Tag Archives: Rosalind Russell

‘The Velvet Touch’: Grande Dame Guignol

Original Poster.

Original Poster.

O Victory, Where Is Thy Death?

In the opening scene of “The Velvet Touch” (Independent Artists/RKO Radio Pictures, 1948), Rosalind Russell, as Broadway diva Valerie Stanton, ends a heated argument with her producer/lover Gordon Dunning (Leon Ames) by braining him with the first heavy object she can lay her velvet-gloved hand on. The irony is perfect, for the weapon is a theatrical trophy: it is the coveted Players Award, which Dunning won for Excellence in the Theatre; moreover, it is a statuette of Nike, Goddess of Victory, who bears aloft a wreath. The eminent actress has therefore crowned the eminent producer with his own laurels; the blow to his head has felled him for keeps: now needs must Gordon Dunning rest upon his laurels until the edge of doom. I find it all wonderfully funny. And after all, it’s Leon Ames: he had it coming. We’ll learn more about why as the picture progresses. Here’s a fraction of that opening scene.

Much of the rest of the picture is spent in flashback, à la Film Noir (though “The Velvet Touch” is too glossy and high-tone to be so categorized), by which means we learn how Leon and Roz arrived at this fatal contretemps. That he cannot bear the idea of being left for another man, Michael Morrell (played by Leo Genn, who murmurs drolly from the first reel to the last), is the most obvious explanation for his unbecoming conduct. But sexual jealousy is only at the surface: there’s a much deeper reason for his fury, and it stems from a classic case of one of Hollywood’s favorite fictional psychological disorders, which may fairly be called Svengali Syndrome.

Get Thee Behind Me, Svengali!

In Hollywood pictures about the theatre, directors are invariably Svengalis: Warner Baxter plucks Ruby Keeler from the chorus line in “42nd Street,” and, by dancing her off her feet for a day and a half, turns her into an overnight sensation. In “Twentieth Century,” Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) makes a brilliant actress out of an awkward, infantile amateur named Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard). Similarly, in “Maytime,” Barrymore (this time as the crackpot musical genius, Nicolai Nazaroff) turns Jeanette MacDonald into an international prima donna, then shames her into entering into a loveless marriage with him, and in the final reel, the enraged impresario aims a pistol at his rival, Nelson Eddy, and blows a hole through that worthy’s barrel chest. (Well, somebody had to do it.) Clark Gable transforms Jeanette from a hymn-singing ninny into the toast of the Barbary Coast in “San Francisco“: her swinging rendition of the title song apparently sets off the Frisco Quake of Aught-Six, which knocks the nobs off their hill and makes toast of the entire region. In “Lady with Red Hair,” the great Claude Rains, as David Belasco, turns the hopelessly inadequate Mrs Leslie Carter (Miriam Hopkins) into . . . Mrs Leslie Carter, who was known as “the American Sarah Bernhardt.” In “Hello, Frisco, Hello,” international songbird Alice Faye bends over backwards to rescue the scoundrel John Payne from ruin because she believes she owes her success entirely to him. In “All About Eve,” the aging star Margo Channing has a pretty shrewd estimation of her own gifts and self-sufficiency as an actress, yet when her understudy/rival, Eve Harrington, gives a sensational audition, Margo bitterly accuses her director/lover, Bill Sampson, of being responsible for the girl’s stunning performance, which was “carefully rehearsed I have no doubt, over and over, full of those Bill Sampson touches!” (When Eve goes on to win the Sarah Siddons Award for her performance, Eve herself clearly believes the director is responsible for her success.) Most miraculously of all, Dan O’Herlihy turns Lana Turner into the most scintillating actress on Broadway in “Imitation of Life.” We don’t see how he contrives to fashion a silk purse out of that sow’s ear, nor do we get a chance to judge his wizardry for ourselves: Douglas Sirk knew better than to show Lana giving what we’re expected to believe is a great theatrical performance.

Of all these pictures, only “Twentieth Century” and “Lady with Red Hair” offer some evidence of how these directors of genius transform amateurs into great ladies of the stage. (In the former, Barrymore jabs a pin into Lombard’s rump, which does the trick: for the rest of the funny picture, Lombard never stops shrieking. In the latter, Rains stands on an apple box and raises Hopkins’ pigtails over her head to make her stand up straight. Mission accomplished: for the rest of the picture, she’s lousy from a greater height.)

L: Barrymore instructs Lombard in the art of acting. R: Rains instructs Hopkins.

L: Barrymore instructs Lombard in the art of acting. R: Rains instructs Hopkins.

Prelude to a Kiss-Off

As we have seen, when “The Velvet Touch” begins, Rosalind Russell has grown a-weary of dancing on the ends of Leon Ames’ strings; she is determined to play Hedda Gabler in the upcoming season; she is newly in love with Leo Genn. She must therefore cut herself free from her puppet-master’s strings. But, in the great Svengali tradition, he would sooner ruin her than let her go, and sooner than ruin her, he would bring her to heel. So this native son of Portland, Indiana, brings out the big guns: “Yer not good enough fer heavy drammer.” Besides, he tells her, that sort of guff don’t go over with the “suckers,” as he calls the New York City audiences who have made him rich. He knows what slops to serve up to the moron millions, and, sister, Hedda Gabler ain’t no state fair attraction. He will not permit her to make a fool of herself . . . or him. To that end, he has leaked a story to the press that she has already signed on to do yet another frivolous romp in the Fall, and he’s willing to go very much further to keep her dancing to his tune and starring in his productions.

