“Late Movies” Blogathon: Swan Songs

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I’m pleased to join David Cairns’ Shadowplay for his annual blogathon. This year’s theme is The Late Show, and it’s a celebration of neglected late films of favorite filmmakers and actors. Here, we take a look at Just a Gigolo and Sextette, the final films of two great ladies of the screen. 

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Swan Songs

Marlene Dietrich and Mae West, two of the most famous women of the past century, had more in common than you might think.

Their paths first crossed at Paramount in the early sound era when Hollywood was raiding the stage for talent—the naughtier the better. Their dressing rooms stood side by side until both were purged from the contract list, after increasing censorship had made them more a liability than an asset. They were both on the list of stars famously declared “box office poison” by movie exhibitors late in the decade. Their careers temporarily on the skids, they met again at the second-rate studio Universal in 1939, where they each had a hit. And in 1954, they appeared in succession at the Congo Room at the Sahara in Las Vegas, for one-woman shows which reaffirmed their huge popularity and legendary status. They also liked each other, it seems, and maintained a long-distance friendship into old age.

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As performers, they did have little in common. Dietrich, the worldly Berliner, presented herself with wide-eyed mock innocence; her style was ironic, detached, disdainful. She was mistress of the feline art of pretending indifference, of seeming oblivious to her own impact while remaining utterly self-conscious. Multilingual, bisexual, a cross dresser, she played with gender like she played with everything else. Even men. In one of many letters, her close friend Ernest Hemingway wrote “What do you really want to do for a life work? Break everybody’s heart for a dime? You could always break mine for a nickel and I’d bring the nickel.” In public, he added: “If she had nothing more than her voice, she could break your heart with it. But she has that beautiful body and the timeless loveliness of her face.”

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You can tell a lot about a lady by her admirers, perhaps. Mae West’s most famous tribute came from the surrealist and absurdist Salvador Dali, who painted her face as an eerily empty room. The steely, mascaraed eyes are flat paintings; the flaring nostrils a misshapen fireplace; the pursed lips a sofa that might not be as inviting as it looks. A tough broad who snapped wisecracks out of the side of her mouth in a nasal Brooklyn rasp, West was 40 years old, five feet tall and around 140 pounds when she made herself a legend of the screen by sheer force of will. What Dali captured was her mysterious mixture of attraction and repulsion; her greatest gift might have been for making people extremely uncomfortable.

What Dietrich and West did have in common was that both were important and influential sexual pioneers. Both were women who slept with anyone they chose and paid no price for it (onscreen and in life). Ironists who sneered at men who wanted sentiment to be part of screwing. Aggressors who broke decisively with the Victorian image of passive, pure, weak femininity. And most of all, both were fanatically devoted to maintaining the image of themselves they had created: Dietrich as a sultry, mock-weary survivor, West as a boisterous carnal wit. This disciplined self-concern ensured them both unusually long careers, beginning on the stage in the 20s (earlier, in West’s case) and proceeding to films and concerts through the next four decades.

And each made her last appearance on film in the same year, 1978. Dietrich appeared in two scenes of the David Bowie vehicle Just a Gigolo; West starred in the film of her play Sextette. The amazing return of these two goddesses 50 years after their initial burst of fame should have been an occasion for rejoicing, but the reviews they received, and continue to receive, were not exactly worshipful.

On Dietrich, then aged 77:

“[She] plays the mistress of a gigolo service in a mummified appearance that suggests nothing more than the limitless possibilities of makeup.” “…the old face… in the merciful shadows of a hat… her voice… pains us as a parody of herself.” “Photographed through gauze and a veil from a distant camera, she croak[s] her song and a couple of lines in a pathetic reminder of past glories.”

On West, who was 85:

“[She looks] like a plump sheep that’s been stood on its hind legs, dressed in a drag queen’s idea of chic, bewigged and then smeared with pink plaster. The creature inside this getup seems game but arthritic and perplexed.” “She’s clearly not all there [and looks like] the peroxided living dead… In most shots her features resemble Mr. Potato Head accessories pinned into a shapeless pink blob.”

