Cinevent 51 – Prelude

Once again, on the Wednesday night before the first day of Cinevent, some of us early arrivals in Columbus attended a screening at the Wexner Center for the Arts on the Ohio State Campus. The theme this year was “Audrey Hepburn X 2”, and the program consisted of pictures at opposite ends of Audrey’s career, one of her last (Robin and Marian, 1976) followed by one of her first (Secret People, 1952). Personally, I would have preferred that the Wexner Center take the program in chronological order rather than the reverse.

On second thought, let me rephrase that. I would have preferred that they not screen Robin and Marian at all, for one simple reason: It’s lousy. It was lousy in 1976 and it was lousy last Wednesday in Columbus. Besides, if any Ohio State students really needed to see it, Turner Classic Movies has been showing and promoting it for months far beyond its merits.

Purporting to chronicle the last days of Sean Connery’s Robin Hood and Audrey’s Maid Marian, Robin and Marian is easily the worst movie either star ever made — mean-spirited, cheap and shoddy. The mean spirit permeated James Goldman’s sneering script. As for the cheapness, well, there was really no excuse for that. The picture’s budget was $5,000,000 — quite respectable for 1976 — yet it takes place in a twelfth-century England where the population is about 35, all of them dressed in cast-off blankets and tin-plate armor that would be hooted out of any meeting of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

The shoddiness came thanks to the director, the less-than-mediocre Richard Lester, who could never stage the simplest action without zoom-lensing and quick-cutting it into incoherence; without overusing his telephoto lens until his movies looked literally flat; without ham-handed “comedy” that made his actors look like small-time boobs. In a career that ran from 1954 to 1991, Lester made exactly one decent movie — but for many people, that one covered a multitude of sins.

The picture, of course, was A Hard Day’s Night (1964), and Lester got more credit for it than he deserved. When it came out in July ’64 the Beatles were widely regarded as just four lucky yobbos from Liverpool who had stumbled into a freakish fame. Most everyone who wasn’t a teenage girl assumed it would blow over in a year and all four would be moved to the Where Are They Now File. A Hard Day’s Night‘s stars were assumed to be nothing special; in time, of course, the over-21 world would know better, but for now Lester got credit for making the Fab Four so appealing. The picture also had an excellent screenplay by Alun Owen, so smooth it seemed to have been ad-libbed on the spot. Unfortunately for Owen, it suffered the fate of all such scripts: Lester got credit for that too.

But I digress; back to Robin and Marian. Having seen it in 1976, I didn’t care if I never saw it again, but I supposed once every 43 years wouldn’t kill me. Well, now I’m done; if anybody’s still screening this turkey in 2062, I’ll be busy.

After intermission the Wexner Center redeemed itself with a much worthier effort. Secret People may be remembered chiefly as one of Audrey Hepburn’s first substantial roles (and the one that led directly to her breakthrough in Roman Holiday the next year), but the picture really belongs to Valentina Cortese (or “Cortesa”, as the Brits and Americans preferred to bill her in those days). She and Audrey play Maria Brentano and her younger sister Elenora (Nora), refugees in 1930 from an oppressive dictatorship in their unnamed foreign country. (Their names suggest Mussolini’s Italy, but the dictator is the neutrally-named General Galbern.) Their father, a Gandhi-esque dissident, has smuggled the girls to a friend in London. Shortly after their arrival, they learn that their father has been executed by the Galbern regime.

Seven years later, the two are naturalized British subjects, their surname anglicized to Brent. Maria is unexpectedly reunited with her former boyfriend Louis (Serge Reggiani), who recruits her into a plot to assasinate General Galbern on a visit to London. When the plan goes awry and leads to innocent death, it begins to dawn on Maria that Louis and his cohorts are nothing more than terrorists, as ruthless and callous toward human life as the regime they’re plotting against. Maria’s ambition to be a writer, and Nora’s to be a dancer, mean nothing to them in their lust for blood.

Secret People was directed and co-written by Thorold Dickinson (1903-84), a British filmmaker whose reputation has undergone a bit of a renaissance in recent years. Never prolific (“It’s terribly difficult to direct a film you don’t want to make,” he once said, “that’s why I’ve made so few.”), Dickinson is probably best known over here for his excellent 1940 picture Gaslight, which MGM fortunately failed to destroy when they remade it in 1944. Secret People isn’t entirely successful as either a political thriller or a psychological drama, but it poses intriguing questions, the plot takes some unexpected turns, and Valentina Cortese makes up in screen presence for what the colorless Serge Reggiani lacks. Plus, of course, it offers a glimpse of Audrey Hepburn on the cusp of immortality, indulging her first love, ballet.

In fact, the Audrey Hepburn connection would bear fruit later, once Cinevent itself was under way. I’ll get to that in its own good time.

