Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Madeline Kahn Brightens a Paper Moon

Coming up with a Madeline Kahn tribute post for Stinkylulu’s Day of Appreciation blogathon proved difficult for me, as I had trouble thinking of the words to express how important the lovely Ms. Kahn’s work has been to my life as an avid movie fan. Madeline Kahn was one of the earliest and most beloved performers I can remember seeing in films on a frequent basis (she made her film debut in What’s Up Doc? at about the same time I can first remember going to the movies regularly), and her impact on me was profound. Long before I understood enough to make any type of critical assessment of a performer or film, I simply liked or didn’t like a movie or actor and, during the amazing two-to-three year stretch wherein she appeared in Doc, Paper Moon, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler, and Young Frankenstein (I wasn’t able to witness her indelible work as Lily van Stupp in Blazing Saddles until later, as the film was considered too raunchy for my young, impressionable eyes to view), Madeline Kahn became a welcome, recognizable figure to me, and the performer I most identified with onscreen. I felt a strong connection with this warm woman who seemed so funny, alive, and kind. I think her warmth gets overlooked a lot due to her astounding gifts as a comedienne (a measure of Kahn’s abilities in this area: the gifted newcomer was reportedly turning in such a great performance as Agnes Gooch in Mame that Lucille Ball did herself no favors- and Kahn plenty, as it turned out- by having her talented rival axed from the picture she was stealing). Her characters often aren’t very sympathetic, but Kahn makes a viewer care for each of their plights and, no matter how outrageous the comedy, she always manages to find the humane aspects of the character.

I believe Kahn’s single greatest achievement on film came in the cliché role of “Trixie Delight,” the lazy, self-involved tramp of Paper Moon. From the moment Kahn first appears in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1973 depression-era comedy, flouncing around as Trixie jiggles her way towards the forefront of the screen, Kahn's presence and good nature picks the movie up and turns it into a fantastic entertainment; once Kahn arrives, a viewer instantly gets the sense that something very special is going on, and "This is as good as movies get." Kahn takes the stock role of a bubbly, saucy tart and shades the character with traces of sadness and complexity, resulting in a rich portrayal one can never forget. Trixie may come across as a shallow, materialistic creature but, beneath Trixie’s surface vamping, Kahn invests the role with layers of feeling. Most significantly, in the film’s best scene Kahn does a 180 on Trixie’s heretofore vapidity and proves this earthy woman’s suffered through plenty of hard knocks. Carnival “dancer” Trixie has hooked up with con artist “Moses Pray” (Ryan O’Neal), much to the chagrin of Moses’ tiny partner-in-crime, Addie. After a picnic lunch on a hillside, Addie decides to go to battle with her nemesis, and refuses to get back into the car with Moses, Trixie, and Trixie’s world-weary fifteen-year-old maid, Imogene (P.J. Johnson, who gets some hilarious lines, and nails every one of them). This action prompts Trixie to climb the hill and attempt to cajole the youngster back into the car by the use of comic books, flattery (who can forget the ingenious inflection Kahn gives to her pronounciation of "bone structure"? My sister and I aped Kahn saying this for weeks), and demands for her to “. . . cut out the crap, you understand?” before Trixie turns around to head back downhill. Addie is immobile through it all and, sensing the child is on to her game, Trixie turns back around and, in stunning fashion, completely drops her guard. With her voice quavering and her eyes suddenly tearing up, Kahn is magnificent in this scene. Trixie wins Addie (and the audience) to her side by gently informing the girl Moses’ infatuation with her will wear off, as Trixie always messes up her relationships with men. Kahn’s acting is so direct and honest during Trixie’s sweet, melancholic monologue that a viewer buys into everything she’s telling Addie. Even though Trixie subsequently acts in her own best interests and gets meaner, until her ruthless, unfaithful behavior is finally (and probably justifiably) revealed to Moses by Addie, I find myself rooting for Trixie to take her duped con man suitor for everything’s he’s got whenever I watch Moon. In Trixie, Kahn creates an endearing portrait of a woman who’s a victim of her time and circumstances, and this lady deserves to gain a better lot in life.

