Stanwyck a fashion victim? Heck yeah, look at the wig

Very few actresses truly deserve accolades like stellar, peerless, magnificent and amazing. Barbara Stanwyck, who had a stage, film and TV career spanning more than 50 years, is surely one of that select group. She might have cringed at such lofty praise, however, referring to herself as “a tough old broad from Brooklyn.”

Adjectives aside, Stanwyck stands out for the range of parts she played, her discipline as an artist, and the subtlety and strength of her performances. Tonight, she is honored at the Aero Theatre with a screening of  Double Indemnity” (1944, Billy Wilder) and “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” (1933, Frank Capra). Before the movies, Victoria Wilson, author of a new Stanwyck biography, will discuss and sign her book, “A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940.

It is the 70th birthday of Double Indemnityand so I am rerunning this post on Phyllis Dietrichson’s tawdry blonde wig. The piece also includes some observations from master director Billy Wilder on working with Barbara – born Ruby Catherine Stevens on July 16, 1907, and later nicknamed Babs, Missy and The Queen. She still rules today.

Double Indemnity posterIf I ever need assurance that every femme fatale has a styling glitch from time to time, I look at Barbara Stanwyck’s awful wig in “Double Indemnity,” a quintessential noir from 1944, directed by Billy Wilder.

Paramount production head Buddy DeSylva said of the stiff blonde ’do, “We hired Barbara Stanwyck and here we get George Washington.”

It also reminded me that it had been ages since I’d looked at my copy of “Conversations with Wilder” by Cameron Crowe, published in 1999. Of course, I flipped right to Wilder’s answer to Crowe’s question about the direction given to Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity” for the silent shot on her face while the murder is occurring.

Said Wilder: Sure, that was a highly intelligent actress, Miss Stanwyck. I questioned the wig, but it was proper, because it was a phony wig. It was an obviously phony wig. And the anklet – the equipment of a woman, you know, that is married to this kind of man. They scream for murder.

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray star in "Double Indemnity" from 1944. Both played against type.

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray star in “Double Indemnity” from 1944. Both played against type.

Yeah, naturally we rehearsed this thing. But I rehearsed it with her once or twice, that’s the maximum, and it was not that much different from the way she would have done it. She was just an extraordinary woman. She took the script, loved it, right from the word go, didn’t have the agent come and say, “Look, she’s to play a murderess, she must get more money, because she’s never going to work again.”

With Stanwyck, I had absolutely no difficulties at all. And she knew the script, everybody‘s lines. You could wake her up in the middle of the night and she’d know the scene. Never a fault, never a mistake – just a wonderful brain she had.

Crowe asked if the part had been written for Stanwyck. Wilder said: Yeah. And then there there was an actor by the name of Fred MacMurray at Paramount, and he played comedies. Small dramatic parts, big parts in comedies. I let him read it, and he said, “I can’t do that.” And I said, “Why can’t you?” He said, “It requires acting!” [Laughs.] I said, “Look, you have now arrived in comedy, you’re at a certain point where you either have to stop, or you have to jump over the river and start something new.” He said, “Will you tell me when I’m no good?” [He nods: a partnership is born.] And he was wonderful because it’s odd casting.

Paramount image of “Double Indemnity”

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Merry Christmas!

I hope your holidays are joyous and that Santa Baby showered you with lovely gifts and rapt attention. Here are a few film favorites of the season. Enjoy!

“Holiday Affair” from 1949 stars Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh. It’s not film noir but Mitchum lends his bad-boy charm nonetheless. Don Hartman directs.

James Stewart co-stars with the enchanting Kim Novak in 1958′s “Bell, Book and Candle,” directed by Richard Quine. Of course, they both bow to the real star, Siamese kitty Pyewacket.

Film Noir Blonde reveals Pyewacket’s offscreen capers here.

The dark dream sequence in Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” is pure film noir.

Michael Wilmington reviews “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

And, in case you missed it earlier this month, FNB wrote about “Lady in the Lake,” an experimental film noir with a Christmas setting.

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One of film noir’s most memorable duos: Gardner and Lancaster in ‘The Killers’

“The Killers” plays today at 4 p.m. at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood as part of AFI FEST 2011.

The Killers/1946/Universal Pictures/105 min.

Of all film noir’s femmes fatales, Ava Gardner as Kitty Collins in “The Killers” ranks as the most devastatingly efficient. She doesn’t waste time chit-chatting or getting to know a guy. Just a glance gets them hooked and firmly planted in the palm of her hand. “Swede” Andreson (Burt Lancaster) takes all of 10 seconds to fall for her and then get lured into “a double-cross to end all double-crosses.”

The Swede (Burt Lancaster) falls for Kitty (Ava Gardner) in about 10 seconds.

Based on the famous Ernest Hemingway short story, this 1946 film is the crowning achievement of one of Hollywood’s most prolific noir directors, Robert Siodmak, earning him an Oscar nomination for best director and leaving us with some of the genre’s most memorable characters.

The films starts with two hit men (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) coming to get the Swede, who lies back in his lonely little bed and passively accepts his fate. (This is the only part of the movie that comes from Hemingway’s story.) The fact that Swede left $2,500 to an Atlantic City chambermaid piques the interest of insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien). Reardon senses there is much more to Swede’s story and pieces together, through a series of flashbacks, the events leading up to the murder.

Of course, there’s money involved and dogged, determined Reardon links Swede to the infamous Prentiss Hat Company robbery. The $250,000 score was never recovered and Reardon’s firm had to pay out for that loss.

Swede doesn’t seem like a career criminal. He was a boxer until an injury forced him to quit and his childhood pal Lt. Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) tried to sell him on being a cop. But the Swede wanted something that paid more than a police paycheck. Oh and did I mention a girl named Kitty? One look at the sultry temptress has him dumping his sweet girlfriend Lilly (Virginia Christine) and doing anything Kitty says.

You’d think taking the rap for Kitty and doing three years “in stir” would be a bit of a wakeup call for Swede but not so much. This is noir, after all. By the time the Swede is out of jail, Kitty’s dating Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker), the mastermind of the Prentiss caper. The Swede gets involved with this job, along with Dum-Dum (Jack Lambert) and Blinky (Jeff Corey). Swede’s fellow ex-con Charleston (Vince Barnett) takes a pass on the job, but that doesn’t raise any red flags.

The robbery goes according to plan but there’s a twist on a twist that only Reardon figures out; sourcing his facts by scouring each of the robbers for info and playing one against the other. (You can see how this film, along with Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” entrenched itself in Quentin Tarantino’s brain.)

It may seem that the Swede isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed but he comes across as decent and sympathetic – a testament to Lancaster’s skill as a subtle but powerful performer and Siodmak’s way with actors. Gardner also gives her character nuance along with vampish flair. My only complaint is that they don’t get enough screen time together, but that said, O’Brien is a lot of fun to watch.

The acting, the dramatic (high-contrast) shadow-slicked compositions, the fatalistic mood, the sexy script and the music all contribute to the film’s status as one of the best noirs ever made. Anthony Veiller wrote the screenplay with uncredited help from Richard Brooks and John Huston; after a dispute with producer Mark Hellinger, Huston quit. The original music by Miklós Rózsa helped inspire the theme of TV’s “Dragnet.”

Robert Siodmak

Ernest Hemingway

Siodmak lost the Oscar to William Wyler for “The Best Years of Our Lives.” (The fierce competition that year also included “Brief Encounter” by David Lean; Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which has a 15-minute noir segment; and “The Yearling” by Clarence Brown.)

A German Jew, Siodmak came to Hollywood in 1940 and made his reputation as a crime/whodunit director with works such as “Phantom Lady” (1944), “The Suspect” (1945), “The Spiral Staircase” (1946) and “Criss Cross” (1948).

