A fever-dream double feature.
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.)
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
The movie needs more SUBTLE FORESHADOWING, like the skulls, screen right.