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Sunday, March 29, 2020

How Fragile Was a Romance Image?

Boyer Takes a Brave Gaslight Plunge

Laughs On The Set --- Not In The Movie!
Watching Gaslight and began to wonder if Charles Boyer took a penalty for being so awful to Ingrid Bergman. He’s a worse monster than even Rathbones and Vincent Prices you expect to victimize wives. Anyone would figure a woman assumes risk for marrying either of these, a Love From A Stranger or Dragonwyck good as announcing Ann Harding or Gene Tierney’s mis-move from moment they meet too-clearly bad men Rathbone/Price. Type-casting was Hollywood mantra, 1944 Boyer long settled as intense romantic. So far as I know, he had not so far abused his women on screen (exception: pushed to murder of shrew wife Barbara O’Neil in All This and Heaven Too). I bet Gaslight was a shock to Boyer’s following, for never had he, or any male star, whose image was based on femme appeal, been so icy cruel. “Gregory Anton” kills in Gaslight’s back story, then manipulates “Paula Alquist” (Bergman) toward bughouse confine so he can locate jewels hid since his murder of her aunt. I think Boyer was brave for taking this 100% unsympathetic part. Had others turned it down? He was freelance and so chose, was not coerced, into being Anton. Of Metro contract group, who could/would have done it? Close candidate might be Robert Montgomery, evil in Night Must Fall and A Rage in Heaven, but he was war serving when Gaslight was made. Did women trust Boyer again after seeing him as Anton? I say this because he is that good in Gaslight. A fun watch not only for Boyer, but Joseph Cotton, lethal himself in year before’s Shadow Of A Doubt. Did servicemen seeing Gaslight in jungles and 16mm field set-ups fear for girls back home with an Anton or Uncle Charlie loose to prey upon innocence?

Directing George Cukor Trimmer Than I Recall Seeing Him Elsewhere
I checked Boyer’s post-Gaslight filmography. He was 45 in 1944, not too old to go on being a love object, but in what? There was Confidential Agent, made, I assume, before Gaslight’s impact was felt (release was delayed), also Together Again, a comedy reunion with Irene Dunne, another likely overlap. After that, there are only three more 40's star parts for Boyer, one a disaster (w/Bergman again), Arch Of Triumph, before that A Woman’s Vengeance and Cluny Brown. Latter was fun, better thought of today than then. Vengeance was maybe what women, at least the one in this movie, wanted to see visited on Boyer after the way he Gaslight-comported. Boyer by the 50’s, and in his fifties, was a character actor, no shame there, and he was fine as always, but might the lover lead thing have prematurely quit for his being so disturbingly credible in Gaslight? One woman scorned was/is bad enough … consider millions of them done so by a dream man they had trusted implicitly. And don’t ignore male angle for cooling toward screen women: Bette Davis striding cross screen and bang-banging for opening scene of The Letter, then killing again where it suited her in later vehicles (men always the target). Crawford and Stanwyck the same. Stanwyck shot guys like skeet. Most men shun the three … for good reason? I boy-remember watching Stanwyck push Anthony Quinn into pumping works of an oil derrick (Blowing Wild), and thinking, “Does she do this in all her pictures?” It needed age and maturity before I could enjoy her (the others too) unreservedly.

Laughs Precede Intense Tie-Up Scene as Supervised By Cukor

Most stars, those protective of benign images, figured they could get away with scary departure … once. Gene Tierney did Leave Her To Heaven, then put such conduct behind her. Ronald Colman said he wouldn’t do Rebecca because onscreen wife murder could never be his thing (this at undoubted point before story change took Maxim off the homicide hook). They say censors wouldn’t let Hitchcock have the Suspicion end he wanted (Cary Grant kills Joan Fontaine), but given the liberty, would Grant have been willing to play it? I bet not. Fred MacMurray did murder in Double Indemnity, but he was single and a “wolf” besides, so maybe deserved Stanwyck for the very bad influence she was. Bogart did in a wife for Conflict openers, but he was Bogart, so here was behavior not unexpected. Was Boyer as Anton the most seemingly ideal husband to turn out to be a cad and killer? If so, then I regard Gaslight as historic, Boyer perhaps paying dear for doing it. Being Metro means Gaslight looks like an overstocked furniture mart, even where it was the idea for Paula/Bergman to be suffocated by décor. There is Hitchcock influence. You could mistake this as one of his were Gaslight less contrived. Anton tips off his villainy (clumsily, I’d add) by steaming up over a letter Paula comes across, this early enough in the show for us to know he’s a threat. Sort of like Uncle Charlie making a fuss over torn newspaper and the inscribed ring. The lengths writers and directors had to go to for heroines, and us, to get suspicious.

Bergman was tall and more than robust, taller, in fact, than Boyer. He’s in man-heels on their honeymoon, and for all I know, stood on platforms later in close shots. Bette Davis spoke of shock seeing him as genuine article as opposed to idol image: hair gone, a paunch, the usual disillusionment where one expects a perfect man. Still, he could make the illusion work, and we buy Bergman flipping for him. She’s a more than physical match, so it’s good they don’t come to blows (I always wondered why Bergman needed a gun in Casablanca when she could as easily wrestle those letters-of-transit away from Bogie/Bogey). One thing Hitchcock had that Gaslight needed was humor. This one is cruel and takes forever getting Paula from harm’s way. I wanted Joseph Cotten to speed up his investigation and get there sooner. Cotten by the way is sole oasis for levity, if subdued, welcome as 114 minutes crawls toward belated rescue. Cukor drops nice suspense devices, holding us off less for if Anton did it (murder), than why he did it. Gaslight in the end is less a “fun” thriller than a mean one. In addition to Boyer, there is snide maid Angela Lansbury, them a tag team to torment Bergman. Let’s just say I’ll watch Shadow of a Doubt five times for every once I’d see Gaslight. Still, it’s got pluses, and good news of late sees Warner Archive out with a Blu-Ray.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

We must never under estimate the power of the censors, the Catholic Legion For Decency and all the other forces that worked to rob American Cinema of its vitality and of its ability to show the truth about human relationships.

