Just Imagine (1930): Past Forward

justimagineposterCome for the Jetsonian Deco interiors. Stay for the jazzy songs. Leave when El Brendel opens his mouth and spouts some faux-Swedish malapropisms.

Oh, wait, that’s only 15 minutes into the movie. So, steel yourself against creaky ethnic humor and buckle up for liturgical dance orgies on Mars.

A bizarre pre-Code genre hybrid of sci-fi and musical comedy, David Butler’s Just Imagine presents a vision of the future that’s both optimistic and pessimistic—and neither fully utopian nor dystopian.

This disjointed curio is no masterpiece, but you need to see it at least once in your life, if only to convince yourself that it exists.

Unlike an earlier talkie sci-fi extravaganza High Treason (1929), Just Imagine spares us a sanctimonious message. This movie knows it’s ridiculous, but I wonder if it knows it’s that ridiculous. Warning: your camp-o-meter might break.

City on the Edge of (Yesterday’s) Tomorrow

The film opens with a comical comparison between a sleepy New York street scene in 1880, where “you can even hear the rustle of a bustle,” and the claxon-screeching, hectic city in 1930.

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From there, we jump ahead another 50 years—to 1980. (Somehow the writers failed to foresee the big hair, shoulder pads, and synth music. Like I said, it’s not a dystopian future. Although U2 does get a mention at the end. That’s pretty prophetic.)

As a narrator informs us, now “everyone has a number instead of a name and the Government tells you whom you should marry.”

The screen abruptly cuts from a title card to a Metropolis-esque New York of the future, towering with sleek, glistening skyscrapers and teeming with chrome-plated planes
purposefully buzzing along. Minutely detailed and elegant in its uber-urbanity, the skyline of the city no doubt elicited gasps from audiences in 1930. The models and justimagine_skyscraperssets, designed by Stephen Goosson and Ralph Hammeras, remain stunning accomplishments even today.

Out of the air traffic, two angular planes come to our attention. As they move towards each other, high-angle shots let us see other aircraft crisscrossing below and cars edging along bridges further below still, adding breathtaking verisimilitude to the dreamlike city. The pair of planes meet and hover mid-air.

These dizzying heights serve as a trysting place for the conflicted couple—literally and figuratively up in the air—who will dominate our story. As the boy and girl discuss their problems, planes continue to dart in and out of the frame around them.

At its best, Just Imagine engages the viewer on two levels: the technical marvels make us wonder how special effects wizards achieved the illusion while the winning personalities of the leads encourage us to identify with them. Although largely expositional, this opening scene deftly demonstrates this balance, cleverly juxtaposing a striking modern backdrop with the age-old theme of thwarted love. If only the rest of the movie lived up to that promise.

Our Plot Such as It Is

LN-18 (Maureen O’Sullivan) and dashing airman J-21 (golden-voiced tenor John Garrick) want to get married. Unfortunately, the government marriage tribunal has ruled in favor of LN’s other suitor, MT-3, a haughty, vaguely sinister newspaper editor, granting him preference because of his elevated professional position. Unless J can raise his status enough to outrank his rival within 4 months, in time for a tribunal appeal, he’ll lose the girl of his dreams.

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Meanwhile, famous inventor Z-4 is planning to launch the first rocket to Mars and gives J the chance to become the new Lindberg by piloting the spaceship. Our intrepid protagonist accepts the mission… and the risk that he may never return from the daring expedition.

J blasts off with his best friend RT-42 (Frank Albertson) and their bumbling sidekick Single-O (El Brendel). Together, the trio encounters friendly martians—and their evil twins—and swings home just in time to reverse the tribunal’s decision.

Not-So-Brave New World

In the universe of Just Imagine, nobody seems particularly concerned with fomenting revolution or changing the system. Instead, the characters fight for their own personal happiness within the system and largely play by that system’s rules. The message here isn’t so much “Down with Big Brother!” as “Big Brother, pretty please let me marry who I want?”

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The focus on individual outcomes as opposed to social change betrays the movie as a traditional romantic comedy with sci-fi trimmings. The movie’s lack of interest in revolution also reflects the fearful hesitancy of an America still reeling from the stock market crash. As a result, Just Imagine is too much of a light-hearted romp to deliver the cataclysmic, let’s-burn-this-************-down finale that I crave from retro sci-fi. If nothing goes up in flames—or the reaper doesn’t show up—I’m disappointed.

Spectators in 1930 were disappointed, too. Despite earning positive reviews, this sci-fi flick, which cost over a million dollars to product, flopped at the box office. Ironically, by playing it safe, Just Imagine may have lost out on an audience ready for a more radical future.

Lack of conspicuous upheaval notwithstanding, the script throws in a few sly jabs that seize on fictional, futuristic premises to criticize the realities of Depression-era life. For instance, a grotesque, matronly census-taker compares the oppressive marriage law to the law that enforced Prohibition (predicted to still be in place in 1980!): “Don’t criticize this Marriage Act,” the crone insists. “It, like the Volstead Act, is a noble experiment!”

Only meddling, sexually-frustrated bureaucrats try to regulate love and booze, Just Imagine implies.

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Perhaps the most startling and forward-thinking line of commentary-laced humor targets the rampant anti-semitism of the 1920s and 1930s. As Single-O looks up in the sky, J-21 and RT-42 explain that everyone flies Rosenblatt and Goldfarb planes; hardly anybody drives a car. “It looks like someone got even with Henry Ford,” Single-O laughs, alluding to the inventor’s well-publicized and vicious hatred of Jews.

The future doesn’t belong to Ford and his kind, the film suggests, but to the very people he wanted to persecute. Pondering a movie where the world of tomorrow feels uncomfortably conservative, I can’t help but appreciate that, in this case, the joke is made at the expense of those with ugly prejudices. Now that’s what I call progress.

Nostalgia for Now

On the whole, Just Imagine envisions a future that’s suspiciously nostalgic for the past, specifically for the halcyon days of 1930. Why, the movie even embeds a denizen of yesteryear into the plot as a surrogate for the contemporary audience.

Doctors miraculously revive Ole Petersen, later rechristened Single-O, who was struck by lightning 50 years before and preserved in a state of suspended animation. (The real miracle, however, is that the doctors don’t put him out of his misery the moment he starts talking.) Through his quirky, exaggerated reactions, Single-O, a time traveler in spite of himself, provides cues telling the viewer how he ought to feel about all that future shock.

For instance, when Single-O learns that food and alcohol come in pill form, eliminating the sensual enjoyment of eating and drinking, he waxes poetical about the pleasures of roast beef and beer. Technology has even taken all the fun out of making babies, now neatly dispensed by vending machines. “Give me the good ol’ days!” Single-O wistfully repeats again and again.

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The fact that Single-O winds up as the film’s hero, carrying his companions back to the spaceship on Mars and taking a husky martian captive, affirms Just Imagine’s true purpose: bolstering the egos of 1930s audiences. “See?” You can practically hear the fedora-wearing fellows of 1930 muttering to themselves, “We may not have video telephones or rockets or personal planes, but dammit, we’ve got gumption.”

In its clumsy way, Just Imagine synthesizes a strain of sci-fi designed primarily to edify the era in which the film was made. Most of the great sci-fi movies criticize (allegorically or directly) the direction of modern civilization. By contrast, Just Imagine launches a fantastic thrill ride to Mars in order to assuage the anxieties of an America troubled by the prospect of no frontier left to conquer—even while it hints that the modest joys of 1930 trump the wonders of 1980. This nifty but silly Fox musical sought to feed the confidence of its original audience. These are the good old days, it insists.

Although, come to think of it, one could argue that the concept of a humorous, feel-good sci-fi flick established by Just Imagine, once liberated from its overwhelming nostalgia, finally found success almost 50 years later… in Star Wars.

Old-Fashioned Girls

J-21 longs for a simpler time and an uncomplicated romance. As he confides to his wingman RT-42, “I like a girl like my grandmother used to be. That’s why I like LN. She’s an old-fashioned girl. I should have lived back in 1930.”

From there, J picks up a sort of ultra-modern lute and begins to croon “Give Me an Old-Fashioned Girl.” Meanwhile RT-42 fantasizes about those hot tomatoes of times gone by in a series of humorous vignettes. A dame in a slinky evening gown ecstatically mixes a cocktail shaker in her kitchen. A peroxide blonde succumbs to a forceful kiss from her beau, first beating on his back then slowly giving in. A young mother rocks the cradle with her foot while puffing on a cigarette and reading a risqué novel.

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Each wordless flashback emphasizes a combination of pliancy and naughtiness as the essence of femininity. The message: past, present, and future, women should serve and do so perkily at that. Apparently the caveman mentality wasn’t expected to die out in the space age (and, alas, it hasn’t yet in 2015).

Indeed, the alarming future foreseen by Just Imagine grants women even less agency than they had in 1930. The government decides their mates for them based on the suitors’ statuses. And, (un)funnily enough, even though the characters complain about the mannish “modern woman,” this vision of tomorrow didn’t open up many new careers for women. For example, RT-42’s girlfriend D-6 (Marjorie White) works as a nurse, flitting around in a costume that I think you can buy at fetish shops nowadays (not that I’d know, of course), for a crew of entirely male doctors.

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Only the odious female census-taker, who looks like a bluestocking caricature, circa 1912, complains about gender injustice in the year 1980—and, in so doing, turns into a punchline. “Why, you men have all the best of it. For instance, you can file an application to marry me which I can accept or reject, but I can’t put in an application to marry you,” she explains to RT-42.

His reply: “Not such a bad law at that!”

Wait, Did you hear that? Oh, it was the audible thud from that joke. Ugh.

Though woefully underused, the major female characters of Just Imagine, LN and especially D-6, endow the film with its rare glimmers of pathos and rebellion.

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For example, in one memorable shot, echoing the work of sci-fi pioneers like Méliès and Zecca, Maureen O’Sullivan’s face appears superimposed over planet earth. Abstracted into a kind of symbol for suffering sweethearts everywhere, she forlornly recites the lyrics of the song “You Are the Melody,” beseeching her lover to return home. Despite the goofy sentimentality of having to speak the words to a song monologue-style, O’Sullivan conveys a world of melancholy (pun intended) and her tender rendition lifts the banal speech to the level of genuine poignancy.

marjorie_white_justimagineOld-fashioned or not, D-6, played by the effervescent and tragically short-lived scene-stealer Marjorie White, refuses to stand idly by while a cruel system marries her best friend off to some entitled jerk. If I enjoyed Just Imagine, and I’d say I did, White deserves much of the credit. She walks away with the picture. For a sample of her peppy charms, check out the best musical number in the film: White’s duet with Frank Albertson, “Never Swat a Fly.”

The bounciest, cutest little minx ever to challenge the patriarchy, D-6 ultimately saves the day by holding up the court proceeding until J-21 can return victorious from Mars.

Rushing to the front of the courtroom, she flips into full-on melodrama mode and accuses MT-3 of being the father of her (nonexistent) children! Were I ever in a jam, I’d want this futuristic flapper feminist on my side.

Life on Mars

Some of the advances Just Imagine predicted have only come true (or at least become widespread) since 1980, like video calling and electric hand dryers, aka the scourge of the new millennium. We’ve yet to land on Mars, of course, but that’s okay. The red planet would probably be a huge let-down after this movie.

I’d be positively remiss if I ended this post without briefly touching on the gratuitous pre-Code mayhem that is the Mars segment of this film. Apparently, martian civilization consists of leatherboys and dominatrixes in silver-foil headdresses. This peaceful race of people greets visitors by forcing them out of their clothes and into a walk-in bath.

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The beefy martian warrior king, tricked out in a loincloth and studded leather shoulder armor, even puts the moves on Single-O in the presence of the Queen, no less. The sidekick giggles, “She’s not the queen of Mars. He is!”

And that’s just the good martians. Their evil twins spend their free time in frenzied trance dances around a giant idol, climbing all over its arms and writhing against it in skimpy proto-punk get-ups. Well, what do you know. I guess they did get something right about 1980, after all…

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This post is part of the For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon, hosted by Ferdy on Films, This Island Rod, and Wonders in the Dark. Please consider donating towards the restoration of a one-reel silent comedy, Cupid in Quarantine (1918). If you love old movies, support them. Click the image below to make your contribution to the National Film Preservation Foundation now!

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My Photochemical Romance: The Nitrate Picture Show 2015

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“Love is a time machine up on the silver screen.”
—Noel Gallagher, “The Shock of the Lightning”

All the important things in life come down to questions of chemistry. 

What is love, in the end, but a felicitous cocktail of neurotransmitters? And what is classic cinema if not molecules rearranged by the kiss of light from bygone days—and conveyed on a strip of nitrocellulose, a substance so unstable and volatile that it can burn underwater? 

Our perceptions, no matter how lofty or spiritual, arise from chemical reactions, from formulae. The ethereal depends upon, and cannot be separated from, the material. There can be no mind without matter. Some people might recoil from that idea. Call it vulgar materialism if you’d like. Go right ahead. I call it transcendence. 

Last weekend, the inaugural Nitrate Picture Show stitched together dreams and reality, art and chemistry to produce a transcendent experience. Returned to the land of the living from their climate-controlled vaults, glorious 35mm nitrate prints, all struck between 1937 and 1949, conjured up the sights and sounds of classic films as audiences saw and heard them all those years ago.

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Unlike the dupes and digitizations of dupes that constitute just about everybody’s introduction to old movies, the cinema that blazed forth from the screen of the Dryden Theater returned to us in a startlingly undiluted form.

As my personal hero Kevin Brownlow pointed out, in studio-era Hollywood, “all those big cameramen had somebody in the lab who could do what they wanted… It’s very difficult for labs [today] to produce, even digitally, the effect of those original prints.” 

In other words, a nitrate original transmits the cinematographer’s vision—his actual intent—in a way that even an exquisite 35mm dupe or a pristine 8k restoration usually cannot replicate. Only a few venues in the world can project those visions caught on celluloid, and the Dryden Theater is one of them.

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“You’re going to have a unique experience,” Dr. Paolo Cherchi Usai, senior curator of motion pictures at the George Eastman House, told the intimate group of spectators. “You’re going to see very famous, iconic films in a way that most people in the world have never seen. And we hope that you will notice a difference, because there is a difference.”

Let me testify: yes, there is.

Imagine only ever seeing the sky filtered through sunglasses—then suddenly taking them off.

Movies I thought I knew, movies I’d seen dozens of times, appeared to me reborn, with fresh joys and terrors. And movies I’d never seen rushed at me with a force for which I was entirely unprepared. Nitrate is a fierce catalyst. Why, it can even turn back time. It can even raise the dead.

Nitrate Moments

They don’t make words vast enough to evoke nitrate black. There’s something eternal about it.

In Casablanca, Rick’s black bow-tie, gaping against the white of his crisp tropical tux, resembles a butterfly-shaped hole in his chest, a lyrical little void elegizing the man he once was, before his insides got kicked out. Similarly, as Ugarte begs him for help, a lattice of shadows crisscrosses the immaculate back of his dinner jacket—a detail that never caught my attention before—as though a net were holding him in the same trap as the sniveling parasite. 

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The surreal depth of nitrate noir chose some worthy objects of affection (worthy because I fancy them, too, that is). Pierre Fresnay’s sleek obsidian hair in The Man Who Knew Too Much crowns the secret agent with a dark halo as he wilts and gracefully expires on a dance floor, felled by a single bullet. In The Fallen Idol, Ralph Richardson’s onyx eyes glint with catch-light, sparkling like dying stars.

Movies invite viewers to collect moments and take souvenirs: an expression here, a movement there, a precious shot to hold on to like a rose pressed between book pages. The clarity of nitrate strengthened this mechanism of memory, searing certain images, certain touches of photogénie into my brain. The daisy in Rick’s buttonhole on that last day in Paris in Casablanca, the single man-tear of Wally’s that falls on Hazel’s hand in Nothing Sacred, or Ellen Berent’s cold teal eyes behind her tinted shades in Leave Her to Heaven. I’d never seen these things before, although they were there. Nitrate brought them out of hiding.

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Celluloid particularly seems to favor bodies of water, almost endowing them with personalities. The murky, acid-bath waves stretching for miles around a U-boat in Les Maudits churned and bubbled with malice. The dreamlike fishing spot that Sister Clodagh of Black Narcissus revisits in spirit blissfully glints—that’s Cardiff and the Archers reminding us, as they would do elsewhere, that heaven can be here on earth. 

The coppery sunset breakers, among which Norman Maine finds peace at last in A Star is Born, shimmered like the heat haze above a crucible. The crystalline surface of the lake at Back of the Moon in Leave Her to Heaven, a sunny witness to an unspeakable deed, sparkled like a sociopath’s smile.

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The Shock of the Lightning

At its best, cinema can fuse you into its fictions and unleash a torrent of emotions, so that you sit there in the dark and piously weep for strangers as you would for your own lost loves. Cinema can destroy you, as Portrait of Jennie destroyed me.

I cried three times, enough to erase my eyeliner and leave a permanent mark on my soul. Plenty of films have moved me to tears, but no movie has ever provoked the reaction Portrait did as I quietly sobbed in the third row of the Dryden Theater.

The silver nitrate hit me like Chartres blue, like Delacroix’s pigments, like the scent of apple blossoms in springtime. It affected me on a level beyond reason.

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As a matter of fact, in 1935, more than a decade before William Dieterle directed Jennie, he wrote, “What I have to say as a motion picture director, you can best read from the screen. There you find all that the subconscious force (the only real creator, in my opinion) has to tell.”

In the white-gloved hands of Herr Dieterle, fragile compounds formed into poetry. He tapped into that “subconscious force” as few others have. Dieterle inscribed a sense of melancholy and yearning into every shot of Jennie, whether she’s running out of the mist or skating towards the camera between silent sentinel skyscrapers or merely sitting curled up in Eben’s studio, her delicate features defined as a silhouette. 

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Even more impressive, during the film’s climactic tempest, the screen unfurled at both sides, widening into Magnascope. Toned an eerie shade of green, the silver-lined storm clouds suddenly swelled and expanded. The sky became a firmament. Images became incantations.

However, you have to open yourself up to a film before it opens up to you. The two young gentlemen (and I do use the term loosely) who sat a few seats down from me during Portrait of Jennie guffawed repeatedly. Sincerity spooks the insincere, I suppose, hence the nervous laughter. Like nonbelievers at a séance, they couldn’t feel the presence of the divine. They dammed themselves up against sentiment and, in so doing, perhaps damned themselves in another way. I pity them and were I the praying kind I’d pray for their enlightenment.

Many (most?) masterpieces flirt with silliness. Big ideas, artistic ambitions, and romantic gestures are all vaguely ridiculous. That absurdity is the price you pay for living in a world replete with marvels, not just snickering from the sidelines.

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David O. Selznick—no callow idealist by a long shot—prophetically gave himself over to sincerity and built a celluloid shrine to his future wife Jennifer Jones, keeping her forever young and enchanting as Jennie the struggling artist’s ghostly muse, forever vibrant and timeless as the Technicolor portrait that closes the film. The painter’s obsession parallels the producer’s adoration in a heady intermingling of art and life. 

Most of all, however, Portrait of Jennie is a ruminative, metaphysical valentine to cinema. Love and art alike can bestow immortality on mere mortals, but only film of all the arts sculpts time and space in their likeness. Only film preserves its beloved through what Bazin called “the mummification of change,” elevating certain chosen ones to surreal black-and-white demigods, photochemical archangels.

In the silvery shock of Jennie’s lightning, the triumphant power of the medium roars like thunder.

Time Without End

A book blocks the woman’s face.

Its title? Time Without End. Then she drops it, and the most beautiful creature in the world emerges from behind the drab book jacket. Her head droops onto her shoulder as the arid landscape continues to roll by outside the train compartment (which happens to be painted the exact same color as Gene Tierney’s eyes). 

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Like many apparently inconsequential details in Leave Her to Heaven, the book’s title subtly foreshadows the violent neurosis of the film’s protagonist. No boundaries, temporal or otherwise, exist for the morbidly jealous Ellen Berent. “I’ll never let you go, never, never, never,” she whispers from her deathbed. She wants to possess her beloved forever and fully expects to get whatever she wants.

However, as I sat in the Dryden, that title, Time Without End, took on another layer of significance. In a way, the nitrate had restored times past to those of us basking in its glow.

Reflecting on the festival, Dr. Cherchi Usai stressed the historical point of reference that nitrate brought to each screening. “I constantly had to remind myself: this is a nitrate print. This print has been screened many, many times since 1937, since 1945, and still is in such glorious shape.” 

So, when my eyes locked onto that screen, hungrily scrutinizing every frame of Leave Her to Heaven for the essence of nitrate, I saw what movie theater audiences saw in 1945—or as close as anyone will ever get to what they saw. I got to share the light, so to speak, that had washed over them.

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Every film viewing (or movie event, if I’m being pretentious) activates two levels of memory, one mechanical, one personal. First, even on a digital format, the “time machine” of cinema can transport us back to the era when a certain film was made. Second, each time I watch a movie, I watch with the memory of having watched it before; the effect is cumulative and subjective. The rhythm and flow of the film activates remembrance. It cannot be helped.

A vintage nitrate print, struck decades ago, endows the viewing experience with another stratum of time, a kind of phantom memory.

As I watch, I can say to myself, “I see now what they saw then.” That scratch, that hair, that grain. The original audiences must’ve seen it too. Some of them, at least. The print remembers.

Moreover, what they saw then harkened back to another then, both closer in relation to them (more recent) and just as faraway (fictional), a manipulated reality imprisoned on nitrate. Their then, what the film recorded, is years further from me than it was to them, yet it is paradoxically every bit as close: we are the same distance away from Gene Tierney, if you measure that distance by prints. 

All the thens stack up and overlap. Then is now, and now is then. The whole of time twists and coils upon itself, like a tangle of melting film stock.

Time without end indeed. 

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Flowers of Evil

On the final morning of the festival, Jared Case, head of motion picture collection information and access at the George Eastman House, remarked on an unintentional pattern in the programming. “There seems to be a theme throughout the weekend of twisted love,” he noted. “I don’t know what it says about us, hopefully nothing!” 

In particular, unhinged anti-heroines, from the eponymous temptress of Samson and Delilah to Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus to Mrs. Bains in The Fallen Idol, ruled the weekend. 

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The cataclysmic mix of rage and lust emanating from these she-devils hints at a quality inherent in the medium that conjured them. Danger and the thirst for danger. As Orson Welles once said, “Film has a personality, and that personality is self-destructive.”

On nitrate, cinema is a femme fatale. It is reality’s evil twin, beckoning to us with worldly beauty made otherworldly. It seduces us with lies and threatens to pull us into its self-destruction, its threatened immolation. It fools and taunts us with fragments of an exotic, unnatural past, a playlist of invented memories. It slays you. Gorgeously. 

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At the Nitrate Picture Show, Black Narcissus tormented me that way. I didn’t want it to end. Every cut, every dissolve filled me with despair. “Don’t take that shot away,” I wanted to cry out. “I wasn’t done looking at that!”

My mind tries in vain to recall the unholy intensity of the images, to summon the luminosity and saturation of the colors as I’d never seen them before. The giddy, vertiginous blues and greens of the cliff-sides. The countless shadings of Sister Clodagh’s habit. The enfolding darkness of the Christmas flashback. The baleful amber of Ruth’s jealousy. Her lipstick-daubed mouth, red as a raw nerve, confessing a lethal love.

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The Archers and Jack Cardiff managed to put Tantalus’s punishment on celluloid. Black Narcissus hurts even on DVD. On 35mm nitrate, it aches, it blisters, it writhes with light and shadow. It bleeds with hue.

The word “intoxicating” comes to mind, the root of course being “toxic.” Black Narcissus overwhelms me with a poisonous, venomous beauty. It allows the viewer to sympathize with the distraction of its characters, a distraction veering into madness. Who could bear such constant splendor? Who could endure a world so alive with pleasure and sensation and ephemeral joys and not lose her mind?

Dear reader, I came close.

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Coda: Diva Gone Nitrate

When I chose the name for this blog almost 3 years ago, I lighted upon “nitrate” because it held a faraway, almost mythic resonance for me. The very thought of the strange, combustible alchemy that once sustained motion pictures filled me with a sense of wonder.

Somehow it never occurred to me that I’d get to see a film projected from the storied substance. I didn’t think it was even done these days. 

I dreamt of nitrate. I wanted to fetishize and mystify it. In the end, however, the material truth, the photochemical reality turned out to be more mystical than anything I could have dreamed of.

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The Lady from Shanghai (1947): More Than Luck

lady“A director is someone who presides over accidents.” —Orson Welles

“You are made from nothing but this, from these contingent manifestations, from these little discontinuities.” —Jacques Lacan

See this movie before you die.

It sounds glib, doesn’t it? Appealing to your fear of the ultimate deadline to add weight to my recommendation. Certainly it would be rather difficult to see the movie afterwards.

Strange thing, though… Once I got talking to a brilliant man who was lecturing at my college, a full-time cosmologist, no less, and a part-time cinephile. He’d somehow neglected to see The Lady From Shanghai, my all-time favorite film, so I told him that he simply had to.

He emailed me a few weeks afterwards to tell me that he’d watched it: “I loved the editing, the close-ups, the movement, the characters talking over each other. There was really no part where I was not totally engaged and engrossed with the artistic nature of the film.”

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We chatted back and forth about movies—he was an Antonioni fanatic—then it stopped. A few months later, I learned that he had died following a long battle with cancer. He’d been fighting the last campaign when I met him.

I didn’t know him well. However, the fact that my recommendation brought the beauty of The Lady from Shanghai into his life before he passed away has stayed with me through the years. I’m not proud of very much I’ve done in my misspent life, but, damn it, I’m proud of that.

And if you were to ask me why I sit down almost every day and try to share the movies I love with people I’ve never met, I’d tell you that story.

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Orson Welles suggested that films are largely made of accidents—which should come as no surprise. In all honesty, don’t accidents and chance encounters sculpt our lives more than our so-called willpower does?

We emerge from contingency, from incalculable contingencies. Just like movies. Just like The Lady from Shanghai, which wouldn’t exist as such without Rita Hayworth’s doomed final bid to rekindle her marriage to Orson Welles… and hundreds of contingencies besides.

The encounters we have with movies and around movies reflect the tenuousness of chance back to us. What was caught, as though off-guard, by the camera catches me off-guard and becomes part of me.

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The Jagged Edge

Glass breaks. Mirrors shatter and fall in sharp, tiny pieces, like confetti with malicious intent. The characters, already refracted by dozens of angled panes, drop and cascade in a spray of light and dark. Images suddenly blossom with starbursts of shards and fractures.

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When I first saw this scene, it held me spellbound, even in a 360 pixel YouTube frame. If not quite a surrealist ‘found object,’ my introduction to The Lady from Shanghai came at me without warning from the great jumble of the Internet, a cavernous, disquieting funhouse. It was more than a clip. It was an encounter. And from that moment on I did not use my head very much—but for thinking about film.

The scene had no narrative context for me, and it didn’t need any context. I was 16, and that was the summer Orson Welles’s films changed my life, transforming me from somebody who watched a lot of old movies into somebody who loved cinema and wanted desperately to understand it.

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In the years since, though, I’ve reached my boiling point with obvious interpretations of the Playland sequence. Those dwelling in mirrored chambers shouldn’t throw stones, so I’ll ’fess up to the cheap trick analysis I’ve promulgated here and elsewhere, say my mea culpas, and promise not to do it again (until next week).

Still, on the subject of The Lady from Shanghai, I’m done with “the masks we wear” and “the images we project” and “through a glass darkly.” And I’m sick to death of the crazy mirror as the metaphor for Orson’s many chemerical guises and identities. The “jagged edge of symbolism” made Welles cringe while alive. Don’t let’s disturb him in his shroud.

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Beyond Meaning

Why do we even try to decrypt The Lady from Shanghai thematically and/or autobiographically? Because it tempts us to. But we mustn’t fall into that snare. In fact, many of Orson Welles’s movies set this trap for the viewer. Their “themes” seem to announce themselves blatantly in the best college essay tradition. The lost innocence of childhood. Nostalgia for an imperfect past. The badness that we make terms with. The corrosive effects of police impunity… and so forth.

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Yet, these themes collapse under the overwhelming sensuousness of Welles’s imagery. Who cares what that movie, that scene, that shot means? Could any meaning live up to what it makes us feel? Why, you might as well light a forest fire to symbolize a lit match as to create a sublime sequence like the mirror shootout to serve as a delivery system for some whiff of philosophy. Analysis should open, not close; expand, not contract.

In fact, Welles’s major criticism of Jean-Luc Godard centered on this very question of meaning: “His message is what he cares about these days, and, like most movie messages, it could be written on the head of a pin.”

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In the same vein, when asked about the visual splendor of The Lady from Shanghai, Welles revealed that this beauty was born of frustration—and hinted that he intended it to cause frustration. Reflecting on the lush, distracting backgrounds in the aquarium scene, Welles explained, “It was so gripping visually that no one heard what was being said. And what was said was, for all that, the marrow of the film. The subject was so tedious that I said to myself, ‘this calls for something beautiful to look at.’”

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When people complain about The Lady from Shanghai, and some do rather loudly, they generally bemoan the lack of a coherent plot. This impenetrable narrative—so opaque and brackish that, even when Columbia head Harry Cohn offered a preview audience money to explain it, no one succeeded—ironically allows the audience to experience the film as pure cinema.

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The Lady from Shanghai isn’t about ideas or even relationships. It’s a movie of gestures, tones, and textures, especially contrasts. Elsa’s flawless face in close-up gives way to ghoulish Grisby’s oily skin and bulging eyes crammed into the frame. The pale, platinum goddess flits like a dove across a skyline and races through slums like a fallen angel—but then glints darkly in the funhouse like a serpent or, backlit by the murky tank of a moray eel, strikes a profile of inky black flawlessness.

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Like its title character, this movie never surrender its secrets.

Loving something means never comprehending it, realizing that you cannot grasp it or exhaust its charms. I love The Lady from Shanghai, which is why it’s taken me years to write a word about it.

I’ll doubt I’ll ever fully understand it. Maybe I’ll die trying.

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From Naples to Hollywood (and Back): At TCMFF, Sophia Loren Reflects on Her Vibrant Career

sophiamarriageIt’s hard to imagine a time when Sophia Loren wouldn’t have been considered a dazzling beauty. However, at the Montalban Theater in Hollywood for TCM Classic Film Festival, Loren harkened back to her early days as an actress—and her disastrous first screentest.

In an extended interview with her son, director Edoardo Ponti, Loren recalled, “They put a cigarette in my mouth, so I started to cough like hell.”

Looking at the test footage, the cameraman gave a grim appraisal of Loren’s future in films: “She has a long nose. She has a big mouth. And she doesn’t know how to act.”

Loren was ready to give up and go home, but her mentor and future husband, producer Carlo Ponti, convinced her to keep trying, for which we can all be grateful.

More than 20 years the starlet’s senior, Ponti brought hope and stability into her life after a bleak childhood. “He was a very sensitive person,” Loren said. “I think he had a nice smile. I found great comfort in him.” Even today, Loren feels that he remains with her in spirit. “Sometimes I don’t know what to do, sometimes I have problems. I think of him and I don’t feel alone.”

Contrary to popular belief, though, Ponti did not rechristen Sophia Scicolone as Sophia Loren. She set the record straight; it was another producer, Goffredo Lombardo, who came up with her screen name. “He was doing a picture, Africa Under the Sea, and he said, ‘Look, Sophia Cicolone I don’t like. We have to change the name, because I like you, you look good in a bathing suit…’”

Greeted by a chorus of laughter from the audience at the Montalban, Loren paused, shrugged, and acknowledged her deservedly lauded figure: “It helps.”

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Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda

Flipping through a dictionary, Lombardo searched for words with a similar sound to the name of an actress he liked. Coren… Soren… Loren!

Her big break came with Aïda (1953), a lavish film adaptation of Verdi’s opera. The movie placed unusual demands on Loren, who more or less fell into the role to replace an American actress. Painted from head-to-toe to play an African princess, Loren acted in tune with a pre-recorded score—and had to put in extra practice to learn every beat of the music, including several famous arias.

She recalled, “For at least 2 months I was in a little room trying to sing the lipsynch of [the celebrated soprano] Renata Tebaldi, every day, all day, and then I did it.” Because the soundstages were cold in winter, crew members had to use hairdryers to eliminate the visible breath emanating from the star’s open mouth!

How did Loren feel about the results? “It’s great. It looks like I am singing!” At the Montalban, when Edoardo asked his mother, “Were you singing a little bit?” he got an incredulous response: “Ma tu sei pazzo?” Are you crazy?

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“Ma tu sei pazzo?” Sophia Loren and son Edoardo Ponti at the Montalban Theater. Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda

The following year, in 1954, Loren began her collaboration with Vittorio De Sica, the director who would shape her greatest screen performances. She remembered her makeup man introducing her to De Sica at Cinecittà, warning, “She’s a wonderful girl. She’s very young, Vittorio. She’s very, very young.”

Thus reminded to remain a gentleman, De Sica suggested that Loren do a screentest for his next production, an episodic film set in Naples. Remembering her earlier experience, she baulked. “I started to take away the possibility of doing L’oro di Napoli, because I didn’t want to do a test,” Loren said.

Undeterred, De Sica invited Loren to visit his studio, where he discussed the role with her and decided to cast her without a test. “You leave tomorrow for Naples,” he told her.

A great actor as well as director, De Sica performed for his cast even when working behind the camera. Loren recalled, “Every director has a way of showing [what he wants] to an actor, with words sometimes, with gestures sometimes. For him, it was acting, from A to Z, little actors, big actors, a man, a woman… He would act the scene for everybody.”

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Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda

Some actors would no doubt bristle at a director showing them how to play their part, but Loren appreciated seeing how De Sica would act out her character: “That’s the way he felt that he could give some truth to the scene. So I learned from him. I was always in a lesson with him.”

Loren found plenty in De Sica’s directorial acting to emulate and ultimately make her own. She confided, “I like to steal—Naples, you know—I like to steal good things, the kind of things that make you grow.”

When asked what she “stole” from De Sica, she replied with one word: “naturalezza” or naturalness.

Like many screen legends, Loren honed her craft as an actress as she climbed the ladder of stardom—without studying acting in a traditional sense. Edoardo wondered whether the lack of formal training ever undermined her confidence. “Well, I felt insecure because I didn’t go to the actors’ studio, but I see so many people that did go to the actors’ studio who are more insecure than I am! Now I don’t feel insecure, because I learned from life… I learned to read the minds of people, to read the mind of the character I am playing.”

In the mid-1950s, she found herself increasingly in demand. When Loren met Suso Checchi D’Amato, then working on a script called Too Bad She’s Bad, on a train, the screenwriter mentioned a perfect part for her: an alluring thief who falls in love with the taxi driver she cons.

toobadshesbadAlthough the 19-year-old Loren had fun “playing the star” and telling D’Amato to see if Ponti could “fit your project into my schedule,” the movie turned out to be a personal and professional milestone. “It was really my first film where I had to open up and really show to people the little things I was learning.”

Too Bad She’s Bad (1954) also paired Loren with Marcello Mastroianni for the first time. From the moment she met Mastroianni on the set they were immediately simpatico. “Since I saw him, it was like he was my old friend. He was a gentle person.”

Their friendship was based on two things, according to Loren: “sense of humor and food.” The latter sounds like Mastroianni’s favorite subject. “When he came on the set in the morning the first thing he said wasn’t, ‘Come stai, Sophia?’ No. ‘Cosa mangerai stasera?’ What are you going to eat tonight?”

At the TCL Chinese Theater, when Ben Mankiewicz asked Loren if she and Mastroianni worked on their onscreen chemistry, she replied, “I don’t think you can work on chemistry. There is or there isn’t. So, as soon as I saw Marcello, there is.”

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Audiences felt the rapport, too, and a new screen team was formed. “When the film came out it was so successful that other writers started writing other things for us both, always for comedies, though, in the beginning.”

After Loren’s string of Italian hits in the 1950s, Hollywood beckoned, and Ponti offered her the opportunity to break the language barrier and prepare to enchant new audiences. She shared an anecdote that revealed the producer’s determination. Loren received a telegram stating, “‘Tomorrow you start learning English.’” As she was mulling the idea over, she reported, “The door rang—that was my teacher!”

Loren’s first English-language film, The Pride and the Passion (1957), entailed a 6-month shoot in Spain and sparked the actress’s legendary romance with Cary Grant. However, they didn’t exactly start off on the right foot.

“Cary Grant was being very funny, because he mixed my name up with Gina Lollobrigida. So, I went to him and I said, ‘If you keep on doing that, I’m leaving.” While making his apology, “He looked into my eyes and he was stuck. That’s all.”

Listening to stories about his mother and Grant, Eduardo Ponti got one of the biggest laughs of the day: “I have a bittersweet feeling about Cary Grant: sweet, because he’s somebody who meant a lot to you, bitter because my birth was threatened.” You know, I can’t really blame him.

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Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda

Who could turn down Cary Grant? Well, Loren explained that it wasn’t Grant so much as a break with her life in Italy that she was resisting: “I think that with Carlo [Ponti] I had found a kind of calm, a kind of tranquility. He came from Italy… I was afraid to change so quickly in my life and go to America.”

Knowing that her future as an artist, not merely a star, resided in her native country, Loren went home. Although she didn’t seem to find her English-language films particularly fulfilling, she confessed her fondness for a few: “I’ve done things that sometimes I thought were okay, like the picture I did with Cary, Houseboat, and then also a film I did, The Key with Carol Reed.”

twowomenIn 1960, Loren gave her most acclaimed performance in Two Women, as a mother struggling to help her daughter survive in wartorn Italy, again directed by De Sica. Initially slated to play the daughter, Loren ended up in the role of the mother after Anna Magnani turned it down—but suggested rewriting the script to feature Sophia as the older lead.

The artistic triumph emerged from a grueling production, leading up to the horrifying church rape scene. “I spent nights and nights and nights without sleep,” Loren said. “When the day came, we did a rehearsal and then we started shooting.

“On the first [take], De Sica said, “Print!” I said, ‘Don’t we do another one?’ He said, ‘No, we won’t do another one.’ All the scenes from that moment on until the end De Sica never did it twice.”

The one-take method made Loren nervous, “I was so preoccupied and I said, ‘My god, it will be terrible and and I will have to do the same thing [again]… he said, ‘No, you could never do it better. Shut up.’”

De Sica was right, as Loren learned on Oscar night when she became the first actor ever to win an Academy Award for a foreign-language performance.

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Ben Mankiewicz looks adorably starstruck in the presence of Sophia Loren before their interview at the TCL Chinese Theater. Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda

At the TCL Chinese Theater, the day after her interview at the Montalban, Loren recounted how she received the word of her victory. Seized by the jitters, Loren had decided not to attend the ceremony, thinking, “I will stay in Rome, because if I win, I’m going to faint. If I faint in my own house, then it’s fine. Nobody sees me. If I faint on the stage, it’s going to be a disaster.”

Instead, Loren and Ponti enjoyed a quiet night at home. The clock ticked by, past the time when the winner was supposed to have been announced. Assuming that no news was bad news, the couple headed up to bed.

“At that moment,” Loren told the packed crowd at the Chinese Theater, “the telephone rang. I said, ‘Hello? Pronto? Chi è?”

What she heard at the other end is probably the best thing anyone has ever heard in the history of phones: “It’s Cary Grant. You won!”

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Marriage Italian Style (1964) reunited Loren with De Sica and her frequent co-star Marcello Mastroianni. One of Loren’s favorites in her filmography, the bawdy, beloved dramedy allowed the actress to prove her talent to a surprising critic: her mother.

“Even though after a while I started to be in movies and they were giving me already good roles, one time we were looking at the television and there was a lady called Regina Bianchi, ah, mi ricordo… and she was doing Marriage Italian Style. My mother, because she was very natural, sometimes she could say things that could hurt you a lot.

“So, I said, ‘Maybe Carlo would like to do Marriage Italian Style.’ And she looked at the television and she said, ‘But you could never do it.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ ‘Because she’s so good.’”

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Perhaps Bianchi was good, but Loren is “a cinematic event” in Marriage Italian Style, to borrow Ben Mankiewicz’s description. Amazed by Loren’s walk in a certain iconic scene, Mankiewicz began, “When you walk, just walk in a movie—”

“I dance,” Loren aptly finished the sentence. “I walked like that because there was music underneath, so I had to do a double step, and I enjoyed it very much.”

Loren cherished the part of Filumena, a prostitute who longs for a loving marriage with her keeper of 20 years, for its range of emotion. “It’s a beautiful role for a woman. You can cry, you can laugh, but the tragedy of the woman at that time is always there.”

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Marriage Italian Style also captures the beauty and vitality of Loren’s heritage in Naples. “I think I owe everything to [being] Neapolitan,” She reflected. “Every kind of picture that I’ve done with De Sica, the source was always Naples in a way.”

What else is there to say? Grazie, Naples. E grazie, Sophia.

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Kongo (1932): Apocalypse Then

flintTo paraphrase a line from Heart of Darkness, you can’t judge Kongo as you would an ordinary film.

In this monument to morbidity, nearly all the taboos festering at the edges of pre-Code cinema come out and play: blasphemy, drug addiction, prostitution, torture, slavery, bestiality, and (spoiler alert!) incest. The movie positively wallows in depravity. Degradation is its subject, its project, its study.

Even in the annals of pre-Code excess, it is unmatched, I believe—and yes, I’ve seen and written about The Story of Temple Drake, The Black Cat, and Murders in the Zoo.

Kongo is so squalid, so sticky, so saturated in filth that it rises to the level of tragic art, an art of darkness. And, as ‘Dead-Legs’ Flint, the movie’s irredeemable villain/hero, Walter Huston deserves much of the credit for whatever brutal poetry the film attains.

Huston’s performance, possibly the most intense in a screen career that defined intense, runs the gamut from raw, animalistic rage to wry sadism to blank, abject despair. How far can hatred take a man? How much can vengeance distort his soul? Prepare to find out.

And, yes, this is a ludicrously long post. Make it to the end and I’ve got some cute behind-the-scenes anecdotes from fan magazines to cleanse your palate, okay?

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No Bedtime Story

In remote central Africa, a merciless paraplegic ivory trader (Huston) rules his territory with impunity, lording it over his mistress Tula (Lupe Velez) and his terrified cronies. Using magic tricks to convince the natives that he controls evil spirits, he sets himself up as a minor god. (Cue the offensive 1930s stereotypes and broken English!)

But Flint’s not in this for money. Oh, no. He carefully selected this private inferno as the staging ground for an elaborate revenge scheme. After 18 long years of waiting, he’s about to spring the trap.

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Left partially paralyzed after a fight with the man who stole his wife, Flint targets the rival’s daughter, Ann (Virginia Bruce), born to Flint’s wife. Plucking Ann from a convent as soon as she’s “old enough to realize what’s happening to her,” Flint sends her to work in a Zanzibar brothel.

Once Ann “graduates” from the whorehouse, he summons the girl to his plantation and subjects her to starvation, beatings, numerous assaults, and daily humiliations. Unbroken in spirit, Ann falls in love with a drug-addicted derelict doctor (Conrad Nagel, never edgier), and they help nurse each other back to health.

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Meanwhile, Flint counts down the days until he can lure Ann’s father to his compound and show him what his daughter has become. Then the fun can really begin.

However, when Flint finally confronts his foe, needless to say, things don’t go quite as planned. One mistake will bring the full weight of the tyrant’s actions down on his own head… and somehow make the film even sicker. This plot doesn’t thicken so much as it curdles.

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Beast in the Jungle

Walter Huston had an advantage in tackling Kongo: he’d created the role of ‘Dead-Legs’ on Broadway in 1926, starring in a sordid play that would spawn two film adaptations.

With all that practice under his belt, it should come as no surprise that he captured the disabled character’s physicality with uncanny ease. He makes us accept Flint’s paralysis with the apparent rote familiarity of his movements, positioning his limbs by sharply yanking his pant legs or smoothly dragging himself across the floor, for instance. He sets a rock-solid basis for our credibility in the face of all the Grand Guignol to follow.

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Better yet, Huston wisely doesn’t back down from the perversity of the part. He refuses to underplay Flint or use his plight for sympathy. Instead, he gives a full-throttle representation of evil, radiating malevolence, power, and fearlessness.

I’m sorry, but we’d never buy Flint’s barbarism if he weren’t larger than life. Some characters can only be sustained on a diet of scenery-chewing. This man is a roaring, hyperbolic tyrant, an arrogant, cigar-chomping monster. It’s as though every major dictator of the 20th century borrowed a few tricks from Huston’s repertoire. Even when he’s resting in his wheelchair, his presence signifies imminent violence.

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For example, in what I consider the movie’s most chilling moment, Flint punishes Ann for trying to escape the plantation by ordering his myrmidon Hogan to beat and (the scene strongly implies) rape her. Hogan drags the poor girl into another room, the door closes, and we hear Ann shriek again and again.

Wheeling right up to the door, Flint takes a mighty puff of his cigar and howls with laughter. His rabid, guttural cackle mingles with her high-pitched screams as the screen lingeringly fades out. In addition to the downright disturbing use of offscreen space, the juxtaposition of sounds—laughter and cries of pain—emphasizes just how far Flint has strayed from that little thing we call humanity.

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Twisted in Mind and Body

Ironically, Flint obsesses most over his rival’s sneer, over the expression of glee and contempt on the man’s face as he left Flint helpless. In seeking to retaliate against that sneer, Flint has assimilated it, absorbed it, transmuted it into the essence of his being until he himself is little more than a sneer.

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Although his interpretation of Flint originated on the stage, Huston wrings the intimacy of the film medium for all it’s worth. The actor gets more close-ups and medium close-ups than either of the movie’s leading ladies and, despite being handicapped by grotesque makeup that partially obscures his features, he makes the most of those shots.

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Whenever he describes the torture and degradation of his enemy’s daughter, an unholy gleam flashes in his eye. Huston makes the pleasure that Flint takes in Ann’s suffering just as frightening and sick as it ought to be. Plus, cinematographer Harold Rosson enhances the horror of Huston’s performance with stark lighting, often from below, so that darkness laps at the corners of the frame.

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Another interesting aspect of Flint’s performance is the unnerving mixture of raw and refined cruelty. The film recurrently places him in the animal realm: he slithers on the floor like a snake and, when we first see him, his head pops out of a bunk… after the head of his pet monkey. He’s also not afraid to get hands-on in his villainy, grinning eagerly as he pries Tula’s mouth open with the intention of twisting her tongue out with wire.

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Yet, far from an unthinking brute, he can’t resist making a few barbed comments to assert his intelligence. He wounds Ann with words as well as with blows, forcing her to smash a glass she’s sipped from, snarling, “Who’d want it after you?”

Earlier, ordering Tula to deck him out in his Voodoo headdress, he decides to take the opportunity to remind her of the fact that’s in she’s servitude to such an unattractive master. “Crown me Queen of the May,” he leers. “Of all the men you’ve known, have you ever seen such an Adonis? Smile, you little bush rat, smile.”

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When he comes face-to-face with the object of his hatred, another ivory trader called Gregg, the man asks if Flint wants revenge. The reply? “No, not revenge. Call it the aftereffect of dark, somber brooding,” he comically minimizes.

The glimmers of wit and civilization in Flint disturb us all the more, because they remind us that he is a self-created monster. As his victim of choice yells at him, “Your mind’s more twisted and warped than your body!”

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West of Zanzibar, South of Decency

Remakes rarely surpass the originals, but to my mind, Kongo trumps Tod Browning’s West of Zanzibar (1928), starring Lon Chaney, on pretty much every level—certainly in terms of horror.

West of Zanzibar begins by showing how Dead-Legs’ wife leaves him, how he ends up paralyzed, and how he vows revenge. Seeing these tribulations builds empathy for the antihero too early in the film, thus, in my opinion, weakening the character.

Moreover, Flint’s torment of his enemy’s daughter in the silent strikes me as positively childish in comparison to the persecution we witness in the talkie version. He steals her clothes and gives her brandy? Heaven forfend!

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The undercurrents of perversity still run strong in Zanzibar—you’ve got people being burned alive, for instance—but dialogue and sound in general cranks up Flint’s formidable power as an adversary, especially given his physical limitations. With a voice, he gets to threaten, bark, grunt, chortle, crow, taunt, cajole, and quip, all in the service of his single-minded goal.

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On a more poignant level, the talkie develops Ann into a three-dimensional character. She not only describes the trauma of her experiences, but also rises above them, telling Flint, “You just called me a degraded woman. In name I am, but in my heart never!”

In terms of background noise, thunderclaps, tribal chants, and the sweeping sounds that Flint makes scuttling across the floor all fill the vivid soundtrack of this early talkie. Most eerily of all, the entire third act throbs with drums, hammering away, announcing doom for a certain character selected for human sacrifice.

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Senses of Wickedness

No other product of the studio era, talkie or silent, ever brought the word “hellhole” to life so completely as Kongo did. Director William J. Cowen, a decorated WWI officer, ex-spy, noted writer, and husband of the great screenwriter Lenore Coffee, only worked on a handful of movies, which may be a blessing for those with delicate constitutions.

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With cinematographer Rosson (of The Wizard of Oz), Cowen transformed an M-G-M set, used around the same time for the steamy romance Red Dust, into another world, one that none of us would want to visit. If Red Dust is an exotic wet dream, Kongo is a tropical nightmare.

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Most impressive to me is how Cowen preys upon nearly all of the audience’s senses, especially how haptic the movie is. Kongo almost seems to touch you, and I don’t mean emotionally. The eye cannot help but translate the squirmy tactile sensations conjured by such unpleasant images. Itchiness. Dirtiness. Griminess. Bodies glisten constantly with sweat, burnished and glowing, as though the beast in each character had literally bubbled to the surface.

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The chancrous, sin-sodden ambiance of Kongo prompts a visceral response. About 10 minutes in, you’ll want to wash the heat-haze off yourself. Even the light looks dirty.

Plus, if a movie can have a stench, this one does—sweet like jungle rot and revenge and sour like dried perspiration and regret.

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Trick of Fate

When discussing the nature of tragedy in Poetics, Aristotle identified anagnorisis—a tragic revelation or recognition—as a potent plot device.

Like we see in Oedipus, this sudden realization or discovery often leads to peripeteia, a reversal of fortune, an upheaval from which the drama draws emotional energy: “This recognition, combined with reversal, will produce either pity or fear; and actions producing these effects are those which, by our definition, tragedy represents.”

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I suspect that Aristotle would have as high an opinion of Kongo as I have, because it pulls off an anagnorisis that might’ve prompted Oedipus to put out his eyes and his ears to boot.

Flint summons Gregg to his plantation, parades the debased Ann before him, then announces that she is his daughter. Gregg wobbles and collapses in a huddle. The camera tracks in on Gregg’s heaving back as he presumably sobs, but when he looks up, we see a hysterical smile on his face. “She’s your daughter!” Gregg laughs.

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And we watch Flint slowly, agonizingly reap the punishment he’d devised for another. Our fear of what he might do next dissolves into pity. Humanity pours back into him as he reprocesses all the terrible things he’s done to Ann with the double sorrow of a father’s love and a persecutor’s guilt.

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Seized with the desire to make amends, he reaches out for Ann, only to realize that his previous actions have conditioned his daughter to shudder at his touch. Later, she faints and Flint takes the chance to cradle her in his arms.

To call the scene uncomfortable would be an understatement. Flint has to resort to a form of exploitation even to express tenderness, holding her as she lies there unconscious. Think of it as, say, David Lynch’s Pietà.

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Any affection he can ever feel for his child is tainted by the abuse he inflicted on her. He knows it, too. We discern that in a series of harrowing close-ups: Flint looking down, Ann’s face, her eyes closed, on the floor. The opposing “axes” of their faces, his roughly vertical, hers roughly horizontal, when edited together, spur the viewer’s eyes to readjust. The contrast visually expresses the Aristotelian reversal, the staggering switch that annihilated one of cinema’s fiercest villains and transformed him into a bereft parent.

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That my heart can break for such a villain, a man I never cease to despise, testifies to Huston’s virtuosic talent—and to the perverse force of the movie as a whole.

Gratuitous though Kongo’s litany of sins may seem, the heavy impact of all that ugliness culminates in a gut-punch of recognition and reversal. The movie does not exist merely to shock, but to tell us something about outer limits of evil: you cannot debase another without debasing yourself more.

That reversal elevates Kongo from the mire and accords it a place among the forgotten gems of its era.

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Tough Times and Dark Places

Investigating this potboiler for the first time, you’d be forgiven for thinking you stumbled upon an alternate universe. In this parallel realm, the most repellent exploitation films of the 1930s—instead of being churned out by Dwain Esper and his sleazy ilk—were made at M-G-M with top-flight actors, screenwriters, and production values.

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So, how did Kongo get made? Let’s all take a few moments to appreciate Irving Thalberg’s dark side.

1932 was perhaps Thalberg’s banner year as M-G-M’s boy wonder. He basically invented the “all-star” cast with Grand Hotel. He launched Jean Harlow to the next level in the wake of the Bern scandal with Red-Headed Woman and Red Dust. He gave us Tarzan and Letty Lynton and Smilin’ Through.

Nevertheless, it was also the year he greenlit Freaks, the most notorious flop of his career, and Kongo, which supposedly turned a profit but didn’t make him any friends. In his zeal to capitalize on the box office mojo of talkie horror, established by Universal’s hits the previous year, Thalberg got out of the boat just a tad.

As Norma Shearer remembered, Thalberg “was fascinated by the unusual, the colorful—even the decadent and the evil. He loved the impact of horror, but not merely for the sake of horror. These elements had to possess a reality, a logic, a meaning.”

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Alas, as psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan would say (not), Kongo got way too real for Depression-era audiences.

In the opinions section of a 1933 issue of Motion Picture Herald, Ned Pedigo, a theater owner from Garber, Oklahoma, wrote in to complain about Kongo’s undesirable effect on his audience: “When [a moviegoer] pays two bits to see this one, he doesn’t forget when he comes out. Hand him 30 cents back. Beg his pardon and I doubt if that will square it.”

Sorry, Mr. Average Spectator, you can’t forget Kongo, no matter how much you’d like to.

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This movie devours a little bit of your soul. Don’t say I didn’t warn you and, unlike Mr. Pedigo of Oklahoma, I refuse to beg your pardon. I’ve seen it 5 times and have been freshly appalled by each viewing.

That is quite a legacy, Mr. Thalberg. Bravo. After all, what greater measure of a movie’s power is there than its ability to make us feel something like revulsion decades later?

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Look, I want you all to watch the many uncontroversially great films of classic Hollywood. Enjoy them. Quote them. Embrace them as a lifestyle choice. But you know what I want more? For everyone who reads this to take a journey into the darkest corners of the studio era and to check out the messy, category-defying flicks that make you question everything you thought you knew about a prestige outfit like M-G-M.

Bottom line? You can keep The Wizard of Oz. I’ll take Kongo.

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Epilogue: Notes on the Making of Kongo

I promised anecdotes and I am a woman of my word.

Photoplay, the most prestigious and arguably the most trustworthy fan magazine of Hollywood’s golden age, reported on an unlikely friendship that blossomed between Walter Huston and Lupe Velez of onthesetall people on the set of Kongo. Velez had been intimidated by Huston since her former husband Gary Cooper expressed his awe in the presence of the consummate actor’s actor. Noticing Velez furtively peering at him from the sidelines, Huston affably introduced himself and things went swimmingly.

In the article, “The Strangest Friendship in Hollywood,” Ruth Biery reported, “They talk continuously while they are working together and as soon as the week is done, Lupe, Walter, and his wife Nan dash away for little trips to the mountains.”

Lupe also befriended the chimp star, Queenie, who took it upon herself to protect the actress. When Flint starts to twist Tula’s tongue with the wire, Queenie sensed the distress of the scene and started attacking the actors who were pretending to abuse Velez.

During shooting, Virginia Bruce married John Gilbert, a match somewhat jinxed from the start as this item, also from Photoplay, suggests:

Poor Virginia Bruce had a tough honeymoon.

She was working in “Kongo.” And if you ever saw a dirty picture, it was that. Taken in mud. Even the interior shots were largely in huts with dirt floors.

Virginia’s hair was stringy. Her nails were uncut.

She went to director Bill Cowan [sic] with tears in her eyes.

“Can’t I have a shampoo and a facial and manicure just for the week-end?”

“Absolutely not. You might not get the dirt back in the same proportions.”

“But I want to go out with Jack—”

As new-hubby Jack Gilbert is noted for wanting his women fastidiously groomed, no wonder the bride decided to… spend all her time being a little home body.

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This post is a (tardy) entry into The Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy, Shadows and Satin, and Silver Screenings! Click the banner to check out all the other posts!

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Art Imitates Life: Shirley MacLaine Revisits The Apartment (1960) at TCMFF

maclaine“We didn’t know where it was going,” Shirley MacLaine recalled.

That “it” happened to be the plot of The Apartment, which remained up in the air as shooting for the film began. “Jack [Lemmon] and I both, we talked about it, we were given 29 pages of script.”

The actors just had to wait and see how it would crumble, cookie-wise.

At the TCM Classic Film Festival, MacLaine, exuberant as ever at age 80, regaled a packed audience in the TCL Chinese Theater with stories about the making of Billy Wilder’s enduringly powerful dramedy. 

I consider myself very fortunate to have been in that audience. After seeing MacLaine 4 times over the course of the festival, believe me, I could have listened to this fascinating and endlessly sassy woman for hours more!

In conversation with Leonard Maltin, MacLaine revealed how behind-the-scenes spontaneity helped to shape the masterpiece. Asked about the onscreen sparks between herself and Jack Lemmon, with whom she’d never worked before, she explained, “I think chemistry is good when you find yourself on a discovery mission.”

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MacLaine and Maltin at Club TCM. Photo credit: Tyler Golden.

In keeping with this atmosphere of “discovery,” writer-director Wilder and his co-writer I.A.L. Diamond largely eschewed any preconceived story or characterizations. Instead, they tailored their script to fit the two leading actors’ growing friendship—with remarkable results.

According to MacLaine, Diamond and Wilder “watched the developing working relationship. They were so on cue, on key about every little movement, every little sigh and disappointment and joy and happiness, and they made little notes about what they saw. So, the love affair between Fran and [Baxter] became basically what they observed.” 

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Wilder and Diamond also mined MacLaine’s personal life for screenwriting material, finding inspiration for what would become a major motif in The Apartment: “I was hanging out with the Rat Pack a lot and a couple of gangsters were teaching me how to play gin rummy, teaching me how to cheat,” she remembered.

“When he would ask on the Monday mornings, ‘Well, what was it like for the weekend?’ I would tell Billy what I’d learned, and that’s why he put the gin game in the movie, because he was fascinated by who my compatriots were over the weekend.” 

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MacLaine also unwittingly supplied one of the film’s most memorable lines while having lunch with Wilder: “I was having a love affair that wasn’t working. I said, ‘Why do people have to be in love with people anyway? Why can’t we be in love with giraffes?’ or something like that. And he said, ‘That’s it, that’s it!’”

Knowing a good thing when he heard it, Wilder launched into action. “He ordered us to retake the whole scene, because that made sense to him and to Izzy Diamond,” MacLaine said. “See, that’s unusual, because it took a lot of expense, time, and so forth, but when he saw something that seemed, in his opinion, to make his stuff better, he went for it.” 

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Fans of the film will know that Fran Kubelik does closely echo MacLaine’s words. Sitting up in bed after her failed suicide attempt, she half-ignores Baxter’s sweetly clumsy attempt to distract her from her sorrows with a game of cards and asks, “Why do people have to love people anyway?” 

In contrast to Wilder’s human-centered approach to the script, he proved a steely, almost clinical taskmaster when it came to coaching performances. 

Wilder was “the most scientific of directors,” as MacLaine described him. “He would say to us, ‘Do the scene again and take out 12-and-a-half seconds.’ I don’t really know how that worked, but we did it.” 

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On the whole, with 55 years of perspective on The Apartment, MacLaine spoke of Wilder in fond and admiring terms: “As a person, I liked him a lot. He was very funny and very sensitive when it came to what he thought would be best for the screen.”

Day to day, however, Wilder often used his caustic wit to keep the actress in line and it hurt. “At times he was very brittle with women,” she observed, “but in the end you were better for it.”

vlcsnap-2015-04-06-20h44m38s155The next day at Club TCM, again in interview with Leonard Maltin, MacLaine elaborated on the pressures of being directed by Wilder. “He was very sarcastic. I see why Marilyn [Monroe] was afraid to come to work,” she said. “He scared the hell out of me. But he taught me how to be self-reliant and how to take criticism.” 

Fortunately for MacLaine, years as a dancer had taught her to deal with tough overseers. “Choreographers are made to make you miserable, so I was used to that… When this incredible Austrian [Wilder] came at me, I thought, ‘Okay, well, just show me the step.’” 

And what a dance it turned out to be!

vlcsnap-2015-04-06-20h44m30s80 As for her co-star Jack Lemmon, MacLaine had nothing but positive memories: “He was such a sweetheart. What a wonderful man.” On the set, she would watch Lemmon perform whenever possible: “He really could do anything. He was good, very, very, very good, until the sixth or seventh take. I mean, absolutely sterling.”

With his “scientific” approach to comedy, Wilder gave MacLaine plenty of opportunity to watch, as he put Lemmon through long series of takes, seemingly for the sake of experiment. “I think Billy wanted to see what the contrived actor in all of us could do if he asked him to do take 16,” she said. “He was seeing how far probably the best actor of drama and comedy… could go and still be honest to it.”

vlcsnap-2015-04-06-20h26m30s27MacLaine also mentioned an encouraging foible of Lemmon’s: “He would say, ‘Magic time!’ every time the camera rolled. And then we knew we’d better make some magic.”

Fred MacMurray didn’t get off so easily in MacLaine’s no-punches-pulled appraisal. “Fred never picked up the check at lunch,” she wryly commented, prompting gales of laughter at the Chinese Theater. The next day at Club TCM, the spirited actress couldn’t resist another jab at MacMurray’s parsimony: “His money blinked when he took it out of his pocket. It had never seen the sun.”

vlcsnap-2015-04-05-19h49m04s98While discussing the collaborative effort of making The Apartment, MacLaine emphasized a contributor who rarely gets the credit he deserves: Doane Harris. “He was Billy’s secret,” MacLaine insisted. This veteran editor worked on most of Wilder’s greatest films, including Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and Ace in the Hole, and received credit as an associate producer on The Apartment.

After looking over the rushes in the cutting room, Harris would make his diagnosis to Wilder. As MacLaine recounted, “He would say, and I heard this because Billy didn’t mind if I heard… ‘Billy, you gotta shoot that whole day over. You did not break my heart today. And they would re-do it.”

“See, that’s where trust comes in,” she explained. “Billy didn’t even ask why. To save time, he just did it.” 

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On the subject of retakes, MacLaine told us about a scene in which the dialogue posed a frustrating challenge for her, when Fran and Sheldrake meet in the Chinese restaurant after 6 weeks apart and rekindle their affair.

“My line was, ‘So you sit there and you make yourself a cup of instant coffee while he rushes out to catch the train.’ I, being half-Canadian, would say ‘oat’ [instead of ‘out’] all my life, and I was self-conscious about that.” 

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Trying to work around the offending “out,” MacLaine substituted “off” into the line and hoped that no one would notice her minor change. But there was no fooling Wilder, who insisted that she speak the dialogue exactly as written.

Whenever the director heard “off” where an “out” should be, “He would send the script girl down to basically beat the shit out of us.”

After a few takes, MacLaine’s nervousness about the line interfered with her ability to project Fran’s multitude of emotions in that scene, as she opens up about the shame of being the mistress of a married man.

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The young actress felt overwhelmed. “At the same time as Billy insisted on the intricacies of every word, in that particular scene I had to well up,” she recalled. “I couldn’t do it. It was hard.” 

Wilder expected better—and expressed his disappointment in MacLaine’s performance during the scene in no uncertain terms: “We went to the dailies the next day. And Billy stood up in front of everybody in the room and said, ‘Well, I tried.’”

(Ouch. Yeah, I can see why Marilyn was scared of Wilder, too.)

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Whereas other actresses might have buckled under the humiliation of being called out in front of her colleagues, MacLaine had a different reaction. 

“Now, let me tell you, this was wonderful for me,” she said, like a true pro. “When you hear someone be that sarcastic and that talented, you learn to take criticism, because his criticism was right.” 

The time came to reshoot the scene, but Wilder hadn’t suppressed his frustration yet. “We went back. Fred and I sat in the chairs. Billy said, ‘Action.’ And he left! He walked outside.”

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Without the director, MacLaine mustered her courage and gave the scene her all. She overcame her pesky linguistic hang-up and delivered as heartbreaking a line read as I’ve ever heard, the kind that gives you chills just thinking about it. 

And that’s the take they used… shot while Wilder presumably fulminated elsewhere.

“That’s the scene in the movie!” MacLaine proudly informed the audience. “And I’m here to tell you, that’s because I was brave.”

I’m darned grateful that she was, because the scene plays beautifully. It stands as a lesson to all of us. There’s a lot of be said for “Shut up and deal.”

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The Mind Reels: 10 Personal Highlights from TCMFF 2015

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You’d think I’d turn my pass to the right side for my photo op, but you’d be wrong.

4 days. 11 movies. 5 special presentations. 100+ buttons handed out to eager film fans. 20 hours of sleep, tops.

And I loved every minute of it.

This year, the TCM Classic Film Festival took “History According to Hollywood” as its theme. However, the history went deeper than the fancy costumes on the screens or the struggles of the past that drove the plots.

First off, TCM and TCMFF do so much to keep the history of motion pictures alive, enabling people of all ages to discover the heritage of movies. I mean, where else can you see a 1898 Méliès film from a hand-cranked projector one day and a Soderbergh hit from the 1990s the next?

More and more people of my generation (and I’m 24) are exploring Hollywood history, not just history according to Hollywood. When Shirley MacLaine looked out at the standing room only crowd there to see her at Club TCM, she chuckled about the absence of white hair among the spectators.

Leonard Maltin explained, “TCM gets pigeonholed as a mature viewer network, and there’s a reason for that, because older people tend to like older movies, but that doesn’t mean that other people don’t like old movies, too, and it shows in the audience here.”

“Because they were better,” MacLaine chimed in, expressing what I suspect most of us were thinking.

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Shirley MacLaine and Leonard Maltin at Club TCM. Photo credit: Tyler Golden.

That betterness is something that TCM brings into people’s homes, and I’m grateful for that. As Christopher Plummer remarked at the festival, “there can be no future without a past.”

Second, TCMFF gives attendees the chance to listen to people who are truly, to borrow an apt cliché, living history. Listening to their memories illuminates not only their lives as performers, but also the social climate from which their work emerged.

Finally, corny though it sounds, the festival connected the personal histories that many of us have with people we hardly know in the conventional sense, but with whom we share our deepest thoughts and passions on social media.

I recently learned that the Library of Congress is now storing tweets, archiving them as part of our cultural history. I daresay mine don’t rate that, but the practice shows what I’d known for years: that our virtual existences do constitute a real part of our lives, our identities, our stories. Whatever tweets are made of, maybe friendships are made of the same stuff.

I feel tremendously privileged to have attended the 6th annual TCM Classic Film Festival. For the record (and maybe posterity?), here are a few of many, many highlights.

I’m working on more detailed posts about a number of these talks and movies, but I figured that I’d share some memories while they’re fresh. Ranking these by any criterion would be just too difficult, so I’ve put them in chronological order.

Seeing Captains Kirk and von Trapp together—I mean, William Shatner and Christopher Plummer along with Shirley MacLaine and Ben Mankiewicz at the handprint and footprint ceremony.

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Bravely snapped from the press box… on my iPhone.

It’s a miracle I didn’t faint, and heaven knows the blistering sun was no help, but there I was standing in the press box with the pros… juggling my basic point-and-shoot Cannon and my iPhone. Ever get the feeling you’ve brought a knife to a gunfight?

Well, this girl reporter’s nervousness melted right away when the guests arrived; I was there snapping away and recording with the rest of ’em. Hey, even Hildy Johnson had to start somewhere.

The ceremony featured amusing tributes from Shirley MacLaine, who credited Plummer with teaching her how to drink a whole bottle of wine, and William Shatner, who spoke of his long history of working with Plummer and following him to Canada, Stratford, and New York. “I followed you to Los Angeles, to Hollywood. That means I’d follow you anywhere!” Shatner joked.

In that sonorous baritone of his (which sounds even better in real life), man of the hour Christopher Plummer told spectators, “My mother once predicted that I would have to wait to be a very old man before receiving recognition in my profession. She was absolutely right, of course. But she never mentioned anything about being stuck in cement or allowing pedestrians to trample over me to their hearts’ content.”

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Christopher Plummer leaves his handprints in front of the TCL Chinese Theater. No, this one’s not mine. This is from one of the pros: Alberto E. Rodriguez/WireImage.

“I am immensely, immensely touched that I am part of this glorious history,” Plummer said, acknowledging all those who’d left their imprints before him. “To all my newfound brothers and sisters in arms, my talented dear neighbors in life after death, those wonderful artists whose grand achievements are forever carved into memory, I promise I won’t spoil the party.”

I took a lot of pictures, which I’ll treasure for occasions when I need a reminder of what pure class looks like.

Ann-Margret confessing to a very badass speeding violation.

While introducing a screening of The Cincinnati Kid (1965), the actress discussed her Swedish origins, her early roles, and her passion for motorcycles. When Ben Mankiewicz asked about the fastest she’d ever gone on one of her beloved bikes, her reply flabbergasted the audience: “120 at 2 a.m. on Mulholland… There was no traffic!”

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The enchanting Ann-Margret. Photo credit: Tyler Golden.

About her Cincinnati Kid co-star Steve McQueen, Ann-Margret said, “Like me, he loved speed… I could identify with him, because I’m a bit of a daredevil.”

However, the studio informed both Ann-Margret and McQueen that they needed to stop riding their bikes to work. It was too dangerous for major stars.

Mankiewicz asked what McQueen advised her to do. Alas, that wasn’t the sort of thing you repeat to hundreds of people at the Egyptian Theater: “Well, I can’t really say everything… He said, ‘Let ’em stay nervous. That’s their job.’”

Ann-Margret also shared stories about her film debut, working with Bette Davis on Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles (1961): “She really took care of me. She watched what I did, and since I didn’t know the meaning of close-up, medium, long shots—as I said, I was just really happy to know my lines—and all of a sudden she comes up and says, ‘Stop!… Ann-Margret, this is your close-up and I want you to look the best that you can. Makeup and hair!’”

Discovering rare and racy pre-Code comedy Don’t Bet on Women (1931).

Since I’d watched Men on Call at Cinefest the week before, Don’t Bet on Women was the second pre-Code Fox feature released in 1931 starring Edmund Lowe that I’d seen in one week! That, folks, is how I roll.

This zestful comedy centers on Jeanne Drake (Jeanette MacDonald, in her only non-singing role), who finds herself the subject of a wager between her stuffy husband Herbert (Roland Young) and a suavely caddish acquaintance Roger Fallon (Edmund Lowe). Hubby bets that his wife will resist Fallon’s advances… then gets to sweat it out as she uses the wager to teach him some respect and spice up her life.

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Una Merkel steals the show as Jeanne’s dizzy, flirtatious relative from the South. Merkel’s Tallulah encourages her conflicted cousin to play both sides of the bet: “I’d let Herbert win the wager and then I’d let Mr. Fallon kiss me to bits. That way I’d help my husband and then I’d help myself.”

Former James Bond George Lazenby leaving Ben Mankiewicz and the audience slightly shaken (and stirred).

Before a screening of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), the Australian actor let loose with disarmingly unfiltered reminiscences of the movie and his wild behavior during the production.

“The last thing I ever thought of being was a film actor. Sounded like hard work,” he said, recounting how he bluffed his way into the role of 007 with no acting experience.

Mentioned for the role by a friend, Lazenby, a top male model of the 1960s, turned up at the casting office with a Connery haircut, a sharp suit, and a Rolex. When producer Harry Saltzman tried to schedule a screen test for the following day, Lazenby panicked.

“I was shitting myself and this was my way out,” he recalled. “I said ‘I can’t be here… I’m doing a film in France.’” There was no film in France, by the way. Our hero was BS-ing.

Saltzman asked how much he was getting paid. The made-up reply? “500 pounds a day, which was half a year’s wages in England at that time. I think, ‘That’ll get me out of here.’” Instead, the producer offered Lazenby that much just to show up—and so he became “the only actor who’s ever been paid for a callback.”

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Lovable rogue George Lazenby. Photo credit: Tyler Golden.

Upon meeting director Peter Hunt, Lazenby came clean and admitted that he’d never acted before in his life. Hunt corrected him: “You’ve fooled two of the most ruthless guys I’ve ever met in my life! You’re an actor.”

Lazenby went through intensive training to play Bond, including elocution and deportment lessons: “They got me to walk like Prince Philip. I used to swagger like an Australian coming out of a pub on a Friday night.”

During shooting, he wooed Diana Rigg, but ultimately lost her when she caught him in an, ahem, compromising position with a receptionist in the stuntman’s tent. Hearing this ribald anecdote, Mankiewicz exclaimed, “You are James Bond!”

To make this moment even cooler, my mom (@MiddParent on Twitter) and I were sitting next to our longtime Twitter pal James David Patrick of #Bond_Age_, the James Bond Social Media Project.

Cackling deliriously at a midnight screening of Boom! (1968), the ne plus ultra of camp cinema.

boomI literally laughed my eyeliner off and resembled nothing so much as a raccoon when I staggered out of the Chinese Multiplex at 2 a.m. If you took ’shrooms and watched Joseph Losey’s The Servant, you might get something like the same director’s puzzlingly bad Boom!

Eccentric dowager Liz Taylor howls as she pushes an X-ray machine into the ocean and bloviates about the ephemerality of existence. Richard Burton pensively intones “Boom!” every chance he gets and swings a samurai sword about for no apparent reason. Pompous camera movements threaten to induce motion sickness. I can’t decide if Boom! is brilliantly atrocious or atrociously brilliant.

Interestingly enough, Boom! polarized those friends of mine who were brave enough to stay up for it. Joel Williams of #TCMParty enjoyed it as much as I did and Miguel Rodriguez of Horrible Imaginings Film Festival is thinking of how to work lines of the film’s ponderous dialogue into ringtones for his cell.

At the other end of the love-hate spectrum, Will McKinley of Cinematically Insane has vowed to destroy all surviving prints of the cult classic. So, quite a range of responses there.

Norman Lloyd reenacting his famous Hitchcock plunge from Saboteur (1942).

At age 100, Norman Lloyd gets my vote for the most charming man on the planet; he is the personification of joie de vivre. So, rather than simply telling his audience many of his engrossing tales, he acted them out.

While describing his memorable death as the nasty title character of Hitchcock’s thriller Saboteur (1942), Lloyd explained how John Fulton and company created the illusion of the villain’s fall from the Statue of Liberty.

“It started with a seat on a pole on a black drape on the floor… that would be painted in as what’s known as a matte shot, where they painted in New York bay.

“Now, above me… was a platform. The middle of it was cut open and on it was a camera, shooting down. On a cue, this camera would go up in the air to the ceiling of the stage as I performed various beautiful balletic movements.”

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Norman Lloyd invites you to appreciate his awesomeness. Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda.

At this point, on the stage of the Montalban Theater, Lloyd recreated these “airborne” undulations of the arms and legs—albeit in a more comic vein. If he’s Fry in the film, he was Wry at that moment (and, if I may say so, rather Spry for his advanced years), and I will never, ever forget it.

“I didn’t fall at all,” Lloyd explained. “I just made these movements [more undulations] as the camera was going up. And they ran the camera at different speeds. They weren’t sure at what speed it would look best, so the speeds went from 18 [fps] to 22, I remember. I’m not sure what they printed at.”

Spending over 2 hours with Sophia Loren, listening to an astonishingly down-to-earth diva.

About halfway through the interview with his magnificent mother, Edoardo Ponti joked that we’d all have to come back the next morning for part two of the discussion since it could go on for hours more. No one in the audience seemed to object to the idea.

Loren immediately won us over (not that she needed to!) by telling us about her natural shyness: “It was very difficult for me to come out and meet you all, but now that I’m here with you, I consider you a member of my family.”

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The luminous Sophia Loren in conversation at the Montalban Theater. Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda.

The idea of family wove through much of what she shared. For instance, Loren recounted how, with money from her aunt, she and her sister went to see Hollywood movies during World War II. Blood and Sand (1941) remained a vivid memory from those dark times, when bombardments regularly rocked Loren’s home and she had little to eat. “At my age, I was 8, 9 years old, to see these grand buildings and the clothes, the hair… the dance, the music… it took me to another world, so that for some minutes, for some instants, we were happy.”

Some of the most moving parts of the interview provided a glimpse into the close relationship between Sophia and Edoardo. When he asked her to talk about the costars she didn’t like, he got a slightly stern response: “Why do you ask me this question? We’re going to talk about this later!” The mother-son dynamic brought a sense of comfortable intimacy to the conversation that added poignancy to each answer.

Fighting sleep deprivation for hand-cranked movies, including a film unseen in full for 110 years.

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The dream machine, my picture

When you walk into a theater and they’re playing hits of the early 20th century on a 1908 Edison Phonograph, you know you’re in for something truly special. Indeed, at this presentation, Joe Rinaudo showed movies made between 1898 and 1913 from a 1909 Hand-Crank Model 6 Cameragraph Motion Picture Machine.

As I sat spellbound in the dark, my attention shifted from the flickering images on the screen to the lively shadows cast on the wall by the projectionist’s arm. The presentation brought us back to the hushed wonder of the first motion picture shows, emphasizing the material, mechanical basis of film in a time when that aspect of cinema is rapidly slipping out of the public consciousness.

The program of films ran the gamut from the somber, like A Corner in Wheat (1909), to the whimsical, like Four Troublesome Heads (1898), to the downright bizarre, like The Dancing Pig (1907), which can only be described as nightmare fuel.

Best of all, the presentation ended with a recently rediscovered Pathé serpentine dance, believed for many years to be partially lost, not projected in entirety for an audience for over a century. Foreshadowing Les Vampires and Dracula, a bat swoops into the frame before a hidden cut transforms it into a woman who artfully sways her veils, at times resembling an angel, a butterfly, or a bird. Fully restored, the exquisite rainbow of hand-tinted hues on her “wings” shined from the screen and nearly moved me to tears.

I can’t think of many more beautiful sights that have ever danced before my eyes.

Tapping my toes to “Jazz Up Your Lingerie” during The Smiling Lieutenant (1931).

smilinglieutenantI missed the chance to see this irresistibly saucy comedy when it first screened on Friday, but when it was selected to fill a “TBA” slot on Sunday, I decided that a touch of Lubitsch was just what I needed.

As Cari Beauchamp observed in her introduction, “If innuendos can fly, they do so in this film.”

Nobody ever made the unseen or the unsaid sexier than Lubitsch did. Seriously, how many movies pay a musical tribute to breakfast afterglow? When Chevalier croons to Claudette Colbert, “You put magic in the muffins,” you get the feeling he may not be talking about a nutritious morning meal.

Lest we forget, The Smiling Lieutenant includes perhaps the most pre-Code of all movie lines: “Let me see your underwear.” And, as if that weren’t cheeky enough, we can savor a whole song about the benefits of choosing your skivvies with panache.

Shown from a darn near immaculate 35mm print, courtesy of Universal, The Smiling Lieutenant pulled me out of the creeping fatigue that has been known to afflict those going on about 4 hours of sleep.

I tend to prioritize the stars at TCMFF. After all, who knows when/if I’ll get to see them again? This viewing choice, though, was motivated by pure movie love on my part. It left me with a slight knowing smile and a rosy complexion, as though I shared a naughty secret with the characters.

Shirley MacLaine dishing on pretty much everyone and everything that the Club TCM audience asked about!

MacLaine doesn’t shy away from speaking her mind (which is why I love her) and, for a magical hour at Club TCM, virtually no topic was off limits to the perennially sassy and enlightening star.

She mentioned Hitchcock’s confusing, oddball sense of humor, giving her direction in rhyming slang. If he wanted a pause, he’d instruct her, “Before you say that line, dog’s feet.” (Because paws = pause, get it?)

MacLaine noted that she got along fine with Hitch while making The Trouble with Harry (1955), because she wasn’t his ideal beauty. “I was his eating partner. I wasn’t tall and blonde and willowy and ethereal. I ate.”

TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL

The outspoken and awe-inspiring Shirley MacLaine at Club TCM. Photo credit: Tyler Golden

Commenting on the director’s callousness, she said, “He was doing all that he did maybe to deflect from his lack of what man heroes were, and that’s where the sarcasm came from. He was really adept at being cynically funny.”

When asked about the difficulty of getting Frank Sinatra to do more than one take of any scene, MacLaine exclaimed, “They had a hard time getting him to do anything! They had a hard time getting him to work. I think he suffered from the same thing that Ernie Kovacs suffered from, and that is, ‘If I really rehearse, if I look like I care and it doesn’t work, it’s my fault’… He loved the spontaneity of not knowing what he was going to do.”

MacLaine also offered a colorful anecdote about Jack Nicholson: “Once he came to the door in a robe, so you kinda wondered what was under there. Next time he came with his shorts. Next time he came with a hooker. And the fourth time with nothing.”

A voice from the audience rather indelicately asked, “What did it look like?” to which MacLaine cannily replied, “It’s too long a story.” An uproar ensued.

Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation, who briefly interviewed MacLaine before a screening of The Children’s Hour (1961), called her Club TCM conversation the best event he’d ever attended at TCMFF. I feel mighty lucky to have been there—and that goes for the festival as a whole.

I can hardly wait for next year. This one will be hard to top, but I have faith that TCM can do it.

Did you go to TCMFF? What were your highlights?