It’s funny how, no matter what year a movie actually came out, it can only take a few lines to cement its place as a timeless classic–or damn it as a dated time capsule. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with a movie being “dated,” but it can be yet another barrier for modern viewers trying to enjoy a film in as much of its original context as possible.
With that in mind, I really enjoyed The Tender Trap, but it definitely fell under the latter category for me, for two specific but funny instances.
First: Charlie Reader (Frank Sinatra)’s eligible bachelor status affords him a bevy of lovely ladies eager to prove themselves to him, and one of them is Helen (Carolyn “Morticia” Jones), who comes in several times a day just to walk his dog. She appears several times throughout the movie, barely saying a word, but always with the assumption that she’s doing this to gain favor with Charlie as a prospective mate. Of course, at one point, just as Charlie has almost successfully convinced Julie (Debbie Reynolds) that he’s forsaken all other women, he only has eyes for her, etc. etc.–when Helen casually enters the apartment with the dog. Charlie fumbles for an explanation, while in my head I’m thinking, “What are you doing, Charlie? Just say she’s a dog walker! That’s literally what your relationship with her is!” As if on cue, he spits out: “She’s a… a professional dog walker!” Well, there you go, right?
Wrong. Julie is not convinced. Not just because of his hesitant delivery, but by the simple fact of his excuse. “Who’s ever heard of a professional DOG WALKER?” she shrieks, almost equally upset about Charlie’s obviously ridiculous lie as she was about the presence of the other girl. She even throws it back in his face later in the argument, as though it’s still the stupidest thing she’s ever heard and can’t believe he’d expect her to buy it.
Nowadays, of course, there ARE professional dog walkers, and probably a whole host of other careers that 1955 would think were equally far-fetched–and not just accounting for modern technology and lifestyles, but also in terms of paying people to do things we could clearly just do ourselves.
The other big instance of datedness, which is perhaps a slightly more significant cultural change, is the zeal with which Julie pursues her ultimate life goal: marriage. Not only does she long to be married in theory, but she already has her date set (March 12, her parent’s anniversary). The only thing she has to find now is, well, the groom. She refuses to sign a theatrical contract that extends beyond her prospective wedding date, because, as she says, “A career is just fine, but it’s no substitute for marriage.”
I don’t doubt that many women these days have similar aspirations, but here, it’s not just that she’s a character with this goal, but that she (and, in turn, it seems, the filmmakers) believe that it’s the only proper route for a woman to take, which immediately places you firmly in 1955. Check out her full speech from early on in the picture, which is punctuated by the only other woman at the table nodding her head, in full daydream mode:
“Honestly, don’t you think marriage is just the most important thing in the world? I mean, a woman isn’t really a woman at all until she’s been married and had children. And why? Because she’s fulfilled.”
Oof. On one side, this is definitely an interesting look at 1955 culture, preserved in amber for all to see. But it also takes me out of the movie, and I have to actually kind of work to get back in the correct mindset. This also somewhat subconsciously shifted my opinion of the Julie character, and I began rooting for Charlie to end up with the more practical Sylvia (the always lovely Celeste Holm). I knew this was a futile exercise based on who was pictured on the movie’s poster, but the heart wants what it wants.
It’s interesting to look at these two instances, as they both show a significant shift in culture over the past 50 years. I think most filmmakers wouldn’t intentionally include something (modern inclusions of past-generation iPhones aside) that they believed would seem dated for future viewers. It was just a standard element of their culture at the time, one that they didn’t foresee making any drastic changes in the near future. And I think that provides as much insight into the culture as does a surface reading of those basic lines of dialogue and plot devices… we have to look at both “what” they’re saying, as well as the “how” and the “why.”