Tuesday, November 29, 2011

For the Love of Film: Story Conference (Your Vote Counts)

Together with her dauntless blogathon partner, Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films, the Siren has been discussing plans for the next film-preservation fundraiser, For the Love of Film III: Breaking Dawn.

No? For the Love of Film III: Dream Warriors?

How about Abbott and Costello Meet For the Love of Film?

Geez, tough crowd. All right, why don't YOU come up with something?

No, really, why don't you? You see, Marilyn and the Siren decided to throw the key question at our patient readers, as we determine who should be the recipient of our 2012 largess. We've narrowed the possibilities down to two.

Bright Idea No. 1 would be our old friend the National Film Preservation Foundation, through whom we were able to save two silent films and see those two films become part of a great DVD set, Treasures 5: The West.

Bright Idea No. 2 is something different. One problem faced by film preservationists is the difficulty of finding sufficient numbers of trained people to do this sort of highly skilled, time-consuming and very demanding work. Accordingly, our second option is to have the blogathon funding for 2012 go to fund a scholarship for some Bright Young Thing who wants to study moving-image archiving.

So, all opinions are welcome. As you consider where to put your film-preservation support in the coming year, which Bright Idea is more likely to catch your fancy, and your dollars?

The Siren and Marilyn await your opinions.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thanksgiving with Loretta, Bing and the Gang

Fall is by far the Siren's favorite season. As soon as the temperature drops, her energy goes into overdrive and her family is confronted by the spectacle of the Siren, once so listless in the heat of the summer, standing in front of the pantry proclaiming, "I know! Let's alphabetize the spice rack!" From October to December is the best part of the year, as far as the Siren is concerned.

And Thanksgiving is the Siren's favorite holiday, elegant in its simplicity, devoid of anxieties like presents and whether you should put colored or white lights on the Christmas tree--although, for the record, the correct answer is colored. Anyway. Thanksgiving. You get together with people you love, and you eat. A lot. And the prospect of this happy event always makes the Siren philosophical. She walks around the house pulling unwatched DVDs off the shelf and instead of thinking, "Oh criminy, I haven't seen anything," she thinks, "Oh criminy, I haven't seen anything. Isn't that marvelous? Look at all these unwatched entries in the filmography of Hedy Lamarr, just out there waiting for me. Hey Mom! Whatcha doing? Let's watch Experiment Perilous!"

So the Siren thinks back over this year's moviegoing and reflects that in her view, a certain generosity of spirit is by far the most rewarding way to approach film. There will always be names in the credits that make the Siren's heart tingle with joy, and others that cause her to mutter something along the lines of, "All right, Gina Lollobrigida, get it right this time." The great philosopher Wile E. Coyote once said, "Even a genius can have an off day." The flip side of that is, as another great philosopher once said, "Every movie is another chance." Maybe the Siren has seen twenty movies in which Buddy Ebsen irritated the ever-loving hell out of her. (Technically, that's more like ten movies, but hear a Siren out.) Who's to say that number twenty-one won't be the time when she finally says, "Well played, Jed Clampett!"

It could happen. In fact, it has happened. Well, not with Buddy Ebsen, but with others. Three years ago the Siren, in a puckish spirit, put up a list of actors who usually fail to charm her. But now that the Siren has alphabetized her spice rack and rearranged her scarf drawer and she is feeling all cozy and right-with-the-world-ish, she finds herself moved to recall that making a film is incredibly goddamn difficult. It is, and always has been, miraculous that great ones get made. It is miraculous that good ones get made. The Siren is thankful for that, and thankful to those who do good work, even in mediocre films.

The spirit of Thanksgiving, says the Siren, is the spirit of being happy with what you've got. Turkeys are nonrefundable. And not all of those actors served up turkey every time, far from it. So, in celebration of the Siren's favorite holiday, she offers an amended list of amends to 11 of the 20 actors she once griped about. Ebsen, Red Skelton, Dan Dailey, David Wayne, Dolores Del Rio, Betty Hutton, Helen Hayes, Maureen O'Sullivan, Ruby Keeler, even (though this last is a faint, forlorn hope) Sonja Henie, who knows--the Siren hasn't seen their every movie, and better things may await.

