Monday, December 16, 2013

In Memoriam: Joan Fontaine, 1917-2013

Being a woman, I have found the road rougher than had I been born a man. Different defenses, different codes of ethics, different approaches to problems and personalities are a woman's lot. I have preferred to shun what is known as feminine wiles, the subterfuge of subtlety, reliance on tears and coquetry to shape my way. I am forthright, often blunt. I have learned to be a realist despite my romantic, emotional nature. I have no illusions that age, the rigors of my profession, disappointments, and unfulfilled dreams have not left their mark.

I am proud that I have carved my path on earth almost entirely by my own efforts, proud that I have compromised in my career only when I had no other recourse, when financial or contractual commitments dictated. Proud that I have never been involved in a physical liaison unless I was deeply attracted or in love. Proud that, whatever my worldly goods may be, they have been achieved by my own labors.
Joan Fontaine, No Bed of Roses

I have written many times about Joan Fontaine, but at the moment I’m sad about the movies I never wrote about while she was still with us. Such as The Constant Nymph, in which Fontaine plays a teenage girl, Tessa, who is deeply in love with the adult composer played by Charles Boyer. Fontaine’s performance walks a delicate line. Tessa’s feelings have all the force of an adult woman’s, perhaps even more because first love is always such a cataclysmic thing. At the same time, Tessa is only 14 when the action begins, and Fontaine (25 at the time) plays her innocence in a way that makes it natural that Boyer wouldn’t realize what is going on until quite late in the game. Without Fontaine’s acting, the entire movie loses its romantic glow.

And there’s Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, where Fontaine is a lonely nurse, living by herself in London just after the war's end. And what should climb her through her window one night but godlike masculinity in the form of Burt Lancaster. Fontaine reacts (naturally) with fear, but as she warily eyes this fugitive, there's also a dazed recognition that life has abruptly dropped pure, animal sex appeal right into her bedroom. The film is, despite the pulpy title, a noir love story more than anything. Fontaine has a later scene where she’s set to meet Lancaster, and she looks in the mirror, debating with herself over whether her hat is too dowdy. Played without a word, this little scene tells you all you need to know about her character’s desires, and her inner conflict about whether or not to indulge them.

“If Joan Fontaine does not presently attain real stardom, this is because she looks, behaves and dresses like that extraordinarily unfashionable thing, a lady. And by that I mean the properly nurtured daughter of gentlefolk,” wrote James Agate, in a review of Suspicion. This exceedingly British observation has truth: Indeed, Fontaine was nearly always ladylike, even when she was, say, poisoning her bothersome husband in Ivy. But that didn’t mean she was sexless — far from it. Not in life, and certainly not on screen. The desire that a proper lady feels for an improper man is just as strong as the lust of a temptress.

And it takes perhaps more courage for a lady to speak up for herself, to reach out for what she wants. Think of Fontaine’s character in Rebecca, stepping forward to call Maxim de Winter back from the cliff. Think of her standing up to Mrs. Van Hopper, and later even to Mrs. Danvers: “I am Mrs. de Winter now.” Joan Fontaine made you cheer for such small triumphs.

She had courage and intelligence in her own life. I would like people to remember, when paying tribute to Letter From an Unknown Woman, that we have that great movie because Joan Fontaine put its elements together. She chose the Stefan Zweig story because, she said, she wanted something that would appeal to women. It was produced by her joint venture, Rampart Productions, which she ran with her husband at the time, William Dozier, and released through Universal. She was instrumental in getting Max Ophuls to direct.

The Internet is speckled with people who find it ridiculous to grieve at the death of a 96-year-old movie star. That’s a good run, they say. For goodness sakes, did you expect her to live forever? And besides, did you know her?

No, I didn’t know her. But when I watched Rebecca, Suspicion, Ivy, The Constant Nymph, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, Jane Eyre, A Damsel in Distress, Born to Be Bad, Something to Live For, Gunga Din, The Women, September Affair, Island in the Sun, Frenchman’s Creek, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, Ivanhoe, Darling How Could You?, Until They Sail, and Letter From an Unknown Woman, I felt a little flame of happiness that Joan Fontaine was still alive somewhere. I feel colder without it.

Here are a few of the things I have written over the years about Joan Fontaine.

A birthday post from 2007 that includes the one personal story I have to tell about her.