Though he is highly regarded now for his meticulous, tight storytelling and stylish visuals, his popularity diminished in the 1950s. He returned to Europe in 1953. Four years later, his “Nachts, Wenn Der Teufel Kam”/ “The Devil Strikes at Night” competed in the Oscars for best foreign film but Fellini’s “Le Notti di Cabiria”/“The Nights of Cabiria” (Italy) claimed the prize.

Apparently, Gardner’s performance in “The Killers” even impressed Hemingway and spurred a friendship between the two. Given that Hemingway was fond of a drink and Gardner hoped to leave this world “with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of whisky in the other” it was probably quite a bond.

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On the radar: Books, a blogathon and a bash; Billy Wilder, Bono and Bogart

Must-read material: The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox by Nina Burleigh. Knox and Raffaele Sollecito were convicted of murdering Meredith Kercher, a British student who died on Nov. 1, 2007 in Perugia, Italy. They are appealing their convictions. As Burleigh told Elle magazine: “She was investigated, arrested and convicted as part of a massive multicultural misunderstanding, abetted by her own quirky personality. … Your identity as a young, attractive woman does not belong to you.”

Diana Vreeland

Diana Vreeland invented the concept of a fashion editor, putting her indelible stamp on Harper’s Bazaar from 1936 to 1962 and Vogue, where she became editor-in-chief, from 1962 to 1971. In the September issue of Harper’s, Lisa Immordino Vreeland conjures a portrait of the famous sartorial icon. When Carmel Snow offered her the Harper’s job, Diana Vreeland replied, “But Miss Snow, except for my little lingerie shop in London, I’ve never worked. I’ve never been in an office in my life. I’ve never dressed until lunch.”

Lauren Bacall

Immordino Vreeland’s book, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel will be published on Oct. 1. (I hope the copy editor for the book was better than the one at Harper’s; there were two glaring errors in that piece.) It was during Vreeland’s tenure at Harper’s that Lauren Bacall’s career was launched after appearing on the cover, shot by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, in March 1943.

Happy birthday, Mr. Ray: In honor of director Nicholas Ray, who would have turned 100 on Aug. 7, Tony Dayoub of Cinema Viewfinder is running a Nicholas Ray Blogathon Sept. 5-8. Ray directed many noirs (“They Live By Night,” “Knock on Any Door,” “A Woman’s Secret,” “In a Lonely Place,” “Born to be Bad,” “On Dangerous Ground,” “Bigger Than Life”). I look forward to submitting my piece and reading other contributors’ work.

Go on, it’s good for the economy: FNO returns on Sept. 8! Fashion’s Night Out is a global initiative created in 2009 as a partnership between American Vogue, the Council of Fashion Designers of America, NYC & Company, and the City of New York to celebrate fashion, restore consumer confidence, boost the industry’s economy, and put the fun back in shopping. Find out what’s going on in your city and check out the merch.

With love from USPS: Billy Wilder gets his own stamp starting next year. Wilder won Academy Awards for directing “The Lost Weekend” and “The Apartment.”

Other Wilder favorites include: “Some Like It Hot,” “Double Indemnity,” “Sunset Blvd.,” “Ace in the Hole,” “Irma la Douce,” “Sabrina” and “The Seven Year Itch.” Part of a four-stamp Great Film Directors series, Frank Capra, John Ford and John Huston will also be honored.

Doc takes center stage: The Toronto International Film Festival runs from Sept. 8-18. The opening night film is “From the Sky Down,” Academy Award-winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim’s documentary about Irish band U2. It’s the first time in 36 years that the festival will open with a documentary.

Bogey as Spade and Marlowe: The American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre in Santa Monica is showing on Sept. 8: “The Maltese Falcon” (1941, John Huston) and “The Big Sleep” (1946, Howard Hawks). Double crossing, dubious motives and dry wit abound.

Diana Vreeland photo by Horst P. Horst

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FNB proclaims Gloria Grahame Day: July 13

Lately I find myself compulsively watching “Sudden Fear” from 1952 starring Joan Crawford, Jack Palance and Gloria Grahame. It’s on as I write, in fact.

