Lighting Out

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What odd little movies you can catch on the Internet. Wait Till The Sun Shines, Nellie is a 1952 Technicolor semi-musical from Fox—a curious thing, with few songs and a cast of not-quite-top-tier Fox stars. Definitely a ‘B’ feel to it. One of the stars was the then up-and-coming David Wayne, who had himself first caught attention in a hit Broadway musical, Finian’s Rainbow. As I had recently written about his dramatic turn in Joseph Losey’s M, I decided to check him out in something that was seemingly geared to his talents. Though what I saw, as it turned out, seemed more M-ish than Rainbow-ish. Perhaps because everything seemed to take place not in sunshine but at the twilight hour—though that might have been due to the uploaded YouTube print, which looks as if it were polished with walnut stain. Although, strangely, that dim luster did fit in with the film’s mood.

The movie’s plot is an extended flashback that begins in 1895 and moves forward to its 1945 framing story, as an old man (Wayne) recalls memories of youth, when times were different. From the film’s sprightly title; from its cheery poster, with images of sausage-linked couples whoop-dee-dooing in illustrated merriment; even from its sampler-stitched opening credits (in which you’ll notice the title’s different spelling), I was expecting something sentimental and tuneful—maybe a few skip-like dances, a few bouncy songs, period costumes, and corny humor, akin to the MGM affectionate-nostalgia mode of Meet Me In St. Louis or In The Good Old Summertime. Maybe that was the intent. But instead I was surprised at the hard, spreading core of bitterness in the film, its undertones that the past wasn’t a rosy dream but had its cruel problems and sad losses. That made what could, even should have been an innocuous movie stand out a bit.

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The reason, and cause, of the undertones is Jean Peters as Wayne’s wife, the eponymous Nellie, who’s young and ardent and dying to see the world. The flashback starts with Wayne and Peters as Midwest newlyweds off on their honeymoon. She thinks they’re going to Chicago, then maybe on to New York and, who knows, even Paris. Instead, Wayne pulls her off the train at a speck on the map called Sevillinois, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, with just a stretch of mud for the main street. She’s understandably appalled. The oblivious Wayne shows off to his unimpressed bride his just-acquired barbershop with backroom living quarters, promising that they’ll get to Chicago, etc., someday, when he can do it “right”—a postponing of immediate gratification for promised future rewards. He also lies when he says the shop is rented, not bought. Nellie believes him, however, and then waits itchily for her marital consummation while Wayne has first to attend to a customer: he heating water in the tonsorial parlor while she heats up in the back bedroom. As graphic an illustration of business before pleasure as I’ve ever seen.

Peters plays the wedding-night scene unexpectedly. Her Nellie is no shy, shrinking maiden, but is clearly ready and longing for sex—her exuberant lust quieting her disappointment at the loss of a travelling honeymoon. Peters has a ripe mouth and louche eyes; when she pouts, her lips puff out, as if she wants someone to bite them. Except she’s the one hot for biting: as Wayne approaches her she grapples him round his neck like a boa constrictor around a calf, her desire for an amorous tumble even greater than that for Chicago. This gal is game for rutting, among other things, and Wayne’s bland little barber doesn’t ever quite appreciate it. He’s more interested in the respectable bourgeois values of starting a business, buying a home, settling down, and cementing himself into a community pillar as he joins the town’s fire brigade and marching band. Meanwhile, Nellie keeps on longing for Chicago; when her husband buys her a fur jacket, she wants assurance that he didn’t spend their travelling money on it; and when he proudly shows her their new two-story house, she’s horrified at what that implies. She’s still desperately hoping for that long-promised trip, for a chance to get out of this deadsville little town and see more of life.

Nellie tries on her new fur coat. Note how director Henry King shoots this scene through the bars of the bedpost.

Nellie tries on her new fur coat. Note how director Henry King shoots this scene through the bars of the bedstead, as if implying a prison.

