Tag Archives: George Brent

Dark Victory (Edmond Goulding, USA, 1939)

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Pauline Kael called Dark Victory a ‘kitsch classic’. It was certainly one of her most popular films and continues to be one of her most enduring. If it weren’t for her, I’d find most of it hard to bear. The script is one cliché after another. Edmund Goulding directs skillfully, but cynically — one can’t imagine him believing what he’s trying to get us to swallow. It’s got George Brent, arguably the dullest leading man in film history (though it’s a category not short of contenders), Ronald Reagan (another contender for the title: leaden, amateurish and completely unconvincing as a drunken playboy), and Humphrey Bogart as an Irish ‘stable boy’ (you’ll find it hard not to giggle at his accent).

Davis plays Judith Traherne, a rich Long Island heiress who lives for parties and horse races (‘I won’t be tamed!’). She gets headaches; she begins to see double. She doesn’t mind putting herself in danger, but when she almost kills a horse she allows her best friend Anne (Geraldine Fitzgerald) to get her to her family doctor. A younger, smarter, doctor, Dr. Steele (George Brent), finally diagnoses a fatal disease.

An operation is called for. It’s only a partial success: she’ll live normally for a few months but then one day her vision will begin to cloud and that will be a sign that she’s only got a few hours to live. Anne and Dr. Steele decide to keep the verdict from Judith, who falls in love with the doctor, finds out they’ve been hiding information from her, suspects the Doctor’s only agreed to marry her out of pity and decides to live life to the full while she can; a situation Irish Bogart threatens to take advantage of. Eventually she ‘sees sense’, marries the Doctor, and a has a few happy months until one day she imagines the sky clouding over whilst the sun is still hot on her hands, and then she and Ann, in a neat reversal, keep the good doctor from knowing she’s just about to die in order to minimise his hurt.

The only reason to see the film today is for Davis and for the celebrated final scene. In the trailer for the film, Warner Brothers promises: ‘In the career of every great actress one role lives forever as her finest creation….The most exciting star on the screen in a story that light the full fire of her genius’. Whilst Judith Traherne is far from Davis finest creation — she’s better in Jezebel and The Letter, amongst many others —  she is definitely a star of fire and genius in Dark Victory. Most of the fire is misguided, the first scenes are all snap and verve, and such are the mannerisms that would be accentuated in later years by female impersonators defining her by what are essentially her worst characteristics: the bulgy eyes, the nervy arm movements, the speedy clip of a walk, the turn of the head.

She’s got some beautiful moments, the famous ending of course, but also a drunk scene with a wooden Ronald Reagan (see clip above) where she gets the band to stay after hours and play ‘Oh Give Me Time’ for her. It’s very restrained: she doesn’t overdo the drunkenness. It’s also poignant of course, because Judith has little time. It’s very-well directed (as opposed to merely ‘professional’, like the rest of the film). She’s very glamorously made up. Orry-Kelly has her in a black dress, with a fur bolero and matching hat, the hairs of which match and rhyme with the shadows cast by her eyelashes, her face framed by the fur, and a glistening diamond brooch on the black dress. It looks exquisite. She’s clearly at her peak yet soon to die. It’s beautifully done. But Davis is even better, and her acting is part of the mise-en-scène. Just look at the very last shot, where she sighs, her shoulders droop and she seems to expire before us as the scene fades to black (see image below): At her most beautiful yet soon to die. It’s the stuff of melodrama. But Davis elevates it, makes it beautiful and true. With her, it’s melodrama at its best.

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Aside from Davis, I’m interested in how the story lends itself to a gay reading, not in all its aspects, more like a kaleidoscope in which only some parts glisten towards that particular audience. It’s a place I suppose where the female audience the trailer addressed might have intersected with a gay male audience (of yesterday and today). The trailer (see below) tells us Dark Victory is, ‘The story of a free soul: ‘I’ve never taken orders from anyone, as long as I live I’ll never take orders from anyone. I’m young and strong and nothing can touch me’; dialogue extracts include: ‘‘What a relief to know you’re no better than I am’; ‘Are you afraid to burn Michael’? We’re told that she’s:

 

Reckless

Provocative

Defiant

Loving

Dangerous (the title of the film she won her first Academy Award for; Reckless is the title of a Jean Harlow vehicle)

 

 

 

I’m sure many gay men felt the same way. The line, ‘She tried to give her heart honestly and completely, fighting the terrible shadow that stood between her and the man she loved’ might still have particular resonance with men with HIV.

