Unpacking Our New Year

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I – and millions like me – have had this dreadful cold germ since Christmas and over the New Year. There’s been an awful smell trapped in my nose. It was something like the incineration of damp cardboard boxes – maybe the former domicile of cats – piled on a winter bonfire and burned like obdurate heretics, “au bois vert”. What a way for a fragrance maven to see in 2017! Heigh ho, there you go: at least I have my imagination and my memories.

And there’s still plenty to read. Now, for instance, there was a long piece in the Times* all about H.G.Wells, to mark his 150th anniversary. Notoriously amorous, he had an affair with the beautiful spy, Moura Budberg¤. Virginia Woolf school-girlishly referred to her as Moura Bedbug. So here’s a neat segue into the curious fact that our word ‘coriander’ is derived from the ancient Greek – ‘koris’ – for this obscene pest. The lovely fragrant herb (currently so fashionable with perfumers) was thought by our ancestors to smell like a bed bug, presumably when the insect was squashed against the walls or bedstead (the only way to catch them) with a deftly wielded cake of primitive soap. I have never yet met a bed bug – but I wonder, just as in the way that humans used to see colour differently¤¤, did Man’s nose also formerly play tricks quite unknown to us? Did the terrible  perfumes of the ancient world suspended in goat fat and rancid wine smell irresistible to Caesar and Cleopatra? Almost certainly, yes.

H.G.Wells himself, so the ladies said, smelled wonderful – even Biblical. He was blissfully redolent of honey and walnuts. (One of my very favourite food combos). We remember Alexander the Great’s natural odour of violets, Queen Victoria’s orange blossom aura and Elisabeth Bourbon’s exhalation of roses. And –  even more inexplicably – the one or two very heavy smokers I have known who exuded nothing but a delicious fragrance of peaches and cream, dewy freshness and flowers. A phenomenon which defies all expectation: and which must yet be explored in one of those expensive extensive ‘surveys’ we are always reading about.

You know I’m often referring to the presentation of perfume in the movies; the way stars play with it and talk about it – but take care never actually to wear it? Well, I have now found for us that powerful exception that proves the rule.

My brother and I exchanged DVDs at Christmas: coincidentally both were from the ‘Cary Grant Collection’. Die-hard Grant fans might have felt a bit let down, for these movies are essentially Mae West and Dietrich pre-Hays Code vehicles respectively, from the early 1930’s. “Cash & Cary” is just the dark young man in the background. But – judge for yourselves – why not run Mae in I’M NO ANGEL one afternoon? You’ll have the pleasure of two scenes in which Tira –  lion-tamer and ‘grande horizontale’ – fools around with an perfume atomiser, and also with a rather suggestive glass wand-applicator. And the camera lingers on Mae applying the perfume – heaviest red italics here – To Her Person. The context leaves the viewer in no doubt that this is the finishing touch of extreme rudeness: the apogee of egregious wilful shameless promiscuity.

And finally – the Brontes! Did you look at the play about them on tv? I was too tired with my cold to sit up: so I went to bed and read about this oddest and most fascinating of families. The smell I always remember in their connection is in that awful detail of the dying Emily trying to dress her hair on the sofa. The comb fell from her nerveless fingers and smouldered on the hearth: the dreadful smell of burning horn filled the Parsonage. Then Charlotte ran up the moors to fetch some flowery bells of heather: but it was all too late…..

The Guardian described this as a “…chronicle….(of)… the extraordinary challenges faced by ordinary people” – which we did find a bit comical. Those Brontes were very far from ordinary, I think.

Here’s hoping YOUR experience of 2017 has been so far extraordinarily good and – of course – sweetly scented.

* Ben McIntyre The Times 29/12/16

¤ Nick Clegg’s great great aunt. Get out your Google Images and wonder at the human gene pool: there is such a likeness between the two.

¤¤ Homer and “the wine-dark sea”; and the poet neither possessing nor needing a word to denote “blue”…

“Goodnight, Irene”

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“I sleep only in two drops of French perfume…”. It’s Anita Ekberg guying herself in La Dolce Vita but – as a certain great lady of today would say in sonorous swooping tones – “remind you of anybody?” Obviously, here’s a reference to Marilyn and her preferred nightwear of Chanel No 5. Or maybe MM adopted the line from Anita and polished it up? And does anyone yet know, by the way, what Mrs May wears to set off her leather trousers and kitten heels? I always understood that Margaret Thatcher made a slave of Rochas’ Femme, that most gorgeous and assured of peachy chypres. Mae West’s perfume, too. Surely not without significance? ” The eyes of Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe”.

A couple of weeks ago, I suggested that we might return and take a second inhalation of old Hollywood smells. Back in the last century when perfume was still so great and arcane a luxury, it was a popular idea for studio photographers to snap the great female stars posing with their collections of perfumes and scent bottles. It always frets me a little when I look at these old portraits. There are never any sign of the packaging, and the perfumes are already evaporating and fading (I think to myself) under the glare of the savage klieg lights: those all-revealing bulbs which are as cruel to fragrance as they are to waning beauty.

There’s a stimulating sequence in the Joan Crawford silent OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS (1928) where, robed and ready for a wild party, the hedonist heroine ‘Dangerous Diana’ peeks into her mother’s perfume closet. It’s a huge and slightly sinister Art Deco marvel by art designer Cedric Gibbons, built like a medieval tomb, or perhaps a gigantic reliquary. Shadowy and rather grotesque bottles repose within, like Dr Praetorious’s laboratory specimens. The mother seems a gracious, possibly slightly dowdy, woman who looks to appreciate her treasures more than she might successfully wear them. Joan seizes an especially elaborate flacon and unstops it.

Up flashes the title:

“Mother- how vicious!  You’re too young to use such perfume. I’ll take it.”

