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Monday, October 31, 2022

Film Noir #15


Noir: The Blue Lamp, A Blueprint for Murder, and Blue Ruin

THE BLUE LAMP (1950) --- Lovely evocation of London life even as it cries against crime let loose by permissiveness after the war and youth ratching up violent acts to seize good things from austere surrounding. That last is everywhere present --- buildings with sides bombed out by the Blitz and still unfixed, meat doled as if war were still on. It was in a sense, because few had other than essentials to survive, many hardly that, result which youth like Dirk Bogarde (first impression-making part) robs jewelers, guns a likeable copper (we’re shocked to see rooting interest Jack Warner shot so casually, then dying in a first half). Bernard Lee oversees underpaid force that doesn’t carry weapons, it being policy then. Uniforms are worn by middle-age plodders seeing to gardens during off time or callow boys barely out of public school. A bad one like Bogarde startles the more for viciousness in the face of such gentility. The Blue Lamp is noir because although they don’t initially seem so, these are mean streets, and people’s desperation, if quietly expressed, is still desperate. The US never felt war on home ground, let alone homes fallen down around us, but Brits … that’s all they knew, and for years … so continued austerity, cruel as it was through much of the fifties, was something most could adjust to, it representing little that was change. At least bombs stopped dropping. Imagine if spoiled Yanks ever had to confront reality like this. I need to remember The Blue Lamp next time they don’t have my preferred brand of pimento cheese at the supermarket.

A BLUEPRINT FOR MURDER (1953) --- Seems a lot of poisonings were committed, and gotten away with, at least up to 1953. A Blueprint for Murder reveals alarming statistics. I was frankly shocked. Did beautiful women oft-off excess acquaintances and come away unscathed, theory being that with enough looks and charm, no one will order an autopsy, let alone ask probing questions? I only know arsenic has the odor of bitter almonds because Sherlock Holmes told me so. A Blueprint for Murder was among final flat Fox releases, and black-and-white besides. It and Dangerous Crossing were two peas in a pod for mutual borrow of Titanic sets, A Blueprint for Murder using these for a third act where Joseph Cotten finally unmasks murderess who is Jean Peters, hardly a reveal as he is on to her early and there are no viable suspects otherwise. Grim premise has Peters doing in a child with strychnine, measure seldom taken by Fox ingenues. Did this amount to studio writing on walls for Jean Peters, if not others of 40’s sorority soon to be let off contracts? Negative cost for Blueprint was $625K, surprising to be that much, being all shot toward four corners of varied rooms but for production value borrowed off Titanic. By way of how bad things got before Cinemascope, A Blueprint for Murder saw but $518K in domestic rentals, plus paltry $343K from foreign. Zanuck and Skouras were long aware that minus strong offshore support, no Fox release could break even, which indeed Blueprint did not (loss: $124K). Still engaging for its 77 minutes, quench of noir thirst via off-cast Peters as a blackest of widows, Uncle Joseph Cotten having to somehow prevent it. Shades of Gene Tierney similarly disposed in Leave Her to Heaven, except Peters gets a bravura speech where it looks to a last moment like she’ll go free. Writing and direction comes courtesy Andrew L. Stone, who had clever ideas here. A Blueprint for Murder streams on Amazon in HD.

BLUE RUIN (2013) --- One must be of stern stuff to get through modern noir. This one scared me more than horror films might. Like dark cinema in an age where it seems virtually all cinema is dark, Blue Ruin tells a story without vestige of hope or humanity. Are we now given to such outlook? If so, Blue Ruin is amusement rich deserved by a here and now, though like cobra snakes with pretty color, latter-day noir engages as would strangulation from behind. Pain can be ungodly, but you sure focus on it. Blue Ruin takes revenge account and how horribly wrong that can go. When even Blue Ridge mountains in Virginia look blanched and depressing, you know there’s a sick pup at controls, in this case one Jeremy Saulnier, talent to draw notice where work is so efficient, but then I see he has completed but two features since Blue Ruin. Back in the day, such writing/directing would put him at grist for three features at least per annum. Even quiet, especially quiet, scenes in Blue Ruin are laden with dread. Horrific things happen and we don’t get notice enough to shut eyes. When did noir get like this? I guess after every ounce of studio glamour was sapped finally out. Piece of mind demands more the old way, even as I realize such has fast passed, gone for good. No call then to complain how noir, or movies overall, “go too far.” Well-constructed as Blue Ruin is, that being what is most insidious about it, can make for troubled sleep. Your mileage will vary according to temperament. Some still are accustomed to gentler noir as practiced through a Classic Era overseen by the Code. People imagine everything old was spoon bread. Insofar as movies, you could argue that, but look at other arts dating back further. So much traded on cruelty and violence likes of which we still approach tentative by comparison. Many raised on even vestige of the Code, or “Standards/Practices” as ruthlessly enforced by television, find it tough coping with films unshackled as Blue Ruin, so it’s little surprise they'll retreat to comfort of a Double Indemnity or Out of the Past. Such familiars become more essential as nerve gives way to age.

Monday, October 24, 2022

Whose Horror Is It?


Their Likes --- Our Likes --- They Differ

You Tube hands me more of the unexpected, comments to go with highlights from Van Helsing, one I assumed was Universal-ly disliked since 2004 when released. How wrong was that notion came clear via salute for many a fan’s favorite classic of any horror made, and they aren’t kidding. Not oddballs or outliers but raves by hundreds, many of whom spell and make complete sentences, a congregation born of the nineties who came of age right when Van Helsing hit. What they teach is never to assume any movie is bad no matter unanimity long thought in place. Whatever majority we imagined is largely edged out since 2004. A whole new monster army has arrived to school us all. I wondered if reappraisal extended beyond Van Helsing, and so sought two more from Universal’s “Dark Universe” … The Wolf Man (2010) and The Mummy (2017). As expected, more up-thumbs than down for both. These people feel not obliged to respond like critics or a then-public too prosaic to catch the wave, but sure they represent a loyal order who I suspect outnumber those once stood before shrines of old-school Universal. Consider an audience enormous by comparison with what attended in Classic Era past. Even if U’s Dark Universe disappointed on first exposure, think of afterlife post-theatres. One fan at YT spoke of Van Helsing as never-ending loop on his TV, discs played thin with nary concern for narrative stumble or dearth of characterization, these no longer factors whatever a published reviewer at-or-past middle age might think.

So how long has this gone on? Looks to me like twenty years at least. Superheroes have more than reached that duration of dominance. Van Helsing, The Wolf Man, and The Mummy are really heroes in monster clothes, more “action blockbusters” than anything meant to be scary. Popcorn movies used to be a mildly derisive term. Not now, and not for a long time. Were story, structure, and character things that Hollywood lost, or willingly gave up? A popcorn mindset obliges us not to crave anything past the butter and salt. Action loud and confusing enough, let alone projected upon IMAX walls, does not tax in terms of focus upon narrative. I don’t say this to deride the taste of current fandom or knock things I don’t understand. Those who get no charge out of Van Helsing may not know what they are missing. These spectacles find virtue in chaos, no one left on production ends to distinguish “good” from “bad.” I wonder what screenplay instructors tell pupils nowadays. There was a time when rules stood fast, or at least everyone knew why weak movies were weak. Now it seems discipline of a kind Billy Wilder and other ancients preached is done, and good riddance to it. Background on making of VH, Wolf Man, and Mummy are everywhere at You Tube and told largely in terms of what went "wrong." Fans chime in to challenge any such notion, nothing being amiss among timeless totems of precious upbringing. If budgets went off rail, a director was fired, then another, panic delays against a release date that was non-negotiable, these are but brush strokes toward perfection. Hail chaos, but will it yield to profoundest change recent years have visited upon filmmaking?

What prepares writers to write, let alone write well? Surely schooling has much to do with it, though sources suggest verbal and composition are not just lost arts but forfeited ones. There was time when education denoted classical education, literature, poetry, the Greek, Latin, all resulting in a well-turned-out scholar, many of whom went on to contribute written arts of their own. What became of all that? I’m told phonics quit in US schools around 1930, yet it was drilled into me during second grade by a teacher who hailed from the nineteenth-century and taught as though we were all still there (bless Miss Finley for that). Also am informed that education after WWII was redirected toward math and sciences in response to Soviet aggression, humanities getting short shrift from then on. Can only imagine what computer curriculum has done to literary study, even basic grammar, though glimpse at Twitter or Facebook give frightful enough account. Film writers decades ago got training at colleges where communication skill was paramount, campus-labs where the best of wits had short stories and light poems published on site, resumes built from age eighteen to eventual place with live theatre, radio, or film factories in search always for those who could fence with words. Did I say eighteen? There were boys before a turn of the century who graduated Ivy League schools before they were sixteen … William Holmes McGuffey of “Readers” fame was tutoring students when he was thirteen. These generations knew writing, thrived upon it. They learned from reading, not by watching old movies and regurgitating them. Such are lost arts Hollywood knows to be lost, if not consciously then at least to extent of realizing there is little chance we will get any such expertise back.

