and transformed into the original sex pest:
Pépé Le Moko is all attitude and atmosphere. It was remade in Hollywood as Algiers (John Cromwell, 1938) with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr, a blockbuster success which made a star of Lamarr and inspired the ‘take me to the casbah’ tagline still vivid to a generation of filmgoers. Boyer as Pépé was the inspiration for Pepe le Pew, the romantic cartoon skunk, enveloped in stink but searching for love.
Jean Gabin´s Pépé is more reminiscent of Bogart in Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942), an outer cynicism masking a fatal romanticism, smart and witty, cool and up for a joke in the most trying circumstances. The dialogue by Henri Jeanson overlays wit with ironic nonchalance and underlays it with danger and threat: it´s brilliant.
Pépé´s on the lam from the law, continuing to rob, the leader of his gang and a legend in the casbah. The casbah is such a jumble of doorways, alleyways and rooftops, that he can escape the police. But it has become its own prison. He´s sure to be arrested once he leaves it and descends into town. He dreams of freedom and Paris but makes do. He says he´s happy to give his body to any woman but he won´t lose his head by giving up his heart. That is until he meets Gabby (Mireille Balin). The scene where he eyes up her jewellery is superb, all close-up longing, and initially one´s unsure if that longing is for the jewels or the woman.
Duvivier brilliantly directs for tone, atmosphere, and he knows how to get the joke in. The film has memorable set-pieces (the retribution for the betrayal of Pépé´s younger side-kick), Gabin and Frehél sing in the same film for the first time since Coeur de Lilas (Anatole Litvak, 1932) . And there´s a swoonily fatalistic romantic ending where Pépé yells to his beloved. She´s on a ship returning to France and his voice is drowned out by the ship´s whistle. Like in the great noirs that were to come later in the forties, he´s so undone by love, regret, a possibility receding before his very eyes, already crying for her, that he chooses death over prison and a life without Paris and her. It´s terrific.
Gabin had already worked with Duvivier four times previously, in Maria Chapdelain (1934), Golgotha (1935), La Bandera (1935) and La Belle équipe (1936), and they would make other films together in the future (e.g. Voici le temps des assassins), But Pépé might well be the pinnacle of their success. In Pépé le Moko, her BFI book on the film, Ginette Vincendeau has convincingly argued that Pépé is the film that clinches the Gabin myth. It´s a film that tried to find a vein and tone with which to communicate with its audience in as entertaining a way as possible. This helped make it a blockbuster success then and that it continues to speak to several other generations of audiences means that it´s enjoyed enduring popularity since.
I’ve only just discovered Camera Over Hollywood: Photographs by John Swope 1936-1938, and a discovery it is. John Swope was a life-long friend of Henry Fonda, James Stewart and Josh Logan. They all met in their early twenties when they were part of the University Players theatre troupe in West Falmouth, Cape Code, Massachussetts; and they all found success: Josh Logan as a legendary writer and director in post-war Broadway (and a rather mediocre film director); Swope as a photographer and regular contributor to LIFE magazine; Fonda and Stewart need no introduction.
The book shows us photographs of Hollywood at work (extras waiting on sets, cinematographer James Wong Howe behind the camera, the building of entire cities on the lot) and at play (James Stewart on dates with Olivia de Havilland and Norma Shearer); in front of the camera (Anne Rutherford posing with her dog) and off-stage (Rosalind Russell reading the script for The Citadel in bed; Charles Boyer in his dressing room).
Swope had unparalleled access to the studios, not only through his friendships with Fonda, Stewart and Logan but also via his enduring marriage to Dorothy McGuire as well as his own considerable credentials as a photographer and theatrical producer. And he doesn’t just show us the insides of the studios. I was particularly interested in his documenting of film-going, the continued emphasis on sex (see two images below), and the changes in the fortunes of particular stars that narratives of their careers signal but don’t well convey.