To be continued…

“Don’t Stay Away Too Long…”

“G’bye, Mary Poppins,” says Dick Van Dyke’s Bert as the Practically Perfect Nanny sails away from No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane in Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964). “Don’t stay away too long…”

Well, she did stay away too long. But at long last Mary Poppins Returns has finally arrived, a sequel 54 years after the movie it sequelizes — surely some sort of record. I won’t go into great detail about the movie here, for two reasons: (1) the focus of Cinedrome is Classic Hollywood, not the current movie scene; and (2) the pleasures of Mary Poppins Returns are best discovered without any preparation beyond what you can get from having seen Mary Poppins in the first place.

But I will say this: Mary Poppins Returns is manifestly the best and most enduring movie of 2018. Does that sound brash? So be it. In my defense, I call as my witness generations yet unborn, who will know and cherish this picture long after whatever wins the Oscar this coming Sunday — and any other movie released last year — is a Trivial Pursuit answer that nobody gets. That this exquisite specimen of the moviemaker’s craft scores 78 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and 66 on Metacritic only tells me that 22 percent of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and 34 percent on Metacritic, are fools who don’t know a great movie musical when it stares them in the face; I feel sorry for them. (Meanwhile, on RT, Bumblebee scores 93 percent fresh — which says all you need to know about the current state of film criticism.)

That’s all I have to say here about Mary Poppins Returns. I mention it mainly as a way to segue into a discussion of why it took 54 years for us to get a sequel to Mary Poppins at all. Because the fact is, we could have had Mary Poppins Returns, or something like it, fully half a century ago. It certainly would have starred Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins, and might even have had the rest of the cast — Dick Van Dyke, David Tomlinson, Glynis Johns, Karen Dotrice, Matthew Garber, right down to Reginald Owen as Admiral Boom. That this alternate-universe sequel never happened was due to two reasons: (1) Walt Disney died too soon, and (2) P.L. Travers lived much too long.

Before I get to Mary Poppins, a few words about Walt Disney. In the community college Film History and Introduction to Film classes I teach, I have a standard lecture I deliver when the subject comes up, as it always will, of Disney’s place in the art and history of moving pictures. Generally, that lecture runs something like this:

Some years ago, the arts editor on the paper where I was a film critic asked me: Who did I consider the most influential artist of the 20th century? I’m sure she expected me to name Pablo Picasso, or Salvador Dali, or Jackson Pollock. Or, moving to other arts, possibly James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Eugene O’Neill or Ernest Hemingway. Or, sticking just to movies, maybe John Ford, Orson Welles, or even D.W. Griffith.

I didn’t even have to think about it. There’s not even a close second, I told her; the most influential artist of the 20th century is Walt Disney. All she could say to that was, “Well, if you consider Disney an artist…” “Well, if you don’t,” I told her, “you’re wrong.”

To me this is not a matter of opinion but a plain fact. Critics and artists may groan at the thought, but merely by inventing the theme park Walt Disney had an influence on American and world culture that Picasso or Hemingway could only dream of — and theme parks are far from all there was to Disney. If there’s one filmmaker from the 1920s — and ’30s, and ’40s, and ’50s, and ’60s — with whose movies you are reasonably familiar, it’s going to be Walt Disney.

Now I’m not talking about the Disney Company. I’m talking about Walt Disney the man — born 1901, died 1966. He died when your grandparents were the age you are now; I know because I’m old enough to be your grandfather and I was 18 when Walt Disney died. It was an occasion of not national, but world-wide mourning. Your grandparents grew up on Walt Disney’s movies. And so did your great-grandparents, and so did your parents — and so did you.

And, I’ll bet, so will your grandchildren. Someday you’ll be babysitting your grandkids, and you’ll turn on whatever people are using to watch movies when that day comes, and you’ll put on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Lady and the Tramp or Mary Poppins, and you’ll watch it with them, seeing it through a child’s eyes again just as you did when you first saw it at their age. And you’ll remember. That’s one of the things that makes Walt Disney one of the greatest artists America has ever produced.

And by the way, if anybody tells you otherwise, don’t listen to them, because there’s something wrong with their definition of art.

I transition now from my classroom lecture on Walt Disney back to a consideration of his final masterpiece. 

I saw Mary Poppins for the first time in early December 1964 at the Fox Senator Theatre, the first-run venue for all Disney pictures when they came to Sacramento. I remember it was the same night as the city’s Christmas Parade down K Street right in front of the theater; our showing turned out to be sold out, so my date and I killed a couple of hours watching the parade, window shopping, and helium-talking from a balloon we bought at a stand outside the entrance to F.W. Woolworth’s.

