Archive for Hedy Lamarr

A Solo for Three Voices

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2016 by dcairns

Just when everything seemed bleak and colourless like a sepia Kansas farmyard, David Melville Wingrove returns after a too-long absence to continue his series Forbidden Divas ~

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FORBIDDEN DIVAS

A Solo for Three Voices 

“To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.” ~ Oscar Wilde

No, The Love of Three Queens (1954) is not a movie about a gay ménage a trois. It’s a lavish and multi-stranded folly that showcases Hedy Lamarr – its star and its producer – as three of the Great Women of History. She plays the saintly Genevieve of Brabant in the Middle Ages, the flighty Empress Josephine in the Napoleonic Wars and the sultry Helen of Troy in Ancient Greece. Just in case that is not enough, she also appears in a framing story…as a fresh-faced ingénue (Hedy was forty at the time) who embodies all three women for a wandering Italian theatre troupe.

The term ‘vanity project’ might have been coined specially to describe this film. A sophisticated lady with a famously high IQ (she dabbled in scientific research between movies) Hedy Lamarr rapidly grew tired of the decorative roles foisted on her by Hollywood. Meanwhile, she took little if any responsibility for her own disastrous choices – allegedly turning down Casablanca (1943) and Gaslight (1944), but saying yes to The Conspirators (1944) and Experiment Perilous (1944)! Like any other bored but ambitious leading lady, she took to producing her own films.

She tried this first in Hollywood, with a degree of success. The Strange Woman (1946) was the torrid tale of a scheming backwoods vixen, with George Sanders memorably miscast as a lumberjack. Dishonored Lady (1947) – about a fashion editor with an overactive libido – was a flop, as the clothes were not stunning enough to compensate for the lady’s lack of morals. Hedy’s career, briefly, looked doomed. But then Cecil B DeMille cast her as the Biblical temptress in Samson and Delilah (1949). Nobody, before or since, had worn peacock feathers with such aplomb! Hedy clearly felt it was her destiny to play the legendary sirens of the ages…

1949  Hollywood screen goddess, Hedy Lamarr stars in "Samson and Delilah" directed by Cecil B. De Mille.

Hollywood, as usual, did not see it her way. So Hedy packed her bags, moved to Italy and sank most of her fortune into a production company all her own. Its one and only product, The Love of Three Queens, exists under such a baffling array of titles (Eterna Femmina, L’Amante di Paride, The Knights of Illusion) and in such a bewildering diversity of cuts (from three hours to under 90 minutes) that it is actually quite hard to describe it as a film at all. It has far more the aura of an open-ended and ongoing project, like Walt Disney’s Fantasia or Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, only with a shade more artistic self-indulgence thrown in.

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The framing story (at least in the version now on DVD) opens with a bunch of gypsy-style caravans trundling through a scenic Italian landscape. A nameless and faceless narrator follows by horse-drawn carriage. He is, he explains, “compelled by beauty beyond a poet’s words, by mystic loveliness that bore the name Leala.” As his voice speaks these words, the shutters on one caravan swing open – and Hedy gazes out languidly at the passing scene. Might she not overhear this narration? Perhaps, be embarrassed by it? Then it strikes us that Hedy – in her role as producer – must have given her full approval to the script and instructed Marc Allégret (the credited director) to shoot it in this way and no other.

Well, nobody ever got to the top in movies by being modest. Hedy/Leala is the star attraction of the otherwise shabby Teatro Romani. We and the narrator follow to the nearest town, where the troupe is playing that night. By using a tawdry theatrical framework for its flights of artistic and historical fancy, The Love of Three Queens anticipates a far more famous film maudit of the 50s, the doomed Max Ophüls extravaganza Lola Montès (1955). Both films were mangled and recut to the brink of incoherence and neither, at the time, was given a wide release. The difference is that Hedy’s film never became a cause célèbre with critics, has never been revived or restored and remains unavailable in anything like its original form.

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As her character on that first night, Genevieve of Brabant, Hedy looks fetching but incongruous in a blonde wig. This episode – unlike most of the film – was directed by Edgar G Ulmer, who helped her play a sizzling femme fatale in The Strange Woman. Her role here is a character of unimpeachable (and well-nigh insufferable) moral virtue – a pious medieval lady who tends the fields with the peasants, while her husband is away fighting the Moors. A lascivious nobleman tries to seduce her. After she refuses, the rotter accuses her of “unchastity” to her husband on his return. The husband, inexplicably, believes the man over his wife and promptly condemns her to death. “This cannot be happening,” says Hedy, looking mildly perplexed. We in the audience know exactly how she feels.

