Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Best of Everything (1959)

The Best of Everything
. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation; screenplay by Edith Sommer and Mann Rubin; directed by Jean Negulesco. Based on the novel by Rona Jaffe. Director of photography, William C. Mellor; film editor, Robert Simpson; music, Alfred Newman. Performers: Hope Lange, Stephen Boyd, Suzy Parker, Martha Hyer, Diane Baker, Brian Aherne, Robert Evans, Louis Jourdan, Joan Crawford.
Summary: It’s 1959, a time of post-WW2 prosperity and Cold War angst. New Yo
rk is the publishing and intellectual capital of America. Four typists at a publishing house fight to have their own careers and find true love in the ruthless New York
business world.

style ****
substance ***1/2

The Best of Everything is often lumped together with late Fifties and early Sixties camp classics like Valley of the Dolls (recently reviewed in these pages) and Peyton Place. To be exact, Dolls appeared nearly a decade later, in 1967, and in the opinion of the writer, is a much different, and ultimately inferior, work to both aforementioned titles. But more on that later.

First, it must be admitted that said comparisons are not without merit. And inasmuch as Everything’s über Fifties gestalt might solidify its status as the original Valley of the Dolls, it also harkens back to those ‘women’s pictures’ of the early Thirties which starred the likes of Kay Francis, Ruth Chatterton, Joan Blondell and, yes, Joan Crawford, the present film’s nominal but mostly invisible star.

Indeed, there are striking similarities to Valley of the Dolls: three ingénues try their hand at the big time, and one meets with a tragic end. There’s also an intimidating, tough-as-nails old pro that the ingénues secretly aspire to. In both films this character is portrayed by a mega-star from cinema’s Golden Age. Both films are set in an artsy milieu, and both have male romantic interests that cut pretty poor figures, caddish in one film and weak and dull in the other. There is an equivocal ending in which the main ingénue literally walks out of the picture. And of course both have lushly romantic music scores with memorable title tunes.

Even with all the topical elements, Best of Everything has aged pretty well. The characters and their concerns still resonate, and moreover, the production elements are first-rate and everything works together in beautiful synergy, all contributing to a very easy-to-watch cinematic experience. An exception: the much-praised mod office interiors. Truth to tell they didn’t do that much for me. I’m more partial to the coffee shop (actually the Four Seasons restaurant) where the principals like to hang out, or theatre auteur David Wilder Savage’s book- and African art-laden bachelor pad.

The opening pan of New York City with the lush theme music sets the tone and recalls the beginning of Love is a Many Splendored Thing (the panorama in that film was Hong Kong), with music again by Fox mainstay Alfred Newman [1]. Johnny Mathis’s silky voice croons the lilting title tune and we can be forgiven for thinking this one will be another campy soaper. But no, it’s not. And in fact it wouldn’t be too far off the mark to say the opening sequence is the best part of the entire film from a purely cinematic point of view. The street scenes of folks going to work are also reminiscent of the, more frantic, opening of North by Northwest, which came out the same year.

Best of Everything
gives us a glamorous, well-scrubbed New York that was the center of the universe, populated by beautiful people and beautiful people-wannabes in which all the women wear Dior dresses and the men favor gray suits. A Weegee’s New York it's not: for all the inter-office backbiting in the story, from a purely visual standpoint there’s not a hint of the literally dark New York we see in other films of the era (TV shows, too), most blisteringly so in the sulfuric, gloves-off late noir classic Sweet Smell of Success. But I digress.

As for the principals, Best of Everything is for the most part exceptionally well cast. In what’s little more than an extended cameo, Joan Crawford is wonderful playing a very Joan Crawford-esque character to which she manages to bring some nice shadings. And for all of Joan’s (in)famous scenery chewing, this is actually a rather restrained performance. It helps that she’s ably directed by former collaborator Jean Negulesco. Usually thought of as a Forties film noir specialist, here he shows a nice touch for a Fifties aesthetic and maybe deserves the credit for reining Joan in. The three girls in the big city – Hope Lange, Suzy Parker, and Diane Baker – are well chosen and bring energy and believability to their roles. The men, both actors and characters, fare less well, though oily Louis Jordan and an Errol Flynn-esque Brian Aherne make strong impressions.