Somewhere movies became go-to for excitation and little else, at least ones aimed at crowded cinemas. That was OK with producers because special effects could now disguise poverty of ideas. Got to where sophisticated writing was a last thing they wanted. It all makes sense. If you can render absolutely anything upon screens, why stand still ever, let alone emphasize people merely talking. Youngsters got the Van Helsing and Wolf Man they wanted, however critics headed for a scrapheap carped about it. Watch You Tube “highlights” from any corner of Universal’s Dark Universe and know delirium tremens without the drinks. If fans now repeat-watch these and intend to go on doing so, where do others of us go for comfort? For me it is increasingly to the dialoguers and gesture-folk, or moments so passive you barely hear sound, like what once were radical and even a threat to public sobriety. I watched Horror of Dracula again last week. It plays on a loop in my brain anyway so why not air images out? I’m convinced therein lie health benefits, this impulse toward quieter reflection. Consider HoD’s host of uneventful scenes, the crackle of fire Jonathon Harker throws another log onto, Dracula’s letter in lovely script apologizing for his absence, push of the tray and its clatter upon the floor. Dracula says “there are many volumes to be indexed” in his library, which makes me want to see more of that room and what sort of books Dracula reads when not occupied elsewhere. Van Helsing in the person of Peter Cushing is a man of infinite resource and subtle expression. He is highly educated, has a voice-recording device I would prefer to any modern derivation, wipes off a chair cushion he offers a lady guest. A blood transfusion he conducts is as precise as stakings necessitated by his profession. I wonder if after liquidating Dracula, Van Helsing remained behind to see whether the vampire’s reading selections overlap any of his own. Had Dracula relaxed his reign of terror, there is every chance he and Van Helsing would have become more congenial.

What once was the Universal horror brand is not to be recaptured. What they spent on one among the Dark Universe would finance entirety of the cycle as it unfolded through the thirties and forties. Extravagance breeds waste we’ve seen, and fear of botching the job for which individuals answer. More than a few blockbuster directors do not direct anymore. Demands upon modern filmmakers go way past reason. There would be less pressure defusing unexploded bombs. The system isn’t likely to permit another James Whale. Closest might be a “Best Picture” winner of late (2017) where the woman falls for a Creature offshoot in a lab tank, which union they consummate. Yes, this won Best Picture. Did viewers in 1954 wish such an outcome for Julia Adams? Oddly it was Fox Searchlight that released The Shape of Water, not Universal. I thrive upon humble sets and actors for horror films revisited. The best of Universal were done modestly and with modest expectations. Now it seems lives are at stake should something fail. Certainly, careers are. The Black Cat in 1934 cost $92,548 to make, The Mummy’s Hand in 1940 $80,000. Universal’s Dark Universe is well-named, for we speak of an entirely different universe between a Classic Era and now. But latter-day followers regard DU’s as marvels good as Marvel, and that must be understood, if not applauded. Once a thing ramps up, there is no un-ramping. I took a chastise, around when Van Helsing came out, for using 1963’s Kiss of the Vampire at a university show, had promoting stunts, even contacted a showman in Arkansas after seeing a ’63 trade article about how he sold Kiss. Drew a crowd alright, but boy did they flay the movie. Learned that night how what raised me happy was never going to do so for millennials.

Monday, October 17, 2022

Another Collection Passed Down ...


Fun For One and One For All on 8mm

Seems I fall heir to another collection of 8mm film, a variant to before as this owner still lives, though minus machinery to run reels on, and no inclination to dig up means for doing so. Yes, there are cliffs between 8mm and 2022, especially standard 8, a format to scream analog loudest. Part why I return to such antiquity is colorful boxes, palm-size reels, each delicate in their way, so meaningful when new and treasures for privileged who got them when so. Consider comic books cost twelve cents, any Castle or Blackhawk subject many times that. There was a “headline edition” of Tarantula that parents cheerlessly paid for at a department store in West Virginia (why we were even there escapes me). It was part of a counter display … Castle reels aboard a spinning rack. Price was $2.98. I decided Tarantula should be tinted green (“the color of fear”) so I dipped the whole thing in food color. Miraculously not ruined, the monster marched three-minute trek to glory against a bedsheet to dwarf TV as it then was. And Tarantula’s cardboard container, what became of that? A large-enough vacuum cleaner may well have sucked it up.

Not to get all tingly and sense of wonder about 8mm, as I long passed nostalgia’s peak for it, yet the format is being collected again via eBay, younger people at most vigorous pursuit. Seldom do I see better magnetic sound reels for less than $60, so 8mm may well have risen from ashes. Physical film needs patience and physical dexterity which some among us no longer have. Feeding film to angry sprocket claws of my Eumig costs footage for each time tried, solution to trim film between sprocket holes before finessing them in, operator obliged to locate finger-length scissors for precision task. Collection what came my way was mostly comedy, natural and expected as this was sixties-early seventies mode of entry. Slapstick fit neatly on one or two reels and was at least somewhat affordable. Lots more buyers wanted Big Business than Intolerance, plus Blackhawk had sales where a dollar or three might drop from suggested retail. Back to recent haul of which Three Little Pigskins with the Three Stooges was part. I think Columbia missed a bet by waiting to enter the home movie Stooge market, like ten at least years late, then trying to sell the boys on sixties terms. Are those tie-dye pants Moe wears? The trio needed sound to emphasize grunts, groans, Curleyisms. Watching them silent was like something wrong with your television, except this wasn't television. Then came Bone Trouble, among “Walt Disney Character Films,” a bit imprecise, being fifty-feet where a bathroom break might cost whole of the sit. Best consign this to the Tarantula rack.

Next was From Soup to Nuts. I find setting up at boyhood home for 8mm L&H to be not a little spooky. Their very shades seem ready to step off the wall, or is it residual energy within the house from years past? The print was fuzzy as was much of Laurel-Hardy that Blackhawk licensed. We enjoyed exclusivity the silent shorts gave … none were on TV, so an only way of seeing them was at theatres using Robert Youngson scrapbooks. Blackhawk put explanatory titles with credits to tell who wrote-directed-edited the shorts. By a dozenth watch, data was memorized for life. Silent L&H may work best for 8mm because they were made silent, so there’s no sense of missing something as with Stooge shorts or an Abbott-Costello reel. Missing plenty was lot of those taking receipt of Sergeant York as teensy fifty feet from a 134-minute feature, many a rifle shot seen but not heard as Gary Cooper picks off Germans to force their surrender. That was all we got but maybe it was enough as trench round-up was for most the highlight of Sgt. York. The feature was generally cut to bone for television anyway, so what matter if yours was barest keepsake? York the feature was called “Best Ever” by many present when new (1941), and note NC kiddie shows still playing it in the mid-sixties, possibly a last 35mm print from Charlotte exchanges ending up in Moon Mullins’ shed (but there’s another story).

Speaking of war, there was the one sound subject from this collection, The Little Rebel, adapted by Castle Films from General Spanky, a 1936 full-length “Our Gang” of sorts with S. McFarland, Buckwheat Thomas, and Alfalfa fighting the war for Southern Independence and nearly winning. General Spanky was a rarity I often heard about but never saw until this modest reel unspooled before me. Curiosity made a difficult threading worthwhile, 8mm if nothing else the tiniest of mediums, and as with Sgt. York, the whole turns on fighting and outcome of kids taking on blue coats and fooling the enemy into thinking they number thousands, a nice self-contained story and undoubted money’s worth for those who sprang when The Little Rebel first came available. To have movies you could show the neighborhood was to stand out, for even where families had a projector, they seldom had anything other than home captures to watch among themselves or close relations. I made up lobby cards for Castle’s 8mm Dracula co-owned with two other boys and pasted the lot on basement windows. There were curiosity-seekers enough to yield thirty or forty cents for a typical Saturday. One attendee lately reminded me of a show he came to nearly sixty years ago. How many of specific sits does anyone recall from so far back, outside our own fraternity of fans?

Cartoons lend themselves to truncated reels since you can gather essential point of the situation without expending much footage. Crowing Pains was a Warner short with Foghorn Leghorn, plus a dog, cat, others. Conflict revolves around which of these can be convinced he has laid eggs. Sound is missed but not critical to viewing enterprise. Children would delight even in fifty feet of animation so long as it was theirs to enjoy at will. Color is less a loss since most were limited to black and white on home televisions. Two minutes of Crowing Pains will register well as the entire subject might. There are serious collectors of cartoons who got their start with these tiny reels. United Artists sold them during the early 60s with colorful art (our equivalent to album sleeves) and prominent credit for Associated Artists Productions, entity of which initially handled distribution of pre-49 Warner cartoons for TV. Container cameos of Bugs, Daffy, Sylvester etc. were potent draw for fans who longed for personal record of these characters in motion, a benefit even most vivid comic books would not supply. Next up came Abbott and Costello in one of Castle subjects that eventually brought about a lawsuit by the team against Universal and subsidiary United World for selling excerpts and not inviting A&C to share profit from them. No telling how many sold. One at hand called Riot on Ice was distilled from 1943 feature Hit the Ice, so there is comedy en route to Sun Valley and ice-skating attempts by Lou once they get there. As the reel concentrates mostly on visual foolery rather than verbal byplay between the boys, Riot on Ice plays fine sans sound. Between new features, reissued ones, television appearances for Colgate, and lively sale of the Castle shorts, Abbott and Costello enjoyed a peak of exposure if not popularity during the 50s. I never collected them on 8mm but judging by Riot on Ice, might have been well rewarded if I had.

Next came a tepid Tarzan reel, 1955’s Hidden Jungle, wherein Gordon Scott wore loin clothing for a first time. A safari is beset by natives and rogue elephants, during which I think I saw Jack Elam trampled under massive feet. The point of any Tarzan highlight reel is seeing him perform feats, in this case diving into a lion pit to rescue Vera Miles. Boys entranced by Tarzan would attempt vine swings but came often to naught, discovery that backyard foliage was not so resilient a too-late one. What became of Tarzan as cultural icon is anyone’s guess. Our enthusiasm turned most on who was cast as the jungle lord. Scott was best among later choices, better frankly than Weissmuller by plenty reckoning, but given too little opportunity to shine. Tarzan's Hidden Jungle was released by RKO, company having done the Lex Barker group and not inclined to spend color or location by a 50s point when these elements were sorely needed to attract any but a same and indiscriminate audience. Last of 8mm picks was 400 feet derived from a Republic chapter play representing slow but sure decline from what had been dominance of the field. Radar Men from the Moon has sci-fi elements to still engage, flying scenes with Commando Cody good as one could hope for in the early 50s. Why didn’t Superman use this technique for the television series? Radar Men being longer gives us a sense of what the serial in its entirety would have offered, being action continuous and one chase after unmotivated other. Little need in my watching the entire thing now, having nibbled these seventeen or so minutes. Serials yielded once a rich vein of pleasure. What a pity they had to go away so utterly.

Monday, October 10, 2022

Film Noir #14


Noir: Blow Out, The Blue Dahlia, and The Blue Gardenia

BLOW OUT (1981) --- I saw Blow Out when it was new and sort of liked it. Forty years later however and what a difference. Movies cannot help but date, however we pretend our favorites do not, but this one, by Brian De Palma (he wrote as well), is heavy with hoke, a sort I could envision youth laughing out loud at. Conspiracy yarns were the rage in 1981, in fact had run their course by then, so maybe Blow Out was seen from a start as stating the obvious, or conspiracies have since become so much a norm that we’re surprised when there aren’t elaborate pre-plans afoot, the government always complicit. More I think about Blow Out however, the more its quaintness appeals. There are adventurous moments courtesy De Palma. He will do things interesting even where material given him is not. Blow Out was the sort of thing that excited us once upon when. I must remind myself too that 1981 was forty years ago, and that seems more than a lifetime for many watching. Blow Out is a thriller, a US patch on Blow Up, except this title refers to a tire blowing, plus a gunshot, that propels sound fx man John Travolta into action. Not a bad concept, but De Palma as writer seems inspired more by older movies than what he observed from life, a criticism laid upon most of his generation that had grown up to be filmmakers. Then too was his fascination with Hitchcock, enough so to virtually remake the master’s work, one after unsatisfactory other (a plus: he gave late-in-career Bernard Herrmann work). De Palma seemed intent on having women carved up in these copies, as in even Blow Out, John Lithgow commits sex murders in addition to story-related villainy, and I still can’t figure why of that. De Palma continues to direct, though you may not have heard of these: Domino (2019), Passion (2012), Redacted (2007). I admire the man for still working where he can (now age eighty-one), and remember there are these … The Untouchables, Scarface. Someone should footnote the Easy Riders-Raging Bulls book where they bring those 70’s filmmakers up to present day. Note virtually all who are alive remain at the till, or seek to. Good for that. Blow Out is part of the Criterion collection, but I watched on Amazon Prime, where it looked fine.

THE BLUE DAHLIA (1946) --- Done in a rush, so Alan Ladd could report for wartime duty, then release-delayed nearly a year for reasons I’ve not divined. Noteworthy because it was written by Raymond Chandler, a job he was not initially pleased by, but liked better when he got out the script a few years later and re-read it. Chandler was never comfortable with Hollywood, in part because he didn’t enjoy working close with people, and Hollywood people forever got too close. The Blue Dahlia was never the classic some might expect, but it says words unique to Chandler, has Paramount polish, plus Ladd and Veronica Lake in shared isolation apart from less engaging others. The how-it-came-to-be is spoken of more than content of the film, so it’s easy to forget how forgettable content is. Producer John Houseman tells the whole background story in his memoir, Front and Center, about as vivid a personal recollection of Chandler as anyone left us. Return to civilian life is no joy for Ladd and pals William Bendix and Hugh Beaumont. We’re allowed to think it less so for any returning warrior. Bendix refers to swing as “monkey music,” and whatever PTSD triggers the response, he may well have a point considering jukeboxes that seem to pursue him up-down streets. Doris Dowling is a monster of a faithless wartime wife who gets hers from any of a dozen who might be motivated. Ladd conveys pain of coming home to … nothing. His were still waters running deeper than lead men handed similar commissions. I’m guessing a lot of lonely folk identified with Ladd (this why Rebel Without a Cause’s “Plato” has AL’s portrait pasted in his school locker). Chandler earned much for the work, more than what any of literature paid, but screenwriting took life’s blood he could no longer spare, him on a down slope of productivity in any case. Still-good income from past work kept him fortunately fed.

THE BLUE GARDENIA (1952) --- Bachelor girls sharing modest digs have a problem … one of them might be a murderess. Fritz Lang wrinkles this noir to his measure. A blind witness to killer identity looks like a drop-in from Mabuse past, and Raymond Burr makes an oddly sympathetic victim, being a wolf and a heel, yes, but Lang doesn’t present his conduct so open-shut as to manipulate our sympathies by standard movie rote. The Blue Gardenia was produced independently, only distributed by Warner Bros., after which it slipped from their control, thus an end to good prints and us stuck with punk transfers on DVD. Story, cast, and Lang put over nicely how guilt can eat one from insides, which all can identify with, save level of anxiety which in this case comes of a killing. We become Anne Baxter, if to a lesser degree, just for running a stop signal or failing to return a library book. Single gals as a commune, taking turns for the bath, pouring morning juice, in-out of towels and night wear, still a presumed titillation by 1953, harks back to Joan Crawford and sisterhood doing a same at early 30’s MGM, though suave Robert Montgomery is here replaced by burly Burr, with Richard Conte consulting his little black book that loser pal Richard Erdman covets. No one refuses a cigarette where offered, and the girls (men too) are constantly minding each other’s business. How could anyone hope to get away with murder in cloistered circumstance like this? Maybe 1953 wasn’t such a swell time to be making single way after all. Authority is ever watchful, bosses, police, especially police, chief of which is George Reeves, who puts wit into line readings, shades his character nicely, always a way with George, who I understand was pals with F. Lang and had the director over for barbecues at Benedict Canyon, a favor returned as Reeves turns up in The Blue Gardenia plus Rancho Notorious. There is a title theme to haunt us, sung onscreen by the King Cole quartet, a recording of which will later accompany Burr’s licking by a fire poker. Ads were properly lurid ("The Clinch-and-Kill Girl!"), and of course a public was lured. The Blue Gardenia got $759K in domestic rentals, $591K foreign, so I’m guessing no one ended with empty pockets, being the picture looks to have been frugally made.

Monday, October 03, 2022

Where Virtue Lost Is Not Got Back


More Than the Code Ruled Content

Lana Turner as “Lily James” in A Life of Her Own (1950) declares “men have been buzzing around me since I was fourteen,” which we can believe because it is as much Lana talking as the character she portrays. A Life of Her Own was, for whatever reason, a picture she disdained. It also took lumps from director George Cukor in hindsight, one he did “for the team.” Fact A Life of Her Own lost money seemed confirmation of what both felt. Easy to dismiss a thing when chances are you will not watch again after a poor first impression. There are pictures I saw fifty years ago that still rank “bad.” Nicety of television was it giving second, in fact many more, chance, to films written off by those who made them and folk who initially watched. I came upon A Life of Her Own some while back and took it for efficient melodrama, but again … by chance … it rose to surface a same recent week as The Rains Came (1939), another from inactive service, and ding went the bell, for two never went so felicitous together, nor made such salient point re morality and punishment for lack of it. Ever have that happen, a pair seemingly unrelated, yet somehow, they wed? What A Life of Her Own and The Rains Came speak is volumes about attitude and fencing around stories told when the Code was in force. Yes, they abided to rules, had to in order to get a release and play subscribing theatres, but philosophy they express was very much felt by all producing and, I suspect, most that were watching. These were attitudes less imposed upon filmmakers than embraced by them plus watchers in 1939/1950. Think the Code was heinous to all of these? I maintain a majority worked quite agreeably within its bounds. If writing is barometer, then cuffs were a comfort, an ongoing assurance that status quos would remain in force, each applying talent willingly toward necessary end.

Moral Vagabond Tom Ransome (George Brent) for Whom All Will Be Forgiven.
Image Courtesy Mark Vieira/Starlight Studios

The Rains Came
posits moral transgressors of both sexes. One will prevail and end happy, the other to die upon heels of rejection and disgrace. Source was a popular novel by Louis Bromfield, who knew from what translated best to movies and had wealth to show for it. The Rains Came is of Brit gentlefolk caught in maelstrom that is India during rainy season, an earthquake nature’s afterthought. Leads are essentially Myrna Loy and George Brent, in part because latter role was intended for Ronald Colman almost to eve of filming. Tyrone Power stands in for native exotica, costumed and passively bait for Loy lust to tip us early of her fallen woman state. If Sabu had a grown-up counterpart, it was Power here. Compare fate of Loy-Brent characters in The Rains Came and know code behind the Code, only events were not so much imposed upon writing as reflective of how personnel saw life and their notion of how uprightly it should be conducted. Clarence Brown, guest director loaned by MGM, was conservative by outlook, as we assume were Bromfield and screen translators Philip Dunne and Julien Josephson. Brent is presented as indolent, a drinker to excess, at work on a portrait he'll never finish, but withal the son of an Earl (“one of the best families in England”), so he will not want for welcome at social-climber receptions, or the palace at Ranchipur. Snobbery is rampant among Brit outliers who aspire to society placement, seeking company always of “proper people, the kind of people one knows.” They seek out “Tom Ransome” (Brent) despite his being a known “drunkard and a bounder and a remittance man.” Just to reacquaint, I looked up remittance man and got this: “an emigrant supported or assisted by payments or money from home.” 