Finally, we got in to see the movie, and as we came out I had a thought that had never come to me after a movie before: “I’ve just seen a classic.”

Now I’d seen plenty of first-run classics up to that point: Cinderella, The War of the Worlds, The King and I, Mister Roberts, The Ten Commandments, Around the World in 80 Days, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. But I was four to ten years old when I saw those, and four-to-ten-year-olds just don’t think in terms of classic anything. This, at age 16, was the first time the conscious thought came to me immediately as I left the theater.

I was a bit surprised, a couple of months later, when the Oscar nominations came out, and “Chim Chim Cher-ee” was nominated for best song. The song I’d been humming as I left the theater that night wasn’t “Chim Chim Cher-ee” but “Jolly Holiday”, the one Bert (and half the animal kingdom) sings as he and Mary Poppins stroll through the sidewalk chalk picture. The song’s “Once in Love with Amy” lilt was simply irresistible — plus, of course, it goes on for nearly 15 minutes.

As all the world now knows, “Chim Chim Cher-ee” went on to win the Oscar, one of two that Robert and Richard Sherman won for writing Mary Poppins‘s music. By awards night I’d seen the picture a couple more times, and I better understood why “Chim Chim Cher-ee” won. It wasn’t until many years later, with decades of hindsight, that I came to believe as I do now: The nomination, and the award, should have gone to “Feed the Birds”. For my money, that’s the most beautiful song ever written for a Walt Disney picture, and that’s saying something. I’m not surprised that it was a particular favorite of Walt’s, or that he often asked the Shermans to play it to help him unwind at the end of a busy week. It’s probably no coincidence that it’s also the song most directly inspired by the original Mary Poppins stories — and the song that finally persuaded author P.L. Travers to go along with making Mary Poppins a musical.

And this brings me to Walt Disney’s secret weapon on Mary Poppins. Or weapons, I should say: Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman. Like writer Lawrence Edward Watkin on Darby O’Gill and the Little People, the Shermans were hired for a specific project, then assigned to others when that project had to go on a back burner. Watkin’s script for Darby O’Gill was delayed 12 years, during which he was put to work on Treasure Island, The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men, The Great Locomotive Chase and others. The Sherman brothers didn’t have to wait quite that long to see Mary Poppins in production, but they were still sidetracked onto incidental songs for other projects — The Absent-Minded Professor, Big Red, The Sword in the Stone, The Miracle of the White Stallions, etc. — while Disney was courting P.L. Travers. 

“The Boys”, as they quickly became known around the studio, had been handed a copy of the first Mary Poppins book early on, and they were very much in synch with Disney’s thinking on Travers’ episodic, essentially plotless novel — when they compared notes, they saw that they and he had marked off the same six chapters for inclusion in a prospective movie — and story/song sessions with writer Don Da Gradi went well.

Bob and Dick Sherman were pleased with, and even proud of, what they’d written for Mary Poppins, and rightly so. Let’s not mince words; what they turned out is arguably the greatest score ever written for an original film musical. To my way of thinking, its only serious rivals are the ones for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Wizard of Oz. (To be honest, The Wizard of Oz would probably get most people’s vote. But it wouldn’t get mine.)

By the time Travers and Disney finally closed the deal — with Travers to receive $100,000 against five percent of the gross earnings from any eventual film, plus complete script approval — DaGradi and the Shermans were pretty pleased with what they’d come up with. They were sure (as Dick Sherman put it years later) that Mrs. Travers would be “bowled over” when she heard what they had for her.

They reckoned without P.L. Travers. “Bowled over” wasn’t in her vocabulary — unless it was something she did to other people. And she was about to do it to Don DaGradi and Robert and Richard Sherman. We’ll get into that next time.

To be continued…

Catting Around

INTRODUCTORY NOTE: I wish I could take credit for this post, but I can’t. For the first time since I began Cinedrome, I’m presenting a guest blogger. The writer was a student in my Fall 2018 Introduction to Film Studies class at the college where I’m an adjunct instructor in Film and Media Studies. As I tell my Intro to Film students, my philosophy is that the best way to introduce them to film is to introduce them to films; thus I prefer to show them complete movies rather than excerpts. It’s all well and good to study individual sequences from movies you’ve seen, but if you haven’t seen the movie, showing part of it is like handing you a quarter-cup of Hershey’s Cocoa and calling it fudge.

In an 80-minute class period, finding movies to screen can be a challenge. So a major component of the class is to spend time with the films of Val Lewton, the legendary producer who turned out a series of extraordinarily intelligent B horror movies at RKO Radio during the 1940s — all of which ran between 65 and 75 minutes. An essay assignment on the final exam asked students to analyze any two of the five Lewton pictures they saw in class.

