Sentimental Journeys

I’ve a feeling that somewhere way back in old Hollywoodland a forlorn sect of studio bosses was yearning to reteam Robert Stack and Lauren Bacall in another movie. Maybe they felt that, after the earlier pairing in Written on the Wind, a rich stretch of territory between the two actors still needed exploring. They were right: Bacall and Stack were reunited in a 1958 film called The Gift of Love, and they’re delightful. Unlike their earlier film, here they’re a happily married couple and the screen almost glows when they’re on. They’re relaxed and friendly together, picking up each other’s rhythms and playing off them; it’s beguiling to watch. They’re also a good physical match: both are tall, lean, and rangy, with the long-slabbed muscled look of thoroughbreds. We sense, almost on a visceral level, that they’re right for each other because they look so right together.

The film is fortunate in its charming leads because, depending on your tastes, a lot of beguiling may be needed. From its unusually long and sweetly offbeat pre-credit sequence, during which Bill (Stack) and Julie (Bacall) meet cute and fall in love (he’s looking for something to make him sleep, she prescribes a triple martini), the film plunges deep into Schmaltzland. After five years of marital bliss Julie discovers she has a fatal heart condition and only a short time to live. She decides to adopt a child, the title ‘gift’ for her husband, to comfort and care for him when she no longer can. What could go wrong with such a heartfelt gesture?

Unfortunately, plenty. The eight-year-old orphan Julie adopts, nicknamed Hitty, is a rejected waif, who survives rebuffs by dwelling in a fantasy world that others can’t share (pretending to be a horse, she won’t speak but only whinnies). Prospective families can’t contend with the child’s needs, a condition Hitty deals with by assuming an almost frighteningly detached, adult manner (“I just didn’t work out again,” she declares matter-of-factly of another failed adoption). While Julie responds strongly to Hitty’s loneliness (when Hitty pretend-whinnies, Julie offers her pretend-sugar), the normally amiable Bill can’t. Being that he’s used to his wife treating his eccentricities with a mother’s fondness for a difficult child, he finds he can’t tolerate competition from a real one.

And thus are our heartstrings primed for tugging: Will Bill and Hitty be able to cope with Julie’s demise?  Will Bill be able to cope alone with Hitty? Or will poor Hitty have to be returned (again) to the orphanage?

As you can read here and here, I’m fine with schmaltz (especially after a triple martini or two), and though I’d never heard of The Gift of Love until I tripped over it during a late-night YouTube stroll, I was happily sucked into its slush surge. The film is deeply sentimental (it was adapted from the same story earlier filmed in 1946 as the aptly named Sentimental Journey), with that faintly irritating Hollywood unrealism when it comes to depicting sickness. Julie’s illness has none of the slow, querulous decline of real invalidism. Like Bette Davis in Dark Victory, she dies suddenly and beautifully, literally smiling, as if she were being raptured into the afterlife. It’s a view of death meant to soothe but not affront, to rend the heart and wet the hankie.

The movie also has that posh-fifties look, shot in widescreen with a slightly unreal palette, of bright splashes of color among tastefully taupe interiors and upscale furnishings (prints of Picasso and Dufy hang on the walls). Everything’s attractive and orderly, if a little too clean and untouched, as if upper-class suburban life was on showroom display. The director, Jean Negulesco, disliked working in widescreen (he accurately noted the difficulty of creating intimacy “on that great wide oblong”), and the film does resemble a magazine layout. Like Douglas Sirk, however, Negulesco uses the screen frame itself, and the milieu depicted within, as oblique metaphor. He has almost no close-ups but prefers long takes and long shots, focusing on character interaction in private living space to create dramatic meaning.

Although the film was and is not highly regarded (Bacall dismisses the film in her autobiography as “Not a marvelous picture—”; Stack doesn’t even mention it in his), Negulesco does some good things in it. He draws a remarkable performance from young Evelyn Rudie as Hitty, who doesn’t play for adorableness, but goes deep into the child’s strangeness, her absorption in her imaginative life, and her maddening, overbearing refusal to behave like a little girl (if at times you find yourself actively disliking her, I’ve a feeling that may be deliberate).

And Negulesco’s staging, as indicated, goes beyond the decorative, even beyond the décor. Note the outdoor scene of Hitty’s first meeting with Julie: as Hitty disappears behind a bush, Julie almost immediately steps out from it, as if Hitty had suddenly turned around and become Julie. It’s visual shorthand, a subliminal uniting of past, present, and future: Hitty is the little girl Julie once was, and Julie is the woman Hitty will eventually be. The scene is so quick it’s almost a throw-away, but we sense, if only for a moment, an uncanny synchronicity beneath the surface gloss, as though secret currents of meaning had briefly broken through, to reveal a larger, symbolic pattern.

Without making Overlooked-Classic claims for The Gift of Love, I think it’s worth catching; its very lack of cynicism in this cynical age is a virtue. The film’s slightly moist, overheated atmosphere, like muffins pulled fresh from the oven, suits it for cold-season viewing, when, tuckered out from holiday stress, we just want to flop down on blankets, with hot cocoa on the side (or maybe a triple martini), and settle in for a good old-fashioned emotional splurge. The three leads, all pros, respond to the material, particularly the usually minimalist Stack, who pulls out a performance of surprising warmth; even if, playing a character who’s supposed to be a scientific genius, he looks about as genius-y as Hank Worden. A least Stack plays his role like Worden, as a goofy and likable lug with a disarming smile.

But the film is definitely Bacall’s. She’s not the aloof, cool gal of her early Bogart-paired pictures; she’s both tender and sensual, with a scented-linen sex appeal. And she looks fabulous. Though dressed plainly (house and sun dresses, slacks), she still looks cutting-edge chic; even a bathrobe becomes high fashion. It’s more than the clothes. Bacall had an ineffable physical instinct on how to move, how to stand, turn, bend, or curl up in a chair; she makes every gesture a statement of grace. But she has here a depth, a direct-to-the-core simplicity not seen before. Bacall made this movie seven months after Bogart’s death (it was her screen return). Considering its plot, the film seems a grim choice, but perhaps she found it cathartic. It’s lovely watching her go beyond the sulky fatales and glamour pusses of her youth, and, instead, show us a contented woman fulfilled as a wife and mother. Sentimental, indeed. But maybe it reflected more of her real character than we might think.

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