May 16, 2012

James Baldwin on Sylvia Sidney, Henry Fonda and YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (Fritz Lang, 1937)


The following is excerpted from the chapter "Congo Square" in The Devil Finds Work: An Essay by James Baldwin (1976).

...The Scottsboro boys, for example - for the Scottsboro Case has begun - were certainly innocent of anything requiring vengeance. My father's youngest son by his first marriage, nine years older than I, who had vanished from our lives, might have been one of those boys, now being murdered by my fellow Americans on the basis of the rape charge delivered by two white whores: and I was reading Angelo Herndon's Let Me Live!. Yes. I understood that: my countrymen were my enemy, and I had already begun to hate them from the bottom of my heart.

Angelo Herndon was a young, black labor organizer in the Deep South, railroaded to prison, who lived long enough, at least, to write a book about it - the George Jackson of the era. No one resembling him, or anyone resembling my father, has yet made an appearance on the American cinema scene. Perhaps to compensate for this, Bill now takes me to see Sylvia Sidney and Henry Fonda in the Walter Wanger production of Fritz Lang's YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE
Sylvia Sidney was the only American film actress who reminded me of a colored girl, or woman - which is to say that she was the only American film actress who reminded me of reality. All of the others, without exception, were white, and, even when they moved me (like Margaret Sullavan [sic] or Bette Davis or Carole Lombard) they moved me from that distance. Some instinct caused me profoundly to distrust the sense of life they projected: this sense of life could certainly never, in any case, be used by me, and, while his eye might be on the sparrow, mine had to be on the hawk. And, similarly, while I admired Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney (and, on a more demanding level, Fredric March), the only actor of the era with whom I identified was Henry Fonda. I was not alone. A black friend of mine, after seeing Henry Fonda in THE GRAPES OF WRATH, swore that Fonda had colored blood. You could tell, he said, by the way Fonda walked down the road at the end of the film: white men don't walk like that! and he imitated Fonda's stubborn, patient, wide-legged hike away from the camera. My reaction to Sylvia Sidney was certainly due, in part, to the kind of film she appeared in during that era - FURY; MARY BURNS, FUGITIVE; YOU AND ME; STREET SCENE (I was certain, even that I knew the meaning of the title of a film she made with Gene Raymond, which I never saw, BEHOLD MY WIFE). It was almost as though she and I had a secret: she seemed to know something I knew. Every street in New York ends in a river: this is the legend which begins the film, DEAD END, and I was enormously grateful for it. I had never thought of that before. Sylvia Sidney, facing a cop in this film, pulling her black hat back from her forehead: One of you lousy cops gave me that. She was always being beaten up, victimized, weeping, and she should have been drearier than Tom Mix's girl friends. But I always believed her - in a way, she reminded me of Bill, for I had seen Bill facing hostile cops. Bill took us on a picnic downtown once, and there was supposed to be ice cream waiting for us at a police station. The cops didn't like Bill, didn't like the fact that we were colored kids, and didn't want to give up the ice cream. I don't remember anything Bill said. I just remember her face as she stared at the cop, clearly intending to stand there until the ice cream all over the world melted or until the earth's surface froze, and she got us our ice cream, saying thank you, I remember, as we left. YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE was the most powerful movie I had seen until that moment. The only other film to hit me as hard, at that time of my life, was THE CHILDHOOD OF MAXIM GORKY, which, for me, had not been about white people. Similarly, while 20,000 YEARS IN SING SING had concerned the trials of a finally somewhat improbable white couple, YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE came much closer to home.

It is the top of 1937. I am not yet thirteen.

FURY, MGM, 1936, is, I believe, Lang's first American film. It is meant to be a study of mob violence, on which level it is indignant, sincere, and inept. Since the mob separates the lovers almost at the beginning of the film, the film works as a love story only intermittently, and to the extent that one responds to the lovers (Sylvia Sidney and Spencer Tracy). It is an exceedingly uneasy and uneven film, with both the lovers and the mob placed, really, in the German Third Reich, which Lang has not so much fled as furiously repudiated, and to which he is still reacting. (The railroad station at which the lovers separate is heavy with menace, and the train which carries Sidney away to go to work in another town is rather like the train to a bloody destination unknown.) Lang's is the fury of the film: but his grasp of the texture of American life is still extremely weak: he has not yet really left Germany. His fury, nevertheless, manages to convey something of the idle, aimless, compulsive wickedness of idle, terrified, aimless people, who can come together only as a mob: but his hatred of these people also makes them, at least, unreal. God knows what Lang had already seen, in Germany.

By the time of YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE, Lang had found his American feet. He never succeeded quite so brilliantly again. Considering the speed with which we moved from the New Deal to World War II, to Yalta, to the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, to Korea, and the House Un-American Activities Committee, this may not be his fault.

