Archive for Burgess Meredith

Star-Craving Mad

Posted in literature, MUSIC, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 22, 2020 by dcairns

I went down a rabbit hole investigating The Jet-Propelled Couch, a chapter of the book The Fifty-Minute Hour by Robert Mitchell Lindner, a celebrated collection of psychiatric case histories.

In The Jet-Propelled Couch, Lindner tells of successfully treating a “government scientist” seemingly involved in the atomic bomb project, who had gone partway off his rocker reading sci-fi novels in Polynesia as a child, and was spending increasingly long periods of mental estrangement when he believed himself to be away in the future, battling in distant galaxies. Lindner boldly combatted the obsession by going into it himself, identifying with his patient’s mania until he reckoned himself to be at some risk of getting lost in it. Fortunately, there wasn’t room in this particular constructed universe for two, and Lindner’s elbowing his way in helped “Kirk Allen” escape.

Lindner disguised his patient’s identity so carefully that we still can’t be sure who “Kirk Allen” really was. The best guess to date has been that he was science fiction writer Cordwainer Smith, real name Paul Linebarger. If this is so, it kind of suggests that “Allen” wasn’t wholly cured of his obsession, since Smith was to construct an entire future history spanning tens of thousands of years, lovingly piecing together whole civilisations that rose and fell, spawning new species (the underpeople! a very appealing character in A Planet Named Sheol has been assembled from bits of cow) and leading to “the Rediscovery of Mankind.” His stuff is absolutely nuts, and it’s easy to find yourself believing the author had mental issues. But maybe he was just really good?

Harry Harrison, sf scribe, on British TV was asked if you needed a special mind to write sci-fi. “No, just talent.”

Linebarger was remarkable in all kinds of ways. As a China expert, Linebarger’s proudest achievement was aiding in the surrender of thousands of Chinese troops in Korea. Cordwainer Smith expert John J. Pierce writes that the troops were averse to surrendering, considering it shameful. Linebarger had leaflets printed explaining that the men could come forward shouting the Chinese words for “love,” “duty,” “humanity” and “virtue.” Say these words in Chinese in that order, and you have phonetically said “I surrender in English.” Smith’s stories are pun-happy too.

I came across the Linebarger-Lindner story in Brian Aldiss’s critical history of science fiction, The Billion-Year Spree. He got his info from one Leon Stover, who was subsequently very cagey about how he’d supposedly heard it from Lindsay. The Linebarger-Lindner connection is tenuous at best, though we know Lindner knew other sf writers including Theodore Sturgeon, and we know Linebarger spent a lot of time in analysis. In Behind the Jet-Propelled Couch, Alan C. Elms, at work since forever on a Cordwainer Linebarger bio, examines the evidence in detail.

Since Linebarger was a cultural expert on China for the Pentagon, not a nuclear physicist working at Los Alamos, we can see that Lindner must have disguised him pretty thoroughly, but a lot of the biographical facts do add up, or find equivalents in Linebarger’s lonely and dislocated upbringing. (Loneliness has been remarked upon as a recurring theme in his fiction, from the astonishing Scanners Live in Vain — “I need to kranch!” — right through to his final published works at the end of his short life.)

Remarkably enough, Lindner’s chapter was televized as an episode of Playhouse 90 in the fities, under the direction or Burgess Meredith and James B. Clark (the combined talents behind THE YIN AND YANG OF MR. GO and A DOG OF FLANDERS. The show starred David Wayne as “Kirk Allen,” Donald O’Connor as “Dr. Robert Harrison” (so Lindner gets his own pseudonym), and featuring Peter Lorre and Maila Nurmi in her Vampira guise. I’d love to see it. It sounds dreadful and/or wonderful. A live broadcast, it doesn’t seem to have been preserved.

The TV play evidently interested Stephen Sondheim, who planned to make a musical out of it, but this never materialized. I would be interested! One can imagine a more serious WALTER MITTY affair, and it would be best if the sci-fi elements had some real clout and conviction, instead of the more usual Flash Gordon parody stuff. If one had access to Cordwainer Smith’s work and knew of the rumoured connection… it’s not too late! Paging Mr. Sondheim!

Other plausible candidates have been proposed as the real Kirk Allen. “Kiko” Harrison, a scientist who really was at Los Alamos, and who also had similarities in his personal history to the case file recounted by Lindner, could be the man. Nobody had managed to find a series of sci-fi stories starring a character called Paul Linebarger or even just “Paul” which would fit the description Lindner gives of his patient discovering a hero with his own name. Other investigators have looked for a physicist called John Carter, assuming that the most famous sci-fi hero in print at the time was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian adventurer. Aldiss suggests E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series as a likelier fit to K.A.’s intergalactic romps. Which would, with a bit of shoehorning, fit — the Lensman books don’t have heroes with usefully similar names to any of our protagonists, but Linebarger did later adopt the name Smith for his sf writing.