And she’s not about to settle into young matronhood, either. After the birth of her first child Nellie sashays out to a party in a clingy white dress, her pouty lips brightly painted with lipstick in spite of her husband’s disapproval. The dress is a deliberate copy of her hostess’s own party gown (Nellie even has the innocent bad taste to boast of it), and the difference between Nellie and Everyone Else is etched in this confrontation of the frocks. The plump, middle-aged hostess looks like a squat cupcake in frilly wrapping, while Nellie looks ready all over again for a night of heavy petting. Starchy Wayne is too encased in his pillar to notice (he’s actually meeting with his lawyer-host about writing his will!), but Hugh Marlowe, who plays the barber’s constant customer, isn’t; he sneaks up on Nellie and lays a kiss on those lips just begging for a buss. Nellie responds not with a slap but a thoughtful pout. That she can’t be shocked—that she can’t even pretend to be shocked—is why she’s too wild, too fresh for this town. When Nellie later discovers that hubby Wayne did purchase the shop and house, and has been misleading her all along about their finances (learning that he’s even bought a plot in the local cemetery—they’re to be buried literally in this town—caps it), she defiantly leaves for Chicago, inviting Marlowe for company. For once she’s determined to do what she wants.

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Unfortunately, Nellie is killed off here; she never makes it to Chicago as the train derails en route. I kept hoping that this plot twist was a red herring, that it would turn out that Nellie was mistaken for dead, that somehow she would return and once more kick up hell. (As Peters was top-billed and the film barely halfway over, I was surprised at her early demise.) Instead, the film turns really dark: Wayne goes on a drunken binge and becomes an embittered, prematurely aged man; he’s aloof to his children and friends, and devotes himself wholly to his business (“You’re a barber, not a man,” says one customer—is that what you want as your epitaph?). Events slide away from him: his son follows Nellie’s path and makes it to Chicago to become a song-and-dance man; then later, during Prohibition, he finds not-so-respectable employment as a gangster’s bagman, and ends up killed in a Capone-style shoot-out—happening right in Dad’s barbershop. The shop itself burns down and Wayne has to rebuild. Wayne is quite good in this second half, his face becoming tight and hard, his arms and shoulders held stiff with repressed rage. After the son’s death, the film hurtles toward 1945 and the celebrations of the town’s fiftieth anniversary, but it’s a downbeat ending; long before, everything had already turned sour for our hero. This is not the life of a happy, fulfilled man.

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What’s going on here? Many Hollywood films after World War 2, from the late 1940s throughout the 50s, hyped home and happiness and the return of women to the domestic sphere, and this mild little musical follows suit. Contentment is to be found in kids and kitchen; to hell with excitement and Chicago. But Nellie puts up a fight. Home ownership is not her American dream, as it was for so many postwar Americans. Instead, she’s part of that other great American tradition, of pulling up roots and constantly starting anew. She wants to get out of Sevillinois and expand her horizons, she doesn’t want memories of staid domesticity but of adventure. Like a petticoated Huck Finn, she wants to keep lighting out for the Territory ahead.

For what’s posing as a pleasant journey into nostalgia garlanded with music (four regular barbershop customers—a barbershop quartet?—occasionally burst into period songs, including the title tune), the film veers off track as wildly as that Chicago train. Watching it, I recalled a theoretical concept from my graduate-school days: Peters’s character is what is called “excess”; meaning not that she’s extraneous to the plot, but that she unsettles its mainstream surface values. She disrupts what would be called the dominant discourse. Instead of a charming period piece, we get Winesburg, Ohio, with all those bleak and nasty secrets of repressive small-town life crawling out from under the antimacassars. (Peters herself would later star in a 1973 TV adaptation of that novel.)

I liked Jean Peters’s performance here and I’ve come to like her. She could be bland on film, but, when allowed, she could project a crude, slutty sensuality that set her aslant from other, more demure female Fox stars of the era, like Jeanne Crain or Gene Tierney. (She was sometimes cast as contrast to nice-girl Crain, such as the clawingly ambitious sister in Vicki or the snobbish sorority miss in Take Care of My Little Girl.) Peters wasn’t sweet or ‘classy’; she had a rough, antsy edge, as if chafing under conventional starlet-hood. In Captain of Castile, her first film, as she dances with Tyrone Power she thrusts back against him, ogling him with her bedroom eyes while grinding her hips like an eroticized stone against willing corn. And she melts like chocolate in the sun whenever Richard Widmark in Pick-Up on South Street kisses her as if wanting to swallow those cherry-plump lips. Peters knocks askew Nellie’s quaint period-musical clichés, subverting its pieties and getting you to root for her. Everything that Wayne’s character does is right and proper, and it’s everything that Nellie doesn’t want. Had the Nellie character lived, I could see her bobbing her hair and shortening her skirts, I could see her marching for women’s suffrage. Whatever shines in this film is due to her. Wait Till The Sun Shines, Nellie is a Janus of a movie—it looks back at solid, accepted values attempting to re-establish themselves; but looks forward, however unknowingly, to another society to come.

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