Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Included among the opening night festivities for the Fabulous Fashion in Film Festival—which included Juanita More exalting "Pink" and Jeffrey Sebelia entering the auditorium hoisted onto the shoulders of Santino Rice and extravagantly sprinkling glitter onto the audience—was B.A.R. columnist Tavo Amador's appreciation for The Women's costume designer, Adrian.

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On the first day of shooting, the openly gay director George Cukor told the all-female cast, "Girls, we've got a movie to make so pull in your claws and get to work." Although she's not as well-remembered as many of her contemporaries, Norma Shearer was a huge star, dubbed by MGM: "the First Lady of the Silver Screen." Her contract stipulated that she would be the only actress billed above the title; a provision that she graciously waived for Joan Crawford. Crawford, however, resented Shearer who was the widow of MGM's Chief of Production Irving Thalberg. Crawford felt that Shearer had the inside track on good parts so, during filming, she would rattle her knitting needles while Shearer would be shooting her close-ups.

As production drew to a close, the third leading lady of the film Rosalind Russell called in sick. It seems that—although Ms. Russell had two key scenes to shoot—she had come down with a severe case of billing-itis. Her agent told the studio she might recover if her name appeared above the title. It was too late to replace her so MGM agreed but her name is in much smaller letters than Shearer's and Crawford's.

The Women is about social status and marital infidelity in an era when a woman's position in society was determined, first, by her father and then by her husband, or a lack of one. …It's about class distinction, social climbing, and superficial values, which is why it remains timeless. The author Clare Booth would later marry Time Magazine's founder Henry Luce and be named ambassador to Italy by President Eisenhower.

Adrian's clothes underscored each character's social position and personality. Perfume shop girl Crawford's wardrobe is flashy and sexy. Society matron Shearer's is conservative and sedate. The bitchy Russell's outfits are like her character: over the top and wonderfully exaggerated.

Gilbert Adrian was born in Connecticut in 1903 and studied at the Parsons School of Design in New York and later in Paris. His first success came designing costumes for Irving Berlin's "Music Box Revue." Cecil B. DeMille brought him to Hollywood and in 1928 Adrian became Head of Design at MGM. His range was exceptional—Greta Garbo's incredible costumes in Camille [1936], Norma Shearer's lavish wardrobe for Marie Antoinette [1938], and the drag of The Wizard of Oz [1939]—but, he's best remembered for the contemporary clothes he created for Joan Crawford in 28 movies.

While her face was intensely photogenic, Crawford's figure posed challenges. Her legs were gorgeous but she was very long-waisted and had very broad shoulders. Adrian's designs artificially raised her waist to make her legs look longer and he exaggerated her shoulders, giving her a slim silhouette. More than any other star, she personified the American working girl of the era and her clothes were widely imitated. This dress that Adrian designed for a 1932 film called Letty Lynton, Macys New York alone sold 50,000 copies. Some of them to women!

Like most people of the era, Adrian was closeted. In 1939 he married Janet Gaynor, the first actress to win an Academy Award and a lesbian, who once ushered at this very theater, proving that gays and lesbians have been in the Castro forever. He left MGM in 1941 to work [independently]. In 1946 Crawford—now with Warner Brothers—had him design her sensational wardrobe for Humoresque. He and Gaynor retired to Brazil; their ranch was owned by Gaynor's girlfriend Mary Martin. Yes, Peter Pan and the original Maria in The Sound of Music was a dyke.

Adrian returned to MGM for 1952's Lovely To Look At and in 1959 was working on costumes for the Lerner and Lowe musical Camelot starring Richard Burton and Julie Andrews when he died suddenly of a heart attack.

Two generations of women copied the styles he created for Crawford. A few years ago Giorgio Armani paid him tribute. The windows of the Armani Emporium featured mannequins wearing the Italian designer's suits. Behind them were huge blow-ups of Crawford wearing Adrian ensembles.

So sit back, enjoy The Women—which is really all about men—and remember: we're all born naked so everything you put on is drag.


When I first announced the program line-up for the Fabulous Fashion in Film Festival, I commented: "Leave it to [Marc] Huestis to program the obvious double-bill of the year: Sparkle (1976) and Dreamgirls (2006)." My Evening Class cohort Michael Hawley concurs and offers an overview of one of his supremely guilty pleasures.

His mix of enthusiasm and outrage is not for the spoiler-wary.

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The best thing I can say about 2006's film version of Dreamgirls is that it triggered, at long last, the DVD release of 1976's Sparkle. For 30 years, this film has been a supremely guilty pleasure for me. This was the first movie I ever purchased on VHS—way back in 1984—and I've watched it a zillion times. On Thursday, August 2, as part of his Fabulous Fashion in Film Festival, San Francisco impresario Marc Huestis presents the inevitable double bill of Dreamgirls and Sparkle at the Castro Theater. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time Sparkle is being shown on a Bay Area big screen in more than two decades.

Sparkle was released in the spring of 1976, just months after I had moved to San Francisco. As a budding cinephile I was too busy catching up on my Herzogs and Fassbinders to bother with a poorly reviewed blaxploitation film that—if I remember correctly—only screened at that Market Street sleaze palace known as the St. Francis Theater. While oblivious to the film, I was positively obsessed by its so-called soundtrack album, in which Aretha Franklin sang five Curtis Mayfield-penned tunes from the film and an additional three that were not included. It's a "so-called" soundtrack because Aretha is never heard singing in the movie, and to this day a proper soundtrack featuring the film's actors has never been released. Anyway, the album more or less became my personal soundtrack for 1976 and it remains, along with Young, Gifted and Black, one of Aretha's two great studio albums from the 1970s.

I finally saw Sparkle in early 1977 on a double bill with A Star is Born (1976) at the Castro Theater. At that time, the Castro was still very much a nabe theater, showing films whose downtown run had ended. A Star is Born had been the big Xmas picture of 1976 and as a gay boy I suppose I felt it my (reluctant) duty to check out Barbra's remake of a remake. Seeing Sparkle was an afterthought, born mostly out of a desire to get my movie money's worth. Long story short, the loathsome A Star is Born made me want to kill myself, and Sparkle made me so deliriously happy I wanted to swing from the Castro chandelier. I'm not sure what I was expecting from this story of three Harlem sisters who form a singing group in the late 1950's, but a heartfelt, campy, corny, fabulous soap opera of a musical wasn't it. The icing on the cake was hearing Lonette McKee and Irene Cara's sultry and languid renderings of Mayfield's songs, in deep contrast to Aretha's ferocious exuberance. I returned two more times during the film's Castro run, and then saw the film a time or two more at the Strand Theater, during the years of its repertory heyday. Soon thereafter came the VHS release, whose gradually degenerating, pan-and-scan images are all I've had to content myself with over the past two decades.

