A 1950s Alternative Universe

I’m taking some weeks off work courtesy of the wonderful 48/52 , and having an at-home holiday with a rare respite from early mornings and reasonable bedtimes. So it was that on Saturday night I found myself watching a late-night 1950s black and white movie – something I haven’t done much of since the demise of Bill Collins and Ivan Hutchinson’s shows. Oh, how I used to love those old black and white movies (cue massive eyeroll from the kids). Some of the interest lies in a mixture of plot points which appear to have been written while dropping acid combined with gender and class expectations which are all too real.

This one was No Sad Songs For Me, starring Margaret Sullavan, who was quite a hoyden in her youth, with Natalie Wood as her abnormally well-adjusted daughter. According to Answers.com,

…Sentimental melodrama about a ridiculously self-sacrificing wife based on the book by Ruth Southard and starring a 12-year-old Natalie Wood. Mary Scott (Margaret Sullavan) is pregnant when she finds out that she has terminal cancer with only a few months left to live. She keeps this information a secret from her husband, Brad Scott (Wendell Corey), who is carrying on an affair with his assistant, Chris Radna (Viveca Lindfors). Mary encourages her husband to pursue Chris as a replacement wife and mother after she dies.

Heavy stuff, eh, especially as I was in Natalie Wood’s shoes in 1968, except that I was a year younger and not nearly as adorable, co-operative or conscientious with my piano practice. So the movie should have had me wallowing in memories and grief, except for that other marvellous feature of the 1950s B&W: the LOLWUT!? factor.

classic lolwut graphic - the grinning pearConsider the events which the writer of this weepie considered believable in 1950.

The movie opens with the happy family at breakfast discussing a new pregnancy. Mary says she’s off to the doctor that day to confirm. When she does, the doctor tells her sternly that she’s not pregnant and is never likely to be again. We’re given to understand that the doctor’s an old family friend, but this is all he tells her. Oh, and the hilarity – Doctor lights up a cig while giving her the bad news! In the surgery. Oh, the ’50s, those were the days.

Dr. Bedside Manner obviously has no intention of telling her anything at this point. He only tells her about her terminal cancer when she leaves the surgery, walks out to the car, is overcome by an unseemly attack of patient curiosity and walks back into his office to ask him for more details. We are asked to believe that the doctor has diagnosed the cancer some weeks ago yet hasn’t seen fit to tell the patient, who, remember, is also an old family friend. RIGHT.

Mary then says “I remember you’ve been taking dozens of X rays for the last few weeks!”

Wouldn’t you think a woman who thought she was pregnant, instead of harbouring a fatal illness, would question having “dozens of X rays” taken in the (presumed) early stages of the pregnancy? But these were the days of smoking in the doctor’s surgery. They didn’t have those namby-pamby, politically correct safety procedures.

In 1950, it appears, cancer was universally a death sentence. Mary asks Mr People Skills if operations or radiotherapy will do anything, and he replies that the treatment’s still in the experimental stage. Well, perhaps IF HE HAD TOLD HER EARLIER she might have had a chance to get a second opinion, or something.

Instead of going straight to a solicitor to file a medical malpractice suit – seeing as he’s a family friend, I guess – Mary swears the doctor to secrecy so that she can conceal her condition from her family. The doctor readily agrees with this, since obviously he’s given to withholding information anyway. Incredibly, although he can’t do anything at all about Mary’s cancer, he is able to give the most detailed prognosis: Nine months to live, six months of which will be “on her feet”. Modern oncologists would be amazed at the ability of cigarette-smokin’ 50s doctors to pinpoint the exact course of the illness.

The rest of the movie pretty much consists of Mary becoming more and more saintly. Her terminal cancer appears to involve no painkillers, curtailment of social activities or even symptoms, apart from the occasional frown and clutch of the hand to the abdomen, or a brief lie down on the couch. We are not told where this cancer is. One imagines that the ending will be Mary lying on lacy pillows becoming ever more beautiful and radiant as death approaches. However, it’s even more hokey than that.

After participating in a batty, and saintly, ruse to make sure her husband’s affair partner/girlfriend, Chris, is around to replace her(!) (LOLWUT!), Mary spills the beans. Husband, suitably devastated, breaks his philandering and working routine to take her on a second honeymoon to Mexico, where they dance together to a mariarchi band, after which Mary obligingly drops dead, thus eliminating the need for the sad bedridden final phase, and making the handover to Chris more seamless.

Although Chris is an exasperating entitled little shit, one can have some sympathy for her as she enters the movie in the guise of a professional draughtsperson working on a dam project with the husband, Brad / Wendell Cory. Thus we have the classic 1950s/1960s scene where the new worker turns out to be a WOMAN! Oh the HILARITY! The world turned upside down! The exchange between Brad, the hirer, and Chris, the prospective employee, illustrates perfectly the complete disdain for female employees and her need to plead and supplicate to convince him to give her the job despite her manifest inferiority. He demurs because the job’ll require her to go outside and it might rain! A woman might… melt, or something.

