Monday, April 07, 2014

In Memoriam: Mickey Rooney, 1920-2014

Roll out the red carpet, folks, and stand by. That boy is here again, the Pied Piper of the box office, the eighth or ninth wonder of the world, the kid himself — in short, Mickey Rooney.
— The New York Times reviews Strike Up the Band (1940)

Few terms are crueler than has-been. A has-been is Norma Desmond rattling around an empty mansion. Avoiding strong light like a vampire, bitterly dishing old enemies to skeptical interviewers. So focused on looking back that you never move forward.

Mickey Rooney was never a true has-been in his life, not with 90 years of work. Shorts and features, A pictures and B pictures, star turns and character parts. Social dramas, musicals, an impressive run of noirs, comedies, Emmy awards, sitcoms, a hit Broadway show. The Siren spotted him in The Muppets in 2011 and heard a college-age woman whisper to her companion, “Mickey Rooney.” If that’s has-been-dom, sign up the Siren.

Good script or bad, Rooney simply did not know how to approach his work any way other than full-out. You can find him in roles that sank into self-parody, things he probably took because he needed the money (let’s hope that’s how he wound up narrating Hollywood Blue). But phoning it in? Never happened.

Yes, Mickey Rooney was known for reminding people that he was once the biggest star in the world. That’s because he was once the biggest star in the world. It’s not like he spent decades dining out on how he scored the winning touchdown for Dead Skunk State College. That's why Dana Carvey’s exasperated tale of working with Rooney winds up adorable. Rooney was at once easy fodder for a dead-on impression, and inimitable.

He was one of the last remaining stars who started in silent movies; the Siren admits to being too depressed to look up who’s left. Rooney made his first indelible mark as Puck in Max Reinhardt’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both on stage and on screen. In the movie he was about 15 years old, and so good as to be almost freakish. This is not a normal kid. That laugh is positively sinister. It originates somewhere under the loincloth, rolls up past the collarbone and sprays out like a firehose. It’s not his eyes that sparkle, it’s those teeth. Any minute you feel this Puck may attach himself to someone’s ankle, terrier-style. Rooney is all the amoral mischief of childhood rolled up into one half-naked package.
"Don't let the little guy fool you. He knows every trick in the book."
— First wife Ava Gardner
You can see the prototype of a certain Rooney character in Manhattan Melodrama (1934), where he plays the young Clark Gable (!!), caught up in the 1904 tragedy of the General Slocum. It’s all there: the swagger, the loyalty, the tough cookie determined not to crumble, though he’s just a kid. Once the template was struck, Rooney could ring any number of changes on it, such as in Boys Town, where he’s an obnoxious delinquent, and a sobbing mixed-up kid, and stitches it together with moments of real heart.

“You’re Andy Hardy! You’re the United States! You’re a symbol! Behave yourself!”
— Billy Wilder, working at MGM on the script for Ninotchka, hears a commotion, rolls down his office window and spies Louis B. Mayer having a little man-to-man chat with his biggest star. Said chat, according to Wilder, involved Mayer seizing Rooney by the shoulders and shouting in his face.

There’s a TCM interview clip with the late Ann Rutherford where she discusses the Andy Hardy movies. There were 16 total, and Rutherford made 12 of those as Polly Benedict, the wholesome girlfriend Andy was supposed to make up with by the last reel, even if Lana Turner had been the alternative. Rutherford says the movies hold up pretty well, save the dread moment when Rooney would turn to Lewis Stone as Judge Hardy and say “Pop, can I talk to you, man-to-man?” The Andy Hardy films have a sweetness and funniness to them that still plays. But even at the time, they were like newsreels shot live on the scene of America’s fantasy life. Rooney's last Hardy movie was a 1958 revival that flopped; now, TV was in charge of idealizing the American home.

Rooney made some excellent movies during his years at the top of MGM. One of the best, The Human Comedy, had Rooney tender and gentle in his wartime role as a boy who delivers the last thing any soldier’s mother wants: telegrams.

Another movie from when Mickey Rooney was the biggest star in the world is Babes in Arms, from 1939. Anyone who’s seen Babes in Arms knows that in the annals of barking-mad Hollywood musicals, it’s way up there. Rooney is the son of vaudeville troupers. His parents can’t accept that the old circuit is gone for good, and when they decide to stage a comeback, the authorities threaten to send Mickey and costar Judy Garland to a work farm. In the title song — the first big musical number — Busby Berkeley’s camera tracks all the kids as they march through the town and sing. Except these cuties are waving crates and the occasional bit of furniture, and they’re carrying torches to build a bonfire. Douglas MacPhail sings to the tune of “Ride of the Valkyries” while torches wave in the foreground. The kids play on the swingset and the seesaw while the other kids are putting the torch to the bonfire. And Douglas and Mickey and Judy climb a playground slide for the finale, while everybody plays ring-around-the-campfire. It’s a vaudeville Walpurgisnacht.

So when you decide to joke with your pals, “Hey kids! Let’s put on a show!” just remember that Mickey and Judy did that and then they staged a near-riot. This movie is many things. Wholesome isn’t necessarily one of them.

Check out this scene of Mickey and Judy auditioning for a big producer. There’s the way Rooney puts over a big number, and then there’s the way he’s doing “Good Morning” here. A little too bright, overcompensating, to cover up the nerves; it’s the way a newcomer would audition.

Then (sigh) there’s a blackface number, which is grisly, although at least it’s broken up by a thunderstorm. The final number, “God’s Country,” is a sort of MGM Manifesto: “We’ve got no Duce / We’ve got no Fuhrer / But we’ve got Gable / And Norma Shearer.”

The Siren doesn’t know that Rooney ever bothered to analyze exactly what the hell this movie was supposed to be saying, any more than he ever understood why everybody kept bugging him about Mr. Yunioshi. But it’s some kind of crackpot genius, all right, and here’s the thing about Rooney. In the midst of a vaudeville version of May ‘68, and (god help us) a minstrel show, and a closing number about God’s Country, “where every man / is his own dictator,” (what?) five-foot-two-or-three-inch Rooney is seizing that screen every single minute. If that seems no big deal, ponder Ruby Keeler for a minute or two. Nor is Rooney upstaging Garland. They worked together, not in opposition. They were still doing it in Words and Music nine years later.

“Mickey Rooney can act the legs off a centipede.”
— The Sunday Times of London, from a 1939 review of Babes in Arms

Some of Rooney’s best classic-era performances came after World War II, when hard living had given him a face even Mayer couldn’t sell as boyish anymore: Noir Comes to Andy Hardy. There’s Quicksand, with its uncomfortable echoes of Rooney’s real-life character. He’s an auto mechanic, but he’s also a skirt-chaser, and his pursuit of a pretty cashier leads him to one dumb decision after another. (He produced the film with Peter Lorre; they play well together.) Drive a Crooked Road finds Rooney a mechanic again, only this time he’s shy around the ladies and picked on by his coworkers. His yearning for a girlfriend gets him mixed up with a bad dame; those who think of Mickey as a flashy ham will be surprised at how naturally he plays shy and lonely. He’s a convincing psychopath in Don Siegel’s Baby Face Nelson — though, as James MacEachern pointed out earlier this year in a lovely tribute at Bright Lights Film Journal, at the time the movie did badly and Rooney’s reviews were poor. As the loyal pal of Anthony Quinn in the extremely depressing Requiem for a Heavyweight, Rooney was more touching than the ostensible lead. And the Siren adores The Strip, in which Rooney plays a musician sucked into a world of graft by a corrupt bookie. Here’s part of why: Rooney playing drums with Louis Armstrong and Earl “Fatha” Hines. He’s in character, but Rooney’s projecting a character who knows he’s jamming with the best.

Dear Mr. Mayer:
We have read the “God’s Country” Finale (pages 1 through 4) dated July 3, 1939, for your proposed production titled Babes in Arms, and are happy to report that this material comes under the requirements of the Production Code.

However, on Page 3, Mickey used the word “shag.” This should be changed since in England and the British colonies this word has a very objectionable sexual meaning which would cause its deletion by numerous political censor boards. 
You understand, of course, that our final judgment will be based upon the finished picture.
Cordially yours,
Joseph I. Breen
— quoted in The World of Entertainment! by Hugh Fordin

“He was the same off-screen as on, which meant that he made enemies,” wrote David Shipman. Some of them were undoubtedly exes. Rooney was a ravenous womanizer. Envy percolates through the writings of many male film critics when they get to the part where Rooney married 19-year-old Ava Gardner. There was also Norma Shearer, 18 years his senior and the affair that allegedly prompted Mayer’s outburst; lovely Martha Vickers, whom Rooney married; and six other wives and Lana Turner and...the Siren is getting tired, let’s just say it’s a cast list longer than It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. At least the last marriage, to Jan Chamberlin, stuck. He had nine children (eight survive him). By 1962, when he would up in bankruptcy court for the first time (he’d be back), he’d earned $12 million over the course of his career. That’s about $93 million today.

Rooney, a compulsive gambler, always had big plans. Shipman notes, “When MGM were in difficulty in 1970, according to Variety, he offered to take over the reins, promising to make 20 films for $20 million. The offer was refused.” Kirk Kerkorian had already bought a big stake, attached the MGM name to a casino operation, and the Culver City assets were about to be sold off piece by piece. Rooney was no businessman, he approached things like a movie —an entertaining one, where auctioning everything down to Judy's ruby slippers was no way to end. How much better if in the last reel, the old studio says, “OK Mickey, you crazy kid. Let’s put on a show...”

(Review quotes from David Shipman's The Great Movie Stars; Billy Wilder story from Gavin Lambert's Norma Shearer biography; Ava Gardner quote from Lee Server's bio.)

Thursday, April 03, 2014


GROSS: Now, you've also mentioned that there was a Bernard Herrmann influence.

SONDHEIM: Yeah, that's it. You know, when you talked about Milton Babbitt's influence, much less Milton Babbitt's influence than Bernard Herrmann. When I was 15 years old, I saw a movie called Hangover Square, which featured a piano concerto that Bernard Herrmann had written, and it's a melodrama about a serial killer who writes this piano concerto. And it particularly impressed me. But all of Bernard Herrmann's music impressed me. And so actually the score of Sweeney Todd is an homage to him.

It's - I remember I played the score for the actor Tony Perkins, who knows movie scores the way I know movie scores or knew movie scores the way I did, and I was, I wasn't 24 bars into the opening number, when he said, oh, Bernard Herrmann. So it was very clear that what I was doing was channeling Herrmann.

And for the listeners who don't know, Bernard Herrmann did a great many of Alfred Hitchcock's movies, including, of course, Psycho.

— Stephen Sondheim talks to Terry Gross, in a 2010 interview on NPR’s Fresh Air.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Good News for Silent Film Fans

Mickey Rooney is one of the last surviving silent-film actors. He turns 94 years old on Sept. 23, and he just got an early birthday present: His first starring role, Mickey’s Circus, a comedy short from 1927, has been rediscovered in Amsterdam. Our old friends at the National Film Preservation Foundation are working to repatriate that film, and many others. The Los Angeles Times has the story this morning:

Long-missing comedy shorts such as 1927’s “Mickey’s Circus,” featuring a 6-year-old Mickey Rooney in his first starring role, 1917's "Neptune's Naughty Daughter"; 1925’s “Fifty Million Years Ago,” an animated introduction to the theory of evolution; and a 1924 industrial short, “The Last Word in Chickens,” are among the American silent films recently found at the EYE Filmmusem in Amsterdam.