Ouch.

It’s not my purpose to rescue Just a Gigolo or Sextette from critical purgatory. They’re both dreadful films, in their very different ways, and you should do anything you can to avoid seeing them. Gigolo is a disjointed mess, with somnambulant actors wandering through elaborate sets with nothing interesting to say or do. The script, a series of floating cryptic remarks, is acutely painful to listen to. Sextette is acutely painful to watch: a farce in which the consummation of the 85-year-old West’s marriage with 34-year-old Timothy Dalton is continually, and thankfully, interrupted by her ex-husbands, the male U.S. Olympic team, and the leaders of the free world… all of whom have the hots for her. Sextette tries to get by as a good natured cartoon, but the winces come much more frequently than the laughs.

And yet, the fact that Dietrich and West were still in there pitching as Disco gave way to Punk seems valiant and heroic to me. The scathing reviews seemed to be punishing these ladies for the sheer fact that they’d grown old—not a crime, exactly.* Maybe disappointed expectations played a part in the almost hurt reaction. Dietrich and West were from an era where an entire studio system was devoted to elevating performers to godlike perfection. Everything—scripts, co-stars, photography, lighting, atmosphere—was designed to set off, and show off, personality. When that system began to fail them, they both returned to the stage, where technique, charisma and distance could offset the ravages of time. Having created such intensely powerful images, both were finally excoriated for attempting, and failing, to maintain them.

In a better movie, Dietrich might have pulled it off. She did Just a Gigolo strictly for the money, having been reduced to sad circumstances in the previous years. Forced to retire after being seriously injured in an inebriated fall off a concert stage, she was now old, crippled, drinking heavily, and on the verge of eviction from her Paris apartment for non-payment of the rent. A fee of $250,000 for two days’ work was announced, though in reality she accepted one-tenth of that amount. She had one scene with David Bowie, and these two icons of androgyny might have been able to create some real sparks… if they’d been in the same room. Instead, their scenes were shot in separate cities and spliced together. What with that disconnect, the phony dialogue, and her frailty, the scene has a tentative quality even beyond the zombified ambience of the film itself.

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But then, a bit later, she returns to sing.

“Just a Gigolo” was a popular song in Austria and then America in the late 20s, written originally to express the disillusion of a World War I soldier who is now reduced to being a hired dancer. A rinky-dink song, as David Lee Roth once demonstrated conclusively. Dietrich hated it, but knew it was integral to the film. Despite the intense pain and difficulty of moving, she sidles at a doorway before walking to the piano. It’s late in a deserted nightclub. The camera is very close at first. The piano player looks down, intent, as cigarette smoke rises. With a gloved hand, she pats the back of his head, her own head lowered. For a moment time seems to stand still as we get a glimpse of the face that enchanted Hemingway: a heavy-lidded eye, the familiar nose, lips, and cheekbones. Looking up to sing, she is aged of course, and vulnerable. Her voice is at once rough and thin, the phrasing labored and slow. But it works for her, as the song becomes the valedictory statement of a woman who has sold sex for half a century and now feels the onset of illness and death:

There will come a day
Youth will go away,
Then what will they say about me?
When the end comes I know
They’ll say “just a gigolo.”
And life goes on without me.

“When she was finished,” recalled director David Hemmings, “I was supposed to say ‘Cut!’ and I couldn’t. The moment was so charged and the spell she cast so total that the beats went by, one-two-three-four, until finally I came to my senses and said ‘Cut!’ and there was—literally—not a dry eye in the house.” It was Dietrich’s last moment on a sound stage, and though she lived another 14 years, she never allowed herself to be photographed again. She did make one more film, Maximillian Schell’s documentary Marlene, in which her refusal to appear is made the subject of the film. Schell’s camera seems to be chasing her through the billowing curtains of her empty apartment, as her recorded voice argues with him, insults him, lies to him, and dismisses him, as well as her entire life and achievement, as rubbish—“Quatsch!” She’s still utterly fascinating. And of course, she knew it.

