Month: October 2016
When I originally noticed the discrepancy between how Adrian’s dresses for Joan Crawford in Howard Hawks’ Today We Live look in still and in motion pictures, I wanted to demonstrate it in a film, rather than write it in an article. However, i wasn’t a skilled enough editor to accomplish what I wanted with sounds and images. So I wrote the article but I decided also to at least practice a little and see what I could come up with. This is the result.
Katharine Hepburn on ‘silent’ movies from her famous interview with Dick Cavett:
‘Everything becomes different. They don’t look silly to me. Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, a lot of those pictures, a lot of the comedies…You look at Silent Pictures with a different point of view because they are different but some of them are thrilling’
Today We Live is a curiosity: the only time Joan Crawford and Gary Cooper co-starred; the only time Faulkner wrote a script of one of his stories. It’s a handsome but lifeless film, redeemed only by some exciting areal sequences retooled from the footage in Hell’s Angels (Howard Hughes, USA, 1939). Crawford is arrestingly beautiful and very bad in the role of Diana ‘Ann’ Boyce-Smith: one can’t help but giggle when she remembers to put on her English accent, which luckily for us isn’t often.
Only the clothes Adrian designed for Crawford make an impression. Theirs is a famous partnership that endured for 28 films. He’s credited with the wide-shouldered look she made famous in the 30s.The year previously they’d made a hit with their collaboration for Letty Lynton (Clarence Bronw, USA, 1932), with the the famous dress being adapted in various patterns and flying off shelves and Sears’ catalogues and onto the shoulders of young women across America (see above). As Jessica Ellen writes in her blog:
‘(Adrian) designed a dress to reflect the 1930s eagerness to “get back to femininity” after the flapper years and thus yards and yards of fluffy organza was used to create an excessive ruffled effect. The waist was cinched to show off Crawford’s best attribute and the shoulders were emphasised, as Adrian desired. When the dress finally debuted in the film, it set of a nation-wide fashion craze as every woman decided she wanted to look like Joan Crawford! Thousands of more affordable copies were made for department store sales and allegedly every single one of them sold! Edith Head once said it was “the single most important influence on fashion in film history” and with it, the Crawford shoulders were born!’
In Deborah Nadoolman Landis’ Hollywood Sketchbook: A Century of Costume Illustration, she writes that Adrian was arguably the king of Hollywood Golden Age glamour,
‘ (he) didn’t confuse the art of costume design with fashion (and) embraced the inherent problems of creating costumes for black-and-white movies. Fahion designers, he explained, ‘have to please the human eye. I have to satisfy the discerning eye of the camera…in black, white and gray. For this reason, line is vastly important, and only the finest fabrics may be draped or cut in a satisfactory manner’ (p74).’
That he designed for the camera, and the way fabric looks in black and white is very clear in Today We Live. The issues of line and fabric are more questionable.What is immediately noticeable in Today We Live is that the dresses that look so beautiful in photographs begin to seem less so as soon as Crawford begins to move; how it’s almost as if the clothes were designed for stills rather than for motion pictures.
Contrast for example, the image above — an ideal of art deco elegance and geometry — to the way the dress looks in motion: uncomfortable, with additional purposeless pleating on the back, badly tailored so that the material scrunches up around Crawford’s waist, and with that ridiculous cardboard decoration which slashes diagonally way past the neck and threatens to decapitate Crawford should she try and look behind her shoulder.
Next, look at the elegance of the outfit above; the beret at a jaunty angle, the metal buttons catching and reflecting the light, and cascading symmetrically way from the neck. But then see below as Crawford takes off her coat. The top is very badly taylored: look at the creases it makes from her breasts, the way the material gathers into unflattering folds along the sleeve, the ugly fold as she lifts her arm, which creates an unflattering line from the arm past the shoulder. Lastly, see how all of the front of the dress seems to scrunch up into folds as Crawford goes to comfort the made. It’s almost like motion transforms what is beautiful in stills into unflattering uncomfortable uglyness in motion, the costumes more architecture than clothes.
