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.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

In Memoriam: Ruby Dee, 1922-2014

She signed on even though she would not have the ingenue role of Walter Lee's sister that she desired; Diana Sands got the part, while Claudia McNeil portrayed his mother. Instead, Ms. Dee would play his wife, Ruth: "Another one of those put-upon wives. And they always seemed to be named Ruth!'' But, she added: ''I dusted off my disappointment. This was very important. It was going to be a Broadway show.''
— Michael Anderson talks to Ruby Dee about the original 1959 Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun, New York Times, March 7, 1999

Dee made her film debut with [Ossie] Davis in No Way Out in 1950 and the same year played baseball player Jackie Robinson’s wife in The Jackie Robinson Story. She was the good, uncomplaining wife to Sidney Poitier again in Edge of the City and to Nat King Cole as W.C. Handy in St. Louis Blues (1958). She was cast in this kind of role so often that she was dubbed the “Negro June Allyson,” after a contemporary white film star who played similar “good girl” parts.
African Americans in the Performing Arts, by Steve Otfinoski. Above, Dee with Nat King Cole.

"Freedom isn't a thing you should be able to give me, Miss Ginny. Freedom is something I should have been born with."
— Ruby Dee in The Tall Target (1951)

"I usually played good-girl wives and mothers. And truthfully those good-girl roles were stretches."
— Ruby Dee in Backstage, March 9, 2001, explaining why she liked her roles in The Balcony and as Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night

"The thing that fascinated me about her and her work was that in the really dramatic moments, it was as if her body had difficulty containing the emotions. That's the best compliment I could pay anybody who worked at this craft. We all hit a point in life at which we are unable to hide what we feel: Those emotions have either gotten away or are about to get away. Well, with her, she had control, but it was as if the control existed at the very edge of chaos. That's Ruby Dee."
— Sidney Poitier, who directed Dee in Buck and the Preacher; quoted in the Hollywood Reporter in 2001. Above, Dee with John Cassavetes and Kathleen Maguire in Edge of the City (1957), in which she played opposite Poitier.

"Dear Ossie, When I think of you, let there be silence and no writing at all. Ruby."
— Inscription on a photo she gave him during their courtship; they married in 1948

“In doing it our way, we didn’t have to sell more of ourselves than we could get back before the sun went down.”
— Ossie Davis on a lifetime’s shared career with Ruby Dee. Above, Martin Luther King Jr. visits the set of the stage production of Purlie Victorious, 1961.

“We've got to trust it and go wherever it takes us. Especially women. We women have a great function to perform. The world needs us. Feminine sensibilities are not being acknowledged, and we've allowed the anti-people to steal the children and are tolerating far too much: the assault on ourselves, the families of the world, permitting war and rape. More women are becoming enraged about these things and I think we're on the verge of doing something about them... We have to bring forward the graces in life and make them real. We have to institute democracy, which is still mostly an aspiration, and universal love, which is still unrealized. I dream of getting prisons off the stock exchange. It is a dastardly crime and an insult to the word democracy to make a commodity of jailing people.”
— Interview with Essence magazine in 2005, shortly after Davis’ death. Above, a protest over the shooting death of Amadou Diallo, 1999; Dee is in the lower right-hand corner. She and Davis were arrested that day.

"Cremation after a public ceremony, and then into an urn. A special urn, large enough and comfortable enough to hold both our ashes. Whoever goes first will wait for the other. When we are united at last, we want the family to say goodbye and seal the urn forever. Then on the side, in letters not too bold — but not too modest either — we want the following inscription: 'Ruby and Ossie — In This Thing Together.'"
— from In This Life Together, by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee

“We keep going upward. But the ascent is jagged. Up a little, then back, then up some more. But, all in all, upward. We're going to come into our glory as a species. When someone challenges my optimism, I remember a line from Lorraine Hansberry, I think it's from her play The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window. It goes, 'Why do you despairing ones think that only you know the truth?' ”
— from a 1996 interview with Joe Adcock in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Some Memories of Maurice Sendak

(When Maurice Sendak died, I wrote this small essay, and then I held it back. It's been two years now, and today would have been his 86th birthday. Somehow, it felt like it's time now. Happy birthday, Mr. Sendak.)

