A Scornful Pleasure: ‘Black Widow’

Original poster for Belgian release. (It's funnier in French and Dutch.)

Original poster for Belgian release. It’s funnier in French and Dutch — leave it to the Belgians to misspell Gene Tierney’s last name. And talk about false advertising: no character in the picture remotely resembles that blonde slut in the red dress.

I like plenty of crummy movies, but none of them are guilty pleasures: I don’t feel the least bit guilty about enjoying what isn’t first rate. If I cherished a secret fondness for something that I knew to be despicable — say, a racist comedy starring Stepin Fetchit — I’d call that a guilty pleasure. But that sort of thing gives me no pleasure at all: it only revolts and depresses me. In Preston Sturges’ otherwise excellent comedy, “The Palm Beach Story,” for example, there’s one scene on a train, in which the members of the Ale and Quail Club, for laughs, shoot up the clubcar and frighten the African-American barman (Fred “Snowflake” Toones) half out of his wits. This ugly episode strikes me as being rather worse than merely objectionable: it’s appalling and disgusting, especially coming from a man of Preston Sturges’ obvious sophistication and worldliness. It doesn’t come close to making me laugh: I only wonder where this totally insupportable, unprovoked hatefulness comes from . . . The rest of the picture is very funny, but just knowing that it contains this one scene makes me dislike it: it is guilty, but no pleasure.

Instead of guilty pleasures, I have what I call scornful pleasures — pictures that I enjoy in spite of, and in most cases, specifically because of, their inadequacies. To be a scornful pleasure, a picture has to have overt failings, but not all bad movies qualify as scornful pleasures, since few bad movies are genuinely pleasurable. If you have any self-respect, scornful pleasures should be mildly embarrassing — there’s no shame in enjoying a certain amount of crap, but I find that it is shameful to take pleasure in feeling superior to something that is plainly idiotic, preposterous, puerile, incompetent or a combination of all four. For me, most camp is too contemptible to qualify as a scornful pleasure. The only camp I tend to like is camp only by accident; with the notable exception of the brilliant Charles Busch, anyone who sets out to be camp is already out of bounds: self-regarding camp is almost guaranteed to exhaust my patience faster than any other form of lowbrow entertainment.

Barbara Parkins, Sharon Tate, Patty Duke in 'Valley of the Dolls': Thank you, I'll none.

Barbara Parkins, Sharon Tate, Patty Duke in ‘Valley of the Dolls’: Thank you, I’ll none.

About fifteen years ago, I attended a screening of “Valley of the Dolls” out at the Fire Island Pines Community Center. I had never seen it before, and it turned out to be one of the most insanely enjoyable pictures I ever saw. But there were two factors that made this so. First, I saw it in a room full of well-heeled, well-oiled gay men, most of whom knew every line of it and their running commentary made the picture riotously funny; and second, the distributor sent a 70mm print, which had to be shown on a 35mm projector, which made all the characters and objects expand and contract Slinky-like as they crossed the screen — a stretch limo, for example, when it crossed from left to right, began compressed into a clown-car, then expanded to twice too long in the center of the screen, and compressed again when it arrived on the right side of the screen. Similarly, the actors were beanpoles on the edges of the frame and fatsos in the center. Somehow, this demented visual joke never stopped being hilarious. I don’t know if I ever laughed so hard at anything else in my entire life. But when I bought the DVD a few years later, and watched it in the cool, dark fastness of my living room, I found the picture simply too swinish and incompetent to be enjoyable: taken in small doses, the camp elements are funny; taken as a whole, it’s beneath contempt. Susan Hayward’s turn as Helen Lawson is reasonably amusing; in a much better picture, or even out of context, she would be a scornful pleasure. But in that wretched piece of shit, she’s not funny enough to be madly enjoyable the way a scornful pleasure ought to be — she’s merely less exasperating than everything else.

“Valley of the Dolls” is camp, all right, but it fails to be a scornful pleasure because it aims too low and misses by a mile. As a rule, scornful pleasures aim a little bit higher and miss by a little bit less. And they have to miss the mark in a few, circumscribed ways (illogic and over-exuberance are two common failings that yield dependably amusing results), or they fail to be pleasurable. The movie version of “Peyton Place,” directed by Mark Robson (who also directed “Valley of the Dolls”), is a far likelier candidate for a scornful pleasure: it aims higher, it tackles serious issues timidly and idiotically and is full of the kind of earnest bad acting that I usually get a kick out of. The only trouble is that while “Peyton Place” is plenty lousy, it’s not bad enough to be funny; some of it is almost too good to be bad and all of it is too anemic to be entertaining. Now if Joan Crawford had played the Lana Turner role, it would probably be both camp and a scornful pleasure. Of course, there are no hard and fast rules about any of this, but generally speaking, I suppose it comes down to this: scornful pleasures are practically always infra dignitatum, but never sub contemptum.

