Archive for Dino de Laurentiis

Pg. 17, #4

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 14, 2020 by dcairns

fields

De Laurentis inspects Kong’s skeleton.

*

Vaudeville was born at approximately the same time as W.C. Fields and in approximately the same place. An outgrowth of the British music hall tradition, variety performances were initially used to draw customers into American beer halls in the 1870s. The first vaudeville theater, Tony Pastor’s, was opened in New York in 1881, and the trend to clean shows that could play to “double audiences” (meaning men and women) spread to other cities. By 1885, there were more than twenty such houses in Philadelphia, which was to become known as “the Cradle of Vaudeville” for all the important acts that got their starts there.

*

What vaudeville had to teach its practitioners was a discipline and method. The vaudeville act had to put itself over to a critical and not very patient audience, in a strictly limited time–it could be sixteen minutes or it could be eight–against relentless competition and without the benefit of a favourable context (a dramatic monologuist might be sandwiched between knockabout comics and performing seals).

*

The leaning towards violent contrast — which in Expressionist literature can be seen in the use of staccato sentences — and the inborn German liking for chiaroscuro and shadow, obviously found an ideal artistic outlet in the cinema. Visions nourished by moods of vague and troubled yearning could have found no more apt mode of expression, at once concrete and unreal.

*

Your world appeared to have everything. You grew up in Hollywood, you had the kind of adulation that people live lifetimes trying to achieve without ever attaining.

*

That June, I spent my first night alone in a hotel (at Grand Rapids), and so, a little more than a month before my sixteenth birthday, I was into a ten-week season–one production a week–during which I would end up playing leads not only in the children’s shows (for instance, the Lion in The Wizard of Oz), but in the regular Equity company too (Signe Hasso’s teenage son in Glad Tidings). I played a butler with Sylvia Sidney, worked with Edward Everett Horton (as his dresser), Veronica Lake and ZaSu Pitts (moving furniture around). I also received my first credit as director–of the Children’s Variety Show. That winter, I got special permission from my school to miss athletics so I could take afternoon and early-evening acting classes with the legendary Stella Adler, who became so dear to me in so many ways.

*

‘We were able to do that much for Bitsy, buster,’ Harry snarled. ‘We were able to get the Joint Chiefs to lean hard enough to get you an honorable discharge.’

*

Seven passages from seven page seventeens found in seven books in my living room, randomly but mostly on the same shelf. I like the mix of film and non-film here. It tells a kind of story, doesn’t it? Well, in roughly the same way that MARIENBAD does.

W.C. Fields, a Biography, by James Curtis, Buster Keaton, by David Robinson, The Creation of Dino De Laurentiis’ King Kong, by Bruce Bahrenburg, The Haunted Screen, by Lotte H. Eisner, People Will Talk, by John Kobal (interviewing Gloria Swanson), Who the Devil Made It, by Peter Bogdanovich, and Arigato, by Richard Condon.

Mambo Italiano

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 17, 2020 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns with another Forbidden Diva!

FORBIDDEN DIVAS 

Mambo Italiano! 

“She’s very young. All she wants is revenge on everything and everybody.”

–          Shelley Winters on Silvana Mangano, Mambo

 In the 1949 Neo-Realist melodrama Bitter Rice, an unknown Italian girl became a globally famous star by the simple expedient of standing in a paddy field and looking sultry. She had dark auburn hair, thick thighs and the lineaments of a Botticelli angel. Her name was Silvana Mangano and she was the protégée (and, eventually, the wife) of Italy’s most powerful film mogul Dino de Laurentiis. At no point in her first leading role did she make any discernible effort to act – but everything she did on screen seemed weirdly believable, even when the characters and situations were quite patently absurd. This was a skill that would serve her admirably in year after year of Dino de Laurentiis productions. Up until the advent of Silvana, the mass popular audience had tended to reject Neo-Realist movies because they were not sufficiently glamorous. This new star solved the problem single-handed and in one fell swoop. Silvana Mangano could look more glamorous draped in a dishcloth than your average Hollywood actress dressed in a wardrobe tailor-made by Edith Head.

