Archive for Natalie Wood

Wests Sides Stories

Posted in Dance, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2022 by dcairns

We watched the Wise/Robbins WEST SIDE STORY and the Spielberg together in one day, to see which is better — neither of us, disgracefully, had actually watched the original properly.

Verdict up front: the original is the better film, but the remake doesn’t disgrace it, and you can argue that it has a good reason to exist. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for Rita Moreno to act surrounded by white folks in shoe polish the first time. And Rachel Zegler is so adorable in the new one, it makes you think, There was a 1961 version of her out there, somewhere, who should have played that role but never had a shot at it.

On the other (west) hand… the play and the first film had an impeccably simple idea — Romeo and Juliet updated to NOW. Spielberg’s film has a weird idea — Romeo and Juliet updated to 1957. So he has to recreate, physically or digitally, all that stuff that was just THERE for Wise & co. And instead of making the story newly relevant to a contemporary audience, he’s SORT OF doing that, and sort of doing nostalgia? This slight confusion probably has more to do with the film’s failure to find a large theatrical audience than any issue of quality — it’s an enjoyable watch, probably more so if you haven’t been exposed to the original.

We definitely set Spielberg a difficult job, because the opening ten minutes + of the ’61 WSS are absolutely stunning. Impossible to top. Quite Spielbergian, in a way: high impact visual storytelling. A whole series of dramatic reveals done with the camera.

The bird’s-eye views of New York must have been staggeringly new at the time, but they’re still stunning, thanks to the sound/picture combo — whistling echoes from the shaded concrete canyons, impossibly clear and impossibly isolated from other city noise, but creating a thrilling sense of scale and mystery.

The film’s ONE zoom shot crashes in from a high angle and we IMMEDIATELY cut to a tight profile on Russ Tamblyn (the film’s real star — well, Mercutio is the most fun, or should be) and a series of jagged cuts that yank us back and make room for his finger-clicking cohort. The spatial jumps are so short it’s impressive that they work at all, without feeling ugly. It’s important to realise that Wise was an editor (KANE) and this is an editor’s film. Its best effects are all dependent on cutting.

But also framing, movement, and colour. Jerome Robbins may not fully deserve his co-director credit, except that the choreography is so crucial a part of the film that, yeah, he kind of does.

The opening is so good — a series of totally pre-planned in-frame DISCOVERIES, each one dazzling and exciting — that the rest of the film has a hard time living up to it. It’s very good, but only intermittently as EXTRAORDINARY as its start.

Spielberg starts with an aerial view also — if Wise’s film is a cutting film, Spielberg’s is all about crane shots. We’re closer to the ground — the echoing whistle is SUBTERRANEAN — and we’re looking at the ruined skeletons of fire escapes, a nice idea. Slum clearance — the Lincoln Center will rise here. Opening and closing the film in this locale (how much, if any, of this scenery is real?) is a neat idea — especially the ending. It feels post-apocalyptic by night, and it’s a shame Tony Kushner’s script has less talk of war.

I guess Spielberg HAD to change everything here — simply reproducing all the 1961 film’s choices would hardly have been respectable. But it inevitably means everything is either not quite as good or not nearly as good. Still good, I’d say. Just not at the sublime level of Version 0.1.

Even Wise can’t follow himself, so that as the films progress, Spielberg does gain ground. And I don’t fully understand the widespread negative reaction to Ansel Elgort. He’s not as pretty as Richard Beymer, it’s true, and maybe that’s mainly what we want from the part. But I found him in every other respect just as good. If the negative reaction was due to his alleged sexual misconduct, that’s entirely understandable, I too would rather Tony not be played by an alleged sex offender, but that’s not what people were saying was their reason.

The new movie is guilty of a heck of a lot of OPENING OUT, which should probably be a criminal offence. Hitchcock’s “do the play” approach may not be universally correct, but there are so many unintended consequences set off when you faithfully do a scene that was written to take place somewhere else. When “Gee, Officer Krupke” is relocated to a police station, Kushner has to contrive a situation where the kids can be alone to perform it, then has to contrive a situation where they all get released, and both solutions feel… contrived.

