Category Archives: Uncategorized

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 109 – The Adventures of Robin Hood

One of the early three-strip Technicolor films (1938), and an action adventure classic, we visit 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, featuring Errol Flynn at his dashing, cheeky peak. We get swept up in its excited use of colour, social conscience, pleasantly laddish tone and swashbuckling combat.

Mike sees some of the film at an ironic distance, particularly the action, which he finds charmingly amateur. But while some things might have significantly changed over the last eighty years, the connection to the characters and the film’s sense of fun is intact. There’s a discussion to be had over the film’s messaging – José greatly appreciates the democratic tone to everything, the fairness with which Robin treats everybody and the grace with which he is able to accept defeat, while Mike suggests that his magnanimity would be more impactful if we were able to feel he were ever in true peril – but Flynn is simply so charming, so in control, and indeed, such a star, that the film can never sell it. Flynn conveys a certain superiority through masculinity, as José notes – he is a man among men.

The Robin Hood legend endures, this 1938 version only one of countless film adaptations, and we discuss why that might be. And there’s always room to mock Americans who try to tell English stories and get things wrong. It’s the joy of being English.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 108 – Bohemian Rhapsody

The road to banal and disappointingly homophobic biopics of rock legends is, as they say, paved with good intentions. The Queen story/Freddie Mercury biopic has been in the works since 2010, with creative differences amongst the filmmakers made public and Brian May and Roger Taylor apparently exercising tight control over how the story would be told. What they apparently wanted was sanitised, bowdlerised, pasteurised, inoffensive to the delicate sensibilities of an audience that would rather not look too closely at the sexuality of a gay icon. Which sounds absurd, but considering the old man sat near us in the cinema who audibly said, “oh dear”, when Freddie was shown kissing a man… Jesus, they might have had a point.

José expresses his disappointment at seeing yet another gay story in which being gay leads to isolation and unhappiness: ‘the sad young man’ trope evolving into the ‘dead queer’ one. Freddie is lonely, surrounded by cats in a vast empty house, pining for a woman. His gay relationships are chaste and the one openly gay character, comfortable with who he is, is cast as a snake, a villain. Freddie’s sexual drive bursts out of his music; are we supposed to believe he experienced no joy in being gay? Brian May – the character – is depicted as a particularly annoying pest, clean, perfect, and forever commenting on Freddie’s lifestyle and behaviour as if to vet it; or perhaps as if to ensure the audience is comfortable. The more we think about it the more homophobic it is.

Our discussion of the film’s attitude to and portrayal of Freddie’s sexuality is central, but two other key aspects to his life also come under criticism – his music, and his death from AIDS. The latter is skated over almost entirely, sympathetically included right at the end to help you feel good about feeling bad for him. The music can’t be hurt, of course, and it’s a pleasure to hear banger after banger, but as Mike says, you may as well go home, read the Queen Wikipedia page and put on the Greatest Hits. What drives the band, what drives Freddie, aren’t things the film appears to have even considered might be interesting questions. Things just… happen. In chronological order. Mainly.

Ultimately we ask ourselves who this film is for. We watch it at a distance, wondering why it is the way it is, not really involved in it until that final act in which Live Aid provides Freddie with the opportunity to make the entire world his own for twenty glorious minutes. And once we get there, everything else becomes insignificant for a while, because it all comes together, the music, the character, and the best parts of Rami Malek’s performance – his physicality and stage presence – and we get to watch Queen for a while. (Or at least a very good tribute act.)

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

José Arroyo in Conversation with David Baldwin, Film Programmer, Midlands Arts Centre

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A conversation with David Baldwin, new film programmer of the Midlands Arts Centre Cinema and former programmer of The Electric, with some timely interventions from Michael Glass of Eavesdropping at the Movies.

