We hear all the time about how different things are today than they were in generations past. But how much has really changed? Sure, we rely on technology for making life faster, easier, better or even worse, but human nature? Not so much. Human nature is, and always be, static. So, with that in mind, here are some of the best films ever made – each with its own moral quagmire of how it was handled at the time. Careful – you just might recognize your own struggles in some of these plots.
The Naked Kiss ‘64
Prostitution, Abortion, Blackmail, Child Molestation, Murder
This film was just on TCM and I remember why I love it so. Kelly, played by Constance Towers, is a prostitute who moves to a new town and decides to earn her living in a more noble and moral way. She meets the wealthiest man in the region, who promptly proposes. He financed a children’s hospital wing and then kept it flush with cash. Kelly admits to Grant all of her dark secrets and to her surprise, he doesn’t judge her and still wants to marry her. As her wedding day approaches, she picks up her wedding gown and rushes home to try it on again. She walks in on Grant molesting one of the patient’s from the children’s wing of the hospital. She kills him and then doesn’t deny it. The little girl has blocked the rape from her mind and there are enough people who dislike her enough to not give her an alibi. Unfortunately, her one friend, Buff, even declined to tell the truth. Kelly had given her a few thousand dollars to help her with the birth of a baby, one that she was planning to abort until Kelly gave her enough money to get her started in a life that did not include prostitution.
The clip below comes from the darkest part of the film. Still creeps me out, partly because of the music playing (Kelly taught the song to the children). By today’s standards, this is a very sanitized approach, but it lands right where it’s supposed to. But first, here’s one of the quotes:
Kelly trying to talk Buff, out of becoming a prostitute:
All right, go ahead. You know what’s different about the first night? Nothing. Nothing… except it lasts forever, that’s all. You’ll be sleeping on the skin of a nightmare for the rest of your life. Oh, you’re a beautiful girl, Buff. You’ll get clothes, compliments, cash… And you’ll meet men you live on… and men who live on you. And those are the only men you’ll meet. And, after a steady grind of making every john feel at home, you’ll become a block of ice. You’ll be every man’s wife-in-law, and no man’s wife. Your world will become so warped that you’ll hate all men. And you’ll hate yourself! Because you’ll become a social problem, a medical problem, a MENTAL problem!… And a despicable failure as a woman.
Adultery, Vanity, Greed, Betrayal
One of my favorite films, Dodsworth, is chock-full of ironies that many can relate to today. Samuel Dodsworth (Walter Huston) has just sold the automobile manufacturer he spent his life building. The goal was to spend time with his wife Fran, do a bit of traveling and make up for all of those long days at the office. He wanted to enjoy some of the wealth he spent a lifetime building. His wife, demanding, materialistic and selfish, was happy that she could finally break away from their dreaded small hometown. They set off on a cruise where she promptly dismisses her adoring husband in lieu of other men. He was understanding and tried to maintain perspective. Finally, his wife, played by Ruth Chatterton, decided she needed a divorce. She said she no longer wished to be his wife.
Some married couples have these sweet sayings they share between themselves; they’re intimate, special and important. For Dodsworth, even as the missus insists he leave and actually delivers him to the train station to ensure he boards, he made one last ditch effort to keep the woman he loves. As he’s standing on the platform, he looks down to her and says, for the second time in the film, “Did I remember to tell you today that I adore you?” I wish I could find that scene – it’s heartbreaking, really.
The divorce is moving along and Sam Dodsworth decides to take his time returning to the States. He needs to appear in court for the divorce in Italy anyway. In an American Express office, he runs into Edith Cortright, a woman who watched from a distance how poorly Dodsworth was being treated by his wife (this scene plays out below). She invites him to her home for lunch and before the day was over, she invited him to move in with her, which he promptly did. At the last minute, his wife tracks him down at Edith’s home, where he’s now living and tells him she no longer wants a divorce. Sam and Edith have fallen in love and have made plans for their future. Dodsworth tries to explain to Edith that his wife needs him. She reminds him of how miserable he was before and how much happier he’s become in those weeks they’ve been together.
If you ever see the film, don’t forget the extraordinarily revealing wardrobe that Fran wore. Think women show the girls off in today’s society? Fran wrote the book.
Sam and Edith have run into each other and she’s just asked him to stay with her as he waits for the divorce to become final:
Edith Cortright: Would you like to enjoy life for a while?
Sam Dodsworth: Show me how.
After Fran finds Sam at Edith’s and begs him to return to her (she’s been dumped by a younger man – specifically, she’s been dumped by the younger man’s mother), this is the moment Sam realized he made a mistake by returning to her. These were the last words they spoke to one another:
Fran: Are you going back to that washed-out expatriate in Naples?
Sam: Yes, and when I marry her, I’m going back to doing things.
Fran: Do you think you’ll ever get me out of your blood?
Sam: Maybe not, but love has got to stop someplace short of suicide.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ‘58
Homosexuality, Drug Abuse, Alcoholism
Liz Taylor and Paul Newman in the same film? And it’s set in the south? Well, then, it has to be Tennessee Williams, right?
I can still hear Big Daddy hollering for Big Momma and Maggie the Cat (Liz Taylor) yelling for Brick (Newman). Brick and Maggie are married and it’s clear Brick carries a mighty heavy burden. Turns out, he’s gay and the man he was in love with killed himself when Brick married Maggie. Big Daddy would have killed him, so this is a secret he and Maggie carried for years. Maggie loves her husband and wants nothing more for him to be her husband in every sense of the word. Instead, she realizes she’s in a loveless marriage with an alcoholic who’s in love with a dead man.
There are so many great lines in this film, but this one is a conversation between Brick and Big Daddy (Burl Ives) after they’ve mended fences and after it’s understood that Big Daddy won’t be around much longer due to a cancer diagnosis. He’s in pain, and Brick wants to give him morphine:
Brick: It’ll kill the pain, that’s all.
Big Daddy: It’ll kill the senses too! You… you got pain – at least you know you’re alive. It’s easin’ somewhat now. When you got pain, it’s better to judge yourself of a lot of things. I’m not gonna stupify myself with that stuff. I wanna think clear. I want to see everything, and I want to feel everything. Then I won’t mind goin’. I’ve got the guts to die. What I want to know – do you have the guts to live?
This is just three of the thousands of films that could unfold in today’s society. Of course, the way we handle problems and deal with life have changed as we’ve evolved as a human race, but it’s that human nature that will never evolve – nor become perfect.