I’m prepared to admit that giving “Cool” to Elgort’s Tony actually makes the song more useful to the narrative — though it’s the original, with its fast low angle trackback, that made Fiona gasp.

But moving “I’m so Pretty” to late in the movie, after the deaths of two major characters, is a blunder. The song just washed over us, signifying nothing — our minds were literally elsewhere, on the drama now surging towards a climax while Maria is blissfully unaware. On paper that could be poignant. But the song wasn’t written with that in mind, and I think Bernstein & Sondheim were artful enough that they’d have written a different song for a different context.

Fiona points out that Spielberg DOES steal from Wise, just not from WSS. This reflection is pulled from THE HAUNTING, another Spielberg favourite he’s previously remade (very badly indeed). In the Shirley Jackson adaptation, Fiona says, the shot has a very specific meaning — Eleanor is already being absorbed into Hill House. In the Spielberg, it’s just an attractive shot.

Time and again, the Spielberg movie weakens the show’s effects by overcomplicating things. Removing “America” from its rooftop is acceptable, I guess, though keeping it there and using the modern screen’s ability to show a digital cityscape ought to have been irresistible. But here come the extras — here’s a random woman driving past — there’s such an accumulation of unnecessary STUFF.

And you are?

Spielberg doesn’t steal from Wise much but he does steal from himself, particularly the dancehall rumpus from 1941. And here are the heavily backlit cloths for people to appear behind as pastel wraiths — this one goes back to LAWRENCE OF ARABIA I think but Spielberg has been mimicking it endlessly.

There are moments in the Wise where he approaches the splendour of his opening. In “Quintet” — often, in the movie, I found myself wishing for the camera to push in, only for it to remain obstinately static. Here, it pushes in, and the sequence is AMAZING. The cross-cutting becomes absolutely magical — it gives the dramatic connectedness of disparate scenes a significance that transcends narrative and really becomes magic, in the sense of numinous or supernatural. The Spielberg sequence is… good. Decent. It’s been… opened out. He never actually wrecks a song, and if you compare his work with overedited garbage like CHICAGO you can genuinely admire his skill and restraint.

(Actually, maybe “Quintet” should really be done splitscreen, it’d be the only way to get everyone who’s singing in their own scenes on screen at once along with their voices…)

The ending. This is Wise’s other best moment. I think you could copy the effect of the shock tragedy — he actually makes it a shock, even when it’s been heavily telegraphed and we know our Shakespeare — without copying any of his shots or his exact cutting pattern. Spielberg chooses to throw out the underlying IDEAS and his version strikes me as simply ineffective.

Natalie Wood was always your go-to girl if you wanted hysterics, photogenic yet credible, and in the final scene she does walk all over Rachel Zegler. Surely, Zegler has the right to be there, not only by dint of race but by voice. Maybe she needed a merciless number of takes, Robbins-style, to break her down, or maybe she needed Ernest Lehman’s screenplay adaptation of Arthur Laurents’ book, not Tony Kushner’s.

“They even flubbed the ending,” mourned Fiona. The sensation of being in the presence of greatness was very much with me when the Sharks stepped in to help lift the fallen Jet. You can mess with other stuff in that sequence — Lehman, Wise & Robbins evidently wanted to keep it exactly like the play, and it worked perfectly, but you could get away with tinkering. But not with that moment. That’s what the piece is ABOUT. And to add insult, Spielberg chooses to fade out on the cops coming to arrest Chino, who has more backstory here but is still a minor character. It’s like the Hays-mandated ending of THE LETTER. Justice must be served. Appalling.

