Isherwood or Bust

Christopher Isherwood’s name on the credits of DIANE, a 1956 period potboiler of unusual size and duration, might lead one to expect a classy affair before viewing, or to judge harshly the novelist’s skills as a screen dramatist after viewing. This may be unfair, as who knows what contributions co-writer John Erskine is guilty of? (This was his first screen credit in twenty years, mysteriously.) And we can certainly detect the contribution of the Breen Office in this bowdlerization of a famous courtesan’s love life. Diane de Poitiers was mistress to King Francis I AND his son Henri, which makes her a fine role for Lana — remember the familial mix-ups rumoured in the Stompanato affair? — but you wouldn’t really know any of this from the story told here. The movie also stars James Bond 007, Pancho Villa, Sakura the Sorcerer and Corporal Emil Klinger. Best main performance is Marisa Pavan as Lana’s rival — costume designer Walter Plunkett has huge fun draping his divas. Roger Moore proves himself, at this point in his career, an even more hopeless actor than Lana. Percy Helton appears briefly as a court jester and insinuates himself into our nightmares forever. Taina Elg has nothing to do including no dancing: a ballerina hired to stand still in long dresses. Henry Daniell squares off against Sir Cedric Hardwicke: eye-bags at down. The only two men in christendom whose eye-baggage flows down half their faces and brims over their cheekbones, like pie-crusts.Isherwood’s hand can best be seen in a sequence dealing with Sir Cedric as Pavan’s court astrologer. He works with the aid of some kind of clairvoyant catamite (Marc Cavell), who does his actual crystal-gazing for him in a sweaty trance as Sir C. anoints his brow (anointy-nointy) with mystic unction. It’s the only scene that builds up any kind of melodramatic frenzy. Even when Sir Roger de Moore gets a lance through his head, the film barely rouses itself from torpor. This is the “heavy flow” variety of period movie.With Lana leading the charge, it ought at least to provide camp hilarity, but David Miller, who extracted some fine teeth-gnashing from La Crawford in SUDDEN FEAR but seems paralysed by respectability in this one. And Cinemascope, which he allows to prevent him getting close to anything that happens. Three years after NIAGARA, he hasn’t heard of the Marilyn Monroe Doctrine, which basically goes, “You CAN shoot me in tight close-up, we already established in the previous shot that I have a top to my head.”Walter Plunkett does a marvelous job with the costumes, but it would be just as much fun to watch them on mannequins.

6 Responses to “Isherwood or Bust”

  1. David Wingrove Says:

    I did not come away from this movie thinking what a bad actress Lana was. She does a decent job, given the circumstances. Instead, I came away flabbergasted by what a bad screenwriter Christopher Isherwood was!

    It’s not simply that most of the dialogue is ludicrous. The script as a whole has no dramatic momentum; none of the characters seem to have any reason for anything they do. Luckily, Isherwood improved dramatically with THE LOVED ONE, THE SAILOR FROM GIBRALTAR and FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY.

  2. He did a grand job on Little Friend back in the 30s, and even the farrago The Great Sinner is more compelling, so I’m inclined to blame the production as a whole, censorship, and unsuitable material.

    In his novel/memoir Prater Violet he laments his incompetence as a screen dramatist, but this seems to be the only time where it shows in the finished work.

  3. “Lana can do it,” Isherwood told Gore Vidal. Like any number of gay men (Frank O’Hara, George Cukor) he had a soft spot in his heart for The Goddess. But while Isherwood began his career auspiciously in 1941 with his script for Rage in Heaven he came to learn that for all is love of Hollywood screenwriters are only as powerful as the studios and the directors assigned to their work will allow. Diane had the dishwater-dull David Miller at the helm. Yes I know Sudden Fear is great fun but Joan Crawford was its auteur. Lana was also an auteur but Diane didn’t afford the histrionic opportunities found in The Prodgal — a camp classic that also features Taina Elg in a supporting role.
    Isherwood and Bachardy were great friends of Walter Plunkett and a marvelous pen-and-ink Don did of the great man was the first chance I had to see what he looked like. Very natty and professorial.

  4. David Melville Wingrove Says:

    David Miller was scarcely a great auteur but he did a fine job of BACK STREET in 1961. Of course, you could argue the ‘auteurs’ of that movie were Ross Hunter and Susan Hayward. But he knew, at the very least, how not to get in the way.

  5. Love Happy may be his most significant work. If you combined that one with Diane you’d really have something.

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