Archive for Greta Garbo

The Little Theatre of Georges Franju

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2020 by dcairns

Georges Franju finished his long career making short features for French TV, of which the last, appropriately enough, is THE LAST MELODRAMA, scripted by his actor friend Pierre Brasseur, the mad surgeon in EYES WITHOUT A FACE, and featuring the essential Edith Scob from that film. It deals with a touring theatre troupe, an extended family,

At first, the film seems flat and lifeless. The major stylistic element is the zoom lens, jerked around for crude reframings. But the conjunction of theatre and “real life” (which, as we all know, is less real than theatre) in Brasseur’s script begins to allow Franju opportunities to flex his stiff imaginative muscles. Scob, dining al fresco with the troupers, goes into a monologue from La Dame aux Camélias, and Franju shoots her against the painted backdrop of the little theatre-wagon, fades up piano music, and intermingles life and art.

The film is played contemporary, late seventies, though it seems barely credible that such a set of strolling players could exist in the age of punk (or, in the case of France, slightly gone-to-seed hippies) and Brasseur’s memories of such a scene surely date from the late twenties. But let’s agree not to care about that. The elderly often appear chronologically adrift to the not-yet-elderly, so we consider this a benefit we’re getting from the unusual treat of having a sixty-seven-year-old director (and Franju at 67 looked a bit like the animatronic zombie-skeletons in LIFEFORCE, so we should really think 87). This Billy Pilgrimesque unstuckness may also be why everyone except the wee boy seems to be playing a character of a different age from their actual one.

The film begins with an iris-out, so Georges isn’t exactly trying to be with-it. The iris is echoed a bit later, too:

The company make a last-minute switch from La Dame aux Camélias to Les Miserables, due to Grabo having just played CAMILLE on TV. The boy is dragged up as Cosette and evokes the kid in KILL, BABY, KILL!

The archaic world of the troupers is disturbed by a startlingly camp biker gang, anticipating THE NINTH CONFIGURATION by a year. Maybe old George has his finger on the pulse after all… or he has his finger on where the pulse would be, if there was in fact a pulse. The gang leader, in his vinyl bolero jacket, is hardly a wild angel. “What are you rebelling against?” “Je ne sais quoi.”

The trouble with the gags is they have too much screen time. In Fellini’s ROMA, the bike gang at the finish get basically nothing to do except ride their bikes loudly through the nocturnal streets, representing for the director the fact that “Rome is now full of people with whom I have nothing whatever in common.” Franju and Brasseur are even more gen-gapped (Brasseur, in fact, had been dead seven years), which means they’re not in a position to write lines or extract performances suited to these characters.

Old-stager Raymond Bussières brings the authenticity of his years to the role of the most senior thesp, and gives mt favourite of the uneven performance. Even he is acting at a whole different pitch and pace to those around him, but I think they should have adjusted to him, not the other way around. Mostly, Franju seems to be satisfied with whatever anyone does.

Oh, and then Juliette Mills turns up and burns the theatre down. The stage in flames does make a fitting pyre for Franju, even though he has another eight years to live. Reminds me of the burning screen in Nick Ray’s demented-swan-song, THE JANITOR. That, and the image of a man killed for real by a blank-firing gun (his heart) are the grace notes.

I’m glad I saw this but it illustrates more the weaknesses of late work than the strengths. It’s hard to say whether the bigger problem is the old director or the dead writer. As with MANK, having a screenwriter you can’t interrogate without using a planchette, and whom you admire too much to rewrite behind his dead back, is a bit of a millstone.

FORBIDDEN DIVAS RIP

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 3, 2020 by dcairns

Certainly, what we’ve been missing here at Shadowplay is an Olivia de Havilland appreciation, and who better to provide it than David Melville Wingrove?

Who Killed the Black Widder?

“A halo can be a lovely thing – but you must be able to take it off now and again.”

  • Olivia De Havilland, My Cousin Rachel

In 1952, Olivia de Havilland stood at the pinnacle of everything an actress in Hollywood could reasonably hope to achieve. She had made her screen debut at eighteen in the classic Warner Bros extravaganza A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and was the one actress in it not to be upstaged by the costumes. In her eight films with Errol Flynn, she had formed half of the most enduringly popular on-screen couple of the 30s. She had played a leading role in Gone with the Wind (1939) – the most commercially successful film of all time – as the ‘good girl’ Melanie Hamilton to Vivien Leigh’s ‘bad girl’ Scarlett O’Hara. When Warner Bros tried to prolong her contract illegally, she had taken the studio to court and won her freedom. She had rounded out the 40s by winning two Oscars for Best Actress, one for To Each His Own (1946) and one for The Heiress (1949). She was not, to put it mildly, what anyone could ever call an underachiever.

