Archive for The Late Show: The Late Films Blogathon

The Late Show — Slight Return

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 19, 2015 by dcairns

Unusually, I’ve gathered a bunch of writings by friends this week, so my duties are limited to hosting and introducing. This is not due to laziness or disinterest, I assure you: it’s just that I have some talented friends…

First up, Phoebe Green offers a late entry for The Late Movies Blogathon, casting a sympathetic eye over the final movie of Marcelle Chantal ~

CHÉRI: THE LAST OF CHANTAL

Pierre Billon’s Chéri (1950), based on Colette’s novels Chéri and La Fin de Chéri, was the last film of Marcelle Chantal.

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Most biographical references claim Marcelle Chantal (1901-1960) was the sheltered child of a banking family; however Christine Leteux—film historian, Natan researcher, and archivist extraordinaire—was kind enough to provide me with a copy of the official record registering Chantal’s birth to an artiste lyrique, father unnamed. She did marry an American banker, whose open-handed indulgence (in 1934 he rented the Théâtre des Champs Elysées and made her general manager) raised her profile and a few hackles. Her first screen appearance was as a teenager in Marcel L’Herbier’s Le carnaval des vérités; her apogee was the 1930s, when she queened it at Les Studios Paramount and Pathé Natan, directed by Cavalcanti, Tourneur, Ozep. She was tall, elegant, strong-featured, a wow in draped satin or riding habit, but a trifle chill and starchy—Kay Francis as cold potato.

Marcelle Chantal had a history, onscreen and off, with Colette. In 1935, Gertrude Stein (as “Baby Woojums”) wrote Carl Van Vechten (“Papa Woojums”) in New York to alert him to Colette’s arrival on the Normandie[1] with her third husband, adding that Marcelle Chantal would be traveling with them and staying, as they would, at the Waldorf. Honi soit qui mal y pense. Chantal played the eponymous heroine in La Vagabonde,[2] was miscast as the rich wife (supposed to be young and orientally luscious) of Julie de Carneilhan’s ex-husband—perhaps star Edwige Feuillère had a hand in that—and, a sumptuous farewell, Léa in Chéri.

The Chéri novels, although gay with Belle Époque décor and mores, are poignantly valedictory. Lovers part forever, time-crossed. These books mark a moment—not the first, but perhaps the most important—when Colette’s art turned and looked backward.

Colette, in her life and her writing, seems Janus-faced between modernity and nostalgia. She leaps forward in order to look back. One thinks of her marriage and the ensuing ghostwriter’s mind-meld that produced the Claudine novels, assuming the viewpoint of her husband/impresario Willy—who himself adopted the lofty yet wistful salaciousness of a roué twice his age.

She loved but feared being trapped in the enchanted garden of her childhood, her mother’s realm—until distance, family deaths, and time reduced it to the safely englobed magic of one of her cherished glass paperweights.

Her Chéri and La Fin de Chéri, although apparently and chronologically sequential, are in fact two different perspectives on the same doomed couples: Léa de Lonval, a Parisian grande horizontale nearing the mellow end of a long and remunerative career, and Fred Peloux, “Chéri,” the son of Charlotte, Léa’s friend and fellow courtesan: a beautiful boy half her age.

In the first novel, Chéri leaves Léa for a marriage of reason (settlements scrupulously negotiated) with Edmée, a girl his own age. Both he and Léa are more shaken than they dreamed possible. Chéri bolts back to Léa, and for a moment it seems they will elope together—then both acknowledge that if he stays with her, he will never grow up. He leaves her house, escaping the maternal/erotic spell, towards manhood and the future.

The second novel, set shortly after the Great War, finds Chéri back from the trenches, disconnected from the times and his marriage, from everything but his memory of Léa. He tries to return to her once again, and, in a masterpiece of a scene, finds only a sturdy, unsexed old woman with his beloved’s eyes and voice. He is briefly soothed by a meeting with the “Old Pal,” a hanger-on of his mother’s generation, who lets him look at her collection of photographs of Léa, listen to her reminiscences of Léa. Realizing this last consolation will inevitably lose its savor, he shoots himself. In this version, he does not break free, but is reabsorbed into the past.

