Wait for the Moment When…

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…Olivia de Hallivand nips out from her father’s house in Washington Square to buy the fish¤ for Papa’s favourite chowder: another vain effort to please him. This is the fifth scene of THE HEIRESS (1949), a cinema masterpiece of pyschological and sexual neuroses derived from a novel by Henry James. Catherine Sloper (de Havilland) is plain, gauche and apparently unmarriageable. But on the death of her doctor father (Ralph Richardson) she will have an income of thirty thousand dollars per annum – and this, as the opening title tells us, is “a hundred years ago”:

“She will be immensely rich”.

At her cousin’s engagement party Catherine meets the irresistible, charming and impossibly handsome – but of course penniless – Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) and the stodgy routine of the Sloper household is seismically disrupted. But with the fish incident our impeccable director William Wyler alerts us to the imminence of disaster only two minutes into the movie. Throughout the film, Wyler makes liberal use of the classic sexual symbolism of canes, umbrellas, top hats, cigars, endless pairs of gloves¤¤ and here already we have another – a large dead fish, beheaded by the fishmonger in the street while the flinching Catherine averts her gaze.

The head is thrown to a presumably female cat – “kitty !kitty! kitty!” – below the barrow and Miss Sloper makes off with her purchase like Salome with the head of the Baptist, only to be snubbed by her father for betraying her class: “next time let the man carry it into the house”. This droll little sequence of symbolic castration is framed by the dreadful ending of THE HEIRESS  – another, far more dramatic emasculation: unheeded thundering door-knockers and sharp dainty embroidery scissors wielded like the shears of The Fates. In this early scene, too, we glimpse that humble though Catherine may appear, she nevertheless has it in her to defy her morbidly tyrannical parent if only in small ( and deliberately irritating?) ways.¤¤¤

Wyler is one of the satisfying and thorough of directors: he makes further play with this poor old fish. Fish is one of those things – like a rose, an ordure, a loaf of fresh bread – which is immediately suggestive of smell to even the most olfactorily inhibited. So it is highly suggestive that our next sight of Catherine is upstairs, dressing for the party. We are told she’s spent the afternoon with the hospital committee – a line which suggests over-heated stuffy rooms sprinkled with disinfecting sulphur and vinegar, filled with hot ladies in sturdy clothes. She must be quite impregnated with dubious odours – and has she still fish scales under her finger nails? We see later in the film that Catherine is prone to perspire mightily in moments of crisis and her hygiene routine is exiguous to say the least.

We and her merrily widowed Aunt Penniman (Miriam Hopkins) ¤¤¤¤ discover her in her bedroom, making a few sketchy dabs with a sponge and photographed to look moist, dishevelled and grubby. She has not removed her stays or shift, and her undressed hair looks greasy in a lank plait. Hitchcock used to regret that the old production codes ruled out his using the lavatory in story lines; but here I think the immensely detailed and thoughtful Wyler is hinting that he, at least, fears that poor Catherine may probably smell a bit, in addition to her many other disadvantages.¤¤¤¤¤ The genius of costumier Edith Head provides hugely heavy and over-elaborate silk and satin gowns (hauled over grubby petticoats?) while de Havilland’s naturally ivory skin is stained apparently with walnut juice (o.n.o) like some degraded heroine from a fairy tale – the deposed princess in The Goose Girl, or Cinderella sat among the ashes. Like Bette Davis in JEZEBEL, Olivia goes off to the ball in a great crimson gown – almost a character in its own right – photographed stunningly in black and white and the object of one of the monstrous Dr Sloper’s most evilly withering put downs:

“It’s cherry red. I believe…my mother used to wear it…”

“Ah yes. But Catherine, your mother was fair. She DOMINATED the colour”.

Wyler returns to the sense of smell later in the film, offering it again as illumination of character and another clue as to the honesty of Morris Townsend’s intentions. When Catherine’s father comments drily on the powerful sillage of Morris’s evidently costly bay rum cologne we know something is badly awry. A penniless and overly-handsome young man, to come reeking of scent to a professional gentleman’s house, to seek his daughter’s hand?

Morris does the decent thing:

“Permit me to share it with you?”

“Thank you, very kind but I can hardly  let you do that”.

Is it possible that Wyler has at the back of his mind the idea that Morris might even be capable of seducing Dr Sloper himself, like the Michael York character in BLACK FLOWERS FOR THE BRIDE? As Richardson later wryly asks, of Clift:

“Is he upstairs, in my bed?”

