Tuesday, March 24, 2009

BRUNETTE (UNCREDITED)... a fatal journey through forties Hollywood from Veronica Lake to Elizabeth Short

Viewed from here, the forties were plainly a golden age in American cinema.
But judged by the standards of the previous decade, it is obvious that the processes of dissolution and decline that set in after the collapse of the studio system had already begun. Film Noir is like Danish Blue cheese: a certain formula at a pitch of perfection, but nonetheless, at the same time, obviously in a state of decay. It's Hollywood with its heart missing.
The rainy streets, long shadows, and all those other stylistic features by which Noir is commonly defined are far less important, it seems to me, in pinpointing its exact flavour as its common attitude towards its characters. And it is not that they are so frequently criminal or cynical, or that they move freely in a world of duplicity and corruption. Such is, after all, the milieu of The Public Enemy or Scarface. But those films were reportage, moving tabloids; they fancied themselves exposés, and their villains fancy themselves modern businessmen, with a taste for high life and happy times.
.The Noir hero, in stark contrast, moves in a world that has given up on itself. The key note of the characters, and of the films, is disillusionment. And Hollywood itself was disillusioned. It was a city just waiting for such an event as the Black Dahlia murder to take place.
Of course, there had been scandals and tragedies for as long as there had been Hollywood. It had always been a rapacious place, where traps of a hundred kinds awaited the unwary. But the official face, promoted in its own product, had always been different.
Now, though, Hollywood seemed to be revelling in its status as boulevard of broken dreams. Now, the would-be starlet fresh off the bus knew that a disappointed ride back home was far from the worst she could expect at the end of the lonely highway of casting agents and talent hounds.
Elizabeth Short, because her end was so terrible, stands as the ultimate icon of the pessimism, and loss of faith in itself, that became standardised in the attitudes of forties Hollywood. I suppose I am arguing that Hollywood itself must take some of the rap for Elizabeth's murder, simply because the world in which she lived and died was one it was no longer denying itself to be.
Because it was never officially solved, an aura has risen round the Black Dahlia murder of exciting mystery. But to anyone who has really looked into the case, it is obvious that there is nothing remotely thrilling about it: it is desperately sad.
It is the story of a self-fulfilling prophecy; of a woman who went to Hollywood to get ahead, but wasn't a prostitute and didn't do porno (that's just De Palma dragging his tongue along the gutter as usual); a naïve woman but not a stupid one, prepared to skirt the Hollywood underworld, to live out of suitcases and cheap apartments, to live off whatever she could borrow, with a capacity for boundlessly obstinate hope, yet strangely accepting of the idea that life did not have her interests at heart. Her letters telling of her tentative meetings with agents and producers, and bragging of the stars she rubbed shoulders with at the Hollywood Canteen, are tragic because it is hard to be sure who she wants to deceive most: their recipients or herself.
Could she have been a movie star, with better breaks? Who knows? She was certainly attractive. She may have had talent, but even if she didn't... well, she was attractive. But we'll never know. Instead, her life story begins at its end, in January, 1947.
. .
Elizabeth Short never made it into the movies but she did make it into movie history. She was never lit by the great lighting cameramen or dressed by the great designers, but she became some kind of Hollywood icon, nonetheless. Her life was a movie.
Scene one of The Elizabeth Short Story, then, is the first encounter between Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake in Sullivan's Travels (1941). Here, Lake is every girl who ever had a dream of Hollywood, only to have the dream broken. Made cynical by failure, she's on her way back home, never having got her letter of introduction to Lubitsch and entirely unaware that the bum she's bought ham and eggs for is a Hollywood director, and her luck is about to change.
Lake belonged entirely to the movies; off-screen she was Constance Ockleman: tiny, virtually unrecognisable without make-up, pretty but by common consent never the magnetic beauty that only the camera seemed to see, and was able to show.
The story Lake is telling was her own, along with that of thousands of others, some of whom went on to become stars as she did; many, many of whom did not. She too had done the rounds as a Hollywood hopeful; the beauty contests, the meetings, the auditions, the extra work. She got bit parts at RKO, and an MGM contract that led to little more than days spent hanging around the lot, eating at the commissary, watching the big stars go by, waiting for the big break.
Elizabeth, of course, was a long way behind. She met the agents, trudged round the auditions, but so far as we know, never even got a screen test.
But Veronica makes another, more important imprint on Short's iconic afterlife. It is a common misconception that 'Black Dahlia' was Short's nickname in life. De Palma's film encourages it by showing her wearing black flowers in her hair:
There is some debate whether the nickname was given to her by the proprietor of a drugstore in the summer of 1946, or if it had been an entirely phoney journalistic invention, created post-mortem and purely in the services of hoopla. Either way, it was not a name she was generally known by, since its origins lie in the title of Lake's movie The Blue Dahlia. Elizabeth died in January of 1947, Veronica's film was released in April of 1946. If she was known as the Black Dahlia, it was for less than a year.
Achieving some measure of fame by virtue of being Raymond Chandler's only original screenplay, the film is an otherwise not especially distinguished, typically mordant post-war Noir, with lovable William Bendix cast as a violently temperamental war veteran with a metal plate in his skull. (In Chandler's original draft he was revealed as the killer at the end, but Breen said no serviceman could be portrayed as a murderer.)
The 'Blue Dahlia' itself is not a person but a nightclub, and there seems to be no obvious reason why Elizabeth and the title became conflated. The 'black' applies to her penchant for black dresses and jet black hair (in actual fact dyed henna by the time of her death), but the idea that the 'dahlia' referred to her habit of wearing flowers is generally considered untrue.
