Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Dan Duryea dancing in a wheelchair to the strains of the "Vienna Blood" waltz is one of those deep cinematic needs you never realize you had until suddenly, it's fulfilled.
Fulfillment came from This Is My Love, an airily romantic title for a snake-mean film. Filmed in PatheColor at RKO in 1954, the Siren's DVD (taped off a British show) had yellowed like an old book, giving the proceedings an even more jaundiced feel. It could be called noir; the movie's certainly pitiless enough. There's also plenty enough sexual inhibition (mention is made of the Kinsey Report) and bourgeois fossilization for a social drama.
The credits roll over vegetation getting drenched by such a downpour that the Siren had the vague impression the movie is set on a rubber plantation, like The Letter. Nope, just a bungalow in California. Vida Dove (Linda Darnell) is at her typewriter, one tear rolling down her face as she types "...THREE WEEKS AGO..." (She writes in all caps, like Film Critic Hulk.) Then, flashback. (An interesting device because the ending all but abandons the framing and when the credits rolled, the Siren had to go back to see that the set-up wasn't something everybody forgot about mid-filming.)
So, THREE WEEKS AGO, Vida was writing a story to ESCAPE THE DREARY MONOTONY OF HER LIFE, and her brother-in-law Murray (Duryea) was wheeling around the house, calling her an old maid who never puts out. Murray is in a wheelchair because—whoops, you're never told. He was a professional dancer who had "an accident," which leaves you to imagine him tossing a partner in the air and having her land smack on his lower vertebrae. Murray began by dating Vida, but soon switched to her sister Evelyn (Faith Domergue). Now they're locked up in this dingy crate, where Vida shares a bedroom with the couple's two kids, a trim symbol of her life on the sidelines.
Evelyn and Vida wait tables at Murray's roadside restaurant, the Circle Inn. Get it? Circle Inn? drawing around you, like a noose? Almost every name in the movie is like that. Vida, meaning life, as Murray sarcastically points out to her; Evelyn, Evie, the woman who always comes first; Eddie (a wonderfully coarse, braying Hal Baylor), Vida's fiancé, a whirlpool sucking everyone into tedium. Into the restaurant Eddie brings his good-looking pal Glenn (Rick Jason). (Glen, a restful valley, see what they did there?) Glenn and Vida are immediately attracted to one another. But the inexperienced Vida can't respond normally, and her "come hither" rapidly becomes "not that hither." Glenn shifts his attentions to Evie, and for Vida, that's one too disappointment too many.
It's an unsettling, hardhearted movie that refuses to sympathize overmuch with any of the characters, trapped and pathetic though they are all. The idea of casting Darnell as a frigid spinster sounds about as apt as casting her as the Virgin Mary in The Song of Bernadette, but it makes sense (mostly) once you are drawn in. Some men in the movie do respond the way you'd expect them to respond to Linda Darnell. Vida's fear of men is reflexive and, the movie implies in a very proto-feminist Philip Wylie sort of way, largely due to society's hypocritical view of sexuality. Darnell's wounded demeanor gives the character great resonance; her writing seems a desperate bid to make daydreams tangible. Most of her best scenes are played against Murray, the man Vida once wanted and her sister took. Now her brother-in-law is literally castrated, circling and taunting her with the things neither one of them has. She speaks to him in that creamy Darnell voice, and only a fair bit into the movie do you realize that her low-pitched rejoinders are as pointed in their way as Murray's barbs.
The meat of the movie is the relationship between these two hopeless, spent individuals, strangers to sex and therefore, we're meant to believe, to life. Evie and Glenn carry on with their good looks and their unwarped emotions, not realizing that simply being normal makes them charmed in a way that Murray and Vida will never be. Eventually, as she must, Vida unleashes a lifetime's worth of frustration and disabling rage straight into Murray's face, a speech that comes out of Darnell in heaving bursts, like a tear-gassed person gulping for air. It's as good a piece of dramatic acting as Darnell ever offered, and you feel for Vida more than in any other part of the movie. But that's just you. Dan Duryea laughs, because Dan Duryea always laughs at true anguish.
