Monday, June 27, 2016

Chicago (1927)

(The unabridged and updated version of a Siren column about the 1927 silent version of Chicago, first published behind a paywall at the now-defunct Nomad Widescreen.)

Nothing guarantees immortality for a murderer quite like getting away with it, as Lizzie Borden could have told you. So could Beulah Annan, the woman who, in 1924, shot a lover foolhardy enough to threaten to leave her — and who walked out of a courtroom 13 months later, a free woman. The story so captured her city and era that a play, a musical and two movie versions bear only the name of her town as a title: Chicago.

The 2002 Oscar-winner was a hashhouse mess that threw the Broadway musical revival's greatest asset — its Bob Fosse-inspired choreography — into a whirling Cuisinart of cuts. Director Rob Marshall demonstrated an uncanny instinct for slowing down the numbers that needed to sizzle, and cranking up the ones that needed some quiet. Trust the Siren, it’s a much better idea to turn to the 1927 silent and see how delightful this little cyanide pellet of a story remains.

Based on a 1926 hit play by Maurine Dallas Watkins, who covered both Beulah and a similar murderess for the Chicago Tribune, the film unspools the simple tale of a simple woman with two simple needs: fortune and fame, in that order. Roxie Hart (Phyllis Haver) is married to Amos (Victor Varconi). Amos works at a news-and-candy stand; he is poor, honest, hardworking, and loves his wee girly with all his handsome, sappy heart. Roxie, naturally, is sick to death of him, and has been carrying on with Rodney Casely (Eugene Pallette), who provides her with all the niceties.

In this silent movie Pallette is of course bereft of his famous voice, which sounded like a bullfrog trying to climb out of a tuba. But Pallette is young(ish), virile, many pounds lighter than in My Man Godrey nine years later and, more to the point, his character Casely has money. Money that he has been spending on Roxie, and money that he has decided, it transpires, to spend on something else. What that something else may be we are destined never to know, for when Rodney arrives at a tryst and rudely announces he's giving Roxie the air, she airs him in return, with a couple of bullet holes.

Amos, once over the shock of discovering Roxie isn't the true-blue sweetie he thought, attempts to take the rap for her, but is foiled by a wily, ambitious assistant district attorney (Warner Richmond). Roxie lands in jail and encounters the Matron (May Robson) plus an assortment of other female murderers, including Two-Gun Rosie (Viola Louie) the tragic Teresa (who isn't billed) and "The Real Lady,” later called Velma Kelly in the musicals, here played by a skinny, menacing and altogether fabulous Julia Faye. (Faye even bears a spooky resemblance to Bebe Neuwirth, who played Velma in the 1996 Broadway revival of Chicago.)

The rest of the film is taken up with watching Roxie scheme and feud from jail cell to courtroom, while Amos slides further into chump-dom as he attempts to rob the jailhouse lawyer (William Flynn) who's promised to get Rosie an acquittal. The idea is to pay the crooked shyster with his own money, and it’s a pretty good scheme for someone capable of doing it competently, which needless to say Amos is not.

Notice there has been so far no discussion of the director. That's because, well, pull up a chair. The name on the credits is Frank Urson, but Flicker Alley's excellent DVD edition includes a liner-note essay, "Who Directed Chicago?," indicating that even at the time of the movie’s release, producer Cecil B. DeMille was widely believed to have done most of the directing. But the essay muddles things further by noting that DeMille took over direction after seven days of photography. Then, in the next sentence, it asserts: "Urson seems to have directed much of the film." In his biography of DeMille, Empire of Dreams, Scott Eyman says the producer wound up "stepping in and directing a fair amount of the picture himself."

