Monday, March 29, 2010

Watching Movies With My Mother


(The scene: The Siren's living room, kids and Mr. C in bed. We just finished watching There's Always Tomorrow (Douglas Sirk, 1956)--we both loved it, of course.)

Me: I've seen Vinnie before. (William Reynolds, who plays Fred MacMurray's square-jawed, glowering son.) He reminds me of a lot of those '50s teen actors, like Troy Donahue and...

Mom: Tab Hunter.

Me: Him too. They all played similar types, good-looking...

Mom: Upright...

Me: It makes me appreciate Rock Hudson, he was different.

Mom: Oh yes, he broke the mold. (Pause) Of course, at the time we didn't know which mold he was breaking.

(Grateful hat-tip to Girish Shambu, who also watches Barbara Stanwyck movies with his mother, and who sent me the DVD. Other thoughts on There's Always Tomorrow may be found at Glenn Kenny's place.)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Anecdote of the Week: "Subversive? With That Sombrero?"


I got nothin'. I mean, seriously nothing. So here is yet another one I have been saving.

The Siren is too hard on Marilyn Monroe and she realizes that. She realized it even more Tuesday night at a raucously appreciative showing of All About Eve. On the Ziegfeld's screen, the precision of Monroe's timing becomes even more delightful. The party scene is Monroe's most famous, but the Siren has a special place in her heart for Monroe swanning out of the ladies, shall we say, lounge and murmuring, in reply to George Sanders asking how she feels, "Like I just swam the English Channel."

So here is a little Marilyn story, one that doesn't involve Joe DiMaggio or being late to the set. It's from Norma Barzman's The Red and the Blacklist, which deals with Barzman's marriage to left-wing screenwriter Ben (The Boy With Green Hair, Give Us This Day, El Cid) and their subsequent blacklisting and exile. Some of this anecdote rings true, some of it not so much, but it reads well.

In a chapter candidly called "The Shit Hits the Electric Fan," Norma talks about about a sultry night in Los Angeles in 1947. She's gone out on the lawn in search of a breeze and Ben, clad in a sombrero and loud print shirt acquired on vacation in Acapulco, joins his wife. They sip gin-and-tonics and notice that cars keep slowing down in front of their house. Neighbor Groucho Marx breezes by, wearing a pith helmet and pushing daughter Melinda in a pram, and remarks to Norma that it's awfully hot: "Of course, it's doubly hot for you--with two kinds of heat. But don't ask me for anything more than ice cubes, which is as far as my sympathies go."

The Barzmans barely have time to decode this when an outdated white Cadillac convertible pulls up, top down and Monroe behind the wheel. The actress, whom they've never seen before, shimmers over to the couple and remarks that she's on her way to a party at the Minnellis and gee, the sombrero looked fun. Would somebody get her a drink?

I'd venture to say that a woman resembling Monroe could still get a gin and tonic from a random stranger at a moment's notice. Ben leaps up and fetches her the drink (the Siren imagines a variation of "Thank you, Mr. Fabian") and she starts to talk. Well, ramble mostly. About the importance in Hollywood of having a signature drink, and did they think a gin and tonic would work for her? And Murphy's Law, which Norma hasn't heard of. Monroe says her mother always told her not to be the one to bring bad news, on account of Murphy's Law.


'You were trying to make up your mind whether or not to tell us something unpleasant?' I prompted.

'Don't you know?' she asked hopefully. We shook our heads. She took a deep breath. 'There's a deputy sheriff's car with two cops at the bottom of this hill. They're stopping practically every car coming up the hill. There was this guy in front of me and the deputy stopped him so suddenly I almost hit him. I was really upset. Then I hear the deputy ask the guy where he was going? Was he going to your address by any chance?'

'Our address?' I asked incredulously.

'I heard it loud and clear. The guy said no and the cop waves him on. Then I drove up. "You stopped that guy so suddenly I almost crashed into him." The cop says in that way I hate--I seem to bring it out in most guys--"Lady, I wouldn't have stopped you," then he grins a big fat grin and says, "I sure would've, if I'd had an excuse." Well, to make a long story short, he leans over me, he's a really big guy, and says, "You don't happen to be going to 1290 Sunset Plaza Drive?"'