Duryea had what the French call a "tête à claques"—a face you want to hit, only with Duryea you want to use a blunt instrument. Rare are the instances from his heyday where Duryea shows up and isn't murdered by the final reel. Here it's as though some bright person said, "Let's take away Dan's gun, and his fists, and his blackmailing, and his hat, and this time, let's see if we can make the audience want him dead just so's he'll shut up." It works, of course. There was no actor who could match Duryea's drone, the sound of bad plumbing in an old building; or the way his mouth scrunches up toward his nose like a piece of dried fruit; or that rattlesnake lunge of Duryea's head and shoulders when he's ready to go full-bore sadist.
It isn't a great movie, but it picks at you like a scab. The Circle Inn is gratifyingly hideous, with bamboo-covered walls and a leaf-green valence that runs around the ceiling and even continues over the opening between the kitchen and the lunch counter, to make the tunafish sandwiches look fancier when the cook rings the bell, I guess. The furniture in the bungalow has been pushed to the walls so it looks like an ER waiting room, creating a vast empty space, the better for Duryea to roll after Darnell each time she tries to get away from his venom.
Director Stuart Heisler also has The Glass Key, Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman and The Star on his resume, but the Siren only found that out after muttering "Stuart who?" and scurrying to Google. Not a huge talent, but a man with some style, although the Siren attributed the frequent shots of Darnell in her form-fitting rayon slips to the lecher running RKO at the time.
This Is My Love is the only pre-1960 movie the Siren can recall that shows a poisoned cockroach dying, close up—a good summary of the atmosphere. When Murray and Eddie play catch in the living room, the thwack-thwack of the ball hitting their hands starts to sound like time itself running down. And that glimpse of the crippled Duryea "waltzing" is unforgettable, the actor swinging his head and his chair in grotesquely precise 3/4 time.
Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Neal Gabler, an excellent film writer and historian, had (and probably is having) a dark night of the soul over at the Los Angeles Times last weekend. Gabler believes that the taste for old movies--classic or not--is dying out, and he points a trembling J'accuse! finger at millennials, with their videogame-shortened attention spans and obsession with fashion. They want a new Spider-Man movie, Daddy, because the last Spider-Man movie was ten whole years ago, and only the shiniest iToys will do.
Greg Ferrara points out, in heated fashion, that despairing over the younger generation is an armchair sport that goes back thousands of years and never gets any more interesting or insightful than "Hot enough for you?" At Indiewire, an indignant Matt Singer threw down the gauntlet to his under-30 audience, asking them to come out in comments if they watch old movies, sort of: "Is cinephilia dead? Lazarus, come forth!" He's gotten quite a response.
Still, Matt's comments thread doesn't necessarily disprove Gabler's point. It is often hard to get ordinary people--which we could very loosely define as people who do not show a lively interest in the talkies of John Gilbert--revved up over old movies.
When this topic comes up, as it does, the Siren goes back to the same story.
Some years back the Wall Street Journal ran an article about an infamous incident, when the combination of a huge snowstorm and a wildcat labor dispute left hundreds of passengers cooped up in a couple of jetliners and stranded on a runway for hours and hours. As the toilets backed up and people got restless, the flight attendants asked if anyone had a video that they could use as a distraction. One young man, just starting college, had a copy of Citizen Kane. He'd seen it in a class and had fallen in love with it. He offered up his video and the flight attendants popped it in.
Maybe five minutes went by before people started groaning. "Boring!" "This is black and white!" "Who wants to watch this?" After a little while the flight attendants took out the tape and handed it back to the owner. Most people on the flight would rather re-read their magazines and complain to each other than watch Welles' masterpiece. The young man was crushed, and said so to the WSJ reporter.
Now you could take this as a terrible story about modern taste, and on dark days the Siren does.
But you could also focus on the kid with the Citizen Kane tape. He counts, too.
Tuesday, July 10, 2012
There was nothing wrong with John Gilbert's voice.
We know that, but let's start there anyway, as even a few recent articles about The Artist, by people who should know better, reference the old story: John Gilbert, the romantic star of silents, was cursed with a voice that didn't match his masculine sex appeal, a voice that killed his career.
