On Stifling Families, Diana Lynn, and a Killer Cat
Track of the Cat, a 1954 early Cinemascope offering—produced, curiously enough, by John Wayne—had an unhappy childhood to say the least. It was thoroughly rejected by both critics and the public alike. So said Brooklyn College film professor Foster Hirsch, while presenting this odd alchemy of family dysfunction and breathtaking mountain vistas at the Film Forum in NYC; during their recent festival on famed director William A. Wellman.
Based on a novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, who used the western genre to explore humanity’s sinister elements – most famously with The Ox-Bow Incident, which became a popular film with Henry Fonda – Track of the Cat, a loser sibling to Ox-Bow, is that rare 50s Hollywood product more at home in the experimental, avant-garde category. How strange to be confronted by a work as emotionally honest as Bergman, as raw and chaotic as Cassavetes, and as scathing in its critique of the dark side of the American family as O’ Neill: in a film starring Robert Mitchum and Tab Hunter! Not to mention America’s sweetheart Theresa Wright (Miracle on 34th Street) and Diana Lynn, from My Friend Irma and Bedtime for Bonzo.
It was as if a renegade faction of the 50s zeitgeist, psychoanalytically emboldened, dared to escape the oppressive cultural conformity of the early Eisenhower years, leap-frogging over Doris Day and Father Knows Best right into the 60s.
As the Bridges family, holed up in a cabin in the rugged American northwest, sinks deeper into a despairing funk – firing sarcastic barbs at one another as if emptying their six shooters – chief-bully-in-charge brother Mitchum grabs his rifle and heads out to slay a wild panther that’s been terrorizing the family’s livestock. He’s off to prove his manhood and, as a zing to his younger, wimpier brother (Tab Hunter), flirts with his fiancé (Diana Lynn) on his way out the door. When another brother is killed by the vicious cat, the festering mood inside the cabin – with alcoholic father Philip Tonge reaching for his creatively hidden booze bottles, as mother Beulah Bondi glowers with matriarchal menace – grows more claustrophobic and despondent by the second.
I won’t give away any more of the plot, though, in case you decide to watch this neglected, underrated classic: which I highly urge.
A big part of the film’s magic, though, is the surreally beautiful way it looks. Wellman, who directed the original A Star is Born – and the winner of the first academy award, Wings, in 1927 – had always dreamed of shooting a black and white picture in color. Here he manifested his wish with a luminescent palette of muted tones, crafting a faintly colored sepia look that evokes an old Disney nature film. Among the colors clearly visible are a few patches of blue sky, a yellow scarf, and Mitchum’s preternaturally glowing red coat – glimmering like a 3D mystical totem – in bold relief against the soothing, snow-blanketed pine forest; while Mt. Rainer looms forebodingly in the distance, whispering a cruel secret.
In addition to Foster Hirsh’s informative talk to introduce the film, which added immeasurably to my enjoyment of it (as John Dewey said, the more you know about art, the more you see, feel and experience) another bonus to the Film Forum screening was that Diana Lynn’s daughter was in the house. And, the amazing part was, she was seeing Track of the Cat for the very first time!
How deliciously strange. What would possess a child not to see every Hollywood film their parent starred in? I sensed some life imitating art family dysfunction lurking. Was Lynn so embarrassed by this particular movie, despised as it was by both audience and critics, that she forbade her children to watch it? Before the houselights dimmed, here I was already in the presence of a great human mystery: which only served to enrich my pleasure of the film. Later at home, when I jumped on Google, I learned that Lynn abandoned her career as an actress in the sixties to work as a travel agent in New York; dying young while attempting a Hollywood comeback in 1971. Was she somehow haunted by the “failure” of Track of the Cat? Did this haunting track her to her grave? If only she had lived to see its resurrection, by the sophisticated community of cinephiles at Film Forum in 2012. Or the resurrection of Bedtime for Bonzo in the 1980s, due to a fresh patina of kitsch value when co-star Ronald Reagan was elected president.
Heeding the advice of my friend Maxine Greene (the philosopher of Education) who says we must pay attention to the idiosyncratic meaning of our “personal encounters” with works of art, my reaction to the film was also oddly enhanced by my consciousness that I was discovering it along with the daughter of one of its stars. It lent a peculiar home movie feel to the viewing. Especially when I noticed similarities between my own family and the brutal emotional dynamics of the fictional Bridges’.
Having found the film cathartic, later, to complete my therapy, I felt the need to connect with Lynn’s daughter – a pretty blond filmmaker in her 50s named Dolly Hall – in the theatre lobby. In my own lifelong struggle to find my voice, to gain visibility and be heard above the din of our vapid consumerist culture obsessed with shallow fame – a quest that includes my teaching and writing and, more recently, creating a Manhattan cable TV show on culture and politics – somehow, my wading into the ethereal world of Hollywood’s elite, to engage the daughter of a star, took on the healing aura of a redemptive act; an “at last!” abridgment of the psychological chasm which separates 99% of humanity from the “in crowd.” Since my normal condition tends to be one of exclusion from any such “in crowds,” it came as a welcome relief.
I invited Dolly to appear on my TV show. The simple act of inviting her was confidence building enough, though she hasn’t returned my e-mail and I doubt that she will. Doesn’t matter. Something in me was transformed and healed this evening, both in my cinematic encounter with Track of the Cat – with its reminder of the normal problematics of family, in particular within the right-wing, hyper-competitive, John Wayne-influenced 1950s model (symbolized now by the Rick Santorum led nut-case faction of the Republican party) – and in the chutzpah I displayed approaching the daughter of a Hollywood legend.
To make matters even more interesting, it turns out that Hall’s grandmother was Dorothy Schiff, the original owner of the NY Post, who sold this once (believe it or not) liberal paper to Rupert Murdoch in 1976 for a reported 31 million dollars; furthering the right-wing constriction of society, and our backwards lurch toward the repressive social and family dynamics of the 50s: a problem named brilliantly by Track of the Cat in its capacity as a work of film art. And, a deficiency my TV show (seeking to penetrate the obfuscating fog of Hannity and O’Reilly and much of today’s banal corporate sponsored media), seeks to repair by offering an antidote of humane ideas and articulation.
Ironies mixed for me, right there in the Film Forum lobby, colliding like the smell of popcorn and banana bread that, according to a sign behind the glass counter, deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida was quite fond of. But I’ll choose to end on a note of forgiveness and grace. One of the great gifts my family did manage to give me – in part through my mom’s love of Jerry Lewis – was the gift of laughter. As a child, if TV Guide announced that the Disorderly Orderly or The Errand Boy would be on that week, for example, signs would go up around our house to remind us, and a joyful element of carnival – combined with the holiness of church – would dissipate the dark clouds of family depression as we roared with happy laughter to sacred clown Lewis’s madcap antics.
I remember watching My Friend Irma, the 1949 film that introduced Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis to the world (also starring Diana Lynn) for the first time; on TV at my grandmother’s house in the early 70s. My mom was there, and the living room percolated with a festive excitement bordering on transcendence. What I remember most, though, is the loving way my grandmother enunciated the film’s title. It sounded to me like this Irma person might actually be her friend.
John Bredin is a writer, educator and cultural critic whose essays have appeared in the NY Press, Brooklyn Rail, and Evergreen Review. He also offers social commentary on his TV show, Public Voice Salon, a weekly program on Manhattan public access cable.
Suggested further reading
Christopher Sharrett, ‘False Criticism: Cinema, Bourgeois Society, and the Conservative Complaint’, ‘Revisiting Tea and Sympathy: Sexual Paranoia in Fifties America’, ‘The Music Man in Retrospect’ and ‘Drive, or the Hero in Eclipse’.