Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Happy Birthday, Myrna Loy

Myrna Loy, dear, dear Miss Loy. Today is her 106th birthday, bless that talented, loyal, fiercely intelligent and enlightened woman. Do you have a copy of her autobiography, Being and Becoming? If not, what on earth is stopping you? You can get it at ABE Books and any number of other places, and it's worth whatever price they charge.

Last week the Siren participated in a roundtable at Movie Morlocks, sponsored by the ever-fab Kimberly Lindbergs of Cinebeats. The discussion centered on racist images in classic films, and how much, or even whether, we need to protect impressionable children from it. And it made the Siren think of Loy, who made no excuses for the sins of her era, but rather owned up to her mistakes:

…Those exotics started to predominate. My bit as a mulatto in The Heart of Maryland led to a role that I'm very much ashamed of. Zanuck wrote Ham and Eggs at the Front, a parody of What Price Glory?, casting me as a spy. How could I ever have put on blackface? When I think of it now, it horrifies me. Well, our awareness broadens, thank God! It was a tasteless slapstick comedy that I mercifully remember very little of.

Loy recognized what was behind her "Oriental" phase, didn't like it, but was still able to be scathingly funny about it. After Love Me Tonight (she knew that was a good one--Miss Loy was very smart about most of her roles), she wrote,

They dropped me right back into the vamp mold, loaning me to RKO for Thirteen Women. As a Javanese-Indian half-caste, I methodically murder all the white schoolmates who've patronized me. I recall little about that racist concoction, but it came up recently when the National Board of Review honored me with its first Career Achievement Award. Betty Furness, a charming mistress of ceremonies, who had started at RKO doubling for my hands in closeups when I was busy elsewhere, said that she'd been dropped from Thirteen Women. (Despite its title, there were only ten in the final print.) 'You were lucky,' I told her, 'because I just would have killed you, too. The only one who escaped me in that picture was Irene Dunne, and I regretted it every time she got the parts I wanted.'

Thirteen Women is actually quite an interesting pre-Code; as Filmbrain points out, despite the stereotypical spooky powers that are presumed to be congenital for an Asian beauty, Loy's character goes bad because she's a victim of racism. She is turning her treatment back on her tormentors. But it is easy to see why Loy would lack patience for yet another evil exotic.

On screen Loy was a byword for sophistication; off screen, like Nora Charles, she combined that quality with broadmindedness and old-fashioned common sense. Immediately after Thirteen Women, Loy did The Mask of Fu Manchu, and found herself confronted with a script that asked her to whip a man "while uttering gleefully suggestive sounds." She'd had it with this sort of stuff, and furthermore she'd been reading Freud and picked up a thing or two. She went to producer Hunt Stromberg and refused to film it: "I've done a lot of terrible things in films, but this girl's a sadistic nymphomaniac." Stromberg said, "What's that?", which lack of familiarity with less-conventional sexuality makes you wonder how Hunt Stromberg ever got anywhere as a Hollywood producer, but never mind. Loy replied, "Well, you better find out, because that's what she is and I won't play her that way." Studio contracts being what they were, she did play her that way, but she succeeded in getting Stromberg to trim some excesses. "She wasn't Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm," said Miss Loy, "but, as I remember, she just watched while others did the whipping."

The banner above (you can send thank-you notes to the Siren's email address on the sidebar) is from The Barbarian, a pre-Code that the Siren hasn't seen (yet). Filming that scene brought out an example of just how much Loy's coworkers must have loved her.

After I was safely submerged in a sunken marble tub, they scattered rose petals on the water, stationing men to keep them circulating with long, toothless rakes. They keep pushing those rose petals closer and closer to cover me--somewhat overzealously, it seemed. I looked up and saw a ring of familiar faces, Culver City friends and neighbors who worked in the studio. Unaware that I wore flesh-toned garments, they were diligently trying to protect the virtue of a local girl. It was so sweet, but didn't work. Some magazine photographer got in, took a picture that made me look stark naked, and syndicated it all over the world.

Last night, of course, the Siren wanted to watch a Myrna Loy movie, and she did: 1940's Third Finger, Left Hand, a nicely titled Robert Z. Leonard comedy with Melvyn Douglas. It isn't much more than diverting, but the role is a bit unusual for Loy, in that her character is a career woman who has invented a phony husband in order to avoid getting hit on at work. Without a husband, the CEO's jealous wife would push her out in a matter of months; with a ring on her finger, she can do her job. And the CEO's wife? "We're pals," says Loy.

In most of my pictures I complemented the male character, who usually carried the story. This often meant that my roles were subordinate, but that's the way I wanted it. The Bette Davis type of classic woman's role wasn't for me, nor was the Roz Russell female-executive routine, which is what I did in Third Finger, Left Hand.

She liked Melvyn Douglas ("he was a great person, a tireless fighter for liberal causes," noted Loy) and their comic rhythms are very much in tune, even if one inevitably misses William Powell. The Siren would tell you to watch this movie just for a scene where Loy fakes a tough-tootsie Brooklyn persona to embarrass Douglas. She pulls her gum out of her mouth in a string--if that doesn't sell you, it should. There's also her white evening gown in a nightclub scene, and her fake wedding night with Melvyn Douglas; Miss Loy being carried unwillingly over the threshold shows she could do physical comedy as well as she did repartee.

The Siren read Being and Becoming when it first came out in 1987, picks it up all the time to this day, and still recalls many passages without much effort, as you can see. She already adored Miss Loy--from The Thin Man on, there is scarcely a movie the Siren wouldn't be in clover watching, and there's a good deal to worship before that watershed film, too. But Loy's memoirs are special, because they show such a rare thing--an artist whose work means the world to you, whom you can also admire as a person. Not a saint, oh no--wouldn't Miss Loy have hooted at that?--but a woman anyone would have been privileged to have as a coworker, proud to have as a friend.

And so last night, watching Third Finger, Left Hand, the Siren was struck by the character of Sam, a Pullman porter played by the African American actor Ernest Whitman. Whitman is stuck with what passed for black dialect in 1940 Hollywood, but it's an unusual and charming character. He is neither shuffling nor particularly servile, just genial and polite. And when Melvyn Douglas needs a lawyer (he's divorcing Loy--you don't really want me to explain why, do you?) it turns out that Sam has been studying law. He proceeds to run rings around Loy's tony attorney and would-be fiance, Lee Bowman, quoting hilariously abstruse passages from case law until Bowman calls it a night. Sam's character is the one who paves the way for true love.

And when the end credits rolled, the Siren marched straight back to Loy, and this:

During my early years in the studios, movie people were too busy getting a foothold to concern themselves with social conscience. I once asked, 'Why does every Negro in a film have to play a servant? How about just a black person walking up the steps of a courthouse carrying a briefcase?' Well! The storm that caused!

When artists die, there are always some scolds who insist that it simply isn't possible to miss--deeply, personally miss--a woman you were never fortunate enough to meet. The Siren says phooey to that. Because she misses Miss Loy, and always will.


Edgar W. Hopper said...

"Why does every Negro in a film have to play a servant?" Thanks Myrna and thanks Siren I do do enjoy your comments on film. You so often point to the same questions I used to ask myself as a pre/early teen having to go to the movies on "dish night" with my mother and grand mother just so the family could get an extra dinner plate that we could not otherwise buy and enjoy a night at the movie theater. Myrna Loy was one of my favorites. My soul took her!

The Siren said...

Edgar, thanks as ever for your kind words. I am trying to remember the documentary I saw that went into the ways the theaters tried to draw in viewers when box office declined, and it touched on the dish giveaways. They gave away a different piece of the place setting every night, didn't? Whitman's character doesn't pop up until the last 1/4 of Third Finger, Left Hand, but he really was a pleasant surprise.

rudyfan1926 said...

Being and Becoming is one of my favorite autobiographies. Myrna Loy really is someone I would have liked to have met.

This is as good a time as any to mention Emily Leider's bio of Myrna will be available in October 2011 from University Press of California. Amazon has the pre-order here: http://www.amazon.com/Myrna-Loy-Only-Good-Hollywood/dp/0520253205

Ned said...

Happy Birthday, Myrna Loy.

The Siren's reminder, through this warm remembrance of a beloved (for many of us, certainly for me as well) actress, of the racism that has darkened Hollywood--and American--history is still a necessary one today.

Saturday in the New York Times, op-ed columnist, Charles Blow, recalling that his grandfather served as a member of the famed Buffalo Soldiers regiment, tried to balance his family's actual history with Hollywood's version. He mentions the just released Captain America as showing fully integrated troops in the European Theater, which of course, was practically unheard of. His point was that it's important for viewers, especially younger ones, not to be taken in by rewrites of history.

Luckily, there have been others who, as with Ms. Loy, have not seen fit to go along with either blatant or hidden racism in Hollywood.

Budd Boetticher directed a labor of love, The Red Ball Express, with Jeff Chandler and a young Sidney Poitier, about the convoy drivers--mostly African American--who kept Patton's army supplied as they moved across Europe. These guys were basically chosen to be cannon fodder but performed heroically.

Given the huge cultural impact that Hollywood films have had on our development as a nation, we are lucky to have had a few enlightened individuals like Boetticher and Loy to add their points of view to the mix.

Thanks for this lovely reminder of a stellar actress.

Vanwall said...

Lovely tribute, Siren, and a better person in the Hollywood Studio System, (notice I didn't say actor) would be hard to find indeed. Myrna was a plus in any movie whe was in, and I've always made note of the fact that there's no cult of Myrna; her abilities, unquestioned mind you, and her sensuous portrayals when required, need no interpretation - she was hot, she was cool, she was brilliant, all in one bright mattrafact package.

LA said...

One of my favorites. Despite being so connected with Powell, I've always loved her films with Gable the most: Manhattan Melodrama, Wife Vs. Secretary and especially Test Pilot. Never saw Parnell, but have always wanted to.

Larry A.

The Siren said...

Rudyfan, thanks so much for the heads-up on the bio. It's a grand fall for movie books, as Larry Aydlette was noting the other day.

Ned, I haven't seen that Boetticher but it sounds fascinating.

Vanwall, it's true; her grounded persona meant she never fell into the traps that lend themselves to mythology, like abuse or addiction. She talks about the pain of her divorces and is very forthright about the abortion she had in the 30s, but those looking for someone who's fascinatingly doomed would never light on Miss Loy.

Larry, I have seen Parnell and it's one of the very, very few Loy (or Gable) movies that I would call "dreary." Very standard big-budget Metro biopic. Loy defends it in her book and points out that it was pretty accurate, got some praise at the time and turned a healthy profit. I guess I would call it Stanley Kramer-ish; all that research and sincerity resulted in a well-intentioned stiff.

Karen said...

Oh, Siren, this is just lovely. LOVELY.

I should have known, when I asked for a banner, that you would already have something in the hopper. When do any of get the jump on you?

I am really going to have to read Being and Becoming, despite my aversion to Hollywood memoirs. Every anecdote I hear about or from her makes me admire her all the more.

I am pleased to hear her kind words for Melvyn Douglas, whom I do adore. It's not surprising, perhaps, to hear of him as a tireless liberal, given his marriage to Helen Gahagan.

For those who can't get enough Myrna, there are goodies aplenty over on Tumblr...

The Siren said...

Karen, Myrna goes into her political battles alongside Douglas and mentions the infamous Nixon vs Helen Douglas election, and I am sure the details will please you. There's also a tale of a dinner party at the home of Nancy Davis' parents...But I didn't have the space, and also, to be honest, this week I have had it with political brawling (gad, hasn't EVERYONE?) and so I confined myself to anecdotes that everyone would (or SHOULD) appreciate.

Karen said...

Well, that's it. I've gone over to Amazon and ordered a copy.

A second-hand copy, however--there was one mint, unopened first edition on offer, but it was going for over $1100...

The Siren said...

Karen, the tumblr goodness is sooo good!

Also, for dessert: Cynthia Heimel's famous essay, "When In Doubt, Act Like Myrna Loy."

Ned said...

Karen, great Tumblr link, thanks. Also, nice to see Melvyn Douglas' name brought up in any connection. A guy who could do comedy--even a little slapstick (the restaurant scene in Ninotchka)--with the best and also excel at dramatic roles like the father in Hud.

And at the Siren's recommendation, I will confine political references to anecdotes, but it was nice to recall that Helen Gahagan was responsible for popularizing the "Tricky Dick" nickname for her opponent in the 1950 California Senate race. It could have been a lot worse considering.

Thanks also to the Siren for the link to the Cynthia Heimel essay. Great stuff.

Shamus said...

That banner: you know you ought to warn someone before you spring something like that.

Myrna Loy's casting of a nymphomaniac in Love Me Tonight is quite odd, but she easily steals the show in the (few) scenes she's got. Also, bloody censors cut the scene where she gets to sing "Mimi" - she does not sing in that movie anyway. Reason for said cutting: her negligee was too revealing in that scene. Absolutely: great job. Who else wants to go for Hays nostalgia?

"Are you alone? I mean in life. You're not married, are you?" Loy to Chevalier, who oddly is gravitated to the swooning Jeanette MacDonald.

Ned said...

Love Me Tonight. Great movie! With one of the most original scenes, Mamoulian's staging of "Isn't It Romantic" (the best of a typically excellent collection of Rodgers and Hart songs). Beginning with Chevalier and passing the song off into a taxicab, train, military patrol (marching soldiers singing "Isn't It Romantic is a hoot), a gypsy camp, and coming around to finish with Jeanette MacDonald is one of the more elegant and creatively cinematic transfers of a song from a stage play to film.

It's interesting to see Myrna in her earlier days playing against type, well, certainly against the type she would later become known for (as opposed to her earlier vamp roles).

Edgar W. Hopper said...

As I recall it. It was a different piece once or twice a week. Getting a complete set could take a while. During the depression my grandmother sometimes could only afford to take one of us kids. My cousin and I used to argue over who would get to go see the crime or cowboy flicks. I was a huge fan of Cagney and George Raft.

Shamus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shamus said...

Ned, Love Me Tonight IS a great movie, possibly the greatest of musicals and at the least the most joyful. But I just remembered this exchange between Myrna Loy and Jeanette MacDonald (whom I like only under the iron hand of Lubitsch):

JM: Do you ever think of anything but men, dear?
ML: (after a beat)Oh, Yes.
JM: Of what?
ML: Schoolboys.

Thus easily surpassing Mary Astor from Palm Beach Story we were discussing in the previous thread.

VP81955 said...

Here's a fascinating story from Photoplay in April 1933 called "No More Chinese, Myrna?" (as if she was swearing off lo mein from her diet). It doesn't quote her directly, but it certainly points out the mindset of Hollywood in those days:


NicksFlickPicks said...

Such a completely lovely essay, and a real spirit-booster. I will run to get a copy of this book.

Interesting to hear that Loy preferred the position of being slightly subordinated to another actor in the way her scripts were structured. She obviously knew how good she was at it. She's practically fourth banana in Libeled Lady, and she's still the person I can't take my eyes off of.

Thanks so much for this!

Ned said...

Shamus, with a line like that, she jumps to the head (or is it the back) of the class.

A far cry from the Myrna of Mr. Blandings and "Cheaper by the Dozen".