Presumably the Gibbons cabinet made a big impression on the young Joan, for over 40 years later Crawford ran a photo of her own vitrine in her unique guide to gracious living¤. The focus is not sharp enough to identify the stock within but we may fancy there’s maybe a bottle of Fracas there. Which would accord perfectly with Joan’s earlier penchant for tuberose-gardenia fragrances.

There’s a sharp little scent sequence in the British wartime propaganda classic MILLIONS LIKE US. I’ve written about this film before; but, until my latest viewing, I’d missed the bit with Anne Crawford’s perfume atomiser. These old films are always meticulously busy; there’s masses going on in each shot; lots of background detail. Consequently it’s easy to get distracted. The bonus is, you find something new in the mixture every time¤¤.  Crawford’s character Jennifer is a rich, spoiled and pointless¤¤¤ Society girl who is reluctantly drafted into munitions. On her first evening at the Carton Heath workers’ hostel she’s dolling herself for bed as though off to a ball, much to the bafflement of her room mate Annie, a stolid and sunny Lancashire mill girl. We begin to notice the most unsuitably enormous and elaborate perfume flacon looming up on Jennifer’s dressing table. This is suddenly brought into sharp focus in her looking glass. And then, of course, we remember those essential motifs of movie short-hand. Objects seen in a mirror – the true character revealed; the other self, its obsessions and preoccupations.  Here’s an economical symbol of an empty-headed blonde – “War Effort’s caught it in the neck again…” – who’s fiddled her coupons, “stocked up before war broke out” and puts cosmetics before country. Was ever a perfume spray such a damning indictment of character?

Cary Grant – who’d worked with nearly all the greats – said in later life that of his leading ladies Irene Dunne smelled the sweetest¤¤¤¤. By then Cary was on the board of Faberge Cosmetics and Perfumes, so he’d gained an educated nose: he knew whereof he spoke. He recalled Irene sitting there between takes, playing with her collection of scents and oils; layering and blending and mixing to devastating effect. She was a Southern girl from Kentucky, and delicately reared: she knew about the pleasures of killing time slowly, elegantly and deliciously.

Perfume aside, if you’ve never seen Irene Dunne on the screen then why not make her acquaintance in your Christmas leisure time? Slightly older than most of her Hollywood contemporaries*, she was expert in drama and weepies; she sang like a nightingale; as a comedienne she was peerless. She delivered her lines with a wonderful freshness, as though she was inventing her witty dialogue as she went along. She had a way of setting her teeth while laughing knowingly and throatily. Irene Dunne had – appropriately – a beautiful nose; a classic profile; perfect legs; and was always wonderfully shod. While every inch a lady she could be exceedingly suggestive in the most sophisticated manner. To give only one instance, watch the flirtation (that goes so wrong) with the shoe shop salesman in MY FAVOURITE WIFE – “I’ve been running around without my shoes on for quite some time…..kind of running wild….”

And then comes that laugh.

All this – and she smelled like a flower garden, too.

¤ ‘Portrait of Joan’ 1972.

¤¤ rather like wearing your favourite scent.

¤¤¤ but don’t have a fit, she comes right in the end, and – it is implied – marries plain-speaking factory foreman Charlie (Eric Portman)

¤¤¤¤ quite a claim – seeing as how C.G. had played opposite both Hepburns, Mae West, Dietrich, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Ingrid, Rita, Grace Kelly, Ginger Rogers and Leslie Caron – amongst others.

* 1898 – 1990

“…give him the air!”

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Sometimes after a busy day in our shop I feel absolutely soaked and saturated in scent. I am exuding fragrance from every pore, like a dying agar tree or a sticky cistus bush. Scent seems to be within me as well as without. I am, as the French say, wonderfully  “embalmed”¤ in perfume, like the ancient Egyptian procedures evoked in ANUBIS. I am pleased to remember that the necromancer sorcerers and priests of Karnak & Thebes used fragrance as a spell to reconstitute flesh and to renew life. Being pickled in perfume can be a rather attractive sensation, although it is disconcerting when taxi drivers lower the windows during the ride home; or if people look askance and shift themselves on the Tube. Mind you, the most unsettling thing on the Underground nowadays is that I need only step into a carriage to have kind young people leap to their feet, proffering seats. It is very kind but also a memento mori.

The other day, I was given a lift to the shops. At the traffic lights I looked over into the car drawn up alongside. Despite it being a warm sunny morning all the windows were sealed. The driver stubbed out one cigarette and in a single smooth fluid movement lit another. “Kid like you shouldn’t smoke so heavy”. Quite a rare sight these days, to see someone so kippered in tobacco smoke. I thought of all those post-war British movies which revel in the evocation of claustrophobic smells. Remember a badly hung-over Jean Kent frowsting between grubby sheets with a caged parrot at the end of her bed?  There are bottles of every sort all over the place, and a quarter ounce of “Seduction” is ungraciously slammed down on the dressing table as the woman In question¤¤ examines her furred tongue in the glass and lards on more lipstick.

How the camera lingers over the slovenly antics of Susan Shaw in ‘It Always Rains on Sunday’ (1947). She comes home from a dance at 3am, too drunk to undress, and falls into bed in her clothes: later we see her hanging up her crumpled frock, evidently preparatory to another outing. No question of the dry cleaners: maybe a dab with a petrol-soaked rag later. Presently, she has a bath in front of the kitchen range and washes out her undies in the dirty water. As I watch these films over and again, I notice all the open doors and windows¤¤¤. People then believed in fresh air, and the directors and set dressers never forgot it. Considerably more recently – 30 years ago – I remember my father, purple in the face, wrenching open sealed windows (like Louis XVI at Marie Antoinette’s bedside) in over-heated restaurants. They’d have the police on him, now.

