The Women — Infidelity, Gossip, and Backbiting

Film:The Women Movie Poster/DVD Cover

The Women, 1939

Starring: Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, and Joan Fontaine

Synopsis (from NetFlix):

George Cukor directs an all-female cast in this catty tale about battling and bonding that was edgy for its time — and is considered the ultimate women’s movie of the 1930s. Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell and other Hollywood leading ladies are among the array of husband-snatchers, snitches and lovelorn ladies who argue and gossip about each other at astonishing breakneck speed throughout the film.

My Thoughts (NO spoilers 🙂 ):

I’ve received some critiques regarding the length of my posts, so I am going to try to be brief and get to the ethical punch with this post and cut out the plot points and summary that could ruin it for those who haven’t seen the movie.  All plot issues I do discuss stem from what is seen in the first 5 minutes so do not worry.  I haven’t seen the remake, though I’d like to when it comes out on DVD, but I’m told that most of it is the same, except the ending due to the changes in US divorce law since 1939.

The first thing one would notice in this film is the fact that it is all women… 130 of them… and not a single male!  Even the animals in the movie are the female of the species.  Pretty cool.  That is, until you realize that none of these women are of exemplary character (except maybe Mary and her daughter).

From the very beginning gossip and backbiting are a huge theme of the film, and it is through witnessing how pervasive it is with this crowd that we can see just how damaging these behaviors are.  There was so much buzz around Mean Girls regarding this, but “frenemies” are nothing new.  It makes the following Hidden Word all the much more understandable:

O FRIEND! In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love, and from the nightingale of affection and desire loosen not thy hold. Treasure the companionship of the righteous and eschew all fellowship with the ungodly.

It does not say to condemn or judge the ungodly, but merely warns against interacting with them, and this film surely echoes that.  Mary already had a heartbreaking issue to deal with, her husband’s infidelity, but this was compounded exponentially by The Women she interacted with.  While the problem would not have disappeared without the wagging tongues, it certainly would not have been magnified.  Mary would only have to deal with her husband’s betrayal, not the betrayal of her social companions, as well as their judgments and scorn.

O SON OF MAN! Breathe not the sins of others so long as thou art thyself a sinner. Shouldst thou transgress this command, accursed wouldst thou be, and to this I bear witness.

a.k.a. Don’t judge lest ye be judged…

Even Mary succumbs to the behavior of her peers but it really just serves to amplify others pain rather than to ameliorate her own.

Another issue in the film is how some of the characters treat marriage and love.  For Mary marriage was about love, but for many others it was about economics and financial security, or about a status symbol.  For some it was even a game, about what could be taken away from other women.  That vindictiveness serves nobody.  As for Stephen, though we never see him, we know he also confused lust for love in his interactions with Crystal.  Physical and spiritual love are two separate things, and unfortunately in English we are limited by the catch all term “love” that has so many meanings.

Marriage, among the mass of the people, is a physical bond, and this union can only be temporary, since it is foredoomed to a physical separation at the close.

Among the people of Bahá, however, marriage must be a union of the body and of the spirit as well, for here both husband and wife are aglow with the same wine, both are enamoured of the same matchless Face, both live and move through the same spirit, both are illumined by the same glory. This connection between them is a spiritual one, hence it is a bond that will abide forever. Likewise do they enjoy strong and lasting ties in the physical world as well, for if the marriage is based both on the spirit and the body, that union is a true one, hence it will endure. If, however, the bond is physical and nothing more, it is sure to be only temporary, and must inexorably end in separation.

~ `Abdu’l-Bahá

So what should we take away from the film?  That we need to be better than that, especially us women.  Even though it was Stephen who was unfaithful, the entire emphasis of the film was on the women.  Blame needs to be put where it is due, which is not simply on the “other woman” but on the man who made the choice to betray his marriage vows.
Also, our behavior, even if it seems like it is behind closed doors, is observed and commented on.  While each of us can and should control our own tongues, we cannot control the tongues of other people which is why our comportment is all the more important.  Mary learned this lesson when she succumbed to ill behavior, which was what the gossipers were waiting for.  It is hard to be held to such a high standard, but people notice both the good and the bad.  In fact, it was because Mary was so happy that Sylvia took so much delight in dismantling it in the first place.  That being said just because others are devious does not mean we shouldn’t strive to transcend that.

Your thoughts?

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Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? — Interracial Marriage

Film:

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? 1967

Starring Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy, and Katharine Hepburn.

Synopsis:

The movie concerns Joanna Drayton, a young white American woman (Houghton) and a man with whom she’s had a whirlwind romance, Dr. Prentice (Poitier), an African American she met while on a holiday in Hawaii. As the movie opens, they’re at the San Francisco Airport preparing to tell her parents, Matt (Tracy) and Christine (Hepburn)Dayton their plans: to marry and live in Switzerland.

