L’ÉTRANGE MONSIEUR VICTOR: Tenderness and Cruelty

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Jean Grémillon's L'Étrange Monsieur Victor (The Strange Monsieur Victor, 1938) were written by Jonah Horwitz, Ph.D candidate in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Monsieur Victor will screen in the Cinematheque's regular location, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Saturday, September 26 at 7 p.m.

By Jonah Horwitz

L’Étrange Monsieur Victor is the second film in the UW Cinematheque’s series to represent its director Jean Grémillon in what might be called his "mature" phase, spanning 1937 to 1951. During this time, he worked in established genres within France’s star system and largely sublimated his experimental impulses in a sophisticated classical style. This was also the period of his greatest commercial success and critical renown.

After several early-1930s commercial failures (all combining melodramatic plotlines with outré style), Grémillon was essentially unemployable in the French film industry. From 1932 to 1934, he made several short films and a feature in Spain. Grémillon’s redemption came in late 1934, when he met Raoul Ploquin, then head of French-language production for the German film powerhouse UFA. Ploquin entrusted Grémillon to take charge of a film-operetta, Valse royale ("Royal Waltz," 1935)—the French version of the German film Königswalzer. This assignment led to his next film, Pattes de mouche ("Scrawl," 1936), an adaptation of a 19th-century theatrical play. Neither of these films was especially successful, but their adherence to generic formulae at least proved—above all, to Ploquin—that Grémillon was a director he could trust with bigger stars and bigger budgets.

That trust paid off with Gueule d’amour (literally "Lover Lips," but frequently translated as "Lady Killer"), which reunited Jean Gabin and Mireille Balin, luminous stars of Pépé le Moko. Gueule was the last of three masterpieces from 1937—after Pépé and La grande Illusion—to establish Gabin’s classic persona of a world-weary, working-class anti-hero undone (or nearly) by sentiment. Gueule d’amour is no less adventurous than Grémillon’s early sound features, but his experimental impulses are channelled into a confident, classical style. The film’s shifts in tone and its establishment of mood are achieved subtly and delicately. The sonic disjunctures and startling images of La petite Lise and Daïnah la métisse appear sparingly in Grémillon’s later features, which compensate for this "lack" with a richness of texture and elaborately evolving narratives.

L’Étrange Monsieur Victor ("The Strange Mr. Victor") was Grémillon’s first film after Gueule d’amour, and it shows how his "mature" style can express complex shadings of character. As with Grémillon’s other UFA productions, the interiors were shot in a Berlin studio and exteriors on location—in this case Toulon in southern France. Grémillon again worked with the great screenwriter Charles Spaak, who had previously written La petite Lise and Gueule d’amour (among many other great French films of the 1930s). The star—and the film is very much a star vehicle—was Raimu. Born Jule Auguste Muraire in Toulon, Raimu was an admired stage actor who had achieved international fame for starring in a series of films adapted from Marcel Pagnol’s plays: Marius, Fanny, and César (1931–36). Raimu was strongly associated with southern France and viewed as a somewhat "rugged" type, although as Mr. Victor he’s playing partially against type.

Note: those opposed to spoilers might wish to skip the remainder of this piece until after they’ve seen the film. However, I’ve tried to keep mum on the most surprising plot developments.

L’Étrange Monsieur Victor has a dynamite set-up: Mr. Victor, a successful merchant, happily-married new father, and pillar of his Toulon neighborhood, moonlights as a fence for a gang of robbers. This opposition—between bourgeois respectability and crime, or what we might call "family values" and pure avarice—is deepened as the film goes on. Mr. Victor kills an accomplice who threatens to blackmail the gang, and allows an innocent shoemaker (Pierre Blanchar) to go to prison for the murder. Later, the shoemaker breaks free and returns to Toulon, seeking the help of none other than Mr. Victor, whom he does not know to be the true culprit. From this point the movie—which earlier has qualities of a both a noir and a farce—becomes a chamber drama, among Mr. Victor, his wife (Remorques's Madeleine Renaud), and the shoemaker.

The most distinctive aspect of L’Étrange Monsieur Victor is likely the filmmakers’ unwillingness to establish who Mr. Victor "really" is: loving family man or cold-blooded murderer. He is, disturbingly, both. Sellier describes how the film’s moral contradictions were developed by Spaak and Grémillon across several drafts of the script. In earlier versions, Mr. Victor shows remorse for his crime; indeed, in one draft he leaves a full confession on his deathbed. Interim versions attempt to mitigate the awfulness of his crime. These gestures to a conventional moralism were gradually stripped away, and Sellier observes that in the final draft, Victor’s "mix of generosity and cynicism" is never reconciled. He remains capable of the greatest tenderness and the greatest cruelty. Raimu’s remarkable achievement is to make both seem plausibly the work of the same man. Arguably, the relative seamlessness of Grémillon’s style aids this portrayal; a more aggressive, disruptive display of technique might have unnecessarily underlined Mr. Victor’s contradictions.

As with Jean Renoir’s La Règle du jeu (1939), it’s tempting to interpret the characterizations in L’Étrange Monsieur Victor as anticipating the horrors of World War II. Certainly, the theme of bourgeois respectability harboring the basest impulses would become painfully relevant in years to come. But I’m not sure we need to credit Grémillon and Spaak with clairvoyance to appreciate the audacity of the film’s conception and the seductiveness of its style.

The Ziegfeld of the German Musical Comedy Stage: Erik Charell and CARAVAN

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay about Erik Charell's Caravan was written by Cinematheque Staff Member Amanda McQueen. A 35mm print of Caravan, courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, will screen in the Cinematheque's "35mm Forever!" series at the Chazen Museum of Art on Sunday, September 20, at 2 p.m.

By Amanda McQueen

In September 1934, Fox Film Corporation placed an advertisement in Variety celebrating the "Genius" of director Erik Charell. The full-page ad praised Charell's work on the musical Caravan – scheduled for release by Fox later that month – and claimed that his "Daring Originality [and] soaring imagination are reflected in every scene." "Above All," the ad concluded, Charell's first Hollywood film was something "new and significant that will be studied in every studio . . . and welcomed by a public that has been begging for a newer, truer use of the motion picture." Despite Fox's valiant promotional efforts, however, Caravan was a critical and commercial failure, ending Charell's Hollywood career as soon as it began. Today, it is being rediscovered as a major piece of Hollywood entertainment of the 1930s.

Born Erich Karl Löwenberg, Erik Charell first came to prominence as a professional dancer in Berlin, where he was often compared to Vaslav Najinski. In the 1920s – following a stint touring Europe with his own ballet company – he and his brother took over management of Berlin's Großes Schauspielhaus, and Charell started directing musical revues and operettas. Influenced by what he'd witnessed on a trip to New York, he became interested in blending German operetta with more "exotic" elements – such as jazz and Ziegfeld-style dancing girls –and his revues became famous for pushing the limits of sex, nudity, and homoeroticism on stage. Charell then turned to modernized, jazz adaptations of classic operettas, such as The Mikado and Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow), before collaborating with composer Ralph Benatzky on a trilogy of original works. Im weißen Rößl (The White Horse Inn) (1930) became the most successful of these three operettas: Charell himself staged productions of it in London (1931), Paris (1932), and New York (1936); it has been adapted to film multiple times, most recently in 2013; and it continues to be revived to this day.

