Archive for Lola Montes

Forbidden Divas: Her Name Was Lola, She Was a Showgirl

Posted in Fashion, FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2017 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove is back! ~

“I’m not just a revolutionary. I’m a revolutionary who eats chocolates. And that’s very dangerous!” ~ Conchita Montenegro, Lola Montes

The year is 1848; all of Europe is aflame with revolutionary fervour. In Munich, students riot in the streets against the excesses of their monarch, King Ludwig I of Bavaria. (He is the one before the one that Helmut Berger played in the Luchino Visconti film Ludwig (1972). His excesses involve dancing and women, not opera and boys.) As their fury rises to fever pitch, they storm the palace of the king’s mistress – a Spanish dancer of dubious origins whom he has just named Countess of Landsfeld. The lady stands at her window, calmly munching chocolates while shots ring out and bricks and cobble-stones rain in around her. She looks mildly annoyed when one of them shatters a small yet obviously priceless porcelain vase.

Bored by all this hubbub, she flounces across her salon in a gown that resembles a huge undulating tent of black chiffon. Her dark hair is piled elegantly atop her head. Curls trail down strategically on one side, wreathing a face of cool, almost classical beauty – brought to life by large, mischievous yet soulful dark eyes. She arrives at a vast mirror, its frame crawling with fat marble Cupids and gilt seashells. She stares critically at her own reflection and makes some small adjustments to her coiffure. All at once, a brick thrown in from the street hits the mirror, shattering the glass into fragments. The lady does not run or flinch or panic. Calmly, she bends down and selects the largest shard of her broken mirror. Then she holds it up before her face and goes on daintily tidying her hair.

The 1944 Spanish film of Lola Montes may be the greatest camp masterpiece that even Susan Sontag never saw. In her most famous essay, Sontag wrote that “successful Camp, even when it reveals self-parody, reeks of self-love.” This climactic sequence reveals – like the entire oeuvre of Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg, condensed to a single shot – the way stardom is essentially an act of self-adoration. One very beautiful woman makes love but not to her audience, whom she has never actually met. Nor does she make love to any of her numerous leading men who – in Lola Montes as in most movies of its ilk – are a singularly dull and uninspiring bunch. She makes love always and exclusively to her own sublime image. This may sound ludicrous and excessive and perhaps it is. But it does not seem so when we are watching it. That is because the ‘sublime image’ in this case belongs to Conchita Montenegro.

A star internationally from the late 20s to the mid 40s, Conchita Montenegro was known in the press as ‘the Spanish Garbo.’ She was, perhaps, the one star in film history to make Garbo look like an extrovert. She married and retired from the screen in 1944. Lola Montes, in fact, was her triumphant final film. From then until her death in 2007 at the age of 96, she refused to give interviews or make any public appearance of any sort. In 1994, the film festival at San Sebastian – the city where she was born as Concepción Andrés Picado in 1911 – screened a restored print of La Femme et le Pantin/The Woman and the Puppet (1928), the film that made her famous across Europe and led to a contract with MGM in the early 30s. The festival put on a gala event and invited Conchita Montenegro to attend as guest of honour. The star graciously but firmly refused to show up.

It was said that, after she retired, Conchita Montenegro refused to be photographed even in private – so dismayed was she by the effects of passing time on her exquisite face. Yet there is nothing at all shy or self-effacing in her performance as Lola Montes. She is cast as the notorious dancer, courtesan and (alleged) revolutionary agent who scandalised 19th century Europe with her antics and wound up performing in circus tents in the Wild West. (Her story is told, perhaps a shade more accurately, in the 1955 Max Ophüls film with the same title.) Before she arrives in Bavaria and seduces its king, Lola reigns triumphantly as the toast of Paris – where her suitors include, among others, Franz Liszt. Her every move is shadowed by sinister agents who are using her (without her knowledge) to spark a revolution across Europe. They believe, somewhat quaintly, that the sight of Lola dancing is so inflammatory that it will push the masses into open revolt!

