Tuesday, December 10, 2013

PORTRAIT IN BLACK 1960

Although I like to think of my taste in movies as being somewhat broad and varied, the truth is that I’m an oddly finicky film fan who only rarely steps outside of his comfort zone of favored tropes, themes, and genres. Case in point: as a rule, I don’t like war movies, westerns, sports films, or sci-fi. Thus, there are a great many classic and perhaps marvelous films in these genres that I have never seen, nor is it likely I ever will. That’s a hell of a lot of movies to cut out of one’s life. Of course, some of this boils down to plain old discernment (at age fifty-plus, I've seen enough western, war, sci-fi, and sports films to know that, by and large, they’re just not  my cup of tea), but some of it is just kneejerk prejudice and inflexibility.

Back in my film school days, before my opinions and tastes had begun to fully take shape (read: calcify), I was one of those guys who considered it time well-spent to sit and watch ANY kind of movie, for I was then of the mind that one can learn as much from bad films as good. Not anymore. When one reaches 50, the once-illusory concept of time becomes a concrete reality. Passing time suddenly morphs into wasting time, and the odds are not in your favor. I've reached the stage where I don’t welcome spending my dwindling hours on this earth slogging through movies my cinephile Spidey-Senses signal to me I’m not going to enjoy. These days, it’s my partner who takes the broadminded, democratic approach to movies, while I largely content myself with watching films I’ve already seen, or taking my chances on new films only after I have thoroughly dusted them for signs of Tarantino, auto racing, handguns held sideways, Katherine Heigl, or anyone with a neck as thick as his head wearing a cape. 
Knuckle Sandwich 
Anthony Quinn & Lana Turner engage in a little oral sex
The only time my resolve weakens as to what films I positively, absolutely, will not watch, are on the occasions of my body weakening. Which is to say, when I’m confined to my bed and so sick with a cold or the flu that I’ll literally watch anything to keep my mind off of how miserable I’m feeling.
Occasionally this leads to my being subjected to unfortunate “entertainments” like Gene Kelly’s old coot comedy-western, The Cheyenne Social Club (1970); a film that, 15 minutes in, had me praying for a high-grade fever. But what I like best is when my incapacitated state brings about my exposure to (and enjoyment of) a film I might not otherwise be inclined to sit through. Such is the case with Ross Hunter’s overdressed opus of melodramatic camp, Portrait in Black; a film I consciously avoided (rather surprisingly, given its reputation) until it screened on TCM a few years back – during the flu season – and has thereafter remained a lasting favorite. For all the wrong reasons. 
as Sheila Cabot
as Dr. David Rivera
as Cathy Cabot
as Blake Richards
Portrait in Black is an old-fashioned reminder that people once went to the movies to see the kind of overwrought hand-wringers and melodramas that later became standard fodder for TV movies, miniseries, primetime soaps, and the Lifetime Network. All plot, no character, Portrait in Black exists solely as a parade of lacquered hairstyles, overelaborate sets (or San Francisco locations so overlit that they LOOK like sets), and - most importantly - smart fashions for the well-dressed middle-age socialite. 60s variety.
Propping up all this material display is a workaday murder/suspense plot involving a cantankerous shipping magnate (Lloyd Nolan); his sexually frustrated wife, Lana Turner (“Too bad they can’t find a shot for your condition…a vitamin shot for ‘Love’ deficiency!”), and his morally conflicted physician, Anthony Quinn. Also thrown into the mix as sundry red herrings and narrative speed bumps of varying annoyance are Sandra Dee as the snippy stepdaughter; her scrappy, poor-but-honest suitor, John Saxon; and the dull-to-the-point-of-genius Richard Basehart as Nolan’s legal advisor.
 Yes, Portrait in Black is one of those movies where even the phones are color coordinated to the leading lady's wardrobe.

There’s nothing going on here that you haven’t seen about a million times before (and better), no plot point or suspense twist that isn't telegraphed ages before it occurs. But thanks to dated acting styles that result in theatrically stilted performances worthy of a Carol Burnett Show spoof; the uniquely kitschy look of early 60s high style (gold vein mirrors, Chinese Modern knickknacks, quilted headboards, gilt filigree); and producer Ross Hunter’s unparalleled gift for making every one of his films look as if it were made at least ten years earlier; Portrait in Black fails as legitimate drama in direct proportion to the heights it hits (and believe me, this movie soars!) as derisible, highly-entertaining camp.

