Archive for Joan Crawford

Strictly Scarlet

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2016 by dcairns

Good news, everybody! David Melville Wingrove is BACK, with another Forbidden Diva ~

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FORBIDDEN DIVAS

Strictly Scarlet

“It would be unusual…but then great ladies can do unusual things.” ~ Franchot Tone to Joan Crawford, The Bride Wore Red

In 1938, Joan Crawford – one of the most perennially popular stars in the annals of Hollywood – suddenly found herself labelled Box Office Poison by a group of disgruntled exhibitors. Of all the famous names on the list, hers was by far the most unlikely. Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich were movie legends but never won over a broad public. Mae West had seen her raunchy humour watered down by the Production Code. Greta Garbo was a mythical goddess in need of some modern-day reinventing. But Joan Crawford had long been the factory girl’s favourite, a proletarian star who embodied the needs and aspirations of working-class women. Joan and Louis B Mayer, her all-powerful boss at MGM, must have been speechless with shock. What, oh what, could possibly have gone wrong?

They may have remembered how – a year before the list came out – MGM had starred Joan in a truly catastrophic flop. The Bride Wore Red (1937) was a dark-hued romantic comedy by Dorothy Arzner, the only woman director in the Hollywood studio system. An open lesbian and a stalwart feminist, Arzner was known for films with challenging and unconventional female leads. Katharine Hepburn as the silver-clad aviatrix in Christopher Strong (1933) and Rosalind Russell as the domestic tyrant in Craig’s Wife (1936) were not the type of girl a man would ask out for an ice-cream soda once the movie was done. They would doubtless sneer at vanilla and might even insist on paying their half of the tab. Not that Joan’s character in The Bride Wore Red would have any such qualms about letting a gentleman pay. She was a hooker – one disguised as a socialite, with a luxuriant Adrian wardrobe to match – but always, and unmistakably, a hooker nonetheless.

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Such casting was a step too far for Joan’s fans. Morally conservative and largely female, they would accept their idol as a showgirl or a shop girl, no problem. As a kept woman, perhaps, provided it was Clark Gable or Spencer Tracy who did the keeping. As a hooker, most definitely not! Joan had made that mistake once before in Rain (1932) with a smouldering portrayal of the South Sea island prostitute Sadie Thompson. No matter if it was by far the best of her early roles and she gave a performance to rival that of Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage (1934) – another hooker in another story by Somerset Maugham. The fans were horrified and Rain was a resounding flop. They had no idea the real Joan had been arrested repeatedly on ‘morals charges’ – back in the 20s, when she was still Lucille LeSueur. Or even that she had starred in hardcore pornographic ‘stag films’ before more legitimate movie roles came her way. All things considered, The Bride Wore Red was as close as a silver screen goddess could come to career suicide.

Nor can we accuse Joan or her director of doing it by half-measures. When she first appears, singing in a waterfront dive in Trieste, she looks downright sleazy. (Based on a play called The Girl from Trieste by Ferenc Molnár, the film takes place in a fantasy Mittel Europa that vanished with the Habsburg Empire.) Her hair, tumbling loose almost to her shoulders, plays up and sharpens the weird angularity of her face. Her tight black gown clings to her body like a skin, shiny yet obscurely unclean. Pinned to one shoulder is a clutch of tawdry white blossoms. Camellias, perhaps, but not the sort that Garbo would ever buy! An elderly roué named Count Armalia (George Zucco) summons her over to his table. It is clear that he has no sexual interest in her. Earlier on, we have seen him give a handsome, dark-haired waiter an unfeasibly large tip. He is a joker, an aesthete and a voyeur. All he wants to is to play her Fairy Godfather. To send her, all expenses paid, to a plush hotel in the Tyrolean Alps, where she may pass herself off as a lady.

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Soon enough, Joan is installed at said hotel under the name of Anna Vivaldi, an aristocratic moniker she picked up from a beer advert. Her suite is decorated in those dazzling shades of white-on-white that only ever exist in movies. (One speck of cigarette ash would throw the colour scheme off entirely!) The hotel manager is Paul Porcasi, that most camp and irascible of Hollywood character actors. Alas, the chambermaid (Mary Phillips) turns out to be an old comrade-in-arms from the whorehouse in Trieste. But she is a real pal who keeps Joan’s secret and allows Arzner to work in some of her trademark female bonding. Naturally, this being a Crawford vehicle, there are also two men on hand. Robert Young plays an upper-class lounge lizard in a tuxedo, whom Joan wants to marry. Franchot Tone plays a hunky postman in lederhosen, who wants to marry her. When he is not delivering letters, Tone enjoys blowing on a long and impressively phallic Alpine flute. We may remember that his nickname in Hollywood was ‘Jawbreaker’.

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Naturally, Joan found time for a spot of shopping before she caught the train to the Alps. Yet all the outfits she wears at the hotel are subtly (or not so subtly) ‘off’. For her entrance at dinner on the first night, she sports a ridiculous all-white bridal costume worthy of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. The gigantic daisy in her hair brings to mind the Bette Midler joke about walking around with a large fried egg on top of your head. Relaxing in her suite, she wears a shiny negligee with two enormous fuzzy puffed sleeves. She looks, honestly, as if she has shot and eviscerated two Muppets and is now wearing one of them on each arm. Yet her most outrageous fashion mistake is kept carefully in abeyance – hidden in her closet and seen only in short, subliminal glances like the monster in a Val Lewton movie. It is a sheer and shiny red evening gown, covered with sequins and oozing and dripping with sex. It is, in short, the perfect visual summation of who she actually is.

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When our heroine dons her red gown in the final reel, she does not look cheap or nasty. She looks resplendent. Unusually for a Joan Crawford vehicle, we have had to wait an hour and a half to see the star in an outfit that actually suits her. (Is anybody still wondering why The Bride Wore Red was a flop?) Striding brazenly down the grand staircase and into the grand salon, Joan is the focus of all eyes. The pallid socialites around her see her and stare and fall silent. The effect is at least as stunning as Bette Davis’s entrance into the Olympus Ball in Jezebel (1938), also in a blazing red gown amid an anaemic sea of white. What is more, Joan’s entrance in red took place a full year before Bette’s, even if it was never rewarded with an Oscar for Best Actress. At moments like this one, Bette’s implacable lifelong animosity towards Joan may almost start to make sense.

With its metaphor of hiding the truth about yourself in a closet – only to one day take it out and wear it proudly, and tell the prudes and puritans around you to go hell – The Bride Wore Red is one of the great symbolic ‘coming out’ movies. It is part of a tradition of covertly gay cinema that ranges from Hollywood melodramas like Now, Voyager (1942) and Splendor in the Grass (1961) to camp Australian comedies like Muriel’s Wedding (1994) and The Dressmaker (2015). It is also, quite possibly, Joan Crawford’s truest and rawest and most touching performance of the 30s – one of a very few roles to demonstrate that she was a Great Actress as well as a Great Star. Does anyone really need to ask which of her two co-stars she winds up marrying? Here’s a clue…she married him in real life as well, only he drank and beat her up and the whole thing was a disaster and did not last. The nickname ‘Jawbreaker’ was all too horribly prophetic. Like most of the iconic stars, Joan was far happier on the screen than off. Perhaps it was safer that way.

David Melville

The Sunday Intertitle: An Extract of Aromas

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on April 12, 2015 by dcairns

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Colleen Moore’s reaction to a city slicker’s perfume — which he has just blasted himself with from a dispenser in the men’s room — is one of the highlights of WHY BE GOOD? (1929), the recently rediscovered and restored soundie star vehicle. Unfortunately, the snappy intertitles, along with Moore’s irrepressible style, have to carry the show, as what we have here is MGM Plot #1, which served Joan Crawford well for a number of pictures but doesn’t seem to work so well at Warner Bros and with Colleen as star.

MGM Plot #1 goes as follows: counter-hopper falls for boss’s son, is tempted to sleep with the rich millionaire but doesn’t, and thus eventually nabs her man. In the Joan Crawford vehicles this could be padded out with variants, by giving Joan a friend who DOES sleep with a rich man, and ends tragically, and so on. Maybe this worked better in the MGM flicks because Louis B. Mayer really believed what he was peddling, and maybe because with Joan Crawford there was always the distinct possibility that she might fall and, having fallen, tumble. The hope of that keeps you watching. Whereas we all know Colleen Moore’s a good girl. Lots of fun for a good girl, but still, inescapably virtuous.

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This one has really protracted scenes of Colleen with her mum and leading man Neil Hamilton (not the disgraced former MP) with his dad, scenes devoid of drama because flowing with sympathy. “Beware of sympathy, it is the death of drama,” noted Alexander Mackendrick, and he was right. Characters must fail to understand each other at the very least or you don’t have a scene. This isn’t a call for a world of nastiness of the kind David Mamet always writes — scene after scene of bullies bullying — it’s just an accurate observation that characters being sympathetic to one another tamps down the emotion of a scene and must be used as a very sparing ingredient. It’s perhaps a good idea to suggest there’s far more sympathy in the world of your film than you’re allowing the audience to see, but they definitely won’t thank you for ladling on too much of it.

Of course I’m still overjoyed that the movie has been rescued from oblivion, and it certainly showcases Moore’s effervescent appeal, but she can’t shine as brightly as she does in SYNTHETIC SIN because there isn’t the dark backing to bring her glow out. Fortunately there are other Moore’s out there — we hope to soon view IRENE and ELLA CINDERS. We won’t be likely to see FLAMING YOUTH as that one’s tragically still lost. This is the only surviving footage ~

Another extract of aromas.

My earliest memories of Colleen are from Brownlow & Gill’s TV show Hollywood where the star, still spry and elfin at eighty-odd, reminisced about her frabjous career on the screen. And THIS clip from ELLA CINDERS lodged in my mind ~

Special effects were used, you’ll be reassured to know. This looks enticing, though, since Colleen as a stage-struck youth is also the premise of SYNTHETIC SIN.

Cine Dorado: Woman Devil

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on July 21, 2014 by dcairns

After too long an absence, David Melville Wingrove returns with his alphabet of golden-age Mexican melodramas, which has reached the Big W…

CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

W is for Woman Devil (Doña Diabla)

Perhaps I should point out that the letter ‘w’ does not really exist in Spanish, apart from the spelling of foreign names. Still, I can’t miss an excuse to write about Doña Diabla (1950), a film that won María Félix an Ariel for Best Actress – as a woman so spectacularly wicked that lightning flashes and thunder rolls virtually every time she appears on screen. Not that she’s ever off it for long. Doña Diabla is her vehicle from start to finish and she never once lets us forget it. Yet with all those booms and bangs and blinding flashes of light, we may start to feel that we’re watching some Gothic Expressionist monster movie – which, in a very real sense, we are.

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The opening credits roll over a montage of María in a series of fabulous gowns. Distracting but only fair, perhaps, as her wardrobe (by the legendary Armando Valdéz Peza) does at least as much acting as she does. The director, Tito Davison, clothes her in virginal, all-white ensembles as an innocent young bride, just waiting to be corrupted. When her no-good husband pimps her to his sleazy boss, she wears a white skirt tainted with dark polka-dots and – just in case we miss the point – a slave bracelet clasped tightly round her neck. Once she’s become a deluxe hooker – as well as a gambler, drug trafficker, blackmailer and fashion tycoon – she favours stylish all-black outfits, apart from the clusters of diamonds at her wrists and a very fetching white streak in her jet-black hair.

The film proper starts with a passionate argument between two shadows. Doña Diabla and her daughter (Crox Alvarado) are fighting furiously over a man. “I’ll see you dead before I see you in his arms,” shouts María in the very best movie manner. Her shadow pulls out a pistol and fires it. Her daughter’s shadow (which is nowhere near as elegant) crumples over and falls as if dead. María runs out into the night, clad in a spectacular full-length mink coat, pearl necklace and mile-high Joan Crawford style fuck-me shoes – the better to be inconspicuous and evade detection. Hotly pursued by police sirens, she flees to a church and confesses the story (in flashbacks) to a priest.

