Archive for Louis B Mayer

Dog Doesn’t Return Other Dog’s Calls

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2018 by dcairns

Perpendicular Palance, they call him.

I ran Robert Aldrich’s THE BIG KNIFE because I’ve been thinking seriously about Hollywood noir/Hollywood Gothic stuff. This predates his later hagsploitation pics, and the related but different THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLAIR (and I guess THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE, with its Brit TV background, is a distant relative too), but has a few things in common, apart from the dry, pale presence of Wesley Addy. More on him later.

Jack Palance plays the lead, a movie star with a guilty secret (audaciously borrowed by author Clifford Odets from a persistent rumour about Clark Gable being a drunken, hit-and-run killer — which doesn’t seem to be true). Palance is no Crawford or Davis, but his characterisation is just as neurotic and tormented — he spends the movie posing, languishing, anguishing, seething (I love it when Palance breathes heavy).

Fiona had many questions about Palance. Where did Jack Palance come from? Is Jack Palance a good actor? Can Jack Palance act? What is with Jack Palance? All fair questions. I said YES to all of them.

Jack’s manly suffering — similar vein of masochistic machismo to Kirk Douglas — is the main show, but his swank home (it’s a one-set play) is regularly invaded by supporting hambones (he never locks the door) like Miss Shelley Winters (her actual screen credit here) and Rod Steiger, who come bearing entertainment. Steiger is cast as a baroque hallucination of Louis B. Mayer, afflicted with some of Odets’ most overwrought verbiage, a peroxide crew-cut, shades and a hearing aid. Also some startling homoerotic overtures towards the muscular Jack — at times he goes Full Joyboy. In a film so full of memorable entrances and exits it plays like thespian Whack-a-Mole, he gets one of the best, monologuing his way out the door, his ranting voice diminishing slowly into the distance until a new conversation breaks out on top of it… but Steiger keeps going until he’s vanished over some unseen horizon…

Fiona also liked his hushing an opponent with a gentle “Shshshshshshshshshshshsh” that abruptly explodes into a fulsome “shshSHUT UP!” And his defending a man’s character by citing his relationship with “such people as the late Al Jolson.” Threatened with violence, he hides behind his pudgy fists, fat head suddenly babylike, Trumpish in his pusillanimity.

The man he’s defending is Wendell Corey, readily decoded as studio fixer Eddie Mannix, and sensibly playing it subtle but reptilian, not trying to compete with the uberactors flanking him. He’s a man prepared to kill for the studio, and while the story doesn’t quite allow him to do so — something of a cop-out, but they had to show caution SOMEWHERE — Corey is genuinely chilling.

Also good work from Everett Sloane though he’s not as moving as the put-upon agent in IN A LONELY PLACE, the most moving Hollywood agent in cinema (the only one?). Who was that guy? Oh yeah, Art Smith. Get me Art Smith!

Miss Shelley.

Palance is also tormented by three women — his wife, Ida Lupino, who wants him to be virtuous, his friend’s slutty wife, Jean Hagen, who wants him to be wicked, and Winters, who knows his guilty secret and can’t be trusted to keep her mouth shut. He invites her over for a swim, which is a worrying portent — you know about Shelley’s bad luck with water, right? But instead of a NIGHT OF THE HUNTER/PLACE IN THE SUN/POSEIDON ADVENTURE watery grave, she’s felled by a convenient accident straight out of the LOLITA playbook.

That awkward moment when Wendell Corey won’t get out of your lampshade.

Jack checks if Wendell is still in there.

Oh, and there’s Wesley Addy, cast as a writer and serving as mouthpiece for Odets’ views, explaining the story’s themes and Palance’s character and generally dumbing the whole thing down. Good actor, but I wanted to kill him. He walks in on and damages a really powerful ending, and his dollarbook Freud actually muddies the motivation of the hero’s last act. If I could digitally lift him from the movie we’d really have something. I’d feel sorry for him, though, and would make it up to him by dropping him off in GONE WITH THE WIND, where he would get lots of surprised attention in his modern dress, and would spoil anything since it’s a wretched movie anyway.

