Wednesday, June 29, 2005


No full post today, I'm afraid. The Siren had to take the small fry to the pediatrician for a check-up. I was completely exhausted when I got home, so I decided to pop in a DVD to give the kids a treat and myself a rest. I was so tired I accidentally put "Day for Night" into the player instead of "Hoop-de-Doo, It's a Wiggly Party." The kids were not amused. I am planning to write about "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" but under the circumstances even that complex piece of cinema will probably tax me too much, so see you tomorrow. Posted by Hello

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Goofy but Great: My Man Godfrey (1936)

...The film in the earlier sequences well conveys the atmosphere of an American Cherry Orchard, of a class with little of the grace and all the futility and some of the innocence of its Russian counterpart. Unfortunately to these Americans prosperity returns, there is no dignified exit while the axes thud in the orchard, only the great glossy club rising over the wilderness of empty tins, and, last muddle and bewilderment, the marriage of the reformer and the brainless 'lovely.'
That's Graham Greene's contemporary review, in The Spectator (quoted in The Films of Carole Lombard by Frederick Ott). The Siren would never have made it as a cinema studies major, because she finds this quote damn near as funny as My Man Godfrey itself. That same year, in the London Times (also from Ott's book), we have another critic citing "characters which strongly resemble those of Chekhov." You can tell London was a barrel of laughs in 1936.

Of course, old Anton always did insist his plays were funny, and I think he might have enjoyed My Man Godfrey. And you do find some themes worth pondering, such as:

1. In this great country of ours, rich people have a right to be crazy, too.

2. The cure for melancholy is to live with hobos.

3. The way to a woman's heart is through the shower stall.

4. What the Depression-era economy needed was more nightclubs.

5. What the English language needed was the verb "to butle."

Serious stuff. Where I really part company with Greene is when he calls Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) "brainless." Them's fightin' words. She has a fine brain, it just runs on a different track ... and occasionally off the rails or under a viaduct. But Irene has had a lot to deal with, what with bitchy sister Cornelia (the beautiful Gail Patrick) trying to take everything away from her. And she has kindness and charm, which William Powell sees right away, even it eluded Greene.

For years I have used this movie as my Prozac prescription, just the thing when the world is too much with me. I always thought this was because it was goofy. It occured to me when watching it again, however, that there's another reason. The year 1936 offered an unprecendented number of real-life villains, but there aren't any in this film. It's just as good-hearted as Irene. You can't truly dislike the gigolo Carlo (Mischa Auer), because after all he does a mean monkey impression.

Even Cornelia isn't all bad. Take the scene where she gets royally told off by Godfrey.
You belong to that unfortunate category that I would call the Park Avenue brat. A spoiled child who has grown up in ease and luxury and who has always had her own way and whose misdirected energies are so childish that they hardly deserve the comment even of a butler on the off-Thursday.


Okay, are you thinking of the same person the Siren is thinking of? There is hope for that young woman yet. Look at Gail Patrick's reaction. She's hurt. And in the end you know she's going to be a better human being. Not necessarily someone you want babysitting the kids, but much less of a brat herself.

Maybe the British were on to something. Old Anton gives all his characters an essential humanity, too. So scratch the title of today's post, and read it: "Goofy but Chekhovian: My Man Godfrey."

(corrected 2/16/07, with thanks to VP19.)

Monday, June 27, 2005

Goofy but Great: The Court Jester (1954)

The Siren inaugurates "Goofy but Great" week with The Court Jester, a film loved madly by a small but choice group. There aren't enough of us, but we're out there, fuming that the AFI 100 Best Quotes list found room for "Hasta la vista, baby" (perhaps there were a lot of disgruntled California voters on that panel) but not "The pellet with the poison is in the vessel with the pestle. The chalice from the palace has the brew that is true."

Things start slowly, with a couple of mildly funny songs and an awful lot of exposition. Danny Kaye is an acrobat who has signed up with a group of fearless guerrillas in the forest who are trying to put the real King (an infant) back on the throne of England during some vaguely medieval time period involving multicolored men's tights, off-the-shoulder women's fashions, troops of midgets and a full orchestra ready to chime in if you happen to feel like singing. Finally Kaye and Glynis Johns (looking sexily feline, and nothing at all like Mrs. Banks from Mary Poppins) set out with the baby king hidden in a wine cask. After that it's pure joy, as Kaye winds up impersonating a court jester to get into the palace.

