Archive for The Spiral Staircase

Forbidden Divas RIP: Help Me, Rhonda!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2020 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove’s latest Forbidden Divas piece seems like a suitable way to close out The Late Show for 2020. Though the film itself is not a particularly late one in its star’s life (or that of its director or anyone else), it is also an obituary, and you can’t get any later than THAT.

FORBIDDEN DIVAS RIP

Help Me, Rhonda!

“It was to save your life that I became…what I am”

~ Rhonda Fleming, Queen of Babylon

A weird numinous glow seems to emanate from movies you loved as a child. When I was eight years old, I thought that Queen of Babylon (1954) was quite simply the most wonderful film I had ever seen. It was a flashy, splashy, trashy Italian epic about a feisty red-haired shepherd girl named Semiramis (Rhonda Fleming) who rose to become queen of a vast empire.  Not that she was driven by anything as crass as a lust for power. It was true she got married to the evil King Assur. But she only did it to save the man she loved – a dashing rebel leader named Amahl (Ricardo Montalban) – from being tossed into a giant swimming pool and eaten alive by hungry crocodiles. This was my introduction to the fact that any and all relationships involve some form of compromise.

Watching Queen of Babylon today, it is hard to imagine a movie better calculated to appeal to a gay eight-year-old. The wardrobe worn by Rhonda Fleming is the sort a drag artiste would kill for. She does an erotic dance before the king in a bikini made of aluminium foil. It is eerily similar to the one worn by Ursula Andress in The Tenth Victim (1965). OK, so she stops short of firing bullets out of her bra. But she still makes short work of a gorgeous half-naked slave boy, who has been placed in the middle of the dance floor for just that purpose. She marries the king in a crown that looks like a silver filigree flower pot perched on her head. The fate of empires may hang in the balance, but this movie is less about politics than about fashion. That can only ever be a good thing.

An actress who never quite scaled the heights of Hollywood stardom, Rhonda Fleming is the ideal protagonist for a movie like Queen of Babylon. That is because her acting is never marred by subtlety or underplaying of any sort. Her every pose and expression is designed to fill a vast Technicolor screen. Her eyes blaze imperiously in every close-up. At each crisis – and one arises, reliably, at intervals of five minutes or less – she raises an arm in front of her face to indicate shock. She has remarkably beautiful hands, with long and sinuous fingers. But she repeats this gesture so often and so energetically that we fear she is about to gnaw her arm off at the elbow. This bothered me not the slightest as a child. After all, what was the point of acting if nobody could see you act?

So bowled over was I by this bravura display that Rhonda became, albeit briefly, my Absolute Number One Favourite Star. She was supplanted a year or so later by Brigitte Bardot in Viva Maria (1965). I was desperate to see Rhonda in other movies – but, alas, by the 70s she and the films she made had fallen out of favour. She had drifted into doing guest spots in TV cop shows or ‘witnessing’ on evangelical Christian broadcasts about how Jesus had helped her through her countless divorces and remarriages. Like her friend Jane Russell, she was a devout Born Again Christian and a staunch right-wing Republican. But she seemed a remarkably nice lady for all that. To put it bluntly, Rhonda Fleming talking about Jesus was more fun than most other people doing most other things.

It took me years to catch up on the rest of her career. Born in Los Angeles in 1925, she was perhaps the only female star to be discovered by the infamous gay super-agent Henry Willson. (She seemed like a girl who would have baulked at sleeping her way to the top; with Willson as her agent, it is a safe bet she did not have to.) Her debut at the age of 19 was as a mental patient in the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Spellbound (1945) Her character was meant to be ‘a nymphomaniac’ – and Rhonda confessed years later she had not the faintest idea what that word meant. She went home, looked it up in the dictionary and was profoundly shocked. But she played the role with undeniable gusto. Along with the Salvador Dalí dream sequence, Rhonda Fleming is the liveliest thing in that film.

