Sunday, July 14, 2013

Beyond the Forest

This movie is so embarrassing that it's not available anymore. Sure, you could briefly get VHS copies, but someone overruled the DVD release. And, as for Turner Classic Movies -- well, i would not be surprised if Bette Davis' dying request -- erm, command -- for her dear friend Robert Osborne was that they never play this film. But that only meant i had to track down Beyond the Forest. It embarrasses Bette Davis. Not even Seed or Wicked Stepmother or the tell-all by her nutjob born-again-Christian daughter managed to do that!

Beyond the Forest kicks off with a very extended opening: Narrative text  ("This is the story of evil....") and voiceover. We are told about the setting of our story: "The sawmill is the pulse and heartbeat of the town of Loyalton. The people wake to the scream of its whistle, go to work by it, eat lunch by it, start home by it. And, at night, if their bedrooms face the mill, they have to sleep with the shades down to close out the hot glow of the sawdust that comes from the incinerator lighting the sky, burning its way through closed eyelids, even through sleep itself." The narrator says this in a tone that indicates this is some kind of desirable small-town trait, like clearcut forests and fires that never stop burning are as fun n' folksy a part of rural life as apple picking and horseback riding.

... and our main character: "Rosa is in the courthouse facing a coroner's inquest! A man has been killed by Rosa Moline! Now they're hoping to hear aloud what has only been whispered about before." I think we're supposed to be shocked that Bette Davis is accused of -- gasp -- murder! Shit, motherfucker, this is a Bette Davis movie. Of course she's killed someone! At least one! It's only really of particular note if the numbers are in the double digits and/or she used a woodchipper.

Rosa Moline is a "twelve o'clock girl in a nine o'clock town." Her dissatisfaction with her life passes Madame Bovary levels and heads into sociopathy and psychosis. Many thirties and forties films involved the "i'm blowing this burg" trope, where a lovely young woman leaves small town for adventure in the big city. (Possessed with Joan Crawford and Clark Gable has the best one.) Beyond the Forest is kind of about what happens when our heroine gets stuck right at the leaving part. Stuck in Loyalton, Wisconsin. Man, she hates this fucking town.

So, we cut to bucolic wilderness, Joseph Cotten and some old dude (his buddy Moose) fishing and a lovely gleaming river surrounded by beautiful fluffy trees. Rosa Moline sits on a log in peasant blouse and high-heeled mules, plucking her eyebrows. Talk to her about bottling country air and she'll roll her eyes at you. Talk about a good night's sleep and she'll sigh like an exasperated 14-year-old girl. "Life in Loyalton is like sitting in the funeral parlor and waiting for the funeral to begin. No, it's like lying in a coffin and waiting for them to carry you out." She does seem to have a point.

But Rosa does have a sideline. She's snared a new-money millionaire from Chicago, who has an ostentatious hunting lodge nearby -- Moose is the caretaker, apparently. How will Rosa manage a rendezvous, though? Well, a little combination of faked sprained ankle and withholding a messages about a patient needing urgent medical attention until it suited her purposes. Oh, and getting the recovering alcoholic drunk. Rosa Moline knows all about your twelve steps and she's going to piss on every one of them.

Death? Addiction? Who gives a fuck? I wanna shoot some pool and get laid!

Back in Loyalton, Rosa lounges around her small home -- The nicest in town! -- and trades harsh words with her maid. Said maid seems to be of the Reform School Girls/Juvenile Jungle school of acting but one doesn't mind, as the over-the-top bitchery flies fast and sharp around the kitchen and the sideeye is so strong it's a wonder neither of these ladies have gone blind.

And then there's her husband. Her damned, do-gooder husband, the oh-so-nice doctor who treats all his patients for free and is nice to everybody and likes living in Loyalton.

"I don't want people to like me. Nothing pleases me more than when they don't like me. It means I don't belong." Rosa Moline is punk as fuck. Rosa Moline ranks up there with Sid Vicious. Seriously, this is the kind of saying you get tattooed on your body to remind you to live your life by it. When you're seventeen.

Hubby tries to distract her, "I saved a woman's life today."
"Saved her for what?"
Why to live out her days in joyous Loyalton, where the mill fires blaze all night long! Saved her to get pregnant for the ninth time! Freakin' literally: The woman almost died delivering her eighth baby. When Rosa Moline points out that a family who can't pay the doctor to deliver the eighth baby probably can't afford to have eight children, we're supposed to think she's a heartless beast.

