Billie Burke – much more than Mrs Ziegfeld

Billie Burke studio publicity

Billie Burke’s most fondly remembered role – as Glinda the Good Witch in the Wizard of Oz – isn’t typical of the characters the actress played throughout her career. Glinda, a candyfloss confection of bouffant blonde hair, sweetness and light, was a break from the characters she was normally typecast into – commonly naïve and witty roles that made a lot of her charm (including her ‘disturbed-chandelier tinkle of a voice and sparrow like flutter of hands’) but not her acting talent.

Too often, Burke’s achievements are overlooked thanks to her marriage to Florenz Ziegfeld; an oft-heard tale of a woman’s ambition and talent playing second fiddle to a mans. Although Burke enjoyed stage success in Sir Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Amazons before meeting Ziegfeld many detractors claimed her Follies roles were purely the result of her connections – although apparently she had to audition just like everyone else. It’s also an oversight because the marriage was not a happy and harmonious one. Burke put her own money into several Ziegfeld productions and was forced to endure her husband’s poorly concealed dalliances with chorus girls. That paints Ziegfeld in a poor light, but Burke must’ve seen something worth staying for, as the two remained married until his death in July 1932.

Billie Burke Glorias Romance

Gloria’s Romance (1916)

Like so many of the early film stars, Burke started young. An only child, she toured the US and Europe with her father Willy Burke, a successful circus clown, who worked for the Barnum & Bailey Circus. After eventually settling in London, she first appeared on stage in 1903, making her debut in The School Girl. Amongst the chorus girls, you can imagine how Burke’s vibrant red hair stood out. Many reports suggest that the stage was Burke’s first love and – despite the almost 80 roles she appeared in on screen – it was the magic of performance that truly thrilled her. Those early roles were supplanted by screen success – Burke’s breakout roles were in Peggy (Giblyn and Ince, 1916) and Gloria’s Romance (Colin Campbell, 1916), a lost silent film serial comprised of more 20 chapters. Critics reviewed these early roles favourably – Burke’s natural comic timing translated well to the screen and allowed her character to shine through. However, after starring in several more silent, she returned to the Broadway where, between 1917 and 1944, Burke would star in 12 plays, including three by W. Somerset Maugham.

Billie Burke glorias_romance

As often happens, life intervenes – in this case the stock market crash in 1929. Ziegfeld suffered badly, and much of his savings were wiped out. Realising that being funny on screen paid more that the stage, Burke returned to Hollywood. Starring as Katharine Hepburn’s mother (it was Hepburn’s first major role) in the George Cukor-directed A Bill of Divorcement, Burke set the standard for the roles she would later play. Playing the much-maligned Margaret – a long-suffering wife who is about to divorce her husband – Burke is both funny and empathetic.

Billie Burke Dinner at Eight

Dinner at Eight (1933) with Marie Dressler, John Barrymore and Jean Harlow

Billie Burke Breakfast in Hollywood

Breakfast in Hollywood (1946) with Tom Breneman and Edward Ryan

Later key roles included Mrs Topper in the three Topper fantasy films, Olivier Hardy’s wife in Zenobia (1939) and Mrs Kilbourne in Norman McLeod’s Merrily We Live (1938). The latter role earned Burke an Academy Award nomination, although she didn’t win it was a well-deserved nod to her oft-overlooked talent and a rare example of the establishment paying homage to her work. Although she played in the side-lines, and was dismissed as a ‘serious’ actress, Burke’s peers respected the roles she played. At her memorial service in Los Angeles, George Cukor told the assembled congregation: ‘She was an actress in the most romantic tradition, with the magic of the theatre’. That ‘magic’ that sustained her earlier dreams spilled over into her film roles. She played each character with an easy charm and enthusiasm that was all her own.

Billie Burke Wizard of Oz 2

Billie Burke Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Billie Burke might be a well-remembered footnote in Florenz Ziegfeld’s life and rightly so – as is so often the case, behind every successful man stands an equally (just lesser recognised) woman. But Burke was so much more than that; a true talent in her own right who’s been relegated to history because she pursued a career as a character actress rather than a leading star. Perhaps – understandably – she never wanted the full limelight, but it’s a shame that players much less deserving than her remain bathed in it.

Studio_publicity_Billie_Burke

This post is my (very belated) contribution to the What A Character! blogathon, hosted by the wonderful Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club. Do check out all the other entries; this is a very special blogathon celebrating lots of under-repped strars.

The Charge of the Light Brigade and the satire of war

Charge of the Light Brigade movie poster

Last week, global brand consultancy FutureBrand named Japan as the world’s strongest country brand – the first time an Asian country has topped its annual Country Brand Index in its history. To compile the index, FutureBrand measures perceptions of countries around the world against guidelines similar to those that would be used to judge consumer brands. Clearly the appeal of Japan’s offbeat fast food menu items, distinctive fashion trends and cat café craze extends far beyond the shores of the rising sun. They might be gimmicky, but they all come together to create a strong image and understanding of ‘Brand Japan’ that can be identified the world over.

Of course, national and cultural identity and the external perceptions of a country are constantly in flux; a global popularity contest that is won and lost through representation and soft power politics that are impossible to control. The stereotypical image of Britain and the cultural construction of ‘Britishness’ include everything from stiff upper lips, strict generals, queuing systems, tea drinking and a bigoted class system. These traits are deeply entrenched into the global brain and, although they might not represent exactly how it is to live in the country today, continue to persist.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Film, the medium that allows the viewer to escape into and discover life through another’s eyes, has a lot to answer for. Many British-made films in the 50s and 60s cemented and perpetuated the ideas and – thanks to the excellence of many films from this period – continue to influence contemporary thinking. Take The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), Tony Richardson’s sweeping war epic that depicts an infamous (and disastrous) battle during the Crimean war (1854-56) that was botched by inept commanders and arrogant aristocrats.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

It’s a surprising topic to make a film about. So neatly does the event link to aspects of British identity it’s become an expression of culture. In the aftermath, the blundering commanders were subtly recast as heroes by the national press – no doubt an effort to boost morale or maintain public support but the support also made both command and commanded increasingly wedded to gentlemanly codes. A celebration of disasters became a particular British pastime, a way to recover, no matter the outcome.

The Charge of the Light BrigadeBy the 60s, Britain must’ve been very aware of its baggage and its international reputation. Experiencing a decade of rapid change (from youth-led protests against the Vietnam War to the establishment of the Notting Hill carnival) this was a country that was trying to cling to out-dated ideals. In that sense, the sentiments expressed by Richardson in The Charge of the Light Brigade were as much a reflection of the current era as they were of the past. Broadly satirical, and playing upon the idea of an army that’s obsessed with the ideas of the Duke of Wellington (1769 – 1852), Richardson depicts an army that’s governed by caricatured peers who leverage wealth and property for rank. The action is interspersed with 19th-century inspired political cartoons that simultaneously reinforce yet satirize ‘Britain’: Queen Victoria lifts her skirt to reveal hordes of brave armies, enemy landscapes are reconfigured to resemble the lion of England, a bear (representing Russia) is easily tamed.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Lord Cardigan (Trevor Howard) heads up the Light Brigade; Lord Raglan (John Gielgud) is the commander-in-chief who works (literally) in the shadow of Wellington. Despite his faults, Raglan is particularly stoic – one scene depicts his (anaesthetic free) on-field arm amputation – he barely murmurs. Cardigan and Raglan – by far the best characters in the film – show little empathy to their loyal troops, and demonstrate limited tactical ability. Unfortunately, it’s near impossible for the viewer to make a true assessment of their actions as Richardson neglects to explain or properly contextualise the Crimean War, clearly assuming a prior knowledge that audiences then (and now!) were likely not to have had.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

The Charge of the Light Brigade

In an attempt to introduce a human element – and to encourage a more empathetic reading of the event – the film opens with an unnecessary love story. The ‘dashing’ Captain Nolan (Davie Hemmings – the attribute is open to considerable debate) has a fairly pointless affair with the wife of his best friend. Those more tender scenes might juxtapose ‘war’ and ‘peace’ but they work purely on a superficial level and actually make one of the lead characters more unlikeable. After Nolan dies on the field during the charge of the Light Brigade, Lord Cardigan barks: “Did you hear the creature? Shrieking like some tight girl, like a woman fetching off, damn him. Damn all his kind.” Considering he’s just ridden over Nolan’s dead body it’s an unfeeling sentiment, but one the audience surely can’t help agreeing with.

A curious combination of liberalised 60s sexuality and 19th century bawd adds a frisson of ‘excitement’. Much is made of the homoeroticism of the soldiers’ uniforms and a particularly slow-witted officer’s wife lusts after Lord Cardigan – apparently her husband chastises her for her lusty stares, which suggest she is simply ‘waiting to be ridden by him’. The mounting is inevitable but, when it occurs, it’s offset with borderline slapstick humour, culminating in Cardigan’s inability to remove his own corset.

The Charge of the Light BrigadeThe parable behind The Charge of the Light Brigade isn’t hard to discern, but that doesn’t mean this is a film that challenges on multiple levels. Yes, Nolan represents the reactionary youth who fights against the old guard, and yes, Richardson effectively satirises a chain and style of command that was well past its peak, but by taking so long to get to the point and diverting attention away from the key themes he made it virtually impossible for a viewer to fully appreciate them. Attacking the class system and bigotry through ridicule and satire is an effective takedown of Britishness but it doesn’t really go far enough and only reinforces the ideas. Ultimately, The Charge of the Light Brigade never quite manages to live up to – or go beyond – its own ideas, they weigh it down and dramatise a historical event that ended, however you look at it, in tragedy.

This post is my contribution to the British Empire in Film blogathon, hosted by The Stalking Moon and Phantom Empires.

A Thousand and One Nights: a riot of colour and spectacle

A Thousand and One Nights

‘Many years ago in Baghdad, a maiden postponed her execution for ‘a thousand and one nights’ by telling a Sultan a different story each night…’

So begins Alfred E. Green’s A Thousand and One Nights, a light-hearted, satirical re-think of the classic swashbuckler genre. The opening preface foreshadows the fantastical rhetoric tall-story that pervades most of film. Of course, all cinema requires a suspension of belief, but Green challenges the audience to truly immerse themselves in a lavish world of make-believe that’s populated with magical lamps, brave heroes, beautiful princesses, treasure and a supporting cast wonderfully (un)dressed by costume designer Jean Louis.

A Thousand and One Nights

AThousandAndOneNights

A deliberate attempt to capitalise on the success of Universal’s 1930s swashbucklers, producer Samuel Bischoff threw exotic locations (or at least the appearance of them), a not inconsiderable budget and a talented script-writing trio at the production. By 1945 (the year A Thousand and One Nights was released) it’s likely that audiences were tiring if the genre (the popular Thief of Baghdad was released in 1940), so perhaps Bischoff was attempting to divert attention from a tired trope with comedy and visual razzle-dazzle. If the movie is considered on those merits alone it’s a resounding success. In a contemporary take on a (fairly) classic story, the script is awash with 1940s references that were surely inserted to offer a point of identification for audiences; it’s a historical fable with a resoundingly modern feel. That extends to the characters too – forget magic carpets, talking animals and flying horses – this fairy-tale land is populated with elegant females.

AThousandAndOneNights

AThousandAndOneNights

The plot is fairly sparse: Aladdin (Cornel Wilde) is a charming vagabond who dares to fall in love with the Sultan’s daughter (Adele Jergens). Somewhat inevitably, trouble ensues – Aladdin resourcefully attempts to navigate his way out of it with a magic lamp which, when rubbed, dispels an impish female genie (Evelyn Keyes) who’s not all she seems and actually results in more trouble.

AThousandAndOneNights

AThousandAndOneNights

Wilde was well cast as the romantic lead. Fresh from his performance in A Song to Remember (which garnered him a Best Actor nomination), his athleticism (Wilde was on the US Olympic fencing team) is the perfect foil to Phil Silvers’ buffoon-ish sidekick. The comedian, who wears horn-rimmed glasses throughout, isn’t the comic star of the show though – that accolade surely belongs to Evelyn Keyes, whose performance is easy, natural and spontaneous but was never allowed to reach her full potential, kept in the side-lines with lightweight gags that mostly revolve around keeping the romantic leads apart.

AThousandAndOneNights

AThousandAndOneNights

Though A Thousand and One Nights was only Jean Louis’ seventh film, he was confident enough to bring an understated elegance to the production. Of course, it’s a Technicolor film, but it’s Louis’ costumes that introduce a real rainbow spectrum, uplifting shades that are used gladly and with bold abandon. There’s a lot of sheer lightweight fabric that suits the supposed climate but might have been necessitated by the rationing of fabric, a directive implemented by the US Government in 1942, an attempt to conserve resources in the light of WWII. Most of the costumes have a lot of fabric, but it’s mostly lightweight chiffons and there are no unnecessary pleats, ruffles and frills. Several aspects of the costume – notably the colour palette – recall Edith Head’s designs for Samson and Delilah (1949). Jean Louis, who joined Columbia in 1944, was swiftly promoted to head designer following the departure of Travis Banton. The costumes for A Thousand and One Nights were designed the year before Jean Louis designed that dress for Rita Hayworth in Gilda, and before he was given the ‘Gowns by Jean Louis’ moniker.

AThousandAndOneNights

AThousandAndOneNights

Despite the played-for-laughs, escapist aspects of the film, A Thousand and One Nights feels surprisingly polished. It’s not on the scale of The Thief of Baghdad for example, but the art direction, sets and costumes all help to elevate the movie to something close to an epic – in fact, the movie was nominated for Best Art Direction (Interior Decoration, Color) and Best Special Effects in 1946. It might sacrifice substance of frivolity and style but that’s not to the film’s detriment and is probably the reason it remains a favourite for moviegoers who like their cinema with a slice of unsophisticated nostalgia.

