Friday, June 19, 2015

One Sunday

Of all the terrible details about what happened in South Carolina, I can’t get over the fact that the shooter went to their bible meeting — Wednesday, when you get the true-blue Christians — prayed with them, and then murdered them. It brought me back a long time, to being a little girl when my father had concluded, and won, a case he was arguing for the congregation of Sardis Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. (Some sort of real estate dispute; didn’t understand it then and therefore can’t recall it now.) One Sunday he announced that we were going to go to services, though we were not a churchgoing family.

We walked in and within minutes my little white-gloved hand was shaking every hand in that church, or so it seemed, and everyone was telling us that they loved my father, he’d done right by them, they were so happy we were there. One lady, who made pearl-beaded necklaces, gave one to me, one to my sister and one to my mother. Dad was the world’s most irreverent joker, and he admitted to me before we went that the pastor was all too aware that the man representing them wasn’t anyone’s idea of an exemplary Christian. And I can still remember a point in the sermon, where the pastor thundered, one arm flung at my father like Moses on Mount Sinai, “We have lawyers to explain the laws of man. But GOD made the lawyer, and GOD made the law!” The congregation shouted affirmation, Dad roared with laughter and I can still see the pastor grinning.

After the sermon, which was the only one I’d ever heard in my young life that wasn’t boring, the choir swung into this song, because my father had requested it. It was his favorite hymn. Mahalia Jackson takes it at about the same tempo as the choir.

All I could think Thursday morning was that there are few places on this earth more kind, more welcoming and inclusive than a black church. How lost in hatred and evil would you have to be, not to feel it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Kirk Kerkorian Is Dead at 98

MGM's fabled Lot 2

From The World of Entertainment: Hollywood's Greatest Musicals, by Hugh Fordin (1975):

[In 1969] entered Kirk Kerkorian, millionaire head of Tracy Investment [later Tracinda] (controllers of several large Las Vegas hotels), who began acquiring large blocks of MGM stock with the sole intention of overthrowing the [Edgar] Bronfman [Sr] regime. He succeeded in obtaining the necessary majority by fall. That fight cost Bronfman $51 million [in 1969 dollars; about $330 million today] as against Kerkorian's 2.2 million shares. 
Polk was swiftly ousted and [Kerkorian's right-hand man] James T. Aubrey Jr., once head of CBS Television production, was named Metro's new president ... Aubrey then began to dispose of all that had made MGM the greatest and most valuable studio. 
First, he decided that all the costumes and props (i.e., furniture, autos, trolleys, even the show boat) that accumulated over thirty-five years should be sold. Rather than have the studio handle the sale, he made a flat deal of $1.4 million with David Weisz, a California auctioneer. That famous auction began on May 3, 1970, lasted three weeks and netted the Weisz company over $10 million. 
Second, he sold the sixty-eight acres of Lot 3 to Levitt and Sons, Inc., ITT (builders of Levittown, N.Y.). All the famous streets were leveled and in their place stands a modern housing development named Raintree County. Lot 2 also went and Aubrey even tried to dispose of the main lot to an automobile assembly company, but the Culver City zoning board put a stop to that. Then he ordered the music department's library burned, with the exception of one score for every film retained; out-takes, prerecordings, music tracks and the enormous stock-footage library also went. The vast script library was about to go up in flames, but was stopped by someone who cared, and they were sent to the USC library.
Debbie Reynolds at the 1970 MGM auction.

From "The Girl With the Golden Wardrobe: Debbie Reynolds Sells Her Showcase Collection": (at the Theater Historical Society of America website):

Reynolds’s collection began in 1970 after the financier Kirk Kerkorian bought MGM and decided to consolidate the studio. Years before Universal turned its studio tour into a major theme park, Reynolds had the idea to build a Disney-type mecca for film fans out of MGM’s back lot...Every day for three weeks, she waded through more than 300,000 items. She ended up purchasing a large, but carefully selected, array of costumes and furniture. Over the ensuing years, she added items through smaller auctions and individual purchases. When I compliment her prescience, she sighs and says, “It’s not so much that I had vision, it’s that they had none.”

From The Phantom of Hollywood: An MGM Snuff Film, by Kelli Marshall:

But as it happens, this poorly done 1970s TV movie more than imitated reality; it destroyed it, right onscreen, for the pleasure of the viewer. And here I mean pleasure in the Freudian sense—like the perverse pleasure one gets from breaking rules or slowing down to gawk at a gruesome car accident. Yes, for its climax, The Phantom of Hollywood literally bulldozes MGM’s Lot 2, and thus kills the classical film musical.
Kirk Kerkorian in Las Vegas, 1968

"The Commodification of Publishing and Media," a blog post by consultant Dan Black about "MGM and Disney; the former sold some of its most precious assets to fund the building of a Las Vegas hotel. The latter spent money to archive and preserve its history":

It Takes Decades To Build a Brand, Moments to Destroy It 
Today, many companies talk about their valuable “content assets” and the “communities” built over the course of decades. Media and publishing companies change hands constantly, often based on the value of their content and reputation. Like the MGM sale – one result of this is that the most valuable aspects of these brands are slowly dissipated over the years. Yes, some gems are cherished forever, but many others are lost into the ether, a shadow of what they once were – a hollow brand, existing in name only.

