Archive for Alistair Sim

Scroogeathon

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 24, 2013 by dcairns

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We were round at our friends Nicola and Donald’s place, along with Marvelous Mary, eating, drinking and watching Scrooges. The weather outside was frightful — rain and sleet gusting in multiple directions as umbrellas turned inside out like kinetic sculptures. Inside, all was warm and festive, though there was a brief crisis when Nicola’s beloved DVD of THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL could not be located. But I found it, to great relief.

Nicola: “When you blog about this — and you will — be kind!”

We also watched smatterings of other Scrooges, and all of the Albert Finney musical xmastravaganza, a post-OLIVER! flop which is actually really good, except for the songs. So the purpose of this post is to consider the varied approaches of directors, screenwriters and actors when tackling Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Fiona and I agree that the gold standard is Alistair Sim, both in SCROOGE, the 1951 feature directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, and twenty years later in Richard Williams’ animated TV special, which captures the feeling of Victorian pen-and-ink illustrations and evokes a nightmarish quality that marked the young Fiona for life.  We like our Christmas Carols scary, and we deduct points from any version which leaves out the starving children under Christmas Present’s robe.

Extra points are awarded whenever it looks like Scrooge might have a point, actually — Finney does well here — and notes are taken when the performance post-reformation suggests that the old miser’s mind has snapped under the strain. Sim seems genuinely unhinged, and Bill Murray in SCROOGED is probably going to go on a killing spree right after the credits roll, laughing maniacally the while.

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Williams film has to move over — we have a new champion for visual splendour and creepiness — Ronald Neame’s musical may not have the tunes, apart from “Thank You Very Much” (and it gets a few points just for having a number called “I Hate People” which should be a Christmas standard), and it’s hampered by Finney’s inability to really put over a song, but the production design by Terence Marsh (art director on OLIVER!), costumes by Margaret Furse (Lean’s OLIVER TWIST) and photography by Oswald Morris (OLIVER!) are all stunning — Scrooge’s home is a wreck, with every crevice lovingly blow-torched so the cracked-paintwork forms a texture you could reach out and stroke — and Leslie Bricusse departs from the source text outrageously by sending Scrooge to Hell, a gorgeous scarlet inferno with Kryptonite trimmings. The night sky full of wraiths is MUCH too frightening for kids, and generally speaking the film misses few opportunities to freak us out with the scary stuff. No Hunger and Want though.

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Finney’s Ebenezer doesn’t seem that old, which is an interesting departure, but the film gains from having an actor who can convincingly play the young Scrooge and the middle-aged one. He treats the character stuff as an opportunity to trot out his Wilfred Lawson impersonation, which also forms part of his acclaimed perf in THE DRESSER. It’s a very good impersonation, but may cause bafflement to those who don’t know the original. Finney also scores well on the emotional side, helped by Neame’s willingness to give him lingering, painful close-ups at key moments — and the make-up, more middle-aged decay than old-age, bears up remarkably well in these giant face-shots.

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We also looked at a couple of thirties Scrooges. Reginald Owen at MGM waggles his head too much and has to work hard to dispel his inherent gentleness, but whose paunchy frame and high britches give him a suitably unpleasant arachnid quality. The makeup isn’t up to Finney standard though — it looks like cracking plaster on his face. Over in the UK, Seymour Hicks took the role in 1935, having already done it in a short silent. Hicks was famous for the role on stage, and may be the fastest Scrooge on record — he bangs out his dialogue like a Vickers Machine Gun, creating a whole different rhythm for the scenes. It works! As does his appearance, which is Yoda meets Grinch. I’d read Hicks described as incandescent with anger, but he’s more nasty than angry, stabbing each sentence into his interlocuters’ underbellies. Unfortunately, Hicks is only good at being nasty, and his reformation results in a slowing of tempo to that deadly pace associated with the worst of the stiff, British, theatrical tradition.

The George C. Scott tele-movie takes a wholly different approach. It’s stately, as a “literary classic” (really just a potboiler by Dickens’ standards) is supposed to be, but takes its pace from Scott’s performance, which is frosty, glacial, monumental on the surface but animated by those eye movements, all fire within. Clive Donner’s best approach might have been to devote the entire movie to closeups of his star…

Fiona regretted that Michael Caine couldn’t have done a straight version of the story, since his Scrooge is quite good enough — positively Satanic at the start, before crumbling most effectively. The singing once more lets him down, though Paul Williams’ numbers for A MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL are much better than Leslie Bricusse’s efforts for the Neame-Finney. Director Brian Henson has good comic timing and can compose genuinely funny shots (though he should lay off the focus-pulls), but is this a good way to tell the story?

