Wondrous History (With Footnotes)

Earlier this year the big-screen adaptation of Wonder Woman took over cineplexes, capturing a worldwide gross of over $816 million. It took decades for her to reach the big screen, while the superhero genre stayed the preserve of male heroes. The movie misfires of Catwoman and Electra early in the 2000s didn’t help. But finally Wonder Woman made it onto the screen in all her Amazon glory. And now, with Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, we have a decidedly-adult companion piece that looks at the creation of this remarkable character, an icon of the Feminist movement.

The story is told in flashback as Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), is interrogated by Josette Frank (Connie Britton), a crusader for decency in children’s literature and the executive director of the Child Study Association of America1. The story jumps back to Marston and his wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), teaching psychology2 at Radcliffe in the 1920s while they try to perfect Marston’s idea, a machine that can detect lies. They take on a teaching assistant, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), though Elizabeth worries that Marston will fall in love with the young and beautiful Olive. He does, but Olive confesses that she’s more interested in Elizabeth. Their living together causes a scandal, which they eventually cover by moving to Rye, NY and telling neighbors that Olive is Marston’s widowed sister-in-law. Marston hadn’t patented the research that led to the lie detector, but eventually his life with Elizabeth and Olive leads him to create Wonder Woman3.

Writer/Director Angela Robinson presents a fictionalized though compelling look inside the unconventional family that led to the creation of the first female superhero4. Marston has a four-point theory of interpersonal relationships, which Robinson uses to frame the story. She handles the growing attraction and conflict between the three principle characters with tenderness that makes it understandable to the audience, leading to the climactic moment when their feelings are consummated. Cinematographer Bryce Fortner infuses the flashback scenes with rich Technicolor tones that glow, but for the Josette Frank scenes the screen is dull light with blues and browns.

The interplay of the three main characters is crucial to making the story work, and Robinson is well-served by her cast. Evans had a major success earlier this year as Gaston in Beauty and the Beast after roles in both the Hobbit and Fast and Furious franchises. Here he shows much more sensitivity, as well as presenting Marston’s fascination with bondage in a way the character doesn’t fully understand. The role of Elizabeth is Rebecca Hall’s best role since her breakout in 2010’s The Town. She embodies the frustration of a powerful intellect metaphorically chained and imprisoned by men’s attitudes. It makes her rejection of societal norms not just understandable but inevitable. On the other side, Bella Heathcote’s Olive struggles against the privilege given her by her physical beauty – a struggle for depth against the expectations of superficiality.

Britton is an iceberg of righteousness sent to sink anyone who sets a course outside the norm. It’s a restrained role, but she also lands some telling blows in her dialogue with Marston. Oliver Platt has a small but delightful role as M.C. Gaines5 who effectively started the superhero comic book when he published Superman, followed by Batman a year later.

“Based on a true story” often means that everything except the names have been changed, and much of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is more “based on” than “true story.” But the feel of the central story of their unconventional relationship6 rings true, a relationship that created Wonder Woman. It may have taken over 70 years for her to fully take her place in the pantheon of superheroes7 but now she has. With the campaign against harassment coming front and center in the nation’s dialogue now, perhaps part of it is women claiming the spirit of an unconventional heroine with an unconventional origin.

