Friday, April 03, 2009

By Popular Demand, All I Owe Ioway

... is what the Siren wanted to post, but it isn't up on Youtube. Someone technological get right on that, all right?

So this, from the Iowa-set musical State Fair (1945), will have to do.

It's a grand night for singing,
The moon is flying high,
And somewhere a bird
Who is bound he'll be heard,
Is throwing his heart at the sky!
It's a grand night for singing,
The stars are bright above.
The earth is a-glow
And, to add to the show,
I think I am falling in love!
Falling, falling in love!

Maybe it's more than the moon,
Maybe it's more than the birds,
Maybe it's more than the sight of the night,
And a light too lovely for words!
Maybe it's more than the earth,
Shiny and silvery blue,
Maybe the reason I'm feeling this way
Has something to do with you!

108 comments:

Yojimboen said...

Read 'em and weep
(for joy); I did.

We can be cold
As our falling thermometer in December
If you ask about our weather in July.
And we're so by God stubborn
We can stand touchin' noses
For a week at a time
And never see eye-to-eye.

But...
we'll give you our shirt
And a back to go with it
If your crops should happen to die.



"Iowa Stubborn"
Meredith Willson

Karen said...

While the technologically adept are working on "All I Owe Ioway," can they find Jean Arthur singing the "Iowa Corn Song," too, please??

DavidEhrenstein said...

"Iowa Stubbojr" indeed!

DavidEhrenstein said...

"Margie come down and help me with the pickles."

Gerard Jones said...

A grand night for singing...and also for gearing up campaigns. The California Supreme Court is probably going to uphold Prop 8, so the ground work is being laid for getting the issue back on the ballot. Probably for 2012, when a few million more frightened, bitter old people have died and a few million more sane young people have reached voting age. Those of you outside the state, start putting a little money aside, please. We don't want to be caught looking the wrong way while the Mormons plot their next ambush.

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

I've never seen the entirety of the '40s "State Fair," which looked way too *goyische* for my taste. I did, however, glance at this clip recently:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lCCkhlmcATI

Maybe it's the result of my having looked at it after viewing Mario Bava's "Whip and the Body," maybe it's the presence of all those '40s-style saturated colors, but ... Vivian Blaine looks decidedly Lorelei-ish to me. Despite the pleasant sentiments and smiling face.

Or am I just suffering *zeitgeist*-seepage from one film to another?

Yojimboen said...

"Or am I just suffering *zeitgeist*-seepage from one film to another?"

Sounds like it, Mrs HWV. When I watch anything by Mario Bava, every woman I see looks like Barbara Steele. Not to worry, it usually clears up in two or three days.

Vanwall said...

I ain't sure about the rest of what comes outta Iowa, and I have my doubts on occasion, but they make some fine sippin' hooch, those Iwejians do. Time to raise a jar or two, now they got some sense into their heads.

surly hack said...

A decision of conscience from the heartland. How perfectly poetic.

Gerard Jones said...

I've hesitated...but I must put in a word for my personal favorite Iowa movie, The Music Man. No, I shan't try to defend it critically. But it was the first movie I ever watched all the way through, at least on the big screen. When I was little my parents used to go to the drive-in and let me sleep on the back seat to avoid the cost of a babysitter, but I couldn't look away from Robert Preston and his red uniform. I stood for the whole thing, leaning against the back of the bench seat in front of me. About all I remember from that first viewing are Ronnie Howard singing, being vaguely frightened by Marian the Librarian, my mother turning around to ask if I was sure I didn't want to sleep, and the climactic number.

I guess all I'm saying is that Iowa made me happy in 1962 and it's made me happy again. The court knows that Constitution starts with C and that rhymes with T and that stands for Trouble. But they are not afraid.

DavidEhrenstein said...

A number of years back at a press junket for Gung Ho (one of his best but commercially least-successful films)Ron Howard answered a question from an elderly reporter who told him that the press junketfor The Music Man was one of her first jobs. Not only did he rememebr her, he described their enire exchange from so many years ago.

Campaspe said...

Ron Howard seems like such a good soul that I wish I liked his movies more than I do. I prefer his acting--he conveys all-American sincerity and innocence without a trace of smarm. A rare ability. I will confess to crying over the episode of Andy Griffith with the baby birds, and so much of it is in Howard's acting.

Morton DaCosta's static direction annoys me in Music Man just as it annoyed me in Auntie Mame, but I cannot lie, I adore Auntie Mame and I am fond of The Music Man too. Both films mostly function as preservation of one memorable lead performance and they succeed in that.

DavidEhrenstein said...

That they do. Neither advances the art of the cinema in any way whatsoever, but I can't say I'm not grateful they were made.

X. Trapnel said...

The stand-alone quality of a work of art--novel, poem, film, symphony, painting--is what matters most.

"'Importance' isn't important; good writing is."--Kingsley Amis

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

I have a similar response to the "Music Man" movie, having seen it as a child and -- nota bene -- growing up with the *soundtrack* album. This is one reason why I have a special love for the Shirley Jones performance. Not that Barbara Cook isn't fine, and not that it wasn't a shame that she was robbed of the movie, but ... SJ was in pretty fine form at that point.
*
The thought of films directed by Ron Howard fills me with inertia (cf. "Bedazzled")-- which means that I haven't seen most of 'em. I do, however, have positive memories of the Howard-directed "Ransom" remake. Perhaps because of the Richard Price script? (I almost wrote "Richard Howard," whose writing I'd *like* to see in conjunction with director Howard.)

I remember that when "Ransom" came out Howard would drop the name "Billy Wilder" a lot -- a good sign, I'd like to believe.

Vanwall said...

Say, but isn't that static look in "Music Man" essential to the tintype look they were after, fulla carefully posed stiffs?

My Iwejian work pal was unaware of the latest court decision, - readin' an' rrrritin' is not a primary source of info, as the Ditto-Head radio bein' easier on the brain, for less thinkin' - why, he was surprised barnyard animals weren't first in them kinda decisions. I didn't care to ask any more, as I was afraid what I might find.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Don't forget Ron was directed by Vincente Minnelli in The Courtship of Eddie's Father. He's as much a link to the Old Hollywood as Clint.

