Friday, 6 June 2014

The Guest Writer #1: Barry Putterman on Claude Binyon

I have decided to add a new feature to the blog, the occasional guest writer, somebody who is given complete freedom to write about whatever he or she wants, and in whatever way they choose, with my job only to proofread it (and perhaps add an image, or a fact or a figure for clarity). Today sees the inauguration of this new feature.

Barry Putterman, who lives in New York, is well-known among cinephiles, not least for his regular comments at Dave Kehr's now suspended site Reports from the lost continent of cinephilia. Barry has also written books, such as On Television and Comedy: Essays on Style, Theme, Performer, and Writer (McFarland & Company 1995), and he has written essays about Peter Bogdanovich and George Roy Hill (to be found in American Directors (McGraw-Hill 1983), edited by Jean-Pierre Coursodon). There are few who know as much about American cinema, as well as American society/history, as Barry, and it is a treat to have him as my first guest writer.


Claude Binyon, by Barry Putterman

Public acclaim is an illusion based on popular misconception which distorts ambition and ruins romantic relationships. The first part of that statement is most certainly illustrated by the critical reputation of screenwriter/director Claude Binyon. As reported in Patrick McGilligan’s book “Backstory,” when Leo Rosten polled the Hollywood community regarding the most admired screenwriters in 1938, Binyon ranked in the top ten along with such still highly visible names as Robert Riskin, Ben Hecht and Nunnally Johnson. Today, hardly a cinephile lives that has even the slightest familiarity with the man and his work. And yet his extremely vital and highly entertaining films which explore the entirety of that first statement remain ready for rediscovery and exploration.

Claude Binyon was born in Chicago in 1905 and joined the long tradition of that city’s aspiring writers by going to work for one of its newspapers; The Examiner. However, his career as a reporter proved to be short and disastrous due to his most prominently observed personal characteristics; an all but debilitating social shyness and vocal hesitancy.

His writing talent was recognized by the Examiner however, and he was recommended to the Chicago office of the show business trade paper “Variety.” Again, it was found necessary to keep him assigned to work within the office, where he rose through the ranks of the publication and gained credit for, among other things, writing the paper’s famous headline regarding the stock market crash; “Wall Street Lays An Egg.”

By 1932, his time spent moonlighting on his own fictional writing led to a request to leave the paper and ultimately to the writing staff at Paramount Pictures, where he became the eighteenth writer assigned to work on the omnibus IF I HAD A MILLION. In 1933 Binyon was assigned to work with Frank Butler on the script for COLLEGE HUMOR, starring Bing Crosby and Jack Oakie and directed by the recently arrived from RKO Wesley Ruggles. He struck up what proved to be a lifelong friendship through this professional connection with Oakie, who publicly commented on how much he admired the way that Binyon’s dialogue fit his speech pattern.

Ruggles must have been impressed as well, since Binyon was back the following year working with Howard Greene on his film version of the Ben Hecht/Gene Fowler play “The Great Magoo” starring Oakie, retitled SHOOT THE WORKS. And then, it was Ruggles again directing Binyon’s first solo screenplay THE GILDED LILY released in early 1935.

This film proved to be a major hit for Paramount, solidifying star Claudette Colbert’s dominance in romantic comedy and catapulting co-star Fred MacMurray from obscure contract player to leading man, as well as to becoming another lifelong friend of Binyon’s. But more to the point, it began an all but unprecedented series of eleven consecutive films teaming Binyon, as solo screenwriter, and director Ruggles. ACCENT ON YOUTH, THE BRIDE COMES HOME, VALIANT IS THE WORD FOR CARRIE, I MET HIM IN PARIS, TRUE CONFESSION, SING YOU SINNERS and INVITATION TO HAPPINESS follow at Paramount. Then, the team moved together to Columbia for TOO MANY HUSBANDS, ARIZONA and YOU BELONG TO ME.

If you discount the studio and/or director dominated projects; adaptions of a Samson Raphaelson play (ACCENT ON YOUTH) and a popular Fanny Hurst styled novel (VALIANT IS THE WORD FOR CARRIE) plus a large scale western (ARIZONA), and add on the two films, gracefully directed by Mitchell Leisen, he wrote after the Ruggles partnership ended back at Paramount (TAKE A LETTER DARLING and NO TIME FOR LOVE), what you have is the core of Binyon’s work. But it all starts with THE GILDED LILY.