I gasped.

'"No, I don't,"' she said. 'That's your number, isn't it?' It was. 'What's going on? Is there a murder or something?'

The ground had slipped from under me in one of those near Los Angeles land-shifts. I guessed what was coming.

The girl went on. '"The sheriff's office is keeping an eye on the house. Subversive groups are meeting there." Well, sir, I really blew. I said, "Who the hell is this sheriff of yours? Hitler?" Gee whiz. Subversive? With that sombrero?'

I moved closer to Ben. 'You mean he's told everybody on this hill we're subversive?'

'So what did the deputy sheriff do finally?' Ben asked.

'Oh, he gave me a ticket for obstructing traffic,' the girl said. 'My mother was right. There's no percentage in being the one who brings lousy news.'

Friday, March 19, 2010

Adultery at the Movies; Or, How to Get Rielle Photos Out of Your Head

The Siren is obsessing over a news story again. Briefly distracted by news that Bernie Madoff got the living hell stomped out of him in prison, she found herself confronted by John Edwards. I've been avoiding the Edwards saga because, frankly, I really liked the jerk's health-care proposals. So once it became obvious that I had thrown my support behind a self-regarding horse's ass, I sort of checked out. Tea Parties, Oscars, the bond market, the Finnish dock workers' strike--I would read anything that got me away from John & Elizabeth & Rielle & Andrew.

This week, however, I tore myself away from the fed-funds rate and read that GQ interview with Rielle Hunter, the one where she proves her dedication to the image of women everywhere by stripping to her scanties and plopping down next to Dora the Explorer. I can explain my madness only by comparing it to the impulse that had me watching The Oscar, although in all fairness The Oscar had better photography and Eleanor Parker looks better half-naked. My brain froze, my eyelids drooped, I started to wonder what was for dinner, and still I read on in search of one sentence that would show some form of self-awareness. There are no words for this woman's vacuity, only images--it's the Pyramids, it's the steppes of Russia, it's the pants on a Roxy usher. And I kept muttering to myself, over and over again, "Jesus wept, John, YOUR TASTE."

So, in order to clear her brain of the stuffed-animal clutter that is "Hello America, My Name Is Rielle Hunter," the Siren started to think about Adultery at the Movies, where love is set to Rachmaninoff, "Un Sospiro" or Max Steiner and not the Dave Matthews Band. Here are images from ten movies where people lie and sneak and cheat on their spouses, but by god, they do it with someone worthy and they do it with style.



1. The Earrings of Madame de...


2. Letter From an Unknown Woman


3. Children of Paradise


4. Brief Encounter


5. Now, Voyager


6. The Postman Always Rings Twice


7. A Summer Place


8. That Hamilton Woman


9. Strangers When We Meet


10. Deception

Monday, March 15, 2010

Anecdote of the Week: Merle and David Make a Death Scene



The Siren has been saving this one, from The Moon's a Balloon by David Niven, the funniest star autobiography she's ever read. Warning (and I am very serious here) read no further if you treasure the death scene in Wuthering Heights. You will never look at it the same way again.

So, if you're still here, it's 1939, and Niven, as Edgar Linton, is playing the death scene of Catherine Earnshaw, played by Merle Oberon. Flora Robson, Laurence Olivier and Geraldine Fitzgerald are on set for Cathy's final moments. Niven is supposed to break down in sobs. The problem: Niven can't cry. He tells Wyler, who by way of consolation bellows to the assembled cast and crew, "Here's an actor who says he can't act!" Niven attempts to give Wyler what he wants.

I tried and it was pretty grisly. Tam Williams got hiccups bottling his laughter and Larry looked up the chimney.

I tried again.

'Jesus,' said Wyler, 'can you make a crying face?'

I made some sort of squashed-up grimace.

'Oh God,' he groaned. 'IRVING!'

Irving Sindler, the prop man, was instantly at his side.

'Give him the blower,' said Wyler.

Gregg Toland, the cameraman, gave his signals, and the film started passing through the sprockets.

