Friday, September 28, 2012

In Memoriam: Herbert Lom, 1917-2012

The Siren felt a bit of eerie coincidence on hearing that Herbert Lom had died at the venerable age of 95. Less than three weeks ago, she saw the fine old British psychiatric romance The Seventh Veil. In it Lom plays the silken, sexy-voiced head-shrinker to Ann Todd's suicidal concert pianist, but he does not fall in love with her. Instead, he puts her under hypnosis with the aid of an injection. Narcosis, he calls it. (Do such drugs exist, where you get shot up and presto, you remember your whole life in screenplay-perfect detail? Frankly, the Siren hopes not.)

As Dr. Larsen, Lom's plot function is to reveal to Todd which of the three men in her life she truly loves. This he does by sitting just out of her sightlines and asking wise, perceptive questions, until the end, when he gets out of the office and does some detective work by asking wise, perceptive questions of the people who know the pianist. The notion that talk therapy, with or without magic injections, can yield life-resurrecting results in a mere matter of weeks deserved skepticism in 1945, and these days such claims are on par with losing 20 pounds in two weeks without dieting. Yet The Seventh Veil is a marvelously entertaining film, utterly committed to its premise, and full of memorable scenes. (Todd said strangers talked to her about the scene where James Mason strikes her hands with a cane for the rest of her life.)

About 20 minutes in, the Siren's better half plopped on the sofa to watch a bit too, drawn by the music. He kept watching, and a little while later when he piped up, it was to say, "The shrink is great."

It's true, Lom is wonderful, as soothingly intelligent and trustworthy as Claude Rains' Dr. Jaquith. Dr. Larsen is a hard part to play, all that sympathizing and empathizing and commiserating and you don't even get the girl. Twenty years later, Lom was cast as a psychiatrist in a TV series and according to the Guardian, he groused: "All I had to do was sit behind a desk saying, 'And vot happened next?', and the terribly interesting patient got all the good bits." Some part of him may have been thinking about The Seventh Veil too, massive hit though it was. He must have known how good he was, though, and that it would have been a lesser movie without him. Lom's listening is so active, so engaged, his faith in his charge's rescue-ability so strong--your belief in the whole concept depends on him.

Lom's obituaries reveal a vividly interesting life that included his escape from Czechoslovakia just ahead of the Nazi invasion. His Jewish girlfriend died in a concentration camp after being turned away by British authorities. Later, when Lom wanted to make a career in Hollywood--which would have been lucky to have him--he ran into a brick wall with American immigration for reasons that don't appear to have amounted to much of anything. In those days, they didn't have to. He married three times and had three children. He wrote two novels that the Siren would love to read.

Lom's a type of actor that fascinates the Siren. A name known to many, but never a big star, and not a character actor with one instantly recognizable film-to-film persona, either. But an actor who worked for decades--a few leads including this one, plenty of heavies, comic parts, stage, TV, and films, whatever came along. El Cid, The Ladykillers, he racked up some indelible films over a six-decade career. The Siren enjoys his pirate in Spartacus and his wonderful Napoleon in King Vidor's underrated War and Peace. Lom played Bonaparte two other times--once on stage, once on film for Carol Reed in Young Mr. Pitt--and wryly called the Emperor a "much-maligned gentleman," which gives a hint of why his portrayal avoided biopic dullness.

Lom's obits give pride of place to his Chief Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther films, which is understandable, although the Siren has admitted before that the series isn't her taste. But the role certainly shows Lom's versatility; how often do you get an actor who can play both brilliant farce, and utterly terrifying criminality? All right, Peter Sellers himself did, if you've seen this one.

But hey, Lom did it too, many times, including the great Night and the City. As the crime boss Kristo, his all-purpose accent standing in for Greek this time, Lom got to play an ending so bleak they shied away from it in the weak 1992 remake. Probably it was lack of nerve, but the lack of Herbert Lom didn't help.

One of the many reasons the Siren loves to write about actors is that the good ones reap so much from such tiny, tiny choices. It's miraculous to her. In Night and the City, Kristo's rackets include wrestling. His father, Gregorius, is a wrestler, an honorable one, who nonetheless has been caught up in the get-rich-quick schemes of Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark). Here Gregorius, and Fabian, make the fateful mistake of tangling with Mike Mazurki's Strangler.

At around the 5:15 mark, you hear one word from Lom as Kristo: "Papa." You don't see him utter it, but the whole backstory's in his voice: hero-worship, concern, tenderness, old father-son disputes, and above all, a warning that spins every head in that room in the crime boss' direction. You see all that, too, in the way Lom drapes a robe across Stanislaus Zbyszko's shoulders.

