Thursday, December 21, 2006

Remember the Night (1940)

As we count our blessings this holiday season, the Siren counts Turner Classic Movies as the greatest of these. Sunday night she finally got to see a movie she has tried to track down for a while, 1940's Remember the Night, directed by Mitchell Leisen. We all need a little warmth and kindness this time of year--yes, even us merry apostates--and this movie provided much.

The screenplay was written by Preston Sturges, but this is a sentimental romance, not one of his trademark farces. Biographer Donald Spoto says Remember the Night was written soon after Sturges's marriage (his second of four, but a honeymoon's a honeymoon), and it carries the gleam of newfound love. Barbara Stanwyck plays a shoplifter arrested just before Christmas. Fred MacMurray is the assistant D.A. who must prosecute her, a tall order since juries are inclined to be lenient around the holidays. MacMurray executes a deft courtroom maneuver and gets a continuance, meaning Stanwyck's fate won't be decided until after the holidays. But his conscience bothers him when he overhears her lamenting that she can't make bail, and so will spend Christmas in jail. He bails her out, only to have the bondsman deposit her in his apartment even as he prepares to go home to Mom in Indiana. Turns out that Stanwyck, too, is from Indiana, and MacMurray decides to take her along for the drive.

MacMurray has been dissed a bit lately, by Dave Kehr and the estimable Looker, but the Siren disagrees. He was the least starry of leading men, and that was the whole point. His good looks are of the sort you might encounter in any office. When he turns on the charm, he's no more or less resistible than that boy you used to date in college. His characters telegraph jokes like a kid brother does, with a little grin at his own cleverness (a technique that reached its apogee in Double Indemnity, as Walter Neff registers self-congratulation with every double-entendre). That everyday quality meant MacMurray gives the audience the chance to recognize itself, something that is harder to do when looking at, say, Cary Grant. When MacMurray decides to bail out Stanwyck, instead of seeing only a wildly improbable plot twist, you see the kind of reluctant, I-don't-need-the-guilt charity we all are prey to at the holidays.

Stanwyck, as usual, is marvelous. In the courtroom scene, see her watch a hambone lawyer (Willard Robertson) spin an absurd theory of how self-hypnosis lured her into unintentional theft. Stanwyck's reaction shots start out demure, but none too optimistic. As the jury starts to buy all that lawyerly hokum, her posture improves, her eyes start to sparkle. She tries to maintain a look of contrition, while she eases her gorgeous legs a little more into the jury's sightlines.

Because Stanwyck is too smart to milk the audience for sympathy, she wins it early on. MacMurray takes her to dinner after bailing her out (come on, it's a Christmas movie, suspend that disbelief) and, as a band plays "Easy Living," the title tune from an earlier Sturges-Leisen collaboration, she summarizes her life of crime. MacMurray, already succumbing a bit, half-jokingly suggests kleptomania as a defense. Won't work, says Stanwyck, as though revealing a trade secret: "You can't try to sell the stuff afterward, or you lose your amateur status."

The Indiana the characters reach, after some slapstick road diversions, has two sides, which together give Remember the Night its heart. Stanwyck's town comes first; as they drive down the Grover's Corners streets, her expression changes from eager nostalgia, to fear of what is coming next. Her house is a gingerbread Victorian, looming over the yard like a mausoleum, without a single light in the window. Here, Stanwyck tries to make up with the grimmest old meat-axe of a mother in the history of Christmas movies. The alternate-universe Beulah Bondi in It's a Wonderful Life has nothing on Georgia Caine here. The recriminations start right away, and you see that Stanwyck the shoplifter was just living down to expectations. MacMurray stands to one side, trying to stay out of it until, in a perfectly modulated moment, he tells Stanwyck they still have 50 miles to drive to his farm. No rescue was ever so low-key, and few are as endearing.

So they arrive at the farm, and whaddya know, MacMurray's mom IS Beulah Bondi. But it's the nice version, thank goodness. The rest of the movie chronicles the change in Stanwyck as Christmas shows her what family life can be like, and the change in MacMurray, as he falls in love with the shoplifter he's scheduled to put away. Both of them must decide what to do when they return to New York, and the trial. The fuss made there over Stanwyck's crime may seem more appropriate to Brigid O'Shaughnessy going down in The Maltese Falcon than a simple bracelet heist, but it still makes for a beautiful fadeout.

Nobody's all good, or all bad, not in my movies at least. There's a little bad in the best of us, and a little good in the worst of us.
--Mitchell Leisen, quoted in an appreciation at the indispensable Senses of Cinema site.

Mitchell Leisen, who started out as a set decorator, was not beloved by his two most gifted screenwriters, Sturges and Billy Wilder. Sturges always maintained Leisen ruined the script for Easy Living. (This makes the Siren wonder just how much more perfect that priceless screwball comedy was supposed to be.) "A window dresser," was Wilder's kindest assessment; when recalling an incident on Hold Back the Dawn he lapsed into slurs on Leisen's homosexuality. Wilder biographer Ed Sikov says his subject was always too hard on Leisen, but then turns around and says Leisen didn't do much more for screenplays than "record them on celluloid and make sure the lighting was good."

Phooey, says the Siren. It isn't merely lighting that makes a moment like MacMurray and Stanwyck on the porch of her childhood home. As he tries to comfort her, over his shoulder you see the mother at the door, pausing for a moment--to hurl one last insult? to see if they're leaving?--then shutting off the lights. At MacMurray's farm, there's the way the canopy in her bedroom arcs over Stanwyck's face like a bridal veil, or the way the camera hovers over a barn dance and still manages to let you pick out the couple, Stanwyck happily blending in as she never did before in Indiana.

Remember the Night's chief flaw, in the Siren's eyes, is yet another of those comical African-American servants that pockmark Sturges's movies. "I loved this movie," says one Amazon reviewer. "That's a hard statement for a black man to make about any movie in which Snowflake has a role." But beloved the film is and remains, gaining all kinds of admirers as the years go by. A film that can do that must have a great deal of the true Christmas spirit.

And in that spirit, the Siren wishes her patient readers the happiest of holidays.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Kay Francis in Mandalay (1934)

The Siren moves on to Mandalay (1934), another film she saw while awaiting Ben's debut. This one was directed by Michael Curtiz, Warner Brothers' jack-of-all-trades, and a director whose reputation has been burnished in recent years by admirers such as Spielberg and Soderbergh. The Siren, however, was watching this one for Kay Francis.

The movie came out in 1934, but apparently it was slipped into release just before the Production Code was etched onto stone tablets. The opening shot of Kay on a boat in Rangoon harbor is one of the nicest you will ever see of this actress. Loose-fitting tropical blouse drooping off of one shoulder, Kay waves energetically as lover Ricardo Cortez approaches in a dinghy. The shot has a refreshingly natural, unposed feel to it, and she looks innocent and happy. But this is a Kay Francis vehicle, so that doesn't last long.

Cortez, you see, is a gun-runner wanted by the authorities. To square his debts and save himself from being turned in, he leaves poor Tanya Borisoff (Francis is supposed to be Russian) as payment with the local bordello owner. After a night spent reflecting on Man's Perfidy, Tanya calls off a brief hunger strike and resolves to make the best of things. Next thing you know, she is sashaying down a staircase in the greatest silver sheath of all time, as a grumpy bordello patron remarks, "They call her Spot White. It should be Spot Cash." (The nickname seems to derive from Francis's all-white wardrobe in the picture, though it's never really explained.)

The Siren thinks of Curtiz's signal virtue as pacing. His films move, often at breakneck speed. Something like Mandalay, with a complicated plot fully teased out over 65 minutes, stands in pleasant contrast to a modern genre movie like X-Men, in which half an hour of exposition is combined with almost zero actual character development. In very short order, after pulling a lucrative bit of blackmail on local official Reginald Owen, Tanya leaves town in a variation on the treatment Claire Trevor got in Stagecoach. But again, this is a Kay Francis movie, and she leaves in a killer white suit, with cushy accomodations on a slow steamer to Mandalay. On the boat she meets and falls in love with an alcoholic doctor With a Past, Lyle Talbot. But Tanya's own past intrudes in the form of Cortez, who turns back up, in the way all rotten exes eventually do. The female audience that loved Kay so much must have enjoyed seeing Cortez get his just deserts more than once, as his character proves as difficult to bump off as Rasputin. I especially liked the bit where he gets stuffed through a porthole.

Mandalay is tosh, but it is enjoyable tosh, and nine-tenths of the pleasure is definitely Kay. You hear a lot about her lisp, but it honestly isn't as prominent as people make it out to be--more Barbara Walters than Elmer Fudd. Still, it is usually irresistible to film writers looking for a laugh, like Jerry Vermilye discussing Mandalay in The Films of the Thirties:

'If you touch my garter, I'll scweam,' she warns a lustful gentleman early on. [The gentleman is actually the consul she is blackmailing, and Tanya is mocking him. -C.] Sympathetic screenwriters usually helped Key avoid these verbal pitfalls, but Mandalay scenarists Austin Parker and Charles Kenyon must have had a grudge against her; near the film's climax, they have her address costar Lyle Talbot with 'Gwegowy, we awwive in Mandalay tomowwow. We ah two wecked people.'

