Archive for Ben Hecht

Brandy and Soda

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on January 16, 2012 by dcairns

Oh look, it’s Death! Hello, Death!

This is THE UNHOLY NIGHT, a magnificently stagey old-dark-house comedy thriller from 1929, a year when they KNEW how to make films — by sitting a camera on some sticks and saying things in front of it. Lionel Barrymore directs, or supervises, or at any rate at least watches, probably, and the manly, hard-drinking ex-military hero is played by… Roland Young.

This casting is so deliriously awry it deforms what ought to be a dull, badly-made film into a triumph of creative mismanagement. Young, who doesn’t suit being actually young at all — he has no talent for youth — nails all the comedy, usurping the more dramatic aspects of the story, except where they involve weakness or sorrow, which he does well. The idea that he’s a tough guy who takes mass murder in his stride is a non-starter, but the scene where he thinks all his friends have been strangled (one of the film’s two sequences of camera movement strikingly glides across a roomful of garotted men) is disturbingly mournful, tearing a hole in the hi-jinks that leaves a cold wind riffling through the flapping script (story by Ben Hecht, presumably on a dare).

It is, as Micheal MacLiammoir said of Orson Welles’ audition for the Gate Theatre, “a remarkable performance, wrong from beginning to end.” Perhaps that’s unfair, but certainly if you ever wanted to see an actor conclusively disqualify himself from leading man roles, this would be a good place to look. Apart from that, he’s really good, credible and not stiff, which isn’t easy in this creaky thing. The script creaks as if typed on balsa, the unwieldy cast creaks as if whittled from teak (I never saw so many unemployable actors in uniforms just hanging around waiting to be murdered, or for this film to be over so they can go back on relief), the camera creaks – it’s forever attempting those adorable little false-start pans which don’t quite go anywhere, as if the operator started to think he was pointing in the wrong (a forgivable mistake in the circumstances), started looking for a better subject, then either gave up in despair or lapsed into an insulin coma.

I didn’t enjoy this as much as Tod Browning’s similar THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR, which has as many different, revolutionary kinds of “acting” as it has chairs (that’s thirteen of them, in case you hadn’t guessed), but that’s the same as saying I enjoyed it extravagantly, without actually ascending all the way to a non-refundable state of satori. In addition to Young, we get the massive Edinburgh-born features of Ernest Torrence (Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Snr), who looks as if he could wedge a cricket ball between his nose and chin and spin it like a globe of the Earth, and there’s a quick turn by Boris Karloff as a suspicious Arab. Boris may only be around for about fifteen minutes, but he does his best to cram a full feature’s worth of acting into them… if this involves telegraphing three subtexts at a time, that’s a challenge Boris is not only willing but anxious to meet. You’ll never see such sheer quantity of acting. He makes up for the rest of the cast (and there’s a lot of them). The credits don’t mention Boris, but they do list the entire “doomed regiment.” The doomed regiment are entirely forgettable apart from the guy with the prosthetic scars, but Boris does his best to embody an entire doomed regiment with every swing of his cantilevered eyebrows.

Barrymore, who if nothing else must have had a fine eye for grotesquerie, also gives us Sojin, wearing his best store teeth, and playing a suspicious medium (these films are NOT complete without a trick séance), and THIS dazzling Adonis, whose chin could be used to dig roads. I could look at him for hours, whoever he is.

I’m convinced that if this guy could only dance, he’d have been a big star. “The Dancing Jawbone,” they’d have called him. And everybody would have clapped.

Lithographs

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2011 by dcairns

Fun revisiting TWENTIETH CENTURY, even though in certain respects the film is never quite as good as I want it to be. But even its weaknesses are interesting and revealing and sometimes enjoyable.

I’ve never seen the play but I’m guessing that Howard Hawks his screenwriters (Hecht & McArthur + Gene Fowler: Preston Sturges was fired after four days, but seems to have retained the idea of Edgar Kennedy as a private eye for UNFAITHFULLY YOURS) have both gutted and exploded it. The parts on the train are the play, truncated. So there’s an extensive series of preceding scenes, “opening out” the action and roughing in the prehistory of the characters before the central situ (broke theatre impresario woos the star he created on train bound for NYC). This effectively destroys the play’s taut structure, but Hawks never cared a lick for plot, and the additions are so entertaining it just about gets away with it.

The rewrite has the effect of turning the story into HIS GIRL FRIDAY avant la lettre, with the crazy boss trying to win back his star pupil — the comedy in both cases both depends upon and is endangered by the fact that Oscar Jaffe/Walter Burns (or John Barrymore/Cary Grant) is a deplorable megalomaniac and one should in no way root for his success. The anti-hero’s awfulness provides the laughs and undercuts the drama, but mustn’t be allowed to keep us from investing a little bit of interest — but it’s curiosity about what devilry he’ll attempt next, rather than any sense of “rooting for him.”

Barrymore, in the early scenes, gets to spoof himself pretty thoroughly, with Hawks throwing in a lot of the in-jokes he was intermittently addicted to: references to Svengali and whatnot. Most of Barrymore’s famous roles get lampooned, and the actor heroically throws in a lifetime’s worth of baroque stage business, pushing the dramaturgy just far enough to highlight its artifice and make it absurd. It’s a parody of hamminess that’s often very nuanced and always exquisitely controlled.

