Kay Boyle at the Movies: The Art of Film and Boyle’s Short Fiction
War, political upheaval, and international intrigue are the context in which we read Kay Boyle’s short fiction, and readers of her work recognize the remarkable complexity of her portrayal of specific characters against a backdrop of world events. However, her short stories also speak to the power of popular culture in the twentieth century, particularly the emergence of film as a significant art form and vehicle for narrative. Boyle was born in 1902, seven years after the “birth of cinema” in 1895 when the Lumière brothers first screened their short films. The early exhibition of films, the development of film production companies, the rise of the controversial but innovative American film director D.W. Griffith, and the beginnings of a celebrity culture focused on film stars occurred during the years of Kay Boyle’s childhood. Her own peak as a writer coincided with that of an industry that literally grew up with her. At the peak of the American film industry in 1946 more than eighty million people (57% of Americans) attended the movies in a week. Kay Boyle’s stories, writes Elizabeth Bell, require and assume a knowledge of history. They require and assume, too, a knowledge of popular culture, particularly film.
Boyle’s 1943 short story “The Canals of Mars” is the strongest example of the author’s keen interest in film, but evidence of Boyle’s early appreciation of film as a significant medium precedes it. The first letter included in Sandra Spanier’s Kay Boyle: A Twentieth Century Life in Letters is a letter from seventeen-year-old Boyle to her sister Joan, written on the evening of June 29, 1919, after an afternoon at the movies, an experience Boyle recollects in the letter (Spanier 19-22). Perhaps she attended movies at the Esquire Theatre in Cincinnati, which began screening films in 1911. No doubt the Esquire in 1915 featured D.W. Griffith’s controversial Klu Klux Klan-inspired The Birth of a Nation, which made such an impact that President Woodrow Wilson reportedly remarked about it, “It’s like writing history with lightning.” The film figures in two of Boyle’s stories from the 1930s.
In “Security” (1936), a narrator in the present moment of the story recalls her childhood and her relationship with her grandfather. The time remembered is clearly established by the narrator by her recollection that The Birth of a Nation came out that year. The narrator is ten, a few years younger than Boyle was in 1915, and enamored by the film’s star, Henry B. Walthall, who played the Little Colonel in it. “Whatever I did then I did for Henry B. Walthall to see,” the narrator recalls. The young girl, then, is an early film fan, and her activities—including starting a magazine with her sister—are inspired at least in part by her infatuation with a movie star and male celebrity figure of her time. Henry B. Walthall by 1915 had starred in dozens of films, mainly shorts, and was a Griffith favorite. At 5 foot and 7 inches, Walthall was a southerner from Alabama. He may serve as a kind of film equivalent for Puss, the grandfather in the story who is based on Boyle’s own formidable grandfather and who rules over the home like a little colonel, a tiny tyrant, his small stature being one of his defining features. The young narrator learns of the complicated nature of Puss’s gift of a bond to her, a bond from “Union Iron and Steel, Preferred” (FS 95), a bond that the narrator returns in an act of resistance against Puss’s tyrannical patronage of her little magazine.
In “White as Snow” (1933), The Birth of a Nation factors as well. Another story about a narrator’s youth, the story also looks back to 1915, clear again because of the reference to The Birth of a Nation. Carrie, a light-skinned nursemaid in the narrator’s household who uses powder to lighten her skin further, is a character who, in Elizabeth Bell’s words, “refuses to challenge the existing order.” That order places her in a lower social rank because of her race, and Boyle highlights the historical realities in play that work to humiliate her and dehumanize her even on a pleasure trip to the movies with the two children in her care and Adamic, her would-be suitor, of sorts. The happy outing is spoiled when the man in the ticket booth insists Carrie sit upstairs, and Adamic tries to convince her the only seat available in the theatre is upstairs. Carrie knows better. As she tells the children later, “I wasn’t fooled. It was the Jim Crow gallery. Colored people goes upstairs, other people goes down” (Fifty Stories 73). The movie theatre, with all its pleasures and promises of entertainment, provides no escape from the realities of racism, and Boyle, who wrote powerfully throughout her life about racial injustice, shows here how the narrator as a privileged child becomes suddenly aware of the cruelties of the world Carrie inhabits.
Injustice is at the heart of another story Boyle published in the 1930s reflecting her interest in film, “Kroy Wen.” It follows the misadventures of a film director travelling by boat to Italy as part of a doctor-mandated rest plan who pursues a poor Italian couple whom he wants to feature in his next film. The director is the subject of Boyle’s satire. Although he is brutal in his behavior, we are told that he is taking the trip “to get away from art. Art and humanity were what he was escaping.” When he forgets his promise to rest and plans to film the Italian couple, he reasons, “here was the artist soul and the love of humanity in him betraying him” (FS 45). The director’s lack of insight into his own motivations and behaviors is clear and humorous, but through the story, Boyle makes a serious point about the responsibility of the artist to human values. The director’s desperate pursuit of authenticity is misguided because he does not truly value the Italian couple, does not care about their pain and struggle, or even the approaching birth of their child. Boyle presents him as a failed artist whose cruel behavior toward the couple illustrates the lack of empathy he brings to filmmaking.