It’s all a clear attempt to emulate Crawford’s Oscar-winning triumph in Mildred Pierce (1945) – also a torrid tale of mothers and daughters, firearms and flashbacks. But dare I say that Doña Diabla makes the barnstorming melodramatics of Mildred Pierce look rather pallid and restrained? This whole movie takes place in a fever of near-operatic excess. When María, a young bride, first comes to the big wicked city, her husband takes her to a nightclub where a man in black silk pyjamas and a girl in a spangled bikini do an act that’s midway between a dance and a live sex show. A platoon of lecherous old men line up to dance with her. The husband’s boss remarks, ominously: “A woman who is too beautiful cannot belong to just one man.”

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A few scenes later, she’s at a party in Acapulco, staring out at a moonlit sea – and trying to fend off the advances of said boss. A gypsy singer serenades the guests a flamenco number, and then starts reading their futures in their palms. Once she comes to María, the gypsy can read no more. “I see the face of the Devil himself!” María wastes no time in proving her right. Horrified that her husband expects her to sleep her way to the top on his behalf, she agrees to become the boss’s mistress – provided he will ruin her husband for good. This he does, obligingly, with just one telephone call. She takes a year out to give birth to her daughter, and then comes back and makes good on her bargain.

Years pass and her daughter grows into a simpering, cosseted ingénue – raised in a convent to spare her all knowledge of her mother’s life. When María drops in for her annual visit, the girls are in the garden singing Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’ in chorus. (Is that what passed for an education in the old days?) “Oh, mother,” enthuses the adoring child. “My great ambition is to be exactly like you!” María’s face clouds over and looks, momentarily, perturbed. Back in the city that night, we get a telling close-up of her hands at the roulette table, sparkling with diamonds and raking in a king’s ransom in chips. Her husband’s old boss (and her one-time sugar daddy) turns up and looks forlorn. He has ruined himself for Doña Diabla, as countless men have done since. She buys him a cigarette and splashes him with her car as she drives off.

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By the time she meets a man who’s a match for her, the film is half-way over. Victor Junco plays a sexy lounge lizard who runs dope and deals in smuggled objets d’art. It is, of course, the most passionate love-hate at first sight. Doña Diabla opens a ritzy high fashion house as a front for his illicit activities. Judging from their lavish catwalk show, we may add crimes against haute couture to out heroine’s ever-growing list of misdeeds. She is, however, desperate to turn respectable…in time for that fateful day when her daughter comes out of the convent. (Wouldn’t it be easier to just persuade the girl to be a nun?) Alas, the daughter runs away from the convent and flees to Mexico City before mother has quite turned over her new leaf.

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María announces to her lover that they must part. She is taking her daughter away, on an extended trip to Europe. Junco takes this rather badly – and shows up at the villa, the night before they leave, with a full mariachi band and a rogue’s gallery of people involved in Doña Diabla’s past scandals. One of them obligingly commits suicide in the guest bedroom. By the time María has been released from police questioning (have they never noticed her shenanigans before?) Junco has seduced the daughter and the two look set to run away together…I won’t give away the ending, but it involves an ‘action replay’ of the opening scene, with actors this time and not shadows. Let’s just say there is a twist, if not one that is wholly unexpected.

Doña Diabla opens and closes with an impassioned quotation by Sister Juana de la Cruz, the 17th century Mexican author and mystic. “You foolish men, who accuse women without grounds, do you not see that you are the cause of all you condemn?” That is, fortunately, the closest this movie ever comes to art. Doña Diabla triumphs (like a book by Sidney Sheldon) not by scaling any heights of artistic ambition, but through the sheer consummate perfection of its melodramatic excess. It glorifies María Félix in a way that technically better movies may not, because its strident emotionalism is perfectly calibrated to her uniquely florid style of performance. Cynics may claim that trash of this sort was the best that María Félix could do – but nobody else could ever do it with such flair.

David Melville

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