It’s all very different from a tv ad I saw last night – a strange thing! A young woman is unaware that her lovely home reeks of dog. Her guest is repelled. A huge title flashes up to announce she’s become “NOSE BLIND”. (I gather there’s another version featuring a chap whose furniture is impregnated with the smell of beefburgers: other people’s lives…!).  Our parents and grandparents were only too aware that they had to be on the lookout for unwelcome odours, and so they took natural precautions. If you fried fish, then you opened the house doors fore and aft for a cleansing through-draught. But the poor confined girl with the bulldog has become complacent and anosmic in a world where everything is ruthlessly deodorised, disinfected and hermetically sealed: and in which no one now expects to eat a peck of dirt before they die.¤¤¤¤

When I’m drenched in scent like a pre-Revolutionary Marquis  – last Friday it was with LITTLE BIANCA, our new rosy and romantic Exclusive by Alberto Morillas – I like to pass the fragrance on. And one does so, willy nilly, like the coloured dust from a butterfly’s wing. If you are well perfumed the sillage will lightly and persuasively invade the auras of those you meet, greet and embrace. Greek courtesans, it is said, used to immerse their sandals in fragrance and so lay an enticing trail in the dust. A perfumed scarf or handkerchief will pass on a Chinese whisper of scent. No doubt I leave traces on those Underground banquettes or cab seats. Should you be intrigued by this idea, let me remind you that the palms of the hand are wonderful conductors of scent: spray them with your fragrance and you will leave a little of yourself on everyone & everything you touch.

There was a most amusing man on the wireless recently, talking about the connection of hands across history and peoples. Apparently when Barry Humphries shook hands with Arthur Miller all he could think was, “This was the hand that once caressed Marilyn”. Well – I have shaken hands with Daniel Day Lewis – Miller’s son-in-law – so I’m now a tiny link in that immortal adamantine chain.

I have mentioned before that when I clasped Marlene Dietrich’s hand back in ’72 – the nails painted to match the gold and rose Balenciaga trouser suit – the hand was curiously and wonderfully perfumed. In fact it dripped & dropped perfume, like the myrrh so sensually described in the Song of Solomon. If you have a sense of romance, picture that gallant inventive little German hand – frost-bitten from the War – passing on its redolence to Piaf, Alexander Fleming, General Patton, Jean Gabin, Moshe Dayan, the Beatles, Gary Cooper, Noel Coward, Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Princess Margaret, Orson Welles,  JFK, Fred Perry, Audrey Hepburn, the Burtons ….and on & on. It’s a glorious metaphor for the irresistible pervasiveness of smell and scent. Doors and windows cannot keep perfume out: as Nancy Mitford wrote of the Duc de Richelieu, if you put him out of the door he comes back down the chimney.

Pass it on!

¤ “embaumer 1.vt to embalm 2. vt to give out a fragrance, be fragrant; l’air embaumait le lilas – the air was balmy with the scent of lilac..” – Collins Robert French Dictionary.

¤¤ in the film of the same name: 1950.

¤¤¤ take a look at Fred and Laura’s well-aired house in ‘Brief Encounter’.

¤¤¤¤ LW has already consumed his share, and keeps on munching.

WAIT FOR THE MOMENT WHEN: Muriel George…

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…blinds a Nazi invader with pepper, then splits his skull with the kindling hatchet in WENT THE DAY WELL? (1942). She’s Mrs Collins, postmistress at the idyllic village of Bramley End; he’s one of a German unit who have infiltrated the place during the Whitsun weekend (May 23rd – 25th) of 1942. They’re in British uniforms and all speak & understand English … save one. If that situation rings a bell then you’re probably thinking of Jack Higgins’ THE EAGLE HAS LANDED filmed 36 years later. Graham Greene wrote the story for this one, it was produced by Michael Balcon and artfully directed at a gallop by Cavalcanti. Music by William Walton.

I discovered this movie about 20 years ago and was amazed by the atmosphere, the extreme violence, the pace and the infinite subtleties of the propaganda. The film in told in flashback. A framing talk to camera by Mervyn Johns, showing us German graves in a rural churchyard – “they wanted a bit of England and this is all they got”, emphasises that we are looking back at trauma from a position of security “after the war was over and old Hitler got what was coming to him”; after a living nightmare broke out in a toy village which learned to grow fangs and claws. Thus reassured – for when WENT THE DAY WELL? was first released in 1942 the outcome of WW2 was very far from certain – contemporary British audiences were taught a number of salutary lessons. Recently this film has much revived and discussed, the consensus being that it was designed essentially as a morale-boosting exercise showing all sections of society (in a time still obsessed by class) seamlessly bonding to defeat the invader. I see something very different.

For WENT THE DAY WELL? seems to have been intended – under a thin veneer of roses round the door cosiness, and even comic touches – to frighten the life out of everyone who saw it. Imminent danger of invasion had passed in 1942 but was by no means gone, and it is never explained how the outfit of 60 Germans have penetrated Middle England: “the forces of evil” have come like a thief in the night or like Dracula, manifesting in a mist. A terrifying almost uncanny mystery in brilliant summer sunshine: all we know is, that they are here – now.

The film is a brilliantly paced series of show ‘n’ tell lessons as clear as a medieval morality play. It can be highly subversive in its attitudes: roses have thorns; the sacred hospitality extended to strangers is unwise and likely to be abused; trust animal instinct and intuition, not common sense; don’t be afraid of making a fool of yourself. Take Mrs Collins and that axe. By killing the invader she is atoning for her slackness and want of vigilance earlier in the picture: losing telegrams, ignoring her feelings that something’s strangely amiss. However, as her billet lies dead in the wreckage of the tea table (like all Nazis he’s been filling his greedy face at someone else’s expense*) the camera zooms in on his fallen revolver. The heroic but disorganised postmistress (ultimately responsible for all national communications) foolishly fails to retrieve the vital gun for future use. So that, although she tries to phone for help, she is consequently defenceless when the fallen man’s comrade bursts in and then and there atrociously bayonets “the old woman” to death +.

