Monday, December 28, 2009

The Luck of Luise; Or, We Should All Be So Cursed

On Jan. 12 of the fast-approaching New Year, the enduringly mysterious Luise Rainer turns 100 years old. Almost four years ago the Siren wrote one of her first true marathon posts on this actress, gaining in the process a great deal of respect and affection for her. She was talented, intellectual and free-spirited, and therefore a problematic fit for Hollywood in that age or this. But the Siren treasures those who refuse to let busted stardom crush them altogether. Rainer did what she could, and when that ebbed, she moved on and created another life, a fine one.

The Siren points out that in celebration of this birthday of one of the last of the great stars from the glory days, Turner Classic Movies will screen a marathon of Luise movies. The Siren recommends: The Great Ziegfeld (Rainer's scene is indeed quite special); The Good Earth (her finest performance and a moving film); and Big City (very good, gritty social drama with Spencer Tracy in fine form, directed by Frank Borzage and that last bit alone should make you set the DVR). The Great Waltz (directed by David Cairns' beloved Julien Duvivier) has definite, batty charms as well. The one going on the Siren's DVR will be The Emperor's Candlesticks. William Powell is always, wonderfully William Powell.

Here, then, for those who missed it the first time around, is The Luck of Luise, which the Siren now subtitles: We Should All Be So Cursed. It has been revised and updated to account for certain things like my not wanting to go off on the Golden Globes again, I've now seen Big City and Luise was just fine, and The Good Earth is out on DVD.

P.S. On an unrelated note, if you are near a newstand this month and happen to see a copy of the January GQ--that would be the one with a half-naked Rihanna--please consider buying it and turning to page 32. There is, I admit, no naked Rihanna on that page, but you will find me listed as critic Tom Caron's "Fave Film Blogger." The Siren is tickled to death at the honor and thanks Tom profusely, although she hopes finding out her real identity wasn't truly as big a letdown as finding out that Kissinger wasn't Deep Throat.


The start of the annual awards season has the Siren contemplating the mysteries of awards in general. So let's talk about Luise Rainer, the most famous double-Oscar-winning flameout in the history of Hollywood. Her career couldn't even be termed a brief candle--more like the brilliance and timespan of a bottle rocket.

On Jan. 12, Ms. Rainer turns 100 years old, bless her. The last time she showed at the Oscars, in 2002, she looked astonishingly good, as you can see from the photo here. When her Hollywood career was finished, she married a wealthy publisher and retired, and she now lives in London's Belgravia, surely one of the world's most beautiful neighborhoods. So obviously, Luise is doing much better than all right. That she made so few movies is our loss, but happily it doesn't seem to have been hers.

Born in Vienna in 1910 (some accounts say 1912, and others claim she was born in Dusseldorf, Germany), she was brought to Hollywood by MGM. Apparently in the mid-1930s, MGM was full of talent scouts who heard a European accent of any sort and immediately thought, "the successor to Garbo!" L.B. Mayer often used an up-and-comer as a none-too-subtle threat to an established star. (For years, Rosalind Russell was the threat behind Myrna Loy, unlikely as that sounds. Russell recalled an occasion when she was being fitted for a costume. Loy walked in and said "They signed my contract," and Russell had to disrobe on the spot. Fortunately, they were friends and could joke about it.)

So the dark, elfin Viennese came to California to line up behind the blonde, chiseled Swede like a taxi in front of a hotel. For a while she was given no roles but then, according to film historian David Shipman, Myrna Loy declined Escapade and Rainer was given the part. (Where was Russell?) The movie was forgettable, but Rainer photographed well, and the studio decided to cast her as Anna Held, The Great Ziegfeld's first wife.

