Archive for Marjorie Rambeau

Tickling the Rivalries

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2017 by dcairns

Really not impressed with Feud, Ryan Murphy’s miniseries about the Bette and Joan conflict on and around WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? One expects the thing to be camp and trashy, and that’s fine, I guess, but does it have to be so tone-deaf, so inaccurate? It was inevitable it would seize on every rumoured ruction from the set of that film, but the weirdly OFF stuff just keeps striking me — the young actress who asks for an autograph from Joan (Jessica Lange) and then says, “It’s for my grandmother. She’s been a fan of yours since she was a little girl.” Joan Crawford was in her mid-fifties. I think, in a show about actresses battling industry ageism, keeping the actual ages of the participants clear is important, and shouldn’t be thrown into confusion for the sake of, basically, a mean joke.

Also, it’s one of those shows that’s wall-to-wall exposition — writers of fact-based stuff today seem to struggle with delivering information convincingly.

I should say that Fiona quite enjoys the show, and is reading Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud. But this led to us running TORCH SONG, in search of some real Crawford kitsch, and my Christ it delivers.

We see THIS a few minutes in. Admittedly, we’ve already seen Crawford herself, who is scary-looking already at this pre-horror-movie point in her life, with what Fiona called “apricot hair” and pretty much an apricot face too. Still, the cardboard version is so startling it should have really come with a warning. A Horror Horn or something to let you know it’s coming. With usherettes dispensing laudanum.

Of course, what the misbegotten venture is best remembered for is something else, but I’ll be more considerate than the movie and give you due notice that a truly alarming image is coming your way.

Meanwhile — script is co-written by John Michael Hayes who wrote some of Hitchcock’s best, but had a regrettable tendency to archness. He’s joined by Jan Lustig, who has distinguished credits too, and by I.A.R. Wylie, who seems more of a Pat Hobby type — except the I. stands for Ida. “I’m going to give them the best that’s in me, no matter who, what or when tries to stop me.” That’s a tricky line to account for. Unless Crawford garbled it and they just left it in, whichever scribe was responsible must have known it was gibberish, but presumably they thought it was clever gibberish. It ain’t.

Crawford’s character is a complete bitch, a showbiz diva who fires a blind man and browbeats and insults everyone in (her) sight. (Or almost: she’s civil with her super-efficient secretary/PA, Maidie Norman, who’s black. The racial insult comes by separate post…) The fact that she’s apparently lonely and cries herself to sleep at night doesn’t redeem her. The movie seems to believe that we’re somehow going to root for her to find love, even though evidently her search for it will involve just being mean to people for ninety minutes. They haven’t quite worked out how to make nastiness a compelling trait, by revelling in it unapologetically.

People we do like in the film — Michael Wilding, the blind pianist, who just does his usual unassuming chap act; Marjorie Rambeau, who is magnificent as Joan’s lovely, boozy mom (“I didn’t know you was comin’ or I’d a gotten some high-class beer”); Harry Morgan, also mild and unassuming. Despite these laid-back performers around her, Joan keeps giving it both knees, as the Germans say. Which is appropriate to the role she’s been given

Her dancing here is better than her mad auntie gyrations in DANCING LADY — maybe she just couldn’t tap, or maybe skilled dance director Charles Walters has restrained her dancing in a way he couldn’t do for her acting. But he does allow her to perform “Two-Faced Woman” in blackface, so we can’t give him too much credit. Of all the mystifying errors of taste in this movie, this one… well, is that sufficient warning?

I’m trying and failing to imagine ways this could be worse. After Joan rips off her black wig to reveal her rigid apricot tresses, she could rip those off and reveal a bald cap, like Constance Towers in THE NAKED KISS, and then she could rip her whole face off and reveal one of the skull-aliens from THEY LIVE, and then she could rip that off and reveal Don Knotts. Nope. Still not worse than what the movie gives us.

Robert Aldrich eventually came to feel — rightly — that casting ageing actresses in horror roles was “kind of cruel.” SUNSET BOULEVARD and BABY JANE and their imitators play remorselessly on a legitimately disturbing theme, the point where the age-inappropriate goes so far as to surpass embarrassment, comedy, and pity, and break through into nightmare. TORCH SONG’s problems only very indirectly relate to Crawford’s age — only insofar as she’s no longer got the clout at the studio to get the best roles in the best movies. It’s true that she doesn’t look really attractive in it, and reviewers pointed this out, but that’s a flaw but not a fatal problem — the performance and the character are far more unattractive than her hard, unnatural look.