Since then, Sparkle has managed to build a considerable cult film following. If you don't believe me, check out the hundreds of message board posts on the film's IMdb page, where fans gush over their favorite songs and dialogue, and indulge in plot and character analysis worthy of Citizen Kane. Many of the posts are desperate pleas for a DVD release, which Warner Brothers finally took to heart when it finally issued Sparkle to coincide with the release of Dreamgirls. The resulting DVD—while better than a stick in the eye—is hardly the deluxe edition fans were hoping for. For starters, Warners didn't re-master the film. There are night scenes and club scenes so dark that characters in the shadows completely disappear. They also didn't re-master the soundtrack, retaining the flat mono of the original. The DVD was also the perfect opportunity to put together a recording of the true original soundtrack. Instead, we're given a five-song bonus CD of tracks from the Aretha album, which curiously includes one song not heard in the film ("Sparkle") and excludes the film's first song ("Jump"). There are no commentary tracks or interviews, even though nearly all of the film's talent is still with us. In fact, the DVD's only bonus feature is the theatrical trailer, narrated by Casey Kasem of all people. And finally, can someone please explain to me what in hell-nation is up with those blue fishtail gowns shown on the front and back covers? In the movie those dresses are as red as red can be, and I'm incredulous as to why this change was made (the result of some marketing survey, no doubt).

Part of the fun of watching Sparkle today is seeing certain actors early in their careers, before they moved on to bigger, if not necessarily better things. There's Irene Cara as the youngest sister, Sparkle, four years before Fame, and Philip Michael Thomas as her romantic interest Stix, eight years before Miami Vice. The pair have a lovely on-screen chemistry together. Then there's Lonette McKee's screen debut as the hellbent-on-self-destruction, eldest sibling, Sister. If there were only one reason to see the film, her performance would be it. In fact, when her character dies two-thirds of the way through, the film kind of dies with her. McKee would go on to have a respectable career in TV and film, appearing in Round Midnight, The Cotton Club and a number of Spike Lee joints. The middle sister—righteous and socially conscious Delores—is played by Dwan Smith. The role is the most unfortunate one in the film, and Smith does her best despite having to recite such lines as (spoken to her mother, played by screen vet Mary Alice, as she's leaving home for good): "You don't understand Mama. Like there's education like there never was before. We don't have to be slaves to the white establishment anymore." Sparkle would do little for Smith's career, and her most recent IMdb listing is a 20-year-old appearance on General Hospital.

Much of the Sparkle crew would also go on to do better known projects, with the exception of the film's director, who already had a formidable filmography in place. Sam O'Steen is considered one of the great film editors of all time, and Sparkle would be the only theatrical feature he'd ever direct. Listen to this partial list of films he edited: Chinatown, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Rosemary's Baby, Cool Hand Luke, Carnal Knowledge, Catch-22 and Silkwood. It's interesting to note that as Sparkle's director, he often favors long, lyrical, uninterrupted shots, such as the one that opens the film and introduces all the main characters.

The film's story came from its producer Howard Rosenman, who would also go on to produce many fine documentaries by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, such as Common Threads, The Celluloid Closet and Paragraph 175. The screenplay itself was written by Joel Schumacher, who later became a top Hollywood director in his own right, helming everything from The Incredible Shrinking Woman to The Lost Boys to two Batman movies. Cinematographer Bruce Surtees is perhaps best known for shooting virtually all of Clint Eastwood's output from the 1970s and 1980s, and choreographer Lester Wilson's next assignment after Sparkle would be Saturday Night Fever.

Which brings us to the reason for Sparkle's inclusion in this festival—the terrific costumes of Daniel Paredes. Besides the aforementioned fishtail gowns and other fabulous outfits worn in the musical production numbers, his period clothes are perfect in their authenticity. I was amazed to find Sparkle missing from his IMdb credits, and had the omission corrected. Sadly, Paredes would die of AIDS complications in 1993. Here are two clips from Sparkle that show off his creations. The first features the girls performing "Hooked On Your Love" at the Shan-Doo Club.

The second has them performing "Something He Can Feel", and is cut with scenes of Sister leaving home to take up with the no-good pusher/pimp who will drag her to the gutter. Check out those wild puss-print Capri pants!!!

Saturday, July 28, 2007

MILDRED PIERCE—Eddie Muller's Onstage Interview With Ann Blyth, Pt. 2

Part One of Eddie Muller's onstage interview with Ann Blyth can be found here.

Muller: You're a very sweet person, Ann. If you're so young and you didn't have all this cynicism to know what Joan was up to at the Oscars, where did all that rage in Veda come from?

Blyth: Well, you remember now that I started very young and I had a certain experience in Little Theater and certainly on the radio—I mean, not playing a part like that—but, I think any time you've played any kind of a part, you are learning something about your craft, no matter what the part is. So I think you just dig down into your deeper self and we all have a deeper darker place. Isn't it wonderful that I play these parts and let all of that come out that way just for fun? And really not hurt anybody? That's the best.

Muller: Lastly, I have to ask about one of my favorite character actors, the cad incarnate, Zachary Scott, who played Monte Beragon in this film.

Blyth: And he couldn't have been nicer. He was such a gentle Southern man. He really was. And those eyes were beautifully brown. But he was the dearest pleasure. We had the pleasure of visiting him in his beautiful Austin home a few years later and he was most gracious.

Muller: What was your favorite on-set incident, let's say, from the making of this film?

Blyth: All of the dramatic scenes, obviously. They would have to stand out because I'd go home and be exhausted, as I'm sure Joan was too. If you do those kinds of scenes where you have to work yourself up into such a state, agitation and fury, it is emotional. You may be playing a part, but you are feeling that part. Hopefully, that makes it real.

