Archive for Phyllis Thaxter

W.I.P. marks

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 15, 2011 by dcairns

WOMEN’S PRISON, a 1955 melo from director Lewis Seiler, follows the same formula as BRUTE FORCE, only with women and more conventional 1950s attitudes. Thus, Ida Lupino plays the sadistic warden, a hissable hate figure, but the politics have been stripped away. Howard Duff, who played an ex-soldier con in BF, here plays a sympathetic prison doctor, devoid of any credible personality, whose role is to reinforce the patriarchy and make it clear that the film doesn’t criticise the powers that be, just uppity, loveless career women and the practice of imprisoning men and women in adjacent buildings.

While Jules Dassin’s 40s minor classic gives us Sir Lancelot singing most of his dialogue in calypso style, here we’re introduced to Juanita Moore scrubbing floors on her knees while singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The prison is obviously segregated, with all the black prisoners in their own cell, but no comment is made on this. The cigar-smoking diesel dykes stomping around in the pre-code Stanwyck WIP film LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT are long gone, of course, and even the frigid Lupino is judged straight by Duff, the voice of authority. (After introducing the lesbian quotient, that pre-coder even has the nerve to fade the scene out with “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” on the soundtrack…) Duff deduces that Lupino’s unloving, career-chasing personality repels all right-thinking men, and she’s now eaten up with jealousy for the women in her charge, “every one of whom has known love.” An inanely 50s approach to dollarbook Freud pop psychology.

Even without that sexist subtext, the continual provocation to despise Lupino and root for her to get killed  would be a little disturbing. When she’s pursued by an avenging male prisoner at the end, the movie seems to realize it’s gone too far and starts backing away from its own bloodlust. I doubt a modern film would bother.

But entertainment value comes from Lupino’s frosty sadism, and the wealth of female talent in support. Phyllis Thaxter seems like the lead character at first, but goes to pieces under the strain of confinement and is forced to sit out most of the action in a padded cell. No clear decision has been made as to the lead character, but Cleo Moore and Jan Sterling dominate, with great back-up from Vivian Marshall, a stripper who wanted to be a professional mimic, couldn’t get the breaks, and shot her agent (Jennings Lang?).

Fiona enjoyed this big load of tosh, which I might have given up on. Yet, as a bad taste spectacle of melodramatic baloney, it’s actually pretty enjoyable. We don’t get to see Marshall do a striptease with impersonations thrown in, but she does a great Bette Davis, and later turns her talents to plot-advancement when, by way of dubbing, she puts on Lupino’s voice and bypasses security. A shame they had to cheat and loop her, but her body language is still impressive: the precision of Ida’s drama-queen gestures is amped up to 11. Poor Marshall never got a better role — if she didn’t shoot her agent for real, she should have.

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Bewitching

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2008 by dcairns

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Arch Oboler seems to have been an American radio demi-god, but having missed out on this cultural golden age, and having failed to take advantage of most of the good stuff available online, my experience of his work is going to come from films, at least initially. Oboler, as writer-producer-director, authored several movies, and was notable as a pioneer of 3-D (“A lion in your lap!”). It says something that he came from a medium devoid of any images at all (except the all-important ones in your head) and then felt he had to have images WITH DEPTH.

He’s also noteworthy for having a Beatles song written about him — Oboler Di, Oboler Da. But then, many Beatles songs commemorate great filmmakers: Straub/Huillet Fields Forever, I Am the Walsh, I Wanna Be Your Mann, Penny Lang, Polythene Pabst, Savoy Truffaut, Some Other Guy-Blaché, The Fuller on the (George Roy) Hill, The Long and Winding Roeg, and of course the concept album Sandrich Perry’s Losey Herz Kluge Brahm.

Having finally sorted myself out with a Napier University staff card, I am at last free to plunder their library, which contains many interesting off-air recordings snatched from the jaws of time. BEWITCHED looked interesting, although I didn’t know what it was, and it shared a tape with CARDINAL RICHELIEU, which I also didn’t know what it was. Turned out to be Roland V. Lee directing the Iron Duke himself, George Arliss. Save that one for another day.

BEWITCHED is a 1945 psycho-noir — unrelated to the cutesy TV series or its ghastly movie spin-off — starring Phyllis Thaxter, who had hitherto escaped under my radar but is now firmly on it. She’s in things I’ve seen, like NO MAN OF HER OWN, but what chance did she have in that, with a few minutes screen time dominated by Barbara Stanwyck? Here, in only her second movie, she’s terrific in what amounts to a dual part. Because Joan Ellis has TWO MINDS IN THE SAME BODY!!!