Campaspe said...

That's true, David. The Courtship of Eddie's Father gets my vote for the most dated Minnelli movie, but I would say that's because the formula was later borrowed so many times on TV.

Arthur S. said...

I like THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE'S FATHER and Howard is cute in that. And Glenn Ford and Stella Stevens are also terrific. Some bits are interesting in that film. As is THE SANDPIPER. But yeah it's dated.

DavidEhrenstein said...

It was dated when it came out. The studio system was over, but didn't know it. All Hollywood was struggling to service an audience that was already reaching for their coats. POpular cinema eventually reasserted itself via Italy, Serigio Leone and Clint.

D Cairns said...

A lot of directors who cite Billy Wilder seem to draw the wrong lessons, I fear. Cameron Crowe and Ron Howard and Sam Mendes seem to draw on his reputation for crusty conservatism in the visual style department, but they're not what I'd call iconoclasts. And Wilder was, perhaps above all else.

X. Trapnel said...

Which icons did Billy Wilder actually clast? I ask in genuine perplexity, becuase I always see Wilder opting for the safe option in the long run, the punch pulling in Sunset Blvd., conventional heroics in Stalag 17, Spirit of St. Louis, buddy-ism (+ misogyny) in The Fortune Cookie, fairy-tale romance (Sabrina, Love in the Afternoon), Little Man menschism in The Apartment (thus enabling subsequent Lemmonry unto Save the Tiger). I still have high hopes for A Foreign Affair (just for Jean A. [but J. Lund?]) and Ace in the Hole. Nothing could get me to watch the 7 Year Itch; I remember One, Two, Three as loud and frantic, and as for revisiting Some Like It Hot...

I love Double Indemnity and Lost Weekend, but they seem to be the work of another director. Did Wilder ever achieve beauty? Why doesn't anyone take Lubitsch as their model?

Campaspe said...

But XT, Wilder did take Lubitsch as his model. Worshipped him.

X. Trapnel said...

So he says, but where in Wilder is there a hint of Lubitsch's--ok--touch: subtlety, lyricism, elegance, melancholy/joy? There's some in The Apartment I'll admit, but elsewhere I find Wilder deliberately crass and loud (yes, yes, often very funny) as if twisting in some sort of Harold Bloom cum Freud "agon" with Lubitsch the Father.

Campaspe said...

I find it in Double Indemnity, actually.

--Know why you couldn't figure this one, Keyes? I'll tell ya. 'Cause the guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from ya.

--Closer than that, Walter.

--I love you, too.

Moments like that are laced through Wilder. Indeed he had more of a gutter-inclined mind than Lubitsch, but like Oscar Wilde said, he was looking at the stars.

Yojimboen said...

Ah, XT, you're so young! :D

Everything you say is safely cocooned in a kind of truth but… you haven't allowed for context. Old coots like me remember racing to see the new Trauffaut or Godard, but racing just as fast 10 years earlier to see the new Billy Wilder.

Tuesday morning quarterbacking ain’t no substitute for being down there on the field. Context is all, my friend! What a time it was, what a time! Wilder's movies weren’t just packing the theaters, they were the hippest thing to come from H’Wood since Lubitsch. (And no mistake, our hostess is correct that Lubitsch was Billy’s god.)

Young people of every generation worth a light want so desperately to be hip, to be cool; to succeed at seeming to play the Man’s game while actually playing your own. In that regard, Billy Wilder – warts and all – was our god.

Yojimboen said...

P.S. This is not to say I don’t recognize the failures of his later years.
(His last few films are almost unbearably sad to watch.) But when you have been – for decades – the hippest man in America, it is a mighty fall to take. His display of anger at the undefined forces he felt were arrayed against him – studio heads, fickle audiences – was indeed a tragic thing to observe.

Campaspe said...

Y, I remember liking The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes when I saw it as a girl but I don't know how it would unspool for me now. I don't share the love for Kiss Me Stupid, to me it's like the beginning of his descent into total misanthropy--up until then he had only flirted with it.

Gerard Jones said...

Hey. How about some Vermont movies? Marriage equality endorosed not by the courts but by elected legislators! A 2/3 majority to override the governor's veto! That's monumental!

(So monumental that it's even keeping me from concentrating on an argument about my beloved Billy Wilder!_

Campaspe said...

Vermont is a lovely state but I am blanking on movies ... except White Christmas, which is kinda appropriate somehow.

Campaspe said...

Oh, and The Trouble with Harry which has **amazing** fall foliage but bored me, I am afraid.

Yojimboen said...

Leave us not forget Henry Fonda's charmingly casual reference to 'the old lesbians' down the road from Golden Pond.

(Can't guarantee it's set in Vermont, but the author was born there.)

Yojimboen said...

I'm not sure if the location was ever identified beyond "New England" but let's just say for our purposes Summer Stock was set in Vermont and the hell with it.
Besides, who needs an excuse to watch this?

X. Trapnel said...

Safely cocooned? No, I expected to get an e-pummeling. Wilder is full of good bits (often writerly) and his best films are always entertaining, but I can't see them as anything but safe stuff, context be damned. Lubitsch is sharper; just compare the melancholy, compromising wisdom of Pirovitch to The Apartment's Dr. Paul Muni's Retired So Let's Use This Guy. The latter is the uninflected voice of wisdom (and would never connive in the pigskin wallet caper) just as Jack Webb represents the good normal life of the new Hollywood in Sunset Blvd (precursor of Hush, Hush Baby Jane). Gerard many posts back referred to the geriatric partners of Audrey Hepburn, but Wilder's two contributions fully endorse these romances.
All that said (out of my system at last! Can't wait to take a smack at **** and *****), Wilder is better than anything in American film since his heyday (I agree, Y, his late films shouldn't be held against him. How many directors have been able to do good work at the end of their careers?)

X. Trapnel said...

Vermont? What about a third or so of Nothing Sacred? Or is it N. Hampshire?

