A brief illustration of the influence of Michael Curtiz on Steven Spielberg, putting two shots side by side, one from Curtiz´Robin Hood (1938) and the other from Spielberg´s Hook (2001), that I hope evidences the similarities and convinces of the influence.
Jim Thorpe — All American is one of three films Burt Lancaster did in the 1950s that explored discrimination against native peoples in the US and that in their modest way pushed the boundaries of representation in American popular culture. Apache (Richard Aldrich, 1954) and The Unforgiven (John Huston, made in 59 but released in 1960) are the others. ‘When white man lick Indian, he win battle’, one of Thorpe’s room-mates tells him, ‘Indian lick white man – ‘massacre’. The film’s very title harks back to Knute Rockne — All American (Lloyd Bacon, 1940), and the discrimination of native peoples, who should be equal by law, is the overt theme of the film, as indicated from the very first with Burt Lancaster’s star entrance (below):
The film is a sports biopic of Jim Thorpe, an Algonquin from Oklahoma Territory who went to Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania to keep a promise to his father. With the help of football coach Glen Scobey (“Pop”) Warner (Charles Bickford), Thorpe, whose native name is ‘Bright Path’, became one of the legendary athletes of the day, excelling in football, baseball and track, for which he won several medals at the Olympics. He was stripped of those medals for having played baseball ‘professionally’ during the summer, although he barely made enough to cover food and rent whilst playing, underlining the class underpinnings of ‘amateur.’ He recovers professionally, overcoming the debacle with the medals and racial discrimination, only to be brought low once more by the death of his only son and the subsequent dissolution of his marriage. Near the end of the film we see him in full cigar-store Indian drag, desultorily mc-ing a dance marathon in 1930. Burton is great at expressing a deadness in the eyes that speaks of struggles to maintain dignity in the face of alienation and humiliation.
Curtiz symbolises the break-up of Jim Thorpe’s marriage via the bed, and Burt, star that he is, manages to find the pin-lights with his eyes before collapsing in grief:
Alex K. Rode, Cutiz’ biographer writes that ‘The picture received generally positive reviews and grossed nearly a million dollars over its cost. Jim Thorpe — All American was characteristic of Curtiz’ postwar Warner films: a well-made, profitable picture that quickly faded from the public’s memory’.
Curtiz was the top director at Warners in the classic period for a reason. The integration of stock footage into the banquet scenes that bookend the film and in the Olympics sequence are seamlessly integrated, and must have considerably cut down on the film’s budget. The editing of the sports sequence, often in mid-motion to give flow to Lancaster’s movement and whoever doubled for him, is also very fine. It has some lovely bits, such as here below with Burt, Phyllis Thaxter and the baby.
…and the compositions, superbly filmed by Ernest Haller, are original and striking:
In spite of all the above, the film also feels emotionally crude, pat, everything beautifully directed as to image and pacing but lacking in depth, understanding or delicacy. It vividly conveys the outline of feeling, but it always feels like it’s walloping the main point at the expense of the subtler, more complex, more contradictory dimensions of character and story. Burt Lancaster, who’s never given the credit he deserves, is superb.
Burt Lancaster. I was idly glancing at the TV when Apache (Robert Aldrich, 1954) came on, and there´s a love scene there with Jean Peters that´s as sensual and perhaps more deeply felt than the famous beach scene in From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953). Then, I saw the beginning of Jim Thorpe: All American (Michael Curtiz, 1951) where again he plays a native person, a natural athlete, where his very grace in movement is a reproach to the system: ´when they win it´s a great battle, when we win it´s written up as a massacre’. Then the acrobatics in The Flame and The Arrow (Jacques Tourneur, 1950) are as joyous and exhilarating as any musical number. these bits made me think that whilst we tend to emblematise US culture through cinema as Brando or Marilyn or James Dean, Burt Lancaster is the star who best evoked how America was seen at home and abroad in the middle of the last century: the strength, dynamism, beauty, the plenitude expressed by his figure, the freedom in his movement, the chiclets teeth that gleamed like a new Cadillac and the shock of wavy hair that evoked the wildness of ranges and forests and beaches. And that he evoked all of that — and one only has to see what Anna Magnani says about him in Bellisima (Luchino Visconti, 1951) to know that he did, whilst still condensing a critique, truly makes him stand out for me, though perhaps others will say the same of Monroe, Taylor, Holden, Brando et al. A morning thought.
Part of a cycle of Orientalist films in which white people undergo exotic adventures in the Far East, with the female stars (Dietrich, Harlow, Stanwyck) playing characters with names like Shanghai Lily, China Doll, Megan, and Poppy Smith, women forced to live by their wits and their bodies; the film dramatising their progressive decline into sexual degradation as a forbidden frisson of delight for the evil men in the narrative and for the audiences in the cinema: Shanghai Express (Josef Von Sternberg, 1932), The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Frank Capra, 1932), China Seas (Tay Garnett, 1935), Shanghai Gesture (Josef Von Sternberg, 1941).
Mandalay (Michael Curtiz, 1934) falls in the middle of this cycle. It’s a Kay Francis vehicle in which she starts off as Tanya Bodoroff, a woman stuck in Rangoon who finds love with gunrunner Tony Evans (Ricardo Cortez). He’s going through financial difficulties and thinks nothing of selling her off to Nick (Warner Oland) where as the ‘hostess’ of his nightclub she becomes the notorious Spot White, who sells her favours for profit and who’s main mission is to make men pay with much more than their wallet. She finally escapes this life and becomes Marjorie Lang, a woman intent on redeeming herself and the alcoholic Dr. Gregory Burton (Lyle Talbot) by bringing medical relief into the fever country where only one in a hundred returns alive. Tony returns to claim her just as she’s getting close to the Doctor, but he only wants her as the ‘Spot White’ who will make him money. He’s s quickly disposed of, in the exact fashion he’d tried to trick the authorities with earlier, falling overboard after poisoning, and thus freeing her to properly redeem herself. It’s a camp classic.
The movie has a nonsense of a plot, all packed into 65 minutes and worth watching today mainly because of Michael Curtiz’ direction and Kay Francis’ star presence. The film has all the things I like about early Warners films: those lovely title sequences where stars are introduced as the characters they play (see above),, that quick pace of the narrative where worlds can be turned upside down in under 70 minutes, the wipes galloping through the action, here both vertical and horizontal, and the hardboiled dialogue.
In Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career (London: McFarland and Co., 2006), Lynn Kear and John Rossman write, ‘Just in time before the Production Code took effect, Warner Brothers released Mandalay. Yes, it’s another melodrama, but it gloried in its sordidness and is still great campy fun. Kay played a woman sold into white slavery by her bad-boy boyfriend, and virtually spat her lines – finally given the chance to play Poppy in Shangai Gesture, she unleashed an unforgettable performance as Spot White. It will always remain a popular Kay Francis film. One reviewer realized its appeal when it was released. ‘Make no mistake, you’ll like Kay Francis in her clothes, her rich, exotic lure, her drama, no matter how you quarrel with the over-wrought story. The camera presents some lovely pictures of Miss Francis’.
It certainly does. Some of the credit for that is, as I’ve previously demonstrated, due to Orry-Kelly. But much of the credit must go to Michael Curtiz. As you can see below, he affords her a great star entrance, with the camera clearly on a boat, dizzyingly dollying onto Kay wearing a louche wrap-around dress and framed by a parasol. It’s a visually exciting presentation of the star (see below).
The film also has a superb montage of Tanya’s transformation into Spot White, interestingly introduced by a few notes from a xylophone striking a generic oriental tune, with Kay encircled in the centre, wearing a different outfit each time, and shown in a different place with a different man, so we can chart how each step in her moral downfall is also a measure of her worldly success –an opportunity to delight the audience with her wickedness and her outfits (see below).
The influence of Shanghai Express, such a big hit for Dietrich and Von Sternberg just a few years earlier, is everywhere evident, particularly in the scene below: ‘So you’re Spot White’? ‘Yes, is it overwhelming you’?…
Mandalay also has one great song (see below), which in typical cheap Warners fashion, the film uses over and over again, but here intelligently, underlining character, situation and aspirations, and used first in relation to Tanya, then Spot White, and then Marjorie to mean slightly different things in each instance and for each character. It’s a lovely song, very well used, and affording Kay many opportunities to wear dazzling gowns:
‘I’ve so many dreams to be mended
When Tomorrow comes
So many cares to be ended
When tomorrow comes
I took the worst and made the best of it
Because I always hoped a new day would dawn
I struggled on.’
In Michael Curtiz: A Life, Alex K. Rode writes that, ‘after watching the pre-release cut in December, Jack Warner raved to Hal Wallis, ‘it’s a hell of a good women’s picture, in fact, it’s great!’
According to Rode, the film was considered so racy that, ‘Warners would be denied a reissue certificate for Mandalay in 1936, as Breen wrote to Jack Warner,’This picture also has the basic Code violation of presenting the heroine as an immoral woman’.
The film raises once again the perennial question regarding Curtiz´s films: Everything looks and moves great. But to what end? Yet the film is 85 years old and we´re still watching. It´s still offering us pleasures that we think of as cheap because they´re ‘merely´visual, decorative. It´s a film of pure form, including its characterisations: that´s partly why it works as camp, these places and people are ironised exaggerations of fantasy ideals. They´re ideologically loaded and make one ideologically aware. I wish I´d seen a transvestite ´do´Spot White in a nightclub in 1935, the jailhouse of fantasies, social and personal that would have been exposed!
Kay Francis was one of the biggest stars of the early 30s, probably best remembered today for Lubitsch’s delicious Trouble in Paradise (1932).The clothes she wore in movies, and the way she wore them, were a central lure to female audiences of the day. In Mandalay (Michael Curtiz, 1934), she changes outfits for practically every scene, and in this post, I merely want to render hommage to her and to Orry-Kelly, who designed the clothes, by posting them in chronological order. Sometimes, you’ll see various aspects of the same outfit, again as the film shows them to us, in order to better understand how the clothes look in close-up and and long shot. I’m doing a separate post on the film itself where you’ll be able to see how at least some of the outfits photograph in motion.
We’re joined by Birmingham blogger Laura Creaven (www.constantlycurious.co.uk) for a discussion of our fourth Michael Curtiz film, the film noir Mildred Pierce. We’re glad of her perspective, as this is a film all about women, their relationships and desires.
We discuss the film’s flashback structure – though it helped the film get made in the Hays Code era, would the film be even stronger with a simple chronological plot? Class is everywhere too, motivating the mother-daughter conflict that’s central to the film, and we consider America’s class system and social mobility, and whether you could tell this story in Britain.
We look closely at Curtiz’s use of shadows and mirrors to imply off-screen space and create meaningful, poetic images. And there’s a lot to discuss in the construction of the characters, both male and female – we think about how masculine and feminine characteristics are deployed in both, and how roles are reversed.
Mike and Laura talk about how they each had differing attitudes to the framing device of showing the climax first, Mike wanting to know how the film would tie its plot up and Laura not caring very much. It reminds Mike of discussing Carmen Maria Machado’s brilliant short story The Husband Stitch (free to read here: www.granta.com/the-husband-stitch) with previous podcast guest Celia, and finding a similar difference in the experience. Mildred Pierce is without question a film aimed at women, but as a film noir does the framing device work to capture their interest?
And indeed, how much is the film a noir? With shadows and murder and intrigue, it’s inseparable from it, but there’s a lightness to the image and combination with family drama that serves to adjust it. To José the film is unambiguously noir; to Mike and Laura, the noir elements invade an otherwise normal world in interesting ways.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
The use of mirrors is also a key component of mise-en-scène in Mildred Pierce. The film begins with the shooting of Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). There are several shots, some land on the mirror, he falls over. The mirror teases us with off-screen space but in this case angled so that we don’t see the perpetrator.
Mirrors are used for expressive purposes. Here at the beginning Mildred (Joan Crawford), having led Wally (Jack Carson) into the beach house is planning to leave him on his own so the police may find him and he can take the rap. The duplicitous action suggested by Mildred being doubled for us through the mirror.
Mirrors, of course, also appear simply as part of household or office decor, fulfilling no other function than to make a room seem ‘real’. See the office mirror here in the centre of the frame on one wall reflecting the painting kitty corner to it.
But usually mirrors are used to much more expressive and narrational ends in Mildred Pierce, like in this moment where the dress her mother’s bought her does not at all fit in with the kind of woman Veda (Ann Blythe) wants to become; and how both Mildred’s and Veda’s differing ideas of a pretty dress and the notions of femininity it might help project are contrasted with Kay (Jo Ann Marlow), happy in her overalls.
Curtiz makes use of any reflecting surface to mirror and creates a striking image with it as here below. Mildred, walked off her feet and needing a rest before she enters the cafe. She’s elegant in her hat and coat, potentially too elegant for the for the type of job the sign is advertising (though we know she’ll take it). The fact that the reflection is from below expresses something of how low she’s willing to go to work, no job is really beneath her. A striking image conveying lots of story information, densely condensed.
We get some of this also in the scene where Mildred goes swimming with Monte and goes to the wardrobe to find a bathing suit. We see her doubled with Monte off-screen but as she opens the wardrobe, eliminating him from the picture, she sees that she’s far from the only woman Monte’s brought there. As Mildred and her reflection open the wardrobe, Monte gets effaced by what the contents of the wardrobe reveal: all the ‘sisters, ‘ all to be scantily clad, he’s brought to the beach house before Mildred. The mirror here is used dramatically, as revelation.
Here below, the mirror is used as a kind of narrative punctuation. Monte and Mildred are embracing, the record ends, the camera pans to the record continuing to spin whilst the mirror shows us they’re too hot for each other to bother to change it. The embrace starts and ends the shot and at the end is framed next to and against the record player. It’s a brilliant piece of visual direction, made more so if one also remembers this is the mirror is not unlike the one behind Monte as he was shot at the beginning of the film. Thus the initiations of an uncontrolled passion are already linked with death from the beginning.
