Archive for Forbidden Divas

Forbidden Divas: Many a Rainy Night in Brooklyn

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2020 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns!

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

MANY A RAINY NIGHT IN BROOKLYN

“Did you ever see a crocodile yawn?”

– Lynne Overman, Her Jungle Love

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Has there ever been a film so bad that a halfway decent volcanic eruption could not put it right? “That is clearly a metaphysical speculation,” writes Oscar Wilde, “and like most metaphysical speculations has very little reference to the actual facts of life, as we know them.” But then neither has anything else in Her Jungle Love (1938). So the question still strikes me as entirely valid. The climax of this movie is not just any old eruption. It brings with it a cataclysmic mudslide of ravenous man-eating crocodiles – who slither their way into a crumbling pagan temple and set about devouring much of the cast. I should add that the cast of this movie is quite a small one. At no point are the hungry reptiles in any danger from overeating.

But where is this temple and what is anybody doing inside it? It all starts when a pilot crash-lands his plane somewhere in the Malay Archipelago. Two other pilots head off in search of him and manage – with remarkable efficiency – to crash their own plane and go missing on the exact same tropic isle. (The islands of the Malay Archipelago number in the thousands, so this really is quite a slick bit of navigation.) These two pilots are Ray Milland and his annoying comic sidekick Lynne Overman. Both actors were popular stars at Paramount Pictures in the 30s. That gives us all the reassurance we need that they will not be allowed to go missing for too long.

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The island seems at first to be deserted. But of course it is not. It is inhabited by a winsome jungle maiden named Tura. She is played by Dorothy Lamour in a gallon of fake tan and a daringly skimpy line of sarongs designed by Edith Head. She does not live entirely alone in this paradise. She frolics through the vibrant green palm trees by the dazzling blue Technicolor lagoon along with Gaga – a lovably mischievous chimpanzee – and Meewa – a cute and frisky lion cub. There is no sign of any adult lions or, indeed, of any other primates on this island. We can only assume that a third plane loaded with circus animals must have crash-landed somewhere in the vicinity.

A former Miss New Orleans of 1931 and future co-star of the Road movies with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour was one of those Hollywood icons who never even pretended to be an actress. Her assets were her lithe and curvaceous physique (not everyone looks good in a sarong) as well as her voluptuous Technicolor lips and her dark and sultry bedroom eyes. Her dialogue in Her Jungle Love consists almost entirely of ugga-wugga gibberish, which makes it one of her more successful dramatic roles. Even strumming on a ukulele – as she is required to do in one scene – appears to strain her acting skills to breaking point.

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But alas, there is room for only one Queen on this or any other tropic isle. That role is reserved for J Carrol Naish as Kuaka, a villainous Malay prince who rules over a tribe of head-hunters that inhabit a nearby cove. His followers seem to be exclusively male; all of them are muscular and bronzed and clad in the skimpiest of loincloths. Kuaka himself wafts about in an iridescent peacock-green kaftan and with turban to match. He sports on one finger an emerald so splendiferously large and vulgar that Elizabeth Taylor might reject it as just a shade too ostentatious. He demonstrates his ascendancy by wearing even more eye make-up than Tura and speaks invariably in a low and sibilant hiss.

You have been wondering what had happened to that first missing pilot. The answer, to put it plainly, is Kuaka. He keeps the boy for quite a suspiciously long time as his private prisoner. Then he trusses him up like a mummy and sacrifices him to the Crocodile God. The rotter even hypnotises poor Tura and forces her to take part in the ceremony. He does at least dress her up in the film’s most memorable outfit: a long and trailing white cape with a headdress of white egret feathers and seashells. This man may be a savage and proud of it. But he does at least have some idea how to accessorise.

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Need I add that in the course of this blood-soaked ritual, Dorothy Lamour gets hypnotised and shoved into a basket and impaled with giant spears and resurrected and brought back to life as if by magic and none of it alters her facial expression one iota? She looks only mildly perturbed when Kuaka suggests getting married, so the two of them may rule over the island together. Even a girl who has spent most of her life in a coconut tree must surely realise this is what is described in sophisticated circles as a mariage blanc. It seems quite wildly unlikely that sex could ever be a part of the deal.

