Tag Archives: Dick Cavett

20th Century Ozymandias

The Master

Noël Coward:  His friends referred to him as ‘The Master.’

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said — “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

— Percy Bysshe Shelley

A number of years ago, when Turner Classic Movies featured Claude Rains as their Star of the Month, the five-minute promotional video they put together was narrated by the late, great Sir John Gielgud.  (When Rains was Star of the Month for a second time, Gielgud’s appreciation was replaced by one spoken by Richard Chamberlain.  It was, I hope I need hardly add, not quite the same thing.)  In his narration, Sir John said that Rains had been one of his teachers at school, and that when he was a young actor, he often imitated Rains — “until I decided to imitate Noël Coward instead.”

Noël Coward, the ultimate man about town.

Noël Coward, the ultimate man about town.

Who today even remembers Noël Coward?  The WNET program “Theater Talk” has devoted several shows to the man; the panelists and hosts gush on about his staying power, his “immortality.”  I’m afraid they’re quite wrong.  His name is still well known among theatre folk, but few civilians under the age of fifty ever heard of him.

Reporter:  Mr Coward, have you anything to say to “The Sun”?

Coward:  Shine.

The other night, I watched a three-part documentary called “The Coward Trilogy.” Each part runs roughly fifty minutes.  In this generally excellent documentary, John Lahr and Sheridan Morley have interesting things to say about Coward’s life and career, but the most interesting commentary is by Coward himself and by his friends. 

Coward as Ozymandias (with his head still on).  From a series of pictures taken for Life Magazine when Coward appeared at  the Desert Inn in Las Vegas.  The live recording of his act was a best-seller.

Coward as Ozymandias (with his head still on). From a series of pictures taken for Life Magazine when Coward appeared at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas. The live recording of his act was a best-seller.

Reporter:  Mr Coward, have you anything to say to “The Star”?

Coward:  Twinkle.

His wit is undeniable, his talent immense, but I find that there’s something ineffably sad about Noël Coward . . . He had friends all over the globe — the most interesting, intelligent, talented friends imaginable — and they all genuinely loved him — they even remembered to tell him so.  Until the late 40s, his life was a series of successes.  He wanted to be famous and was, for a time, one of the most famous men in the entire world.  He was one of the rare mortals who actually got pleasure from his talents and success.  When his star began to fade in the 50s, he still managed to make a tremendous amount of money from his personal appearances at the Café de Paris and in Las Vegas.  

Coward:  Las Vegas:  it was not Café Society; it was Nescafé Society.

He also was more happily in love than most great men ever manage to be (though his love affairs weren’t all smooth sailing).  He was an incorrigible social climber, but he actually succeeded at it.  The Queen Mother herself came for a visit to Firefly, his beautiful home in Jamaica.  Louis Mountbatten counted Coward as one of his best friends.  And of course, Coward was knighted, an honor that came late, but came nevertheless.  So why should he make me feel twinges of unhappiness?

I suppose it has almost entirely to do with the matter of longevity.  The most famous man in the world has been utterly forgotten within forty years of his death.  He left hundreds of songs, scores of plays and short stories, dozens of movies . . . and none of them leave a deep enough impression to make his name mean anything to the modern world.  He died only a few years before John Wayne, but everybody still remembers John Wayne.  Everyone still remembers Ian Fleming (who was Coward’s neighbor and best friend in Jamaica), even though Fleming wasn’t a quarter as prolific as Coward.  Few people in the modern world have read a word of Fleming’s books, but the character he created keeps his memory alive.  Coward, on the other hand, created dozens of memorable characters — or to put it more Cowardly, characters who would be memorable if anyone remembered them.


How many copies of this were sold?

‘Who Will Buy?’ How many copies of this were sold?

Then there’s Coward’s attitude toward life that saddens me.  On the surface, his scintillating wit suggests that he always rose above his failures with good grace, but when you look more closely, there’s considerable thrashing about:  Portrait of a Man Drowning.  Many of his later songs are little better than ill-humor set to out-of-date music.  In “Sail Away,” for instance (which was his last musical success), there’s a song called “Beatnik Love Affair.”  Beatniks were still around in 1961 when “Sail Away” was written, but they had been the subject of ham-fisted parody for so long that Coward’s inclusion of this song seems desperate and even pathetic.  Moreover, he doesn’t come close to getting the idiom right, which is the first requirement of successful parody — it’s simply a Coward song flyspecked with wrong notes to give it “edge.”

