Tag Archives: Veronica Lake

La Vie en Noir

As often happens with these things, it started on a train…  I was playing about with my camera during my recent journey to Zurich from St Moritz, when, to my delight, I found that I could produce images in grainy black & white.. The resulting photos immediately made me resolve that this winter, I’ll be ditching glorious Technicolor in favour of moody monochrome. After all, they reminded me of the look of the classic film noirs I love – Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep etc.

So, yes, I’m having a mad, passionate affair – with film noir. Well actually, I’ve been in love with that most atmospheric of movie genres for all my adult life – I’m clearly a woman of extremes. My favourite films tend to be deepest, darkest noir or riotous, giddy screwball comedies.

And one actress straddled both genres particularly beguilingly: Veronica Lake (pictured above).  Lake – whose fame barely lasted a decade, before she vanished in a puff of smoke much like the character she memorably portrayed in I Married a Witch – is the 1940s actress best known now not for her acting or comedic skills, but for her “peek-a-boo” hairdo. Essentially, in most of her films, only half of her dainty face was visible: the other half was largely obscured by a wonderfully wavy, shiny fringe which tumbled down towards her chest, and from behind which she often cheekily peered out with a sultry, knowing smile.

In addition to the wonderful I Married a Witch and Preston Sturges’s magnificent comedy-drama Sullivan’s Travels, Lake also starred in a string of film noirs – among them The Glass Key, This Gun for Hire and The Blue Dahlia. She wasn’t in the same league, fatale-wise, as Lauren Bacall, Barbara Stanwyck or Lana Turner but she gave good noir nonetheless.. (Scroll down for a clip of her – and her peek-a-boo bang in action .. on a train, of course.)

Anyway, I’m clearly not the only one having a noir moment. The beauty world is having a bit of a fling with the genre too.  I always thought that Chanel Allure Sensuelle, my favourite Chanel scent before 31 rue Cambon and No19 Poudre came along, would be my femme fatale alter ego’s fragrance, but now of course there is a new contender: the recently launched Chanel Coco Noir (eau de parfum from £75) – a striking and seductive scent built on a woody base and musky notes, with a heart of fleshy white flowers and a spicy yet fresh top note. According to Chanel, Coco Noir was created for “women who choose intensity over the bland norm”.

Any femme fatale worth her fringe has her nails permanently painted a vampish scarlet or deep pink –  which is where the new, deep raspberry shade Chanel Le Vernis in Suspicious (£18, pictured below) comes in to play – at least until their Christmas nail varnish, Chanel Le Vernis in Malice (£18; from November 9), a  new twist on the ironic Rouge Noir, comes out. Personally, I prefer these colours to the darker, closer-to-black shades that are on offer but I am tempted, if only by the film noir-ish name, to try Estee Lauder Pure Color Lacquer in Black Iris (£14.50; www.esteelauder.co.uk).

While I wait to get my mits on some of Laura Mercier’s Cinema Noir collection for autumn-winter 2012, my noir fetish is also being fed by Guerlain whose new lip lacquer is a must for lovers of a bold scarlet pout. Guerlain Rouge G de Guerlain L’Extrait in Luxure (£29.50) is not for the faint-hearted but is undoubtedly the sort of vampy shade that a forties femme fatale would have worn. Its matte finish adds to the dramatic effect.

I confess that I wasn’t wearing that bold a lip last week – though I did have my hair down – when I received the ultimate compliment: at a book launch in Glasgow’s West End, a former editor of The Herald newspaper introduced me as “the Veronica Lake of Byres Road”.  My beaming face was distinctly un-fatale-like.

Anyway, to create a little bit of a film noir atmosphere while you read this, check out this gorgeous song – very cinematic-sounding, I think – from self-described “modern day dame” (and fellow peek-a-boo bang fan) Melody Gardot.. And below it there’s the clip of my inspiration, Veronica.

