Dana Andrews & Cornel Wilde

Watching Shockproof (Douglas Sirk, 1949) — which sets itself up with a pretty great Bradbury Building cameo — I was thinking: Cornel Wilde is like a duller Dana Andrews type. And then, this shot happened.

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Remind you of something?

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Today in male privilege is bullshit:

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“In The Talk of the Town Arthur shared top billing with Grant, their names placed just above Colman’s in the credits. But she was a distant third in terms of pay. Grant received $106,250 to Colman’s $100,000, while Arthur, still in Harry Cohn’s doghouse, was cut back to $50,000.”

— John Oller, Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew, p137. 

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On the non-censorship of Letty Lynton (1932)

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I revisited Mark A. Viera’s wonderful book Sin in Soft Focus. He elaborates on the production of Letty Lynton, although not without some judgement too (the murder “was excused by a woman’s need to defend her honour, even if she had tossed it overboard many reels earlier”). Apparently, in the lead-up, Jason Joy warned MGM that their script was too similar to Barnes and Sheldon’s play: “The woman in both has affairs because of the sex urge, not out of love.” It violated the Code in its philosophy. Such an approach to philosophy, says Viera, “made money, so Thalberg persisted.”

Apparently British censors didn’t pass the film because it “justified homicide without penalty.” In America, it was both despised for its lack of morals and lapped up for its honesty and support of equality. And now, we love it.

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Letty Lynton (1932)

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The first glimpse we get of Letty Lynton (Joan Crawford) is when she’s in the middle of a crowded dance floor, with a man. She says to him that she wants to stay with him, to be with him and eat lotus and poppy. These symbols of “Orientalism” are referenced to signify the decadence of Letty’s lifestyle, and signify the man, Emile (Nils Asther, often cast a pesky “Other”), as a source of . She’s a bored socialite, on extended hiatus in South America, indulging in opiates and foreign lovers.

They leave the club, and she says she’s thinking. “Silly business,” says her lover. “I think I’ve had about enough,” is her response. She’s clearly been trying to leave him for a while, and she tries again. Emile follows her to her apartment, and she tells him she is leaving, again. He resists, says that she will stay and he will make her love him more and more. She glances at him, and replies, “no”.  Simple as all that. Still, she succumbs to his charms once more (and with a moustache like that who can blame her?), for one more night (quoting Macbeth, of all things), and the next scene is shown escaping on a tender going out to the ship at sea, where she proclaims to her dedicated maid, “I feel as though I’m escaping from a burning building.” (There’s a few great other lines, too. “You know I never kiss anyone before one o’clock,” she says to another suitor in South America.)

She meets Jerry (Robert Montgomery) on the ship, and she is fast drawn to him. While in conversation, she says that she wishes she were a man. It’s not an uncommon for women in pre-Code films to express this wish. It’s demonstrative of a desire for more power than their sex traditionally offers, a drive for more freedom and personality. Even with this wish, though, she proclaims, “I never make any rules.”

A classic pre-Code woman, she says, “I haven’t been steering my course towards marriage, very much,” she says, resisting his approach, but she knows she will follow him. They kiss, then they’re engaged, and it’s all on. Off the ship in New York, her old beau finds out and tries to win her back, kissing her against her will, so Letty gets a good slap in there. The slap is one of Joan’s specialties. He blackmails her into his grasp, promising that he’ll expose their love affair to her new fiancé if she doesn’t. So she packs some poison, goes to his hotel, and asked for a glass of wine. She tries once more to beg for freedom, for the chance to marry her true love, but Emile won’t let her go. So she pours poison into her own glass, but to top off his arrogance, he takes the glass as she reaches for it and downs the whole thing.

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Joan Crawford’s eyes are incredible in this scene. Earlier, when she made the decision to poison herself, her face and eyes blanked over with a terrifying determinism, a deathly blank stare. It happens again here as she reaches for her glass, then watched Emile drink his death. She waits, screams that it was meant for her but she’s glad he drank it, then leaves the room as the poison takes effect. She watches from behind a curtain as a waiter clears the tray from the hotel room, assuming Emile to be blackout drunk, and in a touch of humour, takes a glass of champagne for himself, too. (Clarence Brown’s direction is classy, typical of the time and yet so much more. Each placement of the camera suits the mood.) Letty then makes her escape from the room, wiping away her fingerprints, apparently planning to pretend she was never at the scene. Is it true that she never meant to poison him? We can’t be sure, but she seems genuinely sad, and ready to sacrifice her life if it means relief from unhappiness.

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Suspecting her of murder, the police detective doesn’t only target her for the crime, but accuses her of living with the man for months! It’s as though the shame in that is worse than murder. That’s when it gets really heated. Jerry sticks up for her, gallantly (and to save his own face), “we’re not living in the early nineties” (those conservative times!). Letty Lynton is a true pre-Code diamond because Letty not only kills her former lover and gets away with it, but because she gets away with it because her new lover and her own mother provide false alibis, knowing she must be guilty. Upon realising that she’s a “tainted” woman, Jerry sticks up for her, stays with her, and they marry to combine their fortunes.

