Monday, August 21, 2023

It's Jory Time!

Confession: I'm a late-blooming Joryhead, what the kids all call a "Joryphile," or a Jory Doodie, or a Jory Rider. A lot of film snobs won't even know who I'm talking about, but they'll notice him every time, but then not think about him. He just does his job, so the character gets the credit, not him. Taking over scenes with an effortless depth of delightful evil, he can radiate a sullen abrasiveness but his irrepressible intelligence crackles like electricity out of his occasionally crazy blacker-than-black eyes. That deep melodic nicotine voice, totem pole posture and vulture nosed visage made for a perfect Lamont Cranston/Shadow (in the 1941 serial --easily the best of all adaptations, which isn't saying much, alas). He could bring dripping racist venom to a Tara overseer in Gone With the Wind, or do a crippled bitterly racist Tennessee Williams' cuckold as easily as he could radiate stoic steady-burn decency as a half-breed fisherman getting the Bellamy treatment by a flinty little grifter who barely comes up to his belt buckle. He could bring baritone ethereal majesty to a night-tripping fairy king with head-to-toe black glitter glam, rocking stag horns and black lipstick like he was to mid-70s androgynous alien glam rock spectacle manor born. And when times were tough, he could bring aggro peevishness as a petty cash astronaut whose idea of battling cat women on the moon is to sulk in a corner and then pitch furious woo to his 'by the book' commander's girlfriend! What a range! 

In real life, he was born way up there in the frozen Yukon at the start of the century, this Coast Guard boxing league champ, this trodder of the Broadway boards, this "A-list Charles Middleton", this king of men. The glint of a keen madness sparked often in his jet black eyes, making them hypnotic and full of delightfully macabre implication. His aquiline nose evoked a totem pole hawk that was coming alive at the sight of a passing muskrat. Unpredictable, never quite over the top, but ever perched there, he made even ludicrous characters seem grounded and grave, all while goosing the movie ever forward with that smoldering smokestack engine of a voice. Imagine him as Rasputin, Ming the Merciless, or Abe Lincoln, or anything calling for a tall, dark and strange characrter, Jory would crush them all, and have some left over for Dracula, Dr. Frankenstein his monster, and Prospero of The Tempest OR Caliban

That's Victor Jory, honey! His birthday is August 15, 1945, so we just missed it. But to make it up to his deserving legacy, let us make every day a VJ day. And demand TCM honor him with a Summer Under the Star retrospective!!

1. Oberon - Midsummer Night's Dream


I love about 4/5 of this film to pieces, and 1/2 of it unto death and another 1/4 of it is just painful. I refer to Weimar expat Max Reinhardt's wild imagining of the enchanted, fairy-filled night and the truly wondrous and archetypically resonant performances and costumery of Jory's Oberon and Anita Louise's Titania. My feminine unconscious/anima has chosen her for its projection (it used to be a girl on a Virginia Slims billboard in Seattle, so she's moving up in the world) and when I need solace or to commune or to ask her to stop tormenting me, or just need to see her, I pop in the Midsummer. Her voice is way too high and shrill, almost causing microphone hiss in its high register, but she looks marvelous, and the unconscious is nothing if not images (sound a distant second) and one has to suffer to be with the anima. That's why there's Mickey Rooney as Puck.

That's the thing about the movie. You can tell this was a stage show and--sometimes an issue when a play is put on film--by the way the actors project way too loudly and intensely, as if forgetting they're in a film and not still roaring to be heard way out in the far tree-lined picnic areas of the Hollywood Bowl. Mickey Rooney's Puck for example is so over the top you can't help wondering if you should call an EMT as someone spiked his water dish with enough amphetamine to kill three ordinary children. and the braying hamminess of Cagney seem imported wholesale from the stage (he makes it work though, cuz he's goddamned James Cagney and his character (Bottom) is supposed to be bursting with good working class scamp cheer. And then when he's all ass-headed and in Louise's enchanted lap he reins it in, making a fine contrast- as if being an ass (he's not called Bottom for nothing) humanizes him, delightfully introducing himself to Titania's armada of little people fairies.. But then there's the constant tittering of Herbert over everything anyone says at rehearsal, as if words themselves were inherently naughty.. I'm okay with the rest of the laborer team, even Joe E. Brown as Flute, the Bellows Mender, is all right with me. 

