Monday, January 31, 2011

For the Love of Film (Noir): Call for Posts



Zowie, a beautiful YouTube clip from the inimitable Greg Ferrara on the Siren’s blog. She doesn’t do clips very often. And look at the banner, with beauteous Joan Bennett getting her fatale-ism on with dear Fritz Lang, the Siren’s favorite autocrat.

Something’s afoot. Monocle-shopping? A boudoir interior-design rethink chez Siren? Valentine’s Day reservations, perhaps?

Better than that, way better. It is time for us to band together once more to do our bit for film preservation. Yes, it is the Call for Posts for (crescendo)

For the Love of Film (Noir)





The concept is simple. This year as last, the Siren and the great Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films are calling on bloggers to band together. Together we will urge people to donate in order to restore and preserve endangered film.

Donations this year go to the Film Noir Foundation, which marvelous organization, under the leadership of Eddie Muller, works to save movies in this beloved genre, movies from many eras and from many countries. Eddie is a gentleman, a wit and a scholar, a man with an incredible love for and dedication to film. Marilyn and I are proud to be helping the foundation to which he has devoted so much.

And this year, in a nifty plot twist, we know the film to be restored ahead of time--a fine and important noir called The Sound of Fury, aka Try and Get Me.

Fritz is gracing the banner for a reason; The Sound of Fury tells the same story as Lang’s celebrated 1936 Fury. Directed by Cy Endfield, who was fated to be blacklisted later on, The Sound of Fury stars Lloyd Bridges in as good a role as that fine actor ever got to play. When the Siren announced that this was the film to be restored, several of her distinguished, all-seeing commenters popped up to remark that they preferred this version to the Lang. As Marilyn noted before, when Lloyd’s sons--Jeff and Beau, you may have heard of them--saw the film, they were “blown away” by Lloyd’s performance. More from Marilyn:

A nitrate print of the film will be restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, using a reference print from Martin Scorsese’s personal collection to guide them and fill in any blanks. Paramount Pictures has agreed to help fund the restoration, but FNF is going to have to come up with significant funds to get the job done. That’s where we come in.


Our Facebook page is updated continuously with information about the blogathon, including ideas for posts, should you need any.

This year as last, we are offering raffle prizes to donors. The loot includes:

1. The brand-new deluxe DVD edition of The Prowler

2. A DVD documentary on Eddie Muller, The Czar of Noir, featuring his short film with Marsha Hunt, The Grand Inquisitor.

3. Illustrator Steve Brodner will be contributing a drawing of Lloyd Bridges as a raffle prize during the blogathon. Look in the photo album on the Facebook page for samples of his work.

4. A full set of all nine posters for the Film Noir Foundation’s NOIR CITY film festival, held each year in San Francisco since 2003.

5. A set of all three NOIR CITY SENTINEL annuals. Noir City is the Foundation’s flagship publication.

6. Programs from NOIR CITY 8 and 9

7. An autographed copy of Eddie Muller's first novel, The Distance.

Here are the Rules for Blogathon Participants, as elegantly simple as black-and-white:

1. Post on any topic related to film noir, at any time during the week of Feb. 14 through Feb. 21.

2. In your post, include the all-important donation link for the Film Noir Foundation.

3. Send the link to your post to Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films (http://www.ferdyonfilms.com; email ferdyonfilms@comcast.net) and to the Siren here (http://selfstyledsiren.blogspot.com/ or via email, campaspe101@yahoo.com). We will be keeping track of the submissions and linking to them on our respective blogs.

4. Follow the links here and at Marilyn's site to read the contributions; remember too that nothing gladdens a blogger's heart like a nice comment.

And, most vital of all,

5. DONATE GENEROUSLY to the Film Noir Foundation, and urge your readers to do the same.

Our grand total last year was more than $30,000 in contributions and matching funds; those funds saved films through the National Film Preservation Foundation. One of the Siren’s great joys was seeing the spreadsheets and realizing that there were some large gifts, and also a great many people kicking in small donations, one after the other, until the numbers really began to add up. It all counts. It all helps.

This year, the Siren has received some queries about participation, and thought perhaps others might have similar concerns. Switch on the desk lamp, it's time for the Blogathon Q&A. If you have other questions, the Siren will be right here in comments.



1. I neglected to participate last year. I feel such torments of guilt, like Van Heflin in Act of Violence. Please, can I redeem myself by contributing a post this year?

We called off Robert Ryan. Come back. All is forgiven.

2. Can I post that week even if I don’t sign up now?

Sure, just let us know when you do.

3. I am a blogger based outside the U.S., and I would like to contribute a post.


Please do! We love the international character of the blogathon.

