Archive for Sylvia Sidney

Wicked Women

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 15, 2010 by dcairns

It’s easy to be a little down on Capra: the sentimental overdosing (he always pushes it further than you think he can, and then he pushes it too far), the pretence of saying Big Things about Society without ever actually doing so, the political prevarications. But I may turn up at some of Edinburgh Filmhouse’s forthcoming season of Capras to reconnect to his virtues and see if I find them substantial enough.

A movie like PLATINUM BLONDE, which is enjoyable enough in its own right, kind of invites resentment because it’s easy to get a copy of it, while many superior pre-code movies are obscure and unavailable. Blame Capra’s fame for getting that movie out there at the expense of, say VIRTUE (1932).

Lombard with the magnificent Shirley Gray Maya Methot.

Written by Robert Riskin (future Capra support) from a story by Ethel Hill, deals with a woman (Carole Lombard) being run out of New York for prostitution, who meets a hardboiled but not-so-smart-as-he-thinks cabbie (Pat O’Brien) and falls for him. After they’re married, as they save to buy a garage, the truth comes out and sours things. Dramatic developments ensue.

Then I watched PICK-UP (1933) in which a woman (Sylvia Sidney), fresh out of prison after a “badger game” (yeah, I had to look it up too) went sour, meets a hard-boiled but not-so-smart-as-he-thinks cabbie (George Raft) and falls for him. They don’t get married, but save to buy a garage, the truth comes out and sours things. Dramatic developments ensue.

What’s fascinating is how two such similar stories play so differently. Edward Buzzell’s film is the mini-masterpiece, benefitting from Lombard’s sophistication and an unusually winning turn from PO’B, even when he’s being a jerk. As the title suggests, the issue is Virtue, and the movie makes the point, possible only in the pre-and-post-code era, that true virtue has nothing to do with sexual purity. The moral heroes of the film are a pair of prostitutes who do the right thing at cost to themselves.

This is inspiring stuff in a mainstream film from any era, and it’s helped by Lombard not asking for our sympathy — she plays it sassy and earns our sympathy. Riskin’s dialogue keeps it brisk and witty — after Lombard makes a crack about O’Brien’s homely kisser, his complacent whine, “Say, my face is okay!” is followed by her “Yeah, okay for you: you’re behind it.”

It all snarls up in a not-wholly-plausible thriller plot involving (yes!) Jack La Rue as a (yes!) murdering swine, and, as in PICK-UP, there’s a courtroom climax with our gal falsely accused. Check how speedily the coda wraps things up.

(Watched this with our friends The Browns. Ali is a professional costume designer, and while both were wowed by the snappy patter of depression America, she was particularly taken with the skilled use of headgear. Modern movies are quick to throw out the hats, for fear of concealing the actors’ eyes, a supposed problem which VIRTUE takes in its stride, with chic results.)

Sylvia Sidney in PICK-UP is more the whipped dog, playing put-upon rather than pert, a more on-the-nose interp which is effective but doesn’t have the Lombard magic. But she scores with her beautiful Bronx accent and that face! That smile! In a modest departure from the VIRTUE mold, SS has a ratfink hubbie (William Harrigan) in the stir, so she can’t marry Raft (an acceptable perf), and so he gets tempted by a dizzy society dame (Lillian Bond) who finds him simply too “he-ish”.

You may be wondering how anybody could be tempted away from Sylvia, but this is Lillian Bond (also seen in THE OLD DARK HOUSE) ~

Impressive, although, as Fiona observed, she’s “sucking in that gut” in the manner of the late Robert Mitchum.

Things soon get back on track — Raft gets wise to himself, Sylvia is on trial for a crime she didn’t commit, things get sorted out through a piece of wildly incredible courtroom shenanigans and love finds a way, although the lawyer gets the garage as part of his fee.

The title card shows an actual Fanny Magnet in operation.

PICK-UP was smoothly directed by Marion Gering, of DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA and 24 HOURS fame. In place of Capra, I might actually suggest everybody spends the next ten years watching Marion Gering, Rowland Brown, Edward Buzzell and of course Del Ruth, LeRoy and Dieterle in their pre-code phases. More radical, more peppy, more beautiful.

Tijuana Bible Bashers

Posted in Comics, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2009 by dcairns

paris_01Tijuana Bibles, for those not in the know, were little tiny small-press comic book pamphlets of a pornographic nature, popular particularly in the ’30s. They generally featured caricatures of figures from popular culture, movie stars and so on, making them the depression-era version of today’s slash fiction.

History is silent on this, but I’m pretty sure they were produced by the state, like the prole pornography in 1984, only with the purpose of turning the nation off sex, thereby reducing the excess population. Warning: what follows is not pleasant. In the interests of taste, I’m not reproducing any of the full on erection and penetration images, since Shadowplay is a blog intended for family entertainment, and in the interests of sanity I’m not going to show you the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy or Popeye engaged in risque byplay — some things are sacred, or, viewed from another angle, nauseating.

But how about this?

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It’s a catchy title, I’ll grant you. And if you’re wondering if the anonymous author is going to explore the rhyming potential of the lead character’s name and species, I can answer that question. He is. This is also the only Tijuana Bible I’ve perused to feature male-on-male action (drake-on-drake, to be precise), with a plot that basically has a horny Donald D (with Pluto as pimp) test the limits of his heterosexuality with a dragged-up ladydrake, establishing beyond doubt that performing anal sex and receiving oral sex are fine, but performing oral would make him a queer. I’m glad that’s all straightened out.

And aren’t you glad I’m presenting this in synopsis, rather than in blow-by-blow panel reproduction? Trust me, the image of a rampant Donald with outsized humanoid member is one that would haunt you to your collective mausoleums.

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Ingrid Bergman. I never knew she was a sort of human bust, truncated at the ribcage, and mounted on a brick. I guess all her walking and gesturing was done by stand-ins. It’s Hollywood’s best-kept secret. This is the story of how “Reberto” Rossellini makes Ingrid a star — in stag films. It’s the kind of ironic twist of fate one would never see coming, but for the fact that this is a Tijuana Bible and therefore it’s the only thing that can possibly happen.

1_c_charlie01The idea of a ventriloquist act becoming a smash hit on the radio sounds like a surreal joke, and not even a very good one, but it actually happened. The idea of the dummy, possessed of an animating consciousness of his own, being fitted with a vast phallus hewn from oak, and going forth to test it on living human beings, sounds like something from Michael Redgrave’s deepest, gin-sodden nightmares. Fortunately it never happened, except in this literary effort by ‘Feelma Box.’ Perhaps related to Edgar Box, the pseudonym used by Gore Vidal when writing crime novels? Do pseudonyms have families? Do monocled dummies have a chance with Carole Lombard?

I’d like to think the answer to both questions is “no,” but this T.B. says different.

1 (165)Don’t know who Evelyn is meant to be, but the girl under the car is Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) and the dapper chap with the gun is John Dillinger (Johnny Depp). What follows could have made an entertaining DVD extra for Michael Mann’s PUBLIC ENEMIES, except for the disturbingly horrid artwork and even more appalling dialogue. In the world of the T.B., you’ll want to know, a large (or “brutal”, or sometimes “butal”) penis, is known colloquially as a “kidney disturber.” Ain’t that sweet. Excuse me while I disinfect my eyes and rub Germolene on my soul.

1 (193)A South Sea idyll with Dorothy Lamour and Jon Hall. What could be nicer, more innocent, more… oh. The dialogue isn’t exactly Mankiewicz, is it? Or at least, not prime Mankiewicz. What else do we have to torture you with? Oh yeah.

