Archive for David Wingrove

A Solo for Three Voices

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2016 by dcairns

Just when everything seemed bleak and colourless like a sepia Kansas farmyard, David Melville Wingrove returns after a too-long absence to continue his series Forbidden Divas ~



A Solo for Three Voices 

“To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.” ~ Oscar Wilde

No, The Love of Three Queens (1954) is not a movie about a gay ménage a trois. It’s a lavish and multi-stranded folly that showcases Hedy Lamarr – its star and its producer – as three of the Great Women of History. She plays the saintly Genevieve of Brabant in the Middle Ages, the flighty Empress Josephine in the Napoleonic Wars and the sultry Helen of Troy in Ancient Greece. Just in case that is not enough, she also appears in a framing story…as a fresh-faced ingénue (Hedy was forty at the time) who embodies all three women for a wandering Italian theatre troupe.

The term ‘vanity project’ might have been coined specially to describe this film. A sophisticated lady with a famously high IQ (she dabbled in scientific research between movies) Hedy Lamarr rapidly grew tired of the decorative roles foisted on her by Hollywood. Meanwhile, she took little if any responsibility for her own disastrous choices – allegedly turning down Casablanca (1943) and Gaslight (1944), but saying yes to The Conspirators (1944) and Experiment Perilous (1944)! Like any other bored but ambitious leading lady, she took to producing her own films.

She tried this first in Hollywood, with a degree of success. The Strange Woman (1946) was the torrid tale of a scheming backwoods vixen, with George Sanders memorably miscast as a lumberjack. Dishonored Lady (1947) – about a fashion editor with an overactive libido – was a flop, as the clothes were not stunning enough to compensate for the lady’s lack of morals. Hedy’s career, briefly, looked doomed. But then Cecil B DeMille cast her as the Biblical temptress in Samson and Delilah (1949). Nobody, before or since, had worn peacock feathers with such aplomb! Hedy clearly felt it was her destiny to play the legendary sirens of the ages…

1949  Hollywood screen goddess, Hedy Lamarr stars in "Samson and Delilah" directed by Cecil B. De Mille.

Hollywood, as usual, did not see it her way. So Hedy packed her bags, moved to Italy and sank most of her fortune into a production company all her own. Its one and only product, The Love of Three Queens, exists under such a baffling array of titles (Eterna Femmina, L’Amante di Paride, The Knights of Illusion) and in such a bewildering diversity of cuts (from three hours to under 90 minutes) that it is actually quite hard to describe it as a film at all. It has far more the aura of an open-ended and ongoing project, like Walt Disney’s Fantasia or Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, only with a shade more artistic self-indulgence thrown in.


The framing story (at least in the version now on DVD) opens with a bunch of gypsy-style caravans trundling through a scenic Italian landscape. A nameless and faceless narrator follows by horse-drawn carriage. He is, he explains, “compelled by beauty beyond a poet’s words, by mystic loveliness that bore the name Leala.” As his voice speaks these words, the shutters on one caravan swing open – and Hedy gazes out languidly at the passing scene. Might she not overhear this narration? Perhaps, be embarrassed by it? Then it strikes us that Hedy – in her role as producer – must have given her full approval to the script and instructed Marc Allégret (the credited director) to shoot it in this way and no other.

Well, nobody ever got to the top in movies by being modest. Hedy/Leala is the star attraction of the otherwise shabby Teatro Romani. We and the narrator follow to the nearest town, where the troupe is playing that night. By using a tawdry theatrical framework for its flights of artistic and historical fancy, The Love of Three Queens anticipates a far more famous film maudit of the 50s, the doomed Max Ophüls extravaganza Lola Montès (1955). Both films were mangled and recut to the brink of incoherence and neither, at the time, was given a wide release. The difference is that Hedy’s film never became a cause célèbre with critics, has never been revived or restored and remains unavailable in anything like its original form.


As her character on that first night, Genevieve of Brabant, Hedy looks fetching but incongruous in a blonde wig. This episode – unlike most of the film – was directed by Edgar G Ulmer, who helped her play a sizzling femme fatale in The Strange Woman. Her role here is a character of unimpeachable (and well-nigh insufferable) moral virtue – a pious medieval lady who tends the fields with the peasants, while her husband is away fighting the Moors. A lascivious nobleman tries to seduce her. After she refuses, the rotter accuses her of “unchastity” to her husband on his return. The husband, inexplicably, believes the man over his wife and promptly condemns her to death. “This cannot be happening,” says Hedy, looking mildly perplexed. We in the audience know exactly how she feels.


Faced with this unwieldy and unbelievable plot, Hedy and Ulmer soon fell out. He walked off the picture (or was fired) and is grudgingly listed as ‘Associate Director’ in the end credits. Indeed – judging from her performance – it seems Ulmer could control his star only by keeping her in a state of permanent hypnosis. Visually, though, his work brilliantly evokes the art of the Middle Ages; the stylised colour schemes and flat or foreshortened perspectives seem to recall a Brueghel painting. Oh, and poor wronged Genevieve does not die. She escapes into the wild and gives birth to an adorable blonde son. Her erring husband finds them, years later, living in a cave and weaving garlands of flowers to adorn their herd of tame deer.


The next episode (made after Allégret took over) is a shorter and livelier affair. Hedy looks wickedly stylish as the promiscuous Empress Josephine – in a red-white-and-blue outfit of military cut, her bonnet festooned with white plumes and tricolore ribbons. Travelling the back roads during her husband’s Italian campaign, she dismisses one lover from her carriage (“I suppose in war these things happen”) and invites the next available solder to take his place. But she is not a heartless floozy, just a vulnerable and tender-hearted woman baffled by Naploeon’s manic desire to conquer all of Europe. In the end, he forsakes her for an Austrian princess who gives him a male heir. Standing at her window, she listens to each cannon in the 21-gun salute. Her face grows, subliminally, more tragic and resigned with every shot.


It seems Hedy was a lot happier under Allégret’s direction. Her portrayal of Josephine is as heart-rending as her portrayal of Genevieve is becalmed. Her third role, as Helen of Troy, is in a more languid mode. But that’s only right for this version of the story, which makes Helen the bait in a ‘honey trap’ – designed by wily Odysseus to trick the Trojans into war. Realising the sordid way she has been used, Helen does not so much fall in love with Paris (Massimo Serato) as leave her husband Menelaus in disgust. Of her fabled beauty, she says: “What has it brought me save sorrow? Desired, not for myself, but that men might envy the one who had me.” We are tempted to wonder if Hedy wrote this dialogue herself.


The Trojan War, when it happens, is quite bereft of heroism of any sort. Troy falls in a surprisingly graphic orgy of slaughter and rape; guffawing Greek soldiers suffocate a helpless man under a shower of grain. When Menelaus comes to strike Helen dead with his sword, she throws open her black mourning robes to reveal a lining of bright crimson. As if, knowing the savagery of the world, she had already draped herself in blood. “May the gods forbid that any mortal woman be as desolate as I!” He spares her, but we get the distinct feeling she would rather be dead.

On one level, The Love of Three Queens is a silly and overproduced costumed charade. Yet running through it – and holding it together, if anything does – is an intelligent woman’s baffled outrage at the male fondness for brutality, conquest and war. Hedy’s first husband (married when she was just 18) had been the Viennese arms tycoon Fritz Mandl, who sold bombs to both Mussolini and Franco. (If he had no links with Hitler, it was only because he was Jewish.)  He also tried to destroy all prints of Hedy’s landmark film Ecstasy (1933) because she appeared in a very discreet sex scene and, later, swam in the nude. Her efforts to escape this marriage led Hedy to America and, eventually, a Hollywood career. In this return to Europe, she was not just making a movie; she was, perhaps, settling a few old scores.

The scores, alas, did not settle in her favour. The Love of Three Queens sank into an oblivion from which it still has yet to surface. Hedy married again (for the fifth time) to Texan oil tycoon Howard Lee, who insisted they settle in Houston. “How anyone who has seen anything of the world can live in Texas is beyond me,” said Hedy after the divorce. She made only a few more films and died in poverty in Florida in 2000. The Love of Three Queens survives, in much-mutilated form, as the most fascinating of flops. Try to imagine Intolerance remade as a glossy high-fashion chick flick. It could never have worked. And who but Hedy would have had the nerve to try?


