Recite, Rewind, Repeat

by Barbara White

This piece is my entry for the Soaring Twenties Social Club Symposium. The STSC is a diverse, online club consisting of writers, philosophers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, etc. Each month STSC members create something around a set theme. The theme for the June 2023 issue is “Romance.”

Stick a Pin in It

“When I wake in the morning, when I go to sleep at night, I think of you.”

With these words, Lester declares his feelings for Myra. He continues on, rhapsodizing: she is the air, the sky, the earth, Music, beauty, and sunlight all remind him of her. She infuses every moment, everywhere.

To Lester, Myra is all women:

“You are the sister I never had, the mother I have almost forgotten, the wife I have always dreamed of. There isn’t a relationship you can name which exists between a man and a woman of which I wouldn’t say, let it be you.”

“Oh, let it be you.”

By now the music has begun. Lester approaches Myra and places his arms on her shoulders. He says again, “Oh, let it be you,” and leans in for their first kiss. But something seems off: as the lovers’ lips meet, Lester continues to talk. That is because his voice is coming not from his body but from a recording device stationed across the room. His mouth does not speak. Even stranger, the words are not Lester’s; he is reciting lines from Myra’s play. Lester romances Myra with words she herself has scripted. These are words designed for presentation on stage, not for her own life. Through Lester’s delivery of Myra’s lines, Myra’s life imitates her art.

The 1952 film Sudden Fear, directed by David Miller, presents this declaration of love three times. Let’s rewind to the first iteration. The opening scene of the film depicts a rehearsal of Myra Hudson’s play, Halfway to Heaven. The actor named Lester (Jack Palance) stands on stage wooing his leading lady: “When I wake in the morning, when I go to sleep at night, I think of you.” And so on: he recites his lines and takes his actress colleague in his arms. The playwright, Myra (Joan Crawford), observes from the house, assessing Lester’s appearance as well as his acting. Sitting with Myra, the producer and director are delighted with Lester’s performance, and Myra’s assistant Ann marvels,“What a lovely speaking voice.” 

But Myra is unconvinced: “He sounds romantic enough—just doesn’t look romantic.” She goes on to say, “We’ve got to convince the audience that this character could recite ‘Three Blind Mice’ to [the character] Laura, and she’d think it was the most romantic poem in the world.” After some discussion, Lester is dismissed from the play. Before leaving, he barges back onto the stage and gives Myra another speech, this one in his own words: Casanova had “big ears, a scar over one eye, a broken nose, and a wart on his chin.”1 In other words, romantic appeal is about more than physical appearance.

From the start, Sudden Fear enforces a split between hearing and seeing: while Lester’s voice, delivering Myra’s words, meets with the author’s approval, the body the voice issues from doesn’t make the grade. This severance of senses remains important throughout Sudden Fear.

Lester and Myra, however, do not stay severed for long: after the play has opened on Broadway, Myra boards the cross-country train for San Francisco. En route, she runs into Lester. What a coincidence—or so it seems. As they travel across the country, Myra and Lester become close, and when they reach San Francisco, their courtship intensifies. After a night out, in the wee hours of the morning, they find themselves in Myra’s study.

In Myra’s study, the milk toast.

Over a nightcap (a glass of milk for each), Lester notices a machine across the room and asks, “What is that? A guided missile?” Myra explains that it is a dictating machine, which she uses to compose her plays. There are five microphones “hidden around the room,” which enable Myra to “wander around” while she composes her plays. She invites Lester to give it a try: “Walk around the room. . . . Say something.” He begins to stroll, and Myra prods, “Well?” Lester begins to speak: “When I wake in the morning, when I go to sleep at night, I think of you.” Lester recites Myra’s lines to her—the very same lines she heard him deliver earlier in the theater. 

The “Guided Missile” (Myra’s Dictating Machine)

This is a curious moment: when invited to speak, the would-be actor chooses to perform, to repeat the words conceived by his love interestor, as Myra will learn, his target. More, Lester does “wander around” as he recites the lines, never once looking at Myra. Whereas the words were delivered with expression in the earlier rehearsal, here the delivery is hesitant, pensive, even perfunctory. And if the artifice of Lester’s recitation is not enough, if the viewer is not unsettled at the sight of the rejected actor declaring his love for the playwright with the very words she found him inadequate to deliver on stage, there is also the specter of the machine across the room, witnessing the mechanistic spectacle along with Myra. 

And now comes the third, most eerie, iteration of the declaration: Myra plays the recording, and Lester’s disembodied voice resounds through the study. Thus Lester’s voice is dissociated from his body, and the presentation moves from artificial to uncanny. The speech is not only pre-fabricated; it has been “fixed,” inscribed onto the record. The recording cannot change or be changed, which emphasizes the manufactured aspect of the words. The separation of voice and body, and of words and movement, engenders a marked awkwardness. What’s a middle-aged heiress playwright to do when she hears her sacked employee and soon-to-be lover romancing her from within a machine as he himself listens to himself quoting her? And what is he to do with his material body as his words repeat themselves without his physical involvement? 

Lester and Myra gaze at one another, unspeaking, as the recording plays back. At last the speech comes to its end, and Lester leans in for that kiss. Just before the final word “you” issues from the recording, Lester’s lips meet Myra’s. One might say he is talking out of one mouth and kissing with the other. The disconcerting sight of the suitor kissing and talking at the same time undermines the plausibility of the romance. The man who was not a convincing lover on stage has become all too convincing in Myra’s home, but one might think Myra would suspect, along with the viewer of the film, that something is awry in Lester’s choice of words, and in the way they can be relayed not only by a man but also by a machine. 

The fixity of the recording emphasizes the potentially pre-meditated nature of any words, rendered through the necessary artifice that characterizes any script. (It is, of course, a script within a script). Even Bill, the director of Halfway to Heaven, seeks a form of “live recording”: in the opening scene of the film, when Lester first recites these lines, and before Myra expresses her reservations about the casting, the director comments that Lester has found the definitive interpretation of Myra’s text. Bill says, “I like that tempo, Lester. Keep it that way. Stick a pin in it.” This is an embodied form of fixity: the director’s line reveals the potential of live performance to approach the nature of an unchanging “recording.” 

Let’s rewind again. How many times had Lester already delivered this line in rehearsal, or practiced on his own, with the printed script in hand? And what preceded the words being inscribed on the page? How many hours did Myra spend pacing around her studio, recording drafts into the dictating machine? One might imagine that Myra’s script springs fully formed out of her imagination and only later becomes ossified, perhaps through rehearsals, and certainly—irreversibly—through the recording mechanism. But how spontaneous is Myra’s invention? How individual? And why is she susceptible to Lester’s canned recitation?

The Book in the Machine

Lester’s words are literally scripted. Through repeated performances, and then recording and playback, they become mechanical and inhuman, undermining any sense of romance. Rewind after rewind, he repeatedly “wakes up in the morning,” but every day turns out to be the same. It’s always sunny, and anyone and everyone within earshot might be his dream woman.

Who learns how to love from a script? And who falls in love upon hearing one?

All of us, perhaps. In his commentary on Canto V of Dante’s Inferno, John Freccero observes that the lovers Paolo and Francesca, while apparently seized by spontaneous and irresistible passion, are actually taught how to experience (or conjure) such passion as they read about Lancelot and Guinevere: “What appeared to have been love at first sight was in fact love by the book. Book and author seduced the lovers. . . .”2

Barbara White and Terry Araujo, Black Air (2005);
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres,
Paolo et Francesca (1819).3

Romance, then, relies on mediation between pre-existing narrative and current experience: life imitates art through models and imitation—even calculation. One’s romantic exploits may not be as individual as one thinks. Freccero’s depiction of Francesca’s surrender could almost apply to that of Myra more than six centuries later: “What she imagined to be a unique and spontaneous passion turns out to have begun as the mimicry of someone else’s story. Reading about Lancelot and Guinevere was the first root of their love and their kiss was its first incarnation.”4

In Hell, Dante’s Francesca curses the book that taught her to imitate and perform passion. But Myra seems to have missed this lecture, for she swoons at Lester’s perfectly packaged delivery of a pre-existing script. A crucial difference between Myra and Francesca, though, is that Myra is corrupted not by a fictional precursor but by a fiction she invented herself. So where Francesca mimics Guinevere, Myra mimics . . . the character from her own play, Laura.

