Sunday, May 17, 2015

For the Love of Film IV: Did the Talkies Doom Norma Talmadge?


This post is my contribution to this year’s blogathon, For the Love of Film. This year the beneficiary of the blogosphere’s largess is Cupid in Quarantine (1918), which Marilyn Ferdinand calls “a one-reel Strand Comedy that tells the story of a young couple conspiring to stay together by staging a smallpox outbreak.” This may be the most eye-poppingly oddball comedy premise the Siren has ever encountered. Surely this film deserves to be saved for its daring alone.

Together with Roderick Heath of This Island Rod and today's host, Sam Juliano of Wonders in the Dark, we’re trying to raise $10,000 to go to the National Film Preservation Foundation to cover laboratory costs for the film’s preservation as well as a new score for the film’s web premiere. The streaming film will be available free at the NFPF website.

Today is the last day. Help the Siren help Marilyn, Rod and Sam to bring it home for the folks at the NFPF! A random drawing of donor names will determine eligibility for some nice prizes including (ahem) a signed copy of the Siren's novel, Missing Reels.

Please read, and donate! The Siren is too ladylike to name names, but she has seen crowdfunding for some mighty dubious stuff this year. THIS is a good cause, and one that will yield you tangible results: preserving a piece of film history. Traditionally, it's the small donations that add up for us. So don't be shy!






The silent film the Siren watched most recently was Kiki, an absolutely delightful comedy from 1926 that starred Norma Talmadge as an inept wannabe showgirl (she can sing, but after that, the party’s over). A relaxed, funny Ronald Colman plays the showbiz impresario who's the object of her affection; Gertrude Astor is the snooty star who stands in plucky, orphaned, dead-broke Kiki's way.

It was directed by Clarence Brown, who later told Kevin Brownlow, “Norma Talmadge was the greatest pantomimist that ever drew breath. She was a natural-born comic; you could turn on a scene with her and she’d go on for five minutes without stopping or repeating herself.”

Norma Talmadge puts one over on the landlady in Kiki.

Brown knew whereof he spoke. Norma Talmadge is really, truly wonderful; fresh, natural, unaffected.

But Talmadge is the second-most famous casualty of sound, after John Gilbert. We know now that the history of Gilbert’s “white voice” (a late-1920s euphemism for effeminate) is, as Henry Ford would put it, bunk. What about Norma? Is that bunk, too?

She looks miserable, doesn't she.

The story of Norma Talmadge, and the Brooklyn patois that supposedly sank her overnight, might in fact be more famous than Gilbert -- but pseudonymously. Nowadays not that many people know that the immortal Lina Lamont is a direct parody of Talmadge’s fall. Singin’ in the Rain even goes so far as to set the character’s disastrous first try at a talking picture in 18th-century France. In 1952, there were still people around who remembered the 1930 picture, DuBarry, Woman of Passion. It was Talmadge’s last film.



The Siren adores Singin' in the Rain, but its influence on the view of silent-film history has been, let's just say, not good. It's probably just as well that the Talmadge connection has been forgotten by the general public. Lina is a superb comic creation, talentless, avaricious, with the brains of a sequin. Norma was intelligent, talented, and held in much affection by people like Anita Loos, as the Siren once wrote before.

And let’s not dwell on the great Sunset Boulevard, often claimed to be based in part on the long, reclusive retirement of Norma, during which she apparently became dependent on painkillers for crippling arthritis. Billy Wilder was always cagey about whether art had ungallantly imitated life, but sadly, the bare outline fits. (Although, as Mae Murray is reported to have said on seeing the film, “None of us floozies was that nuts.”)


Legend has it that Norma’s sister, Constance, a star in her own right, sent a telegram advising Norma to get out. There are different versions around, so the Siren will reproduce the one she likes best:

QUIT PUSHING YOUR LUCK BABY STOP THE CRITICS CAN’T KNOCK THOSE TRUST FUNDS MAMA SET UP FOR US STOP



True or not, to this day precisely why Norma Talmadge didn’t take as a talkie star is a matter of some debate. If you want to hear her voice, you have a chance with New York Nights above. It’s an extremely interesting early talkie, with a nice turn by Lilyan Tashman. Gilbert Roland was not at the top of his acting game, but lord, he always looks good. It's a bit static, but there are gritty moments that seem to herald the Depression-oriented pre-Codes to come, and other scenes that are rooted in pure melodrama.

As for the Talmadge voice, it is pleasant, hardly a Lamontesque assault on the eardrums, and perfectly appropriate for her showgirl character. On the other hand, if you go to the 15:30 mark, and listen to Talmadge deliver the line, “Some birthday party” in an accent that sounds straight outta Flatbush, it is easy to understand why her voice came as a shock.

Gilbert Roland, Talmadge, and Arnold Kent in Woman Disputed (1927) directed by Henry King and Sam Taylor. A silent movie, it came with a much-mocked Movietone score that included a song: "Although you're refuted / Woman Disputed / I love you." For better or worse, Library of Congress print is missing the score.

Greta de Groat, a scholar whose Norma Talmadge site is absolutely splendid — a place to read about the whole of this great star’s career, and lose hours doing so — says simply that “the world was moving on, and in the excitement of discovering new favorites, the public was letting go of the old stars.” De Groat has seen DuBarry (the Siren has not) and claims that the accent so apparent in New York Nights is nowhere in evidence. Alexander Walker, in The Shattered Silents, buys into the idea that Norma’s voice doomed her, but maintains that she was nearly unique in that regard (the only other name he cites as vocally doomed is William Haines). He’s worth quoting at some length:

Just looking at the best examples of silent screen acting show how much of value was irrecoverably lost. Sound made acting more naturalistic, but also lazier. Words did the work. They diminished the mobile, finely nuanced quality of the screen mime and began the process in which the sense of people playing parts in a dexterously visible way is lost sight of a in a stylised naturalism that requires a dominant personality to make it bearable from film to film...Once they had dialogue on their lips, the silent idols suffered a grievous loss of divinity. They became more like the audiences watching them. This helps explain why the talkies altered star values so radically. What they did not do — and this needs stressing — was ruin the silent stars.

Talmadge had been planning to star in The Greeks Had a Word for Them for Samuel Goldwyn, but walked away. It was another showgirl character. Kiki, it should be noted, didn’t take with a public that loved their Norma as a dramatic heroine. Perhaps that was in the back of her mind. Her looks and talent had established her as one kind of star, and once that was the case, the fact that she might have been good in another type of role wasn’t enough to save her career. She’d been one of the most celebrated beauties in movies, but she was nearing 40, that age that knocked even Margo Channing sideways. Norma took little sis’ advice.

Norma, holding the baby, in The Lady (1925), directed by Frank Borzage. De Groat says the second reel is missing and there is deterioration on the surviving print, but it still impressed a California audience some years back.

As for why she is so little remembered today, well, she has that in common with a number of other silent stars. But Norma was especially unlucky. Norma’s films were acquired by the mysterious, litigious Raymond Rohauer, the man who controlled Buster Keaton’s legacy. (Buster, of course, was married to Norma’s sister Natalie.) Rohauer left the films to the Library of Congress, but in de Groat’s words, they had been “sorely neglected.” Some of the prints were only partially salvageable; some were all there, but damaged; still others were simply gone. It’s a story that stuck in my mind as I was writing Missing Reels.

The good news is that of her 51 films, de Groat says “31 are thought to be complete, and 11 more are preserved in part.” There are a few out on home video now, and the Siren plans to chase them down. But for Norma Talmadge ever to be a name on a level with better-known silent stars like Clara Bow, the films have to get back in circulation. And perhaps they will. De Groat also points out that since she began the site, several films, including Kiki, have come out on DVD.

As I say more than once in Missing Reels, I’m basically an optimist. When it comes to film preservation, it’s the only attitude that can keep me sane.



Here’s looking at you, Miss Talmadge. Your movies deserve a better fate.







Tuesday, May 05, 2015

The "Paradine" Letters, Part 4

These are the Siren's final thoughts on The Paradine Case, at least for these purposes. If you haven't already, please go to Some Came Running to read the Mighty Glenn Kenny's Part 3.

David O. Selznick's foreign discoveries stick together.

Dear Glenn,
Since you’ve covered the formal beauties of this movie so well, I thought I’d use my last go-round to talk about Hitchcock's second- or third-choice actors and their performances. I adore her, as longtime readers know, so I’ll start with Alida Valli.

Here, as in The Third Man and Senso, she’s madly in love with a man who doesn’t love her back. (You could also make a case for Eyes Without a Face in that vein.) It’s an odd pattern for such a beautiful actress. Interesting, too, that after Alida Valli herself suffered greatly during the war in Italy, she often played women scarred by the past, although it’s also pretty plain that Mrs. Paradine was bad news from the start. Valli was still learning English during filming, but her voice and intonations are beautiful; I love to hear the consonants roll off her tongue when she looks at Gregory Peck and says, speaking of Louis Jourdan as Latour, “You are not to destroy him. If you do, I shall hate you as I have never hated a man.”

A bit overdressed for the occasion
The Siren once expressed reservations about Valli in this movie, but the last viewing erased them. She is, as Charles Coburn’s solicitor Sir Simon Flaquer remarks, “Fascinating, fascinating.” The caressing way she leans in slightly when she wants something from Peck, the near-dominatrix tone she adopts when she realizes he may go after Jourdan despite her warnings, and the queenly bearing she has at all times, add up to someone who merits all the constant chatter about her. (Don’t you love the moment when Latour, in so many words, tells Keane, “She’s bad, bad to the bone”?)

In the very beginning, when the Scotland Yard men arrest Mrs. Paradine in a deferential way that suggests they're escorting her to the theater, she asks the butler to bring her “black lamb." That turns out to be a coat so lavish it could keep all of Mayfair warm. Once it’s fastened, she turns and checks herself in the mirror: Even on her way to prison, Mrs. Paradine is, at all times and in all ways, conscious of the effect she is having. That little mirror-check may be her one moment of true human weakness. Her love for Latour is not weakness, but a Wagnerian fire.

