“The Man With the Golden Arm” (1955)
(Originally posted on July 30, 2013)
One of the characteristics of the movies of the “Golden Age” studio era of filmmaking was the anesthetizing comfort they were intended to provide the audience, explaining the essential homogenized blandness in which innovation and true artistry- always enemies of the bottom-line purveyors of West Coast entertainment -deliberately emerged only through the rare instances of career suicidal, rancorous headbutting combativeness (which resulted in the exclusion of some of the most creative artists of the day, summarily dismissed as being “unworkable”, or later, conveniently,“unfriendly”) or often blind luck. Throughout the Great Depression and the onset of the Second World War, Hollywood benefited from serendipitous circumstances in which the public sought the solace of the American cinema for its inherent escapist characteristics, allowing the art form to assume the role of a national cultural psychic band-aid; a situation which would be fully exploited by the enforcers of The Hays Office in the employment of their manifesto- the establishment of an independent authority which would oversee the intellectual properties in development in the motion picture industry and disavow the inclusion of any element which did not meet with strict adherence to the stated guidelines within The Production Code. This unchecked authority, became de facto judge, jury and executioner in any matter relevant to the creative process within the Hollywood community.
The resulting films conceived under this self-inflicted moral simplification- a studio approved emolliating shield for an entire industry (a self-defining word which speaks more of the movies often being resisted as a true Art form than any succinct caveat conjured by external critical forces) -are characterized by a conventionality that worked against breaking through the archaic moral boundaries of the censorial foe/safety net (depending on which side of the artistic looking glass you were standing) under which the complacency of the reassuring redundancy of calculated formula thinking (one can hardly label it creativity with a sober voice) might find a procreative auger. It is not that the specific content of the films are the same but that (and this is an critical distinction) the moral tone is, and one that is forcibly imposed by dishonestly motivated watchdogs, unnatural to the actual creative process, which inevitably leads to a stunting of a complete and honest depiction of human behavior. Surely with everyday life beset by both a protracted economic strife and a savage, globally endangering armed conflict, with one situation magnifying the national anxiety of the other, the circumstances was ripe for explorations of the darker corners of human behavior (How could anything in film be as shocking as the horrors of the still fresh-in-the-mind atrocities committed in both European and Pacific Theaters of battle?), yet the Hollywood industry, instead of directly addressing the realities of the new post-war transformations occurring in America, continued to present idealized, sanitized films which failed to address the simmering social issues which would explode seemingly overnight in the mid-1960’s when a neutered art form was suddenly given the freedom of expression it had never enjoyed: from separate-bed Doris Day to “Deep Throat” in as many years as a hand has fingers.
The frustrating censorial repressiveness continuing during the post-war years becomes especially apparent in adaptations of works from differing cultural arenas- specifically literature and legitimate theater -which had always found their materials transmuted to fit the narrowest of moral guidelines, and were now doubly debased by enthusiastic producers who would claim admiration for a work’s integrity and then reshape that same work (now considered, in Hollywood parlance, a “property”), not only to fit the needs of their perception of narrow commercial marketplace, but also to reconfigure the elements of the story so that it might still feature a hint of that characteristic of challenging artistic provocation which engaged their interest in the first place. Such are the steps in which a highly regarded work might become a pathetic shadow of its former incarnation, although less harmful to the reputation of the original, which remains unmolested on the printed page, as opposed to the increased tarnishing of Hollywood’s already dubious reputation as the manufacturer of dreams.
