Shaggin’ in the Crabgrass

A personal favorite (but rarely visited) sub-genre of post-WWII American cinema – the sex in the suburbs picture – has been beautifully represented by two simultaneous releases from Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  This pair of excellent late 1950s B&W CinemaScope entries, 1957’s NO DOWN PAYMENT and 1959’s BLUE DENIM, are now available in limited-edition Blu-Rays.  They are both highly recommended for those who can find the time between country-club debauchery, barbecuing block parties and general mate swapping.

It all began with the end of the Second World War.  G.I. separation perks offered returning soldiers many opportunities, ranging from small business start-ups and college education to the delectable prospect of “owning your own home.”  The last was one probably the most popular.  In the mid-1950s, a modern two-bedroom house in the near-suburbs (with front lawn and backyard) could be had in Flushing for around $5000.  Or so I’ve been told.  When the new Moses (first name Robert) parted the urban sea of nabes to make room for modern super-lane throughways, the residents pondered their options.  They could either wait for affordable housing (aka, “the projects”) or flee to the pleasures of grassy havens, inflatable swimming pools, and domiciles with basement playrooms – all within commuting distance from the big, bad dirty city.

Queens (here in the East) became the rapidly over-crowded refuge for these gray-flanneled nomads, with their Betty Crocker wives and 2.3 children.  It was a pseudo-rural alternative.  More successful families could opt for the niceties of Jersey, upstate New York, Long Island and parts of Connecticut.  The migration was on.  Almost at once stories of naughty goings-on sifted back to the canyons of Manhattan and, more prominently, Hollywood.  The upwardly mobile Mad Men inhabitants were, frankly, having a ball.  Not to be outdone by the scandalous small-town shenanigans of Peyton Place (the book and the movie), commuters strutted their stuff in a barrage of after-hours revelry, once the 5:17 from New York pulled into the station and the kiddies were fed and sent to bed.

Fox, who snatched (no pun) the Peyton Place rights, was the major cinematic purveyor of this new type of movie and pastime.  The first sex in the burbs pic got a class-conscious kick-start with 1955’s View from Pompeii’s Head.  Universal followed with a duo of its own, Douglas Sirk’s magnificent obsessive All That Heaven Allows, and the more sordid Unguarded Moment (where “hot” teacher Esther Williams gets sexually stalked by rich, disturbed student John Saxon).  Hilda Crane (1956), again from Fox, continued the trend with shameful hussy divorcee returning to her burg from evil New York City and, essentially, opening for business.  This popularity in CinemaScope screen excitement (or arousal) promptly emboldened NO DOWN PAYMENT and then BLUE DENIM.  Soon, more studios joined the luau.  Columbia released perhaps the nastiest of the big studio titles, 1960’s Strangers When We Meet, MGM had All the Fine Young Cannibals, Paramount unleashed the noirish Mantrap (one of two movies directed by Edmond O’Brien, both of them dark).  And so on.

It was a given that comic jabs at this lifestyle would likewise be forthcoming.  And, thus, it came to pass.  Jose Ferrer, of all people, directed and starred in The High Cost of Loving, Doris Day and Richard Widmark entered the Tunnel of Love (Day’s last teaming with Rock Hudson in 1964 would result in Send Me No Flowers), Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward helped Joan Collins Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys, Bob Hope, in one of his best late comedies, became a Bachelor in Paradise (Hope also appeared in The Facts of Life, contemplating adultery with split-level neighbor Lucille Ball), and Kim Novak, who suffered through Strangers When We Meet, played it for yuks in Boy’s Night Out.  A plethora of pics into the mid-1960s produced the likes of A Rage to Live, A Guide for the Married Man, The Thrill of it All, Good Neighbor Sam, and Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed?  Even indies leaped on the bandwagon with Private Property and Look in Any Window.  As late as 1968 and ‘69, the genre was continually plucked with The Swimmer and The Arrangement.

 

But it’s NO DOWN PAYMENT and BLUE DENIM that best showcase these quintessential 1950s culture shocks, the reasons why explained below.  NO DOWN PAYMENT, simply put, is a 1950s American archeological footprint of the way we were, wanted to be and lived to regret.  The credits unfold over a myriad of suburban housing developments, catering to the flourishing twenty-and thirty-something middle class.  Sunrise Hills Estates, where this passion play pumps its High Test testosterone and estrogen, says it all, via a billboard, “Sunrise Hills…Better Living for Young Lovers.”

