Mamoulian Moments, by Scott Nye
“I’ve been memorizing this room,” Greta Garbo says to her lover, who has been watching her move about it for a few minutes, caressing each object. “In the future, in my memory, I shall live a great deal in this room.”
What the lover doesn’t know is that Garbo is Queen of Sweden, acting under a pseudonym so that she may have a few days of genuine rest, away from her extensive duties. Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina (1933) is a lush, passionate, sexy melodrama, wherein one’s larger duties to their state, their comrades, and their citizens provide constant pressures. All Christina has to herself are these moments, these details that indicate the vague hope of a life less dictated. The whole kingdom is hers in name, but this is the only room she can call her own.
The surrounding film is filled with familiar touches from Mamoulian’s early years – a sort of lustful poetry in the dialogue that feels like an earthier Lubitsch and a sense of sexuality that is both playful and more than a little bit dirty, most prominently. Christina never apologizes for her sexual appetite. When, in disguise as a man, she is asked to settle a bet as to whether the Queen has had six or eight lovers in the past year, she proudly proclaims, “you are both wrong; the Queen has had twelve lovers!” When a violent crowd (few directors have depicted a mob better than Mamoulian – see especially his debut film, Applause (1929)) attempts to overthrow the Queen once rumors of her affair with a Spaniard have leaked, she welcomes them into her castle, fervently denying that her life in the bedroom has any bearing on her ability to govern. By the end of her speech, the crowd is cheering for her.
Now, this sort of thing is all well and good in 1933, before the Production Code was more heavily enforced. Among other delights, this is a film that sees Garbo lick and eat grapes in a manner more than a little fellatial, and which revolves around the very presence of her breasts in a key moment to give away her disguise. His other films in this era only get wilder (including, briefly, nudity in 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), and I’ve long been curious as to how to accommodated himself once the Code became law.
Enter High, Wide, and Handsome, his 1937 western musical that played in UCLA’s student-run The Crank program this past Thursday. Superficially, it has almost nothing in common with his Pre-Code work (with the exception, perhaps, of Love Me Tonight, a more innocent sort of film from what I recall of my viewing five or six years ago). And yet, he upholds some very Mamoulian ideals. Set in the 1850s, Irene Dunne stars as Sally Watterson the star act of a traveling medicine show, which used light entertainment to sell natural oil as a cure-all. Stranded in rural Pennsylvania, she falls in love with farmer and oil prospector Peter Cortlandt (Randolph Scott), whose well explodes on the day of their wedding (no innuendo there, I’m sure). They’re rich, but not for long. Big business interests threaten to squeeze them out, and Peter hardly has a second for his new wife, let alone the house on the hill he promised her.
Yet every moment they have together has all the rich, pent-up emotion of Christina’s small room in the inn. They long to hold onto one another for just a moment longer. The nature of their embraces are a good deal more sensual than most films of the early Code years; gripping and stroking and heavy breathing and the like. It’s easy to see why they want to hang onto it all. Like Christina, though, Peter has larger responsibilities, and like Queen Christina (or, hell, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the ultimate story of not allowing playtime to detract from one’s duties), High, Wide, and Handsome doesn’t diminish those or portray his dedication to his work as a silly distraction from “what really matters.” He’s giving all he has to keep oil cheap enough for the common man to afford, never mind keeping his friends and neighbors in business. Doing so will require heavy sacrifice, and a not-insignificant burden on both of them.
Sally can put up with all that. It’s only when Peter goes too far, insulting her former profession, that she leaves. In Applause, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and this, Mamoulian shows a great deal of sympathy with showgirls, whom society otherwise discards as tramps. In High, Wide, and Handsome, Sally’s past is regularly brought up to shame her, and her rescue of a bar singer from a crowd of potentially-murderous churchgoers seals her fate as a woman not fit for polite society. But she doesn’t mind what they think; finding out Peter looks down on her for it is a bridge too far, and she literally runs away to join the circus, where she becomes a sensation.
This whole arc would be even more a rip-off of James Whale’s 1936 hit Show Boat (also starring Dunne), were it not for a truly inspired climax where these two forces come together to save the day. But beyond its own many pleasures, High, Wide, and Handsome serves as a fine example of how a filmmaker can retain and express their interests under censorship. His fear of mob mentality (and capacity to make a mob seem truly disgusting), appreciation for those cast out of society, and exploration of the balance between desire and responsibility are all at the fore, and barely dampened by the rules. But most of all, he hangs on a moment – the more fragile, the better – trying to wring every ounce of feeling from it, knowing that, once lost, it cannot be regained.