Sunday, September 08, 2019

The Big Clock (1948, John Farrow)

 Not all film noir takes place in a seedy underworld; sometimes noir arrives on the commuter train wearing a custom-made suit. So it goes with John Farrow’s The Big Clock (1948), which sets its dark doings and flashback narrative in a top-flight New York corporation that occupies a swank (if somberly lit) Midtown office tower.

The hero (or, if you prefer, since this is film noir, the primary sap) is family man George Stroud (Ray Milland), an executive in the massive publishing empire of Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton). One night Stroud gets himself into a pickle by getting drunk with Pauline York, played by Rita Johnson as a trampy soul with a chic exterior. Unfortunately for Stroud, Pauline is also Janoth’s mistress, and Stroud must exit her couch the next morning when their boss drops by unexpectedly.

After Stroud exits, mistress and magnate fight, and fifty years before anyone ever saw a Viagra ad, Pauline’s tirade shows off some choice euphemisms for “impotent”: “You think you could make any woman happy?...You flabby, flabby...” And that last word is one of the last Pauline utters, as Janoth bludgeons her to death with a sundial.

Well, what’s a self-respecting titan to do in such a situation, except use every last bit of his power to pin the blame on someone else? And the someone else happens to be Stroud. The main twist in Jonathan Latimer’s twisty script (based on a novel by Kenneth Fearing) is that Janoth doesn’t know who he’s after, and Stroud must extricate himself without Janoth’s finding out.

The cast includes Farrow’s real-life wife, Maureen O’Sullivan, as Milland’s wife, and Mrs. Stroud is a touch on the petulant side. When she whines out a line like “I could write an article — how to look at a wall in six easy lessons,” it seems the silver lining to being framed for murder must be that at least it gets Stroud out of the house. Milland, on the other hand, had a dry, understated delivery that works wonders with a putdown like “He doesn't want to let his left hand know whose pocket the right one is picking.” That talent keeps his rather self-centered character in the audience’s good graces.

The film also finds George Macready playing Steve Hagen, the high-ranking bag-man who covers up for Janoth. Macready shows off his supreme ability to play an aristocratic criminal to the ice-cold hilt. He’s the perfect foil for Laughton, and as with Macready and Glenn Ford in Gilda, there is a suggestion of something more than friendship and professional interest between Janoth and Hagen.

That connection was explicit in Fearing's novel, but Laughton and Macready get the point across, too. "Steve, I've just killed someone," Laughton tells Macready, as though announcing he will bid four clubs. "Well, she's been asking for it for a long time," says Macready, by way of consolation.

There’s one more off-screen spouse on screen: Laughton's real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester, shows up to get most of the laughs, as a daffy artist whose painting has been sold to Stroud. She could doom Stroud merely by drawing his face — but doesn't, saying, "I've few enough collectors without sending one to jail."

Despite all this top-drawer company, it is Laughton who rules over The Big Clock. In Hollywood movies, most tyrannical managers are openly and loudly abusive. Laughton as Janoth keeps his voice low, forcing subordinates to lean close, which they wouldn't do otherwise. Getting close would mean they have to look at Janoth’s weedy little moustache and the way he strokes it with one finger, in a gesture as suggestive as it is repulsive. He won't make eye contact, which refusal emphasizes his employees' wormlike status. And Laughton speaks every word in an affected, maddeningly casual drawl, underlining that he doesn't give a hoot if he just screwed up someone's life.

The movie derives its title and central metaphor from the enormous, state-of-the-art clock in Janoth's building. The publisher is obsessed with time and punctuality, heedless of the hours he demands from others, but convinced every minute of an employee's tardiness is a form of theft. There's no mystery as to how he rose so high: He hires talented people and sucks the life out of them. No detail is too petty, no penny-pinching too undignified. At one point he docks an employee’s pay for leaving a light burning in a closet. Laughton does this in the same tone one might use for ordering a lunch delivery.

John Farrow’s movies combine the serviceable with bursts of the spectacular, and there are times when it’s the actors and Latimer’s darkly funny script that keep things humming. But Farrow’s direction reaches its apex with a shot that slides down from the ceiling, like Zeus descending, to find Laughton emerging from his elevator, and to track the actor circling a table during an executive meeting, shooting down his underlings’ idea one by one without ever glancing their way. But Laughton won’t even let the camera upstage him, as he hands a glass of water back to a secretary without looking to make sure she’s actually standing behind him.

If Laughton's performance has a flaw, it's that he is so consistently maddening that he risks the audience’s irritation becoming genuine; the Siren found herself thinking, "Speak up, for goodness sake, and will you stop it with the blasted moustache already!" In all the Siren’s years of watching movies, few characters got under her skin as much as Janoth did. Laughton creates a sort of Ur-Boss, bursting with every nasty managerial trait you ever noticed — and some you hadn't, until Laughton magnified them for you.

(This is the full-length version of the Siren's essay published years ago
at a now-defunct online magazine.)

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Olivia (1951)

(Olivia is a co-release by Icarus Films and Distrib Films US. The film's glorious 4K restoration was done by Les Films de la Pleiade in collaboration with Les Films du Jeudi with the support of the CNC, and is having a run at the Quad Cinema in New York. There are plans for it to play other cities, and when it does, you most definitely should go.)

When Simone Simon made her Hollywood debut in 1936, it was in a 66-minute trifle called Girls’ Dormitory. Set in a German boarding school where the girls do their fencing and swimming in unnerving Leni Riefenstahl–style symmetrical rows, the story concerns how Simon (25, playing 19) falls in love with the Herr Direktor (Herbert Marshall, a handsome but obvious 46) and, eventually, gets her (old) man, even though lovelorn age-appropriate Ruth Chatterton is right there, pining away. It’s a pretty terrible movie, leaden of pace and wooden of dialogue, with countless discombobulating close-ups of Simon, then getting the star buildup from 20th-Century Fox.

But, at least for the Siren, the contrast with Girls’ Dormitory gave an added frisson to Olivia, a beautiful movie made 15 years later in France by the director Jacqueline Audry. Simon plays Miss Cara, co-headmistress (her exact title is a bit fuzzy) of a luxe girls’ boarding school, in neurasthenic love with her partner Miss Julie (Edwige Feuillère), and pitting infatuated students one against another due to her suspicions that Miss Julie is seducing certain favorites. Far more headily romantic and sensual than Girls’ Dormitory, Olivia is a film where the clasp of a hand or a brush of the cheek stands in for all sorts of possibilities. But alas, there can be no permanent togetherness like that granted to Herr Direktor and his teenage fan.

The title character (Marie-Claire Olivia, a stage name she adopted for this movie) is around 16 or 17, the latest pupil at the girls’ school run by Miss Julie and Miss Cara. Imperious Miss Julie is devoted to the arts in such an evangelical way that she reminded the Siren of an apolitical Miss Jean Brodie, though that famed Scottish teacher wouldn’t come along for another decade. Miss Cara, on the other hand, is devoted to passive-aggression, wielding migraines, insomnia, and vague aches from the chaise longue in her room.

Despite the querulous presence of Miss Cara, at first this seems simply like the greatest boarding school of all time, an all-female paradise. Virtually no men intrude, and when they do, they are usually filmed from the back; they have no power here. The food is, in defiance of expectations, delicious, prepared by Victoire (a hilarious Yvonne de Bray) to adhere to Miss Julie’s expectation that her girls will develop a refined palate to go with their other cultivated tastes. The classroom is a two-story library with perfectly matched volumes and a vast, welcoming round table. The math teacher (Suzanne Dehelly) admits she doesn’t like math and bluntly tells the girls that cube roots have nothing to do with life. The school itself is an exquisite mansion in the French countryside, with a big swoop of a staircase and a huge individual room for each resident. It’s all decorated in the most deliciously feminine Belle Époque style, with graceful furniture and mounds of velvet hangings, tassels, and lace. (The production designer was Jean d’Eaubonne, who worked for Max Ophuls on similarly set films such as as Le Plaisir.) Oh, and the gardens, the manicured gardens, begging you to romp, or sip tea, or sit on the grass with a book. Even the countryside beckons. One of the students squeals to Olivia, “Let’s go run in the forest” and the Siren nearly found herself responding out loud, “Yes, LET’S!”

But in a school movie, the arrival of a new student always sets off reverberations. Olivia is invited to visit Miss Cara’s boudoir, where the girl observes how to keep a paisley shawl on the lady’s feet and apply a hot cologne pad (a what? that’s a new one on the Siren) to Miss Cara’s aching brow. And it seems that Olivia is destined to be a “Carista”—arrayed on Miss Cara’s side of this peculiar, not at all cold war. But when Miss Julie conducts a fireside reading of Racine’s Andromaque for a group of enthralled pupils, her command of poetry causes Olivia to fall in love with her in the space of a couple of hours, and thus does Olivia become a “Julist.” (The Brodie set! Did Maggie Smith see this movie?)

Feuillère was, wrote David Shipman, “a pupil of a pupil of Sarah Bernhardt,” her training thus as purely classical as you could get. She was once a member of the Comédie-Française, but soon left because she disliked the quality of the roles she was offered. And like co-star Simone Simon, Feuillère’s personal life was mysterious and not for public consumption; her sole youthful marriage ended after only a couple of years due to (depending on your source) his drug use or simple incompatibility, although it was his name that she adopted for the stage. “Her voice,” wrote the Independent, “which no one who heard it could ever forget, was powerful, vibrant, controlled and perfectly modulated.” She was famous also for her beauty, which age diminished scarcely at all. So Feuillère is perfect for the part of Mlle. Julie, the magnetic headmistress who reads Racine and Corneille, Victor Hugo and Aeschuylus, to an audience of enthralled teenage girls.

Under its hothouse trappings, Audry’s film is serious about what it means for a pupil to fall in love with her teacher, and the overtones of predation should the teacher return that love. Thus Feuillère plays Julie at a constant slow-boil. Even a glance from those magnificent eyes is felt by her girls in their very bones. She seems barely able to help herself with all this temptation around; at a masqued Christmas ball, the headmistress briefly fastens her mouth on the neck of a beautiful student in an astonishing gesture of vampiric sensuality. Yet more than once Miss Julie indicates that she knows the consequences of acting on her desires with girls too young for a sexual affair, and in particular, she fears the results for Olivia. Bright and pretty, but not too much of either, Olivia is not a standout in any way, and Julie tells her this. But they both know that Olivia’s queer desires will always set her apart, as they do Miss Julie.

The movie leaves many questions deliciously unanswered. Where the heck are the younger students during the day? Who dusts all those velvet hangings and lace curtains? Is Miss Cara having affairs with her students, or do they simply apply hot cologne pads to her forehead and tiptoe out? What kind of hold does the sinister German teacher Frau Riesener have on Miss Cara? Who is the human agent of Miss Cara’s ultimate fate? What’s the story with the girlish, brokenhearted Italian teacher? The only character whose heart seems entirely open to the audience is Olivia, a teenager slowly realizing her attraction to women.

Audry's direction is as elegant as the surroundings; she loves fluid camera movement and graceful overhead shots. To watch Olivia is to feel a simmering resentment that you (probably) haven’t seen other films by Jacqueline Audry, which is no doubt the impetus behind this restoration. Audry was born in 1908, and it took her 15 years of working as an assistant to the likes of G.W. Pabst, Jean Delannoy, and Max Ophuls before she got to make her first film, Les Malheurs de Sophie in 1946. (Wikipedia suggests this is a lost film, due largely to its censorship problems, but the Siren has been unable to confirm that.) The Battle of the Sexes in French Cinema, 1930–1956 by Noël Burch and Geneviève Sellier offers an overview of some of Audry’s films, as well as an explanation (other than the influence of former boss Ophuls, the reason most critics proffer) of why she primarily made costume films:

With her husband, Pierre Laroche, [after her first film] Jacqueline Audry then adapted three novels by Colette for the screen [Gigi (1948); Minne, l’ingénue libertine (Minne, 1950); Mitsou (1956)] as well as Victor Marguerite’s La Garçonne. From the start, then, she was a feminist filmmaker in that all her movies directly challenge sexual roles as defined by society. But she resorts to the smokescreen of the costume film, and it can be argued that the success of many of her films was the result of a misunderstanding fostered by a lightheartedly erotic atmosphere that made it possible for her to criticize gender relations without clashing openly with the general climate of male chauvinism.

