Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The New Year's Movie Meme

The Girl with the White Parasol has just hit 50 followers! Guys, I'm so thrilled. I mean, I know I shouldn't wax rhapsodic over my follower count. After all, blogging is a serious creative endeavor and I'm only in it for the art and...and...ah, screw it, I love having followers. I love knowing that people are reading this blog and thinking about it. I want you to know how much I appreciate having such smart, funny, and kind readers. You're the best.

I thought a lot about what I'd do to mark this special occasion. Normally, I might just post pictures of people throwing confetti but you know, I wanted to do a little more. And I realized that what I've been missing lately is a good movie meme. I love movie memes; it's so much fun for me to read people's answers and find out about their tastes. And now that I have more readers, I'm eager to find out more about them.

So, I've decided to roll up my sleeves and just send my own little meme out into the blogosphere. 12 random movie-related questions for any out there who want to post their answers. If you do decide to answer, please post the meme on your blog, with a link back. And if you'd like to respond but don't have a blog, I invite you to give your answers in the comment section. Feel free to tag as many people as you wish.

Here it is, The New Year's Movie Meme. Yes, I know it's a little early for New Year's but I had to think of something for the title. I couldn't just call it Random Movie Meme.

1. What is your all-time favorite Grace Kelly costume?

2. What classic film would you nominate for a remake?

3. Name your favorite femme fatale.

4. Name the best movie with the word "heaven" in its title.

5. Describe the worst performance by a child actor that you’ve ever seen (since Laura gave me the idea).

6. Who gets your vote for most tragic movie monster?

7. What is the one Western that you would recommend to anybody?

8. Who is your ideal movie-viewing partner?

9. Has a film ever made you want to change your life? If so, what was the film?

10. Think of one performer that you truly love. Now think of one scene/movie/performance of theirs that is too uncomfortable for you to watch.

11. On the flip side, think of one really good scene/performance/movie from a performer that you truly loathe.  

12. And finally, since it will be New Year's soon, do you have any movie or blogging-related resolutions for 2012?

Have fun, guys! Hope to see you in 2012!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas to All

Christmas hath a darkness
Brighter than the blazing noon,
Christmas hath a chillness
Warmer than the heat of June

Well my friends, the time has come. The holiday season is here. Whether you're flying many miles away or driving over ice or cuddling in front of a fire or cursing out last-minute shoppers, I wish you the very best. Whether and whatever you celebrate this time of year, I hope that everything is joyful and bright. I'll be back after Christmas. See you then.


Lines from Christina Rosetti. Image taken from an illustration by Harold Von Schmidt. Did I mention that Today's Inspiration has become my latest obsession?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Movie Review: The Wicked Lady

The Wicked Lady (1945)
directed by Leslie Arliss, starring Margaret Lockwood, Patricia Roc, James Mason

We open upon the sweet, chaste, 17th-century courtship of Caroline (Patricia Roc) and Sir Ralph Skelton (Griffith Jones) as they ride through his estates, singing and laughing. Caroline is especially eager for Ralph to meet her exciting and beautiful cousin Barbara (Margaret Lockwood), who's coming to visit before their wedding. When Barbara arrives, however, she quickly proves to be a far more exciting guest than Caroline expected. In short order, Barbara seduces Ralph away from her cousin, forcing the heartbroken Caroline to be her maid of honor.

But Barbara can't enjoy her victory for long. On her wedding night, she meets the dashing Kit Locksby (Michael Rennie) and it's love at first sight--right before Barbara is dragged off to her waiting husband. Her nighttime duties aside, Barbara has no interest in all the boring responsibility that comes with being Lady Skelton. She leaves all the housekeeping to the ever-masochistic Caroline, while she sighs and frets and dreams of London.

One night, while playing cards with Sir Ralph's catty sister Henrietta (Enid Stamp-Taylor), Barbara impulsively bets it all and loses her dead mother's brooch. Determined to get it back, Barbara poses as the notorious highwayman Captain Jerry Jackson and robs Henrietta on the road. The adrenaline rush of robbery turns out to be just what Barbara was craving and she takes to the roads again. Only this time, Barbara meets the real Jerry Jackson (James Mason). Jackson is taken aback, but is quickly won over her beauty, spirit and black little heart. They become partners in crime...and in the bedroom. Finally, it seems like Barbara has found her true place in life.

But, as wicked and wily as Barbara is, she soon becomes reckless. She wants more gold, more thrills and even Jackson thinks she's taking it too far. Then one night, a high-stakes robbery turns into murder. And that murder soon necessitates another murder. Barbara's schemes spiral out of control and she finds herself in a fight, not for money or a man, but for her very life.

Imagine those tired British audiences of 1945,  piling into movie theaters to escape from the horrors they had lived through and the long rebuilding that would follow. Life was harsh and they wanted something to help them through it. But what?