Joan's autobiography, No Bed of Roses, and some early films, including Blond Cheat.

Rebecca and Suspicion, and a bit about her small role in The Women

Born to Be Bad

Something to Live For

A personal favorite: the little-known, wonderful Ivy

Frenchman's Creek

This one has a brief, but delightful, anecdote about why dating Adlai Stevenson didn't work out.

There's a bit about her marriage to Brian Aherne in an essay about his autobiography, A Proper Job.

Letter From an Unknown Woman

(The banner, courtesy of Zach Campbell, is the hat scene from Kiss the Blood Off My Hands.)

Sunday, December 15, 2013

In Memoriam: Peter O'Toole, 1932-2013

He suffered from his eyes; he had eight operations on his left eye alone. He also suffered from intestinal trouble and relieved the pain by drinking. He adopted the persona of the professional Irishman, and became noted for such eccentricities as never going out with his front door keys. “I just hope some bastard’s in,” he said.
— Kevin Brownlow, David Lean: A Biography

The most important influence in my life has been David Lean. I graduated in Lean, took my BA in Lean, working with him virtually day and night for two years. I learned about the camera and the lens and the lights, and now I know more than some directors do.
— Peter O’Toole, quoted in Brownlow.

…"I forget the sequence, but Peter pulled out his bag of tricks and absolutely stunned Willy. Really stunned him. Willy said, ‘Cut. Take. One protection shot.’ Then he burst out laughing and went over to him. ‘Pete,’ he said, ‘you did it to me.’ They really got along.”
— Jules Buck, O’Toole’s friend and business partner, talks about the making of How to Steal a Million, directed by William Wyler; quoted in Jan Herman’s A Talent for Trouble. [NB: This, and not Lawrence of Arabia, was the Siren’s introduction to O’Toole. And if you have no love for this caper, that’s all right, because the Siren has enough to compensate.]

He's read books, you know, it's amazing. He's drunk and wenched his way through London but he's thinking all the time.
— O’Toole as Henry II in Becket

I've snapped and plotted all my life. There's no other way to be alive, king, and fifty all at once.
— O’Toole as Henry II in The Lion in Winter

He can do anything. A bit cuckoo, but sweet and terribly funny.
— Katharine Hepburn, 1981

…”Your pal O’Toole,” he said, "has been murdered by the English critics.” “For what?” asked I. "For Macbeth,” said he. I phoned Peter that night as soon as the hours were right and managed to catch him before he’d left the Old Vic. I said, “a couple of boys from the BBC were over today to record my voice and they told me you’ve had a bit of stick from the critics.” “Yes.” “How are the houses?” I asked. “Packed.” “Then remember this my boy,” I said (he is 4 years younger), “you are the most original actor to come out of Britain since the war and fuck the critics.”
The Richard Burton Diaries, Sept. 23, 1980

You constantly amaze me. You don't go to movies. What are you, a communist?
—O’Toole as Eli Cross in The Stunt Man (a performance he based on David Lean)

Since Masada and The Stunt Man, I’ve become madly partial to Peter O’Toole. I don’t know if he’s the best actor in the world, but I think he’s the most lordly, the most generous and pleasure-giving. When My Favorite Year ends with a shot of Alan Swann saluting the studio aduience by waving his sword in the air, the slow regal sweep of that wave itself seems like a bestowal of greatness. Without Peter O’Toole, My Favorite Year would have been an unassuming little item, but with him it tosses gleams with Shakespearean pluck and vigor, looses stray shafts of daring and mischief. The moist, hard-won gratitude in O’Toole’s eyes at the end of the movie becomes an emblem of happiness, his, and ours. Never say that the struggle naught availeth.
— James Wolcott, “Your Flick of Flicks,” in Critical Mass

“You know…” [Harris] scruffled his beard. ‘He told me— Peter O’Toole told me— last week, it was. Well...I t-t-hink it was.” He reflected a moment. “Isn’t that great, to be alive while everyone else thinks you’ve clogged it?”
— Richard Harris, 1999; quoted in Blow-Up and Other Exaggerations by David Hemmings

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Lost and Found: American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive

Wednesday morning, the Library of Congress released a report by David Pierce, representing five years of research and writing, on the state of American studio silent-film preservation. Abridged version: It ain’t good.

