Tag Archives: Jimmy Cagney

A Scornful Pleasure: ‘Black Widow’

Original poster for Belgian release. (It's funnier in French and Dutch.)

Original poster for Belgian release. It’s funnier in French and Dutch — leave it to the Belgians to misspell Gene Tierney’s last name. And talk about false advertising: no character in the picture remotely resembles that blonde slut in the red dress.

I like plenty of crummy movies, but none of them are guilty pleasures: I don’t feel the least bit guilty about enjoying what isn’t first rate. If I cherished a secret fondness for something that I knew to be despicable — say, a racist comedy starring Stepin Fetchit — I’d call that a guilty pleasure. But that sort of thing gives me no pleasure at all: it only revolts and depresses me. In Preston Sturges’ otherwise excellent comedy, “The Palm Beach Story,” for example, there’s one scene on a train, in which the members of the Ale and Quail Club, for laughs, shoot up the clubcar and frighten the African-American barman (Fred “Snowflake” Toones) half out of his wits. This ugly episode strikes me as being rather worse than merely objectionable: it’s appalling and disgusting, especially coming from a man of Preston Sturges’ obvious sophistication and worldliness. It doesn’t come close to making me laugh: I only wonder where this totally insupportable, unprovoked hatefulness comes from . . . The rest of the picture is very funny, but just knowing that it contains this one scene makes me dislike it: it is guilty, but no pleasure.

Instead of guilty pleasures, I have what I call scornful pleasures — pictures that I enjoy in spite of, and in most cases, specifically because of, their inadequacies. To be a scornful pleasure, a picture has to have overt failings, but not all bad movies qualify as scornful pleasures, since few bad movies are genuinely pleasurable. If you have any self-respect, scornful pleasures should be mildly embarrassing — there’s no shame in enjoying a certain amount of crap, but I find that it is shameful to take pleasure in feeling superior to something that is plainly idiotic, preposterous, puerile, incompetent or a combination of all four. For me, most camp is too contemptible to qualify as a scornful pleasure. The only camp I tend to like is camp only by accident; with the notable exception of the brilliant Charles Busch, anyone who sets out to be camp is already out of bounds: self-regarding camp is almost guaranteed to exhaust my patience faster than any other form of lowbrow entertainment.

Barbara Parkins, Sharon Tate, Patty Duke in 'Valley of the Dolls': Thank you, I'll none.

Barbara Parkins, Sharon Tate, Patty Duke in ‘Valley of the Dolls’: Thank you, I’ll none.

About fifteen years ago, I attended a screening of “Valley of the Dolls” out at the Fire Island Pines Community Center. I had never seen it before, and it turned out to be one of the most insanely enjoyable pictures I ever saw. But there were two factors that made this so. First, I saw it in a room full of well-heeled, well-oiled gay men, most of whom knew every line of it and their running commentary made the picture riotously funny; and second, the distributor sent a 70mm print, which had to be shown on a 35mm projector, which made all the characters and objects expand and contract Slinky-like as they crossed the screen — a stretch limo, for example, when it crossed from left to right, began compressed into a clown-car, then expanded to twice too long in the center of the screen, and compressed again when it arrived on the right side of the screen. Similarly, the actors were beanpoles on the edges of the frame and fatsos in the center. Somehow, this demented visual joke never stopped being hilarious. I don’t know if I ever laughed so hard at anything else in my entire life. But when I bought the DVD a few years later, and watched it in the cool, dark fastness of my living room, I found the picture simply too swinish and incompetent to be enjoyable: taken in small doses, the camp elements are funny; taken as a whole, it’s beneath contempt. Susan Hayward’s turn as Helen Lawson is reasonably amusing; in a much better picture, or even out of context, she would be a scornful pleasure. But in that wretched piece of shit, she’s not funny enough to be madly enjoyable the way a scornful pleasure ought to be — she’s merely less exasperating than everything else.