Well, if the runaway box-office success of The Wicked Lady is any indication, what they wanted was kinky sex. Lots of kink. They wanted to see Margaret Lockwood in corsets so tight they had to be censored for U.S. audiences. They wanted to watch her do wicked, awful things like shooting people and poisoning them and sleeping with James Mason outside on the grass. They wanted to see Patricia Roc and Margaret Lockwood get into a slap-fight. They wanted to see cross-dressing and secret passages and noblewomen seducing robbers. The Wicked Lady was the box-office smash of 1946, outdoing its more serious competition by a mile. Critics hated it, audiences loved it. And looking at it now, over 60 years later, I have to side with the audiences. This movie is pure fun from start to finish.

The Wicked Lady was based on a novel called The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton. (You have to wonder why the author didn't just go all the way and call it "The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy"). The novel was itself inspired by an old English legend about a noblewoman who secretly spent her nights as a highway robber. That was the hook of the story; from there, it spiraled into a melodrama about a treacherous woman, her outlaw lover, and their bloody romance. Considering its plot elements, The Wicked Lady should play as pure camp. And yet, thanks to the deft hand of the Gainsborough studios and a talented cast, the film somehow avoids this. It's sharp, funny, fast-paced, and not above winking at its own silliness.

A strong share of the credit must be given to Leslie Arliss, who both wrote and directed the film. In 1943, he had directed the smash hit The Man in Grey, cited as the first of the Gainsborough melodramas. For The Wicked Lady, Arliss repeated many of the same elements that had made The Man in Grey a success: period setting, a sexy and violent plot, alluring costumes, and a witty, unpretentious screenplay. It was a critic-proof, audience-friendly formula. And to cap it all off, he had the benefit of two great stars, both of whom had seen their careers skyrocket after The Man in Grey: James Mason and Margaret Lockwood.

Margaret Lockwood delivers a knockout performance here as the evil but irresistible Barbara. It's all but impossible to watch her sailing through this film, merrily breaking hearts and bodies and bank accounts and not root for her to get away with it. Just watch her in the scene where she convinces her cousin Caroline to give up the man she's engaged to so that he can marry Barbara instead. Barbara plays on her cousin's sense of honor until the tearful girl has promised, not just to give up Ralph, but to be Barbara's maid of honor. "And you can have my wedding dress, too, if you like," Caroline tells her, fleeing the scene in tears. At this, Barbara's back straightens and her eyes twinkle. "Wear that? I wouldn't be be buried in it."

Barbara may not be the most threatening or subtle of 40's femme fatales, but few actresses seemed to take so much sheer sensual pleasure out of their own wickedness as Margaret Lockwood does here. She devours each scene with such glee you half expect her to be licking her fingers after each take. And she isn't shy about playing up the sexual nature of the character either. In a scene where Barbara must convince a suspicious old man that she has found religion, Lockwood kneels and looks up at him through her lashes in a way that suggests, not repentance, but bedroom roleplay. And in the scenes when Lockwood struts around in male attire, brandishing a pistol, it's hard not to look at her and think that Barbara is indulging her inner dominatrix.

With the exception of James Mason, the other actors have the unenviable task of playing clueless pawns in Barbara's schemes. And considering just how obvious Barbara's bad intentions are, that's really clueless. Griffith Jones, as the unhappy Sir Ralph and Michael Rennie, as the dashing Kit, are both effective in their small roles as men who are all too easily enraptured by Barbara (At times, Jones looks like a nervous schoolboy who got caught sneaking a peek down a girl's blouse). But it's Patricia Roc, as the requisite good girl Caroline, who gets the best moments.

Like Margaret Lockwood and Jameson Mason, Patricia Roc was one of the stalwarts of the Gainsborough studios. In spite of her own sensual beauty, Roc has to play the good girl here and she does some interesting things with it. Even though her character is written as sweet and innocent, Roc projects a kind of brisk intelligence and discomfort . She understands what's happening pretty early on, but keeps trying to pretend that everything is fine.  And in the scene where Caroline, as Barbara's maid of honor, has to invite the man she loves into another woman's bed, Roc's heartbreak is utterly convincing. For a moment, Barbara's cruelty doesn't seem so fun.

However, the machinations of the plot mean that Roc has to act pretty spineless for a good part of the movie and sympathy shifts back to Lockwood. Still, at least Roc gets one good scene where she gets to slap the husband-stealing bitch right across the face (a moment that no doubt thrilled the 1940s audiences). In real life, Roc and Lockwood were great friends. And, as often happens, cinema inverted reality as it was Lockwood who was the reclusive, maternal teetotaler and Roc who was the sexually voracious good-time girl (her numerous affairs with married men earned her the nickname "Bed Roc").

The major scene-stealer to watch out for here is James Mason as the roguish bandit Jerry Jackson. Well, perhaps scene-stealing isn't the correct word as it's fairly clear that Gainsborough Studios were counting on Mason being the prime attraction for female moviegoers. Mason was fresh off his success in The Man in Grey as a cruel but dashing gentleman; a scene in which he beat Margaret Lockwood with a horsewhip had electrified audiences. His dark and brooding appeal had made him the most popular male star in Britain. The Wicked Lady even pokes fun at Mason's image with his character here. The female aristocrats gossip excitedly about what it would be like to be Jerry Jackson's next "victim." ("Is he very dashing? Did he make any ungentlemanly advances?" they ask one woman eagerly ) When Jackson is sentenced to hang, he's surrounded, not by jeering crowds, but by adoring female fans.

