Indiscreet is Lost in the 1950s



Directed by Stanley Donen

Warner Brothers, 100 minutes, not rated.




It would be safe to say that 1950s values were not like those of today. We don’t expect movies made earlier than World War Two to reflect current sensibilities, but the Fifties are a challenge if, for no other reason, a lot of people remember them. You are left with two choices: You can either go with what you see on the screen without judgement, or smugly congratulate yourself for having left those values behind. In the case of gender expectations such as we see on display in Indiscreet, my vote goes for smugness. This Cary Grant/Ingrid Bergman vehicle is a Model T in a Maserati world.


Indiscreet was the first time that Grant and Bergman acted together since Notorious in 1946, but whereas the latter Alfred Hitchcock film is considered a classic, the 1958 Stanley Donen-directed flick now seems classically bad. Renowned London stage actress Anna Kalman (Bergman) is searching for Mr. Right. She meets economist Philip Adams (Grant), who is attracted to her, and she’s over the moon. Yet despite their chemistry, Philip is a distressing combination of romantic wooing and ghosting. Anna’s friend Margaret “Megs” Jenkins (Doris Banks) is wary of that pattern. When Philip subsequently tells Anna he’s married but estranged from his wife, Megs advises Anna to retreat with all haste. Because this is a romantic comedy, that’s the last thing she’s likely to do!


Anna imagines herself a worldly, mature woman capable of just enjoying the moment. That is, until Philip tells her that he’s being transferred to NATO in New York City for five months and will be mostly incommunicado. (It’s 1958, so no email, Skype, or Zoom, and overseas phone calls were both unreliable and wicked expensive.) Things get even more dicey when Anna tells an old friend Alfred (Cecil Parker) that she plans to surprise Philip by sailing to New York to see him. Alfred spills the beans that Philip is a confirmed bachelor who has never been married.


There’s a now arcane proverb that goes: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Anna responds with a bit of subterfuge of her own. She pretends that everything is fine, but plots to lure Philip to her apartment where a former boyfriend David will pretend to be her current flame. At the last minute, though, David can’t make it, so she asks her elderly building superintendent Carl (David Kossoff) to hide in her bedroom, open the door when Philip arrives, quickly peek into the room, then retreat behind closed doors. Think that will work? Think Philip will see the folly of his ways and propose?


From the vantage point of 1958, Anna’s desperation to corral a husband was in keeping with social expectations. Sixty-five years later it looks sappier than sugaring season in Vermont. Still, there’s a disconnect in having our two principals looking outwardly sophisticated while inhabiting roles more appropriate for younger actors. It was one thing for Bergman to play a lovestruck young woman in Casablanca when she was 27, but it’s weird to crawl back into such a role at 43. The part she plays–and I swear her Swedish accent had grown thicker–would have been more appropriate for ingenue types such as Doris Day or Audrey Hepburn. One might also think that the 54-year-old Grant would be well cast as a cad, but too long in the tooth to be convincing as a fraternity boy-style seducer. To be clear, I’m not saying that older actors shouldn’t be cast as romantic leads, but I am suggesting that we should see at least some connections between their accomplished careers and their past unrequited affairs. On screen, though, Philip is a wolf on the prowl and Anna his she-wolf shadow, the difference being that he wants to mate and she wants a mate. At times it felt cruel to laugh. Imagine Bergman and Grant reduced to emotional cripples.


Perhaps, though, I over-intellectualize. It might be enough simply to say that this is a dumb movie whose major virtue is that it looks good in Technicolor.


Rob Weir




Shrines of Gaiety a Complex Mystery



By Kate Atkinson

Doubleday, 397 pages.





Shrines of Gaiety is fiction, but it’s based on Kate “Ma” Meyrick, a real-life 1920s London nightclub owner. Depending on who tells the story, Meyrick was either the slightly crooked “Night Club Queen” (her nickname), or was the Queen of Racketeers. Kate Atkinson uses Meyrick as her role model for Nellie “Ma” Coker, who definitely tilts to the more serious end of the transgression spectrum.  


