Sunday, December 19, 2010

Literary Rant: In Defense of Dora Spenlow (SSSSPOILERS for David Copperfield)

Great Expectations is my favorite Charles Dickens novel, and probably also one of my favorite books, period. Yet strangely enough, it's David Copperfield I find myself thinking of the most, and coming back to time and again–and really, that one is not my favorite, because for some reason I find it lacks the excitement and immediacy I felt while reading Expectations. We finicky lit nerds, amiright?

So, if I don't think David Copperfield is in the same class as Great Expectations, why did I sign up for an account over at The David Copperfield Site at Dickens On-line Resources to shoot my mouth/fingers off about the thing?

The answer wasn't difficult for me to uncover. It's because of Dora Spenlow.

Modern readers hate her. She's called an anachronistic mess, a throwback to the sort of helpless girls detrimental to any momentum to the women's rights movement in London at the time. She's clingy, dependent, and woos the titular character away from the steady and discreet Agnes Wickfield, marrying him and then letting their house fall apart. She's childish, whiny, and prone to hysterics. She's a disgrace to strong female characters everywhere. She's popularly believed to be the original source for the term "Dumb Dora."

She's one of my favorite characters in anything ever.

Because she's also wacky, funny, playful, none too bright, but earnest and loving. She's ecstatically devoted to her dog. She's basically everything I value in a heroine.

Some of–okay, a great deal of what they say above is true. She starts out as the archetypal spoiled princess, daughter to the affluent and slightly crooked businessman, Mr. Spenlow. He in turn is boss of the young, strapping David Copperfield. The young Copperfield falls hopelessly, consumingly in love with Dora at first sight. They marry, but he soon finds out that not only is Dora incapable of looking after the house or the accounts, but that she'd rather sit around playing with her dog and singing along to her guitar all day.

But what, dammit, is so terribly wrong with that?

Now, I know, I know. Dora's behavior is far from good. As I conceded to someone on the IMDb boards of the 1935 movie (I'm everywhere I'm everywhere auuuugh!), no one should have to coddle his spouse the way David does Dora. And BOY, does that girl fly off the handle and whine herself up a storm when she wants to.

But before we cast Dora as anti-feminist, let's reverse the gendered role, here.

 Let's say the man is the one who'd rather play guitar, sing, and hang out with the dog than work for the man and keep house. Would he be labeled as a disgrace to his sex, or would he be touted as a charmingly eccentric free spirit? Hell, look at Micawber, the lazy con-artist who befriends David--he's just as helpless and idiotic as Dora, but he's rewarded with an intensely devoted wife and, ultimately, riches in Australia. True, he stood up to Uriah Heep, but he had plenty of help there, and I didn't notice it stem his dependency any. So, what, when you're Micawber it's all right to BS your way through life and work, as long as you have the proverbial heart of gold? But Dora, who also has a good heart (a great heart), is still a failure of a woman? Because she can't keep house? Double-You Tee Eff, everybody!

A lot of the book's fangirls (yes, even Dickens books have fangirls, thank you) despise Dora for serving as angelic Agnes's inadvertent romantic rival. I, too, like many fangirls, tend to sympathize with misty-eyed girls deeply in unrequited love, but not so much here. This might be the pot calling the kettle black, since I'm dissing everybody who disses Dora, but I'm not that wild about Agnes, or at least not wild about the way she's portrayed and the way people react to her. Here's what I say about her on the David Copperfield site:
I, like VIRGI, have a problem with Agnes, not only Agnes herself, but the way that Dickens so shamelessly gushes over her. It came to a point where I felt such dread whenever she came into events, because I knew a conversation between her and David couldn't occur without David prefacing every comment with something like, "My dear good angel without whom I can't make a single decision, I so cherish the sight of your soft seraphic eyes, o sister of my boyhood...." Blech! Many people consider Dora insipid, but I'm afraid Agnes is more so in my eyes. I tend to enjoy characters with a bit more...I don't know...personality? Character flaws? Temper tantrums? I guess it comes down to "round vs. flat" characters. I know some people argue that Agnes's one big redeeming flaw is supposed to be having hidden her love for David, but even this seems more like just another long-suffering, saintly virtue of hers, waiting patiently in the wings for her true love. It's all too saccharine for me.
I realize preferring Dora to Agnes, or vice-versa, is the result of sheer personal taste. Agnes is basically a Jane Austen heroine, as intelligent and strong as Elizabeth Bennett, and as composed and long-suffering as Elinor Dashwood. Dora is Gracie Allen and Carole Lombard. Really, judging by my previous posts, who do you think I'm going to dig more? After all, even if I wasn't such a fan of the screwball comedienne type, I've never been as crazy about Austen girls as other readers are ('cept Catherine Morland. She's rad).

Agnes isn't real to me. She's everything men are supposed to want: beautiful, wise, motherly, great housekeeper, angelic, and endlessly patient. Pfft, who's like that, really? Dora, for all her many many faults, is at least real and understandable in her imperfections. I truly don't want this post to turn into a diatribe against Agnes, since my secret effort is to get people to stop doing so with Dora. After all, the two girls themselves adore each other. But I just want to point out that if you're going to label Dora as anti-feminist, you can't dis-include Agnes from that label, either. She's the man's idealized woman; she has little function throughout the novel save for serving as David and her father's silent support system.

But to return solely to Dora: she really does have a good heart, and wants what's best for David. She tries to learn how to master the demanding art of being the good little Victorian wife. She really does. But it's just not in her personality's makeup to learn all the ropes involved in housemakerdom. Is she supposed to be permanently barred from marital happiness because of this?  We all have our flaws; as I point out in another thread on that site, better for David to marry someone like Dora than a cruel, heartless dictator like Miss Murdstone. It would be one thing if Dora never made the effort, but she did and only made things worse. She feels terrible about it. Yet she still tries: she wants to hold David's pens while he writes.

