Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Russians Are Still Coming


A gratifyingly large turnout for Mission to Moscow last night, and a lively panel discussion that was worthy of the movie, with all its surprises, historical interest, controversy and occasional loopiness. Glenn has his summary here, and Lou gives the lowdown here, along with Night 2 of the TCM Shadows of Russia festival. Ed Hulse was wonderful, putting the movie into its context within studio history and the war films being made at the time.

During her part of the panel discussion Siren spoke about the artists involved in making the film and offered some opinions about the drama and visuals. She lightly mentioned Ambassador Davies arriving on the Sea Cloud with his wife, heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, and their stepdaughter. "That's not true!" barked a lady from the back. This lady was none other than Joseph Davies' real-life granddaughter, the offspring of the woman played in Mission to Moscow by gorgeous Eleanor Parker. She took the mike and gave some family background for a few minutes, including an explanation of her half-Belgian background and why the family brought an enormous shipment of Bird's Eye frozen food to Moscow, and handed the mike back to Lou with explaining her interruption. So the Siren had to ask, did the Sea Cloud go to Leningrad? The family didn't arrive on the Sea Cloud, the lady explained sternly; the famed yacht joined them in Leningrad later.

For tonight, the Siren hopes everyone who hasn't seen Comrade X will tune in. It suffers by comparison with the magnificent Ninotchka, which screens directly afterward, but Comrade X is surprisingly watchable, via the great King Vidor. It boasts one of Hedy Lamarr's better performances as well as a funny turn by Eve Arden as Clark Gable's spurned lover and some unexpectedly sharp barbs.

Ninotchka--well, the Siren doesn't have to talk anyone into that one, does she? According to Wilder biographer Ed Sikov, William Powell was originally cast opposite Garbo, but he got sick and couldn't do it. The role was then offered to Cary Grant (he'd have been swell) and Gary Cooper (nope) and finally came to rest with Melvyn Douglas who was, of course, perfect.

The Way We Were was written up by James Wolcott in Vanity Fair some time back with customary panache. David Ehrenstein once stated in this blog's comments that he thinks Arthur Laurents was chronicling his own love for Farley Granger, a theory that, for the Siren, adds an extra bit of interest to the film.

Overnight, two that the Siren hasn't seen but will be recording: 1938's Spring Madness, starring Maureen O'Sullivan (who isn't a Siren love) and Lew Ayres (who is), and 1970's The Strawberry Statement, starring Bruce Davison and Kim Darby, whom the Siren hasn't seen in a big-screen movie besides True Grit.

43 comments:

Vadim said...

The Siren showed commendable restraint. I was very ready to tell that woman she was being downright boorish.

The Siren said...

Vadim, you were there? You should have come over to say hi afterward! What did you think of the flick?

Lou Lumenick said...

The luxurious Sea Cloud is not only still afloat, and you can book a cruise in "the cabin where Dina Merrill, daughter of Marjorie Merriweather Post and Ed Hutton, spent much of her childhood.'' http://tinyurl.com/seacloud

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

1938's Spring Madness, starring Maureen O'Sullivan (who isn't a Siren love)

I have enough love for Mo to cover you, your Sirenship.

The Siren said...

Ivan, John Nolte is ga-ga for Maureen too as are a couple of my other patient readers, but she just has very little appeal for me, except in Hannah and Her Sisters.

gmoke said...

If "The Strawberry Statement" is being shown does that mean that "The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart" will also come into the light of day once again. It features a nude sequence by Holly Near, if memory serves.

Salty Dog said...

I know TCM does not post the shorts placed between features until the last minute, but is there any chance they will be showing RED NIGHTMARE, the Jack Webb-hosted, Twilight Zone-esque bit of anti-communist paranoia, presented by the US government? It would be a very appropriate addition to these films.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Comrade X was on TCM today, and Hedy was enchanting.


Don Johnson was also superb in that nude scene. He was Hollywood's answer to Joe Dallesandro in those days.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Ninotchka was also on today. In the words of the great Frank O'Hara "If Garbo had not returned to Paris at the end Melvyn Douglas, Spokesman of Capitalism, would have been a fool not to join her in Moscow or Leningrad and the whole audience knew it."

Arthur S. said...

Years later, Billy Wilder made a sequel of-sorts to Ninotchka, the fantastically vulgar One, Two, Three the communists are cut from the same cloth.

I love Ninotchka and one reason I like it is that it doesn't belittle Ninotchka's communist ideas or sees her as some befuddled person, it takes her seriously despite the gags her stiff nature creates. All that of course is possible by the virtues of perfect casting. As per Robert Altman, that's 95% of the job done. In this case, it's a hundred because Garbo manages to allow you to take that character seriously and with respect while also creating a lot of the hilarious jokes in the movie.

