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Something to Live For

by Glenn Erickson Mar 14, 2023

Hollywood’s postwar shift to social consciousness addressed familiar issues like bigotry and discrimination. On his way to making his gargantuan, serious epics, famed director George Stevens paused for this almost entirely forgotten contemplation of American anxiety in the business rat race, with a side order of alcoholism and potential adultery. Ray Milland is the troubled ad man who tries to help the drink-impaired actress, Joan Fontaine. Wife Teresa Wright waits patiently back home, but for how long?  Is Stevens just dabbling in neorealistic doldrums, or did he feel the wave of dull existential despair as well?  It’s one of his least-known films.


Something to Live For
All Region Blu-ray
Viavision [Imprint] #199
952 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 89 min. / Street Date February 22, 2023 / Available from [Imprint] / au 34.95
Starring: Joan Fontaine, Ray Milland, Teresa Wright, Richard Derr, Douglas Dick, Harry Bellaver, Paul Valentine, King Donovan, Kasey Rogers, Douglas Spencer, Mari Blanchard.
Cinematography: George Barnes
Production Designer: Hal Pereira, Walter Tyler
Costume Design: Edith Head
Film Editors: William Hornbeck, Tom McAdoo
Original Music: Victor Young
Written by Dwight Taylor
Associate Producer: Ivan Moffat
Produced and Directed by
George Stevens

A recent book or two looked back at important film directors that made combat films in in World War II, but we already knew that producer-director George Stevens was profoundly affected by what he witnessed in the Signal Corps. The accepted wisdom is that Stevens shifted from light comedy to ever-more sober dramas, as if searching for meaning in an imperfect world. Long gone was the sheer fun of Swing Time and The More the Merrier; in came the grim social criticism of A Place in the Sun and the liberal moralizing of Giant.

That view isn’t 100% accurate. George Stevens’ earlier work had turned more than once to bittersweet sentiment (Penny Serenade), and some of his lighter movies were based on real social problems. But with the down-on-America A Place in the Sun Stevens did turn self-important, while also foregrounding his filmmaking artistry. Before he moved on to his ‘important’ social-statement epics, Stevens made  Something to Live For, a more mid-range picture that seems to have been almost completely forgotten. It appears to have come and gone quietly and is seldom invoked in discussions of Stevens’ work. The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther was usually the first to laud everything by Stevens, but he gave it a real razzing, reserving most of his disdain for the screenplay by Dwight Taylor. Andrew Sarris’ filmography for the director in his reference book The American Cinema omits Live For entirely!

Okay, so Something to Live For is not a George Stevens masterpiece. But there’s a good case to be made for seeing lesser films by great directors, if one really wants to understand how old-school film artists functioned.

 

Something to Live For has been fairly accurately described as a follow-up in spirit to Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, as if Don Birnham had straightened out long enough to get sober, start a family, hold down an advertising job and serve as a mentor for Alcoholics Anonymous. We’re still in New York City, a place that rewards ambition and achievement but also breeds disenchantment and alienation. Aging, insecure ad man Alan Miller (Ray Milland) is a recovered alcoholic and AA volunteer. He responds to a call from Billy the Elevator Operator (Harry Bellaver) and is surprised to find that his contact is a woman. After crashing out of a play, rising actress Jenny Carey (Joan Fontaine) is on a serious drunk. She broke off her affair with her mentor Tony Collins (Richard Derr), and his retaliatory scorn has shaken her self-confidence. She’s been replaced in a good part for not showing up for rehearsals. Jenny and Alan strike up a friendship that threatens to become a romance.

But Alan is being more than a little dishonest with Jenny. He eventually reveals that he is married to the loving and considerate Edna (Teresa Wright). They have two young boys. Yet Alan seems to need Jenny’s support as much as she needs his. He’s having a difficult time staying motivated at work, with young ad writer Baker (Douglas Dick) bucking for his job. How will Jenny and Alan resolve their feelings without destroying Alan’s marriage?

