“For your approval,” to take a page from Rod Serling's playbook, “kindly examine the world of a particularly unusual specimen of the Hollywood animal – specifically one Alfred Reginald Jones, aka Ray Milland...”
Indeed Milland was one of those unique celluloid beings whose British roots made no difference in his American assimilation (not unlike Cary Grant’s or Bob Hope’s). Milland's handsome roguish looks seemed to doom him to light comedic roles and featured supporting gigs in action pix, both of which he excelled.
Fritz Lang saw something a bit darker, and cast him as an ex-mental patient in 1942's Ministry of Fear. This caused a splinter in his heroic portfolio, and soon Billy Wilder, who did a likewise change-of-pace with Fred MacMurray (a Milland contemporary from Paramount's beefcake roster and screwball costar in the studio's wacky 1935 Claudette Colbert vehicle The Gilded Lily), came a-callin' with a request for Ray to dig down deep into the dregs and headline The Lost Weekend, a black look at a hopeless alcoholic. Milland initially resisted (as did MacMurray with Double Indemnity), but soon Wilder's persistence (and/or Paramount's) won the day...and Ray growled his way through the harrowing noir which would win him his 1945 Oscar for Best Actor.
From this point on, Milland virtually re-invented himself – rarely retreating back into comedies or DeMille-ish cardboard histrionics. Playing drunk became a near-cottage industry for the actor throughout the remainder of his career – each successive foray into inebriation being seamier and surlier than its predecessor. Otherwise, the thespian spent the next big-screen decade (he tried a sitcom in the early days of TV, which didn't do much for his CV or the medium) in a barrage of film noirs and gritty oaters – the latter earning the moniker of “adult westerns,'” one of which (1955’s A Man Alone) the versatile Milland also directed.
Why Milland soared above the rest playing male skanks, drunks, adulterers, killers, thieves and enemy agents might best be understood by digging into his personal life. From the quotes I've garnered over the years, it is unlikely that we would have ever been pals – being on opposite sides of almost every issue, from the arts to politics. He made no bones about boning Grace Kelly during his Hitchcock tenure in 1954's Dial M for Murder (which additionally allowed audiences to experience the star's scumbagiosity in 3-D); not surprisingly, it very nearly wrecked his 22 years of wedded bliss. I heard that he once got into a public argument with his then-teenaged son, Danny – ending with him hauling off and punching the lad squarely in the face (the younger Milland must have thought his father’s most famous role to be a guidance primer – fighting and generally losing a long ongoing battle with substance abuse; he committed suicide in 1981).
Indeed, post-Lost Weekend, Milland was pushing the card on both sides of the camera – playing a ruthless Victorian fiend in the perfectly-titled So Evil My Love (1948)...and working with well-known director, Commie hunter and womanizing psychopath John Farrow in two spectacular late Forties noirs, The Big Clock (1948) and, more prominently, Alias Nick Beal (1949), wherein the malevolent Milland plays no less than a trenchcoat-and-fedora-wearing Satan, returned to post-war America to slime souls into hell. He got the jump on the James Bond pics in 1956 by helming Lisbon – an action thriller filmed on location in Naturama (Republic's CinemaScope weak sister). In this adventure, Milland plays a (what else?) bitter soldier of fortune pitted against an even eviler Claude Rains, who passes the time clubbing pigeons to death with a mallet. Milland's big moment consists of firing flare guns into the chests of his pursuers – an exhibition of movie anti-social behavior that perhaps only 007 would understand. Or possibly Milland's son.
Ray Milland, while not forgotten, did kind of drift into second-tier celebrity. A mid-Fifties re-issue of DeMille's 1942 blockbuster Reap the Wild Wind told it all. Originally it headlined Milland and Paulette Goddard; in 1956 the second leads moved up to top-billing (okay, it's John Wayne and Susan Hayward...but still...).
Directing some of the nastiest TV installments of Thriller, G.E. True Theater and Suspicion took up most of his later work – although he did double duty appearing on-camera in his nuclear-apocalypse AIP effort, 1962's Panic in Year Zero. In this after-the-bomb survival manual, Milland, Jean Hagen and son Frankie Avalon face a bleak future – finding one of the new millennium’s few perks via using teen gang members as target practice.
Returning to his old Paramount stomping ground, Milland made a brief mini-comeback of sorts playing Ryan O'Neal's old-school bigoted pater (with authentic bald pate) in 1970’s Love Story.
Nevertheless the one-time top box office attraction’s diminishing’s movie candle power is best summed up by an incident taking place in South Africa during the early 1970s. Doing one of those take-the-money-and-run cheapie disasters, the Oscar-winner, along with such other stalwart board-trodders as Anthony Dawson and John van Dreelen, sat around in the heat one particularly humid afternoon listening to costar Cameron Mitchell chide the group about their profession. Mitchell was leaning against a tree while a guileless simian swung to and fro on a branch just atop the actor’s head. The volatile Mitchell accused the group of all being whores, himself included. Milland took careful note of this statement, nodding in agreement as the little ape now proceeded to masturbate furiously against the tree’s trunk (the monkey, not Mitchell). It’s undoubtedly a career-changing event duly recorded in Milland's acerbic 1974 autobiography, Wide-Eyed in Babylon.
In 1972, he appeared on a Bob Hope Special. Typical of the Hope specials was the parodying of current movies. For some unfathomable reason, the sketch with Milland spoofed The Lost Weekend – as if the almost 30-year-old pic was currently playing in theaters. I remember hearing fellow bus passengers talking about it the next day, as I commuted to NYU. “Who was the mean old guy hiding liquor bottles?” It really did defy explanation – it was so bizarre.
The Warner Archive Collection and Olive Films have recently released two supreme examples Millandcholia, A LIFE OF HER OWN and SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR – each with terrific casts and both showcasing major George directors (Cukor and Stevens)...but so obscure that even I had never heard of one of them (the latter). It's what makes collecting so exciting – that discovery factor, particularly in the case of the Cukor offering, as I consider it one of his finest works.
Crimes of Fashion.
Usually when one is told of an obscure early 1950s George Cukor pic, they opt for the rela-tively safe choice of The Model and the Marriage Broker. Fans steer clear of A LIFE OF HER OWN (****) – either by choice or simply because they haven't a clue it even exists. BIG mistake. This 1950 romantic-noir-drama is a powerhouse of a picture – one that beautifully exposes the MGM gloss for the transparent glitz it really is. The movie is unrelenting – a revealing look at the shallow underbelly of what it means to be a celebrity; in doing so, it provides star Lana Turner with one of her best roles ever. It clearly shows the influence of in-coming Dore Schary for the soon-to-be-out-on-his-ass L.B. Mayer. The gritty L.A. locations, particularly the nighttime imagery (effectively subbing for Manhattan), have more in common with Metro’s Side Street than Weekend at the Waldorf. Succinctly put, A LIFE OF HER OWN is an ugly motion picture about beauty; I believe it to be one of Cukor's greatest works – and one we can now revel in, thanks to its recent DVD-R debut as part of the Warner Archive Collection.
Turner, a savvy tank-town babe, knows she's smarter than the rest – and certainly better looking. She seems to be from the same burg Joan Crawford hailed from in Metro's Possessed some twenty years earlier.
A local cabbie, driving her to a New York-bound train, snarls some unkind words to her about being an ingrate; Turner sneers, “Don't worry, I won't be back!” And she won't. Determined Turner is fanatical about becoming a model – and cerebral enough to not play the sleeping-her-way-to-the-top Olympics that admittedly offer her easy access from almost the very moment she hits the Big Apple.
The modeling world is not depicted as anything remotely resembling glamorous – indeed it's the antithesis: glamorendous! Cukor unveils the fashion industry as a snide, waspy sophisticated sexual playground where every other person is either Clifton Webb or a worse Clifton Webb. No rest for the wicked is this movie's mantra – and you know you're in for a shattering bumper-car ride when the pic's voice of reason is fellow runway denizen Jean Hagen.