Rather than a model, the script serves as a mirror, and however sympathetic one finds the character of Myra (very much so, in my case), the near-fatal narcissism of her response to Lester is undeniable. Lester acts for her consumption, ingratiating himself by repeating her words even after she has canceled his performance in Halfway to Heaven. Having “stuck a pin in it,” he takes the convo offstage, and this time she buys it. Lester tells Myra, “You are . . . the wife I have always dreamed of,” but it is Myra who has dreamt up this dream. She has heard these words before—many times—and knows that they are invented, but she is blinded by her own reflection. Her catastrophic error is believing that Lester’s parroting of her words is heartfelt. 

Acting the Part

As if to emphasize the ubiquity of mimicry and the importance of influential models, the narrative of Sudden Fear seems to have bled off stage and crept into the actors’ and filmmakers’ lives. Joan Crawford, who plays Myra, initially objected to director David Miller’s choice of Jack Palance to play Lester. According to Crawford biographer Bob Thomas, Crawford became physically aggressive with Miller when he expressed his intention to cast Palance. She later phoned Miller, exclaiming, “You don’t love me. You don’t respect me. How could you ever suggest that I accept such a leading man?”5

But rejection gave way to infatuation. Lawrence J.Quirk and William Schoell report that the love triangle between Myra, Lester, and his lover Irene also played out offstage among the actors:

“In another case of life imitating art, Joan fell for Palance the way her character fell for his in the movie. Palance’s machismo and confidence intrigued her, and she was anxious to find out what he was like in bed. Unfortunately, Palance had already zeroed in on supporting player Gloria Grahame, who played Irene, his character’s lover. When Joan found out, she was even angrier than when Miller had suggested Palance be her leading man.”6

More, Crawford clearly believed that actors should follow a script in their interactions off screen, for she expected the supporting actress, Grahame, to defer to the leading lady: “Didn’t she know that the star always had dibs on the leading man?”7

Just as Myra’s script for Halfway to Heaven proliferates within the film, the plot breaks the boundaries of the set and plays itself out after working hours. Amplifying the hall of mirrors effect of life imitating art portraying imitation, Crawford’s professional status was also an issue for her co-star: “Palance’s main problem toward Joan was that she was a much bigger name than he was and he thought he was much more talented. A lot of Joan’s male costars and supporting players simply didn’t like strong women.”8 This too, reflects the narrative of the film, for Myra is a successful playwright—and heiress, which the press will not let her forget—while Lester is a struggling actor, or acts as one. It is also significant that she is considerably older than her impecunious husband. Lester and his lover Irene, who is closer to his age and socioeconomic status, plot to kill Myra. As it turns out, on all those mornings waking up, he was thinking, not of Myra, but of her money.

Fast Forward

Myra, terrorized by the audio recording.

In the end, it is the recording device that allows Myra to recognize “the juxtaposition of the illusion of love with the stark reality of its consequences.”9 Back in her study later on, Myra “overhears” Lester and Irene: Myra has left the machine running, and it has captured a conversation in which Lester and Irene plot to kill her. Here the “guided missile”—the term seems more apt now—transforms into a tormentor. The representation of playback is no longer realistic. After she has heard Lester and Irene plotting on the recording, Myra begins to hear her betrayers’ voices in her head, and she covers her ears as if they are actually in the room, even looking toward the machine in terror as if the animate object is a threat. The act of recording, previously revealed as uncanny, has become sinister, and yet the revelation of Myra’s true status vis-à-vis her young, conniving husband is what allows her to foil the would-be murderers, Lester and Irene.10

Myra hears something unexpected.

While the act of recording fixes the present and renders it as past, Sudden Fear simultaneously seems to anticipate the future—specifically, Crawford’s later career. Distinct but interrelated tropes appear, reappear, and mutate: woman in peril, wealthy woman exploited or victimized for her money, older woman who desperately clings to youth—and, of course, the crazy older woman, as portrayed in “hagsploitation” films such as Berserk and Strait-Jacket. Sudden Fear, though, presents  a mature, professionally accomplished woman who saves herself by flipping the script on her murderous husband and the cheap, crass tramp he really wants.

Pepsi: “more bounce to the ounce.”

What comes to mind when one hears the name “Joan Crawford”? For many, it would be Mildred Pierce (1945) or What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Some may be familiar with her earlier films, even the silents, and may be aware of how much her appearance changed in those formative years. Some may picture her in a fabulous hat drinking a Pepsi.11 And some—particularly those of my generation, I suspect—will picture not Joan but another actress imitating her, screaming abusively at her children. (Might a particular word or household implement come to mind even before her own films do?)

There are many re-presentations of Joan Crawford in the canon. As long ago as 1976, on the occasion of her parody Mildred Fierce, Carol Burnett referred to Mildred Pierce as an “old movie.”12 That film had just turned 21, but Sudden Fear is now 71 years old. Like the dictaphone portrayed in the film, the film itself—thanks to the medium of recording—is fixed, dead, imprisoned in 1952. Or is it?

In the 1930s, around the same time that Joan Crawford starred in The Gorgeous Hussy, Walter Benjamin famously considered the “aura” of the work of art, which is lost in the face of “mechanical reproduction” or “technological reproducibility”:

“In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art—its unique existence in a particular place. It is this unique existence—and nothing else—that bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject. This history includes changes to the physical structure of the work over time, together with any changes in ownership.”13

The artwork reproduces and proliferates, but it seems to cultivate its own sort of aura—not only in the sense of Hollywood stardom, history, and gossip, but also in that recording has become ubiquitous and expected. It is no longer marked as an unchanging recording of something but as a something that can be manipulated. Indeed, film has long been mutable. At the same time that Benjamin considered the loss of the aura through recording, Joseph Cornell was already treating film as raw material, as he dismantled and reshaped East of Borneo (1931) into Rose Hobart (1936). More recently–but still decades ago—we have Douglas Gordon’s reworking of Hitchcock into 24 Hour Psycho (1993) and of Preminger’s Whirlpool into left is right and right is wrong and left is wrong and right is right (1999). There are many more examples.

In recent years, technological developments have made it increasingly feasible for non-specialists to appropriate and rework filmic material. Sudden Fear, like Joan Crawford, may be dead, but we now have tools to kill the film again.

Joan, terrorized by—something.

I see a GIF of Joan Crawford, taken from Sudden Fear, and it seems to suck the life out of the artwork—even though the artwork itself highlights that very deadening.  This is doubly uncanny: in the film, listening to the recording of the plot to kill her, Myra covers her ears. In the GIF taken from the film, there is no sound: Myra gets her wish to silence the reverberating voices. However, this fragment is no longer Myra; it is Joan, and chances are that many or most who see or disseminate the GIF are unaware of the context of the clip. Instead of having to go to a theater to view a film, or wait for it to be broadcast on television—I know, that’s the distant past, but instead of seeing the film as a whole, or at least as fairly incorruptible, we can now enter it, access a couple of seconds of isolated footage, and make them repeat over and over, just as the sound did in Sudden Fear when the record skipped. We needn’t know where the clip comes from to pass it on as a reaction to a text message or social media post. (I myself can identify very few sources of GIFs.)

Joan is imprisoned in Fear, but not only there. In a modern-day form of “reproduction,” she proliferates, and the spectator can access any number of Joans in any given minute. Joan raising an ax; Joan in a hat tossing a lamp and slapping a woman;  Joan wrestling in a strait-jacket. As if really in the strait-jacket, Joan is held captive by these clips. While Lester acted to manipulate Myra, we manipulate Joan, making her a symbol, a caricature, a punchline. With GIFs we kill films, but how do we kill the GIFs?

As much as I enjoy Crawford’s pulpy late-career roles, for now I’ll picture her at the end of Sudden Fear. Having saved herself from the culprits, she walks alone, in an infinite loop, into a future that we will never see, for this is where the film ends.

Myra, alone at the end of Sudden Fear



1. The script recited in rehearsal includes two lines that Lester omits in the study; the rest is identical. The score was composed by Elmer Bernstein. The role of Ann Taylor, Myra’s assistant, is played by Virginia Huston. The roles of the producer and director are uncredited in the film, but notes that Bill, the director, is played by Lewis Martin and the producer Scott Martindale by Taylor Holmes.

2. John Freccero, Notes to The Inferno of Dante, tr. Robert Pinsky (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1994), p. 385.

3. Black Air (2005) is a “choreography for camera” based on the story of Paolo and Francesca as portrayed by Dante and others, and responding to numerous commentaries on the story, including Freccero’s. Music and direction by Barbara White; choreography by Terry Araujo. An excerpt can be found here: Password: guinevere.

4. John Freccero, “The Portrait of Francesca. Inferno V.” MLN 124: 5 Supplement (Dec. 2009), p. S11.

5. Bob Thomas, Joan Crawford (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978), 178. Lawrence Quirk and William Schoell concur: “She was used to handsome, sexy leading men, and in a real-life turn that mirrored the plot of Sudden Fear, she thought Palance was simply too ugly” (Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography [University Press of Kentucky, 2002], 162).

