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.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Whirlpool (1949)

The trouble with Whirlpool (1949), an Otto Preminger film noir about a housewife in thrall to an evil hypnotist, is that its best mysteries aren't on screen.

Mystery No. 1: Why is Gene Tierney so little known to people other than old-movie buffs, while Marilyn Monroe (for example) is known to the dumbest mallgoer in the farthest corner of the land? Tierney had the more beautiful face. She made great, easy-to-love movies: The Shanghai Gesture, Heaven Can Wait, Dragonwyck, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Leave Her to Heaven, Laura, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Advise and Consent. She struggled bravely with mental illness and the tragic fate of her first child, Daria. She was a consummate professional who managed to work not once, not twice, but four times with the legendarily obnoxious Otto Preminger, a director who had far less fragile actors tearing their hair out. Monroe, on the other hand, drove even "women's director" George Cukor crazy with her inexcusably self-centered behavior. Marilyn had an affair with John F. Kennedy, but so did Tierney, and Tierney almost married him. Seriously, what does it take?

Mystery No. 2: Why Richard Conte, in his Whirlpool role or most others? He's so stolid, an actor who could beat the hell out of Susan Hayward (in I'll Cry Tomorrow) and still make the audience yawn. In this film he plays an allegedly brilliant psychoanalyst who can't see that his wife (Tierney) is a. unhappy, b. a kleptomaniac, c. not lying to him when she says she didn't have an affair with Jose Ferrer. When the crusty detective (Charles Bickford, who else?) tells the great shrink his wife's motive for murder was infidelity, Conte's expression is that of a man who's been told the kitchen ran out of manicotti.

Mystery No. 3: What did the film's hair stylist, Marie Walters, have against Tierney?

There are some pleasures in Whirlpool. Jose Ferrer, in only his second film role, has a high old time playing David Korvo, the silky con man who uses hypnosis to draw Tierney into his schemes. The actor lets his warm, insinuating voice suggest why a woman might look beyond his homeliness. Talented Barbara O'Neil, who should have made more movies, plays Korvo's first victim, nobly trying to warn off Tierney. Overall, despite Preminger at the helm, it's dated and the hypnosis angle doesn't have much juice, if it ever did. Mr. Campaspe walked in on a big scene, observed Tierney for less than a minute and remarked, "She's hypnotized." Not much mystery there.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Ten Underrated Films

It's so late in spring it's almost summer, but the Siren is sprucing up once again, adding some wonderful film bloggers she somehow never put on her Blogroll: Matt Zoller Seitz and the crew at The House Next Door, That Little Round-Headed Boy, Edward Copeland on Film and Mr. Middlebrow (he's not all movies, but I like his style, so on he goes).

Back in April, Mr. Middlebrow issued a challenge, taken up by TLRHB among others, to name "10 movies you consider overlooked, underrated, offbeat and in general deserving of not being forgotten." The one rule is that the movies you choose must never have won a major award (and preferably have not been nominated for Best Picture, either). Well now, the Siren knows she is late to the party, and she doesn't want to get too list-happy, especially since she just did one of these things for Edward Copeland's blog. However, she went over the submissions in Mr. Middlebrow's comments, and to be blunt, there aren't enough old movies on the lists to suit her. I mean, good movies and all that, but must they all be in color? And must they be quite so macho? So here's her list:

1. Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948) Ignore the ludicrous voice-over at the beginning (complete with gathering cloudbanks) and let yourself be swept away by this full-throttle romance, a film unafraid to say that deeply felt love is an artist's truest inspiration. Jennifer Jones gives her best performance, aging from a little girl to a full-grown woman. If you go over to IMDB you'll see more reviews than usual for such an old movie, but it still deserves a far wider fame.

2. The Diary of a Chambermaid (Jean Renoir, 1946) Paulette Goddard, in real life sort of a Lorelei Lee with intellect, got only a few roles to showcase her unique quality--the hint of a mercenary soul under that heart of gold. Goddard produced this one with her husband, Burgess Meredith (one hell of an odd couple, huh?), resulting in her best performance, her Chaplin films notwithstanding. Jean Renoir's adaptation of Octave Mirbeau's novel has both fans and detractors, as well as those who prefer Luis Bunuel's version, but the Siren thinks this one is swell. It's a dark little farce about class, money and sex, with an outstanding Francis Lederer as the sinister valet. Diary hits many of the same themes as La Regle du Jeu, and perhaps that is why it gets short shrift, since few are the movies as good as Renoir's masterpiece. But Renoir's worst movies are better than many directors' best, and this is far from his worst. Of course it isn't available on DVD but it pops up on TCM every once in a while.

3. All This, and Heaven Too (Anatole Litvak, 1940) This big-budget version of Rachel Field's bestseller didn't fulfill box-office hopes at the time, and to this day it's a bit of a stepchild. The main character, a gentle governess, isn't what you expect from Bette Davis, the central romance remains unconsummated, and the historical background (the 1848 revolution) is one that gets a "whaa? whaddya mean, no Bastille?" response from most Americans. Still, it's the Siren's favorite Bette Davis movie, a sweeping melodrama with a dead-sexy turn by Charles Boyer as the tormented Duc de Praslin. Barbara O'Neil, usually the warm, understanding mother figure, here plays Boyer's Duchesse as the most ghastly, unmaternal harpy imaginable. O'Neil manages to keep just enough of the woman's pathetic (and, for 1940, suprisingly explicit) desire for her husband to make it a truly fine performance.

4. Madeleine (David Lean, 1950) One of the Siren's side interests is crime, but as with film her fascination is with the old or very old. Madeleine Smith, tried for murder in 19th century Scotland, is an enigma as great as Lizzie Borden. Did Madeleine poison her lover? did he commit suicide in an attempt to implicate her? David Lean's subtle, sexy take on the celebrated case starred his wife, Ann Todd, and though she looks nothing like the raven-haired Smith she does a superb job. This, Lean's first effort to tackle a piece of actual history, is criminally unavailable at the moment but scheduled for release in 2008. It's good enough to mark your calendar for.

5. The Strawberry Blonde (Raoul Walsh, 1941) James Cagney plays a two-fisted dentist, an even better conceit than "James Cagney plays a two-fisted inspector for the Bureau of Weights and Measures." Jack Carson plays a heel, five words that are enough to get the Siren to rent anything. Rita Hayworth is the hard-to-hold title character and Olivia de Havilland is Warner Brothers' notion of what a wallflower girlfriend looks like. It is hard to describe this rather whimsical, genre-crossing movie, except to say that it outranks both its predecessor and its remake.

6. Two-Family House (Raymond De Felitta, 2000) The Siren's favorite overlooked movie so far this century won the audience award at Sundance, then vanished from the radar. That's a pity, because it's the perfect indie Christmas movie, the tale of the self-redemption of a sad-sack Staten Islander.

7. Bachelor Mother (Garson Kanin, 1939) Ginger Rogers and David Niven in an incredibly funny screwball comedy. Plot summary is pretty useless, it's all there in the title. The pleasure is from the dialogue and Niven's timing, as when he defends the honor of a baby with "Of course he talks! Why, he can recite the first line of Gunga Din!"

8. Three Came Home (Jean Negulesco, 1950) Based on the memoirs of a woman who spent World War II interned in a Japanese prison camp, this harsh drama does perpetuate some stereotypes. Claudette Colbert, as good as she is here, should have let herself get a little more mussed. But Sessue Hayakawa plays the Colonel in charge of the camp as an honorable man well aware of the codes he is breaking. And late in the film, a scene between Colbert and Hayakawa brings them together and breaks the audience's heart.

9. The Young in Heart (Richard Wallace, 1938) A family of con artists finds themselves in a quandary when their old-lady mark starts to win their affections. Janet Gaynor's last starring role, and a very funny film. Best scene: Roland Young and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., seeking gainful employment with no very lively desire to succeed. Second-best scene: Young arriving for his first day of (gulp) work.

10. Seven Sweethearts (Frank Borzage, 1942) Not a classic, maybe even not that good, but this is my list so I'm putting it up anyway. If fairy tales aren't your thing, stay far away. If, however, you have a soft spot for Borzage the true romantic, wait for this one on TCM. Reasons to watch include S.Z. Sakall (the bartender from Casablanca) flinging his accent all over the place, a funny and self-deprecating turn by Marsha Hunt, and a magical scene between Van Heflin and Kathryn Grayson in a rain-soaked car.

Moonrise Postscript: Gail Russell

When Jane Fonda was preparing to play a washed-up alcoholic in The Morning After, the actress maudit she researched was Gail Russell. Many performers claim to be shy, but Russell really was, and afflicted with stage fright so acute she often would throw up before takes. As early as her first starring role, in 1944's The Uninvited, she started to smother her fear with drinking. The 1950s began with one drunk-driving conviction and ended with another; in between the parts got fewer and smaller. She died in 1961 of an alcohol-induced heart attack, age 36. It was a long, sorry decline from her run of good movies in the 1940s, including Angel and the Badman, the Witness forerunner with her lifelong friend John Wayne; the adorable Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, as a young American breezing through Europe; and Moonrise. In that last Russell shows all the things that could have earned her enduring fame. She was beautiful, of course, with near-perfect bone structure and eyes that photographed pure silver in black-and-white. On film she seemed not seductive, but delicate, full of tender mercies. Russell makes you believe this improbably gorgeous schoolteacher could love Dane Clark, with his twitchy fears, sketchy past and frequent disappearances. In Moonrise, as in Angel and the Badman, she's the rock that saves a good man from a bad end. In real life, Russell could have used someone like that herself.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Moonrise (1948)

The last time I saw Girish, we discussed our admiration for Frank Borzage. The director brought poetry to every genre he tackled. Girish kindly lent the Siren his videotape of Moonrise (1948), a late high spot in the director's career, and she was wowed.

It has a remarkable, pitch-dark opening, depicting a man's hanging for murder and the subsequent effect on his son. One cut moves from the trap door opening underneath the prisoner's feet, to an infant crying in his crib, seemingly at the sight of a rag doll that dangles over the cradle with a string around its neck. The shot gave the Siren a jolt of shock and terror like she seldom experiences.

Danny (Dane Clark), the baby in the opening sequence, continues haunted by his father's fate. Early in the film Danny kills a rich tormenter (Lloyd Bridges), essentially in self-defense. But with the doom-laden illogic of a typical film noir protagonist Danny drags the body off into the swamp and goes back to a waterside dance club to continue his courtship of the winsome Gilly (Gail Russell).

Moonrise is set in a small swamp town, apparently in the South although you'd never know it from the characters' accents. Cinematographer John L. Russell uses tightly framed shots that give a sense of Danny's world closing in on him, but also have an unusual, vivid beauty. The swamp waters glitter, a ruined house where Gilly and Danny meet has a fairy-castle quality.

The plot spins out from that initial moment of violence, but this isn't a typical film noir, as this excellent Senses of Cinema post points out. Despite its dark themes and brooding look, the Siren thinks maybe Moonrise doesn't qualify at all. The film is too warmly sympathetic to Danny's plight. Real noir starts from the premise that people are no damn good, and proceeds to reaffirm that, step by step. Borzage probably couldn't have taken that viewpoint on a bet. Moonrise instead makes the classically humanist point that criminals are not born, they're made--and can be un-made with sufficient compassion.

Danny isn't really a criminal in any sense. Not only does he lack the requisite animal cunning, he lacks even a simple sense of self-preservation. The town's gentle deaf-and-dumb orphan (Harry Morgan) tries to give Danny a knife he left at the crime scene, but Danny is too wild with worry to even notice. The sheriff (Allyn Joslyn)--no Javert, but instead a goodhearted homespun philosopher--shows up at a fair Danny is attending, and instead of trying to brazen it out like a crook Danny goes haywire in spectacular fashion. In the end Borzage and screenwriter Charles Haas have the audience rooting for Danny to get caught, to end the poor guy's suffering.

All in all, a beautiful movie that makes you wish Borzage had been able to do more after his 1920s-30s heyday. The least this American master deserves is more of his films on DVD, since not all of us have a Girish Tape-Lending service in our lives. The Siren is glad she does.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Alida and Me

On a beautiful day in Brooklyn two weeks ago, the Siren sat down in a cafe, opened a newspaper and read that Alida Valli had died at age 84--and felt real sadness, because her daughter is named Alida.

Little more than three years ago Mr. C. and I had a lot of fun discussing names for our boy-girl twins:

"Lucy and Desi."

"Bill and Hillary."

"Nixon and Agnew."

"Nixon and Agnew? which name does the girl get?"

and so forth. When we finally got serious I went through some old movie books and hit on the name Alida, because it is beautiful and unusual but also simple and pronounceable. (Hail Girish, the only one of my film-mad friends who responded to "my daughter's name is Alida" with "Valli" as fast as any game-show contestant.) David O. Selznick marketed his Italian find as just Valli, hoping to echo the single-name impact of Garbo. In this, as in so many of his later-life decisions, he was wrong, because her first name is the business.

The Siren treasures her small connection to Alida Valli, one of the few she has to the Golden Age. When I graduated college, I went to work at a literary agency. One of our clients was Oscar de Mejo, Valli's first husband. I loved his courtly voice and beautiful manners on the telephone, and (yes, I am this starstruck) I also loved the idea that he gave me three degrees of separation from Orson Welles. AND Carol Reed AND Alfred Hitchcock AND Gregory Peck.

So Alida it was, though I had seen only two of the first Alida's films. She made a lot of good movies, but is most remembered for three: The Paradine Case, a minor Hitchcock that the Siren still enjoys a lot; Senso, a legendary Visconti film that the Siren prays will be released soon on DVD; and The Third Man, without question the actress's defining role for audiences outside Italy (and probably inside Italy too).

Good lord she was beautiful, "head-swivelingly beautiful" as Martin Scorsese put it, so stunning that even the hideous raincoat she wears for most of Carol Reed's masterpiece can't douse her light. The opaque, rather chilly quality she had in The Paradine Case was antithetical to a true femme fatale and hurt the movie. But in The Third Man, it's perfect. Her character, Anna, is as hollow and burnt-out as Vienna. Her eyes show life only when Harry Lime is mentioned. That he's worthless doesn't matter; he is all that connects her to the emotions the war blasted away.

The original Alida had bad bumps in her admirable 100-movie career, including a false accusation of fascist sympathies (someone claimed she had an affair with Goebbels!) that almost kept her out of the U.S., a stint in Hollywood that didn't last long enough and a scandal that sidelined her for about three years after she returned to her native Italy. That's just the professional side, and it was fairly minor compared to what her personal life dished out. After the Nazis pushed into Italy, she laid low for a while to avoid having to do propaganda films. Her first love, a fighter pilot, was killed in action. Her mother was shot (though not mortally) by anti-fascist forces for suspected collaboration. The scandal that almost ended her career saw her confirming a man's alibi in a celebrated murder case.

Each phase of Valli's life found her picking up and moving on, to Hollywood after Europe was leveled, back to Europe when Hollywood turned cold, to the theater when movies proved scarce or unfulfilling. And, with confidence even many non-famous beauties don't possess, when the wrinkles began to come, Alida Valli let 'em come.

Mr. Campaspe has Mediterranean coloring, and when the Siren talked him into the name "Alida," she envisioned a daughter with Valli's dark hair and olive skin. In one of life's little practical jokes, my daughter is a green-eyed blonde, a different kind of beauty altogether. But as I read more about Alida Valli's life, I realize I dreamed of the wrong inheritance. My Alida would do better with just her namesake's resilience and grace.

Friday, May 05, 2006

A Sad Explanatory Note

The wonderful film critic and blogger Matt Zoller Seitz suffered a terrible blow last week with the sudden death of his wife, Jennifer. Edward Copeland, a longtime friend of Jennifer's, was understandably too torn up to continue with his original plan for the Best of the Best Pictures Poll. The Siren sends her deepest sympathy to Matt, his family and to Edward. Edward, with great dedication, has moved the deadline for his poll to midnight tonight, Friday, May 5.