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Dickens’ original provides some model cinematic scenes and scene-changes, with Scrooge whisked through time by the three ghosts in a manner which seems to anticipate movie editing. With Scrooge as audience-surrogate to moments from the past, present and future, it’s redundant to add in the Great Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat as narrator and foil — they become an audience of an audience of the action, with little room left for the audience watching the scene — some effectively spooky stuff is spoiled by their badinage.

As much as one admires the decision to give Jacob Marley a brother called Robert (a joint reference to the reggae singer and to Robert Morley, star of THE GHOSTS OF BERKELEY SQUARE?) and cast Waldorf and Statler, Alec Guinness is a definitive Marley, owing largely to his decision to play the role as if underwater. Dickens provides the fascinating detail that Marley’s coat tails and pig-tail and the tassels on his boots bristle — Guinness deduces that this is because the Ghost, a spirit, is suspended in our material world as if in water. The effect is uncanny and wonderful, and might even have influenced the drowned child in THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE.

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Though he sports the bandaged head, Guinness never unwraps himself to let his jaw drop down to his chest (although given the film’s sumptuous production values, such a special effect seems achievable) — that’s left to the animated wraith voiced by Michael Hordern in the Williams toon, and to Frank Finlay in Clive Donner’s TV movie with George C. Scott as the miser. Finlay does it entirely with acting. (Hordern may be the only actor to have played Marley AND Scrooge, essaying the latter in a 1977 TV version. That version, which today looks retro-stylish with its early video effects, has a Marlowe played by comic actor John LeMesurier, who drops his jaw and gargles to no horrific effect at all — rendering Hordern’s cowering surreally inexplicable.)

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Despite all that scary lighting can do, Hordern proves, as Fiona predicted, too avuncular and sweet an actor to be taken seriously as a meanie.

Other ghosts — Williams’ multifaceted Christmas Past is definitive, but Fiona was impressed by Anne Rutherford as a SEXY Christmas Past in the Reginald Owen attempt. Given that the role has also been taken by Joel Grey, Robbie Coltraine, Gary Coleman, Paul Frees,  Roscoe Lee Browne, Patricia Quinn and Steve Lawrence, I think we can agree this is the most heterogenous ghost of the lot.

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Christmas Present is always the same, and Kenneth More fits the bill fairly perfectly — off-puttingly matey and hearty. With your open dressing gown, chest hair and splayed legs, I fear thee most of all. It did come as a shock to see that Brian Blessed has never played the role. I mean, he’s ALWAYS playing it. To actually cast him in the role would be an economy, really. Can we make that happen?

In the same way, Nigel Havers is always Nephew Fred, isn’t he?

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Christmas Yet to Come is also comfortably consistent, and I must admit I admire the muppet design, with his eerie poor proportions — long arms and apparently no legs, making him the only honest muppet, since the others always pretend to be ambulatory but we all know there are men down there.

It’s regrettable that so many of the adaptations seem determined to prove their classiness by bloating the whole affair up and emphasizing respectability over drama — the MGM film plays its credits over a reclining studio lion, while the Brit flick opts for the inevitable turning pages of a leather-bound volume. Surely we don’t need to be TOLD Dickens’ moral tale is good for us? At least the Muppets are devoted to fun.

seasonally yours,

Haig P. McScroogian.

Versions not watched:

THE PASSIONS OF CAROL (’70s porno-Scrooge)

That Robert Zemeckis abomination.

Any good ones I missed?

STOP PRESS: We got limericks! Link.

Curtains

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2009 by dcairns

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So, after Hitchcock’s independent venture, Transatlantic Pictures, went into receivership after the belly-up box-office demise of UNDER CAPRICORN, he ran for cover with a British crime story for Warner Bros. STAGE FRIGHT is generally rated as lightly likable or less, with a disproportionate amount of attention wasted on the non-issue of whether a dishonest flashback is permissible. I think THE USUAL SUSPECTS has taken care of that question.

The movie has more than that going for it — there’s a surprising shift from whimsical Miss Marple investigation to dark psychosis and horrible death at the end, for one thing. The other most interesting element (apart from Frau Dietrich, of course) is the Britishness. The movie sees Hitchcock working with a lovely array of Brit actors of the era, giving us a little alternate-reality glimpse of what Hitchcock might have been doing if he hadn’t left for America. Given the film’s minor nature, we might feel particularly grateful that he did go to Hollywood, but then the lack of ambition is partly due to Hitch treading water in order to gain confidence (both personal and industry) after UNDER CAPRICORN’s poor reception.