Directed by David Miller, the movie has a lot going for it (regular readers know I adore Joan Crawford) but at the top of the list is Grahame, playing a femme fatale nonpareil who’s also rather skilled at mingling in high society.

Gloria Grahame shined in ’50s noir classics.

With her feline face, flirty smile and hour-glass figure, Grahame was a stalwart of film noir. Besides “Sudden Fear,” she was in “Crossfire” (1947, Edward Dmytryk), “In a Lonely Place” (1950, Nicholas Ray), “Macao” (1952, Josef von Sternberg), “The Big Heat” (1953, Fritz Lang), “Human Desire” (1954, Fritz Lang), “Naked Alibi” (1954, Jerry Hopper) and “Odds Against Tomorrow” (1959, Robert Wise).

Commenting on her seductive powers, she once said, “It wasn’t the way I looked at a man, it was the thought behind it.” (Though she often played the bad girl, she was a Los Angeles native from a comfortable family.)

She had acting chops, too, winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her part in “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952, Vincente Minnelli). Her breakthrough role was Violet Bick in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1947, Frank Capra).

Her career faltered, though, when on “Oklahoma” (1955, Fred Zinnemann) she acquired a reputation as being difficult to work with. Her big number in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is “I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No.” Natch. Also harmful to her public image was the fact that in 1960 she married Anthony Ray, her former stepson from her marriage (1948-1952) to director Nicholas Ray. Nonetheless, she worked on the stage, in TV and occasionally in films until she died at 57 in 1981. She was married four times and had four children.

So, because I can, I am declaring July 13 Gloria Grahame Day on FNB and will be posting reviews of her noir classics in the coming weeks. (If you are in LA, try to catch “In a Lonely Place” at LACMA on Friday, July 22.)

OK, time to restart “Sudden Fear” and break it to my friend – who stopped by tonight, took one look at the alluring Grahame and asked if he could get a date with her – that request, alas, will have to remain in the realm of fantasy. Ah, men and their fantasies; it’s a kingdom Grahame ruled perhaps not wisely but well.

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Wilmington unwraps noir in ‘Wonderful Life’

It’s a Wonderful Life/ 1946/ Paramount/130 min
 
So far, I’ve written 16 blog posts. Damn! It’s high time for some vaca and R&R. Luckily, I can call on my noir network to feed my little blog. Today, I am tapping veteran film critic and old friend Michael Wilmington to provide a fresh look at essential Christmas Eve viewing: “It’s a Wonderful Life.” If you’ve dismissed this film as sappy, watch the last act one more time and you’ll likely appreciate anew its noir mood and atmosphere.
 

Michael Wilmington

Scenario for Christmas: A whimsical guardian angel shows a good-hearted small-town guy, on the brink of suicide, what would have happened if he’d never lived and what a difference his life really made to everyone around him. You’ve seen it before, but it always works. And it always will.

Frank Capra‘s holiday masterpiece “It’s a Wonderful Life” is an exhilarating mix of angelic fantasy and small-town comedy, of political fable and poetic license, of Norman Rockwell and film noir.

The last act of this beloved Christmas classic — where George Bailey (James Stewart, in his favorite role) sees his beloved hometown of Bedford Falls turned into a dark semi-urban nightmare, as it would have been if it were run by George’s rich, greedy nemesis, Old Man Potter (Lionel Barrymore) — is a pure film-noir nightmare, with a tormented protagonist, a world bent into bad-dreams-come-true and a fate that (temporarily) can’t be escaped.

There are lots of real film-noir mainstays in the cast, people who fit easily into the noir universe — notably Gloria Grahame (“In a Lonely Place,” “Human Desire,” “The Big Heat”) as the town’s blonde bombshell Violet; Thomas Mitchell (“Dark Waters,” “The Dark Mirror,” “While the City Sleeps”) as George’s absent-minded Uncle Billy; Barrymore (“Key Largo”) as the evil banker Potter; and Sheldon Leonard (“Decoy”) as tough Nick the bartender.

