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George Marshall had a flair for wild comedy. In his best movies, Hold That Coed, Destry Rides Again, Valley of the Sun, True to Life, Murder, He Said, The Perils of Pauline, and The Mating Game, Marshall showed a Raoul Walsh-like enthusiasm and zest, combined with a feel for nutty incongruity. Marshall has never developed any reputation at all among film critics; he might as well be completely invisible in histories of American film. Partly this is because he has directed many second rate epics; partly it is because comedy films are less studied and respected than other genres of film.
Marshall never had any feeling for or interest in the zany rich. His films do therefore not fit anywhere into the screwball paradigm of 30's comedy. Nor do they involve uncontrollable human dynamos overcoming everything in their paths, as do so many of the screwballs. Marshall's is essentially a middle class sensibility, like most of his characters. The archetypal situation in a Marshall film involves a character trying to negotiate his way into some complex situation, thereby trying to find a home for himself or herself. The process of negotiation resembles a middle class person's struggles in daily life, not the high-energy extravaganzas of other comedy directors. The desired goal is less conformist than it sounds: in several of his films, the negotiator completely overturns established criminal orders. Always society has to adapt to the Marshall protagonist, whereas the protagonist tends to change less. The secondary characters in Marshall films, those who make up the social situation being navigated, are also far from being an undifferentiated mass. Each one of them is a individualized character in his own right, with as many human needs as the hero, and just as actively engaged in negotiating their way towards their goals. Marshall, and his audiences, have enormous sympathy for most of the characters in the films. Even the bad guys, whose behavior is firmly censured by the director, are seen as individuals who have taken a wrong path, not as impersonal menaces. But they have feelings too, and generate a great deal of sympathy.
Marshall's feelings are always for eccentrics. The sheriff who refuses to use a gun, in Destry, the nutty family in True to Life, Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline, are celebrated by the director for being different. Not to mention the hillbillies in Murder, He Said. True to Life has the potential to become a minor cult film, along the lines of as Preston Sturges' more major work, Sullivan's Travels. Like that film, it explores the relation of life and art, and makes some philosophical points along the way. However, Marshall' film is less coherent at making satirical observations than Sturges', and is most successful simply regarded as a comedy. Still, True to Life has the abilities to sustain its surrealism with remarkable logic, depth and duration.
Murder, He Said, a more famous work of Marshall's, seems to me to be only intermittently interesting. It is afflicted with the story telling dullness that swamps The Blue Dahlia, and many of Marshall's lesser movies. It is eccentric throughout, and filled with genuine strangeness, however, so it definitely worth watching. The plot reaches its best moments in the dinner scene, one of Marshall's showpieces.
Marshall's best Westerns, Destry Rides Again and Valley of the Sun, seem to attack the conventions of the genre. Destry refuses to carry a gun; Valley is sympathetic to the Indians, and portrays whites who exploit them as bad guys. There seems to be a systematic critique or subversion of the genre here, an attempt to find its failures and satirize them. Throughout his career, Marshall carefully stood outside the conventions of Hollywood's favorite genres. Both Westerns have a great deal of comedy, some of it satirizing Western conventions. The comic Western is an unusual hybrid for their day, when Westerns tended to be much more grimly serious. Valley has a great comic gag with a cricket bat.
Marshall's attack on convention usually has a political slant, as well. The nonviolence advocated by Destry and the sympathy for the Indians in Valley express a liberal social critique of the genre. Marshall's other films occasionally express liberal ideas as well. Hold That Coed is startlingly full of women's lib. The Blue Dahlia's battle shocked soldier, played by William Bendix, is a welcome contrast to all the war is good propaganda crap turned out by post war Hollywood films.