That being said, it is doubtful, even with the movies of this era which have been fervently branded, by those afflicted with incurable romanticized nostalgia, with the idiomatic moniker of “film classic”, that the end result would have been even remotely representative of the existing work had those films been nurtured, developed and produced in a freely open atmosphere of artistic expression instead of the unfortunate morally hysterical fanaticism welded with a retarded sense of false puritanism which defined the Production Code. Behavior became a forced formula of repetitive actions as the progression of normal human reactions found itself impeded by feet encased in a paralyzing cement, limiting free expression with the excuse of protecting the innocent against the “deviant” core of the heart of Man and applying a broad stroked glaze of a zealous though misguided authoritarian piety. If there is truth to the axiom that action defines character, then it must be admitted that Hollywood imposed a predisposition to a lack of full character between the years of Production Code enforcement, an inevitable consequence when constructing a barrier against any action which may lead to behavior deemed indecent, not by societal, moral or philosophic standards, but by an authority blind to all but the most archaic and socially regressive puritanism. In essence, virtually every film made by Hollywood in the “Golden Age” is a bone fide fairy tale, a narrative skirting the true complexity of the full human experience for the sake of deliberate social artificiality, intended to mollify the darker impulses of the audience; actually one of the original excuses for the conception of an overseeing cultural entity known as the Hays Office. If the unnaturally stunted behavior molded under the withering restrictions of The Code had any effect at all, it wasn’t the intended mollification of the audience’s Mr. Hyde, but a suppression of that audience’s yearning for intellectual stimulation based upon its own unfiltered experiences, unmolested by the agenda of an outside agency. The horrors of both World War Two and the Great Depression, not to mention the later paranoiac tensions of the burgeoning Cold War immersed the citizenry in decades of psychic assault; seeds of moral frustrations that were simplified and thus rendered meaningless by a bland absence of complexity as advanced by the century’s most popular and influential Art Form.
Therefore, for all of the distinction in of dramatic materials, the outcome will generally be the same. The route to the allowable, predetermined fates of film characters often called for some remarkable feats of narrative contortion to reach their final destinations, for unlike the dramatist or literary author whose exploration of behavioral complexity is limited only to their individual artistic capabilities, the filmmaker of the Golden Age studio era was bound by moral canons which were not only infuriatingly restrictive, but often illogically self-contradictory and indecent, including the assertion that miscegenation was tantamount to bestiality (see sidebar, right). The limitations of “acceptable” behavior unnaturally reshaping the content in every film to ultimately become the intended lesson in sanctioned morality; all films made under the Hays Office engaged in, by the very nature of the controlled restrictive process, a methodology of conditioning the audience away from perceived antisocial behavior by way of a redundant pattern of conditioning stimulus. This stimulus finds its foundation in a multitude of technological as well as scriptural aspects of the production’s grand design, the manipulative stimulus arises from a cultural form uniquely collaborative and therefore accessible to a far more complexly sophisticated form of respondent conditioning.
Nelson Algren’s novel “The Man With the Golden Arm” occupies a special place in the annals of modern American literature. The first recipient of the National Book Award, it is a searing read; an unrelenting descent into the lives, minds and souls of a community of fallen people. The population of Algren’s Division Street are characters without hope and beyond the conception of hope, who shuffle through the dead-end paths where their lives have converged and simply exist from one moment to the next; desolately enduring the hopelessness of every waking moment in an endless purgatorial shuffle. It is not a tale in which the doom of Death looms over the characters, as life itself is too hard, too unbearable a day by day process to endure that something as abstract as death would hold sufficient terror; life has taken that unenviable position. It is about the end of the line for people who have never been graced with a vision of the beginning. It is, in many ways, a cruel- almost nihilistic -novel, with punishment and hopeless destiny seemingly predetermined by an unforgiving God (or more accurately, novelist as Supreme Creator), the very circumstance of each character so depressed, that their individual willingness to brave a further step through life might seem to imbue the characters with a type of sickly heroic nobility, though more accurately, they might be better described as victims of their own poor instincts, with judgment meted out in disproportionately sadistic quantities. On the other hand, the novel’s accomplishments are legion, beginning with an artistic courage to carry a concept to a logical conclusion, completely eschewing, almost Gorky-like, the comfort of sentimentality or forced optimistic plot developments. It’s a stunning though highly discomforting read, unrelievedly grim, with the conviction that a despairing societal angst is a universal human condition worthy (but seldom given full measure) of serious, committed examination in American literature-certainly without the intrusion of the myth “American dream” as a comparative condition, and an easy out with its suggestion of possible happy outcomes. In Alger’s Division Street universe, the happy ending is courageously unconsidered, the denizens of the novel’s universe finding their fates varied only in the different levels of Hell in which they find permanent residence.
