When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
Adultery circa 1947: MGM’s Desire Me & Warner’s The Unfaithful

In order to build allies as World War 2 approached, the Hollywood film industry at the request of the federal government began incorporating aspects of Latin American culture in its films: glamorizing locales such as Rio and Buenos Aires, incorporating Latin culture in costume design (such as Edith Head’s designs for Barbara Stanwyck in 1941’s THE LADY EVE, starting a trend for boleros and gaucho hats as fashion accessories), and moving away from reliance on tap-dancing in musicals by bringing in Latin music tempos and sophisticated South American dance styles.

I don’t have any proof, but I’m beginning to think that a similar public policy intervention occurred after the war. It was a time of serious readjustment: just watch THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES which achingly dramatized this period of returning unemployed, traumatized, alienated and sometimes disfigured war veterans, and the women who loved — or used to love — them.

In 1947, a pair of films from ideologically and aesthetically opposite movie studios were released on the taboo subject of soldiers’ wives having extra-marital affairs while their husbands were at war. Wholesome M-G-M approached this in their glossy, squeaky-clean style in DESIRE ME, while Warner Brothers, home of the gangster movie, brought out their usual sex and violence to illustrate adultery in THE UNFAITHFUL.

George Cukor directs actress Greer Garson in DESIRE ME (1947).

DESIRE ME is an absorbing mess. It doesn’t have a director’s credit since the project passed through so many creative hands (including George Cukor and Mervyn LeRoy). Also the script employs a labyrinth of improbable plotpoints in order to justify its forbidden topic; there are so many constructions that the story reveals itself more as an ethereal abstraction than a narrative: more of a Noh theatre work than a Saturday night date flick. I’ve seen the movie twice and I still can’t discern if the lonely wife (played by Greer Garson) and her husband’s buddy (Richard Hart) are actually Doin’ The Big Nasty: sometimes it looks like they’re emoting physical satisfaction, sometimes they behave as if they’ve been chewing on marijuana brownies.

Conversly, there’s no doubt of the sexual activity in Warner Brothers’ THE UNFAITHFUL starring the most carnal of Warner’s female stars, Ann Sheridan. The film is a remake of Bette Davis’ classic THE LETTER, but with clever twists in order to keep the institution of marriage intact.

<em>Hubba-hubba!!</em>  The carnal Ann Sheridan

Hubba-hubba!! The carnal Ann Sheridan

While THE LETTER is the story of a married woman on a Malayan rubber plantation who shoots her on-the-side lover in a rage of jealousy, THE UNFAITHFUL‘s wife lives in suburban Los Angeles and kills her former wartime lover in self-defense after he breaks into her house and attempts to rape her. [The narrative lifted from THE LETTER is the MacGuffin element: the wife must retrieve incriminating evidence in the possession of the dead lover’s widow.] Unlike Davis’ character, who is punished for her adultery in the script with a dramatic death in accordance to the Hammurabi-like Motion Picture Production Code, Ann Sheridan’s character and her husband (Zachary Scott) are encouraged by a family friend to work at keeping the marriage functioning and intact despite the public scandal and humiliation. (The family friend was performed by actor Lew Ayres, whose presence adds curious subtext as he was perhaps the only Hollywood star to serve out World War 2 as a Conscientious Objector.) The movie itself is a great example of that delicious sub-genre of Southern California Film Noir, complete with fascinating location photography on the streets of 1940s L.A., including City Hall and Angel’s Flight. Plus, not enough can be written about director Vincent Sherman: in THE UNFAITHFUL he demonstrates again that few directors could choreograph strong diagonals of actor- and camera-blocking as well as he could; plus this movie displays some of his most artistic use of deep space.

As for DESIRE ME, any movie that casts Robert Mitchum as a simple-living Gallic fisherman is in deep trouble from the Get Go. Then there are the far-fetched hoops the script jumps through in order to set up the cohabitation of Mitchum’s wife and his POW-camp buddy in a French seaside cottage. Yet the final reel delivers the identical message as THE UNFAITHFUL: make a clean confession and work on strengthening the marriage. In both movies, neither female character is “punished” for her vice.

Why would the Production Code allow THE UNFAITHFUL to be made? And why the heck would M-G-M tackle a piece of work like DESIRE ME in the first place? Perhaps the clue is in Greer Garson’s line when confessing her transgressions to Robert Mitchum: “It’s not a new story these days…” Marriage in the United States was on shaky ground after the war, as whirlwind wartime romances and quickie marriages became a post-war rude awakening of domesticity and responsibilities. The dialog in THE UNFAITHFUL made cogent points about the wives’ uncertainties and isolation during the war: not knowing if her man was dead or alive, looking for months at his picture and hoping for a letter. I think these films were attempting to defuse a social problem of soldiers returning to the shock of discovering their women had not been as chaste and patient as they had promised in their letters.

In 1946 the U.S. divorce rate was at an all-time high of almost 20% (and would drop annually for the four years after these films were released). Did these films have that sort of influence? Could these films have been part of a national campaign to save American Marriage? A look into the importance of movies and movie-going in that era could make a strong affirmative answer to these questions.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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