Wednesday, November 25, 2009

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

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

Friday, November 20, 2009

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

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

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

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Bicycle Thief (1948)

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Letty Lynton: Pounce.

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

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

Monday, November 09, 2009

Anecdote of the Week: An Admirable Vocabulary

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

--from Vivien Leigh by Anne Edwards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hat tip for new banner: Mrs. Thalberg.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Shadows of Russia: TCM, Lou Lumenick and the Siren

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, Jan. 6

Part One: Twilight of the Tsars

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

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

Wednesday, Jan. 13

Part Three: The Lighter Side of the Revolution

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

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

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

Wednesday, Jan. 20

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

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

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

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

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

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