Sunday, August 07, 2011

Nomadic Existence: The Big Clock and The Reluctant Debutante


From the July 20 edition of Nomad Wide Screen, my appreciation of Kay Kendall in Minnelli's The Reluctant Debutante. For the record, I adore Les Girls , and Kendall is a joy in that one as well.


When certain killjoys decide to amuse themselves by asserting that MGM, the most widely known and successful of the major Golden Age studios, wasn't really a great studio at all, I try several methods to silence them. I start with George Cukor, move on through The Wizard of Oz, wave the flag for the Freed unit. If the conversation really gets irksome, however, I play my trump: Vincente Minnelli.

It's a curious thing, then, at least for auteurists, that the spirit that dominates Minnelli's The Reluctant Debutante isn't that of the director, but of the star, Kay Kendall. The plot hews to every convention possible; you could take it and graft it onto a mass-market romance paperback with scarcely a single change. The charm of the film is tied closely to Minnelli’s eye for beauty, but even more than that it’s in the playing, and the players are led by Kendall. It was her penultimate movie, and when she made it she was already gravely ill with the leukemia that would kill her two years later. But it's a bright, vivacious performance, the only hint of her health coming from how thin she is.

Kendall had an exceptionally lovely speaking voice, pitched right mid-range with the merest hint of huskiness and an occasional crack in it that is oddly redolent of a British Jean Arthur. She was a tall woman with limbs that seemed to go everywhere at once, but her control of her body was impeccable. Nobody stumbled quite like Kay Kendall--up go the arms, the legs bend and curve, then glide back. It's a bit like watching a Mobius strip try to straighten itself. She had huge eyes, a flawless complexion and a long, strong-boned face; "Careful how you photograph my Cyrano nose, darling," she told Vincente Minnelli before filming. Nose or no nose, the overall effect was gorgeous. Kendall belongs to that rare sorority of beautiful women who are also great clowns.




From the Aug. 2 Nomad Wide Screen, a considerably rewritten and spruced-up version of a post I once did on The Big Clock:


Not all film noir takes place in a seedy underworld; sometimes noir arrives on the commuter train wearing a custom-made suit. So it goes with John Farrow’s The Big Clock (1948), which sets its dark doings and flashback narrative in a top-flight New York corporation that occupies a swank (if somberly lit) Midtown office tower.

The hero (or if you prefer, since this is film noir, the primary sap) is family man George Stroud (Ray Milland), an executive in the massive publishing empire of Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton). One night Stroud gets himself into a terrible pickle by getting drunk with Pauline York, played by Rita Johnson as a trampy soul with a chic exterior. Unfortunately for Stroud, Pauline is also Janoth’s mistress, and Stroud must exit her couch the next morning when their boss drops by unexpectedly. Mistress and magnate fight, and fifty years before anyone ever saw a Viagra ad, Pauline’s tirade shows off some choice euphemisms for “impotent”: “You think you could make any woman happy?...You flabby, flabby...” And that last word is one of the last Pauline utters, as Janoth bludgeons her to death with a sundial.

Well, what’s a self-respecting titan to do in such a situation, except use every last bit of his power to pin the blame on someone else? And the someone else just happens to be Stroud. The main twist in Jonathan Latimer’s highly twisty script (based on a novel by Kenneth Fearing) is that Janoth doesn’t know who he’s after, and Stroud must extricate himself without Janoth’s finding out...

it is Laughton who rules over The Big Clock. In Hollywood movies, most tyrannical managers are openly and loudly abusive. Laughton as Janoth keeps his voice low, forcing subordinates to lean close, which they wouldn't do otherwise. That’s because getting close means they have to look at Janoth’s weedy little moustache and the way he strokes it with one finger, in a gesture as suggestive as it is repulsive. He won't make eye contact, emphasizing his employees' wormlike status. And Laughton speaks every word in an affected, maddeningly casual drawl, underlining that he doesn't give a hoot if he just screwed up someone's life.




