Wednesday, May 19, 2004

George Wells

Watched two movies the other day, Designing Woman (1957) and Where the Boys Are (1960). I rented them together because they're connected by the writer, George Wells, a longtime MGM staff writer who, oddly enough, came into his own at the studio only after the studio system fell apart and MGM lost its position as the most-successful studio. I suppose that with the decline of the studio system, those writers who remained under contract to one studio, like Wells, started to get bigger assignments.

So Wells' script for Designing Woman was a step up from the B-comedies and second-level musicals he'd mostly been doing up until then; this was a full-blown prestige picture, produced by the studio's exiting head of production, Dore Schary and directed by the A-list director, Vincente Minnelli. It's not a great comedy, due in part to pacing problems (as I mentioned below, Minnelli doesn't do fast and snappy, which is what this script really calls for) and in part to miscasting (Gregory Peck and Dolores Gray in roles that were written for Jimmy Stewart and Cyd Charisse, respectively). But Wells' script, which won an Academy Award, is one of the better original comedy scripts of the time. In essence it's a silly story, a thin culture-clash situation -- sportswriter marries fashion designer, and his world of Runyonesque characters clashes with her world of glamour and ambiguous sexuality (including the great choreographer Jack Cole as a choreographer who, in a very strange scene, produces a picture of his wife and three sons to prove his straight bona fides). But it's filled out with all kinds of devices meant to make it seem like a sophisticated comedy of manners, most obviously an elaborate system of voice-over narration: almost every character gets to do voice-over narration and every scene contains pauses during which some character, on the soundtrack, fills us in on his or her opinion of what's going on. It's a style of writing that would be common in MGM movies of this period but especially so in Wells' scripts; it's what I call "literate stupidity" -- the use of devices meant to seem "literate" or "sophisticated" in the context of a story that's basically a dopey comedy or melodrama. Perhaps influenced by Schary, who wanted MGM to be the sophisticated studio, George Wells and MGM comedies in general got into this kind of thing, putting in overly elaborate or literate dialogue that was out of synch with the nature of the film itself.

Where the Boys Are, written for longtime schmaltz authority Joe Pasternak (we can, er, credit him with discovering Kathryn Grayson, Deanna Durbin, Mario Lanza, and even a few people who didn't sing), is the same way, except the attempts at literacy are even weirder in the context of what is essentially the first mainstream teen beach comedy. (Not to mention the film that introduced the term "making out" to a mainstream cinema audience.) There are a lot of speeches that are too dumb to be sophisticated but too sophisticated to have the kind of camp appeal that dialogue in a movie like this ought to have. If you're going to make a movie like this, all that comedy-of-ideas dialogue is not a good fit. But it does give rise to one of my favourite speeches in an otherwise so-so movie, from the Fort Lauterdale chief of police (Chill Wills):

Gentlemen, the city of Fort Lauderdale is once again under fire from the north. We've survived it before and I reckon we're gonna survive it again. To you newly installed officers on the force, I'd to give you a little rundown on what to expect. Expect anything. Anything and everything cause that's what you're gonna get. Now, Fort Lauderdale is not the only city to be invaded at this time. In Palm Springs and in Newport, from the beaches of the Mid Atlantic to the snows of Colorado, the students of America are gathering to celebrate the rites of spring. And, if you pardon a pun, they've got that right. They're our future voters, their citizens of our country, and they're our responsibility. But how the hell to handle them, that's a different manner. Now, these kids didn't come down here to break the law. They'll break it for sure, but that's not their main objective. And remember that they are our guests. So, I want every man on the force to try his best, his level best, to try to avoid arresting anyone. I know that this going to take great will power but try. And, above all preserve your scene of humor. Cause you're gonna need it if you want to survive. And God bless you all.

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