By this time, Dorothy has fallen in love with Ray because…well, because he’s there and somebody has to. His pal, meanwhile, has formed what appears to be a tender inter-species ménage à trois with her animal friends. (A scene where the chimp kisses Lynne Overman is by some measure the raunchiest bit of the movie.) It goes without saying that Ray has an overpoweringly dreary fiancée (Dorothy Howe) who nags her henpecked father into taking her off in his yacht to search for him. We start to worry that she might actually find him. I mean, where on earth is that Crocodile God when he is really needed?

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In the litany of sublime absurdities that make up the script, my favourite is the way Ray and Lynne manage to crash their plane without in any way damaging their portable gramophone. According to Lynne, this machine kept him company on “many a rainy night in Brooklyn.” Her Jungle Love may not be appreciably better or worse than The Jungle Princess (1936) or Typhoon (1940) or Aloma of the South Seas (1941) or any of Lamour’s umpteen other sarong pictures. Still, it is a well-nigh flawless antidote to rainy nights in Brooklyn.

David Melville

Forbidden Divas: Jungle Red

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2020 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns with a Forbidden Divas piece about one of my favourites…

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FORBIDDEN DIVAS

JUNGLE RED

“I do not need wine to set my blood on fire.”

  • Paulette Goddard, Sins of Jezebel

Fans of bad movies cherish Bible epics for being the one entirely disreputable movie genre. To make the Best Bible Epic of All Time may not be an act of any special distinction. To put it bluntly, how much competition could there be? But to make the Worst Bible Epic of All Time is a truly spectacular achievement. The field is crowded and fiercely competitive and movies like The Prodigal (1955) and The Silver Chalice (1954) and Solomon and Sheba (1959) all have their fanatical adherents. But criticising these movies for their wooden acting, risible dialogue or lack of dramatic coherence is a bit like criticising a KFC Bargain Bucket for its lack of nutritional value. No product is a disaster simply because it does not do something it has never set out to do. To achieve a Platonic ideal of sheer and unadulterated awfulness, a Bible epic needs to be quite a lot worse than that.

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Sins of Jezebel (1953) is the work of one Reginald Le Borg, an auteur who made his name in the 40s with classics like Jungle Woman (1944) and The Mummy’s Ghost (1945). It stars the irresistible Paulette Goddard as the infamously wicked pagan queen who tried to turn Israel away from the One True God and supplant Him with the blood-soaked worship of Baal. There is something less than terrifying about Baal in this movie. His effigies resemble very early models for ET (1982) and his followers show their devotion by lifting their arms to heaven and indulging in some truly excruciating bouts of interpretive dance. It is hard to believe in depravity when we never see anything that looks the tiniest bit depraved. We hear a rumour early on that the queen “paints her nails with the blood of sacrificial victims.” We never do find out if she does that or not. But one must admit her nails are a commendably bright shade of red.

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Paulette Goddard was a movie star for the best part of two decades, but not even her closest friends ever pretended she could act. She was famous for her slightly hard-boiled glamour and her ineffably colourful off-screen love life. A fun-loving Jewish girl from Great Neck, Long Island (her real name was Marion Levy) she started off in the chorus line of the Ziegfeld Follies. In the 30s, she made her way to Hollywood and wound up marrying Charlie Chaplin and co-starring in Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940). Her neighbour David O Selznick came perilously close to casting her as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) – but only briefly, when he despaired of finding anyone better. Divorced from Chaplin, she went on to marry such showbiz intellectuals as Burgess Meredith and Erich Maria Remarque. Her alleged motto in life was never to sleep with a man until he gave her diamonds. She was said to carry a suitcase packed with diamonds on all her travels, to remind herself and others just how well this system worked.

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In short, Paulette Goddard embodied the kind of fragile and artificial movie glamour that made Lana Turner look like Meryl Streep. She got by in her better roles – as an 18th century adventuress in Kitty (1945) or a Gay 90s adventuress in An Ideal Husband (1947) – on a sort of wry and ironical amusement. She looked, as Oscar Wilde wrote, like “an édition de luxe of a wicked French novel.” It was no surprise that she became Andy Warhol’s favourite escort at parties in the 60s. She was, in essence, a Warhol Superstar before that term was even coined. But it was a very great surprise indeed that she gave a realistic, touching and genuinely heartfelt performance as an ageing beauty in an Italian film, The Time of Indifference (1964), just before she bowed out of movies for good.

