“My heart is dancing a minuet…in a trashcan.” –Lionel Stander, in Specter of the Rose
[Author’s Note: This was another of those rare occasions when I tackled two films in a single column. This is the first half of a review which continued with Fred Schepisi’s Mr. Baseball. This note is also my excuse for the rather lame concluding sense below.]
I’ve been sidetracked again. Having just returned from Japan, I was going to begin this month’s column with a light film which does a good job of dealing with Japanese culture shock. Instead, I’m first going to have to present the Seldom Scene Award for the Worst Performance as a Poet in a Feature Motion Picture. And the award goes to……Lionel Stander, in Ben Hecht’s 1946 just-missed-terpiece Specter of the Rose. What eccentric movie reviewer could resist a few words about a picture that has the equivalent of Don Cherry playing T.S. Eliot, and John Wayne playing Nijinsky?
Specter of the Rose is an unintentionally hilarious misfire that demonstrates what happens when one tries to write Sunset Boulevard and falls really, really short of the mark. Real-life high jumper Ivan Kirov plays Andre Sanine, a once-promising ballet dancer with some serious mental problems involving multiple personalities, knives, and music no one else can hear. Sanine’s previous wife has died under somewhat mysterious circumstances, but perpetually-broke, over-the-top impresario Max Polikoff (Michael Chekhov, real-life nephew of Anton!) is sure this Nijinsky-to-be is a potential gold mine. Devoted, enamored young dancer Haidi (Viola Essen, and, yes, that’s how they spelled her character’s name) shares Polikoff’s faith in Sanine. Hoping to help restore Andre to greatness, she nurses him, marries him, and abandons her training at Madame La Sylph’s Ballet Academy to join him on a (temporarily) triumphant tour across America.
Had the plot ended there, Specter of the Rose would have marked nothing more than the beginning and end of the movie careers of Kirov and Essen. But fortunately for those of us who can appreciate minuets in ashcans, Haidi also breaks the heart of the bitter, Don Cherry-like poet who loves her madly. This gives Lionel Stander the excuse to declaim some of the most unforgettably pompous lines in the history of cinema. To Madame La Sylph (Dame Judith Anderson): “This is Madame La Sylph, the remains of a pirouette. What are you knitting, Madame, a shroud for yesterday?” To Miss Haidi: “Your body is an exclamation point after the word ‘Beauty’!….Your devotion to Andre is unreal. He is not a man, he is a shadow on the wall that flickers when the music plays.” And how about the heart-rending: : “I often cry at night, and I think of you, and the night becomes full of young words all dancing for you. And 1 pretend I am not a monster, and on this delusion I live until morning.” Wow. Did Ben Hecht actually write this dialogue himself, or did the Phantom of the Opera find himself a new protegé in Hollywood? Judge for yourself, as you listen to Madame La Sylph tell us what art (and very bad movies) is all about:
“This is a very dingy hall, there are no lights, there is no orchestra; only a cranky old woman watching you. But when you dance you must dance always as if it were an opening night, with the house sold out, with all the beautiful people in the world out front with lorgnettes. Go on now, perform!!”
I have no wish to be unkind. It’s sometimes impossible to know why, despite the best of talents, movies go awry. The director & writer of Specter of the Rose, Ben Hecht, was one of the most gifted writers to ever work in Hollywood. Hecht received credit for the screenplays of some 70 films, including such genuine classics such as Scarface (1932), The Scoundrel (1936, written for Noel Coward), His Girl Friday (1940, play version), and Notorious (1946). He received his first Oscar in 1927, and never stopped writing till he died while working on the screenplay of Casino Royale in 1964. His autobiography, A Child of the Century, is a vivid portrait of America in the first half of the 20th century.
The supporting cast of Specter of the Rose had impeccable credentials. Michael Chekov had worked closely with Stanislavski and Reinhardt in Russia and Germany, and founded acting schools in England and the U.S. Both Judith Anderson and Lionel Stander were veteran character actors with, between them, an astounding 110 years in the movie industry. Both began making films in the early ’30s. Anderson was an excellent stage actress, usually typecast in film roles as hard or sinister women. Stander played a lot of eccentric roles, usually guys with names like Hatchet Moran, Hugo Standoff, and Butch. After Specter of the Rose, he never played a poet again. A victim of the anticommunist blacklist of the 50’s, he revived his career in Europe in the 60’s. For North American audiences Stander became best known as the wise-cracking valet Max on the television series Hart to Hart.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
“My heart performed a minuet in an ashcan.”
