Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve with the Talmadge Girls

Last year the Siren was traveling from New York to Seattle with four-year-old twins and her 14-month-old in tow. Should you ever attempt this, the Siren has one word for you: Bribes. Our bribes consisted of factory-sealed juice and milk boxes, one for each kid, which careful reading of the relevant airline guidelines seemed to indicate was permissible.

The security guard, however, must not have read the same Web page, because she hauled out all of our toddler baksheesh and arranged it on the table with a scowl that said we were about to get busted, big time. "I'll have to call my supervisor," she said, with the air of one who says, "I'll have to call Judge Jeffreys." Said supervisor arrived, a small and stressed-out man in his uniform shirtsleeves. The guard took him aside and the Siren heard her saying, "It's too much, they're trying to bring way too much." But instead of glaring at the Siren and her rule-bending brood the supervisor cocked an eyebrow at the guard and the Siren heard him say wearily, "They're traveling with three kids, f'Chrissake. Let 'em take in the juice."

He turned and started to walk away and the Siren cupped a hand to her mouth and called, "HEY!" He turned.

"Merry Christmas!" called the Siren, with gusto that would have befitted the Cratchits. The supervisor grinned and mouthed, "You too."

To that supervisor, and all those who are willing to bend the rules to make a holiday brighter, the Siren dedicates this story.

It's from Anita Loos's completely charming book about her relationship with silent stars Constance and Norma, The Talmadge Girls. Anita, Constance, the third Talmadge sister, Natalie (who would later marry Buster Keaton), and the formidable Talmadge mother, Peg, decided one year during their 1920s heyday that a warm California Christmas just wouldn't do. So the four ladies took the storied Twentieth Century to New York City and arrived just after midnight on Christmas Day. They found a Christmas tree on Vanderbilt Avenue, but no decorations. They deposited the tree in their hotel suite and Peg went to bed but Constance, Natalie and Anita, being more adventurous sorts, went out determined to find something with which to trim the tree. After wandering the deserted streets they found a drugstore in Grand Central that was open and staffed by a handsome, but sleepy clerk. He immediately recognized Constance Talmadge, but sadly admitted that his drugstore had nothing for tree-trimming.

And we were on our way out when the clerk, seeing romance about to disappear from his life forever, called, "Oh, Miss Talmadge! Come on back!"

He proceeded to unearth a box of small objects wrapped in silver foil, which glistened in the light. When Nate asked what they were, he said evasively, "What does it matter? They look like icicles, don't they?

Dutch [Constance's nickname] agreed eagerly and purchased all he had of them. The young man now ventured further. "Could you use some balloons?"

"Terrific!" Nate piped up. At which our benefactor produced a package of small deflated balloons, which he explained could be blown up and secured with dental floss. After which our young friend bethought himself of surgical cotton to serve as snow. Then, in a parting gesture, he presented Dutch with the two strings of colored lights that were blinking above the cash register.

The drugstore clerk, utterly in love with Dutch at that point, carried the "decorations" back to the hotel suite where he, Anita and Talmadge girls decorated the tree.

"Let's wake Peg up to see it!" dared Nate. And it was agreed to risk Peg's fury. When she entered, wearing her nightie and sleepy-eyed, we waited breathlessly for her reaction.

"Why," she exclaimed, "it's absolutely gorgeous!"

Dutch's suitor now felt safe enough to introduce himself to the mother-in-law of his dreams. "Mrs, Talmadge," said he, "my name is Lester Noonan and I'm honored to make your acquaintance."

As Peg blinked at him, Dutch placed a caressing hand on his arm. "Lester dug up all the ornaments for our tree!" she announced.

But she spoke a little too fondly, for Peg immediately began to assess the young man's attractions. As if he were not even present, she asked, "And where did you dig him up?"

"At that all-night drugstore!"

"Drugstore!" Peg repeated in a tone that placed all drugstores in a category with cesspools. Suspiciously, she turned to remove one of the icicles from the tree, examined it, and then in smoldering fury she addressed Lester.

"Why you sonofabitch!"

"Peg!" we all remonstrated.

"Do you know what this thing is?"

"What?" asked Dutch.

"It's a suppository!"

Lester blanched and looked flat enough to creep under the wall-to-wall carpet.

"What's a suppository?" inquired Nate.

"That's right! show your ignorance!"

Now Peg yanked one of the small balloons from the tree. "And d'you know what this object is?...It's a goddamn contraceptive!"

"What's a contraceptive?" asked Dutch.

"It's only due to my upbringing that you don't know!" Again Peg turned on Lester. "It's scum like you who give movie stars a filthy name!...Take that nasty thing apart before Walter Winchell gets wind of it! Or Town Topics! Or, God help us, Louella Parsons!"

We removed the unholy objects from our tree and Lester found a trash bin in the back hall where he could bury them.

We had scarcely finished when Norma and Joe [Schenck, later Norma's husband] descended on us from Atlantic City...

"Merry Christmas!" exclaimed Norma. But then, spotting the tree with its unlit bulbs and gobs of cotton snow, she gasped, "What is that thing?"

...But at that point Joe was already coming to the rescue. He picked up the phone, called the hotel management, and commandeered the enormous Christmas tree that decorated the downstairs lobby.