The Siren points out that the 1925 “animated introduction to the theory of evolution” was made the year of the Scopes Monkey Trial, no less.

Another film the NFPF is looking to bring home: 1924’s “The Reckless Age,” a full-length comedy with Reginald Denny. The Spokane Daily Chronicle promises, “This picture is just packed with it” — do tell — “auto thrills, love thrills, and real fighting thrills.” Wait, fighting thrills? With Reginald Denny, so very tweedy in Rebecca?

Well, yes. Reginald Denny used to look like this. He has his own entry at an online boxing encyclopedia, and the Siren’s eyes bugged out when she saw who he was fighting (on the vaudeville stage, admittedly) in 1922.

Also in 1922 appeared the melodrama “For the Defense,” with ZaSu Pitts, which IMDB says is based on a play by Elmer Rice (who also wrote the play Counsellor-at-Law), but otherwise had been not only gone, but forgotten. It’s part of the Amsterdam trove. In preparation, you can watch the darling Thelma Todd demonstrate the proper pronunciation of ZaSu.

When all the hard word of preservation is done, the NFPF is once again looking to stream these films on their site, where we'll all be able to see them. If you want to celebrate this happy occasion by contributing to their continuing good work, the donation link is right here.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Auteurs Gone Wild: A Look at the Series at Anthology Film Archives

Recently, over breakfast at their favorite neighborhood joint, the Siren’s close personal friend Glenn Kenny twitted her gently about that time in the very recent past when she made a crack about auteurism. The Siren thought about it and told him, “You know how people talk about à la carte Catholics? I’m an à la carte auteurist.”

In other words, the Siren has some problems with the rock-ribbed Cahiers-carrying version of auteurism. But let’s face it, the Siren also has pets.

And Anthology Film Archives, via programmer David Phelps, has done an uncanny job of selecting eight of her favorite directors for the now-playing series “Auteurs Gone Wild.” The premise is simple and delightful: A look at those times when genius took a left turn at Albuquerque and wound up making something that doesn’t fit neatly with the other work. The schedule is here, it's all on 35mm, several are not on DVD, and any Siren readers in the New York area should definitely try to catch a few.

The Siren wrote up You and Me a while back, and it’s enchanting. There’s a particularly good analysis of The Bitter Tea of General Yen in Dan Callahan’s Barbara Stanwyck book, and the Siren recommends it. (Victoria Wilson, in volume I of the monumental Stanwyck bio that You Should Be Reading, doesn’t seem to like Bitter Tea all that much, but she gives an excellent rundown on its making and reception.) The Siren doesn’t have a lot to say about A Countess From Hong Kong; it’s often amusing, even sweet, but it’s hard to get over the casting. (Did Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando ever look more sulky?) The Siren wants to get reacquainted with A Woman of Paris, the other Charlie Chaplin film in which he did not star, and she also hopes to see The Saga of Anatahan, Josef von Sternberg’s Japanese-made swan song.

At Mubi's Movie Poster of the Week, Adrian Curry celebrates the series with ravishing posters for all the films. Meanwhile, some thoughts on the others.

The Siren was surprised to find herself heartily disliking Under Capricorn, which Hitchcock made in in London in 1949. The plot concerns a carefree young man (Michael Wilding, a little too lightweight) who goes to colonial Australia to seek his fortune. He finds childhood love Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman) has also moved there after marrying several rungs down the social ladder, and that her sole recreation in this remote location is drinking herself into insanity. The husband is former groom Sam Flusky, played by Joseph Cotten as the most grating, self-pitying nudnik in all of Hitchcock. (Hitchcock said Burt Lancaster would have been better, but the character’s beyond even Lancaster’s redemptive charm.) Hovering around to add to Henrietta's peril is Margaret Leighton as the sinister maid. Made just after The Paradine Case and Rope, Under Capricorn shares those films’ obsessively intricate takes, although the biggest plus here comes from genius Jack Cardiff’s Technicolor. Formalists tend to worship Under Capricorn, and this is one gorgeous film. The confession scene with Ingrid Bergman unfolds in an eight-minute take that seems to make the camera itself an instrument of her isolation and breakdown.

So yes, Under Capricorn looks good. It plays, however, as po-faced and rancid, a romantic melodrama about love with an emotionally abusive spouse — Gaslight, if she tried to work things out with Charles Boyer. Hitchcock later admitted he had little affinity for the material; Cardiff said the long-take process led to a fatal “loss of tempo” for both the actors and the film. Both men knew what they were talking about. The Siren continues to prefer Rope and The Paradine Case (now there’s a Hitchcock whose fans get mighty lonely). But a rare 35mm screening is the ideal place to see for yourself.

Edward, My Son
 is somewhat marred by a (possibly Production Code-mandated) framing device that has an aged Spencer Tracy shuffling up to the camera to ask for a moral judgment from the audience. He plays Arnold Boult, a man whose obsession with an easy life for his only child turned his son into a monster. Or did it? Edward is never seen on camera, a device that Donald Ogden Stewart’s script carries over from the play by Robert Morley and Noel Langley. The effect turns Edward into the picture of Dorian Gray: a reflection of the main character’s gradual corruption. Leaving Edward out of sight leaves the audience to decide whether Boult truly ruined his son, or whether the child was always doomed to inherit the father’s worst qualities. After all, as Edward’s upstanding mother Evelyn (Deborah Kerr) points out in her most emotional scene, many people spoil their children, without the kid turning into a liar, a thief and a bully. Even Edward’s evident alcoholism may be genetics at work, since Evelyn herself turns to drink as Boult's deeds get darker.

George Cukor’s biographer, Patrick McGilligan, labels this one “an ambitious dud,” but the Siren thinks it’s full of great twists and question marks; Tracy never lets you see Blount as a complete villain. Leueen MacGrath, a gorgeous and multi-talented woman who was married to George S. Kaufman, is superb as Blount’s secretary/mistress, moving from cool calculation to heartbreak. Kerr is excellent early on, but MGM goes crazy with the old-age makeup later in the film, when logic suggests her character is still south of 50, but some smartass added a dowager’s hump. Still, Cukor offers Kerr a haunting fadeout. The camera focuses on Tracy and devoted family doctor Ian Hunter, while a drunk and heartbroken Kerr climbs the steps of her mansion, moving out of the frame for what we know will be the last time.

And in terms of technique, the Siren thought this was the most intriguing film of all, a play that never feels stagey. Cukor uses massively long takes, with sly changes in angle and slow, elegant camera moves that smoothly shift your attention within the frame. It’s one of his most ineffably subtle films.

Henry Hathaway's The Sons of Katie Elder is a Siren favorite. He directed Lives of a Bengal Lancer, which Ben Urwand has been so diligently reintroducing to the public, and Hathaway made a string of great noirs in the 1940s. Peter Ibbetson is definitely none of the above. It’s a dreamy romantic fantasy rather like Smilin’ Through, only considerably darker and with a leading lady — Ann Harding — far more nuanced than Norma Shearer. The title role is played by Gary Cooper. He’s a young man whose childhood sweetheart Mary (Harding) has married a much-older duke (John Halliday in full glower). The duke discovers their love, tries to shoot Peter and winds up dead himself. Peter is sent to prison, but his love for Mary is so powerful that they are able to meet in their dreams, acting out the love that was thwarted in life.

David Shipman says this film did not fare well at the 1935 box office. It’s a delicate conceit that strikes some, like Nick Pinkerton, as positively sappy. Well, the Siren, perverse mortal that she is, adores this movie. The lovers’ connection is entirely spiritual; there’s not the slightest hint that their dreams find them doing anything more carnal than romping through meadows together. Peter was born in France and raised in England; Cooper does great work without the slightest alteration in his sandy Montana voice. The screenplay (based on George DuMaurier’s novel) is utterly, at times painfully sincere. But there are few films more committed to the notion of soul-deep love than this one. Charles Lang’s cinematography, full of light-shafts and dreamy mists, will thrill anyone who loved the Criterion Blu-Ray of The Uninvited. He and Hathaway create a black-and-white world that seems supernatural well before it gives way to the lovers’ dreams. The first section, with Dickie Moore and Virginia Weidler playing the lovers as children, is heartrending. Yes, Virginia Weidler; the Siren shall snub her no more.

“One of his worst films,” is how Scott Eyman describes Broken Lullaby in his biography of Ernst Lubitsch. The Siren recommends Eyman’s book, but she doesn’t agree about the haunting Broken Lullaby at all. It’s far from Lubitsch’s most incongruous movie; the Siren would give that honor to Loves of Pharaoh. But it’s definitely an anomaly, with an opening that evokes nothing so much as All Quiet on the Western Front. Phillips Holmes plays Paul, a former French soldier racked with guilt over killing a German boy, Walter Hoderlin, in the trenches. (Like Lew Ayres and Jimmy Butler of No Greater Glory, life had some grim ironies in store for Holmes.) Paul mails the German’s last letter home, then goes to Walter's home town in search of what we moderns would call “closure.” Herr Hoderlin, a kindly old doctor played by Lionel Barrymore, feels bitterness toward the French; Walter's mother (Louise Carter) and fiancee (Nancy Carroll) are still numb with grief. Paul finds himself embraced by the family, and must decide whether to tell them the truth.

It’s based on a play and marks Lubitsch’s first collaboration with Samson Raphaelson, although Broken Lullaby was shot after The Smiling Lieutenant. ("It came out just as morbid and unattractive as I thought it would," was Raphaelson's review.) Bad box office led a desperate Paramount to change the title, post-release, to Broken Lullaby from the original The Man I Killed, babies presumably being an easier sell than corpses. (The Siren likes the original title much better, with its echo of Thomas Hardy’s poem.) The ending can be seen as equivocal, although the Siren points out that Lubitsch is not known for his punitive attitude toward his characters. One shot hooked the Siren. Walter's mother is at his grave, and there are any number of possible ways to film that: the flowers on the grave, the earth, the headstone, the back of the actress’ head. Lubitsch moves in on the mother’s hands unsnapping the clasp of her pocketbook, so close we can see that virtually all it contains is a handkerchief.


So, should this series meet with enough success to get a sequel, what offbeat films would the Siren's patient readers suggest? Her own nomination would be Otto Preminger's charming Centennial Summer, because the last thing she expected Otto to do was remind her of Meet Me in St. Louis.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Five Questions About Five Came Back: An Interview with Mark Harris

When the news came that Pearl Harbor had been bombed, John Ford was having Sunday lunch at the home of Rear Admiral Andrew Pickens in Virginia. Like a true Southern hostess, Mrs. Pickens tried to make sure no one’s lovely meal would be ruined: “It’s no use getting excited. This is the seventh war that’s been announced in this dining room.”

Hollywood for years had brought everyone many more wars than that, wars that on film were often, as Peter Pan enthused about death, “an awfully big adventure.” John Ford and four of his fellow directors — Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens and John Huston — had, like the rest of the world, been primed for this particular war for quite some time. Or so they thought.

This week sees the publication of Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, Mark Harris’ stunning book about the wartime experiences of these filmmakers. They knew, respected, worked and occasionally clashed with one another.

