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Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Von and Lorre Loose On The Riviera

Villainy Prevails in I Was An Adventuress (1940)

Erich von Stroheim and Peter Lorre grazing on pre-war Euro playgrounds, thief assist supplied by Vera Zorina, that odd footnote who sniffed stardom and later did weeks on For Whom The Bell Tolls location before being snatched back and replaced by Ingrid Bergman. Zorina, she went mostly by surname alone, had ballet for a specialty. Critics felt she did that better than acting, less of them noting Zorina as voluptuous beyond norm of toe dancers. From Swan Lake in I Was An Adventuress to That Old Black Magic for Star-Spangled Rhythm was proof of Zorina range, latter a hotsy highlight of which servicemen got an unexpurgated version that lit camp and frontline shows. 16mm prints survive and it's a wow, making me wonder what else studios heated up for exclusive military play. I Was An Adventuress has Zorina and Richard Greene top-billed, a laugh on reality of Stroheim and Lorre being who we're there to see, but 1940 didn't necessarily see things our way. Greene was after all listed over Basil Rathbone in Hound Of The Baskervilles, and to Fox seemed a next Tyrone Power. Fail at that seems predetermined in hindsight, but less appealing players than Greene did make stardom grade. Modern preference goes to odd ducks Stroheim/Lorre, and whatever the cast placement, these two dominate whole of I Was An Adventuress, Zorina and Greene reduced to same sort of romantic distraction that took our minds but momentarily off Laurel and Hardy in any half-dozen of the team's comedy features.

Von is especially resplendent here. I recognized some of the wardrobe as his own. And the bamboo cane. How many outfits do you suppose he had to pawn? The 30's had been cruelly lean. Pals at MGM even took up a collection so Von and family could have a decent Christmas. Most of them remembered what it was like to be on your uppers. Stroheim could look elegant perched in a junkyard. Most of his vehicles of late had been just that, with remarkable exception of Grande Illusion. Maybe that one got him the job on I Was An Adventuress. He hadn't been in surroundings rich as this for a long time. It warms the heart to see Von so featured and free with tricks we love him for. There's the head slung-back to down a drink, done twice in case we blinked or were out to smoke. Apropos of nothing is EvS snipping threads from frayed cuffs with a microscopic pair of scissors while seated on a cafe terrace. Bless director Gregory Ratoff for shooting that, and Darryl Zanuck for leaving it in. I'll never call Ratoff a suck-up hack again. Stroheim had the gift of charm plus menace. That last being always an aspect of his screen persona may be what kept Von from getting more, or at least regular, work. He was dangerous in a best of circumstance, not congenial to comedy or anywhere he could not be at least part-sinister. Stroheim was object lesson for a frightened town, his balloon pumped too much, flown too high, then popped for all to see and take object lesson from. To extend him charity was to buy insurance that maybe his fate wouldn't be yours. No wonder the MGM holiday card, with cash, had so many names affixed. I Was An Adventuress is available on Fox On-Demand DVD and looks fine.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Lorre and Von Stroheim truly draw the eye. Von always played threadbare frauds. Now you have me curious about Zorina. Do we get the unbowdlerized version here:

7:40 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

There's a good story about von Stroheim in some French film in Bertrand Tavernier's My Journey Through French Cinema. Von Stroheim would always try to take over whatever production he was on, writing himself speeches to deliver while not bothering to learn the existing lines, so he'd have to deliver the speech. Anyway, on this picture he was supposed to play some retired officer, wounded in the war. First day of shooting and von Stroheim announces his brilliant idea-- he is going to play a man who has lost his legs and great amount of footage will be devoted to him getting around without legs! The director starts spinning this in his head, realizing all his blocking is for naught... but von Stroheim is talking about playing half a man... he has a great idea: von Stroheim's character was disfigured in the war, and so he has a black mask on half his face, he's half good, half evil! Von Stroheim loves the idea and the director breathes a sign of relief that the solution will cost the costume department a few bucks for a mask instead of a wheelchair and ramps and so on...

12:20 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers Vera Zorina (Part One):

I would have gone to a movie just to see Vera Zorina. She was a superb dancer, quite beautiful, and if she would be performing a routine choreographed by her husband of the time, George Balanchine, a gifted genius, there would have been all the more reason to do so.

Ah, but there’s the rub: If I needed to go to a movie like “I Was an Adventuress” to see her dance, then obviously Hollywood hadn’t any idea of what to do with her. As you note, she was voluptuous for a “toe dancer,” but she was still a dancer, with a lean, toned physique that wasn’t in fashion then. And she was a ballet dancer, when movie musicals featured tap and ballroom dancers, which had more to do with what passed for popular entertainment. Her beauty was of a very European sort, with a long, angular face, long, straight nose, broad forehead and large eyes, sharp cheekbones, and a pointed chin. About the only actress with a face like that enjoying popularity in Hollywood movies then was Ingrid Bergman.

Was there room for another Bergman? We’ll never know, but certainly the one Bergman displaced the one Zorina on “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” In her autobiography, written 44 years after she was replaced with Bergman, Vera Zorina was still hurt and confused:

“I was so stunned by the ruthlessness and cruelty that these people were capable of that I shut off. I believe the mind can take so much and then it becomes incapable of taking any more. I remember lying very still on a couch in my hotel room. Very still, without moving, as if I were in great physical pain. It’s strange, but I never thought about the role I was losing. What hurt me most was the awful deception. With my cropped hair, I felt like a walking symbol of defeat. What to do next? I wanted to leave Hollywood at once, but one never can do what one really wants—scream, yell, hurt, sue. One is always talked out of retaliatory behavior—‘It’s useless, it makes it worse.’ One winds up doing nothing—at least I did.”

7:42 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Dan Mercer:

Zorina had tested as “Maria,” and as Sam Wood, the director of the film, told her, she had done very well. In the three weeks she was on location, however, she worked only half a day. Afterwards she believed that the studio had wanted Bergman all along. She had simply been used in the negotiations between Paramount and David O. Selznick, who held Bergman’s contract, to bring down the fee Selznick wanted for her services.

By her account, however, she very much enjoyed making “I Was an Adventuress.” Von Stroheim and Lorre were involved in endless bits of business, matters of which she was entirely innocent, so they took a liking to the pretty newcomer and maneuvered her about as though she was one of their props. She noted that Von Stroheim always knew the camera most advantageous to him, and so commanded it that it would have been virtually impossible to cut him out of the film in the editing process. Gregory Ratoff was apparently aware of what he was doing, but either didn’t dare confront him or was simply differential, though on occasion the mischief wrought by Von Stroheim and Lorre brought him to tears.

She provided an example of Von Stoheim’s bizarre inventiveness:

“He and I had a scene together in a railway carriage. He was instructing me on how to ensnare my next victim. I was immaculately dressed, but as he lifted my hand to kiss it, he suddenly stopped short, brought my hand closer to his eyes, and began to scrutinize my nails. He made some disapproving noises and then pulled a small bottle of red nail polish out of his pocket. He rapidly unscrewed the top and applied the polish, while giving me a lecture that I should pay attention in the future to the chipped nail polish. All of this was totally unrehearsed and entirely his own contribution, but since it was so right for his character, it too stayed in.”

Here is Zorina performing The Water Nymph Ballet from “The Goldwyn Follies,” also choreographed by Balanchine:

The moment’s transcendence revealed here cannot help but seem out of place in such a film.

7:43 AM  

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