HILDA CRANE: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox, 1956) Twilight Time
It is rather amusing to step back in time and recall a simpler era when a woman’s virtue – easy or otherwise – could be measured by the notches on a bedpost. Tart! Trollip! Tramp! Shameless! It’s no use debating. There has always been a double standard where a woman’s sexual experiences are concerned. Despite our more ‘progressive’ tolerance of experimentation for both sexes before marriage it is still the man who can get away with this sort of bed-hopping menagerie, and with most – if not all – of his reputation intact. Go, stud! Through the miracle of movies, a fascinating repertoire for human behavior emerges – or rather – is frozen in time. What we thought, felt, perceived to be truthful, or, in hindsight, discovered to be fraudulent, comes across with a quaint affinity for the perfect ‘imperfect’ time travel into the recesses of our cultural identity. All the more refreshing then to unearth Hilda Crane (a.k.a. The Many Loves of Hilda Crane, 1956); director, Philip Dunne’s uncannily forthright declaration of a woman’s right to choose for herself the trajectory of her sexual identity and destiny. After college, Hilda could not remain in the puritanical epicenter of the narrow-minded community of Winona. Nor is she willing to allow certain hard line elements presently residing in it to dictate to her now. Poor Hilda…Psst! She has a past. Two failed marriages, a rumored slew of lovers, and God knows what other debaucheries lurking in the closet. So, what is a basically good girl to do?
Astonishingly, Hilda Crane tells the unvarnished tale mostly from the unapologetic perspective of our heroine, played with mercurial self-reliance by Jean Simmons. Dunne’s screenplay is based on Samson Raphaelson’s stagecraft and refuses to kowtow to the fifties verve for ‘playing it safe’. Shockingly so, Hilda Crane has more than a handful of harrowing chapters to peel away, and with a unique frankness, sidestepping the production code in bold, broad strokes of articulating genius that even the glossy reincarnation of Jerry Wald’s Peyton Place (made and release one year later in 1957) sidesteps. Simmons is perhaps the ideal choice to play Hilda; looking slightly careworn, if still very much immaculate, clear-eyed and utterly resplendent in Charles Le Maire’s sumptuous costuming. The clothes are a fifties’ signifier to the audience that our Hilda means business. She is not ashamed of her history and welcomes the future with optimism flying in the face of all these hard-hearted hypocrites who believe she is etching a scandalous reputation, certain to undo – if not, in fact, already having undone – her chances for everlasting happiness. Lest we forget, there is a word to describe our Hilda, though not usually uttered in ‘polite’ society…outside of a kennel.
From today’s vantage of post-modern/post-feminist liberation, it is easy to empathize with Hilda’s plight – coming home after her rumored hi-hooey times in New York, the sadder but wiser girl, determined to fall into line, yet frustratingly unable to sell herself short by subscribing to the pretenses of her mother’s generation, merely to quash a dirty little innuendo or two. Yet, placed in the socio-political fabric of the antiseptic and ultra-conservative 1950’s (where well-brought-up young ladies still went to finishing school and wore white gloves to tea unsoiled by the uncontrollable male desire), empathizing with the likes of Hilda Crane is tantamount to admitting a shared guilt for exploring human sexuality, not nearly as repressed as any nice young girl’s mama would hope. It is a bit much to label our Hilda the poster girl for what was then laughingly coined ‘the new woman’. And yet, she is hardly the fifties ideal or the wide-eyed shrinking violet or even the fallen woman as femme fatale, striving to overcome her moral ambiguities while profusely apologizing for a checkered past.