4. I love film and want to do my bit, but my blog is focused on food/mascara/politics etc. Can I still contribute?

Absolutely. To cite one example, last year Tinky Weisblat, at the time primarily a food blogger, did a wonderful post and included a recipe. Marilyn tried the recipe out and pronounced it delicious; the Siren was all set to cook it herself but then she ripped the lace on her apron and got depressed.

Anyway, the post itself should be about film noir, and the donation link should be there. If the topic of the post is “False Eyelashes in Film Noir,” that would be...completely awesome, actually. The Siren would read that. She might even post that herself.

5. I want to write about a new movie that I consider to be noir. Is that all right?

Knock yourself out, dollface. Although, if you are writing about a new movie because you secretly prefer new to old, for heaven’s sake don’t say so outright as the Siren will be deeply hurt.



6. I wrote a post a while back about film noir, and I don't like to brag, but it was great. This post got me a fan letter from my Cousin Millicent. It got me a date in a hot tub. It got me a paying critic job. Can I repost this inspired post for the blogathon?

All right, all right! If you haven't got anything shiny new we won't go all Veda Pierce on you. Please do freshen it up, however, with an appeal for donations and the all-important donation link.

Anyway, surely you get the general idea. This year as last, there is no obnoxious door policy at the For the Love of Film (Noir) blogathon. You may come as you are. And you don’t have to know what you will write about now; the promise to post is enough.

Tonight, the Siren plans to start updating this post with names of contributors, and Marilyn plans to do the same. Let us hear from you!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Siren by Request: Village of the Damned (1960)

Greg Ferrara of Cinema Styles has an excellent post up about science fiction and his discontents, in which he defends, at length and with great wit, the notion that Star Wars isn’t science fiction. The Siren isn’t fully convinced--I mean, the blasters, and the hyperspace, and all those computers with the cunning little buttons--although, as she stated, she isn’t an aficionado. But the Siren recently was accused, in a couple of different forums, of uncritically thinking everything old is great, which peevish, unfounded nonsense caused her to tear her crinolines when she threw herself on the chesterfield in a fit of pique. So she is delighted to show herself gravitating toward relatively modern movies in this genre, while the fabulous Greg is over in his corner admitting he prefers older movies. The age of miracles hasn’t passed, as dear Ira Gershwin once wrote in a beautiful, and quite old, song. Onward.




Now that we take up Village of the Damned from 1960, (requested by Laura of Who Can Turn the World Off With Her Smile?) can we agree to agree on something beforehand? You can call it a science fiction movie, you can call it a horror movie, you can call it an allegory, but here at the Siren’s place, let’s face it, Village of the Damned is one thing above all: It’s a George Sanders movie. As such, it has several things that one expects, such as dry line deliveries, well-cut suits, occasional cocked eyebrows and George doing his secondary type of role, after all-around cad--that of somewhat effete intellectual.

It also has some things you don’t expect from Sanders, such as him going dewy over his wife’s announcement of a pregnancy, interaction with a child that doesn’t involve snapping (as Kim Morgan once suggested) “you’re too short for that gesture,” and most startling of all, Sanders fainting in his very first scene. A swoon from George Sanders, the King of Unflappable? It’s like confronting an opening in which Lee Marvin folds cloth napkins.

Village of the Damned, filmed in glorious black-and-white by DP Geoffrey Faithfull, is set in a bucolic, out-of-the-way English village, at first so postcardish you half-expect Margaret Rutherford to swing by on her bicycle, but later taking on a darker, dingier aspect. The opening has a great, fairy-tale hook, as Gordon Zellaby (our George) is on a phone call with his brother-in-law Alan (Michael Gwynn), a military officer, and suddenly faints dead away. But it isn’t just Gordon, it’s the whole village out cold. Eventually they come to, and things seem to return to normal. Except that suddenly, every woman in the village of childbearing age falls pregnant (a wonderful British idiom that suggests causes both active and passive).

In the course of a few short months, the women give birth at the same time, and before you know it, the kids are growing up at a decidedly inhuman pace. The children are all blonde, hyperintelligent and preternaturally adult. The authorities strongly suspect something is up and want to deal with the children en masse. But Sanders, a professor whose beautiful wife is one of the ones who’s given birth, is adamant that the children should be left alone so they can be observed. He even volunteers to teach the little darlings himself in a one-room schoolhouse, like some horror nerd’s idea of a Laura Ingalls Wilder book. Leaving the creatures alone turns out to be as lousy an idea as it was in The Thing From Another World, if not quite as spectacularly ill-judged as in Alien.

