Monday, August 19, 2013

Heaven Can Wait (1943): The Lubitsch Touch of Crime

Heaven Can Wait (1943) is one of the Siren's favorite Lubitsch films, which means in turn that it is one of her favorite films, period. It was made at 20th Century Fox, which you'd also know just from the title card above. (On Twitter, Comrade Lou Lumenick once asked if Darryl Zanuck had a needlepoint artist on salary; you could tell who were the real classic-movie hounds just by looking at who found that hilarious enough to retweet.) Fox films aren't part of the Turner library and they have only begun screening at Turner Classic Movies in the past few years. Rejoice, Heaven Can Wait makes its TCM debut this Saturday at 6 pm EDT, part of the TCM Summer Under the Stars day dedicated to Charles Coburn.

To celebrate this event, the Siren has slightly spruced up a 2006 post about this movie and offers it here. The intervening years have only strengthened her conviction that Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait is the wisest commentary on marital happiness that she has ever seen.

Last weekend the Siren escaped, with her family and a dear friend, up the Hudson River to a country house. The local rental place had Heaven Can Wait (1943), a movie so delicious the Siren would eat it with a spoon if she could. It has probably been twenty years since she saw this one, and here it was, restored to dazzling beauty by the Criterion Collection. (The DVD does have a few oddly faded sequences; from Daryl Chin via DVDBeaver, here is a good, but depressing, explanation of why this is so.)

Amazing what Ernst Lubitsch could get from actors who seldom shone as bright elsewhere. Kay Francis gave the performance of her career in Trouble in Paradise; Jack Benny, so great in radio and TV, never equalled To Be Or Not to Be on screen. The immensely likable Don Ameche was a second-string star all his life, but in Heaven Can Wait you could swear you were watching one of the greatest light comic actors of all time. Gene Tierney, young and a bit tremulous as Ameche's great love, does fine work showing her character's gathering strength.

Arrayed around them are a group of ferociously funny character actors. Lubitsch probably didn't have to work all that hard to get brilliance from these pros, but Samson Raphaelson's script gives them so much to work with; even the child actors playing young Henry and his schoolgirl sweethearts are excellent.

There is Laird Cregar, the sinister detective in I Wake Up Screaming, here playing a Satan so sophisticated and well-dressed that the Siren's host asked, "is that Anton Walbrook?" Henry Van Cleve (Ameche) goes to Hell (and a very elegant Hell it is, too, decorated in what appears to be Deco's Last Gasp) and attempts to explain to His Excellency why he deserves eternal damnation. His Excellency, for his part, sits down to vet Henry, since he doesn't want the place getting all touristy. "Sometimes it seems as though the whole world is coming to Hell," he laments.

Charles Coburn plays Hugo Van Cleve, living vicariously through his grandson's peccadillos; and Allyn Joslyn is Cousin Albert, with looks and demeanor reminiscent of Ralph Reed.

Excellent exchange, mid-movie:

Albert: The family understands your humor, but it's a typical kind of New York humor.
Hugo: In other words, it's not for yokels.

We have Eugene Pallette as Tierney's Kansas City pa. The Siren hereby issues a big mea culpa for not mentioning Pallette in her post about voices. There is no one, absolutely no one with a voice like this actor's any more. If you put a double bass through a cement mixer, you might get the voice of Eugene Pallette. He and Marjorie Main have the Siren's favorite scene in the movie, a fierce dispute at the marital breakfast table over who gets to read the Katzenjammer Kids. The butler Jasper, forced to mediate between the warring funny-paper fans, was played by the great, pioneering actor Clarence Muse. Mercifully, he has no "humorous" dialect tics or cutesy gestures. Instead, he's just as funny as the two flashier actors at either end of the table: "I've got great news..."

What makes this movie as sophisticated and challenging as it was in 1943 is Lubitsch and Raphaelson's thrillingly adult view of marriage. It's not the Pecksniffian view of adultery rampaging through every editorial page circa 1998, but the wry, Continental take that says I have been faithful, in my fashion. Couples and the remnants of couples swirl through the movie, pursuing all sorts of marriages in all sorts of ways. Henry's grandfather Hugo (Coburn) was, we suspect, entirely faithful, and rather wishes he hadn't been. Henry's parents are loving but rather daffy, and not very aware of what their son is up to — in the Lubitsch/Raphaelson view, this is not at all a bad way to raise a child.

For proof, compare the lovable Henry to his perfect prig of a cousin, Albert, whose briefly glimpsed parents seem completely in tune with one another's stiffness and reserve. Later, Henry and wife Martha (Tierney) raise another child much as Henry was raised, and that son turns out all right, too. Martha, for her part, has homespun middle-American parents who barely speak to one another, and Martha is the most purely good character in the movie. So much for the sins of the fathers.

The question of infidelity, and where that sin ranks in the hierarchy, is treated so obliquely that not every modern viewer picks up on it. Infidelity, in a Lubitsch movie, barely registers on the sin-o-meter. The worst crime of all is to be a bore. But the sour old souls at the Breen Office would never, but never, have countenanced a movie that says philandering won't get you a permanent berth with His Excellency. So Henry's indiscretions are never spelled out. Lubitsch just implies them all over the place.

