Archive for Merle Oberon

Wallflower

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2019 by dcairns

A shot — just one of several — that got a WOW! from Fiona. From John Brahm’s film of THE LODGER.

The movie is full of bold images, courtesy of Brahm and Lucien Ballard. This one takes us by surprise since star Laird Cregar’s position has changed since we last saw him, and because, presented as co-star Merle Oberon’s POV (she and Ballard were married, and he lavishes care on her lighting), it seems an outrageous optical cheat: SHE hasn’t pressed her face to the wall to look at Laird. But in fact, the layout of the room makes the shot quite feasible. I wonder if the idea for the dramatic composition preceded and inspired the design, or followed on from it with James Basevi & John Ewing’s set giving Brahm the opportunity for a startling composition.

Merle walks blithely into a little nook of her dressing room. Cregar, having emerged from behind a screen, speaks off-camera ~

Merle turns, startled. And we cut to the image at top: the view from her nook.

Mr. Cregar is the subject of a profile I’ve written for The Chiseler, inspired a viewing of THIS GUN FOR HIRE: I hope you’ll read and share.

Expect more on TGFH and LODGER soon…

Also of note for noir-hounds: the great and powerful Imogen Sara Smith on DECOY.

 

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Forbidden Divas: “…And the Film is Pretty Long Too”

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2018 by dcairns

A new piece by David Melville Wingrove is always a cause for celebration at the Shadowplayhouse. I perhaps am more to be credited/blamed for this one than usual, because it was I suggested Charles Vidor’s final filmmaking attempt as a suitable subject, having an inkling that the Dirk Bogarde/Capucine friendship would be of interest… But which one’s the diva?

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

…And the Film Is Pretty Long Too

“God will not fail you, madam. I shall.”

          ~ Dirk Bogarde, Song without End

 A lavish 1960 biopic of Franz Liszt, Song without End throws up a number of fascinating questions in its 2-hour-and-10-minute length. From how many different angles is it possible to photograph one man playing a piano? In the mob of expensively costumed extras at a concert, which one has the whitest and most immaculately pressed kid gloves? And whose job was it to ensure that the innumerable candles in those ever-blazing candelabra were all of precisely the same length? Critics may complain that Lisztomania – the 1975 Ken Russell film with Roger Daltrey playing Liszt as a rock star and a line of chorines high-kicking on the composer’s enormous plaster cock – was one long and unpardonable lapse of taste. But that film at least was never dull. Song without End, alas, is seldom anything else.

Surely it need not have been this way? Song without End was the last film directed by Charles Vidor, a well-upholstered Hollywood hack who made his name with A Song to Remember (1945) – a luxuriantly cheesy biopic of Frédéric Chopin with Cornel Wilde looking soulful while Merle Oberon (as his mistress George Sand) looked dashing in a man’s suit. Vidor went on to make Gilda (1946) – one of the definitive films noirs – and The Loves of Carmen (1948) – a vividly vulgar adaptation of Prosper Mérimée’s tale of gypsy passion. (Both those films starred Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford, as sure an antidote to dullness as Columbia Pictures could find.) Ironically, Chopin and George Sand appear briefly at the start of Song without End. But even they are boring in this movie. Vidor died some time before shooting was complete and the more prestigious George Cukor was drafted in to finish the job. Sadly, the lavish but lifeless staging suggests that rigor mortis set in while Vidor was still at work behind the camera.

Not that the film lacks other claims to distinction. Song without End marked not only the beginning, but also the end, of Dirk Bogarde’s career as a Hollywood leading man. He portrays Liszt as a lusty piano virtuoso who longs to be taken seriously as a composer in his own right. He also has inexplicable leanings towards the Roman Catholic Church. He toys with the idea of taking holy orders and declares himself to be “part gypsy, part priest.” In most respects, Bogarde’s performance is a tour de force of tortured genius and charismatic egomania. Embarking on a concert tour of Russia, Liszt is warned by his manager that even Napoleon Bonaparte failed to conquer that vast country. Liszt answers, with a self-confident smirk: “Napoleon couldn’t play the piano.” In addition, Bogarde is one of the few leading actors whose physique looks well in tightly-tailored breeches and wasp-waisted frock coats. In that frightfully genteel sub-genre known as ‘Dirk Bogarde Porn,’ Song without End must rank very highly indeed.

The drawback is that Dirk Bogarde never seems gayer than on those (understandably) rare occasions when he is cast as a voracious heterosexual. At the start of the film, the script comes right out and asks us to believe that Franz Liszt has fathered a brace of children in an adulterous affair with a married French noblewoman, the Countess Marie d’Agoult (Geneviève Page). The action is set in the 1840s and we do know that artificial insemination was not widely practiced until at least a century later. Hence we are left wondering if these children are, in fact, a delusion. Could that be why they never appear on camera? The career of Franz Liszt appears to have been a lifelong orgy of sex and celebrity, in which he seduced ever so many women. But the only other one we see here is a glamorous but unhappily married Russian princess, Carolyne Wittgenstein, with whom he forms an obsessive and well-nigh mystical liaison. She is played by another Hollywood debutante, the statuesque French model Capucine. A lady of distinctly androgynous beauty, she was rumoured at various points in her career to be a bisexual, a lesbian and a man.