Muller: When you were nominated for the Oscar for this, did you understand what was happening?

Blyth: No. I didn't really. I just felt, "Wasn't that nice?" I guess I was that naïve. I knew that it was an honor but I had no expectation that I would win because I thought being so young they probably think, "Oh, she'll have other chances." I came close.

Muller: You were actually in a brace? Is that what I understand?

Blyth: Yes.

Muller: Were you afraid of winning? That you would have to actually get up there in this brace?

Blyth: No, because nobody could see that. They had constructed this lovely gown in such a way that no one knew.

Muller: You really wanted to win though, didn't you?

Blyth: Doesn't everybody want to win? When I play tennis, I like to win. When I play pingpong, I like to win. Anything I do, I give my best.

Muller: Now I have to throw out a little movie trivia. I recently co-wrote Tab Hunter's autobiography with him and I think it's fascinating to realize that Ann was actually present the day that Tab Hunter was discovered at Dubrock's Riding Academy. You claim to have no recollection of this.

Blyth: No, but you told me that apparently we were there to do a photo shoot and, of course, that's when we did meet. I've known Tab. I don't see him all that often but he's a sweet person but he and one of my dear dear friends Dick Clayton are very good friends.

Muller: Dick was an actor at that time who later became a very successful agent. He actually did work at Famous Artists Agency, Charlie Feldman's agency, and of course you were there at a photo shoot on horseback and Tab actually worked at Dubrock's Riding Academy shoveling manure and that's when Dick Clayton saw him and said, "Kid, you ought to be in pictures" and Tab was 12 years old.

Blyth: But he was so beautiful. He was such a handsome boy so that you knew he would grow into a handsome big man.

Muller: I think a lot of people would agree with you.

Blyth: But he's a very dear and sweet person.

Muller: The clip reel that Marc assembled, you worked with so many incredible leading men in these films. I want to just run through this and do like the Rorchach test of what are your recollections of these people, starting with a movie that is really great and I'm happy to see it get some applause when the clip came on, Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid [1948]. With the great William Powell—who looks exactly like my father, but that's another story—what was he like?

Blyth: He was so dear, tender. The good part about that was that I got to be carried around all day long. Everyone was so good to me on that movie and, as a matter of fact, I had asked him for a picture at the end of the movie and he took several lines from the movie and wrote them on the picture. Actually he taped it to the picture and said, "I like you. I like you very much."

Muller: You don't speak in that film?

Blyth: That was the easy part.

Muller: But it's an incredible performance. In that clip Marc showed, it is so expressive, you get so much out of it. A really fascinating performance. I don't know why this movie isn't on DVD; but, if you ever see this on TV, you must watch it.

Blyth: It's a sweet and funny movie about a man who reaches a certain point in life—like 50—and wondering what's left and so he goes fishing and he finds me.

Muller: Let's just put it this way, it's a good thing you were a mermaid in the film because you were 20 and he was 56. There was a little bit of an age difference there but we won't go into that. You also starred opposite Robert Montgomery in another unknown film that is really terrific, [Once More My Darling, 1949].

Blyth: Speaking of tennis. I played an avid tennis player in that. As a matter of fact, throughout most of the movie I wear a tennis cap and a t-shirt that says "Killer." It's a cute, funny movie. I am the one chasing him; he's not chasing me. I finally catch him too.

Muller: That was Robert Montgomery's last film. He directed it as well. That was his last feature film.

Blyth: Really?

Muller: Yep.

Blyth: I am learning a lot tonight.

Muller: "Killer" Connell is your name in the film. Frederich March in Another Part of the Forest [1948].

Blyth: Outstanding. Just to be in his presence. And his wife was also in the movie, Florence Eldridge. She played my mother. To watch both of them so impressed upon me. They were so good at what they did. He was terrific. It was just electric to be on the set even if I wasn't in a scene with him. He was wonderful.

Muller: You were so young at this point. How did you keep … well, once you've gone toe to toe with Joan Crawford, I guess nothing would intimidate you. Fredric March is easy pickings after that. But you were just a kid and you were in there with all these heavyweights.

Blyth: Eddie O'Brien was in that and Dan Duryea. They were inspired and wonderful in that movie.

Muller: I skipped over one that you made that's near and dear to my heart, Brute Force. That was a strange movie. It's a prison movie with Burt Lancaster.

Blyth: They dream about the women in their lives.

Muller: Burt, of course, has gone to jail because he's committed a robbery to get the money for an operation this his woman needs so desperately and what was it like having a few scenes in that one with beefcake Burt Lancaster?

Blyth: He was just really starting then too, you know.

Muller: His second or third movie, I think.

Blyth: He was very nice.

Muller: We'll come back because I have a follow-up question on that one that we'll get to.

Blyth: I know that you're trying to get me to say that everyone I worked with was either terrible or they did drugs….

Muller: Just two or three!

Blyth: Just three or four? If they did, I didn't know about it.

Muller: We'll see. Speaking of which….

Blyth: Keep talking….

Muller: One Minute to Zero [1952] with—and you can't tell me that this was an upstanding citizen—Robert Mitchum.

Blyth: I don't know about his run-in with the law, but he was a terrific man to work with. I loved working with Bob. He was terrific. He loved to play gags. We had one scene one day—it wasn't too serious a scene so I guess he thought he could get away with this—and he got together with the prop department and he said, "Now, in this scene I want you to—up in the rafters—have a rubber chicken." In the course of the scene—and of course he always had his buff body—he said, "In the middle of the scene I'm going to aim up there and I want you to throw the chicken down." So we started the scene and—as I say—it was a fairly serious scene, rather melodramatic, and we were going along nicely when I hear this bang and this chicken comes down. I kept right on going with my lines.

Muller: The weirdest thing about that movie? It's a Korean War film, in which he actually murders a bunch of innocent people at the beginning of the movie because there are some Communist spies in the middle of this script. This was far before the My Lai massacre. Very bizarre. But that movie had a song in it—"When I Fall In Love"—that became a huge hit.

Blyth: Victor Young, who did such beautiful scores for so many wonderful movies.

Muller: Was there any talk of having you sing the song in the movie?

Blyth: No, but I do sing some little Oriental tune in the movie.

