May 28, 2013

Illicit00006gene_raymond-bette_davis-ex_lady1Today’s Hollywood has a reputation for unoriginality, but the classical era was also rife with recycling. Before Robert Riskin became Frank Capra’s favorite screenwriter, he was a struggling playwright with co-writer Edith Fitzgerald. When their 1930 sex comedy Many a Slip became a modest hit and was adapted at Universal, Warner Brothers optioned one of their un-produced plays and cranked out two movie versions in three years. Illicit (1931) and Ex-Lady (1933), both available on DVD from the Warner Archive, reveal a studio in flux, scrambling to grab the audience’s waning attention during the Great Depression. Both cast energetic young ingenues in the role of a liberated woman who thinks marriage is a prison, but gets hitched anyway for the sake of the man she loves.   Illicit stars Barbara Stanwyck and opts for escapism, taking place among the leisure class of NYC, from Manhattan townhouse hangars to Long Island mega mansions. The story gets downsized in Ex-Lady, with Bette Davis given a middle-class  job as an illustrator for an ad agency. The shift is an early and unsuccessful attempt (Ex-Lady was a flop) at Warners’ downmarket move to court blue-collar dollars, which would pay dividends soon after with saucy Busby Berkeley backstage musicals and gritty James Cagney gangster flicks.

Illicit00007Barbara Stanwyck had become a hot commodity following her breakthrough role in Frank Capra’s Ladies of Leisure (1930), and Warner Brothers ponied up $7,000 a week to Columbia Pictures to secure her services for Illicit and director Archie Mayo. Stanwyck was a self-described “party girl” in Ladies of Leisure, and in Illicit she has no life outside of night clubs and boudoirs – Annie (Stanwyck) opens the film in her lover’s airy loft and ends it begging to go back. Despite her quick wit and initial refusal to get married, any sense of freedom is illusory. What’s real are the monotonous interior two-shots that Mayo frames, in which Annie is either aside her lover Dick (James Rennie) or crying for his return. So regardless of the ebbs and flows of the plot, which presages the slapstick comedies of re-marriage in decades to come (epitomized by The Awful Truth), there is no doubt it will end in marriage.


What pleasures there are derive from Stanwyck and her supporting cast, including Joan Blondell (as “Duckie) and Charles Butterworth as alcoholic comic relief. Stanwyck, still only 23 years old, is lends a mischievous unpredictability to her underwritten character. As she teasingly runs down a list of her ex-lovers to Dick, she lowers her voice into that of a sober news anchor and conducts her words with a jabbing index finger, hoping to bore jealousy straight into his heart. There is too little of Blondell, but she lends her usual wide-eyed effervescence, while Butterworth works in slow motion. His drunk looks as pallid as a corpse but with slightly faster reaction time, a character that would be dreadfully sad if he wasn’t so funny.

Louella Parsons called Illicit, ““as smart as next year’s frock, as modern as television, and as sophisticated as a Parisian hotel clerk”, so it did well enough for Warners to revive the material in 1933, re-titled Ex-Lady and directed by talented journeyman Robert Florey. Florey worked as an assistant director to Louis Feuillade, Chaplin and von Sternberg, and made a name for himself with the experimental short The Life and Death of 9413 – A Hollywood Extra (1928,), made with Slavko Vorkapich and Gregg Toland. A mournful satire of an artist getting chewed up by the movie business, Florey would go on to have a long career in the Bs and then on television. Whether it was Florey’s influence or screenwriter David Boehm (Gold Diggers of 1933)Ex-Lady provides a far more nuanced portrait of a woman’s position in society. It was Bette Davis’ first starring role, after receiving raves in a supporting part in Michael Curtiz’s Cabin in the Cotton (1932). She plays Helen, a more aggressive version of Stanwyck in Illicit. She carries on an affair with Don (Gene Raymond), but is also a highly sought after advertisement illustrator. She has a life and career outside of romantic entanglements. So when Don proposes awkwardly, “Let’s get married so I’ll have the right to be with you”, Helen retorts, “What do you mean…right? I don’t like the word ‘right’. No one has any rights about me, except me.”

Annie framed her objection to marriage as a way to keep a relationship fresh, whereas for Helen is expressly a matter of personal freedom, which is why Jeanine Basinger writes in A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930 – 1960 that Ex-Lady, “is a liberated statement to its audience.” This liberation also extends to her sexual desires. During a trip to Cuba, Helen is visibly aroused by a nightclub act and raises an eyebrow to Don – they slink out to a nearby bench while the camera tastefully descends behind it. Davis is clad in revealing deshabille throughout, but she gives the initiative in the most explicit scene in the film. Her desires and her abiding love for Don lead to a temporary union, built on ever-shifting compromise, overturning one of Helen’s earlier zingers that “compromise is defeat.”

