“Noir at MoMA: Two Recollections” by Kurt Brokaw

Two favorite memories less about what was on screen and more about the audiences that were viewing them.

If you’ve lived in Manhattan most of your adult life (and are reading this journal), you’ve probably watched some choice noirs at the Museum of Modern Art. These two favorite memories are less about what was on screen, and more about the audiences that were viewing them. 

I’m sitting in a crowded weekday matinee, more than 20 years ago, enjoying what was called a Specialty Number by the female lead. That’s when 40s noirs more or less skidded to a halt to let the star sing a song. I can’t recall exactly whether it was Dorothy Lamour in Johnny Apollo (1940) or Liz Scott in Dead Reckoning (1947) or Ida Lupino in The Man I Love (1947), or Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946), but it was a nightclub scene with the band tooting along behind Dorothy or Liz or Ida or Rita, and there’s an audience of well-dressed swells at a lot of tables and banquettes. I hear murmurs up and down my row during the number. I’m figuring they’re commenting on her clothes or trying to remember whatever obscure song she’s singing, but it goes deeper than that and it seems to ripple ahead as well as behind me. I’m noticing the audience is a lot of older couples or older singles in their 70s and 80s, which is not unusual for a 40s movie at MoMA on a weekday afternoon.

When the lights come up at the end of the movie, I turn to the well-dressed elders next to me, who were also whispering during the number, and ask them if maybe they’d spotted some celebrity or tinseltown name I’d missed. 

“Oh, no,” she explains. “We were looking for ourselves. Many of us here today were also looking and I think a few of us spotted ourselves. We worked in 40s movies as dress extras.” 

Lizabeth Scott singing to Humphrey Bogart in Dead Reckoning.

“And as you can see, everyone is sitting in their seat watching it but you.”

More recently, when the beloved chief curator Laurence Kardish was still running things, MoMA advertised a newly struck print of Mitch Leisen’s No Man Of Her Own (I950), the dark, twisty tale from Cornell Woolrich’s I Married A Dead Man (1948), with Barbara Stanwyck, John Lund and an especially nasty Lyle Bettger. Scarce movie, at that time not on DVD or even VHS.

Stanwyck is a pregnant, broke New York frail dumped by bad boy Bettger, who leaves her a train ticket to nowhere. She takes it. On the train, she’s befriended by a couple going to visit his aged, well-to-do parents in the Midwest. They’re meeting her for the first time. The woman (Phyllis Thaxter) is also pregnant. She and Stanwyck have a long chat in the loo, and Barb tries on her new friend’s wedding ring. At that moment there’s a colossal train wreck and the other couple die, but Barb lives, is met by mom and dad, assumes the dead woman’s identify, has her baby, and lets them shelter and protect her while she raises her baby. (Typical convoluted Woolrich, right?) All goes beautifully until – guess who shows up, threatening to tell all. The plot argues Barb should kill this skunk. (Classic Woolrich.)

It was scheduled for screening once at 6:00pm on a weeknight, and there were perhaps 150 of us – mostly seniors, a few film students, the usual scattering of European tourists who just wanted a place to sit and take a nap.  

The lights go down and on comes No Man of Her Own, only it’s the pre-code 1933 comedy with Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Oh my god, the wrong movie. I turn my head and call out “Lights! Wrong picture!” Everyone around me whispers “Ssshhhhh!” The lady in front of me turns and swats me with her newspaper. 

“Yes, yes, but it’s the WRONG No Man of Her Own!”

I run out to the ticket taker at the door of Titus One, and gasp that the wrong film’s on, and she stares at me speechless. I bolt up the adjacent steps and bang on the projectionist’s door. He ambles down and sticks his head out a bit, and I wave my arms up and down, back and forth from the auditorium to his booth and call out “Wrong movie! Wrong movie!” He goes back up to the booth and a long minute later ambles back down and cautiously says “excuse me, sir, but this is Clark Gable and this most certainly is No Man of Her Own.” 

I think about strangling him. Growing more frantic by the second, I blurt out “Yes, yes, but it’s the wrong No Man of her Own!” I give him my best Marty delivery that It’s-the-1950-Barbara-Stanwyck-drama-not-the-1933-Gable-Comedy-we’re-supposed-to-see. Again he plods back up the steps to the booth. A minute or so later he ambles back down again and informs me this is the last movie he’s running from the day’s showings. He adds, politely, “And as you can see, everyone is sitting in their seat watching it but you.” 

I can’t believe this. I poke my head back in the darkened theater, and sure enough, everything is sitting there frozen, watching Carole Lombard prattle on. I lunge up the escalator steps, two at a time, to the main floor and charge out to the main museum desk. There’s a reception phone and I demand to speak with someone in charge. I’m breathing hard. The gal at the desk eyes me suspiciously but she dials a number, hands me the phone, and to my astonishment it’s Mr. Kardish himself. 

I get out that the wrong No Man of Her Own is showing downstairs. “How could this happen?” I rage. There’s a long pause, and Kardish slowly asks what people are doing. I’m gritting my teeth. “Everyone is sitting there watching it!” I barely get out. “How many?” Larry slowly asks. “Over a hundred,” I reply, “maybe two hundred.” Then I start to laugh. The absurdity of this suddenly hits me. Maybe it hits Kardish the same time, because he chuckles a bit, too. Larry upstairs in his office, me on the main floor, all these dozens of happy seniors and film kids and foreign tourists relaxing down in Titus One, lapping up Carole and Clark’s antics.

I finally pull myself together enough to suggest that maybe MoMA and the film department owe me a makeup screening of Mitch Leisen’s newly restored print of the 1950 film. Maybe yes? Maybe sometime in the near future? Absolutely, Larry assures me, just watch the schedule

It’s now some years since Larry’s moved on. I miss him, a whole lot. He was a fabulous head curator for 40 years, right up there with MoMA’s Iris Barry. But I’m still watching the schedule and still waiting for that Barbara Stanwyck noir. 

Kurt Brokaw is senior film critic of The Independent. His memoir, The Paperback Guy, was published in 2020.

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