Archive for David Melville

Strictly Scarlet

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2016 by dcairns

Good news, everybody! David Melville Wingrove is BACK, with another Forbidden Diva ~



Strictly Scarlet

“It would be unusual…but then great ladies can do unusual things.” ~ Franchot Tone to Joan Crawford, The Bride Wore Red

In 1938, Joan Crawford – one of the most perennially popular stars in the annals of Hollywood – suddenly found herself labelled Box Office Poison by a group of disgruntled exhibitors. Of all the famous names on the list, hers was by far the most unlikely. Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich were movie legends but never won over a broad public. Mae West had seen her raunchy humour watered down by the Production Code. Greta Garbo was a mythical goddess in need of some modern-day reinventing. But Joan Crawford had long been the factory girl’s favourite, a proletarian star who embodied the needs and aspirations of working-class women. Joan and Louis B Mayer, her all-powerful boss at MGM, must have been speechless with shock. What, oh what, could possibly have gone wrong?

They may have remembered how – a year before the list came out – MGM had starred Joan in a truly catastrophic flop. The Bride Wore Red (1937) was a dark-hued romantic comedy by Dorothy Arzner, the only woman director in the Hollywood studio system. An open lesbian and a stalwart feminist, Arzner was known for films with challenging and unconventional female leads. Katharine Hepburn as the silver-clad aviatrix in Christopher Strong (1933) and Rosalind Russell as the domestic tyrant in Craig’s Wife (1936) were not the type of girl a man would ask out for an ice-cream soda once the movie was done. They would doubtless sneer at vanilla and might even insist on paying their half of the tab. Not that Joan’s character in The Bride Wore Red would have any such qualms about letting a gentleman pay. She was a hooker – one disguised as a socialite, with a luxuriant Adrian wardrobe to match – but always, and unmistakably, a hooker nonetheless.


Such casting was a step too far for Joan’s fans. Morally conservative and largely female, they would accept their idol as a showgirl or a shop girl, no problem. As a kept woman, perhaps, provided it was Clark Gable or Spencer Tracy who did the keeping. As a hooker, most definitely not! Joan had made that mistake once before in Rain (1932) with a smouldering portrayal of the South Sea island prostitute Sadie Thompson. No matter if it was by far the best of her early roles and she gave a performance to rival that of Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage (1934) – another hooker in another story by Somerset Maugham. The fans were horrified and Rain was a resounding flop. They had no idea the real Joan had been arrested repeatedly on ‘morals charges’ – back in the 20s, when she was still Lucille LeSueur. Or even that she had starred in hardcore pornographic ‘stag films’ before more legitimate movie roles came her way. All things considered, The Bride Wore Red was as close as a silver screen goddess could come to career suicide.

Nor can we accuse Joan or her director of doing it by half-measures. When she first appears, singing in a waterfront dive in Trieste, she looks downright sleazy. (Based on a play called The Girl from Trieste by Ferenc Molnár, the film takes place in a fantasy Mittel Europa that vanished with the Habsburg Empire.) Her hair, tumbling loose almost to her shoulders, plays up and sharpens the weird angularity of her face. Her tight black gown clings to her body like a skin, shiny yet obscurely unclean. Pinned to one shoulder is a clutch of tawdry white blossoms. Camellias, perhaps, but not the sort that Garbo would ever buy! An elderly roué named Count Armalia (George Zucco) summons her over to his table. It is clear that he has no sexual interest in her. Earlier on, we have seen him give a handsome, dark-haired waiter an unfeasibly large tip. He is a joker, an aesthete and a voyeur. All he wants to is to play her Fairy Godfather. To send her, all expenses paid, to a plush hotel in the Tyrolean Alps, where she may pass herself off as a lady.