Nearly all the villagers who are seen being wilfully careless, lazy – (“it’s probably a Czech or a Pole…We’ll let sleeping dogs lie..”) – or heedless of official home front procedure are killed off by the scriptwriters. The deaths of these defaulters are given a final heroic gloss in this expert piece of public information – they are after all British, and native casualness beats heartless totalitarian efficiency hands down – but nonetheless it is made clear why they have to die. The Home Guard are wiped out because they ignore the tolling of the church bell** – “… couldn’t have. That’s the signal enemy parachutists have landed”. The village policeman*** fails to check the invaders’ credentials upon arrival – he’s more concerned with the pointless etiquette of being surprised while shaving – and is subsequently and aptly stabbed in the back by the quisling, Oliver Wilsford (Leslie Banks). The lady of the manor though full of politically correct platitudes (“you mustn’t waste food in wartime”) loftily brushes aside everyone’s all-too-well-founded fears – “it’s all right, don’t worry, it’s all right”# – and is blown to bits by a hand grenade; although she’s allowed to meet her end in an act of self-sacrifice which saves the local children. What’s more she’s played by national treasure Marie Lohr: all the faces (English AND German characters) in this film are carefully chosen as well-known & loved by contemporary British audiences, as though to ram home the message that this horror could happen to us all. ANYONE might turn out to be a Fifth Columnist or his victim. Familiar and beloved does not necessarily mean trustworthy.

The children, however, the future of postwar Britain, are all calm, resourceful and alert: “you ought not to tell!” Young George¤, the cheeky Cockney evacuee who eventually raises the alarm and calls in the British troops, despite being shot in the leg, is one of the few unqualified heroes of the picture. There’s a sharp point here, too: it’s a village outsider – ” we always call them foreigners round this way” – who brings about the downfall of the true aliens, the Nazis++. It’s also George who is posed the question “Do you know what morale is?” The succinct answer is so outrageously racist by today’s standards that I dare not repeat it here. It’s still to be found on film, though – for now.

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The other unblemished hero of the piece is Nora (Valerie Taylor)¤¤, the vicar’s middle-aged spinster daughter – “my dear! Another cup!” – who we see from her first appearance is practical and patriotic: “a very good citizen”. She has instructions for dealing with a gas attack pasted up in the hall cupboard and thinks that as the French “let us down so abominably …they deserve to suffer for it”. It is Nora and George, already suspicious, who make the key discovery that the German commandant billeted at the vicarage sleeps in “posh pyjamas” and what’s more ( stupidly and gluttonously – as you’d expect from a Nazi) he keeps Viennese chocolate in his kit bag. Now, Nora has a crush on the traitor Wilsford who to the viewer has all the marks of a degenerate about him: florid ties, flowery scarves and an oily manner. Bloomsbury-style frescoes adorn the walls of his cottage. Initially beguiled by these arty affectations, Nora nonetheless sets aside her affections, formulates her suspicions and ultimately shoots Wilsford dead in a quite extraordinary sequence of such verisimilitude that I wonder whether Valerie Taylor was not given a real gun on set and let rip, kickback and all. “Each man kills the thing he loves”…

Thora Hird also keeps a level head as the sharp-shooting land girl Ivy (“I once won a bottle of scent at Blackpool”): here expectations are again reversed, for the character is trailed as a man-mad featherhead but Northern nous comes to the fore and in the final shoot-out Ivy has a go as a cool-headed killer. Her house mate is played by Elizabeth Allan whose dad was golf partner to Lemon Wedge’s grandfather. Miss Allan was said to have been an intimate of Dietrich so there’s a cute (and faintly risque) in-joke as she and Thora attempt to smuggle out messages pencilled on eggshells under the nose of their guard – “Go on, Marlene, do your stuff!”¥

So, what do we smell in this curiously compelling film? The stink of treachery that’s for sure; the smell of “the lowest of the low”¥¥ and the corruption which breeds the reek of blood, cold steel and bashed-in heads. But more movingly, there’s the magical pervasive fragrance of an idyllic English early summer, all the more beautiful for being in danger of being lost for ever under the heel of the invader. Despite, or maybe because of the black and white stock, evoking an instant nostalgia even in 1942, “the darling buds of May” were never more profuse nor so heavily scented. The exteriors were shot on location in the impossibly olde worlde village of Turville in Buckinghamshire. The camera dazzles the eye with leafy lanes, carefree cyclists, cornfields, windmills, flocks of sheep, dream cottages and church towers while nesting birds sing like mad on the soundtrack. The delicious aromas of freshly baked bread, roasting Sunday joints, plum tart, apples and cider fill the village kitchens: the smells of England, home and beauty. Jars of wild & garden flowers decorate every studio interior. Oliver Wilsford offers Nora a rose from a vase: the traitor’s symbolic snitching of England’s national flower. The climactic battle for Bramley End takes place in the exquisite water gardens of the Georgian manor house. As the marauders are gunned down amid the ponds and lilies we recognise another neat bit of dramatic foreshadowing: Hitler’s crossing of the Channel waters will end, we are told, equally disastrously. Smoke from the smashed-up manor rises with that of shells, rifles and grenades but also from priceless antiques piled up as barricades: the land girls throw a great clock – “grandfather!” – on top. Now is the hour of youth & renewal. A new downsized Britain will rise from the ashes: full of vigour, ruthlessness and raw courage to atone for the stale smug appeasement complacency of the old generation. The house’s mistress lies gloriously dead within her home, like a Valkyrie on her funeral pyre. Ambiguous ironies to the last!

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“Went the day well? We died and never knew,
But, well or ill, freedom we died for you.”

* “I don’t know when they’re more unpleasant: when they’re dead or when they’re guzzling our rations” . Nazis also boast a Fascist disregard for decent conventions: “I am not married but I have 2 fine sons who will soon be old enough to fight”.