All you have to do to know this received film history is bogus is watch Queen Christina from 1933, the one sound effort from Gilbert still in wide circulation. He's hampered by bad hair, but he sounds fine. His speech is in the same register as that of Ronald Colman or Errol Flynn. Gilbert didn't have their nifty accents, but his slightly flat vowels aren't an irritant and could have been easily remedied. When sound came in, Mary Astor's Midwestern intonations were cured by coaching from her then-lover, John Barrymore.
Admittedly, it's hard to know much about His Glorious Night, Gilbert's first full-length talkie (the first released, that is; he made another, equally ill-fated one before that, Redemption). The Siren doesn't know a soul who's seen it, save John McElwee. He calls Gilbert's voice "more than adequate" and reminds us that the film that supposedly made Gilbert a laughingstock also turned a tidy profit. There's a tiny clip on YouTube where Gilbert does sound a bit effete, but that's mostly a function of the atrocious dialogue. In Singin' in the Rain, if you recall, it's Gene Kelly cooing "I love you, I love you, I love you"--like that Youtube clip--that gets 'em rolling in the aisles as much as Lena Lamont's henhouse screech. But Kelly's voice is no problem for the talkies; even Singin' didn't sign on for the whole myth.
Someone needs to spring His Glorious Night from whatever archival holding pen it's occupying, so we can hear for ourselves. The Siren's willing to bet that Gilbert doesn't sound bad, not even bad enough to support the old rumor that a vengeful Louis B. Mayer, who by all accounts couldn't stand Gilbert, ordered the MGM technicians to use trebles, and trebles only.
These thoughts were retrieved from the attic trunk of the Siren's mind a few weeks ago, because the bottom half of her double bill with Imogen Smith was Fast Workers from 1933, starring John Gilbert, and directed by an uncredited Tod Browning. Off screen Gilbert was miserable, drinking heavily, eking out the last of his MGM contract like a prisoner making hash marks on the wall, but you wouldn't know it. He moves with the same assurance he had in his silents.
The fast workers are construction men, blessed with well-paid jobs while unemployment's at 25%. The men relish their privilege, none more than Gunner Smith (Gilbert), whom we first see in the early morning as he's changing from evening clothes to work duds in the back seat of a car. As you watch him take off his shirt with swift precision, you know it's at least the second, possibly even the third or fourth time he's disrobed in as many hours.
Gunner ambles onto the worker's base platform high above the streets and pow, the rhythm jazzes right up. In any group of friends there's always such a creature, the easy leader, granted that unelected status by looks, charm, and above all confidence. When the guys go out for drinks, Gunner's status is even more evident. He half-sits on a barstool, marking out his next conquest and grinning that devilish grin, and his coworkers are happy just to watch him operate.
It isn't a female-friendly world, to say the least; Gunner's entire off-duty life is devoted not only to getting laid, but to making sure that his best friend Bucker Reilly (Robert Armstrong) avoids any con jobs from cheap skirts. The preventative is simple and diabolical: Gunner sleeps with Bucker's crushes himself. Problem solved. No, seriously, that's what the man believes; Gilbert plays it exactly as though he's doing his pal a favor. But then Bucker falls genuinely in love with Mary, played by Mae Clarke with a great mix of tough-tootsie grifting and fragile romantic desire. Mary has already been around the block with Gunner, you see...
Tod Browning, coming off the worst disappointment of his career with the failure of Freaks, was no happier about Fast Workers than Gilbert, and had his name taken off the picture. Probably the script wasn't a good temperamental fit; the goings-on are not so much strange as sordid. There's a definite Browning feel to the best bits, though, such as a dizzy scene on a girder that's been tampered with. The rear projection used for the street below the skyscraper is marvelous. And there's a minor subplot involving baby pigeons that would have fit just fine in Freaks.
It's a lowdown lurid little movie that would have done Warner Brothers proud, and how it landed at MGM I'll never know. Seeing MGM stamped on Fast Workers is like discovering your Sunday school teacher looks great in a swimsuit.
