Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Quite a bit cheaper, quite a lot more fun

The death of producer Tony Tenser on December 5th this year robbed British cinema of one of the last, certainly one of the most important, living links with the sixties heyday of the British horror film.
Success to him meant commercial success. He once said he would rather feel ashamed of a movie that was making money than proud of one that was losing it, and when he explained "My films were in a similar vein to Hammer and Amicus but I made them quite a bit cheaper" he did so not matter of factly but with pride. But as well as cheaper, they were also in many cases a lot more enjoyable.
In an odd little book called Skin Deep in Soho, writer Richard Wortley recalls approaching a film producer who "was actually puffing at a large cigar and greying neatly at the temples" with an idea to shoot a documentary on strip clubs. He does not name him, but it is clearly Tenser:
He explained a method of beating the censor by using a rapid succession of nude stills, then scribbled a couple of selling titles on a piece of paper which he slipped across the table... We were in the presence of the master publicist who first described Brigitte Bardot as the Sex Kitten, who advertised a Lassie film at Cambridge by importing some animals for a sheep-dog trial, who renamed Love Between Friends as Love-Play Between Friends, and Plucking the Marguerittes as Mam'zelle Striptease...
A manual labourer before the war and an RAF technician during it, on demob Tenser exploited a family connection to get a job as a trainee cinema manager. From that he worked his way up to head of publicity for Miracle Films (where he helped Bardot into posterity). Needing some strippers for a publicity stunt, he visited the Nell Gwynn strip club in Soho and met the manager, a man who - to quote Wortley again - had "seen a punter spend £30000 in eight months, nightly crawling on the floor in a hunting coat to pick up fruit that a singer was shaking off her body during her number." The man was Michael Klinger - the manager, I mean, not the chap picking up fruit - and the two struck up a rapport that led to the formation first of the Compton cinema club (which circumnavigated censorship by catering only to members by private subscription) then to the production company Compton Films.
The earliest Compton products were mild sexploitation, coy nudist romps like Naked As Nature Intended and My Bare Lady and the likes of Saturday Night Out (1964), a quickie about a group of randy merchant seamen on shore leave that pulsated to the beat of The Searchers because Klinger and Tenser refused to pay the Beatles' train fare from Liverpool. They also imported and distributed foreign titles, usually tame erotica but occasionally more prestigious fare, which they sold in exactly the same way. For instance, hiding among the smut in the advert reproduced on the left is an infuriating art-house classic. Can you spot it?
The move into horror production came with Black Torment (1964), a minor but pleasant supernatural melodrama, and a collaboration with Herman Cohen in the Sherlock-Holmes-meets-Jack-the-Ripper pastiche A Study in Terror (1965). But their big break came that same year, when they decided to bankroll a frankly unpromising script called Lovelihead by a cocky young Pole with little grasp of conversational English called Roman Polanski. Retitled Repulsion, this story of a woman going slowly mad in her London flat became a major critical success, winning the Silver Bear at Berlin and worldwide distribution from Columbia.
Not that the production went smoothly; Polanski's resentment of Klinger and Tenser's close attention to schedule and budget still simmers in his autobiography, where he calls them "figures on the fringe of the film industry" for whom he devised a film carefully punctuated with horrific moments because "anything too sophisticated would have scared them off". (This is the man who made Pirates.) As such he deliberately wasted time and money with fussy displays of perfectionism and fits of artistic temperament; when he took 27 takes of a cut-away showing a hand picking up a bottle of nail varnish (on a Sunday, with the crew on triple pay) Klinger had all 27 printed, invited Polanski to dinner, then furiously instructed him to identify which three he had okayed and why.
The acclaim that the film, and to a lesser degree Polanski's follow-up Cul De Sac (1966), achieved left Klinger disenchanted with the tawdry world of strippers and 'orror movies; he left in 1967 to form Michael Klinger Productions, going on to make Get Carter and the Confessions series. (He died in 1989.)
For Tenser it was back to business as usual, first as Tony Tenser Productions and then as Tigon. He hired British veteran Vernon Sewell for my two favourite Tigon movies, the ludicrous The Blood Beast Terror (1967) and the absurd Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968). The first - and there's really no getting around this - is cinema's only weremoth movie, in which Wanda Ventham periodically transforms into a giant death's head moth that flaps about the English countryside drinking people's blood. Policeman Peter Cushing, with impeccable logic, lights a bonfire and poor Wanda is drawn to it like... well, you know what like. If that hadn't worked he would have presumably tried a ten-foot rolled newspaper.
Altar bags Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff and Barbara Steele as, respectively, surprise villain, wheelchair-bound red herring and green-skinned witch revealed at the end to be... no, that would be telling. (But it's good.) Gorgeously photographed in velvet-thick purples, reds and greens it is actually a rather beautiful film, shot entirely in Grimsdyke House, one-time home of Sir Arthur Sullivan. It could easily pass for Hammer, in fact, if not for the crazed plot and typical Tenser touches like having Virginia Wetherell likening the house to something from a horror film, to which Mark Eden adds that he keeps expecting Boris Karloff to pop up.
