“Paula Martin was the most exciting woman on earth. Speed and thrills. That’s great newspaper copy, but to those of us who knew her, she was something else.”
What was she, Paula Martin?
Famed aviatrix? Negligent wife? Just some selfish dame with nice gams? This television episode, starring the illustrious Veronica Lake (minus her famed peek-a-boo ‘do), aired in 1952, and it betrays its age like a sinking, washed-up alcoholic celebrity (more on Miss Lake later). If you watch this, you can’t help but giggle at the acting, phrases like “doodling over that radio,” stiff elocution, and spinning-newspaper seques. But as a strange dame myself, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit of that old-fashioned horror that a science fiction series like Tales of Tomorrow tries to impel us toward.
If you remind yourself that Tales of Tomorrow is, first and foremost, science fiction, I think you’ll see what I mean, because the genre has always been a way for people to entertain themselves by dealing with their fear about the perilous future of technology or unexplored territory. People like to approach those ideas that scare them in an entertaining, titillating way, and science fiction is a prime vehicle for taking people there. Stories of Martians and outer-space invasions became popular in the forties and fifties and betrayed a post-war xenophobia as the country returned to isolationism. The reality of scientific advancement proved to be scary for everyone struggling to understand the fact that a split atom they couldn’t even see could kill over 250,000 Japanese in one day. Americans undoubtedly understood that the science fiction of the past would become the reality of the future, hence the popularity and relevance of Tales of Tomorrow. People were entertaining themselves with the possibilities they feared most. Now Freud would say: "Ja, ja I told you so and no ones belief me! Scheiss."
So in “Flight Overdue”, the conflict is based on what people were really, truly, deeply afraid of in 1952. All of the drama and appeal of this story stems from a basic fear of the future and change. Are you sitting down for this, dear? Prepare yourself for the terror and frenzy of this tale.
Paula Martin, a world famous aviatrix, against her husband’s wishes, escapes his grasp and continues on her path of career fame and glory, ultimately sacrificing her life for the pursuit of science and exploration. Right now you must be thinking: “but if she was always flying around and she wasn’t in her god-damn kitchen, then how did her husband eat? My god, he must have starved. That poor, hungry man. How many nights did he lie curled up, helpless and desperate before his refrigerator, with only the cold linoleum and the sounds of his rumbling tummy to keep him company? Is this the sad, ruined fate of American womanhood at work?”
No? You’re not thinking that?
Oh. Because that’s what they were totally going for.
The bit about Paula taking a space shuttle to the moon takes less than 30 seconds to reveal, but the bit about her being an independent woman, a daredevil, and a husband-leaver (yup, that’s a word now) takes the whole rest of the episode to develop. The writers are tugging the “gee, look at the people she left behind” strings and ignoring the “sweet jesus, she went to the moon” angle. Which is a very important stylistic choice, given that this is a science fiction story. It’s that obvious choice, the realization that Paula Martin’s failure as a wife far outshadows her bravery or self-sacrifice that imparts a sense of horror to me, a modern day gal, and by gal I mean to say feminist.
Now, regarding Miss Veronica Lake, the sad story of a misguided ingénue past her prime. You might not be familiar with the actress’ descent into alcoholism, mental illness, or the fact that she was an honest-to-God aviatrix with a license to prove iti. Those are important to note, because they radically change the way you watch this episode.
Throughout the 1940’s Veronica Lake played the sexy vixen role in a number of films. Her best was probably The Blue Dahlia (1946), or at least that was her last good one. In the same year, she flew from California to New York while she was five-months pregnant.ii She had made a reputation for herself in Hollywood as being difficult to work with, and a drunk. Since her childhood, she had been dealing with serious mental disorders that caused her behavior to be impulsive and erratic, although no clear diagnosis was ever made. This kind of behavior might make a gentleman actor a cad at worst, but for a woman these sorts of snafus were unseemly and quickly ended her film career. As many a sinking-and-burning actress has done, she turned to small television roles such as that of Paula Martin to pay her bar tab. The similarity between character and actress is... unsettling.
Imagine if someone approached Charlie Sheen two or three years from now, with a script about an alcoholic father who has his kids taken away from him. Lets call his character, oh, I don’t know, Shmaula Shmartin. You’d watch it and think, “hey I remember that time he went batshit,” or maybe, “look at him prostituting his own tragedy to make a lousy buck.”
Audiences viewing “Flight Overdue” when it originally aired probably had similar reactions to Veronica Lake’s portrayal of a woman who just happened to also fly airplanes and also had a retinue of discarded husbands.
Sometimes science fiction proves itself – for better or worse – prophetic. My dad recently gave me his old You Will Go to The Moon, (1959) a Cat in the Hat reader. It’s about how, one day, little boys and girls will go to the moon -- because of science -- and then once we’ve conquered the moon, we’ll shoot for Mars. It was his favorite story growing up.
Needless to say, we’ve come a long way, even if the tales of tomorrow we heard about yesterday didn’t exactly predict today. (Science, where is my jetpack?) We’re not so afraid of the same things anymore, but from Odysseus to Paula Martin, we will always love a story about someone with the balls to leave home in search of something indefinite. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Paula Martin i.e. Veronica Lake; world-famous aviatrix and lousy wife, had a fine pair.
Stephanie Carlson is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan's undergraduate English program. She is a native Detroiter, which is where she currently resides, wishing that one day her city will have a train that moves people, which is not, currently, the People Mover. Stephanie often takes to exuberantly dancing about the streets with her new English degree, hoping employers will notice and/or care. She likes a very specific shade of mint green paired with red-orange and Hefeweiss beer. She dislikes Kraft American Singles and wearing socks to bed.