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.”
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.
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.
This is a curious moment: when invited to speak, the would-be actor chooses to perform, to repeat the words conceived by his love interest—or, 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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 IMDb.com 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: https://vimeo.com/barbarawhite/blackairmovement5. 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.