Tuesday, January 27, 2009

This year, “Don’t Open Till Christmas” will seem more poignant than ever

I wrote here about the film Don't (or strictly speaking Dont) Open Till Christmas.
By any objective measure it's a terrible film, as I think I made clear.
I also love it, as I think I also made clear.
I watch it at least once a year, and always around Christmas time. No other film quite captures its sense of what a nineteen-eighties Christmas looked and felt like, in a London conveyed as thrillingly and acutely as that of American Werewolf, and though it is both inept and at points disgusting, it is also naive, benign and without a genuinely cruel bone in its body. Its outrages are silly, like a child's, its pretence of knowingness hides a deep well of boyish innocence.
It also starred and was for the most part (for some reason I am still not certain of) directed by Edmund Purdom, who died this week.
Purdom was one of those interesting actors who started as matinee idols and then fell away, and chose exploitation over oblivion. (Another was Cameron Mitchell.) He started in Julius Caesar and The Student Prince and The Egyptian. He's also in one of my favourite British movies, The Beauty Jungle with Janette Scott. Purdom has a fine screen presence, and he really does bring something of value to his later films, not least Christmas, in which he is plainly a professional of a quite different sort to everyone else involved. Remember also Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks, and I think you'll see again that he really does help lift the film from sheer flotsam into something you are frequently able to pretend is a proper movie. Of course, it's always possible that you've not seen Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks, in which case let us part here while you hurry to E-Bay, put matters right, and come back later. Then there's Horror Safari (with another lost soul, Stuart Whitman) and the chainsaw favourite Pieces if you find you've got the taste.

In later years he did voice work in cartoons, and dubbing, along with a few bits of television, in Italy, where he lived. He even played Dracula in an Italian comedy movie.
Purdom suffering for his art in Joe D'Amato's Ator the Invincible
As always, it's only when people die that you realise how much more there was to them than you thought. That Purdom, with a different throw of the dice, could have been as accomplished and acclaimed a serious actor as anyone is obvious (painfully so if you happen to be watching Dont Open Till Christmas): he's got the delivery, the presence, the brooding looks and the rich brown voice of Burton.
But did you know this? (I certainly didn't.)
Denis Vaughan writes ('Lives remembered', Times, January 26th): Edmund Purdom was extremely gifted and forward-looking in the field of recording orchestral music. He was among the very first to use a multi-track system, and his own six-track machine was perfected with the help of Decca technicians.
He financed and recorded my complete Schubert symphonies, followed by 12 Haydn and 15 Mozart symphonies, the Mozart opera Il Re Pastore, Schubert’s Rosamunde and Die Zauberharfe, and some popular Bach and Mozart discs. His flexible equipment and cleanly accurate recording enabled me to balance all these works myself, while he then edited the tapes together. The results were all released internationally by RCA Victor Records. The recordings were all made over eight years in Naples in the splendid Sala d’Ercole of the Palazzo Reale, where Haydn himself performed.

The thought of a man this cultivated and this accomplished trapped in Dont Open Till Christmas is heartrending. It almost makes me feel guilty for loving it so much. It was obviously not something he would have freely chosen, cannot possibly have been an experience he enjoyed, not even something that would have earned him much money, denying him even Burton's motives for getting involved with Exorcist II. According to some sources, he was liable to actually put the phone down on interviewers who raised the subject of the film.
Senseless to try to explain to a man who must have known that he was capable of vastly more that there is still nothing negligible about any work that gives such sustained pleasure, or that sincerity and talent can be conveyed under almost any circumstances. More senseless still to do so now.
But it is so, and so I do.

The hard-boiled canary

Hollywood soprano Susanna Foster has died at the age of 84.
Best remembered for Universal's lush Technicolor remake of The Phantom of the Opera (1943), and, the following year, the rather similar The Climax with Boris Karloff, hers was a short and troubled career set in a long and troubled life.
Interestingly, of all major versions of Phantom, only this one cast a trained singer in the role of Christine, as a result a lot of screen time is given over to her vocal performance. And when she's not singing, Nelson Eddy is, meaning that Claude Rains's Phantom sometimes looks like a guest star in his own movie. As a result the film is not wildly popular with horror fans, and suffers somewhat in comparison with the still amazing silent version, and the almost equally fine Hammer remake. But audiences of the time were much taken with both Foster and the movie; even so, she abandoned her film career in 1945.
As so often, behind the movies was a hell of a life story. From Ronald Bergan's Guardian obituary:
Her earnings from her Universal Studios contract enabled her to rescue her family from poverty. Yet, 13 years later, she was struggling to survive and bring up her two young sons, and her financial and mental situation worsened over the years.
Foster admitted that she was partly to blame for her changed circumstances, saying that she had made the wrong choices, including leaving films at the height of her popularity, walking out on her marriage and, when only 12 years old, turning down the title role in National Velvet because "there was no singing in it"...
In 1948, Foster made her stage debut in the Victor Herbert operetta Naughty Marietta, opposite the baritone Wilbur Evans, whom she married. They toured together in a number of operettas and musical comedies, trading on her name as a film star. However, it was Evans who got a huge break, playing Emile de Becque to Mary Martin's Nellie Forbush in the 1951 London production of South Pacific. A few years later, Foster suddenly left Evans, who was 20 years her senior, and whom she claimed never to have loved, taking her two young sons with her.
There followed years of living on and off welfare, and from hand to mouth. While trying to ensure her children were fed, she also attempted to help her alcoholic, widowed mother and mentally unstable younger sister. Foster, too, suffered depression and had problems with alcohol. In 1982, in order to save rent, she lived in her car at the beach in California. She was rescued for a while by a film fanatic, who let her share his squalid apartment, and she later cared for him when he lost his sight. In 1985, her younger son, who had become a drug addict, died of liver failure. Her surviving son, Michael, brought her back to the east coast, where she spent the last years of her life living in a nursing home.