October 21st 2009
The Lexi Cinema in Kensal Rise offered the University of the Third Age Film Group a trial period to use their screen for their meetings. We would show a film and then ask the audience to participate in an exchange of views.
The first film we showed in September was ‘The Ladykillers’ (1955). While I personally find the film very funny and the representation of the old woman central to the plot rather sympathetic, a few women in the audience objected to the old woman as a naïve old fool.
I thought that this difference of opinion merits a closer examination of the film.
‘The Ladykillers’ and the Little Old Lady Stereotype.
Of the many and changing stereotypes of the old woman in feature films, the Little Old Lady conveys a picture of a sweet, ineffectual and naïve person.
Mrs Wilberforce, in the Ladykillers has been described by different reviewers as: innocent hostess, sweet old lady, dithery, aloof but well meaning, dotty, schoolmarm, irritating old bat, conscientious senior citizen, naive but determined biddy, loveably dotty,unflappable well-intentioned but moralistic, naïve and mettlesome old woman, set-in-her-ways, doddery old bat, kindly old lady, a pure delight, sublimely ignorant of the world around her, invulnerable, appears senile but is not, pure of heart, a bit askew, not senile but also not fully in tune with reality.
What is interesting in ‘The Ladykillers’ is that Mrs. Wilberforce does exhibit these stereotypical characteristics but the stereotype, raises interesting ones on the representation of the old woman, rather than obscures them. The tension and funny scenes in the film arise not by a challenge to the ‘little old lady stereotype’ but by the contrasting her world of old fashioned values with that of groups of younger males: the crooks the police and incidental slapstick characters. It is the other protagonists and their attitudes that makes us look at the stereotype in a different way.
The mise-en-scene can elicit in older women flashes of recognition. Katie Johnson’s acting for which she was awarded the Bafta for best British Actress gives credence to the character. Some details of direction: the forever forgotten umbrella, the reading glasses, the looking for the keys, the perfect timing of her dealing with the air lock, mentions of her past and her husband also accurately suggest older women’s everyday experiences. But basically the plot relies on her naivety, her stubbornness. There is also a momentary change from the Little Old Lady to the School Marm as I shall show later.
Physically Mrs. Wilberforce is small with partially grey hair nearly always covered by a hat. She has the proverbial rosy cheeks, her clothes are old fashioned, she always wears gloves. Her house is Victorian in décor. A picture of her naval officer husband hangs in the sitting room where his three parrots are in residence.
The opening scene shows Mrs. Wilberforce being greeted benevolently by people in the street as she makes her way to the police station. A brief scene at the entrance unsettles the mood. Two young women with a pram are talking on the steps of the police station. Mrs. W. smiling, bends to look into the pram. The baby responds with screams of fear.
This scene misleads us. Are we going to witness a little old lady turn into a frightening individual? Not at all, she remains the same little sweet old lady throughout the film.
At the police station while the superintendent is kind and condescending, there are three other burly policemen in the background laughing at her. She came to apologise for a friend who mistakenly reported an alien invasion the day before. (A nod here to Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds.) These sequences at the Police Station, however mild in showing ageist attitudes, will set the scene for the very important closing sequences where Mrs. W thanks to the ageism of the police walks away with the all the money of the heist.
The ageism of the police pales in comparison to the overt, outspoken – and alas still prevalent today – ageism displayed by the crooks. The plot and comedy depends on Professor Marcus using the naivety of Mrs. Wilberforce in the heist he is planning. She is to collect the trunk full of banknotes stolen from a security van outside Kings Cross Station and drive back home with it in a taxi.
Pr. Marcus: “you must appreciate that Mrs. Wilberforce is not a mere appendage to my plan but at the very core of it”
Louis: “the lopsided old Grandma”
Harry: “how do you know we can trust her to do it right if she does not know what she is doing?”
Lawson: “a sweet little old lady . It does not seem right for her to be working with us on a stick up caper”
Louis: “I’ll just tell you this. I just don’t like old ladies. I don’t like having them around. I cannot stand them.”
Harry: “I don’t think we can depend on a screwy old dame like that.“
Although voiced by a bunch of caricature crooks, the ageism so openly expressed in these sentences do have a deep resonance even today.
While the characteristic of gullibility drives the narrative, Mrs. W. shows stubbornness in the slapstick sequences where she is trying to stop a stall holder from beating a horse. Here she is the agent of destruction: of the stall, the taxi and the livelihood of the two men.
A complete change in Mrs. W behaviour from the meek and mild little old lady to the schoolmarm occurs in the sequences where her friends come for tea just after she has discovered that the Professor and his mates were not musicians but gangsters.
These sequences are extremely interesting. We know that older women depend on the friendship of other older women, yet this is never seen on screen. Older women get together for support, education, fun. The U3A (University of the Third Age ) study groups are 74% female for example but there are countless older women groups all over the country.
Mrs. W. receiving her friends for tea is reminiscent of so many groups, U3A, Older Feminist, Growing Old Disgracefully etc. who meet regularly in each other houses. The women arrive one by one. They are all caricaturised but each one has a special personality. As her friends start arriving, Mrs. W. suddenly becomes assertive and orders the men around as the headteacher would an assembly of children:
“I suppose there is no need for me to look at the newspaper”
“Indeed I thought not”
“I am shocked, shocked and appalled and I must tell you – all of you.
“Didn’t you hear what I say dear. We are all going in”
“Now there is nothing for it, you will have to come in but please remember this. These are some of my older and closer friends and they must not get the slightest inkling of this disgraceful affair”
“Simply try for one hour to behave like gentlemen.”
After the friends leave, Mrs.W. reverts to the naïve and easily fooled little old lady. The quartet then proceed to try and kill her. But it seems that Lawson who had some doubts about involving the sweet little old lady in their heist, and probably motivated by her disciplinarian attitude, declares himself to be her protector : “nobody touches Mrs. Lopsided”, “I said nobody must do her.” “I am staying with Mum.” Here again we have the look of a man transforming the old woman in something she is not, his mother.
Unable to kill the old lady, the group just destroy each other.
And in a bookends last sequences Mrs. W walks out of the police station having been told that she can keep the money as long as she does not say anything about it.
A few words about the Coen brothers’s remake (2004). It takes place in Mississippi and the old lady is the stereotypical Black Big Mamma: bowlegged and irascible. She is a caricature while Mrs. Wilberforce was not. In comparison to Mrs. Wilberforce who has very independently held Victorian values of civil duties, Marva is a God fearing church goer. She does not allow smoking in her house, and does not like hip hop loud music. While Mrs. Wilberforce refers to her husband only at a time of internal conflict, Marva is dependent on his name and image throughout the film. Finally in an in-joke that may escape the majority of people: the Bob Jones University that Marva donates her money to has a racist history of which she is ignorant. But what is remarkable is that the old woman has lost the central, reference role that she had in the MacKendrick film.