The women are slabs of meat to be bartered with. I'm “out of your price range,” snaps Turner smugly feeling her power...just offering up enough to get the ad execs interested. And with the help of a boldly openly gay broker (“Never make up – make down,” is his ulterior meaning advice, a startling performance by Tom Ewell – virtually the only decent character in the narrative, no doubt thanks to Cukor), Turner ascends to the top of the heap.
Madman honcho Louis Calhern, on the other hand, is nothing more than a Park Avenue pimp – luring accounts into his fold with his model agency connections. It's here that Turner meets perhaps the most slimy person ever to appear in a post-Code/pre-1955 MGM movie – a reptilian Barry Sullivan, whose obsession with Turner threatens to get nasty in that “arm’s length, muthafucka!” restraining order way. Rebuked for what he is, the scumbag laughs in her face – shrugging off his advances with a we'll-meet-again bravado.
It's victory-after-victory for Lana and it seems that she's right on course...until she collides with yet another Calhern client – out-of-towner Ray Milland, who moves in for the attack with the subtlety of a diesel-spewing freight train through a tunnel (he's first seen ogling her while she sleeps). Milland wants some action – and too-long-celibate Turner needs some...It's the worst kind of good/bad timing imaginable. Panting passion chucks her do-bee/don't-bee check list out the window and before you can say “kept property,” Turner becomes the lay of Milland.
Milland isn't just a womanizing sleazeball – he's a married womanizing sleazeball...And that’s not the half of it. His still-loving spouse is a wheelchair-confined invalid – a result of a car accident he caused. Oy!
Sex and insanity go hand-in-hand as the supermodel deliriously skips along a downward psychopath to destruction. Ample proof of Turner’s character hitting rock bottom is physically embossed by the grinning hyena face of an energized and reassured Sullivan, wringing his talons with glee in the best Victorian villain tradition. “Spread the misery around,” he chortles in this all-too familiar game where “...the winner gets the loser.”
While all these performances are top-notch – the one standout comes not from the leads. A gut-wrenching brief appearance by Ann Dvorak – in possibly her finest moment – delivers the goods in spades. As a ravishing albeit fragile model, she's considered too passe (being in her late thirties) for the current crop (“Horrible things...” happen, she warns Turner, “especially early in the morning...at around four o'clock...”). Mentally unstable – an alcoholic AND a nymphomaniac, Dvorak's all-too-short screen footage is nothing short of awesome. It's shameful that she didn't win the year's Best Supporting Actress honors – or at least get nominated (I mean, Josephine Hull in Harvey?!! Gimme a break!). Trust me, she'll break your friggin’ heart.
Cukor's acid-tinged take-no-prisoners direction perfectly fuels Isobel Lennart's barbed-wire script. The black and white photography by George Folsey is textbook monochrome – so sharp in this Warner Archive transfer that you can clearly see Milland's toupee line. And the smooth Bronislau Kaper score accurately cap-tures the cosmopolitan ways of the penthouse set. Oh, yeah, and don't forget to check out some primo bits from Phyllis Kirk, Whit Bissell and the great Kathleen Freeman.
Another bonus is the original theatrical trailer and cover one-sheet. “Lana Turner as Lily James Who REALLY Lived!” In 1950, that not only popped the corn, but added the butter (old maids included!).
Break a Keg.
It's always a treat when one comes across an obscure motion picture by a major director with top-line stars...Even more so when that picture happens to be SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR (***)...since, as indicated earlier, until this Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment DVD release, I had never even heard of it! But, yes, exist it does...And, yes, it's a George Stevens production costarring Joan Fontaine and Ray Milland. It would be one thing if this was some tossed-aside antique from the late silent or early talkie days, but it's not a 1920s, 30s or even 40s artifact. It's from the director's peak period – made in 1952 – right between two of his most acclaimed works during his Paramount contract, A Place in the Sun and Shane.