In bringing the novel to the screen, that most underrated of visual film stylists, Otto Preminger, fails to penetrate the characters in any meaningful way; substituting a glossy Hollywood bowdlerization of dreams only delayed and happy endings accompanied with disgracefully convenient bows that tie up life’s loose ends, the very antithesis of Algren’s novelistic view. Before examining Preminger’s directorial approach, it is essential to dissect the differences between Algren’s source novel and the screen adaptation by Walter Bernstein and Lewis Meltzer who seem to have procured a dull knife to slash away the substance of the novel. The film is a complete betrayal of the Algren’s work, both stylistically and substinatively, yet has sustained an unwarranted reputation as being a barrier breaking film- an illusion of creative integrity only possible within a cultural form in which the bar is set exceedingly low, weighed with the most stringent congress of anti-creative regulations -when in fact it soft peddles its own exploration of unsavory territories with the gloss of Hollywood artifice which, in the end, merely retreads the same tired melodramatic formulas of salvation and redemption the film capitol had been peddling for over two decades under the desiccating influence of the Production Code.
Preminger’s impressively intelligent fluidity as a director- his open disdain for the crutch of editing for its own sake makes him one of the true anti-Eisensteinians in commercial cinema -was always at a counterpoint with Preminger the producer, the showman, and this film is an example of hubris over purported courage under the guise of artistic frankness while abusing the very materials from which those very very claims spring. There is nothing in Algren’s novel to suggest a tidy summing up of the multifarious complications defining each of his characters, most already simplified or eliminated to the point of meaningless cliché. By simply tackling the subject of drug abuse itself, regardless of the falsification and melodramatic refinishing of the novel’s relentlessly grim edge, the director has been afforded a latitude of escaping criticism for adaptive abuse of a genuine artistic work of modern American literature as if he were merely pruning a trivial subplot for the sake of concision. When one emascalates the very pulse of a work, its heart, its soul, then no amount of glossy Hollywood whitewash can sustain the illusion of artistic credibility. However, artistic reputation often finds itself counterfeited through the announcement of cultural provocation and Preminger the Producer was skilled at promoting the efforts of Preminger the Director toward commercial viability, often at the expense of the director’s artistic capabilities. Convinced that the controversy of defying the Production Code’s explicit ban of depiction of narcotics use, Preminger clearly feels victorious in producing a film defined with substance by the simple act of anti-authoritarian nose-thumbing. None of this, however, takes into consideration the dessication of a work of high literary merit, by the reduction the novel- outside of the supposedly “provocative” drug content -into the most basic of melodramatic urban formulas done to death in any number of faceless 1930’s Warner Bros. assembly line vehicles: artistic integrity be damned.
Frank Sinatra plays Frank Majeschik, called by his friends as “Frankie Machine”, a gifted card dealer (hence the reference to the “golden arm”) who returns to Division Street after a prison sentence, accompanied by a brand new set of drums courtesy of the penal system who in this film’s version of punishment has been converted into an ersatz Santa Claus. Frankie stops off at Antak’s, a bar and ersatz communal meeting ground for many of the players in the drama to come, including his sidekick Sparrow (Arnold Stang), the dope dealer Louis (who as played by the normally capable Darren McGavin, puts enough oily affectation into his performance, you expect him to break into a chorus of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” at any moment) and Scweika (Robert Strauss, who apparently never met a piece of scenery that didn’t resemble a buffet table). The consistently broad nature of the supporting performances suggests there is a deliberation in how Preminger approaches the material: presenting artificial, exaggerated performance as a substitution of the novel’s uniquely stylized voice; by replacing prose with cartoons. This is either a complete misreading of the source material, or more likely, a pragmatic shortcut which enabled the producer/director to maintain the provocative element of drug addiction- producer Preminger’s censorial battleground du jour -while discarding the actual form of the novel: a communal kaleidescope in which Frankie may be the binding narrative fulcrum, though not a central catalyst to the destinies of many of the characters. Bernstein’s linear redressing of the novel makes many understandable excisions, including many lengthy passages of internal monologue expressed in poetically allegorical pseudo-stream of consciousness, but more importantly,
In the film, Frankie Machine arrives back on Division Street, after a stint in prison, armed with a brand new set of drums given to him to pursue his dream of becoming a professional as if the penal system were an extension of the Make-a-Wish Foundation. The divergence from novel to film is immediate, the tone of the book is forever crushed in the opening scene when Sinatra departs the bus flashing his signature smile (the film is far too eager to have the audience like him) in that Frankie’s desire to become a drummer (certainly not the reference, as made here, to his drumming skills), a pipe dream mentioned sporadically in the novel, is, in the film version, the dramatic hook in which the entire film is based, altering the focus of the novel from a community kaleidoscope of despair to only Frankie’s story with the supporting players whirling about him like satellites vying for crumbs of screen time, while the suspense of the film equally divides itself between Frankie’s addiction and whether or not he’ll ever succeed as a musician: an unthinkably altered simplification of the novel with which Preminger undercuts with further lackadaisical spurning of the novel’s content, with not-so-incidental changes that damagingly change the dynamic of the novel in several specific ways. Frankie’s incidental desire to become a big name drummer is magnified so far out of proportion as to render the narrative almost unrecognizable, softening the hopelessness of the characters by Frankie’s story in the film becoming the only character perspective explored- a devastating mistake -and with those motivational alterations in place, the film becomes a bland story of shooting for show biz stardom, a favorite theme of a Hollywood industry which clearly considers ambitions in the performing arts to be the self-inflating height of honorable aspiration. There is also the ruinous shift in making Frankie’s addiction open and sympathetically accepted knowledge in the community, an attitude directly contradictory to the novel in which the central characters (and by extension, the mindset of the novel’s community) are repelled by those who indulge in narcotics- an interesting moral boundary in a society where gambling, petty theft, alcoholism, adultery and confidence games run rampant -but a telling communal line in the sand which fortifies the innate this is where Preminger cheats his audience, in bringing about hackneyed plot twists instead of having the courage to follow the characters to their almost predestined ends; a stunning lack of courage from a filmmaker whose perpetual breast beating was intended to signal the presence of a personage of unshakable artistic conviction.
By reducing the whole of the novel’s communal conception to a singular focal point, not even to that of a single character, but to a singular aspect of that character’s story and to advance that aspect as the fulcrum of your adaptation- drug abuse as a marketable claim to artistic courage -the filmmaker deliberately abandons what makes the source material vital and simultaneously concedes the exploration of the character of Frankie to the timid, limited boundaries of Hollywood flummery. When a character has been created, bound to a certain aesthetic principle, and that conceptual context is discarded, what is left is a mere phantom of that character. In blindly allowing the carving out the viscera of the novel in service to a falsely prideful stance against censorial repression, Preminger has conceded to the very tenets of the Production Code, by homogenizing the very substance of a difficult story into a delusional fable in which all anxieties will are naturally absolved by the cooling ministrations of milquetoast melodrama. To have translated an unexpurgated version of the novel to the screen and reached the fatalistic conclusion of Algren’s work would have been an effort- in the repressive atmosphere of 1955 Hollywood -meriting consideration as an act of cultural courage, but the existent film version of “The Man With the Golden Arm” is merely- despite claims to the contrary -Hollywood business as usual.
Considering the talent involved, it’s depressing when the best part of the movie is the opening title sequence, comprised of Saul Bass’ stark, fractured graphics which when underscored by the increasingly hysterical jazz composition of Elmer Bernstein manages to convey an inescapable whirlpool of desperation which, disappointingly, never arrives. (The film certainly, never again, rises to this level of energy.) Both Bass and Bernstein elevate their chosen fields with their contributions, and the synthesis of their efforts which open the film, impresses with a startling leap forward in the evolution of the title form, investing the opening credit sequence with an entirely new cinematic vocabulary, an example which Preminger, (Walter) Bernstein and Meltzer all failed to emulate.