Tag Archives: Kirk Douglas

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 Vincente 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” . . .

Kubrick/Douglas ‘Spartacus’ on DVD — Criterion Collection

Kirk Douglas as the revolting slave.

Kirk Douglas as the revolting slave.

Unlike its creators, “Spartacus” (Universal, 1960) is aging gracefully.  Lighter on its feet than most epics of comparable size and length, refreshingly unencumbered by Tinseltown piety (the story ends about 71 years before the birth of Jesus), and painstakingly restored, it’s better than ever.  If nothing in it approaches the thrilling chariot race from “Ben Hur” or the ostentatious spectacle of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra barging through the streets of Rome, it is more consistently entertaining than those two swollen meditations on the classical world.

The story of a slave rebellion that shook the Roman republic to its foundations presents an unusually ripe opportunity for fatuous moralizing, especially when it is told by men who had only recently emerged from prison after refusing to help their government oppress its citizenry.  Yet “Spartacus” wastes little breath speechifying against indefensible forms of tyranny.  For this reason, Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay (from Howard Fast’s novel), may seem merely workmanlike at first hearing.  But it’s better than that:  if it hasn’t the facile cleverness of Robert Bolt’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” at least it is free of Bolt’s maddening pretentiousness; Trumbo doesn’t wrap platitudes in epigrams and present them as if they were The Wisdom of the Ages.

With his hair cut en brosse, Kirk Douglas looks little like my idea of a Thracian bondsman, but he sure looks great in his various gunnysack ensembles; he looks even better as a gladiator, when he wears only a burlap diaper and pull-tab galerus (mail shoulder guard).  He’s incredibly photogenic—all sharp angles and muscularity, glistening under a fetching coat of oil.  An actor of extremely limited resources—an adherent of the Don’t-Force-It-Get-A-Bigger-Hammer school of acting—he indicates a narrow range of emotions with terrific energy.  What he lacks in breadth and depth, he attempts to make up for in brute force.  He adopts a generalized mood for each scene, and then proceeds to act out isolated words, as if they had no connection to the scene as a whole.  His acting is an odd combination of crude pantomime and over-emphatic speech, as if he were playing charades and Password at the same time.  He’s at his worst when a scene requires him to appear to be lost in thought; he can’t do it without pulling cartoon faces.  Only Joan Crawford pantomimed the act of thought with such hilarious ineptitude.  Early in the picture, Douglas shares a scene with Woody Strode; in a few minutes they will fight to the death in the arena.

Woody Strode:  Silentium est aureum.

Woody Strode: Silentium est aureum.

Douglas brays and roars and stamps about, while Strode moves not a muscle and silently acts him off the screen.  So does everyone else in the picture, for that matter—Douglas is easily the worst actor in it (even Tony Curtis, as duh Singguh rof Soanggs, is better), but his energy and commitment to the material go a long way to mitigating his shortcomings.

Olivier & Curtis:  Curtis called this scene "Rub-a-dub-dub, Two men in a tub."  Anthony Hopkins dubbed in Olivier's voice, which was lost after this scene was cut.

Olivier and Curtis: Curtis called this scene “Rub-a-dub-dub, Two men in a tub.” Anthony Hopkins dubbed in Olivier’s voice, which was lost after this scene was cut.

The DVD is chiefly recommended for the hilariously scabrous commentary by Douglas, Fast, Peter Ustinov and a few others.  The movie was difficult to make and many big egos were bruised in the process.  Now many of those old wounds are revisited by the people who inflicted them and the ones who still nurse them.  The combination of self-serving reminiscence, egomania, wounded pride and extreme old age makes some of the commentary sound like “The Sunshine Boys.”

Fast, still bitter over his dismissal as screenwriter, unable to disguise either his feelings or his motives, is perhaps the funniest—the embodiment of a peevish old coot.  At first, weary pessimism checks his chagrin.  But before long, Dalton Trumbo’s observations awaken his rancor, and the first sight of Kirk Douglas turns the old boy into Yosemite Sam.  From then on, Fast’s commentary is a nearly unbroken stream of abuse:  scorn pours from him in a feeble voice that trembles with decrepitude and dismay.

Howard Fast:  Red as the 'Daily Worker' & twice as sore.

Howard Fast: Red as the ‘Daily Worker’ and twice as sore.

