Tag Archives: The Fountainhead

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” . . .

 

Howlers

Here are four very dissimilar scenes that have two things in common: they’re all examples of Hollywood’s idea of high-minded drama, and they all make me laugh out loud, no matter how often I see them.

A Woman’s Face

Original Poster.

Original Poster.

This first one is from “A Woman’s Face” (MGM, 1941). It’s hard to tell whether the screenwriter, Donald Ogden Stewart, was kidding around. He wrote a lot of the prestige pictures for Metro in the 30s and 40s, but many of the prestige pictures — “The Barretts of Wimpole Street,” “Marie Antoinette,” “The Philadelphia Story,” for example — are damned idiotic. If Stewart was kidding around with this little exchange, Joan Crawford certainly wasn’t in on the gag, but I’ll bet Connie Veidt was laughing on the inside.  This happens to be one of my favorite exchanges from any picture.

Stage Door

Original Poster.

Original Poster.

Here’s the famous “The calla lillies are in bloom again” scene from “Stage Door” (RKO, 1937). The screen version was radically altered from the original play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman. When Kaufman saw it, he told screenwriter (and former collaborator) Morrie Ryskind: “You should’ve changed the title to ‘Screen Door.’ ”

“Those are not the lines . . . ”  “No, but it’s the mood!”  Imagine what would happen if actors relied on moods rather than scripts!  Mario Siletti, a teacher at Stella Adler’s Studio, used to warn student actors against playing moods:  “Mood spelled backwards is doom!” Then he’d rap his knuckles on a table top and point an accusing finger: “Does this make sense to you?”  

The Fountainhead

Original Poster.

Original Poster.

I have a great relish for full-speed-ahead wrongheadedness, so this following speech is one of my all-time favorites — I can’t even think about it without laughing. It’s Henry Hull as he tears a passion to tatters at the very beginning of “The Fountainhead” (Warner Bros., 1949). Ayn Rand insisted on writing the screenplay herself, so it was bound to be loaded with laughs. The whole picture is played at this fevered pitch — it’s a sustained temper tantrum that lasts one hundred and fourteen minutes. Ayn Rand’s rants remind me of a freight train highballing around a horseshoe curve: clattering, dangerously unbalanced and wholly unnecessary. Don’t try to watch “The Fountainhead” in one sitting — the joke wears thin very quickly. Taken in small doses, however, it’s chock-full of chuckles. You can start watching at just about any point, and you’re almost guaranteed to see some hilarious nonsense tout de suite. At the end of this scene, notice how much trouble Gary Cooper has pronouncing his own character’s name — he almost chokes on his back-palate r’s. Notice, too, how crooked Hull’s bow-tie is . . . that kills me. What a shame they didn’t rig it so that it could twirl at every uptick in agita.

Rand wrote only two other screenplays:  “You Came Along,” a dopey romantic comedy starring “Love That Bob” Cummings, and “Love Letters,” a soapy melodrama involving murder, amnesia and an irrational dread of the mailman. Both pictures are idiotic, but her heart clearly wasn’t in the work — so they’re not nearly as funny or entertaining as “The Fountainhead.” I am full of ambivalence over this business of laughing scornfully at bad writing and wrongheaded acting, especially when it’s obvious that the people involved were wholly committed to their bad ideas. But that, of course, is what makes it so painfully funny: ever since (and, presumably, long before) the Rude Mechanicals performed “A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus/And his love Thisbe: Very tragical mirth” at the end of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the mismatch of high-mindedness and ineptitude has been making audiences laugh. In the case of Ayn Rand, I feel no remorse at roaring with derisive laughter at every word she ever wrote.

The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Original Poster.

Original Poster.

“The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse” almost sank Metro in 1962. They had repaired their sagging fortunes three years earlier with a CinemaScope remake of their biggest epic of the silent era, “Ben-Hur,” and now they hoped to do the same thing with the old Rudolph Valentino vehicle. Nothing doing. Vincente Minnelli fought long and hard to get Alain Delon for the romantic lead, but the suits at Metro knew better: they wanted an American star, so they chose Glenn Ford, who turned out to be an Edsel. Ingrid Thulin was also cast in it, but preview audiences found her Swedish accent impenetrable, so Angela Lansbury dubbed her entire part at the last minute. Once you know it’s Lansbury, the voice is unmistakable. The picture is very long and tedious and portrays the Nazis as a very rum bunch indeed. But there is one scene in the first hour that makes the DVD worth owning. It is Lee Cobb‘s stupendously over-the-top death scene. Cobb plays an Argentine grandee, the paterfamilias to a family with two distinct branches, one French, the other German. They all gather for his birthday celebration and at the banquet, el señor Cobb discovers that one of his grandsons (Karl Böhm) is a high ranking official in the Nazi party.  Cobb rises slowly from the head of the table, lumbers down below the salt, where the youthful Nazi sits, and demands in a croaking voice, “Say ‘Heil Hitler’ in this house.  Say ‘Heil Hitler.’ ”  The dutiful Nazi does as el abuelo viejo bids him do, whereupon Cobb slaps him as hard as decrepitude and Method acting will allow.  This is what follows:

I feel no twinge of guilt about laughing at this one, either.  Cobb was an incorrigible old ham and it makes me happy to see him tear down the curtains from their rings and stagger out of doors and fall face down into a mud puddle (it’s almost certainly a stunt double).  I love the little aristocratic wave of his hand (like the Queen in her carriage) as he stumbles toward the patio doors, the damask curtains and thence to Eternity; I love the way he tries to out-bellow André Previn’s magnificent score; I love the hammy pauses he takes at the beginning while he revs up his engines. I hope you’ll take my advice and have a look at this picture.  I have shown only a small portion of a much longer scene, and it is all hilarious — every important moment is punctuated by the most tremendous crack of sound effects thunder. There’s a lot of meat and fowl on the dinner table and a lot of hams seated round it.  And there is that score, which it almost killed me to cut short (believe me, I didn’t want to).  Once Cobb is dead and the story moves to Paris, the picture has little to recommend it, except for the score.  It is beautifully photographed, but God is it ever dull . . . !