Tuesday, March 29, 2011
In this case, I think Anne Baxter said it best. I was surprised and very flattered to wake up this morning and realized the always stylish Caroline from Garbo Laughs had chosen me as one of her seven honorees for the Stylish Blogger Award. I've been an admirer of Caroline's since my lurker days; she's got a snazzy name and layout, she participates in blogathons, she gives Fridays a touch of glamor, and she appreciates the talents of Patricia Neal and Conrad Veidt. If you aren't watching her blog, you should be.
According to the rules of the award, I must post seven stylish facts
about myself. I'm going to narrow it down to film-related facts since trying to be "stylish" makes me come up blank.
1. The first movie I ever walked out on was Disney's Aladdin. Or more accurately, I whimpered and clung to my parents until they took me out. The scene that so terrified me was that giant sand lion head swallowing up the thief right at the beginning. Mom was none too pleased since she had been looking forward to Robin Williams as the genie.
2. The best movie experience I ever had was not in a theater. I was in middle school and I had been hit with 24-hour flu on the day of our school's medieval feast. My parents were working and I was stuck at home on the couch, huddled up with blankets and tissue boxes. I popped in the first episode of the BBC's Our Mutual Friend, which was the only movie we had on rental. For that entire day, all I did was watch that mini-series, all 360 minutes of. And it was glorious. By the end, I was giggling and euphoric. I've since bought the DVD and loved it all over again but it's never had the same magic of that old flu-driven binge.
3. I wrote my college entrance essay on my love for Hitchcock films. Hitchcock was what drew me to classic film and he remains my first and deepest love. However, I do have an ongoing fantasy that I can find a classic film devotee, who just plain doesn't like Hitchcock movies so I can have some fun debates.
4. At the age of three or four, I saw the movie Airplane!, but all I remembered from it was a scene where the doctor examined a sick woman and an egg came out of her mouth. So for about ten years, I believed there was a creepy horror movie out there where people got sick on a plane and eggs came out of their mouths.
5. My parents had one cinematic archnemesis: Robert Mitchum. They just plain refused to watch him. To this day, watching Mitchum movies makes me feel like a kid stealing from the liquor cabinet.
6. My own cinematic archnemesis is Kevin Costner.
7. The first Shakespeare film I ever saw was Branagh's Much Ado about Nothing. As a kid, I memorized most of Beatrice and Benedick's dialogue and can quote most of it by heart to this day.
Now it comes to the other part of this award, tagging seven others. I thought long and hard about this one after reading Movie Viewing Girl's thoughts on the subject. I'm a newcomer myself (a whopping four posts already) so I consider my own award more a statement of approval and support rather than a mark of my own achievement. I'm still a hat-check girl. But in the spirit of giving love to other blogs, I'm tagging seven blogs I think are richly deserving of more attention and that I think show plenty of style. For anyone I've tagged who's already been honored, pardon me and take it as a compliment.
1. Christianne at Krell Laboratories. Because she writes so damn well.
2. Christian at Silver Screen Modiste. Because I know of nobody more stylish.
3. Gareth at Gareth's Movie Diary. Because he's got great range.
4. Adam at Hitchcock and Me. Because he set himself a worthy quest.
7. Jonas at All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!. Because he awes me with his knowledge and I hold out hope he'll return.
All About Eve screencap credited to Dr. Macro's High Quality Movie Scans
Saturday, March 26, 2011
directed by Ernst Lubitsch, starring Charles Boyer, Jennifer Jones
Cluny Brown (Jennifer Jones) is a girl that doesn't know her place. So says her Uncle Arn (Billy Bevan), who packs his niece off to service as a maid at the country estate of the Carmel family. Cluny's greatest happiness is plumbing, but that just won't do for a girl in 1938, especially one who takes to hammering pipes with such unseemly enthusiasm. At the Carmel estate, Cluny does her best to be helpful, but what kind of maid advises the master on which cut of meat he should take? It seems her best hope for happiness is Mr. Wilson the chemist (Richard Haydn) and a life of married respectability. But Mr. Wilson would never approve of a wife who...er...."plumbs." If Cluny can only last long enough without disgracing herself. And with the friendship of writer and refugee Adam Belinski (Charles Boyer), maybe she will manage it.
