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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