Lance Mannion had a recent post where he asked where all the true stars have gone. The Siren has a different question. Where, I ask you, are the Mildred Natwicks? Nowadays the studios pay $20 million or whatever for Jim Carrey, and once they pay that you are by God going to get Jim Carrey in every frame, I don't care if it's a childbirth scene in a women's prison, we'll get Carrey in there somewhere. Star vehicles have no room for a superb character actress like Natwick, mud-fence homely but perfect in every role. Here she plays a witch working for Angela Lansbury's bratty princess. Natwick tells Kaye that the princess "finds you passing fair, passing graceful." "Tell her thanks very much," says Kaye, "but I'm just passing through."

Undeterred, Natwick puts Kaye under a spell. With a snap of her fingers, she can change him from a milquetoast into Errol Flynn and back again. And the Siren means really Errol Flynn. The spell Natwick casts on Kaye, via screenwriter-directors Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, sums up a lot of men you only meet on a movie screen:

You are a figure of romance, spirited in action, but at the same time, humble and tender. You are a man of iron, with the soul of a poet. Adventurous, gay, but with a lover's brooding melancholy. And above all, you must show passion ... [Kaye does a classic dip-and-buss on Natwick] Not ME, you fool!

Kaye executes a Tarzan swing over to the princess's quarters, proclaims himself "a lover of beauty, and a beauty of a lover," and by this time the Siren usually pauses her DVD to catch her breath after laughing herself silly.

Which brings up another point. Theater actors do a lot of "holding for laughs"--pausing to let the audience chuckle, then proceeding with the next line. You see supremely bad examples of this each year at the Oscars, as presenters hold for the tepid laughs from the dumb teleprompter jokes about Best Sound Effects Editing. Live audiences also mean you see it a lot on sitcoms, and the technique has spilled over into film comedies. I see so many movies where the laughs are practically stenciled in with intertitles, followed by nice long pauses so the audience can finish chortling and grab their next handful of Junior Mints.

In the Golden Age, there were a lot of scriptwriters and directors who didn't give a hoot if you missed the next laugh. Billy Wilder didn't, Howard Hawks sure as hell didn't, and Frank and Panama and Kaye and the rest of The Court Jester didn't either. I suppose at 1954 ticket prices they figured you could buy another ticket and sit through it again if you missed something.

So the laughs come faster and faster, with people snapping the hypnotized Danny Kaye in like Flynn and out again. Basil Rathbone (the Siren's choice of sex symbol from The Adventures of Robin Hood, and looking awesome for age 64) plays the villain. Rathbone hired the jester that Kaye is impersonating because the real jester is actually a paid assassin, get it? Got it? Good. And if you don't, that's okay, the plot makes little sense anyway. You want plot, rent The Usual Suspects. You want goofy but great, buy The Court Jester. It's only $14.99 most places, and this movie couldn't possibly better be.

Signing off for today, it's the Siren ... I live for a sigh, I die for a laugh, I lust for a laugh, ha ha!

Saturday, June 25, 2005


Another long week draws to a close at the Siren's household. One blog that always cheers me is Bois de Jasmin, my dear friend V.'s musings about the history and art of perfume. V., with the precision and discipline of the ballerina she still is, devotes each week to a certain subject. This was carnation week, and she wove in topics ranging from Polina Molotova's Soviet factory to the Unicorn tapestries. You don't find V. getting sidetracked by nuisance emails and personal gripes about Bell Canada. The Siren plans to take a page from her pal's fragrant book and dedicate a week to a certain topic. So, next week's theme: Goofy but Glorious. Posted by Hello

Monday, June 20, 2005

Mr. Cheney's Netflix Queue

The Siren learned recently that Amnesty International is a liberal organization.

Startling information, since reports such as this one, and this one, and this one, had me believing Amnesty didn't have much in the way of political bias. But if our vice president, various members of Congress, the Wall Street Journal opinion columnists and the Free Republic chat boards wish to concede concern for human rights solely to the liberal side of the aisle, then I say, "Sure thing, Daddy-O." You take on protecting zygotes, medical prognoses for brain-dead Floridians and stamping out blow jobs, and we'll take over the Anti-Torture Beat. The Siren considers this fair trade.

Still, recent remarks by some prominent Republicans have me thinking that, perhaps, these gentlemen's notions about torture are in need of some refinement.

Over here, we have Vice President Dick Cheney remarking, "Guantanamo's been operated, I think, in a very sane and sound fashion by the U.S. military. ... I think these people have been well treated, treated humanely and decently." And over there is GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter, saying "The inmates in Guantanamo have never eaten better, they have never been treated better, and they have never been more comfortable in their lives than in this situation, and the idea that somehow we are torturing people in Guantanamo is absolutely not true, unless you consider having to eat chicken three times a week, real torture."

Our government hasn't really disputed that it uses certain interrogation techniques at Guantanamo and elsewhere. Those include sleep deprivation, loud music and temperature extremes. What people like Mr. Cheney question is whether that constitutes torture, or just enthusiastic questioning of really, really bad guys. It all depends on how you look at it, we are told.

Well then. If art does anything, it makes us look at things in all kinds of different ways. And in that spirit, the Siren would like to nominate these films for inclusion in Mr. Cheney's Netflix queue. He can invite Mr. Hunter over for chicken and pita while he watches.

Stalag 17 (1953) has a lengthy scene in which Don Taylor, as Lieutenant James Dunbar, is being interrogated by Nazi commandant Otto Preminger. Please, before you scroll to the comments section and start Durbin-izing me, understand that I am not comparing the U.S. to the Nazis. I am pointing out only that this movie illustrates the effect of sleep deprivation. Taylor's character is reduced to a state where his desire for sleep is hunger, thirst, illness; he can barely stand, he hardly knows his own name. It doesn't involve electrodes, but it's still brutal. For many people, the scene is even more difficult to watch than the one where William Holden is beaten almost to death by his fellow prisoners of war.

Next up, The Rack (1956), with Paul Newman as an American POW from the Korean War. Newman returns home in disgrace, having betrayed his fellow soldiers for, as the character puts it, a filthy blanket and a few hours' uninterrupted sleep. You see, the Koreans put him in an ice-cold cell and then kept waking him up. (He was beaten and his menu is lousy, too, it must be admitted, but by the character's own account it wasn't the lack of fresh fruit that made him crack, it was the lack of sleep.)

No interrogation movie marathon can ignore The Manchurian Candidate (1962), in which sleep deprivation and temperature control are just two of the techniques used to reduce the POWs to automatons. Hell, maybe Dick should even rent One, Two, Three (1961) and see Horst Buchholz ready to sign a bogus confession because the nefarious East Germans made him listen to "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" too many times in a row. It's ridiculous, but at the same time you do wonder how many times you'd have to hear that song before you rang for the Red Cross inspectors.

For the finale: The Battle of Algiers (1965). Scenes in this one would probably strike most normal human beings as torture. Maybe not Ann Coulter, but she's a special case. I read that Pentagon officials watched this one before starting the present unpleasantness in Iraq, eager to get some tips on how to run a war in an Arab country. This was rather like hearing that French army recruiters were looking at All Quiet on the Western Front on the eve of World War II for pointers on how to appeal to the nation's youth. Did the Defense guys really watch the full two hours of French forces torturing, interrogating, cracking down, going house-to-house and throwing their full military might at Algiers? I do hate to post spoilers, but I think Pontecorvo's film should be screened again for Mr. Cheney and the Pentagon, with special attention to the part near the end.

That would be the part where the French lose.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Perfume at the Movies Strikes Back

The Siren progresses to the modern era as she wraps up her survey of scent at the cinema.

Paper Moon, 1973

A simple, lovely moment from this Depression-set movie illustrates perfectly what perfume can do for us. The mother of Tatum O'Neal's character, Addie, has died. That leaves Addie to hook up with a Bible-selling con man, Moses Pray, played by Tatum's real-life father Ryan O'Neal. (It's strongly implied in the movie, but never stated outright, that Ryan's character is Addie's father). Addie's one link to her past is a cigar box that she's filled with objects that are precious to her. Alone in her room one day, she takes them out one by one and inspects them. She comes to a bottle of scent, opens it, and inhales deeply. Without a single word of dialogue, you know it belonged to her mother. Addie dabs on a little bit, likes it, puts on some more. A lot more.

Cut to the next scene--Addie in the car with Pray. Pray develops a choked expression, as of a man suffocating. He looks over at Addie, who smiles back, inexpressibly pleased with herself. Silently, he lowers the windshield of the car.

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, 1989

A bad movie, but a classic perfume plays an important role. Richard Pryor plays a blind man (geddit? See No Evil? no, audiences at the time didn't find it all that funny, either). Pryor still manages to recognize femme fatale Joan Severance, however, because she's wearing (drum roll) Shalimar. "Damn, that woman smells good," he mutters at one point. Wonder if he'd feel the same way about Guerlain's proposed reformulation? (The Siren doesn't forgive easily.)

The Talented Mr. Ripley, 2002

Matt Damon's sociopathic character, Tom Ripley, presents Gwyneth Paltrow with a bottle of perfume from Santa Maria Novella.

Perfume Goof: Far From Heaven, 2002

A meticulous period piece with an anachronism many fragrance mavens noticed. In the scene where they show Julianne Moore's dresser, an Annick Goutal bottle is clearly visible. Lovely
though the bottle is, Annick Goutal was not making perfume in the 1950s.

