Archive for Andre de Toth

Forbidden Divas: The White Orchid Type

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 1, 2020 by dcairns
David Melville Wingrove is back, with the perfect Forbidden Diva for this historical moment --


FORBIDDEN DIVAS

THE WHITE ORCHID TYPE

“I can’t face an unknown future with an un-powdered nose.”

– Barbara Stanwyck, The Other Love

What do you write about at a time when life as we choose to call it has been forcibly put on hold? Most of us today are made to live in our own private cells of suspended animation – in a void, an absence, a dream space. We are forced to be and not to do, to feel and not to act. We are in a glass room that lacks the usual walls or ceiling or floor. A smooth and unvarying expanse of crystal on all sides, it is fully transparent yet wholly impossible to break. Through it we can see and hear and speak, but we cannot touch. Can any film approximate a life that none of us have ever lived before? How do you make a film about the act of waiting? How do you deny motion when all a motion picture camera ever wants to do is to move?

Barbara Stanwyck at the start of The Other Love (1947) is forced – against all her instincts and all her will – to call a halt to her life. Here she is not the tough-talking dame of her other movies, the “high-ridin’ woman with a whip” who terrorises the Wild West with Forty Guns (1957), the gal so butch she makes John Wayne look like Liberace or Paul Lynde. Here she is an avatar of suffering nobility, who might be incarnated – in your average film of the 40s – by Greer Garson or Loretta Young. She is a lady concert pianist, glamorous and successful yet at the same time incurably lonely. She has no choice but to put her career on pause when she falls fatally ill with TB. She checks into a plush sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, the sort that looks more like a luxury hotel with a few X-ray machines stashed away in one room.

It seems a mystical, almost otherworldly realm. Snow-capped mountains dream away in the distance, while long white muslin curtains waft gently back and forth in the alpine breeze. (One sure test of the skill of a director is the way he handles curtains; the Hungarian émigré Andre de Toth passes this test with a splendour few others have ever matched.) She is taken immediately with her handsome doctor (David Niven) who tells her that all activity will henceforth be forbidden. Her one goal must be to rest, relax and recuperate. “You must try and think of yourself as being in a deep sleep,” he tells her. “Before you know it, the darkness will be gone.” He even forbids her to play the piano. Her response to all this is remarkably docile. She places herself, with serene resignation, in his hands and in the hands of Fate. It is largely a question of which one chooses to grab her first.

On her first night at the clinic, she finds a spray of fresh white orchids has been delivered to her room. She assumes they must come from the doctor. She has had a glance around the dining room and concluded that none of her fellow patients is “the white orchid type.” Then she finds out these orchids are a standing order – from a man who ‘left’ the sanatorium six months ago to a woman who ‘left’ it only last night. She realises she is in receipt of flowers sent by a dead man to a dead woman. It is a concept so morbid it smacks of outright necrophilia. The music by Miklos Rozsa goes into a lyrical frenzy surpassing even his Oscar-winning score for Spellbound (1945). She throws herself ever deeper – metaphorically speaking – into the arms of her doctor. Ah, but all may not be quite as it appears…

On her arrival, the doctor forbids her to smoke and takes her cigarette lighter – monogrammed with her initials KD for Karen Duncan – away for safe keeping. (We may be glad it is not engraved with Barbara Stanwyck’s own initials, BS.) One day she breaks into his private sanctum, opens a drawer and finds a whole trove of cigarette lighters that were left behind by previous (and deceased) lady patients. She starts to suspect, as we do, that her doctor’s methods are a fairly serious violation of the Hippocratic Oath. Is he in the habit of fucking his patients until they get better? Or – and this sounds a lot more likely – of fucking his patients until they die? This story, which is allegedly by Erich Maria Remarque, is coming more and more to resemble The Magic Mountain as rewritten by Mills & Boon.

