Sunday 27 March 2022

On GILDA and getting around the Production Code - An excerpt from HOLLYWOOD'S MELODRAMATIC IMAGINATION: Film Noir, the Western and other Genres from the 1920s to the 1950s by Geoff Mayer

Editor's Note: This is an extract from the Chapter titled Film Noir, Virtue, the Abyss and Nothingness  which appears in Geoff Mayer's new book HOLLYWOOD'S MELODRAMATIC IMAGINATION: Film Noir, the Western and other Genres from the 1920s to the 1950s. The book is published by McFarland in the US and is available locally at a number of bookshops including the online service  BOOKTOPIA 

Thanks to Stephanie Nichols of McFarland and to Geoff Mayer for assistance in preparing it for publication here . The preface of the book was also published on this blog and you can find it IF YOU CLICK HERE


Eight years before Human Desire (Fritz Lang, 1954) Glenn Ford co-starred in one of Columbia's  most successful films, Gilda. The key creative figure was Columbia writer/producer Virginia Van Upp. In January 1945 Van Upp achieved a rare distinction when she wasappointed executive producer at the studio, a difficult feat in the male dominated studio system at that time. She was second in command to the head of the studio, HarryCohn. Her role was to supervise the preparation and production of twelve to fourteen big-budgeted films each year. One of her first productions in her new position  was Gilda, based on E.A. Ellington's original story. Van Upp not only supervised various drafts of the screenplay, written by Jo Eisinger, Marion Parsonnet and, uncredited, Ben Hecht, she also wrote, uncredited, a substantial portion of the screenplayherself—including the film's upbeat epilogue. The first draft, submitted on 16  November1944,was rejected byJoseph Breen and the PCA on the grounds that it depicted illicit sex and adultery without any semblance of compensating moral values. 

A revised screenplay was submitted on August 24,1945. Again Breen rejected it. Nevertheless, filming began on September 4 and continued until December10, 1945. Revisions were resubmitted on      September and Breen approved the production,with a few quibbles on September 11. After filming was completed,  the PCA, without Breen,reviewed the film and it was granted          a seal of approval on February 25, 1946. Within the history of Hollywood censorship after the tightening of the Production Code system in mid-1934, the PCA’s decision to give Gilda  their seal of approval was a significant moment as the film represented direct challenge to Breen's dictum  that the appropriate moral values must permeate the entire narrative not just the epilogue.

The film begins with Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford), a drifter similar to Cain's opportunistic Frank Chambers in The Postman Always Rings Twice, in trouble in a waterfront gambling game in Buenos Aires. After winning money, he is confronted by a robber in a dark alley. He is rescued by a middle-aged man with his “little friend” a walking cane that abruptly transforms into an erect weapon with a phallic steel tip. Farrell's mysterious savior, middle-aged Ballin Mundson (George Macready), suggests the young man join him and Farrell is soon, in effect, in kept  relationship with his wealthy benefactor. Director Charles Vidor and cinematographer Rudolph Maté employ low angle camera compositions and subtle editing, along with the not-so-subtle visual metaphor of Ballin's “cane," to convey the real nature  of Farrell's relationship with Ballin. Mundson even compares Farrell with his phallic cane:“Johnny,’ Mundson explains,“is almost as sharp as my other friend, but he will kill for me'’ Johnny replies, “That's what friends are for'’ Many years later Glenn Ford acknowledged that there was a concerted effort by the filmmakers to bypass Breen's opposition to any film he considered contained suggestions of “sexual perversion'’


The relationship between Mundson and Farrell is threatened when Mundson, while on a business trip, marries Gilda. The prospect of regularly seeing a woman who had an affair with him some time ago unsettles Johnny. His condition deteriorates when Mundson orders the young man to “look after” Gilda, a situation she exploits to the full as she teases her frustrated ex-lover with her supposed infidelities in Buenos Aires. Johnny's psychological disintegration is exposed in his narration. After watching Gilda with her husband he explains: “I wanted to hit her. I wanted to go back and see them together with me watching'’ Although Gilda enjoys Farrell's torment, she gradually realizes that her husband has his own peculiarities, especially when he tells her that “hate can be a very exciting emotion. Very exciting. Haven't you noticed that there's a heat in it that one can feel. Didn't you feel it tonight.... I did! It warmed me. Hate is the only thing that had ever warmed me.” In  this perverse scene, effectively played by George Macready, Mundson,dressed in a      flamboyant dressing gown over his formal costume, sits on the edge of their bed. Director Charles Vidor places Mundson, in shadow, deep in the foreground of the frame to show his domination of Gilda as his body divides her into two parts.