Of her performance in Song without End, the kindest thing to be said is that she wears an array of Jean Louis gowns more than adequately. Nor does she embarrass herself or anybody else by overacting. Driven by an insurmountable passion, Princess Carolyne signs away half of Ukraine to her ghastly husband (Ivan Desny) all in an effort to secure a divorce and become Liszt’s lawfully wedded wife. She is very devout and hence plagued by doubts of a largely – although, perhaps, not entirely – religious nature. When she and the countess come face to face, Carolyne feels compelled to quiz her rival on the minutiae of her conjugal relations with the Great Man. “Did he drive you there?” she asks her rival. “To paradise?” The dialogue is atrocious but the subtext, even so, is clear enough. The countess gives a wry smile and says: “He doesn’t know the road.” Song without End must be the one Hollywood film in which two love-crazed women pass the time by impugning the hero’s sexual prowess. All this might matter a lot less if we did not suspect they were right.

Ironically, Bogarde and Capucine became close friends while filming Song without End. This suggests, at the very least, that they enjoyed working together far more than audiences enjoyed watching the result. Unlike many of the people around him, Capucine encouraged Bogarde to accept his pioneering role as an embattled gay lawyer in Victim (1961). He did his best to return the favour, trying to persuade Luchino Visconti to cast Capucine as the aristocratic mother in Death in Venice (1971). Prompted perhaps by his Italian backers, Visconti refused and cast Silvana Mangano instead. (Dirk and Cap, who thought her vulgar and plebeian, referred to her privately as ‘Madame Mango.’) Later on in the 70s, Bogarde retired to the South of France to write novels, while Capucine sank into chronic depression and full-scale career meltdown. In 1982, she made the soft-porn film Aphrodite in which she was the only actor not to remove her clothes. She committed suicide in Switzerland in 1990 and Bogarde wrote a touching tribute on her death.

On the plus side, Song without End is quite magnificently photographed by James Wong Howe. In one scene, a dark-robed Capucine kneels in prayer on the far right of the Cinemascope screen. She is racked by guilt at her adulterous affair and tormented by her love for Franz Liszt. In the background on the far left, Bogarde hovers just out of focus like some beautiful ghostly mirage. The shot is a triumph of colour, lighting, composition and sheer visual finesse. But beautiful photos of nothing are still…well, not very much at all. Even the music – which includes Chopin, Beethoven, Handel, Verdi and Wagner, as well as Liszt – winds up sounding bland and identical, as if it had all been written under pseudonyms by Max Steiner. The saddest thing is that Song without End is not even convincingly bad, apart from one scene where Liszt rashly makes a return to his native Hungarian village. A mob of torch-wielding peasants show up and dance a riotous czardas on the doorstep. They even drag his piano out of doors, so he can play along merrily with their roistering.

Moments like this are like some nightmare vision from the worst 1920s operetta ever written. They are, alas, too rare to make Song without End into the egregious camp classic it has the potential to become. Instead, they serve to remind us of just how boring the rest of it actually is.

David Melville

All of the Cromwells

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2017 by dcairns

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John Cromwell cameos in ANN BICKERS as “sad-faced doughboy.”

I tweeted James Cromwell, actor and son of John Cromwell, to tell him about John Cromwell week, and he was nice enough to retweet me. And then kind enough to comment on my review of THE GODDESS.

Here is his Dad, in Anne Vickers, as “the lonesome soldier,” a memorable bit. Cromwell made almost as many walk-ons as Hitchcock. Lots to enjoy in this pre-code social drama on penal reform and women in the workplace. I never realised Sinclair Lewis, the original author, went in for ridicuous names — Walter Huston plays Barney Dolphin (his wife is Mona — but then, what goes well with Dolphin>), Edna Mae Oliver is Malvina Wormser, Sam Hardy is Russell Spaulding (not an African explorer), Murray Kinnell is Dr. Slenk and Mitchell Lewis rejoices in the name of Captain Waldo.

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Great montage of prison abuses, all filmed from Godlike high angle, presided over by a big floating head of Irene Dunne, regretful but powerless to intervene as she is just a big translucent head.

Apparently this movie, and SIGN OF THE CROSS, led directly to the forming of the Catholic Legion Of Decency (CLOD for short). I guess La Dunne does have extramarital affairs and pregnancies and DOESN’T DIE, which is of course the most immoral thing of all.

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BLIND PIANISTS

Sightless ivory-ticklers abound. In THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE, Herbert Marshall’s sonata serves as a kind of musical narrator for the story of Robert Young (disfigured pilot) and Dorothy McGuire (plain spinster) who discover their inner beauty under the influence of the titular love nest, which serves as a kind of stone tape, imbued with the happy memories of honeymooning couples. Sophisticated schmaltz of a higher order — each moment of crass tearjerking is balanced by sequences of surprising delicacy and intelligence, Young liked it so much he retired to a little home he named after the movie.

