If I had to put it in a nutshell, I’d probably go anaphylaxic. Let’s just say that 2007 is not exactly shaping up to be My Favorite Year (even though it’s looking promising for Academy Award-nominated Peter O’Toole). Spent rurally secluded without phone and internet (still only tentatively restored), slipping off a ladder during an attempt at high-stalks gardening, and seeing my first teaching stint here in Wales come to an unceremonious if not altogether surprisingly abrupt end (considering that I started off well by forgetting to show up for my first class), the past three weeks had about as many highlights as Roy Orbison’s hair seen through a pair of his shades . . .
Speaking of hair (because I could not come up with a smoother transition and it sure is time to move on): today, 8 February, marks the birthday of one of the best-tressed stars of Hollywood’s studio era: Ms. Lana Turner (who died back in 1995). Now, Lana was truly an appalling actress; but that is just what makes star vehicles like Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959) such fascinating studies of the Lana persona and the studio system in its declining years. By that time, Lana had not only negotiated a flexible Universal International contract, giving her approval of script, co-star, and director, but set up her own production company, Lanturn (which produced a single film). As she (or someone writing on her behalf) expressed it in an issue of Britain’s New Film Show Annual, Lana experienced “freedom for the first time” since she started to work in motion pictures back in the 1930s and was looking forward to the joy of being her “own boss.”
Lana never came across as a career woman, even though she looked like a gal who could take care of herself. In Imitation, she succeeds in portraying a selfish, out-of-touch actress desperate to become a star precisely by failing to connect to any of her fellow actors, some of whom—Susan Kohner foremost—were moving toward the 1960s by challenging the conventions of earlier cinematic emoting with a realism of which Lana was incapable. Playing for the camera rather than interacting with those who shared the screen with her, she was most convincing at playing self-centered and greedy broads, calculating characters toward whom the audience could rarely warm. In turn, this edge rendered her exciting even when her acting lacked the lustre of her bleached curls.
Not that her one-on-ones with the public were dramatically superior; on the radio, her shortcomings as an actress became particularly noticeable, the mike serving as a microscope under which the falsehood and superficiality of a performance are laid bare. Prime examples are Lana’s tepid line deliveries as the narrator of “Fear Paints a Picture” (3 May 1945) and “The Flame Blue Glove” (15 December 1949), plays produced by CBS radio’s award-winning thriller anthology Suspense. Rather better is her performance in “Doughnut Girl” (4 December 1944), a bit of Cavalcade of America propaganda, in which a vain and spoiled young woman encounters the hardship of serving as Red Cross nurse in the war theater of New Guinea and the boys who act in it. I believed her to be vain and spoiled, but remain suspicious of her transformation.
Tonight, in anticipation of the slushy destiny of the snow presently coating most of Wales (an anomaly for this temperate region), I am making my pilgrimage to the TechnicoLourdes that is 1950s event cinema and commemorate Ms. Turner’s career by immersing myself in The Rains of Ranchipur (1955), a soggy rather than steamy romance-cum-disaster movie co-starring turban-topped Richard Burton, one of Tinseltown’s most memorable Welsh imports. Once again, Lana is the pampered, self-absorbed anti-heroine whose chance at redemption is suggested rather than acted out. When her character makes her exit after having proven as devastating and fleeting as the titular weather phenomenon, Lana slightly adjusts her blonde coif, brushing aside any sense of character development with a single gesture.
Were I not experiencing a pop-cultural drought—or a tremendous thirst, at any rate—I might not have been caught in The Rains at all; these days, however, I don’t open the umbrella of distinction quite so readily, letting come down on me whatever UK television channels deign to pour out. I don’t mind such indiscriminate dousings, as long as I can take refuge now and again in the vault of our DVD library, which is more representative of my cinematic tastes. To account for times thus passed (in the absence of any other prominent markers of distinction), I am now putting together a list of all the films I am watching this year (see right). Some of the titles, listed chronologically in the order of my viewings, will link to relevant pages on this site or those maintained by fellow web journalists.
In the days to come, I am going to share my thoughts on some of the films I have taken in—from Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse thrillers to Mitchell Leisen’s extravagant Lady in the Dark, with the obligatory references to old-time radio drama and the occasional connections to my private everyday and the world beyond.