Monday, June 01, 2015

La Verité sur Bébé Donge (Lost & Found for Sight & Sound)

This is the Siren's essay for the "Lost and Found" column in the June issue of Sight and Sound magazine, reprinted (with slight differences) by kind permission of the editors.

Last year’s darkly amusing Gone Girl was often described as an indictment of marriage, which is true, to the extent it warns us all not to marry sociopaths. But David Fincher’s expert thriller also reminded me of a much harsher film — one that shows a union of essentially normal people, where murder is the fated outcome of years spent with infidelities, sulks, absences, and insults, all lodging in the skin like splinters.

That movie is La Verité sur Bébé Donge, Henri Decoin’s noir from 1952, in which we know from the beginning that François Donge has been poisoned by his wife. And in between scenes of Donge helpless in a hospital bed, we get a series of flashbacks to explain why.

Wife Bébé, played by Danielle Darrieux in full flower, begins as a dreamy and naive young woman, who says she wants “to live openly, like a book, like a window, with nothing between us.” Jean Gabin is François, a rich man almost entirely preoccupied with getting richer, when he is not using and discarding a string of mistresses. Despite all that, he marries the dowry-less Bébé, whose youth and idealism at first intrigue him.

Worse mismatches than this have endured. Yet, as critic Imogen Sara Smith puts it, “at a certain point the viewer not only understands why his wife put poison in his coffee, but feels she was quite right to do so.” It becomes evident why Bébé doesn’t love their son (who’s never shown), why François’ own brother is covering up the attempted murder, and why the attending doctor looks at his patient with ill-concealed loathing. “It was him or me,” Bébé calmly tells the magistrate who’s trying to penetrate the family omérta surrounding her crime. He kisses her on the cheek, and this too is a gesture whose meaning is clear.

And like the source of the spiked coffee, the reason this richly layered movie is rarely shown and even more rarely discussed is also a non-mystery. It flopped at the box office. The fashion for noir was abating in France, and audiences didn’t care for this unsympathetic version of Gabin. Still, it got good reviews, and its excellence might ordinarily have kept it from dropping out of sight.

But Decoin belonged to the “tradition of quality,” the French filmmakers whose reputations crumbled under sustained attack from what The New Yorker’s Richard Brody loves to call “the young critics of Cahiers.” Wrote Dave Kehr in 2009, “François Truffaut’s 1954 ‘A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema’ really was the atomic bomb of movie reviewing, obliterating an entire artistic landscape in one blast.”

Having successfully argued that the prospective home-grown competition was old and out of it, the New Wave (and their few pre-approved French antecedents) ever since has dominated revival houses, home video, and film discussions. For those of us trying to seek it out, pre-1960 French cinema is not so much a wave, but a trickle.

Decoin was not named in Truffaut’s essay, but he and screenwriter Maurice Aubergé certainly committed Truffaut’s sin of “unfaithfulness to the spirit” of what they adapted. They took George Simenon’s novel and jettisoned nearly everything but the basic idea of a man who knows he’s been poisoned by his wife. Together with its vivid dialogue and complex characters, the film has great visual allure: The cinematographer was Léonce-Henri Burel, who was a DP on Abel Gance’s towering Napoleon and who went on to work with Robert Bresson.

Bébé is forced to visit her husband daily for appearances’ sake. Decoin shoots Darrieux in the sickroom door looking like the angel of death, face alight, body in shadow, wearing a perfect black suit — graceful, chic, implacable. The couple’s first official meeting, at a matchmaker’s afternoon tea, plays out in a gilt-edged mirror, as though they’re exchanging portraits like the nobility of old. Their first kiss gives way to a wedding shot from the back of the church. The camera glides up the aisle, declining to show faces, thus suggesting that good match or bad, it’s all one to the church. When François speaks to his mistresses, and indeed the first time we see him address Bébé, his dialogue is inaudible. For such moments, words don’t matter. It’s all in Gabin’s predatory look.

Still, François isn’t entirely a monster, but rather a certain type of husband: inexpressive of emotion, uninterested in conversation, with a roving eye he feels no obligation to rein in. Bébé, like many another woman, at first believes it’s only a matter of time until she unlocks her man’s emotional side. And it is, in fact, a side that exists — once he’s been poisoned. We hear it in François’ self-reproachful interior monologues, and see it in his face all the times he pleads for another chance with his wife. Bébé looks back at him, and changes the subject to their annual party. “I feel nothing anymore,” she tells her husband. In the devastating final shot, a car pulls away into the night, growing smaller until distance snuffs out the headlights.

Perhaps the long view can make other things recede. After sixty years, Truffaut’s arguments about “le cinéma de papa” are themselves looking dated. Who nowadays is outraged by anti-clericalism, by negativity or blasphemy? La Verité sur Bébé Donge is far from the only one of “papa’s” films that deserves to be retrieved from the attic.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Claude Rains: An Actor's Side-Eye

Think of Claude Rains, and what usually come to mind is The Voice. That liquid, caressing baritone, with just enough of an English accent. Voices don't come much sexier than Rains'. (If you need reminding, or just because he is excellent in it, here is a recording of "The Hands of Mr. Ottermole," a classic episode of the radio show "Suspense" that stars Rains along with Vincent Price.)

Recently, however, by the simple expedient of noodling around for good photos of Claude Rains (on whom the Siren, like her idol Bette Davis, has a raging crush), the Siren made a discovery. An intriguing discovery, if she says so herself, and she does.

In addition to speech so beautiful that David J. Skal's biography of Rains is called An Actor's Voice, Rains had a world-class side-eye.

In fact, until a challenger comes along, the Siren, by the authority she has invested in herself, awards Claude Rains the prize as The Greatest Side-Eye of All Time.

And here's a curious note about The Voice, and the unique sidelong look he brought to multiple roles over the course of a great career: The evidence suggests both had their roots in adversity.

Claude Rains, who brought a silky hint of culture, wit and high birth to so many roles, was born into a London family of small means in 1889. He had 11 brothers and sisters; in an era of measles, diptheria and a thousand other childhood scourges many died in infancy. Only three Rains children, including him, made it to adulthood. His father, an actor of sorts, veered from one job to another, and was prone to beat his son for the smallest infraction. His mother spent time in an asylum, and Skal speculates that she suffered from postpartum depression. Young Willie (his birthname was William Claude) had a strong Cockney accent Skal says was picked up in the London streets, as well as both a lisp and a stammer. He got rid of them all by his late teens as he embarked on a career in the theatre, moving from call boy to prompter to speaking roles, and studying elocution books religiously, practicing every exercise.

In 1916 he volunteered for the famed London Scottish Regiment, known around these parts as the Most Devastatingly Attractive Regiment of All Time, including as it did Basil Rathbone, Herbert Marshall and Ronald Colman. Rains was deployed to Vimy Ridge, where months later his outfit was hit by mustard gas. A shell exploded near him and the last words he heard, before he lost consciousness, were "Well, they got Rains."

When he woke up in the hospital, he had lost nearly all the vision in his right eye, and his vocal cords were paralyzed. The voice came back, of course, but with a slightly rougher cast that movie audiences would grow to love. The blindness was permanent. Skal says "it would remain a closely guarded secret" right up to Rains' death in 1967.

It's hard, if not impossible, to know whether this contributed to the signature Rains technique, perhaps as one way of keeping a scene partner in his sightlines, without drawing attention to the right eye. What is indisputably true is that a sidelong glance from Claude Rains is more intense than many another actor's head-on stare.

It wasn't an indiscriminate thing. He was too fine and precise an actor for that. You won't find it much, for example, in Mr. Skeffington, one of the Siren's favorite Rains roles, where he has the title role as the near-saintly man who loves Bette Davis' cold-hearted flirt. But when he needed it, hoo boy.  Side-eye is modern slang for a glance of derision, and certainly Rains could do that, so scathingly you imagine whoever is in the scene with him had to put up a fire-screen. But Rains had infinite variations, until that look became an art. With it, he could convey tender love, bitter betrayal, cynicism, defeat, lust, fear, laughter and a sense that the world is mad.

Behold. The Siren has collected evidence.

Publicity photo, or, The Come-Hither Side-Eye, in which Rains at his handsomest appears to glance away
 because you, yes you dear fan-person, you drive him mad with passion. Speaking of which...

Crime Without Passion (1934): "You're blonde now."
Anthony Adverse (1936): Calculating, with a hint of licentiousness. Rowr.

Stolen Holiday (1937): "No, of course I haven't concocted one of the greatest
financial frauds in French history. Bisou-bisou, darling."

They Won't Forget (1937): The Siren can't joke about this one; it's too grim, and fact-based to boot.
 All the same, that's a hell of a look.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938): In a scene with Basil Rathbone, former comrade from the Scottish Regiment, the Rains sidelong glance does not hesitate to upstage the Baz something fierce.

Four Daughters (1938): The rarely deployed twinkly version. 

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941): Precisely the look to convey to a subordinate, in this world or the next, that he has made a very big boo-boo.

The Wolf-Man (1941): "Down, boy. My billing's higher than yours."

Building up a "psychic bellyache" in Kings Row (1942).

Now, Voyager (1942): The look of a psychiatrist who realizes he's taking the wrong person to the sanitorium.

As Casablanca was peak Rains, in the public memory if nothing else, so also is it Peak Side-Eye, as here

and here...

and here...

...and of course, here.

Notorious: The "Yes, That's the Low-Cut Gown of the American Spy I Married" Side-Eye

Publicity for The Unsuspected (1946): "I dare you to suspect me."
(Wonderful film, another of the Siren's favorite Rains outings.)

Deception (1947): Side-Eye Emphasizing the Betrayed, Although Admittedly Crazed and Controlling, Lover 

Lawrence of Arabia (1962): Assessing just how much trouble T.E.'s "funny sense of fun" is going to cause him.

Some more good stuff about Claude Rains:

The Notorious screen-grabs and the ones from Now, Voyager are from the movie writeups at The Blonde at the Film.

His career in horror movies, from John McElwee at Greenbriar Picture Shows.

Karen at Shadows and Satin speculates it was Rains who got the first million-dollar salary.

Moira Finnie at Movie Morlocks has a tribute that mentions the signature look.

A biographical essay at The Hollywood Art, with quotes from Rains' only daughter, Jessica.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

For the Love of Film IV: Did the Talkies Doom Norma Talmadge?

This post is my contribution to this year’s blogathon, For the Love of Film. This year the beneficiary of the blogosphere’s largess is Cupid in Quarantine (1918), which Marilyn Ferdinand calls “a one-reel Strand Comedy that tells the story of a young couple conspiring to stay together by staging a smallpox outbreak.” This may be the most eye-poppingly oddball comedy premise the Siren has ever encountered. Surely this film deserves to be saved for its daring alone.

Together with Roderick Heath of This Island Rod and today's host, Sam Juliano of Wonders in the Dark, we’re trying to raise $10,000 to go to the National Film Preservation Foundation to cover laboratory costs for the film’s preservation as well as a new score for the film’s web premiere. The streaming film will be available free at the NFPF website.

Today is the last day. Help the Siren help Marilyn, Rod and Sam to bring it home for the folks at the NFPF! A random drawing of donor names will determine eligibility for some nice prizes including (ahem) a signed copy of the Siren's novel, Missing Reels.

Please read, and donate! The Siren is too ladylike to name names, but she has seen crowdfunding for some mighty dubious stuff this year. THIS is a good cause, and one that will yield you tangible results: preserving a piece of film history. Traditionally, it's the small donations that add up for us. So don't be shy!

The silent film the Siren watched most recently was Kiki, an absolutely delightful comedy from 1926 that starred Norma Talmadge as an inept wannabe showgirl (she can sing, but after that, the party’s over). A relaxed, funny Ronald Colman plays the showbiz impresario who's the object of her affection; Gertrude Astor is the snooty star who stands in plucky, orphaned, dead-broke Kiki's way.

It was directed by Clarence Brown, who later told Kevin Brownlow, “Norma Talmadge was the greatest pantomimist that ever drew breath. She was a natural-born comic; you could turn on a scene with her and she’d go on for five minutes without stopping or repeating herself.”

Norma Talmadge puts one over on the landlady in Kiki.

Brown knew whereof he spoke. Norma Talmadge is really, truly wonderful; fresh, natural, unaffected.

But Talmadge is the second-most famous casualty of sound, after John Gilbert. We know now that the history of Gilbert’s “white voice” (a late-1920s euphemism for effeminate) is, as Henry Ford would put it, bunk. What about Norma? Is that bunk, too?

She looks miserable, doesn't she.

The story of Norma Talmadge, and the Brooklyn patois that supposedly sank her overnight, might in fact be more famous than Gilbert -- but pseudonymously. Nowadays not that many people know that the immortal Lina Lamont is a direct parody of Talmadge’s fall. Singin’ in the Rain even goes so far as to set the character’s disastrous first try at a talking picture in 18th-century France. In 1952, there were still people around who remembered the 1930 picture, DuBarry, Woman of Passion. It was Talmadge’s last film.

The Siren adores Singin' in the Rain, but its influence on the view of silent-film history has been, let's just say, not good. It's probably just as well that the Talmadge connection has been forgotten by the general public. Lina is a superb comic creation, talentless, avaricious, with the brains of a sequin. Norma was intelligent, talented, and held in much affection by people like Anita Loos, as the Siren once wrote before.

