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.


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X. Trapnel said...

Siren, your description of Sign of the Ram brings to mind two films in this loose genre of domestic psychological tyranny, neither of which are much talked about these days: Guest in the House and Beware of Pity. I've never seen either but the first sounds very enticing. The second, based on Stefan Zweig's great novel, is usually considered a failure (Lilli Palmer, who starred in it even wrote a letter of apology to Zweig's widow.) It has a big house, a storm, and a crippled, life-starved young woman who uses her condition to manipulate everyone around her (though she is by no means a villainous character; she has her reasons, as per Renoir).

I just read Susan Peters' terribly sad biography on IMDB

The Siren said...

Ooooh, I haven't seen either. Nor have I seen Ivy, which stars my beloved Joan Fonataine and also fits the mold.

X. Trapnel said...

Another entry is Dangerously They Live which has big, nazi-infested mansion; terrifying "mannish" housekeeper played by none other than Esther Dale (R. Bellamy's mother from The Awful Truth and (?) His Girl Friday); my beloved (not quite so much as Lovely Joan) Nancy Coleman as the damsel (at one point The Housekeeper threatens to undress her); the hero is John Garfield (sure, sure) as a doctor playfully poking Nancy with his stethescope; and whole package tied up expertly by Jean Negulesco. What's not to like?

DavidEhrenstein said...

Never seen it. Sounds wonderful.

I'm a humungous Old Dark House and Leave Her To Heaven fan.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's that IMDB bio Unspeakably sad.

The Siren said...

Whaaaa ... David, you haven't seen it?

I feel like I just won "stump the band."


It isn't as brilliant as Leave Her to Heaven but it's a good movie. And Peters really is wonderful.

Vanwall said...

Siren -

Been on h'day at Hilton Head, and finally caught up with the previous comments - what do I find, but a wonderful post on an excellent little psycho-drama. Peters has always been a fave of mine, and TSOTR is really a great little piece of movie-making, with a cast that does very well, and beyond, with what they were given. Peters is really excellent here, and I wonder what she could've done with a longer career - a major what-if in H'wood history ASFAIC. This is one of the best films on dangerous familial manipulation and to make it work, Peters has to be believable, totally, and she certainly does that for me. I was wondering when this would come back for viewing, it's been almost 30 years since I saw it last, and it still impressed.

Yojimboen said...

Ah... Susan Peters. Don't you hate it when other people suddenly take notice of your long-time secret passion?

I did notice back in March this year that Raquelle over at Out of The Past listed Susan Peters on her 20 Actresses Meme.

She was a 'right bobby-dazzler' in Random Harvest. It wasn't easy to get noticed against old pros like Colman and Garson, but she pulls it off and then some.

Set your decks/Tivos for TCM on June 20th!

The Siren said...

Y., I noticed her in Random Harvest but she hadn't turned up in any of my books, and I had never tried to find out more about her. She was really, really good. Apparently she was in constant, horrible pain after the accident and surely that must have helped drive her to starve herself to death. (Please, do not get the Siren started on her feelings about this country's EVIL attitude about pain medication. I mean really, don't do it.)

Vanwall, glad you're backing me up on this. Another interesting thing is that her motivations aren't wrapped up in a pretty bow at the end. Some things are spelled out, some just aren't.

X. Trapnel said...

Siren, the question of motivation is one of the things that spoils or slightly sours Leave Her to Heaven, i.e., the exoneration of the silver-haired father leaving poor Gene T. the embodiment of motiveless malignity, as bad in its way as The Bad Seed.

I apologize in advance, but based on much family experience I must second your characterization of the American attitude toward pain medication.

Greg said...

I love Old Dark House directed by James Whale which you perfectly describe with your list of required elements and no one retains a house quite like the Femm family. I've also seen every other damn movie you refer to in this post except the main one, The Sign of the Ram. But now I must see it.

And this from Yojimboen - "Ah, Susan Peters. Don't you hate it when other people suddenly take notice of your long-time secret passion?"

I'm glad to know I'm not the only one that feels that way. There are certain performances, movies, or just special shots that I don't talk about until I write them up on my blog so no one can beat me to the punch. If someone mentions them first I feel like it was stolen from me. Silly, but true.

The Siren said...

XT, one thing that links the two films is the sort of shrug over motivation, and in both instances it's contained in the very title -- a Shakespeare quote, and a "whaddya expect from an Aries." SOTR is quite interesting from that standpoint and I would have to say that the audience is intended to sympathize with Leah to a point, in any event I did. Whereas once Gene Tierney rows out in that boat ... brrrr! no sympathy here!

X. Trapnel said...

Of course I'm not suggesting that Tierney deserves sympathy (and add that the title is utterly misapplied as Gertrude even in the harshest reading is merely "frail" in her devotion to Hamlet Sr.'s memory). The annoying thing in Leave Her to Heaven (which I generally like and admire) is its faith in the absolute normality of the surrounding characters (my complaint about the Nancy Olson and Jack Webb characters in Sunset Blvd.). Laura, on the other hand, breaks down Mark McPherson's normality remorselessly. My curiosity about Sign of the Ram (what a title!) is piqued. I'm wondering if the gothic ambience frees up conventional moralism. But don't tell us the ending.

Yojimboen, I recall you shared my secret passion for Cathy O'Donnell. As far as I know I'm alone in my Nancy Coleman thing.

mndean said...

I recorded SOTR since it seemed interesting. Just took a look. Bah, all black screen (my DVD recorder does this now and again when set on timer recording without rhyme or reason). Last time I got mad at it for doing that was when TCM showed Tenth Avenue Girl.

Gerard Jones said...

I'd like to enter Sunset Boulevard as a variation on the menu Campaspe offers. House and retainer are quintessential. Joe Gillis as heroine, Norma as both ghost and malevolent human. The storm is the Hollywood sturm surrounding the house, whipping them into madness with its wind and lightning.

Vanwall said...

This how Susan Peters' mystique can effect one - back in the day, (I won't go into specifics, but it was well after the Jurassic and closer to the Pleistocene), I knew her only from her films, without any background. I was enchanted. Then I read of her heartbreaking life - it sure ain't fair, and that's the reality, sadly. I still thought she was astonishingly good, and TSOTR showed up on local TV every now and then, so between a pair of viewings, my understanding of her role was deepened to a point that it was almost painful to watch, and certainly disturbing - knowing what happened was like Cellini being slapped by his father when he saw the salamander in the fire - he surely remembered it, and so I, too for Susan Peters.

When I first surfed the Interwebs, I looked for info and images of certain actresses, Susan Peters among 'em - zip, zero, nada: she was a forgotten woman, like her whole existence was forgotten, down to the last kit & biling. I had a rare picture I downloaded that I kept on my various computers, transferred every time, for years - ask people who she was, tho, and like as not, no response.

X. Trapnel said...

G, don't quite agree; Wilder is not mocking the conventions of the gothic romantic (did the silents venture that much into bargain basement Bronte?) so much as the overblown mismatched exotica of the twenties whose monument is San Simeon/Xanadu. This mockery was first sounded in Walter Neff's comments on the fake Spanish style of the Dietrichson house.

X. Trapnel said...


From the still with Ronald Colman, Susan Peters has that kind of soulful beauty that Gerard described re Claire Bloom (such qualities shine out more vividly in stills than in studio glamor shots which often have a cold, marmorial look). I once worked with a guy who had a Gail Russell mouse pad and we often compared notes on the haunting quality of certain actresses. In the mainstream I've always had that feeling about Margaret Sullavan (tough guy Otis Ferguson felt the same) and Gene Tierney and my Susan Peters is Cathy O'Donnell (why did they all come to bad or early ends?). There's something about them that breaks free from the movie (even good ones) and goes straight to the soul. Somebody once asked the early 20th century critic George Saintsbury (probably the best-read man on the planet) to explain the effect of a great poem, he replied simply, "It's like seeing a girl's face." These are the girls.

mndean said...

You see that Spanish style home everywhere in older California neighborhoods that were built up in the '20s-early '30s. There's an old Mormon Church in my own neighborhood for crying out loud, that's of that style, and there was an old home around the corner from me that was also. Guy who bought it in the '80s tore all the Spanish out of it, so now it looks like nothing. Kind of a sign of the times. I always thought that Walter Neff crack was an anachronism - it doubled back on itself with the advent of tract houses and planned development.

Gerard Jones said...

X, I see your point. But was there ever a more sinister retainer than Max?

I wonder, how many of these old dark house movies used "the Scooby-Doo ending"? That is to say, the revelation that it was all some non-supernatural trick. Pretty standard in the stage antecedents, many of which were filmed: The Cat and the Canary, The Bat, Ghost Train (which substituted a small dark railway station for the ODH).

The Silent Film Festival showed Cat and Canary at the Castro last summer, and I was impressed at how much fun it was. Utterly predictable (as I'm sure it was even in '27) but with a catching playfulness. Also something much like camp: chuckling at its own already shopworn conventions but with an affection that didn't insult them.

Gerard Jones said...

Add me (tentatively) to the Cathy O'Donnell club. Sometimes she's a little too fragile and timidly sweet, but there was something there. Liked her better in They Live by Night than Best Years.

Gerard Jones said...

Oh, and to clarify: I'm not saying that I think Wilder was intending to play off gothics--but people do things they don't intend. I found watching Sunset Boulevard as an Old Dark House horror movie to be illuminating.

X. Trapnel said...

Yes, but we're in on the joke from the beginning because everyone knows it's Erich von Stroheim. SB is a comedy through and through and even treats morbidity as a joke.

Ah, Cathy. I can't resist that timid sweetness (which might be insipid in another actress) nor suffer the winds of heaven to visit her face too roughly. She really didn't have a chance to develop as an actress after Sam Goldwyn scuttled her career to get some kind of revenge against William Wyler. She's also good in Side Street but doesn't have equal screen time with (oy) Farley Granger. Sometime I'll tell my Farley Granger story.

Frank Conniff said...

Darn, I wish I had been home to catch "The Sign Of The Ram." I will certainly be on the lookout for it from here on in. TCM is the only channel that makes me wish I were more of a shut-in than I already am. John Sturges made some really entertaining movies in his day. He directed "The Magnificent Yankee," which had Oliver Wendell Holmes defending a town of Mexican peasants from a gang of murderous bandits. He later reworked this material into a semi-remake called"The Magnificent Seven."

Yojimboen said...

X. “This mockery was first sounded in Walter Neff's comments on the fake Spanish style of the Dietrichson house.”

MN “You see that Spanish style home everywhere in older California neighborhoods […] I always thought that Walter Neff crack was an anachronism - it doubled back on itself with the advent of tract houses and planned development.”

For the record, gents, the quote(s) in question:

Walter Neff (Raymond Chandler): “It was one of those California Spanish houses everybody was nuts about ten or fifteen years ago. This one must have cost somebody about 30,000 bucks… That is if he ever finished paying for it.”James M. Cain original: “It didn't look like a House of Death when I saw it. It was just a Spanish house, like all the rest of them in California, with white walls, red tile roof, and a patio out to one side. It was built cock-eyed…”FYI and, I hope, amusement: the house is still there at 6301 Quebec Drive in Hollywood – link here (scroll down the page). I’m very fond of it – nothing old or dark about it at all (I used to live 100 yards from it; now I live a mile and a half away).

You will notice X, Walter Neff doesn’t use the word ‘fake’ referring to the Spanish style – Cain (who lived a couple of miles from Quebec Drive) knew that using the word ‘fake’ to qualify California architecture would be essentially redundant.

ratatouille's archives said...

Hi! Self-Styled Siren,

Wow!...What a very interesting review about actress Susan Peters,
her real life experience, but of course!... was more tragic than her
role in the 1948 noir~tingedfilm The Sign of the Ram.By the way, I have watched all the films that you, have mentioned in your review and have enjoyed re~visiting them again and again!
Thanks,for sharing!
DeeDee ;-D
(Formerly known as, DarkCityDame)

p.s. I had to "refresh" my memory about actress Susan Peters, tragic private life by visiting Wiki(pedia).

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I like your list of creepy old house films, like a genre unto itself. I missed "The Sign of the Ram", but I'll look for it. Your great description is intriguing.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Quine is utterly fascinating. He began as a child acotr. He's really soemthing as John Barrymore's snotty stepson in Wyler's truly great film of Elmer Rice's Counselor at Law. As a director he brought an MGM smoothness to Columbia -- where he helped shape the career of Kim Novak (with whom he was also romatically involved) in such wondrs as Bell Book and Candle and Strangers When We Meet. Just yesterday I was looking at his How To Murder Your Wife -- a now forgottten but then (1965) wildly successful satirical comedy with Jack Lemmon, Virna Lisi, Terry-Thomas, Claire Trevor and a George Axelrod scrrenplay. It's very silly and incredibly glamorous-looking. Hollywood was birefly interested in Lisi. But as gorgeous as she was she never "took" the way Sophia Loren did, and she returned to europe -- reaching unimaginable heigths of artistry as catherine De Medici in Patrice Chereu's Queen Margot.

Quine's last film was a video-shot oddity called W starring Twiggy.

Like Peters he ended a suicide.

Exiled in NJ said...

The dark house and a feckless heroine was the essential element to the "Had I But Known" school of writing, begun by Mary Roberts Rinehart, whose first success came in 1908. Julian Symons "Bloody Murder" gives an apt description of the style in his book, "Bloody Murder," including quotes from Ogden Nash:

"And when the killer is finally trapped into a confession by some elaborate device of the Had I But Knowners some hundred pages later if they hadn't held their knowledge aloof."

Regarding the dialogue of Indemnity, is it Wilder or Chandler, whose views of Cain were not very charitable:

“Cain’s dialogue in his fiction is written to the eye.” He went on with his thought, “Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s dialogue it in the same spirit as he has in the book, and not the identically same words.” To his publisher, Chandler was more explicit, “Everything he touches smells like a billygoat. He is every kind of writer I detest, a Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking. Such people are the offal of literature, not because they write about dirty things, but because they do it in a dirty way.”

Cain respected Chandler and Wilder: “It’s the only picture I ever saw made from my books that had things in it I wish I had thought of. Wilder’s ending was much better than my ending, and his device for letting the guy tell the story, I would have done it if I had thought of it. There are situations in the movie that can make your hands get wet.”

Of course, DI is a pure rewrite of the Snyder-Gray case on Long Island in the mid-20s.

Karen said...

Oh, geez, how did I not DVR this one in my weekly perusal of TCM's schedule? It must have been the consequences of this nasty cold I've been fighting. I will be on the watch for it in the future!

Siren, I, too, love your Old Dark House genre, and have seen all the other films you list (to which list I heartily endorse the addition of So Long at the Fair, which is just delicious). As you were going through your criteria, I kept on seeing James Mason on the fringes of my mind--perhaps it's just his voice that fits the genre so well--and would like to add for your consideration The Night Has Eyes, which freaked the bejesus out of me when I was a girl, and sparked a life-long passion for Our James.

Arthur S. said...

I know the kind of films that you speak of, full of exoticism and mystery and a sense of things going horribly wrong.

One favourite of mine is a little known masterpiece by Thorold Dickinson called THE QUEEN OF SPADES. It has a truly great performance by Anton Walbrook, as intense as THE RED SHOES albeit in a lower social class.

It's an adaptation of an Aleksandr Pushkin short story and includes fabulous period detail of early 19th Century Czarist Russia(remarkable for it's low budget and quick shooting schedule) and is about a poor, arrogant half-Russian youth who wants respect among his entitled barrack buddies and decides to steal secrets of a card playing trick from an old crone(who lives in an old dark house with secret passageways) and whose daughter has a crush on our hero(who alas cares only for climbing the ladder).

It's like a ghost story without ghosts, it's ambiguous whether he's really cracked or haunted(and so ten times scarier as a result) and it also has a couple of nifty dance scenes.

I must say that Walbrook's character in the film seems to be channelling a Dostoevsky character(Raskolnikov especially) rather than a Pushkin figure.

Another film in that vein is of course Edgar G. Ulmer's THE BLACK CAT, deeply perverse and vicious and as scary as LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD.

X. Trapnel said...

Here's another contender, While I Live (1947), I've never managed to see this. Synopsis courtesy IMDB:

In 1922, young composer and pianist Olwen Trevelyan, troubled and sleepless over her inability to finish the final notes of her composition, falls to her death from the cliffs of Cornwall. As years pass, Olwen's sister Julia obsessively keeps Olwen's memory alive in the family home. The young composer gains posthumous fame because of her tragic death and her haunting, unfinished composition, "The Dream of Olwen." Twenty-five years later, on the anniversary of Olwen's death, the family gathers to listen to a radio broadcast of "The Dream." Suddenly, a young woman bursts into the room, sits down at the piano, and begins playing along with the music. Claiming to have lost her memory, the young woman is cared for by the obsessed Julia, who comes to believe she is the reincarnation of her dead sister.

Insofar is this film is remembered it's for Charles Williams' composition The Dream of Olwen which took on a life of its own after the film's release. It's not unlike the Warsaw Cto., but a bit better, I think. Williams also wrote the tune that The Apartment's score is based on.

The Siren said...

oh, XT, I was just drawing a contrast between the two characters, not suggesting you secretly found Tierney to be Your Kind of Woman. :)

The Siren said...

Gerard, I never found Max in Sunset Boulevard all that sinister. From the first time I saw the movie, he struck me as sad and devoted, even when Joe first meets him. I don't know why, but von Stroheim is never very frightening to me on screen.

Exiled, I read a couple of Rineharts and found her rather creaky. I have read about the "Had I But Known" school and it's a funny label, but I always thought it was a bit perjorative as some of the novels are really good. I would push the origins probably back to Le Fanu, the way the PBS guy does. Of course you would guess I am crazy about Uncle Silas, as well as Wilkie Collins. (The Woman in White as filmed is rather a nice Old Dark House entry, and with Greenstreet, too.) By the way, Damon Runyon's sharp, hilarious piece on the Snyder-Gray trial is one of my favorite pieces of crime writing, period.

And I missed you during the Cornell Woolrich discussion, way back in the thickets of my last post ...

X. Trapnel said...

Tierney IS my kind of woman, but not Ellen Harland (yikes!). The sun glasses! The Sister Ruth lipstick!

The Siren said...

Yojimboen, I so want that house in your link! amazing that it is still there. From the rare movies (such as Siodmak's Criss-Cross) where I see bits of old Los Angeles I have realized that the city in the 1940s had a lot of charm left, which was methodically stripped by the postwar Visigoths so memorably portrayed in Chinatown and (yes I'm serious) Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

X. Trapnel said...

Just found out that the older sister in While I Live is Sonia
Dresdel, scary Mrs. Baines from The Fallen Idol (big house, threatened heroine [sort of], creepy housekeeper...). I've got to see this!

Gerard Jones said...

The conversion from book to movie with Double Indemnity kind of connects to this discussion, in that Cain clearly cast Phyllis is a sort of Angel of Death--in love with death, an eerie past filled with killings. In that dreamlike finale he connects her explicitly with the bloodthirsty moon and the devouring sea. It has the quality of a supernatural story, even though nothing magical happens.

Wilder and Chandler introduced one element after another to ground Phyllis in the sunlit LA of the present, right down to her sweater, blonde wig, dark glasses in the supermarket aisle. Neff drives the story more than Huff, and his pathetically ignoble finish--gutshot, yet--removes all the sacrificial mystery. The whole movie moves to Wilder and Chandler's shared turf: greed, sleaze, amorality in the modern world, away from the dark feminine.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Sunset Boulevard is in many ways a variation on The Old Dark House , but with a difference. Yes Stroheim's Max isn't really scary. He's there to evoke the notion of scariness. "let me know if you need any help with the coffin." is a Charles Aaddams-style joke. Norma Desmond is a combination of Miss haversham ( explitly referred to as such in Joe's narration) and and the Fem family in Whale's film. What's interesting is the way Wilder makes us find Norma and Max amusing, the better to impress us with the real danger they actually represent.

DavidEhrenstein said...

You're quite right aboutStanwyck in Double Indemity, Gerard. She reminds me of Maria Casares' Death in Orpheus crossed with her ineffable performance in Bresson's Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne.

Gerard Jones said...

Karen: I know exactly what you mean about Mason. He should have made more scary movies. Caught had the nighmarish tone of a good haunted house movie, although none of the plot. The haunted house being a marriage in this case.

It sounds like a rash of people missing things on TCM they wish they'd have caught. There was a stretch when they seemed to be showing nothing I hadn't seen but wanted to, and as soon as I my attention wavered they slip all the good stuff past me. Nancy Carroll, early Cooper, and now this.

I fear I've been less openly grateful to Siren for this post because she's making me kick myself. Almost wish the whole review of Sign of the Ram had been, "Eh. You didn't miss anything."

The Siren said...

Mndean, the ersatz Spanish gets old but it sure beats the hell out of what came later, the appalling 60s and 70s trend for not even putting windows in buildings.

David, I didn't realize Quine was also a suicide. God what a tragic family. I wonder what happened to the son he adopted with Peters?

Arthur, another Walbrook -- I am totally there. And XT, While I Live's synopsis mentions a magic word, Cornwall! One of DuMaurier's favorite settings and always a big ODH tipoff.

Greg, I think everybody gets a little proprietary over movie loves. I found myself getting quite cranky when, after years of quietly worshipping Audrey Hepburn, sometime in the late 1980s I found myself talking about her with bright young things who wouldn't know Donen from Dooney & Burke.

Karen, I will have to see that Mason if I haven't already -- sometimes things blend together. I'm glad you also love So Long at the Fair. The TCM fan programming was somewhat disappointing (I swear that isn't envy talking--well, not entirely) but I was so pleased that one showed up.

Karen said...

Gerard, TCM lulls us into a false sense of complacency (or boredom) during the "30 Days of Oscar" because it's a month of the usual suspects. Then it's over and they go back to the 3 AM gems and we don't even notice...

X. Trapnel said...

Just found a copy of While I Live on Ebay. amazing times we live in.

Arthur S. said...

James Mason's scariest performance is as Ed Avery in BIGGER THAN LIFE a film that scares the hell out of most people who I shared the viewing with. Except there's nothing supernatural about the scariness of the film, which makes it scarier since it can happen in this world. When Mason gets supernatural as in that Ava Gardner film we so rarely discuss, it's intense because there's so much life put into the part he's playing that we can't accept that it's part of the dead.

Siren, CHINATOWN takes place in the 20s, the point of the film is that the Visigoths already won and did their bit and it's part of the history. For me the key film about these Visigoths is Altman's THE LONG GOODBYE which has the present Governor of California in his first and best performance.

CRISS CROSS does indeed make beautiful use of LA architecture, especially that scene of Yvonne DeCarlo standing against a window and an elevated rail passing through the window while her husband and her ex-husband talk about a planned heist. For me it's Siodmak's best and one of the darkest and best films noir.

There's quite a bit of interest on the use of LA architecture in films recently. There was that documentary that came out a while ago.

Gerard Jones said...

Some interesting decisions about time-placement and visual cues in Chinatown. The cars and most of the clothes are from the mid/late '30s, but Jake's look--big fedora, pale suit, wide spotted tie--cues our ideas of the '40s, especially the end-of-the-war "noir" look. There may have been guys with his style in the '30s, but it wasn't the norm, and it certainly wasn't what we see in the movies. The choice of backgrounds and buildings also takes into '40s crime movies, especially Double Indemnity. The neon signs of Chinatown itself all look post-War.

My assumption is that Polanski very much wanted to evoke the LA of Chandler adaptations and other '40s crime movies but knew that audiences and critics in 1974 would never buy the idea that the great LA water systems weren't built until wartime. (The events the script is based on occurred in the '20s, but somehow Jake Gittes in a straw hat and stiff collar just doesn't sing.) So he found a temporal point where the events were almost plausible but he could load up on noir-era visuals.

Another argument for not sacrificing art on the altar of accuracy in historical drama.

Gerard Jones said...

(You know, I vowed to leave behind the word verification game with the previous thread, but when the word they throw me is "hymen," what's a guy to do?)

The Siren said...

Arthur, as I recall Chinatown's technically late 30s but point taken -- you can't uglify a city in a day, it takes at least a couple of decades of concentrated effort. I agree with Gerard that visually the vintage cues are all over the place (and yet it always feels authentic, somehow. Now that's control of mise en scene).

