Archive for Gale Sondergaard

The Mummy’s Curse

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 14, 2008 by dcairns

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“Bloomin’ Ada!” as my Mum would say. I have been tagged with a meme, using the parlance of our times. Next thing you know I’ll be participating in flash mobs and Anne Summers parties and other symptoms of this age we live in. I have been tagged by the Self-Styled Siren, who runs my favourite blog on classical Hollywood cinema (and occasional other subjects too) so I guess that means I have to comply. The meme (I’m not explaining that one: go pound on Professor Richard Dawkins’s door) requires me to list twenty actresses, and originated here. The idea is that they should be your twenty favourites — the Siren wisely narrowed that to twenty actresses whose mere presence in a film would be enough to make her watch it, and she’s hinted that she expects “classic choices”, so I’m guessing that tends to eliminate Little Nell, Daisy and Violet Hilton, Buck Angel or even Maria Montez. As well as this woman.

But I still feel  the need to whittle further, both to avoid repeating the Siren’s excellent list (I’ve just started on the THIN MAN films, and Myrna Loy is much on my mind), and to impart a unique something-or-other to the proceedings. I note that most of the actresses being selected are extremely beautiful, and since if I were to choose twenty actors, they might include numerous fellows I don’t actually admire physically, I thought it would be interesting to choose twenty actresses who… how shall I put this? Must find a classy and gentlemanly way of saying it.

Twenty actresses whom I would always be glad to see in a film, although I have no real desire to “do” them.

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1) Margaret Rutherford. I’m appalled to realise that I’ve had THE BEST DAYS OF YOUR LIFE for over a month now without watching it, and after spending ages trying to source a copy. Rutherford, who George Harrison, back in his Beatles heyday, would choose if challenged to name a favourite actress, had a face rather like a very old man’s neck, but was both a dexterous eccentric comedian and a powerful tragedian, as witness her speech at the end of Orson Welles’s CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT. She exemplifies what I’m talking about here, since sexuality didn’t really play much of a role in her art or life: apparently she and her husband both referred to lists of instructions — crib sheets –  to see them through their honeymoon night, so ignorant were they of matters erotic.

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2) Agnes Moorehead. Not so sure here, since I never bought the idea that Agnes was ugly, and the warmth and admiration I feel for her is akin to romantic love, so maybe, under the right circumstances… but sexiness wasn’t part of her screen repertoire, which included all kinds of genius qualities, including the ability to throw hysterical attacks so convincing that terrified studio execs demanded retakes on both MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and THE TRUE STORY OF JESSE JAMES, to make her less effective. (It might seem perverse for studios to demand such a thing, but I suspect studio interference is nearly ALWAYS based on a desire to make films less effective.)

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3) Margaret Hamilton. A very different actress, but with a parallel to Moorehead in that both were typecast as spinsters and crones at an age when they could have been playing ingenues, had nature arranged things differently. The Wicked Witch isn’t in enough films, but over the decades she did enough obscure work that her appearances are often a surprise, as in the Sean Connery heist film THE ANDERSON TAPES. I always get very excited whenever she turns up, like a small child experiencing his first mouthful of cocaine.

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4) Una O’Connor. Usually delivered in small doses, which was probably wise — her shrieking performances in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE INVISIBLE MAN might conceivably appear irritating if overextended. (You think?) But I just saw Renoir’s astounding THIS LAND IS MINE, where she keeps an impressive lid on it for most of the show, only allowing those deadly lungs free rein at one key moment.

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5) Spring Byington. Utterly fabulous actress, often excelling in warm-hearted, matronly roles, but check out her bone-chilling nastiness in DRAGONWYCK, which I maintain she steals from under everyone else’s noses. The point where her character is inexplicably forgotten about by the plot is the point where the movie loses interest for me, even as a tired rehash of REBECCA.

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6) Speaking of that film, Mrs. Danvers herself (strangely impossible to picture MR. Danvers, I find), Dame Judith Anderson, deserves a mention. Often called upon to inject menace or else matriarchal might, she turns her hand ably to comedy in René Clair’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE.

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7) I’m on shaky ground again with Ethel Waters, because I do think she’s beautiful, and always appealing, warm and engaging (in contrast to her knife-wielding offscreen behaviour!), and I wouldn’t like to think I’m shoving her into some character actor Siberia just because she’s heavy. But CABIN IN THE SKY allows ample opportunity to compare and contrast her with Lena Horne, and then certain subjective truths become inescapable. My love of Ethel is entirely platonic. My love of Lena is entirely otherwise.

