Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Love Song of Samuel Hoffenstein: Coda

THIS, via the ever-obliging Yojimboen, is Samuel Hoffenstein. Pretty much exactly how one feels he should look.

The response to the Siren's first piece on Hoffenstein was delightful. Particularly touching was how, spurred no doubt by the deep feelings engendered by "Maid of Gotham" and "The Shropshire Lad's Cousin," people went and found out stuff. Longtime Siren commenter Jeff Gee pointed out (as the Siren should have) that the Internet Archive has a nice selection of his poetry. Jeff also mentioned that David Cairns of Shadowplay already had a Hoffenstein tag going.

The wonderfully named T. Migratorius came up with a map of Hoffenstein's Manhattan migrations:

FWIW, since he was so elusive, I thought I would look him up on Not much there, but some New York locales in his history may make the Siren feel even a bit closer to him.

Ancestry has his June 1917 WW I draft registration card showing him, at the age of 26, employed in "theatrical publicity" and officing at the Eltinge Theater. (I looked it up. It was at 236 West 42nd Street and "now survives as the facade and lobby of the AMC 42nd Street Movie multiplex." Yes, just part of the theater was moved to a new location.)

His entry in the 1930 Census shows him living at an apartment house at 501 Lexington Ave. (now the Hotel Roger Smith) with a wife, Edith. Edith was roughly 7 years Samuel's junior and born in Oklahoma. One wonders how they met.

In the 1940 Census, the last before his death, he was living on Thayer Avenue in Los Angeles, alone with two servants.

What about Edith? The only other thing I found for her was a passenger list from 3/18/31 showing her as a Los Angeles resident traveling from Agua Caliente, Mexico to San Diego. A Mexican divorce, perhaps?

The Siren should have guessed there was an Edith, somewhere.

I've been in love a dozen times,
And fashioned several thousand rhymes;
For love I've suffered much, indeed,
And rhyming makes my spirit bleed;
And yet, I have unhappy times
When I am out of love and rhymes.

Whereupon Samuel Wilson came up with the denouement:

Google News Archive sources indicate a 1938 divorce, Edith citing mental cruelty. A UPI article quoted a poem reportedly written after their honeymoon and dedicated to Edith:

When you're away I'm restless, lonely,
Wretched, bored, dejected.
Only here's the rub, my darling dear.
I feel the same when you're here.

The Siren didn't intend to crowdsource Hoffenstein, but she is glad she did.

And she herself has further findings of a Hoffenstein nature. The Siren was walking through her living room when she glanced up at a shelf filled with books placed there solely for the beauty of their spines. And immediately the air around the Siren turned blue with her curses, because she realized: "@#$%, I've @#$%ing forgotten Salka Viertel."

Salka relaxes with Sergei Eisenstein on the beach in 1930. Replaces another photo circulating as Salka with Garbo, that is not. Kindly identified for the Siren by Donna Rifkind, whose book on Salka will arrive in 2020.

Salka truly deserves her own post one day, so the Siren will keep this brief. The book is The Kindness of Strangers, Viertel's memoir, which the Siren hasn't re-read in years. Born Salomea Steuemann in Sambor, now part of Ukraine, Salka grew up in a well-to-do and cultivated Jewish family. She married the director and screenwriter Berthold Viertel, whose writing credits include Murnau's Four Devils and City Girl. She had three sons, including Peter Viertel of White Hunter, Black Heart fame. (Peter also married Deborah Kerr, thereby becoming the envy of the world.) Salka moved to California with her family in 1928 for a four-year stay that wound up lasting the rest of her life. She met Greta Garbo and they became friends, perhaps more than friends. She wrote movies for Garbo that included Queen Christina, Anna Karenina and Conquest, and Salka even had a part in Anna Christie. She also co-wrote Deep Valley, a very fine movie.

Salka's home in Santa Monica became a magnet for the European expat community. As the Nazis gained more and more power, Salka tried to help people get out. The glitter and genius of the people surrounding Viertel was astonishing. To read this memoir is to encounter casual sentences like, "It is unpardonable of me not to remember on what occasion I was introduced to Thomas Mann." If you were a European-born intellectual in Los Angeles in the 1930s, you knew Salka Viertel.

So you see why the Siren's first action on taking The Kindness of Strangers down from her shelf was to gently hit herself in the head with it.

If the book has a major flaw, it's the lack of an index, so the Siren flipped to the Hollywood chapters, and way towards the back, in seconds, here's what was found.

I no longer saw those who still represented glamorous Hollywood. Ernst Lubitsch and Sam Hoffenstein died that same year. Embittered, disgusted with Hollywood, post-war Germany, and the whole world, Sam rarely left his house. From time to time he would ask two or three intimate friends for dinner, usually a young screenwriter Elisabeth Reinhardt (no relation to Max) and me. The evening would start with martinis, of which Sam took too many; then he made us laugh with his outrageous blasphemies, uproarious improvisations and solemn Hebrew incantations. Then, invariably, he would become 'Swiftian,' aggressive and bitter, and abused everyone and everything. One morning Elisabeth rang me, in tears. Sam had phoned her at four in the morning, asking her to come; he was alone and feeling ill. When she arrived he was slumped at the telephone, dead. It was a great loss for us all.

"After so many deaths the last/ Is only the locking of an empty house," Hoffenstein wrote in Pencil in the Air. We still don't know his cause of death, but it seems heartbreak became literal. Viertel, who writes of how the Holocaust survivors she met haunted her, and whose own brother was murdered by the Nazis, understood.

If there's one unassailable fact that the Siren has discovered about Hoffenstein, who remains mysterious to her, it's that his humor was hard-won. The best wit is never the product of a light mind; it's a conscious choice made by someone who sees things with harrowing clarity:

Talent in evil
Ends on the gallows,
But genius in evil,
Avoids the shallows,
Rides currents high and free
And fashions heroes for humanity.

The Siren didn't want a death scene to be her last glimpse of a man she had taken to heart. Stubbornly she scanned each page in The Kindness of Strangers, hindered not only by the lack of an index but by Viertel's habit of referring to everybody by their given name; do you realize how many people were named "Sam" in Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s?

There's only a handful of other mentions. Viertel quotes Hoffenstein's opening "Proem" from Pencil in the Air: "Wherever I go/ I go too/ And spoil everything." And this, from shortly after she met him:

Often I wondered how this Chassidic soul landed in Hollywood, but he made a lot of money. Hoffenstein's two volumes of verse, one called In Praise of Practically Nothing [sic], had had great success and become very popular. Today, I am afraid, not many people remember them. Expressing himself in exquisite English, slightly tinged with an Irish brogue, he would surprise one by bursting into a Yiddish song or Kol Nidre and other Hebrew prayers. When intoxicated, he would improvise for hours in verse which, unfortunately, he forgot next day.

Kindness of Strangers was published in 1969, so alas, Hoffenstein was already becoming obscure by then. And it seems possible that his ode to Gloria Stuart's "Goose with Kirschwasser Aspic" was forgotten once he sobered up the next day:

I won't get up tomorrow,
Or go to bed tonight,
Unless I know the red wine
Is standing by the white.

Oh, I want the red wine,
And I want the white,
Or I'll sleep with my clothes on
Until I look a sight.

That bit is from another Edna St. Vincent Millay parody; Edna really got it in the neck from Hoffenstein. But did you spot the real mystery?

"Irish brogue."

Irish WHAT? Where did he pick that up, in Oklahoma when he met Edith? Although it does shed some light on "You've Got to See Mamma Every Night or You Can't See Mama at All (Mr. John Millington Synge interprets an American theme)".

The Siren has saved the best for last. It may, in fact, be the best picture she will ever get of what it meant to be Samuel Hoffenstein, or any other screenwriter, in Hollywood.

