Thursday, December 21, 2006

Remember the Night (1940)

As we count our blessings this holiday season, the Siren counts Turner Classic Movies as the greatest of these. Sunday night she finally got to see a movie she has tried to track down for a while, 1940's Remember the Night, directed by Mitchell Leisen. We all need a little warmth and kindness this time of year--yes, even us merry apostates--and this movie provided much.

The screenplay was written by Preston Sturges, but this is a sentimental romance, not one of his trademark farces. Biographer Donald Spoto says Remember the Night was written soon after Sturges's marriage (his second of four, but a honeymoon's a honeymoon), and it carries the gleam of newfound love. Barbara Stanwyck plays a shoplifter arrested just before Christmas. Fred MacMurray is the assistant D.A. who must prosecute her, a tall order since juries are inclined to be lenient around the holidays. MacMurray executes a deft courtroom maneuver and gets a continuance, meaning Stanwyck's fate won't be decided until after the holidays. But his conscience bothers him when he overhears her lamenting that she can't make bail, and so will spend Christmas in jail. He bails her out, only to have the bondsman deposit her in his apartment even as he prepares to go home to Mom in Indiana. Turns out that Stanwyck, too, is from Indiana, and MacMurray decides to take her along for the drive.

MacMurray has been dissed a bit lately, by Dave Kehr and the estimable Looker, but the Siren disagrees. He was the least starry of leading men, and that was the whole point. His good looks are of the sort you might encounter in any office. When he turns on the charm, he's no more or less resistible than that boy you used to date in college. His characters telegraph jokes like a kid brother does, with a little grin at his own cleverness (a technique that reached its apogee in Double Indemnity, as Walter Neff registers self-congratulation with every double-entendre). That everyday quality meant MacMurray gives the audience the chance to recognize itself, something that is harder to do when looking at, say, Cary Grant. When MacMurray decides to bail out Stanwyck, instead of seeing only a wildly improbable plot twist, you see the kind of reluctant, I-don't-need-the-guilt charity we all are prey to at the holidays.

Stanwyck, as usual, is marvelous. In the courtroom scene, see her watch a hambone lawyer (Willard Robertson) spin an absurd theory of how self-hypnosis lured her into unintentional theft. Stanwyck's reaction shots start out demure, but none too optimistic. As the jury starts to buy all that lawyerly hokum, her posture improves, her eyes start to sparkle. She tries to maintain a look of contrition, while she eases her gorgeous legs a little more into the jury's sightlines.

Because Stanwyck is too smart to milk the audience for sympathy, she wins it early on. MacMurray takes her to dinner after bailing her out (come on, it's a Christmas movie, suspend that disbelief) and, as a band plays "Easy Living," the title tune from an earlier Sturges-Leisen collaboration, she summarizes her life of crime. MacMurray, already succumbing a bit, half-jokingly suggests kleptomania as a defense. Won't work, says Stanwyck, as though revealing a trade secret: "You can't try to sell the stuff afterward, or you lose your amateur status."

The Indiana the characters reach, after some slapstick road diversions, has two sides, which together give Remember the Night its heart. Stanwyck's town comes first; as they drive down the Grover's Corners streets, her expression changes from eager nostalgia, to fear of what is coming next. Her house is a gingerbread Victorian, looming over the yard like a mausoleum, without a single light in the window. Here, Stanwyck tries to make up with the grimmest old meat-axe of a mother in the history of Christmas movies. The alternate-universe Beulah Bondi in It's a Wonderful Life has nothing on Georgia Caine here. The recriminations start right away, and you see that Stanwyck the shoplifter was just living down to expectations. MacMurray stands to one side, trying to stay out of it until, in a perfectly modulated moment, he tells Stanwyck they still have 50 miles to drive to his farm. No rescue was ever so low-key, and few are as endearing.

So they arrive at the farm, and whaddya know, MacMurray's mom IS Beulah Bondi. But it's the nice version, thank goodness. The rest of the movie chronicles the change in Stanwyck as Christmas shows her what family life can be like, and the change in MacMurray, as he falls in love with the shoplifter he's scheduled to put away. Both of them must decide what to do when they return to New York, and the trial. The fuss made there over Stanwyck's crime may seem more appropriate to Brigid O'Shaughnessy going down in The Maltese Falcon than a simple bracelet heist, but it still makes for a beautiful fadeout.

Nobody's all good, or all bad, not in my movies at least. There's a little bad in the best of us, and a little good in the worst of us.
--Mitchell Leisen, quoted in an appreciation at the indispensable Senses of Cinema site.

Mitchell Leisen, who started out as a set decorator, was not beloved by his two most gifted screenwriters, Sturges and Billy Wilder. Sturges always maintained Leisen ruined the script for Easy Living. (This makes the Siren wonder just how much more perfect that priceless screwball comedy was supposed to be.) "A window dresser," was Wilder's kindest assessment; when recalling an incident on Hold Back the Dawn he lapsed into slurs on Leisen's homosexuality. Wilder biographer Ed Sikov says his subject was always too hard on Leisen, but then turns around and says Leisen didn't do much more for screenplays than "record them on celluloid and make sure the lighting was good."

Phooey, says the Siren. It isn't merely lighting that makes a moment like MacMurray and Stanwyck on the porch of her childhood home. As he tries to comfort her, over his shoulder you see the mother at the door, pausing for a moment--to hurl one last insult? to see if they're leaving?--then shutting off the lights. At MacMurray's farm, there's the way the canopy in her bedroom arcs over Stanwyck's face like a bridal veil, or the way the camera hovers over a barn dance and still manages to let you pick out the couple, Stanwyck happily blending in as she never did before in Indiana.

Remember the Night's chief flaw, in the Siren's eyes, is yet another of those comical African-American servants that pockmark Sturges's movies. "I loved this movie," says one Amazon reviewer. "That's a hard statement for a black man to make about any movie in which Snowflake has a role." But beloved the film is and remains, gaining all kinds of admirers as the years go by. A film that can do that must have a great deal of the true Christmas spirit.

And in that spirit, the Siren wishes her patient readers the happiest of holidays.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Kay Francis in Mandalay (1934)

The Siren moves on to Mandalay (1934), another film she saw while awaiting Ben's debut. This one was directed by Michael Curtiz, Warner Brothers' jack-of-all-trades, and a director whose reputation has been burnished in recent years by admirers such as Spielberg and Soderbergh. The Siren, however, was watching this one for Kay Francis.

The movie came out in 1934, but apparently it was slipped into release just before the Production Code was etched onto stone tablets. The opening shot of Kay on a boat in Rangoon harbor is one of the nicest you will ever see of this actress. Loose-fitting tropical blouse drooping off of one shoulder, Kay waves energetically as lover Ricardo Cortez approaches in a dinghy. The shot has a refreshingly natural, unposed feel to it, and she looks innocent and happy. But this is a Kay Francis vehicle, so that doesn't last long.

Cortez, you see, is a gun-runner wanted by the authorities. To square his debts and save himself from being turned in, he leaves poor Tanya Borisoff (Francis is supposed to be Russian) as payment with the local bordello owner. After a night spent reflecting on Man's Perfidy, Tanya calls off a brief hunger strike and resolves to make the best of things. Next thing you know, she is sashaying down a staircase in the greatest silver sheath of all time, as a grumpy bordello patron remarks, "They call her Spot White. It should be Spot Cash." (The nickname seems to derive from Francis's all-white wardrobe in the picture, though it's never really explained.)

The Siren thinks of Curtiz's signal virtue as pacing. His films move, often at breakneck speed. Something like Mandalay, with a complicated plot fully teased out over 65 minutes, stands in pleasant contrast to a modern genre movie like X-Men, in which half an hour of exposition is combined with almost zero actual character development. In very short order, after pulling a lucrative bit of blackmail on local official Reginald Owen, Tanya leaves town in a variation on the treatment Claire Trevor got in Stagecoach. But again, this is a Kay Francis movie, and she leaves in a killer white suit, with cushy accomodations on a slow steamer to Mandalay. On the boat she meets and falls in love with an alcoholic doctor With a Past, Lyle Talbot. But Tanya's own past intrudes in the form of Cortez, who turns back up, in the way all rotten exes eventually do. The female audience that loved Kay so much must have enjoyed seeing Cortez get his just deserts more than once, as his character proves as difficult to bump off as Rasputin. I especially liked the bit where he gets stuffed through a porthole.

Mandalay is tosh, but it is enjoyable tosh, and nine-tenths of the pleasure is definitely Kay. You hear a lot about her lisp, but it honestly isn't as prominent as people make it out to be--more Barbara Walters than Elmer Fudd. Still, it is usually irresistible to film writers looking for a laugh, like Jerry Vermilye discussing Mandalay in The Films of the Thirties:

'If you touch my garter, I'll scweam,' she warns a lustful gentleman early on. [The gentleman is actually the consul she is blackmailing, and Tanya is mocking him. -C.] Sympathetic screenwriters usually helped Key avoid these verbal pitfalls, but Mandalay scenarists Austin Parker and Charles Kenyon must have had a grudge against her; near the film's climax, they have her address costar Lyle Talbot with 'Gwegowy, we awwive in Mandalay tomowwow. We ah two wecked people.'

Cute (although with that second quote Vermilye conflates two separate lines), but the Siren thinks Francis deserves better than jokes about her speech impediment. Though she was hardly a talent for the ages, there was something lovable about this actress. She had huge dark eyes and a slightly receding chin, combined with a low and gentle voice. The effect was of someone easily wounded and in great need of tenderness, though her movie plots usually offered her precious little of that. Her fans flocked to see her suffer, as in The House on 56th Street, a somewhat overwrought but touching movie where the troubles life heaps on her last through 30 years (and some unfortunate blonde wigs). Given a script with genuine wit, as with One Way Passage or the superb Trouble in Paradise, Kay had a gently mocking manner well suited to high comedy.

Her friends remembered her as a kind and generous person, with a warmly self-deprecating manner. She was dismissive about her looks and never had much regard for her own talent. As long as her salary stayed on a steady incline, she took the roles she was offered. As a result, her image was worn down eventually, as Warner Brothers increasingly relied on her name to redeem inferior vehicles. When at last she began to fight for better parts, it was too late. By 1938 her period of greatest stardom was over, and she was labeled "box-office poison" in the celebrated Hollywood Reporter ad. Unlike fellow drugs on the market such as Hepburn and Crawford, Francis didn't get a chance to surmount the stigma.

From the beginning, she was famed for being a clotheshorse, and though she hated the label, no one wore 'em like Kay. In Hollywood fashion history, Audrey Hepburn had the European tastefulness, Marlene Dietrich was the iconoclast in trousers, Julie Christie had the swingin' attitude, but Kay is tops in the Siren's book. She could wear even a ludicrous gown and make it seem chic. Given a truly elegant ensemble she could take your breath away. She was tall, slender and flat-chested, with a slight give-a-damn slouch that defied you to question why the hell she was wearing white in the middle of the Burmese jungle.

The picture you get in Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career, by Lynn Kear and John Rossman, is melancholy. The authors make heavy use of Kay's diary, which was really more of a month-by-month calendar. But instead of just jotting down "buy bread" or "call mom," Kay used shorthand to note liquor consumption and all of her sexual conquests. That frequently filled up the margins, too, with entries like "Swell time but got very drunk. T[allulah] B[ankhead] called me a lesbian" and "We baptized the library floor. Good fucking" and "Slept with him and he may be the best of them all! Christ, I am a slut." (That possible best of them all, if you're interested, was agent Charles Feldman.) Her appetite, encompassing both men and women, was huge. She had four marriages but no children, opting instead for a jaw-dropping number of abortions. As a bit of social history, the ease with which well-connected, well-off Kay got abortions is telling; she had four the year she turned 23.

