Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Five Big Yearnings

The Siren doesn’t usually post about the truly random movie thoughts constantly flitting around her brain, but she’s been pondering this all weekend and wanted to hear what her patient readers had to say. It’s prompted by looking at the schedule for Fritz Lang in Hollywood, an incredible series scheduled for the Film Forum in January/February 2011. Now the Siren has Lang on the brain anyway, what with For the Love of Film (Noir) working to preserve a remake of a great Lang movie, and writing about the terrific House by the River at Fandor--available here, and no firewall anymore. The Siren has a hell-or-high-water must-see series list that includes (but is not limited to) The Secret Beyond the Door, You and Me, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (Joan!) and An American Guerrilla in the Philippines, none of which she’s seen yet. But there’s also Moonfleet, which she saw again recently on a very good DVD, but yearns to see on a big screen.

So the Siren got to thinking. Of all the movies she’s already seen on DVD, TCM or VHS, which ones would she most like to see on a big screen in a great print?

Here are five. This list is just for starters, of course, but these are very serious yens. The fact that they’re all black and white is...interesting. And unplanned.

1. The Crowd. The Siren’s twins were about seven months old and still waking up in the middle of the night from time to time. The feed/change/settle routine for a total of two (2) babies usually equaled about 90 minutes of activity, and ended that morning at about 5 am. The Siren was in the habit of putting on TCM during this process. So she gets the last baby to sleep and is about to collapse back in bed, and goes back to the living room to turn off the TV. And noticed The Crowd was about to start. And thought, “Let’s take five minutes to see how this looks.” A little over 100 minutes later, it was time to get ready for work. And when the Siren, so sleepy she was swaying slightly on her feet, ran into an equally movie-mad colleague (we used to share custody of a VHS of Letter from an Unknown Woman), she chattered at him about The Crowd to the point where he put up both hands and said, “I have never seen you like this about a movie.”

Perhaps it isn’t the sort of quote people pick for an ad in Variety, but “So good mothers of infant twins choose it instead of sleep” is one hell of a recommendation.

The Crowd isn’t on DVD. Now the Siren is very, very cognizant of the special issues involved in preparing a good DVD release of a movie as old as The Crowd. She knows she whines a lot. But this isn’t merely the best silent movie the Siren has ever seen. Without hesitation she will name it as one of the greatest movies ever made in this country or anywhere else. So hearing that there is no Crowd on DVD is like planning a trip to MOMA, only to have them tell you that Starry Night has been stashed in the broom closet. Well, let’s hope Warner Brothers is on the case.

If, however, the Siren could see this one on screen, hand on heart, she promises to shut up already about the DVD.

2. The Long Voyage Home. You know who else wants to see this on a big screen? John Nolte of Big Hollywood. The Siren can’t remember his exact words, but the phrase “crawl over broken glass” may have occurred in there somewhere. Mr. Nolte’s love for John Ford, and appreciation for this lesser-known film, is one of those heartwarming instances of cross-aisle harmony that sustain us all in these partisan times. This is another that the Siren watched by chance on TCM, and the brilliance of Thomas Mitchell, the incredible tenderness and sympathy afforded these men doing a spirit-sucking and lonely job, and above all the deep-focus cinematography of Gregg Toland put her in traction. If John should be in town when this one comes on screen, in a gesture of Ford-loving solidarity the Siren will not only crawl with him to see it, she’ll buy his popcorn, as long as neither one of us brings up Obama. Or Jafar Panahi.

(The screen grab above is from a series posted at Six Martinis and the Seventh Art, always and forever one of the Siren's favorite stops on the Web.)

3. Love Affair. Because Christmas is coming, and the Siren yearns to see Charles Boyer give Irene Dunne her present.

4. The Fallen Idol. The Siren regards The Third Man with the same awestruck reverence as everyone else--more, even. There are, she suspects, not that many fans of the movie who went so far as to name their only daughter Alida. And yet, given a choice between Harry Lime and Baines larger than life, at the moment she’d pick Baines. “We ought to be very careful, Phil. 'Cause we make one another.” “I thought God made us." “Trouble is, we take a hand in the game.” This screened last year at Film Forum--while the Siren was in Paris.