Douglas (who also produced the picture) defends himself with his own brand of demented indignation, sometimes assuming a crude display of injured innocence, other times affecting a condescending compassion for Fast, whose reason (Douglas implies) has been beguiled by paranoia.  Fast sounds like a sorehead, but Douglas sounds entirely self-serving and not (ahem) perfectly truthful.  He’s a lousy actor, and a worse commentator.  Sadly, his commentary must have been recorded shortly after his stroke, and his diction bears its ravages, lending poignancy to his self-defense.

Both Douglas and Fast have compelling reasons to dislike each other; they both appear to be constitutionally incapable of collaborating or embracing a point of view not entirely their own.  It’s not that they’re willfully dishonest, however:  they simply can’t be trusted to remember things accurately.  Both are highly excitable, passionate, strong-willed men—and completely unable to pretend an objectivity that they don’t have.  They can’t tell a story that makes them look bad.  For all these reasons, they’re unreliable commentators and they cancel each other out.

It was a brutal set to work on:  the all-star cast was a rogues’ gallery of scene-stealers, egomaniacs and intriguers, each plotting to pull focus and winkle screen time away from his co-stars, each seeming to forget that the star was also the producer with the final cut.  True to form, Douglas cut the film to the contours of his ego, and thereby brought all the supporting cast’s jiggery pokery to naught—with the notable exception of Peter Ustinov (prominently featured on the commentary track), who succeeded in getting his own way in everything.  While the others were busily planting knives in each others’ backs, Ustinov cozied up to the boss.  At once self-deprecating and self-serving—Uriah Heep with adipose—he buffaloed everyone, including Fast and Douglas, who granted him permission to write his own lines (and to “tighten” Charles Laughton’s).

Charles Laughton speaks lines 'tightened' by Ustinov.

Charles Laughton speaks lines ‘tightened’ by Ustinov.

Speaking his own brittle aphorisms and blinking his piggy eyes appreciatively at the cleverness of his droll ironies, Ustinov gives his usual ham performance—busy-busy-busy, cartoonish and irrelevant—he’s like one of those  “Fantasia” hippopotami skittering about en pointe.  Onscreen, his tiny eyes glitter with self-congratulation as he pulls focus, while on the commentary track, speaking with the lofty hauteur of an aristocrat, he treats most of his fellow actors as so much dust under his chariot wheels.  But for all his pretentions, he’s a low comedian with plummy overtones—he acts up a storm all by himself, and clutters every line with extraneous business.  One hot afternoon late in the shooting, Laurence Olivier, saddle sore and broiling inside his heavy armor, finally lost patience with Ustinov’s scene-stealing monkeyshines.  Olivier cantered up to him, leant down and said, in a quiet voice with murder in it, “Dear boy, could you perhaps . . . do less?”  Ustinov eventually won an Oscar for his sins, but nursed a grudge against Olivier for the rest of his life.  Though he doesn’t mention the incident in his commentary, he makes casually cruel remarks about Olivier whenever he mentions him — and has the effrontery to psychoanalyze him.  He does, however, resist the temptation to criticize Douglas or Fast outright, choosing instead to praise them—faintly—and let the delicate wince in his voice do the dirty work for him.  Ustinov has the good sense and bad manners to speak ill only of the dead.  He’s so full of himself that you can’t trust a thing he says.  But my God, how well he says it!  Taken as a display of smooth disingenuousness, or as an exercise in carefully disguised self-congratulation, Ustinov’s commentary is virtuoso.  He’s an impressive and thoroughly unreliable raconteur:  ostentatiously erudite, condescending, funny, dropping names like crazy, skewering as he praises, cringing as he swaggers.  As a commentator, he gives the most accomplished performance of his career.

Olivier’s performance in the picture is amused and amusing.  He seems to be enjoying himself, not always in a perfectly innocent way, as in the two homoerotic scenes:  one with Tony Curtis as his catamite, the other with John Gavin as Julius Caesar/Muscle God (“Why man, he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a Colossus!”).  Olivier can’t help leaning into him and stroking his arms with the backs of his fingers.  Gavin is stoic as a Roman and stony as the Appian Way; did he know what Larry wanted?

Olivier & Gavin:  'Dear boy, do you suppose you could do MORE?'

Olivier to Gavin: ‘Dear boy, could you perhaps . . . do MORE?’