This is pretty much the same look he trains on Coburn.
Tony Keane, the supposedly legendary barrister played by Peck, doesn’t have a chance with her. Whatever Mrs. Paradine wants, we know instinctively it isn’t this walking mass of rhetoric and (formerly) high principles. We hear quite a bit about "Tony's brilliance" but on screen — and this is a problem with the script, along with its admitted talkiness — there are almost no scenes to show he’s anything of the sort. He loses his head early on, and it stays lost. Too, Peck lacks the requisite passion in his scenes with Valli. No torch fires up behind his eyes when he looks at her. Maybe maintaining all that lava-hot lust for Jennifer Jones in the earlier Duel in the Sun had exhausted him. Maybe he (or Selznick) was unwilling to have his character’s betrayal of sweet Ann Todd be that blatantly sinful. Whatever the cause, Peck is the weakest link, and as he is the main character, that is a non-trivial problem. But one thing he nails in great style is his final speech, where he says, with stunning obviousness at that point, “Everything I have done seems to have gone against my client," yet he still makes you feel the magnitude of the man’s failure. Peck was pretty much born to address a jury.

Sexual harrassment, 1947-style.
Ah, Ann Todd as Gay — lovely, charming, initially clueless: “Nice people don’t go about murdering other nice people.” Peck does has some chemistry with Todd; their early scenes are playful and teasing, with much affection and a kiss that tells you this married couple still has sex. (They have no kids.) Todd manages to convince me that a woman would push her husband to keep representing Mrs. Paradine, Gay’s reasoning being that if Tony walks away, part of him will always yearn for the maybe-murderess. The scene that establishes Gay as a woman with the strength to do such a thing is the one you describe so well, at the dinner party. After he fixates on her bare shoulder, Laughton as the well-named Lord Horfield settles his bulk way too close to Gay on the sofa. Then he grabs her hand, ostensibly to look at her ring, with such force that she has trouble yanking it away. She tells him off in a very British fashion — by complimenting his wife — and moves to the other side of the room, where Keane is talking to the hostess. Gay's adored Tony hasn’t noticed a thing, or gone to check on her; it’s an early scene, but we already see the selfishness lurking behind Keane’s upright facade.

Just out of frame is Tetzel's cigarette holder, with which she prevents Coburn's monocle from upstaging her.

Joan Tetzel as Judy Flaquer sees it too; she tells her father, “Men who’ve been good too long get a longing for the mire and want to wallow in it.” For that reason, I don’t think she is going to have her own Paradine. She’s far too clearsighted, an audience surrogate who says what everyone else is thinking. I like her confidence and her chic, the fact that she’s still living with her father, doesn't seem to resent him a bit, and wipes him out at chess. Charles Coburn as her father is Charles Coburn, monocle twinkling away, sage and amusing, amusing and sage, but that is no bad thing, at least in my book. He gets a wonderful line about photographs: "The social footsteps of time."

Jourdan's first American close-up was a honey.
When Hitchcock’s path crosses Selznick’s in the canteen of the afterlife, he probably still fumes about Jourdan’s casting, but Jourdan is excellent. I don’t think his beauty ruins the material at all. (It’s odd that in interviews Hitchcock always referred to the character as a groom, when he’s a valet in both the book and the movie.) Of course it helps immensely that Colonel Paradine was blind, because otherwise, if you don’t want your wife to sleep with the valet, you hire Eric Blore.

I like Robin Wood’s brief musings:

Jourdan worked in only two other distinguished films in the 1940s, both quite central to their respective directors' work, and both underrated by most critics: Minnelli's Madame Bovary and Hitchcock's The Paradine Case. The former inflects Jourdan's persona in the direction of aristocratic decadence, while retaining the sense of vulnerability. The latter, far more remarkably (especially in the 1950s), eliminates the decadence altogether yet defines the character, at least by implication, as gay. We are informed that Jourdan as the valet has no interest in women, has totally resisted the advances of Mrs. Paradine (Alida Valli, no less), and has been completely dedicated to his master, Colonel Paradine. The valet's dedication is the moral center of this remarkable film, and is combined very disturbingly with Valli's erotic dedication to Jourdan — although Hitchcock later felt Jourdan's character should have been rougher and more "manly" to account for the frustrated Valli's fixation upon him.

Now that I think about it, Wood may well be right that Jourdan, whose character's end is by far the most tragic, is the moral center here, and not Todd. The evidence that Latour is gay leaped out very strongly at me during the last couple of viewings, and was reinforced by another line, spoken to Alida Valli by Leo G. Carroll, playing the prosecutor: “As soon as you learned of his indifference to women, you determined to overcome that indifference.”

Fun couple

I’ll close by noting the excellence of the penultimate scene, in which we learn Mrs. Paradine’s fate. It’s dinner time chez Lord and Lady Horfield, where the table is the length of a subway car and husband and wife deliver their lines through candelabra that would not disgrace the Hall of Mirrors. Laughton (who, remember, disliked “toffs”) throughout the trial scenes plays Horfield as an Olympian autocrat, amusing himself with bon mots while pushing the jury to a foreordained conclusion. Ethel Barrymore reportedly had her best scene cut, but she is very touching here, even if her Oscar nomination remains something of a mystery. (Stephen Whitty points out that the longer version seen by Academy voters that year may have had that scene.)

Here, Laughton delivers possibly the most macabre line in all Hitchcock: “It’s surprising how closely the convolutions of a walnut resemble those of the human brain.” As he inspects a walnut he just cracked, even though it is not a close shot, we see that indeed it does, horrifyingly, resemble what a brain would look like if you sawed open someone’s skull. Ethel Barrymore timidly tries to get a bit of feeling out of him (“Doesn’t life punish us enough, Tommy?”) And he snaps back, “Must I listen to more of your silly pity for every scoundrel, man or woman?” Thus is raised the question of whether the worst sociopath in the entire movie has been the one on the bench.

I want to be clear that I don’t consider The Paradine Case top-flight Hitchcock, but I’d place it solidly in the middle tier, as one of the best examples of what he could do outside his comfort zone. There is no way The Paradine Case deserves to be ranked dead last and dissed as hard as it was in a recent Indiewire rundown of Top 25 Hitch. I hope that at least we may persuade some people to take another look.

The sum of the Paradine parts:

Friday, May 01, 2015

The "Paradine" Letters, Part 2

(The Siren is having a dialog with her Close Personal Friend Glenn Kenny about the much-maligned The Paradine Case. Part 1 was published yesterday at Some Came Running and should be read before the Siren's post. This is her reply.)


Screen cap from Glenn: "Two Profiles"

I believe you’re right: Hitchcock definitely contributed to his film’s low reputation. I’ve written before about cases of actors who dislike their own work, and it can be true of directors as well, especially directors who were working in a commercial vein and who cared about audience reaction and box office. Hitchcock was an artist who wanted to make hits, and The Paradine Case was a flop. Plus, Hitchcock didn’t get his way on some big decisions, and he never liked the original novel (by Robert Hichens) much to begin with.

Hitchcock wrote a draft script with wife Alma Reville, but Selznick was unsatisfied. At this point in his career, Selznick was always unsatisfied. He’d become Hollywood’s Tinkerer Supreme. So Hitchcock suggested that Selznick bring in Scottish playwright James Bridie, who later worked on Under Capricorn and Stage Fright, to do a rewrite. But Bridie hated the States, and so he sailed back to England and mailed in his pages as he went along. This didn’t work, and I can’t imagine why anyone thought it would, given the vagaries of transatlantic mail in 1946.

Ben Hecht was brought in briefly for additional dialogue. The canny Hecht quickly saw that the project was snakebit. He agreed to help on the fly, for $10,000 and a promise that his name would not be put on whatever resulted. Reportedly the only part of Hecht’s dialogue that survives is Peck’s courtroom meltdown. Head censor Joseph Breen of the Hays Office sent along his usual artistic enhancements, including a warning not to show a prison toilet or to film anything that suggested Todd and Peck were in their bathroom at the same time.

The Happy Hitchcock Gang

Meanwhile Selznick was consumed with finishing Duel in the Sun, and The Paradine Case had to take a number. By the time shooting began, there was still no finalized script, and Selznick was rewriting. Hitchcock was frequently working from pages that Selznick had sent down that very morning. “This, of course, drove Hitchcock to distraction,” was Peck’s understated recollection.

Hitchcock’s filming ideally had an express-train rhythm. The Paradine Case was more like a Greyhound bus making unscheduled stops. And then there was the cast, made up almost entirely of actors he didn’t want. Hitchcock requested Robert “Long John Silver” Newton for Latour the valet, got Louis Jourdan, and sulked about that apparently until the day he died. Hitchcock’s prior experience with Charles Laughton had been sheer misery, although Laughton turned out to be the least of his worries. Hitchcock didn’t see the point of Selznick's ballyhooed "Valli" (as she was billed), and as you mention, he told Selznick that Gregory Peck was no one’s idea of a barrister (and he wasn’t wrong). Not to mention that this was Hitchcock’s last film under his seven-year Selznick contract, and he was itching to go independent. Filming took four months. That’s not including retakes.




The final product was about three hours long. Selznick cut it down to just over two, while still finding room to insert close-ups in the middle of Hitchcock’s treasured long takes. It sat on the shelf for months while Selznick worked to convince everybody to go see Duel in the Sun.

Publicity time. I guess Laughton didn't smoke Chesterfields.

The Paradine Case finally wound up with a big December 1947 premiere at two separate cinemas in Westwood, reviews that amounted to “it’s OK I guess,” and box-office receipts totaling about half what it had cost.



No wonder that years later, once he got a nice young man like François Truffaut to confide in, Hitchcock’s retrospective assessment of The Paradine Case was essentially, “Oh god, not that one.”

