Suspicion

suspicion

Is he or isn’t he?

That was the question about Cary Grant throughout his life: gay or straight?

This was based, it would seem, on little more than his having shared a house with Randolph Scott in the ’30s and having posed for some goofy pictures of the two of them in aprons and frolicking in the pool. Grant was married five times, had some well-publicized affairs, yet the rumors never stopped, and everyone knew about them. Even my parents. In the early 1960s, they had a live album by Allan Sherman, the singing comedian of “Camp Granada” fame. One of the songs was a riff on a mover and shaker having his secretary call various celebrities, and the big ending went: “And then when you reach Cary Grant, tell him I’d love to, but I just…can’t.” The audience on the album roared; so did my parents.

Around the same time, Tony Curtis did his famous parody of Grant in Some Like It Hot, the humor of which comes not from the accuracy of the impersonation but from the portrait of Grant as a nearsighted, girl-shy millionaire in a silly nautical outfit. Curtis’ very next movie co-starred Grant, so evidently there were no hard feelings. A decade later, when Chevy Chase jokingly used an ugly slur to refer to Grant on a talk show, Grant sued him for slander and won a settlement; later, he was studiously casual about the whole thing. And it continues: a couple of years ago, Grant’s fifth wife Dyan Cannon shot down the rumors yet again in interviews promoting her book about him. But neither Cannon’s testimony, or that of his daughter, his other wives, his former lovers and friends, or anybody else, seems to be enough to put the suspicion to rest.*

Because there’s something about Cary Grant. Whatever he projects at any given moment, he somehow manages to suggest something else at the same time. He’s remembered as the epitome of class and style, but with his strange, not-quite-Cockney accent and thick features, he’s clearly no aristocrat. In his screwball comedies, he projects anger and a kind of general threat to the other actors. His spills and pratfalls are clearly the result of enormous physical mastery and athleticism. Playing heroes in adventure films, he’s a joker and a clown. In love scenes, he’s quizzical, wary, amused — anything but ardent. Often his eyes, his smile, the tilt of his head seem to convey something quite different, and usually more intelligent, than the dialogue coming out of his mouth.

Which is why Johnnie Aysgarth in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion is in many ways the ultimate Cary Grant role. Johnnie is married to Lina, a wealthy spinster from a small English village. He puts the moves on her and they marry quickly, but soon his evasions and subterfuges cause her to have doubts about him. He may have married her for her money (her father thinks so) and be planning to murder her for it too. Or he may be a misguided, misunderstood underdog who’s uncomfortably adjusting to life with a woman who has more money than he does. Is he or isn’t he guilty, that’s what the entire movie is asking. It’s not spoiling anything to tell you the ending (he isn’t), because it satisfied neither the cast, writers, director, original audiences, or virtually anybody else who has seen the movie since its premiere 70 years ago. Everybody struggled with it during the writing and filming — nobody could come up with the right ending. Because there’s no way to resolve this particular story. Suspicion is about something inexplicable: Cary Grant’s personal ambiguity, his elisions, his ultimate mystery.

Joan Fontaine won the Oscar for playing Lina, an award generally assumed to be a consolation prize for her losing the previous year for Rebecca. She basically repeats the performance here, but with more flattering makeup, hair and clothes, and with a veneer of movie-star graciousness that probably drove Hitchcock a little crazy. Making Rebecca, he had used a variety of psychological tricks on set to undermine her confidence. Here, he improvised a nickname for Grant to call her throughout the film: “Monkeyface.” It’s like a slap every time he says it; he might as well be calling her “shithead” in that musical voice of his. Let it be said for the record that Joan Fontaine is beautiful and looks nothing like a monkey, but her role gives her little to do other than suffer and look elegantly worried while keeping a stiff upper. (Lina was a little more masochistically interesting in the original novel, “Before the Fact,” in which she’s correct about her husband’s motivations but so in love with him that she knowingly drinks the glass of poisoned milk he brings her.)