Getting back to the Valley of the Dolls comparison: The Best of Everything is more subtle, more honest, and certainly less over-the-top, and thus has few if any of the camp qualities of Dolls. It may simply be that Everything is the genuine item, i.e. a Fifties story actually shot in the Fifties, while Dolls was a Fifties idea shot in the ultimate swinging Sixties, summer-of-love year of 1967.

In any case, times and tastes have changed but people and emotions haven’t, and The Best of Everything is a nostalgic, tasty slab of angel food cake with scoop of ice cream topping served with warm milk chaser, scrumptiously delicious in its plushy, easy to digest beauty, but even a little nourishing in spite of itself, best viewed with a hanky or two nearby.

[1] Actually I prefer the dreamy, piano dominated theme associated with the Suzy Parker character to the brought-back-one-time-too-many main title tune.

Further reading:

Jacobs, Laura. “The Lipstick Jungle.” Vanity Fair, March 2004.
Negulesco, Jean. Things I Did and Things I Think I Did. New York: Linden Press/Simon & Schuster, 1984.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Valley of the Dolls (1967)

Valley of the Dolls, a Mark Robson-David Weisbart production; screenplay by Helen Deutsch, Dorothy Kingsley; produced by David Weisbart; directed by Mark Robson; produced by Red Lion Productions Inc. and released by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Based on the novel by Jacqueline Susann. Originally released as a motion picture in 1967. Theme song sung by Dionne Warwick.

Performers: Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke, Paul Burke, Sharon Tate, Tony Scotti, Martin Milner, Charles Drake, Lee Grant, Susan Hayward. Summary: Three girls come to New York City and later, Hollywood, to chase their dreams of stardom. The girls go for broke, but fall prey to show business, sex and drugs, in this trashy, campy exposé of the dark side of stardom [1].

style ****

substance ***1/2

High gloss trash can be beautiful

Usually described a
s a camp classic or cult classic, Valley of the Dolls is indeed an immensely entertaining kitsch masterpiece. Its undeniably high gloss production values can’t quite make up for the many defects, so from a purely aesthetic standpoint, Dolls must be considered a failure. But what a failure – a glorious, cliché-ridden synthesis of Peyton Place, The Oscar, A Star is Born and All About Eve, to cite some of the obvious, in some cases, far superior, precursors. But, and rather improbably, Dolls also has a serious side, being as it is a cautionary tale about the dangers of drug abuse and alcohol addiction, and of the corrosive effects of success-at-any-price in the take-no-prisoners show business gestalt [2].

The bumpy cocktail of Swinging Sixties – complete with then-racy language, ‘steamy’ near-nude scenes, and quasi surrealist/psychedelic interludes – mixed with the genteel Fifties style melodrama, may seem old hat today, but, accurate or no, Dolls was a shocking portrayal a half century ago of the relentless and pitiless pressures the entertainment industry inflicts upon its biggest stars, and the resultant cost it exacts.
While it's true there's no emotional center of gravity to the film, there are plenty of juicy individual scenes, the juiciest of all being the infamous Susan Hayward wig catfight with rival Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke). As if to emphasize, or more likely, to tone down, all the spicy content, the film is just plain beautiful to look at. Few melodramas have been so lovingly presented: director Mark Robson is in top form in his control over the sumptuous visuals.

The cast is mostly excellent: Paul Burke and Tony Scotti ooze an oily charm, Sharon Tate and Barbara Parkins are fine, and Susan Hayward best of all as the aging diva with a touch of wisdom. Even Jacqueline Susann herself gets a fleeting cameo as a tenacious reporter.

Only Patty Duke falls short as the hard-bitten, pill popping mega star Neely O’Hara. Actually I wish Miss Hayward had been given lots more screen time and Patty Duke much less. But alas, such was not to be. I’d also give a miscast honorable mention to 1950s golden boy Martin Milner, here as Neely's cranky agent and sometime boyfriend and husband. Milner’s pouty, grumpy take on the role never really works, and happily he disappears from the picture about half way through.

