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 where the dialogue posed a frustrating challenge for her: when Fran and Sheldrake meet in the Chinese restaurant after 6 weeks spend 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 to be said for “Shut up and deal.”

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“it will always be modern”: Emmanuelle Riva Revisits Hiroshima Mon Amour

poster“Happy” isn’t a word that comes to mind when we ponder Alain Resnais’s harrowing, innovative Hiroshima Mon Amour. However, according to Emmanuelle Riva, it was a joy to make.

At the Reflet Medicis movie theater in Paris, the stage and screen veteran shared mostly glowing memories of the intense production in Japan and France. “I can still feel the happiness of those days, it hasn’t left me,” She told a rapt audience. “It was so extraordinary to live that adventure.”

Elegant and lively at age 87, Riva introduced a screening of the New Wave masterpiece under the auspices of the Paris Cinéma Festival, which launched a series showcasing 50 of the greatest female roles. More than deserving of its place in the program, Hiroshima Mon Amour presented Riva with a unique challenge in film history. And, in only her second movie appearance, she rose to it.

Her character in the movie, a French actress, embarks on a torrid affair with a Japanese architect in Hiroshima, thus reawakening trauma from a doomed liaison with a German soldier during WWII. Within the context of a nonlinear movie, Riva movingly conveyed one woman’s passions and sorrows while still grappling with the film’s abstract themes of memory, loss, and identity.

“I was very pleased with the role because it will always be modern,” Riva said of the complex, liberated woman she played. “Her freedom exists naturally within her.”

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Riva with Noël Corbin, Paris Director of Cultural Affairs, and Aude Hesberg, Director of the Paris Cinéma Festival

Penned by Marguerite Duras, Hiroshima Mon Amour also used Riva’s crystalline voice to hypnotic effect through extended voice-over monologues. “Marguerite has her own rhythm,” Riva noted. “There’s a precise, childlike quality in her writing that you can’t ignore. You can’t escape it, but it’s actually a pleasure.”

Still, Riva wanted to set the record straight about those famous voice-overs. “Not long ago,” she recounted, “I was listening to some old interviews and I heard Alain Robbe-Grillet talking about Hiroshima… He said that Marguerite Duras had sent out cassettes of the text. I must have listened to them—and there was nothing left for me to do but mimic her. And he laughed and laughed.”

“Well, I never heard these cassettes,” She attested. “It’s totally untrue. And I’m very glad to have the chance to tell you this!”

With a subtle glimmer of accomplishment in her eyes, she explained, “I didn’t have to imitate. That doesn’t interest me at all. I like to create.”

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Over the course of a month of filming in Japan and two weeks in France, Riva found plenty of opportunity to create, both onscreen and off: “I took pictures while Sylvette Baudrot [the script girl] and Alain Resnais figured out how the film would be shot. I had about 4 or 5 days and I walked around the entire city that was still largely in rubble. I photographed everything I saw… I ended up putting together a series of very precious photos, because soon afterwards the city was totally reconstructed.”

Her stunning street photography has since formed the basis for an exhibition and a book. Riva’s own interest in documenting the changing face of Hiroshima no doubt informed her contributions to a movie preoccupied with history as both a collective narrative and an individual experience.

As for the production itself, Riva fondly recalled the atmosphere of “sympathy” that reigned among the cast and crew. Resnais directed his actors with sensitivity: “[He] would come up close, talk with each of us intimately, and quietly tell us what he hoped to achieve in the scene.” The actress also praised her co-star, Eiji Okada: “He learned all his lines phonetically… His work was just amazing and he has a magnificent presence in the film.”

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Riva shared only one negative recollection of the production, but a painful one at that. During the drawn-out tearoom scene, interspersed with numerous flashbacks, Riva’s character breaks down as she tells the story of her tragic first romance. Reacting to a moment of borderline hysteria, her lover slaps her with such force that the entire restaurant turns to gape. “This was very difficult, because the camera was on a crane that would drop on a certain syllable of a word—it had to be that precise,” She explained. “So, I received quite a few slaps. And I got very angry, because I’d had enough of being slapped.”

A key part of Riva’s most difficult work didn’t take place on the set, however, but during a week in the recording studio: “The film was entirely dubbed, since we had a camera that squeaked.” As for re-recording dialogue after the fact, “I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do it. It’s very tough, working from recording with lots of background noise.” The conviction and unsettling honesty of the dialogue scenes in Hiroshima Mon Amour stand out as even more impressive, considering that the emotions had to be recaptured.

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In the 55 years since the movie’s acclaimed release, nearly all those involved in the production have passed away. Riva noted, “I’m the last one left from Hiroshima Mon Amour,” apart from her friend Sylvette Baudrot, the film’s script girl. The actress lamented the recent death of Alain Resnais this past March, “I was really stunned. I’d grown to believe that he would live forever.”

These days, when Riva is called upon to watch Hiroshima Mon Amour, as when Argos Films invited her to present a new restoration at Cannes, she never does so willingly: “It’s as though I were watching somebody else.” Just as the film reveals the surreal distances injected into our experiences by the passage of time, Riva observed, “We each have many lives. And Hiroshima is in another life for me.”

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Nevertheless, the actress—who estimated that she’s on her seventh life—expressed her pleasure at seeing so many young viewers in the audience. (This is the point where she smiled at me in the front row and I nearly passed out.) Asking how many first-time viewers were present, she exclaimed, “Wonderful!” at the significant show of hands.

As the actress cheerfully shared clear, detailed memories of a production long ago, her deep love for her craft, at its best and its worst, seemed to illuminate her from within. Grounded and sincere, she’s the very epitome of humility, yet her every measured movement and syllable seems to announce, “This, kids, is a pro.”

Only unimportant people try to seem important. Great artists don’t have to. So, it’s fitting that, when her interviewers thanked her for coming, Emmanuelle Riva smiled and simply replied, “I live quite close.”

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Please note that all quotations from Riva in this article are my own translation of her words. For an article about the screening in the original French, I recommend this one on Paris Cinéma’s own site. You should also watch this interview (with subtitles) that Riva gave at Cannes in 1959. It’s great. 

You can also  learn more about the 50 Grands Rôles de Femmes series at the Reflet Medicis, which will be continuing until December 2014.

Thank you to Paris Cinéma for allowing me to include their photos of the event, taken by Clara Baillot and Camille Griner, on this blog.

The Greatest Film Performance that Never Was? John Barrymore’s Lost Hamlet

jackEvery film buff has his or her pet candidate for the Greatest Movie Never Made, from Sergei Eisenstein’s aborted An American Tragedy to Buster Keaton’s proposed Grand Hotel send-up to Sergio Leone’s dream of a Gone with the Wind remake.

These ghostly might-have-been films haunt us, tantalizing the director of the mind that lurks within all cinephiles. The impossible possibilities dare us to imagine them, to make the movie in our heads, despite the knowledge that such a thought experiment will doubtless result in more pain than pleasure.

