7th 12 - 2013 | 9 comments »

All About Eve (1950)

Director/Screenwriter: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The end of each calendar year brings with it a flood of new films vying for attention from audiences with holiday time on their hands and awarding organizations like the one to which I belong, the Online Film Critics Society. Because critics generally see so many films in a year that we presumably can’t possibly remember them all, publicists send bundles of DVD screeners and, increasingly, links to online screeners so nothing will escape our notice. It is at this time of the year, when I most feel the pressure to celebrate the new, that I realize how important it is to shine a light on films, even famous and well-recognized films, that have been forgotten or unseen by new generations of film fans.

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Which brings us to All About Eve, one of Hollywood’s most honored and iconic motion pictures. Winner of six well-deserved Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and especially, Best Screenplay, this endlessly quotable film has been a staple in my life for decades, so much so that it never even occurred to me that a well-established cinephile like the hubby might not have seen it. Yet, when after scrolling through the cable desert looking for something watchable, I landed on All About Eve as winner by default—my views are, after all, in the double digits—I had no idea what kind of a “bumpy night” I was in for. Watching Shane whoop and holler and dish on what the characters were doing during this, his first viewing, was a revelation to me. This supremely theatrical film about the supreme world of the New York stage was playing like Brando on Broadway for my enthusiastic newbie and left me thinking about the strengths of an art form whose death has been predicted for decades.

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Calling a film stagebound normally would be considered a criticism, but for All About Eve, it is the highest of compliments. Nothing, in fact, is more distasteful to the title character, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), than to hear that one of her theatre idols has taken work in Hollywood. “So few come back,” she says to director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), the paramour of Margo Channing (Bette Davis), the Broadway legend Eve worships. Sampson has indeed taken a few weeks’ work in Hollywood, a move that has 40-year-old Margo worried that her 32-year-old lover will be tempted to stray.

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She might have worried more about taking Eve under her wing after her best friend, Karen (Celeste Holm), wife of Margo’s regular playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), brings her to Margo’s dressing room after finding her standing by the stage door. Eve gives a short account of her life—a farmer’s daughter, a secretary in a Milwaukee brewery, and wife of a coworker named Eddie who went to the Pacific to fight in World War II. She says she traveled to San Francisco to meet Eddie following his discharge. Eddie, however, didn’t show up, and a State Department telegram informing her that he wouldn’t be coming home at all reached her after being forwarded from Milwaukee. She says she decided one aimless evening to see a play starring Margo, “The most important night of my life until now.” Eve followed the play to New York, attending every performance, flattering Margo into offering to help her. From that point on, Eve insinuates herself into every aspect of Margo’s life with the goal of displacing her as the toast of Broadway and the woman in Bill’s life.

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It is almost impossible to overstate how much this film gets right about a life in the theatre and how shrewdly Mankiewicz heightens the melodrama of the milieu—hoisting the theatre on its own petard might be a more accurate way of describing it—while paradoxically peeling away the artifice to reveal some painful truths. By shooting the film in what amounts to a series of Noël Coward’s patented drawing rooms with a script so loaded with bon mots that Coward must have been panting with envy, All About Eve does “meta” better than any newly minted movie could hope to achieve.

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At the same time, Mankiewicz keeps one foot in Hollywood. He uses a voiceover by Karen to provide the flashback narrative that would be difficult to recreate on stage. His grand set-piece is a party at Margo’s home that moves episodically through the many stages of Margo’s morose jealousy and inebriation by telescoping time with something similar to a cinematic b-roll. Would-be star Miss Caswell, played by soon-to-be movie star Marilyn Monroe, comes on the arm of the king of debonair cynicism, George Sanders, playing theatre critic Addison de Witt. Her attempted seduction of producer Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff) is open and above board, which contrasts the deviousness that seems to characterize the New York scene in movies ranging from this one and Sweet Smell of Success (1957) to Tootsie (1982) and Bullets Over Broadway (1994). (Mankiewicz fires one across the bow for himself and his colleagues when he has Bill tell Eve off: “The Theatuh, the Theatuh! What book of rules says the Theatre exists only within some ugly buildings crowded into one square mile of New York City?”)

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In his infinite wisdom, Mankiewicz never shows Margo and Eve performing on stage, not even a closing curtain line. What we know of their abilities—all we need to know—is how they play-act and self-dramatize in their offstage lives. Eve (née Gertrude Slescynski, an ugly, ethnic name for an inwardly ugly climber with a fake backstory), going for the ultimate long con, literally gives the performance of her life playing Eve Harrington, the humble, worshipful fan of the grand dame. She must be absolutely convincing to disarm her marks and get them to accede to the requests she calculates will pave her road to stardom. No one smells a rat except Birdie (Thelma Ritter), a former vaudevillian who acts as Margo’s dresser. After Eve tells her hard-luck tale, Birdie cracks, “What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end.” The others protest her callousness, and she herself says she was moved by Eve’s story, but the seed is planted; later, Birdie says outright that she doesn’t like Eve, that she seems to be studying Margo. Sadly, Ritter’s character disappears for the rest of the film—one can imagine Eve packed her off somehow to avoid detection, but I wish she had been around for the run of the show.

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Margo, of course, has played the star so long that she can display artistic temperament in her sleep. The problem with that particular script for a woman, however, is that it has a shelf life. Even extraordinary talent will only go so far once a woman has passed her peak of physical beauty. When she sees Bill off to California, Margo warns Bill not to “get stuck on some glamor puss.” He chides her for being childish, to which she responds helplessly, “I don’t want to be childish. I’d settle for just a few years.” His increased irritation only pushes her further, “Am I going to lose you, Bill? Am I?” And like the proper denouement to a truthful scene played for high theatricality, Bill takes her in his arms, tells her “As of this moment, you’re six years old,” and starts to kiss her. Their scene is interrupted by Eve handing him his airline ticket, a suggestive statement of theme that is itself theatrical.

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Where Bill remains loyal to the woman he loves, Addison is ready to throw Margo over for a new temple idol. When Margo characteristically arrives hours late to read with Miss Caswell, who is auditioning to replace a pregnant cast member, Eve steps in. Addison, who has witnessed her remarkable performance, wounds Margo by saying that Lloyd “listened to his play as if someone else had written it, he said, it sounded so fresh, so new, so full of meaning”—in other words, it had an age-appropriate actress in the role. This exchange highlights the black hole that swallows up middle-aged actresses who find it hard to find characters their age to play. Mankiewicz shows his compassion for these mature artists by writing one of the best parts a mature actress could hope for; Davis was 41 when she made this film.

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The conventional wisdom of the time gets an airing, too, as Margo’s only option at her age seems to be to get married while someone still wants her. Mankiewicz has her say to Karen after she and Bill have broken up, “That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not, being a woman. Sooner or later we’ve all got to work at it, no matter what other careers we’ve had or wanted. And, in the last analysis, nothing is any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed, and there he is. Without that, you’re not woman.” The feminist in me bridles at this scene every time, but a secondary theme of All About Eve, one that edges it toward women’s film territory, is the desire for love. Eve wants the love of the audience, Bill wants Margo to marry him, Karen wants to keep her loving friendship with Margo, Addison, yes even poor, closeted Addison, wants a companion and blackmails Eve into being that person. Margo’s philosophizing feels both true and another part she seems to be convincing herself she wants, fearing that the age difference between her and Bill will become a yawning chasm. I can hate the sentiment while acknowledging that there’s truth to it even today.

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The third act has Eve exposed and baring her teeth as she moves aggressively to capture Bill, who rejects her, tries her luck with Hugh, and finally loses all of her early benefactors as they see her for the conniving careerist she is. In a heavy-handed ending, Eve, successful yet still unhappy, finds a young woman (Barbara Bates) in her suite. As Eve starts to use her as a gofer like Margo used Eve, we see the young woman don Eve’s elegant wrap, hold an award Eve just won, and bow before a three-way mirror, multiplying many times the image of the young hopeful set to exploit and displace the established star. This is a Hollywood image that gives just a little bit of dignity back to a theatre that, after Mankiewicz’s takedown, really needs it.


9th 08 - 2013 | 2 comments »

Swing High, Swing Low (1937)

Director: Mitchell Leisen

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Swing High, Swing Low has long been considered director Mitchell Leisen’s best film, but one whose reputation is based more on received opinion than actual experience. For the general public, the film was missing in action until the 1960s, when three reels of a nitrate distribution copy were found. The American Film Institute finally restored the film in the 1970s after Leisen’s own 16mm print became available from the director’s estate. Even so, the uneven quality of the cobbled-together print has made showings of the restoration few and far between.

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Naturally, the Northwest Chicago Film Society stepped in to resurrect this gem from an undervalued director at its weekly Wednesday screening. As a fan of women’s films, I have a strong affinity for Leisen, who made weepies that avoid camp through their sincerity. Some classify Swing High, Swing Low as a screwball comedy, but there are few laughs, as Leisen chooses to focus on the deep, but troubled love between his lead couple, Maggie King (Carole Lombard) and Skid Johnson (Fred MacMurray).

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Patrolling the Panama Canal locks on his last day in the army, Skid spies Maggie, a shipboard beautician, looking over a railing at the massive lock machinery instead of attending to her customer (Esther Howard), who is packed with mud and wired like the bride of Frankenstein to a permanent-wave machine. Skid chats Maggie up, but she’s not buying what he’s selling. Nonetheless, Maggie’s ship sinks with the lowering water level, forcing Skid to get down on his knees to keep her in view—this brief and clever image forms a potent metaphor for their relationship as the film progresses.

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Skid, disguised behind a floppy hat, manages to entice Maggie’s friend Ella (Jean Dixon) with a bargain price to act as their chauffeur around Panama City. Soon unmasked, Skid picks up his roommate Harry (Charles Butterworth), a hypochondriac pianist, to make the outing “safe” for Maggie, though he really means to foist Ella off on Harry so that he can paint the town red with Maggie. At their final stop, Skid shows off his considerable skills with a trumpet, quieting Maggie’s complaints that she hates the trumpet, but ends up in a bar fight that has the pair thrown in jail just long enough for Maggie to miss reboarding her ship. Stuck in Panama for two weeks, until the ship comes back through, she temporarily moves in with Harry and Skid. Soon she and Skid, a good-time guy and womanizer, fall deeply in love and get married.

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The couple works together at Murphy’s, a nightclub run by its no-nonsense namesake (Cecil Cunningham), where they are successful enough to draw the attention of a booking agent from New York (Arthur Stewart Hull), who wants to sign Skid, but not Maggie. Their love is severely tested when Maggie pushes Skid to accept the contract, and he becomes an overnight sensation so distracted by the limelight and the maneuverings of his old girlfriend Anita (Dorothy Lamour) to rekindle their flame that he neglects to send for Maggie. She eventually pays her own way stateside, only to learn that Skid has spent the night in Anita’s room. Although he was passed out on the couch, Maggie makes no effort to get at the truth and merely files for divorce. Distraught over losing Maggie, Skid becomes a flaming alcoholic. Of course, he gets one last chance to climb out of the gutter, but it’s up to Maggie to persuade him to go on.

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Yes, it’s a set-up from the word go and one that descends into predictable melodrama. But this is first-rate melodrama that is very shrewd about the character flaws and incompatibilities that were bound to cause trouble sooner or later. Maggie was sailing to California to marry a rich farmer (Harvey Stephens) she didn’t love because she failed at some unspecified career in New York. Her love for Skid is genuine, but she wants a man who is wildly successful, rather than the man she married, who was content to be a hit in a backwater. Despite knowing that Skid’s old girlfriend is singing at the New York club where he will be headlining, she is so anxious to have vicarious success through him that she ignores the risk Anita eventually proves to be.

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For his part, Skid is skittish about commitment and the responsibilities of success. He jokes with Maggie about reenlisting in the army if he falls flat, but the appeal is real because there he doesn’t have to take responsibility for himself, only follow orders. He tries to back out of working at Murphy’s, and only makes a go of it because Maggie is there, chatting up customers to buy drinks and singing with him onstage. Despite premonitions of disaster, he won’t say no to Maggie’s insistence that he go to New York without her. He falls back on Anita in New York to be his Maggie/mommy substitute, gullibly believing only the surface of the intentions of those around him. He lacks an internal sense of self that becomes downright deadly for him when he is out of the relatively forgiving atmosphere of Panama.

