Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Opposite Sex 1956

The Opposite Sex is MGM’s 1956 misguided musical remake of their ‘39 classic, The Women. The re-told comic tale of a catty circle of women and their marital misadventures, though slightly tweaked, is basically the same. The major differences are that MGM decided to add music and men to the recipe—and the resulting concoction is one flat cinematic cake.

Yes, these dolls like to get the dish!
I don’t have a problem with remakes per se. But they are often Hollywood’s way to make a quick buck, and remakes rarely improve upon the original. MGM was on a remake rampage during postwar Hollywood, when studios were devastated after they were forced to divest themselves of their theaters and especially, by the competition of television. The fact that studios were slow to change with post-war audience tastes didn’t help, either. Especially, MGM, who seemed intent on remaking their entire film library—they just added color, widescreen, and zero creativity.
The big confrontation in 'The Opposite Sex.'

After leaving MGM in ’53, June Allyson had a good run of playing noble wives to Jimmy Stewart, William Holden, Alan Ladd, Cornell Wilde, etc. Then she came back to MGM in ‘56 to film The Opposite Sex, to play Norma Shearer’s role of the long-suffering wife. June should have heeded fellow former MGM star Joan Crawford’s mistake, in returning to her alma mater to film Torch Song!

June Allyson as the good wife in this remake of 'The Women.'

Speaking of remakes, June Allyson herself appeared in three in a row. In 1956, Allyson headlined The Opposite Sex, a musical remake of MGM’s The Women. The same year, June appeared opposite Jack Lemmon in You Can’t Run Away From It, a musical remake of Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. Finally, in ’57, June took over Carole Lombard’s most famous role as the scatterbrained society girl in My Man Godfrey, opposite David Niven. Amazingly, this wasn’t a musical remake! This tepid trio, plus a few ill-advised attempts at heavy drama pretty much demolished Allyson’s film career. June, who was pushing 40 during this time, had already outlasted many contemporaries, and soon got her audience back on television.

Ann Sheridan was already past 40 when she appeared in The Opposite Sex. As the writer who acerbically notes the society women’s shenanigans, the role captures Sheridan’s no-nonsense side. However, “Amanda” doesn’t possess Sheridan’s sassy good humor that made her renowned in the ‘40s as the “Oomph Girl.” And since The Opposite Sex doesn’t play to most of this great cast’s strengths, this movie lacks oomph, as well.

Joan Blondell as the always pregnant Edith and Dolores Gray's gossip Sylvia.
Joan Blondell plays Edith Potter, the always pregnant pal with a platoon of kids. Blondell is a bright spot in any movie, but here, she’s 50 and looks it, and not particularly believable as a 30-something society woman.
Ann Miller, who plays the sassy Paulette Goddard role, doesn’t get to sing and dance in this musical—okayyy… Annie’s big scene is the catfight at the Reno divorce ranch, and then she’s on the sidelines for the movie’s remainder. The Opposite Sex and The Great American Pastime, a minor league comedy about Little League baseball, ended Miller’s contract at MGM.
Agnes Moorehead, MGM’s great character actress, plays a surprisingly more straightforward version of the Duchess role, played to the hilt by Mary Boland in ‘39. Though Moorehead’s contract ended with Metro in ’51 after Showboat, she freelanced with the studio for another 15 years. In the ‘60s, Agnes gained a whole new audience on television as Endora, the witchy mother-in-law on Bewitched.

Delores Gray as Sylvia Fowler.
RuPaul as the opposite sex!

Dolores Gray plays the showy role of Sylvia Fowler, the cattiest of the characters. One of those “big” Broadway personalities who didn’t fare well in Hollywood, Gray gives her all, but comes off preening like RuPaul. The fact that Dolores always looked like she just sucked on a lemon didn’t help her screen image, either. Gray’s short-term contract with MGM ended the next year with Designing Woman, yet another Metro remake, of the fabled Tracy-Hepburn comedy, Woman of the Year.
In a cast of mature actresses, there’s 23-year-old Joan Collins as Crystal Allen. The husband-stealing vixen role had helped Joan Crawford regain her footing at Metro back in ’39. Collins, once called “the poor man’s Elizabeth Taylor,” certainly is dolled up at Taylor’s home studio to look as much like Elizabeth as possible. Yet, as soon as Collins opens her mouth, the effect is ruined. Joan’s attempt at an American accent, to hide her British accent, gives her slightly nasal voice an artificial tone. Joan’s way with brittle bitchy humor is evident even here, but there’s none of the conviction or empathy that is the mark of a great star, like Joan Crawford or Elizabeth Taylor. Though she’s occasionally amusing, there’s no reason to care about Collins’ Crystal. Joan comes off as cartoonish and flat as she previously did in The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, Fox’s greatest effort to make her a star. Collins never looked better on film, but great movie careers aren’t built on looking like another star, as many ‘50s Marilyn imitators can attest.
Don’t get me wrong. While the cast of The Opposite Sex doesn’t have the pedigree of Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Rosalind Russell, they are all stellar stars in their own right. But I can’t help but feeling that this movie must have seemed dated even in 1956, when so many stars in this cast were already considered past their sell by date.

MGM was selling 'The Opposite Sex' as hot stuff when the cast was actually past their sell by date by 1956.

Collins' Alexis and Evans' Krystal faking it on 'Dynasty!'

Side note to Dynasty fans: Joan Collins hated those Alexis/Krystal “catfight” scenes and stuntmen were routinely used. The Opposite Sex may just be why Joan hates fight scenes. When June’s wife confronts Joan’s homewrecker, the scene culminates in a slap. Apparently, director David Miller told June to not pull her punches and really slap Joan. He then told Collins that Allyson would stop just before connecting. Well, 5’1” June was a powerhouse, because she wallops Joan so hard that Collins’ earring goes flying. Joan was not happy.

Allyson slaps Joan's Crystal Allen for real in 'The Opposite Sex.' Note that Collin's earring goes flying!

For a musical, The Opposite Sex’ songs are utterly awful. Except for “The Young Man with a Horn,” a June Allyson hit reprised from Two Girls and a Sailor a dozen years before, the “original songs” feel anything but. They are mostly mock show tunes are right up there with Valley of the Dolls in the cringe-worthy department.
June's jumpsuit musical number, tastefully color-coordinated!
Was Jack June's fashion inspiration here?

June Allyson as a singer is an acquired taste. If you enjoy her raspy, flat singing, you’re in for a treat. If not, you might puzzle over June Allyson singing about needing sex “Now, Baby, Now,” dressed in a blue jumpsuit that makes her resemble Mrs. Jack LaLanne. Most odd is a teary ballad, sandwiched between her sandpapery-voiced, swingin’ numbers. June lip synchs badly to a Doris Day-type singer named Jo Ann Greer, in a key dramatic moment—so obviously not her. At least it wasn’t India Adams, Joan Crawford’s dramatic dubber from Torch Song!

Dick Shawn and his dolls putting over the title musical number.
Dick Shawn, an insufferable Broadway comedian, sings the movie’s title number as a psychiatrist’s patient—which seems especially apt for this film. Shawn’s hung up on beautiful women, yowling about them, and makes like Jerry Lewis in over-aged juvenile mode. The women he dreams about end up on the office’s fire place mantel, gyrating along. And Jim Backus is the shrink, treating us to a few Mr. Magoo mannerisms to emphasize Dick’s horniness. 

Joan Collins' bananas musical number!
“Yellow Gold (The Banana Song)” features some calypso singing guy, along with Joan Collins and Morticia Addams herself, Carolyn Jones, in dark makeup as tropical island beauties. At least these gals makeup looks closer to the “Light Egyptian” makeup MGM created for Lena Horne than the “Mocha Mommie” look that Joan Crawford sported in her camp classic number “Two-Faced Woman.”

Aside from the mind-numbing musical numbers, there’s other big difference in The Opposite Sex from The Women. The much-talked about men are actually seen and not just talked about. However, when the only two male characters that even register are Leslie Nielson as Allyson’s straying hubby and Jeff Richards as singing cowboy Buck Winston, you wonder why the screenwriters even bothered.

Aside from the “improvements,” the big problem is that this movie feels 100 percent artificial and from a past era. Except for establishing shots in NYC, everything is shot on a sound stage and looks like it.
Is Leslie Nielsen calling his agent?

Another pet peeve: Why are most of MGM’s sets in their ‘50s and early ‘60s comedies and dramas seem to be visions of pale pink and blue? Their watercolor-like Metro Color only emphasizes the baby nursery color palette.