The popularity of Charell's operettas brought him to the attention of the German film studio Ufa, and he was hired to direct Der Kongreß tanzt (The Congress Dances) (1931), a lavish operetta with music by Werner Richard Heymann and set design by Ernst Stern, who helped define the Expressionist aesthetic. The film became an international hit. The New York Times dubbed Charell the "Ziegfeld of the German musical comedy stage" and Variety, although doubtful that the film's plot would have significant interest for American audiences, nevertheless believed that its impressive visual style would "draw more than passing attention from Hollywood." That attention came in the form of a job offer from Fox, and Charell headed to California.

Based on an original story by Hungarian journalist Melchior Lengyel – who also wrote the stories on which Ninotchka (1939) and To Be or Not to Be (1942) were based – Caravan is similar in tone to Ernst Lubitsch's Paramount operettas starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. The plot concerns Countess Wilma (Loretta Young), who, under threat of losing her inheritance, pays the gypsy fiddler Latzi (Charles Boyer) to become her husband. However, complications arise with the romantic interferences of Lieutenant von Tokay (Phillips Holmes) and the gypsy girl Timka (Jean Parker). A French-language version, also directed by Charell, was made at the same time. Boyer, who was better known in France than America – Caravan was his first starring role in a Hollywood picture – again played Latzi, but the rest of the cast was replaced by popular European actors. 

Fox saw Caravan as a follow-up to Der Kongreß tanzt, and so also brought over Heymann to write the music – in collaboration with Tin Pan Alley lyricist Gus Kahn – and Stern to handle the art design. Moreover, as part of a larger industry push to bombard the struggling film market with high-quality product, Fox planned Caravan as a "super-special," setting the budget at over $1 million, touting the film's "mass effects involving thousands of people," and promising a "Spectacle of such sheer beauty that nothing ever done on the screen can compare with it." A key part of this spectacle-centered promotion emphasized the unique contributions of Charell as director. In June 1934, for example, Fox advertised that they had secured "Europe's prize long-run producer (his hits run for years!)" and had "backed him to the limit" with all the resources the studio could supply.

But Caravan fell far short of Fox's high expectations. Reviews were almost entirely unfavorable. The New York Times found the musical "an exceptionally tedious enterprise," while Variety thought it "heavy-handed, cumbersome and overloaded with a crazy kaleidoscope of mass production." Audiences seem to have agreed, and Caravan performed poorly at the box office, with many theaters pulling the film after only a few days. The French version didn't fare much better.

In the wake of Caravan’s failure, other Hollywood producers cancelled their projects with Charell. And with the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, Ufa, too, had severed ties with the Jewish director. So Charell returned to the stage, mounting the Broadway production of The White Horse Inn (1936) to much success, and experimenting with a jazz operetta version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Charell's Swingin' the Dream (1939) featured music by Jimmy van Heusen and Benny Goodman, choreography by Agnes DeMille, and performances by Louis Armstrong, Dorothy Dandridge, Butterfly McQueen, and Count Basie. Unfortunately, it closed after only 13 shows. After the war, Charell returned to Germany and musical theater, but his film work was limited to producing adaptations of two of his operettas: Im weißen Rößl (1952), starring Johannes Heesters, and Feuerwerk (Fireworks) (1954), starring Lilli Palmer and a young Romy Schneider.

Caravan's disappointing performance is perhaps responsible for its near-disappearance over the past 80 years. Yet the musical's recent restoration, courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art's nitrate collection, seems to be bringing about a new appreciation for Charell's directorial skill. Indeed, even upon the film's initial release, reviewers admitted that Caravan possessed "photographic charm" and that "Charell is a master at camera supervision." Employing cranes, tracks, and possibly the proto-Steadicam "Velocilator," Charell makes Caravan – in the words of critic R. Emmet Sweeney – a "perpetually moving marvel, pirouetting through the gypsies like a fellow reveler." Also boasting innovative editing, a supporting cast of superb character actors, and, of course, the lovely Loretta Young and the dashing Charles Boyer, Caravan is being hailed as a major cinematic re-discovery.

LA PETITE LISE and DAÏNAH LA MÉTISSE: Experiments at the Dawn of Sound

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Jean Grémillon's La petite Lise (1930) and Daïnah la métisse (1932) was written by Jonah Horwitz, Ph.D candidate in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. Both films will screen in 35mm on Saturday, September 19, at 7 p.m. in 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Jonah Horwitz

The two films in Saturday's double feature reveal their director, Jean Grémillon, at his most daring and experimental. It will probably not surprise students of film history, then, that both La petite Lise (1930) and Daïnah la métisse (1932) were miserable commercial failures in their day.

La petite Lise, Grémillon's first sound film, was made after two remarkable silent features, Maldone and Gardiens de phare. Their success led the producer Bernard Natan, who had recently acquired the powerful Pathé studio (renaming it Pathé-Natan), to hire Grémillon. Grémillon collaborated with screenwriter Charles Spaak on two screenplays that the commercially-minded Natan rejected as too experimental. Their third script, La petite Lise ("Little Lisa"), was thus deliberately written as a sordid melodrama to appease Natan. The story could not be simpler: Berthier (Pierre Alcover), a convict in a colonial prison, awaits his release and a reunion with his beloved daughter Lise (Nadia Sibirskaïa, born Germaine Lebas in Brittany). On his return to Paris, he discovers that Lise is living in sin and squalor with a down-and-out musician, André (Julien Bertheau). Lise and André eventually commit a gruesome crime, and Berthier—well, you get the idea.

If La Petite Lise's plot is deliberately elemental, its style is anything but. The film was made in 1930, the first full year of the sound film in France. When historians write of this period of French cinema, they often refer to competing theories or approaches to the newly audio-visual medium. One approach, the film parlant ("talking film"), tended toward adaptations of plays, with a heavy reliance on dialogue directly recorded on set. The alternative approach, the film sonore ("sound film"), utilized post-synchronized sound in order to achieve a more playful, non-naturalistic mix of music, effects, and dialogue. Grémillon was likely more sympathetic to the latter approach. Synchronized dialogue is just one—and far from the most common—sonic element in La petite Lise. More often, we see one thing and hear another—or see something long after we hear it. Sometimes, Grémillon will let the sound from one space play "over" images of another space altogether, leaving the audience to contemplate the meaning of the disjuncture. Grémillon also experiments with the quality of sound—for instance, giving unusual expressive weight to the sound of a door slamming or nearly pulverizing the audience with blasts of industrial noise. Much like Fritz Lang's contemporaneous M, La petite Lise explores the many ways that sound and image might join, part ways, complement, and contrast. That said, Grémillon goes against the grain of the film sonore. While René Clair's effervescent musicals, such as Under the Roofs of Paris and Le Million, delight in their artificiality, Grémillon's outré technique establishes and intensifies an atmosphere of danger, oppression, and entrapment. In contrast to the fleetness of Clair's films—and like many of the films parlants—La petite Lise consists of a few protracted scenes where the weight of every movement, gesture, and spoken line is deeply felt.

