Monday, May 23, 2011

Anecdote of the Week: No Small Parts

One of the Siren’s new movie books this year is King of Comedy, by Mack Sennett. The Siren doesn’t know that much about the very early days of silent film, so she can’t attest to Sennett’s reliability as a memoirist. Judging by Sennett’s style, he seems to be more of a yarn-spinner than a meticulous recorder of an important historical era in the development of the cinematic arts.

He’s funny as hell, though, so who cares.

Here is Mack Sennett, working his way up in Little Old New York, not too long after the era of The Strawberry Blonde.

I hung around the Bowery, picked up an acquaintance here and there through boardinghouse connections, and got a job. At first I was handed a broom and told to sweep out. My rise was sudden. One night they needed a gifted fellow to play the hind legs of a horse, and so I made my debut in this character part.

My vis-a-vis, you might say, was a young and handsome man named Stu Krauss from North Carolina...Stu Krauss moaned when I was made the hind legs of the horse. “I have been the front legs for two months,” he complained, “and I had hoped for promotion. Now you come along and grab the star part of the act.”

I thought that over.

“I don’t get you,” I said.

“Anybody can be the front legs,” Stu said. “The front legs is--or are--[Stu was educated] the straight part. The hind legs do all the acting and get all the applause.”

I thought that over.

“I guess talent will come out,” I said. “I have been recognized.”

“Indeed you have,” said Stu. “The minute you appeared I said to myself, ‘Here is a man who is destined to be the rear end of a horse.’ “

I thought that over.

“I shall try to be humble,” I said.

Above, a picture of Mack Sennett with the love of his life, Mabel Normand, taken from a swell fan site called Looking for Mabel Normand; it has lots of pictures and abundant film clips, too.


Speaking of film history, These Amazing Shadows, in which the Siren can be briefly glimpsed during a segment about The Wizard of Oz, continues to be screened around the country. The Siren’s favorite part of These Amazing Shadows consists of the details about restoration and the Library of Congress archives. Peter Nelhaus recently caught it in Denver and saw director Kurt Norton speak. Raquelle at Out of the Past saw it, also liked it, and sneaked a cellphone shot of the Siren on screen. She says she hopes I’m not mad. I’m not. I just want my readers to know that my skin is not gray in real life.

Further screenings are being held around the country, and the film is still available through video-on-demand. It will be available on DVD through PBS Video and is scheduled to screen on PBS around December 27.

Further to the Siren’s George Stevens Resurrection Drive in partnership with Raymond de Felitta, the estimable Glenn Kenny has started a Tracy-Hepburn Project in which Glenn plans to watch all of their co-starring films. And he's watching them with his better half, Claire, known to Glenn’s readers as “my lovely wife” or “MLW” for short. The first selection was Woman of the Year, and Glenn and Claire agree with the Siren that it's a neglected masterpiece and a landmark in the positive portrayal of career women on screen. Just kidding. He and Claire had pretty much the same problems with it that the Siren did. It's a witty exchange, and the Siren is looking forward to Keeper of the Flame, which is up next.

Michael Phillips, the artist formerly known as Goatdog, can be heard here discussing his horror-film series coming up in Chicago. Michael's series, Shock Theater from the Cinema Dementia Collection, will be running a double feature at the Wicker Park Arts Center in Chicago on the first Friday of each month, starting in June. There's an extensive profile of Michael, a razor-sharp man and devoted cinephile, here at the Shadows and Screams blog.

Finally, the Siren’s longtime blog pal Flickhead has an affectionate post about a new three-disc Blu-Ray set of the three films that Sophia Loren made with Vittorio de Sica. Flickhead puts them in the context of their time, discusses the ebb and flow of de Sica's reputation and most importantly, assures us that Sophia and Marcello Mastroianni look great on Blu-Ray.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Strawberry Blonde (1941)

“If you don’t like this one,” the Siren told her husband, “I’ll eat the DVD case.”