Now the Siren has seen Queen Christina (at least eight times, if you insist on a tally) so she knew Gilbert's voice wasn't a problem. But she'd gathered that his other talkies were, by and large, unworthy of him. On the Siren's shelves is Dark Star, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain's biography of her father, and even Fountain didn't like Fast Workers. By the time the credits rolled, the Siren was a bit worked up herself, having discovered that she couldn't have been more misinformed if she'd gone to take the waters in Casablanca. "This is one of his lousy, career-destroying talkies?" she demanded, rhetorically of course, no one was arguing with her, least of all Imogen. "This is Gilbert on the skids? What?"
Imogen highly recommended Downstairs, which Gilbert conceived and co-wrote as well as starred in--but it isn't on DVD. Damnit. (Although Fast Workers is.) A little bit of digging, and the Siren had it (gone now, alas).
Downstairs, directed by Monta Bell and set in what Lubitsch might have called Vienna, Hollywood, is a comedy of manners about the servants and their employer problem. Confession: The Siren's addicted to Downton Abbey, despite some things that bother her no end, such as when Bates, the butler, decides he must nobly protect the good name of his lordship. Thomas, the scheming footman, he's got the logical attitude: Take these ludicrously overprivileged layabouts for all you can get. If that thought has crossed your mind while watching Downton Abbey, rejoice; here's John Gilbert as Karl the chaffeur.
Karl is the anti-est of antiheros, so amoral he could take Thomas down to his shirt studs, and the movie knows it shouldn't be on his side, and yet it is. Just watch dependably stolid Paul Lukas, as Albert the butler, sternly warn Karl not to betray the lady of the house (Olga Baclanova) after she's been diddling some schmo in town. Karl can barely conceal his contempt as he agrees to maintain the family secrets. Gilbert keeps eye contact and almost imperceptibly shakes off the butler's honorable handclasp. Then, again in a tiny gesture, he wipes the bridge of his nose, as though Albert's crawled up there.
Ah, the Gilbert nose. By rights it should be as immortal as John Barrymore's, and the nose gets a major workout in Downstairs. He's peering down it at whoever he's conning, he's tilting it slightly skyward as he contemplates his next scheme. Baclanova seals her doom when she goes to meet her lover and almost shuts the door on the nose. You don't do that to the Gilbert profile. His look as he pulls back is not fury, resentment or humiliation; it's cool, deliberate vengefulness.
Karl calibrates his behavior to the desires of every mark, and they're all marks to Karl. Seducing the cook, for example, he doesn't bother with subtlety. Told he has flour on his ass ("your whatchamacallit," the cook says coyly), Karl sticks it out at her and says, "Get it off, will you?"
But Karl's real target is Albert's wife Anna (Virginia Bruce). He takes her to a nearby inn for a spot of seduction. Off-duty and sure of his goal, Karl rattles the dishes when he stubs out a cigarette. Legs splayed and chair tilted back, Karl looks at Anna like a cat wondering if the mouse should be the main course or saved for later, like a chocolate with coffee.
Gilbert wrote himself a complicated, nasty, but undeniably sexy part. Downstairs forces us to admit that sexy counts far more than most people like to admit. It's deliciously clear that upright Albert is hopeless in bed. If showing Anna the real facts of life were Karl's only sin, he could take the "anti" off hero. Alas, Karl really is a louse, shown by his brutal cruelty to the dimwitted, lovestruck cook. But he's also probably the one taste of good lovemaking she'll ever get. Downstairs is cynical enough to suggest maybe the cook didn't do so badly by the bargain.
Gilbert was proud of Downstairs, and it got him a few good reviews as well as the hand of Virginia Bruce, whom he married after filming. But any reprieve was temporary. Soon he was losing the lead in Red Dust to Clark Gable and seething through the making of Fast Workers.
Fountain's book tries to solve the puzzle of why her father became sound's most notorious casualty. She goes through Gilbert's feud with Mayer and the question of whether MGM deliberately sank its troublesome, expensive star. Fountain believes the story that Gilbert, left at the altar by love of his life Greta Garbo, knocked Mayer flat when the mogul quipped gallantly, "Why don't you just fuck her and forget about it?" She quotes His Glorious Night reviews and notes that no one mentions the voice; she smacks down an old yarn about Gilbert attending the premiere and leaving in shame before the lights came up. (There was no big premiere, and he was in Europe when the film came out.)
