Archive for the Fashion Category

Pecs and Violence

Posted in Fashion, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 29, 2020 by dcairns

COLOSSUS OF THE ARENA, AKA MACISTE, IL GLADIATORE PIU FORTE DEL MONDO is my least fave Michele Lupo film so far — and in fact it was his first, so he got better. At least I now know his first name is pronounced Mee-Kelly (approx). Maybe it’s just that I’m not a big peplum guy.

Mark Forest, now, he IS a big peplum guy, especially about the chest. And he’s playing, appropriately enough, McChesty, or Maciste if you prefer. Righter of wrongs, puncher of faces. He has a shrill comedy sidekick, as is traditional (at least, it was traditional for Steve Reeves in HERCULES and that’s the tradition we’re following — something to do with the massive box-office takings of that film). This is Jon Chevron as Wambo, whose main job is to say stuff like “Maciste, come quick!” Maciste then waddles up, glistening, and attempts to sort things out using his knuckles. They make a good team.

Nothing about Wamba’s role is degrading, oh no. I get the impression Lupo liked casting black people, he seems to do it in nearly every film, but the roles aren’t particularly progressive. The evil black gladiator, Extranius, is a better character. He’s played by Harold Bradley and he also appears in Lupo’s second McChesty film as a different character, enabling him to be killed by McChesty all over again.

McChesty is described by Wikipedia as one of the oldest cinema characters — meaning he was invented by the cinema, in CABIRIA in 1914, embodied by the hulking Bartolomeo Pagano. Originally Nubian or something, Pagano immediately ditched the blackface and started turning up in contemporary settings. When the character was revived in the sixties, he was a series of white dudes, including Mark Forest but also a confusing swarm of Tarzans, Herculeses, Ursuses, machos and Mae West chorus boys. He traveled in time by simply walking from one period film to another, and encountered or punched vampires, mole men, witches, fire monsters, Mongols, Moon Men, the sheik, a cyclops, Zorro, and Czar Nicolas II.

Oddly, McChesty doesn’t appear for the first twenty-five minutes of this pseudo-epic (big sets, but they’re repurposed from other movies, evoking a dizzying array of periods and places). Lupo spends the whole first act introducing his bad guys, six nasty gladiators and their boss who hires them as mercenaries for some dirty tricks. Seven was Lupo’s lucky number, it seems (SEVEN TIMES SEVEN, SEVEN SLAVES AGAINST ROME, SEVEN REBEL GLADIATORS). The non-magnificent seven (and their pet chimp, which has been dubbed with eeks and ooks of a transparently human origin) seem to interest Lupo more than his musclebound protag. Since he was about to switch over to the spaghetti western genre, this enthusiasm for bad guys and antiheroes seems appropriate. It’s surprising that this bad-guys-on-a-mission show predates THE DIRTY DOZEN. I’m not sure what the influence might have been (hard to believe they invented the trope in this obscure series entry).

Their Asterix names would be Follicles, Grampus, Yulbrynnus, Chucknorus, Dubius and Extranius.

Plus the nicer one, who’s good at dodging. I’ll call him Avoidus.

These guys are hired by a cut-out working for evil Prince Chinbeard and their mission is to kidnap the liberal queen of a mythical kingdom. No sniggering at the back. Only one man can stop them. Clue: it’s not Wambo.

Wambo, First Bwud.

Mee-Kelly made a second McChesty film the following year. I got a little bored of COLOSSUS OF THE ARENA one so I jumped over to GOLIATH AND THE SINS OF BABYLON, which is American International’s title for MACISTE, L’EROE PIU GRANDE DEL MONDO. Then I jumped back and forth, which made no difference. The main distinction seemed to be that the bad guys pass themselves off as gladiators in one film, but in the other the good guys do. Plus the evil prince in the second film has muttonchops instead of a chinbeard.

A great moment in one or other film, where they have to dub some rhubarbing extras reacting to bad news. No lipsync is required here, so the gloves are off for the dubbing artists: “Aw, the Queen is dead, and she was so nice!”

