Archive for Lisztomania

Forbidden Divas: “…And the Film is Pretty Long Too”

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2018 by dcairns

A new piece by David Melville Wingrove is always a cause for celebration at the Shadowplayhouse. I perhaps am more to be credited/blamed for this one than usual, because it was I suggested Charles Vidor’s final filmmaking attempt as a suitable subject, having an inkling that the Dirk Bogarde/Capucine friendship would be of interest… But which one’s the diva?

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

…And the Film Is Pretty Long Too

“God will not fail you, madam. I shall.”

          ~ Dirk Bogarde, Song without End

 A lavish 1960 biopic of Franz Liszt, Song without End throws up a number of fascinating questions in its 2-hour-and-10-minute length. From how many different angles is it possible to photograph one man playing a piano? In the mob of expensively costumed extras at a concert, which one has the whitest and most immaculately pressed kid gloves? And whose job was it to ensure that the innumerable candles in those ever-blazing candelabra were all of precisely the same length? Critics may complain that Lisztomania – the 1975 Ken Russell film with Roger Daltrey playing Liszt as a rock star and a line of chorines high-kicking on the composer’s enormous plaster cock – was one long and unpardonable lapse of taste. But that film at least was never dull. Song without End, alas, is seldom anything else.

Surely it need not have been this way? Song without End was the last film directed by Charles Vidor, a well-upholstered Hollywood hack who made his name with A Song to Remember (1945) – a luxuriantly cheesy biopic of Frédéric Chopin with Cornel Wilde looking soulful while Merle Oberon (as his mistress George Sand) looked dashing in a man’s suit. Vidor went on to make Gilda (1946) – one of the definitive films noirs – and The Loves of Carmen (1948) – a vividly vulgar adaptation of Prosper Mérimée’s tale of gypsy passion. (Both those films starred Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford, as sure an antidote to dullness as Columbia Pictures could find.) Ironically, Chopin and George Sand appear briefly at the start of Song without End. But even they are boring in this movie. Vidor died some time before shooting was complete and the more prestigious George Cukor was drafted in to finish the job. Sadly, the lavish but lifeless staging suggests that rigor mortis set in while Vidor was still at work behind the camera.

Not that the film lacks other claims to distinction. Song without End marked not only the beginning, but also the end, of Dirk Bogarde’s career as a Hollywood leading man. He portrays Liszt as a lusty piano virtuoso who longs to be taken seriously as a composer in his own right. He also has inexplicable leanings towards the Roman Catholic Church. He toys with the idea of taking holy orders and declares himself to be “part gypsy, part priest.” In most respects, Bogarde’s performance is a tour de force of tortured genius and charismatic egomania. Embarking on a concert tour of Russia, Liszt is warned by his manager that even Napoleon Bonaparte failed to conquer that vast country. Liszt answers, with a self-confident smirk: “Napoleon couldn’t play the piano.” In addition, Bogarde is one of the few leading actors whose physique looks well in tightly-tailored breeches and wasp-waisted frock coats. In that frightfully genteel sub-genre known as ‘Dirk Bogarde Porn,’ Song without End must rank very highly indeed.

The drawback is that Dirk Bogarde never seems gayer than on those (understandably) rare occasions when he is cast as a voracious heterosexual. At the start of the film, the script comes right out and asks us to believe that Franz Liszt has fathered a brace of children in an adulterous affair with a married French noblewoman, the Countess Marie d’Agoult (Geneviève Page). The action is set in the 1840s and we do know that artificial insemination was not widely practiced until at least a century later. Hence we are left wondering if these children are, in fact, a delusion. Could that be why they never appear on camera? The career of Franz Liszt appears to have been a lifelong orgy of sex and celebrity, in which he seduced ever so many women. But the only other one we see here is a glamorous but unhappily married Russian princess, Carolyne Wittgenstein, with whom he forms an obsessive and well-nigh mystical liaison. She is played by another Hollywood debutante, the statuesque French model Capucine. A lady of distinctly androgynous beauty, she was rumoured at various points in her career to be a bisexual, a lesbian and a man.

Of her performance in Song without End, the kindest thing to be said is that she wears an array of Jean Louis gowns more than adequately. Nor does she embarrass herself or anybody else by overacting. Driven by an insurmountable passion, Princess Carolyne signs away half of Ukraine to her ghastly husband (Ivan Desny) all in an effort to secure a divorce and become Liszt’s lawfully wedded wife. She is very devout and hence plagued by doubts of a largely – although, perhaps, not entirely – religious nature. When she and the countess come face to face, Carolyne feels compelled to quiz her rival on the minutiae of her conjugal relations with the Great Man. “Did he drive you there?” she asks her rival. “To paradise?” The dialogue is atrocious but the subtext, even so, is clear enough. The countess gives a wry smile and says: “He doesn’t know the road.” Song without End must be the one Hollywood film in which two love-crazed women pass the time by impugning the hero’s sexual prowess. All this might matter a lot less if we did not suspect they were right.

