Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Hold Back the Dawn, at Last on Blu Ray

The Siren is inordinately pleased to announce that the home-video gods have heard our pleas: Hold Back the Dawn, Mitchell Leisen’s best film, from one of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder’s best scripts, is out today, July 16, on glorious region-free Blu Ray from Arrow. The first pressing will contain a booklet with the Siren’s essay about the film, so if you want one, you need to put some hustle in it à la Georges and Anita.

The Siren’s longtime patient readers will no doubt recall the Siren’s intense dislike of any praise for an old movie that starts, ends, or continues in any way with “It’s so modern!” or, worse, “It could have been made last week!” Righty-o, last week, because the present-day woods are chock-full of Wilders and Leisens etc.


Hold Back the Dawn remains relevant to Our National Moment. Spookily relevant, as the Siren describes the plot:

“A refugee from an ‘undesirable’ country, one with a U.S. immigration quota that won’t get around to him for nearly a decade, finds himself stuck in a Mexican border town with hundreds of other desperate refugees, all looking for a way in.”

The Siren wonders what Brackett and Wilder would say once they’d read this week’s newspapers. (They’d probably get their hats and coats and head straight back for the afterlife.)

With the kind permission of Arrow, the Siren is posting an excerpt from her much-longer booklet essay.

The movie opens with [Romanian-born Georges Iscovescu (Charles Boyer)] striding into a movie studio and desperately offering a story pitch to a director named Dwight Saxon, played by Leisen himself, for the bargain price of $500. (In a nice inside-reference, Leisen is shown on the Paramount set directing Veronica Lake and Brian Donlevy in I Wanted Wings.) ‘My papers give my occupation as a dancer, which is correct, in a general way,’ he says as the flashback begins. To a savvy American (or any would-be immigrant) in 1941 this was an alert. The quotas were small, and made even smaller by a clause in the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924: Officials could refuse admittance to anyone likely to be a ‘public charge.’ Iscovescu is, as plainly as could be under the Production Code, a gigolo, and a potential public charge if ever there was one.

Even as played by Charles Boyer, he of the tender eyes and chocolate-ganache voice, Iscovescu is one cold article. The unnamed border town he’s stuck in has become so full of would-be immigrants that no hotel rooms are available — until a refugee hangs himself in one at the Esperanza, and Iscovescu pounces without a second thought. Leisen’s camera emphasizes the cramped boredom of the town, having Boyer cross and re-cross certain parts of the set. The border checkpoint is marked by a fence (‘it might as well be a hundred feet high,’ fumes Georges), palm trees and a massive ‘UNITED STATES’ over the gate; the interior is seen only in glimpses. At first, glum, sardonic Georges comes to life only when in the company of fellow gold-digger Anita.

Paulette Goddard, born on Long Island and American down to her lacquered toenails, gives not the slightest impression of being any kind of foreigner. But Anita is such a delightful presence in the movie it scarcely matters, scheming to take her rich sucker to the cleaners while she keeps a weather eye on Boyer. In contrast to de Havilland, whose dialogue as Emmy is achingly sincere, Brackett and Wilder give Anita nothing but firecrackers: ‘Your door was unlocked. I just dropped in to borrow a cup of sugar.’ Goddard’s best work outside of her Chaplin films often involved a scene where she gets to tell another character the facts of life, as in The Women. Here it’s when Anita tells Emmy the truth about Georges: ‘I know what you’re thinking — this woman’s a tramp, and she’s in love with him. Well, I am a tramp, and I am in love with him.’ Anita’s essentially an amoral person, but what sells the scene is the sympathy that flickers across her face when she sees how deeply Emmy is hurt.

Exquisitely pretty De Havilland, who got the role on loanout from a highly reluctant Jack Warner, was perhaps an odd choice for a schoolteacher who’s reached her mid-twenties and remained a virgin. But the script suggests Emmy is sheltered more than anything, a good Catholic girl (she and Boyer have a lovely scene in a Mexican church) who has dreamt of romance and is uncommonly vulnerable to anyone offering it.


And like everyone else in Hold Back the Dawn, Emmy isn’t a saint, as Brackett and Wilder show by giving her the film’s most searing line. U.S. sentiment about immigration in 1941 was decidedly, even virulently “con”; polls showed most Americans wanted the refugees kept out. Brackett and Wilder allude to that as Emmy rhapsodizes to Georges about the promise of America: ‘You see, it’s like, um — like a lake. Clear and fresh and it’ll never get stagnant while new streams are flowing in.’ ‘Well,’ says Georges, ‘your people are building pretty high dams to stop those streams.’ ‘Just to keep out the scum, Georges,’ replies Emmy.

And yes – aside to Karen Green, Yojimbo and others – you bet the Siren discusses The Affair of the Cockroach.

If you don’t know what she means by that, by all means, buy the disc and find out.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

The House by the River (1950)

“Lang never approached a project casually; he enjoyed making films too much.” 
—Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It

In 1950 Fritz Lang was coming off the box-office failure of a movie dear to his heart, The Secret Beyond the Door. He told Bogdanovich The House by the River was just something he was offered, but “there are certain things in it I liked.” The movie, made for peanuts at tightwad Republic Studios, is a low-budget thriller with a low-prestige cast—a potboiler, a melodrama. So the Siren expected it to be terrific, and it was.

Low budgets don’t matter that much with a talent like Lang’s—he takes the obvious set-ness of the sets and fits it to the story. The house of the title sits in an improbably compact row of other houses, so close to a large, swift river that in real life one good set of spring rains would have them all scrambling for higher ground. The story’s location is often described as the South, and perhaps that was the intent, but judging from the accents, it’s southern Illinois. The characters are affluent, but they seem to have spent everything on the wallpaper and wainscoting with not much left over for little details like furniture.

The movie’s setting is everywhere and nowhere. To the emigrant Lang, it’s just America, tasteless affluence hard by a seething flow of decay and sublimated sex.

Lang was given no real stars for this picture, but the lead, Louis Hayward, is so enjoyable you scramble for his filmography to see what else he’s done. The first line of the movie is spoken by an elderly busybody hoeing her garden: “I hate this river,” she says, as the corpse of something floats past. Stephen Byrne (Hayward) gets up from his writing, easily distracted from something he wasn’t approaching with passion anyway. Stephen’s character is revealed in one affable line delivery—“It’s people you should be blaming for the filth, not the river”—and in his reaction, too disengaged even to glance in the direction of a dead thing. Up in the far background, a pretty young housemaid (Dorothy Patrick) approaches. She’ll be dead in the next ten minutes of runtime, discarded as ruthlessly as the animal.

The House by the River, 88 minutes rippling out from that admirably succinct opening, builds a decayed, feverishly lustful atmosphere. Its antihero blossoms from failed writer to bestselling sensation through the simple expedient of strangling someone. The budget may have been low, but for a Lang lover the movie is full of marvels, from a twisted tree in the river that seems to have a taste for carrion, to a shot of Stephen at the top of a cellar door, cloaked in black on both sides as he searches for a sack to make a shroud for a dead woman.

Fritz Lang is a sexy filmmaker. The Siren has no idea why people often treat this statement as mad. Other directors highlight attraction, eroticism, games. Lang understands those things too, very well indeed, but he is mainly preoccupied with the ways people use sex to torment one another. In The House by the River, that shows in scenes such as the housemaid Emily’s death—the build to Stephen’s seduction attempt is ferociously sensual. So is the aftermath, as the position of Emily’s corpse and the way Stephen leans over her suggests consummation as much as cover-up.

Tortured sex is also evident when Stephen’s wife Marjorie (Jane Wyatt) comes home, flicking down the staircase with the same movements we last saw from the maid. Stephen unlaces Marjorie's corset, she pulls his hands around her waist. She says she should have stayed home, throws up her arms around him in a gesture of wifely affection that also echoes Emily’s corpse—and Stephen flashes on the fish he saw jumping in the river as he and his brother John (Lee Bowman) dumped the girl’s body. There is hunger too in John watching a square dance—he’s in love with Wyatt, but his leg is lame, and through Lang’s camera you sense John focusing not only on his carefree, murderous brother, but also on Wyatt’s hand disappearing inside a partner’s. Sex is even there in the motherly bustle of John’s own housemaid (Jody Gilbert), her vast bosom leaning over him as she coaxes her love object to eat some eggs.

Stephen is a frustrated writer, dedicated enough to submit and re-submit manuscripts again and again, but not enough to get any better at writing. Emily’s death turns Stephen’s one published book into a success, and also releases something in him—talent, we suspect. Inhibitions gone, he writes a book about her disappearance. But the better his book gets, the closer he steps to discovery. Naturally it’s the river, a classic symbol of sensuality, that resolves Stephen’s fate by uncovering death.

(Originally published at the late lamented Fandor.)

Friday, January 18, 2019

It's Lonely at the Top, Mostly Because You're a Drunk: The Biopics of 1957

The Siren challenges you to find a photo of Jeanne Eagels wearing anything like this.

Gather round, patient readers, and listen to how and why, by the authority she’s invested in herself, the Siren has declared 1957 to be Peak Hollywood Biopic. It all begins with Kim Novak’s turn in the title role of Jeanne Eagels, the 1957 George Sidney-helmed movie about the Broadway legend.

The Siren had already seen the movie, but she wanted to see it again, so she forked over a few bucks to Amazon Prime and found herself fascinated. That’s not to say the movie’s good — it isn’t — but if there’s only interesting and boring, Jeanne Eagels is undeniably interesting.

It stars Kim Novak (still getting the big buildup from Columbia boss Harry Cohn at the time) as the Broadway actress who was worshipped by Bette Davis, the one that Barbara Stanwyck scrimped and saved to see multiple times in the stage version of Somerset Maugham’s Rain. Eagels had toured extensively, but she died in 1929, and at this point in the late 1950s, the number of people who could recall her stage performances was dwindling. She’d made less than a dozen movies, most of which were either lost or well out of circulation. (The Letter, her best-known film, didn’t hit TV until TCM screened it in the 2000s, according to Lou Lumenick.) Still, Jeanne Eagels was a name that meant something to acting connoisseurs, and still does. Casting Novak was a way of saying she too was a gifted actress.

The real Jeanne Eagels

Novak looks a little bit like Eagels, but the script undermines her at every turn. Eagels had a turbulent life that you’d think would be more than enough for a movie, but even in their waning years the studios never hesitated to gild the lily. So Eagels’ early days in a traveling theater become a job as a hoochie-coochie dancer in a carnival. (The reason behind this can be deduced from a trip through Google Images, dominated by Novak in her dancing get-up.) Jeanne falls in love with Sal Satori, played by Jeff Chandler. Sal operates the carnival, but his real job is to be the ordinary Joe who represents the Career-Obsessed Woman’s One Chance at Love. Fortunately, one of the film’s pleasures is how good Brooklyn native Chandler is in this fictional and largely thankless role.

Never happened, but it's the best scene in the movie.

Amidst a choice selection of whopping fibs about Eagels, the winner has to be how she gets the part in Rain. In real life, according to her biographers Eric Woodard and Tara Hanks, she probably unearthed the manuscript from a pile in producer Jed Harris’s office. In the movie, Jeanne is given the script by the once-great and now-alcoholic actress "Elsie Desmond" (Virginia Grey, hitting her two scenes out of the park) in hopes that Jeanne’s star power can help Elsie convince a producer to take both the play and her. Instead, Jeanne convinces the producer she’s perfect for Sadie Thompson. The despondent Desmond throws herself out of the window of her Bowery flophouse, and the resulting guilt is what sends Jeanne spiraling into addiction. (In 1950s biopics, there’s always a moment of guilt, trauma, or betrayal that starts someone drinking; nobody ever goes from cocktails to the drunk tank without a precise cause.) This near-slanderous bit of fantasy was no doubt a big part of what caused Eagels’ surviving family to sue (they lost), but it does bring us the movie’s visual highlight. As Jeanne waits in the wings on Rain’s opening night, Elsie shows up to hiss that the role of Sadie will only bring bad luck. The Siren isn’t crazy about a lot of ultracrisp shadow-averse late-50s black-and-white cinematography, but that is Robert H. Planck’s style for Jeanne Eagels — except when Sidney decides to get freaky because Jeanne is drunk, high, or having a meltdown. And in this key moment, Grey and Novak are shot in close-up, their heads almost floating, leaving open the possibility that Jeanne is imagining the whole thing.

The Siren included this because it's another look at Novak's Sadie Thompson eye makeup, which is brilliant.

It would have made for a good time to cut away from showing Rain onstage, because when Novak has to play Eagels playing Thompson, sad to say she’s not up to it. Brash sexuality like Sadie’s wasn’t Novak’s style. She was opaque, mysterious, reserved. Watching her strut her stuff for the denizens of Pago Pago only brings up awkward comparisons to Swanson and Crawford; the Siren can’t imagine how people who’d actually seen Eagels would have reacted.

Novak does clock some good work, though, notably in her first scene with Agnes Moorehead, who plays a composite version of several acting coaches and eventually settles into the time-honored Faithful Friend biopic role. And Novak nearly had the Siren in tears when, near the end of the film, Jeanne fully expresses her love for Sal. It’s much more moving than the finale, after Jeanne meets her fate via some of Sidney’s craziest framing. The last scene shows Sal going to see Eagels in her final film: a musical (!) that has Eagels on the balcony of a Southern plantation house (!!), singing a song about love while twirling around in a hoopskirt. The Siren cannot fathom why they decided to pretend Jeanne Eagels was some kind of proto-Jeanette MacDonald, especially since earlier in the movie, Jeanne is shown filming the same movie as a silent. (The director who talks her through the scene? An uncredited Frank Borzage. His manner is so supportive and intelligent that it’s easy to see why the likes of Janet Gaynor loved him.) But then, this ending— are we supposed to think a Borzage silent got The Dancing Cavalier treatment? No wonder Woodard and Hanks spend a good seven pages debunking this film and the number it’s done on perceptions of Eagels.

Leslie Crosbie, or Naughty Marietta? You decide.

And that is the story of Jeanne Eagels, a strange and highly fictionalized biopic from 1957. What the Siren discovered, once she started digging around for comparisons, is that 1957 represents, without a doubt, Peak Strange and Highly Fictionalized Biopic. How this happened is hard to say. Hollywood has long loved biopics, which offer a choice lead role and ostensibly confer a certain kind of prestige. The 1950s fused that with the new vogue for socially conscious storytelling to come up with entries like I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Love Me or Leave Me, and Lust for Life. But, for whatever viral reason, 1957 went nuts; there were at least 11 screen biographies (12 if you count Saint Joan). Having described Jeanne Eagels in detail, the Siren will describe some of the other films in brief. There are three she will skip: Monkey on My Back (dir. Andre DeToth), about boxer Barney Ross’s struggle with post-World War II heroin addiction, because she hasn’t seen it; The Spirit of St. Louis (dir. Billy Wilder), about Charles Lindbergh’s famous trans-Atlantic flight, because she wasn’t that crazy about it; and Fear Strikes Out (dir. Robert Mulligan), about baseball player Jim Piersall’s mental breakdown, because while the Siren has seen that one, she doesn’t remember it.

The others vary in quality, but a few are quite good. And by and large they do have a connecting theme, which explains the Siren's headline.

Not the lowest ebb, but close.

The Helen Morgan Story (directed by Michael Curtiz)
Lead Performance: Curtiz turned down or was turned down by 32 actresses, including everyone from Doris Day to Patti Page, before hiring Ann Blyth to play the definitive 1920s torch singer. Morgan originated the role of Julie Laverne in Showboat, singing “Bill” in her signature draped-over-the-piano style. Blyth, who’d worked with Curtiz a dozen years earlier on Mildred Pierce, is a credible Morgan, although for some strange reason Blyth’s own pretty singing voice (which wasn’t that far from Morgan’s) was dubbed by Gogi Grant. It was Blyth’s last film role, for reasons you can read about in Jacqueline T. Lynchs book; and it was Curtiz’s last film for Warner Brothers after more than three decades of towering over the lot.

Alcohol consumption: Life-threatening. The real Morgan's alcoholism was apparent virtually the first time she walked into a speakeasy. (In this movie, she starts as a carnival dancer. What was it that year with starting women out in carnivals?)

Liberties Taken With the Facts: Too many to tally, as much of the script concerns Helen’s travails with Paul Newman as the Inevitable Composite Lover, called Larry Maddux. Larry’s a louse for much of the running time, and the movie blames Morgan’s drinking on him. In truth Morgan reportedly had three husbands, none of whom show up here. In 1926 Morgan gave up a baby girl for adoption, but according to Alan K. Rode’s Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, the studio’s deal with Morgan’s mother forbade them from including that story. Despite a plot that lands the heroine in the alcoholic ward with DTs, the movie omits a great deal of the real Morgan’s sad life.

Inspirational or Tragic?: The fadeout has Morgan attending a gala dinner arranged by a contrite Maddux, with the suggestion that she’s on the comeback trail. In the last year or so of Morgan's life she did manage a small-scale return, but it was marred by more bouts of drinking, and she died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1941, aged just 41. The phony ending is one more thing that diminishes the film’s impact.

Who looks like that with Carolyn Jones’s arms around him? A psycho, that’s who. 

Baby Face Nelson
(directed by Don Siegel)
Lead Performance: Mickey Rooney, and he’s downright terrifying. The movie doesn’t hesitate to portray Baby Face as the psychopath he was — nasty, brutish, and short. You sniff that biopics are Oscar bait? Not this one, baby.

Alcohol consumption: Full tumblers poured straight from the bottle, but in this movie, nobody’s gonna live long enough to care about their liver anyway.

Liberties Taken With the Facts: A lot, probably, but the Siren won’t try to nitpick a portrayal of Nelson, who was a prolific killer and had few-to-zero redeeming qualities. Once you get that right (and despite some feints at humanizing the guy the film mostly does), the details don’t matter so much. The film is true pulp, in some ways a poor man’s White Heat. Siegel was a great action director, and the Siren would love to say more about the visuals, but Baby Face Nelson is hard to find in a good watchable form. She herself saw it on Youtube; her recollection is that the version she saw was slightly better than the ones circulating now, but not by much. Rumors abound about its preservation status, but it was screened at Film Forum as recently as 2006.

Inspirational or Tragic?: Need you ask? Screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring and Siegel come up with a fate for Nelson that is even more depressing than his real-life end.


The Buster Keaton Story
(directed, in a manner of speaking, by Sidney Sheldon)

Lead Performance: Donald O’Connor, good in other things, but here a rubber-faced mugging-machine who has almost nothing in common with Keaton, save flexibility.

Alcohol consumption: Copious. And that’s just the audience trying to watch it.

Liberties Taken With the Facts: Oh my stars, it’s basically all liberties and no facts. They even omit The General. There is little if any acknowledgement of Keaton’s towering directorial genius. The movie revolves largely around his drinking, which is attributed to his crush object (Rhonda Fleming) throwing him over to marry a duke. The one good thing you can say about the film is that the $50,000 Keaton was paid helped him buy a house.

Inspirational or Tragic?: The end, where faithful wife Ann Blyth tells him she’s pregnant, is meant to be uplifting, but it’s also completely made-up and the kind of hokum the real Buster wouldn't have put in his own movies on pain of death.

The Siren forgot to mention the gambling addiction.

The Joker Is Wild (directed by Charles Vidor)

Lead Performance: Frank Sinatra as Joe E. Lewis, the nightclub comedian whose days as a singer ended when a mob boss, angered by Lewis’s walking out on a promised gig, took horrific revenge. The Siren always cites Lewis as Sinatra’s best performance, and the movie surrounding it isn’t bad at all. Sinatra recorded the songs live, claiming it made for better performances; some of them had to be redubbed, but Sammy Cahn’s Oscar-winning “All the Way” gleams.

Alcohol consumption: Lewis is shown as a severe alcoholic, which is attributed to his getting his throat cut, and for once the pat explanation seems pretty reasonable in context.

Liberties Taken With the Facts: Not as many as most others made this year, perhaps because Lewis and Sinatra were friends. The real Lewis was nowhere near the singer that Sinatra was, but the gruesome mob attack did scar his face, cut his vocal cords, and took a part of his tongue; it did take him ages even to be able to speak; he did make a comeback as a nightclub comedian, albeit a strangely unfunny one (judge for yourself). The movie mostly omits the fact that Lewis continued to work for gangsters all his life. (Hard to be a comedian in that era if you didn’t.) Lewis’s sole marriage ended after two years; his joke was, “A man doesn’t know true happiness until he’s married, and then it's too late.” The movie doesn’t show that, but then, romance is where most biopics veer into fiction — because the real story isn’t romantic, because the studio didn’t want to get sued, or both. Jeanne Crain, as the society woman Lewis loves and loses, and Mitzi Gaynor, as the dancer he marries on the rebound, are touching, as is Eddie Albert as the Faithful Friend.

Inspirational or Tragic?: Here’s another perverse 1957 twist. This film could have had an accurate happy ending, given that Lewis was enjoying a lot of success when it was released. Instead The Joker Is Wild closes on a wistful scene of Lewis catching glimpses of his past in storefront windows, and vowing to quit the bottle. The real comedian never would have considered such a thing — liquor was key to his persona, a typical one-liner being “I distrust camels, and anyone else who can go a week without a drink.” He died in 1971, of a heart attack.

One of many bad moments in the first Chaney marriage.