The Siren enjoys The Great Ziegfeld (1936), though when she remembers it won the Academy Award for Best Picture over Modern Times she does tend to put hand to forehead. Rainer has an astonishingly short role, with but one evergreen scene. She calls Flo Ziegfeld (William Powell) on the telephone, to congratulate him on his marriage to Billie Burke (Myrna Loy). She still loves him, but she's determined to maintain her dignity. He tells her he's happy. She says she's happy, too. Tears pouring down her face, smiling all the while, Anna remarks on how funny it is, two former spouses "telling each other how 'appy we are."

Consider now what the Oscars were like in 1937, the year Rainer won. The dinner was open to favored members of the press but was nothing like the lavish stage show we see now. Stars were usually filmed for newsreels after the ceremony, giving canned versions of their speeches. Extras were permitted to vote, which they did in huge numbers, resulting, some say, in ex-extra Walter Brennan's extraordinary run--as Shipman put it, three Oscars, one performance. MGM also commanded a hefty bloc of people on its payroll who, essentially, voted as their bosses wanted them to. The power of that bloc endured for years.

Rainer got her award in the first year the Supporting Actress category was added, but MGM nominated her for a leading role anyway. It was the most powerful studio in town, and its brass did as they pleased. The telephone scene is nicely played, but I doubt most people nowadays would grant it an Oscar. But win Rainer did, over Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey, among others.

In later years, Rainer would claim the first award was no lucky break, but a harbinger of career doom.

David Shipman's essay on Luise Rainer starts with an anecdote about Raymond Chandler preparing to go to an Oscar ceremony. The writer, no fan of Hollywood, still was nervous over his nomination for Double Indemnity. His wife told him to relax, that an Oscar was no big deal--"after all, Luise Rainer won it twice."

Since Rainer left Hollywood in 1940, judgments on her career have fallen into two categories. Mrs. Chandler summarizes one line of thinking, echoed here--Rainer was a zealously promoted, so-so actress whose Oscar wins over the likes of Lombard, Garbo, Dunne and Stanwyck are an enduring mystery. The other you can find here and here, with Luise described as an early Hollywood rebel, a great talent whose intellect couldn't suffer the film colony gladly.

After spending the week looking at all the Luise material she could find, the Siren thinks Luise was a little of both. She didn't blaze off the screen like a Crawford or a Garbo, but on the strength of her best performance, she surely could have had a long, productive career if the cards had turned a little differently.

In 2003, before appearing in a line-up of former Academy Award winners, Rainer gave an interview to the BBC, describing the night in 1937 when she won her first Oscar. Her endearing catalogue of small disasters involves a breathless maid, an oversized mattress sent by her father-in-law and a spat on the way to the banquet that forced her to ask the driver to circle the block a few times so she could pull herself together and go inside.

The squabble was with playwright (and Barton Fink model) Clifford Odets, whom Rainer had married earlier that year. It would not be the last time he caused her grief. Whatever you think of Odets as a playwright, as a husband his desirable qualities were less in evidence, such as when he carried on an affair with the luckless Frances Farmer. (While few would name Odets as the source of Farmer's legendary instability, there appears to be consensus that he sure as hell didn't help.)

Despite the home situation, Rainer's career was at its apex. Soon after her first Oscar she won the role of Olan in Irving Thalberg's swan song, The Good Earth. The decision broke the heart of Anna May Wong, the stunning Chinese-American actress who tested several times for the role. But once Rainer's fellow Austrian Paul Muni was cast as Olan's husband, Wong could not play the part without triggering the wrath of the Hays Office. High on that useless body's list of things it didn't want Americans seeing was on-screen miscegenation, actual or depicted. Anna couldn't even get the secondary role of the concubine Lotus, and had to watch that go to yet another Austrian, and a dancer at that, Tilly Losch. As a result the movie gives the odd impression that Chinese women tend to sound German. (Some secondary roles are played by Asian actors, notably the wonderful Keye Luke as the Elder Son.)

This sad casting history, and the offense a later age feels at Caucasian actors in yellowface, have marred The Good Earth's reputation. The Siren hopes that won't submerge it entirely; it was released on DVD in 2006. The movie is a dazzling piece of old-style filmmaking, the definition of the sort of epic we shall not see again, and at times it is very moving, due in large part to Rainer's performance.

The Siren's knowledge of Chinese history is pitifully inadequate, but she suspects, suspects mind you, that The Good Earth is not a lifelike depiction of Chinese peasants before the rise of Mao. She respectfully suggests that the film shouldn't be judged that way. The art direction by Cedric Gibbons and the costumes are beautiful, and Karl Freund's cinematography is astounding. This is an archetypal story of peasants fighting against nature and their own baser impulses. It has more in common with Laura Ingalls Wilder's novels or even Renoir's The Southerner than it probably does with, say, some of the Chinese talkies that Filmbrain has written about.

Rainer's method of conveying Chinese-ness relies less on broad strokes and indication than Muni's. Her makeup is minimal, leaving her eyes unhampered for the camera. The stoic Olan, deeply in love with her selfish husband, is given sparse dialogue. And so Rainer's performance has effects similar to the best silent acting, with emotion conveyed by the flicker of an eyelid or the position of a hand. Her greatest moments come during the long, agonizing famine scenes. Her character is often derided as a doormat, but look at the scene where Olan gives birth as the family is starving. There is a brief cry, then silence. Rainer appears and tell Muni their child is dead. "But I heard a cry ..." Muni begins. "The child is dead," replies Rainer, with an intensity that silences her husband in mid-sentence.

Convinced she couldn't possibly win two years in a row, Rainer opted to stay home on Oscar night in 1938. Then came another phone call, and another headlong rush to the banquet. In photos from that night she looks almost as though she's still panting. Her win came, notoriously, over contenders that included Garbo for Camille. Despite her high regard for Rainer's performance, the Siren herself would have voted for Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth. To this day, however, Oscar tends to go home with someone who's perceived to have tackled a "difficult" role--meaning, heart-rendingly dramatic and preferably something that requires the actress to look plain, or at least de-glammed. The Academy evidently decided that for a Hollywood actress, a starving peasant is more of a stretch than a kept woman.

Rainer rounded out the year with The Emperor's Candlesticks (some titles seem designed to warn you off, don't they?) and Frank Borzage's The Big City with Spencer Tracy. She made little box-office impression in either, although the Siren can attest that she's swell in the Borzage. Shipman says Rainer, with two Oscars for support, asked MGM for more money. I haven't been able to track down whether she got it, but the fact that she disappeared for part of 1938 suggests "no." On hiatus at the very time she should have been expanding upon her success, Rainer finally made The Toy Wife.

The Siren caught this one a few years ago on Turner Classic Movies. Rather than the fiery Southern belle you get in Jezebel or that Selznick movie, in this one you get Southern Belle Version 2.0, the doomed variety. Rainer's character is named Frou Frou, in imitation of the sound her skirts make. She was educated in Paris and returns to her native New Orleans with a German accent. She marries Melvyn Douglas, but has an affair with Robert Taylor, and for whatever reason, Rainer was about 100 times more convincing as a Chinese peasant. The one moment where the Siren thought she saw an actress was a scene where Frou Frou's small son comes to wake her up. She bounces around on the bed and plays with him, and in this small moment displays an unaffected sparkle that she never summons again, not in this movie.

She finally got another hit with The Great Waltz, Julien Duvivier's venture into the MGM musical. Or is operetta? or biopic? or historical romance? The movie is so transcendently weird that you can take your pick. My favorite interpretation so far is the IMDB review that insists the movie is a political allegory about the Anschluss. Well, The Great Waltz has at least as much to do with the Anschluss as it does with the life of Johann Strauss. As the wife, Rainer did a good job with what the script gave her. Unfortunately, the script left her to dangle her bonnet and mope after Fernand Gravet's Strauss as he pursues Miliza Korjus and composes waltz after waltz. Luise had the billing, but Korjus got to help compose "Tales from the Vienna Woods" in a single carriage ride.

The next movie, Dramatic School, was intended as a showcase for Rainer. It flopped. Rainer was given six months' leave, Shipman says, to visit Odets and prop up their shaky marriage. Her contract was not renewed. She did a couple of plays in London and returned to Hollywood in 1939. There was no way Rainer, Jewish and proudly left-wing, would go back to Europe, but the months slipped past with no roles in sight. In 1940 she returned to New York with Odets, divorcing him later that year.

Shipman says "her potential was exhausted." Later writers would say that L.B. Mayer offered Rainer a series of roles that were beneath her. Rainer, they say, became frustrated with the sheer dumbness of Hollywood, a place "where clothes were a major preoccupation."

Hollywood bored her right out of a career. Plausible. But, to quote the lyrics from a song by an intelligent composer who did just fine in movies, it ain't necessarily so. When the Siren hears someone--particularly a German-speaking actress--calling the Hollywood of 1940 an intellectual Sahara, her eyebrows just about disappear into her hairline. By that year the film community was awash with refugees, including some of the century's finest European minds. Many of them met regularly at the home of Garbo's favorite screenwriter, the Austrian Salka Viertel. If Luise had wangled an invitation (and surely two Oscars at least got you that) she could have chatted up Arnold Schoenberg, Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann, Erich Maria Remarque, Gina Kaus, Bruno & Liesl Frank, Berlin Alexanderplatz novelist Alfred Döblin and Grand Hotel author Vicki Baum. If she had stuck around until December she might have encountered Alma Mahler-Werfel and husband Franz Werfel. Bertholt Brecht arrived the next year.

Anyhow, you see my point. The idea that there was nothing in Hollywood to interest an intellectual and politically engaged woman doesn't wash. Especially if you have seen The Toy Wife.

Her marriage over, Rainer spent the war years doing the occasional play and selling war bonds. In 1943 she did a movie at Paramount, Hostages. The Resistance drama did not rekindle interest in her. She didn't make another movie until 1997's The Gambler. She married publisher Robert Knittel, returned with him to Europe after the war, and by all accounts has led a contented life.

There is a sting, however, in her latter-day remarks about Hollywood, one that suggests some regret. Her IMDB bio quotes her saying in 1997, "I was dreaming naturally like anyone to do something very good, but after I got the two Academy Awards the studio thought, it doesn't matter what she gets. They threw all kinds of stuff on me, and I thought, no, I didn't want to be an actress."

Though Rainer has, admirably, never emphasized this, her marriage to Odets couldn't have come at a worse time. There's nothing like a turbulent personal life to bleed a career. You can deduce, too, that in addition to her scorn for the sucking-up a Hollywood career thrives on, Rainer may not have been all velvet to work with. Lana Turner's autobiography described Rainer holding up production on the set of Dramatic School. Federico Fellini wanted Rainer for a part in La Dolce Vita, but she asked for rewrites and he abandoned the idea. Demanding rewrites from the director of La Strada suggests, shall we say, a certain perfectionism.

Curses make for cute headlines, but lousy analysis. The Hope diamond didn't doom Harry Winston, the discoverer of King Tutankhamen's tomb died in bed, and Rainer's career was undone by a combination of bad timing, a bad husband and some bad choices. She made only eight movies in the 1930s. She's pretty good in three of them and very good indeed in one more. Looking at the chic, beautiful old woman as she stands in a line-up of past Oscar winners, her confidence evident in every line of her carriage, the Siren concludes that Luise was lucky indeed.


DavidEhrenstein said...

Here are her credits. She did a lot of TV in the 50's, and after that the inevitable Love Boat No Murder She Wrote however.

Have you seen The Gambler (1997)

Dan Callahan said...

I haven't seen "The Great Ziegfeld" or "The Good Earth" in years, and I can't say I would want to watch them again. I love the story Myrna Loy told about how Rainer got up to deliver a eulogy and began by repeating the man's first name, tearfully. Joan Fontaine leaned in to Loy and whispered, "Flo...Flo..."

What turned me around on Rainer was seeing her in Borzage's "Big City." Suddenly, she seemed beautiful, compelling, talented, everything. And great chemistry with Spencer Tracy. So, I'm interested enough to DVR the three Rainer films I haven't seen on her birthday, though "Toy Wife" sounds pretty bad.

I'd love to see Rainer's 90's comeback in "The Gambler." IMDB comments say she's only on for ten minutes and steals it outright at the roulette table. Maybe someone has uploaded her scenes to YouTube?

Karen said...

I actually loved The Great Ziegfeld. I thought casting Billie Burke was masterful and bizarre, and I loved Powell in it. The sequence in which all of Ziegfeld's theatres slowly go dark, in the wake of the Crash, broke my heart.

I confess never to having given Rainer much thought. I've never see The Good Earth--it comes on from time to time and I feel like it would be too much work to watch it. Clearly, I need to rethink that attitude. When I've seen her--in Ziegfeld or in The Emperor's Candlesticks she did strike me as an interchangeable Central-European, so many of which crop up in early '30s' film.

Now you've inspired me to give her a second look. Thanks, Siren!

DavidEhrenstein said...

Mayer originaly signed Arnold Schoenberg (who havin fled germany was living in Santa Monica) toscore The Good Earth. But the 12-tone master decreed that every element of the film must bechosen and specially integrated in relation to his score -- so that went out the window.

Yojimboen said...

March 1998 BAFTA-LA showed The Gambler and, I’m embarrassed to confess (even after re-reading a synopsis), I remember nothing about the movie beyond Michael Gambon’s usual flawless performance.
Or - more likely - it could be that all memory of the film was instantly wiped away by the appearance of Luise Rainer for a Q & A following the screening.
Of that I’ve forgotten nothing.

Then 88 years-old, her luminous beauty seemed almost untouched by time. Yes, there was about her a degree of fragility, but more markedly a strange admixture of surprised wonderment at the standing ovation she received and a penetrating intelligence that shone undimmed from those dark eyes.

BAFTA rules forbid members from reporting details of any Q & A sessions (designated ‘non-press events’ to encourage guest speakers to feel free in their discussions), so I’ll only say that Ms Rainer could have read the L.A. phonebook aloud that night and made no less an impression on her utterly captivated audience.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Siren for the re-up on Rainer. I watched the Great Ziegfeld recently and enjoyed her performance. I'm looking forward to the TCM marathon.

You rederence David Shipman in the post and was wondering what book of his has the essay about Rainer. Is it 'The Great Movie Stars - The Golden Years'? I would also love to know what other books the Siren would recommend about classic Hollywood. Biographies, memoirs, etc. Thanks again.

The Siren said...

Jsom, yep, that's the Shipman. I wrote up a series of my touchstone movie books and occasionally post excerpts too. You can find "Movie Books" on the sidebar and that should bring up most of them. Yojimboen is also a Shipman fan; one of my commenters remarked that Shipman revised The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years to its considerable detriment so I recommend the original version.

David, do you have any thoughts on Ms Rainer's acting? I'm curious. That Schonberg story is one of the most hilarious bits of City of Nets. He was a character. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall while he explained the concept to Thalberg.

Dan, I remember that story and as I recall it was a funeral for someone named "Joe" which makes it all the funnier. Wicked, wicked Joan. 'Swhy we love her.

Karen, as biopics go The Great Ziegfeld is very enjoyable and of course, how bad could a Powell/Loy pairing be, really? What did you think of the Candlesticks?

Yojimboen, she really did retain her soul which makes her a nice contrast to the many sad stories we tell here.

Gloria said...

Thanks for making the point about the assumed "empty-headedness" of Hollywood in the 30s and 40s: I occasionally read jaundiced comments from people who didn't make it in Hollywood back then, but it is obvious that Tinseltown was bursting with top world talent which had reached America fleeing from Hitler.

The sad thing is, some had to flee back to Europe some years after because of the HUAC.

Off-topic: I have ordered Myrna Loy's autobiography... And you're absolutely to blame! ;D

David said...

I'm off topic here but have just discovered your blog courtesy of Tom Carson in GQ. Started by reading your pieces on "OUTITW" and "Mad Men". "OUTITW" is on my list of favourite Westerns (certainly not in the top ten, but still on the list) and I thought Mad Men was one of the most interesting series of the past few years.

But...can't really disagree with your analysis of either the film or the TV series in any serious way. You're thoughtful, thorough and a terrific stylist. A pleasure to read.

You mentioned you aren't that familiar with Bertolucci's work. I trust you have seen "Besieged", since you referred to your love of romantic movies. And I was glad to see "The Best of Everything" referenced in your "Mad Men" article - the production design of the agency office in the latter is almost a direct lift from the former.

One final thing and then I'll stop. You mentioned you had written a blog entry on Westerns. Tried to search for it but can't find it. Can you direct me? I'm pretty much a neophyte when it comes to blogs.

Again, great work. Congratulations.

Deborah said...

I must admit to a fondness for The Emperor's Candlesticks, although it's definitely a guilty pleasure, partly because I'm a sucker for the kind of ersatz mitteleuropa that 1930s Hollywood produced but mostly because of William Powell. The plot, of course, is absurd, and it doesn't help (in terms of illogic) that Hollywood turned Baroness Orczy's socialists into Polish patriots. But anyone who loves Powell should absolutely see this movie.

Karen said...

Siren, re The Emperor's Candlesticks: let's just say it's not the most successful filmization of a Baroness Orczy novel ever made, you know? Any movie that starts out with Robert Young has to work especially hard to stay on track. I liked the Powell/Rainer interaction (is it possible not to be charming when paired with William Powell? I feel that he probably elevated everyone's game), but the rest of the film just isn't that memorable.

Vanwall said...

I like Rainer a lot, and I'll watch anything she's in, but the very first film I remember her from, just a kid I was, happened to be "The Good Earth" - I did not connect well with the film, most of the problem being my inability to suspend disbelief in seeing so many Anglos pretending to be Chinese, and wondering why they didn't just use Chinese actors. Even as a kid I had to suppress a kind of inward contraction of my brain at hearing or seeing too much of that kind of cultural substitution, it seemed like a cheat - I guess I was too literal minded. I loved Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto on certain elemental levels, but on other elemental levels, I couldn't connect without being distracted. Luise was well below the distraction level of Muni's, tho, or many others who tried that kind of thing, so it was her performance I actually paid attention to, along with the look of the film, so dense with detail and, on later viewings, realizing how technically challenging it was. She was different from the others in subtle ways, and in her better films, it really shows, but of all the films made back in the heyday of the Studios, "The Good Earth" exists for me as a perfect time capsule of what was considered the highest, and in some parts lowest, of aspirations for the System - flaws and all.

As I saw other films she starred in over the years, all on the telly, sadly, I was still so glad to remember her for those. I think at one point it was a ten year gap between seeing her in anything, and it was like re-discovering her all over again. I plan to record all of them, to enjoy them at leisure, altho I watch "The Good Earth" now just for her alone of the actors, and sometimes I still flash back to my parent's house in Scottsdale, sitting barefoot on a floor grate and watching it in guarded acceptance, experiencing my first real distrust of film - too bad in a way Luise was there.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I see her as a transitional figure from silent to sound. She had that very feminine delicacy that was so prized by adueicnes of silent stars like Gish and Janet Gaynor -- who continued it into a soudn career. Plus, being european she had that note of soticism that was also prized. She was, needless to say, tons more "approachable" for audiences than Garbo. One could imagine living next door to here. Garbo was next Galaxy.

Really like her in The Great Ziegfeld. Her telephone scene is the greatest of its genre until Al Pacino and Chris Sarandon's tour de force in Dog Day Afternoon.

And come to think of it in that Lumet classic Sarandon is very Luise Rainer.

DavidEhrenstein said...

There's a lot about the emigres in Chris and Don: A Love Story -- which is now out on DVD. Isherwood shot some swell 16mm color footage of everyone, and it's included in the film.

X. Trapnel said...

A good source for stories about Arnold S. Among the Stars is Oscar Levant's Memoirs of an Amnesiac. I like to fantasize about Mahler living long enough to make it to Hollywood (plus write another 10 symphonies) circa 1935. I imagine him being taken to see the Robin Hood set by Korngold and Alan Hale concieving a sudden mad passion for Alma, chasing her all over the Warner lot.

Alma was, of course, married to Werfel at the time who once sighed (not unlike Alex Sebastian), "I am married to a Nazi."

The Siren said...

David, welcome, and thank you so much for the praise. In truth, although I genuinely love the genre, I haven't written all that much about Westerns. Which strikes me as odd; when I started the blog I thought I would be writing about them a lot, since I cut my cinephile teeth on John Ford and Busby Berkeley. Anyway, here is my one brief post about 10 favorites and my stab at a Grand Unifying Western theme.

The Siren said...

Gloria, you're so right about the emigres; the welcoming arms in one decade and the boot in the next. Also, many of them (like Renoir - Renoir, for heaven's sakes!) found themselves unable to get work at some point.

David, I absolutely LOVE the Dog Day Afternoon comparison except that I am, frankly, piqued that it didn't occur to me before. Now, if I had mad Youtube skilz, which I do not, would be the time to edit together a side-by-side of those scenes, for the few cinephiles in the world who would get the joke.

The Siren said...

Vanwall, if you see Good Earth again I think you may be struck, as I was, by Keye Luke. It's a small part but he's very good.

XT, I absolutely have to have Levant's autobiography and also the bio of a couple of years back, which was supposedly very good.

X. Trapnel said...

All three Levant vols. are a treat (let us not forget the early A Smattering of Ignorance).

And when ARE we going to get a recording of Levant's 1912 Overture?

Gloria said...

Yes, even though Renoir seemed to keep a low profile (he had done films produced by the Front Populaire, after all) and kept living in California up to his death, it is significant that there is a four-year hiatus until he finally shoots "the River"... and that the film was shot in India.

I Agree with X.: Levant's books are fascinating(I quite like A Smattering Of Ignorance, his early collection on essays about Music -and also films-). His 1965 autobiography/self-exposé The Memoirs Od An Amnesiac is as entertaining as it is hair-raising, and it was complemented three years later by "The Unimportance of being Oscar"

Harpo Marx, in "Harpo Speaks", devotes a good chapter to him, worth reading, too.

gmoke said...

Ah for a double feature of "The Good Earth" with "Dragon Seed." Rainer and Hepburn both as Chinese women.

The Siren said...

Gmoke, TCM may have come close during its Asian Images in Film month a while back. At any rate both movies were in the lineup, as I recall. I got to re-watch Dragon Seed for the sheer campy hell of it and also saw Bitter Tea of General Yen at last; that one may have yellowface but it deserves its high reputation.

Arthur S. said...

Thought some people here might be interested in this article I found again today, regarding Renoir in America, specifically revolving around his FBI file(yes he had one!)

David said...

Thanks for the link. Interesting to compare your “Who’s the man here?” with AGAG‘s “The end of the west” theme.

While the end of the west is a legitimate thematic umbrella from a literary point of view, it’s not as useful from a dramatic standpoint – particularly for film writers and directors – as your question: “Who’s the man here?”. Civilization’s incursions in the natural world and its effect on the individual who relishes the freedom and challenge of the wilderness speaks more to setting, milieu. It’s a staple of American literature – I seem to remember some phrase about the sound of the locomotive in the garden from my college English class (back when Thoreau was taught as contemporary literature) – but when applied to film it lacks the specifics of character motivation and action.
Movies move. So articulating Western themes as a question or in a way that suggests action gets closer to the bone. Confronted with a changing world, where who I am as a man (cowboy, explorer, outlaw) is threatened, what do I do? How do I act while still staying true to my defining code, while still retaining my independence and freedom, my sense of what a man is? Do I trade my six-guns for forty acres and a mule or do I, like William Holden and Ernest Borgnine, load ‘em up and walk into the valley of the shadow of death to try to rescue a young man who was loyal to me?

George is right, the final act in The Wild Bunch seems a suicidal act, but it’s not about taking as many of the bad guys with you when you go as it is about ignoring the odds when you believe that being a man means not walking away from your partner in trouble. Which is what puts John Wayne and Woody Strode in the alley with the rifle when Stewart goes out to face Marvin and why Doc Holiday joins the Earp brothers on their way to the O.K. Corral and why Eastwood rides back into town to face down Hackman and his deputies after Freeman is dead. (And why I’ll always be odd man out on Unforgiven. Good western, but working a very well-ploughed field.)

Thanks for The Gunfighter, one I’ve never seen but if it’s better than Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, I’m tracking it down.

I know you and George were confining yourselves to traditional westerns but with the above in mind, seems to me you have to consider Lonely are the Brave. It supports my secret theory that most every film with a dynamic protagonist is actually a western.

I'll get off this now, honest.


DavidEhrenstein said...

I find The Wild Bunch finale to be about the desire for death on a massive scale. It's Peckinpah's Lieberstod. And it was the favorite film of Jerry Harvey -- the Z Channel creaotr who took out himself and his wife in a hail of gunfire.

gmoke said...

According to one story, Gregory Peck was offered "High Noon" but didn't want to do another Western so soon after "The Gunfighter"

Karen said...

Siren, I'm glad to hear you liked The Bitter Tea of General Yen. I find it to be a beautiful, haunting film. Capra's early films are an odd mix, aren't they? I always have to remind myself that that one's Capra--but then compare it to something like The Miracle Woman and it's not so surprising after all.

Arthur S. said...

Off topic, Happy New Year to all the people over here.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Happy New Year All.

Here's a nice piece by Anthony Lane on Grace Kelly (though I'm surprised he doesn't mention Van Dyke Parks' performance in The Swan.)

DavidEhrenstein said...

And turning to more contemporary talents, It's Joseph Gordon-Levitt Day at Dennis Cooper's

Roderick Heath said...

I saw and loved The Gambler and I've been frustrated not to be able to find it again. Rainer's presence in it was more interesting than anything else, though; she didn't have much to do. But what she did she did with what was a surprising amount of her old charm.

Buttermilk Sky said...

David Ehrenstein is partially correct. Schoenberg apparently assumed he was being asked to write an opera of "The Good Earth," in which the actors would perform their lines in the weird mix of singing and speech called "Sprechstimme" (listen to his "Pierrot Lunaire" to get an idea). Now THAT would have been a movie.

BTW, it wasn't only refugees from Hitler -- Igor Stravinsky was also living in LA and consenting, with some trepidation, to having his music used in "Fantasia."

estienne64 said...

Brought here, many years past closing time, by Siren's recent run of tweets about Luise Rainer. Mention of Rainer turning down a part in La Dolce Vita makes me wonder if this is connected to an anecdote told (complete with salty language) by my former boss, an old friend of hers. The details had got garbled over his many retellings, so that by the time I heard it the director was Zeffirelli rather than Fellini, but there may still be something in it. According to the story, the real reason for her reluctance to do the film was Mastroianni: 'I can't work with him. He always wants to fuck his actresses.' The director persuaded her that he would make sure Mastroianni did nothing of the kind, so she provisionally agreed to do the film. When he later got in touch and talked about preparations for the film and how wonderful she would be in it, he managed to throw in the line: '... but you will let Marcello fuck you, yes?'