6. Quirk and Schoell, Joan Crawford, 162.

7. Quirk and Schoell, Joan Crawford, 162.

8. Quirk and Schoell, Joan Crawford, 162.

9. Freccero, “Portrait of Francesca,” S9.

10. A future, expanded, version of this study will provide more analysis of this later scene.

11. Alfred Steele, Crawford’s fourth husband, was the CEO of Pepsi when they married in 1955.

12. “Mildred Fierce,” The Carol Burnett Show, Season 10/Episode 9; aired Nov. 20, 1976.

13. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” (Third Version). Gesammelte Schriften, I, 471–508. Translated by Harry Zohn and Edmund Jephcott. Included in Donald Preziosi, ed., The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 437. 


Does the cicada say

This piece is my entry for the Soaring Twenties Social Club Symposium.
The theme for this issue is “Death”.


Does the cicada say of us

they live a thousand lives before they pass away
their song unfolds through an entire day
their melody is endless

they carry their shells
they raise their young
prisons of skin emerge from skin

bound to the earth
feet sink into stone

they depart reluctantly 

What do they make of our sirens, our playgrounds, our barking dogs?
Our drums, our flutes, our cries?
Do they think us unnatural? Do we sound out of tune?
Do they wail alongside us? Do they copy our songs?

Do the cicadas wonder

what do our songs sound like to them?
a scratch, a cloud, a hum? 
grass on grass, a tap, a quiver?
do we keep them awake with our din?

Do they ask

what will they say about us once we’ve gone?
will they yearn to hear us once more?
how long do they sleep before they return?
will they listen to our children’s song?

Bashō has left the building 
But the temple bell still rings 
And the cicadas cry—
A sign that they will die.



This essay was written for the Soaring Twenties Social Club Symposium. Each month STSC members create something around a set theme. This cycle, the theme was “Trains.” 


Brief Encounter With a Concerto

Alec, a doctor, describes the symptoms of his specialty, pneumoconiosis. Across the table, his new acquaintance Laura observes, “Suddenly you look much younger. Almost like a little boy.” As the solo piano begins to play, she asks what other diseases interest him, and he recites a list: “Anthracosis. Chalicosis. Silicosis.” The camera moves in slowly. Laura is smitten. The strings join the piano, and the music blooms, stretching toward a moment of arrival—but a bell rings at the most inconvenient moment, reminding us that we are in the refreshment room at Milford Station, and it is time for Alec to depart. The music continues but is soon overshadowed by the sound of the approaching train.

David Lean’s 1945 film Brief Encounter, with a screenplay by Noël Coward, may be the only film to date in which a mention of “the slow process of fibrosis of the lung due to the inhalation of particles of dust” inspires romantic longing. Laura sighs, “Yes, of course, steel works,” mirroring Alec’s identification of where the dangerous dust comes from. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto streams through the film, doing its part to signal the acquaintances’ growing attraction. But the relationship between these moving images and this lush music is not easy. Rachmaninoff’s work is dense and intricate, Romantic and rhapsodic, and the film alternately capitalizes on it and tells it to quiet down. In Milford, the trains run on time, impatient with this concerto, turning it on and off as if it were a radio. Even as Alec asks to see Laura again, the train passes over the tracks one by one, with a rhythmic sound, insisting that this blossoming affection will soon lead to separation.

Endings, Interrupted

The filmmakers treat Rachmaninoff’s music with devotion, positioning it sensitively and crafting its entrances and exits with care. Among the many musical features that may serve as inspiration—melody, rhythm, instrumentation, or a more general sense of style or affect—they pay particular attention to moments of closure. These are points where music comes to rest, at least temporarily. 

Only nine minutes into the film, we witness the lovers’ final farewell, with its suggestion of other endings. Having left the train station refreshment room where she first met Alec, and having seen him for the last time, Laura rides the train toward home and imagines how her sorrow will continue to play out in the future. We hear her thoughts in voiceover as she tries to convince herself that her mourning will end, as most things do. Observing that “not even life lasts very long,” she envisions a time in the future when her feelings will subside. But the music, however gentle, refuses to console.  It sways back and forth, moving from instability to repose and back, refusing to commit. As if hearing this indecisiveness, Laura counters herself, realizing she does not want to recover: “No, no – I don’t want that time to come ever – I want to remember every minute – always – always – to the end of my days.” The music is preparing to come to rest one more time, but suddenly, as Laura realizes that she does not want her despair to end, the cadence is interrupted by the sound of the train arriving and the conductor announcing, “Ketchworth.” There is no closure to be had.

“Steelworks,” Laura sighs. Alec tells her about the diseases he studies. The lovers drink their last cup of tea.

More than an hour later in the film, back in the refreshment room, we see the parting that occasioned this reverie. Here Laura and Alec discuss their imminent separation, weighed down by thoughts of time: the expected arrival of Alec’s train, the futures of their children, and the impossibility of seeing one another again. They speak of death and remembrance: 

Laura (without emotion): I want to die – if only I could die. 

Alec: If you died you’d forget me – I want to be remembered.

Laura: Yes, I know – I do too. 

Again the music rocks back and forth and moves toward repose. Alec glances at the clock and observes, “We’ve still got a few minutes.” But he is wrong. Just then Laura’s acquaintance Dolly barges in, exclaiming, “Laura! What a lovely surprise!” Like the train noises elsewhere in the film, Dolly interrupts and even drowns out the tender music, just as she intrudes on the lovers’ final moments together. The music is denied its completion, and so are Alec and Laura. That is, two completions: not only does their relationship have to die; even this tender act of separation is interrupted and thwarted.

Fragments and Repetitions

Brief Encounter emphasizes the rigidity of time: there are near-constant bells, boarding announcements, and sounds of trains approaching and departing. The express train rushes by; it doesn’t stop. “Time, tide, and train wait for no man,” one might say. The train whistle is a notice, a caution, even a scream. Yet the events are presented out of order. The beginning and end of the film take place in the present, and the past is presented in flashback inside this framing device. This is why we witness Laura’s misery before we see the farewell that precipitated it. More, the scene of parting appears twice in the film: here, near the start, and again toward the end. Twice we see the lovers dolefully preparing to say goodbye, and twice we hear Dolly’s abrupt cry of “Laura!”  Only at the end do we back up and hear what Alec and Laura say to one another before she intrudes.

Within the narrative itself, time moves forward as inexorably as an express train or the growth of a child, but the reordering of events and the repetition of the farewell scene create a non-linear and dreamlike presentation. Images, too, multiply and proliferate. A fantasy plays on a train window and a dissolve overlays two Lauras on screen; in each case, Laura observes herself as if in a movie. Laura’s interior narration, delivered in voiceover, is addressed to her husband, and she often utters his name, “Fred.” One hears and sees the juxtaposition of her feelings for the two men as she sits in the library with Fred and tells him the story of Alec—silently, within her mind. There is a sense of swimming in memories, shaped by Laura, as opposed to living the events alongside the characters.

Fred with his crossword puzzle in the library, Laura in foreground; across the room, Laura broods silently.

The music, too, manipulates time. The filmmakers’ unusual choice to enlist a pre-existing piece of music as underscore creates a complex relationship between moving image and music. The bells and whistles proceed as expected, but the music jumps through time. There are excerpts from all three movements of the Concerto, but the material is fragmented, reordered, and also repeated. Were there a score composed expressly for the film, one might expect the music to develop and repeat to complement the action, but this Concerto brings its own narrative with it. As above, cadences and resolutions are shaped by the conventions of musical syntax, and the film plays on these to reinforce moments of finality, continuation, delay, and interruption. Rachmaninoff’s syntax relies on musical conventions such as statement, development, and restatement. But in this context the music’s own forward movement—its plot, so to speak— is thwarted. Fragmentation and repetition subvert the music’s momentum, leaving hints and suggestions of what it might signify when performed continuously, as originally intended. Understanding this does not demand specialized knowledge from the viewer: one can hear the distortions without being familiar with the Concerto or immersing oneself in music theory.

On the train after parting: the French horn theme enters for the first time; Dolly chatters; Laura resolves, “I want to remember every minute – always – always – to the end of my days.”

