Monthly Archives: June 2013

Ava Steals the Show in ‘East Side, West Side’

'The Sidewalks of New York' -- 'East Side, West Side,' Italian style: The Italians know who's important in this picture.

‘I marciapiedi di New York’ (‘The Sidewalks of New York’) — ‘East Side, West Side,’ Italian style: The Italians know who’s important in this picture.

Ava Gardner is the best, but hardly the only, reason to see “East Side, West Side” (MGM, 1949). Her part is surprisingly small, but she dominates the entire picture. She’s intensely alive every second she’s on camera; she never looked better or more alluring. While others in the cast drown in the floods of stupid dialogue or paddle like mad to stay afloat, Ava vaults over the bum material like a gazelle. To see her in “East Side, West Side” is to understand why Frank Sinatra went out of his mind over her. Whenever I see her in this one, I think of Cary Grant’s line to Eva Marie Saint in “North by Northwest”: “Ever kill anyone? Because I bet you could tease a man to death without half trying.”

It’s possible that “East Side, West Side” is the lousiest picture that I genuinely enjoy. Much of the pleasure I get from it is dubious and base: I enjoy the scornful laughter it excites: the hilariously bad acting, the idiotic dialogue, the ludicrous coincidences, the absurd psychological details, the banal forays into sociology, even the hideous “high-tone” set decorations make me laugh. But I also like its energy and its ambition to be something better than just another plush, run-of-the-mill woman’s picture from stodgy old Metro in the last days of rotten old Louis B. Mayer, before his nemesis, Nicholas Schenck, gave him the heave-ho. By no reckoning is it a good picture, but it is certainly not boring. And it features one diabolically entertaining aspect that I’ll cover later, under the heading “The Main Event.”

American Poster. Ava wears nothing remotely like the weird ensemble shown here.

Original American Poster. Ava wears nothing remotely like the weird ensemble shown here.

Let me start with the writing, which is both bad and ambitious. The screenplay was written by Isobel Lennart, who began her career at Metro in the mail room and eventually was one of their most prolific writers. From 1939 to 1942, Miss Lennart was a Commie, but then repined. Some time after “East Side, West Side” was released, she was blacklisted, then hauled before HUAC in 1952, where she sang A Song of One-and-Twenty Fellow Travellers — a madrigal that saved her career. Metro reinstated her as a contract writer, where she continued to turn out screenplays until 1957. In 1964, she wrote the book for the Broadway musical, “Funny Girl.” She received a Tony nomination for her work, but lost to Michael Stewart (“Hello, Dolly!”). Her screen adaptation of “Funny Girl” (Warners, 1967) won the Writers Guild Award for that year, but it was the last screenplay she ever wrote. She was killed in an car accident in 1971.

“East Side, West Side” opens with a voice-over spoken by Barbara Stanwyck. It is consistent with the tone of the rest of the picture. The Gramercy Park locations are genuine; the rest of the picture is strictly backlot. This isn’t a complaint: I like Metro’s backlot Manhattan almost as much as I love the real thing.

Jessie (Barbara Stanwyck) is married to playboy attorney, Brandon Bourne (James Mason). A year earlier, Brandon’s affair with Isabel Lorrison (Ava Gardner) nearly wrecked their marriage, but then Isabel left town suddenly and Brandon returned to his wife, chastened and wiser. All is forgiven. Now Isabel (a/k/a “that Lorrison dame”) has reappeared and it looks like a whole lot of heartache and headaches are in store for the Bournes. I’ll get back to the writing in a moment, but here’s what happens when “that Lorrison dame” shows up at the Del Rio, where Brandon has stopped in for a late-night drink after a meeting with a client. The beautiful girl at Brandon’s table is Cyd Charisse — before any of the geniuses at Metro figured out the kid’s legs had a lot more talent than her head. Charisse gives the sort of earnest, terrible performance that gives me great pleasure. What I feel about her incompetence is not as evil or bitter as derision — it’s more like an alloy of gentle condescension and sympathy. Here comes “that Lorrison dame”:

Part two of the same scene. Look how beautiful and silly the Manhattan set is.