Still, it could’ve been worse. Joan recorded the songs herself, and was very unhappy when the studio replaced her singing. but she and we dodged a bullet. This YouTube clip compares the two vocal performances, but is far more interesting because it lets us hear Joan’s speaking voice — when she’s not acting or doing interviews (ie. acting). The feeling that emerges — which is a chilling one — is that she could have made an even more frightening Baby Jane Hudson than Bette Davis did.

It also opens up new and alarming possibilities for Faye Dunaway in MOMMIE DEAREST. Imagine if the regal tone dropped away whenever the media weren’t around… Maybe something as strange and extreme as that would have pushed Dunaway’s perf clean out the other side of camp and into the psychotic-uncanny?

Laughing at fading stars is a cruel spectator sport, whether it’s in BABY JANE or Feud — the horrible thing about TORCH SONG is that it’s useless for any other purpose.

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Love is Forbidden

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 22, 2014 by dcairns

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Hey look, it’s Pierre Blanchar! For realz.

Despite being directed by a German, Pabst’s MADEMOISELLE DOCTEUR is extremely French — for much of its running time it’s essentially a romance in which a variety of secret agents and double agents fail to do their patriotic duty because they’re all in love with members of the enemy sides.

When I started watching, I was quickly confused, owing to the less-is-more approach to subtitling. The fan who subbed it seems to have left out bits he found boring, and other bits he found too difficult, and with my concussed-schoolboy French I had no way of knowing which was which. And the plot seemed to be leaping arpund all over the place. Pierre Blanchar is introduced in prison, being recruited to betray his own side (the Germans, I think — it seems to be WWI) but then disappears for so long that when Jean-Louis Barrault turned up, with his similarly razorsharp cheekbones but looking otherwise not much like Blanchar, I thought it was him. Barrault buys a slice of melon from Louis Jouvet in an unusually intense manner and then disappears from the story completely.

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Romance! 

Everybody is in love with the wrong person — as in The Sea Gull or LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS. Viviane Romance loves Pierre Blanchar and betrays fellow agent Dita Parlo (the masterspy of the title) because she suspects he’s smitten with her. Blanchar is supposed to betray Parlo to the French but doesn’t because he IS smitten with her. Parlo is supposed to steal the secret plans from Pierre Fresnay but doesn’t because she’s smitten with him. Fresnay is completely in the dark about Parlo being an enemy agent so at least his being smitten with her isn’t treason, but it is undeniably a security risk. Jouvet alone remains uncompromised.

So with Topic A on everybody’s minds, I could relax about whether the Bulgarians were negotiating a separate peace — an impossible thing for anyone to get worked-up about, I’d have thought — and just enjoy the romantic angst amid seamy and exotic settings, as each of the cast attempts to out-louche the rest. Blanchar, sporting a fez, has an unfair advantage.

(Eric Ambler on loucheness and the art of spying.)

The rules of poetic realism demand that love end in tragedy, and by making everyone political enemies, most of them on the losing side in a global apocalypse, Pabst and his army of writers have stacked the deck admirably. We can’t predict just how it’ll turn out, but it is utterly impossible for it to end well for anyone. Still, the last scene’s entirely unromantic bleakness took me by surprise. You can either end up shot by firing squad, insane and mumbling, or lying dead in a heap of melons. C’est l’amour.

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The gang of writers, asides from the alluringly-named Irma Von Cube, include Herman Mankiewicz, and I’d love to hear the story behind THAT. Pabst had just returned from an unsuccessful stab at Hollywood*, so I supposed he made the future KANE scribe’s acquaintance while there. The thing hangs together pretty well despite the multitude of chefs, though somebody should have noticed that if Parlo needs Fresnay’s help in Act I because she can’t drive, it stretches credulity to have her nearly beat him an exciting car chase in Act III…

*Unsuccessful? A MODERN HERO features Marjorie Rambeau as an alcoholic one-armed ex-leopard trainer**. That one fact puts it ahead of Lewis Gilbert’s entire filmography.

**An ex-trainer of leopards. Not a trainer of ex-leopards. Because that would be stupid.

Rambeau: First Blood

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on November 24, 2011 by dcairns

Marjory Rambeau emotes in HER MAN, a sizzling pre-code under consideration today over at The Daily Notebook in this week’s The Forgotten. This is part of a new series — Forgotten Pre-codes, which shall run for… shall we say six weeks?

So you may not only ask about HER MAN (here or over at Mubi), but suggest interesting movies for me to look at in the coming weeks.