Of course, putting himself into the movie in disguise is a way for Odets to protect himself from the certain knowledge that Palance’s character, the sell-out, the half-idealist, is him too. So the character, inelegantly conceived as he is, may be necessary for the piece to exist at all.

Oh, the music is also very bad — random eruptions by Frank DeVol. (Did Aldrich make a single movie where the music is enjoyable?)

Good movie. Better than the Bettes. Very sweaty.

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Forbidden Divas: The Naked Maja

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 7, 2017 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns with another despatch from the far shores of divadom ~

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

Painting by Numbers

“I leave to you the two things I love most – yourself and Spain!”

~ Ava Gardner on her deathbed, The Naked Maja

As Hollywood rumour has it, the formidable MGM boss Louis B Mayer saw the very first screen test by the young movie hopeful Ava Gardner and cried out: “She can’t act! She can’t talk! She’s sensational!” Only her most ardent fans would ever dispute his verdict. The daughter of a dirt-poor sharecropper from rural North Carolina, the young Lucy Johnson (her real name) had little if any formal training as an actress. Nor, in the 40-year movie career that followed, did she ever seem to feel the lack of it. Her beauty was so lush – and her presence so regal and radiant – that Ava Gardner managed to leap-frog the petty confines of mere Drama and landed directly and squarely in the magic circle of Myth.

She did, in fairness, produce a number of more-than-watchable performances. A gypsy dancer turned movie queen in The Barefoot Contessa (1954), an anguished Anglo-Indian half-caste in Bhowani Junction (1956), a blowsy and booze-soaked Earth Mother in The Night of the Iguana (1964). It was unclear, in each case, just how much of her work was conscious ‘acting’ and how much was drawn from aspects of her own life. But in order to truly appreciate her special magic, we need to see Ava Gardner in one of those films where she barely acts at all. A lavish but lumbering biopic of the 18th century Spanish painter Francisco de Goya – with Gardner as his aristocratic muse the Duchess of Alba – The Naked Maja (1958) is one of those star vehicles whose raison d’être begins and ends with its star. It is about literally nothing more than the ability of Ava Gardner to embody (and eclipse) one of the most iconic portraits in the history of art.

For any discerning viewer, that is more than enough. In the utterly dispensable role of the painter himself, the Method-trained thespian Anthony Franciosa acts up a storm. Yet his performance verges on the unwatchable. One of those actors who emote always at the highest level of intensity, Franciosa finds himself – almost before he can put brush to canvas – with literally no place left to go. (His off-screen marriage to Shelley Winters must have been the daily equivalent of the Act Two murder scene from Tosca.) In contrast, Ava Gardner seems to do little more than show up and learn her lines. Given the quality of the dialogue, even that is open to debate. Yet Gardner is utterly ravishing and riveting. We truly believe she is the most infamous and desirable woman in Spain – that kingdoms may topple and empires may fall at her slightest whim. Rarely has the alleged link between ‘acting’ and the movies seemed less significant or more tenuous than it does here.

Given the lack of an attractive or even an adequate leading man, this on-screen Duchess of Alba forms a passionate and all-consuming liaison with her wardrobe. There are moments in The Naked Maja where the sheer splendour of the star and her outfits is enough to make us stop and gasp for breath. The Duchess, in a hat adorned by plumes of poisonous green and iridescent mauve, shows up to mock poor Goya when he sells out and becomes a painter to the royal court. The Duchess, in a gown of white tulle and a glistening silver-grey cloak, pauses midway up a staircase of white marble. (She is fleeing, but without any undue haste, from the clutches of the Inquisition.) The Duchess, in a black flamenco dress with a blood-red sash and a spray of blood-red roses in her hair, forsakes the man she loves and goes back to an old admirer (Massimo Serato) because that is the one way she can save Goya’s life. None of this has anything much to do with acting; it is modelling raised to the level of a High Art. You might, of course, say the same for Marlene Dietrich in The Scarlet Empress (1934) or The Devil Is a Woman (1935). Yet Marlene had the great Sternberg to mould and inspire her; Ava is doing it entirely off her own back.

The director of The Naked Maja was Henry Koster, a capable hack who specialised in ‘uplifting’ family entertainments like The Bishop’s Wife (1947) and Good Morning, Miss Dove (1955). He also directed the first-ever film in Cinemascope (not to mention one of the dullest) the ponderous pseudo-Biblical epic The Robe (1953). His use of the widescreen format had improved dramatically by the time of Maja – meaning he had worked out how to do something other than stand half a dozen actors side by side, shoulder to shoulder, across the screen. More credit should go, perhaps, to the Italian cameraman Giuseppe Rotunno – who actually does make every frame glow like a Goya canvas. The Naked Maja was shot in Rome as a US-Italian production with Titanus. Not that Rome looks any more like Madrid than Hollywood does, but it was presumably a lot cheaper.

Naturally, the supporting cast includes a roster of well-known Italian actors. Gino Cervi plays the Bourbon King of Spain as a portly but amiable dullard. Lea Padovani plays his Queen (the Duchess of Alba’s bitter rival) as a vindictive, sharp-faced shrew. The villain of the piece is the former Fascist poster boy Amedeo Nazzari, a star in such bellicose epics as Bengasi (1942) and Luciano Serra, Pilot (1938).  Here he plays the evil Prime Minister Godoy, who schemes to hand Spain over to the invading armies of Napoleon Bonaparte. Nazzari keeps a creditably straight face for lines like: “Camp life is not very gay. There is nothing but men in the army!” One can only assume the double meanings got lost in Italian. In fairness, all these actors might be a great deal worse than they are. It would not matter, in any case, as we would only ever be looking at Ava Gardner.

History suggests that the real-life Duchess of Alba was a complicated and enigmatic woman – a revolutionary liberal and patroness of the arts, who read Voltaire and Rousseau and enjoyed an unfettered sex life with men of all classes. Her death by poisoning is a mystery historians have yet to solve. A pair of vastly superior films – Goyescas (1942) with Imperio Argentina and Volaverunt (1999) with Aitana Sanchez-Gijón – have imbued her story with some of the complexity and sophistication it deserves. Yet when it comes to sheer iconic power, The Naked Maja wins out every time. We can believe that Ava Gardner might inspire a man to paint a work of Great Art. But we also have to wonder. What work of Great Art, if any, could ever hope to compete?

David Melville

Room Without Service

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 17, 2016 by dcairns

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Incredibly, I had never watched ROOM SERVICE (1938), with the Marx Bros and Lucille Ball and Ann Miller… and Fiona couldn’t remember even hearing of it. Everything I hd heard had suggested the film was disappointing and didn’t work. Everything I had heard was quite wrong.

A lot of the criticism was of the “based on a play, and it shows” variety. Well, Jesus, hadn’t these reviewers seen ANIMAL CRACKERS? The weird thing about ROOM SERVICE is, it’s based on a GOOD play — a well-structured farce that’s plausible, jauntily amoral and outrageous, and stuffed with good lines and business. The fact that the play wasn’t written for the Marx Bros is the remarkable thing, but Morrie Ryskind, the Bros’ most faithful scribe, adapted it so you’d never know.

My usual formula has been to talk about everything AROUND the Marx Bros, taking them as read, but this being an exceptional movie — their only film at RKO, also — some analysis is required. The Marx Bros are actually different in this one.

Groucho begins the film slower than we’ve seen him, which is probably a smooth calculation on his part to allow the farce to gather steam. It’s a little disconcerting, though: Groucho loses something slowed down… he loses his aggression. One doesn’t think of Groucho as aggressive because he’s also casual, but minus the ratatatat you realize it’s a vital part of his attitude. Casual attack — destroy the opponent before they have a chance to open their mouth, or establish whether they are in fact an opponent. The good thing is, as the play film progresses, you get used to this new Groucho, and also he starts to accelerate.