David Melville

S is for Soledad

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , on August 10, 2013 by dcairns

David Melville dishes up another letter from his alphabet soup of spicy Mexican melodrama ~


The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

S is for Soledad


What can I say? Soledad must be a popular name in Mexico – in films, at any rate. The ‘R’ entry El rebozo de Soledad (Soledad’s Shawl) was a quasi-melodrama that that sought to ennoble its soap operatics with spiritual and social uplift. The 1947 film Soledad, in contrast, is pure unadulterated soap. One of those relentlessly masochistic melodramas about the joys and sorrows of Mother Love (well, mainly the sorrows) it plays like Stella Dallas and Mildred Pierce and Imitation of Life all rolled into one, with songs added. Small wonder it’s one of the classics of the genre, hailed by critics as “the most chemically pure melodrama in the history of Mexican film”. Quite a claim, I know, but Soledad more than lives up to the hype.

Directed by ace melodramatist Miguel Zacarías, it’s the film that established Libertad Lamarque as a top Latin American star. A tango singer from Buenos Aires, Lamarque was a big name in Argentine films of the 30s and early 40s – until an alleged feud with First Lady Eva Perón led her to flee the country and seek refuge further north. Her first Mexican vehicle, Gran Casino (1946), failed dismally, largely because its director was Luis Buñuel, a man spectacularly unsuited to the wallowing orgies of suffering and song that were Libertad’s stock-in-trade. A diva in the grand manner, Lamarque insisted that every detail of her films should be conceived and created in her own inimitable style. Zacarías, unlike Buñuel, was happy to oblige – and Soledad was a thunderous hit.


In a role that scarcely requires her to act, Libertad plays an ill-treated Argentine refugee who becomes a huge singing star and earns the breathless adulation of all around her. The marquee outside the theatre even bills her as ‘La Novia de América’ (America’s Sweetheart – South, not North, you understand) which was Lamarque’s personal sobriquet in real life. She has a dark secret, of course. (What great star has not?) Her character was brought as an orphan to Mexico from Buenos Aires – that’s one way of explaining her accent – by a rich but cold-hearted family who forced her to work as their maid. The feckless son of the house (Rene Cardona) inveigles her into a secret marriage that turns out to be a sham. By the time she finds out the truth, poor Soledad is already pregnant by this rotter. He dumps her for a wealthy heiress – abandoning her to a life of ignominy as an unwed mother!

Our heroine, in floods of tears, runs away and joins a vaudeville troupe, whose leader looks and sounds like a Latino version of Ethel Merman. (A terrifying thought, I know.) But the evil matriarch of the family traces her to a seedy fleapit theatre and demands she relinquish her baby. The new bride, apparently, is unable to bear children and the family will lose control of her fortune if they fail to come up with an heir. (Invariably, wills in Mexican movies are written, not by lawyers but by some underpaid hack in the Script Department.) As Soledad and the old biddy fight it out in the dressing room, we see a nude stripper (in silhouette, through a thin partition wall) being beaten up by her savage drunken pimp. Clearly, this theatre is No Place To Bring Up A Child. Tearfully but inevitably, Soledad gives her baby away.


Approximately twenty years later (and, incredibly, a mere 20 minutes into the film) Soledad returns to Mexico City in triumph. She is now Latin America’s most illustrious singing star. Sitting in the Dress Circle at her gala concert is her long-lost daughter (Marga López) who has grown up to be the spoiled-rotten princess of Mexican high society. López (who won an Ariel as Best Supporting Actress) bears an alarming resemblance to Ann Blyth as Veda, the bitchy daughter in Mildred Pierce. I do not think this is accidental. She is, in truth, a thoroughly unpleasant young lady who shouts at the servants and even kicks over a vacuum cleaner in one of her periodic fits of ill temper. Her grandmother and ‘mother’ are dead. Her father is a drunken slob who has already gambled away most of her fortune, but she, of course, doesn’t know that. Yet.