Kramer and Rose intentionally debunked ethnic stereotypes; the young doctor was purposely created idealistically perfect so that the only possible objection to his marrying Joanna would be his race, or the fact she only met him nine days earlier. He has graduated from a top school, begun innovative medical initiatives in Africa, refused to have premarital sex with his fiancée despite her request, and leaves money on his future father-in-law’s desk in payment for a long distance phone call he has made.

The plot is centered on Joanna’s return to her liberal upper class home overlooking the San Francisco Bay. Her mother, while surprised, is supportive from the beginning, but her father isn’t buying the marriage. He is joined in his concerns by the family retainer Tillie (Sanford) and the young Doctor’s father (Glenn), a retired postal worker who flies up to Los Angeles for dinner.

The action builds to a stirring speech by the father, the last by Tracy on film.

My Thoughts:

Forty years after it came out this movie may seem dated.  So much so that Hollywood felt it necessary to loosely remake it with Ashton Kutcher (I love you Ashton, but you are no Sidney Poitier). But upon the heels of the recent US Presidential Election I think its important to reflect on how far we’ve come regarding race relations and how much further we have to go.  I’m not the first who has seen the similarities between the characters in this film and the parentage of the US President-Elect.  For more on that check out this NY Times article.

Even at the time of the film one might be more concerned with the speed of the marriage (having only known each other ten days and needing an answer that night before they fly off to NYC and then to Geneva) then the race difference, but let’s factor that out and just chalk it up as a plot device to get the action going.  There were some interesting remarks throughout the film that I think particularly important to note upon.  The first was said by Dr. Prentice (played by Sidney Poitier) regarding why he fell in love with Joanna.

Dr. Prentice “It’s not that our color difference doesn’t matter to her, it’s that there is no difference to her”

I think this is an important quote to piece apart, because there are different levels to it.  On a fundamental level there is no difference among us because we are all God’s creatures and are all endowed with spiritual capacity, and so every person should be able to befriend anyone and talk with anyone and connect with anyone because of that inherent unity of us all being people.  That being said, we do have differences, and those differences should not be erased.  They are what make us beautiful. I think the following quote illustrates the thought well:

“Let us look rather at the beauty in diversity, the beauty of harmony, and learn a lesson from the vegetable creation. If you behold a garden in which all the plants were the same as to form, color and perfume, it would not seem beautiful to you at all, but, rather, monotonous and dull. The garden which is pleasing to the eye and which makes the heart glad, is the garden in which are growing side by side flowers of every hue, form and perfume, and the joyous contrast of color is what makes for charm and beauty.

…”The diversity in the human family should be the cause of love and harmony, as it is in music where many different notes blend together in making the perfect chord. If you meet those of different race and color from yourself, do not mistrust them and withdraw into your shell of conventionality, but rather be glad and show them kindness. Think of them as different colored roses growing in the beautiful garden of humanity, and rejoice to be among them.”

~ ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 52-3.

I want to add that this quote was from the early 1900s.  We cannot diminish our differences, nor can we ignore the fact of the history of pain and suffering caused by different races and ethnicities fighting or oppressing one another.  Nor can we pretend that it is not still happening today.  That being said if we want to change the world, if we want to improve it and to heal these wounds between us, to truly unite humanity then it begins through the actions of people like Joanna Drayton and John Prentice who celebrate their love for one another and the diversity of their backgrounds.  Blame will just keep us apart, but we individuals can work to be open minded and to treat all people with love and respect.

This film, in addition to being about an interracial couple, is about a family whose ideals are being tested.  The parents, Matt and Christina Drayton (played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) are San Francisco liberals who raised their daughter to believe in the equality of races and yet it had never occurred to them that their daughter would actually want to marry someone of a different race.  Then it was time to reflect and each hesitated before confirming their ideals.

I think this happens to us all at some time in our lives.  It is easy to espouse an ideal in words, when it is a theory, something that applies to society in general, rather than to ourselves in specific.  It is easy to say we will care for our fellow man, but how many people still go hungry?  It is easy to say what we believe, but what about acting on what we believe?  In this film first Joanna, and then her mother, and finally her father decided to take the step toward action on their beliefs, an action which was easy and natural for Joanna but a bigger challenge for Matt than he would have thought.

This film, as part of the plot, Dr. Prentice required the Draytons to give consent in order for him to marry Joanna.  In this modern day many people balk at the idea of children asking for their parents’ consent to marry, and even in the film Mrs. Drayton seemed confused by it.  But I think Dr. Prentice had a good point.  It would be hard enough for the couple to deal with the prejudices of society and the pressures of the ignorant, to then also have to deal with the disunity in the family.  In order to be strong enough to deal with the challenges of an interracial marriage at that time they needed to have the support of their family for peace of mind as well as a haven to return to in times of stress.  Asking for consent was a way to build unity in the family, a pre-requisite to building unity in society.

Those are just a few of my thoughts.  What are yours?

