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Hipster Holy Grail: Allotment Wives (1945)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The blurb for people who don't like to read actual criticism:

Allotment Wives is a movie I'm recommending more for the idea than the experience.  The movie's not actually great, but it's interesting enough to dig up for the historical interest, with a dash of speculation and wonder.

My Rating:  3 / 5

The longer bits for people who like film discussion:

The Bit Wherein I Apologize

So...  I'll be honest with ya.  I'm slumming it this week.

I tried.  I really tried to find a better movie to write about.  I've watched three movies in the last three days, and none of them were stellar.

Ever since I decided to make more of an effort for this feature, I've made a conscious decision not to write a Grail entry unless I really thought it was worthwhile to dig up one of these films.  Usually they are good enough to stand on their own merits, but if they're even just a marginal recommend with one interesting aspect, then I can find something to write about.

But this week?  I just wasn't finding anything.  Hotline was an okay, but incredibly rote thriller.  The Curse had some fun nonsense, but it's basically just generic horror. And then I watched Allotment Wives.

I didn't think it was a great movie... but you know what?  It would be good fodder for an awfully interesting remake.

So, this week I'm recommending that somebody remake this movie.  Does that count as an entry?  Let's just say it does, because it's late and I don't have much time left.

The Bit Wherein I Describe the Movie's Plot

The movie opens with the ol' "Let's explain everything in voice-over" trick with a fascinating(?) look behind the scenes of American bureaucracy.  Specifically, the film gives us a quick lesson on the Office of Dependency Benefits (ODB), an agency in charge of distributing allowances and other benefits to the families of US servicemen.

Recently, the ODB has discovered that a few women have been scamming the system by marrying multiple men just before they deploy for overseas service.  Since they are using fake names and their husbands are no longer in the country, they can collect multiple checks and nobody is any the wiser.  ODB doesn't know to what extent the scam is being perpetrated, so they commission Colonel Martin (Paul Kelly) to lead an investigation into this very specific, very unusual crime.

Now, here's where the movie goes off the rails....

Martin finds out pretty quickly that polygamy-based fraud isn't confined to just a few isolated incidents.  No, it's actually the business model for several competing organized crime networks - some big, some small.  As Martin digs deeper into the shady underworld, he gets hot on the trail of the biggest syndicate of all, headed by the cunning Sheila Seymour (Kay Francis).

Sheila's gang is merciless and expansive - relatively speaking.  She's got maybe half a dozen goons and another dozen or so Decoy Wives at her disposal.  That may not sound like a lot, but let's keep in mind that her gang specializes solely in defrauding the ODB and occasionally murdering people.  That's a real niche market; eighteen employees sounds about right.

Most of the movie focuses on Sheila's misadventures, but occasionally it cuts back to Martin's plodding investigation.  Sheila interferes with him at one point by introducing herself to Martin as a beauty salon owner and offering to keep an eye out for suspicious behavior.  Martin buys her story and crosses her off his suspect list until such a time when the movie would like him to have a Shocking Revelation.  (Spoiler Alert: It happens around minute 75.)

Martin ends up being something of a minor distraction for Sheila.  As fate would have it, she's got her hands full with more pressing matters.  First is her disobedient daughter, Connie (Teala Loring), who keeps ditching school to hang out with young soldiers.  (I guess Sheila's worried that Connie will, what, marry them?  Maybe 2 or 3 at a time?)  Second is an old school frenemy named Gladys (Gertrude Michael).  Gladys is trying to muscle in on Sheila's racket - in the process, she kidnaps Connie and tries to pass evidence incriminating Sheila to the authorities.

After much hilarious non-violent violence, Sheila eradicates her enemies and rescues Connie.  Knowing that ODB is closing in on them, Sheila plans to flee to Mexico with Connie and her last surviving thugs.  They start packing their things...

...but Martin has had the Minute 75 Reveal and knows that Sheila is actually the evil crime lord.  He goes to confront her and she dies in a shootout.

But don't worry about Connie!  Martin pretty much turns to the camera to tell us that she'll be fine.  In case you were worried.  (It's fine, guys.  Movies are just stories.)