But lest we sing Dolls’s praises too much, back to the heart of the matter: the true joy of this type of camp classic is that it takes itself totally seriously, and the actors play it deadpan straight. In other words, it doesn’t start out with the intention of being a comedy. Rather, like fine wine, the bizarre, absurd and comic elements reveal themselves and are appreciated over time. To wit: Patty Duke’s over-the-top acting is part of the (unintended) camp appeal we revel in, or cringe at, today.

Another distraction is the lip-synching to the songs: Patty Duke and Susan Hayward never quite get the gestures right to match the ebb and flow of the music. I always prefer actors to sing their own material, an all too rare practice in the movies. But then again an inadvertent compensation is another campy, quintessentially Dolls-esque off kilter touch. Ditto for Susan Hayward‘s star number in New Haven, in which she’s literally upstaged by the Calderesque mobiles.

Valley of the Dolls may indeed be the last gasp of the trashy, glossy soaper that tried so hard to be frank and serious, but more often than not descended into inadvertent camp. All the more perverse then that, in addition to being uncannily prescient in the trends it anticipated, Dolls itself exerted a huge influence on popular culture. Echoes of its kitschy majesty reverberated far beyond its first appearance in the late Sixties: pulp blockbusters by Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steel, and Jackie Collins; the romance novel industry which sprang full-blown in the 1970s and 1980s; TV series like Dallas and Dynasty; the north-of-border ascendancy of the Latin American telenovela; the TV mini-series and TV movies; cable TV’s 24-hour infotainment programming; even stretching so far as to the stunning vulgarity of today’s reality TV.

More so than ever, in our current media- and celebrity-obsessed culture, with its seemingly insatiable thirst for scandal and the sensationally bizarre, we can be fairly confident that the smutty potboiler, be it literary or cinematic, won't be disappearing anytime soon.

As for Valley of the Dolls, it’s not so much a case of being so bad it’s almost good. It’s just plain good, in its own well meaning but spectacularly wrongheaded way. Thus the inevitable fate of the cult classic: so tempting to hate but easy to love.

[1] The Fox 2-disc special edition of Dolls has a bevy of  bonus features, including commentary by Barbara Parkins and Ted Casablanca, screen tests, and best of all, the documentary A World Premiere Voyage. Also worth a look is the featurette, Jacqueline Susann and Valley of the Dolls, which reminds us how much the publishing world has changed since the novel appeared a half century ago. Then again, perhaps it reminds us how little has changed.
[2] Whatever Dolls's message, it may have been obscured by the film's glamorous depiction of drug addiction, set as it was in the plush show business milieu. Nathan Smith, How Valley of the Dolls Turned Taking Drugs Into a Feminist Act.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Scarlett Empress (1934)

The Scarlet Empress [DVD]. A Paramount Picture; Adolph Zukor presents; based on a diary of Catherine II, arranged by Manuel Komroff; directed by Josef von Sternberg. Criterion collection v109. Originally produced as a motion picture in 1934. Photographed by Bert Glennon; art directors, Hans Drier, Peter Ballbusch, Richard Kollorsz. Performers: Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Sam Jaffe, Louise Dresser, C. Aubrey Smith.
Summary: Catherine, a German princess, is married to the Grand Duke Peter, the heir to the Russian throne. Because of his madness, she was able to seize the throne and become known as Catherine the Great.

style ***1/2
substance ***

Of all the films Marlene Dietrich made with director Josef Von Sternberg – seven in all – it’s The Scarlet Empress that’s most deserving of the epithet cult classic. Over-the-top by the standards of any era, the film was a box office and critical flop, and it’s not difficult to see why, given that audiences in the early Thirties might have expected a romantic historical melodrama along the lines of Queen Christina of a year before [1]. TSE is certainly one of the strangest movies this writer has ever encountered, but on the other hand I suspect subsequent viewings will be rewarded handsomely by way of the film’s detail-rich, über-stylish direction from the auteur’s auteur, Von Sternberg.