Rosa announces she needs money to go to Chicago to go... shopping. Hubby points out they have no money. After all, no one ever pays him. Gotta love Loyalton: One company is the sole employer for the whole town, rips out all of the natural resources, pumps the environment full of industrial waste, doesn't provide healthcare and doesn't pay enough that their workers can afford it -- or much else -- on their own. I have no idea why Rosa Moline doesn't like Loyalton: According to Romney, Trump, Ryan, Paul and their ilk, this is a paradise of prosperity and opportunity!

Actually, Rosa takes a page out of the capitalist playbook and hits up all of her husband's former patients for the money they owe. This results in everyone in the town being mean to the doctor. Now, i'm not saying that what Rosa did was cool, but neither is acting like having to pay the money you owe is some kind of horrible affront to society. I bet they don't front on the grocer. If anything, this little moment seems to demonstrate how doing folks lots of favors makes them take you for granted and get pissed when the free ride ends. Beyond the Forest is a movie that often winds up teaching a rather different lesson than the one it seems to be attempting to teach.

And so Rosa rushes off to Chicago -- Mr. Goody-Goody tells her to take the money and never come back, and Rosa figures she'll be welcomed warmly by her rich Chicago man. It doesn't work out that way. Rosa's triumphal arrival finds her as just another disposable woman in the big city. But, she keeps telling herself, "I'm Rosa Moline!" she says over and over. The only cinema character i know of who repeats their name to confirm their own existence and importance this much is "Neely O'Hara!" Well, she and Hodor.

First he avoids her -- she sits in her hotel room waiting for his call, then in his office waiting for him to come out. "He can't do this to me. I'm not just some small town girl. I'm Rosa Moline!" Then he tells her he's getting married. "I came here. Dragged myself on my hands and knees with no pride! Me! Rosa Moline!" Rejected, infuriated, she jumps out of the limo and into a nightmarish cityscape.

Defeated, she flees back home.

Somehow, when I left on this trip,
I did not think that the only thing that would wind up between my legs would be my tail.

She even despair-fucks her husband. This, of course, gets her pregnant. Rosa Moline's unhappiness at being with child is palpable. She even ponytails that ratty Carmen wig.

"I'm going to have a baby."
"Aren't you... glad?"
"I'm not glad and I'm not not glad."
"I thought a baby would make you happy."
"Would it?"
"Why should you be different from any other woman?"
"I always thought I was. But now I'm like all the rest."

She tries to be good. Half-assedly, but she tries. However, as you can imagine, the thrill of birthday cake, square dancing and small talk about putting up preserves is lost on Rosa Moline. But then who turns up at the hoedown but rich old boyfriend. Who's changed his mind and now wants to marry her. All Rosa has to do is ditch hubby and she'll finally achieve her dream of being a vulgar nouveau riche trophy wife in Chicago.

But, of course, there's one little loose end. That baby she's knocked up with. Rosa makes her plans to elope anyway, but Moose overhears her. Now we've got one little loose end and one big loose end. But ain't nothing stopping Rosa Moline from being Head Bitch In Charge on The Real Housewives of Chicago. And Mr. Chekhov would explain to you that, at some point, one of the dozens of guns seen in acts one and two will be fired...

So, now we're back at the trial scene we began with. Rosa claims it was all an accident. And gets away with it. (It is at this point i imagine some kind of Rosa Moline/Dick Cheney American hunter Thunderdome. She might be the one force malevolent enough to finally kill that old bloodsucker so he'll stay dead.) But that still leaves the baby to be gotten rid of. First, Rosa brags -- erm, confesses -- to her husband about her affair and the murder in hopes it'll get rid of him. Then Rosa makes a trip to a mysterious "lawyer's office" in another town (because they wouldn't have a "lawyer's office" in good ol' Loyalton) but Mr. Goody-Goody comes and drags her home. But she manages to trick him into stopping the car, jumps out and throws herself down the mountain.

And she wakes up the next morning, self-aborted and glowing with delight. I don't know if Bette Davis and/or director King Vidor were aware of the obvious parody of Scarlett O'Hara's morning-after Rhett scene in Gone With the Wind, but somehow i cannot imagine this did not cross one or both of their minds. Or that they possibly howled about it while drinking a cocktail in Bette's dressing room afterward.

But soon she begins to feel the effects of a fever. Bad. Looks like karma may finally catch up with Rosa Moline after all. That or she's been driven to fatal illness by the twenty-something variations on "Chicago, That Toddlin' Town" we've heard every two minutes throughout this film. 

Rosa Moline makes one last mad run for the train to Chicago, face pouring sweat, mouth smeared with lipstick. The train puffs like a German Expressionist vision of hell. Does she make it? Well, does Anna Karenina....?

I'd like to note here that the screenwriter of Beyond the Forest was Leonore Coffee, a Hollywood veteran, whose first writing credit was in 1919 and her last was in 1969, including films such as Chicago, Sudden Fear and an Oscar nomination for Four Daughters, as well as the aforementioned Possessed. Somehow i don't imagine a man beginning a woman's announcement of her pregnancy with a monologue/metaphor about  how every tree has its time to be chopped down. 

The rage and discontent of Rosa Moline seem to spring from some elemental place. The fact that Bette Davis is too old and vulgar (Hey, she said it!) for the part in a way adds to her effectiveness -- her desperation isn't just her shitty town, but the fact that you imagine she's been trying to figure out how to escape for well over a decade and still hasn't. Is she irredeemably crazy, yes, but you can hear the clock-tick of "this is my last chance," a sound even perfectly sane people know all too well...

It has often been pointed out that Bette seems to be doing a Bette Davis impersonation in Beyond the Forest. The legendary "What a dump," so eloquently quoted in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf comes from here. Ridiculous though this film is, what makes it truly interesting is the utter nihilism of the main character. Rosa Moline doesn't want a small town. She doesn't want nice neighbors. She doesn't want a nice husband. She doesn't want to make dinner. She doesn't want a little house. She doesn't want a baby. All of the things held sacred to the American ideal, all the symbols of womanhood... Rosa Moline mocks and discards. As Steve Albini once sang, "I'll piss on everything you value." (And, as i used to say in high school, "Fuck you and all you stand for.") Bette Davis may be faintly ridiculous, but you have to admire her bravery in making Rosa Moline what she is.

Fuck you, world! I'm Rosa Moline!


  1. Wow. I'd love to see it. Of course after reading your commentary I feel like I have. Loyalton sounds hauntingly similar to Lumberton... Okay, I know the location of Blue Velvet actually does exist in North Carolina, but still, I can't imagine Lynch not being familiar with every Bette appearance. Also, I can see some Rosa Moline in the mix of inspiration for Dorothy Valens. Beyond the Forest also seems like a bit of a Mr. Skeffington (esp retribution in the form of a fever) plus Baby Face remake without the triumph (even momentary) of the femme rampant. Vive Bette noir!

    1. I went into detail because it's hard to see and there's an awful lot to talk about: I didn't quote half the insane things Bette says. Fever as retribution was pretty popular during the Code era -- gotta punish those ladies and "Suddenly! A fever!" is easy to stick into a script. I see the "Baby Face"" comparison -- Stanwyck's character managed to leave, Davis' didn't. Weird how in both films an industrial hellpit is depicted as the most desirable place for a good, solid American family to live...

  2. Thanks for the wonderful overview of my favorite movie! I may be wrong but I heard somewhere that the family of Stewart Engstrand (the author of Beyond the Forest) has the copyright tied up in court and that's why the film is not released. What else but $$$?
    I saw Beyond the Forest on the big screen in Chicago in the late 1980's and the ending where she crawls to the train is unbelievable. The train is so phallic that half the audience was bent over laughing.

    You're also right, there are MANY more lines that are killers. My personal favorite is when Neil K. Lattimer returns to Loyalton because he realizes he "wants" Rosa as his woman. Someone asks Lattimer what brought him back and he says "I had a taste for venison". Deer meat my ass, he had a taste for Rosa!

  3. Thanks! This is another one that's tied up somewhere. I'd love to see it in a theater -- heck, I bet one could give it the whole "Rocky Horror" treatment, shout the dialogue, throw things at the screen, etc...