Monday, February 24, 2014

A Portrait of Elegance: Deborah Kerr in Retrospect

I just realized that I have done a number of posts with that most fabulous British actress, Miss Deborah Kerr. I think I've sufficiently expressed my deep admiration of her flawless beauty, her characteristic wit and charm, and most importantly, her incredible scope as an actress. She truly elevated the level of some of her films to pure art, which is a rare thing indeed but a sure indicator of a star. And Miss Kerr, for being properly beautiful at all times, was also a great, great star. After all, you don't become beloved and written about by me unless you truly are... the best. David O. Selznik once said that there are only two classes, first class and no class. Miss Deborah Kerr was certainly first class. It has been pure pleasure re-watching her most famous roles in her most famous films and sharing my love of those films with you. Below are links to all the posts about Deborah Kerr I've written in the last month and in the history of the blog. Enjoy!












"I respect anyone who has to fight and howl for his decency"
-Deborah Kerr

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Deborah Kerr Portrait in "Colonel Blimp"

I will never forget the first time I saw Deborah Kerr in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. I guess I should say the three times I saw her in that film because, of course, she plays three separate female characters who dominate, or at least fascinate, the life of the titular Colonel, John Candy (Roger Livesey). Colonel Blimp was the first of "the Archers'" films that I had ever seen, on recommendation from a good friend of mine. I, of course, loved the film, and later watched a number of Powell and Presserburg's incredible cinematic masterpieces. But, probably because Colonel Blimp was the first of their films that I saw, it served as the benchmark and constant comparison of their work. After all, it has all the aspects that I (among many others) view as the hallmarks of their work: an impressive British cast, lush cinematography, an original story, and some fairly moving and provocative themes.
Before I return to the lovely Miss Kerr, I want to talk about the film in general. One of the reasons that I love Powell and Presserburg's films so much is because of the artistic effort that they obviously put into their productions. The films, besides having wonderful plots, are visually stunning (and I'm talking across the board here). But Colonel Blimp is wonderful on a more historic note. It was released in 1943, in the midst of the Second World War, and deals largely with nationalistic themes or, at least, what is behind nationalistic themes. The main character, John Candy, is a high-ranking, long-serving British military man, the epitome of the established Empire. If you are wondering where the "Blimp" comes in, it is based on a cartoon series of the same name by David Low, which satired the elderly British military class, personified by the bumbling Colonel Blimp in his Turkish Bath.
The fantastic tapestry title sequence
Candy meets Edith for the first time in Berlin
While (to return to the film), Candy is no bumbling fool, the beginning and the end of the film ends with direct homages to the film's cartoon inspiration. But, even if Candy isn't a fool, it doesn't make him a genius. The film, which centers on the British military life between the Boer War and the Second World War, is all about some Brit's inability to adapt their mentalities and strategies to modern warfare against a modern agent of evil, the Nazis. Candy's great moment of recognition comes when he finally realizes that the "old ways" can no longer continue and he proudly salutes a young Home Guard regiment, representing the "New Order." Of course, this feeling was not felt by everyone in Britain and, in fact, Churchill (who was perceived by the Archers as a believer in the "Old Order") wanted the film removed from theaters. The Life and Death part of the title, therefore, suggests the periods of vibrancy and death of mentalities.
The three faces of Deborah: Edith
Barbara
Johnnie
Still, Colonel Blimp is, of course, about the titular Colonel. Besides, its sweeping historic overtures, it also centers on his infatuation with a young woman, Edith (Kerr), he first meets in Berlin towards the end of the 19th century. Edith becomes his ideal and his succeeding relationships with other women are shaped by his view of Edith. In fact, Kerr plays Candy's eventual wife, Barbara, and later his driver during WWII, Johnnie. I don't know whether it is established, but I always wonder whether only Candy sees Barbara and Johnnie as physically similar to Edith or whether they actually have a remarkable resemblance. I think that it is the latter because of action that goes on later in the film, but, regardless, the fact that the one ideal woman shapes his life is a major part of the film. Interestingly enough, at the time Powell was having an affair with Deborah Kerr, so most certainly, the idea of her ideal beauty must have resonated with him!

