Delmer Daves’s Dark Passage (1947): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 4

Whenever there’s mention of first-person POV camera, the word gimmick is never far away. 1947 was both a very good and a very bad year for this device, what with Robert Montgomery’s epically awkward opus The Lady in the Lady proving that the technique could be used as a murder weapon. It kills the movie and slays our patience.

By contrast, Dark Passage, another 1947 film noir, arguably handles the extended first-person camera gimmick better than any other movie before or since. Director Delmer Daves deploys it for maximum dynamic impact without slavishly restricting perspective.

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The POV effect works most thrillingly during the opening sequence, a masterclass in economical storytelling. As the barrel carrying San Quentin escapee Vincent Parry rolls down a hill, the audience rolls down the hill with it, peering out of the circular opening at the blurry vegetation whizzing by outside.

Of course, we have no background on this as-yet-nameless, faceless jailbird. He might be a vicious serial killer for all we know. In real life, we seldom get the facts we need when we need them. Noir loves to imitate life by cutting out the exposition, by throwing us into scenes for which we are narratively (and thus morally) unprepared.

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We have no choice but to identify with this escaped criminal since, for the moment, we are him. We go where he goes. We see what he sees. We feel the strain of his flight to freedom in every shaky advance of the camera.

Bogie’s voice-over enhances the authenticity of the perspective. Instead of the cool detachment of many noir voice-overs, Parry’s breathless, mumbly comments, as he psychs himself up and wishes he had a cigarette, sound like something a man on the run might plausibly mutter to himself.

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However, even during this opening, (and until we see Bogie’s escaped convict transformed by plastic surgery), Daves wisely and seamlessly inserts shots that could not possibly align with the POV of the main character, like this one of Parry staggering out of the barrel, visually confined by both the barrel’s rim and the bridge.

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The POV camerawork does dominate, though, creating an artificial long take by hiding cuts in rapid pans that also give the sequence a frantic dynamism. Once Parry hitches a ride with a smarmy stranger, the POV binds us to the convict even more by cultivating our dislike for the driver. How dare he look at us that way! Wrong as it is, I savor the visceral impact when the-viewer-as-Bogie punches the inquisitive schmoe right in the kisser.

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Finally, the camerawork defies our expectations by refusing to show us the star’s face, a pretty audacious move for studio-era Hollywood. As Bogie remarked, “I can just hear Jack Warner scream. He’s paying me all this money to make the picture and nobody will even see me until it’s a third over.”

Guilty Pleasures: 5 Reasons to Love The Unsuspected (1947)

frenchWhen we first see Victor Grandison’s face, it’s upside-down—a reflection in the desk of the woman he’s just strangled. The arresting shot flashes across the screen for a fleeting second in one of film noir’s best and eeriest opening sequences.

Like almost everything else in The Unsuspected, that shot, reprised several times throughout the film, suggests a world of frightening inversions.

Goodness bores and badness intrigues. Wrongdoers insinuate themselves into circles of normal people without tripping alarms. As Grandison intones for his rapt radio audiences “The guilty must go on and on… hiding his evil behind a mask, the calm and smiling mask of the unsuspected.”

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Plagued by a tight budget and abetted by an elastic conscience, beloved mystery raconteur Grandison kills his niece for her money then disposes of his secretary to silence her. Soon after, a shady stranger shows up at Grandison’s palatial estate and vows to uncover the truth behind the deaths. How high of a body count will Grandison rack up to protect his inheritance and his secrets?

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A forbidding, dreamlike majesty infuses this undeservedly overlooked noir. Although it lacks the raw, hardboiled impact of Warner Brothers’ finest forays into the genre, The Unsuspected compensates with a haunting cynicism and an ambiance of hypnotic dread. The characters, like chess pieces moved by the design of a remorseless grandmaster, wander through a manor of glittering black-and-white contrasts. A chain of guilt and betrayal binds everybody together, leaving no life unblemished by the consequences of lust and greed.

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Fair warning: don’t watch this movie expecting originality, at least not story-wise. I mean, if you don’t see the plot similarities to Preminger’s Laura, released three years before, you’re simply not trying hard enough. According to magazines of the time, Dana Andrews was even the first choice to play the romantic good guy in The Unsuspected.

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I mourn for that missed opportunity, because the replacement, Michael North, displays all the eye shadow of a 1930s Cagney role and none of the charisma. Well, what do you know? The Unsuspected was North’s final film.

The frozen North aside, this oddly little-known thriller serves up enough noirish guilty pleasures to satisfy any classic movie lover. Here are a few…

1. Claude Rains stars as one of noir’s most deliciously destructive tyrant figures.

Should the devil ever show up in hopes of persuading me to sell my soul, he’d be well advised to assume the form (and voice) of Claude Rains. I mean, who could resist?

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He doesn’t get enough screen time, but Rains is at the height of his suave, Mephistophelean powers in this movie. In one of the film’s most amusing exchanges, Grandison chides a gun-wielding killer as though he were talking to a toddler, “Give me that ridiculous weapon. Give it to me, I say, before I lose my temper.” Lesser demons and myrmidons step aside. Because Grandison commands in that sonorous baritone that cannot be wrong, the thug has no choice but to comply. Guns, poisons, nooses, none of Grandison’s weapons are quite as dangerous or disarming as his voice.

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Radio personalities—preferably with pompous surnames like Lydecker and Hunsecker—are invariably evil in film noir, a tendency no doubt fueled by the way radio could threaten moviedom’s popularity. And you don’t need to be Maigret to realize that the radio tyrants of Laura and The Sweet Smell of Success are up to no good.

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Rains’s Grandison, on the other hand, lives up to the movie’s title; affable, witty, and outwardly kind, he doesn’t arouse suspicion. Most creepily, he shares his home with his niece for years all the while plotting her demise (and, quite possibly, obsessing about her in an unhealthy way, judging by the huge portrait he hangs in a place of honor). He executes his wicked schemes with such élan that I find it difficult to condemn him. Even at the end, he stages his own unmasking as a self-glorifying coup-de-theatre. At the risk of spoilers, I won’t disclose any more, but the conclusion has joined the ranks of my favorite Claude Rains scenes.