Soon enough, Joan is installed at said hotel under the name of Anna Vivaldi, an aristocratic moniker she picked up from a beer advert. Her suite is decorated in those dazzling shades of white-on-white that only ever exist in movies. (One speck of cigarette ash would throw the colour scheme off entirely!) The hotel manager is Paul Porcasi, that most camp and irascible of Hollywood character actors. Alas, the chambermaid (Mary Phillips) turns out to be an old comrade-in-arms from the whorehouse in Trieste. But she is a real pal who keeps Joan’s secret and allows Arzner to work in some of her trademark female bonding. Naturally, this being a Crawford vehicle, there are also two men on hand. Robert Young plays an upper-class lounge lizard in a tuxedo, whom Joan wants to marry. Franchot Tone plays a hunky postman in lederhosen, who wants to marry her. When he is not delivering letters, Tone enjoys blowing on a long and impressively phallic Alpine flute. We may remember that his nickname in Hollywood was ‘Jawbreaker’.


Naturally, Joan found time for a spot of shopping before she caught the train to the Alps. Yet all the outfits she wears at the hotel are subtly (or not so subtly) ‘off’. For her entrance at dinner on the first night, she sports a ridiculous all-white bridal costume worthy of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. The gigantic daisy in her hair brings to mind the Bette Midler joke about walking around with a large fried egg on top of your head. Relaxing in her suite, she wears a shiny negligee with two enormous fuzzy puffed sleeves. She looks, honestly, as if she has shot and eviscerated two Muppets and is now wearing one of them on each arm. Yet her most outrageous fashion mistake is kept carefully in abeyance – hidden in her closet and seen only in short, subliminal glances like the monster in a Val Lewton movie. It is a sheer and shiny red evening gown, covered with sequins and oozing and dripping with sex. It is, in short, the perfect visual summation of who she actually is.


When our heroine dons her red gown in the final reel, she does not look cheap or nasty. She looks resplendent. Unusually for a Joan Crawford vehicle, we have had to wait an hour and a half to see the star in an outfit that actually suits her. (Is anybody still wondering why The Bride Wore Red was a flop?) Striding brazenly down the grand staircase and into the grand salon, Joan is the focus of all eyes. The pallid socialites around her see her and stare and fall silent. The effect is at least as stunning as Bette Davis’s entrance into the Olympus Ball in Jezebel (1938), also in a blazing red gown amid an anaemic sea of white. What is more, Joan’s entrance in red took place a full year before Bette’s, even if it was never rewarded with an Oscar for Best Actress. At moments like this one, Bette’s implacable lifelong animosity towards Joan may almost start to make sense.

With its metaphor of hiding the truth about yourself in a closet – only to one day take it out and wear it proudly, and tell the prudes and puritans around you to go hell – The Bride Wore Red is one of the great symbolic ‘coming out’ movies. It is part of a tradition of covertly gay cinema that ranges from Hollywood melodramas like Now, Voyager (1942) and Splendor in the Grass (1961) to camp Australian comedies like Muriel’s Wedding (1994) and The Dressmaker (2015). It is also, quite possibly, Joan Crawford’s truest and rawest and most touching performance of the 30s – one of a very few roles to demonstrate that she was a Great Actress as well as a Great Star. Does anyone really need to ask which of her two co-stars she winds up marrying? Here’s a clue…she married him in real life as well, only he drank and beat her up and the whole thing was a disaster and did not last. The nickname ‘Jawbreaker’ was all too horribly prophetic. Like most of the iconic stars, Joan was far happier on the screen than off. Perhaps it was safer that way.

David Melville

Forbidden Divas: A Woman of Her Importance

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2015 by dcairns

Our regular guest Shadowplayer David Melville returns with another in his series, Forbidden Divas.    



When I wanted your trust, I didn’t get it.

Now that I have your trust, I don’t want it!

Dolores del Río, Story of a Bad Woman

On the long list of places I’ve never been to, Argentina is the one that makes me most curious. I’ve heard that Eva Perón – a prostitute who married a dictator – is still revered by many as a saint. That the tango is popular only in the capital, Buenos Aires, and reviled elsewhere in the country as vulgar and salacious. That decades of conflict over las Islas Malvinas (known to imperialists as the Falklands) have done nothing to blunt a perverse but enduring fascination with all things British. According to one old saying: “An Argentine is an Italian who speaks Spanish, works like a German and tries but fails to dress like an Englishman.”


