The following is the text of a lecture delivered at the University of Western Sydney (Bankstown) on Friday, November 7, 2008.
When I received an invitation to lecture in Australia, I expected to speak about generative anthropology, religion, and esthetics, but not about my recently completed book on Carole Landis. Carole (1919-1948) was a B-level leading actress who committed suicide at the age of 29—and “the most beautiful girl in the world.” No doubt it is not unreasonable for my hosts to be curious about what would motivate someone whose mascot is the hedgehog (who “knows one big thing”) and who for thirty years has been promoting “a new way of thinking,” to spend several years on such a project.
The challenge for me is to justify my Carole project in the context of the “one big thing” that is generative anthropology (GA). I will begin with the fact, outlined in an essay in Adam Katz’s The Originary Hypothesis, as well as in a number of my on-line Chronicles of Love & Resentment, that GA can best be understood, in socio-epistemological terms, as the creation of a Bronx Romantic. If anything can explain my interest in Carole Landis, it is Bronx Romanticism.
The Bronx variety of Romanticism is, in its quiet way, the most extreme. Independently of any transcendent divinity or theory of history, the Bronx Romantic is persuaded of the absolute truth of his worldview by the very fact that it lacks recognition and (what amounts pretty much to the same thing) that it has no victimary clientele. If generative anthropology turns out to be of real historical importance, it will be the ultimate vindication of the Bronx Romantic’s insistence on cultivating his own private resentment rather than pooling it with others in a victimary collective.
Where does Carole fit into the Bronx Romantic’s universe? Carole’s desirability, like that of the sacred center of the originary scene, offers a unique guarantee of the cultural system in which it is embedded; in the one case, Hollywood film narrative, in the other, the system of human culture itself. “Desirability” in this sense is not solely a function of Carole’s personal attributes; it reflects the historically specific role of Hollywood in this period in generating incarnations of what may be called “public beauty,” a notion that the path of cultural evolution has since rendered obsolete—and that I am by no means attempting to revive. The iconic 8×10 glossy, the ubiquitous fan magazines and concentrated press attention, Hollywood’s quasi-monopoly on glamour and simply, on visible beauty in the era before television, reinforced by the key role of the “pin-up” in inspiring the GIs in the most crucial war in our history—all this contributed to surrounding the beauty of the female Hollywood stars of the 1940s with a sacred aura. Carole’s historical role, which included an exceptionally deep commitment to the war effort (“entertaining the troops”), must be understood in this context.
In order to understand Carole’s unique role in 1940s Hollywood, we must begin with an appreciation of her uniqueness. A number of other actresses in this period could be called beautiful: Maria Montez, Jeanne Crain, Maureen O’Sullivan, Gene Tierney, Loretta Young, Rita Hayworth, to name a few. But Carole alone had a body—frequently called (for example, by Charlie Chaplin) the most beautiful in Hollywood—that self-evidently fulfilled the promise of desirability offered by her filmic appearance.
The Hays Production code era was called the “Golden Age” of cinema for good reason: it was a time when, as it has never since, filmic diegesis was fully supported by an ethically motivated system of iconographic and narrative conventions. Not only did good always triumph over evil, but any pornographic sidestepping of the plot, whether sexual or violent, was impossible; the spectator was prevented from deriving more than passing enjoyment from the forbidden violence or sexuality that would be punished in the dénouement. Only by attending to the storyline could one expect to gain satisfaction from the desires aroused by the plot. However restrictive this narrative system might appear to us today, it sustained a national filmic culture in the era when it was the uncontested center of American, and already, of world public entertainment.
Credible female desirability is central to the romantic-comedy resolution of living “happily ever after,” which in its French version (ils vécurent heureux et ils eurent beaucoup d’enfants—they lived happily and they had many children) explicitly refers to procreation. After the usual difficulties, the couple becomes part of the self-reproducing social order. As a prerequisite for membership in this order, the heroine’s physical qualifications are more crucial than the man’s, for evident biological reasons. But the Production Code did not permit the desire aroused by the heroine in the spectator (in men, desire for sexual possession; in women, the desire to arouse such desire) to exceed the limits of the story.
Thus the heroine had, as a general rule, to be pretty rather than beautiful, or if beautiful, then chastely so. We are expected to find her desirable, but our desire must be constantly reinforced or mediated by the hero’s desire. In particular, we cannot base our judgment of the woman’s body, whose desirability is the key to reproductive success, on what we can presume from seeing the woman in the film, but on what we presume the male protagonist presumes, under the obligatory conditions of chastity that precede marriage. To put it more crudely, the body promised by the actress’s screen appearance is, as a rule, less desirable than we would like it to be, but we accept the actor’s testimony that it is sufficient to generate the “happy ending.”
