Saturday, November 14, 2015

Get Your Man (1927): Restoration Plays MoMA on Nov. 15 and 19

Back in 2000, David Stenn’s biography of Clara Bow, Runnin’ Wild, changed the way the Siren looked at this star. Years of scurrilous gossip about Bow, combined with films that were seldom screened (the glorious It and Wings being exceptions) had obscured her talent. Stenn used careful research to debunk every rumor, to blow the dust off Bow’s image, and to show the appeal of her acting and the courage with which she faced life.

On Sunday Nov. 15 at 1 pm at the Museum of Modern Art, Stenn is introducing a restoration of Bow’s 1927 vehicle Get Your Man. Carefully pieced together via the Library of Congress from rediscovered nitrate stock, stills and intertitles, this is the most complete version of the film we have, or are ever likely to get. Stenn’s dedication to his subject, 15 years after his biography was published, may be judged from the fact that he helped fund the restoration.

Directed by Dorothy Arzner, Get Your Man is absolutely charming, made when Bow’s stardom was at its height. The story is an excuse for freewheeling Bow to up-end the lives of the upper crust, as was often the case. She plays Nancy Worthington, a New Yorker in Paris for the first time, who encounters Robert Albin (Charles “Buddy” Rogers), the handsome son of a French duke (Josef Swickard) and falls for him when they must spend the night together in a wax museum. Trouble is, Robert was betrothed in childhood to Simone (Josephine Dunn, with some truly terrible ringlets), the daughter of a neighboring marquis (Harvey Clark). Nothing can stand in Nancy’s way, however. She manages to fake her way into the Albin family chateau, the better to fulfill the movie’s title.

The first part of the film, showing Robert’s betrothal to the infant Simone and a series of scenes where he and Nancy bump into one another in Paris, is more or less intact, with a few scenes showing obvious nitrate decay. (The Siren, with her love of fragrance, was entranced with a segment where Nancy visits a perfume shop, and the shopgirl hands over a scent sample that has been sprayed on a silk rose. Beats paper blotters any day.) Midway through Robert and Nancy’s encounter in the wax museum, the still-based reconstruction begins — but it’s been done in a way that manages to preserve some of the wit and verve of the rest of the movie.

Once Nancy takes advantage of a taxi accident to “convalesce” chez d’Albin, the movie truly gets underway. (The Siren’s favorite Bow moment comes when Nancy is preparing to fake injury next to the crumpled taxi. She arranges her chic little case next to her, stretches out, then has a second thought, and pops up back up for a moment to powder her nose.) Like Mabel Normand, Bow is best appreciated in motion: the smiles, the knowing glances when someone’s back is turned, the way her face registers delight every time some man is about to play into her hands. And they all do, sooner or later.

Rogers is amazingly handsome, Swickard and Clark are often very funny, but it’s Bow who dominates, and Arzner seems to know that wherever Clara lands in the frame, that’s where our eyes will go, as well. It’s not just her beauty, or even her sex appeal; there is intelligence in Clara Bow, and a vivid and irresistible sweetness. In Stenn’s book, he quotes Arzner: “They all called Clara the ‘It’ Girl, the outstanding flaming youth. Well, she was all that, but I think she was also the one flaming youth that thought.”

Screening along with Get Your Man is the MGM convention reel from 1937 that led to a rape case, which David Stenn worked long and hard to bring to light both in a Vanity Fair article and in his documentary Girl 27.

Finally, there is a newsreel called Movie Star Nights in Paris, showing Ingrid Bergman, Rita Hayworth and recent Google Doodle honoree Hedy Lamarr at the height of their fame and glamour, working a UN benefit for children in 1948. The Siren’s longtime readers know about her ties to France and her deep love for Paris. It has been a hard 24 hours. But perhaps these scenes of Paris not long after a terrible war will serve as a reminder that la Ville Lumière is nothing if not resilient.

(The complete program will also screen at MoMA on Thurs. Nov. 19, at 4 pm, but Stenn is introducing only Sunday's screening. Get Your Man is part of MoMA's annual festival of preservation, To Save and Project, one of the cinephile events of the year in New York.)

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

"Hello, Elaine? ... I Am Going to Kill You": The Tale of Elaine Barrie and John Barrymore

The curtain parted swiftly with a clang of rings on rod.

“I repeat, Madam, what would you do if I tried to throw you off the terrace?”

The scene is a twentieth-floor apartment on East 79th Street, Manhattan, the year 1940. “Madam” is Elaine Barrie, aka Elaine Barrymore, and the speaker is her husband, John Barrymore.

And no, he wasn’t rehearsing.

Those are the first two lines of Elaine’s autobiography, ripely titled All My Sins Remembered. Her ghost writer, given due credit on the jacket, was Sandford Dody. As was the style with such memoirs back in 1964 when it was published, All My Sins Remembered reads more like a novel, with florid descriptions and elaborate conversations no one could possibly recall in such screenplay detail.

It’s structured like a script, too. As the curtains part in the first line, Barrymore has been in a coma, a not-infrequent occurrence as late-stage alcoholism kept nudging him toward the grave. Once he awakens, and sees the handsome male nurse assigned to keep him from dying, Barrymore terrorizes the man into leaving and begins to circle Elaine, accusing her of hiring a male hooker in disguise: “These bastards have a million disguises. Window cleaners, doormen, elevator boys, radio repairmen.” After several pages of ranting and circling, Barrymore drags his wife to the terrace: “My dear. You wanted me to give you all New York. There it is out there. You are going to get it all in one fell swoop!”

“Was this really the great John Barrymore threatening to kill me?” wonders Elaine, from twenty stories up.

Aaaaand … flashback, in the next chapter, to young Elaine’s girlhood worship of the Great Profile, how she kept a still of him as Svengali over her bed (how’s that for bizarre teenage sex objects?), and how she interviewed him for Hunter College’s paper when he was 52 years old and hospitalized for “severe flu." The phony flu was a flashing yellow light that ambitious 19-year-old Elaine drove straight through, on her way to becoming Barrymore's fourth and final wife.

The Siren bought this long-forgotten book off a sidewalk card table, took it home and gobbled every page like a plate of french fries. When she had the chance to buy Sanford Dody’s own autobiography, deliciously titled Giving Up the Ghost, she seized it, just to find out if he believed all the things he'd put in his own book. Dody's handiwork included Helen Hayes' On Reflection, First Person Plural with Dagmar Godowsky (that one's delightful), and The Lonely Life by Bette Davis (she rewrote the whole thing at the last moment, and Dody never forgave her).

And he didn't buy everything Elaine told him, no. Dody didn’t believe, for example, that Elaine fell instantly in love with the wreck that Barrymore had already become by 1934. He considered her starstruck and self-deluded about her motives for the marriage. But he didn't entirely see her as the gold-digger portrayed in the 1930s press and indeed by most John Barrymore fans to this day. He gave Elaine credit for striving to keep Barrymore sober and working, and for trying to look after his health.

Certainly she yearned to become an actress, and was eager for Barrymore to help her. In that regard, landing Barrymore was a Pyrrhic victory. She got plenty of space in the gossip columns, sure. But aside from a series of small parts in plays, a short called How to Undress for Your Husband (which somehow she doesn't mention in her book) and one small role in Midnight, Elaine's acting career never amounted to much. By the time Dody met her, Elaine was a businesswoman dividing her time between Haiti and Manhattan, producing woven-rattan baskets and placemats in the one place, to be sold at Bloomingdale’s in the other.

But one thing Sandford Dody did believe was that John Barrymore, right after coming out of an alcoholic coma, dragged his wife to their terrace, bent her over the railing and came close to pushing her over. Dody believed that, and quite a bit more. All My Sins Remembered is the memoir of an abusive marriage, published 14 years before Mommie Dearest.

All Hollywood autobiographies are exercises in unreliable narration. It isn’t so much that they deliberately lie (although some of them do that, too), it’s that they are in a business that is fundamentally about tale-spinning. Add the literary efforts of a ghostwriter, and boy do they spin. What makes this book such a temple-rubbing astonishment is that Elaine's spin isn’t vengeful, à la Christina Crawford. Her message isn't, “You should hate this great actor I married, because he was an insanely jealous and at times violent drunk.” No, these stories are meant to prove that this was a doomed, but genuine, romance. It was tempestuous. He called her Ariel, she called him Caliban, get it? “If only we had really been young together,” reads one of the picture captions, and another adds, “but it was too late for anything.”

Dody says that after many sessions of charming and/or wistful little anecdotes, Elaine let her guard down one day: “Up to now there had always been a tolerant smile about the drinking, a smugly raised eyebrow concerning the jealousy. But this session was different. With chilling eloquence, Elaine came through for me."

So this is the tale told by Elaine and Sandford:

Born Elaine Jacobs, soon after that hospital meet-up she'd changed her name to Barrie, "as close to Barrymore as I dared." She wanted out of her middle-class life on the Upper West Side, and she dreamed of becoming an actress. Barrymore, for his part, liked her bookishness, her youth and her looks, which were more Modigliani than Hollywood.

John and Elaine’s courtship was a staple of the gossip columns, especially one episode when John broke it off with Elaine and boarded a country-country train. She pursued, egged on by the newspapers that in turn pursued her, and when Ariel and Caliban caught up, they reconciled. It was to be the pattern of their time together, “tender reconciliations after spectacular quarrels,” as Barrie’s 2003 New York Times obituary put it.

According to Elaine, those “quarrels,” if you want to call them that, and the Siren doesn’t, were there almost from the beginning. Before their marriage John took Elaine to Havana on board his yacht, the Infanta, for a romantic getaway. She had already slept with him, but for appearances’ sake Elaine took along her mother, Edna. (Edna was quite a character, as omnipresent in her daughter’s life as Lela Rogers was in Ginger's. When Dody met them years later, Edna and Elaine were living together, still joined at the hip.)

Elaine arrived at the Cuban hacienda of John's brother-in-law Arturo “Mussie” de Barrio and was greeted by Mussie’s good-looking younger brother with “En esta su casa.” Whereupon John slapped Elaine’s face with a force that knocked her hat askew.

And everyone ignored it. Even Edna, who was standing right there. Elaine says her mother greeted the other guests, saying, “How do you do, señor?” then, under her breath, “Please don’t look at my daughter...Gracias, señor — don’t notice her...” Once they were alone, Edna tried to get her daughter to leave. Elaine said, “Oh, for God's sake, John’s sorry. He couldn’t help it, dear.” And later he apologized. Then John proposed, and Elaine accepted, although it took them a while to get hitched.

On the beach, John berated Elaine for wearing swimsuits that were too sexy. On board the boat returning from Havana, a man smiled at Elaine, and John tried to throw him overboard. John then chased Elaine into her stateroom, swung hard at her face and missed only because Edna’s fist had just connected with his jaw. ("He's lucky I didn't hit his nose," said Edna later. "That would have been the end of the Great Profile.")

Back in Hollywood, where Elaine and Edna had moved to be with him as he filmed Romeo and Juliet, John invited Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer to Elaine’s birthday dinner. A thrilled Elaine dressed up and worked like crazy to charm them. Midway through the dinner, John waited for a quiet moment and asked Shearer, “Tell me, Norma, I’m curious. I can’t stand whores — can you?” As Elaine, her mother and the Thalbergs tried to regain their composure, John filled his wineglass to the rim and, to make sure the point couldn’t possibly be missed, added, “The world has certainly changed. Tarts were never countenanced at a gentleman’s table, amongst such a lofty congregation, unless, of course, they were served as a sweet.”

The Thalbergs finished the meal and departed as fast as manners would permit. John drove the guests home and phoned Elaine later. His greeting was, “Hello — Elaine?...I am going to kill you.”

When they finally got married some months later, in Yuma, Ariz., on Nov. 9, 1936, the following night John accused Elaine of sleeping with the bellboy and threw a glassful of Dubonnet, as well as the decanter, at her head. He missed and ruined the satin drapes, not her face.

Towards the end of their marriage they toured in a play together, by all accounts a misbegotten thing, called My Dear Children, directed by Otto Preminger. Barrymore played an aging matinee idol, and Elaine played his daughter; she picked the property herself. At that point, people were attending a John Barrymore performance to see if he'd go up on his lines or possibly even pass out, but for a while attend it they did. Above is a photograph of the play’s purported comic highlight. John played drunk often, would execute the spanking with all his strength, and Elaine went onstage every night in fear. She said she decided to leave, and accosted John in his hotel room to give him the news (by this time their rooms were separate). He yelled, “You aren’t going anywhere, you bitch,” unzipped her dress so hard it tore, twisted her arm and struck her face. Elaine called for the nurse who was on Barrymore guard duty, but she'd already locked herself in the bathroom. Elaine ran down the corridor in little more than her underwear and yelled for help until actor Lloyd Gough, who was in the play’s cast, pulled her into his room.

The producer persuaded Elaine not to walk out. On the company’s arrival in St. Louis, Preminger in turn coaxed Elaine to attend a luncheon with 300 of the city’s social and political elite. As Elaine walked to her chair, John kicked her in the shin in full view of the assembly. “You could hear the collective gasp in Chicago,” she said, but once again, everything proceeded as though nothing had taken place. That is, until John, drunk to the point of semi-coherence, rose on his hind legs and gave a rambling speech that embarrassed everyone into silence.

Elaine left the show, more or less by mutual agreement, before it hit Broadway. They were soon divorced, but the terrace incident actually happened after that, when John had temporarily moved back in with Elaine. That in turn was after she had returned to My Dear Children, now on Broadway, and started padding her backside for the spanking scene. When John still managed to hurt her, she'd revenge herself by biting his hand. Again they separated, and this time Elaine didn't go back. "What was it that definitely decided me to leave?" she asks, rhetorically. "His last threat to kill me?" I don't know, Elaine, but I sure as hell hope so.