It's a shame that Mason's only around for part of the movie because he's got crackling chemistry with Lockwood, far better than any of the other characters. His character Jackson is the only one who truly understands Barbara. He knows she's no good and will probably ruin him, but hell, at least they'll have a good time while it lasts. The headlong sexual relationship between Lady Barbara and Jackson was pretty risque by 1940s standards. "Do you always take women by the throat?" Barbara asks him, after one rough encounter. "No, I just take 'em," Mason replies, deadpan.

Halfway through this film, I had an epiphany: "Great shades of Scarlett O'Hara, I'm watching Gone with the Wind!" Well, Gone with the Wind if you kicked it back two hundred years and smushed it together with "The Highwayman." You have the bitchy, green-eyed brunette (Scarlett/Barbara), who loathes her sweet, smiling friend (Melanie/Caroline) and angles to steal her man (Ashley/Sir Ralph). The man is weak and even though he loves the good girl, still helplessly lusts after the bad one. But the bad girl is the one we root for and the more outrageously she acts, the more enjoyable she becomes. However, The Wicked Lady splits up the Rhett role between Michael Rennie as Barbara's true love and James Mason as the one who truly understands her. Which was a mistake since Michael Rennie has less screentime with Margaret Lockwood than anybody else and yet the film would keep insisting that he and Lockwood were star-crossed lovers, that he was the only one who could change her nature. Very strange.

In one sense though, Gone with the Wind and The Wicked Lady are polar opposites. Because while Gone with the Wind's characters are intractable, stubbornly clinging to their ideas until the final reel, The Wicked Lady cast seems to change motivations with every breeze. Oh, Barbara saw Jackson with another woman so she betrays him. Whoops, five minutes later, she realizes he will now go after her so she is sorry. Oh, Ralph and Caroline have confessed their love. Wait, they can't be together. So Caroline's going to marry Kit. Oh no, she's going to marry Ralph after he divorces Barbara. Which is weird because five minutes ago Ralph was telling Kit he would kill him if he ran off with Barbara. Whew. See what I mean? It's the one glaring weakness of The Wicked Lady; it rounds the plot twists so quickly that sometimes things like character and common sense are left by the wayside. And yet, the film is so witty and fun that you have to forgive it.

I've heard some reviewers argue that The Wicked Lady is in fact a a hidden social commentary on the roles of British women. After all, we have a strong female character who merrily breaks every rule of the male-dominated society which tries (and fails) to control her. But for me, the social commentary of The Wicked Lady, especially when compared to films like Jezebel and Leave Her to Heaven, is about as incisive as an Archie comic. That's not a criticism. The Wicked Lady is smart because it knows what kind of story it is and it works to make that story as entertaining as possible. And it doesn't feel like a movie made by bored, indifferent people. Watching this film, you just know the cast and crew were having a blast.

Some films are so bad, they're good. But in this case, the lady is so very wicked that the film is very good indeed.

Favorite Quote:

"He's very lucky with the weather. Must be depressing to be hanged on a damp day."

Favorite Scene:

In a film with so many outsized dramatic moments, it's odd that my favorite scene is relatively normal. But I absolutely love the card game between Barbara Skelton and her most hated rival, Sir Ralph's sister Henrietta. These two are a delight in every scene they share, because they can't resist throwing jibes at each other, all the while keeping up the sweetest-possible smiles. It's like watching two Bengal tigers at a tea party. Example below:

Henrietta: "It’s hard to believe that six months could have changed you so much. You know, I used to quite envy you. You used to look so young and lovely.”
Barbara: “Oh, is it only six months? Then it must be the journey that tired you out. Traveling makes one look so bedraggled.”

And back and forth. But Henrietta's cleverest and darkest moment comes when she plays Barbara at cards. The impulsive Barbara is fast losing everything to her rival and, true to her nature, bets her most prized possession on a single turn of the cards. She loses and Henrietta smiles at her softly, with an expression a cat might give to the canary between its claws. She picks up her prize, a ruby brooch, and asks Barbara, "Your mother's wasn't it?" Barbara stiffens and you can see the light going out of her eyes. And right then and there, you know that Barbara will turn completely to evil. It's that look in her eyes. She would murder that woman for a brooch. Nothing Barbara does later, whether it's robbery or shooting or slow, cold-blooded poisoning, comes as a surprise after that moment.

Final Six Words:

A wicked, rollicking ride to hell

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Great Citizen Kane Debate Comes to a Thrilling Conclusion

So, The Great Citizen Kane Debate is over and the wonderful ladies over at True Classics have tallied the results. As follows:

First Place: The Mythical Monkey, from A Mythical Monkey Writes About the Movies, for his entry Citizen Kane: Best Ever?
Second Place: Rachel, from The Girl with the White Parasol, for her entry Citizen Kane Takes the Stand
Third Place: Jill, from Sittin' on a Backyard Fence, for her entry Wait a Minute, There's No Cane in Citizen Kane 

Wow! I got second place, guys! That is, I mean to say, this is such an honor and...oh, just think of something really eloquent and pretend that I said it. It feels pretty special to stand up there along with two such talented and insightful bloggers as the Honorable Mr. Monkey and Jill. They both wrote excellent entries, so please, if you haven't already, go over and read them. And while you're at it, just go back to the list of entries for this debate and read them all. I was amazed by the effort and ability that went into this event and the way that everyone rose to the challenge. And for everyone who came over here to comment and debate, I just want to thank you all. You guys hold me to a high standard and I wouldn't have it any other way.

