Sunday, July 26, 2015

Mexico at Midnight: Film Noir From Mexican Cinema's Golden Age

Dear friends and residents of the greater New York City metropolitan area, has the Siren got a series for you.

It’s Mexico at Midnight, presented by film-preservation hero and friend of the Siren Dave Kehr at the Museum of Modern Art, July 23 through July 29. The organizing principle is a look at Mexican noir, films made from 1946 to 1952, when the country’s film industry was at its zenith. These films are little known in the U.S., but they’re here now, so rejoice.

The Wall Street Journal, J. Hoberman in the New York Times and the fabulous Imogen Sara Smith at The Life Sentence, have write-ups that give the cinematic and historical background. The Siren will sidestep that duty by admitting that she knows only the outline of 20th century Mexican history, and her knowledge of pre-1960 Mexican cinema is limited to the Mexican artists who worked in Hollywood, several of whom — Dolores Del Rio, Arturo de Cordova, Pedro Armendáriz, and Gabriel Figueroa — are in this series.

Instead, the Siren will stick to something she can talk about with confidence, which is how entrancing these films are. True thrillers all, they are gorgeous to look at, acted with incredible verve and graced with intricate, literate scripts. This series is so great, you could choose a film by turning your cat loose on a paper copy of the schedule and going to see whichever title you can still make out once she lies down for a nap.

Given that, the Siren will discuss the five films she was able to preview in the order she watched them.

First up, because the Siren was curious to see what Dolores Del Rio was like in her native language, was La Otra (The Other One, 1946). Answer to the Siren’s query by oh, about the second or third scene: Del Rio was light years better under these circumstances. She’d returned to Mexico in 1942, fed up with the parts she got in Hollywood, always exotic and mysterious, mysterious and exotic, nobody asking that much of her except to show up looking swell. “I wanted to go the way of the art. Stop being a star and become an actress, and that I could only do in Mexico,” she said later. The Siren once admitted that she didn’t exactly look forward to Del Rio’s Hollywood appearances, where the perfection of her looks seemed to turn her into a mannequin. The solution was there all along: Watch Del Rio in a Mexican movie, which the Siren will happily do from now on.

Are there any identical twins out there? (The Siren has fraternal twins of her own, but for the purposes of Twin-Movie Plots, they don’t count.) If so, are you the evil one? There’s always an evil one, you know. No no, don’t bother to argue, you can’t fool the Siren, she’s seen everything from A Stolen Life to Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. Never mind the genes, one of you is up to no good. So if you are the evil twin and you are out there merrily doing evil things, beware: Don’t make the good twin jealous. Bad, bad move.

Dolores Del Rio plays identicals, and the evil twin, Magdalena, makes every mistake in the playbook. She steals the man of the good twin, Maria, marrying him and thereby becoming rich. She swans around her boudoir, showing off her ill-gotten furs and jewels to Maria. When Maria brings up the fact that it’s not nice to marry your sister’s one true love, Magdalena silkily suggests she get over it.

Come on, what’s a good twin to do? Marry the kind, noble cop who takes her to a cafe, puts “Always” on the jukebox and talks of a future together? Oh please. A proper good twin murders the other one and takes her place.

Under the fantastic trappings of this film lies a refreshingly frank look at class, and class envy. Maria is a manicurist who spends her days never knowing if the man whose nails she’s filing is going to make a pass at her. She does know that when they do, her boss expects her to put out. She goes home to a garret, moving through a throng of poor-but-happy children she can’t afford to have. (In this film the peak of Roberto Gavaldón’s direction, and Alex Phillips’ cinematography, comes during the scenes set on Christmas Eve, as the children sing and light sparklers; a pinata has seldom been used to such chilling effect.)

Meanwhile, Magdalena clacks her high-heeled way around her mansion, which has a foyer suitable for impromptu roller-derby matches, and condescends to the servants. Where La Otra goes one better than most evil-twin movies (including its Hollywood sibling, Dead Ringer) is in its suggestion — perfectly conveyed in Del Rio’s performance — that adopting the trappings of wealth means adopting the heedless attitudes of the rich as well.

La Noche Avanza (Night Falls, 1952) was next up, and the Siren confesses it’s her favorite, for its zippy pace, its affinities with boxing noir, and the way it illustrates what the Mexican cinema could do that the Code-encumbered Hollywood could not. Pedro Armendáriz, a romantic lead in many Mexican films and a suffering near-saint in The Pearl and 3 Godfathers, here plays an irredeemable louse. He is Marcos, a pelota player, known as jai alai to us Yanks. (The Siren knows so little about this game that she sat down to watch the movie thinking jai alai was, like polo, played with horses.) Armendáriz didn’t have an athletic physique, and the pelota games utilize some pretty obvious doubles in long shots. But it’s an exciting sport, and obviously dangerous as hell. Director Gavaldón uses the enormous echoing stadium necessary for the game, and the net that keeps the audience from getting their skulls cracked open by the ball, to great effect. And Armendáriz plays his role with such pugnacious power, thrusting his non-sixpack out at anyone who defies him, every action seeming to boil up straight from his groin, that he personifies all the darkest corners of the jock id.

Hateful to his teammates, abusive to his women, Marcos even lands a vicious kick on a stray dog, an action you’d have had a hard time convincing a Hollywood star to replicate, no matter how big a heel he was playing. Marcos then dumps lovestruck nightclub singer Lucrecia (Eva Martino) so he can ride off with the wealthy, middle-aged Sara (Anita Blanch) in her chaffeur-driven car. But before he does so, he warns Lucrecia that infidelity is strictly for him. The movie is scalding about sexual politics, even more so when yet a third girlfriend enters the picture, played by Rebecca Iturbide. She’s an upper-class teenager whom Marcos has carelessly impregnated. He wants her to get an abortion, not because she’s threatening suicide at the thought of her ruined life, but because he doesn’t want anything to affect the fat contract he just signed.

You get impatient for this super-rat to get his comeuppance, and it’s coming, oh boy is it coming. But here’s where the movie is particularly clever; there is a point when Marcos’ suffering becomes so acute, that Gavaldón, and top-notch co-writers Jesús Cárdenas, José Revueltas and Luis Spota, are pushing the audience to ask themselves if this is what they really want. Then, the situation flips again, to remind us of Marcos’ true nature. It’s a revenge tale that refuses to make anything neat or pretty, down to the last grim joke of a shot.

En la Palma de Tu Mano (In the Palm of Your Hand, 1951) is the longest and most ambitious film of the bunch. In the tradition of films like Nightmare Alley, it presents a bogus and cynical psychic, and then demonstrates that inexorable fate is out there, even if we can’t see it. Maybe even because we can’t see it. Arturo de Córdova shows that Frenchman’s Creek — in which the Siren found him somewhat painful — was total miscasting. Córdova was no pirate. He was meant to play suave characters who reject pretty, sane women (here personified by Carmen Montejo as his wife) in order to fling themselves at the first gorgeous sociopath they meet.

One of the pleasures of this series is the extensive use of Mexico City. The Siren spent a wonderful week there once, and she loved this chance to see the city in the middle of the 20th century, both grand and ramshackle, as teeming with life, danger and possibility as her own beloved New York. Córdova’s character, “Professor” Karin, runs his soothsayer racket out of a tall colonial building near the Juarez monument. The massive neon sign that advertises his trade towers over Karin every time he steps outside.

Meanwhile, the film augments Mexico City with jaw-dropping sets. Karin’s office mimics an observatory, the domed ceiling adorned with big magic-sounding words and twinkling stars. Once Karin meets his match, in the form of a scheming widow played by Leticia Palma, he visits her apartment, and finds it tricked out with a dizzying staircase, fur rugs and ebony marble, the lair of a huntress. If you’re going to hell, this is the handbasket you’d pick.

Often mentioned is a mid-film scene involving a helpful cop, a flat tire and a dead body in the trunk. (One day the Siren will organize a noir series based solely on the problem of what you do with a body in the trunk.) It’s fantastic, beat by beat worthy of Hitchcock, but the Siren was even more taken with a prior scene, where Karin, stuck out in a country mansion with that same corpse during a rainstorm, finds himself interrupted by one of the series’ few gringos. The stranger is hilariously American, lost on the road and sure that the locals exist solely to give him directions, braying his questions and thanks like Ralph Bellamy wandering in from His Girl Friday. The Siren couldn’t help imagining the Mexican artists on this film, fed up with Hollywood’s view of Latinos, thinking, “Two can play that game, my friend.”

Córdova is at it again in the 1945 Crepusculo (Twilight, a word that Google reveals has been ruined in English), falling in love with the wrong dame, here played by Gloria Marin. He’s Alejandro, a surgeon and idealistic egghead, who wanders into a life-sculpture class only to find his lost love, Lucia, serving as the nude model. (She’s filmed from the back; even with Mexico’s laxer censors, there were limits.) All over again he falls for Lucia, and thereby sinks into a world of geometric shadows, Dutch angles and lascivious close-ups, a world where he will abandon all his high-falutin’ principles for one touch of Marin’s exquisite lips.

Alejandro leaves for war-torn Europe, and returns to find that his Lucia has married his best friend. When asked about her disappearing act, says Lucia to Alejandro, “I left you because I wanted our love to be perfect.” Say what? Lucia explains her choice of groom by saying she knew it would guarantee she got to see Alejandro again. According to the admittedly unreliable IMDB, there was a psychiatrist consulting on this script, and if so, the Siren would love to know how his patients turned out. (It was written and directed by Julio Bracho and lensed by Alex Phillips, who was clearly a genius.) Even by the high-strung standards of noir, nothing anybody does in this film makes much sense. More than the other films, this one gets by on its rapturous looks, its swoony visual metaphors (hello, massive waterfall of passion, you’re looking good) and its full-throttle commitment to the one plausible plot point on display, that love makes us self-defeating nutcases. Crepusculo gets the Siren’s vote for “Most Sexy.”

Finally, there is Distinto Amanecer (Another Dawn, 1943), directed by Bracho and shot by Gabriel Figueroa, in which labor-union activist Octavio (Armendáriz, a much nicer fellow this time) is on the run from sinister capitalists bent on retrieving essential documents.

Octavio hides out in a cinema, and the Siren admits she’s a sucker for scenes of vintage movie-going. The lady next to him lights up a cigarette under the no-smoking sign. She is, naturally, our heroine Julieta (Andrea Palma), and Octavio recognizes her as the left-wing college sweetheart he’s never gotten over. They leave the theatre, emerging to a rain-slicked passageway, in a shot so beautiful that the Siren gasped.

Julieta has married Ignacio (Alberto Galán), Octavio’s old friend from college. Unable to have children (there’s a subtle suggestion of an abortion gone wrong), Julieta instead is raising her young brother, putting up with her weak, complaining husband and working as a nightclub hostess, a job that pretty clearly includes prostitution. Nightclubs are another motif shared by these films, shown first crowded and joyous, then later deserted, the upturned chair-legs looking like a foretaste of jail. Here the club’s patrons move back and forth from their tables in precise, oblivious waves.

Julieta seizes her chance to help Octavio, and rekindle a feeling that she’s good for something beyond supporting a layabout and a brother who will soon be too old to need her. Armendáriz is the ostensible lead, but in the Siren's view this is Julieta’s story, a domestic noir grafted onto a political thriller. The film pulls no punches about the emotional price she will pay for any choice she makes.

The films in this series starring Maria Felix, the goddess of Mexican cinema, were not yet subtitled for preview. But the two films — The Kneeling Goddess (La Diosa Arrodillada, 1947), and Que Dios Me Perdone (May God Forgive Me, 1948), — are screening at MoMA this week. The Siren wants to see them, and hopes some of you do, too. For those of you who aren't within range of MoMA, join hands with the Siren and Professor Karin, and send hopeful vibes to the universe that these films will get U.S. DVD/Blu releases very, very soon.

And the next time you see him, congratulate Dave Kehr. It isn’t often that a single series opens up a whole new world.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Film Series at the Czech Center Includes Erotikon and Other Early Gems

The Czech Center, proprietor of the landmark Bohemian National Hall on East 73rd St. in New York City, has inaugurated a “Rooftop Ciné-Concert Series” every Tuesday through August 25th. They are showing silent films, both Czech and American, accompanied by live music.

The selection for tomorrow night, July 21, is intriguing enough to draw the Siren from her lair: Erotikon, a Czech film from 1929 directed by Gustav Machatý. Made four years before his glorious Ecstase (Ecstasy), which introduced Hedy Lamarr to a panting world, the movie is also said to focus on a woman’s sexuality. Which the Siren, as you know, is all for. There is a good discussion of the film here from when it was screened six years ago at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

At the piano on Tuesday will be the wonderful Ben Model, well known to silent film lovers in New York, and an asset to any screening. You can read more about Ben here.

The Siren will be there tomorrow night; if you go too, say hello. There are a lot of outdoor screenings around New York during the summer, all of them fun. But she’s very happy to see the Czech Center doing something different, and working to draw attention to Czech film artists who blazed a trail well before the famous films of the Czech New Wave. The last two films of the series (May Fairy Tale on Aug. 18 and the fantastically titled An Old Gangster's Molls on Aug. 25) look like genuine rarities.

Plus, the building is seriously beautiful.

Here’s the information and the schedule for the remaining films in the series.

Rooftop Ciné-Concert Series:
Location: Czech Center, 321 East 73rd Street, New York, NY 10021

DATE: Every Tuesday, through Aug. 25, 2015
7 pm - Rooftop opens for a welcome drink (cash bar for additional drinks & appetizers)
8 pm – Live music followed by screenings upon sunset
All the silent films are also accompanied by live music.

Please note: In the event of rain, the screenings will be in the elegant ballroom on the 4th floor.


Eroticon | Erotikon
Dir. Gustav Machatý, 1929, 85 min., silent film
Live music: Ben Model, piano

Madame X
Dir. Sam Wood (with Gustav Machatý contributing), 1937, 72 min., (early talkie)
Music overture: Joseph Morag, violinist


A Woman of Affairs
The most complete version of this American silent was discovered at the Czech film archive in Prague.
Dir. By Clarence Brown, 1928, 98 min., silent film
Live music: Henry Grimes, upright bass and Brandon Ross, banjo

Blonde Venus
Dir. Josef von Sternberg, 1932, 93 min., (early talkie)
Live music: Overture by Pavlína Horáková, singer, accompanied by pianist Drew Spradlin.