Viertel met him when she was working on a script for Garbo then called Marie Walewska, the story of the affair between Napoleon and a Polish countess. It later became Conquest. Viertel's script, co-written with S.N. Behrman (another brilliant "Sam") had run aground with MGM producer Bernard S. Hyman, who didn't like it and wanted it rewritten. Hyman called Viertel into a meeting.

'What do you think of Sam Hoffenstein?' he asked.

'Very highly. I love his poetry.'

'He is reading your and Behrman's script.'

A few hours later Hoffenstein burst into my office waving the blue-bound script and shouting: 'This is the best screenplay I've ever read. It's brilliant--I could not put it down! Congratulations! Where is Behrman? I must send him a telegram.'

Gottfried heard his shouting and came in. [Gottfried Reinhardt, son of Max, was Hyman's assistant and like most other European expats was a friend of Viertel's.] Hoffenstein repeated what he had said to me, adding more flattering adjectives and suggesting that we all go to Hyman. We had to tell him that not a word of the screenplay should be changed. I said that as I was involved it would be much better if he and Gottfried went alone. Ten minutes later Goldie, Hyman's blond secretary, called and said I should come to his office.

Bernie was sitting behind his desk, two girls in white uniforms attending to him, one to give him a manicure, the other a scalp treatment. He looked gloomy. 'Sam says he likes the script as it is.' Not reacting to Bernie's statement, I asked the girl who was rubbing his scalp if she could grow hair on bald spots. 'Positively, yes' she said. Bernie, now more cheerful, launched into a long explanation. He had not said 'Positively no.' He admitted that there were some good scenes and lines in the script, but it had 'no heart.' It was sophisticated and cold. It did not make you cry. When 'that man' was all alone on St. Helena--he meant Elba--waiting for 'his Empress,' and Marie arrived instead of her, 'this should bring tears into everyone's eyes.' I said that what we wanted to show was Napoleon's growing megalomania, his ruthless use of the Polish Legions without any intention of restituting their country, and Marie's disillusionment with the man she worshiped, her realization that he was an egotistical monster but whom she could not cease loving.

'If you want to feel sorry for Napoleon then let Garbo play him,' suggested Hoffenstein.

But Bernie said sternly: 'I want this film to be the best Garbo ever made,' and went off to lunch in the executive dining room.

Hoffenstein, Gottfried and I left the studio and drove to the 'Little Gipsy,' a Hungarian restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. After two martinis we felt much better and were more inclined to listen to Gottfried's analysis of Bernie's psyche. There was no use resisting: the script would be rewritten even if William Shakespeare had been its author. It was imperative for Bernie's ego to start from scratch, because that way he could get used to the story and the characters, and this always took a great length of time. 'For you and Sam and Salka,' he went on, 'it will be leisurely work, pleasant, because you like each other and Bernie is a nice man. I am sure that you can save many scenes from the Behrman script, as in the course of time Bernie will become convinced that everything has been invented under his guidance. This may seem cynical to you and a waste of money, but that's not your responsibility. The more Bernie spends, the closer he is to becoming an executive. On the other hand, if you refuse the assignment, somebody else, much less scrupulous, will tear down Berhman's and Salka's script, and suggest another story, which Garbo will reject, and we'll have to start all over again!'

'Gottfried is right,' said Hoffenstein, and called for the wine list.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Love Song of Samuel Hoffenstein

The Siren likes screenwriters; she's said that before. But there's one screenwriter she never knew had anything to do with the movies until the wonders of the Internet told her so some years back: Samuel Hoffenstein. Hoffenstein was, to the Siren, a poet. A funny poet, which is an uncommon gift.

Long ago the Siren bought a thrift-store copy of Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing, copyright 1941, originally published in 1928. Right away, the Siren felt the lure of a kindred spirit.

I'd rather listen to a flute
In Gotham, than a band in Butte.

We understood each other, Mr. Hoffenstein and I.