WTF?!!!! Am I right?
It doesn't take more than a reel to unfurl before one realizes that lofty in plot as it is – SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR was a relatively easy weepie for Stevens to churn out while biding time for the next bigger project. Still the noirish trappings and the cast make this worth a look.
Okay, so what's the story? One-time hotshot Broadway star Joan Fontaine is now plummeting into point-of-no-return alcoholism. Who better to help her than recovering juicer Milland? Of course, that's like hiring Nero to lecture on fire prevention...but it's also an op to have two former Oscar winners strut their stuff and possibly strike lightning twice...even, if in this case, it's white lightning.
Milland discovers a besotted Fontaine spread-eagled in a bed at a Manhattan dive that can only be referred to as the Old Biddy Slurry Word Inn. That's because everybody there seems to be past their prime and inebriated. Even the plants in the lobby are potted. Milland, a successful adman and supposed AA member, is called in by the elevator operator (another alky).
The crux of the movie then becomes his goal to help the actress back to health and her former glory hitting the heights of the Great White Way. Alas, not so easy a task. For one thing, there's the AA connection. Remember I said that Milland is a supposed member...I said that because, if, indeed, he is to act as Fontaine's sponsor – he's doing a lousy job. He never takes her to a meeting; in fact, he never attends one himself (come on, even Eddie Albert got Susie Hayward to enthusiastically muster up the gumption to lead her fellow addicts in a rousing rendition of “For Tonight We'll Merry-Merry Be”). Even though he tells her “AA showed me the way to pull myself out of it,” Milland's is obviously confusing Alcoholic's Anonymous with All-out Adultery, as the married-with-children's cure-all for Fontaine is simple: embark on a torrid affair and sex your way to sobriety.
While it seems to work at first, soon a guilt-ridden Milland discovers that he now has two addictions: lick her and liquor...In other words, the spirits are spilling AND the flesh is weak. That's right, dat ole debil rum is resurfacing in his life – not helped by the debauched pent-house agency parties his madmen cohorts throw when they aren't themselves selling sex and booze to the masses (which seems to be twice daily and 24/7 from Friday-Sunday). Soon the pair are literally tripping the light fantastic – losing not just a weekend, but every calendar holiday, including Rosh Hashanah.
Fontaine, when standing upright, is, as one might expect, picture perfect; when incoherent – even better. Ditto Milland, who, in actuality, is nothing more than a candied-up dirt bag – taking advantage of a terrible situation and ending up the worse for wear.
An unrealistic glossy look at folks who get shellacked, SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR is the kind of movie that in anyone else's mitts would be sloughed off as a sleazy, undistinguished but roadside accident-watching freak show. It will certainly appeal to the curious – if for no other reason than its near non-existence. Aside from the director and the two leads, there's a superb supporting cast. Teresa Wright plays Milland's Teresa-wronged wife, and, even in her limited scenes, one immediately concludes that she would have been better off getting snuffed by Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt. It's a thankless role in which the fine actress is totally wasted, albeit in a different way than her above-the-title costars.
That said, SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR benefits from the Paramount dream factory at its best. The great George Barnes' magnificent black and white photography utilizes Toland-like deep focus that adds a hard-enameled sheen to the picture's surface. Stevens too excels editorially in his depicting the main characters' activities via parallel cutting. Edith Head contributes some quintessential era apparel that hopefully has been Scotch-guarded to survive their ulterior motives as hurling bullseyes, and Victor Young delivers a melodious score that is...dare I say...appropriately lush.
The DVD virtually derives from pristine 35MM materials. And why not? Who's used these elements in the sixty-one years since its release? SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR's title ultimately is a sardonic choice for its inhabitants – and one far more applicable for rabid movie buffs
A LIFE OF HER OWN. Black and White. Full Frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio. CAT # 88331673950. SRP: $19.95.
Available through The Warner Archive Collection (www.warnerarchive.com).
SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR. Black and White. Full Frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio. UPC # 887090037105. CAT # OF371. SRP: $24.95.