The Siren admits she said this knowing she was in no danger of having to digest plastic, since she could tell her husband, “Hey, I just bought a four-hour dialogue-free movie about a man matching socks and suffering torments over whether to fold them into squares or invert the top over the foot portion, and by the way the man doing the folding is James Cagney,” and presto, her husband would clear a four-hour hole in his schedule and afterward say things like “Nobody handled fiber content like Cagney, nobody.”

Still, Raoul Walsh’s The Strawberry Blonde is a beloved movie, one with a reputation that quietly extends well beyond hardcore classic-film fans, to horror-film lovers, savorers of superheros and serial killers, to people who really would watch a movie about folding socks. When the Siren mentions The Strawberry Blonde, they get this look James Cagney would call “sappy” and they coo, “That’s a great one.”

Even the credits promise a great movie--Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, Jack Carson, Alan Hale, Julius and Philip Epstein, Orry-Kelly, Robert Haas, Perc Westmore, and the sublime James Wong Howe, who is probably perched in the afterlife shooting heaven in glorious black and white.

And then there’s Walsh himself, one hell of a great director, his reputation built in large part on tough-minded movies like What Price Glory?, The Roaring Twenties, They Drive By Night, High Sierra and White Heat. His machismo was entirely authentic, and you could easily believe he’d earned his famous eyepatch in a duel or a revolution somewhere south of the border (although you’d be wrong; it was a freak auto accident).

Here’s something about Walsh, though, as well as other he-man directors of the Golden Age like Michael Curtiz, William Wellman, Howard Hawks and John Ford: Their fearlessness extended effortlessly to matters of the heart. Their strong men have strong needs and strong emotions. (And, as in Walsh’s The Man I Love, so does a strong woman.) That’s the secret to Walsh’s incredible control of tone; it’s seamless because it’s tied to one vision of what makes his protagonists worthwhile. There’s very little cool about a Walsh hero, in the sense of emotion withheld. You find that in the villain from time to time, but not the main guy.

So in 1941 the adventurous Walsh takes on this nostalgic tale of the life, loves and bad breaks of a dentist with a mail-order degree, and he’s a perfect fit. That’s obvious from the opening scene, where Biff (James Cagney) is pitching horseshoes with his old friend Nicolas Pappalas (George Tobias). There’s Cagney, throwing the horseshoes with a dancer’s grace, and there’s Walsh, lingering over a shot of Cagney from behind so you get the full effect of that high-pocketed bantam walk. And then the camera moves over the wall, to a group of well-off college boys and their sweethearts, lying in hammocks and singing to one another. And the movement is ravishing--not flashy at all, Walsh never telegraphs his effects. The shot is so fluid and natural it’s like water flowing out of a spring. From Cagney’s packed-dirt backyard, to the grass and trees and ease of the well-to-do just a few feet away. That one movement of Walsh’s camera gives the Siren a pleasure so intense that she can tell you it’s the precise moment she fell in love with The Strawberry Blonde.

The movie follows Biff as he deals with his ne’er-do-well father (Alan Hale), falls for the strawberry-blonde Virginia Brush (Rita Hayworth, and incidentally how did her character’s name get past the Breen Office?), sees Virginia stolen away by the double-dealing Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson, in what Dennis Grunes calls the “role that made Carson Carson”), and eventually realizes true love with the kindhearted Amy Lind (Olivia de Havilland, looking more beautiful even than Hayworth).

Everyone involved in this movie gave it the best they had. The screenplay was by the Epstein brothers, and their particular wit is all over the dialogue, in Amy asking Virginia, as they wait for Biff and Hugo, “What did we come here for if not to be trifled with?”; in Biff’s father saying cheerfully, “I wasn’t cut out to be a street-cleaner, and it’s no use reaching for the stars”; in Biff’s repeated line, “That’s the kind of a hairpin I am.” James Wong Howe--well, if Howe had an autopilot switch he never used it, but here you can worship the gas lamps being lit in the park, the nightime light on a set of lace curtains moving in the breeze, and the long shadows across the floor of the useless office where Biff goes to work for Hugo. Orry-Kelly’s finest moment is a dress that Virginia wears for a dinner party after she’s married Hugo--the neckline is dramatically low, in keeping with the character’s loss of youthful sweetness, but in deference to Breen it’s cut so there’s no visible cleavage from Hayworth’s magnificent poitrine. This was the Siren’s fourth viewing (at least) and she still can’t figure out exactly how Orry-Kelly managed that.

