Thursday, December 22, 2005

A Stare at Rogers: Ginger As a (Quiet) Ideological Mouthpiece

Tender Comrade (1943) is known now as being the product of two blacklisted filmmakers, writer Dalton Trumbo and directed Edward Dmytryk. Suspected as Communists out to subvert America through their movies, with orders from the Comintern in Russia, viewing Tender Comrade today makes us ask one question: if it was intended as Communist propaganda, why weren't they thrown out of the Party for such wretched, unconvincing filmmaking.

Consider this scene: Ginger Rogers, wearing her silk blouse to work at the Navy Factory, is eating lunch with three female friends. They are saddened by the loss of their men, overseas fighting the Nazis. They stumble upon the idea of pooling their funds and renting one common house that they can run together--"Like a Democracy!" Rogers repeats again and again, ad nauseum. They take it to a vote: three "ayes," and one silence. Rogers retorts, ungingerly: "Say 'aye.'" the idea of subtle, undidactic writing.

The house, needless to say, runs into its problems. But they solve everything as a democracy, and with a vote. There is even a German woman who comes to clean house for no wages, just a room to sleep in. Why? Ginger Rogers's husband is fighting Nazis, and this German woman hates Nazis. So--they're all in the same boat.

The thick morality isn't so surprising, but the lumpy performances by Rogers and Robert Ryan are. Ryan is playing the Henry Fonda role--he even has the same haircut and vernacular (Ryan actually says, "Doggoneit").He's the "I'll do the dishes, but you better sew buttons and let me read my magazine" sort of husband. Rogers, lacking all the wit that characterized her collaborations with Fred Astaire, is completely naive. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that her 14-year-old impression in The Major and the Minor (1944) showed more maturity than her Rosie the Riveter in Tender Comrade.
As husband and wife, their cheeks do most of the talking for them; for all the audience knows, their lips are as anesthetized as their minds seem to be.

The film uses irony in such unsurprising places. For example, Mrs. So-and-so decides to go on a date while her husband is overseas fighting; Rogers cannot stand for such disrespect; the date arrives; over the radio, an announcer reports that Mr. So-and-so has died in the Battle of Midway. Coincidence isn't the issue at hand, poor dramatic structure is. Coincidences catch us off guard: their strength as irony comes from their unexpectedness. But, when they are plain to see as in Tender Comrade, we wish the camera were just a little out of focus--just anything to take our attention off the contrivances on screen.

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