During World War II, film viewing in America reached new heights, and it is a story set during the war and published in 1943, “The Canals of Mars,” that best illustrates Boyle’s immersion in film culture. The events of the story begin at 11:00 a.m. in the morning in New York City as a couple wait out the time until 3:30 p.m. when the man must join other soldiers leaving for service, and they struggle to decide the best way to spend their time before arriving at Pennsylvania Station for the man’s departure. How might they make the most of the time they have available to them, and what memories can they take away from their time together that might sustain them during their separation? At first, they decide to visit the planetarium, where they might glimpse “the canals of Mars,” but the planetarium show doesn’t begin until 2:30 p.m. When they walk away from the planetarium and discover a movie theatre showing the 1937 film Pépé le Moko, the woman, who has seen the film, declares it will be “better than the canals of Mars.” Directed by Julien Duvivier, the film is set in the Kasbah of Algiers and stars Jean Gabin as Pépé, a gangster in love with the beautiful Gaby. Like many film enthusiasts today, the woman in Boyle’s story is passionate about the film. She treats it like a gift she can give to her beloved:
“It’s something you can take away with you and keep under glass wherever they send you to. Pépé escapes, he hides in the Kasbah, and there’s one line you can keep forever with you. It’s when he’s kissing the girl who’s come from Paris, and he knows he never can go home. He doesn’t tell her that she smells of the lilacs in the Bois,” she whispered, “or the marroniers along the boulevard. He says, Tu sens le Metro, and he says it the way no one’s said anything before.” (FS 582)
Kay Boyle described “The Canals of Mars” as “a purely factual story,” and the circumstances the couple in the story face are those that Boyle and her husband Joseph von Frankenstein faced during the war. The woman in the story discusses Pépé le Moko as a writer or critic might, highlighting the power of the language, the nature of the plot, the authenticity of the characters. She reflects on the film and her first viewing of it with the love of a true film buff and an admirer of compelling narratives:
“I walked in off the quays at Toulon one afternoon when I didn’t know whether the Germans had caught up with you yet or not, and there it was,” she said. “The speech and the characters are so good that it couldn’t matter when you came in on them—I mean, the same way it doesn’t matter when you come into actual peoples’ lives, because you always know right away, even if you come into the middle of people’s lives, exactly what they are and what they’ve always been.” (582)
Although the couple’s timing is once again off, and “Gabin goes on at half-past two,” the woman’s recollection of the film substitutes for film viewing. The couple decide to go on to Pennsylvania Station and wait there. It is clear the man has understood what the woman has tried to convey about the film when he says to her at the station, “’You’re the canals of Mars and the Kasbah” (584). Boyle not only loved the film Pépé le Moko but also its star (her hero worship was not limited to literary figures and Irish revolutionaries.) Her love of Jean Gabin is documented in her letters, a love that went so far as a desire to write stories that might be turned into star vehicles for him. According to a letter from Boyle to Caresse Crosby dated August 17, 1942, Boyle wrote “Frenchman’s Ship” (1943) for Gabin. This delighted her stepdaughter Pegeen who wrote Boyle in the same year in July to say she and Boyle’s oldest daughter Bobby “worship him beyond measure.”
Considering her cosmopolitanism, it is not surprising that Boyle in her short fiction would allude to not only American film and American filmmaking, but also to French film and through the choice of film to which she alludes, the French poetic realism movement, a movement that very likely appealed to Boyle’s sensibilities. Pépé le Moko is described by the Criterion Collection as “one of the most influential films of the 20th century and a landmark of French poetic realism,” and its star embodied the values of the French poetic realism movement in film. The movement emerged in France in the 1930s and combined poetic and stylistic film innovations with everyday heroes and heroines who manage to convey nobility in the face of often tragic circumstances. It is interesting to note that Harlan Hatcher in 1935 in Creating the Modern American Novel placed Boyle in the school of poetic realism. It is no surprise then that she might find in Jean Gabin not only an attractive star but a kindred spirit.Boyle’s stories reveal her interest in cinema as a twentieth-century art form and popular medium. Her work can be placed within the context of the work of other modernists who recognized film’s potential to revolutionize narrative art and to reach new audiences. Her stories also reveal her understanding of the allure of film stars and the special magic of the cinematic experience. Boyle, like her readers, found pleasure at the movies.
Bell, Elizabeth. Kay Boyle: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992.
Boyle, Kay. “Kroy Wren.” The New Yorker (25 July 1931); The First Lovers and Other Stories. New York: Harrison Smith and Robert Haas, 1933; Fifty Stories, New Directions, 1992, p. 44-49.
“White as Snow.” The New Yorker (5 August 1933): 20-22, 26-28; The White Horses of Vienna. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1936; Fifty Stories, New Directions, 1992, p. 64-73.
— “Security.” The New Yorker (25 January 1936): 15; Fifty Stories, New Directions, 1992, p. 89-95.
— “The Canals of Mars.” Harper’s Bazaar (February 1943); Fifty Stories, New Directions, 1992, p. 577-86.
— “Frenchman’s Ship.” The Saturday Evening Post (21 November 1943).
— Kay Boyle: A Twentieth-Century Life in Letters, edited and with an introduction by Sandra Spanier, Urbana, Chicago and Springfield, University of Illinois Press, 2015.
Hatcher, Harlan. Creating the Modern American Novel. New York: Farrar and Rhinehart, 1935.
Christine Hait is Professor of English at Columbia College in Columbia, South Carolina. She is co-founder and treasurer of the Kay Boyle Society She has published articles on Kay Boyle and Katherine Anne Porter. In addition, she served for many years on the executive committee of the Katherine Anne Porter Society.