Gerard Jones said...

In State and Main were they kicked out of NH to finish in VT or versey-vicey? I liked that portrait of small-town life, wherever it was.

I wanted to link to a couple of nice YouTube performances of Moonlight in Vermont but efforts to post links here don't work. Here's a url to a great Gerry Mulligan film clip, anyhoo: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpkTNa2iioE

DavidEhrenstein said...

Hey, I forgot Summer Stock was set in Vermont. And Chuck Walters was gayer than Anderson Cooper's sock drawer.

The Seven Year Itch is very Lubitschian, X. He would have utterly adored Marilyn.

X. Trapnel said...

David, you're probably right when it comes to Lubitsch and "Marilyn." Like Louis Renault, when it came to women he was a true democrat. (Jeanette Macdonald, forsooth).

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

As for Wilder and lyricism (or the lack thereof), I'm surprised that no one has cited this ...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6eJB63dcpGw&feature=related

(Yes, I know you'll say that it's a slavish Lubitsch imitation. I'm not the world's biggest "Love in the Afternoon" fan, but it is lovely in spots.)

My favorite lyrical moment, or one of 'em, in Wilder is the scene in "Double Indemnity" where MacMurray and Stanwyck are in the darkened room and the song "Tangerine" floats in on the radio.

And, oh yes, has anyone mentioned Wilder's devotion to the song "Isn't It Romantic"?

mndean said...

I guess I haven't commented because as good and unexpected as what happened might be, I can't help saying to myself that it isn't half good enough. I know it doesn't directly affect me, but still it's like getting a small consolation prize after California.

As for Wilder, there's sophistication and there's something far blunter. Even faux Lubitsch (like say Dieterle's Jewel Robbery) tends to be more charming re: Topic A than Wilder was. Not that directness doesn't have its merits, but when someone more ham-handed than Wilder tried to do something in that style, it could get really gross. It's no use blaming Wilder for that, but it was an unfortunate side effect.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Latest FaBlog: Fait Diver -- Goo Goo G'Joob

DavidEhrenstein said...

Isn't It Romantic? (One of the greatest musical production numbers of all-time)

Gerard Jones said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gerard Jones said...

Lubitsch & Wilder. No question that Billy skewed far further toward the pedestrian and vulgar than his hero. I think that's partly a reflection of his own sensibility and personality but partly a fully conscious bid for commercial success and industry clout in '40s America. Lubitsch was beloved by cineastes and Europhiles of taste, held up as a trophy by his studios, and mostly successful to the end. But Wilder's directorial debut was a box-office smash, twice as successful as Lubitsch's most successful talkie (if Paramount figures are accurate). Three years later he turned out an even bigger hit that won Oscars for best picture, director, actor and screenplay, and was quickly enshrined as a Significant Picture. For the next quarter-century he could do whatever he wanted in Hollywood and no one dared tell him not to.

None of which is meant as an aesthetic defense, but it reveals something about why Wilder made the choices of content and style that he did. He wanted to hit ordinary American moviegoers where they lived. As much as he loved Lubitsch, I suspect he saw traps in that old-world elegance, feared losing his relevance and autonomy if he gave in to European or aristocratic sensibilities. When he moved consciously into Lubitsch's geographic and thematic turf he tried to force compromises with exaggerated (almost parodically exaggerated) American sensibilties, especially through casting: Bing Crosby in Alte Wien, Gary Cooper as an international roué, Jack Lemmon as a French police inspector.

But I also believe he was genuinely interested in Americans, and not just in a satirical or anthropological sense. Unlike Lubitsch, who came here from practical reasons, Wilder had always been fascinated by America, at some level always strove to be American, or at least to reflect us back to ourselves as one who knew us better than even we did. It wasn't only practicality that led him to make movies about unemployed salesgirls trying to scam their way home on the train, bored insurance salesmen murdering crass LA millionaires, drunken writers skidding toward the New York gutters. Wilder was fascinated by the compromises that working people in a hustling, merchant society forge between dignity and money, beauty and realism. It would have been far easier for him to be lyrical had he made movies about gentlemen of leisure seducing Russian commissars in pre-war Paris, but he mostly closed to those doors to himself.

Still, though, in the midst of all the roughness, he could strike astonishing notes of melancholy beauty. Campaspe points to the conclusion of Double Indemnity, a moment unlike any other in an American crime movie. The context is as sleazy as any ever put on film: murder for money no one needs, lovers who hate each other, cheap sex and boredom, cheap wigs, conspiracy in a supermarket aisle. No pedestrian Hollywood sensibility would have or could have found such grace in such a swamp.

Then there's the file cabinet scene in A Foreign Affair, the movie that took us from Iowa to Wilder. The content is grotesque: a sexless, humorless Iowa politician being manipulated by an Army officer stinking with corruption in a ratty little office in a bombed-out city with the spectre of a Nazi whore hanging over every word and act. And yet there is a moment when all the crappiness drops away and we stand in a moonlike beauty, cool and sad and illusory. Much of that beauty is brought by Arthur alone, but a lot of it's Wilder.

He never resides in elegance like Lubitsch, but that "touch" is there, when he wants it to be.

Vanwall said...

I don't think a comparison of Wilder to Lubitsch will illuminate much other than the vast gulf between elegance and everyman, the latter of which Wilder was supreme at judging for many years, the former more of a subject he waved at in passing without looking up.

The war had coarsened things too much for a Lubitsch touch to make Wilder important enough to be left alone by the Studios - well, alone as much as a run of hits provided an illusion of freedom. That coarsening suited Wilder's personality to a great degree, I think, as he seemed to revel in casual minor outrages, and wasn't afraid to mouth back at those that mouthed off, indeed, he often was wearing both of those shoes at the same time.

I'm ambivalent towards his films to a degree unlike other directors - his coarseness came thru on "Double Indemnity", "The Apartment", "Ace in the Hole", and others, so much so it was obvious his stand-ins on film, Neff, Sefton, Tatum, even David Larrabee, and above all, Jeff Sheldrake, were avatars for Wilder himself, I believe, and a kind of cinematic self-chiding. Lubitsch made films that celebrated a sort of universal worth somehow, even deep down inside and hard to access for some, but still there. Wilder's films seemed to be a gleeful smart-assed tomato-splattering, tempered with a knowing self-loathing.