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Mae West was in some ways a simpler personality. She did not drink; she didn’t smoke. She believed in the power of positive thinking, and ascribed her youthfulness to that and the regular use of colonics. Oh, and sex once a day. She chose her lovers from the ranks of prizefighters, gangsters, musclemen—including men of all races in an era when that could get you arrested (in fact she was arrested, but for her raucous play “Sex” rather than sex itself). These mostly anonymous men were not allowed to call her “Mae,” but only “honey” or “sweetheart” in private and “Miss West” in public. None was allowed to spend the night—Miss West slept alone. Famously, she had a mirror installed over the bed in her Hollywood apartment, and her comment on that (“I like to see how I’m doing”) got a late TV interview yanked from the air. Aware, perhaps, that she wasn’t the youngest, thinnest or prettiest woman around, she committed herself to a personal and professional life in which she was the fairest of them all.

Call it self-belief or self-deception, it’s on full display in Sextette. In a previous comeback at the age of 77, the unfairly maligned Myra Breckinridge, she seemed armored in clothing, wigs and hats. But here, eight years later, she wears low-cut gowns and negligees and looks fairly amazing for her age. However, her physical infirmity is evident, and in the end that’s what kills her act. Not so much because she’s not sexy—a good case could be made that Mae West was never “sexy” onscreen, but rather a comedian whose subject was sex. It’s because she’s no longer in complete control. She had the clout to get Sextette made, but at 85, not enough stamina to sustain it. After the premiere of the movie, a pretty sad occasion (I know because I was there, but that’s another story), she reportedly turned to her escort and said “I can’t think about that. I have to think about tomorrow.”

Wobbly as she seems, she does have a couple of lovely moments. The movie features several rock stars doing goofy turns, and they seem the right kind of excessive people to be hanging around Mae West; at one point Alice Cooper is singing something at a piano and she stands behind him with her hands on his shoulders, grinning with pleasure. She seems happy just to be there, though we may not feel that way, exactly. At another point she meets a young athlete who blurts out that he’s a pole vaulter, and she rolls her eyes and murmurs “aren’t we all?” as she saunters past him.

On her funny, loose DVD commentary on Myra Breckinridge, Raquel Welch complains that West didn’t connect with other performers, that she was essentially off doing her vaudeville act in a movie of her own. She wrote most of her own dialogue, and took the credit from any writer who helped. Onstage, she had other actresses darken their teeth so that hers would shine brightest. She fought with her directors, and if she lived in our time she would have probably functioned as her own director outright. She was her own Colonel Parker, keeping “Mae West” front and center and away from other performers, actors, and co-stars in a hermetically sealed universe. Everyone else in her movies is a feed and a stooge—her former lover George Raft, the ultimate stooge, appears in her last movie as in her first, thus closing a 50-year show business circle. This endless self-reference was meant to exalt her but ultimately limited her, and in Sextette it makes her seem a lost and pathetic figure—ironically, the very last thing she would have wanted.

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Better to remember her in Myra Breckinridge, in a musical number added to the movie after filming had wrapped. She plays a talent agent, so why she’s singing in a nightclub is anybody’s guess, but it’s not the kind of movie where you ask those kinds of questions. With men in tuxedos gyrating behind her, she coos and snarls out a kind of rap version of Otis Redding’s appropriately titled “Hard to Handle.” Still vital at 77 and looking more or less like a million bucks, she shimmies in her black and white dress, at one point ecstatically clutching her own hips, waist and breasts. She could have written the words herself; maybe she thought she did:

Action speaks louder than words
And I’m a girl with a great experience.
I know you had you another,
But I can love you better than any other.
Take my hand, come with me,
I wanna prove every word I say:
I wanna love you baby, gonna have you every day.
Good lookin’ thing, let me light your candle
Cause baby I’m sure hard to handle.

As a poet once wrote of West, “she loves herself… and the rest of us, who do not, can only look on in wonder.” This blazing Technicolor rock and roll number is a world away from Dietrich’s past-it-all Weimar fatalism. Youth will go away? Quatsch! But in her strength and sheer life force, West could be singing for both of them—warriors of sex who blazed a trail, took no prisoners, and lived to crow about it. Self-creators. Survivors. And in these last movies, to my eyes at least, more beautiful than ever.

