Recently I watched Journey for Margaret, a heart-warming World War II flick with Robert Young and Margaret O’Brien in her motion picture debut. Released in 1942, it was the early days of America’s involvement in the War, and the story centers on a hardened newspaper reporter’s efforts to bring two orphans to the States. When he is forced to choose only one, your heart breaks for the little boy he must leave behind.
I also watched an absolutely silly, inane , but ultimately very sweet movie, A Date with Judy, released in 1948 with Jane Powell and a very young, waist-no-bigger-than-a-wasp, Elizabeth Taylor. This was the post-war equivalent of Beverly Hills 90210, but with actors with actual talent. Amazing to think that Liz Taylor and Robert Stack get secondary billing because they’re not the “stars” of the film. But as ridiculous as the plot in this film is – and trust me, any film with Xavier Cugat, a Chihuahua, and Carmen Miranda as the B-storyline is dumb – nonetheless, I actually cared whether Judy and Oogie (Jane Powell and Scotty Beckett) reunite and whether Carol and Stephen (Taylor and Stack) can overcome his prejudice against family wealth.
It’s funny that I can wax rhapsodic about these two movies, which is in stark contrast to the movie reviews I’ve been hearing from Rhonda, the Southern half of Evelyn David. She recently spent hard-earned bucks on two new blockbusters, and walked away disappointed in both. It wasn’t the acting. Rhonda assures me that George Clooney is still wonderful eye candy and Angelina Jolie has all the right stuff to be a convincing double (triple?) agent.
But at the end of both movies, she didn’t care what happened to George or Angelina’s characters. Without offering too much of a spoiler for either film, let’s just say that there was no Disney happy ending for anybody – and Rhonda wasn’t invested enough to be concerned.
Whether it’s a 1940s teen movie, a 2010 blockbuster, or the dog-eared copies of old favorite mysteries and books we’ve read and re-read, it always comes down to character. Does the audience identify with the fictitious people of screen or page? If not, then whether or not the protagonist lives to see another day or dies a noble death is quickly discarded into the “who cares” pile. All the fantastic car crashes and outrageous stunts can’t save a movie where you barely remember the main character’s name after the first fifteen minutes.
Watching these films, re-reading old favorite mysteries where I remember whodunnit on the first page and it doesn’t minimize the pleasure one iota, makes me take my own writing apart, sentence-by-sentence. I want my readers to care about Mac Sullivan, Rachel Brenner, most especially about Whiskey the Dog. I want readers to wonder if Mac can overcome 50+ years of commitment-phobia; I want to make sure that readers empathize with newly-divorced Rachel as she awkwardly re-enters the social scene; while at the same time, I want to baffle and surprise the reader with a mystery that is sophisticated and smart. Tall order, indeed.
But isn’t that what I signed up for when I listed mystery writer on my resume?
Stiletto Faithful, please share with me your favorite movie and why it has such lasting appeal.
Marian aka the Northern half of Evelyn David