Tenser was generous in his employment of young, untested talent. (You never knew when they were going to give you a masterpiece - plus they came cheap.) Michael Armstrong had only made a 21-minute short called The Image when Tenser hired him to shoot a film called The Dark in 1969. Armstrong's snappy description of The Image as "a study of the illusionary reality within the schizophrenic mind of the artist at his point of creativity" was hardly calculated to endear him to the one-time head of publicity at Miracle Films, and he admitted looking into the wrong end of the camera on the first day of shooting. The film, planned as "a cynical attack on the swinging sixties" emerged, after much re-editing and some reshoots overseen by Gerry O'Hara, as not much of a cynical attack on anything, other than audiences who like to know what's going on (and see it - it wasn't called The Dark for nothing.)
With Karloff in the cast as planned it would have been even weirder, especially when it was mooted that he be revealed as the knife-wielding killer in his wheelchair, but he sadly died and what would have been his role was split between George Sewell and Dennis Price. What finally appeared under the title The Haunted House of Horror is a jolly, not entirely worthless anticipation of the American slashers of the late seventies, but it could have been a great film: listen to Armstrong's fascinating commentary on the DVD. Still what we have is great fun, with a lovely score by Reg Tilsley and that well-known Swinging London teenager Frankie Avalon heading what could be the greatest cast ever assembled: ex-Preminger protégée Jill Haworth, now British horror's most beautiful and underused screamer, Richard O'Sullivan with short hair and Robin Stewart from Bless This House (who according to Robin Askwith had once tried to excuse his lateness at a rehearsal by claiming that he had hit and killed an escaped camel).
But Tenser certainly got his money back on Michael Reeves, a rather pompous director in his early twenties who made the studio's biggest hit, Witchfinder General (1968) and the silly Karloff film The Sorcerers (1967). There is plenty to admire in Witchfinder so long as you don't fall into the trap of seeing greatness in it, but both films are maddeningly overpraised. Reeves's naive, petulant response to a bad review by Alan Bennett - in which he claimed that his film was an attempt to show that "violence is horrible" and opined, hilariously, that the more lighthearted kind of horror film that "Mr Bennett... so strangely advocates is surely immoral to the extent of criminality"- is endlessly and approvingly quoted by genre writers.
Tenser responded to this brush with broadsheet respectability by continuing to green-light oddities like The Beast in the Cellar (1971) in which the mysterious beast tearing soldiers to pieces - that experts examining the bodies speculate may be an escaped leopard - is revealed to be a puny man with a beard and long fingernails that his sisters Beryl Reid and Flora Robson had locked in their cellar in 1939 so he wouldn't have to go to war. Neither the Sea nor the Sand (1972) is, if nothing else, Britain's only seaside zombie love story written by a newsreader (Gordon Honeycombe). Susan Hampshire goes on holiday and falls for a Russian in a chunky sweater who dies and returns as a green-skinned zombie to pick up where he left off; at the end they walk hand in hand into the sea. What's Good For the Goose (1969) was a sex comedy with Norman Wisdom as a bank manager who falls for free-loving Sally Geeson at a conference in Southport: the theme song is great but the waiters with bare chests and neck-ties must have looked horrible even at the time.
Blood On Satan's Claw (1971), a genuinely chilling tale of 17th century diabolism, is surely the best of Tigon's output in a legitimate sense, but connoisseurs of British cinema's by-ways and cul-de-sacs may well warm to Zeta One (1970), a soft-core sci-fi spoof notable for the number of respected British character actors who walked off before it was finished.
Tenser claimed to have grown weary of the violence in his films, and disbanded Tigon in 1973; after serving as executive producer on Pete Walker's Frightmare (1974) he left the business entirely to sell cane furniture. But he lived long enough to find himself hailed as a maverick hero by a new generation of horror fans. For all his carny-barker bravado, he was basically a modest man, and this belated reverence and acclaim must have surprised and delighted him.
But it was not un-earned. In films good, bad and indifferent, there is more diversity, madness, originality and occasional greatness in Tigon's five or so years of horror film production than in the output of any of its rivals in the same period - including Hammer. Tigon's films are wackier in concept - blood-drinking moth women, OAP mind-controllers, rotting but romantic zombies - and boast brazenly and wonderfully crass exploitation titles. At a time when Hammer and their ad campaigns were routinely criticised on the grounds of sensationalism Tenser sent one film into different territories with the following titles: The Blood Beast Terror, The Deaths Head Vampire, The Vampire Beast Craves Blood and Blood Beast From Hell. This tasteless zest, and the shrewd knowledge of the market that informed it, were what kept Tenser head and shoulders above his competitors. It is also what makes his films, to this day, so much fun.
Tony Tenser, 1920 - 2007

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Your Christmas film guide

This is not, let me hasten to stress, my pick of the films on television over Christmas. (Though I can do that if you want: Mr Deeds Goes To Town, Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House, Samson & Delilah, a couple of Val Lewtons and I Married a Witch. There, that's that done. Same time next year?)
No, what I intend doing here is recommending a favourite seasonal movie of mine that you might wish to track down if you are looking for a break from Alistair Sim or George Bailey this year.
If like me you've always enjoyed the first episode of Tales From The Crypt (1972), that wonderfully atmsopheric, largely silent sequence with Joan Collins menaced in her isolated farmhouse by an escaped lunatic dressed as Santa, it is just possible you will enjoy perhaps the cheapest and grottiest British horror film ever made. Joan will, I'm sure, because it places the fur-lined boot firmly on the other foot and details the activities of a maniac with a homicidal grudge against Santa. The film is called Dont (sic) Open Till Christmas (1983). If you like unpleasant rubbish with a yuletide theme you can do no better. Or worse, probably, but that's beside the point.
It's a formulaic slasher thriller with the big difference that the victims are not pretty girls but fat old men getting a bit of Christmas beer money by selling chestnuts or working the department store grotto. We never quite know how many have been killed (by what turns out to be the character we had marked as principal red herring); enough have taken place for the newspapers and police to be already talking of "another Santa murder" by the time the film begins, and we get to see a mind-boggling 10 others before it ends, along with three of non-Santas and one attempted murder in which the victim is let off because it turns out to be a topless woman under the red costume instead of an old man (don't ask).
Despite this, the obvious safety measure of not going out alone at night dressed as Father Christmas is never suggested by the police, nor does it cross the minds of any of the victims. One is killed in the London Dungeon, another in full costume in a Soho peep show, another has something unmentionable done to him while taking a leak in a public lavatory.
The dialogue is frequently hilarious, especially the banter between detective Edmund Purdom and his Sergeant (Mark Jones). "Do you think, sir, we might have a psychopath on our hands?" asks Jones after what must have been at least the fifth slaying. "That's exactly what the Assistant Commissioner was bellowing at me a moment ago," says Purdom, "you know what I replied?" "It's early days yet for a pattern, I suppose," suggests Jones. On and on it goes in this vein:
Jones: Trouble is, sir, the moment anyone puts on a Santa Claus costume they become a sort of semi-holy figure, don't they, well, to the kids anyway.
Purdom (not really listening): The whole of the West End is crammed with Santa Clauses. What have you got on this latest?
Jones: Petty crook, known to West End Central, could have been pushing drugs. This one could have been a coincidence, actually.
The Evening Standard headline after one murder is 'Only Three More Killing Days To Christmas'. ("The chief's gonna love cracks like that", grumbles Purdom.)
It's one of my favourite of all Christmas movies, made on the run and on the cheap by a British outfit calling itself Spectacular International Films, actually a conglomeration of old reprobates like Derek Ford, Alan Birkinshaw and Dick Randall. ('British Rail Traveller's Fare' is thanked in the closing credits, along with Scotland Yard, presumably for not telling them to clear off while they were filming Purdom stood in front of the revolving sign.)
Purdom is both star and - incredibly - director, though one 'Al McGoohan' (actually exploitation hack Birkinshaw) is credited with writing and directing additional scenes. The smart money is on these being largely comprised of the huge numbers of additional Santa murders that nobody mentions or even seems aware of in the rest of the film, and which are in many cases surprisingly horrible despite the obviousness of the special effects.
There is, incredibly, a documentary out there about the making of this film, which I've never seen. (If anyone has a copy, please drop me a line!) It apparently shows some scenes being shot with different actors, one of them the bit where a Santa is murdered in a peep show. Presumably the actor in the costume is the one listed in the credits, since in the finished film it's unquestionably Keith Smith from the Spike Milligan shows under the whiskers.
The plot and resolution are ridiculous, insultingly so, really; the revelation of the killer's motive is absurd and his actions throughout inexplicable and often physically impossible. I confess it took a couple of viewings for me to see past the silliness and the gore and find the charm. But it is there. It's there in the guerilla film-maker's handbook shots of Purdom loitering outside Scotland Yard, in the extraneous padding as he wanders around Covent Garden listening to carol singers, in the enthusiastic amateurism of the supporting performances, in the incredibly evocative synthesiser score (including a nifty spooky version of Silent Night), in the opportunism of having one body discovered on stage at a London theatre so as to give Caroline Munro a musical number called 'Warrior of Love'.
Make no mistake: this is a terrible, terrible film, and should be avoided entirely unless your tastes run to the most tawdry excesses of cheapjack exploitation. But if they do, prepare yourself for a treat.
Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 14, 2007

An old kazoo and some sparklers

I'm not actually all that familiar with All About Eve, so it was good to see it at my local cinema.
This is, of course, the Bette Davis film that rounded off her golden Hollywood period. It is a very good movie rather than a great one: as always with Mankiewicz it is at least half an hour too long and only perfunctorily filmed; the dialogue is the thing, though even this could do with judicious pruning. It survives mainly on account of a few waspish one-liners, a generally convincing evocation of the solipsism of the theatrical community and two terrific performances.
Actually three - as well as Davis's superlative Margo Channing, a great actress facing middle age and usurpation by the insufferable Eve, Thelma Ritter comes close to stealing the show as the wisecracking Birdie, the humblest but wisest person in the room when Eve makes her first move, and the only one to instantly see through her act.
But the real star of the show for me is George Sanders as venemous critic Addison DeWitt. It is to Sanders's absurdly rapturous description of one of Eve's performances as "a thing of music and fire" that Davis characterises herself as "an old kazoo and some sparklers".
As always I find myself pondering why Sanders was never a major star; he's certainly talented enough, handsome enough, and blessed with the most melodious speaking voice around. Perhaps he is just too cynical, apathetic and indolent in his manner to suggest hidden reserves of heroism or romance. He played his share of heroic roles, but audiences always felt most comfortable with him as the witty, ironic bystander, first with the putdown and last into the fight.