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* There’s sexism at work here too: nobody said anything remotely similar about Fred Astaire in wig, white tie and tails, embarrassingly dance-hosting That’s Entertainment 2 around the same time at the age of 76.

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Too Much, Too Soon

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A Great Profile

Too Much Too Soon  is one of the earliest examples of Hollywood eating its own. Lurid and sleazy, it’s like those cheap 50’s paperbacks that trashed famous people’s lives in the most obvious ways. Yet it remains fascinating, in a heartbreaking and horrifying way, because of its star: Errol Flynn.

Flynn had just come back from years in the wilderness — making one lousy European movie after another while drinking and drug addiction ate away at his self-confidence, his focus, and his looks. At the 11th hour, Darryl Zanuck rescued him by handing him the part of Mike Campbell, the dissipated wastrel in The Sun Also Rises. That excellent performance reawakened Hollywood’s interest in Flynn, and he was offered the part of his old drinking buddy John Barrymore in this bio of Barrymore’s daughter Diana (based on her own cheap paperback, also called Too Much Too Soon).

A soberer man might have rejected this exploitative little production, but at this stage of Flynn’s career, it was like being offered “Hamlet.” He even swallowed his actor’s vanity, allowing himself at age 49 to be cast as a man ten years older, and looking it (at one point in the film, he states his age, but only after a beautiful, telling little pause).

In fact, he wasn’t well cast. Barrymore was a hard, sharp, tough actor — a little guy who went for “big” stylized flourishes in his performances. As copious amounts of liquor gradually coarsened his skills, he descended into grotesque self-parody: waggling his eyebrows and bulging his eyes lasciviously at nothing, rolling his Rs and exaggerating his own cultured diction. Flynn evokes him, but not by behaving anything like him. Despite his swashbuckling reputation, Flynn was a sensitive, gentle performer with a gift of wry humor and rakish charm. His own alcoholism seemed to soften and diffuse his acting while at the same time giving him some inner freedom to finally externalize his rage, shame, bitterness and impotent longing. All of which he puts to effective use in this film, essentially creating a self-portrait with slight Barrymore echoes (the tilt of a hat brim, for example, or standing with body facing the camera but head held in profile).

Unfortunately, he does most of this without much help from the script. It’s a sort of dull soap-opera version of Sunset Boulevard, with the has-been Barrymore rattling around his mansion and his yacht longing for love, or something. In fact the best line in the movie was spoken by Flynn on the set, responding to instruction from the fourth rate, no-name director… drawing himself up, Flynn replied “Are you, Art Napoleon, telling me how to play a drunk?” There’s an unfair perception that Flynn played his final three roles, all of them alcoholics, the exact same way… that he was in fact not acting, but only playing himself. Not true. In The Sun Also Rises, his Mike Campbell is a superficially charming drifter continually being stung to anger by the evidence of his own impotence and irrelevance (and in acting terms, he holds several scenes together single-handedly). In The Roots of Heaven, he’s a cowardly military man tortured by guilt about his own weakness. In this movie, he plays Barrymore as he no doubt had observed him himself: as a broken man occasionally able to pull himself together and show his former stature, but crumbling slowly from the inside and painfully aware of it. Flynn’s uncompromising portrait of greatness in ruins is finally quite haunting, as he intended.

Halfway through the movie, Barrymore dies, and we’re supposed to remain interested in Dorothy Malone’s cartoonish, by-the-numbers Diana. But the movie dies along with Flynn, and there’s nothing left to watch but Ray Danton’s comically phallic tennis bum. Each successive scene is less interesting than the previous one, and Diana’s last-minute pullout from the tailspin of her life is the least convincing of all. In fact, Diana died a couple of years later, from an overdose of booze and pills, at 38.