“Valley of the Dolls” is camp, all right, but it fails to be a scornful pleasure because it aims too low and misses by a mile. As a rule, scornful pleasures aim a little bit higher and miss by a little bit less. And they have to miss the mark in a few, circumscribed ways (illogic and over-exuberance are two common failings that yield dependably amusing results), or they fail to be pleasurable. The movie version of “Peyton Place,” directed by Mark Robson (who also directed “Valley of the Dolls”), is a far likelier candidate for a scornful pleasure: it aims higher, it tackles serious issues timidly and idiotically and is full of the kind of earnest bad acting that I usually get a kick out of. The only trouble is that while “Peyton Place” is plenty lousy, it’s not bad enough to be funny; some of it is almost too good to be bad and all of it is too anemic to be entertaining. Now if Joan Crawford had played the Lana Turner role, it would probably be both camp and a scornful pleasure. Of course, there are no hard and fast rules about any of this, but generally speaking, I suppose it comes down to this: scornful pleasures are practically always infra dignitatum, but never sub contemptum.

“Black Widow” (20th Century-Fox, 1954) most definitely falls into the category of a scornful pleasure, with one major element of camp. It is preposterous in nearly every way I can think of, and almost all of them are scornful pleasures. Old reliables Reginald Gardiner and Otto Kruger are fairly droll, and there’s one tremendous performance by a terrific young actress named Hilda Simms in a small part; other than these three, it is bereft of good performances, but several actors are bad in ways that I enjoy (George Raft’s wooden performance, for example, is made of a timber I particularly like). Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay is very bad indeed and his direction is worse (I can’t think of another picture that has so many backs in the foreground); the soundstage depictions of Central Park West and South are ludicrous. Unsurprisingly, the one irredeemably camp performance (by Ginger Rogers) is what I find least amusing and interesting about “Black Widow.”

Here’s how the picture opens, immediately following the 20th Century-Fox fanfare.  Leigh Harline wrote the ominous music; Van Heflin does the talking.

“Black Widow” is actually a wrong-headed title: the villainess in this story is the only person who turns up dead — and she does so in the second reel. (I think it’s fair to give this much away: the original posters carried the tagline: “Someone Will Kill This Girl Tonight!”) She’s a regular, right down bad’un, this girl, but she’s no black widow. Still, the opening gives a nice sense of the entertaining silliness to come. It’s based on Patrick Quentin’s novel, “Fatal Woman,” which title is only slightly closer to the truth.

Peggy Ann Garner as Nancy Ordway: Put yer pants on, Spartacus . . . !

Peggy Ann Garner shows her gams as Nancy Ordway: Put yer pants on, Spahtacus . . . !

The story is set in the theatre milieu, but it’s not so much a backstage drama as an off stage drama: except for a single scene at a stage door, we never see the inside of a theatre. Certainly we never see Ginger Rogers onstage, though we’re supposed to accept that she is Carlotta (Lottie) Marin, a Great Lady of the Legitimate Stage. Gene Tierney, who plays Van Heflin’s wife, is also a famous Broadway star, but she’s not even in a show when the story takes place. Instead, what we get is Ginger Rogers swanning about as Lottie the Diva, but she’s no Margo Channing — all talent and tempest — no, she’s merely a bully and a bitch. She camps it up, and has a high old time all by herself. Reportedly, she had a lot of fun making this picture. She was a lot better when she was having no fun with Fred Astaire and dancing till her feet bled. In this picture, she doesn’t act well; she doesn’t even move well, let alone give a credible impersonation of a great actress. Here’s how we first meet her: Van Heflin plays Peter Denver, the producer of Lottie’s current hit show, who attends a lavish party she’s throwing on her night off from the theatre. Peter lives in the apartment directly under hers, so he’s obliged to attend her “shambles” (as he calls it) against his will. (I love the cheesy way Heflin finds, in his opening voice-over, to express contempt for his leading lady’s shindig: “And so I went to Lottie’s . . . party.” It’s such a brainless, actorish way to read the line “interestingly.”) Notice how often the actors end up speaking with their backs to the camera . . .

At this same party, Peter meets an aspiring young writer, Nancy (“Nanny”) Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner), out on the soundstage terrace. The terrace set is one of the first things about “Black Widow” that attracted my interest. It’s totally artificial: the view is supposed to be from a penthouse at Fifth Avenue and 67th Street — I could be wrong, but except for the big red Essex House sign, the cityscape looks pretty inaccurate: even today, with many more tall buildings along Central Park West and Central Park South, the view isn’t as crowded and tall as the view on the Fox soundstage, but even so, I think this set is a thing of beauty — at least in the nighttime scenes. In the daytime scenes, it’s far less glamorous and impressive; in fact, in some shots, it looks suspiciously like a painting. (But of course that’s another scornful pleasure: besides, artificiality is a hallmark of this picture’s whole style.)

Poor Peggy Ann Garner! She won a special juvenile Oscar for her performance as Francie Nolan in Elia Kazan’s directorial debut, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (20th Century-Fox, 1945). Kazan called her performance “a miracle.” That’s a bit thick, but she’s good in that picture, even if she doesn’t sound remotely like a Brooklynite. Garner managed to keep working as an actress till her death in 1984 (she was only 52), but she never came close to matching her childhood success. After this first scene, she worms her way into Peter Denver’s life and cadges a few dinners from him. This next clip contains a very specific type of scornful pleasure for me: it always slays me to hear Van Heflin speak a foreign language with his Oklahoma accent. In this one, he recites from “Salome”: “. . . das Geheimnis der Liebe ist größer als das Geheimnis des Todes“; in “East Side, West Side,” he has a back-and-forth with Barbara Stanwyck in appalling Italian. I don’t know why, but it always “pleasures me” to hear Heflin speak in a foreign tongue.

I find this chick’s personality toxic. Besides, I’m so familiar with her as the adolescent Francie Nolan that I find it very off-putting to see her giving us cheesecake. When I see her legs, I’m reminded of what Jimmy Cagney said to Horst Buchholz in Billy Wilder’s “One, Two, Three”: “Put yer pants on, Spahtacus!”

Before the second reel is over, Miss Ordway is no more. For the rest of the picture, we’ll see her only in flashbacks. Here’s why:

Good riddance to bad rubbish. I love the way the elegant Gene Tierney recoils and rubs the grease off her fingers after she reads the label inside Miss Ordway’s coat. Her tragic pantomime in the bedroom doorway counts as a scornful pleasure: it’s an excellent example of what acting teachers call “indicating”: the representation of an emotion in an artificial manner that only happens onstage, but never in real life. The elevator man’s smiling for the newspaper cameras as they wheel the stiff into his car is a scornful pleasure. The awkward staging, with Lieutenant Bruce’s (George Raft) back to us when he speaks his very first line, is a scornful pleasure. Many directors in the fifties complained about the difficulty of staging scenes for CinemaScope, but most of them came up with novel solutions. Not Nunnally Johnson: it appears he never saw a back he didn’t want to photograph. The staging is awkward throughout, and as the picture progresses, the awkwardness and silliness begin to achieve a weird momentum. If you do decide to give the movie a try and don’t enjoy the first fifteen or twenty minutes, you might consider staying with it for a while longer: I think it takes a while for the fun to kick in. Mind you, it doesn’t get better as it goes along — that’s not what scornful pleasures do — it gets more diverting, which isn’t the same thing.

Raft as Detective Lt. Bruce is a both a genuine pleasure and a scornful one. By his own admission, he was no actor. But he’s such an imposing personality and figure that I love the guy. Twenty-two years prior to “Black Widow,” Raft appeared in “Scarface” with super-ham Paul Muni. After seeing the emotional wringer Muni put himself through, Raft said flatly, “If I hadda go through that to be an actuh, I’d quit.” Well, he gets my vote. Another Raft quote that makes me admire him goes like this: “I spent half my money on dames, dice and the ponies. The other half I wasted.” He’s no actor, but I certainly like the cut of his jib.

Many critics have compared “Nanny” Ordway to Eve Harrington in “All About Eve,” but I find the comparison inapposite. To be sure, both characters are not what they seem, and both are climbers, but Eve seems like a nice enough girl at first: when we learn what she’s up to, we’re supposed to feel conned by her goody-two-shoes act. Nancy Ordway, on the other hand, is a very strange bird from the outset: if I were in Van Heflin’s place, the very first doodle she sent to me would be sufficient to make me refuse to take her phone calls. And as evidenced in the clips above, her conversation is stultifying. It’s bad enough that she’s obviously deranged, but she’s also a bore, which is intolerable.