+ Her dopey assistant Daisy – the village Holy Fool, played by future TV comic heroine Patricia Hayes – is smashed in the face by a Nazi: “Obey orders in future”. The shock of all this brutality is compounded by it’s being so totally unexpected in a British picture of this era. This is how everyday life will be, post-Invasion!

** there’s also a hint that the Home Guard are over-prodigal in food consumption – too many packed sandwiches for lunch. Later on, references to the Siege of Paris in 1871 remind audiences with grim facetiousness of the extreme straits of wartime starvation – “Rats were quite a delicacy apparently. I wonder which is the best end of neck of giraffe… “. Meanwhile drunken Nazi sadist David Farrar messily wolfs down an eclair.

*** Johnny Schofield: indispensable and adorable character actor of the period. Expert in under-playing soldiers, batmen, barmen, coppers, next-door- neighbours, landlords and waiters.

# and this after the vicar is gunned down in his own church.

¤ Harry Fowler: as an adult he has a moment in THE NANNY as the angry milkman seen off by Bette Davis (1965).

++ could George (the King’s name of course – and Washington’s) be an extended metaphor for the arrival of the USA on the side of the Allies? And an embodiment of the spirit of Blitzed London?

¤¤ better known for her stage work. Her final film role was as Mme Denise in Polanski’s REPULSION (1965).

¥ German-born Marlene Dietrich renounced her nationality in protest against Nazism, was proscribed by Hitler and fought gallantly on the side of the Allies.

¥¥ Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s laconic definition of a traitor.

WAIT FOR THE MOMENT WHEN: Googie Withers…

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…puts her head in the gas oven at the climax of IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY. Not that the act itself is shown – not in 1947 – but we see the well-known dreadful preparations, so that for years I believed I had actually seen Mrs Sandigate kneeling on the kitchen floor and resting her head on a shelf. It was the much-whispered-about preferred method of suicide in my childhood: my grandmother talked about people making their last minutes more comfortable with a velvet cushion on the rack and trying to take the family pet with them – “but the cat jumped out”. There’s just such a cushion in Googie’s kitchen.

Unluckily for her, poor Rose Sandigate is discovered in time: she’s been found out sheltering her convict ex-lover in her husband’s house and now faces two years’ hard labour for aiding and abetting as well as prosecution for the suicide attempt. It’s a bleak ending only partially softened by the sop of having the cuckolded George (Edward Chapman)¤ sitting supportively by her hospital bed (” how are we’re going to get along without you?”) – but the uncompromising closing shot of the Tube station grille superimposed on her face reminds us of Holloway looming. We saw this railing before, at the start of the film: all the hapless denizens of Bethnal Green are caught like rats in the tightest of traps.

Googie is, as usual, superb with her magnificent Marie Antoinette profile, rich roughened contralto and heaving bosom. She was thirty but plays at least ten years older with the aid not of make up but with an air of quiet dark desperation which turns to panic when Tommy Swann¤¤ turns up soaked and starving in the Anderson shelter. Her hoarse laconic grimness (“What’s for breakfast?” “Haddock” ) is contrasted by a short flashback showing her in the old days as the flowery blonde barmaid at “The Two Compasses” who slips on rotter Tommy’s undoubtedly stolen engagement ring. Then he’s nabbed for a smash and grab, flogged to “a lump of raw meat”¤¤¤ and banged up. Rose marries an elderly widower, takes on his two teenage daughters (one nice, one nasty) and has her own son, Alfie, who has to sleep in the parlour. Nowadays I think she’s faute de mieux enjoying the “How To Become a Virgin” syndrome outlined by Quentin Crisp: a Madonna and Child hangs over her marital bed, while through the partition the girls’ walls are pasted with snaps of Larry Olivier, Bing Crosby and the like.

This is the East End at the nadir of post-war austerity; everything’s on the ration and everyone’s on the make. “A dose of salts or a good hiding” is the answer to any domestic difficulty. The house seethes with frustrated female sexuality as Vi (Susan Shaw) comes home “stinking. Fella took me to a road house……didn’t get back till after 3!” She falls into bed in her dance frock, but is later up to paint her toenails in the kitchen. “Tarting yourself up to meet your boyfrends – nice way to spend a Sunday morning” snorts her stepmother. Indeed. And, by a horrid irony, in the very next shot Rose discovers her own lover lurking in the shelter. Whereas George – presumably impotent – sublimates himself in pub culture, food and darts: and, of course, the only time he scores a bullseye Rose is not there to see…

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Other innuendoes are not so subtle. There’s a memorable exchange of rudery between Sidney Tafler as the saucy saxophonist – “the man with sax appeal” – and Susan Shaw who’s in want of a record*: “You come round to the shop in the morning and I’ll give you one….”. (The censor asleep again and much sniggering in the one and nines). Hermione Baddeley** indulges in a showy piece of bottom-scratching-acting as Mrs Spry, doss-house madam: worth noting because we see Maureen Delaney use exactly the same shtik in ODD MAN OUT (also 1947). I wonder which lady thought of it first.

The contemporary trailer for IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAYS is lurid in its implications to a degree, and of course once Tommy Swann is smuggled out of the shelter and up to the bedroom it is only a matter of time before Rose has sex with him. This is implied only by a lingering kiss, a fade out and the high-lighting of a sateen eiderdown. But then comes the poignancy of Rose bringing out that old cherished engagement ring and offering it to Tommy to fund his getaway. In a heartbreaking exchange reminiscent of Joan Fontaine’s fantasies in LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN (1948) Tommy fails entirely to recognise the ring or its significance:

“Nice stone – oughta fetch quite a bit. Where’d you get it?”