Hell, of course, hath no fury that is quite like Barbara Stanwyck scorned. No matter if she is at death’s door. She takes up with a dashing racing-car driver (Richard Conte) who just happens to be driving round that particular mountain. In defiance of the best medical advice, he whisks her off to Monte Carlo. She sits up late at the gaming tables, where a sexy croupier (Gilbert Roland) gives her smouldering glances over a big stack of chips. She even gets to attend a party on board a yacht thrown by Natalie Shafer, famous to viewers of a certain age as the fruity and snooty Mrs Howell on the 60s TV sitcom Gilligan’s Island. A life-threatening illness seems a small price to pay for such an honour. But this jet-set debauchery swiftly goes pear-shaped. Babs ends up in the most perilous situation a consumptive heroine can face – wandering about Monte Carlo in the rain, clad in white mink and chiffon and minus an umbrella!

Speaking of outfits, the wardrobe that Edith Head designed for The Other Love must surely have been le dernier cri in tubercular chic. Most memorable is a long white Grecian shift with a black diamante sunburst at the waist, which our heroine wears to dine at the sanatorium. (Yes, this is the sort of hospital where the patients dress for dinner.) Memorable too, and for all the wrong reasons, is a truly hideous spangled sweater with Christmas trees and reindeer crawling across it. Like any great star, Barbara Stanwyck is impervious to embarrassment – but this looks like something a butch lady detective in a Scandi crime drama might wear in a festive mood. The star would not play an overt lesbian role until A Walk on the Wild Side (1962) but there she had Capucine as motivation.

It becomes apparent all too soon how this ill-starred flirtation with ‘normal’ life can lead only to doom. The one hope is to go back to that mountain-top clinic, submit to the ministrations of the doctor and do her best to wait this illness out. To seal herself away from life until the world, by an unimagined miracle, comes right again. Barbara Stanwyck does what all of us are constrained to do at this time. (Please note sparkly sweaters are optional and, also, they will not necessarily help.) Will she find her true happiness up there on that mountain? The Other Love is a movie; hence it is several shades more optimistic than the TV news. All we know is that strangely serene white realm – those vast stretches of crystal air, where everything is visible and nothing can ever be touched – is where she needs to be at that moment.

David Melville

A night on the tiles, a day in the dark

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2018 by dcairns

Yesterday was good —

I woke up and found Fiona asleep on the bathroom floor. She’d gotten up to read, and the only place to do so without disturbing me was the bathroom, so she’d made a kind of nest there and fallen asleep. Weirdly, her night on the tiles put her in a very good mood as neither of us sleeps too well when in a foreign bed, and the packed viewing schedule doesn’t allow enough time anyway…

We rocked up for a set of Segundo de Chomon shorts at 9.00 am, including the beautiful METEMPSYCHOSE, with its unhappy babies, and the interplanetary Japonisme of VOYAGE ORIGINALE. Segundo is, as his name implies, the Second King of Fantasy Cinema, after Meliés, but only just.

Then Marguerite Clark (THE MASTER MYSTERY) donned Pierette garb (a recurring motif this fest) in the surviving reel and a half of PRUNELLA, directed by Maurice Tourneur. The cardboard sets, painted in graphic style, combined with Tourneur’s typical lighting effects to make something of rare beauty, very much like his version of THE BLUE BIRD, made the same year. And it actually contains the line “Oh, Prunella!” as an intertitle. David Ehrenstein should have been there. We’d missed Tourneur’s THE WOMAN, apparently a better film and more or less complete, but surviving only in degraded 16mm form.

That didn’t give us time to make it to Mario Monicelli’s I COMPAGNI, alas, so we dived into one of the Fox series, NOW I’LL TELL, which I had previously viewed but it was vastly improved by the pristine projection and the crowd’s enthusiasm. Fiona was blown away by Spencer Tracy in his early bad boy mode — he has some extraordinary scenes. Also, lot’s of pre-code situations and dialogue. “I was born in the Virgin Islands,” says Tracy’s new mistress. “Oh really, you must have left at an early age,” he purrs, off-mic and with his back to us as they leave the room, making the censor;s job easier, but underselling the joke to make it funnier.

We were all set for RUE DE LA PAIX from director Henri Diamant-Berger, a Natan production, but were kind of warned off it, so slipped into Andre de Toth’s NONE SHALL ESCAPE! For the second time in a row we bagged the last two seats in the house. Movie deals with post-WWII war crimes but was released in 1944, making it a form of science fiction, its title a black irony now that we know all about Operation Paperclip. Excellent perfs from Alexander Knox as a Nazi swine and Marsha Hunt as his former fiancée. The heroic Rabbi is played, completely straight, by Torben “This is a talking picture” Meyer, of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and the Preston Sturges stock company by Richard Hale. De Toth gets some scope out of his small-town Polish setting by repurposing what obviously started life as a western town.

With mathematical speed we swapped DeToth’s hard-hitting melo for a new biopic doc on Sydney Chaplin by Serge Bromberg & Eric Lange. SYDNEY: THE OTHER CHAPLIN marshalls an astonishing range of source materials to paint a well-rounded portrait of this troubling, essential figure, previously glimpsed this fest as the Kaiser in SHOULDER ARMS.

Then came the 7TH HEAVEN postponement, which gave us an early night to catch up on our sleep — in bed, this time. This brings us up to now. It’s 8.14 and Marion Davies takes to the screen in a dual role, with Neil Brand at the piano, in 46 minutes, more or less. I must get cracking.

Hosed

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2015 by dcairns

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I saw a bit of this film once playing on a TV in a bar in the mid-afternoon, and I was amazed. Had no idea what it was, though I recognized Jack Hawkins and was surprised to see him dressed as a Nazi. But I was FAR more surprised by what happened next…

This piece might need a trigger warning if you’ve ever been inflated to bursting point with a fire hose. In fact, if that has happened to you, don’t read that last sentence.

Eventually I worked out that the film was Andre De Toth’s THE TWO-HEADED SPY (1958), and even eventuallier I watched it.Hawkins plays a double agent, General Alex Scotland, installed on Hitler’s staff and sabotaging his supply lines to help end the war. The scene I had goggled at occurs when Felix Aylmer, Hawkins’ contact with the allies, is arrested by nasty Nazi Alexander Knox, and tortured.

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There’s the whipping, of course — rather more of it than we’re used to seeing in a film of this kind. But then Knox gets carried away and —

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In the words of Edward Gorey, “there was a wet sort of explosion, audible for several miles.”

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Yes. De Toth has just killed a character by having him anally penetrated with a fire hose, and then inflated until bursting point. You can see why I was surprised at seeing this on Channel 4 in the middle of the afternoon.

Of course, De Toth was a tough old nut. He broke his neck twice (once may be considered bad luck…), he lost an eye (nobody seems to know where), he worked as a second unit director for David Lean and a producer for Ken Russell. Nobody’s idea of a pushover. And he once tried, basically, to decapitate his leading man with a guillotine while making HOUSE OF WAX. But this is still an astonishingly horrible and grotesque scene. How it got past the censors in days when you couldn’t even show a toilet in an American movie is beyond me.

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“Well, it was worth a try, right?”

The film is apparently based on the memories of General Alex Scotland, but the facts seem extremely murky. Elsewhere, Scotland more or less denied ever having been on the German side during the war — he was certainly running an interrogation centre near London for captured Germans during the latter years of the conflict, not in the bunker with Adolf as shown here. Intriguingly and grimly, that centre was rumoured to be a hotbed of torture, leaving open the suspicion that the methods depicted may have been deployed for real, but by our side. In his Wikipedia page, Scotland is quoted as saying that high command asked him deliberately NOT to scotch false rumours about his being planted in Nazi Germany, for reasons he was never apprised of. I think it’s likelier that he was simply trying to make a profit from his war service any way he could, especially after the government tried to stop him publishing his memoirs under the Official Secrets Act.

The film isn’t one of De Toth’s best. Gia Scala is wheeled in as romantic interest, but Hawkins isn’t allowed to have close relationships with any of the people he’s betraying, which makes him a rather isolated, distant figure. Characters mostly thrive on relationships, and he has none.

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Hitler is always kept just off-screen, at one point occluded by a large globe, in an amusing nod to Chaplin. He’s played with Welsh fervour by Kenneth Griffith, which would have been hilarious if we’d gotten to see him. Most enjoyable actor is Donald Pleasence, who portrays his high-ranked Nazi big shit shot’s nervous strain by having him puff continuously at a cigarette kept one inch from his lips at all times. Had Pleasence ever had a chance to observe Fritz Lang’s smoking technique? The resemblance is uncanny.