Wednesday, April 05, 2017

The Gothic Grandeur of Baby Jane

I first read of the film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane in a paperback book published by Pyramid in the 1970s, entitled Karloff and Company: The Horror Film by Robert F. Moss. It was a slim volume that had a surprisingly exhaustive series of essays about the development of the horror genre, all the way from Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari up through the 1960s-70s Hammer Film period. This is where I first became interested in scary movies as varied as Dracula and Frankenstein to Rosemary’s Baby--and Baby Jane. As an “illustrated biography”, the Pyramid series offered a good mix of words and pictures to capture the imagination of a 10-year-old budding movie buff.

The first picture I ever saw of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis

It was the gruesome photo that accompanied the section about the 1962 shocker starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford that made me pause and take notice...a pancake-faced old blond woman, dressed as a little girl, sitting on a beach with a grotesquely gray-faced brunette expiring beside her. The doll-like blond lady was grimacing and the brunette’s big eyes were full of pain.

At this moment in time, I had never even heard of Bette Davis or Joan Crawford, but I vowed to find out more. Who were these two scary ladies, and why did they both seem so intensely compelling?

Baby Jane was a movie that was never on television in the 1970s when I was growing up. I first saw it in the mid 1980s, thanks to the magic of videotape. Just prior to the Blockbuster Video era, when studios put out all the classics on VHS tapes, small Mom & Pop video stores would not only rent you the tapes but the videocassette player as well. In college in Chicago, my best friends and I would trudge miles in the snow lugging the video player and tapes, to watch movies we had heretofore only read about--or had only seen in edited-for-television versions.

The Hudson Sisters: Blanche (Joan Crawford) and Jane (Bette Davis)

Naturally, my two gay college friends and I were instantly transfixed by this black-and-white horror classic. A forgotten vaudeville child star and her former movie star sister have shut themselves away in a decaying old house amid regrets and recriminations, as the alcoholic Baby Jane (Bette Davis) taunts and tortures her crippled, long-suffering sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) with gleeful malice.

Reel life melds with real life as actual clips of youthful Davis and Crawford are used to illustrate their 1930s movie careers in one of the extended flashback sequences in the prologue. The Bette Davis clip is used to show what a terrible actress Baby Jane was, and indeed, Davis’s 1933 performance in Ex-Lady is wooden and leaden, replete with a cringe-worthy southern accent. She really does “stink” — Davis must have had quite a sense of humor about herself to allow that clip to be shown. On the other hand, Crawford is beautiful, elegant and flawless (if a little affected!) in her own clip from 1934’s Sadie McKee. The juxtapositions of past and present and young and old, are perfect exposition to precede the two aging stars’ first appearances.

Of course, it is the performances that make this movie a classic. Without a doubt, Davis steals the picture with her balls-out portrayal of the alcoholic, bitter and mentally unhinged Jane.  As caregiver to the crippled recluse, former movie actress Blanche Hudson, Davis’s former child star Jane Hudson is now the “fat sister” slouching around the dingy dark Hudson house, yawning, mugging, shuffling and clomping around, rattling through a multiplicity of empty gin and scotch bottles, beginning her endless guzzling as she prepares her wheelchair-bound sister’s breakfast tray.

"This is my very own Baby Jane doll"

With Mary Pickford sausage curls and heavily lipsticked cupid bow mouth on a chalk white face, Davis transforms herself into a monstrous life-sized doll. (Her performance of the child star’s theme song “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” truly has to be seen to be believed.) Jane is a grotesque madwoman but also a psychopath and a sadist, serving her disabled sister first their pet canary then a big juicy rat from the cellar under a silver cloche. She savagely kicks Crawford around the room then trusses her up with the precision of a BDSM dominatrix, but not before coldbloodedly murdering their housekeeper Elvira by bludgeoning her with a hammer.

Davis plays the role with a savage gusto, as if she knows this may be her last chance to prove herself on the silver screen. She is truly a force of nature--and Jane Hudson remains one of her most unforgettable roles. Already a two-time Oscar winner, she received her final Academy Award nomination as Best Actress for the role, but lost to Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker. (Ironically, Joan Crawford famously accepted Bancroft’s award that night amid glamorous fanfare, completely upstaging her former costar.)