'Sail Away' Boston tryout.

‘Sail Away’ Boston tryout.

It’s always unwise for middle-aged and elderly writers to attempt to write scornful parodies of the youthful culture that has supplanted their success.  Late in his career, Cole Porter tried and failed at the same game:  his parodies of rock ‘n’ roll (in “Silk Stockings” and “Les Girls”) are appalling and leave a bad taste in one’s mouth.  Coward’s early career was all about about youth and new directions in the theatre — “The Vortex” was considered so deeply shocking that it nearly didn’t get past the Lord Chamberlain.  But by the fifties, Coward had become the sort of peevish old coot he had risen to success by mocking.  Scorn for the young is never a smart career choice — even if the scorn is deserved.

Add to this that Coward was a tax exile.  To the end of his life, he said that England was his favorite place in the world, but the Labour Government made it impossible for him to live in the country he loved.  Mind you, living in Jamaica and Switzerland and keeping an apartment in Manhattan is no terrible thing, but I shouldn’t want to be an exile.  During the war years, Coward was impressed time and again by the valor, tenacity and humor of his own people (“They’re the only people in the world I absolutely trust,” he said in an interview), but after the war everything changed.  Coward wrote quite poignantly about his hostility toward the direction his beloved country had taken.  He felt England had abandoned all the things that had made it great and was heading toward ruin.  Was he wrong?

Add to this that within the first few years of his meteoric success, the strain of being witty became so great that he suffered at least one nervous breakdown (and perhaps two).  Add to this that for much of his last ten years, he was ill:  he began to forget his lines on stage, which terrified and depressed him; his legs were in constant pain.  All those years of cocktails and cigarettes took their toll.  All the fun he had and pleasure he gave to audiences is therefore bookended by mental and physical collapse.

Gertrude Lawrence and Coward in their prime.  She was his favorite co-star.

Gertrude Lawrence and Coward in their prime. She was his favorite co-star. On the opening night of ‘The King and I,” he sent her a telegram that read: ‘A WARM HAND ON YOUR OPENING.’

And then there’s the talent itself that I find curiously heartbreaking, even as it delights me.  The very thing that once made Coward a household word — his brittle flippancy — is also the thing that makes him less than first rate.  I find him an enormously appealing and attractive person.  I admire his toughness and his work ethic:  he was one of the hardest working men in show business.  When he went to the grand opening of the Cathay Hotel in Shanghai, he contracted pneumonia, which kept him flat on his back in bed for three days.  He spent the time writing what turned out to be his best play, “Private Lives.”  He wrote a lot of songs that I love.  The last play I ever appeared in was a one-act from his “Tonight at 8:30” trilogy.  I’ve read his diaries more than once, and am slowly working my way through his letters, which are full of wit and the most marvellous good sense.  The letter he wrote to Marlene Dietrich urging her to get over her foolish, self-destructive affair with the abominable swine, Yul Brynner (whom Coward calls “Curly”), is a masterpiece of sanity and loving advice.

Dick Cavett: You’re, you . . . what is the word when one has such terrific, prolific qualities?

Coward: Talent.

I love Coward, but I’m constantly aware of his weaknesses.  It’s not only his flippancy that ultimately tells against him; it’s his shallowness that condemns him to irrelevance.  That’s really what’s wrong with even his best work:  it’s shallow.  In “A Song at Twilight,” one of the last plays he wrote for himself, he comes as close to revealing himself as he ever managed; Coward’s overt intention is to be daringly “honest,” but the play is contrived and melodramatic.  And old fashioned.  And shallow.  I own a very good production of it on DVD, starring Paul Scofield and Deborah Kerr.  Scofield is superb, but Kerr is strangely terrible:  she’s my favorite female movie star and a brilliant actress, but in this play, she overplays her hand on nearly every line.  Paradoxically, her error is actually what the play deserves:  had she been less arch, the play would surely seem better than it actually is.  Her mistake does her no credit, but it trains a million watt arc lamp on the play’s moonlit shallowness. (Conversely, Kerr’s beautiful, emotionally nuanced performance in the shameful “Tea and Sympathy” fooled millions of people into believing it was a work of wisdom and sensitivity.)

