Friday, August 30, 2013

Queen Kelly: Norma and Max's Wild Ride

Some stories are so perfectly symmetrical you just have to sit back in amazement and feel that the universe is truly some magical Rubiks Cube.

I am blessed to live in a location that affords me the opportunity to see silent films on the big screen with live accompaniment (usually by the there-are-no-words-to-describe-his-majesty Ben Model). This month’s offering: the fabled "Queen Kelly" starring Gloria Swanson and directed by Erich Von Stroheim.

Von Stroheim: Irving Thalberg accused him
of having a footage fetish
Here’s the story:

By 1928, director Erich Von Stroheim had worn out his welcome at MGM and was looking for work. Gloria Swanson had left Paramount and was producing her own films. She had one success with “Sadie Thomson,” and a miss with “The Loves of Sunya.” When Von Stroheim proposed a story of middle European royalty and romance, Swanson and her financial backer (and paramour) Joseph Kennedy, said “yes.” She knew the risks with the excessive Von Stroheim, but she also knew the rewards. Films like “The Merry Widow” and “Foolish Wives,” both big Von Stroheim hits, were similar to her story, known as "Queen Kelly." Swanson and Kennedy were confident they could control the director. Ah, hubris.

Swanson and Kennedy were no match
for the excesses of Von Stroheim
The Swanson/Von Stroheim collaboration resulted in an aborted and fascinating film. Welcome to Kronberg, a mythical middle European country ruled by the mad, sex-crazed booze and drug loving Queen Regina V. She is betrothed to playboy Prince Wolfram (conjuring any images with that name?). He has no interest in the nutty Queen, but she is just mad about the boy. As a punishment for his roving eye, she sends her man out on maneuvers. But Wolfram makes lemonade out of lemons and spots a lovely convent school girl out for a stroll with the rest of her class. Their eyes meet, her pants fall down and they fall in love. Wolfram goes to great lengths to extract little Kitty Kelly from the convent (almost burning it down), abducting her and ultimately spending the night with her in the Queen’s castle. 
Queen Regina V: nude and nutty as a fruit cake

The innocent Kitty Kelly is seduced by the dashing Wolfram
Our nutty Queen does not like this and runs poor Kitty out of the castle, whipping her until she flees out into the streets. Wolfram is thrown into prison and Kitty, once back with the nuns, learns that her aunt in German East Africa has sent for her.
Poor Kitty Kelly: Imagine the wedding night jitters?
It turns out Auntie runs a whore house (one particularly tubercular prostitute is named Cough drops)  and has promised her hand in marriage to the most disgusting old man you have ever seen. Kitty resists, but ultimately gives into the marriage and the union takes place over the Aunt's death bed. This is where the filming stopped. The story goes that Von Stroheim ordered Tully Marshall (the disgusting old man) to drool tobacco juice on Swanson's hand as he took it in matrimony. That was it for glorious Gloria and she had Kennedy can the director.
Queen Kelly: Queen of the Whore House
Swanson attempted to salvage the film, but the fates were not on her side. Not only did she have to contrive a suitable ending that would pass the censors, it was already 1929 and talking pictures had arrived. Eventually, Swanson was able to show a bastardized version of the film in Europe and South America (her ending had the virtuous Kitty ending it all rather than submit to a life of debauchery). It had a musical score and a song by Swanson was thrown in for good measure.
Salvaging the wreck: All talking, all singing, all sinning?
The film I saw was one that was restored by Kino International. Using stills and heavy text in-between to tell the story, it recreated Von Stroheim's original story: Kitty Kelly becomes a rich and powerful madam of her aunt's string of whore houses and she is known as Queen Kelly for her extravagant lifestyle. Wolfram does not marry the nutty queen, who dies, and eventually he brings his heart's desire, Queen Kelly, back to his kingdom.

Well, what can you say? Seena Owen, as the mad queen, is a knockout of rabid sex and screwball eyeballs. Walter Byron was a dashing prince and Tully Marshall as the disgusting groom is - well - disgusting. As for Swanson - oh what a delicious little minx she was! That nose! She is cute, funny, touching and sexy. 