(Gorgeous screen grab is from Coffee, Coffee, And More Coffee, where Peter Nelhaus is in the habit of posting coffee-drinking images from all kinds of movies. Patient readers should stop by and thank Peter for this dose of Michele Morgan.)

5. David Copperfield. David Ehrenstein, where are you? Are you still banging the drum for early George Cukor? Because the Siren is right there with you, and she’s never seen an adaptation of Charles Dickens (her favorite novelist) to surpass this one. Nor will there ever be a Micawber to equal W.C. Fields. And Karen shares the Siren’s love for Freddie Bartholomew.

In conclusion, speaking of movies that deserve restoration, big-screen unspooling, DVD cases with luxurious little booklets and just one whole hell of a lot more respect than they have received in the past, let’s talk about Julien Duvivier’s La Fin du Jour. The Siren mentioned that Dennis Cozzalio posted about it, but she didn’t do his splendid essay justice. It’s an elegant, deeply sympathetic and altogether marvelous piece of film criticism that will make you want to bite your arm off at the elbow in frustration if you haven’t seen this tantalizingly hard-to-find masterpiece. Really, please, go read it.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Hey Diddle, the Cat and the Fiddle, This Time I Think We Go Up-a Da Middle

The Siren does not dig team sports, as a rule, although at various points in her dissipated past she has faked an interest in them for unsavory motives of her own (impressing boys, basically). There is one team, and one team only, about which she does care, for the sake of her late lamented father.

Many years ago that team, the Alabama Crimson Tide, lost a football game to Auburn University by one point. Her father watched the blue-and-orange end-zone celebration for about 30 seconds, switched off the TV, walked into the garage, grabbed a pair of hedge clippers and went out to trim the bushes. Under ordinary circumstances, this was about as likely a scenario as seeing Leslie Howard attempt a field goal. My mother followed and watched him for a minute, and when she started to fear that our hedge would soon resemble a petunia patch she ventured, “Gary. It’s only a game.” He grunted, stopped, then turned to her and said, “No, it isn’t. It’s the end of the whole goddamn world.”

Today’s project chez Siren: Find some goddamn hedge clippers.

Note: The Siren welcomes anyone patient enough to read her maunderings, without regard to differences of background or opinion. Republican or Democrat, East or West Coast, George Sanders fan or George Sanders skeptic, she loves you all. However, today she gives fair warning that until further notice, Auburn fans caught gloating in her comments section will be deleted without mercy.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving: The Siren's Request Results

The Siren was quite gratified by the number of requests she received. She ran into a few little problems, such as the tendency of some treasured commenters to respond with lists, which forced her to go all CEO and select just one request per person for the hat. Duplicates were given separate slips under each name. So after placing 84 small pieces of paper in a straw hat, because the velvet was too shallow, and having the Siren's longsuffering husband draw out four, the results are as follows:

Ball of Fire - Bill Wren, Piddleville; Happy Miser; Oshimoi

Village of the Damned - Laura, Who Can Turn the World Off With Her Smile

The Saint's Double Trouble - Yojimboen

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) - Ted S. Raicer

The Siren would like to assure those of an unduly suspicious nature that she had a large number of requests for George Sanders movies, and therefore the fact that one-half of the selections do, in fact, star Sanders is quite simply not her fault. She won’t claim it made her unhappy, however. The Siren will be writing these up in the order in which she gets her hands on them.

Meanwhile, she wishes all her patient readers the very happiest of Thanksgivings.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Announcing For the Love of Film (Noir)

It’s been a good year chez Self-Styled Siren, and Thanksgiving week finds me with many fine things to contemplate. Ask me the best part of 2010, however, and I won’t hesitate for so much as a single frame. It was so spectacular that every time I think about it, I lapse into first person. It was For the Love of Film, the blogathon I co-hosted with the indefatigable Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films. It’s a wonderful thing to write about old movies week in and week out, and have people swing by to share the obsession. It is, I have to say, even better to see 81 bloggers come together to write about preservation, and watch reader after reader open their wallets and give money to the cause.

I have had no prouder, happier moment in my five years of running this site than when the National Film Preservation Foundation announced the grand total of $30,000 in donations and matching funds and unveiled the silent shorts that will live on thanks to the people who wrote and gave. I know Marilyn, whose birthday request for preservation donations sparked the idea, and whose energy drove the project, feels the same way. So does Greg Ferrara, who donated the graphics and created a commercial. So, in fact, does every person who wrote a post or threw in some dough.

The 2010 blogathon ended Feb. 21, and by oh, say, 9 am EST on Feb. 22 Marilyn and I knew we’d have to do it again. And so it has come to pass. Today we unveil For the Love of Film (Noir), a blogathon to benefit the Film Noir Foundation.

The first blogathon focused on the earliest days of film, where the preservation issues are often the most pressing, but other films from other eras are in grave danger as well. For the second blogathon, Marilyn and I decided to focus on another part of film history. Led by its president, Eddie Muller, the Film Noir Foundation works to preserve the films that form one of cinema’s most creative and deeply loved genres. The FNF has worked to preserve noirs not only from the U.S., but from many other countries as well.

We'll be doing this for Valentine's Day week again, Feb. 14-21, 2011. I’m going to let Marilyn deliver the best news:

Last year, we didn’t know what films we would be helping to restore, but this year, we do! In 1950, a searing drama was released called The Sound of Fury, aka Try and Get Me. The film recounts the same story Fritz Lang told in Fury (1936) and was directed by Cy Endfield, who would run afoul of the Hollywood blacklist. Its star, Lloyd Bridges, never had a better role, and Eddie told me that when Jeff and Beau Bridges finally saw the film, they were blown away by his performance. A nitrate print of the film will be restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, using a reference print from Martin Scorsese’s personal collection to guide them and fill in any blanks. Paramount Pictures has agreed to help fund the restoration, but FNF is going to have to come up with significant funds to get the job done. That’s where we come in.

The Siren loves this genre, but you knew that, because you do too. Breathes there the cinephile with soul so dead, who never to himself hath said, “Tonight by golly, I’m gonna watch a noir”? And Marilyn, Eddie, Greg and I are hoping this near-universal taste translates into high participation.

Meanwhile, as the holidays approach, think about sharing the loot with the FNF before the tax year ends. Nothing wrong with getting a jump on things--the more money they get, the more noir we have to savor.

There are an awful lot of potential topics connected to noir--the photography, the dialogue, the themes, the social history, the influences that shaped it and the influence it wields today, and on and on--take your pick, buddy. Our Facebook page, For the Love of Film , will be continuously updated with suggestions, discussions and news. (And yes, there will be raffle prizes again this year, and who knows what other twists in the plot.) Over at the For the Love of Film blog, Cinema Styles’ Greg has posted banners you can use on your own blog and Facebook page. There’s more than just Joan, although you realize of course that the Siren can’t look at a Bennett and not itch to post her picture.

Like the detective said, it's the stuff that dreams are made of.


And so you may be thinking, “Hey Siren, I could have sworn I spent last week asking you to write about approximately three hundred different movies of varying degrees of popularity, obscurity and eccentricity. What’s up with that, lady?” Well, the drawing was done by the Siren’s husband, the films are selected and the Siren is rustling up copies. It’s just that contemplating film noir set her to thinking about Out of the Past and now the Siren has gone all cold and hard and Jane Greer, figuring if she couldn’t be all bad she’d come close.

No, seriously, today is about the blogathon. Tomorrow is Requests Day.

Meanwhile, Dennis Cozzalio of Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule has written up his own request assignment, La Fin du Jour, and a cracking good job he’s done, too. Please mosey over and have a look.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Siren by Request

Once in a while someone asks the Siren to write about a particular movie. Like the one friend who wants a flapper movie, any old flapper movie, and another friend who wants the Siren to write up Demolition Man (he hasn't lost his mind, the Siren told him she likes that one). The Siren's usual flip response is that she doesn't do requests. She isn't trying to be difficult, honest. It's just that the Siren scrambles to maintain posting around here and besides, she has the cinematic attention span of a cocker spaniel, always rushing from one obsession to the next.

