Showing posts with label Wild About Wilder. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Wild About Wilder. Show all posts

Friday, June 5, 2009

Guest Blogger Jonas ~ Sunset Blvd.: A Semi-Documentary in Disguise

I am so incredibly delighted to have the Talkie King himself Jonas, from the excellent blog All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!, contribute to this month's Guest Blogger series. Jonas is a premiere expert on the early days of cinema and he's taken this opportunity to write about Sunset Blvd. (1950), a seminal film that bridges two very different eras of film history; the forgotten days of silent film and the Golden Age of Hollywood.
In 1911, Hollywood was not much more than a big, quite sleepy, orange plantation when the first movie studios settled down on Sunset Blvd, this almost 40 km long winding road that is actually quite far from a classic Parisian boulevard. In the 1920’s with the arrival of the star system big villas were built for the stars along this mighty boulevard, close to the studios. Some of these mansions were incredibly luxurious, almost baroque in style and didn’t leave the spectator indifferent. The rule of thumb was: The bigger the star – the more overblown and grotesque the palace. It was one of these houses that Billy Wilder saw and got fascinated by in the late 1940’s. Wilder had also heard that old forgotten stars from the silent era still lived in some of those houses.

Wilder and fellow writer Charles Bracket started to write a scenario about a young writer who is chosen to help write on a comeback script for Norma Desmond, an old eccentric film star living in a seemingly abandoned mansion located in a remote area of Sunset Blvd. Wilder and Bracket had Montgomery Clift in mind for the role of Joe Gillis, the young writer. But who would agree to play an aging forgotten film star who was to be totally out of touch with reality? Everyone wants to play a winner and look great on screen. The ideal would be to find a real forgotten silent film star, but who would agree to being forgotten and out of circulation? Wilder discussed the idea with Greta Garbo who had deliberately ended her career some years ago. But Garbo wasn’t interested, she wanted to be forgotten. Then Wilder and Bracket approached Mae West who just frowned and told them she was far too young to play a silent film star… Next! Mary Pickford was interested but was rejected when she wanted to change the script from dark and doom to a picture that was nice and lame. Pola Negri was offended by the offer as she was by no means forgotten and had no intention to play someone who was. One day George Cukor showed up and said “Why don’t you try to get Swanson”. Wilder and company was convinced that Swanson would be as impossible to get as landing a man on Mars. But very surprisingly Swanson was indeed interested but refused to do screen tests. Cukor then told her that if Paramount asked her to do ten screen tests she should just do them, otherwise he would shoot her. Swanson then understood how important she was to the film and agreed to the part.

When shooting was about to begin in May 1949 Montgomery Clift got cold feet and checked out. Clift had a private relation with an older woman at the time and was afraid that this was to be used against him in some way. William Holden was thus more or less thrown in at the last minute. With only a third of the script ready when shooting began it is my firm belief that Gloria Swanson was instrumental for the plot and that she agreed to share many details from her real life and career. The fact that so many things, lines and even props seems to come from Gloria herself, at least I believe it does, gives the movie an eerie documentary feel. I am also quite sure that Erich von Stroheim who plays Max, Norma Desmond's butler was chosen because of his earlier relation to Swanson and that it was Swanson herself who came up with his name as some sort of gesture, because she once had fired him from Queen Kelly, effectively ending his career (and her own). It is no coincidence that the movie that is projected in Norma Desmond’s private cinema is the infamously unfinished Queen Kelly from 1929 the only film that Swanson starred in that was directed by Stroheim. I know that the inclusion of the images from it definitely came from Swanson. Every single reel of Queen Kelly was property of Swanson's. The images from it shown in Sunset Boulevard are the first that were ever seen by a large audience in the US since the movie only had been released in a severely shortened European version in 1931. Another interesting detail worth mentioning occurs when we get a good glimpse of Cecil B. DeMille at work at the Paramount lot. He was the director that more or less discovered Swanson and his nickname for her in real life was “Young Fellow”, a nickname he naturally use when he meets Norma Desmond on the set in the movie.