Grant’s real romance in Suspicion isn’t with Fontaine anyway — it’s with Nigel Bruce as his old friend Gordon Thwaite. Considering his snub nose, he has an inappropriate nickname too: “Beaky.” In the 20 years Bruce mumbled and bumbled around Hollywood, he was never more appealing than in this part. Beaky always says the wrong thing and reveals Johnnie’s tricks and lies, and then hangs his head as both the angry husband and the offended wife slap him around. Bruce and Grant get a real performance rapport going — they play their relationship as if Beaky was a big overgrown dog and Johnnie his affectionate but exasperated master. When Beaky has a brandy-induced choking fit and Johnnie stops Lina from coming to his aid, Grant is expertly unreadable. Is he frozen with concern, or callous indifference?

70 years later, it’s not easy to appreciate what a daring performance this was in 1941. Grant had just come off the greatest string of movies any actor ever had — Topper, The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, Gunga Din, Only Angels Have Wings, The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday — and was now one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. What was bold of Grant was to take the charm that had brought him to the top and suggest that it might in fact be a cover for any number of repellent qualities. Johnnie is handsome, smooth, and commanding, but he’s also a chronic fibber, con man and embezzler… a spider, as the photo at the top suggests. Essentially it’s the darkest role Grant ever played. And though the director claimed (probably falsely) that the studio forced it on him, Hitchcock’s “happy” ending (as with many of his happy endings) is anything but. Lina blames herself for everything, but she’s still married to a man who lies at the drop of the hat and steals money every chance he gets. Johnnie has explained everything away, but he’s still married to a woman who knows what he’s capable of and shrinks from his touch. Contemplating the future of their relationship is actually the scariest thing about Suspicion.

 

* Why does everyone need Grant to pick a team? Haven’t they heard of bisexuality?   

Viva Las Vegas

A-M and Elvis

Today, Tomorrow and Forever

It’s not difficult to imagine the reaction of Colonel Tom Parker watching the rushes of Viva Las Vegas in early 1964. There he is: Elvis, his only client, His Boy, up there singing and dancing and gyrating as usual. But there’s something wrong. He’s way back in the back of the shot, almost a stick figure back there. Right up in front of the camera, looming in the foreground, taking your eyes inexorably away from him, is Ann-Margret. Or rather, clad in a skin-tight dress and wiggling in unison, Ann-Margret’s butt. I bet the Colonel damn near bit through his cigar.

In fact, Colonel Parker hated Viva Las Vegas. He peppered the MGM front office with complaints: the girl was stealing the picture; she had too many songs and too many close-ups; the director was favoring her and kept adding new material for her; the publicity was all about this great teaming when everybody knew Elvis was the one and only star and doing just fine on his own. Worst of all, the fancy production values and re-shoots were sending the picture over budget, cutting into Elvis’ share: a half-million in salary and 50% of the profits, of which the Colonel was taking 25%.

As usual when it came to anything but cutthroat dealmaking, the Colonel was wrong. Not only was Viva Las Vegas the biggest hit movie of Elvis Presley’s career, but it survives as one of the best of them, and probably the most sheerly enjoyable. It’s not the best movie as a movie (by common consent, that’s King Creole), or the one that presents the essence of Elvis best (that’s Loving You, an under-appreciated minor masterpiece). Vegas’ script is pathetic, its characters one dimensional, its acting perfunctory. Amazingly, it manages to do almost nothing with its ostensible subject (auto racing) or its gaudy setting (despite the title song, performed three times). What makes it great is what the Colonel hated most about it: Her.

What a difference a co-star makes. Unlike most of Elvis’ leading ladies, Ann-Margret doesn’t seem even slightly afraid of him. And she doesn’t make the mistake many of them made, trying to tune into his vulnerable side and get some kind of tender thing going. She’s a tigress. At only 22, she’s a tight little bundle of sheer talent that keeps threatening to burst its seams. She’s so gorgeous she’s like a special effect — days after watching the movie you can’t get her figure or her huge mane of red hair out of your head. Normally Elvis looked at everything and everybody in his movies with the same expression of polite, amiable inattention. But throughout this movie, he reacts to Ann-Margret with something close to astonishment, and his habitual good ol’ boy smirk is replaced by what can only be described as delight. Their chemistry blows the movie to smithereens.

