It (1927)

Speechless Blogathon

Published as part of the Speechless Blogathon.

In the America of the 1920s a new kind of woman emerged. A product of her times, she epitomised the free-living, energetic, sexually open, scandalous aspirations of her generation. By the end of the decade, in the years of the depression, she would come to be scorned as the epitome of decadence and waste. She was the flapper and the most famous of them all was Clara Bow, the world’s first ‘it girl’.

In the mainstream American cinema of the 1920s, perhaps more than at any other time in its history, actors were associated with particular genres and character types. This was the golden age of type-casting. Clara Bow’s onscreen persona came to be almost absurdly closely associated with her real life personality. She might play a Betty, or a Mary or Cynthia but her audience always saw Clara. As if to emphasise this link, in at least one of her films she played a character called Clara while in others the storylines toyed knowingly with the audience’s knowledge of her scandalous private life.

At the height of her fame, she was America’s biggest female box office draw for two consecutive years and near the top of the list in other years. She was a huge star with great mass appeal. On screen she was youthful, beautiful, uninhibited, strong-willed, sexy, subtle and vulnerable. She was strong willed and uninhibited enough to believably achieve her goals, sexy enough to seduce her onscreen lovers and vulnerable enough that the audience could believe in the possibility that it all might fall apart. And Clara Bow was subtle enough as an actress to make all of these competing emotions work. Subtlety is one of the few things that Bow was probably never accused of, but her acting shows this quality in spades.

While she had received good notices from the beginning of her career and appeared in a number of films previously, It (1927) cemented her reputation as the consummate flapper. The story is simple – Bow plays Betty Lou, a shop assistant at a large department store. She sets her sights on the owner’s son (Antonio Moreno) and is pursued by his friend (William Austin) who identifies Betty as possessing ‘it’. Comic misunderstandings threaten to derail the romance and set up a slapstick happily ever after finale.

“It” is that quality possessed by some which draws all others with its magnetic force. With “It” you win all men if you are a woman and all women if you are a man.

‘It’, the concept, is defined numerous times throughout the film and is, of course, meaningless. Based on an article by English novelist Elinor Glyn, an introductory title card defines it as above. In the film characters all talk about the concept, read the article, talk about reading the article and even discuss it with writer herself, in a brief cameo. ‘It’ soon becomes irritating and as a basis for a film is flimsy in the extreme. There is even, I feel, a hint of mockery towards the concept in William Austin’s early examinations of people to test for ‘it’.

Needless to say, Bow is found to have ‘it’. She is introduced as she lays eyes on Antonio Moreno for the first time. She announces her attraction to her colleagues, who mock her, and then ogles him openly. This look is extraordinary – it is a look of pure lust, a look that stakes her claim and her intentions to the audience. It helps win the audience over to Betty almost immediately because it seems honest – she is genuinely attracted to him – and rescues her from being a gold-digging character. It is also an example of Bow’s spectacular ability with emotional expression. Through one seemingly simple look she is able to show a whole flurry of thoughts racing through her mind. The same look shows the contrasting dreamlike innocence and the sexually aggressive sides of her attraction. I can imagine her planning a future with him in those few brief moments and plotting her way to his heart. In short, in one look, Bow tells us everything that we need to know about her character.

Clara Bow is a merciless thief in It. She steals every scene she is in and is absolutely magnetic. Whenever she is on camera the eye is drawn to her energy, her charisma. She is beautiful, of course, but she is also a dominating physical presence on screen. Like a dancer, she seems very aware of the significance of her movements and in silent cinema movement is hugely important. Without dialogue to resort to, everything must be shown visually.

In her performance, Bow also shows off her comic timing. Whether its her thwarted efforts to grab Moreno’s attentions, her dodging of Austin’s affections, a hilarious sequence where she rescues her friend’s baby from being taken into care or the yacht-bound finale where lovers are won, lost and swapped, Bow is always on top form. William Austin is also a excellent and seems comfortable in the role of the affable buffoon. His mishap on the boat is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny and he has one of the funniest title cards when he announces to Betty that he has come to forgive her.

Aside from the irritating repetitions of the ‘it’ concept, the writing is effective enough, telling its story in a lean way, piling on enough comedy and, surprisingly for a storyline with a baby being taken into care, limiting the melodrama. The direction, by Clarence Badger, is fairly loose, allowing the cast the freedom to explore the comic potential of the material. While remaining fairly anonymous for the most part, there are a number of effective sight gags and, in the fairground sequence, a technically impressive scene where the camera follows the couple down a slide, spinning with and around them right down to the bottom.

It should be nothing special – a frothy romantic comedy it has neither outstanding writing nor direction. It is special though and it is Clara Bow that makes it that way. She raises the material and carries the film. Nowadays she is more remembered as a brief icon of her time rather than as a skilled actress, but watching her work on film reveals a truly talented actress. Her surviving screen work offers frustrating glimpses at what could have been – with better material and given the chance to explore her range, she would almost certainly have been one of the greatest stars of the talkies. As it was, she would be continually squandered on sub par formula films, her confidence gradually eroded and thrown, under-prepared into the talkie revolution. It predates this, however, and shows Bow beginning the ascent to the peak of her popularity. Just as in the film, Clara Bow had ‘it’.

© Calum Campbell 2012

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The Lady from Shanghai

Summer Under the Sun Blogathon

Published as part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon.

The directorial career of Orson Welles stands to this day as one of Hollywood’s legendary cautionary tales. Egotistical, arrogant, pretentious; talented, visionary, audacious – there were many sides to the man. Like his Shakespearean characters, Welles the artist had a number of fatal flaws, flaws that would eventually become insurmountable obstacles in his career in Hollywood. Firstly he was, stylistically, years ahead of his time; secondly, he appears to have been utterly incapable of playing the Hollywood game – placating nervous studio executives, retaining creative control of his films, winning the fights that inevitably accompany making films. However his most damning flaw of all was that, with his first film, he had the misfortune of producing his masterpiece, a work of such quality that for over sixty years it has regularly been proclaimed the greatest motion picture ever committed to celluloid. That film is, of course, Citizen Kane, made when Welles was just 25 years old.

With Citizen Kane, Welles took the risky decision of basing the film on the life of America’s most powerful media tycoon, William Randolph Hearst. Mr Hearst was, predictably, unimpressed. His media empire blacklisted the film, allowing no reviews, mentions or advertising – even a bad review is better than no review at all. The film was a financial failure and Welles would never again make a film where he had the freedom of complete artistic control and a comfortable budget.

In the years following Citizen Kane, Welles would find his vision at odds with that of the studio executives. Afraid of having another flop on their hands or disturbed by his unconventional style, time and again he would lose creative control of his films. Starting with The Magnificent Ambersons, his second feature, his films would be wrested from him and re-edited by unsympathetic hands with little notice taken of his artistic intentions. Citizen Kane excepted, Welles became the poster boy of the compromised vision.

When Welles came to make The Lady from Shanghai he had just completed The Stranger , a director-for-hire assignment that had produced a profit for the studio. Things were beginning to look brighter. While working on a stage production of Around the World in Eighty Days he found opening night fast approaching and funds drying up fast. He approached Harry Cohn, the notorious vulgarian head of Columbia Pictures with a proposal – if Cohn provided the necessary funding to open the stage production, Welles would write, direct and star in a film for Columbia without taking a fee for his work. The story goes that when Welles struck the deal with Cohn he announced that he would adapt a novel that he happened see a secretary reading but had never read himself. This story is, of course, likely apocryphal, indeed it seems that the studio already owned the rights to the book. Welles was a showman who maintained his grand public persona rather like a separate, mostly invented character and for a showman, the truth never gets in the way of a good story.

The Lady from Shanghai was the result of this deal and it is a problematic film. While it has moments of Wellesian brilliance and a number of strong performances, these often serve only to remind us of what could have been. These elements are tantalising glimpses of The director’s original unadulterated vision. The fact that Welles lost control of the film is at times painfully obvious. The editing is sometimes erratic and jarring, juxtaposing shots in sequences that do not flow, the apparent result of a significantly reduced running time: it is said that Welles’s original cut was around 150 minutes while the released print was less than 90 minutes.

The studio attempt to fill in the holes by keeping the pace of the story high and by introducing a narration by Welles. The narration is painfully bad, adding nothing to the proceedings. Often the narration is needed to explain the motivations of characters since the scenes that would make this clear have been removed. It is overly simplistic and used to explain the events of the screen rather than to comment on them or introduce the internal monologue of the character.

Of all the damage that the final cut did to Welles’ film, the biggest victim is in the fun house climax. As originally intended (and shot) this was a complicated sequence of some 20 minutes, utilising extensive stylish sets, disorienting visual tricks, creative use of shadow and light and all the creative power at his disposal. The sequence presented on screen lasts only a couple of minutes. It is erratically edited and undermines Sloane’s performance as well as his character’s motivation.

It is, perhaps a credit to Welles’s visual flair that, despite being a shadow of what it could have been, the climax remains visually audacious. The camera tricks are impressive and the use of multiple images of each actor remains unusual and highly effective even today. It does, however, seem rushed and is an ending that does little justice to any of the characters or their actors’ performances.

While there are problems aplenty with this film, there are some elements that do work. The performances all almost uniformly excellent. Welles himself takes on the lead role and acquits himself well. He plays with an Irish accent that takes a little getting used to but is well done. Welles is believable in this role but seems much more comfortable in less working class roles.

Opposite him plays his (then estranged) wife, Rita Hayworth. For this role, at Welles’s instigation, she cut her trademark red hair short and dyed it blonde. The hairstyle is fitting to her character – simultaneously pretty and harsh. It also emphasises that this is a new, much darker type of role for her.

Hayworth’s Elsa is, I suspect, the character most injured by the recutting of the film. She is set up as a femme fatale but we are permitted only the briefest of glimpses of this. Her character’s reveal in the climax does not ring true – it is too sudden. She would be a stronger character if we saw her manipulativeness at work. She has clearly been involved in planning the whole sordid plot and yet is shown as merely reacting to unfolding events.

Among the supporting cast, Glenn Anders puts in a bizarre and unsettling performance as the sweating, giggling manipulator, George. One of the few set piece scenes that completely works involves him and Welles plotting on the pier. His giggling creepiness reaches a disturbing crescendo in a scene shot in brilliant Wellesian shadow and unusual low angles.

Stealing the show, as the husband, is Everett Sloane. His performance is quite spectacular. His spidery gait as he slowly walks across the screen is mesmerising. He plays the weakened cripple but, like a femme fatale’s sexuality, this is a mask to disarm his opponents – he is strong-willed, intelligent, manipulative and cruel. His continually calling Hayworth ‘lover’ becomes increasingly disturbing, a veiled threat. Sloane is also responsible for much of the film’s humour, most notably in the courtroom scene. Here Welles crams in farcical comic touches that lead up to Sloane’s over-the-top but amusing self-cross-examination as both witness and lawyer.

In scenes like this and in the brilliant support casting, Welles’s talents come to the fore. The problem is that in this compromised version these are only glimpses that are lost in the confused mess that remains. Following the edit, the film feels long, even at under 90 minutes.

Welles losing control of the film was inevitable. He came up with a darkly confusing plot, took the studios greatest star, cut her trademark hair and cast her in her darkest role to date. He created a film of confusing moral ambiguity; a film where good and bad were not easily distinguishable. Of course they tried to change the film, make it more palatable. Of course it isn’t really possible to change the nature of a film after the fact. The resulting mess is a compromised vision that pained Welles. It was shelved for two years by the studio before being vomited onto the market. It didn’t make money and coincided with the release of his subsequent film, Macbeth – also a commercial disappointment. With two flops in row, Welles was Hollywood pariah all over again.

© Calum Campbell 2012

Some Like It Hot

Summer Under the Sun Blogathon

Published as part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon.

Marilyn Monroe was never a favourite star of mine. I preferred the icy beauty and elegance of Grace Kelly or the innocent charm of Audrey Hepburn. For pure sex appeal, Clara Bow was the girl for me, or maybe Louise Brooks. For delicate perfection there was Elizabeth Taylor and for gutsy disdain, Katharine Hepburn was the star I turned to. This left little room for poor old Norma Jeane. I disliked her petted-lip pronunciation, her posing, her apparent vacuousness. I was wrong, of course. What I came to realise was that in the right role, under the right direction, she could be a remarkable actress. She had star power, alright, but she also had class.

I think that part of the trouble for me was that while I could imagine having an argument with Katharine Hepburn, or pursuing Audrey Hepburn across Rome or down an rain-soaked New York alley, Marilyn Monroe often seemed untouchable. She was a fragile doll, an idol to be gazed upon but never a real person, never attainable, not someone that could be interacted with.

In Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot she is as beautiful, artificial and delicate as ever, but she is also real. This is the film that made me stand up and take notice. This is the film that opened my eyes to her undeniable charm.

Monroe plays Sugar Kane, singer and Ukelele player in an all-girl travelling orchestra. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play two musicians living hand-to-mouth. When they accidentally witness a mob hit instigated by Spats Colombo (George Raft) they go on the run. Needing to leave town fast and avoid detection they doll themselves up in drag and join Kane’s orchestra as ‘Josephine’ and ‘Daphne’. The orchestra is leaving for Florida and will, they hope, be their means of escape.

Monroe dominates the screen in every scene she appears in. Her introduction in the train station stops Jack Lemmon in his tracks and stops us too. The camera lingers on her as she walks along the platform, encouraging us to ogle her. I don’t consider this misogynistic but the film, despite being a light comedy, does make certain observations on the treatment of women. Jack Lemmon, for instance, stumbles as he boards the train only to have his behind patted by Dave Barry. Later he is the indignant victim of a pass in an elevator. For his part, as Tony Curtis chats to Sugar on the train, she tells him her own sad history with men – a long series of mistreatment and disappointments. Of course this is exactly how Curtis has used and abused women himself. It takes him figuratively becoming a woman to understand his own bad behaviour from their point of view. He begins to empathise with a woman for the first time. By becoming a woman he finds himself becoming a better man.

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon give outstanding performances. Lemmon excels as the giggling and feminine Daphne. Early in the film he is hilarious as he tries to stop then joins in with an impromptu party in his berth. Tony Curtis, on the other hand, is at his best when he loses the dress and dons his millionaire persona. In a more than passable impression of Cary Grant he is comedic dynamite. The scenes between Curtis and Monroe on board the yacht are perfect – he is manipulative, charming and very funny; she is seductive, vulnerable and more than holds her own in eliciting laughter.

Playing opposite two actors in career-defining roles, Monroe could be forgiven for being something of an also-ran in the film. In fact she is never less than mesmerising. As Kane she is sweetly sexy and genuinely alluring. As viewers we more than understand the attraction that Curtis feels for her. When she performs her numbers as part of the orchestra’s shows she steals whole sequences and anyone else on screen becomes invisible.

While the three stars are possibly at their best, the supporting cast are no less impressive. One of the highlights of the film is Raft’s performance. He sends himself up spectacularly, playing off his own gangster typecasting. His best moment is a scene where he mocks a low level mob enforcer for tossing a coin – a reference to his own character in Scarface. While Raft and his gang are definitely amusing and often the source of comic relief, they are still permitted to play with enough menace to prove a credible threat to Lemmon and Curtis. Pat O’Brien, as the detective constantly trying to bring down Colombo, is also perfectly cast.

The supporting cast is, without doubt, dominated by Joe E. Brown. Playing a millionaire multiple-divorcee he falls for Daphne on sight. As the smitten lover he is outstanding and his subplot allows for Lemmon’s best lines and most absurd situations.

Billy Wilder co-wrote the screenplay with frequent collaborator I. A. L. Diamond. They let the absurdities of the story play to their comedic extent and, through deceptively careful plotting, are able to throw in some surprising plot turns. Notably they avoid cliche and do not go down the route of having Lemmon and Curtis compete for Monroe. One liners come thick and fast and some of their dialogue, particularly the closing ‘nobody’s perfect’ have become legendary.

Having started out as a screenwriter who moved into direction, Wilder is an excellent actors’ director. As a technician, however, he is conservative. His direction never makes itself felt in terms of virtuoso style and he favours straightforward shooting to extravagant camera movements. This doesn’t limit the impact of the film and there are several impressive sight gags throughout, my favourite being the backwards boat rides.

Some Like it Hot has come to be among the most acclaimed and beloved comedies of all time and deservedly so. It isn’t my all time favourite and, for me, it isn’t Wilder’s best work. It is, however, my favourite performance of almost everyone involved and, possibly most importantly, the film that made me reconsider my opinion on Marilyn Monroe.

© Calum Campbell 2012