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The performances Leisen pulls out of Fred MacMurray and Carole Lombard are extraordinarily intense and nuanced. Some think Lombard’s is her best, and I’m inclined to agree. Aside from Charles Butterworth’s laconic obliviousness and a short comic turn by Franklin Pangborn as the head of the ship’s beauty salon, Leisen doesn’t make the screwball aspects of the film come to life, wasting Lombard’s considerable comedic abilities. But the glow of love on her face is more than skin deep, the defense of Skid she makes when Ella tries to put him down helplessly vigorous, and the hurt and tears that come when marriage ends before love does heart-rending. At Murphy’s and at the close of the film, Leisen brings his camera in tight on Skid as he encircles Maggie with his arms and accompanies her as she sings “I Hear a Call to Arms,” a marvelously intimate and original staging that perfectly communicates their closeness and the way Skid leans on Maggie for support.

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MacMurray is a surprisingly sexy and sensitive costar. Leisen helps MacMurray build his character in interesting ways, for example, after overhearing Ella and Maggie argue about him, Skid deciding to act like the cad Ella thinks he is to test Maggie’s devotion. When he learns Maggie is to remarry, he storms into her hotel room, drunk and in a frenzy, feigning gaiety and congratulations as he blows the Wedding March on his horn. The scene is so true to his character and to life, as is the appalled pain Lombard communicates at seeing him so destroyed and out of control. The contrast between the cheeky soldier and the wasted drunk, his shakes realistic, his fear glowing in his eyes, is a shock, but we were prepared all along the way. The depiction of two such crazy-in-love people unable to connect lifts the film out of straight melodrama and into the realm of pure dramatic tragedy.

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An admiring word must be said of Leisen’s mise-en-scène, particularly during the scenes in Panama. The frames are crowded with people, rickety shacks, and street life that, even in black and white, seem to throw off the heat of the tropics that makes love grow as fast and as large as the tropical plants edging the frame. I was aghast that Maggie would want to leave Panama for New York, which Leisen contrasts as a sped-up, disorienting place that is both luxurious and isolating.

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The original songs include Al Siegel and Sam Coslow’s “I Hear a Call to Arms” and “Panamania,” a great nightclub number sung by Lamour, as well as Leo Robins and Ralph Rainger’s “Then It Isn’t Love,” sung by Lombard and communicating Maggie’s feelings. These songs are really quite good and are well-integrated into the story, something that can’t always be said of 1930s music films. The attention to this detail is indicative of the entire enterprise, certainly a labor of love for the relatively untested director. Add in a fun cameo by a young Anthony Quinn speaking nothing but Spanish and a chicken rescued from a cockfight, and you will find watching Swing High, Swing Low a labor of love yourself.

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21st 05 - 2013 | 6 comments »

Forever Amber (1948)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Director: Otto Preminger

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By Roderick Heath

Cinematic adventuring tends to be a macho occupation filled with derring-do for the hell of it, but Forever Amber depicts a different kind of adventure and adventurer at its heart. Amber St. Claire, eponymous heroine of Otto Preminger’s rollicking, deliciously colourful take on a female rake’s progress through the underbelly and high society of Restoration England, one forced to extremes to survive whilst determinedly indulging in a life outside the safety zone of normality, no matter the cost. Forever Amber doubles as one of the more striking crossbreeds of late 1940s Hollywood cinema, as Preminger combines the lush Technicolor expanse of an historical melodrama with a powerful dose of female-centric noir. At the same time, Forever Amber also belonged to a batch of films, including producer Darryl Zanuck’s near-simultaneous production Captain from Castile (1947), that revived the prestigious historical epic with new hues of darkness and complexity not found before World War II. Sexuality and class struggle, psychopathology and feminism percolate with feverish intensity under the surface of Preminger’s fast-paced and artful rendition of Kathleen Windsor’s hugely popular, dauntingly thick bodice-ripper.

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Forever Amber proved a wearisome project for Zanuck and Preminger, the latter of whom disliked the book and was far outside his comfort zone. The big-budget production ran into serious problems early in its shoot when the original lead actress, Peggy Cummins, chosen in a much-publicised Scarlett O’Hara-like hunt for a new actress, proved too inexperienced, and original director John M. Stahl, who knew his way around both strong melodrama and noir with films like Imitation of Life (1934), Magnificent Obsession (1936), and Leave Her to Heaven (1945), was over budget and behind schedule. Both director and star were swiftly replaced. Preminger, for all his disaffection, was a smart choice to take over, however, as he shared at least one trait with Stahl. Perhaps the strongest strand in Preminger’s cinema, apart from his delight in controversial subjects and moral complexities, is his fascination for transgressive, even criminal heroines: certainly such figures recur in such films as Laura (1944), Fallen Angel (1945), Whirlpool (1949), Carmen Jones (1954), Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and in degrees in several more of his films. That Preminger, one of the most dictatorial and caustic directors in classic Hollywood, had a rich and fascinating feel for maladapted feminine subjects is notable. Many of his anti-heroines attempt to twist the world to suit their own egos, but find they are impossibly outmatched. Amber (Linda Darnell) certainly fits the mould.

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Amber is left as a foundling on the doorstop of a rural Puritan family by the driver of a coach speeding to elude Roundheads in the midst of the Civil War. The coach is overtaken, the passengers lost to history, but Amber is raised in the secure surrounds of a Puritan squire’s household. Once she’s full-grown, however, Amber feels the boiling blood of a tempestuous and easily tempted nature and, far from struggling with it, resolves to leap in feet first when she encounters a cavalier, Bruce Carlton (Cornel Wilde). Bruce, along with his friend Lord Harry Almsbury (Richard Greene) and other confederates, are returning from exile and extended guerrilla warfare to claim rewards for service during the war, now that Charles II (George Sanders) has been crowned. Thrilled by these good-looking emissaries of the larger world, Amber contrives to follow Bruce and Harry to London, and despite Bruce’s misgivings, she becomes his lover.

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Winsor’s novel had been a huge hit because it captured something in the zeitgeist of the immediate postwar era, coinciding neatly with the United States circa 1946. Amber is the prototypical rebellious girl dreaming of wider pastures via media-informed images of beauty and esteem, maintaining a fervent secret fantasy life even under the stern and watchful eye of her adoptive father Matt Goodgroome (Leo G. Carroll), who whips her to keep her wilful nature at bay. Amber keeps a scrap of paper sporting crude illustrations of elegant ladies and tries to imitate their dress and posture by candlelight in the dark of night, cleverly adapting her modest nightgown into a revealing approximation of glamour. A billion daughters who had been to the movies were doing the same, and before the new repression of the 1950s kicked in, and the flux of the late ’40s comes through in the excitement of the Restoration, where everybody’s on the make. This is, of course, counterbalanced with a regulation moralism: Amber is driven by desperation to morally null acts and constantly attempts to manipulate situations for her own ends only to have her efforts blow up in her face. Winsor’s tale relied on a similar dynamic to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and its film version, the singular paradigm of such popular storytelling, in presenting an anti-heroine who continually ruins herself through her attempts to manipulate people and her determination to snare one special man, whom she wants but can never quite have because of his stolid conscientiousness.

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When Bruce and Harry join the long queue of loyalists seeking rewards, and they find themselves fobbed off and ignored by courtiers like Charles’ gatekeeper Sir Thomas Dudley (Robert Coote) and the King’s mistress, the Countess of Castlemaine (Natalie Draper), a former flame of Bruce’s. On a visit to the theatre, Bruce ventures into the royal box where the Countess is already ensconced to prod her for a remembrance. Amber, jealous, contrives to have the King catch them together: this works, but the upshot is that Charles calls Bruce to the palace late at night and grants him all of his petitions, including ships for his planned privateering ventures, in an effort to get him out of the Countess’ life. Bruce leaves some money for a sleeping Amber and quietly departs; Harry leaves the next day to his reclaimed family estates. Amber, now alone, soon finds out just how rapacious London can be, as her dressmaker Mrs. Abbott (Norma Varden) and her friend Landale (Alan Napier) offer to keep Amber’s money safely for her, and then of course steal it and testify at court that she owes them money. Amber is incarcerated in Newgate Prison, where she learns she’s pregnant with Bruce’s child, and befriends pickpocket Nan Britton (Jessica Tandy). She attends a debauch organised by the jailers with visiting gentlefolk on Christmas Eve, where she encounters imprisoned highwayman Black Jack Mallard (John Russell), who treats prison like a winter hideaway between arrests and escapes. He offers to spring them both.

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Forever Amber structurally mimics classics of picaresque literature like Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and Moll Flanders, taking its heroine through an anatomisation of society in a period setting. But it’s really a thorough-going product of the mid-20th century, following familiar templates for women’s films: elements of the story distinctly echo the Bette Davis hit Jezebel (1938) as a scheming woman accidentally creates havoc between two men and gets one killed in a duel, but proves herself redeemable by nursing the one she loves through sickness. It also has aspects in common with another ripe costume drama of the postwar period, the British film The Wicked Lady (1945), which similarly deals with quandaries of then-contemporary femininity through the tropes of period England, with the highwayman as the scarcely disguised avatar for an expert sexual partner freed from the rules of conventional society appealing to bad girls who want the same freedom. However, whereas Margaret Lockwood’s character in that gleefully proto-camp British film was an out-and-out sociopath, Amber only takes recourse in the gutter with Black Jack due to circumstances. When she escapes with Jack, he takes her to his base of operations and proves to be in thrall to a dark matriarchy, for Mother Red Cap (Anne Revere) is the head of a ruthless shadow capitalism that quite literally only puts value on humans as far as they can generate profit.

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Amber is forced to work in league with Jack in rolling drunks to pay for her infant son’s keep. But Jack is soon killed in a battle with lawmen, and Amber, fleeing through the grimy, vertiginous streets in a deliciously visualised sequence of quasi-expressionist colour, takes refuge in the house of Captain Rex Morgan (Glenn Langan). Morgan conceals Amber and makes her his mistress, arranging the perfect legal protection for her by getting her a job as an actress, as all actors have been made wards of the Crown. Whilst Amber resists the entreaties of Charles, when she learns Bruce has returned, she immediately runs to him and gives him a chance to meet his son. But Bruce is less than thrilled when he learns that Amber’s attached herself to another man, and even less thrilled when the territorial Morgan challenges him to a duel. Forever Amber is thus sustained by a narrative dynamic that sees Amber eternally torn between material gain and her love for Bruce, which overrides all concerns and constantly results in self-sabotage: Bruce is insufferably self-righteous at many turns, repeatedly spurning Amber, at first for fear of corrupting her and then because of her willingness to get by using every means at her disposal.

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Winsor’s novel was a loaded project to take on, condemned by the Hays Office even before the film rights were sold, but of course, therein also lay the challenge and potential reward of a success d’scandale. Underlying the film’s half-hearted moralism, which accords accurately with an underlying eye for the double-standards of both 1660s England and 1940s America, is gleeful celebration of Amber’s bed-hopping and survivalist, social-climbing cunning, constantly provoking the intensely egotistical, proprietary conceit of the men she hooks up with, but always tellingly remaining independently minded regarding where she places her loyalty and affection. Black Jack and Morgan, who is killed by Bruce in their duel, give way to the Earl of Radcliffe (Richard Haydn), an icy, aged patrician who collects beauty like others collect paintings: shades of Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” enter the film as it’s hinted Radcliffe may have had his last disobedient wife killed. Radcliffe approaches Amber initially when she is still working on the stage, and, after Morgan’s death and Bruce’s furious departure, he returns to offer Amber marriage. The union could make her immensely rich upon his death, but this requires living with him first, a dicey proposition. Radcliffe’s chill English brand of brutality is spelt out as he beats his Italian servant Galeazzo (Jimmy Ames), a veteran of the Earl’s residence in Italy where occurred his first wife’s untimely demise. And so Amber reaches the ultimate destination of her experiences, as the most sovereign of ladies tethered to the most ruthlessly controlling of men, one who takes the prevailing social tendency to reduce human being to property to a logical extreme: too old to provide her with any physical affection, he nonetheless demands perfect fidelity.

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The story’s underlying vein of noir brought out in the film’s second half is given special piquancy in its resemblance to noir tales that revolve around female protagonists, including Laura and Whirlpool, Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door… (1947), Joseph H. Lewis’ My Name Is Julia Ross (1946), and Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1951), all of which include a heroine entrapped by controlling and destructive men. Amber fatally offends her husband when, hearing that Bruce has returned to London yet again, leaves their wedding reception to track Bruce down. She finds him at the dock, but Bruce quickly keels over, stricken with plague. Amber undertakes his care, bribing a soldier to let her take him into an abandoned townhouse, a shadowy cavern that becomes a battle zone of life and death. Thanks to Amber’s hardiness and grit, including killing Mrs. Spong (Margaret Wycherly), a hired nurse who tried to kill Bruce and steal his valuables, Bruce recovers, only to be confronted with Radcliffe who arrives looking for his wife.

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If there’s a major fault with Forever Amber, it probably lies in part with the film’s troubled production and the resulting pressure to turn a profit from a whopping investment, something it didn’t quite manage. The film moves a touch too quickly at several points, especially its marvellously melodramatic climax, as if the filmmakers didn’t quite have time to piece the film together properly. But in spite of the fact that Preminger later described this as his worst film (very hard to swallow, especially in a career that also includes Hurry Sundown,1967), the director’s usually restrained sense of style is a great part of the pleasure of Forever Amber. Preminger, like Orson Welles, had been a stage director before entering cinema, and like Welles, had an interest in using camera mobility to imbue a sense of theatrical space, which would give way in his later films to a rougher and readier interest in realistic location work. His camera direction is fluidic, sustaining some dynamic shots in weaving about the sets tracing movement, whilst also offering a diagrammatic sensibility in the way he positions actors, evoking Renaissance painting with a theatrical tinge that Preminger sets up in one of his droller scenes, in the early playhouse scene with the players enacting Romeo and Juliet in similarly blocked poses, launching into dance-like duelling which they break off momentarily to bow at the royal box before recommencing. Interpersonal dialogue scenes are rendered less usually in the familiar over-the-shoulder two shot than in squared-off diptychs, triptychs, and group shots reduced to ritualised forms, as in the moments before Bruce and Rex’s duel, where the seconds spread out into geometric positions in front of which the two duellists cross in slashing movement to balance either wing, all before a dreamy, fog-gnarled approximation of a parkland setting.

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Amber was shot by Leon Shamroy, arguably the first great visual poet of colour cinematography, having contributed superlative work to Zanuck’s other productions, like The Black Swan (1942) and Captain from Castile. Here, working with “Technicolor Director” Natalie Kalmus, Shamroy creates the film’s saturated visual palette, swinging from poles of candy-coloured foppery in the daylight to dark-flooded, cleverly lit and expressive recreations of a tangled, medieval London about to meets its cleansing reckoning in fire. His saturated blues and inky black dotted with pools of brilliance from fire and lamp, and the Hogarthian confines of Newgate, Mother Red Cap’s house, and the plague-stricken city of night, all offered with painterly care in source lighting and tonal lustre.

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Amber’s stint as an actress is inevitable, as she’s already played many roles to survive, and a note vibrates through the whole film that it’s really a long-shot metaphor for the exigencies of survival in Hollywood. Certainly, deliberately or not, Winsor’s original tale rests on a sensibility informed by the common fantasies of a largely female readership, much of which would inevitably have included success in the Dream Factory. Just as Amber fantasises about a swankier life, practising her act by candlelight early in the tale, so does she tackles her various parts, in thrall to powerful men but also using them deftly, as a protean being. Both Zanuck and Preminger would have affairs with ill-fated starlets, Bella Darvi in Zanuck’s case and Dorothy Dandridge in Preminger’s, that would echo this story, and star Linda Darnell constantly placed herself in bruising conflict with the hierarchy of Hollywood since rising from bit parts to play alongside Tyrone Power in Blood and Sand (1941). Darnell, surprised when she was rapidly transferred onto this film after preparing for a lead role in Captain from Castille, was a talented and stunningly good-looking actress, possessed of a certain truculence toward the studio system’s attempts to reduce her to a glamour-puss, and usually typecast in parts that relied on her darkly exotic looks. There was an irony in her landing Amber after Zanuck, Stahl, and Preminger had placed emphasis on getting a natural blonde like Cummins or Lana Turner for the part. Darnell doesn’t give her best performance here—three years later, in Joseph Mankiewicz’s No Way Out, she showed her true mettle—but Forever Amber was her greatest star moment.

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Inevitably, Amber is drawn into Charles’ orbit again in the theatre and as Radcliffe’s wife, presenting a tempting morsel to the King at a dance, after Charles has just broken off with Castlemaine and where the bored and restrained Amber makes it plain she’d very much like to be Charles’ next concubine and Radcliffe resists with stern resolve, a full-on macho pissing contest with Amber as the stake taking place under the genteel phraseology and strained politeness. Radcliffe’s patience with Amber finally burns out, aptly on a night when the Great Fire, blazing in the background, comes weeping towards Radcliffe’s city mansion. Radcliffe sees a chance to rid himself of another problematic spouse, and tries to lock her within the house to die in the flames, only for Nan and Galeazzo to come to the rescue. Preminger sweeps in for a dramatic close-up of the Italian servant’s face, transmuted into a mask of wrath, as he marches over to Radcliffe: in a delirious moment of violent revenge, Galeazzo picks up the Earl and hurls him bodily into the fire that’s consuming the house, before he, Nan, and Amber flee ahead of the fiery collapse, concluding a brief but effectual rebellion of the underclass that completes a circular movement from the blaze that consumed Amber’s birthplace in war at the start to this fiery consummation.

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Forever Amber is too hampered by it concessions to punitive morality to really be a feminist work, especially in the film’s concluding phase, in which Amber is emotionally blackmailed into giving up custody of her son to Bruce and loses favour with Charles after being his mistress for a time. But it’s arguable the film reflects the problems of being an adventurous female in the era far more accurately than a more liberal depiction would, and the film never entirely abandons a winkingly mischievous attitude to its sexuality. Bruce, who has since settled in America and returns with a bride, Corinne (Jane Ball), has become a big enough prig to fit in with any Puritans in the New World. He approaches Amber to convince her to let him take their son back across the Atlantic to let him grow up in a more morally fecund environment than the British upper-class (he has a point). But his American-born spouse proves to be a better sport. As Amber tries another of her tricks—bringing Charles and Corinne together so the King will seduce her and sunder the Carltons’ marriage—Charles spots her ploy and pleasantly sends Corinne on her way. He posits as she leaves, “What if we hadn’t both realised we were both the victims of a plot, if you had simply been my guest here tonight, what might the result of been?” to which Corinne replies with fearless good humour, “It’s a pity we shall never know, your majesty.” Amber fails doubly, as Charles feels disillusioned by Amber’s plotting and reveals his own peculiar pathos in having to settle for approximations of love when his social role was predetermined, and so commands Amber to leave court. It’s made clear that Amber won’t be falling on hard times—she has Radcliffe’s fortune and quickly has Dudley calling dibs—but as Bruce takes away her son and she’s faced with exile from the pinnacle of her dreams, Amber is left a tragic figure. Her tragedy is of someone who liberated herself from the repressiveness of her society but not from its deeper hypocrisy: the tendency to reduce human being, even loved ones, to playthings and properties.


31st 12 - 2012 | 9 comments »

The Deep Blue Sea (2011)

Director: Terence Davies

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I did something strange the other day—I picked up a book at the library by a British author known for writing old-fashioned stories with old-fashioned values aimed at women in or approaching their golden years. My reason for choosing the book had to do with trying to suppress a bleak and angry outlook that has seized me in recent weeks, to escape into a fantasy of romance and tradition and charm. After about 60 pages, the plot conveniences, cliché-filled language, and attitudes about women with which I vehemently disagree shook me out of my fog and, if not exactly in the finest shape to face the world, I nonetheless saw that looking backward isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

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It seems that director Terence Davies, 67, is experiencing even more acutely the pull of the past. His 2008 poetic documentary Of Time and the City revealed the passage of time and the frailty of the physical as filtered through the environs of his hometown of Liverpool. With The Deep Blue Sea, Davies has lifted a 1952 chestnut from the British stage penned by Terence Rattigan, who would come to defy the trend in British theatre and film of so-called kitchen sink realism that bowed in 1959 with John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Rattigan and Davies, both gay men in a country where homosexuality was illegal until 1967, could justifiably claim anger in their works. Their attraction, however, is to the refinement and moral uprightness of the days of empire, their sensibilities lodged squarely in the coded gay traditions of the stage and screen.

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Sadly for Davies, his loathing of his sexual orientation and acute nostalgia have sent him into something of an artistic neverland. I say this with enormous regret, as his adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, one of my very favorite films, is admirably clear-eyed about the rot beneath the veneer of high society while still exploring the tragedy of a fatal love. The Deep Blue Sea is squarely in the tradition of the 1950s women’s films Davies grew up on and loved, a genre I also love but recognize as hopelessly out of date. To recreate one of these films in 2011 without burrowing beneath the gay code or reflecting on contemporary attitudes toward a sexual coming of age makes this brand-new film a premature museum piece.

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Set in 1950, The Deep Blue Sea tells with unabashed sentiment the story of Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), a young woman married to a kind, older member of the peerage, Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), who is awakened from her comfortably dull life by the raffish sexuality of Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston). Freddie, an RAF pilot during World War II, is restless and angry, offering an avatar of adventure and danger from his experiences that Hester finds bewitching. She believes she loves Freddie, so unacquainted is she with lust that she can’t distinguish one emotion from the other. Freddie remains tantalizingly out of reach, treating her with an offhand contempt for her bourgeois romanticism and inexperience. When her despair drives her to the suicide attempt that opens the film, Freddie is deeply offended that she absolves him of blame in a note she left for him, a magnanimity he neither needs nor believes, and determines to end the affair. Despite her husband’s willingness to take her back, Hester won’t put the genie back in the bottle, preferring to live in misery rather than to feel nothing at all.

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On its surface, this is a story worth telling, one of a sexual and emotional awakening that sets its protagonist on the path to leading a more authentic life. Yet, in the oh-so-stately telling, there’s not much to distinguish The Deep Blue Sea from a Victorian frolic like Lady Windemere’s Fan except for its lack of wit. My, this story could have used a bit of Oscar Wilde’s social buffoonery or Douglas Sirk’s playful gay coding or even some down-to-earth sincerity. As directed by Davies, Simon Russell Beale plays a very nice man whose impeccable breeding and good English sportsmanship won’t allow him a moment of messy breakdown even though his life has just cracked wide open. The direction he’s given to be mild-mannered and magnanimous is, I suppose, Davies’ attempt to show the passionless marriage Hester is running away from, but Sir William just seems kind of pathetic and insubstantial. Surely Hester’s suicide attempt must have been at least partly a provocation to her husband’s maddening even-temperedness, but nothing about their relationship manages to break the surface.

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Hiddleston’s Freddie comes off as a bit of rough trade, shouting incongruously like a caricature of the Angry Young Man, dumping on Hester without apparent motivation other than his slim backstory as a damaged war veteran. In the beginning of their affair, he and Hester certainly do seem physically magnetized, and I appreciated the sensuality that flairs through a couple of scenes. Their parting, perhaps the best scene of the film, gives Hiddleston a chance to show his tenderness and humanity as well.

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The one redeeming facet of The Deep Blue Sea is Rachel Weisz. Rather than fall into the Harlequin Romance notion of a suffering woman in love, Weisz fills her Hester with genuine emotion. You can practically smell her longing for Freddie, feel her slightly contemptuous regret at hurting her husband, understand her seemingly foolish resolve to remain outside the comforting confines of her marriage after Freddie throws her over. When Davies gives us the cliché of a back alley through which Hester walks to find Freddie at the local, his frequent home away from the one-room flat they share in London, her posture shows that her helpless addiction to Freddie sits on her like the proverbial monkey on her back.

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Davies is enraptured with Weisz’s limpid eyes, perhaps too much so. For all her beauty, Hester comes off as a weepy drudge too often in his hands. Worse perhaps, after the activity of Hester sealing her digs off so that she can die from gas asphyxiation and a somewhat cinematic start at letting her life flash back in her mind’s eye, nothing much happens. I’m surprised that the normally theatre-phobic film critics who have been captivated by Weisz haven’t torn this film a new one for being so stagey. With three anemic central characters, the film just becomes a boring slog, relieved at moments by the earthy pragmatism of Hester and Freddie’s landlady (Ann Mitchell) and the savage elitism of Barbara Jefford as Sir William’s mother.

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It is equally baffling to me why this film generally has been critically embraced whereas the 2012 film that bears a close resemblance to it in theme, Anna Karenina, has foundered. Admittedly, the latter film is more modeled on the costume epic, whereas The Deep Blue Sea is a women’s film, yet Anna Karenina makes deliberate, effective use of theatricality to forward the story, whereas Davies’ film seems retrograde in nearly every respect. Even the cinematography, which Davies normally codirects with unusual aplomb, is all misty memory. Like Of Time and the City, this film feels too personal a project for me to relate to.


13th 08 - 2012 | 15 comments »

Imitation of Life (1934/1959)

Director: John M. Stahl/Douglas Sirk

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Among master directors of women’s films are two men whose careers are intertwined. John Stahl, whose heyday occurred during the 1930s, and Douglas Sirk, the 1950s king of technicolor melodrama, each made versions of the same three novels: Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life, Lloyd C. Douglas’ Magnificent Obsession, and James M. Cain’s Serenade (Stahl’s film was called When Tomorrow Comes, and Sirk’s film was titled Interlude). It is hard to say what attracted Stahl and Sirk to genre films often disparagingly described as “weepies” and “soapers,” but it is fair to say that these two men wanted more from these stories than to give women a vicarious romance and a good cry. Neither Imitation of Life is a run-of-the-mill women’s film in any case. While its main story involves the fortunes and loves of a central female character, this story intersects with the racially charged travails of an African-American woman and her light-skinned daughter. Both films offer the view that a white woman can improve her circumstances with enough guts, ingenuity, and physical attractiveness, but that African Americans, even those light enough to pass for white, are inherently unable to realize the Horatio Alger dream of the self-made person that infects Americans to this very day.

Stahl’s film, a faithful adaptation of the Hurst novel, centers on Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert), a widow barely supporting herself and her three-year-old daughter Jessie (Baby Jane) by running her late husband’s maple syrup business. On a very busy morning, Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) and her four-year-old daughter Peola (Sebie Hendricks) fetch up at Bea’s door answering an ad for a live-in maid. They have come to the wrong address, and Bea offers her regrets. Just then, Bea runs upstairs to rescue a crying, fully clothed Jessie from the bathtub she slipped into to retrieve her rubber ducky. When Bea comes back downstairs, she sees that Delilah has been fixing her breakfast. Delilah basically volunteers to be Bea’s servant in exchange for room and board for her and her daughter, who has been a handicap to Delilah’s job search. Thus begins a relationship that will see an uncomplaining Delilah give up her secret pancake recipe, come along with Bea as she sets up a pancake house, and become the face of Aunt Delilah’s Pancake Flour and a household fixture as Bea’s success affords her a luxurious lifestyle and the attentions of ichthyologist Stephen Archer (Warren William).

Sirk’s film maintains the basic outline of the novel, but provides all but the Stephen Archer character with new names, and makes Bea, called Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) here, an aspiring actress. Lora and Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) meet at Coney Island beach while Lora is looking for her daughter Susie (Terry Burnham). Lora brings Annie and her daughter Sarah Jane (Karin Dicker) home because they are homeless. Lora also meets Steve Archer (John Gavin), an aspiring fine-art photographer, on the beach. Lora finds the same success as Bea, and like Delilah, Annie comes along for the ride.

Both of these films remark on race and gender relations, as well as the times in which they were made. Stahl’s film reflects the social consciousness of Depression-era America, saving its sympathy for the economic precariousness of women without men. Although the story makes both Bea and Delilah widows, many women lost men to the road as they looked for work and to despair through the bottle and abandonment. Bea must finagle her store using hard bargaining, charm, and a generous amount of bull. Delilah’s character is just as desperate to hold her family together, but Stahl plants her character firmly in a caricature of the jolly mammy.

Stahl’s treatment of Bea’s story is standard Hollywood glamour. Bea wears one luscious gown after another in the success part of the story, falls into a very quick and intense romance with Archer, who despite his seemingly ordinary career as a marine biologist, seems to be independently wealthy. The pair steals kisses, Colbert’s head tilted so far back I thought it would break off (couldn’t they have provided her with a step stool?). Finally, Bea and Stephen deal with the complication of a college-aged Jessie (Rochelle Hudson) falling for Archer by delaying their marriage with tortured longing until Jessie has gotten over him.

Delilah and Peola’s story is treated in both a demeaning and paradoxically realistic way. Louise Beavers’ Delilah is simple-minded, ignorant, emotional, and religious. There are ways to ask for room and board in lieu of payment that aren’t so butt-insulting as the way Stahl directed Beavers, making it sound like Delilah’s main delight in life is serving white folks. A close-up of Beavers posing for the image Bea wants on her restaurant sign is a caricature of the Aunt Jemima caricature; I can just hear audiences of the time busting a gut at her lengthy, demeaning mugging. During Delilah’s death scene, we get a full chorus of the black servants in Bea’s employ singing a field hand lament from behind closed doors, and Beavers is never accorded the dignity of a close-up. We really never see her full face in a scene normally so important that Alla Nazimova rewrote the story of her Camille (1921) so that she could die without Rudolph Valentino’s character in attendance to pull focus from her.

The paradoxically realistic parts, however, are Delilah’s religious faith and Peola’s perception of how different her life would be if she hadn’t been born black. Peola persistently tries to pass for white throughout the film. Fredi Washington, a light-skinned African American, plays Peola as a young woman who hates the restrictions on her, yet Fredi, with those same restrictions, never denied her race; indeed, she refused to pass for white when the studio bosses wanted to build her up, and went on to form the Negro Actors Guild to expand opportunities for African-American actors and fight discrimination. Although her character disowns her mother and comes to regret it in two emotionally wrenching scenes, Peola’s feeling of being white, which I read to mean she knows she’s as good as everyone else, announces her as a member of a new generation, one that would eventually go on to fight and win the battle for civil rights.

Delilah’s attempts to get Peola to accept who she is arise from her deep faith. She believes God made folks black and white for a reason and that it is nobody’s place to question that decision. Beavers makes Delilah’s professions of faith so effortlessly sincere and idealistic that she manages to flesh out a character and provide some believable motivation for her acceptance of a second-class role in Bea’s household and business. When, in the end, she is given the grandest funeral New York has ever seen, the film brings into focus the success of Delilah’s lifelong goal—her glorious assumption to heaven. That Bea honors her wish to keep house and accedes to her decisions about her daughter, for example, suggesting Delilah send Peola to an all-black university in the South, may seem as though she is reinforcing the limitations on the black community. Yet I felt more camaraderie between her and Delilah, a shared fate as widows and mothers, than would be evident in the 1959 version. Perhaps the most famous moment of this inventively shot film, one in which both women go off to bed, Bea climbing the stairs of her mansion and Delilah descending into the below-stairs quarters, may be Stahl’s one statement about the inequality that all the characters but Peola accept as the natural order of things.

Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life is a different animal altogether. With a script much more layered and explicit with regard to the evils of the world, it poses a greater indictment of the relationship between Lora and Annie. At the same time, it indulges in its own stereotyping, offering either objectification or infantilization of the women in the film.

Right off the bat, Steve, a photographer, snaps Lora’s picture as she searches frantically for her missing daughter. He insinuates himself into her search, wheedles an “invitation” to her home by offering to hand-deliver a photo of Susie and Sarah Jane, and then assumes prerogatives over Lora that seek to control how she pursues her acting career—a far cry from the genteel Warren William who is willing to do anything Bea says. While Lora puts him in his place, as well as talent agent Allen Loomis (Robert Alda), who agrees to get her work in exchange for her “escort” services, the choice to make Lora an aspiring actress puts her squarely in the 50s mold of objectifying women; while post-success Bea was certainly a glamorous figure, she herself was not characterized as an object. Using her intelligence as well as her feminine wiles to get started in business was made to seem admirable, whereas Lora’s outright lying about being a film star to get in to see Loomis seems tawdry.

Lora and Annie are nowhere near equal footing. Annie exchanges domestic duties for a place to live. She offers no secret recipe or services that could help Lora advance her career aside from answering the phone “Mrs. Meredith’s residence.” Although Lora only rents the apartment in which all of them live, it is clearly her home, not Annie’s. There doesn’t seem to be any real camaraderie between Annie and Lora—the bonding that developed when Delilah rubbed Bea’s tired feet has no real match in this film. There is one foot-rubbing scene between Lora and Annie late in the film that is fleeting and rather perfunctory, and the film takes pains to show that Lora barely knows anything about Annie. When Annie describes who she’d like to have come to her funeral, Lora says she had no idea Annie knew so many people; Annie’s reply is the gentle rebuke, “You never asked.” Therefore, while Annie has a much richer on-camera (or, at least, scripted) life in Sirk’s version, the “all in this together” ethos of Stahl’s Depression-era film is largely lost.

Sarah Jane’s character, beautifully played as a young woman by Susan Kohner, is much more blatant in her contempt for the place of African Americans in her world. When Lora finds out Sarah Jane has a boyfriend, she asks if he is “the Hawkins boy”—the black son of the chauffeur in a neighboring household. Sarah Jane is deeply offended, and later puts on a shuck-and-jive show when her mother asks her to bring a meal tray into Lora and her guests. Sirk expressly ensures that we understand why Sarah Jane wants to pass. When her white boyfriend finds out she is actually black, he asks her if it’s true that she’s a nigger, slaps her silly, and leaves her laying in a puddle in a dark alley. This scene is brutal, but tracks with the ambivalence shown by the white lover in Cassavetes’ Shadows, which also premiered in 1959, and the general unease of the white community toward the burgeoning civil rights movement. On a less generous note, Sarah Jane leaves home to find herself as a scantily clad showgirl, not the respectable store clerk Peola tries to be before Delilah and Bea track her down. The 50s didn’t leave women who wanted to make their own way in the world many options, and call girls and actresses abound in films of this time.

Among the supporting characters in each film, I found the contrast between Rochelle Hudson and Sandra Dee, who plays the college-aged Susie, to be almost freakish. Hudson’s Jessie is young, but not unintelligent or lacking in social graces. She and Stephen keep company together while Bea is tied up with work or helping Delilah find Peola; despite their age difference, Jessie manages to be decent company for Stephen and seems justified in thinking she could be a good wife for him. Sandra Dee’s Susie is a blithering idiot who seems hopped up on amphetamines. It’s hard to believe Sirk couldn’t rein her super-fueled perkiness in, so I smell a bit of studio interference on this one to keep the controversial aspects of the story from infecting their virginal starlet.

Ned Sparks is a wonderfully comic presence as the general manager of Bea’s company who begged for some free pancakes at her restaurant and gave her the million-dollar idea to box the flour and sell it. By contrast, Robert Alda’s presence in Lora’s life is an insult. He practically rapes her, and yet later, she’s happy to have him represent her and get his 10 percent cut. Maybe this is a comeuppance for Lora, whose crime of neglecting Susie and Steve is pure 50s sexism.

Finally, 50s notions of where a woman’s place should be, as well as the era’s blatant racism get the final word. Annie’s funeral offers a thrilling performance by Mahalia Jackson singing “Trouble of the World,” but truncates Sarah Jane’s moment with her mother’s casket. In the end, Lora shepherds Sarah Jane into the mourners’ limo, as the camera lingers lovingly on Lana Turner throwing a meaningful look at Steve and Susie that signals family life has finally won out over self-actualization.


3rd 04 - 2012 | 14 comments »

Playing by Different Rules: Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Through the years, Hollywood has given audiences a fair number of great acting teams. Bogey and Bacall, Tracy and Hepburn, Laurel and Hardy, Martin and Lewis are among the duos cinephiles follow, relishing each collaboration and seeking to be completists by watching all of a team’s work. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to watch three of the four films that comprise the oeuvre of a pair of actors who were not really a team, but who left their indelible mark on movie history.

Versatile actress Barbara Stanwyck, an elite among elites who won the universal admiration of costars, directors, film critics, and moviegoers alike, and lesser light Fred MacMurray, a Paramount contract actor who would go on to become one of America’s most beloved TV dads in “My Three Sons” and a Disney family film regular, put together quite a hat trick. The first film, Remember the Night (1940), directed by Mitchell Leisen, is a screwball comedy crossed with a women’s film in which Stanwyck plays a habitual thief whose vulnerability is unearthed by MacMurray’s honest and true prosecutor who aims to put her in prison. In a strange twist of . . . something, their next pairing saw Stanwyck and MacMurray create two of cinema’s most memorably rotten characters in arguably the most iconic film noir of all time, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). Finally, Douglas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow (1956) has the pair fight their longing to be together for the sake of preserving MacMurray’s marriage and family life. The progression of this pairing is a classic study in how social attitudes and directorial points of view can take the same two actors and create three very distinct films—the opposite of the predictable product audiences demand from Hollywood teams—that still remain true to the lead personalities involved.

Remember the Night is an unconventional romance whose superficial position—that people are basically good at heart and will behave decently if they are treated with kindness—is undermined by the unsettling undercurrent of economic want and the unnatural hatred of a mother for her daughter. Stanwyck’s character, Lee Leander, is about to be acquitted for a crime she committed when ace prosecutor John Sargent (MacMurray) finds a way to get the case continued until after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. We are saved from a miscarriage of justice with this trick, but John can’t help being decent to his quarry and bails Lee out of jail. This isn’t exactly a kindness, however, as she is homeless. Her crime was an attempt to keep a roof over her head, something the prosecutor with enough money to have a live-in manservant couldn’t imagine when he made his grand gesture, despite his line of work. Finding out that Lee is from his home state of Indiana and hasn’t seen her mother in years, John offers to take her there for a visit as he drives home to see his family for the holidays.

The script, written by Preston Sturges, packs a lot of irresistible comedy into the film, including MacMurray trying to squeeze some milk from a cow into a thermos bottle. But then Leisen, whose homosexuality had given him more than a grazing acquaintance with psychoanalysis and the stigma of being a social outcast, brings Lee’s mother into the picture. A more cold-blooded portrayal of a rejecting mother is hard to imagine. The cure for Lee’s emotional pain is a big dose of rural warmth and nostalgia. It’s clear that John just wants an old-fashioned girl, and when Lee is corseted and costumed in a turn-of-the-century pinafore and enormous hair bow for a barn dance, she completes the process of revirgination and becomes a fit woman for John to love. After a talking-to from John’s mother (Beulah Bondi doing Ma Bailey again) about how John has worked too hard to get where he is to throw it away for love of Lee, Lee accepts her fate. She walks willingly to prison at the end of their Indiana idyll to keep his prosecutorial rectitude intact and return to him cleansed of her sin by accepting her punishment. Under Leisen’s direction, the sacrifices of love are given a shocking dignity, confounding a Sturges-style happy ending that resolves the plot without reforming the characters. Importantly, the women who surround John save him from himself, an interesting thread of male passivity running through the Stanwyck-MacMurray films.

Billy Wilder’s noir classic couldn’t be more different from Leisen’s in tone, nor Stanwyck and MacMurray’s characters more despicable. Wilder and his coscreenwriter Raymond Chandler created types with no past and no future—now is the only thing that matters to them. Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson isn’t in need of money or driven compulsively to crime by some hurt in her past. She’s mean, greedy, and murderous just because. But, of course, there is a strong psychological schema to the film, just as there was with Remember the Night. MacMurray’s patsy, Walter Neff, the stereotypically unctuous insurance salesman who only wanted to renew an auto policy and ended up dead, was caught in the spider’s web of his malevolent anima. Wilder ensures from our first look at Stanwyck that there’s no doubt about her intentions—wearing nothing but a towel and a knowing smile, she slips on some clothes and clicks down the long staircase to Walter, an ID anklet hugging her leg like a link in Jacob Marley’s chains.

Walter Neff isn’t just in thrall to his negative anima. Caught in a strangely close relationship with insurance investigator Barton Keyes, played by Edward G. Robinson, he is driven by an Oedipal urge to outsmart his “father” by plotting the murder of Phyllis’ husband in a way that will pay double on an accident policy he sells to Phyllis. The audience can plainly see, however, that he hasn’t a prayer of getting away with it. Neff has no real agency of his own. He’s brash enough to lay his cards on the table with Phyllis in a scene with the clipped, crackling dialogue for which this film is justly famous, and he’s got no problem killing a man even the audience can’t like. But his essential immaturity makes it impossible for him to stand for anything. Faced with a choice to go “straight down the line” with Phyllis or follow in his “father’s” footsteps, he balks at both and ends up destroying himself.

Wilder’s view of humanity is essentially jaundiced. A fugitive from Hitler’s Germany, he had seen the irrational rise up in Europe and spent the better part of his career exposing the world to its own grotesqueness. His transformation of an actor known for his nice-guy roles into a fatuous thug is as perverse as his glorification of pro-Nazi aviator Charles Lindberg in The Spirit of St. Louis (1957). Wilder, the ultimate manipulator, takes the same psychological approach to his material as Leisen did, but sends his characters over the cliff.

Stanwyck and MacMurray’s final collaboration, There’s Always Tomorrow, is a film in which women take the strongest hand against the hapless male lead, toy manufacturer Clifford Groves. Groves has been left by the side of the road, as his wife of 20 years, played by Joan Bennett, dedicates herself completely to her home and children. It seems to Cliff that he was just a means to this end, and when a former employee—childless, divorced, fashion designer Norma Vale—comes back to town and looks him up, he’s ripe for a change.

Of course, Norma loved him in vain way back when, and like many people in midlife who aren’t where they thought they would be, she looks to the past to see if she can make the road fork in a different direction. After some hesitation, she’s reconciled to being a home wrecker, that is, until Cliff’s two older children beg her to give him up—which she does in a “mother knows best” kind of way. Cliff returns to his corner, telling his wife that she knows him better than he knows himself, an unconscious victim of the Babbitty kind of conformism the 50s demanded.

Sirk delivers another one of his meaty melodramas with an underlying heart and purpose. As is the norm with women’s films, Stanwyck is front and center, and we are meant to identify with her torment over not realizing the “right” of every woman to a home and children. Indeed, Bennett voices this sentiment as she tells Cliff that she feels sorry for Norma. When Norma is shown jetting back to her independent life, her profound sorrow is difficult to watch, and yet, isn’t this film just more 50s propaganda about a woman’s place? Women, the audience for which this film was made, were being sold the party line, and the relative powerlessness of the men in these films gave women some sense of control and authority when they were being kicked back into the kitchen following their necessary duty in the wartime workforce.

Yet Sirk doesn’t let the triumphantly traditional woman off the hook that easily. Bennett’s character is so smug that she doesn’t see, can’t even imagine, that the attractive woman her husband invites into their home for dinner could possibly be a rival. Ann (Pat Crowley), the girlfriend of Cliff’s oldest son Vinnie (William Reynolds), breaks with him because he suspects his father of having an affair. It is she who is utterly naive, buying the party line of the happy family with its upstanding patriarch who can do no wrong; and again, Vinnie starts fluffing the pillows in his move-in-ready corner by giving in to Ann’s fantasy of love, and receives her condescending compliment, “long pants at last.”

In each of these films, Stanwyck is the architect of MacMurray’s plan of action. Would it be fair to say that another actress might not have brought the authority to stand at center stage and compel her leading man in so many directions, or that MacMurray’s good-guy type lacked the authority to match her blow for blow, the way Tracy could with Hepburn? Despite the very different points of view of all three of the talented directors involved, something immutably human in the art of acting puts each of their efforts in a more realistic perspective.


24th 09 - 2010 | 3 comments »

CIFF 2010: The Last Report on Anna (Utolsó jelentés Annáról, 2009)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Márta Mészáros

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The fall of the Berlin Wall opened not only borders and opportunities to the Soviet bloc countries that, one by one, would gain their independence, but also aired the deep wounds inflicted by one “comrade” on another in exchange for a few privileges—permission to take trips out of the country, a bigger apartment, a job promotion. I was riveted by Timothy Garton Ash’s memoir The File, in which he details what he discovered when he read through the file the East German government had been keeping on him, including that his lover had been spying on him. The Last Report on Anna takes a look at Hungary’s own repressiveness through the eyes of real-life political progressive Anna Kéthly.

The film starts in 1989, in a Budapest café, where Péter Faragó (Ernõ Fekete) is talking with his nephew while the funeral of Soviet-backed leader János Kádár blares from the café’s television. Péter says that things will come out and that it is better if they come from him first. We are then transported back to 1973. Péter is talking in the same café with a functionary for the Hungarian government who wants him to persuade Anna Kéthly (Enikö Eszenyi) to return from self-imposed exile in Belgium. It seems Anna, a minister representing the Social Democrats in Hungary’s Parliament before the Communists took over in the late ’40s and arrested her, has continued to criticize the Communist government and is causing it some trouble in the international community. Péter, a professor of Romantic literature, was chosen for the assignment because Anna had a passionate love affair with his uncle Laci (Jákob Ladányi), and it is hoped that her lingering affection for Laci will cause her to drop her guard with Péter and be persuaded to return. Péter is offered incentives—a passport, clearance to lecture at a literary conference in Belgium, a telephone—and eager to see a bit of the world and gain some professional prestige, he accepts and spends a long day pouring over Anna’s government file to learn tidbits he can use to get close to her. He visits his uncle before he leaves, and Laci gives him a carved wooden box to take to Anna.

Péter is, it seems, happily married to Kati (Gabriella Hámori), but when he sees a group of flower children in a park in Brussels, he feels reborn and attracted to the pretty, carefree women of the group. This attraction takes a back seat to his assignment. He meets his handler in Belgium, Klári (Adél Kováts), and is told how often he must report the content of his meetings with Anna. She tells him to bring Anna flowers. And so Péter sets off to woo Anna and earn his state-sponsored privileges.

The 78-year-old director of this film, Márta Mészáros, has explored the vagaries of sexual politics and government repression during her career. This film, while offering flashbacks to Anna’s political activities, including impassioned pleas against racial laws being imposed upon the Jews of Hungary, and brief glimpses of the horrors of her three-year incarceration beginning in 1950, is much more interested in sexual duplicity. The early attraction of Péter to a hippie girl is merely a moment in the film that is never acted upon, but it suggests everything to follow. Péter, who Anna and her companion Magda (Zsuzsa Czinkóczi) say looks very like Laci, deceives them both and awakens Anna’s nostalgia for Hungary and Laci; we get a repeated scene throughout the film of Anna taking a multicolored, chiffon scarf, which was in Laci’s wooden box, and letting the air catch and billow it out behind her as younger versions of she and Laci sit on the pier of a lake. Anna’s love is undying, but Magda reminds her that Laci did not leave Hungary with her and has never come to visit her—his excuse, “I can’t,” is never explained.

Anna’s vicarious renewal of her love affair through Péter is cut short when she attends a garden party at the Hungarian embassy and sees the people Péter consorts with. She leaves, disillusioned, and Kati, who has been flown to Brussels to help Péter’s morale in his flagging campaign, learns that he has become a spy. She defects to Paris, and Klári tells Péter that if he divorces her, it won’t reflect badly on him with the government. When we return to the movie’s present, Péter seems as foolishly impotent as Laci was during a final phone call with Anna. The fecklessness of men in matters global and personal is the final impression this film leaves, an idea emphasized strongly by the appearance of Golda Meir (Beata Fudalej) at Anna’s doorstep, a strong female leader paying her respects to another of her kind in a scene of ribald camaraderie.