Olivia was given the ugly title The Pit of Loneliness when it was released three years later in the States, in an obvious attempt to evoke memories of Radclyffe Hall’s notorious The Well of Loneliness. But it’s based on Dorothy Bussy's English-language novel, which was published under a pseudonym in 1950. Michael Koresky points out that Bussy’s “queer bona fides are rather remarkable: the bisexual Bussy’s younger brother was Lytton Strachey, renowned gay writer and critic; she was involved in an affair with renowned arts patron Lady Ottoline Morrell; and was friends with André Gide and E. M. Forster.” Audry liked to work with people close to her. Sister Colette Audry did the adaptation for Olivia (thus ensuring it would sometimes be identified as another work by THE Colette); and husband LaRoche, who co-wrote Les Visiteurs du Soir for Marcel Carné and Lumière d’été for Jean Grémillon, wrote the dialogue.

Olivia “was considered as a plea for sanity” on its subject, wrote Shipman. But Burch and Sellier say that “it was after she made Olivia that some critics expressed more aggressive hostility to Audry, as though she had broken a taboo that no longer allowed her movies to be classified merely as enjoyable entertainment.” Audry died in an automobile accident in 1977; her last film, which starred Emmanuelle Riva, was Bitter Fruit in 1967. In addition to the obstacles she faced as a woman director, her low profile among cinephiles has also obviously been affected, like many others, by the Nouvelle Vague’s imprecations against “the cinema of quality.” But let’s consider a thumbnail sketch of Minne: the story of a woman unable to find sexual pleasure because she finds that men are concerned only with their own.

Be honest with the Siren: Aren’t you dying to see it?

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Hold Back the Dawn, at Last on Blu Ray

The Siren is inordinately pleased to announce that the home-video gods have heard our pleas: Hold Back the Dawn, Mitchell Leisen’s best film, from one of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder’s best scripts, is out today, July 16, on glorious region-free Blu Ray from Arrow. The first pressing will contain a booklet with the Siren’s essay about the film, so if you want one, you need to put some hustle in it à la Georges and Anita.

The Siren’s longtime patient readers will no doubt recall the Siren’s intense dislike of any praise for an old movie that starts, ends, or continues in any way with “It’s so modern!” or, worse, “It could have been made last week!” Righty-o, last week, because the present-day woods are chock-full of Wilders and Leisens etc.


Hold Back the Dawn remains relevant to Our National Moment. Spookily relevant, as the Siren describes the plot:

“A refugee from an ‘undesirable’ country, one with a U.S. immigration quota that won’t get around to him for nearly a decade, finds himself stuck in a Mexican border town with hundreds of other desperate refugees, all looking for a way in.”

The Siren wonders what Brackett and Wilder would say once they’d read this week’s newspapers. (They’d probably get their hats and coats and head straight back for the afterlife.)

With the kind permission of Arrow, the Siren is posting an excerpt from her much-longer booklet essay.

The movie opens with [Romanian-born Georges Iscovescu (Charles Boyer)] striding into a movie studio and desperately offering a story pitch to a director named Dwight Saxon, played by Leisen himself, for the bargain price of $500. (In a nice inside-reference, Leisen is shown on the Paramount set directing Veronica Lake and Brian Donlevy in I Wanted Wings.) ‘My papers give my occupation as a dancer, which is correct, in a general way,’ he says as the flashback begins. To a savvy American (or any would-be immigrant) in 1941 this was an alert. The quotas were small, and made even smaller by a clause in the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924: Officials could refuse admittance to anyone likely to be a ‘public charge.’ Iscovescu is, as plainly as could be under the Production Code, a gigolo, and a potential public charge if ever there was one.

Even as played by Charles Boyer, he of the tender eyes and chocolate-ganache voice, Iscovescu is one cold article. The unnamed border town he’s stuck in has become so full of would-be immigrants that no hotel rooms are available — until a refugee hangs himself in one at the Esperanza, and Iscovescu pounces without a second thought. Leisen’s camera emphasizes the cramped boredom of the town, having Boyer cross and re-cross certain parts of the set. The border checkpoint is marked by a fence (‘it might as well be a hundred feet high,’ fumes Georges), palm trees and a massive ‘UNITED STATES’ over the gate; the interior is seen only in glimpses. At first, glum, sardonic Georges comes to life only when in the company of fellow gold-digger Anita.

Paulette Goddard, born on Long Island and American down to her lacquered toenails, gives not the slightest impression of being any kind of foreigner. But Anita is such a delightful presence in the movie it scarcely matters, scheming to take her rich sucker to the cleaners while she keeps a weather eye on Boyer. In contrast to de Havilland, whose dialogue as Emmy is achingly sincere, Brackett and Wilder give Anita nothing but firecrackers: ‘Your door was unlocked. I just dropped in to borrow a cup of sugar.’ Goddard’s best work outside of her Chaplin films often involved a scene where she gets to tell another character the facts of life, as in The Women. Here it’s when Anita tells Emmy the truth about Georges: ‘I know what you’re thinking — this woman’s a tramp, and she’s in love with him. Well, I am a tramp, and I am in love with him.’ Anita’s essentially an amoral person, but what sells the scene is the sympathy that flickers across her face when she sees how deeply Emmy is hurt.

Exquisitely pretty De Havilland, who got the role on loanout from a highly reluctant Jack Warner, was perhaps an odd choice for a schoolteacher who’s reached her mid-twenties and remained a virgin. But the script suggests Emmy is sheltered more than anything, a good Catholic girl (she and Boyer have a lovely scene in a Mexican church) who has dreamt of romance and is uncommonly vulnerable to anyone offering it.


