Diary of a Lost Girl

Diary of a Lost Girl, the second of Georg Wilhelm Pabst's productive collaborations with Louise Brooks, is a potent and gorgeously stylized depiction of an innocent young woman's destruction at the hands of the not-so-innocent. Brooks plays Thymian, a beautiful and sheltered pharmacist's daughter whose dawning realization about the cruel ways of the world coincides with the loss of the security of her family. The opening of the film enacts a lurid symbolic struggle between innocence and sin, naïveté and knowledge. Brooks' Thymian, dressed all in white on the occasion of her confirmation, her eyes wide beneath the iconic ridge of her dark bangs, looks around her with a complete lack of guile, sweetly accepting presents from family and friends, glowing with courtesy and grace.

She seems entirely unaware of all the sexually charged glances being exchanged all around her: the exaggerated leer of her father's assistant Meinert (Fritz Rasp) who all but licks his lips and bulges his eyes like a cartoon wolf when he looks at her; her father's (Josef Rovensky) sexual liaisons with one maid after another; her aunt's (Vera Pawlowa) grim knowledge of these constant affairs; the knowing glances and raised eyebrows of the party guests when they see the new maid Meta (Franziska Kinz), who brazenly stares at her employer with an invitingly wicked smile that openly suggests that the cycle is going to start again. Everyone but Thymian seems to know exactly what's going on, but she is blissfully unaware of the sexual drama surrounding her.

In her pure white confirmation dress, a band of flowers wrapped around her head, she's a vision of innocence so pure and unstained that the mere realization that sin and sexual predation exist in her household produces a fainting spell, confining her to bed as though she's taken ill. She sees the corpse of her beloved maid — who'd committed suicide after being abandoned by Thymian's father — then runs up the stairs in a daze, sees her father with his arm already around the new maid, both of them staring at the camera in a frozen pose, a sly smile on the face of the new maid in contrast to the serene blankness of the dead girl downstairs, and in one fluid motion Thymian swoons to the floor, overcome by the taint of impurity infiltrating her home.

This is only the beginning of Thymian's suffering, as Meinert takes advantage of her vulnerability and rapes her. Pabst freezes the frame at the moment when the creepy druggist lowers Thymian's limp form into bed, and then immediately cuts to a baby carriage being taken out of Thymian's room, months later, carrying the fruit of that forceful union. Thymian's family casts her out, and she's sent to a reformatory, which she soon escapes with her friend Erika (Edith Meinhard), only to fall into a life of prostitution. The man she believes is going to save her, the disgraced and disinherited Count Osdorff (André Roanne), is actually a lazy and pathetic outcast who settles easily into a life of comfort at the brothel with Thymian and Erika. Pabst, though, doesn't portray the brothel as an entirely unpleasant life; the girls have fun and like each other, and Thymian certainly seems happier and better off there than she was under the care of the strict Christian moralists at the reformatory.

The reformatory is run by a stern mistress (Valeska Gert) whose usually stony face betrays an expression of ecstatic joy when whipping the girls through a frenzied gymnastics routine, and a bald-headed, looming movie monster giant (Andrews Engelmann) who first pops comically into the frame by standing up in front of a sign listing the many things that are "verboten" in this dismal place. This cartoonish giant delights in punishing the girls, grabbing them with a clawed hand at the scruff of their neck as though picking up a disobedient puppy, and his leering sadism is both creepy and hysterical — particularly when he runs a confiscated tube of lipstick across his own mouth, grinning impishly, then uses it to write a reminder to punish the girl he'd taken it from, a note signed with a heart to indicate his sadistic love of punishment.