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Faced with this unwieldy and unbelievable plot, Hedy and Ulmer soon fell out. He walked off the picture (or was fired) and is grudgingly listed as ‘Associate Director’ in the end credits. Indeed – judging from her performance – it seems Ulmer could control his star only by keeping her in a state of permanent hypnosis. Visually, though, his work brilliantly evokes the art of the Middle Ages; the stylised colour schemes and flat or foreshortened perspectives seem to recall a Brueghel painting. Oh, and poor wronged Genevieve does not die. She escapes into the wild and gives birth to an adorable blonde son. Her erring husband finds them, years later, living in a cave and weaving garlands of flowers to adorn their herd of tame deer.

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The next episode (made after Allégret took over) is a shorter and livelier affair. Hedy looks wickedly stylish as the promiscuous Empress Josephine – in a red-white-and-blue outfit of military cut, her bonnet festooned with white plumes and tricolore ribbons. Travelling the back roads during her husband’s Italian campaign, she dismisses one lover from her carriage (“I suppose in war these things happen”) and invites the next available solder to take his place. But she is not a heartless floozy, just a vulnerable and tender-hearted woman baffled by Naploeon’s manic desire to conquer all of Europe. In the end, he forsakes her for an Austrian princess who gives him a male heir. Standing at her window, she listens to each cannon in the 21-gun salute. Her face grows, subliminally, more tragic and resigned with every shot.

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It seems Hedy was a lot happier under Allégret’s direction. Her portrayal of Josephine is as heart-rending as her portrayal of Genevieve is becalmed. Her third role, as Helen of Troy, is in a more languid mode. But that’s only right for this version of the story, which makes Helen the bait in a ‘honey trap’ – designed by wily Odysseus to trick the Trojans into war. Realising the sordid way she has been used, Helen does not so much fall in love with Paris (Massimo Serato) as leave her husband Menelaus in disgust. Of her fabled beauty, she says: “What has it brought me save sorrow? Desired, not for myself, but that men might envy the one who had me.” We are tempted to wonder if Hedy wrote this dialogue herself.

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The Trojan War, when it happens, is quite bereft of heroism of any sort. Troy falls in a surprisingly graphic orgy of slaughter and rape; guffawing Greek soldiers suffocate a helpless man under a shower of grain. When Menelaus comes to strike Helen dead with his sword, she throws open her black mourning robes to reveal a lining of bright crimson. As if, knowing the savagery of the world, she had already draped herself in blood. “May the gods forbid that any mortal woman be as desolate as I!” He spares her, but we get the distinct feeling she would rather be dead.

On one level, The Love of Three Queens is a silly and overproduced costumed charade. Yet running through it – and holding it together, if anything does – is an intelligent woman’s baffled outrage at the male fondness for brutality, conquest and war. Hedy’s first husband (married when she was just 18) had been the Viennese arms tycoon Fritz Mandl, who sold bombs to both Mussolini and Franco. (If he had no links with Hitler, it was only because he was Jewish.)  He also tried to destroy all prints of Hedy’s landmark film Ecstasy (1933) because she appeared in a very discreet sex scene and, later, swam in the nude. Her efforts to escape this marriage led Hedy to America and, eventually, a Hollywood career. In this return to Europe, she was not just making a movie; she was, perhaps, settling a few old scores.

The scores, alas, did not settle in her favour. The Love of Three Queens sank into an oblivion from which it still has yet to surface. Hedy married again (for the fifth time) to Texan oil tycoon Howard Lee, who insisted they settle in Houston. “How anyone who has seen anything of the world can live in Texas is beyond me,” said Hedy after the divorce. She made only a few more films and died in poverty in Florida in 2000. The Love of Three Queens survives, in much-mutilated form, as the most fascinating of flops. Try to imagine Intolerance remade as a glossy high-fashion chick flick. It could never have worked. And who but Hedy would have had the nerve to try?

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David Melville

Esther and the swing

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2008 by dcairns

A fever-dream double feature.

St Joan

Channel 4, home of the cut-price movie matinee, has been showing afternoon films all week starring that AXIOM OF CINEMA, Joan Collins. Two of them had solid auteur credentials, if we can allow the use of the a-word, so I checked them out. That’s Shadowplay — faithfully watching Joan Collins movies, so you don’t have to.