The scene in the cafe where Melvyn Douglas tries to make her laugh is what movies are made of. And the level of respect for the character is that we don't see her character breaking into laughter, the serious expression suddenly laughing out loud. We join in on her laughter at Melvyn Douglas' expense which is the opposite of the usual romantic-comedy gimmick you get in n-number of films.

VP81955 said...

If you don't view "Comrade X" through a "Ninotchka" prism, it comes off as a pretty good movie, one of the last times we got to see the pre-war, devil-may-care Gable. Lamarr does a fine job, and it's unfortunate she never got to do more comedies; perhaps her beauty worked against her.

"Ninotchka" is, of course, a great film -- and yet, while watching it I wondered what William Powell would have brought to the part of the male lead. Nothing against Melvyn Douglas, mind you, but it's unfortunate Powell never got a chance to work with Garbo or Lubitsch. (Interesting that Robert Osborne mentioned Cary Grant as a possible male lead, but didn't note the part would have been Powell's had it not been for his illness.)

X. Trapnel said...

Douglas is fine in Ninotchka but I maintain the ideal Leon would have been Charles Boyer.

DavidEhrenstein said...

You're quite right, Arthur. Ninotchka isn't an idiot. She's a very intelligent woman whose career has forced her to put her emotional life on hold. Paris (and Douglas) simply opens that dormant part of herself up to her. Her great "but wait" speech is genuinely touching. And what makes it touching is Garbo. JEEZ she was Fabulous!

Her persona -- off-screen as well as on -- was quite the deal. Christopher Isherwood said that hanging out with her in a social setting was "like being with someone wanted for murder." She was terrified back in those days. But in retirement she was quite relaxed. All New York prized Garbo and no one would have dreamed of being so gauche as to intrude upon he august person. Garbo-sightings (which weren't all that infrequent) were spoken of by those who got a glimpse of the goddess as if they had been graced by the visit of a Good Fairy.

I well recall the summer when I was working as an usher at the Baronet/Coronet theaters on Third. (Are they still there?) They had a Garbo series and, ebi he bigest fan, she called the theater when Queen Christina was showing. She wanted to know the exact time when they lights went down so she could slip in unobserved. We were all informed of this. As the public had entered by that time the lobby was cleared and Garbo rushed in (giving me a nod as she passed) leaping up the stairs two at a time. When the end credits rolled she slipped out the back way.

No one remaotely like her. She was the Ne Plus Ultra of cinematic romance.

DavidEhrenstein said...

And speaking of Garbo in retirement, leave us not forget THIS!

Yes, it was her in that footage.

The Siren said...

I am now and forever a Garbo fan. If I had seen her walking in New York I would probably have had a seizure. Offscreen she is an enigma but onscreen she is the definition of a goddess.

And a hearty "amen" to all David and Arthur have to say on her in Ninotchka. Rewatching last night I was also struck by how, despite the fisheye given to Russian repression and privations, the exiled aristos come across as far more petty and selfish. You feel that they were quite right to kick Ina Claire out on her can. It's Ninotchka who agrees to give up her love because she doesn't want people to go hungry, after all.

Donna said...

@David

Were those screenings in 1981-82? If so, OMG, I was there!

I watched Ninotchka last night, first time in many moons and was struck again at the glory that is that incandescent creature named Garbo.

I love Melvyn Douglas, but my heart belongs to Mr. Powell, OMG, he would have been perfect, truly. That little extra dose of elan and I would have melted into my shoes.

Karen said...

I'm with Donna. I do adore Melvyn Douglas in the role--it was the role that caused me to love Melvyn Douglas, in fact--but WILLIAM POWELL? Be still, my beating heart! Now all I can do is replay the whole film in my head with him in it.

Was this during his cancer scare?

Vanwall said...

Things in Imperial Russia weren't much different from The Bolshies in a lot of ways, especially scale, as with most things Russian, well let's just say, if it was worth doing it was worth doing to excess. And that went for repression and the entire Potemkin Village of Russian self-delusion as well.

"In capitalism, man exploits man - in Communism, is other way 'round." This could apply to the myriad Dukes and Duchesses of the White Diaspora, just look at the palaces they left behind, along with the utter poverty of the peasants. And they were peasants, of the feudal kind. It doesn't seem there is much of a rosy scenario on the steppes, and in the oil and mineral-rich Caucasus, the Imperialists flaunted the excesses to interesting extremes. There was a reason for the Revolution, but they just didn't throw out the excesses like they planned, they simply morphed them into their own warped visions.

