Friday, August 26, 2011

The Sunset Gun/Siren Simulcast: Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

The Siren was on the phone with a fellow writer last year, and the subject of Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven came up. Quoth the lady (and she is a lady): “I kind of sympathize with her.” Respondeth the Siren: “So do I, so do I.”

Let it be said that neither the Siren nor her friend condones, approves of nor has any plans for drowning crippled children, indulging in do-it-yourself miscarriages or committing suicide in hopes our significant others subsequently will be executed for murder. One has certain moral limits.

Yet we were both serious. Tierney's character isn’t unsympathetic to either one of us. “She just wants to be left the hell alone with her man,” remarked the lady. “I get that way sometimes, too,” admitted the Siren.

And we do have company, albeit tongue-in-cheek company. The Siren's idol, James Agee, saw what was billed in 1945 as a tale of an evil woman's obsessive love and remarked, "Audiences will probably side with the murderess, who spends all of the early reels trying to manage five minutes alone with her husband. Just as it looks possible, she picks up a pair of binoculars and sees his brother, her mother, her adopted cousin and the caretaker approaching by motorboat."

Now it can be told: Ellen's other contemporary admirer was Kim Morgan of the exceptional film site (she hates the word blog) Sunset Gun. For her love of John M. Stahl's masterpiece, and considering her kinship with the Siren, Kim agreed to chat via email about our beloved Ellen Berent Harland. Kim has cross-posted at her place, with her own introduction, which you should check out.


Kim Morgan of Sunset Gun Speaks:

Oh Gene. Or rather, misunderstood Ellen. A woman trapped in her obsession, of course, in her obsession with her father, but then, also trapped within the un-permissiveness of the times. Permission for Ellen to do…what would Ellen do? Perhaps that's the problem. This is a time when one is not allowed the strength of being… Ellen. I'm not sure when anyone is allowed to be Ellen, exactly, but she is certainly trapped by some force beyond mere psychopathology. Maybe born so impeccable, that unfaltering, that she even frightens herself? She's not normal. Well, she wants to be normal. A woman who yearns for marriage (to Cornel Wilde, though we're never sure why, maybe because he seems normal), a private honeymoon, some damn solace, a few less tedious family gatherings and…then… just maybe the desire to NOT procreate (albeit, she changes her mind a bit late in the game).

I know I'm giving Ellen a big break (maybe she should have remained single) but her superiority is a large part of the problem. You could call that pure narcissism, but that's not what's going on. She never boasts so much as arrives, right? All she needs to do is walk into a room with those startlingly beautiful blue eyes, flop on a couch and eat a sandwich with that perfect overbite. But it's not that she appears a mere mortal trapped in some super-human, celestial cage, she's both sensitive and smart. Maybe a tortured genius. I think this is a woman who suspects that her husband isn't such a great writer after all (I bet you she's got five better novels in her than he does).

She knows men desire her, how can they not? (I love seeing the film on the big screen because always, always, you hear an audible gasp when Tierney first appears -- she's so staggeringly beautiful). But anyway -- men -- they must have her, they yearn for this woman, this is the ultimate trophy (gorgeous, smart, strong, knows her way with a horse and an urn), but in the end, what they really want is 'the girl with the hoe.' Right?

Which then leads me to what you stated when we began this discussion. Of course -- no (I can't believe I have to say this), but I don't endorse the drowning of little brothers (but with those sunglasses? And that lipstick? Oh never mind... ), but what I certainly don't endorse are book dedications from your husband to your adopted sister who's, well, secretly in love with your husband. And vice versa! Come on! To hell with Jeanne Crain. We all saw this coming just as Ellen did.

But, as everyone prattles on like Ellen is the troubled one (and yes… she let the kid drown, but let's try to put that aside for a moment because no one actually knows that for sure, except us, which yes, yes, makes us complicit if we sympathize with Ellen. I'll take that up with Michael Haneke later…). But, returning to the point, it takes Vincent Price to sort all of the obvious 'girl with the hoe' triangle out? And posthumously, in court? Well, thank god for Vincent Price. But, like the pregnancy, he came a bit late into the picture (unlike Dana Andrews who fell for her at death, and in a painting…actually, art connoisseur Price and Andrews have a lot more in common than they think, but that's a whole other movie/story). But this all makes me ponder fantasy scenarios like, where the hell was Eve Arden when Ellen needed her? Or Thelma Ritter? Ellen may have left that delicate slipper on her foot had Thelma been fluffing the pillows. Eve and Thelma would've been on to little Jeanne for the Ann Blyth/Veda Pierce she really is. Christ. But Ellen would never hang around these women. What are they going to talk about? Normal things?