Both of these films also display a persistent theme in Marshall's work: two men pursuing the same woman. There is a great deal of attention paid in terms of screen time to what might be called techniques of pursuit. There are endless wild and crazy schemes, in Valley and in True to Life, to maneuver women into a more receptive situation. Marshall's films seem to celebrate male sexual aggressiveness. True to Life, in fact, ends with Franchot Tone's howling like a wolf to celebrate his sexual promiscuity, a scene that is as startling in 1993 as it must have been in 1943.
The woman is hardly a pushover; her resistance to all sorts of come-ons usually leaves her in control of the romantic situation. The woman is presented as much more normal and sensible than these scheming males, and is usually treated as the sympathetic, moral center of gravity. On the more villainous flip side, there is the hero's coolly adulterous wife in The Blue Dahlia. She is just as much in control of the sexual situation as are her more virtuous sisters in the other films.
Marshall's women tend to gainfully employed, such as Lucille Ball's cook in Valley of the Sun. At one point in that film, a character discourages her from marrying, by saying that anyone can get married, but a good cook is hard to find.
There are also some consistently strong women in Marshall's films, treated as comic presences, it is true, but vividly and powerfully drawn none the less. They include Joan Davis' football player in Hold That Coed, Betty Hutton's stunt woman in The Perils of Pauline, and Marjorie Main's unforgettable hillbilly Matriarch-with-a-whip in Murder, He Said. These women are not only strong emotionally, they are actually physically strong athletes, as well. Rochelle Hudson's gangster-battling mother in Show Them No Mercy is perhaps a more serious incarnation of the same heroine.
Among other Westerns, When the Daltons Rode is a mediocre adventure story, mainly notable for some good action stunt work. Red Garters, a Western musical, is one of Hollywood's most startling experiments. Whereas Marshall's other films tend to quietly subvert genres, Red Garters is a full frontal assault on both Western conventions, and Hollywood's traditions itself. Shot on non-naturalistic sets painted in brilliant avant garde colors, including a red sky, Marshall's film is a rare attempt to interrupt naturalistic illusions in a Hollywood film.
Marshall's talents seem to lie largely in the comic area, and his crime films are less successful. Show Them No Mercy is an unusual gangster film for the early 1930's, in that its sympathies are with a family the gangsters have taken hostage, and not with the gangsters themselves. The beginning of this film is atmospheric; its bulk is tedious; its finale has a startling violent sequence, that once again displays Marshall's talents for surrealism.
The Blue Dahlia is a disappointing crime film. With an original script from private eye author Raymond Chandler, most people would expect more. Perhaps the most interesting thing about The Blue Dahlia is its genre. Although it is a black and white crime film starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, set in LA after World War II, this film is NOT a film noir. The term "film noir" is not easily defined, but this film lacks most of the characteristics associated with this genre. There is no paranoia, or sense of malevolent persecuting forces. Everyone in this film seems in control of their own fate and responsible for their own lives. The principal characters do not suffer from neurosis, obsessions or psychological problems. The times or society do not seem out of joint. Instead, The Blue Dahlia would have to be described as a mystery story, or who-dun-it. The principal suspects are even gathered into one room at the end for a revelation of the guilty party, just as in an Agatha Christie novel. A couple of points are in order: Marshall has subtly but stubbornly refused to participate in contemporary genres here, just as he did with comedies throughout his career. The Blue Dahlia is no more a film noir than True to Life is a screwball comedy. Without being conspicuously avant-garde, this film simply ignores the film noir conventions of its day. Instead of the sweeping hysteria of film noir, Marshall's characters are simply quietly negotiating for the best deal they can get from a complex situation, as always. They want a home, as his characters always do. And if they got upset or obsessive, they wouldn't be on their toes for negotiating for their best shot. Secondly, literary critics, starting with Chandler himself, have made such a big deal about the avant-garde nature of Chandler's mystery fiction that they have forgotten that he is a literary mystery writer, unlike most noir scriptwriters, and has a strong commitment to the paradigms of the mystery story in his work. An extreme individualist like Chandler is perhaps more resistant to genre pressures of the Hollywood film than most screenwriters.