Finally, yesterday was the 100th birthday of the fabulous Lucille Ball, and there was a blogathon ball which the Siren, dearly though she loves all of Lucy's incarnations, could not attend, alas, as her opera gloves were at the cleaners. However, the roundup post is right here at True Classics, and the Siren strongly suggests that all Lucy fans click and start reading. The Siren has been working her way through all of them, and is in heaven. Some highlights (so far): Caftan Woman on Lucy's four films with Bob Hope; Clara at Villa Margutta 51 on the use of Spanish dialogue in I Love Lucy; old friend Ivan G. Shreve at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear on I Love Lucy's radio antecedents; R.D. Finch of The Movie Projector on fifteen character actors who appeared on the television show (jaw-dropping, the amount of talent it attracted); a post about Lucy's memoirs at Erin's Silver Screen Scribblings; Ivan again at Edward Copeland's wonderful blog with a 360-degree tour of Lucy's career; and Vince of Carole & Co. on the friendship between Lombard and Ball.

(The wonderful image of Lucille Ball in Stage Door, a movie that is high on the Siren's list of the best of the 1930s, is from the terrific tumblr blog Classic Film Heroines, which is full of such goodies.)

47 comments:

DavidEhrenstein said...

Wha you're getting at here, Siren is the fact that stars are -- more often than many care to deal with -- far more important than directors. Luaghton was of course both an actor and a director. Kendall, in her sadly brief time, was "just an actress," yet utterly indelible. Mr. Cukor was over the moon about her, and it shows blazingly in Les Girls. Minnelli, a major appreciator of glamorous, sophsiticated women, took to her like second nature in The Reluctant Debutante.

Funny, but I was just thinking of Kay Kendall (in life , not art) vis--vis the character the lovely Mia wazikowska plays in Gus' Restless -- a film destined to be dimissed by the unwary.

DavidEhrenstein said...

The Title number from Les Girls.

The film's basic stiroy was insoured by one of the characters in Robert Sherwood's "Idiot's Delight"

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's the "Ladies in Waiting" number Great Funsey-wunsey!

DavidEhrenstein said...

And here Kay does Cole Porter's "You're ust Too Too" with Gene Kelly.

The Siren said...

"What you're getting at here, Siren is the fact that stars are -- more often than many care to deal with -- far more important than directors."

Yeah, I'll co-sign that. Not as a universal rule by any means, but as something that holds up for many movies and deserves serious thought, yes.

And oh, Les Girls. One of these days I'll write about it, maybe, but it's one of those movies that make up my personal stash of cinematic uppers, so I have so far just clutched it to my chest and refused to analyze it. Rotten day? Mercury in retrograde? Everyone sick? Stressed to the max? Les Girls! Kay running around that Paris garret (which is what my corner of heaven will look like, if I ever get there) cooing "tea cozy, tea cozy, whoooo's got my tea cozy..." Mitzi's best role. I even dig Taina Elg. What happened to her, huh?

Laura said...

Kay Kendall and Rex Harrison's relationship is one of the true-life Hollywood love stories that breaks my heart every time I read about it, along with Peter Cushing and his wife Helen and Charles Boyer and Pat Paterson (there are others I'm forgetting, of course). Harrison and Kendall sound like they complemented each other beautifully. Still, I love the excerpt you posted because you focus on her rather than solely her effect on Harrison, which many people do these days. Give the lady her due credit for what she did on film, everyone!

VP81955 said...

Thanks for the compliment.

As I stated in the entry, it's pretty remarkable that Ball's principal success came after she had turned 40 -- not that her career prior to television had been anything insignificant (watching "The Big Street" was proof; she provides texture to a largely unsympathetic character), but had she not gone into TV and her career had in fact followed the expected trajectory of a film actress at that age, she certainly would never have become an icon. In fact, I'm trying to think of a contemporary whom Lucy would have been compared to in this scenario. Betty Hutton? No, Betty was a much bigger star than Ball in the '40s, though Hutton was best savored in small doses. (Love her in "The Miracle Of Morgan's Creek," though.) Virginia Mayo might be a better comparison, as she and Lucy both blended humor with sex appeal, but never had their own top-tier film vehicles.

