Archive for Marilyn Monroe

Up, skirt

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 1, 2018 by dcairns

Strange that THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH should be this famous thing, despite being one of the weaker Billy Wilder films of its era. (Arguably, all six Wilder films made between ACE IN THE HOLE and SOME LIKE IT HOT are minor work, but minor Wilder ain’t nothing, and some of them are favourites of mine, whatever their flaws.) He never co-wrote with George Axelrod again, and would later say the one-off collaborations were the ones that didn’t work. Axelrod said that the play was about a man who commits adultery and feels guilty about it, but censorship forbade the sex from actually occurring so the movie is about a man who DOESN’T commit adultery and feels guilty about it — a somewhat trivial complaint.Also, Wilder had wanted to cast Walter Matthau. Imagine THAT film. Tom Ewell is skilled, but he has a truly sinister smile and is never what you’d call pleasant to look at. Calling him “Tommy” in the Saul Bass titles doesn’t make him any more boyish. There’s a reason why Skelton Knaggs never played lead in a romantic comedy. (Matthau’s shall-we-say unconventional looks never seem to be a problem — except when he takes his shirt off — and he eventually acquired leading man status and became a fixture in Wilder’s films.)

The film’s balancing act begins at the beginning, with a history of Manhattan in which the voiceover man has to sound like a classic fifties narrator-dude but also break character with casual jokes. The uncredited voice artist isn’t quite up to the second task.The island of Manhattan, as viewed from a nearby hill.

Having packed wife Evelyn Keyes and space cadet son* off to cooler climes for the summer, Ewell starts fantasising, which is most of the film.

This is Wilder’s first ‘Scope production, in some ways a counterintuitive format for a movie consisting largely of a guy alone in his apartment. In New York, yet. A city that seems to invite the filmmaker to rotate the anamorphic lens 90º and make the vertical horizontal, like with a camera phone. (I think I’d seen this movie in every ratio except the right one, until now.) But it’s a Fox pic, so the frame shape was compulsory. And Wilder finds an interesting use for the width when mixing into flashback. The long slow dissolves, in which the foreground stays solid for ages as a new background bleeds through, must be influenced by CITIZEN KANE, but the 1949 stage debut of Death of a Salesman, with its lighting-change time-shifts, may have influenced Axelrod in the first place. (Hmm, I seem to recall another Arthur Miller connection here, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.) Preston Sturges said he wanted the fantasies in UNFAITHFULLY YOURS to look as if they were written and directed by the protagonist, who is neither a writer nor a director, Wilder’s treatment of Ewell’s nocturnal thoughts really takes this idea further. Ewell’s job, publishing sensational literature (a milieu already explored by Danny Kaye in THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY), further inflects his lurid imaginings. Wilder frames stagily and Ewell aims his performance at the camera rather than his co-stars (who include the great Carolyn Jones as a passion-crazed nurse) and the effect is as much soap opera as it is pulp magazine. The spoof of FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (whose director, Fred Zinnemann, was a friend, fellow Austro-Hungarian, and former collaborator of Wilder’s) got the biggest laugh from Fiona, due to Ewell’s disabled sprint along the shore. It’s not the most sophisticated bit of comedy, but this isn’t exactly Wilder’s most sophisticated film.**

Just before meeting Marilyn’s “The Girl,” Ewell slips on his son’s roller-skate and spills raspberry soda all over his pants. (The second skate will slide, sharklike, silent and seemingly under its own will, to trip him again much later. No explanation offered for its cartoon self-propulsion: either the family home is poltergeistically punishing him for thoughts of infidelity, or it’s acting as psychic familiar for his son, junior member of the Anti-Sex League. Note how the lad used his space helmet to escape a fatherly kiss. No affection is allowed. The child’s role in marriage is to cockblock the parent, right?) Seconds later, speaking to Marilyn, Ewell is dry of trouser. I guess the detail of the soda spatter was impossible to reproduce, though the appeal of Ewell grinning after the leading lady with a sodden crotch strikes me as a detail worth pursuing.Monroe is so artificial a performer when she’s doing her thing (the carefully arranged grin, lips pulled tight to hide gums), that it’s hard to assess her performance, especially when playing such an obvious fantasy figure. It IS nice to see her playing Chopsticks, though, with a different kind of smile, one we aren’t used to seeing on her, one that seems real. Or at least unfamiliar. It’s the shape her face makes when she smiles, sings “pop-pop-pop” along with Chopsticks, and keeps her gums hidden. It’s a good face. I guess the scene’s other purpose is to make her tits jiggle. Trevilla’s costume designs emphasise the natural squishiness of body fat and avoid bullet-bra rigidity.

“What IS this relationship?” asked Fiona as the film ends. What has the film shown us, in fact? Ewell enjoys (and is tormented by) a flirtatious friendship, and this is somehow going to reinvigorate his marriage, though it’s not quite clear how. His wife is unaware of everything that happens, and isn’t aware of any marital problem either. The problem The Girl diagnoses is that his wife trusts him: not the worst problem to have.There’s also a half-hearted attempt to make something out of The Sonny Tufts Subplot, with Ewell becoming jealous about his wife (obviously a feat of projected guilt) and the aforementioned Tufts, whom he will eventually slug. Since Tufts is blameless in reality, this bit of gratuitous violence seems to stem solely from Wilder’s assessment that Tufts is the kind of guy we would like to see punched, an assessment I cannot honestly fault. There’s a fine German word, Backpfeifengesicht, for Sonny Tufts’ face.There’s also a very weird, broad, Neanderthal performance from one Robert Strauss, who inexplicably doesn’t get punched. I guess we could say he has the Cliff Osmond role. And a VERY funny perf by Oscar Homolka as Dr, Brubaker, psychologist, who proves himself a fine conduit for the Wilder style. As we’re told Wilder dictated every pause and gesture, I assume he also gave indications of timing/delivery, or maybe it’s just his writing that offers to the sensitive actor a suggestion of what to stress and what to throw away. At any rate, Homolka proves himself the funniest headshrink in Wilder’s long parade of nerve specialists (certainly more amusing than Martin Gabel or Klaus Kinski).The removal of the act, or even the suggestion of the act, of consummation, does more than turn the movie into merely an exploration of male fantasy (something it would need to employ Dr. Brubaker fulltime in order to get to the bottom of). It sadly turns it into a disconnected bag of bits, blackout sketches without a real final punchline. Some very funny bits, some stylish filmmaking, and a strong sense of the specific weirdness of its time and place. All accidentally elevated to classic status by a scene where a skirt blows up, and the girl enjoys the sensation.**** See also Fred MacMurray’s moon-mission aspirant offspring in THE APARTMENT. Admirable efficiency of American society: as soon as they got a space program, they started giving birth to would-be astronauts.

** Wilder has the fantasy female in this segment declare “from here to ETERNITY!” to make sure we get it, but also to make a joke out of the making sure. Later he has Ewell mention the famous actress Marilyn Monroe — evidently she was already too iconic to be wholly enveloped in the story as a fictional presence. The most amusing in-joke, however, is the reference to one “Charlie Lederer” — the name of a fellow screenwriter irl — going crazy last summer and getting tattooed.

***Was the scene perceived as a triumph of eroticism because it shows us legs, and shame-free exposure, or because it makes us FEEL the sensation of cool air on bare skin?

Advertisements

Isherwood or Bust

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2018 by dcairns

Christopher Isherwood’s name on the credits of DIANE, a 1956 period potboiler of unusual size and duration, might lead one to expect a classy affair before viewing, or to judge harshly the novelist’s skills as a screen dramatist after viewing. This may be unfair, as who knows what contributions co-writer John Erskine is guilty of? (This was his first screen credit in twenty years, mysteriously.) And we can certainly detect the contribution of the Breen Office in this bowdlerization of a famous courtesan’s love life. Diane de Poitiers was mistress to King Francis I AND his son Henri, which makes her a fine role for Lana — remember the familial mix-ups rumoured in the Stompanato affair? — but you wouldn’t really know any of this from the story told here. The movie also stars James Bond 007, Pancho Villa, Sakura the Sorcerer and Corporal Emil Klinger. Best main performance is Marisa Pavan as Lana’s rival — costume designer Walter Plunkett has huge fun draping his divas. Roger Moore proves himself, at this point in his career, an even more hopeless actor than Lana. Percy Helton appears briefly as a court jester and insinuates himself into our nightmares forever. Taina Elg has nothing to do including no dancing: a ballerina hired to stand still in long dresses. Henry Daniell squares off against Sir Cedric Hardwicke: eye-bags at down. The only two men in christendom whose eye-baggage flows down half their faces and brims over their cheekbones, like pie-crusts.Isherwood’s hand can best be seen in a sequence dealing with Sir Cedric as Pavan’s court astrologer. He works with the aid of some kind of clairvoyant catamite (Marc Cavell), who does his actual crystal-gazing for him in a sweaty trance as Sir C. anoints his brow (anointy-nointy) with mystic unction. It’s the only scene that builds up any kind of melodramatic frenzy. Even when Sir Roger de Moore gets a lance through his head, the film barely rouses itself from torpor. This is the “heavy flow” variety of period movie.With Lana leading the charge, it ought at least to provide camp hilarity, but David Miller, who extracted some fine teeth-gnashing from La Crawford in SUDDEN FEAR but seems paralysed by respectability in this one. And Cinemascope, which he allows to prevent him getting close to anything that happens. Three years after NIAGARA, he hasn’t heard of the Marilyn Monroe Doctrine, which basically goes, “You CAN shoot me in tight close-up, we already established in the previous shot that I have a top to my head.”Walter Plunkett does a marvelous job with the costumes, but it would be just as much fun to watch them on mannequins.

