Tuesday, February 28, 2012

How the Siren Jinxed the Oscars

Clearly, the Siren needs to get out of the Oscar Wishlist business. Because she could not have jinxed the ceremony more thoroughly if she'd sent Brian Grazer a link to Dan Kois.

The Siren's been watching this hoedown since she was a wisp of a thing, pleading with her sainted mother to let her stay up and watch in case somebody important--meaning someone OLD--showed up. And despite the fact that two nominated films were explicitly about film history, and the additional fact that a silent movie--a silent movie, my friends, has that really sunk in?--won, the Siren has never seen a show less indebted to any true sense of Hollywood history. It bordered on the perverse. No, fuck it; this crossed the border of perverse and entered the Crown Territory of Bloody-Minded on a permanent visa.

Part of the reason the Siren was MIA yesterday was that she had scheduled a physical bright and early, but the main reason was that this show just about broke her heart.

The Siren knew she was in trouble when the first "old movie" montage showed exactly one black-and-white movie--and it was Raging Bull. A fine film. If anybody had bothered to ask Mr. Scorsese, he might have told them about his movie's debt to
Body and Soul, to name only one, but evidently film history stretches to Midnight Cowboy and no further. The other bone thrown to anybody who's ever clicked over to TCM was an inexplicable Cirque de Soleil flying-trapeze act, which started with North by Northwest (a film that went unnominated in all major Oscar categories, by the by) and continued with the decision to screen a clip of the most famous Technicolor movie of all time in black and white…because Gone with the Wind is flippin' old, kids. There was some flapper-style hair around, but any silent clips aside from The Artist itself were so brief as to pass the Siren right on by, which in fairness could have happened, as she took some breaks and spent some quality time with her head in her hands.

The fine old Academy tradition of taking the easiest task in the show, which is to put together a montage of the Great Film People Who've Left Us, and royally screwing it up, is in no danger of being violated, it seems. This one was particularly ghastly. Bleached-out stills, because that's what we remember about movie artists, their ability to hold still, and because if you didn't show a literal reminder of the mists of time, people might not realize these folks are dead. And bad music; in this case, "What a Wonderful World," sung by someone who is Not Louis Armstrong.

And look, the Siren realizes it's mandatory to leave someone out. At this point she suspects it's the AMPAS equivalent of Al Hirschfeld's "Nina" or Jack Lemmon muttering "magic time." Snubbing Harry Morgan, who made more than 100 movies including at least a half-dozen permanent classics…that makes me mad. It also made goddess Kim Morgan mad; she took to Facebook to swat away remarks that Morgan was primarily a TV actor with, "Yeah, and so was Fred MacMurray." (Kim is in Paris with husband Guy Maddin, offering her acting presence and invaluable cinematic intelligence as he makes a project about lost films. You can watch the filming progress live, right here, and the Siren recommends doing that with all her heart. Might cheer us all up.)

No Oscar show is ever completely worthless, though. (Yes, the Siren means that.) In this case, the award of the Foreign Film Oscar to Asghar Farhadi's A Separation was the single most moving and wholly, perfectly correct decision of the evening. If you haven't seen this superb piece of filmmaking, get thee to an arthouse on the double. Needless to say the Siren was also pleased with every Oscar that went to Hugo, a movie she's convinced will live a long time, perhaps long enough to be too old to get mentioned on the Oscars.

But say what you will about The Artist (although the Siren is kind of hoping we already took care of that, to be honest), two of its winners showed some class. Michel Hazanavicius thanked Billy Wilder; the Siren wanted King Vidor, as she said, but Wilder will do nicely under the circs.

And Jean Dujardin thanked Douglas Fairbanks. The Siren doesn't care if you thought his performance was Virginia smokehouse on rye. This was a Frenchman in a roomful of Americans, the sole person up there thanking an artist of the old days who directly and substantially contributed to what got him the Oscar.