The Helen Rose costumes are so over the top that they range from drag queen-friendly to flat out fug-llly. The movie’s color schemes try hard to be “modern” but also suggest the influence of director Vincente Minnelli’s renowned use of unusual color combos. Here, in lesser hands, they just look nausea-inducing, especially in the musical numbers: hot pink costumes surrounded by bananas; June’s powder blue jumpsuit surrounded by purple bass instruments and aqua stage curtains; and the casts’ rainbow connection costumes whenever they come together in a group scene.
A rainbow connection of MGM fashion...and Buck Winston, too!

The Opposite Sex is still watchable for star-gazing, but there’s also something sad here, knowing that this cast was on their way out as top Hollywood movie stars. Even young Joan Collins had to wait another 25 years before TV’s Dynasty finally made her a star.  The only thing sadder was another remake of The Women in 2008. This version featured the same mixed bag type of stars as The Opposite Sex. Murphy Brown’s Diane English’s attempt to update the original story was even more misguided than the ’56 version, with most of its wit and vitality stripped away.

Joan Collins getting the Taylor treatment at home girl Liz' studio MGM.

Here’s a recap for all these women: 1939’s The Women is a must-see; ‘56’s The Opposite Sex is a musty maybe, and ‘08’s The Women is a must-avoid!
The cast of 'The Opposite Sex' pose on their leaning boards to keep their Helen Rose gowns wrinkle-free!

Thursday, December 7, 2017

'Torch Song' 1953

1953’s Torch Song is when Joan Crawford crossed the line from mature to caricature.

Before there was Cher or Madonna, Joan Crawford was the original Queen of Reinvention. By 1953, Crawford had survived “silents” turning into “talkies,” getting labeled box office poison in ‘37, leaving MGM in ’43 after nearly two decades, and now, ending her contract with WB in ‘52. And that was just her professional life! Crawford’s first film as a freelancer was Sudden Fear, which became a sleeper hit, and nabbed her third Oscar nomination.
Joan poses for a glamour shot.

Next up was Torch Song, the closest Joan Crawford ever got to make like Margo Channing in All About Eve. Joan played Jenny Stewart, the Broadway musical legend who walks all over anybody within range of her ankle strap heels.
Whether you believe Joan was born in 1903 or her official birth date in ‘08, at 45 or 50—or anywhere in between—she was still in great shape. A forerunner to the buff stars of today, Crawford was trim, taut, and her legs looked like they could crack coconuts.

MGM’s promotion heralded yet another “new Joan Crawford!” However, like many great film stars, Joan Crawford was a study of fascinating contradictions. Though famous for reinventing herself, Crawford had fallen into the star trap, stuck in past styles and personas, all in an effort to remain “ageless.” Shoulder pads, ankle strap shoes, magic marker eyebrows, and grand acting in overwrought vehicles got Crawford gradually labeled passé. Joan occasionally toned down her style or tried something new, but Crawford’s comfort zone toward overstatement would eventually overrule. Like many studio system stars, few had genuine good taste, and Crawford came off best when she heeded her stylists’ or designers’ advice.

Joan agreed to candid shots by Sanford Roth on the set.
MGM’s publicity machine and the press got all mushy about Joan’s return “home.” Joan, at least publicly, did the same. However, MGM in 1953 was very different from the magnificent Metro studio Crawford had left a decade before. Studio head “Papa” Louis B. Mayer was gone. Few of Crawford’s contemporaries were still there, and many of the next generation stars, who came after Joan, were now slowly on their way out.
Joan’s return engagement, Torch Song, was in reality, a B+ picture. Musical dramas were all the rage in the first half of the ‘50s. With a Song in My Heart and three that were made at MGM: Interrupted Melody, Love Me or Leave Me, and I’ll Cry Tomorrow. They all had bigger budgets, better stories, and the best box office returns, whereas Torch Song was filmed in a mere 24 days. Bette Davis had recently played a theatrical star in All About Eve, for Crawford’s old MGM producer Joseph Mankiewicz, in just over three weeks, too. The difference? Bette was part of an ensemble in Eve, whereas Joan was the whole show in Torch Song.
When Joan Crawford was young and eager to learn, her best work was often in ensemble pieces with actors and directors she admired—Grand Hotel, Dancing Lady, The Shining Hour, The Women, and A Woman’s Face. After her Mildred Pierce comeback at Warner’s, Crawford went from Humoresque, Daisy Kenyon, and Possessed to movies that veered into vanity vehicles.
Closest Joan Crawford got to 'Eternity': 'Autumn Leaves' in '56.

Sadly, Joan turned down a chance to star in From Here to Eternity during this time, in the part Deborah Kerr ultimately played. Rumor has it Joan rejected Eternity over wardrobe issues. Though Joan was at least a dozen years older than Kerr, she was fairly close to Burt Lancaster’s age. Crawford might have made a touching Karin Holmes, tough on the outside, vulnerable deep down—right up her acting alley. Though Fred Zinneman started at MGM, he was a modern filmmaker, and not the man to cajole Crawford into dropping her act, and get her to genuinely act. Still, Joan did get a chance to roll around the surf with a leading man a few years later, a young Cliff Robertson, in Autumn Leaves. What a pity that Joan’s tunnel vision caused her to reject a juicy role from the year’s biggest best-seller.
Joan gets gorgeous for 'Torch Song.' My advice for Crawford would have been ditch that carrot-colored wig on the right
Though Joan put on her best game face for Torch Song, I don’t think that Crawford had cosmetic surgery on her face and bosom for this minor film, as rumored. I think Joan just pulled back the skin tapes, slapped that orange wig over them, put a pair of her fabled falsies in a bullet bra, and soldiered on. What resulted was typical of Joan Crawford’s latter day work: fans and friendly press marveled over her ageless glamour, great figure, and larger than life persona; non-fans and more discerning showbiz writers wondered how much longer Crawford’s cinematic self-belief could carry her.

A portrait of Joan...and Michael Wilding.
Torch Song’s story is as slim as the star’s sleek figure: Broadway legend Jenny Stewart is in the throes of mounting a new show; her way of working is to throw tantrums and insist everything be done her way. The diva wears everyone down as she changes choreography, dialogue, costumes, and co-workers… enter blind pianist Tye Graham, who refuses to kowtow to Crawford’s go-for-the-jugular Jenny.

Critics of Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest claim that Joan’s adopted daughter recycled aspects of Crawford’s latter day bitch roles for her tell-all tome. I think the exact opposite is true. Hollywood studios were notorious for blurring their stars’ personal lives and onscreen roles. Especially MGM divas like Joan, Judy, Lana, and Liz, who often played roles—usually in late career—that echoed their own lives.
Christina Crawford gives her mother a foot massage in this 'candid' shot, after one of Joan's dance numbers in 'Torch Song.'

Joan Crawford’s on-screen "star" is so tough and autocratic, and obviously based on the latter day JC herself. I find it fascinating Crawford agreed to come back to her home studio, after a decade away, for this unflattering portrait of Joan. For such a formula Joan Crawford picture, there's so much subtext going on that the surface story is superfluous. 

Joan Crawford with her loyal fans. In 'Torch Song,' they are played by teens!
Torch Song is a prime example of the superstar as self-parody. Joan used her personal life to publicize her career, and specifically, to bolster this film: Crawford’s tough climb to the top, perfectionist ways, tantrum throwing temper, boyfriends as accessories, freeloading family, fawning fan love, and overall lonely way of life. There’s a telling scene toward the end of Torch Song: The pissed off pianist predicts that if Jenny doesn’t change her witchy ways, she’ll end up alone, a boozy self-parody of her former superstar self.

Chuck Walters, a reliable MGM studio hand, was chosen to guide Crawford through her turn as a Broadway singing and dancing diva. In Crawford’s memoir Portrait of Joan, she commented on the challenge of “all the singing and dancing” in Torch Song, after all those years. Joan started out as a Charleston queen, sang and danced a little in a few of her 1930s films, and was humored by Mayer in an attempt at a singing career—but the fact is Crawford hadn’t done either since the late ‘30s. While Crawford was graceful and had great energy in her youth, Joan wasn’t a professional dancer. And though the songs warbled by Joan during her Metro years were serviceable, after hearing her rejected vocals for Torch Song, I suspect she got a lot of help from the recording studio gurus. On one YouTube clip, with Crawford’s raw vocals dubbed back in, Joan begins pleasantly, but is unable to sustain singing more than a line or two. By the end of the series of takes, Crawford’s confidence is as wobbly as her vocals.
Crawford in Technicolor for the first time... not quite.

India Adams was brought in. The singer had already dubbed the track Two Faced Woman for Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon, never used, and it was recycled in Torch Song. So, Adams dubbed the remainder of Crawford’s musical cuts. Unfortunately, though throaty Adams’ voice was as dramatic as Crawford’s studied “MGM English,” their voices don’t even sound remotely alike. The disembodied vocals boom out of Joan’s mouth to comic effect, much like silent star Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain.