Here’s Hilda Simms’ only scene. What is particularly impressive is that her dialogue is entirely composed of exposition, yet she displays more personality in her one scene than the rest of the cast manage in much larger parts. Alas, she was blacklisted during the Communist witch hunt and never made another picture.

“I certainly don’t want to speak disrespectfully of the dead, but that Nanny was strictly a purpose girl.” That’s my favorite line in the picture. In the final reel, George Raft, who obviously didn’t hear Anne the hat-check girl use the expression, sums up Miss Ordway as “a purpose girl who lost her purpose.” “Purpose girl” is a term that I’ve never heard before; a Google search came up with a single hit: a French/English dictionary entry for the word “disrespectfully” quotes the line from “Black Widow”! When Anne uses the expression, I take it as an example of good writing; when Lt. Bruce uses it, I take it as evidence of bad writing: yet another a scornful pleasure.

Busby Berkeley Dance Numbers

Original Poster

Original Poster

Gold Diggers of 1933” is a picture that I like a lot — especially Guy Kibbee as the dyspeptic, jumpy banker, a Boston blue-blood stiff-neck, who is putty in the hands of any pretty girl who sits in his lap and calls him “Fuffy.”  Joan Blondell is the sort of pretty girl who would call him “Fuffy” and cheerfully rob him blind, but in this one, she sets her cap for the hatchet faced Warren William. It therefore falls to wisenheimer Aline MacMahon to take Fuffy to the cleaners, which she does hilariously and completely. Blondell had a long career; I’ve seen her in a lot of bum pictures, but I’ve never seen her give a bad performance. It’s possible that this is her very best of the 158 pictures she made. In “Remember My Forgotten Man,” she so easily could have been sentimental, but she stays tough and underplays it. A terribly unappreciated actress, she’s excellent in “Nightmare Alley.” Aline MacMahon is an actress who is always worth paying attention to; her type of smart, single gal who knows the angles, but keeps missing the boat, stopped showing up in pictures sometime in the 1950s. MacMahon’s stock character went away, but her style hasn’t dated at all. In a small part, Ginger Rogers is funny, coarse, and she sings “We’re In the Money” in Pig Latin.

Guy Kibbee, Joan Blondell:  'Every time you say "cheap & vulgar," I'm gonna kiss you!' 'Cheap & vulgar! Cheap & vulgar!  Cheap & vulgar!'

Guy Kibbee, Joan Blondell: ‘Every time you say “cheap and vulgar,” I’m gonna kiss you!’
‘Cheap and vulgar! Cheap and vulgar! Cheap and vulgar!’

When I was younger, I didn’t care for the Warner Bros. Vitaphone backstage musicals. I always admired the way the men were dressed — I love the double-breasted suits with the wide lapels and the fedoras, but the slick hair, the pencil moustaches, the blackened lips, the mascara around their eyes — all of these things gave me the creeps. And everything about Dick Powell — his appearance, the rat-a-tat tremolo of his voice, the stridency of personality — repelled. (I still can’t stand him, though I can’t deny he’s talented.) So I always avoided the Vitaphone musicals. Then, back in the early spring of 2001, when I had just finished unpacking from a trip to Paris, I turned on the television and saw about two thirds of “Footlight Parade” on TCM. For some mysterious reason, my former objections no longer had any weight — how could I have ever disliked this sort of picturre? There was so much about the genre to please me: tap dancing, berserk production numbers, loud-mouth floozies, bubble-headed chorines, harried directors and stage managers, gangsters talking out the side of their mouths — I suddenly realized it was the sort of entertainment that I’d been looking for all my lie! How had I lived for more than 40 years without ever having seen “Footlight Parade”? I thought it was absolutely hilarious from the moment I turned it on. I especially liked the hard-berled patter and the Depression Era slang. The first lines I heard spoken turned out to be my favorites: the put-upon dance director (Frank McHugh) screams at the chorus girls. “No, no, no! Girls! This is supposed to be a Prosperity number!” And a gum chewing chorine with peroxide hair and a Betty Boop voice replies indignantly, “How can we look Prosperity when he’s got Depression all over that pan o’ his?

'Footlight Parade':  'This is a prosperity number!'

