June 30, 2015


When I have an empty afternoon to kill, I go to the movies.  This past Saturday my hours were filled to bursting with the “Glorious Technicolor: From George Eastman House and Beyond” series at MoMA, which runs through August 5th. The way the schedule fell, my matinees were made up of MGM’s frothy swashbuckler Scaramouche (1952) and the kindly circus folk of 20th Century Fox’s Chad Hanna (1940), with the prime evening slot held by the dark, violent Universal-International Western, Apache Drums (1952). This is a series after my own heart, a 60+ feature cavalcade of movies classic and obscure from 1922 – 1955, all exhibited on film (a rarer and rarer pleasure). My random sampling spanned two decades, three genres, and a variety of approaches to Technicolor. Scaramouche is all gleaming candy colors — you are almost invited to go up and lick the screen. Chad Hanna and Apache Drums are more subdued in their palettes, both making use of darkness and chiaroscuro to capture folds in upstate New York circus tents and candlelight in a Southwestern church under siege, respectively.


Even in 1952, Scaramouche was something of a throwback. It is an adaptation of Rafael Sabatini’s 1921 novel, which had been adapted into a 1923 feature by Rex Ingram. Sabatini also provided the source material for Captain Blood (1924 and 1935), and it is the elegant ease of Errol Flynn’s ’35 swashbuckling that the film is trying to channel. It is resoundingly successful at doing so, a buoyant identity-swapping tale set in 18th century France, in which gentleman lover Andre Moreau (Stewart Granger) gets on the wrong side of Queen Marie Antoinette (Nina Foch) because his pal Philippe is spreading pseudonymous pamphlets advocating revolution (Richard Anderson). Moreau is a dashing man on the run, and hides out with a Parisian commedia dell’arte troupe along with his sometime girlfriend Lenore (Eleanor Parker). Moreau also has his eyes on Aline (Janet Leigh, garbed in Easter egg pastels), who is set to marry the Queen’s cousin Marquis de Maynes (Mel Ferrer), a master swordsman and sadist who Moreau is hell-bent on extracting revenge from.


It all moves swiftly under George Sidney’s direction and Charles Rosher’s camera, who mount a number of rousing fight sequences. The capper is a near-7-minute bout inside of a crowded theater. Ferrer and Granger start on a balcony and parry down the lobby staircases and into the still-crowded seats, until they tumble through backstage matte paintings. The fight choreography is superb, and has been built up throughout. Ferrer is the more nimble, more experienced swordsman, and he uses his speed and intelligence to evade Granger’s clumsy lunges. Granger is built like a circus strongman, a double-barreled chest tottering over two spindly legs, while Ferrer moves like a dancer, the sword an extension of himself. All the seats and curtains are deep red, while Granger and Ferrer are costumed by Gile Steele in white and black. Ferrer is white hair/black vest/black pants, while Granger has black hair (with saucy ponytail) with white cape and white pants (with black trim). They are inverses of each other in a carpet of red.

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Granger spends the whole movie reining in his aggressiveness until the final duel in the middle of the stage, where he declines to deliver the fatal blow, gaining power in their relationship for the first time. The whole cast sparkles, especially the ferocious Eleanor Parker (a blonde in a gorgeous red wig, dressed in “hot” colors to contrast with Leigh’s cool pastels), who battles Granger up and down the commedia dell’arte stage. There are some wonderful pratfalls in the extended theatre sequences, which taught me the lesson that 18th century French comedy was closer to the Three Stooges than I ever imagined.


Chad Hanna (1940) is more expressly about a performing troupe, this time a traveling circus in upstate New York in the mid-to-late 1800s. It was adapted from the Walter D. Edmonds novel of the same name, and followed the fluctuating fortunes of the troupe as two runaways, Chad Hanna (Henry Fonda) and Caroline Tridd (Linda Darnell), find their way in the world of ballyhoo. This would be the third Edmonds adaptation that Fonda would star in, following The Farmer Takes a Wife (1935, based on the novel Rome Haul) and John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk (1939). It’s a strange little coming-of-age tale with lots of local color, as Fonda is supported by Guy Kibbee, Dorothy Lamour and John Carradine. I savor upstate New York town names like Canastota, the backwater town that Chad and Caroline join the circus to get away from. The film follows their tumble into love (and jealousies over Chad’s attraction to Dorothy Lamour’s bareback rider), battles against competing circus thugs, and the joys of owning an elephant. Shot in a nostalgic golden hue by Ernest Palmer and Ray Rennahan, faces are plucked out and framed like portraits in cameo necklaces, especially in the luminous close-ups of Darnell and Lamour. But Palmer and Rennahan also provide pockets of darkness. Where Scaramouche is entirely visible, Chad Hanna keeps some things hidden.

