WEIRDLAND

Monday, September 01, 2014

Ray Milland in "The Lost Weekend" (Perennial Nostalgia for a Time)

Née Alfred Reginald Truscott-Jones in the Welsh town of Neath, the author went on to become a jockey, seaman and trooper in the Household Cavalry before breaking into films as a trick sharpshooter. Later rescued from a gas station job by Paramount during the Depression, Ray Milland was typecast as a light leading man until he won acclaim and an Oscar for his portrayal of a harrowed alcoholic in quest of a pint. Far from the typical merry stroll down memory lane, the actor's autobiography is as incisively outspoken and wryly humorous as it is intensely personal. Nostalgic evocations of childhood days at Gnoll Hall School are counterbalanced by a feeling of malaise which Milland attributes to contemporary society ("If there is cynicism in me it has been engendered by disillusion. Most of my pedestals stand empty and the world seems filled with predators.") The Hollywood scene --"this glittering pastiche, this Circus Maximus, this lubricious slave market"-- is as wickedly readable as always. Not a lost weekend, nor even a couple of hours. -Kirkus Reviews, 1974

"Most of my pedestals stand empty and the world seems filled with predators, so that I have come to the conclusion that my periennial nostalgia is not for a place but for a time. A time of good manners, of elegance and modesty, of honor and pride and self-respect. Many of these qualities remain with me only faintly, but I remember them and know that if I can recapture and polish then I shall be safe." -"Wide-Eyed in Babyloon: An Autobiography" (1974) by Ray Milland

Mr. Milland's performance in ''The Lost Weekend'' was so compelling that for years, many people confused the actor with the role he had brought to life. It propelled him into the popular folklore as a national symbol of alcoholism. The starkly realistic film, which is still forceful, broke many enduring movie taboos and won an Academy Award as best film; Billy Wilder also won an Oscar for his direction.

Mr. Milland, a 6-foot, 1-inch, sharp-featured, debonair Welshman, portrayed nimble, self-assured characters in more than 120 movies: sophisticated comedies, thrillers, Westerns and horror films. He was widely regarded as one of the most competent and intelligent film actors, one who never gave an inferior performance.

The actor played a noble brother in ''Beau Geste'' (1939), a squid-wrestling ship-salvager in ''Reap the Wild Wind'' (1942), a ghost-chaser in ''The Uninvited'' (1944) and a spy-chaser in ''Ministry of Fear'' (1944). He was an 18th-century Pygmalion-like dandy in ''Kitty'' (1946), a man falsely accused of murder in ''The Big Clock'' (1948), a homicidal husband in ''Dial M for Murder'' (1954) and a self-destructive surgeon in ''The Man With the X-Ray Eyes'' (1963).

Of the actor's towering portrayal of the dipsomaniac Don Birnam in ''The Lost Weekend,'' Bosley Crowther of The New York Times concluded, ''He catches all the ugly nature of a drunk, yet reveals the inner torment and degradation of a respectable man who knows his weakness and shame.''

At the age of 24, Milland had no idea what career to pursue. At a party he met a popular film star, Estelle Brody, who invited him to her studio for lunch. A producer spotted the dashing young man and hired him for a bit part. That led to another role, and another, and the actor, first billed as Spike Milland, appeared in a half-dozen British films. A year later, he was invited to Hollywood, and for the next four years he had featured roles, mostly second leads, in both American and British movies.

In 1934, he won a contract at Paramount Pictures and stayed with the studio for 20 years, free-lancing after that. Mr. Milland's films include ''The Jungle Princess'' (1936), which introduced Dorothy Lamour and her sarong; ''Easy Living'' (1937), a top-drawer screwball comedy; ''The Major and the Minor'' (1942); ''Lady in the Dark'' (1944); ''Golden Earrings,'' an absurd camp favorite (1947); ''Alias Nick Beal'' (1949); ''The Thief'' (1952); ''The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing'' (1955); ''Love Story'' (1970) and ''Oliver's Story'' (1978) - in both as Ryan O'Neal's dour father - and ''The Last Tycoon'' (1976).

