Archive for The Sweet Smell of Success

Country Matters

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 7, 2020 by dcairns
Chris Schneider’s back!
Nineteen fifty-four was the year of, among other things, A STAR IS BORN versus THE COUNTRY GIRL. Both had leading ladies — Judy Garland, Grace Kelly — in competition for the “Best Actress” Oscar. And both were dramas-with-songs where the songs were written by the same team, Harold Arlen (music) and Ira Gershwin (words).
“Harold Arlen?” you ask. Utterly first-rate composer, of a stature with Porter and Gershwin and Kern, yet sporadic luck as far as movies are concerned. High-points would be THE WIZARD OF OZ and the ‘50s STAR IS BORN. And then there’s THE COUNTRY GIRL.
Perhaps THE COUNTRY GIRL Is a shade less rewarding than STAR IS BORN — I’d attribute it to the difference between directors George Cukor (STAR) and George Seaton (GIRL) — yet the distance ain’t *that* huge. Both deal with people in the performing arts. In COUNTRY GIRL, that means a former star (Bing Crosby) attempting a stage comeback with the help and/or hindrance of his wife (Grace Kelly) and young director (William Holden). Both feature an older male (here Crosby) threatening to self-destruct via alcohol. Both even contain a faux-calypso ad jingle to be recorded — though these days one only finds the STAR IS BORN jingle among the “extras.”
The Oscar went to Kelly, of course, though I — while no Judy Partisan — would call Garland the more deserving. Kelly’s eye-popping for dramatic effect is a bit strenuous, and her telling Holden “Why are you holding me? I said, *why* are you *holding* me?” shortly before their kiss is the stuff of Imogene Coca comedy. Yet one can understand how Kelly’s dowdiness-for-virtue, in the early reels, yielding to an Edith Head party dress at the end would appeal to Oscar-think. There’s an affecting two-shot, too, of Kelly hiding her face from eager Crosby to disguise the pain at Holden’s accusations.
“To me you’re as phony as an opera soprano!” jeers Holden.
WHAP! goes Kelly’s hand on Holden’s face.
“Did I forget to tell you I’m proud?” she responds.
(Note to Oscar-conscious screenwriters: be sure to include one moment where the character asserts his/her worth.)
It’s all a well-heeled adaptation, with sharp-ish moments, of a 1950 Clifford Odets’play, one which won a “Best Actress” Tony for Uta Hagen. Only it’s smoothed-out, in an up-market ‘50s Paramount sort of way. There’s still startling animal imagery in the dialogue (“What’d I bring you, a basket full of snakes?” Holden asks Kelly), but the sudden epithets are gone. We have to wait till Odets-written SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS to hear Barbara Nichols call Tony Curtis “Eyelashes.” Holden no longer refers to Kelly as “Lady Brilliance.”
There’s a different sort of music, though, in the Arlen & Gershwin numbers. They recapitulate the STAR IS BORN trick of using apparent pop-songs to talk about the characters singing them. Just as “Gotta Have Me Go With You” was about James Mason’s need for Judy Garland, the spieler number here (“It’s Mine, It’s Yours”) is about the need to believe, no matter what, in Crosby’s ability to make good. A duet with a barroom chanteuse (“What you have learned is, is: / You haven’t learned a thing” sings Crosby) is about falling off the wagon and the dubious possibility of change.
Foggy memory brought me to COUNTRY GIRL with inaccurate notions of the plot’s resolution. Not to offer “spoilers,” but … let’s just say there’s a special category of ‘50’s drama wherein ill-advised romance is resolved by one character pursuing another in long-shot. PICNIC, f’rinstance, or the PAL JOEY movie. Or what we find here.
Kelly is proficient, if a bit flat-out and obvious; Holden gives the sort of sharp-edged, cagey performance that’s no surprise to anyone who’s seen SUNSET BOULEVARD; and Crosby’s hollow-eyed, anxious performance is the biggest surprise of all. A friend likes to quote John Ford on RED RIVER to describe Crosby here, and I’ll second that: “I never knew the son-of-a-bitch could act!”
One misses, among other things, the Gene Allen designs and the Skip Martin arrangements of STAR IS BORN. Also whatcha call directorial style. But there are definite virtues to this COUNTRY GIRL— including its glimpses of populist musical theater and those who made it in the age of Rodgers and Hammerstein.
THE COUNTRY GIRL falls short of A STAR IS BORN, in other words, but not *that* far short.
*
The cast for THE COUNTRY GIRL includes, as David Cairns would say, Lisa Fremont, Father Chuck O’Malley; Joe Gillis; and Deputy Charlie Norris … along with cameos by Ursus and Anita’s Bernardo.

