Archive for The Red Shoes

Mambo Italiano

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 17, 2020 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns with another Forbidden Diva!


Mambo Italiano! 

“She’s very young. All she wants is revenge on everything and everybody.”

–          Shelley Winters on Silvana Mangano, Mambo

 In the 1949 Neo-Realist melodrama Bitter Rice, an unknown Italian girl became a globally famous star by the simple expedient of standing in a paddy field and looking sultry. She had dark auburn hair, thick thighs and the lineaments of a Botticelli angel. Her name was Silvana Mangano and she was the protégée (and, eventually, the wife) of Italy’s most powerful film mogul Dino de Laurentiis. At no point in her first leading role did she make any discernible effort to act – but everything she did on screen seemed weirdly believable, even when the characters and situations were quite patently absurd. This was a skill that would serve her admirably in year after year of Dino de Laurentiis productions. Up until the advent of Silvana, the mass popular audience had tended to reject Neo-Realist movies because they were not sufficiently glamorous. This new star solved the problem single-handed and in one fell swoop. Silvana Mangano could look more glamorous draped in a dishcloth than your average Hollywood actress dressed in a wardrobe tailor-made by Edith Head.

Having triumphantly straddled the Italian box-office, de Laurentiis duly set about turning his lady into a bona fide International Movie Icon. This would obviously involve a complex network of co-productions employing foreign talent – but preference, invariably, was given to foreign talent that was available at a reduced price. By the early 50s, the American writer-director Robert Rossen – who had won the Best Picture Oscar for his political drama All the King’s Men (1949) – had been forced to flee to Europe after a perilous run-in with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Who better – in Dino’s mind – than a director famed for his rather dour engagement with serious social issues to helm a lush and lavish and insanely melodramatic musical epic called Mambo (1954)? Keen to surround his leading lady with the very finest support, de Laurentiis took a quick look at the gossip columns and saw that Hollywood star Shelley Winters had just dumped her (possibly platonic) boyfriend Farley Granger to marry the Italian actor Vittorio Gassman. He swiftly set about hiring all three actors to appear in his new film. Much to Dino’s chagrin, Granger declared the whole production a vulgar circus and refused to play any part in it. He was duly replaced by the British actor Michael Rennie. But as in any de Laurentiis extravaganza – from War and Peace (1956) to The Bible (1966) to Dune (1984) – it is the intention – and not the end result – that actually counts.

Mambo opens lavishly with a rousing Afro-Caribbean production number featuring the all-black Katherine Dunham Dance Company. Wooden shutters fly open and ladies in voluminous flouncy skirts gyrate to the clatter of steel drums, while somehow managing to balance large plates of tropical fruit. Then a door opens at the back of the stage and the lead dancer makes her entrance. She is none other than – wait for it! – Silvana. It appears that nobody involved in this production ever pondered the ethical or practical issues of turning a white actress into the star attraction of an all-black dance troupe. Mercifully, she is not done up in blackface like Monica Vitti in her ‘tribal’ dance number in L’Eclisse (1962). She wears a simple but elegant silk-and-sequin gown and does nothing that is embarrassing or untoward in itself. Her dancing is quite serviceable, if in no way on a par with any of the other dancers on the stage. Yet the overall effect is as awkward and uncomfortable as L’Eclisse. We can only conclude that Cultural Appropriation was scarcely a hot-button issue among Italian (or, indeed, Hollywood) film-makers of the 50s.

Following this sensational success the company moves on to its next stop, Venice. This just happens to be Silvana’s home town and, as she sits on the train and reminisces, we find ourselves in the sort of plot that kept Joan Crawford in employment for most of the 30s. Her character is a poor-but-honest girl who lives in a seedy back alley with her drunken father and her brattish kid sister. (Her mother is long dead, most likely because her home life was frankly unbearable.) This girl supports her entire family by working in a Venetian glass shop and selling overpriced bibelots to tourists. But she nurtures dreams of one day running away to Rome to become a film star. Her boyfriend (Vittorio Gassman) is a croupier at a casino on the Lido; he is also, we soon gather, something of a shady operator. One day, a gaunt and poetically doomed Venetian prince (Michael Rennie) wanders into her shop, sporting the most lethal set of cheekbones since the heyday of Basil Rathbone. He takes a shine to the comely shop-girl and gives her a pair of tickets to a masked Carnival ball. Her boyfriend, spotting an opportunity, sells his ticket on the black market and unwisely allows Silvana to go with the Prince. This is not a decision we might expect from an insanely jealous and possessive Italian male…but hey, the plot of Mambo has to get moving somehow.