Indeed, and no disrespect meant toward La Dietrich – she does look radiantly gorgeous in every scene she’s in – it’s really director Von Sternberg’s show, ably assisted by set designers
Hans Drier, Peter Ballbusch, and Richard Kollorsz. The thunderous score comprised mostly of thick swaths of Tchaikovsky intermixed with snippets of Wagner and Mendelssohn is also a plus. Ditto for Travis Banton’s exaggeratedly imperial chic costumes.

Marlene is a wonder but as depicted here the character of Catherine has little to do but look beautiful. The true Dietrich persona doesn’t kick in ‘till about two thirds of the way through the film, especially the final scenes in which she’s befrocked in the martial white-on-white outfit for the final peroration.

But it’s really the supporting cast that walks away with acting honors, especially John Lodge as Count Alexei and Louise Dresser as Empress Elizabeth. Lodge in particular shows great screen presence, and he and Marlene have an edgy, icy chemistry. As for the other noteworthy performance, I was never won over by Sam Jaffe’s Grand Duke Peter, an interpretation which hovers perilously close to high camp buffoonery intermingled with occasional genuine malevolence. Hard to believe the same actor only a few years later essayed the benevolent, visionary, albeit slightly eccentric, High Lama in Lost Horizon.

Part black comedy, part adventure story, and part horror film, but mostly a mind-bending explosion of phantasmagoric images, The Scarlet Empress is indeed sui generis: it’s a work of profound sadness and inhumanity, relentlessly suffocating and hothouse. Historico-claustrophobic noir, if you like.

[1] Catherine completists are encouraged to seek out the very different in style and tone The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934), which stands up pretty well in comparison to TSE. The former is much more a conventional Golden Age courtly melodrama along the lines of Marie Antionette and further benefits from fine performances by Elisabeth Bergner as Catherine and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as Peter.

Friday, February 19, 2016

There's something about a paranoid thriller : Dollars (1971)

Dollars [DVD]. Columbua Pictures; produced by M.J. Frankovich; written and directed by Richard Brooks. Columbia Pictures: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment,[2008]. Originally released as a motion picture in 1971. Music, Quincy Jones. Performers: Warren Beatty, Goldie Hawn, Gert Frobe. Summary: A call girl teams up with a security expert to steal money from the safety deposit boxes of three crooks.

style ***1/2
substance ***

“Every big crime’s supposed to say something about the time we live in”

I’d never even heard of Dollars till I caught it the other day on getTV and found it to be something of an undiscovered gem: not quite a masterpiece but a darn good, eminently entertaining yarn, consummately executed by those in front of and behind the camera.

While I admit it’s a stretch to place this in the paranoid thriller category, it has enough similarities as to both style, content, and era to - just barely - merit inclusion in this rather artificially created genre. To wit, there are mysterious, alternatingly menacing and comic, bad guys who drift in and out of the story. One who has a penchant for wearing sunglasses in particular projects an oily malevolence.

Dollars has a Euro style, you-are-there feel to it, a certain urban grittiness, if you like, punctuated by the mod Quincy Jones score which is complemented by tunes sung by Little Richard and Roberta Flack. It’s all a jangly, cinema-verité style, to be sure, which may not be to all tastes but impossible to ignore.

The film - a sort of  synthesis of Oceans 11, Day of the Jackal, and a James Bond flick - is very much of its time, but also prescient, by several decades, in its cheeky sendup of Big Money, the black market, and American economic imperialism (it was set and filmed in a most unappetizing Hamburg, the same city that provided the backdrop for the much more recent, and superior, A Most Wanted Man, with which it has certain similarities).

Writer-director Richard Brooks is in top form and keeps things moving forward with a lively but steady hand. Our nominal stars Beatty and Hawn have great chemistry but the quirky supporting cast which features familiar faces but not a lot of familiar names is if anything even more delicious. We even have Mr. Goldfinger himself Gert Fröbe, who plays a well-intended but rather slow witted bank executive. My only criticism of the film is the edge-of-the-ledge chase finale, which, albeit skillfully done, goes on a bit too long.

