Part 4—Our floundering species in action: Back in 1979, several Alabama mothers dreamed the improbable dream.
In one case, the mother's 19-year-old daughter was dating 32-year-old Roy Moore. "She thought he was good husband material,” the daughter told the Washington Post late last year.
This helped create a moral panic, during which the Republican Congress passed Donald J. Trump's tax plan. That said, where did that Alabama mother ever get that appalling idea?
To answer that question, let's return to the comical annals of sex in the cinema, malecentric Hollywood style. Let's consider the comical romantic pairings which dominated Tinseltown during the 1950s, when those Alabama mothers would have been coming of age.
For starters, let's return to Debbie Reynolds, she of Susan Slept Here.
Too funny! When last we reviewed this talented person's career, she was paired with the 50-year-old Dick Powell in that ridiculous 1954 film.
Reynolds was 22, playing 17. As the film ends, she's trying to drag her recalcitrant husband into his bedroom. She's hoping she can get the old coot to consummate the deal.
Heh heh heh heh heh! The following year, Leslie Caron (24 in real life, playing 18) fell in love with Fred Astaire in the horrible Daddy Long Legs.
In real life, Astaire was 56. What was not to love?
Improbable pairings like these dominated the malecentric dreams of the decade. This brings us to Reynolds' assignment in the 1955 film, The Tender Trap.
By now, Reynolds was 23 in real life; she plays 21 in the film. This time, she falls in love with Frank Sinatra. At age 40 in real life, he fell on the younger end of the desirable male spectrum in this age of "codger chic."
The Tender Trap was based on a poorly received Broadway play of the exact same name. Playing a 21-year-old ingenue, Reynolds falls for the old coot once again, though not without being allowed to issue these words of protest:
REYNOLDS: Do you think that's such a wonderful thing, being in love with you? I never wanted to. I don't want to now.Too selfish, plus way too old? We'd have to add, "too funny!" But that was the logic of the decade.
You're selfish, you're arrogant, you're spoiled. You're much too old for me.
FRANKIE BOY: Now see here!
REYNOLDS: Too old, I said, too old! Too selfish, too arrogant, too spoiled.
Oh, lord knows why I love you. But I do!
The 17-21 year old ingenue was required to fall for the codger. It would happen again and again and again, and then it would happen some more.
How common were these rather unusual pairings? Check the real-life age dynamics in these early Reynolds/Caron films. We'll throw in some early Grace Kelly:
An American in Paris 1951: Gene Kelly 39, Caron 20This was very much the norm all through the decade.
Singin' in the Rain 1952: Gene Kelly 40, Reynolds 20
High Noon 1952: Gary Cooper 51, Grace Kelly 23
Mogambo 1953: Clark Gable 52, Grace Kelly 24
Susan Slept Here 1954: Dick Powell 50, Reynolds 22 (playing 17)
The Country Girl 1954: Bing Crosby 51, Grace Kelly 25
The Tender Trap 1955: Sinatra 40, Reynolds 23 (playing 21)
Daddy Long Legs 1955: Astaire 56, Caron 24 (playing 18-21)
High Society 1956: Crosby 53, Grace Kelly 27
We assume the ubiquity of these pairings was driven by two motives: by Hollywood's desire to continue getting value from bankable, older male stars; and by the hard-wired dreams of Tinseltown's older male moguls and stars.
Few female stars of this era escaped the gravity of this improbable dream. Just consider a few of the dreamboat pairings to which Audrey Hepburn succumbed.
During this era, Hepburn became one of the biggest stars in film history. She also became a fashion icon. In her later years, she became a widely-revered humanitarian.
That said, her waiflike look and elfin demeanor suited her to the era's mad dreams. At age 22, she starred in the Broadway version of Gigi. From there, she proceeded to a series of films in which she played the much younger lover/girl friend/water sprite talisman of the much older man.
It started gently, with Roman Holiday (1953), in which she played a princess of indeterminate age who falls in love with Gregory Peck.
A person could hardly blame her for that. In real life, she was 24; he was 37. But the pattern hardened from there.
In 1954, she fell in love with Humphrey Bogart in Sabrina. Bogart was 55 in real life; Hepburn, 25 in real life, was playing the chauffeur's daughter.
(Bosley Crowther in the Times: "She is even more luminous as the daughter and pet of the servants' hall than she was as a princess last year.")