Small mercies and small mercis. Who knows, maybe next year, Angelina Jolie will remember to thank Joan Crawford, for helping her perfect THIS POSE.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Ballad of Linda Darnell

(Buffalo Bill reminded the Siren of her soft spot for Linda Darnell. This is a thoroughly revised, full-length version of the Siren’s article that ran in Nomad Wide Screen last year.)

“I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way,” drawled Jessica Rabbit, in an overquoted line the Siren should apologize for using, let alone leading with--except that it applies so perfectly to Linda Darnell. Nature drew her bad, all right, with opulent features and the sort of bombshell body that has almost disappeared from Hollywood. This was a beauty who could look depraved just grocery shopping or writing a thank-you note.

But Darnell was, by most accounts, a good egg, albeit one "with very terrifying personal problems," as Joseph Mankiewicz put it. (And don't we all have those, Joe, don't we all.) This wouldn’t matter much, except that Darnell’s sex appeal tended to land her in movies either as glorified set decoration, such as her teamings with Tyrone Power, or as a femme fatale. The latter was a type of part she did creditably in Douglas Sirk's marvelous Summer Storm and nailed in memorable fashion in Hangover Square and Fallen Angel.

Yet Darnell never did seem bad to the bone, even when the script insisted she was. Her sheer normality breaks through at odd, sometimes inconvenient moments. Trawling through the Net for photos of Darnell is something of a revelation. “You look better without all that gunk on your face” is one of those male observations that a lady can usually file under “yeah right, buddy.” For Darnell, it was true. Half the photos circulating seem to show her in towering hairstyles and bizarre outfits that look like what you’d get if Joseph Breen became CEO of Frederick’s of Hollywood. She was always divine to behold, but the more stripped-down and simple the look, the more Darnell dazzled. As an actress, it often worked the same way; the less you loaded Darnell with costumes and up-dos, the more she could loosen up on camera.

She was born in Dallas, Texas in 1923, and yanked away to Hollywood at the age of 15 by her fearsome mother, Pearl. Mother-driven actresses like Darnell always seem to approach their careers with a mix of yearning and weariness, pursuing better roles one minute, trying to pull out of the Hollywood crush the next. Darnell was adequate to the demands, if you can even call them that, of her parts in films like Blood and Sand and The Mark of Zorro. But for a long while she was stuck in a lower tier of stardom, never landing that huge breakout role. Then she did uncredited work in 1943 as the Virgin Mary in The Song of Bernadette, and to this day people snicker over Twentieth-Century Fox pinning a halo on a pin-up. Still, the Madonna was a good-luck charm; Darnell’s brief period of good parts as bad girls was about to begin.

As in Laura the year before, Darnell’s character of Stella has gone missing at the outset of Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel (1945). Unlike Laura, this beauty doesn’t return to her haunts in innocent wonderment. Darnell lounges in like she’s back from a cigarette break, and she rips into Dana Andrews’ hamburger with a down-home enjoyment that wouldn't be out of place in State Fair. Nor does Stella possess criminal smoothness; she takes money out of the register with the furtive look of a child edging a chair to the shelf that holds the candy jar.

There’s something girlish to the way Darnell played all her bad-dame parts. My Darling Clementine (1946) cast her as lovelorn Chihuahua, who isn’t bad at all, not really even misunderstood. John Ford didn’t want Darnell for the part, but his lingering close-up of her dying face is as tender as anything in the movie. In Summer Storm from 1944, her femme fatale seems consumed by petulant yearning for the shiny toys that Father Christmas never brought her. When, all at once, the character does something unselfish, it seems the sort of whim this childlike temptress might indulge.

Darnell comes as close to pure evil as she ever did in Hangover Square (1945), a movie that would make an interesting double bill with Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street, Darnell’s venomous Netta up against Joan Bennett as Lazy Legs. Bennett underestimates the danger from men; Darnell looks at Laird Cregar with a nagging suspicion of his madness. On the other hand, in Preston Sturges’ great Unfaithfully Yours (1948), Daphne de Carter is a study in flummoxed, wounded sincerity. Any doubts about Daphne are there only because, well, can a woman who looks like that be trusted to remain faithful, particularly to a conductor who’s an almighty pain in the neck?

In between, in 1947, Darnell played an ersatz Scarlett in Preminger’s Forever Amber, a plum part that turned out to be a withered prune. Should you go to an Oscar party this Sunday, here’s a fun game for your film-nerd friends. If they’ve seen Forever Amber, they make the quarter-finals. If they liked Forever Amber, they make the semis, and anyone arguing for its greatness wins the title of Most Auteuristest of Them All and a prize--say, a copy of Man’s Favorite Sport or Family Plot. Forever Amber is bad, and the Siren says that despite Leon Shamroy and George Sanders' brief-but-fabulous Charles II. On set, Preminger reportedly treated Darnell with the same gallantry that almost drove Jean Seberg to a nervous breakdown on Saint Joan, and it shows; no self-respecting sexpot should look as desperate to please as does Darnell in this movie.

It was 1949’s A Letter to Three Wives that marked Darnell's pinnacle. The character of Lora May Finney fit Darnell like no other, and helped by Mankiewicz’s writing and facility with actors, she was the sharpest, funniest thing in a very funny movie. (She may have had extra help, as she was having an affair with Mankiewicz during and after filming.)

Lora May wants out of the “Finney mansion on the tracks,” but what the character wants even more is respect, and respectability. Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas, never better) honks his car horn for her to come out of the house, like he’s delivering Chinese take-out. Darnell stands by the sink without so much as shifting her legs, until he comes to the door to escort her. Porter pulls up the car to the house after their date, and from the passenger seat Darnell casts one micro-glance at the door, her face immaculately cool as she counts out the beats that will force her date to get out and open it for her. Manners count, the formalities count, because a lady gets them from a man without asking. And Lora May will by god get some manners and formality out of this boor--because when she does, that will be the signal she has class.

The letter of the movie’s title is from Addie Ross, the town Circe who writes to tell the women that she’s run away with one of their husbands. For the self-made, proudly vulgar Porter, Addie is class, and he keeps her picture in a silver frame on a grand piano he doesn’t know how to play. To get the right expression from Darnell, Mankiewicz filled that frame with a photo of Preminger in full costume as a Nazi, neatly summarizing the actress’ feelings about her former director. And it worked. Darnell’s face would be aloof and ladylike, if it weren't for the hatred in her eyes and the hostile line of her mouth, as she tells Porter she wants to be in a silver frame on a piano one day, too.

Lora May makes faces at Porter the moment his back is turned, manipulates him, talks to him with offhanded near-contempt after their marriage. “Something tells me I’m gonna have a giant around the house,” is the little woman’s response to Porter’s talk of expanding his business. All that could add up to a gold-digger, but the signal that she isn’t comes during the flashback to their courtship. Lora May has no date for New Year’s Eve, and as Darnell leafs through a magazine and tries to listen to the radio, it’s obvious she fears Porter may never come. When he does, and proposes, it’s in a brutally unromantic fashion, and Darnell’s face as she turns around to look at him mixes triumph and hurt.

After A Letter to Three Wives, Darnell’s filmography flares up briefly with decent roles in No Way Out and The Walls of Jericho, before her sad detour into alcoholism and her grisly death in a housefire, age 41. The Mankiewicz movie shows more clearly than any other what might have been made of her--a woman who looked wanton, but was all the more dangerous because she wasn’t.

(Note: The Mankiewicz quote and information on the filming of A Letter to Three Wives comes from Kenneth L. Geist's excellent biography.)