Nor can the Siren completely unravel the mystery of Walsh’s elegantly balanced two-shots. The movie is full of them, and they never get old or static. Biff is up high when he’s talking to his father at one point, side by side with Hugo when Hugo is cheating him once again. When Biff meets Amy in the park, he’s up near the top of a hill, she’s down closer to the bottom, as she’s already attracted to him and Biff doesn’t have the sense to see it. Virginia is up in a carriage, Biff is down on the ground mooning after her. The whole beautiful rhythm of The Strawberry Blonde comes in pairs. And it’s punctuated with music, each familiar old song signaling a transition, as good as an intertitle.

The secondary leads are superb. Where Jack Carson excelled, and where he was perfect for Hugo Barnstead, was in playing the louse who doesn’t believe he’s a louse. Hugo’s efforts to pin his misdeeds on Biff are just the way Hugo thinks the world works. Hugo orders the substandard materials that cause old man Grimes’ death late in the movie, but Carson’s head shakes and his eyes widen in hurt at the suggestion that anyone would think he bore responsibility.

Carson would go on to be the best thing in many a mediocre movie, but Rita Hayworth was generally only as good as her directors. In his autobiography, Walsh recalled that Ann Sheridan, who would have been excellent, turned down the part in a fit of self-sabotaging pique at Jack Warner. The director said that he’d seen Hayworth dance and play some small roles at Columbia. Evidently Walsh missed Only Angels Have Wings, but some self-back-patting was in order, because Hayworth does marvelous work, showing good nature occasionally peeking out from Virginia’s cold-eyed ambition. Hayworth gets better and better as the movie goes on--watch the way she picks up spaghetti with two forks, mocking Hugo’s airs. And, in the penultimate scene, watch her put out a cigarette in Cagney’s dental sink, nine years before Margo Channing doused one in a jar of cold cream.

But it’s the slowly developing romance between Cagney and de Havilland that clutches at you. Biff is a brawler--he has a black eye in what must be more than half his scenes--but Cagney also shows the character’s dreamy, yearning side. Amy starts out trying to shock people with suffragette rhetoric, but it’s her kindness that makes you know she’s meant for Biff. There isn’t any question about whether they will get together--they’re shown married in the opening scene. The suspense becomes whether Biff has really learned to appreciate Amy, or still yearns for Virginia. His dawning regard is shown first in the scene when Amy comes to tell him Virginia has married Hugo, when Biff keeps dropping his eyes to avoid Amy’s sympathy. Later, after they’re married and before Biff goes to prison for Hugo’s crime, there’s a shot of Biff and Amy’s hands together that makes the Siren’s heart turn over. When Biff is in prison, Walsh balances the couple even then, as the nurse Amy pushes patients in wheelchairs and Biff pushes a shovel full of dirt in the prison yard.

Biff is finally released, and he goes to meet Amy in the park where they’ve met so many important times before. “Their reunion was one of the most emotional scenes I ever filmed,” said Walsh. At first Walsh hangs back a bit, and their shots are separate--until Biff and Amy’s love wells up and the director finally moves in, but still not too close, as if to show a bit of respect. Earlier, asked why he’s infatuated with Virginia, Biff replies, “Every fellow has an ideal”--and here he’s found it.