Bogart was perhaps too old, but by the rules of the Hollywood dream, the pet of the servants' hall was required to fall for the grouchy old coot. In 1957, she fell in love with Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon.
He was 56 in real life; she was 28. She was cast as "a young cello student" who seemed to be substantially younger than the actress' actual age. The leading authority on the film describes the action perhaps a bit sadly, like this:
Flannagan is intrigued by the mysterious girl, who refuses to give him any information about herself, even her name. He resorts to calling her"'thin girl." She has no romantic history but pretends to be a femme fatale to interest him, and soon falls in love with the considerably older man.She had "no romantic history," but the dreams of an era required that resolution! That same year, this transcendent star was sentenced to her prison term with Fred Astaire. Cast in Funny Face as a "shy bookstore clerk," she falls in love again.
In real life, Astaire was 58. Hepburn was thirty years younger. So it went back then.
Hollywood played by these rules throughout the decade. Just ask Sophia Loren:
The Pride and the Passion 1957: Cary Grant 53, Loren 23This was the way of the world when that Alabama mother was forming the cultural notions which had her picturing Moore as a son-in-law. Forty years after she dreamed those dreams, the utterly clueless moral giants of our own pathetic tribe staged a mighty moral panic about the fact that those mothers were operating in line with a widely-promoted type of cultural ideal.
Legend of the Lost 1957: John Wayne 50, Loren 23
Houseboat 1958: Cary Grant 54, Loren 24
It Started in Naples 1960: Clark Gable 59, Loren 26
They mixed chaste dates with alleged assaults. To them, it all seemed the same!
There's a great deal more to be said about this Hollywood era. On the one hand, the era is comical. But then too, it's highly instructive.
The older men of Hollywood were dreaming rich dreams at this time. To some extent, could this reflect some part of the way our struggling species is wired?
In the last few months, we've been told that more than a few of Hollywood's men have behaved extremely badly right to the present day. Some who shout the loudest now enabled these fellows down through the years. That too is how our floundering species may sometimes tend to work.
There's more to say about this era, in which Hollywood's powerful men dreamed their dreams out loud. On some other day, we'll talk about Rear Window and its conceptual sequel, Vertigo, in which Alfred Hitchcock re-explored the themes of the earlier film, presenting a gloomier outcome.
Vertigo has been declared the greatest film of all time by a bunch of French film critics and assorted unaligned beatniks. That said, it didn't do especially well at the box office in real time.
According to the leading authority on the film, "Hitch" had an explanation for that. And it went something like this:
The initial reception expressed in film reviews for Vertigo were mixed. Variety said the film showed Hitchcock's "mastery", but was too long and slow for "what is basically only a psychological murder mystery". Similarly, the Los Angeles Times admired the scenery, but found the plot "too long" and felt it "bogs down" in "a maze of detail"...Jimmy looked too old for Novak? That's what Reynolds said!
Contemporaneous response in England was summarized by Charles Barr in his monograph on Vertigo stating: "In England, the reception was if anything rather less friendly. Of the 28 newspaper and magazine reviews that I have looked at, six are, with reservations, favourable, nine are very mixed, and 13 almost wholly negative. Common to all of these reviews is a lack of sympathy with the basic structure and drive of the picture...
Additional reasons for the mixed response initially were that Hitchcock fans were not pleased with his departure from the romantic-thriller territory of earlier films and that the mystery was solved with one-third of the film left to go. Orson Welles disliked the film, telling his friend, director Henry Jaglom, that the movie was "worse" than Rear Window, another film that Welles disliked. In an interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock stated that Vertigo was one of his favourite films, with some reservations. Hitchcock blamed the film's failure on the 50-year-old Stewart looking too old to play a convincing love interest for the 25-year-old Kim Novak.
Live by the codger, die by the codger, or so Hitchcock alleged. He went on to pair Anthony Perkins, 28, with Janet Leigh, 33.
At long last, the roles were reversed. We all know where that led!
Before Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters: We recently stumbled upon this 1954 What's My Line appearance by Debbie Reynolds.
Hollywood never figured out how to cast her. In part, she looked too much like Debbie Reynolds. She was hard to cast as somebody else.
That said, she was 22 years old at this time. She'd grown up in working-class Texas.
Where does comedic talent come from? At age 22, the 50-year-old Powell's 17-year-old bride was plainly spilling over with it, plainly had it in spades.
Where did all that talent come from? In line with the foolishness of the era, Hollywood's malecentric men never much put it to use.