When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
MidCentury Fragonard:  THE LADY TAKES A FLYER (1958)

A curvaceous, peaches-and-cream Lana Turner placed in a beige bathroom gives the viewer all the curvilinear and pastel frothiness of a work by Fragonard.


Under the leadership of Edward Muhl, the 1950s witnessed Universal Studios’ ascendancy from A-Notch-Above-Poverty Row grindhouse to Top Dawg moneymaker in the movie industry.  While other studios had a restrictive agenda to their films [M-G-M had its family values; Warner Brothers its social conscience; Paramount provided sophistication to the masses], Universal cut and pasted whatever was exciting in culture, framed it in successful genres, and amplified it to gave the audience a thrill:  whether it was a battle to the death between Frankenstein and the Wolf Man, Abbott and Costello mugging through yet another variation on “Who’s on First,” or showing teenage warbler Deanna Durbin getting her first screen kiss.

So when TV became the new cultural storyteller and the financial underpinnings of the studio system were dissolved by a few legal decisions, other studios panicked (e.g., in order to attract crowds, M-G-M killed off the ultimate symbol of their studio — Mrs. Miniver — in 1950’s THE MINIVER STORY*) while Universal raked in the cash by saturating the market with films like CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON in 3-D and Douglas Sirk’s operatic melodrama MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION.

A sharply packaged audience-pleaser such as THE LADY TAKES A FLYER is a perfect example of the satisfying-yet-disposable Universal product of that era.  This project was probably bumped up to a greenlight because a 1957 fire on Universal’s backlot would have made this an easy choice to go into production, since the locations are mainly interiors and airstrips.

The studio’s homegrown leading man Jeff Chandler was teamed with recently at-liberty Lana Turner (who had been dropped by MGM after more than 15 years at the studio).  Both amply supplied the screen with eye-candy.  The script had a narrative arc that cycled from “Meet Cute” (boy aviator meets girl aviator) to the ever-present 1950s glandular crossroads of sexuality versus domesticity, to a taught crisis-in-the-skies dramatic finale.  The result is a burstingly sensual yet Modernist look at a mid-American dream life circa 1958.

Nothing gives more information about daily life in 1958 than Lana driving a red-and-white Dodge convertible to a midcentury tract home.

The MidCentury palette and design sense — when filtered through Universal’s culture machine — created an All American bourgeois Rococo confection; and though I label it as a ‘disposable’ movie (the intention of all films produced before film history appreciation developed in the 1960s), it has enough craft and significance to be enjoyed in multiple viewings.

Lots of its visual richness is due to director Jack Arnold and art director Alexander Golitzen.  Jack Arnold was a master of timing within a screen frame, having perfected balletic celluloid choreography by previously matching up actors and special effects in other Universal films such as TARANTULA and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN.  He could place and move actors in a shot so the pace never stalled.  Russian refugee Alexander Golitzen (real name: Prince Alexander Alexandrovich Galitzine) received 11 of his 14 Oscar nominations for his work at Universal (from the chichi and splashy Technicolor delirium ARABIAN NIGHTS, to the jukebox neons of THIS ISLAND EARTH, to his Oscar-winning black-and-white work on TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, finishing with the ‘seventies disaster film EARTHQUAKE).  His design strategy in THE LADY TAKES A FLYER created a visual theme that resembled nothing less than a MidCentury version of scenes by the 18th Century Rococo master Jean-Honoré Fragonard in its choices of color and textures.

Buttery yellows and coffee browns broken by plump whites.

Producer William Alland had collaborated with Jack Arnold on a string of solid sci-fi films including CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, but this change of focus and tone worked just as well.  Alland repeated FLYER‘s formula the same year with another good time-filler, RAW WIND IN EDEN, also starring Jeff Chandler and another refugee from M-G-M, Esther Williams.  This time — instead of Arnold directing — he brought in an old friend from his days with Orson Welles:  Richard Wilson.  (In his pre-producer career as an actor, Alland had played “Mr. Thompson,” the always-silhouetted reporter who interviewed the principals in CITIZEN KANE)

The year after THE LADY TAKES A FLYER Universal’s wildly successful double-header of binary-opposite hits, PILLOW TALK and IMITATION OF LIFE, gave Hollywood the brand and character to follow for popcorn cinema in the next decade.  FLYER doesn’t match those criteria, but — as concocted fluff that crystalizes the moment in which it was made — it’s a movie that gives many pleasures.

*  [The death of Mrs. Miniver in THE MINIVER STORY is NOT a spoiler; she receives the news of her terminal illness in the first few minutes of the film.]

Doug / PoMo Joan

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