And let’s not dwell on the great Sunset Boulevard, often claimed to be based in part on the long, reclusive retirement of Norma, during which she apparently became dependent on painkillers for crippling arthritis. Billy Wilder was always cagey about whether art had ungallantly imitated life, but sadly, the bare outline fits. (Although, as Mae Murray is reported to have said on seeing the film, “None of us floozies was that nuts.”)

Legend has it that Norma’s sister, Constance, a star in her own right, sent a telegram advising Norma to get out. There are different versions around, so the Siren will reproduce the one she likes best:


True or not, to this day precisely why Norma Talmadge didn’t take as a talkie star is a matter of some debate. If you want to hear her voice, you have a chance with New York Nights above. It’s an extremely interesting early talkie, with a nice turn by Lilyan Tashman. Gilbert Roland was not at the top of his acting game, but lord, he always looks good. It's a bit static, but there are gritty moments that seem to herald the Depression-oriented pre-Codes to come, and other scenes that are rooted in pure melodrama.

As for the Talmadge voice, it is pleasant, hardly a Lamontesque assault on the eardrums, and perfectly appropriate for her showgirl character. On the other hand, if you go to the 15:30 mark, and listen to Talmadge deliver the line, “Some birthday party” in an accent that sounds straight outta Flatbush, it is easy to understand why her voice came as a shock.

Gilbert Roland, Talmadge, and Arnold Kent in Woman Disputed (1927) directed by Henry King and Sam Taylor. A silent movie, it came with a much-mocked Movietone score that included a song: "Although you're refuted / Woman Disputed / I love you." For better or worse, Library of Congress print is missing the score.

Greta de Groat, a scholar whose Norma Talmadge site is absolutely splendid — a place to read about the whole of this great star’s career, and lose hours doing so — says simply that “the world was moving on, and in the excitement of discovering new favorites, the public was letting go of the old stars.” De Groat has seen DuBarry (the Siren has not) and claims that the accent so apparent in New York Nights is nowhere in evidence. Alexander Walker, in The Shattered Silents, buys into the idea that Norma’s voice doomed her, but maintains that she was nearly unique in that regard (the only other name he cites as vocally doomed is William Haines). He’s worth quoting at some length:

Just looking at the best examples of silent screen acting show how much of value was irrecoverably lost. Sound made acting more naturalistic, but also lazier. Words did the work. They diminished the mobile, finely nuanced quality of the screen mime and began the process in which the sense of people playing parts in a dexterously visible way is lost sight of a in a stylised naturalism that requires a dominant personality to make it bearable from film to film...Once they had dialogue on their lips, the silent idols suffered a grievous loss of divinity. They became more like the audiences watching them. This helps explain why the talkies altered star values so radically. What they did not do — and this needs stressing — was ruin the silent stars.

Talmadge had been planning to star in The Greeks Had a Word for Them for Samuel Goldwyn, but walked away. It was another showgirl character. Kiki, it should be noted, didn’t take with a public that loved their Norma as a dramatic heroine. Perhaps that was in the back of her mind. Her looks and talent had established her as one kind of star, and once that was the case, the fact that she might have been good in another type of role wasn’t enough to save her career. She’d been one of the most celebrated beauties in movies, but she was nearing 40, that age that knocked even Margo Channing sideways. Norma took little sis’ advice.

Norma, holding the baby, in The Lady (1925), directed by Frank Borzage. De Groat says the second reel is missing and there is deterioration on the surviving print, but it still impressed a California audience some years back.

As for why she is so little remembered today, well, she has that in common with a number of other silent stars. But Norma was especially unlucky. Norma’s films were acquired by the mysterious, litigious Raymond Rohauer, the man who controlled Buster Keaton’s legacy. (Buster, of course, was married to Norma’s sister Natalie.) Rohauer left the films to the Library of Congress, but in de Groat’s words, they had been “sorely neglected.” Some of the prints were only partially salvageable; some were all there, but damaged; still others were simply gone. It’s a story that stuck in my mind as I was writing Missing Reels.

The good news is that of her 51 films, de Groat says “31 are thought to be complete, and 11 more are preserved in part.” There are a few out on home video now, and the Siren plans to chase them down. But for Norma Talmadge ever to be a name on a level with better-known silent stars like Clara Bow, the films have to get back in circulation. And perhaps they will. De Groat also points out that since she began the site, several films, including Kiki, have come out on DVD.

As I say more than once in Missing Reels, I’m basically an optimist. When it comes to film preservation, it’s the only attitude that can keep me sane.

Here’s looking at you, Miss Talmadge. Your movies deserve a better fate.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

The "Paradine" Letters, Part 4

These are the Siren's final thoughts on The Paradine Case, at least for these purposes. If you haven't already, please go to Some Came Running to read the Mighty Glenn Kenny's Part 3.

David O. Selznick's foreign discoveries stick together.