This particular mix repelled Bernard Natan. After viewing a cut of Le petite Lise, he is said to have cut off communication with Grémillon and forbade his employees from speaking or working with the director. (In fairness, I should note that many nasty stories circulated about Natan, only some which are likely to be true. For more on this, see David Cairns's 2013 documentary Natan.) The film was dumped into several smaller Paris theaters without the benefit of publicity and sank with little trace. Nevertheless, a few people were paying attention. Henri Langlois, who was to become one of the most influential figures in French film culture, recalled that La petite Lise was the first film to prove to him the artistic potential of the sound film. Langlois programmed the film several times at the Cinémathèque Française, where it was seen by, among others, the future director Léos Carax. Carax includes an excerpt of La petite Lise in Mauvais sang (1986), and the shocking, documentary-style opening of his Lovers on the Bridge (1991) borrows heavily from the no-less-startling first scene of Grémillon's film, made precisely 60 years prior.

If La Petite Lise took decades to be appreciated, Grémillon's next film, Daïnah la métisse, has been even less fortunate. It deserves the designation film maudit ("cursed film"). Made as a 90-minute feature for the Gaumont studio, it was cut in half by the producers and subsequently disowned by Grémillon. It was almost entirely forgotten until a mid-1980s television screening. (It scarcely rates a mention in a 1984 monograph on Grémillon.) The full version has never been recovered. Film historian Geneviève Sellier calls it a "mutilated masterpiece."

Daïnah continues, to some extent, Lise's experiments with sound, but it arguably makes its most profound impressions through some bizarre images (including a costume ball with masks reminiscent of Ensor); an abundance of associative montage; and an unusual treatment of race, class, and gender. Daïnah, the title character, is a mixed-race woman ("métisse" means "half-breed") traveling with her black husband, a magician (Habib Benglia), aboard a passenger ship. The plot concerns a kind of deadly triangle between Daïnah, her husband, and a white, nearly preverbal ship's engineer (Charles Vanel). The drama transpires among wealthy white passengers—largely grotesques who seem oblivious to the fates of the outsiders in their midst. By today's standards, the film might seem to drape Daïnah and her husband in an excess of exoticism (it's no accident that they are associated with hot American jazz and the occult). But compared to other French films of the time, the agency, nobility, and complexity granted these characters stands out as radical.  Sellier reads a feminist consciousness into that complexity. She writes that Daïnah's "flirtatiousness and contradictory behavior reflects a deep malaise: that of a beautiful woman who wishes to live freely, but whom social convention imprisons in the persona of an insufferable, 'loose' woman."

Much of Daïnah la métisse's weirdness is likely attributable to Gaumont's cuts (certainly, the narration is a bit too elliptical for comfort). The rest is no doubt due to Grémillon's audacity. That he should make a film that flaunted both stylistic and ideological convention so soon after the failure of La petite Lise nearly guaranteed that he would have trouble finding work. He spent the next few years in the proverbial wilderness, making a feature in Spain (unreleased in France), a few short films, and eventually several French-language features for the German company UFA. It wasn't until the 1939–41 production of Remorques that he would make another feature for a French company. In fact, Grémillon never found a secure footing in the French film industry. But he left behind some of the most ravishingly strange films made in that country.

A chance for Madison audiences to discover La petite Lise and Daïnah la métisse isn't likely to come around again.

Note: Much of the information included in these notes is taken from Geneviève Sellier's invaluable monograph, Jean Grémillon: Le cinéma est à vous (Paris: Méridiens Klincksieck, 1989).

Jean Grémillon's REMORQUES: A Film Out of Time

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on director Jean Grémillon and his 1941 release Remorques were written by Jonah Horwitz, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Remorques will kick off a five film Grémillon series at the Cinematheque on Saturday, September 12, at 7 p.m. in our regular screening venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Jonah Horwitz

The director Jean Grémillon is rather difficult to classify by the terms of most histories of French cinema. He is not identified with a single trend or historical era. Little-known outside of France, he is most famous among his countrymen for a few features of the late 1930s (Gueule d'amour (1937), L'Etrange Monsieur Victor (1938, which screens on September 26)) and for a series of films released during the dark years of the German occupation (Remorques [1941), Lumière d'été (1943, screening on October 3), Le Ciel est à vous (1944)). Of these, only the last two are typically recalled as "Grémillon films"; the others are more likely to be appreciated as contributions to the star persona of Jean Gabin and to the poetic realist tendency of which that persona was an axiom. Grémillon's years after the war were marked by a few commercially unsuccessful and critically ignored features (such as Pattes blanches (1949) and L'Amour d'une femme (1953)); a handful of commissioned documentary shorts; and a great number of unrealized projects. He died in 1959, at the age of 58.

Grémillon's roots go back to the ciné-club movement of the 1920s. In a long tradition of French critics/filmmakers, he hosted ciné-club events, wrote about his favorite films (especially the works of American directors like D.W. Griffith), and made short films, ranging from “industrials” to poetic experiments like Tour au large (1926). Like fellow avant-gardists Jean Epstein, Marcel l’Herbier, and Germaine Dulac, Grémillon was inclined to liken cinema to poetry and music, rather than to other narrative art forms. Grémillon knew more about this than most: he was a trained musician – at one point an aspiring serious composer – and for a time he made a living accompanying silent films on his violin at the Max Linder and other Parisian cinemas. He even created a unique musical accompaniment for Tour au large, recorded on piano rolls for synchronized playback at screenings. (Those piano rolls were rediscovered a few years ago by Rex Lawson, British expert in player pianos.) Grémillon never stopped trying to fuse his knowledge of music (he kept up with the latest trends in art music) with his filmmaking. In the 1950s, he collaborated with the postwar innovators of musique concrète on several adventurous short films.

Grémillon’s first feature films, made in the waning years of the silent cinema, anticipated poetic realism with their heady, brooding mix of documentary and character subjectivity. These first features emphasize water, focusing on those whose occupations keep them close to the rivers and coastlines of France. Maldone (1928) is at least partly a barge film, like Epstein’s La Belle Nivernaise (1924) or Jean Vigo’s later L’Atalante (1934), and indeed it begins with a scene of a barge making its way through a picturesque rural landscape. Gardiens de phare (1929) features a father-son team of lighthouse operators.

Remorques, one of Grémillon’s most commercially successful and well-remembered films, partakes of both of these aspects of his work. Its release date of 1941 suggests it was a film of the Occupation, but in fact it was begun in 1939, not long after the release of the archetypal poetic realist films, Le Quai des brumes (1938) and Le Jour se lève (1939). It was initially a production of the French branch of UFA, Germany’s mighty film studio. Unhappy with the development of the script – based on a novel by Roger Vercel – UFA passed it off to Joseph Lucachevitch, a German producer then working in France, who had a hit in 1938 with Hôtel du nord. It was Lucachevitch who assigned Jacques Prévert – writer of both Quai des brumes and Jour se lève – to rework the screenplay, adding his customarily toothsome dialogue. Lucachevitch also brought on the film’s stars, Jean Gabin and Michèle Morgan, who had already starred together in Quai.

Historical cataclysms threatened the film’s production several times. A long break between location shooting in Brest (on France’s northwest coast) and interiors in a Paris studio was occasioned by the outbreak of war in 1939. The invasion of France in summer 1940 not only put a second halt to production, but also necessitated the flight of the Jewish Lucachevitch to America. Gabin and Morgan would follow his path to Hollywood in early 1941. Grémillon had to complete several scenes of the film – notably some effects shots of ships in a storm – without his stars, and for a time at least, without a producer. (Thanks to Occupied France’s official antisemitism, Lucachevitch’s name would not appear in the credits of the completed film.) Eventually, the German film company Tobis took over production. Grémillon finished shooting in September 1941. Editing was completed – about two years after production had begun – in time for a November 1941 release. By this point, Europe was fully at war, and France had been divided between a zone occupied by the Germans and another ruled by Marshall Pétain.

The air of romantic fatalism that pervades Remorques was not only an integral part of poetic realism but closely identified with Gabin’s star persona – if those two things can truly be disentangled. Like Gardiens de phare, it is set in Brittany (a region Grémillon knew well), and its opening scenes work to establish the tenor and rhythms of life in a particular, working-class milieu composed of sailors whose job it is to rescue ships (and men) stranded at sea – and the women who must contend with their dangerous, unpredictable occupation. Remorques isn’t a documentary portrait, however. As gradually becomes clear, it’s a melodrama – more specifically, a love triangle among Morgan, Gabin, and the latter’s unhappy and sick wife, played by Madeleine Renaud. As with other of Gabin’s films, the illicit affair he enters with Morgan – the wife of the captain of a ship Gabin helped to rescue – seems as inevitable as their eventual parting. The film’s title refers to the ropes used by sea-rescuers to tie a vessel in danger to their own boat. It becomes a metaphor for the ties – often dangerous – between lovers. Although Remorque’s pessimism was not favored by the Occupation authorities, it was a hit with the public. Its success permitted Grémillon to make two strange and wonderful films in Vichy France during the war, including Lumière d’été.

Nearly all of Grémillon’s unrealized scripts from the 1940s and 1950s are ambitious historical dramas, suggesting that he struggled – in vain – to break away from the romantic melodramas to which he was assigned throughout his career. And yet, very few of Grémillon’s contemporaries could similarly muster all the resources of cinema – camera movement, lighting, decor, and above all, acting and music – to create melodramas of such heightened expressivity. Grémillon’s interest in documentary gives the sea-faring scenes an authenticity that intensifies their metaphoric charge. His work with Gabin –  here and in Gueule d’amour – makes extraordinary use of the star’s capacity for both quietude and anger.

Critic Farran Smith Nehme writes that Grémillon "gave his best movies the depth, emotions and cadences of poetry." Remorques provides some of the best evidence of that.

Comic Nourishment: Amanda McQueen on ADAM'S RIB

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on George Cukor's Adam's Rib was written by Cinematheque staff member Amanda McQueen. A recently struck 35mm print of Adam's Rib, courtesy of the Library of Congress, will screen in our "35mm Forever!" series at the Chazen Museum of Art on Sunday, September 13 at 2 p.m.

By Amanda McQueen

In their sixth on-screen pairing, Adam's Rib, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn play Adam and Amanda Bonner, married lawyers arguing opposite sides of an attempted murder case. Designed as a star vehicle for the two actors by husband-and-wife screenwriting team Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, Adam's Rib became the highest grossing Tracy-Hepburn film to date, ensuring future production of similar vehicles – such as Pat and Mike (1952) and Desk Set (1957) – and helping cement them in the public's mind as the perfect American couple.

Production on Adam's Rib went remarkably smoothly, perhaps because Kanin, Gordon, Tracy, Hepburn, and director George Cukor were all friends, and this facilitated a trusting and affable working environment. In fact, Variety noted that the film was completed in record time. Kanin and Gordon wrote the script in only 30 days. Three months later, in late-May 1949, principal photography began. Thanks to a streamlining of the procedure for granting shooting permits, Adam's Rib was one of a dozen projects that filmed in New York City that year, and Cukor used various locations, including the Women's House of Detention, to provide a feel of authenticity. In June, the cast and crew returned to the MGM sound stages in Culver City, and production wrapped after 36 days. Six weeks later, the film was complete and ready for preview screenings.

MGM released Adam's Rib in mid-November 1949, as part of a larger boost in the studio's production activities. Well-received by critics and the public, it remained one of the top ten films at the box office for three consecutive months. Gordon and Kanin were nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay, and Judy Holliday was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance as Doris Attinger, the housewife on trial for shooting her husband.

A number of critics, in fact, felt that Holliday nearly stole the film. Variety claimed that "A better realization on type than Miss Holliday's portrayal of a dumb Brooklyn femme doesn't seem possible," while The New York Times noted that her "perfect New Yorkisms, her blank looks, her pitiful woes are as killingly funny – and as touching – as anything we've had in farce this year." The scene in which Amanda interviews Doris about her crime – which Cukor filmed in a single, static take – is one of the film's standout moments. Some of the positive press about Holliday was actually a marketing strategy devised by Hepburn, who was championing the actress's burgeoning film career, and it succeeded in convincing Harry Cohn to allow Holliday to reprise her Broadway role in Columbia's adaptation of Born Yesterday (1950) (also written by Kanin), for which she won an Oscar.

Holliday was one of four "new faces" recruited from Broadway for supporting roles in Adam's Rib. Tom Ewell played philandering husband Warren Attinger. Jean Hagen played his mistress. And David Wayne played Kip Laurie, a songwriter who rivals Adam for Amanda's affection. Despite the Production Code Administration's insistence that "There should not be even the slightest indication that Kip is a pansy," there are suggestions that he's gay, and many scholars have viewed him as a stand-in for Cukor or for Cole Porter, who wrote the song Wayne performs in the film. Incidentally, "Farewell, Amanda," a reworking of a song Porter had composed on a cruise called "Bye, Bye, Samoa," was not very well received. Time quipped that it sounded like Porter had written the lyrics while waiting for a bus, and Cukor was reportedly unhappy with it as well (I've always had a soft spot for it, however).

Ultimately, though, Adam's Rib belongs to Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Undoubtedly aided by their real-life chemistry, the two are in top form with what Variety called their "delightfully saucy" banter, and it's little wonder that this is often considered one of their best comedies. Further contributing to the film's strong reputation – and to Tracy and Hepburn's status as one of Hollywood's greatest romantic teams – is the "democratic" nature of their relationship. Tracy and Hepburn embody what Molly Haskell calls "intelligent love:" they instruct, inform, and educate each other, and their union is based on the relative equality of the partners.

For this reason – and because of the larger legacy of both Katharine Hepburn and George Cukor – many have seen Adam's Rib as a feminist film, ahead of its time in its critique of male supremacy and gender inequality. Amanda Bonner is a competent career woman, whose self-identity is not limited to being a wife, and she successfully proves not only the varied and impressive accomplishments of women, but also how the law discriminates against them. The film also complicates traditional gender stereotypes by demonstrating that each sex is capable of adopting traits associated with the other: Amanda can be a bully in the courtroom and Adam can fake manipulative tears.