In the audience beside Marga is her young and handsome fiancé (Ruben Rojo), a wannabe songwriter who’s wildly besotted with Soledad. To modern eyes, this makes him the 40s Mexican equivalent of a young man who drags his girlfriend to Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand concerts…but Marga is an old-fashioned kind of a gal. She gets jealous because she thinks he’s about to cheat on her. (Maybe, dear, but not in the way you think.) So she takes a violent dislike to Libertad and dishes her silver lamé Grecian robe as “a bit over the top, vulgar almost”. Mind you, she does have a point– but then, a few scenes later, Marga wears a faux flamenco outfit of truly monumental hideousness, complete with a spangled black mantilla. Girls who live in glass houses…


With both its leading ladies facing imminent Death by Wardrobe, Soledad has little time left for its very long to-do list. It must reunite its long-lost mother and child. It must also reunite its young lovers (whose mooted marriage looks none too promising, it must be said). There’s also a sleazy and lecherous fortune hunter who is after what’s left of Marga’s inheritance. In the finest Mildred Pierce tradition, Libertad grabs a gun and shoots him full of lead. But don’t worry, there’s still a happy ending. Mother and daughter embrace in triumphal close-up. The camera cuts to each of the other characters, turn by turn, as they burst obligingly into floods of tears. It’s a none-too-subtle hint, but audiences took it at the time.

Nowadays, of course, we’re too sophisticated for that. Or are we? My advice is to suspend judgement until you’ve seen Soledad.

David Melville

Darkness Lite

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Painting, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 6, 2012 by dcairns

David Wingrove, being a big fan of the TV Dark Shadows, and a fan of Tim Burton (he even liked ALICE IN WONDERLAND, gah!), went to see Burton’s DARK SHADOWS with an open mind — and found it inspired a number of intriguing observations, which he has assembled into the following piece (writing as David Melville) —

Darkness Lite

Afternoons in my childhood were a strange and dangerous world. School over, my parents still at work and my grandmother busy in the kitchen boiling dinner, I would sneak into the living room and pull the curtains shut against the light. Creeping on tiptoe towards the TV – remotes (in our house, at least) were not yet invented – I would turn the switch softly to ON. Thrill to the wail of a theremin; a black-and-white seascape of waves crashing onto rocks. Then the magic words would fill the screen: DARK SHADOWS.

For the next half-hour or so, I was transported. Away from school and suburbia, and into a hidden world of dreams. Girls in filmy white night-gowns wandered alone through graveyards, bathed in moonlight and swathed in mists of dry ice. Tall and dark and lethally handsome men would rise, abruptly, out of coffins. Loom over the girls, resplendent in their dark capes, and sink their teeth – lovingly and ever so gently – into their soft, pale throats. Portraits of long-dead ladies would shiver and come to life. Drift about in unlit corridors, transparent ghosts of crinoline and bone. Wolves would wail and howl. Lurking always, conveniently, just off camera. It was, in a word, paradise.

I took care, on those far-off haunted afternoons, to keep the sound turned low – almost silent. My middle-class Canadian family was vigilant against anything ‘unsuitable’ or, worse, ‘unwholesome’ and Dark Shadows was the one show I was flatly forbidden to watch. My mother was convinced – with good reason, I suppose – that it would scare me and give me nightmares. I was a sensitive and impressionable child, frightened of many things. School, with its uniform of grey shorts, ugly red blazer and matching cap. Science and arithmetic, both totally beyond me, as was – horror of horrors! – sport. Teachers with gunmetal eyes and barking voices. Bicycles, on which I could never balance and always fell off.  Assembly, where we sang ‘God Save the Queen’ and my throat seized up with fear so I could barely speak.

Yes, life at six years of age was full of terrors. But Dark Shadows with its setting, Collinwood Manor, was the least frightening and most beautiful place I had ever seen. The one world, perhaps, where I truly felt I belonged. Clearly, a whole generation of misfit kids felt the same way. The original soap opera, created by Dan Curtis, ran every weekday from 1966 to 1971 and spawned two big-screen movies – House of Dark Shadows (1970) and Night of Dark Shadows (1971) – neither of which I have ever seen. Unsuccessfully revived as a TV series in the 90s, it has now become a mega-budget screen epic directed by Goth maestro Tim Burton.

