Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I raise a glass to Adele Mara and watch “The Catman of Paris” and “The Inner Circle”

I've never really been a great one for oaters. But I instantly recognised the name Adele Mara, and her pretty little chipmunk face, when I read the sad news over at Ivan's that she has passed through the screen and into the silver nitrate, at the age of eighty-seven.

Where had I seen her, though?
I confess it took a while to place her. Certainly not high in the saddle with the Duke, or the adorable Roy Rogers, in any of her long list of movies with words like 'range' and 'trail' and 'creek' in their titles. (How do I know Roy Rogers is adorable if I've never seen any of his films? Because I've seen his This Is Your Life, and boy, what a totally great guy.)
Not in Sands of Iwo Jima, a film I'd always assumed was strictly stag. And not in Wake of the Red Witch, either, familiar to me only for marking the screen debut of the octopus prop that went on to star in Bride of the Monster. I don't even know what the red witch of the title is. A boat? The Communist menace? Presumably not an actual witch.

But Adele Mara I knew for sure. So it was off to Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion in search of an answer. (Note to younger readers: Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion is what we had before the imdb - and it smells nicer.) Turns out I have two of her movies: The Catman of Paris - of course! - which I've seen many, many times, and something called The Inner Circle (both 1946), which I'd never got around to seeing at all. A shocking oversight, to be remedied immediately in the form of a tribute double-bill.
So let's meet back here in two hours and ten minutes...

Okay, everybody present? Good. I trust we all enjoyed ourselves.

Catman is one of those 'below the radar' films that nobody seems to have heard of, and by nobody I of course mean nobody I might have expected to have heard of it. (Most people these days haven't heard of Casablanca, so the chances of my being able to chew the fat with them over a couple of jars about The Catman of Paris are on the scanty side, but even most fans of The Ape Man seem to have missed out on this one.) It is a strange little forties horror film, decidedly minor - I make no wild claims for it - but it's very unusual, which always counts, and eminently watchable, which counts still more. Its indebtedness to Tourneur and Lewton's much better known Cat People should in itself earn the film at least footnote status in overviews of the genre, but no such luck. But it's really weird, and by no means unspooky. I love it.
Part of the problem, perhaps, is that it was made by Republic, a studio not known for its horror movies and not overly familiar with the genre's conventions. (Writer Tom Weaver notes the preponderance of bar-room brawls and horse-drawn carriage chases in the studio's few horrors, a case of sticking with what you know.) The other snag is that it has a nice idea but a ridiculous plot, by which I mean not simply the basic, a priori ridiculousness of a film about a werecat, but the kind of looney tunes bonkersness we associate with the Monogram and PRC scenario writers, where nothing makes any kind of sense even by the idea's own lights. That doesn't mean it's not entertaining, but it puts it a rung or two or three below a film as well-conceived as Cat People.
The cast is a nice assortment of B-level familiars: Douglas Dumbrille, born shifty, is obviously up to something, though it's a surprise when he actually turns out to be the catman (perhaps needless to say, however, it's not Doug leaping about in the cat make-up). Lenore Aubert is the heroine here, a nice contrast for those of us who know her mainly as Dracula's co-conspirator in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. And Carl Esmond, the charming Austrian actor here enjoying a rare lead, is the hero. (Anyone remember The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Meet Dracula?)
Adele is second female lead, and she only has three scenes, though they're three good ones, and acting-wise hers is actually a meatier role than Lenore's. As Esmond's pouty, bitchy former fiancee she has a couple of good, sulky confrontation scenes (in a patterned dress that has obviously come from the saloon queen section of Republic's yeehaw cupboard, though we are supposedly in fin de siècle gay Paree) and then a well-photographed exeunt when what she thinks is Esmond in the darkened cab turns out to be Tiddles. It's a very nicely done little scene, and Adele makes a real impression in her limited screen time and tinyish role.

Adele and Lenore cower in abject terror from a Republic stills photographer

Republic made few horror movies, as I said, though another one of the few is The Vampire's Ghost (1945) and Adele's in that one too. I've not seen it, and I say that with much regret, as according to Tom Weaver, her "suggestive dance earned the film a Legion of Decency 'B'."

