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Mad Men at the Movies, Pt. 2: Visual Echoes

by Lisca Bianca
Mad Men at the Movies, Pt. 2: Visual Echoes by Lisca Bianca
This will hopefully be an ongoing project of pairing Mad Men with its cinematic predecessors (and sometimes its successors too) whether their apparent similarity was intended as such or not by the series creators. * * Mad Imitation of Sirk The Sirkian melodrama aspect of the show is no longer as present, but while it was there, it was quite enthralling. Betty and Lora are the beautiful, young, absent type of mother. The suburban housewife, and once a fashion model, Betty is emotionally unequipped to adequately fullfil her role as a mother. The career oriented Lora is physically, and therefore emotionally, away to spend enough time with her… Read more

This will hopefully be an ongoing project of pairing Mad Men with its cinematic predecessors (and sometimes its successors too) whether their apparent similarity was intended as such or not by the series creators.

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Mad Imitation of Sirk

The Sirkian melodrama aspect of the show is no longer as present, but while it was there, it was quite enthralling. Betty and Lora are the beautiful, young, absent type of mother. The suburban housewife, and once a fashion model, Betty is emotionally unequipped to adequately fullfil her role as a mother. The career oriented Lora is physically, and therefore emotionally, away to spend enough time with her child. Sally and Susie are in many ways raised by the black housekeeper. Betty’s lack of maternal affection is a lot more worrying than Lora’s, though. Lora at least has an identifiable source of distraction, whereas Betty has no goals whatsoever, and even when she did, they were promptly thwarted. Having been married to a charlatan extraordinaire only partially explains Betty’s expanding misery regarding all things life. Other contributing factors have never been properly explored by the show’s writers. And that’s a crying shame because Betty has become the show’s most tragic and neglected character, and no one is doing anything about it.

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A Tale of Two Bettys

In its very essence, the Betty Elms and Betty Draper story is the same; it’s a tale of unrequited love and emotional abandonment. Once a beautiful, vivacious young talent is now a heartbroken, vindictive shrew.

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The Marnie of it All

The one thing I’ve always loved about the Betty Draper character is the series’ masterful blending of two Hitchcock heroines into one woman. Ever since season one Betty has been presented as a Grace Kelly type of woman (there’s even a derogatory “Main Line brat” comment from Don at one point), and considering her physical appearance the comparison is hardly disputable. Psychologically, however, Betty is every bit the Tippi Hedren character. And that part doesn’t receive nearly as much attention, if any, in the press. It’s hard to believe that nobody is noticing the clues; Don’s petname for Betty is “Birdy”, her maidenname is Hofstadt and she is of Nordic descent (as uttered in that immortal Betty quote), she has a troubled relationship with her mother replete with an emotional development of a child, and there’s the horse riding too. We all know the name of the Hitchcock film that brought Tippi to fame, right? And perhaps some of us know that Tippi is of Swedish descent? ( I’m not saying that Sweden and Germany are the same, but you get the idea.) Furthermore, in the “Shoot” episode from S1 Betty daydreams about shooting her neighbour’s pigeons. Etcetera, etcetera… It’s a shame these similarities remain neglected because the Tippi Hedren side of Betty is infinitely more interesting than the Grace Kelly surface.

((( On a meandering side note, January Jones had apparently been considered, or perhaps only rumoured, to play Tippi Hedren in Julian Jarrold’s The Girl, but the role evidently went to Sienna Miller instead. I’m slightly bummed by this, as I (obviously) think Jones would’ve made a perfect Tippi. An interesting thing happens in the first half hour of the film when Hedren/Miller is handpicked by Hitchcock as the leading lady for The Birds. As Hedren/Miller makes her way to the studio, the Linda Scott song “I’ve Told Every Little Star” is heard on the soundtrack. It was a proper WTF?! moment for me. My brain instantly shortwired the song to Mulholland Drive, a film about a struggling actress including the famous “This is the girl” line, and more importantly a film whose director references Hitchcock whenever he gets the chance. I thought it to be more than a passing coincidence and wondered why The Girl, a film about Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren, would take such an extravagant detour by referencing a Hitchcock referencer (David Lynch), when it already has Hitchcock and Hedren as its own subject matter? )))

And a few examples where both the visual and the narrative coincide.

Betty and Don are dressed up and on their way to Roger’s Kentucky Derby party, but are interrupted and agitated by Betty’s father who throws a tantrum over a lost five dollar bill.

Marnie and Mark are hosting a party where Marnie’s ex employer Strutt, the man she stole money from, shows up unexpectedly. Marnie is agitated
and starts to panic.

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Betty’s pregnancy wakes her up in the middle of the night and she childishly complains to Don about Sally breaking his suitcase. In doing so, she offers a pseudo-diagnosis stating that “She took to your tools like a little lesbian.”.

Marnie has woken up from her nightmare and she childishly taunts Mark to psychoanalyse her; “You Freud, me Jane?”. In doing so, Marnie offers a
few pseudo-diagnoses herself.

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Betty is irritated that Henry sees right through her lies and jealousy, as she tries to cover up the fact that she still cares about Don and is upset to see him with another woman.

Marnie is upset that Mark has caught on to her web of lies and kleptomania. Notice in both scenes the “perpetrator” is cornered and confined in the
car/passenger seat.

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Betty is likened to a child by her troubled relationship with the neighbour’s son Glen Bishop. He is simultaneously presented as a friend, intruder, and a foe. As the story progresses, Glen befriends Sally, much to Betty’s discontent.

Marnie is likened to a child by the intrusion of the neighbour girl Jessie Cotton into the life (and house) of Marnie’s mother Bernice. Or is Marnie the intruder here? Bernice and Marnie’s relationship is alarmingly strained, and Bernice repents for the mistakes she’s made with Marnie by allowing little Jessie Cotton to roam free around the house and do as she pleases.

