Saturday, November 18, 2023

Suddenly (Part II) (1954): Ellen Benson, a Woman Alone in 1950s America

I mentioned in my last article about the film Suddenly that I planned to write about it again because I want to focus on the mother, Ellen Benson. The role of Ellen Benson highlights how women were portrayed and treated in film in the 1950s. I had decided, after seeing the film several times, that Ellen Benson should be acknowledged for her heroism in Suddenly—after almost seventy years!

Click here for my first post about Suddenly (1954).

The first time that I saw Suddenly, I didn’t notice how toxic Sheriff Tod Shaw is, at least as a prospective romantic partner for Ellen Benson. After all, he’s a hero in the film. He fought in World War II, and he continues his service to his local community, the very small rural town of Suddenly, in his role of sheriff. But I noticed his toxicity on repeat viewings. Ellen Benson finally decides to accept his romantic overtures, but I wanted to reach through the screen and stop her!

Suddenly is in the public domain and is available to watch online for free. Click here to see it at the Internet Archive. It’s worth it, however, to find the DVD published by Film Chest Inc. because it includes audio commentary provided by Tom Santopietro, author of several books and one about Frank Sinatra in particular.

In one of the first scenes in the film, Ellen Benson’s son, Peter Benson (nicknamed Pidge), walks down the main street in Suddenly and stops to admire a toy gun in a shop window. He meets Sheriff Tod Shaw and tells him that he would really like to have a gun. Tod Shaw is in love with Pidge’s mother Ellen. She’s a war widow; her husband Pete was killed fighting in World War II. She does not want her son to be a victim of violence and doesn’t want him to have a gun. Tod buys Pidge a gun anyway, which angers Ellen Benson when she discovers what Tod has done.

Tod Shaw is very argumentative with Ellen when he meets her later in the grocery store, even though he is the one interfering in her life and with her family. Tod feels that Pidge should learn about guns and how to use them to protect himself and others. In addition, he badgers Ellen while she is grocery shopping about her selfishness and leaving him and her son Pidge alone. Tod is in love with Ellen and wants to marry her, but he doesn’t present himself as an appreciative partner. He raises his voice to her and argues with her in public. He bases his position on two “facts” (as he defines them): that she would be better off with a partner and that she is only making him and her son more miserable by not moving on.

As if Tod’s bullying weren’t bad enough, he undermines Ellen’s authority as the parent of Pidge by going behind her back and buying her son a gun when he knows that she doesn’t want Pidge to have one. But Tod is a war hero and the sheriff in town. He presents the same arguments that her father-in-law recites to her about service to the country and readiness to serve. In other words, her son should be familiar with guns so that he can serve his country and protect his family. The fact that he is a young boy and still has plenty of time to learn how to handle guns is never mentioned.

(This article about Suddenly contains spoilers.)

Tod’s case could be strengthened by the fact that he helps the Benson family survive the hostage ordeal, and he is a hero once again. But he himself never mentions that Ellen fired the first shot to put John Baron out of commission. None of the other characters acknowledge her role either. She takes Baron by surprise and incapacitates him. Tod takes the gun from Ellen and shoots John Baron a second time, the shot that kills Baron, and he takes all the credit. Ellen gets none; she herself never acknowledges her own role in the defense of her home and comes to believe that she would be better off with Tod after all.

Ellen Benson doesn’t embrace violence willingly. John Baron and the situation that he has created in the Benson home weigh on her again and again until she acknowledges that self-defense may be the only way. One particular scene emphasizes how hard it is for her to reach the decision to shoot Baron. In this scene, Ellen addresses John Baron directly and tells him that she wishes he were dead. Baron seems to be amused by her declaration and tells Ellen, “You don’t have the guts.” He is so confident in her reluctance that he hands his gun to Ellen, but she can’t shoot him. She always has her son foremost in her mind, and his life could still be in danger. The gun wasn’t loaded anyway, but only John Baron knew that. This scene underscores Ellen Benson’s hope and optimism and John Baron’s deep cynicism.