Yojimboen said...

In yer face, Church of Latter-day Bigamists!
Prop 8
this!

X. Trapnel said...

Gerard, a terrific defense of Wilder (though at times you sound [chortle] like a witness for the prosecution). There's no need for Wilder to be Lubitsch (except that some of us harbor a longing for more Lubitsch). My original question is why Lubitsch should not be as much a desirable influence for American directors as Wilder. My own Lubitsch favorites--Trouble in Paradise, Cluny Brown, To Be Or Not Be, Ninotchka, and, preeminantly, The Shop Around the Corner are not necessarily or at all concerned with the doings of European aristocrats, and the clincher is that Stewart and Sullavan (as American as Lemmon or Crosby; it's a big contry) are utterly natural and at ease in "Budapest." I think the sophisticated emotional and aesthetic qualities of Lubitsch are by no means alien to an American setting (and I haven't even mentioned Heaven Can Wait). God knows I'm not blaming Wilder for a coarsening of the American sensibility and I'm certain he would have been horrified by You've Got Mail, which I see as a wilful act of desecration full of the We Know Better Now attitude that is the heart and soul of contemporary crassness and vulgarity (in fact it makes me pine for Wilder's vulgarity which at least was lively and never smug).

Gerard Jones said...

"Gerard, a terrific defense of Wilder (though at times you sound [chortle] like a witness for the prosecution)."

That tone is my (chuckle) ace in the hole.

Gerard Jones said...

But golly, Vanwall, we sure have different views of Wilder! I don't see him as splattering tomatoes for the sake of it until One Two Three. His earlier movies are deeply, even heavy-handedly, moral. To me he says over and over again that we all have great worth, or can, or should, but sometimes we trade it away for the wrong reasons and send ourselves to hell.

Walter Neff knows that he was and could have remained decent, but he got on the wrong moral streetcar. In the end he sees that what was most worthy and decent, what he couldn't appreciate, was just his relationship with his ugly little boss. In Ace in the Hole the representatives of decency are more watery and weak, but the trip to hell is the same. Sunset Boulevard is about a man who destroys all his hope of earthly reward but redeems his soul in the end by turning away from his Satanic deal and accepting death instead. That's far more than self-chiding, it's a profound wrestling with demons.

The Apartmemnt, I think, is a lovely testament to the greatness of the smallest of us if we'll just take care of each other. And surely Some Like It Hot is an explicit argument for universal worth. "Nobody's perfect!"

Lubitsch, to my eyes, celebrates cynicism far more completely and essentially than Wilder. He does it sweetly, and he places it in a fairy tale world where moral transgressions carry no real weight, and I love the way he does it. But I think there's less morality and less concern with human costs in Trouble in Paradise than in Double Indemnity. It's just that liberating a few jewels from the inexhaustibly rich feels rather more innocent than beating a man to death and throwing his body off the back of a train so you can rip off your employer.

Then, of course, there's Barbara Stanwyck's immortal reading of the morality of Double Indemnity: "The picture is very moral. It's anti-crime and anti-sweater. It shows what happens if you fall for a gal who wears a sweater."

Noel Vera said...

I'm more with X Trap; Wilder is consistently entertaining, but when all is said and done I find him sentimental behind his cynicism and opportunistic underneath his artistry. And while McLaine is a bon-bon and McMurray a sleazy joy, am not a fan of Lemmon in The Apartment.

Gerard Jones said...

Thanks for the link, Yojimboen. That opening shot looks like a pool party at Henry Willson's house. Except he would've sent Jane Russell out on a beer run.

Arthur S. said...

For me Wilder's iconoclastic spirit was the way he depicted unlikable characters and yet convey a charm in them. Like the leads of DOUBLE INDEMNITY where that beautiful final embrace between Stanwyck and MacMurray has this air of romanticism even if the characters are otherwise tawdry. The same with SUNSET BLVD. He takes this to the richest level with ACE IN THE HOLE, his finest film(and a work that's totally cinematic) where Chuck Tatum is brutal and pathetic and of course a sado-masochist but by the end we can't bring ourselves to hate him.

Then in STALAG 17, he posited the Hustler as Hero with Holden. ONE TWO THREE is his poisoned pen, deeply heartfelt F--K You to his former adopted home, it's highly acidic and over-the-top amazed that a nation engaged in organized mass murder be flattened to a banal juvenile squabbling.

THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES is Wilder's most Lubitschian film, truly poignant and elegiac in the way Old Masters tend to be. The way he reveals the loneliness of Sherlock who is at once deeply individual and totally useless against the march of the British Empire(as is the Queen). It's like a Archers film, very reminscent of the sad elegy of COLONEL BLIMP. It's shot by Christopher Challis by the way, the DP of THE SMALL BACK ROOM and THE TALES OF HOFFMANN.

X. Trapnel said...

Noel V gets it right: sentimentality. Norma Desmond is the object of Gillis/Wilder's pitying disgust but C.B. is treated ever so respectfully, delivering a homily that exonerates the audience for their own gloating enjoyment of the whole sad spectacle.
And then there's the presumed adorability of Jack Lemmon straining spaghetti through a tennis racket. Why he can't afford a strainer is as mysterious to me as why his co-workers and bosses just don't pool their resources and get their own cheap apt., cutting him out of the picture (in fact cutting the picture itself out) altogether.

Vanwall said...

M Gerard - Oh, I agree with much of what you posit about the overall of Wilder's films, but he started off almost right away slinging rotten objects at complacency and the kind of moral self-rightiousness that mid- and post-war America was rapidly aquiring. I just cringe a little that many of his heroes and anti-heroes are so obviously elements of himself that he seems to want to air as a public flogging, regardless of whether they go to hell or get away with it - they are still some of my favorite films and chracters, tho.

Capt. Renault got it right tho, as if he was looking ahead to Wilder's films: "You're a rank sentimentalist!" Altho Wilder was certainly in the front rank of that vast horde.

X. Trapnel said...

I agree that Trouble in Paradise is not precisely a moral fable. Or is it? We could view it as a tale of cynicism, amorality, and shallowness softened and overcome by love. Marshall and Kay Francis achieve emotional depth by the end of the film but it's carried off with Mozartian lightness. I'll add the highest praise possible: It's a comic pendant--jewels and all--to Madame de...

Gerard Jones said...

Before I say anything else I have to agree that the use of CB DeMille in Sunset Boulevard is the one disappointingly wrong note (very wrong) of that movie. What the hell was that about? It certainly wasn't born of Wilder's deep admiration for CB, not based on other anecdotes I've read. We can assume that DeMille insisted he be portrayed worshipfully, but that still leaves questions about why Wilder felt the need to go there.

Beyond that, though, I can't see Wilder's sentimentality as a jarring quality or anything he was trying to hide. Usually it was his cynicism that was the affectation and his sentiment that drove the engine. Not only was he unapologetically sentimental in his romances (usually in a way that works well for me), but a lot of his broader comedy is a way of slipping sentiment past us before we get our defenses up. The romantic transformations in Some Like It Hot are as sappy as any Hollywood ever produced, you just don't notice it so much. And that final sequence with Keyes and Neff was deeply sentimental, just with a very tough surface.

Basically I think Billy was a sap pretending to be a tough guy. I'd say that sappiness was very true to him, too, from what I've read about his relationship with his wife and a few close male associates (especially Diamond and Lemmon). But sentiment made him feel weak, so he cracked wise to distract people. Which was pretty true of male American culture as a whole from the '30s into the '60s. (And it resonates more than I want to admit with my own personality.) I think to view him as some sort of compromised cynic misses the point.

I'm not sure I like our modern tendency to value cynicism over sentiment anyway. Sure, you can do sentiment badly. It can be cheap and dishonest and manipulative. But ditto cynicism. In fact, I think bad cynicism is even easier, it just doesn't sell as well. Heartfelt and well-delivered sentiment is a very sweet thing.

Gerard Jones said...

And say! How about a kudo or two to the conclusion of Some Like It Hot as the first open endorsement of gay marriage in mainstream American culture? Sure, it was a joke...but it wasn't, too.

DavidEhrenstein said...

That's what I point out HERE.

Gerard Jones said...

That's a great column, David! I particular liked the way you wove in the radical shift in our view of divorce. Reminds me that I heard many people, including conservatives, speculating that Hillary might have won the nomination if only she'd divorced Bill years ago. So much for defending that unchanging cornerstone of civilization.

And to think that once upon a time RKO couldn't use the title The Gay Divorce.

X. Trapnel said...

Gerard,

I think you've got Wilder just right with all his strengths and weaknesses. The qustion remians though: can't we finally drop the notion that he was an iconoclast? A good filmmaker doesn't need to be one and Wilder never was (people talk about him as though Howard Hawks never existed. Is it posssible we can only accept the idea of sophistication if it comes from Europe?). And, boy, are you right about the overvaluation of knee-jerk cynicism. It's a risk-free, self-regarding attitude (like "cool").

Gerard Jones said...

Thanks, X. It's funny, when I first discovered Wilder as Wilder (sometime in the '80s, when the Castro did a retrospective), I thought, "Man, this guy made great Hollywood movies!" And his reputation at the time (not nearly as glittering as now) seemed to be about the same. I don't remember anyone then talking about him as an iconoclast. That whole view of him seems to have developed later, I guess because there's a certain set who won't confer intellectual respectability unless iconoclasm or revolutionary tendencies can be established. I think it's been detrimental, at least in terms of being able to see his movies clearly.

I will say, though, that he could be pretty dang bold in his subject matter and his willingness to show us the uglier aspects of modern life with compassion. For all the movies mocking and teasing Hollywood, there had never been one that took us into sickness of the whole business and the people in it like Sunset Boulevard. He really, truly pissed people off with the bleakness of "Ass in a Wringer." Not only was Hot a fairly bold choice in a moment when drag humor was suspect, but he pushed the dragginess and the gender-bender further than, I think, any other mainstream American would have. No other '60s sex comedy came close to Kiss Me Stupid in its suggestion that prostitution can be a perfectly noble one-night change-up for a loyal wife. And to portray the American military, the de-Nazified Germans and the aftermath of WWII the way he did in Foreign Affair (and only two years after the war ended!) took some serious nerve.

And yet to me none of those feel cold, hostile or judgmental. We understand the human complexities in them. Nor do I think that he was only interested in being smart-ass or titillating (although he was interested in both, obviously). He said things about the world he lived in that he really couldn't have said more politely. Or they'd have had a lot less impact, anyway. When I watch his best movies I feel that I've taken a real journey through madness and corruption, and (tentatively) back toward sanity and decency, as reconstituted in a crazy world.

X. Trapnel said...

Gerard, you've undone my hostility to Wilder. I think your last paragraph is especially pertinent to The Lost Weekend (which I've always thought magnificent) and answers some of my reservations about the happy ending (although a downbeat one would have stunted Rosza's terrific finale). What I value in the film is not the "bold," "now it can be told" treatment of alcoholism as its portriat of a haunted and harried man, driven, humiliated, desperate and utterly "unaccommodated" like Lear. I like to think that here Wilder put his refugee experience to good use.

Gerard Jones said...

So glad I've liberated you from a hostility, X! Maybe you can help me with my Danny Kaye issues someday.

The ending of Lost Weekend is interesting to chew on. I've never read the original novel, but I'm told it had a grim, unresolved ending. But I'm also told that the author was a recovered alcoholic. So...why wouldn't he share the experience (and strength and hope) of recovery in his novel? Maybe because by then happy endings had been branded Hollywood stuff, and gaining literary respectability required downer endings.

Obviously Brackett & Wilder's ending was more necessary for commercial movie success...but I could argue it was more artistically legitimate, too. (Also worth noting that the movie doesn't tell us that he stayed sober forever from that point. We saw the moment when he realized he wanted to live differently and staged his first rejection of the booze. I'm guessing there were a ton of meetings in his future.)

X. Trapnel said...

I could no more help you with DK than I could with Red Skelton (just watch him muck up the very charming Having Wonderful Time) or Robin Williams. Certain types of awfulness keep reinventing themselves until evolution or the world historical dialectic does away with them altogether.

Gerard Jones said...

Arthur, very interesting what you said about Holmes as Wilder's most Lubitschian work. An ironic with my speculation that he avoided being too Lubitsch-like for his first 20-some years as director in order to hold his place in the Hollywood mainstream...as Holmes was sort of the movie that killed the clout and relative autonomy he'd won. Or nearly--I guess Avanti finished the job. No wonder he retreated to remaking Hecht and MacArthur, the fountainhead of everything Billy aspired to that wasn't Lubitsch.

Gerard Jones said...

X: Dialectically speaking, could Kaye (thesis) and Skelton (antithesis) have synthesized into Williams?

X. Trapnel said...

I also found Arthur's remarks about The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes interesting, especially as it was also a Wilder-Rosza renunion (the score, recently recorded complete, is one of Rozsa's best; it draws heavily on his ravishing violin concerto). Still, I wonder how anyone could go back to the Hecht-MacArthur original after Hawks corrected it. A case of making Lemmonade out of champagne.

X. Trapnel said...

Gerard,

I think the evolutionary metaphor may work better here. Imagine the phenomenon of irritating, unfunny manic voices, mugging etc. growing from small, quick-moving lizard-like creatures to unsustainable brontosaurian proportions. Such comedy will, I pray, someday follow the dinosaurs into obscurity.

Gerard Jones said...

Front Page is my choice for Wilder's suckiest movie. Not necessarily the worst in an all-things-being-equal competition, but such a stupid (or fear-driven) decision that it makes the result look even worse than it was.

And Carol Burnett!

John said...

Hi all,
Responding to Gerard's incredulity regarding the (completely jarring) inclusion of old C.B. in SUNSET---As with so much else in the film, it's a direct link to Gloria Swanson. DeMille was one of her two most frequent directors when she was at her height, the other being Allan Dwan. Essentially, Dwan directed most of her best modern-day comedies, while C.B. directed...well...the kinds of things he always directed. (10 minutes of Gloria in Dwan's MANHANDLED is worth the entirety of the extant DeMille-Swanson oeuvre, IMHO.

Wilder could have used Dwan, who by all accounts was as kind and unassuming as C.B. wasn't, but few in the audience would've known who he was, either then or back in the 1920s, although they were still watching his movies, as he'd just enjoyed one of his bigger late-career hits with SANDS OF IWO JIMA.

By contrast, Swanson and DeMille's professional and personal relationship had been written up quite extensively back in the day. Audience members in 1950 old enough to remember would have known this, lending added resonance to the studio lot scene and ending which they might otherwise have lacked. And the younger set at least knew who he was, since he'd been associated with Paramount longer than anyone not surnamed Zukor.

As for the rendering of DeMille as a saintly, almost beatific presence, I suspect Swanson had as much to do with it as he or Paramount did. In her autobiography, it seems clear that she genuinely loved the old reactionary---and if I recall, she's not shy about calling out those she didn't feel so warmly toward. I believe the director character only specifically became DeMille once she was cast and Wilder could trade on her past history. (C.B. calls Norma Desmond 'Young Fellow' because that's what he called Gloria when on-set.) So I don't imagine she would have stood for his being portrayed in an even slightly less than laudatory light either---if only because each had been so crucial to the creation of the other's legend.

It does make me smile though, to think what might have happened had one of Wilder's original casting feelers been successful. Just imagining Mae West sidling up to a doubtlessly disdainful C.B. makes me profoundly happy.

On a side note, as I've been lurking for a while, just wanted to thank our charming and knowledgeable hostess, as well as all you good people, for the most eloquent (and wide-ranging) film blog I've come across. I'm finishing up a master's thesis for a moving image archiving and preservation program and some days, I feel like the last thing I'm able to do is think about another moving image, ever again (which is NEVER something I thought I'd say)...and this blog always proves the exception. It's been a great diversion at a stressful time, and I hope to contribute more to the discussion when I can.

Yojimboen said...

Sterling stuff, gents, I won’t attempt to add to the scholarship already displayed on this thread (I could, but against the incisive contributions of VW, AS, GJ and XT, my two cents would be worth just about that); all I offer is a personal recollection of the man:

In March 1997, I attended a tribute to Fred Zinnemann at the DGA. I got there early (it was held in the big theater, and a respectable – and respectful – crowd half-filled the place); a lot of famous faces, among whom was Billy Wilder. Stupidly, I didn’t remember until much later that he and Zinnemann had started out together, even co-directing Menschen am Sonntag in Berlin in 1928.

For a while it was great just watching Billy glad-hand, kiss, embrace and generally greet everyone as old friends; then slowly it dawned on me, Billy Wilder was actually working the room.

Then another odd thing happened: the room started working Billy. Late arrivals would scan the theater, then after greeting the host, Tim Zinnemann, made a kind of pilgrimage over to Billy, to kiss the biggest ring in the house, I suppose, before finding their own seats.

As luck had it, Billy sat down two rows in front of me – close enough to hear all he was saying or was said to him. Cracks were exchanged, somebody asked how much did he clear from his art collection auction, another offered to sell him some paintings, cheap.
But his constant answer to the inevitable “How are you, Billy? What’re up to?” was that he was working on a few things, he had a couple of hot scripts…
He was 91 at the time.

After the remembrances, which included a very touching montage of Zinnemann clips, the lights went up, but Billy wasn’t there any more. I guessed he’d left during the montage. I was wrong.

In the darkness he had apparently moved his seat away from the surrounding crowd; I spotted him a few rows off, sitting quite alone.