2. Woody Bredell delivers some of the most beautiful black-and-white cinematography I’ve ever seen, period.

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The director of photography largely responsible for the look and feel of Christmas Holiday and Phantom Lady, Bredell imparted an otherworldly glow to the noirs he worked on. Instead of evoking matter-of-fact grittiness or stark tension, this master opted for something more luminous and mysterious. He coaxed light and shadow into singing a ghostly duet.

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For instance, consider Grandison’s entrance to his surprise birthday party. As he opens the door, the guests stand in the hall of his home as still silhouettes, like revenants come to accuse Grandison of his hidden crimes. In that beat, you can sense the horror that the killer feels, as though his guilt were confronting him. It could’ve been an uninspired shot, a continuity bridge, but through Bredell’s artistry the moment acquires a spooky significance and strengthens the movie’s primary theme of festering guilt.

3. Audrey Totter perfects her tongue-in-cheek femme fatale image.

“The bad girls were so much fun to play,” the late great Totter confided to the New York Times in 1999. You can certainly tell that Totter is having a ball as the decadent Althea, Grandison’s penniless ward who keeps herself tricked out in couture gowns on the strength of her personality. And what a personality it is!

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Althea summarizes her life goals when she tosses a cocktail glass into a fireplace and giggles, “I like to break things.” Glasses, hearts, schemes: Althea delights in wrecking anything she gets in her funeral-lily-white clutches.

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Milking her wide eyes and perpetual pout, Totter plays the juicy role with a childish naughtiness that diverges from the deadpan demeanor of many femmes fatales. Totter handles her drinks and her cigarettes with a theatrical self-indulgence that even Bette Davis might’ve envied. As Grandison says, “You were always my favorite… so charmingly unscrupulous.”

vlcsnap-2014-11-01-12h16m48s1014. Michael Curtiz does double duty as director and producer.

For my money, Curtiz was the greatest director who’ll probably never be celebrated as an auteur. With this irate Hungarian at the helm, material didn’t matter: bring on swashbuckling adventures, films noirs, cult horror flicks, melodramas, musicals (and some empty horses for good measure, to borrow a famous Curtiz malapropism). His Warner movies practically all turned out to be at least entertaining and at their best downright sublime.

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By 1947 for about two decades Curtiz had been contributing to Warner Brothers’ reputation for movies that wasted nary a frame of precious celluloid. With The Unsuspected, Curtiz formed his own production company and shouldered a new role. He would go on to produce a handful of other films, among them another terrific sleeper noir Flamingo Road and the Doris Day musical My Dream Is Yours.

The Unsuspected has some major soft spots, like a zigzagging plot (despite experienced screenwriter Bess Meredyth, Curtiz’s wife and all-around secret weapon, working on the script) and a bland juvenile lead. Still, it took guts for Curtiz to exercise more autonomy—and produce a commercially successful film to back it up. vlcsnap-2014-11-01-11h54m28s15

The director peppered The Unsuspected with some of his specialties, like shadowy compositions to spice up dialogue scenes and a tautly-paced action sequence, as the heroine races to save the good guy at the end.

Curtiz laced my favorite sequence with his characteristic expressionism as the camera roams to discover three characters we haven’t yet met. As one of Grandison’s grim broadcasts fills the soundtrack, a dissolve transports us to a train passing in night where the vengeful good guy sits smoking in his compartment.

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The camera then glides from the moving train to a grimy city street, probing into a seedy hotel room where a thug lies on his bed listening to the radio. As the unknown hatchet-faced man takes a drag on his cigarette, a portion of the flashing hotel sign outside winks in at him: “KILL”.

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From there, Grandison’s sepulchral voice bridges a cut to a series of letters on a desk, being sorted by a dagger-like opener. The camera tracks out slightly to reveal an upside-down face in the desk. Grandison? Why, no it’s actually one of the good guys, a police detective, presented the same way as the lethal radio host. I admire the conviction that it took to fashion such a surreal, disorienting, counterintuitive introduction to three key characters, linking the good and the bad together, practically equating them, through the restless wanderings of the camera.

5. You can bask in the assembled star power of the impressive supporting cast.

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Constance Bennett does her best Eve Arden impression as a sassy career woman. Hurd Hatfield bitterly philosophizes as a drunken painter. And Joan Caulfield radiates delicate goodness and Gish-esque femininity as… well, I’d better not say. Any one of them would give me grounds for checking out The Unsuspected, but all three of them together? Why, thank you, studio system.

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In his 1947 review, the ever-cranky critic Bosley Crowther dissed the supporting cast as “patly artificial as the plot.” If this be artifice, I’ll make the most of it.

The Unsuspected is available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Doctor X (1932): The Triumph of the Weird

posterA cannibal serial killer prowls the city streets on full-moon nights. Mad doctors perform sick biological experiments in secret labs. And Fay Wray shrieks in a silky, sheer negligée.

Doctor X really wants to push your buttons… whatever buttons you’ve got.

As the film’s Hungarian-born director Michael Curtiz (famous for his English-language malapropisms) declared, “It’ll make your blood curl!”

After the double box office smash of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, Warner Brothers decided to outdo Universal—which started the horror trend—in terms of shock value. Jumping on the craze for scary movies, Warner shrewdly turned out a gruesome chiller all its own. Even in the context of no-holds-barred pre-Code Hollywood, the word bizarre doesn’t begin to cover Doctor X.

Unsurprisingly, the hardboiled studio of gangster dramas and newspaper comedies brought a radically different, absurd sensibility to the horror genre. Opting against a supernatural thriller or a Gothic adaptation, producers bought a spooky stage play and built an ultra-modern sci-fi whodunit on that framework. Rather than trying to evoke the tenebrous black-and-white poetry of Universal’s chillers, Doctor X attracted viewers in droves with the novelty of bloodcurdling deeds captured in color.

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Yes, that’s right: we’re talking about a feature film from 1932 shot in color. But a very special kind of color.

What we all recognize as glorious Technicolor—exemplified by films like Gone with the Wind and The Red Shoes—is a three-strip process, which combines blue, green, and red to reproduce a complete and vivid range of tones. However, Doctor X is one of comparatively few full-length movies filmed entirely in the earlier two-strip Technicolor process. Expensive and inconvenient, requiring sweltering hot lights, color tests, and special technicians and advisors, two-strip Technicolor still registered colors only as shades or derivatives of red and green.