Kahn’s most celebrated work in Saddles and Young Frankenstein is original and brilliant, but it’s definitely on a different, more stylized comic plane than what Kahn pulls off as Trixie. Underneath pounds of makeup, tight dresses, baby talk, batting eyelashes, swaying hips, and bouncing cleavage, her Trixie remains a vividly real woman. Trixie Delight represents one of Madeline Kahn’s most irresistibly perfect cinematic accomplishments, therefore making this Moon nirvana for Kahn’s fans, and for any other moviegoer with a heartbeat.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Sandra Dee & Troy Donahue Find Stardom Awaits at A Summer Place

As June looms around the corner, the time is right to venture to one of the great settings found in the melodramatic genre, 1959’s florid A Summer Place, featuring iconic 1950's teen idols Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue, ideally paired in their only screen teaming (Donahue appeared briefly in Dee’s other classic 1959 soaper, Imitation of Life, as the racist boyfriend who sadistically beats up Susan Kohner, but he shared no scenes with Dee). Physically and in temperament, the two match up extremely well; Dee clearly is enamoured with her lanky, boyishly awkward costar and, in return, Donahue manages to reciprocate Dee's attraction with some earnest baby-blue gazing of his own.

During Sandra Dee's breakthrough 1959 year, plenty of people were indeed looking at the young star, whether she was lousy with virginity (in her signature role as Gidget and as Susie in Life) or not (as the knocked-around, and eventually knocked-up, Molly in A Summer Place). Dee's screen persona as a type of insipid, junior-miss version of Doris Day is somewhat unfair to the late performer. Dee certainly could do the good girl perkiness thing in spades; however, possibly fueled by the many hardships she suffered in her personal life, Dee was also able to invest some of her roles with an impressive emotional grit and vulnerability, and Place probably afforded her the best chance to shine in this mode. Poor Molly gets kicked around plenty (both physically and emotionally) throughout the torrid course of the film, and Dee dives into the sometimes demanding role with aplomb, whether she's displaying mortification, then resentment, over the discovery of her father's illicit affair with her boyfriend’s mother or when, in her big scene, she breaks down when told by her heartless mother she is to be thoroughly examined by a doctor, after Molly returns from a night lost at sea with Johnny (this scene must have turned some heads in 1959, and it’s still uneasy to watch the young Molly unnecessarily subjected to such torment). Dee was only about sixteen at the time of filming Place, and her sensitive acting in these demanding scenes is convincing and moving, making one wish Dee had been afforded more opportunities to shed her “good girl” image, and take on heftier dramatic roles along the lines of her Molly Jorgenson.

Troy Donahue never showed much adeptness as a thespian during his brief rein as a leading man during the early 1960's, but in Place his California blond beauty and rigid demeanor suit his role as the pure-hearted, romantic Johnny. Although Donahue can't shake off his trademark stoicism, he focuses intently enough on Dee to display some star quality and, aided by the strong chemistry he creates with Dee, Place’s Johnny represents Donahue's best role and performance.

Dee and Donahue are surrounded by a solid lineup of players, with the lovely Dorothy McGuire headlining the cast as Sylvia, an innkeeper who effectively re-kindles some sparks when old flame Ken (Richard Egan) returns to the title locale to discover where life has taken his former love, while Arthur Kennedy convincingly stews in his brew as Bart, Sylvia's insolent spouse. The McGuire/Egan romance serves as a nice December counterpoint to the Dee/Donahue May coupling, and the gentle McGuire glows with love and warmth most effectively. It’s also nice to see parents being portrayed as intelligent and compassionate, instead of the overbearing, clueless stereotypes found in other teen-oriented films of the period, such as Rebel Without a Cause and Splendor in the Grass. However, the Generation Gap is fully represented in Place by the drunken Bart’s oftentimes cloddish behavior, and especially whenever Constance Ford appears as Dee's vicious mother, Helen, whose only goal in life is to destroy any fun, happiness, or beauty that dares to creep into the lives of any person she happens to come across and, in particular, her nubile young daughter. In the early sections of the film, Ford works at giving a sense of humanity to the hard-nosed Helen, acting unsure and apprehensive enough of the time to at least suggest Helen understands she possesses some unhealthy hang-ups regarding Molly's burgeoning sexuality. However, once Molly begins to harbor serious feelings for Johnny, the control-freak Helen goes completely batty, and Ford has a field day illustrating the unbalanced woman’s execrable attempts to destroy her daughter’s life, whether she’s turning Molly over to that creepy doctor or slapping her offspring directly into the family’s Christmas tree- Happy Holidays, Molly!

One of Max Steiner's most famous scores (Percy Faith's recording of the title theme was #1 for nine weeks on Billboard's Hot 100 chart) lends an air of nostalgia to the film, and the lush soundtrack immeasurably aids in setting the proper dramatic tone for each flamboyant scene– without Steiner’s contribution, it’s hard to imagine the film coming off at all. Delmer Daves directs competently, and sometimes more than that; I love how Daves sometimes has Ford backlit with red lighting, such as in the scene wherein she's seated by a red lamp during one of her nastiest attacks, wherein Helen calls Sylvia a “harlot of a mother”- awash in a red glow during this retort, Helen looks as if she’s ascended directly from hell just to make life miserable for both pairs of lovers. Capturing the time and place of its era perfectly (well, at least as portrayed in the movies of the period- unlike Ken and Sylvia, not many people were lucky enough to end up in a magnificent Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house), A Summer Place is a worthy example of the entertaining type of potboiler Hollywood frequently served up with relish and ham during the 1950’s.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Answered DVD Prayers: The Tender Trap and Some Came Running

With my purchase of the new-to-DVD Frank Sinatra: The Golden Years box set, I was able to finally watch two of Sinatra’s essential 1950’s films, which feature the star at his most iconic, in widescreen on my 40 inch TV. First up was MGM’s charmingly light 1955 comedy, The Tender Trap. As swinging bachelor Charlie Reader, a New York talent agent, Sinatra may be typecast but, wearing the part as comfortably as his fedora, he’s very easygoing and personable, and therefore he manages to keep his womanizing character from coming across as the despicable cad he certainly would be in real life, or in a lesser performer’s hands. It helps tremendously that Sinatra can still pull off the innocent, puppy-dog routine when his character gets in hot water with the ladies, even if by the fade-out he ends up being put in his place by nearly all of them (you go, girls). Debbie Reynolds is properly cute and innocent as Julie Gillis, a young actress signed by Charlie, whose unpractical approach to preparing for martial bliss helps land the agent in the title’s predicament. However, as Julie Reynolds is no one’s complaisant flower, and the zesty star is simpatico with her character’s stubborn determination to do just about anything her way, making her an amusing costar for the “broad-minded” Sinatra (the scene wherein Julie takes Charlie down a notch or twenty by informing him she finds him attractive in a “beat-up” way is priceless). In Reynolds hands, you sense this sweet young thing will have no trouble keeping the imposing Chairman of the Board in his place before, after, and during the wedding.

As Joe McCall, Charlie’s visiting married friend who thinks he yearns to have a bachelor's lifestyle, David Wayne gives a smooth performance that matches up nicely with Sinatra’s. However, the fourth major Trap player comes close to walking off with the movie: Celeste Holm is absolutely marvelous as musician Sylvia Crewes, Reynolds chief rival for Sinatra’s affections. Holm invests her role with so much sly wit, intelligence, and sophistication (I’d kill to come up with a line like Sylvia’s retort to an attractive gentleman who throws the “Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” pickup cue her way. Her response? “It’s this face of mine. It’s what everyone’s wearing this year.”) it’s hard to believe this foxy lady is still available. Holm is remarkably alert and spontaneous in the part and, although she handles Sylvia’s many great lines with aplomb, Holm’s sly, penetrating looks also speak volumes, providing insight into the unsatisfied Sylvia’s thoughts on her largely one-sided feelings for Charlie. Breezy and light when necessary, she also gives plenty of gravity to the role when it’s called for, such as in her discussion with David Wayne regarding what men are available to an accomplished career woman of a certain age, and later in her kind, sage response to the married Wayne’s wedding proposal. This smart, funny woman clearly knows the score, and one can identify with Joe’s frustration over Charlie’s lack of commitment to Sylvia. Holm worked so well with Sinatra she was re-teamed with him the following year in High Society, wherein they put over “Who’s Wants to be a Millionaire?” with such professional gusto that the song remains one of my favorite musical moments from the 1950’s.

I’m a sucker for Carolyn Jones in just about any film she made during this period (she had a knack for making a distinct impression almost every time at bat, regardless of the size of her roles, which were usually small), and she has a nice reoccurring bit as Helen, Sinatra’s extremely blasé dog-walker, who zips in and out of the apartment any given time of the day or night to fetch the pet for a stroll. Lola Albright also has some good moments as the most sensual of Sinatra’s paramours, and her fishy kiss-off to her sometimes lover is perfectly played.

Warner’s once again comes through with a pristine print for the DVD (that red sweater-and-socks combo Sinatra wears in Trap is the reddest red imaginable, and his eyes are beyond the blue in that horizon). The wonderful Oscar-nominated Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen title song is wisely incorporated in the film at several intervals, including Sinatra’s memorable rendition that opens the film (when I think of prime 1950’s Sinatra, the image of him strolling towards the camera with hands in pocket, wearing his trademark suit and feroda, while he casually trills the title tune is the one that always comes to mind first) and during the closing sequence, wherein all four principals do a nice reprise of the song.