(There is an interesting contrast to be drawn here concerning Stanley Cavell’s observation [Pursuits of Happiness, 1981], that a large proportion of romantic comedies of the 30s (but not the 40s) are comedies of remarriage, where a new romance begins when the couple is already or all but divorced, suggesting that it is only after the dialectic of sexual desire and discovery has been completed and neutralized that they can realize that they are really—psychologically, spiritually—meant for each other.)
The nature of the disjunction between desire and its embodiment varies over time. At the end of the Hays era in the 50s, with the postwar cultural turn toward adolescent (as opposed to young adult) sexuality, we often find actresses whose bodies pretend, sometimes grotesquely, never really erotically, to exceed expectations. Jayne Mansfield is perhaps the most (comically) obvious of these, Marilyn Monroe, whose figure was less spectacular than its often extravagant publicity, the most problematic. Today, when this systematic disjunction no longer exists, the result is a more potentially erotic cinema in which, for better or worse, formulaic plots can no longer benefit from the added coherence the old mechanism provided. (As a recent example of a film that has benefitted from the new freedom, I would cite Ang Lee’s underrated masterpiece Lust, Caution.)
My interest in Carole stems from my judgment that, in the Hollywood context just described, she was the only true exception. The only other actress of the era with a figure comparable to Carole’s was Marie Wilson, the exception that proves the rule, for although Wilson made far more open use of her sexual charms in the “Blackout” revues of the wartime era, her film roles never strayed from her patented naïve and unerotic “dumb blonde.” Carole played a number of comic roles, but she never hid her sexual attractiveness behind a childlike persona.
Thus, in contravention of the constraints referred to above, Carole’s filmic appearance offered a guarantee of the spectator’s desire independently of the plot; one didn’t have to rely on the hero to evaluate her sexual beauty. That she was nevertheless able to have a Hollywood career as a leading actress reflects the fact that this incompatibility did not depend on her physical attributes alone. At the start of her career in 1937, playing bit parts at Warner Brothers in Carole’s naturally diffident manner could not make her a focus for the spectator’s desire. Carole’s problematic quality could only become apparent once she had achieved a sufficient “glamour quotient.”
This was not yet the case in Carole’s first, unglamorous feature roles at Republic in 1939: two westerns and a serial. Nor did a problem surface when she moved to Hal Roach Studios near the end of the year. In her breakthrough film, One Million B.C., for which the story has it that she was chosen—by no less than D. W. Griffith—for her athleticism rather than her voluptuousness, she incarnates a feminine ideal of beauty and tenderness. In her second Roach film, Turnabout, she spends most of her time “transformed” into a man, surfacing in all her beauty just before the end to reconcile the various parties. The haphazard plot and musical interludes of her third Roach film, Road Show, betray its vaudeville ancestry, which is reinforced by its location in a circus. All these Roach comedies are at the margin of the Hollywood norm, being more festive and Aristophanean than mainstream romantic comedy.
All this changed when Carole moved to Twentieth Century-Fox at the beginning of 1941. Darryl Zanuck, whose first concern was box office, relied on proven formulas within which he built up his stars to maximize audience expectations. In early 1941, Betty Grable was fast becoming the greatest box-office draw of her era, a title she would hold for a dozen years at Fox, becoming the nation’s best-paid woman in the late 40s. Zanuck, who according to one fan magazine offered Carole a contract because of her great popularity with men, paired Carole with Betty as her sister in two of her first three Fox films.
In the first of these, the musical Moon over Miami, the deliberate foregrounding of Carole’s beauty problematizes her subordinate role in the film. Miami tells the oft-told story of three women who go to a resort to snag a wealthy man by posing as a rich girl with two domestics. (No doubt the best-known avatar of this plot, derived from a 1920-era Broadway play, is How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) with Marilyn Monroe and Lauren Bacall, in which Grable herself plays the third, older woman, a role held in Miami by Charlotte Greenwood; the same scenario was recycled at least two other times by Fox.) In Miami, Carole, playing Betty’s “secretary,” ironically winds up with rich Robert Cummings, while Betty falls for the more virile but poorer Don Ameche.
Curiously, given Grable’s higher status at the studio, on several occasions Carole’s beauty is gratuitously emphasized at Betty’s expense. The most notable example occurs when Cummings, who at this point in the story is expected to marry Grable, brings the two ladies home to meet his father. On seeing his son enter the room between the two women, the father immediately assumes that Carole will be the bride and complements his son on his choice; even after being corrected, he asks to be seated at table opposite “Miss Sears” so that he can admire her. Given that Cummings will pair off with Carole and not Betty in the end, the film seems to be attempting to display her exceptional beauty as a natural guarantee for this choice, the basis for a kind of judgment of Paris.