Speaking of great lines uttered by the lovely Myrna Loy, how about this one from "I Love You Again" with her estimable partner in cinema, William Powell: Powell says something like "Flattery like that will turn my head, madam" to which she retorts "I've often wanted to turn your head--on a spit. Over a slow fire."

Even if you've never seen the movie you can just hear her saying that, can't you?

rick mcginnis said...

Not to belabour the point, but my God she was a babe!

The Siren said...

Somebody on the IMDB user reviews for Third Finger, Left Hand remarked that the film revealed she had thick ankles and I spent a good long while contemplating what sort of man would look at Myrna Loy and come up with that as a relevant comment.

Also, where is Yojimboen? I want him to see this and notice that per his admonishment it was "Miss Loy" for this post.

Ned, Shamus, David - her line delivery was superb. Only a handful of other actresses ever matched it--Lombard would be one.

Which brings me to VP -- that Photoplay article, can't you hear her grinding her teeth?

Nick, *writing* this was a huge spirit booster. The news was draggin' me down, and Myrna brought me right back up again.

The Siren said...

Edgar, one dish a week, let's say six place settings--dinner plate, salad, cup, saucer, bowl--that's a lot of moviegoing!

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's "Isn't It Romantic?"

I believe I may have vouchsafed this to you before, Siren, but back in the early 70's I went to see a double feature of I Love You Again and Double Wedding at Theatre 80 St. Marks. Myrna Loy was sitting right behind me. The moment they were over she siged to her companion "Oh my I'd forgotten how great Bill was!"

She was, of course, introduced, and got a Standing O -- which was the very least we could do.

Trish said...

In the banner she almost looks like Joan Crawford. Strange, since she had her own unique look and didn't have to be made to resemble anyone else. What a delicate beauty onscreen, yet her characters often operated from a position of strength. I like her even better now that I know how she felt about Melvyn Douglas.

Ned said...

Siren, one of the pleasures of reading that Heimel article was "hearing" Myrna's delivery of the quoted lines. But it's not just the delivery, although like so many great artists she had that uncanny ability to arrive at a reading of certain lines you would never imagine would work which would then ruin you for any alternate readings, it's the quality of her voice; the slight quaver, the little delays (as Shamus mentions in her back and forth with Jeanette M. ), the rise and fall of pitch, especially at the end of a phrase, and how she holds her mouth and what other carefully considered movements she employs that makes everything she utters seem so memorable. Like Schubert, she could deliver a laundry list and you'd be ready to faint dead away at the finish.

Hannah said...

Fantastic post I adore Miss Loy, she just lights up the screen as corny as that sounds. I have added her book to my amazon list, thank you so much for sharing.

Ned said...

David, thanks for the link to that version of "Isn't It Romantic" (if only Larry Hart had lived a little longer...).

I've had this song (Isn't It Romantic) in my head all afternoon now since I thought of it, and for some reason I hear Fred Astaire singing it but I can't recall where or when (isn't that a Larry Hart line too?).

I have a great Columbia album of him singing some of his biggest songs but most of them are by Berlin or Kern or Gershwin.

I can't find any clips of Fred singing this fabulous song, but if you know of one, please pass it along.

In any event, great anecdote about Miss Loy attending a double bill of her films at Theatre 80. I didn't get to New York until the late 70s early 80s but I spent many glorious evenings at St. Marks as well as the Bleeker, the Thalia, the Regency, all mostly gone now, or changed, but I never had occasion to run into true Hollywood royalty as you did on that night.

Thanks for a great story. It highlights Loy's sensibilities and her innate graciousness and decency. A great lady.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's THE scene from The Best Years of Our Lives. Myrna loy provides master class in how to emote with your back to the camera.


Robert Avrech said...


Wonderful tribute to a great actress and fine human being.

I count "Test Pilot" as my very favorite Loy film wherein she combines her signature dry wit with some of her best dramatic moments. I seem to remember from her autobiography that she too loved this Victor Fleming/John Lee Mahin production.

When Sidney Lumet and I were working on "A Stranger Among Us" we spent a good deal of time during our casting sessions discussing the vices and virtues of various actors and acting styles.

Loy's last feature film was Sidney's "Just Tell Me What You Want." Sidney and I agreed that Myrna Loy's understated but profoundly truthful style was one of the greatest gifts of Hollywood's Golden Age.

Sidney adored actors—he started his career as a child actor in Yiddish theater—and he could not praise Loy enough.

Ned said...

"Best Years of Our Lives"...such an incredible film in so many ways, thematically, technically (the Gregg Toland's deep focus camera work), and as a timely but also timeless story.

I've been trying to think of other great scenes featuring actors with their backs to the camera. I figure this would be the crowd to which a question like that could be thrown open with a reasonable expectation of intersting responses.

(One scene I can think of is more of a gratuitous, shocker-type scene rather than one that relies on acting chops--the red coated dwarf who turns to greet Donald Sutherland in Nick Roeg's "Don't Look Now". Uber creepy.)

Anyone top Myrna Loy in "Best Years of Our Lives"? I KNOW there are a rack of great scenes I'm unable to call to mind presently.

Russell said...

Being and Becoming is a truly wonderful book and one that I always have at hand. It is such a refreshingly honest book, and though I have no idea of the collaboration process between Myrna and her co writer, her voice seems to come though loud and clear. Interesting that there is finally a biography in the offing, I have high expectations. I want to know everything!

Lovely post as always, and having just finished my own tribute over at Screen Snapshots (plug plug), it's heartening that so many people still remember her so fondly.

The Siren said...

Ned, David Shipman paid tribute to Irene Dunne's "gurgling, smothered laugh" in The Awful Truth where she is looking at Cary Grant with her back to the camera. And I once wrote up a scene from Three Godfathers, where Harry Carey Jr. is dying, and John Wayne plays a key moment with his back to the camera. Gary Cooper plays a fair bit of the High Noon shootout either with his back to the camera or in extreme long shot. Cagney climbs the church steps in The Roaring 20s mostly with his back in view. There must be others...but in a studio picture, as now, there was a certain reluctance to pay up for a famous face and turn it away from the camera all that much.

The Siren said...

Robert, thank you so much! She does indeed cite Test Pilot as a personal favorite, partly because of how good the cast was. That one is due for a re-viewing, along with the Lumet. I haven't seen either in quite some time.

Ned said...

Siren, I can picture all the scenes you mention, all excellent examples (I wouldn't have thought of "The Awful Truth" scene but it's a great one).

I was just thinking of two very different scenes that use this odd angle to great effect. The end of Altman's "The Long Goodbye" where Elliot Gould highsteps down a Mexican dirt road after killing his best friend (who screwed him)--a knockoff (more than an homage) to the end of "The Third Man".

The other scene I was thinking of was of a fairly nondescript actress who plays the mother of the three soldiers killed in "Saving Private Ryan". This, I think is a combination of great direction and wonderful execution on the part of this actress who collapses as the US Army vehicle stops and expels an officer and minister, forecasting the dire fate of her sons. A very fine scene.

I can picture a back to the camera scene with Burt Lancaster but can't recall the film...

Dave said...

I'm surprised that no one's commented on Myrna's comment that she envied the roles Irene Dunne was getting. As much as I love both of them, I can't picture it. -Maybe- "The Awful Truth," but I wouldn't trade Dunne in that movie (nor Loy in "Blandings") for anything.

Our Myrna is usually too level-headed to handle Dunne's flightiness (not to mention the singing).

Still, it's another interesting thought experiment. Loy as Vinnie Day? Hmmm.

The Siren said...

I think Myrna could definitely have done My Favorite Wife, and probably Penny Serenade too although it would have gone against her type at the time. And Theodora Goes Wild.

I say that as a Dunne lover, though; I am quite happy with those films the way they are.

X. Trapnel said...

Now here's a case of the speaker equaling the subject and here's proof that we don't need an anniversary number divisible by 5 or 10 to celebrate Myrna Loy.

The Barbarian? Miss L was clearly not playing the title role, the pinnacle of civilization more likely. And what a wonderful image after all of last week's sweat (though I am getting a bit warm stating at it).

The Siren said...

Russell, that's really a fine tribute to her early years and her long slog to stardom, and I loved the pictures, too. Thank you for plugging it!

gmoke said...

From "The Industry and the Professor" a 1949 short story in John O'Hara's Hollywood (my copy of which I have offered to the Siren now that I've finished it):

"Well, not a Commie. But he came out verrrrry, verrrrry strong for Truman. He didn't have to come out that strong. If he wanted to come out for him, all right. That's enough. He didn't have to shoot off his face. I'll bet you'd have a hard time convincing people like Bob Montgomery and George Murphy he isn't a Commie."

"And Jeanette MacDonald?"

"And Jeanette MacDonald..."

gmoke said...

In Best Years of Our LIves, I also like the scene where they go out on the town and end up at Butch's where March is drunkenly dancing with Loy and they pretend they've just met. She was so charming.

X. Trapnel said...

Fredric March had a bit of William Powell in him and his drinking throughout BYOOL can be seen as a forties (mutandis considerably mutated) corollary to Powell's unquenchable thirstiness.

Shamus said...

"...it's not just the delivery, although like so many great artists she had that uncanny ability to arrive at a reading of certain lines you would never imagine would work..."

Ned, that is some fantastic analysis. Obviously, when we read the script (after watching the movie) it is impossible not to hear those inflections, those pauses, but if we start with the script rather than the movie, I'm sure it would be impossible to conceive how many different ways it could be uttered.

The finest actors and actresses always give interpretations that are not only surprising but almost possess a sense of discovery in sound.

Somehow I can't get the opening lines of the Magnificent Ambersons out of my head and Welles' voice saying, "The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873. Their splendor lasted throughout all the years that saw their midland town spread and darken into a city..."

What a voice! As good as some of the actors there, Welles has more presence in the film simply by supplying the voiceover.

However, I'm reluctant to say anything else that might take the discussion away from Miss Loy.

Shamus said...


I associate Lombard so much with unbridled, irrepressible physicality, I've never really thought about her line delivery all that much. Hmmm...

Cliff Aliperti said...

Great tribute, really enjoyed it!

On the subject of the wonderful photo of the top featuring Myrna in the rose petal bath--I don't know the issue, but this one can be found as a 2-page pink-tinted color spread in the middle of an early issue of Look Magazine. I had it at one time and somehow managed to sell it after spending a week or two staring at it.

I was surprised to learn from you that the photo was taken during a pre-code as Look didn't come into existence until February 1937. I guess they just used it to spice things up in an early issue, nevermind it being an old photo!

Tonio Kruger said...

Oh, my! If that pre-code banner isn't a cure for the summertime blues, then nothing is. And to think I thought the stills from Claudette Colbert's bath scene in Sign of the Cross were daring for the period...

Not that I'd dare suggest that Ms. Colbert is chopped liver. Not I. Sharon Stone, maybe, but never my beloved Claudette...

DavidEhrenstein said...

I think the back-to-the-camera Lancaster shot you're thinking of is in Sweet Smell of Success.

There's a lot of sharp Lombard line-delivery in Mr. & Mrs. Smith and To Be or Not To Be, but yes she's incredibly physical.

The Siren said...

Oh, I think Lombard is both. Twentieth Century could be screechy with the wrong actress, but she keeps it on target.

Cliff, that is fascinating about the photo. I guess it is, as I suspected, the one she complains about some photographer sneaking in BandB. Pink-tinted, huh? I am waiting for one of my early-30s hounds who's seen The Barbarian to show up. What's she doing there? Is she a bad girl, or a good girl with outlandish taste in bath routines? Of course, I could easily look this up, but I rather like theorizing so I haven't bothered, so far.

Shamus said...

David, Sweet Smell of Success, of course, where the shots of Lancaster's face and those of his back are roughly equal and both have a sort of articulate stillness to them.

Lombard did have a characteristic delivery, chin slightly up, eyes-brighter-than-usual, body still, but her legs (or arms) moving slightly in counterpoint, and a very quick fast monotone and a smile immediately thereafter to soften the blow (or as tell to indicate that she's lying, which is most of the time): she used this technique quite a bit actually, come to think about it and it is almost always funny (and endearing).

But there is an amazing moment in To Be or Not To Be, where Lombard learns of her "admirer", and how young he is and says, "Oh No No No." That's there is to it all I think but the delivery is trilling with sex: its quite unforgettable. Who else think she achieved her peak with Lubitsch?

Whether you think Twentieth Century works, of course, is purely a personal opinion. For me, it's mostly unbearably loud and Barrymore and Lombard, likewise. Like My Man Godfrey, it isn't really that funny and I'm slightly suspicious of Lombard's "official classics".

VP81955 said...

I believe I may have vouchsafed this to you before, Siren, but back in the early 70's I went to see a double feature of I Love You Again and Double Wedding at Theatre 80 St. Marks. Myrna Loy was sitting right behind me. The moment they were over she siged to her companion "Oh my I'd forgotten how great Bill was!"

She was, of course, introduced, and got a Standing O -- which was the very least we could do.

Theatre 80 doesn't show movies anymore, but Myrna (and other stars) remain in concrete (a la Grauman's Chinese) in front of the venue, where I scratched my classic Hollywood itch in the late '80s. Learn more about the place at an entry I wrote some years ago, http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/29850.html.

And in its early days, Look was surprisingly racy, a far cry from the low-key magazine of the '50s and '60s. In another one of its initial issues, it ran a photo spread on Clark Gable and Carole Lombard and ran several of the (tasteful) seminude portraits Lombard had done for William E. Thomas and Pathe about 1928 or '29. If Carole was miffed about what Look did, it didn't last long, because in 1938, she did a piece for the magazine where she chose her 10 most fascinating man outside of Hollywood, a list that included Franklin D. Roosevelt and George Bernard Shaw.

X. Trapnel said...

No, My Man Godfrey is not half so funny as its reputation would compell us to believe. to me its a case of great comic performances spun out of weak material so that it almost seems a formal abstraction of a screwball/romantic comedy. The main problem is the impossible theme of rich man as Christ figure (Powell's scene with Allan Mowbray puts me in mind of JHC rebuking a wayward disciple). But it's all worth it for Mischa Auer (though not the ape imitation).

Shamus said...


What's worse about Godfrey are its lies and evasions about poverty compared to something like Sullivan's Travels: would it really be so terrible if Powell did come from a lower class than Lombard (bearing in mind the audience could accept Powell getting away with anything short of being a serial killer/child molester). Oh so, Powell chooses to live in poverty does he? Being broken up over a love affair (you expect me to believe THAT). And the city dump is full of rich millionaires who just happened to give up their fortune for the sake of the public. Did that happen much after the 2008 crash? As opposed, you know, to the bonuses they gave themselves.

Compare all this to that Robert Greig's wonderful speech about the morbid rich and how poverty must be kept as far away as possible (don't recall it now but we must ask Gore Vidal) which seems so much more pungent and truthful.

Evangeline Holland said...

I actually love Myrna's Pre-Codes (When Ladies Meet, The Animal Kingdom, Penthouse, etc) even more than I do her "perfect wife" roles. She was witty, intelligent, kittenish, and sexy in many of these movies, and I want to strangle MGM for not creating genuine "Myrna Loy" vehicles to promote her talent. Even though she's on record stating she preferred to defer her screen presence to her male co-star, I just cannot believe she was that unambitious, particularly as the BFF of Joan Crawford!