The Bit Wherein I Complain

Allotment Wives is really marred by its era.

This is an incredibly silly movie much of the time.  It's not so outrageous that you can enjoy it ironically - but it's right on that cusp.

For example:  Directors weren't allowed to show blood, so of course nobody can die with dignity.  If a character gets shot today, then some blood flies out of their body and they just fall down.  But back in the '40s?  They had to swap out the blood spray with overacting.  Of course, you expect that from older movies, so this isn't necessarily surprising - but Christ did this movie lay it on thick.  There's a scene where a guy gets shot, does the Pain Watusi on his way across a room, then sits down on a couch and makes himself cozy before dying.

The entire movie has a cornball B-movie feel.  This is neither surprising - it was directed by William Nigh, who pretty much exclusively made B-movies - nor is it altogether unpleasant.  The cornball aesthetic was what the '40s and '50s were all about.

The problem is that the subject matter doesn't really lend itself to this style.  Allotment Wives has an unusual premise, but its narrative is a straight-up gangster movie.  You really get the impression that they wanted to make a movie about a prostitution ring, but they weren't allowed - so they just went through the script and replaced "hooker" with "wife."

It really shows.

The soldiers aren't trying to get in a quick screw before they go off to war - they're looking for marriage.  When somebody offers a seedy proposition, they aren't planning to have sex - they're planning to kiss.

The movie takes place in this alien universe where the only thing on a young man's mind is matrimonial commitment.  It's such a problem that Colonel Martin has another practically-addressing-the-camera moment where he laments that "this should be a lesson to young men everywhere who are so recklessly getting married."

If the women were just allowed to be hookers, the whole movie would actually make sense.  Instead, it's this crazy mess.

The Bit Wherein I Wonder About Historical Context

I'm sure this scam was pulled at one point, right?  I wonder how that went.  How long was an allotment wife able to keep up the ruse?  How many husbands did they have on average?  What was the record for the most number of military husbands?  What was the highest amount of money a wife made off this deal?  What were the logistics of defrauding the ODB?  How were the women perceived when their crimes came to light?  What did they do when World War II ended?  What did their husbands do?

So many interesting questions.  They should make a movie about this.

The Bit Wherein I Hope for a Remake

I think the reason I'm most disappointed in this movie is because it could work on so many more levels.  There's so much stuff that is conspicuously absent.

The movie deserves props for its depiction of female empowerment.  The cast is principally made of women and the women give orders to all the men.  But ironically, this empowerment comes from a "submissive" act - getting married and pretending to be a dutiful, loyal housewife.  The movie doesn't really seem to notice how clever or ironic this is, so there are no interesting thematic discussions of gender politics.  Why not?  A remake could really get into this and come up with some clever interplay between the sexes.

Another oddity - you never actually see any of the husbands.  Wouldn't the soldiers be the greatest victim in this crime?  Sure, the government's losing money, but the true tragedy would lie in the crushed worldview of a returning hero, wouldn't it?  There isn't a single scene that touches on this.  Where's the moment where a man has his legs blown off in Normandy, recovers in a hospital for six weeks, gets put in a wheelchair, is honorably discharged, and then sent back home... only to find out that his wife is sleeping with two other husbands?  That's something to put in a remake.

Hell, you never even see a marriage.  This is a crime movie about polygamy.  In any other crime movie, you get some sense of what the crime is.  Remember how Scarface showed a bunch of drugs being distributed and people snorted coke all the time?  Why aren't we seeing wall-to-wall weddings?  The remake could even have a bit about how Sheila has a priest on her payroll who hangs around just so he can administer impromptu weddings.

All of that might not even be necessary.  Actually, the best way to remake this movie would be to scale it down to just a couple of offbeat characters and make it a dark comedy.  Sheila and Gladys are a couple of widows who have fallen on tough times, but they hatch a harebrained polygamy scheme when they learn about how easy it is to get a check from the ODB.  Get the Coen Brothers to direct and the rest of it pretty much writes itself.

There's a terrific movie here.  You just have to get rid of Allotment Wives.

I probably haven't sold you on this, but you can watch it right now on Netflix Instant.  Maybe check it out if you're looking for inspiration for your next screenplay.