A lovely byproducts of visiting Athens was its open air cinemas. I now see that it’s famous for them, with over sixty still remaining. But I had not known. I’d gone to Athens for the Parthenon, classical sculpture, Melina Mercouri and sunshine. Once made aware, however, I had to go, and we went every night of the short long weekend we were there. Each time was special: magical, incantatory, hypnotic. Each time was also different. All were a reminder that filmgoing was always about so much more than the movie being screened: it was a bout courtship and friendship, leisure and rest, a ritual taste of the luxurious; a context for engaging more senses than just sight and sound.
The first cinema we went to was the Thysion. As you can see above, the view of the Parthenon is marvellous and, as the evening progresses, you might find your head wavering as in a tennis match between it and the movie. It has a very friendly staff, with a bar in which every nook and cranny seems pasted with film posters from the Fifties; Burt Lancaster and Gina Lollobrigida feature prominently. Wine is cheap enough to guzzle. And you can sit in one of the dozens of tables printed with iconic photographs of movie stars of yore, bask in the sights, smell the bougainvillea, delight in the cool wine on a hot day and just feel grateful you’re alive.
The movie playing was Truth. It had something to do with Dan Rather, and news being clamped down in the US by the Bush administration and corporate interests. Cate Blanchett looked very chic being very worthy and I thought Robert Redford rather good as Rather. I enjoyed it very much but I really couldn’t tell you if it was any good. It was definitely secondary to the cinema itself, one of the earliest Open Air ones, which opened in 1935.
The second evening, we went to the Cine Paris, with an equally spectacular view, this time, as you can see above, of the back of the Acropolis. Here drinks were a bit more expensive but they do cocktails and it’s worth it. The film was better too, Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe in The Nice Guys. The cinema is upstairs from a fantastic poster shop where you can get Greek posters of your favourite films, Hollywood and International Art House. It has several levels and it’s worth exploring them as the higher up you go, the better the view. The Cine Paris also overlooks a central square in Plaka, teeming with a range of dining options which we made full use of.
On our third evening we went to the Zephyr. This one offered classic programming instead of a view. We arrived early and ate in a restaurant just opposite that fulfilled every fantasy of Mediterranean communities: A baby passed around for everyone to kiss. The waiters seemed to be part of the same family: they’d serve and then go off across the street to chat with the lady from the cinema’s box office or other merchants from across the street but were quick to return should you need anything. Every so often a car would drive by, stop, the driver would shake hands with one of the waiters, chat for a while and move on. Those in the cars behind didn’t seem to mind waiting. Everyone seemed to know each other.
The film we saw was Bringing Up Baby; all the films we saw were in original version. Baby was in a 16mm print that had seen better days but on a lovely big screen. Seeing Grant and Hepburn at their best, on a balmy night, with an audience that got every joke and appreciated every nuance was a thrill.
We also went to the Dexamini, which ostensibly has the very best view of the Acropolis. But here they were also showing Truth, and we had already seen Truth and….well…it was a reminder that whilst cinema-going has traditionally been about so much more than just the movie; the movie’s still the central component of filmgoing. We ended up not going into The Dexamini and opted instead for sitting in a terrace outside, guzzling more wine, and taking full advantage of the calamari.
Orry-Kelly was a bachelor all his life; he was chief costume designer for Warner Brothers between 1932 and 1944; lived with Cary Grant in the late Twenties and was furious when Grant moved on to Randolph Scott in the Thirties; was bestie to Texas Guinan, Ethel Barrymore, Marion Davies, Fanny Brice, Hedda Hopper and other formidable women; and oh did he love his mom. But it was only upon finishing the book proper and reading Catherine Martin’s Foreword and Gillian Armstrong’s Afterword to Women I’ve Undressed that I could be sure he was gay.
Gilliam Armstrong, the superb Australian director of Mrs. Soffel (1984), Starstruck (1982) and many other films that deserve to be classics (Little Women, 1994), had made a documentary on Orry-Kelly called Women He’s Undressed (2015). Orry-Kelly, born in Kiama, New South Wales, Australia and winner of three Academy Awards for costume design, was internationally one of the most famous Australians of the first half of the twentieth century — his billing in Australia often read ‘costumes by our Orry-Kelly’ — and of clear interest to an Australian filmmaker and an Australian audience (and beyond). It was amidst the publicity surrounding the release of the film that the memoir came to light. As Armstrong recounts, ‘ I mentioned Orry in an interview on a Newcastle radio station and a friend of Orry’s grand-niece contacted me, wondering if I’d be interested in meeting his niece who, by the way, had his memoir! She had been keeping Orry’s memoirs in a pillowslip in her laundry cupboard for her mother for over 30 years.’
The main reason for reading this book is because Orry-Kelly remains one of the outstanding costume designers of the classic era: when you visualise the Busby Berkeley musicals, or Warners gangster films or Bette Davis at her peak or Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, you’re re-invoking the dreams, characters and stories that Orry-Kelly helped to create. Only Adrian, Travis Banton, Edith Head and Irene could be considered peers in Hollywood’s classic era. Plus, after his Warner’s period, he designed the costumes for An American in Paris (Minnelli, 1951), Auntie Mame (Morton D’Acosta, 1958), Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) and many other classics. As Catherine Martin, the costume designer who in 1994 finally superseded Orry-Kelly as the Australian to win most Academy Awards notes, his influence continues to be felt, beginning with the impact his work had on hers, and illustrating it with a comparison between the costumes Orry-Kelly designed for Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942) and what she herself designed for Nicole Kidman in Australia (Baz Luhrman, 2008).
Orry Kelly wrote the book for an audience of the time after his peak (the late fifties, early sixties) but not quite yet for publication so it’s full of all kinds of obfuscation that act as a kind of discretion (what kinds of crushes where those that Cary Grant had on all those women; were they akin to those I have when I meet a new friend — a kind of romantic idealisation of who they are – or was it sexual. It’s not clear) and all kinds of indiscretions that would never have made print had the book been published in his lifetime (Errol Flynn’s drug consumption, Joan Fontaine’s imperious demands, Monroe’s exhibitionism in Some Like It Hot). The book is full of superb anecdotes: Flynn explaining that he hadn’t stolen that emerald necklace in Sidney – it had been a gift; Fanny Brice eagerly watching and dissecting Bette Davis’ performances like the true fan she was; Katharine Hepburn ensuring that Ethel Barrymore regularly received fresh flowers in her last years…an many more.
The book offers a wonderful evocation of lost worlds: Bohemian Sidney post WW1; the underworldly New York of gangsters and speakeasys. These raffish milieus take on an even brighter sheen if, to borrow Alexander Doty’s phrase, one makes things perfectly queer; that is to say not only a personal and subjective reading but one informed by a knowledge and understanding of gay cultures and identities in the first half of the twentieth century, an important if rarely valued kind of cultural capital. Read through a ‘gay lens’, those milieus where prostitutes and petty criminals intersected with show business are not only where Orry-Kelly got his start designing but also those that intersected with homosexual sub-cultures; the rage and hurt expressed by all the bitchy attacks on Cary Grant become those of a deserted lover rather than merely an ungrateful room-mate; the love for the nightlife of Hollywood and Vine becomes textured with sexuality; the friendships with George Cukor, Cole Porter, and Somerset Maugham, a network of middle-aged homosexuals gallantly staving off the worst ravages of middle-aged spinsterdom.
I’m not sure that the book is doubly inflected in the way that Harry Louis Gates Jr. indicates in Blues, Ideology and African American Literature: A Vernacular Theory, where he writes of black performers putting on blackface to perform minstrelsy but doing so in such a way that white audiences remained unaware and understood it one way whilst black audiences understood that it was a black person performing and understood it another. Did Orry-Kelly doubly-inflect it that way so that his gay friends and contemporaries understood a layer of meaning unavailable to other audiences? I’m not sure. Can it be read to bring out this double (at least!) inflection? Without a doubt and to great pleasure and advantage.
It’s a fascinating book; I now look forward to the film.
‘You can be had,’ Mae West said to Cary Grant in She Done Him Wrong, which opened in January, 1933, and that was what the women stars of most of his greatest hits were saying to him for thirty year, as he backed away – but not too far’ writes Pauline Kael in her great essay on the actor, ‘The Man From Dream City’.
Watching the moment in Jupiter Ascending ((Andy and Lana Wachowski, USA, 2015; see clip above), where Mila Kunis is coming on to Channing Tatum only for him to back away — she’s royalty now; he’s half dog, oh but she loves dogs! — made me think of Kael’s argument on Grant. Tatum is the male love object of the film and one of the leading sex symbols of the day. Since the Step Up musicals, it’s a rare film where his body hasn’t been prominently on display. It’s Jupiter’s/Kunis’ desire that Jupiter Ascending expresses . The narrative aligns the desire of the protagonist and that of the audience in that it presents Tatum as the object of desire — elegantly skating through space, often with his shirt off — to both; furthermore it presents Kunis/Jupiter as a point of identification in the narrative and aligns the audience’s gaze with hers. Female expression of desire as depicted in Kunis’ lovely and witty performance and that alignment of the gaze of female star with that of the audience is still so rare in cinema , and rarer still in this particular type of cinema, as to invite commentary, and perhaps incite discomofort.
Writing on Grant and Redford, Kael argued that both were ‘sexiest in pictures in which the woman is the aggressor and all the film’s erotic image is concentrated on (the male).’ Redford, for example, ‘has never been as radiantly glamorous as in The Way We Were, when we saw him through Barbra Streisand’s infatuated eyes.’ Yet a similar moment in Jupiter Ascending, that extracted in the clip above, whilst offering a moment of glee to me personally, doesn’t seem to work in quite the way similar moments worked with Redford or Grant. Clearly Tatum isn’t as debonair; he lacks the lightness; he’s too earnest. However, could it be more than that?
As star personas metamorphise over time, can there be some moments that come too late to work in a work, i.e. is it conceivable that the ‘I love dogs’ moment might have worked better had the film been released after Dear John (Lasse Hälstrom, USA, 2010) and The Vow (Michael Sucsy, USA, 2012) or perhaps as late as Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 2012) but pre 21 Jump Street (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, USA, 2012) and Foxcatcher (Mark Schultz, USA, 2014)? After all, there was a point where one simply went to a movie with Tatum to look at that body in motion. When did it start to matter that he was ‘wet’; that there seemed a cloud of depression perpetually overhanging that pudgy face; that he comes across as not-too-bright (though considering the choices he’s made recently, he can’t be as dumb as he looks); that he seemed to take everything too seriously; that he could be a serious bore; that whereas better romantic comedians like Grant are different with the heroines than they are with anyone else in the film, Tatum can only do ‘sad-serious-and-slow’, or at least until the use of his body brings a different kind of kick and energy to his performance? Was it perhaps that moment when critics began to talk of him seriously as an actor?
Or does that striking moment ‘not working’ simply characterise a film of brilliant ideas that seems also laughably silly pretty much throughout? And yet, I’ve now seen it twice…can it be that we’re not used to seeing sci-fi where the female star is the desiring subject, the active agent, the focus of the film’s drama? Or that we’re not seeing used to seeing sci-fi in such traditional melodramatic terms? Jupiter (Mila Kunis) is a cleaning lady, a migrant born in the middle of nowhere who ends up becoming a queen with the whole of the earth as her personal playground. There’s a wedding interrupted at the last moment and love that has to skate through galaxies , class and ethnic barriers and many disasters before being consummated. There’s also Eddie Redmayne’s excessive, intriguing and camp performance which seems to belong to a different genre. There seem to be all kind of intriguing and brilliant clashes and displacements in the film. Maybe what Jupiter Ascending is providing so brilliantly is so far removed from audience expectation that the only response to that clash is uncomfortable laughter?
A programmer but one that packs a lot of power: Ruth Brock (Nancy Carroll), a small town working girl, is accused of doing things she didn’t do with Romer Sheffield (Cary Grant) by Conny Billop (Edward Woods), a co-worker who failed to force her to do the same things with him. Town gossip gets so ugly she loses her job at the bank as well as her childhood sweetheart and prospective husband, Bill Fadden (Randolph Scott) — nice, handsome but a bit self-righteous and rigid; she’s really better off without him. She gets so fed up with the injustice of it all that she eventually does end up doing all the things with Romer she was at first wrongfully accused of — ‘The things you believed about me last night were lies. But this morning they’re the truth,’ she tells Bill –and is shown to have a wonderful time doing it. At the end of the film, Ruth and Rumer say good-by to Hicksville and all its social restrictions and drive off to New York to marriage and adventure.
The film starts with a striking and fluid travelling shot of a note being passed by the tellers in a bank that one initially suspects has something to do with the world of high finance but which turns out to be a request for a date. That sets the tone for the film: sexy, smart, cynical; with a rueful wisecracking edge one associates more with the twenties than the thirties (The eponymous novel it’s based on, by Harvey Fergusson, was published in 1926).
Hot Saturday is today worth seeing for many reasons. I love the whizz bang type of plot development in these pre-codes: no mucking around, on with the story. Also, it’s logical, makes sense, doesn’t contradict anything else. It’s just fast in telling you everything you need to know; and that speed has its own uplifting energy.
The bulk of American cinema has so sentimentalized small-town life –- think of the fictional Carvel, where all of the Andy Hardy films are set — that its representation in Hot Saturday is a surprise and a tonic. Here all the oppressive aspects of small-town living are teased out one after the other from the very first title card which warns us: ‘Marysville boasted one bank, two fire engines, four street cars and a busy telephone exchange. Everyone knew on Sunday what everyone else did on Saturday…and the rest of the week.’ Moreover, all the gossip is exaggerated, people’s characters are dissected and impugned, and this in a place where the appearance of high morals is a necessary passport to employment and the ability to earn a living.
In Marysville a ‘hot’ Saturday can ruin your life; and all the characters are aware of it. When Connie suggests taking the gang to Romer’s cottage beforehand, his friend warns him, ‘the town would burn down to the ground if we took the girls within a mile of that guy.’ Romer’s and out-of-towner who’s seen as rich and decadent; fancy women are seen driving around in his car; being seen with him is enough to ruin any girl’s reputation. But the lure of free drinks in luxurious surroundings is too strong. Ruth is a girl who saves up for new knickers; Romer has great clothes, a posh pad, a fancy chauffer-driven car and a Japanese servant who speaks English better than the rubes and knows how to put them in their place. All the luxurious living is there not only as a story point to contrast to the life of the working stiff but as a way of offering a tantalizing peek at the posh life to a Depression audience.
