Monthly Archives: June 2015

‘The Velvet Touch’: Grande Dame Guignol

Original Poster.

Original Poster.

O Victory, Where Is Thy Death?

In the opening scene of “The Velvet Touch” (Independent Artists/RKO Radio Pictures, 1948), Rosalind Russell, as Broadway diva Valerie Stanton, ends a heated argument with her producer/lover Gordon Dunning (Leon Ames) by braining him with the first heavy object she can lay her velvet-gloved hand on. The irony is perfect, for the weapon is a theatrical trophy: it is the coveted Players Award, which Dunning won for Excellence in the Theatre; moreover, it is a statuette of Nike, Goddess of Victory, who bears aloft a wreath. The eminent actress has therefore crowned the eminent producer with his own laurels. This is not a case of the iron fist in a velvet glove; it is the velvet fist with an iron bludgeon. Unfortunately for all concerned, before the victim can gasp out, “It was Miss Stanton . . . ! In the Study . . . ! With the Candlestiii . . . ,” the blow to his head has felled him for keeps. Now needs must Gordon Dunning rest upon his laurels till the edge of doom. I find it all wonderfully funny. And after all, it’s Leon Ames: he had it coming. We’ll learn more about why as the picture progresses. Here’s a fraction of that opening scene.

Much of the rest of the picture is spent in flashback, à la Film Noir (though “The Velvet Touch” is too glossy and high-tone to be so categorized), by which means we learn how Leon and Roz arrived at this fatal contretemps. That he cannot bear the idea of being left for another man, Michael Morrell (played by Leo Genn, who murmurs drolly from the first reel to the last), is the most obvious explanation for his unbecoming conduct. But sexual jealousy is only at the surface: there’s a much deeper reason for his fury, and it stems from a classic case of one of Hollywood’s favorite fictional psychological disorders, which may fairly be called Svengali Syndrome.

Get Thee Behind Me, Svengali!

In Hollywood pictures about the theatre, directors are invariably Svengalis: Warner Baxter plucks Ruby Keeler from the chorus line in “42nd Street,” and, by dancing her off her feet for a day and a half, turns her into an overnight sensation. In “Twentieth Century,” Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) makes a brilliant actress out of an awkward, infantile amateur named Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard). Similarly, in “Maytime,” Barrymore (this time as the crackpot musical genius, Nicolai Nazaroff) turns Jeanette MacDonald into an international prima donna, then shames her into entering into a loveless marriage with him, and in the final reel, the enraged impresario aims a pistol at his rival, Nelson Eddy, and blows a hole through that worthy’s barrel chest. (Well, somebody had to do it.) Clark Gable transforms Jeanette from a hymn-singing ninny into the toast of the Barbary Coast in “San Francisco“: her swinging rendition of the title song apparently sets off the Frisco Quake of Aught-Six, which knocks the nobs off their hill and makes toast of the entire region. In “Lady with Red Hair,” the great Claude Rains, as David Belasco, turns the hopelessly inadequate Mrs Leslie Carter (Miriam Hopkins) into . . . Mrs Leslie Carter, who was known as “the American Sarah Bernhardt.” In “Hello, Frisco, Hello,” international songbird Alice Faye bends over backwards to rescue the scoundrel John Payne from ruin because she believes she owes her success entirely to him. In “All About Eve,” the aging star Margo Channing has a pretty shrewd estimation of her own gifts and self-sufficiency as an actress, yet when her understudy/rival, Eve Harrington, gives a sensational audition, Margo bitterly accuses her director/lover, Bill Sampson, of being responsible for the girl’s stunning performance, which was “carefully rehearsed I have no doubt, over and over, full of those Bill Sampson touches!” (When Eve goes on to win the Sarah Siddons Award for her performance, Eve herself clearly believes the director is responsible for her success.) Most miraculously of all, Dan O’Herlihy turns Lana Turner into the most scintillating actress on Broadway in “Imitation of Life.” We don’t see how he contrives to fashion a silk purse out of that sow’s ear, nor do we get a chance to judge his wizardry for ourselves: Douglas Sirk knew better than to show Lana giving what we’re expected to believe is a great theatrical performance.

Of all these pictures, only “Twentieth Century” and “Lady with Red Hair” offer some evidence of how these directors of genius transform amateurs into great ladies of the stage. (In the former, Barrymore jabs a pin into Lombard’s rump, which does the trick: for the rest of the funny picture, Lombard never stops shrieking. In the latter, Rains stands on an apple box and raises Hopkins’ pigtails over her head to make her stand up straight. Mission accomplished: for the rest of the picture, she’s lousy from a greater height.)

