Friday, December 30, 2005

Oh Kay

The Siren loves to discover a kindred spirit, especially in the person of an august critic who doesn't know she's alive.

"My familiarity with the film work of Kay Francis [is] intimate ... appreciation for the screen choreography of Robert Alton unbounded..."

The gentleman's post mentions Francis & Alton only in passing, as he was settling a score with another site. All the same, bless James Wolcott's heart. Alton will be remembered as long as holidays bring scheduled screenings of White Christmas and Easter Parade (the still is from Ann Miller's dazzling "Shaking the Blues Away" number). But few recall Kay Francis, except for her role in the incomparable Trouble in Paradise. That's a shame.

Kay was gorgeous, looked amazing in evening gowns, gave some good performances on the rare occasions that she got a decent script, and had the most alluring lisp in film history, Bogart notwithstanding. She also seems to have been a laid-back, good-natured sort of star, as rare then as it is now. But how intimate is intimate? Did Mr. Wolcott make it all the way through The White Sister? No matter. If he ever blogs about the four-hanky chick flick supreme, One-Way Passage, the Siren swears she will send him a fan letter.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Marx Brothers Sum Up Christmas, Cheer Up Siren

Fiorello: What does this say here? This thing here.

Otis P. Driftwood: Oh, that? Oh, that's the usual clause. That's in every contract. That just says uh, it says uh, "If any of the parties participating in this contract is shown not to be in their right mind, the entire agreement is automatically nullified."

Fiorello: Well, I don't know...

Driftwood: It's all right, that's, that's in every contract. That's, that's what they call a "sanity clause."

Fiorello: Ha ha ha ha ha! You can't fool me. There ain't no Sanity Claus. Posted by Picasa

Friday, December 16, 2005

This still from Meet Me in St. Louis comes from the moments after "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Margaret O'Brien has just taken a shovel and gone after the snow family on the front lawn. This still has lousy color, for which I apologize. Judy's dress in the scene is red, and a gorgeous red at that. Posted by Picasa

Christmas Lurks Without

So the Siren has had a grumpy week. Toddlers with cabin fever and a whacking huge snowstorm have combined to make her far from her usual soignée and carefree self. Over the horizon looms Christmas. Seen from nine days away, sometimes Christmas seems joyous and glittering, like the winter ball in Doctor Zhivago. At other times it seems that, like the Czar's soldiers amassing outside the Moscow mansions, Christmas is waiting for a chance to trample me.

Christmas at the movies is usually a jolly affair. Deck them halls and all that stuff, ho-ho-ho and misteltoe and presents to pretty girls. Even if a Christmas scene starts out sad, few filmmakers can resist the urge to make it uplifting at the end. The Siren has been trying to compile a list of movies that manage to show the dark side of Christmas. Here is what she has so far.

1. Citizen Kane. The boy Kane throws the sled, Rosebud, at Walter Thatcher, the guardian who has come to take him away. Maybe the scene takes place on Christmas, maybe it doesn't; the Siren always believed it took place a day or two after Christmas, and that Rosebud was young Kane's favorite present. The next scene shows Kane unwrapping a replacement sled, and obviously hating it. Flash forward to another Christmas--and Thatcher wishing the now-adult Kane "a happy New Year." The whole sequence is achingly sad, and builds sympathy for Kane by showing his loneliness and isolation. And at least a kernel of that feeling stays throughout the movie, even as Kane becomes less and less loveable. Like no other, this film nails how disappointing and hollow Christmas can be--yet another reason to admire Citizen Kane, if any of us needed one.

2. Stalingrad. The title may be description enough, but the scene the Siren has in mind is a moment of quiet in this bloody, chaotic movie. Having taken a gutted factory with fearful loss of life, a group of German soldiers takes a break from fighting. They huddle around the radio, listening to the Fuhrer's Christmas speech. Hearing Hitler address his nation in an ordinary, conversational tone is almost shocking. Usually when you hear recordings of the man, he is shrieking at the top of his lungs and working his audience into a frenzy. Here, the exhausted soldiers listen to the radio with expressions ranging from numbed apathy to bitter disbelief.

2. Meet Me in St. Louis. Every doggone Christmas-song-video-clip-anthology in creation shows the scene from this movie where Judy Garland, looking more beautiful than she ever had or ever would again, sings "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" to a tearstained Margaret O'Brien. When it's sandwiched between Bing's duet with David Bowie and a clip of Bruce Springsteen singing "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," you can forget how depressing the scene is. And that is even after song was altered before filming to make it a little less misery-inducing. The original lyrics began, "Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last ..." Break out the eggnog.

At this point in the plot, the Smith family is about to leave their beloved Saint Louis for (horrors!) New York. O'Brien, playing the child Tootie, listens to Judy's song looking as though someone just killed her dog. In fact, Vincente Minnelli, at the behest of the child's mother, had just told her a story about her dog getting shot, bleeding, stumbling around and then dying in order to get a properly devastated expression. (In his autobiography he said he felt like a monster, but added by way of justification that he got the scene in one take.) Everyone talks about the pathos of Judy's singing, but do you remember how well it goes down with Tootie? The kid is so cheered up that she runs out and beheads all the family snowmen. Sure, then the father notices Tootie is having a nervous breakdown and decides to let the family stay in St. Louis, but the scene usually requires a stiff drink and a great deal of Kleenex for the Siren to make it through.

I'm leaving out It's a Wonderful Life because I am on Wonderful Life hiatus, in hopes I will one day be able to watch it without remembering all the stupid commercials it's spawned. Besides, I am not sure it counts. Certainly there is some dark stuff, in the "life without George" sequence, but it's all just an illusion. The real world, according to Frank Capra, is the one where everybody shows up at your house and showers you with money. No wonder the man's films remain so popular.

So, what scenes am I forgetting? There must be others. What other films try to bury Christmas with a stake of holly through its heart? Preference is given to films where the absent father/Santa Claus/milk train/transformed Scrooge does not show up to make it all better.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Miriam Hopkins at the peak of her career. Behold the face of the woman who once drove John Gilbert to shoot a bullet over her head. (He suspected her of cheating on him, and he was probably right.) Her reaction was to take the gun away from him.

By the way, if you haven't visited Lance Mannion's site lately, you should know that he has his own thoughts on Gone with the Wind, starting here, continuing here and ending here. Lance is always a treat to read, and the comment threads at his place are lively and informative, so do check it out. Posted by Picasa

The Memorable Miriam

The Siren has been contemplating fashions in actors. I'm sure you have noticed how some players command a following to this day, and others go in cycles. To touch on one actress with a huge following, as recently as the 1980s there weren't that many Audrey Hepburn fans around. Now I am, I confess, getting a little tired of hearing about that lovely woman from people who consider the relatively weak and wildly uneven Breakfast at Tiffany's to be her finest hour. (I don't think so.)

Meanwhile, other fine actors have only a fan site or two and maybe a TCM Star of the Month tribute to keep them going. This week, the Siren starts a occasional series of nominations for Stars Who Deserve a Revival, Damn It. I assume that serious cinephiles already know these performers, so by revival, I mean a broader profile with the general public. A full-length biography that makes it to paperback, for example, or a postcard set sold by the Barnes & Noble cash register. A coffee-table book or one of those DVD boxed sets Amazon always emails me about. In fact, let's use the DVD boxed set as a yardstick.

I am starting with a doozy, the great Miriam Hopkins. Hopkins's fame rests today at least in part on a role she didn't get, that of Scarlett O'Hara. She tested for it and wanted it badly. No one could wish anyone other than Vivien Leigh in the role, but I think Hopkins might not have been half bad. No matter. She didn't need to play Scarlett. She WAS Scarlett. From her Georgia roots (like Scarlett, Miriam's connections to Old South aristocracy were on her mother's side), to her string of men, to her foot-stomping, crockery-throwing temper, Hopkins lived the part.

She wasn't a classic beauty, but she had what the Siren calls an actressy face, able to look seductively gorgeous for one film, achingly plain in another. (Cate Blanchett has this same quality today.) She was tiny, about 5'2" and 102 pounds, and it's possible her notorious scene-stealing had to do with a petite person's fear of disappearing. Co-stars like Bette Davis just said she was a bitch.

Whatever the reason, there was no trick Miriam wouldn't pull if she thought she could get away with it. Even Kay Francis, one of Miriam's few Hollywood friends, didn't escape. For a scene with Miriam in Trouble in Paradise, Francis told of having to eat more than twenty boiled eggs before Ernst Lubitsch himself could get a shot with her face toward the camera. When you see the movie scene, and realize Kay is having breakfast in bed and Miriam is sitting beside her, you appreciate how dedicated Miriam must have been to the art of upstaging. Other co-stars fared no better. Edward G. Robinson detested the actress, and in his autobiography he gleefully described filming a scene in Barbary Coast in which he slapped her. (The set burst into applause.) Davis told a similar story about a slap scene in Old Acquaintance. Davis also claimed that in The Old Maid Miriam almost inched her costar off a couch while trying to get a better camera angle.

With tales of such behavior circulating, it isn't surprising that Hopkins' career blazed up very briefly, and sputtered out later in a series of stage and character roles. But it's still a pity. Miriam was gifted. Lubitsch said she was the best actress he ever worked with. Mamoulian considered her a trouper.

Here, then, is the Siren's list of DVDs she'd include in that boxed set:

1. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931). The Rouben Mamoulian film that put Miriam on the map. She didn't want to play Ivy, the dance-hall tart. She wanted to play Muriel, the colorless fiancee who isn't even in the original novel. But the director talked her into it by telling her fine, play Muriel--"but Ivy would have made you a star." Hopkins started to leave, then came back and asked to play Ivy. For once her mercurial nature led her to a great decision. She would never be sexier than she was rocking a leg back and forth in front of Fredric March.

2. Trouble in Paradise (1932). This one, by common consent Miriam's best movie, is available in a beautiful DVD from the Criterion Collection. Miriam plays Lily Vautier, a thief who hooks up with the equally light-fingered Herbert Marshall. Together they try to rob wealthy Kay Francis, but Marshall finds himself unexpectedly drawn to his mark.

This is a romantic triangle plot, but when she watches this one the Siren roots for Miriam all the way. How could she not? The early scene where Hopkins and Marshall recognize that they've both been trying to rob each other blind is one of the Siren's favorites in any comedy. It begins with Miriam drooping around the hotel room and emoting in a manner familiar to anyone who's ever sat through a Norma Shearer vehicle: "Oh, one gets so tired of one's own class--princes and counts and dukes and kings! Everybody talking shop." As they wise up to each other, Marshall shakes her, and out falls a man's wallet. "I knew it very well when you took it out of my pocket," he tells her. "In fact, you tickled me. But your embrace was so sweet." He returns the brooch he lifted from smack in the middle of her décolletage. Hopkins counters by graciously handing him his watch, adding "It was five minutes slow but I regulated it for you." Marshall regains his composure and says, "I hope you don't mind if I keep your garter." Hopkins reaches down to feel for the item, Marshall produces it with a flourish, and Hopkins flings herself into his arms with a cry of "Darling!"

Now that, says the Siren, is true love.

3. Design for Living (1933). Lubitsch again. Miriam plays Gilda, a woman who can't decide between Fredric March and Gary Cooper. Her accomplishment here is to make Gilda thoroughly believable and likable, despite her hopping from March to Cooper and back again and making a fine mess. Miriam's great all the way through, but her best work comes at the end. Her martyred expression when asking "Is it animal, vegetable or mineral?" as part of a game with some hopelessly dull clients is something to treasure. But the best scene is Hopkins losing her temper with Edward Everett Horton. "I forgive you," he says. "Are you forgiving me again?" she snaps back, adding later, "I'm sick of being a trademark married to a slogan!"

4. Becky Sharp (1935). Famous for being the first full-length feature in three-strip Technicolor, and for not much else. It deserves another look. The film is static, probably due to the demands of the new technique. It's reminiscent of early talkies, with one medium shot after another, and the supporting cast isn't exactly mesmerizing, for the most part. But the Siren loves Hopkins as Becky. There wasn't another actress who could have captured the character's grasping-yet-generous nature. Mamoulian's film compresses William Makepeace Thackeray's humongous novel into less than 90 minutes, and does so intelligibly, even managing to save some of the novelist's wit. The screenwriters also jettisoned the novel's one major flaw, Thackeray's pompous, moralizing take on Becky's fate.

5. These Three (1936). Miriam plays the goodhearted victim here, a rarity for her. These Three is an adaptation of Lillian Hellman's lesbian-themed play The Children's Hour, so scandalous at the time that even the title couldn't be retained. Miriam and the ever-ravishing Merle Oberon play teachers who become the target of a vicious, spoiled young girl, played by a delectably spiteful Bonita Granville. (Granville made something of a career of this type of role, later tormenting Bette Davis with thoughtless jokes in Now, Voyager.) In the play the girl accuses the teachers of being lovers; in the movie, she lies about the relationship between Oberon's fiance, played by Joel McCrea, and Hopkins. Miriam does a lovely job portraying her character's slow, agonizing realization that she does, in truth, love McCrea.

6. The Old Maid (1939). This potentially sudsy story of love delayed and denied rises to the level of art through a literate script and unforgettable performances. Miriam plays Bette Davis's bitchy, vengeful--but, in the end, far from heartless--friend. Davis told costumer Orry-Kelly before filming that Hopkins "will be trouble, but she'll be worth it." They hated each other all right, but Bette's scenes with Miriam are some of the best either actress ever put on film. There are critics, such as Lawrence Quirk, who consider this Davis's finest performance. The Siren says actors feed off what they get from one another in a scene, and Davis wouldn't have been as great with a lesser actress in the Hopkins role.

Miriam's film career went into sad decline after the 1930s, despite a few bright spots (Old Acquaintance (1943) and a nice turn in The Heiress (1949) among them). She found work on the stage, but as years passed the parts got weaker and the venues got smaller. One ill-fated onstage role was the main character in an early and dismally short-lived version of Orpheus Descending. When Miriam died in 1972 Tennessee Williams wrote, "I know that Paramount Pictures must be aware of her value, the value of her unique talent and personality, and I trust that there will be continued r[ev]ivals of her films...she has the quality of which a 'cult' could emerge." The Siren hopes time eventually proves him right.

Note: Information about Miriam isn't easy to find, and despite a fascinating life she has never had a full-length biography. The Siren drew most of her facts from George Eells's essay "The Maverick," in his Ginger, Loretta and Irene Who?, Putnam 1976. There's an intelligent and detailed fan site here. Also, if you are wondering why the Siren didn't mention The Smiling Lieutenant, it's because she hasn't seen it.