The story casts him as a theatrical producer on his uppers, desperately trying to avoid eviction from the White Way Hotel until he can close a deal to get backing for his dubious new production. This involves him in various shady or outright criminal acts, including the only time in his career as rogue that he actually becomes contemptible: bribing a waiter for food with the offer of a part in the show, then smugly announcing his intent to renege as soon as he’s replete with chow. You never dislike Groucho for any of his misdeeds, but this is vile. Fiona: “I wasn’t sure I even disliked him then, because he’s just saying his mood is variable, depending on how full his tummy is.”

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Chico is different too, though it’s subtler. His character is largely the same but he gets more deadpanning. He’s even more low-status than usual, threatened as he is with getting “dispossessed from the sidewalk.” He uses slowness well too — looking at the broken-down old waiter, he says “I could eat him raw,” in a horrifyingly cold way that’s hilarious. A scene where he and Groucho bamboozle a repo man must be the slowest scene they ever played together, and it’s FANTASTIC. ROOM SERVICE has little reputation because it’s so different from the other films — it isn’t anarchic, the motivations are clear and consistent and the Bros aren’t out just to cause chaos, they’re fighting to make a buck. But this is at least as consistent with their true, Paramount nature as their behaviour in the MGM films, where they have to be on the side of the angels.

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Harpo is Harpo, of course, Apart from the ill-hadvised sentiment in LOVE HAPPY (not looking forward to that one), Harpo never changes. But, like his brothers, he doesn’t chase girls in this one. The play just didn’t allow room for it. The difference is in the way Harpo is used — lots of background or edge-of-frame activity where he adds bonus comedy with his activity or reactions. Far more than in any other Marx film, the movie (directed by the seriously neglected William A. Seiter, who also did great work with Laurel & Hardy, Colleen Moore, umm, Wheeler & Woolsey and umm, Zasu Pitts) is happy to let two things happen at once, so that your eye can take in Harpo defying the laws of man and God while your ear appreciates Groucho’s deconstruction of logic and morality.

A word about Zeppo — though he’s not around, Zeppo brokered the deal, acquiring the play and setting it up at RKO in his new role as high-powered agent in exceptionally cool shades. Hooray for Zeppo!

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OK, let’s admit it, Lucille Ball is wasted in this: “Christine” has only plot functions to take care of, no comedy business hardly, and the script makes her complicit in Groucho’s fraudulence without giving her a clear attitude about it. She’s just helping the guy producing the play she hopes to star in and which she has invested her savings in. It’s briefly exciting to see her drag up as a nurse and get fully involved in the play-acting, and so her timing is exploited even if she isn’t getting gags or funny lines. It’s a taster of things to come. (She worked with Seiter again on LOVER COME BACK in 1946. Any good, at all?)

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Ann Miller was fifteen, with a fake birth certificate, and Lucille Ball engineered the younger woman’s entree into movies. OK, that sounds pretty bad. Ball was essentially a prostitute/escort in her early days, according to numerous reports. Miller spent her later years deflecting blame by denouncing Marilyn Monroe (“She was a whore”) and her early days going on dates with Louis B. Mayer with her mother as chaperone, which for some reason sounds worse than if mom wasn’t there. Maybe I have an unjustifiably low opinion of stage mothers. At any rate, Ann’s beau says “I just can’t picture you with a middle-aged man,” prompting me to do a spit-take. Bonus metatextual points for her aying “It’s just like a play!” and wandering in by accident — perhaps looking for her Aunt Minnie?

Miller doesn’t get to dance or show her legs, but hey, Chico and Harpo don’t get their musical interludes, so all is right with the world.

On to the stooges!

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Most screen-time is given to Frank Albertson (no, I didn’t recognise him from PSYCHO) as the naive young playwright. Impossible to believe his magnum opus is any good at all. But his hick doofus act is OK, he doesn’t (quite) wear out his welcome, and he’s the first Marx Bros leading man to justify his existence in comedy terms. Whereas most Marx films make at least a pretence at having them help out the young lovers, here the Bros’ alliance with the young hopeful is purely a marriage of convenience. and one gets the feeling Groucho would cheerfully sell him into sexual slavery if that turned out to be the best way to monetize his gullibility. As it is, there’s a vigorous stripping of the poor schmoe down to his BVD, in a scene which gives us the best idea yet, outside of some of the rougher Margaret Dumont routines, of what a Marx Bros gang-bang would look like. There, I’ve put that image in your heads and I’m leaving it there. I don’t want it. You can keep it.