The novel opens in 1926, when Ma has just gotten out of jail for a relatively minor offense–to the cheers of the hoi polloi and the chagrin of Detective Chief Inspector John Frobisher. He suspects Ma is connected to the disappearance of numerous young women, including several who were fished from the Thames. Ma runs five nightclubs that Frobisher is certain are also brothels, and she rules the roost of a presumed felonious  brood of offspring: Niven, Edith, Betty, Shirley, Ramsay, and Kitty. Each except Niven runs one of the clubs, though both Betty and Shirley went to Cambridge and leave the heavy lifting to others. Frobisher wants the Cokers permanently out of commission, but it’s not easy to nab her when untold numbers of the police are on the take.


Enter Gwendolen Kelling, a former librarian in York, who is down to London on behalf of a friend with whom she served during World War One. Gwen is seeking  two 14-year-old girls, Freda and Florence, who ran away from home with visions of becoming stage actresses. Shrines of Gaiety is filled with unorthodox characters. For instance, Ramsay Coker thinks he will become a famous writer; after all, he has just read Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and he knows about crime, so how hard can it be? A strange man named Azzopardi senses that a stretch in the pen has left Ma tired and weak, and he can force her to sell her clubs to him. There is Sgt. Oakes, who is dubbed the “Laughing Policeman,” but is his an expression of jollity or a nefarious cackle? Quite a few individuals are nervous about the Curse of King Tut, whose tomb Howard Carter opened in 1922, and was subsequently blamed for all manner of suspicious deaths thereafter. Perhaps not even Gwen is above suspicion. She is initially attracted to Frobisher, but he’s so awkward that she thinks maybe Niven is a better catch. So can Frobisher trust her as she promises to go “undercover” to get the goods on Ma? Ma herself is a conundrum. Has she really so shaken by her time in jail that she has soured on a life of crime, or is she as wily as a fox with a stiletto? There’s even a deranged wife, á la Jane Eyre.


There’s a bit of everything in Shrines of Gaiety–drugs, illicit homosexuality (very illegal in those days), punch-ups, Jazz Age parties, fortunetelling, a club shoot-out, a nosy boarding house matron, a pawned broach, gambling, a fire, secret lovers, an unresolved guilt trip, a possible ghost, wanton cruelty, miscalculations, financial shenanigans, assumed identities (and motives), and enough double crosses to lay down railroad tracks. Don’t be sure that you know who most wants the House of Coker to fall. Definitely don’t assume you know who knows what! 


If you conclude from all of this that Shrines of Gaiety is not your paint-by-the-numbers murder mystery, you are absolutely right. In many ways it’s one giant moral dilemma for characters working out how they will satisfy ambition, desire, love, and honor. Atkinson refreshingly empowers female characters by giving them greater senses of self than their male counterparts. Frobisher is the putative investigator, but he’s nebbish and anything but intuitive. Gwen, by contrast, is a proto-feminist.


Atkinson offers a fascinating dissection of England between World War One and World War Two, a period that saw a decline in aristocratic power. In a roundabout way Ma Coker embodies a democratization of society, even if some of it veered toward vice.  


There are a lot of characters–it’s not a bad idea to make yourself a cheat sheet–and the plot is labyrinthine. Shrines of Gaiety resolves, but Atkinson won’t take you there in a straight line. My only real criticism is that the novel doesn’t end so much as provide a hodgepodge afterword that’s heavy on flash-forward disclosures.


Rob Weir


Silence is Golden: Buster Keaton, Rudolph Valentino & Gloria Swanson

 Is silence golden? For the early days of cinema, the answer is decidedly yes. It might strike modern movie-goers as odd to watch a film without sound, but watching classic films from the silent era makes you observe how actors communicated without any words other than the occasional intertitle, the term for placards bearing words that advance the plot. Here are two to try.





Directed by Charles Reisner and Buster Keaton

United Artists, 71 minutes, not rated.


