Sunday, March 30, 2014

Good News for Silent Film Fans

Mickey Rooney is one of the last surviving silent-film actors. He turns 94 years old on Sept. 23, and he just got an early birthday present: His first starring role, Mickey’s Circus, a comedy short from 1927, has been rediscovered in Amsterdam. Our old friends at the National Film Preservation Foundation are working to repatriate that film, and many others. The Los Angeles Times has the story this morning:

Long-missing comedy shorts such as 1927’s “Mickey’s Circus,” featuring a 6-year-old Mickey Rooney in his first starring role, 1917's "Neptune's Naughty Daughter"; 1925’s “Fifty Million Years Ago,” an animated introduction to the theory of evolution; and a 1924 industrial short, “The Last Word in Chickens,” are among the American silent films recently found at the EYE Filmmusem in Amsterdam.

The Siren points out that the 1925 “animated introduction to the theory of evolution” was made the year of the Scopes Monkey Trial, no less.

Another film the NFPF is looking to bring home: 1924’s “The Reckless Age,” a full-length comedy with Reginald Denny. The Spokane Daily Chronicle promises, “This picture is just packed with it” — do tell — “auto thrills, love thrills, and real fighting thrills.” Wait, fighting thrills? With Reginald Denny, so very tweedy in Rebecca?

Well, yes. Reginald Denny used to look like this. He has his own entry at an online boxing encyclopedia, and the Siren’s eyes bugged out when she saw who he was fighting (on the vaudeville stage, admittedly) in 1922.

Also in 1922 appeared the melodrama “For the Defense,” with ZaSu Pitts, which IMDB says is based on a play by Elmer Rice (who also wrote the play Counsellor-at-Law), but otherwise had been not only gone, but forgotten. It’s part of the Amsterdam trove. In preparation, you can watch the darling Thelma Todd demonstrate the proper pronunciation of ZaSu.

When all the hard word of preservation is done, the NFPF is once again looking to stream these films on their site, where we'll all be able to see them. If you want to celebrate this happy occasion by contributing to their continuing good work, the donation link is right here.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Auteurs Gone Wild: A Look at the Series at Anthology Film Archives

Recently, over breakfast at their favorite neighborhood joint, the Siren’s close personal friend Glenn Kenny twitted her gently about that time in the very recent past when she made a crack about auteurism. The Siren thought about it and told him, “You know how people talk about à la carte Catholics? I’m an à la carte auteurist.”

In other words, the Siren has some problems with the rock-ribbed Cahiers-carrying version of auteurism. But let’s face it, the Siren also has pets.

And Anthology Film Archives, via programmer David Phelps, has done an uncanny job of selecting eight of her favorite directors for the now-playing series “Auteurs Gone Wild.” The premise is simple and delightful: A look at those times when genius took a left turn at Albuquerque and wound up making something that doesn’t fit neatly with the other work. The schedule is here, it's all on 35mm, several are not on DVD, and any Siren readers in the New York area should definitely try to catch a few.

The Siren wrote up You and Me a while back, and it’s enchanting. There’s a particularly good analysis of The Bitter Tea of General Yen in Dan Callahan’s Barbara Stanwyck book, and the Siren recommends it. (Victoria Wilson, in volume I of the monumental Stanwyck bio that You Should Be Reading, doesn’t seem to like Bitter Tea all that much, but she gives an excellent rundown on its making and reception.) The Siren doesn’t have a lot to say about A Countess From Hong Kong; it’s often amusing, even sweet, but it’s hard to get over the casting. (Did Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando ever look more sulky?) The Siren wants to get reacquainted with A Woman of Paris, the other Charlie Chaplin film in which he did not star, and she also hopes to see The Saga of Anatahan, Josef von Sternberg’s Japanese-made swan song.

At Mubi's Movie Poster of the Week, Adrian Curry celebrates the series with ravishing posters for all the films. Meanwhile, some thoughts on the others.