The Strawberry Blonde is another one of mid-century Hollywood’s forays into Gay Nineties nostalgia. The period was closer to them than the 1940s are to us now, but the difference between 1891 and 1941 is a lot bigger than between 1941 and 2011, and so there’s even more period detail to wallow in. But the film slyly, and without nastiness or rancor, insinuates that nostalgia is a mug’s game that can keep a man brooding on what might have been, rather than what is. Like a pretty lover with a bad disposition, nostalgia is something to be trifled with, not obsessed over.

Patrick McGilligan: What was your favorite picture of the sound period?

Raoul Walsh: Offhand, I might say The Strawberry Blonde. I kind of liked the swing of it, the old-time music, the characters and the dress. It brought me back to my childhood. I grew up in that area [of New York City], you know.

McGilligan: Did you deliberately sweeten the memory of your past?

Walsh: Yes. A jolly time, good times, all nice people, singing and dancing.

McGilligan: That’s the way it really was, or the way you wanted to remember it?

Walsh: That was the way I wanted to remember it.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

George Stevens' Giant (1956), in One Scene

As the Siren's contribution to her friend Raymond de Felitta's valiant efforts to resurrect the sadly shredded reputation of the marvelous George Stevens, she was going to write up the movie Giant. (Part 3 of Raymond's musings right here; please, pretty please, read them all.) After noodling around for a couple of weeks, she decided that all she really needed was this scene, one that ranks with the Siren's favorites in all of 1950s cinema and constitutes a remarkable piece of acting by the perpetually underappreciated Rock Hudson. Gather round, Stevens lovers and Stevens skeptics, and the Siren will explain.

A primary theme of Giant is bigotry, specifically bigotry against Mexican Americans. We've seen it throughout; Rock Hudson, as the stalwart Texas rancher Bick Benedict, kind to his Hispanic workers by the none-too-exacting standards of the time and place, but patronizing, tone-deaf and inclined to ignore what's going on in front of him. Like many people before and since, he first must find someone he cares about personally in order to comprehend what his wife (Elizabeth Taylor) and son Jordan (Dennis Hopper, in a sensitive and intelligent performance) have understood all along.

Late in the movie, the Benedict family--Hudson, Taylor (as Leslie), Carroll Baker (as their headstrong daughter Luz) and Elsa Cardenas (as Hopper's wife, Juana) have stopped at a roadside diner on their way back from a catastrophic weekend. James Dean, as the oil magnate Jett Rink, got spectacularly drunk at his own tribute dinner and, after making a horse's ass of himself in front of Texas society, confessed his love for Leslie to a near-empty banquet hall--watched by a heartsore Luz, who had loved him herself. Benedict decides a good hearburn-inducing meal will help them get back in touch with the real Texas. Unfortunately, the salt of the Texas earth is going to contain a lot of dirt.

We've already seen Juana, a gentle and idealized young woman, humiliated when she tried to go to a beauty parlor in Rink's hotel to get ready for the banquet. We've seen Jordan stomp into the proceedings and slug a smirking and unapologetic Rink. We've seen also that Benedict's initial reaction (although he later confronts Rink, for personal reasons that go way back) was more discomfort and embarrassment than sympathy with his enraged son. In the four minutes that this scene runs, we see Benedict finally, irrevocably, on course to getting the point.

What a superb rhythm Stevens and his editor, William Hornbeck, bring, as the scene starts with shots looking down the whole of the diner, and then picks up bit by bit as the confrontation grows and the camera gets more intimate with the fight and the people looking on. Raymond writes, with regard to A Place in the Sun, that "for Stevens, its not a matter of where the actors heads, hands etc. actually were that amounts to continuity; rather an emotional continuity and the power of the cut to bring that forward is what he was looking to achieve." Emotional continuity is here in this scene, in spades.

The Benedicts are seated at a back booth, with their menus. Sarge, played by Mickey Simpson, a character actor built along the lines of a brick outhouse, has already insulted the baby ("I'd think that kid would want a tamale") but permitted them to sit by virtue of the Benedicts being white enough to counteract the presence of Juana and Benedict's grandson. The camera looks down the long length of the diner, steel, white paint and red vinyl chairs, as a Spanish speaking family, evidently Mexican, comes in to eat. They timidly take a booth. "Hey you," Sarge calls from the left of the screen.