Dear Glenn,
Since you’ve covered the formal beauties of this movie so well, I thought I’d use my last go-round to talk about Hitchcock's second- or third-choice actors and their performances. I adore her, as longtime readers know, so I’ll start with Alida Valli.

Here, as in The Third Man and Senso, she’s madly in love with a man who doesn’t love her back. (You could also make a case for Eyes Without a Face in that vein.) It’s an odd pattern for such a beautiful actress. Interesting, too, that after Alida Valli herself suffered greatly during the war in Italy, she often played women scarred by the past, although it’s also pretty plain that Mrs. Paradine was bad news from the start. Valli was still learning English during filming, but her voice and intonations are beautiful; I love to hear the consonants roll off her tongue when she looks at Gregory Peck and says, speaking of Louis Jourdan as Latour, “You are not to destroy him. If you do, I shall hate you as I have never hated a man.”

A bit overdressed for the occasion
The Siren once expressed reservations about Valli in this movie, but the last viewing erased them. She is, as Charles Coburn’s solicitor Sir Simon Flaquer remarks, “Fascinating, fascinating.” The caressing way she leans in slightly when she wants something from Peck, the near-dominatrix tone she adopts when she realizes he may go after Jourdan despite her warnings, and the queenly bearing she has at all times, add up to someone who merits all the constant chatter about her. (Don’t you love the moment when Latour, in so many words, tells Keane, “She’s bad, bad to the bone”?)

In the very beginning, when the Scotland Yard men arrest Mrs. Paradine in a deferential way that suggests they're escorting her to the theater, she asks the butler to bring her “black lamb." That turns out to be a coat so lavish it could keep all of Mayfair warm. Once it’s fastened, she turns and checks herself in the mirror: Even on her way to prison, Mrs. Paradine is, at all times and in all ways, conscious of the effect she is having. That little mirror-check may be her one moment of true human weakness. Her love for Latour is not weakness, but a Wagnerian fire.

This is pretty much the same look he trains on Coburn.
Tony Keane, the supposedly legendary barrister played by Peck, doesn’t have a chance with her. Whatever Mrs. Paradine wants, we know instinctively it isn’t this walking mass of rhetoric and (formerly) high principles. We hear quite a bit about "Tony's brilliance" but on screen — and this is a problem with the script, along with its admitted talkiness — there are almost no scenes to show he’s anything of the sort. He loses his head early on, and it stays lost. Too, Peck lacks the requisite passion in his scenes with Valli. No torch fires up behind his eyes when he looks at her. Maybe maintaining all that lava-hot lust for Jennifer Jones in the earlier Duel in the Sun had exhausted him. Maybe he (or Selznick) was unwilling to have his character’s betrayal of sweet Ann Todd be that blatantly sinful. Whatever the cause, Peck is the weakest link, and as he is the main character, that is a non-trivial problem. But one thing he nails in great style is his final speech, where he says, with stunning obviousness at that point, “Everything I have done seems to have gone against my client," yet he still makes you feel the magnitude of the man’s failure. Peck was pretty much born to address a jury.

Sexual harrassment, 1947-style.
Ah, Ann Todd as Gay — lovely, charming, initially clueless: “Nice people don’t go about murdering other nice people.” Peck does has some chemistry with Todd; their early scenes are playful and teasing, with much affection and a kiss that tells you this married couple still has sex. (They have no kids.) Todd manages to convince me that a woman would push her husband to keep representing Mrs. Paradine, Gay’s reasoning being that if Tony walks away, part of him will always yearn for the maybe-murderess. The scene that establishes Gay as a woman with the strength to do such a thing is the one you describe so well, at the dinner party. After he fixates on her bare shoulder, Laughton as the well-named Lord Horfield settles his bulk way too close to Gay on the sofa. Then he grabs her hand, ostensibly to look at her ring, with such force that she has trouble yanking it away. She tells him off in a very British fashion — by complimenting his wife — and moves to the other side of the room, where Keane is talking to the hostess. Gay's adored Tony hasn’t noticed a thing, or gone to check on her; it’s an early scene, but we already see the selfishness lurking behind Keane’s upright facade.

Just out of frame is Tetzel's cigarette holder, with which she prevents Coburn's monocle from upstaging her.

Joan Tetzel as Judy Flaquer sees it too; she tells her father, “Men who’ve been good too long get a longing for the mire and want to wallow in it.” For that reason, I don’t think she is going to have her own Paradine. She’s far too clearsighted, an audience surrogate who says what everyone else is thinking. I like her confidence and her chic, the fact that she’s still living with her father, doesn't seem to resent him a bit, and wipes him out at chess. Charles Coburn as her father is Charles Coburn, monocle twinkling away, sage and amusing, amusing and sage, but that is no bad thing, at least in my book. He gets a wonderful line about photographs: "The social footsteps of time."

