Tag Archives: Red Dust

‘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!

‘Closer’: Expense of Spirit; Waste of Time

Original poster.

Original poster.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on “Closer” (Columbia, 2004), but I do want to offer it as an example of the sort of picture that “Red Dust” so refreshingly is not. Nobody has any fun getting laid in “Closer,” which is a very steamed up tale of four exceedingly attractive people who never stop saying disagreeable things to each other. Like so many other pictures going all the way back to “Sunrise” and beyond that too, “Closer” takes Lust as its subject and presents Desire as if it were — in every particular — cheerless, sour, intense, deadly serious . . . and no goddamn fun. “Closer” is a one-hundred-and-four-minute bummer. It all reminds me of the old gag: “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” “Don’t do that.”

Patrick Marber (who based the screenplay on his own West End/Broadway play) must surely have had Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 lowering upon his brain while he wrote this thing. Ever since Shakespeare wrote Sonnet 129, writers have been taking their cue from his vividly pessimistic tirade against Lord Boffulation and all his pomps.

Sonnet129
Sonnet 129

Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,
Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
     All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
     To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

In “Closer,” sex goes directly to being “despisèd straight” without first having been enjoyed sooner. At its happiest (that is, in the first flush of “romance”), it’s all, like, snide and snotty and fuck you man! Later on it’s, “I would have loved you  . . . forever! Now please go.” (That’s verbatim: a strange concept of forever, n’est ce pas? It could be a whole new grammatical tense: the conditional eternal.) Apparently, we’re supposed to take Marber’s script as a hard-hitting exposé of Sex in Our Time — you know, warts and all; instead we get warts and nothing. As I watched it, I kept thinking of Parolles’ lines from “All’s Well That Ends Well,” in which he tries to persuade the heroine not to hold on to her virginity. He tells her

[Y]our virginity, your old virginity, is like one of our French withered pears, it looks ill, it eats drily; marry, ’tis a withered pear; it was formerly better; marry, yet ’tis a withered pear: will you anything with it?

In “Closer,” the French withered pear is not old virginity, but sex itself. Away with it. I’ll none.

The individual scenes offer little evidence of what is involved in the sexual act; we get a lot of acid chatter about it, but nothing too specific. All we learn is that sex seems to involve a whole lot of teary-eyed snarling and browbeating  . . . and typing — lots and lots of typing! Hotcha! For Clive Owen and Jude Law, sex involves logging on to an anonymous online sex site and role-playing (Law pretends to be a nasty chick, Owen plays the dirty daddy): we see them typing fast and furious in their darkened rooms, to the overture from Rossini’s La Cenerentola (I guess that makes them Cinder-Fellas). Is anything more tiresome than watching movie stars type? Until the next big thing comes along that supplants texting, I’m afraid we’re in for a lot more typing lessons in the movies. For Natalie Portman, sex includes wearing a pink Louise Brooks wig, slithering round a pole and sneering; for Julia Roberts, oh hell, I don’t remember — it’s been a few hours since I saw it. To hear Marber tell it, human sexuality is an addictive form of wretchedness that is ardently sought so that it can be laboriously endured. These four are worse than junkies: heroin addicts get hooked because it feels so damned good — at least for a time. But the quartet in “Closer” have even less fun going to hell than Lana Turner had in “Madame X.” If people who look as good as these four do can’t have any fun, what chance have the rest of us got? It’s a bummer, man, a great big bummer.

The actors are beautiful and they go through their paces as if their lives depended on it. They don’t cheat, but the script does.