Every time I see Max Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman, a pristine piece of storytelling clockwork, I’m reminded of the greatness of Joan Fontaine’s central performance. It’s perfectly balanced, incredibly detailed and heartbreaking in its uncompromising depiction of a woman who devotes her life to a true love who barely registers her existence over all the years that have passed since their paths first crossed. Wrapped up in immaculate design and gleaming cinematography is a tale of aching, ultimately defeated love, a tragedy of disconnect between a woman’s conception of her encounter with a charming concert pianist, and his inability to tell her apart from the roster of other random women he has seduced and discarded. This film is so painful I can hardly bear to look it in the eye again. And it’s all because Joan Fontaine achieved the near-impossible task of playing a character who makes a series of spectacularly poor judgment calls and still remains sympathetic (although a number of my undergraduates annually pin her down with the label “stalker”). I could make similarly glowing comments about her performances in Rebecca, Suspicion and Jane Eyre, in all of which her characters struggle to find their individuality in the shadows of controlling men (even as Suspicion (no spoilers) makes play with exactly this archetypal partnership).
This blog has seen more than its fair share of monstery movie posters, but it’s Jack Arnold’s (1916 – 1992) birthday today, or at least it was when I wrote this, and still is (just!) in some places far West of here. Anyway, it’s a flimsy excuse to liven up my blog with a batch of posters and images from some of Arnold’s best known films like Tarantula, Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Man. The sensational imagery and hyperbole of the marketing campaigns is matched in the films themselves not by a similarly one-note gigantism, but with a considered delivery of that premise. Well, maybe not Tarantula, which is about a massive spider, but The Incredible Shrinking Man is quite a mournful, agonising account of the effects on its protagonist of an ongoing process of ensmallening (it’s a perfectly cromulent word). Plus, it has one of the most extraordinary, unforgettable endings in all science fiction cinema, which I won’t reveal here.
Initially an actor, Arnold’s career path was diverted when he enlisted in the Air Corps after Pearl Harbor:
As luck would have it they sent me to join a unit that was making a film produced and directed by Robert Flaherty. Now Flaherty was a kind of idol of mine so I decided to tell him the truth. I went up to this giant of an Irishman and said, look, I’ve got something to tell you–I’m an actor, not a cameraman. But I told him that I thought I would be able to handle the job. And I guessed he liked the fact that I had told him the truth instead of trying to fake my way through it and he kept me on.
After I got out of the Air Force a buddy of mine who had been in my squadron said, let’s go into business together. So we started a documentary film company. We made a number of documentaries over the years – for the State Department, the Ford Motor Company and so on, and we won some prizes. Then I made a film for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union called These Hands. It was a feature spanning fifty years of the union which was good enough to be released theatrically, and it got very good reviews. I was even nominated for an Academy Award which brought me to the attention of Hollywood. Universal gave me a contract with them as a director and I started working for them in 1950.
It seems customary around the internet to mark in some way the occasion of a blog’s anniversary. I’m not sure how this came to be a custom, but I’m happy to observe it here. Today is the second anniversary of the establishment of Spectacular Attractions on WordPress, and I’m in much better shape than I was on this day last year. I am,though, as I was a year ago today, on a plane, this time on my way to the Philippines, so I’ve prepared this post in advance. By the time it appears on the blog, I will be bleary-eyed and sleepless on a long haul flight, trying to concentrate on a book and ignore the in-flight movies. This might leave Spectacular Attractions a bit quiet for a couple of weeks, but I’ve scheduled a few bits and pieces to post in my absence, including Pictures of the Week, and a final podcast to be released next Tuesday.
When I return, I’ll be straight back into a full teaching term, but I’m planning to make some changes around here. This may include a migration to WordPress.org, which will give me greater control over the formatting and appearance of these pages, and make it easier to host podcasts and other materials that should, in turn, make it easier for you to find stuff here. As nice as I think the site looks right now, it is a bit “busy”, so I may experiment with a more stripped-down style to save your eyes from too many blazing colours. I’m always open to suggestions, and I’m looking forward to refining the site, which was always a work-in-progress anyway.
Oh, do I need to shoehorn in some reference to the above picture? It’s really just an excuse for a picture of Clara Bow, and it’s time for a Wild Party or something. Thankyou for your continued support. I draw so much joy and inspiration from reading other people’s movie blogs, and I hope I’ve contributed something in return over the past twelve months.