In World War II, Mr. Milland entertained Allied troops in the Pacific, sometimes in combat zones. In leisure time, he was a yachtsman, hunter and fisherman who culled wide information from regular reading of the Encyclopedia Britannica. He and his wife of 54 years, the former Muriel Weber, had two children, Daniel and Victoria Francesca. His philosophy on acting, Mr. Milland told an interviewer, was, ''Do what you can with what you've got. I know actors from my generation who sit at home and cry 'Why don't they send me any scripts?' I tell them, 'Because you still think of yourself as a leading man. You're 68, not 28. Face it.'" Source: www.nytimes.com

"The Lost Weekend" (1945) was a breakthrough novel for author Charles Jackson, who based protagonist Don Birnam’s debilitating dipsomaniacal tendencies on his own personal history. 'The Lost Weekend' was a runaway success, and one of the first novels to deal with the ravages of the hardcore boozehound. Within five years it had sold nearly half a million copies, including a Modern Library edition. Walter Winchell praised it as “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin” of alcoholism. Malcolm Lowry’s devastating “terminal drunk” novel 'Under The Volcano' had not yet been published when Jackson’s book hit the bestseller lists, and Charles Bukowski’s “cult of blotto” literary personality was decades in the future.

Billy Wilder’s film adaptation of 'The Lost Weekend' maintained enough fealty to the source material to inspire raves from Charles Jackson. Wilder’s biographer Maurice Zolotow suggests that the great director was inspired to film the book as a way “to explain Raymond Chandler to himself” after the exhausting experience of dealing with the terminally self-destructive Chandler during the making of 'Double Indemnity' (1944). Wilder’s co-writer Charles Brackett later claimed that the scenario was “the easiest script we wrote, thanks to the superb novel.” Wilder agreed, saying that the more they took the book apart, the better it seemed. Wilder and Brackett consulted closely with Jackson, who advised the film’s star Ray Milland on the finer points of a down-and-out drunkard’s behavior.

Milland skimped on food in preparation for the role, giving himself a haggard, beaten-down look. Jackson was, for the most part, extremely pleased with the result of this Brackett-Wilder collaboration. He thought the script’s opening was “brilliant”. The liquor industry was less pleased, however. Several of Wilder’s biographers report that gangster Frank Costello, representing distilleries concerned about negative publicity, offered to pay $5 million to suppress the film. Wilder told a journalist: “If they’d offered me the five million, I would have.”

Played by an adorably spunky Doris Dowling, who’d had an affair with Wilder during filming (later becoming the seventh Mrs. Artie Shaw), the character Gloria is drenched in hepcat jargon, including “ridic” for “ridiculous.” Dowling’s character probably would have appreciated the soundtrack music used for the film’s preview screenings. That upbeat jazz, more appropriate for a screwball comedy, helped leave audiences perplexed by the film. Ultimately it was replaced by Miklos Rozsa’s theremin-dominated score, which was a much more effective counterpoint to Birnam’s grueling bender. Wilder, ably assisted by ace cinematographer John F. Seitz, captured New York street scenes via a hidden camera in a vehicle that followed Ray Milland.

Wilder and Seitz shot footage of Milland prowling for an open Third Avenue pawnshop and haunting Harlem sidewalks, and even gained access to Bellevue Hospital, where Milland spent a night in the psychiatric ward to get a feel for what Birnam went through. Wilder managed to finagle a permit to film in the ward, but only by submitting a completely different scene to Bellevue’s administration than the one he would actually film.

Jackson’s major problem with the film version of his novel was the happier ending that Billy Wilder and his co-writer Charles Brackett tacked on to appease Hays Office censors. The novel concludes with Birnam retreating into his apartment and planning his next binge. The film changes this scenario to Ray Milland pecking away at a typewriter, beginning the novel that presumably will redeem his suffering. Wilder denied that this was necessarily a happy ending, pointing out that writing often ends badly, and that there is virtually limitless potential for misery while slaving away at a typewriter. -Ben Terrall ("Noir City" magazine, Spring 2014)

"The so-called happy ending was not something imposed on me by the studio or by the censors," Wilder said: "When Don promises his girl that he is going to stop drinking, this is not a pat happy ending at all. He says he will try not to drink anymore. The film does not imply that he will never drink again. We end on a note of promise, that he is going to make one more atempt to reform, but that is as far as the picture goes." Billy Wilder concluded: "Don sees the bottle as his worst enemy, but Don Birnam is his own worst enemy." -"Some Like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder" (2010) by Gene D. Phillips