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Apache Drums (1951) is a troubling Western that is shot like a horror movie, where American nightmares emerge from the dark. It is the final film produced by Val Lewton, and exhibits his talent for wrenching scares on the cheap, along with his collaborators, director Hugo Fregonese and DP Charles P. Boyle. At the beginning an off-screen narrator states:  “The hunger wolf chews on our strengths. Soon the warriors will be too weak to fight. Then the white man will thrust us away from the earth, and only the empty sky will know the voices of the Mescalero.” Then the scene shifts to the New Mexico town of “Spanish Boot”, where strapping blonde mayor Joe Madden (Willard Parker) is cleaning out the disreputable elements. This means buying out the dance hall and giving card sharp Sam Leeds (Stephen McNally) an ultimatum to get lost. But Leeds is a stubborn sort and in love with local waitress Sally (Coleen Gray). For the Whites in town the Apache tribe that lives outside their county lines is only a rumor, a spectre. But they are dying out there, starving to death, and in their desperation have started attacking stagecoaches running in and out of Spanish Boot, and are working their way towards the town itself. Much like Lewton’s monster movies  (The Leopard Man for one), the Apache are kept mostly offscreen, shown only as hands banging drums or arrows hitting burlap. This dehumanizes them, turns them into monsters. In the siege finale, with the villagers cowering inside a church, all the lights out except for a few candles, the Apache, in their war pain, appear out of the gloom like The Leopard Man or The Cat People. They are robbed of their individuality to become ghosts of a lost civilization. The final siege is oneiric, upsetting and unbearably suspenseful. Taking place almost entirely in the dark, with low-light outlining the square openings near the roof, the Apaches clamber through in waves, shot down by the dwindling villagers, made up of Leeds, Madden, a racist Reverend (Arthur Shields) and a sympathetic Lieutenant (James Griffith). It is a sequence of undeniable racism that acknowledges that racism, unspooling like America’s fever dream, trying to snuff out the unending army of its victims.


August 28, 2012

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Against a backdrop of retina-bursting blue, the 22-year-old Ann-Margret waves goodbye to the classical Hollywood musical in Bye Bye Birdie (1963). Director George Sidney seems prescient in expanding Ann-Margret’s role at the expense of intended stars Janet Leigh and Dick Van Dyke, considering the explosion of the youth market less than a year later, when The Beatles would appear on The Ed Sullivan Show (which also makes an appearance in Bye Bye Birdie), cementing rock band movies/concerts as the musicals of the near-future. Now available in a gorgeous limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time (for purchase exclusively at Screen Archives), Bye Bye Birdie is an eye-popping transitional work, with the old and the new Hollywood brushing up against each other with both awkward and thrilling results.

As a Broadway show,  Bye Bye Birdie was a gently satiric take on the gnashing of female teeth caused by Elvis Presley getting drafted into the army, told mainly through an adult’s perspective.  It follows struggling songwriter Albert Peterson and his secretary and sometime girlfriend Rosie Alvarez as they try to get rock heartthrob (and Elvis stand-in) Conrad Birdie to sing their tune on The Ed Sullivan Show. The character of Kim McAfee, the teen girl plucked from Birdie’s fan club to receive his last kiss before he enlists, is a distinctly supporting part.

But when director George Sidney saw Ann-Margret’s ebullient performance, he expanded her role to include five musical numbers (up from two), and cut out Janet Leigh’s big “Spanish Rose” routine. This shifts the perspective to the teenage denizens of Sweet Apple, Ohio.  One of Sidney’s inventions was placing Ann in front of a blue-screen to open and close the picture, a showcase in which she exhibits a faux-naivete (clutching her skirt), only to be replaced by a self-aware come-hither stare, in a performance which, as Dave Kehr wrote in the New York Times, is “so charged with erotic energy that you can practically feel a nation’s toes curling. She plays Kim, the head of the Conrad Birdie fan club, and her scenes are supercharged with hormonal energy, including her “How Lovely To Be A Woman” solo, in which her playfully aggressive donning of a sweater dress completely undermines the squeaky clean sexism of the lyrics (“It gives you such a glow just to know/You’re wearing lipstick and heels!”). Kim is fiercely in charge of her own life, especially over her milquetoast boyfriend Hugo (Bobby Rydell), who unfortunately is tasked with trying to one-up her at a dance-off during the “A Lot of Livin’ To Do” number (he loses).

In between all of this, Dick Van Dyke and Janet Leigh valiantly attempt to keep the supposed A plot, that of Peterson and Rosie, percolating. But maybe because Sidney was too enamored of Ann-Margret, their work looks flat in comparison. Leigh was inevitably disappointed with the finished film, writing in her autobiography that, “George had changed as well. I couldn’t exactly define the difference. It might be accredited to the transference of his Svengali attitude from me to the new and young Ann-Margret. He saw, perhaps, an opportunity to mold another budding career. I was ‘old hat’ after the numerous pictures and tests we had made together. His dismissing behavior wreaked havoc with my already precarious stability.” The only relative oldster who comes off with an equal level of energy or verve, is, of course, Paul Lynde, who takes on his stage role of Mr. McAfee, Kim’s befuddled dad. Knocking out a venomous version of “Kids”, Lynde’s particularly nasal wit makes it seem like being an adult is not the bore Peterson and Rosie make it out to be.

One thing that brings all ages together in the film is their desire to be on television. From Peterson to Kim to the mayor, everyone kowtows to Ed Sullivan and his producer, hoping the idiot box will goose their businesses or make them a star. Television, and variety shows like Sullivan’s, was part of the reason for Hollywood’s decline in box office in this period, and spurred their desperate search for what audiences actually wanted. But the film reflects that all people wanted was more TV. The finale, which turns the Sullivan show into an amped up burlesque, thanks to the effective sabotage work of Peterson and Rosie, is an attempt to depict television as, even at this late date, as a kind of rough and tumble Wild West of entertainment. The sequence makes it look like a particularly poor night at a community college’s talent show – as contrasted with the slick musical sequences from earlier in the film.

It is a sparklingly polished film, like a lollipop licked to maximum sheen, the popping primary colors captured in smoothly arcing crane shots. None of the colors register as sharply as Ann-Margret’s personality. A musical star was born, but right at the beginning of the genre’s slow demise. She would co-star with the real Elvis in Viva Las Vegas (1964), but aside from the rock-opera Tommy (1974), wouldn’t star in a full-blown musical again.