On a personal level, de Havilland had grown out of the shadow of her loving but controlling mother and her jealously competitive sister Joan Fontaine. Having been linked romantically to James Stewart and Burgess Meredith, John Huston and Howard Hughes, she had finally got married at the age of thirty to the writer Marcus Goodrich. In 1949, she had given birth to her son Benjamin and taken three years off from movies. Not that she had stayed at home washing nappies. Instead she had fulfilled a lifelong ambition by appearing on Broadway in Romeo and Juliet, in a 1951 staging that can be described politely as a succès d’estime. Apart from her on-and-off feud with her sister, she had lived with consummate discretion and good taste. Unusually for a Hollywood star, there had been no sleaze, no scandal and no dirty rumours of any sort. At the age of 35, Olivia de Havilland was a woman who had very little left to win. Her only wild card was how much she might have to lose.

Whatever she might have chosen to do in the early 50s, it was bound to involve a high level of risk. She had famously turned down the role of Blanche du Bois in the film of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) stating that “a lady doesn’t say or do those things on the screen.” Her dilemma, in that case, was how to remain a lady while expanding her range as an actress into a new decade. That may have been part of what drew her to My Cousin Rachel (1952). The heroine of Daphne du Maurier’s novel is neither a ‘good girl’ nor a ‘bad girl’ but a woman who may be an angel or a demon. She is a glamorous and sophisticated Anglo-Italian countess of the 1830s who finds herself widowed and penniless and burdened by debts. She marries a wealthy Cornish gentleman who dies of unexplained causes just a few months after the wedding. But his estate does not go to his widow. It passes instead to his callow and naive young cousin, Philip Ashley. It is not wholly a surprise when Rachel shows up on his doorstep – and the young man starts to fall irresistibly under her spell.

At no point in the novel do we get any clue as to what Rachel is thinking. As in du Maurier’s most famous book Rebecca – the Alfred Hitchcock film of which had made a star of Joan Fontaine in 1940 – we know the title heroine only through what the other characters say about her. The novel is narrated entirely by Philip, who falls obsessively in love with Rachel although he suspects – and with good cause – that she may have poisoned his cousin. Soon enough, she starts brewing Philip her special herbal tisanes and he has every reason to suspect she is trying to poison him. That does not dim his ardour one bit. Our hero falls in love with Rachel, not despite the fact she may be a murderess but, more likely, because of it. It is even possible that Rachel poisoned one or both of her previous husbands, but still feels genuine love for Philip. The depths of masochism in this story are profound; its central love affair makes any film noir of the 40s look like a model of domestic bliss.

The question of Rachel’s innocence or guilt – which the book leaves unanswered – presents any film-maker with a dilemma. It is similar to the one faced by David Lean in Madeleine (1950) another film about a genteel Victorian lady who may or may not have poisoned her lover. “The public wants to know if she did it,” said Noël Coward bluntly, “and you don’t tell them.” There are levels of ambiguity we can accept more easily in a novel than in a big-budget movie. But these are the levels of ambiguity de Havilland serves up with such lethal but seductive expertise. She makes her entrance robed entirely in black and photographed from behind so we do not see her face. (She is bit like Count Dracula, fresh off the boat from Transylvania.) Once she lifts her veil, we are won over by her angelic expression and her mellifluous purr of a voice – but alarmed at the same time by her cold, hard, watchful eyes. It is obvious from the first that she is playing Philip (Richard Burton) the way a virtuoso pianist might play a baby grand. But that does not make her a killer. Or does it?

In her early scenes, her dark widow’s weeds are demure almost to the point of bring dowdy. But as she gains in her ascendancy over Philip, her gowns (although they are still black) become gradually more décolleté. Her most alluring dress is off-the-shoulder and topped with lace that suggests a black spider’s web. (The costumes by Dorothy Jeakins are a film unto themselves.) Before too many scenes have elapsed, My Cousin Rachel starts to revel in one of Hollywood’s most ill-kept secrets – namely that Olivia de Havilland, for all her gentility, was a stylish and extremely sexy woman. Her performance here owes mercifully little to Terry, the Psycho Bitch Sister from Hell in the ‘identical twins’ melodrama The Dark Mirror (1946). It is a fascinating foretaste of her role as Cousin Miriam in the campy Southern Gothic gore fest Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). There is no way to separate the light and dark facets of either Miriam or Rachel. This woman is charming because she is deadly and deadly because she is charming. Her allure turns the entire audience into the hapless Philip. Had this film only been made in 3D, we too might be stretching out our hands and begging for a cup of tisane.