Gloria (Doris Dowling) – While not a femme fatale in the traditional sense, Gloria does play a character that could only be found in a noir of the era – the charming prostitute. While never mentioned explicitly of course (the censors would have a field day) she is seen chatting with her ‘patrons’ – referred to affectionately by her as “an old friend of the folks”. The character of Gloria could have easily been portrayed by Doris Dowling as an embittered, tired, old hooker – but she makes it something else. Not exactly a hooker with a heart of gold, but pretty close (what other hooker would lend money to man who stood them up?). She is seductive and coy from the moment we see her in Nat’s bar. A sheer-black lace blouse reveals a white bustier beneath creating a striking image and forever burn into our mind the character.

Gloria: “I’m just crazy about the back of your hair” - She delivers some of the best lines in the film – a wonderful performance. [In Nat's Bar] Gloria seductively slinks past: ‘Hello Mr. Birnam, happy to have you back with the organisation’

Don [speaking of drinking]: ‘But what does it do to my mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly, I’m above the ordinary. I’m competent, supremely competent. I’m walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I’m one of the great ones. I’m Michelangelo, molding the beard of Moses. I’m Van Gogh, painting pure sunlight. I’m Horowitz, playing the Emperor Concerto. I’m John Barrymore before the movies got him by the throat. I’m Jesse James and his two brothers – all three of ‘em. I’m W. Shakespeare. And out there it’s not Third Avenue any longer – it’s the Nile, Nat, the Nile – and down it moves the barge of Cleopatra’ Source: runningtool.wordpress.com


Don Birnam (Ray Milland), long-time alcoholic, has been "on the wagon" for ten days and seems to be over the worst; but his craving has just become more insidious. Evading a country weekend planned by his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) and girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman), he begins a four-day bender. In flashbacks we see past events, all gone wrong because of the bottle. But this bout looks like being his last... one way or the other.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

"Dark Waters" (Merle Oberon, Franchot Tone), André de Toth Interview


André de Toth: Dark Waters (1944) was my second film in this country—the third actually, but we don’t want to talk about the first one. Alex Korda called me about that picture, so I knew it was some special occasion. He wanted to ask me a favor. I was afraid he might want to borrow money, because he was up and down all the time, but I said, “Sure.” He told me that, although she was his ex-wife, he still wanted the best for Merle Oberon; but he had been offered a project for her that was horrible. He wanted to send me the script, to have me take a look and see what I could do with it.

He proposed that if I would agree to direct the picture, he would let Merle act in it. There were seven producers on the picture, and none of them knew what they were doing. The only professional in the bunch, who was like an eighth producer, was Joan Harrison. They had only a short amount of time to fix this script and prepare this picture because of the financing contracts. Joan had a relationship with John Huston. John always needed money—he was very irresponsible in certain ways—so he agreed to do a rewrite; but he wanted one hundred thousand dollars. The producers were astonished. They had only spent twenty thousand for all the rights and screenplay drafts to that point; and the entire budget was only five or six hundred thousand. “Okay,” he said, “then pay me by the page.” It was an unusual approach, but I thought it was fine; so they agreed.

Of course, John expected that by the time he finished, he would end up making more than one hundred thousand; and he got a substantial advance. So we went forward and started shooting [before the rewrite was done]. As we shot, John and I would get together and discuss which scenes we were going to do next; and somewhere between two hours and two days later, the pages would arrive. And, if I approved them, he got paid. Now as one weekend approached, there was a big day of racing scheduled for Hollywood Park, and John sent in 22 pages. I needed five pages. The next morning, on the way to the track, John was at my door with his hand out. So we compromised on the number of pages, and I paid him.

AS: Of course, film noir is not a term that was in use back then, but how did you characterize this movie at the time?

ADT: It’s very funny that some writers about pictures discovered film noir. I must tell you, I never heard of it until years later. That’s fine, of course. Dark Waters was Gothic. Louisiana was just the right background to suggest that the house in the bayous was a Gothic prison. But that had to come out of the characters, out of the actors in the story not from any vistas of location. There were just a few shots of expanses, the car driving to the house, for example; but mostly I wanted everything to be tight on the people. Because, you know, in any film but especially in a dark film, a film of atmosphere, these pretty pictures of locations are just distracting. A little bit maybe, some real locations, some daylight here and there, so you wonder about it; but not much.

