Archive for Herman Mankiewicz

Love is Forbidden

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 22, 2014 by dcairns

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Hey look, it’s Pierre Blanchar! For realz.

Despite being directed by a German, Pabst’s MADEMOISELLE DOCTEUR is extremely French — for much of its running time it’s essentially a romance in which a variety of secret agents and double agents fail to do their patriotic duty because they’re all in love with members of the enemy sides.

When I started watching, I was quickly confused, owing to the less-is-more approach to subtitling. The fan who subbed it seems to have left out bits he found boring, and other bits he found too difficult, and with my concussed-schoolboy French I had no way of knowing which was which. And the plot seemed to be leaping arpund all over the place. Pierre Blanchar is introduced in prison, being recruited to betray his own side (the Germans, I think — it seems to be WWI) but then disappears for so long that when Jean-Louis Barrault turned up, with his similarly razorsharp cheekbones but looking otherwise not much like Blanchar, I thought it was him. Barrault buys a slice of melon from Louis Jouvet in an unusually intense manner and then disappears from the story completely.

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Romance! 

Everybody is in love with the wrong person — as in The Sea Gull or LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS. Viviane Romance loves Pierre Blanchar and betrays fellow agent Dita Parlo (the masterspy of the title) because she suspects he’s smitten with her. Blanchar is supposed to betray Parlo to the French but doesn’t because he IS smitten with her. Parlo is supposed to steal the secret plans from Pierre Fresnay but doesn’t because she’s smitten with him. Fresnay is completely in the dark about Parlo being an enemy agent so at least his being smitten with her isn’t treason, but it is undeniably a security risk. Jouvet alone remains uncompromised.

So with Topic A on everybody’s minds, I could relax about whether the Bulgarians were negotiating a separate peace — an impossible thing for anyone to get worked-up about, I’d have thought — and just enjoy the romantic angst amid seamy and exotic settings, as each of the cast attempts to out-louche the rest. Blanchar, sporting a fez, has an unfair advantage.

(Eric Ambler on loucheness and the art of spying.)

The rules of poetic realism demand that love end in tragedy, and by making everyone political enemies, most of them on the losing side in a global apocalypse, Pabst and his army of writers have stacked the deck admirably. We can’t predict just how it’ll turn out, but it is utterly impossible for it to end well for anyone. Still, the last scene’s entirely unromantic bleakness took me by surprise. You can either end up shot by firing squad, insane and mumbling, or lying dead in a heap of melons. C’est l’amour.

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The gang of writers, asides from the alluringly-named Irma Von Cube, include Herman Mankiewicz, and I’d love to hear the story behind THAT. Pabst had just returned from an unsuccessful stab at Hollywood*, so I supposed he made the future KANE scribe’s acquaintance while there. The thing hangs together pretty well despite the multitude of chefs, though somebody should have noticed that if Parlo needs Fresnay’s help in Act I because she can’t drive, it stretches credulity to have her nearly beat him an exciting car chase in Act III…

*Unsuccessful? A MODERN HERO features Marjorie Rambeau as an alcoholic one-armed ex-leopard trainer**. That one fact puts it ahead of Lewis Gilbert’s entire filmography.

**An ex-trainer of leopards. Not a trainer of ex-leopards. Because that would be stupid.

“It’ll probably turn out to be some very simple thing.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 15, 2011 by dcairns

In Barbara Leaming’s bee-ography of Orson Welles, there are a lot of tall tales from The Great Man, often accepted at face value by Leaming. Many of them have since been questioned, and it’s hard to know which may be true. In particular, recent commentators have tended to throw cold water on Marion Davies’ vagina.