After Gregorius staggers to the store room and Kristo helps his father lie down, the wrestler asks his son to close a window that isn't open. Then he asks a second time, when the camera is on the back of Lom's head, and the responding nod is so small it's barely perceptible. It speaks of Kristo's dread and denial, as if keeping the acknowledgement tiny will somehow change the fact that Gregorius is already growing cold. Ditto Kristo standing and resting his hand on the closed window; Lom's back is almost entirely to the camera again, we have just a sliver of his profile. He can't give his father his full face when he's lying. There's the perfectly calibrated timing of how long Kristo embraces Gregorius' dead body. Kristo's been a villain from the beginning, but from the moment he raises his head, Lom makes the character something else, an executioner. God it's brilliant, one piece of why Night and the City is a superlative film.

And for Herbert Lom, it was one screen performance among more than a hundred.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Cobweb (1955)

(For the one and only Yojimboen, here's a complete and slightly spruced-up version of the Siren's 2011 essay on The Cobweb, from the now-defunct Nomad Widescreen. Curtain going up...)

Here’s a little Siren idea for a film programmer: a double feature of Samuel Fuller’s scalding 1963 Shock Corridor, about a journalist who goes undercover in a hellish mental institution, with Vincente Minnelli’s 1955 The Cobweb, about a high-end loony bin where the inmates play croquet on a verdant lawn and make art projects in a chic studio.

Discussion to follow: Which movie is crazier? And the answer should be, “The one in Eastmancolor.”

The Cobweb certainly has every bit of the lush color and striking compositions you find in something like Minnelli's Gigi. It has standout work from John Kerr, Oscar Levant, Susan Strasberg, Charles Boyer, Lillian Gish and above all Gloria Grahame. What it doesn’t have is a huge emotional hook. Shock Corridor (and Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit, from 1948) also bring up questions of who’s truly insane: the inmates, their keepers or the world at large. In its genteel way, though, the Minnelli, with its posh setting and leisurely pace, makes the strongest case for the craziness of the keepers.

The patients at Castlehouse, the aptly named mansion where wealthy people go for what they used to call “rest cures,” just don’t seem that sick. Sure, Sue (Susan Strasberg) is agoraphobic, Mr. Capp (Levant) is depressed and mother-fixated, and Steven (Kerr) is depressed and father-fixated, but they and the other patients have no problem conducting a meeting in the library according to proper parliamentary procedure. They help each other, they don’t speak out of turn, they go back to their rooms and have little parties with a phonograph playing and everybody laughing. One old woman can even handle her own wheelchair.

The staff, on the other hand, can’t even order a set of drapes without causing a chain of catastrophes.

Despite the simplicity of the goal--just remember, everybody wants their own drapes--the plot is a mess, but here goes. New clinic head Richard Widmark is bringing his newfangled notions to the staid clinic. His main goal is self-government for the patients, an idea whose appeal increases the more you get to know the staff. Widmark is married to Gloria Grahame, who’s at home with the kids and a maid and in need of something to do. Grahame decides she should take over ordering new drapes for the library. But Widmark wants Kerr, who is a painter of talent, to design the drapes. Beautiful Lauren Bacall, as the clinic's art therapist, agrees with Widmark. She's the understanding character: She understands Kerr and Strasberg and Widmark, heck, Bacall even understands what the deal is with the drapes. But Miss Inch, the secretary (played by a marvelously sour, embittered Lillian Gish) wants to get new curtains on the cheap. So there are three sets of drapes...Can I stop now?

The Cobweb’s best-looking effect is undoubtedly Gloria Grahame, all dewy perspiration, smudged makeup and hair flopping in and out of her eyes, as she flits around convinced that Widmark will surely rekindle their sex life, if only she can change the drapes. She seethes with repressed lust as she picks up Kerr on a road outside the hospital, talking to the teenager in a way that suggests she might throw herself at him at any minute. Grahame wiggles around a concert in a blinding white evening gown, her mouth a slash of red lipstick--no wonder Charles Boyer, as the alcoholic ex-head of the clinic, is dying to seduce her.

Widmark, though, is all zipped up with concern about whether his patients will be able to exercise their democratic right to make their own interior-design choices. Therefore he can walk into a bedroom, spot Gloria Grahame half-out of the covers--and walk right back out. I told you the staff's as crazy as the patients.

