Saturday, November 26, 2011

Look at me, I'm not Frances Dee


Anyway, because of this I haven't been very active here as of late, and is also why I missed celebrating my blog's one year anniversary yesterday. So that explains the lack of pomp and fanfare you'd normally expect (I was planning elephants. Lots of 'em). But on a serious note, thank you to all the people who have supported this little corner of the interwebs! You know who you are! All a'yous.

So instead of blah-blahing about meself (I know, I'm disappointed too), here's a tribute to Frances Dee on what would have been her....102nd birthday? Really, calculator? Wow.

When most people discuss the pantheon of great stars from the '30s and '40s, they refer to the Harlows, Gables, Hepburns, Crawfords, Davises, Lombards, Coopers, Hayworths, etc. Compared to to the actors in this intimidating list, Dee is relatively obscure, despite her steady, active presence in many of those decades' most provoking films.

Part of the reason she's maybe not as well remembered as some of her contemporaries is that we have her unfortunate Good Girl image to contend with, due to roles like Meg in Little Women, Sally in Of Human Bondage (pictured above), and Amelia in Becky Sharp. She was a welcome, understated presence that complemented the powerhouse trio of Kate Heburn, Bette Davis, and Miriam Hopkins in those films. But unfortunately, "good girl" actors are often shrugged at and passed over these days when analyzing the hardboiled dames that were more popular in that era.

But really this label is an injustice to Dee. She could do so much more. In fact, her career was incredibly versatile for someone as under the radar as she. And she played versatility well, always natural, seldom (if ever) hamming it up. She was lascivious and intense as the masochistic heiress in Blood Money, a mostly forgotten 1932 thriller. She once corrected a friend who called her character a prostitute, saying, "I played a masochistic nymphomaniacal kleptomaniac, not a prostitute."

She was a hysterical but sympathetic young fiancee to a man cowed by his mother in the freudian Silver Cord, which starred her future husband Joel McCrea. She played the grounded, thankless, and sane role of the Jane Eyre-esque nurse in the Val Lewton-produced cult classic I Walked With a Zombie (highly underrated flick). (Turns out George Sanders' brother was also dreamy). And she turned that good girl image right on its head by playing the prim lead in 1934's Finishing School. She starts out prudish and saintly, only to let loose, get pregnant, and--shock of all shocks--escapes punishment and marries her man! A rare treat for this time period, and she imbues her character with a realistic depth. No hand-wringing, thank God. This movie was also another example of her playing well opposite a feisty femme, this time Ginger Rogers. Dee's likable, laid-back vibe meshed well with a lot of the energetic fireball actresses of the '30s.

And let's not forget that Dee was a hauntingly beautiful woman. Her looks, combined with her quiet but still palpable talent, won her fans from a few perceptive critics, such as James Agee and Pauline Kael (lessee, have I mentioned her before?). Agee called Dee "one of the very few women in movies who really had a face...and always used this translucent face with delicate and exciting talent." And Kael singled out Dee's small but memorable turn as Frederic March's beloved wife in the underrated war drama So Ends Our Night. Kael recalled that a close-up of her face in one heartbreaking sequence was "so beautiful...that her image stays with one, like Garbo's at the end of Queen Christina."

Her face was long, oval, and delicately proportioned, with large deep eyes, wide, well-shaped lips, and a thin nose; maybe her ethereal looks were too aristocratically classic for people craving scrappy little blondes like Harlow and Lombard. Her beauty could be a handicap in other ways, too. For a while she was a front-runner for Melanie in Gone With The Wind, and you can tell from her other performances that she (like de Havilland) could have captured the sweetness of Melanie without becoming saccharine or saucer-eyed. However, in the end David O. Selznick decided that her beauty would have detracted even from the divinely gorgeous Vivien Leigh. And of course, because Leigh came along (not to mention several other fiery candidates) her dream of playing Scarlett came to naught, as well.

But despite career set-backs, unfair good girl stigmas, and slight overshadowing from a more famous spouse, Dee remains beloved in the hearts of a few but fervent film buffs. She has a lovely website at Remembering Frances Dee, with several heart-stoppingly beautiful stills and an interview or two with one of her sons.

Did I mention my favorite role of hers? That of Mirabel Miller in the absolutely forgotten comedy The Gay Deception, from 1935. Speaking of her versatility, Dee had the makings of a great screwball comedienne, to stand alongside Carole, Jean, Myrna, Irene, and the rest. She rises far above her material, which is somewhat too cute and tried, about a cheeky foreign prince (Francis Lederer) masquerading as a bellhop in New York, courting a poor naive girl (Dee) who decides to blow her lottery earnings at the fanciest hotel in the big city. Dee inhabits the role of Mirabel, making her a soft, adorable bundle of nerves and frantic hope. Her delivery is spaced out and delightful, her short mass of brown hair windblown as she skitters about at full speed on her wiry frame, burdened by furs and silks. Never has an actress used her big burning eyes to better use than Dee when reacting to Lederer's antics or planning her own.

Here's a scene that showcases Dee's gentle harebrained ability, which shines out from the otherwise mediocre script.

A lass worth remembering, I think.

Friday, November 18, 2011

What the world needs now is Buster, sweet Buster

My dad--who as always deserves mighty props for introducing Buster Keaton to me at a wee, impressionable age--recently posted this video on Twitter, with the following caption: "Sweet video of the greatest man of the 20th century. Sorry, Gandhi."

