Monday, July 27, 2009

Be Kind to Crows

Somewhere, Daphne du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock are laughing their asses off.

Hat-tip Maud Newton, via Facebook.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The SLIFR Quiz

Dennis Cozzalio of Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule is one of the best film bloggers around--unpredictable, fearless, funny, and an incredibly warm, nice guy who runs a lively comment section free of bickering. The Siren missed his last quiz but she's answering this one in all its epic glory and posting her answers here. The Siren is dying to see answers from her regulars and would love to see lurkers de-lurk, but bear two things in mind:

1. You can post the answers at his place and post a link here, or you can post them here--but if you post them here or at your own Internet hangout, please be sure to go to Dennis's place, read all the other answers (that's the fun part, trust me) and link back in his comments section to wherever you have posted your responses. Please do that even if you only pick and choose a few questions to answer. Dennis loves to see these things, and so do I.

2. According to Dennis, Blogger has some new anti-spam thingamabobber that prevents comment posts of over about 4600 characters. Clearly most comments aren't going to be affected, but this quiz is long enough to trigger the Blogger defenses. (I am not sure what happens if it's too long. I was hoping for a rubber chicken pop-up window but I think it just rejects the comment.) Anyway, it is easiest and safest to post the answers in two parts.

Here we go!

1) Second-favorite Stanley Kubrick film.
Barry Lyndon. (Favorite is Paths of Glory--always has been and always will be.)

2) Most significant/important/interesting trend in movies over the past decade, for good or evil.
Cuisinart editing. I hate it. I start to get interested in a shot and bang! they cut away.

3) Bronco Billy (Clint Eastwood) or Buffalo Bill Cody (Paul Newman)?
Bronco Billy. (Sorry, Yojimboen!)

4) Best Film of 1949.
White Heat. (It's actually The Third Man but this one deserves more love--bless you, Sheila. Also the year of Caught, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Orpheus, On the Town and They Live by Night, lest we forget.)

5) Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) or Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore)?
Tura by a nose. (Sorry, Jack.)

6) Has the hand-held shaky-cam directorial style become a visual cliché?
YES. Put the camera on something stationary every once in a while for god's sake. Or get a dolly. Try for Ophuls rather than Pontecorvo, just for variety's sake.

7) What was the first foreign-language film you ever saw?
On a big screen (at the old Bleecker Street Cinema), Les Enfants du Paradis. An excellent intro, oui?

8) Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) or Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre)?
Mr. Moto--I agree with Robert Fiore at Dennis's place that these movies have fewer stereotypes of all kinds than the Chan films. And I love Lorre, although I get a pang thinking of Dan Callahan's Lorre anecdote. Someone asked Lorre how he got through the Moto films and Lorre replied, "I took drugs."

9) Favorite World War II drama (1950-1970).
So hard, but the first one that comes to mind is Attack!

10) Favorite animal movie star.
Lassie. A childhood thing. The scene from the 1943 movie where she limps up the street...(pause to mop eyes).

11) Who or whatever is to blame, name an irresponsible moment in cinema.
I hate seeing nuclear bombs detonated with minimal consequences in movies, as in True Lies and the execrable Broken Arrow. It makes something casually entertaining that should never even be thinkable.

12) Best Film of 1969.
Army of Shadows. What happened to 1959, huh? Best there was The 400 Blows, by the way, out of a very heavyweight field.

13) Name the last movie you saw theatrically, and also on DVD or Blu-ray.
Theatrically, Cheri. On DVD, Ossessione.

14) Second-favorite Robert Altman film.
The Player. (Favorite is McCabe and Mrs. Miller.)

15) What is your favorite independent outlet for reading about movies, either online or in print?
My blogroll. No, I can't pick, really.

16) Who wins? Angela Mao or Meiko Kaji? (Thanks, Peter!)
*Blank stare*

17) Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) or Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly)?
Mona Lisa. She had me the second she stepped out of the car and said "I bet this place has lousy Chinese food."

18) Favorite movie that features a carnival setting or sequence.
Nightmare Alley.

19) Best use of high-definition video on the big screen to date.
*whistles, looks at her cuticles*

20) Favorite movie that is equal parts genre film and a deconstruction or consideration of that same genre.
Imitation of Life (1959).

21) Best Film of 1979.

22) Most realistic and/or sincere depiction of small-town life in the movies.
Shadow of a Doubt.

23) Best horror movie creature (non-giant division).
Bruce the shark.

24) Second-favorite Francis Ford Coppola film.
The Godfather. (Part II is my favorite.)

25) Name a one-off movie that could have produced a franchise you would have wanted to see.
I wouldn't have complained if Charade had spawned a mini-Thin Man-esque series.

26) Favorite sequence from a Brian De Palma film.
The museum in Dressed to Kill.

27) Favorite moment in three-strip Technicolor.
Ask me to pick a kid next time! (Edited to add: Well, I have to admit--Dorothy emerging into Oz for the first time marked me forever.)

28) Favorite Alan Smithee film. (Thanks, Peter!)
Je ne connait pas cet auteur.

29) Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) or Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau)?

30) Best post-Crimes and Misdemeanors Woody Allen film.
Husbands and Wives.

31) Best Film of 1999.
Summer of Sam. (But comparing that year to 1949 is awfully depressing. Or 1959. Go on, take a look. I dare you.)

32) Favorite movie tag line.
"Don't ever tell anyone what Mildred Pierce did!"

33) Favorite B-movie western.
Hmm, I love Westerns, but true B Westerns--Republic, Monogram, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy--generally aren't my thing. If we mean just a low-budget Western I'll plump for Angel and the Badman (made at Republic but I wouldn't call it a B).

34) Overall, the author best served by movie adaptations of her or his work.
James M. Cain. Three great films, one masterpiece. I'd say that's a pretty good run. Fannie Hurst also comes to mind.

35) Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) or Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard)?
Irene Bullock. I used it as a screen name once in a forum and they all called me "Irene" assuming the name was too drab to be a pseudonym.***

36) Favorite musical cameo in a non-musical movie.
Nat King Cole in The Blue Gardenia.

37) Bruno (the character, if you haven’t seen the movie, or the film, if you have): subversive satire or purveyor of stereotyping?
If I had to take a guess from what little I have seen, I'd say intended as the former but in danger of sashaying down a slippery slope toward the latter.

38) Five film folks, living or deceased, you would love to meet. (Thanks, Rick!)
I would go for the raconteurs: Orson Welles, King Vidor, Martin Scorsese, Jean Renoir, Peter Ustinov. I would have picked Max Ophuls but according to Ustinov he wasn't much of a conversationalist. I also thought about Luis Bunuel but he might decide to turn the encounter into a huge joke at my expense.

***Speaking of pseudonyms. The Siren is, to whatever extent possible, jettisoning the Campaspe nom de blog in favor of just the Siren. It's simpler, and nobody can spell or pronounce the old one anyway. Campaspe will remain the name on her Facebook account (because it's a pain to change) and she will still answer to Campaspe, as indeed she will answer to most polite forms of address short of "hey you."

Have a beautiful Sunday!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Fred Astaire: One for My Baby (from The Sky's the Limit)

The Siren has been waiting for a good video of this to show up on Youtube. This version is dark, but it'll do.

Probably my favorite Fred Astaire solo. It isn't just the precision (that kick to the single glass!) or the athleticism (that jump to the barstool, then the bar!), it is also the way he stays perfectly in character and perfectly drunk, even as he dances as no other mortal ever did.

He sings the song beautifully, too.

I could watch it all day. Pity the rest of the movie isn't nearly as good.

P.S. SIGH. It does not post, and it does not post, and it does not post. And then it posts five times AFTER I give up and go to bed. And now it's erased again. I give up. And people ask me why I don't post clips. Because I'm old, my computer's old and I have my blood pressure to think about, that's why I don't post clips. Without Mr. C here the technical glitches pile up. Anyway, if I had to post something more than once, Fred's the best for it I think.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Brian Aherne's A Proper Job

After writing about Brian Aherne's account of his friendship with George Sanders and Sanders' unforgettable advice on how to write memoirs, the Siren just had to order her own copy of Aherne's autobiography, A Proper Job.

And it's a wonderful book, despite Aherne's rather slighting his Hollywood films to devote more professional reminiscences to his theatrical career. Aherne was British and seems to have had the attitude often attributed to British actors, that films should be what one did to supplement one's theatrical calling. His career as a Hollywood actor was never as front-rank as that of his first wife, Joan Fontaine, a fact she alluded to with some asperity in No Bed of Roses and which he also admits, in a roundabout fashion. And his theatrical career had some brilliant high points, including his having originated the role of Robert Browning in The Barretts of Wimpole Street on Broadway opposite the legendary Katharine Cornell.

Aherne was handsome and showed definite sex appeal in movies such as the strange and wonderful Sylvia Scarlett, as well as Merrily We Live and The Great Garrick (now available via the Warner Archives and yes, David Ehrenstein, the Siren promises to order it). But for whatever reason--luck, timing, lack of a killer instinct, probably all of the above--he never became a huge star. (CinemaOCD has a good rundown of his Hollywood parts here, with a link to many of the pictures from A Proper Job.) Eventually he moved gracefully into character parts, maintaining a stage career with roles like Professor Higgins in the touring production of My Fair Lady.

But the Siren has found that often it's the people on the margins of stardom who give the best picture of Hollywood life, and Aherne's book is remarkable not only for his intelligence, but for the compassion with which he treats the Hollywood figures he knew. It isn't hard to imagine why the saturnine Sanders kept returning to Aherne for companionship, year after year. Aherne was not a judgmental type. Even when describing a taxing experience, such as working with Bette Davis on Juarez, he does so wryly: "I even found Bette Davis attractive, when I played Maximilian to her Carlotta and, brilliant actress though she is, surely nobody but a mother could have loved Bette Davis at the height of her career."

While Aherne doesn't go out of his way to disdain the movie colony, he does permit himself the occasional joke at its expense. At one point the actor goes into a small California bookshop and complains to the manager that the poetry selection is too slight: "'What's the use of carrying more?' said the man. 'Only you and Katharine Hepburn buy it!'"

The small, precise portraits of Hollywood notables include John Gilbert, spinning out his contract while the studio tries to make him so miserable he will terminate it. "If motion pictures don't want him, where can a great screen star go? What can he do?" asks Aherne. "The gods and goddesses cannot jostle with the crowd, cannot take a job in an office..."

Aherne doesn't bother to add, but the reader can deduce, that he preferred his own fate. He found diversion in farming and flying, eventually married a woman with theatrical ancestry but no ambitions, took the roles that still came and took pleasure in things like the commotion of Sanders' occasional visits. Aherne does show some regrets, as when he ruefully describes how he lost the part of Sidney Carton to Ronald Colman, or how he repeatedly turned down Captain Blood (thus ensuring that Jack Warner forever cursed him for saddling the studio with the ever-troublesome Errol Flynn). But Aherne evidently felt it was better to be an occasionally working actor than a burnt-out star.

If any additional evidence was needed, there was also the fate of Aherne's good friend Ruth Chatterton. He advised her to take the part of the wife in Dodsworth, but Chatterton told him it would end her career to appear as a middle-aged woman. She took it anyway, gave a brilliant performance, and never got another Hollywood offer. Chatterton, whose Pre-Code talkies continue to bowl over critics, wound up in the Connecticut countryside, writing books and living happily with her husband until he died. Hollywood, however, never did come around to pay the great Chatterton her due:

I am happy to remember that my wife and I visited [Chatterton] shortly before her death. The walls of her bar were hung with photos of friends whom she had entertained lavishly at her home on Palm Drive in earlier days. I asked her if she had ever heard from any of them. No, she said, and when she had played Los Angeles some years before not one of them of had even sent her a word. 

Aherne gives a wistful description of an afternoon at Pickfair toward the end of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford's marriage. As Aherne's visit wound down, Pickford entered and, spurred by not very much, went to the window, looked out at the garden and spoke "almost tragically of the futility of ambition and the evanescence of fame." Aherne hastens to add that after her career ended, Pickford found great comfort in religion and Buddy Rogers. But he doesn't sound entirely convinced himself, and the Siren found herself thinking Billy Wilder's initial casting instincts were not far off when he approached Pickford about Sunset Boulevard.

And the Siren was mightily amused by the description of Marlene Dietrich: "She baked me a fabulous Viennese cake; she is a great cakemaker." According to Maria Riva, who was deeply fond of Aherne, he was making a great deal more than cake with Marlene. But the lady was alive and still technically married at the time the book was published, and chivalrously Aherne breathes not a word of their affair, though he admits to wondering "how I could manage to bake Miss Dietrich." George Sanders must have rolled his eyes over such determinedly uncommercial discretion.

But the story that caught the Siren was one she had never heard before, that of Aherne's affair with the stage actress Clare Eames. Eames was married to playwright and director Sidney Howard, who later wrote the screenplay for Gone with the Wind. Howard was in London to direct his play The Silver Cord, and Aherne was cast opposite Eames. All went smoothly until Howard returned to America and the play began its run, whereupon the attraction between the two actors swiftly became a headlong, passionate romance. "I forgot she was a married woman with a child," says Aherne. "I forgot she was six years older than myself. I forgot my Puritan upbringing. I forgot that I was nothing but a penniless young actor. I heard the angels sing. I was lonely no more."

The affair, as might be expected, caused as much pain as it did joy. Early on Eames gave Aherne a copy of Anna Karenina. The actor fretted that he "might become her Vronsky;" Aherne must have known he already was. Howard, according to his rival, played Karenin to the hilt. "He did not care for Clare, but he cared deeply about what people said," says Aherne. Howard "cut off financial support, refused a divorce, and insisted upon the return of the baby and her nurse."

Over the three years of their relationship Eames and Aherne struggled to find work. Howard's stature made New York nearly impossible, and the romance coincided with the British acting unions cracking down on the use of American actors. Eames tried at one point to reconcile with Howard, but it didn't work. "Young as I was, I doubt I fully realized the tragedy of her position," says Aherne, and he evokes Anna Karenina once more when he describes his lover slipping into her former house to see her child when Howard was out. Eames was sick, and getting sicker, although Aherne never says precisely what the trouble was--severe abdominal pain, is all we are told.

Finally, as Aherne was playing a wordy, difficult part in a dismal failure of a play, Eames became extremely ill. She had an operation, and the night after it took place Aherne slogged through a nightmarish performance in front of a tiny audience. When the curtain finally came down, a car was sent and Brian was driven, through a driving rainstorm, to Clare's bedside. They told him she needed sleep, but the rain had turned into a deafening thunderstorm, and Clare died as he held her hand.

"I went on blindly running for the next twenty years," says Aherne. You don't have to be as romantically inclined as the Siren to wonder if he ever stopped. Joan Fontaine certainly felt Clare's ghost when she married Aherne a full decade later. In her memoirs, Fontaine paints a picture straight out of Rebecca: Barely finished with her honeymoon, she was dragged to Connecticut to visit Eames' dying aunt, and found herself staring at pictures of Brian and Clare on the piano.

The daughter Eames stole time with was Jennifer Howard, who married Samuel Goldwyn Jr. in 1950. Their four children included Tony Goldwyn, most famous for playing an evil yuppie in Ghost.

It is this scene, which took place only a year or so after Clare died, that the Siren can't get out of her head. It is as cinematic as anything she has ever found in a star's memoirs. Aherne had returned to Hollywood, but in a stage production of Barretts, again with Katharine Cornell. The audience for the opening included everyone from the Thalbergs to Charlie Chaplin.

Afterwards, Ruth Chatterton gave a smart party for Miss Cornell at her beautiful house in Beverly Hills. Stepping back from the buffet with a plate in my hand, I bumped into someone who stood, hard and unyielding, behind me. I turned in surprise; it was Sidney Howard, looking straight in my eyes, a few inches away. He said, 'I seem always to be in your way, Brian!' For an instant we looked at each other, and then I said, 'I am sorry, Sidney,' and moved away. I never saw him again. He remarried and died tragically, crushed by a tractor against the wall of his barn in Massachusetts.

Friday, July 10, 2009

10 Books From a Cinephile's Past: City of Nets

The Siren has been a bad girl. Not only has she neglected her blogging, but she neglected to link to MovieMan0283's blog when she embarked on her part of the Movie Books meme. Anyway, let's continue this one.

City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s by Otto Friedrich

When the Siren is asked to name a favorite movie book, this is the one she always picks. The late Otto Friedrich was a journalist and historian with a marvelous prose style, and City of Nets is made unique by his perspective, wit and discerning eye for an anecdote. As Hollywood was and remains a company town obsessed by the movies, the book has plenty of studio stories, but Friedrich is after a more complete account. He also looks at society and politics, including race riots, the aircraft industry, vicious labor disputes featuring corruption on both sides, gangster shootouts, and the bewildered European intellectuals--refugees just trying to figure the damn place out. Although, it must be said, some of the emigres didn't try all that hard. Arnold Schoenberg is shown taking a 1935 meeting with Irving Thalberg and announcing to the flummoxed boy wonder that if he were to compose the score for The Good Earth, the actors "would have to speak in the same pitch and key as I compose it in. It would be similar to Pierrot Lunaire," the composer explained, adding reassuringly, "but of course less difficult."

This isn't a book of criticism; it is history, many sources knitted together by a talented man to give you as complete a picture of Hollywood high and low as exists anywhere. In the same chapter that describes how a shy young Spanish dancer named Margarita Carmen Dolores Cansino went into the studios and came out as Rita Hayworth, you will find Sergeant Marcario Garcia. Fresh from being decorated with the Congressional Medal of Honor, Garcia entered a restaurant and tried to purchase a cup of coffee, only to have the owner threaten him with a baseball bat.

Friedrich's withering description of the origins, proceedings and consequences of the HUAC hearings is still the best the Siren has encountered. Here is his tale of how Hollywood Ten members Ring Lardner Jr. and Lester Cole acquired an unexpected colleague in the federal prison at Danbury, many miles from Hollywood:

'There are rumors already here in advance of your arrival,' said the parole officer, 'that both you and Lardner are prepared for violent revenge if you can get away with it.'

'Who the hell could have said that?' Cole wondered.

'Will you swear,' the parole officer insisted, 'that you are not planning some sort of revenge against J. Parnell Thomas, who is in this institution?'

It was no secret that the crusading congressman had been indicted in 1948 for padding his congressional payroll and taking kickbacks from his employees...But Cole and Lardner had not realized that they and their grand inquisitor would be locked up in the same federal prison.

'He must have started the rumor himself,' Cole said. 'Kill him? My greatest pleasure will be seeing him here with his own kind, petty thieves.'

...Lardner was being given the same warning by another parole officer, and when the two writers next met, they both burst into laughter. 'What luck!" said Lardner. 'There's got to be a way, a dozen ways, to make the bastard miserable.'

When Lardner finally saw the frightened congressman in the prison yard, however, he could not bring himself to speak to him. 'He had lost a good deal of weight,' Lardner recalled later, 'and his face, round and scarlet at our last encounter, was deeply lined and sallow...Neither of us made any social overtures to the other.' Cole was more combative. He said that Thomas 'scurried at least fifty feet away when he saw us coming,' but they finally met at work. Cole had been assigned to cut grass with a sickle, and that brought him near the chicken coops, where Thomas was engaged in scraping up dung with a hoe.

'Hey Bolshie, I see you still got your sickle,' Thomas jeered from behind the chicken fence. 'Where's your hammer?'

'And I see just like in Congress, you're still picking up chickenshit,' Cole shouted back.

City of Nets is full of uproarious stories, from Joseph Mankiewicz's best quip ever, to Dimitri Tiomkin composing orgasm music for David O. Selznick, to Walt Disney watching dailies of cupids, fauns and nymphs in Fantasia and observing, "Gee, this'll make Beethoven." And Friedrich's careful research makes this book one of the few that points out, for example, that the dubious old tale of John Barrymore's corpse being exhumed for one last drinking session exists in at least three different versions.

But it is ultimately a sad book, an elegy for a system wrecked from within and without. Whenever the Siren picks up City of Nets, she is always drawn to the heartbreaking account of the final days of John Garfield, as the great actor, in exile in New York, types up a "confession" for Look magazine and spends hours on the phone, "trying to find somebody to talk to." Days pass as he neither sleeps nor eats. He tries to connect with Hildegard Knef, on her way back to Frankfurt after a failed attempt at a Hollywood career, but she has a party to attend and they never manage to meet that night.

Garfield had gone to see a new friend, Iris Whitney, who had an apartment on Gramercy Park. They went out to dinner. They sat in the park. Garfield said he felt sick. Miss Whitney took him home and put him to bed. There later were entirely unsubstantiated rumors that he died in the midst of wild fornications. Perhaps. But the official version is, for once, more plausible--that after three days of anxiety, drinking, sleeplessness, and wandering through the wreckage of his life, John Garfield simply collapsed. Miss Whitney put him to bed with a glass of orange juice on his night table. When she woke up the next morning, she found the orange juice untouched and Garfield dead.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Anecdote of the Week: Myrna Was the Lady in Red

From Being and Becoming, the autobiography of the peerless Myrna Loy:

[Metro] put me right to work in Manhattan Melodrama, which precipated the demise of John Dillinger, Public Enemy No. 1. FBI agents shot him down outside the Biograph Theatre, in Chicago, after he'd seen the film. Supposedly a Myrna Loy fan, he broke cover to see me. Personally, I suspect the theme of the picture rather than my fatal charms attracted him, but I've always felt a little guilty about it, anyway. They filled him full of holes, poor soul.

For anyone who has read her book, the above paragraph is Myrna Loy in miniature: intelligent, down-to-earth, self-deprecating, and compassionate.

As you can probably guess, the Siren selected this one because the film blogs are full of Public Enemies this week. Glenn Kenny liked it, Lou Lumenick did not. Manohla Dargis had a well-written rave but the Siren was a wee bit flummoxed by her closing sideswipe at Manhattan Melodrama. I haven't seen Public Enemies yet, but as much as I like Johnny Depp (and I do, I do), of course Michael Mann's gangsters will be no less "false" than W.S. Van Dyke's. (And while the new film may not look like "the usual gangster picture," for some of us old fogeys that's no bonus. Come on, even if she likes Public Enemies we all know the Siren is going to miss James Wong Howe.)

Manhattan Melodrama is worth cherishing for a reason that has nothing to do with gangsters: It was the first film Loy made with William Powell.

My first scene with Bill, a night shot on the back lot, happened before we'd even met. Woody was apparently too busy for introductions. My instructions were to run out of a building, through a crowd, and into a strange car. When Woody called "Action," I opened the door, jumped in, and landed smack on William Powell's lap. He looked up nonchalantly. "Miss Loy, I presume?" I said, "Mr. Powell?" And that's how I met the man who would be my partner in fourteen films.


Flickhead's Claude Chabrol Blogathon is now over, but the Siren hopes you have followed it as avidly as she has. It's wonderful, with some of the best, most appreciative writing on Chabrol to be found anywhere. Start here and follow the links.