Fountain tracks the voice sniping to about 1930, when it took off in the press, whether fueled by the MGM brass, or just gossips smelling blood, she can't say. Such was the power of the legend that one of the most poignant quotes comes from Clarence Brown, who directed Gilbert in the gorgeous Flesh and the Devil: "As time went by, I'd hear occasional mentions of Jack's high piping voice, and the way audiences roared at the sound of it, and damned if I didn't find myself repeating them one day. Can you believe that? Me, of all people, repeating those stories. And I knew better, Leatrice, I knew better."
Dark Star is a touching book, a loving daughter's attempt at resurrection, and while Fountain doesn't excise Gilbert's drinking, she's reluctant to attribute much to it. But colleagues were blunt: Gilbert was an alcoholic, one who "became more argumentative and belligerent with each drink," wrote Colleen Moore. (Moore spoke from experience; her first husband was an alcoholic.) The Siren told Robert Avrech, who holds a special love for silents and early talkies, that she was writing about Gilbert. Robert wrote back:
The more I read about him the more I'm convinced that he was an emotional child, impulsive, impossibly romantic, and tragically self-destructive. Going to war against L.B. Mayer is sheer madness. I admire Downstairs tremendously. His playing against type was courageous, but certainly not what his audience wanted.
And of course his voice was fine.
History comes with hard-set myths, and more than once the Siren's hit her head on some Hollywood cement. At least the lie about Jack Gilbert's squeak is all but dead. When the Siren took to Twitter, after seeing Fast Workers, to say that Gilbert sounded good, nearly a dozen people instantly tweeted back that of course he did.
Thank goodness. The canard diminishes even Gilbert's silent performances, if new audiences look at him--so graceful, varied and heartbreakingly sincere in The Big Parade, to cite only one--and imagine the intertitles spoken in an incongruous high tenor. If the voice myth gets a stake through its heart, perhaps Gilbert's good talkies can get more attention, too, putting paid to the idea espoused by David Thomson, that "Gilbert had always been a coarse actor," and sound simply emphasized that.
Some silent stars survived to see their fame renewed. Louise Brooks wrote about Pabst for the New Yorker, Buster Keaton became a hero to cinephiles worldwide. It makes the stories of the ones who didn't live that long all the sadder. Gilbert died in 1936, his talkies already enshrined as the thing that did him in, turned him into a man who didn't sound manly.
On a now-defunct chatboard some dreamy-eyed chatter once started a thread thus: "If you could go back in time and give an artist one present--and one only--who would you pick, and what would you give the person?" The Siren answered that she'd bring Franz Schubert some penicillin. But suppose she had to go back empty-handed, and could deliver only a line. She could do a lot worse than, "Mr. Gilbert, Fast Workers is a good movie."
Tuesday, July 03, 2012
It's supposed to be an insult, describing a performer as a "professional [ethnicity]"--someone who, with little else to recommend him, makes a living pandering to stereotypes. Andy Griffith, born in 1926 in Mount Airy, N.C., was a lifelong professional Southerner, but he turned that into an honorable calling. As much as anything--his huge range, his astonishing career longevity--it makes him unique.
The work cycles through all the images of Southernness, good, bad, and ambiguous. He first popped onto the radar doing a hillbilly-preacher routine, "What It Was, Was Football," that remains hilarious, in large part because it's so obviously a put-on. Never trust a Southerner who's playing dumb. At most, they're probably just feeling cornered. (The Siren knew a man who, like Griffith, was from North Carolina. The guy was getting a Ph.D. from Princeton, but threatened with ejection from a nude beach for refusing to shuck his swimming trunks, he took the Mayberry accent to Defcon 1 with "Hey, c'mon y'all. I'm Baptist." He stayed, and so did his swimsuit.) The joke in "What It Was, Was Football" is also on the audience that's willing to go along with the fantasy of a redneck who doesn't understand football, even in 1953.