And yet, a woman can't have Vincent Price as her only best GIRLfriend -- I think. Well, after death anyway. Though that would be pretty damn great in life. Come to think of it, maybe she needed Conrad Veidt while living.

But again, Gene/Ellen is a modern type of woman, a poetic, ingenious woman, and I always get the sense that her inner struggle to express whatever power or talent she has, well beyond her beauty is pure torture. Many may look in her eyes and see cold orbs of hate, but I see… Wagner's entire Ring Cycle, and beautiful, damnable Richard W. seems especially appropriate since, for some crazy reason, he also managed to write, in 'Lohengrin,' 'Here Comes the Bride' amidst his Götterdämmerung.
Is this an excuse for her dastardly acts? No, but she does serve to symbolize every trapped, powerful woman flapping around her white picket fenced-in bird cage. That war raging inside her twists into a a full-scale blitzkrieg on the… normal people. Her revenge is her final work of art! Her masterpiece!

So of course Vincent Price is the one left in her corner. He's probably the only person who could conduct an intelligent, lively conversation with her about things like… music, paintings and stylish ways to throw oneself down a staircase. He would appreciate the Keats in her -- 'La Belle Dame sans Merci' -- 'The Beautiful Lady Without Pity.' He liked what he knew. And he was usually right. Oh Ellen… She can take the dark out of the nighttime and paint the daytime black...


The Siren Speaks:

You're so right--Ellen is about sublimation. If she could focus that fierce intelligence on art or a career, she might be able to stay away from rowboats.

I love the idea of Vincent Price as the one person who understands her to any degree. His character, Russell, tells Ellen he'll always love her, and he would have made a much better life partner for her than Richard (Wilde). Ellen could have been Jill Hennessy to Russell's Sam Waterston. Or even just friends, gleefully prosecuting death-penalty cases and critiquing opposing counsel’s wardrobe.

Amen--a husband who dedicates the book he’s been obsessing over from day one to your freaking sister has got to expect some payback, although we can agree Ellen’s reaction is a wee bit disproportionate. And Ruth's (Crain) love for her sister’s husband is never presented as conniving, but the little minx winds up with just what she wants.

Yet Ellen is memorialized as a monster--”leave her to heaven,” the line from Hamlet about Gertrude. That's ironic to me in a way that probably wasn't intentional, since I always thought Gertrude got a raw deal from her male creator. She’s another woman who's ceaselessly nagged because she wants a man of her own and some peace and quiet.

The movie shows Ellen’s father fixation, and I guess that's something. Usually a femme fatale springs fully formed from the forehead of Zeus, puckering a lipsticked mouth around a cigarette, prepared to pull the wings off men and watch them flop around in a mason jar. But, beautiful as Ellen is pouring her father's ashes out of the urn while riding that horse, don't you feel this one stab at psychology is pat? Half the women I know describe themselves as Daddy's girls. What's this telling us--men want a woman who's never loved another man, including Dad? Now really, who's the one with the jealousy problem?

I always wait for that staircase, for Gene hurling herself down it after carefully leaving one slipper on the top step, like a psychopathic Cinderella. It's a wicked act, but she tells Ruth just before she does it, "sometimes the truth IS wicked." Along with Mildred Pierce, Leave Her to Heaven dares to go down some dark maternal byways, into things some may feel, but no one wants to admit--in this case, pregnancy as a cage, one that's about to slam shut for oh, about 21 years. Ellen's on bedrest, its own kind of "Yellow Wallpaper" hell. (Those insipid posies on Ellen's dressing-room wallpaper could drive a lot of women to the brink.) Look at what she's doing beforehand. She's talking to her own sister about the stroll the girl just took with her husband. Couldn't Richard be upstairs talking to his wife? Making sure she isn't bored and terrified, instead of taking it for granted for that she's rubbing her belly and practicing lullabies? So she grabs her most beautiful robe, and re-applies her lipstick, and she even puts on perfume--because she's about to go back to Ellen, the beauty, and leave behind Ellen, the terrarium.