The Siren was surprised to find herself heartily disliking Under Capricorn, which Hitchcock made in in London in 1949. The plot concerns a carefree young man (Michael Wilding, a little too lightweight) who goes to colonial Australia to seek his fortune. He finds childhood love Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman) has also moved there after marrying several rungs down the social ladder, and that her sole recreation in this remote location is drinking herself into insanity. The husband is former groom Sam Flusky, played by Joseph Cotten as the most grating, self-pitying nudnik in all of Hitchcock. (Hitchcock said Burt Lancaster would have been better, but the character’s beyond even Lancaster’s redemptive charm.) Hovering around to add to Henrietta's peril is Margaret Leighton as the sinister maid. Made just after The Paradine Case and Rope, Under Capricorn shares those films’ obsessively intricate takes, although the biggest plus here comes from genius Jack Cardiff’s Technicolor. Formalists tend to worship Under Capricorn, and this is one gorgeous film. The confession scene with Ingrid Bergman unfolds in an eight-minute take that seems to make the camera itself an instrument of her isolation and breakdown.

So yes, Under Capricorn looks good. It plays, however, as po-faced and rancid, a romantic melodrama about love with an emotionally abusive spouse — Gaslight, if she tried to work things out with Charles Boyer. Hitchcock later admitted he had little affinity for the material; Cardiff said the long-take process led to a fatal “loss of tempo” for both the actors and the film. Both men knew what they were talking about. The Siren continues to prefer Rope and The Paradine Case (now there’s a Hitchcock whose fans get mighty lonely). But a rare 35mm screening is the ideal place to see for yourself.

Edward, My Son
 is somewhat marred by a (possibly Production Code-mandated) framing device that has an aged Spencer Tracy shuffling up to the camera to ask for a moral judgment from the audience. He plays Arnold Boult, a man whose obsession with an easy life for his only child turned his son into a monster. Or did it? Edward is never seen on camera, a device that Donald Ogden Stewart’s script carries over from the play by Robert Morley and Noel Langley. The effect turns Edward into the picture of Dorian Gray: a reflection of the main character’s gradual corruption. Leaving Edward out of sight leaves the audience to decide whether Boult truly ruined his son, or whether the child was always doomed to inherit the father’s worst qualities. After all, as Edward’s upstanding mother Evelyn (Deborah Kerr) points out in her most emotional scene, many people spoil their children, without the kid turning into a liar, a thief and a bully. Even Edward’s evident alcoholism may be genetics at work, since Evelyn herself turns to drink as Boult's deeds get darker.

George Cukor’s biographer, Patrick McGilligan, labels this one “an ambitious dud,” but the Siren thinks it’s full of great twists and question marks; Tracy never lets you see Boult as a complete villain. Leueen MacGrath, a gorgeous and multitalented woman who was married to George S. Kaufman, is superb as Boult's secretary/mistress, moving from cool calculation to heartbreak. Kerr is excellent early on, but MGM goes crazy with the old-age makeup later in the film, when logic suggests her character is still south of 50, but some smartass added a dowager’s hump. Still, Cukor offers Kerr a haunting fadeout. The camera focuses on Tracy and devoted family doctor Ian Hunter, while a drunk and heartbroken Kerr climbs the steps of her mansion, moving out of the frame for what we know will be the last time.

And in terms of technique, the Siren thought this was the most intriguing film of all, a play that never feels stagey. Cukor uses massively long takes, with sly changes in angle and slow, elegant camera moves that smoothly shift your attention within the frame. It’s one of his most ineffably subtle films.

Henry Hathaway's The Sons of Katie Elder is a Siren favorite. He directed Lives of a Bengal Lancer, which Ben Urwand has been so diligently reintroducing to the public, and Hathaway made a string of great noirs in the 1940s. Peter Ibbetson is definitely none of the above. It’s a dreamy romantic fantasy rather like Smilin’ Through, only considerably darker and with a leading lady — Ann Harding — far more nuanced than Norma Shearer. The title role is played by Gary Cooper. He’s a young man whose childhood sweetheart Mary (Harding) has married a much-older duke (John Halliday in full glower). The duke discovers their love, tries to shoot Peter and winds up dead himself. Peter is sent to prison, but his love for Mary is so powerful that they are able to meet in their dreams, acting out the love that was thwarted in life.