Ironically, Bogarde and Capucine became close friends while filming Song without End. This suggests, at the very least, that they enjoyed working together far more than audiences enjoyed watching the result. Unlike many of the people around him, Capucine encouraged Bogarde to accept his pioneering role as an embattled gay lawyer in Victim (1961). He did his best to return the favour, trying to persuade Luchino Visconti to cast Capucine as the aristocratic mother in Death in Venice (1971). Prompted perhaps by his Italian backers, Visconti refused and cast Silvana Mangano instead. (Dirk and Cap, who thought her vulgar and plebeian, referred to her privately as ‘Madame Mango.’) Later on in the 70s, Bogarde retired to the South of France to write novels, while Capucine sank into chronic depression and full-scale career meltdown. In 1982, she made the soft-porn film Aphrodite in which she was the only actor not to remove her clothes. She committed suicide in Switzerland in 1990 and Bogarde wrote a touching tribute on her death.

On the plus side, Song without End is quite magnificently photographed by James Wong Howe. In one scene, a dark-robed Capucine kneels in prayer on the far right of the Cinemascope screen. She is racked by guilt at her adulterous affair and tormented by her love for Franz Liszt. In the background on the far left, Bogarde hovers just out of focus like some beautiful ghostly mirage. The shot is a triumph of colour, lighting, composition and sheer visual finesse. But beautiful photos of nothing are still…well, not very much at all. Even the music – which includes Chopin, Beethoven, Handel, Verdi and Wagner, as well as Liszt – winds up sounding bland and identical, as if it had all been written under pseudonyms by Max Steiner. The saddest thing is that Song without End is not even convincingly bad, apart from one scene where Liszt rashly makes a return to his native Hungarian village. A mob of torch-wielding peasants show up and dance a riotous czardas on the doorstep. They even drag his piano out of doors, so he can play along merrily with their roistering.

Moments like this are like some nightmare vision from the worst 1920s operetta ever written. They are, alas, too rare to make Song without End into the egregious camp classic it has the potential to become. Instead, they serve to remind us of just how boring the rest of it actually is.

David Melville

Phantom Electric Theatres of Edinburgh # 1

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2013 by dcairns

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Last we saw, Fiona and I had trudged up Leith Walk, observing the many defunct cinemas along its length. Just after the top of the Walk, we come to the city centre, home to numerous bygone screens. Here’s one site ~cine2 018

Just before Princes Street, we entered the city’s Georgian New Town — well, technically we stopped for a scrambled egg roll, a latte and a scone the size of George Wendt, but we entered the Georgian New Town immediately after that, albeit walking slightly slower. The Queen’s Hall on Queen Street was until recently the home of the BBC’s Edinburgh offices, but in 1897 T.J. West’s Modern Marvel Company held sway with their Analyticon, projecting stereoscopic transparencies on a ten foot screen. Some kind of movie show was common there until 1915.

Where the St Andrew’s Square bus station now stands, there was once The St Andrew’s Square Cinema, seating 1,500. It opened in 1923 with Harold Lloyd in A SAILOR-MADE MAN, and converted to talkies in 1929 with KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES. In 1952, after screening Basil Dearden’s THE GENTLE GUNMAN with Dirk Bogarde (never seen it, but I must!), the cinema burned to the ground.

Princes Street (“the most beautiful street in the world” ~ William Goldman) is the capital’s main shopping street, with the Gardens and the Castle on one side and a steadily growing number of empty retail facilities on the other. Apart from shops, the street was once home to three big screens. Leading from east to west, they were —

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The Palace (a popular name) was at number 15, in a Georgian-fronted building which still stands, the North British Hotel building. It opened on Christmas Eve 1913, with a cafe and smoking rooms following a few months later. One of the owners also owned the Powderhall dog track, and a film of the Powderhall Sprint was shown in 1914. The cinema delayed converting to sound until late in 1930, when it reopened with the Janet Gaynor musical SUNNY SIDE UP. (Click for musical interlude: play eerie warbles in background as you read on.)

During WWII, the cinema was a garrison-Sunday cinema, according to Thomas, but he doesn’t seem inclined to explain what that was. Movie shows for the troops? It closed in 1955 with ON THE WATERFRONT and THE MATING OF MILLIE starring Glenn Ford.