As Laura reminisces on the train, with Dolly seated across from her, we hear a poignant ascending melody from the French horn, accompanied by the orchestra. This will return three more times in the film, even though it appears only once in the Concerto. More, it is a brief fragment that starts and stops unpredictably. As Dolly nosily inquires about Alec, Laura disengages from her and retreats into her own thoughts. The French horn figure enters but lasts only twenty seconds before Dolly interrupts again. When Laura extricates herself from conversation and says she wants to rest, the music continues—or rather, it begins again from the same spot. It is the exact same music, and the repetition makes it seem as if Laura has pressed the rewind button to try again to begin her reverie. This sort of interruption and “reboot” is foreign to the formal conventions of classical music in general and the design of Rachmaninoff’s Concerto specifically. And even within a film, such direct repetition and interruption of such a brief segment gives a sense of restarting the clock.

This theme appears twice more, but with an important difference: the musical segments are longer. One cue lasts nearly a minute and the other closer to three minutes. In these instances, instead of starting on its own, the French horn theme is introduced by music that precedes it in the concerto. Now the horn theme is a continuation, not an abrupt beginning. It emerges from somewhere; it is an arrival, not a departure point. Alongside the progression of the film, this musical fragment starts and stops, then backtracks, then backtracks further, then moves forward a bit. Rather than proceeding in order from theme to theme, the music appears, imposes itself on the psyche, and then fades away, as if recollecting a previous time. Like the action of the film, the music takes place in the past.


While the appearance, disappearance, reemergence, and “cropping” of musical excerpts manipulate the sense of time (already distorted by the film’s use of flashback), the repetition of the same musical material, the French horn melody, inspires a different sensation, something like swimming in reminiscence or ruminating on the past. This is less a train route than a rummage through shards of memory. And the recurrence of the music and reverie suggest not forward motion but immobility. Again, the spectator need not know the Concerto to experience the feeling of rewinding and repeating. It is encoded into the film through the practice of repetition itself.

In his essay “Railway Navigation and Incarceration,” Michel de Certeau considers the constraints of the train compartment: 

The windowglass and the iron (rail) line divide, on the one hand, the traveller’s (the putative narrator’s) interiority and, on the other, the power of being, constituted as an object without discourse, the strength of an exterior silence. But paradoxically it is the silence of these things put at a distance, behind the windowpane, which, from a great distance, makes our memories speak or draws out of the shadows the dreams of our secrets.1

If one inventories the use of trains in film, the image of a railway car speeding into a tunnel is likely to come to mind. This image is often eroticized, as in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, where the union of the lovers is mirrored by the vision of the transportational phallus entering a dark, enclosed space. But de Certeau reminds us that that phallus is hollow, that it carries people within it. It serves as a prison or a tomb, at least temporarily. Michel Chion also writes of the sonic and visual sensations of being on a train: the train sounds “are associated with not only visual sensations but also phoric sensations (the feeling of being carried and jostled, which goes back to life in the womb).”2

Laura sits in the travelling womb, imprisoned in her memories of her time with Alec and observing in voiceover that she longs to be free of the chatty Dolly. The cycling and recycling of musical excerpts reinforces this sensation, as does the flashback structure of the film as a whole, which presents her sifting through memories, hesitating to move on from the end of the love affair. The regularity of the train’s construction and its unrelenting forward motion underscore the sense of incarceration and isolation. She is stuck in the train compartment, but she is also confined by her own mind.

The train runs according to its schedule, and on a grid. Each tie is laid after another.  The film also proceeds by increments, as each frame succeeds another to create a “moving picture.” Both the train and the film use stationary mechanisms to create movement—the uniformity and repetition of the train tracks is reflected in the identically shaped frames of the film that course through a projector. 

What of the music, then? On what track does it run? To be sure, it is part of a sound-track, but this is a bit deceiving. Although recorded music, with or without an accompanying film, is ubiquitous today, it was somewhat less so seventy-five years ago when the film was made. The LP had yet to be introduced, and classical works had to be engraved in sections on multiple discs. (Interestingly, this bears a slight relationship to filmmakers’ disruption of the music’s structure.)  Brief Encounter’s credits, complemented by the opening of the Concerto, announce not only the musical work but also the performers: Eileen Joyce is the soloist, alongside the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Muir Matheson. Brief Encounter was made during a period when piano concertos proliferated through films such as Dangerous Moonlight and The Seventh Veil. However, it differs from these precursors in that it does not include a pianist. As a result, there is no performance of the Concerto within the action. Rachmaninoff’s music serves as underscore—mostly. About fourteen minutes into the film, Laura is at home with her husband in their library. (Another prison?) She turns on the radio and settles on a station playing the Rachmaninoff Concerto. This grounds the music in the present, mediated through broadcast. In this sense, the music is “played live.”

More, the proliferation of disembodied music through recordings and broadcasts obscures the possibility and significance of live musical realization of a composer’s work. This will be true for any conventional film, for as the moving images are imprinted on celluloid, so must the music be fixed in an unchanging form. So while the train moves along its track, and the images unfurl frame after frame, the music proceeds by—well, what is the unit of measurement? Does one conceive of a musical frame as with images? The pulse of the musical material (which often shifts)? Clock time? It is not evident what the units are. A train can come to a halt, and it is still visible. A film can be paused, landing on a still image. But, as Chion observes, “You cannot stop on a sound.”3

The Concerto has more in common with Noël Coward’s play, Still Life, on which Brief Encounter is based, than with the screenplay. While it can be fixed into a recorded format, it is not for this purpose that it was designed. When sutured to the film, Eileen Joyce’s performance no longer breathes. It no longer ebbs and flows. There are no surprises. All has been decided, and the Concerto has ended. One does not hear how Joyce might choose to vary her phrasing or tempi. This is most striking in the incorporation of two piano cadenzas into the soundtrack: as the spot of maximum harmonic instability in a concerto, descended from a tradition in which the soloist would improvise original material, the cadenzas are domesticated by the act of fixing a single performance in time. This music, like Laura on the train, is imprisoned in an enclosed space. 

Rachmaninoff at the piano; Benno Moiseiwitsch’s 1938 Recording of the Concerto, on 78s.

Even casual listeners recognize a notated musical work as a phantom that shifts its shape under the influence of performers. Fans of the Concerto debate Rachmaninoff’s own speedy tempi in his 1929 recording (five discs, ten sides) and argue over the relative merits and deficiencies of Benno Moiseiwitsch (four discs, eight sides, 1938), Evgeny Kissin (1988), and Krystian Zimerman (2003). One critic, presumably familiar with dozens of recordings of this piece, disparages Lang Lang’s recording (2005) as “a disaster” in both performance and production.4 Michael Beek praises Rachmaninoff’s own “pearl-like luminescence” and goes on to say, “Rachmaninov brings a sleight-of-hand deftness and tantalising restraint to a score that in less subtle and supple hands is often pulverised into submission.” Regarding the same recording, with the composer at the piano, an online commentator named Motrax advises that Rachmaninoff’s playing “can have a certain sarcastic bite to it at times which may bother some, but his sense of rubato is unrivaled.”5

The Ab in measure 84, realized by Benno Moiseiwitsch (1943) and Evgeny Kissin (2014), respectively.

Depending on what performance or recording is available—or in the event that one participates in a performance—the heart-rending French horn solo that accompanies Laura’s reveries may be delivered in a restrained, understated manner, or it may announce its arrival like a bold fanfare. Fortunately, the hornist in the Joyce/Matheson recording chooses the former route. For my part, I never tire of the way Walter Gieseking (1940) articulates the sixth note of the second theme of the first movement. (It’s the A-flat in measure 84.) Even better, at one spot Gieseking plays an incorrect note, and the real clashes with the ideal. (It is not even at a virtuosic spot!) I almost wish that the vulnerability of the character Laura could be accompanied by such musical fragility on the soundtrack.

At one spot in the film, Laura, yet again in voiceover, remembers, “The first awful feeling of danger swept over me.” As she says this, the express train rushes by and silences the music. The music, however, is recorded, fixed—dead. It presents no danger.

Chion has insisted, “there is no soundtrack,” claiming that once film sound is recorded it is forever fused to the moving image. “The sounds of a film, taken separately from the image, do not form an internally coherent entity on equal footing with the image track.”6 There is also no breath, no rubato–and no imperfection.

Too Much, And Not Enough

Within its narrative, Brief Encounter expresses some ambivalence toward music. Laura enjoys hearing the barrel organ on the street, but the sound that receives the most appreciation is the quack of Donald Duck that the lovers hear in the theater as part of a cartoon. Classical music, though, is viewed with skepticism, even hostility. As Laura and Alec eat lunch together at the Kardomah, they laugh at a “women’s orchestra,” and Laura remarks that she had not previously noticed “how funny [the cellist] looked.” They later reencounter the same woman playing organ at the movie theater and enjoy another chuckle at her expense.

Laura turns on the radio; Fred turns it down.