Whilst Momma’s been playing, baby’s been dying. In the next scene, the finality of Kay’s death is brought home by the mirror. Mildred, her husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) and Veda are mourning. And we see that there’s no hope as the doctor and nurse recede and disappear through the mirror.
Sometimes, mirrors are used to anchor context and create atmosphere. Here below, the main function seems to be to make us aware that Monte and Mildred are at a party — they’re surrounded by people whilst nonetheless allowing for a private conversation: one about money. They’re in public, the moment is private, but the private is always threatening, on the verge and in danger of becoming public.
But of course we mustn’t forget that this use of mirrors, potent, as it is constructed so as to appear incidental and that, although I’ve extracted still images above, it usually takes place in motion and as part of other elements of mise-en-scène. In the scene below, which is really about Monte and Mildred getting together and Bert granting Mildred her wishes, all encased in the break-up of a family. The mirror behind the bar first appears discretely and then gains in dramatic force helping to shows us how Bert and Monte are at odds, how the appearance of Bert onto the scene underlines the break-up of a family. The conflict is generated by who appears facing the mirror, the whooshing of the camera movement from the mirror following Mildred and onto Bert which begins around 45 second into the clip below and shows Bert appearing in the mirror onscreen whilst following her, past Monte and as she’s pictured between them onscreen. At 1.29, after he says, ‘I’m doing fine’, the scene cuts onto Bert and Monte exchanging challenging gazes through the mirror. The composition once again indicating that the ‘private’ word is being played out publicly, or at least within Monte’s sight (through the mirror).
I wanted to include the whole clip above rather than still images so you could see how important motion is to the potency of the pictures. They’re moving pictures. And in relation to other elements of mise-en-scène. Thus in the clip above I’ve made the cut after the swish pan to the left, which brings us out of the flash-back, and also underline the inverse rhyming of the camera movement from the last scene in the bar to the first shot at the police station.
It’s extraordinary work by Curtiz, and only a tiny example of his astonishingly imaginative mise-en-scene for this film.
We continue our Michael Curtiz kick with Angels with Dirty Faces, a James Cagney gangster film with surprising subtleties. We consider Cagney’s stardom and how he remains unique, the film’s themes of hero worship and glorification of crime, and the interesting relationship between Cagney’s gangster and Pat O’Brien’s priest.
A film that’s very much of its time but remains an interesting and entertaining watch.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
One of the early three-strip Technicolor films (1938), and an action adventure classic, we visit 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, featuring Errol Flynn at his dashing, cheeky peak. We get swept up in its excited use of colour, social conscience, pleasantly laddish tone and swashbuckling combat.
Mike sees some of the film at an ironic distance, particularly the action, which he finds charmingly amateur. But while some things might have significantly changed over the last eighty years, the connection to the characters and the film’s sense of fun is intact. There’s a discussion to be had over the film’s messaging – José greatly appreciates the democratic tone to everything, the fairness with which Robin treats everybody and the grace with which he is able to accept defeat, while Mike suggests that his magnanimity would be more impactful if we were able to feel he were ever in true peril – but Flynn is simply so charming, so in control, and indeed, such a star, that the film can never sell it. Flynn conveys a certain superiority through masculinity, as José notes – he is a man among men.
The Robin Hood legend endures, this 1938 version only one of countless film adaptations, and we discuss why that might be. And there’s always room to mock Americans who try to tell English stories and get things wrong. It’s the joy of being English.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
One of us has seen it countless times. The other has never seen it. Fortunately for José, Mike instantly falls in love with Casablanca.
In a way, the pressure was on for Mike to enjoy it, as it’s considered one of the greatest films of all time, and its screenplay in particular held up as a shining example of the craft. And how effortless it is to enjoy it! José notes how rare it is in cinema to see a man suffer for love, as Rick does, and the film’s romance is intense and unapologetic. We swoon over the elegance of Michael Curtiz’s direction, the sheer beauty of the cinematography – nobody these days is shot like Ingrid Bergman is here – and the rich cast of characters, played by one of the all-time great supporting casts.
José considers how the refugee situation and politics depicted – that of a war-torn world relocating regular people to geographic and bureaucratic purgatory – haven’t gone away, and Mike picks up on Madeleine Lebeau’s Yvonne, a minor character whose story recapitulates Rick’s in microcosm. The Marseillaise scene in particular gives us a lot to talk about. And so does much, much more.
It’s a good film. Who knew?