Immediately after this exchange, Brandon walks back toward the Del Rio, and straight into the fists of Isabel’s jealous boyfriend, who knocks him silly with a sucker-punch left, then cold with a roundhouse right. A photographer is on hand to snap the picture, which makes the front page of the next day’s tabloids. Brandon goes home and tells Jessie what happened: he tells her of how Rosa Senta (Cyd Charisse) rescued him and took him back to her grandmother’s flat till his head cleared — but neglects to mention the return of “that Lorrison dame,” and dodges Jessie’s “But what was the fight about?” with a bland “What’s a fight ever about? Nothing.”

Now here’s a sample of the sort of bad, ambitious writing that appeals to me. The following morning, Jessie’s friend Helen Lee comes to call, and delivers one of the many little sociology dilations that pop up throughout the picture. Helen Lee is played by none other than Nancy Davis (three years before she became the second Mrs Reagan). She’s quite good, though I can’t help wishing Ilka Chase had played this role. Davis has the right sort of glamour, but I think she doesn’t have enough class. I believe that she’s a society dame, but I don’t buy her as an intellectual — then again, it hardly matters: she’s only in one other scene. She’s good enough. (Notice the shadow that falls across Stanny’s chair beginning at about 1:15 — in the first half of the scene, the broad expanse of the chair to the right (her left) is in full light, but when it’s time for her important close-up (“It’s like knowing a safety-pin is holding up your petticoat”), suddenly a veil of darkness falls over everything except her face. This is a perfectly ordinary attention-focussing technique, but when it’s done this boldly and baldly, I get a kick out of it. Again, my enjoyment isn’t entirely scornful — it’s fonder than that.)

Davis delivers her lecture with authority, but the speech has no hint of spontaneity or conversational laxness in it: it’s definitely, overtly written. It’s the sort of soapbox speech that nowadays is rarely heard outside of a Tyler Perry picture, when one of his mouthpieces gets up on a high horse. The sincerity of the argument is matched only by the artificiality of its presentation; Nancy Davis complements it by being completely earnest and utterly phony.

Isobel Lennart employs a weird convention that I’ve encountered elsewhere, but never in such profusion. Time and again, she lets one character interrupt another and say, in effect: “Let me tell you what you think I want to hear” or “Here’s what you’re trying to say.” In each case, the person who interrupts is right; in each case, the person who is interrupted isn’t the least bit offended. It’s certainly not like the New York I know. I mean, if I were interrupted in mid-sentence by Van Heflin, who then proceeded to explain me to myself, I’d have to kill him. But in “East Side, West Side,” he does it repeatedly, and everyone is always grateful to him. He also takes the metaphors of politeness literally and then corrects them as if the speaker meant the metaphor literally. For example, in one scene Stanny thanks him for being so thoughtful to her when she was upset, then says she owes him the courtesy of letting him how things worked out — but he interrupts her suddenly and changes the subject. Then he concludes with: “Oh, and Jess, get one thing straight: you don’t owe me anything.” Oh, up yours, you fucking asshole.

Stanwyck has the hardest role because her lines are the most zestfully over-explanatory. You can hear in her opening narration how she rushes right along, but speed alone is not enough to save her. In her haste, she often emphasizes wrong words, which of course happens in real life, but with bum dialogue, it aggravates the phoniness of the writing.

Lennart also comes a-cropper whenever she strains to be sophisticated. Jessie’s old mother, Nora Kernan (Gale Sondergaard), is a retired, once-famous Broadway tragedienne. After dinner, she plays a game of chess with son-in-law Brandon. The dialogue scintillates this-a-way:

Brandon Bourne (James Mason) checks Nora Kernan (Gale Sondergaard).

Brandon Bourne (James Mason) checks mother-in-law Nora Kernan (Gale Sondergaard).

Brandon: Check.

Nora:  Dear . . . ! I don’t know if it’s possible, but I feel that you’re cheating.

Brandon: When you can prove it, I’ll be glad to discuss it with you.

Nora: Jessie looks wonderful tonight.

Brandon:  She has you to thank for her looks, darling.

Nora:  And you. [Dreamily] When a woman gets more beautiful after she’s married, it means her man is either making her very happy . . . or very unhappy.

Brandon: Oscar Wilde?

Nora: No . . . Belasco.

David Belasco wrote a lot of tawdry hokum, but he never wrote anything as bad as that.

