Archive for Paul Roen

Afterbirth of a Nation

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , on June 13, 2012 by dcairns

STORM WARNING is a terrific-looking Warner drama that wants to attack the Ku Klux Klan, but is afraid to get into exactly what that organization does and why it’s bad.

At one point prosecutor Ronald Reagan (!) learns that his right-hand man is a former member. He seems just curious, and kind of charmed, by this revelation. The guy tells him he joined because he wanted to do some good — Reagan is fine with this, although it’s about the least convincing explanation for membership I can imagine — then he says he got out because he discovered the thing was a crooked, money-making racket. Yeah, that’s the trouble with the Klan. They were fine before they went kommercial.

So, fashion model Ginger Rogers (!) stops off in this hick town to visit her sister, Doris Day (!) — and stumbles right into a lynching. One of those white-on-white lynchings you hear so much about. Seems the victim was a journalist who got caught trying to write an exposé on the Klan’s nefarious activities — so nefarious that Warners cannot allow us to ever know what they are. I half-suspect Warners of killing the guy, actually.

When Ginger realizes that one of the guilty men, Steve Cochran (no “!” for you, Steve) is her sister’s husband, and sis is pregnant, she does everything she can to avoid testifying — but Reagan is SO insistent. (Did Ron and Ginger sit around between takes plotting world domination, or did they just trade chimp stories? Oh, Ginger hadn’t made MONKEY BUSINESS yet? Well, maybe she did it on Ron’s recommendation. “Bonzo was super, and he didn’t try to bit my face off once.”)

Paul Roen (High Camp) compares this film to A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, and there’s certainly the bestial caveman thing going on in Cochran’s beetle-browed sweatiness, but there’s no suggestion that Ginger finds him anything but repellant. Doris manages to sell her sympathetic, simple-minded wife/sister role so that she’s moving rather than annoying — aware of the difference between right and wrong but simply unequipped to process what’s going on around her. Ginger is so tough we’re never really concerned for her, despite a rape attempt and a whipping — the film is nothing if not sadistic, in a noir fashion. Cochrane is memorably repellant. Reagan is… quite adequate.

All the sadism is there to torture Ginger for failing to do her civic duty, putting her pregnant sister’s well-being above her legal obligation to testify against Cochran. And this would work fine, is even a story that could be politically compelling while failing to deal with the Klan, but Reagan’s scenes diffuse the tension. His narrative purpose is to tiresomely point out to Ginger her correct course, and he does this well enough, but because he’s a leading man the script also gives him redundant scenes of his own. These are all intended to convince us that lynch mobs don’t face prosecution, despite the efforts of noble authority figures, because the communities protect the guilty. The last part of that statement is true, but we all know that the authorities colluded in the crimes. The movie does semi-implicate a couple of prison guards, but that’s as far as it will go.

The characters occupy such well-defined, stereotypical positions, either all good or all bad, that it must have been hard to get real life into the film, but at some point one of the writers has decided to cram in some strange humour, and a new kind of animation flares up for five minutes. The inquest into the central murder features a radio newscaster wandering the crowd trying to get vox pops from reticent or surly locals (we’re in the South, but nobody has a particularly southern accent), but keeps emitting tetchy whispers to his associate “Don’t step on the cable!” Then, we see the jury sworn in: “Raise your right hand. Your right hand.” A snarky touch — in a movie so anxious not to alienate the southern audience, suddenly suggesting that the average citizen is a moron probably wasn’t wise, but it’s very funny in an “oh dear” kind of way.

Everything I’ve seen from director Stuart Heisler has been good so far — nothing’s been quite great, but I’m certain there’s a masterpiece out there. THE BISCUIT EATER, THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL, AMONG THE LIVING, THE GLASS KEY, all are recommended — there’s real visual panache and emotional commitment in all of them.

Mommie Fear Fest

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2009 by dcairns

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Occasional guest writer David Melville contributes a piece on Mervyn LeRoy’s GYPSY, screened recently at Edinburgh Filmhouse.

A year or so back, some callow critics dubbed Sweeney Todd “the first horror movie musical.” Understandable – given its lusty cannibalism and torrents of blood gushing from slashed throats – but not strictly true. Stephen Sondheim, the composer/lyricist of Todd, helped to create the genre as far back as 1962 (or 1960, if you count the Broadway original) with the profoundly terrifying Gypsy.