Townsend is invading Dr Sloper’s house as would a predatory feral animal, marking it with his scent just as he turns over pieces of porcelain in a casually proprietorial manner, and helps himself to Sloper cigars, alcohol and womenfolk. Note the scene in which Morris comes to No 16 Washington Square for the first time. In the foreground of the shot we see a footman leading a bulldog into the gardens to do its business and mark its turf. And then, as Morris enters into Catherine’s home, the camera lingers long on a large sentimental painting of a child with a woolly dog as big as itself. Later in the film, as calamity looms, this picture appears again, fallen into deep shadows.

A parade of symbolic motifs pervade this most adult of films. The staircase which Catherine flies down like a carefree schoolgirl, and climbs as though it were a mountain or – in the final scene – the way up to Heaven. The perpetual closing of doors, reminding us of the adult conversations of our childhood – and we shut out: whispers, listening, misinterpretations.  Mirrors, of course, plenty of them, attempting to reveal the truth or multiplying illusions. And then candles and, especially, lamps, the old ubiquitous oil lamps that required constant tending and trimming (like modern perfumed candles) to prevent smoking and disagreeable smells. Here their tall glass chimneys rising from the shades provide not only another phallic symbol but suggest reflections on light and enlightenment: Catherine’s emergence from cloistered spinster darkness into the radiance – “I’ve never seen her this way before” – of a supposedly recipricocated love affair, and the scales falling from her eyes (that fish again) when she finally realises the full extent of Morris Townsend’s treachery. And then that climactic shot of Catherine ascending the stairs, holding her lamp aloft, is an enactment of that chilling parable of the wise and foolish virgins: “at midnight there was a cry made, behold! The bridegroom cometh!” But in THE HEIRESS, as in the fairy tales, we have a False Bridegroom, the Robber Bridegroom, locked out and cast into the outer darkness where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth*.

And then there’s the business of Catherine’s embroidery – her sole enthusiasm and interest before the advent of Morris. The opening titles of THE HEIRESS are composed around the stylised image of a tapestry which then dissolves into the “real life” of Washington Square. Miss Sloper is like an ironical view of Penelope, weaving and unravelling her work to postpone a proposal of marriage from unwelcome suitors; or another Lady of Shalott, shut away from the world, creating pictures with a web of coloured silks, half aware of a doom to come upon her.

Richardson, De Havilland and Clift all give the most extraordinary performances perhaps stimulated by the reputedly disagreeable atmosphere on set. Richardson despised Hollywood and its culture. De Havilland loathed Richardson and accused him of continually trying to upstage and distract her**; the introverted Clift preferred to whisper in corners with his personal acting coach rather than take direction from Wyler. Hopkins who had toured the USA for years playing Catherine in the stage version of THE HEIRESS resented being relegated to the role of the aunt. From all this mistrust and dislike comes a chillingly authentic study in cynicism and cold hatred:  a film about the saying of “terrible things”. A father who loathes and despises the clumsy daughter who killed her mother in childbirth; that unreal wife who has become entirely idealised in his mind, to the point of bathetic grotesquerie: “she used to tune her own pi-ahno!” And of course the daughter, Catherine, who is empowered by a final disappointment to realise her own lifetime’s detestation of her cold parent. De Havilland seems to grow physically in the final scenes, she fills out, becomes taller as well as icily composed and implacable as winter. The tiny brown elf is transformed into a statuesque Galatea: but a Galatea who has turned from warm flesh into cold marble. Her voice deepens and roughens into sarcastic steel as she distributes her snubs impartially.

“Can you be so cruel?” asks the aghast Aunt Penniman

“Yes I can be very cruel. I have been taught by masters.”

No wonder Olivia swept off with the Best Actress Oscar for her performance. But how the commercial DVD cover can now boast that this film is suitable for universal viewing is beyond me. Keep your copy on the top shelf. Richardson plays a man who, when his daughter continues to defy him, appears to will himself to die from sheer spite. And that death then brings the daughter to life – of a sort:

“You have found a voice at last!”

Now, sit back and enjoy the picture!

OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND b.1916
MONTGOMERY CLIFT 1920 – 1966
RALPH RICHARDSON 1902 – 1983

Star and Director share a birthday and a cake: July 1st 1949

Star and Director share a birthday and a cake: July 1st 1949

¤ symbol also of faith ( which we are about to see destroyed) and mutability. In ancient Talmud tradition the fish is said to ward off the Evil Eye: as a Jewish refugee from Germany Wyler may well have known this.