The ball is a quasi-Sternbergian fantasy of masked revellers, floating paper streamers and what looks like gallons of confetti pouring down from the ceiling. The evening’s entertainment is provided by the Katherine Dunham troupe, who come cascading down the grand staircase or, in some cases, leaping over banisters with all the savage aplomb of Attila the Hun moving in for his final sacking of the Roman Empire. All this excitement is just too much for Silvana, who has already been tippling on champagne and cannot resist her primal urge to join in with the dance. Soon she is cavorting face to face with a half-naked black male dancer, who is clad in the most obscenely tight pair of leopard-skin beeches this side of a Tarzan movie. This spectacle inflames the hapless Prince with a wave of simply uncontrollable lust. At the end of the dance, he drags Silvana up the staircase and has his way with her. Next morning, in the pale light of dawn, she is acutely aware of having become a Fallen Woman – and feels too ashamed even to go home. That is quite convenient, in fact, because she has caught the eye of Shelley Winters, who plays the (entirely fictitious) manager of the Katherine Dunham troupe. This lady has resolved, on the spot, to build the girl up into the company’s star attraction.

Not that her interest in the neophyte is purely artistic. Shelley Winters has been costumed and styled to look as much as possible like the 1950s stereotype of a Butch But Glamorous Lesbian. Just in case we miss the point, the dialogue drops heavy hints about the lonely and frustrated existence to which “a woman like that” must invariably be doomed. Tellingly, much of this dialogue was eliminated from the Italian release of Mambo and survives only in the international English-language print. As a 21st century audience, we are at once fascinated and appalled – but that is certainly nothing new in this movie. With her undeniable powers of persuasion, Shelley wrests Silvana away from Vittorio and moulds her tyrannically into a great dancer. At this point, Mambo threatens to become a sort of misbegotten remake of The Red Shoes (1948) only with a lesbian in the Anton Walbrook role and a sleazy petty criminal in the role played by Marius Goring. An honest-to-God analysis might well reveal that this film equates being a criminal with being a lesbian and also, indirectly, with being black. Hence it is best to avoid doing one if we are to go on enjoying the fun. Our heroine makes her triumphal return to Venice. She enters a nightclub looking simply sensational in a black beaded gown that looks as if it had been poured slowly, bead by glistening bead, over her curvaceous and near-naked form.

Perhaps it is inevitable that she meets the Prince again. But what we honestly did not see coming is the fact that the Prince turns out to be dying of hereditary haemophilia, as was the custom in all good aristocratic families. No sooner does Vittorio get wind of this than he cooks up a plot for Silvana to marry the dying man, so she can inherit his money and his crumbling ancestral palazzo and share her ill-gotten gains, naturally, with her true love. The plot now shifts abruptly to that of Henry James’ novel The Wings of the Dove, only with the sex roles neatly reversed. Silvana reacts with horror to the suggestion – and then goes ahead and marries the Prince. A rapist he may be, but he is still a more inviting marriage prospect than Vittorio. (Shelley Winters is not an option, partly for censorship reasons and partly because she has unaccountably been run over by a car.) Once she has married the Prince, Silvana comes to realise that he is in fact a decent, caring and thoroughly sensitive bloke. Is it his fault if he got a bit too carried away by the thrill of Carnival night? Mambo now looks set to be a touching tale of a woman who has been raped falling ever so tenderly in love with the man who raped her. We might like to believe this film could not possibly become any more outrageous than it already is. If so, we reckon without those unique talents that Dino de Laurentiis employed in the script department.

There are several twists left to go in the plot of Mambo, which is remarkable given that the film is only 90 minutes long. What is also remarkable is that Silvana Mangano looks serenely beautiful throughout and never once seems tainted by the sheer awe-inspiring bad taste of everybody and everything around her. One day in the late 60s she would wake up, walk out on her crass vulgarian of a husband and make a string of classic films with intellectual left-wing directors like Luchino Visconti and Pier Paolo Pasolini. (Her most famous film was Death in Venice (1971). It may have helped her exorcise some bad memories.) But Mambo, too, is an undeniable classic of a sort. It may just be wiser not to say what kind.

David Melville

Donkey con

Posted in Dance, FILM with tags , , , , on August 14, 2013 by dcairns


A Michael Powell story.

“A donkey was duly called by the property department and reported to Pinewood Studios on the appointed day at 6 a.m. complete with its owner, a diminutive cockney from Covent Garden Market. Immediately on arrival he was taken to wardrobe and fitted out with a ballet costume, tights, shoes, etc. Then followed make-up and hairdressing  where he was given the full classical look. This he endured without comment of complaint, being a man of few words who had prepared himself for the peculiarities which he might have to face in a film studio. His donkey, equally phlegmatic, grazed on a patch of grass outside the window. He was then taken to the crowd dressing room where h sat, silent, in the farthest corner, surrounded by other male dancers with whom he was totally identified in looks, if not in spirit. He waited patiently for something to happen, all the while keeping his own counsel, apparently unmoved by all that went on around him. At last, his patience rewarded, the dancers were called on to the set with him leading his donkey, which by now must have become his only link with the outside world. The market square sequence had been fully rehearsed the evening before, so all that was required was a quick run-through before shooting.

‘Quiet, everybody, for a final rehearsal,” shouted the assistant director. ‘Playback, please,’ and with the magic word ‘action’ and to the sound of the recorded music, the crowd leaped and twisted their way across the stage with pirouettes and entrechats, all perfect apart from the ‘dancer’ with the donkey, who stood immovable and expressionless. ‘Cut, cut!’ shouted Michael above the sound of the playback, never endowed with great patience on these occasions. ‘What’s wrong with everyone? It was rehearsed last night. Pull yourselves together and let’s go again.’

And so we did with exactly he same result. With the third attempt ‘cut’, Michael strode angrily through the crowd to confront the dancer with the donkey. ‘What’s the matter with you? Everyone else knows what to do. It was all rehearsed last night. You can hear the music like the others, you’re a dancer, aren’t you?’

‘Of course I f…..g ain’t! I just brought the f…..g donkey!’

From cinematographer Christopher Challis’s memoir Are They Really So Awful? Challis was camera operator on THE RED SHOES. However, the story above may not be 100% reliable since I have yet to spot any form of donkey, mule or ass in the corps de ballet.

But this story struck a bell with me because my pal Lawrie Knight, who was third AD on TRS and also on A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, reported a precisely similar story — a friend was visiting him at the studio, but didn’t appear to meet him as planned. Suddenly Lawrie recognized one of the jurors in the heavenly tribunal — his friend, in fancy dress. “What are you doing in that costume?” he asked. “I… don’t know!” replied his befuddled visitor.


I love the idea of Pinewood as a place where anybody stepping through the gates would be bundled into costume and makeup and forced in front of the cameras. It’d make breaking into the movies a lot easier.

HI is for Historia de un amor (Story of a Love)

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on February 7, 2012 by dcairns


The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

HI is for Historia de un amor (Story of a Love)

In the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, Libertad Lamarque was an unlikely star. For a start, she was not even Mexican. Born in Rosario, Argentina in 1908, she was a top star in her native country for two decades – before relocating to Mexico in the late 40s. What’s more – in an industry ruled by the incandescent glamour of Dolores del Río, María Félix and others – Libertad Lamarque was less than a classic beauty. A gawky, angular woman with a pronounced squint, she looked a bit like a none-too-successful drag queen impersonating Norma Shearer.

Yet Lamarque reigned supreme as a star in Mexico for at least four decades (from the 40s to the 70s) and was still appearing in telenovelas at the age of 90. Her secret was that of any Latin American star of her era. The ability to play any situation with total and complete conviction – no matter how contrived, melodramatic or absurd it might be. That was coupled, in her case, with a high soprano voice so crystal-pure that it sent a long, cold thrill down your spine, like silver needles. Her forte, of course, was musical melodrama. Luxuriant suffering in the manner of Lana Turner or Joan Crawford, only with half-a-dozen hit musical numbers thrown in.

It was as a singer that she first made her mark. The popular Argentine tangos of the 20s and 30s had two great interpreters – Carlos Gardel for the ladies, and Libertad Lamarque for the gents. Her fame on radio and records won her the title “la novia de América” (Bride of the Americas) so, even if she was not conventionally photogenic, a career in movies lay ahead. Her lush musical weepies of the 30s were akin to those of Zarah Leander in Germany or Imperio Argentina in Spain, both of whom thrived around the same time. It would be fascinating to know why this genre flourished particularly in countries that were prone to nasty right-wing dictatorships – but that’s probably a whole other article.