All clear then? No? Then it's best to look at Chicago itself, which is studded with moments that fairly screech DeMille, like the lingering shots of the opium-den splendor of the lawyer's lair. Who knew jailhouse work could inspire a highly developed taste for chinoiserie, down to an elegant marble inkwell where you can stash your cash payoffs? There's also the major role played by Roxie's garters, which have little tinkling bells attached to them. A catfight between Roxie and the Real Lady is shot in a lip-licking style any viewer of DeMille's ancient-world epics will recognize, and Fritzi of the wonderful Movies, Silently, believes that’s another thing that indicates DeMille was in charge: Julia Faye was C.B.’s mistress at the time. Plus,

DeMille kept every film he directed in his personal film vault. Of all the dozens of films released as programmers and specials under the DeMille banner, there was only one movie found in that personal vault that did not have DeMille as the credited director. You guessed it, that movie was Chicago.

Frizzy-haired, sulky-sexy Phyllis Haver was one of Mack Sennett's original Bathing Beauties at age 16, earning a salary of $12 a week before moving on to DeMille's production company and performances in The Way of All Flesh (which is now, sadly, a lost film), What Price Glory?, and this picture, her biggest and best role. "I wasn't much of an actress," she told Sennett in his memoirs, but he begged to differ, and so will anyone watching Chicago. Her Roxie is a study in comic venality, dismissing flashes of conscience in the time it takes to powder her nose — which she does in the mirror that’s just been shattered by one of the bullets she fired at her lover.

Roxie makes little moues at Amos and at strategic moments she deploys baby-talk, helpfully spelled out in the intertitles. Judging by this movie and Booth Tarkington's novel Seventeen, as well as boop-a-doop singer Helen Kane and others, there was a near-epidemic of female baby-talk in the Jazz Age, and it threatened the sanity of many an otherwise stable man. Haver plays Roxie like a child in other ways, whether she's chewing energetically while Amos embraces her or giving him a kittenish look of apology when he accuses her of faithlessness.

Even the intertitles, not always a boon to a good silent movie, are funny — the Siren's favorite is the matron rebuking her charges with, “This is a decent jail, you can't act the way you do at home!” Despite some late-stage concessions to conventional morality, Chicago is a rambunctiously cynical film.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Madam Satan (1930)

(About five years ago the Siren had a column at a doomed little webzine called Nomad Widescreen, and she was in the habit of posting excerpts and links at her own place, you know the drill. Now that Nomad is long-gone she’s been going back and posting the columns in full, and whaddya know, she hadn’t gotten around to this one. So here, enjoy a slightly spruced-up version of the Siren’s musings on Madam Satan.)

“You’ve never seen anything like it,” proclaims the tagline for the 1930 Cecil B. DeMille musical Madam Satan. But for the first fifty-five minutes or so, it isn’t true, unless you have magically avoided all bedroom farces about neglected wives and straying husbands.

Around the hour mark, however, it’s time for Madam Satan et Cie to put on some Adrian costumes and start partying on an insanely large zeppelin, pausing only for an interpretative dance depicting the wonders of electricity. From that point on, Madam Satan justifies its publicity.

And perhaps the zero-to-90mph structure is meant to offer a provocative metaphor for life. Yes, life. For aren’t we all, in some sense, just waiting to party on a zeppelin? No? OK, maybe it’s just the Siren.

The story is a variation on the Johann Strauss warhorse Die Fledermaus. In Madam Satan, wife Angela (Kay Johnson), tired of the infidelities of her randy husband Bob (Reginald Denny), decides to get him back by disguising herself as a captivating guest at a masquerade ball. Bob falls for the wanton masked woman, and then she reveals her identity. After the shock has worn off, Bob returns to his newly interesting wife and declares, as all erring husbands in early comedies must, “I’ve been such a fool.”

The movie is one half-hour too long, that half-hour is right at the beginning, and it’s almost all scenes of the female lead, Kay Johnson. Scott Eyman, in his DeMille biography, calls Madam Satan’s three main characters (the other being Roland Young as the husband’s sidekick, Jimmy) “sexless.” That’s pretty much incontestable. Denny could deliver a quip, but he's too controlled for you to buy him as a lust-hound. Roland Young’s specialty was looking fretful, not a quality one associates with a red-hot lover. Johnson, at least in the first half, is an elegant blonde with a nice line in reproachfulness and the sex appeal of a bowl of tapioca. She was 26 years old, but she looks much older and, more important, she acts much older. Angela droops around planning to cook broccoli for dinner, complaining to the maid, picking out delicate melodies on the organ, and casting wounded looks that display her aristocratic profile. Hell, the Siren would cheat on her, too.