A musical biopic of strip-tease artiste Gypsy Rose Lee, the film was directed by Mervyn Leroy from a stage show with lyrics by Sondheim, music by Jule Styne (Funny Girl) and book by Arthur Laurents (The Way We Were). Rather than focus on the star herself – who, played by Natalie Wood, is surely the most winsome and genteel stripper in history, on screen or off – Gypsy is built around Rosalind Russell as her maniacally overbearing stage mother, Mama Rose. Here’s one lady who will do anything – and I mean anything – to see her little girl’s name in lights.

For much of the film, Mama Rose drags her two daughters (Louise, the future Gypsy Rose Lee, and her allegedly more ‘talented’ sister, Baby June) around the dustbowls of Depression-era America, performing in a vaudeville act of unique and awe-inspiring ghastliness. A platoon of chorus boys prance about inanely; there’s a dancing cow; it all ends in a rousing stars-and-stripes finale. Had it only been shown to Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, those scientists might truly have shocked him into submission

Whenever the act starts to pall, Mama Rose rallies her troops with one of those show-stopping songs that Broadway divas so relish – if only to wake up punters who are snoring in the back row. Rosalind Russell, who cannot actually sing, transforms her hit numbers – “Some People” and “Comin’ Up Roses” – into dramatic monologues. Think of Clytemnestra, about to be slaughtered by her children to avenge her murder of their father, only a bit more bone-chilling. (Ethel Merman, who created the role on stage, reprised “Comin’ Up Roses” for the 1981 inaugural gala for President Ronald Reagan…and fear took on a whole new meaning.)

At last, down on its luck, the troupe is reduced to performing in a sleazy strip joint. Horrified at first, Mama Rose nonetheless volunteers her daughter as a stand-in when the star stripper winds up in jail. It says a lot for the creepiness of Russell’s performance that this moment plays like a sordid and horrifying act of betrayal. (Just compare her to Susan Sarandon in Pretty Baby, who initiates her 12-year-old daughter into prostitution, but seems just a likeable good-time gal.) The little minx takes up the challenge and the rest is history – or, at any rate, camp showbiz history…which will do just as nicely, thank you, in a movie of this ilk.

As a study in deranged mother love, Gypsy is infinitely more horrific than Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho – which takes place in a far more sane and reassuring moral universe. We may intuit, from the tics and twitches of Anthony Perkins as Norman, what a devastatingly dysfunctional presence the deceased Mama Bates must have been. But we never see her alive on camera, as we do Russell – ranting and raging and looking, incidentally, far more like a Grand Guignol drag act than ever poor Tony does in his wig. Oh, that throaty drawl of a voice! Ah, those outsize mannish hands!

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That poor little Gypsy and her sister (who went to become the 40s starlet June Havoc) do not start disembowelling chorus boys in the shower, or finish the film in the confines of a padded cell, is a mystery to which they alone know the answer. The American critic Paul Roen is right, I believe, when he describes Gypsy as “a Technicolor prologue to the Crawford/Davis opus Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” Released in the same year, the two films attracted – and continue to attract – a remarkably similar audience. One might say that Gypsy is scarier, while Baby Jane has better musical numbers.

In 1993, Gypsy was remade for TV starring Bette Midler. Although she is a vastly more accomplished musical performer than Rosalind Russell, the Divine Miss M falls flat as Mama Rose. Camp and cuddly and bursting with fun, her presence robs the story of its chilling emotional subtext. Simply put, she is just not scary. And fear, in its most primal and deep-rooted form, is what Gypsy is all about.

David Melville

With thanks to Nicola Hay.

Addendum — I just watched the film myself on the small screen. Mervyn LeRoy has certainly calcified a bit since his snappy days in the ’30s, but the widescreen filming of the stylised sets is pleasing, and everybody seems to be quite aware of the story they’re telling, in all its darkness. The “Hollywood ending” is cursory and deliberately unconvincing-as-hell. The screenplay adds an unnecessary voice-over from Russell that fragments things rather than holding them together, but whenever Laurents’ scenes are allowed to play out, they work as brilliant filmed theatre, and there’s not a weak song in it. The studio system may have been in decline, but this is one of its finer last gasps. DC.