Perhaps they also sensed that what they saw was pretty much the real man. David Niven, who liked him enormously, speaks in his autobiography of Sanders's mocking reluctance to do anything to support the British war effort - which certainly took bravery of a sort - and his cheerful admission that his death would come at his own hand. When he did eventually commit suicide in 1972 he left a note addressed "Dear World", citing boredom as his principal motive and concluding "I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool."
But what a screen presence - possibly one that communicates itself more attractively to our hard-bitten age than it did to his own. It is to Sanders that Mankiewicz donates the film's best and truest line: when Marilyn Monroe's lousy aspiring actress asks "Do they have auditions for television?", Sanders replies "That's all television is, my dear: nothing but auditions."

Monday, November 26, 2007

My five favourite flappers

You can keep Marilyn Monroe.
If it is true style, true glamour and true sexual allure you are after, pitch your tent in the late nineteen-twenties.
The twenties flapper has survived as an archetype longer than just about every other cultural phenomenon of her times, and here gathered are my five favourites of her many cinematic incarnations.
In rightful first place is the sexiest film star of all time: Betty Boop.
In theory, Betty should be grossly unattractive: no man, if asked to design the perfect woman, would give her a head many times too large for a tiny body, with a spiky crown of black patent hair and huge eyes set much too far apart in a face that abruptly ends beneath her cheek bones, leaving her mouth hanging in the space where her chin should be. Yet it is as the perfect woman, somehow, that the blending of these peculiar features ends up.
Her design in fact reflects her slow evolution from her original incarnation, which was as a cartoon dog. But through superb accident, the curious hybrid that was finally christened 'Betty Boop' in Stopping the Show (1932) came to embody the ideal flapper as surely as the illustrations of John Held.
The character that emerged in her classic early thirties cartoons was both innocent and coquettish, knowing and naive, and far more attractive than a drawing has any right to be. Betty is an innocent, not unaware of her sexual attractiveness but somehow frustrated by it and as powerless to moderate it as the lounge lizards or street-car romeos who court her so relentlessly are in its thrall. Fate, too, conspires against her: in her earliest films she is always struggling to preserve her modesty in the face of gusts of wind and trips and tumbles that raise her hemline and expose her garter and frilly underclothes.
Male audiences instantly took her to their hearts, greeting her presence on the bill with the same drooling rapture as their counterparts on screen. They in turn were explicitly catered to by the film-makers, who included flashes of nudity and much sexual innuendo. As such, Betty remains the only cartoon character to have been seriously compromised by the institution of the Hays Code: like Mae West, she was never quite the same again.
You can't go wrong with any of these early cartoons; my favourite is probably Betty Boop's Rise To Fame (1934), from the very end of her pre-Code golden era, because it is a useful compendium of some of her finest moments, and a fascinating example of early combined animation and live-action.
The film begins with her animator Max Fleischer being interviewed by his brother Dave, who asks him to draw Betty. He does so, whereupon she comes to life, addressing him as Uncle Max and asking that he put her into the 'sets' of some of her favourite past films. This he does, leading into a series of clips from Stopping the Show (in which she sings That's My Weakness Now and does charming impersonations of Fanny Brice and Maurice Chevalier), Bamboo Isle (in which she does her hula-hula dance in a tiny grass skirt with visible breasts, left) and The Old Man of the Mountain (in which she sings a duet with Cab Calloway, gong-kicking references and all).
(Click here to watch some of Betty's early movies.)
The Hays Code would soon rob her of her more provocative outfits and characteristics, but it did little to dent her popularity with audiences. Indeed, as an animated star, Betty was granted a luxury not extended to her real-life counterparts. She was allowed to weather changes in fashion and remained a star long after the flapper boom itself was forgotten; indeed she is a ubiquitous presence on stationery and novelty items to this day.
Alas, the same cannot be said of Helen Kane, the original 'Boop-oop-a-doop Girl' (though what she actually says always sounds more like 'poo-poo-pa-do' to me) and one of the most charming talents of the late 1920's. Kane is unquestionably the inspiration for Betty: she looks like her, sounds like her, acts like her and has the same catchphrase. They even sing the same songs.
Kane was a Broadway star of the twenties who enjoyed a brief burst of success in movies during the pre-Code years and had a number of hits on record (including I Wanna Be Loved By You, reprised by Monroe, complete with boop-oop-a-doops, in Some Like It Hot). She faded fairly quickly, because it was felt that her bag of gimmicks - the squeaky voice, the girlish giggles, the pretence of naivety, above all the boop-oop-a-doops - was quickly emptied. Actually though, if you listen carefully to her songs you'll find that 'boop-oop-a-doop' rarely means the same thing twice. Sometimes it is mere musical punctutation, sometimes a means of establishing any one of a dozen moods, sometimes overt euphemism, as in Aintcha, where a plaintive request for jewels and lingerie from her new beau is backed up with the threat:
Now if you don't, I'll get mad,
And I won't be nice and sweet to you.
You know what I'll do?
I'll get the blues, and I'll refuse
To boop-oop-a-doop,
She is extremely funny, and while not exactly pretty - she is well-rounded and has a head not unlike Betty's in shape - is suprisingly athletic and, like Betty, she transcends her physical oddness to project a persuasive if unlikely sex appeal. (Though I could be just speaking for myself here; I'm not sure.)