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
Four’s a Crowd is Warners attempt to cash in on the screwball craze. The story was based on Wallace Sullivan’s ‘All Rights Reserved’. Sullivan had also written Libelled Lady(Jack Conway, 1936) and in fact this is a pretty direct lift of MGM’s much more successful film with Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy. This one has Rosalind Russell in a role prefiguring her Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday as a newspaper woman who sets to make a newspaper man out of rich publisher Patrick Knowles. She cons him into hiring his enemy, high powered public relations wiz Errol Flynn to boost the circulation. Flynn concocts a scam to make millionaire Walter Connolly the most hated man in America. Knowles is engaged to be married to Connolly’s grand-daughter, Olivia de Havilland. Mayhem ensues. Doberman’s chase after Flynn, partners are switched, there’s even a cute dog that looks like Asta.
It’s all pretty leaden. Comedy was not Warner’s forte. According to Alex K. Rode, at Warner’s ‘humour was an institutional deficit exemplified by the personalities of the men who ran the studio.’ Michael Curtiz knows how to visualise comic scenes. See for example how he stages the three-way conversation between Flynn, Russell and de Havilland:
or his staging of the race to the justice of the peace:
But though it all looks marvellous, the rhythm, pace and timing of the comedy is all slightly off. Flynn is not bad and could have been taught to be great in screwball — he had the requisite sense of humour about himself. De Havilland is also gifted. But Curtiz doesn’t much help anyone who didn’t already have comic timing coursing through their veins. Knowles comes across as handsome but stiff throughout. And of course Connelly and Russell steal the show. They know how to.
According to Alex K. Rode in Michael Curtiz: A Life, Hal C. Wallis praised the dashes Curtiz added in his attempt to overcome the script’s deficiencies, ‘All of those pieces of business of putting the dog under the waste basket, and getting de Havilland out of the room, and the rouge on the teacups, the added business with the skeleton…were excellent’ (p.226). They’re good ideas but, in motion, they lack the lightness, elegance, the frolicsomeness of good screwball. The frolicsome is not where Curtiz’s strengths lie.
James C. Robertson in The Casablanca Man: The Cinema of Michael Curtiz doesn’t offer much of a recommendation: ‘At Warners the film enhanced Curtiz’s reputation, for he had salvage a medium-budget project, intended for another director ((first Dieterle, then Goulding)), with some ill-cast players’ (p.46). It didn’t much matter that all that time and effort ended up with a result that was at best OK-ish.
My favourite bits, as is often the case, are two tiny moments with Franklin Panborn as Knowle’s butler.
In an excellent piece entitled ‘Michael Curtiz’s Doris Day Period’, Gary Giddins writes of director Michael Curtiz, ‘Stylistically, his work is distinguished by aggressive visual compositions (signature shot: two characters shoulder to shoulder, facing forward), forceful acting, quick cuts, fluid camerawork, shadow play, location inserts, romantic and period realism, the kind of speed that results from keeping a story on track and free of distraction, and, above all, a shameless mastery of emotional manipulation (loc 1455)*
It’s that ‘shadow play’ that I want to illustrate here, as Curtiz uses it in a variety of ways, to set mood but also to convey and hide information. It recurs in a variety of genres. It’s always a striking image, sometimes an exciting and evocative one.
Captain Blood (1935)
In Captain Blood, we get this striking image below. Captain Blood (Errol Flynn) is curing a man but the authorities are already on their way to arrest him for doing so and doing a doctor’s duty in an unjust society will condemn him to a future of slavery and piracy with the possibility of death overhanging the rest of the narrative.
The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936):
Here shadows are used in a whole variety of ways to set mood, create tension, both indicate the trouble of a place, but also people in a place, and the anxiety provoked by certain actions.
Kid Galahad (1937)
Curtiz is sparing with the typical projecting of shadows onto a wall to give us an indication of what’s happening off-screen, to show us without showing us, whilst shading it with hint of evil, until the very end, where Bogart shoots at someone without being seen so as to create a distraction so he can go for his real target, Edward G. Robinson:
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938):
In his brightly lit masterpiece, shadows thrown on a wall contribute to, amongst other things, making the famous sword-fight with Basil Rathbone extra spectacular.
and later on, Claude Rains’ evil Prince John, is associated with the death and defeat of his fallen soldiers whilst the shot pans and we see him counting his money.
Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)
Here James Cagney, going to the chair, and pretending to be scared so that the boys who hero-worship him might not be too tempted to emulate him is, wisely, shown by his shadowed reflection. It’s not easy to believe Cagney being scared of anything. Shadows play is only brought to the last scenes in the film. We see Cagney in jail throwing his cigarette butt to his uniformed jailer (below left) and, before, that, as seen on the right, taking the priest played by Pat O’Brian hostage, in a vain attempt to escape.
Four’s a Crowd (1938)
And Curtiz doesn’t just deploy this in gangster films, as above, but even in screwballs such as Four’s a Crowd, where the security guard at the mansion is chasing after Errol Flynn before he escapes into Olivia de Havilland’s bedroom.