What she was made for was the fast-talking dame in screwball or crime pictures. Republic didn't make a hell of a lot of those either, but at least when The Inner Circle came around they gave her the lead role (and top billing - not necessarily the same thing). It's strictly a supporter, and clocks in at about fifty-six (and I don't mean hours), a private eye murder mystery based on a radio show, with sassy one-liners and a great ending where all the suspects are obliged to re-enact the crime for a live broadcast.
That we have it at our fingertips today is thanks to the miracle of cheapo public domain DVD box-sets, where it is to be found filling out the track listing in more than a few all-time greats and thriller classic combos. Until then it had disappeared entirely from consciousness: it's not in Halliwell's (not even the seventh edition with the extra 1940's films) or in Leonard Maltin's Classic Guide. It's a reminder of just how high a plane bog-standard time-fillers operated on back in the day, and makes you wonder just what else is hiding out there, waiting to enchant afresh. As Variety might have said, this is socko entertainment all right, except they wouldn't have, because people used to take fun like this for granted back then.
It's also a fine demonstration of Adele's truly assured and vivacious screen personality. She's terrific.
Starts with a girl's gloved hand hovering over a small ad for private eye Johnny Strange, before the camera pulls out to show a discarded revolver and a dead guy. Then we cut to Strange in his office, trying to mend a hole in his socks while placing an ad over the telephone for an assistant ("Must be blonde, beautiful, between 22 and 28, unmarried, with a skin you love to touch and a heart you can't"). While he's still talking Adele saunters in, gives herself the job and darns his sock before he has a chance to even register an opinion. Though obviously it's the same as ours. She's got the job.
She has a nice way with a one-liner, but obviously there's something mysterious about her, and as the light mystery unfolds we wonder if she's the top-flight dame she would have us believe she is, or something more sinister. Is she the Spanish mystery woman with a veil that Johnny can't see because she's always in the shadows? Is she the murderess? Course she isn't. She's top-billed. Keep up, do.

Never such innocence again. Watch it and weep. Just another nothing special night at the movies, 1946-style. There's not a thing about it that's great, any more than there is about Catman. It's just wonderfully, captivatingly ordinary. And that Adele Mara: she's one to watch for sure. Expect big things of her.
Oh, sorry. I forgot it wasn't 1946 anymore. I forgot these birds have flown.
I forgot it was two thousand and effing ten there, for a moment.

Well, so long, Adele: as per damned usual I waited to say hello until it was time to say goodbye, but I'm a fan now.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Glynis Johns: “We've got to remember to grab onto our perks”