Many have claimed that only Charlie Chaplin was a more brilliant physical comedian than Buster Keaton. Steamboat Bill, Jr. gives you the best of both, as co-director Charles Reisner was one Chaplin’s favorite collaborators. It’s also unusual in being a movie named for a 1911 hit song.


Captain William Canfield (Ernest Torrence) operates the Stonewall Jackson somewhere in the Deep South. You’d need a telescope to see the glory days of his tatterdemalion tub. When local banker J. J. King (Tom McGuire) launches his spanking new paddle wheeler, customers gravitate to it and King can’t help but gloat and make fun of the Stonewall Jackson. When Canfield gets a telegram from his son whom he hasn’t  seen in many years, he holds out hope that maybe Junior can help him get back in the river game. Canfield Sr. heads to the rail station and searches for a burly man such as himself. Imagine his disappointment when a nerdy, uke-carrying, beret-wearing fop steps off the train, oh-too-well-mannered from his years living in Boston.


Job one is to make a man out of this pencil-necked geek. Job two is to get his mind off King’s daughter, Kitty (Marion Bryon), which should be easy since J.J. King doesn’t want him within a country mile of Kitty. But Kitty is also “modern” and is smitten with Bill, Jr. All of this is a setup for a comedy of errors–Junior’s inappropriate riverboat costume, his even less appropriate piloting skills, his awkward courting skills, papa’s assault on King, a botched jail break–but the “plot” of all Keaton films are excuses for acrobatic comedy, some so dangerous that a few critics speculated that Keaton was suicidal. (Keaton never used stuntmen, but there’s no evidence he wished to harm himself.) Audiences of the day liked comedies mixed with romance, so you can count on Keaton to come through in the end, rescue an erstwhile enemy and his daughter, and win the “girl,” as they were called back then.


There are some astonishing stunts in this film that demonstrate why Keaton’s star shone so brightly in the silent era. Alas, this film also marked Keaton’s fall from grace. It was his last movie for United Artists, which really was a non-commercial coalition of actors in its inception. Keaton went on to bigger paychecks at MGM, but lost creative control over his films. Steamboat Bill, Jr. is now considered one of his best movies, but it was a box office bomb. But here’s a legacy: It inspired an animated film called Steamboat Willie, which was the first film for a character who didn’t yet have a name: Mickey Mouse.  





Directed by Sam Wood

Paramount, 80 minutes, not rated.


Who could ask for more than a love quadrangle between two of the silent era’s greatest stars, Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson? To add to its allure, Beyond the Rocks was considered a lost film–until it surfaced in a damaged nitrate version in 2003 and was restored in 2006. It is set in Dorset, England, but no need to worry about bad British accents in a silent film! (Valentino reportedly had a very high voice.)


Theodora Fitzgerald (Swanson) is one of three daughters to a retired seaman in dire financial straits. She is accident-prone and is plucked from a rowboat capsize by Lord Hector Bracondale (Valentino). She swoons over him, but he’s a confirmed bachelor. (Yeah, right!) To help her family, Theodora agrees to marry the considerably older Josiah Brown (Robert Bolder). Lord Hector is being actively pursued by Morella Winmarleigh (Gertrude Astor), a match the “proper” classes favor, except for Hector who warms to the spirited Theodora. She yearns for Hector, but she’s married to Josiah. This little scenario was risqué for 1922 as it involved situations the Hollywood Code would later seek to eliminate. (The sanctity of marriage was a core Code value.)


Josiah adores Theodora, but he’s no fool and can see what’s before his eyes. Another interesting aspect of this film is that it’s simultaneously a romance and a tragedy. If you’re wondering who owned the screen, Valentino was the pretty boy but Swanson ruled the nitrate. Director Sam Wood later became controversial for his difficult personality and his right-leaning politics, but he knew his way around the camera. This is a film that could be made today and I’d not be surprised if someone attempts a remake. Good luck finding Swanson and Valentino substitutes.


Rob Weir