ESTHER AND THE KING has the double-whammy of being directed (and produced, and co-written) by mighty eye-patch wearing wild man Raoul Walsh, and photographed by Mario Bava. I’d caught glimpses of this movie and I’m a sucker for Bava’s trademark Disneyland Blue, which is on display in nearly all this movie’s interiors. Word has it that Walsh liked Bava’swork so much he delegated most of of E&TK to him. It’s certainly a film that has more in common with Bava’s KNIVES OF THE AVENGER or HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD than it does with WHITE HEAT or GENTLEMAN JIM. Since Bava’s primary focus is the visual, when given his head as a cinematographer he can really subsume a film into his style, becoming its auteur by default (I still don’t like that word, but you know what I mean — the person with the unifying vision). And since energy was always a big part of the Walsh approach, and there’s far less of that in his later work, there is a void to be filled.

(Late-period Walsh is unlikely to win the consideration lately awarded to late Hawks, Ford or Lang. Persons hoping to admire Walsh in his Mature Phase are recommended to sit through THE SHERIFF OF FRACTURED JAW, a Western of Damaged Brain uniting Kenneth More [British cinema’s perennial “decent bloke”] with Jayne Mansfield [I.Q. of a genius but she kept it off the screen] and then give the whole thing up as a bad job.)

Dance Hall

Bava fills the void with mind-frazzling candy colours, seen to best advantage in the film’s numerous palace entertainments, starring dancing girls in revealing tunics, or unconvincingly miming Nubian singers — the voice is THAT WOMAN who does all the Ennio Morricone wailing. While it doesn’t quite slide into the autistic trance-state of Howard Hughes’ SON OF SINBAD, which stops the “plot” for a belly-dance every 3 frames (David Bordwell would break his clicker trying to keep score), giving new meaning to the phrase “navel-gazing”, this is still a film more interested in bringing on the next dance number than in sorting out Judeo-Persian politics — and who can blame it? Even in Channel 4’s lamentably cropped 16:9 version, these scenes have a wondrous lustre and pop, as fleshy Italian chorines writhe and stagger. 

Salome's Last Dance

A classic Bava shot: symmetrical framing, asymmetrical and unmotivated coloured lighting on the lions.

Of course, Bava wasn’t hugely interested in performance, and I know you’ll shudder in terror as you read this, but Joan Collins is the best actor in ESTHER AND THE KING. There, I’ve said it. Such a thing exists — a film where Joan stands supreme, talent-wise, if only because she’s surrounded by an unbeatable selection of human planks, lugs, stiffs and dolts. The camp harem commandant is the closest thing to a characterisation on offer (eunuch = homosexual in E&TK’s schema).

Joan’s scenes in the harem are among the most amusing. She starts the film in fine form, attempting random bursts of American accent and doing truly extraordinary things with her face while everybody around her is trying to act. In closeup she’s more subdued, having presumably been fed the Hedy Lamarr dictum on how to look beautiful: “Just stand still and look stupid.” This, Joan can do.

Pope Joan

The Persian shagging-palace is depicted herein as a less austere version of the famous Rank Charm School, where the real-life Joan, along with Barbara Steele and Julie Christie, was educated in deportment, enunciation and, well, charm. This fine institution is satirised in Lauder and Gilliat’s LADY GODIVA RIDES AGAIN, a film in which Joan has an uncredited cameo, along with half the British film industry (“Laughable term!” says Alistair Sim). The school’s graduates were trained in disguising any traces of a working class accent (the late Stratford Johns took great satisfaction in telling me how “common” the Collins sisters were back in the early ’50s), walking with a book balanced atop their heads, and getting out of cars without revealing their underwear to the photographers (not yet known as paparazzi) — would that today’s celebs boasted such a skill-set!

Swing High Swing Low

Gorgeous lifelike colour by Deluxe!

Joan gets sent to finishing school all over again in THE GIRL ON THE RED VELVET SWING, a true-crime story directed by Richard Fleischer. Fleischer did a stupendous job with (working backwards) 10 RILLINGTON PLACE (the Christie murders, very accurate), THE BOSTON STRANGLER (heavily fictionalised) and a very decent job on COMPULSION (Leopold & Loeb, quasi-accurate as far as it goes). This movie climaxes act 2 with a scandalous homicide, but it isn’t primarily a crime film, more of a woman’s picture (red drapes behind the credit sequence) and Joan is the woman whose picture it is.