If you recall, Welles claimed that “Rosebud” was William Randolph Hearst’s pet name for his mistress’s privates, and that she had mentioned this in a drunken conversation with Herman Mankiewicz, a friend and occasional visitor to Hearst’s Xanadu, San Simeon. Mankiewicz had used this secret information in the screenplay he wrote with Welles. I think this yarn hasn’t really taken root partly because we all know Orson was a big fat liar (and we love him for it), and perhaps because we’re reluctant to accept that CITIZEN KANE revolves around a smutty joke. Of course, Welles felt the “dollarbook Freud” of Rosebud, seemingly to explain Kane’s emptiness with an easy childhood symbol, was too pat anyway, and said “we did everything we could to take the mickey out of it.” So we shouldn’t see the sled as the centre of the labyrinth, the key to understanding. And so maybe it doesn’t matter so much if it IS a dirty joke.

Sidenote — did Leaming originate the story, or does it come, as Jon Tuska claims, from Gore Vidal? Vidal’s film scholarship and veracity have sometimes been questioned (cf his accounts of BEN HUR), but I don’t know that he’s ever been proved to have fibbed. Tuska says Vidal got the story from Charlie Lederer, nephew of Marion Davies (that’s not a conversation I can picture having with my aunt) and also second husband of Virginia Welles.

Thoughts arising from the CITIZEN KANE Blu-Ray: “That sure doesn’t look like a rose!”

And indeed, while it’s not an absolute likeness of a vagina, it has a certain Georgia O’Keefe quality. And it doesn’t look anything like a rose. Randy suggests a viewing of KANE with the theory in mind: if this was done as a prank directed at Hearst, how fiendishly cruel! The billionaire press baron is told by underlings that a Hollywood film has dared to tell a thinly-veiled version of his life story. He arranges a screening. The very first sequence, and a giant pair of lips mouths the word “Rosebud!” What the hell?

The newsreel ends, and suddenly everybody’s talking about it: the last word on his lips. And the whole damned movie is going to be about the quest to find out the meaning of this? The tycoon must be in a state of shock. And he has to wait two hours to find out the answer, and even when the sled shot lets him off the hook, the image he sees as the wood starts to char…

No wonder Hearst mobilized his minions to suppress the film. No wonder he tried to get RKO to treat the film like the sled and incinerate it. I discuss this with arch-Wellesian Randall William Cook:

“But we don’t know for sure, do we, that Hearst ever saw it,” I say.

“Well THAT would just be the greatest practical joke in history that never came off. The bucket of water that just sat on top of the door, forever.”

And he adds:

“Remember, just because David Thomson believes it, doesn’t mean it’s not true.”

Quote of the Day: an indifferent work

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2008 by dcairns

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I’m always evangelising for Josef Von Sternberg’s autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, which I think is THE movie autobio, acting not only as a life story (probably it could be surpassed easily on this score) but as a Rosetta Stone to the filmmaker’s work. Since I enjoyed Sternberg’s writing so much, it’s odd that I hadn’t realised that there’s more out there:

JVS’s intro to the published script of DER BLAU ENGEL is a treat: concentrated Sternberg. Only a few pages, but packed with nutrition. Here’s the great man, rubbishing his own first talkie, THUNDERBOLT, made just before his German jaunt.

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“I had just finished my first sound film, and indifferent work featuring an actor whose temporary fame was sustained by a so-called silent film called UNDERWORLD. The entire cast was inferior, all of them unable to even echo my instructions. There was some good warbling in the death row where most of the action took place, but I looked forward with pleasure to making a sound film in Germany. I was not aware, of course, that Europe had only the most primitive method of adding sound to a quite elaborate camerawork which would cause me a lot of trouble. Incidentally, the silent films had never been silent — a piano tinkled, an organ moaned or an orchestra thundered out music that rarely helped the silent film.”

I like how he omits to name the actor (George Bancroft) out of “tact”, nor the director of the film which shot him to fame (Von Sternberg himself) out of “modesty”. His other inferior actors include the splendid Fay Wray. The reference to warbling on death row may confuse the unwary, but THUNDERBOLT does indeed feature a male voice choir harmonising by the death cell. “I thought I had that quartet broken up,” complains the warden, Tully Marshall, “but I no sooner get rid of one that they send me another.”

“Do you sing tenor?” a prisoner asks Bancroft. “Me? I kill tenors.”

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Sternberg is too harsh about this mad bastard of a film. Although my copy of this ultra-rare escapee from oblivion is almost inaudible and invisible, it’s noticeably a strange and memorable piece of work. George Bancroft is an unlikely leading man, it’s true, with his bulbous frame and face, and his oily dog of a hairdo; and his acting style is even stranger than his appearance. Dragging every word out so that you fear he might forget the second syllable of “Goodbye” before he’s finished painstakingly enunciating the first, he nevertheless exudes menace and a certain kind of dilatory gusto. Fay Wray is a little posh for a gangster’s moll, and it’s a shame the poor pic quality prevents us from seeing what Sternberg’s lighting is doing for her (being the palest cast member, she disappears into a white smear). Tully Marshall, memorably seedy as a moth-eaten count in my all-time favourite film, HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, is fantastically snarky and craven as the prison warden. Richard Arlen is fine.

Why is Richard Arlen imprisoned in Channel 4 television? His cell has the exact logo.

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In some respects the film plays like a remake of UNDERWORLD, with Bancroft as gangster Jim “Thunderbolt” Lang. (In UNDERWORLD he plays gangster Bull Weed. Two names not often found in one individual, as Sternberg said of “Maria Magdalene” Dietrich. George Bancroft may have had the manliest, ugliest character names of an actor! A selection: Blake Greeson; Mug; The Wolf; Cannonball Casey; Bert the Boxman; Lesher Skidmore; Brock Trumbull; Stag Bailey; Elmer Beebe; William Waldo; Dudley ‘Dud’ Garrett; Sheriff Claude Stagg; Major Burdle; Dr Clem Driscoll; Captain Ira “Hell-Ship” Morgan; Enoch Thurman; Two-Gun Nolan; Buck Lockwell; Dan Angus; Lem Tolliver; Windy Miller. Well, I suppose, looking like he does, he was unlikely to ever find himself called Alphonse Maria LeFanu.)

Sternberg starts off with one of his trademark sleazy dives, The Black Cat. It’s a pleasingly multi-racial establishment (uniquely so, for its era) with some superb extras:

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Amazing physical performance from the unnamed gum-chewing maitre’d lady.

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This guy has no head, just a sort of fat skull, crossed with a football. He’s awesome. His friend, who has plenty of dialogue, delivers it all from behind that structure, for some reason.

The soundscape within The Black Cat is… distinctive. The band plays louder than the actors’ can talk, and every now and then both are interrupted by a shrilly yodelling cackle, adding “atmosphere”. Impressionistically, it’s quite a lot like a real nightclub. I hate nightclubs, except in films.

The plot is by Jules Furthman, who would write several later Sternberg classics from MOROCCO to JET PILOT, with his brother Charles. Jules also worked regularly with Howard Hawks over the years, part of the obscure bond between Sternberg and hawks, two superficially quite dissimilar artists.

The plot: having resolved to kill his ex-girlfriend’s new beau, Thunderbolt is inadvertently betrayed by a stray dog, and sent to death row for his many crimes. He gets to take the dog with him, for added pathos. Resolving to carry out his revenge killing, “poisonal”, he arranges for the beau to be framed for a bank robbery. Then he clears the guy’s name. but this is all part of the most baroque, elaborate vengeance scheme ever, for when the guy steps up to the bars to shake his hand, he’s going to grab him by the throat and —

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— squee–ee–eeze…

Dialogue is by Herman Mankiewicz, of CITIZEN KANE fame. Herman once famously engineered his firing from an assignment by writing a scene where Rin Tin Tin the wonder dog carries a baby into a burning building, and here he seems hell-bent on getting fired again, writing staggeringly insane dialogue that attains a kind of crack-brained poetry. (“I was absolutely on the level until me twelfth birthday. And after that… nothing much happened until I was twenty-seven.”) Bancroft spends most of the film trying to guess his jailor’s name, and when he finally learns it — Aloysius — goes to the electric chair laughing merrily.