Muller: But then you were working for the United Nations, so of course you would. Then you made The Helen Morgan Story with Paul Newman, early in his career. I have to cut to the chase. Your husband's not here, is he?

Blyth: No.

Muller: Okay, so I can ask this question. So you're on a boat and the boat is wrecked and it's capsized and you're headed for the desert island. Your pick: Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, Paul Newman. Who goes to the desert island with you?

Blyth: Why can't I take all three? [Thunderous, cheering applause.] What a question to ask.

Muller: But a great answer. You answered that one. I think you'd wear them out. You were linked romantically with a few guys in Hollywood: Lon McAllister, Richard Long (who I know a lot of people know from The Big Valley; a big television star). What was the deal, however, with Howard Hughes? There was a car and a cruise?

Blyth: Well, I have to tell a bit of a story. When I learned of [One Minute to Zero], I also learned that Claudette Colbert was supposed to do the movie with Bob. I think she became ill. There was some huge reason why she couldn't do the movie and so they were looking for somebody to take her place. I found myself in Howard Hughes' office with my agent—I didn't really want to go by myself; I'd heard stories—anyway, he was very nice to me, sat off in the corner, …and the deal was made for me to do the movie and he—as you say—was very generous. He even gave me a car. Sent me and my dear aunt and uncle on a trip to Hawaii and that was that. I don't think I ever saw him again. Sorry. I'm not sorry I didn't see him again. I'm sorry there isn't more to the story. No, that's not so.

Muller: Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn, you were between them in The World In His Arms [1952], which is actually a cool historical film.

Blyth: Ah, that's a fun movie. Me playing a Russian countess, wearing all those beautiful gowns and being swept away by dear Gregory Peck.

Muller: Shall we add him to the desert island as well?

Blyth: If he wants to go.

Muller: That picture was directed by Raoul Walsh. What was your take on Raoul Walsh as a director?

Blyth: He was just a wonderful character, a devil-may-care kind of fellow. He knew what he wanted and he was very short in his direction and if he didn't get it he'd just say, "Cut, let's try that again." There wasn't too much "do it again." He just had a wonderful way of getting the work done. No fuss about it.

Muller: You're very generous. I've heard other actors say he's the worst director for actors that they ever had.

Blyth: Well, as I say, it sounds maybe again naïve but I can only speak from my experience with him as with others and I know others have had terrible run-ins with Raoul, as with Mike Curtiz. I was lucky.

Muller: It's probably you disarm them, I would think. Was it very exciting for you to make The Great Caruso [1951]?

Blyth: It was, because that was one movie that I believe everyone—certainly at MGM—they were pretty sure that was going to be a big movie and, of course, it turned out to be, mainly because of Mario Lanza, his exquisite voice, and just the beautiful look of the movie. Again, that's another one most people remember fondly and that makes me happy. [Lanza], unfortunately, his life—as we all know—came to a very sad end much too soon. I think he was overwhelmed with all of the success and he really didn't know how to handle it. He should have known because he had had much experience in the New York scene but he just didn't know how to handle it. It's tragic for all of us not to have more of his beautiful music. Thank goodness for musical scores and, of course, all the recordings that he made.

Muller: In that picture—I'm not sure if people are aware of this—I believe that The Great Caruso was the top money-making film of 1951. It was so successful that they were eager to replicate its success—this is Hollywood after all—and he was supposed to make The Student Prince.

Blyth: He made all the recordings for that as well and I'm so grateful for that because the score is so beautiful; his voice so exquisite. Sadly, he had some kind of a run-in with the bosses at MGM and they just said, "Well, if you're not going to do it, then we'll replace you." And they did.

Muller: He just got a little out of control. I've heard stories that he gained so much weight….

Blyth: That was part of the problem, yes. But it is a pity that somehow they couldn't have worked around it.

Muller: After [The Great Caruso], of course, then you really got into your string of Technicolor musicals from the 1950s. For you, was this the high point? I mean, this was the movies, Technicolor.

Blyth: When you think about it, it was the last few golden years at MGM. Pretty soon there wouldn't be any more musicals made. So that's sad for all of us, really, not just for me.

Muller: Which of those is your favorite?

Blyth: I liked The Great Caruso. I really liked Kismet [1955]. I do like The Student Prince [1954]. Obviously, it would have been a better movie if Mario had been in it.

Muller: You told me an interesting thing, Kismet actually had two directors? Vincente Minnelli started it.

Blyth: Vincente at that time—I don't know what problems he was having—but he was not a happy camper and, as a consequence, some of the actors weren't very happy either and Howard Keel at one point said, "If Vincente is on the set tomorrow, I won't be." So Richard Thorpe took over and finished the movie. That's one of the reasons that it doesn't have that wonderful flair that Vincente had; he had such a way with musicals. I don't know what it was exactly; but, you can almost tell—every one of his movies—you can tell who directed it.

Muller: I think it was genius. I think that's what it was, yeah.

Blyth: Genius involves what, though? What? Is it an eye for color? For how the scene looks as it's being shot? How the actors are working with one another? It's a combination of a lot of things.

Muller: I have to point out one interesting little extra tidbit in your career that I thought was pretty amazing: the 1954 Academy Awards when you came out and sang "Secret Love" on that show and you were seven months pregnant. That was a courageous moment. Your secret love wasn't so secret anymore, was it?

Blyth: I thought it was very sweet actually. Here I was happily married. Not like today where you don't even think about that anymore. Some people made a little fuss about it but I didn't care. I thought it was a sweet moment.

Muller: I have to say, I had the great pleasure of having dinner with Ann last night and the moment I will always cherish from that was when I asked you about your husband James McNulty, your husband of how many years?

Blyth: 53 years.

Muller: Who was, unfortunately, a little under the weather and could not make the trip.

Blyth: I'm so sorry. He would have loved being here.

Muller: But when I mentioned this to Ann, she got this look on her face that was so dear and so lovely, and I couldn't help it, I said, "Do you still date?" Your response is….

Blyth: You bet!

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If this transcript of Eddie Muller's onstage interview with Ann Blyth has not satisfied your thirst for her, you might want to check out Tavo Amador's B.A.R. profile.

