Archive for Gilbert Roland

Forbidden Divas: The White Orchid Type

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 1, 2020 by dcairns
David Melville Wingrove is back, with the perfect Forbidden Diva for this historical moment --


FORBIDDEN DIVAS

THE WHITE ORCHID TYPE

“I can’t face an unknown future with an un-powdered nose.”

– Barbara Stanwyck, The Other Love

What do you write about at a time when life as we choose to call it has been forcibly put on hold? Most of us today are made to live in our own private cells of suspended animation – in a void, an absence, a dream space. We are forced to be and not to do, to feel and not to act. We are in a glass room that lacks the usual walls or ceiling or floor. A smooth and unvarying expanse of crystal on all sides, it is fully transparent yet wholly impossible to break. Through it we can see and hear and speak, but we cannot touch. Can any film approximate a life that none of us have ever lived before? How do you make a film about the act of waiting? How do you deny motion when all a motion picture camera ever wants to do is to move?

Barbara Stanwyck at the start of The Other Love (1947) is forced – against all her instincts and all her will – to call a halt to her life. Here she is not the tough-talking dame of her other movies, the “high-ridin’ woman with a whip” who terrorises the Wild West with Forty Guns (1957), the gal so butch she makes John Wayne look like Liberace or Paul Lynde. Here she is an avatar of suffering nobility, who might be incarnated – in your average film of the 40s – by Greer Garson or Loretta Young. She is a lady concert pianist, glamorous and successful yet at the same time incurably lonely. She has no choice but to put her career on pause when she falls fatally ill with TB. She checks into a plush sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, the sort that looks more like a luxury hotel with a few X-ray machines stashed away in one room.

It seems a mystical, almost otherworldly realm. Snow-capped mountains dream away in the distance, while long white muslin curtains waft gently back and forth in the alpine breeze. (One sure test of the skill of a director is the way he handles curtains; the Hungarian émigré Andre de Toth passes this test with a splendour few others have ever matched.) She is taken immediately with her handsome doctor (David Niven) who tells her that all activity will henceforth be forbidden. Her one goal must be to rest, relax and recuperate. “You must try and think of yourself as being in a deep sleep,” he tells her. “Before you know it, the darkness will be gone.” He even forbids her to play the piano. Her response to all this is remarkably docile. She places herself, with serene resignation, in his hands and in the hands of Fate. It is largely a question of which one chooses to grab her first.

On her first night at the clinic, she finds a spray of fresh white orchids has been delivered to her room. She assumes they must come from the doctor. She has had a glance around the dining room and concluded that none of her fellow patients is “the white orchid type.” Then she finds out these orchids are a standing order – from a man who ‘left’ the sanatorium six months ago to a woman who ‘left’ it only last night. She realises she is in receipt of flowers sent by a dead man to a dead woman. It is a concept so morbid it smacks of outright necrophilia. The music by Miklos Rozsa goes into a lyrical frenzy surpassing even his Oscar-winning score for Spellbound (1945). She throws herself ever deeper – metaphorically speaking – into the arms of her doctor. Ah, but all may not be quite as it appears…

On her arrival, the doctor forbids her to smoke and takes her cigarette lighter – monogrammed with her initials KD for Karen Duncan – away for safe keeping. (We may be glad it is not engraved with Barbara Stanwyck’s own initials, BS.) One day she breaks into his private sanctum, opens a drawer and finds a whole trove of cigarette lighters that were left behind by previous (and deceased) lady patients. She starts to suspect, as we do, that her doctor’s methods are a fairly serious violation of the Hippocratic Oath. Is he in the habit of fucking his patients until they get better? Or – and this sounds a lot more likely – of fucking his patients until they die? This story, which is allegedly by Erich Maria Remarque, is coming more and more to resemble The Magic Mountain as rewritten by Mills & Boon.

Hell, of course, hath no fury that is quite like Barbara Stanwyck scorned. No matter if she is at death’s door. She takes up with a dashing racing-car driver (Richard Conte) who just happens to be driving round that particular mountain. In defiance of the best medical advice, he whisks her off to Monte Carlo. She sits up late at the gaming tables, where a sexy croupier (Gilbert Roland) gives her smouldering glances over a big stack of chips. She even gets to attend a party on board a yacht thrown by Natalie Shafer, famous to viewers of a certain age as the fruity and snooty Mrs Howell on the 60s TV sitcom Gilligan’s Island. A life-threatening illness seems a small price to pay for such an honour. But this jet-set debauchery swiftly goes pear-shaped. Babs ends up in the most perilous situation a consumptive heroine can face – wandering about Monte Carlo in the rain, clad in white mink and chiffon and minus an umbrella!