There is no stability in Ex-Lady, even in its conclusion. Where in Illicit Annie says, “What have theories to do with love”, destroying her previously stated princples, the climax of Ex-Lady provides a more complicated, bittersweet view. After Helen and Don have both drifted towards other lovers, Helen opines that open relationships and marriage both hurt, but that she guesses marriage hurts less.


March 27, 2012

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Onscreen, Barbara Stanwyck was rarely the nurturing type. She became an icon because of her persona of fearsome independence, her justifiably shameless arrogance next to godliness. So it’s jolting to investigate the byways of her career, in which she played off type, including her elegiac performance in Mitchell Leisen’s noir, No Man of Her Own (released on DVD today by Olive Films). Playing the vulnerable and doomed Helen Ferguson, Stanwyck exhibits a touching passivity in the face of a world continually conspiring against her.

The movie was based on a Cornell Woolrich short story, “They Call Me Patrice”, that he published under the pseudonym William Irish in Today’s Woman magazine. He later expanded it into a novel entitled I Married A Dead Man. Optioned by Paramount, it was adapted into a script by Sally Benson. Leisen later claimed he rejected Benson’s version, and wrote an entirely new screenplay himself, with help from Catherine Turney. Benson and Turney receive the only on-screen credit, since Leisen was not a member of the Screen Writer’s Guild. In the American Film Institute’s notes on the film, it is stated that the PCA refused to approve the script, as supposedly Helen was a prostitute in the original. It would only be passed if Leisen agreed to kill her off at the end, to pay for her “sin”, so instead any reference to her streetwalking was eliminated.

Helen Ferguson is pregnant and penniless after getting dumped by her playboy boyfriend, Stephen (Lyle Bettger), his parting gift a train ticket out of town. The train crashes, and in the confused aftermath Helen is identified as Patrice Harkness, a pregnant newlywed who died in the disaster with her husband. Desperate to start a new life for her child, Helen pretends to be Patrice, whom the Harkness family had never met in person. She passes off her ignorance as trauma from the crash, which raises the suspicion of Bill Harkness (John Lund), Patrice’s brother-in-law. When Stephen reappears and begins blackmailing Helen, she will have to choose between revealing the truth – or remain forever in his oily grip.

Stanwyck exudes helplessness and inertia from the opening frames, as she speaks in resigned tones in a voice-over, with the camera slowly dollying forward toward an idyllic home. “Summer nights are pleasant in Caulfield… But not for us. Not for us.” The camera continues to track through the interior of the home, its progress slow and funereal, the empty, shadowed hallways as quiet as a mausoleum. In the first glimpse of human life, Stanwyck stills her face into the soullessness of a wax figure, while Bill is sweatily reading Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. Stanwyck: “I love him, and he loves me. I know he does. But someday he’ll pack and leave.” She says these lines with calm resignation, accepting her role as the plaything of fate, her tragedy as destiny.

To initiate the flashback which will describe how she came to this state, Leisen blacks out the screen except for her tired eyes. Stanwyck is always on the edge of exhaustion, moving slowly and deliberately, approaching everything with circumspect weariness. Leisen emphasizes this with the dreamy unreality of his style, which truncates scenes with enigmatic ellipsis and pumps up background noise to unreal levels, the world constantly having its say over the characters in its sway, the rattle of the train tracks insinuating themselves into Helen’s skull.

With the crash, what had been a tragedy turns also to nightmare, with Leisen’s imagery becoming more unhinged. The camera twirls 360 degrees upon the smash-up,  enters  Helen’s unconscious POV as she is anesthesized before giving birth, from which she will awake as Patrice, and a rich woman. Bill tells her, “You were born the day I met you”, but as what? For Helen/Patrice, the mask continually slips, and it’s unclear whether she’d want either face anymore, one a poor wastrel and the other an anxiety-ridden liar. Stanwyck’s passivity shades into nihilism, the turn coming when she realizes that her only way out of her predicament is cold-blooded murder, which she accepts with equanimity. The too-happy ending absolves her of these crimes, but the glint in Stanywck’s eye is far more troubling than what the Production Code Administration presumably censored.