And, finally, I come to:

The Main Event

There’s another, despicable reason for my liking of “East Side, West Side” — it’s the behind-the-scenes drama of Barbara Stanwyck and Ava Gardner. In the same year this picture was made, Ava starred in a lurid stinker called “The Bribe.” Her leading man was Stanny’s husband at the time, Robert Taylor. Ava and Taylor began an affair during the location shooting, Stanny found out about it and immediately filed for divorce. And now, with “East Side, West Side,” trashy art was imitating trashy life. No fur flew on the set: Stanwyck was a pro before she was an injured wife, and she’d be goddamned if she’d give the gossip columnists the satisfaction of being their next meal. She refused to meet Gardner, but she showed up on time, said her lines, and got through it as quickly as possible. Still, it’s a juicy situation — I have such respect for Stanny’s talent and discipline, and such admiration for Ava’s beauty and frankness that I’m ashamed to get such pleasure from their distress. But it’s a cat fight, for God’s sake! So what can I do?

You know, what I find far more enjoyable and entertaining than the cat fight itself (which isn’t all that much if you leave out the actresses’ personal lives) is the wrangling over the difference in class. It’s another one of Lennart’s steamed-up sociological tracts, and I think it’s her best (by which I do not mean good). It’s not just the over-arching culture war of East Side v. West Side that comes into the argument but also the more specific clash of aesthetics: Great Lady of the Theatre v. Burlesque House and the clash of education, manners and morals: Miss Cavanaugh’s Academy v. Slinging Hash . . . ! Ava handles the material excellently — she doesn’t make any of it good, but she gives it passion, energy and insolence, which is what it needs. Good doesn’t enter into it.

Lancaster and Gardner in ‘The Killers’

Original Poster.

Re-release Poster.

The first thing to know about “Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers” (Universal, 1946) is that it looks great. Ironically, director Robert Siodmak and his cinematographer, Woody Bredell, created one of the best looking film noirs by insisting that absolutely nothing should be shot for beauty or glamour. As much as possible, scenes were shot with natural light — eyes are often hidden in shadows because no fills were used to make the actors more photogenic. On her first day of shooting, Ava Gardner appeared on the set in full Metro-style glamorous makeup. Siodmak told her to go scrub it all off: “Please, you are going and washing off and bringing back face alone!” For years afterwards, Woody Bredell praised Ava Gardner as the first adult actress he’d ever photographed without makeup. “All we did was rub a little Vaseline into her skin for a sheen effect.” “The Killers” has the deepest blacks and intensest whites and as few halftones as possible — it’s as close to true black and white as Hollywood ever managed. From the first shot to the last, it’s a pleasure to look at. The opening titles are over a car racing down a suburban New Jersey road at night. At the end of the titles, the opening shots look like this:

Here comes trouble: William Conrad through one door, Charles McGraw through the other.

Here comes trouble: William Conrad through one door, Charles McGraw through the other.

The Icemen Cometh: McGraw and Conrad

The Icemen Come: McGraw and Conrad.

Hired guns Charles McGraw and William Conrad menace lunch counter man Harry Hayden.

Hired guns McGraw and Conrad menace counterman Harry Hayden.

Hemingway’s short story, “The Killers,” is scarcely a dozen pages long and consists almost entirely of dialogue. The first reel of the picture (i.e., the first twelve minutes) is a reasonably strict adaptation of the story, minus the racist epithets. Charles McGraw and William Conrad are such implacable, terrifying bad guys, they don’t need to sound like Klansman to add force to their brutality. They show up at a diner in a suburban New Jersey town (Brentwood in the picture; Summit in Hemingway’s story), throw their weight around, then announce they’ve come to kill a man known as the Swede; when the Swede doesn’t show up by 6:00, they go to his boarding house and gun him down in his bed. The Swede is warned before they arrive, but he has given up. When they come, there is no struggle — just explosive gunfire. (The passivity of Conrad’s and McGraw’s faces as they fire again and again is scary as hell.)

Conrad and McGraw finish their business.

Conrad and McGraw finish their business.

That’s it. It’s extremely taut and tense. At first, the set-up made me so jumpy, it took several viewings before I could enjoy the style of the cinematography and the efficiency of the story-telling, which I now admire tremendously. I also admire Harry Hayden’s completely realistic performance as the nervous counterman, George. Hayden had a long and mostly uncredited career; he rarely got the chance to do much, but every now and again, he landed a nice little part that let him show his skill. I think he’s perfect in “The Killers.” (He’s also very nice in a small part in “The Rains Came.”)