Chinese-American silent screen icon Anna May Wong was coaxed out of an 11-year retirement  for this, her last film role, to appear (along with everybody's favorite Martian, Ray Walston) as an appropriately mysterious member of the Cabot mansion "help." 
Anyone who knows me (or has even a passing familiarity with this blog) would think Lana Turner and Sandra Dee co-starring in a film produced by the man who gave us LostHorizon, Tammy Tell Me True, AND the Doris Day camptastic classic, Midnight Lace, would be a no-brainer of a must-see for a man of my particular “tastes.” But the truth is, I’m no great fan of Lana Turner (although I’ve always got a kick out of her very “movie star” name, for me she peaked, both in beauty and talent, in The Postman Always Rings Twice); and in spite of Ross Hunter’s reputation for being one of Hollywood’s foremost purveyors of inadvertent camp, I tend to find his static, studio-bound melodramas to be a little hard going.
Trouble in Paradise
The mortality rate of Lana Turner's movie husbands is never all that great to begin with, start man-handling her and you're pretty much looking at a cameo. Curious side note: it's been said that Truman Capote harbored a lifelong crush on actor Lloyd Nolan, often speaking of him as the "ideal man."(!) 
Having previously endured his backpedaling remake of Imitation of Life and the arid romance of Magnificent Obsession, I wasn't exactly inclined to give Ross Hunter benefit of a “three strikes” vote when Portrait in Black was recommended to me: hours of my life irretrievably lost to two Ross Hunter productions was more than enough, thank you. Of course, now I see the only thing wasted were all the years of laughs I deprived myself of by waiting so long to see this howler. Thank god for that miserable, debilitating, 6-day bout of influenza, huh?
Try not to look suspicious!
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Where to start? There’s something sublimely liberating about watching a potboiler so superficial and devoid of subtext that after it’s over, you needn’t waste a second mulling over what it all signifies. It’s a pleasurable time-killer, pure and simple. And beyond being a tale of illicit lovers implicated in the suspicious death of a despised industrialist and the thin mystery surrounding the identity of a blackmailer, Portrait in Black is true to Hunter’s oft-stated objective to, “…(give) the public what they wanted. A chance to dream, to live vicariously, to see beautiful women, jewels, gorgeous clothes, melodrama.”  Note that at no point does he mention credible storylines, good acting, or simple character development. 
Dr. Rivera: "Look at this. It's more deadly than a gun...a thousand times less detectable!"
A puncture from a hypodermic needle is less detectable than a big ol' gunshot wound? Imagine that.

You gotta love the creaky screenplay by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts (based on their 1945 play) wherein all the characters find it necessary to say each other’s names even when speaking face to face. It’s never“You mustn't!” when it can be, “David, you mustn’t!” Never, “Would you like fries with that?” when you can say, “Sheila, would you like fries with that?” This practice lends an air of comically mannered artificiality to all human interaction, which fortunately is right in step with the old-fashioned, histrionic performances director Michael Gordon (Pillow Talk, Move Over Darling) elicits from his cast. Even the reliably naturalistic (and, for my taste, tiresomely lusty) Anthony Quinn seems peculiarly hamstrung and stiff. 
A real comic highlight is the hilarious rain-slicked drive along curvy coastal roads that has Turner more or less recreating her scream scene from The Postman Always Rings Twice
And because the film's simple “Who’s blackmailing us and why?” plotline must strain to build suspense and pad out its running time, the script has our star-crossed lovers making one boneheaded misstep after another, compounding the many sizable obstacles they already face in trying to navigate (and failing spectacularly) the choppy sea of red herrings provided by the rogues gallery of malcontents and secret-keepers that comprise their circle of friends, employees, and family members. In no time, what's intended to be dramatic conflict quickly plays out like a farcical comedy of errors.

PERFORMANCES
As members of Ross Hunter’s unofficial film repertory company, Lana Turner, Sandra Dee, John Saxon, and the ever-regal Virginia Grey had, by the time they made Portrait in Black, developed a firm grasp on the overly-sincere, purple dramatizing required of this kind of melodrama. And while I wouldn't go so far as to say any of them actually make fools of themselves, in certain scenes (the tormented curtain-pulling episode in particular), Lana Turner comes awfully close.
Indeed, Lana Turner takes all the prizes for making Portrait in Black so watchable for me, because hers is one of those truly awful performances that only the committed can give. She's marvelous to look at, oozes star quality out of every pore, but I honestly haven't a clue as to what she's trying for in her scenes. Whatever it is, natural human behavior doesn't factor into it. She gives one of those Master Thespian "Movie Star" performances that torpedoes realism but makes for a hell of an entertaining evening at the movies.
Although he seems a tad out of his element, I have to say it's nice to see Anthony Quinn all gussied up for a change. Usually covered in stubble, sweat stains, and acting all earthy and robust, I welcomed this buttoned-down, Brooks Bros. Zorba.
Meanwhile, Lana here doesn't seem to be too pleased with her "Minnie Mouse in Mink" look.
I've always found the troubled Sandra Dee to be a very appealing presence in movies, but here her innate charm is undermined a bit by the scornful, worrywart character she's saddled with, and by the efforts of Hunter and Universal Studios to glamorize and update the 17-year-old's teenybopper screen image. Personally, I kept hoping for Sandra Dee to break into her Tammy Tyree Mississippi twang and start lecturing these corrupt city folk on how much simpler life was down on the river with her grandpappy; all the while peppering her homey, colloquial diatribe with cute phrases like, "It's a puzzlement!" 
It would be a few more years before Mary Quant, Vidal Sassoon, and the youth movement at large encouraged young women to actually look like young women. Judging by Sandra Dee's glam makeover in Portrait in Black, the goal of sophisticated 17-year-olds in 1960 was to look like their mothers. Dee looks fabulous here, but honestly, she could pass for a woman in her 30s.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
There are many categories of camp: there’s pretentious (Showgirls), clueless (Can’t Stop the Music), and my favorite, inadvertent; of which Portrait in Black stands as a shining example. Pretentious camp is rooted in a kind of mean-spirited schadenfreude (pleasure derived from the misfortune of others) that can make you feel guilty if you think too long about it, while clueless camp can have you feeling sorry for the subject at the self-same time you’re laughing at it. Inadvertent camp, however, is the most enjoyable because the laughs come less at the expense of the individuals involved and more at the fickle finger of fate. 
Time can turn one generation's obsessions into another's punch lines. The passing of time brings with it changing tastes and attitudes about all manner of things from acting styles to fashion. So if a once-serious film falls victim to outmoded pop cultural tastes and finds itself joining the ranks of camp (The Bad Seed), it’s really nobody’s fault and the laughs feel, well…just a little bit kinder. 

A few of my favorite things:
Richard Basehart as Howard Mason making a play for "grieving" widow Sheila Cabot a day after the funeral (love the cigarette!)
Turner's mink-clad stroll through San Francisco's I. Magnin department store (complete with doorman!)
Anthony Quinn going mano-a-mano with the Hippocratic Oath
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
As fun as a movie like Portrait in Black can be for the occasional mindless diversion, recalling that there was once a time when movies like this represented a sizable percentage of Hollywood's output, always makes me grateful for the revolution in film that brought about the New Hollywood of the late 60s and 70s. As Hollywood began to respond to the realist influence of European New Wave cinema and the naturalism of East Coast "Method" acting, old-school producers like Ross Hunter prided themselves on their efforts to bring "glamour" and old-fashioned family entertainment back to Hollywood movies. Hunter in particular made films that seemed to exist within a bubble of willful irrelevance so out of touch with the real world that they bordered on the bizarre.
Portrait in Black marked the third and final screen pairing of John Saxon and Sandra Dee
Although he was gay, Hunter made films promoting staunchly status-quo heterosexual values that featured men and women occupying traditional gender roles, and people of color depicted, if perhaps more plentifully than many of his peers, always as occupying positions of a non-threatening, subordinate status. And, as befitting the times and Hunter's own always-appear-in-public-with-a-beard-on-your-arm inclinations, gays were invisible or non-existent except as humorous reference points in his sex comedies.
Ross Hunter's films understandably struck a chord with those of an older demographic. Those moviegoers left bewildered by cinema's new permissiveness (or the term cinema, for that matter) and still enamored of the perhaps apocryphal Samuel Goldwyn quote, "If you want to send a message, use Western Union!" So while college kids in 1960 were lining up to see Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, Ross Hunter was getting rich (and very little in the way of respect) releasing Portrait in Black, a movie so timely it was once considered as a vehicle for Joan Crawford.
Ross Hunter good luck charm, Virginia Grey, as Miss Lee: the proverbial secretary in love with her boss.
Fans of George Cuckor's The Women will remember Grey as Joan Crawford's wisecracking shopgirl friend, Pat
I think I'm too much the devotee of 70s movies to perhaps fully appreciate Ross Hunter's contribution to film. But as a connoisseur of camp, I think the outmoded, overdressed, overemotional charm of Portrait in Black is close to being as good as it gets.