She played a few more minor roles in major movies – she appears, for a few minutes each, in The Spiral Staircase (1946) and Out of the Past (1947) – but it was major roles in minor movies that made Rhonda Fleming a legend. She was Cleopatra in the riotous no-budget Serpent of the Nile (1953). Even a dance by Julie Newmar, with her body painted gold all over, could not quite upstage Rhonda. Her greatest roles were in two films by Allan Dwan. In the homoerotic Western Tennessee’s Partner (1955) she is the madam of an establishment called The Marriage Market. It is decorated in red plush and gilt and is all too obviously a whorehouse. In the Technicolor film noir Slightly Scarlet (1956) she plays a nice upstanding girl with a trashy nympho sister (Arlene Dahl). As the film progresses, we learn that the ‘bad’ girl is really not all that bad – and that the ‘good’ girl is really not that good!

Her role in Queen of Babylon is both a ‘good’ girl and a ‘bad’ girl depending on the scene. Hence it is more complex than that of her co-star Ricardo Montalban. The devastatingly handsome Mexican actor is given little to do apart from shake his great big sword in defiance of tyranny. Then he gets captured, stripped to the waist, tied up and tortured in as many sadistic and photogenic ways as possible. I can think of no more satisfying use for his talents. The director Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia lays on the depravity and gore to a degree Hollywood at that time would not have dared. The mass catfight in a dungeon rivals the Sapphic excess of Prisoner of Cell Bock H. And if Ben-Hur (1959) is famous for its chariot race…well, this movie has a scene where monkeys race around a banquet hall in chariots pulled by dwarfs. Dare I confess I enjoyed this race a whole lot more?

Somehow I doubt Rhonda Fleming talked much about Queen of Babylon in later years. When she flew to Rome to make it, she had not yet learned a lady does not do anything she cannot reminisce about at Republican Party conventions. Her last years were dedicated to charity and good works and her death in 2020 – following those of Olivia de Havilland, Juliette Gréco and Lucia Bosè – made me fear that almost nobody I like will be left alive by the end of this epically awful year. Queen of Babylon is the sort of movie little gay boys dream about in their sleep. It says that you too may one day grow up to be a queen, if only you wish hard enough.

David Melville

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2010 by dcairns

“I have nothing to say.” Pierre Batcheff sulks in UN CHIEN ANDALOU.

Dorothy McGuire gives us the silent treatment in Robert Siodmak’s THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE.

I was very intrigued by this piece by Glenn Kenny, pointing out links between UN CHIEN ANDALOU and Siodmak’s CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, shots of the moon), so it hit me with some force when I suddenly recognized the connection between the above movies, which should have been obvious to me years ago since I know them both well… Siodmak and Bunuel were indeed near-contemporaries, with the German filmmaker establishing his career in Paris just after Bunuel had left. I think they just missed each other in Hollywood as well. But the two striking connections are enough to make the case for a definite influence of the Spanish surrealist upon the German noir master.

A Kitten isn’t just for Christmas…

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2008 by dcairns

We went round to my friend Kristin’s to admire her new kitten, Jonathan:

Jonathan did not disappoint!

Then, after crisps and cake and wine, I suggested watching CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, which I had copied for Kris because she wanted to see Gene Kelly being evil. As a fan of musicals and all things evil, how could she resist that combination?

Beautiful death-mask lighting by Woody Bredell.

It was quite a strange viewing experience. Even with the lights dimmed, Jonathan refused to settle, so the movie played out with an adorable bundle of fur skittering across the floorboards throughout. Then there was Kris’s TV, which has a failing tube or something, so that the top right of the screen is green and the rest is blue, sometimes creating a strange 3D effect where the background of a shot is tinted differently from the foreground. And then there was the tape itself (I recorded it on VHS since Kris’s DVD player was busted) which had been recorded over something in LP mode, so that in the audio background, strange slurred voices could be heard conversing or maybe arguing or singing in ssslllooowww mmmoootttiiiooonnn.