So what of Paulette as the evil Queen Jezebel? Her Majesty has barely arrived in Judaea when she is cheating on her fiancé King Ahab with a hunky Hebrew general (George Nader). Her bridegroom passes out drunk on the wedding night, but not before she has made him promise to build a temple to the heathen god Baal. This lady is a hybrid of all the sinister dictator’s wives who have wielded a malevolent power from behind the throne. Eva Perón, Imelda Marcos, Elena Ceauşescu – only with deeper villainy and sharper fashion sense thrown in.  “What are you, a man or a piece of dirt?” she sneers when Ahab hesitates to massacre his recalcitrant subjects who refuse to worship Baal. Not even her favoured boy-toy escapes from her tyranny unscathed. He wrestles with his conscience when he is forced to put believers in the True God to death. “In peace or in battle, people get hurt,” he explains to his fellow Israelites. You can’t make an omelette, etc…

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What is truly fascinating about Sins of Jezebel is the fact it is an epic made on a ridiculously small budget. The soldiers wear helmets that look like kitchen pots spray-painted gold. The vases that adorn the royal chambers seem to have been stolen from somebody’s back garden in the San Fernando Valley. At every state banquet (there is not even the faintest hope of an orgy) the tables are laden with identical bowls of wax fruit. One might imagine these came from the studio’s front office – but the independent producers who made this movie were unlikely to have an office of any sort. To his credit, the resourceful Le Borg circumvents the lack of art direction through a strategic deployment of draperies. Every time Queen Jezebel seduces someone, the camera cuts away from the clinch to a swatch of brightly coloured fabric, rippling away. This effect reminds us eerily of the Kenneth Anger film Puce Moment (1949) and the whole production is redolent of one of those underground movies that drag queens in the 60s used to make in memory of Maria Montez.

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Yet however drastically its producers may have skimped, Sins of Jezebel still seems to run out of money well before the end. Long stretches of it are not seen, but narrated by a sententious middle-aged Sunday school teacher in a badly fitting suit. The more the war between Good and Evil heats up – and the number of warriors needed rises above a dozen – the more this narrator tends to take over. Watching him light the seven candles on a menorah – and put them out again, a scene or so later – is dramatically thrilling, I grant you. But the fall of Babylon in Intolerance (1916) or the parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1956) it most definitely ain’t. It is the sheer lavish folly of Bible epics that audiences across the world respond to. So a Bible epic that fails even at that is a rare and precious object indeed.

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If this Queen Jezebel really does paint her nails with blood…that can only be because blood was cheaper than varnish.

David Melville

Forbidden Divas: May I Use Your Ocean?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on July 10, 2019 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns with another, and particularly extreme, shameful pleasure from the more disreputable vaults of film history…

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

May I Use Your Ocean?

“I’ve never had cheap sex before. I was sort of looking forward to it.”

–          Lily Tomlin to John Travolta, Moment by Moment

“We all have ideas,” says Lily Tomlin’s gal pal several aeons into the trash classic Moment by Moment (1978). “Sometimes the real talent is knowing not to do anything with them.” At some point in the late 70s, producer Robert Stigwood had the idea of casting his hot young discovery John Travolta in a steamy tale of intergenerational romance with the alternative comedienne and would-be film star Lily Tomlin. The movie was written and directed on a vast budget by Tomlin’s life and production partner Jane Wagner, who had never directed a movie before and has – oddly enough – never directed another movie since. The result was a critical and box-office bomb of apocalyptic proportions, one that almost ended the careers of everybody involved with it only a few years after they began. What is astonishing to realise today is that…yes, Moment by Moment actually is as bad as critics and audiences in the 70s thought it was. That being said, it is still a vastly more enjoyable movie than Saturday Night Fever or Grease.