Marjorie Rambeau manages to steal the three scenes she's in 'Torch Song!'
Torch Song gave Joan a great supporting cast: Michael Wilding as Tye Graham, the blind pianist and Joan’s sparring partner; Harry Morgan as the seen-it-all producer; Marjorie Rambeau as Joan’s working-class mother; Gig Young as her boozy boy toy; and Maidie Norman as Crawford’s gal Friday (who later played Joan’s housekeeper Elvira in Baby Jane). Aside from Wilding’s philosophizing pianist, the rest of the characters just disappear, after a scene or two with Joan. Wilding, though his faraway gaze and lofty sentiments reminded me of mystical Tyrone Power in The Razor’s Edge, he’s soothing in contrast to Crawford’s relentless carping. However, Marjorie Rambeau is the real scene stealer here. With only three scenes, Rambeau somehow snagged a best supporting actress Oscar nomination. Majorie has some great moments as Joan’s lower class mama, as when she laments the lack of hops in beer and salt on pretzels! Nancy Gates, as Joan’s “kid sister,” is right up there with Mimi Rogers as Barbra Streisand’s baby sis in The Mirror Has Had Two Face Lifts. Gates was 27 at the time, as the younger sibling in need of cash from her big sister, for piano lessons—with Joan at least 45 here.

Joan is a 'Torch-Faced Woman' in this infamous number.
Surprisingly, there’s only one full musical number in Torch Song, and it’s become infamous. “Two-Faced Woman” showcases Joan as she swans around a sea of singers and dancers, not doing much real dancing, and lip-synching to Adams’ near-operatic vocals. Decked out in a mink stole and aqua blue spangles and fluff, Joan tops the tacky look off with a black face and wig. In That’s Entertainment 3, Debbie Reynolds’ narration discreetly describes Crawford’s makeup as “tropical.” In Joan’s memoirs, Crawford called the makeup “high yellow.” Movie fans have called it high camp. 

Lena Horne in her 'Light Egyptian' makeup as a MGM star.
Some film folk claim it’s the same makeup created for fellow Metro star Lena Horne. Horne never appeared in such a dark hue on film, whereas Joan looked like she fell asleep while eating a bag of Hershey bars. If the number was deleted, as some say it should be, there would be NO song and dance numbers in this musical, save for Joan’s sashaying in the film’s opening, and one song sung by Joan while leaning against a wall. Just as insulting as the blackface are the many digs Joan’s Jenny takes toward the pianist’s blindness, as if it’s a character defect. The low point comes when Jenny glares at his dog and snarks that Tye needs a nice seeing-eye girl.

When Tye Stewart heatedly argues over Jenny’s single-minded drive for stardom, he refers to her youthful self as a Gypsy Madonna. Later, that phrase comes up in a heart to heart with Mom, and she digs up Joan/Jenny’s first scrapbook of clips. Lo and behold, before Tye went off to war and lost his eyesight in battle, he saw Jenny when she was first making it big in showbiz, and wrote a love letter of a review. Yes, that’s World War Two we’re talking about! Time is subjective in a Joan Crawford movie.
Well, not until Bette Davis treated Joan like a soccer ball in 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?'

Crawford’s Jenny Stewart is an unrelenting shrew to just about everyone in her orbit. Yet in the final scene, when the pianist finally naps, Crawford condescendingly asks if this is finally a crack in his façade. The implication is that her prior behavior was just an act, to break through his aloofness. This makes zero sense, since it’s been established that Jenny Stewart is a bitch on wheels from the film’s first frame. Hey, this is Joan’s revisionist world, and we’re just watching. This and all the other twisted inconsistencies add up to make Torch Song the biggest camp fest this side of a Boy Scouts Jamboree.
It's lonely at the top...especially when you wear canary yellow adult "One-sies" while lounging in the bedroom!

Crawford certainly enjoyed playing this type of role, which she repeated in Queen Bee and The Best of Everything. Nearly 15 years later, when Valley of the Dolls, another show biz soap opera, was casting, Joan reportedly expressed interest in playing another battleaxe, Helen Lawson. I’m sure Joan would have been great and not the least bit deterred that the young dolls were all 20-something, because Joan would have insisted on establishing that Helen was only 47, like Straitjacket!

Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman in her spoof,  'Torchy Song.' 
Carol Burnett parodied this Crawford vehicle, hers dubbed Torchy Song. Joan previously had called Carol and praised her other take-off on Crawford, re-titled Mildred Fierce. This time, Joan was hurt by what she considered a mean-spirited spin on Torch Song. Today’s satire of pop culture is pretty merciless compared to the ‘70s, but even in its time, The Carol Burnett Show and its send ups were good natured. Burnett, a one-time usherette, was a huge movie fan, and often invited old time Hollywood stars on her show, like Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, and even Gloria Swanson, who Carol often spoofed in the silent star’s Sunset Boulevard role. I’m surprised that Crawford never guest-starred on Carol’s show, as she appeared on many variety shows, including The Tim Conway Show. As for Joan’s hurt feelings, I think it was a case of Crawford’s moods being like a weather vane, much like that notorious two-faced woman!

Torch Song is a train wreck of a film, but it is great fun for Joan Crawford fans, to watch the determined diva give her considerable all. Mainstream movie fans may want to stick with Mildred Pierce!

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Madame Bovary 1949

MGM's 1949 'Madame Bovary' is wildly erratic and highly watchable.
The Vincente Minnelli-directed 1949 version of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is fascinating, but wildly erratic, much like the heroine herself.
The huge hurdles for the movie-makers with this take on the once-scandalous novel of a French housewife are never satisfactorily resolved: telling a story that would satisfy audiences, critics—and censors; movie-making with more post-war modern realism, and less from the past era’s style; and bolstering a leading lady who lacked confidence in her acting ability.
I never realized how James Mason sounded like his own best hammy imitation!
Some critics have cited the MGM treatment of Madame Bovary as anti-Emma, claiming that the studio framed the story within the censors’ rule that movie sinners must be punished by the last reel. I disagree. There are plenty of instances in the movie that defends Emma as trapped by her role of a woman, in male-dominated society. I have not read the book, but this adaptation posits that her childish ideas of life arise from her sheltered upbringing as a small town farm girl. When Emma attempts to act on them as an adult woman, the results are tragic. Director Minnelli deserves credit for a reasonably faithful rendition of Madame Bovary, filmed in an era when studios didn’t particularly care about fidelity—to a book, at least. In case you don’t get the message that Madame Bovary is great art and not scandalous trash, there’s a prologue and an epilogue that bookends the trial, which in turn bookends the movie. The idea of portraying author Gustave Flaubert on trial, to defend the decency of MGM’s Madame Bovary, must have seemed like a brilliant idea to offset showbiz censors. However, after James Mason's sonorous speechifying at the trial, we’re treated to his pompous narration that’s so intrusive that it’s comical. You’re relieved when he finally shuts up half way through.

The eternal triangle: Madame Bovary, the suave French playboy, and Mr. Bovary, the dull doctor. Guess what happens next?

This 1949 version of Madame Bovary was one of Metro's 25th silver anniversary movies, but in reality, it was their last hurrah as Hollywood’s greatest studio. Like other MGM takes on the classics about modest folk with only proximity to wealth, the stars of Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, and Madame Bovary still wear improbably lavish costumes and live in “cozy” luxury. Jennifer Jones sports gowns by Walter Plunkett, famed for his Scarlett O’Hara designs for David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind. Director Minnelli, despite his own love of glamour, at least attempted to give Emma's rustic life some genteel grit, but was thwarted by MGM.
Just a simple French farm girl making an omelette for the visiting doctor.!
In her first scene, when Emma is cooking breakfast, I burst out laughing. After a stormy night with rain seeping into the country kitchen, there is Jones as Emma, looking utterly pristine. Emma’s morning wear is a gigantic gown, with a huge decorative rose, as she delicately makes an omelette for visiting doctor Charles Bovary (Van Heflin.)
So it goes, with each scene, as Jones swans around in a gown or cape even more lavish and absurd than the last. How much more dramatic would it have been if Emma actually dressed like a country doctor’s wife, and finally gets to fulfill her dream at the Marquis’ ball, swathed in her soiree-stopping, snowy white confection.
Emma is encouraged to live large by the sinister shopkeeper!
Madame Bovary is one of those studio system era movies that are a mish mash of accents—American, British, and one actual Frenchman! Van Heflin is sympathetic as Charles Bovary, the benign and bewildered husband, though he is directed to play the drunken hubby at the ball very broadly, where he bursts Emma’s romantic bubble. The supporting cast, though playing archetypes, offer skillful portrayals. Ellen Corby, Grandma Walton herself, plays Emma’s long-suffering maid. I was puzzled that the great Gladys Cooper (Now, Voyager) has just one scene, making me wonder if a subplot had been cut out of the final film. Louis Jourdan plays yet another charming, smarmy French playboy, who helps lead the heroine to ruin.
Ultimately, Madame Bovary is all about Emma and the actress who plays her. There are a bevy of Madame Bovarys, all have their merits, but the Vincente Minnelli version is still the most famous. This is a bit surprising, since MGM’s Madame Bovary was a flop at the box office. Originally, Lana Turner was offered the role of Emma. This could have been an apt choice, as Turner was a romantic whose shallow outlook created as much disaster in her own life, as Emma Bovary did in hers. Lana thought the script dull and turned it down, and found out she was pregnant, as well. Minnelli was relieved, as he felt Turner’s notoriety would attract more attention from censors, and that an actress with a more respectable screen image would be a better choice.