Speaking of outfits, the wardrobe that Edith Head designed for The Other Love must surely have been le dernier cri in tubercular chic. Most memorable is a long white Grecian shift with a black diamante sunburst at the waist, which our heroine wears to dine at the sanatorium. (Yes, this is the sort of hospital where the patients dress for dinner.) Memorable too, and for all the wrong reasons, is a truly hideous spangled sweater with Christmas trees and reindeer crawling across it. Like any great star, Barbara Stanwyck is impervious to embarrassment – but this looks like something a butch lady detective in a Scandi crime drama might wear in a festive mood. The star would not play an overt lesbian role until A Walk on the Wild Side (1962) but there she had Capucine as motivation.

It becomes apparent all too soon how this ill-starred flirtation with ‘normal’ life can lead only to doom. The one hope is to go back to that mountain-top clinic, submit to the ministrations of the doctor and do her best to wait this illness out. To seal herself away from life until the world, by an unimagined miracle, comes right again. Barbara Stanwyck does what all of us are constrained to do at this time. (Please note sparkly sweaters are optional and, also, they will not necessarily help.) Will she find her true happiness up there on that mountain? The Other Love is a movie; hence it is several shades more optimistic than the TV news. All we know is that strangely serene white realm – those vast stretches of crystal air, where everything is visible and nothing can ever be touched – is where she needs to be at that moment.

David Melville

Made furious by The Furies

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2012 by dcairns

Guest Shadowplayer Judy Dean weighs in on a film last heard from in Anthony Mann Week — and she makes points about an aspect of the movie I think completely neglected to mention. Because of the nature of the questions discussed, the piece is unavoidably spoiler-heavy —

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The Furies is one of three westerns made by Anthony Mann for different studios that were released in 1950. Together with Winchester 73 (his first collaboration with James Stewart) and The Devil’s Doorway, this period marks his transition from maker of B pictures to big budget features. It’s an adaptation of a novel by Niven Busch, author of Duel in the Sun, who also wrote the screenplay for Pursued, another noirish western with Freudian undertones.

Walter Huston made his last screen appearance in The Furies. He died in April 1950 at the age of 67 and did not live to see its release. It was my intention to write about Huston’s performance (and, believe me, there’s plenty of meat on that bone), but the film contains a scene that I found so shocking, it’s been bothering me ever since and left me with lots of questions.

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Here’s how the scene comes about.

Vance (Barbara Stanwyck) is the daughter of TC Jeffords (Walter Huston), a New Mexico cattle baron, owner of The Furies ranch. On the land that he has acquired is a long-established Mexican community. Juan, eldest son of the Herrera family (Gilbert Roland), has been friends with Vance since childhood and is in love with her. Their scenes together are relaxed and affectionate and therefore in sharp contrast to the grand guignol on display elsewhere.

There are heavy hints of incest in the relationship between Vance and TC and when two outsiders, Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), a gambler with a grudge against TC whom Vance falls for, and Flo (Judith Anderson), the wealthy widow TC plans to marry, appear on the scene, the furies are truly unleashed.

Vance suffers a double defeat. Her advances to Rip end in rejection and humiliation and when she learns of TC’s impending marriage, which will jeopardise her inheritance, she attacks Flo with scissors, permanently disfiguring her. In revenge, TC carries out his plan to evict the Mexicans then, despite having promised the Herreras immunity, orders the hanging of Juan for horse stealing, the slimmest of pretexts.

Vance refuses to demean herself by begging for his life, and Juan calmly submits to his fate. This casual killing of the only honourable and sympathetic character is quite horrible, and the matter of fact way in which it’s presented only makes it worse. I watched with mounting disbelief as Juan’s mother and two brothers pray with him and then accompany him to the scaffold without a murmur of protest. He removes his hat, lowers his head, and the noose is placed around his neck.

Maybe it’s just a testament to Mann’s skill as a filmmaker, and the power of the writing, that this has so effectively got under my skin, but here’s what I want to know.

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Why do I find this so much more disturbing than scenes of execution in other westerns? I had confidently predicted an outcome whereby Vance would choose the loving, principled Juan over the devious Rip, (well, who wouldn’t go for Gilbert Roland rather than Wendell Corey?) and they would gallop away from The Furies together, but it’s not just that my romantic expectations are overturned by Juan’s death.

I am appalled by Vance’s inaction. Why won’t she plead for Juan’s life? And equally appalled by his passivity. Why doesn’t he fight back? Admittedly, he is avenged in the closing scene by his mother, who shoots TC in the back, but this is small recompense for the brutal nature of his death.

Is it an indication of racial sensibilities of the time? Did social attitudes dictate that Vance must marry Rip, as she does in the end, however morally compromised he may be? Was it not possible for a young, attractive, white woman to be seen forming a romantic attachment to a Mexican? Surely Gilbert must have played non-white characters in other films who got the girl?

Or is it, as my partner says, social realism in that when people sense resistance is futile, as occurred many times in WW2, they go to their deaths like lambs?

I have no answers myself, but all this left me wondering how did – or, indeed, do – actors feel when playing parts where their ethnicity determines the outcome. Did they feel humiliated? Or did they just shrug and bank the money?

***

Coming soon to The Chiseler: a letter by actor Clarence Muse that addresses, in a way, that very question…