This post is my contribution to the Fairy Tale blogathon, hosted by the wonderful Movies Silently. Make sure you check out all the posts, there’s a great breadth of films covered…

Dracula: Fisher, Lee and the creation of an icon

Dracula 1958

Bram Stoker‘s Dracula is one of cinema’s most enduring characters that continues to fascinate and inspire filmmakers and filmgoers more than 100 years after the book’s initial publication. A classic Gothic horror, the book’s heady plot and borderline homoerotic prose is very much of its time – indeed many of Stoker’s contemporaries were obsessed with crime and ghost stories – but surprisingly, despite unanimous critical approval, the novel enjoyed limited success upon its release, only reaching its iconic status in the early 20th century after several movie adaptations and a stage play took Dracula to the masses.

Dracula 1958_7

The earliest film adaptations (the unauthorised Nosferatu was released in 1922, and the Tod Browning-directed Dracula was released in 1931) cemented the character of Dracula into the public consciousness, despite their varying degrees of faithfulness to the source material. Either way, Dracula resembled a sinister, haunting evil that wasn’t out to scare, rather to play on the mind of audiences. Of course, that perception was changed forever with the release of Dracula (Horror of Dracula in the US) a full-colour, flamboyant offering that launched countless clichés, spoofs and cartoons. But that all came later, Terence Fisher’s film was a small-budget Hammer Studios production with big ambition, from the surprisingly lavish sets to the all-out action, itself only homage to Stoker’s original text.

Dracula 1958

One of the biggest amends was the characters – Jonathan Harker (John van Eyssen) evolves from a solicitor to a vampire slayer posing as a librarian, the three brides are condensed into one (played gore-loriously by Valerie Gaunt) and Renfield is notably absent. The removal of Stoker’s more ‘supernatural’ elements (Dracula’s ability to turn into a bat, for example) lend an everyday evil to the story; similarly Doctor Van Helsing’s (Peter Cushing) ready explanations of vampire behaviour (an allergy to light that was introduced in Nosferatu) ground the evil firmly in the real world: this is a fight between good and bad. To move the plot along swiftly, all the action is set in fictionalised ‘middle Europe’ – this simplification was almost certainly due to budget constraints; reportedly Fisher was shooting with a budget of £81,000 (a not unusual figure for a Hammer production).

Dracula 1958

The frenzied pace suits the leading men. Christopher Lee repackaged Dracula as a well-mannered cultured specimen, a ‘tall, dark and handsome host’ that’s considerably more savage than Legosi’s depiction. In fact, Lee’s Dracula – who simmers with menacing theatricality but can, nevertheless, switch from charming host to savage monster in a matter of minutes – is actually much closer to Stoker’s original description, right down to his seemingly superhuman strength, demonstrated just after his (unsurprisingly) dramatic entrance as he carries Harker’s heavy suitcase upstairs, taking them two at a time. His ferocity is almost terrifyingly authentic, but the effect is tempered by Lee’s tendencies towards theatricality and baroque melodrama and the lavish set and backdrop – and the almost comical, vividly red dripping blood that hammers home the horror either dripping from fangs or reflected in the lining of Harker’s travelling bag.

Dracula 1958

Dracula 1958

He might be the lead, but Dracula is very much in the background and appears in very few scenes. Instead, his antics and the fear of his presence, pervade the entire film, paving the way for the ruthless, single-minded Doctor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) and Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough) to triumph over evil. One of the criticisms most commonly levelled at Dracula is overt theatricality and melodrama and, whilst not completely unfounded, there’s something in that lends itself to Stoker’s original Gothic text. Lee’s Dracula entry, complete with sweeping cloak, is accompanied by a familiar score, itself a riff on the character’s name. These tropes have become deeply ingrained into the legend that is Dracula, although later Hammer Studio sequels evolved into a caricature and were no match for the original.

Dracula 1958

Dracula 1958_6

At the heart of Dracula is a story of sexual repression. Fisher certainly played up to this element; the female characters have a yearning for Dracula and seem to enjoy being ravished by the vampire. The women function simply as secondary at characters – paralysed at the hands of this mysterious creature and unsure why he holds power over them. Some of the scenes do hint at low-grade erotica and surely contributed to the critic’s disapproval (“One of the most revolting horror films I have seen in years,” lamented the Daily Express’ reviewer); the biting that seems so tame to modern audiences would likely have been more shocking to audiences in the 50s.

Dracula 1958

Dracula was an enormous box-office success in both the UK and US, and Hammer was quick to capitalise on its success with eight sequels (including Brides of Dracula, 1960, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, 1966 and Taste the Blood of Dracula, 1970). These films varied in quality, and none (with the possible exception of Brides) were a match for the original. Talking about the Dracula in 1974, Fisher explained why: “Everything was right about that film; the script, the casting, everything just clicked. The chemistry just worked the whole way. A wonderful experience”. Camp, theatrical and accidentally hilarious? Yes. But it’s also a lasting testament to British cinema and, despite the liberties with source material and lack of true ‘gore’, ranks as one of the greatest horror films of all time.

Further reading: Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film / The Women of Bram Stoker’s Dracula