Saul-Paul Sirag, championing the “Kiko” Harrison hypothesis, does find a sci-fi hero called Harrison, star of two stories by Stanley G. Weinbaum which appeared in Wonder Stories, a 1930s pulp magazine. It’s not a long series of books, but at least there’s a name-match. I don’t know how likely it would be for “Kiko” to find a US pulp mag in England, France or Scotland, where he was living as a kid in 1934 (going by how impossible it was to find Famous Monsters of Filmland in Scotland in the seventies, I’d say not very likely), but per Lindner Kirk Allen discovered his namesake in a crate of imported literature on a Pacific island, so “Kiko” Harrison could have done the same thing when his family moved to the Philippines.

(I’ve read one of Weinbaum’s Captain Harrison stories, The Valley of Dreams, and it’s terrific. Hawksian sf adventure with alien ecology and plenty of mystery.)

It would be an exaggeration to say you could go mad thinking about this. But I’m getting a bit obsessed. I do think Cordwainer Smith/Paul Linebarger makes the most poetically beautiful candidate, because if it’s him, he OBVIOUSLY WASN’T CURED. Which is fine, because the tall tale Dr. Lindner span about “Kirk Allen” is wildly implausible and the techniques he describes would be highly unlikely to “cure” anyone suffering from a psychotic break. Still, schizophrenia, for instance, can come and go for no obvious reason, so maybe “Kirk” (the name suggests another, later space captain) just got better on his own? Or maybe he was never ill? He had a responsible position, but his bosses became concerned about his space fantasy obsession, his doodling on official documents using alien pictograms of his own devising, and sent him to a shrink? Lindner’s account of his therapy ends with K.A. saying that he’s realised for some time that all this futuristic stuff is “just nonsense,” but he didn’t want to admit it and disappoint Lindner, who seemed so into it. How much is Lindner distorting here? Obviously, he was duty bound to disguise his patient’s identity, falsifying details in the process. This of course means that we can’t fact check him.

Alan Elms points out that Linebarger/Smith’s working title for his only novel was Star-Craving Mad, which doesn’t work at all for the book that became Norstrilia (about a planet named after Northern Australia — Linebarger had an Australian friend so he got the vowels right), but would fit perfectly as an alternative title for The Jet-Propelled Couch.

Which ends with Lindner wondering about Kirk Allen and his apparently abandoned universe…

“How goes it with the Crystopeds? How are things in Seraneb?”

(Seraneb is Benares backwards. But that doesn’t seem to be a clue to anything.)

Angles and Dirty Phases

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 30, 2020 by dcairns
A striking inverted angle from CASTLE ON THE HUDSON

Lesser Litvaks —

CASTLE ON THE HUDSON is a remake of Curtiz’s 20,000 YEARS IN SING SING, which I’ve never seen, though the title fascinated me as a kid. I ought to do a compare-and-contrast. I found this one a bit by-the-numbers with John Garfield as a Cagney clone. (He’s better as a complete swine in OUT OF THE FOG, his other role for this director.) It’s got a lot of punch, but lacks Litvak’s usual fluidity: too many close-ups.

It really comes alive, though, during the few minutes when Burgess Meredith comes in takes it by the throat. I’m guessing Litvak admired OF MICE AND MEN since he snapped up Burgess here and Betty Field for BLUES IN THE NIGHT.

CITY FOR CONQUEST —

“That was a book by Aben Kandel that was quite successful at the time, a book very difficult to adapt into a motion picture, because it dealt with
as enormous a city as New York is I was fascinated by the book, and had a terrible feeling, a kind of horrible ambition, about doing a picture about the city of New York that I was so terribly· impressed with from the moment I came here. It was a challenge to me, because basically I still was quite a foreigner at that time. I spent quite a while in New York, just for my basic acquaintance with the city, and the people of the city, before I started on the story.”

Writer Aben Kandel came to my attention for his involvement as screenwriter in the rather drole SING AND LIKE IT (1934) but later was mixed up in TROG and CRAZE, two ghastly low-budget horror affairs made in Britain. How he descended from being an acclaimed novelist to that dreck is an unknown but no doubt depressing story.

CITY FOR CONQUEST stars the actual Cagney, along with Ann Sheridan again, and a young and unusually appealing Arthur Kennedy. Plus Elia frickin’ Kazan, during his brief stint as a Warners character player. Both his big roles were for Litvak (BLUES IN THE NIGHT is the other) and he tears up the screen. But all the characters are from stock, and typecast accordingly. One is happy to see Frank McHugh as a sidekick, but not exactly surprised. Warners specialised in cramming the screen with yammering cut-outs, but somehow in this case thing feel thin.