Because he loves a woman, I'm sure you won't be surprised that his love shows itself in... what else but a portrait! Barbara, his wife, eventually dies tragically young, and Candy hangs it in his den, of sorts, with all his "stuff" from his Big Game expeditions. It can be assumed that Candy sits in his room and simply reflects on the woman who was the love of his life (and I'm leaving it up to you to decide whether that's Edith or Barbara). This is Art of Film 101: the painting of the dead love reminds the lover of his deceased. She continues to shape his life, even beyond the grave. The painting is the reminder of the presence of the ghosts of Edith and of Barbara. In one way, it also represents Candy's obsessive love for Edith, a love which shapes his future interactions with other women. After all, Candy selects Johnnie as his driver simply because she physically reminds him of an old flame. Because Candy is not a tragic hero, there is not tragic undertones of his continued relationship with his wife, it serves merely a superficial reminder. This painting reminds me ever-so-slightly of the Carlotta portrait in Vertigo, excluding of course, the tragic elements of dark mystery.
(detail)
It is a lovely portrait, graceful and very evocative of the society portraits of the '20s and '30s. While it is not the most remarkable likeness of Deborah Kerr ever, it is still a very pretty portrait of her. I have to be honest, while Edith may have had the most character out of the Kerr/Blimp girls, I certainly thought that Barbara was the most lovely and graceful (the most Miss Deborah) and therefore, I'm very glad she got the portrait. Her character just makes a better sitter. Unfortunately, I do know who painted it. I do know that W. Percy Day (the matte artist for Black Narcissus among other films) also worked for Colonel Blimp. He was an established fine artist, but I honestly do not think that he painted the portrait. It simply does not look like his style. It is very possible that one of his assistants in his art department painted over a photograph or painted the picture themselves. Either way, it is certainly very graceful, very lovely... so, very Deborah Kerr. Of note, the portrait also appears in The League of Gentlemen (also  starring Livesey) almost 20 years later.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Moving Pictures: All "TIME" Classic Stars Portraits

For this Sunday, I thought I'd do a nice little post about portraiture. Midterms are coming up, so it is difficult to handle much more than that. My inspiration today was, of all thing, TIME magazine. Over the years, appearances on TIME's covers have become synonymous with fame. You know you've made it, if you have made it on TIME.
Ginger Rogers
August 10, 1939
by Peter Stackpole

Deborah Kerr
February 10, 1947
by Boris Chaliapin 
From a historical view, it is interesting to see what public figures have graced the covers when. It really speaks to the important matters of the day. And public figures, of course, include the stars. So from a cinematic-historic perspective, it is interesting to see when certain stars had reached such heights of fame that a newsmagazine considers their stardom newsworthy.
Elizabeth Taylor
August 22, 1949
by Boris Chaliapin 

Rita Hayworth
November 10, 1941
by George Petty
While I love TIME magazine today, I can't help but miss the classic covers of the 30's, 40's, and part of the 50's. The iconic red border, offset by the white center. I think it is such an iconic look. In many cases, especially in feature stories about people, TIME engaged portrait artists to paint the cover of the magazine. Which is really, rather fabulous if you think about. It is the definition of accessible art, and I really do think that these covers are art. And when I say that, I mean it. I even have a few hanging up in my room!
Lucille Ball
May 26, 1952
by John Engstead
TIME has been published since 1923 and it has always been noticed for its considerable coverage of individuals. After all, individuals do shape history. TIME's coverage of individuals has included the coverage of both political figures and celebrities. Obviously, their cover of celebrities during the "Golden Age" of Hollywood makes this post possible.  While it was criticized early on for this "light" coverage, obviously its success speaks of the viability of their concept. Their covers have almost been around as much as the magazine and are just as successful.
Katharine Hepburn
September 1, 1952
by Boris Chaliapin 