Lesbian eroticism is another obvious subtext here, especially in the reformatory, where most of the girls have clipped, close-cropped boyish haircuts, and Erika introduces herself to Thymian by surreptitiously touching the new girl's leg with her foot and winking at her, echoing Meinert's leering winks. At bedtime, as Pabst pans down the line of girls getting ready for bed, two girls sit in the same bunk, giggling, and fall back into bed together. The scene where the matron tries to seize Thymian's diary is also loaded with suggestive intimacy, with the stern woman grabbing at Erika's bare legs, looking up at the two girls sitting in the top bunk, grasping at them with clawed hands. Later, when Thymian visits Erika at the brothel where she's staying, Pabst emphasizes the brothel's madame putting an intimate hand on the bare back of one of her girls — the gesture is repeated when the madame pushes Thymian together with a male client to dance — and then has Erika kneel before Thymian, taking off her shoes and undressing her, unbuttoning her demure reformatory blouse with its high collar to expose a V of flesh at her neck.

The film is steeped in this kind of sexual suggestiveness. Thymian's downfall has everything to do with sex and money, and sex and money come to be linked in very intimate ways for her. After her first night at the brothel, after she's spent the night with a man — swooning in his arms so that her limp form very much recalls her unconsciousness during Meinert's exploitation of her — the madame hands her an envelope of cash and makes it clear that it's from the man. Only then does the very naïve Thymian realize what's happened, and she recoils from the cash, which Pabst nevertheless emphasizes in a closeup. Much later, when her father dies and she receives an inheritance from Meinert for buying out the pharmacy, the camera glances from the pile of cash to Meinert's smug, cartoonishly grinning face, making it seem as though this too is a transaction, a belated payment for that long ago night when he'd taken her to bed.

It's not all grim tragedy here, though, and there's some limited comedy relief along the way. Among the humorous scenes is a very strange sequence where a goofy guy with a billy-goat beard (a possible anti-Semitic caricature) comes to see Thymian for "dance lessons," and she leads him in a bizarre calisthenic workout inspired by her reformatory exercise drills, while holding a drum protectively/suggestively over her crotch and beating it with a mallet in the way the reformatory mistress had done. The sexual symbolism is especially naked here, but those undercurrents are everywhere in this film.

The plot unravels a bit towards the end with a predictable tonal shift towards an optimistic, redemptive conclusion, seemingly foisted upon Pabst by censors eager to end on a positive note after all this barely coded sex. Even here, though, Pabst's emotional poetry shines through. The film is never less than beautiful, its style fluid and expressionist while also remaining grounded in social realism. And Brooks is just magnificent, with a beautiful and vibrant face that was perfectly suited to the silent cinema. When she smiles, the screen glows, and when she's suffering her eyes seem to contain unimaginable depths of feeling, often assisted by Pabst's very sympathetic photography of her, as in the stunning shot where she stares out a rain-streaked window, the raindrops on the glass standing in for her tears.

Posted in Cinema

Magnificent Obsession

Douglas Sirk was a master of the lurid Hollywood melodrama, transcending often outrageous and contrived material with the sheer force of the emotion and the visual rigor that he invested in these stories. In films like All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind, Sirk found profundity and great beauty in what would have been trash in the hands of others. In Magnificent Obsession, a forerunner to the Jane Wyman/Rock Hudson pairing of All That Heaven Allows, not even Sirk can truly transcend what must be one of the worst plots and the worst screenplays in Hollywood history, a ridiculous pile-up of contrivances and silly plot twists in the service of a saccharine Christian-themed drama. It's a clunky and deeply strange film, and its absurd narrative prevents it from ever really being great, though Sirk's mise en scène and keen eye for painting in Technicolor elevate it at least to the level of a campy, emotionally intense tearjerker.