The plot then requires them to fall in lurve, but this is just predictable, because she’s a member of the sex class. That’s why we can’t have them on the job! They’ll distract the men!

In the final scene, the LOLWUT!? factor goes off the charts. Chris, the replacement mother, and the child Polly are sitting together at the piano playing a tragic musical piece. At this point, as far as Polly knows, Chris is the family friend/babysitter and Mum and Dad are just away on a nice holiday. The phone rings and Chris answers. It is terrible news from Mexico! Well, terrible for Mary, anyway. Chris makes some cryptic remark and they keep playing. Are they ever going to tell this kid anything? She never knew her mum was even sick. When are they going to actually let her know she’s DIED? The Wikipedia article on Margaret Sullavan says that her family life was fairly tortured and marked by suicide and institutionalisation. If this was the way 1950s families were supposed to handle family crises, I’m really not surprised. “Here’s your school lunch, dear. By the way, your mum’s not coming back from Mexico. She’s dead. I’m your new mum now. I’m sure Dad will explain everything when he gets back, but he’ll be a while because of organising the cold storage for the coffin ‘n all…”

Ah, those old black and white movies. If you’re ever tempted to join the conservatives in yearning for the Good old Days before the counterculture and modern medicine changed the world, when a man could still light up a satisfying fag in his doctor’s surgery and women knew their place, watch one of these and marvel. On the other hand, there’s no room for complacency yet; Judd Apatow, Charlie Sheen and others still churn out stuff which future generations will watch and…LOLWUT?!
Crossposted at the Cast Iron Balcony

Categories: arts & entertainment, gender & feminism, Life, medicine, parenting, work and family

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12 replies

  1. I wasn’t around in the 50s, but based on some of my older family members, was they way WASPy types at least handled every remotely challenging situation. You don’t talk about it. You silence anybody who tries to talk about it. And you slap a smile on your face and act as though everything’s peachy. It was a mess.

  2. Great movie review, Helen. More, more, more.

  3. Oooh, do a Howard Hawks movie next. Bringing up baby is one of my all-time favourite films. The basic plot: Cary Grant is engaged to a career woman. Cary Grant is therefore emasculated. Cary Grant meets a stereotypically feminine woman (scatterbrained, impetuous, narcissistic), and has to act stereotypically masculine to get her out of an assortment of wacky situations. They fall in love and live happily ever after.
    The high-points of hilarity are when Cary Grant wears a dress, and physically assaults Katherine Hepburn to stop her talking. Also there is a leopard.

  4. Also there is a leopard.

  5. Oh, I’ve seen Bringing up Baby a couple of times and LOL’d at it – it definitely needs the Hoyden about Town deconstruction. Problem is I now go to bed at a respectable time and don’t have pay TV, so I never get to see these things. I’ll look out for it at the DVD shop – unless Jennifer gets in there first!

  6. I wasn’t around in the 50s, but based on some of my older family members, was they way WASPy types at least handled every remotely challenging situation. You don’t talk about it. You silence anybody who tries to talk about it. And you slap a smile on your face and act as though everything’s peachy. It was a mess.

    There’s a whole other post in there when I get time.

  7. *Thinks*
    Maybe the film was a slycritique of that WASPy cracking-hardy attitude? A reductio ad absurdum?

  8. The bit that I don’t believe is that the doctor told her. Nobody told my grandmother, or her children, that she had terminal cancer in 1968. They didn’t tell her son when she was in hospital dying – in fact my mother isn’t entirely sure when he was told – he was sent away for a week (he was 11). It was an idyllic life wasn’t it?
    Incidentally, there was no other woman, in fact the “other woman” who helped out after my grandmother’s death only became my grandfather’s wife 12 years later.

  9. TT (I assume it was you) I LOVE that image. Thank you.
    Ariane – so the idea the doctor wouldn’t have told his own patient the truth about her condition wasn’t completely over the top? Jeez.
    My mum knew, but then again we had an absolute star of a female GP, and also, unlike this movie, with real live cancer there are a lot of, you know, symptoms, as everyone here knows.

    • TT (I assume it was you) I LOVE that image. Thank you.

      Helen, it was me, yes. I went googling for images for LOLWUT and came back with lots of variations on that, which meant I had to look it up at Know Your Meme, which meant I felt compelled to include the link as well. I love the original image.
      This movie sounds like a good reality check to remember the headspace that a lot of the senior specialists in teaching hospitals were passing on to those who are still many of the senior specialists setting the culture for today.

  10. I don’t know what they did tell my grandmother, but they never told her she had terminal cancer. She never got to choose anything about her treatment, or even whether she wanted to say goodbye to her children.
    Also, I gather the doctors predicted the course of her illness very well, at least at the end. I can’t remember how accurate the prediction of her life expectancy from diagnosis was, but they said that once X happened, she’d have 7 days to live, which she did. And they still didn’t tell her she was dying (although she may have been on so much morphine by then that it wasn’t really a possibility).
    No wonder so many doctors still have problems with the idea that they are a partner in their patients’ treatments, rather than a dictator, when you consider where they’ve come from.

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