As sometimes happens artistically, all of the themes and characters which Binyon would explore in his career are all laid out in this first film. In fact, it could almost be said that they are all laid out in the first sequence. Newspaperman Pete Dawes (Fred MacMurray) and office secretary Marilyn David (Claudette Colbert) are having their weekly Thursday meeting on a park bench across the street from the midtown Manhattan Public Library to watch the world go by, which Pete proclaims to be “big stuff.” “Oh yes, Marilyn adds, “big stuff.”

And Pete has this down to a science, to the point of knowing that the popcorn they are munching is the proper food for the occasion. He demonstrates that he can put his hand in the bag, grab some popcorn and stick it in his craw without taking his eyes off the street. Whereas with peanuts, you have to look down to crack open the shells, remove the nuts and place them in your mouth, thus missing half of the action. “Sure,” Marilyn concurs, “peanut eaters don’t know how to live.” And thus Pete is established as something of a know-it-all philosopher and Marilyn as his affectionately bemused companion.

From out of nowhere Pete then asks her; “Do you love me?” and Marilyn thoughtfully concludes “No.” Pete is satisfied; “That’s the way to talk. No jealousies, no commitments….why don’t you love me?” Marilyn responds that her idea of romance is finding a man for whom you feel such commitment that you can ignore all of his flaws and happily sacrifice whatever it takes to live happily with him.

Pete tells her that she wants to be Lizzie Glutz; “the girl who runs her own little world to suit herself because she is too unimportant for the world to run her.” But the catch is that the smarter you are, the more you realize that that is the way to live, but Lizzie Glutz becomes Lizzie Glutz only because she’s too dumb to be anything else; which Marilyn isn’t.

While Marilyn retorts “you newspapermen know everything,” they both get up to leave; Marilyn to the subway and Pete to his job of interviewing celebrities on the incoming and outgoing ships at the docks, which becomes their first steps on their long journey back to the bench.

At the subway, Marilyn is bullied by an aggressive subway guard and a gallant young man with a British accent comes to her defense. Push comes to shove and the two of them flee the ensuing melee to embark on a romantic adventure. The man is charming, but seemingly aimless; as he has no job and no stated ambition beyond courting Marilyn. Aptly, his name is Gray (Ray Milland).

They spend a day at Coney Island. And, in a scene somewhat reminiscent of the sound sequence in LONESOME, agree on a mutual desire for few social contacts beyond a comfortable and deeply affectionate marriage. But they once again literally stumble across the family of that self-same subway guide and must once again flee.

Marilyn believes that she has found her romantic ideal. But Gray is in reality a British nobleman vacationing incognito in New York who has now trapped himself between his public and private personas. He sincerely wants to marry Marilyn, but his celebrated position obliges him to return to England and both inform his family and break off his engagement lest scandal break out. And so he privately tells Marilyn a lie (that he must depart for a while to investigate a job possibility) which is actually the truth (that he intends to return and marry her). But when Pete arrives to cover his departure at the docks, he must tell the truth (that he is returning to England and his fiancée) which is a lie (omitting his intention to return for Marilyn). Reading this in the newspapers, Marilyn is heartbroken. But Pete plots revenge. He simply turns Gray’s ambiguity around and begins writing stories about The “No” Girl, the plucky American office girl who spurned royal romance and the Cinderella opportunity.

So Marilyn is now also two people, the private Lizzie Glutz, and the publicly acclaimed ‘No’ Girl, who in Pete’s words, has become: “one of those peculiar people made strangely famous through ordinary newsprint.” In other words: a celebrity. And, if that was not enough, while Marilyn is drowning her sorrows, Pete promotes her as a café entertainer to cash in on her notoriety.

Marilyn is aghast. “One schooner of highballs and I wake up with my name on a billboard. Can’t we pretend we’re sane and call the whole thing off?” But when she is shoved on stage and truthfully confesses that she cannot sing or dance and is even too nervous to remember the lyrics to her opening song, the sophisticated overflow audience accepts this as artful artifice designed to cheerfully welcome them to the inside of celebrity. And when Marilyn’s dancing literally stumbles her into a confrontation with another front page figure, her success is assured.

However, being a celebrity turns out to be a full time job. Pete has fathered The ‘No’Girl, but it leaves her no time to be a park bench companion. “Can’t you stick around every once in a while, just to see if I’m getting older or something” he pleads. And the unintended consequences now also affords Marilyn the opportunity to perform in England, where she can at last find out the truth about her romantic ideal.

In the final reversal, in reuniting with Gray, she finds that he no longer believes in the lie that was the truth of two nobodies falling in love in New York, but rather now accepts the truth which is a lie of two celebrities who can mutually benefit each other in England. So when Pete sends a wedding present of a box of popcorn with a note asking whether she has found her English park bench, Marilyn uses what celebrity has taught her to stage a very public walkout of her own.