The most likely explanation is that whoever invented the name simply misremembered the title of the movie. Either way, it is now inseparably entangled in the folkloric undergrowth surrounding the case, to the extent that a popular rumour still circulates to the effect that Elizabeth actually has a walk-on role in the film.
Alas, she does not: the fairy-tale ending to Veronica's Hollywood hard luck stories was not to be hers to share.
During the long days spent haunting Hollywood, Elizabeth got herself hostess work at the Hollywood Canteen, the famous nightclub created by Bette Davis and John Garfield, that allowed servicemen to eat and be entertained for free while served by a staff of Hollywood notables.
This was the closest she ever got to her goal, and her letters home make much of the experience. She certainly became well acquainted with the actor Arthur Lake, best known from the Blondie movies, as did another hostess with whom she socialised, Georgette Bauerdorf. Georgette, too, was murdered, during the time that both were working at the Canteen; her brutal killing shares many weird similarities to Elizabeth's. It was speculated that she had been killed by a serviceman who had followed her home from the Canteen. There was no Breen office to step in and censor the notion this time.
.Another of the Hollywood hopefuls that Elizabeth encountered around this time was one who would rise far higher up the ladder of stardom than she ever would, but whose eventual fall would prove equally dramatic.
This was Barbara Payton. She briefly took Elizabeth under her wing, introduced her to some useful names and took her to the Formosa Café, where studio executives would often grab a quick meal, and anything else that might be available, from the all-night establishment. Across the road was the studio of Sam Goldwyn. Upstairs was the office of Bugsy Siegel.
Barbara was more pragmatic than Elizabeth when it came to getting ahead and was more than willing to audition on the Hollywood casting couch. Though she would eventually land significant roles in a number of major films alongside Cagney, Cooper and Gregory Peck, Payton was volatile, self-destructive and wildly promiscuous, keeping the scandal magazines busy with lurid accounts of her affairs. Most famously, she was the cause of a vicious fight between actors Franchot Tone and Tom Neal, that left her with a black eye and Tone critically injured, with broken bones and a brain concussion. Tone's ex-wife Joan Crawford was one of many who urged him to sever connections with Barbara, foreseeing only disaster for their relationship, but he was besotted, and they married after his recovery. Mere weeks later, however, she returned to Neal.
Her career was unable to withstand so much extra-curricular scandal, and she drifted into B-pictures like Bride of the Gorilla (1951), an enjoyable jungle horror with silver-tongued Tom Conway. Soon, even these offers deserted her, and she drifted into alcoholism and prostitution, suffering frequent savage beatings from her clients. She died of alcohol-related heart and liver failure in 1967, at the age of 39.
....................................                   The blonde dahlia
It is also via Franchot Tone that we get our closest near-glimpse of Short in Hollywood, in those moments when her shadow falls over a still extraordinary film called Phantom Lady made for Universal in 1944.
While Tone was making this film, he encountered Elizabeth at the Formosa Café. According to his later testimony, Tone asked her what she was doing there: "She said she was waiting for someone, and I said, 'Of course you are, you're waiting for me!'"
He then told her that he knew of contacts in Hollywood who were looking for girls with her kind of looks, and offered to take her to meet him. In reality, he was simply taking her to his own apartment. "I thought it was a pick-up from the start," he recalled later; "she came with me so easily, but to her it wasn't anything of the kind." His attempts to seduce her were firmly rebuffed, so he gave her some money and sent her home in a taxi: "There was something sad and pathetic about her."
What might have happened if she had played Tone's game? Perhaps we can see something of the answer in Phantom Lady.
It is a strange and often disturbing film, with top-billed Tone not only absent from the film for its first 45 minutes (over half of the running time) but also playing not the hero but a particularly convincing and unpleasant murderer, who has killed the nominal hero's wife, and concocted an elaborate plot to frame him.
The film is almost like a parody of Noir; it has the atmosphere down right, but the plot is literally absurd, with credibility holes big enough to drive a tractor through. What it resembles, to a degree outdistancing all other films of its type, is a nightmare. This is Hollywood Kafka. Not one single plot development has any correlation to real life, yet the characters are propelled through the narrative by each twist and turn like pinballs in a giant machine. The film is terrifying in its absurdist malevolence.
It also takes relish in the medium's new licence to depict the sleazy and despairing. Because Noir is in the attitudes rather than the details, it is free to exploit what almost amounts to a censorship loophole, returning cinema to something like the attitudes of pre-Code, just not quite so free to give names to them.
The heroine is the strikingly beautiful Ella Raines, and the most famous scene in the movie is the still-extraordinary one in which she disguises herself as "a real hep cat" in order to ingratiate herself with Elisha Cook Jr's hophead drummer, among the many who have been paid to lie and crush the hero's alibi. He takes her to a seedy jazz dive where they get high on a drum solo presented as a clear metaphor for the sexual act.
Throughout this weird and transfixing sequence, Raines looks a lot like Elizabeth, with her shiny raven-black hair and lustrous, clinging black satin dress. Of all the films I am looking at here, this is the one in which Short's presence is most keenly felt. The world of the film is one of darkness and peril, the women are all dark haired - the only blonde is the murdered wife, whom we only ever see in an oil-painting - and as the narrative progresses we watch the smart surface of city life recede to reveal its cruel, dangerous underside.


