Tag Archives: Cyd Charisse

Awesome Awfulness

Original poster: 'Beauty and the Beast.' Barry Sullivan's character is called Beauty in the picture; she's the beast.

Original poster: ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ In the picture, Barry Sullivan’s scarfaced character is called Beauty; Joan Crawford is the Beast.

Since I have, of late, kept things on a fairly high plane, today I’d like to roll about in the muck a little, just to keep things honest. A while ago, I posted “Good Songs in Cruddy Pictures” (Part I and Part II) and a piece called “Howlers,” about bad dialogue in high-minded trashy pictures; today, I thought I’d show some cruddy scenes from cruddy pictures. In fact, they’re all from terrible pictures that I can never get through in one sitting, but I like every one of these scenes for a variety of reasons.

The first four clips are overtly camp, which is a form of humor I don’t usually go for. Generally, I’m more likely to endure camp than to laugh at it. And even the sort of camp that does make me laugh — “The Fountainhead,” for instance — wears out its welcome in a big hurry. In small doses, however, I find certain kinds of camp very funny.

So let me start with the camp and get it out of the way. I like these scenes a lot, but believe me, I’m not proud of myself.

Queen Bee

You don’t need to know anything more than Joan Crawford is playing a bitch. Well, it’s the fifties and that’s all she played in that decade. All the evil that surrounds her is in reaction to the monkey-tricks she’s pulled on the other characters before the picture started. She’s plenty crazy when she comes sailing into this, her first scene — but she gets a whole lot crazier before the ninety-five minute picture is over. “Queen Bee” (Columbia, 1955) is written and directed by Ranald MacDougall, who wrote the far superior Crawford melodrama, “Mildred Pierce.” But that was ten years earlier, when they were both younger and had more sense.

“Now I’m ready for people”; “Hello to both of you” . . . God, isn’t that bad writing? Who talks like that? Not even Joan Crawford talks like that. In the scene immediately following this one, Fay Wray, who plays the demented Sue McKinnon, says to another character, “It pleasures me to see you.” In a later scene, Barry Sullivan also says “It pleasures me” about something he likes. Perhaps it’s a common Southern expression, but I’ve never heard it outside of this picture. It doesn’t put me in mind of Southern hospitality; it makes me think of blowjobs. The young woman is Lucy Marlow: Columbia Pictures expected big things from her . . . and didn’t get ’em.

Here’s another clip from “Queen Bee.” It’s shorter and, in its own way, funnier than the previous one. Is there anything more vulgar than Joan Crawford when she gets high-tone? “Mildred Pierce” worked for her because even as she climbed the social ladder, we never were expected to think she had class or sophistication — only that she could hold her bourbon. In “Queen Bee,” she’s supposed to be sophisticated, sexually alluring and mean as a rattlesnake bite . . . She does rattlesnake tolerably (though unimaginatively); the first two are far beyond her extremely limited powers of impersonation, but she slugs away at it with all her might and main. Result: camp.

Give that sound effects man an Oscar! Best too-loud slap ever.

In this one, Joan Crawford goes all Citizen Kane on the cups and dollies. The dialogue she has to work with is terrible, but she doesn’t do it any favors.

And one more clip from “Queen Bee.” It’s the best rotten dialogue in the whole picture. Just look at her act . . . she pivots twice in a single scene. Nobody in real life ever pivots: only bad actresses pivot (in auditions, they also kneel, but only if their knees crack on the descent — I don’t know why). Joan Crawford is not content to be merely a bad actress: she pivots twice. Is she acting or figure skating? It’s hard to figure . . . did she know how bad she was? Did she think what she was doing was good? Or merely marketable? Or was she intentionally camp? My instinct tells me the choices she made were a combination of ambition, selfishness, superstition, stupidity, hard work and bad taste. But whatever it was, it led to some hilarious performances.

“You’re like some fancy kind of disease!” Well, he didn’t say he hated her. That’s John Ireland, poor bastard.

Sunday Drivers

I don’t think these next two clips count as camp — they’re just damned silly, and they both come from crummy mid-high-minded trashy pictures about, of all things, the picture business. Both of them involve public menaces behind the wheel of a car; both make unintentionally hilarious use of process shots; both are from glamorous pictures directed by Vincent Minnelli. The first is from “The Bad and the Beautiful” (Metro, 1952). Lana Turner is behind the wheel. She’s just been jilted by Kirk Douglas. Get this crazy broad off the road.

