Archive for Douglas Sirk

Noirfolk

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on August 8, 2020 by dcairns

Here’s an experience fellow cinephages may recognize: it’s happened to me often enough that I have finally recognized it as A Thing, and A Recurring Thing at that.

You catch up with a Douglas Sirk film you’d never seen before; fascinated as usual, you pick up Jon Halliday’s Sirk on Sirk to see what the director has to say about it; and you find he has virtually nothing to say about it, and Halliday doesn’t press him.

This starts to become slightly annoying, and yet Sirk on Sirk is a very fine book. It’s just of very limited use in providing direct critical insights into many of the man’s movies. What’s the best critical study? Tom Ryan’s? Michael Stern’s?

The film that inspired these thoughts on this occasion was THUNDER ON THE HILL, available on Blu-ray in a Film Noir box set even though it’s not film noir, but it’s terrifically handsome. Beautiful flat sets representing flat Norfolk. Sirk grumbles that he’d rather have done it on location. And that he didn’t want the film, set in a convent, to have anything to do with religion.

Though I don’t think you can make much of a case for it being noir, it IS a kind of detective story with nun Claudette Colbert as the investigator. Flooding strands various parties at the Gothic hilltop nunnery, including a condemned murderess on her way to the gallows. But is she guilty?

Lots to enjoy here: Sirk’s staging, the moody lighting and the design and the fantasy of Hollywood Norfolk. There’s probably too many unconnected thematic elements — Sirk was right that religion could have been left out — and the mystery is fairly guessable at an early stage — but that’s OK, because the appointment with the hangman creates tension, so that the question isn’t really Whodunnit? but Will they be caught in time?

Ann Blyth as the convict is absolutely dreadful in her first scene, straining to hit a series of discordant emotional marks, but improves somewhat thereafter, and what she has going for her is striking beauty. Still, possibly the worst clunker of a performance Sirk ever had to work around.

The mother superior is, effectively, an antagonist — there’s a theme about the dangers of being sure you’re right, but oddly Colbert embodies that trait too — her certainty has destroyed her sister’s life — but this time, her certainty is a GOOD thing. That’s the funny thing about certainty — you never know where you stand with it.

THUNDER ON THE HILL stars Gerry Jeffers; Veda Pierce; Ellsworth M. Toohey; Morgan Le Fay; Dick Turpin; Mrs Higgins; Sir Locksley; Will Scarlet; Hominy; Phillip Musgrave; Lady Beekman; Algy Longworth; and Auntie Glutz.

Indoor Derricks

Posted in Fashion, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2018 by dcairns

The miniature indoor oil derrick was a short-lived design fad, but you can see examples in WRITTEN ON THE WIND — the late Dorothy Malone (above) keeps hers as a kind of phallic symbol and a memento of dear dead daddy (above above) — and SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS, where father Pat Hingle keeps a model of the derrick he fell from, resulting in his limp — in reality, poor Pat got it falling down an elevator shaft, fracturing his skull, hip, wrist, half his ribs, and his leg in three places. Ouch.

Worse, it cost him the lead in ELMER GANTRY.

I like the idea of his character keeping a model of the near-fatal derrick as a kind of trophy. Hingle plays his character as the kind of man who would do that — a roaring bully-boy, a proto-Nolte, communicating in a brutish semaphore of arm-punching and back-slapping.

His screen son, Warren Beatty, keeps a much smaller derrick in his bedroom.

We just watched SPLENDOR for the first time — I’m still way behind on Kazan. It’s pretty great, even if the story is barely a sentence-worth. It has emotion, star power, sharp observation, beautiful photography and design, brilliant casting down to the smallest role — Godfrey Cambridge plays a chauffeur in one shot… we keep cutting to Sandy Dennis, barely more than an extra…

It also has a real sense of period. Natalie Wood even does period-specific gestures, like that semi-circular wave, palm out, close to the face, that you see in ’20s movies. It’s all a great contrast to INSIDE DAISY CLOVER’S shunning of period costume.

Pancake Mix

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 26, 2017 by dcairns

One of the best films at the 2016 Il Cinema Ritrovato was ONLY YESTERDAY, directed by John M. Stahl. A mental note was made to see more of his stuff, but it must have gotten misfiled because here I am just getting round to it. Fiona immediately got very enthused about seeing Fredi Washington in action: such a fascinating figure.

IMITATION OF LIFE — the original. Very good, and interesting to compare with the Sirk. Our friend Nicky Smith remarked that the original is stronger because it makes it obvious that the white heroine is robbing her “friend” — Claudette Colbert mass-produces Louise Beavers’ family recipe for pancake flour, and gives her 20% of the profits. 20%? I wonder if 1934 audiences were able to convince themselves this was a fair deal.