The Bridge game is often mentioned in the reviews of Sunset Blvd. This is natural because the bridge players are the real old silent film stars Anna Q Nilsson (Swedish), Buster Keaton and HB Warner playing themselves. Many reviewers also state that they were forgotten like Norma Desmond was in the picture. This is not entirely true. Those veteran bridge players had done about twice as many movies as Swanson had done at the time. Anna Q. Nilsson made a staggering 200 movies between 1911-57, 39 of which are talkies. HB Warner did 134 movies between 1914-56, 90 of them were talkies. Buster Keaton have almost the same score, something like 145 films made and about 90 of them were talkies or TV work. Anna Q. Nilsson was one of the very first movie stars who became a well used bit player with time. HB Warner was never out of work during his career, he made about three pictures a year almost without skipping a beat. Buster Keaton was far from the star he once was, but his face never disappeared from the screen. He made lots of films during the 1940's. Contrary to other assumptions I have made I think their participation in Sunset Blvd. was planned before Gloria Swanson was considered for the movie because they had very little to do with each other in real life back in the days. In 1923 Gloria made a film called Zaza for Famous Players-Lasky Corporation in which she played against H.B Warner but that's it. H.B Warner and Anna Q. Nilsson did two movies together in the 1920's and were both contract players at First National for a long period of time. Buster Keaton was his own quite early on and never did anything with Swanson apart from Sunset Blvd.

The true forgotten stars of Sunset Blvd. are of course von Stroheim and Swanson. Remember that It was Gloria's second film since 1934 and merely her eighth talkie. She had made an unsuccessful attempt at a comeback (or return as Norma Desmond would put it) in 1941 in RKO's Father Takes A Wife but it was no success and made the company lose $100.000.

von Stroheim's history is very speckled. When he got kicked out in the cold from Queen Kelly in 1929, he had directed his last big picture and was from then on degraded to acting only. His talkie career consists almost entirely of strange parts as Germans or bizarre evil characters in movies made all over the world during the 30's and 40's. His best role from those years is without hesitation his brilliant Captain Rauffenstein in Renoir's La Grande Illusion in 1937.

All these details makes Sunset Blvd. a very strange and beautiful Film Noir and with its documentary references it becomes a multi faceted black diamond that will never fall out of fashion. Sunset Blvd. is cynical about everything to do with the movies, the business, fame and the cynicism of William Holden’s hard boiled narration. Everywhere it looks, it sees the damage that stardom can do and how people are willing to exploit each other to get it. That’s probably what makes it one of very few timeless movies, as relevant to the present day film industry as it was in 1950. You can’t leave Sunset Blvd. without mentioning Gloria Swanson’s superb performance. The role as Norma Desmond demands a broad performance, even alone within the walls of her mansion she's over the top. But using big gestures and broad manners and not going past the line where acting descends into unintentional comedy is a delicate balancing act which she pulls off almost effortlessly, especially when you consider that she really hadn’t worked since the early thirties. The role as Norma Desmond is without a doubt Gloria Swanson’s finest achievement, possibly also Billy Wilder's.

Please make sure you watch Jonas' blog All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing! for a follow up post on Gloria Swanson's Queen Kelly.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Pamela Tiffin ~ One, Two, Three (1961)

I associate Billy Wilder with intelligent comedies that may or may not invovle cross-dressing. He had an amazing way of exploring serious issues with humor and after watching the Cold War comedy One, Two, Three (1961), Wilder is becoming one of my favorite directors of all-time.

While I am writing about this film for my Pamela Tiffin series, I would be remiss to not point out that this is James Cagney's film through and through. He was a pint-sized fireball of... fire and he steals the show! His energy is off the charts and the theme music, Sabre Dance by Khachaturyan (click to play), matches his vitality. This film is also filled with a diverse selection of lively characters all with charming idiosyncracies that keep us holding our stomachs as we burst out laughing.