Then there's Ruth, a secretary at Raines's office. She gets a tiny little scene, with nothing dialogue. But it is dialogue, and the camera does look at her. It's the dream break Short longed for.
Whoever she is, she's not credited, but I'm sure that didn't bother her any more than it would have bothered Elizabeth; I'm sure she left the set, and the cinema, burning with hope and excitement.
Who is she? Who in the IMDB's list of uncredited players? Is she Georgia Davis (Girl: uncredited)? Or Ann Fredrick (Brunette: uncredited)?
Brunette (uncredited) - the role that Elizabeth played in life is one she would have given anything to play on screen.
.And since this is the kind of film where eerie coincidences come with the territory, be prepared to double-take when you see Ruth. She looks uncannily like Elizabeth. They are so similar it takes your breath away. Perhaps if she had met Tone just that little bit earlier, when the movie was still being cast...
She could have done it: it's a try-out part, no talent required, just looks. She came that close.
.In some parallel universe somewhere, Elizabeth Short did get to star in Phantom Lady.
In our own, inadequate as ever, she just missed - and fell to her death.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Loretta Gone Bad!

Did any other major studio make as few memorable, distinctive and worthwhile films through the thirties and forties as Fox?
The point was really brought home when they recently decided to chronicle their history in a massive set of DVDs called 'Studio Classics' - and boy, were the pickings thin. Ironically, Fox operated one of the best B-units through these years - none of the product of which made it to Studio Classics - but as for the As, well... I'm trying to think of some now. The Grapes of Wrath. Er... Any more?

But the great thing about Studio Classics was that its very barrel-scraping desperation brought about the release of Born To Be Bad (1934), a hypnotic curiosity from the tail-end of pre-Code. Less than an hour in length and mad as a march hare, it would never have seen the light of day but for the freak accident of it star casting: Loretta Young and Cary Grant, both cast fantastically against type.

Actually, Grant is still in his pre-Code years before his type had been properly established, years that usually found him at Paramount, being disreputable in a tuxedo. Here he's given a normal, real-life type of role, and watching him struggling with it, trying to pretend that he's not Cary Grant, even before he or anyone else really knew who Cary Grant was, is fascinating. He's called Malcolm Trevor and the name suits him. The blurb on the back of the DVD claims he's a dairy farmer, which really would be something worth seeing. In fact he's the big cheese, so to speak, of Amalgamated Dairies; he wears a suit, has his usual shiny hair, works in an office and lives in a gated mansion (a mansion built on milk, if you will.)

Meanwhile Loretta makes an equally vivid surprise, especially if your abiding memory of her is of the host of her eponymous tv series, or of the woman who Joan Crawford quipped left the mark of the cross on her seat when she got up.
Like her studio here, Young survives as an icon with surprisingly few great films to her credit in the three decades between her silent beginnings (when she answered a casting call intended for her sister) and her hugely successful defection to tv. (Her best performance is probably as Gallagher, the one-of-the-boys journalist in Frank Capra’s Platinum Blonde (1931), discreetly vying with rich girl Jean Harlow for the affections of Robert Williams, but she's also impressive in Orson Welles’s under-rated The Stranger (1946), slowly realising that the husband she idolises is a renegade Nazi.)

Her reputation as a beauty among beauties ensured constant box-office appeal, but she went on strike for better parts at the end of the thirties, tired of ‘being Mrs Alexander Graham Bell’, as she once put it.
Devoutly religious, she also resisted suggestions to play the kind of bad girl roles permissible in the pre-Code era, and in fact did so only once, here.
A gum-chewing tramp in a leopard-skin coat, in sole charge of a son she is raising to lie, cheat and steal... out with a different man every night and lounging around her apartment in her lingerie all day... yes, truly, this is Loretta Young.

No wonder she recalled the film vividly in John Kobal's compulsive book of Hollywood interviews People Will Talk:
I took many suspensions on contracts because I would not even play something like a divorced woman who marries someone else. The only one that I can recall ever doing was Born To Be Bad, which had been written for Jean Harlow. I was under contract to Zanuck at the time. I came back from a trip to Honolulu, and Zanuck said, "Here's your next script, you're going to do it." And I said, "I can't play this. I don't know what to do with it." And he said, "Well, anyway, you're going to play it." So I had to play it. To the best of my ability. We had a marvellous director, and Cary Grant was marvellous in it. But I hated it so, and disapproved of it. And when the picture came out, the review said, "This picture is called Born To Be Bad. It is." That's all it said! It never ran in first-run theaters, it went to second-run. So that is the one and only time I tried it, against my better judgement, and it didn't work. So from then on I never played those parts.

If it resembles any other movie I suppose it's Baby Face, in which Stanners learns similarly how a girl from the wrong side of the tracks gets ahead. In both films the girls seek frequent counsel from a benevolent but disapproving old man: in Loretta's case, Fuzzy, played by Henry Travers; in Barbara's, Alphonse Ethier's Adolf.

But far more than it resembles any other film, Born To Be Bad is unlike any other film. It's a film lost in time. Loretta's kid gets knocked down by one of Cary's milk vans, and even though he's not hurt she opts to take Cary to the cleaners by pretending he's crippled for life, enlisting the help of a crooked lawyer played with his customary effervescence by the great Jewish comic actor Harry Green. (Apparently, Green really did practice law before opting to try showbiz.)
But this Fortune Cookie-style scam comes to nothing when Cary has the boy surreptitiously filmed bombing about on roller skates. The suit is dismissed and the court takes Loretta's son away from her, banging him up in a reformatory!
From here, the film skids into a parallel universe. First Loretta turns up at Cary's office and pulls a gun on him, threatening him that if he doesn't get her son back she'll kill him. Then Cary decides to adopt him himself, and takes him to live at the mansion. He soon rather takes to the high life, but when Loretta comes to visit she convinces him to attempt a break-out, locking Mrs Cary in a cupboard and helping himself to some of her silverware en-route. (Cary doesn't even get cross about this, just explains to the lad that he's only really stealing from himself.)
But Loretta's not finished. Next she decides to seduce Cary and capture the conquest on a concealed home-recording phonograph record, in order to blackmail him. The very essence of a decent, upstanding milk tycoon he may be, but even Malcolm can only hold out so long against Loretta in a series of slinky cocktail dresses...
Still, Hollywood is Hollywood, and by the end, she has tearfully decided that the kid belongs with Cary after all. More happens in 58 minutes of this than in the complete works of Ross Hunter.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Supporting Turns: The guy who plays the piano

There is a dominant body of opinion which cites Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust as the greatest popular song ever written.
I rarely see eye to eye with dominant bodies of opinion, but this could be the exception. It is a fascinating, gorgeous song. I know nothing at all about music, but even I can hear it shunning the expected choices and taking surprising turns: it sort of goes down when you expect it to go up, and sideways when you think it’s going to do a circuit. (Sorry about the technical language.) It is eerie, somehow, as well as beautiful, it seems to kind of drift by, as if you are remembering it rather than hearing it afresh: the perfect match, in other words, of lyric to setting. Even instrumental versions seem pregnant with the same meaning; in fact, having once heard and digested the lyric you may find you’ll then only ever need instrumental versions. The music does all the work.

Best version? God knows. It would probably take a lifetime to hear them all. There are many recordings of Hoagy himself playing it, sometimes as an instrumental, sometimes singing along in what he called his “shaggy dog voice”, delivering the line “and though I dream in vain” as if ‘vain’ had three syllables, rising on the second and swooping back down on the third. I love the instrumental recorded by Isham Jones and his Orchestra in 1930. Not as keen on the celebrated Louis Armstrong version; great thought it is, it sacrifices meaning to mood. I love the one Bing Crosby did in 1939: Crosby has exactly the voice for it, and this recording has an especially spooky introduction that sounds, somehow, like a summer night.
In the movies as on record as in life, Carmichael is the guy who plays the piano. He plays the piano in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) with real handless war veteran Harold Russell. He plays the piano for Bogie and Bacall in To Have and Have Not (1944) and for Jane Russell and Victor Mature in The Las Vegas Story (1952). In Topper (1937) he plays the piano for Cary Grant, who says "Goodnight, Hoagy" as he leaves.
Hoagy plays for Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not
He was a natural supporting actor. Had he been gorgeous he would have been a natural star. He's fully as cool as Bogart; he just doesn't look like Bogart. (Though oddly enough Ian Fleming describes James Bond as resembling him facially in the novels.) He was one of those people born with the good fortune, and it was good fortune, to look exactly as he sounded, exactly as he should.
Carmichael’s personality is as much a part of his appeal as his talent. His movie persona is always the exact same as his musical persona; laid back, easy-going, incredibly talented but never showy or pushy; just there, in the background, doing his thing.
There are some great stories about his Hollywood days in his autobiography. Of him challenging Bogart to a fight after he “shouted a tirade of abuse at my Republican stand”; Bogie was “a bit confused politically” and “not a tough man off-screen at all, in my opinion.”
And of him upstaging actors by doing some innocuous but distracting business in the background; once, shooting The Las Vegas Story, he was behind Vincent Price “holding two silver dollars in one hand and quickly flicking one over on top of the other” until Price, without turning around once, stopped and said “I will not proceed until you get rid of that clickety-clackety scene-stealer behind me. Something tells me his name is Hoagy Carmichael.”
Hoagy owned several different pianos. This one had Virginia Mayo sat on it.
Carmichael's popularity faded as musical tastes changed. He had once recorded a poignant song called The Old Music Master, that tells of a classical composer being visited by a “little coloured boy” from a hundred years in the future, instructing him that if he doesn’t want his work to become corny he must “play that rhythm faster”. Otherwise he’ll never “get it played on the happy cat hit parade”.
It’s sad because Carmichael’s generation really did think that popular music had come as far as it could and would want to go, and that humans would spend the rest of their existence writing and listening to songs substantially like his:
Along about 1917
Jazz’ll come upon the scene.
Then about 1935
You’ll begin to hear swing, boogie-woogie and jive.
Of course, it didn’t work out that way. Soon rock and roll would begin its fatal transformation of popular music as a form, and Carmichael, like so many others, was left floundering and alienated, and a little bitter to judge from Richard M. Sudhalter’s engrossing biography Stardust Melody. He tells a heartbreaking story about Hoagy giving an impromptu performance at a restaurant where he had gone to dine in 1970. In the past, such things had transfixed a rapturously appreciative audience of fellow-diners; this time they didn’t even stop talking. He did a couple of great songs, then gave up. He also notes ominously that: “Among his personal papers are songs written between the mid-1950’s and early 1970’s… attempting to capitalise on emergent trends. A good many are little short of embarrassing.”
In his final years Hoagy became disenchanted and stopped writing and performing. He said in an interview: “ I could write anything, any time I wanted to. But I let other things get in the way… I just quit almost on account of rock and roll… I haven’t had a hit since In The Cool, Cool of the Evening… I’ve just been floating around in the breeze, I guess.” He started a campaign to outlaw telegraph poles, among other things, while floating around in the breeze.
His autobiography Sometimes I Wonder, though written ‘with’ a professional writer, speaks both eloquently and in something like the man’s own tone of voice about how seriously he took jazz, and his own contributions to it:
Jazz never retreats into the nihilism of just noise, or the sterile world of the mere sound-benders. The true jazzman is introspective, tough and oblique. He will continue to be so, to remember that both seed-time and harvest in music are not a matter of the usual sowing and reaping. It’s real, and it says something…
Jazz isn’t dead, just some of the great players and inventors. There’s a hassle about what was right and what was wrong with jazz, but the reasons don’t matter if you can turn up a Louis Armstrong; turn up a lot of him and turn him loose.
They should have turned Hoagy loose more often at the movies.

Where is Don Parr's shed?