Her energy and his response to it infuse their musical numbers with playfulness and real sexual give and take. The first of them, “The Lady Loves Me,” is set around a hotel swimming pool, as he sings about how hard to resist he is, and she puts him down mercilessly. The lyrics make him out to be pushy and egotistical, qualities Elvis doesn’t project at all, but he makes it work with light self-mockery and the insistence of his attention toward her. By their second number, “C’mon Everybody,” she’s dancing along as he sings, looking up at him undisguised adoration. Her character isn’t supposed to be that much in love with him at this point in the movie, but at this point in the movie, who gives a damn about the script? Not these two, and certainly not us. By the time they dance together near the end — to something called “The Squat” and then to Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say?” — they’re locked in on each other to the exclusion of everything else. The intimacy is so overwhelming you feel like a voyeur.

You feel the same way listening to the two other duets they recorded for the movie. “You’re the Boss” is a great Leiber and Stoller song in which a man and woman trade teasing compliments about each others’ bedroom prowess — the inverse of “The Lady Loves Me.” Leiber was a masterful American lyricist whose style owed something to E.Y. Harburg — both writers were great observers of human foibles, both had sly and witty senses of humor, and both joyfully celebrated the ways sexual attraction makes a person look, act and feel ridiculous. Plenty of Elvis songs simmer with sex, but with Ann-Margret purring and growling along with him, “You’re the Boss” is in a class by itself.

The other duet, “Today, Tomorrow and Forever,” is a love song in standard Elvis ballad style, tremulous and slow. It’s not much of a song, but their rapport lifts it to an almost spiritual level. You can feel the emotion of their real-life love affair in this song, just as you could feel it in the interview she gave Charlie Rose 30 years later, gently but firmly maintaining their privacy as a couple.

You won’t hear either of these performances in the movie, however: the Colonel had the ballad re-done with Elvis singing alone, and the other cut entirely. The soundtrack album didn’t even have Ann-Margret’s name on it. “You’re the Boss,” indeed.

There wasn’t much else the Colonel could do about Viva Las Vegas though; the picture had gotten out of his control and was a total loss as far as he was concerned. However, he had learned his lesson. After shooting wrapped, he signed with Sam Katzman, a producer with absolutely no taste but an ironclad commitment to bringing pictures in under budget. A kindred soul. From now on, Elvis movies would have lower costs, tighter shooting schedules (two weeks, down from the 11 weeks spent on Vegas), hand-me-down songs, no big production numbers, and nobody of sufficient talent to turn the boy’s head. In his next picture, Kissin’ Cousins, he would be his own co-star — he played an Army man who discovers a look-alike hillbilly cousin in the backwoods mountains, tackily re-created on a soundstage. The psychological effect of this doppelganger plot on a man with a dead twin brother and a deep inferiority complex can only be guessed, but it was a glum shoot and there were times Elvis refused to leave his dressing room.

Kissin’ Cousins cost only $800,000 to make, and earned $2 million in profit. Now there, the Colonel must have thought as he fondled his cigar, that’s a picture.

An Open Letter to Herman Cain

Dear Mr. Cain:

Congratulations on your spectacular rise to the top of the current Republican presidential field this past week!

I understand that when reporters suggested you’re the Flavor of the Month, you replied that they should call you “Haagen Dazs Black Walnut.”

And that you added this was because “it tastes good all the time.”

As a marketing communications professional, may I offer you some advice? Full disclosure: I am a member of the other Party. But still, I promise you’ll find it pretty solid.

First, you should refrain from comparisons of yourself to any sort of nut, or nut-based item. All things considered this is just basic common sense.