And like everyone else in Hold Back the Dawn, Emmy isn’t a saint, as Brackett and Wilder show by giving her the film’s most searing line. U.S. sentiment about immigration in 1941 was decidedly, even virulently “con”; polls showed most Americans wanted the refugees kept out. Brackett and Wilder allude to that as Emmy rhapsodizes to Georges about the promise of America: ‘You see, it’s like, um — like a lake. Clear and fresh and it’ll never get stagnant while new streams are flowing in.’ ‘Well,’ says Georges, ‘your people are building pretty high dams to stop those streams.’ ‘Just to keep out the scum, Georges,’ replies Emmy.

And yes – aside to Karen Green, Yojimbo and others – you bet the Siren discusses The Affair of the Cockroach.

If you don’t know what she means by that, by all means, buy the disc and find out.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

The House by the River (1950)

“Lang never approached a project casually; he enjoyed making films too much.” 
—Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It

In 1950 Fritz Lang was coming off the box-office failure of a movie dear to his heart, The Secret Beyond the Door. He told Bogdanovich The House by the River was just something he was offered, but “there are certain things in it I liked.” The movie, made for peanuts at tightwad Republic Studios, is a low-budget thriller with a low-prestige cast—a potboiler, a melodrama. So the Siren expected it to be terrific, and it was.

Low budgets don’t matter that much with a talent like Lang’s—he takes the obvious set-ness of the sets and fits it to the story. The house of the title sits in an improbably compact row of other houses, so close to a large, swift river that in real life one good set of spring rains would have them all scrambling for higher ground. The story’s location is often described as the South, and perhaps that was the intent, but judging from the accents, it’s southern Illinois. The characters are affluent, but they seem to have spent everything on the wallpaper and wainscoting with not much left over for little details like furniture.

The movie’s setting is everywhere and nowhere. To the emigrant Lang, it’s just America, tasteless affluence hard by a seething flow of decay and sublimated sex.

Lang was given no real stars for this picture, but the lead, Louis Hayward, is so enjoyable you scramble for his filmography to see what else he’s done. The first line of the movie is spoken by an elderly busybody hoeing her garden: “I hate this river,” she says, as the corpse of something floats past. Stephen Byrne (Hayward) gets up from his writing, easily distracted from something he wasn’t approaching with passion anyway. Stephen’s character is revealed in one affable line delivery—“It’s people you should be blaming for the filth, not the river”—and in his reaction, too disengaged even to glance in the direction of a dead thing. Up in the far background, a pretty young housemaid (Dorothy Patrick) approaches. She’ll be dead in the next ten minutes of runtime, discarded as ruthlessly as the animal.

The House by the River, 88 minutes rippling out from that admirably succinct opening, builds a decayed, feverishly lustful atmosphere. Its antihero blossoms from failed writer to bestselling sensation through the simple expedient of strangling someone. The budget may have been low, but for a Lang lover the movie is full of marvels, from a twisted tree in the river that seems to have a taste for carrion, to a shot of Stephen at the top of a cellar door, cloaked in black on both sides as he searches for a sack to make a shroud for a dead woman.

Fritz Lang is a sexy filmmaker. The Siren has no idea why people often treat this statement as mad. Other directors highlight attraction, eroticism, games. Lang understands those things too, very well indeed, but he is mainly preoccupied with the ways people use sex to torment one another. In The House by the River, that shows in scenes such as the housemaid Emily’s death—the build to Stephen’s seduction attempt is ferociously sensual. So is the aftermath, as the position of Emily’s corpse and the way Stephen leans over her suggests consummation as much as cover-up.

Tortured sex is also evident when Stephen’s wife Marjorie (Jane Wyatt) comes home, flicking down the staircase with the same movements we last saw from the maid. Stephen unlaces Marjorie's corset, she pulls his hands around her waist. She says she should have stayed home, throws up her arms around him in a gesture of wifely affection that also echoes Emily’s corpse—and Stephen flashes on the fish he saw jumping in the river as he and his brother John (Lee Bowman) dumped the girl’s body. There is hunger too in John watching a square dance—he’s in love with Wyatt, but his leg is lame, and through Lang’s camera you sense John focusing not only on his carefree, murderous brother, but also on Wyatt’s hand disappearing inside a partner’s. Sex is even there in the motherly bustle of John’s own housemaid (Jody Gilbert), her vast bosom leaning over him as she coaxes her love object to eat some eggs.

Stephen is a frustrated writer, dedicated enough to submit and re-submit manuscripts again and again, but not enough to get any better at writing. Emily’s death turns Stephen’s one published book into a success, and also releases something in him—talent, we suspect. Inhibitions gone, he writes a book about her disappearance. But the better his book gets, the closer he steps to discovery. Naturally it’s the river, a classic symbol of sensuality, that resolves Stephen’s fate by uncovering death.

(Originally published at the late lamented Fandor.)

Friday, January 18, 2019

It's Lonely at the Top, Mostly Because You're a Drunk: The Biopics of 1957

The Siren challenges you to find a photo of Jeanne Eagels wearing anything like this.

Gather round, patient readers, and listen to how and why, by the authority she’s invested in herself, the Siren has declared 1957 to be Peak Hollywood Biopic. It all begins with Kim Novak’s turn in the title role of Jeanne Eagels, the 1957 George Sidney-helmed movie about the Broadway legend.

The Siren had already seen the movie, but she wanted to see it again, so she forked over a few bucks to Amazon Prime and found herself fascinated. That’s not to say the movie’s good — it isn’t — but if there’s only interesting and boring, Jeanne Eagels is undeniably interesting.

It stars Kim Novak (still getting the big buildup from Columbia boss Harry Cohn at the time) as the Broadway actress who was worshipped by Bette Davis, the one that Barbara Stanwyck scrimped and saved to see multiple times in the stage version of Somerset Maugham’s Rain. Eagels had toured extensively, but she died in 1929, and at this point in the late 1950s, the number of people who could recall her stage performances was dwindling. She’d made less than a dozen movies, most of which were either lost or well out of circulation. (The Letter, her best-known film, didn’t hit TV until TCM screened it in the 2000s, according to Lou Lumenick.) Still, Jeanne Eagels was a name that meant something to acting connoisseurs, and still does. Casting Novak was a way of saying she too was a gifted actress.