Enter Billy Wilder with his script for "Sunset Boulevard." It is hard to believe that he ever wanted to cast anyone other than Swanson (allegedly, Wilder approached Pola Negri, Mae West and Norma Shearer before Swanson. Co-writer Charles Brackett said Swanson was always the first choice). As Norma Desmond, Swanson is now the mad (silent screen) queen, chasing the chosen lady love of her obsession out of her "castle." She, too, is mad about the boy (she even gives Joe Gillis a gold cigarette case with that little engraved message). But, at last Gloria, Kitty Kelly and Norma get their revenge: Von Stroheim is now the butler (Max) and she actually gets to shoot the faithless lover.
Von Stroheim once again in the driver's seat
A real treat is this scene, which is actually a scene from "Queen Kelly," starring Gloria Swanson and directed by Erich Von Stroheim.

Oh, the delicious irony. "Queen Kelly" is a hoot - beautifully shot, kinky (the Queen's palace is filled to the brim with statues and paintings of nude women, Kitty give a statue of Jesus a longing look and all other sorts of Von Stroheim depravity takes place) and it leaves us longing for more. "Sunset Boulevard" gives us a complete story in which "Queen Kelly" is just one of many subtexts. This is why "Sunset Boulevard" is my favorite film: besides being brilliant on the surface, it is filled with layers and layers of film history and brings together 2 legends formerly at odds and now linked together forever at last in a masterpiece.

For those that want to know more, here is Swanson talking about "Queen Kelly." Isn't she beautiful?

Gloria Swanson discusses Queen Kelly Part 1

Gloria Swanson discusses Queen Kelly Part 2

Sunday, August 18, 2013


Don't you just hate it when an artist's work is judged by the personal life of the artist? Doesn't it just irk you if someone declares their dislike based upon an artist's  love life, family life or political affiliation? Well, it really bugs me, and here are three of my pet peeves.

Joan Crawford
Joan Crawford was a great star. These are not just words. From a career that started in 1925 and ended in 1970, this woman was the very definition of a Hollywood star and was loved by millions. True, her latter years were a bit hard to bear, but who doesn't struggle with aging? Joan Crawford carried on the tradition of the glamorous, goddess-like star of the silent era, never giving in to the "just like us" image that started in the 1930s.

While Joan did look a bit scary in her later years (it was the eyebrows and the lip-liner), "Mommie Dearest" destroyed her reputation. And now you just know that you can't discuss Joan Crawford and her 45-year career without someone mentioning wire hangers and stating that they will never watch her movies because she allegedly abused her children.
Don't fret, Joan, I am always on Team Crawford
I confess I read the sensational book when it was first published and I feel sorry for all of the tortured souls involved, but whether it is true or not, I will not be denied the great star power of Joan Crawford at the height of her powers. Her personal life does not diminish her art.

Charlie Chaplin
I am going to get all emotional here, because I practically worship this man as an artist. His accomplishments are legendary and his story larger than life. While his left-leaning political inclinations seem to have been forgiven and rarely held against him nowadays, there is always someone out there who will say "oh him - he was a pedophile, wasn't he?"
Ack! He did like young girls and it caused him a world of trouble, but this is the man who gave us "The Kid," "City Lights," 12 perfect Mutual short films, "The Gold Rush," "Modern Times" and the very courageous "The Great Dictator." He breaks and warms my heart and the same time and as long as he wasn't eating babies for breakfast, I really don't care what he was doing off of the screen.

Woody Allen
Woody Allen is a comedy god to me. While he may not be everyone's cup of tea, there is no denying that there is a funny, brilliant mind at work. His stand-up routines of old still bowl me over and his films rank among my favorites. Woody, like Chaplin, had lady trouble, frequently using his leading lady off-screen as his on-screen muse (chiefly Louise Lasser, Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow). And it was with Mia that all of the trouble began. Once the Woody-Soon Yi story broke, Woody was poison.

Now, admittedly, I might not want to have Woody for a son-in-law and the story is distasteful, but who cares? I love Woody for "Annie Hall," "Manhattan," "Take the Money and Run," "Hannah and Her Sisters," "Midnight in Paris," and so many more. Cries of incest (Soon-Yi was not his daughter) and pedophile fall on my deaf ears.  I am so glad he has hung in there and still continues to make interesting films.