Belinski meanwhile, has his own problems. After a chance encounter with Cluny at the home of Hilary Ames (Reginald Gardner), he falls into the hands of the well-meaning and well-off Andrew Carmel (Peter Lawford), who desperately needs a distraction from his hopeless romance with the Honorable Betty Cream (Helen Walker). Andrew has read Belinski's work and is convinced that he must be bustled off to the Carmel estate before Hitler can get him. Despite Belinski's attempts to convince Andrew that political writing isn't exactly the same as a game of Spy vs. Spy, he is soon installed in the lap of luxury with Adam's kindly but conventional parents (Reginald Owen and Margaret Bannerman), who seem to remember hearing about this Hitler before, yes wasn't he that outdoorsy chap who wrote "Mein Camp?" Belinski doesn't object to indulging and possibly educating the Carmels, but it is Cluny who captures his interest. If only she weren't so set on marrying that idiot Wilson.
Cluny Brown is a marvel of a movie for just how often it threatens to sink into a quivering custard of cuteness and just how smoothly it eludes that fate. I was surprised by how much I was laughing at this story, which is essentially just another satire on British class issues. Yet it gets a big boost from the direction of Ernst Lubitsch and a script that is equal opportunity, taking shots at both the rich and clueless ("So many of these foreigners have foreign names") and the close-minded poor ("If I was a sheep, I'd be happy to serve the Empire"). Into this buttoned-up world, the titular character's need to unstop sinks and speak her mind marks her, not as a revolutionary, but as an original and that's just as bad. Cluny's "banging" isn't just funny innuendo but a potent metaphor for her eagerness and energy that gets no other outlet in a world more concerned with being correct than being happy.
Jennifer Jones' work here is a star turn to put beside her work in Portrait of Jennie, where she aged convincingly from precocious girl to sophisticated woman. Here, she plays it in the middle as a young woman just out of girlhood, brimming with imagination but with no experience of the world, like a latter-day Anne of Green Gables. Jones manages the difficult task of playing Cluny as sometimes ridiculously innocent, a woman who can look at Richard Haydn's fussy chemist and gush over him ("It's so exciting to meet a man who's surrounded by hundreds of bottles and every one of them life or death"), yet not at all stupid. Against her more ostensibly worldly-wise superiors, Cluny is the only one truly open to new experience, the only one with the promise of true sophistication.
Hollywood generally takes two different routes when portraying a May-December romance. One, act as if the age difference doesn't exist. Or two, have the younger woman be the ardent pursuer as the man tries to resist her, as in a fair chunk of Humphrey Bogart's ouevre and nearly half of Audrey Hepburn's. Cluny Brown is unusual in that Charles Boyer's character is clearly portrayed as being the more experienced mentor to a naive young woman and just as clearly the one who falls first. It's hard to overstate how perfectly pitched Boyer's performance is here. He must constantly balance between being Cluny's fount of advice and her unspoken, frustrated suitor, between being the charming rascal who lives off wealthy patrons and the man of conviction that makes a surprisingly earnest plea for British intervention late in the movie. While it's Jennifer Jones' sparkle and energy that give Cluny Brown its heart, Boyer is the one who keeps the romance from toppling.
Aside from Boyer and Jones, this movie's a veritable buffet table of character actors: the aforementioned Reginalds Gardner and Owen, Richard Haydn, Ernest Cossart, Sara Algood, and Una O'Connor. O'Connor gets the best supporting role as Mr. Wilson's mother, a woman whose only form of communication is by clearing her throat at intervals. There is a whole world of disapproval in those coughs. In Lubitsch movies, the better you can talk, the more likable you are; in Cluny Brown, the silver-tongued Belinski and bubbling-over Cluny are the heroes. People who can keep their mouths shut, like Cossart and Algood's prim servants, do so because they have nothing to tell.
Yet, for all its swipes at the ostrich-like nature of the English country folk, the movie holds out the hope for improvement. These people are good people after all; they could just stand to be a little more clever about it. The Carmels gradually begin to listen to Belinski's ideas and slowly, very slowly, take baby steps into considering the world outside. The callow young Andrew Carmel tells Belinski, "I intend to write another letter to the Times...No, I'll join the R.A.F." "Better," answers Belinski. "Join the R.A.F and rise above the Times." There's an odd kind of post-war wistfulness to Cluny Brown, looking back on pre-war England with both criticism and nostalgia.