As for my favorite Loy co-star? William Powell is wonderful, but Robert Montgomery brought out a slightly goofy, but playful side to her.

Ned said...

If I was picking the best Lombard performance, I'd have to go with To Be or Not to Be. It's a superb picture all around. There's not a weak frame in the whole thing. It's certainly the best thing Jack Benny ever did as well. Lombard's screen presence has never been as sharp (and she's always sharp!), and as well crafted and defined. Her timing was perfect, her usual craziness is turned down a notch and she keeps pace when the comedy turns a bit serious in the face of Tura being in possible danger.

A great, great movie.

I'm not nearly as sardonic about My Man Godfrey as X and Shamus. I rather like it.

Yes, it has problems and the points about the central character (I had never picked out the Christ connection, X, but I see your point in the lecturing of the Mowbray character), and its approach to the problems of poverty during the depression are good ones, but that has never bothered me overly.

I can't honestly say that it's not trying to make some social commentary because there is that speech about some men fighting back, as if poverty was something that if you only tried hard enough, you could easily overcome it. There's a lot of that rhetoric around today and it's no more true now than it was then. Perhaps its true for the Powell character and the bank manager, they were just there slumming (and not just metaphorically), but it's a serious problem for millions of people who can't come up with a purloined string of pearls and set up a nightclub franchise.

Anyway, that aside, it's still a screwball comedy. Not the best, but it has its moments. And it's blessed with some of the best character actors working in the thirties. As X points out, Mischa Auer is worth the price of admission (Oh...money, money, money, the Fronkonsteen monster that destroys men's souls...). Eugene Pallette, Alice Brady, Franklin Pangborn (playing, as always, Franklin Pangborn), Alan Mowbray (was there anything he couldn't play?), Jean Dixon, etc.

Mostly I watch it for the leads. Lombard does ditzy with the best and Powell, well, what else can you say about Powell? As David recalled in his anecdote about meeting Myrna Loy at Theater 80, we sometimes forget how good he was. He was even great in those throwaway Philo Vance things.

But if you're looking for perfect Lombard, look at Lubitsch. Shamus is right about that. That's not a knock on Nothing Sacred and Twentieth Century, both fine films; just not the perfection that is To Be or Not to Be.

Shamus said...


With Lubitsch, Lombard had a director who always brought the best in his stars (even when they were called Gene Tierney, Don Ameche or Gary Cooper masquerading as a Parisian bohemian) and a co-star who was not...William Powell. I don't mean to diss Lombard or anything like that but the number of actresses in cinema who could match Powell whether he was controlled (like in Godfrey) or when he freely gives into his zaniest (what's wrong with 30's slang?) impulses, well let's say that they could be counted on one hand. Missing a couple of fingers. Lombard could not and Loy didn't even try. (To bring the discussion back to the subject at hand.)

Ned said...

In truth Powell was exceptional in every film he made. He did smooth and suave and urbane but he could also do physical comedy (the fishing scene in Libeled Lady and boy rangers scenes in I Love You Again).

Powell's was another memorable voice whose clipped delivery was precise but never stuffy. He wasn't always in the greatest films but made every film he did appear in that much better for his presence.

Earlier someone mentioned the Myrna Loy Irene Dunne connection which brings to mind Life With Father. Had Myrna Loy played Vinnie Day it would have made 15 films for the two of them together. But when I think of Powell and Dunne sitting in the growing darkness of their living room singing "Sweet Marie" together, I can't see anyone else in that part. Besides Dunne did such a great Gracie Allen (the pug dog discussion is worthy of Gracie Allen logic at its screwiest).

Tonio Kruger said...

I never met anyone who was once poor--and I know quite a few people inside and outside my family who qualify for that status--who got out of poverty by following the advice of Hollywood movies.

Then again, it's been my experience that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to overcoming poverty. There are only habits and philosophies that are more likely to work than other habits and philosophies.

In any event, as long as certain segments of society promote as much disdain for those few people who manage to escape poverty as they do for people who are still poor, all this rhetoric about whether My Man Godfrey is more honest than Sullivan's Travels is a bit academic.

Dave said...

Ned: I was going to comment on Dunne's Gracieallenness, but decided not to since Gracie was of another world (a talking Harpo, if you will), and while Irene can be goofy, she's more grounded. Gracie could never bust anyone the way Irene does to Grant.

The Siren said...

Well, I am crazy about My Man Godfrey, as indeed I am crazy about Gregory La Cava. I re-watch it just about every year. Beautiful looking movie (the opening car chase--awesome, as is the sequence when Godfrey puts Irene in the shower); superb script ("All you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people"); cast at the top of its game. My heart sinks at the very notion of trying to take My Man Godfrey as a serious comment on, well, much of anything. It's a reverse fairy tale, where the beggar maid is a beggar man and the kingdom is Depression-era New York. I mean, sure, you can lay it out like a butler etherized upon a table and pick apart its social analysis or lack thereof, but that isn't how I personally like to approach comedy. One of the first posts I wrote was basically me restating that thesis in a goofier vein.

And for the record, I fucking love Mischa Auer's monkey imitation.

Ned said...

Not to mention Eugene Pallette's double-take when Carlos starts grooming the dog.

The Siren said...

It doesn't matter how much I read about what a deeply unpleasant person Pallette was, I can't get enough of him as Bullock. "I've had to look at her for 20 years. That's MRS. Bullock."

X. Trapnel said...


you touch on most of the thematic absurdities and evasions in Godfrey, so I'll only add a random point or two as to how they're dramatized re St. GODfrey: the repentent Gail Patrick, weepy Jean Dixon, and silliest of all an awe-struck Eugene Pallette asking "Who are you?" like it's the bloody Supper at Emmaus (perhaps Caravaggio or Rembrandt should have been director of photography). Even The Passing of the Third Floor Back was less solemn.

Even setting aside the vamp roles, it appears to have taken Hollywood a little time to realize what they had in Myrna Loy. One of the interesting things about The Animal Kingdom is how Ann Harding seems stuck in conventional stage role of free spirit while Loy, though the nominal villainess seems to be acting in a film that hasn't been made yet and easily walks off with the picture. Likewise her interaction with the very self-important Warner Baxter (now there was a humorless guy, a foretaste of the crankiness of late-period Brugh) in Penthouse shows the untethered humor and wit
of what was to come.

Meredith said...

Myrna Loy was one of my first Hollywood loves and is still a source of inspiration. Her autobio is truly wonderful. I wish I could high five this entire post. Also as another devotee of both Dunne and Loy I'm glad Irene got the parts. I can't see Loy handling the 'I jujitsu' scene in The Awful Truth the same way (how she turns the ending note into a laugh might just be my favorite part in the film and I wouldn't trade it for anything) though I could see Myrna giving Grant a satisfying smirk.

The Siren said...

Meredith, thanks so much, I'm glad you liked it. It's always a fun, but futile exercise to cross-cast movies that are well-night perfect already; I also have trouble imagining Myrna in Love Affair. But Myrna was so great that if she'd gotten those roles (did she want them? different studio) it's possible we'd be saying we couldn't picture Dunne in them...

X. Trapnel said...


I didn't mean to take Godfrey as a serious social comment; it's just that I find the character too virtuous be funny or sympathetic (Lombard is enough of both for two which saves the picture). I also like the ape imitation but it's overshadowed the rest of what I think is a brilliant comic performance.

Rob said...

I LOVE Myrna Loy, and "Being And Becoming is one of the best autobiographies I've ever read-how many books could focus on more than just a stars' professional life, but politics and personal anecdotes (just from memory, she tells a sweet story about her mother pulling her aside to look at her brother sitting next to his best buddy, who was a black kid, and telling her how beautiful the sight of the two boys together is).
But I love even more her friend Rosalind Russell's autobiography "Life Is A banquet". The chapter where she sues her Hollywood landlady...oh my God...priceless!
Wonderful post about Miss Myrna!

Shamus said...

Tonio, Siren,

Well for heaven's sake, I don't mean that any movie, let alone a screwball comedy, should have a segment of social criticism delivered, Scarface style to the audience (though re-reading my post, I know how it could have sounded that way). But it is quite another thing for a movie to systematically and blithely cop out from all the premises that initially made the movie interesting. Exhibit B is Love Me Tonight, hardly a Stanley Kramer film of the 30's but at least Chevalier is a tailor and not a baron masquerading as a tailor masquerading as a baron. The final few of minutes of that movie ("The Son of a Gun is a tailor") is as scalding as any Hollywood movie has any right to be about class relations. If Godfrey had one hundredth of the pluck of Love Me, it could have been such a better film. Instead, it is fairly cowardly, reaffirming (retreating into) the status quo.

The movie is solely about the rich: the rich are rich, but even the poor are (were) rich. There is also an implication that Powell "saves them" (X has comprehensively pointed out the absurdity and didacticism of those scenes) only because they were formerly millionaires and because they had acted so nobly in giving up their fortune. As if it were not enough that they are poor and could use any help that they could get. As Walter Neff says in another context, "That tears it."

Shamus said...

My Man Godfrey and Cherry Orchard? Speechless. But Greene is on the record somewhere stating that of all the movies he had seen, only Fritz Lang's Fury qualified for "greatness". Well, Fury is probably Lang's greatest American film (and hence one of the greatest ever made) but if Greene didn't like any other movie in the 30's, he probably didn't watch many of them (though this bitching was carried on by James Agee in the 40's: for fuck's sake, can someone tell me what's wrong with the 30's and 40's, movie-wise?).

Anyway, Greene and Lang were both catholic masters of guilt, so I can see what Greene admired in Lang. Lang repaid the favor and made Ministry of Fear into a movie. Its there on my (metaphorical) shelf, waiting to be seen.

Siren, my personal favorite of Pallette's roles were when he appeared with Coburn in two of the greatest comedies of the 40's: The Lady Eve of course but also Heaven Can Wait. They were great great character actors, and in any case it is difficult for any movie to go completely off-tangent with them around.

rcocean said...

Myrna Loy, the perfect wife. Always classy, charming, and level headed. Love her, even though people bring her 70 year old political beliefs into the discussion.

I wonder if did people in 1930 talked this way about Lillie Langtry or Sarah Bernhart? "Not only was Lille a great actress she was a Whig and supported the 1892 tariff reduction bill, she was great!"

Finally, I wonder what male star DIDN'T have chemistry with Loy? She seems to have been a female "Cary Grant" IOW, making all her male co-stars look good.

Monique D said...

After reading Loy's "Being and Becoming" I had to revise my opinion of Joan Crawford. Loy's defense of Crawford was a surprise at first, but ultimately it was quite compelling. Beyond that, I find it nearly impossible to believe that anyone with as much integrity and humanity as Myrna had would have been a close lifelong friend of the kind of monster "Mommie Dearest" paints Joan to have been. It just doesn't add up.

The Siren said...

Rcocean, I deliberately left Myrna's political beliefs out of this post, as I said above. What's in the post are her moral beliefs, i.e. her anti-racism. Since you asked, almost any time the great Bernhardt comes up (and I've idolized her, too, for years) her support of Alfred Dreyfus does, too.

The Siren said...

XT and Shamus, I just don't find the social/political content of My Man Godfrey all that prevalent or irritating. The asylum line is appropriate, since in the movie all you need to start a hobo camp is a bridge. I'd say the overarching point is that anybody can get a bad break, and that hard times can make people more generous. This liberal has no trouble getting on board with that. Gabriel Over the White House, though...

I'm glad you're endorsing Auer's deathless monkey impersonation, XT. Under the right circs it can reaffirm my zest for life. And yes to Heaven Can Wait. The scene over the funny papers!

Rob, I'm also extremely fond of Russell's autobiography. She has a very sweet section on Jean Harlow (with an implied rebuke to William Powell for not marrying her) and I also love the tales of her sister and how she inspired a lot of Auntie Mame. She's wonderfully self-deprecating. Sheila O'Malley once wrote a great post about Life Is a Banquet, too.

The Siren said...

Monique, I had the same thought about Crawford after reading Loy. There's a Rashomon aspect to reading about Crawford and her home life, though, that I have given up trying to parse. Every story, good and bad, has its counterpoint. I keep going back to the writer (maybe Fran Lebowitz) who remarked regarding Mommie Dearest and My Mother's Keeper etc., that it would surprise her more if a great star WAS a great parent. As I recall Loy says simply that she never reached a point where her own children would fit in her own life and adds incredibly loving things about what she got out of her relationship with her stepson, and leaves it at that. That fits with Loy saying bluntly that she wasn't the sort to carry a star vehicle all on her own. She sussed out what she could do well, and stuck with that.

Ned said...

Monique, thanks for that wonderful reference to Myrna Loy's defense of Joan Crawford. It seems we can add 'great friend' to the list of her other admirable qualities.

Like Karen, I've never been a big fan of Hollywood memoirs. Too often the auto-bios are written to settle scores or rewrite history. Many of the bios are unapologetic hagiographies written by obsequious twits. I have run across a few decent bios of some directors but have only read a handful of good books by or about stars.

Siren, I don't know if you've already done a post like this, but I would love to hear from you and the other Sirenistas who have come across some excellent examples of the Hollywood Bio genre, to pass them along. It would save quite a lot of time when looking for something decent.

And one final note on the title of the Loy book: Being and Becoming. When I first read that title my initial reaction was that it was either a book on modern physics or something about pre-Socratic philosophy. In the event, it appears, from that title choice, that she was an uncommonly self-aware person. A rare thing, and not just in Hollywood.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Mommie Dearest is as much about (if not more) Faye Dunaway than it is about Crawford. I have no doubt Crawford was friends with Loy, and that Loy -- knowing Hollywood inside and out -- fully appreciated just how hard Crawford worked to stay on top in a business where everyone was expendable. MGM was especially rutheless in this regard -- toosing aside talented people as if they were nothing (eg. Ray MacDonald)

My Man Godfrey is an entertainment with just soupcon of social sature. It's not Preston Sturges you know.

As for the great Mischa Aure my favoirte of his performances are his cameo in Mr. Arkadin and as the object of Marth Raye's trenusous affections in Hellzapoppin

DavidEhrenstein said...

Speaking of Faye. . .

Ned said...

Shamus, speaking of Ministry of Fear, you really should take it down off the shelf, even the metaphorical one. Since you're a Lang fan, it would fill out your knowledge base of his wartime films noir.
You mentioned Graham Greene's Catholicism, so I'm assuming your familiar with his writing. The novel, Ministry of Fear, is quite a bit different in tone and plot, from the film. Even the ending has been altered. The guilt is piled high, but if you like Greene as a prose stylist and storyteller, you'll enjoy it.

One small detail that has always stuck with me about this book (and I read it a LONG time ago) involves a scene in which a young child is hiding under the covers in her bedroom during a buzz bomb attack. She pictures a witch riding a broomstick hovering over the city looking for victims. The pulsing sound of the V1 engine sounds like the witch is saying "Where-are-you, where-are-you, where-are-you..."

A memorable bit of writing.

