Archive for Maureen O’Hara

The Sunday Intertitle: Duller in Pink Tights

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on April 15, 2012 by dcairns

LADY GODIVA. This Vitagraph film inspired by Tennyson’s poem highlights the nonsensical aspects of the story nicely. It’s the tale of a grasping earl who refuses his wife’s pleas to lower taxes unless she rides naked through town. The townsfolk of Coventry recognize the nobility of her cause and agree to look away, all except for one sleazebag, who is struck blind for his troubles.

The dictates of melodrama require Peeping Tom to appear early on, cackling and stroking his chin in an obviously wicked manner. He’s played, hilariously, by an actor named Harold Wilson — I’m surprised this film wasn’t revived as propaganda against the Wilson government. Tom/Harold is showing wicked delight just at the prospect of being taxed to starvation, which makes little obvious sense — I guess he’s somehow thinking “I’m going to starve, but at least — somehow — I feel that I’m going to get to see some skin.”

The Earl is also characterized as a nasty piece of work — something in the way he angrily tosses a piece of parchment on the floor suggests an ill-tempered swine, although we have no idea what was written on the parchment. Maybe he was just offended by the texture of the paper.

It’s likewise unclear why he demands this strange behaviour from his wife. I guess the logic might be, “If you really cared for the poor, your own modesty wouldn’t be as important as improving their lives,” but it requires quite a leap to even get to that point. I have to assume that the Earl has never seen his wife naked and has fixed on this whole thing as a desperate ploy.

Mrs Godiva then tells the townsfolk what she’s going to do and they all agree not to look. Cue the money shot, with Lady G’s golden tresses artfully arranged to conceal her bosom, and a horse strategically placed in front of her to conceal — no, she’s definitely wearing a big pair of panties. Stop sniggering. It’s the correct term.

Peeping Tom is sat at home, looking drunk and altogether miserable, when suddenly an intertitle gives him an idea of boring a hole in his shutters — Harold Wilson then gives a quite distressingly convincing impersonation of being struck blind.

The audience, meanwhile, gets to see everything he failed to see, and is NOT struck blind. Certainly not immediately. The power of cinema!

Mrs G gets back home and hurries indoors — no suggestion that she’s found her nudity liberating at all, and certainly no sign that being “clothed in her virtue” has been beneficial to morale — she just seems humiliated and terrified. She pauses at the threshold to give a dramatic, but impossible-to-interpret “Heil Hitler” gesture.

Apparently there’s no question of the Earl going back on his word, insane wagers being legally binding at the time, so the taxes are slashed and everybody’s happy. It’s not altogether clear, since apparently nobody at all saw Mrs Earl on her nude equestrian spree, how they can even be sure it happened. It seems like a pretty good religious metaphor.

(I don’t know how long I put up with prayer in school assembly before wondering what would happen if I didn’t take part. So I opened my eyes and looked around. Everybody else had their eyes closed, including the teachers, so there was no possibility of my atheism being detected. I kept waiting for someone else to look up and meet my gaze, maybe wink. Nobody ever did.)

Of course, what everybody basically remembers about Lady Godiva is the naked joyride, not the noble intent — that’s the most realistic aspect of the story. If it happened for real, the townsfolk would happily retain their taxes but they’d still regard Godiva as some kind of slut. Peeping Tom would take her picture for the Coventry Peeper, and everybody would buy it with the money they’d saved in taxes. And very few of them would find that an odd contradiction.

Look! Here’s the “nude” scene from the 1955 version with Maureen O’Hara. Interestingly, Peeping Tom is blinded not by divine justice per se but by a big bloke with a flaming torch. Seems a bit extreme. It’s all quite atmospherically staged with the clip-clop hoofbeats on the soundtrack and the languid tracking shots past crowds of men straining every fibre of their being not to peep.

Woman Error

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 6, 2011 by dcairns

There’s a blogathon going on! Tony Dayoub’s Cinema Viewfinder Nicholas Ray celebration was a welcome incentive to return to a favourite filmmaker’s oeuvre — I leapt at the chance to view and write about the only Ray film I’d never watched at all, the reputedly minor opus known as A WOMAN’S SECRET.

I went in expecting little — programmers like KNOCK ON ANY DOOR, RUN FOR COVER and BORN TO BE BAD are perfectlyenjoyable, but don’t let Ray flex his cinematic muscles much — as with the very different Von Sternberg, for whom Ray subbed on MACAO, he didn’t seem to commit fully to films that didn’t excite him. But I enjoyed this one: the titular SECRET is ambiguous, the tone uncertain, the structure wobbly, but all that adds a kind of intrigue and unpredictability to a first viewing. I’d never call this a major film, but it’s pleasingly flaky, and it doesn’t give up its mysteries.

Ray is at RKO, where he did some good work, and he’s in the hands of fellow tippler Herman J. Mankiewicz, as producer and screenwriter, which must’ve been interesting, if Ray’s fraught experience with Budd Schulberg on WIND ACROSS THE EVERGLADES is anything to go by. It looks as if Mankiewicz had noticed that CITIZEN KANE’s flashback-investigation structure was becoming popular in films like THE KILLERS and LAURA, and resolved to swipe it himself (well, he helped invent it in the first place) — so the movie begins with a near-fatal shooting and proceeds to examine the lead-up through the eyes of various interested parties.

Sorta funny/sick the way Gloria Grahame is left unattended on the floor with a bullet in her for long stretches of dialogue.

