What do genres matter anyway? Today we call It Happened One Night the prototypical screwball comedy—a classification unknown and unknowable to its original audience. Indeed, Hollywood lore has it that Columbia regarded it as a poor prospect because an unnamed recent bus picture had flopped. If genre has anything to do with the rote categories that distributors and exhibitors used to keep the machinery of industry grinding on, then perhaps we can learn more about that film by thinking of it as a bus picture.
But this is about Daisy Kenyon, not the bus picture. To go by 20th Century-Fox’s pressbook—which served as readymade copy for harried newspapers and thus doubled as the proverbial first draft of history—Daisy Kenyon was a ‘romantic drama,’ but it’s a limpid love story, with self-aware summation often triumphing over romantic abandon. Broadly speaking, it’s a woman’s picture and, sure enough, has a woman at its center, but it defies nearly every expectation of that genre—it views love wearily and refuses moral schemas, never succumbing to the wrenching emotional and psychic investment that’s part and parcel of the best melodrama.
There are hints, too, of a grand social drama but these go unfulfilled. Henry Fonda is an ‘unstable’ war vet, but his Peter Lapham is hardly material for The Best Years of Our Lives or Crossfire. He drunkenly offers his medals to Crawford’s Daisy Kenyon the first night they meet and absentmindedly figures he forget them at the cleaners the next day. Whatever shared sacrifice he once felt, Fonda deliberately shrinks from sociological significance now; combat woes are the least of his problems. Similarly, Dana Andrews’s smarmy-but-sincere lawyer takes on a ‘lucrative race prejudice’ case to impress mistress Daisy, the liberal sentiment understood as an under-felt formality. Andrews’s partner and father-in-law mocks the whole thing as a ‘grandstand’ gambit. The case is resolved as quickly as it had been broached, and off-screen at that. There are court room scenes, but they form the basis for tabloid material around Andrews’s divorce rather than a chance to wax about the shared dignity of all mankind. There’s also the suggestion of child abuse on the part of Andrews’s wife, Ruth Warrick, but this road leads to nothing like a full- or even half-throated condemnation. In a perverse way, Daisy Kenyon acknowledges all these things but refuses to dwell on them, making it something of an odd duck in post-war Hollywood.
These days, the latter-day Fox is trying, hilariously, to push Daisy Kenyon as a noir. (It’s No. 23 in their DVD line of Fox Film Noir, sitting uncomfortably between Black Widow and Dangerous Crossing.) Aside from one of David Raksin’s nightmare music cues, there’s nothing remotely noir about Daisy Kenyon. The suspense is sparse and psychological in character. One cannot protest too hard—it makes the film available, after all, and noir was always more of a modern marketing term than something that described the intent of the people who made the films. Still, it speaks to the fluidity of Daisy Kenyon, its unclassifiable edge, that this noir charade is being floated at all. It’s no more or less accurate than any other label you might think to attach.
The film itself is suspicious of genre. “There’s no melodrama in my life!” Daisy declares to sad-sack veteran Peter in one remarkable scene. The characters are conscientious and dispassionate to the point of denying not only their own desires, but those of the audience, too. For Crawford, it’s a particular achievement, coming as it does in the middle of her tedious Warner Brothers period. Her previous venture, Humoresque, treats every slight and turn of fate as a world-historic moment, seen through with an admittedly personal and disturbing bombast, her concluding selfless suicide almost literally beyond the reach of mere cinema. As Glenn Erickson has wisely observed of this phase of her career, “Crawford’s roles were almost always crazy-mirror reflections of her angry personality: Always under attack, always misunderstood, always being betrayed.” And so Daisy Kenyon is the great aberration, the least hysterical moment of Crawford’s career and, along with Autumn Leaves, the fairest grounds for considering her suppressed but surprisingly considerable skill as an actress.
But for Otto Preminger’s claim that he never remembered directing it, Daisy Kenyon would serve as an almost-perfect example of the ‘objective’ style that the director’s boosters are constantly (and vaguely) ascribing to his pictures. The characters are all disarmingly blank and Preminger joins them, never tipping his hand towards his sympathies, if he even has any. Their situations are analyzed and examined more than directly felt. When Fonda declares late in the picture that his marriage to Crawford was wholly opportunistic and contrived, it’s a moment that summons shock only for the baldness of its statement. Extramarital assaults are unremarkable and stalking a normal phase of courtship. The film is filled with pretenses and airs, but for whom?
Daisy Kenyon was strong stuff in 1947 and a notably astringent note that only its even darker contemporary Monsieur Verdoux dared share. Despite Preminger’s best efforts, Daisy Kenyon is a film of its moment. Indeed, the opening scene features a cabbie complaining of New York’s post-war taxi shortage. (Coincidence? Preminger bragged about his replica of the Stork Club but all was not right at Twentieth. During the film’s post-production, Darryl F. Zanuck complained to Hedda Hopper about Britain’s renewed film duties and tried to strike an optimistic note about an industry in decline. ‘You can bank on this,” Zanuck offered. “We won’t jeopardize our entertainment standards by resorting to inferior, cheaply made pictures.… Just now we’re going through all of our story properties to see which of them can be used instead of buying new ones. The same thing is happening to our sets and props. In the future we’ll use good ideas where we once used money lavishly.” The future was already here: Daisy Kenyon and Gentleman’s Agreement, both clearly ‘A’ pictures, shared many of the same sets.)
As a holiday season attraction (opening in Los Angeles at Thanksgiving and New York at Christmas), Daisy Kenyon struck a mysterious chord. Though based on a best-selling book, Daisy Kenyon generated little residual affection. The book’s pedigree probably allowed Preminger and screenwriter David Hertz some leeway to fudge the genre expectations a bit (the pre-sold property being something of a genre unto itself), but reviewers were quick to acknowledge the dangers of this approach. The Los Angeles Times observed:
Because the writing is oblique and nonsequitur [sic] and because the principals are prone to a great deal of soul searching, there is the constant danger that the listener, struggling unconsciously to “find his way out of the mood,” will crack before the players do. This, I think, accounts for the occasional restive titters which accompanied the screening I attended. I cannot attribute them to disrespect or disbelief; the interpretations are too honest for that. But they are also, like human behavior, erratic.
The review appearing in Ohio’s Youngstown Vindicator was less circumspect about the matter:
Everyone is far too civilized to let a little thing like marriage interfere with his love life.
In fact, everyone is far too civilized, period. “Daisy Kenyon” could use some good old-fashioned emotions. It could use more action and less polite conversation. People who never say anything or do anything without clearing it with Emily Post are likely to be a little dull….
The story is presented on a level of over-politeness which drains it of interest and prevents anyone from doing much acting. Miss Crawford behaves like a photogenic mannikin. Andrews is about as expressive as a codfish. Fonda does any scene stealing there is to be done in the picture without much effort.
What both reviewers are reacting to is the absence of conventional genre guidance and the emotional reactions that they dictated. “Go ahead, have your melodrama,” Crawford dares Fonda at one point, so snidely contemptuous of his programmatic expectations. That disavowal is the basis for Daisy Kenyon’s uniqueness and its enduring appeal.