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Betty fantasises about shooting her neighbour’s pigeons. It works as a catharsis for her suburban ennui and malaise, her psychological repression, and a predisposition to melancholy (a trait I feel the writers have failed to address properly in the five years the show’s been running – Somebody help Betty, please!).

Marnie’s mercy killing of her beloved horse Forio is a symbolic move of sorts, as well as a catharsis for the myriad of pent-up and unacknowledged emotions. “There, there, now.”

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Marnie Continued: The New Secretary

This particular scene from the “Ladies Room” episode (S01E02), starting with the low angle shot from underneath Peggy’s desk and then moving upwards in slow motion, while “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” by The Andrews Sisters plays non-diegetically, was the moment I got hooked on Mad Men. I never could quite place my admiration for it, especially since it might have been the very first bit of Mad Men I ever saw, having stumbled onto it accidentally late one evening on the BBC some odd five years ago. I thought it was a film, that’s how beautifully cinematic the scene looked to me. Naturally, I soon found out that it wasn’t a film but a tv series. Still, I never stopped thinking about that scene and it took me a while to find out why.

A year or two after my introduction to Mad Men, I watched Marnie again after a really long time. What I soon discovered was that whenever I watched Marnie I was reminded of certain things from Mad Men. It should be the other way around, though. I’ve mentioned the Betty connection above, but a perhaps less obvious link with Peggy also became apparent after a while.

There is a striking similarity in the way the camera approaches the two secretaries on their first day of work at the new office. The frames I selected show they’re both filmed from behind with the camera slowly zooming in on the woman sitting at her desk and typing. In Marnie’s case, the camera moves in a semi-circle around her and stops to linger on her left side, revealing Marnie’s gaze and attention to be on something other than the typewriter. She’s eyeing the safe and the evocative Bernard Herrmann score tells us that as well. In Peggy’s case, it’s a less elaborate zoom from a straight-on angle that comes to a halt and prompts her, as it were, to turn around, revealing the right side of her face as she looks at the clock on the wall behind her. Peggy’s gaze is also averted from the typewriter (as Peggy’s narrative progresses the abandonded typewriter will become symbolic).

Another similarity at work is that both sequences end with the upset secretary rushing to the ladies room; Marnie in a panic attack after spilling some red ink on her white blouse, and Peggy being distraught by the predatory gaze directed at her by each and every male colleague that passes by her desk. A big and interesting difference here is Peggy’s sharp awareness of the male gaze, whereas Marnie doesn’t know that Sean Connery is gawking at her from behind (the jaguarundi analogy later in the film is brilliant). The icing on the Peggy-as-Marnie cake comes in the scene at the horse races where a man approaches Marnie and asks: “Pardon me, but you’re Peggy Nicholson, aren’t you?”. Indeed she is Peggy.

Thirdly, in both instances there’s a forceful retrieval of the secretary by her employer/leading man. Marnie absconds with the Rutland & Co. money only to be found by Sean Connery just as quicky as she had escaped, and is forced into confession and marriage. Peggy goes AWOL and it takes a while before the audience is let in on what I still think is the show’s greatest, most fascinating enigma; Don goes out of his way to find his earnest, frumpy secretary and makes sure she comes back to Sterling Cooper.

There’s also this little gem, a shot of disembodied feet in dark brown pumps whose wearer carries money in her purse; Marnie making a quiet exit after having robbed the safe at Rutland & Co., and Peggy making a mysterious entrance at the police station carrying bail money for the intoxicated, car-crashed Don (S02E05).

[Update oct 2013]

More of the secretary’s silent exit (I’ve missed this parallel in my initial post). Peggy’s departure from SCDP at the height of the agency’s success just after landing (however INAPPROPRIATELY) the Jaguar account, and also one of my very favourite executions of a scene on Mad Men, vs the opening shots/scene in Marnie.

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The Rebecca Turnover

After her marriage to Don dissolves, Betty marries Henry, an older man whom she doesn’t really know that well. They trade the old Draper
residence for a Manderley-like gothic mansion (Don mockingly refers to it as “Give Morticia and Lurch my love” when he drops off the kids). Henry’s mother Pauline turns out to be a mother-in-law and a grandmother from hell. She doesn’t stop short of terrorising both Betty and Sally, making her a proper Mrs. Danvers to Betty’s ….what’s the name of Joan Fontaine’s character again? Oh right, she doesn’t have one! Betty Draper becomes Betty Francis and it’s jarring to hear her answer the phone with “Francis residence”.

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The Gray Flannel Suit

Probably not the most exciting pairing, considering that The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is basically a blueprint for Mad Men, but the connection shouldn’t be ignored just because it’s too obvious and less interesting. They share, in its simplest form, the same premise: a tall, handsome family man from the suburbs, who has an office job in Manhattan, and who keeps certain details of his (war) past hidden. For both men, the gray flannel suit they wear is a type of camouflage and a display of social conformity at the same time. For Don Draper perhaps more of the former, and for Tom Rath more of the latter.

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The “European Type”

Megan is an aspiring actress. She’s also French (Canadian).

Don didn’t waste a whole lot of time before he moved from a Grace Kelly type to an Anna Karina one. The tragedy at work here is that back in season 1, when Megan was nowhere around, Betty was mercilessly rejected to star in a Coca-Cola commercial by McCann Erickson, under the excuse of “We’re looking for a ‘European type’ and you’re not it.”. The excuse was just a smoke screen as the rejection was in fact an act of revenge towards Don who refused to leave Sterling Cooper and join the rivaling McCann. Cut to five years later, Don is much less resistant and this time helps his new wife weasel her way into a shoe commercial that requires a European type actress,

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