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)
Here Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth is first shown to us as a shadow. She’s icon and ruler first, that we hear Bette Davis inimitable clipped voice as part of the image renders the fusion of two icons (Bette and Elizabeth, Bette as Elizabeth) even more powerfully.
Dodge City (1939):
Here the murder that sets of the last part of the film is shown to us as a shadow so that we see what the journalist doesn’t, and obviously to add to the ominousness and danger of it all.
The Sea Hawk (1940)
Hung from a mast but shown as a shadow on the ships floor. It renders the violence of the act both more palatable and more powerful, the shadow-play narratively warning, but setting a mood for future developments, and generating an image that’s graphically arresting whilst removing that which is graphic or explicit about it.
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
Here shadows are cast on death scenes (below, top left), to convey a particular point of view on narrative information (below, top right) and to show the long shadow cast by a beloved entertainer even in the Oval office.
In Casablanca, like in Yankee Doodle, a shadow of the name of a place, brings the narrative information indoors (see top) and we also have the use of shadows to bring extra-diagetic space into the frame whilst conveying a mood (see bottom). Arthur Edeson’s lighting is very beautiful and shadows are cast over that whole world and those relationships. The close-ups before Bogart’s flashback to Paris are superb.
Irving Berlin’s This is the Army (1943):
‘Shadow work’ appears even in musicals, to continue the entertainment through different spaces.
Mildred Pierce (1945)
Mildred Pierce is one of the great noirs, with dazzling use of shadows throughout; so, rather than illustrate by using image capture, I thought it best to use excerpt a whole scene. This is from the beginning, where Mildred (Joan Crawford) invites Wally (Jack Carson) up to the beach house so he can take the fall for the murder of Monte (Zachary Scott). This is the moment where he begins to tweaks that she’s left and has only invited him in for reasons other than a potential tryst:
Shadows are cast over identity in Romance on the High Seas, 1948
Shadows demarcate the difference between what should be and what is in My Dream Is Yours, 1949.
Kirk Douglas and his music is a shadow on Lauren Bacall’s happiness in Young Man With A Horn, 1950. If only the light would shine on that sapphic lamp with phallic symbol extending, everyone would be a lot happier.
Poverty and unemployment hover over the family in I’ll See You in My Dreams (1951) as Doris phones for help.
Pain, poverty and his father’s emasculation overhang and literally shadow Elvis’ rise to success in King Creole (1958):
I was going to do this for all of Curtiz’ films in which I saw it appear. But in doing so, it became clear that this type of ‘shadow work’ appears in all his films. I think one can quite here and quite convincingly argue that this is indeed a characteristic of his visual style.
*Gary Giddins, ‘Michael Curtiz’s Doris Day Period’ Warning Shadows: Home Alone With Classic Cinema New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2019, Kindle version.
I’ve often wondered why Lauren Bacall was a film star for so long. She’s often stiff, mannered, and really not very good. Of course she’s very beautiful. But, as we can see in later films like Written on the Wind (Sirk, 1956), she didn’t photograph that well in colour. I suppose that her performances for Hawks in To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946) sparked a life-time’s interest from several generations of heterosexual men. And I know from personal experience that a certain generation of lesbians became devoted to her on the basis of her performance as Amy North in Young Man with A Horn (1950).
The film is loosely based on the story of Bix Beiderbecke with Harry James dubbing the trumpet. It’s narrated by Hoagy Carmichael as piano-player Willie Willoughby. Nobody does tortured artists like Kirk Douglas, who’s great here as Rick Martin. The film has a wonderful father/son relationship between Rick Martin and black trumpet player Art Hazzard (Juano Herandez). Doris Day sings. And there is great work from Michael Curtiz and cinematographer Ted McCord: there isn’t an image that isn’t worth looking at. The first half-hour of the film charting the background of Rick Martin, how he grew up and how he learned to be a trumpet player must count amongst Curtiz’s best post-war work.
Lauren Bacall only appears 47 minutes into the film but gets a star entrance and definitely makes an impression, the ‘duality’ in her nature rendered visible and contrasted to the ‘normality’ of Joe Jordan, the character played by Doris Day, already being edged out of the frame here and shortly to disappear from the rest of the picture until the end, once Amy/Bacall disappears from view .
We know from the beginning that she’s not ‘normal’ because, as we can see in the clip below, she’s rich, highly educated, ‘always talks like a book and likes to analyse everything,’ and speaks of jazz and mass culture like she does here:’there’s something about jazz that releases inhibitions; it’s a cheap mass-produced narcotic’: probably exactly the thing Amy needs. By the terms of American cinema of the period (and now), she’s already a weirdo.