Ray Milland is Stanford White, America’s greatest architect of the gilded age. Farley Granger is the spoiled and possibly psychotic Harry Thaw. Joan is Floradora Girl Evelyn Nesbitt, who throws herself at the married Milland (“She’s a stupid slut,” pronounced Fiona, and I believe there was a hint of disapproval in her tone) before allowing herself to be wooed by Granger.

Things the movie omits to tell us: White was carrying on with lots of other chorus girls too; he may have drugged their champagne in order to date-rape them; Thaw was a coke fiend; he had a fondness for beating women with a dog whip; Nesbitt became impregnated by John Barrymore; her abortion was procured at a finishing school run by the mother of Cecil B DeMille.

Fever Dream aborion nervous breakdown

On The Bitch

In the movie, Joan’s abortion is instead a nervous breakdown (I guess the logic is, “We need something shameful but not sexual”), presented in a series of lap dissolves as she tosses in her delirium: montage=mental illness. Producer and co-screenwriter Charles Brackett (working with Walter Reisch, previously his collaborator on NINOTCHKA) struggles to get any dramatic fire going. Joan is remarkably good-ish in this — she must have devolved a bit between GIRL and ESTHER. 20th Century Fox had planned to cast Marilyn Monroe, but she was on suspension. Ray Milland is always reliable, but can’t really be outstanding in the part as written. Granger has the flashiest role but he can’t quite make a show-stopper out of it, he’s not really that kind of actor. Brad Dourif had the role in RAGTIME, and he’s a much better idea.

At the film’s “climax”, Joan must sway a jury single-handedly, with a testimony so powerful that they are forced to acquit a man arrested for publicly shooting an old guy in the face, in the crowded theatre of Madison Square Garden, while shouting “He ruined my wife!” (In the real-life case, nobody could say for sure whether it was “wife” or “life”. A minor point — the guy was still dead.)

DIGRESSION: Now, I’ve seen Joan in the witness box FOR REAL, and I have to say, she wasn’t thatcompelling. This was when she attempted to follow her sister Jacqui into the world of best-selling bonkbuster novels, and was sued by her publisher for the return of her six-figure advance after she failed to provide them with sufficiently publishable dross (a sample:“‘Don’t call me your little cabbage,’ she said savagely. ‘I’m nobody’s cabbage.'”). Joan, her head inserted into wig styled like freshly whipped soufflé, made a poor witness, mainly because she seemed too profoundly THICK to understand when she was being asked a question, of that she was expected to answer. But in fairness to her, this may have been a deliberate strategy — her best chance of winning the case (she won) was in proving that the publishers got exactly what they deserved when they asked her to knock up a couple of novels. Skeptics may wonder whether Joan is a good enough actress to fool an entire courtroom, but I remind you: she was playing the part of a dumb actress. “Stand still and look stupid” may be equally good advice for the witness box.

DIGRESSION ON DIGRESSION: The best movie star courtroom scene played for real was that of Lana Turner, defending her daughter for knifing well-endowed gangster Johnny Stompanato to death. She gave a real Lana Turner performance, completely artificial from beginning to end and completely convincing to everybody concerned.

The Window

...and KICK!

Schwing!

END OF DIGRESSIONS: Fleischer’s direction only takes off during the scene when Millandfinally gets Collins on his swing. With dizzying, nauseating POV shots, Fleischer shows her ascending to the ceiling and attempting to kick holes in the skylight. We get a glimpse of the campy wallow in bad taste this film could have been if Fleischer had been allowed to report the true story and play to Joan’s strengths. The Fleischer of MANDINGO could have had a ball with that.

Halloween

The movie needs more SUBTLE FORESHADOWING, like the skulls, screen right.

The hearth moved

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2008 by dcairns

Ground-breaking sexual shenanigans from Jules Dassin’s PHAEDRA. Faced with the challenging task of manufacturing sexual chemistry between his wife, Melina Mercouri, and Anthony Perkins, Dassin pulls out all the stops. The result is like a MOVIE MASH-UP of love scene clichés — soft focus; roaring fireplace; clenching hands; rain battering on window; the sweeping music of Mikis Theodorakis on the gramophone (there will be NO remarks about Anthony Perkins and Greek love in this post. Apart from this one). By the end it’s a wonder there’s a stick of furniture intact in that apartment.

David Thomson in his BioDic of Film, writes, “In good company, and a little drunk, HE WHO MUST DIE, PHAEDRA and 10.30PM SUMMER might cure would-be suicides.” I’ll allow that Dassin skirts the edges of absurdity in 10.30, and PHAEDRA looks like it plunges headlong into a basin of ludicrous pomp, but I still get a kick out of this scene. The effect is overdone but the individual elements are orchestrated with great skill — I like the compositions and editing and music.