Talk of World War II, the experience of war, and grappling with the issues brought up by extreme wartime situations are major themes in Suddenly. Exploration of these themes start with Pidge’s desire to have a cap gun and his mother’s reluctance to let him begin to learn that violence exists in the world. Ellen Benson’s role in resolving the hostage crisis and her views on guns in her home receive little attention. She is reluctant to use guns, and she is reluctant to let her son learn about guns and violence too early in life. She is not afraid to defend herself and her son, however, but only when the threat becomes so dangerous that she is finally willing to take the step.

The audio commentary by Tom Santopietro on the DVD published by Film Chest Inc. is well worth a listen, especially for fans of Frank Sinatra. Santopietro wrote a book about Sinatra, and his knowledge about the actor and his role in the film is obvious from the commentary. (Santopietro doesn’t comment much on Ellen Benson and her role in the film, much like the male characters in the film.) Here are just a few of the many points from his commentary, with my thoughts added here and there in red:

The film is very cynical about violence and the treatment of children.

Ellen Benson is still suffering from the loss of her husband and is smothering her son as a result. It’s a dark theme in a multilayered film. [But I wonder: Why does he have to have a gun not to be smothered? And only the adults make this judgment. Pidge just wants a cap gun. There is no other indication that he is being “smothered.”]

Television is crucial to the plot, the same way that it was crucial in changing the film industry in the 1940s and 1950s.

Most of the film takes place in the Benson home, in their living room, which is another feature that gives it a feel of claustrophobia. [I didn’t feel that the film was claustrophobic because of the setting. The Benson house is large and the characters spend time in different rooms. There are also several scenes outside in the town. I thought the feeling of claustrophobia came from the constant threat of violence.]

John Baron is a violent man. He kills Dan Carney and threatens to kill Pidge Benson, a child. Viewers don’t know what Baron will do next.

The film resonates in 2012 [and in 2023] with its violence, especially the gun violence, and political unrest.

Ellen Benson’s “weapons” are lipstick and rouge when Secret Service agent Haggerty shows up at her front door to ask for the whereabouts of Agent Dan Carney and Sheriff Tod Shaw. [No mention is made of Ellen Benson picking up a gun at the end of the film. She is the one who incapacitates John Baron and gives Shaw the chance to deliver the final shot.]

Tod bullies Ellen for his own benefit. He picks an argument with her while she is shopping in a grocery store, in public. Part of his argument is that Pidge needs a father figure, but he could serve as a father figure for her son without marrying Ellen and moving in; he seems to forget that her father-in-law is still living in her home and is already serving as a father figure to his own grandson. Tod may be a wartime hero and capable under fire during peacetime, but what will daily life be like for Ellen after he moves in? Will he always be arguing, always be right, and undermine her at every turn? His track record on-screen doesn’t help his case.

But this is 1954, and no woman was supposed to be alone and fending for herself, even with the help of her father-in-law. Tod loves her and that should be good enough for her. It’s eventually good enough apparently for Ellen Benson because the film ends with Ellen agreeing to go to church with Tod, thus making their relationship public and “official,” at least by 1950s standards.

I suppose I’ll always want to reach through the screen and stop Ellen every time I see the film. I’d love to see a sequel in which Tod realizes how much Ellen contributed to saving their lives and to the success of their relationship afterward. And I’d like to know that he stops bullying her and making all her decisions and . . . well, one can hope anyway.

October 7, 1954, release date    Directed by Lewis Allen    Screenplay by Richard Sale    Music by David Raksin    Edited by John F. Schreyer    Cinematography by Charles G. Clarke

Frank Sinatra as John Baron    Sterling Hayden as Sheriff Tod Shaw    James Gleason as Peter (aka Pop) Benson    Nancy Gates as Ellen Benson    Kim Charney as Peter (aka Pidge) Benson    Paul Frees as Benny Conklin    Christopher Dark as Bart Wheeler    Willis Bouchey as Dan Carney, Chief Secret Service Agent    Paul Wexler as Deputy Sheriff Slim Adams    James Lilburn as Jud Kelly (Jud Hobson in the credits)     Kem Dibbs as Wilson    Clark Howat as Haggerty    Charles Smith as Bebop    Dan White as Desk Officer Burg    Richard Collier as Ed Hawkins    Roy Engel as the first driver    Ted Stanhope as the second driver    Charles Wagenheim as Kaplan    John Beraradino as a trooper

Distributed by United Artists    Produced by Libra Productions, Inc.

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