One student answered that assignment with a remarkable piece of film criticism, one of the best commentaries on Lewton’s unique body of work that I’ve ever read. I present that essay here for the enjoyment (and enlightenment) of Cinedrome readers.

I think it’s best if I don’t identify the student by name, or even by gender. Still, a few anonymous details won’t be out of order. This was the student’s first semester of college. He/she took the class “to learn more about the way movies/music videos/TV shows are made” and named some favorite movies: Roman Holiday, 10 Things I Hate About You,  Lady Bird.  The student has seen King Kong (1933), Gone With the Wind, West Side Story, The Sound of Music and Schindler’s  List, but not Citizen Kane, Dr. Strangelove or Pulp Fiction; has seen the first installment of The Lord of the Rings but not the second or third.

And with that, here is the essay prompt from the exam, followed by the student’s essay. I have corrected minor errors of spelling, grammar and punctuation, and added actors’ names in parentheses where appropriate; otherwise I’ve changed nothing.

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Producer Val Lewton was noted for his “psychological” horror movies, replacing the usual movie vampires, werewolves and other monsters with explorations of the darker reaches of the human psyche. We saw five of Lewton’s movies in class: Cat People (1942, d: Jacques Tourneur), I Walked with a Zombie (1943, d: Tourneur), The Curse of the Cat People (1944, d: Gunther von Fritsch, Robert Wise), The Body Snatcher (1945, d: Wise) and Isle of the Dead (1945, d: Mark Robson). Discuss the psychological aspects of any two of these films.

Val Lewton’s movies were known for having supernatural aspects, yet always ending with the common message that the evils of the world were not found in monstrous identities, but in humans themselves. In Cat People (1942) and The Curse of the Cat People (1944), both movies are heavy with psychological themes and explore individuals on a deeper level.

In Cat People the story is of a young man, Oliver (Kent Smith), falling for a mysterious designer named Irena (Simone Simon). Irena is reserved, and tells her husband there are certain things he cannot do, like kiss her. She is fearful of her past, which she hides from him, and is terribly afraid that she will turn into a monstrous cat that will put everyone around her in danger. She asks her husband to listen to her and to believe her when she finally confesses, but he brushes this off and makes her go see a therapist, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway). Irena wants to get better, but in the end, because her husband gives up on her and has an affair with his co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph), she turns into a large creature, is stabbed by Dr. Judd, who only wanted to exploit her, and dies.

The entire premise of Cat People seems to be a metaphor for depression or bipolar disorder, some type of mental illness. Irena suffers from a disorder due to a past that has traumatized her, and when she finally believes she can trust and open up to someone, they completely shut her down and refuse to understand her or stay with her through her episodes of unstable behavior. Throughout the film, Irena struggles with her ability to turn into a cat, much like those who suffer from mental illness. She has breakdowns and tries desperately to become better for the good of herself and her husband, but her husband gives up on her, triggering the start of another episode she cannot escape.

Irena has spent her whole life trying to suppress her emotions and “dark” feelings because that is what she has learned to do, which is unhealthy; this becomes her downfall in a way. Instead of being nurtured, encouraged, or listened to, Irena is forced to live in a cage her entire life, feeling as though she cannot escape from the prison of her mind. When she dies, she is finally free from the evils that plague her.

In truth, Irena was not the villain of the film at all. Oliver and Dr. Judd played such a large part in her downfall. Her husband, for not choosing to stick with her through the worst of times, and her therapist for trying to exploit her circumstances for his own curiosity, not to actually help her — which reflects many issues surrounding mental health today. Those afflicted with illness such as depression, etc., are not always supported and treated properly or given the help they need. When Lewton produced Cat People he chose a very taboo subject at the time and disguised it with a “horror” aspect. But Cat People seems to be a reflection of and metaphor for how mental illness works and affects people negatively.

Furthermore, in The Curse of the Cat People, the sequel to Cat People, we see Irena’s husband Oliver is now married to his co-worker Alice, and has a daughter with her named Amy (Ann Carter). Amy is perceived as a strange, imaginative girl who daydreams about fantastical and magical things. The other children believe her to be weird because of her airy personality and short attention span. She later befriends an old lady, Mrs. Farren (Julia Dean), with a jealous daughter Barbara (Elizabeth Russell), and even creates an imaginary friend who takes the form of Irena, her father’s first wife. Again, instead of choosing to understand his daughter, Oliver firmly tells her she must go play with the other kids or she will be punished. He also condemns her for having an imaginary friend, and she is severly punished for that as well.

Amy’s imaginary version of Irena is everything her parents are not — she listens to Amy, encourages and nurtures her, and therefore perpetuates Amy’s innocent view of the world in which all life is beautiful.