Bacall’s thoughts on Doris are a favourite moment in the film. Bacall’s lit so only half her face is showing: ‘Jo’s interesting isn’t she? So simple and uncomplicated. It must be wonderful to wake up in the morning and know just which door you’re going to go through’. Amy/Bacall is constantly contrasted with Jo/Doris: Amy’s not so simple, her identity is at least dual, and yet to be discovered by Ricky and maybe herself.
When Kirk/ Ricky starts to get involved with Bacall/Amy, Doris/ Jo comes to warn him, ‘She’s a strange girl, and you’ve never known anyone like her before…inside, way inside, she’s all mixed up’; ‘precisely what I told him myself but he wouldn’t take no for an answer’ says Bacall/Amy as she enters the picture. It’s too late they’re married (see below):
But it’s not just the contrast to Jo/Day, or all that the characters speak about her being ‘mixed up’ and ‘strange’. There’s her apartment, even, actually especially, after Kirk/Ricky marries Bacall/Amy. We’re shown how female-centric the house is, and not just because her florid cockatoo is called Louise. Look at the number of statues that are female Grecian figures, the painting inside and outside her bathroom door that are naked women bathing, even her paintings are of women.
Rachel Mosely pointed out to me something I hadn’t noticed: If you click to a closer look on the image of Bacall playing the piano above, you’ll see that the ancient goddess who is the base of the lamp has an extended broken arm that looks more than a little like an extended phallus, as if to indicate that women provide the only sex and power she needs and Kirk can go blow his own trumpet.
Bacall/Amy doesn’t really like men. We can see it in the clip here below where they embrace. She doesn’t like the kiss, it’s the last time she’ll be honest with him. It ends with him saying ‘call you what?’. I think lesbian audiences knew the answer to that one.
‘How do you know about anything until you try it?’ she tells Kirk/Ricky, presumably about heterosexuality:
At the end, she finds a girlfriend, an artist. She loves her sketches and they’re going to go to Paris together. Kirk finally clocks it and calls her as ‘filth’, ‘dirty’ a ‘sick girl who needs help and better see her doctor’; you can also read the bit about him almost ‘forgetting about his trumpet’ but now ‘getting it back’ metaphorically:
When Bacall disappears from the picture, the film starts getting sanctimonious and goes downhill and for a phoney happy ending with Jo/Doris.
Movies of the time couldn’t represent lesbianism directly; and Young Man with a Horn certainly offers mixed messages that could be disavowed to the Hays Office. But it offered enough so that a generation of lesbians clocked and treasured it. The representation is laced with the typical homophobic language and perspective of the period but, as embodied by Bacall, it also evoked beauty in looks, intelligence, and attitude.
I always get sad and embarrassed when I see the great stars of the Hollywood musical don blackface, even when, as Fred Astaire does in Swing Time, it’s done as an homage to a black performer, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. I thought Doris Day might have escaped this blight merely by becoming a star a generation later than Astaire or Garland or so many others. But no, here she is in I’ll See You In My Dreams .(Curtiz, 1951) .and one feels ‘poor everybody’.
The image and the number condenses a concatenation of meanings that evoke both the push and pull, the inclusiveness and hierarchisation of American identity. The number is set in a WW1 camp where Gus and Grace Kahn are entertaining the troops. The film makes much of Kahn’s family having emigrated to America and of Kahn writing the songbook to the lives of several generations of Americans (‘Making Whoopee’, ‘Ain’t We Got Fun’, ‘My Buddy’, ‘It Had To Be You’, ‘My Baby Just Cares for Me’ etc). The film in a way charts a journey of assimilation and inclusiveness. Danny Thomas, gives a great performance as Gus: wide-eyed, wide-open emotionally, overly focussed to the point of autism, very endearing in expressing love of wife and children the character he plays can’t express except through song. Danny Thomas himself was famously of Lebanese origin. So Danny, Danny as Gus, Doris, Doris as Grace, Grace married to Gus, her blondness, his darkness, all speak assimilation and inclusiveness.
Except we have this number, which in spite of the flag and in spite of narrative speaks a hierarchy of exclusions. Doris is not just donning blackface. She’s donning blackface (and drag!) to imitate Al Jolson singing ‘Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye’, so a blond female Kapplehoff, Day’s real name, is summoning and superseding a male jew, Al Jolson (Asa Yoelson), who himself poked fun, embodied, reproduced and made himself superior to a derogatory stereotype of a black man.
So the image speaks of Doris Day (Doris Ma Anne Kapplehoff) and Danny Thomas (born Amos Muzyad Yakhoob Kairouz) coming together under a flag, just like the characters they play, speaks of assimilation and inclusiveness. But the blackface itself belts out the limits to that inclusiveness, a hierarchy of race and ethnicity, a hierarchy of power which is both gendered and racialised, differential access to belonging and a colour barrier to inclusiveness tout court.