And so, with Pete realizing that “no jealousies, no obligations” may not be the way to talk, and Marilyn realizing that romance may go beyond ignoring the other’s flaws; they both fight their ways through separate hysterical mobs to wind up battered and tattered back at their park bench---with popcorn.

All of locations of public gathering in THE GILDED LILY, (the subway, Coney Island, the café where Marilyn performs, etc.) turn out to be places of false identity, popular misconception and ultimate humiliation. There is also such a scene near the beginning of THE BRIDE COMES HOME, (a title which relates to absolutely nothing which takes place in the film) at a party celebrating Jack Bristow’s birthday on which he comes into his three million dollar inheritance. However, the film is primarily concerned with examining the three basic Binyon characters established in THE GILDED LILY in further depth. In fact, the film barely contains a story at all; just the three characters continuing whirling around each other towards an inevitable resolution.

Jack is the American version of Gray; charming, privileged and completely rootless. He is sweet-natured and genuinely caring, but since he has no concept of work, he has no fixed identity or understanding of how his actions affects other people. Jack is played by Robert Young, who would play the character again in I MET HIM IN PARIS opposite Melvyn Douglas playing a more sophisticated variation on the Fred MacMurray character. And Douglas and MacMurray would play off each other in TOO MANY HUSBANDS. Meanwhile, YOU BELONG TO ME imagines what might happen if the Young character actually married the woman, with Henry Fonda playing the part.

In THE BRIDE COMES HOME, Fred MacMurray continues what would become a career long role as the Binyon male protagonist. Here he is Jack’s hired bodyguard and former newspaperman Cy Anderson. As his split occupation indicates, this character is also two personas, but his duality is internal. He is part mug and part artist, and never completely at peace with either aspect of himself. In INVITATION TO HAPPINESS he is a prizefighter who has a poetic vision of a muse calling to him from across the river. In TAKE A LETTER, DARLING he is a painter who works as a private secretary at an advertising firm. In NO TIME FOR LOVE he is a sandhog who is also an engineer and inventor.

Cy’s duality takes the form of publicly resenting Jack’s aimless irresponsibility while privately enjoying his company. While proud of his plebian work ethic, he is constantly conscious of how his lack of refinement inhibits his social acceptance and personal ambitions. And when the now rich Jack asks him what he would want to do if he was not dependent on him for employment, Cy answers that he would like to start a magazine “for men who make their money the hard way.” So it is that “The Man: His Magazine” is born, with Jack as publisher and Cy as editor.

Enter the woman. Jeannette Desmereau is Jack’s buddy since childhood and the woman to whom he has proposed marriage about two hundred times. But as Jack has come into his money, Jeannette’s father has gone broke and so she has decided to look for work. And when Jack hands Jeannette over to Cy as assistant editor sans experience, Cy has a new target for the push and pull of his resentments and yearnings multiplied by an enormous sexual attraction.

As Fred MacMurray is the male Binyon protagonist, so Claudette Colbert is his female foil and counterpoint. With a naturally aristocratic grace and an ironic appreciation of human foibles, she is balanced between the two males with equal doses of sophistication and character strength. Colbert plays this part in person in these two films as well as in I MET HIM IN PARIS and NO TIME FOR LOVE. And it is her in spirit in INVITATION TO HAPPINESS, TOO MANY HUSBANDS, YOU BELONG TO ME and TAKE A LETTER, DARLING.

And, unlike Jack, Jeannette gives as good as she gets. When Cy assigns her the humiliating busywork of counting names in the phone book and tells her to take the desk in the corner with all of the dust on it, her immediate response is: “I could get some more dust if it would make you happy.” But she soon escalates to pummeling him with a barrage of procedural questions about the counting and ultimately forces his retreat.

In fact, it is Cy who is the one who admits to the romantic ideal when Jeannette comes calling with a rock that she only half kiddingly intends to throw at him. He describes his daydream of being the White Knight villain slayer whom Jeannette applauds only to end in disgust with the source of his internal frustrations: “But I’m not that good. Nobody’s that good.” To which she mutters in reply: “You’re more of a kid than I am.” And when, in turn, she admits to loving him, it really isn’t such a surprise that his reaction is: “Well, doesn’t it make you mad?” And hers is: “A little. I came here to throw a rock at you.”

Inevitably, this tug of war as they try to reconcile their conflicts both internal and external proves too exhausting for them, and they split apart in all conceivable ways. Jeannette is now much more susceptible to yet another proposal from Jack as she reflects: “I wouldn’t even be surprised if you told a woman she was right every once in a while.”

