Archive for Natalie Wood

Ned Land Ahoy

Posted in FILM, literature, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2021 by dcairns

So, first Lana Wood finally confirms the rumours of her sister Natalie’s account of being raped by Kirk Douglas. I’d long been inclined to believe this rumour, not religiously or anything, it just seemed likely to be true based on Douglas’ character as he presented it himself. “I didn’t become a nice guy until after my stroke,” he said. His memoir is a saga of sexual conquests, with a meaningless anecdote about Wood as a young girl dropped in for no comprehensible reason, right before he tells us about his affair with Evelyn Keyes, a married woman at the time. So, even though Dennis Hopper was one source for this story (“Not a reliable witness” according to a judge who heard his testimony in an unrelated case), I found it credible. There didn’t seem any reason for inventing it.

It was, however, a coincidence that led us to watch the 1916 version of 20, 000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, in whose remake Douglas would star forty-eight years later. And we didn’t know, going in, that the film’s plot would eerily turn on a whole succession of fate-worse-than-death tropes. Kind of strange.

The film is available — FINALLY! — from Masters of Cinema as centrepiece of their Early Universal Vol. 2 box set. As one might expect from its being a very early feature film, it’s a mixture of the surprisingly skilled and the clunkingly naive. The blame for the bad and the credit for the good belongs to the film’s director and writer, Glaswegian Stuart Paton. His script is pretty terrible — he mashes up Verne’s novel with its sequel, Mysterious Island, resulting in two lots of heroes who never interact, dividing the action between them, slowing narrative development to a crablike sidewise crawl and depriving most of his multitudinous heroes of anything dramatic to do. Ned Land, “prince of harpooners,” the Kirk Douglas character, ricochets a single spear off the Nautilus’ hull and then troubles us no more, except as a face in the crowd. When things get too slow, Paton adds an attempted sexual assault or three to spice things up. While the Kirk Douglas news story may have subconsciously inspired our viewing of the film, only the long arm of coincidence or synchronicity can account for this persistent theme of toxic masculinity.

On the other hand, his filming is often quite sophisticated for the period. The Williamson Brothers provided the production with special reverse periscopes for filming underwater, the full-sized Nautilus upper portions, and the biggish miniature for subsurface action, are impressive. As are some of his angles, such as a startling top-shot of Indians playing their tom-toms (!).

The only cast members to make much of an impression are Allen Holubar as Nemo, and Jane Gail as A Child of Nature, both in brownface, both fairly terrible. Gail goes Cavorting around the woodlands in a permanent state of pixilation: “Being a child of nature seems a lot like just being drunk,” Fiona observed. Nemo, coated in shoe polish with vivid white eyelashes, looks simultaneously exactly like Santa Claus and exactly like a Woodsman from Twin Peaks season 3. Never not disturbing. The idea of either figure being in charge of a submarine is somehow deeply wrong. In fairness to Holubar, one never suspects him of being in his early thirties, or of being about to drop dead, both of which he was. One never suspects him of being an Indian submariner either.

The film is very worth seeing — “dated,” lavish, loopy, sophisticated and primitive. If Paton had any idea of narrative structure it would be a lot more watchable than it is, but it piles on enough spectacle and absurdity and innovation — there are flashbacks and dream sequences and giant sets as well as the aquatic footage — to be consistently surprising.

I may have to see more work from my crazy countryman — Kim Newman in the extra features suggests THE HOPE DIAMOND MYSTERY, another Indian-themed epic with Boris Karloff in one of his early Asian roles.

Captain X

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 25, 2019 by dcairns

It was DER REST IST SCHWEIGEN that gave me the idea of re-watching THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR. Kautner steals the image of the painting seen in a dark room which looks like a person — his swipe is a nicely done variation, though: the room is all dark, but the painting has its own illumination, which comes on a second before the rest of the lights.

But Mankiewicz did it first in this, perhaps his most visually beautiful and imaginative film.

JLM is sometimes criticised for prioritising words, and there are places in each film where this maybe becomes a slight issue. THE LATE GEORGE APLEY, an underrated film I think, makes a big thing of Peggy Cummins’ wedding dress — but then never lets you see it properly. And here, Natalie Wood is delighted as her name is carved in a marker at the beach, with the man telling her he’s made the lettering big so the ships can see it. But it’s facing the land! Yes, I’m a pendantic swine, but I always hold that kids are pedantic too.

It’s a very funny film too, but it always brings a tear to my eye. First time it happens is Gene Tierney saying “It’s hard to imagine you as an ordinary anything,” to Rex Harrison’s ghost and the LOOK he gives her — an indefinable mixture of pride, complacency, tenderness and adoration. And Bernard Herrmann’s score is part of it, and all the rest.

Tierney was supposed to be Katharine Hepburn, who would have brought more eccentricity — from the outside, it’s the story of a crazy lady — but Tierney makes it sexier, I think. She’s not the actress Hepburn was, but she really grows into it — her old-age acting is very understated and effective. Harrison is playing a character where he has to put on a voice for the whole film — and he can do it. He’s one of the two greatest light comedians the screen has known (Cary Grant’s the other) and so if you make things hard for him, he just gets better — or that’s the impression he gives here.

Also, BLITHE SPIRIT has given him invaluable experience of spiritism cross-talk.

“What we’ve missed… what we’ve both missed,” is the second teary moment. The climax of a Grand Speech (do we suppose Mank rewrote Philip Dunne’s script a fair bit?)

It’s also an interesting test case of Bernard Herrmann’s scoring — how he can do stuff that is, in theory and by any logic, too heavy and overpowering for the material, and make it absolutely right. So that I don’t know that I believe Elmer Bernstein’s thing about how Herrmann would have overwhelmed MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS by treating it as “a Train of Death” rather than as a cosy and nostalgic romance of steam. Herrmann seems to demonstrate consistently that he can make stuff work in better and less expected ways by taking it much, much too seriously. It would be awful if he wasn’t so brilliant.

“With Captain Gregg? With the ghost of Captain Gregg?” That one caught me off-guard. The ghost has been an imaginary friend to Mrs. Muir’s daughter, who still remembers him now she’s grown up. (Wipes away manly tear.)

The film does something really lovely with fantasy — the idea that we may have fantastical characters in our lives, only we’re not allowed to remember them, or entirely believe in them.

And then the ending.

THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR stars Laura Hunt; Professor Henry Higgins; Addison DeWitt; Flying Officer Bob Trubshawe; and Daisy Clover.

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.