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Fantasies for the Modern Matron

During the early ‘60s, as the Hollywood studio system waned and drifted prior to the establishment of the MPAA ratings and the birth of the New Hollywood, a number of big-budget, allegedly serious dramas were made that strained for a new maturity while holding onto the old melodramatic gloss. They were the last remnants of the classical woman’s film, and I’m as masochistically fascinated by them as by their forebears.


These are movies whose development hinges on women’s choices rather than men’s actions, with half the plot devoted to agonizing over those choices and the other half to paying for the consequences (because there are always consequences). Often called soapers or romantic dramas, they presented themselves seriously but reviewers often weren’t sure how seriously to take them. These movies seem increasingly crazy (attracting greater critical mockery) in proportion to how much sex is injected into the proceedings, and this trend reaches its campy self-destruction in 1967’s Valley of the Dolls.


cover art

The Chapman Report

Director: George Cukor
Cast: Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Shelley Winters, Jane Fonda

(US DVD: 13 Sep 2012)

Most of these films aren’t necessarily “good” but have very good things in them, certainly the best that money can buy. If nothing else, they tellingly align consumer fantasy with romantic yearning, the emptiness that must be filled. Their people are always taking trips and achieving ambiguous “success” in sleekly appointed homes. We’re constantly told that the trappings of success and modernity are hollow, an “imitation of life”, that love is what matters. But love always turns out to have its own minefields, and success in love often somehow melds with the promise of physical comfort, anyway. Comfort is the necessary context for satisfaction, even if it’s not always sufficient for it. At the very least, it provides a fabulous place to be miserable.


Examples include Goodbye Again, Inside Daisy Clover, A Rage to Live, Phaedra, The Group, By Love Possessed, Two Loves, The V.I.P.‘s, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, The Light in the Piazza (the best film mentioned here); the Susan Hayward string of Ada, The Stolen Hours, Where Love Has Gone; the Delmer Daves productions Parrish, Rome Adventure, Susan Slade, Youngblood Hawke; and the sexually angst-ridden output of Jane Fonda: Walk on the Wild Side, In the Cool of the Day, and the example today presented to the class, The Chapman Report, now available on demand from Warner Archive. Everyone please turn to page ‘62.


The wonderful opening credits scream “modern!” As Leonard Rosenman’s score bumps and grinds with sleazy half-jazz, the names are splashed over a montage of key-punch computer cards (modern!) interspersed with footage of the airport activity around a United Airlines 747 jetliner (modern!). It’s exhilarating. In the movie, everyone’s walls are spotted with modern art, with some blather about spatial dimensions to cue us which characters are most pretentious.


The credits include a curious one: Color Coordination and Titles Designed by Hoyningen-Huene. I find I must already interrupt this Report, threadbare as it is, to say a little about the Baron George Hoyningen-Huene. He’s best known as a fashion photographer for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, so it was quite ritzy to commission him for film work. The ‘60s were the great era of opening credits, when they’re often the best part of the picture, and in this case H.H. was presumably expected not merely to stop there but to work throughout the movie with costume designer Orry-Kelly and production designer Gene Allen—who, by the way, takes a credit in adapting the screenplay. A production designer with script input? Wait till you see the picture.


Uncoordinated Digression: A New Kind of Love


Hoyningen-Huene also provided the titles and color coordination for a movie the following year, A New Kind of Love, one of the many Paul Newman/Joanne Woodward vehicles. It’s not their direst comedy; that would be Rally Round the Flag, Boys. Rather, A New Kind of Love is the lighter, wider, stupider counterpart to their low-key, black and white, much better Paris Blues.


What it’s really got to offer is color, in spades; the color and surrealistic moments are the reason to see the movie. While Frank Sinatra croons the title tune, bright triangles flash-freeze the credits and call attention to the fashions on mannequins, for this movie is set in the world of Paris fashion. Both characters hallucinate silly things, and there are fashion montages, ridiculous color clashes during Joanne’s makeover, and even a split-screen that compares a fashion show with a strip club.


Plotwise, this Melville Shavelson menage navigates the treacherous waters of the early ‘60s propensity for nullified naughtiness that I call the American No-Sex Comedy, a subgenre where everyone talks about sex and nobody has it. Actually, rakish lothario and journalist Newman has an active sex life with a parade of anonymous blondes, and it makes him no less attractive to “semi-virgin” Woodward (she’s had one disappointment), who is continually mistaken for a man (and it looks good on her). They follow parallel tracks for an hour until we finally get to the plot hook where he mistakes her for a prostitute (what a merry mix-up!) and pumps her (ahem) for stories for his column.