Also: everyone knows you’re black. No need to keep mentioning it. Point taken, sir.

In fact, generally speaking I’d avoid mixing up racial and food metaphors—it’s a slippery slope. Pretty soon you’ll find yourself saying you’re Deep Carob Crunch whereas Obama is Vanilla-Chocolate swirl, or something. And it won’t end well.

In fact, with your background in pizza chain restaurants, you should stay away from food metaphors altogether. Again, you don’t want to get into any kind of “anchovies on the side, hold the pepperoni” kind of thing.

In this same vein, any references to how you taste, no matter how delicious, are just not Presidential.

I understand that reporters are going to try to lead you there. They’re looking for a headline. “Sweet Cain Likes His Sugar on a Stick.” “Poor Get No Piece of the Pie, Says Cain.” “Put a Fork in Him—He’s Done.” That sort of thing. They have no shame. But that doesn’t mean you have to enable them.

Probably you’re wondering, what should I have said when they asked me if I was Flavor of the Month? Well, something like this:

“No indeed. I am a serious contender for the Republican nomination, and I believe voters are ready for some really simple solutions to complex issues.”

Try this new, non food-based approach to answering press questions, and see how it works for you.

Warm regards,

Eddie Selover

Libeled Lady

 

It’s amusing to think that the most elegant and sophisticated couple in film history met in the back seat of a car. Myrna Loy and William Powell were making Manhattan Melodrama, a movie as formulaic and dull as it sounds, and the director W.S. Van Dyke was in a hurry as usual. “My instructions were to run out of a building, through a crowd, and into a strange car,” Loy wrote 50 years later. “When Woody called, ‘Action,’ I opened the car door, jumped in, and landed smack on William Powell’s lap. He looked up nonchalantly. ‘Miss Loy, I presume?’ I said ‘Mr. Powell?’ And that’s how I met the man who would be my partner in 14 films.”

 

The key word in that anecdote is “nonchalantly.” That was the style Powell and Loy developed in the mid-’30s—cool, dry, and airy despite whatever melodrama, Manhattan or otherwise, happened to be unfolding around them. In fact, the more dramatic the situation (for example, a wife catching her husband with another woman, or someone waving a gun around) the more distant and amused they became. Trapped, like all the other actors of their generation, in clichéd plots and by-the-numbers scenes, they looked at each other skeptically — he with lips pursed, watching to see how she would react; she with narrowed, suspicious eyes as if he had arranged it all in a transparent, failed attempt to please her.

 

Their impact was so strong that their detached superiority itself became a cliché — dozens of actors from Dean Martin to Maggie Smith to Bill Murray have used it over the years to signal cynical disbelief at the movies they’ve been stuck in. What Powell and Loy had that nobody ever quite duplicated was a deep mutual understanding and respect. They were peerlessly adult and worldly (they were never called by their first names, like Fred and Ginger — that “Miss Loy” and “Mr. Powell” is very telling). But they weren’t stuffy about it. They may have treated the plots and characters around them as a private joke, but they locked in on each other with tremendous focus. After their first film, Van Dyke paired them in The Thin Man, which made them a world-famous team and bonded them forever in the public’s mind. But it’s their fifth film, Libeled Lady, in which their romantic chemistry is at its most potent and moving. It’s probably their best movie.

 

One measure of how wonderful Powell and Loy are in Libeled Lady is that they turn the other actors into run-of-the-mill supporting players. When your co-stars are Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy, that’s saying something. Harlow and Tracy play the contrasting couple — the floozy and the tough mug who go toe-to-toe with the two urbane sophisticates. They’re good, but in this case they’re not in Powell and Loy’s class. The movie was made a couple of years after the enforcement of the Production Code, when MGM was trying to fashion a new persona for Harlow. She had become famous playing trollops, poured into skin tight satin gowns, her unworldly platinum hair and hard, angled face shining in the key light. Once the Code was in force, they began to tone her down, and here she has evolved into a fairly standard movie tart: loud and ungrammatical, but with a slightly dinged heart of gold. Harlow gets top billing in Libeled Lady, and she’s capable and likable, but she’s also a bit tiresome as she stomps her feet and launches into yet another tirade.

