Saturday, July 24, 2021

The Pros and Cons of a Woman's World, circa 1954

       Offering a twist on the popular cinematic trend of “trio” films centering on the exploits, romantic and otherwise, of three female stars (dating back to 1925’s Sally, Irene and Mary, at least), 1954’s Woman’s World (based on Mona Williams’ novelette May the Best Wife Win) technically concerns the corporate world and the three men vying for a top position as General Manager at the NYC-based “Gilford Motors.” However, 20th Century Fox had recently struck gold with the femme-helmed How to Marry a Millionaire and Three Coins in the Fountain and therefore, guided by the sure hand of director Jean Negulesco (who oversaw both Millionaire and Three Coins), the wives of the three G.M. candidates are detailed with as much (okay, more) emphasis as their male counterparts, offering an interesting take on some of the era’s prevailing views of both sexes in relation to big-business endeavors.

                Of the female leads, June Allyson as wholesome Midwesterner Katie Baxter is possibly the most prominently featured, but her character’s frequently-detailed ineptitude as a small-town doe lost among the sophisticates in the Big Apple grows tiresome quickly, and it’s disconcerting to see, based on other characters’ reactions to her, the audience is clearly meant to view the often-inane Katie as the most appealing wife, as she doesn’t pose a threat to the men by, you know, coming across as intelligent and/or ambitious- happy with domestic bliss, Katie doesn’t want her husband Bill (Cornel Wilde) to win the position and uproot the family from Kansas City. Allyson was having quite a career surge at the time playing variants on the idealized American housewife, with the same-year’s smash-hit The Glenn Miller Story really upping her stock in this vein (and her patented good wife in the same year’s all-star Executive Suite also helped- damn, June was busting out all over in 1954), but her best work may have preceded this Golden Era, with her lively gregariousness in 1947’s Good News and her sly take on “Thou Swell” pretty much stealing the show in the all-star Words and Music in particular showing off Allyson’s unique musical talents. Allyson also occasionally demonstrated she had seldom-tapped dramatic abilities outside of her perfect housewives (check out her tense performance in The Shrike, or Allyson’s breakdown scene in Strategic Air Command, which briefly shifts the tone of that Vista Vision aerial epic into darker psychological territory).

                As Elizabeth Burns, the most practical and perceptive of the wives, Lauren Bacall has on paper a more straightforward role with less opportunities for big moments, but Bacall is fascinating to watch in possibly her most pitch-perfect performance this side of her remarkably–assured debut in To Have and Have Not and the terrific follow-up, The Big Sleep. Bacall is clearly “on” in some of her performances, which ended up suiting her just fine once she hit (and then conquered) Broadway, but this overt style could come across as forced on-screen; however, in this World she tones down her playing significantly and maintains an element of intrigue and subtle depth that makes the audience stay focused on Elizabeth as she ponders marital issues brought about by a workaholic husband Sid (Fred MacMurray), and challenges him regarding the promotion that could cause irreparable damage; Bacall is great at conveying Elizabeth’s independent spirit, while still indicating the conflict she faces over her love for Sid and doing what she feels is right in order to save him at the expense of their marriage. She’s also very likeable interacting with Allyson as she helps (or, well, tries to help) Katie find her footing among the NYC elite, offering evidence that Elizabeth possesses enough social skills and Big City know-how to possibly aide the men both in and outside the boardroom.

                Although Bacall’s Elizabeth may hint at being equipped to handle the pressures of the business world, Arlene Dahl’s Cathy Talbot, in direct contrast to the supposedly more appealing Katie, shows the most overt ambition in wanting husband Jerry (Van Heflin) to climb the business and social ladders, and is willing to assist him in highly unorthodox fashion. As was typical during this period, a woman in film demonstrating she might want something better than an idyllic life at home (normally with kids) has to be revealed as unbalanced at the least (see Jennifer Jones in The Man in the Gray-Flannel Suit for the all-time neurotic example of this type) and a heartless villainess at worst. The script does Dahl no favors in painting Carol’s least-admirable traits at the expensive of any good qualities but Dahl, in addition to her phenomenal beauty (which is used to somewhat nefarious purpose in World) had considerably more charm and skill than she was given credit for (probably due to her incredible looks stealing the spotlight from her performance abilities). Yet, watching Dahl in something like Three Little Words performing “I Love You So Much,” after you get past the jaw-dropping opening close-up of her looking magnificent in an MGM Technicolor glamour shot for the ages, the playful sensually she incorporates throughout the rest of the number as she cavorts up, down and around a staircase with a group of eager suitors, sashaying along while trilling (in her own voice) “La-Dee-Da-Da” as memorably as Diane Keaton would later (almost) say it, suggests Dahl had magnetism worthy of better cinematic opportunities. At least among largely-decorative parts Dahl did get a few chances in movies, such as her disturbed sibling in Slightly Scarlet, ideally teamed with her chief 1950’s cinematic sister, Rhonda Fleming, or her adept, bemused work in one of the last of the 1950’s big hits, Journey to the Center of the Earth, wherein she pairs up wonderfully with James Mason, to illustrate what a fine, professional talent she possessed. In World, the part may be deprived of much depth but there is meat to be found in the role, and Dahl plays the largely unsympathetic Carol with flair, energy and yes, seductiveness, making some audiences members view the character in a more acceptable light (as in, “Man, this is a fearless gal who knows what she wants!”) than the disapproving onlookers in the film (and, probably, in 1954 theaters).