I can’t get enough Sinatra from this period, and I also recently ventured to the Museum of Radio and Television, wherein I was finally able to view the Producer’s Showcase 1955 musical production of Our Town, featuring the none-too-shabby lineup of Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint as the young leads, and Sinatra as the narrator (Sinatra had quiet a year in ‘55: he was also fine in a supporting role in the shlocky-but-sometimes-fun hit Not as a Stranger, and he reached his peak as an actor in The Man With the Golden Arm). Both Saint and Newman were both around 30 at the time they played the teenage George and Emily, but their gentle, sincere performances make you buy everything they’re trying to put across (they’re also both heartbreakingly beautiful). Sinatra’s vocal prowess is amazing as, with supreme confidence, he masterfully sells “Our Town,” “The Impatient Years” and the production’s most enduring hit, “Love and Marriage.” Sinatra’s trademark laid-back acting is also a fine fit for the character, and therefore viewers are able to witness another prime example of Sinatra at his apex. I’ve been waiting for decades to see how effectively Sinatra introduced the classic “Marriage” to audiences, and I wasn’t disappointed, as the legendary crooner sounds as goods as he does on the famous hit recording of the song. I believe this was telecast live, and there’s nary a slip-up throughout the close to hour-and-a-half running time, marking this Town as one of the most endearing places to be found in the Golden Age of Television.

I followed up Trap with a complete genre reversal via my first wide-screen viewing of the 1958 Vincent Minnelli-directed film adaptation of James Jones’ expose of small-town America, Some Come Running. I have trouble forming objective options regarding these steamy 1950’s melodramas (Written on the Wind, Peyton Place, Imitation of Life, etc.)- I love them all unreservedly, with their mixture of colorful, often immoral characters, tempestuous emotions seething under (usually) proper exteriors (except for the scene-stealing tramps and bad girls- you know who they are), and florid, flamboyant performances by fine casts usually working at the top of their games. These lively entertainments may not be true-to-life, but they're something else, anyway.

In Running Sinatra stars as Dave Hirsh, a WWII vet who returns to his hometown of Parktown, Indiana with aspirations of re-starting his stalled career as a writer. If Sinatra doesn’t quiet mine the same gold he did via his previous enactment of a Jones character (From Here to Eternity, of course), his unflappable persona matches Dave’s confident, no-nonsense demeanor well. His two costars fare even better. Dean Martin gives possibly his finest performance as Bama Dillert, Dave’s true-blue friend who harbors an intense relationship with his hat. As usual, Martin come across as effortlessly charming in everything he does, but as Bama, he suggests a lot more complexity than in most of his hip characterizations, and he makes the role uniquely his own.

As Ginny Moorehead, the simple girl of easy virtue (Ginny is also loving, incredibly nice, and completely honest) whom Dave has picked up at the outset of the film, Shirley MacLaine is awesomely likable in the role that cemented her stardom. Tarted up to a capital “T” with heavy makeup, tight, gaudy low-cut dresses and hair I believe MacLaine one claimed she styled with an eggbeater for the role (well, somebody did), the young star amazingly manages to keep the overblown character firmly rooted in the realm of plausibility, whether she’s belting out “After You’ve Gone” in a drunken stupor, asking Dave to love her (its hard to imagine another performer making this moment work, but MacLaine makes Ginny’s desperation to be needed touching and real, instead of pathetic), or begging Bama to allow her to marry Dave without any interference. I prefer MacLaine in her early roles and, along with her more cynical Fran in The Apartment, Ginny represents the best example of the off-beat, sweet persona that made the young actress so appealing and original among her contemporaries. Her Ginny’s the heart of the film, and the vulnerability, simplicity, and flat-out kindness MacLaine makes an integral part of Ginny is very moving. Dave’s in love with the beautiful, composed schoolteacher Gwen (Martha Hyer), but MacLaine’s so convincingly dedicated to loving him, an audience can believe when Ginny states “I’m going to make you a good wife, Dave” that he couldn’t find a better companion, regardless of the intellectual incompatibility existing between the two.

The rest of the cast also has a lot to do with the film’s charm. As Dave’s successful businessman brother, Frank, Arthur Kennedy skillfully conveys the pleasant on the surface, sleazy on the underside aspects of the gentleman’s character (Kennedy would take this kind of role to an even lower life form the following year in yet another prime potboiler, A Summer Place). Hyer didn’t make out too well at Stinkylulu’s First Supporting Actress Smackdown a couple years ago, but I think her cool reserve and glacial beauty are perfectly suited to Gwen, the intelligent, if icy, teacher Dave becomes immensely attached to. Hyer plays opposite Sinatra very well, leading up to a killer payoff scene, wherein Dave finally is able to break through and seduce the formerly iron maiden. After the seduction, Hyer also does a great job illustrating the repressed Gwen’s conflicting emotions concerning Sinatra and their now-sexual relationship, and she's wonderful in her scene with MacLaine, wherein Ginny pleads her case to keep Dave. Gwen’s bewilderment as Ginny guilelessly asks Gwen to let her have Dave is excellently portrayed by Hyer via the use of a slight quaver in her voice and a frequently stunned expression (Hyer makes the viewer understand the reserved Gwen is clearly in awe of Ginny’s ability to lay all her cards on the table). In look and manner, Nancy Gates is also perfectly in tune with her part as Kennedy’s warm, sensual secretary, Edith- she may be a playing as much of a stereotype as MacLaine and Hyer are but, similar to her femme costars, Gates makes her work memorable. Leora Dana, equipped with a voice that stops just short of a cackle every time she utters a word, also turns in a nice performance as brother Frank’s cold, superficial, socially-aware wife (I love the way Dana pauses when Sinatra answers her pleasant-but-insincere greeting with, “You haven’t changed a bit, Agnes” with steely contempt, before she responds uneasily with, “Oh, what a liar.”).

There’s an excellent featurette on the making of Running and its legacy, wherein a good point is made how Minnelli deliberately allows the film to unfold at a slow pace, in order for the incredible carnival finale to have maximum impact. The climax of the film really is something to see in widescreen, and supports the notion that all the care and time Minnelli took to put this set piece together (which drove “One take, or else” Sinatra to distraction) was worth the trouble. Also essential to Running’s success is Elmer Bernstein’s powerful score, which cues every dramatic highlight, adding plenty of excitement to the film. I can’t really agree with Peter Travers that Running represents Sinatra’s peak as a dramatic performer (surely Sinatra was pulling Travers leg when he told the critic to take a look at Running (instead of Golden Arm) after Travers mentioned The Manchurian Candidate as the film containing Sinatra’s best dramatic work). Running is featured in another stunning Technicolor transfer from Warner Brother, and the film’s never been such a pleasure to watch. DVD also includes the film theatrical trailer.

I also checked out the frenetic, harmless 1964 comedy Marriage on the Rocks, which is worth a look, as it features a top cast and some amusing sights you won’t see elsewhere, such as Sinatra improbably playing a fuddy-duddy businessman (it’s hilarious to watch the ultra-cool Frankie, shocked at his wiseacre son’s mention of grandma “hitting the sauce,” exclaim “Now, you cut that out!” to the kid in a conservative tone that would make Fred MacMurray or Robert Young proud), Deborah Kerr shrugging away on a Go-Go dance floor with Dean Martin, the formidable Hermione Baddeley in kilts playing the bagpipes, Joi Lansing putting the va-va in voom as Martin’s bikini-clad secretary, and Nancy Sinatra playing Frank’s daughter with a considerable amount of charm. The other two titles in the set include the aforementioned, rescued from public domain Arm which, besides Sinatra, also features Eleanor Parker and the unbelievably gorgeous Kim Novak to very good advantage, and 1965’s None But the Brave, which might be worth a look-see).

Sunday, May 18, 2008

At Her Worst, She's Your Best Bette

Bette Davis’ behavior onscreen during the third night of LACMA’s tribute to the star featured the lady at her most disreputable, much to her fans’ delight, as the Bing Theater unveiled two of the screen idol's classics (or a classic and a camp classic, at least), The Letter and Beyond the Forest.

Davis’ second collaboration with favorite director William Wyler, the 1940 adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s The Letter features one of Davis’ most memorable and skillfully crafted performances as Leslie Crosbie, the seemingly cool, aristocratic wife of a Singapore rubber plantation owner, whose hidden passions sometimes get the best of her. The film is just about perfectly cast all the way down the line: Herbert Marshall is wonderful as Robert, Leslie's world-weary yet very affectionate husband, and Oscar-nominated James Stephenson gives a finely shaded performance as Howard Joyce, the lawyer friend of the Crosbie’s, who risks his reputation to try to save his impulsive client (Stephenson is terrific at displaying his character’s many conflicted emotions regarding Leslie and her fate). Gale Sondergaard as the silent, ominous Mrs. Hammond is usually considered the “heavy” of the piece, but I find the grinning, soft-spoken Ong Chi Seng (masterfully played by Victor Sen Yung, who achieved his greatest fame portraying Charlie Chan’s son) as Howard’s assistant a much more complex and sinister villain. You can tell Seng cares about his employer, but Sen Yung vividly depicts how Seng refuses to allow his feelings to override his ambition. The lady of the hour, of course, is amazing, and Davis gives a textbook example of how to lie on screen. Leslie spends most of the film attempting to convince everyone’s she’s innocent of the cold-blooded murder she engages in during one of filmdom’s most sensational openings ever and, in Davis' adroit hands, it’s easy to see how one could believe her. Unlike many actors before and since, by word or gesture Davis never plays up the idea to the audience that she’s lying. She simply acts as the shrewd Leslie should as she attempts to save herself. This woman is too smart to give anything away, and Davis (immeasurably aided by Wyler’s deft hand) keeps her usual theatrics in check as she adeptly illustrates Leslie’s deceitful manner.

