Saturday, March 2, 2013

Leaving unkindness and tyranny

I was up late last night, so I sat and watched two old films on TCM—BUtterfield 8 from 1960 with Elizabeth Taylor as a part-time model/part-time call girl (I’ve seen it several times before but never tire of it), and The Barretts of Wimpole Street from 1957 with Jennifer Jones as the poetess Elizabeth Barrett who married Robert Browning. Whenever I watch the old films, I’m always struck by the depth of the character portrayals, by the richness of the stories they tell, and by the feelings I’m left with after they’re over. The old films make you think: about your life, others’ lives, different situations, different times, how you might have handled those situations, and so on. In Butterfield 8, Elizabeth Taylor’s character Gloria is looking to change her life and to find real love, and thinks she has found the way to do so in her relationship with Weston Liggett, played by Laurence Harvey, who is married, albeit unhappily. This being the film world of the late 1950s/early 1960s, we know that their story cannot end like that of Pretty Girl. Weston is a borderline alcoholic with an explosive temper also looking to change his life. While they enjoy some happy moments together, Gloria makes a mistake early on in their relationship that ultimately dooms it, and Weston’s behavior toward her in a restaurant in reaction to this ‘mistake’ is appalling—he is verbally and physically abusive to her in a harrowing scene. He treats her like dirt in a public setting, calls her a whore to her face in a loud voice, and provokes the wrath of other men around them, who step in to their argument to try to protect Gloria. Weston ends up getting punched in the face for his abusive behavior and quickly leaves the restaurant. His subsequent attempts to reconcile with Gloria, to apologize for his crude and caveman behavior, fail; she flees from him in her car, and he follows her. Their story ends tragically, with her dying in a car crash. It struck me that her attempts to change her life, to leave her past behind, to become a new woman, to find self-respect, were punished in this film. She was not allowed to find happiness, with or without a man. But what struck me most of all was the lack of kindness and understanding toward those attempts. With the exception of one person, her childhood friend Steve, played by Eddie Fisher, there were few others who understood her need to change her life; everyone else seemed bound by the conventions of society at that time—marriage, duty, respectability. Why she had chosen the life she chose comes to light when she reveals her secret (early sexual abuse by a father figure) to Steve. But by then we know it is too late. It seems rather horrible to me that she should pay for others’ sins as dearly as she paid in this film, but that says more about the time when the film was made. But it is the lack of kindness toward her that sticks with you after the film is over.

In The Barretts of Wimpole Street, we meet Elizabeth Barrett, her sisters and brothers, and their tyrant of a father, a widower (played by John Gielgud) who refuses to let any of them marry and who vows to disinherit them if they do. Suffice it to say that the household atmosphere is stifling and life-killing, with the father determining how they live, what they eat, who they see, and so forth. It is implied that the father treated his wife in much the same way as he treats his children; she may have loved him early on but came to fear him as his children do. He has absolute control over them, is unkind in word and action, and prefers having his children fear rather than love him. Elizabeth is an invalid with what seems to be some sort of heart problem; in truth, her illness is probably a reaction to her father’s psychological abuse. She is bedridden and her brothers and sisters try to keep her in good spirits; it is her dog Flush who seems to do the best job at giving her some sort of happiness, and he plays a major role in the film. The film is really the story of how Elizabeth comes to life and gets well after meeting the poet Robert Browning, who has fallen in love with her through her poetry and who wants to marry her. It doesn’t take Robert long to figure out that her father is a major cause of her illness and unhappiness. They carry on their romance in secret, as does Elizabeth’s sister Henrietta with her Captain. But we know that Elizabeth’s father will eventually find out, and he does. So the question then becomes, how will they escape their tyrant of a father? He is truly a scary man; he dominates any room he walks into with his dourness and life-killing behavior. You could say about him that a flower would wither in his presence. In a rather sickening scene toward the end of the film, he tells Elizabeth that he is moving the family out of London to the country to get away from the bad influences (visits from friends and suitors), and that he hopes that she will come to love him and not fear him. He then makes the mistake of professing his feelings for her, which border on incestuous. Elizabeth understands that he will ultimately destroy her, and that she needs to get away from him immediately, which she manages with the help of their housemaid Wilson. The scene where she, with her dog Flush in her arms (she could not leave him behind) and Wilson are sneaking out of the house while the rest of the family is sitting down to dinner, is actually terrifying. I kept waiting for her father to appear, to crush whatever little courage and spirit was left in her. Had he appeared while she was escaping, he would have won. And had she left Flush behind, it would have been awful; her father, when he discovers that Elizabeth and Wilson have gone, orders the dog destroyed. But of course Elizabeth knew that this would be his fate, and since she loves her dog, he goes with her. I have never rooted for a character to escape her tyrant the way I did with Elizabeth; when they paused on the staircase, just a few feet from the front door, I found myself saying ‘go, leave, get out now’. It would have been awful had she been stopped. But she does escape, does marry Robert, and Flush stays with them. It's a true story with a happy ending, in other words, and thank God for that.

Both films deal with women who want to change their lives and leave unhappiness and abuse behind. Both women decide to leave their abusers—men who mete out nothing but unkindness, misery and unhappiness, men who confuse love and control, men who dominate and bark out orders, men who can say and do things that they would never tolerate from the women in their lives. It made me appreciate the courage and the energy these women showed in the face of abuse; they knew they had to leave their situations and they did. In one case it ended tragically, in the other, it ended happily. So it goes in life; it’s not always easy to leave an unhappy situation. But the courage involved in trying to leave is what stays with you long after the films are over. 

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