More Bonus Trivia: Paris When It Sizzles, 1964

Hubert de Givenchy received a screen credit for Audrey Hepburn's perfume--presumably L'Interdit, though I haven't watched it again to check. And I probably won't, since this is one of Audrey's few turkeys.

Great Perfume Quotes

Double Indemnity, 1944
Fred MacMurray: You'll be here too?
Barbara Stanwyck: I guess so, I usually am.
MacMurray: Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?
Stanwyck: I wonder if I know what you mean.
MacMurray: I wonder if you wonder.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, 1947
Anne Rutherford (as fiancée Gertrude): Walter, what's that awful smell?
Danny Kaye (as Walter Mitty): It's that cologne you gave me for Christmas.
Rutherford: It's lovely, isn't it?

A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951
Marlon Brando (as Stanley Kowalski): Do you know that I've been on to you from the start, and not once did you pull the wool over this boy's eyes? You come in here and you sprinkle the place with powder and you spray perfume and you stick a paper lantern over the light bulb--and, lo and behold, the place has turned to Egypt and you are the Queen of the Nile, sitting on your throne, swilling down my liquor. And do you know what I say? Ha ha! Do you hear me? Ha ha ha!

Night of the Hunter, 1955
Robert Mitchum (as the psychopathic Rev. Powell): There are things you do hate, Lord. Perfume-smellin' things, lacy things, things with curly hair.

Stardust Memories, 1980
Charlotte Rampling: Mmm. You smell nice.
Woody Allen: Yeah?
Rampling: That aftershave. It just made my whole childhood come back with a sudden Proustian rush.
Allen: Yeah? That's 'cause I'm wearing Proustian Rush by Chanel. It's reduced. I got a vat of it.

Love in the Afternoon, 1957
Gary Cooper: What does he export and what does he import?
Audrey Hepburn: Oh, he, uh, he exports perfume and imports bananas. There's a fortune in it. Do you realize that for one bottle of perfume you get twelve bananas?
Cooper: Twelve bananas for one bottle of ... doesn't sound like such a hot deal to me.
Hepburn: It's a tiny bottle of perfume and very large bananas.

Diamonds Are Forever, 1971
James Bond: The wine is quite excellent. Although for such a grand meal I would have expected a claret.
Mr. Wint: But of course. Unfortunately our cellar is poorly stocked with clarets.
James Bond: Mouton Rothschild IS a claret. And, I've smelled that aftershave before, and both times I've smelled a rat.

When Harry Met Sally, 1989
Billy Crystal (as Harry Burns): I love that you get cold when it's 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it's not because I'm lonely, and it's not because it's New Year's Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.

Wonder Boys, 2000
Frances McDormand (smelling perfume on Michael Douglas): Is that Cristalle?
Michael Douglas: Mm.
McDormand: My God, I wear the same scent as a transvestite.

The Siren Knows These Movies Mention Perfume, but She Didn't Like Them

Scent of a Woman, Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal.

The Siren Hasn't Seen These Movies, but They Involve Perfume, Too

The Devil Bat, Tunnel Vision, Le Divorce, Our Man in Havana, The Naked Jungle. If I see them and they are worth the time, I will write them up as well. I definitely want to see The Devil Bat and The Naked Jungle. Also, IMDB reports that Marjorie Morningstar has a credit for the perfume worn by the cast. I need to see the movie again to see what that could be.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Perfume at the Movies Rides Again

The Siren moves into the post-World War II era with her survey of fragrance in films.

My Darling Clementine, 1946

One of the greatest Westerns--heck, greatest movies--of all time. This gorgeous, brooding take on Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the OK Corral is almost entirely lacking (some would say mercifully) in the slapstick humor beloved of its director, the incomparable John Ford. But it has funny moments and perfume is involved in them.

Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda, in one of his best performances) goes to the barber to get gussied up on Sunday because, we surmise, he wants to please the ladylike girl he's fallen for, Clementine Carter. As Earp is leaving the Bon Ton Tonsorial Parlor, the barber chases after him with an atomizer that looks suspiciously like the Tin Man's oil can left over from the set of The Wizard of Oz. "Sweet-smelling stuff, Mr. Earp" he coos as he spritzes Earp's coat and trousers.

Earp goes out to join his two brothers on the porch; they watch as the townsfolk of Tombstone, which Marshal Earp has spent the movie cleaning up, drive out to go to a church social.
"It's wonderful!" says Tim Holt, who plays Virgil Earp. "Why, you can almost smell the honeysuckle!"

"That's me," says Earp, in a voice that dares his brother to be amused. “It’s the barber."

The brothers go off, Clementine appears and Wyatt diffidently makes conversation with her. "I love your town in the morning, Marshall," says Clementine; "it's so fresh, and clean. And the scent of the desert flower..." "That's me," corrects Wyatt. "It's the barber."

That must have been one girly-smelling cologne, but it's enough to help Earp take the lady of his dreams to the church social.

Black Narcissus, 1947

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's exquisite film about nuns in the Himalayas (yes, you read that right). Sabu plays one of the nuns' pupils, the Young Prince, who douses himself in perfume. When he arrives and pulls out his handkerchief, the nuns are nearly overcome. As they're trying not to cough, he mistakes their expressions for interest, and says eagerly, "Do you like it? It's called Black Narcissus." Of course they call him "Black Narcissus" from that moment on. Later, the Young Prince encounters Jean Simmons, as a beautiful Indian beggar girl; fascinated, he lets her sniff his handkerchief. Simmons smells it, closes her eyes, and with the most hungry, sensual expression she breathes in the scent as though she can draw in the Young Prince along with it. I always wondered if Caron's Narcisse Noir was named after this film, or the other way around. It's certainly strong enough for the Young Prince!

An American in Paris, 1951

If you've set out to make a movie that conveys every glorious enticement of Paris, you must have perfume in it. Leslie Caron's character works in a perfume shop. Because this is a Vincente Minnelli movie, the shop is stupendous, with a curving staircase you could swear shows up later in "Stairway to Paradise." Lining the walls and cases are the most exquisite bottles you've ever seen. (The Siren adores this movie in any case, but confesses that part of the reason she bought the video was to hit "pause" and get a better look at those bottles. As far as she can tell, none of them are actual perfumes of the time.)

Gene Kelly, determined to get a date with the reluctant Leslie, barges into the shop and smoothly gets rid of her customer so he can talk to Leslie alone. American matron Edna from Milwaukee can't decide between "Escapade" and "Nuit d'Amour." Kelly takes a stopper in each hand (stoppers! those were the days), sniffs, and tells her Nuit d'Amour is the one. "You wear that and the Frenchmen will never let you get back to Milwaukee," he says. When the smitten Edna finally exits, Kelly gets to flirt a bit with Leslie. He makes some funny gestures with a couple of enormous perfume bottles (here the Siren pauses the tape again, realizes she still doesn't recognize the perfumes, sighs, and proceeds) and that's all it takes. Leslie finally agrees to meet him. Life is good when you're Gene Kelly.

Speaking of Leslie Caron; if anyone out there in the 'Net world knows whether Leslie is related in any way to the Caron perfume house, I would be delighted to hear from you.

Bonus Trivia: The Shop Around the Corner, 1940

This movie was based on a Hungarian play called Parfumerie, in which the characters worked in a perfume shop. Ernst Lubitsch's take on a perfume shop would have been lovely to see, but the Siren finds this film absolutely perfect as it is.

Perfume at the Movies Meets Joan and Bette

More in the Siren's continuing series about fragrant scenes from classic films.

The Women, 1939

I don't care what anyone says; Joan Crawford at her best was a treat, and this movie proves it. She plays a sales assistant at a perfume counter, back when they called them "girls." Perfume plays a huge role in this flick from the beginning. Hard as nails and ambitious as Lucifer, Joan has Norma Shearer's husband in her clutches; the poor sap went to buy Norma a bottle of perfume, and never knew what hit him. Two of Norma's so-called friends, Rosalind Russell and Phyllis Povah, visit the perfume counter to get a better look at the perfume-pushing Other Woman, Crystal (Crawford). Of course Crystal figures out what they're up to almost from the minute they arrive, and gives as good as she gets. One of the best catty lines in the movie comes as Ros Russell picks up a bottle from the counter and begins sniffing. Crystal says silkily, "Oh, I shouldn't think that suggested your personality at all. It's called 'Oomph.'" Check out the perfume Crystal is selling, "Summer Rain," and the amazing, umbrella-bedecked bottle it comes in. And some things never change; earlier in the movie it's revealed that Crystal is supposed to push Summer Rain no matter what the customer is looking for. Later on, as Crystal's fortunes rise, check out the bath oil bottles in her huge, vulgar bathroom. "Well, I guess it's back to the perfume counter for me," she says ruefully at the end. But I don't think anyone who's seen The Women thinks there's a counter in all of Manhattan that can hold back Crystal for long.