Having triumphantly straddled the Italian box-office, de Laurentiis duly set about turning his lady into a bona fide International Movie Icon. This would obviously involve a complex network of co-productions employing foreign talent – but preference, invariably, was given to foreign talent that was available at a reduced price. By the early 50s, the American writer-director Robert Rossen – who had won the Best Picture Oscar for his political drama All the King’s Men (1949) – had been forced to flee to Europe after a perilous run-in with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Who better – in Dino’s mind – than a director famed for his rather dour engagement with serious social issues to helm a lush and lavish and insanely melodramatic musical epic called Mambo (1954)? Keen to surround his leading lady with the very finest support, de Laurentiis took a quick look at the gossip columns and saw that Hollywood star Shelley Winters had just dumped her (possibly platonic) boyfriend Farley Granger to marry the Italian actor Vittorio Gassman. He swiftly set about hiring all three actors to appear in his new film. Much to Dino’s chagrin, Granger declared the whole production a vulgar circus and refused to play any part in it. He was duly replaced by the British actor Michael Rennie. But as in any de Laurentiis extravaganza – from War and Peace (1956) to The Bible (1966) to Dune (1984) – it is the intention – and not the end result – that actually counts.

Mambo opens lavishly with a rousing Afro-Caribbean production number featuring the all-black Katherine Dunham Dance Company. Wooden shutters fly open and ladies in voluminous flouncy skirts gyrate to the clatter of steel drums, while somehow managing to balance large plates of tropical fruit. Then a door opens at the back of the stage and the lead dancer makes her entrance. She is none other than – wait for it! – Silvana. It appears that nobody involved in this production ever pondered the ethical or practical issues of turning a white actress into the star attraction of an all-black dance troupe. Mercifully, she is not done up in blackface like Monica Vitti in her ‘tribal’ dance number in L’Eclisse (1962). She wears a simple but elegant silk-and-sequin gown and does nothing that is embarrassing or untoward in itself. Her dancing is quite serviceable, if in no way on a par with any of the other dancers on the stage. Yet the overall effect is as awkward and uncomfortable as L’Eclisse. We can only conclude that Cultural Appropriation was scarcely a hot-button issue among Italian (or, indeed, Hollywood) film-makers of the 50s.

Following this sensational success the company moves on to its next stop, Venice. This just happens to be Silvana’s home town and, as she sits on the train and reminisces, we find ourselves in the sort of plot that kept Joan Crawford in employment for most of the 30s. Her character is a poor-but-honest girl who lives in a seedy back alley with her drunken father and her brattish kid sister. (Her mother is long dead, most likely because her home life was frankly unbearable.) This girl supports her entire family by working in a Venetian glass shop and selling overpriced bibelots to tourists. But she nurtures dreams of one day running away to Rome to become a film star. Her boyfriend (Vittorio Gassman) is a croupier at a casino on the Lido; he is also, we soon gather, something of a shady operator. One day, a gaunt and poetically doomed Venetian prince (Michael Rennie) wanders into her shop, sporting the most lethal set of cheekbones since the heyday of Basil Rathbone. He takes a shine to the comely shop-girl and gives her a pair of tickets to a masked Carnival ball. Her boyfriend, spotting an opportunity, sells his ticket on the black market and unwisely allows Silvana to go with the Prince. This is not a decision we might expect from an insanely jealous and possessive Italian male…but hey, the plot of Mambo has to get moving somehow.

The ball is a quasi-Sternbergian fantasy of masked revellers, floating paper streamers and what looks like gallons of confetti pouring down from the ceiling. The evening’s entertainment is provided by the Katherine Dunham troupe, who come cascading down the grand staircase or, in some cases, leaping over banisters with all the savage aplomb of Attila the Hun moving in for his final sacking of the Roman Empire. All this excitement is just too much for Silvana, who has already been tippling on champagne and cannot resist her primal urge to join in with the dance. Soon she is cavorting face to face with a half-naked black male dancer, who is clad in the most obscenely tight pair of leopard-skin beeches this side of a Tarzan movie. This spectacle inflames the hapless Prince with a wave of simply uncontrollable lust. At the end of the dance, he drags Silvana up the staircase and has his way with her. Next morning, in the pale light of dawn, she is acutely aware of having become a Fallen Woman – and feels too ashamed even to go home. That is quite convenient, in fact, because she has caught the eye of Shelley Winters, who plays the (entirely fictitious) manager of the Katherine Dunham troupe. This lady has resolved, on the spot, to build the girl up into the company’s star attraction.

