Tag Archives: Anne Baxter

‘Homecoming’: The Four Flusher’s Progress

Original Poster.

Original Poster.

“Homecoming” (Metro, 1948) tells the story of the eminent Dr Clark Gable, sawbones to the Social Register set, who joins the Army Medical Corps at the outbreak of the Second World War. He leaves behind his successful practice and his stylish wife, Mrs Dr Anne Baxter Gable. (His first name is Ulysses: friends call him Lee; he calls her Penny: her name’s Penelope. Blind Homer’s ashy flakes are madly swirling in his urn.) We learn early on that the Homeric Dr Gable has gotten involved in the war effort for all the wrong reasons, but before the picture is over, he’ll do much good, make many sacrifices and redeem his soul. For its sins, “Homecoming” offers a perfect example of the sort of glum, semi-tedious product Metro turned out in the years immediately following the War, whenever the studio decided to make a high-minded, serious picture. Whatever else may be said for or against it, I find that it’s good for plenty of laughs — also for all the wrong reasons.

The story opens on a ship bringing men back home from across the Atlantic at the end of the War. A roving reporter goes round the ship in search of “a good yarn” (as his young associate puts it). The reporter is an old hand at getting veterans to talk: we can believe he’s good at his job because he smokes his pipe with such casual authority. Gives him the common touch. In the mist, he espies Colonel Dr Gable and asks him first for a light, then for his story — he musta seen plenty overseas, plenty. Here’s what follows:

As the title suggests, “Homecoming” is supposed to be about the difficulties veterans face when they return from war. Questions of class and social welfare are also raised. Mostly, however, it’s a Woman’s Picture about two women who fall in love with the same man. Paul Osborn’s script has a lot of pretty good stuff in it, but when he veers off course — as he often does — the writing is atrocious. “Homecoming” has some of the most hilariously over-written scenes in movie history. The over-writing is especially conspicuous because so much effort has been spent cluttering up the dialogue with colloquial words and expressions such as “sorta,” “kinda,” “y’know,” “dunno,” “somehow,” “whyncha give out?” and other “realistic” touches. Bronislau Kaper’s score slops heavy cream over the syrupy passages in a most amusing way. The plush banality of Kaper’s music falls somewhere between what you’d expect to hear at an airport cocktail lounge and a suburban undertaker’s parlor.

The Four Flusher

And it all starts when Dr John Hodiak calls Dr Clark Gable a four flusher. To my knowledge, this is the only picture in which a man’s crisis of conscience begins because someone calls him a four flusher. Perhaps it’s only because the term is seldom used anymore, but whatever the reason is, I laugh every time I hear Dr Hodiak haul off and say it. But the affront goes very hard with Dr Gable: until now, he always thought he was aces. A four flusher! Where does that second-rate corn doctor get the brass to give out with a crack like that? Heck, he’ll be accusing me of cheating at solitaire, next! Dr Gable tries, but finds himself incapable of shaking off the insult. In the vernacular and syntax of the picture, it kinda makes Clark feel sorta all hollowed out on his insides, somehow, and gee, it sorta sticks to him like Napalm.

Sorta Proud Somehow

So off goes Dr Gable, ego bruised and false teeth clenched, to patch up those boys over there, who are kinda trying to do something fine, somehow, like make the world safe from Teutonic paperhangers with funny moustaches and fat lunatics in funny hats who holler fascist folderol from Italian balconies. On the transport over to Europe, Dr Gable gets into an argument with a young nurse, known as “Snapshot” McCall (Lana Turner), who overhears his conversation and objects to everything he says. Then he learns, to his horror, that she has been assigned to be his head nurse. They continue to spar in field hospitals all across imprisoned Europe, but Dr Gable cannot help noticing that “Snapshot” Lana’s insolence is matched by the high quality of her nursing. His letters home are so full of his grievances against this pettish Clara Barton that his wife, goaded on by her busybody mother (Gladys Cooper — who else?), grows jealous. So now Dr Gable is fighting a war overseas and on the home front. What’s a four flusher to do?