As his rival, Lombard is great in the early scenes where she has our sympathy, and perhaps a little too shrill once we get to the play and she has to transform into a diva. Some of the screaming and wailing gets a bit much, and her lightning shifts of phony emotion don’t have as clear a throughline as Barrymore’s. But her footwork is terrific here –

If the relationship prefigures HIS GIRL FRIDAY for Hawks, it rehearses TO BE OR NOT TO BE for Lombard, where she gets to play a drama queen who’s NOT a hysteric. Indeed, it’s hard to believe Lubitsch wasn’t in some way influenced by Hawks here — John Barrymore would have made a lot more obvious sense as a Shakespearean ham than Jack Benny, even if the initials are the same. Of course Lubitsch’s instincts were perfect: Barrymore is perfect casting as a director so he can mock actors, and Benny is superb because casting him as Poland’s leading tragedian is inherently funny.

If Barrymore and Lombard are not quite perfectly matched for ability at farce, her amazing beauty gives her an edge, and then there’s everybody else: Roscoe Karns, Walter Connolly (his dyspepsia in scene one turning to acute angina by film’s end) and Charles Lane, back when he was Charles Levison, playing a character who’s changed from Max Mandelbaum to Max Jacobson “for some mysterious reason.” Barrymore’s character harps on the guy’s Jewish origins in a way no comedy character would be allowed to today, and it’s a little shocking but of course entirely in keeping for the monster that is Oscar Jaffe.

If all the front-loading of back-story in the form of prologue does any harm at all, apart from enforcing a certain shapelessness that’s  much to Hawks’ liking, it’s that it creates the necessity for a coda, just to frame the lengthy train sequence. And so we get a not-very-inspired “This is where we came in” type rehash of the opening rehearsal, which is brief, but not quite speedy or funny enough to get itself out of trouble. A movie which crams gigantic amounts of character development into it’s first half and then suggests its characters are fixed, unchanging and unreal “lithographs,” for the remaining running time, does leave a slight dissatisfaction, even though it’s all so brilliantly done and funny. Fortunately, we don’t require perfection.

Check out the Lombard blogathon here.

The Sunday Intertitle: It’s That Man Again

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2011 by dcairns

Thanks to the good people at Grapevine Video for digging up YOU’D BE SURPRISED, a silent romp which stars Shadowplay favourite Raymond Griffith as comedy coroner in a vigorous deconstruction of the whodunnit genre. Jules Furthman, later collaborator with both Hawks and Sternberg (he and Ben Hecht account for the odd congruence between the two otherwise contrasting filmmakers), wrote the story, displaying the genre-busting contempt for formula and cheerfully black sense of humour later displayed in THUNDERBOLT’s death row skits. Intertitles are by Ralph Spence (“highest-paid title writer in the world at $5/word”) and Robert Benchley.

Ray utilizes the famous EXTERMINATING ANGEL maneuver.

Weirdly, in a generally sympathetic section about Raymond Griffith in his The Great Movie Comedians, Leonard Maltin complains that the film’s titles aren’t funny enough. On the contrary, I find them hilarious, my only complaint being that they perhaps carry too much of the film’s humour, although as ever, Griffith’s reactions are hysterical.

Griffith plays the coroner, Mr Green, in a Tarantino-like colour-coded dramatis personae featuring Mr White, Mr Black, Inspector Brown — confirming his tendency to play cheerful ciphers in fine clothes. And he plays him like an easy-going, simple fellow who’s just been handed the job, for no reason, and is trying whatever he can think of to make a go of it.

“Which of you spoiled the gentleman’s evening?”

“Won’t he stay murdered until after the theatre?”

“Well, which of you murdered him first?”

A Columbo-like finish shows this to have been, perhaps, all an act, but I was reminded of Benchley’s essay about being suddenly saddled with the job of building the Hoover Dam. Only in a dream could such an ill-prepared character suddenly find himself in charge of a murder inquiry.

Picking up my battered copy of Benchley’s One Moment Please I found a couple of pieces under the heading Fascinating Crimes, continuing his oneiric approach to tales of detection. The Missing Floor begins with the immortal lines “It has often been pointed out that murderers are given to revisiting the scene of their crimes. The case of Edny Pastelle is the only one on record where the scene of the crime revisited the murderer.” The Strange Case of the Vermont Judiciary caused me to make startling and involuntary noises, with its deceptively gentle opening: “Residents of Water Street, Bellows Falls (Vt.), are not naturally sound sleepers, owing to the proximity of the Bellows Falls Light and Power Co. and its attendant thumpings, but fifteen years before the erection of the light-and-power plant there was nothing to disturb the slumbers of Water Streetites, with the possible exception of the bestial activities of Roscoe Erkle.”

I’ll leave you to rush out and buy a copy so you can find out what happens after those opening lines.

At any rate, I’d say Benchley’s surreal vein is much more congenial to me than his observational comedy, and this feeling of strangeness informs the action of YOU’D BE SURPRISED in a persistent way.

There’s only one Griffith in the movies, and his initials ain’t D.W.

UK: The Benchley Roundup: A Selection

US: The Benchley Roundup: A Selection by Nathaniel Benchley of his Favorites (See all Satire Books)

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