The character that Merle Oberon plays, Leslie, this character had been rescued after being in a lifeboat at sea for two weeks. So I didn’t want the usual glamour look. I wanted her to look as if she had had this ordeal. This was an important story point, she looked tired, worn down, and she was trying to recuperate both physically and mentally. On the first day of shooting with Merle, on the first set-up, I said, “Print” on the first take. It seemed like a good start. Merle turned to me and asked shyly, “Bundy, could I have it once more?”

I always assume that actors are looking for the best performance, so, “Sure. One more.” We did it, “Fine. Print.” Then again from Merle, “May I have one more?” The crew looked at me, and I thought about it, and decided I would honor her requests this first time. We did 40 takes. I discovered that [her boyfriend, cameraman] Lucien Ballard was in a doorway and until he nodded to her, she wanted one more. So after 40 takes, I went over to the camera, opened up the magazine, and pulled out a hundred feet of film. I handed it to her saying, “You wanted this, Merle, take it home with you.” I had no further problems with Merle or Lucien Ballard after that. You know, the line on the set is a fine one. If you lose control on a tight schedule, you’re finished.

AS: How many days did you have to shoot Dark Waters?

ADT: I think it was about 25 days, which was not too short a schedule for that time and that budget. And Lucien Ballard understood what that meant. He wanted to protect Merle but he understood that, for the performance to work, she might have to look awful, like she was exhausted and helpless. And the picture had to be dark.

AS: Did you cast all the other actors?

ADT: Yes, only Merle had been cast when I came on the project. I had seen Elisha Cook, Jr. in a couple of things such as The Maltese Falcon; and he would give me what I needed on screen, a little, pitiful slime. We had two villains really, Mitchell and Cook.

AS: Franchot Tone was a rather unusual hero, rather ominous himself. The first time you see him, after Leslie faints at the train station, is a low angle and he seems almost menacing.

ADT: Tone was one of many people up for the part of the doctor. The producers wanted a happy ending. But I wanted something else. I had to create an atmosphere, like an orchestrator, of anxiety, not just from Cook and Mitchell but also from Tone. I had imagined a final scene of them, [Leslie and the doctor], together somewhere else. She would be at the piano inside, and outside it would be snowing. A band would be playing carols, on the corner a man would be selling chestnuts, and Tone, [the doctor], would be walking home. And on the corner, a little girl and her mother would be buying chestnuts. And suddenly the little girl would run over to Tone, yelling “Daddy, Daddy.”

AS: You never got to shoot that ending, of course.

ADT: No. The producers wanted something safe. So I had to be satisfied with Mitchell. But with Mitchell’s white suit and his attitude, I did get something there, that sense of malaise. Source: senseofcinema.com

Friday, August 29, 2014

Laura's remake by James Ellroy, Sin City sequel

Classic Film Noir "Laura" Will Get The Remake Treatment From James Ellroy: It was only a matter of time before the Hollywood remake factory got their grubby little paws on a bonafide classic. It’s one thing to run films like Robocop and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles through the remake/reboot/sequel mill, but quite another to pounce on an unsuspecting film noir from the 1940s. That’s right: there’s a Laura remake in the works, and someone has got James Ellroy to write the script.

What is Laura, you ask? Sit down, children, and listen. Laura is film noir directed by Otto Preminger and stars Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb and Vincent Price. It centers around the investigation of the death of Laura (Gene Tierney) by a tough-guy detective who begins to fall in love with her – posthumously, of course.

Tales are told of Laura, who she was, and why she died, and a picture slowly begins to build of the woman as told by those who knew her. Laura is a haunting, brilliant film noir, one that has influenced detective filmmaking ever since, up to and including David Lynch’s Twin Peaks TV series. James Ellroy’s presence on the Laura remake project is probably the best thing going for it; the only other piece of information that we have is that Stuart Till (The Tempest) will be executive producing. Granted, we do not know much more about what Ellroy’s take will be, or how he’s approaching the script, but at least he’s a writer that loves and understands what noir is all about. It’s a small conciliation, as I cannot imagine that a Laura remake will be worth anyone’s time.