We get a clear sense of the sort of shows he produces from the framed posters on his office walls: “It’s a Gay Life,” “The Gay Lady,” “Scandalous” and the current season’s “Escapade.” He produces and directs these wafer-thin entertainments, yet his theatre and his offices, tricked out with ostentatious, ornamental Victorian kitsch, are more suited to a producer of the blood and thunder melodramas of Eugène Scribe and Victorien Sardou: his office is crowded with heavy, carved furniture. In the public spaces of his theatre, oil paintings in gilded rococo frames hang on walls that are covered in shimmering damask silk; fluted pillars and pilasters are topped by Corinthian capitals of exuberant gaudiness; heavy brocade draperies and swags trimmed in miles of fringe adorn every landing, niche, entrance; cut crystal chandeliers glitter overhead; there are Turkey carpets as far as the eye can see. It’s the vulgarian’s dream of high class. I imagine Boss Tweed must have looked on similar decor while being fellated at his favorite whorehouse, though he would not have seen a neon sign for the Cabana Café glaring through the bordello window. But if these trappings seem inappropriate for a producer of frolicsome romantic comedies, they are entirely correct for this Tosca-like opening and for the preposterous melodrama that follows.

Rosalind Russell, Leon Ames: Valerie Stanton and Gordon Dunning in happier times.

Rosalind Russell, Leon Ames: Valerie Stanton and Gordon Dunning in happier times.

And just to make it quite impossible to take any of this camp melodrama seriously, there is the stupendously misleading title song, sung in glee-club harmony by an all-male chorus. Written by Mort Greene (lyrics) and Leigh Harline (music), the tune’s jaunty breeziness and idiotic fills (doodle-oodle-oo), lead one to expect the picture will be one of those late-forties disposable situation comedies in which, say, Robert Cummings vies with Brian Aherne for the affections of Virginia Mayo, while Marjorie Main cracks wise, and eggs, in the kitchen. Instead you get Murder on the Main Stem — part Fannie Hurst, part Edna Ferber, part Walter Winchell, part Sardou, part Dostoyevsky — and it’s a whole lot funnier than most of the comedies of the era, but in a sneaky, subversive way (perfect for the McCarthy Era). That is, it is definitely played as high drama — Rosalind Russell and her co-stars (most of them) seem to take it all in deadly earnest, but unless I miss my bet, the screenwriter was having fun at their expense. Anyhow, if you look at it from this point of view, the picture is hilarious, sometimes almost awesomely so.

The picture was produced by Miss Russell’s husband, Frederick Brisson, and her great, elongated full-moon face is rarely out of the frame. Even so, Claire Trevor, as her bitter rival, acts her right off the screen.

Beedle Dee-Dee Dee-Dee, Two Ladies

Moments after Roz flees undetected from the scene of the crime, the body is discovered by Claire Trevor, who makes two serious blunders: (1) she picks up the weapon, and (2) she falls into an hysterical faint. This is a sticky wicket, for it appears to everyone, including (or so it would seem) NYPD Homicide Detective Sydney Greenstreet(!), that she — a woman scorned — must have fainted after having committed a crime passionnel. Meanwhile, Roz has her own fit of histrionics in the privacy of her home, where she sobs, “Oh why did this horrible thing have to happen? Why? Why? . . . Why?” Cue flashback.

First we see how Roz tried to patch things up with Claire a few days before the bludgeoning. Roz is unusually restrained. Claire is (ahem) less so. The result is a nice bit of camp: catfight lite.

Later in the picture, we learn that Claire has been hospitalized. Roz goes to visit her, amusingly attired as if she were a very chic nun in a satin and silk habit and wimple. She makes me think of Caitlyn Jenner as Father Christmas. Roz extends the olive branch, but Claire is having none of it. And to prove it, she speaks two of the greatest camp lines ever.

The screenplay is by Leo Rosten, who wrote the best-selling “The Joys of Yiddish.” I have to believe that Rosten was laughing his head off when he wrote, “Where did you get your luck, Valerie? Or does God pity the wicked?” and “If you had any decency, you’d face it yerself. But you haven’t: yer rotten! All the way through!” At any rate, the brilliantly funny author of “The Joys of Yiddish” simply couldn’t have taken any of this stuff seriously. Believe me, I’m not knocking it. I think it’s great. But it’s great because it’s so funny. Much of “The Velvet Touch” is as fabulously, deliriously foolish as the best parts of “Deception,” and almost as entertaining. It lacks a towering, unforgettable performance to match Claude Rains’ supremely witty sadist Alexander Hollenius, but there is more than enough mad, grandiloquent silliness in “The Velvet Touch” to make it a thoroughly entertaining picture. For fans of Rosalind Russell, Claire Trevor, Leo Genn, Sydney Greenstreet, or for that matter, Leo Rosten, it is not to be missed.

Awesome Awfulness

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

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

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

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

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

Queen Bee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday Drivers

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

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

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

Under the Yum Yum Tree

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

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

Made in Paris

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

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

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

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