Archive for David Wingrove

Forbidden Divas: A Villain in the Villa or A Room with a Screw

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 8, 2017 by dcairns

David Wingrove’s back! With another Forbidden Diva piece, although, as he put it to me, “Perhaps it’s not really a ‘diva’ movie (Margaret Johnston and Dulcie Gray, anyone?) but the director Leslie Arliss seems like a candidate!” Now read on ~

A Villain in the Villa or A Room with a Screw

“It might be good to have a man about the house.”

– Margaret Johnston, A Man about the House

Do you adore films where genteel Victorian ladies feel their hearts start to throb with genteel and tumultuous passions? Do you revel in swarthy Latin seducers, their dark curls aglow with Brylcreem, their bronze torsos a-glisten with spray-on studio sweat? Do you yearn, above all, to travel to exotic back-projected locales where roistering peasants stomp riotously – the strains of a wild tarantella – on vast and overflowing vats of grapes? Or where palatial villas cling precariously to a cliff-edge, while the waves pound orgasmically, over and over, on the rocks below?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above, A Man about the House (1947) may well be some sort of High Camp Holy Grail.

Two demure Victorian sisters (Margaret Johnston and Dulcie Gray) have been forced to live in ‘reduced circumstances’ and run a girls’ school in the wilds of suburban London. We experience their horror as their pupils play bum notes on the piano and, occasionally, use an incorrect form of the subjunctive! One day they receive an inheritance from their eccentric and long-vanished Uncle Ludovic, who moved to Italy and became “an artist” – and whose name cannot be mentioned in polite circles. (The exact nature of his offence is left to our imagination; perhaps not a great deal is needed.) This inheritance includes a large sum of money and a plush, if slightly dilapidated villa on a cliff-top outside Naples.

The two ladies make the journey down in inclement weather. They are still swathed in dour mourning black, not for their uncle – Heaven forbid! – but for their father, who has also recently died. Their names, by the way, are Agnes and Ellen Isit. This is pronounced EYES IT and not IS IT, which is a bit of a letdown. Personally, I can think of few things more fun than being named after an existential conundrum. The starchy and severe Agnes (Johnston) brings along her Scotch terrier; the sweet and rather fragile Ellen (Gray) brings her large and lazy tabby cat. Their train pulls into Naples as the rain pours down in torrents. Agnes is outraged to see that the stop has been marked NAPOLI. “Why can’t they call it Naples,” she sputters, “as we do?” She is the proud embodiment of a Little Englander abroad. No doubt Nigel Farage would find a use for her special talents.

But a stranger is waiting on the platform. A tall, dashing and vaguely sinister Italian named Salvatore. He was the uncle’s general factotum at the villa; he has come to welcome the ladies to their new home. Exactly what his relationship with Uncle Ludovic may have been is left, politely, to our imagination. We can hazard a guess when Ellen – on her first morning at the villa – unveils one of the late uncle’s paintings, which was shrouded in a heavy velvet curtain. It is an image of Salvatore, fully nude, in the homoerotic guise of the Great God Pan. Unusually for a portrait in movies, it is filmed strictly from the waist up. We see Salvatore’s nude and muscular chest, his impish and rather perverse smile, the twist of roses and vine-leaves in his lustrous black hair. The sisters may only have just met him, but we can tell – from the look of frozen shock on their faces – that they have got to know this man rather well.

As played by the swoonily handsome Kieron Moore, Salvatore is the one Italian in captivity who speaks in Neapolitan dialect with an Irish brogue. Moore is best remembered today for the disaster that all but destroyed his career, his pallid turn as Count Vronsky in the 1948 remake of Anna Karenina opposite an exquisite but rather bored-looking Vivien Leigh. In fairness, not a great deal can be done with a role like Vronsky – but the lovely Moore failed to do even that. Yet he was an up-and-coming heart-throb in British films of the 40s. Leslie Arliss, who wrote and directed A Man about the House, cast him a number of times. The leading auteur of bodice-ripping Gainsborough romances, Arliss had previously made a star of James Mason (The Night Has Eyes, The Wicked Lady) and Stewart Granger (The Man in Grey, Love Story). It is safe to say he was a connoisseur of dark and brooding male beauty.

It does not take long to work out that Salvatore is up to no good. His ancestors were a dynasty of feckless aristocrats; they once owned the land the villa is built on. Quite naturally, he feels the whole place is his by right. Our main element of suspense is about which of the two sisters will succumb to him first. His eye, of course, is on Agnes. She is the elder and heir presumptive to the estate. For the most part, Agnes glares at him in dour disapproval. (She has the air of Theresa May on a jaunt to Brussels – a stolid and unimaginative Englishwoman, forced against her will to have dealings with disreputable foreigners.) Yet one morning, Agnes discreetly but provocatively undoes the top button of her dress. She wanders out to meet Salvatore in the villa’s sunlit garden. There she sees him holding Ellen by the arm. Flying into a jealous rage, she promptly storms back inside. Salvatore had taken her sister’s arm only to stop the girl tripping over a stone. But in the warped eyes of Agnes, he is already guilty of betrayal.

Things come to a head at the annual grape harvest. As in any film with a pastoral Italian setting, the peasants pour them into an enormous vat and stomp on them with gay abandon. Salvatore frolics with a lusty local wench, whose bosom is in constant danger of spilling out of her blouse. He even induces Ellen to join the fun and tread some grapes herself! Agnes stays locked in her room, obsessively playing games of patience. Suddenly, she can endure no more. Flinging open the door to her balcony, she stands there like Death in a story by Edgar Allan Poe – glaring balefully down on the festivities. She shrieks out a single word: “SALVATORE!” All at once, he leaves off roistering and bounds up the marble staircase to her chamber. The soundtrack rising to a thunderous frenzy, he runs inside and the door swings slowly shut. A Man about the House may not be a Gainsborough production, but it has the same inimitable blend of depravity and coyness.

It is not long before Agnes and Salvatore are married. Every morning, he lovingly prepares her a special egg-flip. She begins to suffer from headaches, nausea and fatigue. When the Scotty dog dies after licking a spilled egg-flip off the floor, even Ellen starts to grow a tad suspicious. Having started off as a blend of Black Narcissus and A Room with a View, the film now morphs bizarrely into a Victorian remake of Suspicion. Never one to indulge in excessive displays of originality, Arliss even places a light-bulb in the drink that Salvatore carries up the stairs to his wife’s sickbed. Yet quite unlike the ending of the Hitchcock film, the finale of A Man about the House actually does make sound (if deeply disquieting) dramatic sense. Kieron Moore’s was a star career that never quite got off the ground, so a director was under no pressure to show that he was actually a nice guy.

Ultimately, A Man about the House is ‘not nice’ and all the better for it. Yet a full seventy years before Brexit, its message is alarmingly clear. It implies – and not even too subtly – that solid and respectable Britons would do well to steer clear of dodgy Continental types. It shows that any dalliance of that sort can only end in tears.

David Melville

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Forbidden Divas: Slave to the Rhythm

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2017 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns with another Forbidden Diva ~

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

Slaves to the Rhythm

“Stop staring! This isn’t a wax museum!”

Elizabeth Taylor, Young Toscanini

Every now and then, you see a film that makes you wonder why it was a success. (My current object of curiosity is Moonlight.) More often, perhaps, you see a film that makes you wonder why it flopped. And on very rare occasions, you see a film so spectacularly deranged that you wonder why (and how) it was ever made at all. The most infamous flop in the career of Italian maestro Franco Zeffirelli, the 1988 epic Young Toscanini is part of this small and highly selective club. It also marked a doomed attempt at a comeback of that most legendary of stars, Elizabeth Taylor. She had not appeared in a major motion picture since the 1980 Agatha Christie thriller The Mirror Crack’d, where she played (convincingly) a washed-up film star attempting a comeback. Now her friend Zeffirelli cast her as a retired opera diva attempting a comeback. There is a fine line between typecasting and outright sadism. If nothing else, Young Toscanini makes you wonder where that line is.

You might call Young Toscanini a biopic, except it bears not the slightest resemblance to any person’s actual life. The minor 80s Brat Packer C Thomas Howell is cast, theoretically, as the ambitious boy conductor Arturo Toscanini. At the start of the film, we see him audition as a cellist for the orchestra at the La Scala opera house in Milan. “He looks too pretty to play the cello,” quips one of the judges. Indeed, the lovely Howell looks far too pretty to do most things, most notably act. His face frozen in a permanent pout, this young man flares his nostrils, clenches his jaw and sucks in his cheeks in ways that prophesy Ben Stiller’s performance as male model extraordinaire Derek Zoolander. When the judges at La Scala fail to respect his talent, this young upstart storms out and tells them to go to Hell. But a wily music promoter (John Rhys-Davies) hires him as accompanist for an operatic tour of South America.

The lad sets sail for the New World on a plush ocean liner. (The year is 1886, when folk travelled with a modicum of style.) The opera company and other first-class passengers lounge about the Grand Salon like a gaggle of refugees from Death in Venice (1971). Poverty-stricken emigrants suffer nobly below decks. Among them are a group of nuns, on their way to do God’s work in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Their leader is the annoying and overbearing Mother Allegri (Pat Heywood – who still seems to be playing her Nurse role from Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet). Among them is a comely young novice named Sister Margherita (Sophie Ward), who has left her upper-class family in Milan to dedicate her life to the poor. Being the two prettiest and dullest people on board ship, she and Toscanini promptly fall in love. As in most Zeffirelli films, it is love of a frustrated and forbidden kind – because, you see, he belongs to Music while she belongs to God!

When it comes to photogenic but overpoweringly tedious young lovers, Franco Zeffirelli certainly does have form. Over the decades, he has given us Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in Romeo and Juliet (1968), Graham Faulkner and Judi Bowker in Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), Martin Hewitt and Brooke Shields in Endless Love (1981), Jonathon Schaech and Angela Bettis in Sparrow (1993). That is a roster of non-talent of which few film-makers would dare to dream. Yet so far, Young Toscanini is not appreciably worse than James Cameron’s Titanic (1997). The ship is more lushly appointed, the extras are better-dressed and the romantic leads are slimmer and more attractive. Sensing that all is not as it should be, Zeffirelli stages his ‘King of the World’ moment with young Toscanini standing on deck in a raging storm, pretending to conduct Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The music surges to orgasmic heights, as the waves crash over him and soak him to the skin. It is, beyond a doubt, the loudest and silliest wet dream ever depicted on screen.

Finally, we get to Rio de Janeiro and the young man’s long-promised encounter with La Liz. (She is, after all, the main reason we are watching this film in the first place.) Because the Rio of the 1980s looked not the least bit like the Rio of 100 years before, Zeffirelli shot in the picturesque Italian city of Bari. It is, predictably, a sunlit tropical paradise of lush green parks, sumptuous Art Nouveau villas and well-scrubbed favelas full of adorably smiling Negro children. There is also – to Toscanini’s unspeakable horror – slavery, the legal and licensed buying and selling of human beings. It is still a source of shame to Brazilians that theirs was the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery, which it did not do until 1888. Doubtless, there are films to be made on this topic. I would recommend they begin by not copying Young Toscanini.

Having come face to face with God, Art, Love and his own nascent revolutionary conscience, Toscanini is just about ready for his meeting with Elizabeth Taylor. Her character, Nadia Bulichova, is a Russian opera diva of legendary glamour and temperament. Now retired from the stage, she is comfortably ensconced as the mistress of Dom Pedro II, Emperor of Brazil (Philippe Noiret). She has agreed to a comeback in Aïda, the Verdi grand opera about a lovelorn Ethiopian slave in Ancient Egypt. (You see, there are parallels between Art and Life!) The young Arturo’s job is to persuade her to show up for rehearsals. Her villa is a luxuriant indoor jungle, complete with squawking parrots and chattering monkeys. From here on in, Young Toscanini threatens to become a deeply bizarre fusion of Black Orpheus (1959) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). Alas, it would take a more skilled cineaste than Zeffirelli to make that happen.

In her comeback role, Elizabeth Taylor looks more svelte and glamorous than she had at any time since before her Oscar-winning tour de force in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) Her performance is everything the rest of the film is not. She is passionate, flamboyant, imposing, capricious and downright regal. Her voice is dubbed in Italian, so this is essentially silent-screen acting – yet it is up there with the very best. Her wardrobe (designed by Tom Rand) includes some rather odd fashion choices. One gown with a tight indigo bodice, deep crimson sleeves and gaudy scarlet train makes her look, momentarily, like a squat strutting peacock. But as anyone who has seen The Driver’s Seat (1974) will attest, La Liz triumphed over far worse sartorial disasters. Zeffirelli predicted she would win a third Oscar for this role. In fact, Young Toscanini was never released in the USA or most other countries.

At the film’s climax, Taylor (in full blackface and clanking ‘ethnic’ jewellery) interrupts the gala first night of Aïda during her own big solo – and makes an impassioned plea to the Emperor to free the slaves of Brazil! It is a moment of truly surpassing awfulness, one that transcends mere categories of Kitsch and Camp and goes straight to the heart of what Bad Movies are all about. The public applauds wildly apart from Noiret, who looks on with the air of a man (and an actor) impervious to all shame. Zeffirelli has said repeatedly in interviews that “I see my work as a lifetime crusade against bad taste.” Fortunately, only a few journalists have been cruel enough to ask him about Young Toscanini.

David Melville

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 ~

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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David Melville