The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) was the first film to address the trauma of the Spanish Civil War, which it presented obliquely, through the eyes of a child. In part this was necessary to evade the censors; the dictator Francisco Franco still ruled Spain when Victor Erice made the film. But the story, which Erice wrote as well as directed, was intensely personal. “Erice and co-screenwriter Ángel Fernández Santos based the script on their own memories,” Paul Julian Smith revealed in his Criterion essay on the film, “recreating school anatomy lessons, the discovery of poisonous mushrooms, and the ghoulish games of childhood. It is no accident that the film is set in 1940, the year of Erice’s own birth.”
Erice belongs to the second generation of Spanish Civil War survivors. Too young to have experienced the worst of the conflict, when Loyalist defenders of the democratically-elected Republic battled with Nationalist rebels led by Generalísimo Franco while the German Luftwaffe bombed civilians in Republican strongholds, he grew up in a society where memory was suppressed. The victors imposed their version of history, presenting the war as a quasi-religious crusade, a reassertion of traditional Spanish values against the godless agenda of the “Reds.” Supporters of the Republic who were not killed, imprisoned, or forced into exile after the defeat were silenced. Mourning was done in private, betrayal being commonplace, particularly in small villages such as the one in which Spirit of the Beehive is set. “Only by acting as if everything is perfectly normal can you show that you are above suspicion,” said one of the subjects interviewed by Roland Fraser in his oral history of the war and its aftermath, Blood of Spain.
Sometimes, to remain silent is to lie, since silence can be interpreted as assent.
–Miguel de Unamuno
Ana, the young heroine of Erice’s film, lives in a remote village in Old Castile, a region conquered early in the war by Franco’s forces. We are made aware that both of her parents supported the Republic. Ana’s father Fernando is an old-style rationalist who dabbles in natural science, studying the behavior of his bees and jotting down his philosophical reflections in a little notebook, working late into the night on his esoteric research. Teresa, Ana’s mother, spends her days alone, writing to an ex-lover who is now a refugee in France, most likely because he belonged to one of the Republican militias. “Perhaps our ability to really feel life has vanished along with the rest,” she laments in a letter.
Certainly the household is emotionally cauterized. Fernando and Teresa seem detached from Ana and her older sister Isabel and barely speak to one another; in one scene, we see Teresa pretending to be asleep when Fernando finally comes to bed. The camerawork reinforces the isolation. Never do we see the family together in one establishing shot, not even when they are all at the breakfast table. The characters speak in low voices, when they speak at all. “The Spirit of the Beehive” is one of the most silent films I’ve ever seen. The atmosphere is one of bereavement, the adults walking around as if their skin hurts, the way you feel when you realize the world no longer holds the person you loved.
Ana comes to enact her parents’ grief—and perhaps the grief of Spain itself. A wounded soldier she encounters in an abandoned barn near the family’s house becomes a friendly spirit in her imagination. One day he disappears. We know that he was shot by the local police, but Ana is told nothing, and so she invents an answer to the mystery. She retreats into silence now, neither eating or sleeping. The doctor is called, another crypto-Republican it would appear as Teresa calls him by his Christian name, Miguel. But other than reminding her of the sacrifices that they must all make, Miguel offers only the weakest of reassurances. “Teresa, the important thing is that your daughter’s alive. She’s alive.” Ana has had a shock, he says, and will heal in time. Thirty-three years later, Erice seemed to be saying, Spain is still waiting.
William Wyler made documentaries for the First Motion Picture Unit of the U.S. Army during World War II, accompanying the airmen of the Memphis Belle on bombing missions over Germany—an experience he described as “an escape into reality.” His cinematographer was shot down in the course of filming one raid, and Wyler himself lost his hearing while collecting aerial footage of the Allied advance in the Mediterranean. Disabled, he returned to Hollywood determined, as Mark Harris relates in Five Came Back, to tell a story “not about the end of the war, but about the end of its aftermath, the moment at which, sometimes with resignation, sometimes with renewed hope, and often with uncertainty, the men of World War II would begin to live in a world that was no longer defined by their military service.”