Time has been kind to Dollars:  while some of its atmospherics show signs of age, its message and basic truths are right on the money even today.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Body Double (1984)

Body Double [DVD]; Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, 2004; screenplay by Robert J. Avrech and Brian DePalma; produced and directed by Brian De Palma. Originally produced in 1984 as a motion picture. Music, Pino Donaggio; director of photography, Stephen H. Burum; edited by Jerry Greenberg.
Performers: Craig Wasson, Melanie Griffith, Greg Henry, Deborah Shelton. Summary: a voyeuristic, unemployed actor spies on a neighbor's nightly disrobing and sees more than he wants to. A grisly murder leads him into an obsessive quest through the world of pornographic film-making.

style ***1/2
substance ***

Watching Body Double is not a warm experience. Hardly. In fact it’s a seedy, downright sleazy experience, but that’s part of the fun. And it can be enjoyed with a certain smugness and a minimum of self-inflicted guilt simply because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Gaudy? Sensationalist? Yes, absolutely. Irresistible? Well, maybe, and maybe not. But it has a high gloss patina and is somehow very easy to watch, in a cringeworthy sort of way – is that perhaps the working definition of a guilty pleasure? In any case for the viewer who fancies this kind of over-the-top thriller, one could do a lot worse on a cloudy, rainy night.

Director Brian De Palma has been called an acquired taste, and indeed considering all the polarized reviews of BD floating around the ‘Net this would seem to be an understatement. His admiration for and borrowing from the original suspense master Alfred Hitchcock has been much commented on so we won’t belabor the issue here, except to note that Body Double, as some of Hitchcock’s films tend to be, is more about style than substance. And the story itself, with its heavy doses of voyeurism, romantic obsession, reality and illusion, and lots of camera trickery, is a kind of commentary on the art, uses, and sometimes abuses, of filmmaking.

Thus Body Double also invokes, albeit faintly so, those cinematic behind-the-scenes critiques of the film industry, so memorably invoked in arguably – in some cases definitely – artistically superior films like Sunset Blvd., The Player, The Oscar and A Star is Born. True, the film ventures perilously close to pornography, and by implication, trash, but somehow it has a quirky elegance that at least partially redeems the tawdry subject matter. Besides, the film never really lapses into graphic porn, since it generally suggests more than it actually depicts.

Whatever his flaws as a director, De Palma has a great sense of camera angles as well as flair for soft, rich colors, and one of the joys of his movies is the fine visuals. Even if the content falters, the story is always presented in a visceral way, edited and filmed for maximum emotional impact. As to the cast, Craig Wasson, one of the most forgettable of actors, here as the flawed (non)hero, is perfectly cast precisely because of his numbing ordinariness and forgettableness, and he delivers a serviceable if not exactly brilliant performance. Both our leading ladies Deborah Shelton and Melanie Griffith are very easy on the eyes and Melanie in particular is appealing as the porn star with a heart of stone.

Eminently 1980s and especially enjoyable for the Hitchcock references, Body Double is a fun watch,  and in its way much recommended, with the usual not-for-all-tastes caveat for this kind of material. It may not be a masterpiece per se and may not even be De Palma’s masterpiece, but it’s a quintessential erotic thriller and certainly deserving of its status as a top-shelf cult favorite.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Hollywood behind the curtain: The Oscar (1966)

The Oscar. Paramount Pictures. Executive producer, Joseph E. Levine; producer, Clarence Greene; director, Russell Rouse; screenplay, Harlan Ellison, Russell Rouse, Clarence Greene; director of photography, Joseph Ruttenberg; music, Percy Faith; art direction, Hal Pereira. Originally released as a motion picture in 1966. Performers: Stephen Boyd, Elke Sommer, Milton Berle, Eleanor Parker, Joseph Cotten, Jill St. John, Tony Bennett, Edie Adams, Ernest Borgnine. Based on the novel by Richard Sale. Summary: the story of an actor's bitter struggle to rise to the top and win the coveted Oscar.