'The blower, Irving!' said Wyler.

Through a handkerchief, Sindler puffed menthol into my open eyes.

'Bend over the corpse...Heave your shoulders.' Crying face...Blink your eyes...squeeze a little...'Bend over the corpse...Heave your shoulders.'

A terrible thing happened. Instead of tears coming out of my eyes, green slime came out of my nose.

'Ooh!! How HORRID!' shrieked the corpse, who shot out of bed and disappeared at high speed into her dressing room.


By the way, the Siren adores the still above. Maybe it's just her dirty mind, but it suggests all sorts of scenarios that would give Joe Breen apoplexy.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Merle and Sarah Jane


Imitation of Life and The Oscar lead, in the Siren's convoluted mental Hollywood, to Merle Oberon, the lady who gives out the Oscar in the latter's finale. In her early roles, like The Private Life of Henry VIII and These Three, Oberon had one of the most exquisitely, symmetrically beautiful faces in the history of movies. A perfect oval shape, a nose and mouth balanced just so and breathtaking eyes.

But here is the Imitation of Life twist, no great secret anymore: Oberon's mother was a dark-skinned Ceylonese woman named Charlotte Selby. Some say Charlotte was actually her grandmother, complicating matters; but she raised Merle, and Merle appears to have thought Charlotte was her mother. In any event, Oberon, née Estelle Merle Thompson, spent her life hiding her heritage from Hollywood and the world.




A modern person gazes at the features that columnists called "exotic" and can't figure out how Oberon managed a 40-year career without anyone wising up to the fact that she was half-Asian. And, in fact, she didn't keep it from everyone. The rumor about Oberon's parentage was around for years before it was confirmed in the 1980s by writers Charles Higham and Roy Moseley and by Michael Korda, her nephew by marriage, among others.

Unlike Sarah Jane, Oberon didn't abandon the woman she thought was her mother. She provided for her, stashing her in a flat in London, visiting her and paying all her bills. Oberon lived in glamourous digs that contained no nostalgic pictures of little Queenie, as she was nicknamed in childhood, in her mother's arms. When in London, Merle never said to a friend, "I'd like you to meet my mother." It is said that when visitors asked, Merle pretended Charlotte was the maid.

The Siren likes actors, and even when she doesn't, she admires them. Most of them. When I trouble to write at length about an actor, occasionally I start out rather cool, but I almost always end by feeling affection.




I feel no such affection for Oberon. But she intrigues me no end. How do you reach that point in your ambitions--the point where you'd deny your own mother?

Wikipedia has a odd little phrase in its lengthy and tortuous Merle Oberon entry: "She believed the truth would have destroyed her career prospects." Believed, rubbish. Without question the truth would have kept her from playing leads, thanks to the Production Code's miscegenation clause. No Anglo-Indian woman would ever have played Catherine Earnshaw in 1939. In fact, that casting would cause grumbling in some quarters in 2010, albeit carefully phrased in terms of history and plausibility.

Lena Horne tells of how in her early days, showmen said she was light-skinned enough to play Latina or white. Horne snapped back that she was also dark enough to be what she was. Horne had the courage. But Oberon had the stardom.

If Oberon would not acknowledge her mother in public, neither did she leave her to fate. Her mother was cared for, but concealed. And the Siren will always wonder, how did Charlotte feel, day by day? Was it enough to be provided for by her dazzling daughter, or did that make it worse?

She had a hardscrabble childhood, did Merle, one that she pulled herself out of by becoming a companion to older, wealthy, well-connected men. Whether that extended to outright prostitution is another Oberon mystery. But she worked her way to London and hitched her wagon to Alexander Korda, marrying him some years later.




Oberon became a star, but not a great actress. Oh, she was just right on occasion. Under William Wyler's steel hand she was perfect for These Three, impossibly lovely and poised, the very essence of the things that will always elude Miriam Hopkins. Her character is the sort of woman to whom fate will always lend a hand, because she is beautiful, because men adore her.