L: Barrymore instructs Lombard in the art of acting. R: Rains instructs Hopkins.

L: Barrymore instructs Lombard in the art of acting. R: Rains instructs Hopkins.

Prelude to a Kiss-Off

As we have seen, when “The Velvet Touch” begins, Rosalind Russell has grown a-weary of dancing on the ends of Leon Ames’ strings; she is determined to play Hedda Gabler in the upcoming season; she is newly in love with Leo Genn. She must therefore cut herself free from her puppet-master’s strings. But, in the great Svengali tradition, he would sooner ruin her than let her go, and sooner than ruin her, he would bring her to heel. So this native son of Portland, Indiana, brings out the big guns: “Yer not good enough fer heavy drammer.” Besides, he tells her, that sort of guff don’t go over with the “suckers,” as he calls the New York City audiences who have made him rich. He knows what slops to serve up to the moron millions, and, sister, Hedda Gabler ain’t no state fair attraction. He will not permit her to make a fool of herself . . . or him. To that end, he has leaked a story to the press that she has already signed on to do yet another frivolous romp in the Fall, and he’s willing to go very much further to keep her dancing to his tune and starring in his productions.

We get a clear sense of the sort of shows he produces from the framed posters on his office walls: “It’s a Gay Life,” “The Gay Lady,” “Scandalous” and the current season’s “Escapade.” He produces and directs these wafer-thin entertainments, yet his theatre and his offices, tricked out with ostentatious, ornamental Victorian kitsch, are more suited to a producer of the blood and thunder melodramas of Eugène Scribe and Victorien Sardou: his office is crowded with heavy, carved furniture. In the public spaces of his theatre, oil paintings in gilded rococo frames hang on walls that are covered in shimmering damask silk; fluted pillars and pilasters are topped by Corinthian capitals of exuberant gaudiness; heavy brocade draperies and swags trimmed in miles of fringe adorn every landing, niche, entrance; cut crystal chandeliers glitter overhead; there are Turkey carpets as far as the eye can see. It’s the vulgarian’s dream of high class. I imagine Boss Tweed must have looked on similar decor while being fellated at his favorite whorehouse, though he would not have seen a neon sign for the Cabana Café glaring through the bordello window. But if these trappings seem inappropriate for a producer of frolicsome romantic comedies, they are entirely correct for this Tosca-like opening and for the preposterous melodrama that follows.

Rosalind Russell, Leon Ames: Valerie Stanton and Gordon Dunning in happier times.

Rosalind Russell, Leon Ames: Valerie Stanton and Gordon Dunning in happier times.

And just to make it quite impossible to take any of this camp melodrama seriously, there is the stupendously misleading title song, sung in glee-club harmony by an all-male chorus. Written by Mort Greene (lyrics) and Leigh Harline (music), the tune’s jaunty breeziness and idiotic fills (doodle-oodle-oo), lead one to expect the picture will be one of those late-forties disposable situation comedies in which, say, Robert Cummings vies with Brian Aherne for the affections of Virginia Mayo, while Marjorie Main cracks wise, and eggs, in the kitchen. Instead you get Murder on the Main Stem — part Fannie Hurst, part Edna Ferber, part Walter Winchell, part Sardou, part Dostoyevsky — and it’s a whole lot funnier than most of the comedies of the era, but in a sneaky, subversive way (perfect for the McCarthy Era). That is, it is definitely played as high drama — Rosalind Russell and her co-stars (most of them) seem to take it all in deadly earnest, but unless I miss my bet, the screenwriter was having fun at their expense. Anyhow, if you look at it from this point of view, the picture is hilarious, sometimes almost awesomely so.

The picture was produced by Miss Russell’s husband, Frederick Brisson, and her great, elongated full-moon face is rarely out of the frame. Even so, Claire Trevor, as her bitter rival, acts her right off the screen.

Beedle Dee-Dee Dee-Dee, Two Ladies

Moments after Roz flees undetected from the scene of the crime, the body is discovered by Claire Trevor, who makes two serious blunders: (1) she picks up the weapon, and (2) she falls into an hysterical faint. This is a sticky wicket, for it appears to everyone, including (or so it would seem) NYPD Homicide Detective Sydney Greenstreet(!), that she — a woman scorned — must have fainted after having committed a crime passionnel. Meanwhile, Roz has her own fit of histrionics in the privacy of her home, where she sobs, “Oh why did this horrible thing have to happen? Why? Why? . . . Why?” Cue flashback.