For me, the poignant aspect to Ellen isn't that she's, well, crazy. It's that she's got a face for the ages, but if she isn't willing to play along, if she insists on being the most important thing in her man's life, that face avails her nothing. She still loses her husband to a girl who uses niceness the same way Ellen used those sunglasses in the rowboat: as a cover for the schemes churning inside. And nobody will be on her side, except James Agee, bless him, and Vincent Price, and you, and the Siren, and whoever else is crazy enough to say, "I kind of sympathize with her."

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Drowning in the Mid-Atlantic

Kevin Drum does not like old-time movie accents.

The Siren tells you this not because she wants to call up a flash mob of old-movie fans to launch a cyberattack on his Mother Jones blog until Mr. Drum agrees to sit through a James Cagney retrospective. She wouldn't even have read his post, had it not been pointed out to her in a puckish message from a gentleman known to commenters here as Gmoke. Well, the Siren has seen people put down old movies for all kinds of reasons and as such posts go, this one is reasonably polite. It’s expressed mostly in terms of puzzlement, and not the petulant desire to have us validate the writer’s reluctance to get acquainted with the films of Leo McCarey.

Still, if Mr. Drum had asked the Siren, she’d have said he has things precisely the wrong way round: Old movies have a greater variety of American speech, by far.

Let’s not pretend we don’t know what he's talking about; there is a mid-Atlantic accent used in certain American movies of the 1930s and up through World War II, after which it becomes less and less common until it mostly disappears. (The Siren prefers the term mid-Atlantic because she likes the idea of a bunch of the period’s movie stars out on a Cunard liner somewhere off the coast of Greenland. In her head, they’re downing martinis with Phoebe Dinsmore, the elocutionist from Singin’ in the Rain, and their tones are getting rounder by the second.) Mr. Drum seems to think it didn’t exist outside the backlot, but as some of his commenters pointed out, you could hear that accent in real life by turning on the radio for one of FDR’s fireside chats. But while this speaking manner survives (barely, it seems to the Siren), it does sound odd to modern American ears, more’s the pity. The Siren had an English literature professor who talked this way, and while she grew to love his voice, she admits she spent the first week of the class listening to him say “sonnet” and “meter” and “Percy Bysshe Shelley” and thinking, “Mister, are you putting me on?”

The question of authenticity aside, Mr. Drum errs in two ways.

Error No. 1. This is an accent common to all, most or even an overlarge percentage of old movies. Here the Siren affects Ginger Rogers’ charming Missouri-bred vowels and says, out of the side of her mouth, “Brother, you’re all wet.” You encounter the accent in movies about rich or upper-middle-class people, like My Man Godfrey. You most certainly do not encounter it in Wild Boys of the Road.

Mr. Drum evidently lives in Irvine, Calif., and it’s a pity he couldn’t join the Siren for the four features she just took in at the annual Pre-Code shindig held by New York’s Film Forum. There’s a positive cacophony of American accents in these movies. There’s Lee Tracy in Blessed Event, sounding like he was born under the Second Avenue elevated; Ann Dvorak in The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, snapping her words like the hard-luck taxi dancer she is; Douglas Fairbanks Jr. hanging around Union Depot and sounding like a nice middle-class American boy down on his luck; Kay Francis speaking impeccable mid-Atlantic in Girls About Town despite the famous lisp; and Eugene Pallette in the same movie sounding like...Eugene Pallette.

Oh but Siren, comes the objection from Mr. Drum and certain lost souls in his comments thread. They didn’t do real acting back then, the kind where you create a character and come up with the right accent and mannerisms. Those actors just played themselves, and these are come-as-you-are accents.

You don’t say, responds the Siren, as her own Alabama accent comes back. Because Lee Tracy was born in Atlanta; Ann Dvorak was the child of vaudevillians and could sound pure Yale Club if the occasion demanded it, as in Merrily We Live; Kay Francis was born in Oklahoma City and had an itinerant youth that was unlikely to give her a finishing-school accent; Douglas Fairbanks Jr. sounded mid-Atlantic for a while until his accent completed the passage and landed square in Mayfair; and Pallette...okay, you got me there, but when was the last time you heard a know-it-anywhere voice in an American movie? Gilbert Gottfried doesn’t count.

Error No. 2: The mid-Atlantic accent comes into play where it isn’t appropriate. The Siren’s spent all morning — meaning about fifteen minutes, but she truly did work at this — trying to remember a movie where someone was supposed to be a shopgirl or a waitress or a railway detective, and they spoke in an “anyone for tennis?” accent. Can’t do it. The mid-Atlantic accent turns up mostly in movies about rich people and in historical epics.

Oh, there must be a few. In particular, you can probably find a high-tone voice in a low-down setting in the very early talkie era, when the technology hadn’t been perfected and they worried a lot about people recording properly. Even so, the Siren doesn’t expect a landslide of examples. You can rap The Broadway Melody of 1929 for a lot of things, but the showgirls sound like showgirls, not Alice Roosevelt Longworth. A while ago the Siren got a chance to see Strictly Dishonorable, a 1931 John Stahl talkie that, even though it was made after they were supposed to have this stuff figured out, bore all the stagey marks of the early sound difficulties. And the female lead, Sidney Fox, who was adorable, did a perfectly creditable Southern accent. Fox was a New York City native.

Sure, some actors bring the same basic vocal equipment to all their movies; John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn come to mind. But they’re frequently doing more than you might think. Cary Grant tosses his vowels around in the back of his sinuses in His Girl Friday, but goes first class all the way for The Philadelphia Story. C.K. Dexter Haven and Walter Burns do not have precisely the same accents, and the delivery and rhythm of Grant’s speech is entirely different. Barbara Stanwyck was occasionally rapped for bringing a trace of Brooklyn to her every part, but she was perfectly capable of turning it up or down as the occasion demanded: way down for The Lady Eve, way up for Baby Face.

So we come to the same diagnosis as always: The patient hasn’t seen enough old movies. But, as some people like to say in political disputes, the Siren seeks converts, not apostates. Mr. Drum says that to him, great acting is "the ability to precisely control tone, pace, pitch, timbre, tempo, modulation, resonance, accent, and so forth.” The Siren's in a generous mood this week, so here’s what the Siren is gonna do. She’s gonna take suggestions from her commenters for an old, preferably very old movie for Mr. Drum, one that shows “old-timey” actors doing just what he asks. And then she will mail him a DVD, care of the Mother Jones office.

The floor is open, ladies and gentlemen, and you may imagine the Siren saying that in any old accent you please.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Harriet Craig (1950)

A while back, the New York Times published an article in their home section, focused on adjusting your fabulous child-free home decor to the presence of kids. One woman’s solution was to forbid her two children from bringing more than a single toy into the living area, or leaving a toy there. She didn’t want Matchbox cars and Legos in her sightlines.

Harriet Craig, thou livest still.

It’s easy to mock the premise of George Kelly’s 1926 play Craig’s Wife, the source for Vincent Sherman’s 1950 Harriet Craig as well as a 1936 Dorothy Arzner version with Rosalind Russell as the title character (and a 1928 silent that the Siren hasn't seen). The wintry selfishness of Walter Craig's wife drives away everyone, until she is left utterly alone. In Kelly’s vision, Harriet is a housewife obsessed with having a perfect house, and that’s wrong, you see. It’s wrong because a housewife should be focused on...on...well, having a perfect house and just being nicer about it, all right? She needs to let her husband have some fun, and then let him come home to a bunch of little feet doing the time-step, and she should be greeting the man with devotion, not spot-cleaning the drawing room and having conniptions if anyone gets too close to the antique vase.

The Siren has read the play on which Harriet Craig is based, and has seen the more faithful '36 version, and from time to time the Siren has encountered arguments that Harriet’s devotion to her house is a sub rosa feminist statement. The Siren flat doesn't see it, nor does she see much evidence that it was taken that way at the time. Craig’s Wife is a salvo against raw materialism, not an ironic statement on the condition of housewives. But the 1950 version breaks with precedent in several ways, all of which work in its favor. It's a rare case where, although the Arzner is very good (by all means see it) the Siren (gasp) prefers the remake.

The most important reason for that is the presence of Joan Crawford in the title role. Director Vincent Sherman (who was having an affair with Crawford at the time of filming) was known as an expert helmsman for the movie vehicles of female superstars, and he lets Crawford dominate. She probably would have anyway, given she was playing opposite Wendell Corey, but the effect was to undermine the original material in a way that made it more interesting.

That’s because Crawford makes the story about sublimation — not merely sexual sublimation, as is blatantly implied in the 1936 version, but sublimation of intelligence and ambition. Harriet tells her niece (K.T. Stevens, the daughter of Sam Wood) that marriage is a cold-eyed bargain: household skills in return for material security. You’d assume Joan’s body would be part of the bargain, too, Wendell Corey’s body not being much of a factor. The script spells out that Harriet has been evading at least part of that department because she doesn’t want to have kids.