Rosalind Russell
March 30, 1953
by Boris Chaliapin 
While TIME's cover art varied (some are photographs, some are paintings) most are paintings by one artist in particular, Boris Chaliapin, whose career was basically the creation of these covers. He obviously had a remarkable ability to recreate likeness and his pieces are truly works of art. My favorites, at least of this crowd, have to be Deborah Kerr and Grace Kelly. Part of the reason is because I love Deborah Kerr and Grace Kelly. But, more than that, I feel like Chaliapin did a remarkable job of showing their likeness, their spirit, and more importantly, the public perception that people wanted to see. For instance, Grace is the gorgeously perfect American star. With the sun reflecting on her hair, doesn't she seem to be an angel looking happily down on us? Deborah Kerr is no less beautiful, but she is perceived (and painted) as the gentle, genteel lady. Interestingly enough, in the early 40s, when that cover was released, that was Kerr's Hollywood image; it was the image that Americans recognized because studio heads in America were giving her all the "lady" roles. Later, she would get some more interesting roles to sink her teeth in (like From Here to Eternity), but that was not even considered at the time, and thus her cover does not reflect the easygoing beauty that she is now associated with.
Audrey Hepburn
September 7, 1953
by Boris Chaliapin 
Grace Kelly
January 31, 1955
by Boris Chaliapin 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Happy Valentines Day! Revisit to "An Affair to Remember"

An Affair to Remember
One of my favorite scenes from my favorite romance film.
Happy Valentine's Day, my lovelies! I just finished watching An Affair to Remember and I'm very proud of myself... I didn't cry this time. But, I won't deceive you, there were moments where I was certainly very filled up. And I know it is very Sleepless in Seattle of me, but I was mouthing the dialogue by the end of the film I'd seen it so many times. Not that there's anything wrong with that of course.
It was the nearest thing to heaven...
"The Art of Film" was there...
I truly do love An Affair to Remember. It is such a wonderful love story starring such incredible screen talents, Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. And more than that, it is a visual delight, with its rich "De Luxe Color" that is just better than regular color. It's also a film in which a painting plays a decisive role, which makes me love it all the more. I've included my post on An Affair to Remember here. I'm sure you won't be surprised, considering my love of the film, that it is one of my best, earliest posts. Enjoy!

Ava Gardner Statue in "One Touch of Venus"

In the annals of beautiful actresses, Ava Gardner stands out of the crowd. Maybe it was because she had an inner beauty of spirit that matched her physical beauty. And she was absolutely ravishing, wasn't she? It's those easy, effortless lovely qualities that you fall in love with so easily and she possessed them all. It's my love of her beauty to which I devote my post today on Valentine's Day, the day glorifying all love.
Ava Gardner as Venus
One Touch of Venus (Universal, 1948)
Now, just as a quick note, while I always watch the movies I write about, I have never seen One Touch of Venus. But, not only is Venus the Roman goddess of love; not only is it a wonderful romantic comedy; not only is Ava Gardner absolutely beautiful; but the statue in it is so perfect that I couldn't wait until I had the time to see the film. So, I'm going to rely on my internet summaries and some cursory research. But, seriously, you have to agree, how great it is that Ava Gardner, a woman of "mythic beauty" should literally play the personification of love.

One Touch of Venus (1948) is a musical romantic-comedy which was adapted from a stage play of the same name. Of note, the famous comedic poet Ogden Nash co-wrote the book of the Broadway play. Not only does it star the beautiful Ava Gardner as the titular Venus, but Robert Walker (of Strangers on a Train fame) also co-stars. The film is about a window-dresser (Walker) who falls in love with a department store's beautiful statue of Venus that magically comes to life for him. Comedy, confusion, and romance ensues and the film ends with the window dresser getting a girl, not the girl (but she's pretty darn close).
Nicolosi and Gardner near the finished product
So obviously, the statue in the film plays a very large role. In fact, it plays the main role. Therefore, Universal spared no expense and sent Ava to famous sculptor Joseph Nicolosi. Famously, Nicolosi ,as he was sculpting this Greco-Roman muse complained how her bikini messed up the natural line of her body and Ava, after a couple of drinks, just consented and posed topless for him. Not surprisingly, Nicolosi was very pleased with his effort and thoroughly enjoyed the modeling sessions.
Of course, the result certainly befit the goddess of eroticism, but perhaps not the feel-good Hollywood musical of the '50s, and the Studio bosses and producers were shocked with what they saw. Nicolosi was forced to make his goddess a little more age-appropriate (though, I have to say, it still is a little racy).
Model and Statue
Later, the Universal publicity department decided that they were going to create small models to give to members of the press and media as promotional items. The art department created a tiny model but sent it to Ava for approval first. According to an account by publicist Bob Rains in the biography Ava Gardner: "Love is Nothing" by Lee Server,