Cut to Benedict, sitting up, menu sliding back, a profile shot that emphasizes his social stature--the lord of the Reata ranch is not pleased. Leslie tries to talk about planes and arrival times. Back to the camera looking down the diner, Sarge advancing on the family--a woman with her parents, it seems--and telling them to get lost, with a few mispronounced Spanish phrases that are far more insulting than English would have been. (Simpson sounds about as Texan as Fiorello LaGuardia, but he's so good here it doesn't much matter.) From the left we see people at the counter watching the moment over their shoulders, with no more than idle detachment. Sarge towers over the old man, plants the old gentleman's hat on his head like he's a schoolboy, and starts to 86 him. Far in the back of the shot, we see Benedict rise to his feet and begin to advance. The men at the counter turn all the way around.

Benedict walks up with the spreading beer-belly gait of late (very late) middle age, but he's almost as tall as Sarge. Sarge's physical advantage is telegraphed by the way his back almost blots Benedict out of the shot. Hudson's body language isn't that of a man anticipating a fight, just that of an aristocrat pulling rank in the easy expectation that the peon is going to roll over. Simpson's planted feet and posture suggest no such thing.

Cut back to the opposite corner of the diner, now looking at Benedict's back, which is stiffening, a cake tower separating the two men (the Siren loves that) and Sarge pointing to Benedict's grandchild: "That there papoose down there, his name Benedict too?" The waitress is the only one in the diner who takes a look. Benedict turns; everyone else is still focused on him.

Back to the first shot, only closer in. "Yeah, come to think of it"--it may in fact be the first time Benedict has truly thought of it, and his voice finally gets aggressive on the next part of the line--"it is." Now to the Benedict booth for the first time since the confrontation began, Juana staring ahead in silent misery, her son just visible at the bottom of the frame, and Leslie in profile--hand resting on her pearls.

Sarge's back again, full-length; the old man has sat back down. Sarge pulls him back up and Hudson's first move is covered up by the actor's bulk--you only see Benedict's leg bowing out as he almost crouches to push back. Back against the counter Sarge goes; the men seated in the middle of the shot have abandoned all pretense of not watching the floor show. Benedict stands there like he's waiting for Sarge to pump him gas.

And we hear the first punch--we don't see it--we're back at the booth, Leslie giving a start, Luz's jaw set, Juana refusing to turn around. A couple more punches are heard until we're at a new angle and Sarge's huge frame landing on top of a table. And the impact of his body starts up the jukebox playing the mega-hit "Yellow Rose of Texas" as he slowly rises to his feet. Benedict's back look relaxed--way too relaxed, in a way that signals once more that this fight isn't going to go well for him.

Sarge lands another punch and the camera pulls back to Benedict landing on the floor, legs underneath him as though he slipped on a wet spot, not someone who knows he's in danger, but someone who figures this is all going to work out as soon as he's back on his feet. Benedict gets to his feet; more bad news, he doesn't exactly look steady. The Benedict table stirring, Leslie sitting up further, Luz's hand wavering at her face as if to say this is so unpleasant. The grandson, too interested to start crying.

Facing the counter now, Benedict and Sarge holding one another, Sarge punching only a hair above the belt. Benedict against the Mexican family's table, hands finally up. They circle one another and Benedict gets in a right to the jaw, his best punch so far and the best he's gonna get. Benedict's face in a brief moment of triumph, then Sarge lands another punch and he goes down.

And--the Siren loves this shot--we shift suddenly to the perspective from the kitchen, and the back of the cook, looking dead at the door as a man exits the counter on the right, and on the left Sarge still whales on Benedict.

Sarge's face shows more confidence than ever. A tremendous punch at Benedict who goes down again, an off-camera whimper from (probably) Luz and back to the corner booth, Leslie really clutching the pearls now, Juana barely turning her head.