But the Siren says that in this version, it is clear Harriet's engaging in, let’s say, non-procreative activities to keep her husband Walter in line. Look at the way her face alters at times when she’s talking to him, and the way Corey (who is perfectly cast for once) looks back, like a boy who’s plowing through the broccoli to get to the ice cream. Not to mention Walter acknowledging that wives are “mighty handy gadgets to have around the house.”

The most beautiful part of the set is the central staircase that Harriet swoops up and down as she makes Walter cringe and the maids cry. It’s the focus of several memorable shots, including a wised-up Walter splayed on the sofa — with his shoes on, no less — as he prepares to tell off his wife. The staircase also reminds us of what Harriet wants, which is to climb to high society in the only way that’s open to her.

Screenwriters Anne Froelich and James Gunn work to explain why Harriet is so fiercely materialistic and shallow. They added a mid-movie scene where Harriet visits her mentally ill mother in an asylum, no doubt in order to give Harriet a human dimension. Crawford’s playing, more subtle than in any other part of the film, shows that this mad old lady is the one person for whom Harriet feels real love, and the one person from whom she will never get it.

But a better explanation for Harriet comes later. Walter is about to be offered a promotion that will take him to Japan, without Harriet, and she can’t bear to have him out of her clutches — he goes so well with her Ming vase, after all. Harriet goes to Walter’s boss and persuades him, with diabolical efficiency, that her husband has a gambling problem and can’t be trusted. Crawford underlines the cold manipulation, but she also demonstrates her character’s misused intelligence, wielded now to push the paternalistic boss along the road to the conclusion she wants. This sort of negotiating skill had no outlet at home. Harriet is at last in her element. She was never meant to be organizing dull dinner parties and ruining her niece’s life in her spare time. Harriet should have been across a conference table, barking, “Don’t fuck with me, fellas. This ain't my first time at the rodeo.”

That last Mommie Dearest line is an irresistible recollection to most modern viewers of Harriet Craig, as is “I’m not mad at you. I’m mad at the dirt." We know Christina and Christopher Crawford saw their mother as a real-life Harriet Craig, only with children to abuse and manipulate rather than  just servants, a niece and a husband. We also know that a number of loyal friends, and Crawford’s two youngest children, have always claimed they saw no Harriet Craig-type side to her.

The Siren would like to add an endnote. If Joan was bringing herself to Harriet, she was also bringing her sense of what a life without a career might have been like. Stardom offers, if nothing else, plenty of opportunity to negotiate and manipulate. Seen that way, Crawford as Harriet is a cautionary tale of what happens when a smart, calculating, highly ambitious woman has nothing but her home decor to occupy her mind.

Because, as far as the Siren is concerned, if you’re flipping out over one extra toy next to the Philippe Starck sofa, you need to get out of the house.

(To the Siren's New York City readers who wish to get out of the house: Harriet Craig, which is not on DVD, is playing tonight only, 7:00 pm and 9:30 pm, at the Clearview Chelsea, 260 West 23rd Street.)

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Nomadic Existence: The Big Clock and The Reluctant Debutante

From the July 20 edition of Nomad Wide Screen, my appreciation of Kay Kendall in Minnelli's The Reluctant Debutante. For the record, I adore Les Girls , and Kendall is a joy in that one as well.

When certain killjoys decide to amuse themselves by asserting that MGM, the most widely known and successful of the major Golden Age studios, wasn't really a great studio at all, I try several methods to silence them. I start with George Cukor, move on through The Wizard of Oz, wave the flag for the Freed unit. If the conversation really gets irksome, however, I play my trump: Vincente Minnelli.

It's a curious thing, then, at least for auteurists, that the spirit that dominates Minnelli's The Reluctant Debutante isn't that of the director, but of the star, Kay Kendall. The plot hews to every convention possible; you could take it and graft it onto a mass-market romance paperback with scarcely a single change. The charm of the film is tied closely to Minnelli’s eye for beauty, but even more than that it’s in the playing, and the players are led by Kendall. It was her penultimate movie, and when she made it she was already gravely ill with the leukemia that would kill her two years later. But it's a bright, vivacious performance, the only hint of her health coming from how thin she is.