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 I say, darling, you’re looking rather pink today…

Although two-strip Technicolor couldn’t reproduce the full spectrum of reality, this disadvantage suited the oddball plot of Doctor X perfectly. In the words of an original ad, Doctor X looks “so different it might have been filmed in another world.” Since a major plot point involves (slight spoiler alert!) synthetic flesh, the fact that about half of the colors show up in flesh tones—or else a sickly green—amps up the creep-out factor. When the villain finally does reveal himself, the sequence makes us wonder if we’re hallucinating. Electrodes buzz and blink as the man-made monster smears his face with molten flesh putty, all the more revolting in shades of leprous pink-orange set off by ominous green shadows.

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Curtiz looks on as Wray gets a lipstick touch-up on the set

Director Michael Curtiz (who’d go on to helm The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca) wasn’t anybody’s dream boss, marching around the set begrudging the cast their lunch breaks. As Fay Wray recalled, “It was like he was part of the camera. He was steel.” Nevertheless, his expressionistic flair incorporated the two-strip Technicolor palette to masterful effect. Instead of trying to minimize the strangeness of the color process, Curtiz indulged his preference for silhouettes, showy compositions, and jarring angles. All of these elements, in conjunction with the unnatural hues, contribute to the audience’s sense of nightmarish disorientation.

Years before Douglas Sirk styled his celebrated Technicolor delirium, Curtiz harnessed psychedelic hues of rose and emerald to put the viewer into a kind of trance, mentally preparing us to swallow an implausible storyline.

vlcsnap-2013-09-24-20h12m29s71And what a loony storyline it is… When the police suspect that someone from a prestigious research institute has committed a string of heinous cannibalistic sex crimes and mutilations, Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill) makes a deal. If the cops keep the matter quiet for 48 hours, he’ll use cutting-edge technology to find the guilty man among his staff and save his institute’s reputation. It’s ethical to do that, right? Meanwhile, wisecracking reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) crashes Xavier’s remote lair to get the scoop. In the process, he’ll shake skeletons in the closet (literally!), go head-to-head with the terrifying killer, and romance Xavier’s feisty daughter.

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With its satirical, sinister portrayal of medical researchers, Doctor X betrays an abject disillusionment with—and mistrust of—scientific progress in general and scientists in particular. Only a year before, Colin Clive had portrayed Dr. Frankenstein as a dashing misunderstood genius, a romantic matinee idol Prometheus. By contrast, Dr. Xavier and his colleagues come across as, at best, eccentrics and, at worst, dirty old men who channel repressed sexual impulses into kinky experiments and flashy lab gizmos.

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Curtiz frames the film’s most striking shots with some chemical or electrical apparatus interposing between the viewer and the characters. The bubbling flasks or sparkling electrodes in the foreground loom large and dwarf the scientists, making them seem vaguely ridiculous. Even when the laboratory paraphernalia doesn’t dominate the screen space, it draws the eye, distracting from the scientists themselves. They are not masters of their chosen field, we understand, but slaves to it, consumed by their fetishized equipment and their dangerous projects.

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In its grotesquely comic way, the film suggests that all of Xavier’s colleagues, and even the doctor himself, are likely candidates for serial killers. Frankly, the shock isn’t that one of them is a murderer. It’s that only one of them is a murderer! Consider this exchange between two of the doctors, right as they’re about to submit to Xavier’s physiological examination:

—Were the murdered women… attacked?

—Does your mind never flow into any other channel?

—What do you mean by that?

—I mean that one day your sadistic tendencies may carry you too far, Dr. Haines!

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In case you missed it, “attacked” serves as a not-so-subtle euphemism for “sexually assaulted.” Can I get a great big yuck for that dark little peek into the minds of guys claiming to be mankind’s benefactors?

Without doubt, Doctor X hints that perversity instead of goodwill drives scientists to immerse their lives in study and research. Even Dr. Xavier has to rationalize his comrades’ creepy behavior to the cops by explaining, “Sometimes, in the overdevelopment of one part of the brain, another part is weakened.”

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But even if that’s true, does the doctors’ collective brainpower justify their volatility? Um, no. At least, that’s what the movie seems to conclude.

Ultimately, Xavier’s elaborate experiment—designed to unmask the killer by monitoring fluctuations in his heartbeat as he watches a reenactment of his crime—fails spectacularly. Twice. Xavier’s theories practically have their own body count!

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Whenever I watch Doctor X, the movie’s dim outlook on the scientific perspective reminds me of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, a fascinating treatise on the power of rare events. As Taleb explains, “Before Western thinking drowned in its ‘scientific’ mentality, what is arrogantly called the Enlightenment, people prompted their brain to think—not compute.”

Sound familiar? Xavier unquestioningly relies on ice-cold logic. And logic lets him down. Big time. Without giving away too much, let’s just say that what seems like a perfectly reasonable inference almost proves the death of his nearest and dearest… The unforeseen twist or “black swan” that Dr. X implicitly eliminates from his pool of possibilities returns to haunt him with all-too-real consequences.

vlcsnap-2013-09-24-20h11m03s232According to Taleb, academically bright individuals like Xavier and his lab-coat-wearing compadres often succumb to the “ludic fallacy.” That is, they tend to think (erroneously) that we can model life’s uncertainties with straightforward calculations and probabilities. In so doing, however, such traditional thinkers ignore the larger, fuzzy probabilities or “unknown unknowns” that enter into any given situation. Meanwhile, the real risks of life are bizarre and off-model. Freak occurrences shape the course of human history much more than we’d like to believe.

To vastly oversimplify Taleb’s point, we live in a weird world. So, having a weird mind, one prone to farfetched theories instead of rationality, might be a strong edge for survival. And only by scrutinizing weirdness can we ever begin to understand, well, anything at all.

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Which brings us back to Doctor X and its real protagonist. The movie might bear Xavier’s name, but it truly belongs to Lee Tracy as Taylor, the brash, fast-talking newspaperman.

Taylor’s gift for sensational journalism spurs him to speculate wildly and focus on outlier events like the so-called “moon killings.” Taylor doesn’t command society’s respect like Xavier does. However, he saves the day—while all the doctors sit incapacitated by their logic, literally handcuffed by the rules of their experiment.

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When I first watched Doctor X, I felt that Taylor, with his morbid quips and upbeat demeanor, belonged to another movie. Then I realized that he actually reflects the movie’s oddness even better than the nutty doctors.

Despite their own deviant weirdness, the scientists don’t allow for the true enormity of the world’s weirdness in their calculations. Despite Taylor’s outward normalcy, he does. He rolls with the weird and actively seeks it out. His zigzag brain hasn’t closed itself off to black swans and freak occurrences.

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Thanks to Taylor, I have a new theory about life: you need to live it as though you’re in a 1930s horror movie.

No, I’m not suggesting you roam around misty moors at midnight in a lacy nightgown. What I actually mean is, don’t act like most characters in 1930s horror movies—who have no inkling they’re in 1930s horror movies and tend to baulk at the idea of monsters and psycho-killers.

In life as in film, it pays to contemplate the improbable, to steep yourself in it, rather than scoffing at it. And perhaps no movie defines “improbable” for me better than Doctor X.

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Funnily enough, every time I tweet this film with the #TCMParty someone complains, “Ugh. I hate colorized movies,” because he or she has automatically rejected the possibility of a color feature from the early 1930s.

Regardless of whether we think it should or shouldn’t exist, though, it does.

So, in its own way, Doctor X—the first horror film shot entirely in color—is something of a cinematic black swan… a triumph of weirdness.

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As of this writing, you can stream Doctor X on Warner Archive Instant (which I totally recommend signing up for). So check it out for Halloween!

 

They Don’t Make ‘Em Like That Anymore: The Noirish Brilliance of Lauren Bacall

stillIt was hard to believe she had to ask for a match. With those molten eyes, she gave the impression of a woman who didn’t need anybody’s help to ignite.

Although she made her first movie, To Have and Have Not, at age 19, Bacall didn’t seem to have an ingénue bone in her body. In fact, petrified of the camera, she had to clamp her chin against her shoulder to avoid visibly trembling—and she still exuded maturity and nonchalance.

That famous voice of hers sounded indifferent, bored even, as if she’d burst fully formed from a pulp writer’s head, already fluent in the laconic rhythms of noir dialogue. At Howard Hawks’s urging, she had actually trained herself to talk like that by reading the colossal epic The Robe to herself in a low, husky voice.

The more you listen to her, the more you hear the nuances of desire, humor, fear, and anger, like snippets of a conversation overhead from across a smoke-filled room.

Acting styles can become dated quickly, but Bacall’s best performances remain as subtle and exciting as I imagine they were back in Hollywood’s Golden Age. She’s a puzzle that audiences, as well as her love interests, have a good time trying to figure out. True, she had Hawks’s coaching in the beginning, but the talent and the brains were there. She was a natural-born film actor, the kind that doesn’t let the viewer realize she’s acting.

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In the noirish roles for which she is best remembered, Bacall projected her own brand of toughness, distinct from the established paradigms of Crawford’s masochistic bitterness and Stanwyck’s lethal hardness. Instead, she incarnated the perfect feminine counterpart to the hardboiled integrity of protagonists like Philip Marlowe.

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Slim in To Have and Have Not can take a slap without flinching. Vivian in The Big Sleep can outwit a vicious gunman at a moment’s notice. Irene in Dark Passage can flirt her way through a police checkpoint with a convict in the backseat of her car. They each pitched an unspoken dare to the world: “You think I’m bluffing? Watch how far I can go.” But whatever made these women so tough left their souls intact. With a spark of unsentimental optimism, they muffled their feelings to survive, but never lost their capacity to feel.

Bacall offered us the joy of a less fatale femme, a dangerous dame who could still believably deliver a happy ending.

vlcsnap-2014-08-12-22h11m42s177Consider her celebrated “whistle” scene. It’s easy to forget that the scene is really the third scene in a row of just Bogie and Bacall talking in hotel rooms, their characters hesitantly sussing each other out. About eight minutes of such back-and-forth between two other actors might drag in pace. With Bogie and Bacall, it’s so satisfying I want to reach for a cigarette when it’s over. And I don’t even smoke.

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No wonder a cartoon short of the era, “Bacall to Arms”, lovingly parodied the onscreen sizzle of her debut. As she saunters across a room, an animated trail of flames spurts up from her footprints.

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Now, To Have and Have Not doesn’t count as a film noir in my book, but its key relationship scenes undeniably channel a noirish vibe with the low-key lighting, the shuttered windows, and the characters’ ambiguous morals. And Bogie fans then as well as now would have recognized his line to Slim, “You’re good. You’re awful good”, as a clear echo of Sam Spade’s mocking admiration of Brigid’s shtick in The Maltese Falcon.

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However, the chemistry in To Have and Have Not promises a more auspicious ending for Slim and Steve than for your typical noir couple. In By Myself, Bacall remembered that, when her family went to see To Have and Have Not, they expressed their relief at the humor in her performance, which lightened some of the sexier elements in the script. Audiences could read the melancholy in her eyes when Steve leans in to examine her face—but they also could hear the note of knowing amusement in her voice as she switches to vampy innuendo. Because Bacall neither plays the role entirely straight, nor burlesques it, she maintains a reassuring aura of decency. Bacall interprets Slim as a good bad girl, daring Steve to take a chance on her. Unsurprisingly, he does.

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The frisson of true love blesses To Have and Have Not with an eternal ability to cheer up its spectators (me, for one). Seriously, who doesn’t get a kick out of watching two of the most badass people ever make googly eyes at each other? In the final scene, Bacall wiggles off into the sunset, while even the extra sitting at the table closest to her can’t repress a facial expression that says, “Aw, isn’t that sweet?” As Bogie grabs her by the arm, Bacall smiles her only broad grin of the movie, the toughness slips away, and she looks, for the first time, like a teenager in love.

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The Big Sleep challenged Bacall with a more complex role. In contrast to Slim, Vivian Rutledge really is reclining on the razor’s edge, navigating a depraved world to protect her sister. Despite the crackle of her chemistry with Bogie, Bacall dials back the likability she displayed in her debut in favor of a high-hat condescension that masks longstanding worries. For example, keep an eye out for a split-second look of uppity pleasure when Marlowe asks, “They? Who’s they?” in their first scene together. It’s the face of a woman frantically trying to convince herself that she has the situation under control, that she can outwit or seduce any obstacle that crosses her path.

