Tuesday, November 20, 2018

A Criminally Bad Comedy: Tough Guy Richard Widmark Pushes a Film Down a Flight of Stairs to Its Death

It took me a long time to catch on to the charms of Doris Day.  As a child, I found Day to be a befuddling figure.  It made no sense to me that a woman in her forties was being marketed with a squeaky clean image usually reserved for virginal adolescent girls.  But, presumably, we needed an actress to serve as America's Sweetheart and Day was the best candidate for the role at the time.  As it turned out, I was on this spinning globe for nearly six decades before I finally got around to seeing The Pajama Game  (1957) and came to appreciate the enormous talent that Day had to offer. 

My newfound love affair with Day hit a rough patch a short time ago when I witnessed the perky actress set adrift in a dreadfully distasteful 1958 sex farce called The Tunnel of Love.  Day is no doubt valiant in her effort to rise above the bad material.  And, to a degree, she succeeds.  The actress, encased in her own personal charm bubble, floats over the bloody and mutilated corpses strewn far and wide across the charred and pock-marked landscape of this woefully misbegotten project.  Blame her leading man, Richard Widmark.  Blame her director, Gene Kelly.  But you can't blame the ever-radiant, ever-smiling Day.

The Tunnel of Love
was shunned by Day's fans upon its release and remains a disreputable work today.  TCM recently followed a broadcast of the film with a host explaining the widespread dislike for the film.  It was as if they had just shown you the film so you could see for yourself how bad it was.  Tom Santopietro, author of "Considering Doris Day,' wrote, "One key question remains at the end of the film: Why did anyone involved want to make this movie? Doris Day, Richard Widmark, and Gene Kelly, were all at the height of their powers in 1958 and surely had their pick of dozens of possible properties."

The film was based on a 1949 novel by Peter De Vries.  In the novel, Augie and Isolde Poole want to have a child, but their efforts to get Isolde pregnant have failed.  In desperation, the couple turn to the Rock-a-Bye adoption agency for a baby.  In the meantime, Augie has an affair with Cornelia Bly, who ends up getting pregnant.  Bly doesn't want to keep the baby, which is good news to Augie.  He urges the woman to bring the baby to Rock-a-Bye, which will give him and his wife the opportunity to apply for the baby's adoption.  This way, he can take his own child into his home without having to tell his wife about his affair.  His scheme goes as planned and the couple take the baby home.  But the baby possesses a conspicuous resemblance to Augie.  Isolde, who is already mistrustful of her sneaky husband, grows suspicious of the baby's heredity. 

The book is narrated by Augie's best friend, Dick.  Dick does his best to downplay Augie's adultery.  He says:
Well, if he hadn’t sinned on the scale he did the chances are he wouldn’t have reformed on the scale he did.  Think of Augie —this will help — as a kind of Everyman, combining the good and bad in us.  Remember that if it weren’t for babies born illegitimately there wouldn’t be any for the salt of the earth to adopt.  Augie was just his own source of supply.
Isolde throws Augie out when she learns of his infidelity, but she reconciles with him weeks later when she finds out that she's pregnant.  Dick explains:
As everyone knows, childless women often become pregnant after adopting an infant. The experience of maternity itself supposedly thaws out the fears and self-doubts that had previously thwarted its accomplishment. That had happened to Isolde, in only the few months’ time in which she had been a practicing mother.  She had always wanted a child at the same time that she’d feared it, and naturally the swell of emotion released by the realization of her long-hungered-for condition swept her back into a tide of feeling for her husband.  She had suspected her condition for a couple of weeks, but only today had medical reports proved it beyond a doubt. I don’t know what reconciliation scene was enacted in the Poole home that night. I can only imagine it — the tears, laughter, protestations, embraces.

The book was followed up by a stage adaptation written by De Vries and Joseph Fields.  The play merges Augie's domineering mistress, Cornelia Bly, with a second character from the book, Rock-a-Bye caseworker Mrs. Mash.  So, now, Augie has an affair with the same woman whose job it is to approve him and his wife for adoption.  That, I suppose, was meant to make the farce more farcical.  The preamble of the play provides the following plot summary:

Estelle Novick, the agency investigator, conducts an interview with Augie at his home.  Once alcohol is introduced into the meeting, Augie and Estelle become flirtatious with one another and agree to drive into town for a romantic dinner.  Wikipedia reports:
In the play, Estelle seduces Augie intentionally in order to get pregnant so that she might experience firsthand the plight of unwed mothers, the topic of her PhD thesis.
Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote:
Then along comes a lady from the adoption agency who seems to be able to inspire a good deal more philoprogenitiveness in the husband than is inspired by his wife. And the first thing he knows, it looks likely that they are going to get their wish — from the adoption agency, that is. One guess whose baby it's likely to be.  It is on this point of hot confusion that most of this verbal romp turns. . .
The story is certainly centered around Augie's adultery, but Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer wanted to eliminate the adultery from their film adaptation.  The scriptwriter, Joseph Fields, made sure that the studio got what it wanted.  Augie never has sex with Estelle in the film.  A series of plot contrivances conspire to retain the farcical complications while creating an adultery-free, but somewhat ungainly film.  The changes in the story caused the entire mess to collapse in a smutty heap.  Leaving the adultery out of The Tunnel of Love would be like leaving the Mafia out of The Godfather

Neither of the book characters that inspired the Estelle character had been attractive.  This is the way that De Vries describes the caseworker in the novel:
Mrs. Mash was a tall woman with a mouth like a mail slot and eyes the color of soy sauce.
This is his description of Cornelia:
Cornelia Bly was on the short side, shorter than I had remembered her, with her hair done — or I should say left undone—in one of those tossed salad sort of close crops. . . She wore no make-up and her finger-ends were square.
Augie tells Dick, "She doesn’t have your obvious kind of attractiveness.  A woman like that totally escapes your callow romanticist.  They wouldn’t look at her twice."

But this is Hollywood.  So, the caseworker is now played by stunning beauty Gia Scala, who has the power to turn the head of any mere mortal suburban husband.

So, how exactly did Fields get rid of the adultery?  In the film, Augie is so nervous about his interview with the adoption agency's investigator that he accepts Dick's advice to take a tranquilizer.  While driving into town with Estelle, he becomes drowsy from the pill.  Estelle checks him into a motel so that he can sleep off the pill's effect. Wikipedia reports, "The next morning, Augie is mortified to find himself in the motel and, finding a note from Estelle thanking him for his kindness, believes he has been unfaithful to Isolde."

The problem is that Fields didn't bother to rewrite the play's interview scene, which was fraught with sexual tension.  We clearly see the couple flirting and boozing it up together.  We clearly see them heading off together for a romantic evening together.  Nothing about the couple's lustful glances, promising smiles or suggestive remarks amount to an innocent misunderstanding.  This was a man and woman bound and determined to climb into bed together, which is exactly what would have happened if Augie hadn't passed out cold in the middle of their date.  But we are later expected to forget about this.  It is suggested that Estelle was just the woman being friendly and Augie was just a man too drugged up to know what he was doing.  So, Estelle seems to be seducing Augie when she really isn't and Augie believes he had sex with Estelle when he really didn't.

The film still has to have a baby and there was no way Fields could explain the baby's existence through immaculate conception.  It turns out that Estelle has a boyfriend and he is the man responsible for the baby bump that shows up later.

Other elements of the play that should have been rendered useless in the new conception of the story are presented inexplicably in the film.  When Augie first learns that Estelle is pregnant, he quickly pays her a thousand dollars to buy her silence.  We later learn from Estelle that she took the money without question because she saw the money as a friendly loan.  It's as if any man you have known for an hour would give you a thousand-dollar loan with no motive and no discussion.  So, in the sanitized film, a seduction is no longer a seduction and a payoff is no longer a payoff.  Much of the plot turns on Widmark grinning stupidly as he makes one asinine assumption after another. 

Augie is no longer the father of the baby, but the baby still bears a striking resemblance to him.  Wikipedia reports:
Thrilled, Augie and Isolde welcome the infant baby boy to their home days later, and soon everyone notices the baby's similarity to Augie. Weeks afterward, as the physical similarity grows, Isolde becomes suspicious. When Isolde has Augie's baby picture blown up and Alice mistakes it for the baby, Isolde furiously accuses Augie of infidelity and declares she is leaving him.

Crowther described Widmark "sweating as the husband" and Day "bubbling cheerily as the unsuspecting wife."  He wrote:
Is the husband to be made the legal father, by adoption, of his own illegitimate child?  And will his wife discover the deception? Quite a situation, what?  Well, it isn't quite as shocking as it is made to sound and appear.  Indeed, it boils down at the finish to a wholesome and virtuous little tale.  After flirting around the edges of that seemingly scandalous affair and giving everybody opportunity to drop shocking innuendoes, it turns out that the agency lady is secretly married all the time, the baby she has is her own husband's and the wife of our hero is finally blessed.  Nothing untoward has happened and all fits neatly into the frame of the Production Code.
Unbelievably, the mess of a script is not the most terrible thing about the film.  The film depends heavily on its leading man, Widmark, to be funny.  Widmark demonstrates, with every twist and turn of his performance, that he does not have a single microorganism of funny in his entire body.

Kelly admitted that Widmark was a big reason for the film's failure.  But he still defended his leading man.  He said:
This is no criticism of Richard Widmark, who is one of the finest film actors we have and who actually started his stage career playing light comedic parts. It's simply that the public fixes an impression of an actor, they accept him in a certain guise and they don't like him to stray too far from it. Widmark had established himself in serious material and they weren't prepared to accept him in this light, sexy part. The public creates type-casting, not the actors - unfortunately.
No, Widmark is the most awful part of this awful film. 

Fortunately, it wasn't long after I saw this film that I happened to see Miss Day again in a delightful romantic comedy, It Happened to Jane (1959).  This film was the perfect tonic for the nausea induced by The Tunnel of Love.

Reference source

Bosley Crowther, "Tunnel of Love; Widmark, Doris Day Star in Roxy Film," The New York Times (November 22, 1958).

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