The real Jeanne Eagels

Novak looks a little bit like Eagels, but the script undermines her at every turn. Eagels had a turbulent life that you’d think would be more than enough for a movie, but even in their waning years the studios never hesitated to gild the lily. So Eagels’ early days in a traveling theater become a job as a hoochie-coochie dancer in a carnival. (The reason behind this can be deduced from a trip through Google Images, dominated by Novak in her dancing get-up.) Jeanne falls in love with Sal Satori, played by Jeff Chandler. Sal operates the carnival, but his real job is to be the ordinary Joe who represents the Career-Obsessed Woman’s One Chance at Love. Fortunately, one of the film’s pleasures is how good Brooklyn native Chandler is in this fictional and largely thankless role.

Never happened, but it's the best scene in the movie.

Amidst a choice selection of whopping fibs about Eagels, the winner has to be how she gets the part in Rain. In real life, according to her biographers Eric Woodard and Tara Hanks, she probably unearthed the manuscript from a pile in producer Jed Harris’s office. In the movie, Jeanne is given the script by the once-great and now-alcoholic actress "Elsie Desmond" (Virginia Grey, hitting her two scenes out of the park) in hopes that Jeanne’s star power can help Elsie convince a producer to take both the play and her. Instead, Jeanne convinces the producer she’s perfect for Sadie Thompson. The despondent Desmond throws herself out of the window of her Bowery flophouse, and the resulting guilt is what sends Jeanne spiraling into addiction. (In 1950s biopics, there’s always a moment of guilt, trauma, or betrayal that starts someone drinking; nobody ever goes from cocktails to the drunk tank without a precise cause.) This near-slanderous bit of fantasy was no doubt a big part of what caused Eagels’ surviving family to sue (they lost), but it does bring us the movie’s visual highlight. As Jeanne waits in the wings on Rain’s opening night, Elsie shows up to hiss that the role of Sadie will only bring bad luck. The Siren isn’t crazy about a lot of ultracrisp shadow-averse late-50s black-and-white cinematography, but that is Robert H. Planck’s style for Jeanne Eagels — except when Sidney decides to get freaky because Jeanne is drunk, high, or having a meltdown. And in this key moment, Grey and Novak are shot in close-up, their heads almost floating, leaving open the possibility that Jeanne is imagining the whole thing.

The Siren included this because it's another look at Novak's Sadie Thompson eye makeup, which is brilliant.

It would have made for a good time to cut away from showing Rain onstage, because when Novak has to play Eagels playing Thompson, sad to say she’s not up to it. Brash sexuality like Sadie’s wasn’t Novak’s style. She was opaque, mysterious, reserved. Watching her strut her stuff for the denizens of Pago Pago only brings up awkward comparisons to Swanson and Crawford; the Siren can’t imagine how people who’d actually seen Eagels would have reacted.

Novak does clock some good work, though, notably in her first scene with Agnes Moorehead, who plays a composite version of several acting coaches and eventually settles into the time-honored Faithful Friend biopic role. And Novak nearly had the Siren in tears when, near the end of the film, Jeanne fully expresses her love for Sal. It’s much more moving than the finale, after Jeanne meets her fate via some of Sidney’s craziest framing. The last scene shows Sal going to see Eagels in her final film: a musical (!) that has Eagels on the balcony of a Southern plantation house (!!), singing a song about love while twirling around in a hoopskirt. The Siren cannot fathom why they decided to pretend Jeanne Eagels was some kind of proto-Jeanette MacDonald, especially since earlier in the movie, Jeanne is shown filming the same movie as a silent. (The director who talks her through the scene? An uncredited Frank Borzage. His manner is so supportive and intelligent that it’s easy to see why the likes of Janet Gaynor loved him.) But then, this ending— are we supposed to think a Borzage silent got The Dancing Cavalier treatment? No wonder Woodard and Hanks spend a good seven pages debunking this film and the number it’s done on perceptions of Eagels.

Leslie Crosbie, or Naughty Marietta? You decide.

And that is the story of Jeanne Eagels, a strange and highly fictionalized biopic from 1957. What the Siren discovered, once she started digging around for comparisons, is that 1957 represents, without a doubt, Peak Strange and Highly Fictionalized Biopic. How this happened is hard to say. Hollywood has long loved biopics, which offer a choice lead role and ostensibly confer a certain kind of prestige. The 1950s fused that with the new vogue for socially conscious storytelling to come up with entries like I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Love Me or Leave Me, and Lust for Life. But, for whatever viral reason, 1957 went nuts; there were at least 11 screen biographies (12 if you count Saint Joan). Having described Jeanne Eagels in detail, the Siren will describe some of the other films in brief. There are three she will skip: Monkey on My Back (dir. Andre DeToth), about boxer Barney Ross’s struggle with post-World War II heroin addiction, because she hasn’t seen it; The Spirit of St. Louis (dir. Billy Wilder), about Charles Lindbergh’s famous trans-Atlantic flight, because she wasn’t that crazy about it; and Fear Strikes Out (dir. Robert Mulligan), about baseball player Jim Piersall’s mental breakdown, because while the Siren has seen that one, she doesn’t remember it.

The others vary in quality, but a few are quite good. And by and large they do have a connecting theme, which explains the Siren's headline.

Not the lowest ebb, but close.

The Helen Morgan Story (directed by Michael Curtiz)
Lead Performance: Curtiz turned down or was turned down by 32 actresses, including everyone from Doris Day to Patti Page, before hiring Ann Blyth to play the definitive 1920s torch singer. Morgan originated the role of Julie Laverne in Showboat, singing “Bill” in her signature draped-over-the-piano style. Blyth, who’d worked with Curtiz a dozen years earlier on Mildred Pierce, is a credible Morgan, although for some strange reason Blyth’s own pretty singing voice (which wasn’t that far from Morgan’s) was dubbed by Gogi Grant. It was Blyth’s last film role, for reasons you can read about in Jacqueline T. Lynchs book; and it was Curtiz’s last film for Warner Brothers after more than three decades of towering over the lot.

