Tag Archives: Marlene Dietrich

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.

Other Notable Movies (for Better or Worse)

Mildred Pierce

Ann Blyth, Zachary Scott, Joan Crawford -- Toxic Triangle:  "How long has this been going on?"

Ann Blyth, Zachary Scott, Joan Crawford — Toxic Triangle: “How long has this been going on?”

“Mildred Pierce” is a superbly balanced blend of Woman’s Picture conventions (single mother struggling to find success, love and happiness in a man’s world), Film Noir elements (e.g., flashbacks, Dutch-tilt angles, dark shadows and silhouettes) and Camp (e.g., Ann Blyth as the Daughter from Hell: the nastiest, cattiest, most quotable little bitch of all time; Eve Arden at her most Ardenesque (i.e., a proto-drag queen), cracking wise and lighting matches off the sole of her shoe). Michael Curtiz somehow makes these three seemingly antagonistic styles work together to create a completely satisfying whole.  It’s quite amazing, when you think about it:  Camp and film noir in the same picture?  Shouldn’t they cancel each other out?  But they don’t — they invigorate each other.  It’s not the greatest picture I ever saw, but it’s one of the most fun.  If I happen across it when it’s on TV, I find it quite impossible to change the channel or leave the room before the end.

Alice Faye (in “The Gang’s All Here”)

Alice Faye:  Round the block, but not through the mill.

Alice Faye: Round the block, but not through the mill.

I confess to having a fondness for “The Gang’s All Here,” which many people I respect abominate.  It’s a terrible picture — terrible.  And it’s ugly.  And there’s a lot of music in it that I don’t like.  But I love the ingenious staging of the opening number (even though I’ve never liked the song “Brazil” and don’t like Carmen Miranda), and I like the bizarro stuff that pops up every 15 minutes or so.  In fact, it was one of my younger brothers who first called the picture to my attention — specifically, the last number, called “The Polka Dot Polka.”  It is damned strange — almost nightmarish, in a way that Busby Berkeley’s black and white pictures weren’t.  (By the way, “The Gang’s All Here” is the first color picture — and the last big-budget picture — that Berkeley ever was allowed to direct.  One can see why.)  I like the picture because of its awfulness.  I wouldn’t dream of trying to talk anyone into sharing my enjoyment of a picture that is inferior in so many ways.  Oh, but there is one song smack in the middle of it — Chapter 15 on the DVD — that, for my money, is one of the two or three best songs that Alice Faye ever sang.  It’s “No Love, No Nothin’ ” and she sings it beautifully.  (I think the only other song of hers I like more is “You’ll Never Know,” which she sang so exquisitely that it seems foolish for anyone else to bother singing it.  She owns that song the way Garland owned “Over the Rainbow” and Streisand owns “People.”)

I love Alice Faye’s deep, caressing voice and her perfect intonation — she’s always in the exact middle of the note (no wobble, no scooping); she phrases beautifully and serves the lyrics as faithfully as she serves the melodic line; there’s never any straining or phony sentimentality.  She was born and raised in Hell’s Kitchen — she didn’t have a noticeable New York accent, but her demeanor makes it clear that she was nobody’s patsy.  And I’m a sucker for the contralto voice!  Faye’s complete absence of the movie star’s need to be worshiped by her adoring fans makes her unique:  she always gives me the impression that the song she’s singing is more important than anything else, including her fans’ approval.  She wasn’t a show-off; she never overwhelmed a tune with ostentatious virtuosity; she trusted the melody and the lyrics to do the work for her, her choices about what to emphasize and what to underplay always made perfect sense and suited the songs perfectly.  (Gershwin and Berlin always said Fred Astaire was their favorite intepreter of their work, since he never “improved” their songs with his own unwelcome liberties:  he sang the songs exactly as written, and you could understand every word.  I see their point, but Astaire’s voice was thin and unappealing — unmusical.  Alice Faye did what Astaire did, but also produced a beautiful, luscious sound while she did it.)  As a screen presence, she conveyed friendliness and decency without seeming insipid or naive.  She was never the girl next door; she was the girl from the tenement down the street and she knew the score.  Yet, remarkably, for all her streetwise savvy, she wasn’t hard or jaded — just smart and in the know.  She’d been round the block, but not through the mill.  In my book, that’s a killer combination, and it’s at the heart of what makes her such a great singer:  no tricks, no fussiness, no self-aggrandizement, only beautiful diction, warmth, intelligence and emotional candor.  Whenever I hear Alice Faye sing, I think of how homesick her honey voice must have made the GIs overseas.  I haven’t seen many of her pictures, and the ones I’ve seen have been terrible.  But no matter how bad the pictures are, I always like her.  She was a good actress, and by all accounts, she was a very shrewd broad — she was one of the highest paid women in Hollywood (on many of those Jack Benny programs, you hear jokes at Phil Harris’s expense about how much more money his wife earns), and when Betty Grable came along (whom Faye liked), she knew her days were numbered and got out before her star faded.  She once said, “Six pictures I made with Don Ameche and, in every one of them, my voice was deeper than the plot.”  (SIX with Ameche!  No wonder I haven’t seen more of her pictures!)

I often wonder what her career would have been like had she been signed at Metro instead of Fox.  She radiated too much intelligence and self-respect to be a sex bomb, but at Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck made sure that she was a sexually desirable presence.  At Metro, her sex appeal would have been ignored — certainly not enhanced — but she probably would have been in better pictures.  Metro’s studio head, Louis B. Mayer, was the only mogul (perhaps the only man in America) who never understood that sex sells.  All the studios were expected to obey the crazy rules of the Production Code set down by the Hays Office, and all of them complied — more or less.  But that didn’t stop Harry Cohn over at Columbia from making Rita Hayworth as sexually vibrant as the law would allow.  Warner Bros. tended to focus on gangster pictures and “important” Bette Davis woman’s pictures, but Ann Sheridan (the Oomph Girl) was under contract at Warner’s, and she, too, was an out-and-out sex bomb.  Paramount had Marlene Dietrich, who was all about sex — and not even “normal” sex; she was the personification of Old World sexual decadence.  And Darryl F. Zanuck at Fox saw to it that his female stars were sexy — Fox produced more sex kittens than any other studio (Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, etc.).  So Alice Faye, who was beautiful but not kittenish, was costumed and photographed to look as alluring as possible (though not, alas, in “The Gang’s All Here,” in which she’s costumed in one hideous ensemble after another:  in “No Love, No Nothin’,” she’s dressed like a milkmaid from a Ruritanian operetta).

Mayer was the only studio head who slavishly complied with the Production Code; he made it his business to see that no hint of sexual innuendo or naughtiness polluted the pictures from his studio.  (And that’s why so many Metro pictures look so dopey nowadays:  they’re exasperatingly asexual.)  Common wisdom says that Mayer knew if he didn’t willingly comply with the Code, the government would interfere in his affairs.  This theory has never made sense to me — all the other studios complied, but, knowing that sex sells, found ways to subvert the rules even as they obeyed them.  I sincerely doubt Mayer feared government intervention — he had closer connections with Washington power brokers than anyone else in Hollywood.  No, I think he was simply afraid of sex.  That’s why he didn’t trade in sexbombs.

Mayer’s female stars tended to be matrons and grande dames.  The only real bombshell at Metro in the 30s was Harlow — but her most of career as a bombshell was in the pre-Code years.  Garbo was certainly alluring and mysterious, but sexy?  Maybe in the silents, but after the talkies came in, even when she played Camille, she was more glamorous than sexual — and the whole business of how Camille earned enough dough to keep herself in stockings and fans was completely left out of the script.  For most of the 40’s, Metro had but one resident sexbomb:  Lana Turner, who wasn’t nearly as sexy as the studio press agents wanted audiences to believe.  Her reputation for sex appeal and her nickname “the Sweater Girl” (which she hated) came from a small part she played in a Warner Bros. picture, “They Won’t Forget” — before she signed with Metro.  At Metro, she was often cast against Clark Gable, and since he was the reigning male sex symbol, she became a sex goddess by default, even though by the early 40s, she was already beginning to put on weight and age badly.  (She was a party girl:  she went out every night, drank and smoked too much and never got enough sleep.)  Her career has always bewildered me:  she was the most incompetent major star in Hollywood.  She couldn’t act, she couldn’t dance, she couldn’t sing.  A triple threat.  Hell, she couldn’t even cross a room gracefully.  If Turner had been at Fox, Zanuck would have put her on a diet, made her exercise more and wear a tighter girdle.  So what sort of actresses did Mayer employ?  Katharine Hepburn (sexless and in her mid 30s), Greer Garson (sexless and effete), Myrna Loy (who began as a siren in the silents, but quickly became Wm. Powell’s favorite wife, whereupon sex went out of her career), Norma Shearer (Irving Thalberg’s lumpen, cross-eyed wife), Joan Crawford (who started as a flapper, but soon was typecast as truculent working girls), and a host of elderly British character actresses.  In the late 40s/early 50s, Mayer promoted Ann Miller as a sex symbol (mainly because he was infatuated with her and tried unsuccessfully to have an affair with her), but I don’t think anyone ever bought Miller as anything but a hoofer with alarmingly fast feet.  The only genuine sex bomb to work at Metro in the 40s was Ava Gardner, and she was wasted there.  She was undeniably sexy, but every time I see her in a Metro picture, I think of how Zanuck at Fox would have presented her.  He surely would have given her bigger parts and made her show more skin.  Elizabeth Taylor eventually became a sexbomb, but not until Mayer had been fired.

