film feature: undercurrent

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Undercurrent (1946)

BAMcinématek The Complete Vincente Minnelli
October 4, 2011 [festival September 23-November 2, 2011]
BAM Rose Cinemas, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn
event web site

  • “You looked like no one I’d ever seen before.” [Alan to Ann]
  • “Love is a formula like anything else. I recognize the formula.” [Dink to Ann]
  • “Mother adored him. He was her favorite.  I also-ran.” [Alan about brother Michael]
  • “Sylvia has changed a lot.  She has the look of having been around.” [Alan]
  • “You can’t always see the undercurrent, but it’s there.” [Michael to Ann, giving the plot away]
  • “He was the thing you have to look for through a microscope — a gentleman.” [Sylvia to Ann about Michael]
Ann meets up with Sylvia in a restaurant washroom and begins her inquiries. Hepburn gamely does the elegant wardrobe thing.

Motherless adult children and plot red herrings are everywhere in this noir-y melodramatic yarn. And yet it is a compelling ride. Ann Hamilton (Katharine Hepburn) is the adult daughter of an academic scientist Dink Hamilton (Edmund Gwenn) — who she calls Dink not Dad — and a scientist mother three years deceased. I love that there’s a feminist detail thrown in there right in the beginning, yet this sensibility is mitigated by the efforts of maid Majorie Main to get Ann married off and Ann’s swift succumbing to a visiting scientist’s romantic interest.  Dink’s younger colleague Joe (Dan Tobin) is on the scene early asking Ann to marry him, perhaps to demonstrate that Ann is eligible but not interested.  Joe fades away when manufacturing war hero (an aeronautic guidance component) Alan Garroway (Robert Taylor) enters the scene to visit Dink on business.  Alan (whose mother passed away the year before after a long illness and whose father is never mentioned) is intense, classically handsome, rich from the wartime invention, and within weeks wins Ann’s heart. They begin to live his life and travel across the country. Ann transforms from a country mouse into an elegant couture-adorned wife, meets an ex-girlfriend Sylvia (Jayne Meadows in her first role under M-G-M contract) who resembles Ann and fills her with mysterious half-facts, uncovers a personal mystery (Robert Mitchum as brother Michael who mother always liked best) and finally reveals professional improprieties (having to do with legal ownership of the war-effort-aiding invention).

Hepburn on set wearing clothes that seem made for her lanky athletic frame. How else would you perch using a ladder?
Kate sits in the only logical manner, and Minnelli in conversation.

Observing the rich live among their lovely things has its pleasures.  As Mike Macaulay (Jimmy Stewart) says in The Philadelphia Story (1940): “”The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the Privileged Class enjoying its privileges.”  Yet in Undercurrent there is no fun in the privileges (for Ann at least) and all the story telling is in the sidelong glance, the person standing in the shadows, the crazy dude yammering in the horse barn, the big black stallion rearing up in his barn berth.  Truth will out, miscreants suffer for their misdeeds, the “right” people find each other. I do find myself wondering at the end of this adventure what becomes of Marjorie Main’s maid back home at Dink’s place, but that’s for another day.

The mesmerizing on-set images from this shoot capture brief shining moments of big studio movie making and the people circling M-G-M in the middle 1940s.  Minnelli is recently (June 1945) wed to Judy Garland during this shoot.  An image of Garland visiting the set that appears in Minnelli’s “as told to” memoir I Remember It Well (1974) captures a bit of the intense wonder of it all. Star in repose discussing plot points with her director, and director’s wife star in between, mesmerized.  It is a view into a time and place of magic and wonder.  This movie is an adventure demonstrating that Minnelli was able to take on any genre and create the best possible translation to film of the script as crafted.  What a talent.

Vincente Minnelli, Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn on set. Image from I Remember It Well (1974). Minnelli’s caption: “Kate always knew how to hold an audience.”  The striped top coat here is costume, and paired on-screen with outrageously high heels and a black skirt.  Here Kate “Hepburns” the ensemble with slacks, loafers, and cotton socks.  My style role model.

© Martha Wade Steketee (October 6, 2011)

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