We’ve finally moved beyond 1951 in our Marilyn month, and while we’re still firmly in the early 50’s mentality, Clash by Night is the first dramatic (with a capital D) film Ms. Monroe did. Sure All About Eve is a drama, but Clash by Night is a torrid, dramatic, gender dispute film with serious music and women slapping! Does that make it a good movie, eh it’s decent but nothing special, but it’s even more frustrating in how much a sign of the times it is.
Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) returns to the small cannery townshe left behind a bitter woman. She’s had some man trouble back East after her married, politician beau died. Once she returns she meets the sweet Jerry (Paul Douglas) who instantly falls for her despite Mae saying she wouldn’t make a good wife. Despite all that the two make a go of marriage until Mae becomes restless and falls for the equally cynical Earl (Robert Ryan).
This is my second Fritz Lang directed film, I recently watched M for the first time a few months ago and thought it was brilliant. I expected an equally thought-provoking film and instead got a melodramatic battle of the sexes. This film is a total message movie about feminism in the 50s and how women have to reclaim their place in the home. I can’t fault the movie too much because of the time period it was in. The small fishing village is filled with men down on their luck, mimicking the men who have tried to acclimate to a life outside of war. They’re surprised their women want more out of life than returning home, cooking dinner, and raising children. The character of Peggy (Marilyn) is sweet, but easily seduced by me despite her bluster that she can fight and wouldn’t let a man slap her around. Yet her relationship with Joe (Keith Andes) is fairly abusive and implied to get worse as time goes on.
Mae is a strong, independent woman who despite her inherent nature tries to make a man happy. Jerry is a good man and after the birth of their daughter Gloria, he is a devoted father. Douglas is perfect as the burly Jerry, a man who knows he doesn’t possess money or good looks, yet is kind and pure-hearted. He’s reminiscent of Karl Malden in a lot of ways. The majority of the men in the village are emasculated, like Jerry, or woman haters like Earl and Joe. The latter have been wronged by women and feel their independence is both a blessing and curse. The film is similar to a stage play which makes sense since it’s adapted from a play by Clifford Odets.
The problem comes in the controversial third act. **SPOILERS**Mae decides to leave Jerry for Earl but decides not to when she realizes Earl doesn’t want baby Gloria to come along. She gives a big speech about wanting to come back and be a family with Gloria and Jerry**END SPOILERS. The problem is the movie had to end this way because of the times. A movie ending with a woman getting exactly what she wants, leading into further infidelity and divorce, wouldn’t go in the time period of the nuclear family. A similar, tacked on ending also befell Stanwyck in Baby Face although here her actions aren’t as reprehensible. Sure she does a shitty thing but she can come back from it. It doesn’t feel like she’ll learn her lesson, give her another boring summer and she’ll probably bang the milkman, but for now she’s sorry.
Marilyn isn’t a huge draw of the movie, continuing the trend, but she plays the role she’s given. Peggy is a woman far too beautiful to be working in a cannery, easily seduced by the smooth words of a man, but loving the brute strength of Joe. Their relationship is volatile but you can tell they love each other, it’s just destructive. Their story ends with Joe giving a similar speech to Peggy, reminiscent of Mae’s to Jerry, only his speech is about once their married she can’t “return him” and look for someone new. It’s a frightening speech that shows the relationship they’ll have where he can do what he wants and she’s to keep her mouth closed. It’ll also probably be abusive, the likes of which Peggy proclaimed she wouldn’t have, but she lacks the confidence and strength of Mae so her life will ultimately be a sad and lonely one.
Clash by Night is a strong, if at times pretty depressing film, about the relationships between men and women. As a 21st century (we’re there still right?) woman I found the film frustrating since Mae is such a strong character, but I was able to sit back and say it was a mark of the times (like Birth of a Nation…only not racist).
Just some quick housekeeping hopefully everyone reading this regularly is enjoying my grand film experiment. The stats have been pretty great and people seem to be enjoying my thoughts. Be sure to pass around the site as sites like Reddit don’t always allow me to post the new links. Also apologies for the lack of daily posts, the holidays are ramping up and I’m in the last few weeks of school so it’s finals and papers galore. I will keep trying to update daily but sometimes it will be an every-other-day thing until the middle of December. Also if you enjoy my thoughts and want to read more modern things from me I post weekly movie reviews at http://www.CC2Konline.com!
I will be posting up a review sometime over the weekend of my first viewing of the 1960s film It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, something to break up the Marilyn-ness. If you have any movies you want me to see and review drop me a comment at firstname.lastname@example.org or on the blog!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.