Lest anyone think this film’s tone is caustic or deeply political, I hasten to point out that the overall quality is romantic and dreamy. Memory is a strong force, one that must reflect the long lifespan and experiences of its director, who was in her 20s when Kéthly rose to prominence in post-World War II Europe. Anna’s homesickness and wish to return home after she learns of Laci’s death make this politically motivated narrative highly personal. Eszenyi is a beauty who is rather too young to be playing Anna, but she is a charismatic presence; for his part, Fekete is handsome, a perfect face upon whom Anna can project her sexual and romantic longings. I was attracted to this film based on its political story, but I became entranced with its atmosphere. The Last Report on Anna is a very fine women’s film that would be great viewing for lovers.

The Last Report on Anna shows Wednesday, October 13, 6:15 p.m., Thursday, October 15, 5:45 p.m., and Sunday, October 17, 12:15 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.


26th 01 - 2010 | 2 comments »

Lady Snowblood (Shurayukihime, 1973)

Director: Toshiya Fujita

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By Roderick Heath

The late ’60s and early ’70s were something of a golden age in Japanese commercial cinema, with rugged genre reinventions displaying a great confidence in a modernising milieu and industry. In particular, a number of electrifying, blood-lusting, visually chic jidai geki works like the Lone Wolf and Cub series initiated by Kenji Misumi and Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood cast a long shadow even on Hollywood filmmakers. A key correlation between these works is the way they contrast intense, heightened physical beauty captured in the crisp, muted colours Japanese cinematographers made their own in the era and rapturous pseudo-poetic stylisation with ruthless violence and aestheticised gore. Another more immediate link was the fact they were both based on the work of manga author Kazuo Koike, who also contributed to the scripts.

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Lady Snowblood is particularly notable for offering a memorable heroine in Meiko Kaji’s Yuki Kashima, and for Fujita’s inventive, layered, pop-cinematic techniques. This jaw-dropping melodrama, set during the early Meiji period of the late 19th century, when Japan was undergoing tremendous social upheaval, offered fascinating cross-cultural blends in style and dress that have been a powerful fetish for anime artists. Fujita commences with a scene of birth that’s a bleak inversion of many a nativity scene, with Sayo Kashima (Miyoko Akaza) giving birth in prison, white snow falling outside, her red-clad fellow prisoners trying to midwife as she painfully and fatally gives life to Yuki. A jump cut reveals a grown Yuki, calling herself Lady Snowblood, taking on and besting in brutal fashion the bodyguards of a yakuza boss and then dispatching the boss with cold aplomb after describing herself as vengeance personified. This assassination, it soon proves, was on the behalf of the leader of a gang of beggars, Sir Matsuemon (Hitoshi Takagi), because the boss had dispossessed them of their village and left them to scrounge a living.

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As repayment for her service, Yuki requests that Matsuemon and his followers find for her three ruffians, Banzô Takemura (Noboru Nakaya), Okono Kitahama (Sanae Nakahara), and Gishirô Tsukamoto (Eiji Okada). This trio and a fourth confederate, Tokuichi Shokei (Takeo Chii), were scamming peasants afraid of a government draft and murdered Sayo’s husband Gô (Masaaki Daimon), an innocent schoolteacher coming to take a rural post, to prove their ability to sniff out and fend off federal officials. They also slaughtered her young son and held her captive and raped her for days before Shokei dragged her to Tokyo as his concubine. There she knifed him during sex, a crime for which she was imprisoned, but Sayo made sure she got pregnant by screwing any man she could, with the intention of producing a child who could carry on her vengeance. In spite of Sayo’s death just after her birth, Yuki can remember her momentous entrance into the world. Raised by one of her mother’s fellow prisoners, Tajire no Okiku (Akemi Negishi), Yuki was roughly drilled in swordplay and athletic feats by Dôkai (Kô Nishimura), a priest and former government official who delighted in making Yuki an unwavering force of punishment for an increasingly corrupt, shapeless, despicable society.

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Lady Snowblood is Fujita’s most famous and acclaimed film, and his formal innovation in telling his story is rich. The ritualistic form of much Asian action cinema is intact, with Yuki moving from target to target with relentless, mounting mayhem after intensive training in the art of killing. But Fujita essays the narrative in chapters, utilising a circular style in revealing the story that ties intricately to the what-goes-around-comes-around moral and multigenerational shape of the tale. Flashbacks and backstory points of reference are explicated in freeze frames, black-and-white sequences, illustrations from manga, constructing a substantiated vision of the motivating past filtered through artifice: Fujita makes explicit that the art of telling Lady Snowblood’s story is part of that story. It’s easy to see why the film was a profound model for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, and not merely in its thematic and stylistic preoccupations with the beautiful agent of apocalyptic destruction at its centre, but also because it utilises an imaginative, self-reflexive approach to telling a generic story that suggests boundaries extending beyond the immediate borders of the film.

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The story is being recounted by an off-screen narrator, author and journalist Ryûrei Ashio (Toshio Kurosawa), who stumbles upon Yuki’s tale when he visits the grave of Tsukamoto and passes by Yuki, who’s outraged to find one of her nemeses is dead and has assaulted his tombstone instead and sliced the heads off the decorating flowers. Ryûrei learns Yuki’s story from Dôkai, who hopes that the story might flush out Yuki’s last opponent, Okono, now a yakuza matriarch. Ryûrei turns Yuki’s biography into a popular book, introducing a note of meta-textual irony to the proceedings, especially when Ryûrei begins “Chapter Four” only to have the villain of the piece walk in to tell him to stop. The title’s motif is constantly reflected, both literally—much blood gushes out upon the snowy streets—and metaphorically, the contrasting textures of pure snow and sticky gore reflecting the perverse disconnect between Yuki’s serene appearance and inner demons. These demons manifest in her wide, remarkable eyes, with their reddened rims burning in her almost spectrally pale face, offered in awe-stoking close-up. It’s also there in the careful costuming and set décor in the opening birth sequence, and repeated through the reiteration of the image of emanations from the “netherworld,” a blood-red snow that cleanses.

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Lady Snowblood came out of an era in which women were becoming both more overtly heroic and yet more often brutalised on screen, especially in Japanese films, concurrent with the increasing international profile of women’s lib (it’s revealing that Kaji, who had risen out of sexploitation films at Nikkatsu Studios, fled to Tohei as Nikkatsu went deeper into producing “pink” porn-and-violence movies). Although they’re far more common now, Yuki is one of the first and truest ass-kicking women of cinema, and though the film hardly celebrates ruthless violence inflicted by anyone, this telling social dimension of the story plugs into a broader mythology of generational revolt and historical anger. Yuki’s first claimed scalp of her mission elucidates a theme of female exploitation, in presenting Banzô as a wash-up living off his daughter Kobue (Yoshiko Nakada), who pretends to make baskets but is actually whoring herself out. Banzô gambles the money some of her clients give to him, trying to cheat, with Yuki rescuing him from the clutches of yakuza only to confront him on a stormy beach and slice him open after asking, “Look into my eyes. Do I remind you of someone you once raped?”

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The sins of the fathers are indeed being repaid, and Yuki finds an enemy in Kobue, but also an unexpected helpmate in Ryûrei, who is, she learns in shock after saving him from Okono’s clutches, is actually the son of Tsukamoto. Worse yet, his father isn’t actually dead, having faked his demise to escape investigations into his smuggling operations, a fact of which Ryûrei is unaware until his father comes to him and tells him to desist in recording Yuki’s tale. Ryûrei is a scurrilous muckraker assaulting the new order of things, whereas his father has become a war-profiteer, engaging in building up Japan’s military force and hosting parties for international guests to cover and help his secret arms deals. Yuki and Ryûrei crash one of his masked balls to do him in, leading to a familial bloodbath in which Ryûrei tries to hold Tsukamoto still long enough for Yuki to stab him while father empties bullet after bullet into his son’s body. Yuki skewers them both, and Tsukamoto plunges over the balcony into the midst of his horrified guests, pulling with him the Rising Sun flag (and the US flag nearly goes with it), in an image that’s as metaphorically radical as above-ground Japanese cinema gets.

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Then again, an interesting aspect of post-WWII Japanese genre cinema, especially of the historical variety, tends to be its outright cynicism over institutions and social roles of the past, unlike many equivalent western genres, like Hollywood and British swashbucklers, Italian peplum, or pre-Peckinpah westerns, instead fixating on warriors and nobles and yet very often portraying a corrupt, decaying, brutal world. Figures as grimly determined as Yuki or Lone Wolf and Cub’s Itto Ogami, or outcast, like Zatoichi, are heroic merely by standing for a principle and their towering skills. Kaji was a big star with young pop-loving audiences, sustaining a recording career simultaneously with her acting; her appeal was pitched for that generation, and one of the films she followed Lady Snowblood with was the antisocial Bonnie and Clyde variant Jeans Blues (1974). Yuki, the narrator reminds us, possesses a compassionate heart underneath her stoic exterior, and meets a soul-cracking problem when she thinks her mission is over and faces potential romance with Ryûrei; her entire life is predicated to a violent mission that puts her, as Dôkai says, beyond even Buddha’s redemption. And yet her rampage seems connected to natural justice, finding echoes in the snow and the waves that wash about Banzô’s body, white foam staining red.

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The film’s cool hysteria is remarkable. Fujita eschews all but the most basic stunts for Yuki to perform (a stink bomb hidden in her hair is as fancy as her tricks get), and in spite of the stylistic flourishes, Lady Snowblood walks a tricky tightrope that offsets lyricism and action with a raw realism. It doesn’t quite belong in the same fantastic world of superhuman protagonists as other such films, even when taking into account such wacko moments as Yuki recalling the scene of her own birth and holding an unspoken conversation with nemesis Tsukamoto. Fujita realises some startling images, like the prepubescent Yuki stripping off her dress and dodging Dôkai’s sword strokes, sucking on the wound he leaves on her arm with fearless bloodlust, and Yuki’s final anguished scream as she touches a handful of bloodied snow to her face. Multitalented star Kaji (she’ll be 63 in March) had, after leaving Nikkatsu, found proper stardom in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, and later gained her highest accolades in a film version of classical playwright Chikamatsu’s Sonezaki Shinju (1978). Yuki is a role that suits her dark, marauding intensity perfectly, and she also sings Yuki’s gorgeously melancholy theme song (I also recommend the compilation of her various film themes and pop hits, “Zenkyoku Shu,” one of my favourite albums ever) that punctuates the start and conclusion of the film: the rest of the film’s jazz-pop score, by Masaaki Hirao, is terrific too.

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The third-act complication, of course, removes Yuki’s moral quandary by killing off Ryûrei and leaving her to stumble away from the carnage, with one of Tsukamoto’s bullets in her, to receive another indelible wound from Kobue’s dagger. Yuki crawls away, bawling in crushing existential anguish at where her life has led her. But right or wrong, good or bad, Yuki simply refuses to die, and the film ends with her looking up to the rising sun, still hovering between worlds. Of course, Fujita and Kaji reunited for a sequel the following year. l

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7th 01 - 2009 | 14 comments »

Lady Vengeance (Chinjeolhan geumjassi, 2005)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Park Chan-wook

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

South Korean director Park Chan-wook began an extended examination of revenge in 2002 with the release of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Boksuneun naui geot). He followed this up with the much-buzzed-about Oldboy in 2003. He finished the trilogy in 2005 with Lady Vengeance. The first two films deal with men seeking revenge, and I’ll tell you now that I haven’t seen them. Perhaps that will be a weakness in my review of Lady Vengeance, but Park’s decision to focus on female revenge in this final film hits an area of cinema with which I have more than a nodding acquaintance. Park’s approach in this film takes the hot-blooded emotionalism of his first two films and turns it cold. His vengeance-seeking female Lee Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae) hides her anger behind a mask of goodness that jibes perfectly with her beautiful face. Like women in all societies, she must use honey to trap her flies.

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The story is easy to sum up. Geum-ja was snookered into participating in a kidnapping in which the little boy being ransomed is killed. She takes the rap for the murder because the mastermind, her former English teacher (Choi Min-sik) and the man who took her in so she could have her out-of-wedlock baby, has taken her baby girl. After 13 years in prison, Geum-ja is released. She then sets about seeking her revenge on Mr. Baek using a carefully laid plan devised in prison.