Stop-motion animation maestro Ray Harryhausen turns 90 years old today. One of the most important exponents of stop-motion animation and its integration with live-action footage, Harryhausen has more than earned the retirement from the industry he has enjoyed since 1981’s Clash of the Titans. His menagerie of mythical beasts, living statues, warrior skeletons and alien invaders set the gold standard for special effects animation: inspired by, but undoubtedly building upon, the work of Willis O’Brien(who mentored him on Mighty Joe Young), Harryhausen’s creatures were endowed with a distinctive inner life that manifest itself in nuanced mannerisms or full thespian emoting. These miniature models were made to give fully rounded performances that invariably overshadowed the lunky performances of their human costars. A relentless populist with a boyish imagination, you could tell that he was driven by a desire to bring his mind-load of beasts into full-colour motion as directly as possible.
I once had the pleasure of meeting Harryhausen at a book signing. Arriving a little late, I was shocked to find him alone next to a pile of books and DVDs. Where were the legions of geeks? Could it be that his appeal had not filtered down to younger generations who hadn’t grown up marvelling at Saturday afternoon Sinbads and Bank Holiday Argonauts? My own affection for Harryhausen’s work had taken me by surprise when I welled up at the sight of one of the Jason and the Argonauts skeletons at a public talk he gave during the Animated Exeter festival a few years back. So, that should tell you something about the level of critical distance I’m able to take here. Anyway, I had a little chat with Ray and asked him to sign my copy of his book, and my old VHS of Jason. “Is this your favourite of my films?” he asked me. A bit sheepishly, I replied: “I have a bit of a soft spot for Earth vs the Flying Saucers.” Perhaps because he was hard of hearing, and I soft of speaking, he asked me to repeat myself, and in the middle of a quiet city-centre Waterstones I found myself loudly declaiming my appreciation of the 1956 alien invasion epic for which he supplied peerless animation and compositing in scenes of gleeful mass destruction. Since I plan to spend my autumn years shouting at people in bookshops, it was good to get some practice in, and to shake the hand of a man whose films still provide a little corrective every time my cinematic diet gets a bit too dark and heavy.
Happy Birthday, Ray Harryhausen. My humblest of gifts is a slideshow and gallery of some images and posters that should remind you of some of his achievements. View the slides above or click on any image below for a larger view:
In a shocking break from convention, I present a second Picture of the Week, for the simple reason that Simone Simon, the unforgettable star ofCat People, was born 100 years ago today (she died in Paris in 2005). She definitely deserves a post all to herself.
Legendary child star Shirley Temple celebrates her 82nd birthday today. Spectacular Attractions wishes her well on her special day. Temple delighted audiences in the 1930s with a series of preternaturally assured performances. She sang, danced, toddled and merchandised her way into the nation’s hearts. Audience polls in Motion Picture Herald named her the biggest star every year from 1935 to 1938; her famous tightly curled hair was modeled on America’s previous sweetheart, Mary Pickford; she was signed for her first screen contract in January 1932, when she was still only three years old; she appears no fewer than three times on the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; her first screen appearances were in the Baby Burlesks series of one reelers, which saw little kids acting out parodies of grown-up movies – her first was in The Runt Page, a terribly-punned tribute to The Front Page; in 1935 she received a special miniature Oscar statuette in recognition of her achievements the previous year. Almost inevitably, her popularity waned as she grew up, and she retired from movies in 1950. By the time she appeared in John Ford’s Fort Apache in 1948, she was quite phenomenally pretty, but without the infancy that had previously separated her from the crowd. She became politically active in the Republican Party, and served as a US ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia.
She shares her birthday with actor and White House staffer Kal Penn, Japanese composer Kenji Kawai, action star Lee Majors, director Frank Borzage, Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov (I’m saying nothing), and the world’s most prolific screenwriter, William Shakespeare.
It is exactly one year to the day since Spectacular Attractions settled into its home on WordPress. In that time, its readership has grown steadily, and I’ve had a great time adding regular entries and reading comments from visitors. I look forward to continuing in the same spirit.
You may have noticed that Spectacular Attractions has been uncharacteristically quiet for a long time. Some of this was expected: attending a dear friend’s wedding in upstate New York, my partner and I decided to make a full holiday of it, stopping for most of the time with some of her superhumanly accommodating relatives in New Jersey, but also taking a few nights in Manhattan for good measure. However, towards the end I was admitted to hospital with stomach pains that turned out to be a ruptured appendix, then readmitted the following week to treat a resulting infection. After two weeks of drugs, drips, tubes and needles, I’m writing this from a comfortable hotel room, waiting for collection to take us to the airport for a flight home to the UK.
I can’t wait to get back to full fitness and clear my in-tray so that I can give this blog some care and attention. Normal service will be resumed shortly…