But Jory doesn't have to strain or pierce or bray -- that booming voice comes with its own echo chamber, from deep in the vast  caverns where the titans wait, chained, for their chance to rise from the volcanoes of the world--that's where Oberon's voice picks up its timbre.  My favorite moment is when he's just standing and leaning back on his horse, the changeling by his side, his huge black cap trailing out behind him as the curtain of night over the slow procession of his daimonic bald dancers and their amours, a curtain protecting them from the first pink lip of the dawn, all of them stately and walking riding towards the camera, Erich Korngold letting rip every ephemeral nuance of that gorgeous Mendelssohn music, Jory somehow manages to access some deep reserve of godliness for this sequence that's truly otherworldly. Holding that pose, staring of into, past and through the camera, his face alight with full awareness of that sweet sadness that always comes at the end of one of those perfect, magic nights. That's why it's so important he shows back up with Titania at the very end. Last night's magic won't come again, but why mourn when we can just fly ahead of the dateline and stay in night forever?

God knows I tried, Oberon. God knows I tried. (see also The Hold Steady's "First Night")

2. Kip - Cat Women of the Moon 

We're in a rocket that looks like a garden shack cum amateur radio operator's man cave, replete with several hammocks, set up for his buddies. The crew seems culled together from a neighborhood personal ad: Doug, a callow radio operator; Walt (Douglas Fowley), the capitalist hustler engineer, whose every line of dialogue is related to monetization (he's thinking of bottling moon mist, plugging motor oil on spec, stamping letters from the moon--he's out of control!); there's a woman navigator, Helen (saucer eyed Marie Windsor), and clo-pilot Kip (our boy of the moment, VJ); Laird (Sunny Tufts) is their cranky commander, and he's Helen's boyfriend; and--sulking peevishly for one reason or the other, Kip can't help but go for her in a big way, passive-aggressively one-upping the commander every step of the way.  Questioning his orders, refusing to leave his .45 automatic in the ship, sneering at Laird's weak assertion that everything be done "by the book" and coming onto Helen every chance he gets, Kip is kind of a jerk but he's our hero, and Tufts--a drunken 'star by wartime default' he seems tailor-made for dupe status, even before he started to pass out on sidewalks and bite ladies on the thigh, and be really excoriated by the Medveds in the needlessly snide but undeniably influential Golden Turkey Awards.

Yes, yes it's CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON: a movie too cheap to wake up to its own absurdity, which is why it rules the outlier places wherein self-conscious camp imitations like Queen of Outer Space can't even get past the doorman. Though it casts a soothing spell, the occasional presence of a giant horned spider on strings pops up to wake you if you fall asleep. You could laugh at the spider's strings, but why? As Louise Bourgeois proved, big spiders is ART. Sure it's shitty, but there's something poetic too, something that comes from some cavern of unconsciousness far deeper than even your wildest dreams can reach, aided no end by the moody music of a then-just-starting-out Elmer Bernstein. 

Yeah, it's all about Jory here, like it was in Midsummer. He can be just a supporting player but--like any one of us--his characters act like it's their movie regardless. Note: this is not the same as hamming. Someone like Mickey Rooney or Jerry Lewis try to steal their scenes, radiating the kind of neediness that can't stand to see anyone else getting applause, but Jory just inhabits his character to the point that character just becomes interesting, even if the character is just sulking in a corner.Very few people live their lives like they're supporting players. It's their life after all, and that what Jory does--his Kip is so beside himself with love over Marie Windsor he reacts with the news the cat women are out to kill them like a sarcastic school boy. Then he remembers that literally twisting her arm breaks the cat women's spell sos she finally tells the truth! "Don't let go, Kip!" Once again macho domination breaks the sisterhood qua-lesbian spell (I can only imagine the excited spit-takes if this film is ever shown in a feminist film studies class).

Hilariously, one truth he gets out of her is more important (to him) than any news about Alpha's (Carol Brewster) grand plan to kill them all: whom does she really love? It's you, Kip! Then he uses the opportunity to make out with Helen passionately, right in front of Laird, even as the cat women are making their move--as if determined to make Laird's humiliation complete. It's so unimportant to him by then he kills them all offscreen and just shouts earth's victory from off camera. Oh that Kip! 

3. Jabe - The Fugitive Kind

As the racist morphine addict bedridden husband of Anna Magnani in The Fugitive Kind, Jory overflows the banks of bitter redneck opiate-addicted patriarch cliche and steals the picture right out from under Brando's reshaped nose. He even steals the film from Joanne Woodward, the sole source of light in the whole place, as a drunken libertine (i.e. town tramp). She's great but stays within the limited borders of her stock character (she tries to save him by leaving with him, but he only pats her head and smiles). But Jory's invalid junky husband Jabe is alive. Sweating and speaking very slowly, and deeply, with coded-homophobic (kinda) slow burn rage, he's more of a man than anyone else in the film, and that goes double for Brando's pontificating coded-bi/gay Christ figure, moving heedlessly towards his crucifixion with a warm resigned smile. Even fans of Williams, such as myself, may roll our eyes at all this, but Jory takes what could easily have been an over the top performance of spiteful venomous drug-fueled malice and turns him into a human cobra. 