By that time the bells of St. Bartholomew's were chiming 'O Come, All Ye Faithful' and through the windows we saw snowflakes drifting like a benediction. There is nothing in the world that can warm the human heart like a snowy Christmas in New York. And as Lester forlornly approached Dutch to say "Well, Miss Talmadge, good-bye," Peg, in an upsurge of Christian spirit, invited him to join the family party. In reaction, Dutch's gaze took on the nearest thing to love light I had heretofore encountered.

Happy Holidays and a joyous New Year from the Siren's family, to yours.

(Above, the Talmadge girls in San Diego. Left to right: Constance, Natalie, Buster Keaton, director Clarence Brown (identified for the Siren by Rudyfan1926), Norma, Peg. Middle, Constance. Second from bottom, Anita. Bottom, Norma.)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Anecdote of the Week: "Trust Me--I'm an Actor," Plus Links

The Siren just got through reading about the hard times ahead for critics. She also read this piece at Jim Emerson's place and that pointed her to this piece, about how critics are irrelevant in the first place but super-duper-extra-tall-grande irrelevant if they don't like The Dark Knight (got that, Keith)? The Siren must be worse than irrelevant because she never saw the blasted thing and, let's face it, The Dark Knight is not a film she is likely to clutch to her bosom. However, two can play at this game, damn it. In tune with Jim's first commenter, the Siren plans to start an "Ignore Max Ophuls at Your Own Peril" campaign right after, well, right after she gets done with some other stuff. However, let it not be said that the Siren refuses all opportunities to expand her viewing horizons. The Siren watched Profondo Rosso some time back. Yes, she did. And she kind of liked it. She didn't like it in the way that might, for example, prompt her to watch it again--ever--but you could say she respected it. So, pending the last of the Constance Bennett thoughts, from another era and continent altogether, the Siren is bringing Profondo Rosso star David Hemmings onstage to cheer us up as we contemplate a world where film critics must love Batman, or suffer the consequences. This one is for Glenn Kenny, who wrote a splendid piece that touched on an encounter with the indefatigable Hemmings in Toronto on 9/11, and for Belvoir, because redheads ARE sex symbols, too. Here, in his posthumously published Blow-Up and Other Exaggerations, Hemmings discusses the ways in which actors whiled away their free time in Swingin' London.
...I was invited to join the Bang Club, which involved most of Alvaro's regulars of a Saturday lunchtime and whose principal purpose, as devised by Ian [McShane], was to make friends look foolish. Once a month, a person was elected 'victim,' and the remainder had to hunt him down, preferably in circumstances that would cause maximum embarrassment. The hunters would then point their index finger with thumb raised and three fingers curled and say, or mouth, 'Bang!', at which point the 'victim' had to die in the most atrocious way possible--in a second. No hesitation was allowed, or procrastination. They had to die on the spot, no matter who the witness or how great the damage. [Screenwriter Ian] La Frenais took out an entire dessert trolley at the White Elephant, having been 'Banged,' and several tables along with it. Few have topped this, and there can't be much more stimulating than to destroy someone's lunch by careering into their table, sprawled across a desert trolley like one of Clint Eastwood's victims across the back of his trusty steed. Of this you can be sure. Trust me--I'm an actor. McShane suffered an invidious fate, though, at the hands of the Bang Club. As he was being presented, almost on bended knee, to Princess Margaret at the Empire, Leicester Square, at some premiere or other, from behind the silken ropes the rest of us stood up and, over a rampart of black-tied shoulders, as one we pointed fingers and mouthed 'Bang!' Ian was caught, dead to rights, between the eyes. Eastwood would have been proud. Theoretically Ian should have fallen on the hapless princess, rolled her down a couple of staircases, taken Richard Attenborough and Judi Dench out with him and generally put the proceedings in peril and confusion. But he chickened out and disaster was, sadly, averted. There is, however, a sort of satisfactory conclusion to this short story. At the far end of the line, waiting patiently, was Vanessa Redgrave. She had not an inkling of the Bang Club, but being sightless, assumed the guns--merely fingers, you realize--were the real thing. She clutched the person next to her...and fainted dead away on the podium. All guns were then turned on Vanessa, as if she had been the target all along. But she revived in moments, as Redgraves will, to curtsy elegantly in front of HRH.
"As Redgraves will"--love it. At one point in his book the actor remarks, "They say Hemmings gives good yarn," and he certainly does. Highly recommended, if you can locate a copy. Hemmings has much to say about location work and the vagaries of an actor's career. Also contains the priceless story of how Michelangelo Antonioni kept shaking his head from side to side during each take on Blow-Up. Hemmings was almost prostrate from performance anxiety until he realized that what he thought were emphatic "no good" signals were in fact Antonioni's tremors from a physical condition.
The links to the 20 Actress meme are piling up even as we speak: David Cairns eschews mere physical beauty and gives Spring Byington her due. (By the by, David, who is this alleged MP who usurps your rightful place at the top of a "David Cairns" Google search?) Feta at Terminal Sigma comes up with splendid photos of some silent actresses. Operator_99 of Allure gives some love to number 21 and has a great picture of a very young Ida Lupino. Marilyn of Ferdy on Film picks Wendy Hiller. Will the Siren's omissions never cease to haunt her? Flickhead does indeed get very Continental on us. Laura plumps for the ravishing Hedy Lamarr. J.C. Loophole demonstrates impeccable taste. Jacqueline had an equally hard time as the Siren but all is forgiven because she named Teresa Wright. Sheila O'Malley ties one hand behind her back and picks favorite performances as well. Show-off. Brad Wrolsted wins a link by naming Harriet Andersson. Hazel at Let's Fold Scarves impressed the Siren no end by also naming performances, and including a Bette Davis film that the Siren actually hasn't seen. Well played, ma'am. Careful, you may get tagged next time. Just ask J.C. MovieMan0283 does a version with clips. Jon Swift identifies an important new school of film criticism, derrièrism. Surely criticism cannot be dead when brilliant new schools of thought keep emerging. Take that, Cahiers. And John McElwee at Greenbriar Picture Shows also does his bit for the critical lexicon, writing up the non-Sirk thrillers of Ross Hunter as Fashion Noir, an inspired term the Siren is adopting as of this very minute. Part one, on Portrait in Black, ends with a touching tribute to the Siren's beloved, doomed Sandra Dee. Part two, on Midnight Lace, ends with a vignette of a Hollywood-dream contest in Texas that will haunt you for days. Roy Edroso of Alicublog evidently moonlights as some sort of medium, achieving whole-mind psychic melding with Jonah Goldberg. Don't take these sorts of risks for us, Roy. It's only blogging. Tonio, who has been saying Easy Living is fluff? Send 'em to the Siren, she'll straighten them out. Easy Living is manna from heaven, that's what it is. (Top, David Hemmings demonstrates the apparent future of critics who do not worship The Dark Knight. Middle picture of David Hemmings on set with Dario Argento is blatantly lifted from Cinebeats. Third picture of David Hemmings with Jane Birkin in background chosen as a lagniappe for David Ehrenstein and Yojimboen. Bottom picture of Lana Turner and Lloyd Nolan in Portrait in Black chosen by the Siren for her own amusement.)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Van Johnson, 1916-2008