Now, alas, it is too late
To buy Manhattan real estate,
But when my father came to town,
He could have bought for fifty down,
And I should not be where I am:
Yet does my father give-a-damn,
Or ever say, "I'm sorry, boy,"
Or looking at me, murmur, "Oy"?
He does not grieve for what I've missed,
And yet I'm called an Anarchist!

The poems are both louche and nerdy, a combination the Siren finds as irresistible in art as she does in life. Exhibit A is a section called "The Mimic Muse": parodies of other poets, executed with the kind of precision that comes only from knowing what you're mocking really, really damn well. Here we have a favorite, "Miss Millay Says Something Too":

I want to drown in good-salt water,
I want my body to bump the pier;
Neptune is calling his wayward daughter,
Crying 'Edna, come over here!'

It's not Keats, but all the same, the Siren loves this book dearly. It has that devil-may-care Jazz Age vibe, described so well by Raymond de Felitta as "a jangly, up and down and extremely kinky sense of reality."

Some years later, upon the advent of Google, the Siren looked up Hoffenstein and discovered his other career as a screenwriter. A darned impressive career, at that.

And so the Siren loped off to find out more about Hoffenstein and found...


All right, that's an exaggeration. The Siren found the filmography and several tributes to the man's poetry. She read his Wikipedia stub, which says that Hoffenstein was born in Russia in 1890, the child of Lithuanian parents. The Siren had long ago taken a flying deductive leap and decided that the name is Jewish, and one does not have to have an overly active imagination to come up with reasons why a brilliant young Jewish man would leave Russia in the first part of the 20th century to come to the U.S. He wrote for Vanity Fair, among other outlets. Wiki claims that in addition to co-writing the book, Hoffenstein helped compose the music for the Broadway version of The Gay Divorce, a claim of which the Siren is skeptical considering the credited composer is Cole Porter, but hey, maybe. He moved to Los Angeles in 1931, wrote many screenplays and was nominated for an Oscar for Laura and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. No marriages mentioned, no kids recorded. Hoffenstein died much too soon, in 1947. The Siren can't tell you what killed him.

Any photos? Just this one, on this Website, date unknown, although the style and his evident age suggest early 1930s. If indeed this is Hoffenstein, he seems to have a bit of a self-dramatizing streak, as befits a poet. Oh no, wait; it's Maurice Chevalier. Would that amuse Hoffenstein, or annoy him no end?

The Siren went to her old friend City of Nets, and found this marvelous story about Hoffenstein's first screen credit, an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy.

Once the contracts were signed, Hoffenstein set to work writing a script, and Dreiser, who had discovered a new girl, set off with her for Cuba, leaving no forwarding address. When Hoffenstein finished his script and wanted to get Dreiser's approval, Dreiser could not be found. Paramount sent out official notices that filming would soon begin. Dreiser reappeared in New Orleans, and denounced all previous correspondence as 'the usual Hollywood swill and bunk.' He demanded the right to discuss Hoffenstein's script. With some trepidation, Hoffenstein sent his screenplay to New Orleans and asked if he could meet Dreiser there. 'IF YOU CAN DISCUSS THIS AMICABLY OTHERWISE NOT,' Dreiser wired back. Amicable as could be, Hoffenstein flew to New Orleans, to find at his hotel a note from Dreiser saying that the script was 'nothing less than an insult,' and that 'to avoid saying how deeply I feel this, I am leaving New Orleans now without seeing you. You will understand, I am sure.'

Hoffenstein understood. Paramount understood. The studio went ahead and started making the movie.

This told the Siren that Dreiser, whose Jennie Gerhardt she read in college convinced that the man wrote prose with the express intention of killing her, was at one point trying to kill his screenwriters too. But the anecdote told her little about Hoffenstein, other than that he must not have been the type to get discouraged about a little thing like a famous author throwing a hissy fit over your screenplay of his book.

The Siren combed through the rest of her film books. No luck.