So during this long, long opener the main pleasure is the elegant way DeMille frames Cedric Gibbons and Mitchell Leisen’s art decoration; a particular bit of beauty is an all-glass shower stall with stunning Art Deco water fixtures. Otherwise, despite some bright dialogue (Johnson: “Bob has gone out;” Young: “By the door or the window?”), it’s standard stuff, even when the maid unexpectedly gets the first song — all about love being something you have to seize with both hands, or some such bit of sublety.

Then, thank goodness, we shift to the apartment of Bob’s bit on the side, Trixie, played by Lillian Roth. For later generations, Roth’s claim to fame would be writing the first major recovery memoir, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, about how she plummeted into alcoholism and degradation and reclaimed her life through Alcoholics Anonymous. By the time Roth published it, in 1953, her movie career was so long over that for most folks Roth was a dim memory of a cute kid playing it straight with the Marx Brothers in Animal Crackers. Her brief performance in Madam Satan shows just how big a shame it was that she flamed out. Roth could dance, she could sing and she was sexy beyond belief. When she flings off her rumpled satin robe and twitches her pelvis to the “Low Down” number, the vaudeville energy of this rather plump, frowsy jazz baby ignites the entire movie. The other actors catch fire around her, from the accompanist calling, “Put some pepper in it, Papa wants to sneeze” to Roland Young snapping, “I wouldn’t marry you to keep warm on an iceberg.”

And thereafter, at long last, we’re on the zeppelin, and everything else starts to cook. It’s a ravishing bunch of sets, like the unholy mating of Metropolis and The Hollywood Revue of 1929 — big ramps and shiny Bakelite staircases angling up and down. The guests mill about in costumes as unapologetically tasteless as anything MGM ever did. Worth waiting for: the woman whose symbolic “fish” costume has her attached to a toy fisherman, and another dressed as “the call of the wild,” complete with a stuffed elephant and leopard and a yard-wide white-wool wig.

And there’s that lightning/electricity dance number, which begins and ends without explanation of any kind. One minute the guests are hanging around the zeppelin whooping it up, the next minute a large group of people are dancing around an electrified pseudo-god and you’re agog at the costumes that crawl right up the chorus girls’ backsides — or the Siren was, anyway. Then, just as abruptly, it’s back to the arriving guests.

Johnson acquits herself better in the second half, vamping her husband in a “flames of hell” costume and affecting a passable French accent: “Who vants to go to ’ell weeth Mad-AM Say-TAN?” Still, the moment when Johnson has a sort of dance-off with Roth is a mistake — tart or no tart, Roth wipes the floor with her.

Johnson and Denny have a rather dull tryst and then, as if sensing this won’t suffice for dramatic action, DeMille unmoors the zeppelin and everyone has to parachute off. He has great fun filming the panicked guests and their landings in and around the Central Park reservoir. At times it’s so close to the rescue sequence in The Towering Inferno that I wondered if Irwin Allen had ever seen Madam Satan.

It is, as Eyman put it, a “movie that no one but DeMille could have directed--or would have wanted to: a musical comedy-romance-drama-disaster film.” With a zeppelin, yet. Still, if someone asked the Siren for reasons to see it, you'd better believe she'll mention the moment when a six-armed Hindu goddess lands in the middle of a craps game. But she’d start with Lillian Roth.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)

The Siren's essay for the Blu-Ray release of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, the immortal supernatural comedy made at Columbia in 1941 and directed by Alexander Hall, is now online at the Criterion Collection site. The story of Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery, in one of his best performances), a boxer whose soul is snatched too soon from a plane wreck, and the efforts of the Unmentioned Almighty's recording angel Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains) to restore him to a body (and life) that's "in the pink," stills plays like a charm.

The movie was released, as the Siren points out, during a year that was wall-to-wall with perfectly terrible news. And it was a huge hit. After watching Here Comes Mr. Jordan several times for this essay, the Siren can tell you that its restorative powers endure. The essay can be read in its entirety here. The Blu-Ray can be purchased at Criterion or wherever fine physical media are sold.

Excerpt follows:

The much-loved Here Comes Mr. Jordan has spawned two direct remakes and a sequel, but the 1941 original retains a snap and a vigor—and a unique charm—that no other version has been able to duplicate. Why does it keep such a hold on our affections? Perhaps it’s the way it mixes elements in a way unique to its era—screwball comedy, slapstick farce, boxing fable, supernatural romance. Directed by Alexander Hall and released by Columbia Pictures, it boasts a just-crazy-enough premise—angels try to return the soul of a boxer, who has been mistakenly snatched by an overeager apprentice, to a ring-ready body back on Earth—yet has enough real-world pathos to leave a lasting emotional impact. The rollicking dialogue and gleefully complex plot, the film’s belief in friendship, destiny, and true love, and even—or perhaps especially—its indifference to theology and the permanence of death, are as irresistible as ever.

The movie has two bona fide stars: Robert Montgomery as boxer Joe Pendleton, showing off a convincing accent straight from New York’s outer boroughs, and Claude Rains and his heavenly voice as Mr. Jordan, the executive angel who must fix his underling’s mistake. The endless complications of the story arise from the early twist of Joe’s grief-stricken manager, Max (James Gleason), having Joe’s earthly remains cremated. Eventually Joe is deposited in the body of Bruce Farnsworth, a rich layabout whose wife (Rita Johnson) and secretary (John Emery) have just teamed to bump him off, or so they think. Joe isn’t keen on being a dissipated millionaire—he wants to regain his shot at the boxing championship with a body that’s “in the pink,” a phrase he repeats so often that even the serene Mr. Jordan tells him it’s “obnoxious.” But then Joe lays eyes on dewy Bette (Evelyn Keyes), a young woman whose father has been swindled by Farnsworth. To help her, Joe becomes Farnsworth, and settles for hiring a baffled but cooperative Max to train the body he’s got.

For Montgomery, this film marked a shift from the sophisticates he had played for much of his career. “The directors shoved a cocktail shaker in my hands and kept me shaking it for years,” he once remarked. He’d been permitted to put down the martinis for an acclaimed role as a Cockney serial killer menacing Rosalind Russell in 1937’s Night Must Fall. And in 1940, in something of a warm-up for Mr. Jordan, Montgomery had been an American bootlegger who somehow winds up inheriting a British title in The Earl of Chicago. But Joe Pendleton was the role that let Montgomery fully combine his comic abilities with a macho quality he’d rarely been allowed to display.

Monday, June 06, 2016

"Steel and Silk": A 100th Birthday Tribute to Olivia de Havilland, at Sight & Sound

The Siren is proud to announce that she was asked by the venerable Sight & Sound to write a tribute to Olivia de Havilland on the occasion of that great lady's 100th birthday, which will occur on July 1. With their permission, she is posting an excerpt. You can purchase Sight & Sound here; if you want to know about all the goodies in the latest issue, click right here.

One thing you won't find in the Sight & Sound tribute, if you pick up a copy (and of course the Siren hopes you do): a discussion of the famous feud with Olivia's sister, Joan Fontaine. This was de Havilland's show all the way. For many years, even as she wrote about Fontaine, the Siren has insisted that she has fully as much admiration for de Havilland. Now, patient readers, the Siren has 2500 words in print to prove it.

The Snake Pit
And this was a pleasure to write. It entailed revisiting films ranging from The Snake Pit (de Havilland's personal favorite), to her Oscar winners The Heiress and To Each His Own, to de Havilland's marvelous work with Errol Flynn, to lesser-known gems like My Cousin Rachel. They all left the Siren more impressed than ever with the delicacy and emotional breadth of de Havilland's acting.

