April 17, 2012

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I had a similar reaction to Mr. Stewart when I watched Kim Novak purr her way through Bell Book and Candle, just released by Twilight Time on a gorgeous blu-ray.  He also might have been agog at Westward the Women (1951), the William Wellman femme-Western released in a well-appointed DVD from the Warner Archive, which includes an audio commentary from film historian Scott Eyman. They are two films that focus on female desire, a rare occurrence in the generally leering male gazes of post-code Hollywood (pre-code films were replete with sexually independent women – check out Baby Face (1933) for a bracing example). Bell Book and Candle is set in motion because of Novak’s uncontrollable lust for Stewart, and Westward the Women kicks off because of hundreds of ladies’ self-sacrificing desire for a better life out in California, a gender bending variation on Horace Greeley’s advice to, “Go west, young man”.

Originally, Bell Book and Candle was a stage play written by John Van Druten and produced by Irene Mayer Selznick in 1950. Although her divorce to David O. Selznick had been finalized in ’49, she sold the rights to him in 1953. He intended to cast his next wife, Jennifer Jones, in the lead, but the project never got off the ground, and the rights were eventually purchased by Columbia. After initially considering Rex Harrison for the lead, the studio and producer Julian Blaustein decided to re-team Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart, who had both wrapped shooting on Paramount’s Vertigo in January of 1958. Since Columbia had lent Novak for that project, Paramount returned the favor in allowing Stewart to film the supernatural romantic comedy, which started shooting on February 3rd. The exuberantly talented Richard Quine (My Sister EileenIt Happened To Jane) was slated to direct, and the legendary James Wong Howe handled the indecently saturated Technicolor cinematography.

Reversing the polarity of obsession from Vertigo, in Bell Book and Candle it is Novak who is the stalker, Stewart the stalked. Novak plays Gillian Holroyd, a stir-crazy witch in the West Village of NYC who deals in African and Oceanic art as a lucrative front. Stewart is the endearingly uptight Shepherd Henderson, the editor-in-chief at an upscale publisher who lives above her storefront. Bored with her hep wiccan lifestyle spent at the Zodiac nightclub (where warlock Jack Lemmon plays the bongos), she yearns for something different. So indeed she indulges in some hoodoo and wraps Shep in her spell. When he finds out his attraction is not entirely natural, Gillian has some explaining to do.

Novak gives a smoldering performance, shooting looks at Stewart of devouring lust as she slowly pours herself onto the couch to accentuate each curve in her body. She even modulates her voice into a low purr, emulating the vocal rhythms of her beloved pet cat. Costume designer Jean Louis puts her in inflammatory red, from a bohemian-chic smock to a scoop-necked sweater, a siren intent on snagging her prey. The colors in James Wong Howe’s cinematography veritably pop off the screen, from those gleaming reds to the sharp pinks of Gillian’s mother Queenie (Elsa Lanchester) and the rich creams and grays of Shep’s sharply lined attire. Richard Quine, always a sharp caricaturist, lets Lanchester and Lemmon loose as the impish do-badders, providing islands of comedy amidst the torrents of Gillian’s pheromones, which course through this intoxicating Technicolor dream.

Where Bell is fantastical, Westward the Women (1951) is elemental. Based on a story by Frank Capra, it tracks the travails of hundreds of women traveling from Chicago to California, lured by the promise of hard-working husbands and the open air. According to Capra’s biography, he intended to direct the film with Gary Cooper to star, but eventually had to table it, and ended up selling the rights to his neighbor, William Wellman, who had recently finished his Clark Gable western, Across the Wide Missouri (also 1951).

Ostensibly the lead is Robert Taylor as trail master Buck Wyatt, but the film spends most of its time dutifully tracking the intense labor of the women on the drive, as early on most of the cowboys cut loose, unwilling to drive further into unforgiving territory. But the women endure, as Wellman depicts them in extended montages of work, seemingly inspired by the major drive in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1931), and perhaps an influence on Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2011), other Westerns obsessed with process. These processes are inevitably group efforts, lending these sequences a bit of communal proto-feminism, together doing the jobs of men with little fuss and unspoken teamwork. The gritty heart of the film is Patience (Hope Emerson), the Ward Bond of the movie, whose brute physicality inspires the rest of the ladies to self-abnegation and ultimate triumph, but who secrets a sensitive soul behind all the bluster. She is joined by a cross-section of personalities, from the sharpshooting farm girl Maggie, the still-mourning Italian widow Mrs. Maroni, and the two ex-prostitutes Fifi and Laurie, eager for some vision of country life.

Many women suffer and die, but the rest endure, the vast middle section is a grim kind of survival horror movie, as carriages crash and hostile Native Americans chase them down. Pared to the bone of back-story, the film operates by the familiar Wellman method (although only intermittently witnessed in his post-30s work), of showing character through action. All of the women in the film gain a personality through the attention Wellman pays to their faces, instead of lugubrious scenes of exposition.These roll calls of expressions (similar to the montage of faces before the cattle drive in Red River), intimate more in images of their lined brows than any speech could convey.

Never an emotional director, Westward the Women is nonetheless an unexpectedly moving film. When the women finally meet their prospective husbands in California, it’s a scene that could easily become droopingly sentimental, but instead is reticent and ambiguous, a skittish embrace of an uncertain future, one in which the freedoms of their drive West will likely disappear in their return to male dominated society. It is this melancholy undertone that makes Westward the Women a fascinating object, as the seams and contradictions in Hollywood’s depictions of womanhood poke through thanks to Wellman’s distanced, unvarnished approach. In a similar way, Novak’s voracious sexual appetite, that the movie never indexes as negative, undercuts the usual Madonna-Whore complex of romantic comedy that persists today (see, if you must, the dire What’s Your Number for a current example). Both these films are remarkable in that they show women who can fuck and fight with with the best of them, with no apologies.