It’s moving and strange, which is what it ought to be. As is the Hollywood way, McGuire’s supposed homeliness is limited to a wig and unsympathetic lighting but Young’s war scars, though subtle, are actually kind of upsetting. The story has an awkward circle to square, asserting the importance of inner beauty while transforming its attractive stars back and forth between dowdied-down versions and glitzy showbiz icons. Val Lewton scribe DeWitt Bodeen contributed to the script, and it has a bit of the Lewton sense of the uncanny about it.

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In NIGHT SONG, Dana Andrews is a (convincing) pianist, embittered by his loss of sight. Merle Oberon seeks to overcome his trust issues by feigning blindness herself. Well, what could possibly go wrong with that bright idea? An impossible story premise enlivened by Hoagy Carmichael who redefines laconic minimalism, and Edith Barrymore, who acts for two.

This one is so set on being high-class and tony that it comes off a little dull, which I call The Merle Oberon Effect, but it’s beautifully made. David Wingrove says, “They show it all the time on Movies4Men. I’m not sure what kind of men they’re targeting.” Whenever I switch to that channel I get Cliff Robertson in a submarine.

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REVENGER’S TRAVESTY

In SON OF FURY, Roddy McDowell grows up to be Tyrone Power (well, there’s a KIND of continuity in that) driven by the ambition to punch George Sanders in his gloating, spud-like face. Frances Farmer and Gene Tierney provide distractions. Cromwell worked hard with Gene to scale down her thespic efforts, resulting in a simplicity that redeemed her earlier hysterical excess in BELLE STARR and THE SHANGHAI GESTURE: from here on in, she knew what she was doing. Lovely Hawaian love song scenes, and Sanders gets duly walloped. But he won the next round: to Sanders’ horror, Power died of a heart attack while filming their duel in SOLOMON AND SHEBA.

Also: Elsa Lanchester runs a grog shop. I’ve never consumed grog but I would force myself to acquire the taste.

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JC did a bit of filling-in on John Brahm’s entertainingly loopy GUEST IN THE HOUSE, previously addressed here. I think the really extreme shots evince Brahm’s expressionist bent, but who knows: Cromwell was no slouch, compositionally.

Except early on: DANCE OF LIFE is one of those early talkies where we’re always observing from the wrong distance and angle, a result of all those sound proof booths crowding round the cast like Daleks. A whey-faced youth called Oscar Levant can be glimpsed through the print scratches. At last, a pianist who can see, but wisely chooses not to.

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CRIME DOES NOT

THE RACKET should be fiery and terrific, but the original play has been laden with so many unnecessary scenes, mostly expositional and undramatic, it never seems to start. Blame Howard Hughes — Cromwell did a good job of escaping directorial duties on I MARRIED A COMMUNIST, a project every director in Hollywood seems to have been threatened with at one time or another. Cromwell said yes to all demands but stalled until his contract ran out, a wise course.

At least with Roberts Mitchum and Ryan, THE RACKET gives Cromwell great shoulders to frame his shots over.

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THE SCAVENGERS has sort-of interesting B-list talent (Vince Edwards, Carol Ohmart) but this Philipines thriller, from the tail end of Cromwell’s directorial career, suffers from a fairly hackneyed script and a music track that’s on random, behaving like a player piano that got hit during a saloon brawl. The dramatic cues always seem to come on seconds too late, or too early. The movie LOOKS pretty good, though, and gathers some conviction as it goes: Ohmart’s last scene has thrilling echoes of DEAD RECKONING.

AND THEN

There’s more, much more, to be enjoyed, often in convenient pairings: LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY and TOM SAWYER would make a fine double-feature, as might THE FOUNTAIN (Ann Harding) and UNFAITHFUL (Ruth Chatterton), while Canadian backwoods drama JALNA could pair up with the misbegotten SPITFIRE, in which Katharine Hepburn boggles every instinct known to man by playing a hillbilly (Appalachia by way of Bryn Mawr). Tex Avery did a pretty good Hepburn caricature, so I’m imagining this crossed with his LITTLE RURAL RIDING HOOD, La Hepburn opening doors with her prehensile toes, etc… Cromwell, of course, was well aware this casting was insane, but he was at RKO, so what could you do? Campaign for Ginger Rogers?

THE WORLD AND THE FLESH still seems to mark the moment when Cromwell really engaged with cinema, and it may have been motivated by his absolute contempt for the script, a farrago of Russian Revolution clichés and fantasies he knew to be utter bilge. Desperation breeds inspiration, and like Sidney Furie stamping on the script of THE IPCRESS FILE before making a masterpiece out of it, Cromwell energized his dormant stylistic powers, and increased in stature forthwith.