Monday, April 20, 2009

Surreal Sanders: The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947)

The first thing that strikes you about George Sanders' filmography, after you get over its length, is that he worked with a lot of great directors. Renoir, Hitchcock, Mankiewicz, Duvivier, De Mille, Ulmer, Siodmak. Three good movies for Douglas Sirk, two more good movies for John Brahm. George Cukor, albeit on the misbegotten Her Cardboard Lover. Otto Preminger, for Forever Amber and The Fan--and wouldn't you have loved to see Preminger trying his Prussian dictator act with the unflappable Sanders? For that matter, the Siren yearns to learn whether Sanders bothered to hit any of Fritz Lang's chalkmarks on Man Hunt, or if he just raised an eyebrow and stood where he jolly well pleased. The Siren does know, thanks to Brian Kellow, that Sanders infuriated Joan Bennett by sitting in the director's chair and letting the ladies stand. If you knew nothing else about Sanders, this alone would confirm his sang-froid. I mean, would you sit in Fritz Lang's chair?





Sanders did great work for many of those directors, and even in the lesser movies he was never boring. But he gave three of his best performances for a director judged guilty of vulgarizing literature and "cultural evangelism" by Andrew Sarris and called "that idiosyncrat" by David Thomson. That would be Albert Lewin, the man at right in the still above, a vividly original artist whom the Siren thinks merits more consideration than he usually gets. Of the three Lewin/Sanders films, the Siren ranks The Moon and Sixpence third, although it's interesting and deserves a better fate than the cut-rate DVD currently circulating. The best is The Picture of Dorian Gray, a supremely atmospheric evocation of Oscar Wilde that spooks the bejesus out of the Siren whenever she catches it. Sanders is perfect as the mephistophelian Lord Henry Wotton, who lures Dorian into degradation only to recoil at the results. It is as hard to imagine another actor as Lord Henry as it is to picture Gary Cooper playing Addison DeWitt.

So the Siren has now seen Sanders in The Private Affairs of Bel Ami, which languishes in only-on-crappy-VHS hell. Some say this is his best performance. It isn't--the best are still Addison and Viaggio in Italia--but it is excellent all the same.

The Siren has mentioned her love for Guy de Maupassant, one of those writers Hollywood was always adapting with merry disregard for the fact that the Production Code kept his best bits off-screen. Lewin, who started as a producer, must have known Joe Breen was never going to countenance the ending of the original novel, wherein homme fatal Georges Duroy marries the daughter of his boss and looks at all he has wrought without a trace of self-reproach. Lewin must also have realized he would have to add some version of True Love for his amoral hero because the studios always wanted some lovers around, whether the star was George Sanders or Groucho Marx.

Still, it's easy to see why Lewin would choose this novel. For one thing, the setting must have been irresistible. Lewin takes on the Belle Epoque with the eye of an art collector, and as in all of his movies, he creates a dreamy parallel world where you are supposed to believe in the aesthetics, not the history. The sets on Bel-Ami look like sets, the backdrops look like backdrops, the proportions of the rooms are always slightly off and not one street or cafe recalls anything the Siren has seen in Paris. Probably the underlying reason was a low budget, but the Siren firmly believes that Lewin knew exactly what he was creating with production designer Gordon Wiles, art director Frank Paul Sylos and cinematographer Russell Metty. The effect is still beautiful, like watching characters in dollhouses. You aren't supposed to look and say, "Ah yes, that's exactly what Paris looked like in 1880." Rather, Lewin signals the lack of reality at every turn--this is a fable, decorated with a moral that you can either accept or snip off like the ribbon on a corset.

Sanders' Georges Duroy is nicknamed Bel-Ami by the women he climbs over to get to the top of Parisian society. The Siren's favorite line comes early on. "I have need of a stout stick," says Duroy at the beginning, as he looks at a Punch doll, "to beat my way." He even repeats that bit of subtlety not three minutes later.

Duroy starts his ascent by accepting a job from his friend Forestier, played by John Carradine, whose characters always look as though they are dying of consumption even when they aren't. In Bel Ami, Carradine coughs and signals another tubercular turn, although he is good in the part. Duroy realizes Forestier is dying. Duroy also sees quickly that his friend's writing owes a great deal, maybe everything, to his clever wife Madeleine (Ann Dvorak, a perfect Art Nouveau beauty and delicious in the role). Duroy sets his sights on marrying Madeleine, to the point that he proposes to her by Forestier's deathbed almost before that unfortunate gentleman has completed the formality of dying. Madeleine accepts, and they become quite the Parisian power couple, until Georges is ready to move on via an affair with his boss's wife (an affecting Katherine Emery).

Madeleine tries to ease her loneliness with an affair, and Georges arranges to have a photographer catch the lovers' assignation. (Did Sanders file this idea away for future reference?) In the book Madeleine sleeps with a minister; in the movie it's Duroy's sworn enemy Laroche-Mathieu, and Bel Ami has thrown her together with him. As soon as you see that Laroche-Mathieu is played by Warren William (looking rather ill in this, his last role) you realize Duroy is a gone goose. But before the tale ends, with a well-executed duel, Duroy will dump his boss's wife and attempt to marry the boss's daughter.




Are you confused? Because I forgot the subplot about Bel Ami buying a title. Not to mention the love of faithful Clothilde, who meets Bel Ami early on, falls in love with him and thaws his heart a bit, but not enough for him to stop his cheatin' ways. Can she save his soul?

Clothilde is played by Angela Lansbury, here in the full flower of her peculiar, doll's-head beauty, and almost as moving as she was in Dorian Gray. She has great chemistry with Sanders, particularly in a scene where she persuades him to take her to a down-and-dirty boîte--very Toulouse-Lautrec, just as a later scene will evoke Manet. Lewin manages great fake-out shot, panning over a seemingly passed-out woman. The music starts, the woman picks her head up off the table, and it turns out she's the floor show, as she sings the Bel-Ami theme song that recurs through the movie.

Before that, Sanders and Lansbury dance the can-can in one of the Siren's favorite Sanders moments of all time. He and Clothilde are dancing away very nicely, and for a minute he looks almost grim, even as he's kicking (and he had a pretty good leg extension, did George). Then his face softens as--for the only time in the movie--you see Duroy thinking hmm, this is...what is the word I'm looking for...tip of my tongue...hop-kick, hop-kick...why, it's FUN. The Bel Ami/Clothilde romance takes on life after that. Duroy's behavior toward Clothilde will get worse, and her devotion to him less explainable, until you think back to this moment.

Bel-Ami is the spiritual cousin not of Lord Henry, but of Dorian, a man whose sexual allure makes him both art object and instrument of destruction. In Dorian Gray, Hurd Hatfield's affectless beauty and near-uniform line readings keep things abstract; in the Private Affairs of Bel Ami, that's the job of the sets. Sanders was good-looking and he had that prowling baritone voice, but he didn't have Hatfield's perfect face. So he has to convince us of Duroy's sex appeal by some other means.

In the first scene, Duroy has just returned from being a soldier in Algeria. He enters a sidewalk cafe and brushes past a seated woman. She looks up, likes what she sees and saunters over. Sanders barely bothers to size her up--aside from sex, she can give him nothing, so she is nothing, and at first he brushes her off like Cardinal Richilieu dismissing a scullery maid. And, despite the fact that the character is a Frenchman, moreover a Frenchman who has been in the army for several years, you believe it--that Sanders is instantly appealing to a pretty woman, the brush-off, everything. The force of Sanders' charisma is that strong, and it's there because he doesn't care that it's there. And when he goes back to her, and gets her a drink after all, and she beams at him, it makes sense as well. "I've noticed that women take to men who have the look of wickedness," he muses.

More than the air of bored cynicism that Sarris cites, what made Sanders the ideal actor for Lewin was his presentational style. Sanders was so much wittier, so much more clued-in than anyone else on screen that he skewed reality just by showing up (that is, until he met his match in Roberto Rossellini). There are only a handful of actors who could give as much zip to a witticism ("I disapprove of hypocrisy in other people") no matter how labored or wordy.

In addition to deliberately overwrought art direction, Lewin always worked from ornate scripts. And when Sarris and Thomson disparage Bel Ami as too literary, they miss the irony. Duroy speaks almost in a series of epigrams, and yet Duroy can't write. An early, well-shot scene shows Duroy in his meager flat, trying to write an article commissioned as an act of kindness by Forestier, and Duroy can't do it. He has to enlist Madeleine, who in turn has been helping Forestier write all this time as well. Duroy is an artist without artistic talent, working instead to create a life of perfect selfishness. In this he will no more succeed than he does in writing an article, and for that reason the Code-mandated ending works for Lewin's Bel Ami, even if it turns Maupassant's novel upside-down.

Thwarted love and thwarted art is something that pops up, in Technicolor, in all of Lewin's movies, from the burning masterpiece in Moon and Sixpence, to poor lovelorn Basil's Picture of Dorian Gray, to the Flying Dutchman painting the same face down the centuries. In Bel Ami, the Technicolor picture is an anachronistic Max Ernst.



This cheery daub, according to a very amusing blog post, was chosen in a publicity contest sponsored by Lewin's production company. Pitting Surrealists against one another was Lewin's idea of how to lure the American public. No wonder he eventually went broke. The Ernst picture is an obvious summary of the temptations gnawing at all the characters, but it's also a typical Lewin flourish, another way of jolting the audience out of comfy notions about a period piece. How many other Hollywood filmmakers, in 1947, were deliberately reminding the audience of the artificiality of the very thing they are watching?*

The Siren really, really liked this movie, for Sanders, the dialogue, the strong female performances, and for the intoxicated and (yes, Mr. Sarris) evangelical way Lewin throws his artiness at you. Unfortunately, the VHS copy provided to the Siren by an extremely kind reader doesn't do it justice. It's like watching a movie through clear Jell-o. The Technicolor shot of the Ernst looks like early Tex Avery. The even more delirious, equally original Pandora and the Flying Dutchman got a restoration and revival last year, courtesy of Martin Scorsese and George Eastman House. Is it too much to ask that someone complete the reassessment of Lewin, and release a restored Bel Ami?

*Perhaps we will get the answer from the excellent 1947 Project at Category D.

Note: Clear, marvelous images from The Private Affairs of Bel-Ami, as well as some publicity stills, are available at this comprehensive Ann Dvorak site. In particular, dig the fantastic set here, the Siren's favorite in the movie, and the composition here and here. The catch: hideous watermarks. However, the site's proprietor says that she will send un-marked scans to people for personal use.

65 comments:

Vanwall said...

Sanders kicks up his heels, eh? Wouldn't it have been a trip if Sydney Greenstreet - who had stage musical experience - and Sanders had danced in the same film? Maybe not, tho.

X. Trapnel said...

Wonderful post, Siren. It accomplishes what the best criticism (well, favorable criticism) always does: make the reader want to rush out and sample the work. Damn, but I had no idea Lewin's film were so hard to see (they had been on my mental list for some time). On the basis of what you write and my memory of the films, the charge of literariness and vulgarity seem misplaced for several reasons. First, it's clear that Lewin was by no means indiscriminate in the choice of his sources; there's a consistency in Maugham, Maupassant, and Wilde that clearly resonated with Lewin's feel for a particular time and place in European culture and the latter two point to Lewin's incipient surrealism (I wonder who had the happy idea of getting that unplacable oddball of American art Ivan LeLorraine Albright to do D. Gray's portrait. It spooked the hell out of me when I was a kid). In this regard he compares favorably with John Huston's ill-advised plunge into literature & culture or the stately adaptations of Autant-Lara, or the smuggery of Merchant/Ivory interior decoration. Lewin's sources suggest a consistency of vision rooted in the same slightly spooky/loony American aestheticism that started with Whistler and can still be felt in the poetry of John Ashbery. Its greatest exemplar is Wallace Stevens. A famous exchange with Robert Frost:

WS: "The problem with you, Frost, is that you write about Things."
RF: "The trouble with you, Stevens, is that you write about bric-a-brac."

Well, I suspect that same shadowy and gleaming bric-a-brac (the weird organicism of art nouveau) takes on an eerie passion in Lewin's work with Sanders' presence giving it the ballast of reality (as do the essentially straightforward styles and ironies of Maupassant, Maugham, and Wilde--all three are still read). I'll even venture to guess that Pandora looks better today than Last Year at Marienbad which, last time I checked in, seemed like a Eurotrash perfume ad.

Gloria said...

There's one thing I like about the scene in whicc Duroy attempts to write, and as he goes on trying, and his frustration grows, he goes on stripping. At first, confident, he is fully dressed as a gentleman should, by the end, he's wearing a stripped, sailor-type t-shirt... I think this is an accomplished costume department accompanyment to Sanders' acting... And Oh MY! doesn't George look swell in that T-shirt! :p

Vanwall said...

I'm so weird sometimes. I'm such a gear-head, the reason I first watched "Pandora and The Flying Dutchman" was because the car was the legendary Brooklands racer, the Napier-Railton. By the time the film was over, I had forgotten why I watched it, and between the gorgeous Cardiff work and the strangeness that permeated that film, I soon found ways to see all of Lewin's films - except this one, sadly still.
Is Metty's work on this one a significant factor? I think Lewin had such good crews, he was lucky and good, to say nothing of his leading ladies, of whom strikingly beautiful could not be an overused term. So few directing efforts, one wonders what if, in a big way. I hope to see this one in the near future. Thanks for the incisive work, Siren.

jesús cortés said...

Great post, Siren.
My three best - lesser known - Sanders´performances:
1.- Sirk´s A scandal in Paris
2.- Sirk´s Summer storm (we must remember Sanders was born in St. Petersbourg)
3.- Ulmer´s A strange woman

Campaspe said...

Vanwall, I think Metty is definitely a factor and is another reason for my arguing that the lack of realism is deliberate. There are ways of lighting a set to conceal obvious props and backdrops (see John Ford, The Informer) and Metty sometimes uses them and sometimes doesn't. For example, there are several scenes outside Forestier's building where the Isle de la Cite can spied in the distance and it's a completely obvious painting. Of course you are looking at all this through the scrim of VHS and a bad print. P.S. If there is an afterlife I will definitely request a Sanders/Greenstreet Rockette-kick line.

Gloria, please tell me if you liked the film as well as I did? The scene you cite is quite wonderful. As always with a hard-to-find film I am torn between wanting to share everything and wanting to leave stuff for people to discover, but I have to say I also loved the passing train under the window that eventually fills the room with smoke. And yes, George had a nice physique. Between that and his give-a-damn attitude he must have been a ladykiller of the highest order.

Jesus, all three of those are great although Summer Storm in particular is in bad need of a restoration. I also like Lured--Sanders didn't play many romantic leads but he was always very accomplished in them.

XT, I would love to hear your thoughts on this one because I am convinced there are other art references in it that I simply wasn't getting. The reference to Bar at the Folies Bergere was charming. I think that while Sarris evidently felt he was being force-fed culture by Lewin, I got the sense of someone giddily sharing the things that he loved. I quite like a handful of Merchant-Ivory films but Lewin's movie has an energy that most M-I doesn't.

Exiled in NJ said...

Hurrah, you finally had the chance to see Bel Ami. Like you, I saw it on VCR many years ago and now it is gone, but my late wife insisted we rent it. Funny how that mid-firties period produced both this and Verdoux.

Now that you have seen this, find The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry with Sanders, Geraldine Fitzgerald and Ella Raines playing the strangest set of siblings imaginable.

Arthur S. said...

Jean Renoir was a very good friend of Albert Lewin and his memoirs, MY LIFE AND MY FILMS devotes an entire page on him.

Apparently Lewin was once a scriptreader for King Vidor during the Thalberg years. He had a real passion for surrealism and his apartment in New York was visited by the likes of Ernst, Breton, Man Ray and others. Renoir also noted with some amusement that he was a complete mama's boy and his mother, a tough Jewish lady, often interfered to make sure Lewin remained faithful to his wife even dragging him by the ear if necessary.

I think THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY is his best film. As a work of film it's very well made and very precise. PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN is of course insanely delirious but few would say the film is without flaws. My favourite scene is when Pandora first comes face to face with Hendrick Van Zee(James Mason) and this amazing close-up where James Mason stares into the camera. That and Ava singing, "How am I to know?"

Arthur S. said...

The question of period detail and what is/is not realistic or authentic is endless. You are quite right when you say period films about World War II are based on other movies rather than actual period detail. The same is actually true even with pre-20th Century period films where directors just imitate "period films" like Merchant-Ivory and go with that instead of focusing on the actual period.

With Hollywood films of the Golden Age, accuracy in period detail was often compromised because there was little location shooting and it was all done on sets and they were more interested in giving the audience that it's set in the past then actually documenting the period's rituals and customs(like say Scorsese's THE AGE OF INNOCENCE which is very attentive to period detail).

By the way, I may be wrong but 1880France can't be the Belle Epoque, Belle Epoque is the ten-fifteen year period preceding World War I(cf, THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP). My favourite film set in that period and also my favourite Maupassant adaptation is Renoir's PARTIE DE CAMPAGNE which does give a palpable sense of 19th Century life, oh and Ophuls' LE PLAISIR.

D Cairns said...

Damnee, this was one of the last things I recorded off-air on VHS before upgrading to DVD-R, and i still haven't watched it. Lewin's oeuvre is pretty sparse, I should sit down and watch them all one week. Love Sanders and Maupassant so I can't see myself being disappointed, and you make it sound fascinating.

X. Trapnel said...

Painting and film (especially in the forties)is a special obssession of mine, so more in a bit. for the moment let me note that Scorsese's attention to period detail managed to have Ferdinand Khnopff's "Caress of the Sphinx" (1896) appear in the Age of Innocence set in the 1870s.

Been waiting for years to point that out.

Gerard Jones said...

This was quite a gift, Siren. Thank you. As X says, it makes me want to go find Lewin movies. I saw Dorian Gray for the first time about a year ago and I was quite struck, even subtly disturbed, by its style. The handling of Angela Lansbury was especially eerie, woman and cipher and art object all at once. I wanted to think it was a European director and was surprised to find it was this Brooklyn boy. Since then I've only managed to see Moon, which was disappointing but certainly had some interesting visual moments. Knowing his interest in art and surrealism, and his Europhilic bent, he begins to make a lot of sense.