Wyler’s personal struggle to regain his footing as a director and to preserve the balance in his marriage in the face of his disability is what gives The Best Years of Our Lives its punch. The picture has an immediacy that aligns it with the neorealism of Rossellini’s early films, its authenticity underscored by the inclusion of documentary footage in the opening sequence. Sets were built to scale, giving the cameramen less room to maneuver. When we’re in the tail of the B-17 bomber flying home with the three returning veterans, we feel cramped. So many hours trapped together in that cluttered compartment, and yet none of them seems eager to return to civilian life.
Homer (Harold Russell, a disabled veteran, not an actor), the sailor who was severely wounded when his ship was torpedoed and now has prosthetic hooks instead of hands, is quite adept, signing his name with a pen and lighting the others’ cigarettes. “You ought to see me open a bottle of beer,” he quips, but the bravado doesn’t last long. The last thing he wants is pity, from his family or from his girl, Wilma. Sergeant Al (Fredric March) has a wife and family waiting for him, and they’ve been holding his old job at the bank. You’d think he’d be eager to slide back into the familiar world he left behind, but his war experiences have hardened and embittered him. “The thing that scares me most is that everybody’s gonna try to rehabilitate me.”
Fred (Dana Andrews), a bombardier who suffers from PTSD, is the most tightly wound of the trio: restless, angry, indifferent to the medals and citations he earned for his heroism, he claims to want nothing more than an ordinary life. And yet he alienates his floozy of a wife and sabotages his job as a soda jerk, punching out a customer who belittled the sacrifices of those who fought and died in the war. Granted, the guy deserved it for calling Homer a sucker for enlisting and getting himself wounded. Anyone who talks that way about veterans deserves to be punched.
Hollywood being Hollywood, all three characters are redeemed by the love of good women, but Wyler pulls off his happy ending without indulging in sentimentality. Sure, there’s a fair amount of wisecracking between Al and his faithful wife Millie (Myrna Loy), but there’s an edge to the dialogue—a far cry from the glib exchanges between Loy and William Powell in The Thin Man. Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) doesn’t flinch when Homer shows her how helpless he is without his prosthetic hooks, and I found myself unexpectedly moved in the final wedding scene, when he succeeds at maneuvering the wedding ring onto her finger.
The best line is Hoagy Carmichael’s. He plays Homer’s Uncle Butch, who owns a cozy little bar where he dispenses beer and advice, the latter delivered while he tickles the ivories. Homer is lamenting his family’s coddling of him but Butch assures him they just need time to get used to one another. Everything will settle down, he says, playing the closing chords of “Lazy River.”
Unless we have another war. Then none of us will have to worry because we’ll all be blown to bits the first day. So cheer up, huh?
We lost a brilliant composer today. Of course I’m thinking of the scores Morricone wrote for Spaghetti Westerns such as The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. But today it seems most fitting to listen to the haunting soundtrack to Fateless, Lajos Koltai’s 2005 adaptation of Imre Kertész’s account of his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Fatelessness. I reviewed the film on 3 Quarks Daily in 2014. Much has changed in the world since then, but the basic message seems all the more urgent in these troubled times. I’m reposting it here.
I could not swallow that idiotic bitterness that I should merely be innocent.
—Imre Kertész, Fatelessness
Something akin to survivor’s guilt is at the core of Imre Kertész’s novel, Fatelessness (1975), a fictionalized account of the year he spent while still a teenager interned in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Published during the so-called “soft dictatorship” of the communist leader János Kádár, the book did not sell many copies in Hungary, and no wonder: György Köves, its young narrator, does not want us to feel sorry for him. “I was aware that I was about to start writing a novel that might easily turn into a tearjerker, not least because the novel’s protagonist is a boy,” Kertész said in a recent interview.