Alcohol consumption: Life-threatening. The real Morgan's alcoholism was apparent virtually the first time she walked into a speakeasy. (In this movie, she starts as a carnival dancer. What was it that year with starting women out in carnivals?)

Liberties Taken With the Facts: Too many to tally, as much of the script concerns Helen’s travails with Paul Newman as the Inevitable Composite Lover, called Larry Maddux. Larry’s a louse for much of the running time, and the movie blames Morgan’s drinking on him. In truth Morgan reportedly had three husbands, none of whom show up here. In 1926 Morgan gave up a baby girl for adoption, but according to Alan K. Rode’s Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, the studio’s deal with Morgan’s mother forbade them from including that story. Despite a plot that lands the heroine in the alcoholic ward with DTs, the movie omits a great deal of the real Morgan’s sad life.

Inspirational or Tragic?: The fadeout has Morgan attending a gala dinner arranged by a contrite Maddux, with the suggestion that she’s on the comeback trail. In the last year or so of Morgan's life she did manage a small-scale return, but it was marred by more bouts of drinking, and she died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1941, aged just 41. The phony ending is one more thing that diminishes the film’s impact.

Who looks like that with Carolyn Jones’s arms around him? A psycho, that’s who. 

Baby Face Nelson
(directed by Don Siegel)
Lead Performance: Mickey Rooney, and he’s downright terrifying. The movie doesn’t hesitate to portray Baby Face as the psychopath he was — nasty, brutish, and short. You sniff that biopics are Oscar bait? Not this one, baby.

Alcohol consumption: Full tumblers poured straight from the bottle, but in this movie, nobody’s gonna live long enough to care about their liver anyway.

Liberties Taken With the Facts: A lot, probably, but the Siren won’t try to nitpick a portrayal of Nelson, who was a prolific killer and had few-to-zero redeeming qualities. Once you get that right (and despite some feints at humanizing the guy the film mostly does), the details don’t matter so much. The film is true pulp, in some ways a poor man’s White Heat. Siegel was a great action director, and the Siren would love to say more about the visuals, but Baby Face Nelson is hard to find in a good watchable form. She herself saw it on Youtube; her recollection is that the version she saw was slightly better than the ones circulating now, but not by much. Rumors abound about its preservation status, but it was screened at Film Forum as recently as 2006.

Inspirational or Tragic?: Need you ask? Screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring and Siegel come up with a fate for Nelson that is even more depressing than his real-life end.


The Buster Keaton Story
(directed, in a manner of speaking, by Sidney Sheldon)

Lead Performance: Donald O’Connor, good in other things, but here a rubber-faced mugging-machine who has almost nothing in common with Keaton, save flexibility.

Alcohol consumption: Copious. And that’s just the audience trying to watch it.

Liberties Taken With the Facts: Oh my stars, it’s basically all liberties and no facts. They even omit The General. There is little if any acknowledgement of Keaton’s towering directorial genius. The movie revolves largely around his drinking, which is attributed to his crush object (Rhonda Fleming) throwing him over to marry a duke. The one good thing you can say about the film is that the $50,000 Keaton was paid helped him buy a house.

Inspirational or Tragic?: The end, where faithful wife Ann Blyth tells him she’s pregnant, is meant to be uplifting, but it’s also completely made-up and the kind of hokum the real Buster wouldn't have put in his own movies on pain of death.

The Siren forgot to mention the gambling addiction.

The Joker Is Wild (directed by Charles Vidor)

Lead Performance: Frank Sinatra as Joe E. Lewis, the nightclub comedian whose days as a singer ended when a mob boss, angered by Lewis’s walking out on a promised gig, took horrific revenge. The Siren always cites Lewis as Sinatra’s best performance, and the movie surrounding it isn’t bad at all. Sinatra recorded the songs live, claiming it made for better performances; some of them had to be redubbed, but Sammy Cahn’s Oscar-winning “All the Way” gleams.

Alcohol consumption: Lewis is shown as a severe alcoholic, which is attributed to his getting his throat cut, and for once the pat explanation seems pretty reasonable in context.

Liberties Taken With the Facts: Not as many as most others made this year, perhaps because Lewis and Sinatra were friends. The real Lewis was nowhere near the singer that Sinatra was, but the gruesome mob attack did scar his face, cut his vocal cords, and took a part of his tongue; it did take him ages even to be able to speak; he did make a comeback as a nightclub comedian, albeit a strangely unfunny one (judge for yourself). The movie mostly omits the fact that Lewis continued to work for gangsters all his life. (Hard to be a comedian in that era if you didn’t.) Lewis’s sole marriage ended after two years; his joke was, “A man doesn’t know true happiness until he’s married, and then it's too late.” The movie doesn’t show that, but then, romance is where most biopics veer into fiction — because the real story isn’t romantic, because the studio didn’t want to get sued, or both. Jeanne Crain, as the society woman Lewis loves and loses, and Mitzi Gaynor, as the dancer he marries on the rebound, are touching, as is Eddie Albert as the Faithful Friend.

Inspirational or Tragic?: Here’s another perverse 1957 twist. This film could have had an accurate happy ending, given that Lewis was enjoying a lot of success when it was released. Instead The Joker Is Wild closes on a wistful scene of Lewis catching glimpses of his past in storefront windows, and vowing to quit the bottle. The real comedian never would have considered such a thing — liquor was key to his persona, a typical one-liner being “I distrust camels, and anyone else who can go a week without a drink.” He died in 1971, of a heart attack.

One of many bad moments in the first Chaney marriage.

Man of a Thousand Faces (directed by Joseph Pevney)

Lead Performance: James Cagney plays Lon Chaney, one all-time great portraying another. The catch was that square-faced, short Cagney looked nothing like (relatively) tall, lantern-jawed Chaney, a fact that Perc Westmore’s prosthetic makeup couldn’t quite overcome. Still, it’s a great performance. The Siren has huge affection for this film, which was a staple of cable TV back in the day.

Alcohol consumption: Believe it or not, almost none.

Liberties Taken With the Facts: As all fans know, both of Chaney’s parents were deaf, as they are in this film. His first wife, singer Cleva Creighton, played by an excellent Dorothy Malone, did attempt suicide by drinking mercuric chloride on stage, as she does here. However, the real Cleva was clearly suffering from depression or some other kind of mental illness, and probably deserves more pity than she gets as the villain in Man of a Thousand Faces. Otherwise, the film is full of details changed or eliminated, the script filling in the blanks of Chaney’s obsessively private life. (“Between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney,” he said.) The Siren’s favorite parts: Cagney’s enthralling recreation of a scene from The Miracle Man, and the moment he reaches for the makeup kit at the end (another fictional bit, but who cares?).

Inspirational or Tragic?: Despite Chaney's early death, mostly the former; and an example of Hollywood at least trying to do right by people with disabilities.

Blackout drinking: Bad lifestyle choice, or an inventive way to meet cute girls?

Beau James
(directed by Melville Shavelson)

Lead Performance: Bob Hope as James John “Jimmy” Walker, aka Beau James, the handsome, hard-partying, and quite corrupt mayor of New York from 1926 to 1932. While the movie has wit (“I wasn’t the only chump in this city. It took a lot of you to elect me”) this is largely a dramatic role, and Hope is entertaining as one of the most well-loved leaders this town ever had. The Siren hasn’t seen it in many years, but she has fond memories of Beau James.

Alcohol consumption: Vast, but largely benign, as when Walker passes out on a park bench, where he is found by Ziegfeld chorus girl Betty Compton (Vera Miles). She takes him home and sobers him up, and he falls in love with her.

Liberties Taken With the Facts: Unlike the man playing him, Walker’s politics were notably liberal. He created the Department of Sanitation, started what became the IND subway, cleaned up parks, built roads, docks, and other projects. A lover of booze, speakeasies, and chorus girls, he largely declined to enforce Prohibition, and as a state senator before he became mayor, he helped pass a law requiring that “oath-based organizations” file a list of their members with the state — a requirement that took dead aim at the resurgent Ku Klux Klan, and effectively turned it into an illegal organization. Needless to say, doing great things for a city’s infrastructure was way too boring for a 1957 biopic. Some real events are woven in, such as Walker’s going bust in the 1929 stock-market crash, and his drinking and partying are well covered. But most of Walker’s political legacy is skimmed in the movie, which is more interested in exploring Walker’s marriage in-name-only to Allie (Alexis Smith) and his affair with Betty, both of which are true, and in showing the corruption in his administration, albeit in as nice-guy a way as possible.

Inspirational or Tragic?: Walker was eventually forced to resign, and in the movie he does it at a Yankees game after he gets booed by the New Yorkers he loves. But he still has Betty, and they literally sail off together. In real life too, Walker still had his Betty when the dust settled. The sad part is the fate of this film itself. Once fairly common on AMC and the like, it isn’t on DVD and hasn’t been seen (legitimately) anywhere in years. One TCM user says plaintively that she’s 71 and hopes to see it again before she dies. There is a version on Youtube, but it’s migraine-inducingly out of focus.

Friday, January 11, 2019

To Save and Project: The 16th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation

Greetings, O friends of the Siren. For those of you residing in the New York area, rejoice: To Save and Project, the Museum of Modern Art’s film-preservation festival, is once more upon us and runs through Jan. 31. This year’s edition is full of things to tantalize a classic-film fan, and the Siren herewith provides a list of titles she is eager to see. For a full rundown on the festival, as well as dates and times of screenings, go here. The Siren is including MoMA’s descriptions of the restorations.

Forbidden Paradise 1924. USA. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Screenplay by Agnes Christine Johnson, Hans Kräl. With Pola Negri, Rod La Rocque, Adolphe Menjou, Pauline Starke. New digital restoration by The Museum of Modern Art and The Film Foundation, with funding provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation and the Franco-American Cultural Fund. Screening Friday, January 11, 7:00 pm; Tuesday, January 15, 7:00 pm.

Pola Negri arrived in Hollywood just after her old friend, mentor, and sparring partner from Ufa, Ernst Lubitsch. He was soon lent out to make Rosita with Mary Pickford (another film which MoMA has recently restored to its full glory) while Negri, to her tremendous chagrin, wound up working on The Spanish Dancer, a similar story. (“Mary,” sniffed Pola in her Memoirs of a Star, “was hardly a Latin type.”) Negri’s film did better at the box office than Rosita, something she notes with some relish, but she knew Herbert Brenon was no Lubitsch, and she yearned to work again with her old mentor. The result was Forbidden Paradise, the fulfillment of Pola’s longstanding desire to play Catherine the Great of Russia (or something close). MoMA says the film has been restored to 100 minutes and hasn’t been seen in this close to a complete form since its original release. The Siren, who’s never seen it, will be eager to view a scene in which Negri must run through the long corridors of the lavish set representing the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, then down a winding stairway, while wearing a “heavily brocaded negligee with a long sable-trimmed train.” When Lubitsch described the scene to her, Negri made the reasonable point that in such a get-up she was liable to trip and break her neck. Lubitsch reminded her that “we did much more dangerous stunts in Berlin.” “I was younger then.” “Three years younger,” he replied. Negri said her neck had gotten much more valuable in those three years. Lubitsch decided to make his point another way. He snatched the negligee, stepped into it and, his ever-present cigar clutched in his teeth, made the run himself. Negri, once she quit laughing, had to admit she had lost the argument. “And,” she told him, “the cigar is a brilliant ‘Lubitsch touch.’ So right for Catherine.”

The Private Life of Henry VIII 1933. Great Britain. Directed by Alexander Korda. Screenplay by Lajos Biró, Arthur Wimperis. With Charles Laughton, Merle Oberon, Robert Donat, Elsa Lanchester. New 4K digital restoration by the BFI National Archive and The Film Foundation, in association with ITV and Park Circus, with funding provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation. 97 min. Screening Saturday, January 12, 7:00 pm (introduced by Bryony Dixon, BFI) and
Tuesday, January 22, 1:00 pm.

