Daisy Kenyon (1947)
An Otto Preminger Film
Joan Crawford, Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews
A Twentieth Century Fox film, Daisy Kenyon, first released more than seventy years ago, has subject-matter, buried within the overt material, that is still particularly important now, a fifth of the way through the 21-century:
Where do the lives of children figure in the battle between estranged husbands and wives? And domestic violence against children?
It does it through the character of a man who has such a highly personal level of self-belief and regard for his own importance – afforded him by wealth and the power that accompanies it – that he can walk through life with a disregard for everyone around him. A man who can be so self-interested that his idea of what is important in life allows him to leave his family for another woman, and leave his two daughters in an unsafe home environment. This might appear to be a stretch given the fact the film centres around a woman who is looking for unconditional love and the right to be selfish and demand things for herself; while, similarly, Peter, a soldier, is looking for ways to heal his own psychological and emotional wounds, not just from the Second World War but, from losing his wife in tragic circumstances. These two victims of life, battle with another adversary, the same one, who is more sinister than anyone could have imagined on first appearances.
This man is Dan O’Mara (Dana Andrews), a successful lawyer, who saunters through the film with the air of an arrogant predator who believes his indominatable, bulletproof, the king of their kingdom. The people, his subjects, comprise a mistress, a wife, two daughters and a father-in-law with whom he runs a law practice. Everyone does his bidding and he has no time for people who disagree with him or have an opinion which differs from his own. Everyone around him is there to serve him and do as he asks.
His mistress, Daisy Kenyon, right from the start, is tired of his dictatorial attitude to her. He walks into her apartment, tells her that he can’t stay now and that something important has come up which means they can’t have dinner the following night with their friends, the Lattimers, who introduced them. She’s annoyed (“We just won’t plan anything at all”) that he prioritises all other things above her (“We can go to the Lattimers next week and we can see each other anytime”). He then criticizes her for staying in her own apartment, by telling her that the stairs leading up to the first landing are driving him nuts. (He asks, “Why don’t you live somewhere civilized? That apartment on 63rd street. I can’t hold it forever…”)
At this point, still in the opening scene, we see the independence in Daisy Kenyon as she riles against the thought of being a mistress. Particularly, she won’t be a kept-woman, living in an apartment that he rents for her. She’s fiercely independent. She turns on O’Mara, standing up for herself, stating, “This is my apartment, it’s been my apartment since I started to work in New York. I like it and I’m keeping it!”
He belittles her, “I have a theory you stay in this hovel just to punish me.”
She’s had enough, “I think we won’t see each other anymore, Dan. I think I’m through.”
Weary of these ongoing arguments about her independence and the fact that she wants more from him, he asks Daisy, cocksure of himself, “Do we have to go through this all again?”
“No, we don’t have to go through anything again. I have to fight to stay happy, fight for everything. My life’s all mixed up with you every way I turn and what fun is it?”
Daisy tells O’Mara that “it just isn’t enough” for her. She explains it to him through words that are unmistakable:
“You’ve got her and you’ve got the kids, you’ve got your work, and being a big-shot in Washington. I’ve just got my work! You’ve messed that up too. When I’m mad I can’t work and I’m mad all the time. You’re never going to marry me because you’re never going to be divorced for all you say… I’m knew it would be like this… It’s just that I’m tired, that’s all. Tired and through.”
Daisy has the simmering anger which comes from a pot ignored for too long, boiling over once again. He talks her round. It’s the umpteenth time they’ve had this quarrel. He’s the smooth-talking, slow-to-anger, lawyer, who can argue his side so that it makes the opposing argument redundant. He can talk someone out of their opinion or a belief.”
In the first scene, only seven minutes or so, the writer and director have given the audience everything they need to know about who Daisy is, how she feels about herself, her position and her work, and how unreasonable, persuasive and controlling O’Mara is. At this point the film is still just another melodrama where the characters and the situation is set out in the first few scenes, but it is done with such economy and with such restraint from the actors that it could turn out to be more than the average film about the familiar lovers’ triangle (which we know will happen because Henry Fonda was given equal billing in the credits and he hasn’t appeared yet). There’s obviously more to the film than what it appears to be on the surface.
So far, there are two familiar themes, the once reluctant, now dissatisfied, mistress and the self-important adulterer. What develops from the end of this scene, when Peter arrives to take Daisy out for dinner, to the final scene, is unusual.
The film draws in important secondary characters like O’Mara’s wife and children. It shows three different kinds of people. The person who is the (the innocent or unwitting) victim (Crawford), the person who is in recovery after a series of tragedies (Fonda, another victim) and the person who skates through life convinced of his superiority expecting everyone to fall over themselves and worship him (Dana Andrews).
