Thursday, August 04, 2005

Private Worlds

One of the things I don't take enough advantage of in this city is the film series at the Museum of Modern Art. Each series always includes lost gems that you never see on video or on TV. Until August 15th, they're showing the work of director Gregory La Cava, of "My Man Godfrey" fame. Last night my friend Linda and I caught "Private Worlds," a 1935 movie about love and office politics among the staff at a loony bin.

The theme of this movie is that sane or insane, we all have our own private worlds, that there is sometimes a thin line between sane and insane, and the only difference between "normal" and "crazy" is that the crazy people can't get out of their private worlds.

I was cynical about this theme at first, since it seemed to smack of that "you shouldn't have value judgments" crap that I tuned out after the 70's. "Oh yes," I would say to myself back then, "there is too a difference between me and the crack-addled homeless guy I tripped over on the way to a job I hate that I do responsibly anyway." But La Cava skillfully presents the way some seemingly normal people can come close to crossing over the line given the right circumstances.

Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea are a team of progressive psychiatrists--apparently very progressive, since their work involves both laboratory research and therapy. When Claudette isn't looking at something through a microscope, she's turning a hulking psychotic into a blubbering bowl of mush with a few kind words.

Conflict comes into the picture with a new superintendent, Dr. Monet (Charles Boyer), a conservative Frenchman who doesn't think women are cut out for the unfeminine work of psychiatry, and he assigns her to a less demanding gig. McCrea is incensed at the breaking up of the partnership, and neglects his work in favor of partying with Dr. Monet's sociopathic sister (Helen Vinson), driving his emotionally fragile wife (Joan Bennett) to a nervous breakdown.

But, what do you know, it turns out that Dr. Monet is really a sensitive guy under his misogynist exterior, which Claudette helps to draw out. And in the days before you could slap a sexist creep with a big fat lawsuit, her determination to keep being good at her job without anger or bitterness wins him over to her side.

There's also a hilarious turn by Esther Dale as "Matron," who could be every battle-scarred old corporate Sergeant-At-Arms whose actions constantly overstep the limits of their authority, but the place wouldn't be the same without them and they're not worth the trouble that would ensue to fire them.

By the end of the movie, all the major characters have changed the private worlds that were doing them more harm than good: McCrea dumps Vinson and goes back to his wife. Boyer ends his co-dependent relationship with his sister, kicks her butt out from under his roof and tells her to get a job. And Claudette stops burying herself in her work in order to escape the memory of her lover who died in The War, and she and Boyer start on a new world together.

This is one of those movies that seems surprisingly sophisticated for its day. I found myself saying "I didn't know they had 'edgy" when my mom was a kid!" The relationships and the theme have a very contemporary feel. Of course, there are some things that are going to be unintentionally hilarious anachronisms no matter how contemporary something seems. For example, Dr. Monet comforts an elderly dying patient identified only as The Arab, a piece of ethnic stereotyping designed to make Edward Said spin in his grave. Only the decorum of being in a movie theater prevented me from MST3K'ing my own dialog:

Nurse: What is the Arab saying?

Boyer: He is praying.

Arab: Allah Akbar!

Boyer: Let me go to him. I understand Arabic. We used to own Arabia.

And I wonder why I had to see this movie in a theater in order to see it, why I hadn't heard of it until my friend told me, and why I had never seen it on AMC or on video. It was a well-restored print, so someone had taken the care and expense to restore it. It could be that whoever owns the rights to it doesn't think it would attract enough of an audience, except at places like MOMA. Which makes places like MOMA that much more valuable.

"I didn't know they had 'edgy" when my mom was a kid!"

Mark said pretty much the same last night when we caught a screening of another of the La Cava films, "What Every Woman Knows," based on the JM Barie play. Whenever I am surprised by the past, it reminds me not of how far we have come, but how far we always swing back...Linda
Good point. I'll post further about this point later this week. I just read Rona Jaffee's "The Best of Everything" and just saw an indie film called "Wedding Bell Blues" and the similarities occurred to me, along with a bunch of other stuff.
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