But the Siren, perverse mortal that she is, long ago adopted this pain-in-the-neck film as her very own pet Hitchcock orphan (along with Lifeboat and Rope). It is slow, yes, but it whispers along like silk, until that courtroom climax fells the audience right along with Anthony Keane. And it is exquisite to behold. When you made a movie for David O. Selznick, in exchange for putting up with all those damn memos, you got big-time production values. Franz Waxman composed a wonderful score, one of my favorites, both romantic and sinister. Travis Banton designed the gowns, which was no bit of trivia but rather an area that mattered to both Selznick and Hitchcock. Banton's contributions are simple but effective; in early scenes, Ann Todd wears stainless white, while Alida Valli is a column of black.

Over a million 1947 dollars' worth of set.

And Thomas Morahan was the art director. When I saw this as a girl I couldn’t get enough of the interiors: the way Maddalena Paradine glides proudly through a convent-like prison; the luxurious London house where Anthony and Gay Keane retreat to live their perfect upper-crust lives; the firelit room where Judge Lord Thomas Horfield (Charles Laughton) makes his spidery attempts to put his hands on Mrs. Keane, while Lady Horfield (Ethel Barrymore) watches helplessly. And then there's that Old Bailey courtroom set, so meticulously accurate that building it is said to have eaten up one-third of the budget.

Glenn calls this screen cap "Garmes Glory"

Everything significant seems to take place indoors, or at night. The cinematography is velvet noir, shadows menacing the rich and pampered instead of the grubby and low-rent. (DP Lee Garmes was in the prime of his career, his next film being Nightmare Alley.) Valli and Todd never looked more beautiful, and for that matter, neither did Peck, with his noble profile and silvered temples. (Hitchcock wanted him to have a mustache, and even that got nixed, on the grounds that British barristers aren’t permitted facial hair.)



It is, as you say, a melodrama — a women’s picture — filtered through Hitchcock’s feverish preoccupations, full of thwarted loves and twisted seductions. Keane begins by admiring Mrs. Paradine’s beauty, determines to save her, and then gradually descends into life-shattering obsession.

When someone does praise The Paradine Case, they often want to discuss it as a dry run for Vertigo. But I see Ann Todd's character as the moral center. This is Vertigo with an extra helping of Barbara Bel Geddes’ point of view, and more sympathy going to the woman cast aside so a man can recklessly pursue his sexual doom.





(The next installment in the "The 'Paradine' Letters" will be at Glenn's place on Monday, May 4th.)

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Charles Laughton: Actor as Artist



The folks at New York City’s Film Forum have just started a three-week, 35-film tribute to Charles Laughton. Obviously, they love the Siren and want her to be happy. That’s her working theory, anyway. April of this year will mark a full decade since the Siren began spinning in her corner of the Web. And Laughton was one of the first people she chose to write about.

What makes you adopt an actor? How do you decide that here’s a performer you will seek out, regardless of the vehicle? The Siren is always drawn to an actor who takes a 20-foot-high screen and gives you a focused, intelligent performance that fills out every square inch. That’s Laughton. His kind of acting is, sadly, not very fashionable anymore. Even Simon Callow, who wrote a fantastic biography that focuses almost entirely on the acting, admits Laughton’s fame these days is tied to The Night of the Hunter, his one-off directorial masterpiece. Laughton’s acting is “virtually unknown by anyone under 40,” Callow wrote recently.



Or, in some cases, worse than forgotten. “Laughton's mannered performances are liable to elicit laughter today,” sniffs one writer reviewing Callow’s book. This prompts the Siren to a rare display of temper. Mannered? What could be more mannered than some contemporary actors who wait for the camera to discover each tiny effect as they overact their underacting? (That is, if indeed they are actors; of late the Siren has endured too many nonprofessionals cast by wannabe Bressons.) You can keep that kind of pallid realism, where the goal is to be the closest thing to real life. Sure, it’s close. And real life is being on hold with the airline, or flossing your teeth, or staring into the middle distance while trying to recall whether you took your vitamins. The Siren doesn’t require tedium to be all that accurate.


Give her someone like Charles Laughton, who aimed big, even if from time to time he failed big. Give her the existential truth he dredges up, say, at the climax of Mutiny on the Bounty. God no, it’s not “realistic,” but for all time and no matter who else plays him, there’s Captain Bligh, standing in a rowboat, bellowing: “Casting me adrift 3,500 miles from a port of call! You're sending me to my doom, eh? Well, you're wrong, Christian! I'll take this boat as she floats, to England, if I must! I'll live to see you — all of you — hanging from the highest yardarm in the British Fleet!”

Now if you were an actor in class, assigned the unenviable task of recreating that speech, your action might be something like “placing a curse.” Captain Bligh is, in this MGM production of 80 years ago, a villain, a man who cares more about breadfruit than the human beings under his command. But as an actor, Laughton knows obsessiveness can bring about disaster, or it can keep a person alive. Bligh is transferring all his passion to the task of survival, so he can have his revenge. And Laughton points his hand as though he could reach up and tie the rope around Clark Gable’s neck himself. He’s not merely shouting, he layers hatred and determination under every syllable, pronouncing “ChrisCHUHN” so that the very name carries the wrath of the Almighty.


In other words, this is an actor who performed with ferocious totality. That’s what it takes to etch a character in the public mind. When people joke about Henry VIII picking up half a chicken and tearing the meat off with his teeth, they’re not remembering Holbein. They’re evoking Charles Laughton. Lon Chaney created a good Quasimodo, in the 1923 The Hunchback of Notre Dame, one that was quite close to the 19th-century illustrations of Victor Hugo’s book. But when Disney cleaned up the tale of the hunchback and the gypsy, to puzzling effect, they were, quite openly, doing a prettified version of Laughton. That’s because it was his Quasimodo, falling in love with Maureen O’Hara’s Esmeralda in the course of a single shot, who broke hearts. These images are there because Laughton’s performances put them there.


He achieved his effects through subtle methods as well as grand ones. For Rembrandt, a biopic directed by Alexander Korda, Laughton immersed himself in the artist’s work for weeks on end. It’s a somber movie, focused on Rembrandt’s tragic private life, and also on how his paintings gradually lost favor, even as Rembrandt was at the peak of his genius. Aided by the sensitive lighting of cinematographer Georges Perinal, Laughton approaches a canvas as though acceding to its demands. “Every man has a destined path,” says Laughton’s Rembrandt. “It leads him into the wilderness but he must follow it with head high and a smile on his lips.” It is no surprise to learn that Mike Leigh, in interviews, cites Rembrandt as a key influence on Mr. Turner.

Charles Laughton was born in 1899, the son of hoteliers. He worked until his early 20s in his parents’ hotel, starting at the lowest rung of the trade at the insistence of his formidable mother. His upbringing was prosperous, and he went to private schools such as Stonyhurst. He didn’t begin his acting career until his early 20s, after overcoming the strenuous disapproval of his family. But Laughton, somehow, never identified much with privilege. Off-screen he pulled away from “toffs” all his life. When he played a bank clerk, a servant, a schoolteacher, he brought a rare and deep understanding of what it means to work hard for meager pay and nonexistent rank. And Laughton also reveled in showing what’s behind the petty exercise of power, say by a Victorian toff with his invalid poet-daughter in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, or a bootmaker of a similar era in Hobson's Choice, or, in The Big Clock, a CEO who finds a single light burning in a broom closet at his corporate headquarters.



He served in World War I as a private, saw time in the trenches, and was exposed to mustard gas in the last vicious weeks before peace. It damaged his throat and left him with painful, recurring hives for the rest of his life. The emotional effects of his service are harder to discover, because Laughton preferred not to speak of them. Still, Callow points to a possible connection between the ignoble terror of certain moments in This Land Is Mine, and the memories of war, and that feels right. In Jean Renoir’s superb movie about the occupation of a small (obviously French) town, there is a scene where Laughton’s Alfred Lory, a schoolteacher, looks out the window of his cell and sees his headmaster being marched to a firing squad. Lory was supposed to call to him: “Professor Sorel! Professor Sorel!” On the first take, Laughton gripped the bars on the window so hard they broke off.

Laughton had a stormy, complicated marriage to Elsa Lanchester that lasted from 1927 until his death in 1962. He was gay, and Laughton’s era was not, of course, hospitable to same-sex relationships, although the older he got, the more affairs he had, and the more frequently he would confide in people. (As he took a drive with Robert Mitchum during the filming of Night of the Hunter, Laughton confessed to his star that “there is a strong streak of homosexuality in me.” Mitchum’s priceless response: “No shit! Stop the car!”) Most good actors can suggest sexual undercurrents driving their characters, but Laughton treated desire, even in murderers like those in The Big Clock and Jamaica Inn, as an outgrowth of the mind, not merely a physical urge.


Seeing a big portion of Laughton’s work at Film Forum should dispel the notion that he was always massively overweight; he’s in pretty good shape in Mutiny on the Bounty, for example. He was an aesthete who prized the best and highest in music, in literature and in art. (One bond he had with Jean Renoir: Laughton had bought Renoir pere’s The Judgment of Paris for $35,000 in the 1930s.) But this man who loved beauty saw none in himself, no matter if Marilyn Monroe said he was “the sexiest thing she’d ever seen,” no matter if Marlene Dietrich told him before they started Witness for the Prosecution that she’d always yearned to play opposite him. “I look like a departing pachyderm,” he once said. The Siren never reads that joke without a wince. His looks did mean he would never be a leading man, but that is our good fortune; how many Hollywood idols could have created just one of Laughton’s monsters?


The Film Forum series shows that Laughton was also exceptional at more ordinary specimens of humanity. In The Suspect, directed by Robert Siodmak, Laughton is cast as a version of Dr. Crippen, a rare sympathetic figure in the annals of true crime — not least because he may not have actually murdered his wife, a possibility the film toys with, but basically rejects. Philip Marshall (Laughton) is chained in marriage to a vicious shrew (Rosalind Ivan, rehearsing her character in Scarlet Street, but doing it well); inevitably, he falls love with a gentle young woman (Ella Raines, who seemingly spent much of the 1940s cast as the foil to murderers). Made on an obviously low budget, it is still a fine movie, and Laughton and Elsa Lanchester considered Marshall to be one of his best creations. The tension comes from the question of which will win out, Marshall the murderer, or Marshall, the man who says, with infinite sadness, “I like people and I’ve never wanted to hurt them.” At a key late moment, Marshall is afraid that his secret is about to be discovered during a quiet social evening at home. As his own son fumbles around the spot that could reveal all, Marshall keeps smiling; you can watch the gradual transition, as Laughton’s smile turns into a ghastly mask of dread.

To a director, Laughton on set meant there would always be more than one temperament around, and Siodmak said later that The Suspect forced him into an unusual approach. When Laughton one day barged in declaring that every take had been wrong, all wrong, and would have to be redone, Siodmak responded by reeling around declaiming the actor's lines himself. Laughton became convinced he’d finally encountered a director who actually was a lunatic, as opposed to merely behaving like one. And after that, claimed Siodmak, his star was as gentle as the rain.



Jean Renoir was patient and kind, as he seemed to be with everyone, and mentioned Laughton fondly in interviews. During Spartacus, Stanley Kubrick had his hands full, what with the glory that was Rome and the grandeur that was Kirk Douglas, and let Laughton and Peter Ustinov rewrite most of their scenes together. Billy Wilder, who helped Robert Stephens to a breakdown and James Cagney to leaving the business, described making Witness for the Prosecution as delightful. (The Siren has watched that movie over and over again — it’s Laughton’s funniest, most wholly endearing performance. His scenes with Lanchester are perfection.) Otto Preminger (rather surprising, this one) treated Laughton with the utmost courtesy during Advise and Consent. He probably realized the actor was dying of cancer and that Senator Seb Cooley would be Laughton's last role. Laughton's physical condition caused him to play Cooley (obviously written as a portrait of Strom Thurmond) with spidery stillness. But Preminger also said Laughton asked for direction and was eager to take it.



Other times it was a different story. Even Laughton’s friends and admirers said he was hard to work with. Those directors who emerged with good memories tended to be ones who recognized that Laughton’s extreme seriousness was no act. Garson Kanin, who directed They Knew What They Wanted (long out of sight, not Laughton’s best work, and not part of the series), claimed to have respected Laughton, at least before shooting began. Laughton told Kanin that to play an Italian-American farmer, he would immerse himself in Vivaldi, Dante and Michelangelo. In his book Hollywood, Kanin all but calls this a sham.

But the fact is, that was absolutely Laughton’s approach, as it had been with Rembrandt. Alfred Hitchcock could have testified to that as well. When Laughton was unable to get his walk right as the sinister squire of Jamaica Inn, he refused to continue. He came back the next day saying he’d discovered how to do it, by listening to Carl Maria von Weber’s Invitation to the Dance.

Hitchcock, however, responded to this sort of thing about as well as Kanin did. Hitch liked his actors to be either consummate pros, who got the job done without fuss, or malleable, tentative souls he could push around as he liked. Laughton was the worst of both worlds: a headstrong talent who needed as much time and patience as any neophyte. Laughton's malevolent judge in The Paradine Case (poor Paradine Case, the Siren loves you even if no one else does) was a somewhat better experience. But Hitchcock told Pia Lindstrom years later, with placid malice, “The hardest things to photograph are dogs, babies, motor boats and Charles Laughton.”

Mind you, the Siren understands Hitchcock’s point of view. To see the way Laughton struggled, and directors struggled with him, you need only look at one 70-minute documentary: The Epic That Never Was, which Film Forum is showing on Feb. 22. Made in 1965 for the BBC, it pieces together what’s left of an effort to film Robert Graves’ I, Claudius in 1937. Laughton, who’d already been a memorably depraved Nero in The Sign of the Cross, was obvious casting as the stammering Roman who feigns stupidity in order to stay alive, and ends up as emperor. Josef von Sternberg, who’d just ended his string of sumptuously erotic films with Marlene Dietrich, was likewise a natural to film the dissipation of the ancients.

As they say, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Instead it was a disaster that ended with Merle Oberon (cast as Messalina) wrecking her car and her producer husband Alex Korda deciding that a nice tidy insurance settlement beat the heck out of making this movie.



More than anything, Laughton was ill-matched with Von Sternberg, who wrote, “An actor is rewarded with attention out of all proportion to his services. An actor is turned on and off like a spigot, and like the spigot, is not the source of the liquid that flows through him.” Laughton admired Von Sternberg greatly, but this was not a director who was going to understand why his spigot was studying the exact way a Roman would address the gods. There are many outtakes of Laughton stopping mid-scene, or just up and leaving the set. You could say Von Sternberg lacked sympathy. “Acting is nothing remarkable,” he wrote, and meant every word. And in fairness, more often than not, when Laughton stops, it’s difficult at first to figure out why. He sounds fine. Sometimes he sounds great. Imagine you’re Von Sternberg, or, if you prefer, Hitchcock, with the crew seething and the hot breath of the studio executives steaming up the set, and all that’s between you and the film you can already watch in your head is this ACTOR and his insistence on forging things in the smithy of his soul.

“Jesus Christ, Charles, just hit your mark and say the line.

And then, Laughton addresses the Senate … and soars. In one scene he becomes every belittled, misjudged man who ever stood up and said, this is not who I am. At last it is possible to understand why Laughton placed such significance on the interior. He was acting the other takes, and they were good; in this one, he is being, and it is art.

Those who talk only of the single film Laughton directed, and shrug off the rest, are making a grave mistake. Laughton the director could never have made the shimmering, perfect thing that is Night of the Hunter, if it hadn’t been for Laughton the actor.




Links:

The schedule for Film Forum's Charles Laughton series can be found here. A restored Spartacus is screening this spring after the series concludes. Several rarities are being shown, including Forever and a Day and Arch of Triumph, neither of which the Siren has seen (yet). Also, though Laughton's part amounts to a glimpse, the dazzling Piccadilly is worth your time and includes one of Anna May Wong's best roles.

The Siren has in the past written about Ruggles of Red Gap, The Big Clock, Jamaica Inn and the charming Deanna Durbin vehicle It Started With Eve. She prefers David Cairns on The Man on the Eiffel Tower to her own post, which was written in a state of extreme irritation from the lousy DVD she watched.



Saturday, January 17, 2015

19 People Who Share the Siren's Birthday

Greetings! It’s the Siren's birthday, and she thought she'd pop in to have a little fun. The fact that one shares a birthday with someone famous is probably not significant, but then again, maybe it is. Or we can pretend it is. Jan. 17 is, for some reason, a pretty big day for birthdays. So here is a short and by no means complete list of people with whom the Siren shares her birthday, with small notes. Have a great Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, and go see Selma. The Siren, an Alabama native, thinks it's terrific.



Who's this?: Moira Shearer, ballerina and star of The Red Shoes, Tales of Hoffman, Peeping Tom and The Story of Three Loves.
What she has that the Siren wants: Absolute grace of movement.
What we share: Red hair.


Who's this?: The great James Earl Jones.
What he has that the Siren wants: A beautiful voice.
What we share: Love of the American theater, and of August Wilson.


Who's this?: Mack Sennett.
What he has that the Siren wants: A pioneering spirit and directing genius.
What we share: Love of a good anecdote.


Who's this?: Françoise Hardy.
What she has that the Siren wants: You mean, besides being a terrific chanteuse, tall, lights-out gorgeous and once made a movie with Yves Montand, Toshiro Mifune and James Garner?
What we share: Love of fashion.

Who's this?: Benjamin Franklin.
What he has that the Siren wants: Political courage.
What we share: Patriotism.


Who's this?: Michelle Obama.
What she has that the Siren wants: Strength, grace and the ability to ignore the haters. And her arms. I want her arms.
What we share: An irrational love of belts.


Who's this?: Muhammad Ali.
What he has that the Siren wants: Fierce commitment and, on certain occasions, his jab.
What we share: We like kids.

Who's this?: Betty White.
What she has that the Siren wants: She smiles at her enemies.
What we share: A determination to get old any damn way we see fit.

Who's this?: Anton Chekhov
Excuse me, Siren, but Anton Chekhov was born on Jan. 29.: That's the New Calendar. In this one instance, the Siren goes by the Old Style Calendar and claims him anyway. Because Chekhov is her favorite playwright, OK?
What he has that the Siren wants: Genius.
What we share: Give the Siren a minute ... she once yearned to go to Moscow?

Who's this?: Anne Bronte.
What she has that the Siren wants: The will to write even when met with indifference.
What we share: A tendency to get sick a lot.

Who's this?: Eartha Kitt.
What she has that the Siren wants: Aside from the obvious, a wonderful, funny cynicism about sex.
What we share: We both tend to look pissed-off in photos.

Who's this?: Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles.
What she has that the Siren wants: Great hair and a friendship with Prince.
What we share: We both had a fabulous time in the 1980s.

Who's this?: Nils Asther
What he has that the Siren wants: Well, the Siren didn't choose this photo for the way Garbo looks. And she loves Garbo.
What we share: We both disappear from screens from time to time.

Who's this?: Al Capone.
What he has that the Siren wants: Um, well ... There have been times in life when it would have been nice to scare the bejesus out of everybody.
What we share: The Siren has a scar, but as longtime readers may remember, it's on her nose.



Who's this?: Dalida.
What she has that the Siren wants: A beautiful singing voice, and REALLY great hair.
What we share: Arabophilia.

Who's this?: Andy Kaufman.
What he has that the Siren wants: Good comic timing.
What we share: Sometimes people don't know what the hell the Siren is talking about.

Who's this?: Kid Rock.
What he has that the Siren wants: The hat's not bad.
What we share: Sometimes a common birthday is just a common birthday.


Who's this?: In the foreground, Mick Taylor, the greatest guitar player the Rolling Stones ever had.
What he has that the Siren wants: Musical genius.
What we share: We love rock 'n roll.

Who's this?: Patsy Ruth Miller, in costume as Esmeralda in the silent version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
What she has that the Siren wants: Movie-making memories, friendships with great writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the Siren would like Patsy Ruth to throw in that tambourine.
What we share: We don't always need words.