The scope of the film is extraordinary because it attempts to deal with three damaged people with multiple aspects of these characters based on what has happened to them (Peter), what they have done (Daisy and Dan), and what one of them (Dan O’Mara) has done to everyone around him. O’Mara leaves in his wake the fractured lives and personalities of those who have had to bear his passive-aggressive hostility. The secondary victims are his wife (Lucille) and two daughters who get to experience the nice Dan O’Mara as long as they don’t point out anything too confronting for him to withstand.
In a family scene, a slap is heard coming from another room. Lucille has slapped Marie because of the way she spoke to her. She’s furious. It is the first sign that Lucille, another victim, is passing on her own passive-aggressive behaviour, directly from her husband, to her daughter. She’s self-righteous in her indignation about the way Marie spoke to her. Later in the film Marie’s been injured, her ear is bleeding, because her mother’s frustrations have boiled over once again, fueled by the distress of her separation from her children’s father, and the divorce proceedings.
The following exchange between Dan and Lucille reveal almost everything the viewer needs to know about Dan and to comprehend the strain it has been for Lucille to raise two daughters, single-handed.
“Don’t ever hit that child again, Lucille. How can you have so little control as to let allow an eleven-year old child…”
“Control! It’s easy for you. You see them five minutes a day, just enough to spoil them. But if you could understand just how thankless it is to…”
“Now, Lucille, half an hour of hero-worship is not going to hurt Marie.”
“And how do you know how it is? What hurts anybody? I realise what I am to you, alright? Only, don’t interfere when I’m trying to make better human beings of my daughters.”
“No! For once I’m gong to say it. I know exactly what I am to you and sometimes I wish I didn’t know.”
“What! You just lost your temper with Marie, now you’re losing it with me. I don’t get mad easily and I don’t want to now. Maybe I haven’t been the best husband but if you want me to stay any kind of husband at all you’ll never say anything again like what you tried to say just now.”
O’Mara pauses for only a second before firing his second shot which exerts his complete control over her: “You say you know exactly what you are to me. Well, if you do, you know the good things as well as the bad. You’ll never have any less, unless you ask for it. And you know it isn’t thankless. We have two fine girls.”
Dan puts a gentle hand to her cheek and acknowledges, “You’re to be thanked for that. Now go powder your nose.”
Amongst everything else there is a strong feminist theme running through the film as well as a theme where people find it difficult to get on with life after they have been hit with unexpected tragedies. Then there’s the distrust that exists between people who have been hurt and don’t know how much to reveal of themselves to someone new. The most poignant of these is when Peter is woken by a nightmare. He’s distressed about how this must appear to Daisy, like he’s some kind of man who’s suddenly revealed himself to be Dracula. He worries over the fact that he has said he loves her and that Daisy has never said those words to him. When she eventually does, they share a glass of port in celebration.
There’s a back and forth between them about the power and control in their relationship. But it is within a loving relationship. It’s not like the controlling behaviour of O’Mara over everyone.
There’s a hundred other observations I could make about this film but there is no time to write a chapter in a book about this film.
It is quite extraordinary in everything that it sets its sights on and delivers with a minimum of stagey melodramatics. The underplayed performances, even when the characters are filled with fear, anger and anxiety, make this an unusally restrained and effective film.
To think that I can learn something in 2018 from a drama from 1947 because of the care that the writer and actors have taken with their characters!
Other important scenes which the dialogue illustrates beautifully:
At the end, Peter offer O’Mara the cab back to the station and he says, “Hey, what are you doing?”
Mischievously, Peter mockingly replies, “Same as you, honeybunch, going home. That is my house in there, you know. And my wife.”
He walks into their shack and Daisy notices the noise of the door opening.
“Yeah, that O’Mara put up a great fight.”
“What do you know about fighting.”
“When it comes to modern combat tactics, you’re both babies, compared with me?”
They clink glasses and drink a toast to themselves.
And yet she knew enough about what she wanted to have two glasses of port or brandy already poured. Peter gives his little speech while she sits there with glasses filled, ready to celebrate that she is able to say or think the words, “I love you, Peter.”
Prior to the final confrontation, Daisy was unable to think clearly anymore. She felt like she was on the run, which she was, and she had Dan telling her over and over again to stop running, and face the situation and making a decision. Knowing another confrontation is looming, she decides to get out of the house she and Peter share, before Dan and Peter can get there. She runs away, driving her car in a state so tightly wound that she can’t steer properly and negotiate the icy road.
Her car skids out of control and turns over and over before coming to a stop, resting in the snow. Miraculously, she gets out unscathed. She walks back to the house in dress shoes and arrives at their shack with her mind made up. She’s decided to stop running and to make Peter prove something to her. Her tactics are to send them both away, indicating she wants neither of them, and see who comes back, either one, or none. It’s only the fact of the port glasses already filled which indicates completely to the audience, that she wants Peter. She had her own combat tactics, despite the fact that Peter’s last statement, shows he thinks he’s outmanoeuvred both Daisy and Dan.
