Wednesday 14 August 2013

Laughton and Lanchester

This is charming - Elsa Lanchester and her husband Charles Laughton sing - or rather murder - 'Baby It's Cold Outside' on a 1950 American radio show here. They've both had a few, by the sound of it.

Elsa Lanchester will always be best known for her role (or, to be pedantic, roles) in the Bride of Frankenstein, James Whale's 1935 masterpiece and a rare thing - a sequel that completely overshadows the original. She had a long career and did many good things but my favourite movie performance of hers is in Bell, Book and Candle (1958), a very stylish comedy directed by Richard Quine. 

I could bang on about this marvellous film all day. It should certainly be much better known, not least for its stars, James Stewart and Kim Novak - it would make the perfect double bill with Vertigo, released the same year. The support actors are all quite wonderful - Hermione Gingold, Jack Lemmon (in his screen debut) and especially the great Ernie Kovacs as a spellbound alcoholic author. 

Based on the stage play by John Van Druten it's about witches in modern day Manhattan, one of  whom is Gillian (with a hard 'G') Holroyd (played beautifully by Novak), who runs a chic Greenwich Village store selling primitive art. Her new upstairs neighbour is a bachelor publisher called Shep Henderson (Stewart). She decides on a whim to fall in love with him, or rather to put him under a spell, with the aid of her siamese cat familiar, Pyewacket.

New York's witches hang out in a subterranean nightspot called The Zodiac Club (a fabulous dive with a hot jazz combo, French cabaret singers and a pervasive sense of third-martini loucheness). Shep brings his prim fiance there one Christmas Eve and it turns out that she and Gillian were at school together, and old enemies. So Gillian sabotages the marriage, seduces Shep (a lovely scene on top of the flatiron building overlooking empty streets on Christmas Day) and the two settle into a happy if unnatural relationship.

Suddenly an anthropologist called Sidney Reditch (Kovacs) appears at Shep's office, also in thrall to Gillian's magic - "You don't know me but I think I want to see you". He agrees with Shep to write a book about modern witchcraft and enlists Gillian's brother (Lemmon, a pothead bongo drummer) to help him write what he thinks will be a best-selling exposé. Then things get complicated. . .

Performances aside it's a wonderfully droll (if stage-bound) movie with much to admire - great mid-century modernist sets, Novak's very sexy outfits (mostly red and black), Stewart's engaging schtick and Elsa Lanchester (to return to one of the subjects of this blog) as Gillian's dotty aunt Queenie.

Her name gives the game away for those who haven't already twigged: for witches and warlocks living quietly undercover in mid-century Greenwich Village read homosexuals. The real meaning of the movie - and the play - is not so much thinly-disguised as concealed in plain sight.  There are whole scenes in which this ambiguity is mined exhaustively, and they're very funny. You'll see what I mean from the lovely trailer. Do see the film.

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