‘Footlight Parade’: ‘This is a prosperity number!’

At first glance, the “Forgotten Man” sequence at the end of “Gold Diggers of 1933” seems strangely out of place, even in a picture that has its fair share of surreal Busby Berkeley numbers: how odd to conclude a featherweight farce with a bucket of ice cold water in the face!  But the entire picture has been leading up to “Remember My Forgotten Man” from the very first scene — we’re watching the final rehearsal of the comically sarcastic “We’re in the Money”; marshals show up with a court order to shut the production down for non-payment of bills. It’s a perfectly delightful, merry comedy, but the Great Depression and social injustice run through every scene. “Gold Diggers of 1933” is the one of the few Busby Berkeley extravaganzas in which the non-musical parts are as entertaining as the musical numbers.

The picture was released in May of 1933, which means it must have been filmed sometime in the fall or winter of 1932, or at the latest, at the very beginning of 1933.  In June of 1932, the Bonus Army — 43,000 starving World War I veterans marched on Washington to demand cash payments for their service certificates; on July 28, President Hoover called in the Army, under the command of General MacArthur and General Patton, who routed them.  The newsreel cameras were on the scenes; the footage of Federal troops firing on starving veterans was seen by movie audiences all over the country. The political climate of the Forgotten Man number.  And Busby Berkeley, who was himself a veteran of World War I: a drill sergeant. No number could be more perfectly suited to his talent, background and temperament. Next time you watch one of his big numbers, notice how little real dancing goes on.  There’s a lot more marching and close order drill than dancing in his choreography. It’s reasonable to suppose that the previous summer’s routing of the Bonus Marchers must have made a deep impression on a man whose entire career was based on what he did in the army.  And one more thing:  when the movie was released, a smaller version of the Bonus Army had reformed and returned to Washington to see if the new President would be more accommodating.  So they were very much in the news.

The Forgotten Man number

The Forgotten Man number

As much as I like “42nd Street” as a picture, I prefer the Broadway musical version.  Everything about the stage show is more appealing.  The plot is the same, but it’s sprightlier and funnier and has about a dozen musical numbers instead of three or four.  The additional numbers are taken from the other Vitaphone backstage musicals written by Harry Warren and Al Dubin.

Ginger Rogers:  Her money-maker looks like a microphone.

Ginger Rogers: Her money-maker looks like a microphone.

As for Ruby Keeler, her stardom seems to be a freak of the times she lived in — it’s hard to believe anybody ever mistook her gracelessness for talent or considered her strikingly beautiful.  I think any popularity she enjoyed must have been based on her obvious lack of talent and grace — she’s a natural underdog who succeeds by sheer pluck.  She’s so utterly undistinguished (Pauline Kael referred to her as “the awesomely untalented Ruby Keeler”) that I expect every starstruck female who saw her pictures must have told herself:  “Say, even I could do better than that!”  Her success may have been due to the way her deficiencies allowed audiences feel superior to her.

Keeler was married to Al Jolson for ten years.  Before she met him, she had been the girlfriend of Johnny Irish, a notorious gangster in the Dutch Schultz mob.  Jolson gave Keeler’s mother $1 million as a dowry and was required to ask Irish for his consent.  The gangster agreed, but warned Jolson if he ever abused her, he’d pay for it with his life.  Now there’s a loving father!  Keeler’s heavy-footed dancing has been derided for as long as I’ve been aware of her — I call her Clunkletoes — but as a gentleman, I feel obliged to offer one word in her defense.  Contrary to popular belief, Ruby Keeler was NOT, technically speaking, a tap dancer:  she was a buck dancer.  Buck dancers wore heavy shoes with hard wooden soles and did not use metal taps.  This required them to strike the floor much more heavily and violently than tap dancers.  Buck dancing was a casualty of the growing popularity of tap dancing — one look at Ruby Keeler plying her terpsichorean trade and it is easy to see why.  But one should in fairness admit that the clunkiness of her dancing is not entirely her fault.

Ruby Keeler:  The buck stops here.

Ruby Keeler: The buck stops here.

