Archive for 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

And lead us into TEMPTATION…

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2015 by dcairns

David Melville fills the gap between his series on Mexican melodrama and his upcoming series on… but that would be telling… with a special piece on a neglected 1946 melodrama sure to be of interest to Shadowplayers everywhere ~


Was there ever a better year for Bad Girls than 1946? Rita Hayworth in Gilda, Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep, Jennifer Jones in Duel in the Sun, Hedy Lamarr in The Strange Woman. Each one stronger, smarter, sexier and more subversive than…well, just about any woman since. But one lady, that same year, could hold her own with any of them. An actress who’s been criminally underrated, in a film that’s been tragically forgotten. I’m talking about Merle Oberon in Temptation.

If the title doesn’t ring any bells…well, it’s not an easy film to see. Directed by Irving Pichel and produced (lavishly) by a long-defunct entity called International Film Corporation, Temptation is unavailable on DVD or any other home video format. It survives (just about) in blurred copies recorded from TV in the 90s. Not that it doesn’t still look splendid. The cameraman, Lucien Ballard, was Merle Oberon’s second husband. (He also photographed her in The Lodger (1944), This Love of Ours (1945) and Berlin Express (1948).) She married him, presumably, because he was the one man who could make her look more exquisite than she did already.


So what is Temptation about? Many things…not all of which are directly apparent on screen. It was based on Bella Donna, a novel by the English author and aesthete Robert Hichens (1864-1950). A member of the camp gay circle that surrounded Oscar Wilde and his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, he is best remembered today for The Green Carnation (1894) – a witty if rather scurrilous roman á clef about the, er, home life of his two famous friends. He also wrote the kitsch masterwork The Garden of Allah (filmed in 1936 with Charles Boyer and Marlene Dietrich) which, like this story, has a North African desert setting.

Temptation opens in Cairo in 1900. Merle plays an outwardly genteel Victorian lady, who gets into a spot of bother over some compromising letters sent to an Egyptian gigolo lover (Charles Korvin). Dare we suspect this story has autobiographical echoes? We do know Wilde and his pals spent almost as much money paying off blackmailers as they earned in royalties. (More, perhaps, in the case of the sexually voracious Lord Alfred.) It’s tempting to see Merle’s character (who boasts the achingly exotic name of Ruby Armine) as a gay man trapped in a woman’s body. She could – if only this film were better known – win herself a cult following to rival Bette Davis in All About Eve.


We see her first in long-shot, drifting through the garden of her sumptuous villa in a plush suburb of Cairo. (I was not aware, until now, that Cairo had plush suburbs.) A vision in a long and trailing white gown, with a white lace parasol to match. Her clothes are by the great Orry-Kelly and Merle herself remarks within the first few minutes: “The things I remember best are the hats and gowns I wore – and the way I felt when I wore them.” At the risk of sounding shallow, I must admit much of the pleasure in Temptation comes from seeing what our heroine will wear next. Let’s just say Merle Oberon is never knowingly underdressed.

As the star wafts her way slowly through the garden, we learn that a sinister Egyptian police inspector has come to call. By the time we see her in close-up, it’s clear she’s wanted for questioning about a murder. Her dreary archaeologist husband (George Brent) does not seem unduly concerned. He’s too busy pondering the opening of a long-lost tomb. But his close bachelor friend, a gimlet-eyed Jewish doctor (Paul Lukas), has distrusted and disliked Ruby from the start. A flashback in London tells us she was once what’s euphemistically called an ‘adventuress’. Her first husband divorced her on “urgent medical advice” from Lukas, who then tried to dissuade Brent from marrying her “as I would stop an infectious disease from spreading”. We wonder, momentarily, if the poor girl has some sort of VD. Or is the doctor one of those movie characters (normally played by Clifton Webb) who seem to regard any woman as ‘unclean’?

With these two dullards as her day-to-day companions, it’s hardly a surprise when Merle (still in a flashback) decides to have a little fun on the side. ‘Fun’ comes in the form of a bogus Egyptian prince called Mahmoud Bahroudi. He’s played by the Hungarian actor Charles Korvin – the one actor with a cleft chin more prodigious than Kirk Douglas or Cary Grant! In any other department, he’s not much of a threat but Merle likes him from the start. They first meet when he tries to blackmail a young acquaintance – and are drawn together by recognition of each other’s mutual depravity. “You’re the first person,” marvels Korvin, “who lies as well as I do.” To put it more simply, the two are a perfect match.


Korvin, of course, is only out for money. But all of Merle’s is under the control of her husband. “I wish he were dead,” she says with an air of mild annoyance. Her lover promptly hands her an untraceable poison in an exotically carved antique box. Soon enough, she’s found a villainous servant who can stir it discreetly into anything poor Brent eats or drinks. In the tensest moment, some poisoned tea is placed strategically on a tray with six or seven other cups. The servant swivels the tray, with a dexterity that is truly breathtaking, to make sure that hubby gets the right one. Merle’s beautiful dark eyes follow the tray’s every move. They glow anxiously as her husband lifts the drink to his lips – and puts it down twice, untasted.

It’s a truly mesmerising piece of silent-screen acting, made all the more offbeat and effective by the fact that it takes place in a talking film. In forty years as an internationally famous star (stretching from her doomed Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII in 1933 to her even-more-doomed vanity project Interval in 1973) Merle Oberon never enjoyed much reputation as an actress. The focus was on her exotic Anglo-Indian beauty and her early life as a ‘nightclub dancer’ (among other things) in the back streets of Calcutta. Yet anyone who doubts her ability to carry a film should track down a copy of Temptation. It’s a banquet of a role and she chomps it down and swallows it in one gulp. Only the lynx-eyed Lenore Ulric, as her sinister and possibly lesbian French maid, gets to steal even a tiny corner of the screen.


Am I spoiling any surprises if I say that Merle/Ruby does reform before Temptation is quite over? Hichens’ friend Wilde deplored “the modern mania for turning bad people into good people at a moment’s notice” but that is what Hollywood in the 40s forced most movies to do. It’s reassuring to note that – while she is still satisfyingly wicked – Oberon sports a truly eye-popping dress with a black-lace-and-diamante bodice, festooned with pyramids and sphinxes and other Egyptian motifs. Surely no girl who wears a gown like this could ever be that good?!

David Melville


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