Andrew's subplot gives Cluny Brown a drop of real seriousness but his other subplot, the romantic entanglement with Betty Cream, is one of the film's weak spots. Betty Cream goes from disdaining Andrew to being his intended without much explanation, other than a desire to get off the shelf. Still, I could forgive this weakness because Betty Cream is played by Helen Walker.
Hollywood is littered with the corpses of possibly-brilliant careers, but I have to take a pause here to mourn the loss of Helen Walker. She was a beautifully poised presence on screen, intelligent and faintly amused by the plot unfolding around her. I was previously struck by her in Nightmare Alley, playing a heartless psychologist and turning in one of the great underrated femme fatale performances. Here, she's just mildly bitchy in the Gail Patrick tradition, a woman of supreme self-involvement but no real cruelty. I love her disinterested screams when Charles Boyer barges into her room. Yet Walker's character, in her total and utter shallowness, is smarter than other such fictional socialites, smart enough to know her own limitations. Like her name, Betty Cream lives on the surface and she likes it that way.
While it doesn't have the same recognition as Trouble in Paradise or The Shop Around the Corner, Cluny Brown has enough pure enjoyability to holds its own with the rest of the Lubitsch library. It's a light film sure, but what's wrong with that? And there's a hint of stiletto sharpness under all that fluff. Watch the scene where the Carmels, having mistaken Cluny for a guest instead of a housemaid, ply her with tea and pastry. The moment where they realize their mistake and slowly, politely, begin to move away from her, lowering their voices and glancing away, is truly painful.
"You see she's not dressed for plumbing. But what woman is?"
I knew this movie had me from Cluny's first entrance. Right from her first line, "Well, shall we have a go at it?" and Jennifer Jones' feline smile stretching from ear to ear.The combined innocence and sensuality of Jones pulling off her stockings so she can get at those pipes is amazing. In that moment, the movie can barely contain her. And the reactions of Reginald Gardner and Charles Boyer are just perfect: Gardner completely off-guard and Boyer amused, interested, and already starting to fall for her. I feel compelled to echo's Cluny's feelings upon seeing a stopped-up sink: "I never thought it'd be as good as this."
Final Six Words:
Gives you "that Persian cat feeling"
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Monday, March 21, 2011
The lives of famously beautiful woman always seem to be asking the eternal Helen of Troy question: "Was her beauty a curse?" In the case of Hedy Lamarr, while her face didn't exactly burn the topless towers of Ilium, it drew the attention of everyone she met. The moniker "most beautiful woman in the world" hung round her neck from the time she was an aspiring teenage actress in Austria. I can't help wondering if Stephen Micheal Shearer went through several different titles for this biography before finally throwing up his hands and saying, "I might as well go for the obvious."
Going for the obvious or easy is one of the few complaints one can make against Shearer's bio, which is otherwise an entertaining, well-researched, and obviously affectionate look at a woman who clearly had more to give than her face. He begins and ends the book with a rather halfhearted, vague statement that she was "a simple, shy, pretty Viennese schoolgirl" and at bottom, "a very normal human being." Shearer is sympathetic and interested in the events of Lamarr's life but doesn't always probe for answers.
For example, at one point he recounts rumors that she had an affair with film producer Sam Spiegel in Germany, but adds that they were "probably not true, since Spiegel was married," in blithe disregard for the numerous other Hollywood adulteries he mentions in the book. Hedy Lamarr's relationships, in particular hers with her children, feel a little thinly sketched for Shearer's lack of insight or unwillingness to speculate. Then again, I've read many other biographies that insist on psychoanalyzing every last curl on their subject's head (Donald Spoto, I'm glaring in your direction), so maybe discretion is the better part of valor in this case.
Hedy Lamarr, born Hedwig Kiesler on November 9, 1914 in Vienna, was the daughter of a Jewish bank manager and his wife, a former concert pianist. Young Hedwig couldn't pronounce her own name and christened herself "Hedy." Her striking Snow White beauty was apparent from the beginning and, in spite of her parents' attempts to protect her from too much flattery, she always had attention. Ambitious and uninterested in too much schooling, she started acting as a teenager.