But what exquisite agony it is to imagine!

I am fortunate in my chimera of choice, because a morsel of the project was realized and survives as a clip that every lover of cinema, of Shakespeare, or of great acting needs to see.

Now, I’d get myself into a hell of a fight if I asserted that John Barrymore was the greatest Hamlet of the 20th century, so, to be diplomatic, I’ll just argue that he was one of the greatest Hamlets of all time. The waggish among you might make a crack about borrowing my time machine, because—duh—I’ve never seen Barrymore perform Hamlet onstage.

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Instead I base this praise on two short fragments: one is a bitterly ironic clip from a show biz parody, the other from a rare screen test for a film that never materialized. To tell the full story of what makes that masterpiece manqué so poignant, I need to make a few detours through the story of an extraordinary life.

In the film Twentieth Century, Barrymore, playing hammy Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe, castigates his protégée for working in Hollywood: “Those movies you were in! It’s sacrilege throwing you away on things like that. When I left that movie house, I felt some magnificent ruby had been thrown into a platter of lard.” One has a similar feeling 455px-Portrait_of_John_Barrymorewatching much of Barrymore’s filmography.

Attracted to Hollywood by the unprecedented money and the prospect of respite from the rigors of the stage, Barrymore wrote, in 1926, “The most wonderful accident that ever happened to me was my coming to this God-given vital, youthful, sunny place.”

It took less than a decade for the “wonderful accident” to seem more like a car crash, one which attracted the avid rubbernecking of audiences.

As depression and alcohol ate away at Barrymore’s professionalism, his films, in the words of the astute critic Richard Schickel, “now offered a kind of horrified fascination—had the star slipped another notch, was he holding his own in his battle with this lingering illness of spirit or was he, as sometimes happened… actually rallying?” Despite the virtuosity of some silent performances, a few suave early 1930s leads, and his gut-busting comic bombast in Twentieth Century, Barrymore’s screen career devolved into painful self-parody.

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At the low point of his career, literally playing his washed-up self, Barrymore was called upon to deliver Hamlet’s most famous speech. The film, Playmates (1941), would be his last. Get yourself a tissue and watch the scene now:

If a great artist is this great at his worst, one would need astronomical terms to describe his talent at its zenith. The lines that we’ve all heard so much sound both natural and theatrical in Barrymore’s voice; he turns a tune that viewers know by heart into an utterance that drives home man’s universal battle with—and longing for—death.

He makes us forget that he’s reciting the soliloquy in the midst of a somewhat lackluster grab bag of actors. This is Brahms playing in the brothel. This is Tasso scribbling away in prison. In the midst of mediocrity, Barrymore the buffoon delivers the artist that was Barrymore and the genius that is Hamlet—parallel figures representative of all inscrutable greats humbled and confined for what the gods gave them. Denmark is a prison, Hollywood is a prison, the world is a goodly enough prison for Hamlets everywhere.

I’ll admit that I’m pirouetting on the edge of cliché here, so I’ll give you someone else’s much more articulate assessment of Barrymore:

“That was a highly complicated man… a golden boy, a tragic clown grimacing in the darkness, gritting his teeth against the horror—a gallant old acrobat limping over the abyss on a tightrope that was badly frayed,” as Orson Welles told Peter Bogdanovich. Welles’s films might’ve questioned the value of remembering a man after he’s gone, but, in real life, he knew how to eulogize a brother genius.

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A sketch of Barrymore by Welles

Orson Welles actually saw Barrymore, a friend of his father’s, as Hamlet on Broadway in the early 1920s: “I used to stand in the wings when he was playing Hamlet—matinees, that is; I was a baby then—holding his private bucket of champagne.”

Absorbing the performance like the prodigy he was, Welles retained a vivid memory of Barrymore’s finest hour and cited it as the greatest Hamlet he had ever seen.

At the respectable other end of the auteur spectrum from enfant terrible Welles, Laurence Olivier also extolled Barrymore. Sir Larry lauded the Great Profile not only as a great actor, but also as a key figure in the revival of genuinely passionate portrayals of Shakespeare.

In On Acting, Olivier wrote “My Hamlets in later years owed a great deal to Jack Barrymore. It seemed to me that he breathed life into the character, which, since Irving, had descended into arias and false inflections—all very beautiful and poetic, but castrated. Barrymore put back the balls… When he was on stage, the sun came out.”

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In 1933, 51-year-old Barrymore—his Hamlet stage triumph over a decade behind him—performed a brief scene from the play as a test for a potential motion picture. Whoever approved the test clearly understood that he was preserving history, because the snippet was captured in expensive two-strip Technicolor.

Barrymore’s gifted voice coach Margaret Carrington and Broadway production designer Robert Edmund Jones contributed to the unusually polished screen test. With fine character actors Reginald Denny as Horatio and Donald Crisp as Marcellus, Barrymore acted out the scene in which Hamlet decides to follow what appears to be the ghost of his father. Here it is:

Certainly, this is a rather stagy echo of what the film—an early Technicolor period Hamlet—would’ve been. Yet, listen to the descant of dread and sadness Barrymore sings before the likeness of his father and the low scrape of desperation as he asks what the ghost could do to his soul. There’s immediacy to this man, the sense that he’s living two lives at once and feels suffocated by both. Despite the generally respectful tenor of this clip (I would’ve loved to see Barrymore take on some of Hamlet’s bawdier stuff), one still detects something “dangerous,” as Welles said, about this prince. He’s a time bomb, fuming poetry instead of smoke as his fuse burns down.

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Indeed, Barrymore irreverently described Hamlet in 1942 as “[a] ranting pious pervert! But clever, mark you, like all homicidal maniacs! And how I loved to play him. The dear boy and I were meant for each other.”

The story goes that the movie failed to move forward when Barrymore, at a dinner party with his financial backers on the project, began to recite one of the Dane’s speeches and faltered with a lapse of memory. Now, I don’t entirely believe that anecdote, because he could quote Shakespeare with fluency even in the darkest days of his “idiot board” promptings. So, I suspect that other film commitments, the liability of his alcoholism in general, and Barrymore’s own assessment of the limits inherent in his age probably drove the poisoned blade through this Hamlet. But we have an amazing color document—and on YouTube no less.

Please note that the color fragment is not the complete test. I have only been able to locate one more complete version of the test and it is in black-and-white with distracting timestamps. But here it is, for what it’s worth:

(I also recommend this audio-only recording of Barrymore reciting the “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” speech.)

So watch these and re-watch them. Share them, please! Let Barrymore’s lost Hamlet production take on a new life in your mind. We are blessed to have this time capsule, the only moving images to survive as a relic of the immortal, yet ultimately ephemeral performance.

The rest is silence.

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Love ’Em and Leave ’Em (1926): Problem Child

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“Lulu always wants to do what the folks don’t want her to.
When she struts her stuff around, London Bridge is falling down!
She’s the kind of smarty who breaks up every party,
Hullabalooloo, don’t bring Lulu, I’ll bring her myself!”

These lyrics from a popular 1925 Ray Henderson tune could’ve been written about Louise Brooks, the most incandescently fatal woman ever to Charleston her way through film history. Once Brooksie swung into party mode, you might expect the whole world to evaporate under the scorching heat of her peculiar alchemy of hedonism and innocence. Her borderline-apocalyptic beauty could not breathe in any other medium but cinema.

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I suspect Brooks would bristle at the fact that her black helmet hairdo and “decadent… Aubrey Beardsley makeup” have been seared as a static afterimage on our collective cultural retina, as a stripped-down icon of flapperdom.

Brooks as a floating face with pearls. Brooks staring down the camera in a gallery of scornful publicity portraits. Brooks striking an oblique Follies pose.

These photographs resonate even in their stillness. Thousands of people who have never seen Brooks’s films—and aren’t likely to—could doodle the minimalist curves of her exotic glamour as an archetype of the Roaring Twenties. And that’s both a glory and a pity.

Brooks’s sorcery captivates an audience by the way her spirit billows forth unreservedly from her movement, as if the camera had “caught her by surprise,” in the words of Henri Langlois. Recognizing Louise Brooks without watching her dance through the most mundane of tasks, gestures, or scenes is like recognizing a bird without ever having seen one fly.

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I wanted to write about Love ’Em and Leave ’Em (1926), a skillfully executed but pretty standard dramedy, because even in her role as an aspiring vamp, Brooks displays the dazzling naturalness that would shine so brightly in her later celebrated performances for Pabst. The film also seems to have been one of her more felicitous Hollywood experiences. I can’t find a negative word out of her about the production—a rarity, for sure, since she had to put up with everything from surly co-stars to predatory producers to overprotective directors and wrote about it in exacting detail afterwards.

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Brooks praised her director, Frank Tuttle, as “a master of easy, perfectly timed comedy which demanded that kind of acting rather than the wildly energetic style popular in Hollywood. An intelligent man, he never interfered with two classes of authors—great actors and non-actors.” Indeed, Tuttle had a knack for giving unknown or up-and-coming talents the space they needed to deliver breakout performances, as he would demonstrate two decades later with Alan Ladd in This Gun for Hire. The director deployed “non-actor” Brooks’s dangerous appeal to great effect.

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In Love ’Em and Leave ’Em, Brooks essays an early variation of the role that would define her on and offscreen: the eternal problem child, too clever, too beautiful, and too reckless for her own (or anyone else’s) good. She is the chief plot obstacle in both storylines—stealing her sister’s beau and nearly getting her sister jailed for money she stole. And yet the audience cannot bring itself to condemn this pouty, precocious con artist. She doesn’t think she’s doing anything wrong, so, consequently, it’s hard to blame her.

From the outset, Brooks serves as the terrific pay-off to a carefully drawn-out introduction. Our story begins in a cramped boarding house, where dutiful Mame (Evelyn Brent) wearily arises for a day of work, after waiting up in vain for her wildcat sister. The intertitles inform us that Mame’s mother made her promise to watch over Janie. As the put-upon goody-two-shoes lurches over to the window, she notices the Jazz Age still life of kicked-off pumps, lingerie, and a wisp of a dress strewn on the floor. Then Mame opens the window to let in dawn’s tender rays that fall on her girlish, still dozing sister, looking as innocuous as a china doll. Really? This is the wicked babe we just heard about?

Big sister pauses to pick up a doll from the floor and examines its conspicuous tag: “Ladies 1st Prize, Charleston Contest.” As a playful sibling reproach, Mame puts the doll’s motorized dancing feet against Janie’s. And then and only then do we watch sleeping beauty turn into a lippy hell-raiser as she swings up from her pillow and starts bossing her guardian around, telling Mame to go wake up her boyfriend down the hall.

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She goes to meet this total dud, Bill (Lawrence Gray), whom even the intertitles mock as “a ninety million to one shot for President of the United States.” While the drippy pair are arguing about who gets to use the communal water supply first, Janie flounces unceremoniously in front of the camera into the bathroom. So long hot water, hello snow showers.

storeMame and Jane work at one of those ubiquitous silent movie departments stores, populated by the usual assortment of pretty young ground troops and officious managers who boss the harried workers around. (I kept hoping Harold Lloyd would show up and woo Janie with his devamping routine out of Girl Shy, but, alas, to no avail.)

Mame trudges along, giving all the credit for her artistic window dressing to Bill. Meanwhile pert, popular Janie has honed her Pollyanna charade so well that she’s been appointed treasurer for the Employee Welfare League, charged with collecting money for the annual costume dance.

Now, this is one of those movies where the characters act like they’ve never seen a movie, which is odd, because we even see characters go out to the cinema for a date. Janie, you see, has a penchant for betting whatever cash comes into her lily-like hands on horses—with Lem (Osgood Perkins), the oily n’er-do-well who lives in the boarding house, acting as her bookie. Seriously, Janie? You’re going to leave the Welfare Dance money with Lem? Have you not seen The Cheat? Fortunately, the actors are so delightfully shady that these sorts of concerns barely trouble us.

16In fact, Brooks, who shared screen time with quite a few fine actors, named Osgood Perkins (father of Anthony) as the best she ever worked with.

Years later, in an interview with Kevin Brownlow, Brooks praised Perkins and explained how he bolstered her performance: “You know what makes an actor great to work with? Timing. You don’t have to feel anything. It’s like dancing with a perfect dancing partner. Osgood Perkins would give you a line so that you would react perfectly.”

Brooks and Perkins do an elegantly choreographed comic two-step in their routines together, all tease and greed on her part, all lust and greed on his. Once, while Jane turns around to count her money, Lem surreptitiously inches closer to her, though leaving a safe margin of I’m-not-touching-you hover space. Janie, without so much as a backwards glance, instinctively elbows him away with a coy little stab. She is apparently well-versed in the ways of oily creepers.

20But back to Plotline A: Mame decides that she wants a vacation to think over Bill’s marriage proposal and asks Janie to help him out with his window dressing work while she’s away. Good thinking, Mame. Leave your jelly-spine boyfriend and your conniving nymphet of a sister to arrange a luxurious boudoir window display. Faster than you can say “Hotsy-Totsy,” Janie is practically wearing Bill as her anklet.

And this is where Brooksie gets her big scene.

Night. The department store. Whereas Mame would be actively sharing her best ideas with Bill, Janie arranges two creepy Harlequin dolls to look like they’re kissing. When Bill objects, she sulks and admires herself by the beauty display, sampling the pricey products. Her hands put on a little ballet for us, dabbing on powder with a huge, cottony puff and dotting scent on her lips.

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Having sufficiently beautified herself, Janie slinks over to a divan and flashes her come-hither stare at Bill. He tries to pull her off the sofa, but she gives him a coy smile and shakes her head no. Since Bill, despite his faults, does possess a Y chromosome, he succumbs and flops on top of Janie who lies there immobile, her hand resting on his back like a talon. As Bill plants his clumsy kisses on Janie’s disdainful face, Tuttle inserts a wry shot of the Harlequin dolls falling onto each other.

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Seized by the sudden realization that this is wrong, Bill bolts to a safer corner of the room. Janie, angered and vexed by this reaction, sits up and hatches a cunning improvisation. She dips her hands into a nearby fishbowl, wets her cheeks with artificial tears, and proceeds to cry her crocodile tears. “You hurt me,” simper the intertitles. And the battle is lost for William the Conquered.

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It’s hard to imagine what Janie sees in Bill, who has all the personality and verve of a packing crate. I can only deduce that she’s practicing, to keep her skills sharp.

Throughout her career, Brooks was pursued by the accusation that she simply didn’t act, and that she didn’t try. In my opinion, that’s a compliment to the purity of her performances. For instance, in the scene above, the only conscious theatrics she projects come when she starts acting within the scene, acting her faux devastation for Bill’s benefit. The anti-theatricality of this seduction scene adds to its hilarity. The true vamp has to practically do the Dance of the Seven Veils before devouring her prey, but not Janie. I tend to think of parody as exaggerated, but this parody makes the viewer chuckle at the inevitability of Janie’s ruse—a complex ruse that goes as follows:

1. Sit there and look sexy.

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Yep, that’s about it. Sprinkle a few fake tears here and there and you’ve got comedy gold. As Brooks remembered, Tuttle discouraged her from giving an overblown bogus performance by deliberately concealing the tone of the scene from her. “I didn’t even know I was playing comedy until I saw that picture with an audience. I played it perfectly straight, and that’s the way he wanted it.”

Whether prancing out to the ball after wrecking her sister’s life or dancing like a fiend in the middle of a crowd of tame store employees, Brooks’s Janie is too self-centered to consider that she might be funny. You have to play it straight to be this crooked.

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Though lacking the electric charisma of her co-star, Evelyn Brent manages to engage our sympathy with a thoroughly likable comic performance. When Bill tells her she smells “like a rose,” she responds with charmingly paced pause of dry incredulity at this poetic outburst before finally replying, “Marmalade!”

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She also pulls off some awfully funny knockabout comedy at the end. In a droll reversal of the typical dramatic crosscut conclusion, which often sees the fragile heroine being attacked by a slime-ball, it’s the tough, athletic Brent who ends up tackling seedy Osgood Perkins, wrestling him for his wallet. Instead of the cavalry arriving to save her virtue, it’s just useless Bill who finds her in control of situation. She tells him…

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While sister Mame is grappling for the cash with Lem, Janie is shocking the community with her frantic dance moves in a room of tame, older employees. Tuttle indulges us with a slow tilt up from her melodic legs to her waving arms. She does this erotic shimmy to enthrall Mr. Schwartz, the window manager, appropriately dressed as Mephistopheles. Her gobsmackingly obvious bid for his, ahem, favor succeeds. Actually, it succeeds more than even Janie intended. The last we hear of Janie, she’s upgraded her window manager date to a better conquest, the store manager! An intertitle announces that she’s gone off in his Rolls Royce.

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Dancing with the devil has its rewards in the rather cynical universe of Love ’Em and Leave ’Em. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy this film so thoroughly. That girl’s gonna be okay, we think, smiling at Vice Triumphant. Call me a philistine, but I relish a movie that ends with a badly behaved rebel making her getaway and laughing at us all. It’s certainly more enjoyable than a film in which she winds up passionately stabbed in a squalid garret. There’s something to be said for wish fulfillment. Louise Brooks certainly had a taste for it; her own favorite films were An American in Paris, Pygmalion, and The Wizard of Oz.

They say that tragedy becomes comedy in time, so maybe comedy is just tragedy paused before the real denoument. Janie’s Rolls Royce gets off at the comedy stop. Brooks’s story didn’t. But I’m not sure she would’ve wanted it any other way.

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Caesar and Cleopatra (1945): Born to Rule

post“You are very sentimental, Caesar, but you are clever. And if you do as I tell you, you will soon learn how to govern.”

—Cleopatra

If Vivien Leigh were alive today, she would be 100 years old. In reality, she lived barely over half that long. Like many astronomically gorgeous women, Leigh endured a nasty amount of disparagement by critics who claimed she used her looks to compensate for her acting.

Which is why I wanted write about Gabriel Pascal’s Caesar and Cleopatra, in which Leigh gave us the best celluloid incarnation of Egypt’s legendary queen, a role that rewarded both her beauty and her brains. Her monarch of the Nile is no royal cipher, no myth, and no parody, but a flesh-and-blood girl—a creature more tantalizing and paradoxical than a sphinx.

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George Bernard Shaw (on whose play the film was based) disliked Vivien Leigh’s performance, according to film historian Kendra Bean, webmistress of Viv and Larry. Upon previewing the completed film, Shaw moaned, “she’s ruined it.” But—and I write this with profound respect for Shaw’s literary genius—to hell with his opinion. He had some pretty dodgy opinions in his time. Acute observation may often be called cynicism, but not all cynicism deserves to be called acute observation.

After all, if this white elephant of a film holds up, it’s due in no small part to Leigh. Many of us drown in the fountain of Shavian wit. But who can’t relate to Cleopatra as Leigh plays her?

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Thanks to her interpretation, the audience senses that Cleopatra’s quavering reluctance and savage exhibitionism—flip sides of the same coin—hold the potential of greatness. When we first meet the teen queen, her flippant outbursts, her tyrannical gestures of rebellion, and her cutsey manipulations all strike a remarkable balance between annoyance and enchantment. She beguiles the viewer into recognizing that tremendous opportunity sleeps in her whimsy. In one lyrical shot, as Cleopatra snoozes in her virginal bed, the camera tracks over her towards the sea, as though destiny were keeping vigil over her, waiting with certainty for her character to ripen.

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Terence Rattigan once referred to Vivien as “one of nature’s grand Duchesses.” He meant that somewhat pejoratively, since her innate majesty limited her range, in his estimate. By contrast, I would argue that this quality brought out an added facet of many of her roles.

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Hoary old men of literature seem to enjoy the archetypes of the downtrodden or silly woman. However, I personally cannot help but find it refreshing that Vivien Leigh radiates grace and dignity at all times, even in the gutter. In her, substance and coquettishness aren’t separate. They fuse. The beauty of Leigh’s performance as Cleopatra elevates girlishness to a form of latent power.

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In On Acting, Laurence Olivier zeroed in on a basic flaw in the original play’s dynamics: “Shaw makes the most brilliant comic role for Cleopatra in the first act, but after the middle of the play she doesn’t get one laugh. He loses interest in Cleopatra and fastens his interest on Caesar; he just adores Caesar.”

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Spot-on, Larry. Shaw wanted to give us a witty play about education, a paean to the transformative effects of quasi-condescending, platonic relationships between world-weary middle-aged men and much younger women. Rather one-sided, isn’t it? Once Cleopatra proves a somewhat incorrigible pupil, killing traitors and not knowing how to handle the mess, Shaw seems to throw up his hands and reveal the work’s true purpose—letting Caesar preach the Zen of politics, the kindly non-governance that governs best.

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I suspect that Shaw resented Vivien’s efforts to counterbalance this swing of focus. If anything, her Cleopatra grows more fascinating in the second half. And although she obviously benefits from Caesar’s guidance, she was never a tabula rasa, a pretty, childish lump of clay for the conqueror to mold.

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Is it best that we should all be wise, steady, and a little jaded? Perhaps. But there’s something to be said for those youthful, uncivilized qualities that our elders try to break us of. Cleopatra’s vanity, her jagged energy, her impetuousness, her passionate nimbleness of mind, and even her egocentric spite come across as somewhat positive traits, though Shaw no doubt didn’t want them to.

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Vivien Leigh seized on the universality and charm of her role, awakening a side of Cleopatra that disturbs Shaw’s through-line. Just as Cleopatra learns from Caesar but discards the least practical bits of his wisdom, Leigh works with the architecture of Shaw’s play, but takes her performance in a different direction, one rather ahead of its time.

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Watching about twenty different expressions and deductions passing across Leigh’s quicksilver face in a minute, the modern spectator recognizes the strong, but confused girl-woman so prominent in today’s society. Why, you could plunk Leigh’s Cleopatra down in the midst of any gathering of bright millennials and she’d be right at home, with her curious blend of irrationality and competence, arrogance and insecurity.

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There’s enormous strength in girlishness, as Leigh shows us. Girlishness shocks scruples and overcomes the virtue of restraint—a virtue once you’re in control, but not necessarily a habit of highly effective people on the trip to get there. Most political strategy requires a kind of childish boldness, as suggested by Cleopatra’s lines like, “It is not that I am so clever, but that the others are so stupid.”

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The camera aids and abets Leigh’s interpretation of a Cleopatra who holds her own against Caesar’s dreamy equanimity. We might not want to feel the rush of intoxicating cruelty as she chases a slave around in her palace in long shot, her little veiled figure flitting and dancing around like a mischievous fairy, but I’d wager that most of us do.

She scampers up to her throne and raises her arms skyward, announcing, “I am a QUEEN!” The glorious self-absorption of this moment serves as both a warning and gratification, the initial glee triggered by a perception of absolute power. (Sadly, it was while filming this scene that then-pregnant Vivien slipped and took a fall that caused her to miscarry.)

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 As the Roman legions enter her palace, the film medium conveys Cleopatra’s erstwhile courage in a way a stage play never could. We witness her trembling anxiety in a number of tense reaction shots, as the soldiers get closer and closer. Rather than presenting a dramatic spectacle, the film offers up Cleopatra’s experience of bravery as the concealment of fear.

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Towards the conclusion, the film uses another close-up of Leigh to signify a key shift in the plot and to meld it with an emotional turning point in Cleopatra’s coming-of-age progression. When Cleopatra cowers over the body of her nurse, killed as a consequence of the Queen’s own meddling, she stares towards the camera with a blank look. The darkness of the murder scene slowly dissolves to the white-hot sands of the desert as Leigh’s face lingers, superimposed, over dunes, as troops march off to war.

Through the transition, it’s as though Cleopata’s wide, horrified eyes were seeing through the scene of a single death to witness a bloody battle, threatening imminent death for thousands of men. We recognize that a major upheaval has taken place in her consciousness. Touched by death, she grasps the stakes of this game.

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Now, I have chosen to devote my attention to Vivien Leigh today, but I cannot praise Claude Rains’s performance enough. Rains may be the first man since antiquity to successfully exude authority while wearing a metallic mini-skirt, possibly because he performs all those Roman gestures with a nod of rumpled humor.

More importantly, the audience can feel the pit of loneliness in the heart of this conqueror. The miracle of his voice, like a well-tuned orchestra, rescues so many of Caesar’s philosophy lectures from oblivion. Rains captures the mixture of affection, mentorship, and wariness in Caesar’s relationship with Cleopatra, infusing his performance with the barest hint of attraction for his protégée.

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In one of the most splendid scenes of the film, Caesar, Cleopatra, Rufio, and Apollodorus sit around a dinner table in the rosy sunset glow of the palace rooftop. The camera tracks back from an inscrutable idol to reveal the four revelers, lounging around after the meal. The moment that follows is the closest to romantic intimacy that the eponymous pair will come, and it aches with yearning.

Certainly, Shaw’s florid prose evokes this throb of desire, as Caesar dreams of discovering a new land with Cleopatra. However, the coziness of the two-shot between Caesar and Cleopatra, reclining in waning light, translates the might-have-been into an image of palpable closeness. By default, the audience wants a couple. The chemistry between Rains and Leigh deepens this longing. But it’s not to be.

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Caesar and Cleopatra’s opulence devoured a budget that could’ve paid a king’s ransom: 1.3 million in total. In fact, it was the costliest British studio production up to that time. When the film flopped at the box office, Gabriel Pascal’s career as a director fell on its sword. I admire this film for presenting a total antithesis to every other movie about the Queen of the Nile. Devoid of gratuitous sex and violence (actually, make that all sex and almost all violence), the cerebral tenor of the movie begs to be appreciated like a fine wine.

Ultimately, though, a drawing room comedy can be rolled over one’s palate and not cost a million pounds. Pomp and intellect are ill-yoked partners. As Cecil B. DeMille knew, temples and pyramids upstage fragile thoughts, which is why an epic needs only a central clash and a few morsels of elemental ideology.

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Much as I mourn for the failure of this experiment in the intellectual epic, I do find the film too long, padded here and there by unnecessary bits of business and well-written, but ultimately uncinematic speeches. No matter how much Technicolor eye candy Jack Cardiff and company lavish on the audience members, the film tests their patience.

I become easily exasperated with Caesar’s romantic wisdom. His collection of tolerant aphorisms wears thin on me. Not that I don’t agree with his open-minded doctrine of pragmatic clemency, but he shows this philosophy enough by his actions without having to articulate it over and over and over. A leaner screenplay might have saved this adaptation from its sanctimonious belches.

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Here again, the blood is on Shaw’s hands, given the playwright’s refusal to allow his source material to be significantly cut or modified. You’d think the Oscar he won for Pygmalion (1938) would’ve opened his eyes to the specific demands of the cinema and demonstrated how a successful adaptation can negotiate these challenges.