Frank, I have always wanted to see The Magnificent Yankee just because the idea of a six-shootin' Supreme Court justice is supremely funny. In future I confidently predict no such movies about Samuel Alito.

Books, Coffee, your nickname has gotten cozier. :) Welcome back!

The Siren said...

Karen, I dissed the 30 Days of Oscar long and hard on this blog and others but then was embarrassed when I actually did find a number of things to watch. It would be more fair to say it's a month of enforced comfort viewing with the occasional bone thrown those of us who've basically seen everything, even Zoo in Budapest. :D

Gerard Jones said...

What Polanski understood was how much information could be conveyed visually (emotionally and symbolically) based on the associations we already have. Making most of his world look '30s instantly puts in LA before the freeways and tract homes, a world we assume we're to find elegant and romantic. But making Jake Gittes look like mid-'40s noir instantly brings up Bogart and Dick Powell as Marlowe, and all those other rumpled private eyes, uncomprending little guys against a corrupt world. Which will make the unpeeling of the pseudo-elegance that much more nauseating. Those juxtaposed images spare him from having to establish and explain so much.

Yojimboen said...

Goddam XT! The mere mention of While I Live and the Dream of Olwen lifted the hairs at the back of my neck to full attention. Williams’ master theme – like Warsaw Concerto (you called it) – is woven inextricably into the DNA of anyone who grew up in 50s Britain. Someone mentioned Ghost Train yesterday, another hair-raiser from my pre-teen cinematic nightmare landscape. Dear me, I may have to take the week off, else I’ll be found on the floor of my study clutching my heart with one of those “Good god, look at his face! What could possibly frighten a man to death?!” expressions.


P.S. For me, Devil in a Blue Dress has it all over Chinatown for period L.A.

(The good news is another Easy Rawlins movie finally has been announced for next year. No word yet if Denzel is going to repeat the role.)

surly hack said...

X. Trapnel mentions John Brahm's overheated Guest in the House, which I recently stumbled upon. It certainly has the old house, but is more Freudian than Gothic. Rather too obviously based on a too obvious play, but nice to see Ralph Bellamy playing it straight as an artist and romantic interest.

The Siren said...

Surly, so good to see you. As for Guest in the House, "overheated" doesn't necessarily put me off, in fact, in certain moods it might make me settle down for a viewing. :D

Gloomy, overdecorated interiors + fult-tilt soundtrack in this case has me thinking about Deception. Now THERE'S overheated but I do love it. Davis, Rains, Henreid, Korngold, it's the business.

Which brings me to Yojimboen and XT who definitely have me wanting to see When I Live.

Karen said...

Siren, it's true that 30 Days of Oscar (which I know well you likewise deplore) has the occasional jewel hidden late at night. I managed to see a couple of films I'd never seen before, and was happy to do so. But paging through my online channel guide, hour after hour, day after day, each Friday evening, was dispiriting in the extreme.

On another note, and not to threadjack, but have you (make that 2nd person plural!) seen both versions of The Cheat, now both available on DVD? I saw the Tallulah Bankhead remake first, and then last night saw the Sessue Hayakawa original. Fascinating! (Tho' neither are necessarily that...GOOD.) If they'd swapped Hayakawa for Pichel, then the original could be scrapped entirely and the remake would be considerably better. But they both have things going for them...not least the oddness of why there's a trial at all when the accused has already admitted he's guilty of the shooting....

The Siren said...

Oh, and speaking of Deception -- Shahn of Six Martinis and the Seventh Art calls it "orchestral noir" which is a great description. Fabulous screen grabs here.Karen, I saw The Cheat some years ago (the silent) and unfortunately wasn't impressed by much of anything except the naked racism of the thing. Even Hayakawa disappointed me.

X. Trapnel said...

Didn't know Guest in the House was John Brahm (speaking of whom [sort of] Bernard H's Concerto Macabre from Hangover Square would fit nicely on a program with Dream of Olwen). That bodes well. Turn up the thermostat.

And while we're on the subject of filmic concertos, Deception (which I enjoy hugely) has some of the most deliriously awful music dialogue this side of Humoresque. Paul Henried, asked to name his favorite composers, replies,"When I think of the past, Richard Strauss; when I think of the present, Stravinsky. And, of course, Hollenius [aka Claude Rains] who combines the melody of yesterday with the rhythm of today." And leaves no bathtub ring. Korngold's Cello Cto. here is a beaut and surely one of the many concertos that Joan Crawford likes.

I will report on While I Live.

Y, does Ghost Train have a girl?

The Siren said...

XT, I am just loving the "orchestral film noir" idea and Humoresque definitely fits. As does Hangover Square, despite the period setting. (But I believe Joan likes concertos in "A Woman's Face." And some symphonies.)

Karen said...

Siren, if you compare Hayakawa to the oily yet stilted performance of Irving Pichel in the remake (playing a Japanophile, rather than an actual Asian), believe me, you'll appreciate Hayakawa. But you're right--I didn't get why he was such big box office from that film.

X. Trapnel said...

Well, whenever I buy a concerto or a symphony I look for the Joan Crawford Seal of Approval and feel confident that I will enjoy "a superb listening experience" (this phrase, by the way, comes from the priceless original liner notes to the soundtrack of Picnic which also tell us that P. is a magnificent (or whatever) picture "in every sense of the adjective." Oh, the fifties...

Orchestral noir; this IS an exciting idea! (Those caps were great). I'm going to start compiling a list.

I think there's a remake of Hangover Square on the way, though faithful to Patrick Hamilton's novel this time around.

Arthur S. said...

Be that as it may, CHINATOWN is based on real life background details about the work done by Mulholland(or Hollis Mulwray in the film) in the 1920s.

What makes CHINATOWN quite different from the 40s and 50s PIs or Phillip Marlowe is that he is very high maintenance. The interiors of his office are very plush and his suits are quite well furnished, totally different from the iconic image of the hardboiled crime detective and the milieu is country clubs and the like. He is a very bourgeois private detective which makes him a prime target for manipulation, the full extent always escaping him.

In that sense, the film most like it is THE BIG HEAT, where Glenn Ford's snootiness leads to that cop's mistress to be brutally slaughtered because he takes Jeannete Nolan's word over hers and isn't there to protect her. Except instead of Gloria Grahame being an avenging Pirate Jenny, you have the thoroughly heartbreaking Faye Dunaway, destroyed by everyone including the man who loved her.

Which of course co-alesces into the ending of CRISS CROSS, where Burt Lancaster unwittingly brings the murderer to the doorsteps of the woman he loves, who in the film's brutal end decides to abandon him and leave with the money after he gets injured(and then they are punished).

CHINATOWN is more classical in that regard except of course the hero doesn't die with the heroine, but has a lifetime ahead to think of what he's done.

The Siren said...

XT, I so totally miss liner notes. I have a large collection of my late father's albums and one of the reasons I refuse to get rid of them or "digitize" them or whatever is because I can't bear to lose the covers with all that peerless copy (not to mention the cover art). The notes range from ineffably corny to really quite good.

Yojimboen said...

Yes, X, The Ghost Train, detailed synopsis/history here, had a girl, the very decorative Carol Lynne who, just like Penelope Dudley-Ward of The Demi-Paradise, promoted herself into a famous marriage and out of the acting biz.

In Dudley-Ward’s case it was to Carol Reed, in Ms Lynne’s, to Bernard (later Lord) Delfont, the impresario brother of impresario Lord Lew Grade (evidently it ran in the family).

I don't remember much about the film (at least four decades since I've seen it) except that it terrified the hell out of me and every other kid at that Saturday Matinee.

The Siren said...

Y, This actually sounds pretty good. Old Dark Train? I'd go for that.

X. Trapnel said...

Funny, but the Siren's comments on Daphne DuMaurier and Cornwall yesterday got me thinking to Penelope Dudley Ward. DuMaurier was the great love of Carol Reed's life (he proposed to her repeatedly). PDW bears a certain resemblance to DuM. though prettier.

The lonely railroad station turns up in a lot of English supernatural fiction and poetry notably by Walter de la Mare and Alfred Noyes.

Sinatra's last great LP September of My Years has the corniest notes imaginable ("Tonight will not swing; tonight is for serious..."). And yet, and yet...

mndean said...

He's there to evoke the notion of scariness. "let me know if you need any help with the coffin."David,
That sort of joke has a pedigree in film. Just the other night, Peter Lorre did a similarly macabre joke "I can do corpses, mmm, exquisitely." in the Greenstreet/Lorre film, The Verdict. Von Stroheim as an actor has never had the connotations that he must have had years before.

The Siren said...

XT, really? for some reason I had the notion DuMaurier was a lesbian.

M., the Verdict was sent to me by a kind reader and I am itching to watch it.

X. Trapnel said...

I beleive she went in and out of lesbian moods (a great crush on Gertrude Lawrence); I'm not sure whether she acted on them though. Her youthful romance with Reed seems to have been real enough.

Aaron Haspel said...

"The Siren was fascinated by her lovely hands and dark-red nail polish..."

English ought to have a word for the ability to see colors in black-and-white movies.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Chinatown is set in the 30's but Polanski makes sure it doesn't look like a 30's movie at all. It's in color and Panavision, amd Jack and Faye are very 70's. That's what makes it look so fresh

There are TONS of stories about L.A's dark past.

Stepehen Sondheim, BTW, was obsessed with Hangover Square as an adolescent. Used to go and see it over and over, write Herrmann a fan letter (which was very graciosuly answered) and has cited it as the major influence on Sweeney Todd

X. Trapnel said...

Either that or words for the "colors" of black and white.

Yojimboen said...

Daphne du M was coincidentally – perhaps – responsible for Tallulah B getting her first serious break. Tallulah had received a cabled invitation to star in the West End – an invitation quickly cancelled by a second cable.
Tallulah sailed anyway…

Sir Gerald, the producer and author, had hired another actress for the show and he was unimpressed with Tallulah. But when she called on him in his dressing-room, dressed to the nines, his daughter Daphne gasped, “Daddy, that’s the most beautiful girl I ever saw in my life!”*

The other actress was paid off and Tallulah was hired.

* Daphne du Maurier would years later become the lover of actress Gertrude Lawrence.
from “The Girls”
by Diana McLellan

The Siren said...

Aaron, you are so right, and welcome. The polish could have been green, of course, like the famous "red" dress in Jezebel, but as I watched I was utterly certain it was red. I think it was because Peters ACTED it red. Now does any language have a word for that?

David, I had never heard that but the Sweeney/Hangover connection totally clicks. I wonder if Sondheim saw "The Lodger" too?

Karen said...

MNDean, what did you think of The Verdict? I watched it the other night as well, and liked it quite a bit. I thought Lorre's performance was quite extraordinary; one doesn't often see him playing debonair and charming while also slightly louche.

Allow me to chime in with my passion for liner notes as well (along with 12"x12" cover art). I, too, have a collection of LPs I can't even play (no working turntable), but would sooner stab myself than discard: capcha word is "eggedify"--Gerard, a definition please? It seems to cry out for one...

Gerard Jones said...

I saw the 1941 Ghost Train within the past six months or so, and it's pretty enjoyable. It's too bad they decided to build it around a music-hall comedian, and mostly he's just a pain in the Askey--he strikes me as a British version of Wheeler and Woolsey or the Ritz Brothers, one of those comics whom time leaves behind almost instantly. But they were smart in making most of his Askey-inine asides and bits of business disappear when the actual suspense was being built up and paid off.

They milked most of the dread from the Carole Lynne character (I think it was Carole Lynne, anyway). She's the one who has seen the terrible thing in the past and has gone mad. Mad, I tell you! Mad! Lynne did it just the way a girl is supposed to, from catatonic to febrile, unfocused eyes staring back to that horrific night when she saw something nasty on the rails.

Also very English in its willingness to make us wait and wait and wait. The restlessness of the characters seeps into us, the station becomes ever more claustrophobic, and pretty soon the fact that nothing is happening becomes spooky in itself.

It's very stagy and confined and visually very spare, but then it's set in a small-town train station at night. I also got the feeling that, except maybe for Askey, I was seeing something very much like what I'd have seen on a West End stage. And the train is done really well. Those Brits loved their trains.

Yojimboen said...

Thanks GJ, for the trip down childhood memory lane…

(Puffs on briar pipe, looks skywards) “It all comes back to me now…”

Karen, speaking for myself (and for XT), we’re hurt, terribly hurt, you asked GJ to define your word and not us…

Exeunt, shoulders slumped, heads hanging low.

Karen said...

Yojimboen, I entreat you to add your definition; no offense intended I assure you!

Gerard, she saw something nasty on the rails, did she--not in the woodshed?

Gerard Jones said...

Yoj: You're the first person who's made me want to see Devil in a Blue Dress. I read the first three Easy Rawlins novels and liked them, for the characterizations of Easy and Mouse for the evocation of an LA we rarely see (I can't remember a thing about who was killing who or why). It felt uncommonly close to the LA I actually see, especially when I wander off the main thorougfares: too-wide residential streets, crumbling stucco, weeds in vacant lots, a weird afternoon quiet. The trailer to Devil looked way too throbbing and glamorous and neon. Did I judge wrong?

Of course, throbbing and glamorous and neon aren't bad things. Just a more conventional take on old LA, I think.

Gerard Jones said...

I'm not going to touch your eggedify, Karen, because I know that as soon as I do, XT and Yoj are going to slam with ten-times-funnier definitions.

(Forgive Karen, fellows. We chatter so much on Facebook that she's just used to my nonsense.)

Gerard Jones said...

Siren, I do appreciate your defense of the overheated and overdecorated in Deception. Sometimes I love nothing more than a movie that just presses down on me with everything music, art direction, cinematography and broad acting have to offer. James Whale was great at that, even when the stuff was thin. The Old Dark House just has so much to see and hear and feel. Movies like that can just wrap me up. Subtlety and naturalism can be way overrated.

I thought his Waterloo Bridge had a lot of that too, despite a story pulling it toward the gritty and unglamorous.

X. Trapnel said...

Siren and Gerard, I agree about the overdone quality of Deception (Now Voyager and Kings Row [no, Im not going there] have that same quality). Contrary to received opinion, I don't regard it as camp, rather, kitsch of the highest grade, i.e., too Warner Bros., too enjoyable on its own terms to be camp. It's more than the sum of its absurdities.

Hollenius is safe for fine washables and adds zest to salads.

(Sumptuous blonde turns to the camera) "Make mine Hollenius."

Vanwall said...

I've always found the arc from "Chinatown" to "Devil in a Blue Dress" to "L.A. Confidential" is pretty interesting to me, with a few time shifts thrown in, and "Jackie Brown" as the bastard progeny that is so knowing, after a few side trips thru "Banyon" thrown in.

DavidEhrenstein said...

DeMille's The Cheat was a huge deal in the silent era. Especially to the French. Colette sang its priases. There was a whole cult of Sessue Hayakawa. Marcel L'Herbier went so far as to remake it as an early talkie with Hayakawa playing the same role as in the original.
For many French intellectuals The Cheat was the film that made them take films seriously.

Yojimboen said...

G - Devil in a Blue Dress came as a surprise – I did not expect it to be as good as it was; credit Carl Franklin (a seriously-underrated filmmaker) for his script and direction. Walter Mosley also deserves greater respect. IMO he’s already in the James Ellroy/Ross McDonald league; and not that far away from Hammet and Chandler.

It’s one of the few films I like Don Cheadle in (Cheadle insists on taking on roles with accents way beyond his capabilities). Here, his ‘Mouse’ is a delightfully anarchic force of nature; more than willing to shoot anybody and everybody without a blink of hesitation.

Despite its obviously smaller budget it stands tall (in production design and costumes) against Chinatown or L.A. Confidential. Definitely worth a look.

Karen, we jest. Pay no attention to the schmuck behind the curtain.

Gerard Jones said...

Pichel may have been a drag to watch, but let's remember that he stood up to HUAC. One of the original Hollywood Nineteen.

I've seen a couple of early Hayakawas, Cheat and Dragon Painter, and it's true that he doesn't project as much as one would expect from such an adored actor. But I think he was a perfect figure for the audience to project themselves onto. Enigmatic and passive, abstracted. East Asians were frightening and fascinating to Americans then, and he stepped perfectly into one of the rules we liked to assign them to, Japanese in particular--the aesthete so rarefied that he becomes spiritual. Becomes a spirit, almost. So much less human presence than we've come to expect in popular actors, much more divine light shining through from Beyond.

Of course, Sessue Hayakawa in Bridge Over the River Kwai is a whole different thing. Amazing that one guy's career covered such a vast change in movies and America.

Gerard Jones said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gerard Jones said...

Okay, okay. Eggedify: to enlighten or raise someone's horizons through omelet cookery.

The Siren said...

David, I wanted to like The Cheat but I just ... didn't. I may give it another try, I do change my mind from time to time.

Pichel was the uncredited narrator of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, in 1949. I wonder if he was one of the ones John Ford had in mind when he made his famous crack, "Send the commie bastard to me. I'll give him a job."

Yojimboen said...


I can't top that.
You made the right choice, Ms K.

X. Trapnel said...

Nor I (I was struggling with some kind of Richard Eg(g)an association.

Noel Vera said...

Oh, appreciation for Carl Franklin. I woulnd't go so far as to say Devil in a Blue Dress is better than Chinatown or Long Goodbye (I call em 'sunshine noirs'), but I do think it's far better than LA Confidential.

Also a big fan of One False Move. Franklin has some serious moves, there, and is seriously underrated.

Yojimboen said...

I think L.A. Confidential came this close to being a very good film (one of my favourites of the later Jerry Goldsmith scores). I even bought Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce - but Kevin Spacey just kills it dead.

Am I the only one here who thinks Spacey has ruined more good films...?

X. Trapnel said...

Y, you're not suggesting Spacey ruined (suppressed gurgle of laughter) Pay It Forward, are you?

mndean said...

I liked The Verdict, and I didn't expect to. Lorre wasn't given many parts where he could be almost suave. His talent was mostly used for the tormented and psychotic. I don't think he'd got much of a chance at charm if it hadn't been for Mr. Moto, where he could be charming, if lethal.

Whale does seem to draw one into the scene and characters almost faultlessly, at least early in his career when he had the material. Later, it seemed he got stuck doing more prestige pictures, and his direction isn't as compelling. I certainly like his Show Boat best of all, but it's got Irene Dunne claiming to sing (ye gods) "Negro music" and that's just a bridge too far for me to cross. Re: Waterloo Bridge, too bad about Mae Clarke, she didn't get a lot of chances to play good parts.

Don't diss Wheeler and Woolsey. Oh, okay, go ahead a diss them, they're a guilty pleasure of mine. For some reason I like their films in a shut-your-brain-off-and-have-a-holiday way. They're no Marx Brothers or Fields, but the scripts were usually not bad.

L.A has a pretty ugly history and if you count early Hollywood, a very ugly history. BTW, not all men's fashions in the '20s ran to starched collars, straw hats and spats. I have catalogs from the era to prove it. Hell, I have pictures of my dad (b. 1899) that prove it. The light suits Jake Gittes wore really threw me - that was not a fashion much seen even in the '40s, except around the deep south.

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

THANK you, Yojimboen, for that link to the Hollywood on Location page. Never realized, until now, that I was raised in New Bedford Falls. (In Encino, between Louise and White Oak, to be specific.)

For Cathy O'Donnell ... David Cairns was just saying, recently, how good she is in an atypical role in the Eagle Lion *noir* "Bury Me Dead" (director: Bernard Vorhaus; cinematographer: John Alton). I have vague memories of a middle-of-the-night television viewing, but nothing (alas) more specific than that. Worth chasing down, perhaps?

One could also talk about the mansion in "Written On The Wind" as a Big Threatening House. The picture even begins with a squall of wind.

Gerard Jones said...

From pictures I've seen (not movies, pictures of real people) light suits weren't uncommon in '40s California, especially post-War. Southern Cal especially has always cultivated a sort of sunny resort identity--at least some citizens have. Others wanted to make it an Eastern style metropolis, and then there was the whole Iowa-by-the-Sea crowd (and old nickname for Long Beach, if I remember right).

Of course, Jake could have been an oddball, given to light shirts, giant fedoras, and wide spotted ties in the '30s. A fashion visionary, yet.

And I'm sorry, mndean. Nothing will ever stop me from dissing Wheeler and Woolsey.

mndean said...

The lavish praise for The Cheat from the French makes me think they didn't "get" Demille very well, or it plugged into their own prejudices. Cheap sensationalism is part of his game, and it can give a thrill. The Cheat is a good yarn, but even then pretty racist (hardly much more so than the general population, but enough). Hayakawa is still the "other", the exotic, evil aesthete that people ascribed to well-to-do Asians back then.

Funny thing, when I see this sort of film with its implied racism, I always root for the villain (as I did in The Mask of Fu Manchu - who wants to see boring old Nayland Smith win out with his cultural pillaging?), and it's really more for camp value than any other reason I find them watchable today.

Gerard Jones said...

Bury Me Dead is worth watching. Not just Cathy O but also June Lockhart and Hugh Beaumont long before Lassie and the Beav. (I have a weird fascination with Hugh Beaumont, so I may be biased.) Very nice looking, as Alton movies tend to be. Unfortunately I remember a really cornball script. Lots of bad gags and wisecracks.

mndean said...

My dad lived in San Diego from 1920 until the late 1930s and if he had a light suit, he sure wasn't photographed in it.

As for W&W, yeah, I know. Everyone does it. Still think they're better than the Ritz Brothers (of which I only can stand Harry).

Gerard Jones said...

I saw the Mask of Fu Manchu on the big screen a while back, and people laughed a lot, of course--although in this case it was hard to get huffy and mutter about how they didn't understand "historical context." There are parts of our historical context it would be nice to laugh away.

But it was really...weird...watching Myrna Loy as Fu's daughter. People didn't laugh as much when she was on screen. I heard a few whispering, "Is that Myrna Loy?" Just so odd to know her so well in a later persona and watch her being so earnest in that absurd role (and costume).

X. Trapnel said...

One idle afternoon a friend and I conceptualized an alternate-universe Cathy O'Donnell making everyone on the set of BYOOL miserable with her screaming tantrums, sending William Wyler home in tears, playing cruel jokes on Harold Russell (e.g., wiring dry cell batteries to Hoagy Carmichael's piano, so when HR sat down to play...)

Gerard Jones said...

mndean: I think I wasn't clear. It was in the mid-'40s that the light suits started appearing (as on my dad, in San Diego until the end of the war, then LA). I'm saying Jake would have to have been an oddball or visionary to have dressed as he did in the '30s.

But the cars and most of the other clothes make clear that the background world of Chinatown is the late '30s.

mndean said...

Okay, I didn't get the context of your remark. I just went from the '30s style, which went for darker colors (medium gray was about the lightest I saw).

Hugh Beaumont, eh? You have a nerve dissing W&W. Though I admit, on my few outings of the TV show, Beaumont seemed to be the only TV dad that looked like he might haul off and hit his kids. My favorite TV dad was always Frank Faylen, whose irascible shopkeep was a lot closer to my own father than any other TV dad.

Gerard Jones said...

Yeah, Ward Cleaver in the early seasons was the most human dad on TV. The whole show was unique in trying to see the world from a kid's point of view instead of just using kids as props or demonstrating correct behavior. Then it started responding to the early '60s by becoming increasingly moralistic. The late Ward is about as horrific as Fred MacMurray's Steve Douglas.

I suppose Beaumont really wasn't a very interesting actor and I'm only drawn to him because he would someday be Ward. I liked him as the genial pal in Blue Dahlia, though.

The Siren said...

Mrs HWV, now you've done it, you've brought up Sirk. And one of my favorite credit sequences of all time. The house is dark, the wind is howling, leaves are blowing all over the place, everybody is peering out the windows (although they aren't casement), what's not to love? What is great about the sequence too is that it establishes all of the major themes (it's as complete as the opening of The Letter in that regard) and it gives a lot of House Atmosphere, while being in vibrant color and really not very Dark.

Karen said...

Gerard, if you want to see Myrna Loy in an absurd role and an exotic costume, you've got to check her out as the vengeful half-caste in Thirteen Women, one of my guilty pleasures.

It also features your crush, Irene Dunne, by the way.

Exiled in NJ said...

Lest we forget when bringing up composers, the love of Gladys Cooper's life wrote Lost April so it could sit in a locked box in her mansion, until Cary Grant entered to demonstrate his proficiency on the harp.

Cathy O'Donnell or Shelley Duvall as Keechie? Your vote? I always think that Altman channeled the end of From Here to Eternity for the last scene in the bus station [I can't remember how Ray handled it].

One other thought on Southern California building design: does anyone know of any apartment building where the doors open outward such as the flimsy door that hides Phyllis from Keyes in Indemnity?

DavidEhrenstein said...

Leave It To Beaver was neo-realism compared to the rest of TV at the time. The writer made a real effort to have the kids talk like actual kids.

(And as a side note I'm surely not the only gay man of my generation to have had a mad passion for Tony Dow.)

The almost reflexive racism of The Cheat is rather obvious. What got the French excited about Hayakawa was the fact that he "does nothing " yet overwhelms. Silent acting was largely overacting. Jean Hagen's immortal "Lina Lamont" in Singin' in the Rain wasn't that much of a caricature. Hayakaway offered something new, that in some ways looks forward to Bresson.

Thirteen Women is indeed an unintentional comic bonanza. Loy's character is treated horribly by her schoolmates, so her seeking revenge is perfectly defensible. The thing is all she does most of the time is show up, stand there and stare balefully at them. We're supposed to believe that that alone is suficient to give them the cold creeps. Apparently "Eurasians" have mystical evil powers.

Whale was reportedly more interested in the black performers in Showboat than he was in the white ones. Dunne was disconcerted that he didn't pay much attention to her. But this was standard "When you do something wrong I'll let you know" direction.

She probably expected him to kiss her ass and treat her like "THE star."

mndean said...

Dunne bugs me in Show Boat because she exactly wrong for the part - I don't believe her for a second, and amusingly she's top-billed in Thirteen Women, too. In that film, Dunne is the only one Loy directly attacks, the others destroy themselves IIRC. She really ought to have been grateful to Leo McCarey and Cary Grant for having a career from the later '30 on. For most of the early-mid '30s I call her Miss Prissy, in honor of the cartoon character. She has an unseemly "I'm better than this" quality about her in many of her films.

Silent acting veers from the overacting of melodramas (Conrad Nagel is one who struck me that way) all the way to Buster Keaton, whose subtlety is way more appreciated today than at the time. Hayakawa was a lot more naturalistic, but it's used against him in The Cheat, as though he's an Inscrutable Asian.

You're right about Hugh Beaumont's Ward Cleaver. In the first years he was a lot more prone to frustration and anger than later on, and wasn't the Perfect Dad type that infested television. Fred MacMurray's Steve Douglas didn't have to be, but you really couldn't have a Walter Neff raising kids by then, could you? What would the neighbors say?

X. Trapnel said...

mnd, wouldn't you Grant (haw, haw) that Dunne was usually good in comedy on her own? Theodora Goes Wild? The Joy of Living? Neither, of course, remotely as good as The Awful Truth, but I find her quite amusing and not at all stuck up.

Walter Neff as a sitcom dad provoked the thought that if you put Nino Zachetti and Dan Duryea in a blender you get Eddie Haskell.

Karen said...

MNDean, in Thirteen Women Loy causes the deaths of at least two of her former finishing school classmates through the [dun-dun-DUNNNN!] Power of Suggestion! She sends them their astrological charts, posing as her master the Swami, and infers that they will die. DIE, I tell you! So, for example, the tight-wire artist falls to her death--because she KNEW SHE WAS GOING TO DIE!!

Sorry. I'll stop.

By the way, I do love that a snooty finishing-school produced a tight-wire artist. I believe they try to explain it, but it's pretty thin.

On another note, Hayakawa IS staggeringly inscrutable until the attempted rape scene, when he gets mighty passionate. I thought it was his best scene--not least because it was the one where he was wearing the least makeup.

Gerard, I saw The Dragon Painter, too, and I was likewise not particularly enthralled. Perhaps because, again, he's playing such an unpleasant character. Not just unpleasant, but with nothing to make the audience particularly interested in him.

Oh, and David? Little straight girls were pretty taken with Tony Dow, too.

mndean said...

I think all you'd have to do is shrink Duryea into an adolescent to get Eddie Haskell. Haskell never had Nino's on-the-surface hostility or toughness.

Dunne in comedy is okay, but she always needs someone to play off, be it Melvyn Douglas, Cary, or some other man. I've never seen Joy of Living, but look at the cast - Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Alice Brady, Guy Kibbee, Jean Dixon, Eric Blore - how could she ruin a film with all that support? Well, I think she still could, but the others would save it.

X. Trapnel said...

Joy of Living also has Billy Gilbert for a few very funny seconds.

DavidEhrenstein said...

In Joy of Living Dunne gets to sing "Youn Couldn't Be Cuter" -- a marvelous obscure Jerome Kern. Of course in High Wide and Handsome she got to sing a truly great Kern, "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" (there's a memorable Peggy Lee version of it used to devestating effect by Terence Davies in the climax of his marvelous Of Time and the City)

Dunne was indeed best in comedy when she had a strong co-star to play against. But I always found her fun.

Of course The Awful Truth is in a class by itself. "Must've been that ham I et."

DavidEhrenstein said...

And you're right, Karen. Wally Cleaver makes Eddie Haskells of us all.

Yojimboen said...

Madame Sirène, my fave title sequence in that milieu is still Ladies in Retirement: Steaming marsh, pan across the stars’ names floating on the surface of stinking ponds; costars’ carved on gravestones, tech credits on bits of driftwood, scraps of paper, tumbled signposts; more on pond surfaces, then, finally, delightfully, ‘Directed by Charles Walters’ on the stern of a high and dry, rotted-out old rowboat.

Dissolve to long shot of THE HOUSE – impossibly tall for its purpose; is it thatched or shingled? - monstrous, not mock-, but scorn-Tudor; a house whose image cries out to be miniaturized and stamped in every dictionary next to the word “gothic”.

Go closer: Ida Lupino, the housekeeper, stands outside the front door reading a letter, newly-arrived from London. Over her shoulder we read – it’s from a landlady, telling Ida to come collect her crazy sisters or else…

Pan to Ida’s face and the unsaid (Oh, shit!).

Now that’s how you open a movie.

X. Trapnel said...

"scorn-Tudor," I'll trade you my next 3 jokes and a witticism to be named later for that one.

Yojimboen said...

I have to second Mr. E’s praises; Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City should be required viewing for anyone pretending to know what the word ‘documentary’ means.

In Britain during the war and into the 50s and early 60s, Bing Crosby’s version of "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" was considered the gold standard of Kern’s classic song. Little by little over the years it was replaced by Peggy Lee’s rendition; and deservedly so IMO.

(Thanks X, praise indeed.)

Goose said...

Wow, another far-reaching thread!

I saw the Sign of the Ram, and thought it pretty effective. The revelations progressed nicely, but I was surprised that Leah, when she threw the hissy fit, dod not disclose a role in the (unexplained) death of the mother.

I can only second the absolute sadness of Susan Peters' life and her end. I am under the impression that her cause of death was anorexia, though, not willful suicide.

X, what were the gory details of Sam Goldwyn's scuttling of Cathy O'Donnell? At least Wyler and Anthony Mann did give her some high-profile roles.

Toryspin = the political spin of the British Conservative Party.

The Siren said...

I really must rise to the defense of Irene Dunne. Here I go. Here it is. Two words. And they are all I need:


I mean really, if she had done nothing else, and she's *lovely* in that one. Comedy IS playing off of other people, at least if it's going to make a complete, rounded film. Even Groucho needed Dumont.

But she did some other fine work as well:

Theodora Goes Wild
Penny Serenade
The Awful Truth
My Favorite Wife (her laughing fit in the shoestore is almost as funny as Grant's celebrated elevator double-take)

And I like her in the late-career Anna and the King of Siam and she plays beautifully with William Powell in Life with Father.

Lots of people here defend Loretta Young for the sake of her early work, so I don't think we should see Dunne's later comedies as an aberration. It was a matter of discovering her true metier.

Much as I love her, though, I don't think anybody sees Show Boat for her sake. Or Roberta, for that matter.

Gerard Jones said...

Karen, I love Thirteen Women! You've made me want to see it again--it's been a few years. One of the best of those early '30s movies with an utterly psycho plot that everyone treats with such simple earnestness you want to buy it. And that great old narrative trick where they act as if they're deploring bigotry, but in fact the portrayal of the half-caste is appallingly racist.

I keep thinking it should be a Warner Bros, with Ann Dvorak as one of the women, except that WB/Zanuck wouldn't have gone for the exoticism of the half-breed.

mndean, I agree that Dunne is completely wrong for Showboat. Strange to realize that what made her a star was that very role--Magnolia in Showboat--on Broadway. Can't blame Hollywood for miscasting her--they basically had no choice. She did have a glorious voice for Kern. I suppose on the stage, without close-ups, her wrongness as Magnolia was less apparent, but Only Make Believe would have filled the theater.

Of course, they also added her blackface number for the movie. The son wasn't in the stage version. Even in 1936 I can't imagine how anyone could have thought that Irene Dunne in blackface was a good idea.

Gerard Jones said...

Geez. Right after that comment about Dunne and Kern, my verification word is "kerdn."

And speaking of: I love Irene in Roberta. She plays well off Randolph Scott is one of his broadest early goofy-bumpkin roles. And does she ever kill on Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.

But David: I've never heard that she was the sort who needed ass-kissing. No one's ever called her warm and chummy, but I've generally heard that she was rigorous professional and brought very little ego onto the set. (Although of course I defer to your knowledge of movie stars. If you say it's so, I believe you.)

She was also a staunch Republican. But...well, we all know what Osgood Fielding III says.

Gerard Jones said...

Above: "the son wasn't in the stage version" is supposed to be "the SONG wasn't in the stage version."


The Siren said...

Gerard, I have never really heard anything bad about Dunne on the set. She seems to have been the rare actress who did her job, went home and once there, neither cheated on her (doctor) husband nor abused her (adopted) daughter. She was church-going and charity-contributing.

Of course, I wouldn't be surprised if David E. had something on her anyway. He's basically the Venona Project of Hollywood. :D

I do like her in Roberta although her style of singing isn't my favorite. It's just that I love Ginger as a fake aristo more. It gets my vote for flat-out ODDEST Astaire-Rogers vehicle. The score is magical of course, but Randolph Scott is unbelievably out of place. And that whole subplot over the "vulgar" black patent-leather dress is something else--Scott getting all huffy over it, like a combination Mr. Blackwell and James Dobson. Doesn't work.

Irene did a great job with "You Couldn't Be Cuter" in Joy of Living, although Ella's version on the Jerome Kern Songbook is the one to beat.

Gerard Jones said...

To my mind there are two hemispheres of Kern: the post-war, jazz-inflected interpretations (Ella, Jo Stafford, Mel Torme, Miss Peggy) and what I might call the "original" style, the operetta style that he consciously wrote for, by sopranos and lyric tenors with much prettiness and little jazz. Irene Dunne and Fred Astaire are my favorites at that, and to me it's just such a different musical experience that I can't even compare.

Kern was a very different composer from Berlin, Gershwin, etc: 19th Century childhood, educated German Jew instead of East Side Russian Jew, trained in Edwardian England, collaborated with PG Wodehouse, etc. So where the others are easily and naturally interpreted in a "jazz standard" style, with Kern that's almost like translation into a new language. (Especially the early stuff, which can be pretty Romberg/Lehar. Different from Show Boat on, but still.)

I love both when done well, but there's a haunting quality the post-war versions will never capture. A tremulous quaver and melancholy smile.

In the late style, though, I want to register a vote for Jo Stafford's Folks Who Live on the Hill.

Exiled in NJ said...

Growing up in 1958, 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes' was the Platters and their version, and I'd heard Nat Cole, Damone and others, so that the shock of hearing Dunne seemingly auditioning for a part in some small town opera company took a while to wear off. She was singing, but with little meaning to the lyrics.

Like "Rio," Roberta has one too many stories for an Astaire-Rogers film and without a Cariocca, it droops at times. I'm not sure which is the worst casting of Scott: the lunk owning a dress store or Hawkeye a year later in Last of the Mohicans.

Amen to Love Affair. Dunne and Boyer are so appealing that you must wonder why McCarey remade the film, and padded it with that awful title song. Sometimes I think the song brought about the remake.

Gerard Jones said...

Was just reading Huffington Post and am dismayed to see that the phrase "Liz and Dick" now applies to Cheney and his daughter. Brrr.

Karen said...

I don't know if it adds to or detracts from my aura here to admit that not only do I like Roberta (despite Dunne, whose singing voice I truly do not like), but I own the Alice Duer Miller book, Gowns by Roberta, on which it was based. (Along with a handful of other ADM titles, one or two of which were also made into films. is a dangerous hobby.)

I don't think Randolph Scott was a good choice for the male lead, to be honest. Joel McCrea, perhaps. Even a very young John Wayne--although, 4 years before Stagecoach he was too stuck in B Westerns to have been considered for such a role. The hero is a big dumb puppy of a football hero whose had his heart broken by a feckless social climber with delusions of real social standing. Scott comes off...I don't almost too arch for the guy as he's written.

Needless to say, the fabulous fake Russian countess and the Wabash Indianians do not feature in the novel. I've often wondered why and how it was decided to make the movie a partial Astaire-Rogers vehicle.

About the gown--of course, one can only go by the description. But the Scott character is supposed to be the sort of pure-of-heart bloke who doesn't like seeing a woman looking slutty. And the gown is described as being...vulgar. What we see, of course, is Bernard Newman's (WHO's??) idea of vulgar.

Suffice to say it works in the book--the scales fall from his eyes about Sophie, seeing her as the vulgar social climber she always was, and yet he's hurt by thinking Stephanie did it to make Sophie look bad on purpose. That comes across a little in the film, but not well.

Geez, I have gone on! Sorry. But I did want to defend it a little. When I watch the film I have the print characters in my head, too, so that forgives a lot.

On a different note, DavidE, your comment on Wally Cleaver is one for the ages. Bless you.

Gerard Jones said...

I too amen Love Affair. There's something transcendent about that movie. I hope I get to see a good print of it someday, where the chiaro is really chiaro and the oscuro is truly oscuro. The TCM print is a shallow gray pool.

But golly, Exiled, I could not disagree more about Irene's Smoke. I think she brings tremendous, heartbreaking feeling to it. It's a completely different feeling, though. Not the platters or Vic Damone's feeling, but a '20s light opera feeling, just right for the supposed exiled Russian aristocrat in Paris, looking back further and treasuring her sadness like jewels.

And I gotta say, Irene makes "chaff" and "deride" sound a lot more natural than anybody in the '50s ever could.

Gerard Jones said...

Karen! Thank you for the insight into Alice Duerr Miller and her book. I've been intrigued by it since I saw the movie (I'm fascinated by the '20s romance with fallen aristocrats--not where my political sympathies lie, but the symbol speaks to me), but I've shied away: my experiences with popular lady novelists of the early 20th Century have not been rewarding. I feel I understand a little better what the story's meant to be. Is it worth actually reading?

Interesting to think: now we look at Roberta and ask why the hell anybody had to jam Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott and all their plot nonsense into it. I'm sure at the time there were many people who liked the stage play and wondered why the hell Hollywood had to mess it up with Fred and Ginger and all their midwestern shtick.

I agree that Randy Scott was way too campy and baroque for that role. But I like the specific Dunne-Scott bits. I really wish Pan Berman had been able to secure Irene for Follow the Fleet, which was originally meant as a reprise of the Roberta leads. Instead we got Harriet Hilliard.

(Oh, and I hope you know I mean lady novelists of That Sort. I'm not talking about Edith Wharton and Willa Cather.)

The Siren said...

Gerard, lady novelists of That Sort, forsooth. Madame Elinor Glyn is Most Displeased. :D

Karen, I guess my experience with football-player-lunks and their fashion taste has been that they think vulgar is too restrained. When it comes to women's wear they want full-out slutty.

Another of my Roberta problems: Zero chemistry between the leads. They don't even seem to be in the same room even when they are.

It's a pity they had to clean up the lyrics to "I'll Be Hard to Handle." Ginger could have really done that one to a turn.

The Siren said...

Oh, and I have to agree more with Exiled on "Smoke" -- the Platters have it all over Irene, original conception or no.

When Jo Stafford died Jacqueline T. Lynch wrote a lovely appreciation at Another Old Movie Blog, but I don't remember her mentioning Folkls Who Live on the Hill. Must search that one out.

Yojimboen said...

Don’t you just hate it,
part 2:

Don’t you just hate it when you find out something horrible about someone you absolutely adore? Someone who – for you – can do no wrong (I speak of Ms Dunne)? Irene was a brilliant comedienne, a dazzling actress – and as a singer, a golden goddess with a nightingale in her throat.

But she was a Republican?
Tell me Jean Hersholt liked to torture small animals.
Tell me Norman Rockwell was a child molester.
But don’t tell me that.

Gerard Jones said...

Siren, I've actually tried Lady Glyn. Oy vey!

Up until the '60s one could pass Irene off as one of the Good Republicans. Did some UN work for Ike and so on. Things a Democrat might almost have done. But then she became an enthusiastic campaigner for Reagan and Nixon in the '60s. Not begrudging. Not, oh well, if it can't be Nelson Rockefeller I suppose I have to support Nixon over Humphrey. Enthusiastic.

Sorry, Yojimboen.

X. Trapnel said...

I take an hour off for lunch and miss an avalanche of great posts. Of the Mighty Five (our moguchaya kuchka [if you don't know what this refers to forget it]) Kern is my favorite and I confess to preferring (by far) the early school of interpretation. I would say though that Astaire with his casual elegance bridges the two ideally. Kern is also, not surprisingly, the song writer who classically trained singers do most convincingly (Kiri te Kanawa has a gorgeous Kern disk--and a hideous Gershwin collection). I don't know if there are any Joan Morris/William Bolcolm fans out there but I love their renditions because they sound as if Gershwin/Kern/Rogers/Porter/Berlin had just handed them the music, the ink not yet dry.

Karen, I believe Gowns by Roberta is a bibliographic rarity; didn't ADM write The White Cliffs of Dover? (Yojim, did Lady Mnemosyne just set the tone arm down on that one).

My favorite semi-hidden Kern gem: "All Through the Day"

Am I the only one who's noticed the sheer bloody awfulness of the "friends" in "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"?

The Siren said...

Y., see Gerard in re: Osgood Fielding III. :D

Goose, I missed you up there ...


yes, I was totally expecting Leah to confess to something there too. At first I felt cheated but really it's no more a cheat than the enigmatic end of something like Picnic at Hanging Rock -- it's good to challenge expectations sometimes. Wonder if 1948 audiences felt frustrated by that too?

X. Trapnel said...

Y, I learned recently (grab your chair) that Ronald Reagan's first political mentor (i.e., moving rightward) was--I can't bear it!--OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND. (Siren, if you're hiding anything abt Joan's politics please keep it secret).

Thank god for Myrna.

X. Trapnel said...

Gerard, have a go at Opal Emerson Mudge

mndean said...

I try to ignore an actor's personal life in assessing their effectiveness on screen. That Dunne was a professional, etc. doesn't do much to change my view of how she doesn't work for me until after she started comedies.
Roberta was one of those films that was neither fish nor fowl and it didn't work. I recorded Stingaree but never had the stomach to watch. Dunne would have been infinitely better in Follow the Fleet simply because Hilliard was such a drag.

Mentioning Loretta Young reminds me that she's one actress who attracted me less as she got older. As the pretty young innocent who got into terrible scrapes (a mirror of her life, eh?), I like her. Her later, more arch self isn't so attractive to me and reminds me that she was not an actress who could do comedy.

Gerard Jones said...

See, that's another reason I like the old version of Smoke: the awfulness of the friends is just right for the venomous, hollow society of fallen aristocrats and phony climbers that we assume to be Roberta's sad lot in Paris.

The Platters' version is gorgeous to listen to, though, no question. And I do like the image of a young black American guy in the '50s chaffing his friends and gaily laughing.

The Siren said...

Joan dated Adlai Stevenson so for me, she's good for life in that department. Olivia was a Democrat for a long time but a lot of Old Hollywood stars went for Reagan by the time the 80s rolled around, like former liberal Jimmy Cagney. Even Bette Davis wound up saying nice things about RR. (Some kept their heads, though. Henry Fonda told an interviewer "he was a lousy actor and he'll be a lousy President.")

And, pace Big Hollywood, a lot of stars then and now vote their pocketbook, i.e. GOP. Given his feelings about taxes I suspect our own wonderful George Sanders was not voting for the Great Society.

Lauren Bacall has remained a rock-ribbed Democrat. I loved her even more after I saw an interview (with Larry King, if memory serves) where she said flatly that she didn't believe in God. When the interviewer stammered "what do you think happens when you die," Bacall gave him that famous feline glare and replied calmly, "You're DEAD."

I mean, no matter what your religious bent that's ballsy, in this country.

X. Trapnel said...

Re Joan; I'm going to shave my head (leaving the Stevenson cum Ernie Bushmiller fringe)

Re Bacall; Gee-dash-dee bless you! My opinion of her just went up into the stratosphere.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I haven't the slightest doubt that Irene Dunne was professional down to her pinkie-toe. It's simply that Whale could be quite "the character" in ways that put her off. Showboat found him at th very height of his power and authority in Hollywood. It wasn't "A James Whale Production" for nothing. Laemmlle gave him everything he wanted -- even Doris Zinkheisen. She was a costume designer Whale had worked with in the thater who hadn't done films before and he insisted on having her od Showboat She did a great job, but as you're aware if you've seen it it was an enormous undertaking. It quite literally had a cast of thousands all dressed to the max. Whale was in hig heaven. But it all came crashing down when the Laemmle's lost control of Universal. He was assigned remakes of earlier films and literally walked through hem in disgust. Having made a lot of money he was able to retire quite comfortably.

And the rest is covered in Gods and Monsters.

Irene Dunne and Loretta Young were great personal firneds, both being Big Time Catholics. In their later years they were often spotted at church together, where they were involved in a lot of charity work.

Loretta gave a great interview to the L.A. Times a few years befroe she died. A picture was tkaen of her for the occasion and she looked absolutely smashing -- a real star.

She had, by that time, fessed up to the daughter she'd had by Clark Gable -- and had passed off as an "adopted child." At the end they were quite close.

The Siren said...

But anyway, back to Dunne. I saw Stingaree and it was dullsville. I also saw Cimarron and it didn't impress much. In fact I haven't seen much of her early work at all (not the original Back Street, nor Magnificent Obsession, nor her Countess Ellen Olenska) but based on Penny Serenade and Anna & the King, I am not willing to say she only did well in comedy. And I think she has some nice moments in Show Boat, it's just that I watch that for Robeson and Helen Morgan, mostly.

DavidEhrenstein said...

There's great use of The Platters' version of "Smoke Gets in Yor Eyes" in Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant.

mndean said...

I expect actors to have political views that are self-centered after a measure of success. Churchill's dumb formulation is practically a model of self-centeredness: once you're older and comfortable, fuck those you needed to get there, do everything you can to keep what you have away from the rabble. They don't matter anymore. Age has nothing to do with it. Actors then lead rather insular lives where money meant a lot to them as a measure of success. Orson Welles' famous saying about HUAC was much more apropos - they didn't do it to save their lives, but their swimming pools. The people paying the money to watch them didn't matter to most of the stars. Finding an star that identified with the downcast was much more rare than otherwise. Olivia DeHavilland? Doesn't surprise me at all. It's one of the reasons I ignore politics in looking at an actor's performance. Only the most egregious creeps will make my skin crawl.

The Siren said...

M., if there is one political saying I would love never to hear again it's that ridiculous remark, which incidentally there is NO evidence Churchill ever said. And why should he -- Churchill was himself too smart to say that FDR (for example) had no brain.

Today's stars frequently come from Hollywood families themselves, but the older ones (especially the silent stars) often had hardscrabble backgrounds and can't really be said to have led sheltered lives. But yes, success changes a lot.

Gerard Jones said...

Irene came by her politics "honestly," in the sense that she was true to her family and her Kentucky/Indiana culture. She never bent to New York and Hollywood values, which is to her personal credit, I guess, even if it put her in with Those People.

A lot of New Deal liberals swung right in the '60s and landed in Reagan's lap. Al Capp was a great liberal satirist of the stuffy rich in the early Li'l Abners and went on to be a bilious satirist of lefty idealists by the end. Some of that was about getting rich, but it wasn't only the rich ones. Look at the way the Democratic labor unions turned against McGovern. A lot of people who'd defined themselves by FDR in their youths felt that '50s prosperity was the realization of the New Deal dream and deeply distrusted attempts to pull us further left, especially as though came more from intellectuals and college kids than labor unions. And of course a lot felt truly frightened and alienated by the upheavals of the '60s.

Not every progressive is temperamentally suited to endless progression. Some were excited to substitute FDR for Hoover but then wanted everything to stop right there.

Gerard Jones said...

And speaking of '50s complacency:

I also love that line, David, about Wally Cleaver making Eddie Haskells of us all. Tony Dow always did something to me, too, and to hell with that "straight" identification. He's also pretty well known to be a very interesting and very decent guy. I saw him once, sometime in the '90s, and he radiated exactly the quality you'd want from a grown-up Wally.

I used to think it was a strike against him that he's still friends with his old costars, Mathers, Osmond and Bank, all notorious head-cases. But as I get older I see that as a virtue and a skill.

The creators of Leave It to Beaver, Bob Mosher and Joe Connelly, were interesting in that they very consciously wanted to present a positive image of child-rearing, but with a realistic look at how difficult it is. They both had lousy dads and both were intent on being good dads themselves--they didn't just nod to the domestic emphasis of the '50s but really tried to live it.

So in the beginning you can see Ward falling short a lot, but learning and regaining his footing. There's an episode that I didn't much like as a kid but love now where Ward tries to teach Beaver to box but Beaver's just too meek and timid to get it. All of Ward's farmboy/Army veteran shit comes up around "my son is a sissy." He gets through it but without either losin who he is or feeling cut off from the Beav. It's pretty interesting stuff.

In the first season there was even some sexual sizzle between Ward and June. Soon chased off camera. After a few more seasons Mosher and Connelly completely lost their bearings. Part of that same rightward swing described above.

X. Trapnel said...

Gerard, I don't think the Democratic Party ever intended to pull us farther left ideologically so much as to expand the New Deal in such a way as to bring as many people as possible up the social and economic ladder within the pragmatic borders of mainstream democratic liberalism. "Endless progressivism," vaguely defined, might suggest a utopianism that liberals should rightly be wary of.

Gerard Jones said...

Exactly, X. And I think many people who had supported the New Deal had sincerely different ideas as to where those pragmatic borders might lie. Some thought we were going outside those borders by the '50s. A lot more felt that about the Great Society. And for many, many others, "busing" was the camel-breaker.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I always sensed that Ward and June had a great sex life.

I read somewhere about Tony Dow being partially responsible for some important invention of some sort.

Gerard Jones said...

Don't know about Tony Dow and an invention, but could look it up.

You're not confusing him with Hedy Lamarr, are you? I make that mistake all the time...

Goose said...

I wonder if poltical disputes between Joan and Olivia deepened their rift.

Liberal actors, besides those mentioned, include Humphrey Bogart, Carole Lombard, Fredric March, Gregory Peck
Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Robert Ryan, etc. and quite a few more comtemporary performers.

I know Cary Grant seemed to be apolitical. I do not know of Fred Astaire, William Powell, Jean Arthur, and Joseph Cotten, among other favorites, having any political stances. Does anyone know anything?

On the conservative side (ugh!) Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Ginger Rogers, Claudette Colbert, Fred MacMurray, Joel McCrea, as well as some familiar far-righters, and of course Marion ("Duke") Morrison and James Stewart, of course.

Watomics = the study and application of watoms.

Stededg - a city in Poland, formerly known by its German name, Stetgau.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Whoops, not an invention -- Art!

"Dow has become a serious, respected amateur sculptor, creating abstract bronze sculptures. In his artist statement, he says the following about his work: "The figures are abstract and not meant to represent reality but rather the truth of the interactions as I see and feel them. I find the wood in the hills of Topanga Canyon and each piece evolves from my subconscious. I produce limited editions of nine bronzes using the lost wax process from molds of the original burl sculpture." One of his bronze pieces is on display in the backyard garden of Barbara Billingsley, who played his mother on, Leave It to Beaver. Dow was chosen as one of three sculptors to show at the Societe Nationale Des Beaux Arts exhibition, in the Carrousel du Louvre, in Paris, France, in December 2008, representing the United States delegation comprising artists from the Karen Lynne Gallery. The sculpture that will be shown at the Louvre is titled, "Unarmed Warrior," which is a bronze figure of a woman holding a shield." (wiki)

Jerry Mathers recently appeared on Broadway in Hairspray as Tracy Turnblad's father.

Gerard Jones said...

Mathers does seem to have some sense of humor about himself, or at least he understands the career value of pretending so. But the stories I've heard about his vanity and control-freakiness...yow!

Gerard Jones said...

Dow also owned an optical effects company or something. Maybe he has some engineering smarts.

Gerard Jones said...

Now my word is "granz." Too bad we're not talking jazz at time moment.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Abou Hedy, according to wikie --

"Avant garde composer George Antheil, a son of German immigrants and neighbor of Lamarr, had experimented with automated control of muscial instruments, including his music for Ballet Mecanique, originally written for Fernand Léger's 1924 abstract film. This score involved multiple player pianos playing simultaneously.

Together, Antheil and Lamarr submitted the idea of a Secret Communication System in June 1941. On August 11, 1942, U.S. Patent 2,292,387 was granted to Antheil and "Hedy Kiesler Markey", Lamarr's married name at the time. This early version of frequency hopping used a piano roll to change between 88 frequencies and was intended to make radio-guided torpedoes harder for enemies to detect or jam.

The idea was ahead of its time, and not feasible owing to the state of mechanical technology in 1942. It was not implemented in the USA until 1962, when it was used by U.S. military ships during a blockade of Cuba,[6] after the patent had expired. Neither Lamarr nor Antheil (who died in 1959) made any money from the patent. Perhaps owing to this lag in development, the patent was little-known until 1997, when the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave Lamarr an award for this contribution.[1]

Lamarr's and Antheil's frequency-hopping idea serves as a basis for modern spread-spectrum communication technology, such as COFDM used in WiFi network connections and CDMA used in some cordless and wireless telephones.[7] Similar patents had been granted to others earlier, like in Germany in 1935 to Telefunken engineers Paul Kotowski and Kurt Dannehl who also received U.S. Patent 2,158,662 and U.S. Patent 2,211,132 in 1939 and 1940. Blackwell, Martin and Vernam's Secrecy Communication System patent from 1920 (1598673) does seem to lay the communications groundwork for Kiesler and Antheil's patent which employed the techniques in the autonomous control of torpedoes.

Lamarr wanted to join the National Inventors Council, but she was told that she could better help the war effort by using her celebrity status to sell War Bonds. She once raised $7,000,000 at just one event."

No surprise there. Josph Cornell was obsessed with her, BTW. Many of his box sculptures were tributes to her.

X. Trapnel said...

Antheil also wrote the great score for In a Lonely Place. The main theme catches the anguished sadness beautifully. I'd strongly recommend Antheil's fourth symphony for anyone interested in investigating his work.

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

For the Jerome Kern conversation ...

I haven't heard the Jo Stafford take on "Folks Who Live On The Hill"; if you're referring to the version on JO+JAZZ, though, I will admit that I've loved everything else from that album that I've heard.

Until I encounter that cut, though, I'll stand by the '50s Peggy Lee version (the one used by Terence Davies. with its Copland-esque intro). I'll also stand by Helen Merrill plus Clifford Brown performing "Yesterdays" and Chet Baker performing "Long Ago, And Far Away" ... give or take Mildred Bailey's "In Love In Vain" Nor should we forget Sarah Vaughan's "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" on NO COUNT SARAH.

Robert Avrech said...

Thanks so much for the link.

Watching Sign of the Ram, was, for me, a bittersweet experience. Peters is awfully good and of course, denied the use of her whole body with which to act, she, as you wisely point out, used her hands most expressively.

I kept thinking: how did she do this when she was most certainly in excruciating pain? The actors I have worked with here in Hollywood depend on intense focus to achieve their ends. Often, even a minor cold can throw off an entire performance.

A very fine actress I once worked with was felled by a migraine and we had to rearrange our shooting schedule. Finally, I had her taken to a hospital ER and she was given powerful pain medication that broke the cycle of pain. Thank G-d.

"Sign of the Ram" is not, as you say, great. But Peters was a brilliant actress and through force of talent and an iron will, she managed to lift the turgid drama to a higher level.

I've always felt that "Citizen Kane" was a candidate for the haunted mansion genre. Dark, foreboding Xanadu dominates the film from beginning to end.

Exiled in NJ said...

And Shadow of a Doubt shows that a house does not have to be dark and foreboding to be threatening. If it's not a fall down the back stairs, it's getting trapped in the garage, or for that matter, having creepy Herb show up at dinner to talk about murder. Then Hitch uses the train station to try to finish you off.

mndean said...

When I first saw the shot of Xanadu's gates in Citizen Kane when I was a kid, my first thought was, "Is this a horror movie?"

The Siren said...

David, today's Hollywood Reporter says Rachel Weicz is attached to play Hedy in a movie that focuses largely on her as a scientist.

Robert, thank you so much for stopping by. I wanted to see Sign of the Ram ever since reading your post. I agree, it is incredible to think of playing scenes in such pain, but there are troopers who can do it. I just re-read Jack Cardiff's account of filming The African Queen and Katharine Hepburn having a bucket just out of camera shot so she could throw up between takes. And Robert Donat frequently played while in agony from his asthma ... I am sure other examples are out there. Still, there is no way it *contributes* to a performance, acting is too physical an art.

Citizen Kane indeed fits in some respects; Xanadu is as good as a character. Exiled, I kept thinking of other 1940s films where the house interiors seem to take on a life of their own; In This Our Life and A Stolen Life are others where a cozy house starts to feel more and more oppressive after a while. I really like the interiors of old movies, which is why the Hollow blog was one I loved at sight.

Mrs HWV, I will have to check out that version of "Yesterdays," which I find unbearably bathetic when done badly and heartbreaking when done well.

mndean said...

When you see the actors who turned right wing in the '60s, you have to wonder the one thing unspoken here - did it have to do with civil rights? Not a one of those actors who shifted would admit to such a thing (it would hurt their legacy, being shown as bigots), but it was the most visible and largest reason for party switches in this country during the era. Vietnam was much more a DFH thing that transcended parties (both parties were involved in the war). The youth movement didn't change that, so I don't see how it could have changed party ID. It could make a convenient excuse, but not a convincing one.

X. Trapnel said...

Far more so than Xanadu is the Amberson mansion a character in itself and a place of haunted memory (especially so in the original ending when it becomes a boarding house). Even during the height of Amberson magnificence it has a threatening, funereal look or a place where people are trapped together. How appropriate that the same set should be used in The Seventh Victim and The Fallen Sparrow.

The Siren said...

Ah, XT, you are right about the Amberson manse. I haven't seen The Fallen Sparrow.

Vanwall said...

I always interpreted the Sternwood mansion in "The Big Sleep" to be a nod in the direction of the old dark house mysteries, one that Chandler may have meant as a nose tweak towards the formulaic murder mysteries that he dismembered so well in his essay, "The Simple Art of Murder". Hawks must've caught that vibe, because the imposing facade is made just that, with a sweating General Sternwood corrupting among the flesh-of-men hot-house orchids, rabidly nympho Carmen strategically falling all over the place, and Vivian, the only conventional wraith stalking the place, are all slyly humorous takes on the conventional characters in dark rooms. And don't forget the obsequiously loyal Norris, the butler - and no, he doesn't did it, either - providing fun for Marlowe's guesses - atypical dark house mystery butling for sure.

Hmmm. chlygme - a nasty tropical disease.

Waited too long. Now it's coara, the rare antidote for chlygme, scraped from the flesh of the Giant Rat of Sumatra.

X. Trapnel said...

Vanwall, note as well that Vivien's room is fairly normal looking. I think the butler came to the Sternwoods through the same employment agency where Eddie Mars got his very strange bodyguards.

The Siren said...

Vanwall, wow, that's extremely astute. Instantly I think you must be right. And now I want to see it again.

mndean said...

I always liked Charles D. Brown, his stuffiness in that role is perfect, and his dialogue-free turn in Algiers was even more fun. One of those little-known actors you see here and there, but often forget their name.

Are we doing the word verification definitions again? Darn, I had a real word earlier today. Forgot what it was.

Vanwall said...

A plug for "The Fallen Sparrow", which really is an old dark house affair - really, really, dark - and one of my favorite Garfield "little" films. A number of against type performances, and a nice Spanish Civil War frisson as well.

X. Trapnel said...

not to go too far off topic, but Vanwall did you ever see Saturday's Children (Garfield was always big, sometimes the pictures were small)? It veers toward melodrama in the end but much of it is very engaging domestic romance with patches of nice urban lyricism.

Vanwall said...

M X - Yes, I have see "Saturday's Children", albeit not in the near past - Anne Shirley was very good in that one, that's what I most remember, (I had a thing for her, and Priscilla Lane, when I was a kid) and Garfield, as always, was amazingly human and alive - just him walking around, wordlessly, is more rich and real than a whole boatload of most other actors who ever lived.

sedneey - as in grinsstrit

I thought the ending was, frankly, atrociously sappy, and went against the grain of the rest of the film, which I found out later was based on Maxwell Anderson's WPA creation, with a much more integrated storyline and ending, and was very Depression-era Federal Art.

It sometimes came across as Mickey Borden with a technical bent meets Priscilla Lane's Other Sister, 'specially with Rains as Pop, but I found out later in life, as an office groundling, how well they got the casual everyday in cubicle desk-ville.

Vanwall said...

Thank you for the compliment, Siren - made my evening. I must print that out and staple it to a certain individual's forehead, or at least tattoo there a verisimilitude of the same with a blunt instrument.

tdraicer said...

If I may bring up a tv movie on a classic film blog, Mason was also wonderful as the vampire's helper in the 1979 tv adaptation of Salem's Lot.

Mason to David Soul, promising to introduce him to his (unknown to Soul) vampire master: "You'll enjoy Mr. Barlow. And he'll enjoy you."

It also had a pretty frightening old house.

Gerard Jones said...

Saturday's Children was the first movie I watched after getting TCM, so it will always have a spot in my heart. My local cable company doesn't carry TCM (in San Francisco, yet!) so for years, until I finally found a way to justify the cost and trouble of satellite installation, all I could do was sit and watch AMC decline and nurse my jealousy of others. When I finally got it (only two or three years ago) I just sat there and soaked it up like a sponge. Also on that first day were They Made Me a Criminal and Dust Be My Destiny. Must have been JG's birthday.

I like Jo Stafford in general. The common rap against her is that was kind of cold, but...I don't know. Warm can get smarmy. I like her clarity and dignity and understated swing.

I got "ended" earlier today. Now I've got "phorph."

mndean said...

Watched One Sunday Afternoon, a precursor to The Strawberry Blonde. It's the same plot, but a much creepier take on the story. Cooper spends so much of his time in rapt adulation of Fay Wray that he never notices that she's got no use for him least until after she gets married to Neil Hamilton (who's a real creep with money - she gets what she wants materially. but must be rather unsatisfied with him). Cooper is obsessed with Wray to the detriment of his own marriage, but takes his frustration out on his second-choice wife. His decision to revenge himself on Hamilton is remarkable, too, even forcing pal Roscoe Karns to watch. He only snaps out of it and starts appreciating his dishrag wife of many years after he sees Wray dressed like a mini-Mae West, and she makes serious advances in front of her husband. Throughout the film, Cooper isn't a particularly likable guy here, even when he unjustly gets prison time. Weird film.

Gerard Jones said...

mndean, obviously race was a huge part of the rightward swing (the "Southern strategy"), but I wouldn't discount reactions to the youth and antiwar movements. The Democrats had to keep those voters in the coalition, but when Dick and Spiro came out talking about law and order, campuses as hotbeds of radicalism, intellectual elites and all that, it resonated with a lot of older and blue collar voters. I don't know that it induced people to switch party affiliation, but it made long-time Democrats far more likely to vote for Republicans and more conservative Dems. The beginnings of the "Reagan Democrats."

When I was making calls for the Obama campaign I heard echoes of that. I'm sure a lot of people were bothered by his race and didn't want to say so, but I think many were sincerely worried about a candidate who presided over giant rallies of zealous young people. For a lot of older voters it wasn't a good thing that he reminded them of the '60s.

Gerard Jones said...


In the alternate ending to The Day the Earth Stood Still, the last word Patricia Neal said before she got fried.

X. Trapnel said...

Yes, Saturday's Children, along with The Whole Town's Talking, and, supremely, The Shop Around the Corner are among the few films that get work right. Garfield had all the put-upon problems of brandodeanclift but he hit back with wry, tough, sometimes harsh humor (a favorite Garfield moment in Body and Soul: the way he shouts "You need money to buy a gun!" in response to his mother's fear that he's "going to do something foolish.") and never
went in for beautiful suffering. His springy resiliance and humor were much needed in the 50s.

X. Trapnel said...

Or nictu: the intimate form of "nobody" in Frussian.

Gerard Jones said...

mnd, thanks for the insight into One Sunday Afternoon. That's another one I missed due to TCM inattention. It sounds weird, all right. But then a lot of movies with Fay Wray are weird. I don't know if she weirded them up or if she was cast in projects already considered peculiar.

mingsfro. Ming the Merciless's new hairdo.

mndean said...

Wray didn't weird it up so much as she was the snobbish one, who couldn't see Cooper as being worth her time, she wanted to snag rich Hamilton and figured that she'd be happy with him. She wasn't. Cooper was very nearly a stalker in the film, too. The only reason for rooting for Cooper was that Hamilton was an even bigger creep.

I still think that race had more to do with the swing right (think Southern Strategy) than any youth culture (the young antiwar activists had no real political power - it was a fait accompli that we were getting out of Vietnam one way or another in the '72 election, and the corruption of Nixon had more to do with the brief swing left afterward). My father, an FDR Union Democrat had absolutely no use for Reagan at all, and those who did were very much cutting off their nose to spite their face.

X. Trapnel said...

Allen Ginsberg on the '68 Dem. convention riots: "We just gave the election to Nixon."

Gerard Jones said...

I was first stunned and then relieved and even thrilled last October when union leaders in Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina started asking their constituents if they'd rather have a "black friend or a white enemy" in the White House. At last the Dems were willing to go right at the issue and cut through the nose-cutting and face-spiting of blue-collar white people.

X. Trapnel said...

Exactly. Liberalism (yes, say it out loud) always loses when it mumbles.

ration: yes, really; the word verification people are asleep at the controls.

X. Trapnel said...

eneth: what's the equancy?

Gerard Jones said...

Not often noted, but the young Cooper had a spooky quality sometimes. Those big, pale eyes, often pain-filled, combined with that intense focus. He would have done madmen well.

Yojimboen said...

One Sunday Afternoon was an odd film but in our house it didn't matter.

When the young Cooper is on screen in anything, I'm forbidden to speak. The sofa could be on fire, my wife wouldn't notice.

Concern me? Yup.
Can I do anything about it? Nope.

apugene: What Satyajit Ray was born with.

Frank Conniff said...

I hope it's not too late to get in on the Jerome Kern conversation. It's funny, but to me Kern's music works so beautifully and seems so right when jazz musicians play it, that I don't even think of him as European. I know that he adhered more to a classical tradition but when the jazz people got a hold of his songs, those incredible melodies seemed to swing so naturally that it was if Kern wrote the songs for that purpose and not for creaky operettas.

Sinatra recorded two different arrangements of "I Wont Dance," one by Nelson Riddle, the other by Neil Hefti, and they're both masterpieces, but Ella and Louis's version of that tune is even better. Billie Holliday's rendition of "Yesterdays" is stunning, and John Coltrane's "I'm Old Fashioned" is deeply beautiful. These are just a few examples; there isn't enough space in cyberspace to list all the great jazz versions of Kern songs.

I know that some Tin Pan Alley songwriters became annoyed with the liberties jazz musicians took with their songs (Rodgers and Hart addressed this very issue in their "Pal Joey" song "I Like To Recognize The Tune"; Mel Torme did a recording of it that, yes, took liberties with the tune). But ultimately history has proven that more than anything else it is the jazz musicians who have and will continue to keep the incredible songs of Kern and his contemporaries alive forever.

Kern may have been writing operetta and musical comedies for his time, but in actuality he was writing jazz for the ages.

Exiled in NJ said...

Degrees of separation: Hugh Beaumont makes an appearance in Fallen Sparrow, a film I rented years ago. It has Garfield and a very confusing plot. To me it resembled minor league Graham Greene, and I liked Ministry of Fear much better, even though it did not compare to the book. The Confidential Agent is another Greene entertainment with Boyer and a miscast Bacall that occasionally turns up on TCM.

Christie's Ten Little Indians, renamed And Then There Were None, is set in and outside a huge house on a small deserted island off Cornwall. It must have had eight bedrooms but I never tried to count them. It's the interior doors that give that mansion its sinister quality....the cardboard character victims close off the dining room where the Indian tableau sits on the table. At other times, four men are each looking through keyholes, or peering around bedroom doors, to see what their neighbors are doing.

Skip forward ten years to the Ohio farmhouse where Preacher Harry Powell holds sway....that place gave me the creeps even when John and Pearl are outside. It resembles a place where bodies might be found. Compare it to the homey atmosphere of Lillian Gish's farmhouse with its warm kitchen and porch.

Can apartments qualify? Where do we put Waldo Lydecker's living museum. Ah, but nothing sinister happens there.

In the mystery novel, The Blackheath Poisonings, Julian Symons gives the lead role to the distinctive house owned by the Collards, the main characters. Such an idea was impossible to translate to the Masterpiece Theatre version shown on PBS so they focused on the pecularities of the inhabitants. The book is not top shelf Symons, and it does not pass the second reading test for me, but it is good fun one time through.

DavidEhrenstein said...

It's just been announced that Marty is going to make a Sinatra biopic.

Raging Bull II obviously.

Phil Alden Robinson is doing the script.

Tina Sinatra (who is of course one of the executive producers) is Over the Moon about it all.

X. Trapnel said...

Nothing sinister happens in Waldo Lydecker's apartment? HE LIVES THERE!

The Siren said...

Frank, you expressed my own thoughts beautifully.

XT, LOL! So it depends on whether or not you find Waldo sinister.

Exiled, you're right about And Then There Were None; also Angel Face has a sinister cliffside house. Ministry of Fear is excellent but then I am a Lang fan.

I suppose, though I have not seen it and do not intend to (out of wimpiness, let it be clearly stated) that Wes Craven's Last House on the Left would qualify as a suburban home made sinister.

David, on the one hand the more I find out about Sinatra the less appealing I find him. As long as I stick with the records and a handful of the movies I am all right. He's one of those historical figures that everyone keeps telling you was so so so charming. I guess they have to keep saying it, because otherwise you won't be charmed. At all. But Sinatra's was the sort of personality Scorsese was born to film, so Raging Bull II? perhaps. Could be truly great.

X. Trapnel said...

No question of the symbiosis (it went both ways) between jazz and the great song writers. While I agree with Frank that jazz is doing its bit to keep these songs alive, I have to wonder about a culture that can't accept them on their own melodic terms (they don't have to be enbalmed in operetta style for the sake of some spurious notion of "authenticity"; voice and piano will do). In any case, jazz is becoming as culturally sequestered as "classical."

mndean said...

I don't think (for one) Harry Warren could have cared less what jazz musicians did with his tunes. Practically every jazz short that Warner Bros. produced with a black orchestra used Nagasaki as one of the tunes. Cha-ching! Some composers I'm sure did care, and probably got apoplexy over it. As long as they got paid, I just don't see their side of it.

As far as Marty doing a Sinatra biopic, that's okay as far as it goes, but Phil Alden Robinson?

Gerard Jones said...

Also in You Were Never Lovelier, it's fun to listen to Kern (working with Mercer) take on jazz more directly in "The Shorty George." It's a gimmicky little thing but I like it, and I like the thought that the elegant old fellow was willing to stretch. I also like "On the Beam," which isn't so jazzy but has a '40s buoyancy to it, with some of-the-moment lyrics from Mercer. There are recordings of Fred's versions out there if you did around a little.

Gerard Jones said...

I meant "dig." Dig?

Exiled in NJ said...

The bullying Sinatra was sort of a J.J. Hunsecker who could sing a bit.

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