After some roles in stage and film, she took the role that would haunt the rest of her life, the frustrated young wife in Gustav Machatý's Extaze (1932). Nobody ever forgot her naked romp through the forest, one of the most famous nude scenes in early cinema. Shearer slyly points out that Extaze's most daring scene was not Hedy's exhibition but a later scene where she and her young lover have sex for the first time, with "angled close-ups of her ecstatic face." Lamarr would later recount that outside the camera view, her director was repeatedly pricking her with a safety pin to the buttocks to achieve these close-up expressions.
In 1933, she caught the eye of the wealthy and controlling Fritz Mandl, a munitions baron, who "could break a prime minister faster than he could snap a toothpick in half." Mandl kept ties to multiple dictators and did his best to hide his own Jewish background. He showered the nineteen-year-old with flowers and gifts and promises of luxury until she agreed to marry him. This marriage would soon prove to be a mutual misery for both of them, as Mandl wanted a beautiful and compliant trophy wife and Lamarr quickly learned to hate being under his thumb.. Mandl's response to Extaze was a futile attempt to destroy every copy. Later, Lamarr would try to literally run away from her marriage many times and finally succeeded in 1937. Oddly enough, long after their marriage was over, Mandl and Lamarr kept in contact and seemed to semi-reconcile, although Errol Flynn would recall that on one occasion she referred to her ex-husband as "that son of a bitch," literally growling his name.
It was Louis B. Mayer that brought Hedy to Hollywood. They met in London while Mayer was making a tour of Europe and scouting for new talent. She made good use of her contacts and secured a date with Mayer. Shearer quotes Mayer as telling the young actress, "'You're lovely my dear, but I have the family point of view...At MGM we take clean pictures. We want our stars to lead clean lives, I don't like what people would think about a girl who flits bare-assed around the screen.'" Said girl was no pushover and got up to leave. Mayer offered a six-month standard studio contract at $125 a week. She snapped back, in broken English, that she wouldn't be intimidated into a cheap contract. After all, she was already established in Europe. But an hour later, Hedy changed her mind and agreed to the deal that made her Hedy Lamarr, Mayer's latest exotic find.
Studio-system Hollywood had the habit back then of hoarding up anyone that stood out as gorgeous, talented, or popular and, likely as not, leaving them on the shelf to collect dust. MGM was proud of getting "the most beautiful girl in the world" but was more interested in molding Greer Garson into the new queen of the weepies than they were in Lamarr. She spent most of her first few months in Hollywood cooped up inside studying English and fretting that she knew no one to take her out. It was Algiers (1938) that broke the ice and it did so with a vengeance. She went from a Hollywood nobody to cinematic dynamite.
And yet, and here's where it gets disheartening, even though Hedy Lamarr became one of the queens of MGM and is still a famous name to casual moviegoers-- her fame way, way outclassed the quality of her roles. True, the same can be said for many other screen sirens, like Lana Turner or Betty Grable. But Turner at least had The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Bad and the Beautiful, and Imitation of Life under her belt, as well as other more debatable classics. And Grable had her million dollar legs and the hearts of servicemen around the country.
Hedy Lamarr? Shearer argues that she never found her niche, other than just being beautiful and exotic. She played vamps and aristocrats and European travelers, but it wasn't enough to give her a definable screen persona, something the audience could recognize. It didn't help that Lamarr was an insecure actress at the best of times, needing the support and coaching of her directors, few of whom were interested in molding her. Her English gave her less trouble as time wore on, but she lacked the warmth of Ingrid Bergman that allowed audiences to ignore it entirely. Even as she was melting into the arms of her leading man, Lamarr too frequently came off like a block of ice on screen. The critics loved her beauty, but shrugged over her acting. Shearer however, makes a passionate case in her defense, arguing that she did indeed have a lot more talent than people gave her credit for.
It was here that I really began to appreciate the Shearer's commitment to his subject and his obvious affection for her. Unlike many Hollywood biographers, who spend more time on the stars' bed-hopping than their body of work, Shearer gives a welcome and detailed writeup of each Hedy Lamarr movie, pointing out the virtues of the good to average ones and waxing ruefully comic over the bad ones. Arguably her best role was also her most miscast one, as down-to-earth Midwestern working girl Marvin Myles in H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941), an adaptation of John P. Marquand's novel. Unfortunately one of her most famous roles was also one of her worst, the half-caste--except psych! she's not--sarong-wearing, hip-swinging Tondelayo in White Cargo (1942). Shearer flatly gives up any attempt to take this one seriously, but seems to take pleasure in detailing MGM's ridiculous ads: "'90% allure, 10% sarong, adds up to LURONG...She rings the GONG in her LURONG!'"