Why did Libertad abandon her home country for Mexico? Rumour has it that, on the set of one her films in the early 40s, she had a run-in with an untalented but fiercely ambitious starlet named Eva Duarte. During a break from filming, the tired newcomer made the unforgivable mistake of sitting down in the Great Lady’s chair. Outraged, and determined to show this little hussy who was boss, Libertad pulled the girl out of her chair and slapped her sharply across the face. (One may assume this was standard diva behaviour at the time.) Unfortunately for her, Eva – who never forgot a grudge – was soon to marry the most powerful man in Argentina, Colonel Juan Perón, who would become absolute ruler of the nation in 1945. Libertad soon realised that her best, and safest, career options lay elsewhere.

Within a year of landing in Mexico, Libertad was back on top. Her first Mexican film, Gran Casino (1946), was directed by a little-known Spanish refugee named Luís Buñuel, who spent the rest of his career trying to pretend he hadn’t made it. Historia de un amor, in contrast, is the work of Roberto Gavaldón, one of the all-time great directors of melodrama – and one who wore the genre as a badge of honour. Made in 1956, when both his and Libertad’s careers were at their height, Historia de un amor is deluxe musical soap opera with bells on. One of those films that elevate shameless wallowing to the level of High Art.

It’s the story of a singer (Libertad seldom if ever played anything else) and the trials and traumas she faces in her inevitable rise to stardom. The “love” of the title (in theory, at least) is her on-and-off affair with a composer (Emilio Tuero) who discovers her and promotes her until she hits the top. A boozer and a womaniser, but blindly devoted to her deep down, he marries Libertad only so she can adopt her maid’s illegitimate child and prevent it being snatched away by the father’s family. Our heroine enters a false marriage in order to sustain a false motherhood, and expects – in her self-involved and profoundly delusional way – to find true love and happiness at the end of it. As a poet of career ambition versus romantic illusion, Gavaldón is a rival to Douglas Sirk; the falsity of Libertad’s suburban Art Deco home (by ace production designer Günther Gerzso) is up there with Lana Turner’s in Imitation of Life.

It’s a telling detail that most of Libertad’s key dramatic moments are played not with the man she “loves” (or any of the other characters) but with strategically-placed reflections of herself – in the mirrors, polished surfaces and gigantic picture windows that dominate the sets. When she rejects Tuero’s first offer of marriage – because she doesn’t think he really loves her – she asks him if he even knows the colour of her eyes. Turning away as she speaks, she contemplates her own (exquisitely gowned) image in a darkened pane. Later, as they share a brief and fragile happiness, she turns to the mirror in her dressing room and exults: “What a happy woman I am!” (A sure sign, in a movie, that tragedy is about to strike.) Sure enough, a few scenes later, the child’s rich, mean old grandfather has stolen her away. Libertad sits and mopes, artistically, above her own face reflected in the lustrous dining room table.

Libertad’s other “big” moments are all musical numbers, in which she communes passionately with herself and the one other being that truly matters to an artist – her slavishly adoring public. On tour in Caracas, Venezuela, she stars (without dancing) in a ballet number that’s an eye-popping black-and-white pastiche of The Red Shoes. Titled “The Girl in the White Shawl” it casts Libertad as a pure young maiden whose spotless shawl protects her from “the evil of the world” – in much the same way that her own romantic illusions protect her from even a nodding acquaintance with reality. As the choreography and décor grow ever more bizarre, her dancing alter ego fragments into three. Not just a girl in virgin white, but a sexy gypsy temptress à la Carmen, and a Greek tragedy figure in robed in black like Medea. Just like Moira Shearer in the Powell film, Libertad’s character is confronting her own suppressed demons, who may well hold the key as to why her life is such a mess!

Naturally, once its audience has sobbed and sung along for the requisite 100 minutes, Historia de un amor winds up in a tear-stained, if none too convincing, happy ending. Working-class audiences in Latin America had enough tragedy to contend with, so the least that Libertad could do was live blissfully ever after on their behalf. (The lady herself died in 2000, at the ripe old age of 92.) Call me a cynic, but the joyous finale of Historia de un amor was the one moment I found seriously hard to believe.

David Melville