First we see how Roz tried to patch things up with Claire a few days before the bludgeoning. Roz is unusually restrained. Claire is (ahem) less so. The result is a nice bit of camp: catfight lite.

Later in the picture, we learn that Claire has been hospitalized. Roz goes to visit her, amusingly attired as if she were a very chic nun in a satin and silk habit and wimple. She makes me think of Caitlyn Jenner as Father Christmas. Roz extends the olive branch, but Claire is having none of it. And to prove it, she speaks two of the greatest camp lines ever.

The screenplay is by Leo Rosten, who wrote the best-selling “The Joys of Yiddish.” I have to believe that Rosten was laughing his head off when he wrote, “Where did you get your luck, Valerie? Or does God pity the wicked?” and “If you had any decency, you’d face it yerself. But you haven’t: yer rotten! All the way through!” At any rate, the brilliantly funny author of “The Joys of Yiddish” simply couldn’t have taken any of this stuff seriously. Believe me, I’m not knocking it. I think it’s great. But it’s great because it’s so funny. Much of “The Velvet Touch” is as fabulously, deliriously foolish as the best parts of “Deception,” and almost as entertaining. It lacks a towering, unforgettable performance to match Claude Rains’ supremely witty sadist Alexander Hollenius, but there is more than enough mad, grandiloquent silliness in “The Velvet Touch” to make it a thoroughly entertaining picture. For fans of Rosalind Russell, Claire Trevor, Leo Genn, Sydney Greenstreet, or for that matter, Leo Rosten, it is not to be missed.

‘After Office Hours’: A Forgotten Comedy Classic

Poster from original release.

Poster from original release. In the title credits, Constance Bennett gets first billing. She was the highest paid woman in Hollywood at the time.

“After Office Hours” (Metro, 1935), an extremely appealing lightweight comedy, is little known today, but it’s hard to know why. It’s a cheerful mess, written by Herman J. Mankiewicz, and it has his fingerprints all over it: it’s funny, irreverent, illogical, smart, cynical, sloppy, slapdash and fast. The guys who drink too much are the guys we root for, and only saps make a habit of telling the truth. Mank (as he was known) was generally regarded as being much smarter, funnier and more talented than his younger brother Joe, who would later go on to win four back-to-back Oscars (two for “A Letter to Three Wives”; two for “All About Eve”), but Mank’s drinking made him totally unreliable. Legend has it that Orson Welles had to lock him up for two months in a safehouse in Victorville, California, in order to get him to finish the screenplay for “Citizen Kane.” (It’s hard to know how much to credit this or indeed any story about Welles, because Welles rarely opened his mouth except to tell another pack of lies.)

The stories of Mank’s boozing and gambling are countless, but I believe my favorite story about him is one told by his friend and fellow screenwriter, Irving Brecher, which, surprisingly, involves neither boozing nor gambling, but another vice altogether. According to Brecher, he and Mank were eating at the Metro commissary one day when Elizabeth Taylor’s mother stopped by their table to say that she had a meeting with Mr Mayer, and asked if they’d be willing to let Elizabeth sit with them while they ate their lunch. She’d only be gone for a few minutes. Of course, of course! Who wouldn’t want to spend time with a gorgeous little girl like the twelve year-old Elizabeth? In those days, she had a pet chipmunk that she took with her wherever she went. The little chipmunk would run up her arm, then disappear under her blouse and a moment later poke his head out from her sleeve, then run up her other arm, disappear down her blouse again and eventually reappear somewhere else; he frisked about like a furry electron orbiting an Elizabeth Taylor nucleus. The little girl chatted with the two writers while they ate, and all the while, the chipmunk was zipping round her torso like crazy; Brecher says she hardly seemed to notice. At length the mother returned, thanked the gentlemen and took Elizabeth away with her. As the two writers watched them walk out of the lunchroom, Mank leant over to Brecher, and, shaking his head appreciatively, murmured, “Gee, I wish I was a chipmunk!” Hmm . . . Herman Humbert.

Elizabeth Taylor and friend.

Elizabeth Taylor and friend.

