Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What I Watched With My Mother (The Finale): Home Before Dark (1958)

Home Before Dark (New Year's Day night) (Note: Home Before Dark is showing tomorrow (Thurs. 1/31/13) at 1 pm EST, as part of TCM's all-day birthday tribute to Jean Simmons.)

Of all the movies the Siren saw with her sainted Mom, this was the nicest surprise.

Jean Simmons plays Charlotte Bronn, who's being sprung from a mental hospital after a year-long stay. Opening shots show deep snow around the magnificently lugubrious Danvers State Insane Asylum (it's got a pseudonym, but that's Danvers all right). Before Charlotte shows up, her professor hubby, Arnold (Dan O'Herlihy), asks the head doctor something that paraphrases as "Gee, doc, shouldn't my recently crazy wife be, er, occupying her own bed for a while?" The shrink tells Arnold oh no, ho-ho, there's no reason for that.

Back home Charlotte's greeted by her slinky, shifty stepsister, Joan (Rhonda Fleming), not to mention her stepmother (Mabel Albertson), who we instantly realize could drive Anna Freud into a mental ward. And what does Arnold do when his too-long-celibate wife makes a play for some affection? He tells her she needs her own bedroom for the time being—doctor's orders, you know.

This absolute whopper establishes, beyond any doubt, that Arnold doesn't love Charlotte. And, because Fleming makes such suggestive eye contact with O'Herlihy, we also know immediately that something's up between Stepsis and Hubby. Maybe they did the deed, maybe they didn't, but neither one of them has any business telling Charlotte she's delusional.

This may not sound like much of a set-up, especially for a movie clocking in at 136 minutes; add less than a half-hour and you've got enough time to blow up The Bridge on the River Kwai. Yet neither the Siren nor her sainted mom minded the running time. The suspense comes from waiting for Charlotte to realize what drove her out of her mind in the first place. She has to, or she'll be back in Danvers, perhaps for good. The script (by Eileen and Robert Bassing, from Eileen's novel) makes the audience piece together past events at the same time that Charlotte is recognizing, bit by painstaking bit, all the things that are driving her mad.

Crazy-Making Thing No. 1 is Arnold, with a Stepmama appetizer and Joan on the side, but there's definitely more. Home Before Dark was shot mostly on location in Marblehead, Mass., during a winter so cold the camera had to be de-iced like a plane on a runway. (One reason the beach scenes look more relaxed: They were filmed in Malibu.) The Bronn house is played by one of those lovely New England colonials that, properly lensed, resemble a cozy tomb. Inside, the ceilings are low, the halls are narrow and a person can't walk five feet without running into Stepsis and her torpedo bra. The cook (Kathryn Card) is a battle-ax who rules the kitchen with all the bighearted warmth of Ivan the Terrible. The house faces a slushy street where the other houses are so close that in spring you could probably sit on your own porch and prop your feet on someone else's. 

In this nosy college town, Charlotte can't so much as go shopping without facing a sales assistant who calls Arnold to make sure his wife doesn't have a form of insanity that makes you run out and buy a silk dress. Encounters with other residents find them treating Charlotte like she's a kid who just got over chicken pox: "My dear, they told me you were ill. But you look so well!" (To which Charlotte replies, with a chilly half-smile, "They lied to you.")

Charlotte does have an old friend (Joanna Barnes) who's sensible and sympathetic, and an old flame (Stephen Dunne) who still lusts for her, but both have troubles of their own, and neither of them gets anywhere when they try to point out the obvious about Arnold and Joan. Charlotte tells her friends they're wrong, that she was wrong. It was all in her mind. Her denial is incredible, but after all, if a man you loved kept saying you're delusional, maybe you'd go crazy, too. It worked in Gaslight.

