Friday, November 5, 2010

Another Language (1933)

Jean-Paul Sartre said that Hell is other people. In Another Language Stella (Helen Hayes) discovers that Hell is actually other people’s families. More specifically, her husband’s family.

Stella and Victor Hallam (Robert Montgomery) have eloped. Now they’ve returned to the bosom of his family. Victor (known to the family as Vicky) is obsessed with his family. They are everything to him. It soon turns out that they are more important to him than his wife. Stella is informed in no uncertain terms that attendance at the regular Tuesday night family dinners is compulsory, and that it is vital that she accepts the Hallam clan and they they accept her.

Unfortunately the Hallams are the family from Hell. They’re your worst nightmare. They’re vulgar and annoying. They’re prying and interfering. They’re oppressive and suffocating. And they don’t approve of Stella’s modern ideas. Her plans to get a job are soon quashed. She manages to get grudging permission to attend art school twice a week but it’s made clear to her that this is further proof of her unfitness as a wife. In any case the Hallams don’t approve of art. Victor’s nephew Jerry had ideas of becoming an architect but the family soon put a stop to that.

Worst of all is Victor’s mother. She is the most manipulative and clinging woman who has ever walked the earth. No woman is good enough for her beloved son unless the woman is prepared to submit herself entirely to Mother Hallam’s whims and to her extraordinarily narrow view of a woman’s role in life. When Stella commits the unforgivable sin of being late to a family gathering Mother Hallam pulls out all the stops in an effort to destroy her son’s marriage.

I’ve never liked Helen Hayes much as an actress but she’s fairly competent in this movie. Louise Closser Hale as Mother Hallam is one of the great movie villains, and I use the word villain deliberately since the Hallams are so appalling that this almost qualifies as a horror movie! Perhaps there’s no horror quite so terrifying as family.

Robert Montgomery as Victor is one of the nastiest, most obnoxious characters in cinema history. He’s a fool as well as being a pig. There’s nothing whatsoever likeable about him but that’s the way the character is written and Robert Montgomery can’t be faulted for his performance.

So is there anything distinctively pre-code about this movie? You bet there is. Firstly there’s the sexual attraction between an aunt and her nephew, something you weren’t likely to see in a Hollywood movie post-Code. And there’s the whole tone of the film. This is an extraordinary hatchet job on the institution of the family, something the Code would certainly not have permitted.

This is a very unpleasant film. Not that it’s a bad movie, quite the opposite, but the atmosphere of manipulation and oppressiveness is almost overwhelming.

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