Mankiewicz can’t quite make up his mind who his main character is, which creates a stimulating muddle: first we get ex-singer Maureen O’Hara, who claims to have fired the shot (which perforated protege Gloria Graham), but the investigation is taken up by their pal, Melvyn Douglas. he’s playing a popular radio personality and music expert / musician, of the temperamental genius/wit variety, so in theory it’s like having Oscar Levant as a detective, which is a wonderful idea. Melv’s casting smooths off some of the gloriously absurd edges of that premise, but it’s still good for some entertainment value.

And so the story moves on, with Douglas narrating his experiences to detective Jay C. Flippen, the man with the face of a tick, then a variety of characters giving their part of the story. Bill Williams figures in as a bullish ex-serviceman somehow mixed up with the ladies’ past, and then Flippen’s wife (Mary Philips) weirdly hijacks the narrative, an armchair detective and mystery fan who can’t resist getting mixed up in her husband’s cases.  It doesn’t make any sense for this comedy character to turn up, stealing fire from our other novelty investigator (both Melvyn and Mary deserve a series of their own!) and cracking the case with a mixture of idiocy, intuition and boundless self-confidence.

One thing this movie helps with is clearing up the CITIZEN KANE authorship debate (if anyone’s still in doubt). See, this movie is Mankiewicz’s baby, with Ray a hired gun brought in to execute it. Mank wrote and produced it. He did a perfectly good job, with even the weird lacunae and ambiguities adding interest. But there’s absolutely no artistic ambition at work: all he wants is a nice little melodrama. Without Welles’ drive and imagination and will to achieve the impossible, Mankiewicz was little more than a heap of kindling without a spark.

And a slow sapphic subtext builds nicely —

Y’see, not only do Maureen and Gloria live together, but they took a trip to Paris together and Maureen says she regards Gloria as an extension of herself. It’s all a bit suggestive, although the scene where Grahame first demonstrates her singing ability is carefully played — she sings to Melvyn, who looks at Maureen, who looks at Gloria.

Another scene, at a cafe in Algiers, has an ambiguous reaction from two old duffers when Melvyn embraces Grahame. Are they dismayed that she’s got a man, or dismayed that he’s got a woman? These are two gentlemen vacationing together in North Africa, so I wondered. The reaction made is a sort of expulsion of air through the lips — not a razz, but something looser. here, I’ll do it for you. Like that, you understand?

And this is how Jay C Flippen reacts to Melvyn Douglas’s lunch invitation.

Of course, these actresses, though not devoid of camp value, certainly don’t strongly suggest lesbian vibes, but anything that makes a film more interesting is a worthwhile reading, no? And the film has a certain shambolic quality that encourages one to look between the lines, because the gaps there are pretty huge. For one thing, it’s not 100% certain which woman it is who has the secret, and the movie never actually explains why O’Hara has told a self-incriminating lie. Her abrupt romantic feelings for Douglas at the end certainly seem like a classic Hollywood dash away from incriminating material.

Still, Ray is in full control of his mise-en-scene, even if he doesn’t have the opportunity to really push it into the neurotic and intense terrain that suited him best. My friend Chris “Chainsaw” Bourton once pointed out to me how Ray will do anything to avoid shooting straight shot-reverse-shot dialogue scenes, and there’s a good example of that in the first scene here — in this argument prior to the shooting, Grahame moves up and down a flight of stairs, followed by the panning camera. This means that while all of her lines are covered by one set-up (with a changing composition), each of the cutaways back to O’Hara is taken from a different camera position to make the eye-lines match.

Since this means shooting more angles (on one character) than a static scene, and angles = time which = money, you have to know that Ray really wanted this effect and thought it worth spending the studio’s money on.

Little things like this aren’t the secret (that word again) of Ray’s brilliance. But they do point to the care he took and his desire to avoid the predictable patterns of shot-reverse-shot, where the audience can settle into being subconsciously confident that they know what they’re going to see next. With Ray, you never know.

The Male Gaze

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on August 4, 2009 by dcairns


One of my favourite non-Laughton moments from William Dieterle’s film of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. While Maureen O’Hara has her eyes on higher things, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, his name come to resemble some CARRY ON film joke, stares fixedly down her cleavage. For what seems like minutes on end.


It characterizes the old devil pretty strongly, of course, and is just subtle enough to escape censorship (the fact that they’re in church would be sure to raise Joseph Breen’s hackles if he drew the dotted line), not because there’s anything covert about Hardwicke’s attentions, but purely because the dialogue goes on as if it weren’t happening. O’Hara seems sort-of aware of the fixed stare, but can’t mentally process the information — it’s cognitive dissonance — he’s a priest FFS! — so acts as if it isn’t happening.

My own attachment to this film is unshakeable. I saw it as a kid, having read about it in monster movie books, and while it’s emphatically not a monster movie, my inherent tendency to find monsters sympathetic found a natural home here. I thought the action climax was as exciting as THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (and I related more to Laughton than Flynn), and the sad ending prepared me for future tragic conclusions. (Very important to carefully introduce kids to downbeat endings, I feel. If they don’t see any, they grow up stunted, as audience members anyway. On the other hand, I wouldn’t start them off with ONIBABA.) Of course, Victor Hugo’s original ending kills about everybody, and I’d still love to see that version filmed (see LA REINE MARGOT for a full-on Hugo bloodbath), the Hollywood compromise is pretty decent. What’s shameful is the Disney version’s ending — their movie has some really splendid stuff, especially the overture, but cops out on Quasimodo’s deafness (can’t have a non-singing hero!) and trumps up a really disgraceful and dishonest happy ending.

If Quasi doesn’t get the girl, Quasi is not happy, OK?


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