“Black Widow” (20th Century-Fox, 1954) most definitely falls into the category of a scornful pleasure, with one major element of camp. It is preposterous in nearly every way I can think of, and almost all of them are scornful pleasures. Old reliables Reginald Gardiner and Otto Kruger are fairly droll, and there’s one tremendous performance by a terrific young actress named Hilda Simms in a small part; other than these three, it is bereft of good performances, but several actors are bad in ways that I enjoy (George Raft’s wooden performance, for example, is made of a timber I particularly like). Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay is very bad indeed and his direction is worse (I can’t think of another picture that has so many backs in the foreground); the soundstage depictions of Central Park West and South are ludicrous. Unsurprisingly, the one irredeemably camp performance (by Ginger Rogers) is what I find least amusing and interesting about “Black Widow.”

Here’s how the picture opens, immediately following the 20th Century-Fox fanfare.  Leigh Harline wrote the ominous music; Van Heflin does the talking.

“Black Widow” is actually a wrong-headed title: the villainess in this story is the only person who turns up dead — and she does so in the second reel. (I think it’s fair to give this much away: the original posters carried the tagline: “Someone Will Kill This Girl Tonight!”) She’s a regular, right down bad’un, this girl, but she’s no black widow. Still, the opening gives a nice sense of the entertaining silliness to come. It’s based on Patrick Quentin’s novel, “Fatal Woman,” which title is only slightly closer to the truth.

Peggy Ann Garner as Nancy Ordway: Put yer pants on, Spartacus . . . !

Peggy Ann Garner shows her gams as Nancy Ordway: Put yer pants on, Spahtacus . . . !

The story is set in the theatre milieu, but it’s not so much a backstage drama as an off stage drama: except for a single scene at a stage door, we never see the inside of a theatre. Certainly we never see Ginger Rogers onstage, though we’re supposed to accept that she is Carlotta (Lottie) Marin, a Great Lady of the Legitimate Stage. Gene Tierney, who plays Van Heflin’s wife, is also a famous Broadway star, but she’s not even in a show when the story takes place. Instead, what we get is Ginger Rogers swanning about as Lottie the Diva, but she’s no Margo Channing — all talent and tempest — no, she’s merely a bully and a bitch. She camps it up, and has a high old time all by herself. Reportedly, she had a lot of fun making this picture. She was a lot better when she was having no fun with Fred Astaire and dancing till her feet bled. In this picture, she doesn’t act well; she doesn’t even move well, let alone give a credible impersonation of a great actress. Here’s how we first meet her: Van Heflin plays Peter Denver, the producer of Lottie’s current hit show, who attends a lavish party she’s throwing on her night off from the theatre. Peter lives in the apartment directly under hers, so he’s obliged to attend her “shambles” (as he calls it) against his will. (I love the cheesy way Heflin finds, in his opening voice-over, to express contempt for his leading lady’s shindig: “And so I went to Lottie’s . . . party.” It’s such a brainless, actorish way to read the line “interestingly.”) Notice how often the actors end up speaking with their backs to the camera . . .

At this same party, Peter meets an aspiring young writer, Nancy (“Nanny”) Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner), out on the soundstage terrace. The terrace set is one of the first things about “Black Widow” that attracted my interest. It’s totally artificial: the view is supposed to be from a penthouse at Fifth Avenue and 67th Street — I could be wrong, but except for the big red Essex House sign, the cityscape looks pretty inaccurate: even today, with many more tall buildings along Central Park West and Central Park South, the view isn’t as crowded and tall as the view on the Fox soundstage, but even so, I think this set is a thing of beauty — at least in the nighttime scenes. In the daytime scenes, it’s far less glamorous and impressive; in fact, in some shots, it looks suspiciously like a painting. (But of course that’s another scornful pleasure: besides, artificiality is a hallmark of this picture’s whole style.)