I was gratified to read in Pauline Kael’s “For Keeps” that Mank had written “about forty of the films I remember best from the twenties and thirties. I hadn’t realized how extensive his career was . . . [I]t’s apparent that he was a key linking figure in just the kind of movies my friends and I loved best. These were the hardest-headed periods of American movies . . . [and] the writers . . . in little more than a decade, gave American talkies their character.” Nunnally Johnson said the two most brilliant men he ever knew were George S. Kaufman and Herman Mankiewicz, and that Mankiewicz was the more brilliant of the two, and (Kael again), “spearheaded the movement of that whole Broadway style of wisecracking, fast-talking, cynical-sentimental entertainment onto the national scene.” I would like to offer “After Office Hours” as a prime example of what Kael was talking about.

Boy Meets Girl, Boy Fires Girl

Clark Gable plays Jim Branch, the hard-bitten, cagey editor of a daily newspaper. He’s on the trail of a high society scandal that he knows is about to break. But his boss, the newspaper’s publisher, orders him to drop the story because it may possibly involve a personal friend whom he hopes will be elected as a state senator in the upcoming election. This first clip takes place right after Gable storms out of the publisher’s office. Notice how long the takes are. Robert Z. Leonard points the camera at his two stars and lets them get on with it. It helps that most of their patter is so good, and it helps that they both handle the material so energetically.

I love the way Constance Bennett delivers the line, “I haven’t so far.” For my money, she is the best of all the glamorous comediennes of the thirties. She’s as beautiful as any of them, including Harlow and Lombard, but I find her wittier and more pleasant to listen to. A big part of Harlow’s appeal was the appalling foghorn squawk that emanated from her throat, but I have to be in the mood to listen to her. Lombard’s voice tended to be shrill and unpleasant. Claudette Colbert was as chic and high-tone as Bennett, and had a beautiful voice, but I find her attractive without being sexy. But Constance Bennett is chic and sexy and obviously very shrewd. She was, in fact, known to be one of the best female card players in America. She was the only woman with a standing invitation to play high stakes poker with the studio heads, and she usually won. When she was married to Gilbert Roland, he once lost fifty grand in a poker game, and didn’t have the ducats to cover it — nowhere near. So it fell to Connie to pony up her hard-earned dough, which she did, saying: “Oh, the fucking I’m getting for the fucking I’m getting.” (The marriage didn’t last.)

I also like Clark Gable’s bawling-into-the-hidden-microphone style of acting. It’s artificial, but in a way that suits the material. The dialogue is presentational: these characters are cartoon cut-outs: if we took them seriously, their constant double-crosses would make them unbearable.

Boy Loses Girl

Look at the beautiful way she dismisses Gable just before she turns her back on him. It’s the most elegant brush off ever. There’s the tiniest flicker of her eyes at the end of it and bang go the shutters and down comes the gate. And it’s important to remember, when this picture was made, Gable was King of Hollywood.

Boy Meets Mother, Rehires Girl

In this scene, which takes place a few minutes after the previous clip, we meet Billie Burke in one of her most typical performances. I must say I find her brand of silliness endlessly amusing and occasionally dazzling. I don’t know how anyone could keep a straight face when she turned her dithering up to full intensity. She’s the Human Hummingbird.

Look at Connie slink! It takes a good deal of presence to keep the sublime Billie Burke from stealing the scene completely with her bottomless bag of tics. You will note that Miss Burke prolongs her exit by fingering the draperies as she passes through the archway. She wasn’t Mrs Florenz Ziegfeld for nothing: she knew how to pull focus when she wanted to.

I fear that Gable hadn’t yet shed the Blue Plate Special corniness he picked up from Frank Capra’s overemphatic seltzer-in-yer-pants kind of comic hijinx in the previous year’s “It Happened One Night.” Capra’s Common Man, when merry (his natural state), invariably becomes brainless at the top of his lungs. I hear more Capra than Mankiewicz in Gable’s reading of “Nooo, nooo! Only in months with AARRR in ’em!” He lands on the antic dopiness so hard that any stray champagne bubbles of wit are flattened beneath the weight: it’s Bambi Meets Godzilla. On the other hand, we’re to understand that everyone has been drinking all night, that Jim Branch is an excitable man and that he is working extra hard to amuse this elegant woman, of whom he hopes to take advantage in as many ways as he possibly can. The corniness of that one line reading actually serves a useful purpose: it gives the scene a jolt of energy at exactly the moment more energy is wanted. I don’t like it, but I admire how well it works. Moreover, Gable has the magnetism and virility to ride the phony zaniness the way a surfer rides the crest of a wave: the difference is Gable has to create the wave all by himself. When Connie Bennett begins to laugh, her amusement is genuine enough to justify the Capra-corn. It’s infinitely less irritating than the lunkheaded lecture Gable delivers on the fine art of dunking a sinker in “It Happened One Night.”

Capra Shakes Hands with Wit: an Allegory.

Capra Shakes Hands with Wit: an Allegory.

Boy Gets, Loses Girl

This is my favorite scene in the picture. I love the deco set design: that backdrop of the 59th Street Bridge is in just about every Metro picture that takes place in Manhattan. In Louis B. Mayer’s New York, everyone lives and plays in and around Sutton Place. I love the surprise appearance of Margaret Dumont as Mrs Murchison (this picture came out the same year as “A Night at the Opera”). In her brief moments onscreen, she looks more like a Helen Hokinson cartoon than ever. But most of all, I love the chemistry between Bennett and Gable and the snappy patter that Mank has written for them.

“You say awfully nice things Mr B!” She speaks that line so charmingly that I almost forget the sound of Shirley Booth as the irrepressible, horrible busybody maid, Hazel, in the early sixties TV sitcom of the same name. Unfortunate readers will remember that Hazel always addressed her employer as “Mr B,” and always sounded as if she were speaking with her mouth full of crumb cake and cottage cheese.

Separated at Birth? Helen Hokinson Clubwomen, Margaret Dumont

Separated at Birth? Helen Hokinson Clubwomen, Margaret Dumont.

He Who Gets Slapped

I’m fond of this scene for a lot of reasons, but chiefly because of the public service performed by Mary MacLaren at about 2:28. The fellow who claims to be the coroner’s assistant is actually Jim Branch’s lead photographer. The actor is Stuart Erwin.

I have occasionally watched that slap ten times in a row just because it makes me so happy. Every time William Demerest shows up in any one of the more than one hundred and sixty pictures he appeared in, I feel like slapping him.

Mank Speaks!

Herman J. Mankiewicz, apparently pretty sober.

Herman J. Mankiewicz, looking unusually sober.

I’ve always had a special fondness for funny drunks. I’ve known more than my fair share of turbulent tipplers, and I almost always come to regret, or at least rue, my association with them. By definition, they are unreliable, self-pitying, self-destructive, exasperating, boring, embarrassing and eventually pathetic. But I find the funny ones hard to resist. The really heavy drinkers don’t last long, so to befriend one of them is like finding yourself in charge of a short-lived breed of dog who bites people. You love him, but he’s a handful; when he dies you miss him, but can’t help feeling relief that he’s gone. Had I been around when Mank was still alive, I make no doubt I would have loved him: he strikes me as George S. Kaufman with a bun on. (They were friends: Kaufman gave him a job at the New York Times; Mank left Kaufman high and dry by going out to Hollywood.) Of course, there’s a good chance he’d have had no use for me whatsoever. Still, I’ve known a great many drunks because I usually get along well with them. Anyhow, I don’t know when I’ll be returning to the subject of Herman J. Mankiewicz, and feel I owe it to the old soak to finish this piece with a few examples of the sort of hilarious things he said before he died of uremic poisoning on April 5, 1953.

Mank sent the following telegram to Ben Hecht (the last sentence is particularly in character): Will you accept 300 per week to work for Paramount? All expenses paid. 300 is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.

This is Mank on his favorite actress, and his dream of domestic bliss (again, his last sentence is the most characteristic): Barbara Stanwyck is my favorite. My God, I could just sit and dream of being married to her, having a little cottage out in the hills, vines around the door. I’d come home from the office tired and weary, and I’d be met by Barbara, walking through the door holding an apple pie she had cooked herself. And wearing no drawers.

Barbara Stanwyck: Apple pie and no drawers

Barbara Stanwyck: One Eve with a lid on, hold the drawers!

Upon seeing Orson Welles: There, but for the grace of God, goes God.

On Production Code morality: In a novel the hero can lay ten girls and marry a virgin for the finish. In a movie this is not allowed. The villain can lay anybody he wants, have as much fun as he wants cheating and stealing, getting rich and whipping the servants. But you have to shoot him in the end. When he falls with a bullet in his forehead, it is advisable that he clutch at the Gobelin tapestry on the wall and bring it down over his head like a symbolic shroud. Also, covered by such a tapestry, the actor does not have to to hold his breath while being photographed as a dead man.

Finally, on Louis B. Mayer (the past tense is amusing, since Mayer outlived Mank by two years): He had the memory of an elephant and the hide of an elephant. The only difference is that elephants are vegetarians and Mayer’s diet was his fellow man.