Lastly compare the still to the clip. It’s one of Crawford’s most famous looks, one we’ve seen illustrating book covers (see below for all)
Now, look at the clip above. The closeup with Crawford framed by the candles is gorgeous. But as soon as she stands up all the ruffles and bows are too much, too impractical, too creased. Then when she turns around, turns her back to the camera, and moves away from the table, the back of the dress is ridiculous, with those extraneous, useless, bits of material riding up around her waist, making her bum look bigger. It’s completely impractical. The pleats on the flounce need ironing. Yet, they are constantly going to be sat on. A ridiculous and gloriously impractical dress. It’s no wonder that upon the film’s release, Variety panned the outfits : ‘…”Gowns by Adrian” were extreme and annoying’.
They are extreme and would look extremely beautiful if Crawford had sat for some stills from Hurrell (see above). But for Hawks in Today We Live — i.e. in motion and in character — it’s one more element that takes you out of the story and helps sink this particular ship.
It was only upon reading Howard Gutner’s marvellous Gowns by Adrian, the MGM Years 1928-1941, that I discovered the reason for that discrepancy between the way Crawford’s clothes look and the way they move. Prior to the beginning of Today We Live, Crawford had gone with her then husband, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., to Paris and discovered Schiaparelli’s couture. She asked Adrian to copy some of those lines for her. He made up a trio of dresses that were designed purely for publicity purposes. Crawford was a late addition to the cast of Today We Live and she insisted on wearing the dresses in the film, which Hawks hated, because he quickly realised they did not move well. But in those days, Crawford was billed as ‘the most copied girl in the world’ for her wardrobe and she won, to the detriment of the film.
Jacques Prévert wrote poetry; Marcel Carné filmed it; Jean Gabin and Arletty brought it to life and gave it heart. The film begins with a view of an apartment door, we hear shots, a man comes out clutching his wound and dies tumbling down the stairs. Another man comes out the door with a smoking gun. His neighbour calls him François but we know him as Jean Gabin. Why did he do it? The rest of the story will tell us, in flashbacks, framed by showers of bullets, as the police close in on him in his flat. As daybreak comes, we will learn about François, his working conditions, the community that loves and supports him, his loves. We will also learn that people like François really didn’t stand much of a chance in France in 1939. Le jour se lève is a beautiful film in which love, goodness and community are interwoven with exploitation and betrayal to make up the very fabric of its fatalism. It’s a great movie. A key exemplar of ‘French Poetic Realism’. It was ranked top ten in the very first Sight and Sound poll of Best Films in 1952, and has remained a cinephile favourite ever since. .
Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, USA, 1942) is one of the most famous ‘women’s films’ of all time and Bette Davis’ greatest box office hit when she was ‘Queen of the Lot’ at Warner Brothers. The story is one of transformation: Charlotte Vale, an old maid bullied by her mother and put-upon by her family goes away from home and transforms herself into a glamorous and sophisticated woman. It’s a story of survival and metamorphosis: the ugly duckling becomes a swan, the nervous wreck becomes confident, the one who hides and is hidden in a closet….; Now, Voyager is a film that had, and continues to have, great resonance with LGBT audiences: Charlotte Vale gets ‘caught’ with a boy, she’s bullied and made fun for being who she is, she’s nervous about how to behave in public, she’s got to practice the persona she performs in public, she has secret trysts, she has to figure a dialogic way of communicating in public so that her loved one hears one thing, strangers another; she’s got to figure out another way to be happy that doesn’t involve the nuclear family or indeed maybe romance: ‘Why ask for the moon when we have the stars’. Bette Davis wears a fabulous wardrobe by Orry-Kelly; It’s the film where Paul Henreid famously lights his & her cigarettes; and it has one of the most memorable closing scenes in the history of cinema. It’s not a great film; it’s too choppy and somewhat crude. But it’s a film that still continues to involve audiences today. Every time one shows it, it’s once again a hit. It was Bette Davis’ greatest hit of all time.
