A little something I wrote for Viewfinder about what I learned from teaching in Cuba, which I hope does justice and celebrates what a great school EICTV is, particularly on its anniversary year:
Beginning with The Women in 1939, George Cukor directed three out of Crawford’s next four films, Susan and God (1940) and A Woman’s Face (1941) being the other two. Only the first was a box office success. Thus, Cukor could be blamed for pushing her along the career slide that would end her MGM contract in 1943. But certainly she always credited him with helping her find herself as an actress. He expanded her range into comedy in The Women . And the basis of her later persona — the embattled and tough survivor of so may noir trials — often erroneously credited to Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945), can in fact be found in the first scenes of A Woman’s Face. So Cukor’s direction of Crawford can be seen as Phoenix-like, the birth of one indelible persona born out of the ashes of another. He was the premier ‘Women’s Director’ of the studio at a time when MGM boasted Hepburn, Shearer, Garbo, Greer Garson, Lana Turner, Judy Garland etc so Crawford was certainly lucky to get him.
I’m amused at the poster’s billing the film as ‘the gay comedy of high society that ran eight months on Broadway’. Clearly, 8 months was then considered a long and successful run in a way that it now isn’t. The film is such a bore that it almost took me eight months to watch it, having stopped and started and stopped over and over again. The cutline also offers a clue as to Crawford’s failure in the part. It’s a ‘High Society’ drawing-room comedy that calls for sophisticated and stylised playing. Something Cukor was greatly adept at (e.g. The Philadelphia Story) and something Crawford is so ill-suited to she’d never try again. Part of the problem is that as Cukor, always astute if tactful, says, ‘Whatever she did, Joan did wholeheartedly’1
Susan (Crawford), flighty and self-involved, escapes her failing marriage to a drunk (Fredric March) and ignores her maternal duties by going to Europe where she’s influenced by a new religious movement. Arriving home morally re-armed, she sets about fixing everyone else’s life to the point of destruction. The part calls for the brittle, airy, light but stylised playing that Gertrude Lawrence brought to it on Broadway. Imagine Hepburn’s playing of Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, when Tracy’s trying to perform the image of herself journalists expect to find, and you get some idea of what Cukor is aiming for. This is too much of an ask of Crawford, who is simply leaden and false throughout.
Cukor does his best. He certainly knows how to showcase her. See the magnificent and classic star entrance he affords her above. All the characters talk about her, discuss her character, comment on her actions. Then we see her arrival: Joan Crawford magnificently gowned and in a speedboat. But then note how it’s meant to be Joan Crawford as Susan, and how her speaking of the ‘darlings, darlings, darlings ‘ line just about sinks the whole enterprise. It goes from bad to worse. She’s meant to be funny in each of her faux–solicitous-but-really-bitchy exchanges with each of the other guests yet doesn’t get a laugh on any of them. Yet, note too that nasty push out of the way Joan Crawford/Susan gives the character played by Rita Hayworth. Was it directed that way? Was it something Crawford did that Cukor kept in? In either case, it’s delicious and part of the reason the film is worth watching.
Everything about the film is top-drawer. It’s a big-budget film getting the full MGM treatment. And almost everything about the film is good: Fredric March witty and convincing in the drunk scenes — a specialty of his — but also endearing as he begins to understand his daughter and acknowledge his responsibility in her well being. Patrick McGilligan, Cukor’s biographer, writes that, ‘The film can be recommended only for the contrasting intensity of Fredric March, her costar. March, with his pork-chop face, plays her alcoholic husband, trying to win the heroine back for the sake of their daughter….Cukor’s films are full of sympathetic alcoholics–curious, for a teetotaler. However, March’s haggard believability is at odds with the dreary comedy, as if he had stumbled through the door of the wrong soundstage.’ 2
But good as March is, Susan and God has other things to recommend it: There’s Ruth Hussey, delicious as Crawford’s competition. Rita Hayworth is also very memorable in an early role and Cukor deserves credit for instantly assessing her strengths. See in the clip below how he captures her gliding through the dance floor in a scene that resolutely does not in itself call for it. How she moves instantly announces her as a star (and thus perhaps the Crawford push mentioned above). And Cukor was a great believer in the power of the actor’s movement in films. In relation to Crawford he says, Crawford’s ‘real talent is the way she moves. All she has to do is walk across the room, from one side to the other, and you notice something very special is happening. The way she carriers herself, the way her arms move…the position of the head…she attracts attention simply by moving and she arrests you. She wouldn’t have to open her mouth — just walk — and she would be superb. But look, she did that in the silent films, didn’t she’3. To which one can say that the film is evidence of what he both says and hides. Yes, she did do that in the Silents and yes she does that here. But more is needed here. This is a film about talk, and how one talks, and the differences between what one says and what one means.
The film’s source material is not very good and the filmic adaptation really needed to be a soufflé. Adrian’s costumes vary from striking to silly to ill-fitting but cannot in themselves be blamed (see above). A soufflé could encompass those elements. But what is deadly to this particular genre is earnestness and effort. And here Crawford is entirely to blame. She simply cannot rise to the occasion.However if we are taught to admire artists that take risks, surely our admiration shouldn’t be restricted merely to those that make a success of them. Here Crawford is game, she tried, had a spectacular failure, rose above it. Once more rather akin to her persona in the post-war years. The film is not a success in itself but did help give shape to a persona in a very successful post-war career.
- cited in Donald Spoto, Possessed, London: Hutchinson, 2011, p.147
- 2 Patrick McGilligan, Cukor: A Double Life New York: St. martin’s Press, 1991, p. 160
- Robert Emmet Long, ed.George Cukor Interviews, p. 46.Richard Overstreet Interview, 1964.
Walking around the extraordinary exhibition of Picasso Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, I was surprised, amused and charmed by several caricatures Picasso drew for Jaume Sabartés, primarily those featuring movie stars such as Esther Williams and Lana Turner (see below). Picasso had met Sabartés in 1899 and they remained close friends until his death. In 1935 Sabartés moved to Paris, became Picasso’s full-time secretary and was later the driving force in founding the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, which opened in 1963, a considerable feat of political tact given Picasso’s Communist credentials and the Falangist Franco regime then ruling Spain.
In Picasso Portraits (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2016), Elizabeth Cowling tells us ‘Picasso presented Sabartés with dozens of portrait-caricatures. While poking fun at his appearance, they also referred ironically to aspects of his personality and tasks he had performed on Picasso’s behalf, and were thus in-jokes that only they or their intimates could fully appreciate’ (p.193).
Sabartés by Picasso in 1901, 1902, 1900 and 1939.
Williams and Turner were two of the biggest stars of the early 50s, both at MGM, both in different ways signs created, consumed and exchanged on the basis of their meanings. Turner was probably most explicitly associated with sex, and in its most transgressive and scandalous aspects. Williams was a picture of wholesomeness yet arguably no one’s body was on more public display throughout the heyday of her swimming movies, the late forties and early 50s. Both were clearly presented as objects of desire. Here Esther Williams is seen in a still from Charles Walters’ Dangerous When Wet (1953). The Lana Turner picture on the left seems simply to be an archetypal cheesecake publicity photo of the era, not associated with any particular film. As Cowling notes, both caricatures were drawn on pin-ups of movie stars distributed in issues of Ciné-Révélation, which claimed to be ‘Le plus grand hébdomadaire du cinéma’ (The greatest weekly devoted to the cinema).
The caricatures are sweet and endearing: a podgy, be-spectacled elderly Sabatér needing a staircase to reach the amazon swimmer, or innocently nuzzling Lana Turner. The desire, sexual but innocent, out of reach, inescapable, unhidden. Was it the cinema that gave rise to these desires or was it simply that it was pictures of beautiful half-dressed women? Cowling offers a hint. Picasso lived near Cannnes and ‘The association of Cannes with the movie industry provides the immediate context for the series: in the 1950s Picasso had superstar status himself and being seen with him was considered excellent publicity by rising stars such as Brigitte Bardot. But hoarding pin-ups from movie magazines of the 1950s was no different from collecting photos and postcards of entertainers and celebrities, as Picasso had begun doing before the First World War’ (p.195).