As for Flynn, in real life he exercised his usual gift for snatching disaster from the jaws of success, using the filming as an opportunity to begin an affair with a girl on a neighboring set. She was Beverly Aadland, a 15 year old extra. Flynn had been tried for statutory rape in the 40s, an event which precipitated his downward spiral, but by this time he was living down to his reputation. After his death a year later, the girl’s mother Florence Aadland wrote (or rather, dictated) yet another sleazy paperback: The Big Love, the story of Errol and Beverly’s “romance,” and one of the craziest and most disturbing of all Hollywood memoirs.

In The Big Love, Flo describes the three of them attending a screening of Too Much Too Soon. Flynn was embarrassed to have revealed so much of himself, but also quietly proud of his work. As he should have been. Despite the fact that it’s a bad movie by any formal measure, it gets way under your skin thanks to his courageous and devastatingly sad performance. Despite everything around that performance being hollow — script, direction, acting — it still rings true.

My Week With Halle

Nobody knows about this but me and her. The tabloids never suspected. It was private, just between us. I want to protect that. But on the other hand, several days have passed since it ended, so I guess it’s OK to finally talk about it.

I spent a week with Halle Berry. Yes, me, Eddie Selover! Just a nobody. Until now.

It happened in Spain. Halle’s over there making a movie with Tom Hanks. She’ll be there for a while longer, because she broke her leg chasing a goat. Spain, ¡ay, caramba!… there are goats everywhere. And the ground is so rocky! You really have to be careful. Anyway, she’s on the mend now, that’s the important thing. Heal fast, Baby.

On the set of this picture, I was at the bottom of the food chain. The lowest of the low. I mean even lower than the screenwriter. But there must have been something about me. Maybe because we’re the same age. Well, I’m ten years older, but you know. It was a chemistry we had, and I’m not just talking about the physical, though that was certainly there on my part. We had an understanding; we knew it the minute we looked in each other’s eyes. I’ll always remember how hers narrowed when she first looked at me. And her first words.

“Could you get me a cup of tea? Right away…?”

Soon we were inseparable. A gentleman doesn’t reveal the details, but there is one thing I want to talk about, and that was the night we watched a movie together. It was that new one about how Marilyn Monroe went to England back in the 1950s to make a film with Laurence Olivier. As an Academy member, Halle had a screener from Harvey Weinstein, and she insisted on watching it in bed. With me!

Who was I to refuse? So I climbed in with her.

“Watch my leg.”

“I can’t take my eyes off it.”

“And stop with the James Bond impression. It’s getting old.”

“Someone’s in a bad mood.”

She gave me that look I’d come to know so well. And then the movie began.

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So turns out it’s about this guy, Colin Clark, who wangled a job as an assistant to Olivier and then worked on The Prince and the Showgirl, a film version of a play Sir Laurence had done on stage. In it, the Showgirl was played by Marilyn Monroe, who had bought the property, and hired Olivier to co-star and direct. Here, Olivier is played by Kenneth Branagh and Monroe by Michelle Williams.

I’ve seen The Prince and the Showgirl, actually. The plot is very thin: it’s a little one-situation comedy about a middle-European prince who invites a showgirl up to his chambers with the intention of seducing her, and how she thaws him out through a combination of innocence and (one is led to assume) very hot sex. Olivier plays it with a monocle and a Dracula accent, very stiff and formal, and no humor whatsoever. Monroe looks fantastic, maybe the best she ever looked, and she’s very charming. But they don’t get any chemistry going. Partly because the film is so trivial and empty (the best thing about it is the original poster, which shows Olivier pinning a ribbon on Monroe’s barely-there dress, and the words “Some countries have a medal for everything!”). Partly too it’s the difference in their acting styles: his all cold surface detail and polish; hers warm, spontaneous and messy.

