Yearning for Melvyn Douglas:
A Toast to the Suave Man

[First appeared in the December 2003 issue of The Ryder.]

Danusha V. Goska

"Just read and loved the piece on Melvyn Douglas and suavity!!"
Molly Haskell

 

Theodora Lynn, pushing forty, is a mousey virgin so rigid you could shave with the crease on her skirt. She’s rooted in a coven of New England spinsters so frigid that they make Hawthorne’s Puritans look like the cast of a “Girls Gone Wild” video. But Theodora is about to become very entertaining. Like Vesuvius, this repressed pressure cooker of passions is about to—spectacularly—blow. You know that she is about to blow because Theodora, played by Irene Dunn in her first comedic role, is the main character of the 1936 screwball comedy, Theodora Goes Wild.

Who uncorked Theodora? Did Columbia Pictures mate her with Clark Gable, the leading man of its hugely successful 1934 screwball, It Happened One Night? “What she needs is a guy that’d take a sock at her once a day, whether it’s coming to her or not,” that Gable character said, summing up his approach to women. Would Gable grab his leading lady, and carry her wriggling body up a darkened staircase, as his Rhett ravished Scarlett O’Hara? Or should Theodora’s catalyst be a cowboy, a Gary Cooper, who’d laconically plunk her into the saddle and ride off into the sunset? Or would the male lead seduce Theodora with laughter, as Groucho Marx won Margaret Dumont?

The plot kicks into gear when Theodora leaves her New England shell and travels to that veritable Sodom — New York City. There she meets Michael, an artist. At first, to the viewer, hoping for a lot from this movie—remember, the title is Theodora Goes Wild—Michael is a disappointment. He doesn’t look like the kind of man who could drive any woman wild. He has baggy eyes. Receding hair. A large nose. A weak chin—and it’s a double chin, at that. His body, alas, could never be used to advertise any dietary supplement or exercise regime. He sports one of those ridiculous little thirties mustaches that Gable could get away with because he was Gable. And this isn’t Gable, or a cowboy or Groucho. This is Melvyn Douglas, an actor little remembered today.

The viewer sighs with resignation. Maybe Gable or the others were busy, so they got this guy. Oh, well, Irene Dunne is great, and we can focus on her.

But then, a few minutes into his first scene, Michael smiles. And there is something there. Something you like that the other, bigger stars and their familiar archetypes simply couldn’t have delivered. What is it? He laughs at his own jokes, even if no one else in the room does; he laughs at what he finds humorous in others’ even deprecatory comments about him. There is something in his laugh that reveals that he has surrendered the hope, the expectation, or the demand that others laugh with him for him to find the world amusing. That quality—the ability to laugh alone—sounds very detached, even old, and it is both, and wise, as well, but, when Michael does laugh and then tries to speak, his voice cracks and shuttles back to boyhood, or minces across to a girlish soprano. A breaking voice in a man so well dressed—Michael is wearing a wonderful suit—endears. When Michael is caught doing something naughty—his hands are literally in a cookie jar; he’s eating Theodora’s homemade cookies—the whites of his eyes grow as large and prominent as the whites of sunny-side-up eggs, but he looks not at all guilty, just shocked, shocked! that he’s been reprimanded for anything as natural as enjoying her cookies. He makes an easily understood joke about growing boys needing their food, but he doesn’t laugh at this peanut-gallery humor; his face is grave, deadpan as Buster Keaton’s. In these few brief scenes, without “socking” anyone, he’s revealed that he has a personal sexuality, morality, and logic.

Michael needles Theodora. To prove herself to him and to herself, she drinks scotch for the first time in her life, and then she goes to his apartment. Irene Dunne is perfection here. She performs Theodora’s defiant, terrified, tipsy spinster with compassion and verisimilitude. Communicating, through body language, the curiosity of a hick in the city for the first time, or of a puppy, Theodora, trying to appear sophisticated, peeks around the lair of this big city Lothario. When she sets foot on the border of his bedroom, her body folds, as if she’d just been stopped by a waist-high wall. Terrified, trying to look cool, she waltzes away, quickly.

The entire time, Michael does little. Perhaps an action-film fan would find such a role for a male unbearably passive. But Michael is not passive; he is doing something that any female viewer might fall in love with him for. He is watching Theodora. He watches her from above as he stands and she sits. He watches her from up close, as he brings his face to hers, close enough to kiss, to offer her more scotch. He watches her from far away, as he stands there in his marvelous suit. He doesn’t show off his biceps, as Sly Stallone did once he got Talia Shire / Adrian to his apartment in Rocky. He doesn’t pounce, like Brando in the apartments of Streetcar or Waterfront or Tango. He watches so intently that he is witnessing her, with the distance, wisdom, benignity, and seen-it-all air of God, or Santa Claus.

Theodora was made under the Hays Production Code that mandated that filmmakers practice self-censorship. Its seduction scene follows that code. Michael is standing over a lamp that illuminates his face in the otherwise dark apartment. Suddenly, on his face, you see that he has made his unilateral decision. In this code-era film, Michael’s sexual hunger, and his aim—both literal and metaphorical—are made clear through a graphic metaphor. As Michael stops watching and slowly closes in on Theodora, he pauses, and the camera pauses with him to record this gesture in every detail. With a quick and expert twist, Michael extinguishes his phallic cigarette in a cup-shaped ashtray. And it must be said, that in this close-up on nothing but his wrist, Michael’s shirt cuff looks absolutely fabulous. Damn, but this is a man knows how to wear clothes.

I’m used to viewing old movies’ bag of tricks with the raised eyebrows of superiority: “Oh, isn’t it peculiar that in those days they found that scary / sexy / funny.” I often watch old movies to gather anthropological data, or to enjoy them as camp, more than any desire to willingly suspend disbelief and identify with them. When I experienced an erotic charge watching Michael’s seduction of Theodora, this felt surpassingly strange, as if I’d picked up a shard of hieroglyphic text and, immediately and without prior training, had been able to penetrate—and be penetrated by—the mysteries of a long-dead civilization, one I’d never visited, inscribed therein.

I don’t feel such surprise when I find Gary Cooper or other 30s-era actors sexy, but they have their counterparts today, both in film and in the wider culture. Cooper is like Kevin Costner is like Cal Ripken. Jon Stewart descends from Groucho Marx. George Clooney is frequently compared to Clark Gable. The 1932 gangster flick Scarface inspired the 1983 Al Pacino film Scarface which, in turn, inspired current rap culture.

Melvyn Douglas as a carrier of an erotic charge, though new to me, had plenty of company in the ’20s and ’30s. William Powell, who played Nick Charles in the Thin Man series, George Brent, who often starred opposite Bette Davis, most memorably in Dark Victory, and Herbert Marshall also played men who seemed born middle-aged, but whom heroines often chose over fare more obviously appealing in our day. In Victory, Davis turned down Humphrey Bogart and Ronald Reagan for George Brent, after all.

What did these men have that other actors did not? One word comes to me: Melvyn Douglas was “suave.” Suave! A word I’d only ever used—often mispronounced, to rhyme with “knave”—as the punchline to a joke. I had kept “suave” stored on the same shelf in my brain with other risible vocabulary like “boulevardier,” “roué,” “lounge lizard” and “louche.” Suave actors didn’t solve their problems with their looks, their muscles, or with guns. They didn’t solve their problems with honest sweat, either; they often played gigolos or jewel thieves. They didn’t need “Queer Eye” to tell them how to dress. They gave the impression that if they were airdropped into the Sahara with just a compass and a champagne flute, they would know all the best people and be living in an air-conditioned palazzo before their next-of-kin were informed. Rafael Sabatini penned a great suave line, “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”

Douglas’s suavity moved me because he looked like he knew. He looked like he knew what he was doing. He looked like he knew himself. He looked like he knew what the rules were and he knew how to make things go the way he wanted by following or bending those rules as he saw fit. He looked like he knew what it is about women that most men so insistently don’t know.

Women reflect men back at twice their natural size, opined Virginia Woolf. If the woman is small and helpless, the man is all the bigger and more powerful. Indeed, there are probably vanishingly few women who could beat up Vin Diesel, but an old children’s game instructs: there are different kinds of strength. Scissors cut paper and paper wraps rock. Suave Men—wonderfully—never needed their women to play tiny to their huge muscles and guns. Suave men like George Brent partnered with powerhouses like Bette Davis. Melvyn Douglas played opposite Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo, and never seemed less than these legends. Joan Crawford’s persona might have incinerated Ben Affleck had he ever appeared in the same frame with her. In one of their many scenes together, William Powell says something funny to Myrna Loy. She appears very unimpressed. He says to her, “I thought what I just said was rather clever.” She responds, delivering her line to maximum, paper-cut effect, “Yes, I thought that you thought so.” Powell can stand up to Loy’s tongue, and seem no less the man. I can’t imagine an Arnold Schwarzenegger looking like anything but a dolt with a thick accent were he to costar with Myrna Loy, who could etch metal with her one-liners.

We’ve had two suave men since: Cary Grant and Sean Connery. But they were both supernaturally good looking; how could anyone see the young Connery’s naked chest and deny that there is a God? But because nature had been so generous to them, neither Grant nor Connery needed to get through life on cultivation alone. And Connery’s James Bond would be nothing without his high-tech ordnance. William Powell, whose naked chest we never saw—and that’s probably all for the best—stopped crime with his wit.

Significantly, the list of current male box office stars does not include men whose careers were built on suavity, while one top-ten star, Mike Myers, in his Austin Powers movies, has built a career on mocking suavity. A movie buff friend said to me, “Maybe suavity is a quality that just doesn’t exist anymore. Maybe it can’t exist in today’s world. I think suavity has as much to do with the way the world is as the way the person is—maybe more.”

Gurus of maleness, from Robert Bly to Rush Limbaugh to Eminem, divide men into at least two groups. There are the SNAGS, the boyish Sensitive New Age Guys, who prove their appeal to women by being confused and inept, and then there are grown-up Real Men who do what needs doing by blowing things up. The Suave Man is obviously adult; his competence proves that. But the Suave Man wins others to his will by getting to know and pleasing them; these are dangerously feminine attributes to maleness theorists. Further, the Suave Man delivers bon mots that aren’t immediately understandable by folks who aren’t paying attention. He values women. In his subtle ambiguity, he is an offense to that streak of absolutist American Puritanism that runs through expressions as diverse as Right Wing Talk Radio and Political Correctness.

There are suave men abroad. One famous example writes poetry, recommends diplomacy over bombs, and probably eats quiche. He is, of course, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. De Villepin resisted America’s war on Iraq. For his trouble, the New York Post, on its front page, depicted De Villepin with the head of a weasel. In the eyes of the Post, either you are one of the tough guys, like President Bush, who does what needs doing with physical force, or you are a weasel. Thus, suavity, in this Puritanical worldview, is inevitably identified with sneakiness.

What happened between the nineteen thirties and now to so downgrade suavity? Two factors must be mentioned. First, in the ’30s, many American movie-goers lived, ate, bathed and slept in intimate contact with inescapable family and community members. Increasing wealth and technology have cocooned us. The more space, even just the space afforded by anonymity, a set of headphones, or a highway, that a society allows its individuals, the less value is placed on mastery of smoothing social ritual. Too, America won World War Two and became a superpower; it won the Cold War and became the only superpower. It is easier, perhaps, to solve your problems with violence when no one is quite as strong as you are. Life imitates art. Melvyn Douglas’ wife was the Democrat politician Helen Gahagan Douglas. In one of America’s most notorious political campaigns, she was vilified as a “Pink Lady” who was “soft on Communism.” Her attacker was a Real American Man, Richard Nixon.

I can’t prove that these factors were the intergalactic asteroid that doomed the Suave Man. I can say that I yearn for him. Is this a form of necrophilia, or sad escape from reality—not just a crush on an actor long deceased, but on an extinct species? Or perhaps, as is so often the case, this love exists to teach me something about myself. As I rush, as I tense over small worries, as I fumble through encounters in our post-courtesy society, I wish I were a Suave Man, swanning through life on wit and aplomb, bringing smiles to faces and turning life into one long, effervescent party. And as for reality? There have been two notable, and rare, Suave Men in recent films, both based on historical figures: Adrien Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist and Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List. These men survived, and thwarted, Nazism, at least partly through their gift of suavity. Perhaps our tense and prickly times offer the perfect moment to give the Suave Man another look.

©2003 Danusha V. Goska

Danusha V. Goska, PhD, is an experienced teacher, an award-winning writer, and a published scholar. She can be reached at dgoska[at]yahoo[dot]com. Her web page is http://www.codypublishing.com/goska/goska.html

For more of her work in TheScreamOnline, visit the Talent Index

Back to