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Happy (and Stylish) Hallowe’en

My favourite screen sorceress is also one of my favourite actresses and beauty icons – the wonderful Veronica Lake, she of the “peek-a-boo” hair and cheeky, knowing smile.. In 1942, she starred in I Married a Witch, playing an impish witch named Jennifer who wants to wreak revenge on the ancestor of the puritan who had her burnt at the stake a few hundred years earlier.

Unfortunately for Jennifer, her permanently tipsy wizard father is a bit of a liability on the revenge front, and events don’t go quite according to her centuries-in-the-making plan.

I’ve been thinking about I Married a Witch a lot lately – not just because it’s appropriate viewing in Hallowe’en week, but also because it features in a superb new book which I’ll be writing about in the next few days: Edith Head, The Fifty Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer (Running Press).

The legendary Miss Head designed the chic chiffon number that Veronica wears in this picture – along with the rest of la Lake’s gear plus the gowns worn by her love rival, played by fiery redhead Susan Hayward. The film is available on DVD so check it out – and watch out for my celebration of Edith Head, who kitted out Grace Kelly, Barbara Stanwyck, Tippi Hedren, Elizabeth Taylor and dozens more during Hollywood’s most stylish decades …

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Leopard Ladies 2

There are an awful lot of crimes against leopard print going on this winter (and it’s only October!), so here’s a second selection of favourite leading ladies working that loveliest of animal prints, kicking off with Barbra Streisand. She’s not usually a style icon of mine but this coat is inspirational..

One actress who has long been a style icon of mine, however, is the “peek-a-boo” blonde star Veronica Lake who appeared in a string of hit movies in the 1940s. Here she is in leopard print coat, with regular co-star Alan Ladd.

Of course, once a leopard print lover, always a leopard print lover so it’s no surprise to find multiple photos of the same star wearing the pattern. In last month’s Leopard Ladies post on this blog, Gene Tierney was shown in her leopard print bikini; here she is wearing leopard in a slightly more practical way …

Another leopard print fan was the elegant comedienne Carole Lombard, here shown very early in her movie career wearing a leopard-trimmed number.

Carole Lombard and Bette Davis may have worked at a rival studios, but you wouldn’t know it from the way they were styled in the early 1930s .. Here’s a blonde Bette Davis vamping it up in sexy leopard print..

And, proving that it isn’t only vamps who can carry off leopard, here’s Audrey Hepburn in my favourite of her Charade get-ups by Givenchy.

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My Week in Beauty


Dear beauty diary, I’ve been on holiday so apologies for the lack of entries. However, I must tell you about my holiday beauty crisis – or near-crisis. Thankfully, I had just the right products with me to avert a disaster.

We were in St Andrews, the picturesque Scottish seaside town and we enjoyed a typical Scottish seaside holiday – with weather a mixture of gorgeous sunshine, drizzle, torrential rain and wind. Even on the warm days, the wind was a nuisance, not least to my hair and skin. Using not one but two Ojon conditioners (a rinse-off and a stay-in) sorted out the drying effects of the wind on my hair (which I took to tying up as the windswept look just doesn’t do it for long, fine, poker-straight hair),  and the new Chanel Hydramax + Active Moisture Mask (£34; from August 13) successfully tackled my weather-beaten face, but it wasn’t till I remembered to start using my Clinique Deep Comfort Hand and Cuticle Cream (£14.50; www.clinique.co.uk) that my hands began to feel more like themselves.  This is a rich but easily absorbed cream which sorts out dry skin quickly. I’ve yet to find a lotion that cut the mustard in this department.


