Saturday, December 31, 2011

NOIR CITY XMAS—Eddie Muller Intro to Deanna Durbin Doublebill

The Film Noir Foundation's second annual Noir City Xmas was held December 14, 2011 at San Francisco's historic Castro Theatre, offering a double-feature of rare noir-stained yuletide classics "to darken our spirits this holiday season." The evening also featured the unveiling of the full schedule for Noir City X, the 10th anniversary of the world's most popular film noir festival, coming to the Castro Theatre January 20-29, 2012.

Bill Arney—the now legendary disembodied "Voice of Film Noir"—hesitated to welcome the audience to the second "annual" Noir City Xmas because "just how many Noir City Xmas movies can there
be?" Asking if the audience had been good this year, Arney was met with a resounding, "NO!" to which he responded, "What the hell is wrong with you? There's still a little over a week," he added "to get over yourself and make some trouble. Santa will be sorely disappointed if he doesn't get to fill every stocking in Noir City with coal this year. In some places this holiday is a winter wonderland, but here in Noir City it's just cold." Varney then introduced his boss, the "Czar of Noir" Eddie Muller: "The guy who only puts goodies in your cinematic stocking."

Muller took to the Castro stage and wished everyone a "cruel Yule." "You learn to expect the unexpected at Noir City," he offered. "Hence, a film noir double-bill starring Deanna Durbin. Here's the reality of film programming in 2011. As Bill said in his introduction, how many film noir Christmas movies can there be, right? So we have to parcel these out very intelligently. The plan originally was to show Christmas Holiday (1944) and Holiday Affair (1949) as our double-bill this year and next year we would have Lady On a Train (1945) and The Lady in the Lake (1947), which was set at Christmas, right? But, could we get
Holiday Affair in a 35mm print? No. Because it no longer exists. This is a major problem. And that is why—when someone asked me earlier, 'What's the theme of this year's Noir City festival?'—I said, 'The theme is you better see it in 35mm while you can.' That is actually the theme of the festival and I'm very happy to say and proud to say that everything we will be screening at Noir City X will be in 35mm."

"I will not be on the soapbox tonight," Muller assured us, "but, I will be stationed on that soapbox during January because this has really become a serious issue. We cannot actually fight the tide forever—we are going to be living in a digital future—but, we have to do everything we possibly can to insure that films that do not exist digitally or on 35mm are preserved as
films, or they will never be able to be shown in the future digitally or any other way."

Excited that his audience had been given a peek at the upcoming line-up for Noir City X, Muller emphasized he was especially excited because of his super special guest who would be appearing on the first Saturday night with The Killers (1964) and Point Blank (1967): Angie Dickinson! "I've already been warned to lay off the stuff about the White House and Jack Kennedy and all of that—I'm not going there—so I'll get it all out right now: they say she went in Police Girl and she came out Police Woman."

Among the marvelous preservations that will be shown at Noir City X is a brand new print of Naked Alibi (1954) starring Gloria Grahame, struck by Universal specifically for Noir City. "All you need to know," Muller insisted, "is that it's called
Naked Alibi." Further, in light of the upcoming Baz Luhrmann adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 classic The Great Gatsby (featuring Leonardo DiCaprio), Noir City has rescued from obscurity the 1949 film noir version of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby starring Alan Ladd, which has not been shown theatrically since 1974 when it was put into deep storage to make way for the Robert Redford-Mia Farrow vehicle. Thanks to Noir City's good friends at Universal Studios, the 1949 version will finally be seen again. The Great Gatsby will be shown with Three Strangers (1946), whose preservation has been funded by the Film Noir Foundation. Finally, last but not least, The Film Noir Foundation vied with Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation to restore The Breaking Point (1950). Scorsese won that particular competition but Muller bears no regrets since it's one of his favorite films, one he has shown at other film noir festivals, thereby singlehandedly destroying the only existing good print left of the film. Muller is delighted that the film has been completely restored and that Scorsese and the Film Foundation have graciously allowed Noir City to be the first venue to show that brand-new print.

To celebrate Noir City's 10th anniversary in style, on Saturday night, January 28, Noir City will be hosting its first-ever Noir City Nightclub called—appropriately enough—"Everyone Comes to Eddie's". Noir City is converting the Swedish American Hall into a sexy and sinister 1940s nightclub with live entertainment "for your edification."