MILDRED PIERCE—Eddie Muller's Onstage Interview With Ann Blyth, Pt. 1

After the screening of Mildred Pierce, Ann Blyth joined Eddie Muller on stage. Her smile was radiant as she received adoring applause. Once it subsided, she started right in on Veda Pierce Forrester.

Ann Blyth: Who was that character? [Laughter.] As I've said, I'm glad I don't know anybody like that. I'd forgotten how evil she was.

Eddie Muller: I have to ask you, how many times have you seen this movie?

Blyth: I haven't seen it really in a long time, certainly not on a big screen. I've only seen parts of it. That's why I'd forgotten so much of the dialogue. I couldn't believe some of it.

Muller: Then it's safe for me to say you've never seen this movie with an audience quite like this?

Blyth: I don't know when I've enjoyed anything more.

Muller: I have so much to ask about Mildred Pierce, but—since this is a noir night—we'll do a flashback. Imagine that we're getting wavy up here and going back to the beginning of the story, Mount Kisco, New York, where you were born. You were, of course, really trained to be an opera singer.

Blyth: Yes, indeed, I was born in Mount Kisco and that's, of course, a very prestigious address to have; but, it only happened because my mother was visiting her sister and I decided to make my entrance. That's why I have Mount Kisco as my birthplace; but, I really grew up in the heart of New York on East 49th Street. I only used to visit Mount Kisco. Never did get to live there. But I did get to live in California. That's really good.

Muller: Was it your intention to be an opera singer?

Blyth: Well, I guess I always loved to sing and—when I was very young—I attached along with a group of other youngsters to the San Carlo Opera Company and that's when my love of opera began. I used to be in Carmen as a street urchin and La Boheme as a little urchin and I actually got to sing. There were a couple of lines that were for youngsters. They do get to sing. I was so terrified of the conductor. I could hardly speak for half of the day because I was so afraid I wouldn't be able to sing; but, of course, that's where my love of opera began.

Muller: At a very early age, you ended up on Broadway in Lillian Hellman's Watch On the Rhine?

Blyth: That came about in a very interesting way. I was having lunch one day in the cafeteria at a professional children's school in New York. I was sitting off in a corner by myself and I guess I looked like a little orphan, I don't know, but anyway someone came from the principal's office and said, "We'd like you to come to the office" and I thought, "Now what have I done?" So I went to the principal's office and guess who I met there? Lillian Hellman and Herman Shumlin. Of course, I didn't know who they were; but, I was to learn that they were indeed producing a play and looking for children and they were thinking of me for the daughter. So, of course, I went home and told my mother and there was a telephone number for us to call and I was to have an audition. Fortunately, I did get that part. My name was Babette.

As a matter of fact, not too many years later when we went on the road, I was signed to a contract, and the studio at one time thought of changing my name Ann to Babette. I thought, "Babette Blyth?" It didn't quite do it.

Muller: They did put an "e" on your name early on.

Blyth: Both of my names have "e" on them and I think when I was in Watch on the Rhine they left the "e" on the Anne and took it off the Blythe, for whatever reason, who knows?

Muller: It was the touring company of that production when you actually were discovered and came to California?

Blyth: Yes, just really around the corner from where I'm staying [here in San Francisco]. We played the Curran and it was here that I learned that I was going to be signed to a seven-year contract and, of course, being so young, it was really a dream come true. And certainly for my mother. [Muller was just about to pounce on that.] My mother! Not Mildred Pierce! I know you're sharp but I can be just as sharp. [Laughter and cheering applause.]

Muller: Was your mother protective of you or was she a stage mom?

Blyth: My mother was not a stage mom and I enjoyed so much seeing the scenes with dear Butterfly McQueen. She and my mother became quite good friends. She always said in that sweet little voice [imitating Butterfly McQueen]: "Hello, Mrs. Blyth." So dear and she's wonderful in this movie, as are Jack Carson and Eve Arden.

Muller: You signed the seven-year contract with Universal and—in the clip reel that Marc so brilliantly assembled that we saw earlier—in your first few roles you were paired with Donald O'Connor. Universal had its own Micky and Judy thing going on here….

Blyth: Except we didn't have a barn. But that's all right. We did okay.

Muller: I have to imagine that Donald O'Connor had to be a pretty amusing fellow to work with?

Blyth: He was delightful and—as some of you know—he remained a dear friend until he died a few years ago. He was a very special friend.

Muller: And I have to ask: did he have an off switch? Because Donald O'Connor always struck me as one of those guys who was constantly funny.

Blyth: No, he wasn't—say—like Jerry Lewis, who always seems to be on.

Muller: And never constantly funny.

Blyth: You said that! I didn't. No, Donald actually he was really at times a very quiet fellow, very quiet.

Muller: So you got this contract with Universal for four effervescent light musical comedies [Chip off the Old Block (1944); The Merry Monahans (1944); Babes On Swing Street (1944); and Bowery to Broadway (1944)], how did you come to be cast in Mildred Pierce? Because it's your fifth film. What did they see in you, Ann?

Blyth: I had a wonderful agent at that time. He was associated with the Charles Feldman Agency, Al Rockett was his name, and he believed that I had more inside of me and more to put on the screen. He heard about this project and he made sure that I at least got tested for the role because I later learned there were many people—including Shirley Temple—who responded. I didn't learn that until really about 10 years ago. There were many many young actresses who really wanted the part very badly; but I was the lucky one.

Muller: Do you remember who some of those were other than Shirley Temple?

Blyth: I don't. She would be the only one that I'm sure everyone here would remember.

Muller: I'm just wondering, in the book Mildred Pierce Veda wants to be a big opera star. Was there any talk of your background at singing being a factor of why you were up for this part?

Blyth: I think the fact that I enjoyed singing and that I was able to enjoy that part of my life even when I was making movies—when I would make personal appearances in Los Vegas and at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles—but opera is an entirely different animal and you have to devote your entire life to the exclusion really of just about anything else.

Muller: Just for a bit of trivia, James M. Cain—the author of the novel—his mother was an opera singer so opera goes through all of his stories. So enough of all this, let's talk about Joan! How old were you when you got this part?

Blyth: I think I must have been about 16, 17?

Muller: So you're 16 years old. Do you recall the day you met Joan? It had to be somewhat atypical.