The night before our trip, I should probably have been packing but instead I was at a dinner hosted by the glamorous Estee Lauder PR girls who were in Glasgow to show off the first colour collection by Tom Pecheux.  Forgetting to pack my favourite jeans was a small price to pay for the  sneak peak at the Pecheux goodies …

To be honest, I was sold on Pecheux’s collection before I’d even seen it – thanks to its exotic name, Blue Dahlia – the title of a film noir starring one of my favourite 1940s actresses, Veronica Lake.  I took the gorgeous Pure Color Five Color Eyeshadow Palette in Blue Dahlia (£34; www.esteelauder.co.uk; in Selfridges and Brown Thomas now and the rest of the country in August) with me to St Andrews and experimented with the more subtle possibilities it offers.  There’s a lovely dove-grey shade which looks fab with a wash of one of the three deep blue tones – particularly the teal one. I’ll report back anon on my attempts at the full, Blue Dahlia, monty – as seen on the model pictured above.


I know that as a beauty writer, it’s time to get excited about the autumn collections but I’m still finding gems in the summer ones… Having been hooked on Dior Addict Lipcolors (£21.50)  in Coral Craze and  for much of the summer, I just stumbled across Pop Red on Wednesday and am completely smitten. It’s a perfect pinky, cherry red – and since it’s glossy and extremely moist, it doesn’t have the harshness of many other reds out there. Which means it’s perfect for red wimps; those of us who are too fair or too afraid to go for full-blown red…. Okay, it’s red- lite but who cares if it makes you feel like Veronica Lake? And, yes, it goes a treat with a subtle wash of Blue Dahlia on the eyes.


On Thursday I finally got round to experimenting with a new-fangled hair accessory that I was sent. Goody’s Modern Updo Pin (£4.99; available from Asda from August 18) looks like a giant, malformed kirby grip and like the kirby, it can do wonders for the hair. Once you’ve mastered it, there’s no need for any hair pins or other tricks of the pinning-up trade. It is ideal for creating chignon styles, whether tidy, formal affairs, or loose, relaxed ones, and keeps its hold even on the finest, most unco-operative hair. Mine would have been with me on holiday – but was another casualty of the champagne-quaffing the night before the trip …


I don’t normally get excited about toner but I’ve just about finished my bottle of Origins Zero Oil Pore Purifying Toner (£15; www.origins.co.uk) and I feel quite sad at the prospect of being without it.. Tragic eh? But this is a really great toner which refreshes the skin while removing any last vestiges of make-up or dirt. It really makes your skin feel like it’s sparkling – and a bonus, in St Andrews, was its ability to sniff out tiny traces of sand which my cleanser had missed …

It has quite a strong fragrance, which did send off alarm bells for me initially as I have a very sensitive skin, but I would happily use it again – in fact, I’ll be disappointed if I don’t get to!

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My Week in Beauty


I don’t wear nail polish all the time as my nails just cannot cope with the excitement of chopping and changing colours too regularly. They get stressed and split and become scraggy round the edges whenever I’ve had a couple of days of polish.

This was certainly the case on Monday – the return to colder weather didn’t help matters – so I had to get my nails on a twice daily regime of my favourite nail treatment: the Intensive Nail & Cuticle Therapy (£7.50; www.crabtree-evelyn.co.uk) from Crabtree & Evelyn’s La Source range.

I’ve been a fan of this lovely cream for almost ten years because it’s easy to use (especially on trains, planes and automobiles – if you’re not driving..), it’s not greasy or oily, and it keeps the nail and surrounding skin moisturised and healthy-looking, thanks to the panthenol and keratin (a natural protective protein found in nails and hair) it contains.


Chanel’s summer nail polishes may not be on sale until May 7, but this one, Le Vernis in Nouvelle Vague (£16.50), is already generating pages of magazine copy – and no doubt the inevitable waiting list.

Alas, as is the case with many of the most tempting summer goodies, this beautiful greeny-turquoise shade will look fab on a bronzed beauty – or even a slightly sallow one. But when I tried it on Tuesday, I was forced to admit that against my white, no fake tan please – we’re proud to be porcelain skin, it looks less like the “it” shade and more like the … well, you can guess – I do like my alliteration after all.