I don't care what they say, baby, just watch my films.
I don't or didn't know any of these artists personally. Maybe if I did, I would feel more qualified to judge them, but I feel only qualified to judge their works. And for me, Joan, Charlie & Woody rock.

Friday, August 9, 2013

BLUE JASMINE: Woody takes a cable car named Desire

Imagine if Blanche DuBois was married to Bernie Madoff and you have an idea of the flavor of Woody Allen's latest film, "Blue Jasmine."

As the story of Jasmine French (a scorching performance by Cate Blanchett) unfolds, you can't help but immediately think of Ruth Madoff, the elegant, suffering wife of financial swindler Bernie Madoff. A Park Avenue socialite, she knows all the best people, throws the best parties and wears the best clothes and jewels. Her husband, Hal, (well played by that old slickster Alec Baldwin) keeps her in the dark and she seems to be a willing innocent, content to let him deal with the business while she tends to their social life.
Jasmine and Hal before the fall
We first meet Jasmine after the fall. She has left New York and run to San Francisco to live with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a character as down to earth as Jasmine is in the clouds. The reach of Jasmine's husband's thievery extended all the way to Ginger, whose ex-husband lost his lottery windfall by listening to Hal's bad investment advice. Ginger now has a new brutish boyfriend, Chili, (shades of Stanley Kowalski) and the mundane, unrefined life that Jasmine must now share with Ginger frightens and repels her. 
Ginger and Chili argue over the produce
Jasmine, like Blanche, is a wounded bird who lives in a dreamland. She longs for the beautiful but is confronted with ugliness wherever she turns. Ginger's boyfriend thinks she is a snob and Jasmine tries to convince Ginger she can do better, driving a wedge between the formerly happy couple.
Hal gets ready to fleece his brother-in-law
Jasmine gives ordinary life a try (she works for an amorous dentist and tries to learn how to work a computer), but her prayers are seemingly answered when she meets Dwight, a rich widower with political ambitions. Dwight has no idea who she is and Jasmine, knowing that the truth would make a commitment from Dwight impossible, lives a lie and almost gets a ring, but fate, in the person of Ginger's fleeced ex-husband, intervenes and her identity is revealed on the street right in from of the jewelry store that sells the ring she almost got.
Jasmine, like Blance Du Bois, cannot deny the ugly truth
Before Jasmine came to San Francisco, we learned that she had been found wandering the streets of New York, talking to herself. Our last view of Jasmine is as a confused woman, sitting on a bench talking to herself. However, it does not appear that the kindness of strangers can save her.

The laughs are more like chuckles here, as Woody is going for a penetrating character portrait of a broken woman. She is a phony, but the make-believe that was the foundation of her former life is all that she has to cling to. The fact that she is shallow and somewhat unsympathetic does not make her plight any less harrowing. Sure, Marie Antoinette fiddled while Paris burned, but we kind of felt bad when she lost her head, and we know Blanche put on airs, but we pitied her, nonetheless. And there always those who stand on the sidelines and smile with smug delight when the mighty are brought low.

As always, the performances in a Woody Allen film are stellar. Cate Blanchett is perfection and she is well supported by Baldwin, Hawkins, Louis C.K. as a philandering fling for Ginger, Peter Sarsgaard as Dwight and Bobby Cannavale as Chili, giving a real Stanley Kowalski-type performance. A pleasant surprise is the very good performance by Andrew Dice Clay as Ginger's bitter ex-husband. 

"Blue Jasmine" is lovely to look at and hard to forget.
Another Oscar nomination in Cate's future

Saturday, August 3, 2013

SCANDAL! One Night at Jean Harlow's: Was it Murder or Suicide?

