Monday, December 28, 2009

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Jennifer Jones, 1919-2009

It is a recurrent irony of certain film artists' lives that upon their death, no matter what other accomplishments may have been theirs, if they won an Oscar the headline will read "Academy Award Winner Dies." It hurts the Siren to see this headline for Jennifer Jones, because The Song of Bernadette is not a film she ever took to her heart (to put it mildly). Consciously or subconsciously, the movie undermines the whole notion of religious fulfillment because it makes Bernadette's life seem so awful. The Sirens adds, though, that the movie has its admirers; for an eloquent appreciation of Bernadette, please see Marilyn Ferdinand here.

The movie uppermost in the Siren's thoughts isn't the one about the saint, but rather Portrait of Jennie, in which Jones' talent for creating odd and bewitching women reached its apogee. William Dieterle's ghost story was a perfect vehicle for Jones, whose spiritual quality always had a note of restless passion. When you meet her she's attired in her best fur-trimmed coat and muff, appearing among the ice skaters at Central Park as though she sprang complete from one of the glittering snow banks. Jones was a great child impersonator, as she had shown in Bernadette despite that movie's flaws, and yet there is something womanly in the way she makes eye contact with Joseph Cotten. Not sensuality yet, but its promise. It is a strange film, sweepingly romantic in that way that has vanished from American movies, the scenes moving through different tones as Jennie herself moves in and out of worlds. The Siren wasn't surprised to hear, from Dan Callahan, that Luis Bunuel loved Portrait of Jennie. What might Bunuel have done with a chance to direct its star?

An eeriness clings to Jones and every attempt to discuss her. You reach for the same adjectives: febrile, intense, jittery, instinctual. When she arrived in Hollywood she was married to the gifted but self-destructive Robert Walker, with whom she had two sons. In addition to having a bad drinking problem, it was Walker's profound misfortune to have David O. Selznick fall in love with his wife. The question that overhangs Jennifer Jones is whether Selznick's love was ultimately her misfortune, too. He is generally supposed to have slowly smothered her talent, rendering her less natural and more stilted the longer she remained under his influence. (Miriam Bale alludes to this in her excellent piece that accompanied last year's Jennifer Jones retrospective at Lincoln Center.)

This theory isn't so tidy, however. It's true that several of her best movies, including the Lubitsch masterpiece Cluny Brown and Michael Powell's Gone to Earth (which the Siren, alas, has yet to see) were made outside of Selznick's meddling. Cluny Brown shows a flair for comedy that Jones never got a chance to exploit, unless you count Beat the Devil, which the Siren doesn't find very funny. Cluny, we are told repeatedly, doesn't know her place, but of course she does. Her place is with Charles Boyer's Adam Belinski, the intellectual who alone appreciates her. "You must never become a victim of my circumstances, and, if you should ever seem romantic to me, don't hesitate. Just kick me," Cluny tells her true love (who responds, "Yes, let's kick each other"). No one but Jennifer Jones could have shown the right combination of physical enthusiasm and ardent innocence in explaining how to solve blocked-up pipes: "I would bang, bang, bang, all night long."

But Jones is good or excellent in other movies where Selznick either produced or hovered a great deal at the margins. There's Pearl Chavez in Duel in the Sun, of course, a valiant attempt to show carnality unmarked by civilization, with intermittently good scenes from the actress. Jones is a better creature of the body in King Vidor's Ruby Gentry.

But there's also her young girl in Since You Went Away, an underrated portrait of innocence yearning to grow up. The overall film is heavy-handed, it is true, but Jones isn't, and the Siren loves both her bright eagerness at the dance in the hangar, and the farewell scene at the train. She did a fine job with Madame Bovary's dual nature in Minnelli's film, especially in the ballroom scene, where Emma's sexual and class longings become too much for the room, or indeed the film, to contain. And the Siren is fond of Jones in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, even if few others are. This invalid Elizabeth still has a simmering physicality and some common sense; compare Jones' realization of the incestuous nature of her father's interest with the prim horror displayed by Norma Shearer, and see if you don't take the Siren's point. And although it is Laurence Olivier's movie, the Siren admires Jones in Carrie, where she makes the title character more interesting than she was in Dreiser's novel. Olivier admired Jones as well, later in life comparing her to Meryl Streep.

There certainly are films, however, where Selznick's influence can't be described as anything other than unfortunate--certain ludicrous passages in Duel in the Sun; the overcooked, overtinkered A Farewell to Arms; or the producer's butchering of de Sica's Terminal Station, complete with the most shudder-inducing re-titling ever, Indiscretion of an American Wife.

But if Selznick's obsession with Jones was in some ways detrimental to her career (and her mental stability) it didn't do much for Selznick, either, who did better work when still married to the shrewd and decidedly earthbound Irene Mayer. In Irene's autobiography, she tells a revealing story about the aftermath of the Selznicks' breakup. Jones pretended to be Dorothy Paley to get Irene on the phone, then waited outside a theatre for hours to confront the ex-wife. Irene had her driver take them on circle after circle of Central Park as Jones became hysterical, saying David didn't want her, he wanted Irene and his life was ruined unless he could have her back. Jones also tried to throw herself out of the car. "She talked as if I were responsible," Irene said.

Selznick's relationship with Jones is a particulary sad story of Hollywood folie à deux, and Walker's horrible death and the eventual suicide of Selznick's daughter with Jones turns it to tragedy. Jennifer Jones is like Marion Davies, in that we will always wonder what her career would have been without Svengali. And we'll never have a completely satisfying answer to whether Selznick's influence was imposed from without, or whether Jones was drawing it to herself. That ambiguity turns up in all of Jones' screen roles--is she being manipulated, or is she using her "weakness," whether social, mental or sexual, to manipulate?

It is comforting to note that Jones went on, after her own fight against mental illness and all that trauma during and after her years of stardom, to forge some apparent stability and contentment. Sometime around the late 70s-early 80s my father was at the front desk of a hotel (the St. Regis?) when he heard a voice at his elbow that sounded familiar, asking the clerk for something. He turned to see Jennifer Jones, still clearly recognizable after all those years. As Dad gaped the clerk asked her name (ah, how fame fades) and she said, "Mrs. Norton Simon."

A Star Is Born, played for a clueless clerk and an astonished audience of one.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

That Siren Behind the Curtain

Via Lou Lumenick's blog, I can now inform my patient readers that as part of the promotion of the Shadows of Russia series on Turner Classic Movies, there will be a showing of the very rare, very weird Mission to Moscow at the Rose Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Jan. 12 at 7 p.m. After the screening, I will be appearing as part of a panel discussion with Lou, who is the chief New York Post film critic and series co-creator, as well as film writer Ed Hulse and (the Siren can't better Lou's description) "sardonic film expert and Girlfriend Experience star," and Siren pal, Glenn Kenny.

So if you have yearned to see the Siren in person, here's your chance. If Brooklyn is too far a commute you can also just bop over to Lou's place, where a picture of me taken by a Post photographer adorns the announcement. Adorns, hell--the picture is huge. If you look closely you can spot Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint trying to scale down it.

And if that isn't enough, Lou and I will also be making a brief TV appearance on the January edition of TCM's "Now Playing: The Show,'' at 5 a.m. the evening of Dec. 17/morning of Dec. 18. It will be repeated on Dec. 21 (6 a.m.), Dec. 23/24 (5:30 a.m.), Dec. 27/28 (5:30 a.m.), Dec. 29/30 (5 a.m.), Jan. 2/3 (5:15 a.m.) and Jan 4 (2 p.m.)