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Alistair Sim had been in UK films since the ’30s, supporting Jessie Matthews with comedy relief, and co-starring with Hitchcock regular Gordon Harker in a series of rather jolly crime comedies about Inspector Hornleigh, so he could easily have acted for Hitchcock a decade and a half earlier, but he didn’t. His 1948 turn as Inspector Cockrill in Launder and Gilliat’s stylish GREEN FOR DANGER (dissed by Truffaut, but don’t listen to him) showed the actor on Hitchcockian terrain (in fact, the slick murder scene halfway through feels almost giallo-like). In fact, James Bridie suggested Sim for this movie, having worked with him extensively in the theatre (there’s a disappointing TV version of Bridie’s The Anatomist starring Sim as Burke and Hare’s paymaster, Dr Knox, produced by the late Harry Allan Towers).

The cast also features grande dame Sybil Thorndyke, David Lean favourite Kay Walsh (quite brilliant), Miles “He won’t be doing the crossword tonight” Malleson, Joyce Grenfell (a celebrated English comedienne and co-star with Sim in the ST TRINIANS films), Andre Morell, a Hammer horror stalwart, and comedy turns Irene Handl, Lionel Jeffries and Alfie Bass. So the supporting cast neatly ties Hitchcock in to Ealing, Lean, Powell & Pressburger, Hammer, Launder & Gilliat. The only thing missing is a Carry On films star — although Hitch had used Charles Hawtrey in SABOTAGE and would make memorably against-type use of Bernard Cribbins in FRENZY.

From the opening titles, in which a safety curtain (ironically named, as it turns out) rises to reveal the London skyline, it’s clear that this film will explore the conjunction of real life with theatrical artifice, a favourite Hitchcock theme. Like MURDER, the film is based on a novel but deal with theatre (lots of sources suggest that MURDER was originally a play, but it wasn’t — it just feels like one). If there’s a study left to be written on Hitchcock’s oeuvre it might be on this theme.

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Jane Wyman plays a drama student in London — where Patricia Hitchcock was actually studying. Pat turns up as a friend, with the unflattering name of “Chubby Bannister.” So it’s tempting to see Hitchcock family biography at work, but our heroine’s parents don’t seem a match for Hitch and Alma, and have more to do with the source novel and with the plot’s requirements. That plot has interesting connections with the thriller Hitch had planned for Nova Pilbeam to star in after YOUNG AND INNOCENT, since it deals with a respectable young girl with a slightly crooked dad, and it also calls to mind the father-daughter dynamic of NO BAIL FOR THE JUDGE, another unmade movie which got put on the back burner because Audrey Hepburn didn’t wish to do a rape scene for Hitch. Looking at FRENZY, I can’t say I blame her.

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The movie begins in media res with Jane Wyman and Richard Todd (an up-and-coming British — in fact Irish — star of the day, still working now, best known for DAMBUSTERS, which Peter Jackson now plans to remake) fleeing, and then we go into the flashback, which is uncomfortable not because we later learn it’s inaccurate, but because it comes so soon in the story it feels broadly expository. We’re being told a lot of stuff before we have reason to care. But this headlong dive into plot is part of a strategy to put one over on us, so the discomfort is probably necessary, and anyhow things will soon settle down.

The key to the plot’s success in this movie (apart from that flashback deceiving us) is that what seems to be happening — Todd covers up a killing for Marlene and gets implicated, turning to lovestruck Jane Wyman for help — is an effective romantic triangle, enlisting lots of sympathy for poor Jane, wrapped up in a thriller plot (with echoes of Hamlet’s “the play’s the thing”) — which is pretty effective as drama long before we realise that it’s not what’s happening at all.

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This dodgy matte shot, an attempt at CITIZEN KANE faux deep focus, is a bit glaring, but it’s an interesting attempt at something. I once used that phrase to describe an odd moment in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, and a friend suggested they should put it on his tombstone.

“Here we have a plot, an interesting cast, even a costume,” suggests Sim, pointing up the theatrical nature of the story. And so Jane must use her acting skills (and a comical cock-er-nee accent) to wile her way into Marlene’s confidence and secure evidence to clear the man she loves. Complications, as they say, ensue.

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“My great aunt died over a glass of brandy… but it was her fifteenth that day.”

