Lessons in Star-Being

I came across 1954’s Flame and the Flesh on YouTube, read the plot synopsis on TCM, and knew this was a Must-See.  The title makes it sound like one of those historical-Regency-era bodice-ripping yarns, in which a high-booted hero and a plunging-neckline heroine race across 18th-century Europe, midst poverty and palaces, kings and courtesans, disaster and derring-do, separated always by chance or fate or a monarch’s displeasure, till rejoined at last on a ship to the New World, the flame of their flesh finally quenched by respectable marriage.  Whew!

Except it’s not.  Most definitely so.  Not, that is.  F&F’s story takes place in post-WW2 Naples and concerns an American demimondaine shacking up—chastely, I might add (there was this Production Code thing to deal with…)—with a nice young Italian composer who plays bass fiddle in a café orchestra and wants to marry her as soon as he sells a song (he woos her by performing magic tricks—a technique guaranteed to douse passion).  The demimondaine, however, takes a shine to the composer’s hunky roommate, a restaurant crooner who has so stirred up the local female populace, they come panting after him like aging bobby-soxers in pursuit of an ersatz Sinatra.  The ersatzer himself is engaged to a nice young girl, who, discovering that her affianced hunk is all aflame over his roommate’s mate, is not thrilled.  Tears, Tempests, Troubles, plus some nice location scenery to pass the time.  Nothing too untypical here.

You might all now be yawning So-What? at this point.  What’s so must-see about a gorgeous hussy twirling two not-very-bright men round one shapely finger?  Been, Done, Snap.  No big deal.

I am going to tell you why F&F is such a big F&F deal.  And that is:  LANA TURNER.  Goddess, Diva, Icon.  And a BIG Deal.  Is she ever.  Right from her opening scene, when her character is thrown out of her rented room for non-payment of rent (and, I suspect, for enjoyably reprehensible behavior), she shows you what a star, and I mean what an Honest-To-Goodness, Old-Fashioned, Real-Deal Hollywood Star, was.  No small-timer here.  Lana grabs our gaze, wraps it up, tucks it into her purse, and swaggers off with nary a look back; she knows we’re following all-too-willingly, like leashed dogs after aniseed.  We’re hooked, straight off, and we like it.

Of course Lana plays the demimondaine—I don’t think she played a virgin since her Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde days—and she shows us the quintessence of demimondaine-dom.  Note how assured is her posture when, trying to catch the attention of a gentleman seated in a rich car, she stops to apply lipstick—how she balances her weight back on one leg and displays her face to its best advantage.  Then watch how she slams her liptube back into her purse when she fails to snare the gent’s eye.  It’s a wordless drama, done in under 30 seconds (and done under the credits), but you already know the who and the why of this woman, where’s she’s from and where’s she’s going.  And what she wants.  No dialogue needed.  That’s what a Star does.

Is this acting?  Maybe not in the know-your-lines-and-objective sense.  Lana was never praised for her acting skills, but she knew something better.  She knew how to be onscreen.  She knew how to move, how to convey narrative and character by appearance, deed, and gesture; she knew just the right energy for each motion, the right economy for each action.  She knew, in effect, how to phrase for the camera—as with singing or dancing, she knew where and when to emphasize, and for how long, for dramatic impact.  Film is visual, film moves, and Lana understood that superbly.  She could tell you all about her character by a walk, a glance, a turn, a smile (huge, warm, dazzling)—performed as quick as thought yet with the catch of a stopped heart.  I think that’s something that can’t be taught; I think Lana knew it in her bones, and she brought it to everything she did onscreen.

Note, for example, a brief bit of Lana stealing an orange and a piece of bread from a street stall.  A persistent, begging child follows, whom Lana shoves away.  But when the girl begs again, Lana relents, bouncing the fruit in her hand before giving it to the child, and then walks on, hungrily tearing at the bread.  It’s done fast and silently, yet you see, etched in flashes, Lana’s process of thought:  First the driving, impatient walk, then the brush-off to the girl, and then the change of mind—yielding to the child with that swift, unthinking farewell bounce to the fruit.  Maybe the director (Richard Brooks) told Lana to bounce the fruit, but the speed of her gesture, the clarity, the directness of it—that comes from Lana.  It’s not method-analysis but gut instinct guiding her here.  And it makes this bit stand out.

