Showing posts with label polite dissent. Show all posts
Showing posts with label polite dissent. Show all posts

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Drowning in the Mid-Atlantic

Kevin Drum does not like old-time movie accents.

The Siren tells you this not because she wants to call up a flash mob of old-movie fans to launch a cyberattack on his Mother Jones blog until Mr. Drum agrees to sit through a James Cagney retrospective. She wouldn't even have read his post, had it not been pointed out to her in a puckish message from a gentleman known to commenters here as Gmoke. Well, the Siren has seen people put down old movies for all kinds of reasons and as such posts go, this one is reasonably polite. It’s expressed mostly in terms of puzzlement, and not a petulant desire to have us intellectually validate the writer’s reluctance to get acquainted with the films of Leo McCarey.

Still, if Mr. Drum had asked the Siren, she’d have said he has things precisely the wrong way round: Old movies have a greater variety of American speech, by far.

Let’s not pretend we don’t know what he's talking about; there is a mid-Atlantic accent used in certain American movies of the 1930s and up through World War II, after which it becomes less and less common until it mostly disappears. (The Siren prefers the term mid-Atlantic because she likes the idea of a bunch of the period’s movie stars out on a Cunard liner somewhere off the coast of Greenland. In her head, they’re all downing martinis with Phoebe Dinsmore, the elocutionist from Singin’ in the Rain, and their tones are getting rounder by the second.) He seems to think it didn’t exist outside the backlot, but as some of Mr. Drum’s commenters pointed out, you could hear that accent in real life just by turning on the radio for one of FDR’s fireside chats. But while this speaking manner survives (barely, it seems to the Siren), it does sound odd to modern American ears, more’s the pity. The Siren had an English literature professor who talked this way, and while she grew to love his voice, she admits that she spent the first week of the class listening to the way he said “sonnet” and “meter” and “Percy Bysshe Shelley” and thinking, “Mister, are you putting me on?”

The question of authenticity aside, Mr. Drum errs in two ways.

Error No. 1. This is an accent common to all, most or even an overlarge percentage of old movies. Here the Siren affects Ginger Rogers’ charming Missouri-bred vowels and says, out of the side of her mouth, “Brother, you’re all wet.” You encounter the accent in movies about rich or upper-middle-class people, like My Man Godfrey. You most certainly do not encounter it in Wild Boys of the Road.

Mr. Drum evidently lives in Irvine, Calif., and it’s a pity he couldn’t join the Siren for the four features she just took in at the annual Pre-Code shindig held by New York’s Film Forum. There’s a positive cacophony of American accents in these movies. There’s Lee Tracy in Blessed Event, sounding like he was born under the Second Avenue elevated; Ann Dvorak in The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, snapping her words like the hard-luck taxi dancer she is; Douglas Fairbanks Jr. hanging around Union Depot and sounding like a nice middle-class American boy down on his luck; Kay Francis speaking impeccable mid-Atlantic in Girls About Town despite the famous lisp; and Eugene Pallette in the same movie sounding like...Eugene Pallette.

Oh but Siren, comes the objection from Mr. Drum and certain lost souls in his comments thread. They didn’t do real acting back then, the kind where you create a character and come up with the right accent and mannerisms. Those actors just played themselves, and these are come-as-you-are accents.

You don’t say, responds the Siren, as her own Alabama accent comes back. Because Lee Tracy was born in Atlanta; Ann Dvorak was the child of vaudevillians and could sound pure Yale Club if the occasion demanded it, as in Merrily We Live; Kay Francis was born in Oklahoma City and lived an itinerant lifestyle that was decidedly not calculated to give her a finishing-school accent; Douglas Fairbanks Jr. sounded mid-Atlantic for a while until his normal speaking accent completed the passage and landed square in Mayfair; and Pallette...okay, you got me there, but when was the last time you heard a know-it-anywhere voice in an American movie? Gilbert Gottfried doesn’t count.

Error No. 2: The mid-Atlantic accent comes into play where it isn’t appropriate. The Siren’s spent all morning--meaning about fifteen minutes, but she truly did work at this--trying to remember a movie where someone was supposed to be a shopgirl or a waitress or a railway detective, and they spoke in an “anyone for tennis?” accent. Can’t do it. The mid-Atlantic accent turns up mostly in movies about rich people and in historical epics.

Oh, there must be a few. In particular, you can probably find a high-tone voice in a low-down setting in the very early talkie era, when the technology hadn’t been perfected and they worried a lot about people recording properly. Even so, the Siren doesn’t expect a landslide of examples. You can rap The Broadway Melody of 1929 for a lot of things, but the showgirls sound like showgirls, not Alice Roosevelt Longworth. A while ago the Siren got a chance to see Strictly Dishonorable, a 1931 John Stahl talkie that, even though it was made after they were supposed to have this stuff figured out, bore all the stagey marks of the early sound difficulties. And the female lead, Sidney Fox, who was adorable, did a perfectly creditable Southern accent. Fox was a New York City native.

Sure, some actors bring the same basic vocal equipment to all their movies; John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn come to mind. But they’re frequently doing more than you might think. Cary Grant tosses his vowels around in the back of his sinuses in His Girl Friday, but goes first class all the way for The Philadelphia Story. C.K. Dexter Haven and Walter Burns do not have precisely the same accents, and the delivery and rhythm of Grant’s speech is entirely different. Barbara Stanwyck was occasionally rapped for bringing a trace of Brooklyn to her every part, but she was perfectly capable of turning it up or down as the occasion demanded: way down for The Lady Eve, way up for Baby Face.

So we come to the same diagnosis as always: The patient hasn’t seen enough old movies. But, as some people like to say in political disputes, the Siren seeks converts, not apostates. Mr. Drum says that to him, great acting is "the ability to precisely control tone, pace, pitch, timbre, tempo, modulation, resonance, accent, and so forth.” The Siren's in a generous mood this week, so here’s what the Siren is gonna do. She’s gonna take suggestions from her commenters for an old, preferably very old movie for Mr. Drum, one that shows “old-timey” actors doing just what he asks. And then she will mail him a DVD, care of the Mother Jones office.

The floor is open, ladies and gentlemen, and you may imagine the Siren saying that in any old accent you please.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Nomadic Existence: Excerpts from Nomad Widescreen's Retro Fit Column

The Siren’s Retro Fit column at Nomad Widescreen, the weekly online magazine edited by the estimable Glenn Kenny, continues apace. Nomad is pursuing a subscription-based model that it hopes will lead to the holy of holies, a Web-only outlet where writers are paid, fairly, for what they write.

That’s a way of saying that the Siren can’t link directly to her Nomad pieces, as that isn’t what Nomad is about. Free three-month trials are available here.; sign up and you can read the issues referenced here. The quarterly subscription rate is $6 for 12 issues, which doesn’t seem like a huge amount to pay for content that includes Karl Rozemeyer, Tony Dayoub of Cinema Viewfinder, Simon Abrams of Slant and elsewhere, and Vadim Rizov of Infinite Philistinism, Greencine and the most dryly humorous Twitter feed on the planet.

Still, the Siren thought her patient readers might like to see what she’s been up to, so excerpts from her last four columns follow.

From the Feb. 9 cover story, “God Save the Queens,” about The King’s Speech and royalty in the movies:

No sooner does someone make a narrative movie about historical events and people than someone else lines up to point out the omissions and errors in it. And so it has been with The King’s Speech, the movie about royalty that seems to have usurped The Social Network’s Oscar frontrunner status. Tom Hooper’s film concerns Britain’s George VI and his struggle to overcome a stutter that made public speaking an agony for him. And that subject matter has been a problem for those who believe that the movie should have been concerned with something else.

Christopher Hitchens, for example, wrote a piece for Slate that seemed to indicate a better movie would have attacked the cult of Churchill, because if you've read a lot of Hitchens, it's plain he thinks attacking the cult of Churchill would make just about anything better, possibly even True Grit. A better movie would also have brought up the king’s support for arch-appeaser Neville Chamberlain and slammed Edward VIII even harder than it did.

Hitchens’s argument stems from the sincere, and laudable, belief that history matters, that what people believe to be history matters, and that movies that propagate comfortable lies can be pernicious. Movies about royalty present a particularly irksome problem for an anti-royalist like Hitchens. Down the decades, these films take much of their appeal from humanizing royals, making them more like us, or what we imagine we might be if we held the reins of power and recognized everyone by the backs of their heads, because they were constantly bowing to us.