I find, after jumping back and forth between films a few times, I can’t see the wood for Mark Forest. But he’s undeniably skilled at staring into the middle distance and looking like he wants to punch it.

No sign of Wambo in this one. I assume McChesty ate him. Instead of Wambo, and instead of the chimp dubbed with a man’s voice, we have a dwarf dubbed with a woman’s voice.

McChesty sees his first dwarf. He’s delighted! So funny! Or maybe he’s seen lots, and they never get old.

Apart from this one. He’s gotten old. He is Weejimmikrankus.

The films look simultaneously costly and cheap, an interesting feat. You get big sets and exotic locations and elaborately choreographed action scenes and lots of them. On the other hand, the costumes are unwearable and look recycled from every different kind of period movie. So are the sets, but at least those are big enough to contain entire actors. The frocks always have bits bulging out.

Oddly, the first one has more of Lupo’s hyperkinetic style. He’s putting the pep back in peplum. But then he seems to get weary, and stays that way for his whole next feature. Still, not even Leone could muster much brio when it came to sword-and-sandal shenanigans.

“You idiot, I said ‘Avast’ not ‘Aghast’!”

MACISTE, IL GLADIATORE PIU FORTE DEL MONDO stars Hercules; Molly Pink; Oliver Mellors; Zorikan; and Calamity John.

MACISTE, L’EROE PIU GRANDE DEL MONDO stars Hercules; Mary, mother of Jesus; Scott Mary; Cesare Borgia; Iphitus, Son of Pelias; Dr. Stephen Arrowsmith; and another Hercules.

Mambo Italiano

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 17, 2020 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns with another Forbidden Diva!

FORBIDDEN DIVAS 

Mambo Italiano! 

“She’s very young. All she wants is revenge on everything and everybody.”

–          Shelley Winters on Silvana Mangano, Mambo

 In the 1949 Neo-Realist melodrama Bitter Rice, an unknown Italian girl became a globally famous star by the simple expedient of standing in a paddy field and looking sultry. She had dark auburn hair, thick thighs and the lineaments of a Botticelli angel. Her name was Silvana Mangano and she was the protégée (and, eventually, the wife) of Italy’s most powerful film mogul Dino de Laurentiis. At no point in her first leading role did she make any discernible effort to act – but everything she did on screen seemed weirdly believable, even when the characters and situations were quite patently absurd. This was a skill that would serve her admirably in year after year of Dino de Laurentiis productions. Up until the advent of Silvana, the mass popular audience had tended to reject Neo-Realist movies because they were not sufficiently glamorous. This new star solved the problem single-handed and in one fell swoop. Silvana Mangano could look more glamorous draped in a dishcloth than your average Hollywood actress dressed in a wardrobe tailor-made by Edith Head.

Having triumphantly straddled the Italian box-office, de Laurentiis duly set about turning his lady into a bona fide International Movie Icon. This would obviously involve a complex network of co-productions employing foreign talent – but preference, invariably, was given to foreign talent that was available at a reduced price. By the early 50s, the American writer-director Robert Rossen – who had won the Best Picture Oscar for his political drama All the King’s Men (1949) – had been forced to flee to Europe after a perilous run-in with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Who better – in Dino’s mind – than a director famed for his rather dour engagement with serious social issues to helm a lush and lavish and insanely melodramatic musical epic called Mambo (1954)? Keen to surround his leading lady with the very finest support, de Laurentiis took a quick look at the gossip columns and saw that Hollywood star Shelley Winters had just dumped her (possibly platonic) boyfriend Farley Granger to marry the Italian actor Vittorio Gassman. He swiftly set about hiring all three actors to appear in his new film. Much to Dino’s chagrin, Granger declared the whole production a vulgar circus and refused to play any part in it. He was duly replaced by the British actor Michael Rennie. But as in any de Laurentiis extravaganza – from War and Peace (1956) to The Bible (1966) to Dune (1984) – it is the intention – and not the end result – that actually counts.