The Siren was impressed by the entire cast, but it's Simmons' show, and she's in almost every scene. It would be tempting for a leading lady to emphasize Charlotte's charm and victimization, a wounded-but-titillating-gazelle sort of thing. Instead Simmons plays up the woman's intelligence. Sarcasm, rebellion and reproof keep creeping into her voice, and each flash of her perception offers hope for more. Those supreme Simmons eyes tell so much about denial, about why Charlotte believes everything is her fault and that she should be what her family wants her to be.

Offering one escape route is Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Jake Diamond, the handsome temporary lecturer who's boarding at the Bronn house. Arnold is trying to shore up his own position by sponsoring Jake, who's Jewish. (One bully-for-Charlotte bit comes when Arnold is tsk-tsking over Jake's aggressive manner with the college brass, and she says, calm but pointed, "I thought you said they didn't like him because he's Jewish.") Much of Home Before Dark finds Simmons looking as bad as she could look in 1958—little or no make-up, hollow eyes, hair that's turned gray and straw-like, dowdy clothes hanging off a hospital-shrunk body. But she's still Jean Simmons, and Jake takes in her beauty the first time he sees her, when she's coming down the stairs one morning in her robe.

Then Arnold emerges—from a ground-floor room. As Charlotte gets a good-morning embrace from the plaster-of-paris otherwise known as her husband, Zimbalist does an eye-flick up the stairs to where the marital bedroom is located, back to Arnold. Arnold moves to the dining room, and Charlotte turns to find Jake is still at the door to his room, still looking, already figuring out what the true problem is.

Zimbalist makes Jake's kindness seem like the way any good person would respond, which brings up the corollary that the other household members are not good people. His attraction to Charlotte is potent but not sleazy, and Jake gets points just for being willing to joke with her. Everyone else is afraid she'll set fire to the furniture or something. Charlotte, however, is in no shape to reciprocate, and besides, "I want her to rescue herself," the Siren announced. Mom nodded. The great thing is, so does Jake.

You do wonder why on earth Charlotte's so stuck on Arnold, with his fleshy mouth and his suck-up manner with almost anyone who isn't married to him. You find out in a flashback to a few years before. She wasn't—isn't—entirely comfortable with herself, so she uses Joan's bubbly flirting techniques to set her cap for the older, established Arnold. She thinks he's sophisticated, nothing like the "hey baby how 'bout it?" guys her own age. She's wrong, of course. Arnold's intellect is trained on his own advancement, and sexually, Joan is much more his type.

Late in the movie, Charlotte drags Arnold to what's supposed to be a romantic Christmas getaway in Boston (because where else would you go for one of those). The scenes where she decides that if Joan is what Arnold wants, Joan is what she'll be, are so horrifyingly funny, and then so horrifying, that the Siren couldn't believe what she was watching. Mad respect to the line delivery of Joel Marston, who plays a hairdresser named Frederic. Charlotte tells him that her husband wants her in Joan's platinum-blonde coronet, which makes even scrumptious Rhonda Fleming look like Brunhilde's understudy. Frederic responds, "I hate him." The Siren and Mom had been waiting the whole damn movie for somebody to say that.

Pauline Kael wrote that "Jean Simmons gives a reserved, beautifully modulated performance" (hooray! cried the Siren) "that is so much better than the material that at times her exquisite reading of the rather mediocre lines seems a more tragic waste than her character's wrecked life" (DRAT). Oh well. Even if Kael thought the movie was too long, she appreciated Simmons and didn't use the dreaded words "soap opera."

The Siren has said before that a movie "isn't for everyone," and she should stop, because how fatuous is that? No movie is for everyone. This movie is for Jean Simmons fans and Mervyn Le Roy fans (the Siren's both). It's for those who like New England coastal settings and comeuppances and beautiful opening-credit songs with lyrics that Sammy Cahn seems to have written before checking out the script. Most of all, it's for people who think it can be just as fascinating to spend more than two hours with a woman who's figuring out that her husband doesn't love her as it is to watch gangsters or spies or a president getting a bill through Congress.