May Fairy Tale | Pohádka máje
Dir. Karel Anton, 1926, silent
Live music: Nancy Jo Snider, cello

WRAP PARTY! Bring back your 1920s and 30s fashion to close out the series!
Film: An Old Gangster's Molls (aka Loves of an Old Criminal) | Milenky starého kriminálníka
Dir. Svatopluk Innemann, 1927, 106 minutes, silent film
Live music: Audrey Vardanega and Sara Barone, piano 4 hands

(Additional information about the series is available here.)

Friday, June 19, 2015

One Sunday

Of all the terrible details about what happened in South Carolina, I can’t get over the fact that the shooter went to their bible meeting — Wednesday, when you get the true-blue Christians — prayed with them, and then murdered them. It brought me back a long time, to being a little girl when my father had concluded, and won, a case he was arguing for the congregation of Sardis Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. (Some sort of real estate dispute; didn’t understand it then and therefore can’t recall it now.) One Sunday he announced that we were going to go to services, though we were not a churchgoing family.

We walked in and within minutes my little white-gloved hand was shaking every hand in that church, or so it seemed, and everyone was telling us that they loved my father, he’d done right by them, they were so happy we were there. One lady, who made pearl-beaded necklaces, gave one to me, one to my sister and one to my mother. Dad was the world’s most irreverent joker, and he admitted to me before we went that the pastor was all too aware that the man representing them wasn’t anyone’s idea of an exemplary Christian. And I can still remember a point in the sermon, where the pastor thundered, one arm flung at my father like Moses on Mount Sinai, “We have lawyers to explain the laws of man. But GOD made the lawyer, and GOD made the law!” The congregation shouted affirmation, Dad roared with laughter and I can still see the pastor grinning.

After the sermon, which was the only one I’d ever heard in my young life that wasn’t boring, the choir swung into this song, because my father had requested it. It was his favorite hymn. Mahalia Jackson takes it at about the same tempo as the choir.

All I could think Thursday morning was that there are few places on this earth more kind, more welcoming and inclusive than a black church. How lost in hatred and evil would you have to be, not to feel it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Kirk Kerkorian Is Dead at 98

MGM's fabled Lot 2

From The World of Entertainment: Hollywood's Greatest Musicals, by Hugh Fordin (1975):

[In 1969] entered Kirk Kerkorian, millionaire head of Tracy Investment [later Tracinda] (controllers of several large Las Vegas hotels), who began acquiring large blocks of MGM stock with the sole intention of overthrowing the [Edgar] Bronfman [Sr] regime. He succeeded in obtaining the necessary majority by fall. That fight cost Bronfman $51 million [in 1969 dollars; about $330 million today] as against Kerkorian's 2.2 million shares. 
Polk was swiftly ousted and [Kerkorian's right-hand man] James T. Aubrey Jr., once head of CBS Television production, was named Metro's new president ... Aubrey then began to dispose of all that had made MGM the greatest and most valuable studio. 
First, he decided that all the costumes and props (i.e., furniture, autos, trolleys, even the show boat) that accumulated over thirty-five years should be sold. Rather than have the studio handle the sale, he made a flat deal of $1.4 million with David Weisz, a California auctioneer. That famous auction began on May 3, 1970, lasted three weeks and netted the Weisz company over $10 million. 
Second, he sold the sixty-eight acres of Lot 3 to Levitt and Sons, Inc., ITT (builders of Levittown, N.Y.). All the famous streets were leveled and in their place stands a modern housing development named Raintree County. Lot 2 also went and Aubrey even tried to dispose of the main lot to an automobile assembly company, but the Culver City zoning board put a stop to that. Then he ordered the music department's library burned, with the exception of one score for every film retained; out-takes, prerecordings, music tracks and the enormous stock-footage library also went. The vast script library was about to go up in flames, but was stopped by someone who cared, and they were sent to the USC library.
Debbie Reynolds at the 1970 MGM auction.

From "The Girl With the Golden Wardrobe: Debbie Reynolds Sells Her Showcase Collection": (at the Theater Historical Society of America website):

Reynolds’s collection began in 1970 after the financier Kirk Kerkorian bought MGM and decided to consolidate the studio. Years before Universal turned its studio tour into a major theme park, Reynolds had the idea to build a Disney-type mecca for film fans out of MGM’s back lot...Every day for three weeks, she waded through more than 300,000 items. She ended up purchasing a large, but carefully selected, array of costumes and furniture. Over the ensuing years, she added items through smaller auctions and individual purchases. When I compliment her prescience, she sighs and says, “It’s not so much that I had vision, it’s that they had none.”