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8) Irene Handl. When you have a figure as beloved in old age as Irene Handl, once in a while you get the urge to see what she was like when young. But with Irene Handle, youth appears to have been a condition she never experienced. A brilliant eccentric player, she forged an unlikely career, given her unusual appearance, but she always made an impression, even in the smallest role, because she was incapable of leaving a part without fully investing it with life. So she could quite often make more impact in thirty seconds than the stars did with the rest of the film.

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9) Kathleen Freeman. You know this one? Always saying “He’s such a nice boy,” in Jerry Lewis movies. Lewis is generally brilliant at casting his supporting players, and he knew he was onto a great thing with Freeman.

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10) Dandy Nichols. Able to effortlessly take the manners and mores of social realism, 1960s style, and flip them into farce. Has a great moment in THE BED-SITTING ROOM, looking uncomfortable on a horse. That should be enough for anyone.

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11) Katie Johnson. She’s in other films, but it’s for THE LADYKILLERS she’s remembered. So old and frail at the time that she failed the insurance exam and had to be replaced with a younger actress, who promptly dropped dead, so Katie got the part in the end, and a good thing too. Her combination of physical fragility and steely moral certainty is exactly what the film needs.

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12) Flora Robson. I saw her interviewed on TV when I was a kid and she was pretty old, and the interviewer kindly said that she had grown more beautiful with age, while the glamour girls could only fade. It’s kind of true, but what an amazing career she had with her big Rondo Hatton face — it no doubt kept her from many parts, but she was able to command some corkers. And actually, her flirtation with Errol Flynn in THE SEA HAWK is entirely charming and credible.

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13) Marie Dressler. DINNER AT EIGHT is actually kind of a yawn for me, but I do love her spectacular double-take when Jean Harlow says she’s been reading a book. Anybody who does a gigantic double take is tops with me.

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14) Thelma Ritter. Her presence here at number 14 makes it VERY clear, I hope, that this list is in no particular order.

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15) Esther Howard. A little obscure here? But SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS fans will know her as the randy widow Joel McCrea flees, jumping out the widow’s window rather that submitting to her wiles. Which is to say, sexuality is a part of the Howard repertoire, but it’s a comedy version, and what’s most important about her is her overbearing “charm”, deployed to very funny effect in HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO and about a hundred and fifty other films and TV shows. I’ll even add one not listed among her credits on the IMDb: WHAT A WAY TO GO!

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16) Megs Jenkins. One of my favourite larger ladies in British films, as seen in GREEN FOR DANGER and THE INNOCENTS. Her appearance is sort of Kathy Bates-like, but she has an incredibly beautiful and unusual voice, and I feel all warm and snuggly whenever I hear it. I would probably trade one of my less necessary limbs in exchange for about 1000 hours of Megs reading audio-books.

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17) Renee Houston. Had to have one Great Scot on the list. Renee was very pretty in the ’30s, but wasn’t making any films I’ve seen, so I know her from her later roles as battle-axes, drunken baggages and generally rambunctious females. She generally inspires a loud cheer in my household when her name appears in the credits, as it does in TIME WITHOUT PITY.

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18) The alarming Gail Sondergaard. I have no excuse for it, but I actually like her dragon lady yellowface stereotype turn in THE LETTER. And she’s terrifying in CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, without seeming to try.

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19) Patricia Collinge. Cinema’s greatest mum, apart from mine, that is, who can be seen briefly from the back in extreme longshot in my short film CRY FOR BOBO, and who recently complained that I’d made her look dumpy or something.

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20) Aline McMahon, but then actually I do think she’s extremely beautiful and under the right circumstances, if I were a younger man, etc…

And twenty who do fill me with indecent cravings:

Louise Brooks, Clara Bow, Annabella, Joan Blondell, Myrna Loy, Olivia DeHavilland, Paulette Goddard, Veronica Lake, Ava Gardner, Joan Greenwood, Gene Tierney, Natalie Wood, Claudia Cardinale, Shirley MacLaine as Fran Kubelik, Britt Ekland if I’m honest, Susannah York (I’m coming to believe she makes an even better Julie Christie than Julie Christie), Jeanne Moreau, Genevieve Bujold, Maggie Cheung, Charlize Theron… I could go on…

A Kitten isn’t just for Christmas…

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2008 by dcairns

We went round to my friend Kristin’s to admire her new kitten, Jonathan:

Jonathan did not disappoint!

Then, after crisps and cake and wine, I suggested watching CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, which I had copied for Kris because she wanted to see Gene Kelly being evil. As a fan of musicals and all things evil, how could she resist that combination?

Beautiful death-mask lighting by Woody Bredell.