Mambo opens lavishly with a rousing Afro-Caribbean production number featuring the all-black Katherine Dunham Dance Company. Wooden shutters fly open and ladies in voluminous flouncy skirts gyrate to the clatter of steel drums, while somehow managing to balance large plates of tropical fruit. Then a door opens at the back of the stage and the lead dancer makes her entrance. She is none other than – wait for it! – Silvana. It appears that nobody involved in this production ever pondered the ethical or practical issues of turning a white actress into the star attraction of an all-black dance troupe. Mercifully, she is not done up in blackface like Monica Vitti in her ‘tribal’ dance number in L’Eclisse (1962). She wears a simple but elegant silk-and-sequin gown and does nothing that is embarrassing or untoward in itself. Her dancing is quite serviceable, if in no way on a par with any of the other dancers on the stage. Yet the overall effect is as awkward and uncomfortable as L’Eclisse. We can only conclude that Cultural Appropriation was scarcely a hot-button issue among Italian (or, indeed, Hollywood) film-makers of the 50s.

Following this sensational success the company moves on to its next stop, Venice. This just happens to be Silvana’s home town and, as she sits on the train and reminisces, we find ourselves in the sort of plot that kept Joan Crawford in employment for most of the 30s. Her character is a poor-but-honest girl who lives in a seedy back alley with her drunken father and her brattish kid sister. (Her mother is long dead, most likely because her home life was frankly unbearable.) This girl supports her entire family by working in a Venetian glass shop and selling overpriced bibelots to tourists. But she nurtures dreams of one day running away to Rome to become a film star. Her boyfriend (Vittorio Gassman) is a croupier at a casino on the Lido; he is also, we soon gather, something of a shady operator. One day, a gaunt and poetically doomed Venetian prince (Michael Rennie) wanders into her shop, sporting the most lethal set of cheekbones since the heyday of Basil Rathbone. He takes a shine to the comely shop-girl and gives her a pair of tickets to a masked Carnival ball. Her boyfriend, spotting an opportunity, sells his ticket on the black market and unwisely allows Silvana to go with the Prince. This is not a decision we might expect from an insanely jealous and possessive Italian male…but hey, the plot of Mambo has to get moving somehow.

The ball is a quasi-Sternbergian fantasy of masked revellers, floating paper streamers and what looks like gallons of confetti pouring down from the ceiling. The evening’s entertainment is provided by the Katherine Dunham troupe, who come cascading down the grand staircase or, in some cases, leaping over banisters with all the savage aplomb of Attila the Hun moving in for his final sacking of the Roman Empire. All this excitement is just too much for Silvana, who has already been tippling on champagne and cannot resist her primal urge to join in with the dance. Soon she is cavorting face to face with a half-naked black male dancer, who is clad in the most obscenely tight pair of leopard-skin beeches this side of a Tarzan movie. This spectacle inflames the hapless Prince with a wave of simply uncontrollable lust. At the end of the dance, he drags Silvana up the staircase and has his way with her. Next morning, in the pale light of dawn, she is acutely aware of having become a Fallen Woman – and feels too ashamed even to go home. That is quite convenient, in fact, because she has caught the eye of Shelley Winters, who plays the (entirely fictitious) manager of the Katherine Dunham troupe. This lady has resolved, on the spot, to build the girl up into the company’s star attraction.

Not that her interest in the neophyte is purely artistic. Shelley Winters has been costumed and styled to look as much as possible like the 1950s stereotype of a Butch But Glamorous Lesbian. Just in case we miss the point, the dialogue drops heavy hints about the lonely and frustrated existence to which “a woman like that” must invariably be doomed. Tellingly, much of this dialogue was eliminated from the Italian release of Mambo and survives only in the international English-language print. As a 21st century audience, we are at once fascinated and appalled – but that is certainly nothing new in this movie. With her undeniable powers of persuasion, Shelley wrests Silvana away from Vittorio and moulds her tyrannically into a great dancer. At this point, Mambo threatens to become a sort of misbegotten remake of The Red Shoes (1948) only with a lesbian in the Anton Walbrook role and a sleazy petty criminal in the role played by Marius Goring. An honest-to-God analysis might well reveal that this film equates being a criminal with being a lesbian and also, indirectly, with being black. Hence it is best to avoid doing one if we are to go on enjoying the fun. Our heroine makes her triumphal return to Venice. She enters a nightclub looking simply sensational in a black beaded gown that looks as if it had been poured slowly, bead by glistening bead, over her curvaceous and near-naked form.