BONUS MATERIAL
If you're a fan of Ross Hunter or late-career Lana Turner, check out these sites:
A terrific review of Imitation of Life can be found at Angelman's Place
Read all about Lana in Madame X at Poseidon's Underworld


Copyright © Ken Anderson

29 comments:

  1. God, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this (and this is a film on my own short list to receive a "tribute!") Your style of writing and use of words is so entertaining! This was my favorite line in the piece because it echoes my own feelings so much --> "Inadvertent camp, however, is the most enjoyable because the laughs come less at the expense of the individuals involved and more at the fickle finger of fate." I deliberately seek out glossy, stodgy, overwrought movies from the late-'50s and early-'60s in the hopes that they will somehow provide the sort of laughs that "Portrait in Black" and others of its ilk do. This means I will usually run to anything produced by Ross Hunter (who is something of a GOD in The Underworld for having given the world "Madame X," "Airport" and "Lost Horizon," to name just three of my faves.)

    I think his films, like this one for certain, appeal to me because I tend to be such a shallow person; one who would rather see good looking people suffer or argue or simply exist in Jean Louis clothing than watch everyday folks tackling whatever subjects are in fashion (and, of course, CGI is anathema to me, so I have no interest in any of that.) Hunter's world is not ours, but I really wouldn't mind being there, at least for 2 hours or so at a stretch! ;-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's such a nice, compliment, Poseidon. Like you, I really get a charge out of films made during that pseudo naive/clueless period of the 50s and 60s. People who don't really get the kind of camp it sounds like we both enjoy, tend to think we look for the bad in them and just make fun.
      In actually it's really enjoyable to watch something that seems to be operating on two levels simultaneously.
      It fascinates me how a film like this can lay out perfectly fine as a straight melodrama, yet you see it with a different frame of mind (or audience) and you can't keep up with the laughs.
      It's hard for me to believe you're a shallow person just because you enjoy the escapist side of movies. I think that really lends itself to a sort of creative, right-brained type of person.
      I think most serious film fans are drawn to movies because they seek to lose themselves within them and/or find themselves within them. I think both are what movies are all about.
      Thank you so much for your nice comments.I like knowing what the appeal of camp is for some people. It's a pretty individual thing, isn't it?

      Delete
  2. This film looks really polished. It seems like an entertaining movie to watch after reading your fun description of it. I laughed when you wrote "only after I have thoroughly dusted them for signs of Tarantino, auto racing, handguns held sideways, Katherine Heigl, or anyone with a neck as thick as his head wearing a cape." So true.
    Lana Turner had major star power and remained popular in films a long while all the way through to the end of the sixties, even though she had little range.
    -Wille

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Wille
      You said it when you called the film "polished"! Another word I might use is burnished. It's really one of those glossy Hollywood movies where nobody has pores and there is never a hair out of place.
      For that alone it's worth a look, but I really think you'll get a kick out of the acting and plot (to be honest, the ending came as a surprise to me the first time I saw it!)
      And as late career Lana Turner goes, this is one of my favorites (going neck-to-neck with "The Big Cube"). Hope you have the opportunity to check it out sometime. Thanks, Wille!

      Delete
  3. Ken, I hope you are feeling better, but isn't a lavish, opulent Ross Hunter spectacle starring Lana Turner overly rich fare for someone in a debilitated condition?

    Seriously, though, I love your take on this over-the-top "woman's picture," and agree with everything you've said. But being a big fan of this particular genre, I must must must see this one again very soon. What a star-studded cast - including the reunion of Turner and Sandra Dee, and the comeback of Anna May Wong.

    The sleek production values (the ones that may make YOU queasy) make my mouth water, especially since I'm currently on a low-carb diet and in need of creamy, dreamy Ross Hunter-style gloss and glamour. I LOVE the way you pointed out that Miss Turner's telephones match her ensemble...and in your brilliant screen captures you made me remember that everything in these films is smooth as silk, especially the carefully painted, pancake-makeupped faces of these classic movie stars - especially the ones who are "of a certain age." In Hunter's movies, they all look ageless.