Later, on TV in 1955, on stage and in the 1958 movie of No Time for Sergeants, Griffith took the same basic character and again played around with whether or not you believed he's actually this clueless. A psychiatrist (James MIlhollan), assigned to analyze Griffith's Private Will Stockdale, needles him with "I think that I would rather live in the rottenest pigsty in Tennessee or Alabama than the fanciest mansion in all of Georgia. How about that?" And Griffith responds with the air of a man employing infinite tact: "Well, sir... I think where you wanna live is your business."
In between, in 1957, Griffith had his finest 125 minutes in Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd, a portrait of venality so potent that people still argue over which pimple on our nation's body politic is the best latter-day analogue for Lonesome Rhodes. The Siren isn't going to have that argument (this is a tribute, not a brawl). But Rhodes is another example of a man using down-home wiles, only this time to mask megalomania. Rhodes is an empty vessel, braying about whatever's expedient; who knows what he believes, other than that life owes him, big time.
It's about what Rhodes brings out in his fans--what fellow Southerner James Agee described, in reviewing another movie, as American "nasty-nationalistic self-pitying self-congratulation." Again, that's a common Southern stereotype, but the character didn't have to be Southern. We don't produce more demagogues than other parts of the country; it just seems that way, maybe because the accent gives ours that certain je ne sais quoi. Whatever it is, wow, did Griffith have it. Griffith's so committed to the part that even his sweat looks poisonous. It's such a physical performance, pure animal cunning and predatory movement, coiled to spring one moment, stalking his territory from boundary to boundary the next. That laugh, Jesus--is there a more repulsive laugh in American cinema? Griffith's mouth swings open as though he's going to eat his enablers in one gulp.
From Griffith's final years, the Siren chiefly knows Matlock. And the Siren likes Matlock, if not as much as she loves Murder, She Wrote. For the Lansbury the Siren has impeccable company, for Matlock who knows, but the Siren got real tired, real fast of people mocking her about both shows. Listen, if you hate the basic formula and find the production values lacking or the scripts rote, fair enough. But if your disdain is based on the fact that Griffith was old and the guest stars were old and the audience was old--what's up with that? We're all gonna be old, insh'allah, as they always used to say back home in Birmingham. Many of the old people the Siren has known were and are awesomer than she will ever become. Matlock's the oldest and the smartest guy in the room. How is this not way cool? And like every TV crime fighter the Siren has ever loved, from Columbo on, Matlock banks on people underestimating him, lulled by his folksy Southern ability to seem much, much less threatening than he actually is.
The Siren, along with most cinephiles, reveres A Face in the Crowd, but for the larger public the apotheosis is The Andy Griffith Show. Reruns were the Siren's after-school routine. Cookies, milk, Andy, Barney, Opie and Aunt Bea. She didn't identify with the milieu all that much; she had relatives in small-town Alabama, but to say that Mayberry is idealized is like saying not all town drunks are as lovable as Otis. But she thought it was glorious then, and still does. She has a few favorites--like the one where Opie kills a mother bird and Andy makes him nurse the fledglings, which stays with you for the same reason The Yearling stays, because it shatters your heart to powder. The Siren can also crack up those in the know by drawling, "Not that one, Pa, that one always makes me cry."
But here the Siren is going to describe the episode she loves best, without relying on anything more than her memory. Aunt Bea's birthday is coming up, and she yearns for a lace-trimmed bed-jacket she saw in a store window. Andy, however, has decided that what Aunt Bea really needs is a big set of preserve jars. He has them gift-wrapped and presents them to Aunt Bea, who's convinced she's getting the bed-jacket. She rips off the paper, already exclaiming in anticipation, "Oh it's beautiful, it's the most..." And she sees the jars, and stammers, "beautiful preserve jars I've ever..." She dissolves into tears, and hastens from the room.
Here's what the Siren remembers most: Not Frances Bavier's face, but Griffith's, watching her, dumbfounded. He loves this old woman so dearly, and he can't believe how badly he's hurt her. But then, in the Siren's memory, she sees his expression start to alter, as he already ponders how to set it right. Andy Griffith could make you believe that Southerners were bumpkins, that they were corrupt, that they were deadly and wily and brilliant, and he could make you believe that the primary quality of being Southern was loving kindness.
(Above photo from the indispensable If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger.)