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About christinawehner

I am a writer, editor and blogger about old movies, books, music, life, birds, my cat, ideas, almost anything

Ethel Barrymore in “The Spiral Staircase”

The Spiral Staircase (1946) is a tense post-WWII thriller that manages to both thrill and also explore the results of the belief that some people are stronger or better than others.

Post-WWII people were appalled at the widespread eugenics practiced by Nazis, culminating in the nearly unimaginable horror of the Holocaust. What made it so unsettling, however, is that such beliefs in eugenics had been embraced, though less aggressively, by many other countries and people. For me, Ethel Barrymore’s character embodies this position perfectly in The Spiral Staircase.

The story is an old dark house thriller. Someone is murdering women with disabilities in a small town set in the early 1900s (when cars and horses briefly shared the road). Helen (Dorothy McGuire), is a servant at the Warren mansion, on the outskirts of town, who has been unable to speak ever since witnessing her parents burned alive in their home (PTSD was another concern for post-WWII audiences). Everyone is concerned that she will be the next target and insists she stay safely inside the house. Except that the killer turns out to be one of the people inside the house.

It’s a stormy night, people come and go, but eventually it seems as if one-by-one the killer is neutralizing everyone until there is only Helen and the killer.

Ethel Barrymore plays Mrs. Warren, the owner of the house. She is the second wife of the now deceased Mr. Warren, a dynamic man’s man who despised weakness and only admired strength: physical endurance, the ability to hunt and shoot, etc. Mrs. Warren lives in the house with her step-son (George Brent) and her own son (Gordon Oliver), but agrees with her late husband that they are both “weaklings.”

She herself is a dynamic character, though now bedridden and with her mind wondering. But she remains fixed on one idea the entire night: the need to get Helen out of the house or to hide Helen, because she knows that the evil is within the house, not outside it, as everyone else supposes.

(Spoilers) I think what I admire about Ethel Barrymore’s performance is that she really doesn’t try to make her character sympathetic, though she does want to save (and ultimately does save) Helen. She’s wily and cunning, demanding, querulous and openly disdainful of people she despises. She also share’s her late husband’s views about strength and weakness, though she would never take it so far as to actually murder anyone. She is even appalled by murder.

Ethel Barrymore and Dorothy McGuire

But she’s also complicit in the crimes. She believed the murderer was her son (as opposed to her step-son) and could not bring herself to denounce him. As a result, the murders went on. She only finally musters the strength of will to shoot (somewhat like you shoot a mad dog) the killer when she realizes that it is not her son.

(End Spoilers)  The the sheer power of Ethel Barrymore’s personality suggests what Mr. Warren must have been like…and what it would have been like to live in a house with two such people.

Power, I think, is the word for Ethel Barrymore in the film. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a man being stronger-willed then her…though her character clearly idealizes the late Mr. Warren as a man of power. But despite being bed ridden and with a wondering mind, she can suggest what Mrs. Warren would have been like when well. And one can see how her step-son and son might have been warped by it.

This post is part of “The Third Annual Barrymore Blogathon,” hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. The rest of the posts about the three Barrymore’s can be found here.

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2017 in Movies

 

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The Lodger (1927)

Ever since reading FictonFan’s and Silverscreening’s reviews of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger, I have been doubly curious to see the film, which is also my contribution to Coffee, Classics, & Craziness’ “The Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon 2017.” It was the third film that Alfred Hitchcock directed, but is the one that he considered essentially his first film, the first to be recognizably Hitchcockian.

The Lodger is one of many film and stage adaptations of the novel by Marie Belloc Loundes, published in 1911 and inspired by the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888. Hitchcock’s film, however, appears to be set in 1927, though there is a definite gaslight and Gothic ethos. Ivor Novello, who plays the mysterious lodger, would have made a fantastic Dracula, actually.

The film opens with a silent scream.

Neil Brand, who wrote the contemporary score for the version I saw, has the orchestra scream along with the image. The scream reminded me of Hitchcock’s later close-up image of Janet Leigh screaming in the shower in Psycho. The beginning of The Lodger is really excellent and demonstrates Hitchcock’s visual skill, which requires minimal inter titles to explain the action. A blonde girl (Hitchcock already demonstrating his preference for blonds) has been murdered. There is one witness, who says she saw a tall man with a scarf wrapped around the lower half of his face. We see the police, the curious spectators, the ghoulish interest, the press, everything in a rapid fire of images (including a brief glimpse of Hitchcock). We also see a sign for a show called “Golden Curls.” The image of the sign will show up mockingly throughout the film.

The story then shifts to Mrs. Bunting (Marie Ault), her husband (Arthur Chesney), their daughter Daisy (June Tripp…who has golden curls), and the boyfriend/policeman Joe (Malcolm Keen). Joe and Daisy flirt with a heart-shaped cookie cutter and some dough, once again demonstrating Hitchcock’s flair for visual storytelling. Into this tranquil and domestic scene comes…the Lodger! Who looks like Dracula, or at the very least his cousin.

played by Ivor Novello

Would you let this man rent a room in your house?

The lodger is definitely a strange young man, who doesn’t like pictures of women with golden curls in his room and has a habit of looking tormented by some inner turmoil. Not to mention pacing restlessly in his room, which is shown with a glass floor that shows him walking while the Buntings look up at the ceiling, the visuals of his footsteps almost making us “hear” the sound of his footsteps that the Buntings actually hear. When the lodger’s not looking creepy, he looks like Lord Byron, all sensitivity and anguish.

Hurting him would be like hurting a puppy

The tension in the film comes from Mrs. Bunting and her husband beginning to suspect that their lodger is the mysterious killer after he sneaked out at night and was gone during the time when another golden-curled woman was murdered. Their anxiety is heightened when he shows a strong interest in Daisy, who does not see anything wrong in the lodger’s behavior. Joe, on the other hand, grows increasingly jealous.

It’s quite an exciting, atmospheric film and really shows Hitchcock’s ability to create tension visually rather than via words, as well as hitting on a number of themes that he would explore later. And if you have never seen it, I would definitely recommend watching it before reading the spoilers section below.

(Spoilers) I have to admit that I knew the surprise ending before coming into the film, that the lodger is actually, incontrovertibly innocent (unlike Laird Cregar’s lodger in the 1944 film), but I was curious how it would play out. The lodger’s innocence had a rather odd affect, I thought, somewhat like the affect of Hitchcock’s later Suspicion, though far less egregious. It makes Ivor Novello’s performance both sinister and romantic, which makes him a creepy lover. At one moment, he is stalking Daisy to her job as a model and buying her the dress she was modeling (it’s obvious that he’s a well-off young man, socially far above Daisy) and another moment gazing soulfully into her eyes like a young man with bad case of puppy love. In fact, the second part of the film feels more like a romance than a mystery or thriller.

I also have to admit that my view of the characters is somewhat colored by the fact that about two-thirds of the way through the movie, my sister labeled the two romantic leads as “pretty ninnies.” This is partly because the plot is not consistent. If he’s innocent, why didn’t he go to the police? Why did he run? Why is she standing by him, even though she knows nothing about it. They do not behave rationally. But they certainly look pretty while their doing it…especially Novello.

still looking mysterious

It is interesting to note that never again would Hitchcock have a woman place such unreasoning faith in a man for no reason. In The 39 Steps, Madeleine Carroll initially tries to turn Robert Donat in, Eva Marie Saint “helps” Cary Grant because she’s really working for the villain, Grace Kelly is simply turned on by the fact that she believes Cary Grant is a criminal in To Catch a Thief, and in Sabateur Priscilla Lane also initially tries to turn Robert Cummings in.

Regarding the ending, however, I’ve noticed that there is a theory floating around on the internet about another possible interpretation of the end of the film, which jives with my own impressions. Perhaps he really is the killer after all! Hitchcock originally meant to have the ending be ambiguous, but when Ivor Novello was cast, he was forced to change the script so that the leading man (rather like Cary Grant in Suspicion) would be innocent. But quite a few questions go unanswered. Like who killed the lodger’s sister and why? His sister was the first victim, but she died in the middle of a ballroom when the lights are turned off. Whoever killed her had to be someone in upper class society. But her murder doesn’t fit with all the other murders that come after, which seem to be happening in the street. Which makes one wonder if the lodger really killed his sister and went on a mad spree afterwards, until he saw Daisy, who perhaps reminded him of his sister.

It’s just a theory, but it seems odd that Hitchcock would make the lodger’s mansion look so creepy and Gothic. I half expected him to greet Daisy and her parents by saying, “I am…Dracula.” And then when they embrace, we can see the sign “To Night – Golden Curls” blinking in the background. Is it meant to be portentous of what is to come? Evidently, Neil Brand, the composer, thought so because as the lodger and Daisy embrace, the music grows gradually more ominous. Hmm.