If, in fact, it is ‘the men’ that have made Hilda Crane what she is in the past, then it is decidedly not the suitors who come into this second act of her life who dictate the outcome of her character, nor any thinly veiled reference to all those nameless that came before. Our Hilda is a woman – a real woman; full-bodied, in complete control of her emotions, and ultimately, the only one to steer this presumably foundering ship safely into port – not just any ole port in a storm. It takes a gutsy gal to stand up to the mores and manners in one’s time, particularly when so much as a reputation is at stake. We will forgive Philip Dunne here. His only ‘cure all’ it seems, to restore a good woman to moral health is a man’s love – the right kind of man, of course; unquestioning and staunchly to have remained in her corner, despite moments when the popularized ‘common sense’ of his sex and times would trigger he retreat to a place of moral high-mindedness, shock and outrage, throwing the baggage out with the stigma of social nonconformity and its odor of iniquity still attached. In this regard, Hilda has a truly ‘good’ man at her side; socially affluent mama’s boy/real estate developer, Russell Burns (Guy Madison). Given what it meant in the fifties to be a man’s man (or in this case, a guy’s Guy), I suppose we can also forgive Russell his timidity where his vial mother (played with supremely self-righteous venom by Evelyn Varden) is concerned; and later, champion his one defensive outburst of testosterone/chest-thumping male machismo in a display of clichéd fisticuffs against oily Frenchman, Professor Jacques De Lisle (a silver-tongued book-learned Lothario, played with deliciousness by Jean-Pierre Aumont), a disreputable rival for Hilda’s wavering affections.
What Hilda Crane does spectacularly well is to straddle the chasm between a woman’s heart, with a sincere attempt to unearth the flawed logic brewing from within, and, her proud endeavor to maintain a sense of pride when pitted against those spouting moral platitudes, unknowing of what it means to have one’s virtue tempted. A woman is not supposed to make any mistakes between puberty and her trip to the altar. She has not the fortitude to weather tough scrutiny, nor the advantage of having been born a man, simply to dismiss any charges of impropriety as mere part-in-parcel of the sexual experiment, or, coming into her own on her own terms. It remains, perhaps, a cliché that the man may take many lovers to bed and still be worthy of a loyal wife, while a woman need fall from grace once in her projected journey to be considered fit only for the streets thereafter. Hilda Crane defies this convention. Indeed, our heroine admits to every sin and folly without reservation or any real sense of shame, refusing to look down on those who think less of her for having weathered the mistakes as anything more severe than a few unanticipated bumps along the way. How does one judge such a creature? Better question: should she be judged at all…and by whom?
Sin has always been difficult, if not impossible, to legislate. Where, as example, on the moral compass is the halfway point between absolute virtue and vice? Is one failed marriage enough to brand the woman the transgressor? How about two? Does a woman’s meandering preference for passion over love preclude her from finding, keeping, or even aspiring to marry Mr. Right, even if, in this pursuit, she is clearly led into the arms of the worst kind of man – the one she absolutely cannot resist in the moment? Far from abandoning the notion that it just may be a woman’s right to choose for herself – and accept either the rewards or folly of her decisions without recrimination – Hilda Crane equally suggests the man in this equation, desiring a woman of substance and culture for his own, cannot simply demand such qualities, or even any degree of expectation to aspire to find them without first doing a lot more than simply plighting his troth. In the end, Hilda and Russell come to a mutual understanding of how each must pull their fair share in order to make a life together work. The revelation weighs more heavily on Hilda’s shoulders, though consequently is far more satisfyingly, and, in her favor as a result. Still, it would not work without Russell’s percentage of investment. That he rises to the challenge, un-demanding to know the breadth of Hilda’s indiscretions before he entered the picture, though as willing to listen to it all of it without judgment, if ever his wife should desire to share this part of her past with him, speaks to the delicate balancing act that prevents a union from disassembling after the banns have been published, the cake is cut, and the harsh realities of a life beyond the honeymoon come rushing in to threaten the euphoria of romance into premature extinction.
Hilda Crane begins in earnest with David Raksin’s lush orchestral main titles and Hilda’s quiet return to the tiny hamlet of Winona. It has been quite a slalom; two failed marriages in five years; veiled confessions about several other ‘relationships’ in between that went absolutely nowhere except down the primrose path paved in good times. Hilda’s mama, Stella (Judith Evelyn) is the subversively critical kind; professing to love her daughter unconditionally while ruthlessly plotting the conquest of a new suitor: successful real estate developer, Russell Burns. Russell is a good match for Hilda. Alas, he is currently under the control of an overbearing mother who derides Hilda as the ‘wrong kind’ of girl. Too bad for Russell, he is hardly the sort mature women dream about – except those who crave a man with very deep pockets. Meanwhile, Hilda’s former college professor, Jacques DeLisle persists in holding a grudge after she left him for an athlete. Jacques still wants a taste of the one that got away, even as he has absolutely no intention of making an honest woman of her. Jacques’ aggressive move to possess Hilda again is met with ambivalence. After all, she has been down this road before. Hilda will not be seduced…or will she, and by what strange power: love, social conformity, a mother’s desperation, or intuitive eagerness to see her only child become respectable, even if it is all just a façade?
