Monday, August 11, 2008

Novak on Turner / Quine at LACMA

Kim Novak was recruited by Columbia's legendary Harry Cohn to rival Fox's Marilyn Monroe in what was the Battle of the Blonde Bombshells in the 1950s. This standoff was so deliriously deranged Fox even came up with two of its own rivals for Monroe - Jayne Mansfield and Sheree North.

The men were pigs - Fox created, exploited and then systematically destroyed Marilyn - but the women, to their credit, were all different, not cookie-cutter replicas of each other: Monroe was vulnerable but shrewd and, in a passive-aggressive way, self-protecting; Mansfield had a brain and a solid Broadway background, and North was a savvy woman and world-class actress who could also sing and dance. And Kim, well, she was totally unexpected - not a "dumb blonde" at all but a haunted, quietly sensual woman with a look of deep hurt in her eyes.

Novak competition for Monroe? Now really, could you see Novak in any of Monroe's roles? "Gentleman Prefer Blondes"? "Some Like It Hot"? I don't think so. "The Misfits" maybe, but that's it.

Having lived most of her career in the shadow of Monroe, Novak can be seen now as something of a slow starter, given that her career is only starting to be appreciated. The estimable Jonathan Rosenbaum offers some vivid commentary on her that's worth checking out.

Anyway, I think that it's safe to say that Novak not only has a much more impressive filmmography than Monroe, but also that she worked with a more eclectic and fascinating collection of moviemakers.

This is evident in the titles that Turner Classics has strung together for Kim Novak Day scheduled for Tuesday, August 12th. Here's the line-up (with all times est), annotated only when I have something to say:

6:00 AM - "The Eddy Duchin Story" (George Sidney, 1956,123 minutes) Letterbox Format. Novak,although briefly on screen, is the invaluable glue of this powerful tale of a father and son trying to bond, belatedly. It's more than just a musical biopic.

8:30 AM - "Jeanne Eagels" (Sidney, 1957, 109 minutes) Worthy of serious re-evaluation.

10:30 AM - "Phffft!" (Mark Robson, 1954, 88 minutes) The riotous Rhumba sequence with Jack Lemmon and Judy Holliday is a keeper, along with Jack Carson's inspired speech of facial hair in attracting/repelling women. Kim, free of her "Pushover" babyfat and looking more like herself, has a comic highlight here when she switches on the beaming lights in a window statue that is used to alert potential intruders that it's an, ahem, inopportune time to enter.

12:00 PM - "Kiss Me, Stupid" (Billy Wilder, 1965, 125 minutes) Letterbox Format.

2:00 PM - "The Notorious Landlady" (Richard Quine, 1962, 123 minutes) Letterbox Format. Lemmon signed on for this when it was titled "The Notorious Tenant" (based on a Margery Sharp short story of the same title) and he was the title star. Columbia newcomer Victoria Shaw was slated to play his fetching landlady until Kim showed an interest in the project. Quine, close with both Kim and Jack, as a natural fit as the director. The title was changed to accomodate Kim, its new star.

4:15 PM - "Of Human Bondage" (Ken Hughes, 1964, 100 minutes) Letterbox Format.

6:00 PM - "Middle of the Night" (Delbert Mann, 1959, 117 minutes) Letterbox Format. Kim demonstrates surprising chemistry opposite Fredric March in this most affecting May-December love story from Paddy Chayefsky.

8:00 PM - "Pushover" (Quine, 1954, 88 minutes) Letterbox Format. Kim's First, directed by Quine.

9:45 PM - "Five Against the House" (Phil Karlson, 1955, 83 minutes) A nifty little caper/noir. Kim's third film and her transformation to "star" is complete.

11:15 PM - "Vertigo" (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958, 130 minutes) Letterbox Format. You know the drill.

1:30 AM - "The Legend Of Lylah Clare" (Robert Aldrich, 1968, 130 minutes) Letterbox Format. Aldrich's neglected camp classic. Both it and Kim are very good, compulsively watchable.

4:00 AM - "Strangers When We Meet" (Quine, 1960, 117 mins) Letterbox Format. It's been called Quine's masterwork recently and it is.
Kim makes her sex-starved suburban housewife's ache almost palpable.

Three key titles that are missing are Joshua Logan's "Picnic" (1955), of course, Otto Preminger's
"The Man with the Golden Arm" (also '55), Sidney's "Pal Joey" (1957) and Quine's "Bell, Book and Candle" (1958), which, for me, provided Novak with her signature role -a contemporary witch in '50s Greenwich Village. For what it's worth, Novak did her very best work for Quine, making four films with him.

She was his muse and he was her lover.

Coincidentally, Quine has been in the spotlight of late, with his name and some of his titles popping up regularly among the discourse on Dave Kehr's blog and with the ongoing "Richard Quine at Columbia" retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

LAWeekly.com offers two wonderful pieces on Quine - one a late-in-life interview with the director by Philippe Garnier and an asssessement of the Museum's program by Scott Foundas.

(Artwork: Novak gets made over, but not as Monroe, in Hitchcock's "Vertigo," in "Strangers When We Meet," with Lemmon in "The Notorious Landlady," with Fredric March in "Middle of the Night," with Kirk Douglas in "Strangers When We Meet" again, and director Richard Quine on the job)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

hearsay

Old movies, because of what they are, serve as their own documentations. If one is curious about a certain title – or about a performance in it – there’s no reason to resort to archival materials or to research what was written about the film at the time of its release.

As wonderful as it is to peruse the vintage reviews of critics Stanley Kaufmann, Pauline Kael, James Agee, Manny Farber, Dwight MacDonald, Graham Greene and Andrew Sarris, the fact is, one simply has to look at the movie itself, first-hand, to form an educated opinion.

Thank God for film.

With theater, it’s different. Until recently, stage productions were not preserved on film or video (and most contemporary shows, for some bizarre, short-sighted reason, still aren’t). A reputedly legendary theater performance would die when the show folded and, consequently, all that’s left of stage hits from 50 or so years ago – Broadway’s celebrated Golden Era – are the dim memories of the remaining few people who saw them.

I bring up this contrast because, in a depressingly routine piece in today’s New York Times, titled “Singing! Dancing! Adapting! Stumbling!,” second-string theater critic Charles Isherwood continues the legend of just how great Ethel Merman was in the original 1959 production of “Gypsy.”

Isherwood flat out states that it was a “fatal” decision not to cast Merman in a film version of the show – “fatal” being an awfully dramatic adjective even for an excitable theater critic to bandy about so freely.

But wait.

Exactly how does Isherwood know that Merman was great? Is he basing his opinion solely on the creaky old Columbia original-cast recording? He certainly didn’t see the original 1959 production. He couldn’t have: My references show Isherwood being born in 1964, five years after “Gypsy” opened and closed on Broadway. (Ben Brantley, the Times' chief theater critic, was only five when "Gypsy" opened.) No, Isherwood's comment is based strictly on Broadway folklore, dusty opinions handed down from generation to generation and most likely distorted with each passing.

It’s hearsay - hearsay written with authority, albeit empty authority. And I’m not sure that hearsay, repeating an old opinion, has a valid place in an essay trying to pass itself off as original critical analysis.

Hearsay comes cheap.
At the risk of seriously dating myself here, I happened to actually see the original Broadway production of “Gypsy” – it was my first Broadway show – and have memories of Merman as a loud, forceful singer but a rather indifferent, aggressive, although not-altogether-unpleasant actress.

For some reason, the word “overrated” comes to mind.

Except for a few solipsistic theater types, I doubt if anyone seriously thinks that Merman could have carried a film of “Gypsy.” I’d be willing to wager that even Ethel herself was realistic enough to know that it would never happen, her film work being generally uneventful up to that time.

Exacerbating this matter, the Times TV section ran the following unsigned opinion when Turner Classics recently aired Warners’ 1962 version of “Gypsy”: “Russell can’t touch Broadway’s Merman.” Wanna bet that this anonymous Times writer didn’t see the original stage production either?

Hearsay. It’s all hearsay. And it’s ... worthless.

Much more worthwhile would be an analysis of why "Gypsy" has never been particularly popular with the general public. True, critics and theater aficionados love it, and gay men adore it, but the fact remains that it has never enjoyed a long run in any of its various incarnations.

Even such lesser shows as "Beatlemania" and 1989's all-but-forgotten "Grand Hotel" had longer runs. The public likes "Gypsy" alright but it also seems to keep it at arm's length, rather cautiously. Let's just say that, to Middle America, it's no "Phantom of the Opera."

The Russell referred to in that Times TV quote is, of course, Rosalind Russell, who gave a nuanced, fully-realized performance in the film. In a way, the Times is right, in spite of itself: Russell can’t touch Merman. That’s because she’s way ahead of Merman in the role. Russell’s better.

To paraphrase what I said earlier, we can’t go back and evaluate Merman’s performance. We can only read tattered, yellowed old reviews. But Russell’s performance on film – and on video and DVD – speaks for itself. It’s there to see and to savor. We don’t need hearsay.

We can see for ourselves that she's actually very good in the film.

Incidentally, Russell, who sang in “Wonderful Town” on Broadway just a few years earlier, couldn’t meet the demands of the Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim score, and the great Lisa Kirk was brought in to dub most of the songs. The vocal match-up remains uncanny. And one more thing: The late, husky-voiced Kirk, with her driving, razor-sharp delivery, is inarguably the definitive interpreter of the Styne-Sondheim songs – better than Merman and, yes, way better than (dare I say it?) Patti Lupone.

I’m curious. What do you think of critics clinging to hearsay in reviews, giving the impression of having seen something that they, well, haven't?

It’s a habit I personally find hugely deceptive and vaguely disreputable.

But critics do it all the time. I mean, Peter Bogdanovich’s exquisite "At Long Last Love" is usually damned by people who haven’t seen it, who have only heard about it - although it does have a loyal following.

Note in Passing: BTW, the Times piece that inspired this post is one of those journalism perennials - in this case, a critic’s self-debate about the pros and cons of stage musicals and their film versions.

Am I imagining things or is this the umpteenth time that New York’s paper of record has wasted precious news space on this subject? It seems every time a new film musical is released, this standard piece is hauled out.

Anyway, reading it – or trying to read it – I was reminded of a weary old whore tired of using the same dated tricks on her johns. Flailing around for a hook this time out, the Times uses the occasion to trash, once again, the new movie version of “Mamma Mia!,” one of its film critics already having had a go at it. But the Times isn’t alone here. No, critics in general have been disproportionately enraged by "Mamma Mia!"

With their noted attention to (easily-manipulated) minutia and with all the subtlety and pettiness of schoolyard bullies, America's diminished and diminishing movie critics have ganged up on this harmless, purely pleasurable film as if they were engaged in a personal fight with something the approximate size of - oh, let's see - the U.S. government.

You know, there's a reason why critics have been traditionally stereotyped as miserable people deserving of their misery.

(Artwork: We only have dimmed memories - and old photos - of Merman in "Gypsy"; Russell, with a little help from Lisa Kirk, performs the seminal "Rose's Turn" at the conclusion of the 1962 film version)

Friday, August 08, 2008

"The Notorious Landlady" Returns!

I'm back from self-imposed limbo, feeling better and eager to share thoughts on overlooked movies - starting with Richard Quine's "The Notorious Landlady," heroically rescued from oblivion by Turner Classics which airs it at 2 p.m. (est) on Tuesday, August 12th.

Here is Jack Lemmon in a selection of shots bounding through the air in the film's climatic and wonderful chase sequence, which Quine and composer George Duning set to selections from Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance."

Makes me want to fly, too. Enjoy!
The End.

(Artwork: Jack Be Nimble - Lemmon at work on his own stuntwork in "The Notorious Landlady")