Amy’s childish innocence and ability to spread her warmth saves her from being killed when she hugs Mrs. Farren’s bitter daughter Barbara — Amy can see the good in people and in everything due to her innocence. In the end, Amy’s parents believe in her and finally listen to her instead of forcing her to try to be “normal” like the other children.

This here is another example of Lewton using a supernatural aspect as a disguise for a subject that was not really brought up during this time. Amy is a child who seems to be on the autism spectrum; she appears to have Asperger syndrome due to her behavior. Instead of really assessing this fact in their daughter, Amy’s parents, especially Oliver, are intent on making her a “normal” child, even punishing her for silly issues such as having an imaginary friend. Both parents are fearful their child may be mentally ill, especially when Amy mentions Irena. But in the end they come to accept her and foster her growth rather than cage her up, which is a stark contrast to what they did with Irena. The supernatural aspect Lewton added was to keep up the theme of “horror” films the company was marketing his movies as, but Curse of the Cat People was truly about child-like innocence and how adults try to take it away at an early age, when really they should be enouraging it.

Both Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People deal with serious issues in the world, but each topic is thinly veiled behind a supernatural aspect. Val Lewton’s films, though not filled with scary entities to haunt your dreams, are still equally as terrifying as they reflect how humans work. The psychological aspects of his films are what truly make them memorable and frightening.

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This is Jim again — I’m back. I don’t mind saying that this essay left me gasping with admiration. I don’t think I could have answered the essay prompt as completely and concisely as this student did — and I made it up. And remember: the student wrote this, as it were, “under the gun”, in a two-hour exam period — and after writing an equally long and insightful essay comparing Buster Keaton’s The General (1926) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).

The mention of Amy possibly having Asperger syndrome is particularly astute — especially since the student is probably too young to know that Asperger’s had barely been identified by 1944 (and then only in the Third Reich) and didn’t become general knowledge until the 1980s. (Of course, behavior like Amy’s was not unheard of back then, but it was usually described in less compassionate terms: “The kid’s weird / nuts / not right in the head…”) In other classes where I screened Curse of the Cat People, I discussed the idea of Amy’s being somewhere on the autism spectrum (itself barely recognized in ’44), but with this class I didn’t. As it happened, I didn’t have to — not for this student, anyhow.

Yuletide 2018

I know this is a departure from the subject of movies and the Golden Age of Hollywood, but as the Christmas Season rolls around once again, I don’t want it to go unobserved that 2018 marks the Bicentennial of the most familiar and beloved of all Christmas carols: “Silent Night”.

Or rather, strictly speaking, it’s the 200th anniversary of the carol’s original version, “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht”. It wasn’t to become “Silent Night” until 1859, when it was translated into English by Fr. John Freeman Young, an Episcopal priest in New York City. But as “Stille Nacht”, it was first performed at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve 1818 by its lyricist, Fr. Joseph Mohr, and composer, Franz X. Gruber, accompanied by Herr Gruber on guitar. Rather like Christianity itself, “Silent Night” first came into the world in a humble, even obscure imperial backwater — in this case Oberndorf, Austria — then proceeded to be embraced around the world in a remarkably short time. The song’s sublime spiritual simplicity continues to speak for itself, as it has for fully two centuries.

And in another departure from writing on Classic Hollywood, I’m sharing once again a contribution of my own to the Yuletide Season. As most Cinedrome readers will probably know, writer Philip Van Doren Stern once wrote a little story he called “The Greatest Gift”. He worked on it from 1939 to 1943, then, when he felt it was ready, he found himself unable to interest anyone in publishing it.  So Stern had 200 copies printed in a little booklet and sent them out to family and friends as his Christmas card that year. In time, the story came to the attention of Hollywood, and eventually, after a few false starts here and there, director Frank Capra made it the basis for his 1946 picture It’s a Wonderful Life with James Stewart and Donna Reed.

Taking a leaf from Philip Van Doren Stern, and in keeping with the Spirit of the Season, I’m offering a little story of my own as a sort of Christmas card for my Cinedrome readers. Unlike “The Greatest Gift”, it has nothing to do with movies or Hollywood; it’s just a tale told to me by a wise and wonderful older person I once knew. It’s called “The Sensible Christmas Wish”, and you can read it by clicking here.

If you like the story, feel free to share it with friends and family. Please remember, though, that like everything else here at Cinedrome, it is under copyright, and all rights are reserved.

Happy Holidays!

Cinevent 50 — Day 4

The last day of Cinevent 50 began with Kitty (1945), starring Paulette Goddard and Ray Milland. Since I wrote the program notes for Kitty, I’m going to follow my practice of years past and reproduce those notes here. However, I should mention that my notes for Cinevent were adapted from my 2013 Cinedrome post on this, one of my favorite pictures. So you’ve got a choice: you can read on now, or if you want the full gamut of what I had to say back then, you can click here and skip the next thirteen paragraphs.