Clearly Bel Ami has to be at the top of my want list now, what with Lewin and the glorious Sanders and that spooky Lansbury girl.

X. Trapnel said...

While I'm a huge fan of Thomson and Sarris, Wakeman's World Film Directors is essential for a measure of objectivity. From there I learn that Lewin came by his aestheticism honestly (is it that nice Jewish boys from Brooklyn aren't supposed to harbor such decadent sensibilities? Screw that.)and his delight in art is conveyed far more effectively as described by the Siren than that awful device in Lust for Life whereby Van Gogh's paintings, framed in black, are solemnly presented as objects of worship and spiritual self-improvement.

Kevin Deany said...

A film buff acquaintance of mine swears by an Albert Lewin movie called "The Living Idol." I think it came out around 1957 or 1958. He saw it as a kid, and hasn't seen it since, but some of the images have stayed with him all these years. That's the mark of a great visualist. He can't find a copy anywhere, so it may be one of those films lost in limbo somewhere.

X. Trapnel said...

As the DVD appearance of the much non-awaited Steve Cochrane gesamtkunstwerk Tell Me in the Sunlight draws closer (circle your calendars), I am encouraged in the hope that no film is ever entirely lost (except of course for the uncut Ambersons and the 192 minute Madame de). So The Living Idol may show up some day. (I note from IMDB that the score was done by Rodolfo Halffter, a major Spanish composer who also scored Los Olvidados.)

X. Trapnel said...

And Bel Ami and Pandora were scored by Darius Milhaud and Alan Rawsthorne, again significant composers. Lewin grows more interesting.

Campaspe said...

Arthur, I hesitated about using the term Belle Epoque but it is frequently used in describing this film, and a looser definition used by some runs from the Franco-Prussian War to 1914. Not that it's relevant here, but my all-time favorite work of popular history covers 1890 to 1914: The Proud Tower by Barbara Tuchman.

I remember that page on Lewin from Renoir's memoirs. Even if you didn't know he was a peerless genius, I think most people would love Renoir's book for the warm and utterly noncompetitive way he writes about other artists. It's quite unusual in a director's memoirs; maybe even unique. We agree on Picture being Lewin's best film, but Bel-Ami has so many pleasures.

And we also agree on Le Plaisir -- ah, that shot of Darrieux standing in the window, smoking a cigarette!! I haven't encountered another Maupassant adaptation to equal it, although I keep hoping someone will film Useless Beauty.

Exiled and Kevin Deany, get out of my brain! The Living Idol is the last Lewin for me to see, and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry now moves to 1st place on my list of Must-See Sanders.

Campaspe said...

David, my main frustration with the movie was that the murky way I was watching it made it hard to appreciate all that Lewin was doing. I'll look forward to hearing your impressions.

Gerard and XT, exactly. When you read up even in a desultory way on Lewin, you realize that he was no dabbler, he had a serious and lifelong interest in art. And when a director includes so many consciously surreal elements in his movies, and even goes so far as to have a high priest of Dada judging his publicity contest (do follow that link, it's illuminating) then you have to wonder why Lewin's efforts to bring that into the Hollywood studio style haven't met with more serious appraisal.

I'm also a fan of Sarris and Thomson, but disagreeing with them is part of the pleasure to be had from their books.

X. Trapnel said...

I've been straining to be good and not use Maupassant as an excuse to bring up Le Plaisir, so thanks Siren. Everyone, correctly, associates Ophulsian camera movement with the relativity of passing time and the tempo of emotion. But the breathtaking opening sequence of the Mme. Tellier episode, the camera tracing the movement of people, lingering over the shadowy details of the house, following Madeleine Renaud from room to room through the windows is a superb approximation or parallel to the sensuousness and precision of the best 19th century descriptive prose. Yes, Ophuls is full of bric-a-brac, but its never weighs his films down with oppressive decor or self-conscious atmospherics. I'm curious to compare Lewin in this regard. The example of Ophuls demands a redefinition of what we mean by "literary" filmmaking.

Campaspe said...

XT, Lewin doesn't have Ophuls incredible fluid grace, but then again few ever have or will. Lewin's camera is more static in Bel-Ami (he was freed up a lot by the time he made Pandora, plus he had Cardiff on hand) but his compositions are very precise and artful. Look at the first second link from the Dvorak site and you will see what I mean.

And I love, absolutely love your comparison of the camera movement to 19th century descriptive prose. Oh my yes, precisely. Minnelli accomplishes something similar in the ball sequence in Madame Bovary, as does Lean in the superb opening of Great Expectations. But Ophuls maintains it throughout the movie.

Arthur S. said...

Scorsese is interested in period detail however he isn't fastidious to the level of say, Eric Rohmer(who spent three years learning 18th Century German in order to make DIE MARQUISE VON O...)

Besides, the novel The Age of Innocence by Wharton also has a few anachronisms, it's a 20th Century novel projecting fifty years into the past and in it's day was considered a "period fiction". One notable anachronism in the book(which the film preserves wholesale) is that they dance to a Strauss waltz well before the date of it's origins.

Scorsese took anachronisms to new heights with GANGS OF NEW YORK where the big fight scene opening the film is set to an instrumental version of Peter Gabriel's SIGNAL TO NOISE and the entire music is Afro-Celtic rhythms that's not native to that period sprinkled with folk songs(the most stunning being Paddy's Lamentation) and it ends with U2.

Arthur S. said...

For me the key is when Gabin sees them off at the train station and then he helplessly follows the train as it drives past the landscape, and it's done in one long crane shot. What's moving to me in that film is also how Ophuls never enters the Tellier house, we see it from the outside and we can see how everything functions through the blinds, it's at once transparent and impenetrable. Really conveys the Maupassant style there and it's completely cinematic.

Campaspe said...

Scorsese talks a great deal about Barry Lyndon's ultra-rigorous period detail in his Journey doc...

X. Trapnel said...

These shots are very interesting; from a painter's perspective they might be termed "classical" (Poussin-like in composing with rectangles receding in space)as against the organic (ah, feminine) curves of the romantic Ophuls camera. The shot in the coach (train?) reminds me though that Ophuls often consciously uses strong verticles and horizontals (e.g., train compartments in Letter, Mme de, and the customs office where de Sica first sees DD) to fix his characters in place and define their transitory situation. Nicholas Ray does this also (people communicating across barriers, doorways, staircases).

I remember some stunning camera movement in the fairground finale of Some Came Running.

Just read Renoir's pages on Lewin. What a good soul he was.

Campaspe said...

XT, Bogdanovich wrote a great article about Renoir where he described the man as "almost saintly" and given all the things he was describing about Renoir, it didn't seem like that much hyperbole. Renoir appears to have been a genuinely good person.

Vanwall said...

M X - I await "Tell Me in the Sunlight", along with "Tomorrow is Another Day", and a few other Cochran vehicles with breath abated. But that's just me 'spose.

There has to be a cultural shift in the value of an actor or actress for a film to be "important" enough for a release, I seem to see - Every damn thing about John Wayne sees the light of day, while films of the same hangers-on and supporting players of the very same oaters, languish unseen 'til doomsday. And those are the ones lucky enough to be preserved - if you were a supporting player in a Wayne film, like "Overland Stage Raiders", why, that gem was rescued from the shitter for no obvious reasons of art or writing, and then poof! -you're much more famous for your shocking German films, so this little late dalliance with horsies and Marion can be seen in a completist's dream queue; meanwhile, poor Colleen Moore's "Flaming Youth", while it may not have been great or even good, (tho I think it must've been at least the latter) she delivers a performance that deserved preservation if for nothing else than its influence on society. Oh, yeah, that means nothing, so it's pretty much all dust.

Art and direction are meaingless in this type of world.

X. Trapnel said...

Et tu, Vanwall? Tell Me in the Sunlight has been a matter of mystery, conjecture, and wild surmise for me for a long while. I'm sure we'll be astonished. The Cochrane item I really covet, though, is Come Next Spring.

Yeah, why do Wayne fans (I'm not one myself) get all they want and then some. Why is there a Jean Hersholt award and not a George Sanders one. There are so many questions that answer themselves.

Yojimboen said...

“Renoir appears to have been a genuinely good person.”

M’sieur X & Madame C – If, as a child and young man, I had been surrounded by zaftig, pink (and dare I say it, Renoir-esque) nude models prancing around my father’s atelier, I’d be positively bea-fucking-tific.
(Pardon my French)
Ah, girls…

Yojimboen said...

Madame Sirène – Your surmisals re George’s attitude vis a vis hitting his chalk marks or caring tuppence whose chair he decided to occupy, brings a parallel story to mind. Martha Graham, rehearsing for one of her very rare TV appearances (PBS, I think) was interrupted by a disembodied voice over the PA from some assistant director; he asked - politely - if it was possible for her to dance “closer to center-stage?”
Martha stopped the rehearsal, and replied with equal politeness:
“Young man, so there is no confusion in the future, wherever , I am, “that is center stage.”
I suspect George and Martha were made for each other.

X. Trapnel said...

M. Yojim,

And French girls at that! I'd have grown up a bloody saint! Or not.

Campaspe said...

Y., even his nurse was a subject, although as far I know Gabrielle never posed nude. Tell me, I know you are a fan of Ms Lansbury -- wasn't she awfully good in Bel-Ami? A potentially simpering, annoying part that she made poignant.

X. Trapnel said...

Gabrielle did indeed pose nude on occasion.

Yojimboen said...

Yes, Ms Lansbury – I am a fan, no question. (I wrote one of her later movies, which shall remain nameless.) She is a fiercely intelligent woman, with quick and sure instincts. A minor detail about her is that she was nominated for Best-Supporting Actress for her first AND third films, Gaslight and Dorian Gray. Not too shabby for a 19 yr-old refugee from the blitz. Four years later she played the matronly Kay Thorndike in State of the Union at the ripe old age of 23.

Reams have been written about her battle for the the choice roles that Mayer just wouldn’t give her (famously, she begged LBM for Lady de Winter in Sidney’s Three Musketeers - but was made to settle for the Queen - and quietly blew Lana Turner off the screen.)

She was 22 in Bel Ami - perversely, she looks about 18 - and for me she is at her most adorable. She plays all the grace notes to George’s oompah brass chords. The film is as worth seeing for her as for George.

‘Poignant’? She breaks your heart. Not to harp on it, but she’s another ‘road not taken’ – the real central love story which she herself enables to be marginalized.
There’s a another ‘tag’ for you, Madame, who’s your fave ‘road not taken’? Bel Geddes in Vertigo? Celeste Holm in The Tender Trap. In too many movies to count, for me it’s Angela, first and last.

John Frankenheimer considered her the best actor who ever lived.

Campaspe said...

Oh I completely agree; I gave Lansbury somewhat short shrift because I was focusing on Lewin and Sanders but indeed she did wonderful work. And I was startled at how she and Sanders had real heat between them.

She seems to have been badly used by Hollywood just because they didn't know what to make of her somewhat unusual looks. At least, that is the only explanation I ever hear. And I still don't get it. It isn't as though she looked like Marjorie Main, she was a beautiful woman.

I just saw her in Blithe Spirit on Broadway and she is as good as ever, giving a very original, funny and physical performance at the age of 83.

Yojimboen said...

X - I almost missed it. I too have an inordinate fondness for Come Next Spring, not least because of Steiner's subtly exquisite score. It's certainly Cochran's best work (his cameo in Best Years is short but elegantly done IMO, and I'm not fond of Il Grido); it's close to Sheridan's also.

An oddly unassuming film where for no particular reason, it came together majestically. Though I haven't seen it in decades, I remember it clearly as a lovely, uncynical piece.

X. Trapnel said...

Y, you've just rendered Come Next Spring ever more tantalizing. I love this kind of quiet, non-Gothic domestic film (A masterpiece of the genre is From This Day Forward; I must get around to seeing/reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). And I used to undervalue Max Steiner as a sort of superior Dmitri Tiomkin, but the closer I listen to his scores the more I hear a rapturous lyricism, often quiet and subtle that's almost worthy of Korngold (A famous anecdote:
MS: "Erich, have you noticed that my music is getting better and yours is getting worse?"
EWK: "That's right, Maxie. That's because you've been imitating me and I've been imitating you.")
They Died with Their Boots On and Johnny Belinda both have wonderful "American" scores, and sadly Steiner's lovely music for Intermezzo is uncredited (the famous violin piece is by one Heinz Provost, otherwise unknown to history) and so will probably never be recorded.

Vanwall said...

M X and Y, (say, a chromosomal sitcheashun) make sure you catch "Tomorrow Is Another Day" if you can. Cochran and Ruth Roman are amazing together, and it's nicely adult for the time.

Arthur S. said...

Renoir said in a documentary(the one on the RULES OF THE GAME criterion) that models posing nude was totally natural and wasn't a big deal in his house. He was born free of all puritanism. Renoir as a boy frequently posed for his father as a...little girl. His father greatly appreciated his son's prettiness. Renoir's first wife Catherine Hessling was his father's last model.

One novel that Renoir always yearned to adapt but never could was Ivan Turgenev's FIRST LOVE a story about a son falling in love with his father's mistress. Not that there's anything directly autobiographical there but obviously the story might have appealed to Renoir given his own attempts to escape his father's vast shadow. He told Norman Lloyd quite poignantly in his later years that all his life he'd been trying to escape his father's influence and now he realizes that his films are just like his paintings.

Can't have been easy growing up as the son of a great Impressionist painter.

Bogdanovich has a tendency to get sentimental with some of the personalities he knew and while Renoir is by all accounts a great person to hang out with(with a beautiful sense of humour) I don't think Renoir would want people to think of him as "saintly", though he looked a lot like laughing Buddha.

Paul Schrader met Renoir in his years as a critic and noted that Renoir always introduced him to his friends as "that kid who's writing that book on Bresson", Renoir apparently didn't like Bresson and made Schrader's dedication to him, a running gag among his pals.

D Cairns said...

Does everybody know Lewin's story about Pandro S Berman, and the vexed subject of "style"? I'll post it if you haven't heard it before.

Must dig out that old tape of Bel Ami. My partner is a big Dorian Gray fan, so a Lewinfest seems like a good idea, but I have to finish wallowing in King Vidor first.

Campaspe said...

David, I haven't heard that story and would love to hear it.

X. Trapnel said...

Vanwall, all this chromosomal activity may portend the nucleus of a Steve Cochrane cult. On to the blastula stage.

It may be that Renoir seems saintly because most other directors are such (fill in the plural of your choice). And then there's Fritz Lang.

Arthur S. said...

To me Sternberg is even more intolerable than Lang. Lang at least had the decency to call Barbara Stanwyck "an angel" after working with her on CLASH BY NIGHT and he also had admiration for Ida Lupino, his good friend Ruth Chatterton and was very forthcoming to his many interviewers in the later years.

Then there's Otto the Terrible.

There aren't many nice guy directors. Maybe Frank Borzage, Preston Sturges. George Cukor was liked by many but he could swear like a sailor at any sign of displeasure.

Campaspe said...

I too have quit looking for nice-guy directors, although both Clarence Brown and King Vidor appear to have been well-liked. From my reading, it seems that on set most directors are neither abusive like Preminger and Ford nor warm and cordial like Renoir. I guess most of them adapted the approach to the situation and the set. I do think you need a bit of the drill sergeant in you to direct.

I also wonder about how directors treat the far more powerful stars of today. The Christian Bale brouhaha was illuminating because it showed the director was NOT king of that set.

Goose said...

Certainly, the director's stereotype is the abusive tyrant. I once read that John Ford was "a nice guy who wanted to be a p***k" and he got to act that way. Besides Lang and Preminger, Michael Curtiz, Henry Hathaway, of course CB DeMille and others lived up to the stereotype. Other acted strangely (Wyler) or even weirdly (Stevens), but were not monstrous. Hitchcock was in a category of his own.

I'd imagine the directors known for spontaneity, such as Raoul Walsh, Leo McCarey, WS Van Dyke were good-natured at the expense of attention to detail or even performances.

King Vidor seems to have been pleasant.

X. Trapnel said...

Does anyone know anything about Walsh's on-set manner?

Arthur S. said...

Just in...

RIP Jack Cardiff
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/8012994.stm

Campaspe said...

Oh NO, that makes me so sad.

D Cairns said...

Saw Cardiff in Edinburgh a few years ago, he was delightful. We're very sad he's gone.

Pandro S Berman approached Lewin and asked, "Why do you do all these long complicated tracking shots?"

Lewin amicably replied, "Well, you see, that's my style."

Intrigued, Berman asked, "What does that mean, style? I've heard people talk about it, but what does it mean?"

"Well, uh, it's like every artist has their own unique approach. You can tell a Picasso from a Rembrandt because they would depict the same thing in their own distinct way. That's style."

"That's style, huh? I see. WELL I DON'T WANT ANY OF IT IN MY MOVIES."

This was a story Lewin told, and maybe we should regard it with slight suspicion.

As for directors being mean... Wyler was definitely a sonofabitch to work with. David Niven is hilarious about this, and I basically believe him. Pretty much everybody agrees. Heston heard his director say, "I wish I could be nice, but you can't make pictures that way."

I don't agree, but as I've yet to crack features I can't really judge him. It does seem like a crew would rather work with a tough, efficient director than a nice but weak one. But I don't believe you have to be mean, and Renoir's success seems to back this up.

Arthur S. said...

John Barrymore famously said to Raoul Walsh, "Your idea of fun is burning down a whorehouse!" And Walsh later made posthumous use of Mr. Barrymore's remains for a gag on Errol Flynn. Robert Mitchum liked relating how during the making of PURSUED, Walsh made great preperations for a big action scene with him stepping on a horse and running down a cliff only to realize midway that no one was following him. I don't know much else about Walsh.

One notorious cudmudgeon is of course...John Huston. Clint Eastwood's WHITE HUNTER BLACK HEART shows him warts and all.

Ford's "abusive" behaviour(courtesy McBride's rather over-the-top book on him) doesn't strike me as anywhere near Preminger. Ford was harder on the movie stars or the leading players in his films then he was towards supporting players or non-actors like the Navajos who appeared in his films. He was completely charming with the young Roddy McDowall and most of the cast on HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY and always regretted that Anna Lee lost a child on set(he didn't know about the pregnancy).