Here’s something to ponder--why do scientists so frequently get it in the neck from science fiction? By which the Siren means, for example, movies where the man (or woman) of action looks at the alien and its dripping fangs and the way it’s casually fiddling with the radio buttons in order to scramble communications with the Air Force, and the man (or woman) of action sensibly suggests blasting the thing. But the scientist is all, “No, we have to study it! We need to make friends! Just hold out your hand and let him sniff it!” The Siren would attribute this theme to the Cold War anxiety that gives so much classic sci-fi its subtext, but it crops up in later entries too. She thinks a thread common to many science fiction movies is, ironically, deep fear of science. (One great science-fiction movie that’s about embracing science? Close Encounters. It’s unusual in that regard.)

Sanders is particularly well-suited to a part that shows scientific curiosity killing the cat, and, unexpectedly, he tethers his performance to domestic emotions he rarely shows in other movies. Sanders reacts to becoming an expectant papa as a cerebral man confronting one of life’s elemental joys. He doesn’t have fierce sexual chemistry with the classically gorgeous Barbara Shelley, who’s playing his wife, but such is the age difference you might not buy that anyway. Instead, his eyes follow her as if he can’t quite believe his luck, and you feel for him keenly when he realizes her pregnancy wasn’t luck at all. When Sanders proposes to teach the children himself, it’s the act of a man who’s been burned by domestic emotion, going back to the sphere where he always felt more at ease, anyway. It makes his final act all the more poignant.


People always ask how did I get such good performances out of you lot. Simple--I asked you to do nothing except be still and stare. Children fidget and I wanted you all to be absolutely still and steady and just stare. Very unchildlike, and, of course, very unsettling.
--Director Wolf Rilla addresses the youngest members of his Village of the Damned cast for a reunion on the U.K.’s Radio 4 in 2003; quoted in The Guardian, 12/4/03




What the Siren really liked about Village of the Damned, aside from the star, was the way an alien invasion was integrated into quite ordinary middle-class anxieties. There’s the fact, first of all, that the aliens choose to invade wombs and not airspace. That opening is weirdly sexy--the men are just out for the count, but what are the women experiencing? Apparently they don’t remember a thing, which is too bad for us as viewers; surely the Siren can’t be the only one dirty-minded enough to wonder about cross-galaxy mating. (Then again, if alien sex turned out to be like Demon Seed, an interesting movie that didn’t quite make the Siren’s list, it’s all for the best.) There’s a marvelously tense scene with a young girl going to her doctor and confronting the calamity of an unwed pregnancy in 1960, and trying to explain that she didn’t even do anything to get herself in this state. The anxieties of the men, whether it’s one deluded enough to think he’s the papa or one who's seethingly certain he isn’t, are also sharp and believable.


I knew it was an unusual part. I quietly liked it...having these very adult qualities and having control over the adult. Imagine having that power--and I could taste a bit of that. You realise how powerless you are as a child. I don't think I found it too much of a stretch, that part!"
--Martin Stephens (David Zellaby), ibid.


And the children themselves, with their flaxen hair and glowing eyes, are there at least in part to confirm our suspicion that there is something more than slightly creepy about a perfectly composed, adult-acting child. They’re a bit like miniature Georges, with their ramrod posture and their grammar so perfect they even differentiate between “shall” and “will.” Of course, to this day, the children mostly remind people of quite another group, especially after we see one of them as a toddler, telepathically commanding his mother to dunk her hand in boiling water after she accidentally overheats his bottle, one of the few genuinely frightening moments in a movie that’s more about anxiety than primal terror.


I don't think any of us were aware of it then, but of course now they remind you of the Hitler Youth, blond-haired Aryan children and all that. I'm convinced that was an unintentional subtext; after all, the war was still fresh in our memories. But none of us had any idea of the impact it would make.
--Rilla, ibid.


What the Siren didn’t like about Village was the military; god they’re a bunch of stiffs, with their maps and their brow-furrowing, even more than usual in a science-fiction film where the fate of the planet winds up resting with a civilian. Despite the movie’s crisp 78-minute length, every time it veers back to a meeting room with a map or a great big table or a desk and a telephone, suspense withers and time turtles.

Thank goodness for George, as always, finally confronting the fact that his son is never going to be fellow academic material and may in fact do something frightful, like try to take over the planet. The final scene, with the children surrounding George in a grim parody of classroom dynamics, now goes into the Siren’s large mental file of favorite Sanders moments.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Science Fiction and the Siren



Know what’s funny about random drawings? They’re so bloody random. To wit, the Siren takes requests, and gets two George Sanders movies. All righty then. She also gets a B movie, and the Siren’s B-movie viewing isn’t that extensive, and she gets a Hammer movie that could be loosely defined as horror, and she gets a science fiction movie.