Stranger things have happened, though. Perhaps Ellroy will provide a fresh view of a classic, or find a new way to adapt Laura‘s literary source material. But there is also a cast to consider, and anyone who has seen Laura must know that a cast like that one is difficult to approximate nowadays. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to see who they can get to fill Gene Tierney’s shoes. Source: wegotthiscovered.com

Lee said, "You want to catch the fight films at the Wiltern tonight? They're showing oldies- Dempsey, Ketchel, Greb. What do you say?" We were sitting at desks across from each other in the University squadroom, manning telephones. The clerical flunkies assigned to the Short case had been given Sunday off, so regular field dicks were doing the drudge work, taking down tips, then writing out slips assessing the tipsters and routing possible follow-ups to the nearest detective division. We'd been at it for an hour without interruption, Kay's "gutless" remark hanging between us. Looking at Lee, I saw that his eyes were just starting to pin, a sign that he was coming on to a fresh Benzie jolt. I said, "I can't." "Why not?" "I've got a date." Lee grinned-twitched. "Yeah? Who with?" I changed the subject. "Did you smooth it out with Kay?" "Yeah, I rented a room for my stuff. The El Nido Hotel, Santa Monica and Wilcox. Nine scoots a week, chump change if it makes her feel good." -"The Black Dahlia" (James Ellroy)

Years have passed. Wrinkles have crept into faces, bodies lowered into graves. Sin City, the stomping ground of evil wrapped in brightly hued darkness, hasn’t changed. We’re back in town, and we know what that means. Death, violent and opaque. Sex, lurid and omnipresent. Men, nursing broken hearts whose fractures spill out demons. Women, sexy deadly and deadly sexy. The world is black and white, the aesthetic of good and evil, brought to us by little men who sit in dark rooms and draw with machines.

Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) doesn’t gamble because it’s not gambling if you’re certain to win. His game is high-stakes poker and Johnny’s betting it all against Senator Roarke (Powers Booth), the baddest man in the baddest town on Earth. Johnny doesn’t gamble with his life because it’s not gambling if you are certain to lose. Dwight (Josh Brolin) snaps pictures, a peeping Tom with a license. His former flame needs his help and he can’t resist, gulping her sweet nothings like one more shot of whiskey.

She’s Ava (Eva Green), lust incarnate, a dame to kill for, her green eyes and red lips potent toxins an invitation one must accept. She needs Dwight to kill her husband, and who’s to say no to a dame in need? Source: wcfcourier.com

Friday, August 22, 2014

Joan Crawford: Glamour & Outsiderism

During the first year after her 1925 arrival at MGM, Joan Crawford's career was workmanlike but not spectacular. However, her special treatment continued. She was given a starring role in the film Sally, Irene, and Mary and small roles in a dozen others. But even with a light resume, publicity man Smith arranged for her to be named one of 1926s Wampas Baby Stars, the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers' list of the dozen most promising newcomers. Among the others were Mary Astor and Fay Wray.

MGM's cautious stance on "talkies" continued into early 1928. During that time MGM turned out some of its finest movies, such as Garbo's Woman of Affairs, Crawford's Our Dancing Daughters, and Lon Chaney horror films like London after Midnight. In 1926 Crawford also caught Paul Bern's eye. Like Barbara LaMarr before her, Crawford became a target of what John Gilbert called Bern's "Mary Magdalene complex; he does things for whores."

Paul Bern sent Crawford gifts like a $10,000 ermine coat and made sure Thalberg became aware of her. He got her bigger films in 1926 and 1927 and more money, raises from $75 to $500 a week. MGM people knew Crawford was sleeping with Bern. In late 1926 Mayer ordered an $18,000 loan for Crawford to purchase a house at 513 Roxbury Drive. Owning their stars' homes gave MGM even more leverage in disagreements, but it was unusual for the studio to do it for a young actress at such an early point in her career.

Joan Crawford momentarily grabbed everyone's attention when she surprisingly married Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. During the previous year she had risen from small roles to marquee status, and as stardom grew so did stories of Crawford and sex. There were rumors the studio "encouraged" the Fairbanks union. Her image needed scrubbing; she had been named in two divorce suits for alienation of affection.