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Inevitably: Jean Harlot. Sometimes the stars would be identified by spoofy nom-de-guerres, like Mae Breast, or Sylvia Kidney. This was clearly not to avoid lawsuits, since the T.B. merchandisers were strictly under-the-counter operators anyway, nor was it to protect the innocent, since these guys inhabit a mindset where such a thing cannot exist — innocence would appear as a black inky nebula upon the page, an unknowable nothingness into which smut vanishes as if into a deep well — but simply to show off the riotous glee in language of these unsung Voltaires of the funnybook.

1_c_stalin02I particularly like how this guy spells “commuist” in a funny way, for no reason. And then does it again, like he really believes that’s how you spell it. You would only get that kind of genius in the kind of author who thinks the world really wants a pornographic comic book starring frickin’ STALIN.

Tijuana Bibles open, as they say, a window onto history, through which we can see that history is a foetid heap of rutting morons. In honour of those nameless, giftless artists, and their important work sterilizing a great nation, I’m opening my doors to similar works, starring the movie gods and goddesses of today. My only rule is that any submissions should be the kind of thing that such stars might reasonably be expected to chuckle over, rather than stare at, glassy-eyed with terror. I know you Shadowplayers are a talented bunch, let’s see your fan-fic!

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The Bijou Terror

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2009 by dcairns

Or, HONEY I BLEW UP THE KID.

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Hitchcock’s SABOTAGE, based on Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (not to be confused with Hitchcock’s SECRET AGENT, or with Hitchcock’s SABOTEUR for that matter) features a terrorist bomb, intended for the London Underground, exploding on a double-decker bus. Ironically, this bizarre foreshadowing of the 7/7 bombings would have been greatly reduced had Hitch got his way and blown up a tram instead. The dispute over the form of public transport to be exploded, with Hitch arguing that a tram was more recognisably London, and producers Michael Balcon and Ivor Montagu arguing that a bus was, well, cheaper, resulted in Hitch never working with the two men again, which is a shame since they’d both been very helpful in the development of his career, and even his style.

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The grimly ironic ad for THE DESCENT on the side of the London bus destroyed in the 7/7 bombings.

SABOTAGE begins, after a dictionary definition of the term (“All movies should begin with dictionary definitions of their titles,” declared Fiona), with a blackout caused by — “Sabotage!” “Wrecking!” “Deliberate.” “What’s behind it?” “Who’s responsible?” — a rhythmic exchange of lines, recalling the musical use of dialogue in MURDER! but quite a bit more sophisticated. Hitch then cuts directly to Oscar Homolka, pudging through the darkness. Quite a bold choice, to eliminate any question mark about his guilt, by way of a single cut. The device is lifted pretty directly from Fritz Lang’s SPIONE, showing how Hitch was adapting silent movie technique (Lang posed his question with an intertitle and answered it with a close-up) to the talking pictures. Oddly, rather than making his films seem old-fashioned, both then and now he looks more modern than most of his contemporaries. Possibly because, as Hitch believed, silent movie-making is true movie-making.

Michael Balcon had been busily grabbing American movie stars for Hitch, starting with the English Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, established Hollywood players who had to be lured back to Blighty, and continuing with Robert Young in SECRET AGENT. This time he scored Sylvia Sidney, who found the Hitchcock experience traumatic. Most accounts stress the unfamiliar approach Hitch took, working without establishing shots and assembling a scene from inserts, which disorientated the actress (you should always allow the actors to play the whole scene through, even if you don’t shoot it), although writer Charles Bennett reckoned Hitch wanted to “tame” or “break” a big Hollywood star. But we have to bear in mind Bennett’s bitterness towards Hitchcock (which is weird, because Bennett accepted a Hollywood contract ahead of Hitch — it was he who broke up the team).

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Homolka returns to his home, above the cinema he runs with wife Sylvia Sidney, leading to this striking shot of her discovering him in bed, his alibi being that he’s been there all along. Hitch has established the cinema and the grocery stall next door (often invoked by documentarists seeking to illustrate Hitchcock’s father’s trade) and John Loder, the undercover cop posing as a grocer to keep tabs on Homolka.