'Will you mind it, if I say something very, very silly? - more than usual?' inquired Dora, peeping over my shoulder into my face.
'What wonderful thing is that?' said I.

'Please let me hold the pens,' said Dora. 'I want to have something to do with all those many hours when you are so industrious. May I hold the pens?'

The remembrance of her pretty joy when I said yes, brings tears into my eyes. The next time I sat down to write, and regularly afterwards, she sat in her old place, with a spare bundle of pens at her side. Her triumph in this connexion with my work, and her delight when I wanted a new pen - which I very often feigned to do - suggested to me a new way of pleasing my child-wife. I occasionally made a pretence of wanting a page or two of manuscript copied. Then Dora was in her glory. The preparations she made for this great work, the aprons she put on, the bibs she borrowed from the kitchen to keep off the ink, the time she took, the innumerable stoppages she made to have a laugh with Jip as if he understood it all, her conviction that her work was incomplete unless she signed her name at the end, and the way in which she would bring it to me, like a school-copy, and then, when I praised it, clasp me round the neck, are touching recollections to me, simple as they might appear to other men.

That and her endless, unwavering love for David are what she offers him.

Let's ignore, for the moment, the "correct post-modern reading" of this excerpt-–that David humoring Dora is little more than a condescending ruse, sappy and insulting. I know their dynamic is not exactly what you'd call absolutely healthy. But let's focus instead on what most readers refuse to acknowledge these days: the two truly, purely love one another. Dora keeps trying, in her own way, to help her husband. And he tries to make her happy.

And then Dickens kills her off. The understood belief is that she died from complications delivering a stillborn babe, a death rife with sexist symbolism: she failed the ultimate test of a woman's worth, motherhood. To soften the blow, Dickens has her give Agnes her final blessing, and lalala David goes onto wedded bliss with kids and a homey hearth where he can write as Agnes distracts the kids with stories. Whee, bully for him!

Of course David deserves happiness after Dora. But it's all just too neat and tidy for me. What would have happened had she lived? Most assume he would have stopped loving her entirely, that her quirky charms would have worn thin as she aged and lost her youthful beauty (as it apparently did with Dickens's real-life Dora, Maria Beadnell).

But because I love Dora's ding-a-ling sweetness, I like to think they would have ended up as a law-abiding version of the Micawbers, genders reversed. A perfectly healthy relationship? Hell no. But I'm sorry, no romance is perfectly healthy. And those depicted in fiction are dull and lifeless. I'd much rather read about David and Dora's good-natured bickering in their declining years, coupled with them still occasionally playing the love-sick, soppy teenagers, than contemplate a wise, harmonious couple quietly holding hands before a roaring fire.

Then again, that's just me. And George Orwell.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Great What-Ifs Vol. 2, Electric Boogaloo: Batman The Animated Series in the '40s?

Starting yesterday, I've been having a Batmanathon with my dad, sister, and brother-in-law, since the latter two now own the DVD boxset featuring all of the fantastic animated series episodes from the '90s. Overall I consider myself a fairweather Batman fan, seeing as it was only a latent bout of nostalgia that led me to watch the show recently (even in my childhood, when the show was on the air, I only cursorily watched it when I had nothing better to do. I was a pretty dim kid). But now the cartoon is my Batdrug of choice. I've gotten a fun kick out of watching the '60s TV show (what gal out there doesn't want to be Julie Newmar?), and I enjoyed the parts of the '89 Burton movie and its sequel that I've seen (again, what gal wouldn't also want to be Pfeiffer?). And I acknowledge that Ledger looks awe-inspiringly brilliant in Dark Knight. But that film appears to have just too much of that dreaded realism crap for me to really get into it too much. I mean, I acknowledge I should get around to actually watching it one of these days and judge it from there, but when it comes to something adapted from a comic book, I prefer the output...y'know....a little more comic-y.

While I have a very limited knowledge of the original comics, what I have seen and what I've researched makes me believe the '90s cartoon comes closest to Bob Kane's original vision in 1939: dark and energetic, gothic and stylized--heart without camp, grit without downtrodden naturalism. Y'know, only without the killings. For the kids! Oh, and I'd just like to point out you couldn't capture the slick artwork and expressions on the characters' faces with CGI, thankyouverymuch. Plus, who knew Mark Hamill of all people could make The Joker sound so maniacal, twisted, and hysterical?

 Little Lukey....

....Equals this guy?
Right on.

Did I mention how the first comic came out in 1939? That's right, this is where I'm heading: a kickass, full-scale, top-notch film noir made in the '40s, depicting the tone and characters of the animated series (see, I know there was a lower budget version of Batman made in 1943, so I wanted to specify that this is BIG BUDGET BIG STARS and exclusively in TAS-verse). I'm just going to throw this out here right away: directed by Fritz Lang, circa 1945 (wanna give the comics a few years to gain popularity). Now let's cast the hell out of this! Wheeee, I'm never going to stop with these things!

Dana Andrews as Batman/Bruce Wayne

One of the handsomer stars of film noir, Andrews also had a dark, rough, and somehow vaguely tragic edge. He was moody but no weakling. And perfect for playing the stalwart hero (see Laura). Andrews also has that square-cut jaw and strong/lean physique perfect for Batsy. 

Yeah, I have a bit of a crush on this guy.

You know who's an even weirder crush of mine?

Richard Widmark as The Joker

I read once that Widmark was actually inspired by Joker comics when he infamously portrayed the giggling psychopath Tommy Uto in Kiss of Death. I mean, look at those two faces! Any surprise, really? Someone with mad photoshop skills should try Jokerizing the heck out of that picture of Widmark. Seriously, slap some white body paint on him, slather on the red lipstick, and dye his hair bog green, and he is Joker.

I would like to note that after researching Mr. Widmark on IMDb, I found out that in spite of his "pushing-wheelchair-bound-grannies-around" image he depicted onscreen, he was apparently a very peace-loving, pro gun-control sort. Kind of a relief to know, innit?

For Batman's principal femme fatale, I have a list of potential candidates, like

Gene Tierney....

...Ava Gardner....

...or, yes, my girl Vivien....

...As Catwoman
All these ladies would bring phenomenal qualities to Catwoman. Gene Tierney's got the elegance, mystique, and the established chemistry with Dana Andrews. Gardner has the wicked cat eyes and attitude, plus she probably has the best bod of the bunch. Vivien has the most kittenish personality, plus the best acting chops, so if Lang wanted to go with the deeper Jeckyll /Hyde persona that Pfeiffer brilliantly portrayed in Batman Returns, Viv would be superb.

So, I'm stuck on this one. Thoughts? Concerns? Other ideas? Merp.

 Jeanne Crain as Batgirl /Barbara Gordon 

In Leave Her to Heaven, a marvelously ludicrous melodrama that nevertheless remains a classic film noir despite the blazing technicolor, Crain played the good girl-next-door role to Tierney's seething baddie. Crain played what could have been a simpering character with an undertone of strength, making her believable and sympathetic (though often outshone by Tierney, but everyone in that film was). Crain has the youth, sweetness, spunk, and the bright auburn hair crucial to Babs. I think she could pull off both the loving daughter and librarian, and the plucky superheroine.

C. Aubrey Smith as Alfred

Not really much I can add to this one. Smith is refined and stuffy, but with an underlying paternal kindness. It's all good. Kind of a weird photo of him, though.

Burt Lancaster as Two Face / Harvey Dent
Lancaster often played the steady, the hero. Yet my strongest impression of him comes from his ferocious portrayal of megalomaniacal, obsessively covetous and incestuous columnist J.J. Hunsecker in the masterpiece noir Sweet Smell of Success. Hunsecker tries presenting himself as an affable man-about-town and caring brother, but his face quickly shifts from bland benevolence to reptilian malice as needed. That coupled with his foreboding broad shoulders and razor sharp glare makes him just twisted and fascinating enough for tragic, dynamic former D.A. Harvey Dent.

Rita Hayworth as Poison Ivy

To be perfectly honest, I haven't really seen much with Rita Hayworth. I only know she's another great fatal female, has glorious red hair, and men go all sorts of ga-ga over her. Seems quite fitting for Dr. Pamela Isley.

But what about Ivy's bestest buddy in the whole wide world?

June Preisser as Harley Quinn

Oh, Harl, everybody's favorite henchwench. I dismissed her as a mild annoyance when I was a young'un, and ironically it took me in my older years to fully appreciate, and fall in love with, the most childlike character in the batverse. She was created especially for the animated series, in an attempt to lighten the Joker--again, for the kids. Frankly, I always thought she did the opposite of that, since  Joker always beat her up and tried to kill her. But she did win the hearts of cartoon and comic book fans alike, and she was soon adopted into the canon. Screwball, nuts, squeaky voiced, and physically limber and flexible. Who could do it back in the day?

June Preisser is a recent find of mine. I was just mindlessly flipping through a Pauline Kael book, as is a frequent pastime of mine (parties? Pffft, screw that noise), and I came across this description of her in one of the Andy Hardy movies: "she's like a baby Mae West and her eyes rove with mischief."  Baby Mae West? Well, obviously, I just had to check her out. She's blonde, vivacious, and criminy, take a look at her eyes in that picture: insane. But in an adorable way! And as an experienced contortionist, she could even effortlessly pull off Harley's gymnastic stunts! Double whammy. True, she might be a bit young to fit Harley's origin as a former shrink of the Joker's, but I always thought that backstory was a bit odd anyways. Driven mad with love for the Joker, fine; after all, look at all the fangirls panting over Ledger's Mistah J. But a young woman who heretofore has thrown herself into psychology suddenly snapped into a world-class, circus level acrobat? Not so believable, in my mind. So, alter the backstory to something like Joker wooing a ditzy tightrope walker, and Preisser is absolutely perfect. Plus, by the mid-'40s, things started sliding sadly downhill for Preisser, so maybe playing Harley could have revitalized both her life and her career, and she could now be known as someone other than Judy's rival in the Hardy flicks.

Peter Lorre as The Penguin

Penguin is one of those characters seldom used effectively. Burgess Meredith did well with him in the '60s series because the quacking laugh and long cigarette didn't look out of place in that more comic backdrop. But Penguin was one of the biggest failures in both Batman Returns and the cartoon series. Neither Burton nor the brains behind TAS knew how to reconcile a man who looks like a penguin and the darker, pulpier feel they were going for, and the scenes with him turned into an uncomfortable mesh of both genres. Frankly, if you're going to do it that way, might as well have an actor excellent at both macabre and comedy. Dear Lorre, one of my favorite actors ever, was obviously a dark, scary mite, but guess what? He got his start doing comedy in revue halls. Perfect match, if you have to film The Penguin. 

Clifton Webb as Scarecrow

Yep, three Laura stars here. But I swear it isn't only narcissism because of my name. Dr. Jonathan Crane, aka THE ALMIGHTY SCARECROW KING OF FEAR, requires someone cruelly erudite without falling headlong into histrionics; I think Webb's smarmy sophistication would capture that dichotomy well. And those who have seen his Waldo Lydecker will attest to my assertion he can also nail playing a psycho-creep. Really, who else could you imagine reveling in exploiting peoples' fears, but still maintaining his sharp and classy demeanor?

I might write a sequel to this post after I finish the whole series, when I'm better acquainted with the entire rogues gallery. And I can't yet pinpoint which actors could play Riddler, Killer Croc, Clayface, and the rest. Suggestions, kids? Oh, and leaving out Robin? Not an oversight. I just don't give a crap about Robin.

And yes, to those wondering, in this wonderland Fritz Lang production, George Sanders will remain Mr. Freeze. Only it would be even better this time, because in the animated series his character would have the added pathos of fretting over his sick wife Nora, and wouldn't Georgie just be too too adorable struggling to keep her alive cryogenically? He'd do a helluva better job than Arnie, that's for sure.

(Hmm, who could have played the immobile Nora? All she'd have to is stand there frozen, looking pretty. Would Grace Kelly have been too young? She's certainly got the ice queen thing down, har-dee-har. BUT NO DON'T EVEN SUGGEST ZSA ZSA NO WAY DON'T EVEN THINK IT THAT'S NOT FUNNY).

Friday, December 3, 2010

Great What-Ifs: Far From The Madding Crowd starring Vivien Leigh

Shame-faced at calling myself an English Major after failing to read certain classics, I made it a priority this summer to at least read some great literature I hadn't before, in between job hunting. And as always, I was more successful on that front than in actually securing something that could make me money. Feh. But anyways! Stop being bitter, you guys.

One of the books I absolutely fell in love with was Thomas Hardy's Far From The Madding Crowd, which is well known for being one of his only cheerful books--as in, cheerful for a Thomas Hardy novel. There's still death, destruction, and heartache, but you actually don't feel like your soul has been sucked out by some sci-fi leech/vacuum hybrid by story's end. A quick, inadequate summary: pretty girl named Bathsheba. Turns down nice guy Gabriel. She inherits a farm. She's a kickass womyn, not taking no guff. Except she isn't that kickass; she can't run the farm without Gabriel. Hires him, he's head shepherd. Bathsheba drives Mr. Boldwood, elegant next-door neighbor, mad with the love-crazies. She herself is driven love-crazy by dashing man-whore Sgt. Frank Troy. Oh, it's in Wessex, the fictional English county in pretty much all of Thomas Hardy's books. Lots of colorful commentary from farm workers. There's sweeping romance and bloated sheep having to be poked in the tummies to breathe.

It's great! But I have as yet to see a filmed version that's really blown me away. The 1967 film was a huge disappointment, except for Peter Finch's bang-up job as Boldwood (and poor, nuttier-than-a-can-of-cashews Boldwood is my favorite part of Crowd, so his performance did go a long way toward redeeming the movie for me). The 1997 BBC version was okay, but the casting was iffy. Like I hear with Dark Shadows, however, little rumors tell me there will be a new cinematic version out sometime in the nearish future. I've toyed with the idea of casting that one in my head, a fond hobby of mine, and you'll probably see it often here. But because I love classic movies and vintage stars so much, I figured, hey! Why not cast a version with the actors from yesteryear, by golly? The production values back then and the more overt acting styles would better fit the epic, romantic mood Hardy establishes. I'm helped in this noble endeavor by something I read on a message board once: Vivien Leigh was once signed on to play Bathsheba in a version that was dropped for unknown reasons. Well. That sucks. I would have loved, adored, and eaten up with a spoon any version with Vivien Leigh in it. True, she'd basically just be playing an English country-girl version of Scarlett, but who freaking cares? It's Vivien. In Far From The Madding Crowd. I'm sold!

So, let's cast this imaginary movie filmed sometime in the forties, and...why don't we just cast the five principal leads, since it would take a whole plethora of old-timey character actors to portray all the local color in the thing? Here we go, gang! C'mon, Scoob!

Vivien Leigh as Bathsheba Everdene

There's no way this is not perfect. Now, I admit that I'm more than a little biased when it comes to Vivien. She's just my favorite actress, is all. I like to put on my fancy film buff pants and go, "I knew she was the greatest actress ever from the moment I saw her in A Streetcar Named Desire when I was only a little kid," thus sticking it to folks who know her primarily as Scarlett O'Hara. But while that's all very true, I didn't really become actively addicted to her until middle school, when I, like many privileged, white, ignorant brats before me, became simultaneously addicted to Gone With The Wind. But I do still maintain that her Blanche is probably the greatest performance I've ever seen. I'll probably post more on that some other time. HOWEVER: why's she perfect for Bathsheba in particular?

Well, like I said, it's a no-brainer. Beautiful? Check. The ability to play a petulant brat who means well, but is mired down by her ambitions and vanity? Double check. Dark-haired?! YES, CHECK. Sorry, but that's what really pissed me off with the '67 flick: Julie Christie, aka Blondie McBlonderson, as Bathsheba? No no no. Look, I'm not one of those book traditionalists who flies off the handle if a character's physiology deviates slightly; after all, Vivien's eyes are blue, while Bathsheba's should be brown. But Bathsheba's hair color is a freakin' plot point in one scene, for cryin' out loud. Christie was so miserably miscast.

Even though I compared the idea of Vivien's Bathsheba to an English version of Scarlett, I actually look at her performance in That Hamilton Woman as definitive proof that she would, no doubt, own the role of Bathsheba. In that film she starts out as a giddy little social climber, motivated in equal parts by misplaced love for an unseen rich git and a desire to lead a finer life than that of a chorus girl. Later, after earnestly falling in love and realizing what a shallow lie her life is, she becomes more jaded and wise, more melancholy. And she plays both these facets of Lady Hamilton's character flawlessly--I'd even venture to say it's a technically better performance than Scarlett, though few portrayals can ever touch the fiery charm she achieved in Gone With the Wind. But her ability to play both young/frisky and staid/wise is vital to playing Bathsheba accurately, since Bathsheba has far more of a conscience than Scarlett ever did, though she makes similar mistakes.