It is left to the woman’s father (William Collier Sr.), a recurring presence in these films (in description in THE GILDED LILY, in person here as well as in INVITATION TO HAPPINESS and TOO MANY HUSBANDS) to convince Cy that this war is his and Jeannette’s form of love as they band together to follow Jeannette’s bread crumb trail in order to invade her elopement to Jack.

While THE BRIDE COMES HOME is almost entirely about the characters, TRUE CONFESSION becomes an almost abstract meditation on the chasm between private intentions and public interpretation and the relationship between creative invention and downright lying. Based on a French play “Mon Crime” by Louis Verneuil and Georges Berr, the film is most certainly conscious of another play, by Binyon’s fellow former Chicago newspaper colleague Maurine Watkins, “Roxie Hart.” And, as the Binyon work which comes closest to all out farce rather than behavioral comedy, it could be considered his funniest. Indeed, in many ways TRUE CONFESSION is to Gregory La Cava’s LADY IN A JAM what THE GILDED LILY is to that director’s UNFINISHED BUSINESS.

Ken and Helen Bartlett (Fred MacMurray and Carole Lombard) are seemingly complete opposites who have attracted into marriage, but are actually quite similar in their inability to connect public means to private ends. Ken is a lawyer who is so entirely devoted to “the truth” that he refused to defend any client whom he is not already convinced is innocent beyond a shadow of a doubt. Not surprisingly, he is all but unemployable. Helen is a would be writer of fiction who sees no difference between inventing characters in a story for publication and inventing a story about her husband as a character who believes that her typewriter is his recently deceased baby to dissuade the finance man from repossessing it.

When Helen takes a job which seems too god to be true as a very private secretary to a stock broker who works at home, it turns out to be just that as she is forced to punch him in the stomach and run out of the house in order to escape his advances. Returning to retrieve her hat, coat and purse, she is swept up by the arriving police who demand to know why she shot the stock broker, who is now lying dead beneath his work room rug.

Taken into custody, she is grilled by the investigating detective (Edgar Kennedy) in what she assumes is a story conference. Which, in fact, it is since the police have simply taken the available evidence, drawn the logical conclusion that she is the murderer, and now must only come up with a believable motive to include in a confession. The detective throws open a number of scenarios which Helen finds unsatisfactory until he hits on the “tough dame” character. “You didn’t love him. You don’t love anybody. You’re that kind of a dame” he growls in accusation. Her eyes light up as she exclaims “Gee!”, thrilled at the role she has been given until told that in this version of the story she will either get a life sentence or the death penalty.

Unhappy with the plots she is being offered, Helen makes up her own story of why she shot the stock broker, and when told that in this version she would get practically no penalty at all, is delighted at her work. “See, I know how to do it! You offer me life or the electric chair and I give myself five years to nothing!” The detective is equally delighted until he asks her to sign this story as her confession and she responds with bafflement: “No. I was making it up just like you were.”

But Ken’s devotion to the truth is just as logical as the rest of society. All of the evidence points to Helen and Helen has, in the past, been known to make up stories. He is prepared to give her the honest defense of justifiable homicide not only in her own defense, but also in the defense of all woman kind if she will only stop insisting that she didn’t commit the crime. And Helen can see how successfully making this case will also be the making of Ken’s legal career. So rather than “pass that up trying to prove something that can’t be proven,” she relents and confesses.

So it is that Helen pretty much becomes The ‘Yes’ Girl, taking claim to a crime she didn’t commit in order to fulfill society’s need for a comforting narrative of sacrifice and martyrdom. Indeed, the trial proves to be Helen’s version of Marilyn David’s café performance (in THE GILDED LILY) as she and Ken reenact the crime as both a true account of what happened up to the time that Helen fled and a complete travesty of how it happened. Ken proves to be a woefully nervous and wooden actor in the part of the stock broker, Helen keeps throwing in additional lines of dialogue to reinforce Ken’s moral viewpoint and the prop door won’t operate, causing them both to run around in circles while playing the scene. The exasperated prosecutor (Porter Hall) may in fact be expressing the author’s most heartfelt comment regarding the public display of private experience in his outburst: “Must we submit to this three ring circus in the guise of drama? What can they hope to prove with these cornball theatrics? With every ounce of decency in me, I object! Give them the gong.”

Lombard and MacMurray in True Confession.