He needn’t have worried. György insists that he was complicit in his fate. “Everyone took steps as long as he was able to take a step; I too took my own steps, and not just in the queue at Birkenau, but even before that, here, at home.” This comes perilously close to admitting the charge that Jews went like sheep to the slaughter, that through their passivity, they colluded in their own destruction. As if anticipating the objection, Kertész voices it through one of his minor characters. Old Fleischmann, György’s former neighbor, was not deported, escaped being murdered by the fascist Arrow Cross, and endured the siege of Budapest. He lived while others (including György’s father) died, and yet he cannot hold himself to blame for his survival. “So it’s us who’re the guilty ones, is it? Us, the victims!” But György refuses to back down. Even though he recognizes the futility of explaining his views to those like old Fleischmann, who urge him to put the horrors of Auschwitz behind him in order to live, “it was not quite true,” he maintains stubbornly, “that the thing ‘came about’; we had gone along with it too.”
Blaming the Victim
The most famous—or perhaps I should say notorious—articulation of this argument is Hannah Arendt’s criticism of the Judenräte. Jewish councils set up by the Nazis in the ghettos of cities in occupied countries containing large Jewish populations (and in smaller Jewish communities throughout eastern Europe) helped implement the Final Solution, surrendering their members for deportation in the misguided hope that by cooperating with the Germans they might save at least some from extermination. In fact, the Nazis counted on this cooperation. Without it, Arendt claimed in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1961), “there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people.” The Nazi functionary who was “just following orders” was no more and no less a monster than the Jewish leader who distributed Yellow Star badges, organized the relocation of Jews to the ghettos, put together transport lists and raised money from the deportees themselves to defray the expenses of their travel to the death camps. Each refused to accept moral responsibility for his actions, yet each could have chosen otherwise.
Arendt further blurred the distinction between Nazi perpetrators and victims in the essay “Personal Responsibility and Dictatorship” (1964), her response to those critics of the Eichmann book, including her friend Gershom Scholem, who said that we should not judge the Judenräte because we were not there. Not only the Jewish leadership, but even ordinary Jewish citizens in Hitler’s Europe enabled genocide to take place, she contended:
The extermination of the Jews was preceded by a very gradual sequence of anti-Jewish measures, each of which was accepted with the argument that refusal to cooperate would make things worse—until a stage was reached when nothing worse could possibly have happened.
György’s response to old Fleischmann is very much along these lines, and decades later, Kertész continues to assert that he brought his fate upon himself. “I behaved in a way that made me a member of the tacit, looming conspiracy against my life.” But he allows his protagonist a measure of peace at the book’s end. “I am here,” György thinks, looking around his old neighborhood, “weather-beaten yet full of a thousand promises.” He will accept any rationale as the price for being able to live; it is only human, after all, to want to live.
Such generosity comes as a surprise after the bleak and bitter chronicle leading up to it, especially since it follows the heated exchange with old Fleischmann, the only time György loses his cool. In the space of a page, Kertész abandons his detachment, the accusatory tone of his narrative voice, forgiving himself as well as his audience. Reading Fatelessness as a work of Holocaust testimony, this redemptive turn feels forced, unearned. And yet the 2005 film version, Fateless, for which Kertész wrote the screenplay, ends in exactly the same way. Further complicating matters, the author resists the label of “Holocaust writer.” Kertész used the ordeal of the death camps to talk about something more universal, and more timely: daily life under under a totalitarian dictatorship. He wrote about Auschwitz in the extended present, he said in a speech he delivered in Berlin in 2000.
The Tastes of Auschwitz
Kertész gained a perspective on the brutality he accommodated himself to as a boy in the Lagers by recognizing the degradation he continued to tolerate as a man during the Kádár era. The Stalinist regime under which he came of age, with its torturers, its secret prisons and work camps, its network of informers and the pervasive atmosphere of fear, mirrored the world into which he was thrust at age fourteen. In Dossier K (2006), the memoir he published after receiving the Nobel Prize, he claimed that he would never have understood his ordeals had he grown up in a democracy. The regime “revived the tastes of Auschwitz,” he said, in much the same way that Proust’s memories were awakened by dipping a madeleine in a cup of tea.
Here too, I find parallels with Arendt. The key feature that united both Nazism and Stalinism, she noted in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), was how both systems reduced people to the condition of children in order to manipulate them, persuading them to sacrifice their principles and beliefs, to degrade themselves, in return for not having to take responsibility for their immoral acts. Kertész chose to make his narrator a boy not simply because he himself was a child at the time he was deported. “I invented the boy precisely because anyone in a dictatorship is kept in a childlike state of ignorance and helplessness.” But ultimately he refuses to condemn his protagonist or himself. Looking back on his younger self after he returned from Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Kertész sees only “a fundamentally cheerful young man, who is greedy for life and will not allow anyone or anything to put him off.” Naturally he collaborated with the regime, naturally he took steps; “there is nothing impossible that we do not live through naturally,” György says at the end of the novel.