One other thing about Ministry of Fear. The producer of that picture was one of the great multi-talented people in Hollywood history, Buddy DeSylva. He started off writing songs on Tin Pan Alley for Al Jolson and worked with Gershwin on several projects. He wrote a number of American Songbook standards such as April Showers and California Here I Come, The Best Things in Life are Free, and Button Up Your Overcoat.

He then went on to write some films (DuBarry Was a Lady), and produce others as disparate as The Little Colonel, The Road Pictures, Double Indemnity, Going My Way, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ministry of Fear, and most of the great Sturges films.

In his spare time he founded Capitol Records with the legendary Johnny Mercer.

Not bad. Now there's a bio I'd love to read.

Ned said...

Regarding Mischa Auer, I suppose my favorite of his roles (after Carlos in My Man Godfrey) is his Russian ballet instructor in You Can't Take it With You. "The Monte Carlo Ballet.....steeeenks."

Shamus said...


The scene with the funny papers! "There once was a Strable..." How does that go?


You guessed correctly, I am a Lang fan (insofar it is possible for anyone to be a fan) so I will now quickly hasten to Ministry of Fear.

I am familiar with Greene but only passingly: The Power and the Glory and the Third Man and little else. Actually, I remember reading some more, but this is probably some false memory of some sort: some of the South African writers, again I'm only fleetingly familiar with, (Coetzee, Galgut) seem have imbibed the same sense of the environment as a dull ache, the same Greeness, as it were and Greene's influence is quite wide: I could sense where Le Carre got his early narrative ideas when I read the Third Man. One of the reasons for my distance is that as easily as I can stomach religion in Lang or Borzage, I find it very distasteful to encounter it in a novel.

But I'll try and find Ministry all the same, or perhaps Brighton Rock, which is more readily available. Thanks for the recommendation.

Meredith said...

Very true, Siren! The historical die has already been cast, so to speak.

X. Trapnel said...

"For fuck's sake, can someone tell me what's wrong with the 30's and 40's, movie-wise?"

Nothing, absolutely nothing, but Greene and Agee were writng from a different perspective, from within, and with certain personal and cultural predispositions and prejudices. It was unusual enough for a literary person then to pay "serious" attention to Hollywood/commercial films and the categorical imperatives of modernism (yes, I know that neither Greene nor Agee were modernists as such but modernism formed the intellectual climate) was against popularity and entertainment (some of this lingers on in the criticism of Stanley Kaufmann, a name not often encountered here). Add to this a thirties suspicion toward bread (not much bread, though) and circus capitalist enterprise (fortified by Greene's nascent anti-Americanism, see especially his review of The Road Back) and you have a certain reflexive skepticism, and I feel in Agee's case a dtermination to keep his head. Time has altered perspective for us, a sifting out has occurred, and we're no longer subject to the cultural noise, pro and contra, that surrounded film in the 30s/40s

Jeff Gee said...

If it's bums you want, in Central Park circa 1933, and rhymin', and you don't want to be distracted by Carole Lombard or Myrna Loy, there's always THIS .

Trish said...

I don't read actor biographies either, although I might make an exception for Myrna Loy. I suppose I don't like the truth (or untruths as it were) influencing the way I see actors onscreen. The last bio I read was Mary Astor's A Life on Film. A happy surprise because the real Mary Astor turns out to be as used and as tough as some of the characters she's portrayed on film. What a pleasure!

Karen said...

Oh, man, as soon as you said bums and rhymes I knew where you were heading...

Ned, I'm thrilled to know another memoir avoider! For me it's less a matter of whether the goal is score-settling and more that I get agitated when I learn that someone I adore wasn't necessarily the sort of person I'd want to know. I want to love them onscreen unreservedly. But if the Siren and her Sirenistas are kind enough to pre-vet the memoirs for me, I'm delighted to learn more about how my favorites were actually awesome human beings.

Of the few I've read, I'd recommend Esther Williams' memoir, which is a SCREAM. Full of fun dirt. And because he will always be my boy, Cagney's as well. The Siren has excerpted delicious anecdotes from George Sanders' memoir, but I confess I started it and then stopped, because I didn't much care to learn how much of a cad he actually started out as.

Not a memoir, but great fun, is Cameron Crowe's book of conversations with Billy Wilder.

And finally: Ministry of Fear! I love that film so much, despite a slightly giddier ending than it deserves. Partly because I love Ray Milland and his plummy voice. (And will continue to do so, despite learning from Billy Wilder that Milland had no sense of humor at all.)

X. Trapnel said...

Karen, no reason to take Wilder's word for it on Milland's sense of humor (especially as the latter was such a deft comic actor), since he must have thought Jack Lemmon was killingly funny. Wilder's coarseness (which sometimes yielded great stuff or itself yielded to better stuff) should be kept in mind.

I never read star bios becuase the quality of the writing usually bespeaks hackery and incomprehension. Memoirs are worth reading if the author's real voice comes through the as-told-to scrim.

X. Trapnel said...

Speaking of Depression films, haas anyone here seen One More Spring (from a Robert Nathan novel)? Warner Baxter (oh dear), Janet Gaynor, and someone else as Depression victims holing up in Central Park.

Ned said...

Karen, a good start. Fun sorts of things with good dirt are always welcome, especially with well written colorful, and mostly true anecdotes.

Apocryphal anecdotes are okay only if they seem as if they could be true and are outrageously funny or simply outrageous.

The problem of crushed expectations when it comes to discovering unattractive truths about beloved figures is understandable. Especially when their screen persona seems so natural. I recall being unhappily surprised to find that Bing Crosby was such a hard person offscreen and a martinet to his kids. In some ways I've been able to overcome such disappointments because my discovering what a complete asshole Wagner was has never diminished my addiction to his music. I realize that that's a different case because he's wasn't inhabiting characters I admired, but you get the idea. It's a bit like finding out that an admired character from one of Shakespeare's history plays had little in common with the actual person.

And X, yes I have seen One More Spring, ages ago. I seem to recall the print coming from Bill Everson's immense collection when I was studying with him at NYU.

Really the thing I remembered most about it was that it was the only film that featured Walter Woolf King apart from a couple of Marx Brothers films. His character is a much nicer person in this film, for a change. I do recall that there was a very odd scene with Stepin Fetchit which seemed to come out of nowhere.

But speaking of Robert Nathan, I am a fan of other films originating with his writing, Portrait of Jennie, and The Bishop's Wife (one of my favorite Cary Grant vehicles).

Shamus said...


That question was just a bit of rhetorical gravy to go along with my, um, Greenes, but let me build on your assertions. We too lack perspective on our own times, our immediate cultural and political events, and here at this blog we are always looking backward rather than at the present (at least, movie-wise, and possibly even with literature), so would the audiences circa 2040 smack their heads and hail oh, say, Social Network as the new Citizen Kane and mention (name-the-current-actor-who-most-makes-you-want-to-throw-up) in the same breath as Cagney or Stanwyck and consolidate the reputation of Fincher or Nolan with that of Kubrick and Welles, and say how dead-wrong those idiots back in 2011 were to ignore them...? Just something to ponder over I guess.

Also, X., that dig against Lemmon was uncalled for, but I agree that Wilder was coarse and made movies with appallingly bad taste: that made him go places no other filmmaker could.

For me, Milland and Robert Walker are THE definitive Hitchcock villains, and the most interesting creatures he ever created. (James Mason's Vandamm is not given as much screen time or psychological depth as the previous two, so I'm excluding him.)

Shamus said...

Oh, and John Dall from Rope, a film that has a pretty bruised reputation for reasons I can't quite understand. Anyway, these characters often seem like variations of Hitchcock's own persona, creating the most perfect murder, and orchestrating a beautiful symphony of movements around the murder, and questioning society's assumptions and commandments while doing so.

X. Trapnel said...


Yes, perspectives on contemporary film inevitably will have changed in 2040, but I don't think you can treat evolving views over decades in terms of equivalents, mainly because the place of film in culture, the values associated with it, and the actiual circumstances of viewing it have been vastly transformed since the forties. On the one hand, film has displaced literature as our central cultural medium (pop culture artifacts in general receive intense critical scrutiny the moment they hit the marketplace now the way "high" art used to); everyone has lterally or figuratively gone to film school these days and the much longer history of film plus the attendant scholarship has made judgment a less risky business. On the other hand films have a much briefer cultural shelf life (do television comedians do parodies of 1970s films a la Carol Burnett?). Several critics have also suggested that the dominance of film in our culture is on the wane. Maybe by 2040 nobody will care much about either Kane or The Social Network (except for a smaller and smaller cohort of film lovers). It is my own view that the centrality of art in culture is itself disintegrating (only compare our own time with the religiose veneration of art in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries).

As for my animadversions re Jack Lemmon, they're no more called for or uncalled for than anyone else's re any other actor. He was briefly funny in the late 50s and sometimes a good dramatic actor (Days of Wine and Roses). After that mannerism, cuteness, and "everyman" self-pity set in; the nadir is the atrocious Save the Tiger ("Cookie Lavaghetto [sob], Duke Snyder [choke], Gggill Hhhoddges [waaaah!!]).

Shamus said...

I needed someone to refute those points and you did that very well. Thanks. I suppose that our chatting over the blog like this must seem too casual to properly discuss the great works of art to any observers from the 19th Century or the early 20th Century. But, this is all we have I think, and it is not easy to find others today in the corporeal world who tend to share our interests or passions.

If it is your view that "the centrality of art in culture is itself disintegrating", what do you think will replace it? The Cult of "Ourselves", a massive collection of useless data where everyone simply talks about themselves?

I agree that film's place in culture is far more settled now than it was in the 30's or 40's but even now, there are assholes who, well... have you heard about that recent - I can't call it "controversy" - buzz with Dan Kois and his article about eating "cultural vegetables"? Film unfortunately still draws this kind of insanity and those who question anyone who doesn't make films just for the sake of "entertainment". Somehow, watching the great movies of the 30's (surely the greatest decade for film, ever) is a very poignant experience. All the great artists there were creating something extraordinary in a rather disreputable medium: did they suspect that those works would be remembered 70-80 years on, so fondly, and from people in places they had never even heard of?

X. Trapnel said...


I will answer this more fully tomorrow (it's very late in NJ), but what you say about the Cult of Ourselves (but even the idea of subjectivity has changed. The late 19th cent. French novelist Maurice Barres propagated a "cult de moi" that influenced Proust and Valery in the direction of the universals of selfhood, not the preservation of [metaphorical] navel lint) may be borne out by the much bruited displacement of the novel by the memoir.

Shamus said...


Re the cult, I was referring to those for whom culture and art was displaced irrevocably, not to those who still entertained such antediluvian notions and proved it by writing novels, even if they were quasi- (queasy) memoirs. Philip Roth would be an excellent example. Surely with Roth, it is more suggestive that the bad critics choose to read his novels are part-confessions rather than the idea that he frequently subjects himself and his artistry to brilliant and acute analysis. Rather than acknowledge truth in fiction, they insist on the reality of his fiction - events encrusted somewhere in Roth's life - which is another matter entirely. Possibly this has something to do with the entrenched sense of célébrité, but that is another cult.

I'm afraid I've never heard of Maurice Barres and (sorry to say) the rest of your post defeated me.

X. Trapnel said...

Still awake. As it happens, I've been deeply immersed for months in a comparative reading of Proust and Valery (two intrepid explorers of consciousness tunnelling toward each other from opposite directions) and sometimes surface with an intellectual case of the bends. Sorry if I was obscure.
I don't think Roth is part of this problem and the memoiristic element in his work is no more a fault than it is with Proust (and I should add there's nothing wrong with a good memoir). Roth's intelligence and analytic powers are beyond question. The problem for me is they far outstrip his imagination and artistry (I may be one of the bad critics, though one who just grumbles). Does he break through to the universal? I have my doubts. Does he achieve beauty? Hell no. If I were to speculate on the displacement of art in our time my first point would be the abandonment of the ideal of beauty in our culture at large. Turning filmward I firmly believe that whatever the commercial limitations the Hollywood movies of the 30s and 40s pursued and very often acheived a beauty beyond mere glamour.

Shamus said...


When you can write something as delightful as "two intrepid explorers of consciousness tunnelling toward each other from opposite directions", a little obscurity on your part is more than forgiven.

I could have been clearer in my previous post: I meant that, if there is a drift from novel to memoirs in the recent past, it would still have nothing to do with the "cult of ourselves", assuming there is one and whose dimensions remain - between the two of us - undefined. (Hopefully we'll get some help in a couple of hours.) Meanwhile, the insistence of bad critics (obviously doesn't apply to you) that fiction is some form of residue excreted by life is a part of that same cult where events and personalities have more precedence than, say, fiction and art (which I think are not distinct). Re: Memoir as art, I should also have mentioned Fernando Pessoa's "The Book of Disquiet" but that would have been a little misleading as it is more a diary than a novel (or anything, really). In recent times, Sebald has also written oh, half a dozen books that remain, I think, unclassifiable, like those of Milan Kundera, Italo Calvino and Primo Levi. But most of them are very great artists so its useless to try and take them as representative of anything, leaving aside the general proliferation of stupidity (again, assuming there is one).

(I hope the last para was even vaguely coherent.)

I'm sorry that you think Roth does not achieve beauty. In any case, I think many novelists writing today achieve formal beauty in language, such as McEwan, but Roth attains truth, which is far rarer. There is that scene in The Counterlife set in the church at St. James, London at Christmastime where he describes the congregation's enthusiasm to a crowd devouring a "large spiritual baked potato". Or, in an instance of breathtaking irony and sublimity: "The man who died to hear the soothing sound of a finely calibrated relative clause." (Context too hard to explain: basically, impotence, love affair cannot be consummated, dangerous operation and a lover with the voice as described above.)

Shamus said...
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Shamus said...


Also, as for the decline of ideal of beauty, I confess I haven't the slightest idea, but I gather that you're a painter, so you must have some sort of (at least intuitive) understanding of what it means: heaven help me, I have no clue, but I can identify or at least recognize some (very few) individual instances of beauty (or I think I can). As far as discussion on that goes, maybe a rainy day (at both ends) when we are both listless and feel like doing absolutely nothing.

This never came up before but that is a very lovely painting of Yeats on your blog.

rcocean said...

Give Jack Lemmon a break. The dialog in "Saving the Tiger" is so bad even Oliver would've come off a self-pitying Ham.

X. Trapnel said...

Rcocean, ok, ok, the screenwriter gets the blame for STT, but then again I'm a Yankee fan, though the Yankees of my childhood occassioned more weeping over lost games than lost innocence ("Rueben Amaro, %&*#%*@%!"--myself when young)

X. Trapnel said...


Can't respond till later, but thank you for your kind words re Yeats; that made my day (if you do a google image search for Conversations with Robert Frost you can see my portrait of same).

Contemplating the current banner is one way to inspire thoughts on the ideal of beauty.

Shamus said...


Re Loy and the banner: fair enough. I should known better than to quarrel with concepts of the ideal of beauty when something so obvious was so close. Italo Calvino said that Myrna Loy was the "ideal female" and she is my "ideal" as well, and, judging by the comments, doubtless for many others here.

I love Yeats and I was moved by how you captured him; that sensation of painful introspection that you find in some of his late works.