Think about it -- in an alternate universe where "I Love Lucy" never occurs, what actresses are comparable to Lucille Ball in the collective memory?

john_burke100 said...

Big Clock's allusions to Henry Luce's Time-Life empire are pretty obvious--Fearing had worked at Fortune in the 30's--not just the clock in the title and atop the high-rise HQ, but the sundial as murder weapon. And Elsa Lanchester has a nice character bit as a Bohemian artist. The Kevin Costner-Sean Young-Gene Hackman No Way Out recycles the main device: powerful man murders girlfriend, tries to frame subordinate for the crime while assigning the same subordinate to find the killer. (There's an extra, and to my mind superfluous, plot twist.) Looking at Sean Young never gave anybody eyestrain but I like the earlier movie a lot better.

muwbrandie said...

Thanks for posting a link to the Lucy blogathon, Siren. I'm glad you're enjoying the entries--there were so many excellent contributions!

DavidEhrenstein said...

Taina Elg played Guido's mother in the original stage production of Nine starring Raul Julia, Karen Acker and the fabulous Anita Morris under the superb direction of the great Tommy Tune.

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

My standard reaction to "Les Girls" was always: weak material, but presented so stylishly that one almost doesn't notice. That title number is a knockout, though. (Thank you, David.) It strikes me, too, that it anticipates the sort of thing "Cabaret" got praised for: artificial songs which comment on the lives of the characters who perform them. I mean ... that's the basic relations of the central quartet that we see in this number. (A claim also to be made for the "Ladies-in-Waiting" number?)

One should also mention choreographer Jack Cole, whose style is all over the title number.

The Siren said...

Laura, Harrison was such a scene-stealer, funny though he is in many movies, and one nice thing about Reluctant Deb is that he doesn't do that at all with Kendall. In Minnelli's autob. he talks about Kendall sitting him down and complaining that a certain scene didn't have anything good for Harrison.

David, so you must have seen Elg in that - how was she?

Vince, Mayo is good, they had similar qualities on screen. Ball where her career ends at 40...I will have to ponder!

John, oh, Janoth has all *sorts* of echos. Definitely Luce but it's so well written and well played that he becomes a mashup of every bad boss anybody ever had. And isn't Lanchester funny? "I've few enough collectors without sending one to jail."

Muwbrandie, the blogathon is just full of entries written from pure love and so it was a joy to read.

Mrs HWV, I don't find the material weak, myself. I admit it's all very obvious but at the same time the movie is constantly kidding its rote philosophical underpinnings, don't you think? Don't you dig The Wild One parody too? Kelly does Brando! And the scene where Elg is doing some bizarre modern-dance number where she is supposed to unwind Kelly from his Promethean (I guess) coils...who is that parodying, anybody know? Martha Graham?

DavidEhrenstein said...

Elg was wonderful in Nine. But then so was everyone -- especially the greatly missed Anita Morris. Her "A Call from the Vatican" number in which she crawls all over a cube laciviously con brio is a classic moment in musical theater.

Ball in The Big Street isn't playing merely "unsympathetic" character. She's playing a monster.

Brilliantly.

In my movie pantheon it's right up ther witn Maria casares in Les Dames du bois de Boulogne and Valerie Bruni_tedeschi in Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train.

Yes Ball woudl ahve been comapred to Betty Hutton, to some degree, but at Metro she was treated like a classic sophsiticated showgril. See Best Foot Forward for instance.

Clara said...

Thanks for mentioning my post :) Have a great week!

gmoke said...

Kay Kendall was good (and funny) even in something like "Quentin Durward."

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's Kay Kendall at her most iconic in Genevieve (complete on You Tube!) With a great score by my favorite Coominist, Larry Adler.