It was that same year that Hedy Lamarr and the composer/inventor/self-declared glandular expert George Antheil patented their invention, called Secret Communication System but now known as "frequency-hopping." It had been an unlikely meeting of minds. She had come up with the idea for "a secured torpedo guidance system," consisting of a transmitter "programmed with a frequency that was fixed, continuously shifting, and random, and of a secured guidance receiver, which would shift its frequency to match that of the transmitter." Antheil contributed the use of his own previously developed piano playing system, using two player-piano rolls with eighty-eight keys so that transmitter and receiver could have "eighty-eight different shifting frequencies."
What makes this invention even more strange and remarkable is that neither Lamarr or Antheil come off as dedicated scientists in Shearer's narrative, just two brilliant and feverishly creative people tossing off ideas (one of Lamarr's other brainwaves was an idea for instant soda cubes, like bouillon cubes for cola). Lamarr would claim that during her marriage to Mandl, she had listened to the conversations of weapons manufacturers and retained the information years later.
A few years prior, Lamarr had met Antheil to discuss his work on glandular development. Her motives were less than scholarly; she wanted his advice on how to develop her breasts. Louis B. Mayer and the rest of his mammary-obsessed studio, were always telling her to have something done about them. For the record, Hedy Lamarr was 33-B. For a while, Antheil led her along, giving advice about glandular injections to inflate her chest, but finally came out and said, "'You can sue me for this, but from where I sit you look about perfect...why do you want to know all this?'"
Somehow the conversation turned to the war effort and a friendship was born. They stayed in touch up until Antheil's death in 1959.
The same quicksilver intelligence that Hedy Lamarr brought to inventing did not show up much in other aspects of her life. After Mandl, she would marry and divorce five more husbands; the average lifespan of each marriage was about three years. Shearer can't bring more than cursory interest to each alliance since they all seem to follow a basic pattern of Hedy is lonely, she meets a charming man, they marry after a quick courtship, and it falls apart. She apparently thought of herself as a hausfrau by nature, but her romantic decisions were often impulsive and confused. Upon marriage to her fourth husband, hotelier Ted Stauffer, she shocked everyone with a hasty move to Acapulco to be with him, auctioning off her priceless collection of paintings, sculpture and jewelry (some of which had been stuffed in a coffee can) at the last minute. She also plopped her two unhappy children into a Mexican school; they spoke no Spanish.
Hedy Lamarr and her children. This is for me the greatest mystery of the book. In 1939, Hedy and her then second husband Gene Markey adopted James Lamarr Markey. When she and Gene separated, the actress began a long, determined custody battle for "little Jamesie." By 1941, James was fully hers and when she married John Loder in 1943, James would take his new father's name. She and John Loder went on to have two children of their own, Denise (b. 1945) and Anthony (b. 1947), both of whom pop up here and there in Shearer's account with loving memories of their mother. But James Lamarr Loder? He was deemed a problem child by the age of nine. By fifth grade, Hedy severed contact.
His own memory of the separation follows: "'I went to Chadwick and I got into trouble...and they told me I couldn't go there anymore. But there was a teacher by the name of Ingrid Gray...She said I could live with her and her husband and go (to school during) the daytime...and since all my friends were there, everybody I knew, I agreed. And my mother was disenchanted with that, and she didn't want anything more to do with me." Essentially, Hedy Lamarr was finished with him. She returned all his letters. Even years later, she "reluctantly would talk about her son James but would always elaborate on Denise, Anthony, and her grandchildren."
Finally, in the late 1980s, they established phone contact and he recalled that "she sounded like she was 38...totally hip and chic." A few years before her death, she surprised her son by sending him an photograph of them together with the inscription "Dear Jim, I thought you would want a photo of us, Much love to you and your family, From Mom." But when she died in 2000, James was not mentioned in her will.