The Rachmaninoff Concerto is also suspect, disrupting Fred’s work on his crossword puzzle. When the scene returns to the library, where Laura previously tuned the radio to the Concerto, Fred exclaims that the sound has become “deafening,” and asks to turn it down. It seems that he is quieting not only the radio but Laura’s silent memories. Cannily, this moment comes at the loudest moment of the entire Concerto, and it is indeed deafening. The volume decreases as Fred turns the radio down, and it decreases even further as the music moves on to a quieter passage. Is Fred lowering Laura’s volume with the dial, or is the ghost of Rachmaninoff, channeled through Eileen Joyce and Co., subduing the forbidden love affair, reducing it from a shout to a whisper?

As insightful and effective as the use of the Concerto is, there is a feeling of overwhelm. This rambunctious, meandering, hyperexpressive, overstuffed, virtuosic, loud music is just too much for the film. (It is even too much on its own, for some.)

Almost any passage used as a music cue is crowded with musical information and implications. But at the same time, the fragmentation divorces the music from itself. It is too much information with too little continuity. The music repeats, but not in a musical way. This is not to say that the Concerto is a poor choice–not at all. Rather, the enlistment of an independent, self-sufficient musical work to serve as background—and the act of manipulating it to serve the narrative and images—demands that the viewer make sense of the “deafening” Concerto.

The Brief Encounter Concerto (that’s my own designation) denies musical resolutions; rewinds and fast-forwards discontinuously; and constructs the prison of memory. Throughout the journey, the music emphasizes the importance of time. Although Brief Encounter is set in 1939, it was made toward the end of World War II, during a time of blackouts and rationing. The specter of war, introduced not within the narrative but externally, by the circumstances of production and release, reinforces the sense of being haunted by past suffering, whether experienced in love or war. 

Early on in their relationship, Laura and Alec acknowledge their feelings for one another, yet they know that those feelings cannot be sustained. In a matter of weeks, they arrive at the end of the line. Alec observes, “There is no time.” But as the prison of memory shows, sometimes it is more painful when there is. 


This essay is a work in progress that will be developed into a more scholarly form in the future. There is much written on Brief Encounter already. Contributions that inform my thinking here include Richard Dyer’s Brief Encounter, part of the BFI Film Classics series. The monograph was first published in 1993 (London: BFI/Palgrave, 2015). Kent Puckett’s book chapter “Celia Johnson’s Face: Before and After Brief Encounter” offers an extensive and expansive analysis of the film in relationship to World War II, which was nearing its end when the film was produced, although the film is set in 1939 (Chapter 3 of War Pictures: Cinema, History, and Violence in Britain, 1939-1945 [Fordham University Press, 2017], 136–89). Ivan Raykoff’s online article “Concerto Con Amore” has the most to say about music, considering how the music cues map onto aspects of the film and how the “concerto agents” play out in the film-music relationship. Raykoff also discusses the prominence of the piano concerto in midcentury films (ECHO, Volume 2.1 [Spring 2000]).

  1. Michel de Certeau, “Railway Navigation and Incarceration.” Chapter 8 of The Practice of Everyday Life, tr. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: Univ. Of California Press, 1984), 112.
  2. Michel Chion, Sound; An Acoulogical Treatise, tr. James a Steintrager (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2016), Kindle Edition, Location 3150.
  3. Chion, Sound, Kindle Edition, Location 1143.
  4. David Hurwitz’s review of Lang Lang’s Deutsche Grammophon recording (Valery Gergiev, Mariinsky Orchestra) observes, “That opening [of the Concerto] is, alas, a portent of dreadful things to come. The first movement recapitulation has seldom sounded so heavy and lacking in thrust, and Gergiev certainly doesn’t help, getting into the act with plenty of mannered ritards and strange underlinings of his own. The adagio might have been attractive, had it not been for excruciating playing from the orchestra’s flute and clarinet soloists, but the finale is all but unendurable. Not only is it possibly the slowest on disc, the ‘big tune’ has seldom been phrased so flatly, with so little sense of rapture, while the central fugato is a mess, the balances between soloist and orchestra positively inimical to the sense of the music. With an overall duration of more than 36 minutes in a work usually considerably fleeter, comparison with Richter (also on DG) is instructive. He’s also quite deliberate (though not to this degree), particularly in the first movement, but the proportions are invariably correct, the long line preserved, and he knows when to take the spotlight and when to yield to his colleagues. In short, Lang Lang’s performance is a disaster” (Classics Today, no date). In a 2007 inventory of recordings of the Concerto, Peter Gutmann writes, “I can’t recall a recent major-league recording that was so consistently savaged by critics” (Classical Notes).
  5. Michael Beek’s article “The Best recordings of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2” (2022) appears in the BBC-produced Motrax’s 2006 comment on Piano Street’s Piano Forum post, “Best interpreter for Rach 2?” evaluates seven recordings and includes brief mentions of several others.
  6. Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, ed. and tr. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1994), 40.


Diane Baker, Hope Lange, and Suzy Parker in The Best of Everything


This piece is a contribution to the STSC Symposium, a monthly set-theme collaboration between STSC writers. The topic for this issue is “Work.”


Seagram Building, Park Avenue, New York City, 1959: outside, the church bells toll nine o’clock, and a few dozen employees enter the office, busily and noisily. One hurriedly removes her walking shoes and retrieves high heels from her desk drawer. Another ungracefully adjusts her panty hose. Yet another removes her curlers. Pencils are sharpened and lunches are placed in the refrigerator. It is a women’s—I mean, girls’—space. 

In time the chatter and bustle give way to the sound of four hundred fingers tapping. There are neat, orderly rows of typewriters, each emitting an identical sound, multiplied again and again to make a noise like a cloud of cicadas. It is the sound of well-regulated labor and clearly assigned roles: individual keys clacking, each letter leading to a word, then a sentence, then a paragraph. The secretaries render the thoughts of other people in impersonal black and white. The thoughts of other people. They are the helpers, the empty vessels.⁠1

Jean Negulesco’s 1959 film The Best of Everything, based on the 1958 novel of the same name by Rona Jaffe, focuses on the experiences of several young female secretaries in the New York City publishing world.2 Jaffe took her title from an advertisement in the New York Times, a replica of which is shown in the film. But that titular “everything” will prove elusive, as the trailer for the film predicts:

In the outspoken tradition of “Peyton Place”, 20th Century-Fox brings a great best-seller to the screen . . . 

It undresses the ambitions and emotions of the girls who invade the glamour world of the big city, seeking success, love, marriage, and the best of everything . . . And who often settle for much less!3

Along with the advertisement, this text signals that a “women’s picture” will follow, and that the conflict between professional work and romantic love—between “hearth and desk”—will prove central.4 An alternative, less sensationalistic trailer might ask, “Will she type his manuscripts . . . or make him a sandwich?” 

The conspicuous use of the word “invade” may suggest something about how these girls will be received in the working world, as well as by viewers of the film. Contemporary critical responses to the novel betray the unease created by such an intrusion. For example, the New York Post advises, “Any employer reading these pages will make a mental note to check up on what the girls in his office do after lunch, and with whom.”5

“Girls”: this terminology is of course typical of the time period, and I shall adopt it in this essay in order to evoke the setting of The Best of Everything. In 1958, the employer is assumed to be a man, and by default the supervisor of any girls who happen to be frolicking about and getting up to shenanigans. Comments from the time reveal a disquiet about young professional women. For example, New York Times critic Gilbert Millstein is palpably perturbed by Jaffe’s novel. At the outset of his review, he dismisses The Best of Everything as a “pallid academic exercise.” However, he goes right on to complain about its commercial success: the novel was optioned by the producer of the popular 1957 film Peyton Place, Jerry WaldMillstein expresses apparent resentment over Jaffe’s earnings ($100,000 for the film rights and $25,000 for the paperback reprint of the novel) and gripes that the “attractive-looking girl of 26 obligingly, possibly eagerly” posed for the book’s cover at “the Forty-ninth Street side of the Time-Life Building.” (How dare this attractive-looking girl of 26 profit from her labor and be eager at the Time-Life Building to boot?!) Millstein’s “this-is-so-worthless-I-must-catalogue-every-feature-of-it-to-show-you-how-worthless-it-is” comes across like a 1950s Tweetstorm. He mocks the title (might its reference to the Times Help Wanted advertisement entail “copyright infringement”?) and condemns the story’s “verismilitude,” comparing it to a Norman Rockwell magazine cover. He sneers, “The book could easily have been called “The Five Little Peppers in Rockefeller Center, or ‘Little Women, What Now?’”6 This response to the novel displays the same fears and resentments that the author depicts in the novel. Inside and outside the covers, career girls evoke terror in the hearts of (not all) men.