Letty Lynton was released, but has been widely unavailable since the 1940s, when a lawsuit decided against MGM that portions of the screenplay were plagiarised. (I’m sure its status as a pre-Code didn’t help either.) While adapted from a novelised version of a real-life murder case, Letty Lynton (written by Belloc Lowndes), was deemed too close to the play Dishonored Lady (1930) by Margaret Ayer Barnes and Robert Sheldon. Dishonored Lady was released as a film in 1947, a vehicle for Hedy Lamarr.  If you get a chance to see it, consider yourself lucky, and make sure you do.

What’s more, Letty Lynton is famous for this dress, with the puffy sleeves. But isn’t the other much more incredible? The costume design by Adrian, who dressed Joan Crawford often, is pretty excellent.

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Lawless (John Hillcoat, 2012)

“It is not the violence that sets men apart. It is the distance he is prepared to go.”

Lawless is not a great film. In fact it takes about thirty minutes for the film to hit its stride, shortly after Forrest (Tom Hardy) recites the above quote, to his brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) and a change in the pace of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score.

The story isn’t much new, and the editing is strange at times. It confuses perspective, rather than assisting it, giving it depth. It’s slow and it’s stagnating, which doesn’t quite work. I was missing the speed of Boardwalk Empire, which itself went so quickly at times it was hard to follow. Yet that was part of the point of Boardwalk Empire, and the show’s speed assisted it. Here, it’s confusing anyway.

A voiceover in the second half, that he’d heard there were problems in the country but was having the time of his life, is accompanied by a shot of homeless families waiting by the side of the highway, a billboard in the background declaring “highest standard of living”. It’s the failure of the American Dream motif, shoved right up in our faces. Perhaps it’s meant to be funny. In fact, maybe the whole selection of cliches are meant to be humorous, but the film doesn’t own its humour. It’s obvious, it’s clunky, it’s ludicrous. There’s a strange imbalance of restrained and saturated realism.

Then there’s the introduction to the final sequence where all the main men are “preparing” themselves. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a man preparing for battle on screen but it would certainly be more times than I’ve seen a woman…putting on makeup, for example. Speaking of, that didn’t even happen here, although Mia Wasikowska did change into a new dress, and Jessica Chastain showed her collarbone.

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There’s a quite nice moment, after Forrest has had his throat slit. He falls and stares, rigid, up at the moon, which compares to the headlights of Maggie’s car as she drives back to save him. It’s nice; nothing special.

Jessica Chastain is probably the only thing worth seeing this for, but maybe see something which she’s actually *in* more of instead.

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The Barkleys of Broadway (Charles Walters, 1949)

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The Barkleys of Broadway (Charles Walters, 1949) contains some expectedly poor-taste jokes, like one that men find it hard to tell women apart at parties, which is actually rather funny in the way the joke is executed through the film although I have a problem with it in principal – but, you know, showbiz. I suppose that Oscar Levant can pull of pretty much anything, including being a deadpan, womanising producer and a killer on the piano keys. And that a wife is always more submissive to a man’s mood than vice versa. But Billie Burke is superb as a party-maker, especially in the first scene where she wears a pink dress much like hers in The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), but without so much tulle.

While MGM’s The Barkleys of Broadway is almost nothing compared to Astaire and Rogers’ 1930s musicals at RKO, it’s great to see them dancing together again. One of the non sequitur dance numbers in their show, “My One and Only Highland Fling”, is a hoot. But their tap dance rehearsal to “Bouncin’ the Blues”, when Rogers is wearing a marvellous pair of slacks, is just superb. In over two minutes, there are only two cuts, not including one after five seconds of intro music. The first cut takes us to a tighter medium close up of the couple during a spin move, and the second cuts to a crane shot that gives perspective on the stage space and then pans down to level with the dancers. It’s really a breathtaking scene, and I just couldn’t take my eyes off Rogers — not unusual, as I mostly watch her in their numbers, but she just so suits this relaxed tap feel. It’s my favourite moment in this film, when Rogers and Astaire never quite reach the same level of charm as in their earlier films.

Then there a ludicrous scene where an eccentric European artist reveals his impression of the Barkleys as…a pancake in a frying pan. The artist suggests that Josh (the pan, naturally) is in his impression like Svengali — “the man with the beard” he remembers, as he strokes an imaginary one on his own chin — but what it is really suggestive of is Ivan the Terrible. Eisenstein’s, of course. Dinah is the pancake, because she’s shaped by her husband’s excessive talents or something as uninspiring as that.