John Ford earned a Purple Heart shooting footage of The Battle of Midway. John Huston, already a notorious hell-raiser, packed his bags for Alaska and later Italy, only to come back with experiences that kept him awake no matter how hard he tried to party them away. Capra spent much of his time supervising the Why We Fight series, engaged in constant back-and-forth with the U.S. government he fiercely wanted to support. When still in the States, the Alsace-born Jew William Wyler tried with mounting desperation to help people get out of Europe; when in Europe, he flew and filmed combat missions that eventually cost him much of his hearing. And George Stevens, Wyler’s good friend who’d made his name with wise, humane comedies, filmed Dachau after the camp was liberated, footage intended only for use at the Nuremberg trials. In later years, Stevens himself couldn’t bear to watch it.

The author's done impressive research and uncovered much that was new to the Siren. Harris knows all about the directors' art as well as their lives, treats them all with fairness, and he doesn’t neglect their humor, either.

The Siren devoured an advance copy. Then she got in touch with Mark, with whom she’s friendly, and asked if he’d answer a few questions via email for the benefit of her patient readers. He kindly agreed.

The Siren has, where possible, linked to the films that are available free on the Web. Mark also writes a column for Grantland and dispenses wit and wisdom on Twitter under the handle @MarkHarrisNYC. Meanwhile, you definitely want Five Came Back.

Your previous book, Pictures at a Revolution, had a similar five-way structure, built around the five Oscar nominees for Best Picture in the watershed year of 1967. What attracts you to this type of construction? Was Five Came Back harder?

The “rule of five” similarity is mostly an accident, I swear! My books tend to start with wildly overreaching proposals for cast-of-thousands narratives that, if executed according to plan, would run about 2500 pages each. Then, in the first stages of research, I narrow what I’m doing considerably when I realize what I want my real narrative to be. So Five Came Back began in my head as a book about 13 or 14 people—including producers, studio heads, actors, writers, emigres—and I very quickly figured out that I wanted to tell this particular story through the lives of directors, and that almost everyone else I was interested in would end up as supporting characters in their stories. I cringed a little when I realized there were five—but there wasn’t one I could naturally add or omit, so five it was.

The part of this structural similarity that isn’t an accident or a coincidence is that I like to have a large group of people to play with, and I really enjoy working on multiple narratives that not only interweave but occasionally intersect. In both books, I think readers might start out thinking that they’re reading five different stories, but the deeper they get into the narrative, the more they come to feel (I hope) that they’re actually reading one big story with many characters, which I feel this is. It’s the story of five directors, but they collaborate, and compete, and occasionally collide. And I couldn’t tell the full story of how Hollywood moviemakers reacted to the war without discussing all of them.

Much of the book deals with the wartime documentaries made by these directors. Some of those films included extensive re-enactments, a technique that is controversial to this day. Did you draw any fresh conclusions about the ethics of re-enactments, both during World War II and our own time?

When you write about the early 1940s, you’re writing about the documentary form in or near its infancy—it was a time when the ethics of documentary or journalistic filmmaking had not been the subject of all that much discussion or judgment. In talking about re-enactments, which are an important part of this story, I tried very hard to strike a careful balance. On one hand, I don’t enjoy reading histories that use the smug perspective of present-day knowledge as a bludgeon to abuse their subjects; on the other hand, it’s sometimes too easy to wish away ethical or moral deficiencies via the umbrella exoneration, “Well, those were different times.” Yes, they were different times, but these ethical questions were not foreign to the men I was writing about.

The truth is that John Huston and George Stevens were both profoundly uncomfortable with their roles in foisting false footage on both the Allies and the public—those were instances of clear-cut wrongdoing, and I write about them. But did William Wyler err by recreating a soundtrack for The Memphis Belle? And what are we to make of Huston’s restaging of battle scenes of San Pietro, which were acclaimed as examples of unprecedented realism even though they were faked? In the book I try to be as detailed as possible about how and why these decisions were made and executed, but I think different readers may reach different conclusions. I am surprised at how resonant the question has turned out to be. Two of last year’s strongest documentaries, Stories We Tell and The Act of Killing, made extraordinary and inventive use of re-enactments and made some of the ethical issues surrounding them explicit, so it’s clearly something with which we’ll continue to wrestle.

What are the best films these directors made during the war?

I’ll have to stretch the definition of “during” in both directions a little to answer that. Wyler’s two wartime movies, Mrs. Miniver, which often gets dismissed as cloying or sentimental but which is astonishingly effective and affecting, and The Best Years Of Our Lives, which is just one of the all-time great American movies, would have to head the list, and his wartime documentary The Memphis Belle is very strong. Ford’s They Were Expendable, which he made in 1945 immediately following his Navy service, is excellent, deeply personal and revealing. Huston was the least experienced of the five directors at the time war broke out—he had just made his directorial debut with The Maltese Falcon—and when you watch his three wartime documentaries, Report from the Aleutians, San Pietro, and Let There Be Light, you can see him developing as a director in fascinating and idiosyncratic ways. Stevens didn’t make any theatrically released documentaries during the war, but The More The Merrier, which he made just before joining the Army, is sophisticated, funny, and romantic—one of the best wartime comedies. And Capra’s Why We Fight series is certainly of huge historical interest (by the way, like just about all of the war-era documentaries, you can see those movies for free on any number of streaming services).

These directors were all stars themselves in some sense, with public personas that affect the perception of their work to this day. Did spending so much time with these artists alter your take on what they were like as men?