P.S. I'm afraid we've hijacked this thread somewhat.

X. Trapnel said...

Back to film then, Shamus:

"I agree that Wilder was coarse and made movies with appallingly bad taste: that made him go places no other filmmaker could."

A cinematically knowlegable friend (and S-SS lurker) informed me (inconsiderately) at lunch just now that Avanti! features a shot of J. Lemmon's non-body stockinged ass emerging from a bathtub, something I trust our hostess will never use as a banner.

Yojimboen said...

M.X. - Though stilled laid exceeding low by virus influential, I couldn’t

Meanwhile, I enjoy the colloquy.


Dave said...

Re: The Many Mannered Performances of Mr. Lemmon.

I'll stand in back of no one in my loathing of most of Lemmon's performances. (Side note: It's astonishing to watch something like "The Great Race" and wonder where -that- actor went. Side side note: I had an epiphany the other day and realized he's doing Ernie Kovacs in that movie, which may be why he's so good. Side side side note: TGR remains the only Blake Edwards movie I can stand to watch.)

But I digress. As much as I generally despise Lemmon, he's breathtaking in "Glengarry Glen Ross" because he was finally working with a director who put the mannerisms in service of a character. They're all part of a desperate attempt to keep reality at bay. I don't have a lot of use for Lemmon, but that performance is pure genius.

Dave said...

Correction: I can stand to watch "The Americanization of Emily," but that's more a Chayefsky movie than an Edwards one.

Yojimboen said...

Dave – While Americanization of Emily does have a certain Blake Edwards feel about it (especially the colourized version) it was actually directed by (IMO the sadly undersung) Arthur Hiller.

gmoke said...

And "Emily" is a beautiful song by Johnny Mandel with lyrics by the great Johnny Mercer (reputedly involved in a doomed romance with Judy Garland once upon a time). With a fine performance from Melvyn Douglas, among others.

X. Trapnel said...

Well, let's see what Yojimboen has posted [click]; I'm sure it must be something... yyyeewweowAARRRGGHHHRGHghrrfzzzsss....

Shamus said...

You misunderstood me: I would still like to hear your thoughts: the cult of ourselves and the disintegrating centrality of art. But we'll keep film in mind and, in my case, not literature, so we'll skip Roth for now.

As it happens, Lemmon's naked posterior does emerge rather suddenly from a bathtub and Avanti in general does feature some nudity (unusual for Wilder) but please don't let that put you off: I would still recommend the movie very highly. Or at least, Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (no nudity, no Lemmon) for late Wilder.

X. Trapnel said...


Do you know the source for Calvino on Myrna L? I'd love to read it in context (Julian Barnes confesses to a "thing" for Gene Tierney). For me all efforts at high-minded discussion (fragmentation of film culture f'rinstance) falter before the topic of actress worship.

Shamus said...

Calvino was making a sort of survey on Hollywood actresses at that time. Mine is only a secondary source which I found in a book called "Fast Talking Dames" by Maria DiBattista, a topic I'm naturally crazy about, but the book itself is something of a disappointment, though there are compensations: she gives detailed treatments of Loy, Colbert, Hepburn, Dunne, Garbo (anomalously), Gingers Rogers, Russell, Harlow, Lombard and Stanwyck, naturally.

Here is Calvino: "From the cheeky opportunism of Claudette Colbert to the pungent energy of Katharine Hepburn, the most important role model the female personalities of American cinema offered was that of the woman who rivals men in resolve and doggedness, spirit and wit."

Here is DiBattista on Calvino:
"The 'lucid self-possession' in confronting their male counterparts’’ that Italo Calvino so admired in the female personalities of American cinema found 'its most intelligent
and ironic exponent in Myrna Loy'. Accordingly, she became his
'prototype of the ideal feminine'.

The source is given as Calvino's The Road to San Giovanni, which I really must pick up.

Shamus said...

The most interesting part of the book is when the author talks about the Shakespearean lineage of the Fast Talking Dames and the "seven degrees of dramatic reply": Retort Courteous, Quip Modest, Reply Churlish, Reply Valiant, Counterattack Quarrelsome, Lie Circumstantial, and Lie Direct and proceeds to categorize the actresses in each of the categories. For instance, Loy under Retort Courteous and Dunne and Colbert under Quip modest, and Lombard with Lie Circumstantial for her specialty. Analysis of that sort should in itself make for a fine thread.

I can think of no better description of beautiful blank Gene except as a "thing". Her blankness was what attracted her to Preminger and Sternberg and others and suited her perfectly for noir. Unfortunately the spell is quickly broken when she starts to talk.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I disagree, Shamus. Gene Tierny purring "Give me a cigarette" in The Shanghai Gesture is indelible.

Can't fathom the Lemmon Hate in here. But then I had the great privilege of interviewing the man a number of years back in his office in Beverly Hills. Just the two of us alone. No handlers" or anything. He was a delight. And harder on himself than you would imagine.

I love him in , and he's not doing Ernie Kovacs as is obvious once you've seen Lemmon and Kovacs together in Richard Quine's sublime film of John Van Druten's Bell Book and Candle

DavidEhrenstein said...

Correction: I love him in The Great Race.

Shamus said...


Leaving aside Gene Tierney (and The Shanghai Gesture) for a moment, lets agree about the greatness of the Sternbergian cinema of the sweltering hot-houses. Personal favorite: The Docks of New York. Wouldn't it make a nice double bill with Borzage's Street Angel?

No, hold on: the weight of those two masterpieces one after another might be hard to take. No, let's say, double bill of The Docks of New York with Trouble in Paradise. The unifying theme: the construction of love stories contrasted with the environments they are set against (and what a contrast!).

Any other suggestions?

X. Trapnel said...

One person dislikes Jack Lemmon, another Gene Tierney and others are perplexed, but that's the way it is with art across the board.

David, I'm not at all surprised to hear that Lemmon was a nice chap in life; I just wish his performances wouldn't trumpet (cue up Felix Unger nasal noise) it to the skies. Shamus, even I who adore Gene Tierney will admit her limitations as an actress (though her voice is music, even Laura Hunt's "thank yaw"), but a blank (e.g., Martine Carol) could never be the still center of the moving worlds of Laura, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Leave Her to Heaven. No, Waldo L was right that Jacoby never captured the warmth that Tierney radiates.

DavidEhrenstein said...

My double bill: Mitchell Leisen's Midnight with Dorothy Arzner's The Bride Wore Red

Shamus said...

Ah, David, Well to confess I haven't yet had the pleasure of The Bride Wore Red, but I was thinking more in the line of movies that are entwined thematically by more than in terms of plot: possibly, Dr Strangelove and Tex Avery's King Size Canary (on escalation) or hmmm, Letter from an Unknown Woman and City Lights (unrequited love and acts - or lack - of recognition), Chaplin's Limelight and Mizoguchi's Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (the sacrifice in life for the sake of art). Let me also add what I had already suggested in the previous thread: The Lady Eve and Vertigo.

Movies that seem to speak to one another (on a very personal level) but no obvious or intended parallels.

X. Trapnel said...

Well, I've been insisting these many years on thematic parallels between Letter From an Unknown Woman and Vertigo (the obsessed, sel-deceived lover in a dream city unable to perceive the reality of the beloved and bringing down destruction on both of them), but on a lighter note I'll suggest The Rage of Paris and Sabrina: the romantic entanglements of a French/Frenchified girl with two rich men in high society setting both ending with the heroine being "sent back" to Paris only to be rescued from this dire fate on shipboard by the rich hero. A thirties vs. fifties comparison might be interesting here. Personally, I have no use for Sabrina (though My Silent Love is heard in it), but any excuse to bring up The Rage of Paris.

Shamus said...

Of course, if I ever actually saw a double-bill of Letter from an Unknown Woman and City Lights, I would a) kiss every stone outside the theatre at the joy of having seen such beautiful works of art and then be promptly be run over by a truck or b) manage to teeter home whereupon I would shoot myself out of despair.

One could avert such fatalities by a little mischievous and ironic programming (which is more fun anyway since you get to screw with people): for instance, a double bill of Minnelli's Meet Me in St. Louis (-Louis) and Sirk's All I Desire ("What a burg").

X., Thematic parallels are probably purely subjective anyway: I saw a parallel between Wise's The Set-up and Sebald's Rings of Saturn which I was reading at the same time (the spectator in relation to suffering); I'm sure there were other such silly instances which does not occur to me right now.

Does Lisa bring about the destruction of Stefan? Really don't know the answer to that but to ensure a good discussion, I'll disagree with you just in case.

X. Trapnel said...

Indeed she does, knowing her husband's feudal sense of honor. However, since she's not likely to have ever seen an Ophuls film (poor darling) she would not have noticed that her husband is filmed against a backdrop of wall-mounted swords just like those in the de... living room.

Shamus said...


I never got the impression that Lisa was an idiot or as a purveyor of destruction, if you will. Her passion (like the passion of all Ophuls's heroines) is something Ophuls accepts and does not pass any moral comment on (unlike Hitchcock and Scotty) but rather he reserves his censure for Stefan. All Ophuls' heroines are seemingly masochistic, infatuated by an object, which is usually tactile such as a fur coat, or a pair of earrings or a pianist, but they objects signify (for the L-brigade: Lisa, Louise and Leonora) wealth and love and possibly art, all intangibles, and (at least in the final case) possibly worthy of such devotion. Stefan's destruction is achieved because he abandons his art (and becomes a womanizer instead, using bad pick-up lines) which disappoints Lisa, and THIS (at LONG last) makes her realize that he is essentially unworthy of her passion. Lisa's own destruction is simply an act of God (or, if you prefer, Ophuls): nothing to do with her failings (so-called).

X. Trapnel said...

Good heavens, Shamus, I'm not suggesting Lisa is an idiot! (Stefan, on the other hand...) As though Lovely Joan could ever be an idiot. Ophuls sympathizes and identifies with her passion/suffering just as Stendhal does Julien Sorel's and Proust Swann's (Ophuls is squarely in THAT tradition as against the Tradition of Quality), but she is blind until the end to the unworthiness of the love object. This, I believe is where Letter breaks the pattern of the woman's film (1) she is not rewarded for her sufferings (2) they are not altruistic. Good for her, I say. Stefan too sees the light just before it goes out forever, as does Julien S.

Shamus said...

I was not suggesting that you were suggesting that...but mea culpa, just a (misleading) sort of shorthand.

Actually Joan (obviously her best performance, Hitchcock and Lang never were able to coax great performances like Ophuls or Renoir or Lubitsch) comes off, despite being a "tragic figure" quite strong: she may be blind but she sticks to her principles (she never contacts Stefan, the idiot) raises her boy and in the end, almost chooses to die because life has lost meaning for her: her son is dead and her lover is unmasked. When, as you say, Stefan does see the light, it is too late so the tragedy is his too, in a way (this is where Letter breaks from Madame de.. and turns more subtle and more ambivalent: as much as I love de..., I love Letter [and even Reckless Moment] more). Have we agreed yet?

DavidEhrenstein said...

On a practical level Lisa is an idiot. But being that she's a devotee of Grand Passion Writ Large, she's a heroine.

I don't think she connives in Stefan's end at all. Rather I feel he's relieved in the end to be free of a life in which he's been sucha Total Loser. Yes he had the looks and the charm, and therefore all the women. But he was blind to the One Woman Who Truly Loved Him.

Incidentally both Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan are still with us. She a lot more than he, alas.

Meanwhile in another cinematic world entirely George Kuchar is dying. Cancer of the spinal column has made it impossible for him to walk , and as its spead to other organs he has entered a hispice. it's only a meetter of time. And I knwo his twin brother Mike is beside himself.

Shamus said...

P.S. speaking of Reckless Moment, is there another actress in cinema who was more fortunate than Joan Bennett in choice of directors: she worked with Ophuls (a major if neglected movie), Lang (four times, three of them major and unmistakably great), Renoir (minor but still Renoir: Woman on the Beach), and in a small bit part severely outmatched by Stanwyck in (major but neglected) Sirk: There's Always Tomorrow (but still Sirk). Still, that's more great directors than you can shake a stone at or throw a stick at, or whatever that phrase is. I only wish they went to a better actress.
Mutatis Mutandis, Ingrid Bergman (Hitchcock, Rossellini, Renoir, Bergman et al.) and Tierney (too many to mention).

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I love love love that banner image (though I guess I'm not alone in conflating that image in my mind with Claudette Colbert in The Sign of the Cross). Note to self: track down The Barbarians, which I haven't seen.

My favorite Myrna Loy moment isn't particularly transcendent, but it DOES speak to why I love her. It's in The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer, when she, too, begins to see Cary Grant in a suit of glittering armor. The expression on her face is JUST the right mix of appraisal and lust. I love it.

I just saw a complete set of depression-era dinnerware, as sold in theaters, at a local antique store a couple of weeks ago. It was nice stuff, actually, but way out of my price range (it also came with a cabinet that I don't think I could fit in my tiny dining room).

Shamus said...
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Shamus said...


Also Danielle Darrieux.

X. Trapnel said...

David, I didn't mean she connives in Stefan's destruction, but had she been thinking... The heroine of Zweig's novella is by contrast passively accusatory in a when I am dead my dearest, sing no sad songs for me sort of way.

Shamus, no we have not quite agreed. I love LFAUW dearly but Madame de... is MY FAVORITE FILM OF ALL TIME, so naturally I take some issue with your comparison (I certainly like The Reckless Moment, but it's just not in the running). I tend to see Letter as a film with a deliberately narrow though intense psycholgical focus (this is Zweig, of course), noirish in that regard (apart from the Linz episode it all takes place at night). This nocturnal mise en scene casts the film into a dreamscape with a single, concentrated point of view, everything displaced slightly from social reality (which is nevertheless crouching in the dark). All of this is appropriate to a story of amour fou. Madame de... by contrast takes place in a panoramic social and historical context, dramatizing the variates and mischances of love (not the fou sort) between three fully developed characters. For me what makes it the greater film is the transformation of the heroine from a gorgeous vapidity ("You must incarnate absolute nothingness," said Ophuls to Darrieux) to a woman of feeling. And (no use arguing with me here; I'm not listening) this dramatization of the birth of a soul inspires the most beautiful performance by an actress in the history of film.

X. Trapnel said...

By the way, I did see a double bill of Letter and Madame de... at Lincoln Center about 10 years ago. Very heaven.

gmoke said...

Last time I saw Letter from an Unknown Woman, I felt that Lisa's love had redeemed Stefan. He goes to the duel in a Sydney Carton kind of way, finally realizing what was valuable in his life, even if he never knew it.

Ms Darrieux is ravishing in Rage of Paris. Her little sleight of hand trick is one of the most charming things I've seen on film. [I still want to see a banner with the contemporary beauty in age of Ms Darrieux, s'il vous plais.] I'd match it with Buster Keaton's confusion about whether to kiss or clobber Marion Mack when she throws firewood off the locomotive instead of into the boiler of The General.

The imdb thread on The Bride Wore Red relates a story about how Miss Joan Crawford refused all direction from Dorothy Arzner. Don't know if it's true but it is a good story. [Saw Dance, Girl, Dance tonight on TCM then watched The Baron of Arizona on DVD, a strange double feature.]

