Forbidden Divas: Oh, Doctor, I’m in Trouble

Yesterday’s piece from Chris Schneider malfunctioned slightly going into WordPress and lost a couple of paragraphs. They’re restored now. Today’s piece is also from a regular Guest Shadowplayer, David Melville Wingrove, who takes us through Loretta Young’s stations of the cross in William Dieterle’s THE ACCUSED.

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

Oh, Doctor, I’m in Trouble

or

Confessions of a Psychothymiac Cutie

“You hit me right in my inferiority complex.”

  • Robert Cummings to Loretta Young, The Accused

When first we see Loretta Young in The Accused (1949) she looks as if she’s impersonating Humphrey Bogart. A huge slouching fedora hat hangs low over her beautiful face; a vast baggy trench-coat envelops her dainty ballerina’s physique. She is staggering away slowly, haltingly, from the scene of a killing. It is a crime where she was both perpetrator and victim. A cute but undeniably psychotic young man has tried to rape her in his car. Her instinctive and natural response was to grab a handy metal object and bludgeon him to death. Then she got a bucket, filled his lungs with water and sent his corpse hurtling over a cliff and down to the sea and rocks below.

There is crime passionel and there is cool premeditated murder. This one is both. What makes it worse is the fact Loretta knows that. She is Doctor Wilma Tuttle, a rising professor of psychology at a small but prestigious California college. Not many Hollywood stars can play an academic convincingly and Loretta is one of those very few. (Just try to imagine Joan Crawford in the role. Or rather, do yourself a favour and don’t.) Her looks here are strictly Movie Star Frump. Stark and mannishly tailored suits, hair wound so tightly in a bun that it looks like an excrescence of her skull. But she still has those delicate cheekbones, those haunting and luminous eyes. When she takes a jittery puff on a cigarette or anxiously grasps the receiver of a telephone, we are riveted by her exquisitely long and sinuous fingers.

But then Loretta Young was always famed for her contradictions. Tales abounded of both her fierce Roman Catholic piety and her voracious appetite for sexual adventure. “Every time Loretta sins she builds a church,” went the joke. “That’s why there are so many churches in Hollywood.” In the 30s she gave birth in secret to an illegitimate child by her co-star Clark Gable and then made a public show of ‘adopting’ this poor motherless girl. When the child grew up to have freakishly large ears, she challenged her mother as to why she had never told her the truth. “How could I?” replied the star. “You are a walking mortal sin.” Both on and off screen, Loretta Young played the image of a perfect lady. But in her most effective movie roles, that image is seldom if ever the full story.

Like many academic high-flyers, Doctor Tuttle is somewhat less than sophisticated outside her chosen and desperately narrow field of expertise. Hailing originally from Kansas, she has a childlike fear of the ocean and has no idea what an abalone is until someone explains it to her. That someone just happens to be a handsome but unruly male student who flirts with her blatantly in class. The professor is in no way blind to his appeal. In fact, his appeal is spelled out hilariously by the fact that the actor who plays him is called Douglas Dick. Undeniably easy on the eye – and perhaps not wholly without talent – this actor was hampered by more than his impossible name. He seemed unable to appear in any movie without being murdered in the first act. His other role of note was as the victim of the gay killers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope.

Once his professor has unwittingly killed him, her chief concern is how to cover up the crime. In a decision only a movie star would make, she goes out and buys a new and far more stylish wardrobe and lets her hair tumble loose about her shoulders in long and luxuriant curls. That is to make sure that no witnesses (if there were any) will ever to connect her with the killing but also to make sure that Loretta Young’s adoring fans get their money’s worth in terms of glamour. Her best or, at least, her most eye-catching outfit is a classic Edith Head atrocity. A sharply tailored black suit with white gloves, a white lace collar and twin sprays of white lilac on either side of her black hat. The psychology in The Accused is necessarily Freudian in tone. Hence it is imperative that our heroine be visibly torn between poles of Light and Dark.

