Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Devotion (1946)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 14, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

"They told me of your victories, but not of the price you paid."

For Glenn, who knows my taste too well...but then perhaps, so does the entire film blogosphere at this point.

The Siren will be back shortly.