In his New York Times review, the reliably condescending Bosley Crowther said that, “This sort of female agonizing, in which morals are irresponsibly confused for the sake of effect, makes diversion for none but the suckers, we feel sure.” Count me among the suckers. It is a profoundly unsettling film, and proof positive that Stanwyck could play crumbling facades as well as gleaming monuments.


April 14, 2009

a Clash by Night Film Noir Classic Collection boxset 2 dvd review PDVD_005

Turner Classic Movies started piping into my Buffalo family’s cable box circa 1999, just as I was schlepping downstate to grow a wispy goatee at Binghamton University. This was vexing. I was already committed to studying the movies, eyeing the school’s vague “cinema” major like it was a slab of rare steak. And now that I was leaving home, this vast library of celluloid was going to broadcast 200 miles away from my rapidly watering eyes (TCM was persona non grata on campus). And so a plan was hatched. Every month, after exhaustively parsing the schedule and cross-checking titles at IMDB, I would send my father a lengthy list of films to record through my newly minted dial-up AOL account (screename: EdAsner). I tried to instill a military vigilance regarding this burgeoning bootleg operation, and he endured my tyrannical reminders with annoyed resignation. My “Make sure you get that Bollywood triple feature tonight!” would be followed by his drawn out, perfectly enunciated sigh of defeat.

Armed with one dollar tapes from the orange-besotted Aldi’s chain, he manfully battled our VCR to a draw. A few endings were clipped, but most made it through the Sony’s maw intact.  Soon enough there was an imposing, wobbly tower of cheap cardboard and cheaper tape cluttering my Dad’s living room. They were shipped out in increments, or picked up at holiday visits. His labeling was sparse and incomplete, and most of my Christmases involved archiving the new stack of cinema accrued during the semester, toggling back and forth to see which title Mr. Robert Osborne would announce next.

My Dad endured, and snuck a few peeks at my obsessions, becoming especially enamored of Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night(1952, image at top, from DVD Beaver). He couldn’t remember the name when I talked to him last night, just images of Barbara Stanwyck, a fishing village, and its stark rendering of failed trust and nascent forgiveness. “They worked it out”, he said. “After all that.”

And so began my personal, idiosyncratic repertory house, airing nightly in a tripled dorm (three living in a space for two), which naturally provided its own version of Smell-O-Vision. Some sample offerings: Zombies on Broadway (1945) followed by Anthony Mann’s Border Incident (1949)Kiss Me Kate (1953) paired with The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), or, my favorite, a triple bill of The Lusty Men (1952)Rancho Notorious (1952 – what a year!) and The Big Knife (1955)That latter tape alone introduced me to the carnal cinemas of Nicholas Ray and Robert Aldrich, and made me re-evaluate the received wisdom about Fritz Lang’s Hollywood work.  The cramped, grimy noirs of Anthony Mann and John Alton, though, seemed especially appropriate to my living quarters, and TCM always delivered (one tape contained the chiaroscuro masterpieces T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948)).

So happy 15th birthday, TCM (and a happy ten years of viewing for me). It was always a thrill to see Robert Osborne’s avuncular bearing shimmer through my shoddy 13′ TV screen, because it meant a further dip into the seemingly inexhaustible archives of the classical Hollywood cinema. Not to mention Osborne’s always useful historical notes before each screening. But what’s most important is how the channel, through its devotion to showing films uncut, and in the correct aspect ratios, is preserving film history. While learning the rudimentary tools on a Bolex 16mm at Binghamton, TCM was offering me a crash course in the history of screen editing, from the brisk shot-countershots of Preston Sturges comedies to the longer takes necessitated by the CinemaScope process, seen in later Manns like the underrated The Last Frontier (1956) and Man of the West (1958). My education at school was valuable, but if I were to quantify how much I’ve absorbed about film history and style, how much can be imparted through a flick of a cigarette, a tip of the hat, I’d say the cable channel comes out on top (sorry Mom and Dad).

I come from a generation where this was the only place to discover the glories of the studio system. DVD has been spotty at best at releasing pre-1960 films, and TCM has been extarodinarily willing to air “uncommercial” product. How else was I going to see Frank Borzage’s romantic masterpiece Man’s Castle(1933) without paying exorbitant amounts for an import? Its broadcast was one of 2008′s major highlights. So many “movie lovers” haven’t seen anything before 1970, and I shudder to think where my own taste and knowledge would’ve wandered to without the channel’s existence. So here’s to another 15 years. Don’t ever change.