Indeed it did. Probably more than once. I could say that they don’t make ‘em like this any more, but the fact is that they never made ‘em like this! What on earth was Ben Hecht thinking when he wrote and directed cinema’s only haunted ballet film noir, and chose to have all his actors deliver portentous lines as if they were reading out of an out-of-print anthology of the Weirdest Things Anyone Ever Said When They Were Pretending to be Serious? I’ve made a partial list at the end of this review. If you can read through it and not, on the suspicion that I might be pulling your leg, immediately check out Specter of the Rose for yourself, you might be too trusting for your own good..
I can’t help thinking that Hecht, one of Hollywood’s best writers, knew exactly what he was doing. He’d watched one too many film noirs, one too many Bette Davis dramafests, and decided to send it all to the moon. A hunky dancer (Ivan Kirov) would get the Bette Davis role, a homicide cop (Charles ‘Red’ Marshall) would make a 10-minute appearance to establish some noir credentials and then disappear from the film, Michael Chekhov would give us the last word in smarmy shysters with creepy hair curls, Viola Essen would get to dance a ballet number wearing sexy garterless black silk stockings, the ballet company’s artistic director (George Shdanoff) would be named after a Russian anarchist and go goo-eyed over Tostoy, and Lionel Stander would smirk his way through the most absurd role of his career, playing the least convincing bohemian poet in the history of film.
If all that doesn’t add up to the dictionary definition of Camp, nothing ever will. In a just universe, Specter of the Rose would always be double-billed with The Rocky Horror Picture Show at your local cinema’s next midnight special. I’m surprised Pauline Kael didn’t mention Specter in her seminal essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies”; it’s a perfect example of her argument about the joy of the feeling of freedom from respectability that some really bad films deliver. In a later review, Kael does cite Specter of the Rose in conjunction with this comment: “In retrospect, one may feel affection for importantly bad movies—for the unusual messes that show some talent and lots of aspiration and take themselves seriously enough to convince some people that they are works of art….Pictures like these are not mediocrities (that’s the best thing to be said for them); they’re awful. But they do, at least, have some kind of character. They may be hell to sit through, but you don’t forget that you saw them.”
Actually, I did forget that I saw Specter. My excuse is that I watch a lot of movies. And my memory’s not that good anyway. But now that I’ve watched Specter again twenty-two years later, I can affirm that it sure as hell has character. Viewing it’s a lot like spending a couple of hours at one of those traveling carnivals that used to pitch their tents & rides just outside of town. And, amazingly, Kirov and Essen can actually dance. Throw in George Antheil’s fraught score, and a pre-Dame Judith Anderson knitting her way through the film, demonstrating that class can’t be defeated by kitsch, and your popcorn’s not going to be wasted. Here’s a thank you to critic Dennis Schwartz (@Ozu’s World Movie Reviews) for contributing the only professional review of Specter of the Rose on the Imdb website.
The following lines from the screenplay aren’t exactly burned into my brain, but I’m damn sure I’m going to work one or two of them into a conversation somewhere down the line:
Collected Wit & Wisdom from Specter of the Rose:
“He’s a wilted carnation in the Broadway buttonhole.”
“The indignation of fools is my favorite crown.”
“He’s not a man. He’s a shadow on the wall that flickers when the music plays.”
“The night becomes full of words dancing for you.”
“Forgive me, Olymph, for touching a dream.”
“You make me feel like there’s a fire engine in my stomach.”
“I’d like to hold you until you were tattooed on me.”
“Your grief sharpens its claws on my heart.”
“I’m no good, I’m just some muscles that can dance.”
“I have been sitting in the foxholes of art for a very long time.”
“The morning is an old laundry man who has forgotten my address.”
“I don’t believe in policemen. They belong to the world of prose.”
“Three things are white: a flag of truce, the lining of a coffin, and a wedding cake.”
“I didn’t think you could cry. I often cry, at night. Then I think of you and I become full of young words all dancing for you, and then I pretend I’m not a monster. And on this delusion I live until morning.”
“Hug me with your eyes….Harder!”