Maurice Sendak, the great illustrator and author, was represented by a literary agent I worked for years ago. The agency placed a large value on politeness in dealing with publishers and authors, and its top client's influence had something to do with that. Sendak had a tart wit and a low tolerance for foolishness, but when it came to the people who were working for him, he never had a diva-ish moment. He was, to use a sarcastic phrase in a sincere way, good to the little people. And people just don't come much littler than a young woman calling you to ask if a school may do a staged reading of Where the Wild Things Are.

That, of course, was me. I was not used to substantive conversations with legends. The first time I called him, I was so intimidated that not only did my voice shake, but my hand holding the phone shook too, and when I cradled the receiver to my ear I discovered my chin had a slight tremor as well. I introduced myself and rattled off whatever the permission request was — I do believe it actually was a staged reading, come to think of it — and he sighed and said something like "Oh, all right. It's a school."

That was it. I put down the phone and reflected that the mighty Maurice Sendak was, in fact, one of the least scary people I had ever dealt with in publishing.

Over time I came to enjoy my calls to him. Schools, libraries and the like seldom got a bad reaction from Sendak, although he did have an intense and understandable dislike of people re-drawing his illustrations. People wanting to use his books free of charge for a profit-based motive usually got a different reaction. This was, in a phrase I adopted and use constantly: "Tell them to fuck off. [pause] But — say it nicely."

I do remember that one time when I called and read him a letter from a school or library that described the Wild Things as "horrifying," he sounded a bit indignant, almost hurt. When I got off the phone, a coworker laughed and said, "No wonder. They're based on his relatives."

The one in our office who came to have a real friendship with Sendak was Beth, now better known as the author Elizabeth Cody Kimmel. She would call and her laughter would vibrate all over the office, and then she'd recap the conversation for the rest of us. The topics could range from Schubert and Keats, for whom they both had a deep love, to politics, to showbiz gossip. She went to Europe and brought back a death mask of Keats as a gift for him; she told me that later Sendak amused himself by hiding it under the bedcovers of a startled houseguest.

One day Beth called to tell Maurice that a symphony orchestra wanted to do a children's program that set Wild Things to classical music, an idea that would ordinarily appeal enormously to him. My desk was behind Beth's, and I listened in as she read off the pieces to be used. I don't remember the first two, but when she got to the arrival on the island, she said, "Thus Spake Zarathustra, Richard Strauss" — and I noticed that she had pulled the phone back slightly from her ear, as she listened to Sendak's opinion of Richard Strauss. I believe she said he began with "That NAZI!! You tell them..." and from there the phrasing became, shall we say, quite hostile. The symphony did stage the reading in the end, as I recall, but most emphatically not with Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Another time, a Certain Newspaper had decided to do a Style Piece focused on Mornings With Famous People, and Beth had to call and ask what Maurice woke up to in the morning. "A bursting bladder," he replied, thought for a moment, and added, "And a drooling dog. I don't think I want either of those things publicized. Tell them..." And she did, and she said it nicely.

He treasured his status as a curmudgeon, that's for sure. Beth one time was burbling to him about how much she loved Christmas, and his response was, "Of course you do. It's you Gentiles who make it such a chore for the rest of us." But his tone was always funny, never cruel or snappish. When Beth published her first book, he sent her a drawing of a pig in a tutu, with the inscription, "Mazel tov!"

One of Sendak's best friends was James Marshall, the gifted creator of the immortal George and Martha, who entertain my own children to this day. Marshall was also represented by the agency, and when he died, we went to the memorial service. Sendak got up to speak, and began to tell an anecdote about a friend he and Marshall both knew. He reached a part saying, " we are comforted," and stopped. Overcome with grief, he left the podium.

I will always treasure my glimpses of Maurice Sendak, a genius, a curmudgeon, and a deeply kind man.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Miss Wright Regrets She's Unable to Pose Today

Above, Teresa Wright bestows the look of love on Dana Andrews at the end of The Best Years of Our Lives. They showed it again last night on TCM, for Memorial Day, causing some to point out that the holiday is about remembering the dead, not honoring the living veterans. In the way of most pedantry, this is technically correct, and tiresomely literal. Wyler's film needs no grave scenes; it is death-haunted throughout. Fredric March, Harold Russell and Dana Andrews carry the dead with them, and they always will.

It falls to the women to help bring them back to life, and Wright was the perfect foil for the traumatized Dana Andrews. Throughout her career she played normal, and showed that a good girl has as many angles as a bad, if you approach her with sincerity and don't condescend. What makes her Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt so marvelous, and somewhat unusual in Hitchcock's filmography, is that the girl's essential decency is, for once, made more intriguing and less predictable than the serial killer she's up against.