Vanwall said...

BTW, I love the screen tests Garbo did post-war, that never went anywhere - she was awesome, and I'm not really a big fan of hers usually.

DavidEhrenstein said...

The screenings I'm talking about were back in 1964, Donna.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Those screen tests were shot by James Wong Howe, Van. They were done in order to drum up interest in a film Max ophuls wanted to make of Balzac's "The Duchess of Langeais" -- one of the three nouvelles in his L'Histoire des 13."

Ophuls had spent all his U.S. years making independetn films that were released by thne majors. He was never signed by a big studio, but made masterpieces like Letter From An Unknown Woman, Caught and The Reckless Moment anyway. He had Garbo do the screen tests to prove to the moneyment that she was still there. But they didn't bite. So Garbo went back inot retirement and Opls got the hell out of Dodge and returned to europe where he made La Ronde, Le Plaisir, made De. . . and Lola Montes.

"The Duchess of Langeais" saw the light of a projector a couple of years back when Jacques Rivette filmed it with the lovely Jeanne Balibar and the beautiful, doomed one-legged Guillaume Depardieu udner Balzac's original title Don't Touch The Axe. It's teriffic.
Back in 1971 he was isntpired by "L'Histoire des 13" to create his ultimate mad masterpeice Out 1

Peter Nellhaus said...

The one other movie with Kim Darby worth seeing is Robert Aldrich's The Grissom Gang. And I'm not parting with the out of print novel it's based on, No Orchids for Miss Blandish by James Hadley Chase.

Arthur S. said...

Ne touchez pas la hache is a super-masterpiece and Jeanne Balibar and the much-missed-and-mourned Depardieu, fils are simply put the greatest sexual clash in film history since Cary Grant and Roz Russell in His Girl Friday(apparently the divine Jeanne Balibar was asked to look at that exact film by Rivette before working on Va Savoir) or Carole Lombard and John Barrymore in Twentieth Century.

The Ophuls film particularly with Mason opposite Garbo is of course a great missed opportunity but the Rivette film eases the pain of the loss. I hear this film was a great box-office success in France. As Woody Allen said once, "Thank God the French exist."

Vadim said...

Would've loved to say hi, but this week's been a combination of work and hosting a visitor that left me zero time to talk to anyone. That was my treat for the day.

The movie is pretty much as you said, though I've got a deep masochistic streak (culturally anyway) that got scratched here. It *was* occasionally gorgeous, and I'm looking forward to digging into some of the Curtiz rarities the Forum will be serving up during their newspaper series, time permitting.

Vanwall said...

Peter -
Chase, (what a lovely, pulpy nom-de-guerre he had) and Peter Cheney are my two favorite Brit Noir writers, and Cheney's Lemmy Caution was of that same cross-purposes/cross-cultural slanguage that Chase's work used. Not quite tin ear, more galvanized sheet metal ear, but very distinctive and fun. The '49 film of NOFMB is a hoot, BTW.

cgeye said...

But it made up for matters to see Powell (with, truly, the incomparable Luise Rainier) in The Emperor's Candlesticks, the night before. He was so smooth, and manly without being dense or brutal.

verif: Vices. With that sort of wardrobe Miss Rainier was wearing, most certainly.

The Siren said...

Cgeye, can't wait to watch the Candlesticks, which is on the DVR.

No Orchids has been on my "must see" list for yonks.

I figure no one needs me to go on about Ophuls again, but yeah, that never-made Balzac hurts deeply. I should see the Rivette. I did continue with the foreign-film watching but got so far behind the 8-ball while closing on the house and moving that I ceased to update. Thought about re-resolving but then thought, who'm I kiddin'?

Arthur S. said...

Well I was sick the whole of this week and spent the whole time home watching movies. On tuesday, I saw Rohmer's ''Die Marquise von O...'', an amazing film, he took four years to make the film because he needed the time to learn 18th Century German to write the dialogues...there's also a pretty funny cameo of Rohmer himself in period garb as a Russian soldier looking amazingly confused. Then yesterday I did me a John Ford double bill - ''The Last Hurrah''(an amazing Spencer Tracy role and Ford's last contemporary-set film) and ''The Wings of Eagles''.

Today was ''Ivan the Terrible'' day, I saw Parts I and II then the extras on the Criterion. A monumental, awe-inspiring work of art. Eisenstein's life achievement in this compromised, unfinished work. His career was far more misshapen than Welles' and much more compromised. The second part of ''Ivan the Terrible'' might be the only completely Eisenstein film in existence and he had to die before its release. I wonder if you thought about Russian classics vis-a-vis the Hollywood commie-paranoid film series because the second part of Ivan is a very self-critical reflection about a disillusioned leftist.

The Siren said...

Ah, the days when I could watch movies all day if I was sick in bed ... they are long gone but I am so jealous.

Both "Ivans" are stunning achievements and the two halves are fascinating mirror images--part one an apologia for the iron fist Russia supposedly needs, part two the morning after, as you say. We always wanted Hollywood visions of Russia so Eisenstein was never considered but a Russia by Russians grouping is eminently possible. Or, maybe, flipping the premise--visions of the West and democracy and capitalism through the eyes of others.

X. Trapnel said...

Strictly speaking, there are almost no Hollywood visions of Russia, only ideological pinhole views, right and left. Ninotchka is by far the best for a myriad of reasons (the scenes in Russia are right out of Mikhail Zoshchenko [the Russian Ring Lardner]), not least through its human scale. I'm trying to keep an open mind about Reds (which I have not yet seen), but somehow the ideological disillusionment of an American (of course) journalist does not seem to me an occassion for epic. (Ok, I expect a conflict between glowing American idealism and Russian awfulness.)

Arthur S. said...

A famous one would be Lev Kuleshov who was an Americophile. He made a comedy called The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks and later did The Great Consoler based on O. Henry stories. Eisenstein famously came to Hollywood to try and make the first adaptation of An American Tragedy(which was done by Sternberg and which is a great film despite the cuts done to it) but apparently anti-communist and anti-semitic cancelled that. Who knows he might have defected.

Eisenstein with Ivan... was inventing a whole new film language. It's among many things the first major artistic synthesis of Freud and Marx which would become a project of post-war philosophy. So he was totally ahead of his time.

Anyway, back on topic, including it in the series might have worked as a critique of Russia by itself which people think is totally absent. Eisenstein was far harsher on Russia than most right-wingers were about Communism. One thing with Ivan... was that he was making the national tragedy of Russia, not just secretly criticizng Stalin and Soviet bureaucracy but going beyond that to include a critique on the Russian people's dependance on power-figures. Interestingly there's a funny cameo by Pudovkin dressed as a chained peasant in the film.

Images of the west and democracy under the eyes of others would not really be needed since so many of the great films of the 30s-through-50s Hollywood were made by emigres who appreciated Hollywood and America for their democractic freedoms and also saw the dark side of the mirror. Fritz Lang especially, but also Sirk and Preminger.

DavidEhrenstein said...

You're quite right, Arthur. Don't Touch the Axe was the fuirst genuine box office hit in Rivette's long career. Lines aroudn the block to see a "period picture." Everyone knew that while the costumes were of another era the sentiments were thoroughly contemporary.

Unbelieveably sad about Depardieu fils. When I first interviewed his father -- quite number of years back -- he had come to L.A. to put Guillaume into a drug treatment center. This was before he took up acting. Alas it did not work. Worse still Guillaume turned on Gerard. Gerard is no picnic but he did love his son -- however imperfectly.

Arthur S. said...

Can't imagine how he felt when that happened...he looks a lot like his father, Guillaume, only more serious and I must say, more handsome. Rivette said that this was a case where he wanted to build a film around the two leads and upon doing that started looking at the public domain catalogue, and then returned to Balzac again. Restoring the original, and superior, title over the bland The Duchess of Langeis is a characteristic touch.

Personally, I have always loved period films - anything set in the past, anything related to history, basically anything that gets us to imagine what the past was really like, because it ends up having us look at the present. Bertolt Brecht insisted on plays set in historically distant periods for that reason, he felt it was more political. For me, it's more for exotic reasons rather than an axe to grind, I'll admit. And Rivette and Rohmer have kept the period costume drama tradition well and truly alive.

X. Trapnel said...

I agree with Arthur's point about period films, i.e., they are of necessity an imagined past, imagined brilliantly or crudely and in either case illuminating the sensibilites of the present. There's a valuable distinction to made as well between films that deal with the remote past and events that are still within living memory (I wouldn't attempt any generalizations here). One thing I love about The Adventures of Robin Hood (which has nothing whatever to do with medieval England) is its evocation of the Victorian/Tennysonian spirit which was still in the air.
A sense of the past (as per Henry James) is essential to the creative imagination.

Vanwall said...

I'm afraid the Soviet hand was too heavy on any real self-criticism for the first 40 or so years of it's existence, and went to extremes to banish any real hints of counter-revolutionary thought from film, and their makers from existence. They weren't obtuse either, the much discussed "Salt for Svanetia" by Kalatazov was seen for what it was, subtly critical and too artistic even tho it was, like most Soviet "documentaries", mostly staged. BTW If you ever get a chance, see "Nail in the Boot", again by Kalatazov in 1931, which is one of the best unknown war movies in addition to being a visual feast, full of "Citizen Kane" angles and close-ups.
Of course it wasn't didacticly Soviet enough, so it was banned. A clip is here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5SMMRgY_xvQ

The comedies were the most curious, and allowed a lot "sick-think" to creep thru. In a regime that let Pasternak survive, but "disappeared" anyone who researched sunspots, (go figure)the chances of survival were good only for the lucky, or the quick.

X. Trapnel said...

Pasternak survived because of a strange "personal interest" Stalin took in him. "Do not touch the cloud dweller," he is supposed to have said. This would make a great movie. Such a film should include the incident (in the late 40s, an especially dangerous time) in which BP virtually sabotaged a propaganda poetry event by reading his own poems (not on the evening's designated theme) before a vast crowd, which went wild. The offical hack presiding over the event pounded his gavel furiously, but gave up, Harry Carey like and was even seen moving his lips to Pasternak's poems.

Now THAT is Russia.

The Siren said...

XT, when I visited Moscow for 10 days in the late 90s, one thing made me love Russia more than ever: When I went into the subway station dedicated to Chekhov, there were always fresh flowers at the foot of his statue. Ditto Pushkin.

What an extraordinary story about Pasternak! I took a "Russian Lit in Translation" course in college; the prof was sniffy about Doctor Zhivago and said Pasternak's poetry was the business, but only in Russian. This is echoed by Russian friends who all tell me Pasternak's poetry is much better than the novel, but the poetry doesn't translate. (I still loved DZ though and have great affection for the movie though my patient readers' sentiments on that one are well known to me!)

My big failure in Moscow was being unable to get to Bulgakov's apartment.

Arthur S. said...

I don't think we can judge Soviet self-criticism by the cut-and-dry standards that the democractic civilization is familiar with. People considered Ivan the Terrible as Eisenstein's ultimate sell-out to Uncle Joe when it wasn't and when Uncle Joe and his friends were very ambivalent to it. Part I for instance was censored, Part II shelved, Part III stillborn. Ivan Part III was to have ended with the Tsar walking all alone to the beach, near death while behind him Russia was in ruins...the drawings show that. What does that tell you?

You might as well reproach Shakespeare for not having the guts to go after Elizabethan society which was quite totalitarian, going so far as to imprisoning Ben Jonson, and most famously murdering Shakespeare's far more provocative mentor, Christopher Marlowe. Instead Shakespeare lived comfortably and ended up living in an expensive district of London at his retirement from stage.

X. Trapnel said...

Siren, try and get a hold of Alexander Gladkov's Meetings with Pasternak which has a wonderfully vivid and detailed description of the incident (I left out the best part: some brave/suicidal soul shouted out "Give us the 66th!" (i.e., Pasternak's translation of Shakespeare's 66th sonnet ["And art made tongue-tied by authority"]).

Pasternak (an obsession of mine since adolescence) is a misery to translate (I know; I've tried). To get a feeling for what he's like I'd suggest reading some of Louis MacNeice's 1930s poems (esp. "Mayfly," "Snow," "June Thunder," "Trilogy for X").

Doctor Zhivago is a very problematic and ambiguous affair. Pasternak did not have a novelist's temperment (as, for example, an interest in other people) and it certainly suffers from the intellectual deep-freeze he and other Russian intellectuals lived within. As Isaiah Berlin noted, time stopped for him in 1917. Still, it's a great book without being a great novel and nothing to sniff at.

I wouldn't mind the movie if the title and all of the names of the characters were changed.

The Russians, unlike us, cherish their cultural inheritance and will never trash it.

There are some brief clips of Pasternak on Youtube.

Lou Lumenick said...

David, The Baronet and Coronet closed on September 10, 2001 -- 9/11 cut short a film festival commemorating its final week in business. The theater was torn down, an apartment building put up in its place.

Ian said...

I fell in love with Maureen after watching Spring Madness. This was unexpected. I hope to hear your thoughts on it soon.

Moira Finnie said...

Hi Siren,
I'm just stopping by to let you know that you have been awarded the Kreativ Blogger Award-the details are found here. (Please pardon the spelling, it arrived on my blogstep with that eccentric spelling).

I am so grateful to you and your fellow programmers for the Shadows of Russia series this month, though I don't know if my DVR will survive all the films I've been saving. I savor your writing and learn from you each time I dive into your fascinating blog. I hope that this is indeed a happy birthday month for you.
All the best,
Moira

The Siren said...

Moira, thanks so much for the award and the kind words, they are both very much appreciated.