Wait For The Moment When…

leighton

…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.

Christmas Reading

whatkatydid

One of the first references to perfume I came across in print was in “What Katy Did”. Enthused by the very young Susan Hampshire in the TV series I read my first copy to rags, and my current surviving edition is an Armada paperback from 1967 with crumbling pages now the colour of gravy. In this text the adorable Clover Carr’s stated preference for “eau de cologne” is rendered as “scent”. She’s playing grown-ups and planning on having a large pool full of cologne in the back yard into which she can dip the hankies of passing schoolchildren. As an infant I was foxed by this term, pronouncing it to myself as “eau de kol-JEAN”. Which may have been a common problem, thus leading to Armada’s editorial alteration.

When I grew up and went to work at Harrods I met Lana, the glorious Houbigant Girl, who came from the Balkans and looked exactly like a larger than lifesize Victorian wax doll with huge blue eyes like coat buttons and ringlets nearly to her waist. She was there to sell Quelques Fleurs & did it with unique panache because she had exactly the same fantasy as Clover Carr. O! she had the gift all right, and after listening to Lana’s silvery-voiced fantasies of cathedral aisles running with conduits of Quelques Fleurs and guests holding up blue silk parasols against scent pouring from the skies, every customer was begging for the 100ml size.

Every December when the parcels start to come, I think of the Christmas Eve in “What Katy Did At School”. Snowbound in New England, Clover + Katy receive two wonderful elaborately assembled crates of gifts and food parcels from their family back home in Burnet, Ohio. The smaller box is filled with flowers, wadded in cotton wool against the freeze – roses, geraniums, heliotrope and carnations. Beneath, exquisitely packed, are two quilted satin glove cases “delicately scented”, one mauve, one lilac. It’s a marvellous image; the flowers being carefully removed and revived from their long chilled journey, placed in glasses of water and distributed around the school with pears, apples, prunes and crunchy jumbles. What is a jumble?

Though I’m also exceedingly fond of the company of the March girls, the Katy books are freer, easier, funnier and less moralising. More modern, shorter, crisper. Even the saintly and somewhat enigmatic Cousin Helen doesn’t grate, being sufficiently self-indulgent as to wear bracelets, and to travel with her own flower vase – luxuries at which Marmee, I think, would have had a fit. As does Mrs Hall next door – “Ma said she fears your cousin is a worldly person”. “Katy” has something for everyone and every situation. Anyone who has suffered the discomfort of an overly protracted summer should read the first chapter of “What Katy Did At School” and spend the night with Elsie and Johnny in their terrible feather bed at Mrs Worrett’s baking, fly-blown, pumpkin-coloured farmhouse. “Mrs Worrett never mounted in hot weather”. Completely unrelated to the rest of the book, this short section is worthy of Elizabeth Bowen at her most comically sinister. It’s one of my favourite passages of the entire canon.

Noel Coward slept on into eternity after a quiet Jamaican evening in bed with eggs on a tray and an E Nesbit. Maybe Susan Coolidge’s books will provide the same rite of passage for me. And I’d prefer the eggs scrambled.

FOOTNOTE: the Cosmic Scrambled Egg.

Scrambled eggs are immortalised on film by being messed around by a lovelorn Joan Fontaine in the first reel of REBECCA.

An Harrods recipe of my time, much circulated in Perfumery, called for a dollop of mayonnaise to be dropped into the eggs at the moment of serving. Very rich – but excellent after a late evening on counter.

A Very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to You All!

Yours, most Warmly & Gratefully,
LW

All The Silly Dreams…

Brief Encounter is a great favourite, and as is the case with all great movies you read it differently with each viewing. Last night I remarked how desiccated and sour Laura Jesson’s life has become: the rather tiresome children seem to get on her nerves; her supposed friends are all hateful. How has this apparently highly sensitive person fallen in with the company of such shallow mean-minded treacherous women? She has no real friends at all. She spends every Thursday at the pictures and is dissatisfied with everything she sees: except for Donald Duck. What appeals to her about him? “His furious energy and his blind frustrated rages.” Go figure, as the young people say.

Laura’s energies are confined to a boring, narrow if relentless routine – reserving new books at Boots Library, dodging bores, and changing into the same dowdy dress for dinner with reliable affectionate Fred who appears interested only in his food, a quiet life and the crossword puzzle: in fact he’s the only person in the movie who genuinely cares for Laura’s wellbeing. Then she meets the glamorous doctor: is he all he seems? Alec may easily be seen as an cynical serial seducer, preying on lonely and impressionable middle aged ladies with not enough to do with their lives. The scene of him barging in Laura at the Kardomah cafe and suggesting, as he gobbles bread roll, that he come to the pictures with her can be romantic or horribly creepy, depending on your own mood. We only have his word for it that he has the alibi of a spouse (“his wife…Madeleine…”) and children at home. And what of his ambiguous relationship with the vile surgeon, Stephen, who lends Alec the keys to his arty service flat where he keeps tropical fish on the mantelpiece above a live fire. Though evidently not with assignations with virtuous housewives in mind: Laura’s appearance there provokes the most appalling outburst of vindictive spite from Stephen. In fact the two doctors (in the 1940’s, unimpeachable pillars of the community) compare very badly with Fred and Mr Godbey the ticket-collector at Ketchworth Station who are protective, loyal, reliable and full of soothing common sense: the two men who are – and how ironically! – satirised as figures of fun.

Is the tale we are narrated by Laura actually true? She is a dreamer; the story of the film is told in a flashback of sad reverie – she dreams within the dream, sitting in a darkening railway carriage spinning fantasies “like a romantic schoolgirl, like a romantic fool”.

Has Laura imagined the whole thing? Was there really any love affair at all? Does the whole romance simply take place in her head, prompted by the chance encounter with Alec who takes the grit from her eye? Is the rest of the film just her fantasy, as she sits in her chair sewing, of what might have been? A hash of everything she’s ever seen on the cinema or read in a toiletry catalogue? “ Then all the silly dreams faded”…..

I don’t think Laura Jesson is much of a user of scent and I suspect that Fred would probably dislike it, though he doesn’t mind his wife smoking providing it’s not in the street. She disparages frivolous hats and too much make-up; the malevolent friend (sic) Mrs Norton is seen plucking her eyebrows like a bird of prey, while Laura stumbles through her poor little lies on the telephone. Laura likes the smell of her chemist’s (“nice things: herbs and soap and scent”); maybe she dabs a little eau de cologne on her hanky for special occasions, but no doubt has a horror of “common” perfumes such as Evening in Paris and Californian Poppy. In this she is unlike her creator, Noel Coward, who was a promiscuous and liberal lover of scent on stage and off: Arpege, Narcisse Noir, No 5 and Mitsouko were all grist to his mill. But Laura is a lover I’ll bet of scent stories and beautiful bottles, anything to feed that starving imagination like the barrel organ music that so delights her. (“Strange how potent cheap music is”). That movie that she and Alec walk out of, Flames of Passion, sounds like the name of a Woolworth perfume, all promise and no fulfilment.

As the lights come on at the Odeon is Laura left with a fragrant memory or a cheating whiff of lies? Top-notes of exciting illusion with no base in fact?