“Nameless, Shameless Woman!” (I Married a Communist aka The Woman on Pier 13, 1949)
The reign of Howard Hughes at RKO Radio Pictures has already been analysed extensively. After dabbling in movies for years (as early as the 1920s), the wealthy playboy industrialist purchased a controlling interest in RKO in 1948, selling out in 1955. A hands-on owner (when the mood struck him), Hughes promoted his personal agendas and repeatedly tinkered with individual films, often with bizarre—albeit interesting—results.
For example, The Man He Found dealt with an intrepid reporter who discovers Adolph Hitler hiding out in New England! Hughes felt the incipient Red Scare was more saleable than fugitive Nazi dictators, and had the film extensively re-shot. In the revised, re-titled The Whip Hand, the hero finds a Commie germ-warfare facility in Wisconsin. Jet Pilot, starring John Wayne as an American pilot and a very young Janet Leigh as a defecting Russian aviatrix, was in production off-and-on from 1949 until 1953, finally getting out to cinemas in 1957.
I Married a Communist was another Hughes contribution to the relatively brief Red Scare trend in late 1940s-early 1950s Hollywood, joining The Red Menace, Walk East on Beacon, My Son John, Big Jim McLain, I Was a Communist for the FBI, etc. The (possibly apocryphal) story is that Hughes used the project as a loyalty litmus-test, considering those who turned it down to be of dubious political reliability (eventually the film was assigned to British-born director Robert Stevenson).
Given the Hughes regime’s propensity for such things, it isn’t surprising that I Married a Communist underwent post-production tampering, but what is surprising is that the title was changed to downplay the anti-Red tenor of the project, becoming The Woman on Pier 13, with the generic tag-line “High Voltage Melodrama!” This was done more or less at the last minute, since posters, ads, and other promotional materials featuring the original title were already in wide circulation (in fact, the film had been test-shown on the West Coast and trade-reviewed as I Married a Communist). Altering the title seems logical, since the studio had no way of knowing how long the Red Scare would be a hot topic and, indeed, if anti-Communism would be popular or poison at the box-office (apparently RKO re-titled the film due to negative public reaction, which suggested people thought the film was a documentary!—you’d think RKO would have tested this before they made up all those posters…). Sadly for the studio, the title change didn’t help, and The Woman on Pier 13 still lost money.
[Ironically, the ideological content of the movie was soft-pedaled even before the title change. When it came to Reds, Hollywood didn’t produce the same virulent level of propaganda as it had during World War Two when the Nazis and Japanese were our enemies. The Korea War ramped things up a bit with wartime atrocity tales, but even then the Red Scare films about Commie spies & saboteurs on the home front were generally pretty tame.
It is interesting to see that—other than in the film’s title—the word “Communist” doesn’t appear on the ad. The “Nameless, Shameless Woman!” is in the employ of a “mob of terror.” While the Nazis were often referred to as “gangsters”—there was even a movie titled The Hitler Gang—the use of the term “mob of terror” implies that the Communists were disorganised anarchists “whose one mission is to destroy!” Not to “topple the capitalist system and replace it with another ideology,” not to “conquer the world,” but just “destroy!”]
Today we’ll desconstruct a print ad for I Married a Communist. Posters and lobby cards also exist, but they’re not as loaded with juicy detail and the “Nameless, Shameless Woman!” tag-line is replaced with a paraphrase of the ad’s secondary tag-line “Her Beauty Served a Mob of Terror Whose One Mission is to Destroy!”, which isn’t nearly as catchy or memorable.
But first, what about that title? Hollywood wasn’t overly enamoured of first-person film titles. Pre-1949, I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang is probably the most famous, but we also get I Married a Witch, I Married a Doctor, I Married an Angel, I Was a Criminal, I Was a Prisoner of Nazi Germany, I Was a Prisoner on Devil’s Island, I Was a Male War Bride, I Was Framed, and I Was an Adventuress. Subsequently, there were titles such as I, the Jury, I Married a Monster from Outer Space, I Was a Teenage Werewolf (and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein), and I Married a Woman, among others. So “I Something Something” wasn’t an unknown construction for a film title, but it wasn’t really prevalent.
Using I Am, I Was, or even I Married in a film title suggests the picture is going to be a sort of first-person confessional (although not necessarily subjective-camera) narrative. But then again, don’t many films tell their stories from the point of view of their protagonist? Who the “I” in I Married a Communist actually refers to is somewhat confusing. Nan Lowry (Laraine Day) is wed to Bill Collins (Robert Ryan), a former member of the Communist Party; Nan’s brother Don (John Agar) is engaged to Christine (Janis Carter), a Communist operative. So neither Nan nor Don is technically “married” to a Communist. Whatever happened to truth in advertising?! Oh, wait, this is a movie ad, so…never mind.