Welcome to 2013 - a year of scandals at A Person in the Dark. Yes, I love movies, but I confess I am a sucker for those juicy Hollywood scandals of old.
August's scandal: The Death of Paul Bern

When 21 year old blonde bombshell Jean Harlow wed 42 year old MGM producer Paul Bern in 1932, eyebrows were raised and tongues wagged. What could the young, vibrant and ultra sexy starlet see in mousy Paul Bern other than a meal ticket to the top?
Harlow and Bern on their wedding day, flanked by Harlow's
shady step father, Marino Bello, and Best Man John Gilbert
Paul Bern might have looked like a milquetoast, but he, like any red-blooded Hollywood producer, loved beautiful women. Before he landed Harlow, he courted Barbara LaMarr, Joan Crawford, Mabel Normand and countless other beauties. He shared bachelor quarters with pals John Gilbert and writer Carey Wilson and was known to have liked a good time.

Harlow, who always went for an older man with a mustache (all who resembled her father), had benefited greatly from her association with Bern. Once he took her under his wing she went from playing cheap tramps in dramas to witty tramps in comedies. Bern had cast her in "Red Headed Woman," and her career was transformed. Still friends of both parties has reservations about the marriage.

On September 4, 1932, a little over 2 months after the marriage, Paul Bern was found dead in  his wife's bedroom, drenched in her favorite perfume.
The death of Paul Bern
The cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head. Officially, the death was ruled a suicide. But why? Why would a successful producer who had just married the sexiest girl in town off himself?
9280 Easton Drive, Beverly Hills -
the home of Paul Bern and Jean Harlow
What really happened that night? To this day, nobody knows. What is known is that, while Bern died sometime on Sunday evening, the death was not reported until Monday afternoon. Presumably, the power of the MGM clean up crew was in full swing. Bern's butler found the body and knew immediately that the first place was to call was MGM, not the police. The story cooked up by the studio was that Jean was at her mother's house for the evening. While she was out, Paul penned a cryptic suicide note and shot himself because he was impotent. The note said: Dearest Dear, Unfortunately this is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done you and to wipe out my abject humiliation. I Love you - Paul. You understand that last night was only a comedy.

A grieving Harlow is supported by step father Marino Bello
and studio chief Irving Thalberg at Paul Bern's funeral
Harlow refused to comment and was overcome with grief at Bern's funeral. Rumors swirled. Those who knew Bern knew that the impotence story was a fantasy. And those who really knew Paul Bern knew he was a man who had a secret.

The Mystery Wife

While Paul Bern lived in New York, he had a long term live-in relationship with an actress by the name of Dorothy Millette. Although it was a common-law marriage and Dorothy went by the name of Dorothy Bern, it was not a legal union. Before Bern located to Hollywood, Dorothy developed mental problems and Bern arranged for her to be placed in a Connecticut sanitarium. Bern continued to pay for her support after he headed for the west coast. He continued to visit with her whenever he was in New York. While it was stated that Harlow knew nothing of Dorothy, those who knew better didn't believe it.

Dorothy, at the time of Bern's marriage to Harlow, had recovered and relocated to San Francisco. She and Paul communicated regularly, and Bern sent her $350 a month for expenses. While it is suspected that Dorothy may have been at the house the night Bern was killed, the only real fact that is known is that she turned up dead shortly after Bern's death. Several days after the shooting, she booked a passage on a Sacramento river boat to San Francisco. She never made it home. Several weeks later, fishermen discovered her body. Did she jump or was she pushed? Her death was ruled a suicide.

Did Bern actually kill himself? Did Dorothy Millette shoot him? Did Jean Harlow kill him (there had been reports of an argument earlier in the day and the couple had money troubles). Did Mama Jean have Harlow's gangster ex-boyfriend Abner "Longie" Zwillman get rid of an inconvenient husband? These are only a few of the many theories that try to explain the mysterious death of Paul Bern, but, unfortunately, all those involved are long gone and they sure weren't talking while they were here.
Harlow and Clark Gable in "Red Dust"
Remarkably, Harlow survived the scandal and went on to greater fame and misfortune. Her next film, "Red Dust," was a smashing success, but she was never to find fulfillment in her personal life. A series of romantic disappointments, including a failed marriage to cinematographer Harold Rosson and a frustrating relationship with actor William Powell, followed her tragic union with Bern, ending with her early death at age 26 n 1937.

sexy and beautiful and talented, but never truly happy