' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Niagara (1953)

Friday, June 28, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: Niagara (1953)

I have long thought of Henry Hathaway's fairly standard thriller "Niagara" as the ultimate Marilyn Monroe movie. Please do not misunderstand, it is not a better movie than "Some Like It Hot" and it does not contain an image as iconic as "The Seven Year Itch" and it is not as intriguing a sociological study as "The Misfits." But... The metaphor at which the filmmakers are driving is hammered home in a monologue delivered by Joseph Cotten, playing Monroe's onscreen husband, when he lectures the wife of a young couple: "You're young, you're in love. Well, I'll give you a warning. Don't let it get out of hand, like those falls out there."


In reality, the most interesting metaphors in "Niagara" are the ones unspoken, the ones viewed through the prism of time. Niagara Falls has always been fascinating to me, a place of unfathomable natural beauty and simultaneously a place overrun by tackiness and souvenir shops and yellow rain slickers. Don't you wish you could have viewed Niagara Falls as God intended, all on their lonesome, just you and the water and the roar, way back when in the 16th century? Oh, that must've been a sight to see. And isn't that, sort of, a woman named Norma Jeane? As beautiful a woman as God ever intended but ruined and ravaged by the hangers-on and the trauma and turmoil that surrounded her at every turn.

More to the metaphorical point, "Niagara" is not really even a Marilyn Movie. Oh, she's splattered all over that elegantly trashy poster and her name is billed first because of course it is. But if you simply read the screenplay without knowing who was playing who you would view her part as critical, a good part, but not the starring role. Cast Marilyn, though, and just like when she strolls into that posh party in "All About Eve" and guilelessly wrests the film right outta Bette Davis's overlord hands for a few moments, "Niagara" becomes hers. And then, just like her real life, she is moved out of the picture much too soon. (I mean, Spoiler Alert!!!)


"Niagara" technically belongs to Jean Peters. She is Polly, one half of a married couple that comes to the Canadian side of the Falls for their overdue honeymoon. Her husband is Ray, the kind of guy who hopes to "catch up on my reading" ON HIS HONEYMOON and never.stops.smiling. Seriously. Never. He is played by Casey Adams and the original New York Times review notes he is "a mite too enthusiastic." A mite? Just a mite? He is six million cubic feet more than a mite too enthusiastic, I assure you.

They roll into a romantic lodge with a romantic outlook over the Falls and wind up right next door to George (Cotten) and Rose (Monroe) Loomis. He is ex-army and just discharged from a military mental hospital. She is simply scandalouz, trotting around in high heels and curve-amplifying dresses and seeing a Casanova on the sly. At one point she coolly invades a party happening in the motel parking lot and while you don’t actually hear the obligatory record scratch, you will swear you do.

The driving plot point is that Rose and her Casanova are scheming to off George, but this seems more out of story necessity than any sort of acute psychology. There is no real exploration of George's mental breakdown aside from the traditional Throwing The Table Over Scene. Rose's Casanova has no personality whatsoever, established entirely through his shoes and his tune-whistling which are really just tiny pieces of story. Rose mostly gets by on her Marilyn-ness, which is considerable, waking up mornings already in full lipstick and staging a phony if glorious mental breakdown.


Meanwhile Polly and Ray find themselves dragged into this whole sordid affair simply on account of their proximity to the Loomis Cabin. Poor Polly. To her right is a murder mystery, to her left is a grinning jack-o-lantern of a husband who is more concerned about meeting up with Jess Kettering – the Vice President of his firm back home who is also at Niagara for some theoretical R&R – than he is with rubbing suntan lotion on his wife’s back. As such, the film sort of becomes a push & pull for the fate of fair Polly, and I can’t help but wonder if this was more apparent in the original script pre-re-writes to punch up Monroe’s part.

She tells George, returning to metaphor-speak, that she’s one of those logs in the river that just hangs around in the calm, resisting the allure of the rapids. Ah, but she seems curiously drawn to the marital parlor game of Mr. & Mrs. Loomis, as if desperate for some sort of drama. Can you blame her? Notice how every tourist attraction they attend, Ray over-protectively latches onto Polly’s arm and escorts her at a rate of speed at which she almost seems uncomfortable. He pours her a glass of water and puts it right to her lips and tips it downward, essentially forcing her to sip until, finally, she grabs that glass outta his damn hands to sip at her own chosen speed. CAN’T HE GIVE HER SOME SPACE???

The film’s inevitable conclusion involves an out-of-gas houseboat drifting down river, threatening to plunge right over the Falls and into the froth below. Naturally, Polly is aboard, placed in peril. She doesn’t care for the rapids, see, she wants the calm. Eventually she is rescued (spoiler alert!). But is she really? I’m not saying in twenty years when she reflects on the monotony of her marriage she will literally wish she had gone over the Falls, I’m just saying she will make that claim in a spousal argument.

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