Seen many times by the Siren, and she isn’t tired of it yet. Historians sigh and roll their eyes, but Charles Laughton’s carnivorous oversexed mountain of a man remains what critic Michael Koresky calls the “culturally definitive” portrait of Henry VIII. Laughton was just 34 and turns in a raucous, brawling performance that’s one of the best things this great actor ever did. Watch, too, for his moment of heartbreak after Catherine Howard’s execution. In Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor, Simon Callow quotes Laughton as saying “I suppose I must have read a good deal about [Henry VIII], but for the rest I spent a lot of my time walking around the old Tudor Palace at Hampton Court, getting my mind accustomed to the square, squat architecture of the rooms and the cloisters. I think it was from the architecture of the houses and the rooms that I got my idea of Henry.” So vivid is Laughton’s monarch that many down the years have assumed the performance had a great deal of Laughton himself in it, which is far from the truth. “Few people would, on meeting, have thought the tubby diffident slightly obstinate young man they might have met at supper the same person as the massive, centred titan exploding in Jovan laughter that hits the screen,” remarks Callow.

Oblomok Imperii (Fragment of an Empire). 1929. USSR. Directed by Fridrikh Ermler. Screenplay by Ermler, Ekaterina Vinogradskaya. With Fiodor Nikitin, Yakov Gudkin, Liudmila Semionova, Valerii Solovtsov. New digital restoration courtesy the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and EYE Filmmuseum in partnership with Gosfilmofond of Russia. Silent; with piano accompaniment. With English intertitles. 109 min. Screening Sunday, January 13, 4:00 pm (introduced by Peter Bagrov, George Eastman Museum) and Tuesday, January 15, 4:00 pm.

This “little-known masterpiece,” as Imogen Sara Smith calls it, made quite a stir at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival last June. It looks like a must.

Crime Wave 1954. USA. Directed by André de Toth. Screenplay by Crane Wilbur. With Sterling Hayden, Gene Nelson, Timothy Carey, Ted de Corsia, Charles Buchinsky (Bronson).

Fair warning from MoMA: “This may be the last chance you’ll ever get to see André de Toth’s Crime Wave, one of the most thrilling B noirs of 1950s American cinema, in a pristine 35mm print struck from the original camera negative. Famed for Bert Glennon’s nighttime location photography throughout Los Angeles, Crime Wave stars Sterling Hayden as a cynical, brutal police sergeant who puts the screws on a newlywed ex-con (Gene Nelson) in order to nab a trio of jailbreak thugs.” MoMA is running Crime Wave on January 19, alongside two movies that Hayden made in Germany toward the end of his life: Pharos of Chaos (1983) and Der Havarist (1984), both screening on January 19 and 27. Wolf-Eckart Bühler, who directed Der Havarist (The Shipwrecker) and co-directed Pharos of Chaos with Manfred Blank, will introduce the two films. Both are biographical in nature, focusing on Hayden’s acting, his heroic war record, and the not-so-heroic act he never forgave himself for: appearing as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951. Hayden, who had greatly admired the Yugoslav partisans who fought during the war, had indeed joined the Communist Party briefly in 1946. Despite that vulnerability to HUAC’s probe he signed up with the 1948 Committee for the First Amendment, the famed group that went to Washington to support the Hollywood Ten. But when Congress turned its sights on Hayden, fear of going to jail and losing custody of his children led him to name names, including screenwriter Robert Lees, screenwriter-director Abraham Polonsky, and actress Karen Morley. Years later some name-namers adopted a defensive, even truculent attitude about their decision (Elia Kazan comes to mind); not Hayden. He expressed his remorse publicly many times, and for the rest of his life. Despite his low regard for acting ("I spent a lifetime selling out. I always hated acting but I kept on acting...a commuter on a tinsel train") Hayden brought his intelligence and introspection to some of the most remarkable performances in noir, including The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing, and the noir-inflected western Terror in a Texas Town. In the blacklist interview book Tender Comrades, Karen Morley cited Hayden as the only friendly witness she could “maybe” forgive. John Huston, writing in his 1980 autobiography, said, “I always felt great sympathy with [Hayden] for this failure to live up to his own idea of himself. But even from this experience he learned and grew. There is a kingliness about Sterling now.”

Finishing School. 1934. USA. Directed by Wanda Tuchock, George Nicholls Jr. Screenplay by Tuchock, Laird Doyle. With Frances Dee, Billie Burke, Ginger Rogers, Bruce Cabot. New 35mm preservation courtesy The Library of Congress. 73 min.
Screening Sunday, January 13, 6:45 pm; Monday, January 14, 4:30 pm.

Dorothy Arzner wasn’t quite the only female director in 1930s Hollywood: Wanda Tuchock also had a directing co-credit on this (barely) Pre-Code tale of fresh young Frances Dee corrupted by Ginger Rogers (which sounds like fun). This film was a hit with the TCM Film Festival crowd last year, and a restored version is most welcome. “Bring on your women— that’s all we can say, if this is a sample of a woman director can do with a story about a woman’s troubles,” wrote the Hollywood Filmograph at the time. Tuchock went to on to rack up many screenwriting credits, but directing was not to be, save a 1950s short.

Among the rest of the screenings, the Siren is also highly intrigued by Nude on the Moon (who isn’t, with that title), written and directed by Doris Wishman in 1961; a new digital preservation of F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926); the New York premiere of Cane River (1982), written and directed by Horace Jenkins, which MoMA calls “a racially themed love story shot in Natchitoches Parish, a ‘free community of color’ in Louisiana; El fantasma del convento (The Phantom of the Monastery), directed by Fernando de Fuentes, and La mujer del porto (Woman of the Port), directed by Arcady Boytler, both made in Mexico in 1934.

Finally, Ida Lupino’s Never Fear (The Young Lovers) from 1949 gets a week-long run from January 25–31. This was one of the Lupino-directed films that the Siren admitted not having seen when she and Sheila O’Malley did a Film Comment podcast on Lupino. Given Lupino’s personal connection to the material — it concerns a dancer struggling to overcome the effects of polio, a disease that had also struck Lupino years before — this one is also a must.