Cagney plays MacNamara is the head of Berlin's Coca-Cola factory who has his sights on a big position in London. His employees are all Gestapo-trained Germans who click their heels and stand up at attention much to MacNamara's very American dismay. His wife Phylis is a wise-cracking dame fed up with life in Berlin and MacNamara is also courting hot bilingual secretary Ingeborg (and is using her as bait to woo potential Russian business). MacNamara's boss in Atlanta, Georgia sends his daughter to stay with the MacNamaras in Berlin. This is when things get hilariously complicated and MacNamara finds himself in a jam when the daughter marries a Russian communist.

Pamela Tiffin's character Scarlett Hazeltine is really superb. Tiffin is in prime form as the ditzy hot-blooded Southern belle who rebels against her parents by falling in love with any boy in sight. After being engaged 3 times, her parents send her off to Europe which in her case is like putting fox in a chicken coop. Scarlett has a charming Southern accent, says "marvy" whenever she can and thinks it's cute that she secretly married a Russian communist. I love how Scarlett gets so excited that her man is an anti-American propaganda spouting subversive. Wonderful!

Scarlett: Tell him about the wedding rings...
Otto: Forged from the steel of a brave cannon that fought in Stalingrad.

I leave you now with the film's homage to Cagney's most iconic image. See if you can guess what I'm referring to.

MacNamara: How would you like a little fruit for dessert?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Ball of Fire (1942) ~ A Recipe for Success


3 Gangsters
1 Hard Nosed Dana Andrews
1 Sexy Barbara Stanwyck
7 Loveable Professors
1 Uptight Maid
1 Tall, Goofy yet Charming Gary Cooper
A few extra bit players with good parts

Script Elements:
A generous helping of Comedy
1 pinch of Drama
A dash of Sex
A sprinkling of 1940's slang
Spoonfuls of good dialogue
Several parts Romance
1 homage to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
Silly character names (optional)


Preheat your DVD player.

With a Billy Wilder, a Charles Brackett and a Thomas Monroe, write your script for Howard Hawks' direction. Add generous doses of Comedy. This will provide you with the majority of the plot. Mix by hand while adding pinches of Drama to create interesting tension. When thoroughly combined add the Sex, enough to spice things up but not too much to get us in trouble with the Legion of Decency. Mix in dialogue and generous sprinklings of slang to keep the initial cultural element of proper speech versus 1940's colloquialisms interesting. Spoonfuls of good dialogue are essential to round out the script. Add Romance to please the women in your audience and 1 homage to a classic fairy tale just to make this film unique. For a final touch, add some silly character names just for fun.

Set aside script elements and work on the actors. Start with your character actors. Mix separately those characters who epitomize education, namely the 7 professors. Then add in one uptight maid to prevent those professors from getting too excited. Add Gary Cooper as Prof. Potts to introduce some youthfulness to the mix. Make sure you give him top billing! Now for the characters with street smarts. First you'll need various bit players with charisma. If you have an excellent Garbage-man in the form of Allen Jenkins throw him in! Add your gangsters for some excitement and violence. Now you'll need your leading lady. She needs to ooze sexiness and wit but also be genuine. You can't go wrong with an enchanting Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss O'Shea. You'll notice that when you throw Stanwyck in, chemistry will happen between her and Cooper. You can't make it too easy on the mixture, so right before you are done, throw in Dana Andrews as Joe Lilac to get in the way of their romance. This will keep things flavorful and satisfying.

Turn mixture into a DVD and insert into player. Bake for 1 hour and 51 minutes and enjoy!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Quel Interprétation: The Fortune Cookie (1966)

I've decided to expand the concept of "Quel Interprétation" into general interpretations inspired by classic films and not just limit it to dress-up. My latest (and tasty) installment is inspired by Billy Wilder's comedy The Fortune Cookie (1966) . In this film, Harry Hinkle (Jack Lemmon) is a cameraman who gets knocked over by footballer player Boom Boom Johnson (Ron Rich) during a play and has to be taken to the hospital. Harry's brother-in-law Willie (Walter Matthau) is a scheming lawyer who sees this accident as an opportunity to sue the big guns at the TV studio for major dough. Willie uses Sandy, Harry's no-good and money hungry ex, to lure Harry into the scheme of pretending the injuries are worse than the are. All the while Boom Boom is feeling terrible guilt about the incident and is doing everything possible to make it up to Harry.

In one particular scene, Boom Boom cooks Harry an authentic Hungarian meal which consists of Paprika Chicken with egg noodles, red cabbage and apricot dumplings. We don't get to see the food, but all of us, including the two detectives spying across the street, are left with mouths watering.

It's unusual for me to find a meal served in an old movie appetizing. So when my tastebuds started to tingle, I knew I just had to make this meal! I did some research, got some recipes, and then made it for New Year's Eve dinner. I made some adjustments to the recipes and instead of apricot dumplings, which were too complicated, I made apricot cobbler. I took plenty of pictures too. Enjoy!

Braised Red Cabbage

1/2 Head of Red Cabbage cut into chunks
Olive Oil
Salt & Pepper to Taste

1 teaspoon of cider vingegar
1/4-1/2 cup of chicken or vegetable broth

(Although the glamour shot of the red cabbage shows an onion and a head of garlic, neither is necessary for this recipe.) Head some olive oil in a wide pot. Add red cabbage, salt and pepper and cook until the cabbage's tough structure begins to give a little. Add the splash of cider vinegar and the broth. You can also add a couple tablespoons of sugar if desired. Cover pot with lid and let simmer 20-30 minutes. Strain of excess liquid (which is now bright red) and serve.

Paprika Chicken

1 chopped onion
olive oil
Paprika and Salt for seasoning
1 14.oz can of whole tomatoes, drained and seeded
2 chicken breasts
1/2 cup of chicken or vegetable broth
1-1/2 teaspoon of flour mixed with 1 tablespoon of water
2 tablespoons of sour cream

Season chicken breast with salt and paprika.

Heat wide skillet (that has a lid) with olive oil. Add chopped onions, salt and paprika to taste. Cook onions until they get tender, about 5 minutes. Push onions to the side of the skillet.

Add seasoned chicken breasts to hot oil. Sear on both sides. Mix back with onions. Add canned tomatoes and break them down a bit with a wooden spatula. Add broth and simmer for 10 minutes covered. Then simmer uncovered for 5-10 more minutes until sauce has reduced a bit.

In the meantime, cook 2-3 cups of egg noodles in boiling salted waters for about 8 minutes. Drain and set aside. Don't let them sit too long or they'll dry out.

Remove chicken breasts from pan and set aside. Add flour mixture and sour cream to sauce and mix. Turn off the heat and stir until well mixed. Add back the chicken breasts. Serve chicken and sauce over egg noodles. Garnish with some parsley.

Vegetarians could easily substitute the chicken for vegetables or leave it out altogether.

Apricot Cobbler

6 apricots sliced
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons of sugar
3/4 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/3 cup of cold unsalted butter cut into small cubes
1 egg slightly beaten
Splash of vanilla

Note that this makes a very small cobbler. Double or triple measurements depending on size of baking dish.

Preheat oven to 350 Degrees Fahrenheit. Spray baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Add sliced apricots and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of sugar. Mix until apricots are fully coated and glistening.

Mix dry ingredients together in a bowl. Add in slightly beaten egg and splash of vanilla and mix until incorporated. Then with your hands gently knead in cold cubes of butter until mixture is crumbly. Don't try to incorporate all the butter. Little blobs are good. They melt in the oven and make the topping crispy and yummy.

Cover apricots fully with crumbly mixture. Add baking dish to oven on a middle-rack and cook for 30-35 minutes (more if it's a bigger dish) until golden brown on top.

Serve hot or at room temperature by itself or with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream or some whipped cream.

The Fortune Cookie (1966) is available on DVD and TCM will be airing it on January 14th (at an ungodly hour) and February 28th.

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