Perhaps it is inevitable that she meets the Prince again. But what we honestly did not see coming is the fact that the Prince turns out to be dying of hereditary haemophilia, as was the custom in all good aristocratic families. No sooner does Vittorio get wind of this than he cooks up a plot for Silvana to marry the dying man, so she can inherit his money and his crumbling ancestral palazzo and share her ill-gotten gains, naturally, with her true love. The plot now shifts abruptly to that of Henry James’ novel The Wings of the Dove, only with the sex roles neatly reversed. Silvana reacts with horror to the suggestion – and then goes ahead and marries the Prince. A rapist he may be, but he is still a more inviting marriage prospect than Vittorio. (Shelley Winters is not an option, partly for censorship reasons and partly because she has unaccountably been run over by a car.) Once she has married the Prince, Silvana comes to realise that he is in fact a decent, caring and thoroughly sensitive bloke. Is it his fault if he got a bit too carried away by the thrill of Carnival night? Mambo now looks set to be a touching tale of a woman who has been raped falling ever so tenderly in love with the man who raped her. We might like to believe this film could not possibly become any more outrageous than it already is. If so, we reckon without those unique talents that Dino de Laurentiis employed in the script department.

There are several twists left to go in the plot of Mambo, which is remarkable given that the film is only 90 minutes long. What is also remarkable is that Silvana Mangano looks serenely beautiful throughout and never once seems tainted by the sheer awe-inspiring bad taste of everybody and everything around her. One day in the late 60s she would wake up, walk out on her crass vulgarian of a husband and make a string of classic films with intellectual left-wing directors like Luchino Visconti and Pier Paolo Pasolini. (Her most famous film was Death in Venice (1971). It may have helped her exorcise some bad memories.) But Mambo, too, is an undeniable classic of a sort. It may just be wiser not to say what kind.

David Melville

Forbidden Divas: An Orgy in an Angel’s Bed

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , on May 29, 2019 by dcairns

David Wingrove returns with more forbidden divadom, and a late film to boot! We love late films here at Shadowplay

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

An Orgy in an Angel’s Bed

“Remember, darling, don’t be like me. Have the game – but avoid the name!”

–          Honor Blackman to Jean Seberg, Moment to Moment

It is midnight and a hot and wild mistral is rising on the Côte d’Azur. The twisted shadows of palm trees blow frantically, back and forth, on the white marble facade of the Casino. In the garden of a luxurious seaside villa, dead leaves drift across the courtyard, loose tiles rattle on the roof and the wind blows a shutter open and then shut, open and then shut…as we see, through the window, into a kitchen. The lights are on. The body of a young and handsome man in naval uniform is lying sprawled on the floor, with a gunshot wound in his chest. The front door to the house opens and an elegantly dressed woman runs out into the night. Just a moment later, another woman – younger and dressed in a red bathrobe, the colour of fresh blood – appears in the doorway and calls after her. “Daphne!” she cries. “You must help me!” She is a respectable American wife and mother and she has the dead body of a stranger in her house. Or does she? It seems as if nothing in Moment to Moment (1966) is ever exactly what it looks like.