Cute (although with that second quote Vermilye conflates two separate lines), but the Siren thinks Francis deserves better than jokes about her speech impediment. Though she was hardly a talent for the ages, there was something lovable about this actress. She had huge dark eyes and a slightly receding chin, combined with a low and gentle voice. The effect was of someone easily wounded and in great need of tenderness, though her movie plots usually offered her precious little of that. Her fans flocked to see her suffer, as in The House on 56th Street, a somewhat overwrought but touching movie where the troubles life heaps on her last through 30 years (and some unfortunate blonde wigs). Given a script with genuine wit, as with One Way Passage or the superb Trouble in Paradise, Kay had a gently mocking manner well suited to high comedy.

Her friends remembered her as a kind and generous person, with a warmly self-deprecating manner. She was dismissive about her looks and never had much regard for her own talent. As long as her salary stayed on a steady incline, she took the roles she was offered. As a result, her image was worn down eventually, as Warner Brothers increasingly relied on her name to redeem inferior vehicles. When at last she began to fight for better parts, it was too late. By 1938 her period of greatest stardom was over, and she was labeled "box-office poison" in the celebrated Hollywood Reporter ad. Unlike fellow drugs on the market such as Hepburn and Crawford, Francis didn't get a chance to surmount the stigma.

From the beginning, she was famed for being a clotheshorse, and though she hated the label, no one wore 'em like Kay. In Hollywood fashion history, Audrey Hepburn had the European tastefulness, Marlene Dietrich was the iconoclast in trousers, Julie Christie had the swingin' attitude, but Kay is tops in the Siren's book. She could wear even a ludicrous gown and make it seem chic. Given a truly elegant ensemble she could take your breath away. She was tall, slender and flat-chested, with a slight give-a-damn slouch that defied you to question why the hell she was wearing white in the middle of the Burmese jungle.

The picture you get in Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career, by Lynn Kear and John Rossman, is melancholy. The authors make heavy use of Kay's diary, which was really more of a month-by-month calendar. But instead of just jotting down "buy bread" or "call mom," Kay used shorthand to note liquor consumption and all of her sexual conquests. That frequently filled up the margins, too, with entries like "Swell time but got very drunk. T[allulah] B[ankhead] called me a lesbian" and "We baptized the library floor. Good fucking" and "Slept with him and he may be the best of them all! Christ, I am a slut." (That possible best of them all, if you're interested, was agent Charles Feldman.) Her appetite, encompassing both men and women, was huge. She had four marriages but no children, opting instead for a jaw-dropping number of abortions. As a bit of social history, the ease with which well-connected, well-off Kay got abortions is telling; she had four the year she turned 23.

Several times the sheer volume of Kay's conquests made the Siren reach for a cold cloth to put on her forehead. (Even the authors say plaintively in the preface, "Believe it or not, we truly wanted to find out more about her career ... but the diary focused on her sex life.") Alas, nothing brought the actress much happiness. The book's Kay pursues pleasure but seldom finds it. Eventually the career withered and died, too, killed by public weariness with Kay's kind of pictures and blocked by the rise of a greater Warner star of the four-hanky saga, Bette Davis. Kay made no movies after 1946. In later years she drank too much, but retained a measure of her appeal even in bad times.

Actor-director Harold J. Kennedy ... described how Kay kept her sense of humor during one incident. 'I remember taking her one night to a little restaurant upstairs in the East Fifties when she fell down and it took three of us, the head waiter, the owner and myself, to carry her down the stairs and out into the street. The owner and the maitre d' were holding Kay slumped between them while I was trying to hail a cab when a young sailor went by and stared at her. "Is that Kay Francis?" he said. Kay half-opened her eyes and smiled that million-dollar smile. "I used to be," she said.'

Kay Francis doesn't have the name recognition of a star like Katharine Hepburn or Marlene Dietrich, but her reputation is kept alive by unusually devoted fans. James Wolcott has mentioned his affection for her more than once, and the Web boasts several lovingly detailed Kay sites. The Siren hopes to see more of Kay's movies, as more people succumb to her charm.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Viridiana (1960)

Viridiana may seem like an odd film to fall in love with, but the Siren did, and hard, back in her college days when she was trying to see every European film denied her back home in Birmingham, Ala. Her first months in New York often found her in the college cafeteria with a copy of the New Yorker, staring at the listings, like a Soviet refugee transfixed by the overstuffed produce aisle at D'Agostino's. Viridiana was an early choice, and a formative experience. Along with Les Enfants du Paradis and a handful of others viewed around age 18, the Buñuel
film was an electrifying gateway drug to European cinema. However, there are many things the Siren loved when she was 18 that she loves no longer--Southern Comfort, four-inch heels, false eyelashes--so who knew how'd she react when Turner Classic Movies recently screened the movie.

Happily, the Siren can report that Viridiana still knocks her sideways. It has been dissected many times, by critical minds more refined than hers, but the Siren wants to tell you about why she loves this rather bleak, but utterly brilliant film.

Anybody here familiar with Alabama? To say it's religious down there is like remarking that Manhattan is urban. Now my late father and my beloved mother both grew up a few blocks from a local church--Baptist for Daddy, Methodist for Mom. They attended every Sunday until the day they left home, with the happy result that neither one wanted anything to do with weekly services as an adult. But they were Christian enough to want their offspring to choose a nice denomination to settle down with. So the Siren went often to several churches, spent a long time studying Catholicism, and in the end picked the box marked "none of the above." She was tired of Jesus. He kept turning up in the Siren's daily life, whether she invited Him or not, usually invoked by people who wanted to tell her she was wrong. The Siren started to regard the Lord the way other people saw Chuck Barris--someone who pops up to tell you the gong has rung and the fun's all over.

So the lights go down on Viridiana, and the Siren's eyelids pop. There, up on screen, was every seething, rebellious thought she ever had during a Sunday sermon, or while resisting recruitment for the Brothers And Sisters in Christ club, or listening to Coach Jeffries at the pep rally asking Jesus to help us whup the Spartans on Friday night.

For those who haven't seen it--and if you haven't, what else are you doing that's so important?--a little plot summary. Gorgeous Viridiana (Sylvia Pinal) is a novice at a local convent, and one day she is told she should visit her uncle, local farmer Don Jaime. When Viridiana arrives, her uncle, played by a gloriously lecherous Fernando Rey, is thunderstruck by her resemblance to his dead wife. From there out, he is obsessed with getting his virginal niece into bed. What follows includes a drugging and contemplated rape, a nice little episode of foot fetishism and the uncle's abrupt exit. Don Jaime's illegitimate son Jorge (Francisco Rabal) arrives and he too lusts for Viridiana, but is content to wait for her to see the error of her virginity. She takes over the farm and tries to set up a sort of rural food kitchen for the local beggars, but they prove to be about as salvageable as her uncle. To watch the film is to see Viridiana's Christian ideals taken apart, hanged, burnt, tied up, knifed, buried and seduced into a possible game of strip tute. Maybe others find it depressing. To me, it's pure adrenalin. That night in New York, if I could have found Luis Buñuel, I'd have touched the hem of his garment.

You can find a lot of writing on Viridiana around the Web, some of it claiming that the film is anti-Catholic but not anti-Christianity, and it really isn't all that shocking anymore. To which the Siren says, poppycock. If you could show the BASIC club or Coach Jeffries this movie, I guarantee they would ban it just as fast as Pope John XXIII did. If Viridiana's sensual pleasure in whipping herself while wearing a crown of thorns didn't do it, the beggars' celebrated burlesque of the Last Supper would. You can easily turn a screening into a game of Spot the Blasphemy.

Christian beliefs are hung out to dry (in one instance literally), but the film has no special contempt for Christians personally. Viridiana isn't a bad sort, just rather dopey and possessed of a virgin's tendency to think all the other characters are making sexual innuendos at her expense. (Sometimes they are, as with Rabal; sometimes they aren't, as when Pinal is invited to milk a cow.) Her vows of poverty aren't admirable, but neither are they especially despicable. They are just Viridiana's particular way of entertaining herself, no more or less worthy than jumping rope or drugging someone's tea.

There is a great deal of political satire too, although in Buñuel's memoirs he said that when General Franco saw the movie he didn't see what the fuss was about. To the Siren, this just demonstrates that dictators aren't always very bright. (John Nesbit at Toxic Universe points out the acid implication of the line, "The weeds have taken over the past 20 years... And beyond the second floor, the house is overrun with spiders.")

But there is little comfort for the do-gooder liberal, either. Buñuel refuses to romanticize poverty. There is nothing ennobling or beautiful about it, whether it is chosen like Viridiana's, or forced by circumstances like that of the beggars. They aren't purehearted children of the sod, oppressed by the system. They're just poor, and creepy, and eager to grab any momentary gratification. Emerging from poverty is purely a matter of luck, as it is for an abused mutt in the movie's other celebrated sequence. Whether you seek it through Jesus or the kindness of the better-off, your illusion of salvation is just that.