Four years later he died; the same day as Dudley Moore and Milton Berle.
A few days later a Paris friend shipped me the obit from Le Monde:
"Billy Wilder est mort. Nobody's perfect."

X. Trapnel said...

Y, your two cents, as Casper Gutman would say, are genuine coin of the realm, sir. But such a melancholy story...

Gerard Jones said...

John, thanks so much for the history on CB on SB. I do like the idea of using DeMille; it was quite a kick when he first appeared. No fictional director would have had the same impact, and obviously the final line wouldn't have been half as memory had it been, "Mr. Fictional Director, I'm ready for my close-up." It's just too bad that Wilder had to play into the DeMille legend to get it done.

And Yj: such an anecdote! There are perks to working in that crazy business, I guess.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I thought the use of DeMille in Sunset Boulevard was just perfect. Jean-Pierre Melville liked it so much he claimed C.B. should have been an actor instead of a director.

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

As for the ending of "The Lost Weekend" ...

I've read the Charles Jackson novel, many a decade ago, which (if memory is accurate) ends with the protagonist drunk and alone.

I *like* the ending of the movie, actually. Yes, Milland declares that he's never going to drink again, and it's done in the style of a happy ending, but ... we all know how much a drunk's promise is worth, don't we?

It's a bit like Jean Peters' "Wanna bet?" at the end of "Pickup on South Street": simultaneously (a) a sop to audiences and studio heads who want a happy ending; and (b) an implicit acknowledgement of the way things are most likely to occur.

Oh, yes, and my vote for Wilder's "suckiest" picture (*not* my adjective of choice) would be "Buddy, Buddy."

Yojimboen said...

Re DeMille, I tend to agree with David E - and M Melville - that CB gave a very convincing performance as... CB.

Also, from the professional screenwriter's POV, no babe in H'Wood history was ever hotter than Nancy Olson.

Gerard Jones said...

I think Billy Wilder also made some comment to the effect that CB should have been an actor instead of a director. Although I don't know that he meant it entirely as praise for his acting.

Yoj: is there some reason Nancy is especially hot to screenwriters? Joe G sure didn't appreciate her enough. Maybe that's why he wasn't making it in the trade.

I agree that Buddy Buddy was BW's most egregious movie. (Better adj?) But there was at least some logic to him giving it a try. But his decision to remake Front Page (without rethinking it or placing it within his own worldview or ANYTHING interesting) strikes me as his most nerveless, most self-defeating, and just...well...suckiest!

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

Gerard Jones:
> without rethinking ["Front
> Page"] or placing it within
> his own worldview

I think Sarris was convincing about both Wilder-ized "Front Page" and "Fedora" as examples of a director *d'un certain age* deailing with mortality. That comedy around the scaffold and the circling 'round the bier in "Fedora" ...

X. Trapnel said...

Ah, Nancy Olson. Now what about that finale of Portrait of Jennie finale that has her Anne Francis, and Nancy Davis ogling that awful painting. An intereting study in contrasting destinies, no?

Gerard Jones said...

Mrs H, I definitely see that in Fedora. Maybe I was too appalled by FP to give it adequate thought. I'm sure as heck not going to watch it again just to see if I agree with Sarris, though.

Carol Burnett!

Gerard Jones said...

A friend of mine says he used to see Nancy periodically on some local SoCal TV show in the '80s or so, talking about movies I think. Said she was pretty hot as an older dame, too.

There's a similar moment in an Astaire-Rogers movie in the '30s (Follow the Fleet?) when Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball and Betty Grable all appear on screen together, their heads close together and grinning out at us. Feminine icons of the '30s, '40s and '50s all lines up.

Of course, any assemblage of actresses that includes Nancy Davis trumps all others.

X. Trapnel said...

Gerard, having seen some 5 minutes of Pete 'n (surely it must be "'n" and not "and")Tilly and been duly horrified unto petrification,I'd welcome your thoughts on Carol Burnett.

Gerard Jones said...

Well...I used to like the Carol Burnett show as a kid, and in clips I've seen recently I get the feeling I might still enjoy her as a TV comedienne and hostess, at least in moderate doses. I wouldn't be surprised if I still found her desperately sunny, agonizingly conflicted housewife in the "family" skits painful and funny.

But even then there was a strain of the maudlin that made my juvenile gorge rise. I suspect my adult reaction would be something close to horror. Those "charwoman" skits where she was channeling some sort of Chaplin-by-way-of-Skelton little-person self-pity...that sappy farewell song at the end of every show...she was like a sloppy drunk but without the excuse of alcohol.

From what I've heard about her, there was something very deep in her about melancholy longing, self-nurtured grief, the long pain of loss. I remember her talking about how as a girl she wept for days when Robert Walker died. Walker had that air of slightly-drunk melancholy about him...I think it says something that young Carol would fall in love with his image and then would make the loss of him into a central personal myth.

I've only seen her twice on the big screen: FP and P&T. There she is among the world champions at mistaking self-pitying maudlinity for dramatic depth. But without the technique of a Jerry Lewis or Red Skelton or Dick Van Dyke or Robin Williams or Jim Carey....

Yojimboen said...

GJ - Re Nancy Olson...

Supportive, smart, a pal, not over-hip but savvy enough, supportive, a drop-dead Nordic beauty, a potential collaborator (did I mention supportive?); everything in fact any screenwriter could wish for in his wildest erotic (and non-erotic) fantasies; but Joe Schmuck Gillis makes the mistake of his life (and pays with his life) by not seeing her for what she is.

Betty Schaefer is that ineluctable tragedy in every screenwriter's life: she is the road not taken.

Worse (am I the first person to notice this?), her boss is named Sheldrake.

Gerard Jones said...

Sheldrake! You're right! And nearly as lovable as his brother in the insurance business! Could there have been a Sheldrake in Billy's past? Sounds like fodder for a good third-rate biographer....

Vanwall said...

I thought Ms. Burnett was quite good in "Mildred Fierce".

Sheldrake must've sounded good enough to Wilder to re-use, like a "Wilhelm" scream.

Gerard Jones said...