An illuminating talk not only about David’s hopes for the Midlands Arts Centre cinema program but also about distribution practices in general, about the different factors that need to be weighed in relation to programming, the availability or lack thereof of works in relation to particular venues, new distribution practices and video on demand.
We talk about programming for venues as part of a network of information on film, the brochure, local listings information, the importance of Filmwire and the usefulness of at least a second screen in relation to what can become pragmatically programmable.
We also discuss audiences from different social formations and how to engage and involve them (LGBTQ, East Asian, Polish, Spanish-speaking, differently abled audiences etc.). What do audiences go to the cinema for nowadays and what to entice them with? How important is the projection system and what do introductions to films and discussions after bring to an event? What’s been doing well and what hasn’t and why?

The podcast can be listened to here:

José Arroyo

A book recommendation

Gary Giddins’ new book on Crosby is great. But even so, I didn’t think it was quite as good as his first, extraordinary volume, that went up to 1940.  After reading the second I re-read the first to make sure. And I was right: it’s almost as good but not quite. Yet, who’s quibbling? I don’t think anything could be. Cumulatively, the books are one of *the* great accounts of twentieth century American popular culture ever written. Reading them you get not only a sense of Crosby and his significance but a thorough account of the recording industry of those years, what was innovative when during the period, an account of radio at its peak and an excellent account of Hollywood at its height. All meticulously recorded, annotated, thought through.

One of the wonderful things about living now is that you can read Giddins, go to the song he’s talking about on youtube (they’re almost all there), and then read him as to why the singing, the song, or the arrangement is interesting or innovative, and one in fact does end up understanding. Giddins claims Crosby as the most significant figure in American popular music next to Louis Armstrong (and he well explains why it’s not Sinatra, Presley or any of the other contenders). And whatever your views are before reading, you’ll be absolutely convinced after.

Those of you into fan studies might also be interested in the newest volume for other reasons: much of the account of Bing in New York during the war years is taken from diaries of two sisters, dedicated fans, one of them in her late twenties, who stalked him so thoroughly it would put the FBI to shame. It is a meticulous researched and ethically woven through the narrative.

If you’re at all interested in American popular culture, in music, cinema, radio or the performing arts in America in the twentieth century, these two volumes are essential reading. I sincerely hope there are plans for a third.

 

José Arroyo

José Arroyo in Conversation with Gary Horrocks

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Gary Horrocks came to talk on Judy Garland at Warwick University and I grabbed him briefly to discuss fandom and Judy Garland; how he became a Judy Garland fan; and how he eventually went on to run The International Judy Garland Fan Club and become editor of, first, The Rainbow Review, which originated in 1963, and, more recently, Judy Garland: A Celebration.

Judy Garland is famous for starring in some of the most renown and celebrated films of all time: The Wizard of Oz (1939), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), A Star is Born (1954); films which are seen and re-seen, from generation to generation; films which for some become totems through which to make sense of their lives and the world they live in: ‘what is it to have a heart?,’ I’ve heard children ask their mothers after watching The Wizard of Oz, and children ask a deeper, more complex and philosophical question than most adults do when using the same words.

Aside from her film work, Garland also appeared regularly on radio when that was at its peak in the ‘40s, she made dozens and dozens of albums, had her own television variety show and gave thousands of live performances in concert, some, such as the Carnegie Hall concert from ’61, so legendary that Rufus Wainwright re-interpreted it in 2006 and toured with for several years after. Since her 1951 performances at The Palladium to her last ones at The Talk of The Town in ’69, The UK was fundamental to her success.

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In the podcast below, Gary talks of how The Judy Garland Club’s journal has been used as a primary source of research in biographies. The Rainbow Review, which was started in 1963 by Lorna Smith, and ran for over 100 issues is a mine of information and the club has kept every letter from every fan, many now sadly deceased. Fans also meticulously kept every newspaper article, review, etc., all of which the club has kept, filed and curated. The club also filmed interviews with people who’d met her, and this now amounts to over 400 hours of footage.

In 1998 Gary Horrocks was invited to take over the editorship of the The Rainbow Review, which eventually evolved into Judy Garland: A Celebration. There are now members from all over the world. They’ve recently produced a documentary on the 1957 Dominion show based on the archives, written by Gary Horrocks and created by Andy Warrington. The actor/comedian/author Tony Hawks is narrator.

