Take Infinity

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I got a copy of O. HENRY’S FULL HOUSE ages ago, through my sister-in-law taping it off Sky Cinema, and of course failed to watch it. All I knew at the time was that it was a compendium film adapting stories by O. Henry, and that one episode was directed by Howard Hawks. I had no strong feelings about the other directors.

Fast-forward a couple of years (on V.H.S. that’s going to take looong time) and I’ve grown quite interested in Jean Negulesco, and somewhat more interested in Henries Koster, King and Hathaway (given the name of the author, did they try to cast only men called Henry to direct this thing, then give up when they suddenly thought, “Wait — what the hell are we doing?”) , so I eventually overcame my boundless inertia and played the thing. Well, I have a kind of creeping dislike of O. Henry’s famous story The Gift of the Magi, recreated here with Farley Granger and Jeanne Crain, who inevitably fit right into the heart of mush that beats and oozes within that tale, so that ended the film on a sour note, (I don’t think I’ve actually enjoyed a Henry king movie yet) but the rest was not bad ~

To take the stories in no particular order — Hathaway’s adaptation of The Clarion Call was perfectly fine, it’s a good story, and here it was used as an excuse to have Richard Widmark play another cackling black-shirted psychopath. No bad thing, and the story was genuinely smart.

Negulesco’s episode, The Last Leaf, with Anne Baxter, Jean Peters and Gregory Ratoff, was another sentimental tale, but it did boast some florid and eccentric work from the Romanian maestro — his camera lurches into Dutch tilts as Baxter staggers home, feverish in a snowstorm. The camera makes little darting movements, motivated by nothing at all, perhaps trying to create a discombobulated and fevered reaction in the audience.

Hawks confirmed his reputation as the best filmmaker of the bunch by turning in the best short, a sterling adaptation of the Ransome of Red Chief. The late Donald Westlake riffed on this idea in his third Dortmunder novel — the kidnappers outkidded by the kid they kidnap. Hawks’s dry approach to comedy is here exaggerated by very very dry performances indeed — Fred Allen and Oscar Levant realise that the only way to deal with this overwritten, literary comedy dialogue is just to say it, with a little inflection but zero emotion. The mighty Kathleen Freeman also turns up as the kid’s mother, and the kid himself is an astonishing prodigy called Lee Aaker. His throaty, serious, preternaturally adult delivery makes him like a country cousin to legendary comedy child Henry Spofford III (George Winslow) in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES. “I’ve changed my mind about you, Slim. I still don’t like you, but now I think you’re stupid,” he intones, with a level, deadly gaze.

But the most exciting moment was in Henry Koster’s comedy episode, The Cop and the Anthem. Charles Laughton is great value as a tramp trying to get arrested so he can spend the winter in a nice warm penitentiary. David Wayne makes a fine sidekick. But it was the brief appearance by Marilyn Monroe that caught my imagination.

Laughton and Monroe shared a scene? How long did THAT baby take to film? Between waiting for Laughton to “find the man”, waiting for Monroe to show up, waiting for Laughton to “feel it”, and waiting for Monroe to actually give voice to her lines, surely this is a sequence which would have had to be begun years before the film’s projected release date. My theory — they’re still shooting it NOW. By the time the scene (a couple of shots long) is complete, time travel will have been invented, and Koster will be able to pop back to 1952 and seamlessly insert the fresh footage into the cut negative, all ready for its release. And we can already see that it will be worth the effort.

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Oh — the film also features introductions to each section delivered by John Steinbeck. He has the porous, jowly features of James Ellroy, but he doesn’t say “copacetic” all the time so is clearly a better writer.

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9 Responses to “Take Infinity”

  1. Aw I’ll bet they pulled it off in a couple of hours. In the early part of her career Marilyn could be quite professional. As she became a star she unravelled. But she’s always lovely.

  2. It’s a nice scene. You’re right, of course, MM’s difficulties were mainly ahead of her, and Laughton was only intermittently hard work.

  3. “Laughton and Monroe shared a scene? How long did THAT baby take to film? (…) My theory — they’re still shooting it NOW”

    OoOooH, you wicked man, you! :O

    Now seriously: honest, I cracked up laughing when reading that…

    Even tho’ Charles wasn’t always as difficult to get a role as in “I, Claudius”. The other side of his various attempts when he couldn’t “get his man” is the virtuoso turn reported by Billy Wilder when they were shooting “Witness for the Prosecution”: he could produce like fifty different readings of the same character’s speech in a row… I think it was the so many possibilities he saw in roles that sort of gagged him: there were so many options, and just one would be selected in the cutting room…

    Other aspect would be… How to put it, that he had to be “in” to play teh role his: I don’t know if you have seen Kurosawa’s “Wonderful Sunday”, but there’s a scene by the end of the film that I think that might summon it: the two characters try to imagine a situation to cheer themselves up, but it is not “pretending” the situation, but actually “living” it that helps them seeing the sunny side up of their gloomy lifes. It’s not cheating the feeling, but taking a leap of faith that they really feel that way.

    Huh-oh… Getting too serious now. I bet David E. is basically right about the two-hour timing ;D

    Hum, back to the film: I found it myself quite a likeable one. I think that anthology films (like this or “Tales of Manhattan”) tend to be overlooked by critics and/or historians, and should be vindicated: it’s a bit like having the sample menu of a restaurant. “Ransom of the Red Chief” is a personal favourite, I like Oscar Levant and it’s not usual seeing him in a non-musical role… And not usual to see him as someone to be outsmarted, either.

    I was left quite bleary-eyed after watching “The last leaf” (funny thing to see Ratoff and Baxter in roles so unlike theirs in “All About Eve”)

  4. Christopher Says:

    Those long neglected films lying around,often yeild some of the greatest pleasures..

  5. This anthology has solid (if variable) stories to support it, so it’s on a surer footing than something like I Tre Volti where the idea of an anthology seems to have come before any actual stories. And all the directors are in their comfort zones and put their particular talents to work. The results may be somewhat minor but they do reflect the styles of the filmmakers nicely.

    Sternberg’s autogiography is fascinating in part because it’s clear that he WAS capable of giving Laughton the direction he required, but he resisted doing so because he didn’t believe in it.

  6. You know, from my side of the fence, I always imagined Sternberg directing Laughton in “I, Claudius” in the following way: Strolling around the actor, looking him into the eyes, dressed with riding boots, johdpurs and turban, horsewhip in one hand, and saying “I haff vays to make tou ACT”

  7. What’s interesting to me in the footage (among many things) is the way Laughton basically cuts the scene himself when he’s lost it, a fairly serious breach of protocol. The director should be the one to decide whether it’s good or not. If Sternberg were the true martinet he wouldn’t tolerate such a thing. And the fact that Laughton breaks off a perfectly reasonable take suggests that he has no faith in Sternberg.

    JVS talks about Laughton being good enough in his best scenes to more than compensate for his weak ones. Maybe the mere existence of weak scenes was enough to panic Laughton. If Sternberg allowed such scenes through, he couldn’t be depended upon as a director.

    This is mainly supposition, of course…

  8. Best story in this film was The Last Leaf. Thanks, mainly, to the acting talents of Jean Peters and Gregory Ratoff. Baxter actually plays a supporting role in this film. She’s fine, but you can truly appreciate Jean Peters’ talents as an actress in this segment. This is a gorgeous looking lady who can really act. It’s a shame she cut her career short to marry Howard Hughes -and just as she was reaching top stardom. Loved her work in Pickup on South Street, made a year after Full House

  9. She packed a lot in to that brief career — films for Aldrich, Negulesco, Filler, Koster, Hathaway, Kazan, Tourneur…

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