Like with the greatest of films, every time I see the 1954 version of A Star is Born, I notice something new. This time, the great shot above, which seems a noir rendering using as background the shade of green so often deployed by Edward Hopper in his paintings (see below), and even in his rural or landscape works:
What makes the shot so poignant is that the shadowy embrace against the Edward Hopper green is their entrance to their honeymoon hotel. The first night of their marriage is already imbued with suggestions of sadness, loneliness, alienation, of imprisonment in/and shadows. This had already been foreshadowed earlier by the notice of their marriage dissolving into an image of prisoners behind bars (later turned into a joke with the knowledge that the room the judge is marrying them also contains a jail). See below:
Prison bars feature heavily in the film, particularly and most obviously in the scene where Norman Maine (James Mason) ends up in jail:
But the whole film partakes of aspects of a noir aesthetic, from the Bleue Bleu nightclub to shadowy lighting to LA nights where neon illuminates the darkness (see below)
The film also contains as many references to then ´Modern´painting as Minnelli´s An American in Paris (1951). Rousseau, Dégas, Renoir, Toulouse Lautrec, all are referenced backstage in the Shriner Auditorium sequence, and later on we even get a Mondrian image from the ‘Born in a Trunk’ number (see below):
The film is made up of such purposeful patternings both in referencing a history of art but also in deploying particular aspects of noir lighting as part of its mise-en-scène. What the first image shown above tells us is that this marriage is doomed from the very beginning. It will have passion, it will have beauty, but it will also be full of the darkness where addiction and self-hatred create a prison from a home, one that even love can´t breach. It´s all there in that first image that marks the start of their honeymoon.
Of the films I´ve been seeing recently that I loved as a child, Born Yesterday has been the most disappointing. It´s relative of course. The film is certainly interesting and entertaining; and the political satire, a relatively brave choice for a popular entertainment in the midst of the McCarthy era, seems more relevant than ever. The travelogue elements of how we´re shown Washington D.C. must have been a real attraction then and still work now. And surely playing writers chased by Gloria Swanson and Judy Holliday in two of the hit films of that year — Sunset Boulevard was the other one — is what must have catapulted William Holden into being a proper box-office star? Still that said, the film is overly pat and a little preachy, Broderick Crawford´s performance is a bit coarse, and Holliday, whom I adore, seems overly rehearsed. She´s great — it´s her most celebrated performance — but not quite real, every line reading fuelled by a clearly visible intention for very particular effects. The revelation of the re-watching has been Holden: A subtle performance, really understated and yet bringing charm and liveliness to a completely thankless role.It makes me uneasy also that the villain is a working class self-made millionaire who´s worked since he was twelve. The faith in the system is touching, its mythification less so. There are reasons the Garson Kanin´s play isn´t much revived: everything´s a bit pat and mechanical, though Cukor´s direction is controlled, masterful really, and opens up the play in interesting ways.
The Arrow Academy transfer is lovely and Pam Hutchtinson´s introductory essay is excellent. But talking-head discussion, even by prominent academics, make for quite dull extras. A disappointment, if only in relation to my memory of it.
The Greta Gerwig Little Women needs to be great because the Cukor-Hepburn one is perfect. Plus having the additional bonus of being, along with King Kong and Mae West, the sociological phenomenon of 1933. It´s a pity it´s not more seen:
Watching the ´49 version of Little Women only made me appreciate the 1933 Cukor-Hepburn version more. The 1933 version roots it in the Civil War, privation, self-sacrifice, kindness, family, sisterhood, complicated interpersonal relationships, and with a kind of yankee fierceness that is completely lacking in the sop of the ´49,. To see June Allyson after Hepburn is merely to see lack, where Hepburn was romantic, tomboyish, determined, longing to be an artist and a free woman, Allyson simply lowers her voice and juts her jaw. And even with that she´s better than Peter Lawford. A starry cast almost entirely wasted, Mary Astor certainly is, though Elizabeth Taylor and Margaret O´Brian have their moments (if only a few). Comparing the two is like comparing the illustrated comic of the novel to the novel itself. Same plot, more gloss, more shine, less depth and way less charm. I´d forgotten how important the Christmas setting is to all versions
A rare moment of lesbian visibility in 1930s Hollywood cinema, perhaps made possible by director George Cukor’s own sexual orientation, nonetheless shrouded in homophobia and made the butt of a joke, but worth registering here for its rarity and for the potential it offers to think that it might nonetheless have brightened a lesbian viewer’s day when it first came out in 1932. We once thanked heaven for small and not always benevolent mercies.
‘The Man That Got Away’ number in the 1954 version of A Star is Born directed by George Cukor is widely acknowledged as one of the very greatest in the history of the musical genre.
There’s so much to admire: dramatically, the choice of a song of loss and longing as the moment that sparks admiration and love in the narrative is inspired — it’s at first unusual and original and later becomes prescient and structuring. The song itself, a Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin tune, written for Garland, given a great brassy orchestration by Skip Martin, and so wonderful it’s become a standard covered by a whole array of singers through the ages, including a sparse version by Jeff Buckley accompanied only on guitar; Garland’s performance of the song, both the singing and the acting of it, are, as I will demonstrate later to any who doubt, legendary and beyond compare. As is the choice to film it as a noir in colour but with most of the colour drained out and used sparingly but powerfully. Here director George Cukor acknowledges the contributions of production designer Gene Allen and legendary photographer George Hoyningen-Huene to the way the film looks. Sam Leavitt was Director of Photography.
What I want to deal with here is the direction, particularly in its use of the cinemascope frame: the fluid arrangement and re-arrangement of compositions, the forward move of the action, the creation of the illusion of three dimensional space and the way which the filmmakers manage to create a sense of horizon in a narrow rectangular frame. CinemaScope was relatively new then and, along with technicolour, prominently publicised in all the posters for the initial release. This number to me is a sublime example of brilliant use of it made even more gobsmacking by the singing of the number all being filmed in one extended long take.
If you’re interested have a look at the number, refresh your memory. delight in the brilliance of the singing, the acting, the direction, the look, the way the scene unfolds and the way the camera moves…
Shot 1 (14 seconds): Then let’s look at the first shot of the sequence. Note how the frame is divided into thirds, that the title of the club is the ‘bleu bleu’ — significantly narratively as a place one goes to drown one’s sorrows but ends driving the blues away and also as an indicator of the overall look and tone of the scene — advertised on different sides of James Mason’s back (see the first frame.) Then Mason advances towards the door, whilst the camera at first stays still, thus creating a new composition within the shot, now we have neon blue on one side, and a poster, pinkish with red overtones, advertising the band on the other. In the third reframing within the same shot, the camera has caught up with Norman Maine (James Mason) and as he opens the door to the club, the door occupies one third, the poster the other and Maine and the open door roughly occupy the centre. The open door gives a sense of horizon, the illusion of three-dimensional space so familiar from Renaissance painting, think of the Mona Lisa, and so hard to achieve in that narrowly rectangular cinemascope frame. The door opening coincides with the brass element of the orchestration trumpeting the refrain: something new is announced, a new space of possibility just beyond the horizon.
Shot 2 (3 seconds, see frame enlargement below): the second shot is only three seconds. It’s an establishing shot of Norman Maine looking. But note how the shot is almost drained of colour except for the neon red throwing its pool of light from outside to the inside of the club. Note also how the lighting is focussed on Norman Maine’s face, and how the furniture is arranged along with the post in the right hand side. This creates a triangular shape within the frame, a sense of horizon, this time from the reverse perspective that we saw in the previous shot and inside. What the shot establishes is Norman Maine’s point-of-view, which is what will anchor the whole sequence. His gaze on her is what’s important, it’s how she, through him, will demonstrate to us that she is in fact the great singer and star he will know her to be once the song ends and that we, the audience, already know. According to Patrick MacGilligan,
‘The marriage of Technicolor and the wide-screen CinemaScope (a process still in its infancy) was partly responsible for the delay and cost. Color-test scenes had been filmed and re-filmed until everyone was satisfied’ (p.226). One can see in this shot how all those tests with the format and the colour paid off. It’s sparse, elegant, dramatic, like the work of a great painter, or here a great director elegantly mobilising all the talents of his cast and crew to purposeful and meaningful expression that delights the eyes and ears.
