Thursday, September 11, 2008
Friday, July 4, 2008
In 1998, Gloria Stuart became the oldest actress ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for her part in Titanic. The film itself has not held up at all, but Stuart deserved the recognition: after the death of Fay Wray (who turned the Titanic gig down) she became perhaps the last of the great thirties Hollywood stars.
A philosophy graduate from Berkeley and a gifted exponent of Shakespeare and Chekhov on stage, she was an intelligent and serious actress encumbered with Hollywood glamour. She came to films reluctantly, and was never certain she had made the right decision, particularly as her much announced superstardom never materialised.
“When I graduated from Santa Monica High in 1927, I was voted the girl most likely to succeed,” she once said, “I didn't realize it would take so long.”
The attempts to turn her into a production line Hollywood sexpot were often so blatant they seem deliberately antagonistic, as if intended to break her independence and feistiness. She appears in a 1932 Hollywood on Parade short in a cheesecake line-up of Hollywood’s unanimous choice of 1933’s starlets of tomorrow: fourteen girls, one from each studio. “I’m an all-American girl,” she says, in answer to her one question. (The 14 chosen proved a meagre crop, with only Ginger Rogers built for the long haul. Others included Patricia Ellis, Mary Carlisle and Lona Andre, who tells us she got into pick-chas bah bein’ the pantha woman. They didn’t realise when they said stars of tomorrow that they meant Monogram’s stars of tomorrow.)
At Universal, Carl Laemmle Jr was enraptured (“I have never seen such poise, such delicate beauty, such depth, why she almost scares you”) and insisted that “We’ll have to find some truly distinguished stories for her, in fact the finest, because… it would be foolish, and rather embarrassing all round, to put her in, well, a trivial story”.
. But none of her work, either freelance or contracted to Universal and later Twentieth Century Fox, made anything like full use of her talents. She looks stunning in the Eddie Cantor farce Roman Scandals, and does her best singing ‘I’m Going Shopping With You’ with Dick Powell in the Busby Berkeley musical Gold Diggers of 1935; at Fox she worked with Shirley Temple and the Ritz Brothers, and gave one of her best performances in one of her best films: John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936).
Today, apart from Titanic, she is probably best known now for her roles in Universal horror films. In The Invisible Man (1933) she is purely decorative, essentially reprising Mae Clark's worried girlfriend role from Frankenstein. But Secret of the Blue Room (1933), the least known of the bunch, at least has the sense to keep her the centre of attention.
Adapted from a successful German film, Geheimnis des Blauen Zimmers, no effort has gone into Americanising it, so Paul Lukas is our hero, Captain Walter Brink, and Gloria is our heroine, Irene Von Helldorf, doting daughter to Croydon-born Lionel Atwill. (At least Lukas has an accent: Irene is German by way of Long Island.)
We open in a large and imposing Germanic mansion, almost a castle, where Irene, younger, prettier and more kittenish than the Teutonic sobriety of her name might lead you to suspect, has chosen to celebrate her 21st birthday by inviting the three men who most fancy her to dinner and have them squabble over her. (We’ve all met girls like this.)
Stuart is coquettish and haughty here; with little in the script to bite into she plays the part as a prim tease; indeed, with Lionel Atwill on hand as master of ceremonies, we’re beginning to wonder just what kind of coming of age party this is going to turn into.
“And now,” he says, “Give us all a nice birthday kiss”; Stuart first kisses her father full on the lips, then all the other men in turn. But before Atwill has time to get the snake out of the cupboard, the contest between the three eligible bachelors (that’s Captain Walter Brink, Frank Faber and Thomas Brandt: stout Germanic types all, especially young Tommy) takes a sinister turn when it is discovered that the castle has a sealed bedroom, in which two guests were murdered years before, their killer never identified and his method of entering and escaping never found. In an only barely sublimated courtship display, it is mooted that they each spend consecutive nights there. One dies, one disappears, and one puts two and two together.
There are no surprises here. But it’s got the full compliment of panels and passages, it’s got red herrings of a sort, it’s got Gloria Stuart done up like Harlow in platinum curls and clinging satin nightwear… and how she must have hated teasingly delivering lines like “Oh, it must be terrible to be a man and have to be brave; thank goodness I can be a coward with a clean conscience!”
The masterpiece of her Universal years, and probably of her career, is James Whale's The Old Dark House (1932). (As well as The Invisible Man director and star also teamed on The Kiss Before the Mirror , a stylish murder mystery, between the two horrors.)
.How she must have relished the chance to begin a film not cooing in luxury but trapped in a car in the pouring rain, already deep in a bitter argument with her screen husband. She gives an excellent performance throughout The Old Dark House because she can see it’s worth the effort; she’s also at her most beautiful on screen here, too, which may not be a coincidence. The film is among the more authentically pre-Code of the early Universals, and the potent atmosphere of weird eroticism in the scene where she is subjected to sexual interrogation at the hands of Eva Moore is still disquieting and extraordinary.
Deciding to change out of her wet clothes, Stuart is taken upstairs by Moore, who sits on the bed and harangues her with lurid reminiscences of her hated sister, who had died in the same room at the age of twenty-one. She was wicked, “handsome as a hawk”, and “all the young men used to follow her about with her red lips and her big eyes and her white neck.” As each tragic episode of this poor girl’s life is recounted as if evidence of her evil – she fell off a horse and broke her spine, then lay screaming on the very bed on which she is now sitting (Moore gives the pillows a satisfied pat to make the point), begging to be killed for month after month, before finally expiring “Godless to the last” - Stuart is slowly undressing to her satin underwear, fixes her stockings, then dresses slowly, just her shoes first, then pulling on a fantastic (if quite inappropriate considering the temperature and the company) clinging white satin dress. (Like a white flame, director James Whale envisaged.)
The juxtaposition between the horrible narrative, recounted with obvious glee by Moore, and the alluring visuals is deliberately emphasised by Whale, who brings it to a memorable dramatic coda, as Moore concludes her diatribe against “brazen, lolling creatures in silks and satins” by circling Stuart and ending up staring into her face:
You’re wicked, too. Young and handsome, silly, and wicked! You think of nothing but your long, straight legs and your white body, and how to please your man. You revel in the joys of fleshly love, don’t you? (She grabs the material of her dress.) That’s fine stuff, but it’ll rot. (She pinches Stuart’s skin.) That’s finer stuff still, but it’ll rot too, in time!
Whale finishes with a great shot of the curtains, and Stuart’s dress, billowing in the wind as she runs down a corridor on the beautiful, Cat and the Canary–ish set. Bravura, pre-Code tours-de-force from writer, director and cast alike, and one of those scenes where you most long for a look at one of those gleaming first run prints. (The Old Dark House survives only in a ratty old print resembling a DVD bootleg.) Stuart, her hair neatly parted and half-lit, half-shadowed, getting a chance to really perform while being photographed so magnificently, looks as beautiful as any actress has ever looked at the movies.
All of which helps make Gloria Stuart the world's most important living film star.
Saturday, May 3, 2008
While Court was of the first, more stately generation of Hammer leading ladies, Ege was very much of the later school, the seventies international crumpet contingent.
In all these films she was well-served by an air of bemusement which could have been unfamiliarity with the language but was just as likely incredulity at the weird things she was being asked to do and the overall shabbiness of the productions in which she was being asked to do them.
Unlike many Hammer glamour queens of the time, she has a down to earth quality and seems to be enjoying herself. As a result, she seems less self-conscious and more likeable on screen, and she is easier to pick out and remember from film to film, than many of her peers.
Monday, April 21, 2008
The popular image of a Hammer starlet is of the 1970’s variety, blonde and pneumatic, recruited as often as not from Playboy magazine. Court, by contrast, was of the first generation, product of a time when the studio favoured slightly older and more classical actresses, statuesque rather than blatantly pulchritudinous, often red-headed, and in at least three cases called Yvonne.
Court's importance to the Hammer story is basically symbolic. In terms of longevity and number of films, Barbara Shelley (who somewhat resembled Court and according to Christopher Lee possessed “a bass baritone quite rare for a woman”) is a more central figure in the studio’s history, as well as a comparably gifted actress who transformed a number of pretty watery roles. But it was Court who got there first, as Elizabeth in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), the first true Hammer gothic.
Her qualities were felt more keenly in her absence. As the sixties brought worldwide success for Hammer, a more international and overt glamour element was sought, and the refined English model typified by Court and Shelley gave way to younger and blonder variations; it coincided with the move away from Bray studios and was an equally regrettable loss to the Hammer formula. These were the days of Raquel Welch modelling mankind's first bikini and Susan Denberg, Playboy’s Miss August ’66, in Frankenstein Created Woman (the clumsy title legacy of a brief period when it was touted as a vehicle for Bardot – a good indicator of the direction in which Hammer was moving).