Fans thought the June 3, 1929, marriage made her part of Hollywood's royal family, but Fairbanks was on the outs with parents Doug and Mary. At the time an old rumor raged through Hollywood that Crawford had starred in a pornographic movie made in New York when she was called Billie Cassin. Harry Rapf heard the story soon after he met her and it had enough credence that he engaged MGM's local offices to search for copies. Eddie Mannix took charge of the project, and according to Maurice Rapf, son of Harry, the studio later had to buy the negative. Fairbanks told friends that during his Paris honeymoon he tried to find a copy. The Fairbanks story ran in Confidential magazine, an early tabloid.

When Crawford eventually left MGM in 1943 she paid the studio $50,000, which was extremely unusual. She was obviously paying back something. The only real evidence that the film did not exist is that a copy never turned up publicly. Her sexual antics were a problem for Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling during her entire career. She had lovers of both sexes and slept with virtually all of her costars and had a long affair with Tallulah Bankhead that began in New York and lasted into the late 1930s, through marriages to Fairbanks and Franchot Tone. In an interesting coincidence, Bankhead also had affairs with Fairbanks and Tone. When Tallulah met Joan Crawford and Doug Fairbanks Jr. Tallulah said to Joan, "Darling you're divine. I've had an affair with your husband and you're going to be next."

Mayer never liked Bankhead. When he called her into his office in 1932 to fire her, she told him she was "done with MGM. I slept with your six biggest stars." She told a mortified Mayer that Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck were among the half dozen. During a dinner party later in her career Crawford told Mayer that Bankhead was telling the truth. Joan’s bisexuality was also confirmed by Adela Rogers St. Johns, Ruth Waterbury, Hedda Hopper, and others. -"The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling and the MGM Publicity Machine" (2004) by E.J. Fleming

Joan Crawford reminded Larry J. Quirk (author of Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography) that she played heterosexual characters with which the general public could more easily identify. Quirk pointed out that while the characters she played may have been heterosexual, they were often outsiders from the wrong side of the tracks. “They were looked down upon by girls from the middle class, girls who laughed at the cheap clothing and perfume” —as Joan had herself been laughed at by the girls of her youth.

“Outsiderism takes many forms, but it does help create a kind of identification. That’s what gays are identifying with, in many of your movies. Being out of the mainstream but fighting for happiness in spite of it.” Despite her friendship with William Haines and his long-time partner, Joan wondered if gays were generally as romantic as all that. “Think of all the kids,” Quirk told Joan, “who come to big towns like New York to get away from small-town prejudices and meanness. They get off at Grand Central or the Port Authority Bus Terminal. They are raw, fearful, roughly defensive, just like the vulnerable girls in your earlier movies. They weather the comeons of predatory older men, they bond in mutually supportive friendships with others like them —just as your girls did—

they meet Mr. Right, they love him and lose him, and so on.” Joan agreed that many of her films had a gay-identification element to them, but more importantly, Quirk noted, they reflected the universal verities of the human condition. -"Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography" (2002) by Lawrence J. Quirk and William Schoell


Paid (1930) directed by Sam Wood, starring  Joan Crawford and Robert Armstrong. The role of Mary Turner was initially given to Norma Shearer, however when she found out she was pregnant, her husband, Irving Thalberg wouldn't allow her to do another film until after the baby was born. It was Norma Shearer's 'delicate condition' that opened the door for Joan.


Joan Crawford and Walter Huston give powerful performances in this drama "Rain" (1932) directed by Lewis Milestone. Controversial for its time, the film tells the story of prostitute Sadie Thompson and the lustful preacher who tries to 'save her' when their ship makes an unscheduled stop over on the South Sea island of Pago Pago.


Joan Crawford "Always The Star" 1996 Documentary uploaded by The Concluding Chapter of Crawford www.theconcludingchapterofcrawford.com

Thursday, August 21, 2014

How Franchot Tone Directed – and Lived – Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’

“We shall find peace. We shall hear angels, we shall see the sky sparkling with diamonds.” -Anton Chekhov

This summer marks the 110th anniversary of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov’s death (he died July 15, 1904), and the 115th anniversary of the debut of the play Uncle Vanya, one of his most popular works. One of the greatest authors and dramatists, Chekhov loathed despotism and liars. His traumas arose from a materially deprived and stern youth rife with paternal abuse and financial misfortune through which he witnessed first-hand how random vicissitudes could so suddenly finish someone’s life. This became an obsession that would characterize Chekhov’s search for purpose through literature. “Medicine is my lawful wife,” he once said, “and literature is my mistress.”

