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.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Jeanne Eagels in The Letter (1929)

“Margo, as you know, I have lived in the theater as a Trappist monk lives in his faith. I have no other world; no other life — and once in a great while, I experience that moment of revelation for which all true believers wait and pray. You were one, Jeanne Eagels another. Paula Wessely, Hayes…”
— George Sanders as Addison De Witt in All About Eve (screenplay by Joseph Mankiewicz)

Addison’s uncharacteristically dating himself a bit there. Jeanne Eagels made her Broadway mark in 1922 with Rain, and if he was old enough to be a critic in the 1920s, he’s got a lot more mileage on him than Margo. But Margo misses her chance to acidly inquire if the De Witt nanny took little Addison to a matinee. And the Siren will speculate no further, because she comes in praise of Jeanne Eagels in the 1929 version of Somerset Maugham's The Letter.

As Leslie Crosbie in William Wyler’s 1940 remake, Bette Davis gave one of her greatest performances. Her predecessor was also great, but had a very different interpretation of the part. Jeanne Eagels, fated to die in a matter of months after filming wrapped, was working at a level of reckless abandon that remains rare to this day. It’s like watching a live broadcast of someone’s nervous breakdown. There seems to be some dispute over the proximate cause of Eagels’ death, after years of drinking, drugs and grueling tours, at the age of 39. It's hard not to wonder how Eagels survived as long as she did, if she gave performances at this pitch night after night.

Eagels’ contemporaries regarded her with awe. She performed in the stage version of The Letter for almost two years, and before that in another high-strung Maugham role, of Sadie Thompson in Rain. Davis worshipped Eagels, and if her Leslie is nothing like her idol’s, that’s because Davis had already based Mildred in Of Human Bondage on what she remembered. Barbara Stanwyck, then a chorus girl counting every penny, went to see Eagels four times.

In the short story that became The Letter, Somerset Maugham describes Leslie Crosbie, the disaffected plantation housewife who shoots her lover, like this:

She was in the early 30s, a fragile creature, neither short nor tall, and graceful rather than pretty. Her wrists and ankles were very delicate, but she was extremely thin and you could see the bones of her hands through the white skin, and the veins were large and blue. Her face was colourless, slightly sallow, and her lips were pale. You did not notice the colour of her eyes. She had a great deal of light brown hair and it had a slight natural wave; it was the sort of hair that with a little touching-up would have been very pretty, but you could not imagine that Mrs. Crosbie would think of resorting to any such device. She was a quiet, pleasant, unassuming woman.

That’s Davis in Wyler’s film, all right. It is not Jeanne Eagels. Eagels is the Siren’s favorite type of screen beauty, ravishing in some moods, near-homely in others. She had wide-set eyes, a cleft chin, and luminous pale skin. (“Lovely skin,” Diana Vreeland said of Edie Sedgwick, “but then I’ve never seen anyone on drugs that didn’t have wonderful skin.”) At her home, Eagels is costumed in blowsy dresses that emphasize a sloppy, braless decolletage; you are always aware of her breathing. Her unruly bob is also one of the few times in any era that Hollywood shows a real approximation of what humidity does to overprocessed hair.

Eagels, as recorded for the ages by director Jean de Limur, shows a Leslie who is rapidly coming unglued from plantation life. In her first scene, Leslie’s impossibly boring husband Robert (Reginald Owen) is announcing a trip. She tries to keep an expression of feigned interest but her mouth twitches from the effort not to yell at him to shut up. Davis plies her lacework with icy serenity; Eagels stabs at hers in a way that by rights should terrify her husband, if he weren’t such a complacent lummox.

One delightful aspect of the earlier film: Herbert Marshall, playing Geoffrey Hammond, the lover who winds up dead. Hammond dies without a line of dialogue in the story, the play, and the 1940 movie; and in the Wyler movie, of course, Marshall plays husband Robert as an unusually sympathetic cuckold. In 1929 Marshall was 39, but he looks 10 years younger, he’s preeningly handsome, and his Geoff Hammond is a perfect exhibit of upper-class narcissism. He’s involved with a Malaysian woman played with great sincerity by Lady Tsen Mei. She’s shown spoiling him in a doting, almost maternal way that Leslie could no more manage than she could crochet a telegraph machine.

Hammond turns out to be as dopey in his way as Crosbie. “The common sense thing is to say, we’ve had a jolly good time, but all good things must come to an end,” he tells Leslie, a line that the Siren finds paralyzingly funny. There’s Eagels, stalking around the room like a panther whose zookeeper forgot to serve breakfast, and instead of making sure all sharp objects are put away safely, here’s Marshall telling her right-ho, chin up old girl. With his ex-lover shrieking for a real answer, he comes out with “I’m fed up, sick of the sight of you,” lines Marshall delivers in the manner of someone being firm with a door-to-door salesman.

Naturally, Eagels shoots him, with a movement that involves her entire arm from the shoulder down, jabbing with each pull of the trigger like the bullets require brute muscle power to hit the target. Davis fires with precise aim and an impassive face. The difference between these two women is the difference between a guillotine and an axe-murderer.

And when it’s over, and Herbert Marshall is most sincerely dead on her drawing-room carpet, Eagels’ expression, my god! She just shot the man she was begging to stay with her not two minutes before, and there’s not a trace of horror, much less remorse. It’s the face of a woman who just had incredible sex with a man she dislikes, but he’s still in her bed: “What the hell do I do now?”

Cover up the crime, of course. Soon we’re in court, and there’s a marvelous look up at Leslie’s face and wedding-ringed hand on a Bible, as she prepares to lie her little cloche hat off. She testifies about Hammond had burst out with “I say, you’re beautiful.” He progressed to kissing her, she says, pausing to let the attorney Joyce (O.P. Heggie) draw forth the sordid details of how Hammond pursued her until she stumbled and then carried her helpless form to the bedroom. Eagels plays this beautifully, as the purest kind of barking-mad self-delusion. Leslie’s expression keeps slipping into an erotic reverie about an Elinor Glynn scene that we know never happened — and then, with difficulty, she pulls herself back to the courtroom.

De Limur and the other players seem to have seen the main job as just letting Eagels fly.* But there is other good stuff in this movie, all the same. The camera slinks into the multiracial nightspot where Leslie is going to fetch The Letter, in a way that echoes how the English matron is trying to remain unnoticed. Lady Tsen Mei gets some malicious dialogue with Leslie, and shows clear logic, unlike Gale Sondergaard a decade later. And at the opening of de Limur’s film, the camera glides from a shot of a sign, through the jungle to the Crosbie plantation and up the porch stairs in a way that surely made William Wyler sit up and say, “Hey, I can work with that.”

The 1940 film reaches heights that the 1929 version does not; the Siren admires Wyler’s camera, Tony Gaudio’s cinematography, Davis’ tightly controlled murderess, James Stephenson in an expanded and very touching take on the conflicted lawyer Joyce. The later film also has sharper, more subtle insights about the casual racism of the English, and how the Malaysians really feel about them. But some distinguished folks prefer de Limur, including Dave Kehr, who feels that the Code-mandated ending marred the later version. He hailed the release of this film on Warner Archive; as always at Kehr’s place, the comments thread was a lulu, with marvelous lines like “I hope I’m not guilty of otherizing the non-idiots” and Dave remarking, about whether or not Jeanne Eagels was nominated for this performance, “one must always be pedantic about the Oscars.” Dan Callahan popped in to mention that biographer David Stenn is working on a book about Eagels, which is excellent news. Dan also questioned whether what we have left of the 1929 film is a work print, and the possible solution to that is fascinating. (It was made at Paramount’s Astoria Studios, our old friend Mordaunt Hall noted some sound weirdnesses in his review, and Kehr hypothesizes that it was supposed to be sent back to the West Coast for sound mixing and was thrown into theaters instead.)

But the 1929 version is excellent and intensely rewarding, nothing like the stereotype of a dull, stagey early talkie. And it goes out on a high note, with the famous confrontation scene between Leslie and her husband. It’s marred only by Owen’s acting, which is very low-wattage compared with Eagels. (Imagine Basil Rathbone or John Barrymore in that part; you’d have heard the cell door clanging on every line as he tells Leslie she’s going to stay right here.)

“Don’t forget this. You brought me out to this filthy place, this godforsaken place, and you kept me here...your whole life was just wrapped up in rubber!” The way Eagels spits out that word, “rubber,” gives the Siren a thrill every time. The whole scene comes closer to Maugham than anything else in the film: “At last she stopped, panting. Her face was no longer human, it was distorted with cruelty, and rage and pain. You would never have thought that this quiet, refined woman was capable of such a fiendish passion…”

*Sincere apologies. Like the burning ardor of Herbert Marshall, that one was impossible to resist. You don’t know how hard it was to keep from titling this post “Where Eagels Dare.”

Update: The Siren has learned that Tara Hanks and Eric Woodard are also working on a biography, called Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed.