The first part of my thesis is an analysis of certain chapters or portions of Basil’s autobiography IN AND OUT OF CHARACTER, and I’m going to be posting the analysis on the blog over the next few weeks.
Rosemarie’s overview is very good, and I would have to agree with almost all of it, which is why I posted it as a sort of kick-off point. Here I’m going to start digging more into the detail of what he says, and what he might reveal – intentionally and unintentionally – about himself, his life and his reasons fro writing the book.
So, let’s take the King of Hearts’ advice and begin at the beginning – with his Preface. I agree with Rosemarie that it’s actually really interesting, and possibly, in its way, the most revealing portion of the entire book Here it is in full except for the last para:
“I have heard it said that if one writes a book in which one’s thoughts and experiences play a major role, it is no good doing so unless one can be “sensational.” A very well-known newspaperman – a good friend of mine – and I were talking one day, shortly after my return to New York from the West Coast in 1946. I was commenting upon the thousands upon thousands of happy families in the motion picture industry, and especially I mentioned in the name bracket, – Irene Dunne and her husband – Claudette Colbert and her husband – Jack Benny’s marriage – Sir C. Aubrey Smith and his wife – the Nigel Bruces, to name but a few. Why was it, I asked my friend, that, at least so it seemed to me, successful marriages were not news. His answer shocked me, but when I had time to think it through I had to agree with him. He said, “My dear Basil, in my business the only good news is bad news.” Cynical? Perhaps, but I am much afraid it is the truth.
My wife and I have been married for thirty-six years. No two strong-minded, healthy, normal individuals live together that long in a romantic paradise! There have been times when clashes of personality and human folly have temporarily disrupted our lives. But because we happen to be in the public eye, does this entitle us – or you – dear reader, to an expose of our weaknesses and problems? To what end? To destroy your illusion? – to insinuate that my problems are greater than yours and worthy of your consideration? – to feed my ego under the glaring light of publicity? – to expose a friend or acquaintance in circumstances that I have learned of by chance or been exposed to in confidence? No! For me, indeed no! Where within the dictates of my conscience, I can speak with you of those I have known and oftimes loved, I will do so respecting respecting their confidence in me and my regard for them.
I launch myself upon this project with a light heart. I am a frustrated writer anyway, and I’ve nothing to lose; not even my time for I shall enjoy writing this book. Add to a frustrated writer a frustrated musician and most surely you will end up a frustrated actor. The author of this book is all three…”
A few things about this strike me. Firstly – although it has been suggested others (well, Ouida) may have written some of this book, or at least heavily edited it, I think this Preface is all Basil’s work. That extensive use of dashes as punctuation, suggesting a hasty, slightly frantic rush of thought, is very characteristic of his style in the personal correspondence I’ve seen. It’s literate, and in its way almost touchingly honest. “I am a frustrated writer anyway, and I’ve nothing to lose; not even my time for I shall enjoy writing this book,” is a very unguarded thing to say, and again very characteristic of his lack of pretentiousness and artifice about himself, and nothing like the egomaniacal self-promotion that seems to be Ouida’s hallmark. I think if she’d written this it would have looked a lot more like an overdone sales pitch for Basil as Legendary Actor turned Great Memoirist.
Secondly…well, how odd is it to start your book with a discussion of what you’re leaving out of it?
Generally speaking, if you’re going to leave stuff out then you’re doing so because you don’t want to talk about it, so drawing attention to the fact you’re leaving things out is kind of counter-productive.
The text here gives the impression – to me at least – that these omissions are, for him, almost more important than the book itself. It reads to me as if he’s kind of obsessing over what he’s left out and why, and almost feeling bad about it; as if he’s judging himself in some way and overcompensating with a lengthy public explanation that isn’t really necessary and that reveals more of his inner workings on the issue than he realizes. I think he’s using the Preface to justify something, not to us (or at least not just to us), but to himself. It’s almost like we’re reading a transcript of his internal thought process. He’s a little defensive, protesting just a little too much about “conscience” and “confidence,” and comes over as uneasy within himself on the subject.
I think we need to hold that thought.