What Kertész cannot accept are the artistic renderings of the destruction of Europe’s Jews that employ euphemisms—including the word “Holocaust”—that obscure the reality of the death camps. Or voyeurs like Steven Spielberg “who integrate the Holocaust into the aeons of suffering in the history of the Jewish people and, ignoring the mountains of corpses, the rubble heap of Europe, the breakdown of all values,” as Kertész sees it, “celebrate the eternal story of survival to the accompaniment of triumphal music and color photography.” Equally offensive are accounts that focus on the gruesome details, the “ugly literature of horrors.”
When he wrote the screenplay for Fateless, Kertész struggled to translate the stark, matter-of-fact language of his book into scenes and images that would not betray its essence. The film has a terrible beauty, a power to unsettle even as it draws viewers in through a combination of stunning cinematography (the director, Lajos Koltai, is first and foremost a cinematographer) and Ennio Morricone’s moving score. The fact that the film was made after the fall of communism makes it less universal, perhaps, more of a witness testimony, but one that continues to speak to the point Kertész made in Dossier K, that even after Auschwitz, the world order has not changed. The mass movements of the twentieth century, the nationalism and fundamentalisms of today: how is is that the lessons of the death camps have not been absorbed? In the end, I believe he would say, it still comes down to simple decency, or the lack thereof, among leaders and those who, through their action or inaction, enable them to stay in power.
Our first glimpse of Lana Turner’s character, Cora, is a slow pan of her legs, starting from the tips of her white peep-toe heels and moving up beyond her knees. She is revealed to be wearing shorts and a midriff top, showing an awful lot of flesh for a woman who works in her husband’s diner, although Cora doesn’t seem to work much. She toys with Frank, the drifter played by John Garfield, rolling her tube of lipstick across the floor to get his attention, giving him a good view of her scantily-clad body, front and back, opening her compact and taking her sweet time applying the lipstick. Frank knows exactly what he’s in for, and so do we. Cora’s husband Nick (Cecil Kellaway) was cooking him a hamburger when he was momentarily called away. Frank is supposed to be keeping an eye on the grill but, unable to keep his eyes off Cora, his hamburger goes up in flames. Talk about foreshadowing!
James Cain summed up the story of Postman in one sentence: a couple of jerks discover that murder, though dreadful enough morally, can be a love story, too, but then wake up to discover that once they’ve pulled the thing off, no two people can share this terrible secret. The attraction between Frank and Cora is primitive in its intensity. The first time they kiss, Frank bites Cora’s lip hard enough to draw blood, a scene that occurs nine pages into the book. “I sunk my teeth into her lip so deep, I could feel blood spurt into my mouth.” Needless to say, sadomasochism does not figure in Tay Gannett’s adaptation; however, the sexual charge between Frank and Cora is quite powerful. Frank is no chump—Garfield’s character can hold his own against Turner’s, unlike Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff in Double Indemnity—but once aroused, he cannot resist Cora and chooses to hang around at the diner, doing odd jobs for Nick, awaiting his chance to get her into bed.
Choose is the operative word here. The film emphasizes the couple’s willful slide into adultery and murder, and what’s brilliant about Garnett’s adaptation is how the director makes us complicit in their transgressions. That slow pan of Turner’s legs pulls us immediately into Frank’s point of view. We too are burning with desire, and getting the husband out of the way seems like the logical next step, once he and Cora become lovers. Only when we learn (along with Frank) that Cora will be the recipient of Nick’s life insurance policy do we (along with Frank) begin to have qualms. Maybe he was a chump, but it’s too late now. Both book and film conclude on the eve of Frank’s execution for Cora’s death, which was an accident, but whereas Cain’s Frank is aggrieved, regarding his wrongful conviction as further evidence that the world is against him, the movie’s Frank is reconciled to his fate. Violins play in the background as he confesses his sins to a priest. “Father, you were right. It all works out. I guess God knows more about these things than we do.”
MGM struggled for years to come up with a script that would pass muster with the Hays office, and most critics feel that the sizzle between Turner and Garfield is adequate compensation for the bowdlerization of Cain’s work. It’s interesting that both Luchino Visconti and Michelangelo Antonioni directed versions of Postman. I’ll be reviewing those next.
Paisà has stayed in my mind not because of the stories it tells, but because of the sheer power of its images: bombed cities, the familiar landmarks in ruins, as in this scene from the “Florence” segment of the film. In the stark afternoon light, the damage is laid bare. What does it matter, that an American nurse has fallen in love with a painter, now a partisan, Lupo, who is most likely dead? The destruction of the city with its precious art is the true subject. With every scene, I was peering past the actors, trying to catch another glimpse of the crumbling Duomo. Germans bombed the bridges and destroyed more than a third of Florence’s medieval monuments.
The Florence that we and successive generations of men since the days of the Medici knew and loved is no more,” wrote one of the American art historians sent to survey the damage. “Of all the world’s artistic losses in the war, this one is the saddest.
The backgrounds stun, while the main action gets in the way. Caves in Naples where impoverished families lived among the rubble: Rossellini happened upon them and reworked the story to show the incredible squalor, after the Allied bombing and the booby-traps set by the retreating Germans. I’ve read accounts of these sites by soldiers of the liberating armies, but I couldn’t have imagined the reality until he showed it to me.
The haunting landscape of the Po Delta in Italy’s north, where the final sequence of Paisà takes place, did not incorporate any documentary footage. A handful of American OSS operatives are working behind-the-lines with Italian partisans. The odds are against them, bleak weather complicating their efforts to get weapons and ammunition. Rossellini brought me there, paddling with them in long, flat boats through the reeds under overcast skies.
Two Women is not quite as dark as the Alberto Moravia novel, La Ciociara (1957), on which Vittorio De Sica and Cesare Zavattini based this film. Part of the problem, I think, is Belmondo. He’s miscast in the role of Michele, the coddledintellectual with vaguely left-wing politics who mouths Communist slogans, rhapsodizes about “the peasants,” how the future belongs to them, and complains about privilege—this despite the fact that his family members are fascists who hoard food and consort with the German occupiers. Michele falls for Sophia Loren’s character, the widowed Cesira. She’s aware of his feelings, but she’s too full of life for him, too earthy.A true woman of the people, although much more beautiful than most people.
“With my own memories to draw upon, you would think I would have had an easy time of it [making the film]. But it was very hard for me to relive my girlhood terror and at the same time to transform the reality of my feelings into the role I was acting. In memory, I still looked at my experiences with the eyes and emotions of a girl, but the role demanded that I see them with the eyes of a tortured woman.”–Sophia Loren
Morally speaking, nobody comes off well in this picture. But that’s what makes it so powerful.Cesira’s human weakness is apparent from the very beginning. War destroys the vulnerable, while pointing up the hollowness of ideals such as Michele’s. Death is random and undeserved; violence and brutality triumph, and who has sympathy to spare for his neighbor? Only grief unites those who have survived atrocities, and even so, the comfort of shared suffering is fleeting.
Moravia set his story in the countryside around Rome in the last months of World War II. He and his wife had fled there after the Germans occupied Rome, arriving in an impoverished village filled with widows (all the men had been drafted and sent to Russia, where they died). For nine months they lived among the peasant women, scavenging for food, watching dogfights in the sky and trying to avoid being strafed, while they waited for the Allies to liberate their country. But liberation arrived in the form of the Moroccan Goumiers, irregular colonial troops who were fighting with the Free French. In the aftermath of the Allied victory at Monte Cassino, thousands of Italian women and girls in the region were raped by the Goumiers. This is Moravia’s story, the central crisis of the novel, and De Sica shows it in brutal detail.
“Isn’t there some safe place in the world?” Cesira asked Michele at one point. Apparently not.
The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1935) was like the holy grail, one of those films I’d heard about but never managed to see. Before its recent restoration, this Renoir gem was impossible to find. But I lucked out: they were screening it at Holyoke Community College for free as part of their annual French film series. There’s always one near-forgotten classic in the bunch, and this year it was Monsieur Lange. What a delightful surprise it turned out to be.
In the 1930s, before noir was noir (the term “film noir” was only coined—by the French—in 1946), Europeans were making gritty, downbeat films with adult subject matter, storylines involving adultery and crime that usually culminated in death. American gangster movies covered some of this territory, and there was a fair amount of cross-fertilization between this genre, the German Expressionism of the 1920s, and what the French were calling poetic realism. Renoir hung out with the poetic realist crowd and some of his early pictures were gritty, with the deep shadows we associate with the German Expressionist style, but even when they end in murder, Renoir’s films don’t leave you in despair. You come out of them smiling, your faith in humanity restored.
I don’t believe there are such things as absolute truth, but I do believe in absolute human qualities — generosity, for instance, which is one of the basic ones.
– Jean Renoir
Renoir feels tenderly toward his characters, every last one of them.The villain of The Crime of Monsieur Lange is a rogue, no doubt about it. He impregnates one of his employees, cheats on his mistress, borrows money from the janitor, never intending to pay it back, exploits the film’s hero, bilks his creditors and then fakes his death when the police catch onto his schemes. When he reappears toward the end of the picture disguised as a priest, a twinkle in his eye, prepared to resume his malign activities, you can’t hate him.
As in his better known ensemble pictures, Grand Illusion (1937) and Rules of the Game (1939), the printing company where Monsieur Lange is set is a world unto itself, “where all types of humanity mingle and clash: bosses and workers, misers and dreamers, innocents and scoundrels, the impassioned and the foolish.” Renoir directs all of these characters with such a light touch that their interactions appear fresh and spontaneous. Work, in this world, as in the best Marxist fantasy, is a source of joy and fulfillment, once the workers own the means of production and the evil boss gets his due.
Renoir claimed that he was not a director, he was a storyteller. This one is something of a fairytale, but I’m not complaining.
You can watch this film to see naughty Marlene Dietrich and you can also watch it to see how the studio tried—and failed—to rein her in. The cabaret singer we met in The Blue Angel, the cold-hearted seductress who wears a man’s top hat, reappears here in a glittering white tuxedo. Marlene swings both ways in Blonde Venus (as the actress did in real life). Sauntering onstage in the Paris nightclub where she’s become the star attraction, she frankly admires another showgirl, giving her a fleeting caress in passing, as if to say, I’ll catch you later, sweetie. And yet she also manages to convey an aloofness. It’s part of her allure. Nobody steals her heart, but she dares you to try. (According to her biographer, Donald Spoto, French actor Jean Gabin was the only one to succeed.)
Admiring Dietrich’s performance is the millionaire playboy (a very young Cary Grant) with whom she’d had a brief liaison a couple of years earlier. He fell for her opening number, “Hot Voodoo,” you know, the one where Dietrich comes out in a gorilla suit?
I probably should have included a warning: some viewers may find the staging of this number disturbing. And get a load of those lyrics!
That beat gives me a wicked sensation. My conscience wants to take a vacation. Got voodoo, head to toes. Hot voodoo, burn my clothes. I want to start dancing, just wearing a smile. Hot voodoo, I’m aflame. I’m really not to blame. That African tempo, is meaner than mean. Hot voodoo, make me brave. I want to misbehave.
So, there they are, in the Paris nightclub, the seductress and the millionaire. He’s still smitten. Dietrich blows smoke in his face and, the next thing you know, they’re engaged. Yep, he’s a decent guy. So decent that he brings her back to New York so she can reunite with her husband (Herbert Marshall) and young son (Dickie Moore). We’re supposed to believe that beneath the sultry exterior, Dietrich is a devoted mother (as the actress was not, in real life).
