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Film Books
Friday 15 June 2001

Three Fantastic Film Classics
by Claude Lalumière
(Special to Locus Online)

  • The Wizard of Oz, Salman Rushdie (British Film Institute, 1992)
  • The Ghost and Mrs Muir, Frieda Grafe (British Film Institute, 1995)
  • Cat People, Kim Newman (British Film Institute, 1999)

BFI Film Classics is a series of short books on, well, film classics. The worthy titles are culled from a list of "360 key works in the history of cinema" compiled by David Meeker of the British Film Institute's National Film and Television Archive. The list reaches as far back as 1914 to Giovanni Patrone's historical epic Cabiria, while its most modern entry is from 1981, George Miller's SF action flick Mad Max 2. For the most part, the selection is generously genre-blind, listing European dramas, American comedies, Japanese epics, auteur classics, and favourites from the SF, fantasy, horror, detective, gangster, and western canons (although British espionage films are sadly neglected).

The publishing program was launched in 1992, and, since then, titles have been coming out once or twice a year in batches of four. Each book invites a writer to focus on a particular film; contributors include novelists (Kim Newman), cultural critics (Camille Paglia), film scholars (David Thomson), journalists (Richard Schickel), and screenwriters (Michael Eaton). Approaches vary from poetic musings to academic analyses, from journalistic investigations to making-of reports, and permutations thereof. The releases follow no discernible order, sliding back and forth through time, countries, and genres. At last count, some 64 titles had been published, including several of SF, fantasy, and horror interest; to name a few, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, Metropolis, Bride of Frankenstein, and Psycho.

Here, I'll look at three releases of the BFI Film Classics series. Each of them has as its subject an American film from the late 1930s to the late 1940s, and each film deals with the supernatural. Despite these common features, the three films are quite different, as are the books that discuss them.

Television airings of The Wizard of Oz punctuated my childhood. Every time, I cursed Dorothy for abandoning her friends and returning to her (literally) colourless Kansas existence. Nevertheless, I was drawn to the film time and again, and it became an essential component of my personal mythology. Salman Rushdie, who penned the BFI Film Classics volume and who surely needs no introduction, was similarly affected by this musical fantasy. He vividly remembers seeing it for the first time at the age of 10 in Bombay (I can claim no such childhood memory; it seems like the film was always there, and I had always watched it). "When I first saw The Wizard of Oz it made a writer of me," confides the famous writer. Indeed, that first screening of the film inspired him to write his first story, a fantasy entitled (not surprisingly) "Over the Rainbow." As a bonus, the BFI book includes a new Salman Rushdie story, with the descriptive title, "At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers." It is somewhat metafictional and melds, both deftly and chaotically, layers of fetishisms: sex, memory, objects. It is an apt coda to Rushdie's personal and lyrical exploration of The Wizard of Oz.

Rushdie's analysis, and this is no surprise, is literary. He dissects the story and the meaning behind the characters' actions and words. In the process it becomes quite obvious that for Rushdie (and I agree) The Wizard of Oz is a creation whose scope eluded its own creators, that the intentions of its various writers, directors, and producers were superfluous to the magic that was evoked. Indeed can this film be said to have an author? Cinema is a collaborative art form in which authorship is a hotly debated issue, and in The Wizard of Oz it is a question that is more muddled than usual.

If The Wizard of Oz is a work of art - and, I suppose, its presence in this series indicates that I'm not alone in thinking that it is - it's extremely difficult to say who the artist was ... Who, then, is the author of The Wizard of Oz? No single writer can claim that honour, not even the author of the original book. Mervyn LeRoy and Arthur Freed, the producers, both have their champions. At least four directors worked on the picture, most notably Victor Fleming, who left before shooting ended ...
Rushdie highlights one glaring example of the film's material lying beyond the grasp of its creators: "That 'Over the Rainbow" came close to being cut out of the movie is ... proof positive that Hollywood makes it masterpieces by accident, because it simply does not know what it is doing."

Rushdie treats the story of the film as if it were caged, as if the unfolding story and the story we are led to believe we are told are in conflict, as if, somehow, the film was trying to mask the story instead of revealing it. At the heart of this tension lies Dorothy's inexplicable desire to return to Kansas; as Rushdie says, "'There's no place like home' ... is the least convincing idea in the film." This approach, I believe, is the most appropriate one and the one most likely to let one's imagination roam in the empty places left by the film. Rushdie's essay details his own journey down the Yellow Brick Road, inspiring readers to embark on their own Oz adventure.

Released in 1992, Rushdie's The Wizard of Oz was one of the first BFI Film Classics. It was an excellent showpiece for the freshness and diversity of approaches that the series would encourage, a clear sign that BFI Film Classics would avoid the pitfalls of both dry academe and slavish fanishness.

From the children's fantasy world of Oz, we now move to the somewhat more adult world of ghost stories and romantic love, with Frieda Grafe's book on Joseph Mankiewicz's The Ghost and Mrs Muir, a film not usually thought of as a classic. In fact, it was not a great success upon its initial release in 1947, although the title and premise were resurrected for a TV series that aired 50 episodes from 1968 to 1970. I have dim memories of the series, but I was unaware of the film until I saw the listing for the BFI book. In fact, it was that listing that prompted me to see the film. In turn, the film's engrossing performances, crafty dialogue, and off-kilter gothic atmosphere drove me to read the BFI book. Here, certainly, lies one of the great aspects of the BFI Film Classics project: cinephiles are given the occasion to experience movies they would have otherwise overlooked by finding unexpected titles in its roster.

