Archive for Mary Astor

Wagner’s Wrong Cycle

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2019 by dcairns

“Stand there, Bob. No, elbow up a bit. Turn your head a fraction…”

Hollywood started going weirdly wrong in the fifties, I think. Competing with TV, which in those days had really great scripts and acting but looked essentially like Mr. Magoo’s Dream of Hell, Hollywood countered with some terrible scripts and elevated a lot of attractive non-actors to leading roles.

A KISS BEFORE DYING isn’t an appalling piece of writing, but the need to render the central literary trick of Ira Levin’s source novel in cinematic terms robs it of most of its bite, and the dentition is further eroded by the casting of bores and incompetents in the leads, with one more skilled player so miscast her abilities wrench the whole thing in the wrong direction. True, the casting of Robert Wagner as a killer of women is… suggestive. Titillating, even, in a deeply wrong way. And it’s true that Wagner’s blandness shows some sign of becoming a positive dramatic force — he IS the banality of evil — in this unfamiliar context. Mark Cousins recently introduced me to RW’s early appearance in WITH A SONG IN MY HEART, where he plays a traumatised veteran, and the contrast of his catalogue model beauty with the “troubled” label is as close to “electrifying” as one could ever speak of in relation to this player, who always seems smothered in insulation.

And that’s still the case in AKBD. If one reads about the life and death of Natalie Wood, RW emerges as someone with a definite dark side, even if you don’t think he’s guilty of or hiding anything beyond rowing with his wife and being a bit inept at calling in an emergency (I would say he might well be guilty of more than that, though the term “person of interest” never sat more uncomfortably on the shoulders of a movie star). But as the would-be serial unmarried young Bluebeard here, Wagner invests no malevolence, no cunning, no manipulation in the role, he just doubles down on his native blandness. (One exception: the character’s nastiness to his dear mother, played by a rare Technicolor Mary Astor, makes you want to stab him.)Uh-oh.

OK, so that could actually work, even if it’s a side-effect of somebody’s casting error rather than an inspired choice (and you just can’t tell with Wagner) but who do we have as the good guys? Uh oh.

Jeffrey Hunter is the studious young man who tries to thwart Wagner’s proto-uxoricide (is there a word for killing your betrothed? Anyone writing about this story needs such a word). Hunter, unlike Wagner, is a man who shows clear signs of wanting to act, so he dons glasses and clenches a pipe between his pearly whites I refer to his teeth, not his butt cheeks, as you might suppose)… and that’s it for performance. Can you wonder that, despite yielding to no man in my admiration for Nick Ray, I have never made it through THE TRUE STORY OF JESSE JAMES, or if I have, I can’t remember it? What stops me making another attempt on that Everest of tedium is that I might be wasting my time, having already accomplished the feat only to have it slip from my memory like an unusually dull bar of soap. That one also has both Wagner and Hunter as leads — the Dream Team! In that you actually fall asleep watching them.Then we have Virginia Leith, evidently also being groomed for stardom — thrust upon the blameless public. She’s really, um, “good” in THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE, in that she invests lines like “No, my deformed friend, like all quantities, horror has it’s ultimate, and I am that,” with exactly what they seem to demand, whatever that is. Here, she’s lost, just uninterestingly terrible, and the script loses focus whenever she’s around, since it wants us to be on her side as she investigates her sister’s death, and still on her side when she refuses, against all reason, to believe in Wager’s guilt. Very hard for an actor to put over, and completely impossible for poor Virginia, who is very attractive I must say.

Joanna Woodward is the miscast one, the only lead who can act: she’s studied her part and deduced that the character written as a doting nitwit must be played as such, an unavoidable conclusion for a method actor but the wrong choice for this hokum. (Look at Mia Farrow’s far more sympathetic, less distanced performance in ROSEMARY’S BABY, from another Levin book about a deceived and betrayed woman.) If they’d only swapped Leith and Woodward around, I think you’d have something: Leith’s lack of experience/skill would allow her to play dim naturally, without knowing she was doing it, and maintain our sympathy without trying, and Woodward could invest her shrewdness in playing the wilful, sharp (some of the time) and passionate heroine.