Cagney & Kazan!

Cagney threw himself into training to play a boxer and really felt they were adapting a great book, but he was bitterly disappointed by the end result. “I worked like a dog on City for Conquest,” he wrote, or dictated, in Cagney By Cagney, “There were some excellent passages in Kandel’s novel, and all of us doing the picture realized that retaining them (as we were doing) would give City for Conquest distinction. Then I saw the final cut of the picture, and this was quite a surprise. The studio had edited out the best scenes in the picture, excellent stuff, leaving only the novel’s skeleton. What remained was a trite melodrama.”

He’s not wrong. Worse, you can see the trailing stumps of scenes and characters that clearly needed further development for the thing to make structural sense. Frank Craven as “the old timer” is set up as a Greek chorus, an old hobo who talks to the camera, but he only appears a couple of times. I think a lot of it might still have been corny, but it could have hung together.

Litvak: “I was crazy about Jimmy Cagney, and Warner Bros. was crazy about him because he was a big star. This is for the first time when Jimmy Cagney played the part of a weak man. As you know, Jimmy Cagney mostly played — particularly at that time — tough guys, dominating tough guys. I thought — I always felt– that Jimmy was a great actor, and didn’t have to do this stereotyped kind of a fellow, this gangster he had played for years. I came with this proposition to Warners and finally they accepted it. I found that Jimmy Cagney was a bit scared of this picture. I would say that in all my career this was one of the few times when I had trouble with an actor. I explain it to myself as a strange feeling Jimmy had about the part. He was not quite sure what he was doing. But I must say that I feel (and I think the public agreed with me too, and the critics) that it was probably one of the
best things Jimmy Cagney did on the screen.”

Maybe Cagney just didn’t have the weakness in him? What co-star could convincingly intimidate him?

Cagney did ruefully note the picture’s box office success, but strongly implies that the public was wrong. I am unable to find an original source for the star’s description of Litvak as “a natural born asshole,” but going by both men’s recollections it does seem quite possible that he said it at some time. Cagney always admitted to being difficult, but only when he was trying to give a good performance and felt he was being hampered.

Interesting that Litvak doesn’t mention the film’s truncation, which he SHOULD have been unhappy about, since the mutilation is hardly invisible.

Cagney as the blinded boxer redeems it a little with his convincing physicality both as prize-fighter (his dancing background pays off) and blinded newsie — he really tries to look properly, unphotogenically disabled. And Kazan is a knockout. He’s obviously intended to form the fourth corner of a structure that interleaves Cagney, Sheridan and Kennedy’s struggles, and the reduction of his role is really frustrating because he’s so bloody good, damn him.

“I coulda been a contender, Tola…”

I’m not sure if anyone ever asked Kazan about working for Litvak. He must have learned SOMETHING about screen acting from the experience.

CASTLE ON THE HUDSON stars Porfirio Diaz; Nora Prentiss; Hildy Johnson; The Penguin; Miles Archer; Kewpie Blain; Carson Drew; Lady Macduff; Danny Leggett; Pete Daggett; Michael Axford; Bim; Detective Bates; Egeus – Father to Hermia; Louie the Lug; Dr. Leonardo; Noah Joad; and Cueball.

CITY FOR CONQUEST stars George M. Cohan; Nora Prentiss; Jackson Bentley; Battling Burrows; Asa Timberlake; ‘Spud’ Connors; ‘Pusher’ Ross; Nickie Haroyen; Alexis Zorba; Effie Perine; Madame Therese De Farge; Dixie Belle Lee; Inspector Crane; Detective Bates; El Gringo; Bim; The Obtrusive Gentleman; Max Jacobs; and Cueball.

Forbidden Divas: Jungle Red

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2020 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns with a Forbidden Divas piece about one of my favourites…

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FORBIDDEN DIVAS

JUNGLE RED

“I do not need wine to set my blood on fire.”

  • Paulette Goddard, Sins of Jezebel

Fans of bad movies cherish Bible epics for being the one entirely disreputable movie genre. To make the Best Bible Epic of All Time may not be an act of any special distinction. To put it bluntly, how much competition could there be? But to make the Worst Bible Epic of All Time is a truly spectacular achievement. The field is crowded and fiercely competitive and movies like The Prodigal (1955) and The Silver Chalice (1954) and Solomon and Sheba (1959) all have their fanatical adherents. But criticising these movies for their wooden acting, risible dialogue or lack of dramatic coherence is a bit like criticising a KFC Bargain Bucket for its lack of nutritional value. No product is a disaster simply because it does not do something it has never set out to do. To achieve a Platonic ideal of sheer and unadulterated awfulness, a Bible epic needs to be quite a lot worse than that.