So my bottle is winging its way down to the infinitely more sallow-skinned Shiv who will once more be the envy of her office by jumping the queue in terms of must-have nail polishes. I may be getting slightly paranoid about how little there is for me in the summer cosmetics collections but I’ve already earmarked at least one of the two other Chanel polishes for another pal, fake tan-loving Lizzy – who also happens to have a penchant for pink…


I’m afraid a Jean Seberg hair cut will have to wait a while longer … on Wednesday I gave in to the influence of another blonde movie star – but one whom I love in several movies, not just one.

Veronica Lake has been one of my favourite old stars since my dad showed me the delightful1940s comedy I Married a Witch (a forerunner to Bewitched) when I was a child. Lake played a beguiling sorceress who, by way of revenge, casts a love spell on the descendent of the Puritan who had her burnt at the stake.

I love Lake’s trend-setting “peek-a-boo” fringe – she could hide behind it when she was playing coy and scheme behind it when she was playing the femme fatale. It lent her a sophisticated, mysterious air which balanced out her mischievous smile and the cheeky glint in her eyes. She was a delight in several wonderful 1940s movies, and had an air of intelligence and wit about her – unlike some of her more overtly sexy contemporaries.


Hoorah! A summer collection turned up on Thursday which might provide me with a new nail polish. This Estee Lauder collection’s name isn’t promising (for me) – it’s Bronze Goddess – but it includes Pure Color Nail Lacquer in Ultra Violet (£12; www.esteelauder.co.uk), a sparkly dark purple, which looks like it will be just the job for summer nights-out.


In need of a new eyeliner – I love the retro eyeliner look achieved with a pen-brush style liner or one that you paint on from a little pot (kohl pencil just doesn’t work for me) – I dug out one I’d been sent a few months back. Max Factor Masterpiece Glide & Define Liquid Eyeliner (£6.99; www.boots.com) doesn’t so much glide as drag. It’s not easy to control or vary the width of the line, and it was an effort to use.. Think I’ll be reverting to my Clarins Eye Liner (£18; www.clarins.com) or one of the terrific Clinique Brush-On Cream Eye Liners (£13; www.clinique.co.uk) …

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Hallowe’en Movies

It may not have inspired nearly as many movies as those cheerier, more wholesome, festivities that take place in December, but Hallowe’en rears its ugly, pumpkin, head in a rich mix of classic films – from family fantasies, such as ET, to such serious dramas as Kramer Vs Kramer.

It pops up in musicals, romantic comedies, thrillers and chillers. Just as there are certain movies which are perfect for getting us into a Christmassy mood, so there is a less well-documented collection of films which are ideal for conjuring up the spirit of Hallowe’en. Here’s my guide to essential Hallowe’en viewing.

1. Arsenic and Old Lace (1941)
“Insanity runs in my family,” says Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) in this madcap black comedy. “In fact, it practically gallops.” And it’s all unleashed on one wild Hallowe’en night when he discovers a body stashed in the window seat of the quaint Brooklyn home shared by his beloved spinster aunts. Turns out they have a penchant for bumping off lonely old gentlemen. It’s not just Aunt Martha and Aunt Abi who are nuts; Mortimer’s brother Teddy thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt, and his other sibling, Jonathan, is a maniac who flies into a murderous rage when anyone comments on his obvious resemblance to Boris Karloff…
This timeless classic blends high octane comedy – Cary Grant was never as hysterical as when he was playing the increasingly hysterical Mortimer – with black humour and the genuine chills provided by torture-loving Jonathan Brewster and his slimy, plastic surgeon, sidekick Dr Einstein (the ever-creepy Peter Lorre). It’s a great one to watch in the dark in the middle of the night .. Director Frank Capra followed this Hallowe’en-themed film with the greatest Christmas movie of them all – It’s a Wonderful Life.
2. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Two festive seasons for the price of one in this cult animation from the eccentric mind of Tim Burton, a magician of the macabre whose every film hints of Hallowe’en-style horrors. This musical, which was clearly inspired by Burton’s heroes, the illustrators Charles Addams and Edward Gorey, tells the story of Pumpkin Jack, the main man in Hallowe’en Town, and what happens when he tires of the Hallowe’en routine and tries his hand at being Santa instead..
3. Meet Me in St Louis (1944)
Is there anyone who has seen this heart-warming Judy Garland musical and doesn’t remember the traumatic trick-or-treating scene in which little Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) rises to the terrible challenge of approaching the front door of the scariest man in the street – and throwing flour in his face. Director Vincente Minnelli brilliantly captures the menacing mood as Tootie tentatively knocks on the door… and her jubilation as she realises that she is “the bravest of them all and the most horrible” after she has completed the task that none of the other kids would take on..
4. Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
Woody Allen’s joyful musical – in which stars ranging from Drew Barrymore to Alan Alda bravely sang old standards (regardless of how well – or not, in the case of Julia Roberts – they could sing) – follows a year in the life of a wacky Park Avenue family. One of the highlights is the Hallowe’en sequence when the children from the building come to the door to trick or treat. This being the wealthiest part of New York, you don’t just get a kid in a supermarket outfit singing a pop song; you get full, MGM-style, production numbers. And the one that the family falls for is a girl dressed as a banana, singing Carmen Miranda’s Chiquita Banana song, accompanied by two maracas-shaking boys in Mexican costume.
5. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
It’s not a horror movie, but this peerless film of Harper Lee’s wonderful book has an unforgettable scene, set at Hallowe’en, which is utterly terrifying. Our young heroine, Scout, through whose eyes the story is told, is set upon by an assailant in the dark as she and her brother Jem are returning home from a Hallowe’en pageant at their school. Scout is still in her ham costume and is knocked to the ground as the attacker lays into Jem. Her unwieldy, solid costume prevents her from seeing what’s happening and who her attacker is and stops her from being able to get to her feet. All of which adds to the suspense, which is brilliantly heightened by Elmer Bernstein’s magnificent music. The scene is not only extremely scary but also a pivotal point in the plot – as it leads to our first glimpse of the mysterious Boo Radley..
6. Hallowe’en (1978)
The low-budget chiller that spawned several sequels and a series of spoofs (the Scary Movies etc), this creepy horror flick takes place on October 31 when a psychotic killer, who has been mistakenly released from an institution, returns to his family home to pick up where he left off 15 years earlier. Jamie Lee Curtis followed in her mother Janet “Psycho” Leigh’s filmic footsteps by being something of a magnet for the murderer..
