Saturday, August 28, 2010

Once Upon a Time on Skype: The Siren and Dennis Cozzalio Convene a Summit, Part II

Dennis Cozzalio, who has labored long and hard despite a nasty illness this week, has finally finished the enormous task of transcribing Part II of our Movie Blogger Summit. This edition touches on Jack Warner and the Siren's cussed fascination with Russia, why cranky critics should read more Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, the things that make blogging worthwhile, under which circumstances the Siren likes movies with exploding skulls, the joys of pre-Code Kay Francis, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the role of the personal in blogging and why you should watch Dennis' space for a guest appearance by Julien Duvivier.

Dennis is pure joy, an exceptionally talented writer and critical thinker, one with an open mind and an uncommonly kind heart. Our conversation, which was his brainchild and in the planning stages for a long while, turned out to be almost too much fun.

And we are both so happy about the large response that Part I got from the film blogosphere, which reception Dennis describes in his introduction to Part II. The Siren seconds his every thought, and adds her own warm thanks to the ever-generous, ever-mighty James Wolcott, the gracious and witty Tom Shone, the indispensable Daily Mubi, the equally indispensable Film Studies for Free, blogging idol Glenn Kenny and the ever-erudite Richard Brody of the New Yorker's movie blog. And many thanks also to all those who participated in the great thread at Glenn's place, including Hollis Lime, Kent Jones, Tom Carson, David Cairns, Keith Uhlich, Bill Ryan, Lazarus, Jean-Pierre Coursodon and many more. It was the most fun the Siren has ever had discussing a movie when absolutely everyone basically disagreed with her.

Now, if you'll excuse the Siren, she's going to clear away any outstanding tasks that might interfere with watching Freebie and the Bean when she gets back to Brooklyn at the end of the week.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Wee Willie Winkie (1937)

The first thing to know about Wee Willie Winkie is that it isn’t a Shirley Temple movie that happened to be directed by John Ford; it’s a John Ford movie that happened to star Shirley Temple. What makes it such a good film is that Ford doesn’t condescend to the material or the star. He shot it with the same loving attention to detail and deep, beautiful precision that would characterize Stagecoach two years later. And the themes that Ford, via Kipling, brings to bear-–the civilizing influence of women and children, sacrifice, courage, respect between enemies—-are also familiar from countless other Ford films.

To the uninitiated the name Shirley Temple tends to evoke one of two things: a ringleted, short-skirted, tap-dancing relic, or Graham Greene’s celebrated charge that there was something less than wholesome in her audience’s adoration. More on the latter in the sidebar below; here we will deal with the first. Temple was, in fact, a phenomenally gifted child performer, with charisma that leaps at you even today. She wasn’t the kind of transparently emotional actress that Judy Garland was, for example, and the Siren’s as grateful as everyone else that 20th Century Fox wouldn’t lend Temple for The Wizard of Oz. But Temple was frequently excellent and surprisingly subtle.

Temple has always said Winkie is her favorite of her films, and she got along well with Ford, who seems to have brought out the very best in her acting. You can see a few things that slipped through, though. Here’s a tip from the Siren, a Shirley Temple fan since early childhood: No good ever comes of a Temple line that begins with “why?”, and there's a "why?" line in every movie. “Why is Mommy crying?” “Why does Daddy have to go away?” “Why can’t the President stop people fighting?” “Why does this stage have a treadmill and state-of-the-art thunderstorm effects?”

Once you get around the “why?” questions Temple’s good films shine and even the lesser ones are often enjoyable. Her saccharine image belies her actual characters in the movies, usually spirited, naughty girls who only have to be told “stay right there” in order to go off exploring dangerous places, and who never, but never wait to speak until spoke to. (Why else do you think the Siren grew to love this child? That, and the tap-dancing.)

