Thursday, November 28, 2013

Henpecked Husbands

Apparently, if you live in a fictional universe and you are a henpecked husband, then you will be required to take extreme measures to save yourself from a hellish home life. In most works of fiction, wise marriage counseling simply doesn't exist.

Take poor Rip Van Winkle, for instance. One of the reasons the guy took long walks in the woods was to escape his shrewish wife:

"Times grew worse and worse with Rip Van Winkle as years of matrimony rolled on; a tart temper never mellows with age, and a sharp tongue is the only edged tool that grows keener with constant use."

It's not until Rip runs into those odd fellows in the woods and ends up taking a 20-year nap that he finally gets away from Dame Van Winkle. For most of us, losing 20 years of our lives and missing the opportunity to watch our kids grow up would be an unspeakable tragedy. Heck, Rip even has to deal with the culture shock of discovering that his home was now a part of a brand new country, since he also slept through the American Revolution. 

But Rip manages to adjust to all this with little trouble, because he learned his wife had recently died and:

There was a drop of comfort, at least, in this intelligence.

The story even implies that his 20-year long nap was a gift from those silent and bearded men in the woods.

If we jump ahead a few centuries, though, we discover a much-more high-tech solution to escaping a shrewish wife. In the November 20, 1959 episode of The Twilight Zone (titled "Time Enough at Last"), we meet Henry Bemis. All poor Henry wants to do is read, but neither his spiteful wife nor his strict boss will
allow him to do so. But when Henry turns out to be the only survivor of a nuclear war--well, THAT gives him plenty of time to read. Until, of course.. well, the ending of that episode is justly famous, but I won't spoil it for you if you haven't seen it yet.

Actually, the point of that episode was supposed to be a warning not to get so wrapped up in something (even something worthwhile like reading) that you lose touch with real life. This really is one of Zone's best stories, but I think it fails to make this point and instead works so well because of Burgess Meredith's great performance and the scary twist at the end. Bemis' wife is so mean all you feel is sympathy for him, with none at all left over for her. Bemis' boss has a point about his reading at work when he should be working, but comes across as such a jerk about it that our sympathies once again go to Bemis.

Of course, despite my sympathy for Bemis, it's not as if I've ever had my Kindle app running on my computer at work while I was supposed to be actually working. I'd never do that. That would be wrong. Of course it would be wrong. 

One of my favorite Film Noirs is Scarlet Street (1945), directed by Fritz Lang and starring Edward G. Robinson. Edward G. is a meek cashier who likes to paint, but who's home life is rather unpleasant. His wife is shrewish because she still idolizes her first husband--a cop who drowned while trying to save someone. In her eyes, Robinson just doesn't live up to that image.

But Robinson falls in with a fast-talking femme fatale played by Joan Bennett. Bennett and her boyfriend (played with a wonderfully sleazy ambiance by Dan Duryea) are playing Robinson for whatever cash they can get out of him. The temporary side effect of this, though, is to give Robinson a little more confidence. So when the supposedly dead first husband shows up, Robinson comes up with a scheme that will allow him to get out of his unhappy marriage and marry Bennett. Because how could that possibly end badly?

Robinson, Bennett and Duryea had teamed up with Fritz Lang a year earlier for a film with a similar plot titled The Women in the Window. But that otherwise great film is spoiled by an "It's all a dream" ending. Scarlet Street's ending, on the other hand, is unabashedly bleak and full of tragedy, but it was appropriate to the story. The movie's theme about the consequences of an otherwise good man making bad moral decisions is a common one in Film Noir, but it's useful for us all to have a reminder of that from time to time.; even if we aren't henpecked husbands.

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