It is not only critics who place female characters in a double bind. The characters do so as well. At a critical point in the film, the pressure on a girl to embrace domesticity and humility—and even to efface herself intellectually—comes to a head. A male executive, Mike (Stephen Boyd), insists to the much younger Caroline (Hope Lange), with whom he has already shared a couple of intimate moments, that it is unseemly for her to prioritize her work, for she will become a “ruthless, driving, calculating woman.” More, he claims that her commitment to her vocation is false and insincere: “Honey, you don’t give a damn about your work. All you care about is your own hot-eyed ambition.” The opposition between “caring” and  “ambition” reveals just how confining social expectations are: a compliant girl is required to “care,” which is assumed to be incompatible with professional drive. According to Mike, Caroline’s ambition allows her to hide from her grief over the end of a relationship, and her desire to succeed professionally is even incompatible with womanhood: “Now you’ve closed the door. Being a woman is too painful, so you’re not gonna be one. Men aren’t lovers; they’re competition, so let’s not join ‘em; let’s lick ‘em.”

“Get out! Can’t you see I’m busy?”
Early 20th century postcard. 

However, it is the men in the workplace who do the majority of the licking. The editor Mr. Shalimar (Brian Aherne) pinches, slaps, leers, and smirks his way through the film. Yet according to the New York Times, it is the girls who have “a nose for trouble,” and sex “seems to be all these ingénues have on their busy little minds.”7  In many commentaries from the time, the younger and lower-status girls are held responsible for what is on their superiors’ minds, and for what they do with their hands. In keeping with the conventions of the women’s picture, the male love interests from outside the company, often closer to the girls’ ages, are also unscrupulous cads. This is not merely an interpretation applied from sixty years later; it was was understood by viewers at the time and was even acknowledged by the characters. The womanizing theater director describes himself as a “heel,” and the thoughtless playboy who has duped the naïve, pregnant April (Diane Baker) into “seeing a doctor” admits, “I know what I am.” Another heel, presumably.

As above, a comparison of the ways social mores are portrayed within the story and the ways they are asserted in the discussion about the novel and the film proves fruitful. Commentaries from the time come across like dispatches from the proverbial six blind men describing the elephant. Some find the story authentic; others condemn it as tawdry; and yet others yawn, “how unstimulating.” A sensationalistic soap opera bores many a critic, and the girls are alternately lovelorn or obsessive. Unsurprisingly, reviewers of the 1950s did not distinguish between a young male peer tentatively caressing a girl’s knee on a date and a workplace superior reaching under the table to push up a subordinate’s skirt as he dangles professional advancement in front of her. The film, like the novel, is remarkable in making this distinction, and I would suggest that this accounts in large part for the jumbled responses of the late 1950s. In recent years, Jaffe’s novel has been credited for breaking ground in portraying sexual harassment. As she says,”sexual harassment . . . had no name in those days.”8 The sexualization of the relationship between male superior and female secretary was pervasive and unquestioned—the water the girls and men swam in.9

“Christopher Sholes Emancipates Women by Means of the Typewriter”
(1923, Author Unknown)10

The New York Times connects the girls’ adventures and misadventures directly to the typewriter, even invoking several inventors of the device: “Little did Messrs. Sholes, Glidden and Soulé know, when they invented an American typewriter, what a power of mischief it would bring. . . . The girls come to New York to type, and before long, one is a stretcher case, one is pregnant and the third is off to Las Vegas with a notorious lounge lizard.”11 That licentious machine, causing so much drama!

Back at the desk with the sexy IBM Selectric, her finger presses a key, which delivers a hammer to a ribbon and marks paper. Thousands of characters are impressed onto hundreds of pages. Seventy words a minute times forty girls equals piles of edited chapters, reader’s reports, and rejection letters. Thanks to the standardization granted by the machine, the page bears no trace of the individual hand. The typed text is as orderly and regular as the rows of secretaries’ desks. The individual girls are a collective serving the purpose of the corporation: they are indistinct and undifferentiated.

But what happens when a girl leaves the typing room? Again and again throughout the film, a secretary enters a private office, then closes the door, thereby silencing the typewriters. The sound design emphasizes the movement from public to private in a way the printed words on the page of the novel cannot. Early in the film, Caroline enters Miss Farrow’s (Joan Crawford) office and closes the door. The typewriter sounds disappear abruptly. This contrast suggests a difference in role and rank: it is in these quieter, more spacious rooms that the editors do their heavy thinking and prepare materials for the girls to type.12 Alone with Miss Farrow, away from the group, Caroline is subjected to a hazing ritual, as Miss Farrow gives her several tasks in rapid succession: 

“You can order me some coffee: black, no sugar. . . . No, no, no, at your desk, outside. Before you do that, would you straighten out the files? The Ts have gotten all mixed up with the Ms somehow. . . .  You can do that later. Open the mail first.” 

It’s not that Miss Farrow is respectful in the outer office; she’s merciless, but in the group environment outside Caroline has coworkers—allies who witness and empathize. When she enters Miss Farrow’s office, she is confined with her tormenter, with no witnesses on hand.

If Miss Farrow’s office proves an Ironman course for Caroline, the men’s private offices are where they play Twister. In numerous instances, a male executive invites a female subordinate into his office, suggesting that there is important work to do, only to make a move on her. The private, quiet environment is a place of sexual dominance. This is most striking when the gullible girl, April, works late with Mr. Shalimar. He offers her alcohol, asks her personal questions, and pounces. On another occasion, Caroline is called in by Mr. Shalimar. He chooses to tell her she has been promoted by saying, “You are no longer a typist here,” a cheap trick that exploits his power. In a previous scene Caroline has had to extricate herself from his grasp; this time, when she departs, Mr. Shalimar cranes his neck and leers at her body with appreciation. Throughout the course of the film, the repeated appearance and disappearance of typing sounds supports the portrayals of the individual characters, their development (or not), and the relationships between them. It is as important a sonic feature as the musical score.13

So, while The Best of Everything is understood to show conflict between romantic yearnings and professional drive, there is also a conflict between personal and professional right here in the office. Or, more accurately, between professional and unprofessional. To the girl like Caroline who aspires to perform substantive work and achieve higher rank, the door to the private office represents her potential status. But that same boundary also signifies risk for every girl, any time she is required to interact with a superior in private. It is not only that the girls have to choose between love and work, but that at work they are disturbed by influential men who behave as if they are their own living rooms, not in a workplace.14 The girls are constantly sexualized by others, whether they like it or not. The quiet and space of the executive office promise stimulation, independence, position—as well as danger and dehumanization.  

The lack of young men in the office is easy to overlook but significant. Mulling the way that professional power maps on to age difference and onto sex, I think back to a brief, atypical moment just a few minutes into the film. Caroline enters Fabian Publishing and finds it empty, save for a man delivering mail. He is closer to Caroline’s age than anyone else she later meets at work, and he is dressed more casually: a shirt and tie, but no suit jacket. His hands are busy with work. He and Caroline exchange a few words, and he informally asks, as if it’s one word, “first day first job?” When she asks how he knew, he replies, “the hat,” wishes her luck, salutes her, and exits. This easy interaction between young adult coworkers stands out, for once the office fills up and Caroline begins her first day, she never encounters another young male peer. One wonders what Caroline’s work day would be like if the men were not all older and more powerful, if the one mature woman were not repeatedly called a “witch,” and if the “lovelorn” girls were recognized as working women.15 Maybe someday. In the meantime, it’s a great hat.


[1] “Under the Isaac Pitman [shorthand] regime, the ideal typist was trained to be blind and invisible, as it were, a passive mediator who was effectively mentally absent from the task in which she was engaged. The prevailing discourse of female passivity vis-à-vis the machine becomes fully legible only in the context of such instructions to the typist to completely efface herself from her own work process.” (Martyn Lyons, The Typewriter Century: A Cultural History of Writing Practices [Studies in Book and Print Culture]. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 2021 [p. 65, Kindle Edition].)

[2] Rona Jaffe, The Best of Everything (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1958). The film was produced by Jerry Wald with a screenplay by Edith Sommer and Mann Rubin and music by Alfred Newman. The novel was written expressly to be made into a film. In her foreword to the 2005 edition of the novel, Rona Jaffe reports, “One day, I was visiting the offices of Simon & Schuster to see my college friend, Phyllis Levy, who was then secretary to the editor-in-chief, Jack Goodman. Jerry Wald, the famous Hollywood producer, happened the be there meeting with her boss.” Wald was “scouting for properties to option,” and he later agreed to produce the novel Jaffe promised to write (Rona Jaffe, The Best of Everything [New York: Penguin, 2005]). Because the novel and film were so closely associated—not to say the same—I rely on reviews of the novel as well as the film.

[3] The trailer continues: 




The contradiction between “settling” and “doing anything” to get what they want is characteristic of the ambivalent view of women in the reception of the film. The Best of Everything: Official Trailer (20th Century Fox, Klokline Cinema).

[4] I adopt the terms “hearth” and “desk” from Bosley Crowtherhoward Thompson’s film review: “Screen: Frustrations in Young Actor’s ‘Career’; Franciosa Is Star of New Film at State James Lee’s Play Is Story of ‘Disease’.” The section on The Best of Everything comes under the subheading “Office Romances.” New York Times, Oct. 9, 1959, p. 24.

[5] Review from 1958, excerpted in the front matter to the 2005 edition of Jaffe’s The Best of Everything.

[6] Gilbert Millstein, “Books of the Times,” New York Times, September 9, 1958, p. 33. Several of the 1958 reviews excerpted in the 2005 edition of the novel praise its authenticity; perhaps this is what Millstein belittles as “verismilitude.”

[7] Review of Jaffe’s novel by Martin Levin, “Three Noses for Trouble” (New York Times, Section BR, p. 38; September 7, 1958).

Martyn Lyons observes, “The Typewriter Girl caused anxiety, especially for employers. Would she cope physically with the demands of the job? Was she capable of the hard work, discipline, and concentration required? If so, would she lose her feminine qualities in the process, becoming as hard and ‘de-sexed’ as the machine to which she was invisibly bonded? And furthermore, what effect would she have on the men in the office? Would she distract or seduce them? The typewriter entered a highly eroticized environment, in which forms of sexual harassment of the typist were potentially more likely to disrupt operations than ‘distracting the men’.” (Lyons, Martyn. The Typewriter Century: A Cultural History of Writing Practices [Studies in Book and Print Culture]. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, p. 57 of Kindle Edition.)

[8] Jaffe’s recollection confirms the supposition that readers literally did not have the language for the girls’ experience at the time:  “Back then,” she writes, “people didn’t talk about not being a virgin. They didn’t talk about going out with married men. They didn’t talk about abortion. They didn’t talk about sexual harassment, which had no name in those days. But after interviewing these women [as research for the novel], I realized that all these issues were part of their lives too.” (Jaffe, Foreword to 2005 edition, viii.)

[9] Carol Burnett’s 1975 sketch “The Other Secretary” takes on the competition between secretary and wife: “You’ve been taking his dictation, haven’t you? Haven’t you?! How long has he been giving it to you?!” (Carol Burnett Show, Season 8, Episode 15.)  

[10] This image of Sholes (1819 – 1890) is included in The Story of the Typewriter: 1873-1923 (Herkimer , NY: Herkimer County Historical Society, 1923), which was published on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the invention of the typewriter. The cover of the publication displays another striking image of a goddess-like woman towering over a city and laborers holding a divine typewriter. Like other sources, this volume asserts that the typewriter offered economic advantage to women. Chapter 8, “How Women Achieved Economic Emancipation Through the Writing Machine,” notes, 

The movement that we know by the name of “feminism” is undoubtedly the most significant and important social evolution of our time. The aims and aspirations behind this great movement need not detain us. Suffice it is to say that, like all great social movements, its cause and its aim have been primarily economic. What is known as “sex-emancipation” might almost be translated to read “economic emancipation”; at any rate it could only be attained through one means, namely, equal economic opportunity, and such opportunity could never have been won by mere statute or enactment. Before the aims of “feminism” could be achieved it was necessary that women should find and make this opportunity, and they found it in the writing machine.

[11] Martin Levin, “Three Noses for Trouble.”

[12] In Rona Jaffe’s novel, the hierarchy is demonstrated explicitly, in the moment when Caroline explores the office before anyone else arrives: “She looked into several of the offices and saw that they seemed to progress in order of the occupant’s importance from small tile-floored cubicles with two desks, to larger ones with one desk, and finally to two large offices with carpet on the floor, leather lounging chairs,  and wood-paneled walls” (Jaffe, Everything, 2005 edition, p. 2).

[13] There is much more to say about sound in this film. The score includes an opening song by Alfred Newman with lyrics by Sammy Cahn and performed by Johnny Mathis, which is repeated and varied in instrumental settings throughout the film. The mix of the score, the carefully controlled typing-pool sounds, and the diegetic sounds of the city complicates the presentation of the love/labor conflict. 

The “typing track” and its alternation with silence is used cannily to show both Caroline’s ascent and the softening of Miss Farrow’s attitude. It also replicates the male/female division on another level: while the girls are subject to sexualization from their male superiors, their female superior (Miss Farrow) refers, every time she is in private with one of the secretaries, to the status of women or the relations between men and women, albeit not necessarily in a benign way. Both she and Caroline, in different ways, show the change in their relationships to male executives when the typewriters are quiet and they are in private. Both are portrayed sympathetically; neither is idealized.

[14] In Mike’s first appearance, he disrupts Caroline’s work. He enters the office, drinks from the water fountain (to treat his daily hangover, we will quickly learn), stops, and stares silently at Caroline as she undergoes her typing test. She is intruded upon as she completes the test that will determine whether or not she is hired.

[15] “In a lovelorn typing pool, ambitious Caroline (Hope Lange), innocent April (Diane Baker), and glamorous Gregg (early supermodel Suzy Parker) are all felled by the cads they love. The movie is about as sexist as you can get on both sides, to an almost absurd (and campy) level: There’s only one exception to a parade of male leads who may or may not be married and are just out to get a little action on the side.” (Gwen Inhat, The Best Of Everything Offers a Valuable Glance at Postwar Office Romance,” AV Club, July 29, 2016.)


This piece is a contribution to the STSC Symposium, a monthly set-theme collaboration between STSC writers. The topic for this upcoming issue is “Home.”

“How long are you home for?” 

The question comes from someone I have just met. It is only my second time on this remote rural island, and I am just getting my bearings, but she refers to “home” as if I have always lived here too. I am touched by her warmth, but it’s not really about me. To her, the place we are standing is the center, and everywhere else stands in relationship to it. To her, I am not “visiting”; I am not simply “here” in this spot. I am not “on a trip.” I am “home.” 

At least, this is the impression I get. But I am new here, so perhaps I am making this up. I am “from away,” as people sometimes say.1 But here does feel like a center. It’s easy to envy people’s feeling of rootedness. Being here means being away from the fancy college town where I spend most of my time. I don’t miss it.

I would not say I am “home,” ever, really, whether I am talking about here or there or someplace I left behind in the past. I feel distant from this word and seldom use it. I can’t quite pronounce the words “at home” when I refer to the fancy college town. A statement as simple as “at home, the traffic is brutal,” or, “at home, we call it ‘the shore’,” feels like a misrepresentation. I usually stop myself before I say it, and instead I name the town or the state I live in, more generically and antiseptically. I do not claim these places as my own. They are more like GPS locations with user histories.


In an online session, a woman I admire affects the accent of the region where I grew up. She is playing around, saying something like “I am having a hahd time finding the pay-pah.” It is not clear why she is doing this all of a sudden.

It’s always unsettling to hear such a cartoonish rendition of these sounds. They have significance and history to me; they bring rich and painful memories. They may seem like a costume, available to anyone to put on for fun. But these sounds can also be torn off. Long ago, I lost my accent. When I moved away, people could not understand me. In response, I learned to speak “normally.” I still get confused saying “Marlborough” though.2

This accent is often imitated, badly. Impersonators are so obsessed with leaving out the “r” that they get the vowels all wrong. 

This way of speaking has class associations, of the lower variety. Think Laura Linney in Mystic River.

Whether or not my friend means to emphasize this, I cringe when I hear the caricature, as if my schoolmates and cousins are being mocked.


Away again. On the island, they seem to delight in pronouncing the “r”—or more accurately, I delight in hearing what is ordinary to them. I linger in the garden, eating a lemon bar. I drink in all those consonants I missed growing up, and I hear them seeping into my own sentences. I wonder if it might sound like I am imitating someone else’s accent.

I call the island Brigadoon, after the magical town that seems to exist outside of time. But the thing is, real people live real lives here, every day—not just one day a century, and not for the consumption of an audience. This is not a movie.

I call the island The Land Without Latte, my tongue in my cheek, I insist. But then a café opens that does make latte, and I am disappointed. My scenery is smudged.

Back in the fancy college town, which is located in the most densely populated state, I can order sashimi or falafel, ma po tofu or tandoori chicken, kale salad or martini shrimp—or even a cheese steak from the place down the road that’s been there forever.

On the island, for amusement, I log into GrubHub, and the app reports, “Sorry, no results were found. We’ll notify you when restaurants become available in your area.”

However, on the last day of the season, a neighbor brings three lobsters, and as we are cooking them, someone else shows up and interrupts the lobsters with a bucket of crabs. 

The island also offers pie made of moose, deep-fried pepperoni, and a sort of spiced meat sandwich, with condensed milk sauce, that somehow got here from Turkey. And oatcakes. There is something called “bed lunch,” which involves neither bed nor lunch—not in my understanding of those words, anyway.

It’s easy to wax poetic about the island, but I often think, the upside is that people have to rely on one another, and the downside is that people have to rely on one another.

Sometimes, to avoid getting carried away, I silently list of all the magical elements to myself and then make myself continue on to remember, “and then there is the occasional vigilante murder.” But I do not say that to anyone else, only to myself. It’s not my story to tell. Sensational, cute headlines by reporters from cities far away were rightly criticized for being crass. It’s not a movie, though it will be soon.3

Alienation is not sophistication. Not necessarily.  Sometimes it is just alienation.


“I lived in New York!”

[Spoiler alert! This is much funnier onscreen; in fact, it is only funny onscreen. Please watch it!]

This is the character Britta on the satirical television show called Community, set in Greendale Community College in Colorado, boasting (again) about her (flimsy) Manhattan credentials. In a running gag, she repeatedly invokes a tenuous connection to the city to prove her worldliness.

But her naïveté is exposed yet again. When she brings in a baker’s dozen of what she calls “baggels,” her classmates object and correct, informing her that the word she means to say is pronounced “bagel.” Undeterred, she insists, “I lived in New York. I know what a baggel is.”

The satire is as intricate and knowing as anything performed Lincoln Center, made even more delicious by the legend that the show’s creator pronounced the word “baggel” himself, before he ever heard it spoken aloud.

Note the slipperiness of “lived in.” Not “I am from New York,” or “I spent x number of years in New York.” She grasps at a prestige that is not rightly hers.

In Sweet Home Alabama, Melanie does actually live in New York, where she has achieved great success. However, she has to return to the town where she grew up in order to take care of unfinished business. Often, female characters who go back where they came from—“home”?—are subjected to domestication or suffering: they need to be “corrected” somehow. One character has to regain the warm-heartedness she lost in the big city and stop wearing black all the time. Another comes home to fulfill a family obligation, which entails revisiting childhood trauma. Sometimes there is a twist, and the worlds get blurred, or the character solves a murder.

Roger Ebert is “tired of the premise” of Sweet Home Alabama. He asks, “Isn’t it time for the movies to reflect reality and show the Melanies of the world fleeing to New York as fast as they can?” The artifice of the rural, modest, unpretentious place—whatever the details of the plot—is ripe for revision:

The fact is that few people in Hollywood have voluntarily gone home again since William Faulkner fled to Mississippi. The screenwriters who retail the mirage of small towns are relieved to have escaped them. I await a movie where a New Yorker tries moving to a small town and finds that it just doesn’t reflect his warm-hearted big city values.4

Home, when rural or socioeconomically modest, brings up shame and cheap shoes. In The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter luxuriates in calling his  adversary, FBI Agent Clarice Starling, a “rube.” He’s superior, whether it’s due to being a psychiatrist or a murderer or both.


Here and there. Or vice versa.

“She divides her time between Hudson and New York.” 

“He divides his time between New York and Los Angeles.” 

Once, in a clothing store on the Upper West Side, I heard a customer say, “I’ll wear sleeveless upstate, but not in Manhattan.” 

I never hear anyone say, “I divide my time between Youngstown and Cleveland.” 

What does it mean to “divide time”? What else gets split up?


The island of Manhattan comprises about 23 square miles. My magical island of Brigadoon takes up about 17. They are of comparable size, geographically. 

If I were to take the population of the rural island and multiply it by 1064, it would have the same population density as Manhattan.

There is more space here. But many people clear out, sometimes because they want to escape to Seventh Avenue, like Melanie. There is a long history, though, of going to the city, or all the way out West, in order to find work where it can be had. It seems that part of being home is feeling the absence of those who have left, and wondering  whether one will need to go elsewhere in order to make a living. Knowing that the roots could be torn out at any time. Away is always here. 

There are several local songs about departure. One of them, in the words of someone who has reluctantly left, ends, “Whenever a fiddler rosins a bow, my first and last thoughts are of home.” Whenever anyone sings this song, the crowd joins in and sings along in harmony. Most everyone knows the song and the real-life story it portrays. It is startling and moving to hear such groundedness and such community. I can’t hear this song without a tear, even though I only know the stories second-hand.5


There is a housing shortage on the island—in fact, throughout the region. It is a seller’s market for the first time anyone can remember, and prices rise suddenly, taking even modest properties out of reach. People are sleeping in tents. The weather turns cold. Experts say the province needs 50,000 additional units within the next eight years. Even those who have financial means are out of luck, because the inventory is so low.

Real estate listings used to be informal and minimal, geared toward the local population who know their way around the island. Now, glossy advertisements aim to entice buyers to relocate from faraway cities, touting the beauty of the landscape to those who are not used to shoveling or mowing or washing their own electric cars. Members of the laptop class have become accustomed to working remotely, and they want to keep doing so. They want to work even more remotely, way out here in Brigadoon.

(I am a member of the laptop class.)


What would it be like to be rooted in a place that was not defined by being away from another place? 

What would it be like to end up where you started out, to stay put, even? 

What would it be like to swim in experience, rather than discover it or compare it or escape to it? To stop feeling the distance between “here” and “there”?


In classical music theory, “home” is another word for “tonic.” It is also called the “center.” These terms all describe the sounds that are shaped to seem fundamental, stable, desirable, and satisfying. However, the idea of the “center” shifts from piece to piece and over the centuries. It is not one thing, not one place, and not always secure: challenges and subversion are part of the deal. 

We can only know here if we know away. (In classical music, anyway. A lot of compelling music sticks around to explore home, or wanders without such a feeling of obligation to return to what is known.) Much—most—classical music begins “here,” on the tonic, only to move “away,” and then return “home.” But the ending is most crucial. In medieval plainchant, the “final,” the place where the devotional sung melody ends, gives the mode its identity, letting us know what other chants it claims as family. The ingredients alone are not enough; they need to be arranged through time and space in a way that we can place. 

Later idioms of classical music, more likely to be secular, introduce more movement, manipulation, and individuation. The music knows that we know the arrival is coming. A composer teases the ear, wandering and interrupting and withholding the resolution. Tension and release drive toward completion, closure, and, ultimately, silence. Home is where the music goes to die.



  1. For the last ten years, I have heard that outsiders are referred to “Come From Away,” or even “CFA,” but it is only outsiders I have heard refer to outsiders that way. “From away” does come up. The phrase “Come From Away” is in use though, as evidenced by the 2013 musical of the same name, which concerns the unplanned stopovers of dozens of planes in Gander, Newfoundland in the wake of the September 11 attacks. 
  2. MSNBC newscaster Lawrence O’Donnell reports that he grew up in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Every so often, he deliberately drops an “r,” such as when he refers to the name of former Boston Mayor “Marty Walsh.” For those of us from the area, it can feel pretentious or artificial not to pronounce certain words (names especially?) that way. On a few occasions I have heard O’Donnell’s accent emerge in a way that seems accidental. Interestingly, he has also referred to pronouncing words “wrong” in the past, although he was simply referring to delivering them in an accent. 
  3. This involves a 2013 murder case that took place in the fishing community of Petit-de-Grat, Nova Scotia. In his 2020 posthumously published book, Blood in the Water: A True Story of Revenge in the Maritimes, Silver Donald Cameron addresses the ways in which the events were sensationalized and (my words) packaged for an audience.  He writes: “The phrase ‘murder for lobster’ will stick to this case like a burr to sheepskin. It will be in headlines and stories all over the world.” (Silver Donald Cameron, Blood in the Water: A True Story of Revenge in the Maritimes, Viking/Penguin Canada, 2020). Sharon Montgomery-Dupe’s article in Saltwire discusses the sensitive issues raised by reporting on, researching, and writing about the case. In a sterling example of the Streisand Effect, this and other articles include the phrase “murder for lobster” even as they strive to combat the sensationalism.
  4. Roger Ebert, Review of “Sweet Home Alabama,” September 27, 2002.
  5. The song is “Heading for Halifax,” composed by Alistair MacDonald, probably in the 1970s.