The documentary can be accessed here:

In 2019 the Club is publishing its next journal with an extensive contribution from its founder Lorna Smith, alongside iJUDY – its online newsletter. More information on the club can be found at: www.Judygarlandclub.org.

The conversation, which can be listened to above, touches on I Could Go on Singing, Judy’s first UK tour, the appearances at the Dominion, the cult of Dorothy, her recordings at Abbey Road, the importance attached to her sincerity, and the various types of Judy fandom: ‘Some fans say I don’t like that version of Judy or I prefer the 60’s version. Or they say, ‘I don’t do Dorothy’. People approach her in different ways. There’s lots of friction amongst the fan community due to a sense of ownership around her. She gave the impression that she was singing just for you. Again I come back to ‘sincerity’. Her flame seems to get brighter every year.

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José Arroyo

 

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 107 – Widows

José falls in love with Widows, a portrait of life and survival in modern America in the skin of a heist film. Mike can see exactly why he should love it, but just doesn’t click with it.

Based on Lynda La Plante’s 1983 ITV series of the same name, Widows sees three women lose their criminal husbands in a heist gone wrong, and their attempt to complete their final job with the promise of a big payoff. The film draws parallels between urban gang violence and entrenched political dynasties, complicates the widows’ grief with sex and intimacy, and constructs the potential payoff not as a cause of celebration but as a way out of bad situations. José finds the film a visual marvel, layered and expressive, but to Mike it’s more a reminder of what he loved so deeply about You Were Never Really Here than great in its own right.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 106 – Casablanca

One of us has seen it countless times. The other has never seen it. Fortunately for José, Mike instantly falls in love with Casablanca.

In a way, the pressure was on for Mike to enjoy it, as it’s considered one of the greatest films of all time, and its screenplay in particular held up as a shining example of the craft. And how effortless it is to enjoy it! José notes how rare it is in cinema to see a man suffer for love, as Rick does, and the film’s romance is intense and unapologetic. We swoon over the elegance of Michael Curtiz’s direction, the sheer beauty of the cinematography – nobody these days is shot like Ingrid Bergman is here – and the rich cast of characters, played by one of the all-time great supporting casts.

José considers how the refugee situation and politics depicted – that of a war-torn world relocating regular people to geographic and bureaucratic purgatory – haven’t gone away, and Mike picks up on Madeleine Lebeau’s Yvonne, a minor character whose story recapitulates Rick’s in microcosm. The Marseillaise scene in particular gives us a lot to talk about. And so does much, much more.

It’s a good film. Who knew?

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 105 – They Shall Not Grow Old

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War, Peter Jackson was approached by 14-18 NOW and the Imperial War Museum to make use of their extensive archive of wartime footage. He responded to the call by performing significant alterations to it, including colourisation and conversion to 3D, hoping to present it afresh and help modern audiences feel closer to the war it documents. It’s been a controversial project, surrounded by much commentary on its ethics, but after all the hype and chin-stroking, They Shall Not Grow Old – even the title of which has been edited to suit modern syntax – is finally here.

Those ethical questions occupy a good deal of our attention, justifiably so, but we find there’s a good deal more to consider about the film too. Perhaps unusually for a First World War film, it eschews entirely any discussion of the political background to the war or criticism – even mention – of the top brass, instead focusing entirely on the experience, in quite general terms, of the British soldiers. Narrated entirely by some 114 different servicemen, their commentary drawn from BBC and IWM interviews, Jackson builds a portrait of a mindset of the salt-of-the-earth Tommy, keen to go to war at a tender age, open to new experience, happy to do as he’s told and get on with his job under terrible, and terrifying, circumstances. It’s a portrait that leaves out at least as much as it includes, and the question of how choices were made as to what footage and audio was included from the archives made available to Jackson is arguably more pressing, and certainly less clear, than that of why the footage was altered in the ways it was.

We grapple with all sort of these issues and touch on several more, particularly the traditional, unfair, untruthful, and insidious permission the film gives English audiences to believe we won the war without help – an issue that angers José, a Canadian, and rightly so. Mike also picks up on a couple of moments that struck him as of particular relevance in the age of Brexit, though that’s also because it’s a topic he can be relied upon to bring up at a moment’s notice.

As to those pesky ethics, we come away, despite some fair criticisms, a little milquetoast on the subject. Mike has a bigger issue with the quality of the alterations than the justification, finding them genuinely unpleasant to look at for the most part, but suggests that the modifications have been so extensive that the footage has been transformed into something qualitatively different, that to take the film seriously as a document would be an act of madness. José, rather more simply, sees value in the work, pointing out how it allows us to pick out aspects of scenes, and particularly faces, more easily, and allowing a more visceral closeness to the environments depicted than we might otherwise have.

All in all, as long as the original black and white film remains extant and publicly available, and provided that, when used as teaching material, the conceptualisation and production of They Shall Not Grow Old is included as a matter for classroom discussion, we’re not convinced that the film is a bad idea.

Below are links to a few blog entries and reviews we mentioned in the podcast, from Lawrence Napper and Pamela Hutchinson.

Lawrence Napper’s first blog entry: https://atthepictures.photo.blog/2018/10/05/they-shall-not-grow-old/

Lawrence’s second blog entry: https://atthepictures.photo.blog/2018/10/12/they-shall-not-grow-old-2-the-abject-archive-the-sacred-archive/

Lawrence’s review on Iamhist: http://iamhist.net/2018/10/they_shall_not_grow_old/

Pamela Hutchinson’s review on Silent London: https://silentlondon.co.uk/2018/10/16/lff-review-they-shall-not-grow-old-honours-veterans-but-not-the-archive/

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Four’s a Crowd (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1938)

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Four’s a Crowd is Warners attempt to cash in on the screwball craze. The story was based on Wallace Sullivan’s ‘All Rights Reserved’. Sullivan had also written Libelled Lady(Jack Conway, 1936) and in fact this is a pretty direct lift of MGM’s much more successful film with Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy. This one has Rosalind Russell in a role prefiguring her Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday as a newspaper woman who sets to make a newspaper man out of rich publisher Patrick Knowles. She cons him into hiring his enemy, high powered public relations wiz Errol Flynn to boost the circulation. Flynn concocts a scam to make millionaire Walter Connolly the most hated man in America. Knowles is engaged to be married to Connolly’s grand-daughter, Olivia de Havilland. Mayhem ensues. Doberman’s chase after Flynn, partners are switched, there’s even a cute dog that looks like Asta.

It’s all pretty leaden. Comedy was not Warner’s forte. According to Alex K. Rode, at Warner’s ‘humour was an institutional deficit exemplified by the personalities of the men who ran the studio.’ Michael Curtiz knows how to visualise comic scenes. See for example how he stages the three-way conversation between Flynn, Russell and de Havilland:

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or his staging of the race to the justice of the peace:

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But though it all looks marvellous, the rhythm, pace and timing of the comedy is all slightly off. Flynn is not bad and could have been taught to be great in screwball — he had the requisite sense of humour about himself. De Havilland is also gifted. But Curtiz doesn’t much help anyone who didn’t already have comic timing coursing through their veins. Knowles comes across as handsome but stiff throughout. And of course Connelly and Russell steal the show. They know how to.

According to Alex K. Rode in Michael Curtiz: A Life, Hal C. Wallis praised the dashes Curtiz added in his attempt to overcome the script’s deficiencies, ‘All of those pieces of business of putting the dog under the waste basket, and getting de Havilland out of the room, and the rouge on the teacups, the added business with the skeleton…were excellent’ (p.226). They’re good ideas but, in motion, they lack the lightness, elegance, the frolicsomeness of good screwball. The frolicsome is not where Curtiz’s strengths lie.

James C. Robertson in The Casablanca Man: The Cinema of Michael Curtiz doesn’t offer much of a recommendation ‘At Warners the film enhanced Curtiz’s reputation, for he had salvage a medium-budget project, intended for another director ((first Dieterle, then Goulding)), with some ill-cast players’ (p.46). It didn’t much matter that all that time and effort ended up with a result that was at best OK-ish.

My favourite bits, as is often the case, are two tiny moments with Franklin Panborn as Knowle’s butler.

José Arroyo

 

‘Shadow Play’ in Curtiz films

In an excellent piece entitled ‘Michael Curtiz’s Doris Day Period’, Gary Giddins writes of Curtiz, ‘Stylistically, his work is distinguished by aggressive visual compositions (signature shot: two characters shoulder to shoulder, facing forward), forceful acting, quick cuts, fluid camerawork, shadow play, location inserts, romantic and period realism, the kind of speed that results from keeping a story on track and free of distraction, and, above all, a shameless mastery of emotional manipulation (loc 1455)*

It’s that ‘shadow play’ that I want to illustrate here, as Curtiz uses it in a variety of ways, to set mood but also to convey and hide information. It recurs in a variety of genres. It’s always a striking image, sometimes an exciting and evocative one.

Captain Blood (1935)

In Captain Blood, we get this striking image. Captain Blood (Errol Flynn) is curing a man but the police are already on their way to arrest him for doing so and doing a doctor’s duty in an unjust society will condemn him to a future of slavery and piracy with the possibility of death overhanging the rest of the narrative.

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The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936):

Here shadows are used in a whole variety of ways to set mood, create tension, both indicate the trouble of a place, but also people in a place, and the anxiety provoked by certain actions.

 

Kid Galahad (1937)

Curtiz is sparing with the typical projecting of shadows onto a wall to give us an indication of what’s happening off-screen,tTo show us without showing us, whilst shading it with hint of evil, until the very end, where Bogart shoots at someone without being seen so as to create a distraction so he can go for his real target, Edward G. Robinson:

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The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938):

In his brightly lit masterpiece, shadows thrown on a wall contribute to, amongst other things, make the famous fight scene extra spectacular.

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Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

Here James Cagney, going to the chair, and pretending to be scared so that the boys who hero-worship him might not be too tempted to emulate him is, wisely, shown as shadows. It’s not easy to believe Cagney being scared of anything.

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Four’s a Crowd (1938)

And Curtiz doesn’t just deploy this in gangster films, as above, but even in screwballs such as Four’s a Crowd, where the security guard at the mansion is chasing after Errol Flynn before he escapes into Olivia de Havilland’s bedroom.

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The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Here Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth is first shown to us as a shadow. She’s icon and ruler first, that we hear Bette Davis inimitable clipped voice as part of the image renders the fusion of two icons (Bette and Elizabeth, Bette as Elizabeth) even more powerfully.

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Dodge City (1939):

Here the murder that sets of the last part of the film is shown to us as a shadow so that we see what the journalist doesn’t, and obviously to add to the ominousness and danger of it all.

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The Sea Hawk (1940)

Hung from a mast but shown as a shadow on the ships floor. It renders the violence of the act both more palatable and more powerful, the shadow-play narratively warning, but setting a mood for future developments, and generating an image that’s graphically arresting whilst removing that which is graphic or explicit about it.

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Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Here shadows are cast on death scenes (below, top left), to convey a particular point of view on narrative information (below, top right) and to show the long shadow cast by a beloved entertainer even in the Oval office.

Casablanca (1942)

In Casablanca, like in Yankee Doodle, a shadow of the name of a place, brings the narrative information indoors (see top) and we also have the use of shadows to bring extra-diagetic space into the frame whilst conveying a mood (see bottom). Arthur Edeson’s lighting is very beautiful and shadows are cast over that whole world and those relationships. The close-ups before Bogart’s flashback to Paris are superb.

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Irving Berlin’s This is the Army (1943):

‘Shadow work’ appears even in musicals,  to continue the entertainment through different spaces.

Shadows are cast over identity in Romance on the High Seas, 1948

Shadows demarcate the difference between what should be and what is in My Dream Is Yours, 1949.

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Kirk Douglas and his music is a shadow on Lauren Bacall’s happiness in Young Man With A Horn, 1950. If only the light would shine on that sapphic lamp with phallic symbol extending, everyone would be a lot happier.

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Poverty and unemployment hover over the family in I’ll See You in My Dreams (1951) as Doris phones for help.

 

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Pain, poverty and his father’s emasculation overhang and literally shadow Elvis’ rise to success in King Creole (1958):

 

I was going to do this for all of Curtiz’ films in which I saw it appear. But in doing so, it became clear that this type of ‘shadow work’ appears in all his films. I think one can quite here and quite convincingly argue that this is indeed a characteristic of his visual style.

 

José Arroyo

*Gary Giddins, ‘Michael Curtiz’s Doris Day Period’ Warning Shadows: Home Alone With Classic Cinema New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2019, Kindle version.

 

 

Coding Lesbianism in Young Man with a Horn (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1950)

I’ve often wondered why Lauren Bacall was a film star for so long. She’s often stiff, mannered, and really not very good. Of course she’s very beautiful. But, as we can see in later films like Written on the Wind (Sirk, 1956),  she didn’t photograph that well in colour. I suppose that her performances for Hawks in To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946) sparked a life-time’s interest from several generations of heterosexual men. And I know from personal experience that a certain generation of lesbians became devoted to her on the basis of her performance as Amy North in Young Man with A Horn (1950).

The film is loosely based on the story of Bix Beiderbecke with Harry James dubbing the trumpet. It’s narrated by Hoagy Carmichael as piano-player Willie Willoughby. Nobody does tortured artists like Kirk Douglas, who’s great here as Rick Martin. The film has a wonderful father/son relationship between Rick Martin and black trumpet player Art Hazzard (Juano Herandez). Doris Day sings. And there is great work from Michael Curtiz and cinematographer Ted McCord: there isn’t an image that isn’t worth looking at. The first half-hour of the film charting the background of Rick Martin, how he grew up and how he learned to be a trumpet player must count amongst Curtiz’s best post-war work.

Lauren Bacall only appears 47 minutes into the film but gets a star entrance and definitely makes an impression, the ‘duality’ in her nature rendered visible and contrasted to the ‘normality’ of Joe Jordan, the character played by Doris Day, already being edged out of the frame here and shortly to disappear from the rest of the picture until the end, once Amy/Bacall disappears from view .

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We know from the beginning that she’s not ‘normal’ because, as we can see in the clip below, she’s rich, highly educated, ‘always talks like a book and likes to analyse everything,’ and speaks of jazz and mass culture like she does here:’there’s something about jazz that releases inhibitions; it’s a cheap mass-produced narcotic’: probably exactly the thing Amy needs. By the terms of American cinema of the period (and now), she’s already a weirdo.

Bacall’s thoughts on Doris are a favourite moment in the film. Bacall’s lit so only half her face is showing: ‘Jo’s interesting isn’t she? So simple and uncomplicated. It must be wonderful to wake up in the morning and know just which door you’re going to go through’. Amy/Bacall is constantly contrasted with Jo/Doris: Amy’s not so simple, her identity is at least dual, and yet to be discovered by Ricky and maybe herself.

When Kirk/ Ricky starts to get involved with Bacall/Amy, Doris/ Jo comes to warn him, ‘She’s a strange girl, and you’ve never known anyone like her before…inside, way inside, she’s all mixed up’; ‘precisely what I told him myself but he wouldn’t take no for an answer’ says Bacall/Amy as she enters the picture. It’s too late they’re married (see below):

But it’s not just the contrast to Jo/Day, or all that the characters speak about her being ‘mixed up’ and ‘strange’. There’s her apartment, even, actually especially, after Kirk/Ricky marries Bacall/Amy.  We’re shown how female-centric the house is, and not just because her florid cockatoo is called Louise. Look at the number of statues that are female Grecian figures, the painting inside and outside her bathroom door that are naked women bathing, even her paintings are of women.

Rachel Mosely pointed out to me something I hadn’t noticed: If you click to a closer look on the image of Bacall playing the piano above, you’ll see that the ancient goddess who is the base of the lamp has an extended broken arm that looks more than a little like an extended phallus, as if to indicate that women provide the only sex and power she needs and Kirk can go blow his own trumpet.

Bacall/Amy doesn’t really like men. We can see it in the clip here below where they embrace. She doesn’t like the kiss, it’s the last time she’ll be honest with him. It ends with him saying ‘call you what?’. I think lesbian audiences knew the answer to that one.