Now we have the holidays coming up, the season of giving, and the Siren had a thought. Maybe she should spend December writing about things other people want, as a change of pace, instead of assuming that everyone will be thrilled to bits to read about Joan Fontaine or Constance Bennett for two weeks running.

So here's the big idea. Email the Siren (address is in her profile) or leave a request in comments. Twitter or Facebook message works too, or even Western Union--the Siren has always wanted to get a telegram. One movie per person please, one she hasn't written about before. Please make it something that is either easily available, or that you happen to know is hanging around the DVR or the DVD closet chez Siren (maybe because you, um, sent it to her).

The request line closes at 8 pm EST, Thursday Nov. 18th. Sometime that evening or the next day the Siren will print out the results, toss them in a hat (yes, a real hat, circa 1950, it's velvet and it has a feather) and draw four. And over the next few weeks the Siren will write 'em up. The total of four is designed to match her usual once-a-week posting pace.

The Siren isn't going to limit this to her favorite eras, but please, do remember her delicate sensibilities. Wags requesting the likes of Cannibal Holocaust or Freddie Got Fingered will not be taken seriously. And listen, if you're dying for another George Sanders movie, speak up, don't be bashful…

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Alert: Rare Joan Fontaine

The Siren got another email from a pal late last week, this time alerting her to a YouTube rarity: Something to Live For (1952). "I've been wanting to see this practically my whole life," said her correspondent; "it's never shown anywhere, at any time." Why should it be, really, directed as it was by Hollywood small fry George Stevens, sandwiched between two pieces of indie esoterica called A Place in the Sun and Shane. Seriously, the Siren has no flipping idea why this one is rare, since it appears to have been written directly for the screen, and come on, George Stevens?

But of course, we know why the gentleman emailed the Siren, and it wasn't to stoke any latent auteurist leanings, although the Siren is a Stevens fan: "It stars Joan Fontaine. As a drunk."

Naturally the Siren watched in one quick hurry, and she suggests her fellow Fontaine obsessives do the same, since who knows when Something to Live For will turn up again. The version posted has Spanish subtitles and one of those cable watermarks that never fail to inspire murderous thoughts in the Siren. The recording is decent, no more, although the Siren warns there are a couple of scenes in darkened theaters that may make you think you're watching The Light That Failed. But overall it's good enough and the film is worth your while, with a warmth and sincerity that grew on the Siren.

Although there's plenty of Fontaine, and she's in good form, it's really Ray Milland's show, a pendant to The Lost Weekend that shows what Don Birnam might have been facing 14 months after going on the wagon. Milland plays Alan Miller, an ad executive whose participation in AA leads him one night to the shabby Times Square hotel room of Jenny Carey (Fontaine), an actress whose crippling insecurity and busted romance have contributed to her drinking. He's drawn to her immediately. Although Jenny's able to stop drinking soon after Alan comes on the scene, her fledgling struggles to stay off the sauce mirror the trouble he's having with his own sobriety.

In fact, what's most interesting about the plot and characters isn't that they fall in love. It's the way the movie bypasses the initial battle to quit drinking in favor of looking at just how hard it is to stay quit. Alan's advertising job is yet another forerunner of "Mad Men" and that show's take on the industry's socializing, so often more grisly than anything that goes down at the office. The hard-drinking nature of the era and the job test Alan constantly--the people who press him to drink a toast, the maitre d' who keeps telling him to wait at the bar where a visibly irritated bartender repeatedly asks him for an order, the office party where the same boss who was gossiping over whether he was "nipping again" pours him a drink. And when Alan goes home, his loving and supportive wife still jerks bolt upright if he happens to stumble on the way into the bedroom. It helps that the wife is played by Teresa Wright, who could make simple feminine decency more interesting and moving than just about any other actress.