Also with great performances from Gladys Cooper as the mother and Claude Rains as the psychiatrist who puts Davis on the right path.
An extraordinary clip from ‘the pre-Code Ex-Lady (Robert Florey, USA, 1933), the film that was meant to turn Bette Davis into an above-the-title star but didn’t. Here Bette Davis, whilst emphasising she’s not ‘that kind of girl’, nonetheless has a boyfriend who has a key to her flat. She favours work, is not interested in marriage or children, and has ‘modern’ ideas about sexual relations outside of marriage and believes. She also believes in a woman’s rights to her body and to her own agency. This couldn’t be expressed more clearly by Ex-Lady. It’s the kind of clip that illustrates how even this early in her career her star persona was already a sight of struggle over notions of femininity. I wonder how feminist film studies might have been differently written had these films been more available in the 70s.
Almost universally derided as lurid, overwrought, excessive: I liked it very much. The title at the intro warns us that the film is a story of evil. In Beyond the Forest, evil is personified by a woman, Rosa Moline (Bette Davis), married to the too-nice local doctor (Joseph Cotton) but desperate to get out of that one-horse town and into the nearest big city – Chicago – for the sophistication and excitement she craves. Why is she evil? Because she’s a slattern – the house is full of dust — because she cheats on her husband, because she’s killed a man. But the worst bit – the bit that got cut out of prints in several US cities – is because she’s willing to jump off a hill to abort the child that’s keeping her from the bright lights of the big city. At the beginning, she says that life in Loyalton is like waiting for a funeral to start. The film shows us just how true that is, as she collapses and dies just as she’s about to make the last train outta there.
The film is probably best remembered for Davis’ speaking of the one line ‘What a dump!’, a camp classic made respectable when re-deployed by Edward Albee in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and even more famous when Elizabeth Taylor spat it out in the film version. But the fame of the line obscures what surrounds it and makes it potent: Rosa’s refusal of the constraining and defining options for women in Loyalton.
‘I don’t want people to like me. Nothing pleases me more than when they don’t like me. It means I don’t belong.’ When her dull milksop of a husband — shown drinking a glass of milk in case you didn’t get it — tells her he just saved a woman’s life, her retort is ‘Saved her for what?’ Hating everyone makes her feel alive, keeps her from accepting the conditions of the existence she didn’t choose, keeps her in revolt. ‘I’m going to bed,’ says the husband. ‘That’s big news. Where else could you go?’ Gay audiences of the time might have laughed at the line but surely the feeling that if they didn’t get out of their small towns and into a big city, they’d die, that towns like Loyalton would kill them, is a situation they could connect to, one that spoke them and dramatised their plight?
Beyond the Forest has many great scenes but one worth lingering over is the one where she leaves the husband and runs off to Chicago only to find Neill Latimer (David Brian), her lover, doesn’t want to marry her (see above). He offends her by offering her money. But even as she refuses, she’s interpellated by everything that surrounds her as laughinstock and a whore: she’s kicked out of a bar for being a single woman, a drunk thinks her a prostitute, the police have their eye on her, even the newspaper boy seems to detect her plight. It’s a fantastic scene. Some might think it too much. But too much for what? King Vidor directs this is as if it were an opera, all is emotion and he’s finding the right pitch to convey it, with situation, camera, setting and angles, even the tone of a stranger’s laughter. Everything here symbolises, creates, evokes and conveys feeling. Clearly.
Ruth Roman is in the movie merely as an ideal of womanhood, everything Davis’ Rosa Moline isn’t. Max Steiner’s score is so unimaginative he has to rely on underscoring Fred Fisher’s ‘Chicago’ over everything. And yet, Beyond the Forest is lurid, is excessive, is overwrought. It is also great. The film achieves the latter through, not in spite of, the former.