All of Kane's movies are fun - Dangerous Nan McGrew, Sweetie and Heads Up combine her talents with those of several other Broadway top draws, and the results are superb, fast-moving Paramount musical comedies with a flavour very similar to the early Marx Brothers movies.
If I have to choose one favourite I guess it has to be Pointed Heels (1929), if only because it is the one that gives her the fullest chance to do a bit of everything - singing, dancing, comedy and character acting. And as a major bonus, it happens to catch Fay Wray at her loveliest, too, and seeing these two in the same film - let alone in bed together - is surely more than we might reasonably have hoped of any one film. Their bantering relationship is a treat throughout (they play sisters-in-law); when Fay says that her husband is leaving for Europe, Helen replies: "Europe? That's in England isn't it?"
The film is a backstage saga revolving around chorine Fay and her troubled marriage to a disinherited millionaire composer, her irritating brother (Skeets Gallagher) and his wife (Kane), a lowbrow vaudeville duo, and the Broadway producer (William Powell) who is staging a show for the latter purely so as to pursue Fay. It all ends happily but a little anti-climactically, since the film as it exists now is missing a reel of the show itself in two-strip Technicolor. Still, what we do have is magnificent: a feast of theatrical style, cloche hats and beautifully primitive early-talkie film technique.
Superior art deco title design for Pointed Heels, another strong contender for my all-time top ten
Kane gets two great numbers in the film, Aintcha and I Have To Have You, which she sings twice, first in a hilarious 'highbrow' manner when her character, suddenly struck pretentious, decides to cultivate a new sophisticated image, then again in knockabout fashion after Powell deliberately gets her drunk to cure her of her affectations. This latter performance is perhaps her most physically uninhibited in any film; at the end she falls on her behind with such force she visibly bounces. Not for the first time she seems a cartoon character come to life, and with a face and shape as unreal as Betty's and often uncannily similar, I don't mean any old cartoon character either.
Indeed, much as I love her, it has to be said that Betty was basically a rip-off of Helen Kane. But when Kane took her creators to court for a share of royalties, slippery tactics were employed to squeeze her out of the picture. Betty's lawyers (she did not herself appear in court) pointed out that Kane was only one of several flapper artists who used the contested mannerisms, squeaky voice and phrases. Kane's career soon burned out, and it must have been galling to her to see Betty's popularity endure.
. To this day Kane is often erroneously listed as the voice of Betty Boop. In fact, the Kane impersonation was supplied by Mae Questel, another of the legion of Kane wannabes whose existence enabled Betty's creators to renege on their obligations to her. Questel sounds uncannily like Kane and wasn't a bad match physically, either, judging by her appearance in the wonderful Rudy Vallee short Musical Doctor. In her old age, she played Woody Allen's ghostly mother in the Oedipus Wrecks segment from New York Stories and sings the pastiche song Chameleon Days on the soundtrack of Zelig, still impersonating Kane, this time openly.
Of the other great flapper stars, the most iconic is Clara Bow. Bow is remembered less for her films than for her nickname ‘the It Girl’ and, sadly, for a number of cruel and unfounded rumours and scandals. (No, she didn't do it with an entire football team; no, she didn't do it with a dog. She did, however, have a by-all-accounts highly passionate affair with Bela Lugosi, who kept a nude painting of her until his death.)
She was born into grinding poverty in Brooklyn in 1905, enduring regular beatings from her father and dependent upon a violent, mentally unstable mother who once attempted to kill her while she slept. By age ten she had watched her grandfather collapse and die while pushing her in a swing and her best friend burn to death in a domestic accident. Her salvation came when she won a part in Beyond the Rainbow (1921) in a magazine competition. She was fresh and natural, and connected with audiences instantly. Stardom followed swiftly.
The great myth about Clara is that her career faded in the early sound days because audiences objected to her strong Noo Yawk accent. In fact, the public enjoyed her early sound films just fine, but she herself was terrified of microphones and hated the restrictions imposed by the new technology. Though her best films (and performances) are probably to be found among her silent work, I personally prefer the early talkies, especially her first, The Wild Party (1929). It's one of the great pre-Code films, fresh, joyous, sexy and ridiculous, as delightful and utterly of its time as its fashions and opening song:
When I am old and you are old, we'll fall asleep at nine
But until that distant day, let's make whoopee while we may
Wild party girl of mine!
It's directed by Dorothy Arzner, who was Hollywood's only major female director at the time, one of its most stylish, and a lesbian - fortunately enough for male audiences, who are rewarded with an obsessive focus on revealing costumes, lingerie and naked thighs. Clara is Stella Ames, the most popular girl in college and leader of the self-styled 'Hard-Boiled Maidens'. They decide to crash the annual college dance (or, according to an intertitle, 'the annual "Costume" - the feminine equivalent of a stag') in shockingly brief and clingy outfits and are promptly ejected again by the head girl, who is dressed as Bo Peep. ("Anything for a thrill! You never think of the example you set the younger and weaker girls!") Still in their provocative costumes, they enter a sleazy roadhouse where Bow is abducted and almost raped, but is saved at the last moment by Fredric March, their psychology professor, out for a midnight stroll in plus-fours, and displaying an unexpected streak of Hemingway masculinity. And this is just Act One!
