Sunday, July 31, 2005

So They Say: Thoughts on Star Memoirs

The Siren has been devouring star autobiographies since she was knee-high to a prop table. Her first experience was with fellow Alabamian Tallulah Bankhead, as the Siren sought reassurance that being from Alabama need not preclude having a fascinating life. Tallulah gave that reassurance, and how. From there on out, star memoirs were the Siren's literary potato chips.

Blinded by the fun, the stories, the dish of it all, it took me years to discover that the hallmark of most Hollywood autobiographies is inaccuracy. (And ghostwriters, of course. Often I read memoirs imagining the ghostwriter saying soothingly, "But of COURSE I believe you. Everyone knows you're a teetotaler.")

Sometimes you get sins of omission, like Rosalind Russell's Life Is a Banquet, where she neglects to mention the celebrated contretemps over her failure to win an Oscar for Mourning Becomes Electra. You also run into the odd priorities of actresses like Ginger Rogers, who could remember every detail of her costumes for her Astaire pictures and almost nothing about trivia such as the choreography.

The great Lillian Gish gives fascinating details about filmmaking in The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me. Alas, Lillian has certain blind spots, such as when she assures the reader that D.W. Griffith was "incapable of prejudice against any group" and if he had lived, he would done a film of "affirmation about the Negro." Suuuuuure he would have. Right after Leo McCarey made a film about the ghastly toll of the blacklist.

Other times you detect a certain tendency to elide personal foibles, as John Huston did in An Open Book. Read that one and you would think him the most reasonable of directors, which doesn't quite jibe with most actors' recollections. Gregory Peck once said he had the distinct impression that if getting a certain shot for Moby Dick had required his drowning on camera, that wouldn't have perturbed his director at all.

There are stars like Myrna Loy, whose admirable Being and Becoming shows loyalty to her friend Joan Crawford, but perhaps not that much ability to read between the lines of family disputes. Finally, there are the ones who just lie their little rear ends off, as Frank Capra apparently did in The Name Above the Title.

Despite all this I pounce on autobiographies year after year, including the latest, Tis Herself, by Maureen O'Hara. Ms. O'Hara deserves her own post, and the Siren plans to give her one in the next couple of days.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Even Sirens Have Mothers ...

... and mine arrives tomorrow for a visit. Posting will be less frequent next week, but I will still be around. Keep the home fires burning. Posted by Picasa

The Siren Dismisses the Nanny

For the four or so people who may not have heard--Jude Law is in the international celebrity doghouse over a dalliance with his children's nanny. Some of the chat boards the Siren frequents are full of women ready to tar and feather him. You never saw such a hoo-ha in your life. "I used to think he was cute but CHEATERS AREN'T CUTE." "I HATE him now." "Stinking sack of [bleep]." "He's scum." Etc. Etc.

Out of step with the times as a matter of habit and self-protection, the Siren is having an especially hard time understanding the fuss. My moral code most emphatically does not include approval of a bit on the side. But this bit is a consenting adult, not a stepdaughter, not a 13-year-old stoned on champagne and Quaaludes. This isn't even Divine Brown.

The torrent of ire has me flummoxed. Isn't this what hotshot sex symbols DO? Isn't that why you aspire to become a hotshot sex symbol in the first place? I try to picture the late Oliver Reed performing, as Jude has, an extended public belly-crawl over a peccadillo and the synapses immediately short-circuit.

And the Siren is also puzzled about the hate spewed at the nanny. Ladies, here is living proof that you don't have to look like Sienna Miller to snag a dalliance with the likes of Jude Law. (And Ms. Miller's interviews don't suggest her erstwhile fiance was with her for the long evenings of stimulating conversation.) In terms of fantasy, shouldn't that be encouraging?

As for whether the nanny should have resisted any impulse in Mr. Law's direction; yeah, right. Look, I saw the man do a full-frontal nude scene on Broadway in Les Parents Terribles (eighth row, on the side but sightlines just fine, thank you) and suffice it to say I predicted his stardom the instant he jumped up out of the bathtub. I am a happily married Siren but if I were in my twenties, single and working at the Law household I am not sure I would hold out for the Gold Medal in Self-Restraint.

What makes an object of desire is on the movie screen and not in the New York Post. Why should it matter if Montgomery Clift preferred men? He's dead, first of all, and second of all even had we been contemporaries and he been straight it isn't as though an ordinary woman was likely to sweep him off his feet. But when I watch Red River, Monty's all mine. Libby Holman, motor accident, who cares?

Jude Law isn't mine, so I don't mind if he can't walk the line. When the camera discovers him on the beach in The Talented Mr. Ripley, that corpse of a movie wakes at last. He can get back together with Sienna, Sadie, marry the gardener, whoever, who cares.

Whether or not this remake he's filming will be a patch on the original All the King's Men--now there the Siren can summon a little passion.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Siren's Compleat Anatomy of Cinematic Badness

Ignatius J. Reilly, self-styled genius of A Confederacy of Dunces, goes to the movies regularly. He does this not from love of the art, but because he wants to be appalled by them. The Siren's favorite scene (and she loves all of John Kennedy Toole's novel) comes when Ignatius settles near the front of the local movie house and notes during the credits "that several of the actors, the composer, the director, the hair designer and the assistant producer were all people whose efforts had offended him at various times in the past."

There's a little Ignatius in every serious moviegoer. That must be what has prompted me to break down my own categories of Cinematic Badness.

1. Bad, but Enjoyable.
The Naked Jungle is a nice little example of this category. An outstanding illustration, though, is The Greatest Show on Earth, deemed by general critical assent to be the Worst Best-Picture Oscar Winner of All Time. Who in the name of D.W. Griffith voted for this the year that High Noon came out?

Most movie-savvy readers of A Confederacy of Dunces assume this is the circus epic Ignatius is watching when the sight of the female star singing from her trapeze perch moves him to bellow, "Oh good heavens! ... what degenerate produced this abortion?" (That degenerate would be C.B. DeMille.) When I see Charlton Heston and Betty Hutton kiss, my mental background music is Ignatius yelling, "Oh my God, their tongues are probably all over each other's capped and rotting teeth."

2. So Bad It Achieves Its Own Sort of Artistic Merit.
And here the Siren nods to the folks over at, who have constructed a site devoted to this very category. Susan Sontag may have written the definitive essay on camp, but Cool Cinema Trash has more fun. Thanks to them, I even want to see The Revolt of Mamie Stover. I wrote in and begged them to tackle The Best of Everything (Robert Evans! Suzy Parker! those suits!) but so far they are ignoring me. Also well worth a visit is The Meeker Museum, if only for the treatises on Diane Varsi and the films of Conway Twitty.

3. Bad, but Thinks It Is Good.
By far the most provoking category, the one that makes a cinephile gnash her teeth and order a double Pernod. Se7en, for instance. Everything about this one irritates the living daylights out of me. That ridiculous typo in the middle of the title. Pointlessly murky cinematography that made me wonder if anyone in that police department could find the damn light switch, let alone a serial killer. Scene after scene of sadism all to make some trite point about apathy and the world's ugliness. Tacit endorsement of the killer's contention that his victims had it coming because one was fat, one was vain, one had sex for money, etc. And the hoariest cliche of all: the part where the killer brings out the savagery in his pursuer, because you know, we all share the beast within. I look at the IMDB Top 250 and see this in the top 50, three places above M, a serial-killer movie with more artistry in one frame than Se7en gives you in 127 minutes, and I want to storm the local Blockbuster.

4. So Bad It Is Unwatchable Even as Camp.
Think of Jean-Jacques Beineix's The Moon in the Gutter. (When I saw the two good reviews on I thought the site had been hacked.)

5. Howling Dogs for the Ages.
Exhibit A: Showgirls.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Playing Favorites

100 Movies the Siren Loves

Notice, please, that I do not say these are all-time greats. Some of them are, some of them probably aren't, some definitely aren't. All I am saying is, I could watch any movie on this list again and again. I could watch one of these right now.

Les Enfants du Paradis
Rules of the Game
Fanny and Alexander
Smiles of a Summer Night
The Leopard
Night of the Hunter
My Man Godfrey
The Apartment
Sunset Boulevard
Witness for the Prosecution
One, Two, Three
Singin' in the Rain
The Third Man
The Fallen Idol
Odd Man Out
Citizen Kane
The Magnificent Ambersons
The Crowd
The Searchers
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
My Darling Clementine
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Bonnie and Clyde
Imitation of Life (Sirk version)
All About Eve
A Letter to Three Wives
Red River
Sweet Smell of Success
Paths of Glory
All This, and Heaven Too
Mr. Skeffington
The Red Shoes
Black Narcissus
Thief of Baghdad (Powell-Pressburger version)
I Know Where I'm Going!
The Four Feathers (Korda version)
Footlight Parade
Yankee Doodle Dandy
Duck Soup
A Night at the Opera
Double Indemnity
The Awful Truth
Shadow of a Doubt
The Best Years of Our Lives
Roman Holiday
A Geisha
Letter from an Unknown Woman
Lola Montes
The Earrings of Madame de ...
Le Plaisir
Trouble in Paradise
The Shop Around the Corner
To Be or Not to Be (Lubitsch version)
Sullivan's Travels
The Battle of Algiers
The Wind
La Strada
The Ox-Bow Incident
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
On the Waterfront
Libeled Lady
The Women
Dinner at Eight
A Star is Born (Judy Garland version)
The Manchurian Candidate
The Gay Divorcee
Lawrence of Arabia
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Yi-yi (A One and a Two)
The Blue Kite
The Marriage of Maria Braun
Annie Hall
Crimes and Misdemeanors
Modern Times
Broken Blossoms
The Bad and the Beautiful
The Band Wagon
Jules and Jim
The Last Metro
Atlantic City
Quai des Orfevres
Do the Right Thing
The Godfather, Parts 1 & 2 (is this cheating?)
Portrait of Jennie
Viaggio in Italia
Garden of the Finzi-Continis
The Court Jester
The Adventures of Robin Hood

What the Siren Has Learned From Making This List:

1. She's an old-fashioned gal.
2. She really, really needs to see some more silent movies.
3. She has never seen a Max Ophuls she didn't take to her heart. La Ronde barely missed the list.
4. She is a sucker for romance.
5. She should have made a longer list.

Some Movies That Form Gaping Holes in the Siren's Viewing History, and That She Wanted to Wait to See on a Big Screen, but Then She Had Kids and Moved to Toronto, So DVD It Probably Will Be:
La Dolce Vita (bought, but unviewed)
Day for Night (ditto)
Tokyo Story
Seventh Heaven
The Big Parade
Before the Revolution
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (silent)
Le Cercle Rouge
Touchez Pas au Grisbi
Ashes and Diamonds
Aparajito and The World of Apu
Senso (WHY isn't this on DVD?)
Talk to Her
The Decalogue (saw only the first one)

Six Movies That the Siren Is, in All Honesty, Highly Unlikely to See Anytime Soon Because Lately She Doesn't Want Her Heart Ripped Out of Her Chest:
Au Hasard Balthasar
Umberto D
The Bicycle Thief
City of God
Los Olvidados

Five Movies That the Siren Just Plain Doesn't Want to See, So There:

The Fellowship of the Ring
The Two Towers
The Return of the King
Fight Club

Get It Away From Me: The Getaway (1972)

The Siren has stumbled into a week of posts about movies she didn't care for that much, though she wouldn't call The Getaway bad. Here a bloody bank heist gets pulled off by the Cooler King, oops I mean Doc McCoy, played by Steve McQueen.

Some critics call Doc amoral. Poppycock. No matter what the movie, McQueen always has a code of ethics. Here, under the direction of Sam Peckinpah, McQueen seeks to avoid killing bank guards. He wants everyone to wear the proper safety equipment during a robbery. He behaves magnanimously toward annoying children. He will pay big for a favor (within certain limits).

The Getaway opens with a brilliant sequence on Doc's humiliating stint in prison. It isn't equalled until later, when McQueen stalks a crowded train tailing a con man who walked away with the loot from the bank. Otherwise, it's mostly bank-robber stuff like watching the guards through binoculars and the Big Pre-Heist Meeting in Some Kind of Cellar. There are lots of things exploding, odd since logic suggests an ideal getaway would be quiet. Late in the movie you get a two-people-trapped-in-a-trash-compactor scene that surely must have suggested something to George Lucas for Star Wars.

After seeing Ali MacGraw in two of her big pictures, Love Story and this one, I don't think she deserves her reputation as an all-time bad actress. She isn't nearly as bad, for example, as Daryl Hannah was on a regular basis. She's hampered by a thin, teenagerish voice that clashes with her beauty (Penelope Cruz has the same problem) but Ali is adequate to the demands this script makes on her, which are look sexy, look nervous, shut up. I suspect Peckinpah and screenwriter Walter Hill considered this pretty much all you could expect from a broad anyway.

The Getaway is an action movie; I wasn't expecting Adam's Rib. I wasn't prepared, however, for this film's devotion to what Louise Brooks called "the beloved proposition that all women are whores anyway." There's Ali, who sleeps with a repulsive Ben Johnson to get her man out of jail and gets slapped around by McQueen for her pains. After that, she threatens to split, but never does. Treat 'em mean and keep 'em keen. Will someone put that cliche out of its misery?

And any reviewer who calls this movie "gritty" or "realistic" has to be either ignoring Sally Struthers' character or harboring a bit of a grudge against women himself. Sally and her veterinarian husband are taken hostage by McQueen's wounded, double-crossing robbery accomplice (Al Lettieri). By the very next scene the wife decides she wants a piece of that big, big gun. Struthers isn't bad, exactly, but what could any actress do with this role? Getting it on with Lettieri lets the wife's nymphomaniac inner self come screeching out. What she really wanted to do instead of nursing animals was to have sex with a criminal while her husband, bound to a chair, looks on. Would even Caril Ann Fugate find this believable?

By the end, despite her admiration for the film's stylishness, energy and suspense, the Siren had a headache. Rampaging misogyny does that to her.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Turkey Trot: The Naked Jungle (1954)

Mathematicians are often huge movie buffs, did you know that? The Siren didn't, until she worked for a number of them as a secretary in the late 1980s. One professor in particular (a genius with his name on many theorems) loved to drop by and have a chat or lob a trivia question at me. He came in one day to tell me his cable company had added American Movie Classics. This was, of course, back when that was still something to celebrate. "That's great," I said, "now you have a chance to see so many old movies."

"I'll tell you what I've discovered," he said. "A lot of old movies are dreadful."

Which brings us to The Naked Jungle.

Oy. Where to start? I bought the DVD for a famous perfume scene (a minor obsession of mine) and because it had the underrated, underdiscussed (and still living) Eleanor Parker. She got an Oscar nomination for her role in Caged as an innocent corrupted by a hideous prison system, and in the classic, beloved Scaramouche she played the sultry paramour of Stewart Granger. Obviously she had splendid range, but what happened here? She seems to have confused being ladylike with ramrod posture, swishing your skirts around as much as possible and confining yourself to three facial expressions (sympathy, indignation, and startled unease, the last being used to react to both marauding ants and Charlton Heston's attempts at lovemaking).

Parker plays the mail-order bride (yeah, right) of Charlton Heston. The year is 1901, and Heston has a plantation in a vaguely Amazonian region of South America. Here he merrily mows down the rainforest and grows who knows what, whilst bringing civilization to the aboriginal inhabitants lucky enough to toil in his fields. Now, the Siren does make allowances for time period. You just have to, or you wind up watching nothing made before about 1965. But some movies are easier to allow for than others. This flick's attitude toward the natives makes Gunga Din look like Cheyenne Autumn.

Anyhow, Heston has been here making a fortune since he was 19, and what with building a big villa and taming the Naked Jungle and all, by his own account he never got around to taming any Naked Wimmin. Now, male readers, ponder this question from the Siren. You have been more than a decade in darkest South America. You scorn to make whoopee with the local women. ("They have a name for the white men who go into the villages at night," snarls Heston. He doesn't elaborate, but that must have been some name.) Finally, your lawfully wedded wife arrives, and what a dish she is, in fact, she's Eleanor Parker. She greets you in her lace-trimmed period nightie, snowy bosom heaving. At that point, you

A. Hang out the "Do Not Disturb" sign and let your newly civilized native workers take care of the farm for oh, about a month.
B. Introduce yourself politely, then proceed as above.
C. Eye her suspiciously, clench your jaw, call her "Madam" about a hundred times, interrogate her about her past, pitch a total hissy fit when you find out she's been married before, and stalk off into the night.

If you answered "C," congratulations. You're ready for that Charlton Heston film festival.

This was the part where I decided to go ahead and finish watching the thing, because obviously we had left Reality Station and things could only get funnier. I did enjoy the rest of it, though I have might have a different attitude if I hadn't bought it on sale at Amazon.

So when Heston finds out that Parker is a widow, his jaws start working more furiously than ever while he talks about the piano he had brought up the river. It's a special piano, doggone it, nobody has played it before, he was SAVING IT and he wanted his woman to be the same way. Parker puts on her indignant expression and tells him, "If you knew anything about music, you would know that the best piano is one that's been played." Having delivered the best line in the movie, she swirls those skirts around and sweeps up into the bedroom.

The next few scenes are a lot of to-ing and fro-ing betwixt Parker and Heston. Heston gets more and more hot under the collar when Parker is around, until one night he asks her what perfume she's wearing. Is it one of the ones he brought upriver for her? "It's my own," she informs him. Swirl, swirl, exit. Heston drinks some brandy, clenches (even his temples get in on the act this time), then busts open Parker's doors a la Rhett Butler. "Why don't you wear the perfume I bought you?" he yells. He grabs a bottle and dumps about half of it on Parker. IMDB informs me that this was Heston's own bit of improvisation and Parker didn't realize he was going to do it. That must be why she pulls away from his embrace in a manner far more suggestive of a woman trying to avoid someone's halitosis than one who fears she's about to be ravished.

Chuck comes to his senses and leaves. Next day he announces that Parker has to go. He plans to take her to the riverboat himself. Unfortunately, when they embark on this journey they start encountering evidence that "marabunto," or soldier ants, are on the march and headed right toward the old homestead. The local commissioner (played by a positively svelte William Conrad) tells Heston, "You're up against a monster twenty miles long and two miles wide! forty square miles of agonizing death! You can't stop it!"

Of course, what a sensible person could do is get the hell out of the way, but this is a movie, and our man Chuck abruptly shifts gears from Charlton Heston, Man of Repressed Passion, to Charlton Heston, One-Man FEMA Squad. He has to stick around, you see, for the sake of the natives. If Heston abandons them, "they'll go back to the jungle and be just as they were when I found them!" he says. Gracious, we can't have that. Why would you want to be running around a tropical paradise practising native folkways when you could be picking crops?

After this we're in standard disaster-movie mode, and the dialogue and motivations get more ridiculous, and I don't want to post spoilers but is there anyone on the planet who thinks a studio is going to let Charlton Heston get eaten by ants in the final reel? No, not even if the producers have had enough of watching him act in the dailies.

At this point in his career, Heston was supernally handsome, and the cinematography was pretty. More than anything, however, The Naked Jungle gave the Siren even more respect for the genius of William Wyler and Orson Welles. The performances they got out of Charlton Heston in The Big Country and Touch of Evil are not disappointments at all; they're miracles.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

"I like the Old Masters," said Orson Welles, "by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford." This fadeout, so superb it invites comparison with Rembrandt rather than another movie, shows Welles was in no way trying to be funny. Posted by Picasa

That'll Be the Day

The Siren has been unable to verify this story, but if it didn't happen, it should have. In the 1960s Martin Scorsese taught a film class at New York University. One week he told the class he would next screen Rear Window, which even then had been out of circulation for years. Imagine the reaction at the film geek Hogwarts that is NYU. Next class, not only was Scorsese's every student in attendance, but also people who had never gone to his class, never registered at the film school, never in fact been seen at NYU before. Scorsese switched off the lights, threatened to flunk anyone who left before the fadeout, and proceeded to show The Searchers, as his audience groaned. In those days, in New York, it was your artistic and political duty to loathe John Wayne. But as the film proceeded, hostility eased, then disappeared.

When the credits came, not a person had left, and they gave it a standing ovation.

The Searchers was my father's favorite movie. Today, Bastille Day 2005, would have been his 72nd birthday. He died in 1991. So the Siren offers a brief post about a masterpiece, because Dad loved every line of this film.

John Ford told Peter Bogdanovich his movie is "the tragedy of a loner." Its most famous sequence shows John Wayne's character of Ethan Edwards alone and apart, until finally a door closes and shuts him off forever from family, home, love. (I always have seen a deliberate echo of that shot in The Godfather Part II, when Al Pacino shuts the door on Diane Keaton as she holds out her arms to embrace her children.) That sense of space that exists in American literature, the hope that you can always "light out for the territories" like Huck Finn, becomes nothing but loneliness.

The Searchers is also one of cinema's most famous and effective parables about racism. Hatred isolates Ethan and drives him to continue his search for the niece captured by Indians. Seething bigotry fuels his worst acts, such as slaughtering buffalo to ensure the Indians spend the winter with empty bellies. It undermines his best impulses, such as when he tries to make Martin Pawley his heir--because his kidnapped niece lives with Comanches, and is therefore tainted.

That is why, for most of The Searchers, Ethan is impossible to truly like, Duke or no Duke. But that is also why his sudden, tender embrace of Natalie Wood has such impact. Francois Truffaut said that shot filled him with love for John Wayne (and Lord knows the Frenchman hated Wayne's politics).

It is a very funny movie at times (Ward Bond: "Boy! watch that knife!") and its laugh lines were the ones my father loved to repeat. But Dad grew up in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. In watching Ethan's hatred drive away the man he wanted for a surrogate son, I think my father saw the way prejudice poisoned Southern life. And in the embrace of a long-lost niece, there was a chance, not for a Hollywood ending--that door still closes at the end--but for some bit of progress. My father learned, Ethan Edwards learned; white Southerners and indeed the rest of the country could learn too. As Ethan would have said, "That'll be the day."

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Sanders made so many movies that the Siren still has a great deal of viewing ahead of her. She plans one day to catch him in: Hangover Square, The Private Affairs of Bel-Ami (which some say is a better performance even than Addison), The Fan (as in Lady Windemere's, not a psycho star-stalker), Lured and I Can Get It for You Wholesale. Posted by Picasa

George Sanders

The Siren's favorite shot of George Sanders comes about midway through Rebecca, when he pops up suddenly in a window of Manderley. His handsome face eases into a smile, he charms with his silky baritone speaking voice, but there is something snake-like about the way he jumps into the room. Here is Joan Fontaine's deadliest adversary, smarter and much less obvious than Mrs. Danvers. Sanders' greatest roles often had him as the man too worldly, too intelligent for the milieu he's stuck in. Some say his life played out the same way.

He was born July 3, 1906 in St. Petersburg, Russia. He died of an overdose of sleeping tablets in Spain in 1972, and left a famous note: "Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck."

Sanders the witty misanthrope, killing himself because he could no longer stand the ennui--that would be a gesture Addison DeWitt, the critic he played in All About Eve, would have applauded. But reading about Sanders gives you little reason to think Addison was close to his personality, however brilliantly he may have played the part. Joseph Manckiewicz, for the record, always said Addison was a self-portrait. In Pictures Will Talk, Kenneth L. Geist's Mankiewicz biography, Celeste Holm recalls that Sanders was "a brilliant actor, but he wasn't much fun." Anne Baxter says his "energy was nil" and that the director had to prod him into a performance.

Particularly difficult to swallow is the idea of Sanders, always described as a man of intellect, marrying and then putting up with Zsa Zsa Gabor (for eight years, from 1949 to 1957). From Pictures:

Gary Merrill relates that when ... Zsa Zsa ... wandered on to the set beseeching that she 'must haff George to go shopping,' Mankiewicz politely informed her, 'We're making a fucking picture, honey.'

Who knows what was behind that marriage. Well, as the Siren's father once remarked about one of her ex-boyfriends, "I'd ask what the attraction is, but I guess there isn't much left." Sanders was also briefly married to another Gabor sister, Magda. Imagine Lydgate in Middlemarch, stuck with not one, but two Rosamonds.

The Siren loves Sanders in so many movies. He made more than 100, ranging from B-grade thrillers to masterpieces, and wasn't boring in a single one. With the aid of a beard obscuring that famous face, he dressed way down and was a believable pirate in The Black Swan (or as believable as any Hollywood pirate ever is). Sanders makes an indelible impression even in his briefest roles, like that of the classmate at a reunion who suspects Edward G. Robinson is not what he seems in Julien Duvivier's wonderful, underrated Tales of Manhattan. Give him a good line and Sanders' delivery would turn it into a classic, as in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, when his character looks at a rainstorm and drawls, "It's easy to understand why the most beautiful poems about England in the spring were written by poets living in Italy at the time." "Forgive me for the intelligence of my argument; I'd forgotten that you were a member of Parliament," he says in The Picture of Dorian Gray, with sang-froid Oscar Wilde himself might have envied.

He will be forever associated with his roles as a heel, even calling his autobiography Memoirs of a Professional Cad. But Sanders could do much more as an actor. In This Land Is Mine, directed by Jean Renoir, he plays the collaborator sympathetic to fascist politics, but appalled by the consequences when he betrays a resistance fighter to the Germans. And there is the end of Dorian Gray when, as Lord Henry Wotton, Sanders looks at the hideous corpse of Dorian and sees the result of the self-centered hedonism he preached so wittily to his friend. In his face you see horror, realization and the dawn of self-reproach, all in a matter of seconds.

As for the part that comes closest to Sanders himself--the Siren has her own candidate. It isn't Addison. It is the intelligent, unhappy Englishman in Roberto Rossellini's Viaggio in Italia. Sanders' character has gone to Naples with his wife, played by Ingrid Bergman. They know their marriage is dying, not from any dramatic cause, but from the thousand cuts life whittles into love every day. They separate, they go off alone, they have squabbles that trail off rather than end. Finally, during a religious parade, they reconcile. Sanders stills loves his wife. They choose one another, and the occasional dreariness of a shared life, over loneliness.

Sanders' final note doesn't strike the Siren as a cynical flourish. It leaves her instead with the sadness and anger that attach to all suicides, and the wish that Sanders could have found someone or something to choose for a little longer.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The Siren will spend the rest of her week in Southern California. What with striking glamorous poses poolside and re-applying her sunscreen, she won't be blogging again until Tuesday, July 12. She plans to write about George Sanders since she missed the great man's birthday on July 3. Rent something wonderful while she's gone. Posted by Picasa

"Sex always has something to do with it, dear." Posted by Picasa

Goofy but Great: The Palm Beach Story (1942)

Bad times do not prompt most people to reach for a soul-scalding drama. If, for example, you are the Siren, and you hear that the judge who cast a swing vote in the Supreme Court case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey has decided now is the perfect freaking time to retire to Arizona, you do not glance at the calendar and say, "That reminds me, I have been meaning to rent Vera Drake." No, the Siren reached instead for her copy of The Palm Beach Story, 88 minutes of a woman making it in a man's world with nothing but her wits and a pair of fabulously long legs to carry her through.

The first time I saw this Preston Sturges comedy was the night I rented it and brought it over to the apartment of a longtime pal who was in the dumps, I forget why. Probably a woman. He was as low as I had ever seen him. Usually he's making wisecracks all over the place; that night it was like dinner with Boris Karloff in The Mummy. We popped in the tape. Here's a tip: Do not try to understand what is going on during the credit sequence. Think of it as the screwball equivalent of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or The Sound and the Fury. You don't understand the openings of those novels until you have read to the end, and you won't understand the opening of Palm Beach Story until the final five minutes.

So we're watching the movie, and after the credits the plot is clear enough. Tom and Gerry Jeffers (Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert) have been married for five years, and their finances are a catastrophe. They owe an ungodly amount of back rent and Tom needs money to finance his airplane-landing device that will revolutionize aviation. They are still in love, but Gerry has decided to parlay her slinky allure into some cash that will bail them both out. She charms an elderly wiener magnate ("Lay off 'em. You'll live longer") into giving her rent money and decamps to Florida for a quickie divorce. On the train to Palm Beach she hooks up with the millionaire members of the Ale and Quail Club, but after the club decides a railcar is the perfect place for target practice (a funny sequence marred by a sadly stereotypical porter), Gerry meets a saner millionaire prospect, John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee). They arrive at Palm Beach, take the yacht out for a spin and Hackensacker falls for Gerry. Tom arrives, itching to get Gerry back, and finds himself being pursued by Hackensacker's sister (Mary Astor). All these loose ends are tied up in a neat knot that finally explains just what was up during that credit sequence.

So, anyway, sometime around when the Wienie King arrived and gave Claudette Colbert $700 to pay her rent, my friend sat up a little straighter and said, "Hey. She's cute." About two minutes more passed, and he added, "Really cute."

When the movie ended, Boris Karloff hit rewind, slapped me on the back and declared he was buying us both a drink.

According to the book Hollywood Goes to War, the Office of War Information was irked by the nonessential travel in Palm Beach Story. That, plus the pleasure cruise on a 300-foot yacht, the "destruction of a war essential" (that railcar), and concern that the relaxed attitude toward marriage vows might strike viewers abroad as typical American morals. After this movie's release, OWI started pressing for a tighter, more patriotic wartime censorship code.

They should have given Preston Sturges a medal instead. Can we agree that 1942 was a terrible year to be alive? I know it's fashionable to romanticize the war years, but we Americans had just entered a global bloodbath and it wasn't going all that well. If the Siren had opened the paper and there's Guadalcanal, Midway, Stalingrad, Rommel taking Tobruk, she'd have been happy to watch a movie with lines like:

Tom: Just like that, seven hundred dollars. Sex didn't even enter into it, I suppose?
Gerry: Oh, but of course it did, darling. I don't think he would have given it to me if I had hair like Excelsior and little short legs like an alligator. Sex always has something to do with it, dear.

Gerry: Anyway, men don't get smarter as they get older. They just lose their hair.

John D. Hackensacker III: That's one of the tragedies of this life, that the men who are most in need of a beating up are always enormous.

The Wienie King: Cold are the hands of time that creep along relentlessly, destroying slowly but without pity that which yesterday was young. Alone our memories resist this disintegration and grow more lovely with the passing years. Heh. That's hard to say with false teeth.

In Sturges' autobiography (cobbled together by his widow, who went through his journals), he says he conceived Palm Beach Story "as an illustration of my theory of the aristocracy of beauty." Just a few lines later he observes, "Millionaires are funny." I know which analysis of this goofy movie I prefer.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Happy 4th of July, From the Still-Homesick Siren

Give my regards to Broadway
Remember me to Herald Square
Tell all the gang at 42nd Street
That I will soon be there.
Whisper of how I'm yearning
To mingle with that old time throng;
Give my regards to old Broadway,
And say that I'll be there 'ere long.
Posted by Picasa

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Goofy but Great: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)

The Siren may be going out on a limb calling this movie great.

"Some of the sets and machines were amusing, but ... the movie was 145 minutes of badly acted, sugar-coated whimsy, punctuated by dreadful songs and shoddy special effects," says Ronald Bergan in 1986's The United Artists Story. Apparently the critics in 1968 hated this, too. And I guess if I saw it right after a screening for Rosemary's Baby or Bullitt I might have hated it, too, or at least have come out of the theater muttering, "What the hell?"

But I saw it as a child and loved it, and when I see it as an adult I love it still. Yes, the rear projection is awful, but if you notice the rear projection is awful in Vertigo, too, and nobody questions your taste when you love that one. Chitty probably doesn't need me to defend it, since it was critic-proof in 1968 and is adored to this day. As an intellectual exercise, however, I decided to go over what I think fans see in this movie that Mr. Bergan and others don't. Plus I needed an excuse to sing along with "The Travelling Life" again.

It's based on stories by James Bond creator Ian Fleming, and has some things in common with the Bond movies. You have improbable gadgets including the flying car of the title, a ruthless dictator, a gorgeous woman and an endlessly inventive hero out to save everybody. You even have Gert Frobe (and Cubby Broccoli as producer).

Tots Jeremy and Jemima persuade their father, itinerant inventor Caractacus Potts (Dick Van Dyke) to refurbish an old car they have fallen in love with. Once Potts has it up and running, it turns out the thing can fly, and float, and navigate. Word of the car's miraculous powers reaches the sinister Baron Bomburst (Frobe), who has the Potts' grandpa (Lionel Jeffries) kidnapped in the mistaken belief that Grandpa is the car's inventor. Off go the Potts to rescue Grandpa, accompanied by Truly Scrumptious (Sally Ann Howes), daughter of the local candy magnate. When they arrive they find that the Baron has outlawed children in his little Ruritanian dictatorship. As Bugs Bunny would say, of course you know this means war.

Dick Van Dyke was in great singing and dancing form, especially in "Toot Sweets" and "Me Old Bamboo." I suppose someone watched Mary Poppins and said, "Dick, let's just forget about the British accent this time, 'kay?" So it wasn't until I watched the movie as an adult that I bothered to wonder why Dick sounds American, but everybody else is English as crumpets. Anyway, I love the British, but they need to get over the "Dick Van Dyke accent." I will make a deal with them: y'all don't bring up his ersatz Cockney, and I won't mention Laurence Olivier's weird pronunciations in The Betsy and Kenneth Branagh's braying in Dead Again.

But Dick isn't the primary reason the Siren adores this goofy movie. Rather, I love it for:

1. Sally Ann Howes. She radiates intelligence, she takes crap from no one in this movie, she decides she wants the hero before the hero wants her and she goes after him. Plus, she gets to wear wonderful hats. Howes was 38 when she made this movie and she looks about 25. See, wearing wide-brimmed hats protects your face from the aging effects of the sun, just like Mama told you. If you like Howes as much as I do, check out the wonderful old portmanteau thriller Dead of Night (1945).

2. The children. One aspect of movies that has improved over the years is children's performances. So many times you watch an old movie like The Women and want to strangle the mugging little brat you're supposed to feel sorry for. And remember Bonnie in Gone with the Wind? When she broke her neck jumping that fence I swear I felt sorrier for the pony.

The children in Chitty are peppy and enjoyable without causing tooth decay. As a little girl, I thought Jemima had the edge, and I still do. She has fire and initiative, and a mouth on her too, as when she calls Baroness Bomburst "VERY UGLY." The ever-helpful IMDB tells me that Heather Ripley, who played Jemima, never made another movie, but is now an "eco-warrior" protesting things like nuclear plants. Somehow it seems very fitting that Jemima would grow up to be a fighter.

3. That castle. 'Nuff said.

4. Last but not least, a superb villain in Robert Helpmann's Childcatcher. Compared to this terrifying individual, the Baron is as pathetic as Wile E. Coyote. I saw a documentary on Robert Helpmann a while back. He was, of course, primarily a ballet dancer, which explains how he could convey menace with his entire body. On this show, they interviewed a man who had been Helpmann's friend. This man's children adored Helpmann, and sometimes when the kiddie-winkies were going to bed they would ask him to "do the Childcatcher." When Helpmann obliged the children would scream in utter terror. The friend thought this was hilarious. I think I would asked have asked Sir Robert to switch to a bit from Tales of Hoffman, but I guess I am a PC American wimp.

In fact, so scary is the Childcatcher that I don't think I will let my kids see this movie until I am sure they can handle him. But when that happens, I will be ready with my sing-along DVD.

So take that, Mr. Bergan.

Friday, July 01, 2005

This publicity photo from "Privilege" really captures Shrimpton's astonishing beauty. Next to her, Paul Jones looks like Alfred E. Neuman. Posted by Picasa

The Siren Reveres the Shrimp

It may be Canada Day to some people, but here at the Siren's place and over at Blogdorf Goodman, July 1st is Jean Shrimpton Day. We pause in our regularly scheduled Goofy but Great blogging to wave our lace-edged hankies at the Shrimp, the greatest model of all time by about 10,000 light years. Perhaps the Siren's regard stems from not knowing much about Shrimpton, aside from her famous affair with Terence Stamp and a movie called Privilege that is on the Siren's to-see list, provided she can ever find a copy. (Plot synopsis sounds so 60s it hurts.) She seems to have been that rarest of rarities in the fashion business: a nice girl. Reportedly, Shrimpton is now living quietly in the English countryside as proprietor of some small hotel. Ms. Shrimpton, we wish you well. You will always be our favorite model.