"She looked it over and laughed. She said, 'That's not my figure.' And then, with a cute smile on her face, she pinched off some clay from the chest area and stuck it to the rear end. She smoothed it on with her finger and made the fanny bigger. She said, "That's more like my ass.'" (Server, 155)
Ava in a publicity shot gazing at a copy of
the famous classical statue, Venus de Milo:
She got nothing on you, Ava.
I mean, how great is that? It just shows Ava's beloved "what the hell" attitude, but also her sweetness and humor. No wonder Sinatra loved her so much...  And speaking of my love of Ava and my love of the art of film, I hope on this Valentine's Day, I hope you can spend it with someone you love. Or at least a rom-com that you love: Affair to Remember, here I come.

Sources:
Server, Lee. Ava Gardner: "Love is Nothing." New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2006.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Dramatic Mattes of "Black Narcissus"

One of the loveliest talents that has graced the screen in the last century was the immortal Deborah Kerr. Kerr did, eventually, receive an honorary Oscar, (but you know how I feel about that). During her long and fruitful career, this incredible lady was never honored properly for the incredible roles that she played on the screen, though she was nominated six times. She was the Lady with a capital "L" that you fell in love with because she had those intangible qualities such as her easy grace, simple beauty, and sharp wit that were so special. Like many film lovers, I fell in love with Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember, when she played beautifully tragic Terry McKay opposite Cary Grant's Nicky. But I truly appreciated her artistic scope after watching Black Narcissus (1947).
That dramatic "bell-ringing" angle in Black Narcissus (1947)
Black Narcissus was the creative effort of the famed British film-making collaborators Powell and. Pressburger, often known by their creative nickname "the Archers." The Archers wrote and directed some of the greatest films of the 1940s. I watched a few of their films a few years ago for the first time and was just struck by how deeply beautiful some of these films were. But, by far, my favorite is Black Narcissus: the deeply emotionally-turbulent drama about a group of nuns attempting to establish a school and convent in the high Himalayas, where even the steeliest virtue is under constant attack from the social, cultural, and even physical conditions of the land. With its innovative use of color and the bold internal tensions that beset the characters, many critics consider Black Narcissus to be one of the finest and earliest examples of eroticism in film.
Those magnificent mountains in the background which set off drama so
realistically, but once again, artistically. 

Powell and Pressburger's artistic geniuses are truly evident in this film. It is a film of constant conflict and they used the setting masterfully to juxtapose to the immediate conflict of the nuns with their environment. With their heavy, plain, white robes, the nuns look like they belong in Medieval Europe, certainly not in modern South Asia. They are immediately in conflict with the physical setting preparing the audience for the subtler internal conflicts that will follow.
The alluringly virtuous Sr. Clodagh (Deborah Kerr)
No character is more in opposition to the setting than the main character, Sister Clodagh played by Deborah Kerr. Her character's steely virtue cannot hide Kerr's natural beauty. Move over Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn because, I'm sorry,  no nun has ever been lovelier than Deborah Kerr. With her easy British grace and firm, but gentle leadership, the whole time you are watching the film you can't help but think how out of place she is in the rugged and wild high Himalayas. But of course, that's the point. She is under attack from all fronts, and the drama is to see how successful she will be.