Friday, February 17, 2012

Buffalo Bill (1944) and The Great Man's Lady (1942) at the Film Forum

The Film Forum in New York City is running a massive William Wellman retrospective, projected in glorious 35-millimeter, through March 1. The Siren's life being what it perpetually is, she hasn't made it there until this week, when she saw a double bill of The Great Man's Lady (1942) and Buffalo Bill (1944).

The Great Man's Lady, in which Barbara Stanwyck ages to over 100, had great merit and some beautiful scenes, including a wedding by a covered-wagon train as a Plains thunderstorm brews; and, later, Stanwyck dragging herself out of a flooded river, looking as beautiful as she ever did. Wellman, who like almost all of her collaborators worshipped Stanwyck, said it was "one of the best performances ever given by anybody." But the Siren isn't going to go into this one, because old friend and brilliant film writer Dan Callahan has a book about Stanwyck just out. It's called Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman, and it just got a fine review from Scott Eyman in The Wall Street Journal. The Siren hasn't read it yet, but she's getting a copy this Sunday, Feb. 19, at the Museum of the Moving Image, where Dan will be presenting a double feature of The Lady Eve and Forty Guns. The movies start at 3 p.m., so do go, or just order the thing off Amazon or wherever. If you need proof of what Dan can do (and the Siren's been praising him to the skies for yonks) here's a sample.

Buffalo Bill can't be called top-tier Wellman, not while prints of anything from Wild Boys of the Road to The Story of G.I. Joe still circulate; but it's more worthwhile than the Siren expected. This Technicolor Western was made by Wellman as a sop to Darryl Zanuck, who told the director that the prestige of The Ox-Bow Incident was all very well, but it sure wasn't going to pay anybody's grocery bills. Zanuck said he'd make the downbeat project anyway if Wellman gave him two pictures with a little more commercial pizazz, and that agreement resulted in this gorgeous, thematically screwy Western.

On one level, it's straight-up Great Man mythology of Buffalo Bill Cody, from the Homeric boom of the narrator, to turning a skirmish between a cavalry regiment and about a half-dozen Cheyenne into "the battle of War Bonnet Gorge." This "battle" lives in the annals of Twentieth-Century Fox and not the West, but it offers astonishing images. The two sides are filmed from a long distance, dead-on, so that the hooves of the horses churn up the water across the expanse of the eerily still water, and the sound comes at you like a squall on the horizon.

Meanwhile Bill can shoot the feathers off an Indian-head penny at fifty paces and looks great in (or out of) buckskin because he's played by Joel McCrea. He can woo the luscious, ever-feisty Maureen O'Hara without smudging her Jungle Red lipstick. Bill can relate to the Indians, because he is a man of the West and knows their ways--and hey, some of Bill's best friends are Indians, like Yellow Hand, played by Anthony Quinn in a loincloth that offers flirtatious glimpses of his clingy flesh-toned briefs. Alas for Buffalo Bill, nowadays when a Native American in a Western holds up his hand to say "How," you can practically hear the audience's eyes rolling toward the ceiling.

That isn't the whole movie, though. There are some startlingly on-target attempts to add a taste of the real history of the white man and Native Americans, a bloody saga that even Technicolor couldn't pretty up. The Great White Eastern types are a sorry lot, references to broken treaties abound, and the buffalo hunts that gave Cody his nickname are explicitly depicted as yet another knife in the heart of the Plains nations.

Another jolt is that while the Siren hasn't nailed down a definitively sourced answer, it sure looks as though some of those buffalo were killed on film. Let's put it this way; the Siren has yet to hear of a trained buffalo able to keel over on command during a stampede. (If you know different, please speak up; here's one instance where the Siren wants to be wrong.) Nothing justifies slaughtering an animal for a movie, in the Siren's view and surely everyone else's; that's why the Siren has always had a hard time with King Solomon's Mines. But the scenes do hammer home the script's bald statement that the animals are dying to feed a fad for buffalo rugs back East. Watching the Cheyenne ride through a field of buffalo heads discarded like trash at a county fair, then later through a literal boneyard, speaks louder than anything Cody says in the movie.