The Siren ordered The Complete Poems of Samuel Hoffenstein online. When it arrived she tore into the padded envelope, convinced there'd be a magisterial introduction that would tell her about Russia and whether Edna St. Vincent Millay was p.o.'d about "The Mimic Muse" and which uncredited lines of The Wizard of Oz were Hoffenstein. The Siren cracked open the book to find--you guessed it--nothing. It's a Modern Library edition. They're wonderful books, those old Modern Library hardcovers, light and perfectly sized. But they're no-frills, and usually no intros, either.

The sensible approach was the library, of course, but the Siren isn't always sensible. Now in possession of a book that included two later poetry volumes, Year In, Year Out and Pencil in the Air, the Siren was more inclined to let biographical criticism run riot. The poems were so blatantly personal that it was more fun, and more romantic, to piece Hoffenstein together line by line. For example, he was definitely Jewish, and wrote several melancholy poems about life back in Russia and as an emigre.

A tree that walked, but never grew,
A living semblance, but a Jew,
Lost in the United States,
Lost behind the Ghetto gates,
No bird yet wingless, lost in air,
Alone and alien everywhere.

And he also (rather startling, this next bit) probably converted to Christianity.

Now I am a large and mellow,
Mild and philosophic fellow,
Of amiable thought and speech,
Sweetly disposed toward all and each,
A stanch disciple of Saint Paul,
A friend of sparrows as they fall...

He still got a kick out of teasing his poetic betters, with a 9-page, er, tribute to T.S. Eliot:

Hula, hula,
Hula, hula.
Old Mother Hubbard she made my bed.
But what good is it
Since Ivan the Terrible
The Brooklyn Bridge
And Staten Island
Fell on my head?

Hoffenstein has many poems devoted to liaisons with women, who drove him crazy

Lovely lady, who does so
All my waking haunt,
Tell me, tell me, do you know
What the hell you want?

and of whom he didn't have a terribly high opinion.

She walks in beauty, like the night
And so she should, the parasite!

By the time of Pencil in the Air, he's sadder and more serious. He writes a lot about insomnia

At night, when you should sleep, you can't sleep yet;
By day, when you shouldn't, you laugh at sheep yet...

and illness

I paid my taxes, I got sick.
The doctor said I was going quick
Of double multiple complications,
Confirmed by seven consultations.

and postwar despair.

Fear not the atom in fission;
The cradle will outwit the hearse;
Man on this earth has a mission--
To survive and go on getting worse.

Yet his filmography seems to show continuing success. And Hoffenstein was a practical sort, as poets go.

Tax me not in mournful numbers,
Come and make a total haul,
For the residue that slumbers
Is no good to me at all.

Pencil in the Air does find him finally commenting on his day job, as it were, and he felt as deeply appreciated as most screenwriters do. From "The Notebook of a Schnook":

So what happens? The usual factors--
The studio simply can't get actors,
Directors, cutters, stagehands, stages,
Or girls to type the extra pages:
The way it ends, to put it briefly,
Is what happens is nothing, briefly.

Unfortunately, none of this nailed down what the Siren wanted to know. Look at that filmography, studded with so many witty, sophisticated films: Desire. Tales of Manhattan. Lydia (the Siren adores that one). Cluny Brown.

But these are co-writing credits, and it's hard to find out which part of a screenplay came from which writer, even if it's as celebrated a duo as Brackett and Wilder. Maybe one wrote a line, and the other edited it, or flipped it, or gave it to another character. Maybe they passed the pencil back and forth a lot. Who could tell the Siren which part of a Hoffenstein screenplay was Hoffenstein? Did the man who wrote

Maid of Gotham, ere we part,
Have a hospitable heart.
Since our own delights must end,
Introduce me to your friend.

come up with this exchange in Love Me Tonight:

Jeanette MacDonald: What are you doing now?
Maurice Chevalier: I'm thinking. I'm thinking of you without these clothes.
Jeanette MacDonald: Open your eyes at once!
Maurice Chevalier: Oh no, pardon madam. With different clothes. Smart clothes.