She played the same kind of part in The Scarlet Pimpernel, yet made Marguerite more sympathetic than she was in the book. She had a brief affair with Leslie Howard and a more serious one with David Niven. The Siren can't tell you whether Niven, a canny mortal and a world-class gossip, knew. If so, it did nothing to diminish her appeal for him at the time; but he didn't marry her.

During the 1937 filming of I, Claudius Oberon, who'd been cast as Messalina, was in a car accident that sounded the production's death knell and gave us one of the great "what ifs" of movie history. Her face was badly cut and required surgery. In later movies she is still a great beauty, but the pure perfection is gone.




The decade wound down with The Divorce of Lady X and closed with the biggest role of Oberon's career, Cathy in Wuthering Heights. She is appealing in that romantic movie, enough to make Laurence Olivier's love believable, but she lacks the wild, deeply unnerving passion that is the essence of Bronte.




Later good parts for Oberon came in That Uncertain Feeling and Lydia. Some sources claim an allergic reaction to sulfa drugs, compounded by dermabrasion afterward, further marred her looks. She made movies throughout the 1940s, including a preposterous piece of biopic casting as George Sand in A Song to Remember. She also made the very good Jack the Ripper thriller, The Lodger, where she met the great cinematographer Lucien Ballard and eventually married him. He invented a light to help keep the illusion of Oberon's beauty. Still, toward decade's end she began to experience the fading appeal that is the lot of most actresses.

Charlotte Selby, whether mother or grandmother, died in 1937.




As her roles dwindled Merle had compensations. She collected jewelry, she had parties, she painted pictures of flowers. She eased into a jet-set lifestyle, adopted children, and finally moved on to retirement with the Dutch actor who eventually moved on to Audrey Hepburn.

Her filmography consists of roles as love objects of varying degrees of fragility and refinement. You have to look hard in an Oberon performance to find any glint of the iron will that could take a woman from squalid beginnings, to Calcutta nightclubs, then to London, then to Hollywood, and finally to international society, all the while living Sarah Jane's lie. The Siren has never managed to spot it. Each time I see an Oberon movie, I get a thrill from her beauty, but no hint of the riddle's solution. Was she a Scarlett O'Hara who was never going to go hungry again, one to be pitied for the choices racism foisted on her? Or just a Fane-type conniver plying her primary gift, her face, for whatever advantage it would bring?




June Duprez had an opinion, and she expressed it at length in John Kobal's People Will Talk. Duprez had memorable roles in two of the Siren's favorite movies, The Four Feathers and The Thief of Baghdad, but her stay in Hollywood was a miserable one partly, she said, because Oberon backstabbed her. Oberon went out of her way to snub Duprez, and may also have done her best to see that the rest of Hollywood society snubbed the young actress as well. Maybe, said Duprez, it went back to the time that they both showed up at a party in London wearing a white lace dress and a diamond necklace.

Well, Duprez resembled Oberon, but Duprez was seven years younger. That alone could earn an actress's grudge.

Or maybe Duprez needed to cast a single villain in a role that belonged to sheer bad luck. By the time Duprez talked to Kobal, Oberon had been dead for six years, felled by a stroke in 1979.




Now we all hear a lot about the pain and pathos of stardom. Some stories are tragedies by any definition: Wallace Reid, Clara Bow, Rita Hayworth, Gene Tierney, John Garfield, Canada Lee. Other actors' laments leave you thinking that ordinary people make sacrifices, too, only with less fuss and far fewer rewards.

Oberon's life was no tragedy; her mother's, perhaps, was.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Return to Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear...


That's what the Siren is saying to the one and only Ivan G. Shreve, proprietor of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, one of the oldest and best classic-film blogs around. Ivan is a fine writer and a swell guy. According to Edward Copeland, Ivan has fallen ill and been hospitalized. Please join the Siren in sending your finest healing light to Ivan. May he get well soon and be back to his dryly witty old self in no time.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The Oscar (1966)


Props to Dan Callahan. The Citizen Kane of bad movies is the best description evah. It's awe-inspiring, how no hint of talent or artistry crops up to mar the perfection of The Oscar's badness. No detail was too small to fuck up. My new life's ambition is to watch this with the Blogdorf Goodman crew and Beauty Addict, because the makeup is the world's most complete list of don'ts. Jill St. John's eyelids were turned into baby blue dinner plates and Eleanor Parker (ah, Eleanor, how you suffered for this one) had her coral lips drawn way outside the mouth edge (girls, don't ever do that). The costume designer signals which women are the tarts (St. John and Edie Adams) by dressing them both in doubleknit polyester that drapes straight down like a windowshade and has the added benefit of making their breasts look like lemons stuck to a wall. Even the hairstyles are awful, especially when they've been "mussed" to indicate a romp in the hay.