Two Who Loved Illicitly, But Only One Will End Happy. Image Courtesy Mark Vieira/Starlight Studios

Myrna Loy as “Lady Edwina Esketh” is a woman of (too many) affairs, miserably married to lordly Nigel Bruce, who along with many of his class will perish in the quake, God-directed separation of wheat from chaff. Edwina once shared an illicit bed with Ransome, so they have no illusions regarding one another. She is a ruined woman as defined by The Rains Came, having had more men than to qualify for morality’s perceived majority. She is carnal and indiscreet, making herself available to Ransome within moments of their reunion. A first sight of Power as “Major Rama Safti” calls forth further indelicacy: “Who’s the pale copper Apollo?” to which answer she further observes, “Not bad … not bad at all.” The remark good as seals her fate. There will be pursuit on Edwina’s part, to which the Major/Doctor initially does not respond (busy treating plague victims), love awakened only when it is too late for Edwina, her having drunk diseased water after selflessly nursing for days w/o sleep, this a first worthwhile act of a misspent life, but not enough to forgive rampant promiscuity. Ransome on the other hand will marry a girl barely eighteen (Brenda Joyce) who has fairly begged him to seduce her from narrative start, loving him in part for entering their union with a reputation “already so tarnished.” So, the rake has inherited this blighted earth but will help to rebuild it, while Major Safti will recover from what amounts to boyish infatuation to assume the duties of Maharajah. Long live double standards. Hollywood believed in them whatever the dictates of a Production Code. I’m not sure they’ve given way even to now. Surely policy remained in force by 1950 and A Life of Her Own

The Model Once Hot Who Now Is Not (Ann Dvorak)

Lee Levels with Lily to Fact She Will Ultimately Belong to Him

Barry Sullivan as “Lee Gorrance” spells out for Lana Turner’s Lily James the proper place of ruined women. Lee knows the sort; he’s trafficked in them and now finds Lily among their sorry ranks. A Life of Her Own tells of a small-town girl arrived in Gotham to be a fashion model, the slope slippery as most knew mannequins barely from showgirls or streetwalkers. Lily is wise to extent of afore-spoke buzzing men, though she has never truly loved before (Turner approaching thirty at time Life was made), and now comes married Ray Milland to start her “down the chute,” as Gorrance later puts it. There are warnings along the way, Lily befriended by wash-out colleague Ann Dvorak who drank and whored her modeling career away, “You can’t help people like Mary” a cold summing-up by Gorrance, who much as one might disapprove of his outlook, can’t call him outright wrong, at least so far as writers present him. Tragic Mary wants “a new man” as there’s “nothing to show” for ones she has had, but now it is too late, and her sixteenth-floor window beckons. Milland shows up post-the-jump and Lily lies down for him despite a wife he has back in Oregon, an invalid and in all ways sympathetic. “Steve Harleigh” is in Gotham to sell copper, has his way w/ Lily, flies out leaving pal and business associate Louis Calhern to sweep up by way of a gift the latter will pick for her, a “pay-off’ she wants no part of. Here is where morality’s engine starts, for Calhern knows Steve and his wife well enough to protect both from interloping Lana, his voice loudest to denounce, a switch for Calhern after the faithless husband he played opposite another invalid wife in The Asphalt Jungle of a same year.

Outlaw Lover Meets Martyred Mate --- Which Will Prevail?

This all would convolute badly but for writer Isobel Lennart and director George Cukor pacing it to plentiful sense and being admirably true to nature of compromised people. Again, we have Hollywood living up to standards they’d never observe themselves, offscreen Lana Turner a best show of real-life conduct under moral fire. Still, we want (or did want) admirable examples, so Dutch uncle Calhern gets in his licks and all including Lana listen, a speech almost biblical: “You have to think morally about what’s right and what’s wrong. Do you think you could ever be happy again if you did this thing? You know you wouldn’t … nobody could. If you did this, you could never believe yourself decent again.” Now I ask the panel, was this generally held belief re infidelity and swapping one spouse for another? I say yes, Code or no Code, at least so far as the town’s aspiration to be good and righteous. If they violated such precepts, there was reassurance of feeling properly guilty for it. Money and position greased many a conscience, but writers-producers knew guidelines the rest of us should follow. To trespass was to ultimately suffer, as Lily will in the debased company of Lee Gorrance, who knew all along where she would end up. Will Lily meet a fine, upstanding young man, fall in love, and live happily ever after? “Nah, that’s all over for you … you haven’t got anything left.” Sobering is fact Lee gets no argument from Lana/Lily, her rueful half-smile acknowledging he’s right and that they’ll wallow in degradation together. “I’ll call you,” Lee says. “I know you will,” Lily replies. Maybe these two will be better off with each other, shared finish for a “small time chiseler” (as she called him earlier when there was some “decency” left), and a melodrama-defined ruined woman.
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