Queen for a Day (1951)
TV grants three women a wish.
Queen for a Day is an episodic film and the first episode, The Gossamer World, is about a little boy who's mother didn't win on the TV show but has her wish fulfilled anyway. She had asked for a model railway for her son. Because it was such a modest request, the show's producers decide to mail it to her after all. The model train then becomes a lifeline to the child when he falls ill with polio. The third story, Horsie, is about a pedriatric nurse with a facial disfigurement. She thinks her current employer is the first person she's worked for ever to be nice to her, when in reality he counts down the days until she leaves. Her behavior grates on his nerves and her looks remind him so strongly of a horse that it distracts him from his daily routine and even work. He goes as far as to invite/order two friends/employees from his business to dinner and a 'freak show', because he doesn't want to sit down at dinner alone with her. She never realises his cruelty, and when he gives her tickets to her favorite show, Queen for a Day, she wants to give something back.
The second episode, High Diver, opens with a shot of the outside of the studio where the show is produced and zooms in on the audience waiting outside. As the women file into the studio and put slips of paper with their wishes written down into a bowl, their thoughts are made audible by voice-overs.
The first contestant shown is a woman who wants her husband stretched 3/16th of an inch so that he would meet the height requirement to become a policeman. Her request meets with much and not exactly kind laughter from the audience. That she's also very blonde doesn't much help taking her cause seriously, and the host makes even more fun of her. Next is Mrs. Nalawak (Kasia Orzazewski), an older Polish woman. She wants to win a scholarship for her son, Frank (Adam Williams), so that he can study engineering in Chicago. (1) When the host asks if the son might be listening to the program she says no, but if she wins she'll find him and tell him.
Frank left home the night before after exchanging words with his father (Albert Ben-Astar). We find him at a bus station at night with the last of the busses for the day just leaving without him. Not knowing what to do, he wanders over to the carnival that is in town. When one attraction at the carnival falls flat on his face in front of the audience, drunk as a skunk, he sees his chance to replace him and travel with the troupe to Chicago. The catch is that he has to dive from 110 feet high into a pool of water only 4 feet deep.
During the night he thinks back to the argument he's had with his father. Frank is aware that his father's career choices as an immigrant were limited by his poor command of the English language, but he's angry that his father would use his background and experiences to dictate his son's future. He tells the father all he wants are the same chances any American citizen has to make more of his life. The father angrily retorts that he comes from a country where people were proud to work with their hands, therefore working the wire machine for 30 years equaled making something of yourself. If the work was good enough for him, it was more than good enough for Frank. The son, however, doesn't want to make wire, he wants to imagine how to make the wire work for him in radar and electronis. The father concludes the fight by saying that as long as he stays in the house and his mother cooks for him, he has to work for her.
The next morning Frank takes test dives from modest heights and gets to flirt with one of the women working at the carnival, Peggy (Tracey Roberts), who'd ignored him the other night as just being another customer. His new employer then takes him to meet his predecessor, Daredevil Rinaldi (Bernard Szold), to get a few pointers on how to not kill himself during the performance and assure his star that the new guy would take over only for a couple of days while he recuperates. After making much noise about his past as a circus acrobat, his family linage, and how you'd need to have this kind of stuff bred into you, Rinaldi gives Frank some basic advice on staying alive and proclaims that he's quitting the job and Frank can have it all to himself.
Frank goes back to the mill for his lucky charm and there meets two friends Chief (Leonard Nimoy) and Satchelbutt (Danny Davenport) from the factory's local football team and spontaneously invites them out to dinner on the advance he's gotten. But, sitting in front of his plate his appetite is gone when he watches a man scrape something off the floor. Peggy's prediction that they might have to scrape him off the bottom of the tank with a putty knife is ringing in his ears. He gets restless and asks his friends to leave the restaurant with him. All three return to the carnival where Frank wins a lamp which he asks his friends to deliver to his mother.
Back home the father has returned from work and is told by a neighbor that his wife has gone to L.A., but she doesn't know why, and his son is about to jump into a tiny pool of water from 110 feet at the carnival. She is mightily excited by the prospect and assumes that he must be very proud of Frank, but his face tells otherwise. Not knowing what else to do, he waits for his wife to come back. Together they set out for the carnival to tell Frank that he can come home now, because his father had had time to change his mind about him studying. But they are too late. Frank already is climbing the ladder. On his way up he feels for his lucky charm only to find he left it behind in his trailer. He reluctantly continues and jumps anyway. To the relieve of everyone close to him he comes up for air unharmed. His parents help him walk away from the carnival without a second glance, leaving a lone woman behind who had developed a real liking for Frank.
The 1951 movie was based on a popular TV show by the same title that ran from 1956 - 1960 on NBC and from 1960 - 1964 on ABC. The TV show itself was based on an even earlier radio program titled Queen for Today. Three to four contestants were chosen who would tell their stories to the nation in hope of winning consumer goods and other prizes. The Queen was chosen by the audience using an "applause meter". The host of the show, Jack Bailey, plays himself in the movie.
