Sunday, June 22, 2008

Upstairs/Downstairs and Conventional Morality

CB DeMille was nothing if not a conventional moralist. The Golden Chance, which has rightly been commented upon as a Cinderella story, is also Dickensian, with obvious parallels between the character of Mary Martin and Nancy, the abused and eventually murdered wife of thief Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist. Unlike Dickens, however, DeMille has no real interest in social reform. His Mary is not to be pitied for her situation in the same way we feel for Nancy. Mary chose to degrade herself with an unsuitable marriage below her station. DeMille, therefore, affords (likely unintentionally) a particularly twisted entertainment to the working-class women of the time—fantasies about being Cinderella at the ball and smug satisfaction at watching one of their betters pulled down off her pedestal and treated just as they would be treated by the ruling class.

Were DeMille willing to toss out his moral compass, he would have left no doubt about Mary’s instant availability to Roger upon the death of her husband. But for DeMille, the sanctity of marriage and knowing one’s place are far more important than individual happiness. There are many enforcers of the status quo: Mrs. Hillary’s maid, who gives Mary a dressing down for dressing up; Steve Denby, who sneers that Mary is no better than him just because she is a judge’s daughter; Mrs. Hillary, who uses Mary for financial gain and then makes sure Mary can’t do the same with Mrs. Hillary’s loaned jewelry. Despite the possibility of physical harm, Mary never seriously entertains leaving her husband and seems distraught when he is killed. There is no look of relief on her face that he is finally out of her life for good, and no final clinch with Roger. She probably realizes that Roger will never believe that Mrs. Hillary put her up to the deception, that is, if Mary would be so disloyal to her class again as to betray the Hillarys. And that will never happen. Mary will have a rough time as a single woman—and she deserves it, DeMille seems to imply.

In 1919, DeMille will have more fun with social convention in Don’t Change Your Husband (working again with the writer of The Golden Chance, Jeanie Macpherson). Still affirming the sanctity of marriage, DeMille allows his upper-class heroine, played by Gloria Swanson, to divorce her wealthy, but inattentive and slovenly husband to marry a man of her own social standing who turns out to be far more flawed than her husband. She, too, playacts at a costume ball at which her would-be lover is dressed as a king and she as a queen. Already in enviable circumstances, the characters must impersonate royalty to find suitable models for their aspirations and feelings. Her first husband reforms to win her back—affirming that he now takes marriage seriously and as something not to be taken for granted. No harm, no foul in this case. The larger transgression, it would appear, is betraying your own kind.

The superior-quality melodramas that comprise the genre of Women's films have remained surprisingly true to form over the years. Take a look at the films of Douglas Sirk and his spiritual protege Todd Haynes and see their inspiration in these early Women's films from the dawn of movie-making.

5 comments:

Brian said...

Marylin, I believe your comparison of the Golden Chance to its DVD-mate Don't Change Your Husband has isolated a major concern of DeMille's that I for one had not contemplated in that much depth.

If, as you propose, in DeMille's world "betraying your own kind" is worse than betraying a marriage, it helps explain why he felt it necessary to alter J.M. Barrie's "the Admirable Crichton" in his 1919 film Male and Female. In the original, severance from civilization reverses class roles so that the butler Crichton become lord over his marooned employers. But DeMille and Macpherson felt the need to add a backstory inspired by a poem, to indicate that in fact this reversal was actually in some way a restoration of a natural hierarchy from a centuries-old past life. This was DeMille's first excursion into the rough historical period in which his Biblical epics took place.

I think it's worth noting that DeMille was no model of marital fidelity, unlike his faithful wife Contance. Their adopted son Richard's memoir My Secret Mother: Lorna Moon goes into more detail about DeMille's romantic life both inside and outside his marriage than I've seen in other sources.

Marilyn said...

I think, in essence, DeMille was a Victorian. He spent the first 20 years of his life with Victoria on the throne, and certainly, his parents would have been strong Victorians.

Looking closer into DeMille's life reveals that the plot of The Golden Chance came in part from his own life. From Charles Higham's biography of DeMille:

"[Cecil's] friendship with Constance [whom he met in an acting troupe he joined after graduation] developed into a romance, and on the last day of 1900, sitting in a bleak wind on the steps of a Boston boardinghouse, Cecil proposed, and was accepted. Her father, Judge Adams of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, opposed the match; he had set his sights higher than a struggling young actor. But Cecil obtained a flow of work in Frohman productions, and his powers of persuasion, developed in debates at Pennsylvania Military College, were considerable. On August 16, 1902, at the Adams family home at Orange, New Jersey, the couple were married in the Episcopal faith."

The newspaper that reveals Mary's scandalous marriage was from Pompton (now Pompton Lakes), New Jersey, where the DeMilles actually lived.

Brian said...

Oh, that's great. And I believe (not 100% sure of this) it's completely unmentioned in the sources I've read. I have not looked at the Higham book. Does he make the biographical link to the Golden Chance or is that your own?

If the Golden Chance is more autobiographical than other DeMille films, it may answer the question Birchard poses in his book: why did he choose this film to be remade? Other remakes in DeMille's filmography have an obvious motivation: the Squaw Man was his first and, depending on how one calculates, most profitable film by the time he decided to remake it in 1918. It was a logical choice to be his first talkie remake for the same reasons. It also made financial sense to remake the Ten Commandments as it had been his highest-grossing silent film. Birchard implies that the Golden Chance (which was a hit, but a more modest one than many DeMille films of its era) must have been singled out for its quality. But your comment suggests it may have had a special place in his memory for other reasons. I wonder if the remake, Forbidden Fruit, contains some of the same biographical details?

As I recall, Richard de Mille in his memoir calls his adoptive father an Edwardian, and his adopted mother a Victorian. Whatever that means (I have a vague idea of what it means for houses, but not for ideas about class and marital fidelity).

Marilyn said...

I think your supposition makes sense, though I don't recall a connection being made between the original and the remake.

There were no substantial differences between Victorian and Edwardian morals. Certainly, adultery was frowned up, as it is today, but widely practiced.

Cecil wasn't adopted, as far as I know.

Brian said...

No, Richard was adopted by Cecil and Constance; my wording unclear there, sorry.