1. Bing Crosby. Kim Morgan's wonderful post on him, and The Futurist's enthusiasm for the Road movies, make the Siren realize she was too way hard on Der Bingle. He was a lot, lot more than Father O'Malley. The Road movies are, in fact, some kind of genius, at times as weirdly surreal and funny in their way as the Marx Brothers, if bereft of the Marxes' full-on insanity. And while Bob Hope is most of what the Siren loves about the Road movies, they don't work without the very Bing Crosby "phoniness" that the Siren was bellyaching about. Furthermore, the Siren loves White Christmas.

2. Pat O'Brien. The Siren liked him a lot in several things she didn't mention, including Bombshell and Virtue.

3. Robert Taylor. Rewatched bits of Party Girl, Undercurrent and High Wall; saw him in Conspirator. Asexual Taylor was not, at least not at his best, and as the man also said, it's by our best work that we all hope to be judged.

4. Richard Conte. The Siren was thinking mostly of I'll Cry Tomorrow and Whirlpool when she listed him, although she did acknowledge his terrifying work in The Big Combo. But Conte was also good in New York Confidential and marvelous in The Godfather. Not a particularly versatile actor, but since when did that matter to the Siren, if the performances within the range were good?

5. Ronald Reagan. The Siren should have emphasized how very much she does like him in Dark Victory and King's Row.

6. Glenn Ford. Made a great villain in 3:10 to Yuma. Should have played more heavies, thinks the Siren.

7. Peter Lawford. The Siren loves the way Cluny Brown plays with his layabout image, and gets immense pleasure from his final line in Easter Parade: "Nadine, get out all the hounds. We're going for a walk."

8. Jeanette Macdonald. She really is swell in those Lubitsch musicals.

9. Gina Lollobrigida. Love her in Come September, one of those Mad Men-era confections that the Siren can't resist.

10. June Allyson. Yes, the Siren said JUNE ALLYSON, and it's Trish's fault. Trish reminded the Siren about Executive Suite. All right, the Siren isn't crazy about Allyson in Executive Suite, but she does not ruin the movie. And the movie is good. And the Siren is still trying to see The Shrike.

11. Last, but most certainly not least, the woman who inspired this entire post: Loretta Young. Gretchen, the Siren Done You Wrong. First off, was any other actress so utterly hobbled by the advent of the Production Code? There's Young, keeping unwed house for Spencer Tracy's ghastly character in Man's Castle, and committing adultery with no less a wolf than Warren William in Employees' Entrance. And she's fresh and natural and unaffected and sexy and when she's on screen you are perfectly happy to have her stick around as long she wants. Next thing you know, it's 1937 and she's in Cafe Metropole and what the Siren mostly thinks about Young in that movie is "Siddown, you're blocking my view of Tyrone Power." Still, even Loretta's later career was unfairly treated by the Siren. Cause for Alarm! is an extremely tidy, suspenseful domestic noir and Young's later buttoned-up, tightly controlled manner works perfectly for the suburban character. As indeed it does in The Stranger. The Siren caught Young last year in Wife, Husband and Friend which was fun--it won't stir the lumps out of your gravy or anything, but a very diverting comedy. And, as the Siren remarked at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings, if the Siren absolutely has to watch a nun movie, Come to the Stable is pretty cute. Hand on heart, the Siren is going to be much kinder about Young in the future.

Wait a minute…"Hey Mom! Whatcha doin'? Do you realize neither one of us has ever seen Zoo in Budapest?"

Happy Thanksgiving. May all your turkey be on the table, and not on the screen.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Gone to Earth: A Conversation With Tony Dayoub

From Nomad Widescreen, an excerpt of my conversation with the very fine writer and critic Tony Dayoub of Cinema Viewfinder, about the sublime Powell/Pressburger movie Gone to Earth, with Jennifer Jones. (This demonstrates also that the Siren was still indulging her classics habit in the midst of the New York Film Festival.) You can read more of the Siren and Tony and Gone to Earth at his place, in a post that covers some additional excerpts. More about Nomad at the end of the post.

Farran Smith Nehme (FSN): In September, after a long day of screenings at the New York Film Festival, Tony Dayoub and I decided to trek downtown to catch a one-shot showing of a 1950 film neither one of us had ever seen. It was Gone to Earth, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s ill-fated adaptation of a Mary Webb novel. Film critic and programmer Miriam Bale was screening a rare 35-millimeter print at the 92nd Street Y Tribeca, and Tony and I were flabbergasted to discover a film we both consider a masterpiece.

The likely reason for Gone to Earth’s rarity, compared with the many well-known and frequently revived Powell-Pressburger classics, is that it has a troubled history. Powell preferred developing his own stories over adapting those of others, and he also found the romantic 1917 Webb novel faintly ridiculous, remarking that it was a town-dweller’s overheated view of country folk. But producer Alexander Korda believed the book was a sounder commercial bet than an original screenplay, and Powell’s objections were brushed aside. The movie stars Jennifer Jones as Hazel Woodus, a half-wild, half-gypsy girl who roams the Shropshire countryside with her pet fox, and is loved chastely by a Baptist minister (Cyril Cusack), and carnally by a ruthless squire (David Farrar). She marries the reverend, and he refrains from consummating the union, in the belief that Hazel’s innocence shouldn’t be profaned. But the squire has no such scruples, and he continues to pursue Hazel, even as it remains clear throughout that she belongs not to men but to the earth of the title.

Jones had married the producer, David O. Selznick, just before shooting started. Powell wrote about the making of Gone to Earth in volume two of his autobiography, Million Dollar Movie; he was assaulted with a barrage of the trademark Selznick memos, which the director cheerfully ignored and left to “accumulate in some pigeonhole.” (Pressburger read the memos, “then went back to reading Time and Life.”) Selznick had been reasonably cooperative during filming, just showing up from time to time to check on Jones and take her on weekend jaunts. But when Powell and Pressburger screened the film for him, Selznick popped a Benzedrine and said, “I’m not satisfied with your cut, boys. I’m going to take this picture over.” Powell explained that the Archers, his production company, owned the rights. Selznick listened politely and the parties wound up in court, where Selznick lost that round.

But Gone to Earth didn’t do well upon release, and Selznick had obtained the North American rights. He reshot a third of the footage with Rouben Mamoulian at the helm, slashed away another half-hour, and re-released it in 1952 with the groanworthy title of The Wild Heart. That version, hopelessly marred by all accounts except possibly Selznick’s, flopped, too. There is a Region 2 UK DVD available of the original Gone to Earth, but it has never been available on Region 1 in the US. You may consider this discussion as a plea from Tony and me for someone to give Gone to Earth the full US restoration and DVD release that it deserves.

One thing that goes to show how much of Selznick’s savvy had disappeared by 1952 is that Gone to Earth contains one of Jones’ best performances, possibly her very best. She was coached in the regional accent; it’s probably impossible for an American to judge how accurate the results are, although Powell thought she sounded fine. You can hear inconsistencies and note the fact that Jones’ accent isn’t much like that of Esmond Knight as her father. But Hazel isn’t an ordinary girl; when she first appears she’s dressed half in rags, searching for her fox, and the camera finds her among the hills as though she just emerged from a tree like a figure of mythology. Her strange voice is completely in keeping with her strange nature, and her half-pagan belief in demons, spells and ghostly voices.

Tony Dayoub (TD): It’s ironic that Selznick commits the same crime as the film’s male protagonists. Like them, Selznick, who saw enough spirit in Jones to make her his wife and muse, tries to stifle her rough luminescence, reworking Gone to Earth into his subpar version. Much of the charm of Jones’s performance in the Powell version is reportedly (because I’ve never seen it) lost in Selznick’s The Wild Heart. Why Selznick was unhappy with her portrayal of Hazel is a mystery. Her performance is far superior in Gone to Earth than are her grating histrionics as the similarly wild Pearl in Selznick’s much better known Duel in the Sun (1946). I chalk up his Svengali-like interference to the fact that Selznick’s affair with Jones was in full swing by 1945, with the two marrying a year prior to the UK release of Gone to Earth.

In any case, Hazel’s central dilemma, the subjugation of her wild, feminine spirit by two men — the roguish squire Reddin and Marston, the well intentioned minister — is very reminiscent of ballerina Vicky Page’s inner conflict in Powell and Pressburger’s more famous The Red Shoes. In that film, the talented Page is forced into a triangle where she must choose between sacrificing her career for her composer husband or leaving him behind to continue her rise to stardom under the direction of the dictatorial director of her dance company. Powell and Pressburger also explore similar themes in Black Narcissus, where a group of nuns living in a convent in the Himalayas start succumbing to the lusty temptations offered by their natural surroundings. As it was with the female protagonists of both of these previous films, Hazel’s state of mind is often reflected in the increasingly expressionistic lighting by Christopher Challis (whose camera operator in this film, Freddie Francis, would become a renowned cinematographer in his own right). As Hazel falls prey to the seductive advances of Reddin, who whisks her away to his cluttered, castle-like retreat, the night sky turns a lurid shade of orange, aflame with erotic intentions. This until the milquetoast Reverend Marston summons enough gall to come rescue her from the arrogant Reddin. (At which point Reddin’s servant — played by the reliably comic supporting player Hugh Griffith — enters his master’s drawing room to needle him, “Will there be three for dinner or one?”)

Two more brief excerpts, because Tony and the Siren really did flip for this film, big time:

TD: Powell and Pressburger’s films almost feel like musical compositions with certain audio cues indicating the start of a new movement. This one launches the dreamlike chapter I discussed earlier. But there are other such cues that indicate a supernatural undercurrent. Two immediately come to mind that bookend the film. We discussed the first one soon after watching Gone to Earth – a “phantom” hunting call I think you called it – in which we hear a group of unseen hunters utter the film’s title, an expression which alerts others that their quarry (in this case, Hazel’s Foxy) has hidden itself in a foxhole.

A dreadful symmetry occurs when we hear the call again in the film’s finale, this time referring to a fatal accident that befalls one of the characters. Though there are hunters present, this is definitely not a call coming from them. If not from them, then who is it from?...I’d like to think it’s the pagan spirits that Hazel and her mother believed in. Though I don’t think it’s as clear onscreen, Webb’s novel depicts a bewildered Hazel fleeing from Squire Reddin and his hunting partners, believing they are mystical huntsmen of Welsh lore. Though Hazel’s pet, Foxy, manages to evade Reddin in Gone to Earth’s opening scenes, it would appear that Hazel and Foxy’s fate are inextricably linked by a primal atavism. Observe earlier in the film how Reddin chases Hazel through a county fair while on horseback, the way he would one of the animals he hunts. Even the minister’s intentions in marrying her are apparently more a matter of taming her free-spiritedness than having any romantic or sexual motivation. The final utterance of “Gone to Earth,” can then be attributed to those same pagan huntsmen, finally laying claim to Hazel after she quite literally has “gone to earth.”

FSN: When Selznick was battling the Archers in court, Powell asked Pressburger where they’d gone wrong with the man — what did he want? “Sex,” Pressburger told him. “You’re not serious,” responded Powell. “Why, the film reeks of sex.” And so it does, just not Selznick’s kind of sex, as Pressburger pointed out.

The movie also evokes the border of Wales, the land of Powell’s ancestors, with wonderful beauty and clarity. Powell was pleased with Gone to Earth and thought Jones was “splendid.” He formed a close friendship with the troubled actress and later told her, “you were the most beautiful woman I ever worked with”—one hell of a tribute from a man who immortalized many stunning women. Thelma Schoonmaker, the film editor who has worked with Martin Scorsese ever since her Oscar-winning efforts on Raging Bull in 1980, was married to Powell from 1984 until his death. She screened Gone to Earth in Seattle in 2007. Schoonmaker told a reporter that her husband “loved the eventual movie, but he was afraid you could hear the crackle of the page whenever they did a movie based on a novel.” I’m convinced that if this movie were more widely known, most viewers would respectfully disagree.

The Siren notes here that Nomad Widescreen, where she could be read alongside Tony, Glenn Kenny, Simon Abrams, Kurt Loder, Karl Rozemeyer and Vadim Rizov, is no more. The editors and writers at Nomad were uniformly excellent, and the Siren was always proud to be associated with them.

(Updated 11/17/11, with correction and the fourth photograph above, courtesy of the ever-courteous Yojimboen. Also a link to Tony's excerpts at Cinema Viewfinder.)

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Noel Coward Tells Marlene, "Snap Out of It, Girl"

The patient readers of this blog deserve their reputation for good manners, but all the same, the Siren has been sensing some faint, far-off clouds of discontent over the past six weeks. A certain bewilderment, you could say. There’s a sense of people restraining themselves from saying: “Siren, the last time I came calling you were talking about Mid-Atlantic accents and Gene Tierney’s overbite and in the comments people were complaining about Wendell Corey and everything was right as rain. Then, without warning, for a month it’s been crime and pink films and sex addicts and now you’re quoting Pauline Kael writing about Brian De Palma and Siren [a deep, ragged breath] I just don’t know who you are anymore.”

Fret not. Like Judy Holliday in It Should Happen to You, the Siren is the same as she’s always been, only in a different way. And to prove it, here is one of the Siren’s favorite letters of all time, reprinted in Maria Riva’s book about her mother, Marlene Dietrich.

By the end of 1956, Dietrich had been carrying on a five-year affair with Yul Brynner, which was starting to wind down in an acrid funk of infidelity, ennui and Dietrich’s endless dissections of her lover’s behavior and motives. She wrote her dear friend Noel Coward a letter about a transcontinental flight she had taken with Brynner. The lovers had been having some “where is this all going, don’t you love me anymore” encounters. She arranged to get herself on the same plane with Brynner and was despondent when he downed three drinks without talking to her. Later Dietrich took some sleeping-pill suppositories, which she called “Fernando Lamas,” because like Lamas' acting, they put her to sleep so quickly. She awoke (or so she thought, she acknowledges she might have dreamt it) to Brynner trying to climb into her berth, and she became distressed when he said “there’s too many people around” and climbed back out, that striking Marlene Dietrich as being no kind of obstacle to real desire.

Dietrich’s letter tapers off in a series of laments about her unhappiness, how can she perform in Las Vegas, etc. etc. It is, in short, one of those humorless messages only people clinging to a waning relationship can produce, a microanalysis of behavior that requires only momentary thought to understand. Astonishing, and comforting, isn’t it--Dietrich, a real Siren, not just one on the Internet, indulging in the kind of “why do you think he did that? what does it mean? what is he trying to tell me?” conversations that mere mortal women, and men, have all the time.

Coward wrote her back immediately, in the greatest rejoinder to such moaning that the Siren has ever read. So perfect is this response that when the Siren read it years ago, she marked the page and later re-read it several times when her own love life was demanding it. The Siren has handed the book, open to that page, to lovesick friends, and read the letter over the telephone, too.

Here it is, Coward’s advice on getting over “Curly” (his nickname for Brynner), punctuation, capitalization and spelling as in the original.

Oh, darling.

Your letter filled me with such a lot of emotions the predominant one being rage that you should allow yourself to be so humiliated and made so unhappy by a situation that really isn’t worthy of you. I loathe to think of you apologizing and begging forgiveness and humbling yourself. I don’t care if you did behave badly for a brief moment, considering all the devotion and loving you have given out during the last five years, you had a perfect right to. The only mistake was not to have behaved a great deal worse a long time ago. The aeroplane journey sounds a nightmare to me.

It is difficult for me to wag my finger at you from so very far away particularly as my heart aches for you but really darling you must pack up this nonsensical situation once and for all. It is really beneath your dignity, not your dignity as a famous artist and a glamourous star, but your dignity as a human, only too human, being. Curly is attractive, beguiling, tender and fascinating, but he is not the only man in the world who merits those delightful adjectives...Do please try to work out for yourself a little personal philosophy and DO NOT, repeat DO NOT be so bloody vulnerable. To hell with God damned ‘L’Amour.’ It always causes far more trouble than it is worth. Don’t run after it. Don’t court it. Keep it waiting off stage until you’re good and ready for it and even then treat it with the suspicious disdain that it deserves...I am sick to death of you waiting about in empty houses and apartments with your ears strained for the telephone to ring. Snap out of it, girl! A very brilliant writer once said (could it have been me?) ‘Life is for the living.’ Well that is all it is for, and living DOES NOT consist of staring in at other people’s windows and waiting for crumbs to be thrown to you. You’ve carried on this hole in corner, overcharged, romantic, unrealistic nonsense long enough.

Stop it Stop it Stop it. Other people need you...Stop wasting your time on someone who only really says tender things to you when he’s drunk...

Unpack your sense of humor, and get on with living and ENJOY IT.

Incidentally, there is one fairly strong-minded type who will never let you down and who loves you very much indeed. Just try to guess who it is. X X X X. Those are not romantic kisses. They are un-romantic. Loving ‘Goose-Ex.’

Your devoted ‘Fernando de Lamas’

The Siren is sorry to report that when Dietrich read Riva the letter over the phone, and Riva gave it a hearty second, the great woman snapped, “Oh, you two Sagittarians! You always agree! Neither of you can understand how one man can a be a woman’s whole life!” Dietrich followed that up with an off-color description of Coward’s sexual activities and hung up.

Good advice is seldom appreciated at the time that it’s given. But Coward remained a friend to Dietrich a lot longer than Curly did. In 1973, when he made his last public appearance, Coward had Dietrich on his arm.