This article is part of the Costume Drama Blogathon hosted by Debbie of Moon in Gemini. Thanks for letting me take part!
I speak, consult and write about climate change. I also blog now and again, often about movies. In 2014 I posted an article, one of my personal favorites I’ve ever done, that lists “10 movies you didn’t know were about climate change.” I didn’t include Gaslight, the 1944 costume drama with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer–and one of my all-time favorite movies–on the list, but perhaps I should have. Although the film never mentions the environment or climate anywhere in it, and its makers would no doubt have been baffled that a viewer 75 years later would see something about climate change in it, Gaslight, a deliciously complex film with numerous levels, does have some connections to the world’s biggest problem. But even setting that aside, it’s a marvelous film, tense and psychological, and its 1880s London setting is a toy for the eyes. Few more perfect movies ever came out of Hollywood in that age or ours, so on whatever level you decide to dig into Gaslight, you’ll find something of value.
First, the movie itself. A brief opening vignette features a supposedly teenaged Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman) leaving her guardian aunt’s posh London row house, No. 9 Thornton Square, after the aunt has been mysteriously murdered. Some years later, the now-adult Paula, training in Italy (unsuccessfully) to become an opera star, has a whirlwind romance with her singing teacher’s accompanist, the swarthy Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), who marries her and convinces her–against her better judgment–to return to live at No. 9 Thornton Square. Only Paula begins to suffer a psychological breakdown. She loses things. She hears phantom footsteps in the attic, especially when the light of the gas lamps in the house mysteriously go dim. Her husband tells her she’s ill and losing her mind. Is she? Or is she being driven crazy deliberately by her husband, who might be connected to the aunt’s still-unsolved murder? An inexplicably American investigator for Scotland Yard, Brian Cameon (Joseph Cotten) eventually becomes the only person who is willing to entertain the idea that Paula is not insane.
The trailer for Gaslight (1944).
Gaslight’s history is interesting. It was adapted from a 1938 British play, a hit in London’s West End which was hot just before Britain entered World War II in the late summer of 1939. Curiously, the play’s next adaptation, the American version called Angel Street, which starred Vincent Price as the Gregory Anton character, opened on December 5, 1941, two days before the United States entered the war. By then there was already a film version, made in 1940, but MGM picked up the rights to do a Hollywood remake only on the condition that all prints of the 1940 version be destroyed. (They weren’t, for the record). This was the era of film noir, and Gaslight is definitely received as a classic film noir. Ingrid Bergman won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Paula Alquist, and the film marked the debut of young Angela Lansbury, whose career continues into the present year, 2019.
Gaslight is most well-remembered for its portrayal of the form of psychological abuse that is named for it: gaslighting, or the practice of making someone, usually a woman, doubt her own sanity such that no one else believes anything she says. Domestic abuse was not talked about in 1944 and certainly not in the 1880s when the film takes place, but it clearly happened, relegated to the shadows in which lurked all manner of evil that our society is only now beginning to come to grips with. As an early entrant in films that dealt with the topic, Gaslight‘s writers Walter Reisch, John Van Druten and John Balderston and its director George Cukor are somewhat ham-handed about it. Anton is an almost cartoonish villain from the word go, lacking only a curled mustache and the occasional cackle of “MUAHAHAHA!” to reduce him to caricature, but the pattern of abuse depicted on-screen is pretty accurate to how it often occurs in real life. Bergman portrays Paula as brittle and damaged, skittish as a cat, jumping at shadows and doubting everything. She’s a prime suspect for this kind of abuse. What did she ever see in Anton, anyway? That question is left unanswered, but Gaslight still works as a mystery and as a thriller despite its threadbare spots.
In this scene from Gaslight, Gregory (Charles Boyer) uses the fiction of a missing painting to get Paula (Ingrid Bergman) to doubt her own senses. This is a classic move of psychological abusers.
So what–if anything–does Gaslight have to do with the environment and climate change? When I began teaching classes on the history of climate change in 2015, I discovered quickly that the history of interior illumination throughout the ages has always been closely linked to the environment. Gaslight takes as its title, its visual and stylistic motif, and as the key clue to solving the mystery the kind of light source used in many urban homes in the late Victorian era. (Paula’s psychological manifestations reach their peak when the gas goes down, which she thinks is in her mind until Cameron notices it too). We associate gas lighting with the late 19th century precisely because that’s the only time it was used. In the first half of the 19th century, most interior illumination was done with whale oil; by the end of the century electric light bulbs were coming into vogue. It was only in that late period that gas, which was created as a by-product of coal extraction, became a public utility in many areas such as London and New York City. With both its poisonous quality and its tendency to explode, gas was highly dangerous, yet it was piped all over the place for several decades. Its dangers hastened the need for an alternative; cue Thomas Edison. That’s the backstory of Gaslight‘s motif.
Even aside from being a by-product of fossil fuel consumption, which was then (1880s) just beginning to ramp up to the scale on which it would begin to alter the Earth’s climate–there’s your climate change connection–the phenomenon that gas lighting replaced also had disastrous environmental consequences. The need for whale oil to light lamps in mostly urban spaces sparked a huge boom in the whaling trade, which in the early- to mid-19th century consumed utterly vast amounts of resources, to say nothing of pushing the world’s whale population, especially sperm and blue whales, to the brink of extinction. Although whale oil had been a useful product for most of human history and whaling stretches back to antiquity, the overall impact of whaling on the environment was tiny until the 19th century–and the explosion was driven entirely by the market for interior illumination products. By 1860 whales were mostly hunted out and the price of oil was very high. The fossil fuel alternative–gaslight–was just coming on line. One era of environmental degradation, then, the terrible decimation of whale populations, was replaced by another, that of climate change.
Paula (Ingrid Bergman) finally comes back into the real world through the intercession of Scotland Yard detective Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten). Bit of a spoiler alert!
The psychological meaning of gaslighting, though, also has relevance to the subject of climate change. Scientists discovered the greenhouse effect and linked it to the consumption of fossil fuels no later than 1896–not long after the era in which Gaslight takes place. Since 1896 the scientific understanding of global warming and its human causes have been confirmed, re-confirmed, and re-re-re-confirmed without any possibility of doubt numerous times–yet industry-funded think tanks, oil companies, conservative politicians and media outlets and conspiracy theorists keep trying to push the narrative that it’s fake, or that we don’t really know, or that it’s “alarmist” to credit and act upon the proven and undeniable science. What is this but gaslighting an entire society, for the benefit of a few who stand to lose from our inevitable abandonment of fossil fuels? Fortunately, there are now (late 2019) far fewer climate change deniers around than there were even five years ago, though that’s small comfort when confronted with the reality that climate deniers occupy both the White House and No. 10 Downing Street. Nevertheless, the reality exists, and as Gaslight’s Paula ultimately has the last laugh at her defeated husband, we see that the truth has a curious way of cutting through the fog of disinformation.
As I said, Gaslight has so many levels. It’s a film noir; it’s a psychological thriller; it’s a tense drama about romance gone bad; it’s an eye-popping costume period piece; it’s a fascinating artifact of its time. But like all truly great movies, it has connections to our own time and we can, from the standpoint of the present, find new and different meanings in it that its makers never intended. The best films take on new relevance as the ages pass. Gaslight is one of those.
The poster for Gaslight is presumably copyright (C) 1944 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. I believe my inclusion of it here is permissible under fair use. I am not the uploader of any YouTube clips embedded here.