And finally, I come back to Coward’s unhappy, but inevitable, desuetude.  If the world hadn’t changed so much after WWII, Coward would still make sense and he would still be well-known.  But the world did change and his plays no longer make any real sense, alas.  I could wish that the world hadn’t changed, but what would be the point?  So poor Noël Coward and his world must be enjoyed merely as a relic of a long-ago time.  I suppose it all comes down to this:  my affection for his work makes me feel so wretchedly old.

Notable Claude Rains Pictures

The Adventures of Robin Hood

Rains as Prince John:  "Whoever would have thought my dear brother would be so considerate as to get him self captured & leave all England to my . . . tender . . . care?"

Claude Rains as Prince John: “Whoever would have thought my dear brother would be so considerate as to get himself captured and leave all England to my . . . tender . . . care?”

In “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” Claude Rains is not as subtle as he would soon become, but he’s awfully funny and adds mad frivolity to the stock villain he plays. Rains plays Prince John as a nattering swish. It would be interesting to know if he came up with the idea on his own, or if the strawberry blond whiskers and Prince Valiant wig made the choice for him. (Look at the picture below: Melville Cooper, Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains: as many silly looking wigs as on the 2013 Oscars.)

Claude Rains as Prince John: "By my faith, but you're a bold rascal . . . "

Love at first sight. Rains to Errol Flynn: “By my faith, but you’re a bold rascal . . . “

Rains camps it up to a fare-thee-well: he speaks his lines in the highest reaches of his tessitura, titters in a tinkling falsetto, and waves his scepter about with a limp wrist. If he weren’t so funny and incorrigible, the stereotypes he employs would be an insult to every pansy in America. And of course, he’s lecherous as a monkey, too. With his eyebrows aloft and his lids at half-mast, Rains rakes Errol Flynn up and down with his glittering eyes — boldly, outrageously — and leaves no doubt what this goatish little tyrant wants to do with his lissome nemesis. Every time I see Prince John mentally undress Robin, I half expect the score to go boiiinnnng! Rebuffed, he affects delight at “this saucy fellow”: “Ho, varlets, bring Sir Robin food! Such insolence must support a healthy appetite!”

[More to come]


Rains as Hollenius: "They call me a great man . . . that's the loneliest animal in the world . . . !"

Rains as Hollenius: “They call me a great man . . . that’s the loneliest animal in the world . . . !”

Bette Davis had little use for “Deception” (Warner Bros. 1946). She did allow, however, that Claude Rains was great in it. The picture is so stylish and witty that, until a friend straightened me out recently, I never understood why it’s not more celebrated than it is. I never even heard of it until the late 90s, and I had been watching old movies since the mid-sixties. The trouble, my friend assured me, was that there’s no character with whom we can wholly sympathize. He’s probably right about this. I failed to recognize the problem because I cannot see the picture as a whole, but rather as a series of acting lessons by the great Claude Rains, who gives one of his most accomplished performances. He dominates every scene he’s in and, for once, he’s speaking first-rate dialogue, rather than elevating lesser fare. In pictures like “Casablanca,” Rains made mediocre stuff sound first-rate, but in “Deception,” the dialogue he speaks (by John Collier) is worthy of his great talent.

Taken as a story, with beginning, middle and satisfying conclusion, “Deception” is not, technically speaking, a good picture: the machinery of the plot is creaky; the characters are cartoonish; aside from Rains, the acting ranges from not very good to quite terrible: the problems with it are many. But none of them matter to me: the vast operatic silliness of everything, including the two fabulous apartments — Christine’s (Bette Davis), in all its angles and shadows and rain falling on the slanted skylights (there’s a legend that it is based on one of Leonard Bernstein’s apartments); and Alexander Hollenius’ (Rains), with his throne and all the Gothic clutter — and all the over-ripe rococo dialogue and the mad conductor/composer temperament and classical music . . . It all conspires to act on me like an hallucinatory drug. I don’t even pay attention to the plot or take a word of it for true . . . it’s all style, technique, panache, wit and connoisseurship. It’s as if all the silliness were tailor-made ten years before I was born specifically to appeal my peculiar set of tastes and interests. It appeals to me in so many curious, obscure ways . . . even the cat and the parrot (who doesn’t turn a feather when a shot is fired) seem calculated to please me. My favorite cat looked exactly like Hollenius’ feline . . . and I spent several of the happiest months of my life living down on East 9th Street back in the eighties, with a great (now late) friend from college, who had a parrot that looked exactly like Hollenius’ bird. And then the Korngold Cello Concerto . . . I love it — it’s gorgeous; the slow movement wrings tears from my eyes. And what other picture ever featured a full radio commercial, complete with close-harmony jingle for a fictional product called “Draw-r-Off,” a kitchen pipe cleaner? “. . . Nothing WIPES/Or cleans your PIPES/Like double-action Draw-r-Off!” “Remember, folks, when you spell ‘Draw-roff’ backwards, it spells ‘forward’.” Hunh? How am I NOT gonna love that? But who else in the world cares about such nonsense? It’s really as if John Collier knew ten years before I was born what would make me — and perhaps no one else on earth — laugh.

