‘The Great Flamarion’ adapted from ‘Big Shot’ by Vicki Baum

The short story Big Shot by Vicki Baum was first published in Collier’s magazine of September 19, 1936. The Great Flamarion is only loosely based on Baum’s story and the Mary Beth Hughes character in the film is far more sympathetic in the short story. Ultimately, the film seems to have an air of misogyny rather than progressive feminism. I think a good film noir could have been realised with a more authentic re-telling of Baum’s story.’That being said, I am sure moralistic Hollywood censor Joe Breen would have disallowed the Baum ending which did not punish an adulterer.

The magnificent noir satire Sunset Boulevard (1950) won an Academy Award nomination as best supporting actor for Erich von Stroheim who plays Max, the servant, and former husband of faded silent-movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). I have always wondered if there was an element of cruelty in the casting of Sunset Boulevard with a script written by director Billy Wilder. Stroheim was a leading director of silent films and had directed Swanson, a leading lady of the silent screen shunned by the talkies. As a director Stroheim went over budget in one picture too many and Hollywood booted him to the kerb. Austrian born Stroheim came to America in 1909 and, by 1914, he was working in Hollywood as an actor and writer. He took on his first directorial role in 1919. Over the next decade, he became a top director only to decline and fall with his dismissal from Queen Kelly (1929) the last straw. Either by irony or Billy Wilder malice, Sunset Boulevard was a reminder of the disagreements between Stroheim and Queen Kelly (and Sunset Boulevard) star Gloria Swanson which led to the director’s dismissal. Wilder even showed scenes from Queen Kelly in Sunset Boulevard.
After he was blackballed as a director, Stroheim returned to writing and acting, often as an aristocrat, a heritage he falsely claimed in real life.

In The Great Flamarion, Stroheim is superb, in the title role of an aloof, misogynist sharp-shooter in a Vaudeville act with femme fatale Connie  (Mary Beth Hughes) and her drunken husband Al (Dan Duryea). Well, you know where this story is heading though heading is not the right word as most is told in flashback, topped and tailed by a  puzzle at the beginning and a resolution at the end. The clever story and astute direction of noir maestro Anthony Mann make this 78min low-budget tale a small gem. But it is Stroheim’s ability to expose the raw vulnerability of this absurd man in a dinner suit performing a novelty act which makes the movie so compelling. Against all odds, the viewer is sympathetic to this Big Shot, the title of the short story (by Vicki Baum) on which the movie is based.

The story-writer 

Vicki Baum, 1950s, Penn Museum Image #243434

HEDWIG “VICKI” BAUM was an Austrian writer of more than 50 books. She wrote the novel Menschen im Hotel (“People at a Hotel”, 1929 ) and she was invited to Hollywood to write the screenplay for the film version Grand Hotel (1932). She stayed in America. In Vienna, Baum was also a musician and a boxer, training beside Marlene Dietrich. “A woman never knew when she might have to defend herself, right?” Baum was quoted as saying  She identified as a New Woman, a feminist concept which emerged in the late 19th century. To read, as you sometimes will, that Lamarr or Lupino were “proto-feminists” in Hollywood is quite anachronistic as feminism in Europe emerged decades before their careers in Hollywood. The short story Big Shot is recorded as being published on September 19, 1937 by Hedwig Lert (Baum’s married name) in Collier’s magazine. It is hard to judge how close to the mood of Baum’s story The Great Flamarion is. Ultimately, the film seems to have an air of misogyny rather than feminism.

The Director

BORN IN CALIFORNIA, Anthony Mann was of Austrian and Bavarian heritage. He is considered one of the doyens of film noir and he often worked with the exemplary cinematographer, John Alton, though not on The Great Flamarion. Mann rose from a childhood of financial struggles to drop out of high school, and combine night work with stage acting and directing in New York from 1930-40. He made his film directorial debut in 1942 with Dr. Broadway. For B-production house Republic Pictures, he made his first noirs: Strangers in the Night (1944), and The Great Flamarion (1945) followed by Strange Impersonation (1946). Noirs with RKO included Two O’Clock Courage (1945) and Desperate (1947). It was with another B-movie production house Eagle Lion that Mann had his greatest early success with noirs such as T-Men (1947) Railroaded! (1947) He Walked by Night (1948) and Raw Deal (1948). With MGM, he did Border Incident (1949) Side Street (1950) and thehistorical noir The Tall Target (1952). Mann went on to become an A-movie director specialising in Westerns and epics. He did not make another noir.

Bernie Dowling


The Verdict

One thought on “‘The Great Flamarion’ adapted from ‘Big Shot’ by Vicki Baum

  1. The Great Flamarion based on a short story, Big Shot by Vicki Baum appeared in Collier’s Weekly. Collier’s had a reputation for being ‘a proponent of social reform’

    Big Shot
    In Baum’s short story Ria, who is the wife of a circus sharpshooter, falls in love with another man. Ria wants to escape the circus for music halls in the city where women wore evening gowns, men wore dress clothes and the program was changed every month. Some key lines appear in the story by Vicki Baum:
    I’m not afraid,” said Ria. ”I want to get away from this. I can’t stand the sight of sawdust any longer, or the smell of wild beasts. You don’t belong in a circus. You ‘re a big shot.”

    Is Ria being sarcastic when she calls her husband a ‘big shot’? It is hard to say but I think it is merely a play on words. The significance of the title Big Shot helps in deciding if the subsequent film is misogynist.

    The author, Baum, had a reputation as an independent and tough woman. In the 1920s, she took up boxing saying: “a woman never knows when she might have to defend herself, right?”

    Initially, I was  reluctant to include the Great Flamarion on Cinema del popolo because I think it is misogynist … don’t get me wrong,  This is a good film and the leads are both brilliant but  it is sexist because Mary Beth Hughes (based on Ria), the femme fatale is portrayed as a conniving bitch without  any real saving graces.  The men that she was surrounded by were pretty hopeless and yet the film seems to be in sympathy  with them.  I don’t know, I’m just a bit uncomfortable about it.  However I think the audience should decide for themselves.
    Ian Curr

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