Joan knew how to look like a winner!
Though Crawford was supposedly incensed that she had not received a nomination herself, she too had garnered strong reviews for her more sedate performance. Crawford was heavily praised by many critics, including reviewer Paul V. Beckley in the New York Herald Tribune: “If Miss Davis's portrait of an outrageous slattern with the mind of an infant has something of the force of a hurricane, Miss Crawford's performance could be described as the eye of that hurricane, abnormally quiet, perhaps, but ominous and desperate.”

You can’t underestimate Crawford’s contribution to the film, both on screen and off. It was Joan who found the novel by Henry Farrell and brought it to director Robert Aldrich, with whom she’d done Autumn Leaves. As the crippled Blanche Hudson, Crawford wisely chose to underplay to her costar’s flamboyant histrionics.

When the character of Jane imitates her sister Blanche’s voice over the telephone, Davis is obviously miming Joan Crawford’s own voice--and Crawford exaggerates her own hoity-toity, piss elegant delivery, neatly spoofing the saintly, holier-than-thou  “Bless You” Crawford image. It’s obvious Joan  was savvy to the joke and able to poke fun at herself for the sake of a good story.

Maidie Norman as Elvira: "I can't remember the last time I saw words like that written down!"

Victor Buono and Marjorie Bennett: "This is Mr. Flagg's seck-etary...I think you'll find he's very well qualified."

B.D. Merrill (later Hyman) and her Mommie Dearest
Obese and effete young actor Victor Buono (best known as the evil King Tut on Batman), who was only in his early 20s at the time, was inspired casting as the pianist and potential “love interest” for Jane, and he earned a well-deserved Oscar nod himself for Best Supporting Actor. Other standouts in the cast include the reliable Maidie Norman (Torch Song) as Elvira, and British character actress Marjorie Bennett’s (Promises, Promises) broad cockney characterization as Edwin’s coddling mother.

Rounding out the cast are Anna Lee (The Sound of Music, General Hospital) as the nosy next-door neighbor,  and a flat-voiced B.D. Merrill giving the worst performance in the film as the neighbor's daughter…obviously reading her lines off a cue card, practically pausing in the middle of a sentence till the next card is turned  (Of course, B.D. Merrill Hyman is Bette Davis’s less talented daughter who later wrote the Mommie Dearest-inspired hack job My Mother’s Keeper in Bette’s waning years.)

Director Robert Aldrich confers with his stars
Baby Jane is the film that spawned a brand new movie genre—the Grand Guignol, named for the grotesque and violent French theatre that played ironically until 1962, the year this film was released. Guignol horror pictures of the 1960s revitalized the careers of the grande dames who headlined them, and created a new stereotype--the aging movie actress as either victim or killer. Some were well-produced and notable, but most were schlocky and exploitative, but almost all made money and kept leading ladies of a certain age working and in the public eye.

Some of my own guilty pleasures of the period include Die, Die My Darling! (with Tallulah Bankhead), What’s The Matter with Helen? (Debbie Reynolds), Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? (Ruth Gordon), Lady in a Cage (Olivia de Havilland) and The Devil’s Own (Joan Fontaine). Later on, into the 1970s and even the ’80s, Elizabeth Taylor in Night Watch and Betsy Palmer in Friday the 13th kept the subgenre alive.

Crawford kept up her new image as Scream Queen with Straight Jacket, Berserk and Trog, while Bette Davis returned often to the Guignol, first in Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, then in The Nanny, Burnt Offerings and The Dark Secret of Harvest Home.

Why does Baby Jane remain a classic? The bottom line is that it is a very solid low-budget horror  movie, suspenseful, taut and well-plotted, infused with dark humor. This grotesquely gothic film is a camp classic, yes...but it’s so much more than just that. The inimitable style and attention to detail of director Robert Aldrich (The Big Knife, The Killing of Sister George) are everywhere apparent, and the film is photographed with flair by the brilliant Ernest Haller (Gone with the Wind, Mildred Pierce). The charisma and combustible chemistry of its two leading ladies adds an undeniable layer of excitement.