I spent almost five years on the book, and for me those years were a process of trying to get to know those five men. I was very fortunate that in all five cases, their papers had been archived. Without that, and without the archiving of war papers in the National Archives, I don’t think I could have done the research that made writing the book possible. There’s something deeply intimate and also very humbling about sitting in a library holding a letter from a father to his son or a husband to his wife or a diary that was written 75 years ago, or seeing the rough draft of a speech or a chunk of narration, a piece of paper on which one of these directors had scratched out words over and over again while looking for the right way to express himself. You really do feel like you’re the custodian of their thoughts at that moment, and it’s a trust you’d better not break by distortion or manipulation. I didn’t want this book to be an act of hero worship, because while I do find a couple of the directors heroic, many of them were also problematic, flawed, tormented people, and I wanted to convey those truths as well. By the end of the process I thought I understood more about, say, Huston’s bravado or Ford’s taciturn quality than I did when I started. It would be arrogant to say I “know” them, but I feel I got as close to understanding them as men as I possibly could.

Did writing Five Came Back affect your view of the films of Huston, Ford, Stevens, Wyler and Capra, especially the ones they made afterward? If so, how?

Some more than others—and that was something I felt I wanted to kind of bite my tongue about in the book, which is a narrative history, not a critical essay, and which (more to the point) ends in early 1947. It wouldn’t have felt right to me to end the story by saying “…and therefore, here is how I think you should look at The Searchers.” That said, I very much hope that readers go look at The Searchers! I’d love them to feel inspired not only to go watch some of the movies I mentioned above—movies that I deal with directly in the book—but the later movies as well. I certainly look at Stevens’s Shane, which he called his “war movie,” differently as a result of the years I spent on the book, and the same is true of how I comprehend Ford’s relationship to defeat and lost causes in his Westerns. And I think I have a better understanding of why social realism and noir both flourished after the war. But that’s for another book!


Here are some related links of interest:

Lou Lumenick at the New York Post writes about how John Huston faked parts of The Battle of San Pietro.

George Stevens’ The Nazi Plan, which was screened at Nuremberg, can be watched here.

Letters, photos and other materials relating to one of the dozens of historical figures in this book, novelist and screenwriter Irwin Shaw, are available here.

Photos from top: William Wyler (in the middle, with hands in pockets) and most of the crew from the Memphis Belle; John Huston in his Signal Corps uniform attends the 1943 Academy Awards with Olivia de Havilland; John Ford films They Were Expendable in Florida in 1945;  Frank Capra receives the Distinguished Service Medal from General George C. Marshall; George Stevens filming in Europe after D-Day.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Let's Talk About Kim Novak

She was born Marilyn Novak in Chicago in 1933, and she always said she never wanted to be an actress, much less a star. She came to California as “Miss Deep Freeze,” demonstrating appliances on a sales tour. She said, “I could open a refrigerator door gracefully, that was it, period. I could see where a lot of time might go by before any movie studio would want a girl to open an icebox.”

Turned out that the legendary Harry Cohn of Columbia did want Marilyn — albeit because Rita Hayworth’s career was on the slide and the way Cohn saw it, he needed another sex symbol. At first he wasn’t sure he could make anything of Novak. The card at the modeling agency where the 20-year-old was working said: “Hands, marginal; legs, hefty; neck and face, flawless.”

Cohn put Novak on a stringent diet, all the while calling her “that fat Polack” (Novak’s background is Czech) behind her back. She followed an exercise regime. She was assigned a make-up artist. Her teeth were capped. Her hair was dyed blonde, then rinsed to make it gleam lavender in the light.

Her name was changed, since in the 1950s Marilyn was what you might call already taken. Cohn wanted “Kit” but Novak figured something so close to “kitten” was already stereotyping her, and she suggested Kim. She insisted on keeping her last name, which Cohn thought too ethnic.

“I made you, I can break you,” was Cohn’s refrain to Novak and many another actor. She was a naturally shy, insecure woman and Cohn liked it that way. He’d call Novak into his office and read her every bad review she got. And she got plenty; Novak was never a darling of the press. If she tried something dramatic, she was wooden. If she did a sexy role, she was too heavy, too dumb. When she went to the Oscars one year and posed on the red carpet, one columnist sniped that Novak was “aping Marilyn’s every move.”

Where there was an especially cruel phrase in an article, Cohn would read it to Kim an extra time or two, for emphasis.

Novak, according to Sam Kashner and Jennifer MacNair in The Bad and the Beautiful, “became obsessed with having her hair and makeup perfect before she could begin working, worried that she couldn’t live up to the media’s portrayal of her as a sex goddess.”

Which brings us to last night's Oscars.

As we age, the fat that plumps the skin and makes it glow inexorably begins to disintegrate. Because this is 2014, and we’re on our way to curing women of the worst thing that can happen to them— getting old — doctors can solve this terrible problem with injectable fillers.

So let’s say — just as a hypothetical for-instance — you are an 81-year-old star whose last movie was in 1991 and who hasn’t been to the Oscars in many a long year. Not that you were ever nominated for one in the first place; you were, after all, a sex symbol for most of your career. As the evening approaches, the anxiety sets in. Harsh lights, you think. High-definition cameras. And a public that remembers you chiefly as the ice goddess whose beauty once drove James Stewart to the brink of madness.

And even back then, when you were 25 years old, you worried constantly that no matter how you looked, it wasn’t good enough.

So a few weeks before the ceremony, you go to a doctor, and he says, “Relax honey. I have just the thing to make you fresh and dewy for the cameras.”

And you go to the Oscars, so nervous you clutch your fellow presenter’s hand. And the next day, you wake up to a bunch of cheap goddamn shots about your face.

Nice system we got here, isn’t it.

No wonder Kim Novak, like Tippi Hedren, Doris Day and Brigitte Bardot, has long said she’d much rather spend her time with animals.

(Background material on Novak is from The Bad and the Beautiful. Recommended.)