The story concerns the redemption of the callow playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson), who gets a wake-up call when his boating accident indirectly causes the death of a prominent, well-loved local doctor because an important piece of medical equipment was being used to treat Bob when the doctor had a heart attack. Bob falls in love with the doctor's widow Helen (Jane Wyman), but his clumsy attempts to pursue her — using a bastardized version of the philosophy of Christian charity practiced by her husband, and taught to Bob by the husband's friend Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger) — only results in further tragedy, when an accident leaves Helen blind. It's soapy in the extreme, particularly when Bob dedicates his life to medicine, becoming a doctor and using his wealth and his knowledge in an attempt to cure Helen's blindness even as he courts the blind woman (who apparently doesn't recognize his voice) under the laughable assumed name of Robby Robinson. Once one starts trying to pick apart the plot, it's difficult to stop, so it's best to just let it be, to try to overlook the unending cavalcade of absurdities and foolishness and sudden emotional reversals, to focus instead on the undeniably rapturous power of Sirk and cinematographer Russell Metty's images, which are as always some of the finest examples of Technicolor extravagance.

Sirk makes this insane plot come alive with the sensuous power of his images. Resonating with the theme of literal and metaphorical blindness, Sirk continually bathes the characters in alternating blocks of light and shadow, draping the film in darkness. Walking across a room, they step into the light for a moment and are then swallowed up again in darkness, the shadows falling across faces and erasing features into black silhouettes in the night. For all his obvious love of bright, pastel colors, Sirk seems equally at home in inky blackness, stretching shadows across the frame so that the characters are perpetually shuttling back and forth between seeing and unseeing, between flashes of light and dark pools in which nothing can be seen. When Helen visits Switzerland for a barrage of tests with some famed eye surgeons, her face is totally profiled in shadow until the doctor pans a small light across her face, highlighting each of her eyes in turn, creating a tiny circle of light, a pinprick reflected in her shining eye.

This approach reaches its apex with the scene where Bob takes Helen out for a romantic evening. The whole sequence is draped in these kinds of shadows, simultaneously creating a sumptuously romantic mood and suggesting a visual analogue for Helen's blindness, the darkness all around them shading their faces, hiding them from one another. As they dance together, they twirl and their faces are alternately shaded and lit up, passing in and out of the shadows with each turn. Sirk's aesthetic has a meticulousness that works against the raw, oversized emotions of his material. At one point, Helen, blind, picks her way across a darkened room, carefully feeling for obstacles and making her way slowly through the shadow-strewn room, until she comes to a balcony where her extended hand knocks a potted plant off the ledge. The camera follows the plant's fall down to the street below, where it shatters with a loud crack, triggering Helen's breakdown at precisely that instant, as though a starter's pistol had been fired.

In another scene, when Bob is about to perform the climactic surgery that will inevitably restore Helen's sight and redeem him from his careless and wasteful past, he hesitates until he looks up to the viewing gallery, where he sees Randolph, this film's kindly incarnation of God, looking down on them with a benevolent smile, the operating table and the doctors around it reflected in the glass around Randolph. He then steps away, satisfied that Bob will perform this task, and Sirk holds the shot of the now-empty viewing gallery, the operating room still reflected in it, visually communicating that God has done his work of inspiration, and the rest of the task must be left to the hands of man.

The film is rich in this kind of loaded visual symbolism. Sirk often transcends the frankly stupid plot with the sheer emotional power of his images, which crackle with vitality and feeling even when the twists and turns of the script barely make a bit of sense. But, even though Sirk often worked with such lousy material, and routinely transformed it into masterpieces, here, for whatever reason, he can't quite perform that miracle. The result is a film that's as visually beautiful as one would expect, and often seething with raw and over-the-top emotion, but never comes together on the multiple levels that characterize Sirk's best work.