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Bacall emphasizes Vivian’s spoiled haughtiness, while hinting at the undercurrent of fear that drives her. This is a woman who refuses to admit that she’s in over her head almost until it’s too late. A woman who’ll chide a man with a loaded gun to prove how tough she is to Marlowe. In Chandler’s novel, none of the Sternwoods deserves redemption, but in the film, the whole clan pulls through. Both censorship and Howard Hawks’s worldview motivated these changes to the original, but it’s Bacall who makes us buy a conclusion that could’ve seemed too neat for a messy plot.

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The audience can detect two sides to Bacall’s Vivian: the conniving society brat and the wisecracking dame in distress. Something about the honest mirth of those long takes in Marlowe’s office suggest that the latter is probably the truest side. As she tempts him with a brace of horsey innuendos a few scenes later, Bacall doesn’t hide the fact that Vivian is manipulating Marlowe, but the gusto and wit with which she speaks her lines points to the real Vivian buried under so many lies.

vlcsnap-2014-08-13-18h38m00s208Ultimately, she proves her mettle by saving Marlowe’s life, leading the killer Canino astray. Her grace under pressure prompts even the jaded P.I. to admit, “I didn’t know they made ‘em like that anymore.” We get the idea that Vivian would always keep Marlowe guessing. Still, he might want to spend the rest of his days guessing about her.

vlcsnap-2014-08-13-19h17m32s124Directed by Delmer Daves, Dark Passage showcased Bacall’s talent for passing off improbable circumstances as natural and credible. Interacting with the first-person camera as though it were Bogie, her character helps a convicted killer, whom she’d never met before, elude the law when he escapes from prison. Who is she? Why is she helping this alleged murderer? Bacall adds to the suspense with her impassive determination, punctuated by discreet glints of anxiety.

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The romance that blossoms between Bacall and Bogie in Dark Passage would’ve struck the audience as inevitable by this point, and the pair wisely underplay the growing attachment between their characters. Caught in the gaze of the camera-as-Bogie, she occasionally thaws with an unguarded smile. Given her face, that’s enough. Once the camera is freed from its first-person mode, Bacall sustains the almost unbearable tension as she removes the bandages from Bogie’s mug, remodeled by plastic surgery.

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In another splendid scene, she rechristens Bogie’s character with an alias, obstinately attempting to focus on the new name instead of the reality that she might be saying goodbye forever. Of her four movies with Bogie, Dark Passage gets short shrift, so, if you haven’t done so already, watch it and be amazed.

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Bacall possessed a wide range. In Key Largo, though co-starred again with Bogie, she essayed an unusually demure, vulnerable character. Over the course of her career, she played everything from murderesses to abused wives to spunky gold-diggers. But she was at her most iconic as the good bad girl, the woman fit to accompany Bogie down the mean streets of noir as his equal.

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She convincingly portrayed women who lived by their own terms, fought their own battles, and only bared their emotions at the right time to the right man. For a generation of American women who’d done men’s jobs during WWII, Bacall’s performances suggested that toughness and willpower weren’t flaws or signs of ruthlessness, but virtues. In the noirish parts that made her a legend, she was a woman of substance: smart, mysterious, brave, and, above all, fun to watch. And she always will be.

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Technicolor Nightmare: Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

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Florence: Listen, Joan Gale’s body was swiped from the morgue! Have you ever heard of such a thing as a death mask?

Jim: I used to be married to one.

Florence: Then it came to life and divorced you. I know all about that.

It says a lot about pre-Code Warner Brothers that the studio couldn’t even make a horror movie without throwing in a couple of wisecracking reporters, a coffin filled with bootleg hooch, and a junkie.

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And, I, for one, couldn’t be happier about that. I revel in Mystery of the Wax Museum for the sublime, unintentionally postmodern jumble of a film that it is. This 1933 thriller vividly stands apart from every other horror film of that early talkie cycle.

Even if you were to imagine Night Nurse remade by Robert Wiene or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by William Wellman, the result probably wouldn’t be as mismatched and entertaining as this crackling, genre-bending spine-tingler. We’re basically dealing with Gold-Diggers Go to Transylvania.

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The pen is mightier than the sword—satirical scribes Voltaire and Florence.

Before we go any further, folks, don’t say I didn’t warn you about plot holes that could conceal an elephant. You should also brace yourself for one of those irritatingly conservative 1930s denouements.

However, it’s all worth it to hear Glenda Farrell casually ask an unsuspecting cop, “How’s your sex life?” [Insert spit-take here.]

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Part newspaper screwball comedy, part Gothic terror, Wax Museum pits one of the most refreshing horror protagonists I’ve ever encountered against the most endearingly clichéd of horror villains. A gutsy platinum blonde sob sister, Florence Dempsey, thwarts the sick fantasy of a disfigured, deranged sculptor, whose name is… Ivan Igor. (You can practically hear the screenwriters arguing whether Ivan or Igor sounds more evil, before deciding to go with both!) It’s like watching two different movies, two different casts, whimsically spliced together. And, in my humble opinion, it works pretty well on the whole.

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But I’m getting ahead of myself. I should really explain why Warner Brothers, known for their brassy comedies and hard-hitting crime dramas, made this flamboyant foray into horror. In 1932, to get their share of the audiences flocking to Universal’s monster hits, Warner Brothers, the sassy studio of the people, launched their own prestige sci-fi/horror thriller.

To give it a real edge, Warner had Doctor X filmed entirely in two-strip Technicolor. Following close on the heels of that shocking fright-fest, the studio tried to replicate the success with Mystery of the Wax Museum. With characteristic tracking shots and panache, Michael Curtiz helmed Doctor X and Wax Museum, which both also star Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray.

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I consider the latter film superior and I’ll give you three guesses as to why. (Hint: Glenda Farrell, Glenda Farrell, Glenda Farrell!)

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Horror films of the 1930s spent an awful lot of time trying to cope with the disturbing power of images and/or the idea of some process that preserves life while ironically destroying it. I’m not one to attest that every film is actually “about the cinema.” Still, I dare you to watch this film without pondering the parallel between Igor’s wax museum as a macabre attraction and Mystery of the Wax Museum itself as a macabre attraction.

It would make sense that the filmmakers working on nightmare pictures in the 1930s were some of the first people to grasp the inherently uncanny nature of film, how reproduces reality. How cinema can, in a way, resurrect dead things. Nevertheless, no matter how convincing or complete the likeness is, it’s never the original. Just as a lifelike wax figure cannot move and speak, a film painfully recalls to us the reality of the past without ever letting us live that reality or be with those people we see on the screen.

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In Mystery of the Wax Museum, Igor longs to duplicate human beings through what are essentially wax mummies. He doesn’t just want to make wax figures that resemble people—he needs those figures to be existentially bonded to the people they represent, molded around their bodies, like a death mask. And, to paraphrase the great French critic André Bazin, what is film if not another kind of embalmment? The cinema is 24 death masks per second.

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Where am I going with this? Well, what interests me about Wax Museum is how Igor chooses his victims. On the surface, these choices seem logical: he seeks individuals who look like his wax statues of historical figures that were destroyed many years ago. For instance, when he meets Fay Wray’s character, Charlotte, we see her through Igor’s eyes as she morphs into his long lost Marie Antoinette.

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But what really intrigues me is that Igor spares no interest at all in his primary opponent, Florence, even though she persistently asks him questions and threatens his whole project. Is he that clueless?

Interestingly enough, when Igor first spots Charlotte in his museum, Florence, who had been standing right beside Igor disappears in the following shots. Eventually we realize that Florence has sneaked off to investigate the suspicious waxworks. However, her sudden dematerialization strikes me as more than poorly cheated staging or a continuity error. It insinuates an absence into our midst. Whether we recognize this or not, a part of our mind subliminally picks up on something missing. It’s an uneasy spatial ellipsis.

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She’s there…

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Then gone…

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Then there…

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Then gone…

Why doesn’t Igor pay more attention to Florence? Because Florence’s best attributes cannot be rendered in wax. As viewers, we intuit this. The crux of Igor’s obsession reveals itself in his reactions to the divergent charms of Florence and Charlotte—and, more broadly, of Glenda Farrell and of Fay Wray. Fay Wray possesses the classic, serene beauty of a cameo. Glenda Farrell, although no belle, hits you with the force of a cyclone. Her most precious qualities—her verve, her celerity, her personality—lose their value when stilled into silence and inertia.

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Igor resents Florence because her very existence refutes his concept of human beings as wax figures—and of wax figures as humans. It speaks volumes about Igor that his cherished masterpiece was Marie Antoinette, an icon of stiff, stagnant materialism. By contrast, Florence’s spark of life and mobility saves us from the idea of people as little more than glorified set pieces.

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Wax, that lesser embalming fluid, might capture the loveliness of Fay Wray. Yet, it takes the superior mummification of celluloid to deliver Glenda Farrell’s you’re-gonna-need-Dramamine charisma to spectators eighty years later. Her modernity demands a modern medium. And two-strip Technicolor was as modern as it got in 1933.

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Today’s spectator, in particular, cannot ignore the eeriness of Mystery of the Wax Museum. We spend most of the film trying to accustom ourselves to the incongruity of seeing what we’re used to seeing in black-and-white transpire in color. The obvious unreality of black-and-white cinematography can serve as a quaintly distancing device. The illusion of presentness furnished by early Technicolor emerges with unexpected power.

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Like Igor’s creepily lifelike wax statues (actually thickly made-up extras!), two-strip Technicolor leaves us spellbound and a little alarmed. I remember tweeting along with this film on #TCMParty last October; almost every participant remarked on the strangeness of watching a pre-Code film in such phantasmagoric shadings. I think, on some level, we modern viewers tend to forget that the world wasn’t black-and-white back in the 1930s!

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Rather than using two-strip Technicolor as a pallid imitation of real life, Curtiz amplifies the creepy otherness of the early color process, giving each shot the look of a sun-faded painting. A sickly symphony of mint greens and shades of peach sherbet achingly hint at what the actors and sets look like, yet fail to furnish the true realism that we crave.

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The limitations of representation become more apparent as they approach zero. The closer you get to the thing-in-itself, the farther you feel. To quote an original poster for the movie, “Images of wax that throbbed with human passion! Almost woman! What did she lack?” Igor’s statues are identical to their subjects, but you can sense the missing souls. Two-strip Technicolor brings a now-dead cast to life more fully than black-and-white could and thus paradoxically emphasizes our distance from them.

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As you watch Mystery of the Wax Museum, notice its breakneck pace and its abundant smash cuts. Bodies are being stolen from a morgue—cut to: a newsroom. A junkie begging for dope—cut to: a Christmas tree in a police station. What the…? The urban velocity of this film gives us a startlingly heterogeneous breed of horror by grafting Gothic elements onto everyday city life. By contrast, the stolid 1950s remake House of Wax regressed back to pure Penny Dreadful stuff and lacks all the pre-Code genre-scrambling that made the original so memorable.

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Keep an eye out for oodles of smart visual touches. For instance, get a load of the long crane shot that moves back from a vat of boiling wax to the operating bed where victims will lay to the spout from which the scalding liquid will spew… to the villain entering his lair with a new victim. This camera movement (remember how hard this would’ve been in the early talkies!) tersely shows us the gruesome fate of anyone selected to be immortalized in wax. Once again, Curtiz highlights an absence; we never see the human-to-wax-figure process, but he morbidly implies it with this graceful shot.

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The operating bed empty…

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…and filled.

The switch from a high angle to a low angle when Igor reveals his insanity also impressed me. His sudden inebriation with his godlike power allows him to tower over us. It’s an old trick, but a potent one, resulting in one of the film’s spookiest moments.

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As you might expect, Glenda Farrell commits grand larceny, stealing every single scene she’s in. Years before she tackled her signature role of Torchy Blane, Farrell soared as this prototype character. If Florence Dempsey doesn’t get to do half as much as we’d like her to, she remains the conduit of the film, weaving together the many plotlines.

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Her deductions and detective work lead to the bad guys getting caught and the damsel getting saved in the nick of time. Whether she’s spouting Great Depression slang at the speed of light, grabbing bottles of bootleg whisky in plain view of the police, or screaming at the top of her lungs, Florence wins our love and respect.

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Devoid of Stanwyck’s barely repressed anger and Harlow’s frivolousness, Farrell gave us portraits of working women who looked tired, but chic and acted nervously, but competently. No superwoman, she declines to challenge the order the universe, but circulates through it with such vitality and persistence that even the strongest pillars of that universe budge a little—for the better. She’s not making a statement about how women need to fight to exist in a man’s world. She blithely exists there. And that’s enough. Try and stop her.

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Costume designer Orry-Kelly aided and abetted Farrell with a wardrobe to die for; I really need a pair of pistachio-green lounging pajamas and a full-length leopard coat with a matching-trim dress. Add them to my wish list.

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I encourage you to hunt down Mystery of the Wax Museum; alas, it has yet to receive its own DVD release. Interestingly enough, the film was believed to be lost for many years before Jack Warner’s personal print turned up. How ironic would that have been if this exotic jewel of a film had disintegrated into nothing like the wax figures at the beginning of the movie? Thankfully, it was spared from the flames.

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I would’ve never come up with all of the ideas in this post without having read André Bazin’s Qu’est-ce que le cinema?, Dudley Andrews What Cinema Is, and Laura Mulvey’s Death at 24 Frames Per Second. I gratefully acknowledge their work and encourage you to read them!

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This post is part of the Summer under the Stars Blogathon 2013, hosted by Michael of Scribe Hard On Film Jill Blake of Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence.

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The Purchase Price (1932): The Time of the Season for Love?

poster“I’ve been up and down Broadway since I was fifteen years old. I’m fed up with hoofing in shows. I’m sick of nightclubs, hustlers, bootleggers, chiselers, and smart guys. I’ve heard all the questions and I know all the answers. And I’ve kept myself… fairly respectable through it all. The whole atmosphere of this street gives me a high-powered headache. I’ve got a chance to breathe something else, and boy, I’m grabbing it.”

—Joan Gordon, The Purchase Price 

For the quantity of one (1) soul mate, send $10.00 and a self-addressed envelope to… Yeah right. Ah, if only it were that easy. If only fate (or a non-creepy catalogue, perhaps?) brought a wonderful gal or worthy suitor right to your door. If only you could order your very own Barbara Stanwyck via mail, as William Wellman’s The Purchase Price suggests.

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In spite of its hilarious contrivance—the idea that an ill-advised mail-order marriage could melt into true love—I fell for this offbeat romance. You cannot resist its charms. You find yourself rooting for the wily city girl to end up with the aw-shucks boy-next-door. And I marvel at how much plot and character development these pre-Code yarns could cram into a runtime of barely over one hour.

vlcsnap-2013-07-06-17h59m05s160Trying to pry loose from a dead-end relationship with a gangster, Joan Gordon changes her name, goes to Canada, and switches places with a woman who had agreed to be a mail-order bride on a frontier farm. Although Joan initially rebuffs her yokel husband on their wedding night, she grows to admire and respect him. Transforming into a warm, caring wife, Joan battles financial pressures threatening the farm and tries to fend off shadows of her past.

vlcsnap-2013-07-06-17h42m01s160 Stanwyck shines (does she ever not shine?) in a role closely related to her breakout performance in Ladies of Leisure: a tough child of asphalt who pines for a more meaningful existence. When we first meet Joan, she’s crooning at a speakeasy. In fact, the trailer for The Purchase Price advertised Missy’s singing voice as a significant attraction—announcing “Listen! It’s the voice of Barbara Stanwyck!”— although she only sings in one scene.

Although Stanwyck’s smoky, homely contralto doesn’t exactly soar in a torch song melody, her soulful delivery tells us much more about the character than your usual pre-Code nightclub sequence does. In this opening scene, a surprising amount of drama creeps into the character introduction. For instance, I just love the ironic contrast between the pure yearning in Stanwyck’s voice and the ugly mugs we see from above, looking up at her with wistful lust. The peculiar combination of corny, but heartfelt sentiment and urban grime elegantly sums up Stanwyck’s early image.

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Like an angel in greasepaint, she leans over tables of drooling drunks and sings a sad ballad, “Take me away…” which becomes the movie’s musical and emotional theme.

As Joan hovers over a silken gangster type, his platinum blonde moll, a sort of bargain basement Jean Harlow, eyes her with envy and melancholy. We, the viewers, immediately recognize the difference between your run-of-the-mill working girl and Joan—a complex, earthy woman. Even faced with a gallery of grotesques, Joan Gordon sings like she means it. And, as we soon learn, she’s not just putting on an act: she really does long for an escape.

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The men in Joan’s life seem to specialize in letting her down. There’s Eddie, her slimy, yet affable racketeer boyfriend, who insists, “You daffy little tomato, I’m bugs about ya. I’d marry ya myself—if I wasn’t already married.” Now, there’s a winner! Unfortunately, he doesn’t excite her as much as she excites him, we notice, as she clinically changes behind a screen her dressing room, while he jumps up to get a look.

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Unfortunately, Joan’s “chance to breathe,” her rich milksop fiancé, breaks off their engagement because of Joan’s ties to the aforementioned slimy gangster. Prevailed upon by his wealthy father, this anemic fool dumps Stanwyck (“It’s STANWYCK, you goof!” I yelled at my screen) in a humorous hotel scene during which the maid stops scrubbing floors and the groom shuts off his vacuum cleaner to eavesdrop.

And, that night, Joan’s in her dressing room again, getting taken back by her low-life boyfriend—and hating every minute of it.

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I appreciate how William Wellman and canny screenwriter Robert Lord (of The Little Giant and Heroes for Sale) handle what could’ve been clichés with a light touch. Instead of the evil bootlegger, victimized torch singer, and spotless high-class fiancé love triangle, we get something a bit more interesting and true.

Joan comes across as neither victimized nor blameless, neither virtuous nor promiscuous.  I particularly love how she sits there after being dumped by her escape-plan-man, watching men in the street take the garbage out. You can sense every fiber of Staywyck vibrating with contrasting emotions: not only mentally cursing out her limp-wristed fiancé, but also feeling trashy, blaming herself, lamenting what could have been. There are no tears, no hysterics. Just a sigh and a shrug. It’s worse than tragic. It’s disappointing.

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Cheer up, Stany! It’s just the first act…

She’s made of better stuff than the men in her life, but they’re not good-versus-bad caricatures either. Eddie racketeer doesn’t menace her, like we expect him to. And Joan’s fiancé doesn’t defy his family to marry her, like we expect him to.

Having dispatched three stereotypes at once, Wellman returns to Joan and her dilemma. Sick and tired of her life, Joan changes her name and moves to Montréal. Eddie, the clingiest bootlegger of them all, is still trying to find Joan, so she trades places with her maid and goes to the middle of nowhere to marry a stranger.

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Luckily for her, the stranger looks like George Brent. Although Brent just doesn’t do it for me when he’s playing an alluring man of the world, he proves a total delight in the role of Jim Gilson, a loping country bumpkin who conceals surprising reserves of intelligence and dedication.

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Don’t judge a book by its cover. And don’t judge a man just ’cause he looks like he escaped from the cast of Hee-Haw.

Greeting Joan with an iron handshake and a summer cold sniffle, Jim Gilson trots her off to a ludicrous marriage ceremony where the village idiot and a batter-stirring housewife serve as witnesses. All this exaggerated “one-horse town” humor may seem mildly offensive these days, but at least it provides Stany with an abundance of priceless reaction shots.

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“Uh… really?”

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“Really?”

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“Come on—REALLY, now?”

As Jim takes Joan into town, as he haggles over the price of the ring, as he marries her, as he carts her back to his farm, droll suspense lingers in the air—will he attempt to, ahem, assert his marital rights? Um, got awkward? Finally, they get back to his farmhouse and he proceeds to set up a sleeping bag on the living room floor while Stany goes into the bedroom. Phew. No wedding night antics…

Oh, wait. Cut to Jim looking through the legs of the table. He sees shadows under the bedroom door. Cut to Joan getting changed. Cut to Jim, creeping up to the door. Cut to Joan in her nightie inspecting the room. BOOM! There he is, bursting through.

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And since pretty much every Stanwyck movie of the 1930s has to have at least one slap, we know this probably isn’t going to end well for lover boy… I have to take pause and applaud not only the mixture of repulsion and regret that Stanwyck projects, but also Brent’s desire and shame.

Rather than aiming at sheer titillation, this scene sets up the dramatic stakes of the rest of the film. She browbeats herself for hurting him, and he browbeats himself for coming on too strong. Their insecurities bubble up and it will take a lot of adversity—and a year of sexual tension—to bring them together again.

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Will Jim loose his farm? Will he reject Joan when Eddie shows up and reveals her past? What kind of bargain will Joan have to make to save her husband’s dream of happiness?

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Well, I won’t totally give away the ending, but let me say this. I cherish The Purchase Price for its ability to craft a mature fairy tale, a rare blend of pre-Code sex comedy and earnest domestic drama. Let’s face it, a lot of films of the early 1930s betray precious little emotional insight and give us couplings that we don’t exactly buy.

That era of cinematic sophistication often buckled under the pressure of censorship—and the perceived audience desire for an upbeat conclusion—and served up happy endings that the characters didn’t deserve. I mean, who really thinks that Baby Face, Midnight Mary, or Skyscraper Souls (to name only a few) would shake out the way they did in the real world?

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So, it’s a distinctly refreshing feeling to watch The Purchase Price and bask in the agrarian glow of two parallel harvests: a hard-earned crop of wheat and the fruits of an equally challenging courtship. The sensual, yet fully legitimate kiss between Brent and Stanwyck, husband and wife, imbues the film with a cozy, alluring idealism, tempered by the bumpy road it took to get there.

Love, marriage, sex, fertility—these aren’t things that we should snicker about when they occur naturally, as part of a cycle, a ripening. If the premise taxes our credulity a bit, we witness a believable relationship blossom through deliberate pacing and characterization.

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The modern world forces us into all sorts of awkward jumblings of this natural order. (Now, bear in mind, I’m a 22-year-old unattached working girl, so don’t think I’m endorsing the concept of settling down or the white picket fence lifestyle.) I don’t think the movie’s message is “get married randomly and everything will work out.” On the contrary, this movie hints that marrying a stranger is as unnatural as the sort of fast-and-not-so-easy hook-ups that we consider so very modern. The Purchase Price makes the case for courtship, for letting a bond form  patiently between two people.

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The rotation of the seasons as a motif—enhanced through cinematography by Sidney Hickox (of Female and The Big Sleep)—helps to drive this point home poetically.

An astonishing amount of time, effort, and resources went into the set designs that create this “circle of life” seasonal effect. For the bleak winter frontier scenes, masses of snow were made from fine gypsum and thirty-five tons of untoasted corn flakes! The “frozen river” was simulated by heating water then pouring paraffin over top of that which, apparently, reproduces the look of ice—even breaking and cracking like ice when stepped on.

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A behind-the-scenes shot for The Purchase Price, published in the August 1932 issue of Photoplay magazine. William Wellman is teaching Stanwyck to scream.

Winter advisory warning: I’d like to alert you to one seriously hot sequence that takes place in the snow. It’s the one being filmed in the picture above. Even wearing long underwear and a winter coat, Stanwyck manages to turn on the heat and sizzle. “Have you ever heard a woman scream? Well, you’re going to…” In other words, all that set design travail and toil was well worth it!

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I can’t think of many actresses who could sell The Purchase Price, but Missy was the Queen of Credibility. Her extraordinary gift as a screen actress resides in her ability to wed theatricality to realism. Whether with a roll of the eye, a tilt of the head, or a full-on lunge or sock to the jaw, and she is constantly communicating what she is feeling. She tethers her audience to the moment with the sheer present-ness of her performance. For 68 minutes of pure Stanwyck charm, don’t miss out on The Purchase Price. And, to think, I didn’t even mention all those pre-Code lingerie scenes…

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This post is part of the Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, hosted by The Girl with the White Parasol. Be sure to check out the other terrific entries!

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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.’”

bgIf that Calais scene doesn’t wet your cheeks, wait until the denoument, which finds Beau in a debtor’s hospital as a decrepit, crazy old man. His former servant visits him with the news that Margery is dying.

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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