Mundson seemingly dies two-thirds into the film although a brief insert shows  him surviving a plane explosion after parachuting from the damaged craft. Mundson's “death” clears the way for Johnny to court and marry Gilda. However, she soon discovers that Johnny  is even bcrazier than Mundson.His marriage to her was ruse  to control and punish for her “adulterous affairs'’ On their wedding night she discovers a large photograph of Mundson in their room. Distressed, she tells Johnny that this “isn't decent'’ He throws the word “decent” back into her face as his narration reiterates his deep-seated psychosis:

She didn't know then what was happening to her.She didn't know then what she heard was the door closing on her own cage. She hadn't been faithful to him when he was alive but she was going to be faithful now that he was dead.


Obsessed with his debt to Mundson, Johnny systematically tortures Gilda by denying her any sexual contact with him, or other people. To achieve this he assigns Mundson's casino employees to watch her day and night. Distressed by Johnny's neglect,       she tells him: “You wouldn't think that one woman could marry two insane men in  one lifetime, would you?” Gilda tries to get away, fleeing to Montevideo where she  intends filing for divorce. In Montevideo she meets an attorney, Tom Langford (Don Douglas), who is seemingly infatuated with her. He tells Gilda to return to Buenos Aires and file for an annulment as her marriage was never consummated. Accepting    his advice, she returns to Buenos Aires, only to learn that Langford was working forJohnny. Gilda, in an attempt to humiliate Johnny, sings the torch song “Put the BlameonMarne,"while gyrating her hips and undertaking striptease (she only removes        her gloves) in front of excited patrons in the casino. When she invites two eager men in the audience to assist her, Johnny, who is watching her, erupts with rage. The film's “surface plot” involving former Nazi agents who seek a patent forTungsten is quickly resolved and one of the casino's employees, Uncle Pio (Steven Geray), stabs Mundson in the back with his own walking stick just as he is about to shoot Gilda and Farrell. In the epilogue Johnny and Gilda prepare to leave Buenos Aires for life together in the United States.

"She only removes her gloves", Rita Hayworth, Gilda


The film's final moments,withJohnny suddenly assuming some semblance of “normality,’ is poorly motivated. It is an extreme example of a melodramatic deus ex machina. It represents one of Hollywood's more obvious violations of Frances Marion's advice in her 1937 screenplay manual How to Write and Sell Film Stories that the characters “must be extricated in a logical and dramatic way that brings them happiness'’ While the film's brief epilogue endorses the prevailing ethical norms of the1940s, a “normal” heterosexual romance along with a celebration of marriage and domesticity, the episodic narrative for the great bulk of the film is devoid of any consistency with regard to its presentation of virtue - depending on whether Gilda's “transgressions” are to be believed. 


Each of the central characters, Gilda, Johnny and Mundson,take turns in extracting pleasure through acts of cruelty.The only semblanceof an explanation for this, and it is barely plausible,is that once the couple are able to extricate themselves from the “depravities” of an “alien” culture (Buenos Aires),they somehow will resume “normal” life back in the United States.


Van Upp's upbeat epilogue was, in effect, a cynical attempt to bolster the film's chances at the box office while also appeasing Breen and his objections concerning the film's depiction of “illicit sex and adultery without compensating moral values”.On the whole, however, the film cleverly bypassed Breen's prohibitions by following his advice to producers in the 1930s that “illicit acts” should always be rendered in an  oblique manner so that audiences could never really point to a moment in the film where “offensive acts” took place. Hence the narrative should deny constantly the possibility of such actions while, at other times, admitting the possibility that they occurred. The filmmakers took this advice and, in the process,made it almost impossible for Breen to object to the ramifications of its oblique presentation, as in the following dialogue exchange:

JOHNNY:Get this straight.don't care what you do.But I'm going to see to it that it looks all right to him[Mundson]. From now on,you go anywhere you please, with anyone you please. But I'm going to take you there and I'm going to bring you home.Get that?Exactly  the way I'd pick up his laundry.


GILDA:Shame on you Johnny. Any psychiatrist would tell you your thought-associations are very revealing. All to protect Ballin—who do you think you are kidding,Johnny?

This shift in Hollywood's more problematic presentation of morality was detected by French critics such as Nino Frank and Jean-Pierre Chartier in thesummer of 1946. After viewing a relatively large number of Hollywood films produced between 1940 and 1946, films not screened in France during the first half of the 1940s due to the German occupation,they realized that something had changed.For              Chartier, however, this change was not necessarily for the better as he noted in1946:

“She kisses him so that he'll kill for her'’ Emblazoned on the movie posters, over a blood stain, is a description of Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity. The same line would work just as well for Edward Dmytryk's Murder, My SweetIt would hold true again for The Postman Always RingsTwice which is currently big hit in the US. We understood why the Hays Office     had previously forbidden film adaptations of James M.Cain's two novels from which Double  Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice  are drawn. It is harder to understand, given this censor's moral posture,why this interdiction was lifted, as it's hard to imagine story lines with a more pessimistic or disgusted point of view regarding human behavior."

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