Sunday, February 08, 2015

Charles Laughton: Actor as Artist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Saturday, January 17, 2015

19 People Who Share the Siren's Birthday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

It Happened One Night (1934) at Criterion

The Siren is still writing, oh yes she is. Here is an excerpt from her essay about It Happened One Night, part of the Blu-Ray package now available from the fine and fabulous folks at Criterion. You can read the Siren's essay in its entirety at their website.

It's been a particularly hard week for the world beyond the movie screen, and indeed a hard year. Frank Capra's joyous masterpiece was made at a time that was, in many respects, far harsher. Watching the film again (and again) and writing about the things that make it great was an uplifting experience. This movie has a true democratic spirit. This long weekend, you could do far worse than to watch It Happened One Night.

No matter what they watch, or whether or not they celebrate this American holiday, the Siren sends all her patient readers warm and loving Thanksgiving wishes.

Almost eighty years ago, the Academy Awards saw a clean sweep of its top five categories—screenplay, actor, actress, director, and picture—not by a grandiose epic or searing social drama but by a romantic comedy, a sparkling, gossamer thing about the love of a pampered heiress for a just-fired, often-drunk scamp of a reporter.

The film begins with the heiress already married to an obvious fortune hunter. Her father has imprisoned her on his yacht, demanding that she accept an annulment. She runs away on a Greyhound bus and finds herself mixed up with that scoop-hungry reporter. They spend one night together, then another. They fall in love. A bare plot synopsis hasn’t got much heft. And yet after all these years, It Happened One Night (1934) is almost universally acknowledged as one for the ages, its gorgeous spirit haunting all the romantic road trips, all the unlikely courtships, all the bickering, smitten couples that have come after.

It’s a movie both escapist and egalitarian. Director Frank Capra, that great American cheerleader, assures everyone that this fair country’s wide-open spaces, while not without peril, are full of fellowship and democracy. Our land can bring out the good in Ellen Andrews (Claudette Colbert), who is so spoiled that, in the first scene, she flings an entire steak dinner out a porthole. Her father (Walter Connolly) delivers a roundhouse slap, a moment that shocks them both. But for a Great Depression audience, one that Franklin Delano Roosevelt would still describe, in 1937, as “one-third . . . ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished,” wasting a lavish meal would have bordered on the criminal. Comeuppance must be on its way — and so it is, in the guise of reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable). When Pete is introduced, he’s on the phone with the editor who canned him. As an appreciative audience gathers to listen, Pete tilts a bottle of booze down his throat and defends an unprintably bad story with “That was free verse, ya gashouse palooka.” He remains fired, of course, wasting something else that was scarce and precious in 1934: a job.


An ideal romantic comedy doesn’t ignore reality; it converses with it. The Depression may be softened by moonlight and shining eyes, but it is everywhere visible in It Happened One Night, from the woman on the bus who faints from hunger to the freight car full of hoboes who wave back at a joyous Pete as he races to propose to Ellie. One of the loveliest shots in the movie is the exquisite track that follows Ellie as she makes her way to the autocamp’s communal shower, while children chase each other and weary adults prepare to get back on the road.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Missing Reels: Publication and Schedule of Appearances

Updated, Nov. 22

It's publication day for the Siren’s novel, Missing Reels! This happy occasion was supposed to occur last week, but her book about lost movies apparently decided on the very Method promotional technique of getting a bit lost itself. Missing Reels is now found, however, and available at your local bookseller, and Amazon, or try Barnes and Noble, or direct from Overlook Press. It's also available for Kindle and Nook.

The Siren will be making some promotional appearances around New York City, and one in Washington, D.C. (other cities are possible, but not confirmed):

  • November 23rd, 2014: Museum of the Moving Image, 36-01 35th Ave. in Queens. Screening of The Awful Truth. I’ll be introducing the film and signing books in the museum store afterward.
  • December 16th, 2014: IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave., Manhattan. Screening of The Crowd. I’ll be staying to discuss it afterward.
  • January 7th, 2015: The Strand bookstore, 828 Broadway, Manhattan. I will be part of a discussion with Matt Zoller Seitz (moderator), editor of and author of The Wes Anderson Collection; James Wolcott, cultural critic for Vanity Fair and most recently author of Critical Mass; and Anne Helen Petersen, writer at Buzzfeed and author of Scandals of Classic Hollywood.
  • January 21st, 2015: Kramerbooks, 1517 Connecticut Ave., Washington, D.C. I’ll be reading and signing copies of the book.
  • February 24th, 2015: Brookline Booksmith, 279 Harvard Street, Brookline, Mass. Reading and signing.
New: The Siren did a Q-and-A with her idol, the fabulous Molly Haskell, at Criterion. Love the title (not the Siren's!): "Downtown Screwball." Yup, that was life in the 1980s in New York, all right.