The Letter, 1940

A William Wyler masterpiece, which boasts an opening as jolting today as when the film was released (I refuse to spoil it), as well as one of Bette Davis' most subtle and brilliant performances. As Leslie Crosbie, the wife of a rubber planter in Malaysia, she is as impeccably, crisply correct as she is corrupt. And the tightly controlled Leslie doesn' wear perfume on her skin. She places her scarf over her perfume bottle and turns it over to apply the scent. You watch her walk about, trailing her scarf, and know she is trailing that scent as well. The gesture is just another small, splendid detail that bit by bit gives you a complete picture of her complex character. I'd love to know if it was in the script, or came from Davis and/or director Wyler. (Thanks to my dear friend Sissi for pointing out that well-bred 19th century ladies frequently confined their perfume to their handkerchiefs or scarves.)

Meet Me in St. Louis, 1944

If you are one of those people who ask, "Why do some gay men have a thing for Judy Garland?", your answer is right here in Vincente Minelli's peerless musical. They have a thing for her because they have taste. She was a superb singer and a gifted and versatile actress.

But I digress. In this movie, Judy's character has figured out an excuse to get Tom Drake, a.k.a The Boy Next Door, to stay behind after an evening party: She asks him to help her lower the gaslight. As they go from room to room, dimming the lights, Drake leans in close and says, "Wow, that's nice perfume." Judy flutters, "Do you like it? It's Essence of Violet. I only take it out on special occasions." Drake replies, with a nostalgic sigh, "Exactly the kind my grandmother wears." Judy's expression is priceless.

The Corn Is Green, 1945

Probably the Siren's favorite perfume scene. Bette Davis is a teacher in a poor Welsh coal-mining town, and John Dall plays her star pupil, Morgan Evans. Joan Lorring is Bessie, the trampy, no-good daughter of Davis' housekeeper. (In a funny scene, the housekeeper confesses she can't stand her daughter: "Never liked her. Even when she was born, I took one look at her and said, 'No.'") One day, when Morgan is feeling frustrated and rebellious, Bessie decides to seduce him. Her come-on line, in its entirety, spoken in broadest Cockney: "I've got some scent on my hands. Would you like to smell it?" She holds out both her hands, palms down. Morgan takes a deep whiff, and immediately (and wordlessly) goes upstairs with her. Next thing you know, Bessie is pregnant. I have no idea what she was wearing. It was probably cheap, like Bessie. But few can boast that their signature scent gets such instant results.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Perfume at the Movies I

I came late to my love for perfume. Movies I fell in love with long ago. A couple of years ago I started collecting perfume references in movies. There aren't as many as you might think. Most screenwriters and directors have barely scratched the dramatic possibilities with fragrance. Possibly that's because it is something the audience must imagine; possibly it's because some people (poor, lost souls) don't quite get the fascination of perfume.

Take Hitchcock's film of Rebecca, and the famous scene where Joan Fontaine explores her predecessor's bedroom. We scan the dressing table and find - no scent bottles! A painful oversight. Of course the beautiful, evil Rebecca de Winter must have worn perfume, and expensive stuff too, I'll bet. Do you suppose Mrs. Danvers stole the bottles so she could be reminded of her beloved Rebecca? Maybe. I think, however, that this was one detail Hitchcock (or his set decorator) just neglected. As Wile E. Coyote once said, "Even a genius can have an off day."

Still, some filmmakers have used perfume in plots and dialogue in creative ways. So my next few posts will be devoted to my (far from complete) run-down of perfume's role in some film and film-related moments.This section is called

Don't Try This at Home

Dangerous Stunt One: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind

The creative folks aren't the only ones in the movie business given to odd behavior. This story concerns the first meeting between director William Friedkin and Charles Bluhdorn, head of the Gulf + Western conglomerate, which owned Paramount Studios at the time. The reasons I am opening with this one will be obvious once you've read the quote.

Friedkin, who had never met Bluhdorn, was the first one to arrive at his suite in the Essex House. Bluhdorn opened the door, leaned over and sniffed Friedkin's neck, asking, "Friedkin, vat's dat shit you're verink?
"Guerlain."
"Guerlain? Come here!"
He led Friedkin to his bathroom, where he had every aftershave in the world, including a cut glass Baccarat bottle of Guerlain. He opened it up, saying, "Dis is vat I do to Guerlain," and poured it on his shoes.
"That was my introduction to Charlie Bluhdorn, and he never got any saner as long as I knew him," Friedkin recalls.


The first time I read this anecdote, I was horrified. After yesterday's cataclysmic announcement from the house of Guerlain (scroll down) my sympathies are entirely with Bluhdorn. Perhaps he was clairvoyant.

Dangerous Stunt Two: Gone with the Wind, 1939
Remember the famous scene where Scarlett gargles with Eau de Cologne to keep Rhett from noticing the brandy on her breath? As a Scarlett-obsessed preteen I tried this, minus the initial brandy. I do NOT recommend it. And please, remember, it didn't even work; Rhett caught on almost as soon as he arrived.