*****

  • Josette Frank was a renowned editor of children’s books. The Children’s Book Award, given out since 1943, was renamed in 1997 in her honor. Frank was on the DC Comics advisory board and did, in 1943, speak out against Wonder Woman, but Robinson has used her in the movie as a stand-in for psychologist Frederic Wertham, who in the 1950s wrote Seduction of the Innocent about the effect of comics on the youth of that day. Wertham’s writings led to the imposition of a new code by the Comics Magazine Association of America: “All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism shall not be permitted.”Wertham put Wonder Woman at the top of his list of objectionable comics. Early in the film we see children collecting comics that they eventually burn, but that didn’t happen until Wertham began his campaign against comic books. In 1943, in the middle of WWII, comic books would have been donated to paper drives for the war effort, but never wasted in burnings, especially with the fresh memory of Nazi book burnings before the war.
  • Elizabeth gets shortchanged in the script – she was a lawyer as well as a psychologist, lectured at American and New York Universities, was an editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica and McCall’s, and assistant to the chief executive of Metropolitan Life Insurance.
  • Much of Wonder Woman’s iconography is shown in their lives. The golden rope that forces people to tell the truth is the lie detector machine, and Marston is given a glass airplane as a gift that becomes Wonder Woman’s invisible plane. Through their lives together, Olive Byrne could never wear a wedding ring, so she instead wore golden bracelets on her wrists.
  • While a substantial portion of the movie shows Marston’s developing interest in bondage, which also draws in Elizabeth and Olive, Robinson ignores how bondage was the common visual and physical embodiment of the suffragette and family planning movements. Articles often had illustrations showing women in chains, and a suffragette in England chained herself to the railing at 10 Downing Street during the fight for the vote.
  • Maxwell Charles Gaines figured out the format of comic books in 1933 while working as a salesman for Eastern Color Printing. He later co-founded All American Publications (which eventually became DC Comics) as well as EC Comics. The movie has Marston seeking out Gaines to sell his creation, but in fact Gaines asked Marston to be a consultant after his comics first began to receive pushback from societal watchdogs. He’d read a profile of Marston published in Family Circle magazine that was written by Olive Byrne under a pseudonym. After Gaines’s death in 1947, EC Comics was taken over by his 25-year-old son William. The company was effectively driven out of business by Frederic Wertham’s crusade, but William emerged after that as the publisher of Mad Magazine.
  • The relationship between Marston, Elizabeth, and Olive lasted for their lives. Elizabeth and Olive each had two children with Marston. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when Olive’s children were middle-aged that Elizabeth finally told them that Marston was their father, on the condition they never ask her about it again.
  • The history of Wonder Woman after Marston mirrors the social attitudes of the country. She’s been in print except for a short period in the 1980s, but she got pushed down into a secondary place in the later 1940s and 1950s. When she joined the Justice Society (the precursor of the Justice League), she was the group’s secretary. Her powers kept being taken from her by writers and editors, and her origin (formed of clay and given life by Zeus) was changed to a conventional one. By the 1960s she was more of a secret agent than a superhero. But then Gloria Steinem reclaimed her as a symbol of empowerment by putting her on the cover of the first edition of Ms. Magazine, with the tag line “Wonder Woman for President.” Her powers were restored in the comics, and the TV series with Linda Carter cemented her superhero status again. With Gal Gadot’s performance, it should never be in question again.

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The Newest Tale As Old As Time

When Howard Ashman began the titular song of 1991’s Beauty and the Beast with the line “Tale as old as time…,” it wasn’t an exaggeration. Elements of the story can be found in tales 4000 years old, though the most direct link would be the story of Psyche and Cupid from the 2nd Century AD book “Metamophoses” by Platonicus. The modern form dates from France in the mid-1700s, with “La Belle et la Bête” by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, though other authors have added their own touches to the story since then. It’s been filmed many times, including Jean Cocteau’s 1946 La Belle et la Bête, and has spawned a couple TV series. The best version, though, has to be Disney’s 1991 animated feature – the first animated movie to receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination. I wrote a full post on it after its re-release in 3D six years ago, and it remains one of my favorite movies of all time. Now I must add an asterisk to that statement. If anything, the new live action version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is better.

This is the third live action version of a classic Disney animated movie to come to the theaters. Tim Burton started it with his Alice in Wonderland, then Kenneth Branagh did a sparkling non-musical version of Cinderella in 2015. The studio is planning a full slate of adaptations, with the next one to be Mulan next year. (Currently the plan is for it also to be a non-musical.) While I was looking forward to Beauty and the Beast, I admit I had a bit of trepidation as well. The 1991 version brought me to tears in the theater, and I still can’t watch it without choking up at the climax. But the new version isn’t just a hit; it slammed in the center of the bull’s-eye.