Paulette Goddard is one of the great also-rans of movie history. As she never tired of saying, she was the front-runner to play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind – until some pert little nobody from England came along. Late in life, Goddard told how she was offered the role and threw a party to celebrate. Selznick came, she said, and so did the English actor Laurence Olivier, in town shooting Wuthering Heights for Sam Goldwyn. Olivier (again, according to Paulette) brought along his girlfriend Vivien Leigh, Selznick took one look at her, and that was that.

The story is nonsense, of course. David Selznick didn’t meet Leigh at Paulette’s house, and Paulette never had Scarlett nailed down enough to throw a party over it. But Paulette’s harmless little fable shows how that near-miss haunted her for the rest of her life — through her 1940s peak at Paramount (when she never quite made it into the top rank of Hollywood stars), and all the long years before her death at 79 in 1990, years during which GWTW’s fame grew even as her own dwindled.

There’s another oblique link to Gone With the Wind in Goddard’s career. As everybody knows, while the world waited breathlessly for the movie David Selznick would make of Margaret Mitchell’s novel, Warner Bros. decided to cash in on this vogue for the Old South by dusting off a 1933 Broadway flop about another flirtatious and headstrong southern belle — and Jezebel swept to the screen a year ahead of GWTW.

Fast-forward to 1944, when another novel has readers breathless and every actress in Hollywood rubbing her hands. The book is Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber, about an ambitious village girl’s sexual exploits during the reign of Charles II of England. Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox had snatched up the movie rights to this racy, titillating bestseller — and the boys over at Paramount decided to steal a march on Zanuck the way Warners had on Selznick. The beneficiary of their ploy was Paulette Goddard.

The vehicle they chose was Rosamond Marshall’s novel Kitty, which had been published the year before Amber, but with nowhere near the same success. Born in 1902, Rosamond Marshall wrote some 16 novels altogether, but only two of them ever made it to the screen: The Bixby Girls (filmed in 1960 as All the Fine Young Cannibals with Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner) and Kitty.

Actually, not all of Kitty made it to the screen. Marshall’s novel was a pretty steamy bodice-ripper by 1940s standards, the tale of a 14-year-old London prostitute blithely sleeping her way up the social ladder in the days of King George III. Kitty (she doesn’t have a last name) gets caught stealing the shoes of the painter Thomas Gainsborough — and he, liking the look of her, invites her into his studio to pose. There, Kitty catches the eye of a ne’er-do-well visitor, Sir Hugh Marcy, who takes her home with him and introduces her to the pleasures of orgasmic sex. Sir Hugh and his gin-sodden aunt Lady Susan take Kitty under their wings, passing her off as the orphaned child of a dear friend and subjecting her to a crash course in proper speech and manners. Kitty blooms under their tutelage and her lovers multiply.

So much for the novel. Needless to say, between publication and the release of Paramount’s film in 1945, Rosamond Marshall’s story underwent a major overhaul at the hands of writers Karl Tunberg and Darrell Ware and director Mitchell Leisen. For starters, a prostitute as a heroine, let alone a 14-year-old one, was out of the question. So Kitty was advanced to somewhere beyond the age of consent — and relieved of the need to have anything to consent to.

More important, Tunberg and Ware (with perhaps the input of director Leisen) realized what Rosamond Marshall evidently did not: that next to Kitty herself, by far the book’s most interesting characters are the cad Sir Hugh and the drunkard Lady Susan. In the novel, Lady Susan is dead halfway through and Sir Hugh disappears with far too many pages left to read. In the screenplay, both are kept around, to far better effect.

Ware and Tunberg’s other solution to Kitty’s story problems — and its conflicts with the Production Code — was inspired: They expanded the scenes of Sir Hugh and Lady Susan schooling Kitty in ladylike deportment, thus changing Kitty’s plot from the rise of an adolescent hooker to an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, with Kitty (Paulette Goddard) as Eliza Doolittle, Sir Hugh Marcy (Ray Milland) as Henry Higgins, and Thomas Gainsborough (Cecil Kellaway) as Col. Pickering. Shaw’s Mrs. Higgins became Lady Susan, and the role was entrusted to that grand dowager of the British and Broadway stages, Constance Collier. (Shaw’s reaction to all this is unrecorded. He may have been amused – or he may never have even seen the picture. He almost certainly never read Marshall’s novel.)

