In his great The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson writes of Burt Lancaster: he was ‘a strapping athlete, his smile piercing, his hand outstretched, but with the hint that his grip could crush or galvanize. His vitality was more than cheerfulness or strength; he seems charged with power’ (586). He’s the only reason to see South Sea Woman. It’s a South Seas ‘romp’ which is largely tone deaf, b&w when everything about it screams for colour, dripping with the kind of racism that only flows when all involved are completely unaware of even the concept.
Watching him glare he seems the embodiment of G.I Joe
He’s totally aware of the camera, conscious of gesture and look.
His smile and the energy of his movements somehow life affirming, there’s a precision, a grace, a joy in the performance, which is also a performance for others. Look at his stance after he punches Chuck Connors below
and look here at the power evoked by his gesture, and that smile. He’s not just the film’s duracell battery, he’s a a whole generator providing energy to this otherwise lethargic, half-baked and half-dead enterprise.
…and he’s not just a set of muscles for show. He’s strong and agile and can do things like this below, which in spite of being his most graceful, makes one marvel at what the human body can do, The evident joy he takes in his acrobatics and the filmmakers letting the audience see that it is indeed he who is doing this is easily transferred to the audience.
South Seas Woman is an easy watch but a poor film. It’s a South Seas ‘romp,’ largely tone deaf, b&w when everything about it screams for colour, dripping with the kind of racism that only flows when all involved are completely unaware of it, and with some poor performances (Chuck Connors’ is not even the worst). The story begins with Burt — why pretend here he’s even play a character? — being court-marshalled for a whole series of offences and then through the device of the trial, we get all the flashbacks showing that in fact it was all derring-do and that he deserves medals instead. Virginia Mayo is ‘the girl’ who was initially meant for Chuck Connors but — duh! — ends up with Burt.
Kate Burford in Burt Lancaster: An American Life calls South Sea Woman, ‘a forgettable World War II buddy tale with the loose integrity of a veteran’s reverie (girls, guns, jokes and heroics)’, (loc 2424, Kindle). Lancaster’s presence in the film was due to his wanting to quickly wrap up his Warner Brothers contract.
As a sideline, but of interest, Burford writes, ‘Lancaster’s marine pal in the movie, Chuck Connors was a tall, lanky, first baseman for the minor-league Los Angeles Angels and would later say he owed his career to Lancaster, who pushed him for the part and coached him for his screen test. The two men ribbed each other…..with a naturalness that both reinforced a new set of underground rumours that they were romantically involved and might have prompted goofy buddy sequels if the star were anybody but no-sequel Lancaster (Loc 2435).
In Warners films of the 1930s, Montreal seems to be the place rich women send their discarded lovers to. InFemale(Michael Curtiz, 1933) when rich Ruth Chatterton’s boytoys ‘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’. Poor gangsters take advantage of Montreal’s reputation as both a ‘free city’ where women, jazz, and booze abound but one that also has a lot of woods to hide in: as you can see in the clip below from Lady Killer (Roy Del Ruth, 1933), Montreal’s a good a place to go on the lam to when escaping the heat in the States:
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?
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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.
Michael Curtiz was the most important director at Warner Brothers during the whole of what has come to be known as the ‘Studio Era’ and the period of ‘Classic Hollywood Cinema’. He was at Warner Brothers from 1926 when he directed The Third Degree starring Dolores Costello and Louise Dresser to 1955 when he left Warners for Paramount to direct White Christmas, a classic probably still playing at a screen near you (it’s screening near me at the Electric Cinema in Birmingham today at 18:00). You may want to take note, as I did yesterday, that the film is billed as ‘Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.’
In between he directed such landmarks as Noah’s Ark (1929). Mammy with Al Jolson (1930), 20,000 Years in Sing Sing with Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis, Female, Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Yankee Doodle Dandy AND Casablanca, both in 1942, Mildred Pierce (1946), and many, many others. He made stars of Errol Flynn AND John Garfield AND Doris Day. He directed Elvis Presley’s best performance on film (King Creole, in 1958).
So many of his movies are still so beloved today that the question around Curtiz has always been why he hasn’t been awarded the kind of respect ritually thrown at John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Alfred Hitchcock, George Cukor or any other director working in Hollywood during that period who is routinely ranked as ‘great’? As Rode states, ‘It is a striking paradox: one of the most accomplished film directors became virtually anonymous while his films remain pillars of popular culture'(p. xiii).
Alex Rode’s meticulously researched book goes a long way towards unpacking that paradox as well as answering many other questions on Curtiz, European filmmaking in the ‘Silent’ period and Hollywood filmmaking in the Studio Era. Curtiz was the company man par excellence, assigned to a wide array of projects from crime (Marked Women, 1937) adventure yarns (The Sea-Hawk, 1940), westerns (Dodge City, 1939), patriotic musicals (This is the Army, 1943), film noir (Mildred Pierce, 1945), biopics (Young Man With a Horn, 1950). He routinely directed as many as six pictures a year (In 1930, 32, 33, 35, 37 and 39, a prodigious output). He also maintained a prodigious batting average: of the five films he directed in 38, two (Angels with Dirty Faces and The Adventures of Robin Hood) continue to be seen and admired; Four Daughters made a star of John Garfield and all (including Gold is Where You Find It) were major hits except Four’s A Crowd. An extraordinary achievement.