Not that her interest in the neophyte is purely artistic. Shelley Winters has been costumed and styled to look as much as possible like the 1950s stereotype of a Butch But Glamorous Lesbian. Just in case we miss the point, the dialogue drops heavy hints about the lonely and frustrated existence to which “a woman like that” must invariably be doomed. Tellingly, much of this dialogue was eliminated from the Italian release of Mambo and survives only in the international English-language print. As a 21st century audience, we are at once fascinated and appalled – but that is certainly nothing new in this movie. With her undeniable powers of persuasion, Shelley wrests Silvana away from Vittorio and moulds her tyrannically into a great dancer. At this point, Mambo threatens to become a sort of misbegotten remake of The Red Shoes (1948) only with a lesbian in the Anton Walbrook role and a sleazy petty criminal in the role played by Marius Goring. An honest-to-God analysis might well reveal that this film equates being a criminal with being a lesbian and also, indirectly, with being black. Hence it is best to avoid doing one if we are to go on enjoying the fun. Our heroine makes her triumphal return to Venice. She enters a nightclub looking simply sensational in a black beaded gown that looks as if it had been poured slowly, bead by glistening bead, over her curvaceous and near-naked form.

Perhaps it is inevitable that she meets the Prince again. But what we honestly did not see coming is the fact that the Prince turns out to be dying of hereditary haemophilia, as was the custom in all good aristocratic families. No sooner does Vittorio get wind of this than he cooks up a plot for Silvana to marry the dying man, so she can inherit his money and his crumbling ancestral palazzo and share her ill-gotten gains, naturally, with her true love. The plot now shifts abruptly to that of Henry James’ novel The Wings of the Dove, only with the sex roles neatly reversed. Silvana reacts with horror to the suggestion – and then goes ahead and marries the Prince. A rapist he may be, but he is still a more inviting marriage prospect than Vittorio. (Shelley Winters is not an option, partly for censorship reasons and partly because she has unaccountably been run over by a car.) Once she has married the Prince, Silvana comes to realise that he is in fact a decent, caring and thoroughly sensitive bloke. Is it his fault if he got a bit too carried away by the thrill of Carnival night? Mambo now looks set to be a touching tale of a woman who has been raped falling ever so tenderly in love with the man who raped her. We might like to believe this film could not possibly become any more outrageous than it already is. If so, we reckon without those unique talents that Dino de Laurentiis employed in the script department.

There are several twists left to go in the plot of Mambo, which is remarkable given that the film is only 90 minutes long. What is also remarkable is that Silvana Mangano looks serenely beautiful throughout and never once seems tainted by the sheer awe-inspiring bad taste of everybody and everything around her. One day in the late 60s she would wake up, walk out on her crass vulgarian of a husband and make a string of classic films with intellectual left-wing directors like Luchino Visconti and Pier Paolo Pasolini. (Her most famous film was Death in Venice (1971). It may have helped her exorcise some bad memories.) But Mambo, too, is an undeniable classic of a sort. It may just be wiser not to say what kind.

David Melville

Cut the Cheese: or, Dino’s Mighty Wind

Posted in FILM, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2017 by dcairns

A week of posts inspired by my recent reading. Here’s an excellent book by Sam & Bobbie O’Steen — Cut to the Chase: Forty-Five Years of Editing America’s Favorite Movies.

