Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Specter of the Rose (1946)

“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!”

Movie Information

Genre: Drama | Dance | Film noir
Director: Ben Hecht
Actors: Ivan Kirov, Viola Essen, Lionel Stander, Judith Anderson, Michael Chekhov, Charles ‘Red’ Marshall, George Shdanoff
Year: 1946
Original Review: August 1997


Did a Silent Film About a Train Really Cause Audiences to Stampede?

An Atlas Obscura article by Eric Grundhauser, featured in Slate Magazine, about the alleged impact of the 1896 50-second Lumière film L’arrivée d’un train en gare de la Ciotat on contemporary audiences.  A tribute to cinematic realism or urban myth?  A small but fascinating moment in cinema history. 


A long-running film blog by writer and director David Cairns.  Still current in 2019, the archives go back to 2007, and there’s an impressive number of links to other cinema blogs and websites.  I checked out the Chaplin: Film by Film blog, Cinemasparagus, and Mythical Monkey—all sites worth visiting.  David Cairns also wrote for Australia’s Senses of Cinema magazine.  See the second link above.

Films Worth Talking About:

The Pastoral Symphony, La Bataille du rail, Ziegfeld Follies, Desiderio, My Darling Clementine, Five Women Around Utamaro, Sciuscia (Shoeshine), Gilda, Great Expectations, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Courage of Lassie, The Big Sleep, The Killers, Murderers Among Us, The Jolson Story, The Best Years of Our Lives, Beauty and the Beast, Humoresque, It’s a Wonderful Life, Undercurrent, Cluny Brown, Margie, Till the Clouds Roll By, The Razor’s Edge, Notorious

The Bigger Picture

FilmsBlack Swan (2010), A Double Life (1947)

Music:  George Antheil, Orchestral Works, Volumes 1 & 2

Books:  George Antheil, Bad Boy of Music

The Word on the Street

I am surprised and even saddened that there are no other votes or comments for this extraordinary film about the ballet world, because that would seem to mean that no one using IMDB has seen it; you are missing one of the most unique films ever made.
Ben Hecht wrote and Ben Hecht directed this surreal film about a dancer in the eccentric world of ballet who is obsessed with a ballerina; there are few if any obsessions that are not destructive, and I will not give away the ending, but it is spectacular and moving. You will not forget this film once you have seen it.  [nick-282]

Whatever unfulfilled ambitions drove Ben Hecht to write, produce and direct Spectre of the Rose, it’s charitable to pretend they bore scant relation to the gruesome folly that eventuated. Did Hollywood’s most prolific uncredited contributor to great screenplays crave the glory that would come with his very own Citizen Kane? If so, he made choices that can only be accounted as bizarre.
First, he set his story in the world of `the dance.’ Since of all the arts, ballet, for Americans at any rate, reeks of the rarefied – the elite, movies about it invariably lapse into gaseous talk about `aaht.’ Spectre of the Rose dives right into this pitfall. The high-flown, portentous dialogue must have entranced Hecht but it plainly baffles his cast. They variously give it stilted readings, flat it out, and drop quotation marks around it, but except for Judith Anderson – as an old assoluta now training novices in a `dingy’ studio – nobody can make it work. (But then, she made Lady Scarface work.)

The plot concerns a deranged male superstar called Sanine (Ivan Kirov), who may have murdered his first wife and partner and now seems to be rehearsing to kill his second (Viola Essen). It’s safe to presume Kirov was engaged only to fling his polished torso around because he can’t even act embarrassed; it’s no surprise that this is his solitary screen credit….
Without knowing what compromises Hecht made and obstacles he faced in bringing his work to the screen, it’s easy to be glib. But there’s such a discordance of tones and jostling of moods that the movie elicits diverse responses; thus some viewers have found in Spectre of the Rose something special and unique. Movies, maybe more than any other art form, touch our idiosyncracies. But when we’re left unsure whether The Spectre of the Rose is dead-earnest or a grandiose spoof – an election-bet of a movie — something has gone radically awry.  [bmacy]