Grafe, a film critic, approaches her subject from two angles. First, as an adaptation of a novel written by a woman, turned into a "women's film." Second, as a transitional work for Mankiewicz, serving as a stepping stone between his early career as screenwriter and producer and his eventual blossoming into a film auteur (the full bloom was achieved with the popular and critical success of his 1950 movie, All About Eve).

In the film, the ghost of Captain Gregg dictates his memoirs to Mrs Muir, which she then attempts to get published. At first, her manuscript is dismissed, unread, as women's writing. Perhaps, as Grafe suggests, the ghost of Captain Gregg was imagined by Mrs Muir in order to justify to herself her unwomanly writings of virile life on the sea. Is it the ghost of a man who hides behind the woman or the woman who hides behind the ghost of a man?

In this context, she also analyses the conflict the film poses between Victorian (and Hollywood) morality and the emancipation of women's desires, sexual and otherwise. "Captain Gregg is a good poltergeist because he is a creature of Mrs Muir's desires."

Grafe goes on to praise in critical detail the film's subtle performances - particularly Rex Harrison as the ghost, Gene Tierney as Mrs Muir, and George Sanders as Miles Fairley, the dandy on the prowl for Mrs Muir's affections - and, in chapters such as "Images Set to Music and to Words" and "Man in the Picture is Woman in the Mirror," its meticulous attention to mise en scène. She also quotes European reactions to the film, which were warmer than in the US.

Finally, back to Mankiewicz as auteur in the making:

At the time of The Ghost and Mrs Muir, Mankiewicz was trying as best as he could to play the part of the jobbing director ... Some people say the film was just a piece of luck ... Mankiewicz's personal achievement, which paradoxically drew on his experience as a producer that he hated so much, was the unique assembly of elements already shaped elsewhere. That determined the look of the film, and preserved its changing, glittering charms over the years.

The Wizard of Oz was billed as "The Happiest Film Ever Made," and The Ghost and Mrs Muir, despite its gothic trappings, is an ironic, if somewhat dark, romantic comedy. Cat People, however, boasts no laughs. It is a horrific tale of murder, sexual frustration, and monstrous shapeshifting. I first saw Jacques Tourneur's Cat People in a repertory cinema in the early 1990s and was astonished by its frank and sober approach to sexual mores (especially for a 1942 film!) and even more by its deft use of suggestion to create scenes of terror.

Film critic and horror writer extraordinaire Kim Newman guides readers through the making, unspooling, and aftermath of this horror classic. In this BFI book, Newman's skill as a storyteller shines through. The first sentence - "Everyone agrees that the title came first: Cat People" - is the opening volley in a captivating tale that winds through the climate at RKO (the studio that produced Cat People) in the wake of the infamous Orson Welles debacle; the creation of the script (including inspirations from Algernon Blackwood's story "Ancient Sorceries") and the usual controversies over authorship; the establishment of an RKO unit to make low-cost, high-return horror movies and its evolution in the wake of the success of its first production, Cat People; an insightful and detailed analysis of the film as it unfolds on the screen; and, most vividly, how the dedicated visions of producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur were made manifest in Cat People. Newman quotes Lewton:

The characters in the run-of-the-mill weird films were usually people very remote from the audiences' experiences. European nobles of dark antecedents, mad scientists, man-created monsters, and the like cavorted across the screen. It would be much more entertaining if people with whom audiences could identify were shown in contact with the strange, the weird and the occult. We made it a basic part of our work to show normal people - engaged in normal occupations - in our pictures.

Newman also discusses the 1944 sequel, Curse of the Cat People, and the cross-continuity problems with the 1943 semi-sequel, The Seventh Victim (both made by the Lewton unit). He lists an outrageous plethora of imitators and, appropriately, quickly dismisses Paul Schrader's highly disappointing 1982 remake. What Newman successfully accomplishes most of all, though, it to instill an urgent desire not only to see Cat People again and thrill at its dark pleasures but also to see all 11 of the Lewton unit's new-style horror films, all released in an intense bout of creativity and production between 1942 and 1945.

From Salman Rushdie's highly personal and lyrical take on The Wizard of Oz, to Frieda Grafe's critical analysis of The Ghost and Mrs Muir, and, finally, to Kim Newman's passionate sharing of his wealth of knowledge about Cat People and the history of horror cinema, these BFI Film Classics are nearly as exciting as their fascinating subjects, three films of the fantastic that have survived the test of time, more than half a century, and that bring only more pleasure with repeated viewings. The BFI Film Classics, as exemplified by these three titles, offer new, vivid, and knowledgeable readings of the films that have shaped the 20th-century's cultural landscape.

Claude Lalumière is a freelance writer whose criticism has appeared in The Montreal Gazette, The National Post, January Magazine, Montreal Review of Books, Blue Coupe, and Black Gate; his humour in Safarir and TheFunniest ToGo; and his poetry in L'Écrit Primal.  He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his website.

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