The title is probably supposed to be a declarative statement by Nan, since Laraine Day is top-billed and thus the nominal star of the movie. Also, there’s some talk about the Communist Party being like the Mafia, “once in, never out,” so Nan’s husband Bill might be the titular “Communist” she married. However, if we stipulate that Laraine Day’s character is our protagonist, then why is Janis Carter (who is, in fact, fifth-billed out of five performers) front-and-center on the ad (in fact, her photo appears twice while Day is only shown once)? And why do the tag-line and the smaller text below it refer to Christine rather than Nan?
Because sex sells, for one thing. Laraine Day was an attractive woman but not a busty blonde. Furthermore, Christine is the “bad girl” in I Married a Communist (although she accidentally falls in love with her intended victim and thereby irritates her Red bosses, for whom “sentimentality” is a secular sin). She’s the “Nameless, Shameless Woman!” (I don’t know what that means, but it rhymes so it’s catchy) She’s been “trained in an art as old as time!” (and we don’t mean macramé) She is the one “Trading her love…yielding kisses that invite disaster, destroy….then—KILL!”
Nan? Nan is the loyal wife of ex-Commie Bill, and doesn’t do much until the end of the movie—after her brother’s been murdered by the Reds—and then gets her husband shot to death (he saves her, at the cost of his own life). That’s not very exciting, or sexy.
The respective levels of “interest” in these two characters can be inferred by their images in the advertisement. Christine, shown at least three times larger than Nan, has an urgent, vital, one might even say aroused expression on her face—mouth slightly ajar, eyes gleaming—and is wearing a white, low-cut dress (I wish they’d air-brushed her hand out, though—it just looks weird). Her short, platinum-blonde hair makes her slightly resemble Lana Turner (probably not a coincidence). Nan, dark-haired and wearing a dark dress, has a dubious/suspicious look on her unsmiling face, and seems to be glaring at giant-Christine. The telephone in her hand is oddly out of place (this poster was a paste-up of still photographs and undoubtedly the original photo of Laraine Day showed her holding a telephone receiver, but it is definitely out of context on the poster itself). Without knowing the identities of the actresses and their respective roles in the movie (and ignoring the tag-line and text), it’d be easy—based on the imagery—to assume the blonde was the film’s heroine and the brunette her bitter, vengeful rival.
The other billed performers—Robert Ryan, John Agar, and Thomas Gomez—are all shown on the poster as well (which may have been deliberate, contractual, or just a coincidence). Robert Ryan, an RKO contract player who’d gradually moved up from character parts to “character leads,” looks anguished and nervous rather than stalwart and heroic (in fact, I can’t find a single piece of promo art from either version of this film that shows him looking anything other than worried or glum). This is in keeping with his role in the movie (a shipping executive blackmailed over his Communist past) but is not exactly the traditional image of a leading man one might expect on a film advert. In the lower left-hand corner there’s a photo of Thomas Gomez, a specialist in playing sweaty, paunchy losers (interspersed with the occasional police official and generic ethnic types). Although menacing (and gun-toting), Gomez still looks more like a frantic, incompetent bumbler rather than a true villain, despite the low-angle “sinister” lighting. The lower right-hand photo shows us Janis Carter again, this time in the arms of John Agar, who plays her gullible boyfriend. Agar, best-known today for his later science fiction film roles, was promoted as a “male ingenue” in the late 1940s. Although this was one of his earliest film roles, Agar receives prominent billing thanks to his status as the husband of Shirley Temple (their marriage ended the same year as I Married a Communist was produced).
Nature abhors a vacuum, and apparently so do art directors, and the last little bit of space at the bottom of the page is filled with a cartoonish representation of a waterfront action scene (the film’s plot revolves around Communist influence on the docks). Such mini-illustrations were precursors of the “SEE!” thumbnails which gained popularity on Fifties movie posters. I suppose the artwork was intended to alert viewers that I Married a Communist wasn’t just a melodrama, it also had fightin’ and shootin’ (for the menfolk). “Ooh, someone’s falling off a dock into the water! How thrilling!”
The overall impression created by this advertisement (intended for magazines, I would imagine) is that I Married a Communist is a melodrama about a femme fatale—possibly a Mata Hari-type, although (as noted above) her employers are vaguely characterised as a “mob of terror and violence” with unspecified goals (other than “destroy!”). It’s suggested (incorrectly, as it turns out) that the Nameless, Shameless Woman comes between the good wife and her husband, possibly turning the unfaithful man into a Red dupe. (Actually, Christine is the former girlfriend of Bill, but her romancing in the film is confined to Nan’s brother Don, who’s unmarried.) Still, what the reader takes away from the ad for I Married a Communist is that this movie features a sexy, evil woman…also, men with pistols…and honestly, isn’t that enough?