Tuesday, January 08, 2013

What I Watched With My Mother: The Also-Ran Edition

After a long hard slog of a December, the Siren has emerged, ready for updates. And she has excellent news: Our hard work to put The White Shadow online for viewing has been recognized by the Online Film Critics' Society, with a special award to the "For the Love of Film" blogathon, Fandor and the National Film Preservation Foundation for our fundraising efforts. This is a wonderful accolade that is shared by everyone who contributed to the blogathon.

And our work has benefited many, many people. The online streaming of The White Shadow has proven so popular (almost 40,000 viewers and counting) that the NFPF has decided to keep it available for viewing on their site through Jan. 31. So watch, and watch again; we worked hard and we earned it.

Meanwhile, back chez Siren, your sometime blog hostess was entertaining her mother over the holidays, and after long days of decking the halls etc., we'd unwind by watching a number of old movies. Re-capping that viewing seemed like a good way to start 2013, so here are brief impressions of What I Watched With My Mother. The next post will feature the ones we liked best; this is the Also-Ran Edition. The Siren will get the one true dud out of the way first, since Mom always told her the meal goes better if you start with the food you like the least.

Susan Slept Here (Christmas Eve movie)


Not "ugh" because it's a romantic comedy about a 17-year-old (Debbie Reynolds) and a 50-year-old (Dick Powell). (Yeah yeah, Powell's character claims he's 35. So do a lot of people.) The Siren's been happy with May-December story lines before, including Love in the Afternoon, The Constant Nymph, and To Catch a Thief. No, it's "ugh" because whatever it takes to make this couple remotely plausible, let alone palatable, neither the stars, nor screenwriter Alex Gottlieb, nor director Frank Tashlin have it. Maybe a more obviously appealing, crush-able male lead might have helped (one friend suggested Robert Mitchum). Maybe, although the Siren (who's 0-6 with Tashlin now) finds that this director's interest in Eros goes no deeper than the first wolf-whistle. Powell looks more interested in what's in his highball glass than anything else. And if you don't buy what the script is selling, then this movie is tedious and crude, just a bunch of labored jailbait gags about whether or not Susan, whose mental age seems to hover around 12, will Sleep Here.

What Mom said: "I think you would have to see this when you're a kid and fall in love with it. Otherwise it's hard to overlook how icky it is."

Background to Danger
World War II spy caper that we watched for Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, and those gentlemen were the best things in it, naturally. Good stuff includes Lorre, as an agent of Our Soviet Allies, sitting cross-legged on a desk and demanding a better class of vodka. There's also a striking shot of Greenstreet walking away from the camera--his coat drapes off his incredibly wide shoulders like a set of curtains, and he looks like a medicine-show wagon trundling down a street. The Siren liked the Turkish setting and the trains and the way that all the romance and stranger-danger of compartments is put to great use. The director was Raoul Walsh, the cinematographer was Tony Gaudio, William Faulkner did uncredited work on the script--why, you might well ask, is this such a mix of good, bad and meh? It isn't nearly as consistent and accomplished as Jean Negulesco's The Mask of Dimitrios one year later. One reason is that Dimitrios wisely foregrounded Lorre and Greenstreet and used an Eric Ambler plot to much better effect; Background to Danger is baggily constructed, with more than its fair share of convenient double agents and talking killers. The major problem, however, was nailed by Mom: "This needed Humphrey Bogart." Instead you get George Raft at his most humorless and mechanical. Also includes Brenda Marshall looking marvelous in Soviet Chic, all high-necked sweaters and astrakan-collared coats. Unfortunately, all she does is hand Lorre vodka (although that's an important task, goodness knows).

What Mom said: See above.

They Came to Blow Up America
Alfred Hitchcock supposedly based Saboteur on a true story of German agents sent to sabotage the American war machine; but by the time he got through with the story, almost no trace of the real incident was left. This 20th-Century Fox programmer, in its flag-waving Hollywood way, sticks much closer to the facts of "Operation Pastorius," with details like the German submarine landing right off Amagansett (even enemy agents want a taste of the Hamptons). The film begins with a disclaimer noting that for the sake of national security, the true story of the saboteurs can't be told yet. Which is good. We wouldn't want John and Jane Q. leaving the Rialto convinced that one of the saboteurs was only play-acting for the good of the country, because FBI Agent Ward Bond asked him to. That heroic non-saboteur is George Sanders, wearing his "B-movie heartthrob" hat. He's so handsome and drily funny that the creaky theatrics go down easy. The best part, though, concerns Anna Sten as Sanders' disgruntled not-ex-wife (it's complicated), whom Sanders denounces as crazy to a Nazi commandant ("she throws things, you know"). Sten steals the movie with her two big scenes, further confirmation that whatever folly was associated with her years in Hollywood, it had nothing to do with her acting.

What Mom said: "It would be nice if FBI agents really did show up to tell you that your kids are OK." (At one point Ward Bond visits Sanders' worried Papa (Ludwig Stossel) to reassure him that his son doesn't really wanna blow up America.)

Stolen Holiday
A 1937 Michael Curtiz film about the Stavisky Affair, a topic that has so much potential that it's frustrating to see how off-handedly it's treated here. Kay Francis plays Nicole Picot, a couturier's model who's recruited by Stavisky--oops I mean Stefan Orloff (Claude Rains) as arm candy while he pitches his financial schemes to wealthy businessmen. And here's the first problem; she knows Orloff is crooked, and Rains is (god knows) playing him crooked, and yet the script wants us to believe that Nicole nevertheless does not understand that Orloff is fleecing most of the French upper crust. The Siren loves Francis, but this is a damn-near-unplayable part that nicely illustrates the kind of tosh the actress was starting to get from Warner Brothers as her career waned. And as if there weren't enough for the woman to cope with, she doesn't take that "stolen holiday" with Rains, who's mighty alluring even if he was a half-foot shorter than Francis. No, she runs off with Ian Hunter, who one year later would distinguish himself as the fifth-sexiest man in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Pleasures do include Rains intimidating his nervous Ponzi-schemers; but while there's a little crash course in French bond-issuing rules, it's a waste not to show more of Rains reeling in the suckers. Nicole becomes a dress designer herself, so Kay's Orry-Kelly wardrobe is breathtaking, particularly the spangled dress above, which has what may well be the lowest neckline in 1930s cinema. And there's the airplane Kay and Claude take to Switzerland, a British-made eye-popper that looks as though they decided to bring the double-decker bus concept to air travel.

What Mom said: "It would have been more interesting if she fell in love with Rains."


Vanwall said...

I s'pose if I was forced to, I'd watch most of these again, but in the past forty years or so, no one has held a gun to my head with 'em on view. I watched "Background to Danger" recently for Lorre and Greenstreet, and lamented again the wasting of Brenda Marshall, in so many things. 'Ugh' fits SSH, BTW, so elegant and simple a one-worder. The end note of Kay in any wardrobe is instructive to the modern clothes-hangers they employ as screen-clutterers nowadays, but I sadly doubt if few will listen or watch.

Casey said...

I had a hard time with Tashlin for years. I think part of this is because he's not really a skilled filmmaker, at least not in the same way that the Hollywood vets were. There's no texture or depth to his movies. They tend to look flat, and his characters are more like caricatures. But he may have been a forerunner of the filmmakers who took over in the sixties, when everybody was striving for a "pop" look, making their images very bright and very flat. I do think Rock Hunter and The Girl Can't Help It are fairly enjoyable satires.

I'd love to see the Curtiz flick, even if it's not one of his best. Rains was such a fine actor. It's too bad that the few films where he gets to play the lead didn't give him more to work with.

The Siren said...

Casey, a friend of mine has what he calls "the four-film rule," whereby if he dislikes 4 films by the same director, he gives himself permission to give up, or at least he won't make a huge effort to see more. And clearly I'm beyond that with Tashlin. Rock Hunter and Girl Can't Help It--I dunno, there's other movies on the same themes that I enjoy more.

Vanwall, Marshall was so exquisitely lovely and I see her in something like "Background" or "Constant Nymph" or "The Sea Hawk" and I think, what went wrong here? The marriage to Holden was famously rocky but it lasted a long time. I guess I should try a Holden bio some time; the reason I haven't is that I find the facts of his life depressing and his end positively tragic.

Lemora said...

The title of this first post of 2013 caused a lurch of the heart. My mom died four years ago, and unfortunately our very last movie together was "Mamma Mia," which we both felt stuck in, due to the 107 degree heat outside. Our first --in my earliest memory-- was "Dumbo" in 1951, at a drive-in, in Lake Tahoe in 1951, on the site of what I now think is Harrah's. I was three years old and became hysterical when Dumbo was punished and separated from his mother, and we had to leave. Two recent movies we loved were "Finding Neverland" and "The Queen." She introduced me to "Hold Back The Dawn," one of her favorites. I haven't seen any of the ones you mention here, but I really have to ask The Siren who the four sexiest men in 'Robin Hood' are --well, Errol Flynn is number one, so I'm actually asking who are the other three-- that precede Ian Hunter?

The Siren said...

Ah, Lemora, I am sorry; four years is not long at all for such a loss. And Hold Back the Dawn is cap-G Great. It's funny, watching movies isn't supposed to be like playing catch or learning to ride a two-wheeler or cooking dinner together, and yet it's far from a passive activity, and some beautiful people memories can be caught up with just watching a movie, good or bad.

As for Robin Hood, ha, I listed that on Twitter. Subjective of course, but for me it's Basil Rathbone--Errol Flynn--Claude Rains--Patric Knowles and THEN Ian Hunter. But ya know, King Richard isn't half bad, he's just got a LOT of competition in that movie.

Aubyn Eli said...

I'm sort of tempted to make that "Fifth-Sexiest-Man" into a film trivia game. You could apply it to so many movies: Casablanca, The Magnificent Seven, Ben-Hur...

I've yet to see an Anna Sten film but in still photos, she looks both beautiful and full of personality. A real shame that she got branded "the Edsel of the movie industry."

I actually was surprised to find myself enjoying The Girl Can't Help It quite a bit. What can I say, I love the soundtrack and the frequently eye-popping color. But watching Susan Slept Here would require me to get over my antipathy to Debbie Reynolds in her cute stage and Powell in his most tired-looking.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Sorry that you don't like Frank Tashlin. I'm still hoping Bachelor Flat and The Lieutenant wore Skirts get DVD love, in their proper CinemaScope ratios, of course.

Enjoy watching with your Mom. I sometimes wonder it I would have argued for something a little different had I known that the last movie I'd see with my mother would be Taxi Driver (her request, btw).

D Cairns said...

What Background to Danger needed, probably, was Joseph Cotten. Or Alfred Hitchcock. Like a lot of Ambler books, it's about a regular guy thrown into danger. By making him George Raft and hardboiled, they rob a lot of tension from it, and they also throw out most of the best situations, for reasons best known to themselves.

Your Tashlin problem is probably similar to your Leone problem: for the most part, neither one really shows women as human beings. His cartooning background dominates, plus he's a committed chauvinist. And it would be wrong to argue that one should overlook that; it's more a question of whether one CAN. The fact that I do is possibly more of a character flaw than a merit, though it has the benefit of allowing me to enjoy Henry Jones in Rock Hunter.

The Siren said...

Aubyn, it's true, the "fifth-sexiest-man" game could be played in a lot of films. You could probably do it with women too although the movie selection would be slimmer--mostly musicals, and "The Women" of course.

Peter, before I wrote this I went back to Sarris' entry on Tashlin out of curiosity, and while Tashlin's in "Expressive Esoterica" it's a pretty tepid entry and one I largely agree with: "sounds better than he looks." Sarris does cite Bachelor Flat as the best, though, and if I get a chance to see it I suppose that will be my final stab at Tashlin.

David, it's true, Tashlin's attitude toward women basically appalls me. The way Anne Francis is treated in this movie strikes me as just plain mean. But there are directors whose retrograde attitudes I overlook; with Tashlin and Leone, I don't cotton to the aesthetics either.

I wonder if Raft demanded that his character be wised up, as opposed to clueless and floundering like Lorre in Mask of Dimitrios. As written in the script, I did yearn for Bogart but you're right, the usual Ambler character is a regular guy in a tough situation.

Kirk said...

Did you once say you didn't like Bob Hope? Because I think Tashlin's Son of Paleface is a classic of sorts. One of the funniest Western spoofs, of which there's been so many over the years that they can considered a genre all their own.

mas82730 said...

I've only seen one movie with my mom (our tastes are vastly different), 'The Way We Were' on TCM, which ma kept calling 'We Were There.' We both agreed that Redford was way too shiksa for Babs.

mndean said...

Wow, I agree about SSH, which gave me the creeps at an age where pop culture says I should be hoping for May/December. Tashlin's very uneven for me, and I always thought he depicted older women especially rough onscreen whenever I saw one of his films. Not that any woman caught much of a break.

Isn't Stolen Holiday the film where Kay models an especially ugly dress? Ugly in the sense it was all wrong on her, I mean. I liked the film okay, but it's one I'd watch on TCM rather than dig out the DVD I recorded.

X. Trapnel said...

"The major problem, however, was nailed by Mom: 'This needed Humphrey Bogart.'"

Further proof that good cinematic judgment is a heritable trait.

Raft's essential vacancy shows up beautifully in the still with Lorre and Marshall, and reminds one of the black hole at the center of the otherwise great They Drive By Night. God knows, I revere Walsh but one couldn't devise a better cautionary example of the limits of auteurism just as Bogart in All Through the Night furnishes a nice counter example, playing a Raft-type role (though with Cagney grace notes).

Anna Sten looks lovely in that lobby card, and the Siren's comments deepen the mystery. I saw her recently in So Ends Our Night where she's just fine. Could it have been nothing more than the persistent American resistence to continental actors?

DavidEhrenstein said...

Susan Slept Here was a big hit in its day. One of the few for RKRKO as it faded out. Tashlin was a cartoonist and didn't treat women -- or men -- realistically. Hence his most mportant stars were Jayne Mansfield and Jerry Lewis.

I rather liked but it's not a patch on Alain Resnais and Stephen Sondheim's Stavisky. . . -- with Belmondo and Biyer at their most perfect.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Correction: I rather liked Stolen Holiday

VP81955 said...

Your Tashlin problem is probably similar to your Leone problem: for the most part, neither one really shows women as human beings. His cartooning background dominates, plus he's a committed chauvinist.

Which leads one to wonder what might have resulted if Tashlin had directed "My Man Godfrey" (the 1936 version, of course) and fellow animator Gregory La Cava (who didn't survive the '40s, IIRC) had somehow stuck around to direct "The Girl Can't Help It" (a film I like, albeit more so for the music than the acting)?

In other words, was the chauvinism part and parcel of the '50s era Tashlin worked in, where actresses were increasingly defined by their measurements rather than their skills (I've read that Frank was actually a "leg man," and found Jayne Mansfield charming but ridiculous), or would La Cava's directorial DNA have resisted such stereotypes? (Then again, I think his final film, "Living In A Big Way," had a prototype Mansfield in the equally ultimately tragic Marie MacDonald.)

Jack B. said...

There's a certain charm in Susan Slept Here (though its mostly all Debbie Reynolds). From what I understand Mitchum was approached by his boss, Howard Hughes, for the lead but passed and recommended Powell. Debbie can pass for a teenager but Powell does look his age (30 years older) which the film more than creepy. The idea of the plot (cops "procuring" a not-legal juvenile delinquent girl so their writer friend can get story inspiration) doesn't sound good from the start. Not surprising when you consider Howard Hughes (who was attracted to girls who were teenagers well into his 40s) made it. Also no one ever bring up that the Powell character's more "mature" girlfriend is played by Anne Francis who was only 2 years older than Reynolds and still had yet to play the young ingenue lead in Forbidden Planet. She was over 25 years younger than Powell as well!

Marilyn said...

I like Tashlin's Artists and Models quite a lot, and being that it's Martin and Lewis, I should have hated it. Susan Slept Here was unwatchable for me, and I didn't finish it.

I've been largely absorbed in viewing screeners, but freshened the palate with some classic flicks, including Cagney in Taxi!, mean Warren Williams in Employees' Entrance, and Hayakawa in The Dragon Painter - enjoyed them all, and will be writing up Taxi! for the Cagney blogathon being held by The Movie Projector.

My mother was my biggest influence. Our last movie out was The Illusionist, a nifty costume thriller. My greatest memory was going through a box of Kleenex while watching Madame X. What a great time we used to have.

Entropy's Bitch said...

Ah, Siren, have you any comment on Ms. America being a transplanted Alabaman in Brooklyn?

barrylane said...

Whatever is wrong with Raft is not the essential problem with Background To Danger. All that you say about story development is right on. Had Humphrey Bogart been in the film he would have been better but Backgroudn To Danger is what it is. Unsuccessful. And, of course, important to note Raft was a really big star. That means people related to him. Not to be sneered at.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Mother should have her own movie blog. Mother knows best.

Crocheted Lace said...

Susan Slept Here: It would work if the Dick Powell character was played by an actor who really was 35. Or definitely looked 35. I have no problem with Powell's performance, but he looked his age and it was too distracting. I watch the movie for Ann Francis' clothes, wow, she looked good!
Actually, I have the same problem with "Love in the Afternoon". The story was fine, Cooper was too old. When it looks more like an incongruous March-December romance, the viewer has a hard time suspending disbelief.

"Stolen Holiday" I also wanted Kay Francis to love Claude Rains! Ian Hunter had so little to work with on that script, he was just a tall guy who looked good next to Francis, Rains was the fascinating character.
It's like "The Thief of Baghdad": even when I was a kid, I thought the princess was a fool not to grab Jaffar (Conrad Veidt). A far more interesting character than the prince.

bitter69uk said...

Always glad to read a positive re-appraisal of poor Anna Sten, a beautiful and compelling actress who deserved better. I for one find her haunting. I have affection for Tashlin's Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter and The Girl Can't Help It because they provide the sublimely kitsch Jayne Mansfield with her best roles. Your mother is a shrew judge of films! I see where you get it from.

bitter69uk said...

Needless to say, I meant "shrewd" not "shrew!"

The Siren said...

But shrew! had the advantage of making me spit out my coffee. I am fond of Jayne Mansfield for various non-rational reasons and I think half the reason I don't like those two Tashlins, the ones that most everybody else has at least some use for, is that I feel she's ill-treated in them.

I want to see some other Anna Sten movies. It's quite startling to see how good she is in those two scenes. And she was certainly beautiful, with particularly arresting eyes.

bitter69uk said...

I was lucky to see Anna Sten's key Hollywood star vehicles on Canadian TV as a teenager and I still remember them vividly: Nana, We Live Again and The Wedding Night. They're all interesting failures in their way, but Sten herself is radiant, sensitive and subtle in all of them. Her Russian accent WAS very thick, though -- that could have been a factor. Nana (directed by Dorothy Arzner) is fun kitsch: her big musical number "That's Love" is a painstaking Dietrich impersonation. She sings it, the audience applauds -- and then she sings the entire song again in its entirety!