There is a new medium, "PURE FLIX" for folks who want the lie.

Great piece.

11:16 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

You should check out the original British version from 1940. The stars aren't recognizable to US audiences, so it's easier to get lost in the story. Plus, the investigator is older than Cotten, negating a romantic subplot with the tormented woman. Best of all, it's 30 minutes shorter than the remake. But what remains the same is that nasty character of the husband. I almost turned it off 10 minutes into it, but stuck with it just to compare the two versions.

As for Boyer -- what I remember best about him as a kid, other than '40s cartoon parodies, was his appearance on "I Love Lucy" during the series' Hollywood arc. Just hearing Lucy scream "Charles Boyer!!!" was all I needed to know that he was supposed to be hot stuff. But what really impressed me was watching him in the Fritz Lang movie "Liliom". Not only had I never seen him so young, but I finally got why women were crazy about him. And most important of all, he gave a first-rate performance. All those "Come wiz me to the Cashbah" parodies hide the fact he was an excellent actor.

4:10 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

A Burns and Allen radio show had them commenting on a magazine's list of great men. Gracie insists Charles Boyer should be at the top of the list. George pitches some alternatives:
GEORGE: "Edison invented the electric light."
GRACIE: "With Boyer who needs it?"

A long-running cliche is the slightly faded romantic lead who shifts to playing villains, then claims in interviews it was a choice because the villain's part is always better than the hero's. It's up there with all the movie musicals that claim to be the first to integrate song and story.

3:56 PM  
Blogger Ed Watz said...

Reportedly Cukor pitched Erich von Stroheim for Boyer's role but this was nixed by Louis B. Mayer himself. Admittedly Erich could have been terrific in the part - and he made a sensational impact at the box office the previous year in FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO (although a supporting role, Stroheim's image dominated the trade ads when that film proved a hit for Paramount). But perhaps GASLIGHT needed a male lead who played against type; besides Mayer's personal animosity towards Von, The Man You Love To Hate's presence might've turned GASLIGHT into a latter-day GREED-like experience for 1940s audiences.

4:47 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

But would Ingrid have been willing to play kissy-face with Von? Garbo was said to have blanched at the prospect of it in AS YOU DESIRE ME.

6:42 AM  
Blogger Ed Watz said...

Great point, John - but at least Garbo did permit Von to kiss her onscreen. I wonder how many times it took to get the best take - probably not enough to satisfy Stroheim!

7:56 AM  
Blogger lmshah said...

Actually, Erich Von Stroheim would have been brilliant in the part of the Detective, as it was originally written in ANGEL STREET, and it would have been a change of pace for him.

The problem with ANGEL STREET as a play is that is a talky, one-set borefest that comes across that way in most productions of it I have ever seen, including innumerable television versions. The 1940 British film version with Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynward is the best film version, and the only other bearable versions are two done for radio, a 30 minute one done on GUEST STAR with Boris Karloff, Helen Hayes, and Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and a 60 minute THEATRE GUILD ON THE AIR from the early 1950's featuring Vincent Price and Judith Evelyn recreating their Broadway roles.

I once was light and sound designer on a stage production of the play, who also operated the light and sound during the run of it. Every night, after bringing up the lights and running the opening sound cues for the tedious hour and ten minute first act, I had literally no further cues until bringing down the lights at the end of Act one, and so would escape the booth and go have dinner at the coffee shop across the street, and come back in time to bring down the lights,it was the dullest play I ever worked on.


11:24 AM  
Blogger rnigma said...

Of course, the film inspired the term "gaslighting." First time I heard the term was in a "Lucy Show" episode, where Lucy attempted to "gaslight" boss Mooney.

Ingrid Bergman was 5'9", as mentioned by David O. Selznick in one of his memos (when he brought her over to remake "Intermezzo"). I've seen a candid photo of Bogart on the "Casablanca" set wearing wooden platforms strapped to his shoes, for his closeups with Bergman.

8:54 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

From Dan Mercer re Gaslight cruelties:

"Gaslight" tells a cruel story. The way in which the Boyer character manipulates Ingrid Bergman's with pretty compliments or displays of affection, inevitably followed by expressions of profound disappointment, might have been all too familiar to some in the audience. They had experienced similar struggles in their own relationships. For the women, Boyer had become less a romantic ideal to which they could turn, then someone resembling the husbands and boyfriends they would have wanted to have turned from. If his status as a leading man declined from this point forward, here was a reason.

On reflection, though, I was struck by the realization that the game played by Boyer's character was much too extravagant for its ostensible purpose, to disguise his nocturnal search of an adjacent apartment for hidden jewels. There was no need for the degree of control or manipulation he exercised, no need to drive Bergman's character mad, nor would she have long accepted it before being driven...not mad, but away. The game went on and on, it seems, because both relished it. He enjoyed torturing her in this fashion, and she must have found some inner satisfaction in being subjected to this. As she would lie there on her bed in the semi-darkness, watching the flickering gas light with wide, frightened eyes, the question is whether she feared madness or sinking into the depths of something whose resolution could only be exquisite, a kind of little death that promised an ultimate release. In the penultimate scene, when he's tied to a chair and she pretends that she is quite mad, he suggests that his feelings for her are indeed deep and that she should free him. She does not, of course, but I wonder whether she will find in the rather conventional character played by Joseph Cotton the satisfaction she wants, when she had been so close.

4:16 PM  

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