That they are pictures of entertainers and celebrities makes the desire more permissible, entertainers are on public display, and more innocent — they’re safely out of reach. These lovely works are to me an example of the extent to which cinema had invaded the Western popular imagination in general and that of the art world in particular. They are also an example of Picasso’s greatness.Take the Esther Williams image. He’s succumbing to it as an image of desire but also pointing out its lacks in relationto his own erotic imagination. It’s like an embodyment of Marcuse’s critique of the way the culture industry tames sexuality and renders it one dimensional but re-endowed with a dialectical. He both admires its products and renders them unruly, puts the hair back into Esther’s armpits and her crotch. It’s fab.
It’s interesting to note that the shapes, structures and impulses of these works — minor ones in Picasso’s catalogue, mere doodles to a friend — are the same as would constitute major works of great mid-twentieth century pop artists such as Ray Johnson and Edouardo Polozzi (see below). Something to pursue in a later note.
The Red Barn (a new play by David Hare based on the novel, La Main, by Georges Simenon.
The Red Barn doesn’t work as whodunit and isn’t complex enough to work at the levels it aims to. Questions of settling, of middle-aged defeat, of sexual insecurity, hover over the play like sketches of ‘Deep Ideas’ that never come into focus. However, I did love seeing it. Part of the reason was Mark Strong as Donald Dodd, the happily married lawyer driven to sex and murder. He looks incredibly fit but manages to also most evocatively conveys a withdrawn and repressed person beaten by life. It’s a potent combination. The other reason is Elizabeth Debicki as Mona Sanders, beautiful, elegant, self-involved as the widow sexy enough to drive Sanders to murder. She’s so magnetic and elegant a presence onstage one can’t keep one’s eyes of her.
What I loved most about the play was the design (by Bunny Christie) and direction (by Robert Icke). It’s an incredible cinematic mise-en-scène. The curtain opens like a frame over an eye. There’s a party scene, where a long cinemascope screen is divided up into three rooms, with the door opening up from behind the frame, indicating a party in the depths we’re not privy to. The walk through the snow happens where the death that is the catalyst to drama occurs is shown behind a mesh curtain, and the characters are afforded full use of the frame to search blindly in the snow, like in an epic. The curtain — sliding panels — acts as a way of reframing the action, so we get the equivalent of close-ups, medium-shots, establishing shots. The ‘frame’/ stage is used so imaginatively that in the scenes were Dodd goes into Sanders apartment, one quarter of the frame is the elevator entrance, more than half is her apartment, and then one gets a bit of the bedroom, which is mostly off-stage. I’ve never seen a play framed so cinematically. But it goes beyond that, the lighting, the pacing, the sound effects, the voice-over sound. It’s something to think about. It’s like the stage has now become cinema but with liveness and presence added. It’s a very potent combination.
Seen at the Lyttleton, National Theatre, November 10th, 2016.
A meditation on art and history focussing on two characters credited with saving the Louvre from the Nazis during the occupation, Jacques Jaujard, director of French National Museums and Count Franz Wolff-Metternich, appointed by the Nazis to see to the protection of artworks in the Rhineland and Occupied France during the war. Alexander Sokurov, isn’t afraid to meander, to be silly, or to be poetic. Historical characters pop up to comment on the Louvre, how it was kept safe during the occupation, and the significance of its survival to European culture whilst all around there was death and destruction. There’s marvellous deployment of historical films and photos intermeshed with areal photographs and dramatised sequences. The soundtrack appears visually on the left hand of the screen and the end credits start at the beginning. An essay in the old fashioned sense of a try, a personal one, akin to whispered thought. You end up feeling a renewed love and fear for all the skill, wisdom, the powers of expression and the sheer beauty of so much, much of it spoils of war, much of it the results of terror, all under constant threat. I like it very much. An excellent companion piece to Russian Ark.
You’d never know it from the way he’s written about but George Cukor is one of American cinema’s greatest directors. His best films (Dinner at Eight, David Copperfield, Holiday, Camille, The Philadelphia Story, A Star is Born, Adam’s Rib etc) are amongst the greatest American cinema has ever produced and thus impossible to ignore. But the critical treatment of his lesser films proves my point. Every Hawks bomb is trawled through like the Dead Sea Scrolls for signs of the great man’s ‘signature’. Yet, films like A Woman’s Face, very considerable ones, are largely ignored except, in this instance at least, by Joan Crawford fans, who tend not to appreciate that much of what they love about Crawford in this movie is due to Cukor.
The film is a remake of the Swedish En kvinnas ansikte (Sweden, 1938) with Ingrid Bergman, itself based on a play, Il etait une fois, by Francis de Croisset. I saw it many years ago in a retrospective of Bergman’s Swedish films at the Cinémathèque Québécoise and remember thinking how great a director Gustaf Molander was and what a pity that Bergman was never allowed to play roles like that in Hollywood. But I did not take notes and my memory remains vague. I must see it again.
Moira Finnie writes that, “according to producer Victor Saville, he and George Cukor were brainstorming in his office at MGM when Joan Crawford entered one day in 1941. Nearing the end of her 18 year tenure at MGM as the studio turned its attention to fresh faces such as Greer Garson and Lana Turner, Crawford put her need matter-of-factly, “Look boys, I haven’t made a picture in a year. This one has got to be good and I’ll do anything you want me to do.”
A Woman’s Face is a courtroom drama. Joan Crawford plays Anna Holm, the head of a blackmail gang accused of murdering Torsten Barring (Conrad Veidt). Anna is in love with love but rendered bitter because her face is so deformed she thinks no man will love her. When the aristocratic Barring shows her the least attention, she falls for him, even though he’s only using her for money. They’re really opposites: she outwardly monstrous but good inside; he the picture of genial aristocratic bonhomie on the outside but evil inside. Anna cruelly extorts Vera Segert (Osa Massen) for being pretty, desired, comfortable, unfaithful – all that she’s not – but this is interrupted by the arrival of her husband, Dr. Gustaf Segert (Melvyn Douglas) a famed plastic surgeon, who sees Anna and decides to maker of her a project and restore her face. As Anna is rendered beautiful – which is to say she begins to be shown as the Joan Crawford everyone recognises – all her goodness comes to the surface again and she’s unable to go through with the plot to kill Barring’s nephew, Lars-Erik (Richard Nichols), the child who stands in the way of Barring inheriting a great fortune. As the case proceeds Anna and Dr. Segert admit their love for each other. There’s a letter, initially forgotten, that will absolve Anna.
The rough outline of the structure is simple: Joan Crawford is accused of murder and Cukor does a marvellous job of withholding her face, filming her only from the back, then showing only the part of her face that is whole, then showing her as a shadowy outline (see above), before revealing her disfigurement. Whereas most stars get one entrance; here Crawford gets a whole series of them in a marvellous coup-de-théâtre. The witnesses are also introduced in a clever and engaging way (Donald Meek as a mild-mannered swindler, Marjorie Main as the no nonsense housekeeper etc.)
Cukor is generous and gives each actor their moment to shine. They each also get to tell part of the story, thus briefly becoming the centre of it. This telling is not as sophisticated as it could be. Their knowledge is not narratively restricted and they’re also not restricted to their point of view. The information conveyed by the story in flashback exceeds that which each of the characters might be privy to. It’s been simplified so that each character is merely an excuse for the story to be told as it would ordinarily have been – linearly. Each character’s telling is a touchstone to the story rather than a point-of-view on it, but told in flashback to create tension around particular ‘reveals’, not the least of which is Joan Crawford’s many faces.