Dangerous Stunt Three: Dinner at Eight, 1938
Scent overkill in the heat of the moment. Jean Harlow hears her paramour is about to arrive, picks up what must be the world's largest atomizer, pulls out the two-foot-long bulb sprayer and sprays, sprays, sprays all over herself, her negligee and her platinum blonde 'do. Unless your man's got a cold, I think this maneuver is best left to the pros like Jean. (Harlow wore Mitsouko, by the way.)

Dangerous Stunt Four: Life Is a Banquet, by Rosalind Russell and Chris Chase
Yet another example of why wearing perfume solely to attract a man is an exercise in futility. It was 1936, and Russell was filming Under Two Flags with British heartthrob Ronald Colman. They had come to a love scene set at a desert oasis. After some trouble learning to dismount a camel in a manner that looked suitably passionate, Russell found herself having a problem with her two-legged costar:

He wouldn't kiss me on the mouth. Between takes I'd go in and swallow half a bottle of Listerine and spray myself with perfume. It started to get late. Finally the director said, 'Maybe we'll just have to put this off until
tomorrow morning.'

Oh my God, I thought, I won't sleep. By now I'm reeking of Arpege and mouthwash, and I'm desperate. I finally just grabbed Ronnie, clung to him, would not let him go, and kissed him until he was purple in the face and the director was yelling, 'Cut! Cut! Cut!'



What Russell didn't realize that was that an off-center kiss looks better on camera than a full-on smackeroo, and the director was using a dissolve. The camera wasn't even on the couple for most of the shot. But, as Russell put it, "all the time they're shooting the camels and the sunrise, [Colman's] had this maniacal female clutching him to her fevered lips."

"He was very nice about it," she added.


Wednesday, June 08, 2005


"He was simply stating a fact. But it was a fact she still would not believe--could not believe." (Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind) Posted by Hello

A Whiff of Trouble

The Siren's week continues to deteriorate. Our air conditioning is insufficient, everyone is cranky and this morning I woke up and noticed once more that I have somehow been spirited away from New York and Paris and deposited in a large, dull city on a lake. I didn't think it could get worse, but that was before Guerlain decided to deck me with an awful piece of news. According to Emperor of Scent Luca Turin's new blog, they are reformulating all 14 of their classic fragrances. I needed sympathy, so off I went to my usual Web hangout.

Julie Burchill clobbered Elizabeth Hurley with a bad review a while back, comparing Hurley's portrayal of the agony suffered by the girlfriend of a druggie in "Permanent Midnight" with the distress a woman might show on being told her favorite lipstick is discontinued. Over at the makeup site I frequent, the ladies would nod sagely and say, "Ah. So Liz is doing tragedy now."

My pals there take beauty matters very, very seriously. And the fragrance message board is (arguably) the most fanatical of the lot. Some of the ladies who frequent the other boards regard us as the beauty equivalent of Tolkien enthusiasts: weird denizens of an alternate reality.

Ordinary perfume-wearers are often baffled by the layers of meaning a true fragrance enthusiast finds in a great perfume. (Some good places to seek enlightenment would be with Mr. Turin, probably the wittiest and most distinctive voice anywhere on the subject of fragrance; with the poetic sensibility of my dear friend at Bois de Jasmin; or with the painstaking, fascinating analysis of another pal at Now Smell This.) Just take my word for it: Burchill would have seen real distress on this face. Only this spring I discovered the wondrous Mitsouko in parfum concentration. Now, it is being snatched away from me. I also had hoped to try Vol de Nuit and L'Heure Bleue in their original, pristine forms. See Vivien Leigh up there? That's the Siren, thinking of a world without real Guerlain perfume.

And I fully expect to get the same kind of tender sympathy from Guerlain that Scarlett got from Rhett. I wrote a letter to them, attempting to balance my prose between how-bloody-dare-you indignation and prostrate begging. If you read Turin's post and love Guerlain, please add your two cents by emailing Isabelle Rousseau at their corporate relations office, irousseau@guerlain.fr.

Now I am going to make dinner, followed by a stiff drink. Tonight or tomorrow, to comfort myself, I am going to start a series of posts about perfume at the movies.

Paul Newman, doing his best to beautify a dirt road. Posted by Hello

The Long Hot Summer (1958)

The June heat wave, and our temporary lack of a bedroom air conditioner, caused the Siren to wake up thinking of this movie.

