Archive for Henry Koster

Forbidden Divas: The Naked Maja

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 7, 2017 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns with another despatch from the far shores of divadom ~

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

Painting by Numbers

“I leave to you the two things I love most – yourself and Spain!”

~ Ava Gardner on her deathbed, The Naked Maja

As Hollywood rumour has it, the formidable MGM boss Louis B Mayer saw the very first screen test by the young movie hopeful Ava Gardner and cried out: “She can’t act! She can’t talk! She’s sensational!” Only her most ardent fans would ever dispute his verdict. The daughter of a dirt-poor sharecropper from rural North Carolina, the young Lucy Johnson (her real name) had little if any formal training as an actress. Nor, in the 40-year movie career that followed, did she ever seem to feel the lack of it. Her beauty was so lush – and her presence so regal and radiant – that Ava Gardner managed to leap-frog the petty confines of mere Drama and landed directly and squarely in the magic circle of Myth.

She did, in fairness, produce a number of more-than-watchable performances. A gypsy dancer turned movie queen in The Barefoot Contessa (1954), an anguished Anglo-Indian half-caste in Bhowani Junction (1956), a blowsy and booze-soaked Earth Mother in The Night of the Iguana (1964). It was unclear, in each case, just how much of her work was conscious ‘acting’ and how much was drawn from aspects of her own life. But in order to truly appreciate her special magic, we need to see Ava Gardner in one of those films where she barely acts at all. A lavish but lumbering biopic of the 18th century Spanish painter Francisco de Goya – with Gardner as his aristocratic muse the Duchess of Alba – The Naked Maja (1958) is one of those star vehicles whose raison d’être begins and ends with its star. It is about literally nothing more than the ability of Ava Gardner to embody (and eclipse) one of the most iconic portraits in the history of art.

For any discerning viewer, that is more than enough. In the utterly dispensable role of the painter himself, the Method-trained thespian Anthony Franciosa acts up a storm. Yet his performance verges on the unwatchable. One of those actors who emote always at the highest level of intensity, Franciosa finds himself – almost before he can put brush to canvas – with literally no place left to go. (His off-screen marriage to Shelley Winters must have been the daily equivalent of the Act Two murder scene from Tosca.) In contrast, Ava Gardner seems to do little more than show up and learn her lines. Given the quality of the dialogue, even that is open to debate. Yet Gardner is utterly ravishing and riveting. We truly believe she is the most infamous and desirable woman in Spain – that kingdoms may topple and empires may fall at her slightest whim. Rarely has the alleged link between ‘acting’ and the movies seemed less significant or more tenuous than it does here.

Given the lack of an attractive or even an adequate leading man, this on-screen Duchess of Alba forms a passionate and all-consuming liaison with her wardrobe. There are moments in The Naked Maja where the sheer splendour of the star and her outfits is enough to make us stop and gasp for breath. The Duchess, in a hat adorned by plumes of poisonous green and iridescent mauve, shows up to mock poor Goya when he sells out and becomes a painter to the royal court. The Duchess, in a gown of white tulle and a glistening silver-grey cloak, pauses midway up a staircase of white marble. (She is fleeing, but without any undue haste, from the clutches of the Inquisition.) The Duchess, in a black flamenco dress with a blood-red sash and a spray of blood-red roses in her hair, forsakes the man she loves and goes back to an old admirer (Massimo Serato) because that is the one way she can save Goya’s life. None of this has anything much to do with acting; it is modelling raised to the level of a High Art. You might, of course, say the same for Marlene Dietrich in The Scarlet Empress (1934) or The Devil Is a Woman (1935). Yet Marlene had the great Sternberg to mould and inspire her; Ava is doing it entirely off her own back.

The director of The Naked Maja was Henry Koster, a capable hack who specialised in ‘uplifting’ family entertainments like The Bishop’s Wife (1947) and Good Morning, Miss Dove (1955). He also directed the first-ever film in Cinemascope (not to mention one of the dullest) the ponderous pseudo-Biblical epic The Robe (1953). His use of the widescreen format had improved dramatically by the time of Maja – meaning he had worked out how to do something other than stand half a dozen actors side by side, shoulder to shoulder, across the screen. More credit should go, perhaps, to the Italian cameraman Giuseppe Rotunno – who actually does make every frame glow like a Goya canvas. The Naked Maja was shot in Rome as a US-Italian production with Titanus. Not that Rome looks any more like Madrid than Hollywood does, but it was presumably a lot cheaper.

Naturally, the supporting cast includes a roster of well-known Italian actors. Gino Cervi plays the Bourbon King of Spain as a portly but amiable dullard. Lea Padovani plays his Queen (the Duchess of Alba’s bitter rival) as a vindictive, sharp-faced shrew. The villain of the piece is the former Fascist poster boy Amedeo Nazzari, a star in such bellicose epics as Bengasi (1942) and Luciano Serra, Pilot (1938).  Here he plays the evil Prime Minister Godoy, who schemes to hand Spain over to the invading armies of Napoleon Bonaparte. Nazzari keeps a creditably straight face for lines like: “Camp life is not very gay. There is nothing but men in the army!” One can only assume the double meanings got lost in Italian. In fairness, all these actors might be a great deal worse than they are. It would not matter, in any case, as we would only ever be looking at Ava Gardner.

History suggests that the real-life Duchess of Alba was a complicated and enigmatic woman – a revolutionary liberal and patroness of the arts, who read Voltaire and Rousseau and enjoyed an unfettered sex life with men of all classes. Her death by poisoning is a mystery historians have yet to solve. A pair of vastly superior films – Goyescas (1942) with Imperio Argentina and Volaverunt (1999) with Aitana Sanchez-Gijón – have imbued her story with some of the complexity and sophistication it deserves. Yet when it comes to sheer iconic power, The Naked Maja wins out every time. We can believe that Ava Gardner might inspire a man to paint a work of Great Art. But we also have to wonder. What work of Great Art, if any, could ever hope to compete?

David Melville

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It’s Chinatown

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 23, 2014 by dcairns

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After watching THE WILD AFFAIR, in which Nancy Kwan is delightful, Fiona wanted more, so we ran THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG (some nice elaborate Richard Quine long takes) and then FLOWER DRUM SONG.

FLOWER DRUM SONG is an interesting period piece — some of the DVD extras consider the ways in which the passage of time has changed it from a rather forward-thinking piece, in the days when the very act of making a musical about Chinese-Americans was a radical and positive thing, to a slightly embarrassing hangover from an earlier age. But nobody quite gets to the nub of it, I think.

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical is entertaining and funny, and pleasingly presents its Chinese and Chinese-Americans as being just regular folks, with a few different customs but with all the same drives and qualities as anyone you might meet in a movie about white folks, which is fine. It’s just that a lot of the jokes are based around producing Asian versions of conventional situations or dialogue — so someone talks of being “left with egg foo yung on his face,” which isn’t a real expression, just a silly version of an American expression with a bit of cod Chinese culture tacked on as a laugh. It might or might be amusing, but it’s certainly inauthentic, and there’s a point at which the inauthentic becomes slightly racist.

Any time you can’t be bothered to get the details right, you’re showing a lack of respect. In Fellini’s CITY OF WOMEN, we are told that all the feminist statements are based on actual proclamations by feminist thinkers. If this is true (always highly doubtful with Fellini) then the filmmaker would be showing a kind of respect to the people he is satirising — he lets them condemn themselves as absurd out of their own mouths. He plays fair. But in HORSE FEATHERS, not only is Groucho’s anatomy class complete gibberish, the serious class he interrupts is equally nonsensical, basically just a stream of long words most of which have nothing to do with the ostensible subject. In this way, the writers show themselves to be above the subject, disinterested in accuracy, and ally themselves with the Marxes’ anti-intellectual side (Harpo is seen gleefully shoveling books into a roaring fire, in hindsight a disturbing image for 1933).

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The racism in FLOWER DRUM SONG is super-mild, it doesn’t mean to offend, and it doesn’t even mean to be disrespectful. It’s just levity, but not quite the right kind for us today. I’m not even sure if it would offend anyone, but it does embarrass.

Still, there are great pleasures, some of them quite odd. Kwan is a knockout, and though she couldn’t do her own singing. she could certainly dance. James Shigeta has a fine speaking voice and he does seem to be doing his own vocals, but he evidently couldn’t dance to save his life, so he’s doubled in the big dream ballet number. For part of this he wears what looks to me like a Japanese mask (the film also blurs Chinese and Japanese cultures and casting), but for part of it he’s just blatantly replaced by another performer. The shot is head-to-toe wide to show the dancing properly, but it’s not like you can’t notice it’s not him anymore: the new guy doesn’t look anything like Shigeta. Sometimes, when faced with a continuity problem with a plant pot or cigarette or glass of wine, a director will say, “Well, if the audience is looking at THAT, we’ve lost them anyway.” But you can’t use that argument when the continuity problem consists of your leading man being suddenly replaced by someone else. When Balthazar Getty replaces Bill Pullman in LOST HIGHWAY, we’re supposed to notice. One does hope that Henry Koster, the director in this instance, was not trusting to the old dictum that “they all look alike.”