So perhaps it’s weirdly fitting that Argentina (not the UK) has produced the smartest and most elegant screen version of an Oscar Wilde comedy. Historia de una mala mujer (which translates literally as Story of a Bad Woman) is a liberal but pitch-perfect adaptation of Wilde’s 1892 play Lady Windermere’s Fan. Made in 1948 – when Argentina still rivalled Mexico as the leading film industry in the Spanish-speaking world – it’s the work of one Luis Saslavsky, a brilliant but little-known auteur who fled into exile in the 50s and spent the bulk of his career in Europe. Its star, Dolores del Río, was a legend in both Mexico and Hollywood. Here she pays a gracious goodwill visit to points further south.


Sinuous in its camerawork, eye-wateringly lavish in its costumes and sets, Story of a Bad Woman may be the best film ever made from an Oscar Wilde text. The other contender for me is Carmelo Bene’s 1972 version of Salome, with 60s supermodel Veruschka shedding a skin of jewels off her nude body while her director/co-star writhes in understandable lust. That film was an Italian avant-garde epic – so perhaps, in order to film Wilde successfully, you have to slice his text to ribbons and translate him into a foreign language. The one truly Wildean film in English, Robert Hamer’s 1949 black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, is not actually based on Wilde at all.

While British and American directors tend to preserve Wilde’s bonbons of wit in a glaze of stiff and flavourless aspic jelly, Saslavsky uses the text as a springboard and sets his camera free to do its job. He opens at the opera, at a gala performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore. As in Luchino Visconti’s Senso (1954) – which opens at a performance of the same opera – there’s far more drama in the audience than on the stage. Every pair of opera-glasses in the house is trained on a single empty box, in which the scandalous femme fatale Mrs Erlynne is due to appear. Once the lady shows up, she does not disappoint. In a black velvet gown with a long trailing black-and-white cape, Dolores del Río is an Aubrey Beardsley illustration sprung to life.


Stalking the corridors at the interval, Dolores gives Saslavsky and his team a chance to show they have read other works by Oscar Wilde and not just the one they are adapting. She runs into an old admirer called Arthur Savile (Francisco de Paula) – who retrieves her glittering serpent bracelet when it falls off her wrist onto the floor. (The device used to entrap the villainous Mrs Cheveley in An Ideal Husband.) But her main purpose of the evening is blackmail. The world-weary husband (Alberto Closas) of an insufferably priggish young socialite (María Duval) has unaccountably started paying Mrs Erlynne’s bills. Given that this lady’s wardrobe alone could bankrupt a small South American nation, we know that ugly and long-buried skeletons are fairly beating on the closet door.

Or that, at any rate, is what the neighbours think. A bevy of gossipy old crones spy out through the windows of one house – and in through the windows of Mrs Erlynne’s house next door. At last, the camera seems to grow tired of their world and glides, seamlessly, through a pane of glass into the salon where Dolores sits at her piano. (For sheer bravura, this shot is easily a match for the famous glass ceiling shot in Citizen Kane (1941), whose director Orson Welles was a real-life admirer of Dolores.) Having found its way into her home, the camera now enters her mind. A flashback shows us how Dolores, once a dutiful wife and mother, lost custody of her child when her husband suspected her of an affair.


Apart from The Importance of Being Earnest, all Wilde’s comedies contain a strong dose of melodrama; Saslavsky is perhaps the one filmmaker to give this aspect its due. The flashback is staged and lit like a Gothic horror movie, all blazing candelabra, crashes of thunder and flashes of lightning outside the windows. He resurrects this Sturm und Drang later on in the movie, for a scene that reveals Dolores is actually the long-lost mother of the prissy Duval. (My God, does heredity count for nothing?) That, of course, is why the husband is paying her money. If not, she might reveal The Truth and destroy the family’s good name.

