Thursday, June 28, 2007

Golden Earrings: Ray Milland Goes Native

Last Christmas my mother gave me the Marlene Dietrich Glamour Collection DVD box set from Universal. Pleasantly surprised that my mother, unlike some, pays enough attention to realize that I am a devotee of crappy, I mean, campy old movies, I have been savoring it ever since, watching each of the films at well-spaced intervals, never gorging myself on so many that I had nothing left to watch. After several delightful visits to Camp Marlene I had seen all the films in the set I felt were worth watching. The one remaining film, Golden Earrings, I had dismissed. What little I knew about it just didn't entice me. I mean, Marlene Dietrich and Ray Milland just being in the same movie is odd enough, but as Gypsies? This could never be good. And while it is no less plausible that Marlene should be an eastern European gypsy than, well, say a Southern Belle or a Spanish femme fatale, it seemed completely impossible to believe in Ray Milland as either a gypsy or a romantic leading man. Well, the other day, in desperation for something, anything, to watch I popped Golden Earrings into the DVD player and watched it. The whole thing. At every cringe-worthy moment, I cringed; at every offensive racial/cultural stereotype, I was duly offended. But for everything that is wrong with this movie -- and there's a lot, believe me -- I have to admit that in some horrible, kitschy, painful, embarrassing way I enjoyed it, which is odd because I can't think of one really positive thing to say about it. It's almost as if I enjoyed this film in spite of myself. Throughout, I felt that I knew better than to enjoy it, that to like it was somehow evidence of some deep seated tendencies I'd rather not delve too deeply into, let alone admit.

At any rate, Golden Earrings is wartime spy thriller mit romantic fantasy about an English army officer who goes to Nazi Germany in order to smuggle out a formula for poison gas. While hiding from the Nazis, Denistoun (Ray Milland) meets up with Liddie (Marlene Dietrich), a Gypsy woman traveling alone who claims that spirits who live in the water told her he was coming and that, though a gadze (a non-gypsy), he is her man. Well, at first, he is disgusted by her filthy Gypsy habits and superstitions. After all, she is an offensive two-dimensional stereotype. But then, so is he. Ever the stiff-upper-lipped Englishman, he is more tightly-bound than nickel-62 and just about as fun. But then Denistoun decides to go with Liddie, traveling incognito as a Gypsy in her flimsy-looking vardo. Dark stained skin, large earrings in his ears, and sporting an eastern European peasant blouse, Denistoun "goes native" and becomes relaxed and carefree in a way that would have horrified his schoolmates at Sandhurst. He steals chickens, develops a ear for cimbalom music, and eats with his hands. What's more, having cast off his whiteness he becomes a gifted fortune teller, beginning to take on the psychic and supernatural world of the Gypsy stereotype (according to this film, the Roma are psychic and follow some sort of animistic earth-based religion. Who knew?).

As is so often the case, the film's point of view is best encapsulated by the trailer, which in this case summarizes the film as a tale about a "man from the civilized world" who comes into contact with the "primitive and passionate" world of the gypsy. If I'd watched the trailer first I would have known what I was in for and may never have watched the movie at all. I don't understand why Universal would have made this film, except maybe to rectify the fact that the Roma were the one minority Hollywood hadn't taken a shot at yet. Anyway, I can't say it isn't offensive or stereotyped or that the love story is so stirring that it makes up for all of its other flaws, but inexplicably, you may, like me, be able to enjoy its kitschiness, camp, and bad acting in spite of it all.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

THIS JUST OUT: Banacek Season One

Though I am probably in the minority here, I am excited about the recent release of Season One of Banacek on DVD. A cop drama from the early 1970s, Banacek starred George Peppard as a Polish-American insurance investigator with a penchant for reciting obscure Polish proverbs while smoking a cigarillo and wearing far too form-fitting turtlenecks and leisure pants. My primary joy in Banacek has been that, though set in Boston, the entire series was filmed either on the back lot at Universal or on location in Los Angeles, and I have enjoyed it as a sort of treasure hunt of LA streets and neighborhoods, much the way I do Rockford Files and CHiPs. But in watching reruns of the show during its short stint on KDOC, I have become familiar with certain elements of the Banacek character. Several things remain constant throughout: Banacek always solves the impossible to solve case, always has leggy women simply falling all over him, and is always self-consciously enjoying the most expensive of everything. So I ask myself, whose fantasy was this? It seems to me that the entire series is simply a middle-aged man's dream life escape from his ordinary humdrum existence. While Banacek is decidedly unbelievable as an irresistibly handsome millionaire genius, this is exactly what we are asked to believe of him. In its original pitch to the network the series must have been intended as a prolonged dream sequence framed within two explanatory episodes in which the mediocre, lonely, insurance salesman Banacek is knocked unconscious by a rogue pot of African violets only to wake up after a delicious fantasy of beautiful women, witty one-liners, and fantastic wealth to find that he is, once again, just a common wage slave. At least this is my reading and, I have to say, the series is much more believable this way.

Though you might want to just rent this one, it can be bought at Amazon and though you won't find much in the way of unqualified praise for this show, there are some fans out there. Check out these clips from YouTube: