Archive for Olivia DeHavilland

Anger…and Other Deadly Sins

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 26, 2008 by dcairns

Shadowplay guest blogger and part-time benshi film describer David Wingrove, who writes as David Melville, reports on Kenneth Anger’s appearance — or should one say MANIFESTATION? — at Dundee Contemporary Arts. Read it up!

On a grey and rainy August afternoon (in Scotland, that is not a contradiction) two friends and I took a train to Dundee to meet Kenneth Anger. He is a…well, I could say ‘living legend’ but that hardly seems to do him justice.

David Wingrove on his way back from Dundee, photographed by Fiona, who had just managed to get her camera to work.
For 60 years or so, Anger has been the uncrowned king of gay/experimental/avant-garde/underground cinema. (Just watch Fireworks (1947) or Scorpio Rising (1963) and slot in whatever adjectives fit best.) He is the notorious author of Hollywood Babylon and Hollywood Babylon II, still the most scabrous books of movie gossip. His long-promised Hollywood Babylon III lies buried under a heap of threatened lawsuits. An alleged Satanist and avowed disciple of Aleister Crowley, he was unwillingly linked (through his ex-boyfriend Bobby Beausoleil) to the grisly Charles Manson killings.

At four years of age, Anger played the Changeling Prince in Max Reinhardt’s 1935 film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, still Hollywood’s most purely intoxicating blend of Art and Kitsch. He is one of several distinguished survivors from that film – others include Mickey Rooney and Olivia de Havilland – and Warner Brothers’ failure to recruit one (if not all three) of them to do a commentary on last year’s DVD must count as a Crime Against Celluloid Memory. More than 70 years on, Rooney and Anger remain pals. Olivia may still be fuming at that snapshot of her in black lace lingerie (!) that Anger slipped into Hollywood Babylon II.


Either Dundee Contemporary Arts, or David Cairns Associates.

No wonder we felt a tad nervous, trudging through a downpour towards Dundee Contemporary Arts. (If the Great Beast didn’t come and get us, the wrath of Miss Melanie very well might.) So it’s a pleasure to say that, in person, Kenneth Anger is a joy. Gentle, soft-spoken, immaculately tanned, he looks a good two decades younger than his 78 years. In the bar after the show, he shared his enduring love of Shakespeare, commedia dell’arte and Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis. “Not long ago, I went to Paris for a showing. My God, have you seen the state of the print? It was so horrible I hid my eyes and ran out of the theatre.”


Kenneth Anger, in Dundee.

Judging from that night in Dundee, Anger’s own work has been strikingly well preserved. Lucifer Rising (1981) gave us Marianne Faithfull as Lilith, Mother of All the Demons – looking eerily beautiful with her face painted blue. Invocation of My Demon Brother (1968) had a soundtrack by Lilith’s old flame, Mick Jagger. Cheekily, Anger cuts in a few near-subliminal shots of the Rolling Stones and their court, in between the all-male orgies and the Black Mass. Rabbit’s Moon (1950), with its lovelorn Pierrot lost in a moonlit wood, is an achingly gorgeous evocation of both Shakespeare and Carné. It has the wistful and fragile beauty of a Verlaine poem.


Mouse Heaven (1992) is Anger’s celebration of the original Mickey Mouse drawn by Ub Iwerks – a subversive, anarchic little imp – before Walt Disney turned him into an icon of all-American cuteness. One of the most purely joyous pieces of cinema I have seen, Mouse Heaven sparked a ferocious copyright row with Disney. The wounds, for Anger, are still raw. He confided his long-cherished ambition to blow up Disneyland. “If it really is ‘the happiest place on earth’ as the ads say, why do so many children come out looking disappointed? Just look at their faces! Kids know when they’ve been cheated.”


Anger’s more recent films, shot on digital video, bear witness to his enduring love of the male form. My Surfing Lucifer (2007) shows a gold-haired beach boy riding the sort of waves that, in Southern California parlance, are called ‘tubular’. Foreplay (2007) spies on a soccer-team as they stretch and limber up before a game. The sight is numbingly normal to the players themselves, yet richly homoerotic to Anger and his camera. Once the official programme was through, Anger invited the whole audience up to the gallery for a ‘private’ showing of I’ll Be Watching You (2007) – a piece of hardcore gay erotica. Two cute French boys make love atop a parked car, while a third cute boy watches on CCTV and…er, enjoys it too. This may be the sexiest film ever made by a man old enough to be your granddad.


But the highlight of the late work was the not-yet-officially-premiered Ich Will (2008). A chilling yet weirdly erotic montage of documentary footage of the Hitler Youth. (The title translates from German as “I want!”) Starting with idyllic Sound of Music-style gambolling amid the lakes and mountains of Bavaria, it builds up to a full-scale Nazi rally that evokes the nightmare world of Leni Riefenstahl and Triumph of the Will. Its menace is underlined, brilliantly, by the ominous tones of Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony.


Invocation of my Demon Brother?

It’s not often one can go from Disney to Riefenstahl – from the Magic Kingdom to the Third Reich – with barely a hiccup in between. That is perhaps Anger’s unique gift. It was only on the dark, wet train ride back to Edinburgh that I got to pondering how similar these three artists really are. Walt Disney, Leni Riefenstahl, Kenneth Anger. All three create images that bypass our conscious mind and enter, direct and perhaps unbidden, into the depths of the id. We are aware, with other filmmakers, of a voice and a vision beyond our own. Disney, Riefenstahl, Anger…they speak from within.


The official premiere of Ich Will is set for the Imperial War Museum in London on 29 October. (All Souls Night, as Anger points out gleefully.) One shudders to think what the invited audience of elderly war veterans will make of it. Still, as Anger freely admits: “I’ve always enjoyed being a bit controversial.” That may or may not go down as the greatest understatement of the 21st century. But it will do very nicely for the first decade.


David Melville


Thanks to the Amazing Dr. Anger, to Yvonne Baginsky and Fiona Watson – who shared the experience – and to the fabulous staff at Dundee Contemporary Arts.

Special thanks to David for being there and writing it down.


Miriam Hopkins, Witchfinder General

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on August 2, 2008 by dcairns

“You’re all against me!”

Warner Bros’ two films that pair Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins are a remarkably symmetrical set.

Apart from the obvious similarity of title, THE OLD MAID and OLD ACQUAINTANCE both take place over several decades, and in both films Miriam is repeatedly mean to Bette until some kind of righting of wrongs is effected at the conclusion. While MAID was directed by English emigré Edmund Goulding and ACQUAINTANCE by Vincent Sherman, both are examples of the Warners’ house style in its domestic drama mode, which trumps any stylistic fingerprints of the directors (both of whom were highly talented fellows with long lists of excellent films behind and before them).

“Curse you, John Loder!”

Bette, of course, had a tendency to war with any actress cast opposite her (though an exception was made for her good friend Olivia DeHavilland), and Miriam also had a tendency to connive, so neither of these shoots could have been particularly pleasant. While both actresses are equally effective in MAID, in their second collaboration, something seems to have happened to Miriam.


Admittedly, Miriam did have a tendency to be cast as nags, scolds and neurotic bitches from hell, both before and after this movie (but check out her work for Mamoulian, Lubitsch and Wyler — she could also be sexy, funny, charming or tragic), but she reaches some kind of apogee of shrill, gesticulating ham here. My guess is, Sherman, overcome by the strain of refereeing the two divas, withdrew to Bette’s camp and left Miriam to do as she pleased. It’s certainly a flamboyant display.

“You again!”

The character as written is annoying enough, and intentionally so (the film’s best-known moment features Bette giving her “friend” a good shake, which still provokes cheers from audiences today, or at least it did in our audience of two), but Miriam plays the part to the hilt and beyond. The expression “give it both knees” seems a very apt one here. Miriam gives it her all, knees, heart, arms, teeth. She flails and pirouettes around the set like a palsied ballerina swatting flies. Her voice rises to a SHRIEK on EVERY other WORD. She’s hysterical when she should be restrained, possibly with a straitjacket. “Like a drag queen,” was Fiona’s assessment, although we’ve seen drag queens underplay more than this.


The film is a good old “women’s picture”, but Hopkins’ thespian malfeasance does have negative effects, enjoyable as it is. How can we feel glad when the two friends are reunited at the end (to spend their latter years “fighting over an ear trumpet,” as Bette predicts, probably correctly) if Miriam is so insanely awful? Burning her at the stake would seem a more upbeat coda.

Too much, even from behind.

Swing High!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 28, 2007 by dcairns

Above is a very rare clip featuring director Mitchell Leisen (and star W.C. Fields). The only other footage of Leisen I know of is the start of HOLD BACK THE DAWN, where Leisen plays, basically, himself, a top Hollywood director making a wartime romance with Brian Donlevy and Veronica Lake (I WANTED WINGS, a real Leisen film from the same year, 1941).

Leisen has been either ignored or devalued for too long. Billy Wilder, who didn’t much enjoy writing for the director, spent fifty years denigrating Leisen at every opportunity (“I don’t knock fairies. Let him be a fairy. Leisen’s problem was he was a stupid fairy,” gives you the tone of the debate). The legend grew that Wilder was compelled to become a director because Leisen mutilated his scripts. But the films he co-scripted for “Mitch”, MIDNIGHT and HOLD BACK THE DAWN, and at least the first half of ARISE, MY LOVE, are far stronger films than Wilder’s first couple of Hollywood movies as director, THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR and 5 GRAVES TO CAIRO. Both filmmakers made great films, and a good Leisen film is clearly better than a middling Wilder film.

There’s a resurgence in Leisen’s reputation now, with retrospectives in recent years at San Sebastian and Edinburgh. Leisen is finally on the rise, and this may actually lead to a slight downgrading of Wilder’s standing, although I would expect that films like SOME LIKE IT HOT and THE APARTMENT have a secure place in film-lovers’ affections that cannot be dented.

The reason Leisen’s rise might bring about a dip for Wilder is found in one film, SWING HIGH, SWING LOW, from 1937. Fred MacMurray plays Skid Johnson, a trumpet player with an alcohol problem. The film details his affair with Carole Lombard’s Maggie King, a singer (Lombard and MacMurray had already starred together in Leisen’s HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE two years earlier). There’s a scene later in the film where Skid hits the skids, raggedly walking the real streets of New York and pawning his trumpet to buy more drink. This may surprise anybody who bought the line that Billy Wilder’s THE LOST WEEKEND, seven years later, was the first talkie to take alcoholism seriously. The sequence in that film where Ray Milland goes to pawn his typewriter closely echoes Leisen’s earlier movie.

That would be of only minor interest if SH,SL were a minor film, but it’s a rich and fascinating work that easily stands up to Wilder’s more celebrated film. Starting as a romantic comedy about bohemian musicians in Panama (with a hypochondriac pianist friend, a wisecracking older broad, and a pet chicken), it slides, without us noticing, into romantic tragedy, as MacMurray Makes it Big in the Big Apple, is seduced away from Lombard by an impossibly sultry young Dorothy Lamour, lets success go to his head and falls from grace as the booze goes to his liver. All this happens over the course of a substantial two-hour running time, allowing us a rare feeling of nostalgia for the early, happy part of the film, when the characters were poor and struggling but hopeful. It’s like the contrast between the two parts of LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS.


Leisen was a marvel at managing these tonal shifts: REMEMBER THE NIGHT, scripted by Preston Sturges, flips from urban screwball comedy to bucolic sentimentality, slipping smoothly into romantic tragedy at the end, with a couple of other detours on the way — Barbara Stanwyck’s mother lives in a Gothic noir house and extinguishes the only lantern when her daughter leaves: to use a great line from Bruce Robinson, she lives “mainly in the dark, like a tongue.”

Similarly, nifty rom-com HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE features a moody, low-key nocturne in its second act, with low key-lighting, much pensive cigarette smoke, unresolved sexual tension, and an early example of the psychological track-in, as Leisen glides towards Fred MacMurray (his favourite leading man), creating a slowly mounting romantic tension. This kind of camera movement probably originates with Murnau, but is otherwise not much seen until the ‘forties, and rarely then. It became a bit of a tic with Spielberg in the ‘eighties, and was hyped up to new levels by Sam Raimi, who uses it almost musically.

Leisen presents a modest challenge to auteurist critics because his work is disparate, crossing genres and tones, often in the same film. But the same can be said of even as consistent a filmmaker as Hawks. Leisen’s best work falls into three main categories:

Olivia and some guy (John Lund)

1) Melodrama. Leisen’s “women’s pictures” include TO EACH HIS OWN (winning an Oscar for Olivia DeHavilland), a tear-jerker about a girl who, separated from her illigitmate child, struggles for years to win him back. Charles Brackett’s script (unlike his partner Wilder, Brackett had no problem working with Leisen again) leavens the intense sentiment with bitter elements, as DeHavilland tries to take her son back by blackmailing his adoptive parents. Leisen managed to persuade the censors to allow the use of the word “bastard” in its technically correct sense, then dropped it when Olivia couldn’t say the line without laughing. This willingness to change dialogue on the floor is what pissed Wilder off.

2) Comedy. Leisen’s work includes oddities like THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1937, but it is in romantic comedies like EASY LIVING (scripted by Sturges) and MIDNIGHT (Wilder and Brackett) that he showcases his skill with light comedy, broad comedy, and elegant design and filming (Leisen began as costume designer and then production designer on DeMille’s THE SIGN OF THE CROSS and Walsh’s THIEF OF BAGDAD).

EASY LIVING features the world’s most beautiful automat, scene of an escalating slapstick food fight that gave employment to every pratfall specialist in Tinseltown, as well as Jean Arthur in an accidentally acquired fur coat (“Kismet!”) causing a run on the stock exchange despite a complete innocence of financial matters.

3) Camp. Which of course can combine elements of 1) and 2), but in Leisen’s case also introduces historical and musical elements. MURDER AT THE VANITIES is a boisterous backstage mystery with ludicrous, gorgeous musical numbers, such as “Marijuana”, in which a cactus-like pot plant sprouts naked girls. The song is interrupted by a screaming showgirl as blood drips from the rafters onto her bare bosom*, which should give you some idea.

Although Leisen’s oevre crosses genre boundaries, sometimes in the same film, he does have themes and motifs that spring up again and again: psychoanalysis (Leisen was an ardant devoteeof the couch); Mexico and Central America; gay characters (Richard Hayden in NO TIME FOR LOVE is the rom-com’s best-ever Gay Best Friend); impostures (especially in the comedies, Shakespeare-style, but NO MAN OF HER OWN, Leisen’s sole noir, uses the device for suspense and pathos); abrupt mood swings (see above); elaborate design of sets and costumes (a virtue with which the director has often been beaten by homophobic Wilderists); love stories in which one lover is virtuous, the other shiftless or untrustworthy (this may have had an autobiographical component).

David Melville’s Great Directors essay, online at Senses of Cinema (, should be your first port of call for more information and analysis (after the films themselves, slowly becoming available on DVD).

David Chierichetti’s HOLLYWOOD DIRECTOR, available secondhand, is an interview book and critical study: Leisen, retired and in ill-health, cooperated fully, hoping to salvage his reputation. Maybe it’s finally working.


*According to psychologists advising the British Board of Film Censors, the sight of blood on breasts acts as a Rape Trigger in some male viewers, but the intended audience of MURDER AT THE VANITIES is perhaps immune to such auto-suggestion.