At number 56 stood The New Picture House, yet another cinema that opened a hundred years ago — 1913 was obviously a huge year for cinematic expansion. It aimed at refinement and gentility, with marble walls and pillars and elegant tea rooms. It sat nearly 1,000. Now the whole building is gone. An ugly Marks and Spenser’s store stands in its place.

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The first movie screened was HAMLET with Johnstone Forbes-Robertson, a film so popular the star remade it just two years later.

In 1929 the New screened Edinburgh’s first talkie, Al Jolson in THE SINGING FOOL, which didn’t impress Sidney Gilliatt but did clinch the success of talkies overall. The cinema closed in 1951 with PAGAN LOVE SONG and Tay Garnett’s exhausting thriller CAUSE FOR ALARM.

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The New lobby.

The Princes Cinema opened at number 131 in September 1912, with a continuous programme of shorts which patrons could walk into at any time. It came with a tea room and smoking room, could seat around 600, and had a six-piece orchestra to provide live accompaniment.

The Princes closed in 1935 with British comedies starring Stanley Holloway and Jack Hulbert, but then reopened as The Monseigneur, a “news theatre” dealing exclusively in newsreels. It acquired a wide screen in 1953 to show the film of the Queen’s coronation, but apparently nobody on the staff understood about aspect ratios, and audience’s complained that the top and bottom of the films was being cropped out.

The Monseigneur became The Jacey around 1964, becoming what one manager termed “a specialist kinky film cinema,” with mainly European product. Chabrol’s LES BICHES was translated as THE BITCHES. The last movie shown was the bluntly titled I AM SEXY.

The facade of this, the last of Princes Street’s cinemas, remains largely unaltered, I’m pleased to report.

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Shandwick Place, at the end of Princes Street, contains the former Albert Institute of Fine Arts, conceived as Scotland’s answer to the V&A Museum. The building quickly became moribund, and in the early 20th century cinema shows were one of the ways it was used. BB Pictures used it for films on a religious theme, but in 1913 it reopened with DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE (with James Cruze) and WILD BEASTS AT LARGE (a Vitagraph comedy). It converted to sound but the cost eventually bankrupted the business in 1932, when VENGEANCE with Jack Holt became the last feature to play there. The building is now largely converted to flats.

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The Caley is the first of Lothian Road’s many cinemas. The building still has a lot of retro style (see top). In opened in 1923 with THE GAME OF LIFE, starring Lillian Hall-Davis and directed by G.B. Samuelson, whose son Sydney found the UK’s top movie lighting company. In the fifties, the cinema installed CinemaScope and stereophonic sound, and treated locals to THE ROBE. Edinburgh-set THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE played there for six weeks. This was also the base of the Edinburgh Film Guild, the world’s longest-running film society, which now operates out of Filmhouse across the road. At the time of Thomas’s book (1984) The Caley was still showing films as well as concerts, but it turned into a horrible disco shortly after that — it’s now an attractive music venue entitled, aptly, The Picture House.

poolesynodUp Castle Terrace is the Saltire Court, a big space age building — when it was new and unoccupied, me and my pal Morag McKinnon shot part of a film in there with Stratford Johns. What we didn’t realize was that it was previously the site of a legendary Edinburgh cinema, Poole’s Synod Hall. Originally a theatre, then a church, it was cursed with sixteen entrances, which made it easy for schoolkids to sneak each other in to the popular horror shows of the fifties and sixties (“good, wholesome, creaking door entertainment”). My pal Lawrie told me that Poole complained to the local headmaster about this practice, and the head responded by placing the cinema entirely off-limits. Not the result Poole had hoped for.

Edinburgh Council forced the Synod to close in 1965, but it went out on a high, with Losey’s THE DAMNED doubled with Polanski’s REPULSION.

A little further up Lothian Road we have The Usher Hall, which shows a movie every Halloween, using the mighty organ as accompaniment, and the Traverse Theatre and the Royal Lyceum which, according to the Scottish cinemas website, have shown movies at some point.

But over the road we have a proper, working cinema, Filmhouse, converted from a church (whereas several Edinburgh cinemas have become churches) and rumoured to be haunted. Well, Diane Ladd sensed something strange when she visited with WILD AT HEART at the Film Festival.

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Further up is The Odeon, formerly The ABC, The Cannon, originally The Regal. The frontage is more or less original, but the contents of the building have been ripped out, with one screen making way for three, then five. The ABC chain of cinemas was for years one of only two major exhibitors in the country, and it may have begun in Scotland. John Maxwell, a significant figure in the career of Alfred Hitchcock, may have started his movie career with the Scotia in Dalry Road, according to Thomas. More on this later.

The Regal opened in 1938 with Charles Laughton in VESSEL OF WRATH, and visitors over the years have included the Beatles and Laurel & Hardy. The three-screen complex opened in 1969, and it’s this incarnation I remember — we were weirded out as kids by LOGAN’S RUN, but screamed with joy at the verboten bosoms of Victoria Vetri in WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH. I remember the big, dark foyer, 1970s decor and colours, and the little windows through which you could peek at the screening you were waiting to end. I remember screen one with its curving, cinerama-type screen.

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Carrying on up the road to Tollcross, we find a cluster of cinemas in various stages of existence/non-existence. The Cameo is a beautiful bijou indie/arthouse with a noble history. It’s also a tale of hope — the cinema was closed when Thomas’s book was written, but re-opened a few years later and has been with us ever since. In my student days, this was a favourite for its late-night double-bills: a grindhouse-level scratchiness marred THE DEVILS, but the chance to see LISZTOMANIA projected was not to be sniffed at. The persistent pairing of BETTY BLUE and BLUE VELVET puzzled me at the time — they seemed very different movies. As I acquired a more questioning attitude to sexual politics in the movies, I could see that BETTY BLUE was the kind of “romance” Frank Booth might have made.

Across the road is the King’s Theatre, a variety theatre still specialising in popular fare — we recently saw a fairly wretched Agatha Christie piece there, as guests of the delightful Lysette Anthony, who was appearing in it.

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And here’s the only picture I could find of the long-vanished Tollcross Cinema, which opened in 1912 and closed in 1947 with one of those looong programmes auld folks still remember — the remake of BROKEN BLOSSOMS with Emlyn Williams in yellowface, MYSTERY OF THE RIVERBOAT with, um Lyle Talbot (oh, and a reliable Hollywood Scot, Alec Craig), a supporting western, and Popeye.

Also in Tollcross stand the Methodist Central Halls — apparently the site of occasional film shows in years gone by.

Up on Lauriston Street, near my workplace (Edinburgh College of Art) The Beverley, or Blue Rooms, hung on as a crumbling warehouse for decades. I used to pass it daily and wonder what it was. And yet — maybe I’m misremembering, because Thomas has the building demolished for a pub much earlier than my memory of it. Maybe what I saw really was the  ghost of a cinema? I never thought to ask anyone else, “That building there: do you see it too?”

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The Blue Halls opened in 1930 with WHITE CARGO, a part-talkie converted to sound alongside Hitchcock’s BLACKMAIL, and as The Beverley it closed in 1959 with CAROUSEL and YACHT ON THE HIGH SEAS, a TV play starring Nina Foch (and written by Lenore Coffee) which evidently got a cinema release over here as a B-picture.

We finish our jaunt with Fountainbridge, site of Sean Connery’s milk round, and present home of the CineWorld multiplex. My only interaction with that place is when it’s used for the Film Festival. It’s metallic chill is a bit of a buzz-killer, but I’ve had some good times there, usually with the onstage interviews with stars or technicians.

The Palladium, a circus that slowly morphed into a cinema between 1908 and 1911, no longer remains. Though it converted to sound using the unusual Edibell Talkie System, it didn’t survive for long, and a 1931 double bill of MISCHIEF (a Jack Lynn comedy) and SKY SPIDER (thriller directed by Richard Thorpe) closed its doors. It became a Bingo Hall, then became derelict, then got knocked down.

Closer to Lothian Road, The Coliseum looks to be going the same way. It opened as a skating rink, was converted in 1911, but closed in 1942 with NAVY BLUES (Jack Oakie) and ADVENTURE IN THE SAHARA (story by Sam Fuller). I actually visited the building during its subsequent incarnation as a Bingo Hall, as some of my students were making a short documentary about the place. It was vast — in its heyday it sat 1,800. Such auditoria didn’t do well in the sound era. Though kept clean and shiny for bingo, the place had a palpable aura of sadness, either because it was full of pensioners filling their last hours with pointless (but pleasantly sociable) activity, or because it had once reverberated with the sounds of youth. Look at it now —

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Part 2 of this epic piece will take us from the old Odeon Clerk Street, haunt of my youth, down to the Bridges and then down the High Street to the Calton Studios. After that — Portobello, Stockbridge, and beyond the infinite…

Russell’s muscles

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on March 9, 2012 by dcairns

Electric Sheep were having a Ken Russell celebration and of course I just had to join in, with this piece, which attempts to tie together the critical opprobrium hurled at The Great Man with an appreciation with the deep peculiarity that is the Ken Russell sense of humour…