7. I Married a Witch (1942)
Veronica Lake – she of the peekaboo fringe, petite figure and impish face – was brilliantly cast as Jennifer, the mischievous minx of a witch, who, having been burned at the stake in the 17th century, plots revenge on the modern-day ancestor of the puritan responsible for her fate. She seduces him, wrecks his marriage plans and his political campaign and, of course, ends up falling in love with him in this downright magic romantic comedy which undoubtedly inspired the hit 1960s TV show, Bewitched, but is ten times funnier..
8. Bell, Book and Candle (1958)
As sexy sorceresses go, they don’t come more sultry and spellbinding (or chic) than the beatnik witch Gillian Holroyd in this stylish romantic fantasy/comedy which reunited Vertigo stars Kim Novak and James Stewart. Gillian takes a fancy to her new neighbour and uses her magic powers to make him fall in love with her and out of love with the bully who made her life hell at school. Needless to say that she doesn’t expect to fall hook, line and sinker herself …
This dreamy, Manhattan-set romance also stars Elsa “The Bride of Frankenstein” Lanchester as Gillian’s mad old aunt Queenie, while Jack Lemmon is great fun as Gillian’s brother, a wizard with a regular gig playing the bongos at the local witches’ hangout, the Zodiac Club, in Greenwich Village.
9. The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
Three witches for the price of one in this fantastical comedy: Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer discover they have magic powers when a devilish stranger (Jack Nicholson) blows into town in answer to their prayers. He wreaks so much havoc that they ultimately have to draw on their powers to get rid of him too…
10. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Why The Wizard of Oz has become a staple of the Christmas TV schedule beats me: it should surely be reserved for Hallowe’en viewing. After all, you don’t get very many witches who are uglier than the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) with her hatchet features, snotter-coloured complexion, scrawny frame and stripy stockings. And that voice that saws right through one’s head as it cackles “Surrender Dorothy!”. Her entourage of flying monkeys in military costume aside, the Wicked Witch is a creature of convention with all the accessories that are considered de rigueur for a witch at Hallowe’en: broomstick, cauldron, pointy black hat….
11. The Witches (1990)
Considerably more evil than the Wicked Witch of the West – just watch how she gleefully pushes a baby in its pram down the steep slope to a cliff edge – is the Grand High Witch, played by Anjelica Huston in Nicolas Roeg’s movie of Roald Dahl’s book The Witches. With her Hitler-like oratory and her desire to wipe out a section of the population (ie: children), the Grand High Witch is one of the scariest sorceresses ever portrayed on film. And far too terrifying for young audiences.
On a lighter note, she is also one of the most striking-looking of all movie witches: you’ve got to admit that, in her slinky black satin, purple trimmed, dress, her long black gloves, Cleopatra-style hair and blood-red lips, she cuts quite a dash. At least, that is, until she peels off her human skin to reveal her real, hideous, witch face.
12. Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most magnificent villain of them all? Not the Queen from Snow White, though she is a contender, but the elegant, beautiful and utterly evil Maleficent, the bad witch from Disney’s wonderful interpretation of Sleeping Beauty. Left off the guest list for the christening of Princess Aurora, this horned witch casts a terrifying spell on the infant: that when she turns 18, she will prick her finger on a spindle and die…
Like Anjelica Huston’s Grand High Witch, Maleficent is a vision in swathes of black and purple (clearly the only colours for any self-respecting sorceress to sport), and a supermodel of the supernatural world (by way of total contrast with her arch enemies – the three dumpy, frumpy good fairies). And forget your black cats and brooms; Maleficent has a crow as her assistant and can transform herself into whatever she likes – most memorably, a monstrous, fire-breathing dragon.

