Saturday, March 17, 2012

In passing, 2011

When you write predominantly about the films and personalities of decades past, your motivation for writing an appraisal of any one individual is all too often the need to mark their passing.
Looking at my labels index I see that I have written 33 obituaries on this site since I started in 2007. There are a further 17 at Carfax Abbey, and still more at Hammer and Beyond. Last year, between those sites, I noted the loss of nine irreplaceable figures from the world of vintage cinema.
But there were several I did not get round to mentioning, to whom I must now belatedly and collectively doff my cap.
They are not all big stars, and some may be unknown to you, but all have made an impression on me, and all left me with that strange feeling of abstract loss that comes of hearing of the death of someone you never met or knew, yet who was also a regular presence in your life, and guest in your home.

Imagine trying to get Cate Blanchett to pose for a publicity photo bursting out of a giant egg.
All very different in Barbara Kent's day, which was, incredibly, long enough ago to make her 103 when she passed away last October, breaking another of our last few living links with the great age of silent cinema. Almost all the obituaries used the adjectives 'petite' (under five foot, it was said) and 'baby-faced'. Kent played opposite Garbo and Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil, and Swanson in one of my favourite pre-Codes, the ill-fated Indiscreet, but may be best recalled for her appearances alongside Harold Lloyd in two of his early talkies, Welcome Danger and Feet First. She retired in the early thirties and, apparently, rarely spoke of her career thereafter.

If it seemed remarkable that a silent star might still have been around at the age of 103, how much more so that one of the era's screenwriters, Frederica Sagor, was also still with us, and officially California's third oldest woman, until her death this January at the age of 111. Her screen work between 1926 and 1928 confirms her centrality to the Hollywood flapper boom: Dance Madness, That Model From Paris, Rolled Stockings , Silk Legs ("a thrilling, fascinating story of hearts and legs!") and Red Hair. You're already having a great time at the movies just reading the titles. The red hair, of course, belonged to Clara Bow, for whom Sagor also co-wrote Hula and The Plastic Age.

Marilyn Nash only made two movies in her life. One was a fun bit of fifties sci-fi called Unknown World (1951), the other was Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux (1947; that's her with Chaplin in that superb candid at the head of this post). The latter may or may not be a truly great film - even now I think it's fair to say the jury is still out - but it is unquestionably an important, fascinating and endlessly watchable and ponderable one. And Nash's scenes are, for me, the highlight of the movie.
In another of the film's subtle self-references (such as when Chaplin evokes the Tramp's shuffling walk away from camera into the distance at the end, as Verdoux is led not to who knows where but rather to the guillotine) our introduction to Nash's character subtly evokes those moments in earlier films in which the Tramp first encounters his love-object, notably the blind flower girl in City Lights. The difference this time is that Verdoux is prowling the streets for a disposable test subject for the poison with which he hopes to eliminate another of his wives. He alights on Nash standing in the street - she's a prostitute, and after endless to-and-fro battles with the Breen office it is, I think, still just about obvious that she's a prostitute - and selects her to be his victim. In perhaps the only truly surprising moment in the movie, however, he finds himself overcome by her sweetness, innocence and honesty and is unable to do the deed. Later they meet again, she has now become wealthy, thanks to a marriage to an arms manufacturer, while he has become down and out. She remembers him and offers him the selfless charity she believes he once showed to her.
It's a wonderful pair of sequences, full of bittersweet ironies (and some great stilted, Woody Allenish dialogue about Schopenhauer), and Nash is perfectly cast and entirely memorable. She's not exactly beautiful, but projects exactly the qualities that endear her character to Verdoux in the script. Incidentally, while controversy still rages as to how much Orson Welles justifies that 'based on an idea by' credit (which Chaplin insists in his autobiography was put there just to shut him up), it is interesting to note the visual and structural similarities between Chaplin and Nash's first encounter in the film and Kane and Susan's in Citizen Kane.

Dolores Fuller was the carefree favoured star of mad maverick hero Ed Wood, with major roles in two of his best-known works: Jail Bait and of course Glen or Glenda, in which she famously provides the film's surging dramatic climax by rising from her chair, removing her angora sweater and handing it to her anguished transvestite lover. All know that Wood, also playing Glen under a pseudonym, wrote the film as an act of autobiographical exorcism, and he really did want to marry Fuller, but in life as (almost) on screen, the angora got in the way.

She should have taken the lead in Bride of the Monster too: Wood wrote the role for her, but the promise of budget assistance shoehorned Loretta King into the part and relegated Fuller to a bit.
It is, thankfully, no longer as fashionable as it was to mercilessly trash Wood's obviously cheap, obviously eccentric but singularly hypnotic and unquestionably unique films. Before their collaboration, Fuller can be glimpsed as an 11-year old extra in It Happened One Night (in the motel scene, where she and her family happened to be staying when Capra showed up to shoot); after it she wrote songs for Elvis Presley and others. She is played, very badly, by Sarah Jessica Parker in that depressingly praised travesty Ed Wood, perhaps the only film in history too ironic to see how ironic it is. Parker cheerfully called Fuller the worst actress of all time in promotional interviews, which may come as news to anyone who has seen Sex and the City 2.