This is particularly enticing to the newest members of this unapologetically Stepfordian community, David and Jean Martin (Jeffrey Hunter and Patricia Owens).  They are immediately tagged by the hood’s leading denizens for a backyard barbecue.  This ritual is presided over by the most respectable couple in the yarn, The Kreitzers (Pat Hingle and Barbara Rush).  Also in attendance are the barely respectable white trash from Tennessee, Leola and Troy Boone (Joanne Woodward and Cameron Mitchell).

Talk almost at once turns to their competing Keeping up With the Joneses/Grass is Always Greener lifestyle (“We were born at the right time…Twenty years ago none of us could have afforded a house like this”).  This is essentially true, and it is never forgotten for a moment that Leola and Troy, both uneducated (no college) should be overly grateful for the privilege of living beyond their means and plunging head first into unfathomable debt.

Enter the last couple, Jerry and Isabella Flagg (Tony Randall and Sheree North).  From the casting, one would expect them to be the wacky couple.  Far from it; in fact, NO DOWN PAYMENT has no wacky couple.  Owning your own home in 1950s America, we learn, isn’t a luxury, it’s a job – and a competitive one.  Randall, who may very well be the King of this movie genre, portrays perhaps his most unlikely role – a scheming, pathetic drunken letch while suffering spouse North sits on the sidelines dealing with it.  Before you can say “Party on!,” Randall is pawing Owens; Mitchell, seemingly the perfect Southern gentlemen (even without the grooming) steps in and alleviates the sexual tension.  But it’s all a charade.  Troy Boone, behind the closed doors, is a monster – a wife-beating, alcoholic, power-hungry sadist – keen on leaving his supervisory position at a gas station and becoming the mini-society’s Chief of Police.  Wearing a uniform and given carte blanche to pummel (what he perceives to be) offenders is what keeps him going.  His garage is a museum of violence, strewn with mementoes copped off Japanese he killed during WWII, and a barrage of weaponry.  Did we mention that he’s also a racist?  Well, he is – and so is Randall.

Woodward, Mitchell’s abused wife, is basically re-channeling the skankiest version of her Oscar-winning 3 Faces of Eve character, Jane.  That’s before she takes a drink; once imbibed, she’s the fourth face, Eve Kardashian – gleefully telling all males within listening distance what brutal hubby likes in the bedroom.  Turns out she got pregnant before the nuptials; upon telling her beloved, she was gifted with a knockout punch to the face, and, ultimately forced to give up the baby.

The Kreitzers have problems of their own.  When not attending church, patriarch Herman proudly brandishes the fact that he’s no hypocrite – except when it comes to equal rights.  When the store he runs in the town’s shopping center (the precursor of the mall) hires a Japanese-American art director (Aki Aleong), the profits soar.  The highly-praised designer is offered a promotion, but refuses due to the fact that the additional work load will be impossible because of his long, daily hour and a half commute.  He and his family crave to become part of the Sunrise Hills family, but Hermie’s non-hypocrisy gets tested since the stringent community policy is “white only.”  When he considers challenging the town council, good Christian wife Betty rebuffs him, telling him prejudice is God’s way (although she loves the Japanese family; their food, she announces, recounting a previous dinner invite was so yummy).

Making the bigot point surrounding a Japanese couple and their children in NO DOWN PAYMENT was strategical move, as it connects to Troy and Jerry’s racism.  Making the character an African-American in 1957 would have caused heads to explode outside of the major progressive cities (this situation would be dealt with later A Raisin in the Sun, but more prominently in the extraordinary Burt Lancaster-produced 1959 gem Take a Giant Step, a movie I urge readers to actively seek out).

The fact that rape, bigotry, misogyny, thievery and addiction comprise the key ingredients for acceptance in Sunrise Hills sets the dial for quite a shocking ride and even more startling conclusion.  Martin Ritt’s telling direction is on-mark; ditto the writing by Philip Yordan (fronting for blacklisted Ben Maddow), based on the John McPartland novel.  It’s the performances, however, by the roster of talented youngish thesps, that put NO DOWN PAYMENT over the top.  Mitchell delivers perhaps his finest screen appearance; coupled with the fact that it was also the same year he excelled as Barney Ross in the Andre de Toth biopic Monkey on My Back certainly makes 1957 his banner year.  SPOILER ALERT:  Mitchell, in keeping with apparent clause in his Fox contract, once again becomes the third male lead who always gets killed (following in the dead man walking footsteps of Pony Soldier, Garden of Evil and The Tall Men).  Woodward, top-billed after the buzz on Eve (and subsequent Academy Best Actress win), is terrific as well (I suspect her zooming celebrity ousted Hunter as the official lead in the piece).  Randall and North are quite remarkable as well (North, especially, proving what a good serious actress she could be).  Owens, whose intelligence is offset by her 1950s values (striving to work the young and pretty card, and nothing else), matches fake Christian Rush, whose hypocrisy nevertheless slips in a bit of sympathy before she ultimately gets real religion.