¤¤ hand in glove: the iron fist in the velvet glove; handle with kid gloves etc. De Havilland complained that Richardson was always trying to put her off her stride with glove shtik. And keep an eye, too, on Catherine’s reticule – stuffed with cash – & the tricks Wyler has her play with it, worthy of a rude Rowlandson or Gilray cartoon.

¤¤¤ she can be easily and acidly witty with her flighty aunt from whom she has nothing to fear.

¤¤¤¤ at her considerable Deep Southern best, with her old friend Wyler knowing how to drill and control her.

¤¤¤¤¤ De Havilland does not seem THAT unattractive to the viewer – but it’s clear that $10,000 p.a. is not enough for Clift to take her on. It’s the full Monty of $30,000 or nothing.

* in another New Testament reference Aunt Penniman recalls her late husband’s sermonising the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes: “you could practically smell them!”

** he certainly tries – see the business with a spoon and a cup of chocolate at a Parisian cafe – but Olivia is tougher than she looks; more than equal to him.

The Infinity Pool

Footlight Parade

When I went away to boarding school I was pathetically unable to swim; as a result my first summer term became a living hell until I made good this deficiency. This was because all the Houses were in ardent competition to be top in getting their new boys through the aquatic proficiency test: retrieving a weighted wooden brick from the deep end, diving – “watch out! a faulty dive can split you in two!” – and all the rest of it. Well, obviously, I learned P.D.Q. – you do if you spend every afternoon in a cold and mossy outdoor pool, being yelled at by implacable prefects. I’d never been afraid of water; I simply had no idea of how swimming was done. (“How It’s Done” by Angela Talbot: some of my older readers may remember this excellent weekly magazine column?).

It really was too bad because for years at prep school we were always being carted off to the public baths in a Dormobile, an ex-army teacher in a maroon tracksuit at the wheel. Our lips were blue with terror because we were all petrified of the Ogre of the Pool, a burly old man ( I see now that he was probably about forty) who ran the place. The Ogre wore dirty waders and thick fish-lens spectacles: he always had a sodden ciggie stuck to his lower lip. He started shouting at us as soon as the reluctant crocodile of little boys pushed through the peeling swing doors from the pavement and were herded forward by teacher into a humid asphyxiating fog of chlorine, stale tobacco and mouldy bath towels. The smell of chlorine always prompts a Pavlovian flinching of my stomach, more than half a century later.

We had to take freezing showers under a tap before the Ogre drove us like darling Clementine’s ducklings into the water. After that everything went rather to pieces because nothing seemed to be organised. The non-swimmers tried to catch hold of the few crumbling polystyrene “floats”, and floundered about; or they clung to the rails from which desperate fingers were sometimes prised by force*.(Heart-rending shrieks). More proficient athletes brought their pyjamas to wear, in which to perform life-saving exercises: these manoeuvres diverted attention from the duffers who swayed to and fro at the shallow end, like jellyfish at the Codfish Ball. Or dying ducks in a thunderstorm as teacher’s favourite derogatory metaphor had it. We longed only to be ignored and all too often we got our wish: but we of course never learned to swim.

Footlight Parade
Soon we were back in the shower, dressed – never properly dried, though (“hurry! hurry!”) – and now, chittering like marmosets with relief, we were loaded back into the van. More funny smells in there, as you can imagine – a lot of damp and not very clean children herded together, all sucking boiled sweets and peppermints. For now an unexpected care in the community broke out and we were urged for our health’s sake to take plenty of sucrose to restore body temperature and energy. I daresay the sugar as well as the euphoria at having escaped the baths added to the invariable hysteria of those drives back to school. Even teacher smiled.

Funny thing is, once I finally got the knack, I loved swimming albeit using a clumsy dog paddle, or breast stroke with “a dreadful frog-like action”¤. For a while I couldn’t get enough of it: basic hydrotherapy, a return to the waters from which life on earth first emerged. And of course the human body is – what? – about 65% water in composition. No wonder so many of us have this craving to be in sight or hearing of living waters: sea, creek, waterfall or river. Swimming remains the only sort of formal exercise I really enjoy. Much later on I found a wonderful pool in Holborn, now long since gone: it was in the basement of the old YWCA building and anyone could use it on payment of .50p. It had a faint and pleasing resemblance to an Alma Tadema Roman pastiche. An attendant sat in a basket chair at the head of the bath to ensure decorum and fair play – “No ball games! No jumping! No splashing!”. Pretty empty it usually was, and quiet; used mainly by the more mature. The scent I always associate with the YWCA is (perhaps unexpectedly) Amouage’s gorgeous ‘Gold’ – Guy Robert’s Franco-Omani masterpiece – which had just then been released. I used to go swimming after work, coated and weighed down with ‘Gold’. I would do my first length and then, on the return trip down the pool, I’d run headlong into my own sillage of perfume, ample and billowing like a great sunset cloud, an electric storm of sweet shimmering incense, brooding above the tepid blue water. It fought with the chlorine fumes – and won, like St Michael degrading the Fallen Angels. ‘Am-waj = a wave’. How uncannily appropriate!”