Now, anyone troubling to read this blog over its near six-year existence cannot fail to have noticed that two genres haven’t exactly been examined in depth: horror and science fiction. You, shrewd readers, may have guessed that these cinematic subsets hold a lower place in the Siren’s affections. And her first impulse is to say that p’r’aps altogether, shrewd readers, you’re right.

But after some contemplation, the Siren has realized that she can, pretty easily, put together a list of science fiction films that she holds in high regard. It’s just that most of them aren’t all that old, or at least not old by the standards of this blog.

Plus, science fiction attracts...how shall one put this. Passion. Passion to the point where it seems to the Siren that people are reliably touchier about this genre than any other, save Movies Involving Caped Crusaders. “Did you ever notice your mother is cross-eyed?” “Why yes, yes I did.” “Did I ever tell you why I disliked The Matrix?” “YOU WHORE.”

The Siren isn’t enough of a connoisseur to have a stringent genre definition, and that also gets her into occasional trouble. But if you’ll permit her to list some “Favorite Movies That Include Aliens, Space and/or the Future,” here’s 20, all (repeat, all) of which she likes quite a lot, in extremely rough order according to her level of affection:





1. Wall*E (OK, that probably tips her hand right there. Still, the Siren proceeds.)
2. The Empire Strikes Back
3. Star Wars
4. Blade Runner
(Note: Much as she likes them, the Siren avoids the cult for numbers 2 through 4 on this list. When she spends too much time reading too-ardent worship, the Siren gets cranky and finds herself borrowing a line from Glenn Kenny about another good film staggering under its bundle of adoration: “It’s not Jesus Christ coming down off the cross, people.” She’d rather sit in her own little corner and quietly like them.)
5. Seconds
6. E.T.
7. Aliens (First one is excellent. Second one plays more to the Siren’s preoccupations.)
8. Avatar
9. They Live
10. Soylent Green (Edward G. Robinson. And Heston.)
11. 12 Monkeys
12. The Terminator (Yes. I like James Cameron.)
13. Brazil
14. The Thing From Another World (1951)
15. A Clockwork Orange
16. Strange Days (Do people like this one now? Because the Siren used to feel very lonely.)
17. The Stepford Wives (1975) (It’s my list and I’ll include robot women if I want to.)
18. The Invisible Man (1933)
19. Escape from New York
20. Fahrenheit 451 (I probably never mentioned my huge thing for Oskar Werner either, did I?)



There you are. Another side to the Siren. You no doubt noticed the tilt toward the relatively recent. Well, it’s like this. The other night the Siren was watching Nora Prentiss and there’s a scene where Ann Sheridan and Kent Smith are driving in a convertible, pretty fast if you believe the rear projection, and his hat remains neatly tilted on his handsome brow and Ann Sheridan’s fabulous hair is barely stirring. And the Siren noticed, but it didn’t bother her a bit. On the other hand, if she’s sitting there watching an old science-fiction film and the spaceship looks like a spray-painted shoebox, she slides down the cushions muttering “Oh brother.”

Is this fair? Probably not. But the Siren has never denied that there is such a thing as progress, and she does think science fiction movies were aided by the development of better special effects. It’s probably no coincidence that the older movies that did make her list tend to accomplish things with simplicity and indirection.

Finally, if you are wondering “where the hell is Metropolis?” the Siren says yes yes yes, it’s a great freaking landmark movie, but it isn’t her favorite Fritz Lang by a long shot, and she admires it much more than she loves it.

All of this is leading up to George Sanders in Wolf Rilla’s 1960 Village of the Damned, but the Siren is going to break off here and continue shortly. You may fire when ready.

P.S. Know what it is about lists? You always forget something. In this case, Demolition Man. By rights it belongs somewhere in the middle up there. Pretend I included it, please. Carry on.

Monday, January 17, 2011

More Nomad, More Miscellaneous


For the latest edition of Nomad Widescreen, the Siren participated in a year-end symposium with a number of distinguished contributors. Her 2010 musings can be accessed here, and her hopes for 2011 here, at least at the moment. Nomad continues to fiddle with links, so let the Siren know if these two suddenly decouple from the rest of the train.

Over at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, the ever-lovable Dennis Cozzalio plays host to another group of highly worthwhile film brains, including the fabulous Sheila O’Malley, who does the Siren the honor of quoting her and goes on to make our kind of year-end list, here.

Finally, Comrade Lou Lumenick does the Siren’s heart good with a trip back to Russia and our Shadows series for TCM.

