Bernie pic

Bernie pic

Friday, 11 January 2019

Deadly honor in free noirs



Dishonored Lady (1947) 
starring Hedy Lamarr 


The Great Flamarion (1945)
starring Erich von Stroheim

Both lead actors had touches of tragedy, partly self-inflicted, to their Hollywood careers. 

Roll the film.

I AM RATHER FOND of Dishonored Lady though it is more melodrama than noir. 

Hedy Lamarr left MGM in 1945 and became a partner in the production company which made the noir The Strange Woman (1946) which we watched last week.  That film went over budget and made limited profit. The company’s second effort Dishonored Lady (1947) was also way over budget and a commercial failure, possibly because Lamarr does not play a femme fatale in this one. The movie was intended to be grittier than it turned out but the evil censors from the Hays Office got in the way.
Production was meant to start in January 1945, but the censorious Office was still finding objections to a reworked script by April 1946. The censors probably contributed to both the significant cost over-runs (of $13m in today’s value above a budget of $13m) as well as inferior box-office. With The Strange Woman, you could see the cost over-runs in the action scenes, but there is little in Dishonoured Lady to justify a blow out of $13.5m.

The scriptwriter

EDMUND H. NORTH wrote the script for the classic sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and shared an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay with Francis Ford Coppola in 1970 for their script for the war movie Patton (1970). For The Day the Earth Stood Still, North invented an “alien” phrase which grabbed the public imagination.

He was a major during World War II but later in life he also fronted for the actual Cowboy (1958) scriptwriter, blacklisted as a communist, Dalton Trumbo. My point is North was gifted and broadminded enough to produce an edgier script had his hands not been tied by the Hays Office.

Two good lines
“I’m mad about you in my own foul way.”

“I’ll never forget you when I saw you at that hall with a mouse in your hand.”

The Hays Office
EDMUND H. NORTH was a major with the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II and he made training and educational films. After America’s entry into the war, Joseph I. Breen, chief censor from the Hays Office vetted films from the major studios, civilian independents, the government propaganda unit Office of War Information (OWI) and military communications units such as North’s USASC. Private, government and military filmmakers wanted a relaxation of the pre-war censorship code for the down-to-earth fighters but Breen resisted, saying moral vigilance was needed more than ever during war. Breen’s opposition did win some hard-fought concessions about language and more graphic imagery.
The Hays Code was the informal name for The Motion Picture Production Code, adopted in 1930 but not seriously enforced until 1934 when Breen became boss of the new Production Code Administration (PCA) and stayed for 20 years. The code was in place until 1966 when it was replaced by a ratings system. The code's nickname was named after Presbyterian Elder Will H. Hays, who was the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) from 1922 to 1945. The MPPDA was set up as a self-regulator and as a protection against government legislation and boycotts by groups such as Catholic Legion of Decency.
The code was devised by Jesuit priest Daniel A. Lord and Catholic Layman Martin Quigley. Professor Thomas Doherty, 1993, p172 said a witticism spread across Hollywood that cinema was

A Jewish-owned business selling Roman Catholic theology to Protestant America. 

Other whispers were that the Censor Joe Breen was anti-Semitic, a charge Professor Doherty rebuts though he cites the Catholic Layman Breen writing to a friend in 1932.

“Ninety-five percent of these folks are Jews of an Eastern European lineage. They are, probably, the scum of the scum of the earth.”

Professor Doherty says such views expressed Breen’s culture shock on first coming to Hollywood and he did not show anti-Semitism in his job from 1934-1954.
         Breen was however willing to publicly vilify homosexuals and progressives in a wartime swipe at the Office of War Information (OWI) which Professor Doherty cites on page 168 

The (OWI) personnel was dominated by “short-haired women and long-haired men types.”
What asked Winn did he (Breen) mean by that.
“Pink,” Breen replied.

           In the censorship code, homosexuality came under the heading of “perverse”, as did miscegenation (relationships between partners of different races). Neither could be portrayed nor discussed.  
          Breen obviously allowed filmmakers to breach the ban on homosexuals as long as it was a) by innuendo and b) disparaging.

As for the ban on miscegenation, it explains why Black Americans were denied lead roles in romance-focused Hollywood films for decades. 