But any kind of connection to that which is different much less glamorous may exact a price in the narrow-minded small town. Later in the film, Ruth tells Romer that she’s been ‘sneered, scorned, talked about – you don’t know what it’s like to live in a small town. You can only play on the surface and even if you’re honest about that you’re not safe from a lot of evil-minded people’.
But the film posits that one can find no safety whatsoever in a small town like Marysville, even without incurring gossip. After all, the reason why she walked through a forest to get to Romer is to escape Connie’s advances: ‘what do you expect for a boat ride, Marlene Dietrich?’ She basically avoids something that seems uncomfortably close to rape; and her lucky escape is punished, mainly by the women of the town (though Connie’s no gent) whose tarring of her reputation results in the loss of her job and the eventual collapse of her marriage prospects (the only other out), home and family.
The film’s critique of small-town life is matched by its critique of the family. Hot Saturday is no Meet Me in St. Louis in this regard. For her family, Ruth is a meal ticket. She’s the only one in work, buys her father his cigars, gives her mother the rest of her pay packet — though that doesn’t spare her from being bullied into chores — and she’s got a greedy younger sister stealing the few thing she’s got (the knicker-ripping scene is great). Yet, all of this is mingled, with affection, responsibility and a kind of love. The film’s views on family are varied and textured. But critical.
Hot Saturday offers a complex view of people and of society. It has an eye open to weakness, lies, jealousy, laziness, theft, pride, appearances, vanity; all are touched on but with a forgiving eye. It is also good at conveying the elements of sex and desire that make for a ‘hot’ Saturday. In the ‘I’m burning for you’ clip below, listen to the lyrics of the song: ‘call the fire engine, and the whole darn crew, tell them all to hurry cause I’m burning for you’. Note the wonderful panning shot of people dancing and the discrete and offhand revelation of the frank sexuality with which many of them move. See also how the light of the illuminated dance floor goes up the women’s dresses and offers the audience the outline of a shapely leg in peek-a-boo style. This is a film that knows what a ‘hot’ Saturday is and, better yet, knows how to communicate it to the audience, how to make us feel its heat.
According to the AFI’s catalogue listing on the film, when Hot Saturday was released, Variety commented that the ‘film has no A-name draw in its cast’. However, one of the main pleasures in seeing the film today lies in watching Cary Grant, Nancy Carroll and Randolph Scott. Cary, in his first year in pictures is surprisingly top-billed over Nancy Carroll, who is really the lead in the film, and had been one of the very top Paramount stars only a few years earlier.
Grant looks impossibly handsome wearing a Noel Coward-esque wardrobe. He’s wearing more make-up than Nancy but does the glamour and dash to perfection; it is already a joy to watch him move. One can see him becoming ‘Cary Grant’ much more clearly than in some of the Mae West films he was doing in the same period.
Nancy Carroll’s got a heart shaped face that needs careful photography and whoever designed her hairdos did her no favours here. She looks very puffy and worn out in the early bank scenes but kewpie-doll pretty in the rest and she’s very alive and vivacious throughout. Cliff Aliperti in Immortal Ephemera writes that ‘Nancy Carroll has just concluded her period of major stardom by the time of Hot Saturday. She had been not only Paramount’s top star, but just a couple of years earlier she was receiving more fan mail than any other star at any studio.’ One can understand why she was such a big star and can only wonder at why she didn’t remain one.
Randolph Scott is stiff as a board but rather nice to look at also. The film might be of particular interest to all those intrigued by the rumours that Cary and Randolph were an off-screen couple, as the clip below is bound to raise a chuckle amongst them. Fan culture in general and this type of sub-cultural discourse on film is as much a part of cinematic culture as any other dimension and the film would to me be worth seeing if only for this.
But the film offers much more than this. Hot Saturday is smart with a slight accent on cynical; wise to people and their self-interest and foibles but without judging them too harshly; romantic but also aware of the sizzle of sex and the power of its pull; knowledgeable too of the social cost one might have to pay in succumbing, and conscious also of the glamour of the high life and its appeal to characters within the film and audiences watching it. It’s got a fantastic score composed of jazzy versions of the hits of the period (‘One Hour With You’, ‘Isn’t it Romantic’ and several others) and a great cast upon whom the downslide and upswings of star careers can be intriguingly charted.
One of the films released on DVD as part of the great Pre-Code Hollywood Collection in the Universal Backlot Series and which includes Merrily We Go to Hell.