David Shipman says this film did not fare well at the 1935 box office. It’s a delicate conceit that strikes some, like Nick Pinkerton, as positively sappy. Well, the Siren, perverse mortal that she is, adores this movie. The lovers’ connection is entirely spiritual; there’s not the slightest hint that their dreams find them doing anything more carnal than romping through meadows together. Peter was born in France and raised in England; Cooper does great work without the slightest alteration in his sandy Montana voice. The screenplay (based on George DuMaurier’s novel) is utterly, at times painfully sincere. But there are few films more committed to the notion of soul-deep love than this one. Charles Lang’s cinematography, full of light-shafts and dreamy mists, will thrill anyone who loved the Criterion Blu-Ray of The Uninvited. He and Hathaway create a black-and-white world that seems supernatural well before it gives way to the lovers’ dreams. The first section, with Dickie Moore and Virginia Weidler playing the lovers as children, is heartrending. Yes, Virginia Weidler; the Siren shall snub her no more.

“One of his worst films,” is how Scott Eyman describes Broken Lullaby in his biography of Ernst Lubitsch. The Siren recommends Eyman’s book, but she doesn’t agree about the haunting Broken Lullaby at all. It’s far from Lubitsch’s most incongruous movie; the Siren would give that honor to Loves of Pharaoh. But it’s definitely an anomaly, with an opening that evokes nothing so much as All Quiet on the Western Front. Phillips Holmes plays Paul, a former French soldier racked with guilt over killing a German boy, Walter Hoderlin, in the trenches. (Like Lew Ayres and Jimmy Butler of No Greater Glory, life had some grim ironies in store for Holmes.) Paul mails the German’s last letter home, then goes to Walter's home town in search of what we moderns would call “closure.” Herr Hoderlin, a kindly old doctor played by Lionel Barrymore, feels bitterness toward the French; Walter's mother (Louise Carter) and fiancee (Nancy Carroll) are still numb with grief. Paul finds himself embraced by the family, and must decide whether to tell them the truth.

It’s based on a play and marks Lubitsch’s first collaboration with Samson Raphaelson, although Broken Lullaby was shot after The Smiling Lieutenant. ("It came out just as morbid and unattractive as I thought it would," was Raphaelson's review.) Bad box office led a desperate Paramount to change the title, post-release, to Broken Lullaby from the original The Man I Killed, babies presumably being an easier sell than corpses. (The Siren likes the original title much better, with its echo of Thomas Hardy’s poem.) The ending can be seen as equivocal, although the Siren points out that Lubitsch is not known for his punitive attitude toward his characters. One shot hooked the Siren. Walter's mother is at his grave, and there are any number of possible ways to film that: the flowers on the grave, the earth, the headstone, the back of the actress’ head. Lubitsch moves in on the mother’s hands unsnapping the clasp of her pocketbook, so close we can see that virtually all it contains is a handkerchief.


So, should this series meet with enough success to get a sequel, what offbeat films would the Siren's patient readers suggest? Her own nomination would be Otto Preminger's charming Centennial Summer, because the last thing she expected Otto to do was remind her of Meet Me in St. Louis.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Five Questions About Five Came Back: An Interview with Mark Harris

When the news came that Pearl Harbor had been bombed, John Ford was having Sunday lunch at the home of Rear Admiral Andrew Pickens in Virginia. Like a true Southern hostess, Mrs. Pickens tried to make sure no one’s lovely meal would be ruined: “It’s no use getting excited. This is the seventh war that’s been announced in this dining room.”

Hollywood for years had brought everyone many more wars than that, wars that on film were often, as Peter Pan enthused about death, “an awfully big adventure.” John Ford and four of his fellow directors — Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens and John Huston — had, like the rest of the world, been primed for this particular war for quite some time. Or so they thought.

This week sees the publication of Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, Mark Harris’ stunning book about the wartime experiences of these filmmakers. They knew, respected, worked and occasionally clashed with one another.

John Ford earned a Purple Heart shooting footage of The Battle of Midway. John Huston, already a notorious hell-raiser, packed his bags for Alaska and later Italy, only to come back with experiences that kept him awake no matter how hard he tried to party them away. Capra spent much of his time supervising the Why We Fight series, engaged in constant back-and-forth with the U.S. government he fiercely wanted to support. When still in the States, the Alsace-born Jew William Wyler tried with mounting desperation to help people get out of Europe; when in Europe, he flew and filmed combat missions that eventually cost him much of his hearing. And George Stevens, Wyler’s good friend who’d made his name with wise, humane comedies, filmed Dachau after the camp was liberated, footage intended only for use at the Nuremberg trials. In later years, Stevens himself couldn’t bear to watch it.

The author's done impressive research and uncovered much that was new to the Siren. Harris knows all about the directors' art as well as their lives, treats them all with fairness, and he doesn’t neglect their humor, either.

The Siren devoured an advance copy. Then she got in touch with Mark, with whom she’s friendly, and asked if he’d answer a few questions via email for the benefit of her patient readers. He kindly agreed.

The Siren has, where possible, linked to the films that are available free on the Web. Mark also writes a column for Grantland and dispenses wit and wisdom on Twitter under the handle @MarkHarrisNYC. Meanwhile, you definitely want Five Came Back.

Your previous book, Pictures at a Revolution, had a similar five-way structure, built around the five Oscar nominees for Best Picture in the watershed year of 1967. What attracts you to this type of construction? Was Five Came Back harder?

The “rule of five” similarity is mostly an accident, I swear! My books tend to start with wildly overreaching proposals for cast-of-thousands narratives that, if executed according to plan, would run about 2500 pages each. Then, in the first stages of research, I narrow what I’m doing considerably when I realize what I want my real narrative to be. So Five Came Back began in my head as a book about 13 or 14 people—including producers, studio heads, actors, writers, emigres—and I very quickly figured out that I wanted to tell this particular story through the lives of directors, and that almost everyone else I was interested in would end up as supporting characters in their stories. I cringed a little when I realized there were five—but there wasn’t one I could naturally add or omit, so five it was.

The part of this structural similarity that isn’t an accident or a coincidence is that I like to have a large group of people to play with, and I really enjoy working on multiple narratives that not only interweave but occasionally intersect. In both books, I think readers might start out thinking that they’re reading five different stories, but the deeper they get into the narrative, the more they come to feel (I hope) that they’re actually reading one big story with many characters, which I feel this is. It’s the story of five directors, but they collaborate, and compete, and occasionally collide. And I couldn’t tell the full story of how Hollywood moviemakers reacted to the war without discussing all of them.

Much of the book deals with the wartime documentaries made by these directors. Some of those films included extensive re-enactments, a technique that is controversial to this day. Did you draw any fresh conclusions about the ethics of re-enactments, both during World War II and our own time?

When you write about the early 1940s, you’re writing about the documentary form in or near its infancy—it was a time when the ethics of documentary or journalistic filmmaking had not been the subject of all that much discussion or judgment. In talking about re-enactments, which are an important part of this story, I tried very hard to strike a careful balance. On one hand, I don’t enjoy reading histories that use the smug perspective of present-day knowledge as a bludgeon to abuse their subjects; on the other hand, it’s sometimes too easy to wish away ethical or moral deficiencies via the umbrella exoneration, “Well, those were different times.” Yes, they were different times, but these ethical questions were not foreign to the men I was writing about.