“Had it given”

Director Robert Hamer (an old hand with Googie) and producer Michael Balcon (Daniel Day Lewis’s grandfather) pile on the detail almost too richly in this uniquely British flim noir/cinema realiste, the influence of which, I suppose, finally dwindled down to TV derivatives such as Queenie’s Castle, Dixon + East Enders. But British postwar cinema was able to surpass any of these for cold grimness and the blackest humour. A subplot about stolen roller skates has Tommy Handley beating an avaricious old fence** to death – his false teeth fly shockingly and comically into a puddle with the violence of the blow: the murderer is hauled off to begin the inevitable passage to the gallows. The terrible and wonderfully lit scene# in the shunting yards as Tommy Swann tries to decapitate himself under a rolling truck is strong meat. Two abortive suicide bids, the failures of the failed: neither Tommy not Rose are allowed to escape the law by leaving life as and when they choose. The trap motif, once again: like the hutched rabbit fattening for the pot in the back yard of 26 Coronet Grove.

There’s a vindictive pansy newspaper reporter; and, anticipating Julian and Sandy by 15 years, we hear a bit of Polari from John Slater. Then IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY is also notable for its time in featuring explicitly Jewish characters, humour and and extensive expressive use of Yiddish to heighten the atmosphere. Youth Club organiser Bessie Hyams is the only character in the piece who seems to have any warmth for a Bethnal Green that everyone else is longing to get away from.

“What’s wrong with the East End anyway?”

“It smells”

“Certainly it smells – markets & fish shops & pubs….”

Of honest life and labour she means; and not of cheating, fleecing, dodging and fraud from infancy onwards. Sources of other odours are liberally scattered through the screenplay: the action takes place on March 23rd## so we see masses of daffodils which incidentally contribute to three plot devices. Roast beef (“bit overdone”) and Mrs Watson’s lamb (with mint sauce) are prepared for lunch; in her anguish, Rose leans too heavily on the pastry. Then there’s tea, coffee, bread & marge, cheese, Bessie’s strudel, sausage rolls, ham sandwiches, vegetables and gravy, beer, Guinness, Scotch, “rasher and bubble”: “just some grub, Rosie, that’s all I want”. 1947 audiences had not eaten well for eight years and were ravenous. We have talked already about the haddock. Imagine the redolence of that wafting through a damp bomb-damaged two-up, two-down on a wet Sunday morning.

“Greedy old bag!”

I’ll leave you with some more abiding olfactory images: the hung-over Vi crawling out of bed in that frock she’s danced and then slept in – and draping it on a hanger, ready for next time. (She washes her person and her undies in a bath in the kitchen). And then Sidney Tafler smoking and exhaling a cloud of tobacco preparatory to kissing Vi on the mouth. Finally, one can’t help think of George finding a very funny smell in his bed, what with Tommy having being in it all day after twelve hours on the run from Dartmoor and all that rain, sweat, sex and spilled gravy…

Disconcerting.

GOOGIE WITHERS 1917 – 2011

¤ once beaten up in a theatre dressing room by Olivier for slandering Gielgud.

¤¤ Australian actor John McCallum: Googie’s husband in real life. They were courted during filming, married in 1948 and died within months of one another in 2010 -11. Australia’s Golden Show Biz Couple – McCallum’s memoirs were endearingly entitled Life With Googie.

¤¤¤ it’s a nasty jolt to realise we were still giving prisoners a taste of the cat in 1947. More frivolously, McCallum’s naked torso as he shows off his scars reminds us very forcibly of a time when today’s universal gym phenonemon was entirely unknown.

* and guess what? When the credits roll we see this catchy tune is ‘Theme Without Words’, specially composed by Marlene’s old Berliner pal of the 1920’s, Mischa Spoliansky.

** the noisy maid in MARY POPPINS; the even noisier Ida in BRIGHTON ROCK.

*** the usually motherly Gladys Henson has a couple of lines as the victim’s tarty wife. She comes to the door on a Sunday afternoon in close-fitting satin and bracelets: hung with stolen jewellery.

#and the fabulous music by Georges Auric

# do you think there might be some Easter parable mixed up in this? There are certain clues…

WAIT FOR THE MOMENT WHEN: Bette Davis…

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…beautiful, blind and dying, plants the hyacinth bulbs in DARK VICTORY ; expires in the throes of syphilis in OF HUMAN BONDAGE; crazed for drink smashes open the cocktail cabinet in DANGEROUS; watches Herbert Marshall die on the stairs in THE LITTLE FOXES; goes bananas in the witness box in BORDERTOWN… . The First Lady of the Screen had so many extraordinary moments during a career of over 50 years that LW hardly knows where to begin. Let’s draw a bow at a venture and watch Bette at her zenith in one of her smoothest, most satisfying pictures NOW,VOYAGER (1942): a great cast, capable director & thrilling Max Steiner score, not to mention the leading lady’s lifelong approval of the finished product (very rare).

Fascinating movie: a glossy smoothly- buffed soap opera with a veneer of Hollywood’s then obsession with psychology & psychoanalysis. (What prompted this trend anyway? The trauma of the Second World War?). Or is NOW, VOYAGER in fact the other away about – an entire medical library of neuroses dressed up in Orry Kelly couture and sprays of camellias? My DVD bears the incomprehensible caveat “contains mild sexualised nudity”. In fact there IS no nudity, sexualised or otherwise, but there are a great many pools of dark deep water. Electra complexes¤, eating disorders, constant drinking – alcohol used as a crutch*/ “pre-drinking” – frustrated sexuality, mental sadism, broken marriages, adultery, unwanted pregnancies, unlimited guilt.

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NOW, VOYAGER is also a vast chocolate box of soft centre wish-fulfilment. Davis as the unkempt and sexually repressed spinster Charlotte Vale – ” ‘introverted, Doctor ‘” – in the grip of a nervous breakdown is transformed by psychiatrist Claude Rains (and unlimited money) into a glamorous femme du monde**. Furnished with trunks of stunning gowns Charlotte is sent on a cruise to Brazil*** where she is seduced by purring, sensitive, unhappily married Jerry (Paul Henried). In one of the many mirror images of the narrative we see that this is the second memorable cruise of Charlotte’s life: as an attractive girl she was deflowered by a ship’s officer and subsequently imprisoned – actually + emotionally – at home by her monstrous mother, Gladys Cooper•. In South America, Charlotte’s incandescent sexual fulfillment is thwarted once again, but now she sublimates her love for Jerry in caring for his highly disturbed daughter – in whom of course she sees herself as a child. At which point the movie becomes weirdly familiar as we recall similar plots and themes from other Davis hits which revolve around tormented or problematic motherhood, both actual and surrogate: THE OLD MAID, THE GREAT LIE, WATCH ON THE RHINE, ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO, THAT CERTAIN WOMAN, THE CORN IS GREEN, THE CATERED AFFAIR,THE NANNY, THE ANNIVERSARY…there are others.•• One may not immediately associate Bette Davis with maternity# yet it is a theme that dominated both her private and artistic life: one of her quasi-autobiographies is entitled ‘Mother Goddam’ – “I have often called myself this to my children”. No other of the great female stars played mothers in such great diversity and quantity. Was this one secret of Bette’s huge popularity, especially with female audiences? Davis later admitted to a series of abortions for the sake of her career before finally giving birth to a daughter – ‘B.D.’ – in 1946. This was the child (glimpsed as a teenage neighbour in WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?) who was to betray her mother in print at the very end.

Contemporary and later critics have carped that by 1942 every Davis performance had become an over-familiar exercise in mannerism and technique. Myself, I think she’s very much still on top form in NOW,VOYAGER which belongs to her golden age of performances covering a period of roughly eight years from 1935 : she was only 34 and still able to convince as the young Charlotte in flashback. The startling originality of vision, the freshness, zest, vast energy and attack are still there. And the thoroughness: she holds back nothing. She has the support of a sympathetic director and the energising tension (maybe also the competitive threat) of two highly magnetic and charismatic co-stars – Cooper## and Rains – who are more than capable of holding their own against her. Rains was the only actor (and they appeared in four films together) able to upstage Davis, as he does in the later grotesque – and highly diverting – melodrama DECEPTION (1946). And of course she loved him for it.

By the end of the War, however, Davis was ageing badly. Her tiny figure (5’2″) thickened, her notorious low-slung bosom became matronly and her face showed the strain of a personal and professional life of unremitting struggle and disappointment. She seemed to become exhausted by an inner fire of perpetual rage; and stimulated only by rare scripts such as ALL ABOUT EVE and WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? which re-ignited her extraordinary electric talent. She burned out consumed by her own energy and thwarted creativity; and I think by a certain bafflement at her own vast talent and how best to express it within the constraints of her time and circumstances.

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Everyone remembers the climactic shtik of NOW,VOYAGER: the two cigarettes, the moon and the stars. There are two additional leitmotifs which come from the original novel and are of particular interest to us students of fragrance.

” ‘ I have only a dried corsage and an empty bottle of perfume’ “. The flowers are Jerry’s camellias (his pet name for Charlotte is Camille, a nom de guerre resonant with tragic romance). The perfume is also gift from Jerry – “a slight offering” – after their first shore excursion: spent, with high irony, drinking and selecting gifts for his family. Much is made of this little bottle of scent: “A little bottle of perfume made me feel important…”

” ‘It’s a mixture of several kinds of flowers: it’s called Jolies Fleurs.’

‘I’ll put some on my handkerchief tonight’ “.

On her hanky, please note, not on herself. This may be 1942 but well-bred ladies from Boston are still not applying perfume directly onto the skin. (And we remember Bette as a colonial middle class Englishwoman in THE LETTER exhibiting a similar olfactory discretion). In fact on the ship-board night in question we do not see the perfume brought out; though the hanky is constantly on show, then and later. The scent itself is used to make a dramatic point a couple of reels further in when Charlotte is back in Boston coping with mum & the family; and being courted by a stuffy disapproving old widower. A bracing box of camellias arrives from Jerry (secret squirrels), and we watch Charlotte scenting her hair with the lightest touch of Jolies Fleurs as she dresses for the evening. The scent is her amulet, her talisman: like love, its magic spell is everywhere. Aren’t we all fortunate to be able to make use of it?

BETTE DAVIS 1908 – 1989

¤ not one but THREE problematic mother/daughter relationships: one playful but sinister – “you’ve heard of us? June and December?”; the other two a life & death struggle for existence.

* ” ‘…and because of the drink she lost her inhibitions…..I sound very depraved, don’t I?’ ”

** but Charlotte’s hair is still very tightly secured by numerous combs, and the elementary symbolism of the sequinned butterflies on her evening cloak is much discussed. Everything in old Hollywood pictures has a meaning, as it does in a medieval painting: the greatest difference, perhaps, between vintage cinema and that of today.

*** Latin America: another 1940’s movie obsession on account of the loss of the European cinema market during WW2.

• It is discreetly implied that Mrs Vale’s own sex life was distinctly chilly.

•• one might also reflect on the mother/daughter relationship of Margo Channing + Eve Harrington. Unless you are one of those who see their bond as essentially lesbian?

# contrary-wise, there is always the reference to her perpetual smoking: yet so many of her greatest hits have not a cigarette in sight. Start with all those costume pictures and keep counting.

## please take note of Gladys’s nurse: “‘Pickford’s the name. Dora, not Mary’ “. She’s played by Mary Wickes who had one of the longest careers in the movies: she’s the pawky old nun in all those SISTER ACT epics.

