children alike with its quirky mix of old and new, high and low, classy and wacky, all mingled together to form the joyful chaos so quintessential to the Muppet aesthetic. Here's a look at some of the classic movie stars featured in each season of the series, with highlights on some of my personal favorites.


Season One

The 24 episodes of Season One offer a wide range of guest stars, including Joel Grey, Ruth Buzzi, Florence Henderson, Paul Williams, Sandy Duncan, and Phyllis Diller, and of course many stars who were fairly new in 1976 are considered "classics" today. Among the guest stars who hail from the Golden Age of Hollywood are Rita Moreno, Lena Horne, Peter Ustinov, Vincent Price, and Ethel Merman. Of the group, both the Rita Moreno and Vincent Price episodes are standouts, with both stars fully committed to interacting with their puppet hosts.

For me, the Vincent Price episode is a special favorite. The campy horror maestro is totally at home with his weird monster companions, including the delightful Uncle Deadly, who appears as Price's "beautiful assistant" in one horror movie parody sketch. Price also gets to tout his reputation as a gourmet and art lover, although of course the sketches veer into vampirism, cannibalism, and other gruesome but silly twists. It's a thoroughly essential episode for any fan of the Muppets, Price, or classic horror in general.

Season Two 

Classic movie stars in the second season include many performers who were also famous for their radio and television work, like Don Knotts, Milton Berle, George Burns, and Bob Hope, but you'll also find stars like Julie Andrews and Peter Sellers in the mix ("modern" guest stars for this season include Rich Little, Madeline Kahn, Elton John, and John Cleese). Both the Julie Andrews and Peter Sellers episodes are noteworthy in their own, separate ways, although the Sellers episode suffers some for Sellers' outdated and stereotyped performance of "A Gypsy's Violin."

I can't really choose between the Peter Sellers and Julie Andrews episodes because they're both great. While the first sketch with Sellers is culturally problematic, the Queen Victoria sketch is a brilliant bit of meta comedy that is one of my all-time favorite Muppet Show moments, and the segment with Sellers as a sadistic German masseur who mangles Link Hogthrob is another demented gem. The Sellers episode is also notable for featuring Kermit's performance of "Bein' Green," which would become a signature song for the character. The Julie Andrews episode is sweeter in tone, with Andrews performing "The Lonely Goatherd" from The Sound of Music (1965) for her first number. Andrews is very natural and funny with her puppet costars throughout the episode, and for added humor you can watch Carol Burnett be jealous of Andrews' popularity on the show in Burnett's Season 5 appearance.


Season Three

The most memorable episode of Season 3, for me, at least, is the one featuring Alice Cooper, who might as well be a Muppet given how well he fits in with the monsters of the group. The Faust angle of the episode's plot also makes it a hit. Among the newer stars featured, the episodes guest starring Gilda Radner and Roger Miller also stand out. Classic movie stars appearing in the third season include Jean Stapleton, Raquel Welch, Harry Belafonte, Danny Kaye, and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans (who appear together, naturally). 

While the Danny Kaye episode is cute, the must-see classic star of the season is definitely Harry Belafonte, who collaborated closely with the show's creative team to make a truly special episode. "Day-O" is a Belafonte hit that adult viewers would have recognized, but the real highlight is Belafonte's performance of "Turn the World Around," a song that would prove so meaningful to Muppets creator Jim Henson that Belafonte performed it at Henson's New York memorial service in 1990. While this episode of The Muppet Show focuses on Harry Belafonte's skill as a singer, his acting ability serves him well in his interactions with the puppets. I couldn't help but think of this episode and the song, "Turn the World Around," when Belafonte died on April 25, 2023.

Season Four

The fourth season includes fewer guests who really qualify as "classic movie stars" in the strictest sense, and overall there are a lot of popular singers represented, such as John Denver, Arlo Guthrie, Crystal Gayle, Andy Williams, and Diana Ross. The best episode of the season is the one featuring the stars of Star Wars, with Mark Hamill absolutely game for the comedy shenanigans and accompanied by C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), R2-D2, and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). The most "classic" of the stars included in this season are Liza Minnelli and Carol Channing, and both of their episodes are worth watching.

If you're interested in episodes where The Muppet Show varied its usual format (as it did several times during its five season run), the Liza Minnelli episode is the one to watch. The usual songs and comedy skits are organized as part of a murder mystery with Kermit as the detective and Minnelli as his client. The episode earned an Emmy for Outstanding Directing, and the Mystery Writers of America honored it with a Raven Award, as well. If you want to see how a human Muppet interacts with actual Muppets, see the episode with Carol Channing, who really fits in perfectly and performs some delightfully nutty numbers.


Season Five

The final season of The Muppet Show ran from the fall of 1980 to the spring of 1981, and it followed the fourth season in leaning toward newer celebrity guests. Some of the best include Brooke Shields (in an Alice in Wonderland themed episode), Carol Burnett, Johnny Cash, Marty Feldman, Linda Ronstadt, and Paul Simon. The classic movie stars featured in this season are, however, truly classic, with Gene Kelly, James Coburn, and Tony Randall all making appearances. As great a star as Kelly was, he looks uncomfortable with the puppets, and it's not a great performance (his episode aired around the same time as his appearance in the 1980 film, Xanadu). Tony Randall is having more fun, but the wackiest of the lot turns out to be James Coburn.

I'll admit that, having seen the entire series multiple times and co-edited two books about Jim Henson, I can't really remember a lot about the Tony Randall episode, which is why I'm giving the nod to James Coburn as the best classic star guest for this season. The finale, which involves a chaotic tribute to Japan that turns into a square dance with invading cowboys, has some of the same cultural sensitivity issues as the Peter Sellers episode, but James Coburn going for broke with a bunch of Muppets is just too wacky to resist. The sketches poke great fun at Coburn's tough guy reputation, especially in the salute to the Roaring 20s segment. Coburn also has a fun cameo as the owner of the El Sleezo Cafe in The Muppet Movie (1979), if you want another bit of Coburn-Muppet collaboration.

If you're interested in reading more of my posts about the Muppets, check out these links:

Classic Movie Stars on THE MUPPET SHOW

The Lovers, the Dreamers, and Me: Reflections on The Muppets

From Phantom to Phenom: The Evolution of Uncle Deadly

Christmas Movie Blogathon: THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL (1992) 

Making News with The Muppets