From The Phantom of Hollywood: An MGM Snuff Film, by Kelli Marshall:

But as it happens, this poorly done 1970s TV movie more than imitated reality; it destroyed it, right onscreen, for the pleasure of the viewer. And here I mean pleasure in the Freudian sense—like the perverse pleasure one gets from breaking rules or slowing down to gawk at a gruesome car accident. Yes, for its climax, The Phantom of Hollywood literally bulldozes MGM’s Lot 2, and thus kills the classical film musical.
Kirk Kerkorian in Las Vegas, 1968

"The Commodification of Publishing and Media," a blog post by consultant Dan Black about "MGM and Disney; the former sold some of its most precious assets to fund the building of a Las Vegas hotel. The latter spent money to archive and preserve its history":

It Takes Decades To Build a Brand, Moments to Destroy It 
Today, many companies talk about their valuable “content assets” and the “communities” built over the course of decades. Media and publishing companies change hands constantly, often based on the value of their content and reputation. Like the MGM sale – one result of this is that the most valuable aspects of these brands are slowly dissipated over the years. Yes, some gems are cherished forever, but many others are lost into the ether, a shadow of what they once were – a hollow brand, existing in name only.

Monday, June 01, 2015

La Verité sur Bébé Donge (Lost & Found for Sight & Sound)

This is the Siren's essay for the "Lost and Found" column in the June issue of Sight and Sound magazine, reprinted (with slight differences) by kind permission of the editors.

Last year’s darkly amusing Gone Girl was often described as an indictment of marriage, which is true, to the extent it warns us all not to marry sociopaths. But David Fincher’s expert thriller also reminded me of a much harsher film — one that shows a union of essentially normal people, where murder is the fated outcome of years spent with infidelities, sulks, absences, and insults, all lodging in the skin like splinters.

That movie is La Verité sur Bébé Donge, Henri Decoin’s noir from 1952, in which we know from the beginning that François Donge has been poisoned by his wife. And in between scenes of Donge helpless in a hospital bed, we get a series of flashbacks to explain why.

Wife Bébé, played by Danielle Darrieux in full flower, begins as a dreamy and naive young woman, who says she wants “to live openly, like a book, like a window, with nothing between us.” Jean Gabin is François, a rich man almost entirely preoccupied with getting richer, when he is not using and discarding a string of mistresses. Despite all that, he marries the dowry-less Bébé, whose youth and idealism at first intrigue him.

Worse mismatches than this have endured. Yet, as critic Imogen Sara Smith puts it, “at a certain point the viewer not only understands why his wife put poison in his coffee, but feels she was quite right to do so.” It becomes evident why Bébé doesn’t love their son (who’s never shown), why François’ own brother is covering up the attempted murder, and why the attending doctor looks at his patient with ill-concealed loathing. “It was him or me,” Bébé calmly tells the magistrate who’s trying to penetrate the family omérta surrounding her crime. He kisses her on the cheek, and this too is a gesture whose meaning is clear.

And like the source of the spiked coffee, the reason this richly layered movie is rarely shown and even more rarely discussed is also a non-mystery. It flopped at the box office. The fashion for noir was abating in France, and audiences didn’t care for this unsympathetic version of Gabin. Still, it got good reviews, and its excellence might ordinarily have kept it from dropping out of sight.

But Decoin belonged to the “tradition of quality,” the French filmmakers whose reputations crumbled under sustained attack from what The New Yorker’s Richard Brody loves to call “the young critics of Cahiers.” Wrote Dave Kehr in 2009, “François Truffaut’s 1954 ‘A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema’ really was the atomic bomb of movie reviewing, obliterating an entire artistic landscape in one blast.”

Having successfully argued that the prospective home-grown competition was old and out of it, the New Wave (and their few pre-approved French antecedents) ever since has dominated revival houses, home video, and film discussions. For those of us trying to seek it out, pre-1960 French cinema is not so much a wave, but a trickle.

Decoin was not named in Truffaut’s essay, but he and screenwriter Maurice Aubergé certainly committed Truffaut’s sin of “unfaithfulness to the spirit” of what they adapted. They took George Simenon’s novel and jettisoned nearly everything but the basic idea of a man who knows he’s been poisoned by his wife. Together with its vivid dialogue and complex characters, the film has great visual allure: The cinematographer was Léonce-Henri Burel, who was a DP on Abel Gance’s towering Napoleon and who went on to work with Robert Bresson.

Bébé is forced to visit her husband daily for appearances’ sake. Decoin shoots Darrieux in the sickroom door looking like the angel of death, face alight, body in shadow, wearing a perfect black suit — graceful, chic, implacable. The couple’s first official meeting, at a matchmaker’s afternoon tea, plays out in a gilt-edged mirror, as though they’re exchanging portraits like the nobility of old. Their first kiss gives way to a wedding shot from the back of the church. The camera glides up the aisle, declining to show faces, thus suggesting that good match or bad, it’s all one to the church. When François speaks to his mistresses, and indeed the first time we see him address Bébé, his dialogue is inaudible. For such moments, words don’t matter. It’s all in Gabin’s predatory look.

Still, François isn’t entirely a monster, but rather a certain type of husband: inexpressive of emotion, uninterested in conversation, with a roving eye he feels no obligation to rein in. Bébé, like many another woman, at first believes it’s only a matter of time until she unlocks her man’s emotional side. And it is, in fact, a side that exists — once he’s been poisoned. We hear it in François’ self-reproachful interior monologues, and see it in his face all the times he pleads for another chance with his wife. Bébé looks back at him, and changes the subject to their annual party. “I feel nothing anymore,” she tells her husband. In the devastating final shot, a car pulls away into the night, growing smaller until distance snuffs out the headlights.

Perhaps the long view can make other things recede. After sixty years, Truffaut’s arguments about “le cinéma de papa” are themselves looking dated. Who nowadays is outraged by anti-clericalism, by negativity or blasphemy? La Verité sur Bébé Donge is far from the only one of “papa’s” films that deserves to be retrieved from the attic.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Claude Rains: An Actor's Side-Eye

Think of Claude Rains, and what usually come to mind is The Voice. That liquid, caressing baritone, with just enough of an English accent. Voices don't come much sexier than Rains'. (If you need reminding, or just because he is excellent in it, here is a recording of "The Hands of Mr. Ottermole," a classic episode of the radio show "Suspense" that stars Rains along with Vincent Price.)

Recently, however, by the simple expedient of noodling around for good photos of Claude Rains (on whom the Siren, like her idol Bette Davis, has a raging crush), the Siren made a discovery. An intriguing discovery, if she says so herself, and she does.

In addition to speech so beautiful that David J. Skal's biography of Rains is called An Actor's Voice, Rains had a world-class side-eye.

In fact, until a challenger comes along, the Siren, by the authority she has invested in herself, awards Claude Rains the prize as The Greatest Side-Eye of All Time.

And here's a curious note about The Voice, and the unique sidelong look he brought to multiple roles over the course of a great career: The evidence suggests both had their roots in adversity.

Claude Rains, who brought a silky hint of culture, wit and high birth to so many roles, was born into a London family of small means in 1889. He had 11 brothers and sisters; in an era of measles, diptheria and a thousand other childhood scourges many died in infancy. Only three Rains children, including him, made it to adulthood. His father, an actor of sorts, veered from one job to another, and was prone to beat his son for the smallest infraction. His mother spent time in an asylum, and Skal speculates that she suffered from postpartum depression. Young Willie (his birthname was William Claude) had a strong Cockney accent Skal says was picked up in the London streets, as well as both a lisp and a stammer. He got rid of them all by his late teens as he embarked on a career in the theatre, moving from call boy to prompter to speaking roles, and studying elocution books religiously, practicing every exercise.

In 1916 he volunteered for the famed London Scottish Regiment, known around these parts as the Most Devastatingly Attractive Regiment of All Time, including as it did Basil Rathbone, Herbert Marshall and Ronald Colman. Rains was deployed to Vimy Ridge, where months later his outfit was hit by mustard gas. A shell exploded near him and the last words he heard, before he lost consciousness, were "Well, they got Rains."

When he woke up in the hospital, he had lost nearly all the vision in his right eye, and his vocal cords were paralyzed. The voice came back, of course, but with a slightly rougher cast that movie audiences would grow to love. The blindness was permanent. Skal says "it would remain a closely guarded secret" right up to Rains' death in 1967.

It's hard, if not impossible, to know whether this contributed to the signature Rains technique, perhaps as one way of keeping a scene partner in his sightlines, without drawing attention to the right eye. What is indisputably true is that a sidelong glance from Claude Rains is more intense than many another actor's head-on stare.

It wasn't an indiscriminate thing. He was too fine and precise an actor for that. You won't find it much, for example, in Mr. Skeffington, one of the Siren's favorite Rains roles, where he has the title role as the near-saintly man who loves Bette Davis' cold-hearted flirt. But when he needed it, hoo boy.  Side-eye is modern slang for a glance of derision, and certainly Rains could do that, so scathingly you imagine whoever is in the scene with him had to put up a fire-screen. But Rains had infinite variations, until that look became an art. With it, he could convey tender love, bitter betrayal, cynicism, defeat, lust, fear, laughter and a sense that the world is mad.

Behold. The Siren has collected evidence.

Publicity photo, or, The Come-Hither Side-Eye, in which Rains at his handsomest appears to glance away
 because you, yes you dear fan-person, you drive him mad with passion. Speaking of which...

Crime Without Passion (1934): "You're blonde now."
Anthony Adverse (1936): Calculating, with a hint of licentiousness. Rowr.

