By: Megan McGurk
Of all the rotten things Fredric March does to Sylvia Sidney’s character—and there are many—the worst occurs when he ruins her chicken for a dinner party. Any woman under the sun would have grabbed him at the belt and tossed him out the window for that offence. But Sylvia Sidney, with a face like a Valentine, heart shaped and bow-lips, absorbs every indignity he dishes out. She’s the type of woman who’s won over so easily, viewers can only lament that she thought so little of herself. Fredric March, at the one-eye-squint stage of inebriation, nearly legless, woos her at a cocktail party with a vapid ditty:
First she gave me gingerbread and then she gave me cake. Then she gave me crème de menthe for meeting her at the gate.
As society heiress Joan Prentice, the simplicity of the song appeals to Sylvia Sidney’s character. She thinks it’s winsome when she should regard it as a metaphor for their terrible relationship. March’s Jerry will take and take from her without giving anything in return. During their first meeting, there are other signs she should have noticed, especially his assurance that he could talk about himself for hours. Or when he quips ‘all the signs point to three stars’ on the bottle of Hennessy cognac. By the end of their first conversation, he so pie-eyed, he ceases recognition and threatens a bellicose drunkard’s ‘Who’re you?’
Further evidence of how much he’s a scoundrel presents itself during their second meeting. Invited for tea, he arrives after everyone’s gone home and left poor dejected Joan alone, who had assembled gingerbread, cake, and crème de menthe like it was her heart on a plate for him to ignore and then smash. He says he doesn’t like women and ‘prefers the company of men’. Later, when engaged, he goes off the rails on a bender and passes out. Joan’s so humiliated that she leaves the engagement party rather than return without her finance. At the wedding, he has lost the ring and slips a pocket cork screw on her finger. At least he admits ‘I ought to be shot’ for losing it. As the plot progresses, he crawls back in the bottle and then in bed with another woman.
On every level, Jerry should be beaten, shot, buried, then dug up and set on fire for good measure. Yet amidst his narcissistic transgressions, the incident with the chicken remains most exasperating. On a platter for guests, golden brown and carefully dressed, the chicken represents the daily labour of an average wife. Above other dishes, the roast chicken signifies a hallmark of competent housekeeping. Roast chicken isn’t fancy or expensive, but not everyone can turn out a tasty one. It must be seasoned, kept moist and browned perfectly. When done well, roast chicken demonstrates the cook’s probity through rustic, wholesome fare. If you bring a bad chicken to the table, you’re unlikely to succeed with anything more ambitious. I haven’t eat meat since Clinton’s first term in the Oval Office and I still make a darn good roast chicken. Poor Joan washed the bird, patted it dry, sprinkled it with salt and pepper and rubbed pats of butter under and over the dimpled skin. She kept an eye on it, probably basted it, filled the house with its comforting aroma. Her stomach growled when she thought about carving it at table. Joan’s skill and care baked into the little bird.