Several times the sheer volume of Kay's conquests made the Siren reach for a cold cloth to put on her forehead. (Even the authors say plaintively in the preface, "Believe it or not, we truly wanted to find out more about her career ... but the diary focused on her sex life.") Alas, nothing brought the actress much happiness. The book's Kay pursues pleasure but seldom finds it. Eventually the career withered and died, too, killed by public weariness with Kay's kind of pictures and blocked by the rise of a greater Warner star of the four-hanky saga, Bette Davis. Kay made no movies after 1946. In later years she drank too much, but retained a measure of her appeal even in bad times.

Actor-director Harold J. Kennedy ... described how Kay kept her sense of humor during one incident. 'I remember taking her one night to a little restaurant upstairs in the East Fifties when she fell down and it took three of us, the head waiter, the owner and myself, to carry her down the stairs and out into the street. The owner and the maitre d' were holding Kay slumped between them while I was trying to hail a cab when a young sailor went by and stared at her. "Is that Kay Francis?" he said. Kay half-opened her eyes and smiled that million-dollar smile. "I used to be," she said.'

Kay Francis doesn't have the name recognition of a star like Katharine Hepburn or Marlene Dietrich, but her reputation is kept alive by unusually devoted fans. James Wolcott has mentioned his affection for her more than once, and the Web boasts several lovingly detailed Kay sites. The Siren hopes to see more of Kay's movies, as more people succumb to her charm.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Viridiana (1960)

Viridiana may seem like an odd film to fall in love with, but the Siren did, and hard, back in her college days when she was trying to see every European film denied her back home in Birmingham, Ala. Her first months in New York often found her in the college cafeteria with a copy of the New Yorker, staring at the listings, like a Soviet refugee transfixed by the overstuffed produce aisle at D'Agostino's. Viridiana was an early choice, and a formative experience. Along with Les Enfants du Paradis and a handful of others viewed around age 18, the Buñuel
film was an electrifying gateway drug to European cinema. However, there are many things the Siren loved when she was 18 that she loves no longer--Southern Comfort, four-inch heels, false eyelashes--so who knew how'd she react when Turner Classic Movies recently screened the movie.

Happily, the Siren can report that Viridiana still knocks her sideways. It has been dissected many times, by critical minds more refined than hers, but the Siren wants to tell you about why she loves this rather bleak, but utterly brilliant film.

Anybody here familiar with Alabama? To say it's religious down there is like remarking that Manhattan is urban. Now my late father and my beloved mother both grew up a few blocks from a local church--Baptist for Daddy, Methodist for Mom. They attended every Sunday until the day they left home, with the happy result that neither one wanted anything to do with weekly services as an adult. But they were Christian enough to want their offspring to choose a nice denomination to settle down with. So the Siren went often to several churches, spent a long time studying Catholicism, and in the end picked the box marked "none of the above." She was tired of Jesus. He kept turning up in the Siren's daily life, whether she invited Him or not, usually invoked by people who wanted to tell her she was wrong. The Siren started to regard the Lord the way other people saw Chuck Barris--someone who pops up to tell you the gong has rung and the fun's all over.

So the lights go down on Viridiana, and the Siren's eyelids pop. There, up on screen, was every seething, rebellious thought she ever had during a Sunday sermon, or while resisting recruitment for the Brothers And Sisters in Christ club, or listening to Coach Jeffries at the pep rally asking Jesus to help us whup the Spartans on Friday night.

For those who haven't seen it--and if you haven't, what else are you doing that's so important?--a little plot summary. Gorgeous Viridiana (Sylvia Pinal) is a novice at a local convent, and one day she is told she should visit her uncle, local farmer Don Jaime. When Viridiana arrives, her uncle, played by a gloriously lecherous Fernando Rey, is thunderstruck by her resemblance to his dead wife. From there out, he is obsessed with getting his virginal niece into bed. What follows includes a drugging and contemplated rape, a nice little episode of foot fetishism and the uncle's abrupt exit. Don Jaime's illegitimate son Jorge (Francisco Rabal) arrives and he too lusts for Viridiana, but is content to wait for her to see the error of her virginity. She takes over the farm and tries to set up a sort of rural food kitchen for the local beggars, but they prove to be about as salvageable as her uncle. To watch the film is to see Viridiana's Christian ideals taken apart, hanged, burnt, tied up, knifed, buried and seduced into a possible game of strip tute. Maybe others find it depressing. To me, it's pure adrenalin. That night in New York, if I could have found Luis Buñuel, I'd have touched the hem of his garment.

You can find a lot of writing on Viridiana around the Web, some of it claiming that the film is anti-Catholic but not anti-Christianity, and it really isn't all that shocking anymore. To which the Siren says, poppycock. If you could show the BASIC club or Coach Jeffries this movie, I guarantee they would ban it just as fast as Pope John XXIII did. If Viridiana's sensual pleasure in whipping herself while wearing a crown of thorns didn't do it, the beggars' celebrated burlesque of the Last Supper would. You can easily turn a screening into a game of Spot the Blasphemy.

Christian beliefs are hung out to dry (in one instance literally), but the film has no special contempt for Christians personally. Viridiana isn't a bad sort, just rather dopey and possessed of a virgin's tendency to think all the other characters are making sexual innuendos at her expense. (Sometimes they are, as with Rabal; sometimes they aren't, as when Pinal is invited to milk a cow.) Her vows of poverty aren't admirable, but neither are they especially despicable. They are just Viridiana's particular way of entertaining herself, no more or less worthy than jumping rope or drugging someone's tea.

There is a great deal of political satire too, although in Buñuel's memoirs he said that when General Franco saw the movie he didn't see what the fuss was about. To the Siren, this just demonstrates that dictators aren't always very bright. (John Nesbit at Toxic Universe points out the acid implication of the line, "The weeds have taken over the past 20 years... And beyond the second floor, the house is overrun with spiders.")

But there is little comfort for the do-gooder liberal, either. Buñuel refuses to romanticize poverty. There is nothing ennobling or beautiful about it, whether it is chosen like Viridiana's, or forced by circumstances like that of the beggars. They aren't purehearted children of the sod, oppressed by the system. They're just poor, and creepy, and eager to grab any momentary gratification. Emerging from poverty is purely a matter of luck, as it is for an abused mutt in the movie's other celebrated sequence. Whether you seek it through Jesus or the kindness of the better-off, your illusion of salvation is just that.

Buñuel made this film after a 22-year exile from Spain. (Here the Siren sees a bit of similarity to Robert Altman, another gleefully godless filmmaker: Invited to return to his homeland and make a movie, Buñuel made a lengthy disquisition on what bums they all were.) If Franco wasn't incensed, plenty of others got the point. When Viridiana was released, it was promptly banned in Spain and denounced by the Vatican. Spain's chief censor was forced to resign. Even Sturges and Lubitsch didn't manage to get the censors fired. If that doesn't tell you Viridiana's worth, the Siren doesn't know what will.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Anecdote of the Week: No Small Parts, and No Small Directors

Orson Welles was playing the Narrator in Start the Revolution Without Me, and I wanted to meet him. He only had two filiming days, and I thought it would be more polite if I waited until the second day to say hello. On the second day, at about three in the afternoon, I got to the chateau where they were filiming; Orson Welles was gone. I asked [Revolution director] Bud Yorkin what happened.

"Well," Bud said, "we'd start a scene, and after a little while Orson would call 'Cut!' He'd look at me and say, 'Now, you don't honestly want any more of that shot, do you, Bud? Surely you'll be cutting to the twins at that point.' And I'd say, 'Yes ... well ... yes, I suppose so.' Then we'd be in the middle of the next scene, and he'd yell, 'Cut!' and he'd say, 'Now surely you've got to cut there, Bud--it wouldn't make any sense if you didn't cut to the mob at that point.' So we finished shooting all of his sequences an hour ago."

--Gene Wilder talks about the perils of filming with a genius,
in Kiss Me Like a Stranger (a good memoir
with the worst title in the history of Hollywood autobiography).