Screenwriter Dwight Taylor reportedly based the Fontaine character on his mother Laurette, a famous actress who wrestled with a drinking problem. Something to Live For is said to be one of the first movies to feature Alcoholics Anonymous. The screenplay does not blame drinking problems on pat traumas like lost children or oppressive parents, as did a number of post- Lost Weekend shows. George Stevens gives a reasonable picture of the pressures faced by alcoholics, yet this less focused approach dulls the drama somewhat — we indeed keep waiting for ‘big plot developments.’ Can the show be seen as George Stevens’ attempt to create a Hollywood equivalent of Italian neorealism’s ‘life as it is lived?’

 

Our identification with Alan and Jenny’s predicament doesn’t come easy. We generally expect movie stars of this era to play people that are more together than this pair, or if not, to have more pronounced flaws. Jenny doesn’t have what it takes to brush off her insecurities. She comes off as too weak to be a successful actress.

Alan doesn’t tell Jenny that he’s married until they’ve already made a connection, and she happens to ask. That cruel omission makes him a puzzle not unlike Dick Powell’s cheating husband in the frightening domestic noir Pitfall. Alan Miller has a perfect family and makes a good living, but is disenchanted for reasons he can’t define. The surface reason is probably low self-esteem — he’s fed up with the pointlessness of his chosen career. Alan’s colleagues call advertising a racket and play it like a blood sport, angling for the big accounts and the big salaries.

This section of the movie comes off as a somewhat schematic pre-echo of TV’s Mad Men. Alan is thoroughly disgusted when the eager beaver junior writer Baker scores a big account with an ad concept the he finds offensive: a married couple indulge romantic fantasies on board a luxury cruise ship. An agency business party is exceedingly unpleasant. While the big boss frets that Alan might be falling off the wagon, younger punks smell blood in the water and spread gossip that he’s an ex-lush and an all-round loser. Jenny attends the same agency party and is confronted by her ex-boyfriend Collins, who turns out to be an insincere and insinuating jerk.

Although the movie says it’s about alcoholism and personal responsibility, its title suggests a broader meaning. Something to Live For shows characters in search of dependable values in a society that no longer seems to value people just for themselves. Alan and Jenny’s confidence in their personal life goals has been shaken. Jenny is too fearful to keep up the theatrical struggle, and Alan has difficulty appreciating his wonderful family.

 

George Stevens does some things very well. Alan finds that alcohol is pushed in his face no matter where he goes — at work, in restaurants, at parties. Headwaiters keep telling Alan to ‘wait at the bar.’ Turning down a drink is considered impolite, even grounds for resentment.

Other effects must be chalked up in the Nice Try column. The script attempts to generate emotional suspense by having Alan and Jenny continually miss each other’s phone calls, just by a second or two. Before the age of effortless communication this was not uncommon, but when the two maybe-lovers lose their nerve because nobody answers, they come off as weaklings. Stevens arranges several scenes that frustrate romantic clichés, perhaps in response to David Lean’s Brief Encounter. The delivery of a cute potted plant just misses its intended recipient. A desperate late night meeting in a train terminal leads nowhere. Something to Live For fights an uphill battle against convention. Nothing really transgressive occurs between its unhappy acquaintances, leading contemporary reviewers to note that ‘nothing happens.’ So much for wanting movies about Life As It Is Lived.

 

Stevens again uses the slow dissolve experiments that were so effective in his A Place in the Sun. Alan stares out a window and a six- or ten- second dissolve slowly merges his face with a shot of traffic in the street below. The visual very nicely communicates Alan’s weary alienation, but since the film has little narrative momentum it evokes the same disaffection in the audience. If this were a 1930s film, Alan would have a gutsy sidekick like Ned Sparks, to slap him around and tell him to grow a backbone.

“You’re warm and well fed in America when 60% of the world is suffering in chaos  . . .  and you lack ‘something to live for?”

Every once in a while Something to Live For misses the boat entirely. The Broadway episodes are not very interesting, and not because the big play is an unimpressive show called ‘The Egyptians.’ We’re given little evidence to suggest that Jenny is a rising star. She consistently wins parts yet doesn’t seem to have a single friend in the business, not a fellow actress or a stage manager or anybody. Alan’s effort to sober up Jenny for her big debut floats an unimpressive dramatic finale. Stevens arranges for the movie to be bracketed by the raising and lowering of a stage curtain, but with the camera facing away from the stage. This nicely suggests that the real drama is to be found out in the audience, but I doubt that many viewers picked up on the idea.