In Romance on the High Seas, Franklin Pangborn gets sixth billing after the stars and earns it. He gets two little scenes, a couple of good lines, and makes one remember him with pleasure. It’s that talent that enabled him to make a career throughout the whole classic period out of what basically amount to bit parts; and, at a time when those things very clearly delineated a certain kind of standing in the industry, usually get very good billing for them. The film also has Eric Blore who doesn’t get much chance to shine; S.Z. Sakall who’s a complete ham but very effective with it: he gets laughs out of facial gestures and intonations when there aren’t any to be had in the lines themselves. There’s also Oscar Levant, in a large and tiresome role, doing the same schtick that I adored seeing him do when I was a child in An American in Paris but that now seems very tiresome. But ah Pangborn! His intonations and facial gestures not only succeed in getting the laughs but evoke a whole structure of understanding and feeling, then underground, but still very much with us and now everywhere visible.
His role is little more than the two very short clips I’ve excerpted below:
We’ve heard of Edith Head, Travis Banton, Orry-Kelly, Irene, even the dreaded Helen Rose. But who is Milo Anderson? I had to look him up. He doesn’t even get a wiki entry in English. Luckily the French and Germans are more thorough. It turns out he worked at Warners from the early 30s to the late 50s and designed the clothes for many films you’ve probably seen (To Have and Have Not, Mildred Pierce). The reason you’ve probably never heard of him is that he designed clothes like these for Doris Day’s first film, Romance on the High Seas. Her charm and the positivity she exudes — plus that great voice on hit tongs like ‘It’s Magic’ and ‘Im in Love’ -meant she survived the clothes and became a film star anyway. But she really did have to survive them. Janis Paige wasn’t so lucky.
As you can see below, sometimes, when he doesn’t allow himself to get too matchy-matchy, a feel for colour can be detected: but the design, cut and fit are atrocious. Though they do make a ‘statement’:
Janis Paige didn’t escape either:
Particularly when she wears what looks like a small ottoman on her head
Joe Hadley is credited with the make-up in My Dream is Yours and, if so, he should have been fired. Doris Day is saved from the worst excesses because her look, even when fully made-up and in evening-war, was meant to evoke a ‘regular’ sporty girl. But poor Eve Arden walks around with her pronouncedly crimson lips two inches in front of her face, as if with a will of their own and making their way into another dimension.
The stills don’t do justice to how the lipstick seems so pronounced in motion. I saw Romance on the High Seas afterwards, with the make-up credited to Perc Westmore (he ran the whole department and approved the make-up tests but it was surely done by someone else?), and, as you can see in part of the trailer below, though the lipstick is a very loud shade of red, it’s not as bad. The crimson lips were clearly the fashion of the time. I did also wonder if my digital HD TV does not make it seem worse than it might have been to audiences of the time, highlighting and making vibrate certain colours. I did check the settings but they seemed alright. Perhaps we’ll never know. What we do know, is that the Warners DVD played on HD turns the lipstick into a Brechtian distanciation effect.
It’s a famous fact that Eve Arden is one of the great treasures of Hollywood cinema. From Stage Door(Gregory La Cava, 1937), through Mildred Pearce (Michel Curtiz, 1945) to Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978) on film, and as our ever sharp and sardonic Miss Brooks on radio and television, she delights with her wise-cracks, her intelligence, a slightly knowing caparace of cynicism protecting a too-sensitive heart. I loved seeing her in this bit of My Dream is Yours where Jack Carson, who’s already conned her into allowing Doris Day to stay, adds first Doris’ child and then her dog. With regards to children, only W.C.Fields and Clifton Webb expressed the unsayable as well as Eve Arden does here:
One of the delights of watching Classic Hollywood Cinema is catching sight of character actors, often even more beloved than the stars. My Dream is Yours (Michael Curtiz, Warners, 1949) showcases a host of my favourites — Eve Arden, S.Z Sakall, and above all, and even though he only appears for five minutes, Franklin Pangborn. I’ve written on him several times in this blog in relation to Only Yesterday and Pre-Code Cinema, in William Wellman’s A Star is Born, a compilation of his best bits from Easy Living, how he and other ‘effeminate’ character actors were deployed to butch up Fred Astaire in his films, in relation to a consideration of whether Preston Sturges was homophobic, and as one of the joys of watching Mitchell Liesen’s Easy Livingor Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels. It was a delight to see this brief clip below in My Dream is Yours:
I loved it so much I made a gif, even though one loses his lovely and expressive voice and line readings, one gets his priceless facial expressions on a loop: we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!