Monday, December 29, 2008


Vertigo’s Psycho recently gave me a gentle nudge. Seems he’d like me to add my own list to the ones several other movie-minded bloggers have been compiling lately. Basically a round-up of "20 Actresses I Love." The thing is, though, my list of faves is so idiosyncratic as to seem downright contrary. Acting dynamos like Geraldine Page and Vanessa Redgrave aren’t on it. Nor is there room for riveting old-school charismatics Stanwyck and Davis. Jean Arthur and Marilyn Monroe – miraculous creatures both - are also missing. Though they’re all wonderful. As are currently working treasures Julianne Moore, Gong Li, Laura Linney and Joan Allen. But – for me - they don’t inspire (nor do they need to) the warm, fuzzy affection I feel for my 20 ladies. Only one of my choices is even remotely contemporary (and she’s a Bollywood performer), Most of the rest I fell in love with long after their career peaks – and in some cases their entire careers – had long passed. Discovering many of them on TV reruns, rep revivals and video reissues. I took to all of them right away. And nothing’s changed. They’re still on my permament personal hit parade.

The alphabetical roll call begins with:

-Most definitive and haunted of Val Lewton’s heroines, which is saying something. Brooks’ eyes, her voice, her essence - all marked her as some sort of hushed embodiment of existential sadness. A troubled personal life – echoes of which undoubtedly resonated in her onscreen persona - seems to have been one of the factors that kept Jean Brooks from the stellar career she deserved. A loss for all of us.
Key year: 1943 – with two Lewton masterpieces - THE SEVENTH VICTIM and THE LEOPARD MAN

–Great comic performer; awesome musical-comedy artist;
Canova could mug with the best of them but
also knew how to play with touching restraint. And her funny-girl face has its own kind of beauty. She made a passel of low-budget musicals in the 40’s and 50’s. Generally playing the good-hearted yokel who – in the end – teaches the city slickers a thing or two. When –oh when - are her films going to get the DVD treatment? Especially SIS HOPKINS(1941), which boasts a wonderful Frank Loesser score, spiky Susan Hayward as a mean deb you wouldn’t want to turn your back on - and Canova herself in full and endearing bloom.

The lush 1997 musical PARDES( in which she debuted) won Mahima all
kinds of awards in India (she beat Aishwarya Rai as Filmfare Newcomer of the Year). But while Aishwarya went on to goddess status in Bollywood and beyond, Mahima seemed to make one unfortunate professional choice after another. Inevitably, her career lost most of its momentum. Too bad – because not only is she inexpressibly pretty. She’s also a pretty terrific actress. 2009 may be a good year for her, though. She’s appearing (with hunky John Abraham) in Deepa Mehta’s next project EXCLUSION.

Britain’s porcelain-pretty Peggy Cummins always had something special. Darryl Zanuck saw it and brought her to Hollywood to play the title role in FOREVER AMBER in the mid-40’s. After a million dollars worth of film was shot, she was suddenly replaced (with the patently insufficient official reason that she photographed too young). We should all have that problem! Of course no one actually believed the story. It was whispered that (a) the powers that be had decided she didn’t project the required sex appeal or (b) she simply wasn’t a good enough actress. Cummins worked out her Fox contract in a few none-too-distinguished vehicles. Two or three plum projects with Fox’s top star Ty Power were recast with other actresses. Then it was back to Britain. But first, Cummins co-starred with John Dall in a quickie made on loan-out for low-rent producers the King Brothers. It was called GUN CRAZY(1949). Both stars (whose careers had stumbled) felt they had something to prove. And –with gifted director Joseph H.Lewis in charge - prove it they did. Even if it took audiences and critics a couple of decades to notice. Though unheralded at the time, over the years GUN CRAZY’s gathered a reputation as perhaps the greatest B movie ever made .It’s frankly electrifying, a mesmerizing precursor to BONNIE AND CLYDE - and certainly my favorite film of all time. Hard to believe that Dall and Cummins only crossed paths for a few short weeks in ‘49 while GUN CRAZY was being made. And probably never saw each other again. Because they’re forever etched in my mind and the minds of many others as a team - the greatest pair of doomed-lovers-on-the- run ever to hit the screen . Dall is unforgettable – tortured, vulnerable. And Cummins – ferocious, greedy, obsessive, manipulative - a real femme fatale - certainly far sexier a creature than the timid FOREVER AMBER could ever have hoped to contain. Back in Britain, she continued to work for a decade or so. But made only one film remotely as impressive as GUN CRAZY. That would be Jacques Tourneur’s occult masterpiece NIGHT OF THE DEMON(1957). But performance- wise Cummins is seen to better advantage in the sly 1953 comedy MEET MR. LUCIFER and the tough trucker drama HELL DRIVERS(1957) with Stanley Baker.

A friend of mine once asked, "Do they use more intense Technicolor when Arlene Dahl is on the screen or is it just something that happens to the film stock when she shows up?"
A chicken or the egg question destined never to be satisfactorily answered. But of all the candidates for Queen of Technicolor, Dahl’s claim seems to me the strongest. There’ve been plenty of ravishing redheads in movies. But Arlene Dahl is quite simply the fairest of them all. MGM often wasted her playing foil to Red Skelton But even then (at least in THREE LITTLE WORDS[1950}) she made a lovely impression that went way beyond just beauty. Fox used her intriguingly as a schemer in WOMAN’S WORLD(1954). But it was in Saturday matinee adventures – as the sweetheart of assorted pirates, swashbucklers and handsome rogues (John Payne, Fernando Lamas, Rock Hudson et al) that she really won the hearts of a generation of little boys. And probably their fathers. I’ll never forget her in Alan Ladd’s DESERT LEGION(1953), where she basically played a kind of one-woman Shangri-La. And beautifully, of course. Dahl’s best acting came near the end of her Hollywood run. The great James Mason has played opposite some pretty distinguished actresses. But Dahl proved one of his all-time best screen partners. A charmingly indomitable and ladylike yin to his yang in the delightful JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH(1959). The actress’s own Scandinavian background even seemed to lend an additional ring of authority to the snatches of Icelandic dialogue the script intermittently required of her. And, of course, the trademark beauty was still alluring. But it was the lady's genuine talent and charisma that made the part so memorable. Dahl lost a couple of important roles during her prime years. Jose Ferrer wanted her as his Roxane in CYRANO DE BERGERAC but Metro refused to loan her. (A couple of years later, she did play the part – very effectively – opposite Ferrer on Broadway). In the mid-50’s a serious illness forced her to withdraw from the cast of King Vidor’s WAR AND PEACE, where she’d been cast as the beautiful but heartless Helene. Anita Ekberg took over the role (though, infuriatingly, her dialogue was dubbed by someone else). Now I’m always glad of a chance to eyeball Ekberg. But I can’t help thinking Dahl would’ve brought something pretty special to the part.


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