Billon’s scenarist Pierre Laroche (Les Visiteurs du Soir and Lumière d’Été, among others—most pertinently the Colette adaptations Gigi, Minne, and Mitsou, directed by his wife Jacqueline Audry and starring Danièle Delorme) solves the construction problem that hobbled the recent Frears adaptation by presenting the events of Chéri as a flashback within the closing episode of La Fin de Chéri. The film begins with Chéri running into the Old Pal, immediately after the terrible final visit to Léa (only referred to, not shown). The Old Pal brings him back to her place, where a photograph of Charlotte’s circle naturally dissolves back to the moment it was taken …

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Billon’s Chéri is solidly satisfying on first viewing, though perhaps weakest at its center. The aging grotesques of Charlotte’s circle are flawless:

Yvonne de Bray as the Old Pal:

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Jane Marken as Charlotte:

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Maïa Poncet as the Baroness:

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and Marcelle Derrien as the deceptively resilient young girl:

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But at first viewing, the leads are physically disappointing. One longs for stars with the immediate erotic power of Simone Signoret for Léa (who came to Paris from Normandy as farm-fresh Léonie Vallon) and perhaps Rudolf Valentino as the dark-haired beauty who paralyses shop girls as he passes (“Let’s touch him and see if he’s real!”).

Nevertheless, Jean Desailly assumes Chéri’s nervy, hopeless boyishness, the misery of a sleepy child who will not go to bed without a promised kiss:

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And finally, Marcelle Chantal captures both the corseted impeccability Léa wears in public

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and the voluptuousness she reveals to Chéri.

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Our last glimpse of Léa is as she watches Chéri leave her for Edmée and, he hopes, manhood (the last episode of Chéri).

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Although she haunts the film and its protagonist, she is not seen again, even in photographs. Billon avoids the foreseeable irony of raising the camera from the suicide on the divan to the portrait above.

Marcelle Chantal, similarly discreet, retired to Switzerland and died there ten years later.

***

[1] Also on board, though not one of the party: Bertrand de Jouvenel, Colette’s stepson from her second marriage and, from his sixteenth to twentieth year, her lover.

[2] This film maudit, directed by twenty-four-year-old Solange Bussi with the assistance of Colette’s daughter Colette de Jouvenel, was repudiated by Colette, scathingly reviewed, and ended up playing the provinces (at least once on a double bill with Tom Mix). Marcelle Chantal subsequently took up residence in a townhouse near the Bois de Boulogne with the dashingly Arzneresque director.

Ones That Got Away

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on December 9, 2014 by dcairns

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When I get late submissions from students at work, it’s annoying because sometimes I have to fail them, and always I have to warn them that if they submit late in their final year, they WILL fail. Away from work, I am DELIGHTED to get late submissions, ie for The Late Show Late Movies Blogathon, where it’s like an unexpected treat, a parcel on Boxing Day. Imagine my pleasure as The Blue Vial posts an appreciation of character thesp James Millican, featuring also wise words on stalwart B helmer Jack Arnold (THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN changed my life). Here.

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As I was preparing for the blogathon, I ran the final film of Lew Landers, supremely prolific B-hack best known for the Karloff-Lugosi campfest THE RAVEN and 173 other films, serials, whatnots. The film is called TERRIFIED (1963) and it’s not very good but I watched it one night with Fiona and we made note of lots of funny things to say about it and I wrote them down the following day… or I thought I did. I have forgotten all of them, and everything about the film, except —

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1) Someone is trying to terrify people to death. He drives one poor chap mad before the titles even role, by threatening to bury him in cement.

2) There are two leading men and the more promising one (Rod Lauren) clearly fancies himself as a James Dean method guy, which is an interesting presence to have in a Lew Landers movie.

3) Most of the action takes place in a roadhouse and a ghost town, so it’s cheap.

4) The supposedly terrifying things are really lame.

5) The only familiar name associated with it is Denver Pyle, who has some impressive credits but whom I might not remember if not for The Dukes of Hazard being on all the time when I was a kid, and his name being, implausibly, Denver Pyle.

But that’s it! The rest is GONE, and I will NOT be watching TERRIFIED again. Life is not only too short, it’s possibly too sweet.

“Get its brain out!”

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 8, 2014 by dcairns

The blogathon is officially over, which means the guide to what’s appeared has vanished back to a week ago but can still be checked here. Meanwhile, I still have a few thoughts, and there may be posts appearing as late as January…

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SATURN 3 qualifies as late Stanley Donen, doesn’t it, even though he made one more, is still going strong, and may even make another. His to-date-final film, BLAME IT ON RIO, is mostly dispiriting, with Michael Caine and Joseph Mantegna Bologna both trying to do Cary Grant impressions (the fact that Donen directed Grant to such great effect makes this much sadder) and Demi Moore looking all self-conscious and young and topless and self-conscious some more. It’s the kind of film once Donen did well, but it’s a very poor example of that genre and its being made in the wrong decade.

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Musical staging! Very “Top Hat and Tails”!

SATURN 3 is a lot more fun to watch, for me, because it’s just weird. Donen actually does a good job of shooting it, but the script is such a mess he could never be expected to turn it into something good. Apart from letting Kirk Douglas overact atrociously in the early scenes and Farrah Fawcett fail to act and dubbing Harvey Keitel with the voice of Roy Dotrice (!) — which I guess makes for a total failure with the cast, since it’s basically just the three of them onscreen — he sweeps through the tubular, vascular corridors of the moonbase with something like the glee he once brought to following Gene Kelly, and he brings some kind of visual interest to every scene.

The movie sits very strangely in his career, and can only be explained by two things. (1) Donen’s disastrous 1970s output — THE LITTLE PRINCE; MOVIE, MOVIE; THE LUCKY LADY. These three gobbling turkeys (I quite enjoy bits of the first two and haven’t properly seen the last) must have made him ready to accept any genuine offer, and the gaps between films had been getting longer. (2) The film was in fact developed to be the directorial debut of production designer John Barry (CLOCKWORK ORANGE, STAR WARS, SUPERMAN, the aforementioned LITTLE PRINCE) who died before he could make it, so Donen was a fairly last-minute substitute, after I imagine all the usual suspects had been approached.

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So allowances must be made.

Basically, SATURN 3 is a remake of THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, in which Kirk Douglas played a hermit who has retreated to a lighthouse with hot babe Samantha Eggar and has to fight off pirates. Here, Kirk Douglas plays a hermit who has retreated to a Saturnian moon with hot babe Farah Fawcett and has to fight off a man with a tiny pony-tail and a robot with a tiny head.

Big, proto-ROBOCOP feet. Fiona: “You know what they say about robots with big feet.” Me: “Tiny heads.”

The Other John Barry, as we must call him, had evidently put together a strong visual team, even if the film at times resembles all the space epics that had just come out. Unbelievable that they’d open with a big-ass spaceship flying over the camera, or feature multiple-alignment eclipses to mark time shifts — put it down to the inherent vulgar stupidity of Lew Grade productions and Donen’s unfamiliarity with the genre. What Barry hadn’t quite done was create a working script, though some of the elements are there. There are interesting ideas — Keitel becomes the first actor to have a jack in the back of his neck, before Keanu Reeves was even thought of. There’s the idea that chess-playing machines don’t understand sacrifice (not true), later stolen word-for-word in HARDWARE. But a few groovy notions are not enough. To make a film as bad as SATURN 3 you need a touch of genius, supplied here by Martin Amis.