Kitty is billed as “A Mitchell Leisen Production.” In the mid-’40s Leisen (pronounced “Leeson”) was Paramount’s arbiter of elegance, having begun his career designing sets and costumes for Cecil B. DeMille, the only Paramount director who outranked him in prestige. Leisen has taken a beating from auteurists in recent decades, mainly because Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges both claimed to have turned director out of dissatisfaction with Leisen’s treatment of their scripts. But an unbiased look at the pictures Leisen made of Sturges’s screenplays for Easy Living (1937) and Remember the Night (’40), or Wilder’s (and Charles Brackett’s) for Midnight (’39) and Hold Back the Dawn (’41), makes them sound like a couple of whining prima donnas. We should all be grateful that Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges moved into directing their own stuff, but they had no grounds whatever to complain about Mitch Leisen.

David Chierichetti’s 1995 book Mitchell Leisen: Hollywood Director does much to correct this injustice to Leisen, but its information on Kitty is sketchy and unreliable — when it’s not downright false. Chierichetti says it’s set in “Restoration Era England” when it takes place 125 years later. Leisen himself, interviewed, says: “I spent two years researching Gainsborough and the way he painted. We determined that the picture took place in 1659, and there’s nothing in the picture that was painted by him after that year.” Wrong again. Gainsborough wasn’t even born until 1727, and an opening title card explicitly sets the story in 1783. Clearly, Leisen (who died in 1972) had not seen the picture recently when he discussed it with Chierichetti, nor had Chierichetti when he wrote about it. And Leisen never spent two years in research. Kitty was ready for release by the end of 1944 but was held up a full year by Paramount’s backlog of product; two years of research would have had Leisen beginning in 1942, a year before the novel was published.

But there is one point on which Chierichetti is absolutely right: Kitty “was precisely the kind of picture Leisen could do better than anybody else, and its mixture of mannered comedy and gutsy drama suited him perfectly.” The picture is a sumptuous feast, evoking 18th century London as sharply as an engraving by William Hogarth. It’s a pity the picture couldn’t have been made in Technicolor — thus evoking Gainsborough rather than Hogarth — but Paramount was notoriously cheap on that score. Even as it stands, Kitty richly deserved its Oscar nomination for art direction — for Hans Dreier and Walter Tyler; the production design was by Raoul Pene Du Bois. (Kitty lost to Fox’s Anna and the King of Siam.)

Over and above its gorgeous look and elegent style, Kitty gave Paulette Goddard the opportunity of a lifetime, and she came through with the performance of her career. Always a conscientious actress rather than an inspired one, Goddard worked hard on her Cockney accent, coached by Phyllis Loughton and Connie Emerald (mother of Ida Lupino), and, as the new-and-improved Kitty, by Constance Collier, who tutored Goddard/Kitty as much off screen as Lady Susan did on. There’s not a false note in Goddard’s performance, nor in any of the rest of the cast, which was surely one of the largest and best either she or Leisen ever worked with: Milland (against-all-odds charming as Sir Hugh, a more detestable rotter than Henry Higgins ever was), Collier, Kellaway, Patric Knowles (as Kitty’s version of Freddy Eynsford-Hill), Dennis Hoey (as Kitty’s first husband), Reginald Owen (as her second), and the ever-popular Eric Blore as Sir Hugh and Lady Susan’s querulous manservant Dobson. (Blore has one of the best lines in the picture – but I won’t spoil it.)

After lunch we got the last three chapters of The Masked Marvel, and we finally learned who the Masked Marvel really was (as if it mattered; I never could keep the candidates straight — I can’t even remember which one wound up dying in that L.A. beanfield).

Then came The King of Wild Horses (1924), which showcased one of those stars that almost every film buff has heard of, but (I’ll bet) very few have ever seen: Rex the Wonder Horse. Discovered God knows where by producer Hal Roach, he had a pretty good career for a while — for a horse, anyhow, especially a horse who wasn’t partnered with some human cowboy star. This particular picture, Rex’s debut, had him as the alpha male in a herd of wild horses, sought by a cowboy (Léon Bary) who wants to catch and tame him, while the cowpoke’s rancher boss (Sidney De Gray) tries to learn who keeps rustling his stock. The two plotlines eventually converge, naturally, and work themselves out pretty well. Rex was the main attraction, and there’s no denying he had star quality, clearly intelligent and seemingly game for almost anything; it’s easy to understand how he came to rival, in his day, the popularity of Rin Tin Tin. Another point of interest was the presence in the cast of Charley Chase in a straight dramatic role (and, to avoid misleading audiences, billed as Charles Parrott, his real name).

Beauty for Sale (1933) was an energetic pre-Code from MGM and director Richard Boleslawski, from a novel by paleo-romance novelist Faith Baldwin. Madge Evans played a working girl at an upscale beauty salon catering to wealthy women with nothing better to do than sit around yakking at each other with mud on their faces. Various sexual shenanigans ensue: Evans wanders into an affair with the husband (Otto Kruger) of one of her more empty-headed clients (Alice Brady); her co-worker and best friend (Una Merkel) drains a sugar daddy (Charley Grapewin) for every dime she can get; another co-worker (Florine McKenney) carries on a forbidden-fruit romance with the pampered son (Phillips Holmes) of the salon’s owner (Hedda Hopper) and winds up pregnant.