Josh is a pig, telling Dinah that she’s talentless. They separate, they get lonely, and a plot of deceit begins which of course is ultimately forgiven. Astaire sings George and Ira Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”, and they dance it beautifully, repeating a musical union from Shall We Dance (1937) when they didn’t dance!

Josh gets all gallant at the end, and says that Dinah could be great in the part — any part at all — but that Jacques doesn’t know how to direct her. So he wants to help her, and so the final act begins. But see, he was the one being the arsehole to her about her talents in the first place, so I just don’t buy it. He never apologises, but they reach an understanding and fall in love again, which in the end, is the utopian goal of the musical that breeds such desire for its own ending. As entertainment, anyway, in the way Richard Dyer sees it. (In large part, in the sense that the film presents complex feelings “in a way that makes them seem uncomplicated, direct and vivid,” apart from an intriguing attention to the fact that Dinah and Josh are merely separated and this is unpleasant for them both.) Earlier in the film, Jacques criticises Dinah’s acting ability and approach to her part, scowling, “This is not a musical comedy, it’s a legitimate play.” It’s the ultimate jerk move, because he has cruel intentions. But Rogers is not actually a great dramatic actress, or at least, not a great melodramatic actress — ie. when she is called on to make dramatic turns in comedies. Early in this film when she has to cry, I’m reminded of her joyous but somewhat pained stint as a “teenager” in Monkey Business (Howard Hawks, 1952), when all she really does is pout and whinge. In something like Storm Warning (Stuart Heisler, 1951), both Rogers and Doris Day are excellent.

In the end when there are multiple misunderstandings and pretending while the other person knows, and doesn’t know, and double pretending, and then one of those final killer lines when Ginger says she doesn’t want to do any more plays because “no more worrying about the plot” which could be easy to take offence to given the line listed above, but it’s all in good fun and yes, kind of true. Apologies to Richard Dyer for over-simplifying his argument. I was at a conference in the USA in October, and Brent Phillips presented work from his then-upcoming book on Walters, Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance, and I’m really looking forward to reading it.

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Film Noir Dreamscapes

I stopped a film noir midway through this afternoon to have a nap, and had a dream to rival one of Adrian’s! I entered into the dream smack bang embroiled in the slowly brewing action, involved with a man in a sharp suit, and a large bag filled with a lot of money. Clearly, these plot elements entered my subconscious directly from the film I had stopped, Killer Bait a.k.a. Too Late For Tears (Byron Haskin, 1949). The film “stars” Lizabeth Scott as the femme fatale who has an okay role as a woman who drives her own life, murdering her husband while desperate for money, but can’t act for peanuts. (“You know, tiger? I didn’t know they made ’em as beautiful as you, and as smart. Or as hard,” says Dan Duryea, absolutely one of my favourite eager slime balls and an actor that Farran Nehme describes as “one of the movies’ most reliable sadists.”) I had been given a large brown leather gladstone bag filled with money, in an underground car garage in somebody else’s apartment building, although the details of my obtaining this bag are hazy. I’m sure that’s what I told the crook who was after me, too. I met this man later that night, or perhaps early the next morning, on the corner of a street, tightly surrounded by canted buildings and streets, and I new he was about to shoot me. I stuttered, and eyed the gun he held at his right hip. I said, “I’ll never give you the money,” and then people started appearing on the streets in their dressing gowns, anxious to eye off the disturbance in the neighbourhood. And he couldn’t kill me in plain sight! His gun disappeared and I ran. At home, in my small apartment, I plugged in and opened my laptop, as I most often do, and went to work cooking up a recipe of explosives (I hope with several slugs of whiskey at my disposal). I looked up minutes later to see that above the table, the devices attached power system had caught fire as it had overheated. I grabbed whatever glasses of water I could from the clutter on the bench, refilling a few more and put out most of the fire, slapping the table hard to abolish the final simmering flames. Then I looked down to the floor, and a mysterious steam was drifting from the cords at the power source, blocking out whatever power source there might have been from visibility. It was almost something like the heavy fog from Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981), or Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955), something sinister brewing from an evil source. Perhaps Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Surely this was the end of me?!

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But then I awoke. I’m sure this dream was also influenced by my leaving our house yesterday due to visible smoke from a nearby (very small) bushfire — I don’t often have dreams so elaborate or vivid. When I awoke from this dream I had an update from the CFA that the fire in question was expected to be controlled by this evening; also, to a large storm that had descended on the city. Strong, loud wind is careening outside my building, and the sea has changed colour from a sparkling blue to a dark slate, as it does when the blue sky disappears and clouds turn grey. Clusters of sea vapour are forming above the ocean’s surface, carrying with the wind. Hopefully this arrival of a storm won’t mean more lightning-activated bush or grass fires, although I think a few more have started. Anyway, here’s to more vivid, noirish dreams like this one!

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