Poor Peggy Ann Garner! She won a special juvenile Oscar for her performance as Francie Nolan in Elia Kazan’s directorial debut, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (20th Century-Fox, 1945). Kazan called her performance “a miracle.” That’s a bit thick, but she’s good in that picture, even if she doesn’t sound remotely like a Brooklynite. Garner managed to keep working as an actress till her death in 1984 (she was only 52), but she never came close to matching her childhood success. After this first scene, she worms her way into Peter Denver’s life and cadges a few dinners from him. This next clip contains a very specific type of scornful pleasure for me: it always slays me to hear Van Heflin speak a foreign language with his Oklahoma accent. In this one, he recites from “Salome”: “. . . das Geheimnis der Liebe ist größer als das Geheimnis des Todes“; in “East Side, West Side,” he has a back-and-forth with Barbara Stanwyck in appalling Italian. I don’t know why, but it always “pleasures me” to hear Heflin speak in a foreign tongue.

I find this chick’s personality toxic. Besides, I’m so familiar with her as the adolescent Francie Nolan that I find it very off-putting to see her giving us cheesecake. When I see her legs, I’m reminded of what Jimmy Cagney said to Horst Buchholz in Billy Wilder’s “One, Two, Three”: “Put yer pants on, Spahtacus!”

Before the second reel is over, Miss Ordway is no more. For the rest of the picture, we’ll see her only in flashbacks. Here’s why:

Good riddance to bad rubbish. I love the way the elegant Gene Tierney recoils and rubs the grease off her fingers after she reads the label inside Miss Ordway’s coat. Her tragic pantomime in the bedroom doorway counts as a scornful pleasure: it’s an excellent example of what acting teachers call “indicating”: the representation of an emotion in an artificial manner that only happens onstage, but never in real life. The elevator man’s smiling for the newspaper cameras as they wheel the stiff into his car is a scornful pleasure. The awkward staging, with Lieutenant Bruce’s (George Raft) back to us when he speaks his very first line, is a scornful pleasure. Many directors in the fifties complained about the difficulty of staging scenes for CinemaScope, but most of them came up with novel solutions. Not Nunnally Johnson: it appears he never saw a back he didn’t want to photograph. The staging is awkward throughout, and as the picture progresses, the awkwardness and silliness begin to achieve a weird momentum. If you do decide to give the movie a try and don’t enjoy the first fifteen or twenty minutes, you might consider staying with it for a while longer: I think it takes a while for the fun to kick in. Mind you, it doesn’t get better as it goes along — that’s not what scornful pleasures do — it gets more diverting, which isn’t the same thing.

Raft as Detective Lt. Bruce is a both a genuine pleasure and a scornful one. By his own admission, he was no actor. But he’s such an imposing personality and figure that I love the guy. Twenty-two years prior to “Black Widow,” Raft appeared in “Scarface” with super-ham Paul Muni. After seeing the emotional wringer Muni put himself through, Raft said flatly, “If I hadda go through that to be an actuh, I’d quit.” Well, he gets my vote. Another Raft quote that makes me admire him goes like this: “I spent half my money on dames, dice and the ponies. The other half I wasted.” He’s no actor, but I certainly like the cut of his jib.

Many critics have compared “Nanny” Ordway to Eve Harrington in “All About Eve,” but I find the comparison inapposite. To be sure, both characters are not what they seem, and both are climbers, but Eve seems like a nice enough girl at first: when we learn what she’s up to, we’re supposed to feel conned by her goody-two-shoes act. Nancy Ordway, on the other hand, is a very strange bird from the outset: if I were in Van Heflin’s place, the very first doodle she sent to me would be sufficient to make me refuse to take her phone calls. And as evidenced in the clips above, her conversation is stultifying. It’s bad enough that she’s obviously deranged, but she’s also a bore, which is intolerable.

Here’s Hilda Simms’ only scene. What is particularly impressive is that her dialogue is entirely composed of exposition, yet she displays more personality in her one scene than the rest of the cast manage in much larger parts. Alas, she was blacklisted during the Communist witch hunt and never made another picture.

“I certainly don’t want to speak disrespectfully of the dead, but that Nanny was strictly a purpose girl.” That’s my favorite line in the picture. In the final reel, George Raft, who obviously didn’t hear Anne the hat-check girl use the expression, sums up Miss Ordway as “a purpose girl who lost her purpose.” “Purpose girl” is a term that I’ve never heard before; a Google search came up with a single hit: a French/English dictionary entry for the word “disrespectfully” quotes the line from “Black Widow”! When Anne uses the expression, I take it as an example of good writing; when Lt. Bruce uses it, I take it as evidence of bad writing: yet another a scornful pleasure.

3 thoughts on “A Scornful Pleasure: ‘Black Widow’

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