The wild card is Cheetah, supposedly the original chimp star of Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and Tarzan and His Mate (1934), who passed away from kidney failure after a long and contented TV-watching, finger-painting and cigar-smoking retirement. Cheetah would have been eighty years old, far older than chimps ordinarily get, and speculation has been rife that maybe the old guy wasn't the original Cheetah after all. I'd love it if he was, but I don't much care if he wasn't: the death of any chimp is sad, and the opportunities to record such a passing in a list of showbiz obituaries does not come around too often. So he more than deserves a mention.

Sue Lloyd was a British actress, one of many who seemed so ideally suited to the 1960s that she found only piecemeal work thereafter. I think her face made her tricky to cast, too, in that it was obviously attractive but problematically so; she could look gorgeous easily enough, but there was a hardness and a hint of cruelty that made her best suited to duplicitous or cold-hearted roles. A prominent beauty spot on her right cheek added to the effect. She was always a favourite of my father's on account of her appearance in The Ipcress File, but I best remember as Peter Cushing's savagely amoral and selfish girlfriend in that masterpiece of incontinent British horror Corruption. As a London fashion model, dating Cushing's older high society surgeon for the prestige, she first urges, then cajoles and finally threatens him into killing woman after woman to provide the glands necessary to restore her once beautiful features, hideously burned by a falling arc lamp. Just as the whole film is long overdue rediscovery of the sort that eventually bumped The Wicker Man and Get Carter from cult to mainstream classic status, so is Lloyd's mesmerisingly horrid performance awaiting acknowledgement as one of the supreme evil female turns in horror, the more chilling for being so believable and almost understandable in its motives. Her slow, convincing transition from touching desperation to almost sadistic murder-lust is like little else in British cinema.
In the seventies she slowed down, turning up in the oddest though not necessarily unpleasing places, like the serial 'Done to Death' from the second series of The Two Ronnies, in which she was still statuesque and sexy, and also got a chance to show she could be funny. Mainly TV from then on, including Crossroads, but she did get to reunite with Michael Caine's Harry Palmer in one of Harry Alan Towers's quickie sequels, Bullet to Beijing, in 1995. Most of the rest of her film work is bewildering: a recurring role in The Stud and The Bitch, lots of sex comedy, including the non-trailblazing penis transplant farce Percy, a female impersonator in Revenge of the Pink Panther, and some films in which her character doesn't even have a name ('Model' in Penny Gold, 'The Blonde' in The Ups and Downs of a Handyman.) She was often blonde in later appearances; a pity, since if ever there was a brunette it was Sue Lloyd.

Lastly, three names associated primarily with British television.

Bob Block was a comedy scriptwriter with an impressive list of credits who found his niche when he began to specialise in writing sitcoms for children, which must surely have been just about the greatest job in the world. An easy one to do badly, though, which Block most assuredly did not. He penned several successful programmes, but two in particular dominated my childhood. Grandad was a vehicle for the great Clive Dunn, no less, which gave the actor probably his best post-Dad's Army role and still provides gentle amusement of the sort that delights kids and doesn't bore adults. Most of all, though, there was the much-adored Rentaghost, an anarchic supernatural farce with one of the strangest premises of any comedy series ever, a peerless cast and enough invention and fun to last several series and a number of changes to the main cast and set-up.

Trevor Bannister was an actor with an agreeable comic touch, seen to best effect as Mr Lucas, nominal star of the early series of Are You Being Served?, until he bowed out when it was obvious that the supporting characters were now able to carry the programme on their own. For some reason, this was my favourite non-children's programme in my first few years of life - long before I understood any of the jokes. So when its stars die I feel it especially keenly. More recently Bannister joined the final cast of Last of the Summer Wine, a programme that had become a kind of retirement home for the great comic actors that a debased culture has no other use for. Also very funny in the Steptoe and Son episode 'A Star is Born'.
"He was a good lad, we were all very fond of him," his brother recalled.

I hate the kind of Hollywood Babylon obituary that wallows in the sad circumstances of a celebrity's death, but there's no point ignoring the fact that Angela Scoular's was shocking even by Kenneth Anger standards, and the tragedy that an actress with so light and effervescent a screen presence could have willed her end so horrifically is not easily borne. (The details, should you wish to know more, are here.)
The obituaries tended to describe her principally as a Bond girl (thanks to small parts in On Her Majesty's Secret Service and the original, non-canonical Casino Royale), but it is in British comedy that she left what I can only hope will be her lasting mark. God knows why she wasn't the massive star she deserved to be, on the evidence of her delicious comic performances in Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (as the gorgeous, maddeningly sloaney Caroline), Doctor In Trouble (with future husband Leslie Phillips) and, most of all, the sitcom You Rang M'Lord? As the vampish Lady Agatha Shawcross she enlivened every scene in which she appeared of Perry and Croft's magnificent and absurdly overlooked creation, which combines sitcom and drama with a dexterity never matched or perhaps even attempted elsewhere. She also turned up in The Avengers and Chaplin's A Countess From Hong Kong, played Cathy in a BBC adaptation of Wuthering Heights and appeared in both of Stanley Long's Adventures films. She had absolutely her own way with a funny line and a vivid kind of joyfulness on screen, and a unique prettiness, with incredibly expressive eyes and a Kay Kendall nose. Sadly, her death seems to have been the awful end of a frustrating life, and a marvellous talent left unfulfilled.