Years after imagining A.E. Housman's doleful mien at the circus

I think of all the corpses
Worm-eaten in the shade
I cannot chew my peanuts
Or drink my lemonade.
Good God, I am afraid!

was Hoffenstein the one who had Charles Boyer tell Jennifer Jones, "In Hyde Park, some people like to feed nuts to the squirrels. But if it makes you happy to feed squirrels to the nuts, who am I to say nuts to the squirrels?"

At last the Siren checked out a database to which she has occasional access, and found a Toronto Star article from 1993, about Laura, Hoffenstein's second Oscar-nominated screenplay. The Siren knows some people don't like Laura, but as for her, it's the only Otto Preminger joint she'll drop everything to see once more. And no wonder.

Preminger remembered that Samuel Hoffenstein was imported to pep up the script. Hoffenstein practically invented the part of Waldo for Webb (adding lines like "sentiment comes easy at 50 cents a word!").

Hoffenstein was a contemporary wit of Alexander Woolcott's at the famous round table luncheons in the 1920s.

Aha! So if he wrote Waldo's part as we know it, that means Hoffenstein came up with most of the movie's best lines. And indeed, the Siren can hear it:

"I should be sincerely sorry to see my neighbor's children devoured by wolves."

"Laura, dear, I cannot stand these morons any longer. If you don't come with me this instant I shall run amok."

"My dear, either you were born in a extremely rustic community, where good manners are unknown, or you suffer from a common feminine delusion that the mere fact of being a woman exempts you from the rules of civilized conduct."

"Ordinarily, I am not without a heart...Shall I produce X-ray pictures to prove it?"

And a key scene of Laura takes place at the Algonquin, the Siren's favorite place for a quiet drink these days. Hoffenstein at the Round Table? He must have fit right in.

A delighted Siren continued, but found only one other article that didn't discuss Hoffenstein as a talented purveyor of light verse and oh-yes-he-wrote-screenplays. Still, the article was a good one: The Los Angeles Times, from 2000. Sylvia Thompson discusses the dinners her mother made at the Garden of Allah villa complex in the early 1940s. Her mother was Gloria Stuart, her father was writer Arthur Sheekman, and the guests often included Groucho Marx, Julius Epstein and Humphrey Bogart. And one more:

Cooking for writers could bring special rewards. Samuel Hoffenstein, writing the screenplay for Laura with his true love, Betty Reinhardt, composed a poem to Ma's "Goose with Kirschwasser Aspic."

The Siren at last had a scene starring Hoffenstein the man, even if it was a cameo. Enjoying himself at a wartime dinner party, composing a poem for the hard-working hostess--Kirschwasser aspic, wonder how he rhymed that. Hoffenstein would only be alive for about three more years, but he and Betty Reinhardt created the Laura script together, and Hoffenstein put Waldo's best lines on the page, and they were in love.

Of course, Hoffenstein's poetry and Hoffenstein's screenplays--no matter which lines of the latter you attribute to him--are pretty cynical. He had a sophistication that said there's no such thing as happily ever after, kiddo, so happy right now better be good enough. Laura's a fleshly movie, there's depravity in the romance--all those heedless, dissolute people rattling around the penthouses.

And if you think finding out stuff about Samuel Hoffenstein is hard, just try looking up Betty Reinhardt. Who knows, thought the Siren, maybe that affair was over as soon as someone on the Laura set called, "that's a wrap."

No--she double-checked the filmographies--surely not. All of Hoffenstein's subsequent screenplays were written with Reinhardt. Together they wrote the adapted screenplay for Cluny Brown, with its exquisitely funny declarations of love: "I would build you the most beautiful mansion, with the most exquisite and complicated plumbing. I would hand you a hammer, and say 'Ladies and Gentlemen, Madame Cluny Belinski is about to put the pipes in their place.'"

By the time they wrote that movie, Betty was credited as "Elizabeth Reinhardt." The Siren pulled out her introduction-less Modern Library edition of The Complete Poetry of Samuel Hoffenstein, and turned to the title page for Pencil in the Air, published in 1947, just after he died.