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Albertson gives us a good “Eureka!” face, while Groucho simply rolls his eyes in the schmuck’s direction to show he thought of it first. The function of this kind of black farce is for Groucho and friends to be capable of any kind of crime, while the plot prevents them doing any major harm while they get what they want. The waiter and the young lovers and Lucille and her husband have to be okay in the end. It all works out far nicer than reality — the world is run by crooks, but fate helps out the little guy. Joe Orton would come along and remove the reassuring aspects. (“The ones that get away with it are the guilty. It’s the innocent who get it in the neck.”)

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McBride (left) and Dunstan (right), who I guess gave his name to hotel comedy DUNSTON CHECKS IN.

Next in line of screen time is villain Donald McBride, a hotel worker who isn’t really trying to do anything bad, just enforce the rules, but he is snarling, growly and obnoxious like most of the best Marx antagonists, so it’s OK to tear him to pieces, which they do. Even his few good qualities — his sanctimonious, but apparently genuine concern at the apparent deaths of two men — are pitilessly used to turn the tables on him. He’s dumb and doesn’t know it, so the only thing making this close to a fair fight is that the rules are on his side, society is on his side, he has the hotel staff to do his bidding, and the plot keeps making things harder for Groucho. Otherwise, no contest.

The constant bellowing of “Jumping butterballs!” is maybe a bit tiresome, but this stooge has his own stooge, called Gribble, and it’s very pleasant to hear him snarl the name. McBride is a skilled, if forceful farceur. He played a lot of cops, always outsmarted by Simon Templar or Charlie Chan or Nick and Nora Charles. You know the type.

Gribble is Cliff Dunstan, in hardly anything else. I liked his boxy head. He gets to be shoved around by Groucho AND Butterball guy, so you have to sympathise.

Alexander Asro also good as Russian waiter, his impassioned cry of “Hollywood!” constituting his biggest laugh. And the biggest laugh involving him is Groucho’s remark that plenty of other famous Russians started out stealing hotel food. “Gregory Ratoff… Ginger Rogervitch…”

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Hotel doctor is screen functionary Charles Halton, playing Dr. Glass (a very good Mai Zetterling film). Small roles for big directors, so you’ll know his face if not his name. Lots of Wyler, plus Ford, Capra, Kazan, Clair, Duvivier, Cukor. Abducted by the Marxes and left bound in the bathroom for much of the action, he nevertheless declares himself on their side when he hears the name of their wealthy backer.

Two good, strange players: (1) Philip Wood, who only played men called Simon, plays Simon Jenkins, the secretive backer’s representative. He explains that the backer wants his name kept out of it because he wants his girlfriend to have a small role in the production — which explains Ann Miller’s otherwise pointless presence in this movie. (2) Philip Loeb, the repo man, of the We Never Sleep company. “It’s nice to meet a man who doesn’t sleep,” remarks Groucho, pleasantly. Both these guys play it slow and gentle, which makes an interesting contrast with the frenetic business and hollering antagonists elsewhere. Lambs to the slaughter.

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There are also some good non-human characters, excluding Harpo. Chico’s stuffed moose head, to whom he is devoted, makes a ready-made cutaway. Strange how stuffed moose heads always look so happy with their lot. “I shot him myself and ate him up to the neck,” claims Chico.

A turkey is delivered by Harpo, and promptly turns animatronic so it can fly around the room while he chases it with a bat. The robot fowl is roughly as convincing as the bats in Hammer films. It puts me in mind of the great bird that snatches D.W. Griffith’s baby in RESCUED FROM AN EAGLE’S NEST. Has there ever been a bad film made with an unconvincing fake bird in it? I don’t think so.

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Finally there’s the love of Harpo’s life, who isn’t a horse this time, but is as disturbing as you could wish for.

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“Of course I like them a little bigger,” says Chico, looking genuinely depressed and sickened by the strange spectacle.