Actually, both Peter and Daisy have both been quite smart about requiring a significant show of vulnerability. Both of them allow the other person the opportunity to prove their love. Peter has initially give them both room to work out all of the things that come with an unresolved relationship. She then gives it back, allowing him the chance to display, through a deliberate act of faith in her, his commitment to her. His love for her.
When the film reached the third act, there is still unfinished business, which is broached when the relationship between Daisy and Dan is exposed in a very public manner. With everything thrown into turmoil because of Dan’s aggressive sexual advance on Daisy, Peter realises that the issue of Dan and Daisy’s unfinished business has been raised again. When Lucille listens in on Dan’s conversation with Daisy, with Dan apologising for physically abusing her, everything – between both couples – becomes unresolved again.
It’s an intelligent screenplay in many ways because it understands the unresolved nature of interrupted relationships. Peter’s relationship (with his wife) was interrupted by death. Dan and Daisy’s relationship was interrupted by Peter. Peter and Daisy’s relationship was interrupted by Dan’s wife, Lucille, upon discovering that Dan loved Daisy more than anything else in life.
Dan, the lawyer who can always seen the silver lining in any situation, realises this is his chance to be rid of his family, and convince Daisy to come back to him. He goes through the public divorce proceedings and then suddenly decides to give in to Lucille’s demands: completely custody of the two daughters. His new angle is that at least he can make a triumph out of his divorce if he can get Daisy to remember the things that were good between them. It’s always an angle, and this one casts his daughters, who want to live with him, aside. His decision forces them to live with a mother who is not coping with normal family responsibilities when life is smooth, who is physically abusive to them when her patience runs dry.
Dan, the opportunist, tries to cement the new relationship which he has with Daisy, because the divorce case, with her named as co-respondent, has brought them together again. He wants to move towards the new future he sees for himself, as a divorced man, with a new law practice, and an old love renewed.
He manipulates Peter into believing that Daisy may want a divorce so she can run away with him. He has Peter tag along while he tries to manipulate Daisy into signing the divorce papers. He rings her at the home she used to share with Peter:
“Baby, we’re hear at Mill’s Landing. We’re on our way to face this out. It’s no use running away.”
Exasperated, she says, “Don’t you ever believe what I say? I’ve got to be alone.”
Then in a moment worthy of some of the great German silent films, and Hitchcock’s particular use of attributing significance to relatively benign objects (like a key or a lock that fills the screen in Notorious), Preminger makes the incessant ringing of the telephone, the sound which pushes Daisy over the edge. The extreme close-up (in wich you can clearly make out the maker of the telephone, KELLOGG, even the model number 9171-0), combined with the close-up of Joan Crawford’s harried expression, the sound of the ringing and David Raksin’s churning music, push Daisy’s ability to think clearly into a state of mental trauma. She runs out of the house, struggles to open the doors of the garage because the snow is banked up, reverses the car out of the driveway, breaking up the frozen snow on the ground with its tyres. Panicked, not know where she is going, or whether she is running away from something or running to a particular place, the treatment of the sound, the music and Crawford’s acting indicate that her ability to think is so compromised that she’s putting her own life in danger. The vehicle skids off the icy road and turns over and over. She’s uninjured and walks back to the cabin through the snow in shoes made for dancing, not for crosscountry walking. The next three minutes of the film are told without any dialoguue, until she enters the cabin.
“Where have you been? It’s not very smart driving around these roads on a night like this.”
She replies, her voice resigned to her statement: “I’m not very smart.”
She sits in a chair and removes her shoes and puts her frozen feet in front of the woodfire. Dan and Peter have been playing cards while waiting for her to to come back from wherever she’s gone.
Dan without looking at his cards asks Peter, “Call it off?”
Peter looks at his cards, nods and puts them down saying, “Better. Though, I would have blitzed you.”
It underlines the fact that it is a competition between the two men. It’s a basic instinct of two rivals reduced to their primal strength and intellectual superiority. It’s not just about Daisy making up her mind about which man she wants to keep, it’s about the men resolving within their own minds what they want, what they believe is the most important thing in their lives and how they see the future.
Peter mentions that he hadn’t heard the car pull up, and Daisy admits, “Well, I had kind of a crack-up.” They both rush to her side to show their love and concern for her, competing again. She’s in no mood for being the object over which the males, baring their chests, fight. Clearly and without much emotion she tells them other than exasperation, “Please believe me, I’m alright. Matter of fact I feel a lot better than I have in weeks. Maybe that’s a good way to get clear on things. Shock treatment.”
“The cab is due any minute to take one of us back to the station.”