Shamus said...


If you are still there: ah, a double bill of Letter and Madame de...Heaven. I have only ever experienced Ophuls and most of the movies talked about here only on video so I am deeply envious. Deeply.

You're not listening so I'll not try and argue why Letter is greater. (Though you make a great point about its nocturnal mise-en-scene). I will also not tell you that I think that characters in Letter are more developed, with more psychological depth (though Johann seems to confuse Ophuls and he is unsure on how to draw him). Letter ends so dynamically, the carriages moving to unstated but hardly uncertain end. But in Madame de..., Ophuls wants to underline the point by showing us the General's skills as a marksman and then then telling us the result of the duel.

Anyway, never mind: I love both the movies so the argument is unnecessary: and the shock cut of the torn love letters to snow is one of the most sublime moments in cinema.

Also, take another look at Reckless Moment: it may seem slight in comparison (I thought so at first) but I was moved by it most of all. Again, a personal bias.

Shamus said...

X., Only since you brought it up, I don't know what the greatest movie of all time is but, rather prosaically and unimaginatively, it would have Renoir or Mizoguchi at the top. Also, the insights and implications of The Shop Around the Corner seem more devastating than anything in Madame de..., or Letter from an Unknown Woman: If you'd permit me, I'd say that Lubitsch is the most Renoir-like of all Hollywood directors.

I hope we can still be friends.

X. Trapnel said...


No argument really; Ophulsian fellowship prevails, but really Stauffer compared to Boyer's General? What a range of emotions and dramatic situations the latter must negotiate, private and public. And de Sica/Donati in love with the idea of himself in love. As I said in my previous post, the characters Lisa must deal with are always seen in partial darkness, the penumbra of her burning obsession, almost always in some way a threat with the best of intentions, figures to be evaded (even including Art Smith's mute servant). But if one is greater than the other the difference of degree is imperceptible.

Darrieux's magic tricks were her own, if I recall correctly, developed in adolescence at the same time she was studying the cello at the Paris Conservatory.

X. Trapnel said...

Shamus, I said my favorite movie of all time, not the greatest (note also that I said DD's performance was the most beautiful. In my book, beauty transcends greatness. Hell, friggin' Ivan the Terrible is great and I plan to spend the rest of my life not watching it). Shop Around the Corner greater than either Letter or Mme de? Could be, but what matter at these empyrian altitudes?

Of course we're still friends.

Shamus said...

Of course, you said favorite but really a person's favorite movie of all time is also the movie s/he would choose as the greatest, isn't it?

Also, Murnau's Sunrise, which makes me all a-tremble just to think about: I wonder what it would be like to watch it meltingly assume its form on 35mm. Dreams. I also want to watch Dreyer's Gertud on 35: I have NO idea what to make of that film.

My most mortifying incident re: watching movie in theatre is when I was persuaded by my moron friends to walk out of Hiroshima mon amour (playing in gorgeous 70mm) in a Resnais retrospective (before I was really interested in films, alas): that was the only film of his I caught on the circuit and when I later saw Providence and realized what a great director he was, the only desire which manifested in me (shall we say) for the next week was the desire to kill myself for having missed his films. Now I have to watch Resnais' film on video, peering into the small screen like a criminal.

Shamus said...

"In my book, beauty transcends greatness..."

X.T., for heaven's sake, you keep saying such tantalizing things and then you refuse to explain them so everything is left frustratingly incomplete. At this point the thread is just about over anyway (having strayed long way from Miss Loy), so please go ahead.

X. Trapnel said...

Nothing I would say about beauty or greatness need take us very far afield from Myrna Loy, but still I don't want stray too far into the less inviting fields of moral philosophy and aesthetics (to extrapolate from the related concepts of being and becoming, Miss Loy IS). I'll keep this as short as I can. I've already quoted Christina Rossetti and oddly must again (twice in one day!): when I lock my door upon myself Madame de is greatest of films and I can stick out my tongue at such ponderosities as P*t*mk*n, P*ss**n *f J**n of *rc (All those close ups of warts. Serious stuff), and (f*ll *n y**r *wn). I think the experience of beauty spurs the imagination through desire which necessitates change, growth, and creativity, confirmation and transcendence of self. "Greatness," by contrast, is a static end product determined in large degree by culture values subject to change, which doesn't invalidate the concept; I very much believe in greatness, but beauty precededs it. i think this is the gist of Ruskin's assertion that you will never love art until you love what it represents even more (he DID NOT mean loving a tree more than a painting of a tree, rather, the emotion in all its depths that makes the artist want to paint it).

Shamus said...

I need a while to digest this but meanwhile where did you quote Rossetti before (pretend I'm very obtuse)?

I don't see how you can differentiate "beauty" and "greatness": surely both are cultural constructs and if now the word "great" is thrown around like so many tomatoes, then so is "beauty": neither are impervious to change (across time, across societies), which brings me back to my original quarrel with your term "ideal of beauty": if it exists then, surely it can only be viewed as individual instances rather than with a unifying common denominator.

Re: Ruskin's assertion, what about Yeats' lament: "players and the painted stage took all my love/ and not those things they were emblems of".

Shamus said...

Can you really argue that Madame de... is beautiful but NOT great? Or how about a counter example: if DD's performance there is the "most beautiful", what in your opinion, would be the "greatest"? Sullavan, Stanwyck, Gaynor or more Darrieux?

X. Trapnel said...

"When I am dead my dearest sing no sad songs for me."

David recently jokingly asked if I liked any post-1947 films. I do think 1950 and No Sad Songs For Me mark some sort of borderline. It opens with a wide angle shot of a paper boy making his deliveries on a suburban street as though to say We're not in Budapest anymore, Matushchek and Co. has been nationalized under the the direction of Comrade Vadas, and Klara Novak is now pimping up a replacement wife for...WENDELL COREY. Not beautiful, and the (ok, necessary) truncation of Rossetti's line adds a note of eupeptic 50s cheeriness to the gruesome proceedings.

Of course beauty and greatness are concepts that we experience agonistically between culture and the promptings of our soul. Too big a subject.

Late Yeats (and it doesn't get much later than The Circus Animals' Desertion. The placement of Politics after TCAD in Last Poems is a lying down where all ladders start. What a note to go out on!) is a constant, sometimes accusatory self-questioning (the rhetorical question is a dominant trope maybe as early as The Cold Heaven [1913] probably earlier) and he didn't really prefer the "Lord knows what" but the proximity of death made the "masterful images" seem so much vanity, but they were, as the resolution of the poem shows the transformation of life/desire into beauty. If we were to compare it to the final image of Sailing to Byzantium where Yeats imagines himself transformed from dying flesh into immutable art (someone once asked Vaughan Williams whether he would be a musician in the next life. "No," he said, "I will BE music") we see that WB was appealing to an idea of greatness (the aristocratic trappings) as he does in a higher sense in Lapis Lazuli when he speaks of the ultimate perpetuation and survival of civilization. With the Circus Animals though, he's returning, in the midst of death, to life, i.e., the primal, non-great sources of his imagination that yielded beauty as the grain of sand does the pearl.

X. Trapnel said...

The comic-dramatic trajectory of WBY's life and work have a grandeur that make Mr. Eliot and Mr. Pound seem very small indeed.

X. Trapnel said...

I didn't mean that DD is not great in Madame de... She is sublimely so. I was just "privileging" (yuk) beauty over greatness. All these ladies are beautiful and great.

Shamus said...


You're up very late, but that is some lovely analysis of Circus Animals; oddly Late Yeats and Late Roth seem to share a great deal: the lament that they are unable to produce such "masterful images" again (Yeats is mistaken about that of course and Roth too) but also, "what cared I that set him to ride/I starved for the bosom of his faery bride", the lament of um, bodily decrepitude and the loss of sex. "Politics" makes THAT pretty explicit.

Is there another poet in the English language who could write such astonishing poems so close to death? In TCAD, he seems to have resigned himself to death in way makes it quite clear that he had abandoned the more fanciful (but still very beautiful) post-death scenarios he had envisioned in Sailing to Byzantium: "once out of nature, I shall never take/My bodily form from any natural thing". Late Poems was of course posthumously published but when we read TCAD, it feels as though he dies even as you finish reading the poem: the effect is devastating, especially when you know a little about his life.

Re: Williams. There is a lovely quote I've heard somewhere: "If I knew where poems came from, I would go there." Yeats in contrast seems to think it lurks behind a mound of old refuse and the broken till.

"that WB was appealing to an idea of greatness (the aristocratic trappings) as he does in a higher sense in Lapis Lazuli when he speaks of the ultimate perpetuation and survival of civilization..."

Hmmm, maybe, but compare Meru and you see Yeats was deeply pessimistic about the "survival of civilization": though of course, he is poet and could naturally be contradictory (even schizophrenic) if he wanted to.

Shamus said...


Re: DD in Mme De..., I said SUPPOSE. I know that you said Mme De.. was great (in addition to "beautiful") but could there ever a such a scenario where something very beautiful was NOT great (as opposed to your example of Ivan the Terrible as something "great" which was not "beautiful")? I think that this is purely a rhetorical question and would refute your point. But take up the challenge if you dare, world-besotted traveler.

I cannot claim any substantial familiarity with either Eliot or Pound, but on that point, there is no need for argument.

I'm not really surprised you dislike Eisenstein, him with the propaganda and Stalinism. But Dreyer? Have you seen Ordet and Gertrud? They are quite quite beautiful (and extremely sensual: Gertrud undressing as her lover plays on the piano), though I have no idea on how to even to put them in perspective let alone trying to decide if I like those films are not.

Shamus said...

Ah, Wendell Corey again? He never does seem very far from your thoughts, does he? He had such a ridiculously unemphatic style: everything-said-without-any-inflection-without-much-pause-between-words and to make it worse, that in an undertone. He was not terrible but his technique seems so obvious, its a little wearying (my idea of truly terrible in Virginia Mayo in White Heat).

He is probably the ONLY actor in cinema who could act as the offended party when his wife tells him that she knows about his affair: in effect: "oh, how could you have someone tail me like that, don't you trust me?" (The File on Thelma Jordon)

DavidEhrenstein said...

Joan Crawfrod "refused all direction' from director's she couldn't handle. Gavin lambert's story "The Closed Set" in his book The Slide Area is an a clefabout the shooting of Johnny Guitar -- which is the first thing Gavin saw when he arrievd in Hollywood to work with Ray. The film described in the story isn't a western but everything that happens in it happened on the set of Johnny Guitar As fro Arzner Joan (who I trust we all know was Bi) was having an affair with her at the time they made The Bride Wore Red. Arzner pulls out all the stops in glamourizing her. And I for one can't imagine she'd have a single thing to complain about in this gorgeous drama about a demi-mondaine hired by a sly upper-class character (Lionel Atwill) to show up the swells at a swank resort -- where of course she finds true love. This plot is why I reccomended it as a double feature with Midnight.

The Reckless Moment
is a masterpiece. I like Made De. . well enough but to my mind he risks nothing in making it. By cotranst The Reckless Moment is a searing indictment of suburban postwar complaency. As I trust I mentioned Frances Willaims, who plays Joan Bennett's housekeeper, was a friend of mine, and had a teriffic time making the film. Ophuls adored her and built up her part. Bennett was wonderful.

And when was James Mason NOT wonderful?

Danielle Darrieux is a many-splendored thing -- and still working. I specially love her in Demy's Une Chambre en Ville and Vecchiali's En Haut des Marches

X. Trapnel said...

"From our argument with others we make rhetoric. From our argument with ourselves we make poetry."

WBY, of course. In my view, Roth just makes shtick. Sorry Shamus, but this is a writer I truly dislike, the thinking man's (certainly not woman's) Woody Allen, both exemplars of the higher misogyny. (Saul Bellow is the thinking man's Philip Roth. I don't like him either).

I was only joking about The Passion of J of A. I haven't seen nearly enough of Dreyer, but greatly admire Day of Wrath.

You raise a hugely interesting point about whether something can be beautiful, even extremely beautiful and not be great (this is very pertinent to the Hollywood commercial film of the 30s/40s as well as cultural products more traditionally deemed art). Recall that the formal study of aesthetics starts with Kant and Burke (HUGE gap between them and, say, Longinus), so our notions of beauty are all bound up with the moral issues of modernity, industrialization, the rise of middle-class taste and the opposition thereto (usually coming from the middle class, Flaubert is your contact man). Look back at the banner (you've probably been doing it as much as I have, so would Yeats if he were here and followed this blog) and ask yourself whether you'd rather contemplate this or a (Roth)ko. Is beauty a snare that distracts us from Higher Things ("greatness" transcends the appeal to the senses/pleasure) or distract us from our Responsibilities (cf. Yeats, "Politics"). On the other hand, we have the less than the sum of its parts phenomenon, i.e., a work of art that may be beautiful, but ill-proportioned, uneven in invention, too derivative for greatness. Comparison, experience, and intellectual honesty must be our light source here. T.S. Eliot's idea of criticism as "the correction of taste" is what we must liberate ourselves from without falling into the error of "whatever I like is by definition great/bautiful."

Meru does not so much contradict Lapis Lazuli as see the issue from a different angle. The mountain hermits here are cognate with the mechanical prophet bird of Sailing to Byzantium. Yeats harkens to the idea of leaving the world and the flesh, but always ends up throwing himself back into the torrent of life, far from the paper orthodoxies of Pound and Eliot. The poem to read here is A Dialogue of Self and Soul, a poem that always chokes me up.

Shamus said...


Sorry if I couldn’t reply sooner: put it down to work (and the earth’s rotation).

In effect, if I am not misunderstanding you, what you mean by "beauty" is immediate the sensual delights, of a poem, of a movie or of a novel but those delights are something which may or may not be a part of a work of art that is considered "great". In which case, I must admit you have refuted my point (of beauty and greatness being the same thing), even if the distinction is necessarily subtle and in cases of such creation such as Madame de.., or the Circus Animals Desertion, virtually non-existent.

If you do not mind extending this thread just a little more (as much as I loved the Siren’s latest post, I don’t think I would have anything to say about Minnelli or Lucille Ball, and judging by your silence, neither do you), then what work of art do you find beautiful but too derivative for greatness? A solitary example would do, I think, to dispose off my argument completely.

My Kant is still in the stage of Philosophy 101, “Moral Philosophy” which was some joker’s idea for what law students should study in their first year. My Burke and Longinus never got off the ground.

I have read just enough of Bellow to know that I do not like his narrative of self-pity, his constantly being injured by his parade of ex-wives, parents and double-crossing friends, but comparing Roth to Woody Allen is doing Roth a very grave injustice: for the record, I like Annie Hall and even Manhattan but seriously… For me, Roth is possibly the greatest novelist alive writing in the English language and The Counterlife and Sabbath’s Theatre are tremendously vital works of art, and latter especially has spectacular and highly articulate rage against death, the subject of so many recent Roth novels and is almost Yeatsian in intensity (in fact, Yeats is especially evoked). Please let’s leave aside Roth for now: neither of us is going to change our minds about him, so pursing that discussion is unnecessary.

Re: Sailing to Byzantium and TCAD, and the different attitudes to death they embody: STB has Yeats conjuring up marvellous and a fanciful afterlife avatar, a golden bird set on a bough to sing; TCAD, on the other hand, has the poet confronting death in the starkest terms imaginable (“now that my ladder’s gone, I must lie down where all the ladders start…”), any (even slight) frivolity (and who can call STB frivolous?) is gone, and the absolute consequences of death and old-age spelt out in Yeats’ characteristic directness and simplicity (or seeming simplicity). Truly devastating. The Dialogue of Self and Soul is something I’ve always found too abstruse whenever I’ve attempted it but my favourite (of his later works and apart from TCAD) includes the magnificent A Prayer for My Daughter and Under Ben Bulben (if only for his epitaph but there is so much more to that poem than that), The Man and the Echo (preceding Politics and set after TCAD in Last Poems) and his short but supremely disconcerting, The Choice. There cannot be many more beautiful and starker poems about death and life.

“Is beauty a snare that distracts us from Higher Things … or distract us from our Responsibilities?” Obviously rhetorical – you are clearly of the opinion that there are no “Higher Things” than beauty in life, but your appetite for and preoccupation with beauty reminds me of Bohumil Hrabal: even by the standards of Czech writers, his hedonism is remarkable, as necessarily, is his view of death. Have you read any of his novels?

Ned said...

Having only recently started Kant’s Critique of Judgment, my final crack at his critiques, I’m doing the usual dance around Kant’s muddy prose but making some interesting discoveries regarding beauty.

One of Kant’s requirements for whether or not something is beautiful concerns what he refers to as disinterestedness, in other words, whether an object can be viewed apart from other concerns and beauty to be assessed on its own merits. He uses the example of a palatial estate to which he states, one could assign a feeling of contempt for such a gaudy use of resources (Kant showing more of his politics than perhaps he cared to). Further along, he makes the point that our reaction to objects of beauty, including naturally occurring sources of beauty, (but mostly he is talking about art) appeals as much (or more) to emotional responses than to rationality.

We might say, well, yeah. Duh. But for Kant this is a big hairy deal.

What he’s getting at is, in a way, something he started in the other Critiques (Pure and Practical Reason), and that is a kind of metaphysical understanding of the world. Remember his famous reworking of the old Thing in Itself argument. Plato and the idealists banged that drum pretty hard. For Kant, the idea is that we can’t know that ‘ding an sich’ perfectly, but we can get an idea of what it might be like.

This seems to bring him into a discussion with Burke’s differentiation between the beautiful and the sublime. I think (and I haven’t finished it yet but it seems to be where he’s going) that Kant is saying something along the lines of beauty – especially art – having the property of allowing us in to a deeper appreciation, if not understanding, of the universe).

Burke, if I remember what he said correctly, basically says a thing does not have to be beautiful to be sublime. But others might say that the sublime has a beauty all its own.

If we’re using Kant’s disinteredness, we might be able to look at a certain artwork and say, yes that a thing that has been beautifully crafted and pleasing to the eye and the mind (he also gets into a kind of weird tautology at this point. Something like a thing that is pleasant is pleasing because it pleases. Say what?) can be reasonably considered beautiful. He’s looking for a universal here.

I’m not sure that exists because I know plenty of people who would consider a Rothko painting exceptionally beautiful. Perhaps because it doesn’t necessarily represent any thing. It taps into Burke’s idea of the sublime. Others may violently disagree. The Seagrams people did when they took down his paintings.

But this still doesn’t answer the question of whether a thing can be beautiful and not be great. I suppose ultimately, it depends on what your definition of ‘beautiful’ is. You might, like Kant, find yourself in a kind tautological dead end whereat you say “Beauty is a mark of greatness, therefore a thing of beauty is great”. I’m pretty sure we could all agree that not all beautiful people are great.

Are all beautiful poems great? I think some of Bukowski’s stuff is great but beautiful? I don’t know if I would say that. Unless my definition is reversed to read something like Greatness has its own beauty, or in another way, great things are, by that definition, beautiful.

But then does it work in reverse? Can a work of art be beautiful but not great? Some people think Jeff Koons produces beautiful art but I’m pretty sure no one but Koons himself would assign greatness to anything he has ever done.
Are there beautiful films that aren’t great?

There again, you get lost in definitions. I think, as X implies, there are some fabulously beautiful Hollywood films turned out during the 30s and 40s but I’m not sure I could guarantee that all of them achieve greatness.

But an interesting question, no doubt.

Shamus said...


I'd not like to speak for X. (particularly after arguing with him on this point) but I think he is framing beauty as a sensuous experience, or that beauty is sensual rather than any value we can derive from society to judge it (or at least, I think this is what he is arguing: he didn't clarify after my last post). Though I don't know how he can get away with speaking of the sensual experience of art (and hence intensely personal and extremely variable) and still argue for "ideal of beauty", which seems to suggest something more universal in the experience of art. He's bound to show up here so I'll wait.

"we could all agree that not all beautiful people are great". You're joking, of course, but I'll add reduntantly that we judge people other than just by beauty, rather for their "virtues" whatever they may be (but one of which would surely be the ability to create lasting art). But a work of art is judged almost entirely for its beauty, and, possibly, the truth it is able to achieve. There are no other virtues, so far as I can tell. Any suggestions, though? (other than the ability to transcend temporal and geographical boundaries)

"Beauty" when it is used in relation to a movie, or a poem, can have radically different meanings (you could argue that Yeats' late poems are not "conventionally beautiful" by any sense): two people could use the same word to refer to quite different things. Actually, you could argue that Yeats' poems are so "great", from their value of truth they possess, they are turned beautiful; on a personal level, (where we experience all art), it would make very little sense to differentiate between beauty and greatness: but possibly, we can arrive at a distinction between the two when we have societal readings on the other hand...

Ned said...


I think you're on to something with the reference to truth.

If you recall your Keats, he also equated beauty with truth (now there was a guy whose poems were both beautiful AND great). I would put some of Wallace in the same boat as your later Yeats. Although never pedantic, Stevens is always surprising but--with some major exceptions--not necessarily beautiful. But a beauty arises from what and how he confronts the problems and observations he makes.

Emerson asserts that "We love any forms, no matter how ugly, from which great qualities shine." Earlier in that same essay he quotes Goethe assessment that the beautiful is a way for us to see the hidden secrets of nature.

Both Goethe and Emerson however seem also to be striving for some universality in their thinking about the beautiful.

But I think they also are referring to some essential element of truth.

If we look at other works of art, say abstract expressionism, some might wonder what's beautiful about a Barnett Newman canvas. Newman himself has stated he saw his job as wresting "truth from the void". Confronting his canvasses, he claims, is a way of coming to grips with aesthetic experience at its purest.

With film it's difficult, though not impossible, to take such an abstract approach. The nature of film is so bound up with narrative elements that even abstract films, Maya Deren, for instance, or Michael Snow, beg for some kind of narrative explanation.

But I was thinking of films like Barry Lyndon, an exceptionally beautiful film, or The Duelists, another amazing film to watch, that might not be considered great, as one would certainly deem films like Rules of the Game, or Passion of Joan of Arc, or The
Originally posted this in the wrong blog entry..sorry about that...

Leopard, or anything by Jean Vigo (okay, he only made a couple but they were beautiful AND great--it's just neat to be able to say that...).

Anyway, I think truth certainly has a major role to play in any equation for beauty. And, as you say, many of those works, because of the truth they reveal become beautiful.

Shamus said...

"...many of those works, because of the truth they reveal become beautiful."

Ned, that was very finely put and I completely agree. In fact, I would say that the truth that you encounter in novels or poems are even more important that the more familiar lyrical description of the landscape or a body or what have you. That is one of the reasons I love Roth over someone like McEwan and why Ondatjee's prose seems fatuous at times: truth is a vital part of beauty in a novel.

In a movie, this requirement may be evaded at times but the greatest movies (Rules of the Game, Shop Around the Corner, Ugetsu et al.) tell us something vitally important, possibly about individuals, possibly (if you're Renoir) about all of society. Beauty without such truths would seem a little pampered and precious (sorry to say, sometimes applicable to the musicals of old).

Shamus said...

P.S. I may be biased but for me almost all of Kubrick's oeuvre is both beautiful AND great.

Ned said...


You are certainly on strong ground for feeling that way about Kubrick. I don't know that I'd put his last film in with his earlier masterpieces; it strikes me more as an interesting experiment, like some of Altman's work, that didn't turn out great films but certainly came up with unusual offerings more than worthy of one's time and effort.

Barry Lydon? Here again, I don't know. There seems to be some innate greatness to it but I don't get the same visceral reaction I have to, say, Ugetsu, or Earrings of Madame de..., or Ambersons. I don't mean because it's more subtle (opting for the big aria with the high C finish over the less stentorian passages filled with gorgeous music and beautiful singing) but more because of the characterizations.

There is practically no one in the film who is not repugnant at some point and in some way, except perhaps for Lyndon's wife, and she is pretty much a cipher. I realize that Kubrick chose a novel in which there is no hero, although he, like Thackeray allows us to see that Barry has honor and courage. We always knew that about him but we never seem to get to the point of getting behind him and he is never so vile as to reanimate in us an interest in waiting for his inevitable comeuppance (as with George in Ambersons--although by the time it arrives, he has been getting it in the neck for years).

In short, he's in the middle somewhere and our emotional attachment to him never gels quickly enough or long enough for us to mourn his tragedy. Now an epilogue in which that little shit of a step son gets HIS comeuppance, that I'd pay extra to see.

Anyway, as you can see by all this dithering (which would not be the case with a film which easily made the cut or got the axe) that I could be persuaded by another viewing, perhaps finding some scintillating detail I had not seen before, to move it into the pantheon. There's no indecision with films like Strangelove, Clockwork Orange, Paths of Glory, 2001, even the Shining, all of which are great films.

But there are times when beauty and greatness are in the eye of the beholder. In other words, for all our efforts to discover some universal qualities, exceptions do seem to arise out on the perimeter.

Finally, to use your own words, I'm not entirely convinced that Barry Lydon tells us "something vitally important, possibly about inviduals, possibly, about all of society." He certainly tells us quite a bit about particular elements of 18th century western European society and certain individuals who inhabited that society, but the fact that certain people are greedy, venal, and untrustworthy snakes, is not a big surprise. The telling of it, again, is stupendously beautiful.


Hey, if you can convince me, I'm all ears. I was just trying to come up with films I find beautiful but not, perhaps, great. And since there are few more beautiful frames ever shot than were lensed for Barry Lydon, I looked there first. I also mentioned The Duelists, the early Ridley Scott film, very much like Lyndon, in fact, in many ways: the setting, the time period, the duel, the countryside imagery, military scenes, etc. A very excellent film from one of my favorite writers (my favorite writer in my teens and early 20s) Joseph Conrad, but a film, for all it's fine qualities, that doesn't seem to break through into Renoir, Ophuls, Welles, Kurosawa territory.

Well, this is running on and on and on....I'll relinquish the floor now.

Shamus said...


Your post compelled me to revisit Kubrick so that explains my delay in posting a rejoinder. Here it is.

Is Barry Lyndon as great as Ugetsu or Ambersons? I don't know and it would make little difference I think because as you note "for all our efforts to discover some universal qualities, exceptions do seem to arise out on the perimeter". Not only do we frequently disagree with others, we disagree with ourselves at various points in time. But I digress.

Firstly, Lyndon is an amazingly beautiful movie: extremely precise compositions and richly tactile colors. Obviously, the sources of the beauty are the 18th century paintings: Kubrick enhances this effect in the film even further by the frequent and elegant use of the most disgustingly overused camera movement in cinema: the zoom. By zooming out, Kubrick reinforces the character’s entrapment in history: what is the worst quality of the zoom (the viewer remains stationary while the field of vision changes) becomes a lovely little essay on the immediacy and the distance of history from our perspective in the 20th (or 21st) Century. Kubrick at various points keeps the camera quite distant, choreographing only the most minimal of movement, so they frames ARE paintings, the slight movements comparable to the paintings which encourage the viewer to imagine what its figures are doing.

Secondly, let us agree that Kubrick is a supremely eccentric artist: he made a movie about a fairly obscure 19th C. novel in the 70s, made a movie about the Vietnam war in the late 80s and a movie purportedly set in New York in the late 90s for his final film when it is clear that he had not been in that city for a VERY long time. But if Full Metal Jacket was only about the Vietnam war, then it would be a poor film indeed. If on the other hand, Kubrick was merely using that war (like he did WWI for Paths of Glory) just as a springboard for his ideas, then it would be a different matter entirely: I imagine that Lyndon presented the same object to Kubrick, re the 18th C. What does it say about individuals, about society: well, I need to see the film again but the content is so entwined with the form that it would be impossible to state some thesis and declare that is what the movie is about. What are 2001 or Partie de Campagne or Madame de…, about? In a great film, the images should provide meaning as much as the text, in which case, straightforward discussions are not easily possible.

Shamus said...

Thirdly, Kubrick is frequently mistaken as some icy automaton, which surprises me. For all his outward coldness, his movies are about various kinds of trauma and death and the characters' reaction to that. Instead of involving us in the emotion, he forces us to recognize it and confront it. There is a scene in this film where Barry is involved in his first "skirmish" and Kubrick films row after row of English soldiers are shot down like ninepins. Then, when Barry's friend Captain Grogan is shot down, he carries him to the nearby cove and lays him there, kisses him and watches him die. All throughout the scene, we watch the soldiers march into battle, but we do not get to actually see the battle, we only hear it: but we see and hear Barry cry over his dead friend. It’s an amazing scene. Note also the reactions of all the characters to death and their demeanor before the duel. And then there are the three seduction sequences scene interspersed across the film which are exquisitely erotic, and if nothing else, Kubrick creates some wonderful rhythms as a counterpoint to Schubert and Bach and Handel. All these sequences are ABOUT emotion, but they are seen (or if you like exposed) for what they are.

The stepson IS a shit and I would see the film where he gets his comeuppance. I have purposely avoided seeing Clockwork Orange so far and that is the only major Kubrick left unseen. But Eyes Wide Shut is a masterpiece (seeing it in terms of a Cruise-Kidman equation is completely missing the point), like all the others you have mentioned and personally, I would take late Kubrick (with the exception of The Shining: it is great but relatively empty) over his earlier successes: it is here that he is most invigorating and challenging.

I think I've blathered enough: one ought to start a blog rather than smearing wild ideas at considerable length on another's space: it’s indefensible, only this thread is over.

Shamus said...

Oh, I've not spoken about the characterization: well, its not unusual for Kubrick and most of his late films (actually, right down from 2001) feature much of this same pared down style of acting and characterization: to sharpen irony, to heighten the thrust of the ideas Kubrick intends to animate (a hysterical Bowman in 2001 would have destroyed the impact of HAL's death). But Barry Lyndon in the second half is a melodrama, which is VERY odd going by Kubrick's usual standard of subverting melodrama.

In short, I have no answer to that question, Ned, but I'll shop around the web to see if there's someone who does.

Ned said...


You're right, we're dragging this poor blog post out past the point of decency, BUT, I'll give it an extra bit of stretching to commend you on a fine defense of Barry Lydon.