There's a reason my blog is littered with blogathons and contests and it isn't because I like getting shiny awards (well, I do like getting awards but I promise that isn't the main reason). It's because I can't resist the chance to connect with other bloggers and when the topic on hand is as rich and divided as Citizen Kane, it's a double treat. I know I walked away from this event with a whole new perspective on this film and its audience. When I watch it again (which probably won't be for at least eight months--I need my Citizen Kane hiatus), I'll be thinking about this debate and the varied but brilliant ideas that people brought to the table.

In short, thank you, fellow bloggers. Since I was watching The Great Man's Lady last night, I'll let Joel McCrea sum up the rest of my feelings.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Citizen Kane Takes the Stand

"Citizen Kane is perhaps the one American talking picture that seems as fresh now as the day it opened. It may seem even fresher. A great deal in the movie that was conventional and almost banal in 1941 is so far in the past as to have been forgotten and become new."
~Pauline Kael, Raising Kane

"For me (Orson Welles) is just a hoax. It's empty. It's not interesting. It's dead. Citizen Kane, which I have a copy of — is all the critics' darling, always at the top of every poll taken, but I think it's a total bore. Above all, the performances are worthless. The amount of respect that movie's got is absolutely unbelievable."
~Ingmar Bergman, interview with Jan Aghed

Well, a challenge has been extended. Those three fine ladies, Brandie, Carrie, and Nikki over at True Classics have thrown down the gauntlet to the blogosphere: Make your case for Citizen Kane. Is is the greatest film of all time or the most overrated? And if it is "just a hoax," as Ingmar Bergman would have it, is there a film out there that can take its place as Greatest Film Ever Made?

My own position on the matter can be stated in two parts. And the first is this: any attempt to rank a single film above all others is a complete crock. For one thing, nobody's ever been able to see every movie ever made. Even if by some miracle, a person could sit around for the rest of their life, doing nothing but watching movies and carefully ranking them according to cinematic value, they would never be able to even come close to seeing every film. The Internet Movie Database, for example, lists over 400,00 films, a number which doesn't even take amateur productions into account. Let's say this miracle person watched 5 movies a day, every day of the year, for 80 years. Then they would have seen a mere 146,000 by the end of their lifetime. Most cinephiles eventually come to terms with the fact that not only will they not get to see every movie ever made, they won't even get to see every great movie.

The deeper problem with ranking films is, even if you make the assumption that you've seen every worthwhile piece of celluloid out there and are now free to hand out merit badges, is that art just can't be assigned value that way. I know that we movie lovers have an obsession with making lists. And then arguing about the lists. And then rewriting the lists. 

But while those lists do have plenty of value for sparking controversy and discussion, they have no power to assess a movie's worth. If you believe that both The Lady Eve and Strangers on a Train are great movies, how do you go about deciding which one should be ranked higher? How much weight are we supposed to give to technical and visual merit versus story and content? Does the beauty of something like Triumph of the Will make up for its appalling purpose? Do we have to ration out how much space we give to John Ford on our list so that Douglas Sirk can have room? Actually, I enjoy pondering these questions because they force me to think deeply about the films I love. I think list-making is good exercise but then again, so is jogging on a treadmill. In either case, you shouldn't expect to get anywhere.

But here we come to my second point which is a little more complicated. Citizen Kane is not the Greatest Movie of All Time, but if we do have to arbitrarily assign a movie this title, then I think Citizen Kane makes as good a case as any and better than most. Birth of a Nation was more technically innovative, Gone with the Wind was a bigger movie event, and Rashomon redefined our ideas of how a story is told, but Citizen Kane is, for me, one of those rare movies that combines all the elements we look for in a film. Visual mastery, an exciting story, a talented cast, and most importantly, the ability to be rediscovered. Every time I see Citizen Kane (and I ration out my viewings), it feels like I'm seeing it for the first time.

On my last Citizen Kane re-watch, I was struck by what a strange, strange film it is. Even in just those first few moments. The establishing shot of Xanadu, the light that flashes in the window, the snowglobe, those monstrous lips uttering the word "Rosebud"...some people compare Citizen Kane to a horror film but for me, the opening owes more to the Surrealists. The story is set up as a relatively straightforward mystery: what is the meaning of Kane's dying word, "Rosebud?" The telling, however, is anything but straightforward. We are handed off to various narrators (Kane's loyal employee Mr. Bernstein, his embittered friend Jed Leland, his second wife Susan, his butler, his banker) but even as the facts pile up, nothing is really explained. The narrators are bitter and biased, their stories roam beyond what they themselves witnessed, and they never come close to answering the real question of the film: Who was Charles Foster Kane?