“It seems to me you’ve made a lot of plans all on your own, you two. Well, there isn’t going to be any meeting. I know what I want, you’re both going back to New York.”
“And leave you hear alone with nothing settled? Baby you’ve got to stop running away.”
“I have stopped running away.”
“Dan’s asked me to give you a divorce.”
“I didn’t tell him to do that.”
“No. It’s his own idea but he apparently had reason to believe you’d go for it.”
“Then why did you come here, Peter?”
“To have you ask me for it yourself.”
Cab honks horn.
“That’s our cab. I’ll be outside.”
Dan tells her that they need a fresh start. He says they should go to Nassau or somewhere where they can relax. “You’ve been through a lot, baby, but we’ve never given ourselves a fair chance. It took me a long time to realise it but I know now what I want. I’d give up everything for you, baby.” Dan gives a laugh full of irony, “As a matter of fact, I practically have.”
“That was the only way to end the thing.”
“But you shouldn’t have. I told you I could have gone on.”
He explains that he couldn’t stand to see who badgered on the witness stand, being torn into pieces. Besides which, it showed him what it was in life that he really wanted.
“Can it ever be too later for Rosamund and Marie?”
“Don’t you understand, it’s all over, that marriage.”
“It can’t be over as long as the children are part of it.Marriage doesn’t break up that easily.”
“It’s too late.”
Daisy lets those words hang in the air before she tells him, “It’s too late for us, Dan.”
Daisy reminds him that he said it took him a long time to realise where he stood and how he felt and she says it was the same for her, “But out there now when the car went off the road it seems something things got much clearer. It’s a funny thing about love, it’s sometimes easier to tell when you are than when you aren’t. I stopped being in love with you a long time ago, Dan. But, the memory kind of lingered on and kept me mixed up.”
“Well, whatever you call it, love or anything else, it wont be over until we’re dead.”
“We’ve got to kill it, for good. I’m sorry if I let the memory mix me up.”
Having heard what he doesn’t want to hear, having burned his bridges with Lucille and his family, he acknowledges that it mixed him up, too.
“I was pretty sure. The things you put up with for my sake.”
‘It never would have worked. Really, darling. Because what you wanted wasn’t really more than wanting to run away from responsibility. The way you’re doing now.”
As Dana Andrews processes this information he swallows, like someone does before they’re about to speak but before he can say anything Joan Crawford gently tells him he’s going to lose, again, “Goodbye, Dan.” He puts on his coat and hat and says, “Goodbye, Daisy” and walks out.
How the story will resolve itself for everyone is succinctly characterised when Dan asks Peter why they’re not going back to the station – and New York – together, and Peter uses the kind of phrase that Dan has said to everyone, be they a secretary, a partner in his law firm, or a waiter in a restaurant, to answer him: “Honeybunch.”
Dan is the smooth villain who, other than forcing himself on Daisy, when she wants their relationship to be clearly finished, is calm and controlled. His relaxed voice in tense situations, his pride in how much it takes to make him angry, comes from an attitude of superiority to everyone, including his peers and, in the case of his divorce, a judge. The familiarity with which he refers to people who are his peers and juniors is the annoying habit that will turn the audience, the viewer, against him. Condescension is one of the gravest sins in movies because audiences hate it when films do it to them as much as they hate it when other people do it to them.
That superior attitude that has accompanied Dan everywhere he has physically walked and travelled emotionally, resonates through this use of pet names for everyone. It’s a relief when it is thrown back in his face. Dan has gone through life believing that he is smarter than everyone else. He’s rich, handsome, has a successful law practice, lives with a wife and two daughters, and has a beautiful mistress on the side. Throughout the film he’s shown to be completely in control of everything in his life. A light is shone on his complacency by the fact that he speaks down to everyone and never uses their given names. When he was beaten in court, was physically rejected by Daisy, he walked into his own home and one of the great moments is when we get to see a man who has been beaten, and is rocked by the fact that he is only human. Everyone is shocked that he has a case in a trial which he should have been able to win. His family is worried about how he will take the bitter pill of defeat.
“Daddy, they beat you.”
“Beat me? Yes, honey they did.”
Father-in-law: “You lost the case, is that all it is?”
Lucille: “It isn’t all. He looks ill. Dan, let me get you a doctor.”
Dan: “I’m not ill, Lucy, I’m just tired.”
Lucille: “But are you sure, dear?”
Dan: “I’m positive. Now, if you excuse me, I’ll see you in the morning, honey.”
His wife, in, possibly, the most important moment of the film can only hear one, singular, thing in the words that he has said. For once, he used the familiar shortening of the more formal name, Lucille, instead of honeybunch.
She’s excited beyond words because although he’s been taken down a peg or two, he called her Lucy.
“It’s the first time in ten years he’s called me Lucy.”