I heard of an English teacher one time who would object to purple passages of sexual action in DH Lawrence with the words, “But it’s not LIKE that!” which is a good argument, though not necessarily one that should take precedence over all other concerns. I don’t think it applies to Dassin — taken metaphorically, his sex scene could be seen as quite authentic. Unless what you’re after is complete authenticity (which would mean SOUND EFFECTS, and none of us wants THAT) evoking the corny (there’s rarely anything ORIGINAL about sex) but overwhelming emotions of what General Ripper calls “the physical act of love” seems reasonable, and doing it without fear of looking silly seems at least commendable.

Kubrick told Michel Ciment that the exhilerating and goofy William Tell Overture time-lapse threesome in CLOCKWORK ORANGE was in part a reaction to the way movies tend to solemnize sex, and he had a point there, but sex is very often quite humourless. There’s plenty of room for giggling at the start, but there comes a point where that could be  OFF-PUTTING.

So, if sex is overwhelming, serious, and best treated in a stylised way — Dassin is surely the man for the job. He was dismissed for his “strained seriousness” by Andrew Sarris, but that seems somehow wrong: it’s no strain for Dassin to be serious. His lighter films from this period, TOPKAPI and NEVER ON SUNDAY, seem far more effortful (though I love TOPKAPI and make allowances for NOS).

Dassin was a Sexual Pioneer! The bisexual triangle of 10.30PM SUMMER must have been strong stuff for 1966. I also think there’s enough textual evidence in his work to deduce a keen interest in sado-masochism (whippings abound in THE LAW, RIFIFI…)

Two Ladies

Sex, in the movies, is fraught with difficulty. Maybe because it’s universal but also distinctly personal. There’s a cringe-making story of a well-known actor who, in his first sex scene, grabbed his partner by the hair and began slamming her head off the pillow. “Cut! What are you doing?” He was totally perplexed. What’s the problem? Doesn’t everybody do it this way?

Everybody does it every which way! The first sex scene in a mainstream movie is supposed to be in ECSTASY, in 1933. Director Gustav Machatý attempted to evoke an orgasmic reaction from his star Hedy Lamarr by pricking her feet with a pin. “That would just be really annoying,” says my partner. “Maybe everybody Gustav Machatý slept with found him really annoying.”

a little prick

Another technique — in RED ROAD, an actress appears to receive oral sex. In reality she was holding half a peach between her thighs for her co-star to munch on. Hey, it’s a system!

In SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, Barbet Schroeder wanted to film a more than usually convincing blow-job, so he purchased a dildo for Jennifer Jason Leigh to fellate: the hope was to show she had SOMETHING in her mouth without offending the censor by showing WHAT. But, perhaps fearful of insulting his male lead, Schroeder acquired a jaw-breakingly enormous plastic dinosaur appendage…

DON’T LOOK NOW is justly famous for it’s cinematically beautiful love scene. One story I heard, from former producer/director turned educationalist Brent MacGregor, who heard it from an assistant editor, casts an interesting light on the scene. Supposedly, Donald Sutherland was more “into” the sex scene than co-star Julie Christie, which resulted in (a) her walking off the set after one take and (b) Warren Beatty bursting into the cutting room and attempting to beat up director Nicolas Roeg.

I don’t generally credit such gossip, but a couple of aspects of it at least make sense — if you look at the actual lovemaking, MOST of what you see is consistent with a single hand-held shot. But bits of the shot were unusable as the cameraman was clambering over the bed, etc. With only one continuous take, partly no good, Roeg was forced to intercut, and all he could intercut WITH was neutral material, the couple dressing to go out (which would have to have been shot deliberately for the purpose, later, if we buy this version of events). And thus is born a thing of immense beauty and poetic resonance.

Donald Sutherland reports being locked in that bedroom “for hours” with Roeg, Christie, and an extremely noisy unblimped camera. But what’s seen in the film isn’t consistent with such a prolonged shoot. And what’s been rumoured about Roeg’s swinging lifestyle might be consistent with the desire to go a little further than usual in the name of realism…

Donald Fuck

(Also — looking through the scene for not-too-explicit frame grabs, I realised that it’s quite a bit more explicit than I’d previously thought. Much of the “stronger stuff” is compositionally decentred and hard to spot due to the pace of cutting, but… let’s just say I hope Julie Christie remembered to bring half a peach to the set…)