I was making breakfast this morning when I turned on the TV and TCM was playing Without Love (1945), with Tracy and Hepburn. I had never seen that one, and managed to “walk in”, so to speak, at the moment when La Hepburn was in bed on the lower bunk of a train compartment, fetchingly reciting from T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland,
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
which went unappreciated by Spencer Tracy, who remained in his top bunk, his dull roots unstirred.
In my younger years I used to think old movies were better because of their style: The black and white cinematography. The classic cars. The tailoring. The men and women wearing hats and the women wearing gloves, accessorized to the nines. Sophisticated grown-ups well over age thirty drinking, smoking, looking and acting grown-up. Beautiful soundtrack music, played flawlessly by a symphony.
Impeccable in every way.
Nonsense. Old movies are good because of all that, but they are better because of the writing.
In what movie these days would a woman trying to seduce a man, recite, from the heart in every sense, from The Wasteland? IF (big IF!) anyone came up with a concept such, it’d be in a period piece, or in a movie where the situation would entail:
1. one of the characters is superior (in knowledge, class, social status) to the other. No marriage of equals.
2. one or both of the characters are nerds. Not cool nerds, but dorky nerds with bad skin, bad hair, and sensible shoes (maybe even Birkenstocks, or worse yet, crocs).
3. the person doing the reciting is put in his/her place with an obnoxious comeback.
4. all of the above.
And reciting fetchingly? Impossible.
Then there’s the age problem: In what movie nowadays do we find men and women over the age of thirty actually looking like they enjoy being their age? We have instead the atrocious Mr. & Mrs Smith where Brangelina, facelifted, botoxed, and silicone-lipped, do a star turn trying to kill each other. As Spence said in Without Love,
I am worried. I am really worried about you. Why don’t you try having your mind lifted?
(No apostrophes or contractions for him. The emphasis was in “I am“, both times.)
The writing involved not only good dialogue, clever banter, humor (Hepburn covered in marabou feathers and holding a very long cigarette holder) and mature people acting like such, but also a plot that actually left something for speculation: Tracy goes looking for Hepburn at a man’s apartment, finds her embroidered organza stole tossed on a chair, and insists on going into the bedroom. The bed is made, so clearly nothing took place in bed – but Tracy finds the heel of a woman’s shoe. At the end of the film, Tracy and Hepburn come together in a very chaste way (they hug fondly, but no passionate kiss); the Hepburn/Tracy onscreen couple has a clearly sexless marriage. As they are hugging his dog brings her shoe, missing the heel that was obviously at the other man’s bedroom. Tracy pushes it away, choosing to disregard it.
Now imagine the size of the I-beam a contemporary film director (from the mid-1960s to our days) would use for hitting you on the head to bring across that point. At the very least, it’d involve substantial nudity, preferrably with body doubles used for the actors, who, even if they were in their unadorned, non-surgically enhanced thirties or forties (forget about anyone older) should look 23 years old with their clothes off. Any speculation as to the husband’s sexual orientation would certainly not be left to the imagination.
As it turns out, I looked up the TCM page for Without Love, and their tag line is
A World War II housing shortage inspires a widow to propose a marriage of convenience with an inventor.
Which reminds me, a housing shortage is the premise of this other movie.
But I’ll discuss that one at some other time.
Note Yes, I didn’t touch on the symbolism of the screenwriters’ choice of The Wasteland. You ponder that yourselves.
Update, Monday, October 23 Via Larwyn, It’s all special effects now, in Hollywood and politics