Jourdan's first American close-up was a honey.
When Hitchcock’s path crosses Selznick’s in the canteen of the afterlife, he probably still fumes about Jourdan’s casting, but Jourdan is excellent. I don’t think his beauty ruins the material at all. (It’s odd that in interviews Hitchcock always referred to the character as a groom, when he’s a valet in both the book and the movie.) Of course it helps immensely that Colonel Paradine was blind, because otherwise, if you don’t want your wife to sleep with the valet, you hire Eric Blore.

I like Robin Wood’s brief musings:

Jourdan worked in only two other distinguished films in the 1940s, both quite central to their respective directors' work, and both underrated by most critics: Minnelli's Madame Bovary and Hitchcock's The Paradine Case. The former inflects Jourdan's persona in the direction of aristocratic decadence, while retaining the sense of vulnerability. The latter, far more remarkably (especially in the 1950s), eliminates the decadence altogether yet defines the character, at least by implication, as gay. We are informed that Jourdan as the valet has no interest in women, has totally resisted the advances of Mrs. Paradine (Alida Valli, no less), and has been completely dedicated to his master, Colonel Paradine. The valet's dedication is the moral center of this remarkable film, and is combined very disturbingly with Valli's erotic dedication to Jourdan — although Hitchcock later felt Jourdan's character should have been rougher and more "manly" to account for the frustrated Valli's fixation upon him.

Now that I think about it, Wood may well be right that Jourdan, whose character's end is by far the most tragic, is the moral center here, and not Todd. The evidence that Latour is gay leaped out very strongly at me during the last couple of viewings, and was reinforced by another line, spoken to Alida Valli by Leo G. Carroll, playing the prosecutor: “As soon as you learned of his indifference to women, you determined to overcome that indifference.”

Fun couple

I’ll close by noting the excellence of the penultimate scene, in which we learn Mrs. Paradine’s fate. It’s dinner time chez Lord and Lady Horfield, where the table is the length of a subway car and husband and wife deliver their lines through candelabra that would not disgrace the Hall of Mirrors. Laughton (who, remember, disliked “toffs”) throughout the trial scenes plays Horfield as an Olympian autocrat, amusing himself with bon mots while pushing the jury to a foreordained conclusion. Ethel Barrymore reportedly had her best scene cut, but she is very touching here, even if her Oscar nomination remains something of a mystery. (Stephen Whitty points out that the longer version seen by Academy voters that year may have had that scene.)

Here, Laughton delivers possibly the most macabre line in all Hitchcock: “It’s surprising how closely the convolutions of a walnut resemble those of the human brain.” As he inspects a walnut he just cracked, even though it is not a close shot, we see that indeed it does, horrifyingly, resemble what a brain would look like if you sawed open someone’s skull. Ethel Barrymore timidly tries to get a bit of feeling out of him (“Doesn’t life punish us enough, Tommy?”) And he snaps back, “Must I listen to more of your silly pity for every scoundrel, man or woman?” Thus is raised the question of whether the worst sociopath in the entire movie has been the one on the bench.

I want to be clear that I don’t consider The Paradine Case top-flight Hitchcock, but I’d place it solidly in the middle tier, as one of the best examples of what he could do outside his comfort zone. There is no way The Paradine Case deserves to be ranked dead last and dissed as hard as it was in a recent Indiewire rundown of Top 25 Hitch. I hope that at least we may persuade some people to take another look.

The sum of the Paradine parts:

Friday, May 01, 2015

The "Paradine" Letters, Part 2

(The Siren is having a dialog with her Close Personal Friend Glenn Kenny about the much-maligned The Paradine Case. Part 1 was published yesterday at Some Came Running and should be read before the Siren's post. This is her reply.)

Screen cap from Glenn: "Two Profiles"

I believe you’re right: Hitchcock definitely contributed to his film’s low reputation. I’ve written before about cases of actors who dislike their own work, and it can be true of directors as well, especially directors who were working in a commercial vein and who cared about audience reaction and box office. Hitchcock was an artist who wanted to make hits, and The Paradine Case was a flop. Plus, Hitchcock didn’t get his way on some big decisions, and he never liked the original novel (by Robert Hichens) much to begin with.

Hitchcock wrote a draft script with wife Alma Reville, but Selznick was unsatisfied. At this point in his career, Selznick was always unsatisfied. He’d become Hollywood’s Tinkerer Supreme. So Hitchcock suggested that Selznick bring in Scottish playwright James Bridie, who later worked on Under Capricorn and Stage Fright, to do a rewrite. But Bridie hated the States, and so he sailed back to England and mailed in his pages as he went along. This didn’t work, and I can’t imagine why anyone thought it would, given the vagaries of transatlantic mail in 1946.