Posted in Cinema

Under Capricorn

Alfred Hitchcock's Under Capricorn is one of the director's more divisive films, but it certainly doesn't deserve its unflattering reputation. This lavish period melodrama, set in 1800s Australia, might be deliberately paced, but it's as emotionally, psychologically and formally complex as any of the director's best work. The core of the film is a twisted three-way relationship that develops between the wealthy ex-convict Sam (Joseph Cotten), his disturbed, alcoholic wife Hattie (Ingrid Bergman), and Charles (Michael Wilding), who had known Hattie as a boy in Ireland and claims to Sam that he can awaken Hattie from her self-destructive, near-insane mental state. Indeed, the charming Charles is able to shake Hattie out of her stasis and mental collapse, but he also preys on her, seducing her away from her husband even as he cures her. Sam watches this situation unfold, glowering and brooding, under the watchful eye of his maid Milly (Margaret Leighton), who obviously desires Sam and resents his wife. There's a dark history here that slowly, patiently unfurls, but the emphasis throughout is not really on narrative, past or present, but on the churning, potent emotions of the protagonists and the engulfing visual style that Hitchcock springs like a trap around the characters.

Hitchcock made this film immediately after the long-take formal experiment of Rope, and he applies a similar aesthetic here, albeit not quite as rigorously. This was Hitchcock's only collaboration with Powell/Pressburger cinematographer Jack Cardiff, whose sumptuous use of color and glossy, unreal aesthetic is a perfect complement to Hitchcock, and especially to the particular qualities of this lush period drama. Using the unbroken take style of Rope, Hitchcock and Cardiff hold shots for minutes at a time, the camera unmoored, drifting around the rooms of Sam's palatial home, its gentle movements subtly but definitively defining the relationships between the characters. Who's in the frame and who's not means everything in this film, particularly in terms of the central love triangle, as Charles' friendship with and seduction of Hattie increasingly pushes her own husband out of the picture, shunting him off to the side.

In the first scene where Charles and Hattie meet, she wanders, drunk and dazed, into one of her husband's dinner parties and sits down at the head of the table. Charles holds her chair for her and then sits next to her, leaving his own spot at the table. Once Charles sits down by Hattie's side, it's as though there's no longer anyone else at the table; Hitchcock maintains a two-shot of them as she reminiscences about the past, occasionally glancing across the table, presumably at her unseen husband, but Hitchcock doesn't cut away, doesn't show the reaction of the others to this immediate intimacy, doesn't show anyone else or have anyone else even talk again until Hattie stands up and the camera tracks to follow her, past the others at the table, as Charles walks her to the staircase leading back to her room.

Later, when Hattie dictates a letter to Charles' sister, Hitchcock again keeps the camera on the two of them, Sam forgotten outside the frame, until the camera begins tracking away from Charles and Hattie, past her husband's now abandoned place setting, through the empty room, finally finding Sam, walking away, his back to the camera, in the hallway, as the image fades to black. It's as though, when Charles and Hattie are together, everything else fades away, forgotten, the triangle becoming a two-shot, the room emptying off-camera. Hitchcock and Cardiff have a way of shooting the scenes between Hattie and Charles so that even if someone's standing right next to them, it feels like they're all alone.

In a subsequent scene, Milly, who'd been fired, returns while Charles and Hattie go out to the ball together, again leaving Sam behind. Hitchcock holds a very long and mostly static take as the maid chatters away, delivering her passive-aggressive patter about Hattie, her voice full of gossipy insinuation. The frame slowly constricts and expands as Sam wanders in and out of view, sometimes glowering in the background, sometimes strolling towards the camera, his face dark. All the while, Milly's barely disguised bile dominates the soundtrack, and she remains the visual center of the shot, but it's Sam's darkening expression and stalking walk that actually serve as the scene's viscerally felt focus even when he's peripheral or outside the frame altogether. Only at the very end of the scene, the end of the shot, does Sam finally step forward into the foreground of the frame, and Milly's voice fades away, his anger finally blotting out her words.

There's another fantastic long take when Hattie tells the story of her past with Sam. The camera maintains a medium distance as she paces around the room, and the camera glides with her, often with Charles' head in the foreground of the frame, placing the spectator in his position as he listens to her. She often resists facing him, though, showing the camera her profile more than her full face, which makes the sudden closeup, when she confesses to shooting her brother, all the more startling: the camera suddenly floats upwards and presses in at precisely the moment when she steps forward and leans into the shot, nearly facing the camera for her confessional moment. It's especially striking because immediately afterward she returns to avoiding this direct, forward-facing manner, turning her profile to the camera or turning away altogether, looking up, down, anywhere but straight-on.

This patient, elegant style pays off especially well in the final act, when all the long-bubbling resentments and conflicted emotions come to the surface in an eerie, dreamlike climax. Hattie, returning to her drunken hysteria after a series of dramatic twists and turns, sinks back into her isolation, terrified of the horrifying things she imagines seeing around her room. As Sam tucks Hattie in and comforts her, there's a long, rumbling roll of thunder that sounds like a blown-out speaker, and it continues to roar throughout the nightmarish scenes in which Hattie discovers a ghoulish shrunken head in her bed and collapses, with Hitchcock suggesting the passage of time afterwards with a gorgeous image of a rain-streaked window superimposed over the unconscious woman's face. This whole sequence is haunting and gorgeous, with every detail heightened: the single beaded tear glistening on Hattie's cheek, the tracking shot along the rough terrain of the pillowcase and bedsheets, the continued rolling of the thunder, the sinister tinkling of Milly's keys as she creeps around the room, the light glinting off the poisoned glass that's so resonant of other sinister drinks in Hitchcock's oeuvre.

It's a dream, a nightmare, and the subsequent scenes in which the plot begins reversing gears to move inexorably towards a happy resolution have the feeling of waking up from a dream, finally shaking off the narcotized slumber that afflicted these characters and kept them trapped in a recurring cycle of self-destruction and recrimination. Under Capricorn is a stylish and beautiful movie, its aesthetic seductive and hypnotic, with a psychological complexity that makes it enthralling throughout.

Posted in Cinema

Updates and ARCS

A few updates today and a preview of coming attractions:

First, Elisabeth of The Second Sentence blog, and Western story writer and devotee, made the discovery that some of the horse stampede scenes from Red Canyon (1949), which we discussed here, were re-used in a 1964 episode called “The Black Stallion” of the TV show The Virginian.  I’m pasting her comments here:

It also features a gorgeous black stallion with a white star on its forehead, and there are some wonderful scenes of wild horse herds on the run—a lot of it stock footage cut in, some of which I've seen in other episodes of the same show. When I was watching it last night, there was a brief shot of the stallion escaping into a red sandstone canyon, and something clicked in my head. The Virginian was a Universal show, and I know they re-used footage (and even reworked scripts) from earlier Universal films sometimes. Could a bit of footage from Red Canyon have found its way into "The Black Stallion"? I guess I'll have to wait until I can track down a copy of the movie to be sure…

Here's a part of "The Black Stallion" from YouTube—the brief clip with the canyon is at about 11:15: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=47Ioq-XLG2Q.  The whole sequence with the horse herd begins around 6:25.

The color of that video is very blurry and faded compared to the crisp DVDs, where the red sandstone in that shot contrasts with the landscape in the rest of the scene.  That's what made me notice it and think it might be stock footage.

Elisabeth was spot-on.  I took at look at the link she provided, and these scenes are most definitely from Red Canyon.  Great eye, and great detective work, Elisabeth.


The CMBA spring blogathon this year is going to be The Fabulous Films of the 1930s and will run from April 27th through May 1stHave a look here for the list of great blogs participating and their offerings for this blogathon.

I’ll be tackling Hallelujah, I’m  a Bum! (1933) starring Al Jolson, Edgar Connor, Madge Evans, and Frank Morgan, directed by Lewis Milestone.  It’s a real zeitgeist piece of Great Depression hijinks about Central Park homeless (more fun than it sounds), and my post will run next Thursday, April 30th.


My launch date for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is just two months away.  Next week, on Friday, May 1st, I hope to email out ARCs for reviewers of the book (Advanced Reading Copies) in PDF form.  If anyone cares to review the book, please drop me an email so I can send you one.  More on the book in weeks to come.

