Saturday, June 25, 2011

Ciao for Now




Auntie Mame:
Widdecomb, Guterman, Applewhite, Biberman and Black. You want to talk to Mr. Guterman? One moment, sir. I'll connect you. Widdecomb, Guterman, Applewhite, Biberman and Black. Oh, yes Mr. Biberman. You'd like to talk with Mr. Applewhite? Oh, yes, sir, he's in. I'll connect you. Widdecomb, Guterman, Applewhite, Bib-bib-bib-blib-bibman and Black? Oh yes, long distance, how are you? Oh. Mr Widdecomb? I have your San Francisco call for you. Yes, Mr. Biberman? Oh. Did I connect you to Mr. Guterman instead of Mr. Applewhite? I'm sorry Mr. Bibbicome, Bibbibibbib. [She pulls the jack out of the plug and shakes it] Oh Mr. Applewhite, what are you doing in that hole with Mr. Guterman? Yes Mr. Widdecomb? Oh, I'm sorry, sir. I'll try to reconnect you again with San Francisco. Let me see, Mr. Bibibib is in there talking to Mr. Bubbawhite. Where on earth is Mr. Applewhite? Oh, there you are Mr. Applewhite! [She starts to cross cords and desperately plug jacks into holes] Mr. Widdecomb, there's no such place as San Francisco. Please! [She lifts up her console and is horrified to see that it's glowing] Mr. Bibibib? Mr. Widdecomb?


The Siren has chosen the above passage from Auntie Mame for three reasons.

First, she is about to go off-line, big time. For a little more than two weeks, the Internet will, for the most part, have to spin on its axis without her. Vadim Rizov will tweet his last Glenn Beck live-tweet--unless he decides vacations are for lowering blood pressure, not raising it. Victoria, Sian and Annie will waft scented samples at the Siren in vain. Glenn Kenny’s epic Barry Lyndon aspect-ratio thread will draw more comments, but not the Siren’s. Simon Abrams and Ryan Kelly will brunch without her. Kim Morgan will tumble at her beautiful new tumblr, but the Siren shall not see it until she returns the week of July 11.

Second, and saddest, for the Siren, the Web will be full of tributes to the late, deeply lamented Peter Falk, and hers will not be one of them, not until she returns, at the soonest. Maybe not even then. When John Mortimer, creator of the Siren’s beloved Rumpole, passed away, Lance Mannion told the Siren that he’d write a tribute when his heart could take the strain. Lance still hasn’t done it. The Siren feels the same way about Columbo.

Hence, Auntie Mame. Is there any stress, strain or sadness that Auntie Mame can’t help?

But, third and final, being the ultimate New Yorker in many ways, Auntie Mame is also there to share our joys. And this morning, she would be very proud of us. The Siren is sure of that.

See y’all in about two weeks. Play nice.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Nomadic Existence: Madam Satan (1930)



From my Retro-Fit column at Nomad Wide Screen, a look at Cecil B. DeMille's Madam Satan. It's one of those pre-Code movies that the Warner Archive people have recently made available, and it's getting some small buzz on Twitter and elsewhere due to its sheer, well, craziness.

Be warned, however, that said craziness takes a while (about an hour) to manifest. First you must endure the rather pallid Kay Johnson, who plays Angela, moping around about husband Bob's (Reginald Denny) infidelity, and you must accept Roland Young's playing a randy sidekick, before it's at long last time for everyone to put on some Adrian costumes and start partying on an insanely large zeppelin.

The Siren wonders if she could have worked harder to make that into a metaphor for life...aren't we all, in some sense, waiting to party on a zeppelin? No? Maybe it's just the Siren.