Blyth: I remember the day I met her for the first time because she tested with me. She was kind enough to do that and, of course, I never forgot that because it wasn't really necessary for her to do so. It was just something that she … I think she felt that perhaps there might be some chemistry between the two of us and obviously [husky-throated] there was. I hope I don't have nightmares tonight. I need you there to be there to hold my hand.

Muller: Obviously we've all heard the stories about Joan and her personal life and what she happened to bring to the set with her, but what was your experience working with her?

Blyth: Starting with testing for the part, I only have good memories of working with her and being around her. Oh, I'm sure there were moments when I wasn't around that might not have been too terrific. One obviously that I had heard about, she and Mike Curtiz used to go round and round about her shoulder pads, in her suits particularly, and he would often say [adopting a thick accent] "Vy can't you get over these GD trollerpads always out to here?!" As you can see, they still were "out to here", so I guess she won that argument.

Muller: And of course "GD", if you missed it, stands for "Gosh Darn." How many times—I have to ask this because every time I see this scene I think of this—how many times did you actually get to slap her?

Blyth: I'd rather not think about it.

Muller: Was that a one-take wonder or did you have to do that several times?

Blyth: Actually we didn't have to do it very often because we worked ourselves into such a stage of agitation and fury that—if you didn't do it right the first time—you'd probably go home and come back and do it the next day.

Muller: How fascinating is it tonight to see that scene with an audience like this? And be able to know that you actually did that scene on that day with Joan and all these years later … I mean, that is movie history! That's one of the great scenes in the movies!

Blyth: I can only tell you the pleasure that it gives me to hear your enjoyment and your pleasure and to tell you that the letters that I still get from all over the world, they still talk about Mildred Pierce. But thank you so much for your wonderful enthusiasm. I do appreciate it.

Muller: There are two women in this movie: the one that I would be least likely to ever invite to dinner—Joan—and the one that would be my first choice to invite to dinner, besides you of course, would be Eve Arden. Born in Mill Valley, California.

Blyth: She was a delightful person and my husband and I did get to know her a little bit better than most anybody else in that movie. That was because our good friend Gail Patrick Jackson and her husband, we used to have the most wonderful Christmas parties and Eve and her husband would often be there. Of course, she was so different in that place rather than being on the screen. She was really very quiet and a lovely person to be around.

Muller: Oh stop. Don't tell us that.

Blyth: Just because she could be this sharp-tongued character …. Her delivery was so wonderful, wasn't it? And Jack Carson too. Such wonderful, talented people.

Muller: The two best line slingers in the business: Jack Carson and Eve Arden. In my intro I didn't really follow through with what the results of all of this were, right? I took us to the making of the film and then it really is like lightning in a bottle because nobody really knew if the public was going to accept Joan Crawford in this new version of herself and, of course, the picture was a huge hit. More than half of the profit that Warner Brothers made that year came from this one movie. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards in which you, of course, were nominated for Best Supporting Actress, along with Eve Arden. Was there any sense when you were making the film—and, as I mentioned, it was Jerry Wald's maiden voyage as a big shot producer at Warner Brothers—was there a sense that you were making something really really special?

Blyth: I'm not so sure about that because—going back to another film that Mike Curtiz directed, Casablanca—when they started making that, they really thought it was just going to be a nice little movie. And look what that turned out to be. I'm not so sure that you can always tell if something is going to hit the mark, so to speak, because you never know what an audience is going to like. You just don't. You can have a pretty good sense of what is working as you're doing a project, but to know what an audience is really going to step up and pay to see? That's hard to predict.

Muller: Do you remember seeing this film with an audience back then? Did the audience have the same kind of reaction?

Blyth: Not like the one I heard tonight. I really can't remember when I saw it for the first time. I remember going to the Academy Awards with my dear mother. I remember that the studio was kind enough to make a very special gown for me to wear because I had been injured in an accident in the snow—I had been thrown from a toboggan and fractured my back and had to be laid up for quite a while—and when I was able to wear a brace, the studio said, "We'll make a gown for you that will fit over it and nobody will ever know." And they didn't. I was so fortunate that night to share that evening with my dear mother and I shared it also with Joan. I went out to her house to congratulate her and there she was all propped up in bed. I still wonder, you know….

Muller: Let's talk about that.

Blyth: I think maybe some of you might have seen the piece that I did for Turner Classic Movies? In which I said, "I think she might have been afraid." Who's to say that maybe she was afraid? Afraid that she wouldn't win. Afraid of the people's reactions if she were at the theater? Who knows?

Muller: For those of you who may not be familiar with the story, Joan took to her bed ill and did not show up at the Academy Awards. Hollywood legend has it that she was faking it for whatever reason but, boy, did it make for a good photo op when everybody had to go to Joan's house to take the pictures of her in bed with the Oscar. That was pretty good. You didn't feel at all like….

Blyth: Cynical, aren't you?

Muller: I am! You didn't feel at all that Joan was letting down the team? I mean, you and Eve Arden were both nominated….

Blyth: You forget, I was not that far into my career in the movie business so I had a lot to learn myself of what goes on.

Muller: Before we move on, I do want to ask you a couple of questions about the director, Michael Curtiz, who I think is probably the most underrated great Hollywood director.

Blyth: I agree with you.

Muller: In classic Castro fashion, I'm sure this audience could just shout out the titles of their favorite Michael Curtiz movies and it would last for 5-10 minutes. What was he like to work with?

Blyth: I just adored him. He was terrific. He was very good to me because—being so young—he coached me along, rather than being a very demanding director. I've had two experiences with him and they were both wonderful.

Muller: The Helen Morgan Story is the other one.

Blyth: Yes. I had to test for that one too.

Muller: True or not: the beach house in Mildred Pierce is actually Michael Curtiz's house?

Blyth: Was it?

Muller: Am I telling you something new?

Blyth: You probably are.

Part Two of Eddie Muller's onstage interview with Ann Blyth can be found here.

MILDRED PIERCE—Introductory Remarks by Marc Huestis and Eddie Muller

In conjunction with my SF360 interview with Marc Huestis regarding his Fabulous Fashion In Film Festival currently in progress, I recalled that in my vault of recordings I never transcribed last Summer's Mildred Pierce event, to which he had graciously comped me a pass. Though belated, I hope this will emphasize Marc's keen talent for showmanship, further interest in his current project, and encourage him to keep 'em comin'! We feast on his vision, here in San Francisco.