The new movie gets a lot of comedy, in fact most of its comedy, out of this clash. The movie’s Olivier is arrogant, egomaniacal and rude — Monroe thwarts and frustrates him at every turn, and he’s driven half mad by her lateness, her poor memory, her retinue of coaches and enablers. What finally drives him over the brink is his realization that despite her lack of formal acting training, she wipes him off the screen when they’re on it together. (This isn’t really accurate; they both come across vividly in The Prince and the Showgirl, but the film is like a gleaming gold-plated serving dish with a mackerel and a marshmallow sitting on it.) Branagh makes a very funny Olivier, biting down on every last syllable and modulating his voice from a whisper to a roar. He takes many of the Great Man’s mannerisms and gives them a campy spin, for example rolling his eyes toward heaven in supplication, then lowering them suddenly and pursing his lips. He portrays Olivier and sends him up at the same time, and he’s the best thing in the movie.

Michelle Williams is not so juicy. She does an effective, almost eerie job of evoking Monroe, both the wide-eyed mock-innocent dumbbell and the pouting, soulful little-girl-lost. But it’s all evocation. Marilyn Monroe was ferociously, incandescently alive on the screen. It’s not just that Williams doesn’t have Monroe’s looks or her amazing body. She doesn’t have her feral quality, the intense aggressive sexuality that flashes out in moments that are still startling to watch. Like Elvis Presley, Monroe was an extraordinary personality who bypassed traditional notions of “acting.” At her best, as with Olivier, she made conventional acting look stilted and contrived, but at her worst (usually in drama), with no real technique or training to draw on, she could be repetitive, self-involved, and amateurish. Williams is just the opposite — she’s all brains and technique, but no fire. It’s an Indie performance, small and readable and finely wrought. But this is a movie about giants (it also includes portraits of Vivien Leigh, Arthur Miller, Sybil Thorndike) and you can’t help noticing there are no giants around to play them.

In any case, the main character isn’t really Monroe, or Olivier. Like I said, it’s about this guy Colin Clark. The movie is supposedly based on his true story, as recounted in his published diary and in his book The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me. In Clark’s account, as a fresh-faced 24 year old, he was the only one on the set Monroe could relate to, and after her new husband Miller deserted her to return to America, she turned to Clark for comfort. The only person with no agenda, it seems (though he later went on to write two books and sell them to the movies). The central part of the movie is about Colin and Marilyn’s very special week, after they sneak away from the set to go frolicking around the English countryside. They walk aimlessly through a park, they go skinny dipping, she’s turned on by his innocence, and they share a kiss. If this seems like a particularly puerile fantasy involving borrowed bits of The Misfits, Something’s Got to Give and Bus Stop, that’s because it is. You get tired of watching Eddie Redmayne’s Colin stare wonderingly at Monroe, wet eyed and open mouthed, or for variety, the other way around. She opens herself up to him and reveals her hurts, her fears and insecurities, and they fall for each other, sort of. Alas, she has to go back to being Marilyn Monroe and he has to go back to being…well, who cares, really? All they had was their one magical time together, but it’s a time that changed them both. In fact, the movie is named for it: My Week with Marilyn.

What a coincidence, right? Especially considering who I watched it with! When it was over, Halle shifted discontentedly under the covers.

“This thing is unbelievable.”

“Why thank you.”

“Cut it out, Mr. Bond. I was talking about the movie. Harvey may manage to snag Michelle an Oscar, but I don’t buy a word of it.”

She saw my expression, and gave me one of her enigmatic smiles. Then she put her face close. The eternal temptress.

“Could you go for some popcorn?”

“I’d love it, I’m starving!”

“No, seriously, I can’t get out of bed. Go get me some popcorn. Now.”

It was a long week we had together, Halle and me. But I will never, ever forget it.

They Died With Their Boots On

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They Died With Their Boots On is the eighth and final pairing of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. It’s not as famous as some of the others — for example, the pirate swashbuckler Captain Blood or the bejeweled Technicolor storybook Adventures of Robin Hood — but it deserves to be. Those are happy, exuberant movies; this is a tragedy of slowly unfolding power that leaves you unsettled and upset. It’s the rare adventure movie that gets under your skin; it achieves its epic qualities through emotion rather than action. The movie is based on the story of George Armstrong Custer, the general whose command of 500 cavalrymen was overwhelmed by ten times as many Native Americans in 1876. Never were the words “based on” more of a euphemism. As history, Boots On bears only a passing resemblance to actual events — in fact the more you know about Custer, the more outrageous the film’s portrait becomes. Virtually every event is twisted almost 180 degrees in order to turn a vainglorious and highly flawed man into a noble figure.