Parker, all of 44 in this movie and she would have looked 34 if not for the hair and lips, knocks Elke Sommer into a propeller beanie in the looks department. You get to compare the two Miss Es directly, as Eleanor plays her big topless scene on her tummy facing stage left and peeling the paint off the walls with her emotions; and Elke plays her topless scene on her tummy facing the same way and delivering her lines like she's announcing that the train will be held at the station momentarily. Joseph Cotten is the stalwart, integrity-stuffed studio head--lots of those in Hollywood-on-Hollywood movies, for that extra touch of versimilitude, one assumes.



As for Tony Bennett, in his big scene, his suit dusted with cornstarch to indicate a soul's struggle in the depths, the singer seems to be channeling John Garfield on a frequency that can only tune in to late-period Jack Webb.

Stephen Boyd anchors the cast, his dimpled chin working furiously to indicate the states of emotion he can't convey by squaring his shoulders. He also has the ugliest speaking voice the Siren has yet encountered, a bastard mix of Irish and American that drowns the consonants in his throat like kittens and forces the vowels back out through his nose. But it's Milton Berle, as the goodhearted agent done wrong by his two-timing client, who gives this peerless defense of the honor and decency of Hollywood:

Boyd: I'm no different from anybody else in this damn town.
Berle: That's not true, Frankie. Oh, if it comes to a matter of life or death, if we have no other choice, then we hurt others--but reluctantly.

The Pathécolor is hideous and the art direction was a trip down memory lanes marked Wood Paneling, Harvest Gold and Avocado. And the Siren still wants to know how many pairs of false eyelashes were on Merle Oberon for the finale, which was just as thrillingly god-awful as Yojimboen promised.

Need I tell you I stayed up way past my bedtime to finish it? My god, it was wonderful.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Oscars 2010: A Brief Commentary


The Siren doesn't have much to say about the Oscars this year. She went to a swell party full of lively, smart, funny people and enjoyed herself.

Bravo for Katherine Bigelow, smashing the glass ceiling. I do wish that in her speech, she had been a little less overwhelmed and a little more like the lady above, costume designer Sandy Powell. Ms Powell, who appears to be about eight feet tall, sashayed on stage wearing a drop-dead high-fashion dress and gave a perfectly poised speech that made it clear she thought she deserved to be up there. I loved that; the Siren doesn't dig false modesty. And Powell also captured the Siren's heart by mentioning all the costume designers who don't do period pieces, and who are ignored year after year by the Academy. Costumes, no matter what the film, are extremely important to an actor's performance, as Louise Brooks could have told you. For the climactic scene in Pandora's Box, G.W. Pabst took her favorite suit and soiled and tore it; she said she went on set feeling "as hopelessly defiled as my clothes." How short-sighted for the Oscars to go, year after year, only to clothes of the past or some imaginary future.

The evening was marred by the decision to move the honorary Oscars to some kind of dinner thing in November. You wanna have a banquet, awesome, go for it, but do not deprive me and others who care about the industry's history of the opportunity to see Roger Corman, Gordon Willis, John Calley and the fabulous Lauren Bacall on the stage during the actual ceremony.

Many people have suggested that the John Hughes tribute took up time that rightfully belonged to the old-timers. Well, the Siren grew up with Hughes' movies and some of them have a permanent place in her heart. They're a part of the Siren's adolescence and so she regards Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink with the kind of nostalgic affection that precludes rational analysis. So it probably was with the people who decided on that whole presentation. It was nice to see Molly Ringwald after all this time.

But the Siren would have deep-sixed that horror montage in a New York minute.

