Archive for Designing Woman

Anglo/Saxon Attitudes

Posted in Fashion, FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2018 by dcairns

Fiona was surprised to find a Kay Kendall biography in the library (see yesterday’s post for an evaluation of the Edinburgh library system’s limitations) and devoured it on sight, demanding supplemental viewing materials, stat. I had tried to sell her on THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE before, but this was now the perfect moment. She didn’t require quality, just so long as KK was prominently featured.

I’ve probably mentioned before my theory that Vincente Minnelli made Hollywood’s most nightmarish comedies — the best of them aspire to pure phantasmagoria, and are more oppressive that they are funny, though admittedly DESIGNING WOMAN is extremely funny and amiable. Often they rise to moments of surreal heightened anxiety, sometimes involving altered states of consciousness. One image from a dream sequence in FATHER OF THE BRIDE, of Spencer Tracy’s feet sinking through a carpet suddenly turned to quagmire was repeated without modification in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and served just as aptly in a horror movie as it had in a “family comedy,” Minnelli-style.This movie takes place during what turned out to be the last ever “season,” when society’s latest batch of debutantes (don’t known what it means) “came out” (don’t know what it means, in this context anyway). Sandra Dee plays the daughter of Rex Harrison, which is the first big laugh and the last for a while. Kay Kendall is the stepmother who sets about arranging the girl’s coming out ball, and trying to arrange her love life in a socially suitable way, hampered by S-Dee’s falling in love with a humble drummer played by John Saxon (very cute, and at times seeming to play the role on-purpose gay).This is John Saxon describing native love rituals witnessed in Africa.

“…and then he carries her off to his TENT.”

This is Kay and Dee reacting to him.(Kay dresses like Big Bird through much of the film.)

This kind of lighter-than-air stuff has to be very good to get by, because you’re trying to get laughs out of nothing. The play and its adaptation, both by William Douglas-Home, aren’t really clever enough to manage this, but laughs are still had, partly from the deft work of Kendall and Harrison, two of the best light comedians who ever lived, and partly from numerous moments where the script hoves perilously close to the foulest bad taste, due to dated sexual attitudes, stuff that could be dealt with lightly then but seems shocking today. And since surprise is part of laughter, we found ourselves laughing at Sandra walking in on daddy just as he plays the role of dastardly seducer to a sofa cushion (really, too complicated to explain) ~Harrison does a fantastic variation on the man determined to finish his sentence even though the changed circumstances make it quite unnecessary and his delivery of the words no longer carries any of the intended meaning. It’s a very familiar trope — think Baloo singing when his disguise falls off in THE JUNGLE BOOK — but Harrison has his own version of it that no one’s ever seen or imagined before. And Kendall has a great bit entering, being surprised, and folding up like a deck-chair as her limbs give way on her.

Peter Myers gives a very funny performance as an upper-class bore forever reciting elaborate tales of how he’s negotiated the traffic to get where he is — but he transformed into an inarticulate rape-hound when left alone with Dee. And here’s her adorable reaction when she quizzes daddy on his early love life and learns that his first amour was a French girl who worked in a house in Paris — a maid? — no, not exactly…The weirdest and best sequence is a hallucinatory montage of balls, with Harrison getting drunk at each one, suffering Deutsch-tilt hangovers in interstitial office sequences, and finally losing contact with reality altogether as his secretary, having just handed him a glass of bicarb, starts announcing guest’s names in a dubbed man’s voice — audio bleed from scene to scene as life literally BECOMES nightmare.It’s in his comedies that you sense that Minnelli was not an altogether happy man.

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The Kerrs of this world

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 9, 2013 by dcairns

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TEA AND SYMPATHY — my goodness. I have so lightly sampled the works of Vincente Minnelli. This one is particularly handy because it ties the uniquely oppressive qualities of his comedies — domestic hells like FATHER OF THE BRIDE and THE LONG, LONG TRAILER, whose natural analog is nightmare (FOTB features a renowned expressionist nightmare scene whose image of Spencer Tracy’s feet mired in a floor swamp got quoted in the first NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) — to the quieter parts of his melodramas. The movie resists exploding, and so winds its audience up into quite a state. “I’m starting to find this hypermasculine environment extremely claustrophobic,” observed Fiona.

At one point Kerr claims he’s reading “Candida.” “Does he mean Candide?” I ask. “Candida is a yeast infection,” says Fiona.

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Gay man or huge woman?

I recall an online discussion between two film-lovers, I think both gay, as to whether the first of this film’s Kerrs, John Kerr, was meant to be seen as gay. Although the whole story hinges on his being regarded as sexually suspect by his fellow collegians, until the second Kerr, teacher’s wife Deborah Kerr, sleeps with him, I honestly don’t feel it matters.

The script, adapted by Robert Anderson from his own play, is careful to make clear that for purposes of censorship, Kerr’s character is straight, but unconventional and therefore regarded with suspicion in the conformist campus where the story unfolds. Both script and direction are careful to keep their options open, however — we are free to assume that some light alibiing has been applied to the scenario and that if you strip this away, Kerr’s character is gay.

On the other hand, even at face value the lesson is progressive — as with DESIGNING WOMAN, Minnelli is able to present a gay-seeming man who is “really” (according to the dialogue, the element of a film which carries the least weight of conviction) straight. The lesson is that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and by extension, you shouldn’t queer-bait and queer-bash because you don’t know. Society, and schools and other institutions, would get a lot more civilized by following such a suggestion, and the true elimination of prejudice might follow more easily.

I feel like Minnelli is also crying out in this film — “Don’t you see how crazy all this is?” The homosocial world of the film is deeply closeted and strange: one of the things that marks Kerr out as potentially deviant is that he enjoys the company of women. Male activities include sweaty contact sports, talking about sex, and a nocturnal, firelight ceremony in which boys tear off one another’s pajamas (an aggressive fire ballet to match those in numerous other Minnelli films).

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Part rites of passage, part Rites of Spring.vlcsnap-2013-07-09-08h51m55s181

Furthermore, the film’s two most vociferous spokesmen for manliness are Deborah Kerr’s husband and John Kerr’s father, both of whom are peculiar arguments for normalcy. Hubby Leif Erickson can’t bear to touch his beautiful wife, cannot discuss emotions with her, and responds to her friendship with young Kerr with hysterical jealousy, so that one comes to wonder who exactly he is jealous of? His hatred of the isolated young student who rooms in his house and whom he should be protecting seems pathological.

Edward Andrews as the dad is just odd.

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Right after this shot there’s a glaring continuity error as the door opens and he’s suddenly in a completely different position, as if the movie is screaming You Didn’t Just See That! That Never Happened!

Nervous, sweaty, prissy and eager-to-please, he comes across as frantically overcompensating and desperate to be one of the boys. One senses the other men regard him as less that 100% virile, but give him a pass because at least he’s trying. Really hard. One could simply argue that Minnelli’s vision of straight men is camp-inflected and inaccurate because of who he was, but I prefer to see this as barbed satire, and carried out in a visual language too subtle for the censors to grasp, to sly for them to comment on without feeling silly.

Kerr, so good in THE COBWEB, is excellent here — I wonder if he gave up acting because typecasting in the role of sensitive, vulnerable youth gave him few options in movies of the fifties. At any rate, he made a go of lawyering instead.

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The point in the movie where it has to furiously back-pedal is the ending — the movie can coat homosexuality in plausible deniability, but it has to cop to adultery. But this is handled graciously — we learn that the Kerr-Erickson marriage was destroyed by her infidelity, which is supposed to be a sop to morality, but I think most viewers would think GOOD — maybe Debs can find happiness elsewhere. There’s a line of VO about her husband’s life being ruined, but Minnelli cannily plays it over a shot of him working away, same as always, seemingly perfectly happy without the ball and chain. And we’re told that John Kerr now has a wife — yay, she straightened him out! — or, Yay, she cured him of his insecurity! — or Yay, he got himself a lavender marriage to pacify social expectations! I think it doesn’t matter. I think it’s fine. The movie does a marvelous job of telling a story it was absolutely forbidden from telling.