Yet even as the film moves toward its barroom-painting view of Custer and his men staging their heroic last stand surrounded by savages, it has to explain how he got there. It does so by setting him up as vain, callow, physically daring but reckless and prone to troublemaking. Cleverly, the filmmakers play the first half of the movie as a light comedy, in which Custer gets himself into one mess after another and strikes ludicrous poses trying to act like a bigger man than he is. We see him making mistakes and extricating himself through charm and luck; instinctively we know it’s only a matter of time before that luck runs out.

The fact that the same thing was true of Flynn in real life gives the movie an unusual resonance. He was at least as vain as Custer, and easily as reckless; his road to fame and success was just as fast and fortunate, and left him just as unprepared to deal with real challenges. During the making of this movie, Flynn had a couple of underage girls on his yacht, an escapade that led to a long and embarrassing trial for statutory rape that turned him into a public joke after the premiere — particularly after it was revealed in court that Flynn made love with his socks on. His pre-movie life of adventure had left him with an assortment of chronic maladies that resulted in his being declared 4-F and ineligible for the draft. Because Warner Bros. hushed this up, the public thought him a slacker for not serving in World War II as other stars did. Personal and professional disasters came faster and faster, and his drinking and drug use kept pace. Eventually booze, narcotics, dissipation, and some deeper despair they couldn’t anesthetize, killed him at the age of 50.

Some presentiment of this terrible fate seems to hang over Flynn throughout Boots On. He gives one of his most sensitive and aware performances. His eyes often look wide with fright and he seems more attuned to other actors than usual. Often he pauses and hesitates before taking action, as if genuinely unsure of himself, and when he does act, it’s always a shade too swiftly. He’s as dashing as ever, but often he dashes right into a brick wall. Some of the credit for this must go to the great Raoul Walsh, here directing Flynn for the first time, after the actor had quarreled with his usual director, Michael Curtiz. For the previous seven years, Curtiz had directed Flynn like a toy action figure, throwing him into the middle of clanging swords and galloping horses and trusting him to sail above it all. Walsh’s action scenes were rougher than Curtiz’s, less choreographed and clever, and always suggestive of real threat — as you might expect of a man who had lost an eye in an accident.

At this point in her career, de Havilland had developed some serious ambitions and no longer wanted to be the clinging heroine of Flynn’s boys-own-adventure movies. She only made the film at Flynn’s express request, after they had cleared the air of several years of misunderstanding. By all accounts, including hers, they were seriously in love, but their relationship was undermined continually by his immaturity and instability. Boots On is the only one of their films in which their characters have a real arc, moving from youthful high spirits into a serious relationship, into marriage and ultimately the tragedy of his death. To sweeten the deal for de Havilland, the producer Hal Wallis brought in the fine screenwriter Lenore Coffee for rewrites that rounded out the character of Libby Custer and made her a flesh-and-blood woman rather than a cardboard cutout. De Havilland responds with one of her best and most consistent performances.

In their final scene, she helps him prepare for the battle of Little Big Horn. Both know he’s not coming back, and they can barely look at each other while mouthing cheery sentiments they clearly don’t believe for a second. They’re almost getting away with it when he finds her diary and begins reading it aloud. In it, she confesses her terror over unshakable premonitions of his death. I must have written that every time you left for battle, she says. “Of course,” he murmurs softly. They say their goodbyes and he leaves; she’s rigid against a wall for support. The camera pulls away suddenly from her and she faints from the accumulated tension. Fainting in movies usually is phony as hell, but this time we’ve been holding our breaths too, and it feels like a natural reaction. In real life, de Havilland knew she’d never work with Flynn again, and she felt that he knew it as well. The scene is almost unbearable in its poignancy, for both the characters and the actors. Such is its enduring power that at a screening 40 years later, de Havilland, then about 65, walked out in the middle of it. She went to the lobby, sat down and began to cry.

Suspicion

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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.

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.