Strangely, he falls in love with her now, but of course he could never accept her history—as demonstrated by the fact that in a subplot, her boss instantly drops his engagement to Eva Gabor when he learns of her colorful past of bathing in champagne with aristocrats. That’s acceptable in France, where it’s constantly stated that all women have little diversions, but not to red-blooded American men. Joanne may be more attractive to Paul as a high-priced whore, but she must belong to that species I call the Jaded Virgin before they can really hook up. Their affair is structured as a game of amorous chicken in which they dare each other to have sex, but each retreats as soon as the other advances. You know the score.


Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Report


If Hoyningen-Huene really coordinated the delicious color scheme throughout The Chapman Report, it probably explains why the actresses tend to be color coded: virginal white for Jane Fonda, blue for Shelley Winters, grey or beige for dull Glynis Johns until she adopts dashes of orange and a chic blue to match her environment, and muddy brown and dark green for the pathological and self-loathing Claire Bloom. Now if we’re through with the credits and overall design, let’s cast a glance at the unimportant story.


Dr. Chapman (Andrew Duggan), a tweed-jacketed and horn-rimmed old bear inspired by Alfred Kinsey, has come to the ritzy upper-middle-class community of Briarwood to interview the wives about whether there’s sex after marriage, or before or besides, and he gives a lecture about how mature and sophisticated we are to be talking about something traditionally shrouded in shame. This is all in the name of benefitting and liberating mankind with “the truth”.


A counter-lecture is provided by a local doctor, played by Henry Daniell as a prissy old queen (or is it just me?)—let’s say a fusspot who declares that these women have “everything in order, properly repressed” until the interviewers have their way with them, take what they want, and drop them, leaving them behind to sort out the consequences (“the chain reaction”) of having thought about their lives and fearing they might be missing something when they look at the mere “statistics”. “What about love?” he asks waspishly, and almost irrelevantly. In other words, he posits that the unexamined life might after all be worth living, or at least more tolerable, or perhaps only that society has a stake in discouraging any such disturbance.


The movie wants to have it both ways, naturally. Its arcs are calculated to reinforce the status quo and validate the fuddy-duddy’s warnings, yet the real point of the movie’s existence is to exploit the tensions and unease and dissatisfactions of female desire as much as it can get away with. The tidy and punishing resolutions are part of the packaging, or the pact.


Think of it like Jezebel, the classic example where the audience buys a ticket for the express purpose of watching Bette Davis behave like a scandalous strumpet for two hours, but it’s all right because she humbly (yet triumphantly and stubbornly) accepts her grueling punishment in the last five minutes. In truth, nobody has paid to see the punishment; it’s an afterthought as viewers are already gathering their purses and wraps to leave the theatre.


Based on a trashy bestseller by Irving Wallace (I say that non-pejoratively), The Chapman Report is helmed by celebrated “woman’s director” George Cukor. Although the drama is moderated by scientifically knowledgeable males, most of the scenes maintain women’s points of view even to the extent of presenting many guys as sex objects for the female gaze: Chad Everett in tight uniform as a delivery boy, Corey Allen as a sleazy zip-jacketed jazz blower on the other side of a screen door (with a corresponding breathtaking shot of Bloom, also behind the screen), practically nekked Ty Hardin and his football buddies on the beach, and Ray Danton as an open-shirted smoothie in a yacht.


Unfortunately, the scene of a shirtless Danton sailing on that craft with an ecstatic Shelley Winters, as featured in the trailer, isn’t in the picture. It must have been left on the cutting room floor. The Wikipedia entry quotes a Cukor interview with Robert Emmet Long in which the director stated that a preview audience liked the film but the studio recut it, apparently to appease objections from the Legion of Decency. (It was a different world, all right.)


I assume this explains the odd, choppy composition and editing of the Chapman scenes immediately before and after the credits, which seem to employ blown-up frames (showing marked visual grain). The studio also added the coda of the two manly social scientists asserting that 87 percent of American wives from Boston to St. Joe are perfectly happy, so no worries there, smile smile. The IMDB listing implies whole characters chopped from the final product; where’s a director’s cut and deleted scenes when you need them?