And the Siren also agrees with Glenn Kenny about the death montage. This isn't quantum physics. All you have to do is come up with a reasonably complete list, a nice melancholy piece of music and some good clips. Given that simple formula it is kind of astonishing that this key piece of the evening is so consistently mucked up. Hire the TCM guys, okay? They do a great job year after year and don't try to gild the lily.

On the plus side, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin were very funny and I kind of loved the Neal Patrick Harris dance-cum-Sally-Rand tribute. Oprah Winfrey's speech to Gabourey Sidibe was very touching, Sandra Bullock was funny, and bravo to Mo'Nique for her Hattie McDaniel tribute. (The Siren didn't see Precious and won't, as she absolutely does not do child-abuse movies; the Siren just appreciated the sentiments.) Overall it was a fine ceremony that made the minutes fly by like hours, as Addison would have said.

I just really hope the DVR recorded The Oscar.

Friday, March 05, 2010

A Director Out of Wood*


The Siren has been pondering auteurism. Some time back Girish had a long and fruitful discussion of it, and last week Glenn Kenny went over to the Auteurs to proclaim "an auteurist film is an interesting film."

Glenn is right, of course. But the Siren runs into two problems with auteurism. One is the tendency of some auteurists to overpraise their idols' lesser works. The other, more significant problem is what to do with Jean Negulesco, Jack Conway, Roy del Ruth, Vincent Sherman, Archie Mayo, Henry Hathaway or today's guest star, Sam Wood.

Sam Wood is an excellent example of a studio man who helmed some good-to-great movies--namely, Hold Your Man, A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, the 1937 Madame X, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Our Town, Raffles, The Devil and Miss Jones, Kings Row, Pride of the Yankees and oh, all right, some people like this one, For Whom the Bell Tolls. (Ivy, starring goddess Joan Fontaine, is also supposed to be pretty good, and Lord Jeff too.) Yet Wood garners career evaluations that range from tepid to eye-rolling. In the afterlife, Vincent Sherman probably reads Sam Wood mini-bios to make himself feel better.

Let's be frank. Wood's hard-right politics have played a part in how he is remembered, as his post-war anti-Communism went from vocal to obsessive in nothing flat. He founded the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals and in that guise was a driving force behind the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, where he testified grimly that certain Directors' Guild members were trying to "steer us into the Red River." Such was Wood's fear of subversion that after his death in 1949, his heirs discovered a clause in the will stipulating that they had to take a loyalty oath ("I am not now nor have I ever been...") before they could collect a dime.

The result was that during the years when books and interviews and documentaries were brought forth to celebrate the Golden Age, a number of Wood's ex-colleagues had little good to say about him; "a fascist," was Groucho Marx's encomium. And later critics, mindful of Wood's role in the blacklist and with no Wood still alive to discuss anything, haven't been inclined to give him much credit. His bad or mediocre films (and they are many) have been deemed as much or more representative of his abilities than his successes. And Wood's successes were discussed without much enthusiasm for his role. Mind you, the Siren is all for giving ample credit to James Wong Howe, William Cameron Menzies and Gregg Toland, or Rudolph Mate, Cedric Gibbons and Norman Krasna, for that matter. But watch Kings Row on a double bill with Picnic and tell me if you think the difference is all Howe.



It is possible to read a critique of a Sam Wood picture and wonder if the thing directed itself. In fact, some have pretty much suggested that's what happened on the two Marx films. While Thalberg had the final say, and the Marxes drove many (all right, most) collaborators crazy, the idea of Wood as glorified traffic cop doesn't fit so neatly with Simon Louvish's statement that Wood "refused to take any Marx Brothers nonsense and insisted on endless and exhausting retakes" (a signature Wood technique, although his taste for takes doesn't seem to have been quite up to Wyler levels). The Siren would never argue for Wood's sole authorship of those movies, but she doesn't see why we should presume that he contributed nothing.

Anyway, the blacklist ended forty years ago, Wood's been dead for more than sixty and the Siren thinks no one need be ashamed to be caught loving a good Sam Wood movie. The fact is, pace M. Truffaut, I would much rather watch The Devil and Miss Jones than Hatari!; would curl up with The Pride of the Yankees well before I'd sit down with The Long Gray Line; and would take King's Row over Frenzy in a heartbeat. Does this mean that I consider Wood to be the equal of Hawks, Ford or Hitchcock? Nope. But it does mean I think he deserves to be taken seriously, and given credit for the things he did well.

There, that's my Sam Wood defense.

Unfortunately, it's all leading up to a brief discussion of a not-terribly-good Sam Wood movie, Saratoga Trunk.



"You can't go home again," said Thomas Wolfe, in a title the Siren first encountered via Charlie Brown. While there are few movie experiences as great as rediscovering the virtues of an old favorite, it's pretty depressing to go back to a movie you loved in youth and find that it looks kind of cheesy. The Siren was crazy about Saratoga Trunk when she was about 13 years old, but custom has staled this one something awful. There are good visual moments, such as the opening, a late-movie train chase and crash, Ingrid Bergman's untrammeled joy as she tastes her first jambalaya, and Bergman in her Saratoga hotel room getting tiddly on peaches in champagne. Bergman's mouth meeting peach is erotic as it got in 1945. She was quite the sensualist, was Bergman, one who loved her food, and the Siren wonders if that was why she was so hot to play Clio Dulaine. It couldn't have been the script.

Overall, however, it's a slog. Ingrid Bergman is Clio, a Creole adventuress who arrives in New Orleans to seek revenge on her father's snooty family for ruining her mother's life. The first scene is entrancing, Bergman arriving at a French Quarter mansion where the garden has taken over, walking around the broken-down rooms and reliving her mother's heartache. The Siren would definitely point to the sequence as an example of Wood's fluid but inconspicuous camerawork at its best.

But then Clio settles in, and the movie stagnates. There is way too much of Clio's "mammy" figure, Angelique, played in glowering blackface by Flora Robson and topped with eyebrows that would scare the daylights out of Frida Kahlo. (Blackface. Can you believe it? in a serious role, in 1945? and Robson got an Oscar nomination for it!) The character is a snooze, serving only to make you appreciate Hattie McDaniel. And there is too much of Cupidon, played by little person Jerry Austin and used in most early scenes as not much more than a terrier with a French accent (although he gets some better moments later on). For about 70 long, long minutes we watch Ingrid force the Dulaine family to pay her off, merely by showing up at various public places and looking like her mother. That's a long time to wait to get to Saratoga, and the meat of the story, such as it is. Perhaps the fact that Edna Ferber helped adapt her own novel accounts for Saratoga Trunk's length. It definitely smacks of a writer who wrote a long book and was going to get it all in there, by gum, no matter if pacing begins to stagger and finally falls in a ditch.



Gary Cooper has to wear an oversized hat that brings up unfortunate Yosemite Sam associations, but when he takes it off and makes love to Bergman the Siren understands what first drew her adolescent hormones to this movie. Bergman's features look smashing with dark hair, but then we of later years already knew that. The beauty of the leads and the occasional good scene notwithstanding, this one would have been better screened in the Siren's cinema of the memory.

* The story goes that during one of the many tense moments on the set of A Night at the Opera, Sam Wood snapped, "You can't make an actor out of clay," only to have Groucho flash back, "Nor a director out of Wood."

Monday, March 01, 2010

TCM Alerts: What the Siren Wants to Watch for March


So the Siren is just about recovered from the epic blogathon, and was just sort of casually nosing around the Turner Classic Movies schedule for March. Damn if her heart didn't have to be restarted several times. Keep that cable bill paid up, folks; March is choice. Several birthday tributes, two Borzages, Ginger Rogers, and the Siren's favorite Max Ophuls film. Tons of Kurosawa all month. The Siren may have to get vitamin D shots if she forgets to go out into the sunlight. All times are EST/EDT.

Here are the (mostly) not-on-DVD picks that the Siren wants to put on the DVR for March.

March 2
11:30 am The Spanish Main Frank Borzage swashbuckler with Paul Henreid, the thinking woman's Euro-accented bald heartthrob.

