All of the Cromwells

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2017 by dcairns

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John Cromwell cameos in ANN BICKERS as “sad-faced doughboy.”

I tweeted James Cromwell, actor and son of John Cromwell, to tell him about John Cromwell week, and he was nice enough to retweet me. And then kind enough to comment on my review of THE GODDESS.

Here is his Dad, in Anne Vickers, as “the lonesome soldier,” a memorable bit. Cromwell made almost as many walk-ons as Hitchcock. Lots to enjoy in this pre-code social drama on penal reform and women in the workplace. I never realised Sinclair Lewis, the original author, went in for ridicuous names — Walter Huston plays Barney Dolphin (his wife is Mona — but then, what goes well with Dolphin>), Edna Mae Oliver is Malvina Wormser, Sam Hardy is Russell Spaulding (not an African explorer), Murray Kinnell is Dr. Slenk and Mitchell Lewis rejoices in the name of Captain Waldo.

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Great montage of prison abuses, all filmed from Godlike high angle, presided over by a big floating head of Irene Dunne, regretful but powerless to intervene as she is just a big translucent head.

Apparently this movie, and SIGN OF THE CROSS, led directly to the forming of the Catholic Legion Of Decency (CLOD for short). I guess La Dunne does have extramarital affairs and pregnancies and DOESN’T DIE, which is of course the most immoral thing of all.

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BLIND PIANISTS

Sightless ivory-ticklers abound. In THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE, Herbert Marshall’s sonata serves as a kind of musical narrator for the story of Robert Young (disfigured pilot) and Dorothy McGuire (plain spinster) who discover their inner beauty under the influence of the titular love nest, which serves as a kind of stone tape, imbued with the happy memories of honeymooning couples. Sophisticated schmaltz of a higher order — each moment of crass tearjerking is balanced by sequences of surprising delicacy and intelligence, Young liked it so much he retired to a little home he named after the movie.

It’s moving and strange, which is what it ought to be. As is the Hollywood way, McGuire’s supposed homeliness is limited to a wig and unsympathetic lighting but Young’s war scars, though subtle, are actually kind of upsetting. The story has an awkward circle to square, asserting the importance of inner beauty while transforming its attractive stars back and forth between dowdied-down versions and glitzy showbiz icons. Val Lewton scribe DeWitt Bodeen contributed to the script, and it has a bit of the Lewton sense of the uncanny about it.

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In NIGHT SONG, Dana Andrews is a (convincing) pianist, embittered by his loss of sight. Merle Oberon seeks to overcome his trust issues by feigning blindness herself. Well, what could possibly go wrong with that bright idea? An impossible story premise enlivened by Hoagy Carmichael who redefines laconic minimalism, and Edith Barrymore, who acts for two.

This one is so set on being high-class and tony that it comes off a little dull, which I call The Merle Oberon Effect, but it’s beautifully made. David Wingrove says, “They show it all the time on Movies4Men. I’m not sure what kind of men they’re targeting.” Whenever I switch to that channel I get Cliff Robertson in a submarine.

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REVENGER’S TRAVESTY

In SON OF FURY, Roddy McDowell grows up to be Tyrone Power (well, there’s a KIND of continuity in that) driven by the ambition to punch George Sanders in his gloating, spud-like face. Frances Farmer and Gene Tierney provide distractions. Cromwell worked hard with Gene to scale down her thespic efforts, resulting in a simplicity that redeemed her earlier hysterical excess in BELLE STARR and THE SHANGHAI GESTURE: from here on in, she knew what she was doing. Lovely Hawaian love song scenes, and Sanders gets duly walloped. But he won the next round: to Sanders’ horror, Power died of a heart attack while filming their duel in SOLOMON AND SHEBA.

Also: Elsa Lanchester runs a grog shop. I’ve never consumed grog but I would force myself to acquire the taste.

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JC did a bit of filling-in on John Brahm’s entertainingly loopy GUEST IN THE HOUSE, previously addressed here. I think the really extreme shots evince Brahm’s expressionist bent, but who knows: Cromwell was no slouch, compositionally.

Except early on: DANCE OF LIFE is one of those early talkies where we’re always observing from the wrong distance and angle, a result of all those sound proof booths crowding round the cast like Daleks. A whey-faced youth called Oscar Levant can be glimpsed through the print scratches. At last, a pianist who can see, but wisely chooses not to.