All in all, a strange way to see a film, and likely not one screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz nor director Robert Siodmak had in mind. But the film survived.

It’s a long-standing joke that audiences going to see a film called CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY with Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly must have been pretty shocked with the doomed noir love story they got in place of sentimental musical comedy. With that cast, a different title would really have helped, but the name of the film actually resonates beautifully with the story (original author Somerset Maugham had good taste, after all). The time-span of the tale is literally the duration of a soldier’s Christmas leave, and although Kelly inhabits the meatiest part of the story, it’s as much the jilted G.I.’s tale. But Siodmak, a star-maker all his life, didn’t manage to turn Dean Harens into a headliner, and the young hero kind of backs out of the limelight when faced with authentic moviestar wattage.

On Kris’s TV, Deanna was completely silhouetted except for the gleaming teardrop. Nice.

As fallen woman Deanna (terrific performance, completely different face and body language in the flashbacks to more innocent times) narrates her story, both he and she experience the beginnings of an emotional transformation. The flashback structure calls to mind Mankiewicz’s most celebrated work, CITIZEN KANE, while there’s at least one transition that’s very much in the KANE mold: Gene Kelly says, “You don’t believe me,” Deanna Durbin retorts, “I do,” and on those words we cut to the wedding ceremony.

Kelly gives a peach of a performance as charming psychopath Robert Mannette (“little man”?), tormented by the feeling that he’s a disgrace to his noble family name. The film seems to be having fun teasing us with Kelly. We wait almost half an hour for the putative star to turn up. when he does, he’s in silhouette, and he’s just killed a bookie. The next flashback shows how Deanna met her husband (the structure is tricky that way) and he asks her to dance. But just as they reach the dance floor, the song (“Always”, which Deanna gets to sing, twice, very slowly) ends. A brief conversation, and then the band strikes up. Gene takes Deanna in his arms, and just as we’re finally about to see Gene dance, Siodmak fades out.

But minutes later, Kris would remark, “He’s always dancing.”

Which is true. As is: “The mother’s really scary.”

Ah yes, Gale Sondergaard. “When it was all over, the psychoanalysts would say that Robert’s relations with his mother were pathological.” It wouldn’t be a Siodmak noir without a bit of dollar-book Freud. Or astronomy. One or the other. (THE KILLERS and UNCLE HARRY plump for astronomy. THE FILE ON THELMA JORDAN, THE DARK MIRROR, PHANTOM LADY, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE plump for d-b F. Later on in Siodmak’s career, his great NIGHTS, WHEN THE DEVIL CAME can be said to be about unconvincing scientific explanations for aberrant behaviour.) Sondergaard is never more alarming than when she’s being caring and motherly:

She’s just too corpsey. It’s a beautifully pitched performance, where Sodergaard seems to simply allow the lighting and the lines of her face to carry the sinister implications.

A gripping climax: Kelly has escaped from prison and seeks to kill Durbin for her perceived infidelity. The irony: Durbin has never stopped loving him, and her life as a prostitute has been a self-inflicted punishment for her perceived failure to save her husband from himself. It’s pretty sick stuff.

“How did he get out?” Fiona wanted to know. Women have a way of asking awkward practical questions like that. I showed ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST to director Morag McKinnon, and at the climactic flashback, when Charles Bronson’s brother is being hanged from a stone arch, she asked “Where’s the ladder?” To which the best answer is, “Maybe they just used the camera crane.”

“He escaped,” I attempted to explain.

“Yeah, but how?”

“Violence.”

“And dancing.”

“Yes. A deadly combination of violence and dancing.”

Deanna Durbin transcends the squalor in a Wagnerian climax as the clouds part and Tristan Und Isolde plays on the soundtrack, and as Glenn Kenny points out, the combination of Wagner and (yes!) astronomy connects irresistably to Bunuel’s UN CHIEN ANDALOU, but in the absence of any proven interest from Siodmak in Bunuel’s work, I have to question whether this is influence… or just a beautiful synchronicity.