    I know you don't love Imitation of Life, but I find it a far superior film to this one, with an auteur like Douglas Sirk using many of the same elements in a bit of a more artful and knowing manner...but I need to see this one again.

    Next time you are feeling out of sorts, try Madame X (1966) which is, if possible, even more hackneyed and unintentionally camp than Portrait in Black. Lana Turner may even turn out to be your good luck charm and keep you hale and healthy.

    Again, hope you are feeling better, Ken. I know I always feel good when reading your wildly entertaining blog.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Chris!
      Yes, I'm feeling better. it's weird...when I was in bed I tried watching one of my fave 70s movies (Five Easy Pieces) but less than halfway through I was finding myself feeling like Blanche Dubois in Streetcar- "I don't want reality...I want magic!" Which is right where a film like this comes in.
      It's a total immersion in fantasy, and sometimes that's just what the doctor ordered.
      Everything you mentioned- the clothes, production values, the glam - it's like a spoonful of sugar. I can't take a steady diet of this stuff, but when you're feeling low, I guess Ross Hunter knew how to pile on Escapism with a capital E.
      I haven't seen "Imitation of Life" in years (I so much prefer the Colbert version) and have never seen "Madame X" which seems to have been double packaged with this movie. Maybe next time I'm feeling under the weather and vulnerable, I'll give them a try.

      Delete
    2. Ken, "Madame X" is one of my favorite movies, PERIOD. Top 10 for me. I don't care how campy, cheesy, tacky or stuffy it is, I break down into a slobbering fool near the end every time! I cannot recommend it enough, for it goes down like butter and features an ungodly unforgettable performance from a nearly-dead Constance Bennett (who didn't even survive to see its release!) Get the flu, ASAP! LOL

      Delete
    3. Poseidon, I love this movie too, and agree with you that Constance Bennett's performance is is one of the finest examples of high-class bitchery ever captured on film. And I love Lana, especially when she degenerates into a blowsy, blubbering mess in Mexico, and then to an oven-dried husk of a woman before expiring in her cute son's (Keir Dullea's?) arms. This is a real guilty pleasure indeed. I think I need to buy the DVD!!

      Delete
    4. Well, between such raves from two of my favorite bloggers (with whom, I'm discovering, I share an oddly telepathic relationship when it comes to the films we write about, I guess I can't afford to pass up "Madame X"!
      Love it or hate it, it sounds like just the kind of film I most surely would (should?) have seen by now. I'm going to try not to wait until I catch a cold to give it a look-see. Besides, I love to cry at movies (Hell, I cry at certain episodes of "Hazel"!) so that's a recommendation in and of itself. Thanks, guys!

      Delete
    5. ...and thanks for the plug about Imitation of Life, Ken...you are as generous as you are talented. Happy holidays!!

      Delete
    6. You're so welcome, Chris! You post got me to consider giving a film I'd written off another look-see. Happy holidays to you, too!

      Delete
  4. OMG, I OWN this movie (a box set with Madame X) and you are right on target with this one -- so much so that I'm inspired to watch it once more! I remember wanting Portrait to be a little bit better than it was and being very disappointed with that freeze-frame of Lana that ends the picture, as I recall. Without movies like these there would be no Charles Busch-type parodies -- and both the originals and the parodies are hilarious. For me, the campier the better. Now whene will I be able to get my hands on "By Love Possessed"?!

    PS - having just watched "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" on your recommendation and enjoyed it a great deal, it did make me appreciate the glossy artifice of Ross Hunter movies -- he was a lot of things, but dreary and downtrodden wasn't one of them!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Peter
      I love that you actually own this movie (I do too...now)!
      I think a light genre like suspense thriller (as opposed to heavy drama) lends itself more easily to this kind of studio system gloss. It all feels so inconsequential, but at least it's supposed to.
      I have a ball each time i see this movie, butI know what you mean about the ending ...things have boiled to such a pitch by then...I'm always disappointed by the abrupt cop out of a freeze frame ending (Eyes of Laura Mars).
      Lastly, I'm pleased as hell that you took a look at "Alice"! Such a contrast, huh?
      Ross Hunter's head would have fallen off if someone suggested a scene in which we're shown Lana Turner shaving her legs in the sink of a seedy motel!

      Delete
  5. Yet another brilliant analysis, Mr. Ken (and I've never even heard of this film).