Man of a Thousand Faces (directed by Joseph Pevney)

Lead Performance: James Cagney plays Lon Chaney, one all-time great portraying another. The catch was that square-faced, short Cagney looked nothing like (relatively) tall, lantern-jawed Chaney, a fact that Perc Westmore’s prosthetic makeup couldn’t quite overcome. Still, it’s a great performance. The Siren has huge affection for this film, which was a staple of cable TV back in the day.

Alcohol consumption: Believe it or not, almost none.

Liberties Taken With the Facts: As all fans know, both of Chaney’s parents were deaf, as they are in this film. His first wife, singer Cleva Creighton, played by an excellent Dorothy Malone, did attempt suicide by drinking mercuric chloride on stage, as she does here. However, the real Cleva was clearly suffering from depression or some other kind of mental illness, and probably deserves more pity than she gets as the villain in Man of a Thousand Faces. Otherwise, the film is full of details changed or eliminated, the script filling in the blanks of Chaney’s obsessively private life. (“Between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney,” he said.) The Siren’s favorite parts: Cagney’s enthralling recreation of a scene from The Miracle Man, and the moment he reaches for the makeup kit at the end (another fictional bit, but who cares?).

Inspirational or Tragic?: Despite Chaney's early death, mostly the former; and an example of Hollywood at least trying to do right by people with disabilities.

Blackout drinking: Bad lifestyle choice, or an inventive way to meet cute girls?

Beau James
(directed by Melville Shavelson)

Lead Performance: Bob Hope as James John “Jimmy” Walker, aka Beau James, the handsome, hard-partying, and quite corrupt mayor of New York from 1926 to 1932. While the movie has wit (“I wasn’t the only chump in this city. It took a lot of you to elect me”) this is largely a dramatic role, and Hope is entertaining as one of the most well-loved leaders this town ever had. The Siren hasn’t seen it in many years, but she has fond memories of Beau James.

Alcohol consumption: Vast, but largely benign, as when Walker passes out on a park bench, where he is found by Ziegfeld chorus girl Betty Compton (Vera Miles). She takes him home and sobers him up, and he falls in love with her.

Liberties Taken With the Facts: Unlike the man playing him, Walker’s politics were notably liberal. He created the Department of Sanitation, started what became the IND subway, cleaned up parks, built roads, docks, and other projects. A lover of booze, speakeasies, and chorus girls, he largely declined to enforce Prohibition, and as a state senator before he became mayor, he helped pass a law requiring that “oath-based organizations” file a list of their members with the state — a requirement that took dead aim at the resurgent Ku Klux Klan, and effectively turned it into an illegal organization. Needless to say, doing great things for a city’s infrastructure was way too boring for a 1957 biopic. Some real events are woven in, such as Walker’s going bust in the 1929 stock-market crash, and his drinking and partying are well covered. But most of Walker’s political legacy is skimmed in the movie, which is more interested in exploring Walker’s marriage in-name-only to Allie (Alexis Smith) and his affair with Betty, both of which are true, and in showing the corruption in his administration, albeit in as nice-guy a way as possible.

Inspirational or Tragic?: Walker was eventually forced to resign, and in the movie he does it at a Yankees game after he gets booed by the New Yorkers he loves. But he still has Betty, and they literally sail off together. In real life too, Walker still had his Betty when the dust settled. The sad part is the fate of this film itself. Once fairly common on AMC and the like, it isn’t on DVD and hasn’t been seen (legitimately) anywhere in years. One TCM user says plaintively that she’s 71 and hopes to see it again before she dies. There is a version on Youtube, but it’s migraine-inducingly out of focus.

Friday, January 11, 2019

To Save and Project: The 16th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation

Greetings, O friends of the Siren. For those of you residing in the New York area, rejoice: To Save and Project, the Museum of Modern Art’s film-preservation festival, is once more upon us and runs through Jan. 31. This year’s edition is full of things to tantalize a classic-film fan, and the Siren herewith provides a list of titles she is eager to see. For a full rundown on the festival, as well as dates and times of screenings, go here. The Siren is including MoMA’s descriptions of the restorations.

Forbidden Paradise 1924. USA. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Screenplay by Agnes Christine Johnson, Hans Kräl. With Pola Negri, Rod La Rocque, Adolphe Menjou, Pauline Starke. New digital restoration by The Museum of Modern Art and The Film Foundation, with funding provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation and the Franco-American Cultural Fund. Screening Friday, January 11, 7:00 pm; Tuesday, January 15, 7:00 pm.

Pola Negri arrived in Hollywood just after her old friend, mentor, and sparring partner from Ufa, Ernst Lubitsch. He was soon lent out to make Rosita with Mary Pickford (another film which MoMA has recently restored to its full glory) while Negri, to her tremendous chagrin, wound up working on The Spanish Dancer, a similar story. (“Mary,” sniffed Pola in her Memoirs of a Star, “was hardly a Latin type.”) Negri’s film did better at the box office than Rosita, something she notes with some relish, but she knew Herbert Brenon was no Lubitsch, and she yearned to work again with her old mentor. The result was Forbidden Paradise, the fulfillment of Pola’s longstanding desire to play Catherine the Great of Russia (or something close). MoMA says the film has been restored to 100 minutes and hasn’t been seen in this close to a complete form since its original release. The Siren, who’s never seen it, will be eager to view a scene in which Negri must run through the long corridors of the lavish set representing the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, then down a winding stairway, while wearing a “heavily brocaded negligee with a long sable-trimmed train.” When Lubitsch described the scene to her, Negri made the reasonable point that in such a get-up she was liable to trip and break her neck. Lubitsch reminded her that “we did much more dangerous stunts in Berlin.” “I was younger then.” “Three years younger,” he replied. Negri said her neck had gotten much more valuable in those three years. Lubitsch decided to make his point another way. He snatched the negligee, stepped into it and, his ever-present cigar clutched in his teeth, made the run himself. Negri, once she quit laughing, had to admit she had lost the argument. “And,” she told him, “the cigar is a brilliant ‘Lubitsch touch.’ So right for Catherine.”

The Private Life of Henry VIII 1933. Great Britain. Directed by Alexander Korda. Screenplay by Lajos Biró, Arthur Wimperis. With Charles Laughton, Merle Oberon, Robert Donat, Elsa Lanchester. New 4K digital restoration by the BFI National Archive and The Film Foundation, in association with ITV and Park Circus, with funding provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation. 97 min. Screening Saturday, January 12, 7:00 pm (introduced by Bryony Dixon, BFI) and
Tuesday, January 22, 1:00 pm.

Seen many times by the Siren, and she isn’t tired of it yet. Historians sigh and roll their eyes, but Charles Laughton’s carnivorous oversexed mountain of a man remains what critic Michael Koresky calls the “culturally definitive” portrait of Henry VIII. Laughton was just 34 and turns in a raucous, brawling performance that’s one of the best things this great actor ever did. Watch, too, for his moment of heartbreak after Catherine Howard’s execution. In Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor, Simon Callow quotes Laughton as saying “I suppose I must have read a good deal about [Henry VIII], but for the rest I spent a lot of my time walking around the old Tudor Palace at Hampton Court, getting my mind accustomed to the square, squat architecture of the rooms and the cloisters. I think it was from the architecture of the houses and the rooms that I got my idea of Henry.” So vivid is Laughton’s monarch that many down the years have assumed the performance had a great deal of Laughton himself in it, which is far from the truth. “Few people would, on meeting, have thought the tubby diffident slightly obstinate young man they might have met at supper the same person as the massive, centred titan exploding in Jovan laughter that hits the screen,” remarks Callow.

Oblomok Imperii (Fragment of an Empire). 1929. USSR. Directed by Fridrikh Ermler. Screenplay by Ermler, Ekaterina Vinogradskaya. With Fiodor Nikitin, Yakov Gudkin, Liudmila Semionova, Valerii Solovtsov. New digital restoration courtesy the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and EYE Filmmuseum in partnership with Gosfilmofond of Russia. Silent; with piano accompaniment. With English intertitles. 109 min. Screening Sunday, January 13, 4:00 pm (introduced by Peter Bagrov, George Eastman Museum) and Tuesday, January 15, 4:00 pm.

This “little-known masterpiece,” as Imogen Sara Smith calls it, made quite a stir at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival last June. It looks like a must.

Crime Wave 1954. USA. Directed by André de Toth. Screenplay by Crane Wilbur. With Sterling Hayden, Gene Nelson, Timothy Carey, Ted de Corsia, Charles Buchinsky (Bronson).

Fair warning from MoMA: “This may be the last chance you’ll ever get to see André de Toth’s Crime Wave, one of the most thrilling B noirs of 1950s American cinema, in a pristine 35mm print struck from the original camera negative. Famed for Bert Glennon’s nighttime location photography throughout Los Angeles, Crime Wave stars Sterling Hayden as a cynical, brutal police sergeant who puts the screws on a newlywed ex-con (Gene Nelson) in order to nab a trio of jailbreak thugs.” MoMA is running Crime Wave on January 19, alongside two movies that Hayden made in Germany toward the end of his life: Pharos of Chaos (1983) and Der Havarist (1984), both screening on January 19 and 27. Wolf-Eckart Bühler, who directed Der Havarist (The Shipwrecker) and co-directed Pharos of Chaos with Manfred Blank, will introduce the two films. Both are biographical in nature, focusing on Hayden’s acting, his heroic war record, and the not-so-heroic act he never forgave himself for: appearing as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951. Hayden, who had greatly admired the Yugoslav partisans who fought during the war, had indeed joined the Communist Party briefly in 1946. Despite that vulnerability to HUAC’s probe he signed up with the 1948 Committee for the First Amendment, the famed group that went to Washington to support the Hollywood Ten. But when Congress turned its sights on Hayden, fear of going to jail and losing custody of his children led him to name names, including screenwriter Robert Lees, screenwriter-director Abraham Polonsky, and actress Karen Morley. Years later some name-namers adopted a defensive, even truculent attitude about their decision (Elia Kazan comes to mind); not Hayden. He expressed his remorse publicly many times, and for the rest of his life. Despite his low regard for acting ("I spent a lifetime selling out. I always hated acting but I kept on acting...a commuter on a tinsel train") Hayden brought his intelligence and introspection to some of the most remarkable performances in noir, including The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing, and the noir-inflected western Terror in a Texas Town. In the blacklist interview book Tender Comrades, Karen Morley cited Hayden as the only friendly witness she could “maybe” forgive. John Huston, writing in his 1980 autobiography, said, “I always felt great sympathy with [Hayden] for this failure to live up to his own idea of himself. But even from this experience he learned and grew. There is a kingliness about Sterling now.”

Finishing School. 1934. USA. Directed by Wanda Tuchock, George Nicholls Jr. Screenplay by Tuchock, Laird Doyle. With Frances Dee, Billie Burke, Ginger Rogers, Bruce Cabot. New 35mm preservation courtesy The Library of Congress. 73 min.
Screening Sunday, January 13, 6:45 pm; Monday, January 14, 4:30 pm.

Dorothy Arzner wasn’t quite the only female director in 1930s Hollywood: Wanda Tuchock also had a directing co-credit on this (barely) Pre-Code tale of fresh young Frances Dee corrupted by Ginger Rogers (which sounds like fun). This film was a hit with the TCM Film Festival crowd last year, and a restored version is most welcome. “Bring on your women— that’s all we can say, if this is a sample of a woman director can do with a story about a woman’s troubles,” wrote the Hollywood Filmograph at the time. Tuchock went to on to rack up many screenwriting credits, but directing was not to be, save a 1950s short.

Among the rest of the screenings, the Siren is also highly intrigued by Nude on the Moon (who isn’t, with that title), written and directed by Doris Wishman in 1961; a new digital preservation of F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926); the New York premiere of Cane River (1982), written and directed by Horace Jenkins, which MoMA calls “a racially themed love story shot in Natchitoches Parish, a ‘free community of color’ in Louisiana; El fantasma del convento (The Phantom of the Monastery), directed by Fernando de Fuentes, and La mujer del porto (Woman of the Port), directed by Arcady Boytler, both made in Mexico in 1934.

Finally, Ida Lupino’s Never Fear (The Young Lovers) from 1949 gets a week-long run from January 25–31. This was one of the Lupino-directed films that the Siren admitted not having seen when she and Sheila O’Malley did a Film Comment podcast on Lupino. Given Lupino’s personal connection to the material — it concerns a dancer struggling to overcome the effects of polio, a disease that had also struck Lupino years before — this one is also a must.

Friday, December 28, 2018

2018: The Year in Old Movies

Being another alphabetical list of the best old movies the Siren saw for the first time this year, with 11 entries, because round numbers are boring.

Ashes and Diamonds (1958, Andrzej Wajda; viewed on FilmStruck (RIP))
In many ways a gangster film, with Poland’s future on the line instead of loot. Zbigniew Cybulski as Maciek, the cynical assassin, is so fiercely present he drags the movie out of its ostensible setting and even the time period in which it was made. Everything in the film lends itself to allegory, like Maciek and Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) lighting fire to glasses of vodka, each symbolizing a fallen comrade, as a bunch of drunks bellow-sing in the next room. But few allegories feel this vivid and searing.

Barbed Wire (1927, Rowland V. Lee; kindness of a Siren commenter)
Film history has been unjust to Pola Negri, usually remembered either as the most flamboyant mourner at Valentino’s funeral, or as the leopard-clad cameo player in a Hayley Mills film. The Siren knew better, as she’s read Negri’s delightful autobiography, but the proof is in the acting. And this tender World War I romance, about a French farmer’s daughter and the German POW (Clive Brook) she falls in love with, shows what a versatile and talented actress she was.

Devi (1960, Satyajit Ray; viewed on Filmstruck)
Powerful statement about how religion devolves into superstition, and how superstition destroys. Sharmila Tagore’s performance as Dayamoyee, the trapped and suffering “goddess” of the title, is riveting. For the record, though some disagree, the Siren most definitely thought there was a villain in Devi (and how) but then the Siren never has been keen on religious fanatics. Track down this masterpiece and decide for yourself.

Douce (1943, Claude Autant-Lara; viewed as part of the Eclipse box set “Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France”)
La Ronde in miniature, with an exquisite and moving Odette Joyeux, then 28, as the reckless upper-crust teenager of the title. Douce is enamored of her widowed father’s (Jean Debucourt) estate manager, Fabien (Robert Pigaut). Fabien wants Douce’s governess Irène (Madeleine Robinson) to run away with him; Douce’s father is also in love with Irène. Douce’s grandmother, Madame de Bonafe (Marguerite Moreno), wants everyone to stop all this nonsense and remember their place. A Christmas film as melancholy as it is witty; alert TCM.

Gabrielle (1954, Hasse Ekman; kindness of a friend)
There’s “personal” filmmaking, and then there’s this movie by Siren favorite (since 2015) Hasse Ekman. The director casts Eva Henning, whom Ekman had only recently divorced, as the title character, married to a man whose memories entwine with jealous fantasies of betrayal to form the bulk of the film. Like another pitch-black Ekman film the Siren loves, Banquet from 1948, Gabrielle is both bitterly funny and suspenseful, with one sequence in particular that brings Hitchcock to mind. It’s also a savage indictment of how a man can drive away love. In another twisted touch, Ekman casts himself not as the husband (played by Birger Malmsten) but rather as the ex-boyfriend who figures as Gabrielle’s lover in the husband’s imaginings (that's Henning and Ekman above). Your best source on the Web for all things Ekman remains Fredrik Gustafsson, whose Ekman study The Man From the Third Row was published in 2016.

Goupi Mains Rouges (aka It Happened at the Inn, 1943, Jacques Becker; viewed on Filmstruck)
The Siren has seen umpteen movies about deranged rural families living in the South, where she grew up. That undoubtedly added to her pleasure in viewing this hilarious mystery set deep in the French countryside. The Goupi clan, who could show the Snopes a thing or two, dominate every local business from poaching to innkeeping. But when the city-mouse nephew (Georges Rollin) comes to visit, murder enters the mix. An immensely satisfying film that the Siren may well venture out to see again when it plays FIAF on Jan. 29. (Bonus: A haunting performance by the infamous Robert Le Vigan, with whom the Siren has become slightly obsessed.)

Salón México (1948, Emilio Fernández; viewed as part of MoMA’s retrospective on the director)
The Siren wrote about this for the Village Voice (another film-supporting institution she greatly misses).

No Name on the Bullet (1959, Jack Arnold; the Siren bought the DVD, and BOY is it on sale at the moment)
What a joy to discover that a movie’s cult reputation is entirely deserved. The Siren loves Audie Murphy anyway, and she hopes one day to write a ringing defense of his acting in Westerns. Murphy plays John Gant, an uncommonly intelligent villain: He arrives in town trailing a violent reputation, and waits for the residents to unravel as they try to figure out who this gunfighter aims to kill. As the citizens turn on one another, right on schedule, Gant begins to seem as much like an evilly insightful philosopher as a killer. This was recommended to the Siren by Laura G., whose write-up the Siren recommends.

That Brennan Girl (1946, Alfred Santell; viewed as part of MoMA’s Republic Pictures series)
Brilliant women’s picture that was subsequently shown on TCM. The Siren mentioned it in an article for the Voice.

The Saga of Gösta Berling (1924, Mauritz Stiller; viewed on a screener as the Siren prepared to write about it for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival)
Mauritz Stiller is underrated.

The Sea Wolf (1941, Michael Curtiz; viewed on Warner Archive Blu-Ray, also a deal at the moment)
A disguised concentration-camp movie set on the high seas. Bleak as all-get-out, startlingly vicious and violent. Whatever the Siren was expecting from this newly reconstructed version of Curtiz’s film, it was not Barry Fitzgerald leering at Ida Lupino and threatening her with gang rape. The Siren had seen the butchered version and promptly forgot it, and as far as she’s concerned, this counts as an entirely different film. (Here is Leonard Maltin on the story of its resurrection. ) The Sea Wolf is an intense anti-Fascist allegory (via then-Communist screenwriter Robert Rossen), and like other such films from its era, feels newly and agonizingly relevant. Stellar work from all concerned, including John Garfield, Edward G. Robinson, and (a pleasant surprise) Alexander Knox. Do read this assessment at the New York Times by J. Hoberman (where has he been?). And the Siren assumes you've all read or are reading Alan K. Rode's Curtiz biography?

Honorable Mention:

Hellfire, Hell’s Half Acre, A Lawless Street, Three Daughters, Transatlantic, Young Desire, Ghost of Yotsuya (1959), Come Next Spring, Ride Clear of Diablo, Contraband, After Tomorrow, Victimas del Pecado, The Late Edwina Black, Love From a Stranger (1937).

Bonus: Not Exactly Good, But Boy Did I Have a Good Time

Love Has Many Faces (1965, Alexander Singer; viewed on Amazon Prime)
Or, as the Siren can't stop calling it, Love Has Many Suntans. (Followed, one hopes, by the sequel, Love Has Many Mole Checks.) Two hours of Hugh O’Brian and Cliff Robertson in Speedos and Lana Turner in $1 million of Edith Head costumes that shouldn’t be viewed without ISO-certified eclipse glasses. Virginia Grey and Ruth Roman have supporting roles, the plot is an ostensible murder mystery with the biggest wet-rag of a denouement you ever saw, and the Siren enjoyed every blessed minute.

No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948, St. John Legh Clowes; viewed on Filmstruck)
It’s an S&M love story, it’s a gangster movie, it’s proof that British actors are not better at American accents than vice versa, and strangest of all, it's a musical. Or wants to be, what with a bunch of nightclub numbers shown at length and sometimes even in full; one character's reluctance to stop watching the floor show becomes a key plot driver. To the Siren, the high point (if that is the term she wants) was Zoe Gail singing "When He Got It, Did He Want It?". Verse after verse about how boring women get once you've (ahem) had them, winding up with the big finish about how Cellini had the right idea because he poisoned his lays once he was done. The Siren still isn’t sure what hit her.

OK, OK, sorry about that last. The Siren will see herself out, along with 2018 while she's at it. Happy New Year, dear friends and patient readers!

Friday, December 21, 2018

The Baker's Wife (1938) at Film Forum

Film Forum has a holiday present for New Yorkers starting today: A week-long run of Marcel Pagnol’s magical La Femme du Boulanger (The Baker’s Wife), from 1938. The Siren has seen the restoration that Film Forum is showing, and it is beautiful. The film probably hasn’t looked this good in decades. It definitely hasn’t been seen (legally—ahem) in this country for many a long year; rumor has it that there were disputes with the estate of Jean Giono, who wrote the story, "Blue Boy," that the movie is based on. Whatever was keeping The Baker’s Wife from screens, rejoice that it’s back with us.

The film stars Raimu, and your regard for it will undoubtedly stand or fall on your opinion of Raimu’s all-dominating performance. Arletty, Marlene Dietrich, and Orson Welles all said at one time or another that they considered Raimu the greatest actor in the world; the Siren adores him too. Here, Raimu plays the baker of the title, a man appropriately named Aimable, who has just set up shop in a tiny Provençal village, bringing them good bread at last after years of putting up with a man who couldn’t control the temperature of the oven. Aimable has a vastly younger and eye-poppingly sexy wife, Aurélie, played by Ginette Leclerc, and as my grandmother would have said, Aimable thinks Aurélie hung the moon. (Pagnol offered the part to Joan Crawford, which newly learned fact is the Siren’s “What If” of the year.) But the marriage is clearly sexless, and Aurélie is vulnerable to the he-man charms of a local shepherd (a smouldering Charles Moulin). She runs off with the shepherd, and the heartbroken Aimable takes to downing pastis instead of baking. The villagers, from the local marquis (Fernand Charpin) to the priest (Robert Vattier) to the schoolteacher (Robert Bassac) band together to bring back the baker’s wife.

It is an uncomplicated plot that unfolds at a leisurely 133 minutes; most Pagnol films take their time, as the filmmaker loved to give his characters as much time as needed for their full natures to be revealed. The villagers are flawed, selfish, at times bone-headed and even cruel, but our affection for these people grows as their regard for their grieving baker increases. The mission to bring back Aurélie starts as a necessary mission to get decent baguettes back on the table, but it ends as a gesture of pure devotion.

As for Raimu, his Aimable may be an even greater achievement than his César in the Marseilles trilogy. The actor brought a head-to-toe physicality to film, aided by Pagnol, who always knows exactly how much of Raimu to keep in frame. At times Aimable’s innocence verges on stupidity, such as when the shepherd comes to serenade Aurelie and the baker sees it as a charming local custom instead of appalling insolence. The baker’s drunk scene takes him from immobile self-pity to perilous lunging about the cafe, until the villagers steer him home like an ocean liner with a broken rudder. Yet throughout the movie, Raimu switches from funny to heartbreaking and back again to funny, as easily as one gets water from a tap.

The Siren has many readers who live far from New York, but they should take heart. Not only is the film likely to play a number of other repertory houses in big cities, but in the past Janus Films has opened restorations in preparation for a later Criterion release. Let us cross our fingers. In the meantime, the Siren wishes a very merry Christmas to all who celebrate. And may we all find films to give us a break from daily cares as 2018 winds to a close.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

2018: The Year in Siren Writing

This year has found the Siren doing most of her writing for paying outlets, which endeavors plus the demands of her brood have kept her largely off the blog. For those who haven’t been keeping up with the Siren’s writings, due to exhaustion, distraction, or because Max was polishing the Isotta Fraschini and forgot to turn on the computer, the Siren herewith presents an abridged list of what she was doing in 2018.

First on the list is something the Siren wrote for the Criterion Collection’s blog, The Current, on the exquisite and irreplaceable Danielle Darrieux. Alas, the very mention of that name brings the Siren to sad news about a friend who loved Darrieux above all others. This year, we lost one of the pillars of the Siren community: X. Trapnel, our own beloved XT, who died suddenly in the fall. He enriched the Siren’s life, and the blog would never have been the same without him. The Siren hopes he is somewhere meeting his beloved Mme. Darrieux at last.

By the time Darrieux was sixty-five, she had long since grown into an ineffable serenity and elegance, not just foreigners’ ideal of a Frenchwoman, but the French ideal as well. The first glimpse of her in Demy’s sung-through musical Une chambre en ville comes in black-and-white, like an echo of Darrieux’s past as well as the character’s. From the window of her spacious apartment an annoyed Madame Langlois is looking down on a worker’s demonstration. She can see her handsome young tenant, François Guilbaud (Richard Berry), in the front line facing down a vast army of police. Madame Langlois takes his presence among the strikers, as she takes many things, as a sign of terrible manners.

Not online: The Siren’s enthusiastic Sight & Sound review of Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, by Alan K. Rode. If you need a last-minute Christmas gift for someone who loves classic film and/or Hollywood history, this would be an excellent choice — at more than 400 pages, it reads as swiftly and enjoyably as any biography the Siren has read, and she has read an inordinate number of such books, as her patient readers know.

...Curtiz also “worked people to death,” remarked Wax Museum’s Glenda Farrell, who still liked the director, although many (perhaps even most) of his actors did not. Early on, Rode drily remarks that Curtiz, “more than any other studio director… was responsible for the founding of the Screen Actors Guild.” Curtiz thought lunch was for sissies and until groups like SAG began to pester him, the director appeared to think going home and sleeping were dispensable luxuries as well. By the time Curtiz’s career was in full flower, and he was beginning his 12-film association with Errol Flynn, the director had settled down a bit, but not much, and the easygoing Flynn grew to detest the man who unquestionably did the most to make him a star. So did Flynn’s frequent co-star Olivia de Havilland. Yet all his life, Curtiz maintained a great ability to spot talent (he was an early booster of both Doris Day and the great John Garfield, to name just two) and a knack for drawing out a great performance…

The booklet essay for Criterion’s Blu-Ray release of King of Jazz. In 1930, the daring and ill-fated Carl “Junior” Laemmle put his chips on two big projects. One you perhaps have heard of, a trifle called All Quiet on the Western Front. The other was this extravagant two-strip Technicolor revue, an attempt to make a movie star of the portly bandleader Paul Whiteman. (Includes bonus sideswipe of Mordaunt Hall.)

In the end...production delays cost the movie more dearly than anyone could have foreseen. By the time King of Jazz made its bow, Hollywood had indulged its eternal tendency to run a trend into the ground, and revues were such a drug on the market that some other musicals were being advertised with taglines like “Positively not a revue!” There was also the little matter of what happened on Wall Street on October 29, 1929. The worst of the Great Depression was in the future, but the effects of the crash were already being felt.

The Museum of Modern Art showed a two-part series of splendid restorations of films from Republic Pictures, and the Siren wrote about them both for the late and very much lamented Village Voice.

There was one way to get [legendarily cheap Republic studio boss Herbert] Yates to pry open his checkbook, however, and that was to put Vera Hruba Ralston in the leading role. Vera Hruba was a former Olympic ice skater with a lithe and athletic figure, a face the camera liked only intermittently, and a Czech accent that no amount of coaching could diminish. When Yates met his version of Citizen Kane’s Susan Alexander, a girl fully forty years his junior, he was married with two kids. He signed Ralston to a contract in 1943, and thereafter this otherwise hard-nosed and entirely unromantic man spent every last one of his remaining studio years engaged in a fruitless effort to make Ralston a star, meantime divorcing his wife in 1948 and marrying Vera in 1952. Yates gave Ralston — billed variously as Vera Hruba, Vera Ralston, and Vera Hruba Ralston — his best scriptwriters, directors, and co-stars. For years, according to Scott Eyman, Yates bought the full back-page ad space at Variety and the Hollywood Reporter just for the opportunity to run a photo of Ralston with the caption, “The World’s Most Beautiful Woman.” It was rather touching, as even Yates’s frustrated employees would sometimes admit, but it was all for naught.

Part two, or as the Siren likes to call it, Republic Rides Again:

Then there’s Fair Wind to Java (1953), described by at least one critic as “the ultimate B-picture” (and once you’ve seen it, that’s hard to dispute). Vera Hruba Ralston often cited Fair Wind as her favorite movie. The Czech former figure skater’s casting as a Balinese dancer named Kim Kim (“My father was white,” the character explains casually) is the strangest in the movie, which is saying something when you have Fred MacMurray as a hard-bitten sea captain named Boll… Scorsese has often spoken of his fondness for Fair Wind — and indeed, it is hugely enjoyable in its crazy way, graced by an eye-searing Trucolor palette, barreling plot developments, indifference to plausibility, and dialogue like “It’s a little island called Krakatoa. No one’s ever heard of it!” 

Not online: An essay included in the British company Powerhouse's lavish Blu-Ray box set of Budd Boetticher films. The Siren notes, also for purposes of Christmas or other holiday giving or just plain old self-care, that this set is region-free. She wrote the essay for Comanche Station.