His victims, waiting for Dracula to appear

Dracula welcomes his victims

Why is the sign “To Night Golden Curls” blinking in the background? Is that meant to be ironic or prophetic?

This post is my contribution to “The Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon 2017.” Be sure to check out the other posts, which can be found here.

 

 
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Posted by on August 13, 2017 in Movies

 

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A Winter’s Tale (2014) – The Royal Ballet

So, this year has been a strange year for me, movie-wise. I went nuts at the beginning of the year for ballet and Japanese cinema. That’s almost all I’ve been watching; it’s becoming an obsession. I’ve been trying to watch live recordings of ballets, too. The Royal Ballet, The Bolshoi, Opéra national de Paris, any recordings I can find. I raided my library for all the ballets they possessed and began streaming them from Amazon, but what really got me going was when I purchased from Amazon The Royal Ballet Box Collection, which contains 22 different ballets of varying length. It’s been an absolute bonanza and I have been having to pace myself so I don’t watch all 22 in one month.

One of the things it has made me realize is that, unlike opera, ballet is still very much going strong, with new and successful productions of original ballets, as well as reinterpretations of classic ballets and traditional interpretations. One such original ballet is “A Winter’s Tale”, adapted from Shakespeare’s play of the same name. The choreography is provided by Christopher Wheeldon, one of the most successful contemporary choreographers of ballet, and the music by Joby Talbot, a successful British composer.

The story of the ballet follows that of the play, though somewhat trimmed. Leontes (Edward Watson) is king of Sicily, who suddenly and unaccountably takes it into his head that his wife, Hermione (Laura Cuthbertson), is having an affair with his best friend, Polixenes (Federico Boneli), king of Bohemia. He banishes the friend and puts his wife on trial, which results in his wife dying, his son dying, and his rejection of their baby girl, who he believes is not really his child. The baby girl is abandoned, but fortunately rescued and raised by a shepherd.

The next act is considerably lighter in tone, choreography and color. It is mostly a party, with the shepherds dancing and Leontes daughter, Perdita (Sarah Lamb), now grown, becoming engaged to the son of Polixenes, Florizel (Steven McRae), though neither knows of the other’s identity. When Polixenes discovers that his son wants to marry the daughter of a shepherd, he is furious and Perdita and Florizel flee to Sicily, where, in the next act, all is revealed, along with one big surprise.

I’ve recently been thinking about the similarities between ballet and silent films (and recently learned at Movies Silently that dancing and ballet and silent films actually have a long and close history): they both can employ pantomime, both use the physical body to express emotion or tell a story, both require music, and both feature people of remarkable physical ability (think of Fairbanks or Chaplin and many others).

What was interesting is how much a plot-heavy ballet, like the first act of “A Winter’s Tale” reminds me of a silent movie. Especially because Wheeldon’s choreography is further from traditional ballet and employs many modern dancing elements. It is not as “leapy” as classic ballet. And traditional ballets, like “Sleeping Beauty” or “Swan Lake” generally have microscopic plots that set up banquets or balls or weddings or birthday parties so that massed groups of people can be present to dance. There is not actually that much plot to further. But there is more in “A Winter’s Tale,” which means that characters have to interact and communicate more using pantomime and dance. Leontes has to use dance to communicate his growing jealousy, which is presented like a creeping sickness of mind and body.

The second act, on the other hand, is more traditional. We have our mass of people dancing, simply to celebrate rather than to specifically advance a plot point, and we get a romantic pas de deux (essentially a dance that is a duo). It is more free and open, less restrained, to match the less claustrophobic atmosphere of the outside. The Sicilian court, on the other hand, is grim.

It’s marvelous to see how ballet has changed. In musicals, it has been said that the song and dance must advance the plot. That is harder to do in ballet because a good part of the reason people watch ballet is for the sheer beauty of the dance, but it still needs a plot to give the dances emotional resonance (usually, though there are many plot-less and beautiful ballets) and it is fascinating how modern ballets have also adapted so that increasingly the dance is integrated into the story. I have occasionally read complaints about certain ballets that they do not contain enough dance (or enough pas de deux), so it seems like a tricky line to walk so that the performance does not become a highly skilled pantomime show, but remains dance. I think “Winter’s Tale” succeeds very well, however. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching it and highly recommend it to all lovers of the ballet.

This post is my second contribution to “En Pointe: The Ballet Blogathon,” hosted by myself and the wonderful Michaela, Be sure to read all the other posts, all of which have been marvelous.

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2017 in Movies

 

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