Shot 3 (7 seconds, see frame enlargement below)
The third shot is Norman’s point-of-view. He looks in the previous shot and this is what he and we see. Note how Esther Blodgett, soon to be transformed into Vicky Lester, superstar, and played by Judy Garland is a pinprick in a pool of light at the centre of the frame with her band. Her importance is signalled by her centrality but not quite yet made overt. Note how the frame is also divided into thirds. How the chairs on the right are closer to the lens, how the two musicians are framed by that pink/coral light we first saw on the poster on the right side of the frame in the first shot, accented by the pool of light that follows Norman Maine’s entrance into the club in the second shot. Note how this arrangement helps create a sense of three-dimensionality, gives a horizon to the space that would otherwise seem flat. Note how there’ a sense of drama in placing those chairs so as to impede but not quite block our view of Esther and the band. She, and her talent, will only fully be revealed to us later. It’s not only gorgeous and artful but dramatic and meaningful.
Shot 4: (23 second, see frame enlargements below)
The fourth shot is as the French call it, a plan sequence, a longer take, which can have different sequences within it created by camera movement and which involves the orchestration of various elements. This shot begins where shot 3 left off (see frame enlargement below on the left), with Norman Maine at the entrance of the club, triangularly placed on the horizon, with that hint of neon red just above him. He moves towards the camera, which is towards the sound of the band, towards Esther, and through pools of light and darkness. As he sits on by the pile of chairs, a waiter enters the frame from the left (see frame enlargement below, centre). At this point the camera leaves Norman and accompanies the waiter through the club, past chairs and pillars (John Ford claimed that nothing created a sense of three dimensionality as moving the camera past trees. This has a similar effect) to deposit his tray by the band (see frame enlargement on the right). The touch neon red behind Norman Maine has become the quasi coral pink that engulfs Esther Blodgett and her band, and her face is bathed in pure white light. The dramatic advantage of filming it in this way is that Norman and Esther are united in space and time, that his attention is focussed on her, he is watching she is doing performing. Symbolically his darkness, his troubled moving through dark and light ends with a hope of pure light in a coral setting. How better to represent was Esther/Vicky will represent to Norman?
Shot 5 (4 seconds)
The fifth shot is a closer look, Norman Maine’s look, on where the camera had deposited us previously. ‘Take it honey’ says the pianist. Esther rises as you can see below, occupying the left third of the frame. As the pianist reiterates ‘Take it from the top’, Esther will come to occupy the right of the third of the frame, so in one shot there’s an elegant move across the wide Cinemascope frame, from left to right, once more leaving the frame neatly organised in thirds, whilst the pianist, chiars and glasses behind the bar, all work together to create an illusion of depth.
Shot 6 (1 second):
Shot six barely lasts a second. It’s a medium closeup of Norman Maine straining to see through the darkness of the empty club. The editing here reminding us that it is Norman who is looking, like us, but unlike us, and as was established in shot four, Norman and Esther are united in time in space. We’re reminded of us as the voice-over to this shot is Esther repeating what the pianist had said but as a question ‘from the top?’. The sound is Esther, the image is Norman. He is the big star, she is the unknown band singer yet it is he who is looking, she who is being looked at.
Shot 7: (3.26 seconds. The frame enlargements below are representative examples of each time the camera moves and re-calibrates the composition, except for figures Gand H which are the same composition but where Esther commands the image, the arrangement of things and figures in the frame created in the ‘good riddance, goodbye moment’ with a wave of her hand on the goodbye moment which makes all the musicians bring down their instruments)
As the DVD extras of A Star is Born inform us, ‘The Man That Got Away’ is arguably the most important single musical sequence in A Star is Born. It was photographed in 3 different costumes on 3 different occasions, in over 40 different partial or complete takes’. According to Patrick McGilligan ‘The director drove people to distraction with his unusual lighting and color demands. Some of the voluptuous effects were arrived at after much argument and costly experimentation’ and it was partly this (along with Garland’s illnesses) that helped turn A Star is Born into the second most expensive picture in Hollywood history up to that point. Its official cost of $5, 019, 777 made it second only to Selznick’s 1946 film, Duel in the Sun, recorded at 5,225,000′ (p. 226).