As is typical of the British Hitchcocks, direct political context is shunned, so the terrorists in this movie are never identified with a specific nation or cause. Homolka’s boss is never apprehended, because that would raise too many questions. Loder’s boss has a speech about how the ringleaders will never be caught (why?), and what they’re after is the foot soldiers.

Homolka meets his cell leader at the London Zoo aquarium, leading to one of my favourite moments, where a fish tank dissolves into a screen showing Piccadilly Circus — the next target — which then collapses and liquefies in a stunning piece of mirror-magic. Another of the subjective effects Hitch is so keen on, but a really nightmarish and imaginative one.

Also in this scene we get an uncredited Charles Hawtrey, lecturing a girlfriend (!) on the sex life of the oyster. The presence of this campy yet infantile British comedy star leads me to a brief reverie about an imaginary Hitchcock CARRY ON film, with Kenneth Williams as a master criminal and Barbara Windsor as an icy blonde, but the moment passes.

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Homolka, left, with William Dewhurst as the Professor.

Homolka visits the charmingly whimsical Professor, who runs a pet shop as cover for his work as explosives expert, then invites diverse hoodlums round to the Bijou to plan how the bomb is to be planted. Another memorable cameo here, from Peter Bull, his face like a sore balloon. Bull, who can also be seen as a heavy in an INSPECTOR HORNLEIGH film a few years later, seemed to get a lot of villain roles, despite his plummy, fruity demeanor which seems to suit him for comic roles, like the Russian ambassador in DR STRANGELOVE (keep an eye on Bull during Strangelove’s final speech, where you can see him visibly struggling to contain his laughter).

(My understanding is that Bull was Robert Morley’s lover: what a sweet couple! But I may be wrong.)

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Loder scares off the heavies, and Homolka instead entrusts the bomb to Sidney’s younger brother, Desmond Tester (jocularly known to Hitch as “the testicle”). This leads to the film’s biggest suspense sequence, and what Hitch always described as a major miscalculation on his part — the death of the boy.

But Hitchcock’s verdict on the sequence was doubtless influenced by the barracking he received from critic C.A. Lejeune, who tore into him after the press show. And the killing is essential to the plot, as conceived by Joseph Conrad and redesigned by Charles Bennett. It motivates everything that follows. If there is a mistake, it’s perhaps in treating the build-up so lightly — the comic scene of the testicle being roped into a market toothpaste demonstration, ending with a sousing in hair oil and a brusque “Now bugger off, you little basket,” prepares the audience for a light-hearted solution to the crisis. They can’t seriously intend to blow up this boy after we’ve all been laughing at him?

They do — and Hitch cuts directly to Loder, Sidney and Homolka sharing a joke at the Bijou, their laughter striking a shockingly inappropriate note (Hitch is stealing from himself here, having previously used the cut-to-laughter device after Peggy Ashcroft gets slapped in THE 39 STEPS). Truffaut observed that threatening the life of a child amounts almost to an abuse of cinematic power… There’s no question that Hitchcock is taking his philosophy of “putting the audience through it” as far as he can, but does he take it too far? The comic set-up, followed by serious mayhem (not only does the testicle get exploded, but also an adorable puppy and a sympathetic bus conductor), followed by jarring laughter, is more like the kind of calculated outrage Robert Altman would perpetrate (Altman actually directed some of Hitch’s TV show, before producer Joan Harrison fired him).

Anyhow, even if the death of the testicle was an error, everything that follows it is incredibly effective. While Sylvia Sidney’s casting raises questions, what with her English brother (the testicle’s accent sounds like a juvenile Hitch) and vaguely foreign husband, her performance in the later scenes more than compensates for the unlikeliness of her turning up as a London cinema manager. Like Fritz Lang in FURY, Hitch seems to call attention to the idiosyncrasies of her face, with the impressively wide forehead, huge eyes and lips, and tapering chin. And as in FURY, Sidney turns suffering into something beautiful.