Stolen Holiday (1937): "No, of course I haven't concocted one of the greatest
financial frauds in French history. Bisou-bisou, darling."

They Won't Forget (1937): The Siren can't joke about this one; it's too grim, and fact-based to boot.
 All the same, that's a hell of a look.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938): In a scene with Basil Rathbone, former comrade from the Scottish Regiment, the Rains sidelong glance does not hesitate to upstage the Baz something fierce.

Four Daughters (1938): The rarely deployed twinkly version. 

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941): Precisely the look to convey to a subordinate, in this world or the next, that he has made a very big boo-boo.

The Wolf-Man (1941): "Down, boy. My billing's higher than yours."

Building up a "psychic bellyache" in Kings Row (1942).

Now, Voyager (1942): The look of a psychiatrist who realizes he's taking the wrong person to the sanitorium.

As Casablanca was peak Rains, in the public memory if nothing else, so also is it Peak Side-Eye, as here

and here...

and here...

...and of course, here.

Notorious: The "Yes, That's the Low-Cut Gown of the American Spy I Married" Side-Eye

Publicity for The Unsuspected (1946): "I dare you to suspect me."
(Wonderful film, another of the Siren's favorite Rains outings.)

Deception (1947): Side-Eye Emphasizing the Betrayed, Although Admittedly Crazed and Controlling, Lover 

Lawrence of Arabia (1962): Assessing just how much trouble T.E.'s "funny sense of fun" is going to cause him.

Some more good stuff about Claude Rains:

The Notorious screen-grabs and the ones from Now, Voyager are from the movie writeups at The Blonde at the Film.

His career in horror movies, from John McElwee at Greenbriar Picture Shows.

Karen at Shadows and Satin speculates it was Rains who got the first million-dollar salary.

Moira Finnie at Movie Morlocks has a tribute that mentions the signature look.

A biographical essay at The Hollywood Art, with quotes from Rains' only daughter, Jessica.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

For the Love of Film IV: Did the Talkies Doom Norma Talmadge?

This post is my contribution to this year’s blogathon, For the Love of Film. This year the beneficiary of the blogosphere’s largess is Cupid in Quarantine (1918), which Marilyn Ferdinand calls “a one-reel Strand Comedy that tells the story of a young couple conspiring to stay together by staging a smallpox outbreak.” This may be the most eye-poppingly oddball comedy premise the Siren has ever encountered. Surely this film deserves to be saved for its daring alone.

Together with Roderick Heath of This Island Rod and today's host, Sam Juliano of Wonders in the Dark, we’re trying to raise $10,000 to go to the National Film Preservation Foundation to cover laboratory costs for the film’s preservation as well as a new score for the film’s web premiere. The streaming film will be available free at the NFPF website.

Today is the last day. Help the Siren help Marilyn, Rod and Sam to bring it home for the folks at the NFPF! A random drawing of donor names will determine eligibility for some nice prizes including (ahem) a signed copy of the Siren's novel, Missing Reels.

Please read, and donate! The Siren is too ladylike to name names, but she has seen crowdfunding for some mighty dubious stuff this year. THIS is a good cause, and one that will yield you tangible results: preserving a piece of film history. Traditionally, it's the small donations that add up for us. So don't be shy!

The silent film the Siren watched most recently was Kiki, an absolutely delightful comedy from 1926 that starred Norma Talmadge as an inept wannabe showgirl (she can sing, but after that, the party’s over). A relaxed, funny Ronald Colman plays the showbiz impresario who's the object of her affection; Gertrude Astor is the snooty star who stands in plucky, orphaned, dead-broke Kiki's way.

It was directed by Clarence Brown, who later told Kevin Brownlow, “Norma Talmadge was the greatest pantomimist that ever drew breath. She was a natural-born comic; you could turn on a scene with her and she’d go on for five minutes without stopping or repeating herself.”

Norma Talmadge puts one over on the landlady in Kiki.

Brown knew whereof he spoke. Norma Talmadge is really, truly wonderful; fresh, natural, unaffected.

But Talmadge is the second-most famous casualty of sound, after John Gilbert. We know now that the history of Gilbert’s “white voice” (a late-1920s euphemism for effeminate) is, as Henry Ford would put it, bunk. What about Norma? Is that bunk, too?

She looks miserable, doesn't she.

The story of Norma Talmadge, and the Brooklyn patois that supposedly sank her overnight, might in fact be more famous than Gilbert -- but pseudonymously. Nowadays not that many people know that the immortal Lina Lamont is a direct parody of Talmadge’s fall. Singin’ in the Rain even goes so far as to set the character’s disastrous first try at a talking picture in 18th-century France. In 1952, there were still people around who remembered the 1930 picture, DuBarry, Woman of Passion. It was Talmadge’s last film.