As far as vivid Tennessee Williams adaptions go, this is strictly bottom of the shelf as far as clearly was written when he was much younger, and more flowery and poesy-prone (ala Glass Menagerie) and Lumet foolishly tries to have it both ways, both nitty gritty and waxy poetic, but he can't find the through line. He's too much of a city boy to depict southern hostility with any measure of complexity. Sydney, you best stay in the city until you're ready to bring a Philadelphia cop back down there to straighten things out, rather than leaving all these ladies (including a hypnotized Maureen Stapleton) trapped in the orbit of Brando's Christ on a Quaalude (he's name is.... Valentine) and Lumet's NYC actor's studio rage against the Jim Crow/homophobic goof ole boy machine. What a shock you'd take offense at them, Sydney! 

Thing is, a guy as gorgeous as Brando is here-all a shimmer in Boris Kaufman's black-and-white photography--should be New York or San Francisco, or at least New Orleans where he can find what a local magistrate calls"mixed" parties, why he decides to linger in the podunk town when he's able to leave, is a total mystery. Unless he's got a masochistic yen for tree branch noose-a-fixion, to coin a phrase it's a big leap to think he's staying around for Magnani's ever-unsmiling general store owner, who married one of the pricks who destroyed her life, ala Lady Anne, Duchess of York, or Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. But hey, say what you will, Jabe is a man. And like the other film in this post, Jory has that rare ability to make you feel like his character exists prior to his scenes, like he's been talking and setting shit up while you've been downstairs, following handsome Brando acting all far away but transfixed by Magnani's weirdly sexy frumpery. 

Good thing Jory is there. His Jabe may be a sweaty junky monster but he's still the only one cool enough to chopper out of Lumet's self-righteous hick inferno when the time comes. In the meantime, excuse him if he upstages Brando and Magnani even from upstairs and off-camera. Seething a fine gothic menace, he  runs refreshingly against the grain of the typical 'jealous cracker going loco' stock Karl Malden ushers into Baby Doll, and/or Ed Begley's hypocritical air-hog blustering name in Sweet Bird of Youth. Jabe is not a cypher or a type, Jory croaks him into real life, a man tortured by jealousy and the constant flow of misery tempered by narco-bliss that is drug high / opiate withdrawal cycle that his whole soul is warped by the poison. (more: Tennesse Williams at the Mill of Rubes)

4. Nick: He Was Her Man

Jimmy Cagney and Joan Blondell do their Warner Brothers grifter schtick in this half-good WB drama. It's pretty familiar stuff: hustling and flowing from the Turkish baths of NYC, to the running afoul of mobsters in Chicago, to hiding out on the shores of Marina Del Rey, to the seeking safe harbor in a small Portuguese immigrant fishing community (the kind of Podunk town that "showgirls" go for their second chances in countless Warner commodities). One wonders what the censors had to do with Blondell turning respectable to marry some terminally decent, slow-witted townie (see also: Tiger Shark, Anna Christie, The Wedding Night, and The Purchase Price, to name merely a few) whose lunkheadedness is almost like one last dig at the sanctity of--as Blondell's heart-of-gold whore puts i--"good honest decent hardworking people, which you wouldn't know anything about, Dick Jordan!" 

Eventually screwball comedies would poke fun at this kind of thing, using the censor's own dopey creed against him, but for now, with the Breen office settling in to ruin movies for everyone but the kind of stern frowning women who run Dallas out of town at the start of Stagecoach, the good honest guy gets the girl. She's reformed, Dick Jordan!

Believe it or not, the big surprise here is Victor Jory as the chump. With his deep voice, looming height, the stoic poise of a stock company Sitting Bull, and gravitas that belies his then-lean years, he might have a bizarre accent and mangled fisherman syntax, and Cagney might talk faster and hustle more but Jory's tortoise wins the race, legitimately, and we don't roll our eyes the way we would at Ralph Bellamy in years to come. While such a result certainly pleased the censors (then looming ever closer), the film's subtext never sides with the forces of small town decency: the sanctity of marriage may prevail, but as Cagney walks off into the sunset, arm-in-arm with his killers, it's him we follow, even if that means going straight over the cliff to the briny marina credit depths. 

And that's the Jory! 

Til next time, Jory-heads, keep the Jory in! 

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