Tuesday, May 27, 2008

May Is Exam Month

End of the school year, and over at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, the wonderful Dennis Cozzalio has posted another marathon quiz. There are no qualifications needed to take this exam, you just mosey over and answer. The Siren loves doing these things and so she's posting her answers here, as well as in the comments at SLIFR. Do go over and add your voice to the throng. Dennis compiles the answers and the results are always fascinating. Already I have made discoveries about some fellow cinephiles. **cue portentous music**

1) Best transition from movies to TV (actor, actress, producer/director, movie/show)

Pace some of my commenters on the "stars I don't like" post, Lucille Ball set the gold standard for that long ago.

2) Living film director you most missing seeing on the cultural landscape regularly.

Bill Forsyth most of all. Gregory's Girl, Local Hero and Comfort and Joy helped make the 1980s worthwhile. Bill, come back! Also Victor Erice, although he has never been a very public figure. I also agree with Bubblegum Cinephile about Whit Stillman.

3) Eugene Pallette or Charles Coburn

I want to say Coburn just to see how Karen reacts (and he was so great in The Lady Eve, The More the Merrier and The Green Years). But it's Pallette, for his voice, Friar Tuck and because he wins the Heaven Can Wait smackdown with that scene over the funny papers. Plus, he has me howling with laughter every time I see My Man Godfrey: "Take a look at the dizzy old gal with the goat." "I've had to look at her for 20 years. That's MRS. Bullock." "I'm terribly sorry!" "How do you think I feel?"

4) Fill in the blank: “I pray that no one ever turns _____________ into a movie.”

The Paris Hilton Story. My dream is that I will one day ask my children who Paris Hilton was and get the blankest of blank stares.

5) Jane Greer or Veronica Lake

Greer was the better actress, but Lake was in Sullivan's Travels, wanting to work with Lubitsch. So Lake it is.

6) What was the last movie you saw in a theater? On DVD? And why?

In the theater, Cluny Brown, because it's very hard to find. (Once again, Fox, I have to ask, what the HECK is wrong with you people and your stinginess with your library?) On DVD, last was A Slight Case of Murder, for Edward G. Robinson (and indeed it was very cute and so was he). On cable, Love Songs, which turned up unexpectedly on TV5.

7) Name an actor you think should be a star.

I guess I am supposed to name someone contemporary, so I pick the gorgeous, mesmerizing but underutilized Maria Bello. I also think Benoit Magimel should be a worldwide big name, although I have no idea if his English is up to Hollywood. As for neglected names from the old days, I'm working on a whole list of those.

8) Foxy Brown or Coffy. Foxy, because she's a whole lotta woman.

9) Favorite TV show still without its own DVD box set

Frank's Place. I watched the whole series in its all-too brief run and it's one of the few TV shows I would buy.

10) Jack Elam or Neville Brand

Neville, for Stalag 17 and DOA.

11) What movies would top your list of movies you need to revisit, for whatever reason?

My problem isn't needing to revisit movies, it's revisiting ones I love too often, thus leaving less time to for the ones on my "drat, I still need to see that" list. If I loved it, I want to see it again.

12) Zodiac or All the President’s Men

All the President's Men. I haven't seen Zodiac, but Se7en left me unimpressed, to say the very least.

13) Using our best reviewer-speak, what is an “important” film comedy? And what is to you the most important film comedy of the last 35 years?

If it's funny, a comedy eschews the very notion of importance, as Groucho said: "What significance? We were just four Jews trying to get a laugh." With apologies to George S. Kaufman, an "important" comedy is what closes Saturday night. By that yardstick, the most important comedy is 1941 I guess.

14) Describe the ideal environment for watching a movie.

Big screen, good sight lines for the vertically challenged (like me), a sound system that is enveloping without being deafening and, most important of all, an audience that doesn't think any type of big emotion is automatically "camp."

15) Michelle Williams or Eva Mendes

I have seen very little of these ladies, but I'm going with Williams just because she isn't in that remake of The Women.




16) What’s the worst movie title of all time?

Curse of the Cat People, because to this day it misleads people about the content of that jewel of a movie.

17) Best movie about teaching and/or learning

The Miracle Worker. That last scene, when Helen Keller at last understands the basis of language, gets me every time. There's no more beautiful depiction of unlocking a mind than seeing Patty Duke fly around the backyard, pounding each object and begging to be told its name.

18) Dracula (1931) or Horror of Dracula (1958)

Horror of Dracula. I think the older one is just too creaky and, at this point, too familiar. It's as impossible to watch now as it is to look at the Mona Lisa with eyes unshaded by the gazillion dreary misuses she's been put to.

19) Why do you blog? Or if you don’t, why do you read blogs? (Thanks, Girish)

I started blogging to stave off insanity while adjusting to a new, much quieter city. I continued blogging for all the freebies from high-end retailers. What, you mean YOU'RE not getting those? No, actually I blog so I can revenge myself on ex-lovers on the front cover of the New York Times Magazine...

20) Most memorable/disturbing death scene.

The execution in Paths of Glory--the one soldier openly sobbing, no grace or courage, dying for nothing at all, dying because that is all their leaders know how to do any more, send young men to die.

21) Jason Robards or Robert Shaw

Robards. He's the one thing I truly enjoy in Once Upon a Time in the West.
22) A good candidate for Most Blasphemous Movie Ever

Viridiana, for sure. Not just blasphemy, but layered, complex, endlessly funny blasphemy. When I posted about it one of my regular commenters, Gloria, pointed out that the infamous "Last Supper" also contains a visual pun on a Spanish idiom, with the one beggar woman "taking a picture"--which is slang for flashing your undies.

23) Rio Bravo or Red River

Red River by a mile. Rio Bravo is fun and all, but Red River has the depth, plus John Wayne's best performance ever. I don't have to sit through any ersatz Gene Autry singalongs in Red River. And while Dino could have drunk Monty under the table any day, I think he would have been the last person to try and out-act him.

24) Werner Herzog is remaking Bad Lieutenant with Nicolas Cage—that’s reality. Try to outdo reality by concocting a match-up of director and title for a really strange imaginary remake.

I know I'm supposed to be funny here but I'm inclined to try this experiment for real. John Huston said in his memoirs that Hollywood took the wrong approach to remakes--they re-did something that was perfect the first time around. He said they should take movies that had good elements but somehow didn't come off, and cited his own "Roots of Heaven" as an example. So, to be serious AND weird--Claude Chabrol could handle The Sound and the Fury, which was butchered so badly the first time around. He has the intellect but also the skepticism necessary to approach the Faulknerian South without wanting to remind us constantly how damn colorful and Gothic and meaningful everything is. Quentin Compson--continue the old, odd tradition of Brits playing Southerners and get Jamie Bell, just because he could do it and because Quentin should NOT be a heartthrob.

25) Bulle Ogier or Charlotte Rampling

At work I fielded a phone call from Charlotte Rampling once, and she was every bit as snooty as her Georgy Girl character. I loved it, finding out she was exactly as I wanted her to be. Charlotte all the way.

26) In the Realm of the Senses— yes or no?

It's been eons since I saw it (at home on VHS, must have been early 90s) but I remember thinking it was interesting but quite anti-erotic; the guy I was dating fell asleep. As a seduction ploy I got much better results with 8 1/2. So I'm going with no.

27) Name a movie you think of as your own (Thanks, Jim!)

Letter from an Unknown Woman. I will probably never see this in a theater with an audience simply because, like Jim, I cannot bear the thought of the morons tittering over anything that doesn't seem sufficiently "realistic."

28) Winged Migration or Microcosmos

Haven't seen them but I still pick Winged Migration. I am not a bug person.

29) Your favorite football game featured in a movie.

"Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle, this time I think we go up-a da middle." Horsefeathers. This is what Oliver Stone should have watched before making Any Given Sunday. Or maybe he did.

30) Wendy Hiller or Deborah Kerr

Deborah, although Wendy's divine.

31) Dirtiest secret you have that is related to the movies.

I have no movie secrets. If I love Yolanda and the Thief and the world does not, then the world is WRONG, wrong, wrong.

32) Name a favorite film and describe how it is illuminated and enriched by another favorite film.

I think the two Imitation of Life versions really form a dialogue about race, caste, class, and women's issues in the U.S. over the course of 25 years.

33) It’s a Gift or Horsefeathers

Horsefeathers. I'm a dedicated Marxist.

34) Your best story about seeing a movie at a drive-in.

I have never been to a drive-in. I was a deprived child.

35) Victor Mature or Tyrone Power.

Victor is the best thing in von Sternberg's mad and marvelous The Shanghai Gesture. But Tyrone could really act, witness Nightmare Alley. So it's Power.

36) What does film criticism mean to you? Where do you think it’s headed?

Oy, this is a little too much for me to contemplate at the mo but I do think it's becoming more fragmented. The days of one powerful voice having an outsize influence, whether it be Crowther or Kael or Ebert, are gone.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Savoring Stewart


Okay, enough with the negativity, good clean fun though it was. On to someone we do like, James Stewart, whose 100th birthday was yesterday.

As someone with a serious critical interest in film the Siren knows her obligations. She's supposed to prefer late-period Stewart to early. By any artistic measure, Stewart did his best work for Hitchcock, with one of the great performances of American cinema in Vertigo. And, in Rear Window, Stewart became the only man in the history of film who could be gratuitously cruel to Grace Kelly without the audience wanting to kill him for it. The Siren also knows she's supposed to rank the Westerns Stewart did with Anthony Mann way up there. Again, those movies are also very good and Stewart is excellent in them, bringing the whole postwar ambivalence about the American male and American violence way up front.

But, to quote Woody Allen's most infamous line, the heart wants what it wants. And what the Siren wants is The Shop Around the Corner. After that she wants The Philadelphia Story, Vivacious Lady, Made for Each Other, The Mortal Storm and The Shopworn Angel. In short, she wants Stewart the romantic and ideally she wants Margaret Sullavan in there somewhere too.

So there.

Of course, there's no real need to divide them up, and the Siren agrees with David Thomson that our regard for the postwar Stewart depends a great deal on the reserve of goodwill built up in his prewar comedies and romances. Part of the sympathy you feel for Scottie Ferguson is there simply because he's James Stewart--the character himself becomes less and sympathetic, until he's an unhinged, vampiric mess, and still you ache for his self-deception and his inability to love.

The earlier Stewart usually loved too well. The Siren stoutly maintains that Stewart--not Cary Grant--is what makes The Philadelphia Story bearable. Otherwise, as Molly Haskell says, it's "really quite mean," a film about a woman who's told repeatedly, on very little evidence, that if she wants to be lovable she'd better trim back her sense of self-worth. That speech from Tracy's father (John Halliday): "I think a devoted young girl gives a man the illusion that youth is still his." My god. Is there a more thoroughly infuriating s.o.b. in the history of Hollywood romantic comedy? Grant, for his part, berates her for forcing him to deal with his alcoholism his own damn self, rather than being a supportive wife (a route which, as any Al-Anon alum can tell you, probably would've just let him keep drinking).



But Stewart, ah, Stewart. He's funny from the minute he shows up, giving the upper classes the fish eye, but admitting they have their allure--specifically, that Katharine Hepburn does. He starts by giving her a hard time, but never inserts the stiletto the way the other male characters do, instead declaring abruptly, "You're wonderful." Mac sees the magnificence in Tracy, and what a relief their love scene is after all the time we've spent hearing Hepburn blamed for her father's infidelity, her fiance's weakness and her ex-husband's drinking. Those who complain that Stewart won Best Actor for a supporting role have a point--but it's tent-pole support. Without his character, the way he looks at Tracy (like a real-life man would) and the way he kisses her, the movie would just collapse.

The Siren's favorite Stewart performance came earlier in 1940: Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner. There's never been a better picture of what it's like to work retail (Les Bonnes Femmes managed to equal, but not surpass it). All those supposed Stewart tics are absent here. It's a simple characterization of a typical store schlub, a clerk trying to get by like any other, with just enough brown-nosing to rise in the company but retain some dignity. People in Lubitsch movies are witty beyond our wildest dreams, but Stewart gives his lines a particular twist. He's a guy trying to stave off boredom by being funny, but making the quips is enough. He doesn't expect the others to get them and he's pretty much resigned to the fact that they don't. And besides, off duty, on his own, he's discovered a way to pour out his heart, corresponding with an anonymous girl who hears his every secret via letter. Stewart doesn't try to make Kralik a standout of some sort. Instead, as W.S. Van Dyke said of the actor, he's "unusually usual."

The Siren didn't realize just how vital that was until she saw the godawful remake, You've Got Mail. Tom Hanks, an actor often described as Stewart's heir, can't be just a clerk any more. Noooooo, he's got to own the whole goddamn company and we have to shoehorn in a defense of big-box capitalism as well. When did we all become such snobs? when did we decide no one but a CEO could possibly woo Princess Meg? Lubitsch loved the upper classes, but he didn't try to paste sequins on the lower ones and insist their only happiness lay in marrying up. And Stewart, yet another actor tagged with the fatuous "he always played himself" idea (no, he bloody well did not) is the one who disappears into the skin of a wage slave. Hanks's big businessman is supposed to charm us merely by being Tom Hanks, who can time a quip, not because his character does anything charming, unless you consider prompt email replies to be the defining element of charm.

The indispensable David Bordwell did a comparison of the two movies a while back that includes a brilliant analysis of Stewart's reactions in the scene where he realizes he is corresponding with his coworker, Margaret Sullavan. You can (and should) read it here.

The Siren's favorite scene, not just in this movie, but one of her favorite scenes, period, is the end. For almost half the movie now, Kralik has realized the girl he loves is the coworker, Klara, who's had nothing but harsh words for him. He knows she loves him, but can't resist making her pay for it, just a little. Kralik tells her that man she's being writing to has come into the shop--and proceeds to describe a portly, balding, layabout. Savor Stewart's timing and delivery here, it's such perfection. A man doing this type of teasing would never telegraph a thing, for fear of giving away the game, and Stewart doesn't. He spins out Klara's discomfort, longer and longer and longer, and we see her very real disappointment grow and grow, until there's a danger the audience will see it as too much. Except that Stewart's eyes, when he looks at Sullavan, give his love away. Still we wait and wait, until we can't stand it any longer, and neither can Kralik:

Kralik: Do you know what I wish would happen? when your bell rings at 8:30 and you open the door, instead of Popkin, I come in.
Klara: Oh please, don't make it more difficult for me.
Kralik: And I'd say Klara darling, oh dearest sweetheart Klara, I can't stand it any longer. Please, take your key and open post office box 237 and take me out of my envelope and kiss me.
Klara: Oh Mr. Kralik, you musn't ...

And then she realizes.

The Siren grudges no one their choice of Stewart moments--overcoming his fear but losing his love at the end of Vertigo; waiting for a murderer to show up in Rear Window; or yelling "Merry Christmas!" to a building and loan. But if you want the Siren to dissolve into tears and swear Stewart was one of the greatest stars we ever had, just show her his face as he tucks a carnation into his lapel, with an expression of love that every woman should see directed at her, at least once.

Monday, May 19, 2008

I Do Not Like Them, Sam-I-Am

Have you seen the Live Journal of Amy-Jeanne, It'll Take the Snap Out of Your Garters? Along with several others, it's become one of the Siren's favorite eye-candy spots. Like most classic movie fans Amy is an enthusiast by temperament, but a couple of weeks ago she did a two-part post on "celebrities I either don't like, I'm kinda 'meh' on, or those ones it took me a while to like."

The Siren generally writes about artists she loves, and the ones she doesn't she leaves alone. Still, not even the Siren can like everyone. This seemed an interesting idea for a post--which classic stars (roughly, pre-1960) does the Siren avoid? (The same idea could apply to directors of course, but the Siren has no desire to see blood on the walls. Director dissing gets vicious, fast.)

It's a pretty short list, easily trimmed to an even 20. (A contemporary list would have been much, much longer, alas.) When it comes to old movies the Siren likes to think she has catholic tastes. Almost all of these actors have done something the Siren likes, just not often enough to give her any enthusiasm for the performer. The Siren also reserves the right to change this list without notice, if she happens to discover somebody being brilliant in something she hadn't seen before.

As Amy-Jeanne says, "all these celebrities are cool by default because they are from the 'old days,' but I just never felt any magic from them and this is just my personal opinion." The Siren isn't trying to upset anybody, this is just for fun, with a line or two to explain why this person doesn't do it for me.

In no order at all:



BUDDY EBSEN
His dancing mannerisms irk me no end--the way he sucks up his face like a duck and tucks in his too-long limbs.


BING CROSBY
Certainly he was good at times, but even his best performances have an element of phoniness to me.


GLENN FORD
Reliably dull. Adequate, but never more, in a number of excellent movies.


PETER LAWFORD
Bores me to death. As do all Rat Pack movies. And the Kennedy connection.



PAT O'BRIEN
Same performance in every movie, always tough and upright, upright and tough.


DAVID WAYNE
I get really crabby when I feel like an actor is demanding that I be charmed. That's Wayne in every role, worst of all in Adam's Rib.


ROBERT TAYLOR
Handsome, god knows, but so asexual. The Siren has never seen him in a convincing love clinch.


DAN DAILEY
The Siren generally forgets Dailey about five minutes after the end titles have rolled, It's Always Fair Weather notwithstanding. I do love him personally, though, for a story he told about Betty Grable. He claimed she got angry on the set of a film and snapped at him, "Do you know why I'm doing this picture? I thought they said Dan Duryea."


RED SKELTON
Just not funny to me. Plus, apparently, I get him mixed up with Red Buttons. (Thanks, Dan.)


RICHARD CONTE
Genuinely frightening in The Big Combo, but mostly a big block of wood on screen.




RONALD REAGAN
Reportedly he got a lot more upset at people who said he couldn't act than those who said he couldn't govern, which is kind of endearing. The Siren still avoids his movies for the most part. In Dark Victory he had charm, and he was very good in King's Row, but somehow he never built on that performance. Generally he seems to be doing a very low-grade amalgam of Errol Flynn and Gary Cooper.


JUNE ALLYSON
An annoying voice, a pile-up of girlish mannerisms carried way into adulthood and a permanent puppy-dog expression. The one actor in this list whose presence in a movie causes the Siren to dive for the remote control every time. As you can guess from Peter Lawford's name above, Good News is playing on a loop in the Siren's personal Hell Plaza Octoplex.



DOLORES DEL RIO
It's a pity she came along before models earned a good living, because that is essentially all Del Rio was in her movies. And her rather masculine beauty leaves the Siren cold as well.


JEANETTE MACDONALD
I don't know what she was like in life, but on-screen she gives the most amazing impression of overbearing self-love.





SONJA HENIE
Every once in a while Fox Movie Channel shows one of her movies, just to remind the Siren that not everything old is classic. Or even watchable.




BETTY HUTTON
Usually nails on a car door to the Siren, but a stitch in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. Which proves that Preston Sturges could make anyone funny.




GINA LOLLOBRIGIDA
I'll say one thing for her, she makes you appreciate Sophia Loren's acting talent.


MAUREEN O'SULLIVAN
As Auntie Mame said about Patrick's fiancee, "a mean mouth." To the Siren, she always acts as neurotic as she looks in that still. Screechy voice, graceless movements, zero sex appeal.



LORETTA YOUNG
The Magnolia Cupcake of classic movie stars, decorative but way too sweet. She did give a nice performance in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell. The Siren hears good things about Man's Castle (another movie in Borzage DVD purgatory) and also Zoo in Budapest, but who the hell has seen Zoo in Budapest? (Edited: Besides Karen. And Dan Callahan.)



HELEN HAYES
First Lady of the American Theater, unforgettable on stage by all accounts and a swell lady--but she usually had no idea what to do on screen, not in the 1930s nor later in Airport. Just you sit through The Sin of Madelon Claudet and tell me if you don't emerge with a new appreciation for Lana Turner in Madame X. (Hayes did nail it once, however, in Anastasia, where her recognition scene with Ingrid Bergman has the Siren in tears every time.)



RUBY KEELER
The Siren is thawing out toward Ruby as time goes on. But like Lina Lamont, she can't act, she can't sing, she can't dance. A triple threat. That's the prettiest picture of her the Siren has ever seen, however.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Is this a dance which I see before me? Or, Dance as Soliloquy


The Siren has always mentally divided Hollywood dance sequences into different types. There is the first kind, the dance as staged interlude.



There's the type that Busby Berkeley perfected for all time, Dance as Spectacle. As a girl this was not only the Siren's favorite type of dance, it was her favorite type of movie, period. If she could switch on the television and spot showgirls with marcelled hair making big flower-blooming patterns, the Siren's week was made. Since these were always backstage musicals she was convinced for at least the first decade of her life that somewhere there was a stage big enough to accomodate "The Lullaby of Broadway."



Later on the Siren became acquainted, through Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, with dance as courtship ...



... and, when she was old enough to get the idea, with dance as consummation.



Astaire and Rogers did this brilliantly but they were far from the only ones. Over at Raymond de Felitta's place you will find him posting a Cyd Charisse number with James Mitchell (later to be Palmer Cortlandt on All My Children) that is indescribably lustful.

But it wasn't until fairly late in the Hollywood musical's flowering that we got what is perhaps the purest form of film dancing, dance as soliloquy. There were few dancers who could carry this off, and in fact Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly have this category almost to themselves, with at least one exception noted below.

In essence, the character's emotions reach such a pitch that he's gotta dance. It's romance that pushes him to this point, usually, either from pure happiness or despair. The most famous dance-as-soliloquy of all time is "Singin' in the Rain," which the Siren adores as much as anyone else but won't discuss here since what's left to say? Another favorite from Gene Kelly is this one, "I Like Myself" from It's Always Fair Weather.



In some ways this is the perfect example of what the Siren is talking about--Kelly is not only ecstatically in love with the ravishing Cyd Charisse, but also celebrating a new outlook on life, after a depressing afternoon in which he discovered that not only can you not go home again, as Thomas Wolfe told us, you also can't go back to the Army or its comradeship. I suppose you could look at it as a re-run of "Singin' in the Rain," which has an almost identical set-up for its centerpiece soliloquy, but in this as in the rest of the film, IAFW is darker and more complicated. The breathtaking impossibility of Gene's dancing around on roller skates is matched with the point in the plot--this kind of happiness is also impossible, fragile and won't last, any more than the giddy trash-can-dancing camraderie in the first part of the movie has lasted.

It's Always Fair Weather was, as de Felitta notes in this splendid write-up, just about the last gasp for the Freed unit. And the Siren completely agrees with Raymond that it's a great shame, because Kelly was poised to take the musical in even more varied and unexpected directions. If you ever get a chance to catch it on TCM, the Siren highly recommends Invitation to the Dance to her readers who are true dance addicts.

But in this category, as in so much, it has to be acknowledged that Astaire got there first, as in this snippet from the spellbinding "One For My Baby" number in the otherwise not-terribly-interesting The Sky's the Limit.

This is a number to savor. There's the perfection of Astaire's take on this type of "romantic" drunk--the way maudlin self-pity alternates with the compulsion to fight anything, up to and including the bar glasses. As in "I Like Myself," there's the fact that while the movements look organic and natural and seem to flow from the character's mental state with great ease, Astaire is expressing it all with steps no mortal man can equal.

Astaire could do that with other soliloquy dances too, including an early example such as "No Strings" from Top Hat, with Astaire singing about the joys of being a bachelor (since before Shakespeare's time, a sure way to mark yourself for Cupid's arrow), then turning it into a sand dance when fate, oopsImean Ginger, intrudes. There's the immortal "Dancing on the Ceiling" from Royal Wedding, where the gimmicky-ness of the turning room actually distracts a bit from how tender the moment is. Or there's the short but lovely number "Yolanda" from the criminally underrated Yolanda and the Thief, where Fred dances with a harp.

The final example the Siren is posting here is Cyd Charisse's exquisite solo from Silk Stockings. This musical is highly regarded by some, including de Felitta and David Thomson, but the Siren finds it pretty thin gruel, perhaps because she treasures every moment of Ninotchka, and while Garbo was a lousy ballerina, Cyd was no Garbo. But this snippet is one of the loveliest parts of the movie, expressing not just love, but the joy to be had in savoring your own beauty. That's definitely a part of all the soliloquies--for a few minutes, these dancers draw the audience, no matter how pudgy, flat-footed or hopelessly arrhythmic, and let us share the way they move. I like myself, indeed.

NOTE: The Siren tried hard to post the video clips in here and failed, utterly, so you'll have to follow the links. This post is a humble and (very) belated offering in Ferdy on Films' Invitation to the Dance blog-a-thon.

Monday, May 05, 2008

This Week's Odds and Ends


Last night Michèle Morgan was on TCM in Higher and Higher, and had the Siren not already seen the star in things like René Clair's deliciously romantic Les Grandes Manoeuvres and The Fallen Idol she might never have wanted to hear of Morgan again. Having seen what Morgan could do with a good script, the Siren can only conclude that when the actress was assigned Higher and Higher she just said there was no putting any rouge à lèvres on this cochon. Despite a couple of cute scenes the movie is a stinker, and Frank Sinatra, here in his first full role, at this time was so bad an actor he couldn't even play himself. The Siren would not be mentioning the movie at all if it weren't for wanting to bump the picture of Joseph Breen down the page a bit. Michèle is much easier on the eyes, yes?

In an interview in the 1960s Morgan confessed that she had always wanted to be a great international star and her failure to make it in Hollywood was a disappointment. But to anyone who's seen Quai des Brumes, a great star is what she always will be. Morgan was a Leap Year baby, born Feb. 29, 1920, and is still alive and well and even attended the Césars a couple of years back when her companion of fifty years, the late director Gérard Oury, was honored. The Siren salutes her.


*****


The Siren was dealt a cruel blow last week when Flickhead decided to close up his blog. His support and encouragement in the early days of the Siren's blog meant more than he probably knows. Ray is the reason the Siren keeps renting movie after movie by Claude Chabrol. Flickhead is a wonderful writer and he will continue to maintain his larger site, so all is not lost.

And Matt Zoller Seitz, a critic for whom no praise is adequate, has also decided to quit the blogosphere as well, to pursue filmmaking. While we can ill afford to lose good critics, there is perhaps an even greater dearth of intelligent, witty and compassionate directors, so the Siren finds comfort here too. And the House Next Door is now in the good care of Keith Uhlich, so that site will continue to be indispensable. Keith has just inaugurated a regular Monday column, so there is that to look forward to as well.

Finally, Marilyn of Ferdy on Film is running the Invitation to the Dance blogathon this week. Has there ever been a more enchanting topic? As she is for most invitations ever since the twins were born half a decade ago, the Siren is running late. But she's gobbling up the entries in this one, so take a look.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration

We've had several lively discussions of the Production Code Administration, so the Siren was eager to read Hollywood's Censor, Thomas Doherty's biography of PCA honcho Joseph I. Breen. Doherty's book is intelligent and occasionally amusing. He obviously developed a real affection for his subject, and if the Siren in no way came to share that affection it's no reflection on Doherty. This is, however, a frustrating book. Like a pre-Code film shredded for later release, it's the things left out that are the most tantalizing.

The author is probably the first to write of Hollywood's head censor without condescension or smirking, pointing out that Breen genuinely loved movies and saw his role as more of a script advisor than anything else. Contrary to the picture many people have of classic-era Hollywood censors, the PCA's chief role was to vet scripts, not scissor prints. Most of Breen's work consisted of horse-trading with the producers and screenwriters, haggling over word choice and suggesting ways to comply with the Code's various strictures. Those rules enforced a rigidly Catholic sensibility, one with strict views about sin, repentance and redemption. If other faiths countenanced such things as birth control and divorce, the Catholic Church did not, and so for the duration of Breen's tenure they were virtually unknown in Hollywood movies as well.

Doherty, while giving time to Breen as a particularly rigid example of what he calls "Victorian Irish," also wants to correct the image of the censor as a dimwitted bluenose. As a movie lover, Breen had taste; his letters to Charlie Chaplin when vetting The Great Dictator practically grovel, as Breen apologizes repeatedly for presuming to scissor genius. (But presume he did, as Breen reminded Chaplin that the word "lousy" was forbidden.) One of the few moments when the Siren felt real warmth toward Breen came when she read the glowing praise he sent to Orson Welles after viewing rushes for The Magnificent Ambersons. And while Breen left himself open to mockery, then and later, with his finger-wagging over things like Nick and Nora's king-sized bed, his chief desire was what a later generation would call "deniability." If Ernst Lubitsch's Angel presented a well-appointed "salon" where ladies offered "an amusing time," that was fine. The audience could see a brothel if they liked--Breen's chief concern was whether the up-front appearance was clean. The most talented filmmakers learned to smuggle the smut.

It's become so common over the last few decades to discover the clay feet of moral arbiters, from Jim Bakker to Eliot Spitzer, that it's pleasant to hear Breen had no such personal failings. He was a faithful husband, good father to six children and restrained in his personal habits, a man who neither overindulged in alcohol nor partied till the wee hours with his fellow Hollywood Irish. Those searching for censorable qualities in the censor will find only a dedicated smoking habit and salty language--that is, aside from the several historians who have alleged something darker.

"These Jews seem to think of nothing but money making and sexual indulgence," wrote Breen in 1932 to a Jesuit priest, continuing with phrases such as "the scum of the scum of the earth" and "dirty lice." Doherty says the priest refrained from responding in kind, as did another priest, Martin J. Quigley, when Breen wrote him that same year to say "these damn Jews are a dirty, filthy lot." Doherty doesn't try to pretty up the correspondence. He does point out, however, that at this time "blunt slurs were lingua franca at most levels of American society." Doherty also says that the really intemperate language disappears from Breen's correspondence after about 1934, about the time that the Hollywood studio heads consented to enforcement of the Code. (There is an excerpt from the book online that discusses this controversy.)

"Rabid antisemitism is a full-time job," Doherty asserts. "If Breen were a frothing bigot, if his hatred of Jews were passionate and pathological, the fever would infect his entire life and writings, not only a handful of letters written in the early 1930s."

Well, no. Bigotry is nothing like a full-time job. Perhaps the key there is the adjective "rabid," but the Siren doesn't think anyone was suggesting Breen's antisemitism was in line with Nazi eliminationism. Everyday prejudice can be quite passionate, and it is situational, something to be brought forward when you need it and denied when you don't. If--just as a hypothetical, of course--you are promoting a movie about the last hours of Christ's life and you want as many tickets sold as possible, why then you have nothing but respect for the Jewish people. Even in solitary moments away from the camera you may convince yourself of your own broadmindedness. When, on the other hand, you are knocking back a few at a bar, get pulled over on the highway and fumble through your alcohol-sodden brain for the reason you are not being treated with the deference you expect, time to trot out the Great Global Jewish Conspiracy.

The Siren has some other questions about whether Breen deserves the antisemite tag that has followed him for some time. Most of her queries come from re-reading another book in tandem with Doherty's. Hollywood Goes to War, by history professors Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black, was published in 1987, and because the Siren hasn't access to the original correspondence from Breen she doesn't know whether their scholarship has been superseded. But here is an interesting passage:

The conservative head of the Production Code Administration [Breen] was deeply suspicious that Jews in Hollywood, chiefly writers, were trying to use the Nazis' treatment of Jews to make propaganda pictures. He felt the center of this conspiracy was the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, which was, he said, 'conducted and financed almost entirely by Jews.' Their response to the Spanish Civil War was to vilify [sic] 'the communistic loyalists.' Indeed, Breen feared an attempt to 'capture the screen of the United States for Communistic propaganda purposes.' The censor said he had been able to eliminate all attempts at propaganda thus far, but it was increasing at an alarming rate.


Koppes and Black are quoting a private letter from Breen to Jesuit priest Daniel Lord, who wrote the original Code with fellow priest Martin J. Quigley. This letter was written in 1937, five years after Breen's first burst of slurs and a year after Breen attended a banquet for the anti-Nazi exile and prominent Catholic Prince Hubertus zu Lowenstein. Doherty contends that Breen supported the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, which was left as left could be although Breen most assuredly was not. Doherty's evidence for this is that Breen attended the League's first-year anniversary celebration, as well as the Lowenstein banquet. Koppes and Black, on the other hand, depict Breen going to Rome, script for Idiot's Delight in hand, and having the Mussolini government vet it. This trip took place in 1938, after the invasion of Ethiopia and after Rome had passed antisemitic laws based on those of the Nazis.

Doherty tells of Breen writing thoughtful letters of support to Lord and another priest, Joseph N. Moody, after they wrote pamphlets urging Catholics to turn away from antisemitism. At the same time, Koppes and Black have Breen writing in 1938 to Walter Wanger about a screenplay then called "Personal History," later to become Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent. Breen told Wanger that "in the opinion of the PCA, the script contained 'pro-Loyalist propaganda...pro-Jewish propaganda, and anti-Nazi propaganda...[which] would inevitably cause enormous difficulty, when you come to release the picture.'"

Doherty doesn't recount the long journey of Foreign Correspondent to the screen, but he does quote a letter from Breen to Warner Brothers when that studio was about to greenlight Confessions of a Nazi Spy, one of Hollywood's first openly anti-Nazi films. Breen's note, which warns that the film will run into trouble in Germany, sounds "pro forma" to Doherty, telling the Warners things they already well knew.

So late in the 1930s, was Breen going through the motions as an adviser to the industry, as Doherty says, or actively striving to keep the politics off the screen, as Hollywood Goes to War sees it? It is quite true that the PCA, which saw its job as working in tandem with the studios and not against them, was merely pointing out some economic facts of life to Wanger. It's also true that Wanger needed no reminding, and that in 1938, well after the Nuremberg laws and mere months before Kristallnacht, it rings an odd note for a supposed Anti-Nazi League supporter to be writing to a producer about "pro-Jewish propaganda."

We seem to have a mess of contradictions here, but then again, maybe not. The Siren understands Doherty's desire to balance the picture of Breen--to our eyes, almost seven decades after Auschwitz, antisemitism is the purest kind of evil. As Doherty points out, it is difficult to see how common certain prejudices were and to recognize that not all antisemitism was the direct equivalent of Nazism. But, even if we accept Doherty's interpretation of Breen's late-1930s activities, the Siren still doesn't find Breen's alleged mellowing at all inconsistent with his earlier proclamations. His later dealings with the Hollywood moguls were more pleasant, so Breen was too. Doherty does acknowledge this: "A cynical reading would conclude that the Irish bigot was smart enough to keep his true feelings to himself and suck up to the men who were buttering his bread. Or one might conclude that, on balance, the venom was a transient spasm, the product of a hot temper and simmering frustration."

All righty then. Call the Siren a cynic.

Since Doherty's book is bringing forward an important piece of Hollywood history, the Siren wishes the book spent less time with tales we've all heard many times, such as the fusses over Ingrid Bergman's affair with Rossellini and Jane Russell's breasts in The Outlaw. Hughes' battle over the Billy the Kid movie had important implications, it is true, and there's no way to leave it out, but the movie itself is lousy. The Siren would have trimmed some of the ink devoted to those episodes in favor of discussing, for example, Breen's permanent scissoring of various pre-Code films and locking up others altogether.