Robert Mitchum as Gabriel Oak

"His height and breadth would have been sufficient to make his presence imposing, had they been exhibited with due consideration....He was at the brightest period of masculine growth, for his intellect and his emotions were clearly separated...."
           --Thomas Hardy on Farmer Oak

Ol' Bobby Mitchum is another of my favorites. He was wildly versatile. He could chill you to the bones in Cape Fear and The Night of the Hunter, but it's his gentler, subtler, and more stoically rustic work in The Sundowners and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison that convinces me he would be the ideal Gabriel, maybe the book's one truly morally conscientious character. I couldn't help myself: he's who I pictured almost immediately I started reading, and there he stayed in me head. He's stoic, physically imposing, good looking but not conventionally gorgeous, and just watch the way he looks at Deborah Kerr in Mr. Allison: without making a big fuss, his eyes register painful, frustrated, steadfast adoration, combined with determination to help his lady out no matter what the cost. But nooooo, stupid Kerr had to be a stupid nun, ruining everything! Dumb bint.

Only qualm I have is his ability to pull off an English accent. How'd he handle an Irish brogue, people who have seen Ryan's Daughter?

George Sanders or Claude Rains as Mr. Boldwood

I know in my first post I cast my vote solely in Sanders' favor for this role, but that's simply because he's my current cinematic fixation, thanks to my wee brain's tendency toward perseveration. However, Claude Rains was my initial choice when reading the book (y'see, I hadn't yet watched Village of the Damned, the film that really sparked my Sanders mania). Why? Well, first, watch Notorious. Then watch the 1943 Phantom of the Opera. Then read Hardy's description of Boldwood here: "If an emotion possessed him at all, it ruled him; a feeling not mastering him was entirely latent. Stagnant or rapid, it was never slow.  He was always hit mortally, or he was missed." Now apply that to a portrait of a refined, middle-aged, elegant bachelor whose frigid indifference to women is turned upside-down into a consuming obsession by a flighty girl's practical joke, and you have the ideal role for Claude Rains, what-ho.

But Sanders shouldn't be discounted yet. He's not as obvious a choice as Rains, no, but don't let his caddish ways mislead you. Actually, he could take that ruthless, careless front of his and use it to his performance's advantage, illustrating just how deeply Bathsheba uproots Boldwood's life. Sanders is refined and elegant, and he can play obsessive. Don't believe me? Watch a strange little flick called Summer Storm. He does exactly this; plays a thoughtless but respectable cad until Linda Darnell shoots seductive glances at him through sooty lashes and YOWZA. Brother gets it bad. I feel like a louse saying this, but even in the midst of my admiration for the man, I had no idea he could act so damn well. I was mostly infatuated with his attitude, his man-about-town, rakish persona. But this movie schooled me. Schooled me good. There's a particularly unsettling scene where he drowns his sorrows in a pub/cafe/cabaret type thing after Darnell gives him the cold shoulder, and he gets so sloshed George Sanders actually lets loose! Only in a really demonic, scary way! Someone begins singing some sentimental twaddle that starts hitting too close to home, and his eyes blaze and he shakes in his seat. So he abruptly stands and fumbles his way to the stage, trying to rouse everyone into a more chipper chorus. Then he stops short, staring at his reflection in a large mirror, where he sees, cruelly, what a mook he's become. He's fallen so far from the dignified dandy he was at the start of the picture that his fury just builds and explodes, and he hurls his drink at the glass, shattering it.

That's Boldwood-type manic behavior right there. Trust me.

(I'd also direct you to 1952's Ivanhoe as further proof that Sanders could play unrequited, desperate love well, but nobody should have to sit through that turd. No actor came out well in that, save maybe Liz Taylor. And I forgive no movie that makes our Sanders parade around in baby blue tights and wear a bright auburn wig and mustache. Yeah, we get it, it's technicolor! We've seen it before, don't blind us! And don't get me started on that idiotic helmet with the weird bird tacked on it that he wears in the jousting scene. Nonsense.)

But if you really can't get away from the cad thing, there is another role he and some guy named Archie Leech could contend for....

George Sanders or Cary Grant as Sgt. Frank Troy

Why do I believe Sanders has the ability to play both the proper, repressed Boldwood and the n'er-do-well ladykiller Troy? Because Sanders has always reminded me in equal parts, both physically and in his manner, of a tiger and a penguin, that's why. And he can play both the ferocious predator and tuxedoed bird interchangeably. He'd make a very slick Sgt. Troy, and his age in the 1940s might have been a wee bit more appropriate for Troy than for Boldwood. While Boldwood is only supposed to be forty, an older actor--say, fiftyish?--might better capture the age gap between he and Bathsheba on film (besides, in this my little fantastical version filmed in the '40s, Vivien would already be in her late 20s/early 30s. You might need an older actor to play her Boldwood). However, a part of me can't help but think that Troy is too predictable a role for Sanders, and he might be sorely tempted to fall back on tricks he's played before.

That's why I prefer Grant. He was chiseled out of his bad guy role in Suspicion, and while he played a similar role in 1932's Madame Butterfly (above), I don't think he ever tackled an all-out cad once he became uber-famous. And because Grant is so innately likable, Troy's few soft moments would be more believable, and keep his character from traveling too far into one-dimensional, dumbass jock territory. Just as Sanders often played the Sanders role, so did Grant play the Grant role: a happy-go-lucky hottie who casually gets the girl while ultimately doing no harm. A character like Troy who's mostly a dick but has a few surprisingly redeeming qualities would give Grant an opportunity to flex his skills outside of his usual type. Would he be capable of playing not only a despicable scum-bag, but also a poor schlub sobbing while trying weakly to plant flowers on the grave of a certain character? Maybe we could have gotten a good taste of just how far Grant's range as an actor extended. Plus, he's handsome and jaunty, and just as pretty as Vivien. They'd make a good onscreen match.