Lana: "No, Jen, YOU play 'Madame Bovary!' You'll win a second Oscar!'
Enter Jennifer Jones as Emma. Never mind that Jones’ marriage and family with Robert Walker was wrecked when Gone with the Wind producer David O. Selznick set his sights on Jennifer. Or four years later, Selznick was still haggling with his current wife over the end of their marriage. In fact, it was during Madame Bovary’s production that Irene Selznick was granted a divorce. Ultimately, image is everything in Hollywood, and Jones was the dream girl of super productions like Song of Bernadette and Since You Went Away. Ethereal Jennifer Jones as Emma Bovary therefore took the onus off playing a scandalous character.

Jennifer Jones is one of Hollywood's most puzzling personalities. Jones grew up in a theatrical family, who owned a chain of movie theaters. She and first hubby Robert Walker were aspiring actors together. Yet, friend and co-star Joan Fontaine said of working with Jones on her last big movie, 1962’s Tender is the Night, even at that late date, acting “was a kind of torture” for Jennifer.  Jones is an anomaly among performers who grew up surrounded by showbiz—Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis—who lived for the limelight. And there are many stars that are shy off-stage, but who have brash personas. Jennifer Jones seemed a bit like Marilyn Monroe, both seeking and repelling stardom. Some critics of Jones have questioned the “shy” Jennifer, claiming it was an act to cover her ambition. To me, her reclusive nature and increasing discomfort on-screen seemed to indicate that Jennifer was not pretending. And yet Jones aspired to stardom, or she wouldn’t have broken up her family for the siren call of superstardom that Selznick promised.

Portrait of Jennifer, as Madame Bovary, dressed to the nines.
Though he technically had nothing to do with this Madame Bovary, David Selznick peppered everyone involved with his famous memos—all about how to bring out the best in Jennifer Jones. Like so many powerful Hollywood men, Selznick was obsessed with his star, and determined to make her into Hollywood’s greatest superstar. Newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst attempted the same with Marion Davies. Davies was a showgirl with a natural flair for comedy, but Hearst’s desire was to make her a great dramatic actress. Instead, they made a string of big budget flops that made Marion a punch line. Film contemporaries and historians later said that Davies might have had a more interesting and relaxed career if Hearst had just butted out. And many film folk and critics felt the same in regard to Selznick and Jones.
Jones’ ambivalence is apparent in many of her movies, which is why movie fans and critics are still wildly divided over Jennifer’s abilities as an actress. As Emma Bovary, Jones gives off a jittery intensity throughout, which serves her character well. Jennifer is also wildly uneven as the country girl who longs for romance and riches. Jones can be subtly in tune with Emma in one scene, studio era “dramatic” in the next, and feverishly unnerving after that. Even here, critics and audiences were starting to notice Jones’ nervous tics, especially her tendency to grimace during dramatic scenes.
Every time Emma embraces a new dream—a new home, a baby, a lover, or even a ball gown—Jennifer makes the pronouncement with a fixed, wild stare as if she's playing the beatific Bernadette again, seeing visions. Jennifer seems most comfortable in her love scenes, luxuriating in her romantic fantasy. Yet, as the desperate Emma calling on her former lover for financial help, Jones is theatrically obvious, and therefore, not especially sympathetic. Finally, as Emma on her death bed, after swallowing gobs of arsenic, Jones dies a realistically painful death. 
Jones as Emma, facing her ruin. Jennifer reminds me of Kim Cattrall here.
Perhaps it is Jennifer’s lack of confidence and the inability to create empathy for a basically unsympathetic character that makes Jones' Emma Bovary off putting. Vivien Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor often played passionate women who did foolhardy things (off-screen, too!) but they always retained audience sympathy, especially from female fans. Leigh, a few years before, or Taylor, a decade later, could have easily played Emma. I think MGM’s Ava Gardner might have made a fine Emma. Gardner was a small town farm girl who came to Hollywood, where her dreams turned to disillusion, too. However, Ava was about as insecure about her talent as Jones.
'Madame Bovary' comes alive in the famous waltz scene. This is one of director Vincente Minnelli's best scenes on film.