Not that Duval is any model of discretion. She flirts quite openly with a smarmily handsome dandy played by Fernando Lamas, a few years before his Hollywood career as a ‘Latin Lover’ to the likes of Esther Williams and Arlene Dahl. Lamas describes her as “a charming puritan” (well, he’s half right) and does his utmost to lure her away from her admittedly dull husband. In fact, nobody in this film has much appeal apart from Dolores – who grows only more radiantly beautiful (like some queer and monstrous orchid) the more other characters prattle on about how depraved she is.

One of those stars whose acting verges on the subliminal, del Río transforms herself from dewy-eyed victim to hardened adventuress with barely a trace of visible effort. She may rival Greta Garbo and Catherine Deneuve for the crown of Great Actress Who Is Most Unlike Meryl Streep. At the film’s climactic ball (which resembles a luxuriant dress rehearsal for Vincente Minnelli’s in his 1949 Madame Bovary) she makes her entrance in a gown of purest virginal white. Wielding an outsize bouquet of stainless white flowers, just in case we miss the point!


At the ball, her irritating simp of a long-lost daughter looks set to compromise herself (yet again) with the lusty Lamas. Without hesitating, Dolores sacrifices her own reputation to save her child – who is still unaware they are related. This new scandal costs her the love of her latest suitor, who offered her the fleeting prospect of respectability and marriage. (Yawn!) She stands without flinching as the man slaps her publicly across the face. The camera – taking its cue, perhaps, from Dolores – does not move either. We stay in a tight close-up as her face runs the gamut of shock, defiance, hope, anguish and despair. It’s not for nothing that Dolores del Río began in silent films.

Moments like this may make you prefer Story of a Bad Woman, not just to other Wilde adaptations, but perhaps even to Wilde’s original play. Lady Windermere’s Fan climaxes with a cloyingly sentimental mother-daughter reunion and ends with the ‘dangerous’ mother safely married off to a benign elder gent. In Luis Saslavsky’s version, mother keeps her identity to a secret to the end. She strides out of the movie – much as she strode into it – alone and resplendent. Immaculately styled and radiantly gowned, her head held high. “Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others.” Wilde must have had Dolores in mind when he wrote that.

David Melville

Forbidden Divas #1

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2015 by dcairns



David Melville returns with a new series, or mini-series anyway — FORBIDDEN DIVAS. He has a major series up his sleeve too, but that’ll have to wait a wee while. For now ~

Kissing the Flame

“Does that man interest you?”

“Man? Let’s say men interest me.”

Carlos Thompson and Lana Turner, Flame and the Flesh

Some femmes, as we know, are more fatales than others. For French audiences in the 30s and 40s, the gold standard was set by Viviane Romance – a star known to this day as “The Flame”. Born in 1911 as simple Pauline Ortmans, she was by no means a great beauty. She had an angular face, a plump body and a shock of unruly black hair. But she had, also, a warm and earthy carnality that no other star, perhaps, has ever rivalled. (At moments, Anna Magnani and Ava Gardner came close.) Could anyone else “act” allure as compellingly as she could? And, of course, there were always her eyes, dark and liquid, unfathomable…


The 1937 film that made her a legend, Naples au baiser du feu (which translates badly as Naples in the Kiss of Fire) has long been unavailable on DVD. So too has its lavish MGM remake, the 1954 Flame and the Flesh – which stars a far more cosmetic and glamorous sex symbol, Lana Turner. Faced with the all-but-insurmountable difficulty of seeing either film, comparing the two may seem like an exercise in obscurity for its own sake. Yet the films we have not seen can possess our imagination as powerfully – and as dangerously, perhaps – as those we have. And sooner or later, one of them may actually show up.

As the credits roll on Naples au baiser du feu, the first thing you notice is that Viviane Romance is not the star. That honour goes to Tino Rossi, a sculpturally handsome French singing idol of truly spectacular dullness. He plays Mario, a singer-cum-gigolo who entertains rich ladies in a swish Neapolitan restaurant. He shares a house with Michel Simon, a bachelor who describes Mario as his “godson” but whom Mario describes as “my father, my brother, my godfather, my family in fact”. Hmm. As if he were not busy enough, the boy is also chastely engaged to Mireille Balin, the proprietor of the restaurant – in other words, his boss.