style ***
substance ***

Has anyone ever noticed that movies with all-star casts are never very good? Yes, we have rare gems like the eight-decades vintage Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight, but most films with lots of big names are of the ilk of The Oscar, which is saddled with a dismayingly high-powered collection of varyingly mid-level and bonafide stars. But this is just the beginning of its myriad problems. Simply put, The Oscar is of highly dubious pedigree, specifically its falling in the decade from roughly the mid-Fifties to the mid-Sixties, which might well be described as the golden age of the kitsch masterpiece. The VIPs; Love Has Many Faces; Imitation of Life; Peyton Place; Written on the Wind; Suddenly, Last Summer; The Carpetbaggers, to cite but a few of the highest – or is it lowest? – exemplars.

The Oscar continues the tradition of the polished, pretentious but rather empty affair that's so bad it's, well, if not exactly good then immensely entertaining, mostly by virtue of the unapologetic over-the-topness. Part of the (not so) secret of success is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Or is it because it takes itself so seriously? One can never be sure in this kind of material.  

Arriving as it did in 1966 The Oscar is in one sense the last gasp of the steamy, melodramatic potboiler. And indeed it has more the flavor of early 1960s or late 1950s than Swinging Sixties. Ergo one of the film’s central agonies: it wants to be both plushy Old School romantic and no-holds-barred gritty, frank and shocking at the same time. Thus we have several scenes which feature semi-nude actresses languorously stretched out on oversized beds, parading around in skimpy nighties, or performing bland stripteases.

In any case The Oscar milks the Hollywood-at-its-naked-dirtiest clichés to the hilt, and what we’re left with is a highly uneven artistic product awash in the gaudiest of period colors, the worst offenders being those awful Sixties clothes which even Edith Head designs can’t rescue. Frequently unintentionally funny, the subtle-as-a-sledgehammer script is delivered in suitably heavy-handed fashion. There’s also Tony Bennett’s unnecessary, eminently far too frequent, narration that’s way out of place for a high gloss would-be epic like this.

The story’s principal characters fly perilously close to caricature: the rising star who’ll do anything to become a bigger star, the long suffering girlfriend(s), long suffering wife, philistine producer, sleazy private detective. To the film’s credit, the script, and resultant overheated performances, lampoon these tropes along the way.

As for the mostly excellent cast, they chew their respective roles with unrestrained glee. Boyd is perfect as the svelte pretty boy who wants the good life and even more so wants to be taken seriously as an actor. Ernest Borgnine as a repulsive private eye and Edie Adams as his frowsy wife also register a strong impression, as does Eleanor Parker, here cast as our hero’s “older woman” mentor and sometime girlfriend. She has little to do but look beautiful, which she does. Of course Peter Lawford makes an appearance (as a maitre d’) – you didn’t think a movie this bad wouldn’t have him in it? But it's Milton Berle’s nicely understated performance as the crusty agent with a core of integrity that really stands out amongst all the scenery chewing.

Despite a few virtues, then, and with no disrespect to the stunningly tacky Mommie Dearest, ultimately The Oscar may indeed be the worst ever film which purports to expose the seamy side of the movie business, Hollywood Babylon meets Sunset Boulevard, if you like [1].

And even if a viewing of The Oscar ultimately leaves a deliciously bad taste in the mouth, somehow a question lingers: was (is) Hollywood as irretrievably corrupt a place as depicted in this film, populated by clawing, desperate, nasty little people? Probably not. Even reviewers a half century ago were skeptical [2].  

[1] The film actually received two AA nominations: Best Color Costume Design and Best Color Art Direction, and perhaps this was only just.

[2] As far as I can tell The Oscar is not, alas, currently available on DVD. 

Further reading:

Erik Nelson, The Oscar: Greatest Terrible Movie of All Time, Salon, March 5, 2010.
There's No Business, Cool Cinema Trash, Feb. 18, 2008.