    I just adore your writing and how you weave film and historical fact together. Here's an example I particularly like: "It would be a few more years before Mary Quant, Vidal Sassoon, and the youth movement at large encouraged young women to look like young women. Judging by Sandra Dee's glam makeover in Portrait in Black, the goal of sophisticated 17-year-olds in 1960 was to look like their mothers. Dee looks fabulous here, but honestly, she could pass for a woman in her 30s."

    So... what about Airport? You haven't tackled that one yet, have you? I'd love to read your take on it.

    Cheers, Michael

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Michael
      I absolutely adore "Airport"!!!! An absolutely awful movie that captured my imagination at 13, when I saw it more times than I can count.
      I appreciate that you like that I sometimes put the movies I write about in historical context. One of the benefits of being "of a certain age" is that I've been around long enough to see how much the passage of time changes how a movie is viewed. Much appreciated, Michael!

      Delete
  6. Great post.

    1. Lana's best perf is actually in The Bad and the Beautiful.

    2. Lloyd Nolan looks like a butch Truman Capote.

    3. Ray Walston's name is misspelled in a caption!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi there
      I finally saw "The Bad and the Beautiful" last year. I liked it a lot, but Lana slinging hash in that diner in "Postman"is like a Venus of the Grill for me.

      Ha! Love the Nolan/Capote comment!

      Thanks for bringing the typo to my attention. I'm a big fan of Walston and would hate to not give Popeye's Pappy his due.

      Delete
  7. I haven't seen "Portrait in Schlock" in a while, but now you got me feverish to see if it's on NetFlix!
    I remember one review saying Anthony Quinn looked as if he were wearing a suit for the first time!
    Lana's "acting" is so very MGM Joan Crawford mixed with Carol Burnett movie spoofs ; )
    Love your take on this...I too have a love/hate relationship with those late 50s/early 60s movies that try to be "with it," and are totally out of it, stuck in the studio system style of film making.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Portrait in Schlock" made me laugh!
      That review you quoted reflects my feelings about Quinn in this EXACTLY!
      As you say, that style of acting that Lana engages in was all the rage for MGM heroines during the 40s and 50s, but by 1960, it was beginning to seem so starchy and false. I think that weird timelessness of this movie is one of the things I enjoyed about it. It feels like a 40s film, but people are walking around in late 50s fashions. The old and new keep clashing together and you feel like you're watching images beamed in from Mars. it bears no resemblance to life on earth at all.
      Hope you revisit this move again soon. I seem to never tire of looking/laughing at it! :-)

      Delete
  8. Hi Ken,
    Terrific overview as always. I have to confess that while I love 70's cinema with a particular fondness for political dramas such as All the President's Men and Three Days of the Condor a film like Portrait in Black is an absolute swoony delight for me. Whenever I run across one I'm in heaven and could watch one after another for days on end. Perhaps with the exception of Magnificient Obsession which is so loaded with ridiculous psycho babble I have a hard time wallowing in the sumptuous surrounding and even the sure fire grouping of Rock, Jane Wyman and Agnes Moorehead isn't enough to get me to go back to that particular well often. But give me something along the lines of Woman's World, Written on the Wind, Imitation of Life or the feverish and overheated Madame X and I'm giddy with delight.

    Latter day Lana, probably the queen of the arch star performance-I always think of her in the context of a review I read of her costarring film with Sean Connery and Glynis Johns "Another Time, Another Place but the Same Old Lana", while not an essential element of this type of film is for me always a welcome addition. I agree that her days of ultimate loveliness and performance were earlier in her career in Ziegfeld Girl, Postman and The Bad and the Beautiful but her more mature brittle beauty suited these films and she certainly knew how to wear clothes, they never wore her no matter how extreme they were. Love you description of her unfortunate getup as Minnie Mouse in Mink, that particular outfit does run the risk of almost overwhelming her and would have swamped an actress of less presence.

    Speaking of presence and the delicious requirement of these films to color co-ordinate the rooms and accessories with the stars looks and clothes for me that is an almost indispensible facet of the whole enterprise. It brings to mind a story about Susan Hayward and the film "Ada".