When Henry goes to retrieve his wife from her parent's cow-bedecked Kansas mansion, it's clear what he is trying to explain away, and why Martha has tired of his act. "Oh, Henry, I know your every move," she sighs. "I know your outraged indignation. I know the poor weeping little boy. I know the misunderstood, strong, silent man, the worn-out lion who is too proud to explain what happened in the jungle last night." The mere fact that Martha is back home tells you her discontent had been building for a while, since Kansas doesn't even get the respect accorded Hell. "I didn't want to be an old maid, not in Kansas," Tierney had wailed earlier, trying to explain why she'd gotten herself engaged to Albert the stuffed shirt.

Still, it's that same Albert who gets to articulate something pretty close to the movie's core idea: "Marriage isn't a series of thrills. Marriage is a peaceful, well-balanced adjustment of two right-thinking people." Responds Martha, uncharacteristically tart, "I'm afraid that's only too true." Yet she and Henry achieve that balance, by putting off any notion of heavenly perfection in a marriage.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Four From Allan Dwan

The Museum of Modern Art's Allan Dwan series is over, and the Siren managed to see nine films there over the course of little more than a month (and one film on DVD, which she'll explain). Ever since, she's been trying to clear space and time to write about it. The Siren finally decided it was best to do it simply. Those wanting a deep, director-focused look at Dwan, including cogent arguments for his status in film history, should go to the Allan Dwan Dossier so lovingly compiled by Gina Telaroli and David Phelps. Here, the Siren is going to tell you a few things that she noticed, and mostly loved, about Allan Dwan. These are the first four; she'll write up the others later, time and other obsessions permitting as always.

The Restless Breed (1957)
The one and only lemon. It was shot in Technicolor but MOMA screened a black-and-white print, which was evidently what they could get. (Sweethearts on Parade, which Dave Kehr wrote up for the dossier and the Siren didn't see, had the same fate.) There are some well-composed scenes of riders against landscapes, which would probably look even better in Technicolor; and young Anne Bancroft looked great. But it was a strange, strange movie, with a peeping-Tom motif of Scott Marlowe (whom Dwan described as "a very hammy young guy") peering in windows and eavesdropping and putting his eye up to knotholes. These scenes start to feel like half the running time and became indescribably creepy and wearisome to the Siren. Also, there is a reverend character, played by Rhys Williams, who seems upstanding, except that more than once, he's shown with sweat beading his brow as he stares at a ludicrous portrait of a flamenco-dancing Bancroft. (Said flamenco-pin-up is on the poster above, with the blazing heart of Texas flaming right out of it. I rest my case.) In Dwan's must-read interview with Peter Bogdanovich in Who the Devil Made It, Dwan said the girly shots were inserted by the producer over Dwan's loud protests. This was a relief to know, since having the reverend stare at a woman who's got her skirt hiked up to the Oklahoma border and is leaning back in a way that's about to provide an encyclopedia illustration of "roundheel" does rather undermine his other designated script function as the moral center of the movie.

Slightly Scarlet (1956)
The Siren was shut out of this screening and was so mad about it that she went home and ordered the DVD forthwith. As it happened, while she liked it was far from the Siren's favorite in the series, mostly due to John Payne's John Payne-ness. He doesn't ruin the film, but he doesn't have that certain oomph a noir (anti)hero needs, that sense of some dirt under the fingernails or an empty bottle of rye under the bed. Lawrence Tierney, Charles McGraw, Richard Conti, take your pick--hell, even Cornel Wilde could have snapped Payne like a piece of dental floss. Rhonda Fleming, on the other hand, had earthy good-egg qualities Dwan understood and exploited well. Like the late Jane Russell, nature gave Fleming bombshell looks so outrageous they somehow bypass "I'm trouble" and wind up as "everyone's pin-up pal." Arlene Dahl was pleasingly tacky in a performance that nicely blurs the distinction between dumb and crazy. The colors, via John Alton, were marvelous, barely on the right side of kitschy, exactly right for a milieu with plenty of dough and no taste. The living room in the bad guy's lodge is so vast it's like watching shootouts staged in a hockey rink (that's a good thing). A lot of Dwan's sets are improbably large, with a big clearing in the middle; it gives his action scenes plenty of room to breathe. 

Bonus: The French title ("Two Redheads in a Fight"). Also, indulging the Siren's passion for movie posters that do not resemble the film in any way.

Trail of the Vigilantes (1940) 
Franchot Tone in a Western sounds like a bad joke, but this is a comedy anyway. He's well suited to his character, an Easterner who, like Destry the year before, is not quite the tenderfoot he seems. Wonderful use of character actors, including Broderick Crawford and Warren William, both of whom sound equally as Eastern as Tone--a choice that makes sense for a plot that is all about appearance vs. reality. The Siren's biggest laugh came with Mischa Auer, playing a carnival performer who's disguised himself as an aristocratic Southern lawyer, announces that he's the representative of "Hayes, Hayes, Hayes and [epic throat-clearing] Hayes." The stunts and the riding are breathtaking, although the telltale signs of tripwires distressed the Siren. Peggy Moran plays the cute-as-a-cap-pistol rancher's daughter, who's identified as being 17 to Franchot Tone's whatever (in 1940 he was 35). Everyone jokes about this, and Moran throws herself at Tone (and I don't mean that metaphorically) but Dwan stages the antics with such a light touch that it doesn't feel sleazy; not much, anyway.

Aside: Moran had a short career, largely because she married director Henry Koster in 1942. The Siren ran across this, from a late-life interview with Moran, and had to include it:

My husband told me that if I quit my 'so-called career,' he would make sure my face was in every one of his future films. I thought that was a pretty good proposition. Except his idea was to have a bust of me [by Yucca Salamunich] which he afterwards placed somewhere in all of his movies. So the next time you watch The Bishop's Wife, Harvey or The Robe, look for my head.
Tennessee's Partner (1955)
Oh looky here, a Western with a very good performance by Ronald Reagan--Peter Bogdanovich calls it Reagan's most likable work. Reagan plays the no-name Cowpoke, a man who's meant to embody simple decency, somebody who does the right thing because the wrong thing never even pops into his brain. The actor was 44, about 20 years older than Cowpoke's supposed to be, but Reagan was so good at playing naive that his casting didn't bother the Siren. The attachment between Cowpoke and Tennessee (John Payne, in a role that suits him much more) feels sincerely romantic. As is often the case in later Dwan movies, the women (especially Rhonda Fleming as "the Duchess") are the ones with their heads screwed on straight. The Siren loved the way Dwan's camera sneaks around the poker games in Fleming's house of ill repute, turning the audience into one of Rhonda Fleming's "girls" trying to have a peek at what the men are, um, holding. The parlor in the place is also huge and sparsely furnished, giving Dwan plenty of room to have a mob storm across it. This movie also indulged the Siren's love for goofy theme songs in non-musicals. The title song's called "Heart of Gold" (hold the Neil Young jokes, please) and it's sung over the opening credits, as well as by Fleming as she takes a bubble bath. Plus Coleen Gray, so sweet and innocent in Nightmare Alley, playing the money-grubbing Goldie. Gray has a marvelous response to the sign on the Duchess' front door: "Marriage Market." The whole movie has a mixture of practicality (isn't that sign truth in advertising?) and idealism (Cowpoke) that feels very Dwan. Bonus: 

The French title ("Marriage Is For Tomorrow") 

and the Belgian title ("City of Pleasures").

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Want to See Rediscovered Orson Welles Footage? You Can. Here's How

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! Lost footage from Orson Welles has been discovered.

It is not, alas, the original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons, but it is pretty goshdarned magnificent all the same. As the great Dave Kehr writes in his must-read announcement at the New York Times, this is early Welles, made at age 23 just before Citizen Kane: about 40 minutes of footage that Welles intended to be shown before each act of a Gay Nineties farce called Too Much Johnson.

(Go on, get the giggles out of your system. The Siren will wait patiently. Welles, who had a wicked sense of humor, probably loved the idea of people like the Siren blushing every time they wrote out that ridiculously risque title.)

Now perhaps, like the Siren, you've been reading My Lunches with Orson and feeling sad about the projects he was never able to make. Undoubtedly you feel frustrated about the works like Don Quixote that are out of reach, snatched away from your eager cinephile grasp like a lunchroom bully appropriating your plastic baggy full of cookies. Eagerly you seize upon this news and say "When, o when can I view this? Dave Kehr says that the frames that are online already show evidence of Welles' genius, with 'strong, close-cropped compositions, powerful diagonals and insistent, ironic use of the “heroic angle”!' It stars Joseph Cotten, who also stars in my daydreams!"

Never fear, the National Film Preservation Foundation is here. They too want us all to see this, as they wanted us to see The White Shadow, where so many worked so hard to raise the funds to get that hitherto lost piece of Alfred Hitchcock's filmography online and available for viewing.

Click here for the NFPF site, where they are collecting funds to do the same for Too Much Johnson. Later this year, they want to put this early work, from one of the greatest artists this country ever produced, online for every Tom, Dick and Harriet to view.

It's being shown in October in Pordenone, Italy, as part of a festival called Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, but most of us are nowhere near there. If the local Octoplex were showing this, surely Sirenistas would happily fork over a tenner to see it. So look at this the same way. At the very least, give the NFPF the $10 ($14 in Manhattan) or so you'd have spent on a ticket. Contribute, and help them get this online. The Siren will thank you, everyone will thank you, and you will get a tangible reward: the ability to see an Orson Welles movie that's been hidden for decades.

Please, go, and give generously.

(The still of Joseph Cotten is from Too Much Johnson, and the top photo of breathtaking young Orson Welles was taken on set. More are viewable at the NFPF.)