Part of it is the casting. I’m now convinced that Emma Watson really is a wizard who’s cast a spell beguiling us. Her singing is just as wonderful as her acting, and her intelligence shines brightly in the character. Luke Evans (Fast and Furious 6, The Hobbit trilogy) manages to make meta-villain Gaston realistic and definitely threatening, while Josh Gad’s version of LeFou is delightful and definitely deeper than the 1991 version. Dan Stevens probably is most known as Matthew Crawley on “Downton Abbey,” though now it will be for his performance as The Beast. Even with the massive makeup, you still see through to the Beast’s soul. The film has an overabundance of riches in its supporting characters. The castle is populated with Ian McKellan, Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. A special delight for me was Kevin Kline as Belle’s father, Maurice.

Another benefit comes from the highly-successful Broadway version that expands the story from the 1991 film’s original 84 minutes. (The new version runs 129 minutes; there are a couple of places where the flow of the story slows a bit, but they’re minor hiccups.) Music from the Broadway version has been incorporated, with lyrics by Tim Rice to music by original composer Alan Menken, and the story has been fleshed out in other ways as well.

The adaptation was done by Stephen Chbosky, who wrote “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” which he both adapted for the movie version and directed. Chbosky had also done the adaptation of Rent, so he’s worked in the musical genre before.  He collaborated with Evan Spiliotopoulos who’d done multiple direct-to-video scripts for Disney and was well-acquainted with the studio’s style. Some of the story departs from the 1991 film and instead incorporates pieces from the 18th Century versions, in particular Maurice’s experience in the Beast’s castle, and expands Belle’s background. They also add some wicked quips, including one referencing the permanent winter surrounding the castle which passes without comment in the animated version.

Director Bill Condon, too, has worked with movie adaptations of musicals before, writing the script for Chicago as well as writing and directing Dreamgirls in 2006. He’d also won an Oscar for his 1998 script of Gods and Monsters, which he directed. Condon isn’t constrained by the visuals of the original. He pays tribute to them occasionally, such as during the “Bonjour” sequence as well as Belle’s “I want adventure” reprise, but overall he smartly reimagines the scenes and sets so they work in the live-action realm.

There was a kerfuffle amongst some conservatives when it was announced a character would be openly gay – no points for guessing which one. It truly is a tempest in Mrs. Potts. Nothing in the film is more objectionable than in the classic Warner Brothers cartoons from seventy-five years ago. They were a bit edgier than Disney, but they were funny then and are still funny today. Also, it’s rather ridiculous to be upset about a gay character in a film about a girl and a horned beast falling deeply in love. Beauty and the Beast is all about seeing the heart and not the externals.

What’s more poignant is why the character’s orientation was included. The lyricist of the 1991 movie, Howard Ashman, was openly gay. He could turn a phrase as well as any of the giants of musical theater, such as Oscar Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, or Alan Jay Lerner. With his composer partner, Alan Menken, they’d created the musical version of “Little Shop of Horrors.” Following that, Disney had them compose the songs for The Little Mermaid, the movie that established the new age of Disney animated brilliance. Beauty and the Beast was their masterpiece, but strangely enough it almost didn’t happen. The film was originally written as a non-musical. Ashman and Menken were working on what was supposed to be their follow-up – Aladdin – when Disney execs asked them to save Beauty and the Beast as the production was going nowhere. But during that time Ashman was diagnosed as HIV-positive. It progressed to full-blown AIDS, and Ashman died eight months before Beauty and the Beast was released. That film bears the dedication “To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful.” The inclusion of a gay character in the live-action remake was a tribute to Ashman.

As most know, Beauty and the Beast demolished the box office records for a March release, racking up over $170 million domestically and passing $300 million worldwide in its first weekend. But for me, its success was me sitting in my seat in the theater with tears streaming down my cheeks at the film’s climax. I knew it was coming, but still I was overwhelmed. I sat in the theater to the end of the credits to give myself time to recover.

When a movie can touch people in the audience with that power, it is truly something beautiful.