Russell courts Hilda. Indeed, he shows her respect as well as commitment to their future: a heritage property, recently purchased and gutted to be remade into their dream house. Hilda’s most loyal friend, Nell Bromley (Peggy Knudsen) offers some sound advice. Already happily wed to Dink (Gregg Palmer), Nell suggests the only way marriage to Russell can work is if he is able to withstand the ongoing needling of his possessive mother who, thus far, has faked innumerable heart attacks to keep her sonny boy single. Having hired a private investigator to find out all that she can about Hilda’s past, Mrs. Burns descends upon the Crane household in a booming Wagnerian condemnation of Hilda’s indiscretions with her dossier in hand. For a cool $50,000, Mrs. Burns wants Hilda to leave town. She will even throw in her jewels – worth considerably more – if the girl will simply get out of Russell’s life for good; and this, at the hour of their wedding. Unconvinced of the gargoyles’ threats - also, that she is suffering another heart attack - Hilda informs Mrs. Burns nothing on earth will prevent the marriage from going forward as planned. She has consented to be Russell’s ever-devoted wife. To this end, she is fully committed. Convention and Mrs. Burns be damned! Leaving the old woman slumped in a chair in her living room, Hilda goes off to church and marries Russell. Alas, the old girl was not fooling.
This time, the heart attack was real. Mrs. Burns is dead and Russell is riddled with guilt. In life, she could not convince her boy that Hilda Crane was up to no good. But in death, Mrs. Burns’ memory taunts the happy couple to the brink of extinction. Abandoning his plans to build their dream house, Russell moves Hilda into the mansion he once shared with his mother. Regrettably, Hilda takes to drink while Russell becomes despondent towards her. Believing she is likely perceived by the whole town as a totally unforgivable fraud for marrying Russell, Hilda seeks out Jacques for companionship. He is only too eager to oblige, having left the college to pursue a career as a famous writer. Believing Hilda is the easy mark, Jacques invites her up to his rented room. Meanwhile, having returned home early from a business trip, Russell learns of his wife’s whereabouts from Stella and rushes off to confront the lovers. He discovers Hilda and Jacques quietly discussing the future. Asking Hilda to go home at once, Russell senselessly pummels his competition with a single, profound blow. Distraught, Hilda swallows an entire bottle of sleeping pills, determined to commit suicide.
Mercifully, Russell has anticipated as much. Discovering Hilda’s unconscious body in their upstairs bedroom, Russell sends for Dr. Joe Francis (Richard Garrick) a life-long friend of the family. Together, they pump Hilda’s stomach and save her life. The next day, still believing she will ruin Russell’s life as sure as she has already tainted any promise they might have had of achieving a meaningful life together, Hilda packs her suitcase in preparation to leave Russell and return to New York. Instead, she descends the stairs to discover Russell has already taken certain precautions to illustrate he values her above all other women…including his mother. Mrs. Burns’ towering self-portrait in the parlor has already been removed. Furthermore, Russell begs Hilda’s indulgence to follow him on a brief walk to the ruins of the old gutted estate that was once to have been their dream home. What Hilda finds is a construction site buzzing with activity; contractors, carpenters, etc. et al. descended on mass to rebuild the dream anew. It is all the affirmation Hilda requires. Unable to argue with Russell’s renewed commitment and fidelity to their vows, Hilda willingly relents. Perhaps, with her guilt at long last assuaged, there is definite hope Hilda and Russell will find true and lasting happiness together.