Every re-framing of ‘The Man That Got Away Moment’ can be analysed in at least as much detail as the shots discussed previously, which themselves can be discussed in greater detail than I’ve offered. I characteristically have run out of time just at the moment of greater interest so I just want to indicate certain things I marvel at. Note how Esther/Garland beckons the musician to her at the beginning. Throughout this sequence she will be in constant communication withe the various musicians (see figures A,E,L and Q as only representative examples), she will also be conveying the meaning of the song, losing herself in it, running to the camera (fig J), and fearlessly turning her back to it (fig K), whilst also conveying Esther, an insecure star-in-waiting, one of the boys in the band, who does this as if it’s nothing, yet giggling and winking at them at the end for the joy of a job well done (see figure Q). Garland must perform all of this whilst being conscious of always hitting her mark, always being in the light, always co-ordinating each of her movements with the band, which has been clearly choreographed compositionally. It’s a tour de force.
And it’s a tour de force of direction. Cukor performs a high-wire act of co-ordinating all the disparate elements because Garland is always at the centre, the camera will tilt upward or move slightly to ensure she’s always in the frame; yet on the other hand every stop in the camera’s movement has been designed to create an abstract geometric shape amongst the musicians, usually framing Garland, usually at the top (figs D, E) or bottom (figure M, O) of a triangular shape.
Every area of the cinemascope frame is deployed expressively. Each shape made seems beautiful, each is meaningful. In the world of the film, we are introduced, through Norman Maine’s to his love, who will not save him from all the darkness he’s encased in. Note how they’re both wearing variants of the same outfit, black suit with a white collar. They’re meant for each other. But she, encased in light and amidst coral pink will not save him from himself. We’re also introduced to a great talent which the film tells us is Esther Blodgett but who will become Vicky Lester but who we know to be Judy Garland. The Judy Garland who can do the extraordinary things we’ve just witnessed thanks to George Cukor’s extraordinary use of colour and composition in one of the greatest of long takes.
Some people have argued that the number is misplaced in the narrative that Esther doesn’t yet have the life experience to sing a torch song like this. That the number would have been better once it more clearly voiced Esther’s feelings in the narrative. But I disagree. Esther’s been on the road with a band going nowhere and knows musicians. She’s had the experience. On the other hand, it’s brave to make this the number on which they meet, brave and unusual, and of course totally foreshadows, what will happen subsequently. Moreover, note Esther going in and out of the song, ‘performing’ it, and the interactions with the rest of the musicians. The number has multiple functions, one of which is to show Norman Maine how great a performer she is, that she’s a star who can stop the show as easily as the giggle and the wink that ends the number and gives the impression that this is the kind of thing she can do at the drop of the hat, for fun, and anytime she wants.It’s a brilliant choice and as carefully thought through as any other aspect of this magnificent film.
In Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia, Jonathan Rosenbaum writes: ‘It’s almost twenty- two minutes into the 1954 A Star Is Bornwhen, along with Norman Maine, we enter the front door of a sleepy after- hours cabaret where swing musicians and a vocalist, Esther Blodgett, are performing exclusively for themselves. Esther casually slides into a chorus of “The Man Who GotAway,” and slowly she builds from there. Once again, a fi lm suddenly leaps to such a high level of intensity, in this case for about four minutes, that all the remainder of the fi lm—in this case, 150 minutes—can do is fitfully and wistfully remember that pinnacle, refer back to it musically and emotionally in a variety of ways’ (p.262). For Rosenbaum, the film peaks to early. I’m not sure I agree, though as he points out, the film was tampered with and even the ‘restored’ version has serious gaps. But even if the film suffers from peaking early, it’s still a peak moment in the history of cinema.