In a truly inspired stroke of miscasting, the sassy and sparky Tomlin plays a bored and blasé Beverly Hills housewife who is starting to find her life a bit empty. OK, she drives a stylish silver-grey Mercedes and owns a palatial beach house in Malibu that is exquisitely decorated in stripped pine and muted tones of white and beige. (It boasts the single best fireplace I have ever seen in any film.) She has an adorable white Maltese dog called Scamp – who gives the most assured and convincing performance in the film by a long chalk – and spends her time shopping at Gucci and Hermès and other fancy stores along Rodeo Drive. But truly, what is life when one is lonely and neglected and unloved? Lily’s husband, a construction tycoon, is boffing a girl young enough to be their daughter. Her name is Stacy and she resembles a giant animatronic Barbie doll. Poor bereft Lily breaks down in tears every time she thinks about it; be warned that she appears to think of very little else. But it has never occurred to her (incredibly) that she might commit any sexual indiscretion of her own.

One afternoon, she goes into Schwab’s Drugstore to buy some sleeping pills. As she does not have a prescription, the pharmacist refuses to give her any. It seems she is the one person in the whole of Beverly Hills who cannot simply bribe a doctor and get an unlimited stash of pills on demand. Suddenly, a handsome young street hustler comes bounding up and offers her some. He follows her out to the beach house and they soon become lovers. He is played by John Travolta and his name is Strip. The name of Lily’s character, by the way, is Trish. All the characters in Moment by Moment have names so determinedly cool and casual that you long to meet somebody called Euphemia or Marmaduke, if only for the sake of a little diversity. But in fairness ‘Strip’ is an eminently sensible name for this young man; that is pretty much all he does for the length of the entire movie. Virtually every scene in Moment by Moment involves John Travolta stripping down to a pair of skimpy briefs. I can think of no other non-pornographic film in which the hero wears so little without also yodelling and swinging through the jungle on a vine.

It is clear from the outset that Trish and Strip are made for each other. The two lovers sport an identical unisex haircut and you keep expecting them to remark that they both go to the same stylist, so how is it they have never met before? That would be a considerable improvement on anything they do say. The dialogue in Moment by Moment does not seem to have been written so much as improvised by members of the Andy Warhol Factory on a day when the drugs were running low. Whole stretches go by in which one lover utters a non sequitur and the other repeats it back dumbly. “Do you belong to the Automobile Club?” asks Trish when Strip’s car breaks down. In a flash of rapier wit, he answers: “Do I look like I belong to the Automobile Club?” When the lovers eat lunch on the veranda of the beach house, Strip asks Trish meaningfully: “Is that tuna?” Overpowered by his romantic badinage, she replies: “Yes, it’s tuna.” It might be amusing to stretch out a conversation like this for an hour or even a whole day. But midway through Moment by Moment, you feel as if you already have.

Nothing in the film can compete, for sheer hilarity, with the scene where Strip shows up at the beach house and asks Trish if he can use her ocean. She loves him, of course. But she feels self-conscious about him too. Not about the gaping gulf between his and her socio-economic status, but about the wide gap in their ages. One afternoon, a friend drops by for a visit and Strip comes in with some groceries. Trish is abashed and pretends he is the delivery boy. In another cringe-making scene, she takes Strip as her date to an exhibition of ‘Footography’ that consists of a gallery lined with photos of people’s feet. To be honest, I can think of far worse artistic concepts and at least a dozen of them seem to be in this movie. Trish is mortified when he takes two glasses of champagne off a tray at the same time. When the glitterati start to stare, he ditches her and storms off into the night. We pass the time by wondering exactly who Moment by Moment was ever made for? I can think of no audience for it apart from adolescent girls and middle-aged gay men. At no point does it seem like the brainchild of a high-powered lesbian couple.

The critic Boyd McDonald wrote of Robert Ryan that he was one of the few actors who could convincingly play a heterosexual. On the basis of their work in Moment by Moment, neither Tomlin nor Travolta is in any danger of challenging him for the title. Moaning about the woodwork in her home, Trish’s pal remarks: “Cedar always looks like a big empty closet.” Dare I say the closet in this movie appears to be bursting at the seams?

David Melville