Some have countered, however, that the film's ending actually reinforces the traditionally submissive role of women in both the marriage and society at large. Indeed, Hepburn later hypothesized that part of what made the couple America's "romantic ideal" was that Tracy portrayed a strong, "sports loving . . . man's man," while she portrayed a woman who, at the end of the day, could still be squashed "if he put a big paw out." Ultimately, though, even if Amanda does capitulate to Adam – this is 1949, after all – the Bonners' marriage seems to be a partnership founded on mutual love and respect. And we shouldn't forget that the film ends with Amanda still fighting the battle-of-the-sexes, eager to square off against Adam once more.

Overall, Variety found Adam's Rib to be a clever and "knowing" film that "gets away with a lot because of the comedy treatment." And there's no denying that it remains genuinely funny. In fact, Variety added that "Subtitles or hearing aids are needed to break through the wall of audience laughter" threatening to obscure the witty dialogue. Our enjoyment as viewers is only enhanced by the obvious fun Tracy and Hepburn are having on screen. As The New York Times put it: "A line thrown away, a lifted eyebrow, a smile or a sharp, resounding slap on a tender part of the anatomy is as natural as breathing to them." Over sixty years later, Adam's Rib is still "meaty and juicy and comically nourishing."

Ghibli's Little Sigh of Farewell: Timothy Brayton on WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on what might be the final feature film release from Studio Ghibli, When Marnie Was There, was written by Timothy Brayton, first year Graduate Student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. When Marnie Was There screens twice on Saturday, September 5 in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The 2 p.m. screening will feature an English language soundtrack, and the 7 p.m. screening will feature the original Japanese soundtrack with English subtitles.

By Timothy Brayton

The future of Japan's beloved Studio Ghibli, the animation company responsible for such features as Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and Spirited Away (2001), is greatly in doubt. While carefully avoiding any language that outright confirmed that it will never again produce new animated projects, following famed director Hayao Miyazaki's latest retirement (which he's already broken to start work on a new short), Studio Ghibli has shut itself down as a production house for the moment, with no real indication that it will ever restart.

It thus makes tentative sense to call When Marnie Was There, based on a 1967 book by British children's author Joan G. Robinson, the last Studio Ghibli film. That would be a tremendous weight for any single project to bear, even ones as grand in ambition and grave in tone as Miyazaki's The Wind Rises (2013) or fellow studio co-founder Isao Takahata's The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013), both meant as their celebrated director's culminating artistic statements. When Marnie Was There has no such pretension to self-aware importance or career summation; it is only the second film directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, a Studio Ghibli animator who took on the job of providing the capstone to one of the most beloved studio filmographies in the modern world only through an accident of timing.

That's exactly as it should be, perhaps. The unifying characteristic of most of the studio's films, the one that separates it not just from the Hollywood animation industry but even from most of its Japanese competitors, is the smallness and domesticity of so many of its stories. Famously, Studio Ghibli's stories frequently contain no real villains, just misunderstood anti-heroes at worst, and this means that they are rarely driven by strong external conflict. Beyond the high fantasy of the Miyazaki "greatest hits" that have largely defined the American perception of the studio's work, their films are more often than not tiny humanistic stories set in a single close community, even just a single household: the country home and woods of Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro (1988), the quiet suburbs of Yoshifumi Kondo's Whisper of the Heart (1995) and Goro Miyazaki's From Up on Poppy Hill (2011), and not least the family home as infinite fantasy playground in Yonebayashi's own The Secret World of Arietty (2010).

Both of these traits - muted or even non-existent conflict; cozy little storybook settings - are on full display in When Marnie Was There, which can be roughly but fairly summarized as "a lonely girl reluctantly goes to a seaside town for her health, and makes her first-ever friend." There are complications built onto that slender frame, of course: it's clear early on that the film is some manner of ghost story, and must contain melodramatic elements ranging from a sudden storm to a shocking reveal in its final acts. Those things aren't the focus, though. This is above all things a character study of a very complex, well-realized young woman (another Ghibli trademark: psychologically detailed girls or young woman as protagonists, shaming not just American animation but the whole of the American film industry), suffering from without and within from the effects of social isolation. The lonely, sad-eyed Anna (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld in the film's English version, Sara Takatsuki in Japanese) is a penetrating enough depiction of childhood depression to make the film troubling and even upsetting in patches. She's strongly drawn in a particularly subdued version of the Ghibli house style that makes her shifting internal strife and happiness far more affecting than the slight-unto-inconsequential mechanics of the plot itself, taking her place proudly among the ranks of the studio's fullest, richest female characters.

As a piece of animation, When Marnie Was There is no less a worthy successor to the Studio Ghibli name than as a character study. The intense focus on realistic emotions translates into an equally realistic visual style, which to American eyes might seem like an odd fit for animation, but any doubt that When Marnie Was There uses the medium well is quickly dispelled. The film’s style, especially its lush backgrounds and summery lighting, resembles a series of oil paintings, right down to the preference for landscapes situating the characters as small objects in a larger world. The classical aesthetic draws out the nostalgia inherent in having such a quiet, old-fashioned story as the film’s spine, giving the film a reflective, timeless quality. Stylistically, the Studio Ghibli film it most resembles is Whisper of the Heart, but the focus on providing lavish backgrounds to envelope the human figures is common to many of the studio’s earlier works.

It may well turn out to be the case that history will regard When Marnie Was There as a disappointingly minor finale for one of the artistic giants in the world of animation. But in this moment, its quiet smallness feels exactly right; a little sigh of farewell, no big fireworks or grandiose statements, from a company that was never given to florid drama when a tiny gesture would work better.


Thursday, June 25th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on the screen adaptation of the Broadway musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967) was written by Cinematheque staff member Amanda McQueen. A 35mm print of How to Succeed in Business will screen on Friday, June 26 at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular location, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Amanda McQueen

Hollywood musicals have always drawn to some degree from Broadway, but until the late-1950s, most adaptations bore only a passing resemblance to their stage originals. After the breakup of the studio system, however, as adaptations became a key strategy for reducing the risks of film musical production, fidelity became the order of the day. Musicals were expensive and complicated, and they often performed poorly in important foreign markets. But an adaptation of a hit Broadway show could be helped by the familiarity of its story and songs. Moreover, since Broadway musicals regularly spawned international casts, adaptations were also thought to have a better chance of succeeding overseas. Many filmmakers thus started bringing Broadway musicals to the screen relatively intact. Fidelity to the source material became a production strategy, and the adaptation of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is a particularly enjoyable example of this strategy at work.

When How to Succeed opened on Broadway in October 1961, it was an instant hit. Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert had first tried to mount Shepherd Mead's 1952 satirical instruction manual as a straight play in 1955, but with little success. In 1960, producers Cy Feuer and Ernest H. Martin took an interest in the project, and brought in the Tony-winning creative team from Guys and Dolls to retool it as a musical. Abe Burrows – who also directed – collaborated with Weinstock and Gilbert on the book, and Frank Loesser wrote the songs. How to Succeed ran on Broadway for an impressive three-and-a-half years. It won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1962. Critics praised its tight integration of story and song, and raved about its sophisticated satire of corporate America. Walter Kerr of the New York Herald Tribune called the musical "crafty, conniving, sneaky, cynical, irreverent, impertinent, sly, malicious, and lovely, just lovely."