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.
The acting equivalent of an aria, performed by one of the very greatest actors, Spencer Tracy. at the peak of his powers in one sublime long take beautifully staged by George Cukor for The Actress. Look closely and gurgle with delight at the skill involved in conveying so much so simply.
Chris & Don: A Love Story(Tina Macara and Guido Santi, 2007) explores the relationship between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy and is a film everyone who sees it will have a lot to say about: the thirty-year difference in age; the enormous gap in social class; the equally wide gap in artistic achievement.
Both Isherwood and Bachardy were seminal figures in the Gay Liberation Movement of my youth and I felt I knew quite a bit about them: Isherwood, the left-wing, upper-class, pacifist, pal of Auden, the author of Goodbye Berlin,Isherwood and His Kind, I Am A Camera and A Single Man; Bachardy, the fashionable portraitist of Souther California’s most modish, famous and talented; both at the very the centre of a group of artists that included Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, David Hockney and so famous for their salons that George Cukor set the beginning of Rich and Famous at a party in their Santa Monica house; an out gay couple when there were no others and iconic for having the courage to be so.
However, I had never heard Don Bachardy’s voice and I was startled by it here. Why does a California native speak like an aristocratic Englishman?: that tone, that accent, that manner. A Queen is free to choose who s/he wants to be but the choice made is not without significance. He’s clearly submerged himself into his idea of Isherwood; his ideal way of being is that which Isherwood represented to him. Love, self-hatred, snobbery, fandom (and Bachardy liked to insert himself in the pictures of the movie stars he so worshipped) surely all played a role in such a choice. The film offers so much to think about and say, with perhaps very little that is good or enhances one’s appreciation of what they once represented.I at first found myself a little judgmental but then concluded that we each imagine and try to construct a way of being and a way of loving. Theirs worked much better than most.
Isherwood looks hale, avuncular, kind and patient throughout. Bachardy looks like a very young underage boy in the earliest of the gorgeous fifties colour footage we get to see, someone trying too hard to look young in the later footage, later still, someone whose subsumed their very being into that of another; when we see him talking to his brother, it’s like people from two worlds speaking across different cultures and bridging that gap with love, care and affection.
In letters and notes, Isherwood paints himself as an old pack horse; Bachardy is the mewling cat; they obviously loved each other very much; and like all gay couples then, invented what it meant to have a loving relationship for themselves. Isherwood’s Diaries, exhausting in their precision, perfection, and constancy are nonetheless very good at evoking this developing relationship in social contexts long gone and sometimes hard for us to imagine. What the film has to offer that one can’t get from the Diaries is the home movies. They show a lost world of sea voyages to glamorous European capitals. Their colours alone, the product of now disappeared film stock, evoke a lost word. They also afford the sight of the home in which so much took place, friendly but not usually open to guests like us, and of course the voices.
Isherwood/Bachardy meant a lot at a time when even a firmly shut closet door didn’t keep out the ill-wind of homophobia and it took guts to be out much less proud: few ventured to be open about gay relationships. There was always something touching about a couple’s desperate search for domesticity of the most basic and complacent kind being branded the worst kind of outlaws by society and all its structures of control, like insisting on living out an idea of sharing food when they’re sending drones out to bomb someone for making an omelette.
The fact that their relationship was seen to be so long-lasting was held up as a role model and somehow validating of gay relationships. They helped change the focus of the discussion from sex to love. The truth is always more complex than any attempt to represent it. I’m sure Isherwood/Bachardy will remain significant — Cabaret will go on ensuring that the writer of its original source material will be remembered; A Single Man might also add gloss to the shine of his reputation; Isherwood will carry on being one of the most celebrated of 20th-Century writers; the couple will carry on signifying, albeit perhaps differently, they will continue to mean a lot to future generations of gay men; they will continue to discomfort; and this film certainly adds to our knowledge.