From the Feb. 2 Retro Fit column, “The Ballad of Linda Darnell”:

...There is something girlish to the way Darnell played all her bad-dame parts. My Darling Clementine (1946) cast her as lovelorn Chihuahua, who wasn’t bad at all, not really even misunderstood. John Ford reportedly didn’t want Darnell for the part, but his lingering close-up of her dying face is as tender as anything in the movie. In Summer Storm (Douglas Sirk, 1944), she plays the character’s grasping nature as a petulant yearning for the shiny toys that Father Christmas never brought her. When all at once she behave in an unselfish manner, it seems the sort of whim this childlike temptress might indulge. She comes as close to pure evil as she ever did in Hangover Square (John Brahm, 1945), in a movie that would make an interesting double bill with Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street, Darnell’s venomous Netta up against Joan Bennett as Lazy Legs. But Bennett doesn’t understand the danger from the men she’s playing and getting played by; Darnell looks at Laird Cregar with a nagging suspicion of his madness. On the other hand, she’s a completely clueless good girl in Preston Sturges’ great Unfaithfully Yours (1948); Daphne de Carter is a study in flummoxed, wounded sincerity. Any nagging doubts about Daphne are there only because, well, can woman who looks like that be trusted to remain faithful, particularly to a conductor who’s an almighty pain in the neck?

It was 1949’s A Letter to Three Wives that marked her pinnacle. The character of Lora May fit her like no other, and given Joseph Mankiewicz’s writing and facility with directing actors, Darnell shone, the sharpest, funniest thing in a very funny movie. (She may have gotten some extra help, as she was having an affair with Mankiewicz during and after filming.) Many people call Lora May a gold-digger, but that she is not. Lora May wants out of the “Finney mansion on the tracks,” sure, but what the character wants even more is respect, and respectability. Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas, never better) honks his car horn for her to come out of the house, like he’s delivering Chinese take-out, and Darnell stands by the sink without so much as shifting her legs, until he comes to the door to escort her. Porter pulls up the car to the house after their date, and Darnell gives one micro-glance at the door, her face cool and lovely though you know she’s counting out the beats that will force him to get out and open it for her. She cares about manners, she cares about form, because they will signal that Porter knows she has what he really wants: class.

From the Jan. 26 column, “Snowbound: Great Vintage Movie Depictions of the Dead of Winter”:

1. Way Down East (D.W. Griffith, 1920). There are plenty of sun-dappled meadows and flowers when poor Lillian Gish is being seduced by Lowell Sherman, but the last twenty minutes or so of D.W. Griffith’s movie may constitute the greatest winter sequence of all time. The snow swirling as Gish is cast out by the Squire, her hopeless, heartbroken wanderings in the storm--the Idiot With a Tripod short was lovely, but this blizzard is the real, life-threatening deal. When icicles formed on Gish’s eyelashes, Griffith ordered cinematographer Billy Bitzer to move in for a closeup. Bitzer responded, “I will, if the oil doesn’t freeze in the camera!” The scene where Gish’s hand trails in the water of the frozen river was her own idea, and she ruefully admitted that her hand ached in cold weather for the rest of her life.

2. Track of the Cat (1954). William Wellman’s eccentric thriller, with Robert Mitchum and the ever-marvelous Teresa Wright. Wellman complained that he had made the movie as an experiment in filming color to look like black and white, with the snowy landscapes leeched of all but the smallest splashes of brightness--and no one appreciated it. Perhaps that was true at the time of release, but viewing this movie more than 60 years later, the beauty of the palette is the first thing you notice. Appearances by the killer panther of the title are handled in a way that’s reminiscent of Cat People. A boldly austere movie that well deserves a revisit.

From the Jan. 5 column, “Check It and See,” about Nicholas Ray’s fevered, fascinating Hot Blood:

So Wilde and Russell can’t dance, and they don’t look like they can dance, and yet the plot hinges on their dancing, and it is a problem, and yet not a problem. One of the most memorable scenes in Hot Blood consists of a whip dance Wilde and Russell perform at their arranged-yet-unplanned wedding, in which Wilde literally whips off pieces Russell’s clothing. Except, in full-length shots the dancers are obviously neither Wilde nor Russell, and the skirt-down close-ups of Russell’s whirling legs reveal gams that look nothing like hers. And it’s typical of the way the movie sometimes turns weirdness into a virtue that the obvious doubles sort of fit. The world created is so bizarre that it’s a plausible notion, this concept that at Gypsy weddings and other festive occasions, dancing doppelgangers appear from nowhere to do all the hard stuff.

When Hot Blood was screened in 1985 at a retrospective honoring her, Jane Russell described it (affectionately) as one of those “Gypsy stories where the characters have passionate, boiling blood and there's scratching and clawing and grabbing and a lot of shouting.” Loudest of all is the color scheme. It is difficult to think of another movie that contains so many variations on red and its offspring--salmon, fuschia, orange. The palette is exhausting, like a meal that’s all variations on chili pepper, but also quite beautiful. And then about fifteen minutes in, Wilde pulls up with his blonde girlfriend in a convertible so blaringly turquoise it’s the visual equivalent of the cannons in the 1812 Overture.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Intimacy at the Movies

A couple of weeks ago I was two-thirds done with the New York Film Festival. Certified Copy and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives were mind-blowing, especially the former, I loved Another Year, and my favorite, Mysteries of Lisbon, was so good I'd sit through all four-and-a-half hours again. (The camerawork reminded me of Ophuls. I am still trying to write that one up.) It was glorious, it was rejuvenating.

But my old-movie habit wasn't being fed. Sometime around the two-week mark the withdrawal became too much and I posted on Facebook and Twitter that I was going to dig up a pre-1960 movie and watch it to the last frame. Maybe some followers thought I was being cute about how much I needed to do this. I was as serious as All Quiet on the Western Front.

And I watched Ivy. And it was good. So good I started to wonder if this was simple addiction. It did feel uncomfortably like I was one of those people who went to sleep in Shreveport and woke up in Abilene. "Come on, Oscar nominee from 1934, let's you and me get drunk." But surely nobody ever wound up in rehab because they couldn't stop quoting Bette Davis movies. I can, in fact, stop anytime I like. Don't look at me like that. I have a Netflix copy of Zodiac right there on my dressing table, you just can't see it because it's under the eyeshadow palette. I've had it three weeks and haven't watched it yet, but I'm telling you I could watch it right now if I felt like it and if my daughter weren't already downstairs watching the 1940 Blue Bird. I just don't want to. I'll watch Zodiac this weekend. Right now I need to keep watching old movies, I have too much else going on to quit something that isn't harming me anyway. Hey, did anybody else notice some benevolent soul has posted Hold Back the Dawn on Youtube?

I'm not going to quit--I don't have a problem--but I often have stretches of wondering why I do this, aside from the prestige of attending swank parties and announcing that I blog about movies a lot of people have never heard of, let alone seen. And I have had a small moment of clarity.

When I find a blog I like, I often read through the archives, and I was going through Tom Shone's blog, Taking Barack to the Movies. He writes mostly about contemporary movies and some politics, in his graceful and very witty style, and I love it even when he's making me feel guilty for not watching Zodiac. I found a post called "Best Films of the 1930s." Not that I am necessarily more interested in that topic than Sam Rockwell or anything, but I read it, and pulled up right here:

The films I most prize are the ones that look normal, and sound normal, and feel normal, but unfurl with the sinuous, sneaky logic of a dream. Movies that cast a spell. I don't mean surrealism — not a fan. I mean a big-budget studio picture that despite the involvement of hundreds of people, from money-grubbing producers to eagle-eyed costumiers, seems to have bloomed from the unconscious of a drowsy Keats...I recently had a spirited debate with my friend Nat about my theory that one cannot know and enjoy a picture made before you were born with quite the same casual intimacy of a film made in your lifetime. That older film can be 100 times better but it still doesn't breathe the same air you do in the same way that even a cruddy picture produced yesterday can.