The book also discusses Breen's role in how Gone with the Wind expunged Margaret Mitchell's frequent use of the "n" slur. Doherty contends that the depiction of African Americans actually improved with the institution of the Code. The Siren would love to see this explained at more length by Doherty, because it's news to her. Doherty grants that after the institution of the Code, mainstream Hollywood's roles for blacks narrowed almost completely to comic relief, until small improvements began in the early 1940s. But he argues that Breen's office enshrined one uniform stereotype of black Americans, thus ridding the screen of the "slack-jawed simians" that were common to silent film and pre-Code movies. The professor wrote a history of pre-Code Hollywood, next up on the Siren's nighttable, so he must feel that sympathetic pre-Code movies such as The Emperor Jones and Hallelujah! were vastly outweighed by the loathsome depictions in other films. Certainly Breen seems to have relished playing the broadminded good-cop to some of the South's more racist censors, including Memphis's Lloyd T. Binford, who banned the innocent Hal Roach comedy Curley because it showed a class with black and white students.

The notorious "miscegenation clause" was inserted in the third draft of the Code in 1930 by persons in the Hays office whom Doherty does not name. The two priests who wrote the code, Quigley and Lord, were infuriated by its inclusion and said so to Breen. Doherty doesn't record Breen's response, but notes that any picture with an interracial angle of any kind would never have played in segregated states. After the war, some loosening of racial attitudes began. Doherty says the federal Office of War Information's harping on the theme of a united America "opened the eyes of the Breen Office to its racial blind spots."

To which the Siren responded, "You don't say." The "national feelings" clause of the Code said "The history, institutions, prominent people and citizenry of other nations shall be represented fairly." This worked fine if you were German; the files are full of Breen and OWI admonishing producers not to depict all Germans as Nazis. It worked even better if you were from what Doherty calls "the most-favored nations of Ireland and Italy." Even the Chinese did all right, if they could tolerate being played by Katharine Hepburn and Walter Huston.

If, however, you were Japanese, you were out of luck, whether or not you were a fascist. And that's something Doherty discusses not at all.

This isn't merely the Siren applying latter-day liberalism to another era. As Hollywood Goes to War points out, there were movie fans at the time who found Breen's standards puzzling, like the woman who wrote him after hearing that the censor planned to delete "hell" from the lines permitted General "Vinegar Joe" Stillwell in Objective Burma. Why, she asked reasonably, was the general's language being scrubbed when "she heard the Japanese referred to again and again as 'dirty yellow rats,' 'blasted monkeys,' and the like"? Breen eventually passed on "hell" as an exact quote from Stillwell but drew the line at "by God."

Another speech, however, passed without a murmur. After Errol Flynn's character discovers the bodies of his friends, mutilated after hideous tortures by the Japanese, a newspaper correspondent spits out, "They're degenerate, immoral idiots. Stinking little savages. Wipe them out, I say. Wipe them off the face of the earth." Flynn says nothing in response.*

This was passed by the Breen Office, without any cavils at needing "good Japanese" or any other balance. All you have to do is spend an afternoon with a few WW II movies set in the Pacific theater to realize that under Breen, the PCA strictures to respect other nations simply did not apply to Japan. It was the studios who churned out the racist films. But Breen, who objected when the first draft for Fritz Lang's Man Hunt showed all Nazis as "brutal and inhuman people," self-evidently enforced no such even-handedness for the eastern half of the Axis. If Doherty is going to say, as he does, that Breen "silenced the sounds of racial invective," then the sounds of scripts calling the Japanese "monkeys who live in trees" (in Guadalcanal Diary) need to be talked about, too.

Overall, the Siren strongly disagrees with the general premise, summed up in the last chapter, "Final Cut: Joseph I. Breen and the Auteur Theory." Films of the classic age are cherished, Doherty says, because of a "longing for the certainty of standards and the security of tradition, and an affinity for a mannered time where curse words, nudity and bloodshed are banished, where bedrooms are for sleeping and bathrooms are unmentioned."

This sounds suspiciously like Dume3's acid comment on a prior Siren post about the Code, that some people like old movies "because they're clean." The Siren likes them because they're good--because the studios, aided by a magic combination of lack of competition, vertical integration and an ability to throw money at some of the world's most talented people, produced literate, interesting, visually beautiful movies. The Siren is no more going to thank Breen for the vision behind those movies than she's going to write to the printers at Penguin Classics to thank them for the layout of Great Expectations. He was a technical obstacle, not a creative talent. The moral vision that Breen worked into classic-era movies often feels tacked on, as in John Garfield's ludicrous explanation of why it's all right to execute him for the wrong murder in The Postman Always Rings Twice. And the Siren really doesn't think Lubitsch--or, for that matter, Ben Hecht, Billy Wilder or the Epstein brothers--needed Breen to make them more subtle or delicious.

There's a cute picture of Breen on the cover of this book, showing Hollywood's censor yukking it up with some starlets on the set of a Baghdad-and-boobs epic. It's meant to show that he was no bluenose. In another pronouncement, however, the Siren hears a far more convincing dose of the man's real personality: "If at any time you are a bit foggy as to what constitutes honor, purity and goodness or where sophistication stops and sin starts, I'll tell you."



*Screenwriter Alvah Bessie, of later Hollywood Ten fame, had written a reply for Flynn's character that said the violence was fascist, not inherently Japanese. But producer Jerry Wald cut it.

(From top: Joseph I. Breen; The Great Dictator; Foreign Correspondent; Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind; Objective, Burma!)