Vanwall said...

Even as a kid, I liked Kay Kendall - seeing "Genevieve" at an early age made me appreciate her more every time I saw her in something new, she had a manner and style that was really like no other. Always a fave.

Just watched "Lured" again, and it stands up so well, with a strange noir feel to it. Ball was a solid dramatic actress with her own edge, wish she'd done more.

Karen said...

Les Girls is, indeed, a tonic for whatever ails you. I wish it were on Netflix Instant; I'd watch it tonight. To me it's nearly flawless.

Orry-Kelly won an Oscar for his costumes for that film, and damned well-deserved, too.

Ned said...

The Big Clock! Yes! It's been a long time since I've seen it. Time to put it on the list.

A good translation of the book, better than most, with some changes. The Elsa Lanchester is a big plus in this film. Not having quite as much fun as she and Laughton would have together in Witness for the Prosecution, she still has that great scene in which she has promised to paint a picture of the man Laughton is looking for and presents an unrecognizable cubist influenced image. Her reason? As her ditzy character explains...she couldn't possibly help to do away with someone (Ray Milland) who has actually bought her paintings! Supposedly Kenneth Fearing based the character of the painter on Alice Neel.

Harry Morgan and the ever loathsome George Macready fill out a fun cast.

Good pick.

Ned said...

Shamus,

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 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.

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

The "Why Am I So Gone (About That Gal)?" number shows up memorably in Neil Jordan's BREAKFAST ON PLUTO, where the protagonist searches out a mother who looks like Mitzi Gaynor.

I love the *look* of the number, what with the splashes of red and all. Full praise to Gene Allen and/or Hoyningen-Huene. But the song itself is weak -- which, as a longstanding member of the Porter Fan Club, I hate to admit. Post-1950 Porter has its stretches of dullness, and you can find 'em here. One can really sense arranger Skip Martin and/or Alexander Courage laboring to bring interest to it.

Kelly and Gaynor together feel like a retread of the Kelly/Charisse "Broadway Rhythm" choreography in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN. I would not be surprised to learn that this was Kelly, rather than Jack Cole, doing uncredited work as choreographer.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Mr.Cukor was not at all taken with Mitzi Gaynor. But, being a gentleman, this casting decision (which was not his) didn't prevent him from showing the lady off to teriffic effect.

And as Breakfat on Pluto star Killian Murphy told me (when I interviewed him for that marvelous film's release "We've all got to find our inner Mitzi Gaynor."

X. Trapnel said...

Mrs. HWV, I'm a recent convert to late Porter; a great deal of dullness (and True Love) can be forgiven for It's All Right With Me, You're Sensational, I Love Paris, C'est Magnifique, and more.

Alec Wilder thought that I Love Paris sounds more like I Love Russia. One sees/hears his point, but it's a great song.

DavidEhrenstein said...

"I'm always a flop at a top-notch affair,
but I've still got my health, so what do I care?
My best ring, alas, is a glass solitaire,
but I still got my health, so what do I care?

By fashion and foppery, I'm never discussed.
Attending the opry, my box would be a bust.
I never shall have that Park Avenue aire,
but I've got my health, why should I care?

The hip that I shake doesn't make people stare,
but I got my health, what do I care?
The sight of my props never stops a thoroughfare,
but I still got my health, so what do I care?

I knew I was slipping at Minsky’s one dawn,
When I started stripping they hollered “Put it on!”
For once Billy Rose let me pose in the bare
But I got my vitamins:
A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H - I’ve
still got my health!"

DavidEhrenstein said...

Miss Otis Regrets

DavidEhrenstein said...

The Chairman of the Board sings "I've Got You Under My Skin"

DavidEhrenstein said...

"You're the eyes of Irene Bordoni." And here she is singing Let's Mishehave"

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

@ X.Trapnel I think that my "stretches of dullness" implied that there were also non-dull stretches to '50s Porter.

To the titles you mention, I would also add two from SILK STOCKINGS: "All of Me" (just listen to the '50s Annie Ross recording, or the Conrad Salinger orchestration when Astaire dances with Cyd Charisse) and -- a personal favorite of mine -- "It's A Chemical Reaction, That's All."

I couldn't find a link to a Hildegarde Knef performance (which I've heard and like), but this one involving Cyd Charisse's actual voice is surprisingly decent:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m6TSRb8tdA4

Password: "coweiter," which sounds like Elmer Fudd asking for a screen credit for the script of COLORADO TERRITORY

X. Trapnel said...

True enough Mrs. HWV, but it's not hard to find stretches of dullness in all the great songwriters (desertlike in the case of late Rodgers with few oases and the occasional mirage). I think Porter found a new tone in his best 50s songs songs, something lyrical, slightly melancholy/autumnal, a late style. To brush up my Shakespeare: How many things by season seasoned are.

john_burke100 said...

Password: "coweiter," which sounds like Elmer Fudd asking for a screen credit for the script of COLORADO TERRITORY

MrsHenryWindleVale, that's wonderful. I'm trying to imagine Mel Blanc as Bugs saying "politique des auteurs."

rcocean said...

Kendall was absolutely delightful in "Genevieve", "Les Girls", and "The Reluctant Debutante".

Yojimboen said...

I’ll leave the preceding badinage uncommented upon except to say Cole Porter was very ill towards the end and leaned heavily on Saul Chaplin to help him finish the Les Girls score.

It isn’t a very good score, but, whatever… Any day of the week, I’ll take Cole Porter’s worst song over the complete musical oeuvres of Alan & Marilyn Bergman; The Walt Disney Co.; Kander & Ebb, Rogers & Anybody and Comden & Green (and I love me my Comden & Green).

The only composer breathing who comes close to Mr. Porter is Mr. Sondheim.

Enough.

Question: How often does one trip over a long-thought-lost musical version of ‘The Bartered Bride’, and especially a free, public domain copy?

‘Seldom’ is the answer. And did I mention it’s directed by Max Ophuls? (His last film in Wermacht Germany before he saw the writing on the wall - of the burning Reichstag Building - and hopped the next train to Paris.)
Quality ain’t dazzling, but in case you didn’t hear me: it’s a MAX OPHULS musical!

Happy Wednesday, friends.

http://www.archive.org/details/verkaufte_braut

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

Mr. Sondheim got to meet Mr. Porter towards the end and play him some of his songs -- whcih Mr. Porter greatly appreciated.

And now the always enchanting Irene Bordoni.

X. Trapnel said...

Y, that CAN'T be Porter's worst song over the complete oeuvre of Ro[d]gers and, (just to grab a random name out of the air) Hart. True Love (Ethelbert Nevin getting down and dirty with Mrs. Carrie Jacobs Bond) over Spring is Here, It Never Entered My Mind, I Wish I Were in Love Again; I could go on, in fact, I could write a book. Please tell me "Rogers" is Kenny.

Of course Porter is the tops as are Kern, Gershwin, Berlin, and the aforementioned Mr. R.

Yojimboen said...

Roy, actually.

Yojimboen said...

(Just checking to see who was awake.)

X. Trapnel said...

I shall explore now the oeuvre of Rogers and Trigger.

Ned said...

Who knew that "Happy Trails to You" came from the same pen as "A Ship Without a Sail", "I Wish I Were in Love Again", and "Manhattan"?

Just think, the line could have been "...we'll go to Greenwich, where modern men itch their saddle sores."

Yojimboen said...

I may have the participants wrong (but why spoil the story?): when R & H unveiled “Mountain Greenery” for Irving Berlin, the older composer responded dryly, “Hmm, it took two of you to write that?”

Serieusement I love all R&H; most R&H (2nd); and all your aforementioned songs; but multiply the best of R & either H by a thousand and you still haven’t reached the toenails of ‘Begin the Beguine’.

Ned said...

Y, you certainly have it bad for Mr. Porter.