And just like Marilyn at the café, Ken and Helen win public acclaim. In the wake of the not guilty verdict, Helen is now the author of the newspaper column “My Life, My Struggles” and concocts novels with the same literal tongue-in-cheek concentration gesture that she used to convince the butcher than her husband was dead in order to avoid the meat bill. Ken’s law office is doing turn away business, but his unease about the success being built on his wife’s crime spills over when their new maid (Hattie McDaniel) asks if she shot her philandering husband whether Ken could get her off. “Kind of touchy,” she muses as Ken storms off.

When the whole charade finally collapses, Ken manages to repress his joy that his wife isn’t actually a murderess enough to denounce the mockery she has made of truth, justice and the American way. Helen is distraught, pleading “I tried to tell the truth but it seemed everything worked out better if I lied.” In a final desperate attempt to prevent Ken from walking out, she claims to be pregnant. And when that is also exposed as a lie, she responds with what might in fact be Binyon’s ultimate judgment on the subject: “Well, it could be true.” And this inspires Ken to carry Helen back into the house and cure her of lying once and for all.

As with many of his contemporaries who collectively defined American romantic comedy in the 1935-1945 decade (McCarey, Capra, Sturges, La Cava, etc.), Binyon did not adjust as well to the rhythms of post-World War II America. In 1948 he became a writer/director, in many cases adapting books which related to the themes and characters he had previously developed. Frederick Wakefield’s fictionalized version of his dealings with the legendary Broadway producer Jed Harris, THE SAXON CHARM, concerns a playwright who allows the lure of artistic success relentlessly erode his marriage. The conflicting demands of a public career and a private marriage is examined from another angle in MOTHER DIDN’T TELL ME, an adaptation of Mary Bard’s account of life as a doctor’s wife which plays something like INVITATION TO HAPPINESS told from the female perspective. STELLA is a rather eccentric adaptation of a Doris Miles Disney crime mystery novel which reexamines all of the black comedy themes regarding death and the legal system from TRUE CONFESSION and anticipates the movable corpse ploy in Hitchcock’s THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY by five years. And DREAMBOAT, more characteristically taken from an obscure story, is another meditation on public exposure when an upright college literature professor (Clifton Webb of course) is found to be a former Hollywood heartthrob when his old silent movies begin appearing on television.

These films, STELLA in particular, are generally satisfying. And, as a director, Binyon is effective without being distinctive. However, given his extreme diffidence, one wonders how he managed to function in this job at all. In Hal Kanter’s autobiography “So Far, So Funny,” he reports Bob Hope saying that during the filming of HERE COME THE GIRLS, by the time that director Binyon managed to stammer out “Cut,” co-star Rosemary Clooney was already back in her dressing room.

Most of Binyon’s last decade of screenwriting was taken up with collaborations, the highlights of which were his co-writing with the director on Leo McCarey’s last two films, RALLY ‘ROUND THE FLAG, BOYS! and SATAN NEVER SLEEPS. He retired to his California ranch in 1964.

Claude Binyon will never again be listed among Hollywood’s most admired screenwriters. However, a reappraisal and appreciation of his work is long overdue. Unfortunately, many factors continue to stand in that path, not the least of which being the almost complete invisibility of Paramount films beyond the top tier of what are now considered established “classics.” And that situation borders on the criminal given that the rights to these films are controlled by cable giant Comcast which, between the Paramount and Universal libraries, has a ready-made TCM style network at their fingertips, if they could only be bothered to assemble it.

The low esteem in which director Wesley Ruggles is held is also an inhibiting situation. Ironically, Ruggles’ modesty, which borders on a complete lack of directorial personality, allows the elements in Binyon’s viewpoint to shine more clearly. He should also be given credit for have a sensitive casting sense, not only for finding and staying with the right actors to inhabit Binyon’s prototype characters, but also assembling a collection of comedy character actors who make multiple appearances throughout the series (including the aforementioned Kennedy, Collier and Hall, but also Tom Dugan, Richard Carle, Donald Meek and others) which develops an almost Sturges like feel to this world. Indeed, if for no other reason, one must thank him for gracing TRUE CONFESSION with the always delightful Una Merkel, who forms a kind of Lucy and Ethel team with Carole Lombard.

Still, Ruggles’ pokey, somewhat airless direction, akin to George Stevens without any compensating composition sense, does in fact create a number of aesthetic limitations which must be ignored in order to appreciate Binyon’s work.

But then again, if Claude Binyon is philosophically accurate and rediscovery ripped him from Lizzie Glutz’s embrace, the result would only be a hysterical misunderstanding of his intentions and an artificially manufactured version of his artistic persona. A process that I may well have begun right here.

No comments:

Post a Comment