Her incipient schizophrenia carries over into every aspect of the movie. Not one but two conflicting love interests seem to materialise out of nowhere. Robert Cummings is a dashing lawyer who was the dead boy’s legal guardian. Wendell Corey is a tenacious cop who investigates the case. The tailoring of their suits is alarmingly alike; the styling of their hair is all but identical. Of course, Cummings is handsome and Corey is not but apart from that they might be identical twins. They can be slotted neatly into the Freudian grooves of Eros and Thanatos. One has the power to seduce our sexually uptight heroine and, eventually, to screw her senseless. The other has the power to send her (however unwillingly) to the electric chair. In case you think this is an accident, please note the director is the veteran German Expressionist William Dieterle. Note also that Expressionism did not die. It just moved to California where the light was better.

It seems distinctly cruel when Cummings drags Loretta to her first boxing match. Predictably, the young man being pummelled into unconsciousness is a dead ringer for the boy she has but lately beaten to death. (Dieterle even superimposes one actor’s face over the other, just in case anyone in the audience has stepped out for popcorn and might otherwise miss the point.) This barbaric spectacle reduces her to an ever-so-ladylike fit of the vapours. We know it cannot be long until The Truth comes out. Her young victim describes his killer, oops, sorry, professor in his end of term exam as ‘a psychothymiac cutie.’ I confess I have no idea what a psychothymiac is but I do think Loretta plays one superbly. It is critical cliché that nobody can play a bad girl like a good girl and nobody can play a good girl like a bad one. Unless you are Loretta Young, in which case it is anybody’s guess.

David Melville

8 Responses to “Forbidden Divas: Oh, Doctor, I’m in Trouble”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Never in a million years would I call Robert Cummings “dashing.” The career of this consistently smarmy and often downright repellent player has always amazed me. As for “dear sinning Loretta” (as she was known thanks to her TV anthology show) her sexual hypocrisy is the heart and soul of America. If you “looked nice” and went to church on Sundays you could carry on lie Linda Lovelace on steroid. I’ve always felt Loretta’s piety-pushing was an attempt to make-up for her pre-code roles, in which she was One Hot Number. Outside of that I like her discovering she was married to a Nazi Orson in Welles’ “The Stranger” and middle-budget thrillers like “Cause For Alarm” (immortalized by Sylvester the cat in “Claws For Alarm”) In her later years she and her best pal Irene Dunne ( a Goddess for “Showboat” and “The Awful Truth” alone) always attended Roman Catholic services together. Considering how she treated Judy Lewis, Loretta d Joan Crawford were rivals for the title of “Hollywood’s Worst Mother” Now who could play Loretta in a biopic? My money’s on Kate McKinnon.

  2. I always thought Katherine Heigl would be quite a good match, looks-wise.

    I guess Bob “the Butcher of Strasbourg” Cummings is sometimes intended to be dashing in some films, sympathetic in others (maybe Dial M, where Ray Milland makes him look the better option). And he’s, out of the blue, very funny in Tashlin’s The First Time (great hangover acting).

  3. chris schneider Says:

    Cummings makes for an effective contrast in THE LOST MOMENT, which I just saw again recently. He has an “average guy,” somewhat confused air which stands in contrast to hot-house concerns of Susan Hayward and Agnes Moorehead. Henry James it ain’t, despite the source material, but it works very nicely. I can see why Tom Milne admired it.

  4. One of the great one-offs, as Martin Gabel never got to sit in the director’s chair again.

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Correction to my initial post: That should be “Dear SPINNING Loretta”

    Actually next to Bob Cummings Ray Milland doesn’t look so bad in “Dial M” The death he’s planned for Grace (bland in the flat version, overwhelming in 3D) is reminiscent of what fate befalls Gloria Stuart in Whale’s superb “The Kiss Before the Mirror” — which is just out on Blu-Ray.

  6. David Melville Wingrove Says:

    I have always rather liked Robert Cummings. He is – to put it mildly – a whole lot more attractive than Wendell Corey.

  7. David Ehrenstein Says:

    More attractive than Wendell Corey in “Desert Fury”? I beg to differ.
    And then some.

  8. Young Wendell, despite a certain reptilian quality, did have *something* — by the time you get to around the time of Rear Window he’s gone full gekko though.

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