Archive for Claudette Colbert

Fact-Checking Hollywood Babylon II

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 28, 2019 by dcairns

I picked up a second-hand copy of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon II for 50p. Now I have the set.

Kevin Brownlow quoted to me Anger’s answer to the question, “How do you do your research?” “Mainly by mental telepathy.” And so it has become sadly fashionable to debunk Anger’s investigations speculations lies, as in the commendable You Must Remember This podcast. Well, I never saw a bandwagon I didn’t want to jump on, even at the risk of upsetting the applecart, so I thought I’d have a go at fact-checking Anger using his own methods. Tuning my mental aerial to UHF, I leafed through the sordid pages of the discounted scandal sheet, and attempted to pick up Corrections from Beyond. This is what I come up with:

Page 96: “Meanwhile, back on d’Este Drive, left with a lonely libido in his spacious hacienda, along with his python-mistress, Elsie, a half dozen bed-trained dobermans, a talking macaw named Copulate, zoo-keeper Lionel [Atwill] maintained a rigidly disciplined schedule as a cog in the factory-studio wheel during the week.”

THE TRUTH: Yeah, none of that happened.

Page 127: “During production of Rebel without a Cause, James Dean was host to a thriving colony of crabs.”

THE TRUTH: There is no such film as REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. The sentence should probably read, “During production of A THRIVING COLONY OF CRABS, Dean Jones was host to a raven without a caw.” Or maybe “During production of THE HOST, crabby Jim Dale was cause of a rebel colony, or craved a threnody.” Or maybe it shouldn’t be there at all.

Page 185: “After a three-year absence, [Bobby Driscoll] returned to the screen in 1958, in a B-programmer–Bernard Girard’s The Party Crashers. By a curious coincidence, his co-star was the lobotomized Frances Farmer, making her benumbed comeback after sixteen years away from the movies.

THE TRUTH: it’s hardly a “curious coincidence” that two actors happen to appear in the same film. Is it a curious coincidence that WHITE HOUSE DOWN co-stars Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx? In fact, my telepathy tells me that’s probably the film Anger was thinking of. Anyway, Frances Farmer never had a lobotomy, and by a curious coincidence, THE PARTY CRASHERS also stars Doris Dowling, Denver Pile and Onslow Stevens. Uncanny, isn’t it?

Page 235: “Shapely blond Carole Landis rose to stardom in Hal Roach’s One Million B.C. in which she played a primitive cavewoman. her 1948 Fourth-of-July suicide, provoked by unrequited love for Rex Harrison, caused a hullaballoo and a half for Mr. and Mrs. Moviegoer.”

THE TRUTH: Carole was a blonde, not a blond, and the cavewoman she portrayed for Roach, far from being primitive, was really a quite sophisticated troglodyte by the standards of the time (1940). Rex Harrison did not appear in the picture. Nor do George Moviegoer and his wife Ethel (nee Theatregoer). Landis’ tragic suicide cannot properly be called a “Fourth-of-July” affair since I doubt any festive tie-in was intended and anyway it occurred the following day.

Anger tastefully has a whole chapter on suicides. On the page opposite Landis, we get the following:

“A large quantity of sleeping pills had cured [Dorothy Dandridge] of her amnesia.”

THE TRUTH: Dorothy Dandridge did not suffer from amnesia, which cannot be treated with sleeping pills anyhow. I think the word Anger is groping for is “insomnia.” I think possibly it’s Anger who’s suffering from amnesia, or maybe aphasia.

Page 312: “[…] Claudette Colbert who was said to be among the first to advise the President to invade Grenada–she was far from delighted at the prospect of an island full of Reds so near to her palatial Barbados estate.