The truth is that John Huston and George Stevens were both profoundly uncomfortable with their roles in foisting false footage on both the Allies and the public—those were instances of clear-cut wrongdoing, and I write about them. But did William Wyler err by recreating a soundtrack for The Memphis Belle? And what are we to make of Huston’s restaging of battle scenes of San Pietro, which were acclaimed as examples of unprecedented realism even though they were faked? In the book I try to be as detailed as possible about how and why these decisions were made and executed, but I think different readers may reach different conclusions. I am surprised at how resonant the question has turned out to be. Two of last year’s strongest documentaries, Stories We Tell and The Act of Killing, made extraordinary and inventive use of re-enactments and made some of the ethical issues surrounding them explicit, so it’s clearly something with which we’ll continue to wrestle.

What are the best films these directors made during the war?

I’ll have to stretch the definition of “during” in both directions a little to answer that. Wyler’s two wartime movies, Mrs. Miniver, which often gets dismissed as cloying or sentimental but which is astonishingly effective and affecting, and The Best Years Of Our Lives, which is just one of the all-time great American movies, would have to head the list, and his wartime documentary The Memphis Belle is very strong. Ford’s They Were Expendable, which he made in 1945 immediately following his Navy service, is excellent, deeply personal and revealing. Huston was the least experienced of the five directors at the time war broke out—he had just made his directorial debut with The Maltese Falcon—and when you watch his three wartime documentaries, Report from the Aleutians, San Pietro, and Let There Be Light, you can see him developing as a director in fascinating and idiosyncratic ways. Stevens didn’t make any theatrically released documentaries during the war, but The More The Merrier, which he made just before joining the Army, is sophisticated, funny, and romantic—one of the best wartime comedies. And Capra’s Why We Fight series is certainly of huge historical interest (by the way, like just about all of the war-era documentaries, you can see those movies for free on any number of streaming services).

These directors were all stars themselves in some sense, with public personas that affect the perception of their work to this day. Did spending so much time with these artists alter your take on what they were like as men?

I spent almost five years on the book, and for me those years were a process of trying to get to know those five men. I was very fortunate that in all five cases, their papers had been archived. Without that, and without the archiving of war papers in the National Archives, I don’t think I could have done the research that made writing the book possible. There’s something deeply intimate and also very humbling about sitting in a library holding a letter from a father to his son or a husband to his wife or a diary that was written 75 years ago, or seeing the rough draft of a speech or a chunk of narration, a piece of paper on which one of these directors had scratched out words over and over again while looking for the right way to express himself. You really do feel like you’re the custodian of their thoughts at that moment, and it’s a trust you’d better not break by distortion or manipulation. I didn’t want this book to be an act of hero worship, because while I do find a couple of the directors heroic, many of them were also problematic, flawed, tormented people, and I wanted to convey those truths as well. By the end of the process I thought I understood more about, say, Huston’s bravado or Ford’s taciturn quality than I did when I started. It would be arrogant to say I “know” them, but I feel I got as close to understanding them as men as I possibly could.

Did writing Five Came Back affect your view of the films of Huston, Ford, Stevens, Wyler and Capra, especially the ones they made afterward? If so, how?

Some more than others—and that was something I felt I wanted to kind of bite my tongue about in the book, which is a narrative history, not a critical essay, and which (more to the point) ends in early 1947. It wouldn’t have felt right to me to end the story by saying “…and therefore, here is how I think you should look at The Searchers.” That said, I very much hope that readers go look at The Searchers! I’d love them to feel inspired not only to go watch some of the movies I mentioned above—movies that I deal with directly in the book—but the later movies as well. I certainly look at Stevens’s Shane, which he called his “war movie,” differently as a result of the years I spent on the book, and the same is true of how I comprehend Ford’s relationship to defeat and lost causes in his Westerns. And I think I have a better understanding of why social realism and noir both flourished after the war. But that’s for another book!


Here are some related links of interest:

Lou Lumenick at the New York Post writes about how John Huston faked parts of The Battle of San Pietro.