Friday, February 28, 2014

Gigi (1958): A Defense

Kate Aurthur’s ranking of Best Picture winners is not the worst film list the Siren has ever seen, nor even the worst list she’s seen on Buzzfeed. Several movies the Siren reveres did pretty well with Ms Aurthur. Rebecca sits at No. 20, The Best Years of Our Lives is No. 16, It Happened One Night cracks the top 10 at No. 8 and at No. 1 is All About Eve. Any group this large must elicit a correspondingly large amount of disagreement; that is why lists are such reliable traffic-bait.

But the Siren almost didn’t make it through, because the very first item, Ms Aurthur’s choice for the worst Best Picture winner of all time, slapped her across the face like Joan Crawford on a rampage.

Yes, the creepiest, most pedophiliac movie ever to win Best Picture is this list’s worst. How to define “worst” in this context, especially when judging Gigi — a movie musical some people love now, and certainly many people loved in 1958 — against films that were barely movies as we currently recognize them? [NB: I know, I know, forge ahead, please.] This list is, of course, totally subjective: I factored in my personal feelings about each movie, along with how well it has held up, how influential it is, and what it was up against. And then there’s the ineffability of common wisdom, which I also have taken into account. No matter how I feel about Annie Hall or about Schindler’s List, for example, I know I’m in a minority view in my dislike — and that matters. Not with Gigi, though, in which Leslie Caron plays a Parisian girl being trained to be a courtesan who ends up in a push-and-pull relationship with the much older Gaston (Louis Jordan) [sic]. This is the movie that gave us that disturbing cultural artifact, the song “Thank Heaven For Little Girls.” If you want disturbing psychosexual movies from 1958, let’s agree that Vertigo, which was nominated only for Best Art Direction and Best Sound, is preferable. To reiterate: Gigi is the worst.

Pitting Vertigo against Gigi underlines the reason George C. Scott refused to pick up his Oscars: In addition to calling the ceremony “a meat parade,” he considered the idea of artists competing against one another to be absurd. He was not wrong. “Best” means something different for an Alfred Hitchcock thriller and a musical comedy from Vincente Minnelli and Lerner and Loewe. Then again, in cracking a joke, the author has accidentally made a point.

Vertigo, winner of the Sight and Sound “Greatest Film of All Time So Take That, Citizen Kane Award,” concerns a troubled ex-policeman who falls in love with the gorgeous and possibly insane woman he is hired to tail. When he attempts to save her from her demons, she winds up dead, or so he thinks. Then the ex-cop spots his lost love’s doppelganger on the street, and works to turn her into the image of that dead woman — dye job, new wardrobe, new makeup. The audience soon finds out it’s the same woman, and she’s sane, although the ex-cop is plainly not. Our two-timing woman loves this man, and tries frantically to please him, but in the end, she falls off a bell tower.

Now turn to Gigi, from Alan Jay Lerner’s screenplay, based on Colette’s story of a Parisian girl who’s descended from a line of courtesans and is being taught to take over the family business. But Gigi’s a lousy pupil, so far from considering a man’s happiness that she does not hesitate to clean his clock when they’re playing cards. The man in this instance is Gaston, a wealthy friend of the family who’s always had mistresses and enjoys Gigi’s company for the relief it brings from their demands, and from society’s. One day Gaston realizes that Gigi is no longer a little girl, and that he’s in love with her. He proposes to make her his latest mistress, although Gigi has spotted the flaw in this arrangement: It makes her disposable, and she’s in love with Gaston, and doesn’t want to be thrown away. Gaston in turn realizes that he loves Gigi too, and he doesn’t want to force her into a life that is utterly wrong for her. And so he marries her instead.

As Cosmopolitan might say, two makeovers, two very different results.

And one question: Why is Gigi, which ends with its vivacious heroine happily married to a rich man who loves her the way she is, a sick-sick-sick movie; while Vertigo, in which the lovelorn female lead tries to turn herself into a fictional character and winds up stone dead, is a “preferable” depiction of male-female relations?

Let’s see, which Oscar winners displayed sufficient rectitude to wind up near the top? Oh look, there’s Silence of the Lambs at No. 5, now there’s a movie that knows how to treat a lady. In The Godfather Part II, we have Kay Corleone getting the door slammed in her face as she tries to embrace her children; there’s The Godfather, where Talia Shire’s husband beats the living hell out of her; and let’s not mention (because Ms Aurthur doesn’t) the marital rape in Gone With the Wind (No. 11) and the speech in All About Eve about how a career means nothing for a woman if you turn over in bed and your man’s not there.

Fine movies, sure, but you see the point: Why pick on Gigi? If it were just Buzzfeed, the Siren might have shrugged and called for madder music and stronger wine. But alas, the woods are full of people saying Gigi is terrifying, the worst, chauvinist and hateful (et tu, Vadim?).

This wounds the Siren to her feminist core. She loves Gigi.

Yes, Gigi, played by 27-year-old Leslie Caron, is very young. Louis Jourdan, who plays Gaston, was 37. In the original Colette novella, Gigi is 16 and Gaston is 33, and in 2014, that is, as Ms Aurthur states, considered creepy.

Gigi, however, is set in 1900 in Paris. In that time and world, it was not unheard-of for a 16-year-old to get married, much less was it considered too young to embark on a career as a courtesan. Scowling at the sexual morals of an earlier time is fun and all, but it’s not an especially rewarding critical approach.

Let’s look at “Thank Heaven For Little Girls,” the song that freaks out Buzzfeed. These are not complicated lyrics, but the Siren’s emphasizing some salient lines anyway:

Thank heaven for little girls
For little girls get bigger every day. 
Thank heaven for little girls
They grow up in the most delightful way.
Those little eyes so helpless and appealing
One day will flash and send you crashing through the ceiling.
Thank heaven for little girls
Thank heaven for them all,
No matter where no matter who
Without them, what would little boys do?
Thank heaven . . . thank heaven . . .
Thank heaven for little girls!