I’ve just been playing around, trying to learn some editing skills and wanted to do a summary of scenes from Jezebel that had a particular resonance to me, bring them all together and see what they looked like. It’s a bit crude. I’m not very skilled. It feels like beginning to learn a new language where there’s all these things you want to express but can only manage ‘bonjour’ ‘au revoire’ and ‘un bière s’il vous plait’. On the other hand one does get the arc of the story and some of the most famous scenes, which I think interest in and of itself.
Pauline Kael called Dark Victory a ‘kitsch classic’. It was certainly one of her most popular films and continues to be one of her most enduring. If it weren’t for her, I’d find most of it hard to bear. The script is one cliché after another. Edmund Goulding directs skillfully, but cynically — one can’t imagine him believing what he’s trying to get us to swallow. It’s got George Brent, arguably the dullest leading man in film history (though it’s a category not short of contenders), Ronald Reagan (another contender for the title: leaden, amateurish and completely unconvincing as a drunken playboy), and Humphrey Bogart as an Irish ‘stable boy’ (you’ll find it hard not to giggle at his accent).
Davis plays Judith Traherne, a rich Long Island heiress who lives for parties and horse races (‘I won’t be tamed!’). She gets headaches; she begins to see double. She doesn’t mind putting herself in danger, but when she almost kills a horse she allows her best friend Anne (Geraldine Fitzgerald) to get her to her family doctor. A younger, smarter, doctor, Dr. Steele (George Brent), finally diagnoses a fatal disease.
An operation is called for. It’s only a partial success: she’ll live normally for a few months but then one day her vision will begin to cloud and that will be a sign that she’s only got a few hours to live. Anne and Dr. Steele decide to keep the verdict from Judith, who falls in love with the doctor, finds out they’ve been hiding information from her, suspects the Doctor’s only agreed to marry her out of pity and decides to live life to the full while she can; a situation Irish Bogart threatens to take advantage of. Eventually she ‘sees sense’, marries the Doctor, and a has a few happy months until one day she imagines the sky clouding over whilst the sun is still hot on her hands, and then she and Ann, in a neat reversal, keep the good doctor from knowing she’s just about to die in order to minimise his hurt.
The only reason to see the film today is for Davis and for the celebrated final scene. In the trailer for the film, Warner Brothers promises: ‘In the career of every great actress one role lives forever as her finest creation….The most exciting star on the screen in a story that light the full fire of her genius’. Whilst Judith Traherne is far from Davis finest creation — she’s better in Jezebel and The Letter, amongst many others — she is definitely a star of fire and genius in Dark Victory. Most of the fire is misguided, the first scenes are all snap and verve, and such are the mannerisms that would be accentuated in later years by female impersonators defining her by what are essentially her worst characteristics: the bulgy eyes, the nervy arm movements, the speedy clip of a walk, the turn of the head.
She’s got some beautiful moments, the famous ending of course, but also a drunk scene with a wooden Ronald Reagan (see clip above) where she gets the band to stay after hours and play ‘Oh Give Me Time’ for her. It’s very restrained: she doesn’t overdo the drunkenness. It’s also poignant of course, because Judith has little time. It’s very-well directed (as opposed to merely ‘professional’, like the rest of the film). She’s very glamorously made up. Orry-Kelly has her in a black dress, with a fur bolero and matching hat, the hairs of which match and rhyme with the shadows cast by her eyelashes, her face framed by the fur, and a glistening diamond brooch on the black dress. It looks exquisite. She’s clearly at her peak yet soon to die. It’s beautifully done. But Davis is even better, and her acting is part of the mise-en-scène. Just look at the very last shot, where she sighs, her shoulders droop and she seems to expire before us as the scene fades to black (see image below): At her most beautiful yet soon to die. It’s the stuff of melodrama. But Davis elevates it, makes it beautiful and true. With her, it’s melodrama at its best.