 

Finally, director Stevens neglected to make Alan’s home life with Teresa Wright very compelling. Wright’s Edna connects the dots early on that not all is right with hubby. The way Alan mopes around, a blind ox would know what’s going on. Edna adheres to the Production Code’s Honorable Wife Rule Book, never confronting him directly and instead offering gentle support. She remains a tower of sterling values and quiet courage. Frankly, it seems that Edna could catch Alan in a six-way orgy, and still ‘understand’ him. The only time she shows anxiety is when she thinks he’s been drinking … if he comes home sober, she figures everything’s okay.

This view of marriage is as uncomplicated as that of It’s a Wonderful Life.  Remember how George was almost stigmatized by gossip linking him to Violet Bick?  If George Bailey had actually been unfaithful to Donna Reed, Capra’s movie would be a similar adult tragedy. Curiously, Something to Live For’s scene fabric leaves a number of loose ends. At a party, Alan Miller is very pointedly seen to get an alcoholic drink spilled on him. We fully expect the odor to become an issue when he returns home … and nothing comes of it.

Perhaps Something to Live For is simply ahead of its time, and trapped in the conventions of 1952 Hollywood. Ray Milland and Joan Fontaine are always subdued; nobody in the show loses their head or even blows off steam. One demerit is earned with the fact that when Jenny is on the soggy end of a bender, she never looks worse for wear, just a little disoriented or unfocused.    I’m not well versed with the full range of alcoholic states but to me she comes off as consistently glamorous.

If Alan Miller is an ‘extension of Don Birnham of The Lost Weekend, perhaps Teresa Wright’s Edna is The Best Years of Our Lives’ Peggy Stephenson, six years down the road. We love Ms. Wright and aren’t comfortable seeing her play an ironclad proto- ’50s TV mom. We wish her Edna could vent her frustration by kicking a cat, or screaming

“Why can’t I have the luxury of venting MY existential alienation?

No, having two kids in a 1952 movie apparently guarantees a woman personal stability and fulfillment. One year later George Stevens would present a different kind of matrimonial uncertainty in his overblown, but effective, Shane.

 

Douglas Dick is good as the SOB ad man and Richard Derr (When Worlds Collide) only passable as the cultured reptile Tony Collins. Collide’s Peter Hansen has a much smaller role. Paul Valentine of Out of the Past has a couple of nice moments as Jenny’s co-star Albert, the slave to her Pharaoh-ette. Albert seems a good sort; they should get together if he’s not gay.  *  Glimpsed quickly in the show are the interesting starlets Mari Blanchard (She-Devil) and Kasey Rogers (Strangers on a Train).

Something to Live For’s big crime seems to be trying something honest and different, in the faith that audiences will gravitate to sincerity. Perhaps George Stevens wants to connect with the problems of ordinary people, but is truly in touch only on a sentimental level. Where the show really lets us down is by not rewarding Bill the Elevator Operator, played by the talented Harry Bellaver.    Billy takes care of Jenny as if she were his own daughter. Forever doing favors for people, he’s the real Mensch in the movie. Nobody has an excuse to be a cynic with people like him in the world. Jenny should buy that man a dinner and take him to a show, and Alan should bring him home for Christmas.

One of the final lines of dialogue, offered by Teresa Wright’s wife, almost sounds dispiriting:

“Well, you can’t have everything in this life.”

We all deserve to indulge our fair share of disenchantment, but a harmonious family is nothing to sniff at. Alan Miller in no way comes off as a Victim of Fate.  He’s certainly in a better position than the pitiful hubby of André de Toth’s Pitfall.  That man’s vindictive wife will surely make him pay dearly for straying off the reservation.

