Monday, July 9, 2007

Somebody pull me up short

Sending out save-the-dates, setting up a wedding website (yes, I have another web presence, but this one is password-protected), and attending someone else's wedding this past Saturday have had me thinking of nothing but nuptials lately. Between scheduling this and paying for that, I found the time to watch The Marrying Kind, which aired last month as part of TCM's birthday tribute to Judy Holliday. It's a black-and-white picture from 1952 with a sentimental premise: a couple on the verge of divorce discover, through telling their story to a sympathetic judge, that they'd rather stay married after all. George Cukor directed, Judy starred, Gordon and Kanin wrote the script, and given all that, I thought I knew what to expect: a light romantic comedy, short on credibility and long on heart. But The Marrying Kind turned out to be gritty, even dark, where I expected it to be ditzy. In fact, what Cukor et al. have put together here is a kind of anti-comedy, just as surely as The Clock is Vincente Minelli's anti-musical (although in this case I'm pretty certain the genre-subverting effect is intentional).

You know something is different from the moment the youngish couple, Florence and Chet Keefer (Holliday and Aldo Ray), sit down for an after-hours confab with the judge who'll be hearing their case. Aldo Ray's face probably isn't a familiar one, but it wouldn't have been in 1952, either; the opening credits "introduce" him with fanfare. But you're not watching him anyway; your eyes are on Judy, sitting quietly, awkwardly at the head of the table. Her posture and her expression bear no trace of the bubbly, innocent dames she played in Born Yesterday and will play in It Should Happen to You; Florence is much closer to her woman-on-the-edge defendant from Adam's Rib, but with less spark. She's quiet, even when she opens her mouth; she seems depressed, defeated, in no mood for screwball antics.

With some prodding from the judge (a woman, by the way -- the movie's refusal to comment on this fact is another boundary broken), Chet and Florence reluctantly launch into the tale of their lives together. Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin's script sets us up for comedy, but doesn't fully deliver: the pair can't agree on the details of their meet-cute in Central Park, but their bickering is resentful, and their revisionist versions of the truth are nakedly self-serving. Seeing Aldo Ray in action is a bit of a shock, even though you haven't seen him before; he has the boyish good looks of an amiable straight man, but his voice is like sandpaper and his mannerisms are almost as rough.

Most of the movie is an extended flashback, and Gordon and Kanin keep leading the pair into the obligatory comedy setups: we see Florence musing about how she discovered the pleasure of "thinking" on her honeymoon (the explanation for her surprisingly grounded character? A wry euphemism? Or both?), and vowing to devote at least half an hour each day to thinking, going forward. The thought is silly, but the scene isn't; Florrie is serving lunch to her brittle mother (Phyllis Povah, lean and ironic) and wealthy sister-in-law in her sparsely furnished new apartment, where they sit on folding chairs and wish they were elsewhere. Florence's disappointment, and her discomfort with the housewife role, is palpable. At work (at the post office), Chet takes a good-natured ribbing from his coworkers, who give him earplugs to help him survive married life...but then, when you expect the scene to fade out, they give him a real gift, because their friendship is a real thing. That night, at home, the couple get ready for bed -- two twin beds with a nightstand between them, of course. Ah, the innocent '50s, you think, smugly. Florence chatters about her day, and launches into a story about how, if she hadn't gotten the mumps, she'd never have met Chet. Meanwhile, her husband searches his pockets for the earplugs. Finally, you think, the comedy's kicking in; you're a little disappointed to see the movie turn predictable, but at least now you can get comfortable... But Chet doesn't use the earplugs, and Florence's story turns out to be more philosophical than you expect (the product of that day's thinking, perhaps?). The twin beds aren't beds at all, they're mattresses on the floor, and before the newlyweds turn in, Chet suggests that perhaps, when they do arrange a bed delivery, they might buy just one? (They don't. But they did consider it, at least.)

I couldn't get over the apartment -- the tacky decorative ducks attached to the wall above the sofa in a line, too small to fill the space; the folding chairs at the dining room table; the walk-through bathroom. The photo of Chet in his naval uniform, arms akimbo, which was probably Ray's own, and which is the only reference to the war in the entire film. And the deadening exterior shots of Peter Cooper Village, Manhattan's then-new middle-income housing, shown here squatting unromantically against a gray sky. The details in the script are just as realistic -- have you ever seen anything so unglamorous as Florence plucking her "chin whiskers" before bed, right in front of her husband? And the characters and performances match the surroundings: Florence and Chet are real, blue-collar people, struggling with real feelings, running full-speed-ahead into promising fantasy setups (a get-rich-quick scheme, a radio contest with a big cash prize) and coming out the other side dazed and disappointed. Instead of the comedy we expect, the movie gives us uncompromising, even grim, realism.

Still, they seem happy enough -- the film takes its time establishing grounds for their divorce, and when the problems finally start in earnest, Cukor doesn't flinch. When the Keefers pack up their things for an Independence Day picnic, we watch a sweet but not cloying domestic scene. The children -- by now there are two children, shrill and not especially cute -- run off to play; Judy reclines with a ukelele and serenades her husband with a novelty song. "Ay-yi-yi, Delores," she sings in that goofy voice of hers, but she's not playing it for laughs. She's mindlessly singing a lament, a song to the lady of sorrows; appropriate, but she doesn't know it yet, and the moment she finds out is doubly horrifying for its restraint. Cukor might have allowed the movie to turn melodramatic at that point, but he keeps his solid grip, and the Keefers' ensuing downward spiral is as controlled as it is difficult to watch.

In short, no, The Marrying Kind is not a laugh riot. But the laughs it offers are rewarding and genuine; Judy, especially, finds the comedy in her character, but she finds it on a deeper level than you might expect. The film is unsettling and disorienting, and it makes a lasting impression, in spite of its too-neat ending (and the confusing lack of time cues along the way: over some 10 years, Florence and Chet don't even change hairstyles). The couple's decision to reunite isn't overplayed, but the judge's "You've both made some mistakes" lecture, however gentle, seems misdirected from where I'm sitting (I won't ruin the film with more detail, but the burden of responsibility rests pretty heavily on one side, a fact the judge ignores). And, at the very end, the invitation to watch out for MGM's "newest star," Aldo Ray, in other projects is a jarring reacclimation to the cinematic world of the early 1950s. You may think you've seen what Judy Holliday, George Cukor and 1950s comedies can do, but you haven't really seen it all unless you've seen The Marrying Kind.

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