Hollenius orders dinner: "Mmm-hmm, I think so, don't you?"

Hollenius orders dinner: “Mmm-hmm, I think so, don’t you?”

“You might think about getting three of these little fellows ready. And you know what I think would go well with them? A trout. A nice brook trout. Not too large . . . ! . . . from a good stream.” My God! I’ve seen that picture maybe 200 times, and I hardly know how it ends. I watch Claude go at it hot and heavy, then skip over the scenes between Henreid and Davis, then I listen to the Cello Cone-see-ayr-toe (as Henreid pronounces it), and don’t bother with the rest of it. It’s like a form of Trekkie-style geekdom, my affection for that picture. I just never realized it before now. Rains’ entrance is unforgettable: “A party indeed!” My God!

“Champagne, caviar . . . all very fitting . . . I infer a husband . . . Make me acquainted with him. My dear sir: I wish you all the joy we less fortunate men must be content to imagine.” “You know, I require only one thing of a meal: that it be excellent.” The list is not endless, but every time Alexander Hollenius opens his mouth, another quotable line is added to it.

Rains: "Extraordinary, isn’t it, that music can exist in the same world as the basest treachery and ingratitude?"

Rains: Extraordinary, isn’t it, that music can exist in the same world as the basest treachery and ingratitude?

Now that my friend has explained what prevented him from enjoying the picture as much as I do, it occurs to me that the people I know who love “Deception” — most of them musicians — understand that it’s not intended to be an accurate portrayal of the world of classical music: we accept it as something akin to an inside joke, a curiosity, a collection of hilarious bits . . . just as “Citizen Kane” is a collection of preposterous bits. It has all the ostentation of “Citizen Kane,” but none of its pretension. No, “Deception” is not really a very good picture, taken as a picture. Taken as a repository of hilarious lines and hamming at the very highest level, well, it’s in a class of its own . . . And that’s all I care about when the subject matter, temperament, atmosphere and sense of humor are so weirdly and perfectly tailored to my tastes.

And there’s another thing, too. My affection for the picture was strongly influenced by how I first saw it. I came in late that first time, and had no idea what I was watching. This was in the early days of TCM — in the mid- to late-nineties. I came home from work on a Friday evening, turned on TCM and it was smack in the middle of Claude’s maddening ordering of dinner at the very point where he pulls out a cigarette and suddenly there’s a forest fire of matches, all waiting to light him up. It was love at first sight . . . and I had absolutely no idea what I was seeing. Though I was already a big fan of his, I had never heard of this picture. It was all so demented and hilarious and stylized I was fascinated by it. And I had a wild suspicion that the script was the work of mad, wonderful John Collier. More than a year passed before TCM showed it again, and it did not disappoint. It had been at least ten years since I’d read anything by John Collier (“His Monkey Wife,” “Defy the Foul Fiend,” “Fancies and Goodnights”) — and I had no idea he’d ever written a screenplay — but to my ear, his ornate style is as unmistakable as, say, Odets’ ornate ghetto lingo is. John Collier is definitely not for all markets, but he suits me right down to the ground. His brand of humor slays me. There’s not another Hollywood picture I can think of — including the few others by Collier himself — that sound anything like “Deception.” It’s the weirdest form of wit I ever saw in a major motion picture . . . or for that matter in any picture. Hollenius wears his leather gloves at dinner and takes them off ONLY to handle the poultry carcasses that are brought for his inspection, then pulls them back on again . . . ! That kills me. “From now on, you’re MY cellist!” says an infatuated college reporter from “The Bugler” in an early scene . . . Who else would write such a line? Or take Hollenius’ first exit line: “Like all women: white as a sheet at the sight of a couple of scratches. . . But calm and smiling like a hospital nurse . . . in the presence of a mortal wound . . . Good night!” Who else could write such a line?