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At one point in the film, a Chinese character actually says, “They all look alike,” referring to white folks, which I guess is intended as a kind of satire, but is actually sort of true — we often find it harder to tell apart people of different races from themselves, since what we notice first are the “racial signifiers” of the other. The problem is solved by spending time around people of different races.

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It’s not a problem one could ever have with Jack Soo (a Japanese-American who changed his name to a Chinese one in order to get a role in the Broadway production), though. He’s incredibly distinctive, though, and a lovely presence — he talks like Robert Mitchum, only even more hep, and looks like Brundlefly. I wish he was in more movies.

 

 

Take Infinity

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2009 by dcairns

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I got a copy of O. HENRY’S FULL HOUSE ages ago, through my sister-in-law taping it off Sky Cinema, and of course failed to watch it. All I knew at the time was that it was a compendium film adapting stories by O. Henry, and that one episode was directed by Howard Hawks. I had no strong feelings about the other directors.

Fast-forward a couple of years (on V.H.S. that’s going to take looong time) and I’ve grown quite interested in Jean Negulesco, and somewhat more interested in Henries Koster, King and Hathaway (given the name of the author, did they try to cast only men called Henry to direct this thing, then give up when they suddenly thought, “Wait — what the hell are we doing?”) , so I eventually overcame my boundless inertia and played the thing. Well, I have a kind of creeping dislike of O. Henry’s famous story The Gift of the Magi, recreated here with Farley Granger and Jeanne Crain, who inevitably fit right into the heart of mush that beats and oozes within that tale, so that ended the film on a sour note, (I don’t think I’ve actually enjoyed a Henry king movie yet) but the rest was not bad ~

To take the stories in no particular order — Hathaway’s adaptation of The Clarion Call was perfectly fine, it’s a good story, and here it was used as an excuse to have Richard Widmark play another cackling black-shirted psychopath. No bad thing, and the story was genuinely smart.

Negulesco’s episode, The Last Leaf, with Anne Baxter, Jean Peters and Gregory Ratoff, was another sentimental tale, but it did boast some florid and eccentric work from the Romanian maestro — his camera lurches into Dutch tilts as Baxter staggers home, feverish in a snowstorm. The camera makes little darting movements, motivated by nothing at all, perhaps trying to create a discombobulated and fevered reaction in the audience.

Hawks confirmed his reputation as the best filmmaker of the bunch by turning in the best short, a sterling adaptation of the Ransome of Red Chief. The late Donald Westlake riffed on this idea in his third Dortmunder novel — the kidnappers outkidded by the kid they kidnap. Hawks’s dry approach to comedy is here exaggerated by very very dry performances indeed — Fred Allen and Oscar Levant realise that the only way to deal with this overwritten, literary comedy dialogue is just to say it, with a little inflection but zero emotion. The mighty Kathleen Freeman also turns up as the kid’s mother, and the kid himself is an astonishing prodigy called Lee Aaker. His throaty, serious, preternaturally adult delivery makes him like a country cousin to legendary comedy child Henry Spofford III (George Winslow) in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES. “I’ve changed my mind about you, Slim. I still don’t like you, but now I think you’re stupid,” he intones, with a level, deadly gaze.

But the most exciting moment was in Henry Koster’s comedy episode, The Cop and the Anthem. Charles Laughton is great value as a tramp trying to get arrested so he can spend the winter in a nice warm penitentiary. David Wayne makes a fine sidekick. But it was the brief appearance by Marilyn Monroe that caught my imagination.

Laughton and Monroe shared a scene? How long did THAT baby take to film? Between waiting for Laughton to “find the man”, waiting for Monroe to show up, waiting for Laughton to “feel it”, and waiting for Monroe to actually give voice to her lines, surely this is a sequence which would have had to be begun years before the film’s projected release date. My theory — they’re still shooting it NOW. By the time the scene (a couple of shots long) is complete, time travel will have been invented, and Koster will be able to pop back to 1952 and seamlessly insert the fresh footage into the cut negative, all ready for its release. And we can already see that it will be worth the effort.

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Oh — the film also features introductions to each section delivered by John Steinbeck. He has the porous, jowly features of James Ellroy, but he doesn’t say “copacetic” all the time so is clearly a better writer.