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.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Alphabet Meme

As Lance Mannion always says, "Homework! They're giving me homework!" Tony Dayoub of Cinema Viewfinder has tagged me with this alphabet meme, which originated at Blog Cabins. Given the joy (and tremendous work) ahead for the Dayoub household after welcoming little Kyle into the world, the Siren couldn't turn this meme down. First, here are the rules:

1. Pick one film to represent each letter of the alphabet.

2. The letter "A" and the word "The" do not count as the beginning of a film's title, unless the film is simply titled A or The, and I don't know of any films with those titles.

3. [Here we have a long explanation of how to list Star Wars movies, which the Siren will spare you since--spoiler ahead!--there's no way in hell she's listing a Star Wars movie.] ...Movies are stuck with the titles their owners gave them at the time of their theatrical release. Use your better judgment to apply the above rule to any series/films not mentioned.

4. Films that start with a number are filed under the first letter of their number's word. 12 Monkeys would be filed under "T."

5. Link back to Blog Cabins in your post so that I can eventually type "alphabet meme" into Google and come up #1, then make a post where I declare that I am the King of Google.

6. If you're selected, you have to then select 5 more people.

To these the Siren added her own rule, which confined her to films in the two languages she actually speaks, French and English. (Her French is shaky but even so, the Siren can make out a title.)

That means that even though Onna ga kaidan wo agaru toki fits nicely for the letter O, the Siren isn't going to put it there because she doesn't speak Japanese and she feels stupid listing it under a Japanese title she can't pronounce. But it feels like cheating to list it under the English title (When a Woman Ascends the Stairs) if I am listing French movies under French titles. And I have to list French movies under French titles because then I can still fit in my favorite Marcel Carné film and have room for my favorite silent as well.

Do you follow that logic? Never mind, here's the list anyway.

The letter X may seem like cheating too but honestly, what was I supposed to do with that one? Is there a movie out there called Xylophone or Xenophon? If so, I haven't seen it. Nor have I seen the X-Files movie and, with apologies to James Wolcott, Xanadu is not something I could list in good conscience.

A partment, The
B lack Narcissus
C rowd, The
D odsworth
E nfants du Paradis, Les
F allen Idol, The
G randes Manoeuvres, Les
H is Kind of Woman
I mitation of Life (Sirk)
J ezebel
K ey Largo
L etter from an Unknown Woman
M agnificent Ambersons, The
N ight of the Hunter
O ne-Way Passage
P aths of Glory
Q uai des Orfevres
R egle du Jeu, La
S caramouche
T rouble in Paradise
U nfaithfully Yours
V iaggio in Italia*
W oman in the Window, The
X, Divorce of Lady
Y olanda and the Thief

*No gotchas here, please, it's in English.

All righty, the Siren hereby tags:
Stinky Lulu. (Get over there and vote for 1945 for the next Supporting Actress Smackdown because if you've got any sense at all, you are dying, dying I tell you to hear Stinky tackle Eve Arden's greatest performance.)

Jacqueline T. Lynch of Another Old Movie Blog. (And check out her terrific list of "10 Things I Like About Old Movies," which post idea the Siren is so totally stealing, and soon.)

Peter Nelhaus of Coffee, Coffee and More Coffee. (The Siren loves his recent piece on John Barry's Tension. Maybe the Siren will list "drinking coffee" when she steals Jacqueline's post idea later on.)

Goatdog of Goatdogblog (Yoo-hoo, Karen--he's got a wonderful Charles Coburn post up, why not check it out?)

Operator_99 of Allure (Not the sort of thing he usually does--he specializes in lovingly detailed portraits of stars both obscure and beloved--but the Siren wants very much to see what his list would look like.)

If you've already been tagged then just consider yourself double-dog tagged.

(Above: The Siren chose to illustrate Les Grandes Manoeuvres because every blog needs a Gerard Philippe photo somewhere on it. The girl he's checking out is Dany Carrel.)

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Nov. 4, 2008: The Siren's Blue Yodel

Sing it, Ethel.

Here I go again
I hear those trumpets blow again
All aglow again
Taking a chance on love.

Here I slide again
About to take that ride again
Starry eyed again
Taking a chance on love.
I thought that cards were a frame-up
I never would try--
But now I'm taking the game up
And the ace of hearts is high.

Things are mending now
I see a rainbow blending now
We'll have a happy ending now
Taking a chance on love.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Anecdote of the Week: Post-Halloween Horror

This one is a day late, but trust the Siren. You will read nothing (at least, nothing non-political) in the coming week that will make your blood run any colder than the following anecdote. Have a strong drink ready. This is from Kate Buford's fine biography Burt Lancaster: An American Life. It is 1959, and Lancaster is shooting Elmer Gantry with director Richard Brooks.

Six days were budgeted for shooting the spectacular fire climax scene...The exteriors were shot at the back of a skating rink at the end of an old Santa Monica pier, but six days were not nearly enough for what Brooks claimed was Hollywood's first 'mass interior fire scene.' Lancaster got UA to allow him and Brooks to take the extra $200,000 needed from their fees and the scene was then shot in about five weeks using highly flammable old nitrate films from the Columbia vault to spread the conflagration.

Update: From Yojimboen, in comments:

Let me reassure all concerned, the nitrate film used by Brooks was old print material, badly-deteriorated and slated to be destroyed anyway. I’m old enough to have attended a Q & A session with Brooks at the London Film School in March 1964 at which -- after screening Elmer Gantry with the students -- he spoke in great detail of the fire sequence. Technicians laid single strips of 35mm nitrate print across beams, draped in bunting, etc. Brooks explained they experimented with accelerants but none spread flames at the desired speed. He thought of using nitrate film. He emphasized he was hyper-cautious about safety – the low-angle shots of the flames racing across beams and bunting were filmed mostly without actors present. He also stressed, repeat stressed, that he and Lancaster made sure the old nitrate prints were backed up by other prints and negatives. Brooks was nothing if not a movie lover, with a healthy consciousness of cinema history.

Yojimboen is a new commenter (and most welcome!) but the Siren certainly hopes he (or she) is correct. Many thanks for the additional information. The Siren isn't kidding when she says she'll sleep better tonight. Also check out Karen's comment, concerning the AFI documents about Gantry's censorship troubles. (Buford goes into those too.)

The Siren is continually amazed at the depth and breadth of knowledge of the people who are kind enough to stop by her corner of the Internet.