Buñuel made this film after a 22-year exile from Spain. (Here the Siren sees a bit of similarity to Robert Altman, another gleefully godless filmmaker: Invited to return to his homeland and make a movie, Buñuel made a lengthy disquisition on what bums they all were.) If Franco wasn't incensed, plenty of others got the point. When Viridiana was released, it was promptly banned in Spain and denounced by the Vatican. Spain's chief censor was forced to resign. Even Sturges and Lubitsch didn't manage to get the censors fired. If that doesn't tell you Viridiana's worth, the Siren doesn't know what will.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Anecdote of the Week: No Small Parts, and No Small Directors

Orson Welles was playing the Narrator in Start the Revolution Without Me, and I wanted to meet him. He only had two filiming days, and I thought it would be more polite if I waited until the second day to say hello. On the second day, at about three in the afternoon, I got to the chateau where they were filiming; Orson Welles was gone. I asked [Revolution director] Bud Yorkin what happened.

"Well," Bud said, "we'd start a scene, and after a little while Orson would call 'Cut!' He'd look at me and say, 'Now, you don't honestly want any more of that shot, do you, Bud? Surely you'll be cutting to the twins at that point.' And I'd say, 'Yes ... well ... yes, I suppose so.' Then we'd be in the middle of the next scene, and he'd yell, 'Cut!' and he'd say, 'Now surely you've got to cut there, Bud--it wouldn't make any sense if you didn't cut to the mob at that point.' So we finished shooting all of his sequences an hour ago."

--Gene Wilder talks about the perils of filming with a genius,
in Kiss Me Like a Stranger (a good memoir
with the worst title in the history of Hollywood autobiography).

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Hold the Revision: Marie Antoinette (1938)

Certain cultural moments leave the Siren scratching her head, and the greeting accorded Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette is one. Not because the Siren dislikes the movie--she hasn't seen it and isn't enough of a Sofia fan to drop the newborn and rush out to remedy that--but because all the critics keep telling her it's based on a "revisionist" view of the doomed queen, an analysis that doesn't paint the woman as heartless, extravagant and silly.

To which the Siren replies, just what in the sam hill is so all-fired revisionist about that? Has any American film ever portrayed the French queen as anything other than sympathetic? Okay, the Siren can think of one: Start the Revolution Without Me, a breathlessly silly 1970 comedy the Siren loves. In it, Billie Whitelaw plays MA as a scheming nymphomaniac, a characterization the Revolutionary pamphleteers would have recognized and relished. Otherwise, l'Autrichienne gets sweetheart press over here, and always has. Prime example: the 1938 biopic starring MGM's Queen of the Lot, Norma Shearer.

No European film could ever be quite as royalist as this one. As hagiography, it makes Ivan the Terrible Part I look like Scarface. Marie is a victim of history, a good-hearted woman with a strong sense of duty, too noble to act on her passion for Count Axel von Fersen (Tyrone Power, barely there) after Louis XVI gets his (delicately unmentioned) phimosis cured. The revolution, it's suggested, wouldn't have been necessary if that nasty Joseph Schildkraut, playing the Duc d'Orleans, hadn't kept stirring things up. Starving peasants? Overtaxed middle class? ruinous wars? Geez, it wasn't Marie's fault that she didn't know how to stop a bread riot. She was just trying to be the best darn Queen of France she could be.

Still, I defy anyone with a love of classic film to view Marie Antoinette without, at minimum, getting some pleasure out of Cedric Gibbons' art direction. You could say MGM was unable to use Versailles, but the real answer is why bother, when they had the back lot? Gibbons worked not to recreate the world's most famous palace, but to suggest and, finally, outdo it as only MGM could. The spaces are bigger and bolder than in real life, full of laquered staircases, blazing klieg-light candelabra, and furniture and tapestries brought back by buyers rummaging through France. When the studio recreated the Hall of Mirrors for a ball sequence, they made it twice as big as the original. That's a pretty good metaphor for MGM's entire aesthetic, right there.

Adrian's costumes were equally over the top--check out this marvelously detailed site for a complete rundown of each costume. The site also has color snapshots of those costumes which have survived to the present day, and the gowns may be more lavish than anything the real Marie ever wore. Irving Thalberg was planning this vehicle for wife Shearer when he died in 1936, and at first it was planned as a Technicolor feature. It is a crying shame that money considerations meant it was filmed in black-and-white. One fur was even sent abroad to be dyed the color of Norma's eyes.

Shearer was a fascinating person, as Gavin Lambert demonstrated in his 1990 biography, but the Siren has a hard time warming to her performances. She had a marvelous voice, elegant posture and one of the most beautiful profiles in screen history, but she was very mannered, a back-of-the-hand-to-the-forehead kind of dramatic actress. Marie Antoinette, however, definitely ranks with The Women and Idiot's Delight as one of Shearer's best talkie performances. Shearer spent hours learning to move gracefully under the heavy costumes, and her carriage is always aristocratic. That physical focus frees up Shearer's face and gestures, and her emotions flow much more organically than usual. The movie was a personal favorite of the actress. (In later years Shearer owned prints of only two of her movies--Romeo and Juliet and Marie Antoinette.)

And Shearer's greater believability as Marie Antoinette also probably had something to do with a wee bit of identification. Thalberg had been dead two years, and Shearer's power as Queen of the Lot was ebbing away. She had wanted old pal Sidney Franklin to direct, but an underhanded maneuver (did he make any other kind?) by studio chief Louis B. Mayer resulted in Franklin being replaced with W.S. "One-Take Woody" Van Dyke. The replacement probably helped the picture (Van Dyke, of Thin Man fame, was a better director), but such a thing would never have happened when Norma ruled at the Boy King Thalberg's side. When filming stopped, she was only four years and five movies from retirement.

The 1938 Marie Antoinette puts suffering Shearer front and center throughout, but it is the kings who stand out. John Barrymore seems more dissipated than even his role as Louis XV requires. But the Siren's favorite, and the real reason she would watch the movie again, is Robert Morley as Louis XVI. The Siren is an ardent small-r republican, prone to point out irritably that tearjerking scenes of Marie separated from her children obscure the question of the sufferings of France's less privileged children. But Morley, spending his last night alive lovingly repairing his son's toy soldier, manages to make her feel sorry for a Bourbon. Touché, MGM.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Robert Altman 1925 - 2006

Griffin: It lacked certain elements that we need to market a film successfully.
June: What elements?
Griffin: Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mainly happy endings.

The Siren bids hail and farewell to the great Robert Altman.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


Donald, Debbie and Gene demonstrate the mood at the Siren's house. Hoping my patient readers are well and happy, too!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Family Campaspe Celebrates the First Weekend ...

of Abraham Ben, born Oct. 19, 2006, at 4:41 pm, in New York. While he thus far refuses interviews, sources close to the new arrival state he made his debut at 8 pounds, 8 ounces, 20 inches in length. So far the raves are unanimous. Publicists are currently deciding which paparazzi shot of Ben, or Bibou as his fans call him, is the most flattering for release to the public. Meanwhile, groggy best wishes, and the Siren will be back soon, she promises.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Stanley, Tony and The Defiant Ones

If Libertas insisted on calling Red-Blue Film Teams, the Siren is pretty sure Team Blue could call Stanley Kramer without comment. His name is a byword for earnest, uninspired liberal filmmaking. That's liberal and by no means left-wing, as this excellent assessment in a socialist periodical points out.

You don't disagree with Kramer because he stacks the deck. He's so reasonable he can cross over into irritating. The Siren likes Inherit the Wind a lot, but cringes every time Spencer Tracy walks out with a copy of Darwin AND the Bible under his arm. As someone who grew up surrounded by That Old-Time Religion, let's just say that wasn't the ending she was rooting for.

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is too cumbersome to be funny, Judgment at Nuremberg has been supplanted by finer films on the Holocaust. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? is worth watching nowadays only for Sidney's Poitier general gorgeousness, since the man wasn't given an actual character to play, and for Katharine Houghton, a lovely presence whose later career played out mostly on stage.

So the Siren settled in to watch the The Defiant Ones expecting, well, not much. Who knew that would really make the film worth watching would be a bigoted Southern convict, played by Bernie Schwartz from the Bronx?

Tony Curtis gives a really good performance, and because his character isn't freighted with the same symbolic baggage as that of his costar, even Sidney Poitier's formidable talent doesn't make quite as large an impression. Curtis is entirely credible as Joker Jackson, the convict who escapes from a prison work gang still chained to Noah Cullen (Poitier). The two men make their way across the rural South, encountering--well, the sort of stuff you'd expect a black man chained to a white man to encounter in the rural South circa 1958. Hostility, in a word. And a few standout character actors, including Lon Chaney Jr. and Claude Akins. Curtis and Poitier are pursued by reluctant and humane sheriff Theodore Bikel, who is prodded in turn by his captain, Charles McGraw in merciless mode. (If you want a complete plot rundown, or have seen the movie already, do check out this great piece at, a genre site that is the Siren's latest discovery.)

If the 1960s became the age of the Beautiful British Actor, in the 1950s it was the Americans who seemed to line up dazzling male beauties, one after the other--Marlon Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson, Burt Lancaster. Tony Curtis could hold his own in the looks department against any of them, so much so that he has a prosthetic on his nose in this movie in an attempt to damp his appeal. How well that works (basically, it doesn't) can be judged from the still above. But Curtis's amazing looks help believability late in the film, when a lonely, frustrated grass widow takes one look at him, chains and all, and starts fixing his supper.

In terms of camera work, the film isn't very engaging. The images themselves are often beautiful (and won an Oscar for cinematographer Sam Leavitt) it's just that the film language tends to be pedestrian. Example: a long and very well-played monologue, delivered in bed by an ailing Tony to the grass widow. About midway through his speech the camera tracks back to an overhead shot, and lingers there, and oh look it is lit like a CHURCH, just like CONFESSION, and then descends again. You get a lot of stuff like that. Subtlety was in no way Kramer's strong suit.

Guiding actors, on the other hand, was. Kramer films are full of good acting. Here Curtis holds his own against all odds, even to a passable Southern accent. (He concentrates on the vowels and all but ignores the consonants, and so avoids that exaggerated drawl that kills many imitation Southern accents.) He gets the best character arc in the movie, but in the end it is an open question whether Joker has come anywhere close to overcoming his prejudice. Where Curtis succeeds is in showing how this convict is able to move beyond a criminal's strongest trait, his absolute selfishness.

A general Curtis postscript: Last year I read his 1993 autobiography, cowritten with the excellent biographer Barry Paris. It is a strange book indeed. Curtis vaults beyond arrogance, into a territory where your self-love is so enveloping you have no idea how you sound to other people. (For instance, when Curtis describes how he decided to quit visiting his pathetic, institutionalized schizophrenic younger brother.) The frank selfishness is so consistent that after a while, amazingly, it gets to be kind of endearing. The man lets it all hang out. And once you have read the book, it isn't surprising that The Defiant Ones has something in common with other great Curtis performances in Sweet Smell of Success and The Boston Strangler. He isn't afraid to be disliked, which the Siren would call a mark of any real actor, as opposed to a matinee idol. It is a shame that Curtis's career, with a few bright exceptions, petered out in the 60s in a series of silly farces--jobs taken in part to make child support payments for his six kids from various marriages.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Gym Class School of Film Criticism

Like most bloggers, the Siren likes to look at other blogs. A while back she discovered Libertas. The writers there do not exactly share her own political philosophy, but it's healthy to read opposing opinions, and they cover a lot of old movies, so the Siren still checks in every once in a while.

There are times when the Siren simply disagrees with Libertas (you can see her objecting in the comments section to this post on The Searchers), times when she thinks hmm, interesting and other times when she's just flummoxed. Like this post on Flags of Our Fathers. The film hasn't been released yet, so blog editor Jason Apuzzo is critiquing the trailer, which strikes the Siren as a mighty perilous approach. Trailers are the reason she went to The Crying Game expecting The Informer, for example, and thought the worst thing that could happen in Million-Dollar Baby was that Hilary Swank might lose the big fight. Anyway, here is the trailer. Please do take a look before you continue.

What did you see? The Siren saw a preview for a movie about some very brave soldiers, who saw some bad things during a terrible and hard-fought battle, came home and found themselves catapulted into unexpected fame, were dragooned into war-bond drives they found embarrassing and crass, and wound up wracked with self-doubt because they didn't consider themselves heroic in comparison to the men killed in battle.

The Audie Murphy story in triplicate, in other words.

What she did not see was a commentary on the Iraq war, the insinuation that World War II was unjust or that the men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima were frauds or war criminals.

What the hell? That trailer is nothing. You want a cynical, politicized WW II movie, the Siren'll give you a cynical, politicized WW II movie. How about Attack, the 1956 film that shows a soldier dying as horrible a combat death as you've ever seen--and dying that way, mind you, due to the cowardice of an American officer promoted solely because of his rich daddy's connections. (The Siren is convinced that sequence must have influenced Steven Spielberg when he was creating one of Saving Private Ryan's most memorable death scenes--but the Siren also says Attack is the better movie.)

Or let's talk about a movie with enough derring-do to satisfy even Libertas, The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Even in that one, you want moral equivalence? Take a look at the none-too-subtle parallels between Sessue Hayakawa's camp commander and Alec Guinness's POW. And ruthlessness to spare, with Jack Hawkins as the British commando ready to sacrifice not only himself, but William Holden and every other man he brought with him. The Siren's favorite shot in that splendid movie shows the young women bearers recoiling from Hawkins--they know what he is, no matter what cause he's pursuing. The primary characters in Bridge are, with the qualified exception of Holden, utterly focused on winning their narrowly defined parts of the war game, to the point that they are barely thinking about the larger issues at stake. That is what happens in a war, Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson and David Lean are telling us.

Or how about The Best Years of Our Lives. Homer, the returning GI with hooks for hands, finds himself in a drugstore being queried by a customer who obviously never saw combat.

Customer: You got plenty of guts. It's terrible when you see a guy like you that had to sacrifice himself - and for what?
Homer: And for what? I don't getcha Mister?
Customer: ...We let ourselves get sold down the river. We were pushed into war.
Homer: Sure, by the Japs and the Nazis so we had...
Customer: No, the Germans and the Japs had nothing against us. They just wanted to fight the limeys and the reds. And they would have whipped 'em too, if we didn't get deceived into it by a bunch of radicals in Washington.
Homer: What are you talkin' about?
Customer: We fought the wrong people, that's all. (Pointing at his newspaper, with headlines: "SENATOR WARNS OF NEW WAR") Just read the facts, my friend. Find out for yourself why you had to lose your hands. And then go out and do something about it.

That customer says he is espousing "plain, old-fashioned Americanism." He's an accurate depiction of post-war sentiment in certain quarters. But if such a character pops up in Flags of Our Fathers, Mr. Apuzzo will probably have apoplexy.

The Siren adores Best Years, and without hesitation would cite it as the greatest celebration of true American values ever made. But part of its greatness lies in the filmmakers' willingness to include a character like that drugstore customer, or the people overheard making snide remarks about veterans flooding the job market. Conflict, you see. Nuance. Dramatic shading. A movie that has those qualities has a shot at greatness, or at least watchability. A movie that doesn't have them will be Little Tokyo, USA or at best Conan the Barbarian.

Why this bizarre insistence that any attempt to show any World War II leaders as less than stainless somehow represents an insidious left-wing all-American-wars-are-imperialist agenda? After seeing a trailer, for heaven's sake. Well, Mr. Apuzzo pretty much tells you what he is basing his assumptions on--screenwriter Paul Haggis. Haggis, you see, is a liberal, and that's enough: "My concern was that Haggis would try to smuggle his politics into Eastwood's Iwo Jima melodrama, and it appears that my concerns were justified."

There's a whopping big assumption in that sentence, that Haggis could somehow work in his agenda without Eastwood, a meticulous director and one tough hombre to boot, either noticing or saying "Hey Haggis, what is this pantywaist crap you're putting in my movie, punk?" But no matter. Haggis is vocally liberal, therefore he will always try to make a certain type of movie, even to the point of trying to hoodwink Eastwood, whose politics skew conservative.

The Siren calls this approach to evaluating a movie The Gym Class School of Film Criticism. Lance Mannion periodically tracks the flowering of this approach. The Gym Class School imagines art as a dodgeball game, with critics, cinephiles and Hollywood observers of various sorts as the self-appointed team captains. Actors, directors, screenwriters etc. are the potential Team Players. Death doesn't disqualify a player, in fact it can increase the squabbling when teams are selected. So it works something like:

Team Red Captain: I call Cecil B. DeMille.
Team Blue Captain: I call John Huston.
Red C: Sam Wood.
Blue C: Charlie Chaplin
Except, it rapidly deteriorates into:

Red C: John Ford.
Blue C: Says who? He was a New Dealer--
Red C: But then he went Republican. And he was always fervently anti-Communist. And then he--
Blue C: All right then, smartypants. Joseph Mankiewicz.
Red C: What?? Mankiewicz was a Republican!
Blue C: But he was a liberal Republican.
Red C: Then I call Frank Capra.

As biographical critique, it doesn't work very well. As film criticism, it doesn't work at all. Whose politics dominate a movie--the director, the actors, the screenwriter, the cinematographer, the best boy? And it is apparent to all but the most hidebound minds that an artist's politics may or may not have anything to do with his work. William Holden was a Republican, and two of the best movies he ever made were for a liberal director and a couple of blacklisted screenwriters. Flipping it around, if I know that Henry Fonda was a lifelong Democrat, that tells me exactly what about Advise and Consent, a film from a book by a noted conservative?

Gym class was a time of horror for the Siren, and she has no intention of revisiting it for Flags of Our Fathers or the next Gary Oldman flick. The Siren is not an optimist by nature, but she tries to give serious filmmakers (defined as those with some aspirations beyond the grosses) a fair shake with each new movie. You can get a great performance out of granite-ribbed reactionary Adolphe Menjou in the bitingly subversive Paths of Glory, or a beautiful elegy for the ruling class like The Leopard out of avowed Marxist Luchino Visconti. In the words of the great Fats Waller, one never knows, do one?

Friday, September 01, 2006

Anecdote of the Week

"The film was a great success all over the world and brought Peter a recognition that was not always to his liking. He was in New York for the opening and climbed into a cab, but before he could state his destination the driver enquired, 'Quo vadis, Mr. Ustinov?'"

--From Peter Ustinov: The Gift of Laughter, by John Miller.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Knocked Up at the Movies

Did the Siren happen to mention she's knocked up? No? Oops. Well, she is, 29 weeks. It's a boy, due late October, nameless as of now. Film-oriented suggestions welcome. If your suggested name is chosen, we owe you a goat, or a sheep, your choice. (Lebanese tradition.)

So the Siren has been mulling this post for a while, but the pickings are mighty slim for the eras she usually covers. Thanks to the censors, pregnancy and childbirth were treated with a spectacular lack of realism during the Golden Age. The baby belly was either nonexistent or suggested by the heroine's adjusting her belt buckle a few notches. The Hays Code didn't specifically require this (so far as the Siren's research shows), so perhaps the tradition of padding the woman with a lace hanky and calling it a day was just the studios' reluctance to show a glamor gal waddling. The code did forbid childbirth scenes, however, so usually what you would get would be the pitter-patter of little feet talk between the (always married) couple, then a swift cut to a waiting room, or a cradle, or some such. On the rare occasions when pregnant women did appear on screen, they were from some other planet where seven months looks like two, a planet the Siren fervently wishes she were on right now.

In the 1939 Stagecoach, for example, Louise Platt plays a genteel wife going to join her Army husband. The dialogue only lightly alludes to her pregnancy. She clutches a paisley shawl over a figure that looks quite slim, and she retains the gait of a Virginia belle. Try dismounting from a stagecoach late in your third trimester, and see if you are up to gracefully placing your hand in the hand of a John Carradine substitute. The more likely scenario is that you grab his forearm for dear life and lumber down those teetering little steps like a Saint Bernard with advanced arthritis. Even as a teen with no experience of pregnancy, either hers or anyone else's, the Siren saw Stagecoach and figured Platt's character was four months, tops. So it was a bit of a shock when Platt went into apparently full-term labor midway through the movie.

Gone with the Wind, made the same year, is comparatively realistic, with Melanie giving birth during the siege of Atlanta. Only vague silhouettes show, and there's no screaming, though Scarlett tells her to yell her head off if she wants. Afterward Melanie is extremely sick and weak--hemorrhage, maybe? You aren't told, nor do you have any idea why she's told not to have more babies and eventually dies in childbirth after ignoring the advice. When she tells Clark Gable she is expecting another child, her shawl is draped just like Platt's.

Puerperal fever? obstructed labor? Whatever the unidentified cause, plenty of women die in childbirth at the movies, often off-camera, as in the saddest scene in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). If they do it on camera, they do it beatifically, like Melanie. In 3 Godfathers (1948), a John Ford that the Siren loves, Mildred Natwick (43 years old, and looking every day of it) is found in a wagon about to give birth, the fact that things are going badly conveyed by her gasping a lot and struggling to sit up. The men try to help the delivery, but she is a goner. Braids neat, face matte, clad in a miraculously clean white nightgown, she hands the baby over to John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz and Harry Carey Jr., and dies.

But the Siren is looking for pregnancy at the movies, and this is largely childbirth, and damned unlucky childbirth, at that. Well, there is Leave Her to Heaven, if you want an example of a woman who doesn't exactly sing the Magnificat upon hearing the happy news. As Gene Tierney's monstrous Ellen is put on a late-1940s version of bedrest, she becomes arguably even more insane than she was previously. Convinced that husband Cornel Wilde is developing too tight a bond with her sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain), Ellen decides to get rid of what is confining her to bed.

The big, indelible scene from John Stahl's movie has Tierney in a rowboat in the middle of the lake, calmly watching as her polio-crippled brother-in-law gets a cramp and drowns. But the Siren was also marked at an early age by the moment when Tierney gets herself un-pregnant. Wearing a beautiful negligee, with a belly the Siren would measure at about five days post-conception, Ellen walks to the top of the staircase. You see her, like a psychopathic Cinderella, carefully remove a slipper to be left as evidence at the top landing. Then, camera still focused on her feet, Ellen throws herself down the stairs and lands in an artful heap, nightgown still so clean Mildred Natwick would be proud. Do you suppose any women saw this and thought it would be a foolproof way to end an unwanted pregnancy? In reality, of course, it isn't nearly that easy to induce a miscarriage, although Ellen is having a touch-and-go pregnancy already.

Speaking of dangerous pregnancies--even the daring Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944) didn't show the slightest bulge in pregnant Betty Hutton, despite the fact that she must be about three months before we cut to a later stage of her pregnancy. At that point they film her from behind, which is probably just as well. The miracle is (skip the rest of this paragraph if you don't want to know) that Hutton is pregnant with sextuplets.

Ha, ha, ha. The Siren has had twins. At three months she looked about five months. At five months people asked when she was due. At seven months she got into a cab and said, "68th and York," only to have the cabbie whip his head around and practically yodel, "New York Hospital????" The Siren reassured him that it was just a checkup. With six babies, Hutton's figure should have been bordering on the Wagnerian early on, but the movie is so funny you overlook Hutton's having the easiest pregnancy and delivery of higher-order multiples in recorded history.

By the late 1950s movie pregnancy was getting a touch more realistic. A Farewell to Arms, David O. Selznick's doomed swan song as a producer, has Jennifer Jones asking Rock Hudson to feel the baby kick. Jones looks more pregnant than Louise Platt, which is something, but she's still not a patch on the Siren's belly. Reportedly Jones' childbirth scene late in the movie is part of why Farewell tanked, as it is quite long and drawn out and there are a lot of close-ups of her face contorting. Even a few modern viewers squirm. But the decade had its big breakthrough in pregnancy depiction on television, where Lucille Ball dared to waddle. The scene where Ball gets stuck in an armchair still cracks up the Siren.

By 1962 you get The L-Shaped Room, where Leslie Caron's neighbor deduces she is pregnant because he can hear her throwing up through the walls of their cheesy rooming house. That movie holds up well in showing an unwed pregnancy, even going so far as to have Caron waffle about whether or not to have an abortion.

In 1995 the Siren saw a Hugh Grant vehicle called Nine Months, allegedly a comedy about pregnancy but in reality a platform for the most retro sex-role ideas imaginable. Despite being able to show a great deal more than you could prior to 1960, most movies showing pregnancy hew closely to the cliches, both cutesy, as in Look Who's Talking, or horrifying, as in the original Alien, in some ways an extended meditation on fear of childbirth.

But during her last pregnancy, the Siren did finally see a movie with the nerve to depict pregnancy in all its inconvenience, mess and bizarreness--Rosemary's Baby. OK, that isn't as bad as it sounds. Bear with the Siren. Yes, birth is a beautiful thing, and the Siren knows how lucky she is. But the process of getting there can be difficult, psychologically as well as physically, and the Roman Polanski film is, oddly, more truthful in this regard that many "realistic" dramas.

Rosemary gets so much right about pregnancy. It shows the way people infantilize a pregnant woman--everyone from husband to doctor pats you on the head and tells you everything is normal, no matter how freaking weird you feel or what your body happens to be doing. The movie also shows how the advice comes at you from all directions, and how you feel obligated to at least try it all, even if the suggestion is coming from some gnomelike woman you've just met. And it also shows the crushing fear that something might go wrong, or worse, that something IS going wrong, and no one will listen to you. The movie even taps into the worst part, the irrational thought that jolts you awake at 2 a.m. as you try to find a comfortable position so you can fall back asleep--"What if I give birth to a monster?"

The cleverness is that for once, the fears are true. The revelation of Rosemary's baby was anticlimactic to the Siren. Now that's partly due to her recognizing all these cute elderly character actors from the past, like Aunt Bea's best friend chirping "Hail Satan!" But it was also because the really scary stuff had come before.

Something else you don't much see in movies is how pregnancy lowers your powers of recollection. Anyone else have a memorable image of pregnancy from movies past?

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Mr. Campaspe Posts and Hosts

From an email invitation Mr. Campaspe has sent to the Siren family's nearest and dearest in the NYC area:

Next Thursday, Aug. 17, BAM is showing the movie Les Tontons Flingueurs. Little known in the U.S., Les Tontons is a masterpiece of such magnitude that it is any cinephile's duty to disseminate it to the world. In the Michelin rating system--based on how far one should travel to experience an event--the movie deserves the maximum 3 stars. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, at last, a movie that is worth a trip to Brooklyn.

To convey how good the movie is, suffice it to say it is the best one by Georges Lautner, surpassing even his series with Belmondo, or his Barbouzes. Les Tontons' dialogue was written by Michel Audiard, who spoke only street French. ("French people drive me crazy," he once said, "but since I don't speak any other language, I have no choice but to converse with them.") So he put all his genius into becoming the poet of spoken French, creating many immortal quotations for the second half of the 20th century. He it is who gave the conclusive definition of a gentleman (someone who can describe Sophia Loren without using his hands.)

The cast reads like a proposal to create a pantheon of movie comics: Bernard Blier, Lino Ventura, Claude Rich, Jean Lefebvre, and Francis Blanche.

Hilarious, witty, ruthless in its social description but genial in its handling of political situations, this movie goes so deep into Frenchness that it reaches the core of the human spirit. In these sorry times, it will restore your faith in the ability of humanity to overcome our idiots, while making clear the amount of work required.

And it is unavailable in the U.S.!

* * * * *

The Siren had never heard of this movie before her husband began evangelizing about it, but it is worth apparently not only the journey, but the cost of hiring a babysitter for the evening. If any of her patient readers are around next week, by all means, check it out.

Above, left to right, Francis Blanche, Lino Ventura and Bernard Blier in Les Tontons Flingueurs. Middle, Michel Audiard.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Voices of the Screen

Time Warner took pity on our DSL connection about two weeks ago, but there is no television at the Siren's house, a situation she will probably rectify soon. So as events unfold in Lebanon, all she has are voices, from the BBC news service and on bad phone connnections. We have friends and relatives there. I was married in this hotel, six years ago. Everyone we love is safe, so far. It is hard to concentrate on blogging or anything else. It will be another couple of weeks before we get a TV, and I suppose that has its advantages at the moment. The images on my computer are bad enough. For once, I don't want to see the pictures moving.

In times like these, distraction is probably as good as it gets. During the first Gulf War I read all of Bruce Catton's Army of the Potomac trilogy, blocking out one set of hostilities with the echoes of another. I am at the point now where any war reading is out of the question, and without movies on a screen what I have are voices in my head, lines and scenes I can replay. I suppose I take it for granted that people who read my blog miss the Golden Age of movies as I do. We talk about old stars, directors, the incredible beauty of black-and-white, the snap of the dialogue, but so far we haven't discussed voices.

Early talkies did the human voice no favors, hitting the squeaky high notes with a frequency that gelded male stars and made female ones sound like Kewpie dolls. Once technicians got the sound more under control, though, performers began to stand out on the basis of their voices. Vaguely aristocratic tones like that of Ronald Colman were especially coveted. You strove for that mid-Atlantic accent, meaning not Delaware and Pennsylvania but somewhere in the middle of the ocean, between England and the former colonies. Eventually individuality blossomed, and the full spectrum of American accents was heard. The Siren thinks you hear a much wider variety of dialects in 1930s movies than you do in modern ones (notwithstanding, however, the ghastly parody that stood in for most black dialect, and the way Asian and some other foreign speaking patterns were mocked).

Anyway, all this got the Siren thinking about her favorite screen voices. And she started thinking about criteria. Is it sheer beauty that makes a great screen voice? is it enough to be memorable, even if the voice screeches like a rusty hinge?

Well, beauty counts for a lot with the Siren, so most of her list is easy on the ears. Many of them were stage-trained voices, that particular discipline seeming to bring out the best in a speaking voice.

I am not putting these voices in any particular order, save to list my favorite of all time, Orson Welles. The Siren sees some eyes rolling. Well yes, it is quite dreary, his being a genius all the time, as ex-wife Rita Hayworth is said to have sniped. And his voice may be cheapened a bit for those who had to listen to his Paul Masson spots in childhood. But his narration for The Magnificent Ambersons is an intrinsic part of that film's greatness. His voice focuses as deeply as the camera, with a similar interplay of light and dark. The Siren can, at will, turn on a recording in her head, hear him speaking the first lines, and be enveloped by that atmosphere once more: "The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873. Their splendor lasted throughout all the years that saw their midland town spread and darken into a city..."

There never was and never could be another voice to give the climactic lines their sense of waste and inevitability, turning the much-anticipated fate of the Ambersons into the loss we all suffered when the great god Aut O'Mobile first took us for a ride. The bitterness and regret is there, but so is the gallows humor. We brought this on ourselves, as surely as George Minafer ever did:

Something had happened, a thing which, years ago, had been the eagerest hope of many, many good citizens of the town, and now it had come at last. George Amberson Minafer had got his comeuppance. He got it three times filled, and running over. But those who had so longed for it were not there to see it, and they never knew it. Those who were still living had forgotten all about it, and all about him.
The faint tone of mockery was seldom absent from the voice of Welles, whether he was discussing the relative merits of Swiss and Italian civilization or growling at an unlikely gypsy, "Come on, read my future for me." It's as much a part of the voice's allure as its baritone register. Gifted with an instrument that could (and often did) shout down the biggest-screen house, Welles was most effective when quiet--when a friendship ends with two words ("Sure we're speaking, Jedediah. You're fired") or a offhand observation to a bank examiner carries the weight of an entire failed life ("If I hadn't been born rich, I might have been a really great man").

So much for Mount Everest. Let's look at some other peaks.

Sydney Greenstreet. A delicious purr of evil, demonstrating that a slight touch of the effeminate can be as sinister as any macho growl.

Claude Rains. The stage-trained Rains had one of the most beautiful voices in the history of movies, able to convey sympathy in Now Voyager or gleeful malevolence in The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Peter Ustinov, Audrey Hepburn and George Sanders. "'Her English is too good,' he said. 'That clearly indicates that she is foreign.'" All three of these performers, possessed of exotic backgrounds, wound up speaking more aristocratic English than any Windsor. (Impossible to imagine any of these three locking the jaw and strangling consonants the way the royals do.) Ustinov, British-born son of a German father and a Russian mother, had occasional quavers that became part of his comic effect. The Dutch-raised Hepburn made her tendency to overarticulate a strength when she played comedy. Example: her somber, nun-at-vespers intonation of "It was as close to heaven as one could get on Long Island," in Sabrina. The artists at Disney managed to draw what a voice sounds like when the studio had the Russian-born Sanders give voice to a scheming, indolent tiger late in his career, in The Jungle Book.

William Powell and Jean Arthur. Two superb light comedians, both with voices that could have been grating, but used to marvelous effect. Powell showed that an unapologetically American accent could still be elegant. Arthur frequently played women frantically trying to maintain dignity in an absurd situation. Physically, she wasn't a flutterer. It was her voice that betrayed her, cracking slightly as she tried to gain control.

Charles Boyer and Marlene Dietrich. The Continental accent, married to a naturally resonant speaking tone. Forever thrilling and (to borrow a line from Clive James) forever calling Americans across the sea to a place so sophisticated that people have sex with the lights on.

Robert Mitchum. Enough about the eyes. That silky voice seemed to veil just as much depravity as those heavy lids.

James Cagney. Pure New York, a rapid-fire delivery that suited the slang of the time like no other.

Charles Laughton. One of the most versatile voices the movies ever had.

Irene Dunne. Dunne, possessed of a very high-toned and vaguely Southern speaking manner, often swallowed words, and some of her best deliveries are sotto voce, as in The Awful Truth: "Well, I mean, if you didn't feel that way you do, things wouldn't be the way they are, would they? I mean, things could be the same if things were different."

Margaret Sullavan. Sullavan's marvelous hint of a rasp helped show the inner strength of doomed characters like the ones in Back Street or Three Comrades.

Thursday, June 29, 2006


"Rises to the heights of mid-period Lana Turner," remarked Pauline Kael of an actress's performance.* It was in no way a compliment. Over the years Lana built and sustained a reputation as an actress whose personal life was far more compelling than any performance she ever gave. Like most Hollywood reputations, it was undeserved.

For such a lousy actress, Lana was in an awful lot of good movies, among them They Won't Forget (one of the most memorable bit roles of all time), Johnny Eager, Ziegfeld Girl, The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Three Musketeers, as well as some campy but entertaining ones, including Peyton Place, Portrait in Black and Madame X. And then there are two the Siren and others would call genuinely great, The Bad and the Beautiful and Imitation of Life.

Lana's longtime pal Ava Gardner has a shorter list of still-watchable films, and is enjoying something of a revival. The Siren doesn't begrudge that to Gardner, who was one hell of a character. But hey, Lana was a good-time gal too, even marrying Artie Shaw before Ava did. (Perhaps Lana and Ava's bond was shared suffering. Shaw doesn't seem to have been much of a catch, ungallantly referring to Lana as an "airhead" in a late-life interview. For their part, both actresses strongly implied Shaw's performance talent was only musical.)

Of course there is a huge history of actresses who break into films based solely on their magical looks. Lana's distinction was to get a break based on how she filled a sweater. As she walked across a street to her doom in They Won't Forget, who could concentrate on the foreshadowing? Lana's breasts seemed to move independently of Lana, as an awestruck Mervyn LeRoy noted.

As much as the Siren wants to believe in universal sisterhood, there is no denying that dazzling beauty can make a woman off-putting to her own sex. But from the beginning Lana didn't arouse that kind of hostility from other women, instead suggesting the sort of goddess who would still be kind to the ugly duckling. Women liked her.

They could see that in real and reel life, Lana knew her beauty was her best card. Instead of playing that hand with icy hauteur, like Hedy Lamarr, Lana suggested a cheerful, but slightly sad, resignation to the ephemeral nature of her good luck. Sure, one day I'll awaken as a crone, she seemed to say; but in the meantime, I'm having one hell of a good time. In Ziegfeld Girl, why would anyone really want her to settle down with James Stewart's whining character? She's the only one of the girls who really seems to use stardom for all it's worth. She gets the men, the jewels, the adulation, then throws off the misfortunes visited upon her by the Breen Office, rises from her bed and proudly walks off into eternity.

In The Postman Always Rings Twice, probably the peak of Lana's looks if not her talent, the power turns to desperation. See her clinging to John Garfield, throwing every bit of her allure at him like a spear. Can't he see, for God's sake? Lana knows, she knows she's never going to get more beautiful and she sure as hell isn't going to get any smarter. She has to get away from Cecil Kellaway (Flickhead is right, that casting was bizarre), and Garfield's feckless character is unfortunately the only way out. When what she wants is murder, even Lana has to put some muscle into it. The result is that Lana's scenes of persuasion with Garfield are not subtle, but they are entirely true to a woman actually having to work on a man for the first time, after years of having them roll over and play dead.

Vincente Minnelli said he wanted Lana, not Jennifer Jones, for Madame Bovary, but was told by the censors that Lana would bring too much blatant sexuality to the story of adultery. The director had to wait to work with her, but with The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), he got Lana's best performance:

Lana was at the height of her career, one of the top sex symbols in films. Those who made easy judgments said that in being manufactured into a personality, one very important cog had been left out: a consuming talent. This to me was unfair.

I agreed with John Houseman's assessment of Lana's acting ability. 'On a long curve, she's never been capable of sustaining a whole picture as an actress,' he told me. 'But on the short curve she's very good.'

My challenge was to make her portrayal a series of short curves.

"A series of short curves;" clearly he understood her as few directors did. Lana's character is an actress haunted by a dead, brilliant father. But the character is also terrified that she is all beauty and no talent, which must have cut pretty close. Lana nails every scene, but the Siren's favorite is the sequence where Kirk Douglas turns her into an actress in a bizarre historical epic (obviously meant to evoke Gone with the Wind in scope if not plot, David O. Selznick being a loose model for Douglas's character). Here you have Vincente Minnelli coaxing a performance out of an insecure beauty, who is playing an insecure beauty having a performance coaxed out of her. Years later in his memoirs, I Remember It Well, Minnelli said his trick was to blame everyone except Lana for any retake. Darling, you were wonderful, but the lights weren't right, the sound man messed up, etc. By the end Lana was probably convinced she was the most competent person on set. It shows.

Seven years later Douglas Sirk managed the same feat in Imitation of Life. Before we move on to that masterpiece, though, we have to have "the paragraph." That's what Turner and her only child, Cheryl Crane, always called the celebrated episode that landed them both in court and gave them gossip immortality. Any piece on Lana, you see, has to have a paragraph about the death of Johnny Stompanato.

You could write a book, and a whopping big book at that, about Worthless Paramours of the Hollywood Glamor Queens. Maybe the Siren will one day, if she decides her psyche is strong enough to take the strain. In any such book Johnny Stompanato would take pride of place, and that would be the only time he ever came out ahead without a woman propping him up. He was a smalltime hood parlaying his loud, coarse good looks into something of a gigolo sideline. Lana, whose string of husbands was described by John Updike as "the seven dwarfs," never did have much taste in men, but here her very sanity seems to have deserted her. Presumably steamy interludes with Stompanato were punctuated by terrifying beatings. One night the teenage Cheryl, hearing her mother cry out and thinking Lana was being murdered, rushed downstairs and grabbed a knife. That knife wound up in Stompanato, though the story of precisely how will probably never convince everyone. Every once in a while Turner Classic Movies runs footage of Lana at the inquest, and she's believable, all right. The Siren doesn't think for a moment that Cheryl was (or is) covering for Mom. But does anyone, let alone a hardened tough, actually run into a knife?

Anyway, end paragraph. Those wanting a rundown on the aftermath, and Cheryl's later relationship with her mom, which stayed pretty warm despite the late unpleasantness, should turn to the wonderful fansite Lana Turner Online.

The Siren always enjoyed Scorsese's tribute to Lana's Postman entrance with Cathy Moriarty in Raging Bull, since the later relationship with DeNiro vividly echos Lana/Stompanato. Even better is the restaurant scene in L.A. Confidential, although something doesn't ring quite true about the way the actress plays Lana. It seems closer to Lana's movie persona than what she may or may not have been like offscreen.

But by 1959, maybe it was hard to know the difference. Certainly the huge box office for Imitation of Life owed a lot to people thinking it was just that, as the plot has Lana's screen daughter Sandra Dee falling in love with mom's boyfriend. Lana's best moments, though, are early, before her character has become a walking hostess gown. The beach scene, where Lana's character of Lora Meredith first encounters Annie (Juanita Hall) and her daughter, is perfect. Check out Lana's reaction to hearing that the straight-haired, olive-complected little girl romping on the beach is Hall's daughter: surprise, then hasty erasure of that surprise, then gooey "understanding." You could put that clip in an online dictionary as a hyperlink from "well-meaning white."

In some ways the most difficult aspect of Turner's role is the early part of the movie, where Annie just sort of "naturally" slips into being a maid. Even in 1959, would the audience believe all black women automatically start bustling around a white woman's kitchen? Maybe not, but they sure believed the relief showed by Lana's character. She executes the pro forma protest at Annie's new role, but you see her relaxing more with each mundane task that her guest takes over. They are slipping into the roles society has laid out for them. Lana is far more comfortable having a black woman as a maid than sitting on a beach wondering why the woman's daughter looks white. The more Hall becomes a mammy figure, the more relaxed Lana gets.

Later, success brings a series of ever-more extravagant gowns, probably sanctioned by Lana herself since wardrobe approval was a glamor gal's most cherished privilege. They are perfect, though, for showing the encroaching artificiality of Lora Meredith's life. Lana's reactions get more stilted, as more and more Lora herself doesn't know when she's offstage and not playing a role she adapted long ago in a cold-water flat. As for Annie's daughter, played as an adult by Susan Kohner, Lana's understanding of her doesn't move beyond that first reaction on the beach--that is, not until the final moments of the film. Lana still doesn't know how to talk to the woman, but Kohner's stark grief has Lana really looking at her at last.

Any one of these movies would earn Lana a blog-a-thon, in the Siren's eyes. I haven't even touched on Lana as a sociology student (!!!) in love with gangster Johnny Eager, another role well worth checking out. And That Little Round-Headed Boy definitely has me wanting to see Somewhere I'll Find You, to check out Lana's comic timing.

*In case you want to know, Kael was talking about Candace Bergen in Carnal Knowledge.

Last night found the Siren ready to start throwing crockery, as her Internet connection is down for absolutely no good reason. She had forgotten that one of New York City's charms is definitely not Time Warner Cable. Please be patient, as the slobs at that company inform her they can't possibly send anyone for a few days. Mr. Campaspe has put up this post for her, but the Siren asks you to be patient with any roughness in the layout and the lack of links. She will come aboard as soon as possible to clean up and contribute to comments, but alas, it may be a while. Please share your thoughts on the piece anyway; it will give the Siren something to look forward to, aside from a long wait for the cable guy. See Flickhead, Coffee Coffee Coffee and That Little Round-Headed Boy (all listed on the sidebar) for more on the fabulous Lana.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Second Look at Sandra

Greetings, patient readers! The Siren and brood have finally landed in Brooklyn and gotten re-hooked to the virtual world. Jet-lag finally shaken, the Siren is gearing up for June 29's Lana Turner tribute.

By way of prelude, I am re-posting a piece I wrote after Sandra Dee died, since few people probably saw it at the time. Sandra Dee leads into Lana because, of course, they co-starred in two movies, one messy but enjoyable (Portrait in Black) and one classic, Imitation of Life.

Re-reading this obit makes the Siren realize that sadness and indignation over the sorry trajectory of Dee's life meant she neglected the films a bit. Not much there to explain exactly why I have always been so fond of her. And I am not sure I can explain it, entirely. Some stars you just connect with on a level that has little to do with talent, though I do believe Dee had that.

"So sweet she caused cavities," sniped the writers of an otherwise highly sympathetic essay in The Bad and the Beautiful, an assessment the Siren finds consistent with most critics, but bizarrely unfair. The actress was not sweet, but rather serene. Most of Dee's movies had her as the calm, centered, preternaturally mature youngster surrounded by adults either ditzy (The Reluctant Debutante, Come September), preoccupied (Romanoff and Juliet, Gidget) or downright malevolent (Portrait in Black, A Summer Place).

She did arouse a protective instinct, with her doll-like face seeming to indicate that she needed to be sheltered from life in general and ravening, louche men in particular. As the movies unfolded you generally learned that Dee could take care of herself. Adults flailed around, plotting murder, getting divorced, trying to marry her off or lock her up. Sandra always turned out all right in the end. To a teenager, which I was when I discovered Dee's movies, Sandra's superiority to her elders is entirely in keeping with the way you perceive the world, and reassuring. Her life was considerably less so.

So anyway, slightly edited in hindsight, here's my re-posted piece on Sandra.

Sandra Dee died Feb. 20. A hard-luck story in death as in life, she died on the same day Hunter S. Thompson blew his brains out. Pity the priest of Gonzo, ran the snide asides, for having to share the obit page with Gidget. Mind you, it had been years since Thompson wrote anything that matched his early glories (his last piece to show much of the old brilliance was, ironically, an obituary--of Richard Nixon). In the end he was every bit the has-been Dee was, but despite his long decline, repellent personality and senseless check-out he received one thing she did not: respect.

Certain elements appear in the biography of a studio-system actress with appalling frequency. Dee's life had them all. Start, as we so often do, with the ghastly stage mother. Mary Douvan was shoving her daughter in front of cameras almost as soon as she noticed the little girl was beautiful. Dee's first modeling gig was for Girl Scouts Magazine. Impatient to start maximizing the Sandra returns, her mother started adding two years to the girl's age when she was four years old, and that lie kept going until Dee's career had long ended.

What with modeling jobs and parading the child before talent scouts, there was little time to notice the small personal details, like the fact that Mary's second husband was sexually abusing Sandra.

Some Hollywood victims of sexual abuse go flamboyantly to the bad, grabbing at alcohol or pills, flinging themselves at men only marginally better than their abusers. Dee, for her part, continued to be a good girl at home and on the set. Her success grew, as she tried to disappear. Anorexia began in adolescence and continued, off and on, until her death. In the 1990s Dee recalled days when all she ate was a head of lettuce.

Knowing Dee's background gives all those sunny movies some pronounced shadows. You start noticing how almost all her characters are trying so hard to please an older figure. The horrific mother in A Summer Place, for example, who forces Dee to submit to a gynecological exam--a rape, in effect--to see if she's still a virgin after a night with Troy Donahue. I wonder how Mary and Eugene Douvan felt watching that one in a darkened movie theater. To a viewer in 2005, the scene is mawkish hokum. Read about Dee's pathetic teenage years, and it becomes a shattering tragedy.

For those who love Imitation of Life, without question the best movie Dee ever made, the story of maid Juanita Hall and daughter Susan Kohner gives the movie its depth and sadness. Those two face the real agony of racial bigotry, while Lana Turner and Dee, as her daughter, deal only with the imitation problems of the wealthy and blonde. Yet Dee's performance deserves more consideration than that. Her confrontation with Turner, where she snaps at Turner to "stop acting" and asks for a little autonomy, echos every woman who ever looked at a neurotic, inadequate mother and decided, finally, to move on.

The year after Imitation's release Dee made Come September, met Bobby Darin on the set and later married him. Her film career began in 1957, and after 1963 it was all but over. The future held multiple miscarriages, probably linked to her eating disorder; one son, Dodd, born in 1961; a divorce from Darin in 1967; and his early death from congestive heart failure in 1973. Alcoholism followed as Dee became a near shut-in. She had never had much of a social life, anyway; people who form their parents' main source of income seldom do. "I've never had any friends," she said in 1959, "but it's like strawberry shortcake. If you've never had it, you don't miss it."

Dee, tied so tightly to Eisenhower's America as the ideal teen--the perfect date, the perfect daughter--found some acting jobs, but never could revive her career. The only thing that could put her back in the public eye was when Stockard Channing donned a blonde wig and held her up to derision with the song "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee" in Grease. Dee always said she thought it was funny.

You must excuse the Siren if she withholds her pity for Thompson and saves it for Sandra, whose troubles were far less of her own making.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Paris and Hooligans

Greetings! At last the Siren manages to corral the computer and post some random thoughts from Paris. The city has had wonderful weather. We are going every day to the local park, which has a carousel the kids are obsessed with. At this point the price of all their rides adds up to several visits to EuroDisney, but when the sun is shining and you just watched your son smell roses and your daughter chase a pigeon right under a bench occupied by two canoodling, then very startled Parisians, you can't really get stingy with the Manege.

Twin-wrangling being what it is, the Siren hasn't done much moviegoing, but she did take in one film last week, Hooligans (or Green Street Hooligans, as it was called when released in the States last October). The Siren expected this to be a dark meditation on the nature of male violence, in the vein of Raging Bull perhaps, though she didn't expect that film's genius from relative novice director Lexi Alexander. It is something much odder, though--a sort of London-set Western. It embodies what the Siren considers the universal theme of Westerns, namely, "who's the man here?"

In this case, unfortunately, the evolving man is supposed to be delicate, ghost-eyed Elijah Wood, a good enough actor but about as physically potent as the Siren's aforementioned rose-sniffing three-year-old. So when, late in the movie, Wood gets clocked with a set of brass knuckles, and gets back on his feet, it is a bit of a strain on the old willing suspension of disbelief.

The movie concerns Wood, a Harvard-educated journalist who, via a series of wholly unbelievable events, becomes involved with a "firm," or gang of English soccer hooligans, and becomes a part of this testosterone-fueled band of brothers. Fused by the camaraderie of violence as well as incipient alcoholism, they run around London finding other firms to fight. Handsome Charlie Dunnam, a new face to the Siren, plays the leader of the Green Street firm, and has a strong presence and charisma in a role that requires some dizzying pace changes. In fact, all of the actors acquit themselves pretty well, even Wood, who makes you believe that he starts to enjoy all this fighting. (What you don't believe is that the firm doesn't end each engagement by wiping him off the pavement with a sponge.)

And the movie seems to give a fairly accurate picture of the world of the firms, or so the Siren assumes. She isn't very familiar with this scene, hasn't seen Alan Clarke's The Firm and holds a grudge against soccer anyway, since the French victory in the European Cup put a damper on her honeymoon. (Although she did get to see a police formation charge a group of particulary rowdy fans, so it added a bit of sociological interest.)

The main trouble with the movie is that it wants to romanticize the deep bonds between these men, while simultaneously condemning the waste and pain that are natural byproducts of spending your free time beating up people for a remarkably silly reason. Alexander wants the Green Street guys to be the hard-fighting, essentially decent Sons of Katie Elder, but the scene that rings most true to what these guys are really like plays more like something from Romper Stomper. It's a truly frightening moment, when the leader of another firm smashes a man's face repeatedly into a table, because the guy's girlfriend was laughing too loud.

All in all, not the greatest choice in cinematic outings, but it was playing close and at a time that worked well with jet lag and toddler bedtimes. The French subtitles added a lot, however, and I don't mean just the discovery that French doesn't have quite as many variations on a single four-letter word as English does. Now I know the French word for the English "grass" (or snitch), "mouchard." And "find out what's happening?" Mettre quelq'un au parfum. Another entry for my perfume at the movies series, alors!

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Charles Boyer in History Is Made at Night (1937)

French stars, as film historian David Shipman has noted, don't translate well. Some never quite catch on, like Simone Simon. Others, like Danielle Darrieux, loathe the place and barely try. Nowadays even the tireless promotional efforts of Messrs. O'Reilly, Limbaugh and their ilk, to whom the French have become a sort of all-purpose homme de paille, haven't given French actors an opportunity to break into the screen-villain racket the way the Brits have. Over the years most French actors have chosen to work on their side of the Atlantic, with perhaps the odd submission to criminal misuse in something like Green Card as an income supplement. The biggest exception was and remains Charles Boyer.

The Siren believes what made the difference for Boyer, more than his talent or those eyes that photographed so beautifully, was his incredible chocolate ganache of a voice. Even the admittedly hilarious Pepe le Pew, conceived as a take-off on Boyer's seductive turn in Algiers, doesn't really diminish the impact. When Boyer speaks, you melt.

In History Is Made at Night, the bizarre but endearing 1937 Frank Borzage movie, Boyer acts opposite Jean Arthur, another player with a celebrated voice. Their scenes are something to hear, this duet of a throbbing French bass and the American whose vocal line someone once called "a cross between Donald Duck and a Stradivarius." Arthur plays the abused wife of a shipping magnate (Colin Clive), who is some kind of evil even by our sadly expanded 21st-century standards. This is a man capable of trying to sink an ocean liner just to kill two of its 3,000 passengers--his wife and the man she loves. Arthur loves Boyer, naturellement. He plays a head waiter who can attend to the needs of his snooty patrons, protect a gentle old man in his employ, and mix the perfect salad dressing.

Borzage, the great romantic, gives the movie a completely two-tone effect. When Clive is on screen, the melodrama is played to the hilt. When Boyer is around, things sparkle, the jokes fly, Jean Arthur tangos in her negligee. It is an odd combination, with the potential to give the viewer whiplash, but it works.

The Siren can't discuss Boyer without mentioning another of his gifts: his incomparable way with a hat. In History, Boyer's impeccable brim is at just the right angle to convey menace, when he punches out a thug menacing Arthur; newfound love, as he goes to meet her after their first night together; bewildered hurt, when he finds she is married. No one wore a hat like Boyer, no, not even Bogart.

[Corrected 11/11/06, with thanks to Ray Davis.]

Sunday, May 21, 2006

"Why Are You Talking French?"

The Siren has mentioned her film-book collection, an oddball assortment of film biographies, criticism, star autobiographies and interview anthologies. One book, however, stands apart for her, and probably for anybody who reads a lot about film. It is Otto Friedrich's City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s. Friedrich was a historian who approached Tinseltown the same way he approached his other urban histories, of Paris and Berlin. To read his book is to get a picture of Hollywood high and low, from the studio heads, to the union guys on the lots, to the mobsters that both had to contend with. Friedrich also wrote elegant prose, something one encounters too little in Hollywood books.

Anyway, the Siren has two favorite passages in this book. One is the story of Dimitri Tiomkin, David O. Selznick and the "orgasm music" for Duel in the Sun. This is the other one, tucked away in a footnote. A week from Monday, the family Campaspe flies to Paris for a small rest. The Siren (who will still be posting from there whenever possible) will thus be exercising her meager French. Guess that is what made her think of this:

At an executive meeting at MGM, Nicholas Schenck was fretting about [producer Mervyn] LeRoy's failure to stay within his budget on The Wizard of Oz, and [Louis B.] Mayer presented the young Joseph Mankiewicz as an experienced writer and director who could explain such things. When all the executives turned to Mankiewicz for an explanation, Mankiewicz felt some irresistible impulse to evoke Victor Hugo and blurted out, "I suppose LeRoy s'amuse." Schenck said, "What?" Mankiewicz repeated his inspired line. Somebody said, "That's French." Schenck said, "Why are you talking French?" "All I could think of," Mankiewicz said later, "was 'Why am I here?'"

Hope everyone had a happy and restful weekend.