Typical of fifties melodrama, Hilda Crane’s finale is a tad too optimistic to swallow outright. And yet, it works, perhaps only because Jean Simmons and Guy Madison seem so implicitly to make us believe in the recuperative quality of Hilda and Russell’s fractured love for each other. He is good for her, and she, perhaps for the very first time, has suddenly discovered, she is good enough for him too. The pundits were wrong. Love can rise from the ashes of a rocky start. Hilda Crane fits neatly into 2oth Century-Fox’s mid-fifties renaissance of the woman’s weepy, reconstituted in the expansive proportions of Cinemascope and Technicolor, with a verve for more lurid story lines that, nevertheless, hark back to the late thirties tearjerkers, achieving their purpose with far greater subtlety. Interestingly, Hilda Crane benefits from Cinemascope, or rather, cinematographer, Joseph MacDonald’s sumptuous use of its elongated frame. A lot of the interior sets seen in Hilda Crane were standards on the back lot in just about every Fox film taking place in a small town, including Peyton Place. And although there is virtually little in the way of re-touching the décor to benefit the dramatic impact in this film in particular, MacDonald finds interesting ways to make the conventional visually interesting, while heightening Philip Dunne’s storytelling intensity.
And then, of course, there is Jean Simmons. What more can be said of the elegant Ms. Simmons, except that she manages, with an immersive and forthright accomplishment of her craft, to will a real woman from the platitude-stricken marionette in Dunne’s wordy screenplay. When she speaks, her words seem far more genuine than dialogue, and when she pauses, there is always some incredibly fascinating stagecraft of thought process going on right behind the eyes. We feel Hilda’s pain, hope for her social acceptance - even though we realize she really does not need it to get by - and finally, champion her penultimate reconciliation with the one man who just might be able to give her everything a woman in love ought to possess. It is Simmon’s self-confidence as an actress that sells Hilda’s vulnerability in tandem with her clear-eyed incalcitrant towards those who would condemn her without first considering whether or not she is entirely to blame for this lot in life.
The male actors who populate the picture are rather bloodless by comparison, save – perhaps – Jean-Pierre Aumont’s slithery academic. Guy Madison’s career has always baffled me. In his youth, his brawny all-American chiseled looks were an asset to mask the fact he lacked stature as an actor. But this is not the Madison we get in Hilda Crane; rather, middle-aged and beyond the scope of his blonde ‘stud du jour’ status hand-crafted over at Selznick International in the early forties. I suppose he passes the litmus test for playing the noble husband; shy and retiring kind, who cannot help himself from getting involved with the wrong kind of girl, but for all the right reasons. Peggy Knudsen’s loyal gal pal is a rewarding presence. More’s the pity we do not see nearly enough of her in Hilda Crane. Evelyn Varden’s wicked harridan is over-the-top; spewing hatred from every pore. When she keels over in the Crane’s living room we cannot count it as anything but a win-win for the happy couple. Finally, we give a nod to David Raksin’s exuberant underscore; hardly memorable but setting a tone with its lush orchestrations that remind us of a simpler time, complicated by the smugly superior, erroneously to believe turpitude is from without, rather than the basest condition of the human animal, and, like jealousy itself, as corrosive an influence on the soul and the mind.
Hilda Crane arrives on Blu-ray via Twilight Time in a lovely looking 1080p transfer. Fox has really stepped up its game of late, releasing a goodly number of their vintage deep catalog titles via third-party distributors like TT, and, with impressive mastering results. It was not so very long ago the studio had some queer issues with quality control; their Blu-ray’s leaning aggressively (and incorrectly) toward a teal/beige bias that all but destroyed the original hues in their DeLuxe and Technicolor Cinemascope releases. Were that we could convince someone at Fox to revisit us with new Blu-rays of The King and I, The Blue Max, The Best of Everything, The Black Swan, Desk Set, and Anastasia, for starters. But I digress. Hilda Crane’s hi-def transfer looks wonderful – mostly, with smooth transitions, fades and dissolves. Occasionally, flesh tones adopt a slightly ruddy tone. But mostly this is a very fine presentation with good solid/accurately rendered colors, a light smattering of film grain, and razor-sharp clarity to boot. The 5.1 DTS re-imagining of original 6-track Westrex stereo sounds very good. There is also a 2.0 remastering for consideration. Finally, TT augments this release with an isolated score and A&E’s Biography Special on Jean Simmons – itself, well worth the price of admission. Bottom line: Hilda Crane has been overlooked in Fox’s canon of ‘scope’ classics for far too long. This Blu-ray is the way to experience it. A solidly written, expertly played and definitely welcomed release. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)