Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Hucksters (MGM, 1947)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Hucksters, a 1947 MGM movie based on a best-selling novel by Frederic Wakeman that was an attack on the advertising industry. Indeed, not only did it contribute the word “hucksters” to the language but it set the clichés for virtually every fictional depiction of advertising since; though one thinks of the 1950’s rather than the 1940’s as the decade in which people started to be concerned and critical about advertising and its long-term effects on the American people and culture, The Hucksters indicates that at least one best-selling book and successful film went there well before these critiques became the clichés they did in the 1950’s. The Hucksters deals with Victor Norman (Clark Gable, his hair done up in what looks like shoe polish to conceal his advancing age), who has just got out of the Army following World War II and is seeking to get back into advertising, in which he had worked before the war (for a small agency with a presence in both New York and Hollywood), but he wants a job at a bigger, more prestigious company that can afford to pay him more than he got before the war.

He sets his sights on the Kimberly agency and its owner and CEO, Mr. Kimberly (Adolphe Menjou), and Kimberly agrees to try him out if he can successfully sell the Beautee [sic] Soap account. That means dealing with Beautee’s egomaniacal CEO, Evan Llewellyn Evans (Sydney Greenstreet) — a character based on real-life tobacco company head George Washington Hill, who coined the slogan “LSMFT” (“Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco”) and, like his fictional counterpart, believed that the secret to successful advertising was to make your commercials so irritating that the public wouldn’t be able to forget the name of your product and would therefore be led subliminally to buy it. Evans begins the first meeting with Kimberly’s staff that Victor attends by spitting something out of his mouth onto the meeting table, then squashing it, then pouring the contents of a water pitcher all over the table. Evans also has both his own staff and the Kimberly executives (he keeps reminding them that, with $1.2 million worth of bookings, he’s their biggest client) chanting in unison when he asks rhetorical questions and demands instant agreement — a game which Victor, apparently the only person in the room with a conscience, stuns Evans (and oddly impresses him) by refusing to play.

Parallel to the story of Victor’s growing success at Kimberly is his romance with Kay Dorrance (Deborah Kerr) a widow (her husband was a U.S. general) with two kids who accepted Victor’s offer of $5,000 to endorse Beautee Soap because she needed the money, but resolutely refused to wear the sheer nightgown in which Evans wanted her to pose for the ad. There’s a bit of a romantic triangle in that Victor is also interested in an aspiring singer, Jean Ogilvie (Ava Gardner — who, despite coming to this film fresh from her success in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers — was billed only fifth, after Gable, Kerr, Greenstreet and Menjou), whom he uses for some of Beautee’s commercials and also dates when he and Kay are on the outs — as happens after a spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to get her to spend the weekend with him at the Blue Penguin Inn in Connecticut. The problem is that Victor remembers this place as the classy establishment it was before the war — only in the meantime the woman who owned it then has retired and sold it to Blake (Jimmy Conlin), who has basically changed it into an oceanfront version of the No Tell Motel, and never having been there before Kay gets the wrong impression of Victor’s motives in inviting her there and walks out without ever bothering to see him.

In the middle of the movie Victor is obliged to go to Hollywood and use his old movie contacts to get the services of Buddy Hare (Keenan Wynn), a singularly unfunny comedian (when he tells his ancient jokes to Victor, Victor keeps beating him to the punch lines) whom Evans has decided is a major talent. This means having to deal with Hare’s agent, Dave Lash (Edward Arnold) — a character supposedly based on real-life agent Jules Stein, founder of Music Corporation of America (MCA), though according to a trivia poster on the portrayal of Stein is considerably softened from Wakeman’s book, probably because by 1947 the studio system was already disintegrating and agents were becoming crucially important to the studios as representatives and packagers of filmmaking talent (indeed, MCA pioneered the “package deal” by which everyone creatively involved in a film — the actors, director, writers, etc. — would be their clients; they would put together a package containing story, writers, director, stars and crew and then offer it to the studios on a take-it-or-leave-it basis), and even the people running a studio like MGM that was still clinging to a retrograde business model realized they couldn’t afford to alienate the most powerful agency in Hollywood by negatively depicting it in a film.

Seeking to make a silk purse out of Hare’s sow’s ear, Victor hires two good comedy writers who create a characterization fitting Hare’s meager talents, and Victor gets them to write a dummy show which he records as a demo — without clearing either the script or the final recording with Evans and thereby pissing him off. Evans likes the program and it looks like Victor’s reputation is made and he can have the job with Kimberly at a good salary — only Victor has a crisis of conscience and, anticipating the walkouts of many a 1960’s movie protagonist, he stalks out of the 2 a.m. Sunday meeting Evans insisted on and walks out of his dream job, supported by Kay who — unlike most movie heroines of her vintage — is willing to marry him even though he doesn’t have a dime.

The Hucksters has a lot of felicitous moments, including Ava Gardner’s song, “Don’t Tell Me” ( lists Eileen Wilson as her voice double both here and in The Bribe, two years later, where she sang an even better song, “Situation Wanted,” but the voice is a good match for Gardner’s speaking voice and she did have enough of a voice that she originally did her own singing in the 1951 Show Boat and it was only just before the film’s release that her vocals were taken off the soundtrack and replaced with voice double Annette Warren’s; still, MGM was notorious for voice-doubling even actresses who unquestionably could sing, like Angela Lansbury), and a chilling bit of dialogue in which Kimberly tells Victor that he got his own agency started and won the Beautee Soap account by denouncing his previous employer to the FBI for corruption. Ironic that the same year (1947) Menjou played an informer in this film he became one in real life as a “friendly witness” in the House Un-American Activities Committee’s initial hearings on alleged Communist infiltration in Hollywood!

The Hucksters is a good, though not great, movie; Wakeman’s novel was discernibly softened in the script by Luther Davis and even more softened by the director, Jack Conway, a “safe” MGM veteran who usually got put on chancy projects because he was a highly moralistic man who could be trusted to tone down potentially racy material like Anita Loos’s Red-Headed Woman (Loos said that Conway refused to direct one scene in that film and told her, “If you want that scene in the movie you’ll have to direct it yourself” — which she did), and the moral superiority of Clark Gable’s character over everyone else in the movie gets wearisome — especially since he plays the role as a straightforward hero and doesn’t leave us in much suspense as to whether he’ll stand on principle or sell out (the part really needed a more morally ambiguous actor like Robert Mitchum or the noir-era Dick Powell) — but as Charles pointed out, it’s sufficiently creatively plotted that for much of it we really don’t know what’s going to happen next, and as the first film to deal even remotely frankly with the soullessness of the advertising business and its coarsening of American culture (in one scene Victor says that radio advertisers are essentially invited guests in American homes and should therefore act responsibly and sell their products in a low-keyed fashion rather than irritating potential customers into submission) The Hucksters is certainly historically important.