*my mother remembered from her own schooldays a mistress who would stamp on the hands of any girl who tried to crawl out of the water before her time.

¤ Queen Victoria “Letters.

The Mystery of Joan – Wait for the Moment When…

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…Ethel Whitehead (Joan Crawford) gets a lesson in how to wear perfume from gangland boss George Castleman (David Brian) in THE DAMNED DON’T CRY (1950). Ethel – “plenty of oil in her backyard” – comes undulating into his office sporting a hat very similar to that in which Eva Peron greeted Rome in 1947. Castelman rudely throws the window wide. Director Vincent Sherman admitted he stole this shtik from a scene in his earlier movie MR SKEFFINGTON in which Bette Davis over-emphasises her already formidable presence with penetrating scent.

HE (raising the sash): “Excuse me…what kind of perfume are you using?”

SHE (patting the roses on her hat):  ” ‘Temptation’ “……

HE: ” Yes, I suppose it is…in certain quarters..”

SHE: “….You and ya sensitive nose!”

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I have yet to finish this film, isn’t that terrible? I find it so deeply deeply depressing. It’s a pacey enough little melodrama and Mr Sherman usually knows what he’s doing but there’s something about Joan begging for life and love at age 45 (or thereabouts) that is too upsetting and disturbing for words. She writhes in abasement before her horrible men and before the audience. When she made WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE with Davis thirteen years later, critics commented on the inevitable fusion of cinema’s greatest female masochist and sadist respectively. But Joan had been a needy screen figure for decades: from the arrival of the Talkies, and the evolution of her persona from the dancing jazz baby of vivacious MGM Silents into the archetypal girl in the factory, chorus line or typing pool who kicks over the traces in the big city.  In the freshness of this re-invention¤ she is magnificent in POSSESSED (1931) and almost steals GRAND HOTEL (1932) from Garbo – certainly from the Barrymores. But was the disaster of RAIN (1932) partially due to an uncomfortable audience perception that Crawford herself, beneath Sadie’s tarty bling, was as vulnerable and damaged as poor betrayed Miss Thompson? Whereas playing a hard-boiled one-dimensional character in THE WOMEN (1939), Joan is expertly comical as the perfume-selling vulture & home-wrecker Crystal Allen, capable of up-staging even Rosalind Russell in full flight:

“Oh I’m so sorry. Mrs.. Fowler.”

Then comes the stately gloom of the 1940’s: disfigured in A WOMAN’S FACE; the suicidal walk into the waves in HUMOURESQUE; the Oscar-winning martyred mother of MILDRED PIERCE. As with Lana Turner a little later, producers and directors were expert at vivisecting Joan’s private circumstances and neuroses, forcing her – and surely not unconsciously – to enact them, glamourised up to a point, on screen. Maybe, too, she was a metaphor for her times. Joan incarnated female empowerment, but also the guilt and opprobrium attached to the newly enfranchised working girl, and to the next generation of women who took on the work of absent men during World War II.

Back in THE DAMNED DON’T CRY¤¤ the grandeur of the early vehicles has faded. Crawford has some magnificent close-ups, but overall she looks tiny¤¤¤, wiry and tortured with that huge oblong sculptured face covered in Vaseline in the early scenes for her by now familiar ground-down, no make-up look. She is photographed to emphasise what has obviously been a highly successful pre-shooting diet and exercise regime, but this emphasises the stress of her face, which by this time was evolving from its early beauty into bizarre geometric monumentalism. As Larry Carr observes in Four Fabulous Faces she had one of the most perfect noses ever photographed. With her vast burning eyes and “bow tie mouth”, once praised by Vogue magazine, she looks like some medieval icon, a saint in a circle of fire, martyred by male bullying and lewdness. And with all those majestically mad lines to say:

“He’s promised me the world, Marty, and I’ve got to have it”

“Reading spoils my appetite, George”

“You and your Etruscan flower pots!”.

“Don’t talk to me about self-respect.  What kind of self-respect is there in living on aspirin tablets and chicken salad sandwiches?”

Well, you tell me.