Lana had another gift, one not appreciated, but, when you consider it, was part of the aura of what’s now called Golden-Age Hollywood.  She could make a silly scene watchable.  Even when the audience knows it’s silly, Lana makes us go for it.  Such as when she suns herself on a beach and the entire sand-side male population suddenly takes notice.  Reclining on her towel, in blinding white beachwear (and black high heels!), Lana drives every testosterone-addled male over the age of 12 mad with desire.  The men creep towards her, spy on her, take photos of her, gesture invitingly to her.  They cluster round her blanket like pigeons swarming round a large, beautiful crumb.  It’s like a scene out of a Mae West film, only meant non-parodically; because the men really have something to yearn for.  It’s dumb but delicious to watch; and it’s Lana who makes it believable.

Lana’s character in F&F is not an attractive one.  She’s a moocher, a parasite, a con artist, who, when cadging a room or a drink, can come up with a sentimental story at the bat of an eyelash (such as falling in love with a bullfighter from Havana, Mexico—her facts may not be right but her imagination is spot on).  She’ll even add a nice touch of vulgarity, vigorously scratching a shapely hip when no one’s looking.  Whatever she does, she makes this lady live onscreen as you watch.  At film’s end Lana leaves as she started, even wearing the same suit and scarf—where to?  She’s footloose fancy-free, independent—will she go back to Naples to find her lover?  Or to other adventures beyond?  Nothing is indicated about what she intends, but you wonder what she will do, even after the film stops. Because Lana has given this lady a life beyond the celluloid, has made us curious, interested, fascinated, and wishing for more.  That’s a star.

Supposedly, per IMDB, no negative now exists of this film, only bad (REALLY bad) knockoff copies of old prints.  The print of F&F I saw on YouTube (since removed) was so washed out and watered down, it looked like the underside of Venice (and maybe was found there).  So I say to all of you eyeing this post:  Please!  Start looking!  Search your attics!  Root through your garages!  Empty your closets!  Check behind your sofas!  Dig up your compost heaps!  FIND A REAL PRINT!  I beseech you!  Do it for Lana —In color, In Naples, In-spired.  She’s TOO precious to lose.

Happy hunting.

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10 Comments

  1. Gosh, but that was quite the F&F article!

    No. Nothing, not even the goddess Lana will get me to look behind my couch! The courage I may have once had to attempt such a rash action left me long ago.

    Reply
  2. Brian

     /  November 18, 2020

    I admit I had to look up “demimondaine.” Huh. I love the tagline on the half sheet, “Even more dangerous now as a brunette!” I did a double-take, because the hair style made her look like someone else — Claudette Colbert maybe. I think I might have watched the period costume drama that the title conjured up for you, but the actual film sounds a bit underwhelming. But still, if they find a decent print who knows? 🙂

    Reply
    • Turner does look weirdly different as a brunette (I thought it gave her a resemblance to Jane Wyman), but your sense of the film is right, it’s no great shakes as a movie. Turner herself admitted it in her autobiography; it seems she had a choice between this film and “Mogambo,” and she always regretted not doing the latter. The sole reason to watch the film is for Turner. Another actress, without her star power, wouldn’t have cut it. Turner is the factor that gives the film any interest it has.

      Interesting you looked up ‘demimondaine’ – I was trying to be a bit, shall we say, circumspect in my description! Thanks for commenting!

      Reply
  3. interesting and great review! This is my last Lana Turner film to find and see – so I found your review in my search. I’ll keep digging around on the internet and fingers crossed I get to see it too!

    Reply
  4. John Fitzpatrick

     /  November 22, 2020

    Richard Brooks was a passionate writer-director. Emphasis on “writer.” The few Metro films he directed from other people’s screenplays were just busy work for him. I can’t recall him ever saying a word about this project.

    Reply
    • The writers per IMDB listed for this film are Auguste Bailly and Helen Deutsch. Brooks may have just been assigned the project, as per the movie studio contract system. So it was probably not something personal for him. Turner herself regretted making the film, which is as cliched and trite as they come (you can sense that in the film clip I used), so I wouldn’t be surprised if Brooks forgot about it or didn’t care to mention it. The one reason for watching it is for Turner, as an exercise in her star power and to fill a gap in her oeuvre. All these years later the film is really just for Lana Turner fans (like myself).

      Reply
  5. OMG! I loved your critique of Lana’s star power. I’ve always been a fan of hers and felt she was unfairly denigrated as an actress. Thank you for saying everything I didn’t know how to articulate about what makes her so fabulous!

    Reply
    • Thanks so much! I agree, I think Lana is underrated as an actress. She may not have been classically trained, but she knew what she was doing onscreen, and she conveyed it with much power and grace. And she really is fabulous! I hope a decent print of this film can one day be found, to give a more complete picture of her talents.

      Reply

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