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Sins of Jezebel (1953) is the work of one Reginald Le Borg, an auteur who made his name in the 40s with classics like Jungle Woman (1944) and The Mummy’s Ghost (1945). It stars the irresistible Paulette Goddard as the infamously wicked pagan queen who tried to turn Israel away from the One True God and supplant Him with the blood-soaked worship of Baal. There is something less than terrifying about Baal in this movie. His effigies resemble very early models for ET (1982) and his followers show their devotion by lifting their arms to heaven and indulging in some truly excruciating bouts of interpretive dance. It is hard to believe in depravity when we never see anything that looks the tiniest bit depraved. We hear a rumour early on that the queen “paints her nails with the blood of sacrificial victims.” We never do find out if she does that or not. But one must admit her nails are a commendably bright shade of red.

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Paulette Goddard was a movie star for the best part of two decades, but not even her closest friends ever pretended she could act. She was famous for her slightly hard-boiled glamour and her ineffably colourful off-screen love life. A fun-loving Jewish girl from Great Neck, Long Island (her real name was Marion Levy) she started off in the chorus line of the Ziegfeld Follies. In the 30s, she made her way to Hollywood and wound up marrying Charlie Chaplin and co-starring in Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940). Her neighbour David O Selznick came perilously close to casting her as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) – but only briefly, when he despaired of finding anyone better. Divorced from Chaplin, she went on to marry such showbiz intellectuals as Burgess Meredith and Erich Maria Remarque. Her alleged motto in life was never to sleep with a man until he gave her diamonds. She was said to carry a suitcase packed with diamonds on all her travels, to remind herself and others just how well this system worked.

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In short, Paulette Goddard embodied the kind of fragile and artificial movie glamour that made Lana Turner look like Meryl Streep. She got by in her better roles – as an 18th century adventuress in Kitty (1945) or a Gay 90s adventuress in An Ideal Husband (1947) – on a sort of wry and ironical amusement. She looked, as Oscar Wilde wrote, like “an édition de luxe of a wicked French novel.” It was no surprise that she became Andy Warhol’s favourite escort at parties in the 60s. She was, in essence, a Warhol Superstar before that term was even coined. But it was a very great surprise indeed that she gave a realistic, touching and genuinely heartfelt performance as an ageing beauty in an Italian film, The Time of Indifference (1964), just before she bowed out of movies for good.

So what of Paulette as the evil Queen Jezebel? Her Majesty has barely arrived in Judaea when she is cheating on her fiancé King Ahab with a hunky Hebrew general (George Nader). Her bridegroom passes out drunk on the wedding night, but not before she has made him promise to build a temple to the heathen god Baal. This lady is a hybrid of all the sinister dictator’s wives who have wielded a malevolent power from behind the throne. Eva Perón, Imelda Marcos, Elena Ceauşescu – only with deeper villainy and sharper fashion sense thrown in.  “What are you, a man or a piece of dirt?” she sneers when Ahab hesitates to massacre his recalcitrant subjects who refuse to worship Baal. Not even her favoured boy-toy escapes from her tyranny unscathed. He wrestles with his conscience when he is forced to put believers in the True God to death. “In peace or in battle, people get hurt,” he explains to his fellow Israelites. You can’t make an omelette, etc…

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What is truly fascinating about Sins of Jezebel is the fact it is an epic made on a ridiculously small budget. The soldiers wear helmets that look like kitchen pots spray-painted gold. The vases that adorn the royal chambers seem to have been stolen from somebody’s back garden in the San Fernando Valley. At every state banquet (there is not even the faintest hope of an orgy) the tables are laden with identical bowls of wax fruit. One might imagine these came from the studio’s front office – but the independent producers who made this movie were unlikely to have an office of any sort. To his credit, the resourceful Le Borg circumvents the lack of art direction through a strategic deployment of draperies. Every time Queen Jezebel seduces someone, the camera cuts away from the clinch to a swatch of brightly coloured fabric, rippling away. This effect reminds us eerily of the Kenneth Anger film Puce Moment (1949) and the whole production is redolent of one of those underground movies that drag queens in the 60s used to make in memory of Maria Montez.

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Yet however drastically its producers may have skimped, Sins of Jezebel still seems to run out of money well before the end. Long stretches of it are not seen, but narrated by a sententious middle-aged Sunday school teacher in a badly fitting suit. The more the war between Good and Evil heats up – and the number of warriors needed rises above a dozen – the more this narrator tends to take over. Watching him light the seven candles on a menorah – and put them out again, a scene or so later – is dramatically thrilling, I grant you. But the fall of Babylon in Intolerance (1916) or the parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1956) it most definitely ain’t. It is the sheer lavish folly of Bible epics that audiences across the world respond to. So a Bible epic that fails even at that is a rare and precious object indeed.

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If this Queen Jezebel really does paint her nails with blood…that can only be because blood was cheaper than varnish.

David Melville