Goodnight, Mrs. Sondheim

When the late Stephen Sondheim’s list of forty favourite films started circulating last week, there may have been a few people scratching their heads at the inclusion of Warner B picture TORCHY BLANE IN CHINATOWN, but then, it was a very eclectic list. Good to see so much Duvivier.

Regular Shadowplayer Randy Cook actually watched the film, and apart from a truly facesmacking amount of racial insensitivity, the very personal reason for Sondheim’s enthusiasm became clear.

At an engagement party midway through the plot (where the affianced lady is Janet Shaw, who will live in legend for her brilliant one scene as the waitress in SHADOW OF A DOUBT), Glenda Farrell turns away from foil/romantic interest/suet-aggregation Barton MacLane to say, “Goodnight, Mrs. Sondheim,” to a passing woman. The woman is indeed, Mrs. Sondheim, it seems: “Foxy” was friends with Farrell irl, and probably gathering some well-dressed friends to swell the scene with swells was a help for a cash-strapped B picture.

Possibly the front view of Mrs. S. is included here, between MacLane (left) and Irish stereotype Tom Kennedy (dumb).

Objectively, the film is more insulting to the Irish than to Chinese-Americans, but certain kinds of racism are more troubling than certain other kinds of racism, and there is a limit to the number of times even I can hear the word “Chinaman” in one evening without starting to wince. The movie tries to make nice, inviting Tetsu Komai (!) on as the sympathetic mayor of Chinatown, and there’s a third act twist which can be seen coming from somewhere late in reel 1, and which takes some of the sting out of the yellow peril antics, which are actually mid-tone grey peril antics, this being a black and white picture.

15 Responses to “Goodnight, Mrs. Sondheim”

  1. Mark Fuller Says:

    I have to confess that I am more a fan of Sondheim the wordsmith than Sondheim the tunesmith. Actually you can take that as me being polite to the recently deceased……but I have to say, judging from the above list, we had similar tastes in old cinema, so perhaps I should have been more charitable. I’ll give his Sweeney Todd a go at some stage…….with an open mind if nothing else.
    Fascinating snippet about Mrs S.

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

    You should listen to a lot more than that: “Anyone Can Whistle,” “Follies” and “Passion” for starters.

    As for “Foxy” Sondheim she’s in a dead heat for World’s Worst Mother with the monster that gave birth to Gore Vidal (when she called from her deathbed he wouldn’t take it) “Foxy” to Stephen that giving birth to him was “the worst thing that ever happened to me” — because it spoiled her figure.

    Putting her horror aside he did manage to create a totally loveable mother HERE

  3. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “Bounce” was the first draft of “Road Show” — for which he created this great gay love song

  4. Beautiful.

    I don’t know if Sondheim’s antipathy to his mother was tempered by some reluctant affection, accounting for this film appearing on his lost, or if he got a set visit out of it as a kid, which might also explain his enthusiasm. The movie is reasonably good fun ( but its cinematic merits alone cannot account for it getting to number 39 0n his list.

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Stephen was a very Cheeky Chappie

  6. Wow, what an odd list… Lone Star, Henry Fool, and Bang the Drum Slowly??? I often see these kinds of lists as more of a reflection of the mood of the viewer at the time they saw the movie, rather than the merits of the work itself (maybe)…

  7. Lone Star is great, I would only deduct points for it borrowing so heavily from Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Stratagem that it’s basically an unacknowledged remake.

    I agree with all his British choices.

  8. Both Mrs Sondheim and her son may have been joking in their remarks about each other.
    On the other hand, doesn’t GV’s refusal to accept his mother’s deathbed call show petty meanness rather than something more magnificent? I don’t think GV ever revealed what she’d actually done to him to get him so annoyed.

  9. Well, since we don’t know what the Vidal mater did, we can’t really judge. Forgiveness is divine, but some things arguably don’t deserve forgiving, and to stick to one’s guns under such circumstances takes at least strength. It’s not petty meanness if the offence was truly unforgivable.

    I’m not sure that the Sondheims’ antipathy sounds like joking. He was witty enough not to be misunderstood.

  10. David Ehrenstein Says:

  11. HENRY FOOL makes it onto my list, easy.

  12. Lists of this sort are always autobiographical. It’s kind of dopey to approve or disapprove of somebody’s favorite movies but who can help it? Kind of surprised neither of the two Bunuel movies Sondheim spent so much time adapting made the list, but maybe he was sick of them (or maybe the came in at #41 and #42).  “Elephant” is the biggest surprise here (I’m a fan, I’m just startled he was).

    I recommend Judy Collins’ Sondheim tribute CD from a few years back. I was prepared to be annoyed or appalled but she won me over. My favorite record of hers except maybe for the “Marat/Sade” medley  

  13. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “Elephant” relates to Sondheim’s interest I serial killers. “Sweeney Todd” is a musical homage to Herrman’s score for “Hangover Square” (whose plot delighted him as well) Plus when he was in college he played Danny in a production of “Night Must Fall”

    And here’s another musical he surely loved

  14. David Ehrenstein Says:

    And the there’s. . . .

  15. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Attention Davis Cairns: What Vidal’s mother did is after many years of no contact she called him up one fine day and asked “Are you still living with that Jew?” (Gore’s “roomie” Howard Austin) On hearing this Gore said “I shall never speak to you again” and hung up.

    He was true to his word.

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