In the image above, note how the cinema’s main feature is Stage Door but how they’re also showing Ellis Island and a Mickey Mouse cartoon as part of the bill. Note also how over the box office Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn are both billed above the title, though Hepburn’s name is misspelled. In the film print I saw Hepburn was billed first, probably a contractual obligation. But the manager of this particular theatre clearly thought Rogers was more of a draw in 1937. Moreover, if you look closely at the lobby cards and posters roughly pasted together between the two men, you’ll note that Ginger Rogers gets much bigger billing and that Hepburn and Adolf Menjou — immediately underneath her name — are barely discernible. A much clearer sign of the descent of Hepburn’s stardom with the filmgoing audience, in what is historically seen as one of her few hits of this period, and before she is officially designated box office poison, than any account I’ve ever read.
It’s a marvellous book of insightful photographs at a key period in Hollywood’s history. The introduction is by Dennis Hopper who credits Swope with getting him into pictures,
One of those all-star multi-strand melodramas so typical of the 1950s (Not as a Stranger, The Best of Everything, This Earth is Mine). But this one directed by Vincente Minnelli, and perhaps only he could get away with structuring all of the drama around the hanging of drapes: Mrs. McIver (Gloria Grahame) wants some chic ones from Chicago; Miss Inch (Lillian Gish) wants some practical ones, at a discount; and Doctor McIver (Richard Widmark) and Miss Rinehart (Lauren Bacall) have a project to get the patients at the psychiatric institute (Jon Kerr, Susan Strasberg, Oscar Levant etc) to design their own. Charles Boyer is Dr. Devanal, the former head, now usually too soused to do much except letch around between institute and motel room , spicing up the intrigue and thickening the plot as the drapes go up and down.
The standout performances are Grahame’s, all seething sexual frustration as the girl who every guy but her husband is hot for, and Gish who does something much deeper and complex with her performance of Miss Inch, the administrator desperate to be needed and hiding it all an aggression born out of a lifetime’s neglect.
The worst performance, and its worth mentioning because she spoiled so many 50s movies, is Bacall’s. She’s a sour, haughty and humourless presence here as in so many movies of this period (Written on the Wind) and later (Murder on the Orient Express). Here she looks great, which hasn’t always been the case when photographed in colour. But even her glossy tawny looks can’t hide a performance that is all attitude without emotion and seems composed entirely of poses.
In interviews, Bacall’s talked about how in this movie Minnelli cared only for drapes and the only thing he contributed to her performance was to move her knee from one side to the other. What she doesn’t mention is that that’s probably the best anyone could have done for her (See her performance in How to Marry a Millionnaire — at least *here* she’s photographed beautifully and looks terrific). Minnelli knew about drapes and about moving the camera and arranging people within the cinemascope frame in ways that are still tremendously exciting to watch. What Bacall accuses Minnelli of is in fact what she herself is guilty of: great surface with nothing evident underneath.
Readers interested in questions of the representation of gays and lesbians in cinema might find it interesting to know that the character played by Oscar Levant, Mr. Capp, was a homosexual fixated on his mother in William Gibson’s original novel. The Hays Office prevented the character from being so characterised in the film. Perhaps because of that, Minelli visually coded the character of Mrs. Delmuth as lesbian in what for the 1950s passed as the strongest and most clichéd terms possible: with the short hair, the men’s shirts and in jodhpurs, wearing riding boots, and later on in the film, at the woodwork shop, working at her lathe. The title of Mrs. a cover and alibi for the visual representation where dress nonetheless trumps address. I at first and tellingly thought the part of Mrs Delmuth was played by Mercedes MaCambridge, one of the most vibrant and exciting signifiers of lesbianism in 50s cinema, but I see that the role is actually played by Jarma Lewis. The confusion is, as I hope you can see below, understandable.
James Dean was originally cast as the troubled young artist but studio politics prevented the casting. John Kerr, who would subsequently be cast as the the young man accused of homosexuality in Tea and Sympathy, is dull in spite of all the histrionics his character is given to perform, rather a feat.
If the film is a visual treat, the sounds are no less of an achievement: According to Laurence E. MacDonald in The Invisible Art of Film Music: A Comprehensive History, the score for The Cobweb is ‘basically atonal’ and is considered to be ‘the first Hollywood film score to contain a twelve-tone row. The main-title music features two elements that return throughout the score: agitated figures for strings and glissandos on the kettledrums. These elements account for much of the impact of this score, which is understandably a difficult listening exercise for viewers’ (p. 157′)