Thursday, April 2, 2009

Can your Spam: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

I was leery of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1957): Gregory Peck, Jennifer Jones, technicolor, big budget "message" picture. I couldn't help but be reminded of the Duel in the Sun (1946) debacle which ended weeks of agonizing with the white flag of "I don't know what to make of this." Well, I know what to make of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. The man is hot. As for the movie, it is at least closer to achieving its goals as a message picture than Duel in the Sun.

It's the story of Tom Rath, a war veteran who is hoping to get ahead in business and make his suburban home life a bit happier in the process. As Tom rides the train from Connecticut into Manhattan he flashes back to scenes of the Second World War. He remembers killing a young German soldier to get his winter coat, accidentally killing his best friend with a grenade and the shell-shock episode it triggered. He spends a fair amount of time reliving his own version of Roman Holiday, in which he has an affair with starving Italian woman named Maria (Marisa Pavan) who is so completely charming, self-sacrificing, vulnerable and out and out stupid that one feels very conflicted about his behavior toward her. On one hand he's a complete rat for not trying harder to look her up after the war, on the other hand she's a woman who first slept with him for a can of SPAM, knew that he was married and still wanted to have his baby on her own.

Jennifer Jones plays Betsey Rath, who at first appears to be a '50s suburban Lady MacBeth, but grows more likable as the film goes on, especially as it becomes inevitable that she's going to get it with both barrells full of the truth about her hubby's history with canned meat prositutes. There is a somewhat tedious subplot about Tom's new boss, Mr. Hopkins, at the TV network (Frederick March) and his troubled home life. As good it as it is to see March onscreen with Ann Harding who plays his wife, the whole thing is handled with enormous ham (SPAM?) fists. Hopkins warns Tom that he has to take care of his family while he has a chance, lamenting the son lost in the war and the daughter "lost" to an unwise elopement. Conveniently for Tom, his moral dilemma about whether he should be spending so much time at the office when he knows he should be taking care of his own troubled brood is solved when his boss gives him permission to simply be a "9 to 5 man." Dilemma solved. Now it's home to mop up a small raft of "Father Knows Best" scale crises and of course the problem like Maria.

One of the more astringent aspects of the movie is a fairly harsh criticism of the way that television effects the average family. The Rath's children are creepily strung out on violent westerns and more than a little morbid for it. This seems a bit rich coming from the movie industry, which can't exactly claim to have never put a bad idea in a child's head. Consider also that TV was killing the studio system that was making big technicolor message pictures like this and it seems more than a little hypocritical. Mr. Hopkins, a man who has supposedly spent his whole life building a television network to the detriment of his personal life, tells Tom "Turn the TV off. Kick it in if you have to. Spend time with your kids."

For all this raging hypocrisy, what makes The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit interesting is not just the actual man in the gray flannel suit, because if you've learned anything from this blog, it won't surprise you that I really enjoyed Peck's performance. ( The movie is a good showcase of a wide range of emotions and when he's not skillfully emoting just enough he's projecting integrity all over the parts of the movie that are a little bit thin.) It works as a message about the dangers of materialism because it is so steeped in the 1950s that its trying to decry. Every piece of set decoration, from the gleaming Herman Miller furniture in Tom's new office to his pretty secretary, clad in a skin tight gray flannel wiggle dress is a seductive reminder of just how wonderful it was to have decade of pure self-indulgence and confidence after the Depression and the War and how completely wrong it was for the country to undergo those two calamities for mere prosperity. With a total absence of prosperity you have Italian women selling their bodies for commodity grade meat and meat byproducts and with too much prosperity you have Jennifer Jones wanting her husband to sell his soul for a new washing machine. Rath is walking a tight rope of "safe choices" that will both keep his family in reasonable comfort and his conscience from keeping him awake nights. While working on a PR campaign for the network on behalf of mental health, Tom has to choose between being a yes man or telling the truth. I couldn't help but wish that he'd told the truth about his own break with "mental health" during the war, but it really is cataclysmic enough for him to say, "I thought your approach on this speech was wrong."

Feeling so good about speaking truth to power, Tom decides to speak truth to Betsey and then things get a bit crazy. He ends up tackling her on the lawn. The movie pulls out of a total lust in the dust tailspin as Betsey decides to forgive Tom and help set up a trust fund for his son in Italy and I'm assuming a life time supply of SPAM for the mother. So here I am again defending yet another movie where a guy cheats on his wife and she forgives him. Well, yes and no. I'm left with lingering doubts about his truthfulness about Maria. For someone who is supposedly long forgotten he sure thinks about her a lot, spending as much time daydreaming about the good times as feeling bad about leaving her preggers in a war zone. His final "I worship you" to Betsey rings as hollow as an empty tin of SPAM blowing across the Piazza Navona. So yeah, maybe I am back to "I don't know what to make of this" but at least I won that bet with myself that I could reference SPAM in a blog post ten times. What's that you say, not quite there yet? Well, to paraphrase another PR man from this era, Jim Blandings, "If you're not eating WHAM, you're not eating ham."


Kittenbiscuits said...

Ok, first of all: I love everything about this post. I definitely needed a giggle tonight.

I'm a big Gregory Peck fan, and have been on somewhat of a Peck-a-thon (why do I feel so dirty for saying that?) for the last several months. Anyway, I watched this movie back in January and I enjoyed it.There were parts of the film that were most definitely thin--but GP's performance was great and kept me in it. I agree with you about the message on the dangers of materialism. I thought that was carried out quite well in the film. And I think I said this before commenting on your Duel in the Sun write-up, I'm not the biggest Jennifer Jones fan...but she is actually fairly tolerable in this one.

I have no earthly idea why, but I have this urge to make a fried Spam sandwich...

SteveQ said...

Ah, milk duds, good n plenty, popcorn and spam. True movie fare.

When I saw this one, for some reason it was double billed with "The Man in the White Suit." Other than similar titles, not much in common.

Kate Gabrielle said...

How on earth did I only just find your blog TODAY? I can't believe I've been missing this!

I just watched this movie for the first time recently, too and I think you summed it up perfectly in this sentence: With a total absence of prosperity you have Italian women selling their bodies for commodity grade meat and meat byproducts and with too much prosperity you have Jennifer Jones wanting her husband to sell his soul for a new washing machine..

It's just another reason why Gregory Peck is slowly creeping up my list of favorite actors.

Can't wait to go back now and read all of your other posts :)

Jennythenipper said...

Steve: Ha/ Man in the White Suit couldn't be further from this if you tried.

Kate: Hello, and welcome aboard!