It was quite a strange viewing experience. Even with the lights dimmed, Jonathan refused to settle, so the movie played out with an adorable bundle of fur skittering across the floorboards throughout. Then there was Kris’s TV, which has a failing tube or something, so that the top right of the screen is green and the rest is blue, sometimes creating a strange 3D effect where the background of a shot is tinted differently from the foreground. And then there was the tape itself (I recorded it on VHS since Kris’s DVD player was busted) which had been recorded over something in LP mode, so that in the audio background, strange slurred voices could be heard conversing or maybe arguing or singing in ssslllooowww mmmoootttiiiooonnn.

All in all, a strange way to see a film, and likely not one screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz nor director Robert Siodmak had in mind. But the film survived.

It’s a long-standing joke that audiences going to see a film called CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY with Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly must have been pretty shocked with the doomed noir love story they got in place of sentimental musical comedy. With that cast, a different title would really have helped, but the name of the film actually resonates beautifully with the story (original author Somerset Maugham had good taste, after all). The time-span of the tale is literally the duration of a soldier’s Christmas leave, and although Kelly inhabits the meatiest part of the story, it’s as much the jilted G.I.’s tale. But Siodmak, a star-maker all his life, didn’t manage to turn Dean Harens into a headliner, and the young hero kind of backs out of the limelight when faced with authentic moviestar wattage.

On Kris’s TV, Deanna was completely silhouetted except for the gleaming teardrop. Nice.

As fallen woman Deanna (terrific performance, completely different face and body language in the flashbacks to more innocent times) narrates her story, both he and she experience the beginnings of an emotional transformation. The flashback structure calls to mind Mankiewicz’s most celebrated work, CITIZEN KANE, while there’s at least one transition that’s very much in the KANE mold: Gene Kelly says, “You don’t believe me,” Deanna Durbin retorts, “I do,” and on those words we cut to the wedding ceremony.

Kelly gives a peach of a performance as charming psychopath Robert Mannette (“little man”?), tormented by the feeling that he’s a disgrace to his noble family name. The film seems to be having fun teasing us with Kelly. We wait almost half an hour for the putative star to turn up. when he does, he’s in silhouette, and he’s just killed a bookie. The next flashback shows how Deanna met her husband (the structure is tricky that way) and he asks her to dance. But just as they reach the dance floor, the song (“Always”, which Deanna gets to sing, twice, very slowly) ends. A brief conversation, and then the band strikes up. Gene takes Deanna in his arms, and just as we’re finally about to see Gene dance, Siodmak fades out.

But minutes later, Kris would remark, “He’s always dancing.”

Which is true. As is: “The mother’s really scary.”

Ah yes, Gale Sondergaard. “When it was all over, the psychoanalysts would say that Robert’s relations with his mother were pathological.” It wouldn’t be a Siodmak noir without a bit of dollar-book Freud. Or astronomy. One or the other. (THE KILLERS and UNCLE HARRY plump for astronomy. THE FILE ON THELMA JORDAN, THE DARK MIRROR, PHANTOM LADY, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE plump for d-b F. Later on in Siodmak’s career, his great NIGHTS, WHEN THE DEVIL CAME can be said to be about unconvincing scientific explanations for aberrant behaviour.) Sondergaard is never more alarming than when she’s being caring and motherly:

She’s just too corpsey. It’s a beautifully pitched performance, where Sodergaard seems to simply allow the lighting and the lines of her face to carry the sinister implications.

A gripping climax: Kelly has escaped from prison and seeks to kill Durbin for her perceived infidelity. The irony: Durbin has never stopped loving him, and her life as a prostitute has been a self-inflicted punishment for her perceived failure to save her husband from himself. It’s pretty sick stuff.

“How did he get out?” Fiona wanted to know. Women have a way of asking awkward practical questions like that. I showed ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST to director Morag McKinnon, and at the climactic flashback, when Charles Bronson’s brother is being hanged from a stone arch, she asked “Where’s the ladder?” To which the best answer is, “Maybe they just used the camera crane.”

“He escaped,” I attempted to explain.

“Yeah, but how?”

“Violence.”

“And dancing.”

“Yes. A deadly combination of violence and dancing.”

Deanna Durbin transcends the squalor in a Wagnerian climax as the clouds part and Tristan Und Isolde plays on the soundtrack, and as Glenn Kenny points out, the combination of Wagner and (yes!) astronomy connects irresistably to Bunuel’s UN CHIEN ANDALOU, but in the absence of any proven interest from Siodmak in Bunuel’s work, I have to question whether this is influence… or just a beautiful synchronicity.

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