Wright was eager to play this role for Wyler, says Goldwyn biographer A. Scott Berg, because Peggy Stephenson is a homewrecker, albeit one with the purest of motives. Wright was getting a little tired of being what Wyler called "the best cryer in the business." Then again, this smart and dedicated actress also knew exactly what she did and did not want from the business. The Siren here gives you a key clause from the contract Miss Teresa Wright signed with Samuel Goldwyn Productions at the outset of her career:

Miss Wright shall not be required to pose for photographs in a bathing suit unless she is in water. Neither may she be photographed running on the beach with her hair flying in the wind. Nor may she pose in any of the following situations: in shorts; playing with a cocker spaniel; digging in a garden; whipping up a meal; attired in firecrackers and holding skyrockets for the fourth of July; looking insinuatingly at the turkey for Thanksgiving; wearing a bunny cap with long ears for Easter; twinkling on prop snow in a skiing outfit while a fan blows her scarf.

Perhaps the second sentence of that clause was what Sam Goldwyn had in mind when he allegedly tried to get Wright to loosen up a bit during filming of The Little Foxes by calling to her from behind the camera, "Teresa, let your breasts flow in the breeze!"

You won't find much in the way of Teresa Wright cheesecake, but this shot is readily available on the Internet. The Siren includes it to demonstrate that had she chosen to do so, Miss Wright could have looked insinuating any old time she wanted.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Missing Reels: The Siren's Novel

Voilà, one reason the Siren has been MIA for long stretches this year: Missing Reels, her first novel, will be published by the Overlook Press this November. It is available for pre-order at and

For those of you who may be attending: On May 29, from about 11:30 am to 12:30 pm, in her everyday guise as plain old Farran Smith Nehme, the Siren will be at BookExpo America at the Javits Center in Manhattan, signing copies of the galleys at the Overlook Press booth.

Here’s part of the jacket copy as it stands now:

New York in the late 1980s. Ceinwen Reilly has just moved from Yazoo City, Mississippi, and she’s never going back, minimum wage job (vintage store salesgirl) and shabby apartment (Avenue C walkup) be damned. Who cares about earthly matters when Ceinwen can spend her days and her nights at fading movie houses—and most of the time that’s left trying to look like Jean Harlow?

One day, Ceinwen discovers that her downstairs neighbor may have—just possibly—starred in a forgotten silent film that hasn’t been seen for ages. So naturally, it’s time for a quest. She will track down the missing reels, she will impress her neighbor, and she will become a part of movie history: the archivist as ingénue.

As she embarks on her grand mission, Ceinwen meets a somewhat bumbling, very charming, 100 percent English math professor named Matthew, who is as rational as she is dreamy. Together, they will or will not discover the reels, will or will not fall in love, and will or will not encounter the obsessives that make up the New York silent film nut underworld.

The Siren started work on Missing Reels about three years ago, when friend Tom Shone (a novelist in his own right, and In the Rooms is wonderful) cheerfully suggested she write a novel. She decided that the revival-house scene in New York in the late 1980s (in its death throes, though most of us were in denial about that at the time) would be a good setting for a romantic comedy.

Naturally, Missing Reels also reflects the Siren’s obsessions which, as you know, are obsessive indeed.

So for fun, and to get back into the swing of things, the Siren figured she’d go through Missing Reels, and catalogue the film references. And from time to time, she’ll put up other posts with other photographs representing the vast and eclectic group of films and film folk that are mentioned — however briefly or obliquely — in her novel.

If nothing else, it will be decorative.

And afterward, the Siren has three half-finished posts awaiting her ministrations. She is eager to get back to her regularly irregular blogging schedule. She misses you guys, a lot.

So, the epigraph:

The Crowd, 1928 (screenplay by King Vidor and John V.A. Weaver)

And the first chapter.

Jean Harlow

Jean Harlow's double Mary Dees hides behind binoculars in Saratoga, completed in 1937 after Harlow died, age 26.

Red Dust, 1932

The Ox-Bow Incident, 1943 (roped in at left: Anthony Quinn and Dana Andrews)

Bette Davis (with Marlene Burnett) in The Old Maid, 1939
Anna May Wong and Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express, 1932