Friday, May 22, 2009

Aside: William Wellman on Actors' Psyches

Further to our discussion of Mae Clarke and which was better for an actress--being directed by William Wellman, or poked in the eye with a stick:
As far as the actors are concerned, the stars, I haven't been too fortunate with them. I've made pictures with most of them, but I don't think I'd win any popularity awards. An actor is a peculiar sort of a guy. He's not like you or me. I'm not downgrading them particularly, but they are a different breed. They look in the mirrors all the time. They have to. They have to see what they look like and say lines to themselves. They look at their faces to see which is the best side to be photographed. You know, one of two things has to happen: You've got to fall in love with that guy you're looking at, or you've got to hate the son of a bitch.
(from Mike Steen's Hollywood Speaks.) Above, from left to right, Wellman, Joel McCrea and film editor James B. Clark on the set of 1944's Buffalo Bill. Looks like it was hot that day. More photos of Wellman films and Wellman at work can be found at the indispensable If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger

 Just one more link today but it will keep you very busy indeed. Girish takes on She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and the great John Ford. He shares his own thoughts—he has an especially good take on the recurring motif of, of all things, army reports—and Girish links to an essay roundup at Undercurrent magazine, organized by Chris Fujiwara. There are 18 articles by 18 different writers, so you have plenty of reading here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy

The Siren has nothing but work today, but fret not. Robert Avrech has an excellent post up at Big Hollywood about Mae Clarke, the female half of a breakfast gone very, very wrong.

The Siren's admiration for William Wellman's movies just keeps growing, and so some time back she saw the William Wellman episode from The Men Who Made the Movies. And of course the director discussed Public Enemy's most famous scene. (You can read an interview with Scott Eyman that touches on the same thing here.) Wellman wryly noted that he was embarking on a third marriage, the woman was giving him grief, and the director said he would have loved to cut her off in mid-sentence the same way. But, he added, there was no need, once it was on film. (Wellman also claimed the moment was in the script as Cagney throwing the grapefruit.) Almost eighty years after the picture was made, that grapefruit half smashing into Mae Clarke's face still makes most of us wince.

It was a bitter sort of screen immortality for the talented but star-crossed Clarke, who was wonderful in the original Front Page and Waterloo Bridge, and showed she could have done much more opposite Cagney when she gave a warm, charming performance in his low-budget Great Guy vehicle five years later. Clarke had just divorced Fanny Brice's brother when Public Enemy came out and in his memoirs, Cagney talked about how Monte Brice would go into showing after showing, wait for the grapefruit, "gloat," then leave. Cagney also claimed that the bit of business derived from a gangster in Chicago who shoved an omelette in the face of his girlfriend when her breakfast chitchat began to weary him. The eggs, Cagney says, "would have been a shade too messy," so grapefruit it was.

Clarke's story of the scene is even more disquieting than that of Cagney or Wellman, so do go, read, even if Big Hollywood ordinarily isn't, um, your thing. Robert goes deep into Clarke's truncated career and unhappy life, and it's a splendid tribute to her.

The Siren wonders if Clarke got some small measure of vengeful satisfaction in knowing that for the rest of his life, Cagney seldom went into a restaurant without some joker sending him a plate of grapefruit.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Anecdote of the Week: "Oh God, This Is a Dirty Picture"

The Siren has no particular reason for posting this anecdote, other than the way it consistently cracks her up. It concerns Samuel Goldwyn, whose fate it was to figure prominently in many anecdotes that simply never happened. His occasionally fractured English was irresistible to Hollywood wags, and eventually publicity folks just started making stuff up. This story, however, is from A. Scott Berg's excellent biography of the mogul.
Sexual liberation in the sixties turned the motion picture screen into an orgiastic playground, and most of Hollywood's latest product turned Goldwyn off. His private screening of Blow-Up in 1966 was going just fine until the scene in which David Hemmings cavorts with a couple of young girls. "Oh God," Goldwyn cried out, calling a stop to the screening; "this is a goddamned dirty picture!" Not long after that, Goldwyn complained to Billy Wilder that he had seen an even more disgusting display—Hello, Dolly! Wilder was puzzled—not only because he could not imagine anything scurrilous in that harmless musical but also because Darryl Zanuck had not released it yet. Goldwyn insisted he knew what he saw, and it was one of the filthiest pictures he had ever seen. Wilder asked him to recite the plot. "Sam," he interrupted upon hearing about the drug-taking and sex lives of three aspiring actresses, "I think you're referring to Valley of the Dolls." "That's just what I said," Goldwyn insisted. "Valley of the Hello Dollies."
As the Siren flips to the notes of Berg's books she sees that the source for this bit of utter hilarity is Billy Wilder himself, which may, may mind you make it a teensy bit suspect. Like John McElwee the Siren has never bought the old story of Wilder telling L.B. Mayer—Mayer!—"go fuck yourself" after the first screening of Sunset Boulevard. But it's a great story, isn't it? 