Beavers, accustomed to playing maid/stooge to Mae West and others, here gets to play at least a version of a human being, though there are still jokes about her character being naive or “dumb,” and she arrives at the door with a portentous track-in on her beaming face which seems to be setting her up as some kind of Magic Negress, a miraculous Mary Poppins sent by Fate to help the white folks out. No needs of her own. But this is not precisely what happens.

Basically, the film parallels three plots — first, the rise and rise of Colbert’s business, which is a straightforward American Dream success story with no twists, reversals or developments of any kind except the irresistible rise of the Pancake Queen. Then there’s Colbert and her daughter both falling for the same man, starving lion Warren William. It’s a Story as old as Time: the love of a Pancake Queen and a debonair ichthyologist. And then there’s the relationship of Beavers with her own daughter, who grows up to be Fredi Washington, who decides to pass as white. As Sirk rightly said, this is the only aspect if Fannie Hurst’s source novel that actually gives you any drama capable of supporting a film.

We won’t deal with the pancake business anymore except to say that the business with Claudette opening her own pancake shop and then franchising reminded me very much of MILDRED PIERCE, which also has mother and daughter fancying the same man. The James M. Cain book and Michael Curtiz movie (enjoyed in its new restoration very much at Il Cinema Ritrovato THIS year) takes the romantic triangle MUCH further, and I wondered if there was a direct influence from Hurst’s 1933 novel onto Cain’s 1941 one. And the fact that Cain had a book (Serenade) adapted by Stahl (as WHEN TOMORROW COMES) in 1939 seems to me to make this likelier. Cain, a master of the technique he called the “love rack”may have sensed that Hurst was letting her triangle fizzle out by shying away from the more awful possibilities, and felt he could get a lot more value out of it…

The race theme is the heart of the picture, and thanks to Beavers and especially Washington, is moving and insightful, even though the story keeps having to contrive ways for dark-skinned mother to embarrass fair-skinned daughter. Both characters’ arguments with regards to accepting the hand dealt you, or using subterfuge to improve it, are compelling, and though the film obviously favours Louise, it doesn’t push its viewpoint too hard.

Beavers on the world’s largest pillow. I mean, that’s a seriously EDWARD SCISSORHANDS size pillow there.

Comparison with the Sirk: the idea of a remake was doubtless only embraced due to the salacious rumours circulating after the death of Lana Turner’s lover, gangster Johnny Stompanato (best gangster name ever? I mean, you don’t need to be called “Dutch” or “Bugsy” or Legs” or “Baby Face” if your surname is already Stompanato. Though J.S. did have a nickname, it wasn’t for himself, just his penis: he called it “the Oscar”). After Turner’s daughter, Cheryl Crane, stabbed Stompanato to death in the kitchen (or did Lana do it, really?) it was bandied about town that both Lana and Cheryl had been intimate with the Oscar.

(I’ve seen a short extract of Lana’s courtroom testimony. It’s a true Lana Turner performance: camo and artificial and soapy in the best way. The jury must have loved it. It suggests that either Lana is acting for her life, or that she’s sincere and so are all her weird, artificial performances. Strange.)

So producer Ross Hunter was hoping to titillate his audience by casting Lana in the remake. Her casting meant, for some reason, that the whole Pancake Queen thing had to go (and while we’re at it let’s have John Gavin NOT play an ichthyologist) which created some plausibility issues. In this version, widowed mother Lana becomes a star of stage and screen at 38. Hmm, could this be a roman a clef, closely based on the true life story of NO WOMAN EVER? Also, by cutting the pancake mix, Lana’s maid, Juanita Moore, isn’t trousering 20% of the profits from a flour empire, and so her colossal funeral at the end of the film doesn’t really make any naturalistic sense. I saw it with my late lamented friend Lawrie and he was in hysterics at the vast pomp of it all: “But she’s just a cleaning woman! A very good cleaning woman, but…” Not the intended reaction, and the original movie doesn’t have that problem (though it does have the unreal idea of Beavers having no interest in money — in my experience, most poor people would like to be rich).

(Getting distracted by petty realistic details is a vice. I showed ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST to a friend, who wanted to know, while Bronson’s brother was being hanged from an arch in the desert, “Where’s the ladder?” A foolish question anyway, since it could easily be the other side of the camera.)

The bigger problem in the remake is arguably the casting of Susan Kohner, of Jewish/Mexican decent, playing Moore’s daughter, the Fredi Washington part. We are less convinced by the genetics, and we also KNOW that there was someone out there of the correct racial background who could have played the part just as well. And though Kohner had done a few movies and was probably being built up by Universal, it’s not like the public really knew who she was. It would have made no big difference to the box office if the part had been played by a real pale-skinned African-American actress. And even if you’re willing to forgive the compromise, a bit more effort is require in the way of suspension of disbelief.

In many ways, the commercial cinema of 1959 was less liberated than that of 1934 — discuss.