Kendall had an exceptionally lovely speaking voice, pitched right mid-range with the merest hint of huskiness and an occasional crack in it that is oddly redolent of a British Jean Arthur. She was a tall woman with limbs that seemed to go everywhere at once, but her control of her body was impeccable. Nobody stumbled quite like Kay Kendall--up go the arms, the legs bend and curve, then glide back. It's a bit like watching a Mobius strip try to straighten itself. She had huge eyes, a flawless complexion and a long, strong-boned face; "Careful how you photograph my Cyrano nose, darling," she told Vincente Minnelli before filming. Nose or no nose, the overall effect was gorgeous. Kendall belongs to that rare sorority of beautiful women who are also great clowns.

She plays Sheila Broadbent, wife to Jimmy Broadbent (Rex Harrison, Kendall’s husband), an aristocratic Englishman who’s rich in that unspecified way common to Minnelli movies. She has a stepdaughter, Jane (Sandra Dee), who comes to live with them in London. Sheila’s rivalry with the snobbish Mabel (Angela Lansbury) leads her to organize a London social debut for Jane, much against the girl’s inclinations. As Jane begins the rounds of parties she meets David (Peter Myers), a weak-chinned, literal-minded, but very rich twit; and David (John Saxon), an improbably handsome drummer in the tamest, most clean-cut rock band you ever saw. Both Davids fall for Jane, the names cause confusion, and naturally Jane becomes infatuated with the twit with the adenoidal voice who puts his hand in her scrambled eggs when he proposes over breakfast. Just kidding. She goes for John Saxon, of course. That doesn’t suit Sheila, who has visions of a rich and titled husband for Jane. She tries one maneuver after another to secure a brilliant match for the girl. But Sheila’s essential good nature wins out over her matchmaking ambitions, and when true love shows itself she finds herself helping it along.

This is Minnelli’s London, pulsing with color, particularly shades of red, every shot so luxuriant and voluptuously beautiful that after a while you start to get suspicious. Sure enough, it turns out that The Reluctant Debutante was filmed in Paris, due to some tax problems Harrison was having at the time. Well, to some extent all Minnelli movies take place in Minnelli World, a place I’d move to if I could.

Saxon was not what you’d call an enthralling screen presence, but the role calls for him mostly to be desirable, and that he could handle with aplomb. The exquisitely pretty Dee is an actress who, in my view, almost never gets her due. On screen she is not so much saccharine as level-headed, always the commonsensical teenager surrounded by either malevolent or, in this case, merely dithering adults. She plays off Kendall almost as well as Angela Lansbury does.

Harrison, for once, takes something of a back seat. He was, according to his costars, a notoriously ungenerous actor. If there is justice in the afterlife, Harrison is spending his time on that great soundstage in the sky playing all his scenes opposite children and dogs. Here, though, his part is written as the calm foil to Kendall’s mile-a-minute chatter and endlessly inept plotting, and it’s a pleasure to see him holding off and just reacting to her.

The story goes that not only did Minnelli not know of Kendall’s condition at the time of filming, but neither did Kendall herself. She was told, right up to the end, that what was wrong with her was an iron deficiency. Minnelli says Harrison was the only one who knew Kendall was dying, and to see how this veteran scene-stealer lets her take over in the more farcical moments is quite touching. It is sad indeed that Kendall didn’t live to create a whole host of other characters, ones with more resonance than the fluttery Sheila. But this breezy, silk-chiffon-scarf of a movie still gives an audience a powerful taste of her allure.

From the Aug. 2 Nomad Wide Screen, a considerably rewritten and spruced-up version of a post I once did on The Big Clock:

Not all film noir takes place in a seedy underworld; sometimes noir arrives on the commuter train wearing a custom-made suit. So it goes with John Farrow’s The Big Clock (1948), which sets its dark doings and flashback narrative in a top-flight New York corporation that occupies a swank (if somberly lit) Midtown office tower.

The hero (or if you prefer, since this is film noir, the primary sap) is family man George Stroud (Ray Milland), an executive in the massive publishing empire of Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton). One night Stroud gets himself into a terrible pickle by getting drunk with Pauline York, played by Rita Johnson as a trampy soul with a chic exterior. Unfortunately for Stroud, Pauline is also Janoth’s mistress, and Stroud must exit her couch the next morning when their boss drops by unexpectedly. Mistress and magnate fight, and fifty years before anyone ever saw a Viagra ad, Pauline’s tirade shows off some choice euphemisms for “impotent”: “You think you could make any woman happy?...You flabby, flabby...” And that last word is one of the last Pauline utters, as Janoth bludgeons her to death with a sundial.