I once had the pleasure of watching Citizen Kane with a friend who had never, ever been told about the ending. When we finally reached the secret of Rosebud, my friend gasped, jumped up in his chair, and proceeded to complain for ten minutes about what a crap ending this was. Rosebud was the sled? What a cop-out. As fun as it was to watch my friend flip out over a sixty-odd-year spoiler, it did make me think that if you take it as a mystery, Citizen Kane is an utter failure. It's a mystery that tells you flat out that all its clues lead nowhere. It's an end with no beginning.

I've had a theory for a while that Citizen Kane is the cinematic equivalent to Hamlet. Both works stand at the head of their respective canons, whether people believe they deserve it or not. Everyone who loves movies has to deal with Citizen Kane and everyone who loves English literature has to make their terms with Hamlet. Both works are essentially shaggy dog stories that purport to be about one thing (Hamlet's revenge against Claudius, the mystery of Kane's last word) and resolve in a way that makes this one thing seem incredibly hollow. Both stories center on one very powerful and mysterious person and their slow descent into self-destruction. And both works seem to attract a lot of the same criticisms, that they're boring, the protagonist is unlikable, that nothing gets resolved. But I believe that both Hamlet and Citizen Kane have something of the same irresistible appeal for people: they force the audience to question themselves. The mystery is not in the events of the plot, but in pondering the question of what lies at the heart of a human being.

And I think that emphasis on the individual is also part of the reason why Citizen Kane is so often ranked higher than its American competition, higher than Casablanca or Gone With the Wind. It strikes at the great American fascination with the self-made man, a myth that's dominated our culture from The Great Gatsby to The Social Network. Like The Great Gatsby, Citizen Kane is essentially a demolition of that myth. Charles Foster Kane doesn't "make" himself; his fortune is thrust upon him. His fantasies of using that money to do good prove weak, his patriotism is exposed as war-mongering, and even the simple right of telling his own story is taken out of his hands. While this kind of story isn't necessarily more valid or worthy than any other narrative, nevertheless, it's the kind of story that Americans tend to claim as being most, well, American. And tied in with Citizen Kane's search for success is of course, the story of its own creator, Orson Welles, his blazes of glory, his failures and thwarted endeavors. Casablanca is the ultimate cinematic escape and Gone with the Wind is the ultimate cinematic event, but Citizen Kane is the ultimate cinematic quest.

I've dwelt more on Citizen Kane's story more than its visuals, probably because I find it easier to go after narrative than I do picking apart Welles' gorgeous, fascinating camera work. When I watch Citizen Kane, I'm always in danger of losing myself in one particularly weird or beautiful shot. Just look at the way Welles and Toland light those reporters in the newsroom, with beams of light echoing around their faces and hands. Or the Thatcher Library, which looks like it should be the set for a medieval miracle play. Susan Alexander's jigsaw puzzles, the sharply angled ceilings, Kane thunderously clapping into empty space. This is the reason why I don't watch Citizen Kane very often; I don't ever want to reach the point where its images fail to shock me.

Citizen Kane is often touted as a cinematic pioneer, blazing new trails and techniques in creative filmmaking. Welles and Toland's use of deep focus, their experiments with camera angles, wipes, montages, matte paintings, and animation all play a part in making Citizen Kane's reputation as one of the most technically innovative movies of all time. But what makes me marvel isn't that these filmmakers pioneered so many new methods, but that even now, Citizen Kane still looks exciting and new. So many times, a work of art that was once fresh and ingenious turns stale after those same innovations are recycled a thousand times over. It isn't just that Citizen Kane looks different from every movie that came before it. It looks different from every movie that came after it.

I'm going to end my commentary on Citizen Kane with a personal confession. The reason why I named my blog, "The Girl with the White Parasol." Anyone familiar with Citizen Kane knows Mr. Bernstein's famous speech in which he remembers one fleeting glimpse of a girl with a parasol, years and years ago. "I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl." When I chose that quote and title for my blog, I worried for a long time that people might think I was calling myself after that long-lost girl. And wouldn't that seem like the height of arrogance? No one ever questioned me on the subject but here is my chance to set the record straight. The girl with the white parasol isn't me. For me, the girl represents a brief flash of beauty in a person's life. One of those brief moments that stay with us forever, no matter where we end up or what we do. The reason I watch films is so that I can find those moments of beauty, whether they come from a Technicolor image or from the throb in an actor's voice or from a string chorus. That's why I named my blog, "The Girl with the White Parasol." That's why I love film. And that's why I love Citizen Kane.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

5 Movie Costumes I Love (Fall '11 Edition)

So...dear readers. It's been three weeks since my last post and for me, it feels like three years. My absence had nothing to do with my feelings about blogging, classic movies, or my fellow bloggers. It had everything to do with my personal life, my family, and some major upheavals that have been going on (and are still going on) throughout these last few weeks. Even if I'd had the time, I'm afraid I had little spirit for blogging.

I can't promise that it will be smooth sailing from here on in. Quite frankly, I think my participation in the blogosphere is going to be somewhat erratic for awhile. Never fear though. I have no plans to desert this blog. It means a lot to me to have this as my escape from everything else right now. I still love talking about movies and I still love talking to all of you.