Though my personal favourite of all Clara's movies, it was sadly the beginning of the end. Nervous, untutored and insecure, she was adored by the public but openly shunned by the Hollywood community, who considered her uncouth and stupid. Crippled by bouts of depression, she came to loathe her career, retiring in 1933. But as well as an iconic star she was also a genuinely gifted actress, as natural and expressive as Louise Brooks. It is significant that Brooks was one of the few to recognise and acknowledge her talents, and consistently champion her cause.
"So they didn't like my accent, eh?" - Clara prepares to do battle with the writer who claimed her talkies were unpopular in the book 501 Movie Stars. (Okay, okay, it was me - but that bit was stuffed into my piece without my permission. Sorry, Clara.)
Brooks herself is the great lost flapper. Remembered most for her moody work in two gloomy German silents, she was in reality an almost infuriatingly high-spirited and free-spirited twenties socialite, a former Ziegfeld girl and dancer. Her cult has depended for its longevity on the serene and penetrating beauty of her black bobbed features and the ease with which she can be slotted into fashionable myths of brutal, artless Hollywood devouring its individualists. Such mythmaking both underrates her true achievement and overplays her tragedy. More than merely beautiful, she was a great actress, one of the very greatest of the silent era. And while the elder Brooks who presided so carefully over her revaluation would never have embraced victimhood, she was happy to endorse the fiction that her estrangement from Hollywood was caused by studio philistinism.
In truth, she was the architect of her own downfall. Refusing to do retakes on The Canary Murder Case (1929) after it was decided to convert it from silent to sound was a typically self-defeating gesture that earned her a justified reputation as a troublemaker.
It's a convoluted murder mystery in the Philo Vance series, and the solution doesn't really play fair, but what is not at all hard to believe is the central conceit that Brooks's character, a show-girl known as The Canary because of her gimmick of performing on a swing high above the stage, is fatale enough to provide an entire suspect-list of sugar daddies, each potentially driven to murdering her out of sexual jealousy. Long after she leaves the film - she is killed in the first fifteen minutes - she remains a vivid presence in it, and the most lasting impression left by the film is of its first scene: Brooks in feathered wig and costume, kicking her legs and swinging over the audience.
The other attraction in this somewhat fragile relic is an adorable performance by Jean Arthur from her own squeaky flapper period. (She's equally charming as Clara Bow's sister in The Saturday Night Kid [1929].) The only thing that spoils it is the crude dubbing (and physical doubling) of Brooks's role - and for that we have nobody to blame but Brooks herself.
As a result of such bloody-minded obstructiveness, the pre-code era lost the performer who, perhaps more than any other, embodied its every attitude and affectation. As great a presence as she is in those masterpieces of Expressionist tragedy upon which her culthood rests, it is in her absences that we see the real tragedy of Louise Brooks. Watch her in God’s Gift To Women or It Pays To Advertise (both 1931), then think of all the Lubitsch and Frank Tuttle and Mitchell Leisen movies she should be in.
If Brooks is the lost flapper, Joan Crawford is the forgotten one. Long before she became the big-shouldered queen of women's pictures, before Grand Hotel gave her class, she was a ex-chorine, boisterous hoofer and "the spirit of all that it means to be young and gay today" - the foremost screen flapper in other words.
This is a role she perfected in the twenties and carried through to the early thirties (until Mayer decided to upgrade her image) , most famously in Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and its sequels Our Modern Maidens (1929) and Our Blushing Brides (1930) - the latter my favourite, and the only talkie of the three.
Around the main plot-line - which is one pre-Code fans will have already encountered about a hundred times: pretty shop-girl trying to make ends meet in the big city falls for the dashing son of the shop's owner - swirl a host of interlinked subplots relating to Joanie and the two girls she flat-shares with. They all work in the same department store, modelling lingerie for snooty women and their lascivious sons and husbands. The cast of characters is the usual mix of predatory wolves, arrogant floorwalkers, unsuitable boyfriends, landladies and love-rats.
Beginning as comedy and ending in tragedy, it is a soap opera cunningly concocted for what Variety would have called 'maximum femme appeal', opening a fascinating window onto vanished mores, fashions and customs, and studded with lovely spiky dialogue: "You don't know it, but I've just slapped your face", says Joan to one ardent admirer. When her flatmate swoons, "I just happen to be going out with a hot number who throws hundred dollar bills about like confetti," she shoots back: "Does he make 'em himself?"
I'll close with a great picture of my other favourite flapper: Lillian Roth. Lillian's finest appearance is as Trixie in DeMille's Madam Satan (see my post Pre-Code DeMille) but she is equally - that is to say sensationally - sweet, charming, sexy, funny and talented in The Love Parade, Meet the Boyfriend (an adorable short), Animal Crackers (with the Brothers Marx, of course), Sea Legs, Take a Chance (in which she does a striptease number) and Ladies They Talk About - basically in anything she made in the thirties, actually. After much personal trauma she re-emerged in the fifties as a brassy torch singer, but it is the thirties Roth that really captivates.
Here she is giving thanks, Hollywood style. The broad on the left is none other than Jean Arthur, who was more than happy to do weird cheesecake like this, before she became the face of Frank Capra's social conscience.
Whatever happened to all this glamour?

Friday, November 23, 2007

Looking for Fellini

Just back from Italy, and thinking inevitably of Fellini's films, which have done so much to define the country to outsiders. But memories they tend to remain; I'm not sure I've ever found myself actually in Fellini's Italy, whereas Antonioni's, say, is ever present, and any left turn down a side street can land us unexpectedly in Argento's.