The players

PART OF THE INTEREST generated by this film is the parallel between the plot and the life of the Lead, Hedy Lamarr.
She plays a Hungarian-American magazine fashion editor who is living the high life with associated sexual promiscuity, alcohol, and drugs. While Lamarr was in fact of Austrian origin, it was probably considered more palatable to make her Hungarian. Austria was the nationality of Adolf Hitler and the war was only over by two years. Hungary had been a member of the Axis Alliance with the major players Germany, Austria, and Italy. However, Hungary was having second thoughts during the war and Hitler invaded the country in 1944. The Soviet Red Army captured Hungary from the Hermans in early 1945. By the 1947 film Dishonored Lady, the Cold War between former allies Russia and America was developing though the two countries had been allies during World War II.
The viewer might ponder whether Lamarr who was a co-producer of the film worked with script-writer Edmund H. North to detail some of her recent history for her character Madeleine Damien.  (Of course, Damien was the demon-child in The Omen film series (1976-2016) and there is little doubt there is some connotation of demon in Madeleine’s family name. There are a few unfortunate choices of words associated with the film. The alternative title, The Sins of Madeleine, is like Philip Marlowe’s manners in The Big Sleep – pretty bad. But Dishonored Lady is not much better.)

Just as Madeleine left her career to pursue art, Lamarr left MGM in 1945, perhaps to make more artistic films with better parts for her. It was reported MGM staff had fed Lamarr uppers to keep her working and Madeleine discusses her pill dependency. (Lamarr was a non-drinker though she makes a good fist of portraying a drunken Madeleine in one scene.)
Lamarr failed financially as producer. The Strange Woman was a limited success and Dishonored Lady a major loss. In later life, Lamarr seems to have become bitter she was not taken seriously as an actor or as the co-inventor of technology which would decades later lead to the discovery of wifi and Bluetooth. Despite her dismissal of her glamorous persona, both her productions The Strange Woman and Dishonored Lady have many references to her physical beauty. Instead of resorting in the 1950s to extensive plastic surgery, including breast enlargement,  which was apparently botched, Lamarr might have profited from taking on character roles.
The Hollywood Boy’s Club decided Lamarr was trouble and dubbed her Headache, just as another forthright noir actor, director and producer, Ida Lupino, was called “Loopy” Lupino. Fast forward to modern times when Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson was considering Ashley Judd for a role in the 2002 film. 
Ms Judd has said she was sexually harassed by producer Harvey Weinstein whom she had rebuffed. 
Jackson said that Weinstein had warned him that the actress was a "nightmare" to work with.

The two meals of Dennis O'Keefe and Hedy Lamarr together cost $1.

TALL HANDSOME IRISHMAN DENNIS O'KEEFE is Lamarr’s romantic interest, a likable rather staid doctor, not really dark enough for a film-noir lead character. This diversion from noir convention could account for some of the lack of success of the film. O’Keefe’s previous noirs included Hangmen Also Die! (1943) directed by Fritz Lang, T-Men (1947) directed by Anthony Mann Raw Deal (1948) also directed by Anthony Mann and The Diamond (1954) Britain’s first 3D film.

The last ride of a married couple

JOHN LODER plays Felix Courtland, a charming but selfish cad. At the time of the film Loder was married to Lamarr but the marriage was over by the end of that same year of 1947. Loder is quite good in the role as he shows positive and negative character traits.

The director

BRITISH DIRECTOR ROBERT STEVENSON was enticed to Hollywood in 1940 and, seven years later, did his first noir with Dishonored Lady. His noirs were all of a moralistic bent and most lost money. They were To the Ends of the Earth (1948) I Married a Communist (1949) My Forbidden Past (1951) and The Las Vegas Story, also 1951.
Stevenson put moralism to better use when he directed 19 films for Walt Disney during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.  He became the most commercially successful director in cinema history
Mary Poppins was a better fit for Stevenson than Madeleine Damien.

Viewers could follow the progress of the censor’s attitude to suicide in the three films so far in our series starring Hedy Lamarr. The producers had to change the ending to Algiers (1938) as the lead character, played by Charles Boyer, originally committed suicide. This was unacceptable to the Hays office even if Pepe le Moko was a criminal.

The ill-fated Ephraim (Louis Hayward) in The Strange Woman

In The Strange Woman 1946, lifeless dangling legs, in front of a chilling noir scene, depicting the aftermath of suicide became okay in the case of a drunk. In Dishonored Lady, Lamarr is suicidal before changing her lifestyle. She recounts how her promiscuous professional artist father committed suicide.


Natalie Schafer as Ethel Royce has a good cameo in the film. Schafer had a long career in theatre and film before taking on the role of Lovey Howell in the television sitcom Gilligan’s Island (1964-67). Lovey’s husband Thurston was played by well-respected film actor Jim Backus. Whether the repetitive scripts were worthy of their talents is best judged by fans of the show.

“Television, although it wasn't necessarily as creatively diverse as filmmaking can be, it was the lifestyle choice that I needed to make.” 
– Alec Baldwin

The Verdict

The full movie

TIME FOR OUR SECOND FEATURE, The Great Flamarion, 1945.