The material is second rate. Donald Ogden Stewart’s structure of it is clever in that it streamlines it but in doing so it irons out complexities that more sophisticated explorations of knowledge and point-of-view could have wrung out of the material. But Cukor’s direction is a marvel. You might have already seen the glorious Crawford ‘reveal ‘, a shadowy outline brought into the light as an embodiment of ugly bitterness, in in the clip above. I’d here like to further demonstrate only a few aspects of it. In the clip below, note simply the humour Cukor injects with the way he films what seems like a nice middle-aged lady knowingly smoking where she shouldn’t, revealing her rebellion through her nose. It’s characteristic of the the sly, witty direction in the film. It’s also indicative of the wonders Cukor draws out of actors. Veidt and Ossa Massen are superb and no one is less than good. Crawford herself was very proud of her performance here and credited for setting the ground for her Academy Award later on for Mildred Pierce.
In the clip below, note how Cukor generously allows Osa Massen her close-up. See how Massen says the line ‘as usual’. Then the dissolve into the fashion magazines, the camera moving to the nuts, chocolates and bibelots on the coffee table, the flower, the un-made bed. This is a pretty, frivolous woman of many appetites and little willpower. Also she’s in trouble. When she tells us the doorbell rang, the flowers are shown in shadow and the travelling shot on the staircase focusses on the bars rather than the feet. Note the contrast between Anna and Vera. Vera’s taller and prettier. But see how the angles change once the tables are turned. It’s a great scene marred only by the dialogue so typical of the phony high-culture aspirations of so many Crawford characters in this period: ‘Such cheapness. You call these love letters. Have you ever read any real love letters: Georges Sand. Debussy. Keats. Browning.’ Vera might not have. But Cukor draws out a wonderful comic performance out of Massen in the midst of a very threatening and shadowy extortion scene where Anna’s danger and her longings are clearly expressed. It’s very good.
The direction of A Woman’s Face is wonderful at creating and maintaining a mood, at inserting comic elements into the bleakest of situations, at drawing out complex characterisations. All this Cukor is renown for. But this film also has two wonderful action set-pieces, one Anna’s attempt at killing a child in an areal cablecar over snowy mountains. The other, a magnificent chase scene in snow sleighs which you can see below:
Note the alteration of angles, with Conrad Veidt and Crawford often filmed from the same angle, from below and in medium close-up. See how purposefully the compositions go under the sleigh to allows us to see how close the pursuing horse and sleigh are approaching. Note too the timing of each. It’s clever, imaginative and beautifully done in order to create tension and excitement, all in the middle of a great confession from Anna and even as she demonstrates her goodness by performing the most evil action we see her do. It’s magnificent direction in a fine film that, though not one of Cukor’s best, certainly deserves a great deal more attention.
According to Finnie, twenty years after the film was released , Joan Crawford commented that A Woman’s Face was “my last happy part at MGM and my last good part for a long time. A star’s career proverbially lasts five years. Ten years was exceptional. Well…I’d had it. I was over 30, as a matter of fact, over 34. Years ago Willie Haines had told me that when you start to slide in this business it’s like walking on nothing, the career of no return. I hadn’t understood. Now I was walking on nothing”. That might well have been. But Crawford fans will see in this film the seeds that would come to flower in the noir world the star would explore and make her own from Mildred Pierce onwards.