Despite the quixotic shortcomings (or longcomings) of the film, I recommend it for the sumptuous visuals and spot-on lead performances. Watch it and rejoice in the Queen’s transcendent brattiness. Like Cleopatra, Vivien Leigh was born to rule.

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Beau Brummel (1924): Deeply Superficial

Poster“But the true beau is a beau-ideal, an abstraction substantialized only by the scissors, a concentrated essence of frivolity, infinitely sensitive to his own indulgence, chill as the poles to the indulgences of others; prodigal to his own appetites, never suffering a shilling to escape for the behoof of others; magnanimously mean, ridiculously wise, and contemptibly clever.

Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 1844.

Superficiality gets a bad rap. After all, what does that much-maligned word denote, in its essence? It means an emphasis on the surface, on that which is readily apparent. Now, I will never condone an obsession with exterior beauty that dismisses any interior value; however, I cannot help but detect something heroic about the desire to project a surface of agonizing perfection. Appearance-consciousness rises to the level of greatness—and dare I say art?—when it demands extreme discipline and taste on the part the person who takes up the heavy burden of being an exalted human spectacle.

I am referring to that hallowed creature, the dandy. And if we want to enjoy Beau Brummel as anything other than a quaintly moving romance based on Clyde Fitch’s 1890 play, we need to introduce ourselves to this most charming phenomenon.

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The dandy as a cultural and literary concept resists a simple definition. It depends on whom you’re talking to, but I like Nigel Rodgers’s recent definition of “the perennial dandy principles: independence, elegance, courtesy, wit.” On a more philosophical level, the love of my life Charles Baudelaire likened the dandy to the Stoic of antiquity because the dandy wears a mask of whimsy and nonchalance even when in the throes of pain or misfortune or when sullied by the teeming mediocrity of the commercial world around him. His beauty is not vulgar because it cannot be bought merely with money (although it helps, all dandies agree); that beauty reflects his originality, his ability to style and reimagine himself.

And no man incarnated the ideals of dandyism more famously than Beau Brummel, the subject of today’s offering, a 1924 silent period drama based on his spectacular life. (N.B. I am spelling the character’s name Brummel because that’s how it’s written on the titles. However, the favored spelling, according to the junta at dandyism.net. is with two L’s.)

jackprofileBeau Brummel follows the trajectory of a rise and fall. As a young officer, Brummel falls in love with Lady Margery, an heiress betrothed to an aristocrat and fails to rescue her from the clutches of her family.

Deciding to climb the social ladder, Brummel ingratiates himself with the Prince of Wales by getting him out of an amorous jam. Through his careful cultivation of mannerisms and trends and his blistering wit, “Beau” sets himself up as the reigning king bee of the upper crust—but earns as many enemies as friends. Eventually, Beau grows too big for his breeches and winds up banished by the Prince to some frigid outpost in Calais, northern France, where he dies in utter penury.

Harry Beaumont, best known for another film about style and appearances, Our Dancing Daughters, directed this poignant tale with panache and an acute eye for stunning compositions and haunting details. In depicting the rise and fall of a fashion arbiter, Beaumont uses mirrors as a motif to explore the character’s self-consciousness. The first shot we see of Brummel is a shot of him between intertitles, reflected in an oval mirror. In that classical round frame, he resembles the immaculate, still images on 18th century cameos. This is the image—but the real man is onscreen, too, although you notice him as an afterthought. We understand that appearance means everything to Brummel. Paradoxically, the most profound desires of his soul express themselves in his drive to be flamboyantly attractive and debonair.

Once Brummel has fallen from grace, the mirror, once his friend, becomes his enemy. Barrymore brought me to tears in one scene where the ravaged, wasted Brummel tries to look at his face then turns away, pushing at the glass with his fingers, streaking it in dismay.

However, I hope that our director, the talented Mr. Beaumont, won’t roll over in his grave if I observe Beau Brummel wears the unmistakable charm and savoir faire of John Barrymore front and center—like a gracefully tied cravat—and deserves most of the credit for this film’s emotional impact. A rake, a genius, a matinee idol, and as self-destructive a man that ever existed, Barrymore incarnated the sardonic wisdom and reckless hedonism at the core of dandyism.

Our star is also responsible for perhaps this film’s most significant contribution to posterity: Mary Astor’s breakout role.

maryAstor—a woman rarely given enough credit for her depth and strength in her own time—initially attracted attention from Hollywoodland by winning a beauty contest. Superficiality, at least, brought her to the screen and to all of us. Her possessive parents, so cruel and pushy that they might have easily fit into the ruthlessly upwardly-mobile world of Beau Brummel, recognized her beauty as their cash cow. Mary played several minor parts until John Barrymore asked for her as his leading lady in Beau Brummel.

And that’s when life and art started to intertwine to the point that it would be hard to say which was imitating which. In her autobiography, My Story, Astor recalled her screen test for the role of Lady Margery and her first meeting with the Great Profile:

“We were both in costume of sorts, just enough to indicate the period, and as we were standing in for lighting my awe for this great man made me confused and awkward. Mr. Barrymore broke through my shyness by talking about everything under the sun but the picture; he made me laugh about something, and he gradually and skillfully made me feel that I was his contemporary as an actor and as a person. He told me he had seen a picture of me in a magazine while he was on a train coming out from New York, and the caption had appealed to him: ‘On the brink of womanhood.’ I told him I was seventeen, and he said, just a little sadly, ‘It seems so long ago that I was seventeen. I’m forty now.’

“ ‘That’s not so old,’ I said, and we were great friends.

“I know that on that afternoon we fell in love, and I am sure he was even more startled than I.”

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Barrymore gave Mary her first acting lessons and unlocked a new realm of ideas and intellect to this affection-starved girl. During some of these lessons, there was no studying, however. Exploiting a position of power and trust would be a kind way to describe Barrymore’s behavior. The forbidden relationship between the ingénue and the mentor over twice her age was a problematic echo of the roles that they poetically brought to life onscreen. Astor remembered,

“In the filming of the many romantic, delicate love scenes of Beau Brummel we could stand in each other’s arms, Jack in his romantic red and blue hussar uniform and white wig, I in the beautiful Empire style dresses, while the camera and lights were being set. We whispered softly, or just stood there, quietly loving the closeness; and no one was the wiser. Between scenes, Jack had the prop man place two camp chairs together just off the set, and we sat side by side.”

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And so, finally, after much perambulation around the film’s contexts, I arrive at Beau Brummel itself. Unlike me, this movie wastes no time; we don’t see the romance between Beau (or George) and Lady Margery blossom—we see it cut off in medias res.

Dressed in a bridal gown, Margery meets her beloved George, a dashing soldier, in the garden to say goodbye. She’s about to depart for a life bound to another man in a marriage of convenience. Watching Barrymore’s duly celebrated face going nose-to-nose with Mary Astor’s equally photogenic profile presents a sight so stunning and precise it borders on graphic design! I felt like I was looking at one of those dual-profile-chalice illusion sketches.

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Their dazzling united loveliness might sound like a superficial thing to remark on—but, again, it’s an instance where superficiality weds something more spiritual. The surreal perfection of these two people on the screen leads us to wordlessly understand that they are meant to be together. Our eyes know it and our eyes speak directly to our hearts.

Beau Brummel is one of those memorable films that captures the spark of an off-screen relationship. You can read it in Astor’s overly wide eyes and in the way Barrymore’s hands never seem to stop moving, but always seem to nervously long to caress a different part of this exquisite, delicate girl.

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Unfortunately, Lady Margery’s nasty, social-climbing mother (not so different from Astor’s real-life maternal unit) bursts in. This harpy forces the girl to choose between her duty and the man she loves—really, no choice, because she can’t exactly run away with an enlisted man. George leaves her in despair, vows to climb the social ladder with his charm and wit. He takes his miniature portrait of her and writes on the back, “This beautiful creature is dead.” We know that he will meet her again.

Mary Astor, even in her teenage years, possessed a striking aura of grief and maturity. For instance, after Beau leaves for France, she clings to the door he just exited through, almost squashed against it like a broken butterfly. Seen from behind and in a long shot, she communicates a universe of pain merely by wiggling her arms despondently.

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Except for when she was playing comedy (and even then), Astor interacted with the world as one who has been hurt by it. And with her pale complexion and those perpetual dark circles that even panstick makeup couldn’t conceal, she never looked like she got quite enough sleep. That is a strong part of her allure. You wonder what she was doing all night.

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Both her fragility and her fortitude shine through her portrayal of Lady Margery. Although the script gives her little more to do than watch and react, her soulful eyes, so dark that the appearance of the whites is startling, convey a sense of heartbreaking loss. As she turns her eyes to signify the screen direction of her departing lover, we feel her happiness slip away.

trioThe scenes between her and Brummel stand out as the best of the film. Now, that’s not to say that Barrymore doesn’t beguile us pretty much constantly. Whether he’s flirting with another man, treating the Prince of Wales like an inferior acquaintance, or coyly nodding at his jealous fellow officers, he swaggers exquisitely. However, when he encounters the love of his life, then and only then do we perceive the man worthy of all that external beauty.

When Lady Margery visits him in Calais, her youth still shines while Beau, ground down by poverty, has aged horribly. He’s crouched by the fire, gnawing on a piece of bread when she comes in. As she stands in the doorway, the awkward stillness of the shot-reverse-shot exchanges tear at our heartstrings. Finally, she enters, informs him that her husband is dead, and, in an unusual inversion of the movie proposal scene, asks him to marry her. Do I smell a happy ending after all?

No, alas.

As Beau tells her, “I am grown old, and changed, and tired of life.” After she departs, he starts to sob by the door, biting on his own hand to keep her from hearing and coming back to his aid.

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Call it vanity, call it stupidity, but he loves her so much that he couldn’t live with the thought of giving her a second-rate version of himself. Thus we witness the pride and integrity that sustains dandyism. We also observe a very genuine facet of Barrymore’s love for his teenage costar.

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As Astor noted, “I know Jack loved me. I know it as surely as I know the fact of my own existence. Fifteen years afterwards he was talking to me about it, telling me how surprised he had been to find himself beginning to love me that first day on the Beau Brummel set. Even then, fifteen years later, he didn’t dismiss it lightly. ‘It s a good thing I wasn’t free to marry,” he said then. ‘And it’s a good thing I couldn’t get you away from your family. I would have married you, and you would have had a miserable life.’”

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This news penetrates Beau’s senility and he begins to relive his best days with her. Cut to Margery in her bed. She breathes her last… and her splendid spirit rises from the bed. Her double-exposure soul descends into Beau’s squalid room just as he expires. And he too emerges from his mortal coil as the idealized officer he once was.

Why is it that our celluloid souls are supposed to look like ourselves—but in the prime of life, at our youthful pinnacle? Are we being superficial? Or perhaps we associate that beauty with hope and with the time in our existence when we still aspired to something. It probably goes back to the Middle Ages, when funerary statues were made to resemble the departed individual at the age of 33, since that was considered the “perfect age,” the age at which Christ had died. So, once again, we see that it’s not so easy to separate the superficial from the spiritual, the corporal from the ethereal.

As the ghostly Lady Margery and Beau embrace, the shimmering schmaltziness of this telepathic love-beyond-life scenario actually works and triggers a surge of weepy fulfillment. The visual pleasure of gazing at such picturesque people, combined with the verisimilitude of the actors’ star-crossed love affair, succeeds at provoking a catharsis. After all, cinema is sort of a dandy; like Brummel, this art of surfaces runs surprisingly deep. It can see the veracity and purity of a love that no one else could perceive. And preserve that love for almost 90 years.

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Hamlet (1948): Spacing Out

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It’s not hard to understand why Laurence Olivier selected this abbreviated passage of Hamlet as the opening statement, the thesis, if you will, of his adaptation. After all, these few lines contain the most eloquent description of the tragic flaw that anyone ever wrote; well, duh, it’s practically Shakespeare analyzing Shakespeare.

If anything, the quotation slaps us across the face with its significance. We might even feel inclined to groan at its 9th-grade-English-class heavy-handedness, spliced right into the exposition of the film. But we would be wrong to do so, because it contains the central image of Olivier’s brazenly stripped-down vision of the literary masterpiece.

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The last time I watched this movie, a line from the epigraph tickled my brain: “Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason.” Because, what is “reason” if not a buffer, a barrier? Something that restricts our mind like a corset of scruples and holds it prisoner like a castle keep? Reason consists of a series of bulwarks that we erect between ourselves and madness in all of its forms, whether excessive melancholy, anger, desire… or insight.

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The nature of reason can aptly express itself in architectural terms, particularly medieval ones. We live inside our heads, besieged by armies of competing facts and moral codes. We probably lift the portcullis of our perceptions and prejudices to admit new ideas much less frequently than we think we do.

Okay, so I’ve over-extended my metaphor, but it’s all in the service of Olivier’s direction. His Hamlet seizes on that guiding conceit, the fortress of reason, and spins it into a space where Desmond Dickinson’s camera seems to ruminate like Hamlet’s troubled mind, forever roving and wandering.

The opening of Olivier’s Hamlet freezes time. No one moves, like they couldn’t even if they wanted to. Four men stand on the ramparts of a castle, bearing the Prince’s corpse. We begin at the end of the story. This isn’t exactly a spoiler, since we all know Hamlet ain’t getting out of this alive, but the funereal shot infuses the film with a distinct and surreal sense of dread from the start.

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But what fascinates me about this opening shot is how time seems to have stopped as the camera glides through air, arcing out of the fog towards the prince’s body. The camera shows us that while time might have stopped for the people of this tale, the dimension of space remains open—and the camera dances in it.

The contrast between still, inert humans and a living, moving perspective divorced from them, well, it spooks me. It’s the visual equivalent of the alarming question that begins Shakespeare’s play, “Who’s there?”

Who—or what—is swooping down to look at the funerary procession while mortals can’t budge?

The next shot flips me out even more. On that forbidding castle fort, those figures in mourning just dissolve into thin air, leaving the battlements empty of people. This transition reminds us of how easily we all eventually dematerialize: “Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bung-hole?”

The dissolve also reveals that the film conceives space as a psychological entity. This simplified, archetypal Elsinore, which initially appeared to have been lifted from a book of Charles Lamb’s tales or a Horace Walpole novel, actually exists in a place between Hamlet’s imagination and reality. The castle, though real, occasionally bleeds into the fortress of Hamlet’s askew reason.

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Nowhere is this link more clear than in Olivier’s staging of the play’s most famous monologue. Immediately after Hamlet rejects Ophelia for betraying him, the camera wooshes out of the room, up a staircase, and goes on one of its fugues, travelling up flight after flight of stairs—or actually, the same flight of stairs, cut together again and again.

Finally, the camera flies up to the sea, seen from the top of the castle, and then a track-back brings Hamlet’s head into sight from the bottom the frame. For my money, those M.C. Escher-ish repeated staircases convey the structure of rumination, of those repetitive thoughts that we can’t quite break away from. Hamlet’s mind is a lively, circular one, forever walking up and down the gloomy staircases of the Big Questions: why do we live? What is the good in staying alive? Is it worth it? Why? Why? Why?

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That sudden emergence of Hamlet’s head in the frame always surprises me a little. After a dissociative fit where we lose almost all sense of proportion on those abstracted staircases, we’ve returned to a man as the point of reference. The staggering switches in scope make the audience more aware of what I see as Hamlet’s flaw.

And Hamlet’s “problem,” in my humble opinion, is that the universe as a whole speaks to him.

He realizes his insignificance in the grand scheme of things; he cannot act because he questions the usefulness of any action at all. Hamlet combines self-absorption with self-effacement. He swims in the frightening space of the cosmos and wriggles in the prison of his own duties and life.

That crane shot, careening through the void, then returning to the melancholy prince suggests this push-pull, this paradoxical feeling that Hamlet is at once too much inside himself and too far away from himself.

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I love how Elsinore’s spaces reflect emotional nuances that a stage never could. For instance, the first crane shot down to focus on Hamlet cements our identification with him, with the thinker, the man left alone in the debris of pompous court ceremonies.

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Or consider how the long corridors of arches create a pathetic reciprocal gaze between Ophelia and Hamlet. The hallway inscribes and entombs their confused desire in stone.

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Likewise, I treasure Olivier’s pirouette in the performance hall of Elsinore, shown in a long shot, as he exults, “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King!”

In On Acting, Olivier described Hamlet as the sort of person who needs to enter into someone else’s skin to get anything done: “it’s a sporadic collection of self-dramatizations in which he always tries to play the hero and, in truth, feels ill-cast in the part.”

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Here, Hamlet’s ecstasy in a performance space exposes how much he yearns to escape his limitations—and in the cavernous great room, the euphoria of that small gesticulating figure rings false. The desperate spurt of joy that Hamlet feels on an empty stage space, play-acting only for himself, paints a sad portrait of this man who considers himself unfit for everything others expect from him.

Unlike Laertes and Fortinbras who never seriously doubt their capabilities, Hamlet mercilessly beats up on his character flaws. If anything, his flaw is that he’s too aware of his flaws.

In 1988, two psychologists, Taylor and Brown, found out something that Shakespeare’s Hamlet had been telling us for a long time. Namely, that people suffering from mild depression are far more in touch with the realities of life, death, and risk. By contrast, normal, healthy individuals tend think that they’re better, smarter, and safer than the “average person.”

Hamlet lacks the survival prejudices that would have allowed him to filter out all the reasons not to act, not to stay alive. He sees the world with depressive clarity: “nothing’s either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

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So, indeed, reason consists of “pales and forts.” Reason usually provides a structure that protects us from ourselves. We live inside it, like happy guests in a castle, until something goes wrong, something that lets us understand that we are not immune to ugliness and pain.

Like Hamlet pulling back the arras to see that he has killed the wrong man, a person who finally sees the world as it is howls at the brutal disillusionment. And then all that reason turns from a bulwark to a prison. After a trauma, reason and logic start to encircle us with worries and perspectives that unhinge the unity of mind that one needs to do anything.

As Hamlet walks among the arches and pediments of Elsinore, he moves freely, but the walls close in upon him, pillars fragment the screen and crowd him. Unlike Ophelia, who in her craziness finds a state of mind akin to freedom and who drowns outside the castle walls, Hamlet struggles within them. The castle echoes back his angst—as does the Ghost, whose voice is actually a slowed-down recording of Olivier.

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Only imminent death, as Olivier notes, added the final ingredient to Hamlet’s character that enabled him to act. His own self-destruction fueled a newly personal need for retribution; he could kill the king only because he himself was dying.

After Hamlet dies, the camera pans to the region of darkness behind the chair where his head rests, as if in mourning for the blackout of his exquisite consciousness.

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In death, Hamlet still lies inside the ramparts of reason; the film ends where it began, but with a crucial shift. As the same four men seen at the beginning of the film carry the prince to the top of the castle, the camera snakes past the vestiges of the things that once preoccupied Hamlet: his place in court, the incestuous marriage bed, and a Christian altar. The men bear his body up the stairs to the top of the castle, where he meditated on his own mortality, and the camera swings back.

We experience a solemn elevation and a swelling fondness for the “sweet prince,” whose real kingdom was a state of mind. Not only did he accomplish his goal, he possessed that noblest and rarest of qualities: unflinching insight.

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The innovative spaces of Olivier’s Hamlet tap into the unique capacities of cinematic language. They transcend the glibness of symbolism, of “this equals that” imagery. Instead, the way the camera creeps around the architecture of Elsinore enables us to penetrate into what the intellectual Hamlet actually feels. The amorphous, psychological film-spaces blazed the trail for art films like Blow-Up (I’m thinking especially of that final enigmatic dissolve), Last Year at Marienbad, and The Shining, to name just a few.

But, most of all, the film’s benighted rooms and fortifications enable us to witness the birth of modern man, banging his head against the illusions implicit in normalcy and order.

The dread of mortality and failure may paralyze Hamlet. Yet, his greatness, his heroism, the reason why we weep for him resides in the very flaw that forestalls him: his sensitivity, his intensified sentience. The flexibility of the camera’s movements transmits the remarkable agility of his mind and the diversity of opinions that contend in his spirit. He would probably have been a terrible king, but he was a sublime human being.

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