Collier wrote a lot of very strange fiction, full of weird, unsettling paranormal incidents, usually set in dark, decaying, overheated mansions where gigantic exotic plants swallow up visitors and where unhappily married couples (the only kind that exist in his fiction) go to fantastic lengths to bump each other off. His style was extravagant and ornate, full of lurid metaphors and rococo similes. I doubt he’s an acquired taste: you either love his stuff at once or not at all. “Deception” is one of his few screenplays, and the dialogue he wrote for Alexander Hollenius (Rains) is echt Collier: droll, menacing, contemptuous, politely hostile, freighted with more innuendo than actual substance. Not many actors can handle such ornamental, filigreed language; Bette Davis is not at home in such turbid waters, while Paul Henreid (who completes the love triangle) is utterly hopeless as a genius cellist with war-shattered nerves. Rains disliked Henreid intensely, and had no respect for his talent. He referred to him as “Paul Hemorrhoid.” John Abbott fares rather better — he’s the hilarious, cringing Bertram Gribble, a thin-skinned cellist. Abbott is an actor who pops up in all sorts of unusual places and he always puts on a good show. He plays Chevalier’s valet in “Gigi.” A very witty performance, so perfect that it, like a great movie score, is almost invisible in its perfect appropriateness.

When Bette Davis appeared on the Dick Cavett Show back in 1971, she was particularly complimentary of Rains’ handling of one scene from “Deception,” in which he drives her and Paul Henreid out of their minds while ordering dinner at a French restaurant. You can see what she means.

The Unsuspected

Claude Rains: Your genial host.

Claude Rains: Your genial host.

Claude Rains gives a fabulous performance as a suave and slippery radio personality, whom his announcer introduces as “Your genial host: renowed writer, art collector and teller of strange tales, Victor Grandison.” (That should give you an idea of the ludicrous over-ripeness of the picture — written by Ranald MacDougall (“Mildred Pierce”).) That queen of the noirs, Audrey Totter,* is in it and very funny indeed. As is another actress I like a lot: Constance Bennett. There’s also a peculiar leading man, who gets a credit that reads “Introducing Michael North,” even though it was hardly his first picture — he’d been in several pictures before this one, including “The Ox-Bow Incident,” billed as Ted North. A very handsome fellow with a nice manner, but stiff as a board and he has trouble with the letter R. So does Rains, which makes for some amusing dialogue (Rains masked his R problems quite well, but not always). North is one of those rare actors who can convey thought: you can actually see him think — and you can see that he’s an idiot. I often watch his scenes just to see the thoughts come into his head one at a time, slow and hard. “Introducing” was an ironic title card for North: “The Unsuspected” was his last picture. Nothing after 1947, and I can find nothing about what happened to him, other than he was divorced that same year. Whether he died or simply got out of pictures is a mystery to me. Hurd Hatfield, who plays Totter’s dipso husband, once again looks as if he’s just come from a chemical peel. The imperiled heroine is played by an actress named Joan Caulfield; whether she’s good or bad in the part is beside the point: she makes no impression at all . . . she’s amnesia on a pair of legs. What other pictures she appeared in, I couldn’t say. I can never remember to look up her credits. Michael Curtiz directed the picture with a lot of style, and there’s at least one shot early in this one — a panning shot from a moving train to a hotel window that’s quite remarkable. I don’t mind saying the picture is poppycock, but it’s a lot of fun and is told in a way that keeps you guessing for a long time. The first time I saw it, I didn’t know WHERE it was heading. Unfortunately, when you learn what in fact is going on, it doesn’t add up to much: “The Unsuspected” has more dead herrings than red ones, but Rains’ performance elevates the material to just above sub-par. Franz Waxman did the intrusive, amusingly creepy score.

*About Audrey Totter: It was while watching this picture for the first time that I came up with the following: If Audrey Totter gave birth to a girl who grew up to be a slut, she’d be Audrey Totter’s tawdry daughter.

Audrey Totter, Michael North: "You see, Matilda & I were mawwied."

Audrey Totter, Michael North: “You see, Matilda and I were mawwied.”