LOST IN THE
FUNHOUSE

by Les Phillips


Two from Vincente Minnelli, and a disaster from Joseph Losey:

The Clock (1945, directed by Vincente Minnelli).

The trailer says: "This is the story of girls and their soldier sweethearts all over America." That's true, except that The Clock is a New York movie. Robert Walker's a soldier on a brief leave in the big city; like the sailors in On the Town he wants to see everything as quick as he can -- until he walks out of the train station, looks up at the skyscrapers, and retreats back to the waiting room. ("The buildings!" he exclaims. "The way they go right up!") The first ten minutes of The Clock are horizontal (masses of people moving through the station, every which-way) and vertical too -- soldier encounters skyscrapers, and then the crowded escalator, where he's fortunate enough to meet Judy Garland. They meet cute; they flirt; she reluctantly lets the stranger in uniform ride uptown with her, and the country boy begins to take in the city.

The Clock, as I said, is a New York movie, full of crowds and confusion and anonymity and missed connections, but more than that it's an adorable film about young love. The big city contains a small village of people who exist to help the lovers -- a milkman who gives them a ride out of Central Park late at night (Minnelli makes the park look like an enchanted night garden), passersby who give cheerful, solicitous directions, clerks and civil servants who go out of their way to help the starstruck lovers. (Only in cinematic New York, kids.) This is Garland's first nonmusical film, and her acting is careful, modulated, nuanced, and authentic. She falls for Walker in stages, shedding her inhibitions slowly and carefully. And the story itself isn't altogether an enchantment -- just when the romance is getting too gooey, the lovers' very real misgivings surface. Those uncertain moments are the loveliest moments in a sweet, humane film.

At the end, Walker has to go back to the base, and presumably back to war. The Clock was written and shot in 1944; but it opened right around V-E Day -- one of the first forties movies where the audience could reckon that the soldier would get back all right.

Some Came Running (1958, directed by Vincente Minnelli).

Sometimes Frank Sinatra is a useful screen presence. I'm not sure if he's really acting in, say, From Here to Eternity, but he can often signify what you need him to signify. Yet he's the weak link in Some Came Running. He plays Dave Hirch, the black sheep in a respectable family, a rebel, a roustabout, a ladies' man, and a tortured but talented writer. You can guess which of these guys Sinatra can't play. Some Came Running is about a man torn between freedom and bushwa respectability, a man who can't or won't fulfill his artistic promise; a man who goes drinking with Dean Martin but feels guilty about going drinking with Dean Martin. That's not Frank Sinatra.

The script doesn't help Sinatra much. There are few movies that credibly portray the inner life of an artist. Some Came Running isn't one of them. The English teacher girlfriend (Martha Hyer) says things like, "I have a theory that writers create to make up for some lack in their personal lives." I have a theory about English teachers who say things like that; I'd like to slap her silly, I would.

Shirley MacLaine, on the other hand, is exceptional, even brilliant. She plays Ginny, the simple girl that Dave picked up Chicago. She competes with the respectable high school English teacher for Dave's affections. She's written as a floozy with a heart of gold, but there's not a trace of cliché in MacLaine's performance. She's surprising without being showy -- wonderful little bits of voice and movement, interesting layers of behavior. Ginny is immensely compassionate, not very bright, and doomed. It's fascinating to watch an extremely intelligent portrayal of a dim girl. I've always liked MacLaine, but her work in Some Came Running is a wonderful revelation.

Sinatra aside, Some Came Running is an excellent small town melodrama. There are lots and lots of characters, and the acting is generally good; even Dean Martin is passable. The climax is violent, too sudden, and unearned, but Minnelli choreographs it brilliantly.

These two are among Minnelli's best films. He is very good at "creating a world," including a sense of place. Most of The Clock was filmed on a studio lot, but I always felt like I was really in New York. His touch is lively and sure; he should be known for more than his musicals.

Boom! (1968, directed by Joseph Losey, screenplay by Tennessee Williams, from his play).

I had heard that this was a [milk] train wreck of a film. But truly, gentle reader, you have no idea just how bad it is. Or how good it is, if you're John Waters, who calls it "perfect." Follow along, and you'll see why he might.

Boom! is the film version of Williams's The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Any More, a play that he just couldn't let go of. An early version was produced in the fifties; a 1963 Broadway version with Hermione Baddeley ran for only about ninety performances; another Broadway production happened about a year later -- with Tallulah Bankhead and Tab Hunter, for God's sake -- and it closed in less than a week. So nothing would do but yet another version, this time for the screen, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Elizabeth Taylor plays a gay man playing an aging beautiful woman, Flora Goforth. Flora is addicted to every known substance and dying from a wasting disease that makes her really bitchy. Richard Burton plays the Angel of Death. The Angel of Death in Tennessee Williams's plays is usually a twenty-something stud, just this side of a hustler (see Tab Hunter, above) sent to give the hostess one last good hump before her demise. Burton is about fifteen years too old for this role; Taylor, at least fifteen years too young for hers (not to mention being seven years younger than Burton).

About ten years ago there was a Glasgow production of Milk Train, starring Rupert Everett. But he didn’t play the hustler; he put on women’s clothes and played Mrs. Goforth. People liked this production so well that it traveled to London, where it got wretched reviews. I don’t think Milk Train has ever been successfully adapted in any form anywhere, but apparently that’s not stopping anybody.

Boom! is perhaps the epitome of Elizabeth Taylor's Shouting Period, which began with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and continued well into the seventies. Usually she shouts at Burton; in X, Y, and Zee, she shouted at Michael Caine, and in Reflections in a Golden Eye she shouted at Marlon Brando. There is more screaming, shouting, and carrying on in Boom! than in all the other films of this period put together. Miscellaneous servants, visitors, confidants; they all get screamed at and dismissed and recalled and dismissed and recalled, as Taylor clambers and marauds around the set, breaking things and looking for sex and drugs. The only person she doesn't yell at is Noel Coward (infra).

The first line in Boom! is "Injection!" Uttered by Taylor, writhing on her chaise in some sort of narcotic-deprived frenzy. "Injection!!!!!!"

Boom! is set in an enormous modern Italian villa, somewhere near Portofino it seems, built on a cliff about one hundred thousand feet above the Mediterranean, with stunning views in every direction. Most of the action takes place on the terrace. It's a gorgeous, decadent, very expensive setting. Early in the film, Richard Burton is nearly torn to bits by Taylor's guard dogs. She doesn't exactly apologize. If anyone in this film looks like he's fixing to die, it's Burton. Late in life Burton told an interviewer that he literally didn't remember making several of the films he appears in; perhaps Boom! was one of those. It's a really vacant performance.

Truly, why did I want to see this? Two reasons. The first: Noel Coward plays the Witch of Capri, which was a woman's role in the stage version. Taylor invites him to dinner so that they can gossip and giggle together. Coward is literally carried onto the set by some sort of houseboy person. The second reason is Joseph Losey, a director I admire, but my goodness he's certainly wasted here; perhaps he was also wasted in the more colloquial sense, I can only hope. (There are rumors that no one on Boom! was ever sober for one minute.) He also directed Secret Ceremony, reportedly another hidden gem from the Shouting Period; I am not tempted.

Elizabeth Taylor has a good time here. She really whoops it up. She's interesting for about forty-five minutes. As for John Waters, sometimes he's too much the enthusiast.


©2008 Les Phillips
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