Posted in Old Movie Blog

George Coulouris – Villain in Watch on the Rhine (1943)

George Coulouris is a sublime villain, supremely important to Watch on the Rhine (1943), so charming in his lazy gentlemanliness, so pitiable in his bad luck and bad moves, and so treacherous in his motives.

The character he plays, a blasé Rumanian count, and a refugee from Europe and his own failed enterprises, is one of playwright Lillian Hellman’s most simple, and yet most brilliant creations.  He is not a blustering fascist—in this anti-Nazi drawing room drama that would stand out like tacky décor, and besides, the bold and courageous resistance fighter Paul Lukas plays is too clever to let himself get too near a real storm trooper-type.  Coulouris is dangerous because he is not an instigator, not a brainwashed (or brain dead) Nazi; he is on the second tier of evildoers—an opportunist.  As Lukas (and Lillian Hellman) describes his ilk: “Some of them were, up to a point, fastidious men.  For these we may someday have pity.  They are lost men.  Their spoils are small.  Their day is gone.”

This is my entry in The Great Villain Blogathon hosted by those evil villains at Speakeasy, Shadows & Satin, and Silver Screenings blogs. 

Watch on Rhine began as a tremendously successful Broadway play.  I discuss more about it in my upcoming book on Ann Blyth, who had a minor role in that play as a child.  The play’s producer and director, Herman Shumlin, went to Hollywood to cast the adult roles because throughout the Great Depression that’s where a lot of the best stage-trained actors went.  He didn’t want Hollywood stars, necessarily, he wanted stage veterans.  In February 1941, he came back with three heavy-hitters: Paul Lukas; Lucile Watson, who would play the acerbic matriarch; and George Coulouris.  Interestingly, he wanted Henry Daniell, but Daniell wasn’t free (he appears in the film as Baron Von Ramme).

Before we get to the film, we need to appreciate the overwhelming respect this play received when it was produced in 1941-1942.  I think in the decades that followed the film lost its strength for a modern audience that regards it as sentimental propaganda, a museum piece of a more gullible era.  Sometimes one of our worst sins is our condescension about the past.  Add to this the changes in the script that gave a larger role to Bette Davis—I’m afraid she tends to take too much of the spotlight in her scenery-chewing.  But the original play hit the theatre world like a storm.  The emotion of the day for the Broadway play was genuine.

Here is one review:

I want to tell you that I believe the finest, most deeply moving play that has been written in America in years is at Ford’s Theater this week…I say it because it is each man’s high duty to inform his fellow-men when he finds, or thinks he finds, something very true, very beautiful, very important.

Watch on the Rhine is all these things to me.  And it was obvious when the curtain fell on the opening performance that it had these qualities to many others, too.

There was the testimony of the applause which continued until the desperate theater manager turned on the bright house lights.  There was the testimony of many tear-filled eyes…With humor and with tenderness, with logic and with occasional poetry, Lillian Hellman has written this play.  And Herman Shumlin has produced it not as a theatrical businessman presents plays.  He has staged it, quite obviously, with love and with great reverence…I do not like to use the word ‘great,’ particularly about a play whose theme is so close to the headlines that our viewpoint may unconsciously be distorted.  Only years can tell that.

But certainly it casts a spell which, for a time at least, transforms a theater into a rare and holy place where the heart is touched, elated, ennobled. – Louis Azrael, Baltimore News-Post.

In an unusual move, Warner Bros., in securing the rights to the play, allowed Herman Shumlin to direct (this was his first movie, and he made only one other); and allowed Paul Lukas, George Coulouris, Lucile Watson, as well as Frank Wilson, who played the butler, to come with Shumlin as part of the deal.  Paul Lukas would win an Academy Award for his performance, and Lucile Watson was nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

George Coulouris, originally from the U.K., had a Shakespearean background, and then met up with Orson Welles’ troupe and began a long and very distinguished career in film, stage, TV, radio alternating between noble characters and villains.  That he was adept at both says a lot for how he plays his character in Watch on the Rhine.  We understand him, and can even sympathize as we despise him. 