After the screening of ‘I, Daniel Blake’ an elderly man stood up and shouted at the auditorium, ‘We are the fifth largest economy in the world and this is a disgrace.” There were only five of us there. I felt moved to hug him, though the best I managed was to put a hand on his shoulder. That a film can do this is amazing. Yet, I don’t think it’s a good film. It’s preachy, relentlessly grim, you see things coming a mile away, and know it’s going to go from grim to grimmer to grimmest. It holds no surprises. It offers no delights. Images highlight or evidence the telling rather than constitute it as part of dramatised show and tell. Yet, if I were to put a document in a time capsule to evoke how a sector of the British population lived today, this is what I would choose. According to The Guardian, ‘Statistics released by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) revealed that during the period December 2011 and February 2014 2,380 people died after their claim for employment and support allowance (ESA) ended because a work capability assessment (WCA) found they were fit for work’. This figure is higher than that of all UK service personnel killed in action since 1962. What happens to Daniel Blake in the film is shocking. Yet it is happening recurrently and relentlessly all over the country. Those who voted for such policies should be ashamed. Ian Duncan Smith should be brought to an international tribunal to answer to those statistics. The film is true and effective. Yet why do I still persist in thinking that it is not a good movie?Is it possible that it’s also false? That all poor people aren’t so nice and mutually supportive ,so in solidarity with each other? The Cannes Palme D’Or could just be evidence that ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is merely how the French prefer to see the British. Should we change our criteria of value? Apply different ones? Likewise, the film made me wonder: is it that I can’t confront reality or that I don’t agree with Loach’s view of it; and what aspects? It’s an undeniably powerful film, an important one, with a final speech that bears testimony to current conditions and is sure to draw tears from a stone. I was sad to see such a low attendance. But how good a film is it? I’m still not sure and suspect it’s very flawed indeed.
It can sometimes feel like Warner Brother had only a handful of songs at its disposal in the early Thirties: here it’s once again ‘We’re in the Money,’ probably America’s most overplayed song of 1933, that practically constitutes the soundtrack. The film is worth watching today for many reasons: an opportunity to understand why George Arliss was such a big star in the early 30s (he’s got energy, theatrical verve, good timing); a chance to see a very blonde and very pretty Bette Davis in an early role (she credits Mr. Arliss, as she always referred to him and as he was often billed, with helping her early in her career); and perhaps most significantly, the film’s deft ideological operation of reconciling ‘The Working Man’ with America’s owners of Capital. Not unlike today, middle-management is depicted as the swindling cause of every problem.
Arliss plays John Reeves, owner of one of the biggest shoe-companies in America. His company is being so well run by his nephew, Benjamin (Hardie Albright) that he feels the need to prove he’s not ready to be put to pasture yet. Reeves goes fishing and meets two nice but spoiled rich kids, Jenny (Bette Davis) and Tommy (Theodor Newton), who swim over to his dinghy from their yacht in order to get a lift to the bootleggers. The kids turn out to be the heirs to Reeves’ biggest competitor, Heartland Shoes. They’re being swindled by Heartland’s manager, Fred Pettison (Gordon Westcott), who is secretly running it right to the ground under their very noses so he can buy it cheap. Reeves had respected their father and been in love with their mother. In a heartbeat, he becomes their guardian, teaches the young heirs the value of work and the value of money, teaches his nephew there’s life in the old man yet, Jenny and Benjamin fall in love, Pettison gets booted out and — under a loving paternal gaze — the two companies merge along with the young couple. Capitalism is once more saved from chisellers by love, street smarts and hard work for the benefit of all.
This is not exactly typical, as Mick La Salle writes in Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man, ‘Calvin Coolidge, president during the economic boom, reflected his era’s reverence for business when he said, “The Man who builds a factory builds a temple.” But President Franlin Roosevelt, entering office at the height of the Depression in March 1933, saw a different situation, “The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civiliztion.” In this new climate, the old values seemed inapplicable, naïve, sometimes hypocritical. Occassionally, a film might come along, such as Arliss’s The Workiing Man (1933), in which he played a shoe manufacturer with a thing or two to teach the younger generation. But for the most part, busines in pre-Code films was pretty much nasty and dog-eat-dog, a life for men with a killer instinct (p.161)’.
There are two aspects that especially caught my eye: one, in the clip above, the identification of the factory owner as ‘the working man’ — in this film, they are one and the same; the other the muddled, or perhaps complex, attempt to endow Bette Davis’ character with the ideal traits of an Edwardian lady (sentimental, filial, etc) but also those of a modern career girl: independent, eager to go out into the world and learn about business. Bette Davis’ star persona would be a site of struggle for this type of ideological discourse for decades to come.