Anyway, until that point, the main reason to watch is a certain singer and actress who once had some craziness with the Marx Brothers and found herself played by Susan Hayward in a 1950s up-from-alcohol biopic. Read on:


But then, thank goodness, we shift to the apartment of Bob’s bit on the side, Trixie, played by Lillian Roth. For later generations, Roth’s claim to fame would be writing the first major recovery memoir, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, about how she plummeted into alcoholism and degradation and reclaimed her life through Alcoholics Anonymous. By the time Roth published it, in 1953, her movie career was so long over it was a dim memory for most, and Madam Satan shows how big a shame that was. Roth could dance, she could sing and she was sexy beyond belief. When she flings off her rumpled satin robe and twitches her pelvis to the “Low Down” number, the vaudeville energy of this rather plump, frowsy jazz baby ignites the entire movie. Even the other actors catch fire around her, from the accompanist calling, “Put some pepper in it, Papa wants to sneeze!” to Roland Young snapping, “I wouldn’t marry you to keep warm on an iceberg.”

At long last, we’re on the zeppelin, and things start to cook. It’s a ravishing bunch of sets, like the unholy offspring of Metropolis and The Hollywood Revue of 1929 — big ramps and shiny Bakelite staircases angling up and down. People mill about in a series of costumes as marvelously tasteless as anything MGM ever did. Particularly worth waiting for are the woman whose symbolic “fish” costume has her attached to a toy fisherman, and another dressed as “the call of the wild,” complete with a stuffed elephant and leopard and a yard-wide white wool wig.

And there’s that lightning/electricity dance number, which begins and ends without explanation of any kind. One minute the guests are hanging around the zeppelin whooping it up, the next, a large group of people are dancing around an electrified pseudo-god and you’re agog at the costumes that crawl right up the chorus girls’ backsides — or I was, anyway — and then, just as abruptly, it’s back to the arriving guests.

Johnson acquits herself better in the second half, vamping her husband in a “flames of hell” costume and affecting a passable French accent: “Who wants to go to hell weeth Madam Satan?” Still, a brief moment where Johnson has a sort of dance-off with Roth is a mistake — tart or no tart, Roth wipes the floor with her. Johnson and Denny have a rather dull tryst and then, as if sensing this won’t suffice in terms of dramatic action, DeMille unmoors the zeppelin and everyone has to parachute off. He has great fun shooting the panicked guests and their landings in various venues in and around the Central Park reservoir — at times it’s so close to a rescue sequence in The Towering Inferno that I wondered if Irwin Allen had ever seen Madam Satan.

Monday, June 13, 2011

So Much for the Sleeve-Tuggers: The Phantom of the Opera (1943)


The Hard Way, below, got the Siren to thinking about the character of the ambitious heroine’s sweetheart--the one who keeps tugging at her spangled sleeve and reminding her that after all, she’s a woman, and he’s a man, and sure, she’s got the adulation of thousands but is that gonna keep her warm at night?

At least one perfectly logical answer being, "Hell yes, assuming I make some decent investments, it will keep me warm and then some, you boob."

But that’s so rarely the answer a Hollywood heroine gives, which is amusing, considering it’s the real-life answer a lot of big female players in that town give every day. Not in movies. Not in Cover Girl, not in The Red Shoes, not in A Star Is Born, not Lana Turner or Hedy Lamarr in Ziegfeld Girl, not Woman of the Year, not Funny Face, not even poor Anne Hathaway when she’s handed fashion-magazine stardom in 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada, oh no, she still wants that drippy sous-chef. Mind you, the Siren loves all those movies; yes, even The Devil Wears Prada. It’s just a persistent trope, that’s all.

But the Siren bethought herself also of the 1943 Phantom of the Opera.

All right, all right, you're probably tired of The Phantom of the Opera, but the Siren has enduring affection for this version, more so than the admittedly greater 1925 silent with Lon Chaney. The 1943 version is in Technicolor, and the Siren never gets tired of Technicolor. The script has some wit and bite to it, which the Siren attributes to screenwriter Samuel Hoffenstein, who’s a side obsession of hers. Claude Rains gets a real character with a detailed background and motivations. And Rains, fabulous actor that he was, knew you couldn’t play this 19th century melodrama in any way other than all-out. He chomps at the scenery with such gusto that the Siren imagines him licking his lips and downing a bromo-seltzer between takes.

