Saturday, August 15, 2009

Ten Books From a Cinephile's Past: The Final Chapter

And here, the final three of the Siren's Books from a Cinephile's Past. The Siren has written before of her stint babysitting a toddler by the name of P.D. His parents were movie buffs and in addition to Mary Astor's novel A Place Called Saturday, on their shelves was a treasure trove called The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years, by English critic David Shipman. In later years the Siren came to disagree with Shipman on certain stars (one notable example: Joan Crawford), but she returns to this book again and again. Shipman's research is amazing--pithy lines about each major film for each star, this in the days when he was writing without benefit of VHS or IMDB. How often the Siren has sought out a little-known movie that Shipman loves, such as The Young in Heart, and discovered it is indeed a gem. Observe the love he gives the undeservedly forgotten, such as Aline McMahon. But most of all, relish his wit, as dry as a perfect glass of sherry. No film book in the Siren's extensive collection has more delicious picture captions:

[on a still of Barbara Stanwyck from The Locked Door] They think she's just murdered her husband; she hasn't, but in typical Stanwyck fashion, she sure looks guilty.

[on a still of Lew Ayres and James Stewart--not this one, even worse if you can imagine] Joan Crawford is known to look back on Ice Follies of 1939 with much despondency: it would be strange if James and Stewart and Lew Ayres didn't feel the same way.

Hearts Divided (36) was a lavish historical romance directed by Frank Borzage...Marion Davies was effective in that part, but whoever cast [Dick] Powell as one of the Bonaparte boys deserved a prize for imagination.

Gary Cooper and Carole Lombard in Henry Hathaway's Now and Forever (34). Shirley Temple is not in this still but she was much in evidence in the film.

Speaking of Gary Cooper, here is a bit of Shipman's essay:

The strange thing is that Cooper (as his TV interviews showed) had in life a number of rather effeminate mannerism. However, on screen he was virility personified, all that was required of a hero: honest, courageous and determined--determined to do what must be done at whatever the cost.

Sometimes Shipman is eye-poppingly wrong

Future historians of the art of film will probably pause at the name of John Wayne only because he appeared in some of John Ford's best Westerns, but it is a name which gives pause to everyone interested in the industry.

...but then again, when he's right, he takes your breath away.

[on Irene Dunne] Few actresses could play comedy as she did: there is a brief sequence in The Awful Truth where, her back to the camera, she is contemplating the antics of Cary Grant--her gurgling, smothered laugh is more eloquent than many another's close-up.

Highly recommended. Beloved Siren commenter Yojimboen is a Shipman fan as well. You can find this book easily on Abebooks and if you're in the city the Strand bookstore usually has a few copies lying around. (Probably three-quarters of the Siren's film books come from the Strand. There, now you are privy to one of the Siren's closest secrets.) If you're lucky the Strand will also have the almost-as-wonderful companion book, The Great Stars: The International Years.

Now for a book the Siren doesn't like very much, but it had an undeniable influence on her. Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon was a hand grenade hurled at nostalgia, and it remains a salutary reminder that while Joseph Breen may have been busy keeping the screen safe for the tender minds of his fellow Americans, no amount of Ivory soap could scrub some Hollywood business clean. This compendium of years of scuttlebutt is lavishly illustrated with extremely well-chosen, frequently horrifying stills and news photos. Hollywood Babylon mixes historical truth, leering slant and outright errors. It's witty in parts, but after you devour it (and the Siren did, her book is split in two at the spine) you feel as you do after knocking back one too many drinks with the nastiest gossip in the office. You're in the know, but you hate yourself.

The real problem with Anger is one of tone. Where does all this hatred and seething resentment come from? Take this description of Fatty Arbuckle, whom Anger paints as guilty of rape and manslaughter despite considerable evidence to the contrary:

As headlines screamed, the rumors flew of a hideously unnatural rape. Arbuckle, enraged at his drunken impotence, had ravaged Virginia [Rappe] with a Coca-Cola bottle, or a champagne bottle, then had repeated the act with a jagged of piece of ice...or, wasn't it common knowledge that Arbuckle was exceptionally well endowed?...or, was it just a question of 266-pounds-too-much of Fatty flattening Virginia in a flying leap?

Or, in a discussion of the William Desmond Taylor murder, this acid description of poor tragic Mabel Normand:

It was soon revealed that Taylor's good friend Mabel Normand, whose antic clowning for Sennett gained her fans by the millions, owed her effervescence at at least in part to Cocaine & Co. Mabel's monthly expenditure for "cokey" was in the neighborhood of $2000, blackmail included.

From Anger, the Siren learned that you can certainly look at Hollywood celebrities as spoiled, hateful children and smirk at their comeuppance. God knows that's fun sometimes. Hollywood Babylon is one of the most imitated books about Hollywood ever written--it plays to our sense that the stars have too much and deserve it too little.

But you also can take the angle of Adela Rogers St. Johns, the Hearst columnist whose memoir The Honeycomb is the Siren's final selection for this series. St. John knew the people she wrote about, knew their secrets and their nastiest flaws. But she understood the magic. And she understood that being a star takes, as a friend of the Siren wrote to her, "superhuman effort, talent and grit."

They'd never been to New York. They had never been anywhere including school, except Joan Crawford, who washed dishes at Stephens College for Girls to get a half a freshman year and Jean Harlow, who eloped from a fashionable Chicago finishing school at sixteen to get married. Unless they came over steerage--Chaplin and Valentino--they'd never been to Europe. Garbo was applying lather in a Stockholm barbershop until a Swedish director refused to come to America without her. Finances got frightfully tangled because half of them didn't know what to do with checks. Judy Garland was singing at Elks' Club smokers and Lon Chaney was a kid hoofer in the cheapest musical tourist companies, half-medicine shows and half-circus...

Do not believe for one second that they were ordinary citizens from Emporia and Little Rock.

No, the Siren doesn't believe it. That's why they still matter to her.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Budd Schulberg, 1914-2009

Movies are a visual medium, we repeat in unison, yet when old-movie buffs get together to discuss the objects of their affection what they do, as often as not, is quote dialogue. When the Siren sees a recent movie, what she often misses is the verve and crackle of glorious midcentury American speech.

When it came to using that speech for film, Budd Schulberg, who died this week age 95, was one of the best. In On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd, his characters speak in a way that is always recognizably and believably American, yet what power of observation and expression he gives them.

Their dialogue is heavily peppered with slang, they describe themselves as bums or indeed, they really are bums. But even the most hateful or least educated characters in a Schulberg screenplay have an uncommon ability to speak their minds. From On the Waterfront we remember tender, heroic Terry Malloy and Father Barry, but Lee J. Cobb as Johnny Friendly, as unregenerate a villain as 1950s cinema gave us, has his reasons:

When I was sixteen, I had to beg for work in the hold. I didn't work my way up out of there for nuthin'. You know, takin' over this local took a little doin'. There's some pretty rough fellas in the way. They gave me this [he displays an ugly scar on his neck] to remember them by. I got two thousand dues-payin' members in this local. That's $72,000 a year legitimate and when each one of 'em puts in a couple of bucks a day just to make sure they work steady--well, you figure it out. And that's just for openers. We got the fattest piers in the fattest harbor in the world. Everything moves in and out. We take our cut. You don't suppose I can afford to be boxed out of a deal like this, do ya? A deal I sweated and bled for, on account of one lousy little cheese-eater, that Doyle bum, who thinks he can go squealin' to the Crime Commission? Do ya? [pause] Well, DO YA?

Here's Walter Matthau, with Patricia Neal the conscience of in A Face in the Crowd, describing the role of writers in television, a subject that often brings out the bitter best in a screenwriter: "Here you see the lepers of the great television industry. Men without faces. Why, they even slide our paychecks under the door so they can pretend we're not here." But here also is Andy Griffith as Lonesome Rhoades, rotten to the marrow, but bearing a poison-tipped truth:

Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers, everybody that's got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle. They don't know it yet, but they're all gonna be Fighters for Fuller. They're mine! I own 'em! They think like I do. Only they're even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for 'em. Marcia, you just wait and see. I'm gonna be the power behind the president--and you'll be the power behind me!

"Write what you know," goes the advice to writers. Where does that leave us with Schulberg? His life as the son of Paramount head B.P. Schulberg was covered in gold-leaf. At the height of the Depression his father was earning about $11,000 a week. Certainly Schulberg used what he knew for What Makes Sammy Run?, the little bottle of cyanide he uncorked for his Hollywood paisanos. Long before Robert Altman gave us the jaw-dropping story meeting in The Player, here was Sammy Glick, yelling, "Wait a minute! I got an angle!" And boy did he.

All you gotta do to that story is give it the switcheroo. Instead of the minister you got a young dame missionary, see, Dorothy Lamour. Her old man kicked off with tropical fever and she's carrying on the good work. You know, a Nice Girl. Then instead of Sadie Thompson you got a louse racketeer who comes to the Island to hide out. Dorothy Lamour and George Raft in Monsoon! Does that sound terrific? So, Dotty goes out to save George's soul and he starts feeding her the old oil. Of course, all he's out for is a good lay, but before long he finds himself watching the sun rise without even thinking of making a pass at her. The soul crap is beginning to get to him, see? He tells her she's the first dame he ever met he didnt' think about that way. Now give me a second to dope this out...

As this splendid little glossary of "Glickisms" shows, Schulberg was a human Babelfish when it came to Hollywood double-talk.

For Waterfront, Schulberg spent three years doing research alongside a priest who ministered to the workers, as this lovely tribute from writer and professor James T. Fisher describes. (Hat tip: Glenn Kenny.) But did Schulberg load and unload ships day after backbreaking day, with that as his sole means of survival? Had he ever strummed a guitar and plotted his way out of poverty and the drunk tank? Only in imagination. That, and Schulberg knew how to listen, as Fisher notes: "Budd was an amazingly gifted listener; perhaps the result of a lifelong if highly manageable speech impediment, but more likely because listening was simply his supreme gift."

And if you are going to have one supreme gift as a writer, that's the one to have. RIP, Mr. Schulberg.


Spare some good thoughts for the Siren today. She is leaving for Paris for two weeks, with three kids in tow. Posting will continue at her usual snail's pace.