 

I don’t know what to say about Tracy. Katharine Hepburn once compared him to a potato (she meant it as a compliment), and that’s pretty apt. He’s solid and meaty. He’s there. But he’s not very exciting. There’s a case to be made for Tracy as the most overrated actor of his generation; he’s still considered some sort of giant, but it’s more residual reputation than actual achievement. He never could play comedy, or more accurately, he wasn’t personally funny aside from whatever business or line they gave him. In comedies, he tended to act like an overgrown puppy, putting his head down, looking up with his big brown eyes, shuffling and stumbling, raising his voice to bark at the other actors. In Libeled Lady, he plays a standard ’30s part—the ruthless, manipulative, anything-for-a-story newspaper editor. Cary Grant made the same character charismatic and hilarious in His Girl Friday, but the best Tracy can manage is to be a good sport.

 

Here’s the plot: Loy is the richest girl in the world, who is suing Tracy’s paper for libel over a false story about a romantic entanglement. The suit would ruin the paper, so Tracy hires Powell to seduce Loy and put her in a compromising position; in order to make Loy look like a homewrecker, he convinces his own fiancée Harlow to marry Powell… platonically. It’s a tightly woven farce plot, none of it very original even at the time, but it serves to keep the four stars at cross-purposes so they can bicker and double cross each other. It’s like the ancestor of a sitcom. The director was Jack Conway, an anonymous MGM hack whose chief virtue was that he knew how to keep things moving briskly. Libeled Lady is almost a perfect catalog of ’30s movie comedy situations and devices — people bite each other, elegant gowns are kicked away impatiently, insults are hurled and then topped. As written by Maureen Watkins, the author of Chicago, some of the wisecracks are pretty good — for example when Harlow complains that someone talked to her like a house detective. “How do you know what a house detective sounds like?” Tracy demands and she fires back: “Doncha think I read?”

 

What makes Libeled Lady memorable is the delicacy and heart of Powell and Loy’s playing. At first, of course, they’re adversaries. Hired to make love to her, he begins by trying to ingratiate himself with her on a trip on an ocean liner: isolating himself with her, subtly arranging for physical contact, telling her what beautiful eyes she has. As he comes up with one sleazy strategy after another, she regards him with infinite and increasingly open shades of distaste. Her father (Walter Connolly, the perennial sputtering father of screwball comedy) is an avid fisherman, so Powell works that one, pretending to be a fishing expert. When Connolly excitedly tells Loy that Powell is an angler, she replies that yes, he seems like quite an angler. This leads to an extended scene in which the three go trout fishing in a raging river, and Powell takes a series of pratfalls and spills while trying to appear like a world-class fisherman — he has a very wet instruction book in his creel basket, though he can’t hang onto it for long. One of the great comic sequences of the decade, it led to Howard Hawks making an entire movie around the same premise called Man’s Favorite Sport? (unfortunately, Rock Hudson was no William Powell).

 

Eventually, Powell’s pursuit of Loy leads to them falling genuinely in love, and at that point something wonderful happens. With all the mechanical farce conventions ticking away around them, you expect him to be exposed, and he is. You’re ready for the inevitable confrontation, hurt feelings, and breakup that lasts up through the final explanation and forgiveness, but it never comes. She instantly understands what’s happened, and there are no recriminations…even though he’s still technically married to Harlow. Powell and Loy are too mature, too wise, too grown up for tedious spats. Audiences loved The Thin Man movies, and still do, for their portrait of a witty, companionable marriage full of teasing and wisecracks. Libeled Lady shows the courtship phase of that same relationship, and it’s as satisfying as you always hoped it would be.

 

First published on Edward Copeland on Film.