At the peak of her Parisian glory, Lola makes an entrance at a masked ball that is every bit as lavish as anything Ophüls could dream up. Confetti rains down from the ceiling; a throng of extras gambol in Carnival garb. Every statue and candelabrum is draped with paper streamers. Lola’s face is unmasked; one of her shoulders is boldly uncovered. Brilliants glitter in the folds of her gown and the dark luxuriance of her hair. The crowd bursts out in applause as she appears and tosses white roses to her admirers. Standing on the grand staircase, she raises a glass of champagne and drinks their health. The hands that holds the glass is encased, until high up above the elbow, in a glove of gossamer black lace. Her left arm, like her right shoulder, is nude. It is a madly provocative tableau of display and concealment. The star, it seems, gains less power from what she shows than what she does not. Conchita Montenegro is a star who revels in playing a star who revels in…

The director of this gloriously inane farrago was Antonio Román, one of the more skilful of the high-grade hacks who kept Spanish cinema alive after the Civil War. (His daughter was the actress Leticia Román, best known as The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1962) for Mario Bava.) In her off-screen life, Conchita Montenegro was at the heart of Spain’s new far-right establishment. After a peripatetic film career in Hollywood, Paris, Buenos Aires and Rome – and a brief marriage to a Brazilian tango star, Raoul Roulien – she returned to Spain in 1941 and made a string of movies that can be politely described politely as Fascist propaganda. She became the companion – and, eventually, the wife – of Franco’s chief diplomat, the aristocratic Ricardo Giménez Arnau, who wound up as Spain’s ambassador to the Holy See. (One trusts that Lola Montes was never screened at the Vatican.) Conchita seems to have renounced a life of glamorous depravity to become an upper-class Spanish housewife, just as Lola does in the (wholly fictitious) ending of this film.

Yet fiction, in this case, is hard-pressed to compete with fact. Conchita’s opulent but dull life in 40s Madrid was disturbed – or so rumour has it – by a visit from one of her former lovers, the Hollywood star Leslie Howard. (She played a South Sea island girl and he an American sailor in a musty 1931 melodrama, Never the Twain Shall Meet.) But this time, Howard was on a mission from Winston Churchill, who was desperate to keep Spain from joining the Axis in World War II. He had singled out Conchita (correctly) as the one person who might be able to help. According to an unofficial interview before her death, she used her influence to secure a meeting with Franco. In so doing, she helped to keep Spain neutral throughout the Second World War. If that is so, it was a political coup of which Lola Montes could barely dream.

But the end of the story is not a happy one. With his mission accomplished – and work on Lola Montes drawing to a close – Leslie Howard set out to fly back to London. His plane was shot down in mysterious circumstances over the Bay of Biscay. Conchita was devastated and sank (or so rumour has it) into severe clinical depression. This may explain her abrupt retirement from films and, indeed, her complete withdrawal from public life in the 60 years that followed. Although she is by no means the first star to be forgotten, Conchita Montenegro is perhaps the only star who edited herself systematically out of film history. Apart from La Femme et le Pantin, her films are not revived and only a few people remember her name, even in Spain. She exists – if she exists at all – as a ghost with a ravishing face, glimpsed fleetingly in a shard from a broken mirror.

Perhaps that is how a myth is best remembered?

David Melville

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A Solo for Three Voices

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2016 by dcairns

Just when everything seemed bleak and colourless like a sepia Kansas farmyard, David Melville Wingrove returns after a too-long absence to continue his series Forbidden Divas ~

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FORBIDDEN DIVAS

A Solo for Three Voices 

“To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.” ~ Oscar Wilde

No, The Love of Three Queens (1954) is not a movie about a gay ménage a trois. It’s a lavish and multi-stranded folly that showcases Hedy Lamarr – its star and its producer – as three of the Great Women of History. She plays the saintly Genevieve of Brabant in the Middle Ages, the flighty Empress Josephine in the Napoleonic Wars and the sultry Helen of Troy in Ancient Greece. Just in case that is not enough, she also appears in a framing story…as a fresh-faced ingénue (Hedy was forty at the time) who embodies all three women for a wandering Italian theatre troupe.

The term ‘vanity project’ might have been coined specially to describe this film. A sophisticated lady with a famously high IQ (she dabbled in scientific research between movies) Hedy Lamarr rapidly grew tired of the decorative roles foisted on her by Hollywood. Meanwhile, she took little if any responsibility for her own disastrous choices – allegedly turning down Casablanca (1943) and Gaslight (1944), but saying yes to The Conspirators (1944) and Experiment Perilous (1944)! Like any other bored but ambitious leading lady, she took to producing her own films.

She tried this first in Hollywood, with a degree of success. The Strange Woman (1946) was the torrid tale of a scheming backwoods vixen, with George Sanders memorably miscast as a lumberjack. Dishonored Lady (1947) – about a fashion editor with an overactive libido – was a flop, as the clothes were not stunning enough to compensate for the lady’s lack of morals. Hedy’s career, briefly, looked doomed. But then Cecil B DeMille cast her as the Biblical temptress in Samson and Delilah (1949). Nobody, before or since, had worn peacock feathers with such aplomb! Hedy clearly felt it was her destiny to play the legendary sirens of the ages…

1949  Hollywood screen goddess, Hedy Lamarr stars in "Samson and Delilah" directed by Cecil B. De Mille.

Hollywood, as usual, did not see it her way. So Hedy packed her bags, moved to Italy and sank most of her fortune into a production company all her own. Its one and only product, The Love of Three Queens, exists under such a baffling array of titles (Eterna Femmina, L’Amante di Paride, The Knights of Illusion) and in such a bewildering diversity of cuts (from three hours to under 90 minutes) that it is actually quite hard to describe it as a film at all. It has far more the aura of an open-ended and ongoing project, like Walt Disney’s Fantasia or Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, only with a shade more artistic self-indulgence thrown in.

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The framing story (at least in the version now on DVD) opens with a bunch of gypsy-style caravans trundling through a scenic Italian landscape. A nameless and faceless narrator follows by horse-drawn carriage. He is, he explains, “compelled by beauty beyond a poet’s words, by mystic loveliness that bore the name Leala.” As his voice speaks these words, the shutters on one caravan swing open – and Hedy gazes out languidly at the passing scene. Might she not overhear this narration? Perhaps, be embarrassed by it? Then it strikes us that Hedy – in her role as producer – must have given her full approval to the script and instructed Marc Allégret (the credited director) to shoot it in this way and no other.

Well, nobody ever got to the top in movies by being modest. Hedy/Leala is the star attraction of the otherwise shabby Teatro Romani. We and the narrator follow to the nearest town, where the troupe is playing that night. By using a tawdry theatrical framework for its flights of artistic and historical fancy, The Love of Three Queens anticipates a far more famous film maudit of the 50s, the doomed Max Ophüls extravaganza Lola Montès (1955). Both films were mangled and recut to the brink of incoherence and neither, at the time, was given a wide release. The difference is that Hedy’s film never became a cause célèbre with critics, has never been revived or restored and remains unavailable in anything like its original form.

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As her character on that first night, Genevieve of Brabant, Hedy looks fetching but incongruous in a blonde wig. This episode – unlike most of the film – was directed by Edgar G Ulmer, who helped her play a sizzling femme fatale in The Strange Woman. Her role here is a character of unimpeachable (and well-nigh insufferable) moral virtue – a pious medieval lady who tends the fields with the peasants, while her husband is away fighting the Moors. A lascivious nobleman tries to seduce her. After she refuses, the rotter accuses her of “unchastity” to her husband on his return. The husband, inexplicably, believes the man over his wife and promptly condemns her to death. “This cannot be happening,” says Hedy, looking mildly perplexed. We in the audience know exactly how she feels.

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Faced with this unwieldy and unbelievable plot, Hedy and Ulmer soon fell out. He walked off the picture (or was fired) and is grudgingly listed as ‘Associate Director’ in the end credits. Indeed – judging from her performance – it seems Ulmer could control his star only by keeping her in a state of permanent hypnosis. Visually, though, his work brilliantly evokes the art of the Middle Ages; the stylised colour schemes and flat or foreshortened perspectives seem to recall a Brueghel painting. Oh, and poor wronged Genevieve does not die. She escapes into the wild and gives birth to an adorable blonde son. Her erring husband finds them, years later, living in a cave and weaving garlands of flowers to adorn their herd of tame deer.