Aside from Davis, I’m interested in how the story lends itself to a gay reading, not in all its aspects, more like a kaleidoscope in which only some parts glisten towards that particular audience. It’s a place I suppose where the female audience the trailer addressed might have intersected with a gay male audience (of yesterday and today). The trailer (see below) tells us Dark Victory is, ‘The story of a free soul: ‘I’ve never taken orders from anyone, as long as I live I’ll never take orders from anyone. I’m young and strong and nothing can touch me’; dialogue extracts include: ‘‘What a relief to know you’re no better than I am’; ‘Are you afraid to burn Michael’? We’re told that she’s:
Dangerous (the title of the film she won her first Academy Award for; Reckless is the title of a Jean Harlow vehicle)
I’m sure many gay men felt the same way. The line, ‘She tried to give her heart honestly and completely, fighting the terrible shadow that stood between her and the man she loved’ might still have particular resonance with men with HIV.
I suppose it’s kitsch because its full of clichés we know are false, yet their particular rendering here is entertaining. We recognise them, laugh at them, enjoy them. Yet, one can’t deny there are moments when one becomes genuinely moved in spite of the kitsch. These are the moments we owe to Davis. It’s why we still continue to see these films; why these films are still worth watching.
I’m still trying to process American Honey but first impressions are: that it’s great and original, that it’s too long, that it doesn’t know how to end, that Sasha Lane and Shia Lebeouf are excellent; that you’ve not quite seen anything like this: I wrote a series of posts on films –significant ones from female directors — that mourn the idea of America but this is the Ur-Mourning America text and amongst the most relevant and alive of road movies.
It’s a film that really stays with you and that you feel that you should see again but don’t really want to. There are moments where it’s a really hard watch even though nothing terrible really happens. I love the structure, the way it begins and (almost) ends on a commentary on two different kinds of broken families, but also the way each stop in the road trip becomes a commentary on America as well as an advancement of plot and a development of relationships, with the rap singing in the bus a kind of Greek Chorus running commentary.
I love the equivalence between Star and Jake: we can see how easily she might opt for prostitution; but he’s been a pimp, thief and whore from the beginning, less profitably and less self-aware of it. I love how the film makes us feel sad for both; how it’s inclusive in all kinds of ways: gender, sexuality, to a lesser extent – ethnicity — it would have had to become a different film with more black kids on the bus. I love how the film has a neoealist feel — the poverty of the kids on the bus is written on the skin — but also how it uses imagery poetically.
I can’t think of a higher compliment than to say the film feels both real and poetic. I think Riley Keough gives an extraordinary performance as Krystal, the ruthless leader of the work-gang. I think it’s a film everyone should see at least once.
The Letter is a contender for Bette Davis’ greatest film and a brilliant example of classic Hollywood filmmaking at its best. The film begins with a fiercely purposeful Leslie Crosby (Bette Davis) shooting a man we only see from the back, where she shot him and shot him until she ran out of bullets. She defends herself to the police and to her too-loving husband (Herbert Marshall) claiming it was rape. But a letter appears, a letter that reveals otherwise.
By the time William Wyler got his hands on it, The Letter had already had over a decade’s workout as workhorse of a hit play for all the great lady stars of the day. Gladys Cooper (who plays Davis’ mother in Now, Voyager) produced and starred in the 1926 West-End production and turned it into a smash hit, the beginnings of a celebrated theatrical partnership with Somerset Maugham and a career milestone. Katherine Cornell also made a success of it on Broadway in 1927; and Jeanne Eagles gave a celebrated performance in the 1929 film for Paramount. It’s a perfectly structured play with a smashing central role – an adulterous murderess who loves her husband is falsely freed only to acquiesce to a greater justice — that requires a great star and an actress of enormous skill and range; and if that actress was Gladys Cooper in 1926 London, Katherine Cornell in 1927 Broadway and Jeanne Eagles in the movies of 1929, in 1940 the acknowledged great actress and biggest female box-office star of the screen was Bette Davis. She doesn’t disappoint.
