Archive for the Theatre Category

Taking the Curse off It

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , on April 9, 2014 by dcairns

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“Taking the curse of it” is a writing/filmmaking term meaning to prevent something getting too sententious or ponderous by undercutting the serious with the comic. When misapplied, you get that ghastly formality at the Oscars where the host will make some lame wisecrack as soon as somebody’s said something a bit political or potentially meaningful. But in general it’s a very good method for keeping the tone varied, which you probably need to do “to stop ‘em falling asleep,” as Olivier might put it. Preston Sturges, whose tone was recklessly varied at all times, was the master of it: see the end of CHRISTMAS IN JULY.

Which brings us again to screenwriter and playwright Charles Wood. After blogging about his plays, I was thrilled to be put in touch with his daughter Kate, and through her the Great Man himself, and beyond thrilled to hear that he liked what I’d said.

Since then I’ve ordered a collection of his plays, because having read a copy of ‘H’, or Monologues in Front of Burning Cities, I felt the need to own it and have it handy for reference. Dealing with the Indian  Mutiny of 1857, it’s a sweeping epic full of grotesque humour, tragedy and spectacle (I’m intrigued as to how they staged the elephant at the National Theatre). Although Wood’s later play, Veterans, is somewhat inspired by characters and events from the filming of CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, which Wood scripted, it’s written as an imaginary account of the making of an imaginary film of ‘H’.

A highlight for me is this prayer by an army surgeon:

SURGEON SOOTER: On my knees, I sink to Thee my

Lord, that Thou shalt find a

way to Guide Me that I May

Not Kill,

that Thou shalt keep Thy high

bright sun from in the wounds

of those under my care,

that Thou shalt take from the

Poor Skill in my hands

all that which is Clumsy

and Poison,

that Thou shalt Protect

my bandages from rust and

rot, and Thou shalt Stop

my ears to sighing and cursing

under my knife, that Thou shalt

spare my coat tail from the

plucks of those that know they

are Dead, that Thou shalt bring

me to those made Strong in their

Faith, that I might tell them

they die and thus bring them

to Life, this pleasant deception

give me . . . for I have

never, angry in voice denounced

Thy Disease,

Thy Wounds,

Thy Sickness,

Thy Filth in which I Labour.

Thou hast set me to labour in

the realm of Ignorant Science,

give me some sparing,

as Thou hast spared me in other

times, other conflicts of man

and death; keep me Sane and keep

me Unaffected.

Use plenty of brown soap. (He adds as an afterthought of advice.)

The whole thing is quite brilliant, moving and strange and particular. As with THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, the use of language is an imaginative evocation of Victorian speech, inspired by writings of the time and answering the sensible question “Why should we make them talk like us?” The last line, which segues dazedly from one kind of formal speech (prayer) to another (doctor’s orders) strikes me as quite wonderful, and my inability to express why is part of what I like about it.

I have been unable to learn if brown soap was commonly used for any particular medical problem.

The Monday Intertitle: Um

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , on April 7, 2014 by dcairns

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Just finished writing about THE SQUAW MAN, America’s first feature film and the first movie adaptation of a Broadway play (or is it? No it isn’t: see Comments section). The article will appear elsewhere, it is hoped, and I will tell you about it later.

Which means I have nothing to say here except to laugh and point at the funny intertitle.

Oh, OK. Let’s compare DeMille’s original (available only in its 1918 re-release form, I believe) with his talkie (VERY talkie) remake.

The first film manages to get its hero, an English toff, Out West in about fifteen minutes, despite pausing for a blaze at sea and some tricky business in New York. The remake takes half an hour to accomplish the same task, and doesn’t even manage the oceanic inferno or the Big Apple stopover.

The first film stars Red Wing, a full-blooded Winnebago (a tribe with what you might call cinematic implications), whereas the talking picture stars Lupe Velez. Lupe Velez was famous for not being an Indian.

The second film gets by with intertitles, although admittedly they have that Edisonian quality of sometimes telling you what you’re about to see — a film with its own spoilers — but the remake has as much verbiage as it has prairie, going on for miles in all directions. Everyone has been instructed to talk slow for the nice microphone, so that Warner Baxter (as an English nobleman, pwahahaha) sounds as much like an Indian as Lupe.

In spite of all this, I do find the remake, ponderous though it is (crude by 1931 standards) slightly more fun, if only because it contains this image –

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In fact, Eleanor Boardman, in her penultimate film,  seems to inhabit better compositions than the entire rest of the cast. I must see more of her, starting with Borzage’s THE CIRCLE, recently supplied by a thoughtful Shadowplayer

Heart Attacks

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , on April 6, 2014 by dcairns

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Noel Coward, who once wrote a piece called Shadow Play, stars in THE ASTONISHED HEART, which he also wrote. The directors are Antony Darnborough and Terence Fisher, who also teamed to make SO LONG AT THE FAIR, a really terrific Hitchcockian mystery with Jean Simmons and Dirk Bogarde, which we had previously enjoyed — in fact, it’s more stylish than any of Fisher’s more celebrated Hammer horrors, perhaps because of the b&w atmosphere, perhaps because of Darnborough’s contribution (he was a successful producer, but since he didn’t continue as a solo director like his colleague, it’s hard to assess what he contributed).

THE ASTONISHED HEART isn’t as revelatory, but it is very good, if tebbly, tebbly British. Noel plays a psychiatrist (pronounced sick-iatrist) who falls in love with his the former schoolfriend (Margaret Leighton) of his wife (Celia Johnson). His inability to compete with her dead lover drives him crackers.

Everybody is tebbly civilised, with Celia refusing to make a scene and advising him to gone on a long holiday with his lover until he knows what he wants to do, when really you long for her to knock a stake through his heart or set him ablaze with a kerosene lamp, causing him to fall through a skylight into an acid bath, or something. But actually, as with BRIEF ENCOUNTER, if you can get past how posh everyone is, it has a core of emotional truth that’s effective.

Visually the strongest scene is Noel’s long dark night of the soul stroll, through an eerie deserted London — with the witty, brittle dialogue on hold, the filmmakers can concentrate on telling a story with pictures. But the scene where Noel returns to work and finds himself completely unable to function, so wrapped up in his own problems that he can’t even hear anyone else’s, is magnificently played and VERY elegantly shot, with a slow track-in and jib-down on Noel’s anguished, distracted face that builds up the pressure agonizingly until Noel’s head threatens to go all SCANNERS on us.

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