Uncle Vanya, which premiered by the Moscow Art Theatre in 1899, was first adapted for the screen in an American translation in 1957 by a bravely committed Franchot Tone, whose fourth wife Dolores Dorn played Elena Andreevna in the film. Tone invested his savings, $250,000, in this complicated production which he co-directed with John Goetz. Tone’s aim was to replicate his Obie-winning 1956 Off-Broadway performance of Uncle Vanya, bringing the same cast to the screen (except for Signe Hasso who had played Elena on stage).

Sadly, the film disappeared for 53 years, finally released on DVD in June 2011. Despite Tone’s disappointment over the lukewarm reception of Uncle Vanya when the film opened at the Baronet Theater in New York, his fascination with Chekhov’s classic drama about a country doctor’s unrequited love would make a notable difference in his career. Variety magazine qualified it “probably the best work Tone has ever done.” The Village Voice in 1958 termed Tone’s performance “highly intelligent and sympathetic, maybe the best thing he’s ever done,” and The Age newspaper affirmed that Tone’s film represented a “painstakingly accurate translation,” “a literal photograph of a stage play,” and “undistilled Chekhov.” Ironically, Chekhov (unlike Dostoyevsky) considered most of his plays disguised comedies, and Tone’s character Dr. Mikhail Lvovich Astroff was actually the playwright himself. Tone thought of Uncle Vanya as “Chekhov’s best comedy.”

However, The Age‘s critic Nigel Jackson called Chekhov “the supreme master of disappointment in European literature.” That special blend of failed dreams, ordinary sadness, and comedic stoicism defined Chekhov’s fulminant vision: “Haven’t you noticed if you are riding through a dark wood at night and see a little light shining ahead, how you forget your fatigue and the darkness?” Dr. Astroff asks Sofia (Peggy McCay) hopefully. That final impulse to accept bitter truths and simply to keep going is displayed in the last Act by the splendid Peggy McCay. Her character has been in love with Dr. Astroff for a long time and she learns she’s not his ideal woman. George Voskovec in the title role (Voinitsky/Uncle Vanya) is equally excellent, particularly in his most desperate moments. This central character has served Professor Serebriakoff (Clarence Derwent) all his life and now feels emotionally drained and betrayed, his spirit devastated in the face of his impossible love for Serebriakoff’s wife Elena.

Having said that, this is Franchot Tone’s film, especially because Tone connects to Chekhov’s and Astroff’s high level, not only in his astounding characterization, but also in a deeper personal sense. Although Laurence Olivier famously played Dr. Astroff (along with Michael Redgrave as Vanya) in a later film version (1963) and Olivier was beyond brilliant, Tone’s heartfelt rendition hits harder and more lastingly. What lay behind Tone’s long-standing infatuation with Uncle Vanya? Chekhov’s outlook on relationships and Tone’s crumbled marriages share a nexus through the character of Dr. Astroff, who, as the play’s philosopher, observes in Act I that new generations of people forget the great achievements of the past, and that life is “a senseless, dirty business, and goes heavily.” Yet he also remarks in a contradictory speech that “I feel that if mankind is happy a thousand years from now I will have been a little bit responsible for their happiness.”

Similarly, Franchot Tone expressed in 1936: “I’m optimistic enough to believe the perfect state actually exists somewhere. We’ll have universal plenty in a few hundred years, only I won’t be here to see it… You can’t tell me that sometime I won’t find a Pitcairn’s Island. No taxes, no money, no politics. I’ve dreamed about a place like that since I was old enough to read Sir Thomas More.” A similar wounded idealism is reflected in Astroff’s tirade of disenchantment: “Everyone about here is silly, and after living with them for two or three years one grows silly oneself. It is inevitable. Yes, I am as silly as the rest, nurse, but not as stupid. Thank God, my brain is not addled yet, though my feelings have grown numb.” Franchot Tone often felt the same alienation in Hollywood’s star factory. In Act III Astroff deplores the increasing destruction of wildlife, “an unmistakable picture of gradual decay,” as a metaphor for an untenable future in store for a neglectful mankind. Astroff relates how his sentiments have become dead to the world, how he no longer loves anyone. This numbness is tantamount to a kind of anesthesia, and he gets his “feelings back again” only when one of his patients dies. Astroff confesses: “I was tortured so much by my conscience I felt that I’d deliberately killed him.”