I remember, when I was a wee lad, buying some silent Super-8 movies for a Hallowe'en party from a dealer in Tavistock. We arrived at his house, and he said the films were 'out the back'.

He took us to what looked like a shed, but was in fact a little cinema in his garden. The films were in the projection room, and I bought House of Frankenstein split onto two reels (the first retitled Doom of Dracula), among other treats.

Those of you who remember Super 8 home movies will recall those wonderful seven-minute distillations of feature films that somehow managed to tell the entire story of Papillon or Bridge on the River Kwai in the time it takes to sit through the credits of the original versions.
Until you’ve seen Taste the Blood of Dracula cut to the length of a Tom and Jerry cartoon, in black and white and with no sound, you simply haven’t seen it at all.

And since that day, I've always dreamed of having a cinema in a shed. (The closest I ever came was when I converted the cellar in a house I was renting in Deptford into a screening room; while tidying up down there I found two WWII gasmasks with original packaging and instructions, one with the name and date of death of its owner pencilled on the box, and an old newspaper containing a report of the death of Bela Lugosi.)

So imagine my delight when The Telegraph (15 March) told me:

Don Parr, 81, wanted to pay tribute to the picture house he worked in as a projectionist as a youngster.
Now film fans come from far and wide to visit his back garden and watch the classic movies he screens.

The 18ft by 9ft shed is decked out with 14 seats from a real cinema, but its 6ft 6ins by 3ft 3ins screen is complemented perfectly with a hi-tech surround sound.
Mr Parr - who screened Doris Day's I'll See You In Our Dreams at the weekend - even offers refreshments to cinemagoers, with ice-creams available in the summer.
He said: "When we don't fancy anything that's on the television, I just grab a DVD and go down to the bottom of the garden.
"It's a real blast from the past because it's decked out in a very nostalgic way.
"I think I did it because I just love the way films can affect people when they see them, it's just magical to watch sometimes.
"It's very rare I actually go to the real cinema because I have this one just a few metres away from my door.
"In fact I probably only go about once every five years - the last one I saw was Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera.
"I think the Battle of the Bulge is one of my all-time favourites and I've seen that about 20 times now - it never gets old."
His love of cinema started when he was just 16 back in 1943 when he was working as a projectionist at the Apollo in Erdington, Birmingham, and the design of that iconic picture house has now been immortalised in his back garden.
He and two friends came up with the idea to create the tribute cinema in 1987. It featured authentic 16mm projectors originally but now the hardware has been updated to Blu-Ray.

The only trouble is: it says that "film fans come from far and wide to visit his back garden", but it doesn't say where he lives.
This is almost certainly the best cinema in Britain. And I don't know where it is. I want to watch Doris Day movies in Don Parr's shed. Where does he live?

(Postscript: He lives in Castle Bromwich in the West Midlands. I found a blog for shed enthusiasts called We Love Sheds that reports the story from a shed angle rather than a movie angle; somebody comments: "Certainly brings new meaning or purpose to the garden shed. Gardens sheds have a multitude of uses and Don gives us inspiration for being creative in the back yard using another outlet to do this." Right on!)

(Postscript, 2013: The reference to Tavistock in the first paragraph was meant to be deliberately meaningless. It's just a very small town, very near to where I grew up, famous only as the birthplace of Sir Francis Drake. It has since acquired a measure of celebrity, however, for having given the world Rosie Huntington-Whiteley.)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The end of the Chaplin Age?

Sydney Chaplin, eldest surviving son of the most important single figure in cinema history, died on March 3rd at the age of 82.
His mother was Lita Grey, Chaplin's second wife, but their virtual shotgun marriage proved so unsuccessful that she is not mentioned once in Chaplin's autobiography.
They had met when she was signed, at the age of 12, to play one of the nymphets leading the Tramp astray in the curious fantasy sequence towards the end of The Kid. They didn't meet again until she was offered the lead, at fifteen, in The Gold Rush. By the time shooting was underway they had begun an affair, and production had to be halted when she fell pregnant. Her scenes were reshot more than successfully with Georgia Hale, but the hastily-arranged marriage was a disaster from the off.
Sydney, who would grow to become a dashing and very likeable actor, more successful on stage than film, was their second child. Raised by Lita, he had little contact with his father until he entered the acting profession after the Second World War.
Chaplin gave him two good roles in his films, as the rival to his failed music hall comic for the affections of ballerina Claire Bloom in that beautiful film Limelight, and a lighter supporting turn, as Brando's roguish buddy, in Chaplin's critically savaged swansong A Countess From Hong Kong.
Chaplin celebrates his 77th birthday on the set of A Countess From Hong Kong, his final film in which he takes only a small cameo role. Stars Sophia Loren, Tippi Hedren and Sydney Chaplin look on.
To viewers coming fresh to Countess, unaware of its reputation, the film is obviously the charming, often delightful comedy its few supporters (most of them in France) hailed it as at the time, and Sydney's relaxed and urbane performance is one of its many pleasures. (Ironically, many accounts cite Chaplin's harsh on-set treatment of his son as the main reason why relations broke down between Chaplin and Brando, the film's hopelessly inadequate star and its only real liability.)
As Sydney himself predicted in an interview in the early seventies, the film's main failing - the fact that it was not fashionable - has come increasingly to be seen as its greatest asset, while so much that seemed cutting-edge in late-sixties culture now looks worthlessly immature:
Sydney inherited more than enough of his father's talent to make it as a star, but rather less, perhaps, of his ambition:

In later life, Sydney became a keen and tireless custodian of his father's legacy, appearing at numerous film festivals and celebrations of his life and art.
How both would have wept at the implications of this (Times, March 16th):
Hindu extremists wreck plans for statue of 'Christian' Charlie Chaplin
He fought Fascism in the 1940s armed with little more than a crumpled suit, a bemused look and funny walk. Now Charlie Chaplin is embroiled in another battle of beliefs, this time with India’s Hindu extremists.
Radicals in the southern state of Karnataka have stymied plans to erect a 20m (67ft) statue of the film star because he was a Christian. The move comes amid a campaign against Western culture that has raised concerns that parts of India are being “Talebanised” by Hinduism’s far Right.
The Chaplin sculpture, which would have shown him in his baggy trousers and bowler hat, was being built at a cost of about 3.5 million rupees (£48,600) near the town of Udupi, the site of several important Hindu temples. It was to form part of a set for a dance routine in a film but work ground to a halt when Hindu activists chased the workers away and buried the materials.
Hemant Hegde, the film-maker, told local reporters that he abandoned the project after being threatened by a mob of 50 people whose leader told him: “We will not allow you to construct a statue of a Christian actor.”
The protesters were said to belong to the Hindu Jagarna Vedike (Hindu Enlightenment Group), a group linked to an attack on a Christian school in the same state last May. They demanded that Mr Hegde instead erect a statue of Swami Vivekananda, a 19th-century Hindu missionary to the West.
Mr Hegde told a local TV channel: “I’m really surprised that people would associate Charlie Chaplin with being a Christian and not allow the statue.” Chaplin, whose 1940 masterwork The Great Dictator mocked Hitler and Nazism, might also have been confused: the British-born actor was baptised into the Church of England but later avowed himself agnostic...
The local head of the Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist and India’s main opposition party, said there was no place for Chaplin in the region. “If the locals are against such a statue, I am also against it,” he told The Times of India. “Why should one bother so much about Charlie Chaplin, who was not even an Indian?”
"I am a citizen of the world," Chaplin used to say. To think that this man, who was once the most famous in the entire world, who literally brought continents together in the commonality of laughter, whose famous speech at the end of The Great Dictator spoke of the need for nations and men to throw aside all petty distinctions that drive them apart... that this man of all men should be the one on the receiving end of this latest eruption of the dark age revivalism currently dragging the entire planet backwards towards oblivion...
Perhaps history is having its way, arranging things for us. Perhaps in the long run it is better that it should be no other man, no less a man. This giant figure, this transcender of all boundaries and labels, reduced by the madness of an age of pygmies to definition by categories, or by their absence.
A Christian. Not even an Indian.
Indeed not. Not 'an' anything. Much, much more.
We live in times that need spirits like Chaplin's more than ever. Do you see any around? Because I don't.

Did you know Marley dies? I didn’t know Marley dies. Why didn't someone tell us Marley dies?

Not referring here to Scrooge's ex-business partner, obviously. Dickens had the grace to break the news about him to us in the first sentence. I'm talking about the canine star of Marley and Me.
Perhaps you're wondering how I came to be watching it in the first place. Thing is, we've had these free cinema tickets magnet-pinned to the front of our fridge for what seems like forever, but actually since the time we went to see The Duchess with Keira Knightley, and had to contend with the repulsive sound of Mamma Mia on the adjacent screen, booming through the walls of the worst sound-proofed cinema I've ever encountered in my life. So in recognition of the fact that there really is no excuse even for the existence of an Abba musical with Meryl Streep and Julie Walters in it, still less for it serving as the soundtrack to a film about the political and domestic intrigues of an eighteenth century aristocratic hottie, we got a pair of free tickets from the manager, who had 'The Cabinet of Dr Caligari' enigmatically printed under his name on the staff badge he was wearing.
Then for the next year they just sat there, while we waited patiently for someone to make a film not based on a Marvel comic.
Eventually, with one day left before they expired, we decided to cut our losses and go to see Marley and Me on the grounds that we knew it contained a sequence in which a cute dog climbs out the window of a moving car and trots alongside it while Owen Wilson tries to get it back in.
And for a long time it was fine. We saw Marley (who was, apparently, played by 22 different dogs) as a puppy, we saw him get expelled from obedience class for flooring the trainer (who was, apparently, played by Kathleen Turner); we saw him doing a whole bunch of great dog stuff like ripping up sofas, wrecking a garage and eating Jennifer Aniston's necklace, which they eventually retrieve from Marley's faeces by breaking it up with a garden hose. All good stuff.
But then the dog starts limping, and everyone knows what's coming next when a dog starts limping. It's like when Garbo starts coughing. And sure enough, next thing you know, Marley's at the vets, the drip's in, and all that's left is the scene where they bury him in the garden.
At least he gets to have lots of fun in the first three quarters of the film, unlike, say, Old Shep, who, loved though he may have been, nonetheless led a rather austere life before Elvis shot him. Marley is pretty incorrigible, actually, and the end, when it comes, is quick. Still, I was off my guard, that's all I'm saying; I was off my guard.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Florence Diary

Monday, March 2nd: London to Florence

The last thing I see before leaving London is an advert, either for cars or phones or something else I'm not interested in. It's a picture of Hugh Grant; the infamous police mug shot taken when he was caught with a prostitute in his car in Hollywood. The caption is something like 'Don't get caught with the wrong rental'.
A joke adopting a carefree attitude to the decadent media elite's exploitation of the sexual underworld that traps millions of women in lives of degradation and despair being used as a means of selling something.
Goodbye and good riddance for seven days, England.
The first thing I see after landing at Florence is also an advert. It's at the airport, written in English so as to attract me: a picture of a bottle of Filippo Berio olive oil, against a background of some charming natural scene. The caption is 'The World's Finest Olive Oil'.
Just that: a product, a claim, a simple and attractive image.
A yawning chasm divides the two ways of doing things, and every attitude informing them.
As soon as we get to the hotel we walk, proprietorially from memory alone, down the Via San Gallo, past the Duomo and the Chiesa di Orsanmichele, over the Ponte Vecchio, and up through the Piazzale Michelangelo to the Chiesa di San Salvatore, reckoned the most romantic in town.
Arrived just in time for the daily Gregorian chant of the monks who live here; more than merely beautiful. These people must be halfway to something, even if it isn't strictly the truth. Such power, beauty, simplicity and above all consolation; it was inexpressibly moving, even to we godless. Why do I live in England again?
Tuesday 3rd: Fiesole