Wildly uneven as Jones is, Jennifer still has her moments. For this Madame Bovary, the famed ballroom scene is where everything comes together. Jennifer Jones, who looks lovely throughout, is especially fetching in her gauzy, snow-white gown, with black feathers across the bosom. Surrounded by admirers, Scarlett O’ Hara-style, Emma takes a breather between dances. Jourdan as Rodolphe makes his move, the suave stud ready to sweep Mrs. Bovary off her feet. Emma goes from Cinderella to belle of the ball, and this scene is the perfect moment: the increasingly giddy waltz, the camera swirling along with Emma, surrounded by aristocrats, in the arms of a handsome man, waiters who smash windows with chairs when she exclaims that she can’t breathe, and Emma Bovary’s romantic daydreams momentarily come true.

Jones’ other big scene in Bovary is when Emma plans to run off with Rodolphe. Waiting for a stagecoach on a dark, windy night, Jennifer’s intensity conveys Emma’s yearning to escape her small town life. As the stagecoach comes closer into the village, the horses’ hoof beats become louder—symbolizing Emma’s heart pounding? The stagecoach looms into view…and then passes by, followed by a huge close-up of Emma screaming, powerfully portrayed by Jones. Emma, defeated, returns to her home and husband. Charles is waiting and so is a basket of fruit, from Rodolphe, along with a farewell note. Jones’ reaction to her lovers’ kiss off is eerily catatonic.

Emma Bovary's romantic dreams go up in flames. Jones with Van Heflin as Charles Bovary.
Looking at Jennifer Jones’ career in terms of hits is bizarrely skewed. Jennifer starred in eight bonafide blockbusters: Song of Bernadette, Since You Went Away, Love Letters, and Duel in the Sun in the 1940s. Then in the '50s, there were The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, Love is a Many Splendored Thing, and the critically panned but commercial A Farewell to Arms. Finally, Jones literally went out with a blaze of glory in 1974’s The Towering Inferno. Nearly none of these movies hold up today.  After those films, Jones’ box office stand takes a huge dip when looking at her other films like Portrait of Jennie, Carrie, We Were Strangers, Tender is the Night, as well as Madame Bovary. All were box office duds. The films that have won her cult status were financial flops too, but got her good notices, like Cluny Brown, Beat the Devil, and Indiscretion of an American Housewife. I find her appealing both as the saintly Good Morning, Miss Dove and as the trashy bayou babe in Ruby Gentry—again, not big hits. In Jones’ defense, the movies that stars are most remembered for aren’t always their biggest hits, and Jennifer’s work is worth exploring. Happy hunting though, because Jennifer Jones' career is checkered, to say the least.

Bette as a bitchy Madame Bovary!
Here's a fascinating coincidence: the same year as Jennifer Jones played Emma Bovary, Bette Davis ended her Warner Brothers contract playing a modern day version of Bovary in Beyond the Forest. Having just seen Madame Bovary for the first time, I was shocked at how much Forest author Stuart Engstrand ripped off the Flaubert classic. Seriously, Beyond the Forest is pretty much a replay of Madame Bovary in modern dress. And Bette's character Rosa Moline is just a mean girl version of Emma Bovary. Like Emma, Rosa is also married to a doctor, lives for luxury, looks down on her fellow townspeople, takes a rich lover, humiliates her husband, berates her maid, and dies a slow, painful death. The only thing Emma doesn't do is shoot a porcupine and a boozy tattletale!

The best way to watch this Madame Bovary is to ignore or enjoy its contradictions. Or maybe watch Jones’ Emma as a double feature with Bette’s bitchy broad version of Bovary!

Let's leave Emma Bovary on a happy note, the belle of the ball, and surrounded by admiring men!