Sunday, 10 February 2013

Ice Palace (1960)

Memories of would-be blockbusters and failed Oscar-bait past. Based on a late novel by the titan of pulpy epics, Edna Ferber, Ice Palace wanted to be compared to the previous big screen Ferber adaptation, George Stevens’ Giant (1956), so nakedly that it copies that film’s huge, slanting, roll-up-the-screen titles. The expanse of Stevens’ vision in Giant, and the confidence of the mid-‘50s Technicolor-and-Widescreen cinema force it wielded, augmented a predictable but earnest generational melodrama, helped by the tension between the discursive energy of Method-inflected stars James Dean and Dennis Hopper and the squarer styling of Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson, which helped generate at least an impression of character depth. As Hollywood entered the 1960s, its key assumptions were failing, as audiences shirked away or changed their taste. Ice Palace was made only four years after Giant, but it has the try-hard, smarmy air that infused much of the glossy studio fare released at this time, trying to squeeze revenue out of dated properties and the work of hit-makers past their cultural use-by date, like the same year’s pudgy remake of Ferber’s Cimarron, and Vincent Minnelli’s disastrous take on The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962). Stodgy, set-bound action and miscast actors don’t help the enervated, haplessly artificial proceedings. And yet, Ice Palace is moderately enjoyable; it's not art, and it isn't even really well-fashioned trash, but it is busy, corny, occasionally amusing in its badness, top-heavy with talents, and altogether attractively phony, in the best Hollywood tradition that occasionally illuminates aspects of reality. Richard Burton, complete with quaky mid-Atlantic accent, is oddly cast as Zeb Kennedy, a rough-edged Seattle cannery foreman, just back from WW1 and faced immediately with cruel realities. His boss Einer Wendt (Barry Kelley) patronisingly refuses to give him his job back, an act of bastardry secretly motivated by his desire to stymie his daughter Dorothy’s (Martha Hyer) crush on Zeb. Blackballed in Seattle thanks to Wendt’s influence, Zeb takes low-paying work in an Alaskan cannery along with Chinese migrant workers, including Wang (George Takei), but when he gets into a fight with the foreman in sticking up for them, Zeb is knocked into the harbour and pulled out by Thor Storm (Robert Ryan), a fisherman descended from early settlers.

As usual in Ferber’s work, Thor and Zeb’s relationship, which curdles eventually into personal war, mimics a diastolic concern for America’s self-image as a place where can-do and elbow grease will create great things, but with a concurrent conscientiousness about the cost of unsanctioned greed driven by resentful class and race struggle. In the early part of the film, the weight of empathy is on Zeb’s side, as he’s forced into degrading situations and bullied by the system he’s nominally fought for. Then the worm turns and begins gathering power and wealth unto himself, employing Wang as his housekeeper and his pal from Seattle Dave Husack (Jim Backus) as his chief yes man, with every expedience and dirty trick he can muster. Zeb labours with self-justifying, sullenly obsessive bravura, whilst Thor (he's the son of a preacher man, for extra moralistic heft) commences to resist Zeb with hellfire force as he enters politics, trying to bring the force of federal law and civil interest to Alaska. But the actual cause of the pair's eventual enmity is Thor’s business partner Bridie Ballantyne (Carolyn Jones). Thor had an unconsummated crush on her, but mutual attraction sparked between her and Zeb. Thor presumes he’s been screwed over although the pair have conscientiously tried to avoid hurting him, and he clobbers Zeb just as he’s getting their planned venture in a local Alaskan cannery going. Given his last push into the realm of semi-sociopathic disaffection, Zeb marries Dorothy to get hold of her dough and bankroll his burgeoning empire, and plays unhappy families with her, whilst Thor retreats to the icy wilderness and has a son by an Eskimo woman who dies soon after. Of course, Thor’s son Christopher and Zeb and Dorothy’s girl Grace become pals and childhood sweethearts, in spite of their fathers’ attempts to keep them apart: Zeb develops an inexplicable racist streak and tells Thor to keep his "half-breed" away from his girl.

When the young ‘uns grow into the comely adult forms of Steve Harris and Shirley Knight, Chris rocks up outside the Kennedy house looking fetching in furs, driving a dog sled (don’t that beat a second-hand Honda?), and spirits his blonde princess away to the frozen north to live in freedom, only for Grace to fall pregnant, and Chris tries to rush her back to civilised parts to deliver the baby. Cue the film’s most magnificently absurd scene, as Jeb and Thor try to find them, Thor with dogsled, Zeb in his plane, and both manage to converge on the duo, who are supposed to be in the middle of nowhere but are seen in aerial shots speeding along a neatly ploughed road. Chris tries to save Grace from freezing, in a moment that might have inspired one of the more infamous details of The Empire Strikes Back (1980), shooting a moose to stash his wife in its gut. Just as the anxious fathers arrive, however, a bear attacks. Or, at least, a man in a bear suit, in a sequence of wildlife wrestling that makes Victor Mature’s stuntman-enhanced struggles with the doped-up, toothless lions in Samson and Delilah (1949) look thrillingly dangerous. Both Chris and Grace die, but not before Grace squeezes out a baby girl, who then grows into the hearty, tomboyish Christine (Diane McBain) – we can tell she’s a tomboy because she wears rolled-up jeans. She’s been brought up by the two men who maintain their implacable opposition, Zeb now a skyscraper-ensconced plutocrat trying to fight off Thor’s efforts to give Alaska statehood and undercut his monopolies: relations reach their nadir when, during a hearing, Thor accuses Zeb of treason through his self-interest, almost starting an all-in brawl. Zeb finally overreaches when he tries to arrange Christine’s marriage to Husack’s malleable lawyer son Bay (Ray Danton) in order to leverage Bay’s chances to unseat Thor in an election. 