Sr Ruth (Kathleen Byron) ringing the bells: Before and After

The setting is essential for establishing this atmosphere of conflict and juxtaposition. Shockingly, of course, the set is merely a lot of movie magic. The entire film was shot on Pinewood Studios in Britain, not in Southeast Asia. Which means, of course, that the sets were the work of an artistic genius. I mean, so many of the scenes are so stunningly beautiful and magnificent, it is hard to believe that the film is not shot on location. Which is the magic of matte design, of course.
W. Percy Day
self portrait
The genius responsible for these mattes is one of the great names in film-effects history, Walter Percy "Pop" Day. Day is often considered one of the originators of the use of the "modern" matte painting (shooting in front of a black screen and adding the backdrop in later) and certainly one of the masters. In fact, he trained a number of the premier matte painters that followed him, including his stepson, Peter Ellenshaw, who worked with him on Black Narcissus. Ellenshaw spoke incredibly highly of his mentor and considered him one of his own personal and artistic guiding influences, even though they had a falling out eventually. Day was a pioneer in film's visual special effects, a masterful worker, and a truly talented artist. His mastery comes out in works like Black Narcissus, a film which did, actually, receive the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for the brilliant color photography, which worked because of the brilliant mattes. (I know I said I was going to do anti-Oscars posts, but I don't care, Black Narcissus is too good).
That final dramatic scene- breathtaking beautiful... and contrived

See, it is people like "Pop" Day who are the true artists in film, not the actors. Oh, don't get me wrong, I started this post as a tribute to Deborah Kerr, but I realized half-way through that without Day's terrifically lovely mattes behind her, Kerr's performance would lose some of its flair and some of its magnitude. That's the true power of art in film- when a film is less without the art. One of the reasons people love Black Narcissus is because it is a visual delight. And indeed, it is. But, especially in the 1940s, visual delights didn't come easy or quick, and we have to thank and pay tribute to those who made those breathtaking moments possible.
As for Miss Kerr, don't worry about her- I have another post planned just about her to make it all better. If you are on the East Coast, reader, stay safe in the snow and maybe catch up on your "Art of Film" reading!


Sources
"Matte Shot" Blog
http://nzpetesmatteshot.blogspot.com/2011/07/walter-percy-day-master-of-matte.html

"Ellenshaw Exhibit" on TCM Blog
http://fan.tcm.com/_The-Ellenshaw-Exhibit-Adventures-and-Exotic-Lands/blog/3295677/66470.html

Friday, February 7, 2014

Moving Pictures: Judy Garland in "Alone"

Last year, around this time of year, I believe I mentioned how I don't really place too much value on the Academy Awards. There have been too many flukes over the years and too many great talents and great performances ignored. The fact that some of my favorites actors and actresses are continuously ignored by the Academy drives me absolutely insane. Consider the fact that Alfred Hitchcock only won one Oscar (for Rebecca in 1940). And, while honorary Oscars are nice, often it is too little, too late. So, I'm going to oppose every other film blogger this month by writing about those who have been ignored by the Academy. And who better to start than Judy Garland?
Alone (Capitol Records,1957) detail 
I absolutely love Judy Garland. She was certainly one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century. Her vocal prowess and acting ability is only overshadowed by the magnificent scope of tragedy she endured during her life. Judy was certainly a victim of the studio system: addicted to pills and completely dependent on the opinions of others, she forces us to consider the price of true stardom. Because, despite all her problems, she was undeniably a STAR. But she was a star that the Academy ignored. For all my love of Grace Kelly, I cannot forgive the Academy for screwing Judy over in 1954 by passing over her performance in A Star is Born. But, I digress.
Judy singing "The Man that Got Away"
My favorite song from A Star is Born (1954)
I mentioned the tragedy of Judy Garland. I feel that despite all the love that her fans felt for her, all her popularity, she was incredibly sad and lonely. Which is one of the reasons that I love her 1957 album "Alone" (released by Capitol Records). It is an excellent selection of songs (sad, but excellent). But more importantly, it has an absolutely beautiful album cover. It is the gorgeous picture of Judy, looking very melancholy, standing all alone in the fog. It is poignant and so true to her. I feel that it reflects her own feelings about herself and that is fantastic. It captures her essence: her loneliness, her tentative nature, but most of all, her effortless beauty and elegance.
Alone (Capitol Records, 1957)
by Alex de Paola
I don't know much about the photograph, but I believe it was done by a photographer named Alex de Paola. I could be wrong, and if I am, please correct me. I really enjoy the photo and think that it is such a beautiful and fitting tribute to Judy.
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