Not one of his more charming moments: Professor Bill Whitley (William Powell, right) doubts his doctor’s(Morris Ankrum) diagnosis of “a slight touch of asthma,” insisting he’s dying, while his wife Vicky (Hedy Lamarr) looks on with something less than complete sympathy in The Heavenly Body, a 1944 screwball comedy about an astronomer trying to win back the affections of his astrology-obsessed spouse whose horoscope says she will leave him for a tall, dark stranger.
This will strike some classic movie buffs as a form of blasphemy, but sometimes William Powell could be a little too charming.
In The Heavenly Body, for instance, a 1944 screwball comedy starring Powell as astronomer Bill Whitley and Hedy Lamarr as his astrology-obsessed wife Vicky.
Get the subtly of the comic premise? He studies the stars for science and she consults the stars to plan the shopping!
Well, she doesn't plan the shopping. She hires the housekeepers who plan and do the shopping. This is practically a full time job for her as housekeepers come and go on what looks like a weekly rotation. I lost track of how many housekeepers, each of a different ethnic background and exhibiting individual degrees of eccentricity, the Whitleys go through in the course of the movie. In defense of the housekeepers, the fault lies with Bill. He's just too wacky to work for.
Inviting drunken Russians to dance in the living room and in the middle of the afternoon too! You can't pay anyone enough to clean up after that!
I was feeling under the weather this afternoon so I crawled under a blanket on the couch and watched TCM. Don't do that often enough, watch TCM.
Besides being good for morale, regular TCM viewing is a useful way to discover movies---and actors, directors, and other toilers in the moviemaking trade---that haven't made it onto popular best whatever lists.
If you'd ask me before today to, quick, no Googling, name five movies starring William Powell that don't have "The Thin Man" in the title---and here goes: My Man Godfrey, Life With Father, Mister Roberts, Libeled Lady, The Great Ziegfeld. Impressed? What if I throw in two more? Manhattan Melodrama and The Senator Was Indiscreet. I can also name all the Thin Man movies, but rules are rules.---The Heavenly Body wouldn't have made my list.
Watching TCM is also a way to get an idea about what movie audiences were like way back when, although you have to infer it from what the makers of the movies thought would go over big with the audience, inferences better drawn from lesser known films than from movies that have become classics, since the lesser known ones are probably more representative of what was standard for popular entertainment.
Classics become classics because they aren't as reductively representative of their original time and place and so can speak intimately to audiences apart from that particular time and place.
And what you discover watching movies like The Heavenly Body is that, although clearly they had different tastes in many small things, in some things moviegoers in 1944 were very much like us in what they wanted out of a movie, a pleasant and intellectually and emotionally undemanding evening's entertainment.
Movies were their television, and the conventions of present day sitcoms, cop shows, workplace and domestic dramas were conventions of the movies back then.
The Heavenly Body is a sitcom.
But not a very good one.
Something else you learn. Just like today, very talented people back then could turn out less than brilliant movies.
So, here’s the situation for the comedy: Powell's character, Professor Bill Whitley, has been tracking a comet on a collision course with the moon. This is fun stuff for him and his scientist pals. Whitley's apparently got it all figured out that there's nothing to worry about. No chance the comet will miss the moon and strike the earth or knock the moon out of orbit or throw up any rocks that will become meteors headed our way on impact. The only worrisome question is when it will hit?
Will it happen at night in the western hemisphere when Whitley and his colleagues can watch it?
Whitley has calculated it will. This doesn't seem like deep science to me, even for 1944, but what do I know? Just because out in New Mexico a whole bunch of geniuses are building the atom bomb doesn't mean any old university astronomy professor with his own Lowell sized observatory at his disposal knew what he was doing when he looked through a telescope. But Whitley's reputation depends on his being right about when the collision will occur.
Naturally, as an adoring movie comedy wife, Lamarr's character, Vicky, takes it for granted that her genius husband is right. In fact, she's so confident he's right she doesn't understand what all the fuss is about. If Bill says it's going to happen, it's going to happen, so there's no need for him to stay up nights watching for it and worrying about it.
Apparently it didn't occur to her before they got married that staying up at night to watch the sky for celestial objects doing unusual and scientifically interesting things is pretty much the job description for an astronomer.