                Although the female stars are allowed the most ample chances for stand-out emoting, the male leads perform in a reliably stalwart fashion fitting to the chiefly male-driven professional business world of the period, “driven” by Gifford Motors in a literal sense in the movie, affording the filmmakers a chance to showcase a few awesome Ford Models of the period at the story’s outset. As Ernest Gifford, who stands as judge and jury regarding who the next G.M. will be, Clifton Webb is his usual quick, acerbic self, and he fits the role as a world-weary tycoon with becoming ease. As Bill, the youngest and frankest candidate, Cornel Wilde plays in the earnest, laid-back manner that served him well throughout his career, especially when supporting more theatrical ladies whose characters witnessed much ado about them (Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven, Linda Darnell in Forever Amber, etc.). Wilde’s calm, reassuring masculinity has great appeal, and Wilde never appears to be trying to force the limelight onto himself, opting instead to perform in a direct, no-nonsense fashion that helps move the sometimes complicated or far-fetched material (specifically in the Bill/Katie scenes) along with a minimum of fuss.

                After achieving stardom with an Oscar for fantastic, edgy work in 1942’s Johnny Eager and cementing himself as a valuable Noir player throughout the 1940’s in riveting fare such as The Strange loves of Martha Ivers and his memorably cold, caustic cad who (unwisely) shuns Joan Crawford in Possessed, by the mid-1950’s Van Heflin was settling into a productive period wherein his proficient professionalism was put to great use in a variety of mature roles, such as the homesteader in the previous year’s smash Shane, or his easy command as Major Huxley in a 1955 blockbuster, Battle Cry. In Women’s World Heflin does a nice job demonstrating Jerry’s staunch belief that he can only accept the G.M. position on his terms, as well as illustrating the character’s growing wariness regarding Carol’s extroverted efforts to gain him an advantage with Gifford; Jerry has cause for concern, but the chauvinistic view of the time deeming a woman can’t help a man in business is also front-and-center, and Heflin doesn’t shy away from portraying Jerry as something of an immoveable ass in this area (cue the film’s sophomoric tagline: “It’s a great big wonderful Woman’s World- because men are in it!”).

 Fred MacMurray’s gets a chance to show his great aptitude at conveying sweaty shiftiness as Sid, the man initially most eager for the position. Although among all his leading men and idealistic father roles he seldom was allowed to play ignoble parts, MacMurray’s skill at portraying nervous, spineless guys you can’t trust really has few equals onscreen and, as he did with even greater impact in the same year’s The Caine Mutiny, MacMurray seems to relish being the least-likable character in any room. Sid does manage to have some redeeming attributes, which MacMurray reveals particularly during a touching dinner/reunion scene between Sid and Elizabeth, but even then the audience can be forgiven for speculating how honorable Sid’s next move will be, as they wait for the worm to turn yet again.

Director Jean Negulesco had an uncanny knack for deftly crafting these slick, hard-to-resist all-star entertainments, and he keeps the various plotlines flowing throughout a brisk 94-minute running time, allowing each star key moments to shine (in close to career-best fashion in the case of Bacall and MacMurray) without throwing off the tone of the piece, in most cases (only Katie possibly overstays her welcome, and could’ve caught a Greyhound back to the kids in Kansas City mid-film with a quick “adieu” to Bill). Throw in lush 20th-Century Fox production values (including Cinemascope, Technicolor and the Four Aces singing the title song with their typical aplomb) and voila!- the perfect recipe is created to serve up a prime, flavorful piece of 1950’s drama with an industrial slant.