Paul Newman is and probably will remain the definitive movie God of Sweat. Even Brando in his prime couldn't touch Newman. Opinions differ as to which film showcases Newman's glow the best. There's Hud, but he's playing a heavy. There's Sweet Bird of Youth, but despite Newman's having the best ab-exercising scene in Hollywood history that's really Geraldine Page's movie. There's Cool Hand Luke, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and he even glistens nicely in the endless, bombastic Exodus. I'm going to plump for this one, however.

From the opening scene Newman's special ability to shine is apparent, as he stands glowering while on impromptu trial for barn-burning. Off he goes, cast out of the town, and then you get the fabulous Alex North/Sammy Cahn theme song, crooned by Jimmie Rodgers. I can still sing parts of it: "The long, hot summer, seems to know what a flirt you are ..."

Allegedly this movie is based on The Hamlet and "Barn Burning" by William Faulkner. Don't go reading those, however, thinking you will find anything remotely resembling this movie. It's more like someone cobbled together Tennessee Williams' first drafts, then threw in a dash of Oklahoma! and Picnic for good measure. Despite this weird pastiche of Southern, Western and Midwestern folkways, the script is very good indeed, full of dry humor and biting asides. The acting is pure 1950s High Method, except for Orson Welles, who steals everything but the wallpaper in a role that probably should have gone to Burl Ives.

I never fail get to a huge kick out of The Long, Hot Summer. Newman gets most of the best lines, such as when a potential lynch mob is approaching him and he says, almost plaintively, "Story of my life. Why don't nobody ever wanna talk to me peaceable?" The scenes with Joanne Woodward are full of sexual energy and incredibly romantic. The Cinemascope photography looks great, if you can see it letterboxed instead of the scan-and-pan travesties they usually show on American Movie Classics.

Despite the bizarrely happy ending, the film has a quality of sadness about it, perhaps because the countryside it shows us, before the hideous sprawl of strip malls and subdivisions took over, shrinks day by day.

Anne Bancroft, 1931-2005


"The best way to get most husbands to do something is to suggest that perhaps they're too old to do it."
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Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Toronto Is Nothing Like Paris

But then, neither is New York, except in terms of sophistication.

I just returned from a month in Paris, visiting my husband's family. Paris remains, for me, the most beautiful, civilized and livable city on the planet. I speak French the way George Bush speaks Spanish (or English, for that matter) but Parisians are almost always very kind and polite.

Some Americans cherish a real hatred for France. Chirac is, by most definitions and according to most French people I know, a corrupt, lying embarrassment. When he told us the Iraq war was a lousy idea, however, he was as trustworthy as the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Still, bashing France serves a most useful purpose. The second an American begins to wheeze about lack of gratitude and saving France's collective backside in World War II, you know precisely what you are dealing with: a bore. It is as good as a secret handshake.

I do enjoy comparing some aspects of the U.S. with France, just not the old "what do we owe them for Yorktown, what do they owe us for Omaha Beach" rigamarole. Here are some little things that you might notice on a month-long visit to the in-laws.

Things That Are Better in France

  • The food (exceptions noted below).
  • People's figures.
  • The architecture.
  • The health-care system (much better than Canada's, too).
  • You don't have to wake up and grab a paper to check and see whether someone is down at the local school board trying to ban Darwin or "The Wizard of Oz."

Things That Are Better in the U.S.

  • Coffee. A good cup of American coffee is the best. No, I don't want any espresso, and get that Nescafe away from me, now.
  • Pommes frites need ketchup. One day the French will wake up to this. In the meantime, they have a very bad attitude about ketchup. They shouldn't. Mustard is the French ketchup.
  • We have better store hours. Parisians are always closing things, often for reasons unfathomable to an American. (Ascension? are you kidding me?)
  • We have air conditioning and we use it.
  • We seem to appreciate French perfume more than the French do these days. Practically all I smelled in Paris was Angel, which is the fragrance equivalent of ultra low-rise pants: It is unaccountably but hugely popular, it flatters no one and wore out its welcome almost on arrival. There is much more scent-wearing variety in New York, oddly enough. (Then again, in New York I do hang out with some flagrantly perfume-mad women.)

I also discovered an unexpected British flair for an eye-catching in-store display at W.H. Smith in Paris, as you can see below.

The Paris W.H. Smith Displays It All for You


First on the display shelf was this. I have no idea if it's any good. Posted by Hello

Then we had this (by a man who spends half his year in France. Which I don't get, at all. I can't stand Texans like Tom DeLay; does that mean I should still take an extended visit to Sugarland?) Posted by Hello

And to the right of Chesnoff's minimum opus, the store had placed this. This is the sort of inspired thinking you just don't find at B. Dalton. Posted by Hello