Well, what’s a self-respecting titan to do in such a situation, except use every last bit of his power to pin the blame on someone else? And the someone else just happens to be Stroud. The main twist in Jonathan Latimer’s highly twisty script (based on a novel by Kenneth Fearing) is that Janoth doesn’t know who he’s after, and Stroud must extricate himself without Janoth’s finding out...

it is Laughton who rules over The Big Clock. In Hollywood movies, most tyrannical managers are openly and loudly abusive. Laughton as Janoth keeps his voice low, forcing subordinates to lean close, which they wouldn't do otherwise. That’s because getting close means they have to look at Janoth’s weedy little moustache and the way he strokes it with one finger, in a gesture as suggestive as it is repulsive. He won't make eye contact, emphasizing his employees' wormlike status. And Laughton speaks every word in an affected, maddeningly casual drawl, underlining that he doesn't give a hoot if he just screwed up someone's life.

Finally, yesterday was the 100th birthday of the fabulous Lucille Ball, and there was a blogathon ball which the Siren, dearly though she loves all of Lucy's incarnations, could not attend, alas, as her opera gloves were at the cleaners. However, the roundup post is right here at True Classics, and the Siren strongly suggests that all Lucy fans click and start reading. The Siren has been working her way through all of them, and is in heaven. Some highlights (so far): Caftan Woman on Lucy's four films with Bob Hope; Clara at Villa Margutta 51 on the use of Spanish dialogue in I Love Lucy; old friend Ivan G. Shreve at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear on I Love Lucy's radio antecedents; R.D. Finch of The Movie Projector on fifteen character actors who appeared on the television show (jaw-dropping, the amount of talent it attracted); a post about Lucy's memoirs at Erin's Silver Screen Scribblings; Ivan again at Edward Copeland's wonderful blog with a 360-degree tour of Lucy's career; and Vince of Carole & Co. on the friendship between Lombard and Ball.

(The wonderful image of Lucille Ball in Stage Door, a movie that is high on the Siren's list of the best of the 1930s, is from the terrific tumblr blog Classic Film Heroines, which is full of such goodies.)