Truce over a Cuppa Joe

In the face of the supreme competence of “Snapshot” Lana, Dr Gable kinda hasta make a pal of her, if he can. But she’s more obdurate than he figured on. A younger Gable would have asked her, “What’s eatin you, sister?” Instead, he just kinda gets his feelings hurt, which we can see by the way he purses his lips. What the good Doctor forgets is that in an earlier scene he sorta cracked wise about her husband who lies buried somewheres in China, having been killed in a battle six years before we got into the soup ourselves. It looks like she’ll never forgive him for his selfish callousness — and yet, well, she’s a good kid, kinda; she’s got a heart, y’know, and she begins to see that Dr Gable’s not such a bad Joe, kinda, y’know, after all — just needs to sand down some of those rough edges, get wise to the world, and learn that we’re all in it together, somehow. Every fella needs a buddy.

Chubby and Tubby Take a Bath

Two years before this picture was made, James Agee complained (in his review of “The Hucksters”) “[S]omething soft and unfortunate has happened to Gable’s mouth.” I’m afraid he’s right. Something soft and unfortunate has happened to his midriff, too. Fourteen years earlier, Clark Gable almost put the undershirt trade out of business by showing his naked torso in “It Happened One Night.” In this one, however, he looks like a Ball Park Frank (“They Plump When You Cook ‘Em”) in an army belt. In this scene with “Snapshot” Lana, it’s hard to know which of them is more in need of a good, tight girdle. Look at that still of him immediately below — he’s baking bread on both sides of that canvas cuff. And then there’s the coyness!

It’s a bad state of affairs when Clark Gable is shocked by the fleeting thought of sex: compare this scene to Gable’s performance in “Red Dust,” and the coyness is perfectly revolting.

Dr Gable Regrets

Back home, Dr Gable was always too busy to give Dr Hodiak a helping hand with his work in the slums of Chester Village (I don’t know why that name makes me laugh, but it does — probably because Gable pronounces it “Jester Village”). Now a boy from Chester Village (Cameron Mitchell) dies of wounds that wouldn’t have killed him, had he been given proper care back home. But Dr Gable was always too busy going to country club dances and hobnobbing with the swells to make time for those who couldn’t afford proper medical care. When the boy dies, Dr Gable blames himself.

Gable does that speech extremely well, I think. It is also the moment when his soul truly begins to awaken. He sees, as I hope we all do, that four flushing is not a victimless crime.

The Broken Torch

I won’t bother to set up this next scene. I offer it with no explanation, except to say that it contains my favorite bad writing in the picture.

“It’s a broken torch, but it still strikes fire . . .” Mmmmm, mmmmm. Sometimes there’s gawwd so quickly!

The Razor’s Edge

Truth in Advertising:  The  painting is spectacularly incompetent, much like the picture itself.

Truth in Advertising: The painting is spectacularly incompetent, much like the picture it promotes.

“The Razor’s Edge” is not a good picture, not even close. It’s terrible. It’s badly acted by nearly everyone; it’s coarsely written; it’s pretentious; it’s silly; it’s phony. And a whole lot of people swear by it. If I didn’t like the picture, I wouldn’t write about it, but I confess I find it hard to get through the entire mess in one go. Happily, DVD technology has eliminated the need to do so: when I look at it (as I frequently do), it is always in digestible pieces. To watch the whole thing all at once is numbing, though not, alas, soporific. Some pictures put me to sleep like a charm (“Steel Magnolias” knocks me out cold in a matter of minutes), but not this one: there are many dull patches, but it’s too nutty for me to drift off while it’s on.

William Somerset Maugham:  The old sybarite

William Somerset Maugham: The old sybarite

W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), who wrote the novel, was the most successful writer of his day, and his works are still read today. I believe this is because his stories and novels are nearly always entertaining. He had a gift for epigrammatic dialogue and a near-genius for cooking up interesting plots that put his believably human characters through imaginative wringers. For my money, he’s the greatest second-rate writer of all time. If you’re going on a long trip and want to bring along something that is bound to hold your attention without entirely insulting your intelligence, Willie Maugham is your man. He never claimed to be a writer of the first rank, and insisted such was never his ambition. “The Razor’s Edge,” I’d say, gives the lie to this claim, for it has Big Ideas written all over it. The opening sentences suggest that he himself considered this one book different from all his others:

I have never begun a novel with more misgiving. If I call it a novel it is only because I don’t know what else to call it. I have little story to tell and I end neither with a death nor a marriage.

Nor does any of it add up to much. Something big is always just about to shake up this world of cocktails and engagement parties, but nothing does. Plenty happens, but only cocktails get shaken. Nothing happens all over the place. It was 20th Century-Fox’s big budget, prestige picture of 1946. It’s the story of a young man’s quest to find the Meaning of Life. Along the way, he travels to the slums of Paris, the high Himalayas, and eventually the slums of Marseilles. I don’t think It’s giving away too much to say that after two and a half hours of twiddling its philosophical thumbs, Lamar Trotti’s screenplay concludes that the Meaning of Life is, well, it’s not so easy to say, exactly. It seems to be something along the lines of “Be Kind” or “Be Good” or “To Thine Own Self Be True” or . . . aw, hell, let’s just say it’s “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” or, if you like, “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head?” and leave it at that.

Several biographers have suggested that Maugham based the character of his hero, Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power), on Christopher Isherwood, and the character of the arch-snob, Elliott Templeton (Clifton Webb), on Sir Henry “Chips” Channon (an American-born anti-American Member of Parliament). I can’t help feeling that Maugham — a randy old goat — would never have interested himself in such a story had he not found his young Seeker after The Truth physically attractive.  As written in the novel, and as played in the picture, he’s a beautiful young man and a cracking bore. Maugham’s attraction to Larry is unmistakable in the novel, though he takes pains to suggest his interest is entirely high-minded. This also comes across in the picture, though perhaps not intentionally. At any rate, from this angle, the movie becomes far more interesting than if one takes Maugham’s interest in Larry as being purely Platonic.

What a Swell Party It Is: Gene Tierney, Tyrone Power, Herbert Marshall, Clifton Webb, Anne Baxter, Lucile Watson

What a Swell Party It Is: Gene Tierney, Tyrone Power, Herbert Marshall, Clifton Webb, Anne Baxter, Lucile Watson

Darryl F. Zanuck’s version of “The Razor’s Edge” starts out well: opulent party along Lake Shore Drive, beautiful costumes, charming dance tunes, Gene Tierney dressed by Oleg Cassini, Tyrone Power in a beautiful tuxedo. (When the story begins to drag, you can watch his sideburns, which keep going up and down from shot to shot.) But problems begin to crop up even in the opening scene: the exposition is barely concealed, if it is concealed at all. And, except for Gene Tierney, who makes no impression but looks beautiful, the acting by everyone else is terrible. Tyrone Power cannot speak the simplest line spontaneously; Anne Baxter overplays self-consciousness; Herbert Marshall (as Maugham) does his weary bemusement bit yet again and is only slightly less wooden than his prosthetic leg; Clifton Webb hisses and minces in his usual tiresome, predictable manner; Lucile Watson — the poor man’s Gladys Cooper — does her little old darling act that never fails to set my teeth on edge. But it all looks beautiful while the cast ploughs through the expository back forty, and the dance band plays “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and “I’m Always Blowing Bubbles” to keep their spirits up.

Tierney, Powers, Marshall:  Powers' part was always sharper than his wits.

Tierney, Power, Marshall: The part in Power’s hair was always sharper than his wits.

Tyrone Power never looked better than he looks in this picture.  And he has the sort of handsomeness that looks intelligent. But the way he speaks his lines while gazing into the half-distance makes him seem (at least to me) like he’s a numbskull, rather than the tongue-tied natural philosopher we’re supposed to believe he is. Perhaps I’m alone in this.  Power always gives me the impression of being a nice fellow: I want to believe him, but his line readings make it impossible. On the other hand, it’s this very dopiness of his that becomes diverting when Maugham/Marshall listens to him with such rapt attention. Herbert Marshall was not the sort of actor to hint at homosexual undercurrents, but those undercurrents are there, touch wood. Why else would a celebrated author/sybarite listen so attentively to a loquacious dimwit’s pseudo-spiritual poppycock?

Larry on his way to the high Himalayas: Who do they think they're kidding?

Power as Larry Darrell, on his way to the high Himalayas: Who do they think they’re kidding? Yodel-ay-hee-hooey!

I’ll never understand why Seekers after The Truth always have to scale mountains to figure it out. Why is The Truth supposed to be more evident where the air is thin? And why are mountaintop hermits and Hindoos always so more in touch with reality than the rest of us, who actually live in it? And why is the Lama or Swami or Mountaintop Holy Man always British?  In this case, he’s Cecil Humphreys, from Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.

Cecil Humphreys, Power:  Swami, How I Love Ya . . .

Cecil Humphreys, Power: Swami, How I Love Ya . . .

Of its many hilarious infelicities, “The Razor’s Edge” has a score by Alfred Newman that is not only  echt  Newman, but also  borrowed  Newman: he wrote much of the score for another picture for Sam Goldwyn (“These Three,” based on “The Children’s Hour”) and recycled it. This is hardly unheard of, but it’s striking because Darryl Zanuck personally produced “The Razor’s Edge” — it was his most expensive picture to date . . . and he spared almost no expense. So it amuses me that his court composer should simply recycle his shit from ten years earlier — for a different producer. In “The Razor’s Edge,” for the demimonde scenes in Paris, when Sophie (Anne Baxter, who won an Oscar for her hammus alabammus performance) has become an incorrigible drunk and opium smoker, Newman uses a tune played on an accordion — it’s a song that my first voice teacher, Carl Pitzer, gave me to sing: “Mamselle.” (A small cafe, Mamselle/Our rendezvous, Mamselle./The violins were warm and sweet/And so were you, Mamselle, etc., etc.) BUT . . . Alfred Newman gives us only the refrain and never the bridge, which is the only interesting thing in the fucking song. So on and on and on it goes till you think you’ll go out of your head. If this is what Anne Baxter was listening to every night, is it any wonder she turned to Żubrówka and poppies?

Anne Baxter, bit player.   Sophie in bad company:  The devil wears a fez.

Anne Baxter, bit player. Sophie in bad company: The devil wears a fez.

Last time I watched the picture, I heard something in the score I’d never noticed before, right near the end of the picture.  Clifton Webb is swishing away to meet his maker — he hasn’t been invited to a particularly important party on the Côte d’Azure — and he’s about to die an unhappy old maid when Ty Power winkles an invitation from the secretary (Elsa Lanchester in a touching, unusually restrained performance) of the woman who has chosen to snub Webb, and has it delivered to Webb’s deathbed. Webb’s dying words are “Elliott Templeton regrets he must decline the Princess’ kind invitation, as he has a previous engagement . . . with his. . . blessed Savior. . . . (the old wwwitch!)” I rely on your ears to hear how Webb speaks these words . . . next to him, Henry Daniell has iron in his loafers and anvils sewn into his bloomers. But no sooner has he spoken these words, but Alfred Newman comes in heavy on the contra bass . . . it’s too funny!  Oh, it did make me laugh.

One last thing, and I’ll let it alone . . . for now.  Here’s a clip to give you an idea of the high-minded claptrap that makes up this whole picture.

Nice poem, that. Middling reading, though he doesn’t recite the whole thing. He stops, like an NPR music clip, in mid-phrase.  Finally — a small matter, perhaps, but important to some of us:  it’s a sonnet, not an ode. Did nobody in that huge production know the difference?