The Siren hadn’t seen this movie since childhood and viewing it again gave her a chance to enjoy all the cinematic things that flew over her head in elementary school. The opening, for example, on a train rattling through Northern India, and the way it echoed so much else in Ford with low-angle shots and dreamy close-ups of Priscilla (Temple) and her mother (June Lang) talking about the military outpost where they are headed. (The cinematographer was Arthur C. Miller, the genius who worked with Ford later on How Green Was My Valley, and also did a number of other Temple films.) They alight into the hurly-burly of an Indian marketplace, where they’re greeted by Sergeant McDuff (Victor McLaglen), who clearly hasn’t been around a gently bred Englishwoman in many a day, let alone one with a small girl, and at first the sergeant treats them rather like officers in skirts. Priscilla is told to stay put and of course, she doesn’t. Instead she climbs out of the carriage and runs smack into the arrest of Cesare Romero, a fairly credible-looking Indian revolutionary named Khoda Khan, who at first isn’t so much charmed as he is nonplussed by this moppet’s intrusion. Temple is at her best when she's allowed to play the normal inconvenient behavior of children, picking up an amulet and attempting to give it back to Khan even as he's being marched away at gunpoint.

Then it’s off to the outpost, to meet Mother’s handsome-but-dull love interest. The treatment of this romance reminded the Siren a bit of the lovers in The Informer; their presence kept at a minimum, the surroundings and shots particularly gorgeous, as though to distract from their lack of fire. The lovers become interesting only in a party scene. Dances are frequently a wistful affair in a Ford movie, some old tune (in this movie, “Comin’ Through the Rye”) sounding plaintively on a fiddle while the couple seem set apart from the revels even if they’re waltzing. The mother and her lover tryst in the garden and the partygoers are glimpsed as a swirl of skirts through a terrace door; the version the Siren saw also had the blue tint restored from the first release, and it adds to the melancholy. But parties, too, are almost always interrupted in Ford, and this one eventually is, by a native attack aimed at releasing Khan from the stockade.

Priscilla and her mother are on this army base to live with the requisite Formidably Stuffy Old Grandpa, played by C. Aubrey Smith, one of the most dependable stuffy old coots in the business. Temple-film protocol requires that this coot must be charmed by Priscilla and, to a lesser extent, her mother, but Smith is far from the primary focus of Wee Willie Winkie.

The strongest argument against Greene's interpretation of Winkie is the very thing he uses to back it up: Priscilla's relationship with Sergeant McDuff. From the start you see him trying to tone down his roughness when confronted with Temple and her mother, and gradually the mere attempt to behave like a gentleman becomes a visible sense of what he has missed all these years in the British Army--love, home, tenderness. It's in keeping with characters throughout Ford, from Wyatt Earp to Ethan Edwards, moving through the cavalry trilogy as well. There really isn't anything sexual about it. McLaglen's character no more leers at or simpers over Temple than does Ford's camera. Priscilla becomes determined to train like a soldier, and McDuff goes along with the game, barking at her with only the merest shade less of a voice than he might use with a recruit. It makes his love for the child more apparent, because he respects her fire and sincerity; if he fawned over her the whole thing would seem false. There's no one scene where Priscilla suddenly plays to McDuff as a father figure. It's just a growing sense of affection from them both, building to his inevitable death.

Ford complained to Peter Bogdanovich that it was bad drama to have a highly sympathetic character die halfway through a movie. The compensation is that the Sergeant's death is one of the most poignant scenes in all of Ford. McDuff has been severely wounded in a skirmish and the doctors have allowed Priscilla to visit, for what she doesn't realize will be the last time. McDuff knows he's dying, but in one last protective gesture he doesn't want her to know. Instead he lies and listens to her chatter, delivered with unaffected simplicity and innocence by Temple, until finally she starts to sing "Auld Lang Syne" for him, while (as filmmaker Michael G. Smith put it at Glenn's place) "an exquisite camera movement slowly eliminates him from the frame."

McDuff's death is more like two-thirds of the way through Wee Willie Winkie, but Ford was right that some of the drama that follows seems wan without him. But the immediate aftermath is almost as stunning as McDuff's deathbed. The Siren was thunderstruck by one shot of the Union Jack being lowered to half-mast against a heavy sky. Now why, she asked herself, should this touch her so intensely? The Siren is, as was Ford, an American of Irish descent, not a background to make one get all misty over the trappings of the British Empire. It's partly the sheer symmetrical perfection of the shot. But it's also drawing on what Ford has established before: the things large and small that are sacrficed by soldiers, the end of a surrogate father's presence, the intrusion of war into a child's life. When you hear the bagpipes and see the flag go down, it's an act curtain drawn across the stage, and it foreshadows the closing door in The Searchers, and it is, in short, Ford's genius. In this Shirley Temple movie, John Ford makes the flag as purely and wholely fitting as the final chord in a symphony. The flag's lowering is followed by a funeral procession of soldiers, often discussed in Ford literature for its elegance. But the Siren was even more enamored with the sight of Priscilla entering the men's barracks while they're marching, the empty cots with their rolled-up mattresses a spooky vision of coffins that echo the child's grief.

