Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Lady Pays Off (Douglas Sirk, 1951)

The Lady Pays Off is minor Sirk which translates as "well worth your time." It fits snugly alongside other 1950s films in which the single woman is the ostensible "problem": Joan Crawford's run from Sudden Fear to Autumn Leaves and Sirk's own All That Heaven Allows or Magnificent Obsession. Only where those films dramatize how women "of a certain age" have fallen out of an oppressive sexual economy, The Lady Pays Off features a younger woman who is alone due to her intelligence and outspokenness.

Linda Darnell stars as Evelyn Walsh Warren, a teacher at The Howell School for Girls in Pasadena, California. In the first scene, Evelyn is receiving a Teacher of the Year award. But her mind is elsewhere despite (or, as we'll soon find out, because of) accolades which extend to Time magazine ("Where mother fails, teacher must succeed" screams the cover).

Miles away from the National Educators Foundation spokesman deeming her "Universal Mother," Evelyn hallucinates various romantic dead ends in the items in front of her. In her jello, she sees the wavy image of a Poindexter with strong echoes of dull Harvey (Conrad Nagel) in All That Heaven Allows:

"With your knowledge of children, Evelyn, and my academic background, we can raise a family of unusual intellectual promise. Why, yes, my dear, this is a proposal!"

She pulverizes Poindexter into oblivion with her fork only to be confronted with a more forward proposal in the ash tray.

"Now see here, Evie. I know it's not romantic but...well, I'm a rich man with three lonely kids. I want you for my wife and the kids want you for a mother. Now how 'bout it? Shall we close the deal?"

She snuffs out the rich man and receives a final communication from her champagne glass.

"Oh come on, Lynn, and marry me. Am I that hard to take? I mean it. You're the only woman I've ever met who's just like my mother. Gee, Mom was a grand (kind?)."

Still agitated from these visions of lame Lotharios and Oedipi, Evelyn steps up to accept the award but jettisons all decorum. When asked what she thinks "the woman of today needs most in dealing with the problems of motherhood," she replies "a bottle of whiskey and a psychiatrist!"

It turns out that Evelyn is frustrated because men respect her too much as a teacher to become romantically involved with her. They want a woman who listens, not lectures. (And she doesn't even wear glasses...yet!) Luckily, her much-needed vacation to Nevada has started and Dean Howell (Katherine Warren) enlists her nephew, Ronald (James Griffith), to show Evelyn a good time. But Ronald is yet another Poindexter who has only two modes of communication - drearily droning on about his work at the university in advanced mathematics and lecherously lunging after Evelyn (sometimes he combines both modes: "The other day I developed an irrational equation in quantum mechanics that was almost sexy").

Ronald takes Evelyn gambling but quickly ditches her to try out his mathematical formulas at the tables. Excruciatingly bored, she gets drunk and winds up losing $7000 at the roulette wheel. As the dealer takes her to talk to the boss, the camera pans left to rest on a classic Sirkian shot of Ronald in a mise-en-scene with imperialist masculinity splattered on the walls, most ludicrously a lurid painting of a reclining odalisque that gives off the reassuring vibe John Berger detected in Bouguereau.

And if that weren't enough to critique Ronald, there are some hilarious puns on the word "craps"/"crap" in the dialogue, i.e. his gambling system is crap.

The owner of the casino, Matt Braddock (Stephen McNally), forces Evelyn to work off her debt by spending a few weeks at his home and helping his daughter, Diana (Gigi Perreau), who suffers from mild depression (presumably - the film fails to flesh out this point much). Basically a prisoner in Matt's home, Evelyn at first mistreats Diana in frustration but soon realizes not to take it out on her. Instead, they form one of those cross-generational, pre-feminist bonds Sirk handles so delicately (e.g., Helen and Judy in Magnificent Obsession or Susie and Annie in Imitation of Life) despite Evelyn's rage towards Matt not subsiding a whit.

In a wild scene in which Evelyn's mirror reflection talks to her, she decides to play nice with Matt in order to soften him up so he'll destroy the $7000 IOU.

The remainder of the film concerns Matt's deepening trust of Evelyn as he falls in love with her.

Of particular note is the use of toys in the film (as with There's Always Tomorrow) which stand in for the affection that Diana so desperately craves from her frequently absent father and recently deceased mother. However, the toys, specifically Diana's stuffed dog Pluto, become more prominent (and eerie) in the frame as the film progresses which suggests that despite Evelyn's warmth towards her, the cat and mouse games she and Matt play with one another threaten to leave Diana behind all over again.

Indeed, the very last shot of the film shows Diana addressing her doll ("Parents are such awful children, aren't they?") as Evelyn and Matt embrace on the terrace.

The lady paid off as a mother and now wife and for most of the film, Sirk has shown sympathy for Evelyn's entrapment under patriarchal forms of de facto blackmailing and kidnapping. But in the end, Sirk targets his bile towards the couple as middle-class self-absorption takes center stage. And in fifteen years, the Dianas of the world would reject this lifestyle as the darlings of Swinging London and San Francisco.


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