Elaine hadn’t remarried when the book was written, and never did. All My Sins Remembered ends abruptly with Barrymore’s death in 1942. Even given a short time frame to cover, Dody had a hard time putting this one together. He complained that Elaine spent most of her day on the phone to Bloomie's about her “goddamned mats” and never offered him so much as a bowl of mixed nuts, no matter how long he was at her apartment. He’d accepted the assignment because he saw it as a book that was really about John Barrymore, whom he worshipped — as an actor.

I pitied both Mr. and Mrs. John Barrymore. The great star whose glow had attracted Elaine and died light-years before she’d ever come on the scene. She and her mother were late arrivals at the tragedy but they still got into the act….

I knew Elaine much better and I now knew Barrymore too well. As keeper of the flame, Elaine played with fire and couldn’t complain about her burns. But as awed as I was by the enormous gifts of Barrymore, his descent into the bathetic and his wallowing self-indulgent disregard of others — especially his daughter, Diana, with whom I had once worked in Hollywood — were unattractive in the extreme.

...I pitied the great actor, but I found it difficult to adore him, and this was creating a problem since Elaine still did despite her stories.

The book sold poorly. "The public no longer cared about Ariel and Caliban and their dusty shenanigans,” says Dody. All My Sins Remembered is a hell of a read, but (or do I mean because?) the dialogue is like a crazed mating dance between Jerry Wald and Noel Coward. In his own memoir Dody cheerfully admits to having written lines for Barrymore that the man never said in his life. Admits, hell, Dody brags.

You can feel him straining to lighten the mood. Mother Edna is used extensively for comic relief, and many of her lines have a whiff of the Ghost. After she socks John in the jaw, Edna announces, “We are leaving the Good Ship Lollipop, my dear, and right now!” Even the worst marital episodes tend to end with either Elaine or John coming up with some witticism. When John throws a full decanter at her, Elaine looks at the ruined drapes and supposedly cracks, "Let all Hollywood use William Haines. For the the ultimate in interiors give me that unmistakable Barrymore touch." The scene on the terrace, however, ended with Elaine telling John go ahead, kill her. He burst into tears and let her go, and then she began to sob with him. That, Dody admits in his book, is the way Elaine said it usually ended.

Barrymore’s forlorn childhood is covered, sympathetically. On a personal level he never had a chance, not with his alcoholic and/or neglectful parents, and adults around whose idea of how to comfort the child Jack, when his mother failed to show for a dearly anticipated lunch, was to ply him with cake and gin. As for Ethel and Lionel, Elaine admired them as artists, especially Ethel. But they despised her, and she was not fond of them: “They were hypocrites, especially Lionel, who was guilty of excesses that revolted even John. They both drank more than he did though that may seem impossible.” (It does, actually, but who knows.)

Hollywood books are replete with the hell-raising adventures of John Barrymore and his mates, such as journalist Gene Fowler, Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur and poet/critic Sadakichi Hartmann. The Bundy Drive Boys, they called them, a proto-Rat Pack who drank, wenched, gambled, made for great copy and were probably fun, if you were one of them. Elaine wasn’t one of them. To her, they were an unrelenting pain in the neck, the men who would coax or push her husband off the wagon every time. They, in turn, took posterity's revenge. In Gene Fowler’s biography of Barrymore, says Elaine, “I emerged as a combination of Lilith and the inventor of diptheria.”

Some may have seen things a bit differently. From All My Sins Remembered, this is Elaine's account of Christmas 1935.
John took me up to Nyack to week-end with his old friend, Charles MacArthur and his wife, Helen Hayes. It was not only exciting for me but most pleasant. During the evening, while John and MacArthur were at their brandy and reading poetry aloud, I helped my hostess trim her Christmas trees.

He eyes glowed as she spoke of her adored husband. She then became silent as she studied me. It was obvious that she had something on her mind and didn’t know how to say it. She decided to take a stab at it. “Elaine, I’m always grateful when Charlie does his heavier drinking at ‘21.’ When he passes out, they put him in a little room upstairs they’ve told me about — I know he’s safe and I can stop torturing myself. It isn’t always that comforting. Sometimes I’m worried half to death!”

This rush of confidence astonished me, until I realized it was more a veteran’s subtle warning to a novice. How kind she was, and how unnecessary her concern.

“It’s going to be different with me, Miss Hayes. John has promised to stop that kind of drinking — and anyway I’m going to see to it that he does.”

She looked at me with that familiar and sad little smile.

“I’m serious, Miss Hayes. You’ll see. It’s all going to be different with us.”

I could almost hear her sigh as she busied herself with a frosted ornament.

(This post is a late-breaking contribution to Crystal Kalyana Pacey's The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, at her blog, In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Many great contributions can be found at the links page.)

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.