The other element that caught my eye (see above)contra to the snappy wipes and cuts so characteristic of Warner Brothers film of this era is the length of time a letter was allowed to roll onscreen. Everything is fast, fast, fast but then we’re shown a letter the film seems to come to a stop for an inordinate amount of time, like the filmmakers wanted to maker sure the audience got the chance to read it but weren’t too confident of the audience’s level of reading skills.
It’s a film I’m glad I saw.
The second of eight films Joan Crawford and Clark Gable would make together and part of a cycle of films that would transform Gable into a star in the early 30s.
Laughing Sinners gives Crawford solo billing in what was then a controversial tale of a café entertainer (Crawford as Ivy ‘Bunny’ Stevens) who’s in love with a low-rent travelling salesman (Neil Hamilton as Howard ‘Howdy’ Palmer). He dumps her in the middle of a love song she’s prepared especially for him to run off and marry an heiress, news that drives ‘Bunny’ to want to jump off a bridge. But just as she’s about to, she’s rescued by Carl Loomis (Clark Gable), a guy who knows all about the low life and has recently come out of the slammer. He’s now found God and has become a Christian soldier for the Salvation Army. ‘Bunny’ joins him and the Salvation Army and is transformed into saintly ‘Ivy’. But ‘Howdy’ returns, she sleeps with him, finds herself condemned to be a ‘bunny’ once more, only to saved once again by Carl’s empathy and compassion. Just before the fade-out, we see Ivy and Carl, holding hands in uniform, marching through green pastures and into the horizon. One is drawn to giggling but there’s a rawness to the film that prevents it.
Laughing Sinners is pre-code and quite racy. I prefer the Crawford of this period — the good-time hootchy girl who sings and dances ‘red-hot blues’ — to the suffering masochist she later became. She brings real energy and verve to every scene she’s in, whether rushing madly with desire to meet her lover at the train, dancing the Charleston at the club (see above), or even later in the hotel room where she’s dancing at the table for all the travelling salesmen. When she turns noble she turns dull.
Luckily, it’s in those scenes Gable appears, and even pre-moustache, wearing an apron and scrambling eggs for Ivy, he’s a force to be reckoned with. I was particularly taken with the scene above, the way he walks when he threatens the salesman; the growl in his voice when he says ‘get out of here before I throw you out’. Neil Hamilton is handsome enough and he gives a good performance. But he’s no match for Gable. Particularly when Gable turns tender. He’s clearly destined for stardom here; and Crawford and Gable have terrific chemistry.
I was quite taken with the moment Ivy/Bunny tells him, ‘Oh you’ve been wonderful Carl. More wonderful than anyone’s ever been. I’m sorry on your account if I couldn’t make the grade. I tried honest but it’s no use….Don’t you see I was only fooling myself. I wanted to go back all the time. I nearly died pretending to be something I’m not. That’s why I broke out tonight. I stood it as long as I could and… ‘ These tales of repression, of fall and redemption, of the conflicts between inner desires and social constraints and the toll these struggles take on the psyche remain resonant.
The film is an adaptation of a play, Torch Song by Kenyon Nicholson and is no great shakes as cinema. But it is very much worth seeing for Crawford and Gable and also as a commentary on its times. One gets glimpses, sometimes sideways of ‘structures of feeling’ and also bits like the clip above, where some travelling salesmen begin to sing in that down-low way I always associate with Mae West and a whole period of American culture is instantly evoked.