Strasberg is gentle and affecting as the phobic teen, especially in a scene in the town cinema where she goes to see Seven Brides for Seven Brothers with Kerr. She stands to leave, the carefree young people pouring around her, and she timidly follows Kerr out of the theatre and onto to the sidewalk as panic starts to well up in her eyes. Minnelli keeps his camera back and the couple slightly off-center as Kerr takes her arm and leads her away, and she relaxes once more. The simple tenderness of the moment would have fit perfectly in the director’s great romance, The Clock.

Widmark’s straight-arrow character mostly channels Charlton Heston at his most righteous, but the movie finds its other affecting moments in his few scenes with his politely stoic son. The little boy moves quietly around the kitchen after his parents have a fight, and makes his own breakfast while Gloria Grahame storms off to have another fabric-related crisis. As Widmark tries to talk to his son, you see the doctor wondering if, perhaps, their parenting is creating a future patient.

And of course, there is Oscar Levant in his last film role, singing “Mother” while sitting in a hydrotherapy bath and waiting for his sedatives to take effect. When he looks at the nurse and tells her, “You remind me of my mother,” the line is so funny, and so sinister, that the Siren gets a fleeting sense the movie is about to go all Hitchcock. It doesn’t, of course; the next morning, it’s back to the library and fabric selection.

The deep drape focus has come in for a lot of head-scratching over the years. The Siren wonders, do they show this one in interior design class at a place like FIT? They should, they should. Drapes. Good lord, did even Cecil Beaton get this worked up over window treatments? Wouldn’t furniture be, well, weightier?

This Maguffin has some batty logic, though. The Cobweb is about a clinic staffed by people who are (with the exception of Lauren Bacall’s too-good-to-be-true teacher) way, way too self-absorbed, so much so that paisley versus floral versus silkscreen becomes an existential life crisis. The movie slyly suggests that the patients are picking up on the staff’s narcissism, and not the other way around.

The Cobweb’s original running time was two-and-a-half hours, and producer John Houseman convinced Minnelli to cut it down. Despite the fact that the film is in no way boring, that was probably a good choice. At its present length, The Cobweb's beauty and roiling, neurotic cast retain a headlong charm.

Toward the end, Widmark’s character tries to make the case that the fuss about the drapes was a metaphor for all the passions they unleashed, but he convinces no one. Levant, who spent a lifetime in and out of psychiatric treatment, came much closer to the heart of the matter in a remark he made on set. Director and actor quarreled a lot during the shoot, and Levant muttered to the assistant producer after one spat with Minnelli: “Who’s crazy, anyway--him or me?”

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Jean Grémillon

This week, at the site MUBI, the Siren has a long essay about Jean Grémillon and the new DVD set of three of his films (Le ciel est à vous, Lumière d'été and Remorques) from Criterion's no-frills Eclipse label. This is part of the discussion of Remorques, the Siren's favorite of the four she's seen, the other being Gueule d'Amour. (New Yorkers, take note: Remorques plays at the Film Forum today, at 1 pm, 4:40 pm and 8:20 pm.) They are all wonderful; discovering Grémillon has been a highlight of the Siren's cinematic year.

All three of the movies are deeply rewarding, but it's the simplest one, Remorques, that has the greatest beauty. It's helped by the presence of Michèle Morgan and Jean Gabin, two stars so blindingly charismatic that their merest eye contact is worth pages of exposition. To this Remorques adds Prevert's gorgeous dialogue (he rewrote much of the script), and Grémillon's passionate feel for the freedom of the sea and the confinement of land.

Gabin plays André, a tugboat operator ("remorques" translates as "towline") who makes a dangerous living rescuing boats from the storm-tossed waters off the Brittany coast. He's married to Yvonne (Renaud again--Grémillon loved this actress, with good reason); their relationship is loving, if not quite happy. She's grown tired of André's profession, tired of constantly fearing for his safety. Quietly, persistently, she's trying to persuade him to give it up. But he doesn't want to, not really, despite his frequent expressions of disgust for the low pay and wretched conditions. Gabin plays his scenes with Renaud with a mixture of real affection and wariness; she's trying to detach him from his one source of excitement, the one place where he's strong and in control. Yvonne is a Spanish-moss spouse--lovely but potentially suffocating.

André's crew rescues the vessel of Marc (Jean Marchat), a craven captain who's willing to let his boat go down so he can collect the insurance. His wife, Morgan, naturally has come to loathe him. Unable to spend another minute with the man, she takes a raft to Gabin's boat. Morgan and Gabin snipe at one another on board, they meet again onshore, they talk...

Remorques is a romantic melodrama, and these films are always built on emotions that are common, even when the situations are not. Here's a man who has lingering love for a good wife whose needs have become dreary and whose presence is no longer exciting; and here's a woman married to someone whose once-thrilling attentions turned out to be a cover for contempt and abuse. And the two connect, as such unhappy souls easily might in reality.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Anecdote of the Week: "The Girl in the Black Tights"

Some big parties going on for the past couple of weeks and the Siren's best hats were all being re-blocked, so she didn't go. Thursday night TCM, in the slyest bit of counter-programming the Siren has seen in some time, ran an entire evening of Mack Sennett shorts.

Now if this doesn't prove to one and all that Turner Classic Movies is the greatest damn channel in the history of channels, television, or people named Turner, the Siren doesn't know what will. The Siren's been seeing Sennett shorts mined for years for "quaint" clips meant to poke fun at the primitive nature of early cinema. And here he was, lovingly restored, respectfully introduced by Ben Mankiewicz, and being shown in prime time.

The Siren has been having one of those months where she's all, "Gosh, my movie viewing is feeling so, so, well--current" so this was perfect. And who should jump out at her during these shorts? Not Chester Conklin or Raymond Griffith or the Keystone Kops or Chaplin or Arbuckle, but Mabel Normand.

Normand was a known quantity; the Siren loves Mickey and He Did and He Didn't and Tillie's Punctured Romance and many others. Sitting down with the Sennett films that put her on the map was fascinating, though. Normand was utterly fresh and natural on camera. Through more than two hours of viewing the Siren never saw her mug.

John Barrymore told Mary Astor, "Think! the camera is a mind-reader." And what Sennett's camera saw in Normand was unaffected charm. It's a charm that, oddly, doesn't read much in stills at all. What a Normand photograph shows you is a pretty woman with a cute smile. You have to watch her in motion to understand why she bewitched so many, including Chaplin and of course Sennett himself.

The short that captivated the Siren was this one, for reasons that will become clear. The Water Nymph is cute, but not sidesplitting; it's famous mostly for Normand's bathing-suit scene, which according to Ben Mank inaugurated the immortal Sennett Bathing Beauties. But look at Normand earlier, laughing behind her hand at her pompous suitor. It could easily play as mean, even bitchy; Mabel's mockery seems to come from a place of pure joy, not a hint of malice in it.

It's hard to watch Normand without some small spot in the back of your mind cringing away from what fate had in store for her. (It's even harder when she's playing opposite frequent costar Roscoe Arbuckle.) The Siren has read, and mightily enjoyed, Sidney D. Kirkpatrick's A Cast of Killers, about the William Desmond Taylor murder that started Mabel's slide. For those who don't know the book, it is based on King Vidor's unpublished papers.

Toward the end of his life, Vidor became fascinated with this unsolved Hollywood killing, and he wanted to make a movie about it. The book casts Vidor, delightfully, as a sort of Hollywood Jessica Fletcher, running around talking to the silent stars and film people still alive and trying to piece the story together. In the end he comes up with a culprit, one that's revealed in a scene that plays as tragedy, although Vidor's solution absolutely hasn't convinced a lot of the case's devotees. All the Siren can say is that whether or not Vidor had the right perp, it plays. (The case has spawned a whole school of theorizing, Taylorology, which seems to be the perfect hobby for people who find Kennedy conspiracy research to be boringly uncomplicated.)

Normand's in A Cast of Killers, of course, as lovable in that book as she was everywhere else. When it was published in 1986 there was talk of making it into a movie, which still hasn't happened. Certain of the Siren's far-flung correspondents have told her they believe the movie will never happen; that even today, there are those who want to bury the story. The Siren isn't plugged-in enough to say, but the fact that the book has never been filmed is a pity. The Siren adores King Vidor, and the idea of raising his profile with the general public appeals enormously to her.

Vidor would be hard to cast. Normand would be harder.

As the Siren recalls, A Cast of Killers doesn't tell the following tale from Vidor's autobiography, A Tree Is a Tree. Kirkpatrick probably was wise enough to know he couldn't equal it.

In 1931, Vidor and Laurence Stallings were at Vidor's home, working on a screenplay about Billy the Kid. The two men were dressed in tennis whites and bright sweaters, but when they received a summons to meet with Irving Thalberg, they dropped everything and didn't bother to change into anything more sober. They joined Thalberg in his limousine, along with legendary MGM executive Eddie Mannix (whose fearsome reputation has its own school of conspiracy thought). The men discussed Billy's bloody career for a while, when Vidor realized that this wasn't an aimless joyride, they had a destination.

Suddenly the car made a turn to the right and came to an abrupt halt. Quite a crowd was gathered on the sidewalk, and a number of dark limousines, similar to ours, were parked ahead of us. The doorman who stepped up to our car wore white gloves and a dark suit. I realized that we had stopped at the main entrance of a funeral parlo. Apparently we were late for a funeral!

Whose funeral? I wondered.

I was obliged to step out to permit egress for Thalberg and Mannix.

As I started to get back into the car and sit out the funeral service with Stallings, a strong hand gripped my arm.

"Aren't you coming inside?" It was director Marshall Neilan.

"Marshall," I said, "look how we're dressed."

"That's not important. They'll be expecting you."

Who'll be expecting us? I wondered.

Stallings, with the inquisitive soul of a journalist, had started to work his way out of the car. We must have made a pretty picture, two men in white flannels and bright sweaters, as we entered the crowded chapel.

"Who's dead?" I asked Larry in a whisper.

"Let's find out," he replied.

Inside there was another sober-faced gentleman, Lew Cody. This famous actor was a convivial man-about town, and I had never seen him in any mood except a light-hearted one. But Lew showed no surprise at our inappropriate attire and soberly showed us to two seats next to Thalberg and Mannix. A flower-draped casket reposed impressively before us. An organ played gently in the proper mood.

I didn't dare speak. Finally I pantomimed to Mannix to give me pencil and paper. On the back of an envelope I wrote: "Who is it?"

Mannix took the pencil and answered: "Mabel Normand. Don't you read the papers?"

Mabel Normand! I was shocked. It is true that I hadn't read a newspaper in several days. Beautiful, lithe-figured Mabel Normand. When I had been a young ticket-taker in the Texas nickelodeon, Mabel Normand had been my dream girl. I remembered her, black tights covering her body, as she walked to the end of the board and dived gracefully to the water below. I had known her as the Biograph Girl and as the star of dozens of Mack Sennett comedies. Marshall Neilan had directed her first full-length film, Mickey. Lew Cody had been married to her.

Thalberg leaned toward me across Mannix.

"Too many murders," he whispered.

Had she been murdered? I was stunned.

"The public won't accept it," he added and I suddenly realized he was talking about Billy the Kid.

I nodded temporary agreement, but I was pursuing another line of thought. I had begun to recognize faces. There was Marie Dressler of the large, expressive visage. She was never one for subtlety in comedy, nor was she subtle in grief. Ben Turpin was weeping unashamedly. The big face of gigantic Mack Swain of Gold Rush fame was marked with tears. Charlie Chaplin, Mack Sennett, Chester Conklin, Hank Mann, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon--all fellow workers of hers--were crying. I was fascinated by their faces. These funny faces had made people roar with laughter the world over. Now they were distroted by grief into another, yet equally ridiculous, grimace. These good people, who had not achieved fame by subtlety in facial expression, expressed sorrow in the same open manner; tears flowed plentifully over tragic countenances.

In due time good words were recited from a good book, and the service was over. We watched as the casket moved down the aisle toward the chapel entrance and the brutality of the sunlight beyond.

Presently the four of us were back in the limousine, whose windshield now bore a sticker with the word "Funeral" on it.

As the procession moved slowly along Figueroa Street, Thalberg instructed our driver to turn out at the intersection. With this quick maneuver we left the line of dark cars and headed back toward Culver City and the studio. When the driver stopped briefly to tear the telltale sticker from the windshield, Thalberg resumed our discussion of Billy the Kid.

"Was Sheriff Pat Garrett his friend during the time of the last five murders?" he asked. I couldn't answer. I was still thinking of the girl in the black tights on the end of the diving board...

The car passed again through the studio gates. As we stepped out on the narrow walk, Thalberg bounded up the steel steps to his office. At the top, he turned back. "I'll call you," he said.

The story conference was at an end.


David Cairns knows the story-conference anecdote, and has written about what the tale tells us about Thalberg. (And he also loves A Cast of Killers.)

There are some haunting photos of the dramatis personae of the Taylor case at the site Looking for Mabel, including a photo of a locket she gave Taylor.

Chris Edwards of Silent Volume has a fine tribute to Mabel's Busy Day here.

Further to Mae Clarke, who got a shout-out in my John Gilbert post, here is Robert Avrech with a tribute to Cagney and Clarke in Lady Killer.