What Mom said: "That was our kind of movie, wasn't it."

The new banner is from Seraphic Secret. (Robert Avrech also has a wonderful memoir out about the love of his life, Karen--whom he was lucky enough to marry. It's on Kindle, and you should check it out.)

Jean Simmons would have been 84 tomorrow, but she died in 2010. Since the Siren wrote that adoring tribute, she's grown to admire Simmons' acting even more. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

What I Watched With My Mother: The Good Ones Edition

The first movie listed here is the only stone-solid, mind-blowing masterpiece the Siren watched with her mother during this visit. But great as it is, the Siren's got a bit more to say about another, less celebrated film (doesn't she always?). So she's saving that last one for another post.

Play Time (in 70-mm at the Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center)
The Siren spent years refusing to see this movie in anything other than widescreen, which meant she'd never seen it. And here was the opportunity, smack in the middle of Mom's visit. It says a great deal about my mother that, told we were going to see a 1967 French movie with no stars, no plot and sparse dialogue, made by a director she'd never heard of and screening a good hour's commute from where I live, Mom agreed for all the world as though I'd said "Let's watch Auntie Mame on DVD." And of course, it was worth the years of stubborn patience, it was worth the journey, it was worth standing around the Walter Reade lobby while a sheepish projectionist explained that 70 millimeter can be a bit recalcitrant. The Siren's rendering the title as two words in honor of historian Rick Perlstein, who was urging Chicago residents to see it at the Music Box: "Motion, motion, motion. Even read it as two verbs, a double command: 'Play.' 'Time.'" The print wasn't pristine but the movie dazzles all the same, a stunning feat of imagination that turned the Siren into a kid at a birthday party, gobbling treats at top speed in fear she wouldn't get to it all in time. And in fact, she didn't; at several points a huge laugh from the audience alerted the Siren that she'd been concentrating on the wrong part of the screen. The only time the Siren risked the time it took to glance at Mom and see how she was doing was after Hulot locks himself in his friend's high-tech foyer, a feat the Siren herself once managed in a 19th-century New York building by forgetting a key. Mom was shaking with laughter. The Siren had always heard Play Time described as a satire, and that it certainly is, both pointed and accurate in showing how so-called modern conveniences have complicated the hell out of everything. But there's an essential goodness in this movie--if not flat-out optimism, then an allowance for grace, for kindness, for people to delight you no matter how lost and bewildered we all are. Monsieur Hulot eventually gets his meeting with his heel-clacking bureaucrat. Lovely Barbara does meet up with Hulot during the peerless restaurant scene. As the restaurant falls to pieces around him, the loudmouthed American businessman, far from running the staff ragged and gasbagging about French incompetence, turns calamity into a chance for a Boys' Own Treehouse; if only making Play Time had worked that way for Tati himself. When the lights came up, the Siren turned around to behold every member of the previously severe, holiday-weary audience wearing a huge grin.

What Mom said: "That's one of the best things we've ever seen together."

Bonus: Sheila O'Malley, the Balzac of the Blogosphere, seems to have the same hotline to the Siren's brain as Kim Morgan, where we come up with the same obsessions at the same time. Here's her take this very week on Play Time: "It does not bemoan the fate of modern man, it does not say, 'Oh, look at how we are all cogs in a giant wheel, and isn’t it so sad?' It says, 'Look at how we behave. Look at how insane it is. We need to notice how insane it is, because it’s hilarious.'" From Peter Lennon, who had a go at the English dialogue before Art Buchwald took over, here's an informative, if rather acrid, glimpse into the making of the movie. Finally, check out this charming Japanese poster at Adrian Curry's splendid Movie Poster of the Day.