The bottom fell out of Hammer shortly after they were awarded the Queen’s Award to Industry in ’68, and as the films themselves became more desperately exploitative in the studio’s drive to regain lost favour at the box-office, so did the central casting. The archetypal Hammer queen from this (perhaps any) era is, I suppose, Ingrid Pitt, though she too only appeared in two films for the company (in one of which she is dubbed) and made her name crucially as villainess rather than heroine; off-screen she was something of a loose wire to say the least.
The rest were typified by the likes of Yutte Stensgaard (Danish crumpet in Lust For a Vampire), Victoria Vetri (Playboy centrefold turned Hammer cavewoman), or Madeleine and Mary Collinson (Playboy’s nude twins, Hammer’s Twins of Evil, left). These stars, often spotted by eagle-eyed Hammer boss Sir James Carreras (“I can’t describe it, but I know it when I see it”) in newspapers and advert-hoardings, were put into films like The Vampire Lovers and Dracula AD 1972 ( “The Count is Back... with an eye for London's hotpants” ran the advertising) to take advantage of a newly liberalised British Board of Film Censors. Far from pornography, these films seem rather charmingly short-trousered today, with big-breasted Scandinavians tumbling out of their nightgowns in solemn re-enactment of the fantasies ten-year old schoolboys had when they were supposed to be doing geometry.
But Curse rescued her from a career that was fast going nowhere. She had been around since the mid-forties without ever quite making an impression; like the equally striking Barbara Steele she had been signed to a Rank contract and then more or less ignored.
By the mid-fifties she was most often to be found on television or in those cheap second-feature thrillers that took the place of the original quota-quickies.
After Hammer, she was suddenly the hottest thing in British films. A contemporaneous issue of Picturegoer put her on the cover, and in an article titled “Our cover girl shines among the ghouls” noted: “Hers will be the most widely screened British face in America this year”, and that the film itself was “tipped to be shown in more US cinemas than any British film ever.”
Well, the predicted superstardom never came, and it is a great pity that the main fruit of her success – a part in the American tv series Dick and the Duchess – kept her away from British movies at a time when she should have been consolidating her success. As it was the series ended after a year, and she returned to a movie business that had moved on in her absence. Apart from the Cormans and Dr Blood’s, almost all of her subsequent credits were in tv.
But she remains, for me, the best as well as the first Hammer heroine, and it is sad indeed to contemplate how good she would have been as Mina in Dracula, or Isobel in The Mummy, or in any of Barbara Shelley’s roles.
Watching Curse again, I was struck as I always am by the confidence and ease of it: there is no sense whatsoever that the studio realised they were doing anything radical or far-reaching in its influence. It is, in fact, a rather underrated film, one that it is fashionable to write-off as far more important for what it began than for what it is. I’ve never found it so: certainly I feel it is equal to Dracula, its immediate follow-up and a masterpiece acknowledged by all. Hazel Court, in incredible real Victorian costumes that seem nonetheless tailor-made for her, is a huge contributor to its success, and to that crucial aura of class Hammer were able to give what was in truth a very cheap film. Like Cushing, similarly far more than Hammer could have reasonably expected, she bestows elegance on all she brushes past.
Saturday, January 26, 2008
Surprisingly, perhaps, Nurmi belonged to this latter category. Her entry into Wood's world came about through necessity rather than choice. The way she told it, she was being courted by all the major studios when she first heard that Wood was interested in signing her, and openly scorned the idea. But then she was blacklisted, and accepted Wood's offer in desperation when all other avenues had been closed to her.
AND... I've only just learned that Yvonne de Carlo died last year, too; somehow the news got past me until now. A beautiful starlet in forties tosh, westerns and exotica (Salome Where She Danced, Frontier Gal, Slave Girl) and wife of Moses in The Ten Commandments, she will be remembered above all for the role of Lily Munster, which she accepted reluctantly and never quite came to terms with. She knew that The Munsters, rather than any of her starring movies, would unquestionably be her legacy, and the fact bemused her somewhat, but she appreciated the renewed popularity it brought her with successive generations of children.