Later scenes involve Priscilla mediating Khan's uprising, complete with faux-Raj dialogue that has an admittedly high cringe factor, as with Smith: "Up in those hills are thousands of savages, waiting to sweep down and ravage India." Those nasty natives and their harebrained pursuit of self-rule, egad. Smith delivers the line with brio, as it was the sort of thing he said in every movie. Temple does her best to carry her own political freight, as when she tells Khan with shining conviction that "Queen Victoria wants to protect all her people and make them happy and rich." Khan's response, a guffaw, may have played as sinister during the movie's first run (or was it Ford's little Irish dig?), but these days he's just echoing the audience.

Still, Ford's camera treats Smith, Temple and Romero with sensitivity and respect as they hold hands and advance up the long steps to Khan's mountain lair, and the Siren saw an echo of Temple holding Bill Robinson's hand in The Littlest Rebel, a moment that put some Southern censors in traction just two years before. And there is a beautiful shot of Priscilla asleep on a pile of cushions, net curtains drawn around her and the mountains visible in the distance. Smith and Romero, British and Indian, Christian and Muslim, work out a peace agreement during the child's nap. It may be Ford's Kipling fantasy--there is neither East nor West, border, nor breed, nor birth--but it is possibly even more appealing in 2010 than it was in 1937.

Sidebar: Graham Greene's Fancy Little Piece

Now that we have dealt with the best movie Temple made as a tot, the Siren wants to deal with something that comes up one whole hell of a lot when you discuss Shirley Temple. A while back the Siren posted about movie quotes she didn't want to hear anymore. After spending a couple of weeks researching Shirley and Wee Willie Winkie, she would now include Graham Greene's observations about the relationship between Temple, her movies' "daddy" figures and the composition of her fan base.

Everyone knows the story of Greene's review and the furious reaction it inspired, but for ages the subsequent litigation meant the precise passage was hard to find. The Siren encountered it in its entirety only about 18 months ago, via David Ehrenstein and the wonders of the Internet. Here it is--the "libelous" passage from a review of the Ford film:

The owners of a child star are like leaseholders--their property diminishes in value every year. Time's chariot is at their back; before them acres of anonymity. Miss Shirley Temple's case, though, has a peculiar interest: infancy is her disguise, her appeal is more secret and more adult. Already two years ago she was a fancy little piece (real childhood, I think, went out after The Littlest Rebel). In Captain January she wore trousers with the mature suggestiveness of a Dietrich: her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap-dance: her eyes had a sidelong searching coquetry. Now in Wee Willie Winkie, wearing short kilts, she is completely totsy. Watch her swaggering stride across the Indian barrack-square: hear the gasp of excited expectation from her antique audience when the sergeant's palm is raised: watch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. Adult emotions of love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood, a childhood that is only skin-deep. It is clever, but it cannot last. Her admirers--middle-aged men and clergymen--respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.

The contemporary reaction to this review was way overdone, and the Siren vehemently disapproves of trying to suppress speech. As is true of many libel cases, if Temple's parents hadn't sued to get this paragraph out of the public discourse, it might have lapsed into obscurity. Instead it's immortal.

Greene was a genius all right, one who wrote the screenplays for two of the Siren's most deeply and dearly loved films. But the Siren finds his film criticism a chore. The style is there, but good lord he can be snooty, like he when he informed readers that if they were watching High, Wide and Handsome, a Rouben Mamoulian musical in which Irene Dunne plays a scene with a horse, they would be able to pick out Dunne by looking for "the one without the white patch on her forehead." (All right, yes, it's funny, but my beloved Irene was NOT horsey-looking.) No great film critic should give the persistent impression he's slumming. The Siren also scratches her head over aspects of Greene's taste. He couldn't stand Hitchcock, and his review of My Man Godfrey is so humorless it becomes hilarious. It is probably also worth noting, with regard to the Winkie review, that Greene was described as "obsessed with sex" by no less an authority on that state of being than Otto Preminger.

In the passage above, Greene complains about the "adult emotions" on Temple's face, and ignores the fact that Temple's ability to show deep feeling was neither inconsistent with childhood, nor evidence of corruption; it was simply what made her a great screen actress. Especially now that she's re-watched Wee Willie Winkie, the Siren sees the review as more bitchy than subversive, the moan of a highly intellectual man who cannot believe he just had to sit through that, that tripe. Never mind the millions of kids who adored Temple as much as did any adult. If she's popular, it must be because she wiggles her ass.

Sure, you can read Shirley Temple movies Greene's way if such is your kinky wont; but there's a few that lend themselves to it far more readily than the John Ford film. Little Miss Marker comes to mind, mostly because Adolphe Menjou is so much creepier than Victor McLaglen. In fact, you can read a lot of child vehicles of that or any other era as sublimated sex, and sometimes you'll be right. But it's a tiresomely reductive view to take of a film as good as Wee Willie Winkie, and it diminishes the good points something like The Little Princess or The Littlest Rebel still possess.

So if you want an analysis of the incestuous/pedophilic qualities of Wee Willie Winkie, that's as much as you're going to get from the Siren. She doesn't think the movie, or indeed Temple's performance, deserved that review.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Once Upon a Time on Skype: Dennis Cozzalio and the Siren Convene a Summit

The Siren has long had a mutual admiration society going with Dennis Cozzalio of the most excellent Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, despite such obstacles as living on opposite coasts and the Siren's lack of affinity for, well, you know. But even though we reside in a Web world when it's easy to ignite a blog war over, say, whether a movie about a weedy-looking twentysomething vanquishing exes is too hip for the room, or whether a movie about dreams should include nekkid people, Dennis and I find our differences amusing and stimulating and always have. We're also very similar in ways that count.

Some time ago he came up with the idea of talking to one another via Skype about movies and blogging and (reckless soul) he volunteered to transcribe it. Part I of our epic yakfest is up at his blog, covering, as his title promises, origins, childhood visions, writing philosophy and the Beetlejuice of film bloggers. Part II is due later this week.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Anecdote of the Week: You Can Post From Paris, but Not Everything Can Be Exported

As she's mentioned approximately 1,348 times in various social media, the Siren is off to Paris today for a visit with the in-laws. The Siren hates air travel--how heretical of her--but comforts herself with the notion that she could have in-laws in, say, Phenix City, Ala., a town where her father used to try cases and come back muttering that the movie flattered the place. (The Siren hastens to add for any readers in Phenix City that this was 25 years ago and Daddy may have missed the renaissance.)

The Siren always tries to do some shopping in Paris, however small, so here is a small anecdote regarding the perils of that pastime, from Billy Wilder in Hollywood by Maurice Zolotow.

Much of Love in the Afternoon was filmed on location in Paris. While Billy was over there, Audrey [Wilder] suddenly got the most irresistible craving for...a bidet! She had to have a bidet. She could not live without her very own bidet in the master bedroom. She cabled Billy to purchase a bidet and ship it to their Westwood apartment. Unable to locate a French plumbing supply firm which exported bidets, Wilder replied: IMPOSSIBLE TO OBTAIN BIDET STOP SUGGEST YOU DO HANDSTANDS IN SHOWER.

Over at Awards Daily, there is a poll about the Most Influential Film Critics. What struck the Siren about this poll is that there are only about a half-dozen, give or take, critics on the list whose good opinion is enough to get her watching. She won't tell you who they are, with two exceptions. Obviously the Siren's TCM tovarich Lou Lumenick carries much weight with her.

And then there is Glenn Kenny, the only critic named for an individual blog. The Siren suggests you go over and take the poll for the sake of voting for Glenn. The honor of the blogosphere compels you.

The poll, of course, is looking at which critics carry weight with the largest number of people (and in Oscar balloting, which to the Siren is like Kremlinology, only less transparent). But applying it to your own reading is an interesting exercise, and it made the Siren realize most of the critics left off the poll who wield substantial influence over her are either Web-based or have a large Web presence. Her own list would include (but is by no means limited to) Kim Morgan, Dennis Cozzalio, David Cairns, Dan Callahan, Peter Nelhaus, Tony Dayoub, Vadim Rizov, Dan Sallitt, Keith Uhlich, Jim Emerson, David Ehrenstein, Flickhead, Tom Shone and Girish Shambu. There are also wider-ranging bloggers whose film forays the Siren loves, such as James Wolcott (yes, I know he's primarily Vanity Fair, but he's a primo blogger so we like to claim him), Lance Mannion and Sheila O'Malley. And there's a few who've gone silent of late, but still make the Siren snap to attention when they do say something, like Filmbrain and Michael Phillips. These critics often share the Siren's tastes, but a lot of them also tend to like all sorts of things the Siren most definitely does not. They're all a pleasure to read, though, and often that's all it takes. Don't you think?

By that standard, the Siren could also name a lot of her commenters for that poll.

The Siren must now return to staring at her suitcases and waiting for them to speak up and tell her what she forgot. Before she leaves, one more critic who belonged on that poll had anyone consulted the Siren: Stephen Whitty. Please check out Stephen's marvelous exchange with Joan Lowell Smith, who once shared Hollywood digs with goddess-in-the-making Kim Novak.

That's all from Brooklyn for now. The Siren will be posting from Paris at her usual erratic rate. See you soon.

Monday, August 09, 2010

In Memoriam: Patricia Neal, 1926-2010

Just yesterday, before either one of us had heard of 84-year-old Patricia Neal's death in Martha's Vineyard, the Siren was having an email exchange with a friend about Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the new book about it by Sam Wasson. And the Siren mentioned that one of her several problems with the film is the treatment of Neal's character, a rich woman paying George Peppard's every bill while he works, theoretically, on a novel. She's given a nickname that shows what she means to him--an apartment number, 2E--and we're meant to see Neal as an obstacle to his destiny as an artist, not as someone trying to make things easier for a lover and getting barely concealed contempt in return. She leaves him money, the harpy! How's he supposed to write if she's doing things like that?

But, as always with Neal, there are more things in that face and that voice than the lines or blocking are meant to suggest--a pained vulnerability, the idea that Peppard's shameless use of her is a wound she covers with brittle chatter and a sophisticated attitude.

In her films, as well as in her life, Patricia Neal always seemed to be giving more than she got.

In Bright Leaf, the 1950 Michael Curtiz epic about tobacco farming, Neal is the one character simmering with emotion, attracted to Gary Cooper but determined to destroy him. The scene where she turns on Cooper is the most dramatic in the movie, their sexual chemistry roiling even as she confesses how much she has hated him. When he rides out alone in the end, it seems wholly fitting, not just because he couldn't keep faith with truehearted Lauren Bacall, but also because he wasn't man enough to do anything with the passion that had been flying off Neal the entire time. He didn't deserve either one of them.

She made one earlier film with Cooper, The Fountainhead. The Siren feels obligated to mention that one, but much as she loves Neal, in truth the Siren cannot bear that movie, King Vidor or no King Vidor. Ayn Rand's fans sometimes complain the film strays too far from her novel; the Siren thinks it's a visual match for Rand's writing style, and that is no compliment. Even so, the Siren still sees Neal's warmth and intelligence glimmering behind her risible lines and motivations.

During the filming of The Fountainhead, and continuing through and after Bright Leaf, Neal had an affair with Cooper that brought her agony, as Cooper's Catholic wife refused a divorce. Cooper urged Neal to have an abortion when she became pregnant, a decision Neal grieved over for the rest of her life. Her later marriage to Roald Dahl was marked by a horrifying taxi accident involving her four-month-old son. Theo survived, but Neal's seven-year-old daughter Olivia later died of complications from measles. In 1965, as she was in the early stages of shooting John Ford's Seven Women (a part that might have been perfect for her), she suffered a catastrophic series of strokes while she was pregnant with daughter Lucy. The effects on her speech, her body and her memory were devastating, but Dahl, with savage dedication, nursed her back to life and to acting.

Less than twenty years later, they divorced when Neal discovered Dahl's longstanding affair with her best friend. Betrayal haunted Patricia Neal off-screen as much as it did on.

Her misfortunes, her philanthropy and her courage became perhaps even more famous than her work, and tinge the perception of something like The Subject Was Roses, her first major role after the strokes and a beautiful performance. But simple nobility is almost never enough on screen. Neal always showed you the struggle, how damn hard everything was--but in a way that told you pity would be an insult to such a woman. It's evident even in an earlier role, such as her magnificent work in A Face in the Crowd, where you feel her revenge on Lonesome Rhodes as a blow for every woman who ever wasted time, intelligence and love on a worthless egomaniac.

She was one of those actresses whose beauty became softer and more inviting, not less, with age. In Hud, her housekeeper character Alma fends off Paul Newman's advances with the torment of loving him emphasizing every line on her face, and yet it only adds to her magnetism. Later parts became more like Alma, such as warm, gentle Olivia Walton in The Homecoming.

Always there was that voice, its timbre joining the Tennessee accent to create a sound you anticipate the way you might yearn for a close-up of another actor. The Siren has spent this morning collecting the adjectives. Corncrake, said David Shipman (a bird, evidently--the Siren had to look that one up). Molasses, says the Times. Throaty, husky, sandpaper. And the Siren can hear all that even just reading a printed interview with Neal, like the one where she explained the fears of a young contract player at the old Warner Brothers: "Bette Davis was queen of the studio, and you couldn't just go up to her and ask her to solve your problems.

"They were real stars in those days, babe."

(Postscript: You will most definitely want to read Sheila O'Malley's tribute.)

An overdue update: Reader Carol wrote the Siren some time ago to point out that contrary to her original post, Cooper was not Catholic at the time of his affair with Neal, and that the Siren's rather harsh allusion was in error. Research shows that Carol is right. The Siren regrets the error, and the sideswipe at Cooper. Mea culpa.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Affairs of Cellini (1934)

Historical movies fall into one of three categories. Some strive for meticulous accuracy, some leaven accuracy with a few liberties. Then there are those that frankly don't give a damn beyond costumes and sets--and so it was with Affairs of Cellini, the 1934 Gregory La Cava film. This odd comedic swashbuckler sits right near the start of the director's great run of films up to 1941's Unfinished Business. Despite the 16th-century trappings it does fit with the later films, if you figure that instead of monkey imitations, you're getting little bursts of swordplay. It's based on a play by Edwin Justus Mayer, "The Firebrand," about which the Siren knows nothing. Presumably it drew from the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, which the Siren read in abridged form years ago. And the movie is somewhat less weird than the book, which as the Siren recalls had Cellini swearing he saw halos and had clairvoyant visions and conjured up a bunch of devils in the Colosseum in order to get back a mistress who had gone home to mother.

The movie was still pretty weird, though. Supporting player Fay Wray recalled years later, "It had a certain amount of charm, even though it was a little wacky." The Siren couldn't have said it better herself. The rather murky plot doesn't reward much summary, involving as it does Cellini's need to maim and murder various Florentines whom he finds annoying, the Duke de Medici's need to punish Cellini for doing so, and everybody's need to find someone wholly inappropriate to sleep with.

So what was so wacky? Well, the supporting players obliterate the lead, for one thing. Fredric March was a longtime scene-stealer himself, but he doesn't seem comfortable with this character. Instead he glowers from underneath masses of dark curls and moves like he's trying to convince himself the doublet is an English-drape suit. Which is a shame, because March's legs looked great in tights, something that can be said of very few actors. Maybe (here the Siren indulges in idle speculation) maybe March, one of Hollywood's staunchest liberals, had a bit of trouble finding a way into playing an artist, even a great artist, who wrote with perfect sang-froid about beating the hell out of his mistresses and was also a viperous court intriguer, (possible) political assassin and plain old murderer. But the problem is less with March, a fine actor, and more that the script marginalizes its own title character. Cellini's art is confined to one scene in his workshop where he's making his assistant do all the labor. He's reacting to the plots of others as much as he's doing his own scheming, and Cellini's lines aren't as funny, either. And that's also a shame, because March could time a joke to the millisecond, as he showed in Design for Living and Nothing Sacred.