The lonely, high-up opening view of Randolph Scott on a horse, the only thing moving among the stones of the Alabama Hills, isn’t what establishes the valedictory mood of Comanche Station. No, it’s the slant of the sun. The light’s intensity has lessened and the shadows have lengthened. It’s late in the day— for the characters, for the series of movies Scott had made with director Budd Boetticher, for Scott’s career, for the classic Western itself.

Again for the Voice (lord, how the Siren misses it), an article tied to MoMA's big retrospective of the films of Emilio Fernández, a great Mexican director whose reputation in this country more than deserves to be revived.

In an age when “colorful” was almost part of a director’s CV — from the eyepatches of Raoul Walsh and John Ford to the foreign birthplaces of Fritz Lang and Ernst Lubitsch to the itinerant macho-jobs years of William Wellman — Fernández went the extra mile. He pulled a stint in prison for his part in the failed rebellion, then drifted around the States, spending time (as he told it) as a cowboy in a circus, a salmon fisherman, a licensed pilot, a bartender, and, finally, as an extra in Hollywood, in the late Twenties. There, legend has it, Fernández’s friend, Dolores del Río, had him pose for her husband, the famed art director Cecil Beaton, for what became the Academy Award statuette. Though Fernández became stocky in his later years, one look at his naked torso in Janitzio — a 1935 movie in the series, in which he plays a star-crossed lover in a fishing village — offers pretty powerful evidence. He really does look like a walking Oscar.

A long and obsessively researched essay on the behind-the-scenes collaborators of Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg, for Criterion's epic six-disc release "Dietrich and von Sternberg in Hollywood." If you click on no other link in this here post, the Siren hopes you do click on this one, because for the first three months of 2018, she worked her tail feathers off on this one.

“I never had a better assistant than Miss Dietrich,” the director told one interviewer, with lordly assurance. Still, von Sternberg paid this assistant the tribute of immortality. Other “assistants” went unseen by audiences and are much less frequently discussed. The story of von Sternberg and his colleagues, especially those who never appeared on-screen—the ones who gave dialogue to his characters and shape to his plots, who constructed costumes and sets, the woman whose makeup perfected Dietrich and the men who then lit that glorious face—can be difficult to tease out in part because von Sternberg was almost pathologically incapable of sharing credit. All these artists would have agreed that a von Sternberg film revealed his vision, down to the items on a character’s dressing table and the way Dietrich’s cheekbones were highlighted. But, as Baxter writes, though the director “liked to say he ‘dictated’ the look of his films, dictation is not creation. He needed talented individuals to realize his conceptions.”

The magnificent Stéphane Audran died in March, and the Village Voice asked the Siren to write a tribute. (Who else will ever do that, now that the Voice is gone? Alas.)

If someone asked me to choose the ultimate in Stéphane Audran scenes — not her best or most emotive acting, but a sequence that summed up her talent, her presence — I would choose an early moment in Juste Avant la Nuit (Just Before Nightfall, 1971), directed by her then-husband Claude Chabrol. Her character, Hélène Masson, is in the kitchen of her family’s spectacular modern mansion, baking a chocolate cake with her daughter and the girl’s au pair. She is mixing the batter with a wooden spoon, holding it up from time to time to check whether it has reached the proper consistency. Her posture is erect and graceful as she walks around the room with her bowl, chatting and mixing. Hélène has no apron over her Karl Lagerfeld outfit. There is no need, as Hélène probably has not stained an outfit since her days in lycée. The hard work of baking has touched neither her hair nor her maquillage.

For the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's March shindig, an essay on The Saga of Gösta Berling, a movie the Siren had somehow never seen. She fell in love with it, to the point that she read the Selma Lagerlöf novel. (She recommends the translation by Pauline Bancroft Flach, and not the later Penguin one, which is afflicted by the modern mania for rendering prose as flat, affectless, and literal as possible.)

...From a distance of almost a hundred years, it’s evident that Garbo—only eighteen years old and so beautiful it is said her close-ups made audiences gasp—is just one of many impressive things about Gösta Berling. As the story unfolds, the title’s ex-pastor, played by Lars Hanson, has been defrocked. Gösta’s preaching is so enthralling that his congregation is ready to forgive him for his latest drunken escapade, but then, spurred by idealism and a bridge-burning compulsion that gets him in trouble throughout, Gösta swings into a rousing condemnation of the parishioners’ own chronic boozing. His goose thus self-cooked, he sets out on the road.

The lovely folks at Criterion asked the Siren to write the booklet essay for one of her most favorite comedies, My Man Godfrey. Which is funny, because the Siren has spent much of the year reading the news and murmuring, "All I have to say is some people will be sorry someday." (Or, if occasion demands, "Life is but an empty bubble.")

There were hilariously dysfunctional families in American film before and after My Man Godfrey, but the Bullocks of 1011 Fifth Avenue represent peak lunacy. There’s devious Cornelia, played by the darkly beautiful Gail Patrick—“a sweet-tempered little number,” as the maid, Molly (Jean Dixon), calls her. There’s mother Angelica (Alice Brady), whose hangovers include visions of pixies (“I don’t like them, but I don’t like to see them stepped on”), and who is sponsoring a “protégé,” Carlo (Mischa Auer). Carlo’s sponsored talents—the ones that could be shown under the Production Code, anyway—involve a lugubrious rendition of the Russian folk song “Ochi chyornye,” a remarkable ability to make food disappear, and the single best gorilla impression in the history of American film.

Riffing on a very short thing she once wrote for the blog, the Siren also contributed an essay to Criterion's lavish Blu-ray for The Magnificent Ambersons. The Siren was happy to have the opportunity to praise "The Voice of Orson Welles" at greater length.

Welles was marked from the beginning by his prodigal gifts, speaking in complete sentences at age two, supposedly analyzing Nietzsche by age ten, performing Shakespeare in his teens, staging the landmark “Voodoo Macbeth” at age twenty—and yet the role his voice played in his spectacular youthful ascent isn’t analyzed often. That preternaturally mature instrument helped enable the orphaned sixteen-year-old and rather baby-faced Welles to literally talk his way into roles with Dublin’s Gate Theatre. Listen to the talk of an average teenage boy, even one who’s an actor, and ask yourself if anyone in their right mind would cast him in a commercial stage production as the evil Duke of Württemberg in Jew Süss, Welles’s first role at the Gate.

Rounding out a good year, assignment-wise, the Siren sang the praises of the eternally beautiful 7th Heaven for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's Day of Silents.

While Borzage was still preparing 7th Heaven, F.W. Murnau had arrived at Fox in 1926 to much fanfare and was filming his masterpiece, Sunrise, a production that continued even after Borzage’s film began shooting. (In an incredible feat of endurance, for a short period of time in January 1927, Janet Gaynor was shooting Sunrise exteriors for Murnau by day and returned to the Fox studio at night for 7th Heaven.) The German master’s presence exerted an influence on nearly everyone in the studio. Many critics have noted that certain 7th Heaven camera movements, such as the shot that follows Nana pursuing Diane into the street (achieved, Palmer recalled, by having eight men carry an eight-by-eight platform on which the cameraman rode with his tripod), bear Murnau’s influence. But Borzage’s emotional effects were entirely his own.