While the story is simple and straightforward, the telling of it and the inner conflict Geum-ja experience are anything but. Park shocks us with a disconnect right at the start of the film. A group of religious people follow their leader to the entrance of the prison to await Geum-ja’s release. They see her as an angel of mercy based on her actions while in prison. The minister offers her a white block of tofu as a symbol of purity and says, “Be white.” She knocks the offering to the ground, glowers at him, and tells him to go fuck himself. She goes to the home of a former inmate, dons high heels, and paints her eyelids red. This reversal plays on the enormous popularity of Park’s leading lady, known as a great beauty who normally plays romantic roles. Western viewers may not get much of a jolt from this opening, but it surely sent shockwaves through Asian theatres.

A series of flashbacks to prison during about the first third of the film suspend the viewer between two worlds, helping us experience a bit of the culture shock a longtime inmate might feel on being released to the outside world. There is great craft and ingenuity in this broken narrative that may not give up a lot of information, but still never confuses. Geum-ja’s life in prison is a focus at the beginning of the film to ensure we understand the puzzle pieces that make up her revenge scheme. Foremost among them are other inmates who come to owe Geum-ja debts of gratitude.

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Each inmate is introduced with a small title card giving her name, crime, and sentence, and then we get a short, but graphic description of each crime. The most fearsome of them is large woman who killed her husband and his mistress and ate them. She runs the cell block and makes another inmate her bitch in a series of crisp and suggestive scenes. I particularly liked the younger girl’s introduction to the boss’ clitoris. The boss opens her spread legs slightly wider than they already are and urges the girl to crawl forward. She asks the girl to remove her pants, “please.” “Can you see it clearly? Say hello to each other.” The girl says a weak “hello” as this menacing, yet amusing scene comes to an end. This interaction is important because Geum-ja will cause an accident that sends the boss to the infirmary, where Geum-ja poisons her while seeming to wait on her hand and foot as an act of kindness. The girl she rescues from sexual slavery will go on to become Mr. Baek’s girlfriend and give Geum-ja access to him. Picking up where the boss left off, Baek gets up from the dinner table, lays his girlfriend across it, penetrates her from behind, and afterward goes back to eating dinner.

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The heart of the story is Geum-ja’s struggle to come to terms with her own guilt. She blames Baek for corrupting her, and it is for that crime that she seeks vengeance. She herself feels guilty for not being a mother to her daughter Jenny (Kwon Yea-young), who was adopted by an Australian couple and speaks only English. Geum-ja locates Jenny and brings her back to Korea for a short visit. Jenny wants to stay with Geum-ja, but that was never her birth mother’s plan. “I’m not fit to be your mother. I’m bad,” Geum-ja says to her through Baek, who is now Geum-ja’s prisoner. Before she can kill Baek, however, she discovers that he has killed other children. She steps aside, contacts the police chief who was assigned to the case to which she confessed, and has him gather the parents of the murdered children. They discuss what to do with Baek—kill him themselves a la Murder on the Orient Express or turn him over to the police—while Baek listens to them through a speaker Geum-ja has rigged.

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Once events play out and Geum-ja has had a chance to apologize to Jenny, she removes her red eye shadow. She has been working as a baker and on their last night together, she and Jenny walk home with a white-frosted slab cake Geum-ja has made. This cake brings us full circle, but instead of rejecting the symbol for “be white,” Geum-ja buries her face in it and munches furiously, hoping that now she can fill her soul again.

sympathy_for_lady_vengeance.jpgBeneath the beating heart of this violence-strewn tale from Asia lurks—guess what—a woman’s film! That’s right. Just look at the poster! Strip away the black comedy, the disjointed opening scenes, the foreign location, and the extreme violence, and you’ve got a film not so different from Madame X. Park uses his own stock company of actors from the previous two films in this one, much as Sirk had his stock players. He plays to the desire of female consumers of women’s films have to be free of their children by having Geum-ja’s removed from her when still an infant, with only a temporary reunion and her undying guilt to reassure audiences of her essential mother love. He even has her seduce a younger man, a 19-year-old coworker at the bakery. Through the inmates, he shows how women can be helpful and hurtful to each other (shades of The Women). And he pins Geum-ja’s initial downfall on a man and her redemption on upholding the primacy of the nuclear family.

How did all the critics miss this? Well, not all. Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir and a colleague of his smelled the whiff of genre:

A fine young film critic of my acquaintance left the screening murmuring, ‘I don’t trust that guy,’ and I know what he means. It’s hard to say whether the autumnal mood and the female-coded moral seriousness of Lady Vengeance are anything more than another genre for Park to inhabit; he’s a master manipulator in the Hitchcock vein, whose true intentions are difficult to divine. In a movie this powerful and this lovingly crafted, I may not care whether I’m being had.

Since when did women’s films become a vessel of moral seriousness? I hope letting the cat out of the bag won’t make this film less appealing to the film community at large. Certainly, if any film can redeem the woman’s film it should be this one—gorgeous to look at, cleverly cast, and ingeniously plotted, written, and executed by one of South Korea’s most noted filmmakers.


8th 07 - 2008 | 7 comments »

Mary Stevens, M.D. (1933)

Mary%20Stevens%202.jpgDirector: Lloyd Bacon

By Marilyn Ferdinand

“Men trusted her with their loves, but not with their lives…”

In my travels around the classic film blogosphere, the name “Kay Francis” makes a mighty roar. It comes up so frequently among classic film buffs that I had to wonder what was wrong with me that I had never heard of her or even seen one of her pictures. Delving a little deeper, I found out that she was in Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise. As a big Lubitsch fan, I wondered why I hadn’t seen that film or registered her connection with him. I should have made Trouble in Paradise my introduction to Kay Francis, but instead, the first film I laid my hands on was a lesser work, Mary Stevens, M.D. Serendipity, I suppose, that this late pre-Code film also costars Greg Ferrara’s fave rave Glenda Farrell. He’s got a picture of Farrell holding a cat at the top of the right rail on his blog and greatly admires (as do I) her performance in another 1933 film, Mystery of the Wax Museum. So this one’s for all the legions of Kay Francis fans and for you, Greg.

The film opens to immediate action. A medical dispatcher takes an emergency call and hops in the ambulance with the doctor on call. When they arrive, an Italian immigrant named (whatta ya know?) Tony (Harold Huber) is hysterical with worry. When he sees that the doctor answering the call is a woman—our girl Mary Stevens (Kay Francis)—he refuses to let her near his wife. She asks him what’s wrong with his wife, and he says she’s going to have a baby. “Is that all?” she replies. He becomes incensed, saying that they lost another baby during delivery. He pulls out a cheese knife that looks more like a machete and tells her he will kill her if anything goes wrong. Her assistant Pete (George Cooper), worried about Tony, calls the police. By the time the baby arrives, the entire neighborhood is roused and the stairwell to Tony’s apartment filled with cops. Just another day in Little Italy. Just the kind of thing you’d expect to happen around a lady doctor.

Mary%20Stevens%201.jpgDespite this first taste of prejudice, Mary graduates medical school with her childhood friend Don Andrews (Lyle Talbot), whom Mary considers her boyfriend. They open a practice together, he as a GP and she as a pediatrician. Glenda Carroll (Glenda Farrell) becomes their wise-to-the-world nurse. Business is slow for Don and slower for Mary. One night, Don breaks a date with Mary, making some poor excuse. He has met a glamour girl, the symbolically named Lois Rising (Thelma Todd), and falls in love with her and her well-connected father (Charles Wilson). Mary is downcast to hear that Don is going to marry Lois, but wishes him well. When Don’s father-in-law gets him a patronage job as head of the workers compensation office, Don invites Mary to take an office across from his in a location where she can get more than charity cases. She accepts and brings Glenda along.

Mary’s practice grows, but she still pines for Don, who has begun drinking because he is dissatisfied with both his phone-in job and his marriage. Mary, struggling to forget Don, takes off for a vacation. Don, who, with his political sponsors in government, is under suspicion for fraud, is told to leave town for a while. He and Mary end up going to the same place and eventually confessing their love for each other. Don says Lois wants a divorce as much as he does; Mary, reassured, spends the night with Don and makes plans for a future with him. In the morning, Don learns that he’s in the clear and feels free to quit his job and go back to practicing medicine the way he intended to.

Lois’ father gets wind of the pending divorce and forbids Lois to go to Reno, saying it will look suspicious if Don suddenly quits the Rising operation. Lois feigns pregnancy. Meanwhile, Mary really is pregnant. She arranges to go to Europe, where she will adopt her own baby, and then there will be no scandal. On her return with Glenda and baby Don, an outbreak of infantile paralysis (polio) is detected on board their ship. A race to get serum to the afflicted children in time gets underway, but tragedy waits in the wings.

This film may sound a bit melodramatic—and the trailer won’t disabuse anyone of that impression—but it actually deals with social problems in a fairly realistic way. Like all women’s films, Mary Stevens, M.D. has a heroine facing challenges in her life. The unwillingness of patients to accept her as their doctor, the scourge of polio and infant mortality among the immigrant classes, the difficulties faced by unwed mothers, and the perception that professional women are dowdy and masculine (helped along by the very unglamorous look Francis is given in the beginning of the film) were real obstacles.

On the other hand, the film’s indulgence in ethnic stereotypes, from Tony to a Jewish mother and her nebbish son, are a bit hard on the nerves. Mary transforms from ugly duckling to swan when she is with Don in their little hideaway, and her clothes conveniently start to fall dangerously low on her shoulders. Indeed, in the scene before Mary goes to Don’s room for their night of love—and there is no mistake about what they are up to—Francis has a top of some kind under her robe. When she shows up in Don’s room, the top is conspicuously missing.

Kay Francis is not only a beautiful and charismatic actress, but also a very good one. She brings so much nuance to her characterization of Mary, a woman trying to have it all in 1933! The pre-Code aspects of this film are important to that characterization, because we can see Mary as a sexual being without the lurid attractions of other pre-Code films. While her unwed mother isn’t quite as realistic as Margaret Sullavan’s in another 1933 film, Only Yesterday, it does show that audiences didn’t used to be cowards about the facts of life.

Mary%20Stevens%203.bmpLyle Talbot isn’t bad as Francis’ love interest, but he’s less able to make hay out of a somewhat sketchy role. Glenda Farrell is a little too wisecracking in this film for my tastes—an annoying characteristic of sidekicks through the ages—but she shows herself to be a solid friend and warms her Glenda up very nicely as the film progresses. In general, she’s a delight to watch. I also liked Thelma Todd in a small, but snappy role. Lloyd Bacon, the director of such fine films as Footlight Parade, Larceny, Inc., and Brother Orchid, kept a firm grip on the more hammy portions of the script and somehow made this 72-minute film seem very full.

Mary Stevens, M.D. is a solid women’s film from an era in which women were allowed to be real human beings on the silver screen. I hope we can see a resurgence of great leading ladies who, in their prime career years, are allowed to be mature women as well. l


13th 03 - 2008 | 4 comments »

The Notorious Bettie Page (2005)

Director/Co-Screenwriter: Mary Harron

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

From Yahoo! Answers, June 2007

Q: If you could fall madly and passionately in love with any cartoon character, who would that be and why?

A #1: I tell ya, this was the hardest best answer I’ve ever had to make. I feel the sweat dripping down my forhead. I’m shaking. Marv loves Betty Paige.

The romantic animation fan who asked this question and the people who responded would understand completely the point of view of The Notorious Bettie Page that seems to have left many film critics and viewers rather cold. This nearly flawless film that tells the real-life story of Bettie Page, “Miss Pin-up Girl of the World of 1955,” is an accurate biopic that, nonetheless, has more in common with comic books than it does with conventional, character-based film narrative.