Maybe you don’t want Maurice Chevalier, who turned 70 during filming, singing about little girls, period. But he isn’t saying, “Thank heaven for little girls because I want to have sex with them,” which would of course be “pedophiliac” and horrifying in many eras besides our own. The lyrics say “I like little girls because they grow up into beautiful women.” In other words this song, a frequent target of the irretrievably literal-minded, is the senior citizen who coos at your cute kid, “That one’s gonna be a heartbreaker.” If the correct response to such a sally is to smash the old buzzard over the head with your handbag and shriek “Get away from my child, you psychopath!!” then the Siren freely admits she’s been doing it wrong.

Furthermore (and the Siren can’t believe she has to point this out) there is not a single act of rape, whether statutory or not, in this film. No character shows a sexual interest in girls under 16, and that includes Chevalier as Honore Lachaille. It’s the opposite of pedophilia: People wait until they’re old enough by the Parisian standards of the time, and that’s that.

Up until the point where Gaston takes a look at Gigi in a grown-up dress and realizes she’s a young woman, he has no romantic or sexual interest in her. She’s a chum. She’s fun. And when she does show up in the dress, happy and proud as all teenagers are when they put on the trappings of an adult, Gaston’s reaction isn’t “hubba-hubba.” He yells at Gigi that she looks “like an organ-grinder’s monkey.” If a 16-year-old and a 33-year-old in love is disturbing, hey, here you go — Gaston is disturbed when confronted with a playmate who’s suddenly attractive. They have a blistering row and he stomps off, only to realize that as Gigi has grown up, so have his feelings.

Minnelli probably would have loved to direct My Fair Lady, but that film couldn’t be made until the record-breaking Broadway run was over. So he took on Gigi, which tracks the other musical so closely that dear old Bosley Crowther suggested Lerner and Loewe might want to sue themselves. (Ms Aurthur has the backlot-bound, slower and stiffer My Fair Lady at no. 15, in evident indifference both to the plot similarities and the fact that Eliza Doolittle is also a teenager, plus Henry Higgins is 20 years older than Eliza and is her teacher to boot.) Minnelli wanted to bring fin de siecle Paris and caricaturist Sem to life. Along with production designer Cecil Beaton (and despite Charles Walters, who had to take charge of some post-production reshoots), Minnelli did the impossible. He made Paris look even more beautiful than it is.

He did the same for every woman in the movie, as Janet Flanner wrote when she reported from the Paris set for The New Yorker that the film was “peopled…with some of the most extraordinary-looking young-and-old beauties that Paris has seen in a while.” Minnelli was lavish, but never vulgar. His camera admires. It does not leer, at Caron or any other woman, no, not even the lushly leer-able Eva Gabor.

But, you protest, this girl is being trained to be a prostitute. How is that acceptable to a feminist? Well, this feminist does not have a problem with consensual sex work. Much less does the Siren have a problem with sex work as a way that two old ladies once used to make a living that probably beat the hell out of taking in laundry or whatever else was open to the average woman in 19th-century France. Tante Alicia (Isabel Jeans) earned enough to live in grand retirement in a mansion with servants. Madame Alvarez (Hermione Gingold) has a much smaller budget, but she’s still keeping Gigi in basic comfort. She’s also supporting her daughter, Gigi’s mother, who’s rejected “the life” and is heard only from off-camera as she trains to be what sounds like the worst soprano since Susan Alexander stank up the opera house in Citizen Kane.

Alicia and Mamita, as Mme. Alvarez is called, are shrewd women who have made their way through life armed with their wits, and with attractiveness that is as much cultivated as it is natural. They call their own shots. When Eva Gabor’s Liane, Gaston’s mistress (who's pretty clearly older than he is), makes a phony suicide attempt, Tante Alicia waves it off for the dumbshow it is: “The usual way, insufficient poison.” These are not, perhaps, the rules these ladies would prefer to play by. The Siren thinks in our own era, Alicia’s basilisk eyes would be trained on the CAC-40, not the next wealthy protector for her niece. But it is, let’s repeat, 1900. In any era, you play the hand you’re dealt.

Gigi, far from being “creepily” youth-obsessed, has a complex and entrancing view of the stages of life. We see the heroine going from bewilderment at the games “The Parisians” play, to trying to play them herself. Gaston sees middle age edging closer, while he’s using the same kinds of women for the same thing and wondering why “It’s a Bore.” Meanwhile, Chevalier’s big number isn’t “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” It’s “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore.”

On the beach at Trouville, Honore is pursuing a likely (adult, for crying out loud) prospect. But he spies Mamita, with whom he once had an affair, and says, “I must tell you that you upset all my plans for the weekend! I came prepared for battle, and an old wound prevents me from charging.” What follows is the movie’s most tenderly romantic song, performed by two elderly people as the sun sets.

“Am I getting old?” “Oh no, not you.” Excuse the Siren a sec, she’s got something in her eye.

The Production Code Administration, diminished in 1958 but still in there swinging, took a long hard look at Gigi, but the Siren’s sources don’t indicate that what has Ms Aurthur calling Gigi's defenders "criminals" was the obstacle. Instead, what got the PCA riled up was the prostitution angle. After the usual horse-trading over the script, the objections boiled down to a single line: “To 'take care of me beautifully' means I shall go away with you, and that I shall sleep in your bed." Minnelli pleaded to be allowed to film that as written and have the censors make their call after seeing how it played. In the end, he said, Leslie Caron spoke the line so innocently that it passed without a murmur. Bad call for posterity, it seems. If Minnelli had ended on Gigi falling off a bell tower, maybe this thing would have lived up to the moral standards of Buzzfeed.