Beauty for Sale was nicely done, and the print was handsome, but it was overshadowed by the picture that followed it, which in its turn closed out the weekend with one last highlight. This was Dreamboat (1952), a marvelous spoof of Hollywood, television, and academia that probably represents the pinnacle of writer/director Claude Binyon’s career.

No doubt that name sounds vaguely familiar. Binyon (1905-78) was a journeyman writer whose career, if it never quite scaled the heights of a Preston Sturges or Billy Wilder, was still nothing to sneeze at. Starting out as a journalist, he worked at Variety for several years in the late ’20s and early ’30s, where some say he was responsible for the famous headlines WALL STREET LAYS AN EGG and STIX NIX HICK PIX. True credit on those is understandably disputed; whatever the case, by 1932 he had transitioned from writing about movies to writing for them. Over the years his scripts included Sing, You Sinners (1938); Holiday Inn (’42); This Is the Army (’43); Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys! (’58); North to Alaska (’60) — and, it must be said, Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick (’52) and the 1960 all-star roadshow megabomb Pepe

Binyon occasionally directed his own scripts, and with Dreamboat he was at the top of both games. Clifton Webb played Thornton Sayre, a stuffy, acerbic college professor whose students call him “Old Ironheart” behind his back. The advent of television has uncovered a secret long buried in his past: He used to be a silent-screen heartthrob known as Bruce Blair (imagine a combination of Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert), and now those obsolete relics of a bygone day are turning up on TV, hosted by his former co-star Gloria Marlowe (Ginger Rogers). The movies have created a sensation, upsetting the stuffy trustees of his college, so he strikes out for New York to get an injunction to stop this invasion of his privacy, taking along his daughter Carol (Anne Francis), who is well on her way to becoming the same kind of stick-in-the-mud killjoy that he is. While Gloria and her TV producer (Fred Clark) try to charm Prof. Sayre out of his dudgeon, Carol is squired around town by the producer’s assistant (Jeffrey Hunter). In the process, father learns that reversing the wheels of showbiz is easier said than done, while daughter learns there’s more to having a good time than working on a thesis to “challenge the existence of Homer as an individual.” Dreamboat was a witty delight every inch of the way, poking fun at show business and academia with both barrels and scoring a bullseye every time. It was also a testament to 20th Century Fox’s ongoing ingenuity in finding vehicles to showcase the unorthodox but inimitable talents of Clifton Webb. Those of use who stayed through to the end of the weekend were well-rewarded for our loyalty.

Now I’d like to say a few words about Anne Francis. As Dreamboat romps across the screen, her Carol Sayre transforms from a buzzkill bookworm who looks about five days past puberty into something like the Anne Francis we all remember. She had a long and worthy career, with 169 credits between 1947 and 2004; she was always a welcome presence, and I’d venture to guess everyone who ever saw her in a movie or on TV remembered her fondly. Yet she never quite became a real star; I doubt if she ever got her name above a title, and she got top billing only in her one-season TV series Honey West. I wonder why?

There’s a line in John Fowles’s novel The Magus that has always stayed with me. The title character, Maurice Conchis, a mysterious middle-aged semi-recluse living on the (fictitious) Greek island of Phraxos, is speaking to the narrator, burnt-out teacher Nicholas Urfe, about Lily, the young woman who lives with Conchis. “Lily is beautiful, is she not? In fact, she is dangerously close to being perfect, and perfectly beautiful women are always boring.” (In the disastrous 1968 movie, Lily was played by Candice Bergen. ‘Nuff said.)

Maybe that’s what held Anne Francis back. Not that she was ever boring — far from it — but she was awfully close to being perfectly beautiful. All of the screen’s greatest beauties, it seems, had some flaw: their eyes were too large, or too small, or too far apart, or they had only one good side, or they were nothing without a camera. Anne Francis had nothing like that. There was that little mole near the right corner of her mouth, but does that really count as a flaw? Personally, I think it only put her that much closer to perfection. No wonder her role in Funny Girl (1968) was slashed to practically nothing; Barbra Streisand didn’t need that kind of competition. And no wonder one of her best (and best remembered) performances was on The Twilight Zone, as a department store mannequin allowed to come to life for a month and walk among the mortals.

Well, that’s one of the things I like about Cinevent. Along with the reunions with longtime and like-minded friends, the dealers’ room, the screenings, there are reflections like that that spring to mind. And you never know what’s going to bring one on. On to Memorial Day 2019!