Our guidebook goes so far as to describe Parma as "Fellini-esque", but try as I do, I'm never fully transported into the maestro's world. Occasionally something vaguely evocative flashes by the window of the train, quiet stretches of simple habitation that might once have been something like the open, dusty landscape of La Strada (1954) or Le Notti de Cabiria (1957). But we tourists rarely end up where Fellini's characters do. It's when I'm back home that the link starts to take shape: Fellini's is an imagined Italy, a remembered Italy, an Italy of the soul rather than the senses.
His critical reputation has fluctuated over the years; acknowledged in the sixties as one of the great international masters, his work has more recently come under attack for being over-sentimental, insufficiently critical, too whimsical, lacking in political engagement, too pretty visually, and more entertaining than the work of a serious artist has any business being.
The qualities in his work which once seemed daring and new – the celebration of misfits and outcasts, the lurches from realism into fantasy and back again, the non-condemnatory presentation of decadence and criminality – tend now to be overshadowed by those which once seemed reassuringly traditional: the commitment to narrative and characterisation, the communication of emotion, the underlying optimism, the love of showbusiness and artifice.
All these things conspire to relegate him in the age of alienation that his work anticipated, explored, and prematurely forgave.
He entered the film industry in the early forties as writer and occasional actor, often apprenticed to Rosselini. His early films as director gave notice of his preoccupations, but what now seems the instantly identifiable Fellini style was perfected in three consecutive masterpieces, La Strada, the lesser known Il Bidone (1955) and Cabiria, perhaps his best film of all.
All three feature his wife Giulietta Masina, an extraordinary actress - half Doris Day, half Harpo Marx - and few artists in history have been fortunate enough to find so perfect a muse. In their collaborations she developed a unique screen persona: broad, often brash and loud, defiantly unrealistic yet affectingly vulnerable and sincere. She could be naturalistic when necessary, but her speciality was the girl who belonged in the circus yet was somehow washed up in the tenements of post-war Rome, a misfit whose simplicity acted as a magnet for misfortune. She died a few months after her husband in 1994; her clown-like face remains one of the key icons of world cinema.
La Strada has her as a simpleminded young girl sold by her mother to a travelling strongman (Anthony Quinn); he mistreats and rejects her, only realising her true worth when she dies. Il Bidone is the picaresque story of a band of travelling conmen who rob the poor disguised as priests (with Masina wasted in a subsidiary housewife role). Cabiria returns Masina triumphantly to centre stage as a naïve prostitute whose dreams of love and happiness are constantly rewarded with sorrow and bad luck.
The scenarios sound like something Thomas Hardy may have rejected as too depressing, but Fellini’s handling elevates them from mundane realism almost to the level of fairytale, aided in every case by beautiful use of locations, stylised composition, a rich, often grotesque gallery of supporting players, Nino Rota’s hauntingly distinctive scores and Masina’s amazing performances.
Their dramatic climaxes – Quinn’s enigmatic moment of anguished realisation on a darkened beach in La Strada, Masina stoically walking in step with a band of strolling musicians after yet another crushing betrayal in Cabiria – transcend their pessimism to become deeply moving, cathartic experiences for the audience, more epiphany than tragedy.
La Dolce Vita (1959), which both confirmed and consolidated his international reputation, is glossy, stylish and still relevant in its scepticism towards a society proudly cutting itself loose from its core values. Its pose of total objectivity, standing back from itself and observing without comment, remains its most striking feature, along with its now iconic visual highlights (the massive airlifted Christ, Anita Ekberg frolicking in the Trevi Fountain et al). But there is a brazen self-assurance that was new for the director, a kind of methodological shorthand that seems to suggest Fellini knew he was now established and could afford to play the maestro, to be a little showier and less rigorous.
He was famous now, an arthouse celebrity whose name was familiar not just to his followers but also to the wider public, for whom he became totemic of world cinema to those with no time for it. There is a superb episode of Steptoe & Son in which Harold takes Albert to see (1963), though the latter would prefer Nudes of 1963. Galton and Simpson were always astute monitors of fashionable intellectual traffic, Colin Wilson and Bertrand Russell having provided lively inspiration for some of the best Hancocks. That Fellini had now penetrated their world of British bourgeois aspiration indicated his ascension to the ranks of cult hero, and the status couldn't fail to influence the work.
With his gaze turned inward completely, and there is a similar sense of self-indulgence in its attempt to turn director’s block into existential crisis, despite the customary mastery of style.
Both are major and important works, and full of good things (including an appearance by Barbara Steele in the latter), but they lack the emotional resonance of the less autobiographical films. There is no point in denying the man’s keen sense of himself as auteur, and it could be argued that it got the better of him after 1963: whatever else Fellini Satyricon (1970) and Fellini’s Casanova (1976) may be, they are certainly as hubristic as they sound. Fellini at his best wears his heart on his sleeve and is never afraid to be deemed naive, and he was never better than in the three exceptional works made immediately prior to La Dolce Vita.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The overpowering feeling that any second he may suddenly appear

Everywhere I go in Italy reminds me of Dario Argento.