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Hey, Amis at least got a book out of this, Money, which cruelly lampoons the process and some of the actual people (Kirk Douglas becomes Lorne Guyland). His profiting from the experience seems unfair, since nobody else did, God knows, and he saddled the cast with unspeakable dialogue (when FF turns down a blunt suggestion of sex with HK, he snaps, “That’s penally unsocial on Earth, you know that?”). He then had the nerve to declare screenwriting easy. Well, anything’s easy if you do it badly enough, and don’t know what the job requires. A perfect encapsulation of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which ironically also afflicts Keitel’s character in the film.

Hollywood-style screenwriting is easy for a novelist because the prose doesn’t seem to matter (nobody who sees the film will experience it directly) and there’s just dialogue. But it’s also very hard, because it requires tight, short dramatic scenes with their own shape, and a structure which mellifluously plays the audience’s interest and builds it to a climax, and contains surprises but also logical inevitability, and creates fascinating characters expressed almost entirely in their outward behaviour (the novelist’s access to the character’s thoughts is largely shut down here).

Amis, so good with blackly comic prose, sucks at genre (as he showed with his detective and scifi stories) and can’t write scenes at all. His characters are one-dimensional and don’t change or even reveal themselves progressively. Unfair to judge a writer by the films they write, since they rarely have the final say in anything, and probably unfair to take Money as an accurate description of Amis’s process, but the book seems to suggest that he was a kind of on-set script doctor, addressing the cast’s many issues with their roles. But someone evidently decided to break off every scene before it’s achieved anything, and introduce the Adam and Eve in space characters (imaginatively names Adam and Alex) through the eyes of Keitel, as if he were the hero (yet he’s already murdered someone) and they the threat, and to leave out any character detail which might make us respond to the protags as human beings (sole exception: they have a cute dog. It’s Nick and Nora Charles in space!).

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We COULD be blaming the editor for some of this. Richard Marden’s career is divided evenly between big, not always good films for Donen, Schlesinger and Zefferelli, and butchered travesties in the fantasy genre, like all Clive Barker’s stuff, SWORD OF THE VALIANT, MALPERTUIS and Frankenstein: The True Story. Plus a couple of CARRY ON films, which were traditionally edited with a bacon slicer. Fuck it, I’m blaming it on Amis.

Kirk gurns maniacally for the first half hour, then settles down and gets his kit off, Lorne Guyland style. Farrah does that thing with her teeth which makes her look psycho. Grinning with your teeth apart — who does that? Keitel plays it robotic, and his scene interrogating his crazy robot Hector is the only good scene in the film. Keitel talks (with Dotrice’s voice), Hector responds with read-outs on a screen, and it’s all very creepy. Maybe because it has space to breathe and is allowed to conclude on an actual dramatic note. It gives us a tantalising glimpse of what a non-awful version of SATURN 3 would be like.

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What Amis HAS managed to do, though much of it may be accidental, is create a whole series of internal metaphors and allegories of and in the film. I don’t mean the ludicrous speech about how the Greek Hector came to a bad end, clearly added at Kirk’s request to shoehorn in “mythic resonance” (read: literary showing off). I mean the sequence where the robot’s brain is removed but it reassembles itself from parts and lumbers on, just like this movie after Barry’s death. I mean the redubbing of Keitel, echoed in the script when the robot starts copying everyone else’s voices. I mean the weird sex stuff, with Fawcett as beard to mask the peculiar tensions between Kirk and Harvey (naked strangling, Harvey penetrating Kirk’s neck to install another phono-jack), and the glass tube full of “pure brain matter” sliding sexually into the robot’s interior. This must be how Amis saw his role: pure brain matter (him), sexually penetrating the Hollywood machine, to create a psychopathic, biomechanical, microcephalic, veiny behemoth — combining Kirk’s barrel chest and wiry arms (because the robo-actor’s real arms are concealed in the torso), Keitel’s taut, shiny buttocks (leather-clad) and Fawcett’s minute cranium and glassy, staring eyes — shuffling in comical baby-steps out of control through the universe, destroying everything it touches.

He succeeded only too well.

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