Saturday, September 22, 2012

"The Misfits" and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro"

I recently viewed two old movies on cheap DVD, both revealing aspects of well-known authors. "The Misfits" was bought for $3 in the discount bin at a FYI video chain in an Albany mall while "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" was part of a multi-disc set called Great Cinema purchased for about $5 at Wal-Mart. The latter was a collection of film and TV specials whose copyrights must have run out. The same film, obviously a second or third generation copy, is also part of another cheap package called 100 Great Hollywood Films.

"The Misfits" was viewed mostly while on vacation in St. Martin. I had seen it in bits and pieces but never all the way through. It's a fascinating failure--the last complete film of Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, one of the last films of a deteriorating Montgomery Clift, with a screenplay by Monroe's husband Arthur Miller, who may have been trying to save their crumbling marriage by offering his insecure wife a rare dramatic role. The story is sad and touching--a circle of loose-living cowboys and roustabouts crave the love of Rosalyn, a stunningly beautiful divorcee who's at a loose end in Reno after her break-up. She sets up housekeeping with the much older Gaylord, played by Gable. When the group rounds up a herd of wild mustangs to be sold for dog food, the tenderhearted Rosalyn has a hysterical fit. But in the end, Gaylord decides to set the horses free, seeing that their plight is similar to that of his own and the other human misfits.

Miller's symbolism is heavy-handed but John Huston's direction keeps the reality strong. What's really interesting is the parallels between the stars and their roles. Monroe is ill-equipped to express the complexities of Rosalyn's emotions, . She's described as a life force, a child-woman. Rosalyn was neglected by her parents and feels insecure about her amazing beauty, just as Monroe did.

Gable symbolizes the glamour of Old Hollywood and the romanticism of the Old West, now a dried up and more than a bit tired. He died not long after the filming finished. Clift who plays the punchdrunk rodeo rider Perch was on his last legs after a car crash ruined his exquisite good looks (see A Place in the Sun) and years of drug and alcohol abuse.

Supporting players Eli Wallach and Thelma Ritter did not have tragic personal histories reflected in the stories of their characters. Wallach's Guido yearns for love after his wife died, but basically has given up on finding iot until he meets Rosalyn. You can see the lustful fire in Wallach's eyes when he looks at Monroe during the scene when they dance together.  I think I felt sorriest for Ritter's Isabel, a woman with six clocks in her house, none of which work.

"The Snows of Kilimanjaro" is based on Ernest Hemingway's short story. In addition to the plot of that brief vignette I read in high school, the filmmakers cram in every other element from the macho author's canon including the Spanish Civil War ("For Whom the Bell Tolls"), Spanish bullfights ("Death in the Afternoon," "The Sun Also Rises"), struggling young writers in Paris ("A Moveable Feast"), African big game hunting (several short stories, "The Garden of Eden," "True at First Light"). Peck stars as a Hemingway stand-in ruminating on his eventful, thrilling Technicolor past as he suffers feverishly from an infection while on a big game hunt. Susan Hayward is his current wife, Ava Gardner his dead true love, and Hildegarde Neil a bitchy European countess he almost marries. The melodrama is ridiculous and the chronology absurd. At one point Hayward bumps into a drunken Peck in Paris and says "Aren't you the author Mr. Harry Street I met near the Verdonne a couple of scenes ago?" Their previous meeting was only about 30 seconds and the whole Spanish Civil War took place since then. (He also runs into Gardner during that fracas as she is dying in a ambulance crash; what a coinky-dink as they used to say on "Laugh-In").

Of course he marries Hayward and that brings us up to date in Africa where a witch doctor arrives to help out. They don't even say which country in Africa they're supposed to be in. I can imagine the attraction of this 1952 feature was taking John and Jane Doe away from their humdrum grey little lives to the huge, color-saturated world of what they thought Hemingway represented. It presents the ridiculous notion that in order to be an author you have to travel the world, go big game hunting, attend bullfights, and  serve on the front lines of wars. Never mind about authors who examine the everyday as Miller did in many of his plays.The real Hemingway wrote about personal courage (which is an honest concern) and what I think of as false masculinity. I've read most of his work and that of Miller and I think Willie Loman is a more truthful depiction of humanity than Jake Barnes, the mangled hero of "The Sun Also Rises." Lady Brett Ashley always annoyed me, BTW. What a selfish woman.

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