Another highlight of Noir City X will be the all-day Dashiell Hammett marathon, featuring films based on Hammett's stories, including such rareties as Roadhouse Nights (1930) and Mister Dynamite (1935). Richard Laymann, the world's foremost scholar on Dashiell Hammett (Shadowman: The Life of Dashiell Hammett, 1981), will be flying in to Noir City because he has never seen Mister Dynamite, that's how rarely it's shown.

Finally, with regard to "the super sexy poster" for Noir City X, the photograph was actually taken in Dashiell Hammett's San Francisco apartment where he lived and wrote
The Dain Curse (1929), Red Harvest (1929) and The Maltese Falcon (1930). Bill Arney, the "Voice of Noir City" resided in Hammett's apartment for many years and—looking at this poster—Muller had to ask Arney why he ever left? "Well," Arney responded, "the last one of those dames that came over there told me that the Murphy bed was very comfortable. I told her not to get too comfortable. And then I married her."

Turning to the evening's double-bill, Muller recalled that Deanna Durbin was once one of the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood and, as a girl, was credited with rescuing Universal Studios from bankruptcy in the 1930s when she became, by far, the most popular female performer in the United States. She had an outstanding singing voice and an amazing on-screen charisma and was everybody's favorite "girl next door" and the Great American Gal. But, of course, as she grew older, she chafed at being typecast in such roles. As she grew up into a woman, she wanted to stretch out and do other things.

In
Lady on a Train, Nikki Collins (Durbin) witnesses a murder while waiting for a train, but can't get the police to believe her when no body is discovered. While they dismiss her as daft, she enlists the help of a mystery writer to sleuth out the culprits on her own. Based on a story by veteran mystery writer Leslie Charteris (The Saint), this is a wildly entertaining mix of comedy, musical, and suspense, rendered in evocative noir style by cameraman Woody Bredell (Phantom Lady, Christmas Holiday, The Killers), and featuring a superb cast of sinister and suspicious supporting players swirling ominously around "America's Sweetheart."

Muller promised his audience that they would love
Lady On A Train. "You'll laugh. You'll cry. You'll tap your feet to this charming film that is, unfortunately, not very well known." Lady On a Train was one of only two films directed by Charles Henri David who would—after this film—become Mr. Deanna Durbin. In 1948 when Durbin decided that her string had played out in Hollywood, she married David and smartly moved to France where, Muller was happy to say, she lives to this day, having recently turned 90 years old on December 4.

Watching Lady On a Train with me was my friend Mike Black who reminded me of an anecdote from Gore Vidal's memoir Palimpsest: "Deanna Durbin [was] a child soprano and competitor of Judy Garland, whose imitations of her rival were marvelously cruel, invoking a crooked arm and a radiant mad smile to match luminous crossed eyes. But Garland could be equally mordant about herself. When she had made her triumphant comeback at the Palladium in London, inspired by merry schadenfreude, she rang her now-forgotten rival. After many delays and false starts, Garland got the sleepy, ill-tempered Durbin at home in the French countryside. 'Tonight I had the greatest audience of my life!' At length, Judy recounted her triumph. Finally, out of breath, she stopped. There was a long silence. Then a pitying voice said: 'Are you still in that asshole business?' "

In
Christmas Holiday, a young soldier gets more than he bargained for on a holiday stopover in New Orleans when he is introduced to a young "singer" (prostitute) and a local "nightclub" (brothel) and he learns the tale of her descent into degradation. Venerable scribe Herman Mankiewicz hews Somerset Maugham's novel into a brilliant script, directed with delirious intensity by Siodmak. Deanna Durbin is memorable in her first adult role, and Gene Kelly is unforgettable as the murderous cad with whom she tragically falls in love. Unquestionably the most romantically soul-crushing Christmas movie ever made.

Muller considers Siodmak to be the greatest director of film noir there ever was and describes
Christmas Holiday as a strange and mesmerizing film. "Why it's called Christmas Holiday, who the hell knows," Muller laughed but assured his audience that by the end of the film they would leave the Castro Theater thoroughly depressed. "That's our mission. Happy to fulfill it."

Muller dedicated the evening to Deanna Durbin, as well as to an old friend of his who passed away this year—one he recalls watching Christmas Holiday with in the Castro Theater—his great pal and mentor George Kuchar.

Of related interest: At Greenbriar Picture Shows, John McElwee responds to Noir City Xmas with a write-up on the Durbin films plus a lovely gallery.

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