Astor is good but there isn’t enough of her. Dear old George Macready is acting for five, and it’s not like I don’t appreciate the effort but maybe not now, George?

Gerd Oswald directs, his camera leering-looming-lurching in for dramatic close-ups, unsubtle but certainly appropriate, and the whole production gleams dumbly. I love Technicolor, part 2.

There is a love song, “A Kiss Before Dying,” playing on every juke box in this movie, and nobody says “What a weird idea for a song!”

Oh, and the credits have kissy lipsticks all over them, which is particularly curious with Wagner and Hunter being top-billed.

A KISS BEFORE DYING stars Prince Valiant; Jan in the Pan; Teenage Jesus; Clara Varner; Miss Wonderly;  Count Yorga, vampire; and General Mireau.

Talking, pictures

Posted in FILM, Radio with tags , , on September 26, 2018 by dcairns

The final Y of WONDERLY is thrown across Mary Astor’s face as she exits THE MALTESE FALCON.

And THE SHADOWCAST is coming!

Fiona and I have recorded episode one of our own podcast. Still editing, deciding on a theme tune (exciting!) and figuring out platforms and cost/profit analysis. Something like that. But SOON!

Maybe we’ll do it… monthly? Does that seem enough? Any other suggestions — topics, format, etc? The first episode is one discussion about three related films, I can reveal. Further installments may mix things up more, and we could have GUESTS.

 

AirFix

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2013 by dcairns

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THE LOST SQUADRON is another RKO pre-code about stuntmen — again, like LUCKY DEVILS, it stars one of KING KONG’s leading men (Robt Armstrong this time) and has optical effects work by Vernon Walker (also famed for his CITIZEN KANE transitions). One can actually see a plan emerging, with RKO trying to make big pictures based around spectacle rather than expensive stars. Though this one does have Richard Dix, Joel McCrea and Erich Von Stroheim, which is not bad going.

Opening sequence is a WWI dogfight, with an unusual system of superimposed emblems to allow us to tell the Americans from the Germans. It’s distracting and weird, and may have been a last-ditch effort to clarify an incoherent mixture of stock shots (HELL’S ANGELS?) and studio closeups of indistinguishable aviators — but I’m a sucker for the peculiar so I became fond of the device, and longed to see it used elsewhere. A German insignia could have been superimposed whenever Stroheim appeared, for instance.

The three heroes (plus a subdued Hugh Herbert, with nary a “Woo-woo!” upon his lips) survive the Great War and vow never to part, but do — most of them become freight-train-riding hobos, but Robt strikes it rich and then gets his pals jobs as fliers on Stroheim’s latest epic. This happens to star Mary Astor, who threw Dix over for Von, and so the stage is set for jealousy and sabotage. These tough guys survived the War but can they survive Hollywood?

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Walker contributes a nice optical tilt down from the fake neon sign advertising a Von movie, on to real footage of a Hollywood premiere — a very simple version of KANE’s most amazing trick effect, tilting down from a miniature statue of George Coulouris and pull back onto a full-size set in what looks like a single, seamless shot, but isn’t.

The first big chunk of this is pretty slow and flat — George Archainbaud was never a lively director. Herman Mankiewicz contributed some dialogue and this results in the verbal component of the film occasionally sparking to life, but it also makes the characters seem pretty inconsistent (except for Robt, who’s consistently soused to the gills).

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The last third perks up considerably — there’s been a change of cinematographer, and the climax takes place in a moody half-light, with a constant howling wind outside. The least appealing of the protagonists has been dispatched, and though Mary Astor doesn’t get any more screen time, the film otherwise plays to its strengths and gets up a bit of real atmosphere.

As with LUCKY DEVILS, the glimpses of behind-the-scenes action are the main pleasure, more interesting here than the admittedly spectacular (but infrequent) bi-plane crack-ups.