 The Siren will be mostly off-line today but she invites you to catch up with the following, as she has been. Speaking of old dark houses: Six Martinis and the Seventh Art brings you The Bat Whispers. Film in Focus's Behind the Blog interviews fine film writer and all-around good guy Peter Nelhaus, one of the Siren's first friends in the blogosphere. The Siren has been tracking Gareth's Watching Movies in Africa project and finally read his entry on Captain Blood, a feast for any admirer of red-blooded 1930s screen manhood. Gloria uses a splendid photo of Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester as a jumping-off point for...well, go read it, I won't spoil it. And Elsa looks quite pretty. Brian at Bubblegum Aestheticswrites a lengthy and utterly absorbing post on the intertwined, but not-so-parallel lives of two film legends who shared a birthday. Raquelle at Out of the Past is writing up a storm about TCM's Latino Images in Film (did anyone else catch the original And Now Miguel? lovely film), and she endeared herself to the Siren no end by putting in a good word for George Stevens' great widescreen epic Giant. On a related note, last month Allure ran a post full of scans from Latin American movie magazines. Another way to get on the Siren's good side: praise Charlie Chaplin. This also goes back to March, but the Siren has to point out Greenbriar Picture Shows' beautiful elegy for Wallace Reid

 Not classic-era, but kudos anyway: Stinky Lulu issues a defense (albeit somewhat qualified) of Marisa Tomei's unjustly maligned Oscar-winning turn in My Cousin Vinny. Why does everyone complain, year after year, that the Academy snubs comedy, and then pitch a hissy fit when an extremely funny performance wins over actresses doing Important Drama? Yeah, Miranda Richardson was great in Damage. The movie was a mess, and the Siren says this as a longtime Louis Malle lover. The Siren's own pick that year would have been Judy Davis for Husbands and Wives, but all the same, if you fired up Vinny on the DVD player right now, the Siren would happily watch just for the part where Mona Lisa Vito gets out of the car and says, "I bet this place has lousy Chinese food." As an Alabama native, the Siren has to tell you truer words are seldom spoken on screen.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Sign of the Ram (1948)

We all have one--a certain type or genre of movie that catapults us back to youth. You curl up on the couch and refuse to budge till it's over, even if the movie isn't that good, because it pushes all the right buttons and you can't resist. There's a movie out right now that fits this definition for a lot of people.

In some sense the Siren's whole blog is devoted to glued-to-the-couch movies but there's a particular group that always holds her captive. Most people call it The Old Dark House genre even though that term has some horror-movie associations, and the Siren mostly isn't talking about horror movies. Here are the elements the Siren most wants to see:

1. An old dark house. (Acceptable substitutes include old dark hotels, as in So Long at the Fair).
2. Sinister retainers. (Mrs. Danvers remains the gold standard although in Gaslight, Angela Lansbury did a magnificent job proving you could be young and sexy and still retain in a sinister manner.)
3. A heroine whom someone tries to kill at least once before the credits roll.
4. Mysterious doings by either a ghost or a malevolent human. A truly great example might even have both (e.g. The Uninvited).
5. At least one storm during the course of the narrative. There must be howling wind, sheets of rain or snow and either the power must go out or the gaslight or candles must flicker like crazy. (The Spiral Staircase is perfect in this regard.)

Those are the main categories. There are other nonessentials, that nevertheless earn the movie bonus points. They include: a dashing hero trying to help the imperiled heroine, casement windows, cliffs, the sea pounding against a rocky coastline, a good long scene with the heroine running around the house in her dressing gown, and one or more characters rushing outside during the aforementioned storm and getting soaked to the skin.

In addition to the movies named above, others that earn a high score include I Walked with a Zombie, Dragonwyck and the marvelous The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, which manages to fit most elements despite being a noir and not really a mystery/romance. Since an early age the Siren has devoured these movies like a plate of cupcakes, so having a new one is an unusual treat for her. And thanks to TCM, last night that's exactly what the Siren got, with their screening of the hard-to-find The Sign of the Ram.

The Siren has seen Random Harvest (not an Old Dark House entry, but great) at least twice. But she had never heard the sad story of Susan Peters, that movie's ingenue, until she read about it on Robert Avrech's blog some time ago. Peters was a rising star at MGM until a hunting accident left her paralyzed from the waist down. Peters went several years without making a movie, but finally she went to Columbia for this vehicle based on a novel by Margaret Ferguson. The story (which pace Wikipedia, is not a noir) is set in an old house in Cornwall and concerns Leah, who is confined to a wheelchair after an accident. We're told her stepchildren were swimming near an abandoned tin mine and began to drown. Leah swam out and rescued them, but a sudden undertow pulled her back and dashed her against the rocks, breaking her back. Now she wheels herself around the family manse, writing Hallmark-level poetry for women's magazines and impressing everyone with her angel-in-the-house bit, quite like What Katy Did if you ever read that as a child. Except this Katy, instead of figuring out cute holiday celebrations, figures out that her now-grown stepchildren are about to get married and leave her alone in her Old Dark House, and she starts plotting to keep them all there.

The supporting cast is pretty good. Alexander Knox, a few years removed from Zanuck's disastrous Wilson, is almost as sexy as he was in that biopic, but you nonetheless believe in his devotion to Leah. Peggy Ann Garner, just three years on from her fine performance in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and with a considerably filled-out physique, does well with the hardest role, as the youngest stepdaughter who hero-worships Leah to the point that you start to catch some lesbian overtones. One surprise to the Siren was fellow Alabamian Allene Roberts, who annoyed me in The Red House but one year later did much, much better with practically the same part in this movie. Apologies to Allene, who is alive and living in Huntsville. Phyllis Thaxter is also quite creditable in a thankless role as the innocent secretary, ostensibly the heroine but not really around that much. (She's bizarrely named Sherida. I wonder if the novelist explained that? I kept waiting for her to launch into a story about how her mother saw The School for Scandal and went into labor, but no dice.)

The Sign of the Ram is diminished by an abbreviated script that leaves the plot at loose ends--you never do find out whether there was anything more to the swimming accident, for example. Some previously clueless characters get sudden mental-lightbulb moments, while others are wised-up one minute and swallowing Leah's lies in one gulp the next. There is a great deal of talk about swimming in the movie, and yet every shot shows a wave-tossed rocky coast that nobody in his right mind would so much as wade in.

But the movie succeeds or fails for the viewer based on Susan Peters, and the Siren thought she was superb. It's a demanding role that requires the actress to be both charming enough to make the family's devotion plausible, and yet subtly crazy enough that her later machinations don't come out of left field. She's wonderfully gowned by Jean Louis, wheeling around in an upholstered wheelchair with a cloud of skirts fanning out from her tiny waist. The Siren was fascinated by her lovely hands and dark-red nail polish, suggestive of both a doll and Lady Macbeth. Peters keeps her face serene in many scenes but the hands always tell the real story, carefully arranging a sleeve or fluttering over piano keys as she "plays" the people around her. The lady was talented indeed. Just watch her sitting up in bed, lighting one cigarette off the butt of another (not a gesture you see too often in 1940s movies). The way Peters sucks in her cheeks is the most deliciously neurotic thing the Siren has seen in an old movie in quite some time.

The movie will also remind many viewers of the similarly themed Leave Her to Heaven, though it's in black and white. Sign of the Ram's interiors are mostly small and cozy and yet the atmosphere, via director John Sturges and cinematographer Burnett Guffey, fulfills all the menace you want from an old dark house. There are several scenes in Leah's fireside sitting room, which is all decked out in flouncy florals. But Sturges lowers the camera a bit so you usually get the beamed ceilings in frame, as the bars that are holding down Leah and her family. Instead of the noirish "cage" lighting you might expect, the shadows in the shots are usually suggestive of webs, particularly in one scene where a set of lovers plans a future together, all unaware of the lady plotting their doom. The visuals hit all the checkmarks the Siren listed above, too, including a wonderful introductory shot of Leah appearing in a casement window below Sherida's.

Not a great movie, but a good one, and it suited the Siren just fine. The print was gorgeous, so let's hope someone notices the film's cult status and finally gives it, and poor doomed Susan Peters, the wider fame both deserve.

P.S. If you share the Siren's love for this genre, or even just appreciate atmosphere, check out the Siren's new picture-blog discovery, Obscure Hollow ("for the love of haunted film decor and more.") How have I lived without this place? Why did no one tell me about it? The above still from Dragonwyck is taken from it, but the screen grabs from The Spiral Staircase are even more swoonworthy.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Foreign Film Resolution, Weeks 11-14

Yeah, I'm still behind. And in some kind of Gallic rut, although I didn't realize it until I wrote this up.

Les Enfants Terribles (1950), Jean-Pierre Melville (screenplay by Jean Cocteau)

The Siren thinks of a certain romantic plot device as very French: One figure, usually a woman, is loved madly by several other characters, as in Jules et Jim, Les Enfants du Paradis, even La Règle du Jeu. Les Enfants Terribles, however, belongs to a subset, along with Les Voleurs and Les Amants du Pont Neuf. In these films, everyone is madly in love with one character, and the Siren has no idea why because she (in this case he) is a sexless, soul-sucking, nerve-grating drip. (Mr. C's equable response, when the Siren made this complaint: "Yes, and maybe that is what the films are about. Loving a drip.") The Siren recognized Les Enfants Terribles as a good movie, well-scripted and directed, hypnotic and splendidly individual. But the characters wore her to a frazzle.

[Nicole] Stephane dominates the film: She's like a baby Leni Riefenstahl petrified of losing her grip on her tiny kingdom. The last few reels get slow and hypnotic, until the ending builds up to a theatrical crescendo of emotion and climaxes with a tall screen clattering to the floor (Melville's idea). A truly unique movie, Les Enfants Terribles feels both insubstantial and overpowering, like Chet Baker singing "Let's Get Lost" to an empty ballroom.
--Dan Callahan, Slant Magazine

La sirène du Mississippi (1969), Francois Truffaut.

Despite the Siren's obvious affinity for the title, and several critics' insistence that its lousy reputation is undeserved, the Siren found this a Truffaut misfire. The film began well and the Siren was happily involved for about the first 40 minutes. But once they left the island of Reunion and Deneuve and Belmondo took folie a deux into high gear, suspense and finally interest withered and died. Deneuve does a very nice segue from high-toned con artist to plain old guttersnipe but her chic wardrobe kept undermining her. However, if you are an Yves St. Laurent fan the movie is almost worth it for the clothes. Almost.

At one point the couple goes to see Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar, a film that was hailed by the Cahiers du Cinema crowd. Walking out of the movie Julie observes that she likes it because it isn't just a Western, it's a love story. Truffaut wants people to leave his film thinking the same thing.
--Daniel Fienberg (of the fine blog Check the Fien Print )

La Marseillaise (1938), Jean Renoir

There's a small clip from this movie at the beginning of La Sirene de Mississippi, which prompted the Siren to dig out the DVD and watch. Now this was more like it. And finally a movie that doesn't overromanticize Marie Antoinette, too.

La Marseillaise lacks the irony that make Renoir's Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game true masterpieces, and its pacing is a bit uneven. Nonetheless, Renoir manages to create a feeling that one is actually witnessing the French Revolution. Because this film was intended for a French audience, details that would illuminate some of the actions for audiences in other countries are not explained. No matter. This movie communicates quite a lot. Vive la Revolution et vive Renoir!
--Marilyn Ferdinand, Ferdy on Film

La Fin du Jour (1938), Julien Duvivier Made the same year as the Renoir. Our esteemed colleague David Cairns has been evangelizing for this film for some time, even going so far as to give away copies. And the Siren can now deliver her verdict: David's absolutely 100% goddamn right. This is a great movie, with sinuous camerawork from Duvivier that bears comparison to Ophuls (and higher praise hath not the Siren). Plus astonishing performances from Louis Jouvet and Michel Simon. Now that she has seen it, the Siren herself feels quite evangelical about this one. And she isn't going to post an excerpt from David's review. Just go it read yourself. (And note, in the comments, David Ehrenstein comparing it to Make Way for Tomorrow and Tokyo Story.) Also, Gareth's excellent writeup here.

There is a Duvivier retrospective going on through the end of May at the Museum of Modern Art, and the Siren plans to make heroic efforts to catch a few. She hopes her New York readers do too. La Fin du Jour screens there on March 14 at 4:30 pm and Friday, May 15 at 8 pm.

A few links for the beginning of the week:

Director and Friend of the Siren Raymond de Felitta's City Island just won the Audience Award at the Tribeca Film Festival. Raymond's comment: "Damn I'm happy." He should be, it's a warm, funny and quite lovable film.

Larry Aydlette has done another shape-shift and landed at The Demarest, a more picture-intensive blog with plenty to delight the eye.

Homework? Try mega-homework. Dennis Cozzalio's quarterly quiz has been up for two weeks at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, but the Siren has a doctor's excuse for being late. Honest...

The Siren has always thought of the Thin Man movies as more or less impervious to analysis, but Ed Howard tries to prove her wrong by tackling the fourth and fifth films in the series.

Ivan reviews one of the most depressing movies ever made, One Potato Two Potato. The Siren saw this as a kid and cried over it for days and days--and she had forgotten the title, probably due to PTSD. Just reading Ivan's summary of the ending made the Siren go hug her kids till they looked at her and said "What?"

A new(ish) blog, Silent Volume, is already going great guns but won the Siren's heart in part by posting about the unfairly maligned Revolutionary Road and the greatest silent of all, The Crowd.

Finally, the Siren is going into the Wayback Machine for this one, but she missed the Forrest Gump/How Green Was My Valley smackdown in March, with Mike endearing himself even further to the Siren by defending the greatness of the John Ford movie.