I suppose it’s kitsch because its full of clichés we know are false, yet their particular rendering here is entertaining. We recognise them, laugh at them, enjoy them. Yet, one can’t deny there are moments when one becomes genuinely moved in spite of the kitsch. These are the moments we owe to Davis. It’s why we still continue to see these films; why these films are still worth watching.

 

José Arroyo

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Jezebel (William Wyler, USA, 1938)

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Bette Davis’ recompense for having missed out on Gone With the Wind; one of her greatest hits; a legendary performance that’s still the gold standard for screen acting. The film’s themes – the conflict between North and South, the battle of the sexes, the constraints of societal morays on individual identity and expression, the price women pay for over-stepping those limits – all are expressively explored. William Wyler directs with great fluidity — the camera always seems to be craning, gliding, moving in, accenting – and in depth. Yet, it feels restrained – or rather, right: it never feels too much.

Watching the film is an immersive experience, as if one is drifting into a cloud of pure emotion, probably lifted there by Max Steiner’s score. The realm of feeling – complex, understandable, contradictory, ours – feels right on the surface of the film; on its skin; and communicated from there to our own. It’s almost a great film. What stops it from being so in my view is all the happy-clappy slaves singing their joy at the Halcyon plantation. This is by no means the worst offender in its time. In fact one can argue that there’s a context in which it can be seen as liberal and progressive. But it does offend current eyes and ears, at least mine.

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Davis wins and Fonda puts down his ‘stick’.

And yet here is also Davis’ Julie, one of her most popular and celebrated performances, goading Pres (Henry Fonda), challenging his masculinity, confronting convention, proud, arrogant, spoiled, then humiliated and suffering. She’s great, a witch – we don’t know how she achieves what she does; how she communicates such complexity so clearly — and completely bewitching in all her legendary moments: getting off her horse, choosing the red dress, the ball sequence, goading Pres with his ‘stick’ in a phallic battle she wins, the humiliation of her attempts to win him back, her final self-abnegation at the end. A must for anyone interested in great screen acting.

Orry Kelly’s costuming is better than Walter Plunkett’s for Gone With the Wind

The first of three Davis films directed by Wyler, the others being The Letter (1940) and The Little Foxes (1941)

José Arroyo

 

 

Female (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1933)

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The president of the Drake Motor Company — rich, smart, ruthless, successful – is female. But is she a woman? She acts like a man: ‘I treat men the same way they’ve always treated women.’ ‘Love takes too much time. A woman in love is a pathetic spectacle.’ But she does love men: ‘Lots of them’. She picks out her sexiest employees, asks them over for dinner, and rings the butler to bring over the vodka to ‘fortify their courage’. When they get love-sick and start demanding more, she buys them off; and if that doesn’t work, she ships them out to Montreal, which in this film is like outer Siberia. It’s all love ‘em and leave him with Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton) so she can put her energies where they really count – business. We’re told she gets rid of suitors ‘Just as Napoleon would have dismissed a ballet girl. She’s never met a man worthy of her. She never will’. But of course, she does; unfortunately for us, it’s George Brent.

Curtiz makes every shot look interesting.
Curtiz makes every shot look interesting.

The film begins in that gloriously dynamic way typical of early 30s Warner Brothers: We see the entrance to the Drake Motor Company, and then it’s irises out, horizontal wipes, diagonal wipes and quick cuts to show us what they’re manufacturing and how. It’s barely a minute into the film and it’s already exciting. Two clerks gossiping tell us ‘The President’s blowing the roof off?’ ‘Who’s getting it this time?’ before we’re shown that this scary and powerful captain of industry is not a man; nor is she just any woman – she’s Ruth Chatterton, already of a certain age, clipped diction, soignée, a big star who was then also considered a great enough actress to warrant the billing of ‘Miss’ Ruth Chatterton — no more respectful accolade was then possible.

Ruth Chatterton shows George Brent who's the boss.
Ruth Chatterton shows George Brent who’s the boss.

Throughout the first half of the film, Chatterton is filmed either in her office, busily answering phones with a huge window as backdrop showing the factory buildings, or in her ultra-modern and glamorous home, wearing glorious gowns in the living room or lounging around the pool with her prey. Michael Curtiz1, the director, makes every shot interesting and the film is a pleasure to look at. Sadly, she then meets George Brent at a shooting gallery. He’s a better shot, rebuffs her and of course she falls in love. When it turns out he works for her, she gets up to her old tricks but they predictably don’t work on him; too bad for us.

Ruth at home.
Ruth at home.

At the beginning of the film, she tells her board they’ve got statistic poisoning. She’s fed up with statistics and she wants action and change. By the end of the film, she does what Katharine Hepburn will do almost ten years later in Woman of the Year (George Stevens, USA, 1942) to get Spencer Tracy  — she diminishes herself to satisfy his idea of womanliness. At the end of the film, she endangers a business deal in New York to chase after him at a country fair. She gets him, promising to turn over the business to him to him and have nine children. The film ends with both of them on the way to make the business deal in New York. This viewer at least was left hoping that once they got there, got the deal, and she got her way with him, she’d return to her factory and leave him with a bus ticket to Montreal under the pillow.

The film was denied a reissue certificate in 1936 with Joseph Breen writing Warners that the film was,  ‘A cheap low-tone picture with lots of double meaning, wise-cracks, and no little filth which they think is funny'(Rode, 151). So many good reasons to see it now.

José Arroyo

ruth chatterton female

  1. I should qualify this. According to Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, a thorough, wonderfully researched new book on Curtiz by Alan K. Rode that’s just been published (2017) by the University of Kentucky Press, ‘William Dieterle began filming Female on July 17, 1933, became ill after nine days, and was replaced by William Wellman. Wellman directed for the next ten days, until Jack Warner halted production. Warner screened Wellman’s footage and reportedly disliked the performance of George Blackwood. Blackwood was cast as one of the numerous male employees whom Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton) — the high-powered vibrantly sexual CEO of an automobile company — invites to her house to first seduce and then exile to the firm’s distant Montreal office.

For whatever reason, Warner uncharacteristically ordered scenes reshot using Johnny Mack Brown in place of Blackwood, along with some additional sequences to bolster what he considered a weak film. By September, Wellman was directing College Coach. Curtiz was tasked with retakes beginning on September 3 and wrapped the picture ten days later. As a reward for reshooting in record time, Curtiz ended up with the sole screen credit, even though he directed little more than a third of the picture.

 

 

The Spiral Staircase. (Robert Siodmak, USA, 1945)

The Spiral staircase 1946

 

 

A High-Concept film avant la lettre. There’s a serial killer on the loose in a small New England town early into the 20th-Century. The killer generally chooses women with some kind of imperfection, and our heroine, Dorothy McGuire, a maid who works in a mansion for a rich family, is mute. The film delights with every Gothic thriller cliché in the book: an orphaned heroine in an overstuffed mansion full of spiral staircases and dark corners, a Freudian explanation to McGuire’s muteness, music that positively telegraphs what you’re meant to feel, a portentous Surreal dream sequence, a camera that takes you right into the killer’s eye but not quite into his mind(at least until the end),  a McGuffin, candle-lights that blow out, streaming wind, pouring rain, dark cellars, and a narrative that keeps taking you down false-corridors but never quite cheats. The question is not whether the killer will get the star; nobody kills the star in a big-budget studio film in 1945 Hollywood.  Instead the film taunts and teases us to wonder who the killer might be and when exactly the star will scream.

The cast is quite good if not quite top grade (Dorothy McGuire and George Brent instead of, say, Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer). McGuire is effective if a bit out of her league; Brent is Brent no matter what league he’s in; and there’s a reason we no longer remember Kent Smith and Gordon Oliver, even after playing   important roles such as here. The rest of the supporting cast, however, is a film buff’s delight (Elsa Lanchester as the scullery maid that likes her nip of brandy, Ethel Barrymore as a bed-ridden matron who’s handy with a gun; Rhonda Fleming, before she became the Technicolor hottie with the flaming red hair in low-budget spectacles, as, I kid you not, a secretary).

The real star, however, is director Robert Siodmak: his camera movements alone are a thrill to see; they creep, glide, close in, pay attention, sweep, peek, penetrate; all in wonderful compositions that will elicit awe and joy in those who can appreciate them. Nicholas Musuruca, who was also dop on Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, USA, 1942) and Out of the Past (Tourneur again, USA, 1947), produces wonderful work on camera here as well. A classic which perhaps has been slightly overlooked because it begs comparison with Hitchock’s work, indeed solicits it, his influence is everywhere evident here, and slightly falls short.

It’s worth noting here that I paid £7.40 to see it at the Electric Cinema in Birmingham where they showed it in what seemed a not-very-good DVD and had to be told-off by me because they were showing it in the wrong ratio.

It might also be worth noting that when the cinema is very dark (as it should be and as the Electric was) when sparse, high contrast, quasi-noir lighting like this goes very dark, as the eye focuses on the source of light, the image seems to expand into wide-screen. I wonder if this is just my own personal perception or if the experience is more widespread.

José Arroyo