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When film reviewers happen upon a little-discussed movie, their reviews can take such a possessive attitude that one would think that the film didn't exist until they took pen in hand. Even though movie 'discoveries' are what we're all looking for, I try to make sure that particular criticism doesn't apply to me.
I 'discovered' the odd MGM program picture Invitation by accident, while looking for music for a montage. Bronislau Kaper isn't the most celebrated film composer these days, but his career credits are solid and his main theme for this somewhat unusual 'women's picture' is really attractive. Invitation also attracted me because of Lillian Ross's influential book Picture, the account of the filming of John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage. That film's producer Gottfried Reinhardt is observed quite a bit in Picture, and compared to many of the MGM staffers hanging around Louis B. Mayer's office, Ross describes him as caring and creatively ambitious. Invitation is Reinhardt's first job of direction.
"Women's weepie' pictures fascinate me because their concentration on confecting compelling dramas for rainy afternoon matinees allows unwritten assumptions about family life, gender roles, and attitudes toward money and respectability to stand out in strong relief. This 'smuggled' critical context is what makes Douglas Sirk movies so interesting. In something like There's Always Tomorrow the surface story is upholding the notion of the sanctity of marriage - while the film's real energy urges the adulterous lovers to ditch the establishment and live like they want to. Thus was born the notion of subtext -- actually, Sirk's movies are exceptional because they put the subtext on the surface. Ross Hunter and Co. must have been tickled by the fact that nobody picked up on the joke, even when stated right out in the open.
Nowhere is this weird collision of reality and fantasy more potent than in movies about women dying of mysterious illnesses. As these fantasies are far removed from the blandness of real life, money never seems to be an issue. That, and the sicknesses involved seldom interfere with the leading lady's glamorous appearance or ability to deliver powerful dramatic scenes. The old standard is Bette Davis's Dark Victory, which makes death by brain tumor (?) an elegant ritual. The end comes on like shutting down a computer. Davis loses her vision while cultivating the tomatoes. She tidies up, says a prayer and lies down to die like a perfect sleeping beauty. She never finds herself inconvenienced by grueling hospital waits, financial grief, greedy relatives or physical disfigurement. Sign me up, I'm ready.
Perhaps the strangest postwar movie of this kind is 1950's No Sad Songs for Me. Happy housewife Margaret Sullavan has a good husband in Wendell Corey and a cute daughter in Natalie Wood. Just as she begins to suspect that hubby has a crush on his assistant Viveca Lindfors, Sullavan finds that she has an incurable disease. Keeping it all a secret -- domestic secrets are the life's blood of this kind of movie -- Sullavan spends the whole film quietly arranging for Lindfors to take her place as wife and mother, when the dark day comes. The movie is creepy and practical at the same time. And to be fair, Sullavan does look a little under the weather now and then... but never less than beautiful.
Frankly, I could see this story being an attractive fantasy for bored 1950 husbands as well: Wouldn't it be great if my wife kicked the bucket, but first set me up with that bombshell beauty down the street... ?
This brings us to Invitation. The screenplay is by the great Paul Osborn of Portrait of Jennie, East of Eden and Wild River. It's a regular minefield of 'benign deception.' Having a weak heart from childhood, Ellen Bowker (Dorothy McGuire) is pampered by her wealthy father Simon (Louis Calhern), who regularly sends her expensive gifts and is forever looking for cures for her condition. Ellen suddenly finds herself in a relationship with architect Dan Pierce (Van Johnson), who she thought was all but engaged to the beautiful Maud Redwick (Ruth Roman). Dan proposes and they spend their Honeymoon in Europe. Behind her back Simon and Doctor Pritchard (Ray Collins) make plans for Ellen's health. She still thinks that if she stays calm, her heart condition will not be a problem. But when Maud Redwick returns, the clash is inevitable -- Maud tells Ellen that her year with Dan is almost up, after which Maud will get him back. Disturbed, Ellen looks up the "mitral" condition that the new doctors are talking about... and reads that it is almost always fatal. This confirms what Ellen has quietly suspected all along, that her father bribed Dan to marry her, to make her final days "happy" ones.
Invitation is a pretty twisted picture in its vision of women as the weaker sex. In this patriarchal world Simon, Pritchard and Dan conspire to keep Ellen in the dark "for her own good." Rather than expose this deception as inhumane and cruel, the movie seems to agree that Ellen is a perishable innocent in need of the protection of Daddy, who has provided a house, a car and a new fur coat seemingly every month. The script takes pains to establish that Dan's deal with Simon didn't include business help with his faltering architecture work, but new jobs arise from the association anyway. The movie reserves its ire for the mean-spirited, scheming Maud, who clearly expects Ellen to be dead and out of the way right on schedule. Maud is convinced that Dan doesn't love Ellen, and that their marriage is asexual because of her health condition: more than once we hear the loaded words, "Ellen hopes she can soon have a normal life with Dan." Maud's wangling of an invitation to a medical conference for Ellen is calculated to let the cat out of the bag, and hopefully result in a fatal seizure. Yep, women just can't be trusted with their own minds. Some dames need to be protected, and others suppressed.
Invitation really reminds me of nothing less than Ira Levin & Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby: a powerful man conspires against an ordinary housewife, bribing her husband into betraying her. The particulars are different but Van Johnson's so-called hero is just as much of a louse. He marries Ellen under false pretenses, and in this atmosphere of prosperity we don't believe for a minute that he's not doing it without a promise of financial gain and a career boost. To be honest, Van Johnson makes just as good of a heel in the subtext, as he does a loving husband on the surface. We're to understand that Dan wins Ellen's heart by making her feel that she's not a mousy wallflower, sure spinster material. And this is before he supposedly falls in love with her. With so much money and career connections at stake, how can we know that characters in these 'upper crust' stories even know what love is?
All the acting is more than adequate and first-time director Gottfried Reinhardt acquits himself well. The one impressive performance is from Dorothy McGuire, a specialist in complex and complicated women; it's her show all the way. Ms. McGuire's first film was the play adaptation Claudia, which curiously enough is a dated examination of an immature young woman's marriage to a man aware of the odd gaps in her personality. She's a wife, but in no way her husband's equal. Watching Claudia is an uncomfortable experience; today the show seems to psychoanalyze the writers more than the characters: young wives are like foolish children, while good husbands need to be thoughtful and caring babysitters.
MGM gives Invitation its standard B&W gloss. Essentially the postwar equivalent of an Italian 'white telephone' movie of the 1930s, money is never an issue. Ellen has a devoted servant and the use of a chauffeured car. Even her malady seems glamorous. The show ends with a happy farewell scene, although part of us would like to see Ellen tell both her Daddy Warbucks father and her slick operator of a husband to drop dead. Then she can move to a garret in Greenwich Village and make something of her life.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Invitation was one of their first releases at the start of the bold new marketing plan. The transfer is quite good. I suppose we can guess that the title is not among the WAC's big sellers, as the plain-wrap cover illustration (with unrecognizable images of Van Johnson and Ruth Roman) hasn't been replaced with better artwork. But the show itself is a very attractive presentation.
Oh, by the way, I'm not down on 'women's weepies', and I don't see them as easy targets for scorn. They're a reliable barometer of how the general public took for consensus reality in a certain year and place. Off the top of my head I'm thinking of two excellent Jane Wyman pictures, Johnny Belinda and Miracle in the Rain. Everybody likes the first title. The second is a pure emotional workout that makes little logical sense. Who cares?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.