The Siren, whose love for melodrama does occasionally spill over into real life, wrote a 500-word jeremiad on this topic, complete with quotes from Louise Brooks, Kevin Brownlow, William K. Everson, Arcadia by Tom Stoppard and (no kidding) King Lear, plus a pungent aside about an actress who recently thought it was cute to boast about how she’s not going to watch a “black-and-white, freaking boring fucking silent movie.”

But the Siren realized that she was repeating herself, and like the outlets that reported on this study, the Siren was partially burying the lead. We already knew that a lot has been lost, and Pierce has done a heroic job of mapping precise figures.

But Pierce's report concludes with a plan for the future: an all-out trawl through the world’s archives for what’s left. (Please do read the entire thing here.)

Isn’t that goal better, and more productive, than drawing the shades, putting an ice pack on your forehead, and wondering if the afterlife will have a screening of Four Devils and The Queen of Sheba?

To that end, and because it’s early December still, the Siren requests with all the sweetness at her disposal that you consider putting Lost and Found: American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive on your holiday-shopping list. Better yet, get a free copy by making a tax-deductible donation of $200 more to the NFPF.

What are Mr. Pierce and his colleagues hoping to find when they encourage archives and collectors to examine their film holdings? THIS kind of stuff.

Back in 2010 we heard about the cache of silent films discovered in New Zealand. Our film-preservation blogathon raised money to restore The Better Man and The Sergeant. The third blogathon we did raised money both to stream online and record the music for The White Shadow, the British silent that had Alfred Hitchcock as its assistant director and general meddler-in-chief. Three reels of this previously long-lost film were in the New Zealand stash that has been repatriated.

There were, in the final analysis, 176 films recovered through the National Film Preservation Foundation’s collaboration with the New Zealand Film Archive. Of those, 70% had been previously thought lost forever. The NFPF's Treasures series has focused on putting previously not-on-home-video films before the public.

This approximately three-hour DVD ups the ante; it offers films that until four years ago were thought to be gone for good. It’s a lovely thing, with a long and detailed booklet that includes essays on the historical context and background of each film, as well suggestions for further viewing. They are also presented with new music by Michael Mortilla and Donald Sosa. Let’s take a look at what’s there.

The White Shadow (1924; director Graham Cutts; Assistant Director/Screenwriter/Editor/Set Designer: Alfred Hitchcock) This turns out to be, at least in the three reels we have, a melodrama involving the good twin/bad twin dichotomy that movies have always gotten so much mileage out of. Nancy Brent (Betty Compson) returns from abroad to her family home, after winning the heart of Robin (Clive Brook) who’s also on the ship. Nancy’s sweet twin Georgina (also Compson) is waiting at the family manse, along with their alcoholic martinet of a father. Nancy runs away out of what’s billed in the intertitles as boredom and poor impulse control, although dear old Dad is no one the Siren would stick around with, either. Georgina pursues her sister. In Paris, Georgina encounters Robin and pretends to be Nancy, thus instantly becoming more interesting, and she falls in love with Robin. The film ends as Nancy appears in a Paris club (called The Cat Who Laughs) where Georgina and Robin are having a drink. The surviving notes indicate that the plot, which was none too lucid already, veers into what Marilyn of Ferdy on Films calls “Victorian mysticism with the supernatural restoration of Nancy’s soul.” The Siren though Nancy already had plenty of soul, and surely Hitchcock must have favored the bad twin too, whatever the plot conventions he was observing. Best scene: the club, definitely, from the close-up of that cat statue to the wide-spaced tables, all of them full of people sipping questionable drinks and eyeing unsuitable partners. It’s a wonderful peek at Graham Cutts, an important figure in the early British film world, and of course, it’s a vital bit of Hitchcock juvenilia, allowing us to see how he was learning on the job.

Upstream (1927, director John Ford)
This was, even more than The White Shadow, the discovery that had filmdom buzzing--a lost film from John Ford, with only a bit of footage missing. It has no real stars and is not part of Ford’s pantheon, but it’s a lovely film all the same, a gentle study of the community found in a theatrical boarding house. The group’s ties to one another transcend all sorts of artificial barriers; for example, the vaudeville duo of Callahan and Callahan is very obviously made up of one Irishman and one Jew. In the end, the good people of the boarding house even overcome their greatest barrier: The actor’s natural antipathy toward other actors.