There it was below the title: "To Elizabeth."

Monday, April 08, 2013

In Memoriam: Annette Funicello, 1942-2013

"She's the perfect girl next door, she doesn't have a bad bone in her body. She's the sweetest girl I know, and nothing's ever changed."
—Frankie Avalon

"Even sitting in a wheelchair, life does not have to be perfect to be wonderful."
—Annette Funicello

The Siren isn't much for 1960s beach movies, but she always feels a pang when a truly sweet soul has passed on.

(Both quotes from Swingin' Chicks of the 60s.)

Friday, April 05, 2013

In Memoriam: Roger Ebert, 1942-2013

As certain critics age, they seem to drag around years of bad movies like ankle chains. They remind me of Gothic heros, betrayed lovers convinced virtue never existed at all. Once long ago these critics were hurt by a movie, oh yes, many movies, and now they say to each sweet young prospect, "You cannot deceive me! I know what you are!"

Roger Ebert wrote some of the most bitingly funny pans of all time, but he never went that route. He was writing raves right up to the end. Each movie held the possibility of love. He was a true romantic.

Here's how I recall an old "Tonight Show" with Jay Leno where Ebert appeared with Gene Siskel. Like many other people, I grew up with those two bickering in the balcony. Leno had the bright idea of putting soundproof headphones on one critic, so the other could tell the audience what he really thought of his partner. Ebert went first with the headphones. He put them on, paused a second, and with a grin of delight said, "Mozart!" And his hand started beating out a little conducting session.

Leno asked Siskel, so what do you really think of this guy? And Siskel replied calmly, "First of all, I'm a much better critic than he is." The audience roared. Leno cracked up. Even with headphones on, it should have been obvious to Ebert that something was up.

Except he was still conducting. I'm not even sure he turned his head. He was listening to Mozart. Art mattered to him.

Many film writers owe a debt to Ebert. Mine comes from what must have been a 1983 "At the Movies" broadcast. He and Siskel were doing a rundown on the Academy Awards, one of those "If We Picked the Winners" shows.

I don't remember Siskel's choice (although it might have been E.T.). But Ebert chose Tootsie. "It's an almost perfect comedy," he said. Gandhi was going to win, he predicted, "but which movie do you think you'll still want to see in 20 years?"

My kid mind reeled. I'd seen Gandhi, and I'd seen Tootsie. I loved Tootsie, but it was about Dustin Hoffman in drag. Gandhi had Ben Kingsley. Bald Ben Kingsley. With an accent. Bald Ben Kingsley getting assassinated. Gandhi was--OK, it was stuffy. But it was serious. That's what wins Oscars. Right?

In roundabout fashion, Roger Ebert had introduced me to the notion of white elephant art, years before I ever heard the name Manny Farber. He'd also planted the idea that if you had a blast watching a movie, that alone meant it was worth some serious thought.

I haven't watched Gandhi since 1982. Tootsie I've seen several times. Think I'll watch it this weekend.

Rest in peace, Mr. Ebert. You were right about many things.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Rat Pack Rashomon

The Siren has not forgotten her more-patient-than-ever readers, truly she hasn't. It's just that lately her life resembles this:

But she will never abandon her little corner of the Web. (Here the Siren wants everyone to remember the Alamo—specifically, Laurence Harvey making sure the sun catches his ruffles just right.)

Where else can the Siren blather on about Mary Astor's invention of pan-chromatic makeup and Vera Zorina in I Was an Adventuress? It's just that when the irresistible force of life meets the immovable object of work, something's gotta give, something's gotta give, something's gotta give.

Which brings us to this post, involving a man who did rather a good version of that song.

The Siren has been reading The Richard Burton Diaries. You could say, in fact, that the Siren has been obsessing over the Burton diaries. Her only reading time is on the subway, the dadgum thing weighs almost as much as her six-year-old, and yet the Siren lugs it back and forth because she does not want to let it go. The Diaries made her want to revisit some Burton movies (the good ones)—maybe even try out Burton as Trotsky because damn, the part about filming that one is funny. The whole book is delightful—very sad in some ways, but a marvelous picture of a restless, fiercely intelligent mind.

