Let's try an experiment. Find the most precious object in your life, the light of your eyes. Place him/her/it in the middle of the room. Get the most fake-nice person you know to circle your precious, take notes, simper a lot, and make little enigmatic remarks like "Of course, they all do things at different times." While this is going on, bring your upper right arm across your face and try to French kiss your elbow. Do this every morning for several hours, for about two weeks.
You have now replicated the experience of trying to get your kid into a good kindergarten in New York City.
Anyway, between this and a youngest who thinks 3 am to 5 am is, by god, the best time of the day, the Siren is not up to anything cohesive. She has, however, spent what free time she has sacked out in front of the television set, glued to her Netflix choices and TCM, so here are some loose-knit thoughts on John Garfield and Hedy Lamarr.
About a month ago Blonde Venus Kim Morgan wrote a wonderful birthday tribute to John Garfield. The more the Siren watches, re-watches and reflects upon Garfield, the more she thinks that he--not the inarguably magnificent Brando--was the definitive American screen actor, the one who divides it all into Before and After. The Siren just saw him in two movies, the excellent He Ran All the Way and the dreary Tortilla Flat, and damn but the man was wondrous in anything. He Ran All the Way, Garfield's swan song, makes you weep for what could have been had he lived past 39. The actor was years too old for the part but that didn't occur to the Siren until J. Hoberman pointed it out. His character is a mess of sweaty jitters, doom stamped on him as clear as the marks on a UPS parcel. He's an armed robber on the run, but he's no John Dillinger. Garfield's character can't keep it together for more than a quarter-hour at a time, flipping out first on Shelley Winters in a public pool, then again at her house when he reveals to her family that he's on the lam. The suspense comes from wondering what his next ghastly burst of paranoia will bring. Garfield's line deliveries are a joy--never just a straightforward tough-guy reading, always something coming from a different angle. When he tells the family, "all I wanted was a place to hole up for a couple of days. Something you'd give an alley cat," it has the force of both accusation and elegy. Garfield gives so many different aspects to a man who could have been played far more simply. You see his yearning for a real family life in his scenes with the mother (Selena Royle) and his instinctive resentment of authority, even as he craves direction, in his frightening confrontations with Winters' father (Wallace Ford). Winters, for her part, gives Garfield someone worth playing against, with her own achingly sad performance. Genius James Wong Howe's cinematography makes the broiling hot summer days look even more menacing than the nights, until the inevitably tragic fadeout--but with a twist that the Siren hadn't seen coming. No wonder Morgan cites this as her favorite Garfield film. Give it a few more viewings and it may yet be the Siren's.
Then the Siren watched Tortilla Flat, and ay yi yi, as the characters are made to say whenever you are in danger of forgetting how Very Ethnic They Are. Garfield made this movie on loan to MGM. It's based on a John Steinbeck novel, and neither Garfield nor Steinbeck were at all suited to the MGM attitude which was, generally, "realism be damned." Spencer Tracy, one of Garfield's acting heros, has the main part. Tracy is a Mexican with a bit of his godawful Portuguese accent from Captains Courageous but, gracias a Dios, not too much. Garfield plays his best friend, and they're both in love with Hedy Lamarr. Garfield wisely doesn't try the accent, he just gives his speech some vaguely Spanish cadences. (The Siren finds that actors using accents frequently get the sounds right, but step all over the rhythm of a dialect.) Anyway, the movie is dishwater dull, providing interest only in a rather sweet sequence concerning a baby, and when Garfield is fighting with Lamarr. Despite being miscast the actor gives real believability to his love for Lamarr and strikes sparks off the frosty beauty.
TCM's article on Tortilla Flat has a funny story from filming:
Garfield recalls shooting his first scene with Fleming at the helm: "The director called a halt and shouted: 'For Christ's sake, Garfield, you have to do better than that. I fought like hell to get you in this picture, so don't make me look like a fool.'" As Tracy snickered in the background, Fleming railed at Garfield some more and they shot the scene again. "Take it easy, Garfield, don't get too good. A lot of your scenes are with Hedy Lamarr. She's not what you'd call unoutclassable, and we can't let that happen. Let's take it again. Be better than you were the first time, but worse than the second."
Ah, Hedy. It's hard to feel sorry for one of the most beautiful women in film history, but sometimes the Siren does. Shirley Temple got more respect as an actress. In one of life's glaring inequities Lamarr was a beauty and an intellect, so she probably knew her colleagues thought she couldn't act her way out of a lipstick tube. Her "autobiography," Ecstasy and Me, indicates an ego the size of Guam but it also reeks of tall-tale ghostwriting more than any star memoir the Siren has ever read (and as we all know, I've read too many). Lamarr later sued the ghostwriter for embellishing the book and was mocked for her pains. People snickered that she hadn't realized it would make her look like a mix of Baby Jane and Messalina and so, they said, Hedy decided to pretend it was all made up. Well, the Siren thinks that if Hedy could invent frequency-hopping (do you understand how that works? because I sure don't) she could read a manuscript and know how it would sound. There probably was some fabricated stuff, maybe even a lot. It was the lurid sex passages that caused a sensation in 1967--"Hollywood is prudish," shrugged David Shipman. And it's the sex scenes that sound a lot more like a male writer's fantasies than a woman's reminiscences. Of far more concern to the Siren was how Lamarr lovingly details her adoption of a son and her fight to keep him after her divorce--then barely mentions him after she has biological children with a second husband.*
Hedy is TCM's star of the month for April and the Siren has made a discovery: one reason for Lamarr's reputation as a dreadful actress is that her most famous films contain her worst performances. Ziegfeld Girl? Judy Garland blows her off the screen; hell, Lana Turner does too. Samson and Delilah? Her midriff does most of the acting. Algiers? She doesn't have that much screen time and what she does have is excruciatingly self-conscious. And then there's White Cargo, probably her second-most-famous role after the Philistine woman. Man, this is a dreadful movie. Just re-viewing the first hour last night put the Siren in such a grumpy frame of mind she didn't have energy to figure out how to record Experiment Perilous. Lamarr sports hideous brown body makeup, although the Production Code's repulsive miscegenation clause meant she's half-breed but not really half-breed and even though they're in Africa she's certainly not THAT kind of African, my goodness no, here's this letter about her parents. Hedy's pidgin syntax, her sarongs, the way she conveys evil intent by narrowing her eyes, seductiveness by parting her lips and tilting her head back--is this where Claudia Cardinale picked up her technique? The only fun parts are the violent tantrums from Walter Pidgeon when one character complains again about how it's "beastly hot." "STOP SAYING THAT!" shrieks Pidgeon. It's like an early colonial version of Office Space.
But Hedy wasn't always terrible. The Siren has seen two movies in which Lamarr's quite fun, although she does benefit from low expectations. In Edgar Ulmer's Strange Woman, a movie she produced herself, she Vivien-Leighs all over the place, adopting every one of that actress's gestures and movements as Scarlett. But Lamarr is still most enjoyable as a Maine belle with an unexplained accent who uses her sexual allure in an unexpectedly explicit manner, including an implied S&M scene that you truly don't want to miss. Plus, you get Ulmer's direction. Who knew Down East was this erotic?
The second movie is Come Live With Me, a romantic comedy that seemed to owe quite a bit to the previous year's Remember the Night, from Paramount, not to mention It Happened One Night. While not nearly as good as either of those two Come Live With Me has its own points, including excellent performances from James Stewart as a frustrated, then lovelorn writer and Ian Hunter and Verree Teasdale as a posh publishing couple with an open marriage. Lamarr's part as a European refugee is potentially unsympathetic. She starts out as a kept woman breaking up a marriage, then proceeds to a green-card marriage with Stewart. But for once her essentially cool persona serves her well, as you don't know precisely how her feelings tend, and the script keeps offering good reasons for her behavior. Stewart also helps, as he was a premiere romantic actor, able to inject tenderness into scenes with even the least promising leading ladies. Here, a year past The Philadelphia Story, he's another average Joe teasing an ice princess down off her mountain top. Lamarr fares less well when he takes her home to the farm--she's walking around all delighted at the decor when you just know she wouldn't have been caught dead in the place. But she regains her footing with the farcical denouement.
The Siren recorded King Vidor's H.M. Pulham, Esq., which Lamarr frequently cited in Ecstasy and Me as the sort of role she wished she'd had more often. After viewing it, if inspired, the Siren will let you know whether Hedy knew what she was talking about, or was exhibiting the critical facilities that made her say sarongs and hip-swinging would make her a "memorable nymphomaniac" in White Cargo.
*Biographer Patrick Agan claims here that her treatment of that son wasn't as bad as it sounds.