Thank you, Vanwall! I forgot about Burnett's straight-up movie parodies. Mildred Fierce, Margo Channing, Scarlett O'Hara with the curtain rod still in her dress...she was funny, wasn't she? Unfortunately what she brought to the big screen was never what she did best but precisely the things I wish she'd left out of her TV show.

Maybe it was a '70s problem. Mopeyness was fashionable then as never before or since. Proved our seriousness, don't you know?

X. Trapnel said...

Carol Burnett starred in the worst Twilight Zone episode ever, a "funny" one with laff track that may also be the absolute nadir of humor since God's practical joke with the two trees in the Garden of Eden. She plays a mopey, dopey, yet lovable loser named Agnes Grep (Say, isn't that funny? A person named Agnes Grep?) who is assisted by a lovably bumbling guardian angel. It's so bad it doesn't even give the kind of pleasure Ed Wood or (this is for you, Yojimboen) Wm. McGonagall do.

Memo to Dick Cheney, John Yoo et al. An especially cruel form of torture might be a double bill of Pete 'n Tillie and That's Life!

According to my evolutionary law of cinematic transformation and decay these self-hugging, self-pitying bourgeois angst films--comedy or drama--of the 80s were actually the last go-round of the early 60s marriage/adultery comedies.

Yojimboen said...

Hey, X, hands off Willie Mac, he's due for rediscovery (not that this will help).

Yes, that's Sellers and Milligan - not their best work - but WTF, you asked for it.

Gerard Jones said...

AGNES GREP! Oh my God, that's SO FUNNY! That's almost as funny as Agnes Gooch, that mopey but lovable loser from a popular movie made three or four years before!

Yeesh. To any discussion of the dreadful we should add Rod Serling's attempts at humor.

(Some of his stuff I really like, though. No blanket dismissal of Rod here.)

X. Trapnel said...

Yojimboen, I riposte with this:

From the Dundee Book of English Verse, edited by Wm. McGonagall, poet and tragedian

On Taking the Packet Steamer from Beautiful Dundee
To the Faraway City of Byzantium

by W. B. Yates

For old men, this is not a very nice place,
It is much nicer for young people, in any case,
Or for the birds who do sing in the trees,
Along with the salmon and mackerel who swim at their ease.
During the summer, by all a good time is had,
But then they have to die which is rather sad.
Besides, until they are forced to depart,
They forget about the books and things that make you smart.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Mildred Fierce, Part 1

Mildred Fierce, Part 2

DavidEhrenstein said...

Oh hell, those links have been taken down!

Yojimboen said...

Touché! (I think.)

mndean said...

Hah! I saw Mildred Fierce before the links were taken down. It was very, very funny. It was just too bad they didn't pad Carol's shoulders like a linebacker. It was one of the first things I noticed about Crawford's appearance in MP. That would have completed the farce if she couldn't have gotten through a door except sideways.

Gerard Jones said...

I found a Mildred Fierce still on YouTube. I seem incapable of posting links here, but this is the URL:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XP_UtPcjvp4

Or search "Mildred Fierce" on YT.

mndean said...

It's too bad they don't have all the movie parodies on DVD just by themselves. Some of the other stuff has dated pretty badly.

Noel Vera said...

I think it was Bill Kohn that made an argument for Wilder's Front Page as a kind of gay comedy (probably thanks to His Girl Friday happening in the interim).

"Also, from the professional screenwriter's POV, no babe in H'Wood history was ever hotter than Nancy Olson."

I've met a few screenwriters (Filipino), and one in particular is such an intelligent, articulate, strong-willed, witty, and downright sexy lady she tends to put all other screenwriters real or fictional in the shade (tho I do agree, Olson is very fine). She was a stick of dynamite, though, that you lit at your peril. Ah well, that road not taken.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Nancy Olson married Capitol Records executive Alan Livingston -- who passed away quite recently. She's exceptionally proud of her role in Sunset Boulevard

Arthur S. said...

Nancy Olson's character name Audrey was a in-joke reference to the girl Wilder was dating at that time who eventually became his second wife and widow.

Wilder liked joking to Audrey Hepburn that he was in love with her and kept saying her name in sleep but his wife always thought he meant her. He was a genius!!!

Nancy Olson is indeed very good in SUNSET BLVD.

I believe Jane Birkin in DADDY NOSTALGIE is a screenwriter(although the film isn't about her screenwriting).

DavidEhrenstein said...

Last year Birks directed her first movie -- Boxes. Not sure how well it did. But she's a French-Anglo treasure.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Daddy Nostalgie is quite wonderful. A perfect capper to Boagrde career. And in iconographic terms she IS his daughter.

Vanwall said...

Saw her on "The Age of Believing: The Disney Live Action Classics" on TCM recently - she still looked great!

Very under-used, sadly - one the big what-ifs to me. H'wood loves a squeaky clean image, but sure punishes a family life.

"Union Station" had one of her best performances, IMHO, a little noir thriller with Nancy as a brainy heroine - she always projected a smart persona, so this was tailor made for her.

Vanwall said...

Nancy Olson, I mean!

X. Trapnel said...

Agreed, Nancy Olson should have been a bigger star, but the fifties were intent on breeding either showhorses like Ava Gardner, "Marilyn," E. Taylor or princesses like Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn. Not much space left for actresses like Eva Marie Saint, Donna Reed, Vera Miles, Janet Leigh, in whose company i would include Nancy O.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Exactly. She has the straight-ahead "no nonsense" style that was Janet Leigh's forte.

X. Trapnel said...

I should have added Jeanne Crain to my list. David's comment points to part of these actresses attractions. I'd add that however beautiful (and then some) they were, they also embodied enough of the reality principle that keeps film tethered to believable emotions whether comic or dramatic. Anyone of them might have been in the tradition of Myrna Loy, Margaret Sullavan, Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard, but amidst all the fifties bombast, there was no place for these kinds of characterizations.

Karen said...

David E--what a treat to see you quoted in the Paper of Record over the weekend!!

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/12/fashion/12gayidol.html?ref=television