With that explanation out of the way, I thought that now would be a good time for another edition of my Favorite Movie Costumes list. This is an ongoing series where I gush over five of my favorite costumes from classic film. I'm doing it in the same format as last time, with the same three restrictions.
  1. Absolutely no costumes from an Alfred Hitchcock film.
  2. No costumes worn by Grace Kelly.
  3. No costumes worn by Audrey Hepburn.
Get it? Got it? Good. Let's begin.

1. Bette Davis in The Letter
Costume Design by Orry-Kelly
("The Lace Veil")

I'm not sure who had the idea to put Bette Davis in a veil for one of The Letter's most memorable scenes (Orry-Kelly? William Wyler? Davis herself?), but it was a brilliant touch. During one unnerving, near-silent sequence, Davis' character Leslie goes to buy back the crucial letter from the Eurasian wife (played by Gale Sondergaard) of Leslie's former lover. The same lover that Leslie had killed. The women meet face to face in a standoff as cold and tense as any Western shootout. The addition of the veil makes an already mesmerizing scene even more heavy with meaning. There's the mocking evocation of a bridal veil (note that Davis kneels before Sondergaard). It's a bitter joke of course; Leslie is the illicit lover and far from innocent. There's the way the deceptive and repressed Leslie is veiled while the openly enraged Sondergaard appears with her hair scraped back and every muscle in her face visible. There's the connection to Leslie's character and her own obsessive lace making. But above all else, it makes for a beautiful image in one of Wyler's most visually stunning films.

2. Joan Bennett in Scarlet Street
Costume Design by Travis Banton
("The Raincoat" and "The Black Gown")

Okay, I'm cheating here and listing two costumes from the same movie. But I can't help it. I absolutely love the first sight we get of Joan Bennett in that transparent raincoat. It's cheap and sexy, exactly right for the character of Kitty "Lazy Legs" March. Kitty, a masochistic prostitute with little brains and no heart, is one of the most wonderfully nasty femme fatales ever put to film. Appropriate then, that she first appears to us in an outfit that puts everything on display, without being too overt about the nature of her profession. And I dig her little striped handbag; it looks like a giant bonbon (a reference to her character's love of candy). However, while the raincoat is a more iconic image, I can't leave Scarlet Street, without putting in a word for Joan Bennett's black gown. That one wins for sheer sex appeal. Hell, just check out how closely Travis Banton skirted the lines of Code-approval with that bodice. And that slit skirt. Every femme fatale deserves at least one dress this seductive.

3. Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
Costume Design by Edith Head
("The White and the Black")

(second photo credited to Dial V for Vintage Blog)

And speaking of femme fatales (I guess I'm in a film noir mood this week), I want to put in a mention for one of my favorite Barbara Stanwyck characters, the complex and conflicted Martha Ivers. Martha's one of the more unusual femme fatales out there because we actually get to know her backstory and why she acts the way she does. She's a vamp, sure, but she's also tormented by guilt and the lust for power. She longs to return to her more innocent past (as personified by her childhood love Van Heflin), but it's clear she doesn't know how to be that girl anymore. She's the Lady Macbeth of femme fatales.

Edith Head designed Stanwyck's wardrobe for this film and Stanwyck looks smashing throughout but there's one moment that just makes me catch my breath every time. And that's the scene where Martha, encased in this smart black and white outfit, arrives at Van Heflin's hotel room. Lizabeth Scott (as his girlfriend Toni) is playfully showing off her figure for her man, but the minute Martha appears, the air is sucked from the room. Stanwyck appears almost snakelike here, her hands covered in long black gloves, her neck hidden, a hood over her hair; she looks every inch the predator. And the way that black detail marches up and down the lines of her dress, like a line of factory-approved rivets (Martha controls the town's industry). It's dramatic, it's stylish and it proves that a lady can walk in, all covered up, and still steal your man.

4. Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember
Costume Design by Charles Le Maire
("The Orange and White Chiffon")

Anyone remember all those times in the Anne of Green Gables books where Anne Shirley would go into a fit of melancholy because she was a redhead and couldn't wear pink? Too bad she never got to take a look at An Affair to Remember because in this film, Deborah Kerr breaks all these so-called redhead rules and blazes out gloriously in pink, red, and orange. And don't we love her for it! (Although for my money, she should have steered clear of the taupe. But nobody's perfect). My personal favorite is this gorgeous orange and white chiffon gown. The unusual work on the bodice, the elegant drape of the fabric, the striking all combines to make one fascinating dress. I'm not sure what budget Terry McKay the singer is supposed to be working with, but who could question a woman so stunning?

5. Susan Harrison in Sweet Smell of Success
Costume Design by Mary Grant
("The Fur Coat")

"This coat is your brother. I've always hated this coat."