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The sly, inventive style struck by director/writer Mary Harron and her co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner is nothing if not a tribute to the naughty comic books we see several furtive men pawing through in an adult bookstore at the opening of the film. The scene continues, frame by frame, as a tall man in a trenchcoat moves down the length of the shop until he reaches the back counter. He asks the shop owner if he has anything special. Something in shoes. The owner pulls out a glossy of a dark-haired woman wearing platform, lace-up boots. He asks for more. The owner pulls out some photos of women in bondage. Cut to a close-up of the man, an undercover cop, pulling out his badge. You can practically see the dialogue balloon inked in a shocking shout: “You’re Under ARREST!”

Harron and Turner also tip their pillbox hats to Douglas Sirk’s sexy, humorous soap operas as well as bland civil defense films—both popular, or at least ubiquitious, forms in the 1950s—through their mix of color and black-and-white sequences, their script full of the superficiality of melodrama, and the restrained emotions of their typical 1950s characters. And they do something more—they revive the flapper (Betty Boop edition) and the plucky woman of the pre-Code 1930s as they question today’s gender politics.

Bettie%20Page%201.jpgThe film picks up the thread of the arrest as we watch Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn) open hearings on pornography. We see the very pretty Bettie Page (Gretchen Mol) come down a hall and sit on a bench, awaiting her inquisition by the kind of god-fearing Tennessee native she grew up with. Her mind returns to her teen years in Depression-era Nashville, and the comically listless hellfire-and-damnation sermon of her church’s preacher (John Cullum). Young Bettie (Molly Moore) flirts with a boy across the aisle to the preacher’s narrative of sin and tortured damnation. This humorously foreshadows her rise to prominence as a pin-up who specializes in bondage and punishment.

Then the Perils of Pauline set in. There is a short, direct scene that suggests Bettie was sexually abused by her father. “Bettie, I want to see you upstairs,” her harsh father (Jack Gilpin) says to her. As he climbs up the stairs and out of the frame, a close-up of Bettie’s worried face says it all. Bettie, however, maintains her innocence. She accepts the invitation of a perfect stranger who walks up to her on the street and asks her to go dancing with him and another couple. When the car moves into an unfamiliar area, Bettie asks where they are going. Again, like a perfect comic-book villain, her “date” assumes a look of hate on his face. She is taken to be gang raped. We see her afterwards, two buttons neatly open at her neck, exposing her slip. She goes into a church and cries.

Even this experience teaches her little about men. She again agrees to go out with a man off the street if her strict mother will permit it. The man, Billy Neal (Norman Reedus), tells his buddy as he walks away from this first encounter that he intends to marry her. Their courtship, marriage, and divorce are chronicled in a montage. Bettie decides to make a new start in New York City. A fortuitous encounter on a beach with a picture-taking colored man named Jerry Tibbs (Kevin Carroll)—another stranger—shows us Bettie’s natural posing style and easy sensuality. After being approached by a cop during this photo shoot—even though Tibbs claims to be a cop—he suggests that they confine their sessions to his home. During their first session, he decides to make a bold suggestion to Bettie. We’re all set to hear him tell her to take off her clothes, but instead he suggests she should wear her hair over her high forehead to reduce the shine off the lights and frame her face. When we next see Bettie, she’s answering phones as a receptionist sporting her now-famous fringe.

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Through Tibbs, Bettie hooks up with the brother/sister pornographers, Irving and Paula Klaw (Chris Bauer and Harron regular Lili Taylor). Bettie’s first assignment is to pose in sky-high heels. A shot of feet moving slowly and precariously out of a dressing room and an ankle crumbling sideways, then two feet moving next to them (Paula holding Bettie up) is another comic moment—this time at the expense of shoe fetishists.

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Bettie turns out to be a natural, projecting a sunny innocence within her perfect, desirable body. Each time she is asked to do something else—wear a tight corset, tie another girl up, pretend to spank another girl—she’s agreeable. She has started taking acting lessons and doesn’t really see the difference between playing a part for her class or a dominatrix for a magazine spread. The leather, girdles, whips, and leopard skins are costumes. She explains this to her boyfriend Marvin (Jonathan Woodward), an acting student who has no idea what kind of modelling she does, when he accompanies her to a party. He takes one look at the photos and calls them disgusting and the people who look at them even worse. Then the Klaws begin taking heat from the law, and Bettie is out of a job. Time for another new start.

Bettie%20Page%203.jpgIn the second of two brilliant Technicolor fantasies right out of Sirk’s playbook, Bettie heads back to Florida, a place where she once vacationed and where she hooked up with nudie photographer Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson) and a handsome young man named Armand (Alejandro Chabán)—in reality Armand Walterson, Bettie’s second of three husbands. Still troubled, she walks along the beach, finally spying a neon cross floating above the treetops. She makes her way into the church and decides to be saved. She walks to the altar and kneels. The preacher prays for her. She says she has been reborn. “What did it feel like?” asks the preacher. “Like a lifting up,” replies Bettie. Another montage shows Bettie casting off her sexy persona, putting on loose clothing, and preaching on the streets.

People who knew Bettie said she was the nicest person they ever met, and indeed, Gretchen Mol’s performance is winning and natural. She possesses Bettie’s beauty and appears as comfortable posing nude or in restraints as Bettie always seemed. She doesn’t seem to agree to everything the Klaws ask of her just to please them. She really doesn’t see the harm. When Marvin tells her what the world perceives, it really comes as a huge jolt. He tries to contact her after she’s decided to head to Florida, but she pretends she’s not at home. She’s not sure he accepts her the way she accepts herself.

Bettie’s acting teacher, played by Austin Pendleton, teaches the Method. During one scene, she shows some good acting chops. He asks Bettie what emotion she drew from to play the part of a rejected woman. She says with as much naturalness as she takes off her clothes, “I thought of something that makes me really scared. I thought of God punishing me for all my sins.” The teacher, taken aback from his secular milieu, stammers “Wonderful!” It is this sense of religiosity, which in the South is a proud mark of independence, that may have helped Bettie preserve her sense of self even through her traumas early in life. But she does not define her modeling as sinning. Her attitude reminds me quite a lot of Evy in Luis Buñuel’s Southern masterpiece, The Young One.

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The real Bettie Page

The Notorious Bettie Page is a confection with a potent message—a plea against censorship and for a woman’s right to control her body. To argue about the dangers of pornography—and remember this is about pornography, not prostitution—is to take Bettie Page to a place she never went. The film does look sympathetically at a father who claims a photo of Bettie trussed led to his son’s death, but it seems that perhaps the father did not know his son as well as he thought he did. That makes the incident tragic, but not evidence of a need for a ban.

In the end, Bettie sums it up best. When a man comes up to her while she is preaching and recognizes her, he wonders if she’s ashamed of what she did before. “No,” says Bettie, “After all, Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden. After they sinned, they put on clothes.” l


4th 05 - 2006 | no comment »

I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955)

Director: Daniel Mann


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Lillian Roth was a professional entertainer who entered show business in 1916, at the age of five, appeared on stage billed as “Broadway’s Youngest Star” and in silent films during the 1910s and 20s, and became popular for her bluesy singing voice and presence in talkies and on the stage during the 1930s. By 1934, Roth had become a raging alcoholic, and her career took a precipitous dive. She staged a comeback in the late 40s and 50s after she attained sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous and published an autobiography in 1954 called I’ll Cry Tomorrow. The popular book was quickly optioned by MGM and made into a film of the same name that earned Susan Hayward her fourth Academy Award nomination for her harrowing performance as Roth.

In many ways, I’ll Cry Tomorrow was the most typical film of its time. The so-called women’s films made by directors such as Mitchell Leisen, Douglas Sirk, Vincent Minnelli, and George Cukor, to which I’ll Cry Tomorrow belongs, are solid melodramas that center on the life and loves of a woman. Some of these films can be sudsy, but more often they tend to deal with their heroine’s dilemmas in a fairly straightforward way, giving women in the audience a fantasy that they can still identify with.

Another popular element in films of this time was Freudianism and other psychological theories. I’ll Cry Tomorrow provides psychological reasons aplenty for Roth’s descent into a bottle and abusive relationships, and extols the virtues of self-help remedies and support groups. In many ways, this film pioneered an approach so many modern women’s films—and the general population—have adopted. And it certainly provided a successful template for the 1962 biopic Gypsy, starring Natalie Wood.

So what does this film have to offer that is peculiarly its own? I’ll Cry Tomorrow has a feeling of truth about it, an attention to detail, even as it ranges over a very wide time span and life experience, that keeps it rooted in the central dilemma of its main character. It is suggested in a couple of very painfully rendered scenes that Roth’s problems stemmed from a stage mother who refused to let Lillian plan her own life and filled her with feelings of worthlessness. The scenes between the young Lillian (Carole Anne Campbell) and mother Katie (Jo Van Fleet) are filled with desperation and longing. I felt genuinely touched when a neighbor boy named David (David Kasday) gets Lillian involved in a water fight, allowing her to behave like a child for a brief time. Of course, this brief respite is shattered when the two children skip up to Lillian’s apartment to be greeted by an ecstatic Katie saying that Lillian has received a stage booking and will be leaving town in a couple of days.

Lillian does go on to fame and fortune. We catch up with Katie and the grown-up Lillian in Hollywood, where she is breaking into pictures under contract to Paramount. Her peformance of “Sing You Sinners” in Honey garners attention in Hollywood. She seems poised for a career build-up by Paramount. One day, she encounters a handsome man in a doctor’s office who turns out to be her childhood friend David (Ray Danton). He has been trying to reach her for days, but her mother never passed on his messages. Lillian and David begin a romance that results in a confrontation with Katie. Lillian wishes to leave show business for a private life as David’s wife. David provides the courage Lillian needs to try to have her own life, and Katie is visibly shaken and disappointed.

Alas, happiness is not to be. David was at the doctor’s office for a serious reason he never disclosed to Lillian. He ends up in the hospital, growing weaker and weaker. A call comes to the theatre where Lillian is performing that David has died. Lillian sinks into a deep depression. Her mother hires a nurse companion for her (Virginia Gregg) who makes the fateful decision to give Lillian some scotch (you can practically hear a warning buzz of violin strings) to help her get some sleep. Lillian begins to use alcohol as a sedative every night. Soon it invades her entire life, creating problems for her performances on stage (she has to hold onto a chair at one point so she won’t stumble around the stage or collapse) and eventually sending her penniless to Skid Row after she escapes the abusive clutches of her second husband Tony (Richard Conte, in a chilling performance).

The film has minimal voiceover narration by Hayward, mainly to let us know Lillian’s state of mind. She tells us that a feeling of calm and confidence came over her when she first began to drink, providing us with a psychology for her continued drinking—an escape from her feelings of worthlessness. In fact, the real Lillian Roth’s father was an alcoholic. Certainly the effects of living with an alcoholic parent and an anxious mother who used Lillian (and her sister, omitted from the movie) to provide the family with a livelihood must have taken its toll. It is very likely, however, that a genetic predisposition was the main culprit behind her severe alcoholism. But such ideas were unknown in 1955 and could not be a part of this movie of inspiration.

Lillian attempts to throw herself out of a window one day, but can’t finish the task. She ends up at an AA meeting, where the man she will later marry, Burt McGuire (Eddie Albert), becomes her sponsor. The film ends with Lillian making an appearance on the TV tribute show, “This Is Your Life,” where she becomes one of the first celebrities to go public with her story of addiction and recovery through AA. Again, Roth was a trendsetter for future generations of addicted celebrities.

Susan Hayward’s performance is intense. While her fear of her mother in the early sequences doesn’t really come across, she lets all of her hatred loose late in Lillian’s addictive cycle, accusing her mother of living off her and ruining her chances for happiness. One feels sorry for Katie for taking the blame for all of Lillian’s problems—also a common psychological theory of the time that this movie does not debunk but suggests is overstated. I was absolutely blown away by Hayward’s singing style, which compares favorably with Sophie Tucker—correct for the period during which Roth was at her most popular and very, very good. The film does not pay much attention to period detail at first, but moves into its contemporary time frame coherently. The main focus is Lillian’s alcoholism, which shortchanges her years as a performer a bit, but overall, I think an acceptable balance was reached.

I’ll Cry Tomorrow has been called an unsubtle sudser by some, but I can’t agree. I have a great fondness for the early women’s films that are stylized in a way that speaks to women. This film is among the best of the bunch.


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