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Hollywood’s Renaissance Man

Today’s Hollywood comedies are a lacklustre lot. If they’re not completely puerile and catering to the lowest common denominator, then they’re saccharine sweet and ultimately as unsatisfying as a quick sugar hit. Anyone looking for snappy, intelligent dialogue and interesting characters with more to them than good looks and a permanently youthful appearance either has to wait for the next Coen Brothers movie or check out the work of one of the greatest exponents of the comedy genre: Preston Sturges.
Sturges, who died exactly 50 years ago, produced movie comedies which have not only stood the test of time, but have also influenced generations of writers and filmmakers, of whom the Coen Brothers are the most overt examples. During a flurry of intense creative activity in the early 1940s, Sturges, a maverick character with an insatiable lust for life, made a string of unforgettable films which quickly established him as the master of comedy in much the same way as Hitchcock was the master of suspense.
The sexy screwball comedy of The Lady Eve, the high-octane hilarity of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and The Palm Beach Story, and the poignant tragi-comedy of both Sullivan’s Travels and Hail the Conquering Hero, all helped to make Sturges a familiar name to wartime cinemagoers. At the height of his success, he was Paramount’s top director. More importantly, he was Hollywood’s first writer-director, paving the way for the likes of the better-remembered Billy Wilder.
But his determination to have complete control over his work led to a falling-out with his home studio. In just a few years, he went from being Hollywood’s boy wonder to being one of its forgotten men.
So who was this pioneering filmmaker – and where did his genius come from? Of Sturges’s achievements, filmmaking was only one on an incredible list which also included perfecting a kiss-proof lipstick, owning and running two restaurants, penning pop songs and Broadway plays, and inventing a silent engine. He was, as the French director Rene Clair, observed: “like a man from the Italian Renaissance, wanting to do everything at once”.
The greatest single influence on the young Sturges was his mother, Mary Biden, who married his father in 1897 and spent the duration of the marriage trying to get rid of him. Sturges later said: “Mr Biden never sounded like much of a husband to me, but it must be remembered that he was one of Mother’s very first ones, and like the celebrated Mrs Simpson, she did better later.”
Sturges was born in 1898, and in 1901 Mary married Solomon Sturges, an eminent Chicago financier. Even after her marriage, she spent much of her time in Europe with her new friend, the dancer Isadora Duncan who persuaded her to dress in Grecian robes. Sturges later wrote: “When I look back at what I was exposed to as a child, I realise how extraordinarily lucky I was never to have become a male interpretative dancer with a wreath of gold leaves around my head.”
Sturges claimed to have had a bellyful of culture in his childhood, but his bohemian upbringing had a profound effect on his filmmaking style. His films blended European sophistication with snazzy American dialogue and humour, and were populated by the kind of oddballs that his mother so readily attracted.
The young Sturges tried various careers and although brilliant at whatever he did, he was always restless. In an interview with four years ago, his widow, Sandy, told me: “He read a book entitled Two Lifetimes in One – or How Never to be Tired, and he said that it had changed his life. He said that to rid your body of fatigue and restore your vivacity, you just need to lie down for 15 minutes in total peace and quiet.”
In 1928, Sturges read a tome entitled A Study of the Drama, and realised he had found his vocation. His second play, Strictly Dishonorable, was written in just six days but became a long-running Broadway hit. Brought to Hollywood in 1932, he wrote an original screenplay, The Power and the Glory, based on stories told to him by his second wife, socialite Eleanor Hutton, about her ruthless tycoon grandfather. But Sturges was not happy with the resulting film, and decided that he had to get into the “directing racket” himself.
Over the next six years, while he freelanced as a screenwriter, his frustration increased. Finally, in 1940, he made Paramount an offer they couldn’t refuse: the script for The Biography of a Bum for $1, provided they let him direct it. Retitled The Great McGinty, it was the first film to have the credit “written and directed by” and it won Sturges the first Oscar in the newly created category of Best Original Screenplay. A box office smash, it is said to have influenced aspects of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, and it confirmed Sturges’s theory that “good dialogue is the cheapest insurance a producer can buy”.
With the 1941 screwball romance The Lady Eve, which starred Barbara Stanwyck as a sexy cardshark who first cons and then falls in love with goofy Henry Fonda, Sturges established himself as the king of comedy. He was to the movies of the 1940s what Woody Allen was to 1980s films or what the Coen Brothers are to today’s: a unique, almost self-contained operation with his own stock company of memorable character actors.
The movie which earned Sturges the genius tag was Odyssey-like Sullivan’s Travels which he wrote to demonstrate that “there’s a lot to be said for making people laugh”. Strikingly original, it moved gracefully between knockabout slapstick and stark realism, between raucous badinage and poetic philosophising, between scenes of life-affirming laughter and those of human suffering. Unusually long sequences free of dialogue but full of visual eloquence, blend into scenes which feature some of the fastest exchanges of the screwball era. It catapulted Veronica Lake to stardom and revealed Joel McCrea’s hitherto untapped flair for comedy – a discovery which he attributed solely to Sturges’s dialogue and direction. It is without doubt a masterpiece.
In 1944, Sturges tested the loyalty of his studio and courted controversy with The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. The story of a small-town girl who falls pregnant to a GI, it brilliantly blended slapstick with pathos. Sturges managed to get this ahead-of-its-time movie past the censors to give Paramount another hit.
Sturges’s reign as the king of comedy ended later that year with Hail the Conquering Hero, a satire which summed up many of his thoughts about patriotism and the public’s readiness to accept anything at face value – a recurring theme in his movies. By the time the film was playing in cinemas, Sturges had fallen out with Paramount over its apparent lack of faith in his 1943 drama The Great Moment.
By 1959, Sturges had finally found happiness in his private life, with a fourth wife and their two young sons. He was offered a huge advance to begin work on his autobiography provisionally entitled The Events Leading Up to My Death.
On August 6, 1959 Sturges wrote: “These ruminations, and the beer and coleslaw that I washed down while dictating them, are giving me a bad case of indigestion. Over the years, though, I have suffered so many attacks of indigestion that I am well versed in the remedy: ingest a little Maalox, lie down, stretch out, and hope to God I don’t croak it.” With typical Sturges irony, croaking it was exactly what he did.

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Musicians’ Movie Talk

Over the last however-many years of interviewing and socialising with jazz musicians of all ages and backgrounds, I’ve come to notice a certain leit-motif when it comes to their interests: many of them, like me, are avid old-movie buffs.

The thought had occurred before but it was rammed home last week when I met the young jazz singer-songwriter Melody Gardot. The way this girl speaks is as eloquent as her lyric-writing, and she has a way with an analogy that Raymond Chandler would have envied. Sitting, like teenagers, on her bed in her west London hotel, we talked about fashion, nail polish – the important stuff – before going on to the problems she has overcome since she was knocked off her bike by a hit-and-run Jeep a few years ago.

I had to ask if the long, wavy, peekaboo blonde hair was inspired by one of my favourite stars, Veronica  Lake (it wasn’t), and there ensued a chat about old movies. Gardot, it turns out, is a big Groucho Marx devotee, and she certainly knows her stuff – she even launched into an impersonation of him singing in A Night at the Opera. “I love you very mucho…”  Although she has trouble remembering things, certain movie moments haven’t slipped through the sieve that is her memory- and these are mostly from Fellini and Hitchcock films.

Being an aficionado of old movies is a trait that Gardot has in common with at least two of her label-mates: the first time I interviewed the singer-pianist Diana Krall, she told me that she loved the old MGM musicals (she had just been watching Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon in her hotel), and had been brought up watching classic films on TV.

There were certainly clues to her love of film in the songs that she recorded on her early albums: Dancing in the Dark (from the afore-mentioned The Band Wagon), I’ll String Along With You (My Dream Is Yours)  and  Let’s Face the Music And Dance (Follow the Fleet). Of course, old movies offer rich pickings for anyone on the look-out for great songs.

Singer Madeleine Peyroux was similarly raised on a diet of great Hollywood movies. In her case, Frank Capra had made a big impression with Mr Smith Goes to Washington – and James Stewart and Gary Cooper were her two favourite stars.

Of the Scottish jazz musicians with whom I’ve had great movie conversations, piano ace Brian Kellock and velvet-voiced singer Todd Gordon stand out; while the great American double-act of Marty Grosz (guitar) and Ken Peplowski (clarinet/tenor sax) is just as entertaining in a dinner table discussion of 1940s comedy character actors as it is onstage playing tunes from that era.

Clearly, for some of us, a love of jazz goes hand-in-hand with a love of old films. In many cases, it’s the result – initially anyway – of a parent’s influence. And let’s face it, with jazz especially, if you don’t start off being introduced to something that has perhaps been carefully chosen for you, it could well put you off for life..

Maybe the joint interest in jazz and old movies arises out of a predisposition to past pop culture – and possibly a teenage tendency towards individualism.  Who knows? All I can say is that the best conversations about old movies that I’ve had have been with jazzers. And I’m sure it’s no coincidence that my favourite jazz musicians are the ones who love the same comedy masters as me: Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, Woody Allen, the Marx Brothers. After all, in both jazz and comedy, timing is everything…

* Read my full interview with Melody Gardot in The Herald Magazine next Saturday, June 13.

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