The new banner is a woman with whom the Siren shares a birthday, January 17th: gorgeous Francoise Hardy, chanteuse, sometime actress and astrologer. (Tell me, Mlle. Hardy, are we still Capricorns?) The still is from Grand Prix, one of those star-laden behemoths that were everywhere in the 1960s. The movie has a number of fans, although the Siren can’t say she’s one of them, despite the movie's good looks and awesome racing sequences via director John Frankenheimer. But Hardy was, and remains, worth the journey.

The Siren’s blogosphere birthday-sharer? Bill Wren of Piddleville. Happy birthday, Bill!

Enjoy the holiday! The Siren will return shortly.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Watching Movies with My Entire Family, "Ain't I a Stinker" Edition



As we near the January halfway mark, the Siren wonders if her sister, brother-in-law and mother have forgiven her for tricking them into watching Leo McCarey's masterpiece, Make Way for Tomorrow, on TCM on Christmas Eve. The Siren baited her hook by telling them that it was one of Orson Welles' favorite movies, which it was.

Only after the fadeout, as her sister buried her face in the sofa cushions, her mother sat in dumbstruck amazement and her brother-in-law put his hand on his forehead, did the Siren mention that what Welles said was that "it would make a stone cry."

Yes, the Siren knows she's a stinker. But she's a stinker in a grand cause, yes?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Literary Interlude: "A Hollywood, California, Gul"

Being a conceit blatantly stolen from Glenn Kenny, whom the Siren hopes won't mind.




'I was in that preemy they had in Atlanta,' he would tell visitors sitting on his front porch. 'Surrounded by beautiful guls. It wasn't a thing local about it. It was nothing local about it. Listen here. It was a nashnul event and they had me in it--up onto the stage. There was no bobtails at it. Every person at it had paid ten dollars to get in and had to wear his tuxseeder. I was in this uniform. A beautiful gul presented me with it that afternoon in a hotel room...'

'This was a Hollywood, California, gul,' he'd continue. 'She was from Hollywood, California, and didn't have any part in the pitcher. Out there they have so many beautiful guls that they don't need that they call them a extra and they don't use them for nothing but presenting people with things and having their pitchers taken. They took my pitcher with her. No, it was two of them. One on either side and me in the middle with my arms around each of them's waist and their waist ain't any bigger than a half a dollar.'

--from "A Late Encounter with the Enemy," in A Good Man Is Hard to Find, by Flannery O'Connor.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Nomad Widescreen: Letter from an Unknown Woman


For Nomad Widescreen, the Siren fulfills her longstanding threat to write up one of her all-time favorite performances from any actress in any movie: Joan Fontaine in Letter from an Unknown Woman. Nothing but the best for Glenn.


Lisa has been living in this shabby-genteel boarding house with her mother, a woman who seems nice enough but as ordinary as a bar of soap. We get glimpses of the girl’s routine: shapeless clothes, drab furniture, dim-witted playmates, a whole day set aside each week to beat the dust out of the rugs. Lisa is one of those creatures who sometimes arise in such an environment, intelligent and sensitive in a way wholly unsuited to the life laid out for her. And so she falls in love, not with a face or a voice, but with the sound of a piano. Lisa listens to Stefan’s practicing with an expression as ardent as any she shows later. When Lisa finally sees Stefan and pulls the door open for him — which Fontaine does not tenderly, but with a swift jerk — she isn't enamored for the first time. She is already in love, her feelings bound up with his music. His handsome face is just the fulfillment.


*****

Elsewhere, at the New York Times the mighty Dave Kehr comes through with a beautiful piece on Hideko Takamine. The Los Angeles Times chimes in. And DJW at the consistently marvelous Lawyers, Guns and Money also gives the lady her due. Consider the Siren's heart warmed.

Monday, January 03, 2011

The Siren by Request: Ball of Fire (1941)



(Requested by Bill Wren of Piddleville, Happy Miser and Oshimoi.)

Ball of Fire is a two-hander--”on the one hand...on the other...” On the one hand, it’s intensely lovable, and was requested by more individuals than any other single movie. On the other hand, despite the amazing array of talent, it’s got some problems. This was the Siren’s second encounter with Ball of Fire, and she spotted the same flaws she did on the first go-round. But she still had a great time.

Ball of Fire was produced by Samuel Goldwyn in 1941, and was the last movie Billy Wilder made before moving on to directing. One of Wilder’s conditions for writing the screenplay was that he be permitted to observe every day of Howard Hawks’ shooting, and Hawks was happy to let Wilder hang around and learn. Wilder biographer Ed Sikov argues that Hawks’ fluid, understated, harmonious visuals were ultimately a stronger influence on Wilder the director than his acknowledged idol, Ernst Lubitsch. Hawks had nothing but praise for Wilder and Charles Brackett as screenwriters. (But when Hawks later claimed credit for pointing out that “hey, this is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs!”, an annoyed Wilder said that had occurred to him on his own, thankyouverymuch.)

Samuel Goldwyn felt aggrieved that his most valuable contract player, Gary Cooper, was having more success in movies made on loanout than in Goldwyn-produced pictures. So Goldwyn obtained Wilder and Charles Brackett on loan from Paramount and put them to work on a vehicle for Cooper. After Wilder rejected a number of old ideas, he hit on a tale he’d written years earlier, concerning a professor of linguistics who gets involved with a burlesque singer and has a run-in with the lady’s gangster associates. Wilder and Brackett set to work on the script that would become Ball of Fire, with Cooper as a professor whose initial interest in jazz singer Sugarpuss O’Shea is her facility with American slang.



Who besides Billy Wilder would look at Gary Cooper, the most laconic speaker in Hollywood, and think, “Linguistics!” Not only is that genius, it’s unparalleled mischievousness, and with Wilder, the two qualities are joined at the hip. Everybody seems to have accepted casting Cooper as a language maven as a self-evidently great idea, with the exception of Cooper himself, who was fine with playing a professor but got the shrieking blue fantods when he laid eyes on the dialogue. According to Sikov, Cooper described his polysyllabic lines as “gibberish” and declared, “I can’t memorize it if it doesn’t mean anything.” The actor made an appointment to complain to Samuel Goldwyn, the only person in Hollywood with more of a reputation for giving English a wide berth, and Sikov observes, “That must have been a real meeting of minds.” Give Goldwyn credit, however. When Cooper emerged from the producer’s office, he’d agreed to do Brackett and Wilder’s dialogue almost without alteration. “Two-dollar words, okay, but not ten-dollar words,” was Cooper’s final say.

Let’s swing here into the things about Ball of Fire that don’t work, so we can move on to the things that do. Counting down in reverse order...

4. Cooper had a point, in the sense that the movie, at 111 minutes, is too long and a bit sluggish. Hawks was aware of this and according to Todd McCarthy, he defended the picture by pointing out that “when you’ve got professors speaking lines, they can’t say ‘em like crime reporters.” Still, one hallmark of a wholly successful comedy is pace, and a screwball (which Ball of Fire is, fundamentally) is fast. The flawless timing of Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday is missing from Ball of Fire. Even Dana Andrews, playing a gangster who might conceivably be a fast talker, is a beat or two slower than he should be. (He’s so handsome, though, that the Siren doesn’t much care; she was drooling over him more than Cooper.)

3. Richard Haydn. The Siren admits to the personal nature of this quibble, but Haydn’s adenoidal speaking manner as Professor Oddly drives her up a wall. She’s convinced that Mel Blanc must have had this actor, in this role, in mind when he voiced Marvin the Martian. Each time Haydn speaks the Siren hears, “The Illudium Q36 Explosive Space Modulator! That creature has stolen the Space Modulator!”



2. Cooper doesn’t have much chemistry with Barbara Stanwyck. The Siren believes Bertram Potts is attracted to Sugarpuss, as with the fabulous line, “Make no mistake, I shall regret the absence of your keen mind. Unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body.” And the Siren believes that Sugarpuss is attracted to “Pottsie”; Stanwyck is so great she could make the Siren believe she’s got the hots for S.Z. Sakall. But when Stanwyck stands on some books and it’s time to get the yum-yum on with Coop, they ignite a Zippo lighter, not a bonfire.

1. The cinematography. And right now, the Siren’s readers are checking the credits, seeing Gregg Toland’s name, and lining up to feel her forehead and ask if she’s feeling herself today. Yes, complaining about Toland’s cinematography may seem the product of delirium or glaucoma. But this isn’t a question of skill or beauty--of course it’s beautiful, it’s Toland and Hawks--it’s a question of what suits the material. Ball of Fire’s pacing problems are exacerbated by a look that’s disconcertingly gloomy. The house where the professors are compiling their encyclopedia is lit like Xanadu, and instead of emphasizing the contrast between the eccentrics and what one of them calls “a mausoleum,” the visuals just muffle the action further. All the deep-focus shots keep pulling the Siren into the sets, when she wants to concentrate on the conga line.