The Siren adores Singin' in the Rain, but its influence on the view of silent-film history has been, let's just say, not good. It's probably just as well that the Talmadge connection has been forgotten by the general public. Lina is a superb comic creation, talentless, avaricious, with the brains of a sequin. Norma was intelligent, talented, and held in much affection by people like Anita Loos, as the Siren once wrote before.

And let’s not dwell on the great Sunset Boulevard, often claimed to be based in part on the long, reclusive retirement of Norma, during which she apparently became dependent on painkillers for crippling arthritis. Billy Wilder was always cagey about whether art had ungallantly imitated life, but sadly, the bare outline fits. (Although, as Mae Murray is reported to have said on seeing the film, “None of us floozies was that nuts.”)

Legend has it that Norma’s sister, Constance, a star in her own right, sent a telegram advising Norma to get out. There are different versions around, so the Siren will reproduce the one she likes best:


True or not, to this day precisely why Norma Talmadge didn’t take as a talkie star is a matter of some debate. If you want to hear her voice, you have a chance with New York Nights above. It’s an extremely interesting early talkie, with a nice turn by Lilyan Tashman. Gilbert Roland was not at the top of his acting game, but lord, he always looks good. It's a bit static, but there are gritty moments that seem to herald the Depression-oriented pre-Codes to come, and other scenes that are rooted in pure melodrama.

As for the Talmadge voice, it is pleasant, hardly a Lamontesque assault on the eardrums, and perfectly appropriate for her showgirl character. On the other hand, if you go to the 15:30 mark, and listen to Talmadge deliver the line, “Some birthday party” in an accent that sounds straight outta Flatbush, it is easy to understand why her voice came as a shock.

Gilbert Roland, Talmadge, and Arnold Kent in Woman Disputed (1927) directed by Henry King and Sam Taylor. A silent movie, it came with a much-mocked Movietone score that included a song: "Although you're refuted / Woman Disputed / I love you." For better or worse, Library of Congress print is missing the score.

Greta de Groat, a scholar whose Norma Talmadge site is absolutely splendid — a place to read about the whole of this great star’s career, and lose hours doing so — says simply that “the world was moving on, and in the excitement of discovering new favorites, the public was letting go of the old stars.” De Groat has seen DuBarry (the Siren has not) and claims that the accent so apparent in New York Nights is nowhere in evidence. Alexander Walker, in The Shattered Silents, buys into the idea that Norma’s voice doomed her, but maintains that she was nearly unique in that regard (the only other name he cites as vocally doomed is William Haines). He’s worth quoting at some length:

Just looking at the best examples of silent screen acting show how much of value was irrecoverably lost. Sound made acting more naturalistic, but also lazier. Words did the work. They diminished the mobile, finely nuanced quality of the screen mime and began the process in which the sense of people playing parts in a dexterously visible way is lost sight of a in a stylised naturalism that requires a dominant personality to make it bearable from film to film...Once they had dialogue on their lips, the silent idols suffered a grievous loss of divinity. They became more like the audiences watching them. This helps explain why the talkies altered star values so radically. What they did not do — and this needs stressing — was ruin the silent stars.

Talmadge had been planning to star in The Greeks Had a Word for Them for Samuel Goldwyn, but walked away. It was another showgirl character. Kiki, it should be noted, didn’t take with a public that loved their Norma as a dramatic heroine. Perhaps that was in the back of her mind. Her looks and talent had established her as one kind of star, and once that was the case, the fact that she might have been good in another type of role wasn’t enough to save her career. She’d been one of the most celebrated beauties in movies, but she was nearing 40, that age that knocked even Margo Channing sideways. Norma took little sis’ advice.

Norma, holding the baby, in The Lady (1925), directed by Frank Borzage. De Groat says the second reel is missing and there is deterioration on the surviving print, but it still impressed a California audience some years back.

As for why she is so little remembered today, well, she has that in common with a number of other silent stars. But Norma was especially unlucky. Norma’s films were acquired by the mysterious, litigious Raymond Rohauer, the man who controlled Buster Keaton’s legacy. (Buster, of course, was married to Norma’s sister Natalie.) Rohauer left the films to the Library of Congress, but in de Groat’s words, they had been “sorely neglected.” Some of the prints were only partially salvageable; some were all there, but damaged; still others were simply gone. It’s a story that stuck in my mind as I was writing Missing Reels.

The good news is that of her 51 films, de Groat says “31 are thought to be complete, and 11 more are preserved in part.” There are a few out on home video now, and the Siren plans to chase them down. But for Norma Talmadge ever to be a name on a level with better-known silent stars like Clara Bow, the films have to get back in circulation. And perhaps they will. De Groat also points out that since she began the site, several films, including Kiki, have come out on DVD.

As I say more than once in Missing Reels, I’m basically an optimist. When it comes to film preservation, it’s the only attitude that can keep me sane.

Here’s looking at you, Miss Talmadge. Your movies deserve a better fate.