Still, it's logical that Alan would fall hard for Jenny, who understands his ordeal in a way no one else does. Plus, Fontaine looks so beautiful that you believe a man would fall in love with her even when she's so sloshed she can barely raise her head off the pillow. Fontaine's part is harder than Milland's--her sobering up is abrupt, her psychology isn't explored as much and the script asks her to go from alcoholic defensiveness to gentle adoration without much of a way station in between. Her talent enables her to pull most of it off, however, and Fontaine's pained reactions at a chic party are especially wonderful.

Downsides include a certain predictably of plot and dialogue and a saccharine, repetitive score that irritated even the Siren, who usually thinks any decent screen kiss should include a full orchestra. The opening is marvelous, with some of the most interesting visuals--lots of "cage" shots through the paned windows and the grille of the elevator. And as the Siren's email pal pointed out, the movie is full of luxurious dissolves and many close-ups of Fontaine and Milland. There's a couple of beautiful process shots of the old Penn Station that will make New Yorkers weep.

AND, at the end, you get Joan Fontaine's bare midriff, with a jewel in her navel. If that doesn't make you click through, the Siren doesn't know what will.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Advice from the Siren

A gentleman has emailed the Siren:

I think you should start an advice column. Here's my first question:

Dear Siren,
I don't understand why Charles Boyer would prefer Olivia de Havilland over Paulette Goddard in "Hold Back The Dawn."
Please advise.
Signed, Cinematically Conflicted

Dear Conflicted,
The Siren is always happy to oblige her patient readers, although she warns some questions are beyond even her mythological powers. Happily, this one she can illuminate, if not solve.

In the studio era, it was occasionally assumed that what a man wants in a life's companion is wholesome sweetness and naïveté, not red-hot rafter-rattling sex. That hasn't been the Siren's personal experience, but then again, she never tried to conduct a love affair under the watchful eye of the Hays Office.

De Havilland was gorgeous, but given her prim character in the movie, Olivia over the much livelier Paulette joins some other puzzling choices. These include Dick Powell even realizing Ruby Keeler is alive when he is right there in the same movie with Ginger Rogers or Joan Blondell; Judy Garland over sultry Angela Lansbury in The Harvey Girls; Janet Leigh over Eleanor Parker in Scaramouche (and in case you're wondering, no, the Siren is never going to get over that one); Donna Reed over Lana Turner in Green Dolphin Street; the Catholic Church over Ingrid Bergman in Bells of St. Mary's; the Welsh church over Maureen O'Hara in How Green Was My Valley; and Margaret Lindsay over Bette Davis in Jezebel.

You may notice a number of these are literary or theatrical adaptations; indeed, this quandary has classic antecedents, e.g. Ivanhoe. Given free rein many, if not most, scriptwriters got it right. Clark Gable, for example, almost always managed to pick Jean Harlow by the last reel.

In an unusual example of Hollywood reverse sexism, this problem is rarely encountered when women are doing the choosing. Rosalind Russell prefers Cary Grant to Ralph Bellamy, Irene Dunne prefers Cary Grant to Ralph Bellamy, and in one that must have really stung, Carole Lombard preferred Fred MacMurray to Ralph Bellamy in Hands Across the Table. The Siren can think of two examples where she questions a heroine's taste, although in both cases there are extenuating circumstances. Joan Crawford goes for Henry Fonda over the decidedly more sensual Dana Andrews in Daisy Kenyon, but as Andrews' character is something of a heel, and it was Fonda's job up to 1968 to be a mensch, you see it coming. And in How to Marry a Millionaire, the large age difference between William Powell and Lauren Bacall can be taken as explanation of why Bacall picks Cameron Mitchell, although the Siren always mutters, "I don't care how old he is--woman, are you nuts?"

There's one that will stump the Siren to her dying day, however. In Walk Don't Run, the remake of The More the Merrier, Samantha Eggar picks Jim Hutton over a never-in-the-running Cary Grant. That flaming chunk of crazy was part of what made Grant decide being a cosmetics executive was a much better deal.

In real life it is a toss-up as to who would have won a Goddard/de Havilland Hold Back Your Man smackdown. They both had It. And How.

Best regards,