A glance at the table of contents for David Thomson’s “Moments That Made the Movies” — a coffee-table book with a brain — was all it took to win me over: Among the films listed was an old favorite of mine, “Dodsworth” (1936). Based on a novel by Sinclair Lewis, produced by Samuel Goldwyn and directed by William Wyler, “Dodsworth” is one of the few wholly adult movies to emanate from Hollywood between 1934, when the Production Code kicked in with a vengeance, and the mid-1950s, when director Otto Preminger started breaking its commandments. “Dodsworth” also features a superb cast, including Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton and Mary Astor.
To understand the “Dodsworth” moment that Thomson brings into focus, you need a little backstory. The Dodsworths hail from the Midwest, where Sam (Huston) has made a fortune as an automobile tycoon. He and his wife, Fran (Chatterton), are whooping it up on a European sojourn, during which Fran fibs about her age (40-plus) and leads on young men dazzled by the flash of her cash. Edith Cortright (Astor), an American divorcee on the same ship to Europe, knows from experience where Fran’s recklessness is apt to lead. After observing one of Fran’s flirtations, Edith advises, “My dear — don’t.”
“Astor was only thirty,” Thomson writes, “but she seems so experienced. Life shows in the face. This is what [a] movie could do once it had sound: It veered away from theater and moved toward literature.” A heavy insight, but Thomson has chosen a film and an actress that can bear the weight.
Alert readers will soon notice that Thomson interprets the “made the movies” part of his title a bit loosely. A few pages after that close-up of Astor in “Dodsworth,” we have a shot of Henry Fonda sprawled in a clinch with Barbara Stanwyck (she’s frightened by a snake) in Preston Sturges’s great comedy “The Lady Eve” (1941). Although tempted otherwise, he gallantly adjusts her skirt to expose less skin. Thomson links this act of restraint (in a movie today, Fonda’s hand would surely travel in the other direction), as well as similar moments in Howard Hawks’s “Bringing Up Baby” (1938), with what could or couldn’t be slipped past the censors. Sturges and Hawks were masters of the double entendre and the ambiguous symbol, but did these evasions make their movies or just save them from insipidity? In the case of “Dodsworth,” “made the movies” seems to mean something like “gave the movies their distinctiveness as an art form.” With “The Lady Eve,” it’s more like “allowed the movies as much breathing room as possible in cramped quarters.”
Ultimately, however, this shiftiness hardly matters. Now writing for the New Republic, the British-born Thomson is arguably the best American film critic since Pauline Kael, and almost everything he has to say in “Moments” is savvy and stimulating.
In “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944), he opts for the scene where young Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) destroys a backyard gang of snowmen because she can’t bear the prospect of moving to New York, where a better job awaits her father, Lon. Thomson comments: “I long to see the sequel, in which Lon turns into an alcoholic because he has denied himself his great chance, and Esther [Tootie’s sister, played by Judy Garland] goes quietly crazed as a happy housewife and mother.” Cutting as this may sound, it feeds into a larger, more benign point: “how rich and subtle a musical [can] be.”
In “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959), Thomson picks a moment that shows Preminger at full, rule-breaking gallop. When the word “panties” comes up for the first time in a rape trial, the courtroom spectators titter. The judge warns them, in Thomson’s paraphrase, to “get your laughing done with and then behave like grown-ups.” Thomson takes the occasion to generalize about the subgenre of the courtroom drama, but he may have missed a trick: Isn’t the judge also signaling to Hollywood censors, and even the American public itself, that it’s time for them to grow up, too?
In “Psycho” (1960), Thomson does not pick the shower scene. In “Chinatown” (1974), he singles out Noah Cross’s chilling excuse for incest: “You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.” “When Harry Met Sally” (1989) triggers the observation that “the big moments don’t always come in outstanding pictures.” And Thomson touts another Meg Ryan movie, “In the Cut” (2003), seen by almost no one when it first came out, as “a masterpiece.”
The book ends as it began, with still photography. The kickoff was a sequence of two naked women taken in 1887 by that pioneer photographer of motion, Eadweard Muybridge. The finale is an enigmatic street scene in Vancouver, B.C.
How fitting that the thought-provoking Thomson should bookend his treatment of the movies with pictures that don’t move.
Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.
MOMENTS THAT MADE THE MOVIES
By David Thomson
Thames & Hudson. 303 pp. $39.95