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CRIME DOES NOT

THE RACKET should be fiery and terrific, but the original play has been laden with so many unnecessary scenes, mostly expositional and undramatic, it never seems to start. Blame Howard Hughes — Cromwell did a good job of escaping directorial duties on I MARRIED A COMMUNIST, a project every director in Hollywood seems to have been threatened with at one time or another. Cromwell said yes to all demands but stalled until his contract ran out, a wise course.

At least with Roberts Mitchum and Ryan, THE RACKET gives Cromwell great shoulders to frame his shots over.

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THE SCAVENGERS has sort-of interesting B-list talent (Vince Edwards, Carol Ohmart) but this Philipines thriller, from the tail end of Cromwell’s directorial career, suffers from a fairly hackneyed script and a music track that’s on random, behaving like a player piano that got hit during a saloon brawl. The dramatic cues always seem to come on seconds too late, or too early. The movie LOOKS pretty good, though, and gathers some conviction as it goes: Ohmart’s last scene has thrilling echoes of DEAD RECKONING.

AND THEN

There’s more, much more, to be enjoyed, often in convenient pairings: LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY and TOM SAWYER would make a fine double-feature, as might THE FOUNTAIN (Ann Harding) and UNFAITHFUL (Ruth Chatterton), while Canadian backwoods drama JALNA could pair up with the misbegotten SPITFIRE, in which Katharine Hepburn boggles every instinct known to man by playing a hillbilly (Appalachia by way of Bryn Mawr). Tex Avery did a pretty good Hepburn caricature, so I’m imagining this crossed with his LITTLE RURAL RIDING HOOD, La Hepburn opening doors with her prehensile toes, etc… Cromwell, of course, was well aware this casting was insane, but he was at RKO, so what could you do? Campaign for Ginger Rogers?

THE WORLD AND THE FLESH still seems to mark the moment when Cromwell really engaged with cinema, and it may have been motivated by his absolute contempt for the script, a farrago of Russian Revolution clichés and fantasies he knew to be utter bilge. Desperation breeds inspiration, and like Sidney Furie stamping on the script of THE IPCRESS FILE before making a masterpiece out of it, Cromwell energized his dormant stylistic powers, and increased in stature forthwith.

“How dare you make a face!”

Posted in FILM with tags , on January 8, 2017 by dcairns

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That’s what it says, apparently. Burying myself in Ozu. Can’t tell you why yet. Also — Borowczyk! So you can’t say things aren’t varied. Oh, and a bit of Ashby, a dash of Etaix. I can say no more.

Forbidden Divas: All That Glitters

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2017 by dcairns

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David Melville (Wingrove) returns to our pages for the first of, hopefully, many posts this year ~

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

All That Glitters

In 1975, the veteran Hollywood director George Cukor flew to St Petersburg (or Leningrad, as it was then called) to start work on the first-ever coproduction between the United States of America and the Soviet Union. The Blue Bird (1976) was planned as a star-studded musical epic, adapted from Maurice Maeterlinck’s classic Symbolist fantasy of 1908. The cast included a roster of Hollywood legends (Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda, Ava Gardner) as well as star performers from the Bolshoi Ballet. The aim was to usher in a bold new era of bilateral cooperation and cinematic détente. As he toured the Lenfilm studio, Cukor said how proud he was to be filming on the same spot where Sergei Eisenstein had shot The Battleship Potemkin in 1925. “Indeed, Mr. Cukor,” his interpreter replied, “and with the same equipment too!”

From that moment, The Blue Bird was set to be one of the most fabled fiascos in the history of world cinema. The schedule overran, the budget overflowed, the Soviet and Western crews fell out and Elizabeth Taylor shut the whole production down for two weeks – as she suffered one of her legendary illnesses and flew to London for treatment in a private clinic. On its premiere, The Blue Bird was slated by critics and shunned by the public. Shunned, at least, in the relatively few places where the public had a chance to see it. In fact, it was barely released in the UK and most other Western countries. Its reception worldwide was less a liberal 70s vision of détente than a Reagan 80s wet dream of Mutual Assured Destruction. In its own glitzy way, The Blue Bird helped to usher in a new and very nasty era in world politics.

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But forty years later – now that the nuclear fall-out has settled – perhaps it is time to sit down and watch the film itself. To the amazement of anyone who knows their film history, The Blue Bird is a delight. Less a conventional musical than a balletic fantasy in the style of late Michael Powell – Tales of Hoffman (1951), Oh… Rosalinda!! (1955) and Honeymoon (1959) all spring to mind – it stands poised precariously but irresistibly en pointe, in that limbo between High Camp and High Art. Its trio of Hollywood leading ladies – disarmingly but quite wisely, it turns out – make not the slightest effort to act. Instead, they parade about like Pantomime Dames in an array of sumptuous monstrosities designed by the legendary Edith Head. It was written on many a toilet cubicle wall that “Edith Head Gives Good Wardrobe.” I am still unsure how that would translate into Russian.

The story, if there is one, concerns two rather obnoxious children (Todd Lookinland and Patsy Kensit) on a quest of the mystical Blue Bird of Happiness. Given that they live in a remote hut in the depths of the Siberian taiga, one assumes that any place they look will be an improvement. Their guide on their journey is Light, embodied by Elizabeth Taylor in a series of sparkly chiffon gowns that seem to be borrowed from Billie Burke as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Sadly, the role lacks the dramatic complexity of Glinda. It seems to consist of beaming angelically through as many layers of gauze as cameraman Freddie (Doctor Zhivago) Young chose to put over his lens, as well as warbling one or two less-than-memorable songs. Did you know that Liz Taylor could sing? No? Well, that is because she could not.

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Eager to stretch her thespian talents to the full, the enterprising Liz takes on three additional roles. The first is the children’s loving but sharp-tongued Mother, whom she plays a lot like Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) – only with a strictly sanitised vocabulary. Next and by far the liveliest is a terrifying Witch; in truth, Liz is barely recognisable and seems to be having the time of her life. Apart, perhaps, from the day she spent off-screen touring the Imperial Jewellery Collection at the Hermitage Museum. (“They say that if you admire something, the Russians give it to you,” recalled the star. “Well, I admired and admired the Crown Jewels and nothing happened!”) The last role, Maternal Love, is basically Mother with a better dress and more make-up. Indeed, Liz allegedly spent $8000 of her own money on bringing her costumes for The Blue Bird up to scratch.

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Of the magic realms where the children seek the Blue Bird, the most ominous is the Castle of Night. This is presided over by Jane Fonda as Night herself – draped from head to foot in black satin, sporting a cartwheel hat that is the size of a small galaxy. Luckily, she does not sing but is content to purr menacingly, much in the manner of Anita Pallenberg as the Black Queen in Barbarella (1967) – the film that remains, to my mind, Jane’s greatest and most iconic role. (She went on, alas, to win two Oscars. This was proof that her great days of stardom were behind her.) Guiding the children through her castle, she opens multiple doors, behind one of which we glimpse the horrors of War. Cue for a cavalcade of Teutonic Knights, Napoleonic grenadiers, Nazi storm-troopers and all those who have mistakenly attempted to invade Mother Russia. One can only wonder if Cukor and his beleaguered Anglo-American crew took this warning to heart.

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Yet in the trinity of Hollywood divas, the briefest and most satisfying appearance comes from Ava Gardner. Her role is Luxury – an earthy but majestic good-time gal, seated on a white stallion and swathed in vibrant red. She takes an instant shine to the young boy and whisks him off to her palace, where a perpetual orgy is in full swing. Her guests include flamboyantly camp gay men, in suits of lilac and fuchsia silk. (In the dubbed Russian version, do they possibly translate her name as Western Decadence?) Once she gets home, Ava slips into a gown of scarlet and gold swirls, topped off with a spiky jewelled tiara. It bears an eerie resemblance to one of co-star Liz Taylor’s costumes from Boom! (1968). The boy gazes at her in rapt fascination and asks: “Which one of the luxuries are you?” With a splendidly lewd twinkle in her eye, Ava tells him: “That you’ll know once you grow a little bit older.” I take this as proof that he is destined to become a drag queen.

What an actual child might make of The Blue Bird is hard to say. It is by far the most outré piece of ‘family entertainment’ since The Wizard of Oz – but that film has been warping children’s minds for 75 years, until it has assumed the status of a classic. Is it not time we gave The Blue Bird a chance to do the same? It might even be advertised with an appropriate revolutionary slogan: “Camp film buffs of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your taste!”

David Melville