Friday 8 May 2020

On French TV - John Baxter reconnects with Vincente Minnelli's THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (USA, 1952)

Vincente Minnelli

Director Robert Parrish was one of the more amiable American film people in London during the eighties. We met when I put together a retrospective of John Ford for the National Film Theatre. Though Parrish worked often for Ford as actor and editor, he could never, he confessed, bring himself to call him “Pappy”. “Even when I formed my lips to say the word, it just wouldn’t come out.” 
      Parrish also edited Robert Rossen’s 1947 Body and Soul for the short-lived independent Enterprise Pictures, financed mostly by that film’s star, John Garfield. Enterprise prided itself on a work ethic that, for the time and by Hollywood standards, was almost socialist. I’d heard of some fringe benefits: profit sharing, for example, and free life insurance, but Parrish was more enthusiastic about others. “There was coffee and doughnuts twenty-four hours a day They even washed your car!.” 
      Doughnuts and a free car-wash didn’t exactly fit the fan-magazine view of movie making. Traditionally, anyone associated with Hollywood was a deity who walked, metaphorically at least, on rose petals. Such people would not even recognise a doughnut, let alone eat one.

This idealised vision of the film business should have dissipated by now in a blizzard of tell-all biographies and what Avant-Garde magazine gleefully called “pants-down profiles and turn-‘em-over-in-their-grave obituaries.” Yet recent productions such as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, La La Land and Netflix’s new and, from the early episodes, vapid series Hollywood suggest we still prefer the rose-coloured view to, say, the chilly monochrome account of making Casablancain Tamas Yvan Topolanszky’s Curtiz.
         One director who conserved this vision was Vincente Minnelli, and from among his films one would single out his 1952 The Bad and the Beautiful. I’ve seen it scores of times, and can recite most of its dialogue from memory, but it took only a few minutes of its presentation last week on French TV to ensnare me all over again.
         Tribute to a Bad Man, the magazine story that inspired the film (and provided its working title, later reassigned to a James Cagney western), took place on Broadway but screenwriter Charles Schnee moved the characters to California and created a roman a clef of movie legendsJonathan Shields, heir to a film-making dynasty (David O. Selznick?)  admires hard-living movie star George Lorrison (John Barrymore?) who lived in a mansion called Crows Nest (Rudolph Valentino’s Falcon Lair?) He makes a star of Lorrison’s wastrel daughter Georgia (various actresses passim) but in his ruthless ambition betrays her, as well as his director friend Fred Amiel (numerous candidates) and southern writer James Lee Bartlow (William Faulkner?). 

Lana Turner, The Bad and The Beautiful
Kirk Douglas’s Shields and Barry Sullivan’s Amiel transform a trashy project, The Doom of the Cat Men, by leaving the monsters to the imagination,as Val Lewton did with Cat People,and Shields meets his comeuppance with a Civil War epic suggestive of Selznick’s Gone With the Wind.  Ivan Triesault plays a Teutonic director, perhaps inspired by Erich von Stroheim but more likely Fritz Lang, and Leo G. Carroll is a surrogate Alfred Hitchcock. Gilbert Roland as Victor “Gaucho” Rivera is conceivably a parody of Fernando Lamas, lover at the time of the film’s star Lana Turner. An assistant director, addressed as “Tibby”, is the unique example of someone who actually works in films. He’s played by T.E.B.“Tibby” Clarke, writer of The Lavender Hill Mob. Perhaps he wandered onto the set in search of the men’s room. 
Barrie Sullivan, Lana Turner, Dick Powell,
The Bad and the Beautiful
The Bad and the Beautiful depicts film-making as sacred, sacramental, and the actors and technicians less as collaborators than co-religionists. Its most seductive episodes resemble acts of worship. A crane shot begins on Georgia sitting by the bed of the dying Rivera, floats past a rapt cast and crew watching the scene and on into the dark at the top of the sound stage where technicians watch in silent delight. Another starts with Jonathan’s discovery of Georgia dead drunk the night before shooting his epic. Carrying her through a moonlit garden, he pauses for a moment, the twoa profane pieta, and, as the camera pulls back to reveal he’s standing at the edge of a swimming pool. As he drops her into the water, David Raksin’s music, interrupted on the way to an ecstatic climax, halts mid-bar with a bump. 


"a profane pieta.." Lana Turner, Kirk Douglas
The Bad and The Beautiful

Everything builds to the film’s final image. Georgia, Fred and James Lee refuse to work with Jonathan again and leave studio boss Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) to give him the bad news. However, in his outer office they pause and, in silent collusion, pick up the phone to eavesdrop. We don’t need to hear Shields. In fact Minnelli cut a scene showing him in his hotel room describing his project. Instead the camera moves in to frame the trio, no longer individuals but Jonathan’s creatures, subject to a collective will; the will of Hollywood. As is often the case when it comes to films, the French got it right. They changed the title to Les Ensorcel├ęs – The Bewitched. 

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