Nabokov on film genre
by Nandia Foteini Vlachou
Nabokov’s powers of description and his eloquence were, indeed, formidable, and if Lolita somewhat loses its narrative thrust after its two main characters take flight through a vast America whose imaginary geography is constituted by the writer, the reader is rewarded by the abundance of evocative passages and descriptions. Such is the one where Nabokov discusses Lolita’s ‘veritable passion’ for cinema. An irony verging on disdain seeps through the lines that detail the various genres, and although it is more than likely that Nabokov jumbled together scenes from different films, the way he writes suggests he might refer to actual genre b-movies from the late 1940s, the period when he started his novel.
Musicals: “In the first, real singers and dancers had unreal stage careers in an essentially grief-proof sphere of existence wherefrom death and truth were banned, and where, at the end, white-haired, dewy-eyed, technically deathless, the initially reluctant father of a show-crazy girl always finished by applauding her apotheosis on fabulous Broadway.”
This seems too generic on the one hand, and too specific on the other, but despite much google searching I have come up empty-handed.
Gangster films/noir (Nabokov calls this category ‘the underworlders’): “The underworld was a world apart: there, heroic newspapermen were tortured, telephone bills ran to billions, and, in a robust atmosphere of incompetent marksmanship, villains were chased through sewers and storehouses by pathologically fearless cops.”
It might very well be the b-genre documentary-style noir He Walked by Night (1948), directed by Alfred Werker and the uncredited Anthony Mann, that prominently features a chase through sewers (the sewer scene from The Third Man also comes to mind, but I consider it a less likely candidate – it would hardly qualify as ‘genre’).
Westerns: “Finally there was the mahogany landscape, the florid-faced, blue-eyed roughriders, the prim pretty schoolteacher arriving in Roaring Gulch, the rearing horse, the spectacular stampede, the pistol thrust through the shivered windowpane, the stupendous fist fight, the crashing mountain of dusty old-fashioned furniture, the table used as a weapon, the timely somersault, the pinned hand still groping for the dropped bowie knife, the grunt, the sweet crash of fist again chin, the kick in the belly, the flying tackle; and immediately after a plethora of pain that would have hospitalized a Hercules…, nothing to show but the rather becoming bruise on the bronzed cheek of the warmed-up hero embracing his gorgeous frontier bride.”
I am almost certain that this refers to The Virginian (1946), based on Owen Wister’s popular novel and directed by Stuart Gilmore, probably more well known as Preston Sturges’s editor. Gilmore even got his protagonist, blue-eyed Joel McCrea, from Sullivan’s Travels. The film features a rearing horse, a stampede, and Barbara Britton as the prim pretty schoolteacher.
An exercise in futility? Perhaps – but an entertaining one, at the very least.
* All references are from the 2006 Penguin Red Classic edition.