So what happened to make Hedy Lamarr split from her adopted son, the son she had once fought so hard to keep? Did he have some severe behavior problems as a child that Lamarr couldn't cope with? Did she just decide he no longer fitted in her life? Were either of them just not being truthful about what really happened? On the one hand, I really, really hate Mommie Dearest style exploitation stories and Lamarr's other children speak very fondly of their mother, so it's hard to believe she was some kind of maternal monster. On the other hand, it's hard to believe that James was some kind of Rhoda Penmark/Veda Pierce monster at the age of nine. This is where I got frustrated with Shearer's biography since he seems to recount the facts of their relationship without any any attempt to examine them. "Whatever demons haunted Hedy...were probably not even understood by her," he says and moves on.
Hedy Lamarr's legacy has been an odd one. Her idea for frequency-hopping is now used in wireless communication and her image nowadays has shifted from 1940s love goddess to gorgeous lady scientist. Her most famous movie, Samson and Delilah (1949), reportedly doesn't make much of a case for her thespian abilities and she never became the subject of cult adoration and pop art handbags like Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn. People remember her as charming, cultured, and even more stunning in person, but her true personality remains elusive to me, even after finishing Shearer's biography. Oddly enough, even as he claims that Hedy Lamarr was at heart a simple girl, his book reveals she was quite the reverse: complicated, searching, and not so easily defined.
HedyLamarrLegacy on Youtube has some nice clips from some of her movies here
A video of her on What's My Line (very relaxed and charming)
The official website
Final Six Words:
Detailed, affectionate, intriguing if imperfect bio
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
In spite of its cheesy popcorn title, this film captures so many moods and ideas within its brief 69 minutes. The battle between superstition and science. The longing and regret for what you cannot have and might never even understand. The confusion of being in a foreign place with ideas so different from your own. If the Stephen King model of horror is to show you the terror lurking behind the ordinary and familiar, then the Val Lewton model is to tease you with possibilities and keep you in situations that are always unsettling but rarely terrifying. His films are self-contained worlds that sometimes seems to run on dream-logic, with characters pulling you aside to speak poetic words of warning.
I wonder if the author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies knew that decades earlier, Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur had already made a movie that could rightfully be called Jane Eyre and Zombies. Instead of a gloomy English manor, we're taken to the fictional island of Saint Sebastian. Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) is a young Canadian nurse who takes a position as the caretaker of sugar planter Paul Holland's (Tom Conway) ailing wife. She finds herself drawn to the bitter, gloomy man and begins to believe that the only way to make him happy is to cure his wife, Jessica (Christine Gordon). Except that Jessica is no ordinary patient. She exists in a catatonic state, like a sleepwalker with no mind or will, except to obey simple commands. Some of the islanders believe that she may truly be a zombie...
Complicating the story is Paul's alcoholic half-brother Wesley Rand, a man who can match Paul for bitterness. The brothers despise each other and it doesn't take long for Betsy to discover the reason. In one of the film's most memorable sequences, she and Wesley are surprised to hear a calypso singer (Sir Lancelot) tell of the Fort Holland Scandal: how Holland's wife stole the heart of his younger brother and brought on the trouble. Sir Lancelot breaks off his song at the realization that Wesley and Betsy are listening but after Wesley has drank himself into unconsciousness, the singer returns to menace Betsy with his song:
"The wife and the brother, they want to go
But the Holland man, he tell them no
The wife fall down and the evil came
And it burnt her mind in the fever flame.
Ah woe, ah me
Shame and sorrow for the family"
Did Jessica simply become sick from brain fever, as her doctor suggests? Or is she a true zombie, punished for her adultery, as the natives believe? Was she the victim of Paul's mental cruelty, as Wesley tells Betsy? As Betsy slowly begins to believe in the potential of a voodoo cure for Jessica, spurred on by her own guilty love for Paul, we are also left to wonder if she is falling under the superstitious suggestion of the tropical atmosphere. Lewton and Tourneur spin the same wheel that they do in Cat People, sometimes offering rational if pat explanations but keeping us too unnerved to really trust them.