The Best Years of Our Lives

Post-war blues for a bunch of schnooks:
Banker, soda-jerk, & the one with hooks.
Harold Russell, Dana Andrews, Fredric March:  Down in the dumps in a B-24.

Harold Russell, Dana Andrews, Fredric March: Down in the dumps in a B-24.

I’m not crazy about “Best Years of Our Lives,” for a couple of good reasons and plenty of bad ones.  For starters, I can’t get past the name of that fictional town:  Boone City.  I like Teresa Wright and Myrna Loy; late in the picture, there’s a devastating performance by a character actor named Roman Bohnen.  As for the rest, it’s three hours of “We will now pause for the liberal message” with a special emphasis on the amazing variety of things that can be done with prosthetic hooks.  I know it’s meant to raise public awareness, but honest to Pete, it borders on the pornographic when William Wyler spends five minutes showing us how Harold Russell uses his crooked pincers to light a match.  I remember thinking, “Well, at least we don’t have to see him play ‘Chopsticks’ . . . Oh, wait!  We DO have to see him play ‘Chopsticks’ . . . !”  It is the only time I’ve disliked a scene that featured the redoubtable Hoagy Carmichael.  The picture was produced by Sam Goldwyn, who made several high quality pictures, but never a good looking one.  The interiors in nearly every picture he produced are of almost unimaginable hideousness.  “Dodsworth” (1936) had a number of attractive deco sets (Richard Day won the Oscar that year for his work), but that seems to be the exception that proves the rule.

From the very first frame of the credits, the Hugo Friedhofer score alone is enough to tell you you’re in for it.  Then the credits tell you the screenplay is by onetime Algonquin wit Robert E. Sherwood, who had been the US propaganda minister all through the war and had come to take himself  v e r y  seriously indeed.  He’s like a nagging, neglected wife in bathrobe and curlers waiting for you to tiptoe in at three in the morning.  Big Ideas are his rolling pin.  And then there’s that first scene, in which the camera lingers over Harold Russell’s hooks as he writes his name and lights his cigarette.  Willy Wyler is gonna force us to gaze upon those hooks long and hard before he’s done with us.  That shows how honest and serious he is.  Every time Harold Russell shows up, it’s like a bad vaudeville act played in reverse:  the hooks start the act, instead of stop it.  Robert Warshow, the great critic of popular culture in the 1940s and 50s, titled his review of the picture “The Anatomy of Falsehood,” which should give you some idea of his opinion of this self-congratulatory piece of shit, but there’s no mean-spiritedness in what he wrote; I don’t know how he did it.

Harold Russell, Hoagy Carmichael:  'Chopsticks' & steel hooks

Harold Russell, Hoagy Carmichael: ‘Chopsticks’ and steel hooks

Harold Russell is the only man to win two Oscars for a single performance.  Nobody expected him, a non-actor, to win the Best Supporting Actor award, so they gave him a special Oscar for being a good role model.  Then he made a monkey of bookmakers everywhere by winning the competitive award, too.  Clifton Webb, who was nominated that year for “The Razor’s Edge,” uncharacteristically, took the loss in his stride — not so his aged mother, a termagant known as Mabelle, with whom he lived until the day she died.  She delivered a harangue to a crowd of reporters, in which she denounced the Academy for snubbing her son AGAIN:  this time, he had the Oscar in the bag, “. . . and at the last moment, along comes the man with the HOOKS!”

(Two anecdotes about Webb and his mother.  He went into deep mourning when she finally kicked off at 91.  More than a year after she died, Webb called Noël Coward long distance and blubbered so much that Coward finally snapped, “Clifton!  If you don’t stop weeping, I shall reverse the charges!”  Another, somewhat crueller anecdote about Mrs Webb goes like this:  Bogart invited Webb to a party, and said, “But I’m warning you:  bring your fucking mother, and she cleans up her own vomit.”)