Dodge City
As part of her research, the Siren was permitted to listen to a recording of an extensive talk that de Havilland gave at the British Film Institute some years back. She discussed her entire career, and by the time she took questions from the audience, they were (of course) eating out of her hand. She spent a lot of time discussing the landmark "De Havilland decision" that finally cracked the ironclad legal agreements that kept some actors chained to a studio, unable to turn down lousy roles unless they wanted to serve out the missed time on the back end of the contract. She remembered every detail, and no wonder. It wasn't simply a matter of de Havilland calling in some hotshot lawyers and turning them loose. The Siren wanted this article to make clear that the case took two years, and demanded a great deal of personal sacrifice. De Havilland's famed graciousness and charm come along with a strong, ambitious and determined character.

The excerpt follows.

Hold Back the Dawn
By May 1943 her contract was up, and she happily anticipated a new phase. Now she could seek out more parts like the lovelorn schoolteacher betrayed by Charles Boyer in Mitchell Leisen’s Hold Back the Dawn (1941) – a film she loved, and another Oscar nod, achieved on loan to Paramount. Not so fast, said the brothers Warner. She had to serve out the additional six months she had accrued on suspension.

De Havilland contemplated the studio offering she’d just completed, a third-billed turn in a Brontë sisters’ biopic called Devotion (1946), playing a bizarre version of Charlotte Brontë who flounces around in dainty clothes, steals Emily’s fiancé, and is never glimpsed holding a pen. De Havilland sued.

The lovely Livvy was tilting at windmills, was the consensus around town. Asked in her BFI interview if she garnered support from her colleagues, she said, without rancour, “I was rather by myself, because nobody thought I could win.” Her lawyer thought she could, however, by invoking an old California ‘anti-peonage’ (debt slavery) law which forbad contracts that extended past seven years. In November 1943 the case went to trial.

As soon as she filed suit, Jack Warner wrote to every studio in town to remind them that she was still effectively under contract. In court the studio didn’t hesitate to fight dirty, insinuating that an affair was the real reason the actress had turned down one movie. The Warner attorneys, however, hadn’t reckoned on the de Havilland sang froid. She had spent years on set with Michael Curtiz, one of the most notorious yellers in the business; these guys were nothing. So when one lawyer thundered, “Is it not true, Miss de Havilland, that on the morning of January 16, you wantonly refused to show up for work on Stage 8?” “Certainly not,” came the reply in that musical de Havilland voice. “I declined.”

Dinah Shore, Orson Welles, Frances Langford, Walter Huston and Olivia de Havilland 
The judge ruled for de Havilland, but not until March 1944. Warner Brothers appealed, Jack Warner dropped producers another line to say the matter was far from over, and for the rest of the year de Havilland stayed, as Otto Friedrich put it in City of Nets, his portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s, “unemployed and unemployable”.

On tour with the USO
For two years de Havilland made no movies, from the age of 26 to 28, vital years for an actress. Her legal bills mounted; she drew on her savings and, after the first ruling in her favour, found some work on radio. She refused to give in, and she refused to stay idle. She travelled to Alaska to visit soldiers, and such was Warner’s pettiness that according to Friedrich, he wrote to General Hap Arnold seeking to blackball the actress to stop her entertaining the troops. Arnold, unlike Hollywood, told Warner to mind his own business. The court of appeals ruled in de Havilland’s favour, and Warner Brothers appealed to the California Supreme Court. She went to the South Pacific, visiting the wounded and contracting pneumonia so severe that she coughed blood and her weight dropped to 90 pounds. De Havilland was convalescing in the hospital in the Fiji Islands when word came that the Supreme Court had refused to hear the studio’s appeal. She’d won.

Years before, Bette Davis had failed in her attempt to challenge her contract. Jack Warner had just found out that his all-purpose flower-like ingénue was tougher than Jezebel.