By any regular cinematic standard, this is fantastically good news. Like any other Tim Burton extravaganza (leaving aside the perplexing Big Fish) the 2012 Dark Shadows is slick, smooth and uniquely compulsive entertainment. Johnny Depp, alluring in black eyeliner as vampire Barnabas Collins, adds one more to his list of camp Gothic grotesques. Michelle Pfeiffer, in full-on diva mode as matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, wears her eye-poppingly hideous 70s outfits with commendable aplomb. Eva Green is more expressive, and Helena Bonham Carter less annoying, than past experience gives us any right to hope. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (whose other recent film is Alexander Sokurov’s Faust) has images inspired by – indeed, worthy of – such Romantic painters as Henry Fuseli and Caspar David Friedrich. The visuals, as always in a Burton movie, are several quantum leaps ahead of the script.

Had I not made the mistake – forty-odd years ago, I admit, at an age when I was far too young to know better – of watching and loving the original Dark Shadows with such passion, I might well be wholly thrilled with the Burton remake. Yet somehow, there was something not quite right. So wrong, in fact, that I went on Amazon and ordered the newly reissued Dark Shadows box set. (Don’t worry, not the whole series – just three discs and twenty episodes, which introduce the lead vampire, Barnabas Collins.)  This was something I felt obscurely afraid to do. Revisiting the past could only expose my childhood dream as the cheap, shoddy mirage that it undoubtedly was. Like a fairground Haunted House with the lights on. Black paint peeling, and sawdust and chewing gum piled up in the corners.

It took me one episode – well, perhaps two – to see where and how Tim Burton had slipped up. The original Barnabas Collins (played by the craggy-faced Canadian actor Jonathan Frid, whose one film of note is Oliver Stone’s 1974 debut Seizure) is a ruthless bisexual seducer who preys, both physically and psychologically, on other main characters. Rising out of his coffin, he latches onto the resident beefcake Willie Loomis (John Karlen, later the hero in Harry Kümel’s 1970 Daughters of Darkness) and revives by draining his bodily fluids. Willie is the protégé of a camp older gentleman named Jason McGuire (Dennis Patrick, whose name is the author of Auntie Mame, only backwards). Jason is blackmailing Elizabeth (played by film noir legend Joan Bennett) for the murder of her husband – who may also have been (we can’t help but wonder) his lover. He and Barnabas swiftly form a gay triangle around Willie. Everything hinges on who gets to suck what from whom.

After resuscitating himself with the blood of a man, Barnabas turns his attentions to a nubile young woman (Kathryn Leigh Scott, as local waitress Maggie Evans) but keeps Willie on as his factotum and blood bank. (This is the same pattern – Dark Shadows was nothing if not derivative – as Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s original novel, feasting initially on the hero, Jonathan Harker and only later on Mina, his wife.) Willie seems, at once, protective and obscurely jealous of his female rival. His relationship with Barnabas grows ever more twisted. Towards the end of the episodes I saw, Barnabas gives him a sadomasochistic thrashing with a huge carved metal walking stick – an heirloom the vampire proudly shows off to Maggie, and which she greatly admires.

The implicit queerness of the original Dark Shadows was, of course, never spelled out in the script. But it is expunged, ruthlessly and systematically, from the 2012 remake. The cutesy Barnabas Collins played by Johnny Depp seems to feed exclusively on extras. At no point does he pose a threat to the Collins family, or to any of the other major characters. (His killing of Dr Julia Hoffmann, the psychiatrist played by Helena Bonham Carter, is done purely in self-defence.) The film’s Willie is no sexy young stud, but a shambling grotesque out of The Addams Family. His older male protector is, of course, nowhere in sight. A menage so relentlessly heterosexual, it is more Little House on the Prairie than Collinwood Manor.

In de-gaying and de-fanging Dark Shadows, Burton has made his vampire only slightly less innocuous than Robert Pattinson in the Twilight saga. Barnabas, as played by Johnny Depp, embodies not good old-fashioned Eros and Thanatos – the way a vampire should – but squeaky-clean 21st century Family Values. “The greatest wealth of all is family,” Depp intones as he revives the Collins fortune and saves his mortal relatives from the brink of ruin. Legions of Born Again Republicans across America would doubtless agree. Tim Burton, who was hailed two decades ago as the Great Dark Hope of Hollywood, is now looking more and more like a Gothic Steven Spielberg. Yes, he’s still a unique film artist but – as the TV Barnabas so memorably quipped – “Uniqueness is not necessarily a good thing.”

David Melville