Tag Archives: The Hucksters

‘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!

My Cousin Rachel

To see Richard Burton in “My Cousin Rachel” (20th Century Fox, 1952) is to understand why, for so many years, he was one of the most famous men on the planet. After “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Burton made a series of depressingly terrible pictures, and was often as bad as or worse than the bum material he appeared in. But his Hollywood career began auspiciously in 1952, when he starred as Philip Ashley opposite Olivia de Havilland (as Cousin Rachel) in this Cornish gothic mystery. He’s superb in “My Cousin Rachel” — it’s a real star-making performance. And he certainly never looked better.

Richard Burton as Philip Astley:  So that's what all the fuss was about.

Richard Burton as Philip Ashley: So that’s what all the fuss was about.

The picture is based on Daphne du Maurier’s best-selling novel and is in every way superior to “Rebecca,” with which it has much in common.  Both stories are full of ambiguity and miscommunications, and both are set on the blustery coast of Cornwall. But “My Cousin Rachel” is murkier, more mysterious and has a greater sense of mounting dread, doubt, suspense and episodes of delirium (what used, in Russian novels, to be translated as “brain fever”). Brain fever is what “My Cousin Rachel” is all about.

In “Rebecca,” suspense and mystery are created by withholding essential pieces of information from the audience until the end. Were that information known in advance, the story would lose most (though certainly not all) of its interest. “My Cousin Rachel” is different: when Cousin Rachel enters the life of the high-strung young Philip Ashley, he believes she is responsible for the death of his beloved guardian, Cousin Ambrose; for the rest of the story, we must try to determine whether she’s a cunning villainess or the near-saint that she appears to be . . .  Whether this question can be answered remains for the viewer to decide, but whatever the answer is, the mystery remains full of ambiguity and dark corners.

Burton, de Havilland:  Sweet Rachel

Burton, de Havilland: Sweet Rachel

de Havilland, Burton:  Evil Rachel

de Havilland, Burton: Evil Rachel

Here’s how the picture opens. These first few minutes should give you a clear sense of what the rest of the picture is like.

As a character, Rachel is full of surprises — alternately loving and peremptory, compliant and steely.  De Havilland navigates the contradictions with ease and skill. She’s not a particularly exciting actress, but there’s real pleasure in watching her handle difficult material so gracefully and intelligently.

Olivia De Havilland, Audrey Dalton, Richard Burton:  Rachel, my torment; what is she up to?

Olivia de Havilland, Audrey Dalton, Richard Burton: Rachel, my torment; what is she up to?

The screenplay is by Nunnally Johnson; it’s one of his best scripts and is notably faithful to the novel. Johnson was an extremely prolific writer and producer, so his work is very uneven. Much of what he did is not much better than hack work, but I’m a fan of his, partly because he was known to be a very witty fellow, which goes a long, long way with me. The novelist Frederic Wakeman (“The Hucksters”) was in Johnson’s office one day when Johnson’s secretary buzzed to say that legendary Broadway producer/son of a bitch Jed Harris was on the wire.  “Shall I say you’re in?” she asked.  Johnson considered the matter for a long time. “Well,” he said slowly, “if I take the call, he’ll invite himself to dinner. At dinner he’ll insult Alice, and I’ll order him out of the house. But he’ll go into the kitchen where Alice is crying and turn her against me. So the real problem is, Do I want to divorce Alice?” After another pause, he answered, “Tell him I’m out of town.”