And lord have mercy, how he gossips. Evidently the only person who read it while he was writing it was Elizabeth Taylor, and so he feared no backlash. (Not even from her.) If the Siren tells you that this is, no lie, the only book she's ever read in which someone had a bad word to say about Audrey Hepburn, you'll get the general idea. It's weirdly enhanced by the most maniacal footnotes the Siren has ever encountered, via Professor Chris Williams. Par exemple: if the Burtons stay "at the Plaza Athénée," you get a note elaborating: "Hotel Plaza Athénée, Avenue Montaigne, Paris." The Siren at this point loves Williams almost as much as Burton.

The Siren adores how Burton chronicles his incredibly voracious reading habits in great detail, and she was immediately caught by his acerbic dissection of a certain nostalgic passage in David Niven's The Moon's a Balloon. The two sections, side by side, give a mirror-image view of Hollywood glamour, the Rat Pack, Sinatra, Bogart, and especially Burton and Niven themselves.

But they are quite, quite different. So, we'll give Niv the first word.

It was the 4th of July and Bogart had taken what Niven says was the highly unusual step of inviting women aboard his celebrated yacht, the Santana. That meant David Niven brought along his wife Hjordis (possibly the most universally disliked Hollywood spouse of that or any era, but that's a whole other post, at least). So Lauren Bacall (I do not call the goddess Miss Bacall "Betty" as I have never been introduced) came along to keep Hjordis company. Bacall had her hands full. As Niven tells it,

We dropped anchor in Cherry Cove and Frank Sinatra moored alongside us in a chartered motor cruiser with several beautiful girls and a small piano. After dinner, with Jimmy Van Heusen accompanying him, Sinatra began to sing. He sang all night.

There were many yachts in Cherry Cove that weekend, and by two in the morning, under a full moon, Santana was surrounded by an audience sitting in dozens and dinghies and rubber tenders of every shape and size.

Frank sang as only he can, with his monumental talent and exquisite phrasing undimmed by a bottle of Jack Daniels on top of the piano.

He sang till the dew came down heavily and the boys in the listening fleet fetched blankets for their girls' shoulders. He sang till the moon and the stars paled in the predawn sky. Only then did he stop and only then did the awed and grateful audience peddle silently home.

Now we shall let Burton have his say.

I read David Niven's autobiography yesterday in one sitting. It is very funny though not very well written and is, like all actors' biographies, very anecdotal and full of "and then Mike Todd called me and said 'Get your ass over here'" etc. He describes one scene on Bogart's yacht which is not what happened at all as I was there. He describes Sinatra singing all through the night on a motor yacht with a lot of other yachts around 'awe-struck' he says. Frankie did sing all through the night it's true and a lot of people sat around in boats and and got drunk it's true but Bogie and I went out lobster-potting with Dumbum [Bogart's Danish crewman, according to the every-ready Prof. Williams] while Frankie was singing kept on making cracks about Betty [Bacall] sitting on Sinatra's feet etc. and Frankie got really pissed off with Bogie and David Niv who describes himself as bewitched all through the night was trying to set fire to the Santana at one point because nobody could stop Francis from going on and on and on. I was drinking 'boiler-makers' with Bogie Rye Whiskey with canned beer chasers so the night is pretty vague but I seem to remember a girl having a fight with her husband or boy friend in a rowing dinghy and being thrown in the water by her irate mate. I don't know why but I would guess that she wanted to stay and listen to Frankie and he wanted to go. And Bogie and Frankie nearly came to blows next day about the singing the night before and I drove Betty home because she was so angry with Bogie's cracks about Frankie's singing. At the time Frankie was out of work and was peculiarly vulnerable and Bogie was unnecessarily cruel. But any way it is not at all like Niv's description.

So, the Siren asks the same question as in Kurosawa's great movie: out of these, which is believable?