Archive for Mary Astor

Pg. 17, #3

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2020 by dcairns

Mackendrick accompanied Relph to Prague to scout locations. As always, his enthusiasm was tireless: Relph describes him “rushing up every steeple in Prague when you could see perfectly well from the ground that it wasn’t any good. But he would never take anybody else’s word.” Mackendrick, for his part, retorts that “Michael is covering up for the fact that he doesn’t like heights. One of the spires was very tall, with a tiny balcony and this terrific bird’s eye view of Prague. I managed to get Michael up the stairs, but when he got outside he turned his face to the wall and wouldn’t turn around. So he never saw the view.”

*

Checkmate. When you were interviewed by Bianco e Nero in 1958 you said that modern directors had eliminated the “problem of the bicycle.”

*

…Morning sunlight at the Onwentsia Club, where Father has just given me a beautiful pony of my own, a retired polo pony. I go riding with a groom from the club’s stables. My retired polo pony is, of course, neck-broken, he works with one hand, but I don’t know this and I must do something with the reins, because abruptly the pony has started back where we came from and I am swinging in the air on the other end of the reins doing the big loop.

*

It was altogether different in those days, because we had no dialogue or anything. I learned a great deal about pantomime from him, people telling the story just by their looks, their eyes and their hands. I learned about movement from him, of course, because most of his pictures were what we always called a “run-to-the-rescue.” That means that the girl is on the railroad tracks, the train is coming, her lover is coming on the horse and he gets her off just as the train goes by. All the pictures in the early days had that.

*

Most of the writers who have contributed to this dictionary belong either to the generation for whom Citizen Kane was the first great revelation of the cinema or to the generation for whom Godard’s A Bout de Souffle performed the same function. But they are alike in one very important respect: neither generation was brought up on silent film. Almost all the writers in the Dictionary discovered silent film after their experience of sound film. This is important, because they are therefore almost obliged to have a different view of montage.

*

The weird part of it is that it never occurred to anyone, including Clark and me, that all this might have had a bad effect on the mood, or on our ability to play a love scene convincingly. But that’s the way it was. The way it always is. The way it is today, on any movie set…

*

Of course, there was the zoo, with caged lions — that was before those ridiculous concrete rocks were built for them — and they made me cry. The seals, on the other hand, seemed to me to be happy; at least they had their water, and kilos of fish thrown to them by a keeper who addressed them only in German.

*

This week I excerpted only film books. It makes it harder to create a crazy mixed-up storyline or conversation, but what surprised me is that the coincidental connections created have little to do with film and more to do with transport.

They are: Lethal Innocence: The Cinema of Alexander Mackendrick, by Philip Kemp; Encountering Directors, by Charles Thomas Samuels (being flummoxed by Antonioni); Preston Sturges on Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges; Film Crazy: Interviews with Hollywood Legends, by Patrick McGilligan, interviewing Raoul Walsh (pictured) with Debra Weiner about D.W. Griffith; Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, edited by Richard Roud, from his introduction; Film Makers Speak, edited by Jan Leyda (the speaker is Mary Astor, referencing Clark Gable); Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used To Be, by Simone Signoret.

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.