Mark Hellinger, who produced the picture, fancied himself Hemingway’s great pal. Pal or not, Hemingway demanded fifty thousand smackers for his twelve-page story and got thirty-eight, making it the highest price ever paid for movie rights to a short story. Hellinger promised Hemingway he’d tell the press he paid the original asking price. In the end, he advertised that he paid seventy-five Gs for the story. To write the screenplay, Hellinger first approached John Huston, but since Huston was still in uniform and had outstanding contractual commitments to Jack Warner, he recommended his writing partner, Anthony Veiller (son of Margaret Wycherley — who later played Cagney’s cagey old mother in “White Heat”). Veiller agreed and got full credit, but he split the pay fifty-fifty with Huston, who was heavily involved in the writing, which took two months. Most of it was written at Huston’s rooms at the Weylin Hotel on 54th and Madison and at Wycherley’s flat at 10 Perry Street in the West Village — and, since Huston was involved, at many saloons in between. Their approach centered on a single question: “What could bring a man so low that he would surrender himself to violent death?” What they ended up with is a lot of fun, but I think it’s going much too far to say that it’s a great script. Frankly, I don’t think their script does a great job of answering their own question.

John Miljan as Jake the Rake; Ava Gardner as Kitty Collins.

John Miljan as Jake the Rake; Ava Gardner as bad, dangerous Kitty Collins.

The structure of “The Killers” mimics the multiple narrator idea that Herman Mankiewicz used so effectively in “Citizen Kane,” but it’s not as cleverly constructed. In “The Killers,” the mystery to be solved is why anyone would want to kill the Swede (Burt Lancaster); we find out through a series of dovetailing flashbacks.

The Swede's funeral. I have a weakness for indoor rain scenes. Edmond O'Brien, Sam Levene and Virginia Christine are in the left foreground.

The Swede’s funeral. I have a weakness for indoor rain scenes. Sam Levene, Edmond O’Brien and Virginia Christine are in the left foreground.

Individually, each scene works well enough and there’s plenty of snappy patter; taken as a whole, however, the story feels attenuated, even somewhat preposterous. Moreover, unlike “Citizen Kane,” all of the various narrations are in complete agreement with the others. Everyone in the picture — the dim-witted chambermaid, the jilted girlfriend, the cop, the small-time crook, the gunsel, even the hophead on his deathbed — has a perfect recollection of events that took place six years earlier, before World War II interrupted their lives. They all remember accurately, and they all tell the truth. This is quite a problem in a picture that’s supposed to be about moral ambiguity. That’s why I think the best idea is to accept the picture as flashy, trashy entertainment and not as anything so earnest as social criticism. There’s plenty to like without taking it seriously.

Burt Lancaster in his debut role. This is our first good look at him. Is it any wonder he became a star?

The Swede, moments before his murder: Burt Lancaster in his debut role. This is our first good look at him. Is it any wonder he became a star?

This is the picture that introduced Burt Lancaster to movie audiences and finally gave Ava Gardner something to do with herself. That’s enough for me. The two stars got along well together. Ava genuinely liked him; years later, a French interviewer asked Lancaster how it felt to kiss Ava Gardner for the first time. Lancaster replied, “I got an erection!” His bulge was so noticeable, in fact, that the entire crew, including Ava, cracked up at the sight of it.

Here’s the scene where Burt Lancaster first meets Ava Gardner. (I apologize in advance for the commercial that precedes it.) Ava does her own singing. She’s way better than any of the voices Metro hired to dub her. Speaking of commercials, if you can tear your eyes away from Ava, the woman who arrives with Lancaster is Virginia Christine. She’s best known as Mrs Olson on the Folgers Coffee commercials, a gig that began in the mid-60s and lasted for 21 years. It only seemed longer. (Sorry:  this clip appears to be incompatible with the iPad.)

A few words about the music. It’s one of Miklós Rózsa better efforts. I can almost always identify a score by Rózsa: it’s the one that sounds like a bummer — especially the stuff he wrote for biblical epics. This one’s certainly not breezy, but for once it’s more dramatic than it is sullen. It also features a very famous musical phrase that Walter Schumann used for “Dragnet”: DUM duh-dum DUM! When that theme became a hit on the pop charts, Rózsa’s music publishers filed suit, claiming that Schumann had been at the session the day Rózsa recorded the theme. The case was settled out of court: both composers and their publishers shared the music royalties every time “Dragnet” aired.