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This is essentially a Hollywood psycho-babble loony film, slotting neatly into the same genre as Curtis Bernhardt’s Joan Crawford vehicle POSSESSED, which I appreciated here. And isn’t it interesting that these somewhat campy melodramas, under the guise of educating us about psychiatric illness, use terms associated with sorcery and magic and religion in their titles? I bet there are more like that.

Oboler’s film, like Bernhardt’s, is emotive and seductive and evocative of psychological disturbance so long as it’s showing it in action, and then amusingly cheesy when it tries to explain it. Here we get amiably rubbish psychiatrist Edmund Gwenn as Dr (Henri?) Bergson, dispensing nonsense but nevertheless saving the day with a delightfully preposterous conclusion.

Oboler’s great! He begins with thrilling music (from the inventive Bronislau Kaper, whose stuff always stands out from the Hollywood norm) over a big clock, and we learn from Doc Bergson’s V.O. that a strange case is baffling him — but then an independant V.O. takes over, for this is going to be like a narrative relay race, with different storytelling approaches picked up and then discarded whenever Oboler gets the urge.

The God-V.O. dumps us into Phyllis’ past history, and we learn of her love affair with gruesome teen Hank Daniels, whom she will later gratify us by murdering. This stuff is all told with a degree of subjectivity, as we have access to Phyllis’s thoughts, and thus to the voice in her head. Evil Phyllis wants Good Phyllis to ditch this “boy” and get a “man”. Evil Phyllis is clearly horny.

Fleeing to New York via speedy montage (so much more comfortable than train), Phyllis falls into the hunky arms of attorney Stephen McNally (a real-life former attorney, which is a pretty nifty casting coup, especially for wartime — everybody in this movie is presumably 4F, but McNally is an A1 leading man), but this brings on another attack of the Evil Phyllis: when McNally takes Phyll in his arms, Evil Phyllis takes over and cops the kiss. So frustrating when that happens.

This part of the film is the smartest, since Phyllis’ problem seems not so much schizoid as schizophrenic: the nasty, critical voice in her head feels like a suppressed part of her own being, the part with sexual desires she can’t admit to. In fact, voice-in-the-head syndrome (as I’m now calling it, in defiance of all medical procedure) doesn’t necessarily signify schizophrenia or any kind of mental illness, although it can be annoying. Actress Zoe Wannamaker (daughter of actor-director Sam) has managed a very successful stage and screen career despite the irksome disembodied commentary running through her brain like ticker-tape: see here for more info if you have this problem.

Then there’s William Blake and Dickens and Freud and Ghandi, and all those hardcore Christians who think they’re having conversations with God, but whom I submit are actually conversing with discrete portions of the main-brain. Often the voices may convey thoughts censored by the overmind. Worth listening to, but not necessarily worth acting on. Most psychiatrists say that what the voices are on about is of no importance, the main thing is to smush them with drugs, but I tend to think there’s a significant difference between a voice saying “You suck,” (self-critical voices are something we all have, to a greater or lesser degree) and one saying “Kill your boyfriend.” If you acknowledge the voices as stemming from your own mind, you learn something about yourself you may not like, but which you can now tackle.

Phyllis gets this slightly wrong by stabbing her small-town boyfriend to death when he comes to take her back home, and now refuses to help lawyer-lover McNally help her mount a defense. Her reasoning is that if Good Phyllis goes to the chair, Evil Phyllis will perish also. The beast must die… etc.

Re-enter gentle Gwenn, who hypnotises Phyllis in front of the Governor (“Hocus-pocus!” he splutters) and separates out Good and Evil Phyllis into transparent astral projections. Say, this guy’s GOOD. Evil Phyllis looks a bit like Lil in FIRE WALK WITH ME, only without the Cindy Sherman trappings.

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“Lil had a sour face.”

“What d’you mean?”

“Her face… it had a sour expression on it.”

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Gwenn announces to the skeptical Gov that “the execution will take place as scheduled,” and sentences the phantasmal Phyllis to death. If only Multiple Personality Disorder were that easy. One problem being that experts don’t even agree if it exists — it seems to have been diagnosed almost exclusively in the United States, which is certainly suggestive of… something or other.

Based on this cracking film, which throws out interesting compositional or narrational or sound ideas in paractically every scene, I’m uber-intrigued to see Oboler’s other work — and hear it too. Next up from the library will be FIVE, his post-atomic survival yarn, and I’ve downloaded THE TWONKY, which had me whooping with glee within twenty seconds: more on that later.