I haven’t talked about Rita Moreno yet, and I must. She more than earned her Oscar first time out. And she’s excellent here, and she again has a right to be here. Her insertion as a new character does do some violence to the story, though. I liked the original’s Doc (Ned Glass), who I take to be Jewish, an emigre, a survivor of an actual war who can comment on the gang war with the advantage of experience. (IS experience an advantage, though? Experience HURTS.) Doc does get a cameo here, photoshopped in.

Still, I can see why they did it, and even giving Rita a song, purloined from the lovers, kind of works. It’s still a song for them even if she sings it (beautifully). It’s an issue, though. Friar Laurence in R&J is a neutral figure, ideally placed to help the star-cross’d lovers. It kind of doesn’t make sense for her to be Puerto Rican and for the Jets to like her. The Jets are racist — even more so in the remake. The script attempts to cover this, and it’s not wholly successful. It’s passable. But still a weak area. Maybe it’s worth it, to include Rita, and not just as a meaningless cameo.

The other character I’d like to talk about is Anybodys, the tomboy, coded queer, in the original, who is maybe kinda proto-trans in the remake. And apparently trans is a superpower because they can punch out a swarm of policemen. Unless I missed it, nobody calls them by name, and they’ve lost most of their dialogue, which is a shame. I know a character can make an impression without words, but I also know that Susan Oakes got to make more of an impression than Iris Menas in the new version. And Menas’ character being, essentially, unnamed is a shame. If you think about the nickname, implying promiscuity, you have to assume that Anybodys wanted so badly to be a Jet she went with more than one of them, and now they shame her for it. Heartbreaking. The Jets suck.

I guess in the end I’m not nice enough to agree that casting the right ethnicity, unquestionably a good thing to do per se, is enough of a reason to remake WEST SIDE STORY if you can’t make it otherwise better than the original. I’m not really in favour of remaking classics. Make a new film with Puerto Rican characters. Comparisons are odious, so don’t ask for them.

Adrift Wood

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2022 by dcairns

As late-ish Allan Dwan films go, DRIFTWOOD is pretty good. The title sets up an expectation of the seashore, which is nowhere to be seen as we begin in a ghost town, all tumbleweed and H.B. Warner. Drunken sexy Jesus promptly expires, leaving his granddaughter, little Natalie Wood, alone in the world.

The whole piece has a strange atmosphere — the setting seems postapocalyptic. Warner dies with “Beelzebub” on his lips, and little Natalie adopts the word, applying it to anything threatening. Then she adopts a dog, whom she names Hollingsworth, after herself. (The dog MIGHT be Lassie, or anyway A Lassie.)

Wandering towards the nearest town with Hollingsworth, Natalie meets Dean Jagger, surprisingly human and natural and nice for once. Ruth Warrick is nice too, as is Charlotte Greenwood and even Margaret Hamilton and of course Walter Brennan. The film is stuffed full of nice people, with only Jerome Cowan, the mayor, and his spoiled failson, Teddy Infuhr, as nasties.

In a packed programme, we get a pandemic and panic, vaccination programme, miracle cure, and a literal sheepdog trial as Hollingsworth is put in the dock for a crime he didn’t commit (biting the mayoral failson, though why anyone would blame him if he HAD…)

NW has to carry more of this film than in any of her other child roles, I think, and she’s quite excellent. Maybe a little professional, but cute as a button and charismatic as hell.

A moment that anticipates GYPSY.

The movie isn’t cinematically showy but you don’t look to Dwan for that. It has a nice bygone optimism: spotted fever puts the community in jeopardy but everyone pulls together and prays together and more or less everything works out OK. Maybe it could happen that way, then. Or maybe it was always a comforting lie. Hollywood Bokononism.

DRIFTWOOD stars Maria; Emily Monroe Norton Kane; Stumpy; Jesse Q. Grimm; Aunt Eller; Miles Archer; Jesus – the Christ; the Wicked Witch of the West; Mr. Manleigh; Phil Kelly / The Sphinx; Alfred the butler; Benjamin Kettle; Grandma Walton; Alfalfa; and Plenty O’Toole (scenes deleted).

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.