The intelligent script by Hellman gives all the characters a great forum, and this is what makes a great script.  No character is wasted, they are all necessary and everything they say matters.

We meet Coulouris coming down to breakfast on the terrace of Lucile Watson’s palatial family home outside Washington, D.C.  He is married to Geraldine Fitzgerald, and we see their marriage is rocky.  He snipes at her, accuses her of being too fond of Donald Woods, the son of the house.  In a moment, he greets his hostess Lucile Watson with old-world European charm, and we settle in to the intriguing world of a professional houseguest in the home of a rich patron.

Later, he goes to the German Embassy for an evening gala and a late-night card came.  This scene was written by Dashiell Hammett, to whom Hellman handed off the screenplay chore as she was busy with another commitment.  I like Hammett’s additions for the most part, he opens the story up to all of Washington.  However, some of the strength and verve of the stage play is also watered down in the process, which is a shame.  I suppose it’s a tricky line to walk.

Here at the card game, like a player showing his hand of cards, we are shown the various “face cards” in the arena of fascist villains: Blecher, a cold, sneering bully, referred to as a butcher, who runs the game and the show.  He is the head bad guy to whom his agents report.  He is shrewd and ruthless.  Ironically, this ultra Nazi swine is played by Kurt Katch, born an Eastern European Jew and a veteran of the Yiddish theatre.  He comments on the others and introduces them to us: Baron Von Ramme, played by Henry Daniell is “contemptuous of us, but chiefly because we are not gentlemen.  Would be satisfied enough doing the same things or worse under some stupid Hohenzollern.” 

Then there is the money-grubbing publisher of the American Nazi newspaper, and Chandler, the American oil man who wants to sell to the Axis; the mysterious Oberdorff, played silently by Rudolph Anders who seems the most evil simply because we, and Blecher, know nothing about him.  He is a question mark. 

Then Blecher comes to Coulouris, whom he dismisses as a man who sells things “but at the moment you have nothing to sell.”

He will soon, when Paul Lukas and his family show up, and he suspects from the moment he meets Lukas that here is a man the Nazis would like to get their hands on.  With very little prospects and at the end of the road, it is inevitable that a man like Coulouris will want to sell Lukas to the Nazis, but how we get to that point is intriguing.

In some scenes between them, even though the room is full of other characters, it seems as if we are watching a two-man play. They spar and take each other’s measure carefully in polite conversation.  Lukas, fresh from a daring escape and having been wounded in a previous mission, is the more emotionally brittle.  Coulouris comes off as suave, with the panache of a former diplomat who has learned early not to commit himself, who deals with life with a shrug of his shoulders, a man in evening dress with no neck to stick out.

His behavior is privately more unstable with his wife, alternately pleading and threatening her, but to the others, he maintains his British Public School manners and his Continental charm.  He is good at bridge, knows the right things to say.  He is apolitical, out for himself, but he feels more distaste for freedom fighters than for fascists because he understands the latter.  But he comes to admire Paul Lukas, if not for his political stance, then for his resiliency.  After the scene where he blackmails Lukas in return for not turning him over to the Nazis, Coulouris remarks after Lucile Watson and Donald Woods have left the room:

“The New World has left the room.  I feel less discomfort with you.  We are Europeans, born to trouble and understanding…They’re young.  The world has gone well for most of them.  For us, we’re like peasants…work, trouble, ruin.  But no need to call curses on the frost.  There it is.  There it will be again, always, for us.”

But he is no peasant and has never worked hard at anything.  It is only in his imagination that he identifies with the sorrows of European peasantry.  In a sense, he does have a master, too: the Nazis that have taken over all Europe.