As if on cue

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2014 by dcairns

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I confess to mixed feelings about Lewis Milestone’s film of Clifford Odets’ script of THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN. The orientalism and exoticism (exoticism, remember, is racism’s sexy sister) and yellowface makeups are both seductive and repulsive, and the narrative at times decidedly silly. Rather than playing Odets’ flamboyant dialogue “hard and fast,” as the author preferred, the actors (Gary Cooper and Madeleine Carrol and Akim Tamiroff among others) have a tendency to linger on it, as if they can’t believe they’ve been handed such classy material. Delivered at speed, as in THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, an Odets line *can* sound as if the actor’s just thought of it, the impossible cracked street-poetry tumbling out in a mixture of verbal genius and a kind of fervid desperation to find le mot juste before another millisecond goes by. Hanging about tends to expose just how preciously contrived it is.

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Still, there’s a whole hell of a lot to admire. The Paramount high gloss look, with Travis Banton costumes, gorgeous three-point lighting, elaborate sets and a pulse-pounding score by Werner Janssen combine with Milestone’s atmospheric angles and moves to create a work that’s never less than compelling. It’s a bit like Sternberg with the swooning eroticism blended with a more two-fisted romanticism. The ending is pretty ridiculous, and I find myself agreeing for the first time with Graham Greene, a great film critic but one whose opinions I habitually clash with. He though the ending was silly too — but it’s beautifully staged.

A really interesting moment was point out in the comments section earlier by David Boxwell — a match dissolve between a round doorknob and a gleaming cueball on a pool table. It seems a moment of self-conscious bravura motivated by nothing other than the smooth whiteness of the two objects. But it’s actually a fascinating, odd piece of prefiguring.

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The doorknob is attached to a door through which Gary Cooper has just exited, and the dissolve takes us to a pool hall where Madeleine Carroll is part of a group laying plans antithetical to Coop’s. So arguably the crossfade suggests an imminent connection between the two.

But it’s paid off in grand style later. Carroll seduces and betrays Cooper, rather against her judgement, and doesn’t expect to see him again. When he turns up wounded in the magnificently grotty hotel, he swears he’ll kill Carroll “in half” if he ever sees her again — whereupon Dudley Digges with wax eyelids opens the door to the parlour and reveals the guilty blonde herself, playing pool. She drops the cueball, which rolls up to Coop’s feet. So the connection of door — cueball — Coop & Carroll — is a sort of engram, or compound symbol, carefully planted to prefigure this meeting.

The rare use of match dissolves made me wonder if Milestone had seen and admired my own favourite movie, Victor Sjostrom’s  HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, an early twenties Lon Chaney clown tragedy containing numerous such effects. The match dissolve from a ring of chickens to a circus ring in THE RED PONY made me suspect this even more strongly. When I saw THE NIGHT OF NIGHTS, a fairly undistinguished 1939 Broadway weepie (Milestone’s creative energies were clearly more occupied with OF MICE AND MEN that year), I became fairly convinced I was right —

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Clown-slapping. The slappee is Pat O’Brien, the slapper is Roland Culver.

No wonder I’m so keen on Milestone! We have the same favourite movie.

The play with objects and space relates to another Milestone trick, where he cuts to an object which seems to be part of the scene we’ve just watched, only to reveal that we’ve actually moved somewhere else. A kind of deliberate surprise/confusion generally excluded from the classical Hollywood rulebook at this time, where establishing shots were the order of the day, and obvious scene transitions were insisted upon. In THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS, the young Martha speaks of fetching candles, we cut to them being lit, only to realise that the candelabra is in the hands of Dame Judith Anderson, downstairs. In OF MICE AND MEN, a tasty-looking dinner is consumed by the ranch-hands, but when we cut to a pie being sliced a sudden feminine hand reveals that we’re now in the home of the rancher himself. And in HALLS OF MONTEZUMA this occasional device becomes a recurring trope, dazzlingly deployed to transition into flashback. Each major character has a sequence showing his life before the war. Milestone will have a character drop something. A closeup shows it land on the floor. But when the character picks it up, we discover, within that same closeup, that we’re now elsewhere and elsewhen.

And this never fails to startle us! Clever fellow, that Milestone.

Sweet Smell of Limerwrecks

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on April 23, 2011 by dcairns

More film-flam at Limerwrecks, reservoir of doggerel.

Some of the stars of THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS are given the rhyming treatment this time, here and here, and Thelma Ritter’s heroic turn in PICK-UP ON SOUTH STREET is memorialized here.

When Sam Fuller’s helming your noir,

The film is a battlefield – war!

He goes over the top

And still doesn’t stop

‘Cause he knows film is worth fighting for.