I first started reading Willa Cather on account of a story I read by Truman Capote. The two of them, the story goes—a generation apart, both raised rural—bumped into each other one afternoon in a New York City snowstorm. Capote was no one, at the time—one of a thousand twenty-something young writers trying to make it in the big city. Capote, being Capote, was shooting off his twenty-two year old mouth about what good writing was and wasn’t, and didn’t know the lady in the sable coat getting an earful was Willa Cather. I was struck at the time with the reverential tone Capote employed when describing her. Capote was deliciously mean to a lot of people—many of them writers he didn’t rate—and that he spared Cather was the highest recommendation I could think of.
Capote wasn’t the only writer who knew how good she was. William Faulkner, who wrote the novel Pylon (1935) upon which Douglas Sirk based the film The Tarnished Angels (1957), was a big fan. So, although it is the film that puts Cather’s My Ántonia (1918), into the hands of its heroine, and not Faulkner, the addition is astute. The film tells us that it is the one and only novel LaVerne Shumann, played by Dorothy Malone, has ever read, and she’s never finished it. The life she’s landed is downtrodden and doesn’t allow for a lot of reading. Willa and William and Truman got lucky with a skill that got them out of the strange, foreign yet familiar, small-town life of immigrants in new land. But the characters they wrote about usually didn’t. Neither did most of their peers and contemporaries.
Outside of Douglas Sirk circles, Dorothy Malone is largely unknown as a lead actress. Her gift to posterity comes by way of Humphrey Bogart and one of the most famous scenes in perhaps the most famous film in all of film noir. In The Big Sleep (1946), Malone, appearing here as a brunette wearing glasses, is working the bookshop, which is actually a smut shop, when Bogart (as Philip Marlowe) walks in. It’s probably the only scene in the film that anyone actually steals from Bogart, but Malone is immediately memorable here. It makes no sense that she was always used like this, not a lead, not even a femme fatale, just “girl in bookshop.”
Sirk, along with Bogart and Lauren Bacall save her from the futility of a B-movie career first in Written on the Wind (1956), which earned her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. It seems fitting that that it is Bogart and Bacall who remember Malone, who know that she has been underused in Hollywood. By the time of The Tarnished Angels, Malone had become a bona-fide movie star, for the first time. She doesn’t look happy about it. The ten years during which Malone toiled in obscurity seem clearly to have weathered her. When she re-emerged, she did so as a platinum blonde who could never again be cast in any good girl roles. There’s a world weariness to her portrayal of LaVerne Shumann that you can’t really attribute to Sirk or Faulkner. Malone kind of acts the way most people do when they’ve known true despair or seen it up close anyway. I don’t think it’s just pretentiousness that makes Sirk insist on all those close-ups on My Ántonia: it’s just a vital, public service he’s providing for his audience. Leaving everything you know, having no place to go—these are horrible things and between those who make it and those who don’t, the difference isn’t all that much.
When a homesick, homesteader from Bohemia kills himself, Cather cannot accept the idea that that sort of suicide is any kind of sin. “Nevertheless, after I went to bed, this idea of punishment and Purgatory came back on me crushingly. I remembered the account of Dives in torment, and shuddered. But Mr. Shimerda had not been rich and selfish: he had only been so unhappy that he could not live any longer” (p. 103).
My Ántonia is also worth reading so that your friends don’t make fun of you for botching the pronunciation of Ántonia, as happened to me. As Cather explains in a footnote on the very first page, “The Bohemian name Ántonia is strongly accented on the first syllable, like the English name Anthony, and the I is, of course, given the sound of long e. The name is pronounced An’-ton’ee-ah.” (I also got made fun of for once calling Evelyn Waugh a she, but that’s literature for you—a minefield, you gotta step lightly.)