Given the splash How to Succeed was making on Broadway, it's not surprising that Hollywood took notice. The Mirisch Corporation was looking for a musical to follow their massively popular West Side Story (1961), and How to Succeed seemed ideal. United Artists, with whom Mirisch had a long-term distribution contract, agreed to the project, but stipulated that the budget should not exceed $3 million. After paying a hefty $1 million for the film rights to the musical in October 1964, Mirisch was left with a budget well below the average for this type of picture (West Side Story cost just under $7 million, while Funny Girl, also 1967, cost $14 million.) But UA was hedging its bets. How to Succeed was a satire, which made some in Hollywood wary, and the international market was always an uncertainty where musicals were concerned. In fact, UA decided to shoot special "dialogue bridges" that could be substituted for the songs in foreign prints, should the need arise.

To keep costs down, then, producer Walter Mirisch hired much of How to Succeed’s original Broadway cast, including Robert Morse, Michele Lee, and cultural icon Rudy Vallee. Thanks to how well these actors knew their roles, production went smoothly and wrapped a week ahead of schedule. But of course using the Broadway cast also brought to the screen the same tour-de-force performances that had garnered critical attention on the stage. This was particularly true in the case of Morse, playing ingratiating corporate ladder-climber J. Pierpont Finch. Morse had been working in film, television, and theater since the early-1950s, but it was his Tony-winning performance in How to Succeed that really put him on the map, and – except, perhaps, for his recent stint on Mad Men – it remains his defining role. Indeed, Life magazine's review of the film claimed that "generations as yet unborn will be grateful to have [Morse's performance] in permanent form," while Bosley Crowther of The New York Times insisted that "Seeing Mr. Morse in close-ups, as those wily expressions cross his face . . . is better . . . than seeing him on the stage."

According to director David Swift, then, who also wrote and co-produced the adaptation of How to Succeed, the decision to hire the Broadway cast was primarily artistic, and was part of a larger emphasis on fidelity to the stage musical. Walter Mirisch explained, for example, that it was the Broadway property that was the film's true star, while UA suggested that any so-called "improvements" made during the adaptation process would only be "gilding the lily." So Swift cut some songs for the sake of time, and trimmed some of the profanity at the request of the Production Code Administration, but otherwise kept the musical relatively intact. As director, moreover, Swift approached How to Succeed as "simply and straightforwardly as possible," using what he frankly described as "unimaginative camera work" and attempting to replicate certain theatrical techniques through staging and editing. Add in Dale Moreda's recreations of Bob Fosse's distinctive choreography, and How to Succeed looks much the same on screen as it did on stage.

Critical response to Swift's faithful approach was generally positive, although several reviewers did find his stylistic choices rather old fashioned. For most critics, however, the adaptation accurately captured the cynical tone of the stage version, even if it did lack "cinematic imagination." Commonweal, for example, noted that How to Succeed could have been a Richard Lester-esque "imaginative movie-kind-of-movie," but hypothesized that "Perhaps [Swift] was right. The original show was so funny that even the static movie is a laff riot and the satire on how men – and women – behave in business is just as biting on the large screen." Hollywood Reporter, moreover, praised the film's cinematography for capturing "the brassy quality of Broadway musical theatre at its best." 

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying resonated more with critics than with the public, and despite a strong opening weekend at Radio City Music Hall in March 1967, the film’s box office performance lagged. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most enjoyable Broadway adaptations of the 1960s (and one of the few with a reasonable running time). Some have criticized the film for being more "archival record" than movie musical, but in certain respects, this was David Swift's aesthetic goal. And even if one finds the director's choices uninspiring, Bob Fosse, Frank Loesser, and the incomparable Robert Morse are there to pick up the slack.

Here's a great jazz interpretation of one How to Succeed''s most memorable tunes:

BYE BYE BIRDIE, Hello Ann-Margret!

Thursday, June 18th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on the 1963 movie musical version of Bye Bye Birdie was written by Cinematheque staff member Amanda McQueen. A 35mm print of Bye Bye Birdie will screen at the Cinematheque on Friday, June 19, at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The screening is free and open to the public.

In the early-1960s, the Hollywood musical was dominated by two trends. On the one hand, there were big-budget adaptations of popular Broadway musicals. On the other hand, there were low-budget musicals showcasing contemporary pop stars; these were aimed primarily at teenagers, the largest movie-going demographic. Columbia's adaptation of Bye Bye Birdie, which spoofs the drafting of Elvis Presley, is a delightful intersection of these two forms of the genre.

On the whole, Broadway was slow to respond to the rise of rock 'n' roll. Although some in the struggling theater industry recognized that this new style of music could help attract much-needed audiences, few made much effort to incorporate it. Those shows that did – such as Ziegfeld Follies of 1957, which included a song called "I Don't Wanna Rock" – tended only to mock the music and its teenage listeners. Bye Bye Birdie also poked fun, but it did so gently and did not make teenagers the sole targets of its parody. Moreover, Birdie was a huge hit with audiences and critics, making it the first commercially successful Broadway musical to incorporate rock 'n' roll.

Birdie debuted on Broadway in April 1960 under the direction of Gower Champion, who also choreographed. Michael Stewart wrote the book, and Charles Strouse and Lee Adams wrote the songs. This was Strouse and Adams' first musical, and many saw them as harbingers of a new direction in musical theater. For the most part, Birdie adheres to the typical Broadway sound, but Strouse does incorporate elements of rock 'n' roll, particularly in rock star Conrad Birdie's numbers, "Honestly Sincere" and "One Last Kiss." Birdie had a long and profitable New York run, spawned international and touring companies, and won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

Columbia purchased the rights to the show in August 1960 for $850,000 plus 10% of the profits. Initially, Champion was to direct and Stewart was to adapt his own book to the screen. However, Champion soon bowed out of the project, and George Sidney, who'd spent much of his career at MGM directing musicals like Anchors Aweigh (1945) and Kiss Me Kate (1953), was hired instead. Stewart was replaced with screenwriter Irving Brecher, another MGM veteran who'd specialized in comedies and musicals, including the Marx Brothers' At the Circus (1939) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Brecher made a number of plot changes to Birdie, including adding Albert Peterson's biochemistry background and the climactic Russian Ballet sequence. Most significantly, though, teenager Kim McAfee was changed from a supporting character to the de facto lead when Ann-Margret was given the role.

In the early-1960s, Ann-Margret was just appearing on the entertainment scene. Thanks to well-reviewed live performances with George Burns in Las Vegas, in 1961 she signed a recording contract with RCA Victor, who marketed her as the "female Elvis" because of her rough, sexy vocal style. That same year, she made her film debut in Pocketful of Miracles, which was followed by 20th Century-Fox's remake of State Fair (1962), starring Pat Boone. Enamored with the young, multi-talented actress, Sidney cast her in Birdie and increasingly made her the film's focus. In fact, Strouse and Adams wrote a new title song at the last minute to allow her to open and close the film. Increasing Ann-Margret's part, however, meant cutting scenes and songs from other cast members. Dick Van Dyke and Paul Lynde, who were reprising their respective stage roles as Albert and Kim's father Harry, were particularly incensed at this, with Lynde quipping that they should have retitled the film Hello Ann-Margret!