The Man in the White Suit — Innovation, Fear, and Greed.

Film:

The Man In The White Suit Movie Poster

The Man in the White Suit , 1951

The Man In The White Suit Movie Poster

Starring Alec Guinness and Joan Greenwood

Synopsis:
This film is a story of an altruistic inventor, Sidney Stratton (played by Sir Alec Guinness) who has discovers a fabric that will never get dirty, and never wear out. He is determined to bring this fabric to market, however both the textile factory workers (the proletariat) and business executives (the capitalists) see it as a threat that will eventually put them out of business. This film brings up questions regarding the nature of innovation, who benefits, and who is harmed, as well as the factors that impede it (namely greed and fear).

Aside: If you haven’t seen this film, which is probably the majority of people, and you want to I recommend you fast forward until Sidney Stratton discovers the miracle cloth. Until that point the plot is very slow and muddled, but the second half is great and is where all the conflict, drama, and moral questions occur.

Thoughts:

I would like everyone reading this post to imagine the implications of Sidney Stratton’s miracle cloth. Think about it. If a cloth never got dirty, and never wore out, it would never need replacing. That means that time and energy and resources would be saved in not having to clean or replace your clothing. However, on the flip side jobs would be lost, and production would go down having (what I see as a temporary) negative effect on the economy. What would be the moral thing to do in this situation?

To market the cloth that could potentially allow people to be free from wasting resources to clothe themselves, aiding the consumer, or to prevent the cloth from going to market to protect the workers and the industrialists? I see it as the former case, since both the workers and industrialists can adjust over time to produce something else that is needed. In the short term it would probably first be good for the industry as it could be marketed at a higher price, but then could be disastrous for the industry if people decided they no longer needed new clothes and demand went down (though honestly, how many of us have many more clothes that we need because we like them stylistically?).

The capitalists and workers have parallel discussions regarding the cloth midway through the film. Both are initially pleased by it, thinking it a wonder, before realizing the personal implications on their future. The workers fear job loss, and the industrialists exhibit signs of greed. In the beginning of the discussion between Textile Mill owners, Birnley, the owner of the plant in which Stratton worked and made the discovery asserts that “Some individuals will suffer temporarily, but I will not stand in the way of progress.” He then points out inventions like the Cotton Gin, which changed the way textile manufacturing worked. He argues this would be the “greatest step forward” but another industrialist counters “over a precipice.” This latter Capitalist argues that the prior innovations increased production, whereas this would decrease production and therefore cripple the industry, and that’s when Birnley’s mind is swayed.

Outside, the workers look at Stratton’s brilliantly white new suit, some praising it, while others look on cynically arguing that owners would never go for it. One quips, “What do you think happened to all the other things? The razor blade that doesn’t get blunt? The car that runs on water with a pinch of something else?” indicating that they never were produced, they stayed figments of the imagination.

This line brings up the point that this tale is truly an allegory and any innovation could be substituted for this “miracle cloth”. In fact the film was prescient, in that 50 years later a documentary would be made on exactly how Industry Leaders (and others who benefited from the status quo) prevented another innovation from occurring. That film was called Who Killed The Electric Car? This premise is no longer a work of fiction.

In fact, at the end of The Man In The White Suit, it turns out the miracle cloth was unstable and ended up disintegrating, ending the threat. So in reality, it was just the prospect of change that caused all the panic- the worker strikes; the industrialists kidnapping and attempting to bribe Stratton; and the angry mob chasing him down and threatening his life.

This brings me to the spiritual implications of the film. Our hero, Stratton, holds many noble qualities. He is altruistic, he is committed to knowledge, he does not care about pay or credit for his findings, and in fact is willing to share the credit. However he is naïve. In fact, by the end of the film there are only two people on his side, the main female character Daphne, Birnley’s daughter (played by Joan Greenwood), and a little girl of about 7, indicating that only the innocent and idealistic truly have humanity and not their own self interest at heart.

Can we truly not be self-interested? Or at least can we not be short-sighted and think of the longer term benefits? In the long term the cloth (or the electric car, or whatever else) can better society, but in the short term it takes so much effort for the individual to fight the interests of those “in charge”.

In fact, one could look at the founders of major world religions to see how people react to change, even positive change, which they do not understand. Jesus was crucified for bringing a new message, and Bahá’u’lláh was imprisoned and exiled for forty years for ushering in a new day. Or if you are into politics you could look at the Progressive movement during either turn of the century and the recent US election of Barack Obama.

On that I will end with a quote from Bahá’u’lláh which counsels us regarding insight and greed:

“O children of understanding! If the eyelid, however delicate, can deprive man’s outer eye from beholding the world and all that is therein, consider then what would be wrought if the veil of covetousness were to descend upon his inner eye. Say: O people! The darkness of greed and envy becloudeth the radiance of the soul even as the clouds obstruct the light of the sun.”

~ Bahá’u’lláh, from The Tabernacle of Unity