The Siren hasn't read anything on Cody in eons, and her attempts to untangle some of the controversies for this review ended with the realization that she hasn't got all damn year. She can run a blog and a household, or she can figure out what the deal was with Buffalo Bill, she cannot do both. It's somewhat comforting that story writer Frank Winch, screenwriters Aeneas Mackenzie, Clements Ripley and Cecile Kramer, and even Wellman himself, clearly had the same problem. Cody displays heroism in the film's battle, but soon he's condemned to re-enact his glories as a sideshow attraction, cutting down wooden substitutes for the Native Americans we so successfully wiped out. Cody goes on a hunt with a Russian Grand Duke, although we aren't shown that bit o' shootin'. But the movie's other hunts are so canned and merciless that it's clear Cody might as well have taken His Imperial Highness out to a barn and had him pop old Bessie while she was being milked. At the same time--indeed, while he's in the camp with the off-screen Duke--Cody expresses proto-Sierra Club doubts about whether mowing down the buffalo like blades of grass is such a hot idea.

Like so many Westerns, Buffalo Bill wants to have it both ways: sorrow and remorse for the fate of the Native Americans, and valorization of the events that decimated them. One scene gives you Bill tied up in a Cheyenne camp having dirt clumps thrown at him by giggling women in body makeup. Another scene gives you the same Cheyenne, racked by grief, hunger and fear, dancing in preparation for battle, stamping in a circle and wearing the old feathered costumes we've all seen so often. But as filmed by Wellman, from a distance that fills the frame, it's a march to the graveyard, foreboding and tragic.

Linda Darnell has a small role in Buffalo Bill, as a Cheyenne schoolteacher ("Dawn Starlight") who loves Cody from afar. Early in the movie, Darnell sneaks into Maureen O'Hara's bedroom to try on a ruffled dress and what must be about eight or nine petticoats. O'Hara enters and accuses Darnell of being a thief. Darnell flashes back that she wanted to see if she could be as beautiful as a white girl. O'Hara softens and shows the girl the reflection in the mirror--then asks if Darnell has "an Indian brave" who would like to see her in all that finery. Darnell responds with fury at the patronizing reminder, spitting out the word "Indian" and ripping off the dress. The beautiful mirror shots, the dialogue, the mood shattered by the clueless white girl and the pain, frustration and disabling rage of Darnell--it's Imitation of Life, fifteen years before Douglas Sirk filmed it.

Beautiful and schizoid as it is (the cinematographer was Leon Shamroy) the Siren can't imagine someone like Sherman Alexie watching Buffalo Bill and not having a seizure; and there's plenty here that could make others choke on their popcorn as well. As filmmaking, however, it's Wellman. And Wild Bill Wellman always finds a way to lure the Siren.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

For the Love of Film III: Last Night I Dreamt I Went to the NFPF Again

The trio of films had been a mixed stew, and Graham Cutts wondered if he had the right crew. His assistant director might have been spreading himself too ambitiously around the production, he complained…[the A.D.] was writing script and title cards, designing the sets, preparing the cast, supervising the costumes and props.

Oh for pity's sake, those assistant directors, always running around making themselves indispensable. Why don't they just go out and direct their own dadgum movies, if they think they're so smart?

In the case of that trio of films mentioned up there, that's exactly what the A.D. in question did.

Hardly anything is known about these films; no prints survive, no press materials or production files. But it is clear that the position and authority of director Graham Cutts was gradually reduced as Alfred Hitchcock moved from job to job, from strength to strength. Ten years later, Cutts would be looking for day work in any studio while HItchcock was in the uncomfortable position of having to give not very significant employment to his former boss.

Aha. Now we're interested, Mr. Spoto. Wouldn't it be nice to see one of these 1923 and '24 efforts, seeing as how this Hitchcock gentleman turned out to be rather a worthwhile filmmaker, in his own small way? "No prints survive"--aw, nuts.