But that level of productivity might also explain why his films, so often praised as entertainments, of generic (Mildred Pierce) or sociological (This is the Army) significance are rarely thought to offer depth or nuance. The man who made what is arguably the most beloved film of all time (Casablanca) is nonetheless not thought to have made anything truly great, like say Vertigo or The Shop Around the Corner or even The Searchers. Curtiz’s film are praised for their pace, their visual sense and sometimes also for the clarity and wit of their story-telling. But there are no moments in Gurtiz’s oeuvre like, say, the ending of Tokyo Story, that move the heart with understanding.
One of the discoveries of this book is that Curtiz’ command of story in his Hollywood period might to an extent be due to his second or third wife Bess Meredyth (he was married to Ilonka Kováks who became a film star under the name of Lucy Doraine from 1918-1923 but we don’t know if he actually married Lily Damita who he became seriously involved with in the late twenties). Meredyth had been an actress. She and her first husband Wilfred Lucas had had their own production unit at Universal. She’d been the first professional screenwriter to work in Australia, had been a production supervisor in Rome on Ben-Hur, and remained a top Hollywood screenwriter at the time she met Curtiz. According to Rode, ‘Curtiz’s most enduring relationship would be with a woman who became much more than a lover. Meredyth would become his most trusted collaborator — someone he could bounce ideas off and work closely with on story and script development’ (p.81). They would remain married until his death in 1962.
C.B. De Mille represented the figure of the Hollywood director for the masses. But for many in the know Curtiz embodied the worst cliché of the Hollywood director. Like De Mille, Curtiz wore jodhpurs and boots on the set (though interestingly not in the majority of set stills one now finds on the web — presumably they had become a cliché by then though Rode’s book offers plenty of examples) and screamed from a megaphone. He was famous for mangling the English language: David Niven titled one of his memoirs ‘Bring on the Empty Horses’ after one of his utterings whilst filming a battle sequence in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936). He cozied up to those in power (Zanuck, Jack Warner): It is Curtiz to whom Darryl Zanuck is said to have said ‘don’t say yes until I finish talking’. Curtiz nonetheless shared in all the moguls’ worst excesses; way into the fifties ,whilst Bess was home voluntarily bedridden and probably working on on one of his films, he was known to keep two mistresses and be open to whatever nubile extras crossed his path on the set, where he was a terror to underlings.
There are several instances recounted in the book where horses, stunt-people and even performers have terrible accidents, some dying, and Curtiz’ main concern is to get the shot and move on. According to Rode, ‘His reputation for explosive temper tantrums, the difficulty communicating in English, and his perceived disregard for the well being of others were notorious within the industry. During his first decade at Warner Bros, Curtiz’s demonic work ethic approached savagery as he pushed casts and crews past the breaking point of twenty-hour days and seven-day weeks. More than any other studio director, Curtiz was, in a perverse way, responsible for the founding of the Screen Actors’ Guild in 1933′ (p.11). Many stars (Davis, Bogart) refused to work with him once they had the power to make a choice.
One of the many things I learned from this meticulously researched book was just how extensive Curtiz’s pre-Hollywood career had been. In all he directed 181 films with roughly a third of them in Europe before the age of 38, which was his age when he landed in America in 1926. Few realise that ‘he started out as a classically trained actor who virtually invented the film industry in his native Hungary. He ran a movie studio and directed scores of impressive films in Europe’ (p. xv). He received training as a filmmaker in Denmark as well as Hungary, made films in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Prague as well as in his native Budapest. Changes in name accompanied changes in life circumstances. A birth certificate noting his name as Mano Kaminer born on December 25, 1886 is on file at the Jewish Community Archive in Budapest. He later changed his name to Mihály Kertész when he went on the stage as an actor, then Michael Kertész when he went to make films in Vienna and finally Michael Curtiz for his Hollywood career.
According to Rode, Curtiz was a cinematic pioneer who ‘made a seamless transition from the earliest hand-cranking cameras in silent films to directing the first sound feature at Warner Bros. in which the characters spoke their parts. He led the way in two and three-color Technicolor productions, directed the first motion picture produced in VistaVision, and worked extensively in CinemaScope (p. xvi).
The book is wonderful at delineating different historical contexts, from technological developments to budgets, from the effects of the industry’s divestment of theatres on filmmaking to changing styles of acting and performing that help us understand the changes and developments in Curtiz’s career. The one I appreciated the most, maybe because I knew of it the least, was his time in Hungary and the artistic and intellectual circles to which he belonged to there: Bela Lugosi, Ferenc Molnár, Ladislav Wajda, Alexander Korda, S.Z.Sakall all mingled together in the cafés of Budapest.
What comes across in this book is a fundamentally kind man of enormous discipline, ferocious energy and extraordinary concentration, driven by fear, almost entirely focussed on sex and film-making, not necessarily in that order, and living for the moment. If one can find fault with Rode’s monumental work, and it’s hard to, I would have liked to know, if one can, the extent to which his being born a jew in Hungary during the Austrio-Hungarian Empire and then landing a success in Hollywood at the time when all the people he knew and loved back home were quickly being denied rights, rounded up into concentration camps and killed fuelled his actions, way of life and his art. This bubbles under and around the book’s narrative without quite being brought into focus as much as I’d like it to have been. But in the light of the achievements of this superb work, this is a minor quibble indeed. It’s a great book, a must read for anyone interested in the history of cinema.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.