Poor Susie Hunsecker, trapped by her sadistic, controlling brother, just as she's trapped by this luxurious, oversized fur coat. As the night runs long in New York City, Susie walks around town in a coat that makes her look like a little girl playing dress-up. This is a case not just of what a character wears but how they wear it. In Susie's case, you only have to watch how Susan Harrison buries herself in that fur, the way it slips off her shoulders. All Susie wants is her independence and her love, but she'll have to fight for it. This is one bit of costuming where you can instantly imagine the backstory. No doubt J.J. Hunsecker gave his sister this coat after she told him she was tired of being treated like a little kid. Ostensibly to prove that he knew she was an adult, but really because he enjoyed watching her struggle with something that didn't fit her, making her look more like a child than ever. The moment when Susie finally, decisively, gets rid of this coat is one of the most triumphant costume changes on film.

P.S. Five points for anyone who spots the Danny Kaye reference.

Monday, October 17, 2011

"I think it would be fun to run a newspaper..."

I'm no Charles Foster Kane, nor do I own a newspaper, but I come bearing blog-relevant news. The weather may be getting colder, but it looks like the blogosphere will be heating up in the next few months with some promising new events. Orson Welles is almost as excited as I am. (P.S. It did take me a few extra minutes to realize he's brandishing a pipe in that still, not a gun.)

The Great Citizen Kane Debate (November 2011), Hosted by Brandie, Carrie, and Nikki at True Classics
"Here’s your chance to either defend Kane’s position as King of the Cinematic Mountain, or to knock it off its storied pedestal. At some point during the next month (until November 13th), put up a post on your blog either explaining why Kane deserves to be numero uno, or lay out your reasons why it is overrated. And if you are among those who feel that Kane is not the best movie of all time, tell us which film really IS, in your opinion, and defend your choice!
The entries will be judged by Carrie, Nikki, myself, and a couple of guest judges whom we haven’t determined yet. We’ll be looking at several factors, but first and foremost, we’re looking for enthusiastic, informative, and entertaining entries that will engage us–and your readers–in lively discussion. And we will award prizes to our top three favorites entries!"
I knew I was committed to this contest before I even finished reading the rules. It's a debate about Citizen Kane! The film for which my blog was named! It's going to be a challenge to come up with something intelligent to say about one of the most discussed films of all time, but that's what makes it so fun. Judging by all the creative and talented folks I've met hanging out at the True Classics blog, I know that my fellow bloggers are going to meet this challenge and then some.

The For the Boys Blogathon (November 19th-20th, 2011), Hosted by Katie and Hilary at The Scarlett Olive Podcast
"There’s a staggering amount of estrogen in our blogs and podcasts. We’d like to shake the content up a bit and expand our masculine audience. Many classic films fall under the manly umbrella: shoot-‘em-up westerns, shadowy noir, timeless war tales, and action-filled gangster ploys. Females are capable of enjoying these types of films, but we feel they were primarily geared towards men. So, here is what we ask of you:
  • Think about the quintessential films in these genres
  • Reflect upon why these films appeal to men
Write a blog (or podcast) regarding the masculine gender in film, genres that appeal to men, films in these genres*, or a combination of any of the above. If you are male or female and disagree with this completely … write about that!"
This is probably the opportune moment to admit that The Magnificent Seven is my holiday film of choice. Something about that thumping Elmer Bernstein score just gets me in the right shopping/decorating/snuggling mood. So I'm really looking forward to this manly blogathon. I have the feeling that this one's going to generate a lot of conversation and debate.

The Dueling Divas Marathon (December 20th-23rd, 2011), Hosted by Lara at Backlots
"I am hosting the Dueling Divas Blogathon, which I have scheduled to take place between December 20-23. It’s a ways off, so as to leave enough time to plan your blogging schedules accordingly. Participants may blog about any of the following types of Dueling Divas:
  • Those who had a rivalry in real life, either over a particular film role or over a personality clash, ie Bette Davis and Joan Crawford
  • Those who had a rivalry on the screen, ie Mildred and Veda from Mildred Pierce
  • Any dual role (see what I did there? Duel? Dual? Be proud.) played by an actor or actress in a classic film, ie Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap.
It’s totally free reign, you can write about the divas themselves, compare and contrast one of each of their films, and if you’re going to write about dual roles, you can talk about the differences in their characters or the actor’s technique in portraying them…you get the idea."
I think this wins my vote for the Best Blogathon Name this year; it just rolls off the tongue. There's a lot of exciting possibilities for this one: evil twins, backstage feuds, hair-pulling fights. How can you resist?

The Humphrey Bogart Blogathon (December 23rd-25th, 2011), Hosted by Meredith at Forever Classics
"As most of you probably know by now, Humphrey Bogart is my favorite actor. In honor of his 112th birthday on December 25th, I've decided to host my first blogathon, which will run from December 23-December 25th. I realize that's it's three months away, but if you'd like to participate, I ask that you let me know by December 22nd. Your post can be about his films, his life or anything else Bogie-related."
Bogie really is the best medicine for those holiday blues and chills. What better way to celebrate the birth of Christ than to re-watch Bogart pistol-whipping a few bad guys? Is there a better hymn to brotherly love than The Treasure of the Sierra Madre? I don't think so.  Let's set aside some time this holiday season to celebrate one of cinema's greatest actors.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Great Screen Teams That Never Were

Today, I'm going to jump into my What If Machine and ask the Matchmaker's Question: What are the great screen teams that never happened? Two talented actors who never paired up, two great tastes that seem like they would have tasted great together, but were never given a real chance. I know that acting chemistry is hard to predict (Who would have guessed that a nervous nineteen-year-old model would become Humphrey Bogart's perfect match?), but it's still fun to speculate. And so, I present to you, a list of Eight Great What Ifs.