 


 

Viavision [Imprint]’s All Region Blu-ray of Something to Live For is a handsome encoding of George Stevens’ vintage Paramount picture, sandwiched between A Place in the Sun and Shane. This presentation is from a new 2K scan. I think I saw one dot mark on the film’s first Lo-o-ong lap dissolve transition. The show looks brand new in every respect.

[Imprint’s] commentary sees Daniel Kremer & David Del Valle leading a spirited discussion. Del Valle defines the show as part of a Ray Milland ‘addiction trilogy’ with The Lost Weekend and Night Into Morning, about a college professor who loses his family in a fire and turns to the bottle. The gag continuation of that string might be Milland’s long-suffering character in The Thief. He’s so addicted to stealing atom secrets that he’s lost the power of speech.

Favorite critic Neil Sinyard devotes 20 minutes to Live For despite not finding a great deal in it to praise. Basic information on it seems scarce, although we do learn that it was completed as much as a year before Paramount put it into release. The key advertising positions it as a hot love triangle movie — one man, two women — which it certainly is not.

George Stevens was meticulous about technical elements in his films, as when he challenged optical printer operators to produce 100% clean composites for his extra-long dissolves. Stevens’ experimentation extended to his soundtrack as well. In search of more natural sound for dialogue, he leaves some volume levels low when people aren’t close to the camera. At more than one point in the story, Alan and Jenny talk in medium-long shot. Their voices are unusually quiet, as if we were eavesdropping from thirty feet away. Does the idea work? I don’t know … we miss some dialogue, and can’t tell if it’s intentional.

Oh, by the way. The film’s nighttime shots of Times Square were taken in 1950 — John Ford’s Wagon Master is playing across the street from Destination Moon. The marquee for the space film stretches upward across four or five stories of a corner theater!

Until Olive Films’ 2012 DVD Something to Live For was as obscure as a movie by a major director could get. John McElwee of Greenbriar Picture Shows amplified that observation in a note to the old DVD Savant:

Savant Scores! Hey Glenn — Enjoyed very much your coverage of the rarest of rare G. Stevens pics. I could find no evidence of a U.S. network or syndicated TV run, making it an even more elusive Paramount title than My Son John. I wonder if some ownership of Live For reverted to Stevens, causing it to disappear for so many years. Maybe Andrew Sarris didn’t list this one because he couldn’t see it!  I certainly wasn’t able to — and never once did I come across a 16mm print.

That Broadway night glimpse made my heart skip beats. Turns out it was shot during the week of June 21-28, 1950. Based on marquees we see, Bright Leaf was at the Strand, with Tommy Dorsey and Orchestra on stage. Wagon Master was at the Globe, and Destination Moon was wowing ’em at the Mayfair. And that Moon display! Why was I born so late? — John

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Something to Live For
All Region Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
New supplements:
Audio commentary by Daniel Kremer and David Del Valle
featurette with George Stevens biographer Neil Sinyard.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
March 8, 2023
(6895some)

*   Hmm. “They should get together if he’s not gay.”  Is this sentence neo-offensive?  I didn’t feel like fishing somewhere for pre-approval.

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Text © Copyright 2023 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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Ed Miller

“Something” had ONE network broadcast in the ’60s, on the NBC Monday Night at the Movies. After NBC broke up with 20th Century-Fox, it brokered deals with Paramount, Warner Brothers, and M-G-M to showcase a number of their vintage films. When I was a teenager, the NBC Monday venue is where I saw the network premieres of “Sunset Boulevard,” “Elephant Walk,” “Saratoga Trunk,” “The Band Wagon,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” and yes, “Something to Live For”. It was also the showcase for the network debut of Stevens’ “A Place in the Sun,” and William Dieterle’s “September Affair,” starring Ms. Fontaine. While I distinctly recall all of these titles having been rerun at least once, “Something” did indeed yaw into oblivion, and I tried in vain for decades to see it again. I was unsuccessful until, much to my surprise, Olive gave us a very nice Region 1 DVD release of it, just over a decade ago.
Tracing the obscurity of this film, along with other titles that seemed to be lost until the turn of the Millenium (i.e. “The Reckless Moment,” “Sudden Fear,” and “The Macomber Affair”), would make for a fascinating research project.

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