Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Reappearing Portrait from "Murder, She Said"

I guess it is not that surprising that my post about Miss Marple has strong elements of mystery in it. That is because, I've spent over a month trying to identify a portrait and have found it impossible. So, I'm requesting your help: if this picture looks familiar in any respect- sitter, style, appearance in another movie, or (best of all) actual title and artist- please let me know.

This painting was actually brought to my attention by Susan, a reader from sunny California, and I have to thank her again for letting me know about it because its story and history is quite interesting. She noticed one particular portrait that appeared in two adaptations of the same Agatha Christie novel nearly fifty years apart. Therefore, the credit for the discovery goes to her, but I'm going to flesh it out a little bit.
As far as "we" know, the portrait first appeared in the classic Miss Marple movie Murder, She Said (1961). This was the first installation of the famed Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple films. Now, I'm quite the Agatha Christie purist and would be the first to admit that Margaret Rutherford is certainly not the embodiment of the literary Miss Jane Marple, but she is something and something wonderful at that. If you have never seen the films, they are just a lot of fun: they're smart, humorous, and all around good fun (as long as you don't mind a murder or two). Most Agatha Christie fans agree with me: even if Margaret Rutherford isn't perfect, her positive factors make for some excellent entertainment.
Now, the film Murder, She Said is based on the Agatha Christie novel 4:50 from Paddington (alternatively titled What Mrs. McGillicudy Saw. What, exactly was seen, is, of course, a murder. In the novel, a friend of Miss Marple's witnesses a murder in a passing train. In the film, Miss Marple herself witnesses the murder. In both instances, the elderly woman is not believed and Miss Marple is left to solve the crime herself. In the novel, Miss Marple enlists the help of an intelligent, beautiful, industrious woman Lucy to go into the mansion near where the murder took place to find out what exactly went down. Again, in the film, Miss Marple enlists herself to be the housekeeper and discover the murder.
In either case, as Miss Marple is being shown the house, she is directed towards the imposing portrait of a turn of the century gentleman who Miss Ackenthorpe, the daughter of the cantankerous owner, identifies as the great industrialist founder of the family. He is the source of wealth and money for this now-corrupt family. Not surprisingly, in such a mysterious setting conjured up by Dame Agatha, not too much time passes before bodies start falling all out of the woodwork.

Marple (2004)
All well and good- the portrait never shows up again prominently in the film. In actuality, it doesn't seem that important. Perhaps it would be faintly interesting to find out who painted it and of whom it portrays, but otherwise, not climatically or thematically importantly. But, here is the real mystery. In 2004, ITV redid an adaptation of the story (which had actually been done by Joan Hickson's BBC Miss Marple series earlier). This version was titled "What Mrs. McGillicudy Saw" and starred Geraldine McEwan who is, in all honesty, not my favorite Marple. (My favorites, if you were wondering are Rutherford, Lansbury, and then Hickson- all equally good in their own respects).
detail from Murder, She Said (1961)
Detail from the color version of the portrait seen on the telly
This detail was shown in the show: I didn't create it- so I know
its accurate despite the lack of clarity in the other two stills
Well, this version follows some aspects of the novel more faithfully. The character of Lucy plays an important role. Like Margaret Rutherford before her, Jane is given a small tour of the house by the daughter of the Crackenthorpe family (notice the different spelling). Once again, she is introduced to the portrait of the source of the family's wealth, the great grandfather or whatever who was a candy baron in turn of the century England. But, here is the mystery: it is clearly the same portrait!
My computer generated color version of the whole
portrait: I know, its a little sloppy
Now, I've checked the Joan Hickson version very quickly and I can't seem to find anything to suggest that the portrait was also used there. But I am dying to find out exactly what this painting was used for. How did it end up in MGM in the '60s and ITV in 2004? Who is it? It is a prop portrait or a real historic portrait of a historic figure? And why was the same portrait used in two adaptations of the same story? Was it coincidence or was it purposeful, and if so why? You know I don't believe in coincidences, but either this is a very subtle homage to the Rutherford original or it is something that I do not understand. And I'd really like to! From what I can tell, the portrait can be dated anywhere from 1880-1910, which is obviously a wide range. I am unable to find an incredibly clear version of the portrait but I've engineered one the best I can. So, if you can help me find anything about this mysterious portrait, let me know. Unfortunately, my knowledge of human nature in St. Mary's Mead isn't going to help me out in this case!

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Quiet Man Memorial Statue in Ireland

Happy St. Patricks Day everyone! I wanted to do a holiday related post and what film embodies the spirit of classic Ireland and film more than John Ford's The Quiet Man. Ford's nostalgically idealized view of the Irish countryside is a constantly delightful movie, made all the more delightful due to the gorgeous cinematography and impressive cast led by the great John Wayne and the beautiful Maureen O'Hara. The Quiet Man is one of those rare classics that sometimes is recognized because it has (not surprisingly) a cult following from Irish-Americans who can find nothing wrong with the charming, funny movie that features an American hero and an Irish setting. It's the perfect St. Patrick's Day movie.

I once read in a John Ford biography that Ford (a kind of ornery guy) was actually very found of Ireland. His love of the nation comes out clearly in the film which lovingly portrays the Irish countryside in drop-dead gorgeous technicolor. Its an idyllic world of nostalgia and its pure entertainment at its finest.
Ford filmed The Quiet Man on location in County Mayo, Ireland. Much of the movie was filmed in the quaint village of Cong. When looking into the film I was pleasantly surprised to find that Cong embraces its cinematic history and even offers "Quiet Man tours." In fact, last year, the people of Cong established a statue of John Wayne carrying Maureen O'Hara (making an homage to the famous scene at the end of the film). The statue was sculpted by sculptor Mark Rode, who also made some replicas that were sold to offset the cost of the upkeep of the statue. According to the local town council, the statue pays tribute both to the lovely film and the friendly Irish natives who helped out in the film and contributed to the fantastic finished product.

"Irish Central"

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Madonna of Bruges & the "Monuments Men"

Last night, I ventured into a movie theater to see a film that I've been anticipating almost as much as the now-delayed Grace Kelly biopic  starring Nicole Kidman- but more on that later. I guess part of the reason I was drawn to the Monuments Men was because it is one of my favorite things- a movie that not only features art but centers around it- a rare but wonderful thing for the Art of Film!
The Madonna of Bruges as it appears in the film
The Monuments Men had a lot of good things going for it- an incredible cast headed by George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Cate Blanchett, an intriguing historical story, and a motivational message. But somehow, between all that great stuff, the delivery of the film left me feeling like I was missing out on something. George Clooney gives too many inspirational speeches about the importance and value of art, which I appreciated philosophically, but which did not exactly entertain. All that criticism aside, I actually did enjoy the film because I was intrigued by the historical truth behind the film and I thought that the actors did a phenomenal job. Perhaps the best aspect of the film was the obvious effort made to recreate the historical setting: the film seems authentically historical throughout its entirety, which I appreciated. Which is really my feelings on the film itself: The Monuments Men wasn't the most entertaining film but that didn't take away from my interest and appreciation of it.
A still from The Monuments Men (2014)
While the film was centered on the Allied attempt to preserve and regain all, or at least a large majority, of the Nazi-seized art during World War II, the film eventually shifted its focus to the saving of two specific pieces: Jan Van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece and Michelangelo's Madonna of Bruges. I don't want to take attention away from the other precious and valuable works of art saved, but I'm only going to focus on the Madonna of Bruges because I was really attracted by the piece and because there was a personal connection in the film to it. Both pieces, the Madonna and the Altarpiece are also high points of European artistic achievement during the Renaissance, a period which embodied the artistic spirit which the Monuments Men valued so much.
It is noted in the film that the Madonna of Bruges (1501-04) is the only sculpture of Michelangelo to reside outside of his Italian homeland. In both the film and in real life, it is located in the historic Church of Our Lady in Bruges, Belgium. It is indeed a beautiful statue, not merely of its profound religious content but because of its serene universal subject of Mother and Child. The Madonna has both the elegant grace and impressive detail of Michelangelo's earlier and more famous statue of Mary and Jesus, The Pieta (1498-99). However, its more intimate size and its happier subject almost shift my personal preference to the lovely Madonna.
In the film, Hugh Bonneville's character, Donald Jeffries, is killed while attempting to protect the Madonna from the retreating Nazis as they fled the city of Bruges. In fact, according to "History vs. Hollywood" (see sources), while Jeffries real counterpart was actually killed, he did not die in an attempt of protection of the lovely Madonna. Nor was he poetically killed while writing a nostalgic and intellectual letter to his elderly father, as events occur rather fancifully in the film. Instead, he was killed from a bomb blast while saving an altarpiece in another European city. However, the Nazis did steal the Madonna in a very similar way: by smuggling it in a hospital stretcher as they left the city. And it was climatically saved by the Allies' Monuments Men from the Altausee Salt Mine in Austria where the Nazis had hidden scores of valuable pieces of art. And in another point very true to history, they dramatically saved it just before the Soviets marched into Altausee to occupy the area per the peace agreements. So, truthers fear not- all the drama was not fabricated; in fact, some of the best drama in the film was closely based on real events.

But, even while everything didn't really occur as it went down in the film, the point remains the same. The arts are essential to a culture's identity and a peoples' accomplishments. The preservation of the arts is, in fact, worth dying for, as Clooney's character monologues at the end. The Madonna, a masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance, symbolizes the Western cultural identity that the Monuments Men worked and sacrificed to preserve. In a strange way, that gorgeous statue personified the ideals that the Monuments Men, real and fictionalized, believed in. And now the world appreciates and understands that, which makes the film very worthwhile. Just like this blog personifies the noble character of the art that appears in film. Which at least I appreciate and understand.
Smithsonian "The True Story of the Monument Men"

History vs. Hollywood: The Monuments Men

Monday, March 10, 2014

Jerry Gebr's Saturday Evening Post-esqe titles in "The Sting" (1973): Judge a Movie by its Title

One of my favorite all-time films is the classic Paul Newman & Robert Redford movie The Sting (1973). The film has a lot of things going for it: namely the incredible cast headed by Newman and Redford, but also featuring the impressive talents of Eileen Brennan and Robert Shaw. There is a classically great cinematic feel to the whole film. Set in the 1930s, it has an excellent period feel that is nostalgic without over-glamorizing. And its smart, which is obviously the film's best element. It is an extremely clever story, headed by two smart actors, and the whole thing just works. It's one of those films (like the Indiana Jones movies) that I will just watch again and again without losing any enjoyment.
I mentioned that I always notice that The Sting has a great cinematic feel, which is kind of a vague comment. I guess what I mean is that The Sting is obviously paying homage to the classic films (which would have actually played during the period when the film is set). Not only does it have the elements of any great classic film from the Golden Age: smart dialogue, great cast, complete entertainment: it deliberately borrows from some features of the Golden Age. Including (you guessed it) the titles.

It's interesting that The Sting should use this device as well because, if you've read any of my title sequence posts before, the title sequences before the 1950s were generally fairly utilitarian. By the mid-30s, they started featuring some illustration behind their title, but it wouldn't be until the great artists of the 50s, including Wayne Fitzgerald and most importantly Saul Bass, who really perfected the art. So the filmmakers of The Sting did what movies do best: it adapted an old idea to make it new and original. They maintained the emphasis on the stars (as was the case in the great Studio days) and mixed it with more artistic titled. And they turned to the great Jerry Gebr to do it.

I've done a few posts on Jerry Gebr and his illustrious career in film and television before- so if you've never heard of him- read up on him. He was responsible for some of the most notable pieces of art that appeared on Universal television programs and movies in the later-20th century. One of his most notable film contributions are the titles for The Sting. I say titles, not opening titles, because they appear throughout the film to note the different sections of the film. I feel that the use of titles throughout the film is a clear throw-back to the dialogue titles of the silent films of the '20s. And this idea is supported by the repeated use of Joplin's The Entertainer throughout the film. So, while the film takes place in a very nostalgic '30s, it has almost a more vintage feel to it. This contributes to the feeling that the film is pure entertainment.
Relying on this vintage feel of classic Americana, Gebr must have been inspired by the iconic cover illustrations of Saturday Evening Post. Norman Rockwell has made the Post's covers synonymous with feelings of nostalgic Americana (which is not really a fair criticism of his work, but this is not the place for that), but Rockwell was not the only great artist to grace the covers. The illustrations are beautiful, clean, and always scream '20s graphic design to me because... well... they're prime examples of great '20s graphic design. Gebr borrows this feel for the film's titles. Not only do the illustrations have a similar look, not only does the film suggest a similar feeling, but the mix of words and illustrations on the title cards contribute to this mixed dialogue card/ magazine cover feel.
I've said it every single time I've talked about title sequences: a truly great title sequence, an artistic title sequence needs to contribute to the overall feel of the film. It needs to prep the audience for the film to come. And Gebr's titles not only prep, but they support, the feel of the film throughout the film. The Sting is pure, good-old-fashioned entertainment with a distinctly vintage Americana feel. And that feeling of classic-America is felt throughout the film and throughout the titles.

It should be noted that these stills are in no particular order. I'm sorry. While I've seen The Sting, I haven't memorized the order of the titles yet. If you really need to know- it gives you the perfect excuse to watch the film again!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Golden Idol in "Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark"

Last Sunday, there was a lot of hubbub about a little golden statuette in Hollywood. I piously abstained from watching the Oscars on Sunday night as a one-man protest against all those who have been snubbed (though, I must admit, my love for Cate Blanchett and Ellen forced me to watch highlights on Monday). As Cate Blanchett herself said the Academy Award is "random and...subjective," but it doesn't mean it is not a great honor to the actors and actresses and filmmakers, and it doesn't mean that those whose win don't deserve it. So, in honor of the Oscars, I decided I'd do a post about another little golden statuette that causes a great deal of buzz.
Raiders of the Lost Ark was on the telly again last week and (because I can't help myself) I had to watch it from start to finish. And who can forget that beginning? It is not a true cold opening because it does introduce the character of Bellouq as Indy's antagonist, but the pursuit of the idol has very little do to with the actual pursuit of the ark. Still, those opening scenes, when we first are introduced to Indy, are so perfect: the right mix of adventure, danger, and even comedy. And really, it is so indicative of all of Indy's adventures- just when it looks like everything has gone right, he's beaten the odds, everything goes wrong and he appears to lose. I can't help myself, I catch my breath every time he replaces the idol with the bag of sand... even though I know- I know- that it it won't work and Indy will be left to run through a hail of arrows, slide under doors, and escape a giant stone rock. Only the Grail Temple has crazier booby traps!
If you ever look at the idol, it is so ridiculous. It is this giant, absurdly laughing golden face peering at Indy. It appears to be solid gold or at least must have some value if so many people are after it. It is a fertility idol which (according to Indy sources) portrays the "Chachapoyan fertility goddess, Pachamama." And if you look at the idol, it is indeed a fertility idol, as beneath the giant head, a little baby is being born. And, believe it or not it is based on a real statuette. Or at least a perceived real statuette. But more on that later.
If you remember my Ark of the Covenant post from a while back (or even, really, my Maltese Falcon post) doing prop history is basically a career. There are so many replicas and fakes and purported real props out there it is hard to know what's real and what's just a very clever fake. The Indiana Jones movies are so much about objects, and the pursuit of objects, so there is a great demand for authentic props. And where there is a demand for real props, there will be a market for clever fakes. So, as a quick disclaimer, I'll admit that I'm a little over my head. I'll include my sources below for you to check out if you want some more comprehensive history.
Apparently, there were a number of "real" idols created during production. They were hollow with (I am almost positive) glass eyes. The idol was then painted over in gold. One idol had glass eyes that apparently moved and followed Indy, those these scenes were all but cut from the final movie. The real statuettes were put in some warehouse, or lost, or were damaged, and it is anyone's guess how many authentic idols there are. All I can say is that if you think you are going to buy an idol- you better do your research.
According to art director Norman Reynolds, the idol is "very much based on a real fertility idol." This statement is only partially true on a number of levels. The idol is based on the Dumbarton Aztec idol of Tlazolteotl, the Aztec fertility goddess. Reynolds adapted the statuette to make it more picturesque for the film. For one, it is smaller so it would be easier for Indy to grab it. He also (obviously) enlarged the head so that it would look more distinctive. The statue was also gilded so that it would look more like "treasure" though, remember, all that glitters is not really gold.
However, if you dig a little deeper into the "original" Aztec (not Incan or even truly Chachapoyan) idol, you'll find that all that is old, well, isn't. According to curators and scholars, the statuette (which was acquired in the archaeologically fruitful and lucrative 19th century) does not seem completely genuine. Either it is completely unique Aztec art (possible) or it was an original statuette "modified" in Europe to make it more marketable or... (gasp) it is completely fake. When it was first written about in 1899 in France, it was lauded as one of the treasures of pre-Columbian Mexican art. It passed hands a few times before it was purchased by Robert Woods-Bliss who left it to Dumbarton Oaks, the research/estate he and his wife founded. A few decades ago, some scholars began to raise concerns, but obviously they were not loud enough to completely dissuade the filmmakers of Raiders to look elsewhere. Because, real or fake, it is extraordinary. 
Which is basically the theme with all the Indy props and even movies. Who cares if the legends are a little messy and the objects are so improbable: those films are extraordinary entertainment. They are creative and daring and fun and smart and everything that movies should be. If I can be entertained, I don't care if what's entertaining me is real or fugazi. Or based on something that might be real but probably is fake. And I will claim that the little Aztec/Incan/Spielbergian/Reynoldian idol is far more worthy of pursuit (real or not) than the little golden man that puts the Hollywood tribes on their knees in homage. But... that's just me. 
Sources (click for link)
"Intriguing Story...Stone Idol..." from The Washington Post by John Kelly

"Raiders of the Lost Ark Fertility Idols... Update 2013" from Original Prop Blog by Jason DeBord

"Raiders of the Lost Ark Fertility Idols in the Marketplace" from "Original Prop Blog" by Jason DeBord

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Midge Portrait in "Vertigo:" The Parody of Carlotta

One of the first subjects I ever wrote about was Vertigo's Carlotta portrait. And why not? For me, the Portrait of Carlotta epitomizes the importance and weight that art in film can hold. It was my beautiful, mysterious summary of the "Art in Film" theory. I love this portrait- I truly do. So, in a way, I'm returning to it, almost a year after I first wrote about it. Specifically, I want to talk about the Carlotta-inspired portrait that Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) paints. For reference, I'll call it the "Midge Portrait." If you are looking for my Carlotta update, scroll down to the next paragraph.
Before, I talk about the Midge Portrait, I want to return once again to the Carlotta Portrait. As I wrote in my original post, Carlotta represents a lot of thematic factors of Vertigo. It becomes the embodiment of the ghosts of Carlotta and (later) Madeline. It represents the mysterious, but beautiful. It represents the object of love and desire and (more importantly) obsession. Madeline's obsession with the picture is the first clue of the supernatural element of the story, the first hint of the creepiness that lies in store: the matching hair, flowers, posture. The famous nightmare sequence forcefully establishes the importance of the portrait when Carlotta haunts Scottie in his sleep.
When I first wrote about Vertigo, I claimed that John Ferren, a frequent Hitchcock collaborator and Abstract Expressionist artist, painted the final Carlotta portrait. I am certain that Ferren is the artist of the Carlotta portrait, not only because of my knowledge of his relationship with Hitchcock but because it has been confirmed by a number of sources, including two separate interviews with Howard Coleman and Dan Aulier, respectively (see sources). Strangely enough Italian artist, Manlio Sarra, is credited in studio records for painting the portrait and, indeed, was commissioned by Hitchcock to paint the portrait. Piecing together a number of conflicting and overlapping stories, I believe that Sarra was originally commissioned to paint the Carlotta portrait when Vera Miles was still the supposed star. I am guessing that his portrait was both unsatisfactory to Hitch and out-of-date once Kim Novak replaced Miles. Carlotta is, after all, a reflection of Madeline's character. Like I said, I cannot be sure this is what happened, but this is my best explanation for why there are multiple sources for the Carlotta portrait. Apparently it was quite a mess getting settled and there were a lot of Carlotta portraits floating around in 1957, yet it seems that today, we can't find one of them. Check my sources for more information.
One painting that was found (but subsequently lost again, as far as I know) is the Midge Portrait. Midge is one of the tragically, thrown-aside girls in cinema. She and Scottie obviously had a past, but now they are caught in that terrible awkward friend-zone. Midge obviously loves Scottie and the feelings are certainly not reciprocated, especially when Scottie becomes obsessed with Madeline. One scene in particular expresses Scottie's obsession and Midge's tragedy. At one point, when Scottie is just being drawn into Madeline, Midge invites Scottie over to her apartment and shows him her new painting. She is incredibly proud of it and thinks that he is going to love it. It is the Carlotta portrait, with her face (glasses and all) superimposed on Carlotta's. Scottie becomes offended, hurt, and upset and storms out of the apartment, leaving Midge alone and furious at herself.
Midge imitating the painting imitating the portrait that Madeline imitates
In a rational sense, the scene doesn't make sense. I think that the painting, like most art parodies, is funny and coy. I don't know exactly what psychological explanation can be given for his actions. Clearly, he is obsessed with Madeline at this point that he refuses others to mock his ideal of beauty. But the fact that the Carlotta portrait is associated so clearly with Madeline establishes the fact that Scottie is in love with an image, and a false image at that. It also establishes how connected he (and the audience) believe that Carlotta and Madeline are. The painting is only an imitation of Carlotta, but we (Scottie and us) view it as a cruel imitation of Madeline, or at least, her possessor. It introduces the important themes of the deceptiveness of images and the false allure of beauty.
It also suggests how much Midge does not understand Scottie. She is unable to see how in love and emotionally vulnerable that he is. She sees the painting for what it is- a lovely portrait- while he sees it as a ghostly reminder of his own love's fragile psychological spirit. She believes that he is genuinely interested in the painting, not the subject. Or more accurately, not who he perceives to be the subject. The danger of assumption and perception is also an important thematic element of the film as Madeline is, of course, not Madeline, not a possessed spirit, not even a relation of Carlotta. She is a false ideal built up on a foundation of lies, and is therefore completely destructive to herself and those around her. The Midge portrait both reestablishes the importance of Carlotta in the understanding Madeline's character and Scottie's obsession with her, which separates him from reality. His reaction to the Midge portrait is almost as important as Madeline's reaction to the Carlotta portrait.

Apparently, the Midge painting was sold in a Hollywood auction a few years ago for a very high price (I'm sorry that I don't have more details). I don't know what happened to it, who bought it, or how much it sold for. I don't even know who painted it. It doesn't necessarily have to be Ferren, but I'm guessing that it probably was. It is certainly a very interesting painting, and its high price tag, suggests just how important it really is.

Sources (click on title for link)
Vertigo by Katalin Makkai

Framing Pictures: Film and the Visual Arts by Steven Jacobs

The Wrong House by Steven Jacobs

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