There is a substantial excerpt from the book at

Very nice writeup for Missing Reels in the Movie News section of the TCM website.

If you want to try before you buy, there is a lengthy excerpt from the book at The Evening Class, Michael Guillen’s very fine blog.

Raquel S. of Out of the Past is a blogging stalwart and a well-known name around these parts; the Siren’s been reading Raquel's wonderful classic-film and book posts for years now. She has a lovely review of the novel up.

And the Siren’s readers well know that Glenn Kenny is a Close Personal Friend. He has a funny, thoughtful review up at Some Came Running, along with a review of another (very different) movie-themed novel, The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing by Nicholas Rombes, which sounds most interesting.

The Siren discussed Missing Reels, and film preservation, at Hollywood Time Machine, the online classic-film radio show hosted by Alicia Mayer and Will McKinley. The show is available in podcast form here. Bonus: Lou Lumenick of the New York Post talks about movie history and movie rights, and the delightful Eve Golden discusses her biography of John Gilbert, which everyone should be reading.

The Siren adored Silent London's review, because it comes from a fine writer and kindred spirit, because the folks there recognize the name Mordaunt Hall, and because she did not expect to be compared to Fever Pitch.

The Siren has already gone into the writing, theme etc. of Missing Reels, so this won’t be a yammer-y post. To avoid spamming her own blog with updates, reviews, etc., the Siren is going to use this as Grand Central Station for all things Missing Reels, and update this post from time to time. (At least, until such time as she possibly gets a second website together. Which could take a while.) Also, there’s always the Siren on Twitter, @selfstyledsiren, or befriend her under her real name, Farran Smith Nehme, on Facebook. (But do drop her a line first, to let her know who you are.)

Meanwhile, now that the extensive work of launching Missing Reels has lessened, the Siren hopes to take her posting back from “where the heck have you been,” to “dependably sporadic,” as soon as possible.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

A Few Words About Jack Carson

(Oct. 27 is Jack Carson's 104th birthday, and TCM is having an all-day, eight-film celebration that includes both Mildred Pierce, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Roughly Speaking. The Siren wrote this in 2011 for the now-defunct Nomad, but never published it in full. Here's the whole thing, gussied up with edits and additions.)

Gather old-movie buffs around to ask them what they miss, and one answer will be character actors. Jack Carson, who packed nearly 100 movies into a career cut short by stomach cancer at the age of 52, was one of the greatest.

Carson was born in Manitoba in 1910, but the way his nasal voice lingered over a wisecrack always suggested an urban birthplace anywhere from Brooklyn to Chicago. A beefy man who stood six-foot-two, he had the physique and carriage of a football player grown too fond of roadside meals. His face was round and almost apple-cheeked, with a mole on his right cheek and small eyes that squinted into slits whenever the world dealt him a perplexing situation. With this un-starry equipment he built an unusually varied filmography.

He often played heels, as in his first big break playing James Cagney’s nemesis in Raoul Walsh’s The Strawberry Blonde. Much later on, in his most purely villainous role, Carson can be found destroying James Mason’s fragile psyche with a single vindictive bar conversation in George Cukor’s A Star Is Born. But he could play well in other keys; midway through Carson's credits are a string of light but often diverting comedies where he played Bob Hope to Dennis Morgan’s improbable Bing Crosby. And he had that ability of any good actor to show you more than what's in the script, even a brilliant script. In one of his last film roles, as Gooper in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Carson is both venal and sympathetic, a son whose greed for his father's money comes from the bitter knowledge that it's all he will ever get from an old man who doesn't love him, and never has.

In his best-known role, as Wally Fay in Mildred Pierce, Carson's a sleaze, yet weirdly lovable. He reels out of the beach house to tell the cops “There’s a stiff in there” with an expression that seems to say dead bodies are always happening to stand-up guys like him. This man’s romantic maneuvers are like watching the Queen Mary try to parallel-park: “Not too much ice in that drink you’re about to make for me.” Mildred Pierce also gives Carson what the Siren thinks of as his career-defining line. “I like to hear you talk,” says Joan Crawford, trying to distract him so she can pin a murder on him. “So do I,” replies Carson, pleased to have found common ground. “Something about the sound of my own voice fascinates me.”

Unlike a lot of character actors, however, Carson did land the occasional secondary lead. In two such movies, both made at Warner Brothers (and available on Warner Archive), he gave great performances. Neither character is a heel.

In The Hard Way (1943), Carson plays Albert Runkel, one half of a vaudeville act with Paul Collins (Dennis Morgan, as good as he ever got). Runkel and Collins are so hopeless they give the director, Vincent Sherman, a chance to echo the Citizen Kane shot of a stagehand holding his nose. But they are good enough to turn the head of Katherine Blaine (an unusually hard-edged Joan Leslie), a poor girl in a steel-mill town whose prettiness and big-eyed fascination with the two hams causes the goodhearted, hapless Albert to fall in love and marry her. But Albert reckons without Helen (Ida Lupino, in one of her best roles), Katie’s sister, who sees him as a way station on the route to bigger and better things. Pushed by Helen, Katie becomes a star, and Albert is left behind, knowing he’ll never get his wife back and never equal her, either.

The small-time sweetheart pursuing the heroine who’s on the rise — that regular Joe who shows up backstage to moan “But what about us, baby?” — is usually one of the least tolerable aspects of any showbiz saga. Carson makes his part truly touching. It’s Albert, not the teenage Katie, who’s the real innocent.

In one musical number, “Latin from Manhattan,” Albert wears a ghastly pom-pom-bedecked sombrero and strums a guitar while Leslie vamps around a nightclub stage. He's is selling it with everything he’s got, and he’s terrible. And Carson’s face says he knows it’s no good, but that naive faith that was there from the beginning is still carrying him as he prances after his wife.

And then there’s a party scene where Albert tries to get a now-successful Katie to return to him. This time Albert is selling his love for Katie and their marriage with everything he’s got, and he knows it probably won’t work. Unlike the nightclub, the hope in his eyes gets dimmer minute by minute, until Katie tells him that if he thinks she’s leaving, he’s crazy — and you watch the hope die right out of Carson's face.

In Roughly Speaking (Michael Curtiz, 1945), Carson’s character shows up for the first time about halfway through the movie. At that point Louise (Rosalind Russell) has endured the death of her father, the births of four children, the infantile paralysis of the youngest child, years of marriage to a stuffed shirt, the stuffed shirt’s infidelity, and a divorce. Harold (Carson) meets Russell at a costume party and falls for her within two hours of meeting her — after encountering all four of her children in her kitchen. Harold is the ne’er-do-well son of a rich man, and he’s looking for a woman who will approach life with an optimistic and adventurous spirit.

And they need it, as Harold and Louise’s every attempt to make money falls flat. They open a greenhouse and inadvertently flood the market with roses. They invest in a new type of airplane just as the stock market crashes. But the point of Roughly Speaking is that compatibility of temperament matters most in a marriage. Louise’s life was steadier with the stuffed shirt, but she could never be as happy as she is with Harold.

They don’t seem as though they should have chemistry, and yet Carson and Russell do. Not the red-hot sexual variety, but that of two people who seem to adore one another’s company, no matter what.

Their fortunes reach such a low ebb that Harold takes a job as a vacuum-cleaner salesman. He comes home to practice his pitch with his wife. As he shoves his shoulders in the door, throws lint on the carpet, gets the vacuum in reverse and covers the house in blowing soot, Carson’s easy camaraderie with his wife is more appealing than many a passionate love scene.

Later, Louise discovers that Harold found door-to-door sales so soul-draining he’s taken to earning money by doing a bit of pool-sharking at the local bar. She comes in and they sit at a table, Louise almost in tears, and Harold gently tells her that he would understand if she cleared out. Carson’s face is a marvel of drily unsentimental love and self-reproach.

Even more tender is the last scene in the movie, when they are sending the two oldest sons off to war. They’re Louise’s boys, Harold is their stepfather, but they call him “Pop” and tell him how much he's meant to them. As Carson watches them go, his eyes and expression show that these are now his sons. Perhaps Harold never completely considered them so before, but he does now. The ability to pack that much meaning into one look at a train station — that’s character indeed.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Onward! The Novel, the Screening, the DVD, the Celebration of Preservation

The Siren could start by looking at the date of her last post and fluttering, “Did y’all miss me?” but that would be coy. She’s missed you.

It has been, as you may gather, an alarmingly busy time for the Siren. She’s been writing, but alas, not much for the blog. Meanwhile the world continues to scoot along, and we have some catching up to do. So here’s

Part One: The Novel

Missing Reels is still scheduled for publication on Nov. 12, which is just around the corner. You can pre-order at the bookseller of your choice, which would make the Siren very happy.

It’s at Amazon.

It’s at Barnes & Noble.

You can find a copy at your local bookstore via Indiebound.

And if you are saying, “Hm, well Siren, I like you and all, but I don’t know what this book is about. Perhaps it is Not My Sort of Thing,” then you can look at the latest review, at Publishers Weekly, where they said nice stuff.

The Screening

For the folks in the New York metro area, the Siren can reveal that she will be introducing a screening of The Awful Truth (which plays a part in the plot of Missing Reels) at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, on Sunday Nov. 23 at 2 pm. It is not on their site yet, but the Siren will link you up as soon as possible. She’ll be signing copies of Missing Reels in the museum store afterward. Come one, come all!

And OH BY THE WAY — the screening will be in 35 millimeter, as God and Eastman Kodak intended. So take note, all you “grain monks,” as a certain blogger has been known to describe those of us who love celluloid.


The British company Masters of Cinema for years has been putting out beautiful Blu-Rays and DVDs of great films, packaged with wonderful extras. The Siren has their edition of Douglas Sirk’s Tarnished Angels, to name just one that’s particularly stunning, and she recorded a podcast at Masters of Cinema Cast for Henri-Georges Clouzot’s L’Assassin Habite au 21.

For the Siren’s readers who have multi-region Blu-Ray players (and you should, even the techno-shaky Siren has one) Masters of Cinema have released The Gang’s All Here, directed by Busby Berkeley. This Technicolor movie begged for a good Blu, because it’s ravishing. Made during World War II, it is, as you probably remember, a backstage musical that depicts with unflinching zeal the brutal reality of American homefront life.

Just kidding. There’s some Army uniforms milling about, otherwise this movie is as glorious a piece of loony escapism as exists. Berkeley’s kaleidoscopic imagination runs riot. Talented, butterscotch-voiced Alice Faye was at her zenith; Carmen Miranda stops the show with “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat;” Charlotte Greenwood could still kick high enough to knock out an overhead light; Edward Everett Horton was still playing an improbably lustful stuffed-shirt. All this, plus The Disembodied Head of Eugene Pallette.

The Siren, together with Close Personal Friend Glenn Kenny and author, film historian and certified Alice Faye worshipper Ed Hulse, recorded a commentary track for this release, which has gotten some kind words. Please consider buying a copy.

The Celebration of Preservation

Because preservation is never far from our thoughts chez Siren, it’s time for some good news on that front. On Friday, the Museum of Modern Art’s 12th Annual “To Save and Project” series starts. The Siren will have more on the festival anon, but you can look at the schedule here. Highlights include a public screening of an edited version of once-lost footage from Orson Welles' Too Much Johnson, which our friends at the National Film Preservation Foundation put online in August. (It is still there, if you want to watch ahead of time, or download a copy for your personal library.) But several of the Siren’s friends have said they were holding out for projection. If you live in the New York area, here’s your chance.

But there is an even closer connection to the Sirenistas. Back when we did the first blogathon to raise money for the NFPF, the topic was all matters related to general preservation. And Comrade Lou Lumenick, chief film critic at the New York Post, wrote up To the Last Man and the "public-domain hell" in which it was languishing. At the time, Lou said: "One of the more interesting examples of these sadly orphaned films is “To The Last Man,” a 1933 Paramount production that is not only well-made with an excellent cast, but occupies an key place in the filmographies of Randolph Scott, Shirley Temple and director Henry Hathaway."

Lou's post should be read in full, because it explains a lot about public domain and how films fall through the cracks. But guess what: Sometimes people in a position to do something read about a neglected movie and decide to rescue it.

And that’s what happened: One of our kindred spirits at MOMA read Lou’s piece and became so intrigued that he tracked down and restored To the Last Man. And lo and behold, it will be screened at MOMA on Sunday Nov. 2 at 3:30 pm, and introduced by none other than Comrade Lumenick, the man who gave this movie some love. There's another screening Oct. 28 at 6:30.

The blogathon is the gift that keeps on giving.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

In Memoriam: Lauren Bacall, 1924-2014

Lauren Bacall walked into the New York Hermès outpost one day in the early 1990s to have a bag repaired. For those who care about such matters, it was a bowling-style, not a Birkin, and the Siren doesn’t know what had gone wrong with it. Perhaps a row of stitches had unraveled from the weight of Bacall’s fabulousness. A sales assistant recognized her, gulped, approached, and said, “May I assist you, ma’am?”

The response was a glare from a pair of the movies’ most celebrated green eyes and the reply, “This is Hermès. You should call me madame.”

Now the Siren knows about this encounter because it was witnessed by her then-roommate, who as the store’s manager had to send someone else over to assist Madame Bacall. He was, well, a bit irked.

But the customer was right. If anybody ever walked into Hermes and deserved to be called “madame,” it was Lauren Bacall.

Hell, the Siren might have curtsied.

Bacall had at that point come a very long way from the grass-green youngster who, in To Have and Have Not, had to keep her chin low for Howard Hawks’ camera so it wouldn’t shake in close-ups. But the raw material was always there. She was smart, she was diligent, she had a mother she adored and a steel-fiber belief in herself. It was a question not of acquiring traits, much less of learning to fake anything, but merely of how to reveal those qualities she already had.

Read a review of early Bacall — here, James Agee on To Have and Have Not — and it’s precisely the way anyone would have described her for the rest of her life:

She has a javelinlike vitality, a born dancer’s eloquence in movement, a fierce female shrewdness and a special sweet-sourness. With these faculties, plus a stone-crushing self-confidence and a trombone voice, she manages to get across the toughest girl a piously regenerate Hollywood has dreamed of in a long while.

The face was so dazzling, the voice so unique, that the grace of Bacall’s movement isn’t mentioned enough. Lordy, the way she walked! Like watching mercury drops glide over the floor. There’s no sway or wiggle to it, Bacall had no need to flash her sexiness. She moved quickly, purposefully, but all of a piece, like the cat she was so often compared to. Cats’ extra vertebrae give them incredible flexibility and grace, which is why so many acting students do exercises that imitate feline movements. Or, they could just watch Bacall.

Bacall had three children — son Stephen in 1949 and daughter Leslie in 1952 with Bogart, and son Sam with Jason Robards in 1961 — and was widowed at a young age. It’s obvious that she had a demanding personal life, and a strong sense of responsibility that went beyond her career. But speaking as a cinephile, the Siren can’t deny that she feels a bit of frustration when she surveys Bacall’s filmography. Such a brilliant start, with not just To Have and Have Not, but also the other films she made with Bogart: Dark Passage, The Big Sleep (the Siren’s favorite), Key Largo (a close second). And then, long periods of inactivity, in between films where her unique qualities seldom seem to be front and center where they belong. So often, as in the battily wonderful The Cobweb, her assurance and grace are lifting up a milquetoast character. It’s a huge help to the film, but Bacall's abilities deserved more.

That’s why, although the Siren would cite Written on the Wind as Bacall’s best film of the 1950s, How to Marry a Millionaire was her best role. Bacall was one of the few pre-1960 actresses who played a model while looking like a model; Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable look like showgirls, not mannequins. As Schatze, Bacall is the ringleader and outwardly the most hard-bitten of this gold-digging trio. But Bacall is also the most lovable, because she plays it as a woman too smart for the room: "We better put a check on that one. Nobody's mother lives in Atlantic City on Saturday." She’s too smart for the movie, too (though the Siren loves it) but doesn’t let that show. “A character straight out of characterville,” she remarks about Cameron Mitchell, who’s plainly overmatched. Bacall in this movie reminds the Siren of something James Wolcott said about another actress: “She looks down from the heavens and thinks, I could eat you for breakfast…” The in-joke toward the end, when Bacall is trying to convince William Powell’s aging rich man that she’s perfect for him (“Look at Roosevelt, look at Churchill, look at that old fella what's his name in The African Queen”) emphasizes that a screen presence this strong needs a worthy partner. Even my 11-year-old daughter hoped Bacall would pair off with Powell.

Take Woman’s World, made at 20th Century Fox in 1954. The Siren watched it for the first time this week. It’s the story of automobile magnate Clifton Webb, who brings three men and their wives to New York to audition for a job as his second-in-command. The film is Jean Negulesco on Cinemascope autopilot and kind of hard on the eyes. It was still early days for widescreen, and Woman’s World makes you realize that stringing Rome across the frame, as in Three Coins in the Fountain, or lining up Bacall and Grable and Monroe, is not a visual formula that should be repeated with backlot interiors and the likes of Fred MacMurray, late-career Van Heflin and Cornell Wilde.

Also, this movie suffers from a bad case of June Allyson. She was second-billed after Clifton Webb, and again and again, we return to her Kansas City homemaker, who misses her kids and doesn’t want to move to New York, and says the wrong thing every time. She’s supposed to be deliciously unfiltered, but instead most of her remarks come across as mind-bendingly rude. Allyson was driving the Siren out of her gourd until the realization hit: The little woman is undermining her husband so consistently that it has to be deliberate. It’s The Shrike! All over again!

Nevertheless, if you watch this movie, the Siren guarantees you will thank your deity of choice for Bacall. Allyson gets her head stuck in the porthole of the boss’ yacht and yells for help. Bacall, elegantly lounging above decks in a fur-trimmed suit, hears something and settles a little further into her chair. Finally, after she gets up she says to MacMurray, “I guess we better rescue Katie.” The absolute lack of enthusiasm in her voice is hilarious; she might as well have said, “I guess we better go defrost the refrigerator.”

Cool and graceful, Bacall is obviously the perfect wife, only she doesn’t want MacMurray to get the job because he’s got an ulcer and the stress may kill him. She watches Arlene Dahl, as the Texas tramp married to Van Heflin, with a lift of the eyebrow calculated to drain the dye right out of her rival’s coiffure. She takes Allyson under her wing (, plot? it certainly isn’t the character’s charm). Comrade Lou Lumenick describes what happens next:

The sophisticated Bacall takes the clueless Allyson shopping for a discount gown (that she will inevitably end up spilling something on). The latter sequence takes places in a strictly functional store with sharp-elbowed customers (but without dressing rooms) that is unmistakably meant to be the legendary Loehmann’s — which Bacall, a former fashion model from the Bronx, later mentioned several times in her autobiography. I’d like to think she suggested it.

Bacall was one of the most stylish stars we’ve ever had. This, despite the fact that she was not famed as a clotheshorse. Circle back to that Hermès bag, chosen for its style, not as something that immediately proclaimed who made it and how much money was spent on it. The Siren always remembers Bacall looking beautiful, but has a hard time conjuring a specific dress. She was the epitome of the old Coco Chanel remark, that when a woman is well-dressed, you remember her, and not the clothes.

There have been a lot of tributes to Bacall; one of the Siren’s favorites is by Teo Bugbee at The Daily Beast. Though the Siren disagrees with much else he says, the single truest observation belongs to Richard Brody over at his New Yorker blog: "She was meant to play Presidents and C.E.O.s, editors-in-chief and visionary directors." Yes, just so. But Bacall, in her bestselling autobiography and in the many interviews she generously gave over the years, didn’t dwell on missed chances. Complain? Perish the thought, and anyway why should she? She accomplished so much — what’s good in that filmography is brilliant — and moved to the stage and two Tony awards when Hollywood lost its luster for her. Again, she knew what she had.

Here’s a story from Jean Negulesco’s autobiography, about an early-1950s visit to Hollywood by the Shah of Iran and Queen Soraya. The Siren so hopes it is true.

After dinner, during dance time, Bacall, watching the royal couple, whispered to Bogie, “She is so beautiful. Why don’t you get up and ask Queen Soraya to dance?”

Bogie stood up. “If I’m going to dance, I’ll ask the Shah. He’s prettier.”

Bacall, to avert an embarrassing encounter, hurried to invite the Shah herself. They danced beautifully, watched and admired. The Shah, obviously pleased and flattered, complimented his partner: “You’re a natural born dancer, Miss Bacall.”

“You bet your ass, Shah,” Bacall answered with hearty projection. Without missing a step.

One moment in Woman’s World shines bright: On the big night of the job announcement, Bacall has arrayed herself in a chiffon evening gown. The Siren isn’t crazy about the gown — it’s ruched like drapes and is a taupey beige color she particularly dislikes. But Bacall looks spectacular in this thing, and she checks her figure and face in the mirror with a smile of pure pleasure. So seldom do you get a star in the movies who’s shown openly enjoying her own beauty. Not teasing a man, not preparing for battle, just looking in the mirror and loving what she sees. So did we. Merci, Madame Bacall.