Joan Fontaine as Fanny Robin

Remember I mentioned Troy's soft spots? Dear, pathetic Fanny Robin is one of them, though the softness she inspires in him is fickle and rather faint. She's a housemaid at Bathsheba's farm who loves Troy despite the fact he's Troy, and tries eloping with him in the beginning. Under hilariously lame circumstances, that's stalled, and before they can try again....

Joan Fontaine is an actress familiar to anyone who reads the fabulous Self-Styled Siren, where Fontaine is a frequent favorite. I doubt producers in the '40s would have been keen for Fontaine to jeopardize her prim, delicate English rose image by playing a working-class, uneducated, fallen girl like Fanny, though by far Fanny is the most innocent and delicate character in the novel. That's precisely why I think Fontaine would be so effective in the role. She was so enchanting as the shy second Mrs. DeWinter in Rebecca that I honestly believe her performance there could be the most touching display of timidity I've ever seen on screen. This gift of hers, playing fragile girls realistically and adorably, would make Fanny's plight all the more poignant. Can you imagine that sweet, nameless girl from Rebecca half dead on the rural streets of the English countryside, struggling down endless roads in the rain to get to a hospital, helped only by clutching the coat of a passing dog? If that image wouldn't strike straight to the hearts of indulgent housewives in '40s movie theaters, I don't know what would.

 Like I said, there are a menagerie of other roughneck extras hanging out in the book, and it would take stronger powers than even my majestic ability to babble on and on to cast each one. However, we're talking about the Golden Age of Hollywood, and in the Golden Age of Hollywood, when you need a likable character actor to play a blustering farm hand, you'd most likely get in touch with this guy:

 Thomas Mitchell as Jan Coggan

You like sprawling epics, the kind you'd only see in full, corny, wonderful detail way back when, in the tradition of William Wyler's Wuthering Heights and that one movie about the Old South that chick Leigh was in? Then I'd recommend reading Far From the Madding Crowd. It's about as close as you can get to that sweepy feeling in classic novel format.

And after you've read it, you can answer the question nagging me now, and will keep me sleeping only fitfully tonight:

Who the heck could have played Liddy Smallbury in those days?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Dark Shadows (1966) vs. Dark Shadows (1991)

I recently sat down and plowed through the first and only season of the 1991 revival of my beloved Dark Shadows, via the almighty Netflix's Watch Instantly function. Now, I don't pretend to know original Dark Shadows through and through; the damn thing had roughly 100 quadrillion episodes, and Netflix doesn't even have the full second collection up yet. What I haven't been able to watch on Netflix I've snatched in bits and pieces from YouTube. As a result of these patchwork spurts of viewing, I haven't even seen a helluva lot of the infamous 1795 time warp dealy-o (the Kathyrn Leigh Scott-esque screams you hear are from the countless DS fans whose delicate sensibilities I've shocked just now). However, what I haven't seen I've researched avidly (Sidney Falco's favorite word, yup), since that's just the way I am and god loves me even if you don't. Plus, I'm addicted to the show, and that's why I'm allowed to write this, by cracky.

What I want to establish right now is that whenever I talk about something like this, I'm very rarely qualified; I plan on adhering strictly to my credo, that I'm an unqualified hack and what you see here and in other posts is my deep-down-in-mah-gut, knee-jerk take. But what I lack in smarts I makes up for in spirit. And as I'm unemployed, I have a lot of free time.

Unlike the original DS, which took its time--exactly one season--before introducing us to the only real reason anyone remembers the show, Barnabas Collins, the Revival knows what we want and WHAM! The pilot gives us Barnabas Collins, sallow and sparkle-free Vampire squire, as portrayed by Benjamin Cross.

"Hi, kids! You might also know me as Ambassador Sarek, father of that troubled youth Spock in the new Star Trek movie. Yes sir, guess I'm just a guy with a way of inserting myself into roles made iconic by great actors before me. Ha, ha! Don't look me in the eye or I'll cane you."

Cross. Hm. Physically imposing? Sure, though not as tall as you'd think, or as you might like Barnabas to be (he himself points that out in one episode). But his performance? Well, his performance to me is indicative of the principal problem behind the Revival. Both the series and Cross forget that what made the original so fun and fantastic for all its stagy awfulness was the all-out, shameless theatrical melodrama of it all. True, the show was crammed full of cheap sets and costumes, hammy actors stumbling painfully through their lines, and noxious color schemes, but by god, at least it had flair. When I watch a show centered around a gothic mansion that includes vampires, werewolves, time travel, parallel dimensions, and The Hand of Count Petrofi, I don't care about, or want, subtlety.

Nor do I want it played straight. The Revival tries valiantly to make the show less campy by upping the production value (everything's bigger!) and directing the actors to play their parts realistically. The actors are uniformly adequate performers, but by cutting down on the histrionics and hand-wringing, you really end up stifling them in this genre. Because when something outlandish does happen--like, oh, I don't know, Barnabas the vampire freaking biting somebody--the tone is thrown off completely. The camp is all the more jarring and obvious, because it just seems to come out of left field. That's what's wrong with Cross: he's very smooth and charming in his quieter, subdued moments, but he's pretty painful to watch when time comes for him to chew (heh) the scenery. Jonathan Frid, on the other hand, the original Barnabas, was a walking, talking slice of macabre. He somehow managed to play both the silky charmer and the Edgar Allan Poe melodramatic anti-hero simultaneously.

