Saturday, September 24, 2005

Drink Now, Pay Later

After retiring to her room with a cold compress on her forehead, the Siren felt a little bit better. As long as the Criterion Collection is out there, a chance exists that she will someday see Blowup. All of Blowup.

Seeing that movie again did prompt another train of thought. The actors who came out of Great Britain and Ireland in the 1960s were phenomenonally good-looking. They were also complete boozehounds. Sad to observe this parade of gifted men who wrecked their looks and (sometimes) their talents with too much hooch on too many occasions.

So, even though no contemporary actor will probably ever see this (Russell, Leonardo, I'm talking to you), the Siren has compiled a rough photo essay as a sort of memento mori. Mind you, no one will ever mistake the Siren for Carrie Nation, and she doesn't expect footwashed-Baptist-style temperance from your average thespian.

All she is saying is that drinking entire film crews under the camera crane might not be such a great idea, either.

Exhibit A: David Hemmings, born 1941. Top, in Blowup, 1966. Bottom, at the Gladiator premiere in 2000. Posted by Picasa

Exhibit B: Peter O'Toole, born 1932. Left, in Lawrence of Arabia, 1965. Right, in My Favorite Year, 1982. Posted by Picasa

Exhibit C: Oliver Reed, born 1938. Left, in The System 1964. Right, in Condorman, 1981. Posted by Picasa

Exhibit D: Richard Harris, born 1930. Left, in This Sporting Life, 1963. Right, publicity shot for his song "Macarthur Park," 1968. Posted by Picasa

Exhibit E: Richard Burton, born 1925. (Slightly older, yes, but an essay on actors and drinking without Burton is like an essay on Italy and cooking without tomato sauce.) Left, in The Robe, 1953. Right, in Equus, 1977. Posted by Picasa

Exhibit F: The control specimen. Famously health-conscious, teetotaling Terence Stamp, born 1939. Left, in Billy Budd, 1962. Center, publicity shot, circa Wall Street, 1987. Right, My Boss's Daughter, 2003. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Siren has been indisposed, but plans to post as soon as possible. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

A publicity shot for Happy Go Lovely shows off Vera-Ellen's most famous assets. She is yet another in a long list of Obscure Stars the Siren Loves. Despite snappy comic timing and considerable dancing talent, Vera-Ellen's popularity never really took off. She seems to have been a likable person, but her personal life was unhappy, including as it did two divorces, an infant daughter who succumbed to SIDS and (reputedly) a long battle with anorexia. According to Hollywood columnist Lee Graham, when the dancer weighed herself in the morning, which she always did in the nude, she would take out her contact lenses. When the musical era died Vera-Ellen's career died with it, even faster than that of Cyd Charisse. If you want to see Vera-Ellen at her best, check out her justly famous "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" number, with Gene Kelly, from Words and Music. Posted by Picasa

Monday, September 12, 2005

Gloria Dickson tries to talk some sense into John Garfield in They Made Me a Criminal. Garfield, despite (or maybe because of) a raucous and sometimes vulgar manner with the ladies, was a legendary philanderer. While filming this movie, he supposedly "made" both Dickson and Ann Sheridan. (Thanks to Surlyh for that little pun.)
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They Made Me a Criminal (1939)

The Siren didn't realize this when she posted it, but her great picture of John Garfield was from a movie she saw last week, They Made Me a Criminal. This 1939 Warner Brothers feature is a pleasure, showing Garfield's charisma and talent in full flower.

In some ways it's an odd movie, with a beginning that suggests film noir. But check the date; it's 1939, no postwar anomie here. What starts out a dark tale of a man who loses everything over a crime he didn't commit turns rapidly into a story of a heel who finds redemption. Garfield plays boxer Jimmy Dolan, who wins the world title as the movie opens in the first of several great fight scenes. Turner Classic Movies suggests director Busby Berkley's experience filming dancers gave him an advantage in filming the boxing moves. The Siren believes, but can't prove, that genius cinematographer James Wong Howe
had more to do with it than the director, especially if you look at the fight scenes Howe shot for 1947's Body and Soul.

As reporters gather around him after the fight, Jimmy expounds on the virtues of clean living, teetotaling and remembering his dear old mom. Next thing you know, he's blotto and lolling around on a couch with Miss Oomph herself, Ann Sheridan, as they both laugh it up over fooling the press corps. Sheridan, whose rising star gave her high billing for a tiny part, wears a black satin dress held up only by attitude and what appears to be black dental floss. You figure half the reason Garfield invited her was to see how long those straps could stand the strain. It's a great scene, with Garfield balancing lovable scamp and dangerous drunk. Unfortunately for his character, Ann's dress is still going strong when an uninvited guest turns out to be a reporter, dead keen to expose Jimmy as a hard-partying hypocrite.

Jimmy punches the guy, then passes out. His crooked manager coshes the reporter in the noggin with a whiskey bottle. Ever see a movie bar fight where someone gets hit over the head with a bottle, and think to yourself, "My word, how can that man still move?" Well, here the bottle kills the guy. The Siren can't decide if that is more realistic, or goes too far in the other direction. Perhaps the reporter had an undiagnosed aneurysm.

The crooked manager persuades Sheridan to escape with him. They load Garfield in the back of a car, drive him out to the country, dump him in a cottage and vamoose. (Here the Siren ponders how empty cottages are as abundant in movies as well-located parking spaces.) But fate catches up with the pair, in the form of a fiery car wreck that leaves them not only dead, but unidentifiable. The world assumes Jimmy killed the reporter. But one cop (Claude Rains) doesn't believe Jimmy is dead. He's determined to bring in the boxer.

Rains' greatest strength--that deep, liquid-caramel voice--renders him ridiculous here, because someone had the bright idea of casting him as a tough New Yorker. Rains fought against having to take this role, but Warners threatened to suspend him and he gave up. He wanders through the movie, pursuing John Garfield and looking about as comfortable as a soaking wet cat. There are times when he seems to have the physicality of the cop right, but then he opens his mouth and it's curtains.

Back to Jimmy. His savings stolen by a crooked lawyer, he becomes a hobo. Here we leave proto-noir-land and are back firmly in the Depression, with a great sequence of Garfield hopping boxcars and getting chased by the railway detectives. (Judging by the way railway detectives are shown in 1930s movies, people must have hated them even more than bankers. Remember Sullivan's Travels?) Finally Jimmy fetches up on a work farm, where the Dead End Kids are serving out juvenile sentences. They're supervised by Kid Billy Halop's sister (Gloria Dickson, pretty good here, but just six years away from her horrible death). What's a boxer to do but straighten out these crazy kids? And how could a sister not love him for it?

I am always happy to see the Dead End Kids, emblematic of the wisecracking, classic New York I love. TCM says they got along well with Garfield, and it shows, with zing in the comic scenes and lightness in the sentimental ones. One great sequence has Garfield and the Kids using an irrigation tank as a swimming hole, with near-disastrous results. Underwater shots of the boys' flailing legs build the suspense. Whether this was Howe's touch, or Berkley's, it's marvelous.

Still more pleasures are to be had from this movie, including an end that didn't quite play as the Siren expected. It is widely available as a budget DVD, and doesn't look bad at all. The Siren recommends it.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Perfume at the Movies V: Crime in a Bottle

Lugosi shows off his granite-moving technique.
Posted by Picasa

The Siren watched The Devil Bat (1940) while folding laundry, and it was pretty much ideal for that purpose. It is cute, it requires little mental involvement and if you miss a shot while smoothing out the fitted sheets, oh, what the hell. Bela Lugosi seems to be a kindly village doctor, but in reality, he is a maniac who has formulated an aftershave that attracts large bats. These bats he fattens up in his house (complete with many papier-mache secret doorways) using electromagnetic impulses, which means little light-bulb rays like in Frankenstein. He trains the bats to loathe "thees strange Oriental scent" (why, it's Thierry Mugler Angel, 50 years before its time!). The bats smell it and go for the jugular (Angel, I'm telling you).

The rest of the cast of future unknowns charges about trying to figure out where the giant bats are coming from. The ingenue, Suzanne Kaaren, was vaguely familiar to the Siren from a run-in the former actress had with Donald Trump in the 1980s. She was a rent-control tenant, and Trump wanted her to move, but she wouldn't. The Donald lost that one, so obviously Suzanne was a much tougher cookie than she seems while emitting little shrieks over the bats.

One by one, all the vacuous young men innocently splash on Bela's version of Aqua Velva and get chomped. Of course, Bela won't try any himself; "I haff a violent deeslahk of perfumes," he says forcefully to someone who wants him to sample.

The Devil Bat made the Siren a little sad, too. Less than ten years after Dracula made him a star, Lugosi was in this Poverty Row production, still giving it his all despite costars whose acting rarely rises above the high school spring musical level. It would make an interesting and rather poignant curtain-raiser for a revival of Ed Wood.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Franchot Tone and Charles Laughton.  Posted by Picasa

The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1949)

The Man on the Eiffel Tower was made during what most describe as a bad time in Charles Laughton's career. The Siren says if this was Laughton's lowest ebb, he did much better than other fine actors with bumpy careers (see Richard Burton). This movie ultimately doesn't work, due largely to a novice director who made some bad choices. But it is a fascinating failure.

This was on another DVD in my Mystery 50-pack, and as I mentioned before, the print is atrocious, with poorly synchronized sound in the first reel, lousy sound overall, splices and washed-out color that fades in and out. It was shot using a process called "Ansco Color" that might have been interesting when it was released but now is sheer horror. The film has plenty of historical and artistic interest and absolutely deserves better treatment. Here's hoping someone cleans it up before releasing it to the world again.

The print quality detracts from what might otherwise be strong points. The Man on the Eiffel Tower was shot on location, and the look, feel and street noises of postwar Paris are incredible. (The city even gets its own credit line in the title sequence.) The movie also showcases the drop-dead designs of Robert Piguet, the Swiss-born couturier best remembered for launching the classic perfumes Fracas and Bandit under his name. Both those concoctions are notice-me-now-damnit scents, and judging by the costumes here that was Piguet's dress-design ethos as well. You would have to go back to Adrian's prewar glory days at MGM or Travis Banton at Paramount to find such extravagance. The gowns don't really suit the female characters' station in life, personalities or anything else, but they look so divine you don't care. Seeing these dresses through the fog of this awful print could drive a vintage-fashion lover batty.

I have read only one of George Simenon's Inspector Maigret books, and that was a long time ago. I don't think Laughton's characterization is especially true to the book. Simenon's Maigret is detached and methodical. Laughton's Maigret makes faces, makes mistakes, charges around in an excitable manner. It works perfectly well within the world of the movie, but I am not surprised that Simenon fans take a dim view of this adaptation. Laughton's rendition of Maigret's famous moustache is much fuller than the ratty little thing he sported in The Big Clock, thank goodness. One movie with that monstrosity was enough.

This thriller has a simple plot. Bill Kirby (Robert Hutton) is faced with a grasping mistress and a wife who won't go away for cheap (those ladies get the spectacular Piguet frocks). Kirby hires a medical student to dispatch his wealthy aunt. The medical student is played by a wonderfully psychotic Franchot Tone, who looks far more drawn and ill in this movie than he did as the dying President years later in Advise and Consent. Tone really gives the standout performance here, refraining from scenery-chewing but managing to convey Radek's suave, remorseless and intelligent personality as well as his barely hidden desire to be caught. The Siren found herself reflecting on Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, and thinking how hammy the Brit seemed in comparison. The interplay between Laughton and Tone gives the movie its best scenes.

Alas, all of this good stuff is undone by Burgess Meredith, both as an actor and as a director. Meredith plays a student whom Radek tries to frame for the murder. His performance is a twitching mess of indication and obviousness, compounded by a shock of carroty hair that seems to be the only thing on the print that hasn't faded. Narrative coherence withers in many places and the viewer starts to get a touch of vertigo from all the disjointed, oddly placed and bizarre shots. By the time Meredith's character unaccountably joins in on the final chase across the titular landmark, the Siren was kind of hoping he would fall off so she could concentrate on Tone and Laughton once more.

The invaluable IMDB tells me Irving Allen was the original director of The Man on the Eiffel Tower, but was replaced by Meredith at Laughton's insistence. I cannot fathom why Laughton thought that would be a good idea. Maybe he wanted someone he could push around.

And Laughton directed Meredith's scenes, which are uniformly the worst in the movie. So let us reflect on that a moment. In 1949, Laughton was a demonstrably lousy director. In 1954 and 1955 Laughton screened D.W. Griffith's movies over and over again as he prepared to direct The Night of the Hunter. The Siren relishes yet more evidence backing up her belief that watching a great movie does more for us than we even dare hope.

Friday, September 02, 2005

I won't be around much this weekend, although you never know. I don't want my weird Landmark weekend to be Top O' the Blog, so I am posting this marvelous picture of John Garfield. He was a fine actor and had a social conscience as well. He reminds me of good things about my country. His fate reminds me of the bad.

I was going to post a picture of Louis Armstrong, my favorite musician of all time, but it made me too damn sad, frankly. Like everybody else, I have been donating to the relief effort and trying not to put my foot through my television set in a fit of rage. Here is a fervent hope that the relief efforts improve in Mr. Armstrong's suffering city. Posted by Picasa