Interesting. Absolutely bloody fascinating, in fact, because it's the precise opposite of the way I react to new versus old movies. It is this:

Some contemporary films do cast a marvelous spell for me; Avatar, the aforementioned NYFF films. I want to see more that can do the same. But if I want a film to speak to my most secret Siren soul, something to forget my life and the venue and possibly even the day of the week and whoever is sitting next to me, I'm looking at immensely better odds if I go pre-1960. Casual intimacy for me usually comes in black and white or Technicolor. Or sepia. Or Color by Deluxe. I've been intimate with sepia and Deluxe.

I don't want to argue (much), I want to attach an endnote. Clearly, it's true for Tom. Today we had coffee and I told him I was thinking about writing this and he's already got a lovely, lucid response right here. (This has got to be a personal best in terms of slow composition. I am now so slow that someone responds before I post.) His observation is probably true for most moviegoers. A chart based on the moviewatching feelings of the public as a whole might look like this:

    Item 1. Percentage of People Who Feel Casual Intimacy With a Cruddy Picture Produced Yesterday

    Item 2. Percentage of People Who Feel Casual Intimacy With a Movie That's 100 Times Better But Is Older Than They Are

    Item 3. Percentage of People Who Feel Casual Intimacy With Anything That Was Shot Before 1960 and/or Has Bette Davis

But the Siren is smack in the middle of Item 3, with most of her patient readers, god love 'em.

What is with us?

There is a certain Charlie Brown impulse at work for me, definitely. The Social Network is all over the Web, so I don't feel a need to write it up when every major critic and at least a dozen highly talented bloggers got there first. But see this one over here, gathering dust on IMDB with just two cursory external reviews? Not enough people are watching it. This movie needs me, Linus.

I hope nobody brings up nostalgia. I realize I am touchy on this issue, but gad I hate having that word attached to my movie tastes. Here's the moment from my girlhood when I realized nostalgia was bunk. I had just watched some damp-eyed TV documentary about this great swingin' party that I missed called the 1960s. And I said something to Mom along the lines of "Gee, you must have loved the 1960s, it looks like so much more fun than right now." And Mom (she might not even remember this) looked me in the eye and said, "What I remember about the '60s is that every time I got to liking a musician he died. And every time I got to thinking here's a person who can make the world a better place, somebody went out and shot him."

Nostalgia is for people who don't read much history, I think.

I could blame my parents, and have, like when Dennis brought up early viewing a few months back. They left me alone with the TV and gateway drugs like Busby Berkeley and John Ford and Vincente Minnelli and Shirley Temple (is Alida done with that one yet? OK, she's still watching). I could watch anything I wanted if it was old, but if I wanted to go to a current movie, my mother in particular was convinced that explicit sex or excessive screen violence would warp my mental development. See Raging Bull at too tender an age and the next thing you know I'd be under the patio torturing chipmunks or something. I need hardly add that this wasn't ironclad reasoning by my mother. I would watch the original Scarface or Busby Berkeley pushing the camera under the chorus girls' legs and believe me, I got it. My father was a great deal more laissez-faire; when I was about 12 years old he caught me carefully dog-earing the dirty parts of Lady Chatterley's Lover and all I got was a couple of raised eyebrows and "Time for dinner." But when they were deciding what I could go see at the local cinema he deferred to Mom. I'm pretty sure that I am one of the only film writers in captivity who didn't see an R-rated movie until they were actually, chronologically 17 years old.

Result was that I grew up watching old movies and thinking this was the way movies were supposed to look, lush or spare, shadowy or sparkling, the camera lingering or gliding and no such thing as acne or pores. And this was how a movie was supposed to sound, resonant, highly individual voices speaking wonderful dialogue against the gentle sonic hiss of the soundtrack, a score trailing the action like a cloud of perfume. Without those things, I can still be enthralled. But sometimes the lack of them is a small barrier to intimacy. "I see you have pores. Gosh no darling, of course it doesn't matter. I've seen them before. Is that a lamp on the side table, sweetness? You know, if we switch it on, we'll have light coming from three points…"

As usual, I wind up going to my commenters for the real insight. There's the friend who said simply, "There's something in the rhythms of these movies that's in tune with your own." There's David Ehrenstein, who maintains that "the 30s, not the 70s, was the great period for American commercial filmmaking," citing James Whale, Dorothy Arzner and George Cukor as directors doing genuinely experimental work. And there's Arthur S., who once remarked here that it isn't nostalgia if what you're watching is actually more daring and more radical than what's playing at the multiplex. There's an overarching style to classic cinema, but within it you can see astonishing variation and innovation, like poets ringing changes on sonnets or terza rima.

It is, essentially, an aesthetic preference like any other, one that was probably imprinted early by the circumstances of my childhood. Which brings me to my own children, now safely asleep. They watch a lot of Pixar, which is fine--Up and Wall*E? Brilliant. Spell-casters for sure. And heavily influenced by classic Hollywood. I haven't watched that many old movies with my kids. At ages seven and four they are already more in tune with popular culture than Mom. That's good in a lot of ways. Dragging Astaire and Rogers into everyday conversation didn't exactly make me queen of the Alabama schoolyard. Maybe I should just let my brood continue like that.

Fat chance. I'm ordering Chaplin at Keystone for them, and then I'm going to bed.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sidebar: Graham Greene's Fancy Little Piece

Now that we have dealt with the best movie Temple made as a tot, the Siren wants to deal with something that comes up one whole hell of a lot when you discuss Shirley Temple. A while back the Siren posted about movie quotes she didn't want to hear anymore. After spending a couple of weeks researching Shirley and Wee Willie Winkie, she would now include Graham Greene's observations about the relationship between Temple, her movies' "daddy" figures and the composition of her fan base.

Everyone knows the story of Greene's review and the furious reaction it inspired, but for ages the subsequent litigation meant the precise passage was hard to find. The Siren encountered it in its entirety only about 18 months ago, via David Ehrenstein and the wonders of the Internet. Here it is--the "libelous" passage from a review of the Ford film:

The owners of a child star are like leaseholders--their property diminishes in value every year. Time's chariot is at their back; before them acres of anonymity. Miss Shirley Temple's case, though, has a peculiar interest: infancy is her disguise, her appeal is more secret and more adult. Already two years ago she was a fancy little piece (real childhood, I think, went out after The Littlest Rebel). In Captain January she wore trousers with the mature suggestiveness of a Dietrich: her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap-dance: her eyes had a sidelong searching coquetry. Now in Wee Willie Winkie, wearing short kilts, she is completely totsy. Watch her swaggering stride across the Indian barrack-square: hear the gasp of excited expectation from her antique audience when the sergeant's palm is raised: watch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. Adult emotions of love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood, a childhood that is only skin-deep. It is clever, but it cannot last. Her admirers--middle-aged men and clergymen--respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.

The contemporary reaction to this review was way overdone, and the Siren vehemently disapproves of trying to suppress speech. As is true of many libel cases, if Temple's parents hadn't sued to get this paragraph out of the public discourse, it might have lapsed into obscurity. Instead it's immortal.

Greene was a genius all right, one who wrote the screenplays for two of the Siren's most deeply and dearly loved films. But the Siren finds his film criticism a chore. The style is there, but good lord he can be snooty, like he when he informed readers that if they were watching High, Wide and Handsome, a Rouben Mamoulian musical in which Irene Dunne plays a scene with a horse, they would be able to pick out Dunne by looking for "the one without the white patch on her forehead." (All right, yes, it's funny, but my beloved Irene was NOT horsey-looking.) No great film critic should give the persistent impression he's slumming. The Siren also scratches her head over aspects of Greene's taste. He couldn't stand Hitchcock, and his review of My Man Godfrey is so humorless it becomes hilarious. It is probably also worth noting, with regard to the Winkie review, that Greene was described as "obsessed with sex" by no less an authority on that state of being than Otto Preminger.

In the passage above, Greene complains about the "adult emotions" on Temple's face, and ignores the fact that Temple's ability to show deep feeling was neither inconsistent with childhood, nor evidence of corruption; it was simply what made her a great screen actress. Especially now that she's re-watched Wee Willie Winkie, the Siren sees the review as more bitchy than subversive, the moan of a highly intellectual man who cannot believe he just had to sit through that, that tripe. Never mind the millions of kids who adored Temple as much as did any adult. If she's popular, it must be because she wiggles her ass.

Sure, you can read Shirley Temple movies Greene's way if such is your kinky wont; but there's a few that lend themselves to it far more readily than the John Ford film. Little Miss Marker comes to mind, mostly because Adolphe Menjou is so much creepier than Victor McLaglen. In fact, you can read a lot of child vehicles of that or any other era as sublimated sex, and sometimes you'll be right. But it's a tiresomely reductive view to take of a film as good as Wee Willie Winkie, and it diminishes the good points something like The Little Princess or The Littlest Rebel still possess.

So if you want an analysis of the incestuous/pedophilic qualities of Wee Willie Winkie, that's as much as you're going to get from the Siren. She doesn't think the movie, or indeed Temple's performance, deserved that review.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

"Something about the sound of my own voice fascinates me."

Last Wednesday the Siren went to the Grassroots Tavern, which she had not done in many a year, to record a podcast with John Lichman of Film Threat, Vadim Rizov of Indie Eye, and Dan Sallitt of Thanks for the Use of the Hall. It was a loose-limbed affair touching on many subjects, including fashions in directors, Kurosawa and Wilder, “Une Certain Tendance du Cinema Français,” Avatar and James Cameron, how to maintain civility on the Web, and a little bit of Anthony Mann. The Siren observed that the wine has improved somewhat since she frequented the place, although not all that much.

You can access the chatter at The House Next Door.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Bonjour Tristesse (1958)

What an up-and-down experience was Bonjour Tristesse, the film based on Francoise Sagan's brief novel about a young girl with an unhealthy jealousy about her alleycat father. The Siren loved the book as a teen, but it had not aged well when she revisited it. Still, artistically the 18-year-old's debut book was more cohesive than Otto Preminger's movie.

Preminger is no great favorite of the Siren. Of what she has seen, the Siren wholeheartedly loves Laura, Angel Face and Advise and Consent; likes somewhat but does not understand the fuss about Daisy Kenyon and Anatomy of a Murder; withstood Carmen Jones only for the sake of Dandridge and Belafonte and River of No Return for Monroe and Mitchum; was bored or repelled in varying measure by The Man With the Golden Arm, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Whirlpool, The Moon Is Blue and Bunny Lake Is Missing; and loathed Saint Joan, Exodus, Hurry Sundown and The Cardinal.

Excepting the first three movies (and to a degree the second two), there is a funhouse-mirror aspect to the Siren's discussions of Preminger with just about anybody outside of James Wolcott. Where Preminger's fans see sophistication, the Siren sees coarseness and an unpardonably leaden way with jokes large or small. Where they find moral complexity, the Siren finds herself repeatedly poked in the eye with The Message. When admirers talk about the beauty of his compositions, the Siren does see the point in many instances; still, the Siren frets over lack of flow, occasional bizarre framing, particularly in the late movies, and how a scene or even a shot can wear out its welcome until pacing and its sister, suspense, clutch their hearts and keel over. Others talk of Preminger's women; the Siren thinks his movies push almost all of them into one side of a nympho/frigid label and when the film doesn't, as with the title character in Daisy Kenyon, Preminger keeps the audience so far from the character that she never seems quite real.

Now that the Siren has gotten that off her chest, and has royally pissed off all the Preminger fans (I'm so sorry Glenn, I swear I love you anyway), some good, if qualified, words for Bonjour Tristesse. Plot: Seventeen-year-old Cecile sashays through Paris in the black-and-white present, moving from flirtation to flirtation while accompanied by her aging roue of a father, Raymond (David Niven). Flashback to the Technicolor Riviera in the previous summer, where Cecile finds her idyll interrupted by Raymond's marriage proposal to the refined Anne (Deborah Kerr). Unwilling to have her frolics cut off by Anne's prim insistence on things like studying, and prompted also by sexual jealousy over her father, Cecile plots to break up the engagement, with sad results.

One pleasure that maybe should be minor for the Siren, but wasn't: It was shot in France. The locations are a little bit of heaven and Preminger does not stint in using them. The Siren found herself cheering for the characters to get into another car or take another walk, because it meant another fabulous shot of a street, or a beach, or Cecile and Raymond's villa, the most swoonworthy beach house this side of Contempt.

And then there's Jean Seberg, a limited actress whom the Siren will nonetheless watch in anything. (I mean anything. I sat through Paint Your Wagon for that woman.) She had a vividly original beauty and give Otto credit where he deserves it, he shot her like a man bewitched. She walks away from a scene and Preminger leaves the camera on her backside like he can't bear to see her go. Seberg is breathtaking, and Bonjour Tristesse gives you every angle on her that you could possibly have in 1958.

What is interesting about Seberg in this film is the way she handles her obvious insecurities as an actress. Most inexperienced and/or nervous actresses (think early Ava Gardner or Linda Darnell in most things) will concentrate on getting the line readings just right and neglect the whole-body approach you get with someone truly in possession of her craft. Seberg does the opposite. Her movements in Bonjour Tristesse are perfection, or close--whether she is planting a kiss on the boy she's chosen to take her virginity, reaching her arms out to her father on a dance floor, chucking a picture into a drawer in a fit of temper or just getting ice cream out of the icebox, Seberg's every bit of body language plays as truth. But--her voice. Seberg started with a handicap, a thin voice further marred by a field-flat Midwestern accent, but she makes it worse with intonations that suggest she's reciting in class rather than expressing any kind of emotion. The lines all sound the same--a world-weary remark to a suitor gets the same type of expression she gives to joking with her father or plotting Anne's downfall. In Breathless, Godard took Seberg's affectless delivery and married it to a character for whom it made perfect sense. No such luck in Bonjour Tristesse.

The vocal problem is particularly acute because Seberg narrates large chunks of the movie. When we are flashing back to the Riviera summer, she tells us how very happy they were, and how they didn't see anything coming, and now she wonders if it all could have been prevented. And when we move from the Riviera back to Paris, Seberg tells us how very very triste everything is, and where did it all go wrong, and now she and her father are just pretending to be happy. And she also has occasional thinking-out-loud-on-the-soundtrack narration, like where she's chasing after someone and thinking "should I tell her? no, why should I tell her! then again..." All right, I am caricaturing, but only slightly. The narration is dull, at times risible, at least 95% unnecessary, and it's an open question as to whether Danielle Darrieux or Barbara Stanwyck at the height of their powers could have made these interjections work. Seberg, in only her second movie, didn't have a prayer.

Bonjour Tristesse gets a big boost from David Niven in a role that hit uncomfortably close to his real-life reputation. The Siren loved how Niven shows the slight seediness of Raymond's charm, the character's calculation and essential callousness. And Niven gives Raymond just the right amount of flirtatiousness with Cecile--enough to suggest the man is sublimating something by going with his younger girlfriends, but not enough to be repulsive. Deborah Kerr starts off low-key but ends up heartbreaking as Anne, who is rendered a lot less comprehensible and substantive than in the book.

Many of the factors that put the Siren off Preminger are present, though. Attempts at banter among these idle, intelligent people are remarkably slow and unfunny and an extended joke about three maids with similar names is DOA. There was an improbable dance on the docks that reminded the Siren of much that she hated about Carmen Jones. The way Preminger splits up focus in widescreen can strike the Siren as crude, attention jerked hither and yon rather than smoothly drawn from one spot to another. During several conversations there was an odd motif of chopping off the tallest actor at the crown of the head, but that was nothing compared to Kerr and Niven's first big love scene, played in a convertible. This was shot through the windshield in a way that planted the rearview mirror bang in the middle of Kerr's forehead. The Siren simply cannot fathom the reason for this, unless Kerr had somehow incensed her director, a possibility that should probably never be discounted with Preminger.

But the shots that the Siren is complaining about are layered between others of great beauty; in particular the black-and-white scenes are put together with impeccable visual grace. The Siren was delighted with the long swoops of the cars around the Paris streets and Seberg's eyes over her dance-partner's shoulder.

Preminger has a wintry approach to love; romance is usually a distant bat-squeak, if it's there at all. Some directors who don't believe in love do believe in sex, and plenty of it, but despite his vaunted frankness Preminger usually isn't that sexy, either, his camera hanging back as if to say, "Now, if you will, please observe this procedure." But Preminger's attitude is not that far from Sagan's, and Bonjour Tristesse has some heat. The sensuality is almost entirely reserved for Seberg and her young men, with an occasional fatherly embrace from Niven that seems to linger just a hair too long.

Kerr, on the other hand, has her hair scraped tightly off her face, wears clothes that usually don't flatter her and is placed in two-shots with Seberg that emphasize her age (all of 37) in a way that borders on the cruel. Anne's intelligence and intrinsic worth as a person, very much a factor in the novel, are scaled back in the movie. When she reminds Cecile that a seaside tryst "can end up in the hospital" (a pretty goddamn reasonable reminder for a teenager even now) she just sounds prissy. The Siren forgave all this, though, when she saw the final sequences.

Lured by Cecile, Anne stumbles upon Raymond as he tries to lure back his much-younger former flame. As she listens to the man she had planned to marry mocking her age, her looks and even her love, Preminger keeps the camera on Kerr's face, and it's a brilliant choice. You watch this woman's agony grow and grow until you can't bear it any more than she can, and she runs off. It's so beautifully played by Kerr that in no way do you question Anne's suicide later, despite her eminent common sense to that point--what else do you do with that kind of betrayal?

And even more than that, the Siren loved Cecile and Raymond's car ride after he gets the inevitable phone call. They jump into his convertible and wind down the road, and for once Preminger's buildup isn't too long--the car stops in front of the roadblock at exactly the right moment, and its lurch throws you back even though you already know what you're going to see.

Then...back to Paris, and more narration. Lots and lots of narration. But it does build to a superb shot of Seberg, taking off her makeup and staring into the mirror, facing a future already bleak and loveless at the ripe old age of seventeen. That shot, and Kerr's last sequence a few moments earlier, make up for a great deal, even if they don't change the Siren's overall view on Preminger.

Friday, March 05, 2010

A Director Out of Wood*

The Siren has been pondering auteurism. Some time back Girish had a long and fruitful discussion of it, and last week Glenn Kenny went over to the Auteurs to proclaim "an auteurist film is an interesting film."

Glenn is right, of course. But the Siren runs into two problems with auteurism. One is the tendency of some auteurists to overpraise their idols' lesser works. The other, more significant problem is what to do with Jean Negulesco, Jack Conway, Roy del Ruth, Vincent Sherman, Archie Mayo, Henry Hathaway or today's guest star, Sam Wood.

Sam Wood is an excellent example of a studio man who helmed some good-to-great movies--namely, Hold Your Man, A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, the 1937 Madame X, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Our Town, Raffles, The Devil and Miss Jones, Kings Row, Pride of the Yankees and oh, all right, some people like this one, For Whom the Bell Tolls. (Ivy, starring goddess Joan Fontaine, is also supposed to be pretty good, and Lord Jeff too.) Yet Wood garners career evaluations that range from tepid to eye-rolling. In the afterlife, Vincent Sherman probably reads Sam Wood mini-bios to make himself feel better.

Let's be frank. Wood's hard-right politics have played a part in how he is remembered, as his post-war anti-Communism went from vocal to obsessive in nothing flat. He founded the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals and in that guise was a driving force behind the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, where he testified grimly that certain Directors' Guild members were trying to "steer us into the Red River." Such was Wood's fear of subversion that after his death in 1949, his heirs discovered a clause in the will stipulating that they had to take a loyalty oath ("I am not now nor have I ever been...") before they could collect a dime.

The result was that during the years when books and interviews and documentaries were brought forth to celebrate the Golden Age, a number of Wood's ex-colleagues had little good to say about him; "a fascist," was Groucho Marx's encomium. And later critics, mindful of Wood's role in the blacklist and with no Wood still alive to discuss anything, haven't been inclined to give him much credit. His bad or mediocre films (and they are many) have been deemed as much or more representative of his abilities than his successes. And Wood's successes were discussed without much enthusiasm for his role. Mind you, the Siren is all for giving ample credit to James Wong Howe, William Cameron Menzies and Gregg Toland, or Rudolph Mate, Cedric Gibbons and Norman Krasna, for that matter. But watch Kings Row on a double bill with Picnic and tell me if you think the difference is all Howe.

It is possible to read a critique of a Sam Wood picture and wonder if the thing directed itself. In fact, some have pretty much suggested that's what happened on the two Marx films. While Thalberg had the final say, and the Marxes drove many (all right, most) collaborators crazy, the idea of Wood as glorified traffic cop doesn't fit so neatly with Simon Louvish's statement that Wood "refused to take any Marx Brothers nonsense and insisted on endless and exhausting retakes" (a signature Wood technique, although his taste for takes doesn't seem to have been quite up to Wyler levels). The Siren would never argue for Wood's sole authorship of those movies, but she doesn't see why we should presume that he contributed nothing.

Anyway, the blacklist ended forty years ago, Wood's been dead for more than sixty and the Siren thinks no one need be ashamed to be caught loving a good Sam Wood movie. The fact is, pace M. Truffaut, I would much rather watch The Devil and Miss Jones than Hatari!; would curl up with The Pride of the Yankees well before I'd sit down with The Long Gray Line; and would take King's Row over Frenzy in a heartbeat. Does this mean that I consider Wood to be the equal of Hawks, Ford or Hitchcock? Nope. But it does mean I think he deserves to be taken seriously, and given credit for the things he did well.

There, that's my Sam Wood defense.

Unfortunately, it's all leading up to a brief discussion of a not-terribly-good Sam Wood movie, Saratoga Trunk.

"You can't go home again," said Thomas Wolfe, in a title the Siren first encountered via Charlie Brown. While there are few movie experiences as great as rediscovering the virtues of an old favorite, it's pretty depressing to go back to a movie you loved in youth and find that it looks kind of cheesy. The Siren was crazy about Saratoga Trunk when she was about 13 years old, but custom has staled this one something awful. There are good visual moments, such as the opening, a late-movie train chase and crash, Ingrid Bergman's untrammeled joy as she tastes her first jambalaya, and Bergman in her Saratoga hotel room getting tiddly on peaches in champagne. Bergman's mouth meeting peach is erotic as it got in 1945. She was quite the sensualist, was Bergman, one who loved her food, and the Siren wonders if that was why she was so hot to play Clio Dulaine. It couldn't have been the script.

Overall, however, it's a slog. Ingrid Bergman is Clio, a Creole adventuress who arrives in New Orleans to seek revenge on her father's snooty family for ruining her mother's life. The first scene is entrancing, Bergman arriving at a French Quarter mansion where the garden has taken over, walking around the broken-down rooms and reliving her mother's heartache. The Siren would definitely point to the sequence as an example of Wood's fluid but inconspicuous camerawork at its best.

But then Clio settles in, and the movie stagnates. There is way too much of Clio's "mammy" figure, Angelique, played in glowering blackface by Flora Robson and topped with eyebrows that would scare the daylights out of Frida Kahlo. (Blackface. Can you believe it? in a serious role, in 1945? and Robson got an Oscar nomination for it!) The character is a snooze, serving only to make you appreciate Hattie McDaniel. And there is too much of Cupidon, played by little person Jerry Austin and used in most early scenes as not much more than a terrier with a French accent (although he gets some better moments later on). For about 70 long, long minutes we watch Ingrid force the Dulaine family to pay her off, merely by showing up at various public places and looking like her mother. That's a long time to wait to get to Saratoga, and the meat of the story, such as it is. Perhaps the fact that Edna Ferber helped adapt her own novel accounts for Saratoga Trunk's length. It definitely smacks of a writer who wrote a long book and was going to get it all in there, by gum, no matter if pacing begins to stagger and finally falls in a ditch.

Gary Cooper has to wear an oversized hat that brings up unfortunate Yosemite Sam associations, but when he takes it off and makes love to Bergman the Siren understands what first drew her adolescent hormones to this movie. Bergman's features look smashing with dark hair, but then we of later years already knew that. The beauty of the leads and the occasional good scene notwithstanding, this one would have been better screened in the Siren's cinema of the memory.

* The story goes that during one of the many tense moments on the set of A Night at the Opera, Sam Wood snapped, "You can't make an actor out of clay," only to have Groucho flash back, "Nor a director out of Wood."

Monday, September 14, 2009

Ten Melos the Siren Would Watch Instead of "Mad Men"

If sticking it out for two-and-a-half episodes of Season 1 and one episode this season can be called trying, the Siren has tried with "Mad Men". She sees the attraction, even if the hype blows her mind--everything from Banana Republic to Barron's, for heaven's sake. The Siren admires the cinematic qualities of the series, the fluid camerawork, the carefully angled shots, the flawless integration of sets and costumes. It's pretty. The actors are pretty. The period detail is enough to warm an old-movie hound's heart. But on the whole, the Siren just doesn't dig it.

Despite the stratospheric sex appeal of Jon Hamm, January Jones and Christina Hendricks, the show is just so goddamned dour. The Siren suspects series creator Matthew Weiner wanted to avoid the nostalgia trap, but this is too far in the other direction. A little soupçon of affection for the past will not turn Mr. Weiner's dead-serious critique into "The Wonder Years Meets Ad Age." The Siren has seen movies from the era, and in those movies, people have a good time--every now and then, you understand, between bouts of weltschmerz. As James Wolcott wrote in Vanity Fair, "Mad Men" "has a seductive look, a compelling mood, a cast that could have been carved from a giant bar of Ivory soap, but zero grasp of the elastic optimism and vigor of the Kennedy years, the let-go spring of release after the constriction of the Eisenhower 50s."

Everyone on "Mad Men" goes around smoking and drinking and eating whatever they hell they want and having office affairs without once looking over their lovers' shoulders for process servers bearing class-action subpoenas, but does anyone enjoy it? Not from what the Siren has seen. It's like Saint Augustine wrote the scripts. Such laughs as "Mad Men" affords are tethered to hindsight--"We never indulge in such sexism/racism/anti-Semitism/homophobia now, and even if we do, we sure don't smoke."

Still, the Siren will probably watch more this season--between Wolcott's liveblogging and Lance's occasional commentaries, she doesn't want to be the clueless playground oddball. But in her heart, she'd rather watch a melodrama from the actual late Eisenhower-early Kennedy era. Good or bad, there's plenty to choose from.

So that's my justification for posting these brief takes on ten films actually made during the "Mad Men" period--dramas, because "Mad Men" is not, god knows, a comedy or a musical. These movies vary widely in terms of quality and critical repute, from bona fide masterpieces to simple soapers. But the Siren likes them all, as she likes a lot of the melodramas from this period. Many directors were exploring widescreen technique to admirable effect, and it was a great era for clothes and interiors. And when you watch the movies, you realize that people were far more aware of what was under society's facade than many suppose. (Two of the movies date to 1959--if Don Draper can fade out to Bob Dylan in 1960 then the Siren can cheat back a single year, she figures.)

Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959)
Social Issue: Racism.
Sets and Costumes: Perfection.
Sex appeal (Low/Medium/High): Beside the point. But John Gavin was in the full flower of his lockjaw handsomeness and Susan Kohner and Sandra Dee were lovely.
Why the Siren Likes It: It's a masterpiece, that's why, one that belongs on any list of the great films of the 1950s. A master class in how to make a movie about misguided, surface-focused people trapped by a hypocritical society, without condescending to or withholding compassion from them. The proof is that 50 years after its release, the thwarted mother-daughter love still reduces many to tears. The Siren bristles when she hears this described as camp. There isn't a single unintentional effect in it. The falseness and glitter are there to throw race, this country's original sin, into high relief. But Sirk doesn't invite the audience to feel superior. He wants recognition, AND he wants identification. In the superb opening scene on the beach, when Lana Turner reacts with gooey middle-class "understanding" to Juanita Moore's having a white-skinned daughter, Sirk didn't want the white liberals in the audience to say, "What a hypocrite." He wanted them to say, "Shit, that's me." (The beautiful screen cap is from Ways of Seeing, the Siren's new blog discovery; several others, equally enthralling, right here.)

The Best of Everything (Jean Negulesco, 1959)
Social Issues: Working women and adultery (go together like a horse and carriage in Hollywood movies of all eras), unwed pregnancy, abortion, casting couch, alcoholism.
Sets and Costumes: Great New York exteriors and the ultimate in smart little suits. Best of all, the Mondrian-esque office interiors, which Negulesco, a painter, probably influenced.
Sex appeal: High; Suzy Parker, Stephen Boyd, Louis Jourdan, even Robert Evans looks great.
Why the Siren Likes It: Underrated, influential film whose critical reputation is slowly improving. One of a number of "three [or four] girls" movies from the era, direct ancestors of "Sex and the City." Enjoyable on a number of different levels--as highly informative social artifact, as a proto-feminist tract, as an aesthetic treat, as a showcase for newcomers and old pros. The Siren particularly likes good old Brian Aherne as an ass-pinching executive and Joan Crawford, refusing to play her role as straight office harridan, giving her character both dignity and sensitivity. The beauteous Parker (up top) gets the best line: "Here's to men. Bless their clean-cut faces and their dirty little minds." The best appreciation of this film that the Siren has read is over at Noel Vera's place; he pays great attention to Negulesco's use of Cinemascope.

From the Terrace (Mark Robson, 1960)
Social Issues: Alcoholism, adultery, class snobbery, cutthroat business practices.
Sets and Costumes: High-end all the way. Joanne Woodward doesn't look completely at ease in Travilla, though.
Sex appeal: High. Paul Newman rates an automatic "high" in this category, as does Myrna Loy at any age.
Why the Siren Likes It: A parable about life versus work that everybody calls dated, except "Mad Men" apes the same themes. The Siren wrote a bit about this movie when Newman died; his performance is very good but the direction is noteworthy too, as is the Elmer Bernstein score.

All the Fine Young Cannibals (Michael Anderson, 1960)
Social Issues: Racism, alcoholism, class snobbery, adultery.
Sets and Costumes: Ersatz Southern, then faux bohemian, but extremely well-shot by William H. Daniels.
Sex appeal: Medium, largely because the Siren doesn't get Robert Wagner.
Why the Siren Likes It: Supposedly based on the life of Chet Baker. Jaggedly uneven and no one seems to have a clue about real white Southerners. But deserves to be remembered, if only for Pearl Bailey's haunting performance. For the Siren and those like her, there's also the nifty bit of role reversal for Susan Kohner, the "tragic mulatto" of Sirk's Imitation of Life, in the same movie as the penultimate role for Louise Beavers, of John Stahl's excellent 1934 Imitation of Life. (Poster is from the great Cinema Retro site.)

Return to Peyton Place (Jose Ferrer, 1961)
Social Issues: Working women (don't kid yourself, that's still an issue), rape, incest, adultery, (disguised) abortion, xenophobia.
Sets and Costumes: Meh. The exteriors look great, though.
Sex appeal: High; Eleanor Parker, Tuesday Weld, Carol Lynley, Jeff Chandler if you happen to like Jeff Chandler.
Why the Siren Likes It: Um...hard to say, since by no stretch of the imagination is it a good movie. This one the Siren won't kill you for calling camp. There really isn't anything else you could call it. The first Peyton Place is camp too, but had real value in Franz Waxman's score (heaven), Diane Varsi and the New England ambiance. Return, well, Ferrer was no director, they added lyrics and Rosemary Clooney when Waxman needed neither, and most of the cast looks about as comfortable as a soaking wet cat. But I appreciate Carol Lynley's pursuit of a career over and above a love affair (similar to the reason I liked Valley of the Dolls' fadeout). Mary Astor is great, playing a full-out embodiment of small-minded paranoia and ugliness. And Tuesday Weld manages to have emotional sincerity in some scenes despite playing opposite the stiffest excuse for a Swedish ski instructor you ever saw in your life.

Susan Slade (Delmer Daves, 1961)
Social Issues: Premarital sex, unwed motherhood, the hazards of cigarette smoking.
Sets and Costumes: Beautiful exteriors by master cinematographer Lucien Ballard, and the vaguely Japanese-style house on the Northern California coast, given to Connie Stevens's father by Brian Aherne (there he is again!) is quite an eyeful.
Sex appeal: Medium, though Connie Stevens (above) does her best.
Why the Siren Likes It: Interesting, Sirk-esque late-career movie by the talented Delmer Daves, with several scenes that have lost none of their ability to shock. Dave Kehr: "To an America that needed to believe that 'nice girls don’t,' Daves’s melodramas responded, 'Nice girls do' — or did at least sometimes, when the appropriate distinctions had been made between lust and love, predatory older males and sincere young men, casual encounters and lifetime commitments." Kehr prefers Parrish and Rome Adventure to Susan Slade and the Siren pretty much agrees with him, but Slade is worthwhile and closest to the "Mad Men" school of social history. Peter Nelhaus has a fine review of the movie, in which he compares it to Daves' westerns.

Advise and Consent (Otto Preminger, 1962)
Social Issues: Homophobia, subversion, government corruption.
Sets and Costumes: Stiff, cold and forbidding, perfectly in keeping with the machinations of the plot.
Sex appeal: Low. Gene Tierney is in this but she wasn't looking her best. Perhaps because he was making a movie about politicians, Preminger shot everyone with a GargoyleCam.
Why the Siren Likes It: Another masterpiece, a fisheyed look at the Washington influence game, usually taken as a riff on Alger Hiss but full of other echos as well. The scenes of back-door-dealing and blackmail ring as true as they ever did. Those tempted to tag the young, upright conservative senator's operatic torment over his gay attractions as quaint should think back to Jim McGreevey, Larry Craig and their many brethren--not to mention their wives. Despite the Red Scare trappings (and those are somewhat back in fashion, if you've noticed), Advise and Consent is one hell of a prescient movie. (To see just how prescient, the Siren recommends you check out this article by Meredith Hindley, senior writer at Humanities, on "The Transformation of Advise and Consent.") The above is from Ways of Seeing, whose proprietor clearly has excellent taste; for more screen grabs to show just how good this movie is, please click over and check out the rest.

The Light in the Piazza (Guy Green, 1962)
Social Issues: Mental retardation, class snobbery.
Sets and Costumes: Stunningly beautiful Italian setting (Guy Green was a highly accomplished cinematographer), Christian Dior dresses for Olivia de Havilland.
Sex appeal: High; Yvette Mimieux, George Hamilton and Rossano Brazzi, and de Havilland is much lovelier than the frightening lip color above suggests.
Why the Siren Likes It: Tender romance with a great performance by de Havilland, who carries the movie. Recently turned into an acclaimed musical that the Siren, alas, did not see. She does think the movie's insistence on the primacy of love, both parental and romantic, makes it a good choice for a musical treatment. At a time when the common practice was to shut the mentally retarded away in institutions, the notion that a developmentally delayed girl (albeit a beautiful one) deserved to marry a prince of an Italian and have babies was nothing short of revolutionary.

The V.I.P.s (Anthony Asquith, 1963)
Social Issues: Cutthroat business practices, tax evasion, adultery, domestic violence, depression.
Sets and Costumes: Enough to make you fly to Heathrow and wait to get fogged in--if flying were still like this.
Sex appeal: High. (Elizabeth Taylor at this point in her career does the same for a movie as Paul Newman. Elsa Martinelli was nothing to sneeze at, and neither was Richard Burton or Louis Jourdan.)
Why the Siren Likes It: See Return to Peyton Place. Plenty of lush period visuals, and there are pleasures to be had from Orson Welles even in unworthy roles (this one tinged with painful self-parody). But it's a pretty bad movie, though hardly the offense to all civilization that Walter Chaw paints it, and Elizabeth Taylor is an unconvincing version of Vivien Leigh. (Note to Mr. Chaw: Rod Taylor was a native Australian.) The Siren likes this primarily for Maggie Smith as the devoted secretary. I do love Dame Maggie. Christina Hendricks is good, but she still could learn something from what Smith accomplishes with a cliched role. Smith's scene with Richard Burton is the highlight, the so-so writing propped up with perfectly timed and calibrated reactions and beats.

Love With the Proper Stranger (Robert Mulligan, 1963)
Social Issues: Premarital sex, abortion, unwed motherhood.
Sets and Costumes: Supposedly low-end, but a mite too clean for all that. Steve McQueen made everything he wore look like a well-broken-in motorcycle jacket.
Sex appeal: High. Look at that publicity shot and tell me different.
Why the Siren Likes It: Has comic moments, but at heart a rather melancholy movie about a still-relevant topic, with legendary leads giving warm, authentic performances despite a wan third act. McQueen seldom let his vaunted cool slip to as much effect as here. When "Mad Men" gives a nudge about how far we've come, we should remember Wood planning an abortion, without hysteria. How many recent Hollywood movies or TV shows have let a beautiful, sympathetic lead do the same?

All right, so it's been a while, have at it. Tell me why I'm wrong about "Mad Men." Point out the movies I missed. (The Apartment isn't there and doesn't belong there; it's a comedy, and a satire, and very funny, and "Mad Men" isn't any of those those things.)

But, as always, play nice. The new banner, which MrsHenryWindleVale recognized without a telescope, is courtesy of the great Glenn Kenny. It is of course Dorothy Malone, from another Sirk masterpiece, The Tarnished Angels. Dorothy is meant to illustrate the Siren's general mood for the past month and probably the next.

Postscript: I've added a link to Peter Nelhaus's fine writeup (with lovely screen caps) of Susan Slade. Despite the deliberately provocative title, my main idea in writing this piece was "Hey, these early-1960s films that I love deserve a second look." So if anyone else has a post on some of these, or a similar movie from 1959-1963, post a link in comments by all means and I'll add it here. I'll start by also linking to Peter's post about Strangers When We Meet (b/w Town Without Pity, which also roughly fits our parameters despite the German setting). The Siren forgot about Richard Quine because--well, see banner above. Because of that.

Awesome screen caps from The Best of Everything right here. Apparently my mistake was not Googling "Suzy Parker."

Nathaniel of The Film Experience has been doing a series on movie references in Mad Men; one post involves a Draper household pillow-talk discussion of The Best of Everything that the Siren is sorry she missed. Great for "Mad Men" fans but rewarding for non-watchers too.


Vertigo's Psyche gives some love to Siren darling Sandra Dee and her exquisite performance in A Summer Place.

Arthur S., one of the most astute commenters in the film blogosphere, links us all up to a Douglas Sirk interview that is not to be missed.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Get Out Your Handkerchiefs: A Brief Defense of Melodrama

"You will get me to defend to the death a good melodrama any day of the week," Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films once said here. "It's an unfairly maligned form that I happen to love."

The Siren's been thinking about this most excellent observation (made on behalf of Million Dollar Baby, for the record) for the past few days, as the film blogosphere has one of its periodic kerfuffles. Remember when the Siren got rather worked up over the Oscar writer who dissed Sunrise right before the cinematography award? That was nothing compared to what Tom O'Neil of the Los Angeles Times dished out last week.

"Sunrise" is paper-thin, hilariously schmaltzy. All three primary characters are cartoonish clichés and their performances 3-inch slices of honeyed ham.

Mind you, I'm the kinda guy who'd normally side with the weepie. On my top 10 list of fave pix of all time are "Peggy Sue Got Married" and "Titanic." But I just can't shed a real tear when the farmer in "Sunrise" decides that he just — by golly! — can't off his sweet, dimpled wifey-pooh, after all. Nor could I cheer the scenes of the couple back together, all giddy smiles and kisses, posing for photos like newlyweds, dancing a happy peasant dance, joyous once he decided not to wring her scrawny little neck and hurl her over the side of the row boat.

What corn pone! Smothered in Cheez Whiz! "Wings" ain't Shakespeare or Scorsese, mind you, but it's better than that!

If hearing this gleeful philistinism from the paper of record in the world's movie capital depresses you, the comments section will cheer you up. This silent classic has far more fans than the Oscars may have led us to expect. The Siren isn't taking on Mr. O'Neil, not when he's been filleted for frying by the best, including Filmbrain and Glenn Kenny. At this point, as Molly Ivins used to say, it's called piling on, and there's a fifteen-yard penalty for it. No, instead the Siren wants to talk with her esteemed readers about melodrama, a word Mr. O'Neil's commenters use several times. Films labeled melodrama are too often maligned, but have a fine pedigree in the American cinema. And Sunrise is not schmaltzy (overly sentimental) nor is it purely a melodrama.

When the Siren's mother dispensed nasty-tasting medicine, she always gave a chaser, so here's our chaser, from The Parade's Gone By. Kevin Brownlow called this chapter "The Golden Path; or, The Curse of Melodrama":

Reassured by the belief that their prime duty was to entertain, film makers bought material of great potential and intelligence, stripped it of motivation and complex overtones, and reduced the action to basic, easy-to-follow melodrama.

Even the dictionary defines melodrama with a certain distaste: "Drama marked by crude appeals to emotion."

The purveyors of entertainment find melodrama an invaluable asset. It requires not the slightest effort on the part of the audience. They are not required to think, they merely watch. They will not miss any subtlety because there will not BE any subtlety. The values are simple, the threat is clear and
the resolution action-filled and straightforward. There is seldom any characterization in pure melodrama, never any complex motivation. Life is reduced to the infantile level of an adventure strip.

Brownlow was writing about the silent cinema, where what he called "the lashed-to-the-tracks, saved-by-the-dog pieces of unabashed nonsense" of the early days eventually gave way to more sophisticated plot drivers. The early silents gave us melodrama on its most basic level. But does anything Brownlow says make you think of Sunrise? No motivation or complex overtones, crude appeals to emotion, no effort required and no subtlety?

Melodrama relies heavily on plot, but Sunrise does nothing of the sort. It's the characters who tug at your heart, if you've a heart to tug. Janet Gaynor cringing away from the husband she loves might strike some as melodramatic in the worst sense. But the mere presence of strong emotion, conveyed in the most nakedly apparent way, doesn't add up to melodrama. Where Mr. O'Neil saw schmaltz, the Siren saw primitive fear, Gaynor showing us the physical terror women have felt down through the ages from certain men, even men they loved. And George O'Brien's torment shows how that violence cuts men off from the love and comfort they crave. You may call it melodrama, but the Siren calls it a conflict more ancient than the Greeks.

Pulling out the stops to draw strong emotions from your audience doesn't make something a melodrama in the Brownlow sense. If, however, you want to expand the definition to include plot-driven pictures, that still have strong motivations and well-drawn characters, and are designed chiefly to give us a good, cathartic burst of emotion, then you get something closer to what Marilyn Ferdinand defends. And the Siren thinks you also run into some of the finest pictures classic Hollywood has to offer. Check out this fine article on Greencine, which lovingly details what the Siren is talking about although it uses the perjorative "weepie," a term the Siren loathes from the depths of her movie-loving soul. also has a good article on melodrama, where you'll find a list that includes a lot of masterpieces.

In fact, just skimming the list on Filmsite--Caught, Letter from an Unknown Woman, The Bad and the Beautiful, Greed, Some Came Running, Imitation of Life, Stella Dallas, Camille, The Old Maid--makes the Siren wonder if there is some stealthy prejudice at work in the very fact that these are labeled melodramas at all. The appeals to emotion in these films are not crude, unless you consider any appeal to romance or sentiment to be crude. If you want blood-pumping appeals to emotion, without complex motivations or nuanced character development, then the genre that frequently offers that isn't the women's picture or a fable (a term the Siren is borrowing from Todd Holmes) like Sunrise.

You should look right here.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Code Nostalgia

The Siren clambers back on board the Cinephile Cruise Lines, half-drowned from December but toweled off and ready to report for duty, just in the nick of time. During her absence it seems another outbreak of Production Code affection has infected certain commentators. The apparent cause is Thomas Doherty's biography of Joseph I. Breen, flat-footed and flat-headed dean of the Hays Office, the man who was America's bulwark against movies containing double beds and the word "chippie." The Siren is quite eager to read the book, as reportedly it's fairly sympathetic to Breen. All the same, the Production Code was a blight. Let us quarantine this nostalgia virus before it can spread.

Once more, with feeling. The Code was not merely some quaint artifact designed to scrub sex, bad language and strong violence from the screen. It was explicitly political, designed to uphold one view of American life and one view only. Miscegenation was forbidden. So was any mention of birth control. No abortion. No homosexuality. No venereal disease. No drugs. But these subjects were risky for a producer in any case, though certainly some of the topics were broached in Pre-Code movies. No, as noted in Hollywood Goes to War and elsewhere, by far the most onerous provisions for filmmakers were those bearing on political and social themes. Religion and religious figures had to be treated respectfully. Criminal behavior must be a character defect, not an endemic societal problem, much less could social institutions be shown or implied to be criminal or corrupt as a whole. Bad deeds must be punished, and we must never sympathize too much with the bad-deed-doer, no matter the motivation or circumstances. Not that the Code bothered to censor certain aspects of American mores that we find distasteful today. The authors acidly note that Howard Hawks' Air Force depicted the intrinsic disloyalty of all Japanese Americans (or "stinkin' Nips," as the script puts it), and added a tasteful "Fried Jap going down!" when a plane is shot down. Breen passed all that, but carefully excised the forbidden word "lousy."*

The idea that the Code made films "better" is wrongheaded. It's often argued that censorship made movies more subtle, that it forced more creativity from directors and screenwriters who had to labor under its provisions. Force Picasso to get more creative by restricting him to an Etch-a-Sketch and hey, he's still Picasso, and maybe his stuff looks BETTER that way, you know, more SUBTLE.

Well, first of all, the "blossom under censorship" argument presumes that films made during the height of the Code (1934 to about 1954) are better than those made before the Code's strict enforcement, or after it withered away. The Siren won't make this argument. She readily proclaims that this era--call it Classic Hollywood, High Studio, the Golden Age or whatever you like--is her own favorite. She will happily discuss many films of the period as pinnacles of American art. But Kevin Brownlow could make a passionate argument for the art of the silent era, and in recent years many critics have done the same for the late 60s-early 70s Hollywood renaissance. (That isn't even taking the cinema of other countries into account.) The Siren prefers the studio aesthetic, the look, texture, sound and dialogue of the period, the wider variety of acting styles, the exuberance of directors and cinematographers who were in a great phase of discovery. But better than any other era, anywhere? A shaky proposition, prone to collapse at the first gust of critical hot air.

Even if the Siren yields to her own preferences, and says sure, that was it for filmmaking, as good as it ever got or will get, why on earth do people point to the Code as a major contributing factor? Vertical integration of production and distribution, lack of television competition for talent and audiences, an ironclad contract system, the ability to pay to lure talent, as well as an influx of expatriates as Europe went to hell, surely had more to do with the era's glories. And if you look at the great films of the studio era, it becomes plain that they're great despite, not because of, the Code. The movies we venerate from the period were made by filmmakers testing the limits of censorship, not the guys setting the table with buckets of Breen's wholesome cream of heartland wheat. (Quick, which would you rather watch tonight--Double Indemnity, or Going My Way?)

The best artists in Hollywood worked within the constraints of the Code, as a poet may work within the rigid form of a sonnet. That doesn't mean freedom would have hurt the movies, or made them hopelessly violent or vulgar. The morals of the times alone would have set boundaries; it's silly to suppose that no Code means Lubitsch would have made Last Tango in Paris. Instead the Code forced filmmakers to focus on minutiae such as whether "nuts" was being used in its permissible sense of "crazy" or whether Ona Munson's bosom was too padded in Gone with the Wind.

During the same period the American theater, which had far fewer strictures, also underwent something of a Golden Age. Imagine that Hollywood had been able, say, to film Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, which was produced as a play in the 1930s. Or that Robert Sherwood's Idiot's Delight had been filmed as written, instead of bowdlerized at the behest of Breen. (The censor was so anxious not to offend Mussolini that in 1938--19-thirty-bloody-eight, mind you, after the invasion of Ethiopia and the year Nuremberg-style anti-Semitic laws were passed in Italy--that he carried a copy of the script to Rome for inspection by the government there.) Imagine a film version of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? made soon after the novel appeared in 1935. The Code's dim view of social and political subjects meant Hal Wallis spoke for many when he groused that "Hollywood might as well go into the milk business."

It's easy to get all misty-eyed over past glories and forget all the messy bad stuff. People dealing with the Code at the time gave it the contempt it deserved. Let's allow David O. Selznick, maker of films we nowadays regard as fine stuff for the whole family, to have the last word:

We need at least to have something like the freedom that newspapers and magazines and book publishers and the legitimate stage have...Instead, this short sighted industry allows itself to be strangled by this insane, inane and outmoded Code.

*The Siren is also dismayed to see a lot of bloggers pushing the meme that Hollywood movies were in lockstep with the American government's war aims during World War II. The record is, of course, more complex. The Office of War Information spent a great deal of time trying to tone down the slavering racism of many movies set in the Pacific theater. And if there was a simplistic good vs evil dynamic to most WW II movies, that was due in part to Hollywood simply pasting the war into as many stock plots as possible, from the Bowery Boys movies to Tarzan to backstage musicals. The Siren could go on but, unfortunately, her schedule forces her to deal with myths one at a time.