Bette Davis — shown here fat in the fifties in one of those photographs Bachardy used to insert himself in and get celebrities to autograph later — once said that old age isn’t for sissies. But my lasting image of this film is that of an old sissy,colour-co-ordinated from tip to toe, riding out to the Farmer’s marker with a crew film behind him, and enjoying every moment of it and of where his life had brought him to; being brave about a lot of things, not least acknowledging his wants; and living them out with a few tears, panache and a great deal of love.
A legendary film, difficult to see until now, and worth watching for many reasons: it’s adapted from the Kaufman and Ferber Broadway hit from 1927 and is based on the Barrymores; it makes one understand why Ina Claire was a Broadway superstar and then considered without equal in light comedy, something heretofore hard for me to grasp having seen her only in supporting parts, even when she’s been very good in them, like in Ninotchka; it’s one of the films directed by George Cukor in his first year as a film director, was a hit, and paved the way for the type of brilliant career he would go on to have, often mining a similar vein of sophisticated comedy — themes of the relation between theatre and life, women’s struggles with being and doing; it’s a pre-code film with quite daring moments (March undressing, March playful with sexual orientation, March patting a man in the bum); the film skews the traditional placement of gender in film where men do and women are there to be looked at — here women do and feel; March in the Barrymore role is put on all kinds of display, including sexually; the film is enveloped in an oblique but nonetheless evident haze of aspects of gay culture — camp, innuendo, the theatrical, the performative, the excessive (and this includes the male flesh on display)
The most famous scene in the film is March’s entrance (see clip below), which begins as a coup-de-théâtre, where everyone’s looking in his direction. We see someone swathed in fur and then March-as-Barrymore is revealed, and is revealed to be as theatrical as the famous profile he is impersonating. It’s the entrance usually afforded stars, and the role, a handsome bigger-than-life rake of a film star, attracted all kinds of theatre actors who looked down on cinema, weren’t afraid to be theatrical and weren’t yet top-ranking stars themselves (Laurence Olivier played the part in the West End). March’s success in it won him a Paramount contract.
The scene is also famous because of the crane shot that follows March after his entrance from the stairs and into the bathroom as he undresses. According to Arthur Jacobson, ‘We didn’t have such things as camera cranes in 1930, so we had to figure out how to do it’ (loc 1020). They did it with a forklift and moved the camera backward and forward by having about twenty men pushing it. It’s worth it. The scene dazzles technically — appealing to those interested in the development of film as an art form in the era of sound – and for rather more base motives, as March does a little strip-tease throughout the scene, including a little flash of bum, and then quite a tease of the opening and closing of the shower door, a tease at the audience with perhaps an attempt to mask the suggestiveness of the scene, whilst having the peekaboo take place during a conversation with his mother and his sister, which of course is also motivated via the representation of the particular, and particularly titillating, mores of theatre and bohemia. Very much worth a look.
Charles Tranberg, Fredric March: A Consummate Actor Duncan, Oklahoma: BearManor Media, loc. 1020 in Kindle.
Has any director loved actors more than George Cukor or done better by them? Heller in Pink Tights is his ode to performers and performing. The story takes place in a Western setting. There are places called Bonanza, and covered wagons, and Indians and shoot-outs but it would be a stretch to call it a Western; none are as light or as pretty; and the only sensation this film wants to elicit is a sigh at the gorgeousness of costume against landscape, at the romance, at the delicacy of feeling even vaunting ambition can’t spoil.
There’s a plot about gambling and Sofia’s virtue but who cares about plot when you can look at Sofia at her most glamorous or at Anthony Quinn, very touching in a rare restrained performance. Cukor not only directs his actors to advantage but presents them beautifully. Loren gets a magnificent star entrance (see clip above); and Quinn, finally filmed by a connoisseur of male beauty, is shown to to have eyelashes that in their own way are as luscious and startling as Gary Cooper’s. The mise-en-scene here is not only the orquestration of cinematic elements around actors with the goal of exploring performance but is itself a tour-de-force of gorgeous performativity. George Hoyningen-Huene is credited with the marvellous use of colour. It’s a joy to see Eileen Heckart in her prime, a declining Ramon Novarro as an ageing villain, and an attempt at an adult role by Margaret O’Brien. A minor gem.