In his final scene, we finally see his fear and panic as Paul Lukas, who despite his ill health is still a man of action, points a gun in Coulouris’ face and angrily tells him, “There is no substance to you.”  He both accuses, and mourns for Coulouris, because the blasé count, though he is frightened about dying now, he will have forgotten all about it in the morning if Lukas lets him get away. 

We know this is true, because George Coulouris, for all his benign charm, the salon and sidewalk café façade, has shown us his empty heart from the beginning.  We can’t write him off as just another bad guy.  He could be our houseguest, a friend or relative who could stab us in the back to save himself.  As Bette Davis says, “We have seen them in so many living rooms.”

Please have a look at the other entries in The Great Villain Blogathon here.


My book on Ann Blyth's career—Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. will be published on June 18th.  I’d like to invite any blogger—film blogger or book blogger—to participate in a blog tour. I’ll be looking for blogs to schedule publicity-oriented posts beginning Monday, June 1st. The last day will be June 17th. If anyone wants to pick a day, please let me know so I can coordinate with others. Think of it as a kind of blogathon. On your day, you can post a review of the book (I’ll have ARCs – advanced reading copies - available in PDF form which I’ll email to you that you can read on your computer), or you can do a Q&A with me, or I can just send you a 250-word excerpt of the book, or you can just post the cover and a link to the Amazon page, if you will. Just a little something to spread the word. I will be posting here every day from June 1st through the 18th and I’ll be linking to your blogs, pushing traffic to you.

Among those 17 bloggers who participate, I’ll throw your names in a hat and pick five winners who will receive a print book of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. when it is published on the 18th.  The rest will receive an eBook file in whichever format you choose: ePub, Mobi, or PDF (Note, the ARC copies will not have the index).

Posted in Old Movie Blog

Ray Jones, Ann Blyth, and Anne Frank

Referring to a grade school photo of herself, Anne Frank wrote in her diary October 10, 1942:

“This is a photograph of me as I wish I looked all the time.  Then I might still have a chance of getting to Hollywood.  But now I am afraid I usually look quite different.”

“Hollywood” –the idea of it, more than the place, was the phenomenon of the twentieth century that crossed all boundaries of society—class, age, gender, nationality.  A 13-year-old girl in hiding from the Nazis in Holland collected Hollywood movie star photos, and compared her own childish image to the touched up masterpieces of the Hollywood studio photographers.

At that same time, in October 1942, 14-year-old Ann Blyth was touring in the anti-Nazi play Watch on the Rhine and had just been discovered by representatives of Universal Studios when the play came to Los Angeles.  Her stardom was in the near future, and it would be supported by luminous portrait photos that the studio distributed to fans.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about two photographers of the Broadway stage whose work I’m including in my upcoming book on Ann Blyth.  Today, another photographer who would figure prominently in her career, and the careers of many Hollywood stars, particularly those at Universal, was Ray Jones.

Mr. Jones was a master of the then prevalent technique of using light to “sculpt” the image of the star.  The photos, which make these familiar stars look something like gods and goddesses, were, of course, touched up in the production process, but even before the film was shot the stars were dramatically posed, glamorized within a universe of lights, while Jones chatted to them to calm them while he made them immortal on huge 8 x 10 negatives.  The process by which he worked is described in my book, and you can learn more about his art in the interesting book: Light and Illusion – The Hollywood Portraits of Ray Jones by Tom Zimmerman.

It was most gratifying for author Zimmerman, and the editor of the book, John Jones, son of the photographer, to learn that among the Hollywood star photos Anne Frank collected and pasted on the wall of her hiding place was a photo of a trio of Universal stars together: Robert Stack, Deanna Durbin and Franchot Tone.  The photo was taken by Ray Jones.  It’s still there.  You can see it if you visit the Anne Frank House & Museum.


Come back next Thursday when we join in The Great Villain Blogathon hosted by those evil villains at Speakeasy, Shadows & Satin, and Silver Screenings blogs.  My contribution will be a look at George Coulouris in Watch on the Rhine (1943).

Posted in Old Movie Blog