Tuesday, September 28, 2021

National Silent Movie Day: Manhandled (1924)

Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, is National Silent Movie Day. New York City's beloved Film Forum is celebrating with a screening of Allan Dwan's 1924 silent Manhandled, starring the fabulous Gloria Swanson. Some years back, the Siren wrote an appreciation of this film for a dossier on Allan Dwan, and she reprints the essay here. Those in the New York area who want to celebrate in person can go to the Film Forum screening at 6:40 pm, with live piano accompaniment by Steve Sterner.

The Hays Code, the how-to guide for Hollywood morality, was already in place in 1924 when Paramount was deciding on a follow-up to Zaza for Gloria Swanson and her new favorite director, Allan Dwan. One enterprising promotional executive who was using the Code for what it was actually good for—pointers on what might titillate an audience into attendance—found that the act of "manhandling" was forbidden. The executive noted, however, that there was no injunction against titling something "Manhandled." 

 According to Swanson in her autobiography, Dwan asked Frank Tuttle for a story that could live up to the title. Tuttle suggested they flesh out a short story about a gum-snapping salesgirl whose good looks cause a series of rich bounders to lure her with promised riches, even as she tries to stay true to her poor-but-loving inventor boyfriend. Swanson, who was looking for things that would take her away from her couture-draped suffering image, agreed. 

 And so the movie begins with Swanson getting manhandled in a big way by that mauler supreme, the New York City subway system. Before she descends into the maw, Swanson's salesgirl, Tessie, gets splashed by passing cars, but that's only the prologue. Swanson was one of Hollywood’s most petite stars in history: 4 feet 11 inches. Many of her other movies use tricks to de-emphasize this, but Dwan seems to relish Swanson's shortness. Once Tessie is shoved onto the subway car by a uniformed platform worker (New York rush hour could still use this job) she's stuck between two men at an eye level just below their armpits. 

 Swaying with them against her will, Tessie does the dance of the New Yorker trying to avoid too much body contact, no matter how cramped the quarters. She drops her purse, and the men who bookend her stoop to help retrieve its contents. But when they reach back up for the straps, she's still got her arms looped through theirs, and for a moment Tessie is suspended in air. Once she's back on her feet and smacking away at her gum, the movement of the car and the crowd dislodges Tessie's impossible hat, an overlarge squashy cloche adorned with what look like marbles (although they're probably supposed to be grapes) swinging from one side like the tassel on a fez. The hat falls to the ground, she does a deep-knee bend to retrieve it, and when she finally comes back up, the hat has lost its grapes. 

 And, for a marvelously subtle half-minute, the mood shifts. Tessie's face crumples as she looks at her hat, bereft of its ridiculous ornament. You know instantly that the fruit was her favorite part, probably the reason she bought the hat, just as surely as you know that she can't afford to replace it. 

 Then her face regains its old hardness, she pulls the denuded hat back over her hopelessly mussed bob, and the hellish ride continues, complete with a masher all but licking his lips at her from his seat. When she tries to get off at her station, Dwan switches to an overhead shot. Perched in the rafters, we watch poor tiny Tessie try to disembark and get pushed back into the car, over and over. She can't manage to leave walking upright; she eventually has to bend over and scurry under a railing. Small as Tessie is, the subway, meaning of course New York itself, has all but brought her to her knees. 

 Dwan made six films with Swanson. "I like them all," he told Peter Bogdanovich. "But I think I might have liked Manhandled best for some reason—I can't remember why." Watching the subway sequence will certainly make it clear for anyone else. It's perfect—as a record of New York subways at rush hour in the 1920s, as a monument to Swanson's flair for slapstick, as a remarkably explicit commentary on the roughness, indifference and humiliations a woman may encounter from men any day of her life. 

 Dwan is famous for the widely varying nature of his movies. He did Westerns, noirs, comedies, adventures, historicals. Manhandled is a romantic comedy—the drama over Tessie's honor is largely sidelined—but more than anything, it's a star vehicle. They got along, Swanson and Dwan; she said that even at their first dinner meeting, she saw he was a genius. Still, Dwan must have known his main job on this film was to get one of the biggest movie names in the world square in the frame and looking good. He knew precisely how to handle Swanson's comic presence and timing, which were delicious. And Swanson was a beauty and a clotheshorse, with a keen sense of how to make herself look luscious on screen, and Dwan knew exactly how to use that and keep it comic, too. 

 Swanson seems to be in every shot, although it's probably more like 3/4. Dwan has a consistent pattern for how he shoots Swanson. In a funny moment, the actress is usually full-face or three-quarters to the camera; even the broad way she moves her mouth when she's talking suggests a patented Noo Yawk honk. You often have the fun of discovering her most humorous bits at the edge of the frame, like Tessie's little hand gesture when stowing her chewing gum under a dressing table at a posh apartment. 

When it's an emotional moment—she's with Tom Moore as her boyfriend, or pondering her love for him—Dwan usually shoots his star in profile. Swanson had a tricky profile; "ski-slope," they said, when she was starting out. As filmed by Dwan, it's always ravishing. A profile shot half-obscures Swanson's most celebrated asset, her eyes. Instead Dwan focuses on the purity of the skin, the curve of the cheekbones as, at the end of the movie, Tessie begs her angry man to say he still loves her. 

 Almost as wonderful as the subway scenes are the shots of Tessie at the window of her boardinghouse room. She loves her inventor, but she's afraid of marriage. She looks out the window at the airshaft, and Dwan films her almost with her back to the camera, her face reflected in the glass. Another overhead shot shows a woman (possibly pregnant) washing dishes at the sink; another woman is walking a crying baby while her stocky, shirtless and exhausted husband sprawls in a chair. That's early in the film; it's recreated at the end, when Tessie thinks she's lost Jim for good. It's night and it's harder to see her expression reflected in the glass, but the view out the window has changed: The maybe-pregnant woman is being embraced by her husband; the mother and father are in a chair, playing with their baby while their other children sleep in a shabby bed nearby. 

 These are the things that give texture and poignance to the comedy. In 1924, it was a given that sentiment embellished a film, not diminished it. But Manhandled is, above all, a very funny movie. Dwan pulls in a little closer for a view of Tessie, on a sales floor that's almost as crowded as the subway, impatiently blowing off the supervisor who's giving her a lengthy summary of what she's doing wrong. The supervisor is almost completely turned away from the camera; Tessie is being oppressed by a bald spot and a chin. 

 Later, Tessie will briefly become a sculptor's model, until, with burning eyes and flaring nostrils, the artist (Ian Keith) suddenly goes after her like she's Agnes Ayres in The Sheik. An impression that Tessie does of a Russian countess at a party gains her a job doing the same thing for Frank Morgan's oily couturier. One of the funniest things in the movie occurs when an actual Russian accosts Tessie at the atelier and speaks to her in the mother tongue. Swanson panics for an instant, then dissolves into tears. Dwan shoots his star's entire body as she droops across her interrogator, too moved by the evocation of her supposed homeland to speak. 

 Almost as brilliant is Dwan's handling of a potentially not-funny scene where Tessie is in a limo. We see only the driver and Tessie, richly gowned in the back, looking bored as hell and apprehensive, too. The head of the rich kid she's stuck with lurches into the frame beside her, as we suddenly understand her mood. After an exchange of words in the back seat, Dwan cuts back to the shot of the driver and Tessie, the rich kid intrudes into the frame again, and she slams out of the car. 

 Swanson had great natural comedic talent, but many years before the Method became common currency, Dwan wanted his privileged star to have a taste of the real in her performance. He told Bogdanovich that he made Swanson ride the Times Square–Grand Central shuttle at rush hour, resulting in the Manhattan hordes tearing glamorous Gloria's clothes and almost her body, too. (He said she spent many years trying to get even with him via various practical jokes.) 

 Dwan also urged her to spend a couple of days in disguise working at a department store, because she'd never been near a bargain counter even as a customer. Swanson powdered over her world-famous beauty mark, put on a blonde wig and stuck cotton in her nose. The result, she said, was that she talked "like a duck." She managed the deception for about a day and a half before being found out. But in both cases, when the time came to film, Dwan said Swanson told him, "Don't tell me—I know what it's like." 

 "We practically had no scripts," he told Bogdanovich, "we used to manufacture things as we went." Swanson agreed; "Allan used a script like a blueprint," she said. "The best things we made up as we went along." When she was making Zaza, Swanson said she understood that "I had been getting stale in Hollywood, and I hadn't realized it." Allan Dwan made her fresh, and she was never fresher than in Manhandled.

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Virginia Grey: Everything But Luck

The Siren has another article up at Noir City e-magazine, the publication of the Film Noir Foundation. For putting your name on the mailing list, and contributing $20 (which goes to the Foundation's film preservation activities), you will get a subscription to Noir City. 

This time the Siren is fulfilling a long-held ambition to write something about Virginia Grey, the striking, slender and versatile actress who graced almost 100 movies over the course of a career that lasted from 1927, when she played Little Eva in a silent version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, to her retirement in 1975. MGM colleague Ann Rutherford recalled, after Grey died in 2004, "The camera adored her. There was not a bad angle to her face." She added that Grey "could play the girl next door or somebody's other woman. And that was what kept her working." It was also what made Virginia fascinating to the Siren; that, as well as how good Grey could be if you gave her a good part. We'll start the excerpt with one film that everyone remembers.

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"Why don't you borrow the quintuplets for the evening?": The Women (1939)

Perhaps Grey’s most famous scene was a short one in The Women, the 1939 MGM masterpiece directed by George Cukor. She plays Pat, the saleswoman swooping around Joan Crawford’s Crystal Allen like a chic mosquito; as Crystal weepily refers to a sister’s illness, Pat asks, “What's wrong with her? She got a hangover?” The Women is a social comedy, but the Pat character’s cynicism would fit just fine in a film noir. In a vast cast of female stars (“everybody but Lassie,” cracked Rosalind Russell), critics singled Grey out. Yet even The Women didn’t do the trick for her at MGM. The studio cut her loose in 1942. 

A gorgeous blonde in Hollywood will always have beaus, and Clark Gable became by far her most serious love. They met while he was in the process of divorcing his wife Rhea Langham. While she waited, ready to marry him the moment he asked, Virginia gave him a dachshund. But he didn’t ask. He married Carole Lombard instead. By all reports, Grey never got over it. Historian Robert Matzen, who wrote the book Fireball about the 1942 crash that killed Carole Lombard, said that a year or so after the tragedy, Gable “went back where he could be adored as needed.” Once again, though, it didn’t last; in 1949 Gable abruptly married Lady Sylvia Ashley. Though she had a relationship with Robert Taylor and also became close to George Raft, Grey never married. In a 2003 interview, all Grey would say about her feelings for Gable was “I adored him. I always will.” 

"Virginia Grey has the temperament of a saint": Modern Screen, December 1947

She had talent, she had versatility, she had exquisite looks and a congenial nature. Virtually everyone in Hollywood liked Virginia Grey, says Matzen, including her supposed rival Carole Lombard. “Virginia,” Louis B. Mayer once told her, “you have everything but luck.” 

And so the world of freelance acting seemed to offer her much the same as she’d gotten on contract: supporting work in big films, occasional leads in the smaller ones. Maybe being a perpetual also-ran was why some of Grey’s most highly individual and memorable performances came in movies like Accused of Murder (1956) and The Threat (1949). Film noir makes up a relatively small part of her filmography — she made at least as many westerns, for example — but in those noirs, she breathed striking life into her messed-up, misguided, in some cases blatantly foolish characters. Watching these movies, you feel instinctively that Grey understood what it means to be stuck in a rut, and even more so did she understand how it feels to love and not be loved back. She knew what it was like to have the goods and still get cheated. 

Grey's satin-clad vamping graced much of the publicity for Smooth as Silk.

For Universal in 1946 Grey was billed just below Kent Taylor for a 64-minute Universal Pictures B called Smooth as Silk, directed by Charles Barton. Grey plays actress Paula Marlowe, who’s stuck in supporting parts and is willing to lie, cheat, and steal her way to stardom. Whether or not frustrated ambition was Grey’s own predicament, she’s deliciously ruthless here, like Eve Harrington — only more obvious. Told she’s not getting the lead role she expected, Grey emits a “What?” that sounds like the bark of a seal, turning a monosyllable into a great line. 

Grey tries to reason with Charles McGraw (left) while
Michael O'Shea (center) looks on warily in The Threat

One of the most violent noirs Grey ever made was 1949’s The Threat, its genre credentials anchored by the incontestably tough Charles McGraw. The film shows that if the milieu moved downmarket, Grey was more than up to the challenge. Directed at RKO by Felix Feist, it’s a kidnapping saga with McGraw as a murderer named Kluger who’s on the lam from Folsom Prison, and has taken Michael O’Shea’s cop and Frank Conroy’s district attorney as hostages. Also unwillingly along for the ride is Carol (Grey), a nightclub singer and Kluger’s former moll, one he believes ratted him out. Carol spends much of her time trying to persuade him not to kill her and getting brutally knocked around for her pains. The movie was made soon after Gable’s marriage to Ashley, and Grey’s physical state is impossible to ignore. Always elegantly slender, here she is alarmingly thin, almost translucent; you feel that McGraw could pick any bone at will and snap it. Yet survive Carol somehow does, on a mixture of talk and shrewd psychological manipulation. For a fan of Virginia Grey, Carol’s arc is uniquely satisfying.

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In the full Noir City article, the Siren also discusses Accused of Murder, from whence comes the banner; Highway 301, with noir icon Steve Cochran; Crime of Passion, with Barbara Stanwyck; Sam Fuller's brilliant, bonkers The Naked Kiss; and even a few outliers like Jeanne Eagels. So please do consider throwing $20 in the hat and subscribing. It's a great periodical and the Siren is proud to be in it.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Zachary Scott's Gilded Cage: Excerpt from Article at Noir City Magazine

The Noir City E-Mag No. 30, Spring 2020, has sprung, and the Siren has a piece in it, about the career of the genre’s quintessential playboy heel, Zachary Scott. Naturally the Siren focused on his work in what Scott would have called “melodramas” or “crime pictures,” from his brilliant debut as the depraved title character of The Mask of Dimitrios, to his scheming gamekeeper in the not-noir-but-close-enough The Young One, directed by Luis  Buñuel. The article has had a long and somewhat circuitous route to publication (through no fault of Noir City, and that's all the Siren will say about that) and reflects a great deal of time spent watching Zachary Scott films and reading about Zachary Scott and thinking deep thoughts about Zachary Scott’s acting. Here, for example, is a newspaper article that turned up in the Siren’s research; alas, she couldn’t wedge it in, given that her Scott saga was already running over length. It’s from the Honolulu Advertiser of July 12, 1951.

The real discovery of this period of research was Guilty Bystander from 1949. Made during what was unquestionably the worst year Scott ever had, the movie has many uncomfortable parallels with what was going on in his life, and he gives one of his finest performances. The Siren watched Guilty Bystander in a public-domain print that appeared to have been run through a Maytag rinse cycle a few times shortly after serving as a drawer liner, but there is no need for her patient readers to experience it the same way anymore. It’s been restored via the offices of Nicolas Refn, and the restoration was recently screened on MUBI.com and will doubtless turn up elsewhere soon. For the record, the Siren also got a kick out of Flaxy Martin, wherein Virginia Mayo's title character makes a sap out of Scott in a big way.

The Siren advises her readers to subscribe, which they can do here for a small $20 fee that will go to the restoration work of the Film Noir Foundation. Should they do so, they'll get a wonderful array of top-notch work, including articles by Nora Fiore, and Chelsey Minnis, as well as the Siren's old friend Imogen Sara Smith. Imogen has a long and deeply researched biographical article about the life of the writer and director José Giovanni, who she calls “one of the most fascinating figures in French cinema” and “the source for three indisputable masterpieces, Le Trou (The Hole, 1960), Classe tous risques (The Big Risk, 1960), and Le deuxième souffle (Second Wind, 1966).”

“But,” writes Imogen, “as noir teaches, the past never stays buried.” Giovanni had a criminal past he'd used to buff his underworld cred, while remaining notably cagey about the details. Almost 30 years ago it was revealed that this murky background in fact camouflaged a record of collaboration with the Nazis, kidnapping, extortion, and murder for profit. Imogen tells the whole story, culled largely from French-language sources that have been hard to access, and plunges into the question of how the writer’s real nature may affect our perception of his work (and those who worked with him). It is, as the Siren told a friend, major.

In the meantime, while Noir City remains available only to paid subscribers, the Siren here offers an excerpt, with the kind permission of publisher (and TCM Noir Alley host) Eddie Muller.

* * * * *

...Flamingo Road (1949), which re-teamed Scott with Crawford and Curtiz, his key collaborators from Mildred Pierce, was better news in every way. The budget was decent; Robert Wilder’s screenplay of his own hothouse novel offered some big scenes for Scott’s character; and in the cast and ready to consume the scenery for lunch was Scott’s old friend Sydney Greenstreet. Crawford plays Lane Bellamy, a carnival dancer who washes up in a corrupt Florida town and proceeds to upend the local establishment. Fielding Carlisle (Scott, graced with another snooty handle) falls in love with Lane, but must marry a vacuous local deb in order to preserve his hopes of becoming governor. “All the characters are either crooked, engaged in adultery or illicit sex, as well as in criminal attempts to frame one another,” read the Breen Office’s accurate and delightful plot summary. Naturally the studio had to clean it up a bit, but enough sleaze survived to make Flamingo Road one of Scott’s most beloved films as well as a personal favorite of melodrama maestro Rainer Werner Fassbinder. What’s more, Flamingo Road was a hit.

Maybe Scott saw brighter horizons for 1949. If so, he was gravely mistaken. He was about to have the worst year of his life. It started out well enough in the spring, with Scott going to Film Classics to make Guilty Bystander, his fourth and best film with Faye Emerson. For once he was free of the threadbare-socialite routine. Scott is Max Thursday, an alcoholic ex-cop whose wife has left him and taken their son. Life has spiraled down to a gig as the house detective in a flophouse run by Smitty (Mary Boland, splendid in her final film role). Emerson plays ex-wife Georgia, who turns to Max in desperation when their son goes missing. Depression and drink were two things Scott knew well, and he throws himself into every sordid scene of self-pity and lashing out. Made just as Hollywood was discovering alcohol addiction as opposed to well-lubricated good times, Guilty Bystander knows going on the wagon is agony for Max even if he fears for his son’s life. The diamond-smuggling plot device gets tortuous, but Max’s struggle never feels phony. His major scene with Smitty, which should not be spoiled, is a marvel of high-tension reveals. (One reason Guilty Bystander doesn’t have a better reputation is that it’s been circulating for years in appalling video versions. Director Nicolas Winding Refn, a fan of the film, has financed a digital restoration to be offered free via his website, byNWR.com.)

It was a terrific performance. But in a very noir twist, while Scott was on location, his wife, Elaine, was falling in love with John Steinbeck. The two met while they were both houseguests of Ann Sothern. By the time Guilty Bystander wrapped and Scott had rented a house in Malibu for the family, Elaine announced that she was leaving him for the Grapes of Wrath guy. Years later, daughter Waverly recalled to biographer Davis that when the bombshell was dropped, Scott stood in their living room yelling “John Steinbeck?!!?” in disbelief. The denial phase lasted a while, until Elaine filed for divorce in November.

Days later, Scott went rafting on a rubber boat off Topanga Canyon with his good friend, actor John Emery. A riptide capsized the craft, Scott hit his head on a rock, and Emery had to swim for shore with his unconscious friend in tow. The injuries kept Scott in the hospital for days, and the recuperation period was long enough to add to Jack Warner’s displeasure with his recalcitrant contract player.

Scott’s prospects grew dimmer. He had run the gamut of ways to piss off the studio brass. He borrowed against his salary, asked for loan-outs, pestered them to change the type of roles he was offered. Elaine had charged “mental cruelty” when asking for a divorce, and the filing included embarrassing revelations such as the dinner party where Scott threw an ashtray at a wall. And there were the absences: a “cold” here, a “bump on the head” there, “exhaustion,” a plain old no-show. Give or take a few accurate excuses, Jack Warner knew exactly what this spelled: Scott drank, and it was getting worse.

(Note: The banner still is from Danger Signal, which is discussed in the full article. The Siren couldn't resist the Chablis and the Scott side-eye.)

Sunday, September 08, 2019

The Big Clock (1948, John Farrow)

 Not all film noir takes place in a seedy underworld; sometimes noir arrives on the commuter train wearing a custom-made suit. So it goes with John Farrow’s The Big Clock (1948), which sets its dark doings and flashback narrative in a top-flight New York corporation that occupies a swank (if somberly lit) Midtown office tower.

The hero (or, if you prefer, since this is film noir, the primary sap) is family man George Stroud (Ray Milland), an executive in the massive publishing empire of Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton). One night Stroud gets himself into a pickle by getting drunk with Pauline York, played by Rita Johnson as a trampy soul with a chic exterior. Unfortunately for Stroud, Pauline is also Janoth’s mistress, and Stroud must exit her couch the next morning when their boss drops by unexpectedly.

After Stroud exits, mistress and magnate fight, and fifty years before anyone ever saw a Viagra ad, Pauline’s tirade shows off some choice euphemisms for “impotent”: “You think you could make any woman happy?...You flabby, flabby...” And that last word is one of the last Pauline utters, as Janoth bludgeons her to death with a sundial.

Well, what’s a self-respecting titan to do in such a situation, except use every last bit of his power to pin the blame on someone else? And the someone else happens to be Stroud. The main twist in Jonathan Latimer’s twisty script (based on a novel by Kenneth Fearing) is that Janoth doesn’t know who he’s after, and Stroud must extricate himself without Janoth’s finding out.

The cast includes Farrow’s real-life wife, Maureen O’Sullivan, as Milland’s wife, and Mrs. Stroud is a touch on the petulant side. When she whines out a line like “I could write an article — how to look at a wall in six easy lessons,” it seems the silver lining to being framed for murder must be that at least it gets Stroud out of the house. Milland, on the other hand, had a dry, understated delivery that works wonders with a putdown like “He doesn't want to let his left hand know whose pocket the right one is picking.” That talent keeps his rather self-centered character in the audience’s good graces.

The film also finds George Macready playing Steve Hagen, the high-ranking bag-man who covers up for Janoth. Macready shows off his supreme ability to play an aristocratic criminal to the ice-cold hilt. He’s the perfect foil for Laughton, and as with Macready and Glenn Ford in Gilda, there is a suggestion of something more than friendship and professional interest between Janoth and Hagen.

That connection was explicit in Fearing's novel, but Laughton and Macready get the point across, too. "Steve, I've just killed someone," Laughton tells Macready, as though announcing he will bid four clubs. "Well, she's been asking for it for a long time," says Macready, by way of consolation.

There’s one more off-screen spouse on screen: Laughton's real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester, shows up to get most of the laughs, as a daffy artist whose painting has been sold to Stroud. She could doom Stroud merely by drawing his face — but doesn't, saying, "I've few enough collectors without sending one to jail."

Despite all this top-drawer company, it is Laughton who rules over The Big Clock. In Hollywood movies, most tyrannical managers are openly and loudly abusive. Laughton as Janoth keeps his voice low, forcing subordinates to lean close, which they wouldn't do otherwise. Getting close would mean they have to look at Janoth’s weedy little moustache and the way he strokes it with one finger, in a gesture as suggestive as it is repulsive. He won't make eye contact, which refusal emphasizes his employees' wormlike status. And Laughton speaks every word in an affected, maddeningly casual drawl, underlining that he doesn't give a hoot if he just screwed up someone's life.

The movie derives its title and central metaphor from the enormous, state-of-the-art clock in Janoth's building. The publisher is obsessed with time and punctuality, heedless of the hours he demands from others, but convinced every minute of an employee's tardiness is a form of theft. There's no mystery as to how he rose so high: He hires talented people and sucks the life out of them. No detail is too petty, no penny-pinching too undignified. At one point he docks an employee’s pay for leaving a light burning in a closet. Laughton does this in the same tone one might use for ordering a lunch delivery.

John Farrow’s movies combine the serviceable with bursts of the spectacular, and there are times when it’s the actors and Latimer’s darkly funny script that keep things humming. But Farrow’s direction reaches its apex with a shot that slides down from the ceiling, like Zeus descending, to find Laughton emerging from his elevator, and to track the actor circling a table during an executive meeting, shooting down his underlings’ idea one by one without ever glancing their way. But Laughton won’t even let the camera upstage him, as he hands a glass of water back to a secretary without looking to make sure she’s actually standing behind him.

If Laughton's performance has a flaw, it's that he is so consistently maddening that he risks the audience’s irritation becoming genuine; the Siren found herself thinking, "Speak up, for goodness sake, and will you stop it with the blasted moustache already!" In all the Siren’s years of watching movies, few characters got under her skin as much as Janoth did. Laughton creates a sort of Ur-Boss, bursting with every nasty managerial trait you ever noticed — and some you hadn't, until Laughton magnified them for you.

(This is the full-length version of the Siren's essay published years ago
at a now-defunct online magazine.)

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Olivia (1951)

(Olivia is a co-release by Icarus Films and Distrib Films US. The film's glorious 4K restoration was done by Les Films de la Pleiade in collaboration with Les Films du Jeudi with the support of the CNC, and is having a run at the Quad Cinema in New York. There are plans for it to play other cities, and when it does, you most definitely should go.)

When Simone Simon made her Hollywood debut in 1936, it was in a 66-minute trifle called Girls’ Dormitory. Set in a German boarding school where the girls do their fencing and swimming in unnerving Leni Riefenstahl–style symmetrical rows, the story concerns how Simon (25, playing 19) falls in love with the Herr Direktor (Herbert Marshall, a handsome but obvious 46) and, eventually, gets her (old) man, even though lovelorn age-appropriate Ruth Chatterton is right there, pining away. It’s a pretty terrible movie, leaden of pace and wooden of dialogue, with countless discombobulating close-ups of Simon, then getting the star buildup from 20th-Century Fox.

But, at least for the Siren, the contrast with Girls’ Dormitory gave an added frisson to Olivia, a beautiful movie made 15 years later in France by the director Jacqueline Audry. Simon plays Miss Cara, co-headmistress (her exact title is a bit fuzzy) of a luxe girls’ boarding school, in neurasthenic love with her partner Miss Julie (Edwige Feuillère), and pitting infatuated students one against another due to her suspicions that Miss Julie is seducing certain favorites. Far more headily romantic and sensual than Girls’ Dormitory, Olivia is a film where the clasp of a hand or a brush of the cheek stands in for all sorts of possibilities. But alas, there can be no permanent togetherness like that granted to Herr Direktor and his teenage fan.

The title character (Marie-Claire Olivia, a stage name she adopted for this movie) is around 16 or 17, the latest pupil at the girls’ school run by Miss Julie and Miss Cara. Imperious Miss Julie is devoted to the arts in such an evangelical way that she reminded the Siren of an apolitical Miss Jean Brodie, though that famed Scottish teacher wouldn’t come along for another decade. Miss Cara, on the other hand, is devoted to passive-aggression, wielding migraines, insomnia, and vague aches from the chaise longue in her room.

Despite the querulous presence of Miss Cara, at first this seems simply like the greatest boarding school of all time, an all-female paradise. Virtually no men intrude, and when they do, they are usually filmed from the back; they have no power here. The food is, in defiance of expectations, delicious, prepared by Victoire (a hilarious Yvonne de Bray) to adhere to Miss Julie’s expectation that her girls will develop a refined palate to go with their other cultivated tastes. The classroom is a two-story library with perfectly matched volumes and a vast, welcoming round table. The math teacher (Suzanne Dehelly) admits she doesn’t like math and bluntly tells the girls that cube roots have nothing to do with life. The school itself is an exquisite mansion in the French countryside, with a big swoop of a staircase and a huge individual room for each resident. It’s all decorated in the most deliciously feminine Belle Époque style, with graceful furniture and mounds of velvet hangings, tassels, and lace. (The production designer was Jean d’Eaubonne, who worked for Max Ophuls on similarly set films such as as Le Plaisir.) Oh, and the gardens, the manicured gardens, begging you to romp, or sip tea, or sit on the grass with a book. Even the countryside beckons. One of the students squeals to Olivia, “Let’s go run in the forest” and the Siren nearly found herself responding out loud, “Yes, LET’S!”

But in a school movie, the arrival of a new student always sets off reverberations. Olivia is invited to visit Miss Cara’s boudoir, where the girl observes how to keep a paisley shawl on the lady’s feet and apply a hot cologne pad (a what? that’s a new one on the Siren) to Miss Cara’s aching brow. And it seems that Olivia is destined to be a “Carista”—arrayed on Miss Cara’s side of this peculiar, not at all cold war. But when Miss Julie conducts a fireside reading of Racine’s Andromaque for a group of enthralled pupils, her command of poetry causes Olivia to fall in love with her in the space of a couple of hours, and thus does Olivia become a “Julist.” (The Brodie set! Did Maggie Smith see this movie?)

Feuillère was, wrote David Shipman, “a pupil of a pupil of Sarah Bernhardt,” her training thus as purely classical as you could get. She was once a member of the Comédie-Française, but soon left because she disliked the quality of the roles she was offered. And like co-star Simone Simon, Feuillère’s personal life was mysterious and not for public consumption; her sole youthful marriage ended after only a couple of years due to (depending on your source) his drug use or simple incompatibility, although it was his name that she adopted for the stage. “Her voice,” wrote the Independent, “which no one who heard it could ever forget, was powerful, vibrant, controlled and perfectly modulated.” She was famous also for her beauty, which age diminished scarcely at all. So Feuillère is perfect for the part of Mlle. Julie, the magnetic headmistress who reads Racine and Corneille, Victor Hugo and Aeschuylus, to an audience of enthralled teenage girls.

Under its hothouse trappings, Audry’s film is serious about what it means for a pupil to fall in love with her teacher, and the overtones of predation should the teacher return that love. Thus Feuillère plays Julie at a constant slow-boil. Even a glance from those magnificent eyes is felt by her girls in their very bones. She seems barely able to help herself with all this temptation around; at a masqued Christmas ball, the headmistress briefly fastens her mouth on the neck of a beautiful student in an astonishing gesture of vampiric sensuality. Yet more than once Miss Julie indicates that she knows the consequences of acting on her desires with girls too young for a sexual affair, and in particular, she fears the results for Olivia. Bright and pretty, but not too much of either, Olivia is not a standout in any way, and Julie tells her this. But they both know that Olivia’s queer desires will always set her apart, as they do Miss Julie.

The movie leaves many questions deliciously unanswered. Where the heck are the younger students during the day? Who dusts all those velvet hangings and lace curtains? Is Miss Cara having affairs with her students, or do they simply apply hot cologne pads to her forehead and tiptoe out? What kind of hold does the sinister German teacher Frau Riesener have on Miss Cara? Who is the human agent of Miss Cara’s ultimate fate? What’s the story with the girlish, brokenhearted Italian teacher? The only character whose heart seems entirely open to the audience is Olivia, a teenager slowly realizing her attraction to women.

Audry's direction is as elegant as the surroundings; she loves fluid camera movement and graceful overhead shots. To watch Olivia is to feel a simmering resentment that you (probably) haven’t seen other films by Jacqueline Audry, which is no doubt the impetus behind this restoration. Audry was born in 1908, and it took her 15 years of working as an assistant to the likes of G.W. Pabst, Jean Delannoy, and Max Ophuls before she got to make her first film, Les Malheurs de Sophie in 1946. (Wikipedia suggests this is a lost film, due largely to its censorship problems, but the Siren has been unable to confirm that.) The Battle of the Sexes in French Cinema, 1930–1956 by Noël Burch and Geneviève Sellier offers an overview of some of Audry’s films, as well as an explanation (other than the influence of former boss Ophuls, the reason most critics proffer) of why she primarily made costume films:

With her husband, Pierre Laroche, [after her first film] Jacqueline Audry then adapted three novels by Colette for the screen [Gigi (1948); Minne, l’ingénue libertine (Minne, 1950); Mitsou (1956)] as well as Victor Marguerite’s La Garçonne. From the start, then, she was a feminist filmmaker in that all her movies directly challenge sexual roles as defined by society. But she resorts to the smokescreen of the costume film, and it can be argued that the success of many of her films was the result of a misunderstanding fostered by a lightheartedly erotic atmosphere that made it possible for her to criticize gender relations without clashing openly with the general climate of male chauvinism.

Olivia was given the ugly title The Pit of Loneliness when it was released three years later in the States, in an obvious attempt to evoke memories of Radclyffe Hall’s notorious The Well of Loneliness. But it’s based on Dorothy Bussy's English-language novel, which was published under a pseudonym in 1950. Michael Koresky points out that Bussy’s “queer bona fides are rather remarkable: the bisexual Bussy’s younger brother was Lytton Strachey, renowned gay writer and critic; she was involved in an affair with renowned arts patron Lady Ottoline Morrell; and was friends with André Gide and E. M. Forster.” Audry liked to work with people close to her. Sister Colette Audry did the adaptation for Olivia (thus ensuring it would sometimes be identified as another work by THE Colette); and husband LaRoche, who co-wrote Les Visiteurs du Soir for Marcel Carné and Lumière d’été for Jean Grémillon, wrote the dialogue.

Olivia “was considered as a plea for sanity” on its subject, wrote Shipman. But Burch and Sellier say that “it was after she made Olivia that some critics expressed more aggressive hostility to Audry, as though she had broken a taboo that no longer allowed her movies to be classified merely as enjoyable entertainment.” Audry died in an automobile accident in 1977; her last film, which starred Emmanuelle Riva, was Bitter Fruit in 1967. In addition to the obstacles she faced as a woman director, her low profile among cinephiles has also obviously been affected, like many others, by the Nouvelle Vague’s imprecations against “the cinema of quality.” But let’s consider a thumbnail sketch of Minne: the story of a woman unable to find sexual pleasure because she finds that men are concerned only with their own.

Be honest with the Siren: Aren’t you dying to see it?

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Hold Back the Dawn, at Last on Blu Ray

The Siren is inordinately pleased to announce that the home-video gods have heard our pleas: Hold Back the Dawn, Mitchell Leisen’s best film, from one of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder’s best scripts, is out today, July 16, on glorious region-free Blu Ray from Arrow. The first pressing will contain a booklet with the Siren’s essay about the film, so if you want one, you need to put some hustle in it à la Georges and Anita.

The Siren’s longtime patient readers will no doubt recall the Siren’s intense dislike of any praise for an old movie that starts, ends, or continues in any way with “It’s so modern!” or, worse, “It could have been made last week!” Righty-o, last week, because the present-day woods are chock-full of Wilders and Leisens etc.


Hold Back the Dawn remains relevant to Our National Moment. Spookily relevant, as the Siren describes the plot:

“A refugee from an ‘undesirable’ country, one with a U.S. immigration quota that won’t get around to him for nearly a decade, finds himself stuck in a Mexican border town with hundreds of other desperate refugees, all looking for a way in.”

The Siren wonders what Brackett and Wilder would say once they’d read this week’s newspapers. (They’d probably get their hats and coats and head straight back for the afterlife.)

With the kind permission of Arrow, the Siren is posting an excerpt from her much-longer booklet essay.

The movie opens with [Romanian-born Georges Iscovescu (Charles Boyer)] striding into a movie studio and desperately offering a story pitch to a director named Dwight Saxon, played by Leisen himself, for the bargain price of $500. (In a nice inside-reference, Leisen is shown on the Paramount set directing Veronica Lake and Brian Donlevy in I Wanted Wings.) ‘My papers give my occupation as a dancer, which is correct, in a general way,’ he says as the flashback begins. To a savvy American (or any would-be immigrant) in 1941 this was an alert. The quotas were small, and made even smaller by a clause in the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924: Officials could refuse admittance to anyone likely to be a ‘public charge.’ Iscovescu is, as plainly as could be under the Production Code, a gigolo, and a potential public charge if ever there was one.

Even as played by Charles Boyer, he of the tender eyes and chocolate-ganache voice, Iscovescu is one cold article. The unnamed border town he’s stuck in has become so full of would-be immigrants that no hotel rooms are available — until a refugee hangs himself in one at the Esperanza, and Iscovescu pounces without a second thought. Leisen’s camera emphasizes the cramped boredom of the town, having Boyer cross and re-cross certain parts of the set. The border checkpoint is marked by a fence (‘it might as well be a hundred feet high,’ fumes Georges), palm trees and a massive ‘UNITED STATES’ over the gate; the interior is seen only in glimpses. At first, glum, sardonic Georges comes to life only when in the company of fellow gold-digger Anita.

Paulette Goddard, born on Long Island and American down to her lacquered toenails, gives not the slightest impression of being any kind of foreigner. But Anita is such a delightful presence in the movie it scarcely matters, scheming to take her rich sucker to the cleaners while she keeps a weather eye on Boyer. In contrast to de Havilland, whose dialogue as Emmy is achingly sincere, Brackett and Wilder give Anita nothing but firecrackers: ‘Your door was unlocked. I just dropped in to borrow a cup of sugar.’ Goddard’s best work outside of her Chaplin films often involved a scene where she gets to tell another character the facts of life, as in The Women. Here it’s when Anita tells Emmy the truth about Georges: ‘I know what you’re thinking — this woman’s a tramp, and she’s in love with him. Well, I am a tramp, and I am in love with him.’ Anita’s essentially an amoral person, but what sells the scene is the sympathy that flickers across her face when she sees how deeply Emmy is hurt.

Exquisitely pretty De Havilland, who got the role on loanout from a highly reluctant Jack Warner, was perhaps an odd choice for a schoolteacher who’s reached her mid-twenties and remained a virgin. But the script suggests Emmy is sheltered more than anything, a good Catholic girl (she and Boyer have a lovely scene in a Mexican church) who has dreamt of romance and is uncommonly vulnerable to anyone offering it.


And like everyone else in Hold Back the Dawn, Emmy isn’t a saint, as Brackett and Wilder show by giving her the film’s most searing line. U.S. sentiment about immigration in 1941 was decidedly, even virulently “con”; polls showed most Americans wanted the refugees kept out. Brackett and Wilder allude to that as Emmy rhapsodizes to Georges about the promise of America: ‘You see, it’s like, um — like a lake. Clear and fresh and it’ll never get stagnant while new streams are flowing in.’ ‘Well,’ says Georges, ‘your people are building pretty high dams to stop those streams.’ ‘Just to keep out the scum, Georges,’ replies Emmy.

And yes – aside to Karen Green, Yojimbo and others – you bet the Siren discusses The Affair of the Cockroach.

If you don’t know what she means by that, by all means, buy the disc and find out.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

The House by the River (1950)

“Lang never approached a project casually; he enjoyed making films too much.” 
—Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It

In 1950 Fritz Lang was coming off the box-office failure of a movie dear to his heart, The Secret Beyond the Door. He told Bogdanovich The House by the River was just something he was offered, but “there are certain things in it I liked.” The movie, made for peanuts at tightwad Republic Studios, is a low-budget thriller with a low-prestige cast—a potboiler, a melodrama. So the Siren expected it to be terrific, and it was.

Low budgets don’t matter that much with a talent like Lang’s—he takes the obvious set-ness of the sets and fits it to the story. The house of the title sits in an improbably compact row of other houses, so close to a large, swift river that in real life one good set of spring rains would have them all scrambling for higher ground. The story’s location is often described as the South, and perhaps that was the intent, but judging from the accents, it’s southern Illinois. The characters are affluent, but they seem to have spent everything on the wallpaper and wainscoting with not much left over for little details like furniture.

The movie’s setting is everywhere and nowhere. To the emigrant Lang, it’s just America, tasteless affluence hard by a seething flow of decay and sublimated sex.

Lang was given no real stars for this picture, but the lead, Louis Hayward, is so enjoyable you scramble for his filmography to see what else he’s done. The first line of the movie is spoken by an elderly busybody hoeing her garden: “I hate this river,” she says, as the corpse of something floats past. Stephen Byrne (Hayward) gets up from his writing, easily distracted from something he wasn’t approaching with passion anyway. Stephen’s character is revealed in one affable line delivery—“It’s people you should be blaming for the filth, not the river”—and in his reaction, too disengaged even to glance in the direction of a dead thing. Up in the far background, a pretty young housemaid (Dorothy Patrick) approaches. She’ll be dead in the next ten minutes of runtime, discarded as ruthlessly as the animal.

The House by the River, 88 minutes rippling out from that admirably succinct opening, builds a decayed, feverishly lustful atmosphere. Its antihero blossoms from failed writer to bestselling sensation through the simple expedient of strangling someone. The budget may have been low, but for a Lang lover the movie is full of marvels, from a twisted tree in the river that seems to have a taste for carrion, to a shot of Stephen at the top of a cellar door, cloaked in black on both sides as he searches for a sack to make a shroud for a dead woman.

Fritz Lang is a sexy filmmaker. The Siren has no idea why people often treat this statement as mad. Other directors highlight attraction, eroticism, games. Lang understands those things too, very well indeed, but he is mainly preoccupied with the ways people use sex to torment one another. In The House by the River, that shows in scenes such as the housemaid Emily’s death—the build to Stephen’s seduction attempt is ferociously sensual. So is the aftermath, as the position of Emily’s corpse and the way Stephen leans over her suggests consummation as much as cover-up.

Tortured sex is also evident when Stephen’s wife Marjorie (Jane Wyatt) comes home, flicking down the staircase with the same movements we last saw from the maid. Stephen unlaces Marjorie's corset, she pulls his hands around her waist. She says she should have stayed home, throws up her arms around him in a gesture of wifely affection that also echoes Emily’s corpse—and Stephen flashes on the fish he saw jumping in the river as he and his brother John (Lee Bowman) dumped the girl’s body. There is hunger too in John watching a square dance—he’s in love with Wyatt, but his leg is lame, and through Lang’s camera you sense John focusing not only on his carefree, murderous brother, but also on Wyatt’s hand disappearing inside a partner’s. Sex is even there in the motherly bustle of John’s own housemaid (Jody Gilbert), her vast bosom leaning over him as she coaxes her love object to eat some eggs.

Stephen is a frustrated writer, dedicated enough to submit and re-submit manuscripts again and again, but not enough to get any better at writing. Emily’s death turns Stephen’s one published book into a success, and also releases something in him—talent, we suspect. Inhibitions gone, he writes a book about her disappearance. But the better his book gets, the closer he steps to discovery. Naturally it’s the river, a classic symbol of sensuality, that resolves Stephen’s fate by uncovering death.

(Originally published at the late lamented Fandor.)