Tis the Season for Re-Viewing

For the longest time the Siren refused to look up anything about the New York Times' Verlyn Klinkenborg because she preferred her imaginings of the man--essentially, Uncle Henry in Understood Betsy. There's Verlyn is in the parlor of a 200-year-old farmhouse in Vermont, having his niece or nephew read Sir Walter Scott by an oil lamp while he mends some tack (whatever tack is).

Well, Verlyn is actually a rather trim fellow and much younger than Uncle Henry, and his farm is apparently in upstate New York. The Siren is happy to report, however, that his taste in reading material isn't too far from Uncle Henry's. Verlyn's a Dickens man, something which always makes the Siren feel comradeship with a writer. And he loves Eliot, and he likes to re-read his favorites:

Part of the fun of re-reading is that you are no longer bothered by the business of finding out what happens. Re-reading “Middlemarch,” for instance, or even “The Great Gatsby,” I’m able to pay attention to what’s really happening in the language itself — a pleasure surely as great as discovering who marries whom, and who dies and who does not.

The real secret of re-reading is simply this: It is impossible. The characters remain the same, and the words never change, but the reader always does. Pip is always there to be revisited, but you, the reader, are a little like the convict who surprises him in the graveyard — always a stranger.

The Siren was struck, when reading these paragraphs months ago, at how you could easily substitute re-watching movies for re-reading books. The Siren wants to see some of the Oscar bait out this month (Up in the Air) and some of it she does not. (The Road--are you bloody well kidding me? I don't care how good it is, I am not doing cannibals for Christmas. And that goes double for Precious.) Well, the Siren would love to be one of those encyclopedic cinephiles who has seen everything, new and old (howdy, Glenn, Peter, Andrew, David and the whole sidebar gang) but she keeps running into the same secret, shameful vice:

She re-watches movies. A lot.

One of life's great pleasures for the Siren comes when, like a dolled-up old broad hitting the jackpot at the slots, she flips over to Turner Classic Movies and hits a well-loved film. Somehow it's better when it's random, and not the process of careful selection at the DVD shelves. There's a particular thrill to turning on a TV and finding a movie that suits your life or week or mood precisely, like Mr. Blandings coming on last week as the Siren unpacked, or White Heat popping up just when the Siren needed a shot of Cagney. And when you tune in to a scene you adore, it's like running into a well-loved friend on the street.

The holiday season is a good time for re-viewing, as you naturally hunger for familiarity and warmth. So, in the spirit both of confession and renewal, the Siren is naming, strictly in the order in which they pop into her head, 10 films she's seen about 10 times, and a favorite scene (or two or three). Some I've mentioned before, some I haven't, but you aren't going to find surprises on here. This isn't a list made to impress. It's made to make the Siren happy.

1. The Maltese Falcon: Chipping away at lead. "Well sir, what do you suggest? We stand here and shed tears and call each other names, or shall we go to Istanbul?"

2. The Thin Man: Myrna: You asleep?
Bill: Yes!
Myrna: Good... I want to talk to you.

(Not only does the Siren cherish this scene, she's played it.)

3. Citizen Kane: "A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn't think he'd remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl."

4. Rules of the Game: The hunt. Octave and Christine in the greenhouse.

5. Letter from an Unknown Woman: Joan, suddenly come back to life in Jourdan's memory, holding the gate for him once more. The Siren has probably seen this movie only about six times because it kills her but she's listing it anyway.

6. The Band Wagon. All of it, but I particularly love trying to figure out what "Louisiana Hayride" is supposed to be doing in the show within the movie. The most utterly incongruous number in the history of American musicals, if you ask the Siren, and that is some accomplishment.

7. Footlight Parade: My favorite 30s musical. Any scene with Cagney makes me happy.

8. Now, Voyager: Claude Rains. Bonita Granville at her bitchiest. "My mother. My mother! MY MOTHER!"

9. Twentieth Century: "I close the iron door..." (A catchphrase with an old boss of the Siren's.)

10. The Pirate: The "Nina" number. Such perfect Gene Kelly, in so many ways.

Oh, what the heck. It's the season of generosity. Here's 10 more.

11. My Favorite Wife: Cary Grant in the elevator. Irene Dunne laughing over the shoe salesman, with one little hand gesture to indicate the guy's height, and another for Cary.

12. A Night at the Opera: When the orchestra strikes up "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" the Siren falls over, every time.

13. Stagecoach: "Looks like I got the plague, don't it?"

14. Captain Blood: Some of the 1930s' most amazing eye candy, but the Siren's favorite is Basil Rathbone, lounging around that prison. Ah, Basil.

15. Shadow of a Doubt: Joe and Herb, discussing the perfect murder. The most obvious counterpoint in the world ("on the nose," in a popular phrase the Siren can't stand for some reason) but Hitchcock makes it perfect, building on their innocent chatter until you find it as unbearable as Charlie does.

16. Stage Door: Any time Eve Arden or Lucille Ball is on screen. "A pleasant little foursome. I predict a hatchet murder before the night is over."

17. All About Eve: Not mentioned much, because it isn't one of those famous barbs, but Sanders, purring to Barbara Bates: "Tell me, Phoebe, do you want someday to have an award like that of your own?...Then you must ask Miss Harrington how to get one. Miss Harrington knows all about it."

18. Mildred Pierce: "Not too much ice in that drink you're about to make for me."

19. To Be Or Not to Be: The Siren's favorite part of the running gag: "So they call me Concentration Camp Erhardt." "I thought you'd react like that."

20. Singin' in the Rain: Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont is a desert-island performance if ever there was one. "What do they think I am, dumb or something? Why, I make more money than Calvin Coolidge--PUT TOGETHER!"

That's all the Siren will allow herself, but if anyone wants to chime in with a few of their own, that would make her happy too. Consider it a gift.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Life with Zsa Zsa, Or the Importance of Closet Space

Joy oh joy. The Siren has found her copy of George Sanders' Memoirs of a Professional Cad. This was purchased some months ago for $95 on Amazon and it was worth every penny. The Siren let out a whoop of joy when she uncovered it in a box otherwise devoted to shoes and small trinkets.

So, to celebrate the Siren's sloughing off of Verizon and return to the land of high-speed Internet connections, here is dear George on the household organization involved in being married to Zsa Zsa. It sounds rather like perpetual unpacking.

During the five years I was married to Zsa Zsa Gabor, I lived in her sumptuous Bel-Air mansion as a sort of paying guest. My presence in the house was regarded by Zsa Zsa's press photographers, dressmakers, the household staff, and sundry visitors and friends with tolerant amusement.

I was allotted a small room in which I was permitted to keep my personal effects until such time as more space was needed to store her ever-mounting stacks of press clippings and photgraphs.

I was accustomed to austerity and it was no great sacrficie for me to dispose from time to time of some of my belongings so as to empty drawers in my room and make them avaiable for the more vital function of housing Zsa Zsa's memorabilia...

It was a kaleidescopic life and there were large areas of fun in it, yet there came a time when I felt I simply had to get away. Providence came to my assistance in the form of an offer from the great Italian director Roberto Rossellini...

I sought out Zsa Zsa to inform her of my decision. I found her under the hair dryer going over the guest list for her next party. I managed to attract her attention by waving my passport in front of her and conveyed my intention of leaving for Italy in sign language--the noise of the hair dryer precluding conversation. She regarded me indulgently for a moment and then with a sunny social smile returned to the sober scrutiny of her guest list.

Some amusingly chosen shots of the happy couple at Cinema Styles.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Great Garrick (1937) and It's Love I'm After (1937)

Greetings, patient readers. The saga of the Siren's Internet access would not make a good movie, unless you consider it compelling cinema to watch a woman screaming at a voice-recognition system because it doesn't recognize her voice. Today the Siren called and explained to a puzzled but pleasant Time Warner representative that she was very, very sorry she had said all those mean things about Time Warner because, bad as Time Warner is, Verizon is much worse. Anyway. Only intermittent access for the next week. The Siren will be strolling through occasionally, she hopes. At least the new abode is nice. Meanwhile, the Siren doesn't want to leave her blog dark over the Thanksgiving weekend. So she is offering a post that is more on-the-fly than usual. The film books are still packed away, due to the sad fact that when you have a family to feed, finding the frying pan is of somewhat more practical urgency than locating your lost copy of Memoirs of a Professional Cad. (I miss that one in particular.) Nor do I have any idea where A Proper Job is located--we had excellent, careful movers but labeling wasn't their strong suit. My favorite so far was the box inscribed "Electronics" that contained most of my vintage handbag collection. Poor Brian Aherne may be lurking right next to the frying pan, for all I know. And that is a pity, because I would have liked to re-read what he had to say about The Great Garrick from 1937, one of the Warner Brothers Archive DVDs I bought a while back. David Ehrenstein is a great fan of this James Whale film, and the Siren shares his high opinion. The Siren does recall that Aherne described how the part was created for him by Ernest Vajda, who pitched the idea to Aherne in the actor's living room one night. Vajda then pitched it to Mervyn Le Roy, with even more embellishments (and, one presumes, cocktails). Aherne claims that by the time the screenwriter got around to writing, as opposed to narrating, the story was changed and wasn't as good. It was also a box-office dud. Well, perhaps Aherne's recollection was enhanced by the drinks he knocked back with Vajda, because the film is delicious, a great farcical fantasia about actors and role-playing in which, as Jonathan Rosenbaum puts it, "the art and pleasure of acting" is " countless varieties of ham." (Elsewhere he compares it, with good reason, to The Golden Coach.) It is by far the best Aherne performance the Siren has seen. He gives you Garrick's magnetism alongside his occasional bouts of stage fright, but he also shows that neither mode is entirely free from performance. With the rest of the delightful supporting players, including Olivia de Havilland, Edward Everett Horton and Melville Cooper, Aherne makes you think artificiality is a better form of reality, if it comes with such gusto and commitment to the part. Plus, the movie is gorgeous to look upon, with that otherworldly shimmer that Whale always gave his productions. The Siren was particularly enamored with the way Whale staged people within the frame. He had a massive cast to deal with, and they're all up to something whether they are center stage or off to one side, yet you always have a sense of where everyone is. And Whale had a great way with period interiors, shooting them like living spaces, not sets. Which raises the question, what does it mean to have fully inhabited 18th-century sets in a film about theatricality? The Siren's WB Archive double-feature was It's Love I'm After, also from 1937, which paired so well with The Great Garrick that she would love to recreate the bill some time. It's Love I'm After isn't as beautiful or layered as The Great Garrick, but the Siren enjoyed it mightily all the same. It contains one of the few really good comic performances of Bette Davis. Now before you fire up the torches, do understand that Siren yields to no man or woman in her love for Bette. But, for all that Davis could deliver a choice witticism with matchless style in her dramas, in full-out farce she often smothered the laughs. (Exhibit A: The Bride Came C.O.D.) Here she has a funny script and an able co-star in Leslie Howard, and most of her scenes are hilarious. Ah, poor Leslie Howard. Tied forever to Ashley Wilkes, a part he hated right down to his costumes. ("I look like a fairy doorman at the Beverly Wilshire," he groused, "a fine thing at my age.") The Siren has seen Gone with the Wind at least a dozen times, and she says with utter confidence that it isn't the least bit typical of his talents. Unlike Davis, his strength was comedy. Howard was the definitive Henry Higgins. (Do you hear that, Rex Harrison, you old scene-stealing so-and-so, from your perch in the afterlife?) Howard excelled in the foppish sections of The Scarlet Pimpernel, was witty and bright in The Animal Kingdom. Here, as ham actor Basil Underwood, Howard moves through many performance modes, trying on various roles. Like Aherne, he leaves us to question which scenes are Basil "on," and which are off. His line deliveries are a treasure. The Siren's favorite is, of course, "Who's Clark Gable?" which may be the most truthful moment Basil has in the picture. Lack of clairvoyance is a blessing, isn't it? Yet another common feature of the films is Olivia de Havilland. Swaddled in furs and panniers in The Great Garrick, here Olivia comes down a staircase in a silk pajama thing that is as revealing as 1937 ever got. Her character, as in the Whale film, is the least clued-in of the bunch, playing for real while everyone else tries on roles. It's the most ingenuous of ingenue roles, but de Havilland manages to be funny and engaging. And so, with an appreciative nod for the lady on her banner, the Siren wraps this up and wishes her patient readers the very happiest of Thanksgivings. She is very thankful that they continue to stop by, come light posting or even lighter posting, come Verizon or Time Warner. And that, my friends, is no line.

Friday, November 20, 2009

"It may only be four walls and a couple of nail kegs, but it will always be home to me."

Muriel Blandings: I refuse to endanger the lives of my children in a house with less than four bathrooms.
Jim: For 1,300 dollars they can live in a house with three bathrooms and ROUGH IT.

The Siren is changing lodgings this weekend and thus will be offline until la famille Campaspe gets its house in order and its modem modem-ing--Wednesday, say. Meanwhile, consider this an open thread, the first in Self-Styled Siren history. Play nice and have fun.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Bicycle Thief (1948)

A movie blogger urging readers to go see The Bicycle Thief on a big screen is like a book reviewer urging people to check out this Faulkner fellow. But so perfect was the Siren's experience of this masterpiece, which is playing in a remastered version at Lincoln Plaza through Nov. 20, that she would feel churlish if she didn't urge her New York readers to go. The Siren had not seen Vittorio de Sica's masterpiece since the days when she could be found most weekends searching for a seat with no spring damage at Theatre 80 St Marks. Even in the rear-projection, odd-angle St Marks venue the Siren loved The Bicycle Thief. But oh, the bliss of seeing it again in a movie theatre, even with an imperfect print.

I could take in Lamberto Maggiorani's shoulder blades poking into his thin jacket, the way Enzo Staiola's mini-grownup face crumples back into heartbroken toddlerhood at a blow from his frustrated father, feel again the incredible release in the beautiful shot of the boy at the top of a staircase, just as we begin to share Maggiorani's fear that he has drowned.

The Bicycle Thief is much concerned with the burdens of family, piled onto viewers with scenes such as Maggiorani's infant on a bed, its exposed legs miserably thin. Just the sight of the baby alone would underline the man's desperation.

But the movie is also about the consolations of family, as a son's hand becomes the sole barrier to complete despair.

You could do much worse with your weekend. Just go see it again, all right?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Letty Lynton: Pounce.

Via Lou Lumenick: If you move quickly, you can see the legendarily unavailable Letty Lynton at Youtube. The Siren agrees with Lou on all points. A must for Pre-Code and Joan fans. The Siren and Operator 99 of Allure both watched last night and the movie is quite beautiful, even in this format. Clarence Brown had a very graceful sense of framing, the staging of the climax is unforgettable and there are some breathtaking overhead shots. Plus, Joan at her most beautiful, and if you don't believe me, please also check this set of stills at The Best of Everything: The Joan Crawford Encyclopedia.

Update: It's still there, but you have to look hard and act fast.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Anecdote of the Week: An Admirable Vocabulary

She regarded Gable as lazy, not too bright, and an unresponsive performer (though she was always laudatory about his kindness and good manners to her). She could not understand how he could leave the set promptly each day at six p.m. as though he held an office job. She seldom left the studio until eight or nine at night and worked six, often seven days a week. "What are you fucking about for?" she would complain to Gable and Fleming when Gable took time out to rest. Gable admired his leading lady's vocabulary, as did Fleming, but otherwise he was a bit put off by her intellect and her dedication to work. Nonetheless he took it upon himself to teach her the game of backgammon. She proceeded to beat him each time they played.

--from Vivien Leigh by Anne Edwards

The Siren was interviewed by Lou Lumenick for an article in Sunday's New York Post, about the 70th Anniversary Blu-Ray Edition of Sex Kittens Go to College. No? You say you don't remember Clark Gable's smokin' rendition of "I Got a Gal, Miss Mamie Is Her Name"?

Oh all right, I'll stop now. Here's the link to interviews goddess Eva Marie Saint. At length. About movies and acting--not gossip. Drop everything for this one.

Glenn Kenny continues his series on Manny Farber's Top Ten Films of 1951 with The Thing from Another World.

Sheila O'Malley, never a woman to shirk a challenge, goes after The Birth of a Nation.

T. Sutpen at If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger posts a series of World War II Red Army photographs. Posed or not, some of them are extraordinary.

Peter Nelhaus on 5 Against the House, part of the Film Noir boxed set from Sony that everyone, in diabolical concert, is trying to force the Siren to buy. And check out Peter's nifty bit of screen-grab detective work.

Finally, David Cairns' epic post on the very, very great Vertigo, complete with beautiful screen caps, clips and a fine discussion in comments.

Update: As promised in comments, Sam Wood shoots Belle's bosom, but it's a Breen Office bust:

The scene became something of a jinx, requiring multiple tries, like the opening scene with the Tarleton boys (Selznick sent out several memos reminding everybody that they weren't the Tarleton twins, as in the novel). One of those failures came when the boys' hair photographed bright orange, like a couple of Heat Misers went courtin' Miss Scarlett. Unfortunately I don't have a shot of that one.

Finally, jokes aside, Anagramsci is promising a King Vidor series, which gladdens the Siren's heart.

Hat tip for new banner: Mrs. Thalberg.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Shadows of Russia: TCM, Lou Lumenick and the Siren

Today the Siren fulfilled the dearest dream of many a classic-film buff: Thanks to Jack Warner, New York Post film critic Lou Lumenick, and the wonders of email, she helped program a film series at Turner Classic Movies. Here's the TCM press release.

This January (the Siren's birthday month, and what a present it will be), TCM is screening a month-long film series, Shadows of Russia. The selections focusing on the many views of Russia and communism to be found in American movies. Some films are masterpieces that the Siren and her readers know almost by heart (Ninotchka, The Manchurian Candidate, The Scarlet Empress), others the Siren loved on viewing but needs to get re-acquainted with (Reds, The Way We Were), still others are oddities deserving of a more focused look (Rasputin and the Empress, Red Danube, Conspirator, Comrade X). And there are some rare films being shown, including Leo McCarey's film maudit My Son John, with poor doomed Robert Walker in the lead; The North Star, of which I am told TCM has located a good print that should show off James Wong Howe's cinematography; and I Was a Communist for the FBI.

And all this goes back to Mission to Moscow, and therefore, in a roundabout way, to good old Jack Warner.

Here's how it went down. Lou Lumenick, who in addition to his movie-reviewing duties at the Post is a formidable student of film history, posted an alert in February that Mission to Moscow, the bizarre 1943 Warner Brothers paean to Stalin's Russia, was showing on TCM on a Sunday morning. (His original post is gone, but you can read his thoughts on the DVD here.) The Siren watched, posted her thoughts and discussed the movie with Lou via email.

We agreed it was a shame that Mission to Moscow, which TCM seldom shows, hadn't had a prime-time airing where it could get a thorough intro, because if ever a movie needed a detailed intro with background and context, it's Mission to Moscow. That led to a discussion of American movie depictions of Russia and communists over the years. These movies ran a surprisingly large gamut and their bent tended to coincide with U.S. politics and viewpoints more than with Russian history and realities.

Many of these films have languished, unshown and nearly undiscussed. Wouldn't it be great, we e-dreamed, if we could get TCM to show some of them. Better yet, suggested Lou--a whole month of them. Lou decided to contact the TCM programmers. The rest of the story can be found at his place.

And yes, that's my real name there on the release and at Lou's place, Farran Nehme. Pleased to meet you. I figured it was as good a time as any to come out. If my name is going to be mentioned at the TCM sites I want it to be my real moniker and not some mistress of Alexander the Great's.

So here is the list of films and times for January. The Siren hasn't seen all of these herself, as some have been scarce indeed. The schedule is the result of months of lists and suggestions going back and forth between Lou and me, and the skill of the expert programmers at TCM. The Siren has a widely varying group of readers and she thinks there is something for almost everyone here, whether you are left or right, auteurist or anti-auteurist, Warner Brothers or MGM. She hopes you will all be around in January to discuss the films with her.

Wednesday, Jan. 6

Part One: Twilight of the Tsars

8 p.m. The Scarlet Empress (1934) – starring Marlene Dietrich and John Lodge.
10 p.m. Rasputin and the Empress (1932) – starring John, Ethel and Lionel Barrymore.

Part Two: Red Romance
12:15 a.m. Red Danube (1949) – starring Walter Pidgeon and Ethel Barrymore.
2:30 a.m. Reds (1981) – starring Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson and Maureen Stapleton.

Wednesday, Jan. 13

Part Three: The Lighter Side of the Revolution

8 p.m. Comrade X (1940) – starring Clark Gable and Hedy Lamarr.
10 p.m. Ninotchka (1939) – starring Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas.

Part Four: The Left on Campus
Midnight The Way We Were (1973) – starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford.
2:15 a.m. Spring Madness (1938) – starring Maureen O’Sullivan, Lew Ayres, Ruth Hussey and Burgess Meredith.

Overnight Feature
3:30 a.m. The Strawberry Statement (1970) – starring Bruce Davison, Kim Darby and Bob Balaban.

Wednesday, Jan. 20

Part Five: Our Red Army Pals
8 p.m. The North Star (1943) – starring Anne Baxter, Dana Andrews and Walter Huston.
10 p.m. Mission to Moscow (1943) –starring Walter Huston, Ann Harding and Oscar Homolka.

Part Six: Diplomatic Immunity
12:15 a.m. The Kremlin Letter (1970) – starring Bibi Andersson, Richard Boone, Max von Sydow and Orson Welles.
2:15 a.m. Conspirator (1949) – starring Robert Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor.

Overnight Feature
4 a.m. Counter-Attack (1945) – starring Paul Muni and Marguerite Chapman.

Wednesday, Jan. 27
Part Seven: Spies Among Us
8 p.m. My Son John (1952) – starring Helen Hayes, Robert Walker and Dean Jagger. John McElwee's excellent rundown on this seldom-shown film can be found here.
10:15 p.m. I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951) – starring Frank Lovejoy and Dorothy Hart.

Part Eight: The Height of the Cold War
Midnight The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury.
2:15 a.m. The Bedford Incident (1965) – starring Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier.

Overnight Features
4:15 a.m. Scarlet Dawn (1932) – starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Nancy Carroll.
5:15 a.m. The Doughgirls (1944) – starring Jane Wyman, Ann Sheridan, Alexis Smith and Eve Arden.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Rising Above the Times

Manohla Dargis is a good writer and a fine critic. The Siren wants to get that out front where it belongs. That is why the Siren was disturbed to open her New York Times this morning and read this passage in Ms. Dargis's review of Amelia:

Romance is in the air in “Amelia,” or at least in the score, which works hard to inject some emotional coloring into the proceedings. The music screams (sobs) 1940s big-screen melodramatic excess and beautiful suffering.

Alas, excesses of any pleasurable kind are absent from this exasperatingly dull production.

The Siren hasn't seen Amelia so she has no Pomeranian in that fight. Her beef is the same she expressed somewhat less forcefully here. It distresses the Siren no end to see a comparison to 1940s melodrama used as a perjorative, even when those films are faintly praised in the next sentence as pleasurably excessive.

Please, Ms. Dargis, please. Each time you do that from your perch atop 8th Avenue, you contribute to most people's notion that old black-and-white movies are fusty relics, enjoyable mostly as camp. Your excellent prose style no doubt has many other equivalents for "cheap sentiment." The Siren asks you, politely but as firmly as she knows how, to cease and desist.

This is the second offense; the Siren devoutly hopes there will not be a third. Otherwise, like Peter Lawford in Cluny Brown, "I won't relax. I'm going to write another letter to the Times."

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Man I Love (1947)

Since the Siren recently dissed another Ida Lupino movie in a big way, it is only fair that she make amends and write up the lovable, unclassifiable The Man I Love. The Siren has no idea what Warner Brothers, via the great Raoul Walsh, was trying to make here--it's noir, it's a musical, it's a women's picture and a romantic melodrama, with bits of The Best Years of Our Lives and Casablanca. Given this all-over-everywhere genre mashup, the Siren was agog at Walsh's superb control of tone. Not once does the movie stall while the gears shift. You hand yourself over to the master and get lost in the characters, particularly Lupino's Petey, a woman the Siren instantly took to heart.

Petey, as she's called without explanation, has just had a romance go bust. Fed up with New York, she leaves for the West Coast to celebrate Christmas with her siblings, her parents being long dead. The folks in Long Beach all have their own problems, however, so Petey's attempt to recharge just throws her in another tar pit. Next we meet her sister, Sally (Andrea King), working at a diner and fending off nightclub owner Nick (Robert Alda, sleazily handsome and quite good). Soon Petey is performing at Nick's club and gets involved with him herself, until she meets up with a morose but gifted piano player, San, and falls in love with him. Meanwhile Petey has to sort out not only her own family, but even the troubled couple across the hall.

Despite a fine cast overall, in terms of acting it's Lupino's picture. Petey may seem like a tough one, but she's too much the caretaker for true toughness, and falling for an unattainable artist isn't usually the hallmark of a true me-first broad. Her toughness is mostly mental clarity. Petey sees things the way they are, doesn't lie to anyone about it and most importantly doesn't lie to herself. This is a dame who would never, but never cheat at solitaire.

Petey's common sense adds to her isolation; no one else in this movie has a clue. Nick thinks he can get Petey. San loves the wife who dumped him. Sally can't figure out what's going on with her shell-shocked, hospitalized husband (Jon Ridgely). Petey's brother Joey (Warren Douglas) thinks he's a tough guy. Their other sister, Ginny (Martha Vickers), loves her married neighbor Johnny (Don McGuire). Johnny thinks his trampy wife Gloria (Dolores Moran) is a nice girl, and Gloria thinks she's going to be Peggy Hopkins Joyce if only she can get somebody to babysit long enough. (Gloria and Johnny have twin boys and since she has twins herself, the Siren was paralyzed with amusement over the movie's breezy attitude toward double-baby duty--Sally and Ginny volunteer for baby-watching practically every day, but alas, sane people in the real world do not.) Petey keeps a gimlet eye on all this, dispensing advice and cleaning up when the advice isn't taken. The Siren's favorite line in the picture comes when Petey wonders why Sally bothers covering for Gloria: "She wouldn't give you the time of day if she had two watches." But Petey is never cruel, and she's generous; she will give you the hat right off her head, even if it matches her jacket.

Over at Glenn Kenny's place there was recently a brief reference to the concept of "invisible editing;" The Man I Love has it, but it also has beautifully subtle and unobtrusive direction. Walsh could do a virtuoso battle scene, but he could make faces equally thrilling. Much of the movie consists of people talking to each other, and Walsh shoots these scenes with depth and intimacy, trusting his actors and the snappy dialogue to hold the audience. In scenes with multiple actors--clubs, a diner, Sally's apartment with its foot traffic to rival Penn Station--the Siren was lost in admiring how Walsh could foreground the people talking so that you don't miss them, and yet draw your attention to something in the background, often with the slightest of camera movements or no movement at all. Walsh can do it all just with a choice of angle. When he shoots Sally visiting her traumatized husband in the hospital, Walsh never once pulls back to show the guy's whole room; instead we stay tightly perched on or near the edge of his bed, conveying the man's isolation and narrowed focus. The director will stay in a medium shot and let you savor the bits of business that signal the characters--Gloria popping out of her apartment to admire a Christmas tree with a cigarette in one hand and a half-empty baby bottle in the other, or Joey, the ne'er-do-well younger brother, showing up moments later with a nattily folded pocket hanky and a bowtie he wants fixed, swinging his hat and not caring one bit he's about to bail on the family on Christmas Eve.

A while back, during the discussion of The Verdict, we talked a bit about musical numbers in non-musical films. Now the Siren confesses she loves the surreal way a song or dance can pop up in a studio film, while everyone claps and smiles and the plot goes off into a corner to smoke a cigarette and bide its time. (James Wolcott recently drew the Siren's attention to a superb example of this, from The Fastest Gun Alive.) Walsh manages here to have it both ways; the songs in The Man I Love are diegetic, but they always advance the story and theme.

The director shows great respect for the musicians and singers that populate these scenes. The Man I Love opens with two drunks trying to get into a club, lured by the music they can hear inside. No dice, the musicians inside are playing for their own pleasure, a nice setup for a picture that savors its characters' love of music. The camera goes from musician to musician, but it isn't just a tease while we wait for the star to show up; the men are talented, they're a pleasure to hear and one by one, each gets a beautiful shot. You hear Lupino singing the title song before the camera even finds her (she's dubbed, but the voice sounds like what the real Lupino sounds like, only better). And when the camera finally lights on her, you see Petey's regard for the musicians and how it's reciprocated just in the way Lupino, while she's singing, leans over the piano to light the player's cigarette with the tip of her own.

Even Sally tenderly listening to "Silent Night" on the radio--and Gloria flinging her fox fur around and whining that she wants some dance music--connects the ability to respond to music with the ability to feel. Nick, the ruthless nightclub owner, spends his life around music and recognizes what is good, but his only thought is to put a price tag on it. Petey and Nick go into a bar on the beach and listens to a great band playing "If I Could Be With You." The venal Nick starts scheming about how to hire away the band, while Petey ignores him to connect with the song.

The Siren knew Bruce Bennett, who plays San, mostly from Mildred Pierce and his small but pivotal part in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. He didn't have a lot of charisma but he had great melancholy appeal, wearing his depression like a well-broken-in fedora. This former Olympian was as tall as Gary Cooper, he sounded like Cooper but he doesn't much look like Cooper unless you scoot way back from the screen, squint and imagine that somebody just beat the shit out of him. In the hands of a different director and star it might be hard to sell Petey's fascination with this big lug, even though Lupino acknowledges the problem by calling him "you big lug" at one point, but sell it they do. Walsh gives Bennett a long moment at the piano, playing the title song, and keeps the camera focused on Lupino's face, so the erotic fascination she has for Gershwin seems naturally to spill over to the man playing the piece so well. Walsh's camera lingers over the couple and dares you to think that the music, and their deep emotional stake in it, is anything other than the very foundation of the film.

More on The Man I Love at Film Noir of the Week.

Dan Callahan's Bright Lights Film Journal article on Ida Lupino here.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Anecdote of the Week: Joan and the One Man

Every woman tells me there was only the One Man she ever really loved. Joan Crawford told me once that the only man she really loved was the rather dull, middle-aged vice-president of a soda-pop company and when I reminded her she'd said this to me about Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Clark Gable and Greg Bautzer she looked incredulous. Then she said quite simply, "There is always only one though, isn't there?" And told me. It wasn't the vice-president.

--Adela Rogers St. Johns, The Honeycomb

Blogger Larry Aydlette, aka That Little Round-Headed Boy, whom the Siren loves despite his refusal to archive his wonderful blogs, posts a good guess as to Joan's One Man.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Devotion (1946)

Ever see a movie that was bad, that announced itself as bad from the opening moments and never really got any better, and yet you could not bring yourself to miss a single moment? Such was the Siren's reaction to Devotion, the Brontë Old Dark Moors fantasia that TCM showed last week on a double bill with Wyler's Wuthering Heights. Devotion is a survey course in everything that ever goes wrong with Hollywood biopics.

Inscrutable casting? Check. The very American Arthur Kennedy as Branwell Brontë, the worldly, wised-up Ida Lupino as reclusive Emily, the beautiful man-magnet Olivia de Havilland as plain, yearning Charlotte, the extremely Continental Paul Henreid as the Reverend Arthur Nicholls.

Appalling liberties taken with the facts? Check. Emily conceives a hopeless passion for Nicholls and spends the rest of the movie mooning over him, in a perfect example of Hollywood's prosaic approach to the interior lives of artists. Never mind Emily Dickinson or Robert Herrick--fiercely sensual writing must have its origin not in the imagination, but rather in some sort of literal love affair. For years some people would try to prove that Branwell wrote Wuthering Heights, due mostly to the immensely irritating notion that a woman living a circumscribed life couldn't conceive of such tormented, passionate lovers. Devotion's screenwriters at least attribute the novel to the right author, but attach an "explanation" for Heathcliff and Cathy that is almost as insulting to Emily.

De Havilland, an exquisite beauty who seems to have bowled over male directors and costars like so many ninepins, had the odd fate of frequently playing the plain (Gone With the Wind), the spinsterish (To Each His Own, Hold Back the Dawn) or both (The Heiress). Her talent could usually make you believe in the character, if not her lack of looks, but here she's obviously having a lousy time. (You can read about this movie's checkered production history, and its connection with de Havilland's famous contract-busting suit, here at TCM.) She's third-billed and it shows, but the Siren cannot blame de Havilland. The character of Charlotte as written and conceived is a simpering, self-centered blight, a "ninnyhammer" as the Siren's beloved Georgette Heyer would have put it. That Henreid is anywhere close to believable when he falls for her demonstrates his gift for conveying men who make lousy romantic choices, something his characters do in almost every film.

Inconvenient details summarily dispensed with? Check. Anne Brontë, a talented writer, is a cipher here and if it weren't for a throwaway line toward the end of the movie you'd never realize she could hold a pen, let alone write The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. There is barely a hint of the Brontës' poverty and isolation, as they all attend a ball at one point in drop-dead gowns that probably cost some Warner Brothers seamstress several weeks of her life and a good deal of her eyesight.

So why did the Siren enjoy herself? Well, after a while she watches some movies the same way she tunes into a particularly unhinged political commentator--the waves of crazy just wash her out into the sea of batshit and she starts to have a great time. Favorite moments include Henreid blandly explaining away his Austrian accent by saying he had spent a lot of time on the Continent, as though one could send Wallace Beery over there and he'd come back sounding like S.Z. Sakall. Emily bounds around the moors with an enormous sheepdog whose magnificent coat flaps in the breeze like he's doing an Alpo commercial. She takes Nicholls on a walk, points up a hill to a perfect Old Dark House and remarks helpfully, "I call it Wuthering Heights!" The rest of the time she pulls Branwell out of gutters and tells Charlotte to think of someone else for a change. The complicated, cerebral professor who became the object of Charlotte's affections turns into Victor Francen, tilting his head at everybody and doing a nonlethal version of his bad guy from San Antonio. Tuberculosis manifests itself as a couple of concertgoer coughs before you go out in a rainstorm to pull Branwell out of gutter No. 3 (or was it 4?) and catch your death.

But some things are genuinely good. Curtis Bernhardt keeps things moving and manages some nicely angled shots, such as the black-clad horseman who shows up in Emily's dreams from time to time. You don't know what he's doing there--she wrote Wuthering Heights, not "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"--but he looks great. Erich Korngold's score is omnipresent, underlining each beat in that vintage studio way (here comes the love theme! here's the "Branwell is drunk again" music!) but it's gorgeous to the ears, as Korngold always was. Arthur Kennedy sounds like he always does (did Branwell spend a lot of time in Massachusetts?) but he does a hell of a job as an alcoholic wastrel, turning Branwell into an intriguing dry run for his equally drunken and indolent pseudo-intellectual in A Summer Place.

And then there's Sydney Greenstreet, and oh how the Siren loves him in anything. Greenstreet shows up as William Makepeace Thackeray about 3/4 into the movie but he is worth the wait and then some. As the great satirist, Greenstreet looks so right and he sounds so right that it doesn't matter that Signor Ferrari somehow landed in London and started squiring around lady novelists. And Greenstreet gets the best dialogue, complete with hat-tip. "Good morning, Mr. Thackeray." "Good morning, Mr. Dickens," replies Greenstreet, as the other gentleman takes his frock coat and fright beard into the publishing house.

But finally, the real reason to watch Devotion is the extraordinary cinematography by Ernest Haller, who lensed Gone with the Wind, Jezebel, The Roaring Twenties and many others. It's simply gorgeous, the interiors of this fantasy Haworth flickering with shadows and suggestiveness. The look of the picture suggests more Brontë than all the sisters' flutterings together.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Ten Melos the Siren Would Watch Instead of "Mad Men"

If sticking it out for two-and-a-half episodes of Season 1 and one episode this season can be called trying, the Siren has tried with "Mad Men". She sees the attraction, even if the hype blows her mind--everything from Banana Republic to Barron's, for heaven's sake. The Siren admires the cinematic qualities of the series, the fluid camerawork, the carefully angled shots, the flawless integration of sets and costumes. It's pretty. The actors are pretty. The period detail is enough to warm an old-movie hound's heart. But on the whole, the Siren just doesn't dig it.

Despite the stratospheric sex appeal of Jon Hamm, January Jones and Christina Hendricks, the show is just so goddamned dour. The Siren suspects series creator Matthew Weiner wanted to avoid the nostalgia trap, but this is too far in the other direction. A little soupçon of affection for the past will not turn Mr. Weiner's dead-serious critique into "The Wonder Years Meets Ad Age." The Siren has seen movies from the era, and in those movies, people have a good time--every now and then, you understand, between bouts of weltschmerz. As James Wolcott wrote in Vanity Fair, "Mad Men" "has a seductive look, a compelling mood, a cast that could have been carved from a giant bar of Ivory soap, but zero grasp of the elastic optimism and vigor of the Kennedy years, the let-go spring of release after the constriction of the Eisenhower 50s."

Everyone on "Mad Men" goes around smoking and drinking and eating whatever they hell they want and having office affairs without once looking over their lovers' shoulders for process servers bearing class-action subpoenas, but does anyone enjoy it? Not from what the Siren has seen. It's like Saint Augustine wrote the scripts. Such laughs as "Mad Men" affords are tethered to hindsight--"We never indulge in such sexism/racism/anti-Semitism/homophobia now, and even if we do, we sure don't smoke."

Still, the Siren will probably watch more this season--between Wolcott's liveblogging and Lance's occasional commentaries, she doesn't want to be the clueless playground oddball. But in her heart, she'd rather watch a melodrama from the actual late Eisenhower-early Kennedy era. Good or bad, there's plenty to choose from.

So that's my justification for posting these brief takes on ten films actually made during the "Mad Men" period--dramas, because "Mad Men" is not, god knows, a comedy or a musical. These movies vary widely in terms of quality and critical repute, from bona fide masterpieces to simple soapers. But the Siren likes them all, as she likes a lot of the melodramas from this period. Many directors were exploring widescreen technique to admirable effect, and it was a great era for clothes and interiors. And when you watch the movies, you realize that people were far more aware of what was under society's facade than many suppose. (Two of the movies date to 1959--if Don Draper can fade out to Bob Dylan in 1960 then the Siren can cheat back a single year, she figures.)

Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959)
Social Issue: Racism.
Sets and Costumes: Perfection.
Sex appeal (Low/Medium/High): Beside the point. But John Gavin was in the full flower of his lockjaw handsomeness and Susan Kohner and Sandra Dee were lovely.
Why the Siren Likes It: It's a masterpiece, that's why, one that belongs on any list of the great films of the 1950s. A master class in how to make a movie about misguided, surface-focused people trapped by a hypocritical society, without condescending to or withholding compassion from them. The proof is that 50 years after its release, the thwarted mother-daughter love still reduces many to tears. The Siren bristles when she hears this described as camp. There isn't a single unintentional effect in it. The falseness and glitter are there to throw race, this country's original sin, into high relief. But Sirk doesn't invite the audience to feel superior. He wants recognition, AND he wants identification. In the superb opening scene on the beach, when Lana Turner reacts with gooey middle-class "understanding" to Juanita Moore's having a white-skinned daughter, Sirk didn't want the white liberals in the audience to say, "What a hypocrite." He wanted them to say, "Shit, that's me." (The beautiful screen cap is from Ways of Seeing, the Siren's new blog discovery; several others, equally enthralling, right here.)

The Best of Everything (Jean Negulesco, 1959)
Social Issues: Working women and adultery (go together like a horse and carriage in Hollywood movies of all eras), unwed pregnancy, abortion, casting couch, alcoholism.
Sets and Costumes: Great New York exteriors and the ultimate in smart little suits. Best of all, the Mondrian-esque office interiors, which Negulesco, a painter, probably influenced.
Sex appeal: High; Suzy Parker, Stephen Boyd, Louis Jourdan, even Robert Evans looks great.
Why the Siren Likes It: Underrated, influential film whose critical reputation is slowly improving. One of a number of "three [or four] girls" movies from the era, direct ancestors of "Sex and the City." Enjoyable on a number of different levels--as highly informative social artifact, as a proto-feminist tract, as an aesthetic treat, as a showcase for newcomers and old pros. The Siren particularly likes good old Brian Aherne as an ass-pinching executive and Joan Crawford, refusing to play her role as straight office harridan, giving her character both dignity and sensitivity. The beauteous Parker (up top) gets the best line: "Here's to men. Bless their clean-cut faces and their dirty little minds." The best appreciation of this film that the Siren has read is over at Noel Vera's place; he pays great attention to Negulesco's use of Cinemascope.

From the Terrace (Mark Robson, 1960)
Social Issues: Alcoholism, adultery, class snobbery, cutthroat business practices.
Sets and Costumes: High-end all the way. Joanne Woodward doesn't look completely at ease in Travilla, though.
Sex appeal: High. Paul Newman rates an automatic "high" in this category, as does Myrna Loy at any age.
Why the Siren Likes It: A parable about life versus work that everybody calls dated, except "Mad Men" apes the same themes. The Siren wrote a bit about this movie when Newman died; his performance is very good but the direction is noteworthy too, as is the Elmer Bernstein score.

All the Fine Young Cannibals (Michael Anderson, 1960)
Social Issues: Racism, alcoholism, class snobbery, adultery.
Sets and Costumes: Ersatz Southern, then faux bohemian, but extremely well-shot by William H. Daniels.
Sex appeal: Medium, largely because the Siren doesn't get Robert Wagner.
Why the Siren Likes It: Supposedly based on the life of Chet Baker. Jaggedly uneven and no one seems to have a clue about real white Southerners. But deserves to be remembered, if only for Pearl Bailey's haunting performance. For the Siren and those like her, there's also the nifty bit of role reversal for Susan Kohner, the "tragic mulatto" of Sirk's Imitation of Life, in the same movie as the penultimate role for Louise Beavers, of John Stahl's excellent 1934 Imitation of Life. (Poster is from the great Cinema Retro site.)

Return to Peyton Place (Jose Ferrer, 1961)
Social Issues: Working women (don't kid yourself, that's still an issue), rape, incest, adultery, (disguised) abortion, xenophobia.
Sets and Costumes: Meh. The exteriors look great, though.
Sex appeal: High; Eleanor Parker, Tuesday Weld, Carol Lynley, Jeff Chandler if you happen to like Jeff Chandler.
Why the Siren Likes It: Um...hard to say, since by no stretch of the imagination is it a good movie. This one the Siren won't kill you for calling camp. There really isn't anything else you could call it. The first Peyton Place is camp too, but had real value in Franz Waxman's score (heaven), Diane Varsi and the New England ambiance. Return, well, Ferrer was no director, they added lyrics and Rosemary Clooney when Waxman needed neither, and most of the cast looks about as comfortable as a soaking wet cat. But I appreciate Carol Lynley's pursuit of a career over and above a love affair (similar to the reason I liked Valley of the Dolls' fadeout). Mary Astor is great, playing a full-out embodiment of small-minded paranoia and ugliness. And Tuesday Weld manages to have emotional sincerity in some scenes despite playing opposite the stiffest excuse for a Swedish ski instructor you ever saw in your life.

Susan Slade (Delmer Daves, 1961)
Social Issues: Premarital sex, unwed motherhood, the hazards of cigarette smoking.
Sets and Costumes: Beautiful exteriors by master cinematographer Lucien Ballard, and the vaguely Japanese-style house on the Northern California coast, given to Connie Stevens's father by Brian Aherne (there he is again!) is quite an eyeful.
Sex appeal: Medium, though Connie Stevens (above) does her best.
Why the Siren Likes It: Interesting, Sirk-esque late-career movie by the talented Delmer Daves, with several scenes that have lost none of their ability to shock. Dave Kehr: "To an America that needed to believe that 'nice girls don’t,' Daves’s melodramas responded, 'Nice girls do' — or did at least sometimes, when the appropriate distinctions had been made between lust and love, predatory older males and sincere young men, casual encounters and lifetime commitments." Kehr prefers Parrish and Rome Adventure to Susan Slade and the Siren pretty much agrees with him, but Slade is worthwhile and closest to the "Mad Men" school of social history. Peter Nelhaus has a fine review of the movie, in which he compares it to Daves' westerns.

Advise and Consent (Otto Preminger, 1962)
Social Issues: Homophobia, subversion, government corruption.
Sets and Costumes: Stiff, cold and forbidding, perfectly in keeping with the machinations of the plot.
Sex appeal: Low. Gene Tierney is in this but she wasn't looking her best. Perhaps because he was making a movie about politicians, Preminger shot everyone with a GargoyleCam.
Why the Siren Likes It: Another masterpiece, a fisheyed look at the Washington influence game, usually taken as a riff on Alger Hiss but full of other echos as well. The scenes of back-door-dealing and blackmail ring as true as they ever did. Those tempted to tag the young, upright conservative senator's operatic torment over his gay attractions as quaint should think back to Jim McGreevey, Larry Craig and their many brethren--not to mention their wives. Despite the Red Scare trappings (and those are somewhat back in fashion, if you've noticed), Advise and Consent is one hell of a prescient movie. (To see just how prescient, the Siren recommends you check out this article by Meredith Hindley, senior writer at Humanities, on "The Transformation of Advise and Consent.") The above is from Ways of Seeing, whose proprietor clearly has excellent taste; for more screen grabs to show just how good this movie is, please click over and check out the rest.

The Light in the Piazza (Guy Green, 1962)
Social Issues: Mental retardation, class snobbery.
Sets and Costumes: Stunningly beautiful Italian setting (Guy Green was a highly accomplished cinematographer), Christian Dior dresses for Olivia de Havilland.
Sex appeal: High; Yvette Mimieux, George Hamilton and Rossano Brazzi, and de Havilland is much lovelier than the frightening lip color above suggests.
Why the Siren Likes It: Tender romance with a great performance by de Havilland, who carries the movie. Recently turned into an acclaimed musical that the Siren, alas, did not see. She does think the movie's insistence on the primacy of love, both parental and romantic, makes it a good choice for a musical treatment. At a time when the common practice was to shut the mentally retarded away in institutions, the notion that a developmentally delayed girl (albeit a beautiful one) deserved to marry a prince of an Italian and have babies was nothing short of revolutionary.

The V.I.P.s (Anthony Asquith, 1963)
Social Issues: Cutthroat business practices, tax evasion, adultery, domestic violence, depression.
Sets and Costumes: Enough to make you fly to Heathrow and wait to get fogged in--if flying were still like this.
Sex appeal: High. (Elizabeth Taylor at this point in her career does the same for a movie as Paul Newman. Elsa Martinelli was nothing to sneeze at, and neither was Richard Burton or Louis Jourdan.)
Why the Siren Likes It: See Return to Peyton Place. Plenty of lush period visuals, and there are pleasures to be had from Orson Welles even in unworthy roles (this one tinged with painful self-parody). But it's a pretty bad movie, though hardly the offense to all civilization that Walter Chaw paints it, and Elizabeth Taylor is an unconvincing version of Vivien Leigh. (Note to Mr. Chaw: Rod Taylor was a native Australian.) The Siren likes this primarily for Maggie Smith as the devoted secretary. I do love Dame Maggie. Christina Hendricks is good, but she still could learn something from what Smith accomplishes with a cliched role. Smith's scene with Richard Burton is the highlight, the so-so writing propped up with perfectly timed and calibrated reactions and beats.

Love With the Proper Stranger (Robert Mulligan, 1963)
Social Issues: Premarital sex, abortion, unwed motherhood.
Sets and Costumes: Supposedly low-end, but a mite too clean for all that. Steve McQueen made everything he wore look like a well-broken-in motorcycle jacket.
Sex appeal: High. Look at that publicity shot and tell me different.
Why the Siren Likes It: Has comic moments, but at heart a rather melancholy movie about a still-relevant topic, with legendary leads giving warm, authentic performances despite a wan third act. McQueen seldom let his vaunted cool slip to as much effect as here. When "Mad Men" gives a nudge about how far we've come, we should remember Wood planning an abortion, without hysteria. How many recent Hollywood movies or TV shows have let a beautiful, sympathetic lead do the same?

All right, so it's been a while, have at it. Tell me why I'm wrong about "Mad Men." Point out the movies I missed. (The Apartment isn't there and doesn't belong there; it's a comedy, and a satire, and very funny, and "Mad Men" isn't any of those those things.)

But, as always, play nice. The new banner, which MrsHenryWindleVale recognized without a telescope, is courtesy of the great Glenn Kenny. It is of course Dorothy Malone, from another Sirk masterpiece, The Tarnished Angels. Dorothy is meant to illustrate the Siren's general mood for the past month and probably the next.

Postscript: I've added a link to Peter Nelhaus's fine writeup (with lovely screen caps) of Susan Slade. Despite the deliberately provocative title, my main idea in writing this piece was "Hey, these early-1960s films that I love deserve a second look." So if anyone else has a post on some of these, or a similar movie from 1959-1963, post a link in comments by all means and I'll add it here. I'll start by also linking to Peter's post about Strangers When We Meet (b/w Town Without Pity, which also roughly fits our parameters despite the German setting). The Siren forgot about Richard Quine because--well, see banner above. Because of that.

Awesome screen caps from The Best of Everything right here. Apparently my mistake was not Googling "Suzy Parker."

Nathaniel of The Film Experience has been doing a series on movie references in Mad Men; one post involves a Draper household pillow-talk discussion of The Best of Everything that the Siren is sorry she missed. Great for "Mad Men" fans but rewarding for non-watchers too.


Vertigo's Psyche gives some love to Siren darling Sandra Dee and her exquisite performance in A Summer Place.

Arthur S., one of the most astute commenters in the film blogosphere, links us all up to a Douglas Sirk interview that is not to be missed.