The second is from “Two Weeks in Another Town,” which was made ten years later, same director (Minnelli), same producer (John Houseman), same writer (Charles Schnee), same star (Douglas). This one’s about how Kirk takes over an Edward G. Robinson picture in Rome after Eddie has a heart attack. The trouble is Kirk is fresh out of the nut house, so the stress of the shoot gets him all bollocky, then his ex-wife, Cyd Charisse, shows up and pushes him over the edge. So he gets into his sporty little number and goes for a therapeutic little spin around the hills of Rome.

These last three clips are from the mid-sixties. They all have a specific atmosphere that appeals to me. It’s an atmosphere that comes from out-of-touch big studios trying to be hip, trying to appeal to the younger generation and failing completely. For instance, whenever a big studio like Metro wrote hippies into a story, they got it all wrong — in the same way that Noël Coward and Cole Porter, late in their careers, got it wrong when they tried to write parodies of the rock ‘n’ roll tunes that had, virtually overnight, turned them into dinosaurs: they didn’t know the idiom well enough to parody it, and they had too much scorn for it to make the parody agreeable. The studios were the same when it came to the presentation of youth culture in general and hippies in particular. They thought they were appealing to the Pepsi Generation by featuring young characters in their pictures, but then the fogey writers and directors made sure that their teenage and twenty-something characters were invariably selfish, foolish, posturing hypocrites.  And the writers never, ever got the current slang right — they simply were not hep to the jive, daddy-o.

Under the Yum Yum Tree

I don’t think this next clip qualifies as camp, either. It’s technically accomplished schlock. It doesn’t even fall under the cliché “They don’t make ’em like that anymore” because they didn’t make ’em like this back then, either. It’s the peculiarity of it that I find so entertaining . . . I like Jimmy Van Heusen’s tune and Sammy Cahn’s dopey lyric and the choreography that looks like an ad for FDS. I like James Darren’s faux-Sinatra voice. The rest of “Under the Yum Yum Tree” (Columbia, 1963) is unspeakable garbage. But, oh, I do like the song. Five years ago, I attempted to show this number to my impressionable three year-old goddaughter when she and her mum were in town for a visit. Mum put a stop to it at once. She didn’t want her little girl polluted with such rubbish. Anyhow, my goddaughter will be eight on August 3 of this year, so I thought I’d drop the offending number into this post, that it may always be available to her, now that she has achieved the age of reason.

Frederick Brisson, the producer of “Under the Yum Yum Tree,” was married to Rosalind Russell from 1941 until his death in 1984. An unprepossessing man, he was widely known as “the Lizard of Roz.” How awful for him.

Made in Paris

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

And speakin’ of awful, howzabout this cherce nugget? It’s “Made in Paris” (Metro, 1966). Have you ever seen this picture? This is the sort of pop-schlock Metro put out in the mid-sixties — and it’s the sort of pop-schlock that almost put Metro out of business for keeps. In the sixties, Metro turned out a lot of this sort of squaresville peek-a-boo crap, then couldn’t understand why people stayed home. Until a few weeks ago, I never even heard of this one — though I seem to remember its photograph was on the side of a milk carton back in the late seventies. My sister-in-law Deirdre is a big Ann-Margret fan, so she almost certainly knows this picture . . . but does anyone else? Anyhow, the picture is awful — so idiotic, it makes the Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedies look like Preston Sturges by comparison. But this opening sequence has a lot of pizzazz. The streets, as you will see, are strictly Metro backlot — the very streets that Gene Kelly roller-skated on.

I like the fashions by Helen Rose. I like the score, too. I like the Crêpes Suzette. I do not like Chad Everett, but I do like what happens to him. Count Basie, man! Dig that. I love how he’s Metro’s idea of being hip. I’m always glad to see and hear Count Basie, but in 1966, when this picture was released, he was hardly catnip to the younger generation, which the studio clearly hoped he’d be. And take a look at the opening credits, which are a perfect example of mid-sixties Metro. The tune is by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, who were definitely hot in 1966, but the hipster who sings it? Trini “Lemon Tree, Very Pretty” López! Notice, too, that the picture features a song by that master composer of pop tunes, Mr Red (“Good night and God bleth”) Skelton. Georgie Stoll, who scored this swingin’ picture, had been at MGM since 1937 . . . ! (Classicists may be amused or dismayed to see in the credits that the production company responsible for this prurient shit had the effrontery to name itself after the Muse of Music, Euterpe, who in ancient times was often called “the giver of delight.”)

Here’s an interesting fact: the last contract player at Metro was none other than Chad Everett. The studio that once boasted “More stars than there are in heaven,” ended up with a single actor under contract, and he was Chad Everett. Cue the last stanza of “The Hollow Men” . . .


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.