If in Miami the foregrounding of Carole’s beauty remains an hors-d’oeuvre, in the second and last teaming of Carole and Betty, I Wake Up Screaming, the problematic character of Carole’s desirability is at the center of the plot. The choice of Carole for her role was anything but arbitrary; the shooting script of the film bears a penciled note in Zanuck’s vigorous handwriting describing the part as “sex-loaded.” This is the film that originally inspired my interest in Carole. I Wake Up Screaming transfigures her film career, including its tragic ending, into a Hollywood version of the originary hypothesis in which she plays the role of the sacred central object.
The opening shot tracks in on Carole’s face on a newspaper story telling us she has been murdered. Carole (Vicki) was a waitress “discovered” by Victor Mature, who had bet two friends that he could make a star out of a “hash-slinger.” As a result of Mature’s efforts, she began a modeling career in New York and was offered a screen test in Hollywood; the murder occurred as she was about to leave for the West Coast.
Mature, unjustly accused, is inexplicably persecuted by the sinister chief investigator, played by Laird Cregar. Betty, Carole’s modest sister, falls in love with Mature and tries to save him from the chair. Mature’s two friends, both of whom were in love with Carole, are also suspected. Finally the murderer turns out to be the clerk in Carole’s hotel, the film’s most insignificant male character (played by Elisha Cooke, Jr., the “gunsel” of The Maltese Falcon). In the climactic scene, Mature sneaks into Cregar’s apartment and discovers the latter bringing flowers to a veritable shrine to Carole, whose photographs cover his walls. Cregar’s persecution of Mature is explained as revenge for the latter’s introducing her, whom Cregar secretly loved and protected as a waitress, to a world beyond his reach. Cregar confesses his love and takes poison before Carole’s picture, freeing Mature to wed Grable in the conclusion.
What is fascinating is that although Carole is dead when the story begins, she haunts it throughout. Her image is constantly before us, reappearing in flashbacks and photographs, and even in a film clip singing a song, before the apotheosis of the dénouement. The beautiful vs pretty contrast with Grable, which had already been marked in Moon over Miami, is raised in I Wake Up Screaming to an ontological level. The pretty girl lives (and gets the guy); the beautiful one is sacrificed, expelled from the world of the film. Although Carole’s beauty would play a thematic role in a number of her later films, only in this one does it acquire a distinct ontological status. That this structure is not integral to the film’s plot is demonstrated by Vicki, its 1953 remake, with Jeanne Crain and Jean Peters in the Grable and Landis roles. Here Crain, not Peters, is the beautiful—albeit not voluptuous—sister, and Peters’ death is understood as an ironic payoff for fortuitous success rather than a necessary consequence of excessive desirability.
Carole’s precarious relationship to Hollywood narrative is both exalting and depressing, revealing her as unique even as it bars her way to real stardom. This precariousness is no simple aberrance. It is beauty like Carole’s, of body as well as face, beauty that is indistinguishable from desirability, that provides the bedrock guarantee of the universality of our values in the sexual sphere. Watching Carole on film is a poignant experience because, even as we know that her desirability is not wholly compatible with classical Hollywood film narrative, we also know that it is this desirability that guarantees all narrative.
In its sacrifice of the infinitely desirable “sacred object,” I Wake Up Screaming carries out the originary separation of the sacred from the profane that permits cultural narrative to vulgarize itself as popular fiction. Carole must die in order that we may find fulfillment in Grable’s happiness. Great films, like all true works of art, always return to the origin to redefine the sacred, but Carole transcended the narrative system not through art, but through desire. In Carole, sexiness itself becomes sacred, with the worldly correlative that desirability takes on the quality of agency. Carole is never a passive recipient of desire; she freely offers us her beauty, just as in real life she devoted herself to bringing joy to the soldiers she sang for and visited in hospitals, both throughout the USA and in Europe, Africa, and the Pacific.
We may stipulate that in a given generation there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of women as physically attractive as Carole. But as a Hollywood leading actress, she alone fully and unproblematically incarnated the female ideal within film narrative. In the B-level and secondary roles Carole was limited to after I Wake Up Screaming, this incarnation is played down by costume, camerawork, makeup, or production level, as well as by the simple fact of ageing, to the point where no incongruity is apparent. But fortunately, in the early years of Carole’s career at Fox, Zanuck’s restless drive to exploit every weapon in his arsenal led him to produce a film that not only revealed but was structured by the forbidden source of narrative desire. Only Carole could have played that “sex-loaded” role, and no doubt only a Bronx Romantic could have made it his task to celebrate her in it.