Friday, March 05, 2010
A Director Out of Wood*
The Siren has been pondering auteurism. Some time back Girish had a long and fruitful discussion of it, and last week Glenn Kenny went over to the Auteurs to proclaim "an auteurist film is an interesting film."
Glenn is right, of course. But the Siren runs into two problems with auteurism. One is the tendency of some auteurists to overpraise their idols' lesser works. The other, more significant problem is what to do with Jean Negulesco, Jack Conway, Roy del Ruth, Vincent Sherman, Archie Mayo, Henry Hathaway or today's guest star, Sam Wood.
Sam Wood is an excellent example of a studio man who helmed some good-to-great movies--namely, Hold Your Man, A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, the 1937 Madame X, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Our Town, Raffles, The Devil and Miss Jones, Kings Row, Pride of the Yankees and oh, all right, some people like this one, For Whom the Bell Tolls. (Ivy, starring goddess Joan Fontaine, is also supposed to be pretty good, and Lord Jeff too.) Yet Wood garners career evaluations that range from tepid to eye-rolling. In the afterlife, Vincent Sherman probably reads Sam Wood mini-bios to make himself feel better.
Let's be frank. Wood's hard-right politics have played a part in how he is remembered, as his post-war anti-Communism went from vocal to obsessive in nothing flat. He founded the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals and in that guise was a driving force behind the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, where he testified grimly that certain Directors' Guild members were trying to "steer us into the Red River." Such was Wood's fear of subversion that after his death in 1949, his heirs discovered a clause in the will stipulating that they had to take a loyalty oath ("I am not now nor have I ever been...") before they could collect a dime.
The result was that during the years when books and interviews and documentaries were brought forth to celebrate the Golden Age, a number of Wood's ex-colleagues had little good to say about him; "a fascist," was Groucho Marx's encomium. And later critics, mindful of Wood's role in the blacklist and with no Wood still alive to discuss anything, haven't been inclined to give him much credit. His bad or mediocre films (and they are many) have been deemed as much or more representative of his abilities than his successes. And Wood's successes were discussed without much enthusiasm for his role. Mind you, the Siren is all for giving ample credit to James Wong Howe, William Cameron Menzies and Gregg Toland, or Rudolph Mate, Cedric Gibbons and Norman Krasna, for that matter. But watch Kings Row on a double bill with Picnic and tell me if you think the difference is all Howe.
It is possible to read a critique of a Sam Wood picture and wonder if the thing directed itself. In fact, some have pretty much suggested that's what happened on the two Marx films. While Thalberg had the final say, and the Marxes drove many (all right, most) collaborators crazy, the idea of Wood as glorified traffic cop doesn't fit so neatly with Simon Louvish's statement that Wood "refused to take any Marx Brothers nonsense and insisted on endless and exhausting retakes" (a signature Wood technique, although his taste for takes doesn't seem to have been quite up to Wyler levels). The Siren would never argue for Wood's sole authorship of those movies, but she doesn't see why we should presume that he contributed nothing.
Anyway, the blacklist ended forty years ago, Wood's been dead for more than sixty and the Siren thinks no one need be ashamed to be caught loving a good Sam Wood movie. The fact is, pace M. Truffaut, I would much rather watch The Devil and Miss Jones than Hatari!; would curl up with The Pride of the Yankees well before I'd sit down with The Long Gray Line; and would take King's Row over Frenzy in a heartbeat. Does this mean that I consider Wood to be the equal of Hawks, Ford or Hitchcock? Nope. But it does mean I think he deserves to be taken seriously, and given credit for the things he did well.
There, that's my Sam Wood defense.
Unfortunately, it's all leading up to a brief discussion of a not-terribly-good Sam Wood movie, Saratoga Trunk.
"You can't go home again," said Thomas Wolfe, in a title the Siren first encountered via Charlie Brown. While there are few movie experiences as great as rediscovering the virtues of an old favorite, it's pretty depressing to go back to a movie you loved in youth and find that it looks kind of cheesy. The Siren was crazy about Saratoga Trunk when she was about 13 years old, but custom has staled this one something awful. There are good visual moments, such as the opening, a late-movie train chase and crash, Ingrid Bergman's untrammeled joy as she tastes her first jambalaya, and Bergman in her Saratoga hotel room getting tiddly on peaches in champagne. Bergman's mouth meeting peach is erotic as it got in 1945. She was quite the sensualist, was Bergman, one who loved her food, and the Siren wonders if that was why she was so hot to play Clio Dulaine. It couldn't have been the script.
Overall, however, it's a slog. Ingrid Bergman is Clio, a Creole adventuress who arrives in New Orleans to seek revenge on her father's snooty family for ruining her mother's life. The first scene is entrancing, Bergman arriving at a French Quarter mansion where the garden has taken over, walking around the broken-down rooms and reliving her mother's heartache. The Siren would definitely point to the sequence as an example of Wood's fluid but inconspicuous camerawork at its best.
But then Clio settles in, and the movie stagnates. There is way too much of Clio's "mammy" figure, Angelique, played in glowering blackface by Flora Robson and topped with eyebrows that would scare the daylights out of Frida Kahlo. (Blackface. Can you believe it? in a serious role, in 1945? and Robson got an Oscar nomination for it!) The character is a snooze, serving only to make you appreciate Hattie McDaniel. And there is too much of Cupidon, played by little person Jerry Austin and used in most early scenes as not much more than a terrier with a French accent (although he gets some better moments later on). For about 70 long, long minutes we watch Ingrid force the Dulaine family to pay her off, merely by showing up at various public places and looking like her mother. That's a long time to wait to get to Saratoga, and the meat of the story, such as it is. Perhaps the fact that Edna Ferber helped adapt her own novel accounts for Saratoga Trunk's length. It definitely smacks of a writer who wrote a long book and was going to get it all in there, by gum, no matter if pacing begins to stagger and finally falls in a ditch.
Gary Cooper has to wear an oversized hat that brings up unfortunate Yosemite Sam associations, but when he takes it off and makes love to Bergman the Siren understands what first drew her adolescent hormones to this movie. Bergman's features look smashing with dark hair, but then we of later years already knew that. The beauty of the leads and the occasional good scene notwithstanding, this one would have been better screened in the Siren's cinema of the memory.
* The story goes that during one of the many tense moments on the set of A Night at the Opera, Sam Wood snapped, "You can't make an actor out of clay," only to have Groucho flash back, "Nor a director out of Wood."