In addition to all that, there's the fadeout.

Christine, the heroine, is played by Susanna Foster, a pretty woman and a good singer, and she gets two suitors, Anatole (Nelson Eddy, quite animated and appealing here) and Raoul (Mercury Theater veteran Edgar Barrier). So the action’s over, Christine has been rescued from the lower depths of the Gaumont Opéra (the Siren’s favorite building in Paris, not that you asked). Which sleeve-tugger will she choose?

You can watch below; the part that the Siren is talking about begins around the 7:15 mark. The Siren hopes it brightens your Monday as much as it does hers.




Update: Beloved Siren commenter MrsHenryWindleVale, who knows from sleeve-tuggers, points to Harvey Korman's perfect rendition of the type in the "Torchy Song" skit from the old Carol Burnett Show. No one who didn't love Joan Crawford could do Joan this well, is what I say: "All I have are these miserable scrapbooks, filled with nothing but thousands of articles telling me how wonderful I am."

Embedding is disabled, alas, but part one is here. Part two is here.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Nomadic Existence: Lew Ayres


An excerpt from the Siren's latest Retro-Fit column at Nomad Wide Screen, concerning the talented but star-crossed actor Lew Ayres.


One thing that sets All Quiet on the Western Front apart is its use of young actors to play young soldiers, a realistic touch that has eluded even latter-day filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, who stuffed Saving Private Ryan with stars who would never again see 30 (or, in Tom Hanks’ case, even 40). Spielberg, in fact, cited All Quiet as an influence on Private Ryan, which has the odd effect of making the 1930 movie seem far more daring and uncompromising than his. Spielberg ends on a weeping old soldier and a waving American flag; Lewis Milestone ends on a row of teenagers marching into a ghostly graveyard.

[snip]

Ayres had made just two movies before he worked with Milestone, and it can’t be denied that his lack of experience shows in a few scenes. But the vast majority of his performance hits the audience with raw, unmediated power. Ayres seems no more able to protect himself from the emotions his role demands than his character, Paul, can protect himself from the horrors of war. In scenes like the young soldiers’ first patrol, or his unforgettable night in a trench with a dying French soldier, Ayres recoils from events like an abused child — which is, in the end, what Paul is. Almost as horrifying as the battle sequences are scenes like the one in which the soldiers rush around their fetid quarters trying to kill rats. Ayres’ agonized face tells you, as no dialogue could, that back home he would never have been so brutal even to a rat, and now he must be even more brutal to the men on the other side of the field.

Ayres followed the triumph of All Quiet with a gangster film, Archie Mayo’s 1931 Doorway to Hell, where he plays a Michael Corleone-like godfather. Standard wisdom on this surprisingly good movie is that Ayres had no business playing a criminal mastermind, and should have swapped roles with James Cagney, who played his underling. It’s true that Ayres, while a fine and sensitive actor, singularly lacked any ability to portray physical menace. (Leonardo di Caprio has the same problem.)  But Doorway to Hell is the story of how Louis Ricarno (Ayres) tries to leave his violent life and cannot, and that must be what possessed Warner Brothers to borrow Ayres for the part. And Ayres does beautifully with scenes such as the one where he goes to a plastic surgeon to ask for help in reconstructing his little brother’s shattered face after an auto accident. Where should he find the boy, asks the doctor — and Ayres tells him, with a look his All Quiet character would have recognized, to go down to the undertaker’s.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Book Review at Barron's Magazine


A brief excerpt from the Siren's brief review of David Thomson's The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, at Barron's Magazine this week.


The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, now in its fifth edition, is more accurately a long, melancholy love story: Boy (author David Thomson) meets movies, gets hitched to movies, spends rest of life veering between passion and petulance, always craving reassurance that his love object is worthy of the care he's lavished on it...The entries that pulse with life are the ones written in the first flush of love and discovery, such as those on Howard Hawks, Luis Buñuel and Cary Grant, or those updated with rekindled ardor, like the one on director Max Ophüls. There are living filmmakers who earn Thomson's admiration, but the author brings his greatest passion to the cinema of the past.