Nothing and nobody else in My Cousin Rachel ever rises to the level of its lead performance. Initially, de Havilland had hoped for either George Cukor or Mitchell Leisen to direct it. But Cukor decided ungraciously that she was “an actress without a secret” – and sought to cast Vivien Leigh or Greta Garbo instead. Leisen had directed her with triumph in Hold Back the Dawn (1941) and To Each His Own. Better still, he was a close friend who knew Olivia’s secrets as well as anyone in Hollywood ever could. Alas, he was under contract to another studio and 20th Century-Fox was unwilling to pay the money it would have cost to borrow him. Hence the director of My Cousin Rachel is the competent but wholly uninspired Henry Koster. Richard Burton – whom de Havilland described as “a rather coarse-grained gentleman with a rather coarse-grained talent” – does well by a role that consists of glowering and looking glum for the best part of two hours. In some shots, the backs of his hands are so hairy that we wonder if he will turn out to be the Wolf Man. His co-star cannot have been pleased when Burton got an Oscar nomination and she did not.

A good film that should have been a great one, My Cousin Rachel turned out to be Olivia de Havilland’s last role as a major Hollywood star. She divorced her husband, married again and moved to Paris. She played her last movie role in the schlock killer bees epic The Swarm (1978) but stayed active on TV for another decade. For years after she retired, there were rumours she was planning a comeback – most recently in a James Ivory film of the Henry James novella The Aspern Papers. But this and any number of other projects failed to happen and her status in later years was largely symbolic. The last surviving star of the pre-war studio era, she lived on as a gracious, witty and unfailingly articulate emissary of a bygone age. She became Hollywood’s own far more glamorous answer to the Queen Mother.

But no, she never did tell us if Rachel did it or not.

IN MEMORIAM DAME OLIVIA DE HAVILLND (TOKYO 1916-PARIS 2020)

David Melville

I Want to be a Clone

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on August 8, 2017 by dcairns

If I keep watching MGM films from the thirties, will I become infected? While Warners films of the period have a salutary cynicism, the main ethos of Mayer & Thalberg’s studio is patriarchal snobbery (deep down it may be just as cynical, but it would take a Sigmund Freud armed with excavation equipment to dig the true beliefs out of Louis B. Mayer’s cerebellum). But they did make some good movies, and some interesting movies, even when that’s at the root. And sometimes they broke free from it altogether.

There’s a bit of class panic in AS YOU DESIRE ME, I guess, which is a Tichbourne Claimant/Martin Guerre identity crisis melodrama that’s part screwball (the first part), and where part of the anxiety rests on the possibility that Garbo may not be the long-lost amnesiac lady of the great house, but a long-lost amnesiac housemaid. Gasp! Since this is adapted from Pirandello, some trace of doubt is actually allowed to remain, and we’re left to assume that identity may not be wholly fixed and may not matter as much as we think. maybe it’s an act of faith — we have to believe we are who we are, and other people have to confirm it for us.

What an odd film this is! It’s another of the million films which seem to anticipate VERTIGO, with a doubled woman trying to impersonate her portrait at the behest of a bereaved, unbalanced man. But the best stuff is at the start, with Garbo rocking an electric-white hairdo while flailing around drunkenly and humiliating a wagonload of willing suitors. Then Erich Von Stroheim turns up as an author not in search of these particular six characters.

This movie should be remembered as the one where Erich is lighter, quicker and more charming than Melvyn Douglas, who is just starting out and way out of his comfort zone. Maybe he’s also picking up some of Garbo’s hambone tendencies, since she seems determined here to combine Norma Shearer’s phony attitude-striking with her own brand of loose-limbed semaphore, resulting in melodramatic staggers interrupted by bouts of vogueing. It’s somewhat enjoyable but surely a bad influence on impressionable minds like Melvyn’s.

Director George Fitzmaurice seems happy to let everyone do just as they please. Even Stroheim, the most fun character, has an odd moment where he gets so passionate his ears literally flap like Dumbo’s (above).

The thing kicks off with a splendid crane shot exploring a music hall’s audience while Garbo sings off-camera, and her regular DoP William Daniels has fun making her blonde locks glow like a magnesium flare.

Thanks to the various readers and Facebook friends who suggested this one!