The movie’s crack Capra ensemble also boasts Ward Bond (“The Maltese Falcon,” “On Dangerous Ground,” “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”) and Frank Faylen (“The Blue Dahlia,” “Detective Story,” “The Sniper”) as cop and cabbie (and “Sesame Street” namesakes) Bert and Ernie. And of course there’s the great, shy, stammering Stewart himself, who went on to make such classic noirs as “Call Northside 777,” plus, for Hitchcock, “Rope,” “Rear Window” and “Vertigo.”

The script, by turns witty and sentimental, was adapted from a Christmas fable by poet Philip Van Doren Stern. “Life” had a raft of A-list writers, namely Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, the husband-wife team who adapted Dashiell Hammett‘s “Thin Man” for the movies. On “Life,” they received uncredited assistance from such stalwart noir writers as Jo Swerling (“Leave Her to Heaven”), Dalton Trumbo (“Gun Crazy”), Clifford Odets (“Sweet Smell of Success”) and the famously acerbic Dorothy Parker (you heard me right).

Lead cinematographer Joe Biroc (“Cry Danger,” “The Killer That Stalked New York”) gives the movie a distinctly nightmarish look.

The point of cataloging “Life’s” noir vets is that most of the talent in the movie were known more for film noir than the simplistic goody-two-shoes stuff people mistakenly feel is the essence of both “It’s a Wonderful Life” and Capra-corn. Capra wanted smart, sophisticated collaborators who knew what happened when the lights went off. Noir people.

Capra had already experimented with a mixture of humor, sentiment and noir in his 1944 comedy of murders, with Cary Grant, “Arsenic and Old Lace” but “Wonderful Life” has the style down pat. We see George’s kindness, generosity and sometimes-antic humor shining throughout his difficult but rewarding life as recounted up above to his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers). But then we see him in a downpour of terror and anguish when he suddenly faces financial ruin, flees his family, wrecks his car, stands on a bridge and contemplates suicide. And finally at the “Auld Lang Syne” end, we get the Bailey family pride and joy when the nightmare ends. Well, some great noirs have happy endings too …

In many ways, of course, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is Charles Dickens‘ “A Christmas Carol” in reverse. (Barrymore was famous for his interpretation of Ebenezer Scrooge, which he reprised every year at Christmas on radio and which he probably would have played for the 1938 MGM movie, had he not been wheelchair-bound by the time of its production.)

Anyway, it all jelled into a movie and an experience, both spinetingling and heartwarming, that nobody ever forgets: On a magical Christmas Eve, a good man understands the meaning of his life and the effects of selflessness, just as Dickens’ Scrooge sees the consequences of his own selfishness.

Most importantly, “Life” had Frank Capra, a directorial magician who could mix comedy and drama, move audiences deeply and also make them laugh, like almost no one else in Hollywood history. Capra always thought this was his best movie, even though it was a horrible disappointment to him financially and professionally. The original 1946 audiences and critics were mixed, and the film’s receipts failed to support the new company, Liberty Films, that Capra was trying to set up with his friends George Stevens, William Wyler and John Huston. Largely because of “Life,” they lost their Liberty.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” takes you right over the edge. Almost. It’s a wonderful picture: a very funny, often charming, but also terrifying movie about life’s most horrible disappointments, about all your nightmares coming true and all your dreams being torn apart. And that was echoed in real life. George Bailey failed (for a while), and Frank Capra failed (for a while) too.

But Capra was right. This is his best movie. I can’t keep a dry eye when George’s brother Harry (Todd Karns) toasts him under the Christmas tree as “the richest man in town,” the Bedford Falls crowd sings “Auld Lang Syne” and they find Zuzu’s petals. I don’t even want to.

If you’ve never been moved, even slightly, when Harry raises that glass, everybody sings and George hears the bell — well, the hell with you. “Bah, Humbug,” as Potter would say. But the Bedford Falls folks are still going to shout: “Merry Christmas everyone!”

Noir people too.

You can read more of Michael Wilmington’s reviews at Movie City News.

Author photo by Victor Skrebneski; copyright Victor Skrebneski

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