Monday, January 19, 2015

No Sad Songs for Me (1950)

Director: Rudolph Maté                              Writer: Howard Koch
Film Score: George Duning                       Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Starring: Margaret Sullavan, Wendell Corey, Natalie Wood and John McIntire

Though this is a heart-breaking premise in any era, it is unfortunately all too common today. But in the fifties this was the kind of story that was gaining traction, the kind of thing that was causing conflict amid the suburban perfection of the post-war era. No Sad Songs for Me is the kind of film that Douglas Sirk would begin to make in earnest during that decade. Ironically, Sirk had left Columbia the previous year to return to Germany, and came back a year later to sign a contract with Universal where he made his most well-known films. Rudolph Maté, on the other hand, had only been recently promoted from cameraman to director at Columbia and helmed this tearjerker with a steady hand. Though the trailer for the picture proclaims in large block letters that this was the first time the idea had been filmed, a similar story had been done in a less domestic way before, with Bette Davis at Warner Brothers in 1939 with Dark Victory. Here the setting is updated to modern day Los Angeles and with the family already in place. What’s unique is bringing in the idea of adultery, the only other real crisis in suburbia, and weaving that together with the primary storyline. Miraculously, the usually ham-fisted composer George Duning was the only person to earn an Academy Award nod for his, frankly, rather generic romantic score.

The story begins at the home of Margaret Sullavan, her husband Wendell Corey, and their daughter Natalie Wood. Everyone is excited because Sullavan believes she is pregnant and is going to the doctor for conformation that day. Meanwhile Corey is in the middle of a bit development project and is set to make a ton of money when it’s completed. But when Sullavan goes to see the doctor, John McIntire, he has worse news than the fact she can’t conceive. He tries to hide it from her, but she comes back into his office and demands the truth: she has cancer and only a few months left to live. These were still the days when doctors used to keep that kind of news from the patient, letting the family know but allowing the patients to live in ignorance in the assumption it would make their lives happier. That idea has gone by the wayside since then and, in fact, in the opposite direction. Films like My Life Without Me and the Showtime series The Big C show doctors who are now only allowed to tell the patients, and patients who keep the news to themselves so that they really can enjoy their remaining time without being drowned in pity and patronization. Sullavan gets the news in the late fall, at the same time Corey hires a female draftsman, Viveca Lindfors, to help him complete his project before his spring deadline.

As Sullavan’s constitution gradually weakens, Corey begins to spend more time with Lindfors and feels increasingly guilty about it. But it’s not until Sullavan visits her father in San Francisco and sees an old friend, Harlan Warde--who has lost his wife and is dating a real shrew--that she realizes she needs to engineer a relationship between Corey and Lindfors for when she’s gone. While Margaret Sullavan was extremely popular in the forties at MGM, she had a relatively brief career, appearing in only sixteen films and preferring the stage to the screen. This was her last film before retiring, and she demonstrates why she was so popular. Though not a traditional Hollywood beauty, she exudes strength and, if anything, her performance here is more subtle than in her forties work. Wendell Corey is terrific to see, appearing in only a few dozen films in the late forties and early fifties, before working primarily in television for the remainder of his career. The picture is also notable for the appearance of a young Natalie Wood in her twelfth film. Then there is Viveca Lindfors, a Swedish actress in the mold of Ingrid Bergman. After making several films in Sweden during the war she signed a contract with Warner Brothers and made this film on loan to Columbia.

The film received generally positive reviews on its release, especially for Margaret Sullavan’s performance. But Howard Koch’s lucid screenplay also came in for praise. Koch was, of course, instrumental in the synthesis of the screenplay for Casablanca as well as a number of other great Warner Brothers pictures, and was another tragedy of the communist witch-hunts and blacklisted shortly after this film was made. The other actors of note in the film are Jeanette Nolan, who got her start with Orson Welles and was appearing here in only her fourth film, and Ann Doran as one of Sullavan’s friends. Finally, the great John McIntire plays the family doctor and brings his patented gravitas to the role. The film is a good one, with a fascinating story line that while not so shocking today, is still wonderful to watch in the way it unfolds. No Sad Songs for Me is a vintage slice of fifties culture with enough residual forties flair to make it a terrific film, not the least for exceptional performances by Margaret Sullavan and the rest of the cast.

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