We walked all the way to this hillside town overlooking Florence.
Bewitched by the naive charm of a crypt museum under one of the churches, an eclectic and certainly heretic assortment that included an extensive collection of Japanese art, prints and artifacts, an Egyptian mummy and mummified cat, and bits of pottery, excavated from the extensive Roman excavations at the centre of the town. Outside the church a sign requested silence in this sacred place, but here in the museum the attendant had a small portable tv that filled the rooms with the sound of Italian game shows.
Not that we don't like Italian game shows. Best is L'Eredita with our favourite television presenter Carlo Conti, a man with the fakest tan ever and no compunction about making the contestants suffer if they've lost foolishly. And Ballando con le Stelle is back, too. Last time I was here the contestants included Anna Falchi and Catherine Spaak. This year they've got Corinne Clery from Moonraker and Story of O. As always, the pleasure for me lies in not understanding a word of what is being said, and of not feeling a part of what I am being shown. Angela does understand it, and so enjoys it on its own terms. My pleasure lies in being excluded from its terms of reference but welcomed nonetheless by its warmth and sincerity - the exact opposite experience of watching television in England.
Struck again by the strange attitude this country's tv has to its female hostesses. It is more blatantly voyeuristic than the equally relentless sexual obsession of British culture, yet somehow vastly less creepy. Something is missing - is it prurience, is it cynicism, is it the sense of crass disrespect? Or is it something added rather than taken away? A kind of innocence because it is so frank, because it does not hide its true self? It seems open, healthily vulgar, somehow; not at all threatening. Others may well disagree. I'm male so I don't think about it too much.

Wednesday 4th: Florence

At the Uffizi Gallery, Angela pointed out the fact that these endless variations on a narrow range of Biblical and devotional subjects never become tiring, either to us or the artists, and how each are able, somehow, to impart their individual styles and maintain a freshness and originality that pleases the eye, despite this narrowness of range. This is a telling point, I think.
These artists were not consumed above all else by the need to project their own subjective vision: the point was the subject. The only thing that makes them individuals is their talent. That talent is itself as much a calling card as a form of expression - after all, there is always the need for the next commission. Yet theirs was the truest creative fulfilment, a far more important kind of self-expression than the kind of deluded artist who thinks his own neurotic take on the world deserves our rapt attention.
We checked off the milestones in this journey from vision to myopia - Turner, the Impressionists, Constable, when individual vision and technique are combined, then on to Duchamp, where meaning is all and technique unnecessary, and, finally, to the moment when both are rejected, and Martin Creed starts screwing pieces of paper into balls. Just the thought of it sends us rushing to Caravaggio with the urgency of drowning men clutching at floating wood.
So much of the modern stuff fails even on its own measly terms. Nothing Jake & Dinos Chapman have ever accomplished shocks like Caravaggio's Medusa, or Gentileschi's version of Judith Slaying Holofernes. Possibly because they have the added dimensions of seriousness and sincerity. But that doesn't mean that Judith isn't horrible: it is compellingly brilliant, perversely beautiful and utterly, utterly vile. Odd that Argento didn't it as well as Medusa for what I still think is the best work he has ever done: the opening fifteen minutes of The Stendhal Syndrome. Perhaps he thought its sheer monstrousness would distract from the point of the sequence - that Asia is being overcome by vividness of talent, not horror - but such restraint surely does not come easily to him.
Thursday 5th: Arezzo

The Church of St Francis contains Piero della Francesca's magnificent fresco cycle The Legend of the True Cross. Begun in 1447 by another artist, Piero took over the work in 1452 and finished it fourteen years later. The cycle follows the history of the 'wood of the cross' from its creation as a tree grown in Eden from a seed placed in the dying Adam's mouth in ten scenes that span the full length and height of the church with vibrant colour and vivid intensity. The images even survived a period in the nineteenth century when the church was used as a military barracks. Now they face a different kind of obsolescence: not the physical but the intellectual. As the guide to the pictures on the wall notes, the images abound with allusions and allegories, in a visual narrative told via "signs and symbols so sadly neglected in our contemporary culture." And this in Italy, they mean.
Vasari tells us that Piero spent his final years in total blindness, an unimaginably cruel fate. Vasari's own house is in Arezzo too, and preserved as a museum. Each room is decorated in elaborate and different high style, by Vasari himself and others, testament to a man who spent his every waking moment in the pursuit, contemplation, articulation or creation of visual beauty. Many of the rooms are small but there is none of the sense of confinement or eclectic disorder of, say, Sir John Soane's house. Each single image is perfectly integrated into the whole, so that the design becomes a kind of externalisation of its owner's mind. The effect is inviting, soothing, as well as merely impressive.
Piero also contributed the magnificent Mary Magdalene to the nearby Cattedrale di San Donato, dominated by Guillaume di Marcillat's gorgeous stained glass. We were lucky enough to enjoy an organ recital during our visit; again, an unexpected glimpse of the sublime, almost uneasily moving.