We could argue that Astroff, at the instant of “killing” (accidentally) an anesthetized patient, is trying to eliminate his own anesthetized self in order to feel something again, albeit a feeling of guilt. The occasionally destructive fights between Tone and his wives (starting with his physical and verbal abuse of Joan Crawford) indicate how the actor may have seen himself reflected in Astroff’s (and by extention Chekhov’s) anguished soliloquies. Uncle Vanya‘s characters are trapped in their insufficient existences and harbor permanent resentment towards those around them, blaming each other for their shortcomings, at some moments utterly drowned in their narcissisms. Tone was frequently resentful during his seven years as a contract player at MGM, usually pigeonholed as blasé gentleman.
In Act III Sofia says that her father’s provincial state is going to “rack and ruin” and describes Elena’s idleness as “infectious.” More ominously, in Act IV Astroff casts Elena as a harbinger of disaster, precipitating the ruin of both the household and the forests. In addition, Astroff is stubbornly convinced of Elena’s desire for him, although she appears terribly bored by his oratory. Astroff passionately kisses Elena and she momentarily relents, but untimely Vanya catches them in the act. This scene is profoundly erotic in the film because of the natural chemistry between Tone and his then wife Dolores Dorn who, despite lacking Signe Hasso’s gravity, is very effective in her role, so much so that she was to win “Best Actress” at the San Francisco Film Festival.

Chekhov had been a bit of a philanderer and was labeled “Russia’s most elusive literary bachelor” from his favoring of liaisons with prostitutes. In 1901 he had married Olga Knipper, a young actress whom he had first met at rehearsals for The Seagull and who would act in his plays regularly. During the winters Olga stayed in Moscow alone. Anton Chekhov died in 1904 of tuberculosis. Franchot Tone would die of lung cancer in 1968. Astroff’s fixation on beautiful women (“I am not capable of loving any one, I only love beauty”) mirrors exactly Chekhov’s, and, by the same token, Tone loved feminine beauty in almost a purist way, pursuing Barbara Payton despite her mental instability. Likewise, in the film Astroff ignores his responsibilities towards his sick patients and his duty to replant trees. Instead, he begins to drink heavily as he plans to seduce Elena.

Dolores Dorn reminisces in her autobiographical Letter from a Hollywood Starlet (2013) how in Tone’s pronounced alcoholism (exacerbated by his incapability of finding a distributor for Uncle Vanya in Europe) he succumbed to enraged reproaches and accusations of infidelity against her, almost veering into a Jekyll/Hyde duality. When not affected by ebriety, Tone was an impeccably charming partner and friend, and what struck me the most about Dolores’ memoirs was the depiction of Tone’s nervous breakdown when he didn’t manage to find any alternative to overcome his art’s helplessness. Vanya talks about art too, corrosively denouncing Professor Serebriakoff’s hypocrisy: “You write about art, but you don’t understand the first thing about art. All those works of yours which I once loved so much are not worth a penny.”

In America, Chekhov’s importance increased with the implantation of Stanislavski’s system of acting and its notion of subtext: “Chekhov often expressed his thought not in speeches but in pauses,” wrote Stanislavski. The Group Theatre (co-founded by Franchot Tone) developed specifically the subtextual approach to drama, influencing generations of American actors and playwrights such as Stella Adler and Clifford Odets, and among them Franchot Tone’s lifelong friends the theater pioneers Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg.

Uncle Vanya takes place during a vatic and memorable autumn day. The malaise and the purity of our dreams are both all there, conjured by Chekhov, Vanya, and Franchot Tone. Summer will pass and we won’t escape the arrival of autumn. Article first published as How Franchot Tone Directed – and Lived – Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’ on Blogcritics.


Clip from "Uncle Vanya" (1957)