Sunday, March 3, 2024

Russell Watch: The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956)

Watched:  03/02/2024
Format:  Criterion
Viewing:  First
Director:  Raoul Walsh
Selection:  Pretty clearly it was me

Criterion Channel announced their lineup of "collections" for the month, and among them was a series of films starring Hollywood legend Jane Russell.  I count myself as a fan of Russell - she's got a certain fire and intelligence I always dig in her roles - and took a peek at what was offered.  Having seen half of the movies on the list, and not wanting Jamie to have to watch a western, I clicked on The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956) as it promised DeLuxe Color, widescreen photography and Hawaii.   

I can't say this was my favorite movie, but it was certainly *interesting* - for a medley of reasons.  It's a movie made post war about Hawaii in 1941, which gave the movie a framing I did not expect.  The basic story sounds like maybe the B or C plot to a more modern movie, but I do wonder if this movie didn't set that possibility of a plot into motion.

Mamie Stover (Russell) is a prostitute getting put on a boat to get her out of San Francisco (ie: she's getting run out of town by the cops, which makes you wonder what she'd gotten up to).  En route she meets a writer, Jim (Richard Egan), and they strike up a friendship as he considers her as a subject for his writing.  He's aware of her prior occupation, and he's pegged her story as one old as time.  The relationship turns romantic (I assume sexual, but 1956), and while Mamie offers to straighten up for him, Jim flat turns her down.  He's got a square society-dame girlfriend at home.

Jim isn't crazy for side-eyeing Mamie - she's clearly money-hungry and makes mistakes.  

Mamie lands a job at a club that's a clip joint/ brothel and does well.  Jim pops in to say hi, and they rekindle their romance (and assumed sexual relationship).  The classy girlfriend bails.  


Then, oops, Pearl Harbor happens.  Jim has to go to war, but Mamie takes her earnings and begins snapping up property.  Yes, she's a war profiteer, which used to be seen as a bad thing, not being a savvy capitalist.  She and and Jim make promises to each other as he heads off to war, but Mamie is talked into staying at the brothel by owner Agnes Moorehead (always the best), who really promotes her to the sailors and soldiers flooding in.

Anyway, a whole lot more happens tucked between these plot points, but the key is the ending where Jim finds out Mamie is back at the club, and - heart-broken - is able to furlough back to Hawaii where he breaks it off.  Mamie's better intentions were always there, but, he figures she can't not keep chasing money.  

Heartbroken, Mamie sells her properties on the island and returns to the mainland and heads back to the smalltown she said she would only go back to if she was rich, which she is not.  So.

I dunno.  

The movie seems like it's going to have a fresh take at the start as Mamie and Jim seem to get each other as folks working in a - for the movies - morally gray space.  Mamie's ambition and money grubbing is both declasse and off-putting.  But she's honest about what and who she is.  And Jim is honest about having a girl who suits him better - and as Mamie's a hooker, he absolutely treats her like one.

It's all weird, coded stuff.  Over years of watching mid-20th-century crime movies I've put together what a taxi dancer is, as well as what it's code for.  I get how Hollywood stages these things and what the characters mean talking around what's really happening (by the way, prostitution was legal, regulated and endorsed by the military in Hawaii during this period, which explains some of the very, very coded language in the film).  It's kind of mind-boggling how busy Mamie must have been to earn what she did.

On one hand, the movie seems incredibly progressive with the ability of a single woman (especially in a 1956 film) to carve her own path through any means necessary.  Realistically, she *should* have been able to walk away from the taxi dancer life once the US Military started renting property from her.  And she may be crass about what she's doing, but in an era of "great men of business" movies here in 2024, you know, fuck those guys.  This is about a dirt farmer's daughter from Mississippi who wants something more, has nothing and is living in a deeply patriarchal world, not someone designing sports cars or some shit.  

On the other hand, this is also a movie that is going to punish the living hell out of a woman for her ambition above bending to the demands of her wishy-washy boyfriend.  I mean - yeah, she went back on a promise, and I do like that the movie had him come in hot, and then just shrug realizing he wasn't going to be able to handle who she was.  Nonetheless, I didn't quite follow how that meant she left Hawaii empty-handed, even if she did decide to leave.  She still owns property.  She's still got stacks of cash, however she got it.

The movie suggests there's only two ways to go home again to a town like Leesburg, MS.  One is to come back broken and ashamed, and the other is to come back high rolling.  And the movie suggests she *chose* to give everything away and go back home broke.  Because of a dude.  And kind of a boring one at that.

Look, this movie is watchable 95% because Jane Russell is Jane Russell (and Agnes Moorehead is in some of it).  Russell is in the echelons of Monroe as a classic Hollywood beauty, and this movie is not shy about that fact - it's not implicit, it's explicit and part of the story.  Her competition in the film is Joan Leslie, who isn't a featherweight, and there's never any doubt who the camera loves more, and therefore who wins Jim's eye.  

But Russell's Mamie Stover is also a fighter using the tools at her disposal, and it feels very 1956 to insist she crumble at the end because of a failed love affair.  Maybe if Jim were anywhere near in the same league of being an interesting, sympathetic or good guy.  But he's just kind of "man" in the movie - even as he's catting around behind Joan Leslie with Mamie.  I assume the book works differently given the takes by critics of the day.

The movie is weirdly shot, sometimes switching between obvious sets and the actual location in the same scene.  Sometimes trying to do day-for-night in bright, Hawaiian mid-day sun.  But the color is punchy and pretty in the version we watched.  When Mamie goes from Brunette to flaming red-head, it's a startling change.  The greens and blues of the setting pop.  The dresses and lipstick, similar.  It also foregoes close-ups when it could (and maybe should) have them, putting distance between the viewer and our leads.

Anyway - I feel like this plot isn't bad, per se.  But it also feels like it should or could have been just one of the plotlines in something like From Here to Eternity.   Apparently the critics dinged the movie for shaving off the edginess from what was a popular novel at the time, so I assume there's some frank talk about sex and mercenary tendencies.  

I don't know how many stars I'd give the movie.  Parts of it were at least *interesting*, but I'm not sure I loved it or would immediately want to rewatch it.  But it does seem like a good one to remind folks that even at the height of film self-censorship, some curious stuff got through and was mainstream programming.  And the powers of some of Hollywood's best talent, like Russell, who could more or less carry a film about tying one's shoes, if need be.

No comments: