Friday, June 16, 2017

LIZ SMITH: “The Song of Songs"

Marlene Dietrich in “The Song of Songs," 1933.
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Rare Marlene Dietrich Debuts on TCM ... Niecy Nash and Her "Claws" Premieres on TNT.

“WHY SHOULD she live? Why should she live when I am dead?!”

That’s what Marlene Dietrich screams as she takes a hammer to a nude statue of herself in the 1933 Rouben Mamoulian film “The Song of Songs.”

The remarkably lifelike statue (and sketches of the artwork) is shown endlessly and erotically throughout the film; it represents a younger, innocent Marlene. Nude, but innocent. The hammer-wielding Dietrich is disillusioned, to say the least.

“The Song of Songs” had its debut on Turner Classic Movies the other night.  It has become famous for being the first American movie Marlene did with a director other than Josef von Sternberg. (They had already collaborated on “The Blue Angel,” “Dishonored,” “Shanghai Express” and “Blonde Venus.” She would return to him for two more “The Scarlett Empress” and “The Devil is a Woman.”) 

At the time, critics were complaining, not without some reason, that von Sternberg was smothering his star in décor and veils, feathers and beading, making her a puppet to her personal obsession.  The box-office returns were dwindling.  “The Song of Songs” would “free” Dietrich.  Did it?
Brian Aherne and Marlene Dietrich “The Song of Songs.”
The story of a misunderstood girl who travels a hard road and finds redemption was not only a cliché of the movies from time immemorial, but Marlene had already done it with her mentor, von Sternberg.  However, watching the film fresh — as perhaps many who tuned in to TCM also did — one is struck that Dietrich was then, and had been even with von Sternberg, a better actress than she was ever given credit for. 

She rises above the endless melodrama and predictable circumstances — wide-eyed naïf to jaded woman of nightclubs — declaring love a fool’s game — with remarkable energy and elan. (As the mistress of sophisticated world weariness, playing breathless innocence — as she is required to do for about half the film — was never Marlene’s forte, but she manages better than one might expect. The braids in her hair help.)   
She, as Lily, is orphaned, betrayed by two men, cast out by her drunken aunt, causes half an estate to burn down, and at one point walks away from disaster wearing nothing but a Travis Banton evening gown.  But, she recovers.

Already being a great admirer of Dietrich in all her professional efforts,  this first exposure to “The Song of Songs” was a pleasure.  While not nearly as good as the films that proceeded and followed it that night on TCM — Frank Borzage’s “Desire” and Billy Wilder’s “A Foreign Affair,” this Mamoulian potboiler was vastly entertaining and thanks to Marlene, even quite moving at times. 
Dietrich has one song, “Johnny” which she turns, mid-rendition, into a scathing attack on her former sculptor lover, Brian Aherne; he has found her living in a louche fashion, after suffering degradation for which he is at least partially responsible. (Unable to commit to Lily’s romantic ideals, he more or less palms her off to his rich, sadistic pal, Lionel Atwill.)
Dietrich and Lionel Atwill.
The interesting thing about “Johnny” — and this is so typically Dietrich — is that it became a staple in her later concert years. But Marlene would always sing it (magnificently) in German, explaining what the song was about — a sexually impatient woman waiting for her man — but insisting “no English lyrics” were ever written.  
The scathing attack on her former sculptor lover, Brian Aherne.
As with so many of her tales, that was Marlene’s story and she stuck to it.  In fact, the Friedrich Hollaender tune was provided English translation by Edward Heyman. (“Johnny, there’s something wrong with me, I need your sympathy/I can’t say no, oh!”)

Bravo than thanks to Turner Classic Movies for acquiring “Song of Songs.”  If you are interested in the lovely legendary Marlene, catch this delicious oddity the next time it’s shown. It’s not great art, but it’s great fun, and displays a star in transition.
AND NOW for something completely different.  I do mean the new TNT series, “Claws.”  You’ve likely seen the trailers, which have been playing for weeks.  It looked like crap.  Not anything that interested me.  But, then I saw the show’s star, Niecy Nash, in two recent guest starring spots, and remembered her from “Scream Queens,” “Masters of Sex” and dozens upon dozens of other TV and movie appearances.  I liked her, a lot. Why be a snob?  Try it.  So, I did. 
Niecy Nash in “Claws.”
Nash stars as Desna, a flamboyant woman who has a way with decorating nails.  She wants a larger, more deluxe salon, in a better part of town.  This queen of the perfect cuticle takes motherly care of her motley staff (Carrie Preston, Judy Reyes, Karrueche Tran, Jenn Lyon.)  Adding to the mix, and a need for enhanced finances, is her autistic brother (Harold Perrineau.)  She has fallen into money laundering and a nasty crowd — among them a vicious lover who likes to be choked into unconciousness during sex (Jack Kesy.) Desna wants out — she simply demands the payment promised and an honest life of providing gaudy manicures.  Things go awry.
Karrueche Tran, Jenn Lyon, Niecy Nash, Carrie Preston, and Judy Reyes.
“Claws” is a wobbly, incoherent show, that doesn’t know exactly where and what it wants to be. It is vivid and vulgar dark comedy, which is fun for not quite an hour. What is meant to be colorful, eye-catching and titillating becomes tiresome — and this includes an intrusive soundtrack.

BUT, Niecy Nash is superb.  She elevates the deliberately over-the-top appearance and behavior of her character, and gives a performance that seems attached to another show altogether; a show that is not dangerously schizophrenic. (Nash is also the only member of the ensemble who, despite all her fast-talking, can be clearly understood.  Everybody else swallows the dialogue.)
I don’t know if “Claws” can survive.  It needs to calm itself and find a center. It needs to be stripped down, although I don’t see how that can be done, now. At the core it is a female-empowerment/sisters-sticking-together tale.  But what happens all around, in the name of noisy, neon distraction,  drains the empowerment surge.

But Ms. Nash is a real star — funny, touching, genuine — and if the series succeeds, she will be wisecracking but dangerously weary, voluptuous locomotive, pulling that ratings train up the ladder to the roof.

Contact Liz here.