Ben Hecht was brought in briefly for additional dialogue. The canny Hecht quickly saw that the project was snakebit. He agreed to help on the fly, for $10,000 and a promise that his name would not be put on whatever resulted. Reportedly the only part of Hecht’s dialogue that survives is Peck’s courtroom meltdown. Head censor Joseph Breen of the Hays Office sent along his usual artistic enhancements, including a warning not to show a prison toilet or to film anything that suggested Todd and Peck were in their bathroom at the same time.

The Happy Hitchcock Gang

Meanwhile Selznick was consumed with finishing Duel in the Sun, and The Paradine Case had to take a number. By the time shooting began, there was still no finalized script, and Selznick was rewriting. Hitchcock was frequently working from pages that Selznick had sent down that very morning. “This, of course, drove Hitchcock to distraction,” was Peck’s understated recollection.

Hitchcock’s filming ideally had an express-train rhythm. The Paradine Case was more like a Greyhound bus making unscheduled stops. And then there was the cast, made up almost entirely of actors he didn’t want. Hitchcock requested Robert “Long John Silver” Newton for Latour the valet, got Louis Jourdan, and sulked about that apparently until the day he died. Hitchcock’s prior experience with Charles Laughton had been sheer misery, although Laughton turned out to be the least of his worries. Hitchcock didn’t see the point of Selznick's ballyhooed "Valli" (as she was billed), and as you mention, he told Selznick that Gregory Peck was no one’s idea of a barrister (and he wasn’t wrong). Not to mention that this was Hitchcock’s last film under his seven-year Selznick contract, and he was itching to go independent. Filming took four months. That’s not including retakes.

The final product was about three hours long. Selznick cut it down to just over two, while still finding room to insert close-ups in the middle of Hitchcock’s treasured long takes. It sat on the shelf for months while Selznick worked to convince everybody to go see Duel in the Sun.

Publicity time. I guess Laughton didn't smoke Chesterfields.

The Paradine Case finally wound up with a big December 1947 premiere at two separate cinemas in Westwood, reviews that amounted to “it’s OK I guess,” and box-office receipts totaling about half what it had cost.

No wonder that years later, once he got a nice young man like François Truffaut to confide in, Hitchcock’s retrospective assessment of The Paradine Case was essentially, “Oh god, not that one.”

But the Siren, perverse mortal that she is, long ago adopted this pain-in-the-neck film as her very own pet Hitchcock orphan (along with Lifeboat and Rope). It is slow, yes, but it whispers along like silk, until that courtroom climax fells the audience right along with Anthony Keane. And it is exquisite to behold. When you made a movie for David O. Selznick, in exchange for putting up with all those damn memos, you got big-time production values. Franz Waxman composed a wonderful score, one of my favorites, both romantic and sinister. Travis Banton designed the gowns, which was no bit of trivia but rather an area that mattered to both Selznick and Hitchcock. Banton's contributions are simple but effective; in early scenes, Ann Todd wears stainless white, while Alida Valli is a column of black.

Over a million 1947 dollars' worth of set.

And Thomas Morahan was the art director. When I saw this as a girl I couldn’t get enough of the interiors: the way Maddalena Paradine glides proudly through a convent-like prison; the luxurious London house where Anthony and Gay Keane retreat to live their perfect upper-crust lives; the firelit room where Judge Lord Thomas Horfield (Charles Laughton) makes his spidery attempts to put his hands on Mrs. Keane, while Lady Horfield (Ethel Barrymore) watches helplessly. And then there's that Old Bailey courtroom set, so meticulously accurate that building it is said to have eaten up one-third of the budget.

Glenn calls this screen cap "Garmes Glory"

Everything significant seems to take place indoors, or at night. The cinematography is velvet noir, shadows menacing the rich and pampered instead of the grubby and low-rent. (DP Lee Garmes was in the prime of his career, his next film being Nightmare Alley.) Valli and Todd never looked more beautiful, and for that matter, neither did Peck, with his noble profile and silvered temples. (Hitchcock wanted him to have a mustache, and even that got nixed, on the grounds that British barristers aren’t permitted facial hair.)

It is, as you say, a melodrama — a women’s picture — filtered through Hitchcock’s feverish preoccupations, full of thwarted loves and twisted seductions. Keane begins by admiring Mrs. Paradine’s beauty, determines to save her, and then gradually descends into life-shattering obsession.

When someone does praise The Paradine Case, they often want to discuss it as a dry run for Vertigo. But I see Ann Todd's character as the moral center. This is Vertigo with an extra helping of Barbara Bel Geddes’ point of view, and more sympathy going to the woman cast aside so a man can recklessly pursue his sexual doom.

(The next installment in the "The 'Paradine' Letters" will be at Glenn's place on Monday, May 4th.)