Benedict down on the floor, looking up--another shot the Siren loves, one of sheer bloody aristocratic stubbornness, incredulity still in the tilt of his eyebrows.

One more fairly decent punch for Benedict, shot from the back of the diner again. The screen evenly divided, the Mexican man standing on the left, the waitress pudgily waiting it out on the right.

Then, as Benedict wallops Sarge onto a table, dig the view through the window--the livestock truck with cows grazing on hay, and the oil derricks on the left. More customers cutting their losses and beating it. More Luz and Leslie, the baby still placid in his mama's lap. Benedict pulling up Sarge like a sack of grain--he's not going to hit a man when he's down, not Bick Benedict.

Our first shot through the outside windows, people peeking in, and then the waitress in her doughy stupor, a sign on the right of her that we're about to see again in short order.

Sarge's quickest, harshest, most brutal punch, and Benedict's fastest meeting with the floor yet. The baby really wondering what's going on now. Sarge standing over Benedict, his face saying "I've got you now." Benedict's hair flopping comically and blood coming out of his mouth; Luz sitting way up in her seat to see if her father is capable of getting up, then putting her hand on her mouth like he's embarrassing her at a school dance. The camera trying to get up from the floor with Benedict as he seems to hug Sarge's waistband. A higher-angle shot of the Benedict table. Benedict up against the counter, and Sarge lands a punch that sends Benedict sailing over the counter, and Stevens pulls the camera back again so what we notice is mostly the soles of Benedict's shoes. Luz finally crying. The baby leaning back against mama. Benedict staggering to his feet and Sarge almost centered behind him, Sarge sure of his victory now. The cook still lounging on the left.

Benedict's head on the counter. He turns around. Now look at his expression, pushed to the side of this lummox, hair still flopping--he knows he's going to lose, but by god he's going down swinging. From the back of Benedict we see them, absurdly, still raising their fists like this is a boxing match and not a rout--more punches, more Luz almost hysterical--two more punches from Benedict and the waitress momentarily a bit worried. The baby finally upset, Sarge half-grinning, Luz again calling to her father, more punches, a blindingly fast cut to the Benedicts, more Sarge, Luz's head on her arms, and then a look through the neon sign on the window--Sarge's Place--at Benedict going down. (The military nickname for Sarge's character sarcastically evokes the one soldier we see in this movie, Sal Mineo's brief cameo as the young Hispanic ranch hand, Angel, who is killed in action offscreen. It's worth noting, because Stevens, novelist Edna Ferber and screenwriters Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat probably knew it, that Latino Americans have won more Congressional Medals of Honor than any other ethnic group.)

Leslie finally runs to her husband, leans over him and we get our first Stevens dissolve, to Sarge looking down at Benedict, with that sign on the left. He turns and grabs it (it isn't a very big sign) and dumps the notice on Benedict's chest. Leslie looks up. A close-up of Sarge, his expression hovering somewhere around smug, and then a swoosh in to the sign: "WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE TO ANYONE"--the words surrounded by foodstains, heaving up and down with Benedict's labored breathing.

It's a rare movie fistfight that functions as character development, and this one plays like gangbusters. The metronome of that Mitch Miller march is bouncy enough to take the edge off the brutality, but martial enough to underline the epic nature of this battle. This is the climax of what the movie has been slowly pushing at Bick Benedict, the realization that his seigneurial little gestures toward Hispanic Texans are not, and never have been, enough. At some point, he has to pick a side and fight for it. But this isn't a noble fencing match, it's a doomed gesture against a system that isn't going to change anytime soon. And it isn't a complete epiphany for Benedict, Hudson's face and body show that to the end. There's too much lingering surprise for that. It's only when he's pulling his head off the counter that Benedict appears to realize that he's going down. And as Leslie is trying to comfort him, Benedict still doesn't know precisely what the hell just happened. It's Leslie who will have to explain at the fadeout, just a few scenes later.