Jane & Claire & Glynis & Shelley


The most tiresome plotlines are the most serious and clinical ones belonging to Jane Fonda (“frigid”) and Claire Bloom (“nymphomaniac”, like Suzanne Pleshette in A Rage to Live). Both of their houses are lit as if they dwell in a black hole, with key lights on certain paintings and bits of furniture. Poor Jane is directed twice—twice!—to frame her head against pictures on the wall and whine hysterically to herself. Was she being punished or was this really considered a plum role? As mentioned above, this was the portion of her career when she was trapped in parts with “mature” sex problems, and it’s probably the best of these, though that’s not her doing.


Under the uncomfortable, mannered hysteria of her scenes, the message of Fonda’s widowed character is the progressive one that “frigidity” is non-existent, that she’s internalized this judgment by a boorish husband (a model, cleancut military hero seen in flashback) and just needs Love and Understanding. These or their reasonable facsimiles are provided by dashing sex researcher Efrem Zimbalist Jr., taking his work a little too personally. His job is cut out for him, for matters aren’t helped by her submissive, touchy-feely attachment to Daddy (Roy Roberts) in whose house she still lives. She lets the old boy win at tennis, the game where they call out “Love!”


As for the doomed Bloom, “the books were closed on her long ago” (says Zimbalist) because everyone knows it’s impossible for any woman to enjoy guilt-free sex with jazz musicians and delivery boys. Just in case she might ever delude herself into believing she’s about to have a good time, the alcoholic harlot is punished with a drunken gang-rape, which she almost recommends to Fonda as good for what ails her before she recognizes her own destructive spite. In Bloom’s case, I’m almost ready to give her an award for looking so weary in putting up with the character she’s saddled with. No wonder she’s so self-hating.


I’ll say this again: Shelley Winters was one of Hollywood’s best actresses, and I don’t care who knows it. Her achievement is sometimes obscured by the fact that she was unofficially elected to embody the evolution of postwar American misogeny from Clinging Violet Who Must Be Killed (A Double Life, A Place in the Sun) to Middle-Aged Matron Who Must Be Killed (Night of the Hunter, Lolita) to Shrieking Harridan Who Must Be Killed (Bloody Mama, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold). This often made her a grotesque, pathetic, and cringe-worthy figure, but the woman never phoned it in.


Here, she elevates the film’s level with her every scene. In the interview scenes, where Bloom prowls restlessly in darkness and Fonda hides under a huge white hat like a beach umbrella, Cukor knows he needs only keep the camera on Winters in a lengthy medium shot, sitting on the right with a few shadows to the left, quietly facing truths she’s avoided of her dull marriage and uncertain future. We can’t tear our eyes away from her.


Then there’s her truly marvelous moment when her boytoy pretends to be interested while she recites a passage from Madame Bovary. Damn, this woman can act, and she’s got something to work with because that scene’s conception is a fine piece of character insight. When they didn’t know what else to do, male screenwriters could rely on classic literature by better male writers.


Glynis Johns’ comic plot is a bit of pastry that provides zany pleasure in welcome contrast to the other stories. She and her hubby (John Dehner) consume their time with arty projects, and when it occurs to her that she’s not getting as much of the body as she is of the mind, her eye is caught by a studly footballer (Ty Hardin) tackling with his chums. “What a magnificent animal!” she murmurs into her dictaphone while she’s supposed to be reciting Ernest Dowson, because you can count on Hollywood trash to have highbrow references. The lunkhead proves pliable but disappointing, and the message—again, of course—is that sticking to your own backyard is best.


You can see all the resolutions coming from several hills over, but don’t let that bother you. Remember to just look at all the pretty colors. Also in the picture are Harold J. Stone as Winters’ complacent but loving husband, Cloris Leachman as the secretary, Jennifer Howard as a sleek society belle, Hope Cameron as Danton’s prideless cuckold of a wife, and little Lesley Ann Warren (future Cinderella) as Winters’ daughter on the schoolbus. She waves her lunchbox, wherein all necessary nourishment is tidily packaged. And so the music rises—all’s right with the world—and 87 percent are perfectly happy.


Aren’t you? If not, watch this movie and figure out what’s wrong with you.


Michael Barrett is a San Antonio-based freelance writer who tries not to leave the house. He has degrees from Trinity University in San Antonio and University of California at Davis. He watches one film a day. In addition to his features and reviews on PopMatters, see also his PopMatters column, Canon Fodder. Since the early '90s he has written a monthly video column for the San Antonio Express-News, and his national publications include Library Journal and the Chicago-based Nostalgia Digest.


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