Friday 6th: Lucca

Lucca is a walled city, hiding behind 40-foot 16th century ramparts. Only a few spires are visible above them as you exit the station just outside, and entrance is effected through a winding, dripping tunnel cut into the fortifications themselves. As you pass through them, you move from one world truly into another. Once inside, it becomes virtually impossible to think of a single good reason for ever leaving again.

We are here to pay our respects to Puccini, born here a few days before Christmas, 1858. His relationship with the town was not always harmonious, as the charmingly broken English of our concert programme explains:

Giacomo Puccini loved Lucca and adored all its corners and secluded places: far worse relationship linked Puccini to the local establishment, due to his very ebullient character on one side and, on the other, to the very bigot, mentally-restricted and bourgeois Lucchese society, quite unwilling to accept the rising of a genius really coming from the middle-lower classes. This is why, when success came in 1893 (with the first triumph of Manon Lescaut) he decided to live good part of his life in Torre del Lago (near the town of Viareggio) where he had his villa built, despite coming to Lucca many a time but never staying overnight. And this is why everybody in Lucca, since the Maestro's death - which happened in 1924 - seemed to have willingly forgotten Puccini's fame and power of attraction towards millions of people all around the world.

Since the eightieth anniversary of his death in 2004, however, they've certainly been making up for lost time. There are Puccini shops, his birthplace house is open as a museum (closed at the moment, alas), and every street corner seems adorned with hoardings alerting visitors to the concerts held every night of the year in the church where he was baptised.

Puccini has his photograph taken next to a visibly clapped-out Londoner in a Ronald Reagan t-shirt: another first for England

Now, I'm a sucker same as anyone for the cliché of the tortured artist, compelled to create at the cost of health and wealth and love and well-being; body wracked and brain fevered as each new masterpiece is torn from within. But once in a while, someone like Puccini, who loved women, cars, boats and poker as much as music and died worth four million, or Rossini, who made his reputation and his fortune in his youth before enjoying 38 years of relatively unproductive but entirely contented retirement, make for a refreshing change. It's not like the work lacks gravitas, grandeur, beauty, though doubtless the pleasure he took in his artistry accounts for much of the suspicion Puccini engenders in those who like their composers' brows damp with sweat and lined with torment. (He once said that art was "a kind of illness".) Puccini was always a little too melodic, a little too sure of his effects and a little too easily in command of his audience's emotions for such as these. His operas are consummate works of theatre with which he constantly tinkered and revised to accommodate audience response; he once wrote that "Almighty God touched me with his little finger and said, 'Write for the theatre - mind, only for the theatre,' and I have obeyed the supreme command." Certainly he is formulaic, his best work all seemingly informed by Poe's dictum that the most poetic topic of all is the death of a beautiful woman. (When he abandoned the formula for La Fanciulla del West, set in the California gold rush, something immediately seemed awry; as William Ashbrook notes, "not a single character dies, and the spectacle of Italian comprimario 'miners' shouting 'Allo' and ordering 'wheesky' struck many of the earlier viewers as disaffecting, if not downright grotesque.") Yet the power of his greatest and most typical work is undeniable, albeit often somewhat guiltily acknowledged, as per Victor Gollancz in his classic memoir Journey Towards Music:

I have never greatly cared for anything by Puccini except Bohème. You can enjoy pretty music for its prettiness, sparkling music for its sparkle, witty music for its wit, and even sentimental music, provided you do not get too much of it, for its sentimentality... But for music to give a higher sort of pleasure, not to mention the highest, there must be an element of what the Hebrews called 'Hin in it: an untranslatable word, but meaning something like grace in the religious sense, or an inwardness of which sacraments are the outer manifestations... Why then, it may be asked, have I gone to these operas so often? For two reasons: first, because Tosca, Bohème and Butterfly, at any rate, are superb vehicles for vocal display, and secondly because Puccini was a rare musical dramatist... The human voice, particularly a woman's, is not only the most beautiful of musical instruments but the most beautiful of all things on earth and probably in heaven: and... a composer who writes perfectly for the voice can be a means to the revelation of what in its own kind must be called supreme beauty. 'Vissi d'arte' is, heaven knows, nothing of a masterpiece: but I am grateful to Puccini for having written it, if this was the best he could manage, for he allowed Destinn to give us, in that miraculous change of register, a moment of rapture that blotted out the world.

Stravinsky dismissed Puccini's work as "treacly violin music", Giacomo for his part declared The Rite of Spring to be "the creation of a madman". There's room for both on my shelf - but it's Butterfly that tears your heart out.

Saturday 7th: Pisa

The last time I was in Pisa I bought a Betty Boop badge from one of the stalls by the Leaning Tower. A while later I was wearing it in a favourite restaurant in Bologna, where the manager and staff would occasionally launch into impromptu song sessions on the accordion, not to delight tourists, of which we were the only two, but genuinely for their own amusement. A waiter, slightly the better for vino rosso, asked in fractured English if Betty was Frankenstein.
Nothing if not rabid for tradition we decide to buy another this time, but time, it seems, has moved on, and Betty is no longer to be found in the racks of badges. We are almost out of the city, at the last market stall, when we find one, the very last they have. The original was a full-face portrait on a red background. This one is on a black background, and she's looking over her shoulder blowing a kiss. We are both very pleased. I wear it to dinner but nobody comments, even though, to avoid any possible confusion, we also bought one of Karloff as the Frankenstein Monster from the same stall.

Sunday 8th: Siena
Realise too late that we waited until the last day to come to Siena last time we were here: the place is now inextricably associated with a sense of things coming to an end. The winding streets and Santuario e Casa di Santa Caterina seem more beautiful than ever; the walk from station to town again achieved, most pleasantly, from memory. But over all looms the ever-lengthening shadow of Britain, tomorrow.
(All photographs except this one by Angela Levin)