Des Gens Sans Importance (Boxing Day)
Directed by Henri Verneuil, this 1956 mix of noir and social drama was the last of the Jean Gabin movies the Siren had lingering on her DVR. And, unexpectedly, it has a Christmas link: Gabin's youngest son awakens as his parents are fighting, walks in to see an empty Santa costume on the table, and says, in a voice of stunned disappointment, "Il n'existe pas, Père Noël?" And that counts as one of the LESS melancholy moments in this tale of how Gabin's harsh life as a trucker takes on a brief glimmer of romance when he falls in love with a truck-stop waitress (the improbably gorgeous Françoise Arnoul). Gabin was born to play weary, star-crossed romantics, and Des Gens is most elegantly shot, particularly in the night-driving scenes. The characters are fully, richly drawn; even Gabin's worn-out wife and bitchy daughter have their reasons. But, it must be said, the film is so relentlessly downbeat it makes They Live by Night look like Meet Me in St. Louis. Can be firmly recommended on the merits, but approach in full knowledge that it's going to depress the hell out of you.

What Mom said: "I'm going to bed."

The Happy Time (Christmas Day)
This was a rewatch of a movie that lives on the Siren's DVR until such time as it comes out on DVD (which may be a while; it's based on a play, which was turned into a musical, lord only knows what the rights look like). The Siren chose a movie she'd seen because she needed a palate-cleanser; she saw long ago at the urging of Karen Green, who knows. Set among French Canadians in Ottawa at the turn of the century, The Happy Time is nobody's idea of a forward-thinking depiction of gender roles. Still, it's delicate of touch and sweet of temperament. Sex is constantly present (it's basically about puberty, in the person of Bobby Driscoll as Bibi) but it's handled with wit, not a leer. (Maman to Grandpère, when he appears dressed for a night on the town: "You should be in bed." Grandpère: "It's only a matter of time.") The Siren loves the entire cast, but particularly Charles Boyer (of course, the Siren always loves him) as the benevolent Papa, Marsha Hunt as a beautiful, age-plausible Maman, Marcel Dalio (can you believe this cast?) as Grandpère and, as the womanizing Uncle Desmonde, Louis Jourdan, whose reaction to a full-force slap is the funniest moment he ever had on film. Tyrone Power's bride Linda Christian is here too, surviving a bad blonde haircut almost as well as did Rita Hayworth in The Lady From Shanghai. Opened up nicely, but unobtrusively, by director Richard Fleischer, who loves front porches almost as much as the Siren does.

What Mom said: "That was adorable. Poor Bobby Driscoll."

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), With Bonus Anecdote

The Siren is pleased to announce that the Criterion Collection edition of Alfred Hitchcock's 1934 The Man Who Knew Too Much has hit the street, and her essay on this marvelously compact tinker-toy of a film is up at their website. This Man has been languishing in murky public-domain editions that completely failed to do it justice; Criterion has made it sparkle again, the better to find new admirers. The Siren was tickled to death to be name-checked by the celebrated J. Hoberman in his review, but even more so was she pleased to find out that Hoberman, like her, prefers the original to the remake.

Here, a brief excerpt from the Criterion essay:

Hitchcock had seen M and at first wanted Lorre to play the gang’s hit man. So in the spring of 1934, he cabled Paris, where Lorre and his longtime love Celia Lovsky were living in glum poverty. Back in Berlin, Lorre’s successful stage career had included notable roles for Bertolt Brecht, and the thunderbolt of M, released in 1931, gave the actor the greatest hit of his career. But less than two years later, as soon as Hitler became chancellor, Joseph Goebbels began putting restrictions on Jews in the film industry. By July of 1933, they had been banned from films altogether. Lorre, a Hungarian-born Jew, got out of Berlin early that year.

With Lovsky, he moved first to Vienna, then to Czechoslovakia, then finally to Paris, where even his excellent French couldn’t get him much more than small parts. At age thirty, his struggle with morphine addiction was already more than seven years old and had necessitated a recent and expensive “rest cure,” which ate up what little Lorre had earned so far in France. According to Stephen D. Youngkin’s biography The Lost One, when Lorre left for London to take up the first good movie role he’d been offered in many months, the actor had to borrow the cost of a ticket from his brother.

The Siren used The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre by Stephen D. Youngkin as a reference, and she reiterates her enthusiastic recommendation. It's a wonderfully complete resource on the actor's life and work. Since we were just discussing one of the films that Peter Lorre made with Sydney Greenstreet, from Youngkin's book here's a glimpse of this perfect team at work--sort of.

In their game of cat and mouse, Lorre did the stalking. When Greenstreet warned him he would cut off both his hands if he did not stop projecting himself into his scene, Lorre amiably checked, "Fine, then I'll play the scene with stumps and steal the whole show." Irving Yergin said thatt Lorre loved to tell of being on the set of The Conspirators (1944) with Sydney Greenstreet and Hedy Lamarr, who was wearing a low-cut dress. "Hey Sydney," he joked, "you're the only person on the set with a pair of tits." According to Lorre, production was held up for two hours while Greenstreet and Lamarr chased him around the set, no doubt fitting one reviewer's description of the actors as a "Pekingese and a great dane out for a romp." Lorre wrapped his take on one of his favorite stories with Jack Warner fining him ten thousand dollars for the day.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

What I Watched With My Mother: The Also-Ran Edition

After a long hard slog of a December, the Siren has emerged, ready for updates. And she has excellent news: Our hard work to put The White Shadow online for viewing has been recognized by the Online Film Critics' Society, with a special award to the "For the Love of Film" blogathon, Fandor and the National Film Preservation Foundation for our fundraising efforts. This is a wonderful accolade that is shared by everyone who contributed to the blogathon.

And our work has benefited many, many people. The online streaming of The White Shadow has proven so popular (almost 40,000 viewers and counting) that the NFPF has decided to keep it available for viewing on their site through Jan. 31. So watch, and watch again; we worked hard and we earned it.

Meanwhile, back chez Siren, your sometime blog hostess was entertaining her mother over the holidays, and after long days of decking the halls etc., we'd unwind by watching a number of old movies. Re-capping that viewing seemed like a good way to start 2013, so here are brief impressions of What I Watched With My Mother. The next post will feature the ones we liked best; this is the Also-Ran Edition. The Siren will get the one true dud out of the way first, since Mom always told her the meal goes better if you start with the food you like the least.

Susan Slept Here (Christmas Eve movie)


Not "ugh" because it's a romantic comedy about a 17-year-old (Debbie Reynolds) and a 50-year-old (Dick Powell). (Yeah yeah, Powell's character claims he's 35. So do a lot of people.) The Siren's been happy with May-December story lines before, including Love in the Afternoon, The Constant Nymph, and To Catch a Thief. No, it's "ugh" because whatever it takes to make this couple remotely plausible, let alone palatable, neither the stars, nor screenwriter Alex Gottlieb, nor director Frank Tashlin have it. Maybe a more obviously appealing, crush-able male lead might have helped (one friend suggested Robert Mitchum). Maybe, although the Siren (who's 0-6 with Tashlin now) finds that this director's interest in Eros goes no deeper than the first wolf-whistle. Powell looks more interested in what's in his highball glass than anything else. And if you don't buy what the script is selling, then this movie is tedious and crude, just a bunch of labored jailbait gags about whether or not Susan, whose mental age seems to hover around 12, will Sleep Here.

What Mom said: "I think you would have to see this when you're a kid and fall in love with it. Otherwise it's hard to overlook how icky it is."

