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March 13, 2012

Hard, Fast and Beautiful

hard fast beautiful poster.jpg

Ida Lupino - 1951
Warner Archives DVD

I would think that what attracted Ida Lupino to making this film is the obvious parallel between the sports world and show business. The intertwining of the two may have always been mixed though there was still a greater discretionary distinction sixty years ago. And there is the basic story of the mother trying to live out her dreams through her daughter, not so much autobiographical in Lupino's own life, but one that she certainly observed from the time she was a teenage starlet in Hollywood.

Florence Farley is a talented amateur from Santa Monica. The boy next door just happens to work at a country club, where Florence shows her stuff on a couple of tennis dates. From there, here ability impresses all so that she receives sponsorship in top amateur competitions, eventually making it to the top, championship at Forest Hills. Her mother, Millie, never happy with her lot in life, although comfortably living a modest middle class existence, sees Florence as a way to have the best that life has to offer. Millie hooks up with Fletcher Locke, a former tennis champion turned coach-promoter. Endorsements come to Florence, along with free designer clothing, and a trip to Europe. Things sour when Florence gets a clearer picture of how her mother and Locke are using her. Instead, Florence takes things on her own terms with the others reluctantly going along. There is a physical transformation as the girl temporarily becomes a hardened woman. The symbolism of the end is obvious, but fitting, as Millie is left with nothing but an empty championship cup.

hard fast beautiful.jpg

Bosley Crowthers of the New York Times, commenting on the film, described the script by Martha Wilkerson as, "a trite and foolish thing. It simply recounts the quick parabola that a girl tennis player describes in becoming a tennis champion and then chucking it all for love. And it is played with such lack of authority by everyone in the cast that it doesn't even carry the satisfaction that a well-acted romance might have."

Ida Lupino would go on record as saying she wasn't a feminist. And perhaps, as it may be understood, Hard, Fast and Beautiful may not be a feminist or proto-feminist, but there are a few bits of business that are worth noting.

When Sally Forrest, as Florence, is playing tennis, she is always wearing a small cap. It's the kind of headwear more traditionally associated with men. Also, Florence is introduced hitting the tennis ball against a garage door with numbers painted on it, announcing the number before the ball hits the numbered square. Even though Florence likes to wear more formal dresses on occasion, the opening scenes indicate someone who likes to be in control of a situation, and may be a bit of a "tomboy". That Florence takes on the boy next door in tennis suggests some regard for gender equality.

The tennis matches are composed often of documentary footage intercut with Lupino's footage of Forrest and the match audiences. One a purely technical level, one can gripe about the footage not matching. What struck me here was how Forrest is framed. While the compositions may have been done to disguise that it was studio work, Forrest is usually filmed from a low angle looking up at her, so we see just her upper torso, and her arm swinging the tennis racket. The angle is the kind one uses to film heroic characters. In this case, Florence Farley is presented as someone of strength and power, at least on the tennis court.

One of the other visually striking moments is when we see Millie Farley and her milquetoast husband in their bedroom. As would be normal in a Hollywood film of the time, there are two separate beds. What is unusual here is that the two beds, instead of being parallel with several feet between them, have the two headrests against each other, with Millie and her husband facing opposite directions in their respective beds. This unusual bedroom setup provides enough clues about the state of a marriage as well as the differing viewpoints of Florence's parents.

A nice visual touch is when Florence has won the match that has in turn got her set up for a tour of Europe and newly established celebrity. The camera pulls back so that we see Florence in the distance behind some grillwork in a fancy restaurant. The shot suggests that of someone behind bars, in this case Florence, about to be a prisoner of her own fame.

Some of the concerns in Hard, Fast and Beautiful show, between sleazy promoters, merchandising, and the interest people have based on rankings or celebrity, a world that has become arguably more corrupt, exploitive and public in the past sixty years.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 13, 2012 08:43 AM