The zombie Jessica is nothing like the usual movie zombie and that's what makes her so effective. She's only a blonde woman shuffling around in a white dress but her slow, steady walk and blank stare are enough to send a shiver down your spine. In one scene, the maid Alma (Theresa Harris) cheerfully says that dressing her is "just like dressing a great big doll." Watching this movie, I was reminded why dolls so often become the objects of horror films. You never know what's really going on behind those empty eyes. Of course, the really frightening image in the film is not Jessica but the zombie Carrefour (Darby Jones), who provides the visual punchline to the film's most famous scene, the walk through whispering sugar cane fields to the houmfort.
"These people are primitive. Things that seem natural to them would shock and horrify you." So says Paul and Wesley's matter-of-fact mother, Dr. Rand (Edith Barrett). You don't expect a 1940s film about voodoo priests and superstitious Afro-Caribbeans to be enlightened but this film is a pleasant surprise. Lewton researched voodoo traditions pretty thoroughly for this film and the scenes at the houmfort sometimes seem close to the style of a documentary, as the camera lingers on the transported faces of the people at the houmfort. The film also touches on the very real cultural divide underneath all the songs and rituals. In one crucial scene, Paul tells Betsy that the centuries of slavery and misery are so ingrained in the island's population that they "weep when a child is born and make merry at burial." The San Sebastian people may still be the exotic unknowable but the portrayal is a far cry from the sentimentalized Mammies and childlike Africans that infect so many classic Hollywood movies.
The black islanders we meet are for the most part, a self-assured and intelligent group of people. When Sir Lancelot makes his apologies to Wesley for his song, he is cool and dignified. And then there is Alma the maid, who is clever, sassy, and sweet. In her first appearance, Paul chastises her for frightening Betsy, who has just had a nightmarish encounter with Jessica in the dark. "Well," shrugs Alma. "She didn't soothe me none either, hollering around in that tower." Later, she and Betsy begin to be friends and Theresa Harris's performance is so well-tuned that she can say lines about how she wants to tend to Betsy's needs without sounding servile or insincere.
Feminine beauty is a crucial element in I Walked with a Zombie. The story implies that Jessica's loveliness is to blame for the family ruin and the dissent between the two brothers. Paul has a pointed conversation with Betsy. "Tell me, Miss Connell, do you consider yourself pretty...and charming?" Flustered, she says that she "never gave the matter much thought." Paul sinks back into his usual state of Gothic-husband abstraction. "Don't. You'll save yourself a great deal of trouble and other people a great deal of unhappiness." Unlike Cat People, which gives us the image of poor Simone Simon tormented by her self-imposed frigidity, this film walks in the pure Gothic tradition of a dead or incapacitated wife who somehow or other, brought it on herself through her promiscuity and attractiveness.
Not that I Walked with a Zombie is unkind to its female characters. Betsy, Alma, and Dr. Rand are all strong, resourceful women and they drive the story's action while Paul and Wesley do little except glare at each other. The women also outclass the men in terms of acting, for my money, with Frances Dee and Theresa Harris as standouts. Tom Conway, on the other hand, contends with the least interesting of his Val Lewton roles and James Ellison falls prey to the same lockjaw acting that afflicted Kent Smith in Cat People. They're not bad, but their accents (Conway sounding like his brother, George Sanders, and Ellison sounding eerily like Robert Stack in moments) are more memorable than anything else in their performances.
"It's easy enough to read the thoughts of a newcomer. Everything seems beautiful because you don't understand. Those flying fish, they're not leaping for joy, they're jumping in terror. Bigger fish want to eat them. That luminous water, it takes its gleam from millions of tiny dead bodies. The glitter of putrescence. There is no beauty here, only death and decay."
It's a tough choice, but I have to go for Betsy's first, heavily Jane-Eyre-inspired trip up the tower. Tourneur uses the shadows so well that the film's low budget starts to seem like an advantage, the simplicity of the sets adding to the dreamlike feel. Alma's crying, Betsy's voice echoing and the slow white shape of Jessica. The film closes in on the terrified Betsy as Jessica draws closer and closer. We don't know just what it is she sees in Jessica's face that makes her scream. And then, as Betsy moves away and Jessica once again begins to walk toward her, we see Betsy grow calmer, if still unnerved and we know, without being told, that Jessica is not an ordinary movie monster but a creature that frightens because she is so blank, so unknowable, so far beyond.
Final Six Words:
Atmospheric, elegant, most unorthodox zombie film