TCM is running John Garfield movies all day on March 4, what would have been the great actor's 97th birthday. The Siren will be recording

9:15 am Flowing Gold. A movie that Flickhead recommended long ago (which is good enough for the Siren), that co-stars Frances Farmer, an actor even more ill-fated than Garfield.

10:45 am Saturday's Children. Co-starring Anne Shirley, who was to have her own blacklist woes, and Claude Rains. Directed by the always-competent Vincent Sherman.

12:30 pm Out of the Fog. Costarring goddess Ida Lupino and directed by Anatole Litvak.

3:30 pm Between Two Worlds. Who would not want a white-suited, ledger-toting Sydney Greenstreet as the gatekeeper to the afterlife? In addition to Garfield there is a lovely turn by Eleanor Parker. The Siren really, really dug this one when she caught it a while back and wants to see it again.

March 7
10 am The Whole Town's Talking. One of the few John Ford films that has eluded the Siren so far, and starring Edward G. Robinson, no less. Bonus brilliance in the form of Jean Arthur.




That night, a great Hollywood on Hollywood selection: at 8 pm, The Oscar (the Siren hasn't seen that one, and it's supposed to be a pip); The Big Knife at 10:15 pm (want to see that one again); and Show People at 12:15 am (one of King Vidor's best films).

March 8
6 am The Story of Three Loves. One of those portmanteau movies the Siren can't wean herself off of. A must for Moira Shearer fans--she does a Red Shoes variation with James Mason; good parts for Pier Angeli and Leslie Caron.

March 9
8 am The Sisters. More Anatole Litvak, as well as Bette Davis and Errol Flynn.

March 12
6:15 pm. The Walking Stick. Don't know much about this one and it may be not very good at all; but it stars my old lust object David Hemmings, with Samantha Eggar, in a film version of a Winston Graham novel I loved as a teen.



March 15
Hold on to your hats, dear commenters: it's George Brent's birthday. And that can only mean--yes, you guessed it, an all-day George Brent marathon, something the whole world has been holding its breath for. Seriously, haven't you gotten fond of this man? I have. Anyway. Two Ruth Chattertons and some other goodies, but the real present for the Siren is

2.45 pm. Living on Velvet. The Siren's beloved Kay Francis, directed by Frank Borzage. Once she has this one recorded, the Siren can stop kicking herself for missing it when TCM ran dear Kay as Star of the Month back in 2008.



March 16
Not sure why, as it isn't her birthday--unless, like some other actresses we won't name, she had more than one--but they've got three pre-Codes starring Constance Cummings: The Guilty Generation at 6 am; The Big Timer, with poor doomed Thelma Todd, at 7:30 am; and The Mind Reader at 8:45 am, with Warren William, directed by Roy del Ruth.

March 23
All Kurosawa, all day. Just turn on the TV.

March 24
This was Ginger Rogers month on TCM; she is pretty well represented on home video so despite the Siren's well-known Rogers fandom she waited until this night to make recs. They are Vivacious Lady, directed by George Stevens, at 8 pm (not on DVD); Having Wonderful Time (at 1 am 3/25), a slight but savorable 1938 comedy that also has Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Eve Arden; and Fifth Avenue Girl, directed by the gifted Gregory La Cava, at 2:15 am (3/25).

March 25
One more Ginger: Star of Midnight, at 9:45 am, with the peerless William Powell.

4:45 pm Madeleine Brilliant David Lean film about the most enticing of all "not proven" murderesses. Richly deserves to be seen by many more people.




March 27
STOP THE PRESSES.
10.15 Letter from an Unknown Woman. Max Ophuls directs Joan Fontaine in a movie that would easily make the Siren's top five of all time. Still not on Region 1 DVD. Turn off the phone, put the kids to bed early, shut down the computer, draw the shades, whatever it takes. Shown as part of an evening devoted to Louis Jourdan, who is turning 91 this year; his performance as Stefan was the best he ever gave.

March 28

12 pm The Light in the Piazza. Lovely romantic tale that for some bizarre reason is not on home video, despite a slavering fan base.

March 31 (actually April 1)
One last Ginger: Primrose Path, directed by La Cava. At 1:30 am.