"That's right, look at me, bitches. Is it any wonder I can pull this crazy shit off? Oh, only don't look me in the eye or I'll cane you."

It's unfortunate that Cross has to follow in this guy's footsteps. Frid is physically built for this sort of role; he looks like a regal scarecrow with Rasputin's hypnotic glare. If Cross had maybe performed consistently, playing even his more volatile moments on a quieter keel to keep with the show's almost sleepy feel (which I guess they were trying to pass off as mood), he might have been more effective. However, when the hammy moments come, he's unbelievable and bellow-y. Oh, the bellowing and high school drama club president voice! It...well, it didn't completely sell me on him, let's just say that. To be fair, he was fairly compelling otherwise, and it helps that unlike Frid, Cross is conventionally sexy. Very sexy. But that's another nit-pick I have, one you'll always see from ornery fans whose old-fashioned fandoms are updated in the shiny new world: the sex.

Oh boy, is this ever sexed up. Since the days of Bela Lugosi and maybe even before, authors and movie-makers have heavily sexualized vampirism, sometimes more overtly than at other times. Here that edge is very overt. While I harp on the Revival for being too subtle in mood and acting, I really feel they should have taken all that tact and applied it to their free-wheeling, "bloody bosomy women are hawt" mentality. The original show wasn't very sexy, but it was romantic and tense. A lot of that sprang from the camp aspect of the dialogue and mood, which worked well for a daytime soap in the late '60s. However, in 1991 they might have felt above such theatrical shenanigans, but still realizing they had to hook the audience somehow, they decided sex was the very kick the show needed. Why not, sex is always hip! And vampires...piercing ladies' necks with their long, hard teeth...well! Sexy! It's actually very icky, especially if you were a fan of the original. It's like watching a beloved Disney movie from your childhood remade into a porno: Beauty and the Beast becoming Booty and the Beast (man, I should be a producer! That's gold right there). And just as Cross's over-the-top moments wax phony after establishing his Barnabas as dignified and straight-laced, Rebecca Staab moaning and gyrating in Barnabas's arms as she removes his shirt while he bites her seems very, very off.

"My chest hair will protect me from your puny cross! It's undead chest hair, after all! Ya dig? Oh yeah, baby, ya dig, donchya?"

Beyond the sex and the staging, I was primarily interested in the characterizations, believe it or not. The original show lost interest for me once Alexandra Moltke left, taking with her the clueless, vacant, one-dimensional, utterly adorable and endearing protagonist, Victoria Winters. Moltke really deserves props for what she did with Vicki. When I first started watching her, I thought, "Wow. She stinks. Is she able to register any other emotion than grave befuddlement?" But catching snippets of the other two actresses who tried and failed to play Vicki after Moltke got fed up with her character's dippy innocence and quit, the character just wasn't the same for me and I was surprised by how much I missed our Vicki, potato sack dresses and all. Something about the sincere, muted quality of Moltke's expressions and line readings made the character distinctly hers, and Victoria became the ultimate, modern, gothic ingenue. And because the show centered around her in the first season, we really related to her and started looking to her as the show's moral compass and calm in the eye of the storm. She's a very important character.

That connection is missing here.

At least she still stares glassy-eyed into the distance like a champ.

Joanna Going, who plays Victoria in the Revival, is mind-numbingly, jaw-droppingly, unbelievably beautiful. That much is obvious. She also plays Josette, the most shocking departure from the original show's premise, that had Kathryn Leigh Scott's Maggie Evans dutifully filling in as Barnabas's long lost love's double. Going is very charming and cute as Josette, and while I'm no Francophile, I think her French accent gets the job done. Her Josette is kittenish without being cloying, with a sweetness that makes you feel Barnabas's pain when he loses her. But Going stumbles with Victoria. You can tell she doesn't want to fall into the trap Moltke so desperately extricated herself from, of being saddled with a character so perfectly modeled for the damsel in distress type that her catchphrase has become, "I don't understand." So Going, maybe more than any other actor, plays Victoria straight to the hilt, trying so hard to make her come across as intelligent and capable that she succeeds in...well...making her mildly boring. Without her trademark loopy naivete, Victoria is rather lumpish and dull. She's not helped by the writers, who apparently have little to no interest in developing Victoria in any way, shape, or form.  Much of the original's early episodes were taken up with Vicki's admittedly ineffectual ponderings and yearnings concerning her origins, trying to track down where she was from and who her family was. In the Revival, her wistful orphan status is mentioned very briefly, and framed only in the context of how her state as a loner ties her to Barnabas. At first I thought the writers were rather clever when they decided to pair Vicki with Josette, since it did cut down on the clutter involved in splitting the female lead's role equally between Vicki and Maggie. However, by the end, having Vicki as Josette's mirror image only watered Victoria's character down. We never see her as the Revival's core like we did in the original; we only see her through the infatuated eyes of Barnabas. She's not really a character, she's a device. Vicki was a special part of Barnabas's life in the original because he eventually fell in love with her, not just because she reminded him of Josette. That side gets muddled and lost in the Revival. And all of Going's efforts to make Vicki a sound, solid person are undermined by the writers' choices to keep Vicki perpetually in the dark, like she was in the original. There it was understandable, because Vicki's unfathomably trusting nature was an understood thing. Here, it just makes us shake our head at this wooden girl's thickness.