The wild leaps in timeframe and the episodic storytelling do little to help leaven the posturing naivety of all this, as characters grow up and die in the stretch of a few dozen minutes of running time. So much in the film feels oddly tacky and recycled, right down to the scene where Zeb dashes off to puke after Wang shares dodgy ethnic cuisine with him. But there are remnants of the sort of power Ferber’s template usually offered in the succession of outsized emotions, the cod-Shakespearean confluence of great power and character perversity enacted on a correspondingly massive scale. American evolution is rendered with visual concision in the shifts from rough-hewn structures of wood to plush offices, dogsleds to chrome-shiny cars. Ferber probably helped give birth to the soap opera with her multi-generational tales of money, lust, and morality, and her usual sneaky capacity to take seemingly machismo-heavy tales, set on frontiers and depicting the brute force of nation-building, and twist these tropes into Women’s Drama territory, is more overt here. Bridie, a hotelier, remains caught between, and independent of, the two he-men, enflamed by Zeb’s presence but resisting his emotional greed. She raises Chris for Thor and then Christine for them both, becoming a permissible variety of unwed matriarch. Jones, as ever, is interestingly offbeat, especially in this part where her brunette intensity and lack of glam makes for an unusually mature object of mutual obsession, contrasting Hyer as the increasingly shrill Dorothy, who tries her best to torture Zeb as she realises she’s been had, but instead drives herself to a speedy heart attack. Hyer, thanks to parts like this one and in Some Came Running (1958), seems today very much like the face of the Age of Anxiety, the mid-century doldrums of hysteria-tinged femininity with brittle, shiny surfaces over barely concealed frustration shading into lunacy, where Jones, a couple of years away from becoming that first alternate mother, Morticia Addams, is almost transgressive in her aura of good-sense and gravity. The talented Knight and the engaging McBain don't get as much screen time, trying to fill out their rather thankless parts in the episodic second half of the film: as in the same year's The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Knight plays the gorgeous, troubled, fragile by-product of the broken illusions that once stoked the aspirational bourgeois family, registering every emotional tap like a knock-out punch, but sadly her role is too truncated to be memorable. McBain, in her first film, fares better as Christine, chewing sceptically on a sandwich as Bay tries to talk her into marriage, before the script awkwardly sends her through the paces of melodramatic plot swerves she seems far too canny to fall for, even for a moment.

Ice Palace is most consistently engaging when it concentrates on the ferocity of Thor and Zeb’s mutual loathing, which of course has powerful undercurrents of homoerotic attraction and spurning, barely mediated by Bridie’s presence between them. The film never ceases be nauseatingly moralistic, with Thor posited as the liberal yin to Zeb’s haute-capitalist yang, but it’s undercut by the study in mirror-image pathology: the film never feels out the edges of actual moral ambiguity, as it offloads all wickedness onto Zeb, from environmentally destructive trap-fishing to racism to bride-bartering, whilst leaving him a fraction of space to redeem himself in the last reel. And yet Thor’s insufferable self-righteousness is almost accidentally complicated: Thor’s cloddish reaction to Zeb and Grace’s attraction sets a half-century tragedy in motion. Burton’s performance, like many he gave in this stage of his career, is uneven, swinging from overblown to sleepy, and it’s easy to conclude, given Ryan’s capacity to project aggression, that the two leads might have been better served swapping parts. Vincent Sherman’s direction sadly does little to dispel the film’s hackneyed and plastic aura: Sherman, born Abraham Orovitz, had grown up in Georgia when there weren’t many Jewish families in the state, and the direct jabs at social exclusion, sexism, and racism in the film evoke a sharply felt common empathy. This gives Ice Palace emotional bedrock that sustains the interest even as the story becomes a jumble of silly bestseller tropes and cornball situations. One scene encapsulates the film’s odd balance of forces, that in which Grace affects her escape from the Kennedy mansion to run off with Chris: the silliness of the Romeo-and-Juliet plot and the sight of the fur-clad Chris rocking up like the Eskimo Bruce Springsteen is counterbalanced by the intimacy of Grace watching for his arrival with bated breath from the warm interior, and sneaking out behind her mother’s back, a study in elemental reversals where the punishing cold without is preferable to the emotional chill within. But sadly Sherman was never a stylish or particularly subtle filmmaker, and the film’s substance is always stymied by the succession of flatly lit, studied interiors. Joseph Biroc’s cinematography is pretty, but the film is finally drowned in its own Technicolor class. 

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