Tearjerkers, Weepies, Three-hanky Pictures, Sudsers & Other Such 'Balloon Juice'

Bette Davis

Men's movies show us a fantasy of the man we'd like to be (Tarzan or James Bond or Sam Spade), while women's movies are transmogrified dreams of women's real lives.

One of my cinematic weaknesses is the woman's film. Not the modern "chick flick", but the classic era of vehicles for female stars whose strength was their masochism. Reviewers also called them tearjerkers, weepies, three-hanky pictures, sudsers, and even melodramas--although pretty much every non-comedy was a melodrama, even when it was about two-fisted guys joining the Foreign Legion or bombing Tokyo.

The primary difference between women's films and those aimed at men is the difference between the internal and external world. The plots of men's movies depend on a man's actions (killing a person, creating a monster, hunting a whale), so that the film moves from action to action. He does this, then he does that. Women's movies hinge on what a woman's choices are and her deliberations before making a decision. Those choices laid out before her are always romantic and personal, not public. They boil down to whom she should marry, whether she should give up a career for marriage, and what she does with a baby. She makes her choice, then responds to the consequences and the new choices it presents.

When you think about it, these choices are more common to the experience of most viewers. Therefore, these glossy and far-fetched weepers partake of more reality than the outsized fairy tales aimed at men. Even when the plot of a woman's movie is as ridiculous and illogical as Random Harvest or the remake of Waterloo Bridge, it's getting at something about the lives of women that rings truer than many masculine movies that distract us with heroic actions. Men's movies show us a fantasy of the man we'd like to be (Tarzan or James Bond or Sam Spade), while women's movies are transmogrified dreams of women's real lives. In the right hands, a Madame X, Imitation of Life, or Stella Dallas has real punch.

DVD: That Certain Woman

Film: That Certain Woman

Director: Edmund Goulding

Cast: Bette Davis, Henry Fonda

Distributor: Warner

Image:, the title of That Certain Woman (1937) denotes the irony between a public reputation and the private truth that will be unveiled. There are certain movies about wronged women, women whose choices have bitten them, women forced by circumstance into intolerable situations, but women who nevertheless remain honest and innocent no matter how much experience they've had dished out to them. Their choices usually involve keeping secrets and bearing burdens in silence. This example is one of the thousand movies about single mothers, and if there's one thing these films teach us about single mothers, it's that they're self-sacrificing saints liable to painfully give up the kid to a "decent home".

Mary Donnell (Bette Davis) has it better than most. She's not struggling upward from bad circumstances when we meet her. She's already achieved equilibrium after putting a backstory to rest. As we learn, she married a gangster at 15, and he died four years ago in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre of 1929. She's got a good job as a legal secretary to Ian Hunter, whose office is lavishly designed with rotating bar, and she lives with a roommate who's a steadier companion through the years than the various men she's associated with. For a few years, he keeps Mary (her whole entourage actually) in an ambiguous situation where she's basically "the other woman" to this unhappily married lawyer, but the script is vague enough about what's actually going on that it could mean anything you're prepared to believe.

In this fast-moving scenario, Mary marries dashing, gawky, weakling Henry Fonda, who's dominated by his father (Donald Crisp). Things go south immediately, and there are long years of off-stage divorces (unless it's an annulment, which puts an interesting spin on the kid's status) and marital tragedies before everything settles in a Monte Carlo coda. Along the way, we see all those fancy designs and costumes that constitute Depression-era consumer porn.

A nosy reporter declares "That's balloon juice!" and he says a mouthful. This is a movie in which everyone goes out of their way to bring their problems upon themselves, and decisions are made out of essentially spurious moral resolutions (like avoiding divorce). These contortions partially satisfied the Production Code but were actually part of the whole genre, even in novels that didn't mind being banned in Boston. It belongs to the escapist landscape of distorted problems among the glamorous and well-appointed.

Davis looks more credible than many would in this glossy vehicle, just before she'd reteam with Fonda in Jezebel, which triggered her parade of truly great Warner projects. Her most important collaborator here is Edmund Goulding, who wrote as well as directed. He'd direct her in Dark Victory, The Great Lie and the terrific The Old Maid. He has a reputation as a woman's director, and he also has a distinctive style. He's not a fanatic about it, but he likes to stage scenes with a probing camera. He has the rare confidence to block actors with their backs to us, and this film has several examples. Exactly where other directors shoved a camera in the actor's face, Goulding went for the body language of the back. He did this more than any other director before Robert Bresson. His style reached its acme in the 1940s, especially in Claudia and The Razor's Edge, which is a festival of sinuous tracking shots and brilliantly staged backs.

DVD: Jimmy the Gent

Film: Jimmy the Gent

Director: Michael Curtiz

Cast: James Cagney, Bette Davis

Distributor: Warner

Image: viewers will be momentarily pulled out of the picture by the scene where Fonda says he's "free, white and 21" and then jokes "I'se comin', Massa" to indicate his subservience to Davis. Some viewers just want to follow a story without seeing a film as an anthropological artifact, but it's important to have such evidence of things people really used to say and the assumptions they made. There are no mistakes in casting, however, and it's notable that one scene has a gratuitous Chinese-American young man as a desk clerk, and he's in no way stereotypical or speaking with an accent. This is so unusual for 1937, one wonders why he's there -- he seems to be there just to exist.

In a 1934 vehicle for James Cagney, a blonde Davis takes basically a supporting role and gives as good as she gets. Not a woman's film, Jimmy the Gent begins with a literal bang as a fast, hilarious programmer based on an unusual racket. For due consideration ("no more than 50 percent"), Jimmy tracks down lost heirs, legitimate and otherwise. Disgusted with his tactics ("You're a bigger chiseler than Michelangelo!"), Davis joins a ritzier rival (Alan Dinehart) whom she thinks is loaded with ethics and dripping with class.

Bertram Millhauser's Runyonesque dialogue swoops and punches under the direction of Michael Curtiz. Cagney is in full, brash motormouth mode, as seen also in Footlight Parade, Boy Meets Girl and the immortal One, Two, Three (collect them all!). His assistant Allen Jenkins, receiver of his physical abuse, carries on with peroxide tomato Alice White, to whom he says in the trailer (but not the film) "You deviate me." Cagney plans to use her and another implied prostitute in a scam to exploit the law and clear a murderer. It might be self-defense, but as the accused says, draw your own conclusions. These are saucy pre-Code elements, like the guy whose shakes are explained by a need for his "medicine". In short, the picture is a racy delight.

Next Page

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.