1. William Powell and Claudette Colbert

When you think about it, these two had a lot in common. Both of them hit their peak in 1934 (Colbert with It Happened One Night, Powell with The Thin Man). They had two of the most knowing glances in all of '30s cinema, Powell with his arched brows, and Colbert with her sidelong smile. They wore their elegance like it was some grand joke on themselves and the audience. They were clever, they were amazingly classy, but nobody could ever resent them for it; it was just too much fun to be around them. While it's impossible to beat the team of William Powell and Myrna Loy, it's a real shame that Claudette Colbert never got the chance to try.

2. James Cagney and Barbara Stanwyck

These were two of the toughest customers in cinema. While Cagney was pumping his enemies full of lead, Stanwyck was lying and cheating her way to the top. Watch the moment in Baby Face when Stanwyck hits a guy with a beer bottle before casually taking a swig from it; no way would Cagney get away with pushing grapefruit into her face. But Stanwyck and Cagney had more in common than onscreen violence. Both of them had made their way into show business as vaudeville hoofers, dancing in clubs and revues. They were sharp, strong New Yorkers who'd been working their whole lives. And yet Hollywood ignored this potential partnering right up until 1956. Cagney and Stanwyck were finally teamed up for These Wilder Years, which was...a sentimental drama about a millionaire and an adoption agency worker. Way to miss your big chance, casting directors. For what it's worth, Stanwyck and Cagney got along well offscreen and even entertained the film crew with an impromptu dance number.

3. Clifton Webb and Thelma Ritter

Like the previous pair, Ritter and Webb did share time in one film, the 1953 version of Titanic.  But their interaction wasn't played for its full comic potential and I think that's a crying shame. I've always wanted to see these two square off. Could Webb's talent for the poisonous one-liner compete with Ritter's homespun put downs? I don't know, but I think it would be one hell of a match. A true collision of matter and antimatter.

4. Lena Horne and Paul Robeson

It's always a shock to me to look back and realize just how few films Paul Robeson and Lena Horne made. The extreme racial strictures of Hollywood meant that these two enormously talented performers had to find most of their applause off, rather than on, the screen. But just imagine if these two had ever gotten a chance to be together in a film. Their star power, their confidence, and their tremendous musical gifts would have made them into one hell of a pairing. Unfortunately for us, it never happened. In real life though, the two were great friends and Lena Horne credited Paul Robeson with being a mentor to her. In an interview, she said, "Paul taught me about being proud because I was Negro ... he sat down for hours, and he told me about Negro people…. And he didn’t talk to me as a symbol of a pretty Negro chick singing in a club. He talked to me about my heritage. And that’s why I always loved him."

5. Carole Lombard and Myrna Loy

Hollywood has a painfully long history of ignoring female friendship. The very fact that Thelma and Louise is still cited as the female buddy movie, twenty years after its release...yeah, that pretty much sums it up. But let's ignore Hollywood's bad record on this subject and imagine an alternate universe where Loy and Lombard were paired together.  Loy had the dry-humored poise, Lombard had the dizzy energy; together they would have been unstoppable. They would have been like Redford and Newman, except in satin gowns and heels. We may have missed our chance to see these ladies together, but I'm sure they're up there in Heaven, making the joint a whole lot more fun.

6. Robert Mitchum and Veronica Lake

Ladd and Lake may be tops but the temptation to pair the sleepy talents of Lake and Mitchum is just irresistible. It would be like a contest to see who could act more unconcerned and detached (Mitchum would win of course, Lake never could stay on her pedestal for long).  They were like the two opposing sides of film noir. Mitchum embodied the rough-hewn masculinity and stoic silence of the noir genre, while Lake was the most playful and stylized of femme fatales. Neither of them seemed very real. But when they were onscreen, it was hard to look away.

7. Laird Cregar and Dan Duryea

I love villainous team-ups. Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing-- these were men who combined vile deeds with effortless panache. I thought for a while about pairing Laird Cregar with Vincent Price but quickly decided those two were too similar. What better match for the looming, beautifully-spoken Cregar than the rail-bodied, nasally Duryea? Cregar had the courtly manners, Duryea had the streetwise sneer. Their unusual looks and sinister talents relegated them to the ranks of villainy (Cregar would eventually destroy himself in his quest to become a romantic leading man), but few actors could make it all look so enjoyable.

8. Barbara Stanwyck and James Stewart

As I've said before on this site, Barbara Stanwyck is my favorite actress and Jimmy Stewart is my favorite actor. They were two of the most talented and versatile performers of all time and anyone who wants to argue with me on that point can just go home and collect their dueling pistols. So why oh why didn't these two ever make a movie together? Barbara Stanwyck spent half her career seducing good guys (Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda seemed particularly susceptible) so the omission of Stewart is really baffling. They could have done a comedy, they could have done drama, they could have done romance. In the end, they did it all but not together.