‘How do you know about anything until you try it?’ she tells Kirk/Ricky, presumably about heterosexuality:

At the end, she finds a girlfriend, an artist. She loves her sketches and they’re going to go to Paris together. Kirk finally clocks it and calls her as ‘filth’, ‘dirty’ a ‘sick girl who needs help and better see her doctor’; you can also read the bit about him almost ‘forgetting about his trumpet’ but now ‘getting it back’ metaphorically:

 

When Bacall disappears from the picture, the film starts getting sanctimonious and goes downhill and for a phoney happy ending with Jo/Doris.

Movies of the time couldn’t represent lesbianism directly; and Young Man with a Horn certainly offers mixed messages that could be disavowed to the Hays Office. But it offered enough so that a generation of lesbians clocked and treasured it. The representation is laced with the typical homophobic language and perspective of the period but, as embodied by Bacall,  it also evoked beauty in looks, intelligence, and attitude.

José Arroyo

 

Doris dons blackface in ‘I’ll See You in My Dreams’

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I always get sad and embarrassed when I see the great stars of the Hollywood musical don blackface, even when, as Fred Astaire does in Swing Time, it’s done as an homage to a black performer, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. I thought Doris Day might have escaped this blight merely by becoming a star a generation later than Astaire or Garland or so many others. But no, here she is in I’ll See You In My Dreams .(Curtiz, 1951) .and one feels ‘poor everybody’.

The image and the number condenses a concatenation of meanings that evoke both the push and pull, the inclusiveness and hierarchisation of American identity. The number is set in a WW1 camp where Gus and Grace Kahn are entertaining the troops. The film makes much of Kahn’s family having emigrated to America and of Kahn writing the songbook to the lives of several generations of Americans (‘Making Whoopee’, ‘Ain’t We Got Fun’, ‘My Buddy’, ‘It Had To Be You’, ‘My Baby Just Cares for Me’ etc). The film in a way charts a journey of assimilation and inclusiveness. Danny Thomas, gives a great performance as Gus: wide-eyed, wide-open emotionally, overly focussed to the point of autism, very endearing in expressing love of wife and children the character he plays can’t express except through song. Danny Thomas himself was famously of Lebanese origin. So Danny, Danny as Gus, Doris, Doris as Grace, Grace married to Gus, her blondness, his darkness, all speak assimilation and inclusiveness.

Except we have this number, which in spite of the flag and in spite of narrative speaks a hierarchy of exclusions. Doris is not just donning blackface. She’s donning blackface (and drag!) to imitate Al Jolson singing ‘Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye’, so a blond female Kapplehoff, Day’s real name, is summoning and superseding a male jew, Al Jolson (Asa Yoelson), who himself poked fun, embodied, reproduced and made himself superior to a derogatory stereotype of a black man.

So the image speaks of Doris Day (Doris Ma Anne Kapplehoff) and Danny Thomas (born Amos Muzyad Yakhoob Kairouz) coming together under a flag, just like the characters they play, speaks of assimilation and inclusiveness. But the blackface itself belts out the limits to that inclusiveness, a hierarchy of race and ethnicity, a hierarchy of power which is both gendered and racialised, differential access to belonging and a colour barrier to inclusiveness tout court.

 

José Arroyo

Pangborn earns his billing in Romance on the High Seas

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In Romance on the High Seas, Franklin Pangborn gets sixth billing after the stars and earns it. He gets two little scenes, a couple of good lines, and makes one remember him with pleasure. It’s that talent that enabled him to make a career throughout the whole classic period out of what basically amount to bit parts; and, at a time when those things very clearly delineated a certain kind of standing in the industry,  usually get very good billing for them. The film also has Eric Blore who doesn’t get much chance to shine; S.Z. Sakall who’s a complete ham but very effective with it: he gets laughs out of facial gestures and intonations when there aren’t any to be had in the lines themselves. There’s also Oscar Levant, in a large and tiresome role, doing the same schtick that I adored seeing him do when I was a child in An American in Paris but that now seems very tiresome. But ah Pangborn! His intonations and facial gestures not only succeed in getting the laughs but evoke a whole structure of understanding and feeling, then underground, but still very much with us and now everywhere visible.

His role is little more than the two very short clips I’ve excerpted below:

 

 

José Arroyo

Milo Anderson, Doris Day, Romance in the High Seas (Michael Curtiz, 1948)

We’ve heard of Edith Head, Travis Banton, Orry-Kelly, Irene, even the dreaded Helen Rose. But who is Milo Anderson? I had to look him up. He doesn’t even get a wiki entry in English. Luckily the French and Germans are more thorough. It turns out he worked at Warners from the early 30s to the late 50s and designed the clothes for many films you’ve probably seen (To Have and Have Not, Mildred Pierce). The reason you’ve probably never heard of him is that he designed clothes like these for Doris Day’s first film, Romance on the High Seas. Her charm and the positivity she exudes — plus that great voice on hit tongs like  ‘It’s Magic’ and ‘Im in Love’ -meant she survived the clothes and became a film star anyway. But she really did have to survive them. Janis Paige wasn’t so lucky.

As you can see below, sometimes, when he doesn’t allow himself to get too matchy-matchy,  a feel for colour can be detected: but the design, cut and fit are atrocious. Though they do make a ‘statement’:

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Janis Paige didn’t escape either:

Particularly when she wears what looks like a small ottoman on her head

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Fire the make-up person!

Joe Hadley is credited with the make-up in My Dream is Yours and, if so, he should have been fired. Doris Day is saved from the worst excesses because her look, even when fully made-up and in evening-war, was meant to evoke a ‘regular’ sporty girl. But poor Eve Arden walks around with her pronouncedly crimson lips two inches in front of her face, as if with a will of their own and making  their way into another dimension.

 

 

The stills don’t do justice to how the lipstick seems so pronounced in motion. I saw Romance on the High Seas afterwards, with the make-up credited to Perc Westmore (he ran the whole department and approved the make-up tests but it was surely done by someone else?), and, as you can see in part of the trailer below, though the lipstick is a very loud shade of red, it’s not as bad. The crimson lips were clearly the fashion of the time. I did also wonder if my digital HD TV does not make it seem worse than it might have been to audiences of the time, highlighting and making vibrate certain colours. I did check the settings but they seemed alright. Perhaps we’ll never know. What we do know, is that the Warners DVD played on HD turns the lipstick into a Brechtian distanciation effect.

 

 

José Arroyo

Eve Arden, Career Women and Children

It’s a famous fact that Eve Arden is one of the great treasures of Hollywood cinema. From Stage Door(Gregory La Cava, 1937), through Mildred Pearce (Michel Curtiz, 1945) to Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978) on film, and as our ever sharp and sardonic Miss Brooks on radio and television, she delights with her wise-cracks, her intelligence, a slightly knowing caparace of cynicism protecting a too-sensitive heart. I loved seeing her in this bit of My Dream is Yours where Jack Carson, who’s already conned her into allowing Doris Day to stay, adds first Doris’ child and then her dog. With regards to children, only W.C.Fields and Clifton Webb expressed the unsayable as well as Eve Arden does here:

 

 

Pangborn Pansies in the ’40s

One of the delights of watching Classic Hollywood Cinema is catching sight of character actors, often even more beloved than the stars. My Dream is Yours (Michael Curtiz, Warners, 1949) showcases a host of my favourites — Eve Arden, S.Z Sakall, and above all, and even though he only appears for five minutes, Franklin Pangborn. I’ve written on him several times in this blog in relation to Only Yesterday and Pre-Code Cinema, in William Wellman’s  A Star is Born, a compilation of his best bits from Easy Livinghow he and other ‘effeminate’ character actors were deployed to butch up Fred Astaire in his films, in relation to a consideration of whether Preston Sturges was homophobic, and as one of the joys of watching Mitchell Liesen’s Easy Living or Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels. It was a delight to see this brief clip below in My Dream is Yours: 

I loved it so much I made a gif, even though one loses his lovely and expressive voice and line readings, one gets his priceless facial expressions on a loop: we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!

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José Arroyo