The surreal effects created by Busby Berkeley are every bit as startling as they ever were — perhaps even more so.  As bewildering and mind-blowing as they must have been in the mid-30’s, today it is hard for anybody to conceive that such massive sets would ever be built for a single number or that so many hundreds of dancers should be brought together to create kaleidoscope effects.  It’s an interesting paradox:  the more audiences are exposed to the amazing images that are now generated by computers, the more the production numbers of Busby Berkeley strike them as inexplicable and beyond belief.  The widespread use of computer generated special effects has a way of making one believe that such effects can’t be created any other way.  So when one is suddenly confronted by these berserk, kaleidoscopic patterns being created by ever-changing figures of hundreds of anonymous dancers, far from being unimpressed, one can’t help being truly amazed.  And it’s not just the overhead patterns that surprise and bewilder — it’s the way Berkeley plays with the dimensions.  At the end of “Dames,” the overhead camera pulls back and back from a group of fifty or sixty girl dancers whose legs and arms create various patterns, when suddenly and without warning, the image is torn apart by the heads of Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler ripping through the paper the image has been printed on.  What the hell?!  How did he do that?

Dames:  Last configuration.

Dames: Last configuration . . .

. . . & here comes Dick Powell.

. . . and here comes Dick Powell.

Or there’s another number in which the camera floats between the legs of a long line of chorus girls and then, with the use of trick photography, the mirror image of their legs appears beneath, so that the spread legs and their mirror image describe a diamond shape constructed of shapely legs . . . which then begins to revolve!  What on earth?!

Dames:  Surrealism & trick photography

Dames: Surrealism and trick photography

No, I can’t agree that computer graphics have rendered Berkeley’s demented routines unexceptional to modern audiences — I think CGI has made modern audiences, in effect, more innocent:  they’ve forgotten that startling, other-worldly effects can be created in a real (rather than a virtual) space by real people — all it takes is hundreds of extras, huge sound stages, thousands of hours of rehearsal and lots of extraordinary skillful camera operators.  Oh yes, and talent and a very wild imagination.

Not long ago, I spent a full afternoon and much of an evening watching a whole slew of Vitaphone musicals.  Here’s the element that struck me most forcefully when I first watched more than two dozen of those incredible dance numbers:  it was the juxtaposition of the collective and the individual.  The girls in these numbers are always dressed identically and almost always move identically, yet when we see them up close, there are never two who are pretty in the same way:  one looks like the girl next door, one looks like a vamp, one looks like Jean Harlow, one looks like a prom queen, one is light, the next is dark, and so on.  Time and again, Berkeley has the camera pan down a long line of chorus girls, each of whom smiles directly at the camera in tight close-up; in every instance, the girls are identically costumed, yet each is pretty in an entirely different way from the others, each one is an individual, not a carbon copy; seeing one utterly original, pretty face after another offers a testament to the great variety of feminine beauty (you won’t see anything like this today, when everyone tries to look exactly like everyone else).  Anyhow, I was struck by how generous it was to give so many unknown girls a big, cheerful close-up and I thought, “Gee, he really wants us to understand that every one of these girls is unique.”  But no sooner has this cavalcade of American Beauties been presented to us, but we get an overhead shot that obliterates every trace of individuality and personality — all of those unique girls, now literally faceless,  become merely the little bits of glass that Berkeley tosses about inside his cinematic kaleidoscope.  The only personality that remains is that of the creator of this bizarre creation.  And then I was struck by how seldom anyone dances in a Busby Berkeley number — the talent lies in his vision, not in the movements his puppets execute. 

Starlet snowflake

Starlet snowflake

Starlet mandala

Starlet mandala

Starlet poppies

Starlet poppies

Berkeley staged huge dance numbers in which almost nobody danced; there is loveliness and surprise everywhere in his big sequences and there are dozens, even hundreds of uniquely pretty girls, many of whom are allowed to beguile us by smiling fetchingly into the camera.  But all of these hundreds of lovely, charming girls are never shown to possess any talent whatsoever — the talent resides entirely in the person of their director, who demonstrates his weird genius by turning beautiful young girls into kaleidoscopic images of whirligigs, poppies, sunflowers and slithering legumes.

Gold Diggers of 1933:  The Shadow Waltz

Gold Diggers of 1933: The Shadow Waltz