It is, in fact, better to be a dead person in The New Biographical Dictionary, in which even the most treasured working directors can disappoint—such as Baz Luhrmann, wildly overpraised in the past but here found guilty of Australia, a movie journey that even Thomson refuses to make...Actresses, for their part, dismay him by turning 30 or passing 40. At times, Thomson seems to mourn their lost beauty more than they do themselves. Even their efforts to stay in shape can displease him, as he describes how Jodie Foster sometimes looks "sick from exercise," or says young Leslie Caron had "the face of someone who has been doing exercises: tight, preoccupied and dull."



The Siren's own favorite review of this latest edition came from Dan Callahan, at Slant Magazine.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Anecdote of the Week: "That's Just Not an Orgasm."


When paraphrasing from memory the immortal words of movie composer Dimitri Tiomkin, below, the Siren tried to link to an old post about this anecdote that she did for Nathaniel R. Alas, it has disappeared. Well, this cannot be allowed to stand. The story, in its full glory, must be available somewhere on the Internet for all to…savor, if that is the word we want here.

From Otto Friedrich's forever fabulous City of Nets, the story of Tiomkin, David O. Selznick, and the orgasm music.


David Selznick summoned Tiomkin to his studio one day and asked him to become the seventh composer to try writing the music for Duel in the Sun (1947). He wanted, he said, eleven main themes: a Spanish theme, a ranch theme, a love theme, an orgasm theme--

"Orgasm?" Tiomkin said. "How do you score an orgasm?"

"Try," said Selznick. "I want a really good shtump."

Tiomkin labored for weeks on his eleven themes, then assembled an orchestra and played them for Selznick. Selznick was pleased. Tiomkin labored for weeks more to produce a complete score. It included forty-one drummers and a chorus of one hundred. Selznick kept worrying. He asked Tiomkin to whistle the love theme for him. Tiomkin whistled.

"Fine, fine," said Selznick. "Now the orgasm theme."

Tiomkin whistled. Selznick shook his head somberly.

"That isn't it," said Selznick. "That's just not an orgasm."

Tiomkin went away and worked some more. He combined the sighings of cellos and a brassy stirring of trombones, all in the rhythm of what he later described as a handsaw cutting through wood. Once again, he was summoned to Selznick's studio, once again the orchestra assembled…Everything seemed to go splendidly until the orgasm theme, which Selznick wanted to have repeated, and then repeated again.

"You're going to hate me for this, but it won't do," he finally said to Tiomkin. "It's too beautiful."

"Mr. Selznick, what is troubling you?" Tiomkin protested. "What don't you like about it?"

"I like it, but it isn't orgasm music," said Selznick. "It's not shtump. It's not the way I fuck."

"Mr. Selznick, you fuck your way, I fuck my way," cried Tiomkin. "To me, that is fucking music."


*****

The Block Museum at Northwestern University has posted podcasts of the two panels on which the Siren appeared last month. The first, Past Perfect—Critical Histories, Seminal Touchstones, and Rediscoveries, was moderated by Nick Davis and included Jonathan Rosenbaum, Fred Camper, Dave Kehr and Gabe Klinger. It is available here.

The second panel, Critical Voices: Style, Substance, and Scope—The Art of Film Writing, was moderated by Hank Sartin and included Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Wesley Morris, Scott Foundas, and Jonathan Rosenbaum. It is available here.

The Siren will just go ahead and said it: Nobody, print or online, writes about the art of acting with more insight, detail and profound respect than Sheila O'Malley. To prove the point, please treat yourself to her post about a single scene in Steve McQueen's Hunger.




Finally, the National Film Preservation Foundation is bringing out a box set on September 27, Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938. This is wonderful news for us all, especially Marilyn and Greg, because the 3-DVD set with book includes The Sergeant and The Better Man, saved through our very first For the Love of Film Blogathon, and 38 other early films about the West. We will all be watching for it.