The spookier, more run-down parts recall the empty house of Profondo Rosso. The more modernistic, faceless parts evoke Tenebrae. The streets of Florence seem inseparable from the events of The Stendhal Syndrome. Every hotel I've ever stayed in, every street and narrow alley, seem like locations in some real, or imagined, or forthcoming example of the man's work.
Argento was at one time my favourite director in the world, and nobody else has quite dislodged his supremacy as my ultimate reference point for the architecture and mood of Italy. Antonioni and Fellini are nowhere evoked for me; Dario is everywhere.
Look at this house we saw in Ravenna:
It is next to a river so long-dried that trees grow in its bed, but over which grey stone bridges still cross at regular intervals. Overlooking this dead river was this incredible dead house: still occupied, I think, but with the balconies so overgrown with ivy they cannot possibly be used. And my instant first thought is: what a great location for a Dario Argento movie.
I'm not the fan I once was of these films. I'm older now, and suddenly I can see why viewers with no particular liking for horror as a genre find them rather silly. Argento, like his killers, does get carried away with himself. The films are hysterical, and often careless. Even some of the features that once seemed so innovative, like the murder scenes set to prog-rock, I can now just as easily do without. (Rewatching them all recently, it seemed to me that even Profondo would be better off without its main themes: the more straightforward portions of the score are far more effective. The drums and guitars run the risk of distancing the audience from the power of the film - as the atrocious synth score of Tenebrae does almost entirely.)
The films are highly formulaic, often revolving around a black-gloved killer who murders obsessively and sadistically out of some Freudian compulsion lodged in childhood memory, and a hero who sees more than they can remember, or is haunted by the possibility that they have all they need to solve the mystery, but cannot quite arrange the pieces in the correct order. The unfolding mystery is punctuated by murder scenes which are staged and presented almost as mini-movies in their own right, frequently outrageously inventive and horrific, and accompanied by pounding music. The finales often pile twist upon twist, revealing that the murderer is in fact not the murderer after all, or is long dead and his role has been taken on midway through the film by another character entirely, or that the hero and killer are one.
Though the plots are often incredibly intricate, the essence of the films is in their distinctive visual and aural style, and the seemingly compulsive, uncontrolled nature of their violence.
Argento is at his best, for me, when he injects a dash of the bizarre in an otherwise recognisable reality, which is why, though I admire them in many ways technically, I find the likes of Suspiria and Inferno less satisfying in their anything-can-happen-ness than Bird With the Crystal Plumage or Cat o'Nine Tails. The plots of these are certainly improbable, but they have a logic to them that makes their corkscrew development and brilliant surprise twists worth the effort of following.
These two would certainly be among my favourites, as - in plot terms, at least, and notwithstanding its flashy look and sound - would Tenebrae, one of his cleverest yarns.
But best of all is Profondo Rosso, perhaps the only Argento that still seems to me an almost complete masterpiece. The plot is superb, the twist audacious (it is the only film I know which, like Poe's purloined letter, leaves the face of the killer in plain view and challenges us to spot it) and the murders - though excessive - are genuinely skilled and frightening pieces of cinema. At university, my friends and I watched this film over and over again, and delighted in introducing newcomers to its pyrotechnic terrors and delights. It never disappointed; it is still the best illustration for those unfamiliar with Argento to what he can do and how he does it. Few directors, good or bad, can honestly be said to have a truly unique style, so that it is impossible to mistake their work for that of anybody else: Argento does, and here is where it achieves perfection.
There's something to be said for most of his subsequent films, but they tend to be things of parts, in which remarkable scenes or images frequently give way to the risible or banal.
But Suspiria achieves an atmsophere of nightmare (and nightmare-logic), or of modern Grimm's fairy tale, unparalleled in the supernatural horror film, thanks in part to the incredibly rich colour-saturated images, achieved by using outdated Technicolor film stock. It also features by far his most effective collaboration with the Italian rock band Goblin, and deserves praise for its casting of Joan Bennett and Alida Valli as evil witches.
In recent years he has found his muse most often in his daughter Asia, with whom he has collaborated four times between 1993's Trauma and this year's La Terza Madre. Herself a director and an often striking presence in the films of others (La Reine Margot, Marie Antoinnette), Asia is the most distinctive feature of his later work, most of which is uneven and some of which (The Card Player, The Phantom of the Opera) is poor indeed.
Argento has echoed Poe's assertion that the most poetic topic in the world is the death of a beautiful woman by frequently playing the black-gloved killer's hands in the murder scenes ("I love my killers", he offers by way of explanation), and few directors since Hitchcock have so repeatedly subjected a single erotic ideal to such relentless debasement. (His, however, tend to be brunettes: Jessica Harper, Jennifer Connelly, Chiara Caselli, two daughters and an ex-wife among them.)
The most famous image in all his work remains that of Cristina Marsillach in Opera, a row of pins taped beneath her eyelids by the film's killer, so that she is unable to close her eyes to the murder being committed in front of her. It is probably Argento's own revenge on audiences who prefer to flinch, or peer through their fingers, or look away entirely and wait for the music to stop, rather than watch the murder scenes. "Violence is Italian art", he once said, and if I now find myself gravitating increasingly toward the ranks of the flinchers and the eye-closers, I can at least still appreciate the imagination, skill and commitment to a singular vision that Argento's filmography represents.
Meanwhile, if anybody actually does live in that house by the dried-up river in Ravenna, my advice is: count the windows and count the rooms.