    If you haven't seen it the film was a star vehicle for the great Miss Hayward and shared many of the components of these lavish soapers with somewhat more of a plot, a preposterous one of a B-girl, Susie of course, who through her marriage to a crooning Dean Martin ends up as governor!! of a southern state. Believable or not it's a great deal of fun with Susan mowing down unsuspecting underlings with the customary Hayward moxie. Anyway during Susan's final illness a good friend of hers arranged for her to view any one of her films that she wanted and she chose Ada much to the incredulity of said friend. However after viewing the film it's not that hard to understand, it might not be an award winner but every effort is made to make her look her best, she is surrounded only by colors that flatter her, the rooms she finds herself in are almost exclusively white or a soft green to highlight her flame colored tresses. Even the roadhouse where she starts the story has that high class sheen that is a hallmark of the studio era. Plus the character is tailored to her strengths and I think she and the other ladies in her group which of course included Lana understood that was what their fans wanted at that point in time. Perhaps it kept them from moving forward into the new cinema but a great deal of their output in this period is to me cinematic gold.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Joel
      Lots of wonderful observations here. I am wholly unfamiliar with Susan Hayward's "Ada", but that great anecdote makes a compelling argument for seeking it out. Since this particular brand of overripe cinema is a thing of the past, I think it's possible to really appreciate these once-derided films on their own merits.
      I agree with you that these films are not the greatest cinema that Hollywood had to offer, but they are often visually stunning, wholly insubstantial, comfort-food visits to the era of studio-system filmmaking.
      The wholesale blandness of many of today's "stars", coupled with the inability of many filmmakers to even weave a simple story, makes these films look a great deal more accomplished with the passing of time.

      Delete
    2. Ada is definitely worth seeking out, Susan has a great adversary in Wilfrid Hyde-White and the scenes between the two of them crackle. They show it from time to time on TCM. If you do catch up with it keep an eye out for the actress that plays Ada's madam. Her name is Connie Sawyer and she's been billed as "the world’s eldest working actress" she just turned 101 and is still working with three credits this year. She's had quite a career including stand-up comedy and pretty much every facet of show biz. Mostly small roles but a look back at her credits, 133 and counting, she's been in so many shows and movies the stories she could tell!

      Delete
  9. Back to Portrait in Black. It's actually not one of my favorites of the genre owing to the outright stupidity of what many of the characters do and the inclusion of Anthony Quinn, one of my least favorite actors, in the cast. That doesn't mean I won't stop and watch if I run across it though. I absolutely love the opening credits where the cast all turn into negative images upon their introductions and any film with the young and impossibly beautiful John Saxon stops me in my tracks. Actually even as he aged and that shiny beauty changed to a more mature handsomeness John Saxon usually makes me pause to watch whatever he's in unless it's one of those dreadful kung fu films he often appeared in.

    Sandra Dee does look older but amazing in this while playing far more of a bitch than was her usual gig. This is actually rather an anomaly in her screen persona at the time since she regressed back to her juvenile self for the next couple of years, including the Tammy movies, until she married Bobby Darin and made those cute romantic comedies with him.

    I'd never heard that about the thing that Capote had for Lloyd Nolan. A fine actor I was initially most familiar with him when I was younger as the kindly older man in films like Airport and Hannah and Her Sisters and shows like Julia. It wasn't until years later that I saw his earlier work and discovered he was attractive in an everyman sort of way, but I can't see him as an ideal man. Oh well different strokes... Have you ever seen the serio-comic B noir Dressed to Kill where he plays detective Michael Shayne? It's one of his best showcases and has one of the best lines of dialogue ever "The stork that brought you should have been arrested for dope peddling!"

    Your analogy about how time changes tastes and attitudes in acting and films is so true and often unfortunate. Not because I think change is bad but often it makes people reluctant to sample older films or view them objectively instead viewing them with derision and cheating both themselves and the films.

    However there are some films, Midnight Lace is as good an example as any, that are so absurd that even at the time of release they had to be viewed with an eye towards the ridiculous. Incredibly it was a massive hit when it came out with Doris, during her run as box office champ, as scream queen and Myrna Loy, effortlessly chic as ever although in one scene she is wearing one of the ugliest hats ever that looks like someone turned a flower pot upside down on her head, both managing to keep straight faces as one transparent plot point after another unfolds. Portrait in Black with it's sometimes ludicrous contrivances is surely most closely akin to that sort of film and even though Dynasty, Dallas and all their knockoffs tried to approximate this genre's lavishness and special brand of improbability they never quite made it.