* * *

In his introduction to Mildred Pierce, featuring the onstage appearance of Ann Blyth, impresario Marc Huestis noted that—though the evening was an homage to Saint Joan—it was likewise an homage to Saint Ann and that Blyth had appropriately starred in a film entitled Sally and Saint Anne (1952).

Huestis added that he would not be standing on the Castro stage had it not been for Ann Blyth. "When I was a mere young adolescent queen," he recounted, "I would watch the Million Dollar Movie in New York. My mother was a stripper and my father cut Hullabaloo at NBC. Anyway, there was a movie on Million Dollar Movie called The Helen Morgan Story. I watched that movie all week. I adored that movie. When I came to San Francisco in the mid-'70s, I became part of a theater group called The Angels of Light who were an offshoot of The Cockettes and I had a character who was a drag queen chanteuse—and I was a pretty ugly drag queen—and her name was Ellen Organ. One night I was performing and I had a bottle—because Ellen drinks and drinks and drinks—and I made a gesture and the bottle flew out of my [hand] into the audience and hit somebody on the head who had to go to the hospital to get six stitches. After that, I gave up my career as an out-of-control drag queen and became a filmmaker, which led me to become a producer. So because of that, I am here tonight and I have to thank Ann Blyth."

Prefacing his montage of film clips from Blyth's career, Huestis described the process of watching Blyth's movies as "lifting the petals of a very delicate flower." Praising Blyth's "beautiful versatility" and commending her "amazing amount of class", Huestis delineated that Blyth's role as Veda Pierce Forrester was something of an anomaly because Blyth "mostly played the good girl", which he qualified was harder to do than playing a bad girl. Some of those film clips have been incorporated into a restrospective montage that Huestis pieced together to commemorate Ann Blyth's appearance on the Castro stage.

Huestis invited the "Czar of Noir" Eddie Muller to interview Blyth on stage. Muller, in his introductory remarks, commented: "If James M. Cain were alive tonight, he would not believe what is happening in this theater. James M. Cain is—as I call him—the architect of Noir City. He is the man who is responsible really for what we consider to be film noir today. He started it by writing the books. He was a newspaper man from Maryland who moved to New York and decided to come West to California with great literary aspirations, whether it was going to be writing screenplays or novels—he wasn't quite sure—but he knew that his destiny lay out in Southern California. He came up a crocker; nothing really transpired when he got to Hollywood. He wasn't very successful as a screenwriter and no great novels emerged from him. In desperation almost he sent to his publisher a nasty little novella called The Postman Always Rings Twice. The Helen Morgan Story for you, Mark, it was The Postman Always Rings Twice for yours truly.

"This pretty much set the blueprint for what we now know as film noir. He followed that up with Double Indemnity. But thinking somehow that these terse, nasty, gritty little potboilers were somehow beneath the man of his extreme literary aspiration, in 1941 he wrote a novel called Mildred Pierce that was his great epic, his fabulous satire of life in California and all about capitalism. He had a great knack for writing fabulous women and Mildred Pierce was immediately snatched up by Warner Brothers to be turned into a movie. Joan Crawford was nowhere to be seen at this point. That project languished at Warner Brothers for a couple of years until a man named Jerry Wald decided it was his time to make a mark as a producer. He had done a couple of things with Humphrey Bogart; Across the Pacific. He'd done Background to Danger with George Raft; but, Mildred Pierce was going to his big breakout movie.

Initially, they wanted Bette Davis to play the part of Mildred Pierce. Rosalind Russell was considered to play Mildred Pierce. It was offered to Barbara Stanwyck. Ann Sheridan at one time was considered to play Mildred Pierce. When Mildred Pierce came out, Joan Crawford was at MGM; her time had come and gone. Or so it seemed. She ended up at Warner Brothers where she languished for two years waiting for a great part and—lightning in a bottle—Jerry Wald finally decided, 'You know what? I'll go with Joan Crawford.' And there you have it. History was made. I give Jerry Wald full credit for taking what was really not a noir novel and really not a crime story at all and pulping it up for the big screen. That's what we love about Hollywood, right?

There was no murder committed in the novel Mildred Pierce. One of the first things Jerry Wald told Ranald MacDougall, the screenwriter, was: 'Let's do this kind of like Double Indemnity.' So you will see. The flashbacks are all over the place and there's a great opening scene that is so totally noir that it almost defines what noir is. A lot of you will still say, 'But it isn't really truly noir because there's no femme fatale.' To which I say, 'You must be crazy!' This movie has the most vicious, evil, mean-spirited femme fatale in the history of movies and it's so sick because her victim is her own mother. So without further ado, I give you what I think is the greatest melodrama ever made in Hollywood. Ladies and gentlemen, Mildred Pierce!"

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

2007 DEAD CHANNELS—Nuit Noire (Black Night)

Todd Brown wrote quite fairly about Olivier Smolders's first feature Nuit Noire (Black Night) when he dispatched to Twitch from the 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival, admitting he had no clue whatsoever what the film's beautifully unsettling imagery meant; describing it as "thoroughly inscrutable on first viewing." Qualifying that inscrutability by the suggestion of further viewings implies the effort might be worth it, with which I would wholly concur. Grasping at descriptions like straws—"Surreal is one word for it. Dream-like, another. Pretentious is one many will apply, though I hesitate to go there myself before working at the puzzle a little longer."—Todd admits "pretentious" would only apply "if you don't have the goods to back it up. All indications are that Smolders does, it's just up to me to catch up." I respect that Todd does not pettily dismiss what he does not immediately understand.

Paraphrasing Jamake Highwater's The Primal Mind (1992:77): "Images are a means of celebrating mystery and not a manner of explaining it." This seems especially pertinent to the protean and essentially mysterious film at hand. Olivier Smolders himself has confessed: "Give me mystery to suspense any day."