A quite absurdly enjoyable slice of high-flown melodramatic tosh, Moment to Moment was the last film ever made by the Hollywood veteran Mervyn LeRoy. A director whose work ranged from the gangster machismo of Little Caesar (1930) to the sword-and-sandal religiosity of Quo Vadis (1951) and from the high-toned soap opera of Waterloo Bridge (1940) to the gaudy theatrical camp of Gypsy (1962) he was a man without pretension to artistry or art. At no point in his very long career did he appear to know anything except how to make a good movie. It is doubtful that he ever made a masterpiece, yet equally doubtful that he ever made a bore. The auteur critics at Cahiers du Cinéma may have thrived on pitting directors (yay!) against producers (boo!) but Mervyn LeRoy made nonsense of their whole theory by working just as happily as one or as the other. The most famous film produced by LeRoy, The Wizard of Oz (1939) is as watchable, as nonsensical and as devoid of anything resembling a personal style as any of the films he directed. Moment to Moment is recognisably his work in that it might have been made by damn near anyone. But it just so happens Mervyn LeRoy did it better.

That beautiful but overwrought lady with the corpse on her hands is played by the Hollywood starlet turned French New Wave icon Jean Seberg. She looks unfailingly exquisite in her Yves Saint-Laurent wardrobe – which bears a more than passing resemblance to the clothes he would design for Catherine Deneuve a year later in Belle de Jour (1967). Alas, she is never exquisite enough to mask the fact that she is simply the wrong kind of actress for this kind of film. A movie as florid and overblown as Moment to Moment calls for the sort of bravura emoting that Lana Turner or Susan Hayward could do in her sleep. Yet any good performance by Jean Seberg was very much the opposite, stripping away all hint of theatrical artifice to expose the raw and naked soul underneath. In films like Bonjour Tristesse(1958) or Lilith (1964) or Birds Come to Die in Peru (1968) her acting has an uncanny and almost feral quality. But in a conventional (albeit superbly staged) melodrama like Moment to Moment, she just looks awkward and confused. This is as dire a piece of miscasting as it might be to put Liv Ullmann on Dynasty. It makes an audience feel reluctant even to award points for effort.

Her co-star – that other woman Jean runs out of the house and shouts after – makes a far better show of herself. Cast as the flamboyant dipso nympho next door, Honor Blackman has the knack that only a very few actors have of making all her lines sound elegant, sophisticated and witty – even when most of them are actually quite plain. “I shall never look old bricks in the face again,” she purrs when someone suggests a jaunt to an archaeological site. “They are starting to look like mirrors!” It is the sort of line that Noël Coward might have pencilled out in a dress rehearsal, but Blackman plays it as though it were vintage Oscar Wilde. Her character is a divorcee whose parties are the scandal of the Riviera. But the name of her villa – ah, the irony! – is Le Lit de l’Ange, which translates as “the angel’s bed.” Yet neither she nor Jean seems to have much luck at luring angels into her bed. The best that poor Jean can do, while her achingly dull husband is flying all over Europe being important, is start a hesitant romance with a handsome but disturbed American sailor.

Do you remember that dead body I was telling you about? Well, that’s him. Or rather, that is a young actor named Sean Garrison whose first and only starring role this was. We can easily guess at his value to the United States Navy. He is so wooden there is no doubt he would stay afloat for hours, even if the rest of the fleet were to sink with all hands. He meets Jean while he is painting by the docks – a picture, not a flagpole – and promptly makes his move. She is feeling lonely and neglected with her husband out of town. She takes him to an outdoor restaurant called La Colombe d’Or, where white doves fly up into the sky and turn a bilious yellow in the setting sun. He says the sight is “breathtaking” but that is not quite the word I would use. They dance to what must be the fortieth (or fiftieth) rendering so far of the Henry Mancini-Johnny Mercer theme tune. Then they go back to her villa, where The Inevitable inevitably happens. It seems, alas, to be Inevitable only that once. Later Jean tells Sean she is a respectably married woman and how could he possibly, etc. He turns violent, she grabs a gun. In a twist of which M C Escher might be proud, Moment to Moment spirals neatly back to the place where it all started.

The plot grows seriously convoluted after that. The actors seem to understand it even less than the audience, which is saying a lot. In the interest of not spoiling the suspense, I will reveal only that Sean Garrison is meant to be alive in some scenes and dead in others. But I do hope nobody ever sits me down and asks me to point out which is which.

David Melville