Blonde Venus was pre-code, but Dietrich was problematic. Married and the mother of a young daughter, she’d been sexually entangled with her director, Josef von Sternberg, during the filming of the three previous films they’d made together, and was romantically linked to various actors and actresses, carrying on with two or three lovers at a time. With the proceeds from her Hollywood career, she supported her husband and his mistress back in Berlin; the three of them traveled together in the summers, with the daughter in tow. All this was known, and disapproved of, and von Sternberg may have been trying to rehabilitate his protégé’s image with this film, but nobody was buying it. They wanted the seductress. Just look at the poster. Dickie Moore is nowhere in sight. Then there’s the tagline: From the lips of one man to the arms of another.
You know what I love most about Marlene Dietrich? She got away with it.
Garbo got me into the building, but she’s not the reason I stayed. Her tired Russian ballerina falls for the same kind of man she would fall for as a humorless Russian revolutionary in Ninotchka. Can I help it if I found the revolutionary more enchanting?
Fortunately, the ballerina’s story is just one of many that weave through this picture. That man she falls for, a dissolute aristocrat (John Barrymore), also flirts with the stenographer (Joan Crawford) who was hired by the swindling businessman (Wallace Beery) to take dictation and possibly provide other services . . . There’s also a wounded veteran of World War I (Lewis Stone) and a little bookkeeper (Lionel Barrymore), who recently received a terminal diagnosis and has determined to spend his final days in style. John Barrymore may have had the looks in the family, but Lionel’s quiet charm won me over.
Such goings on, before the Hayes Code went into effect! The ballerina and the aristocrat spend the night together. The stenographer contemplates selling her body to the businessman for the price of a few nice outfits and a junket to London. The bookkeeper wins big at poker, helped along by the aristocrat, and goes off to Paris with the stenographer in the hope of finding a cure.
Did Grand Hotel deserve to beat out Shanghai Express for Best Picture in 1932? I wouldn’t say so, but it’s an enjoyable enough romp through Berlin in its heyday.
I’ve been curious about The Boy with Green Hair (1948) because it was was the first feature film by blacklisted director Joseph Losey and blacklisted screenwriter Ben Barzman, and they were pretty proud of it. Both men subsequently fled to Europe with their families rather than testify before HUAC, and managed to keep in work. Losey, who went on to direct The Go-Between — from a screenplay by Harold Pinter — was so successful, he never went home.
I admire those blacklisted artists who didn’t sell out. The first book of my historical mystery series opens in London, where my heroine, aspiring actress Cara Walden, is living with her brother Gray, a blacklisted screenwriter who chose exile over betraying his fellow travelers, just like Barzman and Losey. So I was prepared to like this film. Really, I was. But I cringed the whole way through, starting with the chorus singing “Nature Boy” over the credits.
The guy who wrote “Nature Boy” has a claim on being the first hippie. eden ahbez (in the e.e. cummings mode, he preferred to leave his name in lowercase) ate raw food, lived out in the open, under the L (for Love) of the Hollywood sign, was interested in mysticism — all this in the 1940s. After his song made it to the top of the charts, he was featured in Life magazine. He wrote songs for Eartha Kitt, Sam Cooke, Hoagy Carmichael. People made pilgrimages to meet him and learn from him, he was such a sage, from various members of the Beat generation to Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, novelist Thomas Pynchon, and wistful singer-songwriter (and Bob Dylan nemesis) Donovan. You can read more about ahbez in a recent Vogue piece. I understand there’s also a documentary in the works.
Such fascinating stuff I discovered, researching this picture! But the picture itself? I can’t disagree with Bosley Crowther, who called it “mere sentimental entertainment” in his New York Times review. “One gets the uncomfortable feeling,” Crowther complained, “that it is just a bright adult notion gone wrong.” Actually, I’d quibble with the use of the word “adult.” Hard to believe adults wrote this. The original story by Betsy Beaton was a parable about racism. A boy’s hair turns green, people shun him for being different. As if that’s all there was to prejudice. The best Variety could come up with was “well-intentioned,” which does describe characters like the child psychologist played by Robert Ryan and the boy’s foster parent, “Gramp” (Pat O’Brien), an Irish singing waiter. No, I’m not kidding.
There’s an anti-war message to The Boy with Green Hair, but it seems tacked on. The cloying sincerity of this picture is revealing of the naivety of late-forties activists, I suppose. In this regard, eden abbez’s song was an inspired choice.