Joan in life as on film desperately wanted to be loved. On tv chat shows and in her memoirs she begged for that life-sustaining affection from fans and audiences. Love at second hand was as vital to Crawford as smoking live hearts to a Pre-Columbian idol: her appetite was voracious but the offerings were never enough. Sexually omnivorous, she even made a pass at Marilyn Monroe. Over and over she told the tale (true?) of fishing fan mail dumped by another star – “I won’t name her” – out of the trash can and sitting down to answer it herself. Like the late Princess of Wales, she took to writing her thank you notes before she even left for the party.  Her directors humoured her whims (the 100% proof vodka in her knitting bag; ice-cold air conditioning in case she was seen to perspire; obligatory ankle-strap shoes to balance her) because on-set she was generally so professional (weasel word) and so co-operative. She was one of those stars like Dietrich, Colbert and Shearer who could fine-tune her lighting simply by the feel of the heat on her face. She knew all the crew, she remembered their own and their families’ birthdays with inappropriately lavish gifts; she drank, swore, smoked, gambled and slept with them. At one point in the 1950’s she even took up residence on the set of a picture, sleeping in her dressing room at night – like Norma Desmond, totally enfolded in the movie dream and the comforting agony of working herself to the bone for the sake of artifice.

The problem was that Crawford could not function rightly outside of a studio. (Her MGM contemporary Robert Taylor admitted that he was another such). “You manufacture toys, you don’t manufacture stars!” Joan would say; but she was essentially a creature of her own invention who kept at the job until the exhaustion of it – and the drink to cope with that dreadful fatigue – killed her. When her astonishing looks finally collapsed and the celluloid muse (sic) failed to materialise, Joan Crawford shut herself up for good in her New York apartment and waited alone for the end. Dietrich is said to have secluded herself to keep the legend intact for posterity. Garbo on her endless walks hid the mouth that betrayed her bitterness with life. Crawford was unable to bear the sight of herself in the last ghastly press pictures: “If that’s how I look, then no one’s going to see me…”.  Unlike many of her peers she was not mercifully protected by her own fantasies, or by an inbuilt charm or genuine magic that survived when beauty faded. Like Scarlett O’Hara, Joan wanted desperately to become a great lady but her obsession with her own past as the Texas infant-slavey never ceased to haunt her.¤¤¤¤ And how much of that Black Myth is true, that extraordinary accumulation of grotesquerie accreted by Crawford herself and by Hollywood rumour? The abused childhood, the blackmailing mother, the brother she had committed to an asylum, the various Professor Higgins figures who lifted her out of the gutter? Her teenage appearances in pornographic flickers, her experiments with savagely primitive cosmetic surgery, her celebrated and disastrous attempts at surrogate motherhood? The abrupt and disconcerting appearances stark naked in “inappropriate circumstances”? The terror of germs and the concomitant obsessive hygiene? Impossible and redundant now to sift fact from fiction: maybe more than any other of the great stars the truth of the individual is now totally subsumed in the legend.

However, we do know rather more about Joan and scent – or at least what she desired us to know – because she wrote about it in “Portrait of Joan” and in her subsequent style guide “My Way Of Life”. In the early 1930’s she made those quintessentially Art Deco gardenias her trademark, but told everyone that the intense heat generated by her own body¤¤¤¤¤ made them impossible to wear. The chaste white blooms browned, withered and died whether tucked in her hair or pinned to Adrian gowns. So instead, she dunked herself in Tuvache’s notoriously heady Jungle Gardenia perfume. Like many people, however, Crawford as she matured toned down her olfactory act while still believing that “a whiff of the right cologne – the right one for a woman’s particular personality – should be served right up with the bacon and eggs”. ¤¤¤¤¤ She continues on the fragrance theme: “there are just three that I would never want to live without: Estee Lauder’s ‘Youth Dew’…Lanvin’s ‘Spanish Geranium’, and ‘Royall Lyme’, a man’ cologne.”

So, fans: get your search engines powered up!

And, by the by, I did get to finish off THE DAMNED DON’T CRY. Like Marlene, “I do it for you. For nobody else.” Ethel ends up horribly and repeatedly beaten up; then shot. Down but (it is implied) not out, she crawls back to the dung hill from which she sprang – a curious re-enactment of the fairy tale of the Flounder and the Fisherman’s Wife. Old movies are nothing if not moral.

¤ contrary to popular belief she could be a highly effective actress. Maybe not inventive or inspired but compelling: and always passing that test of stardom – you can’t take your eyes off her.

