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Something To Live For

06 Aug

Something to Live For – produced and directed by George Stevens. Drama. 90 minutes Black And White 1952.

★★★

The Story: An alcoholic actress is rescued by an AA sponsor who falls in love with her.

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Made between George Stevens’ masterpieces, A Place In The Sun and Shane, this film seems to have no explanation for its existence at all. It is baffling to both to watch it at the time and to contemplate afterwards.

The story destroys it. It was written by Dwight Taylor, an experienced screenwriter, who certainly knew about dipsomania, since alcoholism was rife in his family: his mother was the greatest of all American actresses and alcoholics Laurette Taylor.

The film starts with Ray Milland, an AA doing outreach rescuing (by some inexplicable coincidence) an aspiring actress from a binge. He then 13-Steps her, by falling irrevocably in love with her. She loves acting, but is failing at it. We then learn Milland has a job as an art director in (by some inexplicable coincidence he is failing at it). He also has a pregnant wife and two children (one of whom by inexplicable coincidence turns up at a rendezvous between Milland and the actress). The actress also turns up at a party (by some inexplicable coincidence), which Milland and his wife attend. The wrap-up takes place at the actresses opening night on Broadway to which (by some inexplicable coincidence) his wife at the last minute obtains center-of-the-orchestra tickets. And so it goes.

Perhaps the rockiness of the script defeated George Stevens’ famed treatment and handling, but little of what he does resuscitates the narration. There are his shots through windows and there are his slow fades and there are his usual and unusual angles and set-ups – but none of this can seize the material: it is too slick for talent to grasp.

The problem also lies, as it often did with Stevens, in the casting, about which he could be lackadaisical. The Diary Of Ann Frank is ruined by miscasting the leading role with a teenage fashion model. Max Von Sydow a blue-eyed Swede, good actor though he is, is hardly a Middle-Eastern Jew named Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told. Elizabeth Taylor could never have been a showgirl we are asked to accept her as in The Only Game In Town.

Here we have three Academy Award actors in the major roles, and none of them belong in them. Teresa Wright as the little wife does her plaintive routine in a thankless role. But casting Ray Milland and Joan Fontaine as the art director and the actress smears the material, making it Englishish. Milland had won an Oscar for playing a drunkard in The Lost Weekend, and he is good here as a reformed alcoholic sexually obsessed with the actress, but, through no fault of his own, his particular vocal projection does not belong in this hard-headed New York City material.

And then there is Joan Fontaine, an actor almost always miscast, except as a country mouse. Her vocal projection is strangled. She always plays the flaxen-haired, vapid, flaccid, fair Rowena of Ivanhoe. The part is really meant for an actor who is willing to exploit her mean streak, as Bette Davis did to win an Oscar for doing the part in Dangerous. But Fontaine falls back on pathos, her stock in trade. (Even her hair-do seems miscast.) Stevens used her in a minor role in Gunga Din, where she is fine, and in Damsel In Distress dancing with Fred Astaire, in whose arms she is completely out of place, as here. Why?

Stevens sometimes used actors who just happened to be on the studio roster and lucking-out, as he did with Shane. But here, at Paramount, the skewed casting is exacerbated by the colliding of coincidence and by the forcing of drinks on the two recovering drunkards. Drinks are thrust at them, dangled before them, shoved on them, poured into their water glasses. Alcoholism does not work that way. Alcoholism is an inner mental condition, a lure in the physical system. It exists as a sovereign space in the imagination. Having once succumbed to the salvation of the first drink, the license to continue is unleashed. It is not a moral or ethical defect nor one of want of fiber, but a chronic disease, like diabetes. The script does not grasp this and the rendering of the material by the director does not show he understands it.

George Stevens was a director with flawless consideration for his audience and what they could do and were very willing to do. I would love to understand why he thought he could do anything for an audience with this cast in this material at all. But it is interesting how each work of a master is not necessarily a masterpiece. For, as W. Somerset Maugham pointed out, only the mediocre achieve a level.

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
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