(One of the last of his films, entitled BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT, starring Joan Fontaine, Dana Andrews, and Sydney Blackmer, is an utterly shameless apology for American justice, the work of a defeated man. But, children, yes, it be's that way sometimes.)*
Lang's concern, or obsession, was with the fact and the effect of human loneliness, and the ways in which we are all responsible for the creation, and the fate, of the isolated monster: whom we isolate because we recognize him as living within us. This is what his great German film, M, which launched Peter Lorre, is all about. In the American context, there being no way for him to get to the nigger, he could use only that other American prototype, the criminal, le gangster. The premise of YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE is that Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda) is an ex-convict who wants to go "straight": but the society will not allow him to live down, or redeem, his criminal past. This apparently banal situation is thrust upon us with so heavy a hand that one is forced - as I was, even so long ago - to wonder if one is resisting the film or resisting the truth. But, however one may wish to defend oneself against Lang's indictment of the small, faceless people, always available for any public ceremony and absent forever from any private one, who are society, one is left defenseless before his study of the result, which is the isolation and the doom of the lovers.
Very early in the film we meet the earnest and popular prison chaplain - a priest: we meet him as he pitches the ball to the men who are playing baseball in the prison courtyard. It is a curiously loaded moment, a disturbing image: perhaps only an exiled German, at that period of our history, would have dreamed of so connecting games and slaughter, thus foreshadowing the fate of the accomplice, who is, in this case, the priest. The film does not suggest that the priest's popularity had anything to do with the religious instruction he, presumably, brings to the men - his popularity is due to his personal qualities, which include a somewhat overworked cheerfulness: and his function, at bottom, is to prepare the men for death. His role, also, is to make the prison more bearable, both for the men in the courtyard and the guard behind the machine gun in the tower. And he is, also, of course, to prepare these men for their eventual freedom beyond these walls - which freedom, according to Lang's savage and elaborately articulated vision, does not and probably cannot exist.

The film has a kind of claustrophobic physicality - Sidney is the first seen, for example, behind a desk, trapped, and Lang forces us to concentrate on her maneuvers to free herself, smiling all the way. (She's trapped behind her desk by a telephone and an apple vendor who has come to City Hall, where Sidney works, to complain that policemen eat his apples for free.) The first reunion of the lovers takes place with bars between them: it takes a moment before they realize that the gate is open, the man is being set free. There is a marvelous small moment in the flop house, with Fonda pacing the room the way he paced the cell, and pausing at the window to listen to the Salvation Army Band outside, singing, if you love your mother, meet her in the skies. I cannot imagine any native-born white American daring to use, so laconically, a banality so nearly comic in order to capture so deep a distress. 
The genuine indignation which informs this film is a quality which was very shortly to disappear out of the American cinema, and severely to be menaced in American life. In a way, we were all niggers in the thirties. I do not know if that really made us more friendly with each other - at bottom, I doubt that, for more would remain of that friendliness today - but it was harder then, and riskier, to attempt a separate peace, and benign neglect was not among our possibilities. The Okies, of THE GRAPES OF WRATH, were still crossing the plains in their jalopy and had not yet arrived in California, there, every single one of them, to encounter running water, and to become cops. Neither Steinbeck nor Dos Passos had yet said, my country, right or wrong, nor did anyone suppose that they ever could - but they did; and Hemingway was as vocal concerning the Spanish revolution as he was to be silent concerning the Cuban one.

There is that moment in the film, in prison, when Fonda whispers to Sidney, through jail-house glass, Get me a gun. Sidney said, I can't get you a gun. You'll kill somebody! and Fonda says, What do you think they're going to do to me?
I understood that: it was a real question. I was living with that question.

It is the priest who covers for the trapped and weary girl when she attempts to smuggle a gun into the prison, and it is the priest whom Fonda murders, with a gun. And I wondered about that, the well-meaning accomplice and his fate: he is murdered because Fonda does not believe him, even though he is, in fact speaking the truth. But the prisoner has no way of knowing with whom the priest is playing ball at the moment and so dares not risk believing him, This dread is underscored by the film's last line, delivered (in the dying prisoner's memory) by the priest: The gates are open. I knew damn well that the gates were not open, and, by this time, in any case, the lovers were dead.



Andy Rector said...

*I disagree in the extreme with this view of BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT ; the film inspires much shame, shame below even that of the American justice system, i.e., at the difficulty of answering the question "beyond appearances, what are guilt and innocence?" as Jacques Rivette wrote of the film; a dangerous question, socially and philosophically, but unapologetically asked of all. BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT is Lang playing the same game as the priest in YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE, preparing "these men for their eventual freedom beyond these walls - which freedom, according to Lang's savage and elaborately articulated vision, does not and probably cannot exist." Lang steps over a social indictment of the American justice system to make instead the most absolute, anatomical indictment of his own work in the Hollywood justice system.

Daniel Kasman said...

An incredible text I was not aware of, a thousand thanks for finding and sharing it, Andy.