¤¤ ‘ “Call me Cheap?” –  Nothing’s cheap when you pay the price she’s paying!’

¤¤¤ 5′ 2″ or thereabouts.

¤¤¤¤ Joan Crawford’s first mother-in-law was Mary Pickford – “The World’s Sweetheart” – who played brave little girls well into her 30’s. Joan’s childhood memories read like a storyline from a vintage Pickford vehicle: remember SUDS? Or SPARROWS and the baby-farm lost in the alligator swamps?

¤¤¤¤¤ the Love Goddess aflame! One remembers Mae West ruffling up static from the carpet in order to give visitors to her apartment an electric jolt. Relevant, too, that Crawford was a natural redhead with a skin covered in freckles from top to toe: always a tricky skin type for scent.

¤¤¤¤¤¤ “My Way Of Life” – UK edition, 1972. I assume ‘ham’ became ‘bacon’ for British readers.

JOAN CRAWFORD c 1904 – 1977

The Coconuts

coconut-palm

When I was a tot we had a annual fair come to our village. It was held in the scrubby fields before the railway bridge, long since built over with offices and warehouses. Naturally, we never saw it all lit up by night; it was said to be unspeakably dangerous¤ after dark, and besides my mother had three children of five and under. My father hated fairs and had his work to do. So we went in the afternoon, in convoy: the pushchair, the pugs on leads continually underfoot, and Mrs Sarson bringing up the rear, full of dire warnings about carny folk, kidnapped kiddies and faulty machinery. We were allowed to go on no rides except the Dodgems and the Merry-Go-Round. Waltzers and the like (to my guilty relief) were strictly out of bounds. I was 23 before I took my first and only trip on the Big Wheel and at once wished I hadn’t.

Of course we were forbidden to eat any fairground goodies: the sugary-sizzling toffee apples, frizzly fries or clouds of tawdry-glamorous rosy candy floss. And of course we grizzled and whined until a taste was finally allowed – “you won’t like it, you’ll see!” – only to find it so much Dead Sea Fruit: the hard green apples so sour, the gleaming shellac coating so perilous to teeth and the floss sticking creepily to one’s face and clothes like shocking pink ectoplasm. Funny to remember how sticky hands drive small children mad. We were told to spit on an adult’s hanky and were then roughly wiped down like Mrs Tabitha Twitchit’s kittens.

There was a coconut shy. I don’t know if the nuts were glued on in the traditional way, but our infantile bombardment never shifted one. Then one year the publican’s son came with us and knocked off a prize and presented it to my mother on whom I think now he probably had a crush. We took it home, all rough and hairy like a shrunken head, and marvelled at it. No one had the faintest idea what to do with the thing beyond exhibiting its trophy status. The adults thought the contents were likely to be not particularly good for us: they had been through the privations of the World Wars, remember, and I think probably had very little idea what coconuts were, outside of the South Seas ads for Bounty bars (which nobody liked anyway).

“Oh! That poor Coconut!” It ended up cracked open with a hammer in the back yard, and then we gnawed the white flesh from the larger of the gritty fragments – a slow, messy and disappointing business. But the smell was good and I’ve loved any sort of coconut accord ever since, whether in soap, shampoo, hand cream, scent or mixed with raspberry jam in maids of honour. I find it sensuous and calming and fun.

It’s a tricky oil to play with in perfumery as an excess of coconut can be overwhelming & suffocating and too much reminiscent of sun tan lotion: however, a perfumer of imagination like the great Sarah McCartney makes a virtue of this with her witty trip to a very lickable seaside in WHAT I DID ON MY HOLIDAYS. Coconut is a quintessential perfume paradox: it often appears to be where it is not. As Miss Dietrich used to say: “Ich habe den Eindruck gegeben, nicht wahr? Aber ich war es nicht!”¤¤

In glorious tropicana scents like ASHOKA and COCCOBELLO an accord of fig trees or fig milk creates an olfactory illusion of coconut palms; and of the fragrant water contained inside the young green fruits that is suddenly the preferred health drink of the moment. Don’t say it was I that told you, but apparently the water is so pure and blessed that you can at a pinch use it in an emergency as a substitute for human plasma. And of course it is quite a different substance to the coconut milk which is prepared by human hands from the mature fruit, and which tastes and smells so good in a green Thai curry.

If you prefer your coconut served more sweet and gummy, try E.Coudray’s gourmand life-enhancer VANILLE & COCO.  BIJOU ROMANTIQUE on the other hand uses the accord as delicately and transparently as a piece of frosted sea glass through which you glimpse a triton’s garden of jewelled underwater flowers. Please also bear in mind that – as Frederic Malle and Dominique Ropion found when they created CARNAL FLOWER – the tuberose flower secretes a molecule very reminiscent of coconut. This adds a delicious ambiguity to many perfumes, notably Creed’s VIRGIN ISLAND WATER which reveals itself in many guises, rather like the antics of the Wizard of Oz: are you smelling waxen narcotic flowers or a Malibu cocktail – or a sparkling decoction of limes?

We’re all nuts for coconuts, us perfume knuts!

¤ fairgrounds certainly had a very alarming odour then – the sweating screeching barkers and their high-perfumed ladies; the oily engines; gaseous fumes; greasy illicit wads of paper money; fear.

¤¤ “I gave that impression, didn’t I? But I wasn’t!” ( Of her attributed eroticism )

Wait For The Moment When…

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…Noel Coward (Dr Christian Faber) and Margaret Leighton (Leonora Vail) slope out of a crowded West End theatre in THE ASTONISHED HEART (1950). Off they go to dance the samba (a notorious celluloid euphemism)¤ and drink “Stingers”¤¤ as a “prelude to adulterous criminal intimacy” – as the Divorce Courts reports used to say. The fleeting but triumphantly lascivious look on Leighton’s face as she makes sure of Nolly’s sexual infatuation is one of the few authentic reactions in a film of almost total glittering artifice. In a certain mood – perhaps slightly inebriated or incubating flu – THE ASTONISHED HEART is diverting if ultimately unsatisfying, but it was a disaster with post-war audiences on both sides of the Atlantic who at this period wanted grit not gloss.

The huge appeal of BRIEF ENCOUNTER in 1945 inevitably led to attempts by its creators to duplicate its success. That movie’s director David Lean achieved another – unaccountably neglected  – masterpiece with THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS (1949), while Coward developed the screenplay of THE ASTONISHED HEART from his own one act play of 1935. Noel sacked Michael Redgrave after several days’ filming, and took over the role of the tragic hero, the sexually obsessed suicidal psychiatrist Chris. He admitted later that he was unconvincing¤¤¤ but blamed this on the inadequacies of the part – which after all he’d written himself. Ironically one can imagine the tortured and twitchy Redgrave making rather a hit of the part whereas Noel is far too smug, stiff and middle aged in quite the wrong sort of way. He never for a moment forgets that he is The Master, relishing self-indulgent lines that enable him to enunciate words such as “grotesque” and “cataclysmic crisis” like an ENSA impersonator of himself. He and everyone else appear to live on a diet of cigarettes and cocktails: no wonder that the wonderful Amy Veness – as Alice the cook – although third-billed has her role cut to 2 lines.

The cast are Coward friends, lovers, pensioners and regulars; all great names but (especially boyfriend Graham Payn) rather strained and jumpy, not quite at their best, maybe on account of the sudden Redgrave departure and consequent presence of “Ole Nole” (Nancy Mitford’s soubriquet) amongst them on the studio floor. Leighton was initially shy of Celia Johnson, and Joyce Carey was dependent on Noel for all that she had.  Yet the sheer abundance and extravagance of star quality and star “turns” in this frivolous and perhaps silly little movie is what makes it nevertheless so interesting and entertaining. A bad film but superbly done. As Coward remarked years later, they had all needed a stronger director than Anthony Farnborough to keep them in check: he would have preferred the iron hand of Carol Reed. (Or so he said in safe retrospect).

As so often Coward uses the rivalry/friendship of two women as the axis of the plot. Chris Faber’s sensible wife Barbara (Johnson) runs into an old schoolfriend, the flighty and unhappily divorced Leonora (Leighton) in a London hat shop: “Darlingtons, in the Fulham Road” – you know. Over their subsequent tea – “no biscuits, Madam” –  Leonora becomes immediately, obviously and entirely unconvincingly fixated on the as yet unseen character of Chris, determining to seduce, dominate and possess him. She succeeds all too well, ruins him and he jumps to his death (not instantaneous) from the roof of his very ugly Park Lane apartment building (“70 Chester House”).