Hitchcock however was never abusive to his actors and crew and was always charming and witty around them(save some exceptions). Hitchcock's presumed dislike for actors was a myth(partly self-created) that isn't true of the real Hitch.

Much of this idea of "abusive directors" is based on rumours more than the real thing. As Siren says, most aren't all good or all nice, and everyone has their critics and backstabbers and often their legend becomes fact and gets printed.

A good example is that horrible McGilligan biography of Lang(as opposed to his book on Hitchcock) which essentially accusses Lang of murdering his first wife(based on hearsay and rumours and refuted by recent evidence) but giving enough space to let the rumours have the effect of fact. Lang wasn't perfect but he certainly doesn't deserve that.

Arthur S. said...

The moral of the great masterpiece to which Mr. Cardiff is forever attached to, THE RED SHOES is of course, "You can't have it both ways!"

Like if a film-maker is afraid of making his film because he doesn't want his cast or crew to hate him then he shouldn't be there. I think it's difficult to find any person in this world who isn't disliked. Even Jesus and Gandhi had their brickbat hurlers.

There is of course a difference between making enemies in the course of your work because someone isn't doing their job right, someone isn't taking it as seriously as you and the rest of the crew are and getting your ego involved(which is what happens tragically to Boris Lermontov in that film) or simply acting like a jerk because you think it's your right.

With some film-makers being despised and manipulative got the job done for them(Preminger and Fassbinder). With Ford, he acted like one fist had LOVE and the other had HATE written on it and the tussle between right-hand/left-hand extended all his career.

The important thing is whether there's more to these artists then these myriad unpleasant stories. Preminger never made films about perfect people, neither did Huston, Ford, Hitchcock, even Renoir and definitely not Fritz Lang.

Vanwall said...

Speaking of Love and Hate and tattoos, I get the impression Charles Laughton was more patiently persuasive than anything else, and it would've been interesting to see what he would've done with more obstreperous actors in a longer career.

I remember reading that while on the set of "Beggars of Life", Wallace Beery warned Louise Brooks about Wellman and his manipulative ways, especially warning her against doing her own stunts, as he implied a kind of casual sadism in Wellman's style - she didn't heed that warning on a dangerous moving train gag. This was also borne out when he dumped her, rather painfully, off the back of milk wagon in one scene, without any warning. Beery was able to overcome Wellman's attempts, and by all accounts, pretty much directed himself. He must've been the control freak's nightmare, and I bet he'd take a swing or two if a director provoked him enough.

Campaspe said...

Arthur, I am thinking not of McBride's book, but of Maureen O'Hara's, Garry Wills on John Wayne and also interviews with Henry Fonda. According to a lot of people, his habit was to pick one person on set who would then receive torrents of abuse from him; the rest of the cast and crew were relatively safe, but you simply never knew. Wayne was often on the receiving end of Ford's nastiness, sometimes O'Hara or Ward Bond. Consequently a number of actors worked with him once or twice and then refused (Walter Brennan was one) or simply wouldn't work with him at all, genius or no genius.

On the other hand, it does seem that Ford was small-time compared to Preminger. However, it may also seem that way to me because over the years I've gotten a lot more pleasure out of Ford than Preminger.

David C -- that Pandro Berman story is priceless. I love David Niven's books although they seem to be embellished in spots. His portrait of Curtiz struck me more as "linguistically challenged curmudgeon" than "total sob" though.

Yojimboen said...

Carl Laemmle, deciding who should direct an early Universal western:

"Get Jack Ford, he yells good."

Gerard Jones said...

David--I was stunned that the Pandro Berman anecdote came from Lewin. As I was reading it, I figured it was a Berman anecdote engineering to make Lewis look like a pretentious pseudo-artist: explaining a technique away as "my style" without saying what narrative or aesthetic effect it had, that cheap and dismissive Picasso-Rembrandt analogy. Sounds to me like a producer who's up to here with dilettante artists and just wants to cut through the crap. After all, Berman worked with (and got good work from) Stevens, Minnelli and Busby Berkeley. He couldn't have been ignorant of the uses of visual style. Lewin may have told the story, but I'm guessing he didn't realize who came out as the butt...

D Cairns said...

Niven paints Curtiz as a bully, one who changes his manner if you stand up to him. Michael Powell had a similar side, and his cinematographers learned to fight for their way, and earn his respect.

Huston, when asked why he targeted vulnerable people (Like monty Clift, i guess) would wink and say "Their heads are on the block, kid, their heads are on the block," with a twinkle. A chilling twinkle.

Niven doesn't go so far as to call Wyler an out-and-out sadist, but that's the impression her gives. Theresa Wright reports that one day when Dana Andrews was late for work due to drunkenness, Wyler had him do take after take getting out of a car and hitting his head. Of course, Wyler liked a lot of takes anyway, but that was mixed up with his cruel side too. But when he made Audrey Hepburn cry, that seems to have been done with some regret, because it was the only way he could get her to look upset on camera.

Gerard Jones said...

How much of this is bullying and how much of it just the forcefulness required to get a bunch of movie stars with vast, fragile, competitive egos to do what you tell them? You have a budget, a schedule and a whole raft of producers up your tuchus, and to deliver you have to make these people who all believe they're better and more important and more beautiful than you follow precise commands. And not just simple commands, like laying bricks, but deliver an artificial but precise emotionality. I can't imagine accomplishing anything without having to knock them around a little. And if you just let the actors shut up do what they want, you end up with a W.S. Van Dyke movie.

Then, of course, the actors get to write memoirs in which they get to work out all their old shame and resentment.

I'm not saying that I don't believe any director ever overstepped his bounds or gave in to his cruelty. It just seems to me that the job, especially in the old studio days when schedules were so tight and the bosses would come down so hard on even a front-line director, inevitably involves puncturing some vanities and pushing some people around. None of this sounds any worse than what athletes tend to recall about their coaches, except athletes tend to chuckle fondly about such things.

D Cairns said...

Gerard -- if we assume the Lewin-Berman conversation ever took place, I don't think we need be so harsh on Lewin. After all, he was asked why he used lots of tracking shots -- what else could he have said? If it had been "Why did you use a long tracking shot in that scene?" there might have been a specific problem-solving answer he could have given, but as a general question? And if someone actually says they don't know what style is, I think most of us would reach for the simplest explanation we could find.