The rest of the Revival's characters were a mixed bag of good and not-so-good portrayals. Jean Simmons was vastly underused as both Liz Stoddard and Naomi Collins; my homie Pauline Kael once called Simmons "one of the most quietly commanding actresses Hollywood ever trashed," and you get a similar impression here. She does have a great moment toward the end, when her husband realizes Naomi's mind is lost. She's very touching in a simple, straight-forward way. However, because of her limited screen time, she never flourishes like Joan Bennett did when that legend played Collinwood's matriarch.

The sniveling Willie Loomis is hands down my favorite character from the original, and for a long, long time I nursed a quiet crush on John Karlen. They pretty much ruin his character in the Revival, taking his backwoods yokel shtick way, way too far. Jim Fyfe is certainly no eye candy either, and they go all out in making him physically repulsive, with greasy teeth and scruffy face. Another sad tendency of the Revival is to make certain parts too damn sentimental, and it's shameful what they do to the Willie and Barnabas relationship. The original show took its time in laying the groundwork for the fragile camaraderie between the two of them, and in turning Barnabas from a flat-out antagonist to a tentative hero. The Revival, in speeding the plot along, has no idea how to reconcile their dynamic, and the evolution of Barnabas's character. One minute he's caning Willie with abandon, as is always Barnabas's wont, and the next Willie's tenderly nursing him back to health after a brush with sunlight, assuring him he'll "take him fishin' out on the lake, just you an' me, buddy!" Whaaaa? But for all that, I found it impossible to actively dislike this version of Willie. Though not a good performance by any stretch of the imagination, maybe Fyfe's outrageously cartoonish portrayal was a breath of fresh air when compared to some other performances, that were held back by the stolid direction.

One portrayal I was actually quite fond of, and that I might even prefer to the original (scandalous!), is Maggie Evans. I'm guessing that turning her into a hardbitten, lackadaisical psychic is mighty unpopular with most die-hard DS fans, but I think it's great. Ely Pouget is wonderful in a slinky, Lauren Bacall, whisky-and-soda sort of way, giving a very frank and stylized performance. Another flaw of the original is that in the wake of losing Vicki, the writers simply morphed Maggie into the role Moltke vacated, and gone was the wisecracking waitress who served as a jolt of working-class reality in snooty Collinwood. By making Maggie so markedly different from Vicki, the Revival's writers restore Maggie's individuality, in a big way. However, I am not at all a fan of the queasy affair she has with Roy Thinnes' Roger Collins. Mostly because Thinnes is too smarmy as Roger; he lacks Louis Edmond's piquant, elegant buffoonery. He fares much better in the role of oily Rev. Trask, though his monotone yelling during the scene where he gets his comeuppance gets old, and you wonder just how the reincarnation thing works in his case. Barbara Steele is in fine form as Julia Hoffman, bringing more sex appeal to the role than the great Grayson Hall did. Hall, I hate to admit, was always the most cringe-worthy actor for me to watch in the original; not because she was a bad actress, but because she was a good actress who simply did not know how to work with learning her lines at a lightning-fast pace, and you could tell she was suffering (you get that occasionally from Bennett, as well. It's hard seeing greats struggle).

Lysette Anthony as Angelique is another actress who's obviously very good but not given enough time to shine. But really, why bother? Maybe even more than Frid with Barnabas, Angelique belonged to Lara Parker. Anthony may drip with sensuality from top to bottom, but all you need is one glance into Parker's cat eyes and you see it all: the insane, malicious power and the hyperbolic charm.
Shizam! 'Nuff said.

Michael T. Weiss was handsome and meaty as Joe Haskell, and that's all I can say about that; I did have a split second where I thought he was a rustic Jon Hamm when I first saw him. He floundered sadly in the role of Peter Bradford, since a meat-and-potatoes guy like him obviously don't belong in the 1700s. I did find him unexpectedly effective in the scene where he loses it watching Victoria head to the gallows, though.

The only other notable member of the cast I can think of is Barbara Blackburn as Carolyn. I wasn't a fan. Carolyn is one of those characters easy to pick on, since she's a flighty rich blonde, and everyone is supposed to hate the flighty rich blonde. What Nancy Barrett did so well in the original is never once playing down Carolyn's spoiled brat traits, but still revealing the vulnerable, good girl hidden away behind the scathing wit. Blackburn doesn't do that. Frankly...she's sleazy. And too consciously husky-voiced. We never warm up to her, partly because nothing is mentioned about Paul Stoddard, so we have none of Carolyn's abandonment issues or Liz's inner torment. And without that emotional baggage, they're both uninteresting enigmas here. Plus, before we can really figure out if this Carolyn has any soft spots at all, Barnabas puts the hypnosis jazz on her and she becomes his femme fatale slave, very evil and conniving. No sympathy.

However, there is something crucial I must note: why is it that no matter in what version, Carolyn always, always has the best hair? Lookit:

 Seriously! Look at them manes! Okay, so maybe the 'dos themselves are dated, but c'mon! 

Oh, and a very young Joseph Gordon Levitt plays David Collins. You hep cats probably recognize him from recent films like Inception and (500) Days of Summer. Me, I associate him with his work from his teen years, when he played Tommy in 3rd Rock From the Sun. Either way, he's in this show, too. Yessir, yes-a-reeno.

I've come across as far more negative about the Revival than I expected. Wow! Whodathunkit? My hackneyed and unprofessional assessment overall? Obviously competently done, and very intriguing in many ways, but still flawed. I actually regret that it wasn't picked up for another season, though. Maybe Going's acting could have come to match Vicki's personality, since the writers make her far more knowing by the season's end. That would have been fun to explore. But unfortunately and ironically, I think the producers shot themselves in the collective foot by trying to make the franchise more palatable for a '90s audience. The result is often too self-conscious, and the elements they try to keep true to the original feel tacked on and a little out of place. Beautiful to look at, but where's the fun?

Burton, you getting all this?