Background to Danger
World War II spy caper that we watched for Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, and those gentlemen were the best things in it, naturally. Good stuff includes Lorre, as an agent of Our Soviet Allies, sitting cross-legged on a desk and demanding a better class of vodka. There's also a striking shot of Greenstreet walking away from the camera--his coat drapes off his incredibly wide shoulders like a set of curtains, and he looks like a medicine-show wagon trundling down a street. The Siren liked the Turkish setting and the trains and the way that all the romance and stranger-danger of compartments is put to great use. The director was Raoul Walsh, the cinematographer was Tony Gaudio, William Faulkner did uncredited work on the script--why, you might well ask, is this such a mix of good, bad and meh? It isn't nearly as consistent and accomplished as Jean Negulesco's The Mask of Dimitrios one year later. One reason is that Dimitrios wisely foregrounded Lorre and Greenstreet and used an Eric Ambler plot to much better effect; Background to Danger is baggily constructed, with more than its fair share of convenient double agents and talking killers. The major problem, however, was nailed by Mom: "This needed Humphrey Bogart." Instead you get George Raft at his most humorless and mechanical. Also includes Brenda Marshall looking marvelous in Soviet Chic, all high-necked sweaters and astrakan-collared coats. Unfortunately, all she does is hand Lorre vodka (although that's an important task, goodness knows).

What Mom said: See above.

They Came to Blow Up America
Alfred Hitchcock supposedly based Saboteur on a true story of German agents sent to sabotage the American war machine; but by the time he got through with the story, almost no trace of the real incident was left. This 20th-Century Fox programmer, in its flag-waving Hollywood way, sticks much closer to the facts of "Operation Pastorius," with details like the German submarine landing right off Amagansett (even enemy agents want a taste of the Hamptons). The film begins with a disclaimer noting that for the sake of national security, the true story of the saboteurs can't be told yet. Which is good. We wouldn't want John and Jane Q. leaving the Rialto convinced that one of the saboteurs was only play-acting for the good of the country, because FBI Agent Ward Bond asked him to. That heroic non-saboteur is George Sanders, wearing his "B-movie heartthrob" hat. He's so handsome and drily funny that the creaky theatrics go down easy. The best part, though, concerns Anna Sten as Sanders' disgruntled not-ex-wife (it's complicated), whom Sanders denounces as crazy to a Nazi commandant ("she throws things, you know"). Sten steals the movie with her two big scenes, further confirmation that whatever folly was associated with her years in Hollywood, it had nothing to do with her acting.

What Mom said: "It would be nice if FBI agents really did show up to tell you that your kids are OK." (At one point Ward Bond visits Sanders' worried Papa (Ludwig Stossel) to reassure him that his son doesn't really wanna blow up America.)

Stolen Holiday
A 1937 Michael Curtiz film about the Stavisky Affair, a topic that has so much potential that it's frustrating to see how off-handedly it's treated here. Kay Francis plays Nicole Picot, a couturier's model who's recruited by Stavisky--oops I mean Stefan Orloff (Claude Rains) as arm candy while he pitches his financial schemes to wealthy businessmen. And here's the first problem; she knows Orloff is crooked, and Rains is (god knows) playing him crooked, and yet the script wants us to believe that Nicole nevertheless does not understand that Orloff is fleecing most of the French upper crust. The Siren loves Francis, but this is a damn-near-unplayable part that nicely illustrates the kind of tosh the actress was starting to get from Warner Brothers as her career waned. And as if there weren't enough for the woman to cope with, she doesn't take that "stolen holiday" with Rains, who's mighty alluring even if he was a half-foot shorter than Francis. No, she runs off with Ian Hunter, who one year later would distinguish himself as the fifth-sexiest man in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Pleasures do include Rains intimidating his nervous Ponzi-schemers; but while there's a little crash course in French bond-issuing rules, it's a waste not to show more of Rains reeling in the suckers. Nicole becomes a dress designer herself, so Kay's Orry-Kelly wardrobe is breathtaking, particularly the spangled dress above, which has what may well be the lowest neckline in 1930s cinema. And there's the airplane Kay and Claude take to Switzerland, a British-made eye-popper that looks as though they decided to bring the double-decker bus concept to air travel.

What Mom said: "It would have been more interesting if she fell in love with Rains."