But Sidney and Columbia knew that Ann-Margret also had the potential to attract that lucrative teenage audience. To this same end, they cast teen idol Bobby Rydell as Kim's boyfriend Hugo Peabody, and his part was also beefed up to give him more opportunities to sing. Elvis Presley was first approached to play drafted rock 'n' roller Conrad Birdie, who was, after all, based on Elvis himself (his name, however, riffed on Conway Twitty, one of Elvis's chief rivals). But Colonel Tom Parker, Presley's manager, refused. The role went instead to Jesse Pearson, who had played Birdie in the national touring company. (Ann-Margret did star opposite – and have an off-camera affair with – the real Elvis in Viva Las Vegas the following year.)

The movie of Bye Bye Birdie opened in April 1963, breaking box office records in New York and Los Angeles, and ending up as the 13th highest grossing film of the year. Reviews, however, were mixed. A number of critics felt the musical had lost something in translation from stage to screen, and a few found it garish and tasteless. Moira Walsh of America magazine actually used Birdie as an opportunity to write at length about the "deleterious effects of movies . . . skillfully tailored to appeal to teen-agers and giving tacit, uncritical approval to contemporary teen-age mores." Walsh argued that Sidney had filmed Conrad's "gyrations . . . in a deliberately suggestive fashion," thereby undermining the intended satire of Presley's "'below-the-belt' school of vocalizing." In fact, the Production Code Administration had repeatedly warned Columbia about Birdie's pelvic thrusts, claiming that the "bumps" described in the script were "in vulgar taste and ask[ing] that they be omitted." While the PCA must have found the final result relatively unobjectionable, as Birdie was granted a seal of approval, Moira Walsh did not agree.

Other critics, though, found Birdie quite enjoyable. Variety was especially positive, praising Sidney's direction, Onna White's unique choreography, and all the performers, particularly Ann-Margret. "Singer, hoofer and cutie-pie, all wrapped up into one," the reviewer wrote, "this is one of the most exciting fresh personalities to take the cinematic stage in some time. The magnetism of early-vintage Judy Garland is here." Even critics who disliked the film tended to agree that Ann-Margret was a star, and her career quickly took off.

Overall, Bye Bye Birdie is more Broadway than rock 'n' roll, but Strouse and Adams' innovative score and Columbia's casting decisions nevertheless make it an interesting attempt to fuse the two. At a time when musicals were risky for Hollywood, Columbia opted to combine two tried-and-true strategies: Broadway and pop. Birdie would have few imitators in this regard; musicals tended to be either one or the other until rock made its way more permanently to the American theater at the turn of the decade. Birdie is a unique and fun experience, and one that – as evidenced by the reference to Ann-Margret’s title song on Mad Men – has become iconic. 

Amanda McQueen on THE LONG, HOT SUMMER

Monday, June 15th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Martin Ritt's The Long, Hot Summer (1958) was written by Cinematheque Programmer and Project Assistant Amanda McQueen. On Thursday, June 18. a DCP of a recent restoration of The Long, Hot Summer will kick off the Cinematheque's summer season of movies starring Orson Welles, in honor of his centennial. The screening begins at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

            When The Long, Hot Summer was released in April 1958, Variety concluded that although the film had some flaws, it was sure to be a "conversation piece." It had exceptionally broad marquee value, combining new faces with established screen veterans. It was shot on location in color and CinemaScope. It was based on prestigious literary source material. And it capitalized on the current vogue for racy content. By late-1950s thinking, Summer was exactly the kind of film that would help solve the financial problems confronting the American film industry.

With audience attendance down, filmmakers searched for strategies to attract people back to the theaters. Producer Jerry Wald believed the key was high quality adaptations, particularly those that took advantage of Hollywood's relaxing Production Code. So when the husband-and-wife screenwriting team of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. suggested a film of William Faulkner's The Hamlet (first published in 1940), Wald secured the screen rights – along with those for The Sound and the Fury (1929) – for $50,000.

However, Frank and Ravetch were not particularly concerned about fidelity to the source material, explaining, "In the end, we may salvage only one or two elements – a character perhaps, or a situation, or a few strong scenes – and on this we build a whole new drama." The Long, Hot Summer is thus a patchwork of elements taken from The Hamlet, Faulkner's short story "Barn Burning" (1939), and Tennessee Williams. Ravetch and Frank's version of wealthy patriarch Will Varner (Orson Welles), for example, is heavily influenced by Big Daddy from Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) – the film version of which was also released in 1958, starring Paul Newman. What the screenwriters sought to retain, however, was Faulkner's focus on class conflicts – particularly the new-money rednecks vs. the decaying Southern aristocracy – and his overall sensibility. Ravetch and Frank described the film as "a comedy about appetites, about love and sex, courtship and mating, ebullient young men and brainy young ladies, the yearning of parents for their children. It departs in fact, but not in faith from William Faulkner's attitudes." 

With a budget of $1.6 million, Summer went into production in September 1957. At Ravetch's suggestion, Wald hired Martin Ritt to direct. Ritt was relatively new to Hollywood – he'd met Ravetch while teaching at the Actors Studio in New York – and this was only his third feature film. To capture the right Southern atmosphere, Ritt selected locations in Clinton and Baton Rouge, LA. He also filled most of the leading roles with former Actors Studio students: Newman, Joanne Woodard, Lee Remick, and Anthony Franciosa. The participation of these four rising young stars helped garner extra critical attention, and it was chiefly because of these new faces that the Cannes Film Festival solicited Summer for its 1958 competition. But for Ritt, working with others well-versed in Method acting was ideal. "We understand each other," he explained. "Like orchestra players knowing the tastes of a conductor."

Ritt had a less harmonious experience working with Orson Welles. Welles had a reputation for being difficult – in his own words, "for being the Maria Callas of Character Men" – that often impeded his success in Hollywood. Indeed, it was for this very reason that 20th Century-Fox hadn’t wanted him for Summer, but Ritt had insisted that Welles was right for the part because of his "incredible persona." Later, however, he did admit that the actor had been "a pain the ass." Welles challenged Ritt on every aspect of the production, and he had a somewhat strained working relationship with the other cast members, partially because he was one of the few non-Method actors. At one point, Welles compared doing a scene with Newman and Franciosa to "trying to ride a bicycle through a barrel of molasses." But Ritt, too, was strongly opinionated, and rumors of Welles "snapping and snarling under [Ritt's] clever whip" began to circulate in Hollywood, ultimately earning the director the title of "the Orson Tamer."

Despite these on-set tensions, the film is full of strong performances. Variety called the decision to cast Angela Lansbury as Will’s long-time mistress "inspired," and the on-screen chemistry between Newman and Woodward was likely helped by their real-life romance. The two married a few months before the film was released. The only complaint was that Welles' heavy Southern drawl and often-emphatic delivery style sometimes made the dialogue unintelligible (a fair point). Overall, though, critics tended to agree with Variety that "What makes the picture are the full-bodied, full-blown characters."

The film also garnered attention for its adult subject matter. Fox's ads promised "scene-after-scene in the frankness of Faulkner!" and critics generally liked that the film was "steamy with sex and laced with violence and bawdy humor." However, most critics also felt that this frank melodrama gave way, somewhat abruptly, to a clichéd happily ever after. Some suspected that influential pressure groups like the Catholic Legion of Decency – which were unhappy with Hollywood's new adult direction – might have been responsible for the "soap opera" ending. Ritt agreed that Summer’s conclusion perhaps makes it "seem oversimplified and naïve." "But on the whole," he added, "it's good lusty fun and occasionally quite saucy and even momentarily touching."

