Beautiful, classic film era actress Debra Paget never quite became an A-list star. Despite being in some high profile films, she was mostly relegated to genre roles, usually playing exotic parts and often wearing skimpy and skin-tight costuming. Filmmaker Mark Rappaport chose her as the subject of one of his latest video essays, Debra Paget, For Example (2015), that’s part career biography, part examination of studio era Hollywood, and part personal digression into side topics or characters that interest him.
Rappaport performs a sort of archaeology with classic film elements. The majority of his movie is comprised of clips from Paget’s films. He allows some excerpts to play straight through, while with others he creates new scenes by making collages with with his selected images and moments. At times the material shown simply supports the biography. Other times it’s used to illustrate points. Because of the material he’s working with, a video made in his Paris apartment on a Mac with Final Cut Pro has an expensive, glamorous look. Aspirational DIY filmmakers could be inspired by how easy it would be technology-wise to create their own movies without ever leaving home.
When the documentary opens, Rappaport repeatedly superimposes the 2oth Century Fox logo over Paget’s face. This happens first in black and white and then in Technicolor. During her fifteen year film career, she was a contract player for the studio for eight years. Those were her career’s glory years. She once was third in the volume of fan mail received there, only being bested by Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe. Getting beyond the surrealism of a logo appearing and disappearing through fade and reverse fade over her visage, the imagery suggests she was part of the studio, branded by it, and never bigger than it. She will always be part of its story and vice versa.
The director narrates the documentary and he attempts to provide a female companion voice by having Caroline Simonds periodically speak Paget’s thoughts. Simonds never really says anything to counter to Rappaport’s narration. Instead her lines bolster his point of view. Her lines don’t always ring true or come from a female point of view.
Rappaport brings up that in Paget’s film debut, Robert Siodmak‘s film noir Cry of the City (1948), it is weird that a fourteen year-old is the romantic love interest of thirty-eight year old Richard Conte‘s character. Simonds retrogradely asks, “Why is my mother allowing this?” Paget’s mother was a stage mother and pushed all of her children into performing careers, but her father was part of their family life. Either parent could have reviewed her potential roles and rejected parts or scenes. Ultimately that’s not the perspective of a fourteen year-old girl. Someone that age tends to think they’re more grown-up than they are. Paget might have thought Conte ancient as the young feel about anyone that much older than them, or she might have been so excited about playing such a dramatic role that the age difference might not have been on her mind, or she could have had an age inappropriate crush. Those are possibilities.
The filmmaker points out that Paget is repeatedly cast as older than her age. She later plays a college coed when she’s really high school age. There’s a suggestion that she was pushed into maturity working in an adult business. There’s a suggestion of how movies do sell us illusions. There’s a suggestion that the commodification of her charms had begun.
Rappaport evaluates Paget’s talents. In “her very first shot in her very first film,” he sees skill. “She knows how to walk across a room. Not as easy to do as you might think.” He praises her for being able to cry on demand. Essentially he goes on to say and show she could act, dance, and sing. She might have had a very different career as the musical film biography of John Philip Sousa Stars and Stripes Forever (1952) showed, except musical movies were on their way out.
The dark-haired-but-blue-eyed Paget found herself the studio’s go to woman for ethnic roles. She played Middle Eastern, Native American, South Sea island, and East Indian parts. For some films, she’d wear contact lenses to turn her eyes brown. She hated that because Kleig lights would heat the lenses up. Her thoughts on having her skin darkened for roles might not be recorded. Rappaport creates a sequence showing her many exotic parts. Not only does it highlight the absurdity of the films she was cast in, but also it acts like an odd sort of fashion show, and while the castings and characters were ethnically tone deaf, there’s a pleasure in seeing a beautiful woman wearing outlandish fashions in glorious Technicolor that makes everything prettier than it should be.
He discusses how sexualized her roles were. There’s the aforementioned skimpy and skin-tight outfits. In the Biblically inspired Ten Commandments (1956), her character was a sex slave, and the costuming had her braless. In Fritz Lang‘s The Indian Tomb (1959), she performs a bump and grind dance routine more suited to Las Vegas stages. Because of her image, Rappaport mentions how Paget was the first crush of many a boy. Those crushes may or may not have been innocent. I’m sure there was many a lad (and a lassie) who didn’t know why they adored the actress, who were getting a hint of what their budding sexualities were. Rappaport chooses to focus on the masturbatory fantasies she inspired. No mention is made of those who may have been influenced to be like the Paget they saw on the screen, a very different kind of wanting.
When the director digresses, parenthesis appear on the screen. They look like crescent moons, tying into the exotic mysticism of some of Paget’s parts. Digressions can be relevant, like when he compares Paget to Maria Montez, “The Queen of Kitsch.” Montez’s roles surpass Paget’s in outrageousness of performance and costuming as a montage shows. He appoints Paget “The Princess of Kitsch,” and then he says that one person’s kitsch may be another’s nostalgia, and he seems not to want to rob anyone of their pleasure in that nostalgia. Momentarily, he’ll focus on other performers because of their Jewishness or sexuality, Paget being the launching pad to that discussion. Despite the tangents, Rappaport covers a lot of of her life in little more than a half hour.
Even if I didn’t always agree with Rappaport, Debra Paget, For Example was a fun way to spend time. I’d seen the actress in multiple movies, but I’d never investigated her, and the documentary piqued my interest in seeing more of her films. I enjoy kitsch and camp. Within films not successful at being what their creators hoped them to be and getting remembered for the wrong reasons, there were performers like Paget working hard to make something out of a role and lucking into starring in moments of stunning imagery.