The magnificent noir satire Sunset Boulevard (1950) won an Academy Award nomination as best supporting actor for Erich von Stroheim who plays Max, the servant, and former husband of faded silent-movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). I have always wondered if there was an element of cruelty in the casting of Sunset Boulevard with a script written by director Billy Wilder. Stroheim was a leading director of silent films and had directed Swanson, a leading lady of the silent screen shunned by the talkies. As a director Stroheim went over budget in one picture too many and Hollywood booted him to the kerb.
Austrian born Stroheim came to America in 1909 and, by 1914, he was working in Hollywood as an actor and writer. He took on his first directorial role in 1919. Over the next decade, he became a top director only to decline and fall with his dismissal from Queen Kelly (1929) the last straw. Either by irony or Billy Wilder malice, Sunset Boulevard was a reminder of the disagreements between Stroheim and Queen Kelly (and Sunset Boulevard) star Gloria Swanson which led to the director’s dismissal. Wilder even showed scenes from Queen Kelly in Sunset Boulevard. 
After he was blackballed as a director, Stroheim returned to writing and acting, often as an aristocrat, a heritage he falsely claimed in real life.

In The Great Flamarion, Stroheim is superb, in the title role of an aloof, misogynist sharp-shooter in a Vaudeville act with femme fatale Connie  (Mary Beth Hughes) and her drunken husband Al (Dan Duryea). Well, you know where this story is heading though heading is not the right word as most is told in flashback, topped and tailed by a  puzzle at the beginning and a resolution at the end.
The clever story and astute direction of noir maestro Anthony Mann make this 78min low-budget tale a small gem. But it is Stroheim’s ability to expose the raw vulnerability of this absurd man in a dinner suit performing a novelty act which makes the movie so compelling. Against all odds, the viewer is sympathetic to this Big Shot, the title of the short story (by Vicki Baum) on which the movie is based.

The story-writer 
Vicki Baum, 1950s, Penn Museum Image #243434
HEDWIG "VICKI" BAUM was an Austrian writer of more than 50 books. She wrote the novel Menschen im Hotel ("People at a Hotel", 1929 ) and she was invited to Hollywood to write the screenplay for the film version Grand Hotel (1932). She stayed in America.
In Vienna, Baum was also a musician and a boxer, training beside Marlene Dietrich. “A woman never knew when she might have to defend herself, right?” Baum was quoted as saying 
She identified as a New Woman, a feminist concept which emerged in the late 19th century. To read, as you sometimes will, that Lamarr or Lupino were “proto-feminists” in Hollywood is quite anachronistic as feminism in Europe emerged decades before their careers in Hollywood.

The short story Big Shot by Vicki Baum was first published in Collier's magazine of September 19, 1936. The Great Flamarion is only loosely based on Baum’s story and the Mary Beth Hughes character in the film is far more sympathetic in the short story. Ultimately, the film seems to have an air of misogyny rather than progressive feminism. I think a good film noir could have been realised with a more authentic re-telling of Baum's story.'That being said, I am sure moralistic Hollywood censor Joe Breen would have disallowed the Baum ending which did not punish an adulterer.

The Director
BORN IN CALIFORNIA, Anthony Mann was of Austrian and Bavarian heritage. He is considered one of the doyens of film noir and he often worked with the exemplary cinematographer, John Alton, though not on The Great Flamarion.
Mann rose from a childhood of financial struggles to drop out of high school, and combine night work with stage acting and directing in New York from 1930-40. He made his film directorial debut in 1942 with Dr. Broadway.
For B-production house Republic Pictures, he made his first noirs: Strangers in the Night (1944), and The Great Flamarion (1945) followed by Strange Impersonation (1946).
Noirs with RKO included Two O'Clock Courage (1945) and Desperate (1947).
It was with another B-movie production house Eagle Lion that Mann had his greatest early success with noirs such as T-Men (1947) Railroaded! (1947) He Walked by Night (1948) and Raw Deal (1948).
With MGM, he did Border Incident (1949) Side Street (1950) and the historical noir The Tall Target (1952).
Mann went on to become an A-movie director specialising in Westerns and epics. He did not make another noir.

The Verdict

The full movie

Next week's films will screen at 8.30pm, Jan 18, Hollywood time:
Next week’s noirs are T-Men (1947) directed by Anthony Mann and Bluebeard 1944, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. See you again then.

And now, time for today's song:


  1. I enjoyed tonight's double bill. Do you have a full length version of the maltese falcon?

    1. The Maltese Falcon is not in the public domain so you will not find a very good print as we often do with PD films. This version has good sound. You can buy a copy in Australia from for $AU16. Interestingly Amazon says they are not allowed to sell it at the moment ( a dispute over wholesale price?) I just looked for my copy of The Maltese Falcon and I cannot find it so I will just put on The Big Sleep (also not in the PD) instead.