Oh god, that smile!

This video really gets to me because, as the maker of this video, theinnerlight87, says, "Many videos have been made documenting the stunts and acrobatic work of Buster Keaton - and rightly so - but we wanted to show Buster's expressive abilities, emotional depth, and prove the nickname "Stoneface" was not necessarily the most accurate." 

Contemporary music set to classic footage can often give one the crankies, but with Buster it's possible to get away with it, because to me he has such a--and boy will this sound cliched--timeless quality about him. Like theinnerlight points out, he's more expressive than people realize. But he's expressive in a more modern way than you'd expect, subtle and underplayed (no handwringing or wide open eyes, like the silent star stereotype). Take the scene at 1:20, for me the single funniest shot in The General. Unfortunately you don't get what he's reacting to in this video, either one of the cars exploding or going off the rails, I can't remember which. He's completely living up to his Stoneface image, except for the blinking eyes. No double-takes, no spit-takes. Brilliant.

But hey, his stunts were great, too. So here's another video compilation, this time emphasizing his acrobatics. It's set to an assortment of Radiohead songs. Pretty weird and random, but it becomes strangely touching as a tribute to Buster should be, even if it's highlighting his stunts instead of his acting:


Another example of why if the tune is right and the images right, meshing music from a later time doesn't jar when making a tribute to someone like Buster on YouTube.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Pauline and Louise and Dorothy and Ronee

Pauline Kael is my favorite critic, and Louise Brooks is up there as my favorite silent actress. I know neither are perfect; hell, the more I read Brian Kellow's biography, I learn just how much Kael could be an imperfect critic and human being (though I get the feeling Kellow's outlook on Kael is slightly biased toward the negative, at least where Kael as a person is concerned--and as she'd attest for herself, her personality is very much tied to her reviews).

However, there's no denying the impact they've both had on my own novice take on film criticism. I regularly consult Kael's 5001 Nights at the Movies and For Keeps looking for film recommendations or to help me ground my scattered musings about movies I've already seen. And the first time I read Brooks' Lulu in Hollywood, I about wigged out discovering how damnedly intelligent the femme Spock-haired flapper was, and the depths she could find in film and filmmaking that many professional critics either don't see or don't care to get into. Kael covers the sociology and rhythmic beat of movies, Brooks the insight into what went into them, having been there herself, knowing instinctively how it was done even after she left the scene. They both, to steal Kael's phrase, go "deeper" into movies than fellow critics following an already outlined school of thought. They both threw objectivity shamelessly out the window, bringing the full force of their personalities to their writing.

So how cool is it for me that it turns out Kael and Brooks were mutual fans of one another?

Once Kael finally, finally gets her start in the '60s, when she was well into her forties, and releases her book Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Kellow mentions as almost an aside that, oh, all along Kael's been corresponding with Ms. Brooks after an attempt to get her to speak at Berkeley. So Kael sends Brooks a copy of her book. The reply? Brooks proclaims her "the best film critic since Agee." Moreover, she also gives Kael what I believe the very best compliment you could give a woman of intellect:

"Your picture on the dust cover made me think of Dorothy Parker when she was young in a moment of happiness."

I'd say I'm about halfway through Kellow's book now, and decided to celebrate by finally watching Nashville (1975). Kael's review of the film, similar to her review of Last Tango in Paris, could be viewed as either one of her biggest achievements or her biggest folly. Her detractors take issue with the fact she released the review before the finished product could be screened for other critics, giving her an unfair advantage, and before director Robert Altman had made the final edit, all because she was over-eager to promote her protege Altman. Others laud her for her fervent enthusiasm, her unabashed championing for an unconventional film, proof of how seriously she believed in her preferred artform. She calls Nashville "an orgy without don't get drunk on images, you're not overpowered--you get elated."

It's annoying as hell to parrot another critic when you're trying--even in your wee little blog--to write some criticism of the piece yourself, but I'm still trying to work out what I thought of Nashville, and how I feel it stacks up to Kael's epic review. I liked the movie, that much I know. But at least after my first viewing--keep in mind that unlike Kael, I often need to see a movie more than once, because I can't always trust my initial responses--the only time I felt that elation she wrote of was when Ronee Blakley was singing, smiling, and breaking down as the vulnerable, otherworldly Loretta Lynn figure Barbara Jean.

Blakley might be my new favorite film personality--and this was from 36 years ago. And I really don't know what else to call her besides a personality, since she's an actress, singer, songwriter, and screenwriter in this one movie alone. Her low, full voice, combined with those burning eyes and that ecstatic, tragic smile, brings a unique magic to the movie; a believable magic, that soothes everyone around her even in her weaker, uglier moments.

So why isn't she as well known as Garland or Streisand, other personalities whose voices and acting are equal in their emotional throttling? Because unlike Streisand's characters or Garland herself, Blakley doesn't hide Barbara Jean's vulnerability and tottering mind, she soaks in it. Kael writes that "she's radiant, yet so breakable that it's hard to believe she has the strength to perform." This is true of Garland's later performances, but we could try desperately to convince ourselves otherwise, because Garland was trying to convince us otherwise, but we don't have that safety net with Barbara Jean. Kael goes on to describe Blakley's posture as "tipping to one side like the Japanese ladies carved in ivory." She's unreal and ethereal, yet her voice is so boomingly alive that it might have unnerved audiences too much. Yet I frankly adore her all the more for it.