Sam O’Steen cut THE GRADUATE and ROSEMARY’S BABY and became Mike Nichols and Roman Polanski’s go-to editor. His book, “as told to” his wife and edit-room assistant, is full of good creative advice, often encapsulated in handy mottos — “Movie first, scene second, moment third,” — and also full of terrific gossip and anecdotes, as O’Steen was frequently on-set and witnessed the activities of a lot of very strange, talented, obnoxious people…

Some of the best stories arise from one of the worst films O’Steen was involved with, HURRICANE — Dino De Laurentiis’ epic turkey remake of John Ford’s group jeopardy potboiler, which was already not very good, despite sharing a lot of credits with Ford’s next film, STAGECOACH. The rehash was planned by Polanski but dropped due to his legal difficulties — it’s tempting to say that Polanski dodged a bullet, but you can’t really say such things, can you?

Jan Troell landed in the hot seat, with Lorenzo Semple on script, Sven Nykvist shooting, Danilo Donati designing, and stars Mia Farrow, Timothy Bottoms, James Keach, Jason Robards, Trevor Howard, Max Von Sydow and non-star Dayton Ka’Ne. And with all that talent, it’s deadly dull to watch. David Wingrove disagrees with me, and suggested that the film was a promising one that had been butchered in the edit, as evidenced by awkward jumps in the story and huge sets that are barely used. But O’Steen’s account makes it clear that many scenes were never actually filmed, and the imposing but underused sets are a regular result of Donati’s work — the crew on FLASH GORDON also complained that Donati never read the script, just a breakdown of scenes, so he would spend his budget freely on whatever interested him, building vast interiors for scenes that might only play for moments in the film, and skimping on others so you might find yourself shooting twenty minutes of action in a broom closet.

Many of the problems O’Steen was vexed by didn’t strike me as terribly serious — Mia’s hair and makeup may not be flattering, but I’ve seen worse. O’Steen had to create passion between the leads where none existed — Farrow eschewed any on-set romance with her unknown co-star, instead bedding Troell, then Nykvist, then (it’s heavily implied) Bottoms, leaving a trail of broken hearts in her wake. And they were all stuck in Bora Bora for six months while this was going on. There’s a big swimming scene which isn’t sexy or romantic (because it’s not there in the script or performances) but sure looks nice. It’s bloody looong, though. I guess O’Steen had to lay it on thick to compensate for the chemical inertia.

The crew arrived at a specially built hotel… that was still being built.

Franco Rossi was leading a second unit shooting waves, but they all got drunk and left their film cans to get flooded on the rocks.

Mia was seen at dinner with her beautiful son Fletcher on her lap… and all her adopted kids sitting on the floor, ignored.

Jan Troell’s love for Mia resulted in him ignoring the scenery and the story and shooting endless close-ups of his adored star. In the final film, O’Steen must have used every camera move he could find, because he complains Troell wasn’t shooting any.

Bottoms urinated on De Laurentiis’ shoes in a fit of pique, then hastily wrote an apology, in fear for his life.

Troell was promised final cut… then paid off with $25,000 to stay out of the edit room.

When Mia was feeding poor Dayton lines for his close-ups, she wouldn’t bother looking at him. She could read lines and do crosswords at the same time. Well, he’s no Jon Hall.

“Four down, nine letters, a mighty wind.”

She was also reportedly heard to refer to him as “the animal.”

Dino: “All directors are stupid. Anybody who gets up so early every day to say ‘Good morning’ to all those sons-of-bitches has to be stupid.”

Symbolism! God caber-tosses a crucifix at Trevor Howard!

With all this, and the drink and drug consumption, the VD outbreak (“You’d be surprised who has it,” said the unit nurse) and the malfunctioning toilets, plus all the grade-A talent, it’s amazing how dull the film is. The actual hurricane is good, especially as it wipes out a lot of the characters who have been boring us for two hours, but the natives are used as colourful cannon fodder, as usual, so it’s also kind of offensive. When our young lovers are left alone on a lifeless, flattened atoll at the end, it’s questionable whether we’re meant to expect them to survive or not, though we don’t actually care one way or the other.

Worse than KING KONG. But the behind-the-scenes action might make a good movie.