One of the few lines March really gets to tear off is "For your own sake, don't be any dumber than is absolutely necessary"--spoken to Fay Wray, who's playing Angela, an artist's model of wondrous stupidity. Wray, to whom the Siren had never given much thought one way or another, is unexpectedly funny in this simple part. She doesn't have snappy lines; instead she gets laughs just by sticking to the unflappable demeanor of a person who seldom gets upset about anything because she never understands what the hell is going on. Angela sucks the crumbs off a finger or picks at her sleeve, stares off into the middle distance, finally tunes into the conversation, listens patiently and then, having visibly decided that the man isn't saying one thing worth hearing, goes back to whatever constitutes her inner life. The longer Angela stuck around, the more the Siren enjoyed her, and she was often more interesting than Cellini.

The movie's primary flaw, though, was the Duke de Medici. Frank Morgan's Best Actor nomination for Affairs is often cited as a reason why the Academy needed a supporting category, proving that this unavailable-on-home-anything movie hasn't been seen much. Morgan's got almost as much screen time as March, and his performance dominates the movie. Which is not a good thing, or at least the Siren didn't think so. Understand, the Siren finds the actor delightful in many things, including The Shop Around the Corner (easily his best work), Bombshell and The Wizard of Oz. But if you saw Oz (and hasn't everyone?) you will immediately recognize Morgan as de Medici. It's the same performance. The stammering, the stop-and-start motion, the furtive looks, even the humbug. There are some places where the tricks are still funny, particularly in his dinner scene with Angela. The Duke tries to slide one raddled hand up Angela's arm and Wray looks at him like he's picking his teeth with his fork: "What are you doing that for?" Great line delivery by Wray. Angela really does want to know why his hand is on her arm. She really is that stupid. Responds Morgan, as baffled as his seduction target: "Doesn't that make you, ah, burn and tingle?" And then, later, from Morgan: "Would you like some more peacock tongue?" (Technically this was post-Code. Not sure how that line made it in there.) "Yes, milord." Responds Morgan, like a lecherous Santa Claus: "Don't call me milord. I'd prefer that you call me Bumpy."

Mostly, however, Morgan is just tiresome, fluttering everywhere and being such a ninny that you never have a moment's suspense thinking he's any threat to anyone. Louis Calhern (miles from The Asphalt Jungle, but you'd know that nose anywhere) has some Rathbone-esque bite as the Duke's cousin, Ottaviano, but he isn't around enough to build up a sense of menace.

Thank god for Constance Bennett. The other characters may be dumber than one of Cellini's plates, but Constance is smart enough for the entire movie. The usual routine for swashbucklers, even semi-sorta-swashbucklers like this one, is a fiery heroine with a nice line in flashing eyes and snappy comebacks, who spends the first part of the movie telling the hero he's a common pirate, thief, musketeer, ruffian, whatever. Here, however, we have coolly adulterous Miss Bennett as the Duchess de Medici, more Snow Queen than spitfire. As usual, Constance is the most wised-up person in the picture, going after Cellini and manipulating everyone in sight. Also as usual, Constance was the Siren's favorite, giving just the right cynical touch to the picture's best lines: "The tragedy of all great ladies is to discover that the men with the most exaggerated reputations make the poorest lovers. That is the reason we probably marry half-wits." Bennett always seemed ineffably early 1930s, no matter what decade the movie was filmed or set in, and here her silky walk and line deliveries would fit nicely in a later La Cava picture. She's delightful, sweeping into the apartment that the Duke has set up for his adulterous tryst with Angela, pretending to think it's all for her and maliciously complimenting him on every detail.

Constance, along with March's tights, also provides the dose of sex the movie needs. Watch her sink onto a couch as the slinky dress fabric outlines her legs all the way to her ass. The movie looks good, if not great, with sumptuous sets and a few fight scenes that show La Cava's ability to film chaos and make it coherent. Overall, however, if the Siren watched it again, it would be for Constance, sashaying off at the end, ready to keep out-conniving one of the Renaissance's greatest heels.