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Happy Birthday, Myrna Loy

Myrna Loy, dear, dear Miss Loy. Today is her 106th birthday, bless that talented, loyal, fiercely intelligent and enlightened woman. Do you have a copy of her autobiography, Being and Becoming? If not, what on earth is stopping you? You can get it at ABE Books and any number of other places, and it's worth whatever price they charge. Last week the Siren participated in a roundtable at Movie Morlocks, centered on racist images in classic films, and how much, or even whether, we need to protect impressionable children from it. And it made the Siren think of Loy, who made no excuses for the sins of her era, but rather owned up to her mistakes:
…Those exotics started to predominate. My bit as a mulatto in The Heart of Maryland led to a role that I'm very much ashamed of. Zanuck wrote Ham and Eggs at the Front, a parody of What Price Glory?, casting me as a spy. How could I ever have put on blackface? When I think of it now, it horrifies me. Well, our awareness broadens, thank God! It was a tasteless slapstick comedy that I mercifully remember very little of.
Loy recognized what was behind her "Oriental" phase, didn't like it, but was still able to be scathingly funny about it. After Love Me Tonight (she knew that was a good one--Miss Loy was very smart about most of her roles), she wrote,
They dropped me right back into the vamp mold, loaning me to RKO for Thirteen Women. As a Javanese-Indian half-caste, I methodically murder all the white schoolmates who've patronized me. I recall little about that racist concoction, but it came up recently when the National Board of Review honored me with its first Career Achievement Award. Betty Furness, a charming mistress of ceremonies, who had started at RKO doubling for my hands in closeups when I was busy elsewhere, said that she'd been dropped from Thirteen Women. (Despite its title, there were only ten in the final print.) 'You were lucky,' I told her, 'because I just would have killed you, too. The only one who escaped me in that picture was Irene Dunne, and I regretted it every time she got the parts I wanted.'
Thirteen Women is actually quite an interesting pre-Code; as Filmbrain points out, despite the stereotypical spooky powers that are presumed to be congenital for an Asian beauty, Loy's character goes bad because she's a victim of racism. She is turning her treatment back on her tormentors. But it is easy to see why Loy would lack patience for yet another evil exotic. On screen Loy was a byword for sophistication; off screen, like Nora Charles, she combined that quality with broadmindedness and old-fashioned common sense. Immediately after Thirteen Women, Loy did The Mask of Fu Manchu, and found herself confronted with a script that asked her to whip a man "while uttering gleefully suggestive sounds." She'd had it with this sort of stuff, and furthermore she'd been reading Freud and picked up a thing or two. She went to producer Hunt Stromberg and refused to film it: "I've done a lot of terrible things in films, but this girl's a sadistic nymphomaniac." Stromberg said, "What's that?", which lack of familiarity with less-conventional sexuality makes you wonder how Hunt Stromberg ever got anywhere as a Hollywood producer, but never mind. Loy replied, "Well, you better find out, because that's what she is and I won't play her that way." Studio contracts being what they were, she did play her that way, but she succeeded in getting Stromberg to trim some excesses. "She wasn't Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm," said Miss Loy, "but, as I remember, she just watched while others did the whipping." The banner above (you can send thank-you notes to the Siren's email address on the sidebar) is from The Barbarian, a pre-Code that the Siren hasn't seen (yet). Filming that scene brought out an example of just how much Loy's coworkers must have loved her.
After I was safely submerged in a sunken marble tub, they scattered rose petals on the water, stationing men to keep them circulating with long, toothless rakes. They keep pushing those rose petals closer and closer to cover me--somewhat overzealously, it seemed. I looked up and saw a ring of familiar faces, Culver City friends and neighbors who worked in the studio. Unaware that I wore flesh-toned garments, they were diligently trying to protect the virtue of a local girl. It was so sweet, but didn't work. Some magazine photographer got in, took a picture that made me look stark naked, and syndicated it all over the world.
Last night, of course, the Siren wanted to watch a Myrna Loy movie, and she did: 1940's Third Finger, Left Hand, a nicely titled Robert Z. Leonard comedy with Melvyn Douglas. It isn't much more than diverting, but the role is a bit unusual for Loy, in that her character is a career woman who has invented a phony husband in order to avoid getting hit on at work. Without a husband, the CEO's jealous wife would push her out in a matter of months; with a ring on her finger, she can do her job. And the CEO's wife? "We're pals," says Loy.
In most of my pictures I complemented the male character, who usually carried the story. This often meant that my roles were subordinate, but that's the way I wanted it. The Bette Davis type of classic woman's role wasn't for me, nor was the Roz Russell female-executive routine, which is what I did in Third Finger, Left Hand.
She liked Melvyn Douglas ("he was a great person, a tireless fighter for liberal causes," noted Loy) and their comic rhythms are very much in tune, even if one inevitably misses William Powell. The Siren would tell you to watch this movie just for a scene where Loy fakes a tough-tootsie Brooklyn persona to embarrass Douglas. She pulls her gum out of her mouth in a string--if that doesn't sell you, it should. There's also her white evening gown in a nightclub scene, and her fake wedding night with Melvyn Douglas; Miss Loy being carried unwillingly over the threshold shows she could do physical comedy as well as she did repartee. The Siren read Being and Becoming when it first came out in 1987, picks it up all the time to this day, and still recalls many passages without much effort, as you can see. She already adored Miss Loy--from The Thin Man on, there is scarcely a movie the Siren wouldn't be in clover watching, and there's a good deal to worship before that watershed film, too. But Loy's memoirs are special, because they show such a rare thing--an artist whose work means the world to you, whom you can also admire as a person. Not a saint, oh no--wouldn't Miss Loy have hooted at that?--but a woman anyone would have been privileged to have as a coworker, proud to have as a friend. And so last night, watching Third Finger, Left Hand, the Siren was struck by the character of Sam, a Pullman porter played by the African American actor Ernest Whitman. Whitman is stuck with what passed for black dialect in 1940 Hollywood, but it's an unusual and charming character. He is neither shuffling nor particularly servile, just genial and polite. And when Melvyn Douglas needs a lawyer (he's divorcing Loy--you don't really want me to explain why, do you?) it turns out that Sam has been studying law. He proceeds to run rings around Loy's tony attorney and would-be fiance, Lee Bowman, quoting hilariously abstruse passages from case law until Bowman calls it a night. Sam's character is the one who paves the way for true love. And when the end credits rolled, the Siren marched straight back to Loy, and this:
During my early years in the studios, movie people were too busy getting a foothold to concern themselves with social conscience. I once asked, 'Why does every Negro in a film have to play a servant? How about just a black person walking up the steps of a courthouse carrying a briefcase?' Well! The storm that caused!
When artists die, there are always some scolds who insist that it simply isn't possible to miss--deeply, personally miss--a woman you were never fortunate enough to meet. The Siren says phooey to that. Because she misses Miss Loy, and always will.