The most appealing complication is Michael Wilding (“an English Jimmy Stewart,” decided Dietrich, inaccurately perhaps, but it does point towards his lightness and charm) as Wilfred O Smith, that “O” being the first of Hitch’s jokes at David O Selznick’s expense. Here we learn it stands for “Ordinary.” Ordinary is certainly the most lovable policemen in the cop-phobic Hitchcock’s oeuvre. For a director of crime films, he hardly ever featured policemen as heroes (James Stewart spectacularly loses his job in Scene 1.  of VERTIGO; and then you have to go back to John Longden in BLACKMAIL I think…) Wilding’s easy appeal makes up for the fact that Todd isn’t that likable, which is unavoidable given the role he’s assigned.

“I love strange men. I mean… I’m very fond of them.”

Wyman is very sweet. It’s not at all clear where her American accent came from, what with her father being Scottish and her mother English… as welcome as Dame Sybil is, perhaps her role should have been taken by an American? But the stuffy mother and unconventional dad dynamic might have been harder to sustain that way: American women are always portrayed as free-spirited in British films. Which is a tiresome cliche, come to think of it.

Wyman apparently suffered the same affliction as Jean Arthur did, working opposite Dietrich in A FOREIGN AFFAIR: galloping jealousy. While Arthur’s insecurity manifested itself in paranoia, Wyman covertly tried to glam up her girl-next-door character to compete with Dietrich, a tendency Hitchcock had to gently suppress.

Sim always makes me want more Sim: but apart from the three HORNLEIGH films, he shunned sequelitis, doing only a cameo in the second ST TRINIAN’S film and refusing point blank to play Inspector Cockrill again. I’d welcome a whole series about Sim and Wyman, father-and-daughter crime solvers, even without Hitchcock directing.

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Marlene of course is profoundly underrated as an actress, even if she’s not “real” — she can be funny (check out her cleaning woman impersonation in DISHONORED) as well as alluring, sad (TOUCH OF EVIL is a study in fatalist melancholy whenever she’s about) as well as vivacious. Her way with a dramatic scene is as unconventional and unique as her way with a song, and like her singing it foregrounds a lack of obvious “ability.” This is a pretty interesting role: in A FOREIGN AFFAIR she’s completely sympathetic despite being a Nazi, whereas here she’s totally unsympathetic, despite being only an accessory. Then Hitchcock complicates matters with the scene where she’s unexpectedly nice to Wyman, and then she has her chilling chat with the policeman at the end which is pretty much the opposite of her exit in the Wilder film: a heart of ice is revealed.

(STAGE FRIGHT makes a very nice double feature with Billy Wilder’s “Hitchcock film,” WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, Marlene’s other London murder romp.)

That safety curtain returns, executing Todd in a rather French fashion, all the more grisly for being off-screen, and then Wilding leads Wyman away down a dimly lit backstage corridor that looks like the path from the execution cell: but the recurrence of the love theme, played earlier by Wilding on the piano, tells us what fate she’s heading for. A future as an actress seems a bit unlikely, but she’ll be a very happy Mrs Ordinary Smith.

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It’s nice to have another musical through-line (Wilding, like Farley Granger in ROPE, plays an accomplished party entertainer with his ivory-tickling), since that’s a mainstay of the Hitchcock style, and it plays out again in Dietrich’s two songs, La Vie en Rose and The Laziest Gal in Town, which are not staged by Hitchcock as musical interludes but as intricate by-plays between onstage and offstage action, external performance and internal psychology.

stagvChubby Bannister, right.

It occurs to me that Pat Hitchcock is so good in this — her very funny sheer lust at the sight of Michael Wilding is a comic high point — and she does an English accent far better and more consistently than Wyman — that it’s rather a shame she didn’t get the leading role (as enjoyable as Wyman is)… But that would be taking a big risk, and Hitchcock wasn’t about to do that with this film. I think also the responsible father didn’t want to expose his daughter to criticism in such a way. Nevertheless, we can see this as a film for and about Pat.

Hitchcock DVD Collection – Dial M For Murder / I Confess / Stage Fright / The Wrong Man / Strangers On A Train / North By Northwest

Me So Hornleigh

Posted in FILM with tags , , on August 28, 2008 by dcairns

My latest piece is up at the revamped BritMovie.com. I think it’s one of my better commissioned articles. Discover the joys of the INSPECTOR HORNLEIGH films, delightful slices of pre-war comedy-crime, starring Gordon Harker and Greatest Scotsman Ever Alistair Sim.

This, by the way, is the solution to the unguessable “Clews” post.

If you’re moved to comment on the article, you can do so here.

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