The script sets Rossi up (his acting certainly doesn’t) as the apex of a love triangle – in which neither relationship officially involves sex. That, of course, is where Viviane Romance comes in. In the opening scene, a cargo ship is unloading down on the docks. The hold opens to reveal a steaming mountain of hot coal. A black stoker (whose nickname is ‘Blanc’ or ‘Whitey’) makes his way through the lower depths of the ship, where a stowaway lurks. Viviane Romance as Lolita, looking only slightly sweaty in all that heat. Symbolically, this woman rises from the darkest pit of Hell itself. Worse – so the script implies – she may have given sexual favours to a black man just to get a free ride. Proof, for a 30s audience, of her utter depravity.


Perhaps I should mention here that Naples au baiser du feu was directed by Augusto Genina, a pioneer of Italian silent film who also made the Louise Brooks classic Prix de beauté (1930). Very shortly after, he would reinvent himself as a highly successful maker of Fascist propaganda films. (The best known, The Siege of the Alcazar (1940) and Bengasi (1942), are said to be extremely well made.) Although Naples is heavy-breathing tosh with no overt political content, a Fascist aesthetic is visible in the way Genina serves up sex in lubricious dollops – all the while condemning it as vile and unclean. Once the temptress lures Rossi away from the narrow and none-too-straight, he upbraids her as follows: “You spend your whole life lying. You even lie when you kiss me. You lie with your eyes, with your smile. You live only to be desired.” As if boffing sex-starved ladies in return for tips were, somehow, morally superior…


All of which leads on nicely to Flame and the Flesh, which – unusually for an MGM film – is remarkably upfront about how its hero earns his living. Heavy hints are dropped by the song “Pedlar Man” where the lyrics go “Come along, ladies, look and buy / Come along, ladies, don’t be shy”. Something tells you he’s not selling Bibles or life insurance. The young stud in this version is an Argentine actor-singer called Carlos Thompson, who made several Hollywood films before marrying Lilli Palmer and moving to Europe. The kindest thing one can say is that he’s less dull than Tino Rossi. But he still resembles a well-dressed department store mannequin, with a singing voice piped in by ventriloquism.

Alas, Thompson barely seems man enough for Pier Angeli, as the doe-eyed ingénue, or Bonar Colleano, who’s here been downgraded from “godfather” to “war buddy”.  Never mind Lana Turner at her flashiest and most flamboyant. Never a great or perhaps even a good actress, Lana is surprisingly gutsy and impressive as a scheming, devious trollop with one thing (and one thing only) on her mind. Her hair darkened and her figure squeezed into unflattering thrift shop clothes, she seems liberated – as in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) – from the usual MGM pressure to be ladylike. She’s at her best in a wordless scene, where her mere appearance on the beach at Amalfi sparks a near riot.


Starting as a pallid Technicolor copy of the French film, Flame and the Flesh improves considerably as Lana lures the poor sap to run away and hit the road with her a la Postman. The director, Richard Brooks, had a flair for women whose sexual and romantic impulses went beyond what society was prepared to tolerate – or, at least, what their hapless male partners were able to provide. Turner here can be seen as a rough sketch (in lurid multi-coloured crayons) for Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Jean Simmons in The Happy Ending (1969) or Diane Keaton in Looking for Mr Goodbar (1977). Her performance is arguably bolder and more enterprising, if only because she lacks the other women’s talent or technique.

Brooks even allows Lana the luxury of character development, a thing wholly lacking in the absolutist moral scheme of Genina. By the end of Naples au baiser du feu, Viviane Romance has tired of Tino Rossi and taken up with a photographer (Marcel Dalio). She is busy manipulating and lying to this new man, just as she has with all the others. Lana, at the end of Flame and the Flesh, is still in love with Thompson. (Trust me, this does require some acting.) But she gives him up for his own good – pretending to run off with a rich protector, so he’ll go back to that nice girl in the restaurant back home!


Once her good deed is done, Lana says goodbye to her would-be sugar daddy and walks off proudly into the night. We are left to imagine how she will raise the fare to her next stop.

David Melville