When the Siren read that Van Johnson, freckle-faced star of so many pleasant but lesser MGM movies, died this week aged 92, she thought of her friend Beth, who was a neighbor of Johnson's on the East Side of Manhattan in the early 1990s. Beth is a woman after the Siren's own heart, the sort of person who can recognize a star of the old days even as he passes 70. And recognize him Beth always did, reporting each time she saw Johnson and, just before she moved, the time that he stopped to coo over her adored baby daughter.

But is there any such thing as an actor touted as "the boy next door," who actually has an existence that MGM could have filmed in one of its backlot houses? Johnson's own private life was troubled and his one child, a daughter named Schuyler Van Johnson, grew up estranged from him. Still, of the crop of actors who populated musicals and light entertainments of the 1940s, Johnson stands out for having worked to become something more than catnip for the bobby-soxers, and for doing his best acting after age stole the adjective "boyish" from him for good.

The Siren went back to her David Shipman and was astonished to discover that Johnson was third in box-office popularity in 1946, and in the top ten even in Britain. In a poll of theater owners he was ranked ahead of Bette Davis, Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart, among others. But vehicles like that year's Easy to Wed and No Leave No Love (Shipman quotes C.A. Lejeune's priceless review: "No comment") can't support an actor forever, and just two years later Johnson's similar films weren't doing well. He began to doubt his own abilities, and Shipman also says Katharine Hepburn may have helped Johnson out during State of the Union. What did she do or say, one wonders? Because his best film roles were ahead of him, although from now on the good parts were, more often than not, supporting.

The Siren remembers Johnson fondly as a bright spot in the rather stagey Command Decision, as Clark Gable's wisecracking orderly; trying to eat the eggs he scrounged in Battleground; tormented by his conscience even as he brings down Bogart in The Caine Mutiny. And the Siren's favorite Van Johnson role will remain his nicely acerbic turn in Brigadoon, delivering such lines as, "If they want to disregard two hundred years of human bing-bang, that's their privilege" and, even better, when asked if there are women such as witches in his country: "Oh, we have 'em. We pronounce it differently." Once Johnson was able to show some shadows, and not just sunshine, he became somebody you could truly enjoy. And, if the Siren dares say so, somebody you would be far more interested in, should he ever show up next door.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Hardest Meme Ever

The Siren has been double-dog tagged, by Peter Nelhaus of Coffee, Coffee and More Coffee and Tony Dayoub of Cinema Viewfinder. This traveling list originated with Nathaniel R at The Film Experience, so if you've been tagged, go blame him for the fact that it's ridiculously hard, the hardest meme ever. Twenty actresses. Only twenty! Next time, gentlemen, just go ahead and ask the Siren to pick 20 favorite children, all right?

To whittle things down, the Siren gave herself but one requirement: The actress must be someone whose presence alone, irrespective of director, scriptwriter, subject matter, cinematographer, location or studio, will prompt the Siren to watch the movie. Even if the Siren suspects, or knows, that a movie is a wing-flapping wattle-waving turkey, she will watch it for one of these actresses.

The Siren has added a small embellishment by picking a still from a favorite movie for each actress. The pictures are very easy to guess, for the most part; it was just something the Siren did for her own amusement.

Myrna Loy.

Bette Davis.

Joan Crawford.

Greta Garbo.

Carole Lombard.

Joan Fontaine.

Lillian Gish.

Barbara Stanwyck. Should be on everyone's list.

Miriam Hopkins.

Alida Valli. The Siren saw this movie again recently and it was better than she remembered it.

Danielle Darrieux.

Kay Francis. I already proved I will watch anything with her. I sat through Doctor Monica, for heaven's sake.

Margaret Sullavan. This publicity still is for X. Trapnel; it was lifted from Classic Montgomery, a terrific classic-film blog from a fan of the actor Robert Montgomery. So far it wins the prize for most bizarre stars-link-arms-and-walk-toward-camera-still ever.

Katharine Hepburn.

Thelma Ritter.

Gloria Grahame. See Stanwyck.

Hideko Takamine.

Janet Gaynor.

Catherine Deneuve. All the boys will grab an opportunity to post something from Belle de Jour but this movie was the Siren's first Catherine love.

Meryl Streep. The Siren has problems with this movie, but chose this still because people forget what a unique beauty Streep was when starting out. Still is, in fact, and thank god she can still move her forehead.

You will notice that neither Bennett sister appears here; Constance and Joan just missed this tier. If I see more early work that I love, they may yet make it. Also cruelly forced out by the numerical limitations were Judy Holliday, Jean Harlow, Julie Christie, Ruth Chatterton, Clara Bow, Eve Arden, Dorothy Dandridge, Gong Li, Mary Astor, Gene Tierney, Anna May Wong, Setsuko Hara, Olivia de Havilland, and Ruby Dee.

All right, here are the Siren's tags:

J.C. Loophole of The Shelf (he volunteered--this'll learn him)
Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Film (she probably hates these things, but she will make great choices)
Operator_99 of Allure (this is his second tag from me in as many months, but come on, look at how great his A-Z list was)
Kimberly at Cinebeats (dying to see her swingin' list)
David Cairns at Shadowplay (I expect totally fabulous classic choices from him, too)

P.S. Damnit. I forgot Isabelle Huppert. I think this blog is in Portuguese--which I do not speak, alas--but she has picked up the actress meme and her taste needs no translation. Amazing pictures.

And since I am adding a link anyway, here is an unrelated tip--rush over and read David Cairns' post on the underrated William Dieterle and The Last Flight.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Screwball Constance: Topper and Merrily We Live

"I'll plug anything into the DVR that has Constance in the cast," said Karen last week, and the Siren agrees with her. So far, there hasn't been a single movie where Constance wasn't worthwhile, although at least one movie, Sin Takes a Holiday, was a definite chore. The Siren has now seen six Constance Bennett movies in the past two months and feels ready to offer some thoughts on her abilities. We'll start with the two Hal Roach comedies she did, Topper and Merrily We Live.

Overall, Constance's technique seems to fall somewhere in the middle of the early-30s crowd, not so natural and unforced as Ruth Chatterton, Dorothy Mackaill or Barbara Stanwyck, but not nearly as mannered as Norma Shearer, Jeanette Macdonald or Helen Hayes. Every once in a while, in a scene that requires Big Emoting, Constance will suddenly come out with a totally presentational gesture, such as raising her fists up to cheekbone level when her house is surrounded by the ravening press toward the end of What Price Hollywood?. And you wince a bit, because up to then everything had been so organic. But such moments are few.

Constance has some things in common with Kay Francis--a knack for comedy, a slightly opaque quality in big emotional scenes. But Francis always seemed vulnerable, even yearning, and Bennett always has some control, even when life gives her the back of its hand. Constance moves beautifully--she had long, graceful limbs and just watching her sink into a chair is a little bit of pleasure. Occasionally she relies on movement too much, darting and gesticulating more than she should in Merrily We Live, for example. But mostly she glides around with supreme elegance, and the Siren loves to watch how the dresses she wears sweep along one tiny beat behind her.

Like most people, the Siren first saw Constance in Topper, the movie which remains her most popular. It's a bit startling to see her billed above Cary Grant, despite Constance's having accepted a pay cut to play Marion Kerby, dropping her price to $40,000. (Grant got $50,000.) In the early 1930s Constance would have accepted a pay cut right around the same time she hopped a freight train with Woody Guthrie, but her days at the summit were already past and she knew she needed a good script. Her performance is wonderful, fluid and easy, complementing Grant in a very Nick-and-Nora sort of way. In fact, Topper shows at least as much Thin Man influence as screwball, with the Kerbys as the coolest couple in town, making marriage look fun.

The movie is so utterly of its time and place, and yet so complete a denial of what was going on, as you watch Marion and George drinking and dancing and lingerie-shopping all over the edge of the 1937 volcano. That must surely add to the affection people still have for Topper, which is often way out of proportion to its merits as a film. There you are at the local movie palace, it's still the Depression, and on the newsreel, the Japanese just started a full-scale invasion of China--and here are the Kerbys explaining to Roland Young that his real problem is all those inhibitions.

And hell, as she was watching it last week and half-following the economic news, the Siren still found Topper a lovely escape. The slapstick later on is fun, and Constance even makes you believe she would flirt with Roland Young. Not because Cary isn't divine, of course, but because it's a chance of pace, you see. It is no mean feat to portray a woman who is that capricious, and yet keep her appealing. But, for the Siren, it's Topper's early scenes before the car crash that have the real glow. Now that's escapism as it used to be, and never will be again--Constance letting her beaded gown trail on a bar's wooden floor, as she leans against Cary Grant and croons along with Hoagy Carmichael while the sun comes up in Manhattan.

She followed up Topper with Merrily We Live, a My Man Godfrey rip-off that even duplicates the shower love-scene, climactic line and all, just substituting a wishing well that happens to be lying around the mansion grounds. There's plenty of good old-movie stuff, including fabulous cars and dressing for dinner, plus X. Trapnel will be delighted with the cast walking arm-in-arm toward the camera during the credits, with the studio chorus singing in the background. It's winsome and diverting, there are some very funny moments, but unfortunately, Merrily We Live often reminds you of what was so great about the Gregory La Cava original.

The family members in My Man Godfrey have roles that they play in relation to one another, there are feuds and backstories that you learn about for each person in the household, from the dizzy matriarch and her monkey-imitating gigolo down to the maid in the kitchen mooning over Godfrey. The Kilbournes of Merrily We Live are cute, but they are just a collection of eccentricities. No one has a real character. They're all supposed to be funny from the get-go and that is motivation numero uno throughout. Constance's character, Geraldine, is the sensible one, viewing the antics with insouciant detachment, but that's it--you don't have a real conflict between her and anyone else, and so your stake in the outcome of her romance with phony-chaffeur Brian Aherne is low.

And, as the Siren mentioned before, some of Constance's movements are a bit more exaggerated than necessary, starting with the first scene when Geraldine flies down the stairs of the family mansion, carrying a lit cigarette. This bit astonished the Siren, who had always heard that a lady never walks so much as a step with a lit cigarette, but perhaps this is supposed to demonstrate a certain bohemian quality for Geraldine. Plus she is in a hurry to see whether the last chaffeur really did make off with the silver service. He did, and Constance demonstrates her facility for physical humor when she manages to be both funny and graceful in eating a canteloupe slice with a kitchen ladle.

She also manages to give some heat to scenes with Brian Aherne, the handsome but not exactly sultry Brit playing the William Powell role. Constance has great eye contact with men onscreen--nothing so obvious as lowered lids or fluttered lashes, just a sudden intensity to the focus, a certain firming of the features. It's a challenging sort of look, as if to say are you up to this? (Perhaps that searching gaze owed something to the Bennett eyesight, or lack thereof. All of them had bad eyes. Richard occasionally mistook Louise Brooks for Joan, and Joan in particular could barely see one foot in front of her without glasses.)

Ann Dvorak shows up in a very small supporting role, and if you love Ann this movie will depress you. Not only is her part, a lovestruck Senator's daughter, ridiculously unworthy of her, but she also has to wear what the Siren swears is the single ugliest evening dress ever to show up in a 1930s film. (Check it out. The Siren would not lie to you.) Billie Burke earns most of the praise for Merrily We Live, and indeed she is very funny, but the Siren still preferred Constance. She's the only family member who doesn't have to tote a bunch of funny business around, and so she can be a real woman, or at least the movie's only hint of one.

Merrily We Live was a critical and commercial success, but as Brian Kellow points out, neither that movie nor even Topper could rejuvenate Constance's career. They were, in the end, just stays of execution for her waning stardom. Her high-hat reputation was by now firmly established in Hollywood, and the fashion for screwball had just about run its course.

David Shipman called Topper and Merrily We Live "the two films for which she is best remembered," but the Siren isn't sure that is true for the second film. What Price Hollywood? has a definite cult, and would probably find even greater fame if somebody would only release it. Next, the Siren veers back to that movie, and the two others Constance made with Cukor, to see if other parts of her filmography should get more attention.

Correction to earlier post: A nice reader, who didn't want to embarrass the Siren, dropped her an email reminder that Philip Plant was not Constance's first husband. Her first marriage, at age 16, was to a pre-law student named Chester Hirst Moorehead. Her mother found out and took Constance home before the honeymoon could even start, and the marriage was later annulled. Perhaps the Siren forgot about poor Chester because Constance did, too--despite the press's romantic fascination with her teenage elopement, she never did speak much about him.

Note: This week's banner shows Richard visiting the set of Constance's first big hit, Sally, Irene and Mary. The Siren likes this picture for Constance's expression, which seems to be saying, "Um, help?" Also for the way it shows how much she looked like her father. To the right is director Edmund Goulding.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Behind the Blog, Anecdote, Links and an All-Points Borzage Bulletin

The Siren is honored to be the subject of this month's Behind the Blog feature at Film in Focus.

She is still working on more things Bennett but fate has intervened in the form of a truly rotten disease. Mr. C keeps insisting it's a cold, the Siren firmly believes it's pneumonic plague. In the meantime the Siren has been tracking the effects of congestion on her voice. Sunday she started out very basso profundo and Tallulah-like. Monday she met Dan Callahan for a screening of Doubt (verdict: Streep terrific, rest of film not bad) and the Siren found her voice had developed a squeak in the upper register, like Jean Arthur. Wednesday was Harpo Marx day--basically no voice at all. Thursday and today, Lizabeth Scott territory.

Anyway, on to this week's anecdote and some links. The Siren was originally going to do an excerpt from Louise Brooks's Lulu in Hollywood, for its touching paragraphs about the doomed middle Bennett sister, Barbara. But after throwing such gloom over the place with her biographical sketch of Constance, the Siren really couldn't do that to her readers. So instead, here are Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer, from their splendid (but, alas, out-of-print) The Movies, describing Constance's early career in what they dubbed "confession" movies:

Constance Bennett had the most screen offspring (with Joel McCrea usually fathering them, so that it was no shock to the movie public when they beheld in 1933 a title credit which read: "Constance Bennett in Bed of Roses, with Joel McCrea"). Miss Bennett's children came in handy for many plot purposes, including breach-of-promise suits, marriages in name only, and the foreswearing of promising careers. [Click to enlarge the Griffith and Mayer photo montage of Constance's usual romantic trajectory, above.]

Glad tidings. Turner Classic Movies is running two hard-to-find sound-era Frank Borzages on January 12. First, at 7:15 am EST, is Big City from 1937, with Spencer Tracy and the Siren's beloved Luise Rainer, who will turn 99 years old that day. The rest of the day's programming is given over to Rainer, including rarities like The Emperor's Candlesticks and Toy Wife.

But the real joy comes in the evening, as at 8 pm, TCM is showing No Greater Glory, which the Siren had listed as a "dying to see" some time back. Set the clocks, turn off the phones, ship the kids to their grandmother for a day or two, and the spouse too if you must, but that film really is an essential.

Meanwhile, David Cairns has now finished his series on Frank Borzage. Given that this great director and his frustratingly difficult-to-find movies are a constant subject in the Siren's comments, she urges you all to go to this link and read all of the posts.

Speaking of "dying to see" movies--Marilyn Ferdinand has a very detailed and fascinating post up on Only Yesterday, the seldom-seen debut movie of the great Margaret Sullavan. A must-read.

Noel Vera has a terrific post about the reactions he got when he showed three films--Zhang Yimou's Not One Less, Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies, and Yoshifumi Kondo's Whispers of the Heart--to some young American students.

The Siren has long since gotten over her childhood love affair with the Three Stooges. Sorry Ivan, I know you love them, and so does Raymond de Felitta. But no matter what your opinion of the Stooges, Raymond has put up one fascinating post, about Curly and the real, and fake, Shemps.

The Siren never wants to have another discussion of Roman Polanski: Boiling Oil, or Absolution? But she could talk about Chinatown all day. Anyone with doubts about that movie's mastery needs to look at Pilgrim Akimbo's post, Chinatown and the Rule of Thirds, which uses screen shots to show the classical perfection of John Alonzo's cinematography.

Stinky Lulu put up her A-Z Meme and it rocks, of course. But boy, do you ever want to check out Lulu's writeup of Susannah York in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? Fabulous. I only hope Kim Morgan saw it. And also do not miss Lulu's breakdown of the Best Supporting Actress Race for 2008, including such timeless questions as whether "the cutest nun" has a real chance this year.

And we end with Jonathan Lapper asking, why should we automatically think of an unhappy ending as more authentic?

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Bennett Sisters: Constance

Each time the Siren takes a look at celebrity news she is confronted with Somebody's Kid, to the point where it seems stardom has become as heritable as a dry-cleaning business. Talent, however, is often a recessive trait. The Redgraves and Barrymores are the exception, not the rule.

For a while, in the first half of the 20th century, it seemed the Bennetts might become a true acting dynasty. As Brian Kellow details in his fine book, The Bennetts: An Acting Family, it didn't work out that way. Richard Bennett was a legendary theatre actor. Two of his daughters, Constance and Joan, gave good performances in a number of movies, including four the Siren would nominate for immortality. And now, the last of the Bennetts live quietly. Whatever acting fire was in the genes is either extinguished, or banked up awaiting another generation.

Richard Bennett was primarily a stage actor, although he did good work for John Ford in Arrowsmith and worked twice for Orson Welles, who had seen Bennett on stage and, according to Kellow, "felt that he had the greatest lyric power of any actor in the theater." Bennett's final film role was as a Greek captain on a fishing boat in Journey Into Fear. By then his drinking had made him incapable of remembering lines, a difficulty Welles solved by having the captain speak no English. But Bennett's grand moment was as the Major in The Magnificent Ambersons, life ebbing from him as he sits by the fire, eyes fixed beyond the camera on an expanse of utter loneliness: "And he realized that everything which had worried him or delighted him during this lifetime, all his buying and building and trading and banking, that it was all trifling and waste beside what concerned him now. For the Major knew now that he had to plan how to enter an unknown country where he was not even sure of being recognized as an Amberson." One scene like that is all an actor needs for immortality, as far as the Siren is concerned.

But, though it would no doubt displease the blustery Richard, the Siren wants to concentrate on his daughters. There were three of them, as anyone who's read Lulu in Hollywood knows: Constance, Barbara (who never had a real career) and Joan. True to the conventions of fairy tales the youngest, Joan, was also the most beautiful, the kindest and the most talented. Despite this undeniable fact, the Siren found herself spellbound by the smart, mercurial and brazenly selfish Constance. A recent viewing of What Price Hollywood?, which Kellow wisely points to as Constance's best movie, added to the fascination. The Siren suspects something similar happened to the biographer. At times Kellow halts the narrative for a minute, unable to resist an aside concerning Constance's never-ending supply of chutzpah.

We meet the oldest Bennett daughter shortly after her birth in October 1904, a date she would spend the rest of her life obfuscating along with the birthdates of all three of her children and, for the first two, even the identity of their fathers. Richard Bennett came home to his actress wife, Mabel, after a tour undertaken during a rift in their marriage. Summoned by a telegram, he went upstairs to the apartment his wife had rented and heard a baby caterwauling. After making up with Mabel, Richard took a look at his new daughter and was thoroughly alarmed. Her face was red, her fists were clenched and she was raising such a ruckus her father was afraid she was sick. Mabel told him, "She wants attention, dear."

As any parent can tell you, temperament shows up from the first slap on the behind. What Constance wanted, Constance got, and she wanted a great deal. When refused something as a child, she'd retreat to her room and bang her head on the floor. As she grew into a young woman, and throughout her life, she maintained a figure so slim they called her "the human coathanger." Capable of steely self-discipline as well as willfulness, Constance observed her father's ruinous alcoholism and never took a drink. When Barbara's sad life also began to descend into a miasma of alcohol and self-destructive behavior, Constance lost patience early on, telling Joan that anyone with sense should be able to look at their father's binges and know it was wise to abstain.

She grew into a beauty who immediately set about felling a string of men. Her first marriage was to Philip Morgan Plant, the heir to a vast railroad fortune. The pattern of this first marriage was quite like some of Constance's movies, including What Price Hollywood?. His mother tried to discourage the romance but she needn't have bothered. Constance, already launched on a career in silent films, never even tried to charm Mrs. Plant as she got engaged and un-engaged to Plant several times. Finally an engagement stuck, and they were married. Things unraveled in no time flat, as Philip was no slouch in the drinking department himself. In December 1929 she and Plant signed a divorce decree in Nice. At the end of January, Constance appeared in New York with a baby boy. She was cagey about whether or not son Peter was biologically hers, and over the years she increased the confusion, at first claiming he was adopted, later insisting he was Plant's. She was, she said later, fearful that Plant's family might try to take the boy away. Philip always acknowledged the boy as his and, after he died and Constance wound up in court with his family, a trust fund was established for Peter.

Constance moved on to Gloria Swanson's ex, the Marquis de la Falaise de Coudray. While married to him she had a daughter, Lorinda, who may have been Henri's or, then again, may have been the daughter of the glamorous Latin actor Gilbert Roland. Constance divorced Henri, married Roland and had another daughter, but in the early 1940s she tired of Roland and took a new lover, a nine-years-younger Army Air Corps colonel named John Coulter. They met at a party Coulter attended with his wife, who was in a wheelchair due to a recent car accident. Constance vamped into the room in full evening regalia and that was all she wrote for the unfortunate Mrs. Coulter. Constance had her new man arrange for Gilbert's assignment to an aerial mapping squadron working over South America--with blithe disregard for Roland's acute fear of heights. As Kellow remarks at this point, "how can we not admire Constance's skill as a master puppeteer?" Forget Scarlett O'Hara. Constance would have steamrolled her, too.

The Siren's growing enthrallment with Constance took a huge hit, however, with the actress's conduct during her marriage to Coulter. She was in charge of her son Peter's trust fund, and as her career waned and she tried to maintain a star's lifestyle with Coulter, Constance began to tap into the fund to supplement her income. Eventually the fund, which was about $300,000--in 1952 dollars--was completely depleted. Peter threatened a lawsuit unless Constance and her husband turned over their house. Constance, knowing when to fold 'em, signed it over. Mother and son did not speak for more than a decade, but Constance had raised him even better than she realized. Eventually he wrote her a letter asking for a reconciliation before it was too late. She invited him to dinner and when he arrived, she opened the door and her first words were, "Let's not talk about it." Later Constance's friends told Peter she had been tormented by their years of silence, but she had asked him not to bring it up, and he never did. Their reconciliation probably added years to her life.

Usually by this point in a post the Siren has brought up a film or two, but Constance's life fascinates as much as even her good movies, and certainly a great deal more than something like Sin Takes a Holiday. Sister Joan was a Democrat, who with her husband Walter Wanger supported a number of liberal causes; but Constance was a fierce Republican who late in life would entertain guests by reading out loud from The Conscience of a Conservative. When Richard hit up his eldest daughter once too often for a loan, she wrote back saying that unfortunately Roosevelt had already bled her dry. She was a skilled poker player, one of the few women allowed to play in high-stakes regular games with moguls like Jack Warner, Samuel Goldwyn and Darryl Zanuck. Permitted, hell--she frequently took them to the cleaners. Another lady with a perfect poker face? Constance's friend Kay Francis, who once complained of the expense of maintaining her mother. Constance told her to knock it off--"we know you support your mother on your poker winnings." It was Constance who, it is said, watched Marilyn Monroe sashay across a set and remarked, "There goes a broad with a future behind her."

Despite the trust fund debacle, Constance is remembered with affection by her children, who all turned out sane and stable. But they admit she was no picnic, as you may guess. Remember the Christmas-gift-giveaway scene in Mommie Dearest? Constance did the same thing to her two daughters, demanding that their favorite gift be given away to an orphanage. (This incident is dryly indexed under "Bennett, Constance...child-rearing philosophies of.")

"My personal feeling is that Mummy should never have been a mother," said daughter Lorinda. "But she was one hell of a woman. I am very happy that Mummy was this fantastic woman: intelligent, great sense of humor, full of all kinds of wonderful things. Someone I respected so much as a person. I much prefer that she was someone like that than a 'good mother.'"

(Next up, if all goes according to plan (which, my patient readers know, isn't always the case) are notes on Constance's actual acting.)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Ten Things I Love About Old Movies

So, as threatened, the Siren is stealing Jacqueline T. Lynch's post idea. Jacqueline's concept was to look at relatively superficial, but satisfying, elements of classic film. Nothing like mise en scene, cinematography or acting styles, just the things that draw you into an older world.

So here, in rough order, are some things the Siren loves that didn't make it onto Jacqueline's list:

1. Intertitles in sound movies. One of the Siren's very favorite things ever, as she's mentioned before. I haven't seen one of these since Star Wars, and that wasn't strictly an intertitle since it was at the beginning. Do they just assume no one can read? That can't be, since everyone in the audience is texting like mad, a complaint that finds the Siren in complete accord with her friendly archnemesis Dirty Harry. Anyway. I adore intertitles, like the YELLOW JACK! alert in Jezebel and "And so the 'keeks' went out of another marriage" in That Uncertain Feeling and all the intertitles in this movie that you may have seen at some point:

2. Trains, especially trains with sleeping cars.

3. Dressing for dinner. The Siren has thrown many dinner parties here in glamourous little old New York, and not one person has ever shown up wearing something like this

or this

let alone this

or this.

Nope, not even me.

4. I love any scene of a woman getting undressed behind a screen. I doubt that women did this much in real life but in the movies it's a killer. Bonus points if the woman hits the man in the room (there's always a man in the room) with something she's just taken off.

(Yes, she's standing in front of the screen but she's about to go behind it any minute. Googling didn't get me far with this one. Where's C. Parker of Starlet Showcase on this category?)

5. Marcel waves. As a small girl watching her first black-and-white movies, the presence of marcel waves let the Siren know whether the movie was worthwhile. This meant she saw some good movies at an early age, like this one:

6. Nightclubs. Especially in the 1930s movies like Top Hat, where they appear to be roughly the size of an aircraft carrier.

Even non-musicals had fabulous nightclubs, as you can see in the background here in Nightmare Alley.

And even a nightclub that's supposed to be seedy, like The Blue Gardenia, looks stylish.

That brings us to

7. Smoking. People do it everywhere in old movies, with unapologetic gusto. The act of smoking can give rhythm to lines, buying the character some time.

It can tell you much about the way the characters relate.

It is, in short, a social activity.

(The Siren here adds the obligatory note that smoking is a Bad Thing, although why the failure to denounce smoking as soon as it's mentioned causes howls of protest is something the Siren doesn't get. No one freaks if the Siren fails to screech "Heroin kills!" when discussing The Man With the Golden Arm.)

8. Drinks. The way people knock 'em back in old movies fills the Siren with awe. And it's not just the ones you expect...'s even the folks hanging around the fortress of the American home. Watch Walter Huston pour out a simple Scotch in Dodsworth--about a half-tumbler. The Siren gets goggle-eyed every time she sees it. And of course, nobody drank like these two.

9. Full-length musical numbers in non-musicals. The Siren just saw one in Safe in Hell, in which the adorable Nina Mae McKinney sings a lovely version of "Sleepy Time Down South" while serving dinner to the sleaziest guests in the Caribbean. But there are lots of other examples. Even Howard Hawks had one, the "Drum Boogie" Barbara Stanwyck performs before kicking back with some academic types.

(Notice how often Hawks is popping up here? This is the stuff that really makes an auteur, I tell you.)

10. Closeups of notes in beautiful handwriting.

So, the Siren doesn't want to turn this into a meme. For one thing, the misuse of the term meme is irritating some of the purists around here. For another, the Siren has trouble picking people to tag. So this is not a meme, it's an invitation. If you want to contribute, please do so, either in commments, or at your own blog. If it's the latter drop me a line and I'll link back. The one rule is that we're looking for details and atmosphere, not big artistic stuff. And link back to Jacqueline, since she started it.

While we are on the subject, here are some delightful entries in the A-Z meme oopsImean list-by-invitation:

Operator_99 hits it out of the park with an all-1930s list
Jacqueline T. Lynch shows herself a kindred softy and lover of Dorothy McGuire
Goatdogblog goes international
Glenn Kenny gives some class to the joint
Dirty Harry, in a burst of liberality, mixes in some movies he didn't even like
Robert Avrech includes some wonderful silents
Filmbrain flashes film erudition it will be hard to top with An A-Z of Nikkatsu Sleaze and Action.

For a complete list of all 125 or so, check Blog Cabins. If this doesn't make him King of Google I don't know what will. Am I missing any good lists? Tell me. Finally, if you have the Siren on your blogroll, but have yet to spy yourself in the thickets of her sidebar, please say so via email or in comments. The Self-Styled Siren has a liberal blogrolling policy, and if you list her she will almost always list you back.