Audiences seemed to agree. Summer was only a modest financial success, but it was one of the top grossing films of 1958, and the soundtrack of Alex North's sultry jazz-based score also sold well. Ritt and Wald received guild nominations for directing and producing, respectively, and Paul Newman won Best Actor at Cannes. Indeed, Summer was the most popular American film at the festival that year, leading Variety to assert that it was "the kind of picture the US should send to festivals."

Faulkner reportedly liked the film, too, and it's commonly regarded as one of the best adaptations of his work. As Time wrote, "Faulkner is as hard to kill as a Mississippi water moccasin, and his energy coils and snaps and hisses" despite Ravetch and Frank's loose approach. So although critics found fault with the narrative structure, they had to admit that The Long, Hot Summer was excellent storytelling. "It is melodrama frank and unashamed," Variety asserted. "It may be preposterous, but it is never dull."

Re-discovering Tay Garnett: The “Rowdy Vaudevillian”

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on director Tay Garnett and his early features, Celebrity (1928) and Okay, America! (1932), were written by Derek Long, Graduate Student and Teaching Assistant in the Communication Arts Department at UW Madison. 35mm prints of Celebrity and Okay, America! will screen in a double feature on Friday, May 8, beginning at 7 p.m. in our regular Cinematheque venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.  Celebrity will feature live piano accompaniment by David Drazin.

By Derek Long

William Taylor “Tay” Garnett (1894-1977) is nowhere near as well-known today as John Ford (born the same year) or Howard Hawks, and to a certain extent it is not hard to see why. His most famous film is undoubtedly The Postman Always Rings Twice (MGM, 1946), but most would be hard-pressed to name another Garnett film, despite his forty-year career in the industry. The truly knowledgeable might cite the romantic melodrama One-Way Passage (Warner Bros., 1932), in which William Powell and Kay Francis play doomed lovers enjoying a last bittersweet encounter on a transpacific ocean liner. But few of Garnett’s other minor classics—be it the Gable-Harlow adventure pairing China Seas (MGM, 1935), the studio system satire Stand-In (United Artists, 1937), or the Loretta Young B-noir Cause for Alarm! (MGM, 1951)—have entered popular consciousness the way that nearly any of Ford or Hawks’ films have.

This relative obscurity is not for lack of either talent or interest; rather, it is largely because Garnett was much closer to the archetypical “studio director” than his famous contemporaries. While a few French critics raised Garnett to auteur status, his films lack the usual clear signs of an authorial stamp. Andrew Sarris placed Garnett in “expressive esoterica,” his third-highest category of director classes, dismissing him as inconsistent—“and inconsistency can never be defined satisfactorily.” A more charitable reading of Garnett would characterize him as one of the most invisible practitioners of Hollywood’s “invisible style”—as well as a director of immense competence. Unlike Ford, he worked in a wide variety of genres, making musicals, westerns, weepies, adventure films, crime melodramas, and—his personal favorite—comedies. Garnett thus shared Hawks’ characteristic versatility, even if he lacked the latter’s clear interest in recurring themes and character types.

Where Garnett really shined was in the creation of well-structured Hollywood narrative. He nearly equaled Hawks’ talent for efficient and creative storytelling; his best films seamlessly integrate characters with their settings, and Garnett generally succeeded in avoiding the tendency to use generic plots as interchangeable vehicles for stars. Garnett’s talents as a storyteller were no accident, though its origins might seem surprising. In his youth, Garnett dabbled as a vaudeville acrobat, and during his Navy service in the First Word War, he organized a very successful series of amateur vaudeville shows to boost morale. This stint as a military impresario landed him a number of jobs once he left the navy in 1922, including touching up film scenarios for independent producer Alan Holubar and writing titles for Charley Chase and Will Rogers comedies released by the Hal Roach Studios. In 1924, Mack Sennett hired Garnett as a full-fledged scenarist, and throughout the mid-twenties he wrote (and eventually directed) two-reel comedies.

In an interview with Rick Fernandez for The Velvet Light Trap shortly before his death, Garnett spoke of the formative impact of his work with Sennett: “You learned use of the camera [and] story construction, strange as it may seem. It would be difficult to find construction in a Sennett comedy, but it was there. Most of the comedies would run 4 or 5 reels long when they finished shooting before they boiled it down to 2 reels. So a lot of the continuity was murdered in the process, but they kept the laughs.” Garnett’s narrative sensibility and skill was honed, fundamentally, through comedy; as Sarris put it, “[his] personality is that of a rowdy vaudevillian, an artist with the kind of rough edges that cause the over-civilized French sensibility to swoon in sheer frustration.”

Here's a clip that demonstrates Garnett's vaudevillian sensibility from the rarely screened Stand-In featuring Humphrey Bogart re-teamed with Leslie Howard after The Petrified Forest (1936):


Both of the Garnett films in this double feature—Celebrity and Okay, America!— also show off something of the director’s fine vaudeville-based comic sensibility. Celebrity was Garnett’s first and only silent feature; his second feature, The Spieler (1928), began as a silent but incorporated talking sequences and a synchronized soundtrack. Based on a Broadway play by William Keefe and released by Pathé Exchange (which would evolve into RKO by the end of 1928), Celebrity features Robert Armstrong as third-rate prizefighter “Kid” Reagan, whose manager Circus (Clyde Cook) hatches a scheme to publicize his client by passing him off as a poet. In many ways, Celebrity was perfect material for Garnett. The original play was so full of vaudevillian gags and wordplay that Variety’s review of the film was disappointed that the film was a silent: “what a talker it might have made.” Luckily for us, however, Garnett uses that silence to his advantage, delivering delightful visual gags and intertitles full of period slang.

Okay, America! was Garnett’s first feature for Universal, and was part of a spate of newspaper films kicked off in 1931 by Lewis Milestone’s The Front Page (United Artists) and continued in 1932 with Blessed Event, Love is a Racket (both Warner Bros.), and Is My Face Red? (RKO). In his performance as “Broadway Broadside” columnist Larry Wayne, Lew Ayres plays a thinly-veiled version of famed gossip columnist Walter Winchell (himself an ex-vaudevillian). Ordered to cover the kidnapping of a cabinet member’s daughter—a ripped-from-the-headlines plot point based on the Lindbergh kidnapping—Wayne soon finds himself wrapped up in a tangled web of drugs and corruption. Featured in the role of gangster “Duke” Morgan is character actor Edward Arnold, best-known to viewers as Boss Jim Taylor in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Columbia, 1939), in his debut talkie performance. The importance of vaudeville to Garnett’s command of sound cinema is in full evidence in Okay, America!, especially when it comes to the rapid pace of the dialogue. As Garnett stated to John Gallagher, “I have always very consciously striven for pace in every scene I ever shot…ninety percent of the time, if a scene has a pace problem, it’s because it’s too slow rather than too fast.”

Both of these early-career films force us to reconsider Garnett’s contribution to Hollywood cinema, and to take stock of the “rowdy vaudevillian” not as an uneven journeyman, but as a director who could find, at the core of every script, a great story to tell.