Lyman H. Howe’s Famous Ride on a Runaway Train (1921)
Can the Siren confess that this is her personal favorite? Howe would tour with this and screen it like an amusement-park ride. The Siren isn’t comparing this short to John Ford, but goodness it’s fun, six minutes of a train ride up and down mountains and over tall impressive bridges. The beginning is leisurely, then a card announces that the train is “RUNNING AWAY” and everything speeds up to a pitch so intense you need Bernard Herrmann to score it. One of the first title cards accompanies a little boy and it reads, “My daddy is the engineer.” If Daddy is the engineer, then Daddy needs to be fired, assuming he’s not dead. This short subject’s discovery meant it could be shown with its soundtrack disc, which was already in the Library of Congress.

Happy-Go-Luckies (1923; animator Paul Terry, and according to the DVD notes, “with Frank M. Grosser, Hugh M. “Jerry” Shields, and probably Milt Gross, all uncredited”)
The animated tale of a dog and a cat, homeless and riding the rails, who enter a snooty dog show for the prize money. Describing animation is not the Siren’s forte, but this one’s adorable, and of the shorts, her fondness for it is second only to the certifiably crazy Runaway Train.

Birth of a Hat (ca. 1920)
An industrial film from the Stetson company, this opens with the history of hats and moves on to the initial stages of making a fur-felt hat at its enormous factory in Philadelphia. Hint: there are no pelts at all used in a fedora. Probably not a great choice for the animal-lovers, but readers who love fashion history, or fedoras, will be agog.

The Love Charm (1928, director Howard Mitchell)
All of us can name an actor we secretly know can’t act worth a hoot, but is so damn beautiful we not-so-secretly don’t care. This color one-reeler is exactly like that for the Siren. It’s utter tosh about the South Sea Islands (and the Siren has written before about being allergic to island idylls) complete with a remarkably silly tacked-on racist bit of exposition about how it’s OK for the Great White Captain to fall in love with the maiden because she’s half-white. But the Siren would watch again in a heartbeat, because the color is beyond breathtaking, and the state of the recovered footage must have been near-pristine. You never saw such lovely Technicolor tosh in your life.

Andy’s Stump Speech (1924, director Norman Taurog)
Yes, that Norman Taurog, who moved on to an Oscar and movies like Boys Town with Spencer Tracy in the 1930s, to Martin and Lewis in the 1950s, to Elvis Presley in the 1960s. The Siren had never seen Joe Murphy, the utterly chinless, rail-thin actor playing Andy Gump, but he’s a fine physical comedian, never more so than when he wins a dance contest due to bumblebees in his underwear. Other highlights include a really surreal shot of Andy, suddenly giant and striding across buildings.

Won in a Cupboard (1914, director Mabel Normand)
Another important find in the New Zealand stash: this, the earliest surviving film written and directed by Mabel Normand. It is typical Keystone fare, the story of a rural lass whose courtship with a local milksop is interrupted first by bullies, and then by the fact that their parents get stuck together in a closet. No, the Siren can’t explain that second bit much better than that. It’s very simply shot, mostly focused on keeping all parts of a gag in frame, but there is (out of nowhere, and it’s never repeated) a sudden shot of the lovers walking toward one another in split-screen, until they meet in the middle. Normand was 21 when this was made. If the world were kinder to women artists, it’s easy to imagine that she might have moved behind the camera when scandal limited her value in front of it.

The Active Life of Dolly of the Dailies: Episode 5, "The Chinese Fan" (1914, director Walter Edwin)
Speaking of women and their careers, this is an episode of a serial about an intrepid girl reporter. Dolly is played by the highly appealing Mary Fuller, who looks like an everyday sort of woman until she starts busting up white-slavery rings. What’s particularly fun about this from a feminist point of view is that it’s Dolly who performs all the derring-do. The guys just follow her around and congratulate her for saving the day.

There are also a number of newsreels and previews, including one for Strong Boy, a Ford silent that remains lost. Of the newsreels, the Siren was bowled over by the two-minute fragment Virginia Types: Blue Ridge Mountaineers, a hand-tinted glimpsed of a long-gone rural community.

Buying this DVD for yourself or the film-history connoisseur on your list naturally also supports the National Film Preservation Foundation. And supporting good causes is a good feeling, at this or any other time of year.

(The photo up top is a still from Ladies of the Mob (1928) with Clara Bow and Richard Arlen. None of the four movies made by Bow in 1928 are known to survive.)