Thirdly – he makes it glaringly obvious that at least some of the stuff he’s omitting has to do with his marriage. Which is again quite odd. I mean, why is he telling us? As he says, no one lives in a romantic paradise for thirty or forty years, and no one would assume he and Ouida had either. Nor would we expect (or want) him to tell us about every stupid minor fight they ever had. He doesn’t have to write a Preface telling us he’s leaving that stuff out; we take it as a given. So, the mere fact he’s bothering to tell us he isn’t telling stuff about his marriage is, at the same time, also saying there’s something significant enough to be told.
I think it’s paradoxical and quite important that, without this Preface, we would simply take the book at face value, and assume nothing major was missing in his relationship with Ouida. It’s only the fact that he says he’s leaving things out that acts to change that perception. By putting that statement at the front of his book he has sort of obliged us to read the rest of the book with the question in our minds “what isn’t he saying?” I highly doubt that’s completely unintentional on his part.
With this in mind, let’s look a little closer at the text and break it down. It might be a bit more subtle than it first appears.
He starts with the general question – posed to a possibly real, possibly literary symbolic, journalist friend – “Why was it, I asked my friend, that, at least so it seemed to me, successful marriages were not news.”
He gets the answer “because bad news is good news.”
He claims to have found this shocking, but I think we can assume this “shock” is again a literary device, since I doubt anyone could have been that naive after eleven years in Hollywood. Of course bad news is good news for journalists, and Rathbone must be well aware of it. Does he really expect to see headlines saying “Irene Dunne Still Married” or “No-One Shot in Mall Today“? Of course not. In fact, in my view, this whole paragraph is simply a device he’s employing. It has the effect of planting in our minds the idea that his marriage is one of the “successful” ones that are – by definition – not news. And it’s easy not to notice he never says so, or that his own marriage isn’t included in the “happy list” he supplies.
But the most strking thing is the next paragraph, where he suddenly jumps straight from deploring the fact that happy marriages aren’t news to revealing the fact that his own marriage actually wasn’t always happy but he doesn’t want to talk about it.
“My wife and I have been married for thirty-six years. No two strong-minded, healthy, normal individuals live together that long in a romantic paradise! There have been times when clashes of personality and human folly have temporarily disrupted our lives. But because we happen to be in the public eye, does this entitle us – or you – dear reader, to an expose of our weaknesses and problems?…No! For me, indeed no!
This is actually a near 180-degree reversal of his original point. He’s gone from “why aren’t happy marriages news?” to “my marriage wasn’t always happy but I’m not going to talk about it,” but he pulls it off so gracefully and cleverly we hardly notice the bait and switch being pulled on us and are somehow carried through it still thinking he’s saying his marriage was a “success,” even though he hasn’t at this point said a single positive thing about it!
Strange but true. Read it carefully, and it’s undeniable. And in fact the entire Preface actually contains not one positive word about his marriage to Ouida at all. It’s a great example of a text that appears on superficial reading to say one thing but on closer analysis reveals itself as saying, if not the exact opposite, then something much more ambiguous and murky.
Does all this mean or imply he wasn’t “happily married” whatever those most broadly defined words might mean? I don’t think we can say that, no. At least not at this stage, if at all. But it does imply a lot more ambiguity, both in his own feelings about his marriage, and in his intentions in writing his book. This is not a stupid man, or a blunt and unsubtle man. If he includes these ambiguities and pointed insinuations we have to assume he’s doing so at least with partial intent.
For me the most important message of his Preface is – whatever he chose to leave out of his book was important enough to him for it to be the first thing he wants us to read about.
He wants, either consciously or unconsciously, this absence to frame everything else we subsequently read. The reasons for this are probably pretty central to his life story, and someone needs to try and dig them out from wherever they are hiding.
To me, this makes his autobiography a fairly unusual volume for a Hollywood memoir. They aren’t generally noteworthy for their depth, subtlety or mysterious allusions – yet, beneath its rather bland and gently smiling surface, IN & OUT OF CHARACTER is absolutely ripe with all three. It’s more like the memoir of a Victorian man of letters, where more can be found between the lines than in them. It’s fascinating for the glimpses and hints and glancing allusions it offers.
And that’s why I want to turn a magnifying glass on some of its most curious or interesting or puzzling passages. This is just the beginning bit. There’s a lot more to come.