When adjectives don't provide a firm grasp, identifying kindred spirits might by a process of approximation and familiarization. David Lynch—specifically Eraserhead—comes immediately to mind with what I've already termed the "Lynchian Imperative" of staged weirdness. Terry Gilliam's Brazil has likewise been alluded to, as has the animated surrealities of Jan Svankmajer, the perverse puppetries of the Quay Brothers, the brooding synchronicities of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (particularly La Cité des enfants perdus), the labyrinthine manipulations of Alex Proyas' Dark City, and the stern concerns of Ingmar Bergman's Hour of the Wolf. Add a dash of Kafka's "The Metamorphasis" and you're well on your way to being thoroughly disturbed and creeped out, walking home alone in the dark.

When it comes to inscrutability, I've long felt that one must be content with the articulations that sideways glances and deflections achieve. An indirect approach is the only way I can assess Nuit Noire and recommend it to others. Of the screeners I've seen from this year's inaugural Dead Channels, it is by far the most intriguing and—dare I say it?—most accomplished of the films in the line-up. Where titles like The Trail of the Screaming Forehead, Trapped Ashes, and Gamera the Brave can be appreciated (however briefly) for the truly amateurish and frivolous bonbons they are, Nuit Noire requires attention, investment, and subsequent rumination. It's my kind of film and one of the best in the festival. It is at this stage the only screener I'm looking forward to watching on the big screen. That has everything to do with Louis-Philippe Capelle's lustrous cinematography. Cineuropa's J-M Vlaeminckx states the film's palette includes "every shade of gold, ochre and Sienna brown under the sun" achieved through digital high definition. Braced by the atmospheric score of Miam Monster Miam, Nuit Noire is a sensuous enthrallment.

Synopsis, like resistance, seems futile; but notwithstanding: Nuit Noire is about night's enveloping embrace. It honors the sheen on a beetle's jet black carapace. Set in an alternate reality where the world has been plunged into darkness because of an eternal eclipse—which allows only a fleeting 15 seconds of sunshine in each 24-hour period—Nuit Noire inherits a night logic of surrealistically-interpreted dream images (twinning abounds) and purposely contaminated chronologies (trajectories bifurcate). Polarities are staged and layered one upon the other: darkness and light, black and white, youth and adulthood, male and female, sex and death, desire and fear, blood and milk, history and memory. Memory itself is configured as either a theatrically staged enactment replete with arched proscenium or cinematically captured in grainy black and white by a voyeuristic Super8 camera. As night watchman, Smolders flips a coin whose two sides spin endlessly throughout the film, glinting in dim light. Heads or tails, either way; it's the flip of the coin that truly matters.

Handsome repressed protagonist Oscar (Fabrice Rodriguez) works obsessively as an entomologist in a Natural History Museum hauntingly pervaded by a taxidermic spirit. He delights a bit too much and gains a little too much purpose in chloroforming and pinning beetles to the page. He's also having trouble with traumatic childhood memories that involve the death of his younger sister but it's not quite clear if these "memories" aren't just his disturbed imaginings. He's undergoing Jeunet-esque therapy where the doctor looks into his mind through a cone in his ear. While awaiting recovery, the ghosts of his imagined yesteryear contaminate and readjust his daily life. One day at the museum he encounters an African woman who seems to whisper telepathically to him in an incommunicable language. Before he can make it home, she sneaks into his apartment evading his crazed Russian landlady, climbs into his bed, proceeds to become pregnant and eventually pupates. That's right, pupates. Need I add that being an experienced entomologist comes in quite handy at this juncture? As Variety's Derek Elley describes it: "What finally emerges from the pupa is supposedly linked to his own childhood memories of himself, his sister and white-hunter father in colonial Africa (seen in B&W home movie footage)—and sparks a longer spell of bright daylight outside." One might say consciousness is linked to daylight, as it has been in mythologies immemorial.

In his own extracted itinerary of the film, Smolders has written: "Nuit noire (Black Night) was born of the passion of the insect. The aim was to tell a story of metamorphoses in highly dreamlike fashion, accompanying an entomologist in the fictive representation of his own internal life. The film wouldn't show a man dreaming, but rather the dream itself unfolding. A dream cobbled together from a collection of diverse reminiscences, fairy tales, tales of fantasy and make-believe, macro photographs and colonial archives.

"Nuit noire was at first intended to be a film about audio-visual sensations. The narrative pretext, the trauma suffered by the main character, a story of mourning over the death of a little sister, had to be presented to the audience in deferred fashion, by the most improbable device it was possible to find. Throw in some elements of decor and a small cast. Interlace the guiding thread of the narrative pretext with other threads. A canvas slowly but surely unveils, its intersections tied with occasionally loose knots. In reality, events and characters had to be born of the more or less conscious fears and desires of the main character. That's why the series of episodes could be both very structured and random. I could quite easily see the film as the x-ray of a dream advancing by associations, by the contamination of elements that, although not easily discernible, were also susceptible to multiple meanings. Personally, I have always liked leaving myself at the mercy of stories I don't fully understand but whose composite parts do seem to draw on a vaguely worrying, subterranean causal logic."

One might wish to pin down this movie as readily and enthusiastically as Oscar pins down the insects that he checks off his assignment list. Then again, revealing that wish might be the true aim of this movie, which purposely obfuscates, fragments, thwarts, distracts and detours at every nocturnal turn. To pin this movie down, to freeze frame it in the lens of a camera, is tantamount to chloroforming it. To recognize it as collage, as mosaic, as an exercise in Surrealist exquisite corpse, as self-indulgent and self-referential polysemy, is to be more on track. Quoting again from Smolders' La part de l'ombre (Share of the Shadow): "Sometimes, beetles that we hadn't effectively chloroformed woke up in the night, impaled on their pins, and spent hours going round in circles, making that annoying scratching-paw sound. In the morning, we put them out of their misery, not without feeling somewhat guilty about the whole thing. Nuit noire (Black Night) is first and foremost a film about insects and guilt."

I owe much to Cineuropa's interview with the director and encourage anyone interested in the folly of attempting to "understand" this film after (hopefully) watching it to explore said interview. As Todd phrased it, this is a man who has "the goods to back it up."

You have three chances to catch Nuit Noire (Black Night) as part of Dead Channels at the Roxie Film Center. First on Saturday, August 11, 12:30PM at the Little Roxie; then on Monday, August 13, 9:30PM at the Big Roxie; and finally on Wednesday, August 15, 5:15PM at the Big Roxie. If you are truly thirsting for the dark and the fantastic, this is one to see.

Cross-published at Twitch.