There's something a bit alien, ever so slightly absurd, about Glynis Johns in British movies: it's why she's always best in slightly absurd roles.
Where could she possibly have come from? In all her best films she seems to have landed rather than arrived. An accomplished dancer, pianist and singer as well as actress, her brief contribution to the British cinema of the forties and fifties is a small part of a career that also takes in Hollywood, Broadway and TV. But it is, I think, where her claims to indelibility rest.
Remember her as Mabel Chiltern, the sweet heroine of Korda's very nice adaptation of An Ideal Husband?
Supposedly she's the film's core of youthful innocence around which Paulette Goddard's duplicitous Mrs Cheveley pirouettes, but the camera simply will not and cannot co-operate with the narrative's insistence that she is not the most fascinating thing to be seen.
Fascination was hers to command, with her huge eyes, flirtatious manner and uniquely melodic, purring voice, but the price of her mesmerism was the persistent difficulty of finding worthwhile things for her to do.
Her performances are always events: she cannot blend into the curtains; has to be the centre of attention - and British cinema in the forties was a pretty prosaic place. The audience knows immediately she's too exotic for her surroundings: if the film tries not to acknowledge there's a martian in its midst then it has a massive job of work to do; just come clean and cast her as a mermaid, that seems to be the lesson.
But how many stories are there for pretty ghosts, or coquettish mermaids? At least they knew to give her the ones that did come by. Who else in Britain in the forties could have played Miranda?
But if she didn't act like your average British actress and she didn't look like your average British actress, that's nothing compared to how little she sounded like your average British actress. When I nominated that amazing voice as my all-time favourite in Kate and Millie's recent survey a number of readers expressed agreement. It's a hard thing to forget.
Part of its secret is the delicate undercurrent of Welsh: Glynis was the daughter of the excellent Welsh actor Mervyn Johns (ill-fated Walter Craig in Dead of Night, the cheerfully murderous Grimshaw in My Learned Friend, Bob Cratchit to Sim's Scrooge and the church warden who tells us the events of Went the Day Well?) However, she was actually born in Pretoria, South Africa in 1923, where her father and mother, pianist Alys Maude Steele-Payne, were touring.
Displaying a natural, not to say precocious talent for performing at an early age, she was appearing on the London stage by the mid-thirties (notably as the malicious school pupil in The Children’s Hour), was a leading ballerina at twelve (incredibly, she qualified as a ballet instructor at the age of ten!) and a hit as Peter Pan at nineteen. She burst on to the movie screen with a scene-stealing supporting role in South Riding (1938).
Not that her career had been entirely her own decision. Later in life, she looked back at her parents’ influence on her early choices with mixed memories:
They were situations that were hard for parents to turn down. It's difficult to turn down a chance to star with Laurence Olivier, to say, ‘No, she has to go to school.’ They had a big decision to make… As a youngster, I was interested in everything. I wanted to be a scientist. I would’ve loved to go on and on and on at the university. But you can't do everything in life.
Yet she found film work inexplicably hard to come by for a few years after her auspicious debut, even resorting to the considerable comedown of accepting unbilled work, such as a walk-on in Korda's Thief of Bagdad (1940). Notwithstanding her successes in the theatre and expertise at ballet, she went so far as to attend a night school to learn shorthand typing, but luckily, after her first day on the course she received the offer to appear in Michael Powell’s 49th Parallel (1941) when the actress originally cast dropped out. The film was a success and her career was back on course.
The 1944 Ealing film Halfway House was one of those lucky otherworldly roles that didn't oblige her to hide her true identity. It was also notable in casting her and Mervyn as onscreen daughter and father, owners of a remote country inn in wartime Wales, visited by a group of travellers with a variety of secrets and troubles. One is a black marketeer profiting from the war, another, travelling with his young daughter, plans to divorce his wife, while another couple have recently lost their son and their relationship is crumbling under the weight of the loss. Slowly, the guests become aware of a strange atmosphere in the house, and begin to notice inexplicable things about it, such as the fact that all the newspapers are a year old, as are the broadcasts on the radio: the revelation, of course, is that the inn had been destroyed by a Nazi bomb exactly one year earlier, and Glynis and her father had been killed; but their wise counsel allows the travellers to leave with a brighter future.
If you only see her once, see Miranda (1948).
A mischievous Cornish mermaid causing confusion and consternation in London after a vacationing society doctor on a fishing trip visits her cave and decides to show her the sights of a big city, she tortures men and destroys their relationships with a blithe, faux-naive sexiness, a demoniac force of which she is neither innocently oblivious nor maliciously in control.
Miranda Has Everything, claims the poster, and yes, Miranda has everything.
For Britain, it was a rare excursion into fantasy comedy, with something of the flavour of Hollywood films like René Clair's I Married A Witch (1942) or the Topper series (1937-41).
Clair had made The Ghost Goes West in Britain in 1935, but it was the Second World War, which made confronting the reality of death a daily necessity, that is generally credited with increasing popular interest in otherworldly subjects. Much of Michael Powell's wartime work reflects this shift; Lean's Blithe Spirit (1945) certainly does, and so, of course, did Halfway House. Miranda, then, is a post-war experiment: a comedy of manners with an outright fantasy premise.
. As well as surprisingly frank sexually - she's a mermaid so the rules needn't apply - the film is full of delightfully bizarre ideas and images: we see Johns gorging on a street-vendor's entire stock of cockles, and there's a great scene in which she catches a fish in her mouth during feeding time at the zoo. Then of course there's that tail - is it an impediment to the wild desire she causes or is it somehow a part of the attraction? It's certainly convincing, specially designed for the film by Dunlop. “I was quite an athlete, my muscles were strong from dancing, so the tail was just fine,” Glynis later recalled; “I swam like a porpoise.”
There was a sequel -Mad About Men - in 1954, benefiting from attractive Technicolor photography, seen to best effect in some eerily lit undersea cave sequences. But it was generally less well received - of the original cast, only Johns and Margaret Rutherford returned - and the original's light touch is mainly absent. (Rutherford, as Miranda's devoted nurse in both movies, is another who is thoroughly at home in this parallel world: "I could see no reason why mermaids should not exist," she states happily in her memoirs.)
She was seen to good advantage alongside Danny Kaye and Angela Lansbury in The Court Jester (1954), and for a while she attempted to maintain her British and American careers simultaneously. Though she once said, “I would sooner play in a good British picture than in the majority of American pictures I have seen,” by the mid-fifties she had relocated fully to the States. She tried television (her own starring sitcom Glynis proved short-lived in 1963) and at the movies secured an Oscar nomination for The Sundowners (1960). Then there was Mary Poppins, the wallpaper of every child's cinematic bedroom.

Once in a while she still found a part that allowed her to be the biggest thing in the room, or was put in a scenario that made sufficient room for her, but it was rarely when everyone was watching. The price of a free hand seemed increasingly to be a low budget. She led in Robert Bloch's bizarre, name-only revival of The Cabinet of Caligari (1962), too rarely seen; in Vault of Horror (1973) she's Terry-Thomas's wife, so harassed by his pernickety, everything-in-its-place fastidiousness that she snaps, bludgeons him with a hammer, dismembers him, and stores the resultant parts in neatly arranged and labelled jars. A little domestic sitcom. In Under Milk Wood (1971) she's a nice idea, and only the fact of her participation is required.

Her greatest successes in America were to be found on the stage. She was the original Desiree in A Little Night Music: Sondheim wrote ‘Send In The Clowns’ during rehearsals to suit her voice and delivery. This was Glynis the warhorse: she fell ill during the previews and was expected to pull out of its New York run; instead she won the Tony Award for Best Lead in a Musical. As late as 1991 she was playing Desiree’s mother in a Broadway revival, and still in movies too: she's sweet and noticeable in the Sandra Bullock comedy While You Were Sleeping (1995).

She'll be eighty-seven this year; she seems to have retired, though I'll bet not officially. Around the time of her last few movies, she told an interviewer:
“In classical theatre in Europe, everybody plays all kinds of parts. Juliets go on to play the Nurses; they don't want to play Juliet again. I think we've got to remember to grab onto our perks, whatever is the good thing about each age. Each stage of life should be a progression.”