Sunday, July 13, 2008

Early Marilyn Monroe: “Home Town Story” (MGM, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The “feature” we ran last night was Home Town Story, a rather odd 1951 MGM production released as a public-domain title from a company called “Vina Distributor,” which rather oddly erased the theme music under the titles at both the opening and closing of the film, replacing it with a crudely recorded piano-and-strings theme (were they worried about someone acquiring the music rights and thereby taking this title out of public-domain circulation the way Republic Home Video was able to with It’s a Wonderful Life?).

Vina Distributor also heavily promoted it as a vehicle for Marilyn Monroe, which it isn’t; she’s in it, all right, but she’s billed fifth and has the minor part of Iris Martin, secretary and receptionist for the Fairfax Herald, a small-town paper whose owner, Cliff Washburn (Griff Barnett), has just turned it over to his nephew Blake (Jeffrey Lynn, top-billed and a singularly unappealing screen presence — whatever bits of hunkiness he’d shown at Warners in the late 1930’s had been worn away by the years, and he hadn’t improved any as an actor either). Blake is bitter because after five years’ service in the war and two years in his state’s senate, he has just lost his bid for re-election to Bob MacFarland (Hugh Beaumont), son of the town’s biggest manufacturer, John MacFarland (Donald Crisp).

Blake is determined to use his new position as editor of the Herald to expose the profiteering of big business in general and the MacFarlands in particular, despite the disinterest of his uncle in that sort of campaigning and also the non-support of his long-waiting girlfriend Janice Hunt (Marjorie Reynolds, who like Lynn had not been treated kindly by the years). Blake sees a paper from Ohio that contains an exposé of a company that polluted the local river; he goes to the MacFarland plant in search of a similar story, but is assured by a man there whom he trusts that the factory treats all its effluents properly and doesn’t pollute their river at all. Undeterred, Blake then writes a series of editorials dedicated to the proposition that corporations and their shareholders simply make too much money, and the film plods along for a few more reels (it’s only 61 minutes long — 58 minutes in Vina’s edition — but it seems to run a lot longer than it does) until we’re dropped a big hint: two workers in MacFarland’s mining operation decide it’s too much trouble to re-hang the “DANGER” sign along the road to Copper Hill, and the unsuspecting Janice, a schoolteacher, books a field trip for her class — including Blake’s prepubescent sister Katie (Melinda Plowman) — onto, you guessed it, Copper Hill.

Then follows virtually the only scene in the film in which anything even remotely exciting happens: chasing after her dog Rags — whom Blake gave her — Katie runs into a disused mineshaft and, sure enough, there’s a well-staged cave-in (it’s pretty obviously a model but the effects work is still quite good) and Katie is trapped. Suddenly turning from exploitative businessman to heroic capitalist, John MacFarland orders a fleet of tractors into operation pulling the dirt away from the mine entrance so a crew can get in and rescue Katie. She’s found alive but deathly ill, and MacFarland strikes again, ordering a private plane to take her to the nearest large city where there’s a hospital that can give her the operation she needs to survive — and also supplying a nursing crew and full medical equipment to keep her alive during the flight. All of this convinces Blake that profit serves a social function and that businessmen are heroes, not villains — and he writes an editorial to that effect, gives up any ambitions to re-run for his state senate seat, and proposes to Janice at long last.

What’s most interesting about Home Town Story is its muddled politics; Arthur Pierson, who produced (uncredited), directed and wrote it, carefully leads us up the garden path and makes us think this is going to be a piece about a courageous progressive editor who takes a strong stand against a corrupt business establishment (the sort of movie that actually went over big with Stevensonian liberal Dore Schary, then head of production at MGM) — and then flips all those expectations on their heads: the big factory isn’t polluting (where I thought that plot line was going was that he’d find out, Diane Wilson-style, that the honest staff member was being lied to by supervisors who were personally authorizing dumps of toxins into the river in the dead of night), the business owners in Fairfax take the Herald’s attacks lying down and don’t even threaten to pull their ads (a plot twist I was expecting at any moment!), and in the end what finally convinces Blake to change sides and support the businessowners he’s been ragging is when John MacFarland tells him that the motor powering the repirator that is keeping Katie alive on her way to her operation was made by his company.

Arthur Pierson doesn’t bring much life to this parable of capitalism über alles — “capitalist realism,” my husband Charles called it, and a contemporary reviewer (James D. Ivers of the Motion Picture Herald) wrote, “In short and simple terms, at times almost too simple, this hour-long offering attempts with no subtlety whatsoever a blanket defense of business.” As a blanket defense of business, it simply doesn’t offer the so-bad-it’s-good thrills of a work by Ayn Rand — however hysterical (in both senses: crazy and funny) The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are, their sheer overwroughtness gives them entertainment value — instead Pierson’s film is a dull piece of conservative propaganda that more or less successfully masquerades for a good chunk of its running time as a dull piece of liberal propaganda.

It’s easy enough to imagine a remix (so to speak) of this script that would move its politics from Right to Left: the MacFarland factory really is polluting the river (the decent guy who tells Blake it isn’t is either lying to save his job or, perhaps better, doesn’t know himself because his higher-ups are ordering the dumps at night while he’s not there to stop them, and falsifying the records so all appears to be in order) and at the end Blake thanks MacFarland for his help saving Katie’s life but also tells him that doesn’t excuse his company’s sloppiness in allowing the danger to exist in the first place. (In the film as it stands, Pierson clearly blames the disaster not on the company but on two lazy proletarians who can’t be bothered to re-hang the “DANGER” sign across the highway leading to Copper Hill.)

The film’s other point of interest is Marilyn Monroe’s presence in it. What makes it interesting among Marilyn’s movies is there is absolutely no attempt to exploit her already forming “sexy” image. At the time this film was made she was being shuttled back and forth from studio to studio (from Fox to Columbia to Fox again to MGM — Home Town Story was her last film at MGM — and finally to Fox a third time, where she’d ultimately achieve stardom) and the good films she’d made by then, The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve, had already established her “type”: decent but dumb, with a hint of the gold-digger but too innocent to understand what she was doing by trading her looks to rich men for various material goodies.

Here she’s a secretary — a role she’d play for sex-comedy laughs a year later in Monkey Business, only here she’s doing it seriously: her vocal cooing is at a minimum and she seems genuinely competent and efficient at what she’s doing. She takes the amorous advances of Blake’s star reporter, Slim Haskins (Alan Hale, Jr., who for some reason gets second billing to Monroe on the Vina DVD even though his part isn’t any more significant than hers and Lynn, Crisp and Reynolds are playing the real protagonists of the film), in stride and virtuously says she already has a boyfriend — a truck driver (though given the political orientation of this film, she later informs Slim and us that he’s not just a truck driver: he’s a contractor and already has a fleet of four trucks and is working his way up) — and she’s not interested in anyone else, thank you.

It’s true that Marilyn appears in a form-fitting sweater (a garment she’d already worn in All About Eve and a Fox cheapie, The Fireball, starring Mickey Rooney as a roller-derby star!) and her breasts are encased in a bra so severe it makes them look like missile silos, but otherwise her character is carefully not played for her sexuality — which makes this movie a bit refreshing (especially to anyone like David Thomson, who wrote that unlike Jayne Mansfield, who “was also exploited … but one notices an awareness of it and a commercial willingness to be exploited with the implied acceptance of a short and lucrative career, Monroe’s ignorance is often painful and a number of her films are like stag parties making dirty jokes behind her back”) but also means that, not pushing the buttons she so legendarily knew how to push, Monroe seems under wraps, anonymously playing a part any woman her age could have played as well. Without Monroe, Home Town Story would be a totally forgotten film; with her, it’s a little-known footnote to a star-crossed star career.