Oops, one more very important note: TCM's Star of the Month is our very own beloved Jean Simmons. Among the rarities, tonight (tomorrow morning) at 2:15 am EDT, Uncle Silas, which the Siren has always wanted to see as she's crazy about that crazy J. Sheridan Le Fanu.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Department of Crabby Dissent: Richard Schickel


For someone who professes to disdain Internet writers, Richard Schickel is one hell of an effective troll.

The last time the Siren roused herself to notice Schickel, he was calling bloggers "idiots" and saying no one read us except our mothers and distant cousins. This caused the Siren to weep hot tears that smudged her mascara, until someone reminded her that while her patient readers have disagreed with her on matters such as late Anthony Mann and whether or not Elizabeth Taylor was a good actress, no one, not even a cousin, has ever called her an idiot.

So here was the Siren reorganizing her lingerie, happily forgetting the existence of Schickel aside from his hilarious Twitter doppelganger, when her friend the fine and gentlemanly Tom Shone of Taking Barack to the Movies reminded her.

Tom, you see, has some big fat problems with Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, which he details in a very funny and characteristically well-written review right here. But then Tom had to go and quote Schickel's review, luring an unsuspecting Siren with a famous publicity shot of luscious Veronica Lake. And the Siren, because she never learns, clicked through to Schickel's full post.

Now the Siren hasn't yet seen Tree of Life, and if she holds true to her usual pattern with new releases she should be catching up with the latest Malick sometime in the winter of 2012-13. She comforts herself that if Malick took four years to edit his latest movie, surely he would not begrudge her taking a couple of years to watch it. But here's the quote.


Movies, I believe, are an essentially worldly medium, playful and romantic, particularly in America, where, on the whole our best directors have stated whatever serious intentions they may harbor as ignorable asides. There are other ways of making movies, naturally, and there’s always a small audience available for these noble strivings—and good for them, I guess. But I’m with Preston Sturges, who gave this immortal line to Veronica Lake in “Sullivan’s Travels”: “There’s nothing like a deep-dish movie to drive you out in the open."


This is, simply put, a lot of hooey. So much so that the Siren doesn't believe Schickel, a man with a deep knowledge of Hollywood history and the CV to prove it, can possibly believe this stuff himself, which is why she called him a troll in the first paragraph. Troll is not a word that the Siren trots out for just any old curmudgeon. But she uses it here, because beating Terrence Malick about the head with Preston Sturges is like using the Marx Brothers to critique Samuel Fuller.

Where, the Siren asks you, does the "playful and romantic" notion leave the blackest of film noir? Force of Evil, Scarlet Street, Sweet Smell of Success, they're romantic? Social dramas like Heroes for Sale and The Crowd and Give Us This Day, anti-war masterpieces like The Eagle and the Hawk and Attack! and All Quiet on the Western Front, tragedies like The Old Maid and Make Way for Tomorrow--they're playful and/or their serious intentions are ignorable asides? It's okay for Michael Powell and Albert Lewin and William Dieterle and Joseph Mankiewicz and Victor Fleming to film their notion of the afterlife, but only because they slipped in some sex and some jokes to keep Richard Schickel from nodding off? Hey, John Ford is serious, but playful--oh wait, but Schickel once used a review of Scott Eyman's splendid Ford biography to unload about how Ford's use of comic relief gave him a big pain in the fundament. Schickel's last book but one was about Clint Eastwood, and if he wants to tell the Siren what's so playful and romantic about Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River, and how to ignore any serious intentions, she's all ears.

The Siren admits that Schickel put himself more firmly than ever on her bad side by implicitly dismissing Days of Heaven. The Siren loves Days of Heaven with a deep purple passion, loves it even more than Badlands, considers it a major way station on her road to appreciating what Dan Kois might call "vegetable movies." "Narratively empty and emotionally unengaging"--Days of Heaven is Wings of the Dove, for crying out loud. If you can't find emotion and narrative content, not to mention romance and eroticism, in Richard Gere's hand closing wordlessly over Brooke Adams' to summon her out of her husband's bed, and the wineglass sinking to the bottom of the river, then the Siren must resort to Dimitri Tiomkin's line to David O. Selznick--you fuck in your way, and I'll fuck in mine.

