Tag Archives: Deborah Kerr

The Gypsy Moths (John Frankenheimer, USA, 1969)

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A sad film about parachutists, Gypsy Moths, who go from town to town risking their lives to make a living and who find meaning only in the physical thrill the derring-do provides. Burt Lancaster is Mike Rettig, the ageing star of the show, the one who performs the most difficult stunts. Gene Hackman, fresh from Bonnie and Clyde is Joe Browdy, who also jumps but is mainly the barker and looks after the money. Scott Wilson, fresh from In Cold Blood, is Malcolm Wesson, the youngest member of the troupe.

The film begins as they finish a gig in one place and move on to Malcolm’s old home town where his aunt Elizabeth Brandon (Deborah Kerr) still lives. They all go to stay with her and her husband, V. John Brandon (William Wimdom) whilst setting up the show. Mike and Elizabeth are clearly instantly attracted to each other, and act on it, something Elizabeth has done before and that her husband is fully aware of. Joe develops a thing for the stripper in the local club played by an appealingly blowsy Sheree North. And even Malcolm gets it on with Annie, a student who boards with the Brandons played by a very young Bonnie Bedelia. Everyone mates up but only Joe and the stripper seem to get any joy out of it.

The best aspects of  the film are the phenomenal areal stunts we see, including this magnificent star entrance afforded Burt Lancaster, which you can see below.

 

 

The advertising tag line was ‘When you turn on by falling free…when jumping is not only a way to live but a way to die too.. you’re a gypsy moth.’ It’s an ill-conceived film. The best thing about it are the stunt.  But ‘even Frankenheimer said at the time, “if anybody tells me this is a film about parachute jumping, I’ll feel like hitting them on the head (Fishgall, p. 267). We get a lot of background on young Malcolm: He was orphaned; his aunt had been in love with his father but he ended up marrying her sister instead; the aunt wanted to keep and raise him after the death of his parents but the uncle saw it as a constant reminder of who his wife had been really in love with and forbade it….We actually get a lot of information on almost everyone except Mike Rettig, who is meant to be the protagonist. Aside from not giving us much information, the film also kills him off 2/3rds of the way through, without really properly communicating to the audience the reasons why, just to ensure the audience leaves as disappointed as is possible.

Lancaster is brilliant, funny and charming as you can see below:

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Always, physically authoritative:

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As Richard Schickel pointed out in Life, ‘Mr. Lancaster has developed a capacity, unique in established stars, to give away scenes that his status in the movie pecking order entitles him to dominate.. and he deserves full credit for his selflessness’ (Burdord 3296).  He also deserves full credit for what he does do. He communicates the attraction to Deborah Kerr’s Mrs. Brandon, instantly, with barely a look, and the audience immediately registers it. We know they’re going to get it together.

Gary Fishgall argues with some merit that ‘No one fared worse than Lancaster. The film needed somebody who could convey his character’s malaise, which is never articulated, someone who could fill the brooding silences with palpable emotion — anger, rage, frustration, something….All he could do was look weary, resigned, unhappy, and that was not enough. Even Kerr said in retrospect, ‘I don’t think he himself quite got it. I don’t know what he was after’ (Fishgall 267).

My own view is that what really sinks the film is how it depicts the reunion between Kerr and Lancaster. ‘We can hear the roar of the surge when they stand on the porch in Kansas,’ suggested the Newark Evening News with a gallant reference to the beach scene of sixteen years before’ (Burford, 3296) As Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times: ‘It’s a weekend of dimly articulated emotional crises for everyone, including Miss Kerr, an unhappy, highly unlikely Kansas housewife who had a brief affair with Lancaster, principally, you feel, because she remembers meeting him in From Here to Eternity‘ (cited in Crowther, 105).

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Kerr and Lancaster had been in a film together post From Here to Eternity in Separate Tables. But there Deborah Kerr was interested in David Niven and Lancaster still obsessed with Rita Hayworth, so the film didn’t offer the nostalgic possibilities of reunion The Gypsy Moths does. All of which makes the film even more tone deaf to audience expectation. Did it have to be such a joyless experience? Did the filmmakers have to undress a beloved actress pushing 50? It feels grim and uncomfortable with a nasty edge, which is not quite what the sex scene is supposed to convey. Lancaster’s Mike Rettig is meant to be so taken with her, he proposes marriage; she’s meant to enjoy the sex but unwilling to leave her husband and the comforts of home for the carny parachutist’s life on the road. As soon as Ms. Kerr is undressed, all thought of character go out the window and all one thinks is ‘how could the filmmakers do this to her’?

In spite of that, I greatly enjoyed the scenes of small town life, the real sense of watching Gene Hackman emerge as a star (he steals the show), the superb flying sequences and the incredible sense of space, in the field and in the air, that middle-of-the-century America seems to take as a given, the vast space a context and contrast to the narrowness of hopes, expectations, and possibilities proffered by, in this case, small town culture. John Frankenheimer, whose work I did not know well, is showing himself to have been a marvellous visual director and superb with actors. With The Gypsy Moths, however, I am still not at all  sure of his command of drama and pacing.

Burt Lancaster’s own view was that ‘The Gypsy Moths unfortunately was just not a good picture. An interesting idea, not well done, not well written, I would say’ (Fishgall, 267)

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Sheldon Hall informs me that: ‘This was ITV’s choice of peak-time film for Christmas Eve 1974’.

My cousin reminds me we saw this in the mid-70s in the Church Hall of a small village in rural Spain. I vividly remember the aerial sequences though have no memory of the go-go bar scenes or of Kerr’s nudity. I’m almost certain they were censored and I do wonder what exactly ITV screened that Christmas Eve pre-watershed.

José Arroyo

 

 

 

 

From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, USA, 1953

 

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A landmark film. One of the great hits of the 1950s, with an all star cast: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed, Ernest Borgnine. One of the things that makes the film legendary is that it contains some of the best screen moments of that astonishing cast: Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster kissing on the beach, Sinatra’s Maggio dying in Prewitt’s arms; Prewitt on the trumpet playing through tears at Maggio’s funeral, Fatso’s sadism, more evil for being so unaware and perfectly embodied by Borgnine. With the  the exception of Donna Reed — whose TV super-stardom in The Donna Reed Show superseded the meanings her persona accrued here — these are roles the cast would continued to be remembered for even up to now.

There are many legends that accrue to the film: how Joan Crawford dropped out over a silly dispute regarding her wardrobe; what Frank Sinatra had to do to get this role: Did he make an offer that couldn’t be refused? Was there a horse’s head under Harry Cohn’s sheets. However he got the role, what he did with it became one of show-business’ legendary come-backs. His work remains terrific.

The shot on the beach, which you can see below, marked an era. It was considered shocking partly because Deborah Kerr is on top, and remains amongst the sexiest embraces ever filmed.

 

The film is tightly directed: every shot counts; and it remains emotionally affecting, partly through always siding with the underdog (Di Maggio, Prewitt, the prostitutes and adulteresses of this world), partly through evoking the depths of unhappiness that love can bring, such as in the beautiful scene below.

 

The film also offers more spectacular pleasures, again unusual in that it focusses on male bodies in various states of undress, such as Burt Lancaster below:

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and Burt Lancaster in motion is always a joy to watch, like everybody’s idealistic embodiment of G.I Joe, at least if that were any longer a possibility:

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David Greven, commenting on the initial posting of this piece, argues that, ´There are many things to recommend this movie, but for me it has always been about Clift primarily and his absolute and utter integrity as an actor. Sinatra lends fine support and is indeed probably better than any other time, but Clift is the mesmeric centre of this film´.

And perhaps it´s true that he deserves more attention here.  In her review of the film, Pauline Kael writes, ”Montgomery Clift´s bony, irregularly handsome Prewitt is a hardhead, a limited man with a one-track mind, who´s intensely appealing; Clift has the control to charm –almost to seduce — an audience without ever stepping outside his inflexible, none–too-smart character’.  She sees the conflict between (Prewitt´s) status and his determination to have his rights (as) the mainspring of the action, and later argues that Prewitt´s fate gets ‘buried in the commotion of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. And Clift´s innovative performance was buried in the public praise for Sinatra and Lancaster. It was almost as if the public wanted to forget Prewitt´s troublesome presence’ (5001 Nights At The Movies, p. 204).

One could, however, see this in a different way, as David Thompson perceptively does in his review of the film. It´s not that Prewitt´s fate gets buried, it´s that ‘this complicated romantic story is so wonderfully aimed at December 7, 1941. The sudden collapse of urgent personal stories in the name of war is what is most impressive about this picture, and most true to the mood of 1941. In a world war, millions of ordinary people put their lives on hold. In turn, the quality that a nation brings to its war is exemplified in part by the stubbornness of Prewitt and Maggio and the expertise of Sergeant Warden in getting things done. …Definitive popular cinema, (p.314, Have You Seen….)

Clift is  divine in From Here To Eternity, with some unforgettable moments. He´s beautiful and affecting in everything he does, and the trumpet scene is gorgeous and moving, And Prewitt is indeed the mainspring of the action, his inability to bend is what sparks everything.  But Lancaster is undoubtedly the centre of the film narratively, structurally, and he too has two unforgettable moments, both which I´ve included here. The love scene on the beach (obviously) but also the moment in the car with Kerr where they talk of the unhappiness their love brings them, which is just lovely. There´s also  a thing about film acting, about embodying, rather than traditional notions of acting, the way his body is used, when he bends down to kiss Kerr say, or when he breaks the bottle to take on Fatso, that are superb and under-appreciated.

Everyone agrees Clift is great in this, a legendary performance. There are now several books about Clift and he is widely considered one of America´s greatest actors. Elisabetta Girelli, for example ,sees From Here to Eternity as a film that ‘crowns the peak stage of Clift´s stardom’ (loc 1851 Kindle, Montgomery Clift, Queer Star) and offers a fascinating queer reading of the film based on Clift´s performance and the film´s uses of his presence. If indeed the praise for Lancaster and Sinatra upon the film´s first release buried Clift´s achievements, this is certainly no longer the case. Indeed, I find that critics and scholars (though not audiences) find it harder to appreciate what Lancaster brings, which to me is just as great albeit in a different way. He always embodied and always performed for an audience, and as his career developed he learned to also *act* a character: all of those things are entwined but each is also a distinctive aspect of what a screen actor  brings to film drama. And one of the things that distinguishes this film from so many others is how marvellous all of the leads are, each in a different way, as, for example, the way Kerr looks as she says she´s never felt that way before. Superb.

 

The film also succeeds in dramatising a solution to real contradictions. The army is horrible throughout; sadistic, petty, punitive; until Pearl Harbour, where everyone heeds the call to arms, even at the cost of their lives. It’s a lovely film that well evokes passion, sadness, various kinds of love, including depths of non-sexual feeling men can really have for each other. It’s a rare film in that every kind of coupling is defeated, most of our heroes die, love is impossible. But of course everything important alters once war begins: everything changes then, and thus perhaps now has a renewed resonance.

The set-piece of the bombing of Pearl Harbour remains spectacular. The scenes leading up to it, with Zinnemann cleverly putting characters in front of dates (the 6th) or names (Pearl Harbour) subtly lead up to that moment. It’s a film where rhythm and pacing have been carefully through through. Everything’s measured, including the explosions: here, it works.

It’s a beautiful adaptation of James Jones, probably much better than the book deserves, and miles above the TV mini-series with Natalie Wood and William Devane.

The film won the award for Best Film and Zinnemann, Donna Reed and Frank Sinatra won Oscars. Burt Reynolds won the New York Film Critics’ award. One of the great hits of the era, with the shot of Kerr and Lancaster on the beach embracing through the tide one of the most famous in the history of cinema.

 

José Arroyo