This seldom seen film produced, written and directed by Ben Hecht, brings some terrific dancing, namely from the two leads, Ivan Kirov [with a gorgeous physique, and doing fantastic leaps and bounds] and Viola Essen [another fine ballet dancer]whom I had the pleasure of auditioning with back in the 50s for “Dead End” [roles of Baby Face Martin and his ex-girl friend Francie] we didn’t get cast, unfortunately. They bring some wonderful moments of dance in spite of a somewhat hard to believe plot and corny lines. Appearing as La Sylph, who sits around knitting, while the dancers go through their paces is none other than Dame Judith Anderson, the queen of film noir [such as “Laura”]. She does manage to keep herself out of the mire of this melodramatic piece with her presence. Add to this another great actor, Michael Chekhov, from Russia’s Stanislavski Moscow Theatre, giving a silly performance of a foppish manager of the dance troupe. He did more realistic acting in the such of “Spellbound” and “Rhapsody”. Hard to believe from this performance he was the great acting teacher of the time along with Sanford Meisner. Then there’s comedian Lionel Stander being realistic as a sort of serious suitor to our leading lady. The choreography was done by none other than Tamara Geva, once married to George Balanchine, and star of Broadway’s “On Your Toes” starring Ray Bolger where she initiated the “Slaughter On Seventh Avenue” ballet. [Later brought to film by Gene Kelly and Vera Ellen in “Words & Music”] In spite of a twisted plot and sketchy dialogue, you become fascinated with this gem of a movie. Watching the lovers dance is worth the price of admission.  [guil12]

Ben Hecht clearly conceived the idea inspired by the fate of Nijinsky, who was disabled as a schizophrenic from the first world war till after the second, and the real theme of the film is the freedom of artistic madness at its most exuberant and creative….

Powell-Pressburger’s classic “The Red Shoes” a few years later would have been unthinkable without this for a road mark, and it must remain for always one of the most important and innovative ballet films ever made, especially for its delicate treatment of the difficult subject of genius. The film gains by seeing it a number of times, at first sight its depth and ingenuity is not obvious, but as you sink into it you never reach the bottom. This is an ingenious film about the trickiness of genius.  [clanciai]

There is a whiff of tragedy about the two leads. Both were dancers with theatre backgrounds. This was Kirov’s one and only movie and Essen only made one other. In Kirov’s case you can see why, he is a pretty strange actor, almost distant, but as one critic noted, his alien presence was perfect for this part. He had a great physique, and the set of jumps (entrechat) he completes just after he first appears is pretty impressive, but his acting was leaden.

Not so Essen. Why a studio didn’t grab her is a mystery, she had an unusual beauty, not unlike Pier Angeli or Gail Russell, and like them she died young, but she could act as this film proves.
George Antheil’s rippling score sweeps the film along from the opening titles, and although studio bound, the cinematography, often shot at a low angle, is classy.
The film has similarities to the more successful “A Double Life”, starring Ronald Coleman. In that film, the actor becomes possessed with his role as Othello. It came out around the same time as “Specter of the Rose” as did “The Red Shoes”, but Hecht’s film predates them both – did he spark a trend?
“Specter of the Rose” has flaws aplenty, but it also has an indefinable mood that makes it one of the strangest, most intriguing films you are likely to see.  [tomsview]

This movie, as self-conscious as it is in telling a tale of art and madness, is no work by Hollywood hacks. Unfortunately, it’s even worse; it’s the work of probably Hollywood’s greatest screenwriter, Ben Hecht. He was at the height of his fame and clout, so he received the go-head to write, direct and produce what must have been a project close to his heart. It goes to show, once again, that even the greatest creative types need an editor, or at least a friend they respect who’ll tell them when something isn’t working….

As the creation of a hugely gifted writer and outstanding screen-writing craftsman (just check all the movies Hecht was called on to fix without taking credit), The Specter of the Rose is worth watching and even buying. But it is a curiosity piece, an intriguing failure.  [terrell-4]