Sunday, April 12, 2009

Our fate (and book) is still unwritten

Marjorie Morningstar (U.S., 1958) directed by Irving Rapper, 128 painful minutes

I have been intrigued by this film for some time and was further reminded of it by the publication of The Red Leather Diary which one reviewer said resembles, in part, the plot of this film, based on the book by Herman Wouk. I subjected R to this film the other night ... it was painfully melodramatic and somewhat reactionary but muted in its conservative message compared to the actual book apparently.

The other thing that struck me was finding a article saying that despite the conservative message, many women are quite taken with the book. Hmm, you had me at hello darling ...

Marjorie Morgenstern (Natalie Wood) is a student at Hunter College, as was Florence Wolfson, the young diarist of The Red Leather Diary (see previous blog). Her parents expect her to marry an affluent Jewish boy who is aggressively courting her.

But instead Marjorie breaks up with the boy and decides to work at a summer camp in the Catskills as a camp counselor for girls. Marjorie and her friend Marsha Zelenko (nice Jewish girl Carolyn Jones?) sneak across to the South Wind, an upscale Jewish resort for adults (a real resort but now defunct). Coincidentally, the South Wind was a famous resort begun by Florence Wolfson's future brother-in-law, her husband Nat Howit's brother, now presently owned by a Christian ministry (yikes).

At the resort where she gets a cleaning job, she enters into a relationship with Noel Airman (Gene Kelly), the resident prima donna and an aspiring writer of Broadway musicals who coordinates the production numbers for the resort. She also forms a friendship with aspiring playwright Wally Wronkin (Martin Milner). Airman, formerly the more Jewish sounding Ehrman, is the one who gives Marjorie Morgenstern her new name - Marjorie Morningstar.

Marjorie wants to be an actress. I think we are meant to think that she is awful (and she is) and has little hope of succeeding despite Noel's attentions and assistance. When Marjorie's Uncle Sampson, played by the comic actor Ed Wynn who is featured in long winded comic bits which don't help the film at all, dies of a heart attack at the camp (as he was sent there by her mother to keep an eye on her) Marjorie returns to NYC and breaks off the relationship. This is a bit inexplicable, what does the uncle's death have to do with her relationship with Noel? Noel has nothing whatsoever to do with his death.

Noel finds Marjorie and declares his love for her even though like a good Jewish girl she is now dating a doctor. Part of Noel's resistance and objection to committing to Marjorie is that he refuses to be part of her bourgeois little world (of course he doesn't use these words but they are equally scathing and unpleasant). He claims that she is a "Shirley", just a nice Jewish girl destined for marriage. Not so explicitly stated is that she is also holding out on him sexually. One book review mentioned that the book drags on for hundreds of pages regarding her hesitation.

Noel tries to conform to Marjorie's conventional family life by attending a Passover meal with her family but he storms out and later Noel says, "I was disturbed, deeply. I couldn’t help thinking of all the things I’ve missed in life. Family, your kind of family. Faith, tradition. All the things I’ve been ridiculing all the time. That’s why I couldn’t take it anymore. I love you very much, Marjorie Morgenstern."

Noel, succumbing to the pressures of being "respectable", gets a job at an advertising agency but this doesn't last long. He soon disappears from work and Marjorie finds him at his apartment with a strange woman, drunk. Depressed by the Broadway success of former underling Wally Wronkin, Noel is consumed with jealousy. One more reason, I think, to drop this preening loser Marjorie ... he treats you badly, can't seem to get his life together then castigates anyone who seems to lead a "normal", successful, happy life. And the attraction is what? Her insipid devotion to him boggles the mind even within this constricted, claustrophobic 50s atmosphere.

When Noel and Marjorie fight that day in his apartment, he implies that he is an emotional mess because she won't submit to his sexual demands. You can almost see the dim little light above her head light up ... fade to black and they are living together much to her parents' displeasure and she is encouraging him in his songwriting career.

As a favour to Noel, Wally Wronkin, now a Broadway success, convinces investors to meet with Noel to invest in his musical production "Princess Jones". Despite Noel's hissy fit and insulting behavior at the pitch the investors proceed and the play is produced and panned by the critics. Like a coward, he runs away to Europe, away from Marjorie and his failure. She tries to find him. Wally tips her off that Noel has gone back to South Wind; at least there he can be a big fish in a little pond.

Determined to win him back she goes to South Wind but seeing that he is now in his element and happy, she decides to leave him be. The film ends on a "happy" note, with Wally waiting for Marjorie (he has been in love with her the whole time) and the implication is that she has come to her senses and will now form a more healthy relationship with Wally.

Within a certain historical context, it is easy to comprehend why women yielded to this pressure to conform in the 50s, even actively wanted to return to a more domestic sphere and traditional roles. Men had returned from the war in the mid 40s, some shell-shocked, physically damaged and having seen unspeakable things. It is understandable that they were anxious to pursue a more conventional, traditional life style. They wanted "normalcy", peace, a family. That's fine ... except not everyone could fit into that comfortable little box of conformity and often were castigated and ostracized when they did not.

Wouk, in my reading of the reviews of the book and his life (I'm sorry I cannot bring myself to read this 565 page reactionary behemoth), seems to want to punish Marjorie for wanting more than domesticity. In one interview Wouk said he was just reflecting "real life" in this book and in other pieces I've read it suggested that he was writing about his sister's own unhappy experiences. The book's ending is much crueler than the film's.

This from the article cited above:

In the final nine pages, the formerly vibrant Marjorie gives up on her career, gets married ... and moves to Westchester. She is one of the lucky ones, Wouk seems to be arguing, a fallen woman fortunate enough to land a nice Jewish doctor who can forgive her straying from the virtuous path: "He took her as she was, with her deformity … that could no longer be helped; a permanent crippling, like a crooked arm."

And from the book itself: "You couldn't write a play about her that would run a week, or a novel that would sell a thousand copies. … The only remarkable thing about Mrs. Schwartz is that she ever hoped to be remarkable, that she ever dreamed of being Marjorie Morningstar."

Well, clearly Mr. Wouk you are wrong. Marjorie, and women like her, still fascinate us. Her fate was sealed in your book but ours is still unwritten.

Wolfson is nothing like Morningstar except in the most superficial way: two Jewish girls growing up in New York with overbearing mothers and aspirations for an artistic life. The real Wolfson was strong, independent, sexually adventurous. Marjorie, as pictured here in this film, is naive, easily manipulated, hopelessly devoted to a cad and a loser. No, I think that that earlier comparison that I referred to was silly. Despite Wolfson settling down to domesticity in Connecticut, I really admired her fire and intellectual curiosity as exemplified in her diary.

Marjorie Morningstar doesn't hold up beyond the 50s stereotype ... let it mercifully sink into obscurity.

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