Joseph La Shelle’s black and white CinemaScope images are crisp and sharp in 1080p, and the Fifties Easy Listening music (in its original stereo) by Leigh Harline is another plus.  The moral of this story, as one of the characters correctly surmises, is that “owning a house and a deep freeze is not the answer.”

 

In the possibly worst case scenario when one actually DOES leave it to beaver comes the adolescent version of NO DOWN PAYMENT, BLUE DENIM, released two years later.  In this then-shocking expose of teen pregnancy, two upper middle-class suburbanite kids, Arthur Bailey and Janet Willard (Brandon De Wilde and Carol Lynley) start “goofing around” in the former’s basement, and before you can admonish them with a stern “Why don’t you goddamn use protection?!,” it’s kids with kids time.

The weird thing about BLUE DENIM is the casting; not that De Wilde and Lynley are inadequate; au contraire, they’re quite good (Lynley was a Golden Globe nominee for Best Promising Newcomer).  It’s just that someone at Fox must have had a strange Jones goin’ on, as the couple could pass as brother and sister.  That said, it wasn’t a particularly astute time for blonde waspy teens gumming up the works (so to speak), as Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue faced similar repercussions the same year in A Summer Place, except with better clothes.  My first impression (back when I was impressionable) of BLUE DENIM was that the babe and the baby daddy were frustrated, but ultimately did the right thing.  Furthermore, their parents were all trifling boneheads.  Now, I’m not so sure.

Looking at the pic from an adult point of view, the kids, while still are not all right, are probably making a big fade-out mistake.  Oh, yeah, once again, SPOILER ALERT; their legal splicing suggests a similar doom prophesy of most Howard Hawks post-script movie couples, less Hallmark Card and more I.D. Channel.  More intriguingly, the parents, specifically the two male parents (Lynley’s pop’s a widower; De Wilde’s is ex-military) react pretty much like I would (or would like to) – brains and brawn.  De Wilde’s mom, on the other hand – the usually balanced and admirable Marsha Hunt – seems to have been cursed with the Gracie Allen gene.  True, an angst-ridden De Wilde DOES try to tell them, but is sloughed off; yet, once apprised, they (today) don’t seem to be as irrational as my teenage brain once perceived them to be.  But leave us remember that this is the 1950s, and such things just do not happen AT ALL in proper homes.

The one ancillary disturbing character in the piece is Warren Berlinger as Ernie, De Wilde’s best friend.  A loudmouth class clown braggart (he falsely claims to know where girls go to get “out of trouble”), he violently turns on his pal when an abortion is seriously discussed, calling the already tormented youth a murderer.  Not just once.  Or even twice.  He is the biggest hypocrite in the piece, or, ergo, the most realistic adult.

BLUE DENIM was made on a fairly low-medium budget, and, not surprisingly, returned a healthy profit.  It’s the movie my sister and her friends scrambled to gape at whilst my dad took me to see The Shaggy Dog (which could have taken place in the same nabe).  The screenplay, cowritten (with Edith Sommer) by that very interesting Fox director/scribe Philip Dunne, comes via a play by William Noble and James Leo Herlihy, the latter better known for another work about foreboding sexuality, Midnight Cowboy.  The stark monochrome CinemaScope photography is by Leo Tover, and looks beautifully barren (a fate unlike Lynley’s).  The stereo score, reproduced on this excellent platter by Twilight Time, is by, weird wild-card pitch, Bernard Herrmann, but is nevertheless quite exceptional.  BLUE DENIM, BTW, has earned a notorious footnote in post-war American culture/history, as it was the movie the Clutter teens were all clamoring about before their infamous fate, brilliantly chronicled by Truman Capote in In Cold Blood.

The Twilight Time/Fox Blu-Rays of NO DOWN PAYMENT and BLUE DENIM look amazing, and, like all TT discs feature ISTs (Isolated Score Tracks).  They are also, as indicated, limited editions, so get them before your Green Stamps expire.  In closing, let me add that these movies work incredibly well as a double-bill, but also will satisfy most of your home theater viewers as a single feature.  Short subject suggestions would be an Eisenhower Era high school hygiene pic, vintage TV commercials or anything with an atomic bomb in it.

NO DOWN PAYMENT (CAT # TWILIGHT 326-BR) and BLUE DENIM (CAT # TWILIGHT 328-BR):  both black and white.  Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA.  Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  SRP: $29.95 @.

Limited Edition of 3000@.  Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment www.screenarchives.com and www.twilighttimemovies.com

 

2 thoughts on “Shaggin’ in the Crabgrass”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s