But with Hitchcock, the plot always twists. In this case, we jump-cut to New Zealand more than 80 years later, where a cache of 85 films was discovered, repatriated and preserved by our pals at the National Film Preservation Foundation. Among them were Upstream, a John Ford film previously thought lost, and the two movies our blogathon money helped restore, The Sergeant and The Better Man.

And, when they got to the bottom of the wrapping paper, lo and behold--three reels, or one-half, of The White Shadow, the movie Alfred Hitchcock was so energetically meddling with in 1924. After it was restored in New Zealand, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screened it in Los Angeles last fall, with a new score by composer Michael Mortilla.

What's that? you weren't at the screening? Neither was the Siren, now that you mention it. Heigh-ho, another great filmgoing party that WE MISSED. Let's call Brad and Angelina and see what they're doing Saturday night.

To get serious, one of the recurring motifs here at Self-Styled Siren is access--the continuing quest to see movies that remain frustratingly out of our reach. Our friends at the NFPF know how we feel, truly they do. They have streamed a number of the rescued films on their website, at no charge. It's part of their commitment not only to film history, but to bringing that history to as wide an audience as possible.

Streaming requires some serious lolly, however. In this case, it will take about $15,000 to put The White Shadow online and record the score. So, after asking our readers for their thoughts, the Siren, together with goddess Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films and (for the first time this year) her intrepid partner from Down Under, Roderick Heath of This Island Rod, have decided to help the NFPF get The White Shadow out there on the Web, for four months on their site, free, for anyone to see.

There you have it: the mission and fundraising goal of this year's For the Love of Film blogathon, occurring in the merry month of May, from May 13 to May 18, 2012. Let's point out all the angles.

1. This, my friends and patient readers, is a call for participation and posts. The not-so-shocking twist this year is that bloggers are requested to post on any aspect of Hitchcock, which of course suggests topics as diverse as--oh, come on, how hard can that be? Or, as always, posts on all matters film-preservation-related are equally welcome. The Siren's comments section is open for business, as are Marilyn's and Rod's. You don't have to know what you're going to write (you think the Siren knows yet? puh-leez) but do let us know if you're in.

2. We may not be holding the actual hoedown until May, but when it comes to promoting the blogathon to your readers, there is no time like the present. Rod Heath has created some spiffy banners, which will not only dress up a blog no end, but will also get out the good word.

3. David Wells, who keeps the NFPF website humming, will be doing the same for the For the Love of Film Facebook fan page, putting up photos and clips. Just click on that link to become a fan. It will keep you up to date on developments, and even better, becoming a fan helps us raise money. There is also a handy section with a nuts-and-bolts description of just what a blogathon is, should you require that information.

4. Marilyn, whose energy suggests she may have been a military general or perhaps a studio head in a past life, this year has put together a package of sponsor opportunities to businesses who want to help out the NFPF and The White Shadow. There are two levels of sponsorship; both come with benefits that will spread a message to the blogathon's movie-loving base. Anyone interested should email Marilyn at ferdyonfilms(at)comcast(dot)net.

5. Raffle prizes are on offer again this year, courtesy of the NFPF. If you would like to donate a prize yourself, contact Marilyn--that address again is ferdyonfilms(at)comcast(dot)net.

6. Finally, you say you're so excited, you want to donate some money already? Knock yourself out. The NFPF has already set up a donor link, exclusively for the blogathon, right here.

The first year, we helped restore two silent movies. Last year, we raised money for the Film Noir Foundation and their efforts to restore 1950's The Sound of Fury, a key film from the blacklisted director Cy Endfield--and the blogger participation and number of donors rose even higher. This year, we are working to get a piece of film history out there for everyone to see, with a score that's worthy of its importance.

Let's get the word out. Like Jack Favell, we only want to see justice done.