The theme of sexual obsession – “The Lord shall smite thee with madness and blindness and the astonishment of heart”¤¤¤¤ – is (according to that durable star Joan Blondell, who should have known) the only plot in the movies. Margaret Leighton is – as usual – quite extraordinary and one can almost believe in her driving a “plain straightfoward alienist” nuts. Leighton’s current Wikipedia entry celebrates her sense of “exquisite grandeur and refinement”. It’s a good line – and one of the reasons why she always seemed years older than her true age (she was 28 in THE ASTONISHED HEART, looking and behaving like a glamorous 65 year old). Robert Stephens, who worked with her, described her in his memoirs as screamingly funny and common beyond belief. In private life she had terrible eating problems: she was also unusually tall* – 5’10” – in a profession of the tiny, and the height accentuates her sometimes alarming thinness. There are scenes in THE ASTONISHED HEART where her sumptuous and heavy Molyneux satin evening gowns seem to be falling off her, and her poor chest bones stick out alarmingly. Leighton has an alluring and varied repertoire of mannerisms and tricks to keep the viewer’s eye on her – a vertical butterfly flutter of her right hand, a slurring of her r’s as though tipsy, the word ‘extraordinary’ pronounced with at least seven syllables and ‘my’ said as “m’ . It’s all supremely actressy but perfectly suited to her character and put across with brio. Leighton is unrivalled at playing self-absorbed manipulative neurotic beauties with tragic secrets in their past**

And Celia Johnson, very crisp & snappy – though not above some rather rich eye rolling – is a perfect foil for her. Certainly Johnson is the most adroit of the three leads at suggesting the bleak tragedy of the situation behind the cocktail party banter and tomfoolery.  THE ASTONISHED HEART, BRIEF ENCOUNTER and THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS have certain curious tropes in common: a flight from a stale chilly marriage,  adultery-as-escapism, illicit sex as a cure for ennui. This risky game of make-believe is counterpointed and emphasised in each instance with rendezvous in the furtive scented darkness of masked balls, cinema balconies or theatre stalls *** plus real or imagined flight to exotic holiday locations in the guilty footsteps of Vronsky and Anna Karenina: Venetian canals, palmy tropical islands, Alpine lakes. And each film relies on a elaborate structure of flashbacks: these distance the guilt and enhance the fantasy, which is perhaps why we tend to forget in a casual review that all three pictures culminate in an attempted or successful suicide – and showy “public” suicides, too: under trains (Karenina, once again) or jumping from high places. The species of self-destruction that amateur psychologists say springs from a deep loathing of the human race.

But – for Heaven’s sake! – to happier thoughts. Coward was highly sensitive to smell and a born lover of perfume. It was an essential part of the theatrical act and celebrity persona. One of his short stories is entitled “Ashes Of Roses” and he famously makes extensive reference to Caron’s Narcisse Noir in his early shocker “The Vortex”. A later personal Coward favourite was Guerlain’s Vetiver. In the saucy tale “Me and The Girls” he pithily describes a nightclub – “the name of the joint was La Cumparsita & it smelled of fresh paint and piddle…”. In his only novel “Pomp and Circumstance” he memorably describes one Ursula Gannet as looking “…like an only slightly effeminate matador…her eyes…had an intense, almost hypnotic quality, and she’d put on a little too much ‘Arpege'”. Throughout his life, reporters and friends noted that, when receiving, Noel was as invariably surrounded by scent bottles as by cigarette holders, cocktail shakers and a piano. Actress friends in clinics were showered with flowers and perfume. Elaine Stritch remembered Coward giving her a nearly empty flacon of parfum as a first night gift: Noel told her it was so delicious he’d used most of it himself. Despising anything relating to ‘The Method’, he would douse himself before going on stage in his favourite scent of the moment : a habit other members of the cast might find off-putting, as when he played the working class patriot and pater familias Frank Gibbons in “This Happy Breed” drenched in Chanel. “Get on with it!” was his only response to tentative objections. As his friend the Queen Mum used to say,” And why not?”. Perfume, like life, is for the living.

¤ just as “dance hall proprietresses” are not always quite what they seem.

¤¤ “brandy and creme de menthe, mixed”.

¤¤¤ his mother, with bland maternal candour, told him she hated the film and that she thought he looked hideous in it.

# Coward regretted that the alienist is not shown at work: on the contrary, Dr Faber is presented in a succession of scenes with a variety of patients discussing their complex, lurid and eminently distressing sex lives

¤¤¤¤ “Deuteronomy 28… I think”. Noel’s text for his important lecture on Jung’s concept of the inferior function. Guess who’s gazing up from the floor with huge soft-focus swimming eyes?

* in long shots with Noel she wears large flat shoes which look strange beneath those opulent couture gowns.

** maybe most effective of all as David Niven’s sociopathic but fatally irresistible wife in CARRINGTON V.C.

*** with the concomitant opportunity for sly parodies of various genres.