The film presents three tales of morality that award the model of the traditional domesticated female. Modesty, selflessness and motherhood (or at least childcare) are her virtues that are showered with furs, stylish clothing, a holyday in Hawaii etc. by the fairy of our modern times, TV. It be noted that the contestants get exactly what they need or seem to lack outside of their original wish to emphasize television's magic (all seeing and all knowing) role as a modern fairy, or wish fulfilling machine. Queen for a Day engages in some obvious social commentary when it tells us not to judge a book by its cover and depicts the moral shortcomings of the upper class in Horsie.(2)
Now, Mr. Nalawak is a simple, honest, hard working man and proud of it, something usually glorified in North American myth. Remains the question why the narrative comes down on him by threatening to kill his son. The simple and obvious answer is, because he hinders Frank's rightful ambitions. The more complicated answer is because he represents the Other, a role usually embodied by, and reserved for the female that must be rendered harmless. (5) In his remark to Frank he states that as long as his mother cooks for him, he has to work for her. Providing for a home and food on the table is a man's task and all that's required of him to make him a man in the old order. (6) This provides a threat to the media if you accept the premise of program as content to fill the time between commercials waiting to sell extraneous goods to the masses and also to the foundation of a society who's welfare relies heavily on consumption. Mrs. Nalawak on the other hand has embraced TV and what it has to offer. She is perfectly assimilated. Once her husband accepts his errors (denying Frank the opportunities of a better paying job, holding onto old world values) he is accepted into the dominant order of society and can reap his awards.
If you thought watching Queen for a Day was harmless fun, think twice.
|Queen for a Day also marks Leonard Nimoy's feature film debut, but his name got misspelled and he ended up being credited as Leonard Nemoy.|
(1) The credits only give Frank's nickname, Chunk. That is what his team mates call him.
(2) Cheatham, Gordon, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0043947/usercomments, 06-Jan-09: "Dorothy Parker's pen was always dipped in acid and she was never happier that when she was ridiculing the class of people into which she was born. Parker's story was the one entitled, "Horsie". It concerned a nurse hired as a nanny for a newborn child. The child was born to a husband and wife who were too rich and stylish to ever attend to the mundane details of taking care of the child themselves, although I was surprised they had actually gone through a pregnancy. They seemed like the sort that would have hired that out as well. They do go on with their upper crust friends about how the experience has enriched them spiritually. Of course they do have a good deal of malicious fun at the expense of their sweet, innocent, unsuspecting nanny, simply because she is unattractive and unsophisticated. She doesn't realize she is the butt of their jokes and thinks they are wonderful. To her, they must be wonderful people because they are rich and smart (in the fashion sense). And the child, whom she loves so well, is being given such a wonderful life. The film, and Ms. Parker, is not making fun of poor Horsie. They are pointing up the cruelty and thoughtlessness of the people she works for. It is not Horsie who is depicted as being pathetic."
(3) What Women Want starring Mel Gibson is based on this premise and it made watching the movie one unsavory experience in 2000.
(4) The narrative of the Disney film Mulan has been constructed along those principles. ("The filmmakers decided to change Mulan's character to make her more appealing and selfless.") If one goes to the source, though, the author comes to an almost feminist conclusion based on gender equality:
" (...) When Mulan came out to meet her battle companions,
They were all astounded and thrown into bewilderment.
Together they had been in the army for a dozen years or so,
Yet none had known that Mulan was actually a girl.
The male rabbit kicks its fluffy feet as it scampers,
The eyes of female rabbit are blurred by fluffy tufts of hair,
But when they run side by side in the field,
You can hardly tell the doe from the buck!"
"In the story, Mulan disguised herself as a man to take her elderly father's place in the army. She was later offered a government post by the emperor himself after her service was up. However, unwilling to commit anymore to the forces, she turned down the position so she could return to her family immediately. When her former colleagues visited her at home, they were shocked to see her dressed as a woman. The poem ends with the image of a female hare (Mulan) and a male hare (her comrades) running side by side, and the narrator asking how anyone could tell them apart."
(5) The Other, when cast with a male or represented as an alien in science fiction, usually is given female characteristics. Mr. Nalawak, for example, is stripped of his authority and his ability to act. He ends up in this powerless position because it has momentarily been vacated by his wife, who has joined the ranks of mainstream consumer culture. And, if you think it a coincidence that in Star Trek the Vulcan male is the bearer of the reproductive cycle and being shamed for it, well, think again. There is the possibility for change, though, and Leonard Nimoy himself is working toward it by engaging and challenging archaic views of gender and gender attributes by way of his art and photography. He has called himself a feminist in the past, and, read with a twinkle in ones eye, what else could he be, if his latest autobiography, I Am Spock, holds true.
(6) Economic self-reliance in women is still punishable to this day in their media representation, even if the need for it is not of their own choice, as in Horsie. The punishment usually amounts to isolation, loneliness, mental health problems, character or moral deformation and the inability to attract a husband in the characters. Happiness is promised if the woman reforms as in 13 Going on 30. Jenna Rink (Jennifer Garner) gives up her job and marries. Female economic self-reliance is so threatening to the male self-image because by traditionally identifying masculinity with the role of the provider, men have painted themselves into a corner in a changing world. If you take away their role as provider, you take away their masculinity and make them obsolete along with their claim to authority. Since patriarchal structures still represent the dominant social order, instead of reforming the male image (admitting that something is wrong with it), women are told that something is wrong with them if they want to realize their potential and ambitions. These films negate the possibility of change that women can bring to the workplace. They either have to play by the rules that deform their 'nature' - a take it or leave it situation - or get preferably married. Fortunately, there are also narratives like Erin Brockovich which challenge this assumption successfully.
(7) The last segment actually exposes the TV-as-a-fairy allegory as a fraught. It neither can make 'Horsie' beautiful, give her friends, or a companion. It only can give her things that leave her still as isolated as in the beginning.
Bacon-Smith, Camille. Enterprising Women - Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1992.
Faludi, Susan. Backlash - The Undeclared War Against American Women. Crown Publishers, New York, 1991.