Schickel thinks post-Badlands Malick is tiresome and bombastic, and in the words of the great philosopher Stuart Smalley, "that's OK." But for Schickel to extrapolate from what he sees as Malick's overreaching, that the ideal way to go after big notions of fate and society and the silence of God or whatever is to hide them, like whoever decided to put zucchini in breakfast muffins, is silly. Yeah, tell it to Fritz Lang. Sometimes the filmmakers beloved by the Siren smuggle their seriousness, as Scorsese put it, and sometimes they hit you with it like a beanball. It's a big, beautiful world of cinema out there. There's room for Sullivan's Travels, and there's room for Terrence Malick.

Nomadic Existence: The Cobweb (1955)



The Siren posts another excerpt from another Retro-Fit column at Nomad Wide Screen, this one on Vincente Minnelli's mad, mad, mad, mad Cobweb, with a cast that includes another eternal favorite around these parts, Oscar Levant.


The Cobweb has all of Minnelli’s dazzling acuity of vision, with every bit of the lush color and striking compositions you find in something like Gigi. It has good performances, with standout work from John Kerr, Oscar Levant, Susan Strasberg, Charles Boyer, Lillian Gish and, above all, Gloria Grahame. What it doesn’t have is a huge emotional hook. The patients at Castlehouse, the aptly named mansion where wealthy people go for what they used to call “rest cures,” just don’t seem that sick. Sure, Sue (Strasberg) is agoraphobic, Mr. Capp (Levant) is depressed and mother-fixated, and Steven (Kerr) is depressed and father-fixated, but they and the other patients have no problem sitting down in the library and conducting a meeting according to proper parliamentary procedure. They help each other, they take turns, they go back to their rooms and have little parties with a phonograph playing and everybody laughing. One old woman can even handle her own wheelchair.



The staff, on the other hand, can’t even order a set of drapes without causing a chain of catastrophes.

[snip]

And of course, there is Oscar Levant, in his last film role, singing “Mother” while sprawling in a hydrotherapy bath and waiting for his sedatives to take effect. When he looks at the nurse and tells her, “you remind me of my mother,” the line is so funny, and so sinister, that the audience may have a fleeting fear that the movie is going to go very Hitchcock. It doesn’t, of course; the next morning, it’s back to the library and fabric selection.



The fact that the plot hinges on those drapes has come in for a lot of head-scratching over the years. I wonder, do they show this one in interior design class at a place like the Fashion Institute of Technology? They should, they should. Drapes — good lord, did even Cecil Beaton get this worked up over window coverings? Wouldn’t furniture be, well, weightier? The battiness of this MacGuffin has its own internal logic, though. The Cobweb is a movie about a clinic staffed by people who are (with the exception of Lauren Bacall’s too-good-to-be-true art therapist) way, way too self-absorbed, so much so that paisley versus floral versus silkscreen becomes an existential life crisis. Thus does the movie slyly suggest that the patients are picking up on the staff’s narcissism, and not the other way around.



The Cobweb’s original running time was two and a half hours, and producer John Houseman convinced Minnelli to cut it down. Despite the fact that The Cobweb is in no way boring, that was probably a good choice; at its present length, the film’s beauty and roiling, neurotic cast retain a headlong charm. Toward the end, Widmark’s character tries to make the case that the fuss about the drapes was a metaphor for all the human passions unleashed, but he convinces no one. Levant, who spent a lifetime in and out of psychiatric treatment, came much closer to the heart of the matter in a quip he made on set. Director and actor quarreled a lot during the shoot, and Levant muttered to the assistant producer after one spat with Minnelli, “Who’s crazy, anyway — him or me?”


From the keenly observant Arthur S. over at This Pig's Alley, a more in-depth look at The Cobweb, with beautiful screen caps.