THE TRUTH: No such person as Claudette Cobert ever existed. Anger is evidently thinking of British actor Claude Hulbert (pictured). Though Hulbert never actually invaded Grenada, he was famous for his fussiness about being filmed from the correct side. Whole sets had to be rebuilt to avoid catching him from an unflattering angle. The most famous instance of this was on HEAVEN’S GATE (1980), where an entire western town had to be razed to the ground because it was facing the wrong way. This was all the more remarkable because Hulbert was not cast in the film, but perfectionist director Michael Cimino was taking no chance of offending the powerful star, who died in 1964.

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The Sunday Intertitle: Personally Embroidered by Darryl F. Zanuck

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on April 28, 2019 by dcairns

The embroidered intertitle is a rare enough beast to be worth remarking on. This one features in John Ford’s DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK, and the fact that it’s 1939 (yet also, simultaneously, the American Revolution), makes the appearance of such hand-crafted text all the more remarkable.

The movie needs to fall back on silent narrational technique, (OK still very much a thing in the pre-code era) it turns out, because of its uncommonly loose, baggy structure, itself at least in part a consequence of the shapelessness of the historical events covered. I found that, while I could appreciate the reasons for the episodic approach, I prefer Ford when he has a tighter story to weave (or sew). I’m not a keen enough Fordian to indulge his more rambling yarns, though it was nice to see an Indian character (Chief John Big Tree) treated, despite the inevitable ethnic humour, with enough sympathy that he could be entrusted with the kind of jovial domestic violence joke usually reserved by Ford for the Irish.

“Sir!… Sir!… Here’s a good stick, to beat the lovely lady.”

Henry Fonda is well suited to the frontiersmanship etc, but Ford gets rather an overwrought turn from Claudette Colbert: she perhaps has her limitations, but I have never seen her be shrill and grating and hysterical as she is here. It might be understandable, given the situations, but it’s hardly appealing or fun to watch.

In common with BLOOD AND SAND, the movie delivers quite a lot of value for John Carradine fans, who did great work for Ford the same year in STAGECOACH.

The second-hand DVD I picked up turned out to be a fuzzy, out-of-sync Korean bootleg (“An enjoyable film that is still very good!” cries the blurb) but curious and dedicated Fordians are recommended to the Twilight Time Blu-ray, which purportedly does astonishing justice to the Technicolor work of Ray Rennehan & Bert Glennon.

Pancake Mix

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 26, 2017 by dcairns

One of the best films at the 2016 Il Cinema Ritrovato was ONLY YESTERDAY, directed by John M. Stahl. A mental note was made to see more of his stuff, but it must have gotten misfiled because here I am just getting round to it. Fiona immediately got very enthused about seeing Fredi Washington in action: such a fascinating figure.

IMITATION OF LIFE — the original. Very good, and interesting to compare with the Sirk. Our friend Nicky Smith remarked that the original is stronger because it makes it obvious that the white heroine is robbing her “friend” — Claudette Colbert mass-produces Louise Beavers’ family recipe for pancake flour, and gives her 20% of the profits. 20%? I wonder if 1934 audiences were able to convince themselves this was a fair deal.

Beavers, accustomed to playing maid/stooge to Mae West and others, here gets to play at least a version of a human being, though there are still jokes about her character being naive or “dumb,” and she arrives at the door with a portentous track-in on her beaming face which seems to be setting her up as some kind of Magic Negress, a miraculous Mary Poppins sent by Fate to help the white folks out. No needs of her own. But this is not precisely what happens.

Basically, the film parallels three plots — first, the rise and rise of Colbert’s business, which is a straightforward American Dream success story with no twists, reversals or developments of any kind except the irresistible rise of the Pancake Queen. Then there’s Colbert and her daughter both falling for the same man, starving lion Warren William. It’s a Story as old as Time: the love of a Pancake Queen and a debonair ichthyologist. And then there’s the relationship of Beavers with her own daughter, who grows up to be Fredi Washington, who decides to pass as white. As Sirk rightly said, this is the only aspect if Fannie Hurst’s source novel that actually gives you any drama capable of supporting a film.

