Monday, August 19, 2019

The Idiot Plot in the 1940s and 1950s

The Long Dark Hall (1951) has a good cast and good production values, but its weak script has its protagonist making unbelievably dumb decisions at every turn.  This is for sure idiot plot territory, where the contrived plot is only able to move forward because a main character acts like an idiot. 


Let's examine the plot.  A married businessman Arthur Groome (Rex Harrison) goes to visit his showgirl mistress at her apartment only to find the woman stabbed to death.  He proceeds to do everything possible to make it looks as if he is the murderer.  He just passed the landlady in the hall.  He could cry out to her before he takes another step into the apartment. 

But, no, he drops to his knees and cradles the bloody corpse in arms. 

He then flees the building covered in the murder victim's blood.  Where is he fleeing to?  The landlady saw him and she knows him by name.  She even knows where he works.  Groome is terribly nervous when he arrives home and he rushes into the backyard to burn his blood-stained suit. 

When the police question him, Groome gets himself caught up in a tangle of lies.  The police even find out he burned his suit, which he tries and fails to lie about.  His lies only get him into more trouble, destroying his credibility and convincing the police that he is guilty.  Then, at the climax of the film, he climbs onto the witness stand and tells more lies.  The lies are transparent, disprovable, and futile.  But he tells them anyway.  Tim Greaves of Cinema Retro wrote, "Rex Harrison imbues the beleaguered Groome with sufficient enough self-reproach over the whole sorry business that in spite of his flawed judgement one can't help but root for him."  Not me, I stopped rooting for this idiot halfway through the film.  Stupidity at this level should be a capital offense.  When asked to name his "worst picture," Harrison replied: "My worst picture?  The Long Dark Hall would have to be near the top of the list."


Secret Beyond The Door (1948) has a definite idiot plot.  A wealthy young woman (Joan Bennett) falls hopelessly in love with a creepy architect (Michael Redgrave).  She quickly marries the man even though he is almost certainly mentally ill.  She remains devoted to the man even after she learns that he possibly murdered his first wife.  Why doesn't this woman get as far away from this man as possible?

Many films have used the same plot -  a beautiful woman is irresistibly drawn to a handsome and mysterious man and later comes to suspect that the man is out to harm her.  This plot was used to great effect in Suspicion (1941) and Gaslight (1944).  But Secret Beyond the Door's handsome and mysterious man is a troubling character from the start.


The protagonist has no sense of self-preservation in the idiot plot.  So, a man ends up on death row for a murder someone else committed.  So, a woman ends up trapped alone in a mansion with a psychotic man who is looking to murder her.

Let's now look at the plot of The Law and Jake Wade (1958).  A marshal, Jake Wade (Robert Taylor), is a well-respected citizen in Morganville, but no one in the town knows Wade is a former bank robber.  A year earlier, Wade was arrested for fatally shooting a teenage boy during a robbery.  He would have been hung if his homicidal partner, Clint Hollister (Richard Widmark), hadn't shown up with guns blazing and broken him out of jail.  Wade became a lawman to assuage his guilt about the boy's death (although it later comes out that someone else fired the fatal shot).  He now learns that Hollister is in jail in a nearby town and he figures that, to repay his debt to the badman, he must make an armed assault on the jail to free him.  Throughout the film, Wade is driven by an honor code that makes absolutely no sense and has no precedent in either history or Western drama.  The scriptwriter, William Bowers, simply made up this honor code to advance his convoluted plot. 

Wade no sooner frees Hollister then the badman shoots a sheriff and a couple of deputies.  What honor code justifies this?  Hollister isn't even grateful to Wade, who still owes him money from their last robbery.  Once he reassembles his gang, Hollister abducts Wade's fiancée Peggy (Patricia Owens) to force Wade to lead him to the stolen bank money.  Hollister wants the loot and Wade doesn't want the loot.  So, what's the conflict?  It's never explained.  Hollister terribly mistreats Wade and Peggy throughout their journey to recover the money.  Wade is worried that, once the cold-blooded Hollister has what he wants, he will murder him and Peggy.  When they reach their destination, Wade manages to get his hands on a gun and disarm Hollister.  The film should be over, right?  No, because Wade's idiotic honor code kicks in again.  Wade gives his old partner a gun so that the two of them can settle their score.  Strangely, there's nothing in Wade's honor code about assuring the safety of his fiancée or keeping himself alive.   

Nunnally Johnson, who wrote The Long Dark Hall, also wrote Casanova Brown (1944).  Casanova Brown is a rare film in which the lead characters remain charming and sympathetic despite their nonsensical decisions.  The film achieves, in its own bizarre way, a delightful idiocy.  Don't ask me to explain this, because I'm not sure that I can.  It could have something to do with the filmmakers' dedication to the silly premise (as Travis Lytle of Letterboxd has suggested) or it could be that the film's engaging cast simply outshines the material.  But, no, there's more to it than that. 

The opening scene has shy English teacher Casanova Brown (Gary Cooper) asking Mr. Ferris (Frank Morgan) for permission to marry his daughter Madge (Anita Louise).  Mr. Ferris spends the next few minutes trying to convince Casanova that his daughter is far too much like her mother and she is bound to make him as miserable as her mother has made him.  That's an interesting twist.  But Mr. Ferris' words are wasted on Casanova.  The Lord could write upon a tablet that Casanova should avoid marrying Madge and this foolish man would go forward with the marriage anyway.  Love conquers all, including all reason. 

Morgan steals the scene, as he steals most of his scenes in the film.  The actor manages, in his wonderfully blustery performance, to convey a great fatherly affection for Cooper's well-meaning but clueless character.  This brings the scene a warmth that underlies the comedy.  The fact that the scene takes this offbeat but warm-hearted turn sets up the twists and turns that are to follow. 

The film's unparalleled silliness really starts with a flashback scene.  It turns out that Casanova was married once before.  He married Isabel (Teresa Wright) at the end of a whirlwind courtship.  Casanova and Isabel arrive at a lavish estate to break the news of their marriage to Isabel's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Drury (Edmund Breon and Patricia Collinge).  The butler advises Casanova to get rid of his cigarette as Mrs. Drury dislikes smoking.  Casanova snuffs out the cigarette in a handkerchief, wads up the cigarette in the handkerchief, and stuffs the handkerchief into his pocket.  A simple problem and a simple solution.  But, then, a stream of smoke suddenly rises out of his pocket.  The cigarette is still burning and it quickly starts the jacket on fire.  Casanova frantically removes the jacket and beats it against a chair to extinguish the flames.  But the chair catches fire, then the curtains catch fire, and soon the entire home catches fire.  The Drury home is ultimately reduced to a smokey ruins.  Isabel's parents are so distraught that they immediately have the marriage annulled. 


The night before he is set to marry Madge, Casanova is shocked to learn that Isabel is about to give birth to a child they conceived during their honeymoon.  Even more shocking, she plans to give up the child for adoption.  Casanova falls in love with his baby girl the moment he sets his eyes on her in the maternity ward. 

He is so desperate to prevent the baby's adoption that he disguises as a doctor and abducts the baby.  It's not a reasonable move on his part, but he has to act quickly if he doesn't want to lose his cherished daughter forever.  He hides out with the baby at a hotel, where he is aided at every turn by a devoted hotel maid and a dim-witted hotel doorman. 

An IMDb reviewer, secondtake, partly attributes the film's appeal to its moments of "surreal strangeness."  Those moments are certainly in abundance.  My favorite?  Casanova, neurotically fearful of passing germs to the baby, insists on wearing a medical face-mask while caring for the baby.  It's a silly thing to do, but it's also a loving thing to do.  Love buoys the story above the sea of silliness. 

Do we have the right to call a loving father an idiot?
Travis Lytle of Letterboxd understands the film perfectly.  He wrote: ". . . Casanova Brown takes its happily tangled premise and provides both guffaws and eyerolls.  The film is not nearly 'the greatest romantic comedy of all time' as its one-sheet trumpets, but is a well-acted, light-weight, and fun piece of work. . . [Brown] dives headlong into comic mayhem.  The premise may seem ridiculous, but it sets the foundation for effective humor and some moving moments."

Reference sources

Tim Greaves, "Review: The Long Dark Hall," Cinema Retro.;-UK-DVD-RELEASE.html.

Travis Lytle, "Casanova Brown," Letterboxd (September 4, 2014).

John Reid, These Movies Won No Hollywood Awards, Morrisville, NC: LuLu Press (November 6, 2005).

No comments:

Post a Comment