I’m quite blown away by Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals. I hadn’t quite taken to a Single Man, finding it overly designed. But this is great. First impressions are: an audacious narrative structure with early scenes as tense as any I remember seeing; the best ensemble acting of any American film this year, with Michael Shannon making another strong argument for consideration as the best American actor of his generation: a film that discomfits with its demands but pays off and rewards attention. A noir melodrama on class, family and a rural/ urban divide in America. An extraordinary credit sequence. Amy Adams looks wrong for the part but turns out to be right for the movie. Brilliant cameo by Laura Linney and a superb turn from Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Armie Hammer, finally well-used in a movie. Tom Ford knows how to film men: Jake Gyllenhall, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Armie Hammer have never looked better. Is the film a revenge narrative; or does it leave open other possibilities? A film I’d like to see again and talk to people about.
Seeing that extraordinary close-up of Joan Crawford being swayed by John Garfield’s music in Humoresque (Jean Negulesco, USA, 1946) reminded me that Joan Crawford’s stardom had begun in the silent era. Rifling through my file on Crawford films, I noticed that I had never seen Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (Harry Edwards, USA, 1926). Now Joan Crawford in Tramp, Tramp, Tramp would be one thing but sadly it turned out to be Harry Langdon in Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, which has quite different connotations. Though second-billed, Crawford’s role is really merely that of ‘the girl’ and could have probably been played by almost any attractive actress of the period.
The plot is basic. Burton shoes is running a huge nationwide campaign, and the face of Burton shoes in posters across America is Betty (Joan Crawford), the boss’s daughter, inviting everyone in America to ‘walk with her’ wearing the ‘sole of the nation’. The campaign is so successful it’s wiping out smaller shoe shops like Amos Vogel and Son. The son is Harry (Harry Langdon), so besotted with the image of Betty that he splashes the walls of his bedroom with it and even brings it/her to bed. When their landlord gives them three months to find money for rent, Harry joins the Burton contest to walk across America. Whoever gets there first will win 25,000. Intriguingly, though nothing much is made of it in the film, the nasty landlord is one of the contestants. Needless to say, Harry wins the contest, gets the girl, and even gives himself a little number as his and Betty’s son being just as inept as the father in a crib at the end of the film.
Frank Capra ostensible wrote the film and co-directed it with Edwards, though the credits of the print I saw give no evidence of this. It’s an interesting example of the rise of advertising in America and its effects on mass culture, an issue so live in the twenties that it was already drawing debate by leading American thinkers (one thinks of the work of Walter Lippman). Harry Langdon’s charms are lost on me but the film has several imaginative set-pieces (Harry hanging from a cliff, nailing his sweater to a wooden fence and sliding down the hill on the fence; Harry in a prison work-gang; Harry in the middle of a cyclone, first losing all his clothes while attempting to take a bath, then defeating it with rocks like David and Goliath – they’re all very well-done).
What interested me most was Crawford, whose image is already presented as one evoking dreams and desire across America, and a charming little vignette of Harry’s father going to the pictures and seeing his son on screen (see clip above), which evokes something of what going to the cinema in a small town must have been like in the 1920s.
Under his mother’s disapproving gaze, John Garfield’s playing drives Joan Crawford to orgasm and his would-be-girlfriend from the hood out of the theatre and into a frenzy of heartbreak under the rain. The close-up is incredible. It all is.
Phony, faux-sophisticated, mannered, intense, camp: all reasons why so many love Joan Crawford films of this period.
Joan, wearing a fabulous diamanté dress, squints through her glasses at all the talent and vitality John Garfield is displaying. She smokes. She drinks. She assesses his possibilities as a talent and as a bedmate. She’s dazzled. The goblets she drinks from keep getting bigger. She drinks some more. Throughout the faux-sophisticated bon mots keep on coming:
‘With all that talent he’ll probably end up in jail’
‘I make a stupid remark and you laugh: you’re stupid Teddy’
‘I’m constitutionally given to enthusiasm about nothing’
‘The genius needs a drink’
‘Here’s that rare animal a New Yorker from New York’
New York’s full of all kinds of animals’
‘I’m very difficult to insult
Bad manner, the infallible sign of tact’’
‘He’s a friend of mine: I’m sure he’s not welcome here’
It isn’t long before the gold cigarette cases start rolling in.
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.