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.)
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."