WAIT FOR THE MOMENT WHEN: Mia Farrow…

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…scatters the Scrabble letters onto the floor in ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) to spell out a nightmare revelation. “The name is an anagram”. It’s a scene which never diminishes no matter how many times you watch the movie – have I run it 100 times? – or read Ira Levin’s novel which Roman Polanski films almost line by line (expertly cutting and brisking up the dialogue). After initial bafflement Rosemary pushes the counters into place as smoothly and uncannily as an upturned glass gliding over a ouija board. A sunny room full of bright summer light and Rosemary’s fluffy (baby) blue slippers add counterpoint to a horror emphasised by shrieking music on the soundtrack and the uncanny coincidence of the leading man’s¤ name being almost an anagram of that of the devils in the adjoining apartment. Have you not noticed the similarity between ‘Cassavetes’ and the ‘Castavets’? The more you think about it the more disturbing it becomes, especially in the context of this scene.

Which is always terrifying, every single time. It has the implacable recitative ritual of a fairy tale, it plays on our atavistic reverence for the power of words and the magic of secret names which may not be spoken. THIS time, will the words come out different? No – once again the letters fall into the same order. Like a girl in a fable, a fairy – or, of course, a witch – Rosemary transmutes the mundanity of a board game into a revelation of Satan. Director Roman Polanski has Farrow made up and coiffed like a Vidal Sassoon elf, a sick changeling like the baby within her. Her huge slippers are like paws. Whereas John Cassavetes as Guy – “he’s so good looking” – is saturnine and far more like most folks’ notion of Satan than the scaly lizardy creature we see crawling over the flowery mattress during the Black Mass rape sequence.

Nothing in ROSEMARY’S BABY is what it first seems; the jumbled letters are a metaphor for the whole film. Guy, the terrible actor who can give a good performance only when lying to his wife. The apparently idyllic apartment with its concealed passages¤¤; the chocolate mousse/mouse with the chalky undertaste; the dippy old couple next door and their frumpy friends; the bouncy girl in the basement who we next see smashed to pieces on the pavement. Rosemary’s dreams – “I told Sister Veronica about the windows and she withdrew the school from the competition…”. And, of course, both the doctors: Hollywood’s stock symbols of respectability and normality subverted. Is “dream boy” Dr Hill really another witch after all, just like jovial bluff Dr Sapirstein*? Could well be – but by the time Hill betrays Rosemary to her captors we are as paranoid as the poor girl herself so it is hard to say for sure.

Polanski’s camera and microphones insinuate themselves through doorways and around corners, using shots and set-ups to make the viewer feel like an excluded eavesdropper, seeing and hearing only a part of what is actually going on; and (until the film is seen again and again) probably misunderstanding, as eavesdroppers often do. The director also uses ingenious aural clues – one might almost say aural puns – to enlighten the more alert members of the audience. Wait for the moment when Rosemary is writhing in bed with terrible stomach cramps and Guy pops out to fetch ice cream cones: then listen up. You may learn something to your advantage.

There’s a memorable sequence when Rosemary goes downtown to the Time & Life Building during the Christmas rush and gazes into a dim window display of something bleak and weird as a banshee wail on the soundtrack makes us jump out of our skins. Then our collective minds clear – we are looking at a Nativity tableau and the shriek is “only” Minnie Castavet doing her shopping. But then there’s deeper ambiguity here – for Minnie is a coven leader, expressly sent out like The Childcatcher to bring Rosemary ( the fattened festive lamb) home under escort.

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Now think about Rosemary absently chewing raw liver and then throwing up as she catches sight of her reflection in the side of a toaster: the primitive mirror (traditional witchy accessory)revealing the truth. Food is everywhere in ROSEMARY’S BABY: mundane canned goods, picnic fare, sandwiches, crisps, party canapes and eggs, but also sinister under-done steaks, creepy cakes and mousses plus of course Minnie’s freshly-made herbal vitamin drinks. Food – the staff of life, the nourishment of growth – becomes something evil and ( like the crack in W.H. Auden’s teacup ) another banality that opens up “a lane to the land of the dead”.

As does smell: we are continually being reminded and prompted by mention of odours and our instinctive response to them. Polanski and Levin lead us back to the animal response that what smells bad is likely to do us harm. Stinking tannis* root may be encased in exquisite silver filigree and (like Rosemary) the viewer may fleetingly persuade himself that it really is a lucky charm – but when Rosemary hangs the tiny pomander around her neck# we cannot help but remember it comes to her washed clean of a suicide’s blood. She recoils at the stench but – fatally – ignores her own instinct to have nothing to do with it. By the time she drops the dainty horror down a drain it’s all too late, things are entirely out of hand.

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Even then, Rosemary tries to right herself with perfume; to claw her way back to normality with fragrance: something we all do from time to time. She sprays herself heavily and refreshingly with Revillon’s 1953 silky aldehydic Detchema. I wonder why such a point is made of this. Do you think it’s the scent of her absent mother, back in Omaha? As she approaches parturition, Rosemary maybe seeks a kind of vicarious maternal comfort. Or is this lush floral, originally intended to complement the wearing of furs, a symbol of the worldly wealth and prosperity brought by Satanic intervention? “The sweet smell of success”. More straightforwardly, maybe it was simply author Ira Levin’s favourite scent. LW had his own funny little experience with Detchema some 20 years ago. Emerging with a bottle from a Nice parfumerie and radiating ylang ylang and iris, LW was at once propositioned by a very homely and traditional (shall we say?) fille de joie: “Allo, cheri!” It brought to mind a well-known advertising campaign for another fragrance – sex workers can’t help acting on impulse…… If only Rosemary had followed hers, right from the start.”

MIA FARROW b. 1945
ROMAN POLANSKI b. 1933
IRA LEVIN 1929 – 2007

¤ John Cassavetes – and of course ROMAN Castavet/ ROMAN Polanski. It’s unsettling: no wonder Mr Mia Farrow (cradle catholic Frankie Sinatra) forbade his wife to do the picture. Her defiance contributed to their eventual divorce.

¤¤ and inexplicably moving furniture.

* highly imaginative casting – dear old Ralph Bellamy: so safe and solid.

** “are you sure you don’t mean anise or orris root?”

# once again, listen to the gasps on the soundtrack.