Bill has been staying up all night and catching up on his sleep during the day for weeks now and Vicky has begun to feel lonesome and neglected and bored. And boring. She's started to worry that Bill cares more about his work than he does about her. To bring the subtext to the fore, she's resenting his being more interested in studying heavenly bodies than in paying attention to the body he's married to back here on earth. In short, she's wondering if he still loves her and if she should bother to continue to love him.
This strikes me as rather liberated sexual politics, not just for movies made in 1944, but for ones made now. Vicky has sexual agency. It's taken as a given that whether or not she will continue to love Bill---and all that implies about sex and marriage---is her choice. Bill has no say and no control. Her feelings and desires are her own. He can't demand her love and loyalty. He can't make her give them to her. He certainly can't just win her over with his charm. Part of the set up is that his charm isn't doing the trick anymore but he's too self-absorbed to notice until it's apparently too late. At that point, what drives the comedy is Bill's unraveling as he realizes that things are entirely out of his control. In other words, this isn't like a Judd Apatow movie in which what's inevitable in the inevitable romantic happy ending is the heroine's realizing what a lovable guy the hero is. There is a real question as to whether a romantic happy ending is inevitable because it's Vicky's choice and she will have to decide not if Bill's lovable---he is, of course, just not as lovable as he initially assumes he is---but whether or not it's in her best interest to continue to love him.
Bill's trouble is compounded and Vicky's dilemma complicated by a romantic rival for her affections' showing up who is not, like Cary Grant's rivals for Roz Russell in His Girl Friday and Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story, a priggish bore and a stiff. He's in key ways more suitable for Vicky and more sexually attractive than Bill. Younger, handsomer, taller, stronger, more physically competent, and not as insistently and cloyingly charming---he's willing to let Vicky's desire for him develop on its own without his pulling it like salt water taffy. He's confident of his own charms but not vain or presumptuous. Bill is vain and presumptuous to start and turns needy and insecure.
There's another radical element to the sexual politics. Powell was fifty-two in 1944. Lamarr was thirty. At first glance, this might seem a routine example of Hollywood's longstanding double-standard by which male stars get to have nubile young love interests even when they're old enough to be the fathers of the actresses playing those love interests while female stars are deemed too old at thirty-seven to be the objects of desire of men twenty years their senior. (See Maggie Gyllenhaal.) The script, however, makes Vicky even younger, twenty-six, probably so that the audience doesn’t wonder why a middle-aged (for the time) woman whose husband isn’t away at war isn’t a mother yet but possibly to emphasize the age difference.
It's never explicitly mentioned---except that Bill refers to himself as having been an old bachelor when he and Vicky met---but the fact that he may be too old for such a young and pretty wife seems to be implicit in both his rival's assessment of their competition and in Bill's own panic when it develops as he realizes he's losing that competition.
That would make it an important aspect of the overall joke that Bill can't satisfy Vicky in bed.
The trouble even starts with the fact he's not even trying.
He only goes into the bedroom to sleep alone.
Bill, then, is an ancient comedic type. The old cuckold. In a Restoration comedy, he would be the villain and his cuckolding would be the happy ending.
Might have been a better movie if the times had allowed more to have been made of that.
Anyway. Bored, lonely, probably sexually frustrated, and confused, Vicky allows her daffy neighbor to talk her into seeking advice from an astrologist.
Fay Bainter plays the astrologist as a no nonsense, all business professional operating out of a tastefully decorated home office as if she was a lawyer or financial advisor, which in a real way she is. Politicians and tycoons are among her clients and are often on the phone calling on her for advice that sounds, from the snatches of conversations we hear, practical, savvy, and smart. She's no kook and she's not a fraud or at least she doesn't know she's one. As far as she knows, astrology is a science and she approaches it like a researcher and writes up clients' horoscopes with the same attention and care for facts based on her "research" as Bill would bring to a paper he's writing for Scientific American.
Instead of suggesting the obvious, that Vicky give up spending all day at home pining for Bill and do something useful with her time, like get a job or volunteer at the USO or nearest veteran's hospital---There is a war on. Women are working and even children are volunteering in the war effort---she does her research, consults the stars, draws up Vicky's horoscope, and presents her findings.
Vicky and Bill's marriage is kaput.
Bill doesn't love her anymore so Vicky is under no obligation to continue to love him.
The astrologist doesn't stop there though.
She informs Vicky that not only is their marriage over, Vicky and Bill were never meant to be together, and, as a matter of fact, Vicky is about to meet her one, true love.
The astrologist doesn't say it but she might as well: You will meet a tall, dark stranger.
And she does.
At the astrologically appointed time, the tall, dark stranger shows up on her doorstep in the person of Lloyd Hunter, a war correspondent volunteering as an air raid warden while he’s back in the states recovering from an unspecified battlefield wound. He’s come to tell her she needs to draw the blackout curtains on a lighted bedroom window---an opportunity for some heavenly body watching the movie lets pass---and he’s immediately smitten.
Lloyd is played by James Craig, a tall, dark sort-of-Clark Gable-ish-looking actor I’d never heard of but turns out to have enough of a career in movies and on TV that Gore Vidal made him the favorite actor of his main character in Myra Breckenridge.
I think I just admitted I’ve never read Myra Breckenridge.
But there you go: the things you learn from watching TCM.
Back to the movie.
The Heavenly Body is feminist in accepting that Vicky has agency. It's decidedly unfeminist, however, in presenting us with something else.
Vicky's an idiot.
She doesn't believe she has agency. She believes everything in her life is controlled by the stars, including the direction of her feelings and desires.
If the stars say she doesn't love Bill, then she doesn't. If the stars say she's to fall in love with someone else, then she will.
So when she meets Lloyd, she falls in love with him on the spot.
Or she tells herself she has.
I don't know the cultural history well enough. According to the programming notes at TCM's website, The Heavenly Body was made to capitalize on a current fad for astrology. But a fad for psychoanalysis was taking hold at the same time so maybe people in the audience could be counted on to know their Freud well enough to get that Vicky isn't an idiot so much as she's acting on her unconscious desire to be rid of the boring old man she's married to and find sexual adventure and satisfaction with a more desirable, passionate, and sexually potent partner.
She comes across as just an idiot.
That might be Lamarr's fault. She was only a so-so actress to begin with---In fact, compared to many of her contemporaries, she was a bad one.---and I never thought she demonstrated much talent as a comedienne. It’s been a long time since I last saw My Favorite Spy but I barely remember her being in it. In Comrade X---another surprise gift from TCM. I'd never heard of Comrade X before stumbling across it one morning when I woke up way too early--- her stiffness and lack of range of facial and vocal expression works for the role of a humorless and sexually repressed Soviet military officer who needs to be unrepressed by Clark Gable. But in a minor role Eve Arden not only blows her off the screen comedically, she erases her sexually. Arden and Gable have so much comic and sexual rapport in one scene that the movie never recovers itself. The whole rest of the way I was thinking never mind this, let's see that movie where Arden's and Gable's characters meet and have the affair that breaks both their hearts. It would be a modern, Americanized Much Ado About Nothing.
Lamarr has no Eve Arden to compete with in The Heavenly Body but she still doesn't earn a lot of laughs. Or seem to be having much fun trying.
It's left up to Powell to bring the yuks.
He doesn't. But it's not for lack of trying. In fact, he tries too hard.
The Heavenly Body of the title is obviously Lamarr's. Bill spends his nights at the observatory watching a comet instead of watching the heavenly body he's married to at home and we're meant to wonder along with Vicky what's wrong with the big dope?
But the camera doesn't do much of a job watching Lamarr's body on our behalf. It seems only interested in it for how well clothes hang on it, which is very well. The focus of the lens' adoring gaze is her face.
Sign of the times, I suppose.
In the era of the production code, Clark Gable’s and Errol Flynn’s excepted, stars' bodies, male and female, were treated as attractive for how well they filled out their clothes and not for how they might look without them. That's what made Marilyn such a revelation when she came along. Her nudity was impossible not to imagine.
I'm not enough of a film scholar to make the case, but it’s been my sense that it was Gene Kelly who changed things for men by making the male body in forceful, physical play the object of the camera's gaze.
At any rate, Powell's body is the body to watch in The Heavenly Body
Not as an object of the longing gaze. I don't believe that even when he was a young leading man even his most adoring fans dreamed of him with his shirt off. His attractions were his eyes and his voice. Which, by the way, contemporary directors and actors should take note of.
Broad shoulders and ripped abs are good for a gasp, but you need the eyes and voice for the complete seductive follow through. Offhand I can think of only one contemporary male star who cultivates his voice and that's Clooney. Who also moves very well.
We’re meant to watch Powel’s body in the way Chaplin's and Keaton's are meant to be watched in their films.
Well, not exactly. We're not watching a gifted clown clowning around. (There are those who’d argue that that's not what we're watching with Keaton, or not all we're watching, and that's what made him the greater comic.) What we're watching in The Heavenly Body is a gifted comic actor known for his poise and self-command let go of both.
Powell doesn't have Bill fall to pieces. It's more a case of his gradually losing control of himself physically as he becomes more and more desperately aware he's lost---not that he ever really he had it---control of his married life.
He doesn't know where to turn emotionally and that's reflected in his not knowing which way to turn physically and doubting his every move in the middle of making it, so he goes right when he's thinking he'd be better off going left, sits down when he needs to be standing, and charges full ahead when a strategic retreat is called for.
What we're watching, then, is an intelligent, dignified, proud, and vain man feeling himself coming unglued and growing more and more afraid he's going to make a fool out of himself with his every next move.
It's amusing to watch. It would have been more amusing to watch if the situations Bill's forced into were as funny as Powell tries to suggest they are with his body language and if the dialog was as witty as Powell does his best to make it sound---this may be what makes him come across as too charming. He felt he had to charm the audience into laughing at gags that aren’t worth much more than a smile.
The Heavenly Body would probably have been funnier if something important was at stake in whether or not Bill wins Vicky back, if we had a rooting interest either way. But the Whitley’s marriage doesn’t seem consequential to either of them. It’s hard to imagine how either one would be worse off without the other.
Meanwhile, although Lloyd is meant to be seen as a sexual threat, he never actively threatens. He says he loves Vicky, but his love is practically as chaste as a knight-errant’s for his lady faire. His passions, if he is in fact at all passionate, are coolly in check almost to the point of his being cold. It’s hard to imagine that he would be all that bothered if Vicky decides to stay with Bill. Seems to me that it would have been a logical step in the storytelling for Lloyd to be as driven out of his mind with thwarted desire as Bill is being driven out of his. And besides giving us a reason to root for or against Lloyd, it would have created a problem for Vicky that could have driven her out of her mind too---do the stars say she has to do more than “love” Lloyd and if they say she should sleep with him, is it really the stars telling her to?
I think it’s a sign of the time that this dilemma can’t be made explicit. But The Heavenly Body’s not not just reticent on the matter of Vicky’s sexuality. It doesn’t even acknowledge it. Vicky is allowed agency over her desires. She just isn’t allowed to show she actually has any.
When Vicky is with either Bill or Lloyd, she seems as desire-less as she does in her scenes with the astrologist and the various housekeepers.
Bill’s sexual panic and Vicki’s boredom are issues but they never reach the point of becoming at issue. They’re subtext that never threatens to become text. Think of any of the great screwball comedies and you can pick out at least one scene in which the real action is the sex the characters aren’t having at the moment but that they either will or did. There are no scenes like that in The Heavenly Body.
And, as I suggested above, I think Bill is the real villain of the story and he’s the one we should be rooting against or, rather, rooting to see humiliated and made a fool of.
But that’s me. I’m a romantic. I believe in young love.
An irony: Hedy Lamarr may not have been one of the best actors of her generation of stars but she may have been the smartest. She was an inventor and at the time she was playing this chucklehead, she was at work in her home laboratory co-inventing a guidance system for torpedoes that became the basis for the spread-spectrum technology that supports, among other things, cell phones and WiFi. You can read about this side of her life story in Richard Rhodes’Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World.
Or you can just read my review of the book, A life spent doing anything but standing still and looking stupid.
The Heavenly Body directed by Alexander Hall, screenplay by Michael Arlen, Walter Reisch, Harry Kurnitz. Based on a story by Jacques Thery. Starring William Powell, Hedy Lamarr, James Craig, Fay Bainter , Henry O'Neill, Spring Byington, Morris Ankrum, and Connie Gilchrist.