We won’t deal with the pancake business anymore except to say that the business with Claudette opening her own pancake shop and then franchising reminded me very much of MILDRED PIERCE, which also has mother and daughter fancying the same man. The James M. Cain book and Michael Curtiz movie (enjoyed in its new restoration very much at Il Cinema Ritrovato THIS year) takes the romantic triangle MUCH further, and I wondered if there was a direct influence from Hurst’s 1933 novel onto Cain’s 1941 one. And the fact that Cain had a book (Serenade) adapted by Stahl (as WHEN TOMORROW COMES) in 1939 seems to me to make this likelier. Cain, a master of the technique he called the “love rack”may have sensed that Hurst was letting her triangle fizzle out by shying away from the more awful possibilities, and felt he could get a lot more value out of it…

The race theme is the heart of the picture, and thanks to Beavers and especially Washington, is moving and insightful, even though the story keeps having to contrive ways for dark-skinned mother to embarrass fair-skinned daughter. Both characters’ arguments with regards to accepting the hand dealt you, or using subterfuge to improve it, are compelling, and though the film obviously favours Louise, it doesn’t push its viewpoint too hard.

Beavers on the world’s largest pillow. I mean, that’s a seriously EDWARD SCISSORHANDS size pillow there.

Comparison with the Sirk: the idea of a remake was doubtless only embraced due to the salacious rumours circulating after the death of Lana Turner’s lover, gangster Johnny Stompanato (best gangster name ever? I mean, you don’t need to be called “Dutch” or “Bugsy” or Legs” or “Baby Face” if your surname is already Stompanato. Though J.S. did have a nickname, it wasn’t for himself, just his penis: he called it “the Oscar”). After Turner’s daughter, Cheryl Crane, stabbed Stompanato to death in the kitchen (or did Lana do it, really?) it was bandied about town that both Lana and Cheryl had been intimate with the Oscar.

(I’ve seen a short extract of Lana’s courtroom testimony. It’s a true Lana Turner performance: camo and artificial and soapy in the best way. The jury must have loved it. It suggests that either Lana is acting for her life, or that she’s sincere and so are all her weird, artificial performances. Strange.)

So producer Ross Hunter was hoping to titillate his audience by casting Lana in the remake. Her casting meant, for some reason, that the whole Pancake Queen thing had to go (and while we’re at it let’s have John Gavin NOT play an ichthyologist) which created some plausibility issues. In this version, widowed mother Lana becomes a star of stage and screen at 38. Hmm, could this be a roman a clef, closely based on the true life story of NO WOMAN EVER? Also, by cutting the pancake mix, Lana’s maid, Juanita Moore, isn’t trousering 20% of the profits from a flour empire, and so her colossal funeral at the end of the film doesn’t really make any naturalistic sense. I saw it with my late lamented friend Lawrie and he was in hysterics at the vast pomp of it all: “But she’s just a cleaning woman! A very good cleaning woman, but…” Not the intended reaction, and the original movie doesn’t have that problem (though it does have the unreal idea of Beavers having no interest in money — in my experience, most poor people would like to be rich).

(Getting distracted by petty realistic details is a vice. I showed ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST to a friend, who wanted to know, while Bronson’s brother was being hanged from an arch in the desert, “Where’s the ladder?” A foolish question anyway, since it could easily be the other side of the camera.)

The bigger problem in the remake is arguably the casting of Susan Kohner, of Jewish/Mexican decent, playing Moore’s daughter, the Fredi Washington part. We are less convinced by the genetics, and we also KNOW that there was someone out there of the correct racial background who could have played the part just as well. And though Kohner had done a few movies and was probably being built up by Universal, it’s not like the public really knew who she was. It would have made no big difference to the box office if the part had been played by a real pale-skinned African-American actress. And even if you’re willing to forgive the compromise, a bit more effort is require in the way of suspension of disbelief.

In many ways, the commercial cinema of 1959 was less liberated than that of 1934 — discuss.