Nits picked. On to the fun stuff. Again, in reverse order:

4. Oscar Homolka as Professor Gurkakoff, the scientist/mathematician. This may be another perception unique to the Siren, but he’s her favorite dwarf. The Siren once worked for mathematicians, and Homolka’s performance, combining a certain innocence with common sense and kindness with oddball humor, is a compendium of all the things she loved so much about those guys. Coop aside, he’s also the only professor with a little bit of sex appeal. (Like the Siren said, this may be a personal thing...)




3. The movie’s sweetness. Even Joe Lilac (Andrews) gets a signature color that's a nudging joke and some pretty funny moments, considering he’s described as the head of Murder Incorporated. Dan Duryea, one of the movies’ most reliable sadists, also goes easy as thug Pastrami. So do his partner Asthma (Ralph Peters) and the professors’ battle-axe housekeeper Kathleen Howard. But the real tell is the gentle, loving treatment of the Seven Dwarfs. Intellectuals get sent up a lot in American comedy; as stuffed-shirt targets, they--oh all right, we--are irresistible. The profs are babes in the Central Park woods, the first ones you’d pull out of a crowd for a cozy little game of three-card monte. But we like them that way. When Sugarpuss arrives, they’ve got all the equipment needed to join the conga line and overcome a bunch of gangsters. The eggheads do it, however, without changing their essential natures. Witness the lovely scene where, after Haydn has described his sexless, John-Ruskin-esque honeymoon with a watercolor-painting virgin named Genevieve, the professors serenade him with the old Victorian song of the same name. They sing without a trace of condescension or pity; they’re just performing an act of lovingkindness for an old friend.




2. The dialogue. Nobody, but nobody ever venerated and immortalized American slang like Austrian-born Billy Wilder, and this was his chance to shoot the works. “Root, zoot, and cute--and solid to boot!” “Brother, we’re going to have some hoy toy toy.” “Scrow! Scram! Scraw!” “Blitz it, mister, blitz it, will ya!” “Patch my pantywaist.” “A slight case of Andy Hardy.” And one the Siren admires for its Code-proof double entendre: “Shove in your clutch.” What a feast this movie is. And the Siren thinks that while Wilder and Brackett recorded authentic phrases, they also just made shit up, and did it so well you think it’s something you’ve been hearing all your life. Of the lines above, which ones would you have heard on the street in 1941? The Siren can’t tell you. Maybe all, maybe none. Example: when Stanwyck says someone is going to “throw me out on my tin.” The Siren’s heard a lot of euphemisms, and seen a lot of movies, but that’s a new one on her. (She’s adopting it forthwith, by the by.)

And now we come to the Siren’s number-one favorite thing about Ball of Fire, the place where the whole movie comes together.




1. Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss O’Shea. She was, incredibly, fifth choice, behind Carole Lombard, who disliked the character and the story, Jean Arthur, whom McCarthy says Hawks didn’t really want, Lucille Ball, and Ginger Rogers, who was offered the part and turned it down because, she told Goldwyn via her agent, she only wanted to play “ladies” from now on. (Goldwyn’s response: “You tell Ginger Rogers ladies stink up the place!”) That’s an impressive list, and any of them could done have a creditable job. But not like Stanwyck, oh no. She was as sexy in this movie as any in her career, especially in the early scenes with her nightclub costume swaying around those gams like spangled vertical blinds. The Brooklyn that never entirely left her low-pitched voice gets free rein in lines like “Say, who decorated this place, the mug that shot Lincoln?” and “This is the first time anyone moved in on my brain.” Her dawning love for Pottsie is so perfectly calibrated it’s like watching a thermostat turned up notch by notch. Her attack of late-movie remorse over having deceived Pottsie is delivered with one line, “a tramp,” spoken in a way that tells more than her tears seconds later. In a movie stacked with some of Hollywood’s greatest character actors, one gorgeous future leading man and one eternal legend, Stanwyck still carries the whole thing. She is, as Professor Bertram Potts might say, the complete conjugation.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

In Memoriam: Hideko Takamine, 1924-2010


The Siren confesses to disappointment that there has been little so far in the Western press about Hideko Takamine, the great Japanese actress who died Tuesday, age 86. Guardian? New York Times? Other big shots? Where y'all hidin'? Takamine was a supreme talent with a tremendous filmography. Once upon a time she was the Shirley Temple of Japan, a child actress with a huge following. She translated that into a long career as an adult actress, a feat that surely can't be much more common in Japan than it is here in the U.S. Even less common is a child actor who grows into an adult performer of such breadth and power.