In truth it didn't need a lot. I am a great admirer of Stanley's work and have never thought of him as a soulless automaton. I don't think such a person could have directed The Killing or Paths of Glory, nor could he have elicited the kind of ironic engagement (as opposed to detachment... I know, irony is typically an act of disengagement, but so much of the time one can sense the mind of Kubrick behind every shot, every set up, every lighting decision, and certainly the tone which permeates the acting).

I haven't seen Lyndon in some time but first let me say two things. First, I recall seeing it when it first came out. As a young filmmaker myself I was immensely impressed with his technical achievements and inhaled every article I could find about his specially made Zeiss lenses with an f stop of 0.7 or some ridiculous thing--unheard of at that time.

Later viewings allowed me to be a bit more detached and inspect more than just the technical achievements (also allowed me time to read the Thackeray novel which I did after finishing Vanity Fair, another Thackeray book without a hero(ine)!).

The last time I saw it I was violently struck about the head and shoulders by those zooms. Zooms tend to scream "Back from the 60s and 70s When DP's Didn't Know WTF To Do With Them!!) and it almost ruined the film for me. But I recovered long enough to realize that his use of the dreaded zoom did have some directorial (or authorial) thought behind them. But like Malvolio and his inveterate hatred of crossed yellow garters, my dislike of zooms is only barely tamped down with that knowledge.

In any event, I do recall the scene in which Lyndon Barry carries his dead friend off the field of battle. It was a most affecting scene but that's often the problem with translating long, dense novels to the screen. The need for shorthand solutions to characterizations and rolling plot lines which makes engagement with the characters difficult at times. I realize this character is not meant to be loved, but at times, with some definite exceptions, there is the vaguest ennui attached to him.

But my complaints are extremely minor. As I've stated earlier, I could be swayed by another viewing. I think it might be sooner rather than later.

Full Metal Jacket as well, because I agree with you that FMJ is less "about" Viet Nam than it is about the subjects on Kubrick's mind at the time, what humans are capable of, our response to untenable situations outside of and far beyond our ken, eg. In that it was perhaps more successful than Spartacus which seemed like a travelogue compared to some of his other films. Interestingly, for all its sylvan beauty, Barry Lyndon could never be taken for a travelogue.

Well, onward, I suppose.

Ned said...

Sorry...I completely forgot to finish a thought.

Regarding my sentiments about Kubrick's engagement with Irony, I was referring to Strangelove.

Shamus said...

Onward Ned, but one last thing...

"irony is typically an act of disengagement, but so much of the time one can sense the mind of Kubrick behind every shot..."

That is lovely, Ned (you put it much more pithily and clearly that I did): yes we do sense Kubrick's presence in each shot, don't we? And we wonder what he intends to "tell" us with each shot, to try and attend upon the idea "behind" each shot, so we are forced to confront the action and the characters: Kubrick never tells us anything.

The central irony of the reception of the Kubrick oeuvre is that while he is frequently derided as cold and lifeless, his chief preoccupation (in his war films, 2001, Barry Lyndon and other films) is the nature of humanity: i.e., what it is that makes a human being a human being and as a result, his films are populated with some frightfully inhuman creatures (animate or inanimate) and are set in places where such moral questions are entirely moot: in deep space, in trenches and battle zones, in war rooms.

Actually, you wanted a passionate defense of Barry: I could not provide that (the movie was too dense and brilliant and I was unacquainted with the source material or the chief paintings of that period), but in any case...

As for Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick's most underrated), we'll just have to save that for another thread.

You're a filmmaker? Well, then I am embarrassed: I'm just a blogger by night (and preaching to the choir). Tell me, are any of your films available? I would be interested.

Shamus said...

And Jonathan Rosenbaum has an excellent and very useful article on his blog about Barry Lyndon, here.


The only thing to quarrel with is his statement regarding Lady Lyndon and Marisa Berenson. There is no way in hell am I going to believe that Kubrick's intensely callous use of her was an accident or a failure of imagination: the final close-up of her face at the end of the film (as she signs Barry's annuity) clearly refutes that point.

Ned said...


I didn't have time to read the entire Rosenbaum article. I will get to it later today, but I did read enough to see your point. That fact that he consigns the treatment of Lady Lyndon to a lack of imagination betrays a similar lack in his own examination of Kubrick's approach to his work.

I don't mean to suggest that Kubrick is incapable of mistakes of judgment in approach or treatment (clearly he, like all directors, has his blind spots and difficult moments) but to imply that he simply couldn't figure out what to do with Maris Berenson's character is absurd.

I intimated in an earlier post that his treatment of her is as if she were a cipher, a kind of empty vessel waiting to be filled (a not unusual treatment by many 19th century authors of women who are so often defined by the men in their lives, their fathers, lovers, husbands, rather than on their own terms--Becky Sharp, another Thackeray character, being a startling departure) and fulfilled by the pre-determined roles society--their families and social circles--deems appropriate for them.

In this way Barry Lyndon is a much freer and more dynamic character than his wife, for all her money and status, both of which he dearly covets. But he, in his life, has been able to move, this way, that, in and out of trouble and money and circumstance, while his wife is pretty much stuck. I think that may be Kubrick's point.

The image of the couple in their carriage each lost in their own thoughts, looking away from each other (the breakfast scene in Kane comes to mind) is a clear indication that his mind is whirling with possibilities, new ploys, new ideas; she is lost. Empty. A prisoner of her caste.

She is manipulated into marriage and then manipulated out of it. Understand that this is my most salient memory of Kubrick's treatment of this character. Another viewing, with more attention to these particulars, may encourage an adjustment of these views, but I think not much of one.

As for my filmmaking, I worked for a time in various positions, DP, editor, sound, and directing, mostly in industrial films, documentaries and the like, but soon moved into television. I stayed in video production and television for some time then moved into new media development and then back again to broadcast where I am today. I doubt any of the films I worked on are available even though a few won some awards. That was a while back and I'm pretty sure none of those are available outside of 16MM versions.

One other point about that Rosenbaum article. I've been a fan of Pauline Kael a long time. Hers was some of the first popular, but good, criticism I was exposed to. But she has her blind spots like everyone else, I suppose. I loved her because she was opinionated and told you what she thought and why, but her later criticism could be sloppy. I don't know when she made such a shallow comment about Jean-Marie Straub, but I would have to violently disagree with her take. I know some people think his stuff opaque, obtuse, and wildly inaccessible (I admit that Not Reconciled can be challenging), but I think Straub deserves better treatment than as a funny throwaway line.

Anyway....just my opinion.

Shamus said...

"The image of the couple in their carriage...she is lost. Empty. A prisoner of her caste."

Ned, I have to say, I'm envious. I just saw the film last night and YOU have much more interesting things to say about it. So the conjunction is not just Ambersons, it is also Kane. Fair enough considering Kubrick owed as much to Welles as he did to Ophuls.

It is very suggestive that you are gravitated to the character of Lady Lyndon: it speaks something about Kubrick doesn't it, when she is one of the major female characters in his oeuvre (the other is Kidman's character in Eyes Wide Shut, but she is actually animate far more so than Hartford, her husband: surely no accident that Kubrick cast a far stronger actor for the wife, just like the Dragon Lady wife in The Killing played by the great Marie Windsor).

Women simply do not appear in his work: but glimpses we have of them are very eerie and enigmatic: the German girl at the end of Paths of Glory and the sniper in Full Metal Jacket (who is introduced in an extraordinary sequence). In both these cases, women exist only to suggest something to the (male) soldiers; it is just not clear what it is: certainly profound loss of some kind and it is worth noting that since Kubrick's films are explicitly concerned with sexuality and masculinity (cf. Ripper, Jack, D.), these encounters with the female sex are crucial to understanding the film themselves apart from the characters in it.

Lady Lyndon doesn't seem come under this category. Rather, as you note, this might be Kubrick pointing out that it was “not unusual treatment by many 19th century authors of women who are so often defined by the men in their lives, their fathers, lovers, husbands, rather than on their own terms”. (I also hasten to add that this is the only point where I think Rosenbaum’s essay can be faulted: otherwise, its analysis is very acute. Rosenbaum has also changed his mind about Barry Lyndon being a failure and has since included it in his 100 favorite films). But I think that Lady Lyndon is also crucial to understanding Barry, though I am still very unsure how that is. Her own class privileges over Barry are surely on important aspect. But discussing Barry Lyndon is proving to be even more elusive than 2001, where the themes are more open.

Shamus said...
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Shamus said...

I am sorry to hear that your films are unavailable, Ned.

Ned said...


I hadn't really thought of it in quite these terms:

"In both these cases, women exist only to suggest something to the (male) soldiers"

but, you can certainly see a very blatant example of what you're talking about in Spartacus. Aside from the elements of slavery (sexual and otherwise), Kubrick's attention is drawn primarily to the men. The Jean Simmons character is there for pleasure and barter. Even the love scenes between Varinia and Spartacus feel empty, like placeholders. One female character who has and exercises some power in Spartacus is the Nina Foch character. Interestingly, it is her demand that the gladiators fight to the death that triggers the riot that leads to the slave revolt. I don't know if that's the way it happened in the Howard Fast novel, but Kubrick certainly privileges her with some very sadistic, almost erotic, expressions during the lead up to the fight. It is she, rather than the men, Olivier's Crassus and John Dall's Glabrus (Dall is portrayed as whiny and wimpy, no doubt in opposition to the Kirk Douglas and the manly gladiators in the ring).

So the suggestions to the male soldiers (in this case both soldiers AND slaves) is one involving both sex and death. Kind of like a Roman film noir!

Ned said...

Sorry, didn't finish my thought...again!

I was saying that it is she (the Nina Foch character) rather than the Roman nobility, the men, who takes charge and induces an action that serves as the primary catalyst for the movie, it's raison d'etre, if you will.

But if you recall the end of Spartacus, Varinia looks up at him dying on the cross and shows him his son. Wonder how it would have played out had the baby been a girl?

Shamus said...


Full Metal jacket culminates in the confrontation with the female sniper and in some way, it concludes the film: the war does not end, but there is a curious sort of completion in Joker’s confrontation between the two stark opposites: the monstrous Sergeant Hartman and the unnamed Vietnamese sniper. This is what led me to point to those encounters: to be sure, Sergeant Hartman also suggests strongly something to Joker, like J. D. Ripper (the other extremity of over-boiled masculinity) to Lionel Mandrake. I may have inadvertently suggested that the female characters bear some misogyny in their conception: not at all, as Eyes Wide Shut clearly shows. The men are in some ways forced to confront feminine sexuality and the result is that they feel bereft of something integral: they are lost and baffled. Or at least, that is my reading of it.

In EWS, for instance, Hartford’s confrontation with his wife’s sexuality leaves him utterly unprepared: if the later nighttime New York sequences are a fantasy of his, then it is quite a hopeless one: his wife’s fantasies are richer, odder, and even she is unprepared to fully comprehend them, let alone accede to them. Nothing in the characterization of Kubrick’s richest female character suggests the femme fatality of a Phyllis Dietrichson (if we can talk about Roman noir, then EWS is New York noir).

Also Ned, Spartacus is not a Kubrick project per se, he was brought in on Monday after Anthony Mann was fired the previous Friday. He was not involved in the screenplay and he didn’t apparently have the final cut either (Kirk Douglas did). Some Kubrick experts like James Naremore and others don’t really consider it a Kubrick film at all. Considering how much time Kubrick usually spent on preparing for his projects, there is perhaps some justification for this view.

“Wonder how it would have played out had the baby been a girl?”- probably not something Kubrick might have done if he had final say: his view is far more complex than such clichés (the son taking over where the father left off: precisely the sort of macho bullshit Kubrick was constantly cutting open and anatomizing).

Shamus said...

The title, Eyes Wide Shut, is of course redolent of dreaming: but in the movie, dreams and fantasies seem entwined, for instance, Alice Hartman's detailed monologue of her dream, and Bill Hartman's discovery of the orgy in the country house in his dream-odyssey. Please read the previous post in this context.

Do you want to talk about EWS, now? I'm game: I'd like nothing better for another excuse to re-watch Kubrick.

Ned said...


I'd like nothing better than to discuss it. First though, I'd better watch it. It's the only Kubrick film I've never seen.

Not sure why. I think at the time a bad reaction to Tom Cruise held sway more than my desire to see Kubrick's final film, but I guess now is as good a time as any to watch it.

Thanks for that reminder about Spartacus. I'd forgotten how late he came to that project.

Another point that is well taken is your earlier reference to Kubrick's idiosyncratic nature. Spartacus is easily the most "Hollywood" film he made, the most commercially clad film,and that respect, the least like his more personal projects.

I'll get hold of EWS and see what we shall see. With eyes open, of course.

Shamus said...
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Shamus said...


Fantastic: tell me what you think of it. Ignore Cruise (I find him as annoying and ridiculous as you seem to): like Ryan O'Neil and Marisa Berenson, he is merely a prop that Kubrick moves about for his purposes. Kidman is very fine though.

I had evaded your points about Spartacus because, well, I don't remember it at all: but your point about the femme fatale is completely persuasive: my objection was only that it was a conventional view of women that Kubrick's other films do not exude.

I had planned a screening of Ministry of Fear, tonight. Unfortunately, other factors intervened. But I'll watch it posthaste.

Ned said...


A final casual thought about the place of Spartacus in the Kubrick oeuvre.

Because Spartacus was a much more standard Hollywood sort of film--something Stanley had not really done before--I'm guessing that the experience had quite an effect on him, no doubt redoubling his enmity towards studio meddling and reinforcing his sense of the necessity of maintaining as much control as possible over his projects.

One would have thought that after Spartacus Kubrick would have had enough of vanity projects. I recall reading somewhere that he was, for a time, involved in Marlon Brando's One Eyed Jacks. I don't recall any of the details surrounding that one so I don't know what became of that near collaboration. I need to do a more extensive exploration of Kubrick's career. Any suggestions for good books in that regard?

Shamus said...


Ha, I'm not the right person to direct these sort of questions to but James Naremore (who wrote More than Night, an excellent book on film noir) wrote a book on Kubrick called, um, "on Kubrick." I haven't read it but here is his essay on Paths of Glory for Criterion.


I'm not sure of the details but I think Kubrick did have a good working relationship with the studios, or did with at least Warner Brothers. They would not have otherwise allowed him to withdraw Clockwork Orange from theatres about a week or so after release. He spent the rest of his life collaborating (if that is the right word) with the same studio, something that would have not been possible if they did not allow K his freedom and latitude.

Another clue (and a few laughs) about K's relationship with the Warner's is in J Hoberman's essay, here.


But undoubtedly, Kubrick redoubled his enmity with Kirk Douglas after Spartcaus and as you note, had the effect of "reinforcing his sense of the necessity of maintaining as much control as possible over his projects". My god, did it ever. EWS took about 400 days of principal photography: the man was seriously crazy. Youtube also has some interviews of Cruise (eck), Kidman and Sydney Pollack (interesting: he is excellent there, BTW and he is of course a director himself) about the making of EWS. Should be worth a watch.

Ned said...

400 days of principal photography? Holy shit. No wonder he was dead soon after!