The play has a climactic clincher of a line – ‘with all my heart, I still love the man I killed,’ and there was a time when an actress’ greatness was measured on how well they delivered it. Here we see Davis, just a moment after she’s so skilfully lied of her love for her husband while she still hankers for her lover, breaking down as she expresses her passion for one through her regret for another. It’s a moral decision to finally be truthful, to take the consequences that follow, one that leads to the famous finale where she goes into the darkness with the palm trees, the moon, and the clouds over the moon creating different plays of light and darkness, to submit to justice at the hands of the wife who’s husband she killed.
But if that line is what the whole film builds to, it is also preceded by a showcase scene that offers an actress the filmic equivalent of a great aria (see clip below). What interests me in the clip is not only the self-evident genius of Davis’ acting and the brilliance of Wyler’s long-take staging but also how well those lines she acts so richly not only evoke Leslie Crosbie’s desire and admit to her crime but also how well Maugham’s lines evoke a certain pre-Wolfenden Report gay sensibility:
‘Every time I met him, I hated myself. And yet I lived for the moment when I’d see him again. It was horrible. There was never an hour when I was at peace with myself, when I wasn’t reproaching myself. I was like a person who was sick with some loathsome disease but who doesn’t want to get well. Even my agony was a kind of joy.….I don’t deserve to live’
If the film rewards being read through a gay lens, it can also be seen as a dramatisation of colonial revenge for white privilege. Leslie Crosby can get away with murder because she’s a British white woman in Malaya: even her lawyer (an excellent performance from James Stephenson) lies to the point of criminality on her behalf and risks getting disbarred because…well because British Imperialists have to stick together. The film tells us that Chinese areas are dark and dangerous, the film shows us how they are mysterious and unknowable (all the Orientalist clichés are evident in the film, highlighted by Max Steiner’s music). The Eurasian Mrs. Hammond makes the white woman kneel for the letter that will save her life. But that’s not justice. The only justice Eurasians get in this movie is when they take it into their own hands…with a dagger.
It’s a beautifully structured work, bookended as it is by two deaths, the last rhyming with and responding to the first. It is also ingeniously directed, in long takes and with deep staging, in the ‘invisible’ style so prized by Hollywood. William Wyler’s choices are so classic, so subtle, they’re almost unremarkable. Yet, note the shift to a low angle when Mrs. Hammond appears through the beaded curtain to make Mrs. Crosbie beg (above). Note also how the party and court-room scenes are shown in long-shot and full of extras to highlight appearances and the importance of reputation to public life. See how sparing is his use of the close-up, here kept in reserve only for key accents, usually when he wants the film to highlight what Davis is thinking. See also how he’s unafraid of the symbolic, how the way Mrs Crosby tries to crochet her libido out of existence is underlined for us.
Tony Gaudio’s cinematography is essential to Wyler’s achievements. Note how Mrs. Crosby’s house is presented as a kind of prison, with the shutters creating bars all around. This is a film about moral and ethical dilemmas and these are sculpted out of light for us, made manifest as light and darkness through celluloid with extraordinary skill (see above). It’s very much worth seeing on the best quality print or DVD you can get. The story is of its time but its difficult to imagine a production better than this one or to imagine a performance better than Davis’ is here.
Orry Kelly designed a terrific wardrobe, completely in sync with and highlighting aspects of Leslie Crosby’s character, with the lace pashmina one of the many highlights.
The Letter was Davis’ second outing with William Wyler and is, along with Jezebel, an essential film for fans of both.
Bette Davis’ recompense for having missed out on Gone With the Wind; one of her greatest hits; a legendary performance that’s still the gold standard for screen acting. The film’s themes – the conflict between North and South, the battle of the sexes, the constraints of societal morays on individual identity and expression, the price women pay for over-stepping those limits – all are expressively explored. William Wyler directs with great fluidity — the camera always seems to be craning, gliding, moving in, accenting – and in depth. Yet, it feels restrained – or rather, right: it never feels too much.
Watching the film is an immersive experience, as if one is drifting into a cloud of pure emotion, probably lifted there by Max Steiner’s score. The realm of feeling – complex, understandable, contradictory, ours – feels right on the surface of the film; on its skin; and communicated from there to our own. It’s almost a great film. What stops it from being so in my view is all the happy-clappy slaves singing their joy at the Halcyon plantation. This is by no means the worst offender in its time. In fact one can argue that there’s a context in which it can be seen as liberal and progressive. But it does offend current eyes and ears, at least mine.
And yet here is also Davis’ Julie, one of her most popular and celebrated performances, goading Pres (Henry Fonda), challenging his masculinity, confronting convention, proud, arrogant, spoiled, then humiliated and suffering. She’s great, a witch – we don’t know how she achieves what she does; how she communicates such complexity so clearly — and completely bewitching in all her legendary moments: getting off her horse, choosing the red dress, the ball sequence, goading Pres with his ‘stick’ in a phallic battle she wins, the humiliation of her attempts to win him back, her final self-abnegation at the end. A must for anyone interested in great screen acting.
Orry Kelly’s costuming is better than Walter Plunkett’s for Gone With the Wind
The first of three Davis films directed by Wyler, the others being The Letter (1940) and The Little Foxes (1941)
A Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1942) knock-off, with a poor imitation of an Ilsa and Victor Lazlo sub-plot that threatens to drag the film down in the last half, and still one of the most entertaining films of all time. Once, To Have and Have Not being very loosely based on an Ernest Hemingway novel with a script worked on by William Faulkner brought it a certain cachet: two Nobel-prize winners for literature on the credits of one film. It also created a certain notoriety; that Hollywood could treat such literary giants so cavalierly was proof of its philistinism. But for cinephiles, it’s Jules Furthman’s name on the screenplay that generates excitement. He wrote Shanghai Express (Josef Von Sternberg, USA, 1932), Bombshell (Victor Fleming, 1933), China Seas (Tay Garnett, USA, 1935), and for Hawks alone, The Big Sleep (1946) and Rio Bravo (1959); which is to say, he wrote some of the most memorable female characters in the history of cinema and dialogue that is still indelible today.
In To Have and Have Not we get to hear Bacall say, ‘It’s better when you help’, ‘You know how to whisle don’t you Steve: just put your lips together… and blow’, ‘this money is mine and so are my lips. What’s the difference?’, and so many other great lines. Of course, the way Bogart and Bacall says them helps. To Have and Have Not is Bacall’s first film (she was 19) and it made her one of the greatest stars of the post-war period and a cinematic immortal. In her autobiography, By Myself, she recounts how the famous ‘look,’ which she created and was to be publicised as, was simply due to nerves: She was shaking so much that she tried to hold her chin in to prevent it from showing. You can see the stiffness in the performance. But one can’t deny the power of her presence. She’s beautiful, insolent, free: like Dietrich in Shanghai Express but slangier, rangier, home-grown American. With the possible exception of The Big Sleep, also for Hawks, Bacall was never to be better on-screen.
To Have Have Not offer many pleasures. Bogart and Bacall of course; action in exotic locations; the witty way it’s imagined and executed. Some think Walter Brennan’s performance as Eddie, Harry Morgan’s (Humphrey Bogart) alcoholic sidekick, cutesy and overblown. I love it. His double-takes are still a source of wonder and enjoyment to me. I also admire how the depiction of the relationship between Eddie and Harry, which could just have remained at the level of cartoon, is lovingly built up as a loving relationship between men. The legendary Marcel Dalio also sparks up every scene he’s in as Frenchy, the nightclub owner. As if all this weren’t enough, there’s Hoagy Carmichael, one of the greatest American songwriters, playing piano for Bacall (ostensibly voiced voiced by Andy Williams though there’s some controversy about this) on some classic songs: his own (‘How Little We Know’) and those of others (‘Am I Blue?’ Music by Harry Akst and lyrics by Greg Clarke). I have a particular love for this one, which it seems to me would be better known but for its choice of language: ‘this is a story about a very unfortunate coloured man…’