Like X, I'm a huge fan of R and Hart. Not as much of R and Hammerstein. Isn't it amazing what a difference a lyricist can make? I guess that's one reason Porter and Berlin kept to their own lyrical as well as musical devices.

Funny story about Berlin's reaction to Mountain Greenery. In fairness, it didn't take two of them to do the show. Usually with R and Hart it was more like one and a half since Larry Hart was often as much in as out of the bag.

There are stories of Rodgers cornering Hart in a taxicab between parties (or bars) and not letting him go until he had scribbled down a lyric or two.

Maybe one of those times he came up with "Happy Trails" just to be shut of him.

The Siren said...

I prefer Rodgers and Hart to Rodgers and Hammerstein, too, but I still love a great many of the latter team's songs. South Pacific, for example, is just magnificent, such an incredibly beautiful score, and many of the lyrics quite wonderful too. Some Enchanted Evening still killed me when I saw the revival a couple of years ago. I am a rank sentimentalist. I really only part company with Hammerstein when he is in world-peace-spiritual-uplift mode.

When that bio of Rodgers came out a few years ago I remember being startled to read that he had quite the alcohol problem too, although it didn't affect his reliability the way it did Hart. Also interesting that Hart would generally fit his lyrics to Rodgers' melodies; with Hammerstein it was usually the other way 'round.

Late Porter...you know something, I like Can-Can and that's supposed to be Porter past his prime, is it not?

Porter, Kern, Berlin -- may I add Harold Arlen? I shall anyway. Y., Begin the Beguine is sublime. I can't wait to see that Ophuls musical but I will probably have to.

However, if you put me under hypnosis you would probably discover that George Gershwin is my heart's darling forever and always.

Finally, XT, I have it on good authority that Trigger lip-synched.

X. Trapnel said...

Hm. Could Mr. Ed have been his Marni Nixon?

Yojimboen said...

Bear in mind, M’sieur X., t’is but a short step from “in” to infra-dig. Nonetheless, you have won this week’s first prize in show-biz obscurantism. (The trophy? The Ernest Gold Cup, of course.)

Vanwall said...

OHHHHhhh, Wi-ilburrr.

gmoke said...

Seeing Bing Crosby sing "True Love" in High Society when I was a kid and the movie first came out made me want to play a concertina. A few years ago, I bought an English concertina (chromatic with the same note on both the squeeze and pull) and am having fun learning things like Georges Delerue's "Vacances" from Jules et Jim by ear and playing through "Complainte de la Butte" from French Cancan (with lyrics by Jean Renoir) with the music downloaded for free from the Internet.

Understand why some people might hate the song "True Love" but it works for me. The background for the yacht scenes in High Society were supposedly shot off of lovely St John in the American Virgin Islands.

Yojimboen, thanks for the Ophuls. What a gift!

Truth be told, Duke Ellington is probably the best American composer of the 20th century. If you don't know "A Single Petal of a Rose," you are missing some great beauty: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6klHQ1KubTM

This song was written as part of the Queen's Suite, composed for Queen Elizabeth II of England and, originally, pressed in one copy only for her. Talk about class.

X. Trapnel said...

Ah, Complainte de la Butte, especially as sung by Cora Vaucaire. The music is by the great Georges van Parys who scored most of Madame de... (only the waltz is by Oscar Straus. A benefactor recently sent me a tres, tres rare recording of DD singing it), Les Grandes Manoeuvres, and Casque d'Or.

Delerue is great and deserves his fame, but French film music pre-J&J is largely unexplored territory. I'm waiting for someone, anyone with their hands on the levers of power to record the music of Maurice Thiriet (some people here must know Demons et Merveilles from Carne's Les Visiteurs du Soir).

Meanwhile, I am scouting around for a fake Native American princess to convey my refusal of the Ernest (a notch above M. Jarre, himself a notch above Frank de Vol, and as for Dmitri T., not infra dig, simply enfer)Gold Cup.