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The use of the Disney cartoon which Sidney watches, laughing automatically and then collapsing into tears when the slapstick action reminds her of her brother’s death, deepens the film’s painful confusion of comedy and tragedy. 

The cruelest tricks Hitch plays on the audience involve the appearances of the phantom testicle, popping up in jump cuts among the crowd, or charging joyously up to her before a perfect match cut reveals him to be a different child, barging rudely past. Hitchcock may be torturing the audience, but he’s also taking the bereavement seriously, and this film really captures that feeling of momentarily seeing a familiar figure who isn’t there. It’s the perfect combination of genre storytelling, film technique and poetic evocation of experience.

Sidney’s subsequent knifing of Homolka is another classic scene of domestic homicide, strongly echoing the famous “knife!” scene of BLACKMAIL, and the family scenes in THE LODGER. This is the scene where Hitch’s star became distressed that he was filming little bits and pieces of action without her having a sense of the whole scene. To Hitch, a close-up of  didn’t require any explanation to the actress, or any real acting, so why couldn’t she just stand there and carve the meat? Of course, actors are like the rest of us: the despise doing anything without knowing the reason for it. Tell your best friend to change their shoes, but refuse to explain why. It’s going to take you a long time to persuade them. And that’s your best friend.

While a lot of the stuff about Hitchcock being down on actors is exaggerated, he must have felt some frustration at having to explain perfectly mechanical bits of business in terms of motivation. There’s that line he’s supposed to have uttered when he found a performer simply couldn’t perform: “I’ve put him on the floor, I’ve wound him up, but he won’t go!

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Nevertheless, the murder is a tour-de-force of both performance and film-making, with Homolka prompting his own death simply by being a grouchy husband at the wrong time — and something else: does he want to die? It sometimes feels like it. Though he shows no real remorse (his earlier expression of reluctance to cause death through his acts of sabotage is wonderfully perfunctory), there’s that fascinating moment when he walks right up to his knife-wielding wife and makes a little movement towards her. Hitch had liked Pierre Fresnay’s death scene in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, so he re-uses some of the idea here — that slight delay when we don’t know for sure what’s happened. Even Homolka doesn’t know he’s dead. An idea copied a thousand times! (Random nice example: Demme’s SOMETHING WILD.)

Homolka, with what Fiona calls his “great Slavic pudding of a face,” is pretty effective, even if his suspicious manner is a bit too suspicious. He could probably have afforded to go for slightly more sympathy. But he’s a striking presence, and I guess this is his closest to a leading man role. For years he would play stereotypical Russians — Ken Russell makes him wonderfully endearing in THE BILLION FOLLAR BRAIN.

Deus ex machina time: the bomb-making prof calls at the Bijou to retrieve an incriminating bird-cage, is cornered by the cops, and blows the place up, destroying the evidence of Sidney’s crime. As in BLACKMAIL, the heroine gets away with murder and is romantically united with the detective who was willing to protect her, and just as in that film, it’s an uncomfortable happy ending. Although Hitchcock doesn’t push the idea, a life with murder in one’s conscience, unable to confess, seems like a hard thing to bear.

John Loder’s casting as the hero is often regretted, especially as Robert Donat was once in the frame to play the role. He would have pulled off the humour much more stylishly. But it’s not really a star part: the cop doesn’t actually achieve anything — he doesn’t catch any of the bad guys, he doesn’t prevent the bombing, he doesn’t rescue Sidney and whisk her to the continent, as he promises. All he really manages is a nice meal at Simpson’s, a favourite eatery of Hitch’s (the Lion’s Corner House, which proved unsatisfactory in BLACKMAIL, is raised as a possibility but rejected out of hand). In a nice bit of throwaway characterisation, we realise Loder’s feelings for Sidney when he tears up the expenses claim for the meal he was going to submit at Scotland Yard.

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Food is important in Hitchcock.

If Homolka hadn’t complained about his vegetables, he might have made it to the end credits unperforated.