George Stevens’ The Nazi Plan, which was screened at Nuremberg, can be watched here.

Letters, photos and other materials relating to one of the dozens of historical figures in this book, novelist and screenwriter Irwin Shaw, are available here.

Photos from top: William Wyler (in the middle, with hands in pockets) and most of the crew from the Memphis Belle; John Huston in his Signal Corps uniform attends the 1943 Academy Awards with Olivia de Havilland; John Ford films They Were Expendable in Florida in 1945;  Frank Capra receives the Distinguished Service Medal from General George C. Marshall; George Stevens filming in Europe after D-Day.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Let's Talk About Kim Novak

She was born Marilyn Novak in Chicago in 1933, and she always said she never wanted to be an actress, much less a star. She came to California as “Miss Deep Freeze,” demonstrating appliances on a sales tour. She said, “I could open a refrigerator door gracefully, that was it, period. I could see where a lot of time might go by before any movie studio would want a girl to open an icebox.”

Turned out that the legendary Harry Cohn of Columbia did want Marilyn — albeit because Rita Hayworth’s career was on the slide and the way Cohn saw it, he needed another sex symbol. At first he wasn’t sure he could make anything of Novak. The card at the modeling agency where the 20-year-old was working said: “Hands, marginal; legs, hefty; neck and face, flawless.”

Cohn put Novak on a stringent diet, all the while calling her “that fat Polack” (Novak’s background is Czech) behind her back. She followed an exercise regime. She was assigned a make-up artist. Her teeth were capped. Her hair was dyed blonde, then rinsed to make it gleam lavender in the light.

Her name was changed, since in the 1950s Marilyn was what you might call already taken. Cohn wanted “Kit” but Novak figured something so close to “kitten” was already stereotyping her, and she suggested Kim. She insisted on keeping her last name, which Cohn thought too ethnic.

“I made you, I can break you,” was Cohn’s refrain to Novak and many another actor. She was a naturally shy, insecure woman and Cohn liked it that way. He’d call Novak into his office and read her every bad review she got. And she got plenty; Novak was never a darling of the press. If she tried something dramatic, she was wooden. If she did a sexy role, she was too heavy, too dumb. When she went to the Oscars one year and posed on the red carpet, one columnist sniped that Novak was “aping Marilyn’s every move.”

Where there was an especially cruel phrase in an article, Cohn would read it to Kim an extra time or two, for emphasis.

Novak, according to Sam Kashner and Jennifer MacNair in The Bad and the Beautiful, “became obsessed with having her hair and makeup perfect before she could begin working, worried that she couldn’t live up to the media’s portrayal of her as a sex goddess.”

Which brings us to last night's Oscars.

As we age, the fat that plumps the skin and makes it glow inexorably begins to disintegrate. Because this is 2014, and we’re on our way to curing women of the worst thing that can happen to them— getting old — doctors can solve this terrible problem with injectable fillers.

So let’s say — just as a hypothetical for-instance — you are an 81-year-old star whose last movie was in 1991 and who hasn’t been to the Oscars in many a long year. Not that you were ever nominated for one in the first place; you were, after all, a sex symbol for most of your career. As the evening approaches, the anxiety sets in. Harsh lights, you think. High-definition cameras. And a public that remembers you chiefly as the ice goddess whose beauty once drove James Stewart to the brink of madness.

And even back then, when you were 25 years old, you worried constantly that no matter how you looked, it wasn’t good enough.

So a few weeks before the ceremony, you go to a doctor, and he says, “Relax honey. I have just the thing to make you fresh and dewy for the cameras.”

And you go to the Oscars, so nervous you clutch your fellow presenter’s hand. And the next day, you wake up to a bunch of cheap goddamn shots about your face.

Nice system we got here, isn’t it.

No wonder Kim Novak, like Tippi Hedren, Doris Day and Brigitte Bardot, has long said she’d much rather spend her time with animals.

(Background material on Novak is from The Bad and the Beautiful. Recommended.)