    One last comment, about Hunter's good luck charm Virginia Grey. A lovely if oddly angular actress in her youth, perhaps the reason for her failure to ascend to stardom: heaven knows it wasn't for want of connection since she appears to have known everybody in golden age Hollywood, her appearance in most of these films always makes me think she needs someone to offer her a sandwich. I've often wondered if she was anorexic during this period although she lived to quite an advanced age so perhaps she was just one of those brittle stick women like Nancy Reagan and towards the end of her life Lana Turner herself, who look like a stiff wind will blow them away.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for ahring your adoration of John Saxon. He's not a crush figure for me, but I get a kick out of hearing when a certain star hits all the sex symbol marks with someone. It's a magic perk of the star system that these impossibly beautiful people loom before us, bigger than life on the screen, and yet some really get to us while others leave sus cold (John Gavin, a Ross Hunter favorite is like a black hole in the center of every film he appears in to me...boring beyond belief).

      I've never seen that noir you mentioned, "Dressed to Kill". For me, I can't see Lloyd Nolan without seeing Dr. Chegley Diahann Carroll's employer on the sitcom "Julia" (Always loved when Carroll's character applies for a job with him over the phone and mentions that she is black: Chegley - "Have you always been black or are you just being fashionable?")

      If i ever get around to writing about "Midnight Lace" I know I will have to include a screencap of that notoriously ugly hat you mention. Fans of the film always bring it up!
      Lastly, I too have always thought Virginia Grey looked worrisomely thin onscreen. And Lana Turner in "The big Tube" is so thin she's really platinum hair and little else.
      Thanks Joel, for sharing so many of your thoughts on this film. You remember a lot about it. I wonder if you found that little boy who plays Turner's son in this to be as annoying as I did? That voice!!

      Delete
    2. That kid is a screechy little bugger to be sure.

      I share your disdain for John Gavin, a cigar store Indian had nothing on him. He was attractive but his performances and screen persona were consistently devoid of animation, charisma or talent.

      Haven't seen Julia in years, but I do have a vague recollection of that scene. They don't seem to rerun it like other vintage shows but it would be fun to revisit, besides Lloyd and Diahann Carroll it had one of my favorite supporting actresses Lurene Tuttle, one of the great reliables.

      Delete
  10. One of my favorite "unintentional camp" movies is "I Saw What You Did" from 1965. It's a hoot, with countless absurd plot points and outrageously out of place music. It also stars Joan Crawford being very melodramatic.

    "House On Haunted Hill," also produced by William Castle, is marvelous as well.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Tom, with "I saw what you did" you bring up a particular favorite of mine! It's like a no-budget William Castle take on "The World of Henry Orient"...only the teen actresses have to contend with Joan Carwarford's dragon lady instead of Angela Lansbury.

      And I only got around to seeing "The House on haunted Hill" in its entirety this past Halloween. I'm crazy about Vincent Price.

      Delete
  11. 'Portrait in Black' sounds like an 'OMG How Have I Missed This One?!?' type of film. I adore 50s Joan Crawford and her screen-melting intensity; but I know there's a sizable audience for 50s Lana out there. Although I've never been much of a Lana fan myself, I do recommend seeing her in 'The Prodigal.' That's a 1950s Biblical epic, which for me is a genre that I watch, as you put it, for all the wrong reasons! (Try me also on Zsa Zsa Gabor.) There's just something so odd about 50s Hollywood and its emphasis on Bigger and Shinier movies, that I'm not surprised the 60s came about in reaction.

    I have to agree with Joel's comment on younger Lloyd Nolan (one great thing about your blog among so many is that you get such wonderful, insightful comments!). If you see him in the 1940s, especially in film noir, he comes across as quite intelligent and natural in his acting; no fuss or flutter or macho heroics. Van Helfin was another actor in that mold. They weren't major stars, but they were people you could imagine having a normal, interesting conversation with (no matter how much I adore Joan, I just can't see myself ever having a quiet little chat with her!).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, one of the great pleasures of "Portrait in Black" is that doesn't require you to stifle your giggles because of its serious themes. There aren't any. The content matches the treatment.

      I remember seeing the trailer for "The Prodigal" on TCM. It looked intriguing because it brought back fond memories of "Land of the Pharaohs" - a huge fave.
      I think I have only Gabor in two films: Picture Mommy Dead, of all things, and Queen of Outer Space. Perhaps I've seen the best?

      I love that you are drawn to the curiously overdone nature of films from the 50s. Watching them, one is left with the sense that this level of willful artificiality couldn't go on for much longer. the world was moving on and movies were staying the same.
      And as for the great Joan, I honestly can't imagine her having a quiet chat with ANYONE! Great to hear from you GOM!

      Delete