Then again, the Siren doesn't have much room to talk. She first saw Takamine only about five years ago, at the Toronto Cinematheque. When she settled down in her seat to watch When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, not once had the Siren heard Takamine's name. Most of the actresses the Siren knows and loves were discovered in childhood, or adolescence at the latest. The experience of seeing a performance like Takamine's, in a film the adult Siren knew nothing about--beyond the fact that Girish, bless him, told her to see it--was a cymbal crash. It was a coup de foudre.

The film was directed by the man most associated with Takamine, Mikio Naruse, and shot in widescreen format that he used perfectly for the small-scale, agonizing tale of a Ginza bar hostess and her attempts to find a stable and dignified life. The camera is usually at a bit of a distance from Keiko, a.k.a. Mama-san (Takamine), so the frame can show you the dreariness of the bar where she works, the noisy banality of the more upscale establishment run by her former protege, the sterile luxury of the apartment she keeps to maintain appearances. Frequently you see Mama on one side of the screen, crowded and seemingly pushed there by her customers, the manager who collects her bills, the banker she loves, the family that drains her emotions and her finances.

It was the ideal introduction to Takamine's qualities. In most great women's pictures, the misfortunes of love, of just being a woman, descend like nightfall, and if the actress plays only the pain she will surely become a chore, and the film like seeing a kitten kicked around the room. Takamine's weariness is everywhere in this movie, and those stairs she climbs to the bar might as well be K2 in terms of the odds arrayed against her. But the primary impression of Takamine as Keiko is courage. This woman gathers herself like a battle-hardened soldier, the sole remaining goal being the next sunrise.

The Siren will give herself this: Once she encountered Hideko Takamine, she was hooked. She took out the schedule for the Naruse retrospective then running, and carefully marked off each film with Takamine, rushing downtown to see each one she could. Thus did the Siren encounter Hideko the Bus Conductress, made when Takamine was 17 years old, and a movie that showed off her lightness and charm in the beginning, and her ability to shade into sorrow toward the end. There was her turn as the lively but trapped daughter Kiyoko in Lightning, again showing that Takamine could time a comic-relief line in an essentially somber movie and keep everything perfectly, flawlessly in tune. Takamine was an exquisite beauty, but she could push that aside as writer Fumiko Hayashi in A Wanderer's Notebook, playing an occasionally unscrupulous woman with a grimly poor early life and little claim to beauty. Takamine showed Hayashi's plainness through manner and gesture, not makeup--a seething portrait of a writer constantly observing the way her own emotions look to others even as she tries to get them on paper.

The movie the Siren most wanted to see, Floating Clouds, was sold out--frustrating, but on the other hand, good for you, Toronto. She had to see it later, once more through Girish's kind offices, and discovered what is probably Takamine's greatest performance, a portrait of heedless, headstrong, doomed love that Davis, Crawford, Sullavan or Fontaine would have recognized as part of the sisterhood.

Often when the Siren writes about the death of a great actor, she weaves in her knowledge of the life. She doesn't believe that is off-limits. The image of a star is tied up with the screen. When an artist dies, a life ends along with the work, and the Siren never thinks it wrong, when possible, to pay tribute to them both.

The Siren has been told before, however, that such matters are irrelevant--that the fact that one actor was ornery, another gracious, one darkly violent, another longsuffering, has no bearing on the work. And that is also a legitimate view, one borne out by Takamine. The Siren can't tell you much about the woman's life; a long marriage to director Zenzo Matsuyama and a dignified, largely silent retirement argue a person of refinement and intelligence, but that is guesswork. Truly, it doesn't matter. Seek out Hideko Takamine, and you will love her as the Siren did, without needing a scrap of foreknowledge, and at first sight.

*****

An excellent piece on Yearning at Peter Nelhaus's place.

Passionate Naruse fan Keith Uhlich on A Wanderer's Notebook (he didn't like her in it, but the Siren did); Floating Clouds, Lightning and Yearning, and When a Woman Ascends the Stairs.

A brief, rare interview with Takamine, from 2008.

Many Hideko Takamine films, like those of Naruse himself, remain frustratingly difficult to obtain, and the Siren suggests any chance you get should be seized immediately. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is available via Criterion, as well in this BFI box set that includes Floating Clouds and Late Chrysanthemums (no Takamine in that one, but it is a masterpiece). Flowing is part of this British DVD set, which also includes Repast and Sound of the Mountain--again, no Takamine in the latter two, but very great movies. Twenty-Four Eyes, directed by Keisuke Kinoshita, is also available via Criterion; the Siren hasn't seen that one, and she intends to remedy that.

Meanwhile, Cladrite Radio points out in comments that TCM is running Ozu's Tokyo Chorus, featuring a childhood performance by Takamine, Sunday January 2 at midnight EST. The Siren plans to pounce.