Much has been written about the making of this unique film, and the legendary feud between the two stars, a lot of it myth and legend and hearsay. One particular writer, Shaun Considine, has compiled all the Baby Jane lore into an engrossing book called Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud. How much of it is true and how much is fiction is debatable. Perhaps some of the more outlandish stories were made up or exaggerated by the participants themselves specifically to sell tickets to the film. 

Joan and Bette's reunion in Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte was not meant to be.
But it’s safe to say that Davis and Crawford were never the best of put it mildly. Their first teaming was such a box office bonanza that Aldrich convinced them to reunite in a new movie, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, but on location in Louisiana Joan reportedly fell ill and then quit the picture just as filming got underway. Bette’s old friend Olivia deHavilland took over the role. Yep, their mutual enmity was most likely real!

And yes, of course I am watching (and LOVING) Ryan Murphy’s FX series Feud: Bette and Joan starring Susan Sarandon as Davis and Jessica Lange as Crawford. Both actresses are absolutely marvelous in it! It’s must-see TV for classic movie freaks like me.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

A Thoroughly Pre-Modern Mary

On January 25, 2017, Mary Tyler Moore passed away at the age of 80. In both of her unforgettable TV roles, as adorable housewife Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show and as self-sufficient “woman on her own” Mary Richards on her eponymous Mary Tyler Moore Show, Moore radiated a persona of cheerfulness, optimism and determination despite a personal life with more than its share of challenges, including a lifetime managing Type 1 diabetes, a bout with alcoholism and the loss of a child. Small wonder we’ve loved Mary for more than 50 years—she truly was an all-American girl next door with “spunk,” as Lou Grant would say.

The 1967 film Thoroughly Modern Millie was Mary’s big-screen debut, after more than a decade of television work culminating in a five-year run with Dick Van Dyke. After Laura Petrie and before Mary Richards, Mary Tyler Moore seemed to be struggling to find a new career direction. During this awkward in-between period, she starred as Holly Golightly in a disastrous Broadway production of Breakfast at Tiffany’s opposite Richard Chamberlain, and even did a stint as leading lady to Elvis Presley in his last scripted film Change of Habit (she played a nun and he played a doctor, famously if not believably!).

Julie Andrews as Millie Dillmount: "The happiest star of all!"
Accepting a costarring role opposite Julie Andrews in a movie musical, playing a naive and virginal young woman of the 1920s, seemed to suit her squeaky-clean, girl next door image. (Born-again virgins must have been all the rage in the mid-1960s, with Doris Day handing her crown as the #1 Box Office Star over to everyone’s favorite nanny Julie Andrews who, incredibly, had played a beloved governess in not just one but two iconic blockbuster movies back to back.)

Thoroughly Modern Millie itself is something of an acquired taste if you’re not an aficionado of gay camp, but if you are, this one is a gem. The plot is silly and outlandish (and very politically incorrect), and the music is quaint and old-fashioned (indeed, many of the tunes were real 1920s hits, like “Jazz Baby” and “Baby Face”). Produced by the legendary Ross Hunter (Pillow Talk, Midnight Lace, Madame X), the production design is lavish and over the top, but its great cast is what makes this movie such good fun.  

Mary Tyler Moore as Dorothy Brown: "It's Miss Dorothy..."
With her clear-as-a-bell soprano (with its fabled four-octave range) and briskly efficient vitality, the brassy Dame Julie dominates the proceedings in the title role of Millie Dillmount, but generously shares the spotlight with her costar Moore, who plays the sweet and guileless Miss Dorothy Brown. (Next to the mannish, short-haired Andrews, the lovely Mary appears even more vulnerable and feminine.) Julie and Mary have good chemistry, especially in the scenes where they must tap dance together to keep the old elevator running in the Priscilla Hotel for Young Ladies where they both live.

Beatrice Lillie as Mrs. Meers: "So sad to be all alone in the world..."
A large part of the farcical plot, dealing with a Chinese white slavery ring that spirits away young women who are “all alone in the world,” is patently offensive today. In 1967, it was still socially acceptable to describe Asians as Orientals and paint them as suspicious, mysterious and “inscrutable” characters. In 2002, the film was adapted into a semi-successful Broadway musical, keeping the “Oriental” plotline.

As Mrs. Meers, the Chinese proprietress of the Priscilla Hotel (not to mention a human trafficking organization on  the side), rushing around in a kimono and high black wig adorned with chopsticks, British stage star Beatrice Lillie makes a wacky villainness indeed. But if you can get past the racial implications, Lillie’s expert clowning, deadpan delivery and unerring comic timing are nevertheless a marvel to behold, and the comedienne neatly steals every scene in which she appears. But there’s no way around the discomfort of watching the cringe-worthy stereotypes that Asian actors Jack Soo (Barney Miller) and Pat Morita (Happy Days, The Karate Kid) are forced to play here.

Carol Channing as Muzzy Van Hossmere: "Raspberries!"

If Miss Lillie were not enough to delight fans of camp styling, the film also stars the legendary Carol Channing as a freewheeling bon vivant named Muzzy Van Hossmere—looking like a glittering diamond-and-sequin studded Muppet, braying, croaking and lisping her way into an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress!  Having lost her iconic stage roles of Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly on film to Marilyn Monroe and Barbra Streisand, respectively, the character of Muzzy is basically a composite of Dolly and Lorelei and allowed Channing the opportunity to emblazon her uniquely zany charisma onto celluloid for posterity.

The cast is rounded out by the square-jawed John Gavin (Psycho, Imitation of Life, and a Ross Hunter favorite) who spoofs his own image as a handsome but wooden leading man, and British actor James Fox (The Servant, Remains of the Day) who dances well and sings with a perfect American accent, leading the slap-happy “Tapioca” number with vigorous, goofy charm. (Gavin, now in his mid 80s, went on to serve as Ambassador to Mexico under Ronald Reagan, and Fox has continued to work steadily in films and television well into his late 70s.) 

Dorothy and Millie with "Silly Boy" Jimmy (James Fox)
Miss Dorothy and her love interest Trevor Graydon (John Gavin)

"Tapioca, everybody!"
Old-fashioned musicals like this enjoyed their last gasp of popularity in the mid-1960s, with My Fair Lady named Best Picture of 1964. 1965’s The Sound of Music also won the Best Picture Oscar and occupied the spot of top moneymaking film of all time until Jaws and Star Wars supplanted it a decade later. (Millie, directed by George Roy Hill, garnered seven Oscar nods, including Miss Channing's; it won the award for Best Musical Score.)

But Millie, though the 10th highest grossing movie of that year, was the harbinger of the death of the Hollywood musical. The next year, Julie Andrews herself would tumble from her box office perch with the disastrous Gertrude Lawrence bio-musical  Star!, and Rex Harrison’s Dr. Doolitle would also prove an ignominious failure. Paint Your Wagon flopped miserably, and even Hello, Dolly starring Streisand and helmed by Gene Kelly, did not meet box office expectations. Yes, Oliver! did win the Best Picture Oscar in 1968 in a mediocre film adaptation that beat out the likes of the groundbreaking Rosemary’s Baby and Planet of the Apes, but the Academy then as now was slow to move with the times.

Mary and Julie in rehearsal
But appearing in a movie musical seemed just the ticket for Mary Tyler Moore, who had first come to prominence as a dancer on live TV commercials (as the spritely and aptly named Happy Hotpoint for the home appliance manufacturer), and had held her own in musical interludes with costar Dick Van Dyke (who, of course, also partnered brilliantly with Julie in Mary Poppins). Though Miss Mary sings nary a note in this film (maybe that’s one reason why her Breakfast at Tiffany’s was such a disaster?) she is obviously having a ball in Millie’s spirited “Tapioca” and “Le Chaim” dance numbers.

After the MTM show left the airwaves in 1977, Moore’s greatest film triumph was playing against type as high-strung midwestern mother who loses a child in Robert Redford’s directorial debut Ordinary People, for which she earned her only Best Actress Oscar nomination. But she retained a passion for song and dance, and in the late 1970s even hosted a short-lived musical variety show (with a cast of regulars that included, incredibly, Michael Keaton and David Letterman). In the 1982 film Six Weeks, she played a former dancer and showed off her balletic prowess and always-lithe figure.

Moore, Gavin, Andrews, Fox, Channing and Lillie

In Thoroughly Modern Millie, Mary acquits herself beautifully in the role of Miss Dorothy, proving herself a versatile entertainer and gifted comic actress. (She did after all learn the art of comedy from masters like Van Dyke and Carl Reiner). It’s a lark to see Mary having so much fun, doing what she loved to do, frolicking with a talented ensemble cast, in a soufflé-light film that has become a camp classic.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

A Postcard from Carrie

To the world at large, she’ll undoubtedly be best remembered as Princess Leia. But Carrie Fisher gave us so much more than just one iconic portrayal. She lives on in my movie collection as the aforementioned rebel princess in the original Star Wars trilogy; as nymphomaniac Lee Grant’s rebellious yet equally promiscuous daughter in Shampoo; and as kooky Dianne Wiest’s romantic rival for Sam Waterston in Hannah and her Sisters. But Fisher’s masterwork, in my opinion, is a film in which she does not appear in front of the camera. In Postcards from the Edge (1990), Fisher reveals hilarious, uncomfortable and touching truths about herself, her famous mother and show business in her brilliant screen adaptation of her own best-selling autobiographical novel.

 In the hands of master filmmaker Mike Nichols, the vivid characters and the wry poetry of Fisher’s incisive script shine like diamonds, with frequent Nichols muse Meryl Streep (Silkwood, Angels in America) bringing Fisher’s pithy dialogue and beleaguered heroine to life with her usual aplomb.

In Postcards, the fun begins when troubled actress Suzanne Vale overdoses on opiates and her horrified bedmate (Dennis Quaid) drops her off, unresponsive, at the emergency room (literally). She’s resuscitated and shipped off to rehab, only to discover that the only way that anyone will hire her again is if she is under the watchful eye of a guardian. So she goes home to live with her estranged mother, who also happens to be a famous actress—a prospect as painful as the stomach pumping she’s just endured. 

Meryl Streep as Suzanne Vale

Shirley MacLaine as Doris Mann
Fisher’s jaundiced view of the movie business is evident here, as a still-fragile Suzanne is badgered by producers and directors as she begins work on a new film, a comedy in which she portrays a lady cop (opposite the dreamy Michael Ontkean, who has precious little to do here). The awkward moments where producer Rob Reiner asks Suzanne for a drug test/urine sample, the endless notes and criticisms Suzanne endures regarding her performance, and the clucking of a smug wardrobe woman (a hilarious turn by Dana Ivey) about the actress’s appearance (“Her thighs are...well, bulbous!”), are uniformly both funny and raw, essayed by a skilled cast and director Nichols. With deft humor and bullseye accuracy, Fisher neatly captures the grueling drudgery of filmmaking, the schadenfreude, jealousy and foibles of the film business.

Gene Hackman and Meryl Streep in the looping scene

Natalie Wood in Inside Daisy Clover
Fisher’s reverence for old Hollywood shows in the film’s many old-movie references including an obvious homage to the famous looping scene from Inside Daisy Clover (remember how Natalie Wood has that hysterical nervous breakdown in the dubbing booth?). In Postcards, Streep’s Suzanne struggles with the effects of the pills she’s just taken (and thrown up) as she attempts to correct the sins of the past—on film, at least-—during the voice-over recordings.

The cameos are worth their weight in Hollywood gold: Richard Dreyfuss as the amorous doctor who pumps Suzanne’s stomach; Lucille Ball’s second husband and Borscht Belt comedian Gary Morton as her agent; Rob Reiner as the gruff producer; Annette Bening as an empty-headed actress who mispronounces “endorphins” as “endolphins”; Gene Hackman as Suzanne’s tough but supportive director; veteran character actress Mary Wickes (The Trouble with Angels, Sister Act) as the “lovable loud mountain” of a grandmother and Diffrent Strokes star Conrad Bain as her senile spouse.

Doris and Suzanne

Carrie and Debbie
Of course, though, the centerpiece of the film is the uneasy relationship between Suzanne and her mother, legendary movie star and gay icon Doris Mann, played with relish by the indefatigable Shirley MacLaine (as unsinkable as Debbie Reynolds herself and a longtime family friend). Of course, MacLaine imbues the character of Doris with her own brand of star power, as does Streep. Much more than stand-ins for Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, Streep and MacLaine add dimension and their own subtle older-and-younger actress-to-actress competitiveness to the proceedings. Sparks of chemistry fly, and the results are absorbing, thanks to the screenplay, the performers and the expert guidance of a true actor’s director.

 Fisher’s often prickly script evokes the relationships of Joan and Christina Crawford and Lana Turner and Cheryl Crane in a tense confrontation scene between Suzanne and a drunken Doris, played under a print of a famous Life magazine cover featuring Shirley with daughter Sachi, who incidentally wrote a cruel Mommie Dearest–type tell-all about life with Mama MacLaine just recently. (Fisher and Reynolds posed for many a similar magazine layout over the years.)

Shirley and Sachi
 It’s not all recriminations and bitchy repartee, though, not by a long shot. The complexity of the mother-daughter relationship is beautifully drawn by Fisher as the film unfolds. There is much love and cameraderie lurking amid the awkward silences and the screaming matches between Suzanne and Doris. Like Debbie Reynolds did for Carrie Fisher, Doris encourages Suzanne in her singing, a talent she is not famous for but truly excels in. Streep’s strong performances of “You Don’t Know Me” and “I’m Checking Out” are counterpointed by MacLaine’s glitzy, showy and slightly camp rendition of Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here.” (Indeed, Carrie Fisher was a lovely singer, too—check out her sweet and soulful version of “The Way You Look Tonight” in the audition scene from Hannah, and her brassy belting of “Happy Days Are Here Again” in her 2010 one-woman show Wishful Drinking.)

Reportedly, Debbie Reynolds was unhappy with the character of the alcoholic, self-centered mother, frightened that the public would believe it was really her. ( “I am not an alcoholic,” Doris Mann insists in the film. “I just drink like an Irish person.”) In the press, Carrie agreed with her mother that the character she had created was fictional, merely using her real-life upbringing as a jumping-off point for her made-up story. (You could almost see Fisher rolling her eyes in interviews at the time; it’s so clear she wanted to help her mom save face, without negating her own experience as the movie star’s daughter.)

Streep, Reynolds, MacLaine and Fisher at the Postcards premiere
 Ironically, the supposed rift between Carrie Fisher and her mother over this portrayal served to bring the two much closer together than they had been in recent years. As they grew older, their relationship flourished. In 2001, Carrie and Debbie had a ball filming a TV movie called These Old Broads with Doris Mann herself Shirley MacLaine, Joan Collins and none other than Elizabeth Taylor…not a great (or even good) film by any stretch of the imagination but a camp curiosity nonetheless. How surreal it must have been for Ms. Fisher to pen that scene between Liz Taylor and Debbie Reynolds, their characters reminiscing about the cheating crooner who left one to marry the other (obviously based upon Carrie’s father, Eddie Fisher).

 Fisher’s admiration and protective affection for Reynolds is glimpsed in the final mother-daughter scene of Postcards, played in the hospital where Doris has ended up after an alcohol-induced car accident. Suzanne gently makes up her mother’s face to help her face the paparazzi crowding outside her hospital room, singing tenderly to her. It’s a sweet moment that says a lot; eventually, the child becomes the parent, and the parent becomes the child...did that occur as well in real life for Debbie and Carrie?

Soul sisters
 At the time of their surprising dual deaths (Debbie passed away a mere 24 hours after her daughter, the week after Christmas 2016), Carrie and Debbie had been longtime next-door neighbors in Beverly Hills—and, by all accounts, soulmates. As 84-year-old Debbie’s health and vigor declined, it was 60-year-old Carrie who accepted many of the recent life achievement awards and honors on her mother’s behalf, most notably Debbie’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award Oscar in 2015.

 As Hollywood royalty, Carrie Fisher lived her entire (abbreviated) life in the spotlight, but she gave us so much, first as an actress, later as an advocate for mental health—and ultimately, she might add herself with that streak of dark humor, as a cautionary tale. But Carrie Fisher’s talents reached their zenith as a writer, with her unerring ear for witty dialogue, her frank storytelling and unconventional sense of humor, all gloriously apparent in one of my favorite films, and the outstanding book it’s based upon. Thanks for the Postcards, Carrie!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Lovely Rita, Lethal Gilda

They say the love of a good woman can save a fallen man. Gilda (1946) is not about that kind of woman. It’s the story of a sultry siren who leads a man to his destruction, and with wanton malice aforethought. Masterfully directed by Charles Vidor, Gilda is textbook film noir, chock full of all the elements that define this quintessential 1940s genre.

Lurid and suggestive rather than explicit in their portrayals of the dark side of human nature, film noir provided a creative milieu in which verboten themes and subjects could be safely explored without breaking the stringent Production Code that promoted “clean and wholesome” moviemaking. 

Rita Hayworth triumphs in the title role
With Gilda, Vidor and cameraman Rudolph Maté pull out all the film noir stops, creating a moody, glittering black-and-white mise en scène. Set in steamy postwar Buenos Aires, the film transports the viewer to a shadowy underworld of rootless expatriate revelers who come out only after the sun goes down. (Indeed, every scene in the film takes place in the dark of night.)

All the classic elements of film noir are present and accounted for in this seminal film—a cynical worldview, sexual symbolism, the double-cross, even a Nazi subplot. Just about everyone’s pretending to be something they’re not—there’s even a masked Carnivale ball to underline the theme of falsity and impersonation. And at its apex is a poisonous love affair fueled by the most venal of impulses. 

Johnny (Glenn Ford) rolls the dice
Here, Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford display perhaps the most explosive and smolderingly sensual screen chemistry of any movie couple of the 1940s, far more than Stanwyck and MacMurray in Double Indemnity, or even Bogart and Bacall in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep. Both their characters are opportunistic narcissists, forced to dance to the tune of the rich and powerful to make their way in the world, bartering their assets and skills for protection and security. Survival by any means, beginning with pretense and deception, is the only goal.

Unshaven and raggedly attired, armed only with his own set of specially weighted dice, Johnny Farrell (Ford) makes his own luck by cheating his way through life. But a chance (?) encounter with a wealthy benefactor, the sinister Ballin Mundson (George Macready), sparks his ambition and gives him the opportunity for respectability and the good life. Alas, Johnny’s newfound success turns out to be even more seamy and dangerous than his former life as two-bit hustler. 

Johnny, Ballin (George Macready) and his constant companion: "Just the three of us"
Johnny visits Mundson’s underground gambling establishment and insinuates himself into the proprietor’s good graces. There he will learn the cardinal rule of gambling: The house always wins--the establishment may let you cash in up to a point, but when you cross the line, you’re out. Or maybe even dead.

Even after quickly rising to the role of casino manager and confidante to Mundson, dressed in an impeccable tuxedo and tails, Johnny is nevertheless pegged as a peasant by the wise and wily restroom attendant Uncle Pio (Steven Geray). Though under the aegis of Ballin’s protection, Johnny will never be respected. 

Always be nice to your sugar daddy

But Johnny’s problems have only just begun, as a major complication threatens the security of his newfound berth. Mundson returns from a brief business trip with his beautiful new wife Gilda in tow—and the girl in question happens to be a former paramour with whom he did not part amicably, to put it kindly.

Gilda and Johnny’s karmic connection is based not on unrequited love and not on money. Hate and revenge are their aphrodisiacs, keeping both in a perpetual state of seething anger,  barely concealed contempt and unfulfilled sexual arousal. Indeed, in their first private moment together, Gilda whispers savagely, “You know how much I hate you, Johnny? I hate you so much I’d destroy myself to bring you down with me.” And so she will. 

Gilda delights in taunting Johnny
The diminutive and vaguely effeminate Ballin Munsen, who carries a silver-tipped cane as a substitute phallus, seems far more entranced and obsessed by Johnny than he is with wife Gilda, and studies his employee’s reaction to her with amused interest. Later, we’ll see Ballin voyeuristically spying on the lovers in flagrante delicto, while anxiously massaging the tip of his cane, which converts to a lethal weapon, an elegantly thrusting razor-sharp spear. (Voyeurism is a major theme here, beautifully illustrated by the shadow-casting electronic blinds in his office that give Mundson a birds-eye view of all the happenings in his casino and nightclub.)

At her new husband’s club, Gilda works hard to make a spectacle of herself, flirting brazenly with practically any man who shows interest— not to make Ballin jealous but to get her ex-lover and chaperone Johnny in trouble with his employer--and keep him hot, bothered and nearly frantic.

The character of hustler and pretty boy Johnny Farrell shows Ford at the flower of impetuous youth that would later give way to a more laconic, weathered and world-weary persona, but here his violent and explosive passion and desire for revenge more than match Gilda’s. In many ways, the film belongs to him. He gives a fierce performance as the hardened adventurer whose perfect setup is compromised by a dangerous doll who threatens to blow his cover. 

"I hate you so much I think I'm going to die from it."

The untamed redhead in the title role is played, of course, by Rita Hayworth (the former Margarita Cansino). After a long Hollywood buildup, during which she changed her name and dyed her dark Latina hair in various shades of red from strawberry blond to torrid sunset, Hayworth had paid her dues as an extra, bit player and featured actor. By the mid-1940s, Rita was now being recognized as an A-List star, appearing mostly in musicals and comedies opposite the likes of Cary Grant, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. She had played a femme fatale once or twice before, most notably in Blood and Sand opposite Tyrone Power, but here was a role that only came once in a lifetime; no wonder the publicity posters screamed, “There never was a woman like Gilda!”

Ballin Mundson sees all
Poured into a slinky strapless satin gown and breathing heavily, she sings “Put the Blame on Mame” and creates one of classic film’s most iconic moments with her titillating near-striptease. Though her vocal performance was reportedly dubbed by jazz singer Anita Ellis, Hayworth gives the song its sultry sizzle with her languid and suggestive dance moves.

The plot is too deliciously serpentine to reveal beat by beat, but suffice to say that Gilda is a gripping melodrama featuring iconic imagery, striking performances and a style that is copied in film noir homages to this day.

Though they costarred in several more films together, including The Loves of Carmen and Affair and Trinidad, plus a brief reunion years later with her cameo appearance in The Money Game, Hayworth and Ford never quite generated the same amount of raw heat as they had with Gilda.

Hayworth struggled to live up to the indelible screen image she had created. The many men in her life found it hard to separate the fiery love goddess character from the sweet, often insecure child-woman that Hayworth really was. And unlike Ford, Hayworth found it a little more rough going as she matured, often reduced to playing alcoholics and harridans in the latter part of her career. 

Another long, long night for Gilda
Gilda was a big break for Glenn Ford that propelled him to the top of the Hollywood food chain and kept him on a career trajectory that would last for decades, in genres as varied as war epics to westerns, romance, drama and family comedy. Ford would always be grateful to Rita for jump-starting his career with Gilda.

As a big fan of film noir, this is my absolute favorite, chiefly due to the searing chemistry of the two principal stars and the unsettling idea that hate can be as powerful as love. Gilda is the ultimate anti rom-com!

Big thanks to my friend Quiggy at The Midnite Drive-In for hosting the Film Noir Blogathon. I’m very excited to discover new blogs and immerse myself in this classic genre!