A pair of titles from yesteryear that show relating to family is tough, no matter what the decade
The enemy of the average cinephile will always be those naysayers who complain that watching movies made before their formative years are alienating and generally boring. It’s a shame that they can’t see how films made in previous eras are not only the best time capsules of our history as a society, but that they also highlight the aspects of life which remain universal. Of all such elements, it’s the dynamics between families which continue to be the most fascinating to observe in films made in the past. The way sons and daughters relate to their parental units, and the manner in which mothers and fathers try and understand their offspring are perhaps the most complex of relationships. There’s something so visceral about the way in which cinema can oftentimes capture such stories and give voice to the feelings so many families are unable to say. Two such recent examples from the folks over at Twilight Time, 1959’s Blue Denim and 1972’s The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, beautifully do this through magnificent performances, on-point dialogue and a level of filmmaking which hones in on the complexities that exist between generations.
Although their plots may be wildly different, their intent is the same. Blue Denim focuses on average high schooler Arthur Bartley (Brandon De Wilde) whose puppy dog romance with the sweet Janet Willard (Carol Lynley) results in an unexpected pregnancy and a huge reluctance from the former to tell his loving, but distant father (Macdonald Carey). Meanwhile, in The Effect of Gamma Rays, the struggles of the widowed Beatrice Hunsdorfer (Joanne Woodward), whose efforts to keep her family financially afloat add to her bitter, eccentric nature while fueling the resentment from eldest daughter Ruth (Roberta Wallach).
The 1950s drama Blue Denim is so incredibly of its time. The lack of sexual education among the two young protagonists and the older folks’ reliance on how-to manuals to guide their children through life feels light years away from the world of today. Still, it’s the moments in which Arthur tries to tell his father Malcom about the predicament he’s in where Blue Denim becomes even more true-to-life, both then and now. The youngest of two children, Arthur’s presence goes more or less unnoticed, especially in the shadow of his older sister’s upcoming nuptuals. For Arthur, Malcom is a colossal figure; a former Major very much revered by the community. Malcom loves his son, but has no idea what to make of him, still expecting him to be the child keeping quiet in the corner. A frightened Arthur does try to talk to his father about the very real challenge he’s facing, but is quickly dismissed by him. It’s very obvious that both of them are afraid of each other. Arthur is no doubt afraid of what his father’s reaction will be and the potential tarnishing he’s done to his family’s reputation. Malcom, perhaps sensing that something is indeed wrong with his son, brushes him away rather than have to face the fact that he must now relate to his child in a way he never had before; and what’s more, he doesn’t know how. There’s love between father and son, but also fear, which all but disappears after the parental instinct is triggered within Malcom who, when finding out his son’s predicament, rushes to be by his side.
While Blue Denim examined the carefully measured relationship between a father and son in the repressive 1950s, The Effects of Gamma Rays gives a decidedly dour insight into a shaky mother/daughter bond in the liberal 1970s. As the film’s heroine, Beatrice is one of the most complex creatures ever to grace the screen. Equal parts loathsome and intriguing, the widowed mother is tough and upfront, never once holding back for the sake of decorum or anyone’s feelings. Perhaps it’s a bitterness over the meager life she’s been forced to give her children following her husband’s death that makes Beatrice feel she has earned the freedom to say what she wants. As caustic as she may be though (with a drinking problem to boot), she never stops working at trying to secure a better life for her daughters. It’s a tireless effort sadly lost on older daughter Ruth, who blames her mother for everything, especially the life she’s given their family. The level of resentment Ruth holds against Beatrice for not being polished, sober and a better provider drives the relationship between extremely compromised relationship between mother and daughter. The anger Ruth shows towards her mother comes out in full force during a skit the teenager performs during drama class in which daughter parodies mother, unabashedly portraying her as a monstrous lush. When Beatrice pieces together what her daughter has done, she makes sure to let her know her disappointment. Doubtless there’s a place in Ruth’s heart where she really does love her mother, but that love continues to be clouded by an anger towards Beatrice’s shortcomings and a fear that she will grow up to be just like her.
Besides themes of familial complexity, the biggest trait shared by the two titles is the fact that they both began life on the stage. Blue Denim’s director Philip Dunne’s adaptation of the play by James Leo Herlihy and William Noble does enough opening up of the material to make it feel like an actual film, even if it means certain sequences feel a bit rushed. But the film boldly tackles its issue of abortion in a harrowing way most appropriate for the times, while also getting the best out of its cast. By contrast Newman slightly fails at fully shaking off the stage origins from The Effect of Gamma Rays. But with such powerhouse dialogue, along with what is unquestionably Woodward’s best performance, it’s a blessing that he didn’t. One of the decade’s darkest family dramas (literally and figuratively), the film is rich in the very real problems of a lower-middle class family and the resilience which holds them together.
Looking at these two very real dramas today, both feel electrifyingly alive in the face of modern-day melodramas featuring characters pouring their hearts out. It’s easy to spot the more alien features dictated by both eras, and even easier to be taken aback by them. The most outrageous (yet, probably true) is the way Blue Denim handles the abortion in question. While both it and The Effects of Gamma Rays are documents of the time, which still resonate for better or worse, their existence remains invaluable. I’m convinced that the power both films possess will continue on as long as the complex family dynamic exists, frustrating all members of such units and testing their understanding and bonds of love between one another.
Blue Denim and The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds are both available on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time.