The McCarey Treatment

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 5, 2018 by dcairns

Revisiting Leo McCarey for an upcoming project. MY FAVORITE WIFE recombines so many of the successful elements of THE AWFUL TRUTH it’s practically a remake, or else a dream-sequel. Like the earlier film, it ends at a mountain cottage, modeled on the one McCarey owned for real, but just before filming began, McCarey was driving back from that cottage at night at ninety miles an hour (drink may have been taken, a hypothesis strengthened by the presence of Gene Fowler in the passenger seat) when he collided with another vehicle. The accounts don’t bother to relate what happened to the non-famous collidee, but McCarey was thrown 126 feet from his tumbling vehicle, suffering serious injuries, and Fowler was pronounced dead at the scene — only to surprise everyone by coming round in the ambulance.

So McCarey was chairbound during production of MFW, leaving Garson Kanin to take over most of the direction, with McCarey supervising as best he could. Kanin is usually blamed for the film not being quite as good as the incomparable THE AWFUL TRUTH, though he could be a very good director of comedy (BACHELOR MOTHER is terrif). I’d rather blame McCarey not being in top form, for obvious reasons.

The movie begins with Grant attempting to declare one wife dead so he can marry another — Gail Patrick, screwball comedy’s perennial other woman. There’s a marvelously tetchy judge, played by Granville Bates — Peter Bogdanovich would recycle the character as Liam Dunn in WHAT’S UP, DOC?* McCarey is using his own experience as an unsuccessful lawyer here, but he reports that Patrick, who had studied law, also helped.

Then Irene Dunne turns up as the not-dead wife. Basically, she’s Ulysses, come to slay his wife’s suitors. McCarey emphasises this by having her show up in drag, as a Portuguese fisherman, and having the family dog be the only one to immediately recognise her. This being a screwball, she doesn’t physically slaughter Gail Patrick, she just bamboozles her and produces a series of confusions and impersonations, including an embarrassing southerner routine self-plagiarised from THE AWFUL TRUTH.

Reacting to the sight of one’s children after seven years’ separation is a tough task for any actor. The divine Irene overdoes it a bit. In the unfinished remake, SOMETHING’S GOT TO GIVE, Marilyn Monroe tries to underplay, but just manages to look as if she wants to have sex with her children.

Grant’s first sight of Dunne is one of the great double-takes of the forties. In Japanese tradition, by the way, if you get a partially occluded view of a dead loved one (as in Miike’s AUDITION), it means said departed one has unfinished business, which Dunne certainly do, I mean does.

The scenario keeps ringing the changes on Grant’s failure to inform his new wife about his late wife, cunningly devising situations where he can make the worst possible decision. But the sit. can’t keep generating com. all by itself forever, and so a new romantic rival is introduced, health fanatic Randolph Scott, who it turns out has spent the seven years of Irene’s supposed death on an island with her, shipwrecked and alone. Calling each other Adam and Eve, continuing the mythic theme. This, deliciously, allows Grant to obsess over Scott, supposedly with jealousy, but with a double entendre for anyone aware of the Hollywood lore about this cohabiting pair. A tiny phantasmal homunculus of Scott torments Grant’s imagination from a trapeze. Scott’s physique makes Grant break out in a sweat.

Grant’s character, by the way, is Nick Arden, the surname suggesting Shakespeare’s forest in AS YOU LIKE IT where names and jobs and genders become comically fluid. The first name comes into play in the movie’s final mythic reference ~

*Bogdanovich would also borrow some of McCarey’s reminiscences about his lawyering days for the opening of NICKELODEON. And he seems to have borrowed large parts of Serge Daney & Louis Scorecki’s interview in Cahiers du Cinema for his own McCarey interview in his magnificent book Who the Devil Made It? It seems likely that Bogdanovich met McCarey and got the anecdotes about the early parts of his life on tape, but McCarey’s rapidly failing health prevented him from going on. At any rate, many of the longer answers in Bogdanovich’s piece are word-for-word the same as those in the earlier interview, a remarkable feat of memory for a dying man.