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The next episode (made after Allégret took over) is a shorter and livelier affair. Hedy looks wickedly stylish as the promiscuous Empress Josephine – in a red-white-and-blue outfit of military cut, her bonnet festooned with white plumes and tricolore ribbons. Travelling the back roads during her husband’s Italian campaign, she dismisses one lover from her carriage (“I suppose in war these things happen”) and invites the next available solder to take his place. But she is not a heartless floozy, just a vulnerable and tender-hearted woman baffled by Naploeon’s manic desire to conquer all of Europe. In the end, he forsakes her for an Austrian princess who gives him a male heir. Standing at her window, she listens to each cannon in the 21-gun salute. Her face grows, subliminally, more tragic and resigned with every shot.

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It seems Hedy was a lot happier under Allégret’s direction. Her portrayal of Josephine is as heart-rending as her portrayal of Genevieve is becalmed. Her third role, as Helen of Troy, is in a more languid mode. But that’s only right for this version of the story, which makes Helen the bait in a ‘honey trap’ – designed by wily Odysseus to trick the Trojans into war. Realising the sordid way she has been used, Helen does not so much fall in love with Paris (Massimo Serato) as leave her husband Menelaus in disgust. Of her fabled beauty, she says: “What has it brought me save sorrow? Desired, not for myself, but that men might envy the one who had me.” We are tempted to wonder if Hedy wrote this dialogue herself.

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The Trojan War, when it happens, is quite bereft of heroism of any sort. Troy falls in a surprisingly graphic orgy of slaughter and rape; guffawing Greek soldiers suffocate a helpless man under a shower of grain. When Menelaus comes to strike Helen dead with his sword, she throws open her black mourning robes to reveal a lining of bright crimson. As if, knowing the savagery of the world, she had already draped herself in blood. “May the gods forbid that any mortal woman be as desolate as I!” He spares her, but we get the distinct feeling she would rather be dead.

On one level, The Love of Three Queens is a silly and overproduced costumed charade. Yet running through it – and holding it together, if anything does – is an intelligent woman’s baffled outrage at the male fondness for brutality, conquest and war. Hedy’s first husband (married when she was just 18) had been the Viennese arms tycoon Fritz Mandl, who sold bombs to both Mussolini and Franco. (If he had no links with Hitler, it was only because he was Jewish.)  He also tried to destroy all prints of Hedy’s landmark film Ecstasy (1933) because she appeared in a very discreet sex scene and, later, swam in the nude. Her efforts to escape this marriage led Hedy to America and, eventually, a Hollywood career. In this return to Europe, she was not just making a movie; she was, perhaps, settling a few old scores.

The scores, alas, did not settle in her favour. The Love of Three Queens sank into an oblivion from which it still has yet to surface. Hedy married again (for the fifth time) to Texan oil tycoon Howard Lee, who insisted they settle in Houston. “How anyone who has seen anything of the world can live in Texas is beyond me,” said Hedy after the divorce. She made only a few more films and died in poverty in Florida in 2000. The Love of Three Queens survives, in much-mutilated form, as the most fascinating of flops. Try to imagine Intolerance remade as a glossy high-fashion chick flick. It could never have worked. And who but Hedy would have had the nerve to try?

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David Melville

To the Max

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 11, 2015 by dcairns

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Long-term Shadowplayers will have noticed that the Late Show Blogathon, like a senior citizen itself, tends to drone on long past its allotted time. We’re still at it — arch-limerwrecker Hilary Barta celebrates the final film of Max Ophuls with a mighty limerick which approaches the majesty of its subject.

Almost as good as James Mason’s “A shot that does not call for tracks/Is agony for poor dear Max/Who, separated from his dolly/Is sunk in deepest melancholy/Once, when they took away his crane/I thought he’d never smile again.”