Forest is one-of-a-kind cinema, with Davis portraying the screen’s first (and maybe only) brunette blonde bombshell. Fortunately Davis is in no mood to be subtle this time around- sashaying around the dead-end mill town she yearns to escape for the bright lights of Chicago, Davis’ Rosa Moline is selfish, evil, and priceless. Constantly forcing herself on the somewhat willing object of her passions, Rosa is just a gal who can’t say no, as long as lover-boy Neil (played by David Brian) is available, or even when he isn’t (I’ll take Forest over Fatal Attraction any day of the week, as Davis absolutely refusing to be ignored by Neil is much more fun to watch than observing Glenn Close throwing grief and rabbit stew Michael Douglas’ way). Davis may be miscast, and probably at least a decade too old for the role besides but, fearless as ever, she forges ahead anyway, determined to give audiences their money’s worth. Boy, does she deliver. No one’s more fun to watch than Davis when she’s playing one of her over-the-top vixens and, harlots though they may be, she makes you care for these women, too. Always a vivid performer, Davis is so alive as Rosa one can’t help but root for her to achieve her aims, even if she’s hellbent on having a reunion with her lover in Chicago at any cost.

Although her artistic peaks may be better represented by films of The Letter ilk, as Jeanine Basinger states with expert precision on her truly wonderful audio commentary for In This Our Life, audiences experience something very, very special when given the chance to watch Davis in “full-throttle” mode as the screen legend vamps away as a spiteful, deeply flawed, outrageous character- in Our Life, Davis’ nasty Stanley’s seems determined to destroy the lives of those nearest and not-so-dearest to her, just because she can. Stanley's not overly polite to strangers, either: I love the moment when Stanley runs over a couple pedestrians and Basinger glibly opines that “Eek. She really is bad. She runs over- Hello!- a mother and a child- a mother and a child. That is bad. That is not what we do.” In Forest Davis is up to her old tricks again, and she starts the film by taking great aim to aimlessly shoot a porcupine out of a tree before assessing, “I don’t like porkies. They annoy me.” She eventually gets around to hunting down bigger game when “Moose” (played by Minor Watson) threatens to thwart the petulant Rosa’s attempts to ignobly obtain her selfish goals (Moose to Rosa: “You’re something for the birds, Rosa, something for the birds.” Rosa to Moose: “And you’re something to make the corn grow tall!!”).

An explanation here of what Rosa’s up to doesn’t do her shockingly inappropriate behavior justice- you really have to watch the movie. Suffice to say, when the terminally discontent Rosa leaves a post-office in a huff and a former schoolmate sympathetically states something to the effect of, “It’s hard for a girl like Rosa to live in this town,” and the woman’s colleague acerbically shoots back with, “It’s hard on the town!” it probably drew the biggest laugh of the night from the clearly entertained audience, who knew exactly what type of girl Rosa was.

Dona Drake, as the Moline’s slatternly maid, Jenny, makes a fine impression in her brief, hilarious confrontations with Rosa, quite a feat considering the abundant theatrical charms of her overpowering costar. No one else gets much of a look in, although Joseph Cotton’s around to take a lot of abuse as Rosa’s kindhearted-but-dull (although, with Cotton in the part, kind of hunky) husband, Louis, and Ruth Roman displays a calm, warm presence I don't remember seeing in any of her other performances. King Vidor’s again proves himself a master of the potboiler genre (check out Duel in the Sun, The Fountainhead and Ruby Gentry for further proof of Vidor’s gifts in this area), and is the only director I can think of in this enormously entertaining genre (c’mon, you know you love these florid melodramas, too) who can give Douglas Sirk a run for his money.

P.S.- For much more on Forest, check out the wonderful Canadian Ken's take on the film over here. Kim at the terrific Sunset Gun also has plenty to say about Forest, and Davis in general. And for a much more in-depth look at The Letter, check out the peerless Self-Styled Siren's take on the film.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

LACMA Launches a Tribute to a Great Bad Girl

Moving 675 miles south to Long Beach to start a new job has already reaped a huge benefit, as the switch allowed me to be present for the first and second nights of the LA Museum of Art’s (a.k.a. LACMA) month-long film series honoring the 100th birthday of Bette Davis (the tribute’s official title is Fasten Your Seatbelts: The Essential Bette Davis). TCM host Robert Osborne was there on opening night to help present an unveiling of the beautiful artwork for the upcoming Bette Davis postage stamp (showing Davis as Margo Channing in All About Eve). The classy Osborne uncharacteristically and refreshingly dropped his proper demeanor at one point, drawing the biggest laugh of the evening with his observation that, somewhere in heaven, or someplace, Joan Crawford is gritting her teeth, thinking to herself, “Bette has a stamp now, and I don’t have one yet.” Kathryn Selmak, Davis’ onetime friend and assistant, also joined in the fun, concluding her thoughts on the screen legend with the quip, "If Davis was here tonight I’m sure she’d say, ‘I’d like to kiss you, but I just licked my stamp.’”

I enjoyed viewing Davis' Oscar-winning work in her first teaming with director William Wyler, Jezebel, but the print was not of the best quality which, considering the event at hand, was disappointing. The movie’s showcases Davis in one of her finest roles and performances, and the 1938 film was an apt choice to kick off the series. As Julia Marsden, a selfish, indomitable Southern belle, Davis glows with a vibrancy few stars have ever matched, and the audience is on Julie's side, regardless of (and maybe because of) the character's frequent lapses of deceny. In Davis’ hands, you sense Julie’s unbreakable spirit will overcome the formidable obstacle she’s dealt at the film’s fade-out, impossible odds against her be damned. And, although Vivien Leigh is truly peerless in Gone With the Wind, Davis’ performance in Jezebel does make me wonder what she might have done with Scarlett O’Hara. It certainly would’ve been a very different film, but I bet she would have triumphed.

I’d never actually made it through the second feature of the evening, The Old Maid, and I only kind of managed to this time, as I kept falling asleep as this dated (even for 1939, I’d suspect) tale of a sacrificial mother slowly unfolded. Through my dreamy haze I did take notice Davis was remarkable in her transformation from innocent lass to the bitter title character. She’s mesmerizing to watch in the later sections of the film, and her acting therein demonstrates Davis could manage to do a 180 on her usual larger-than-life on screen persona and still transfix, unlike her deliberately toned-down, and fairly uninteresting, playing in The Man Who Came to Dinner and Watch on the Rhine. Davis, looking tired and lost, employs a low, quiet tonal quality in her voice to suggest volumes of depth and feeling have been stored up in this repressed woman, and her realistic, subtle playing is fascinating.

Davis’ famed feud with Crawford is the one everyone talks about, but the lesser-known Miriam Hopkins was probably the co-star that Davis despised the most. Watching Maid, I was surprised to find few traces of the “upstaging” tactics Davis accused Hopkins of engaging in. Although in her first scene Hopkins’ forced playing appears artificial, she actually works well opposite Davis, and appears to conduct herself with more professional decorum than her co-star gave her credit for (for example, I didn’t notice Hopkins trying to steal the spotlight through the use of flamboyant gestures or inappropriate blocking). Hopkins is, after all, the same artist who made vivid impressions in films such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise. In any event, much to possibly both of their chagrins, the Davis/Hopkins teaming worked well enough for the two to be reunited a few years later for another successful weepie, Old Acquaintance, wherein Davis (on screen, at least) was finally able to get her hands on her nemesis, in the film’s most memorable moment.

The second night of the festival I returned to watch Davis at her apex in All About Eve, and ascending in Of Human Bondage. I’ve already jotted down my thoughts on Eve- it was a kick to finally see the film with a large audience of film aficionados. Just as Dorothy senses Kansas is somehow, and suddenly, a distant memory, as I listened to the enthusiastic reaction to Joseph Mankiewicz’s brilliant dialogue and Davis’ magnificent playing of Margo Channing (of course there was thunderous applause when Davis uttered “Fasten your seatbelts . . .”) I understood the Eden I found myself in bore no resemblance to the rural surroundings of my childhood and, until now, adulthood. I look forward to attending every showing of All About Eve that I can find in the LA area as I continue my love affair with the metropolis.

Maybe I needed to see Bondage on a large screen to fully appreciate what the young Davis pulls off in her star-making role as Mildred, probably the coarsest waitress in film history (in Mildred Pierce, the nasty, snobbish Veda is dismayed to find out her honorable mother is a waitress, when she should be proud of the hard-working Mildred. However, if this Mildred was her mother, all bets are off). It certainly helped that LACMA managed to obtain a decent print of the film, as I’ve only viewed Bondage in those God-awful public domain VHS and DVD versions. From my previous looks at the movie, the only images that really lingered was Davis peering seductively over that champagne glass at Leslie Howard and, of course, her showy hissy-fit near the end of the film, when she spews venom at Howard after he rejects her amorous advances, ripping his character to shreds before (in the next scene) performing the same service on everything else in his apartment (“All those paintings gone!” “His life’s work!” “What a bitch!”) and burning the bonds that could see him through medical school (“Make that a super bitch!”).

I always thought Davis came across as electric but overly mannered in the film, but it all came together on a big screen. For the first time, I sensed how much truth existed in the star’s emotionally gripping work, and how intelligent her playing was (she clearly invested all her considerable talent and energy into bringing this Cockney tart to life). Mildred is a larger-than-life character, so it’s entirely fitting you can’t keep your eyes off Davis, and it’s easy to grasp how, amid all the genteel screen heroines of the period, the star's vicious, unsympathetic playing of Mildred blew everyone away. At times Davis invests Mildred with at least a tiny sense of compassion for the smitten Philip (Howard, in a fine, understated performance), allowing the actress to suggest a trace of humanity does exist in the character. Still, most of the time Mildred is a horrible, spiteful pain-in-the-ass to the noble, kind Philip, and Davis clearly relishes the chance to dig into the meaty histrionics. Philip only wants to care for and love Mildred, but Davis’ wench is having none of it, thank God. Philip finally gains his redemption after meeting the lovely Frances Dee (Dee’s acting is lovely, too). However, due to Davis’ incredible presence, Mildred is missed when she’s not around making the lovesick Philip miserable, and one eagerly looks forward to her popping up unwanted on his doorstep once again in a progressively-sorrier state of mind and body.

I’m looking forward to seeing at least a couple more films in the series, before work beckons me back to reality. Here’s the rest of LACMA’s roster for the Davis tribute:

Tuesday, May 6th-
1:00 p.m.- Mr. Skeffington

Friday, May 9th-
7:30 p.m. - The Letter (A Davis peak!)
9:15 p.m. - Beyond the Forest (A Davis valley! The Davis valley! Or the peak of the valley, depending on your tastes. I think Forest is can’t miss cinema, and I can’t wait to watch the movie with a “camp” of Davis supporters- I have a feeling not too many people will leave the theater after The Letter has screened, and some new arrivals might be present. “What a Dump!” Hell, “What a movie!” Love Dona Drake as Jenny, the ineffectual housekeeper (hence the dump), retorting after being chastised and insulted by Davis' Rosa (if you look carefully, it appears Davis writes the word "slut" in the dust on a kitchen table after she states to Drake the table's so dirty she can write Jenny's name in it), “Mrs. Moline, don’t let us start calling each other names. I’ve got a few fancy ones I've been saving up that are just aching to be used.” How often I’ve wanted to state something to this affect to a condescending boss.

Saturday, May 10th-
7:30 p.m.- Now, Voyager
9:40 p.m.- Old Acquaintance (with Bette still hating Miriam to a fare-thee-well)

Tuesday, May 13th-
1:00 p.m.- Front Page Woman

Saturday, May 17th-
7:30 p.m. - The Little Foxes
9:40 p.m. - Payment on Demand

Tuesday, May 20th-
1:00 p.m.- Dangerous (most feel Davis received her Oscar for Dangerous because she was overlooked for her work in Bondage. Watch this film without the bias that it contains a “lesser” Davis performance, and you’ll be surprised how vivid and great Davis is in it).

Friday, May 23rd-
7:30 p.m.- Dark Victory
9:30 p.m.- Marked Woman

Saturday, May 24th-
7:30 p.m.- The Star
9:10 p.m.- The Catered Affair

Tuesday, May 27th-
1:00 p.m.- Juarez

Saturday, May 31st-
7:30 p.m.- Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (I’ll see you there as we once again watch Davis screech her way through "I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy" and the mortified Crawford trying to rise above her screen sister’s plethora of extremely rude shenanigans, to no avail)
10:00 p.m. – The Nanny (What? No Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte? Oh well, Davis is definitely demented and interesting to watch in this one, too, and she's miles away from Fran Dresher- or, at least, several city blocks away).

General admission to all evening double features is $9.00, and includes admission into the art museums, so get there early. Admission to the Tuesday matinees is only $2.00 general and $1.00 for seniors 62 and over. Tickets can be purchased at the museum’s box office or at Parking across the street is $7.00, but if you check out the side streets you might (especially in the evening) find a free parking spot near the museum.