Berman certainly produced some terrific movies -- the Astaire-Rogers movies are another example -- although he thought Sylvia Scarlet was total junk. But I also like Lewin's films. I think it's mainly a case of two guys who spoke a different language.

As for how mean Hollywood directors were, and how mean they had to be -- just look at Renoir, who demonstrates pretty clearly that you can function in that job without being a martinet. I love Wyler's work and I believe him when he says he couldn't work any other way -- but nicer guys could.

Gerard Jones said...

D: Certainly there were directors whose personalities enabled to keep the broncos from bucking without breaking their spirits, and I'm certain there were circumstances (a more humble, professional group of actors with a revered director) in which things flowed smoothly from the start. But then I think of Wyler's situation with, say, Best Years of Our Lives: a big, complex, expensive production, pressure to hit the theaters before too many other post-war dramas, Goldwyn eager to chew him out, tremendous potential revenue and prestige on the line, and the one guy you really depend on, the one guy who can really make it work or really screw it up...is Dana Andrews. A Dana Andrews already well into his alcoholism. That would knock the nice guy out of just about anybody.

And yes, I'm sure the Lewin/Berman anecdote involves some misunderstanding between two different personalities. But I just can't see Berman in 1945 actually asking "what does that mean, style?" in any seriousness. The guy virtually ran production at RKO during its most stylish years. Selznick specifically put him in charge of his artiest projects and later Mayer paired him with Minnelli. If he really said, "I've heard people talk about style but I don't know what they mean by it," he must have been dishing out the sarcasm and Lewin didn't get it. Either that or Lewin was just indulging in the usual directorial mocking of producers, a grand tradition in the business.

Campaspe said...

David, I didn't think Curtiz sounded all that bad -- rude and arrogant, yes, but that's practically part of the job description. As I recall, Niven was trying out for Charge of the Light Brigade and had been waiting around watching a bunch of other actors audition. It was boiling hot and when it was Niven's turn, Curtiz demanded to know where his script was. Niven said it was in the trailer because he'd memorized his lines. Curtiz bellowed at him "go get it!" And Niven snapped, "You fucking well get it." And Curtiz hired him on the spot. Not sure that would qualify as bullying, more like testing.

Preminger, on the other hand, was another kettle of fish. As was Wyler. And Lang. I have a good story from Henry Fonda about Lang that I should post. But it sort of cycles around to what Gerard was saying, as it's evident from Fonda's anecdote that Lang was obsessing over visual details that Fonda as an actor found trivial. We as the audience, drinking in Lang's movies, would probably disagree.

D Cairns said...

Since Niven didn't run and get the script, it qualifies as a test. If he'd run and got it, it would have been bullying, and if he'd got the part, it wouldn't have ended.

An assistant on Noah's Ark tells the story that Curtiz was told where to put the extras and where to put the dummies on the collapsing flood set, so nobody would get hurt. Curtiz, deliberately it would seem, put the extras in the dummies' places. People were hurt, and somebody may even have been killed. Of course, the story might not be true. But the storyteller intended to tell us something about Curtiz.

Jean Simmons won't actually discuss Wyler because she found working with him so unpleasant. Wyler realised he couldn't be mean to her because she couldn't take it, so he took it out on the crew, which upset her greatly. Niven had a horrible time with Wyler on Dodsworth and Wuthering Heights (both Goldwyns, admittedly), Margaret Sullivan was regularly reduced to tears on The Good Fairy, until Wyler realised it was hurting her performance, so he romanced and married her. (Preston Sturges wrote, "They asked me what I thought of the idea, but they must not have listened very intently to my reply because they did it anyway.") Bette Davis LIKED him because he was mean. And Heston said, admiringly, "Working with Wyler is like getting the works in a Turkish bath -- you think you're going to die, but you come up smelling of roses."

The pattern is pretty consistent, and while the tougher actors respected Wyler's no-prisoners approach, people who were a bit more sensitive often had a horrible time. It's obvious that Wyler's approach WORKED, he got more Oscars for actors than anyone else, and most of his Oscars are deserved, which is atypical. But while I can see that humiliating Laurence Olivier might actually be necessary to get him to "act proper", I don't really think it's morally okay as an overall policy.

DavidEhrenstein said...

A very important part of the Irving Thalberg "Brains Trust" at Metro, Lewin didn't direct a film of his own until he was 50.

In the end he was as much interested in pre-Columbian art and artifacts as he was film. A very curious man, much underrated by those who claim to take film seriously.

DavidEhrenstein said...

THE book to read on Lewin is Botticelli in Hollywood: The Fils of Albert Lewin by Susan Felleman (Twayne, 1997) It has everything anyone interested in his work needs to know. And it's beautifully illustrated.

Mark T Lancaster said...

Love this post, Siren -- I'm making my way from 2005 to the present in your blog, which is why I'm commenting on this 2 1/2 years after you posted it. I hope you get some kind of notification that I'm doing this, because, though you had to watch The Private Affairs of Bel-Ami on a lousy VHS in 2009, last night I discovered that Netflix is streaming it, and it looks pretty decent, certainly better than what you describe here. I loved it, and owe it to you that I saw it because I'd not heard of this Sanders film before, and would not have known to look for it on Netflix. I'll be watching it again tonight, 'cause it's that good and one can't possible digest all of Bel-Ami's wonderfully wicked wit in one sitting.

The Siren said...

Mark, I'm so pleased you think enough of this place to read the archives. Isn't Bel-Ami FAB? I am so happy you watched it and loved it as I did. What a weirdly wonderful filmmaker Lewin was, and Sanders was his perfect leading man.

Mark T Lancaster said...

Oh, Siren, your archives are such a treasure, both for your blogging and for the wonderfully educated comments by your regular readers. It's hard to describe, but I have such a sense of comfort and being "at home" when I'm immersed in your pages, just as I'm more "at home" with an old B&W movie than most of the current Hollywood offerings. I learn so much here. I'm a relatively late comer to classic films in general (though I've always loved the old horror films -- thus my avatar), but with your help, I'm making up for lost time.